Managing Asia

Managing Asia

Kate Middleton put this Singapore retailer on the map

Raoul: Aim for 'scalable, sustainable' expansion
Raoul: Aim for 'scalable, sustainable' expansion

Fashion house Raoul's plans to go global got a royal boost when Britain's Kate Middleton donned its ready-to-wear pieces during her visit to Singapore with Prince William in 2012.

"It's a proud moment [and] an encouragement to keep going," Odile Benjamin, co-founder and creative director of Singapore's home-grown label told CNBC's "Managing Asia. "It definitely helped the image of the brand. It's a great endorsement, no doubt."

The patterned blouse and matching skirt, reportedly purchased by the Duchess of Cambridge herself, were sold out within 24 hours, with one of the pieces sold at $1,200 – almost five times the original retail price – on eBay. According to Time, traffic on Raoul's website also increased six-fold in a day.

"We had a lot of requests, so we quickly looked at what fabrics we had left and put the outfit back in stores. They sold out as well," Mrs. Benjamin added.

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge greets members of the public in Singapore as part of the Diamond Jubilee tour in 2012.
Suhaimi Abdullah | WireImage | Getty Images

From Singapore to international

Raoul, the brainchild of Odile and her husband, Douglas Benjamin, started off 12 years ago with a niche focus on men's shirts. After noticing an unexpected female following, the fashion label, owned by Singapore-listed retail group FJ Benjamin, launched its first women's line in 2005. It has since grown to account for nearly 85 percent of Raoul's business.

"The women's wear is what we use to spearhead our international march because it's so big and it's a lot easier to attract better stores," said Mr. Benjamin, co-founder of Raoul and also the chief operating officer of FJ Benjamin.

Today, the label is available in 25 countries, including fashion capitals Paris, London and New York, but venturing beyond Singapore hasn't been easy as design emanating from Southeast Asia was almost unheard of four years ago.

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"Nobody really believed that [Raoul] could work. We had to step back and re-pitch ourselves because many people from regional markets look at it and said: 'From Singapore? Well, this has to be a cheap brand!'" Mr. Benjamin recounted.

"Now that we are available in great stores all over the world, I think people are more open to a Singaporean brand. With the rise of Asia, people look towards us not just for manufacturing [purposes], but also for design," he added.

In addition to Western markets, the husband-and-wife duo has been making inroads into the Middle East since last year. Next up, it plans to launch Raoul in Japan and South Korea as well as the retail market every business wants a slice of: China.

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Hurdles in the mainland

Raoul made its foray into China in September of last year and plans to roll out 27 stores in the world's second-largest economy by 2017. Despite the mainland's economic slowdown, the Benjamins remain upbeat.

"China is definitely not chugging along as it was before, but it is too big to have a real slowdown for any long period of time," Mr. Benjamin said. "Before long, the shopping economy will move ahead again."

Another challenge in China involves dealing with the country's well-known piracy and counterfeiting industry.

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"Luckily, we are dealing with fashion," Mrs. Benjamin said. Since a dress or handbag will only be in stores for a few months, "they have to be fast."

She also doesn't expect any counterfeits to end up in channels where customers would expect their brand to be sold.

"Anyway, there is a secret joke amongst designers that who gets knocked off means he or she has made it," she said.

— Reported by Christine Tan; Written by See Kit Tang