Even years after Haji Lane transformed from a row of shophouses mostly used as warehouse space to the trendy vibe it has today, savvy consumers are still heading there when it comes to shopping for clothes, shoes and accessories.
There are at least 35 fashion stores packed into that little 200m long lane off Arab Street. Among them are pioneers such as Jia which opened in 2006 and Soon Lee which has been operating since 2007. Over the years, more fashion stores have popped up.
Sharon Cher, who opened Soon Lee at 73 Haji Lane in 2007, says: "There were fewer people and stores. Things were slow paced and everyone knew everyone on the street. There are now many more shops and much higher traffic - it's different but in the best way."
Today, walk down that lane and nearly every shophouse is a fashion store. The exceptions are a cool bicycle shop, a hair salon, a furniture store, a few design offices and some F&B outlets.
Haji Lane became a hip hangout for indie shopping when renowned Japanese fashion brand Comme des Garcons opened a temporary store here in 2005.
Cynthia Yeo, owner of Skyroom, opened at 84 Haji Lane in 2006. "I liked the characteristics of the shophouse: old but charming. And there are no rules and restrictions on how I should set up shop unlike in a shopping mall."
The range of apparel on sale at these Haji Lane shops is contemporary and trendy, and more importantly, available only in limited quantities.
Michelle Lim, partner of Hearsay at 59A Haji Lane, which caters to both men and women, says that "the items we sell come in one or two pieces. Customers like that they can find what they want here which is not available elsewhere". The shop has new stocks coming in every month.
Over at Modparade at 68 Haji Lane, its co-founder Fernnice Wong says: "Shopping malls pretty much have the same stores. They are commercially attractive but things will start to get boring, and people want something different. The shops at Haji Lane can offer uniqueness."
Student Gillian Ang, who often shops at Haji Lane, remarks: "There is no worry that I will find another person wearing the same top as I am when I shop here."
Storeowners say they like setting up shop in this offbeat lane, compared to malls, as they can be more creative with the shop decor. Queenie Liang, owner of Chic Fashion at 56A Haji Lane, has the back half of a car as part of her shop's facade. "The creative interiors add to the shopping experience, which makes it more fun to shop here," says Ms Liang.
Indeed, among the racks of clothes, shoppers may stumble upon a puppy or a cat in the shops, belonging to the owners.
Haji Lane is not only popular with locals, but is a hit with tourists too. Stores say that tourists make up almost half their customers. Korean tourist Cho Ye-eun visited Haji Lane after reading about it in a guidebook. "Haji Lane is stated as one of the places worth visiting and my friends recommended me to come here too," she says.
But with more than 30 fashion stores on one lane, is it too many? Many storeowners say no, despite an increase in competition.
"It is healthy competition, as each store has different identities and product ranges," says Emma Jailani Saunders, founder of Fabulous Fads at 80 Haji Lane. Her shop carries apparel from Europe and the United Kingdom, which makes it different from others that carry labels from Korea and Hong Kong.
Hearsay's Ms Lim says since opening the store about two years ago, business is definitely more competitive, "but it is alright as I have my regulars".
Ms Wong from Modparade welcomes more shops.
"No one wants to travel somewhere which is quite out of the way for just a few stores."
Lovie Wong, owner of Dulcetfig at 41 Haji Lane, says: "Competition is strong no matter where you are at. So shops will have to constantly be up-to-date to keep drawing customers back. That is good as there will always be something new and fresh for customers."
For former visual merchandiser Lee San San, finding a niche market helps her stay ahead. She opened a lingerie shop, Sweet Dessert, at 56A Haji Lane last month. She stocks lingerie made by a Thai friend and variety of brands from Taiwan and Japan.
As the only specialised lingerie shop along this lane, Ms Lee welcomes more fashion stores. "Customers usually come here to find complementary lingerie after they shop elsewhere."
Sulian Tan-Wijaya, senior director of retail and lifestyle at Savills Singapore, says: "Having a critical mass of fashion retailers within a bigger cluster of shops will attract more shoppers to Haji Lane."
She adds: "With many fashion stores coexisting, Haji Lane can be an alternative destination for shoppers looking for different and more unique fashion apparel and accessories."
Haji Lane has its appeal as "it is away from the city and instead of walking through an air-conditioned mall, you explore a street lined with conservation shophouses occupied by retailers selling all kinds of unique and off the beaten track kind of merchandise", says Ms Tan-Wijaya.
Allan Chia, head of marketing at UniSIM's School of Business, says: "For Haji Lane to be attractive it must maintain a critical mass so it cannot afford to have too few retailers. However, an important issue is that there is consistency and congruency in the retail mix and this should not be confined to Haji Lane itself. It needs to be surrounded by a hinterland of complementary shops and attractions, like F&B outlets and heritage attractions, which the area already has."
Two new businesses which opened in the Kampong Glam area hope to cash in on Haji Lane's popularity. Keith Png opened Hide & Seek at 71 Bussorah Street in April. He had previously opened at Hong Kong Street and later at Telok Ayer Street.
"I like Bussorah Street for its serenity despite being surrounded by bustling Arab Street, Haji and Bali Lanes," says Mr Png. His shop is one street away from Haji Lane. "I wanted Hide&Seek to be on a less crowded street so that shoppers have fewer distractions," he says.
"Also I always try to avoid opening shop on a very popular street, so that shoppers can 'seek' us out while we 'hide'."
Paul Khor, owner of Actually, opened his latest shop, Actually+ at 118A Arab Street, earlier this week. It is a stone's throw away from Haji Lane.
Mr Khor considered setting up at Haji Lane when he started Actually eight years ago. In the end, he picked Seah Street as "there were very few retail stores at Haji Lane then". After observing how popular Haji Lane had become over the years, he finally decided to set foot into the area. "The place is buzzing and the timing to set up store here is right."
However, he chose to be slightly away from Haji Lane, as "others already have a foot there. If I go there now, I can't make a big impact," he says. "Here, I can attract new customers while cashing in on the crowd spillover from Haji Lane."
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This article was first published in The Business Times.