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CULTURE Published: June 4, 2019 Updated: June 11, 2019  |  WORDS: Amirul Shazzani

Power player: Mae Tan on pushing the barriers of success as a young woman in fashion retail

Here’s introducing a series on Singapore’s ‘power players’, featuring individuals who are making waves in their respective industries.

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Mae Tan, the creative force behind the stores at 268 Orchard Road – Surrender, Off-White, and Christian Dada.

The fashion landscape is fast evolving around the world. But the local scene isn’t getting left behind, thanks to power players like Mae Tan, who runs point at Singapore’s go-to fashion stores at 268 Orchard Road. Just what drives this fearless woman who also doubles as a fashion influencer on Instagram? Many things it seems, and her love for the environment is also one of them.

The terms ‘fearless’, ‘authentic’, ‘glamorous’ and ‘confident’ are often tossed around to describe Mae Tan, one of the most prominent figures in Singapore’s fashion scene. But upon meeting her, what you see is an underlying raw tenacity that’s rare in a young, 24-year-old woman. Under the unforgiving Singapore afternoon heat, Mae swapped splendor for comfortable clothes. But even simple white pants and a black top seem to work so well for someone entrenched in high-end fashion. “I have normal days too, you know. Sometimes I don’t even have much makeup on… Today, I put it on for you,” she says playfully.

Her day-to-day life, as you’d expect, can get pretty hectic. Even so, the first half of 2019 has seen Mae Tan find time to dabble in a different creative capacity: sitting in the director’s chair for the music video of Singaporean artist Narelle Kheng’s new single, Outta My Head. Between developing fresh ideas for her Orchard stores and attending her first Prada Cruise runway show in New York (which she described as inspirational), Mae also divulged a possible Netflix reality show premiering sometime this year. When pressed for more details, she said, “It’s about Singaporeans trying to push the limit, doing things differently and what goes on behind the scenes day to day… so you have to stay tuned.”

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Before international labels turned up at our shores, Surrender store paved the way for easy access to luxury streetwear brands and cult favorites like Neighborhood, Palm Angels, and Visvim.

As much as she’s an influencer with a strong following on Instagram, a lot of her success stems from her pivotal role as the creative force behind Surrender and the Singapore outposts of Off-White and Christian Dada. With a market now dominated by e-commerce, the survivability of brick-and-mortar stores has come into question. Mae, however, shrugs off this existential crisis. “As a team, we always want to create a special retail experience. At the end of the day, with so much technology and so little communication, the most important absence is the human connection – which is lacking at the moment [with the rise of e-commerce]. Personally, I would love to be able to touch my clothes, feel and vibe with them. I love to put them on and see what it feels like. I guess that’s the audience we’re trying to target – those who can understand that emotion and appreciate the process of fashion itself.”

For someone so young, Mae Tan certainly shoulders a good deal of responsibility. “It sounds crazy, but I wanted to be self-made from the very start. In my mind, I thought, ‘I’m going to be successful on my own.’ In reality, it was hard. I had to go through a lot of failures and be really angry with those failures before I tasted success.” But with success, comes greater expectations. “I do feel the pressure of expectations but recently I learned how to cope with it by understanding that I can’t control anything around the world. Instead of focusing on what others are thinking, you have to trust yourself and go with what you feel is right at the point of time. When you follow and do things with your heart, you will never regret it.”

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With her platform and voice, Mae hopes to inspire young women and make a stand relating to environmental issues.

Recognizing the platform that she has, Mae desires for legitimacy in her voice to effect positive change – whether it’s inspiring young women or raising awareness about environmental issues.

“I understand as a woman that there are disadvantages in the workplace and practically everything that you do. It’s a natural thing. People have a certain perception of the female gender. The most important thing is to control your emotions. Women are strong, powerful and smart, but we let our emotions take over the best parts of us. Everything in life is all about balance. With strength, you have to balance it with grace.”

Her passion for fashion doesn’t come at the expense of ignoring how humans are negatively impacting the environment, Mae said. “I’ve always been passionate about green initiatives but less vocal after being labeled a hypocrite. I eventually learned to not allow negative people to affect how I affect the rest of the world. With the voice and influence that I have, I’m at a point where I can question myself: ‘What am I doing? What am I sharing? What am I standing for?’ I’m not going to turn into an environmentalist in one night and nobody can. I’m proud of the things I’ve learned and my involvement now. Every small step is a step somewhere. It’s not just about sustainability, it’s about awareness and empathy as well. These are the values we need now more than ever.”

Beyond everyday habits, Mae Tan also imparts her passion and values to her stores. “We’re particular about how our clothes are made and where they come from. We don’t just pick brands because they do well or they’re the top brands. Take brands like Visvim, who have sustainable ways of creating their clothes, and Mindseeker who reworks old fabrics, among others. As a retailer, knowing and educating your customers is one of the biggest roles we have because we’re an example and we’re sharing something.”

You’d think that for all of Mae Tan’s successes, she’d be happy to ride the wave and continue building on it. But the 24-year old is ready to spread her wings and venture into uncharted territories. “I’m moving to New York,” she blurts out. “Yes, maybe for two years… I’m at a point in my life where I need to get out of my comfort zone, do something new and bring it back to Surrender.”

“In Singapore, I’m so busy to a point that I don’t get to create things for the sake of creating things. I like art and making things. There are way more artistic things I can do that are not retail-focused. The team can do great things on their own now. So I feel like this is the right time for me to leave and come back with a renewed energy someday,” Mae adds.

It takes a strong character to constantly push the boundaries of what’s possible. It also takes courage to take a step back and reinvent yourself. Mae Tan might take a step back from being Singapore’s leading lady in fashion soon, but her influence on the scene will endure as long as she continues using her platform to effect positive change.

Keep up with Mae Tan on Instagram for your dose of daily inspiration – whether it be fashion or green initiatives.

Read more: Power player: All eyes on marathoner Soh Rui Yong as he blazes trails