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Young entrepreneur creates fashion label to tell LGBTQ, mental health stories; catches the eye of Sam Smith

SINGAPORE — Right after the launch of his streetwear collection in celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, then 20-year-old Xavier Tan was determined to sell his product to British singer and songwriter Sam Smith.

Left: The Unik Apparel team, made up of Mr Xavier Tan’s employees and his friends, at the company’s first anniversary event. Right: Mr Tan with British singer and songwriter Sam Smith.

Left: The Unik Apparel team, made up of Mr Xavier Tan’s employees and his friends, at the company’s first anniversary event. Right: Mr Tan with British singer and songwriter Sam Smith.

  • Xavier Tan met Sam Smith in 2018, and the star bought a shirt designed by the 20-year-old
  • A Ngee Ann Polytechnic graduate, Mr Tan has launched five collections to date
  • His Unik Apparel business has been affected by Covid-19, but he has big ambitions to take it international  

 

SINGAPORE — Right after the launch of his streetwear collection in celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, then 20-year-old Xavier Tan was determined to sell his product to British singer and songwriter Sam Smith.

So he pulled some strings to get backstage at Smith’s concert in Singapore in October 2018, knowing he had less than a minute to make the pitch when he found himself in close proximity with the star.

It did not take long before Smith, an advocate for LGBTQ rights, bought the shirt and posted an Instagram story with a link to Mr Tan’s new collection, which sold out to customers from across 27 countries the next morning.

“We actually made a huge loss because we didn’t expect to sell internationally so we didn’t (factor) in the additional costs. It was free shipping worldwide,” said Mr Tan with a laugh.

The Ngee Ann Polytechnic product, design and innovation graduate started Typographic Apparel in 2016, before rebranding it into a streetwear brand and renaming it Unik Apparel in 2018.

He started his entrepreneurial journey when he was in Secondary 3, after his business idea to set up a mobile café serving the central business district scored him an opportunity to travel to New York City under the Halogen Foundation Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) Programme.

NFTE is a funded programme by the youth development charity to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset and build business skills in disadvantaged youths.

Mr Tan, who moved with his parents from Johor Baru to Singapore when he was 10, said that idea did not materialise as he had little capital.

Instead, the son of a masseur father and a waitress mother decided to start a T-shirt printing business with just S$100 — mostly used to register the business under his mother’s name.

He later started his own label, where he commissioned designs done by his friends, printed them and sold it online.

“I think my biggest achievement is to be able to work with youths who are passionate about the same things and being able to be a platform where people can share their stories, which can be channelled creatively,” said Mr Tan.

He has launched five collections to date, which tell stories of loneliness and mental health, among others.

But he wanted to tell more stories through his collections, so he applied for a six-month internship at a fashion company in London to learn marketing and business development last September, and got in.

The company later offered him a six-month extension and a bigger role in the firm before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

The internship gave him the opportunity to attend fashion shows of young and graduating designers, where he found that 90 per cent of them wanted to start their own brand after they completed their studies.

But they may need some hand-holding, said Mr Tan, adding that it inspired him to have a new vision for Unik Apparel.

“I wanted to create Unik not just as a fashion label but a platform where we can provide a network for young designers out there,” he said.

But like most businesses, his has also been hit by the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of stress on a lot of business owners right now because they feel liable for the people they employ,” said Mr Tan, adding that he felt like it was his responsibility to find necessary help for his 12 employees.

This has also spurred him to return to Singapore earlier this month to plan a new collection, which will be launched in December.

It will tell the story of the lives of youths post-pandemic, a continuation to Unik Apparel’s latest collection launched in June, which was inspired by the mental health of youths in quarantine.

With a monthly revenue of more than S$2,000 a month, Mr Tan has big ambitions to capture more stories through his collection, and take them into the international arena.

His entrepreneurship story is featured in Halogen Foundation’s latest book, Entrepreneurship Unlimited, which highlights the hurdles that 17 trailblazers in Singapore had to overcome to launch their own businesses.

“My goal is to take Unik Apparel to an international platform. Presenting our capsule collection at London Fashion Week will be a dream come true for me.”

Related topics

Sam Smith concert LGBTQ Fashion

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