wheniwasfour Serves Up Local Charm

The designer behind the Kopi Dabao Bag talks about the unexpected hype and the struggle of local design in Singapore.
wheniwasfour Tan Li Ling
Tan Li Ling, who designed the Kopi Dabao Bag that went viral, sells her local designs at the wheniwasfour shop in Waterloo Centre. Photo: Hillary Tan

Create a new product, launch the product, and then post about it on Facebook or else nobody will notice.

Having founded the local design label wheniwasfour in 2009, right on the cusp of social media, designer Tan Li Ling is very familiar with this standard routine.

The post on Sept 19 was business as usual, announcing a new tote bag design and attracting a few excited comments. Four days later, however, Mothership wrote about the “Kopi Dabao Bag” and rocketed her creation into the stratosphere of local conversation.

“We sold out all the bags within just a week,” said Tan. “It was really out of control.”

In keeping with the theme, and Tan’s love of local items, the shop also launched a Teh version of the bag last week.

Nostalgic beginnings

Tan started the brand with two university friends who shared her interest in designing nostalgic local items. wheniwasfour refers to the age when people start to form impressions of the things around them, and these products aim to bring back those memories for customers.

The three managed to keep costs low by hand-making all their items at first, and marketing them on social media and at flea markets.

Although they managed to break even in 2012, the profit was not enough to support all three co-founders, and two of them left that year.

Tan continues to design and sell these items with the help of her mother, a business partner, and a few part-time employees. The Kopi Dabao Bag was the first product to take off so successfully, she said, and her small team had to scramble to fulfil the orders.

But even with this success, running her business in Singapore remains tough.

Growing pains

Tan shared that her biggest challenge nowadays is sourcing for materials.

“It’s very hard to find manufacturers in Singapore, and even when we are able to, they probably also source materials from China. It’s not that China materials are not good, but it’s that the Singapore suppliers don’t QC (quality control) properly,” Tan said. “And if you want to get raw materials from Singapore, it’s also very expensive.”

She cited the cost of cloth and thread in particular, as wheniwasfour has a range of fabric items. The label’s best-selling products are the cushion covers, which feature illustrations of local food and nostalgic games.

kopi toast cushion wheniwasfour
One of wheniwasfour’s many local-themed cushion covers. Photo via wheniwasfour

Another big problem is the wheniwasfour shop’s physical location. Tucked in a corner of Waterloo Centre, it is pretty hard to find and the number of walk-in customers is small.

However, Tan likes having both an online and physical store, as she wanted a place to work outside of her home and the combination is more convenient for customers.

“When I have an online shop, people will ask if we have a physical store. When I have this physical store, they’ll ask if I have an online store,” she said, laughing. “For now, it serves as a showroom and people can come and self-collect things as well.”

But the shop may not last long, as the lease is expiring next year and Tan finds it hard to justify remaining in the area.

“If I really want a retail shop, I will probably find a place with more crowd and traffic,” she said. “Here is not very good for that; it’s really just a showroom. If the rental is going to increase, I don’t think we will continue.”

She added that demand for these local designs has increased in recent years, but more players have also entered the industry and her products are no longer seen as unique.

sia notebook wheniwasfour
Wheniwasfour’s Sia notebook. Photo via wheniwasfour
How can you help?

One way to support local designers like Tan is to order products straight from their websites and shops.

The prices may be the same whether in their own shops or at businesses that curate such products, but buying directly from the designers means no third party commissions are involved.

You’ll get to browse a wider range of each label’s products and know that your dollars are going straight to the deserving creators.

Read about ZYRUP writer Candy Choo’s experience with the Kopi Dabao Bag here.

Check out wheniwasfour’s website and visit them at 261 Waterloo Street #02-18 Singapore 180261 for more local designs.