Storytelling bags. Such is the novel premise of Gnome & Bow, a Singaporean bag-making outfit started by local Quanda Ong two and a half years ago. At the outset of our interview, I noticed as I nestled in an armchair in my Florida home that Quanda wasn’t quite as comfortable. He had apparently stepped out of a café where he was dining with friends, to the side of the road where he connected with me via his mobile Skype app.
“Before we begin, can I check roughly how long it will take?” I started chuckling, imagining him having to hold up his phone and chat at length, amidst the curious glances of passing strangers. Then I learned that that was hardly the issue – “So I can pace myself!” When I said I usually take 40 minutes, he disagreed. “I tend to be quite chatty. I might end up interviewing you, so it might take more time!!”
Quickly enough, I began to see just how fitting the man was to his business. A minor prompt from me asking about the brand’s genesis and off he went, starting from a fashion-conscious ex-girlfriend who passed him the shopping bug more than a decade ago, through his days in college learning economics and marketing, until his decision to quit a comfortable job at a multi-national bank to work full-time on what he really wanted to do. Putting it this way makes the story sound quite predictable, but I was admittedly intrigued by his extensive curriculum vitae, especially by his surprisingly candid asides, sometimes self-deprecating. In summary, this man is a gifted storyteller.
Being both creative director and business owner, Quanda has had to juggle the reveries of a designer and the cold numbers on a spreadsheet. And this he seems to do well. As he explained the inspiration behind the stories his products are based on – The Hare and the Flying Tortoise, and Jekyll’s Hyde, both variations of their familiar originals – Quanda wove seamlessly between diegesis, scalability, and material choices, to the effect of a winning Shark Tank presentation.
That’s not to say he’s just a slick salesperson with a spiel; again his eager personality, keen eye for detail, and sincere pride in Gnome & Bow were what captured my undivided attention. Every time I asked a question Quanda tried his utmost to answer, never once giving a cursory response, and I suspect it’s the same dogged enthusiasm that has kept the thirty-year-old and his business in good stead.
He admits to this, calling it perfectionism to a fault – “I have certain standards I like to adhere to… that sometimes get imposed on people in inappropriate settings – like friends, or a girlfriend. It’s not that serious! But it does lead to people thinking I’m inconsiderate or self-centred, because I think things should be done at this level, and others might not. I get indecisive too. When you have high standards, you’re always looking for the perfect solution, and you can’t decide and move on because you keep thinking there’s a better answer.”
Amongst the good decisions Quanda has made are ones regarding his wardrobe. Often decked out in suit and tie with an Italian foppishness despite the island nation’s oppressive all-year summer, he’s become used to questions about escalated body temperature, plans for clubbing that evening, and even the occasional “Are you getting married?”. As he chatted with me in the humid outdoors clad in a denim chemise, Quanda gave a simple explanation about his devotion to dressing up: “When I dress up, I feel good. I feel happy!”
Other sources of happiness include belting out Mando-pop ballads in karaoke lounges among what he calls “friends serious about singing”, and kicking up his heels to a salsa. Surprising news, if you saw him as the boss of a business with a Disney-worthy gnome clad in a spiffy bowtie for a mascot. Not so surprising if you saw him, like I did throughout the 90-minute interview, as a chipper buddy always ready with a hearty laugh and a funny story.
More about Quanda’s personal style, the story behind Gnome & Bow, his views on how Singaporean men dress, and a surprising find in his everyday bag, ahead.
HIS STYLE DIARY: How did Gnome & Bow start?
QUANDA ONG: When I was working at the bank, I was looking for a bag that I had a connection with. But I didn’t find anything that I liked. It’s one of those stories where the founders couldn’t find what they wanted and just decided to start it themselves. I like shopping a lot, and I tend to be drawn to bags. I like to look into them and see what compartments, what quirks they have to offer inside. But I found the market lacking of products with personality, so that’s how I got to thinking, why don’t we tell stories through our bags? So that’s how Gnome & Bow came about.
HSD: Why storytelling? Is it the marketing training?
QO: Yeah, I think storytelling is a big thing, and it can be applied in many instances in business. For us, we took it really literally; our storytelling is, storytelling. I think to be differentiated in today’s market you got to modern, but you still have to have a story to tell. That’s the tough part, and when I was finding something to start in the fashion industry, I thought of USP (unique selling point) – I have to be able to answer that with a 100% conviction.
With Gnome & Bow, that was the case. It’s why I had the confidence to leave my job and start the business. The second was scalability. Fashion trends go up and down, so to stand the test of time you got to be scalable, you gotta think long-term. To me, story telling is very innate to Man. People like telling and listening to stories. There are so many stories out there that are very inspirational.
HSD: Where does your inspiration come from?
QO: A lot of my inspiration comes from observation. There’s a lot of imagination. I wish I could say I read a lot, but compared to many people I would say I’m average. I like to fantasise a lot, and it helps a lot in the design process. I could chance upon a certain story and looking at certain scenery or building that helps to link the dots. I do enjoy stories a lot, and they immerse you into the world of the author. I try to create that world with Gnome & Bow. Bags tell stories, and the stories come back to the user.
The Hare and the Flying Tortoise is an underdog story, and I’ve had consumers tell me they feel they are the Flying Tortoise. They’re people who are not doing what society thinks are high-flying jobs, and they feel that some day they will emerge better off than what people expect. It heartens me to hear these stories, because that’s exactly the idea I wanted for The Hare and the Flying Tortoise, and that’s the community of consumers we want.
Jekyll’s Hyde was our second story, and the number two got me thinking about duality. So I thought Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would be perfect. And so we thought, how do we create a bag that cleverly showcases this duality? Everyone has two sides, a rational and a wild side, so how do I create a bag that keeps up with both? And that’s how the idea of reversibility came about.
HSD: Why the gnome? It’s hardly familiar to Singaporeans.
QO: When I first started the brand, I envisioned it to be international. Singapore is our primary market, but a brand should be appealing to all backgrounds and personalities. People who are familiar with gnomes are most likely people who are avid readers, people who know their fantasy and myths. So there’s already a connection there [with potential customers]. It’s like a signal to them. The gnome represents storytelling, because it’s a mythical creature, and the bow represents timeless design.
HSD: Let’s move on to personal style. What does personal style mean to you?
QO: Being true to yourself, following your heart. Personal style means expressing who you are in your own way. For me, it’s not about following trends; it’s what you’re comfortable with, and whether what you wear gels well with who you are.
HSD: What do you think the purpose of dressing up is? Is it about looking good, or expressing yourself?
QO: I think it has to be both. If you’re expressing yourself and you’re comfortable in your own skin, you will feel good and you will naturally look good. It affects everything, the way you conduct yourself, the way you speak… So I think having that part right is more important than “looking good”, because that can be subjective. Being yourself, follow through the way you dress with the way you conduct yourself, and the way you are, that’s most important. Then people see you as a whole being.
HSD: If you were on a panel deciding if a man dressed well, what would you look out for?
QO: Fit is the most important. How the jacket ends on your shoulders, how your sleeves end at your cuffs. I think it’s also an overall feel. Just looking at a person, you get a feel if they’re put together. I personally like dressing with an extra touch, a quirk. I’m very detail-oriented, so I would look out for stuff on a guy that’s not run-of-the-mill. Maybe he uses a sock for a pocket square? He’s taking a risk, but he also has to follow through for it to work. If he’s uncomfortable, it’s going to show. If he looks natural, he’s a winner.
HSD: So how would you describe your own personal style?
QO: My personal style is synonymous with Gnome & Bow’s design philosophy. What I look out for in others is also I want for myself. Every look has to be well-balanced, with an accent to create visual interest. I like to be quite playful, and I’m not afraid of colours. I have varying days, and now I’m into patchwork denim now! I have various phases, but overall, something classic, fits well, with a quirky touch. That’s my style.
HSD: If there was one style rule you can impose on everyone, what would it be?
QO: What I deem unsightly is when the heel on formal shoes get worn out, and they become slanted. I would make that an offence, to pass the 15º angle. When the rubber gets really worn out, it wears into the wood. Or even sneakers! It’s very off-putting.
HSD: Other pet peeves?
QO: Um… [long pause] I thought I would have a lot to say about this, but… You know, when you go about your normal day and you see things you find unforgivable, like a fashion crime right? But when you asked me this question I’m like… I can’t remember!
HSD: Any fashion trends you like or detest?
QO: I don’t like how at Pitti Uomo and Milan Fashion Week street fashion is taking hold. A lot of it, for me, doesn’t really work. A suit with a snapback that says SUPREME on it, just feels weird to me. It could be done well, but it can easily be jarring. A little is fine, but if it’s 50-50 then it’s not clear. It seems a little forced. I do like that menswear is going towards bold colours, not just the old monochrome. Textures and colours offer lots of room for creativity.
HSD: Do you think Singaporean men are well-dressed?
QO: Wow. [dramatic silence] In general, no. Most Singaporean guys can’t be bothered. Many of them just let it go when it comes to the weekends. I see old shirts with holes! On a normal work day they look presentable. Decent, but definitely not stylish.
HSD: But isn’t Singapore too hot to dress up? That’s what men say all the time. What kind of a tip will you give them, like bring two bottles of water?
QO: I guess it’s an attitude. It’s not about what you wear. You could be stylish even if you’re wearing a t-shirt and bermuda [shorts]. It’s in your taste in items, in matching them. A lot of it also boils down to setting – brunch, going to work, going to the beach. As long as you dress appropriately, dress to the occasion. If you do that the disparity wouldn’t be so big. The first thing to stop doing is to default to wearing stuff for the beach. Wear shoes instead of flip-flops.
HSD: You’re suited most of the time. Why?
QO: It’s something that doesn’t go out of style, and it brings you to the next level in terms of how people perceive you. A suit is able to bring out the best in you – your silhouette, your figure. Inherently, it’s very functional in making you look good.
HSD: Being someone who makes bags, who makes the best bags? Besides Gnome & Bow, obviously.
QO: There’re quite a few, and I’m not sure who to choose! One of brands I really admire is Hard Graft. The founders are Austrian, they started their business in the UK, and their products are made in Italy. They have a very strong aesthetic, and they are great at marketing. They can sell everything! I’m very inspired by them. They create things that are truly unique. One of the interesting things they did was creating a leather case for a Jawbone bluetooth speaker. It’s a very popular speaker, and Hard Graft was smart to embrace the product. They also have a leather sleeve for the Apple Watch charger. They know what their customer likes.
HSD: So it’s more about the marketing?
QO: That, and their design. Their bags look beautiful, they’re high quality, and they created a look that’s distinctly theirs.
HSD: So what’s your favourite bag at the moment in your wardrobe?
QO: I have to say it’s Gnome & Bow’s Cypress backpack. It’s the one that’s gone through the most rounds of prototyping, and in my opinion it’s also the most functional. It’s my everyday bag, I carry it everywhere. It’s from the first collection. All the bags are named after trees in The Hare and the Flying Tortoise.
HSD: And if I looked into your Cypress backpack, is there something in there that would surprise me?
QO: Surprising is subjective, no? [chuckling] You will find not one, but two, water bottles. I like drinking water a lot! I get thirsty easily, and I need water with me. I don’t like buying bottled water. To solve the issue of carrying the weight of the bottle instead of just the water, I found this cool water bottle from Vapur. You can roll it up when you’re done drinking. It does look like an IV drip though.
HSD: What other passions do you have outside of Gnome & Bow, if you have any?
QO: [laughing] Yes! I have a lot. Where should I start? I don’t look like it but I’m actually a Mando-pop fan. I sing Chinese songs! Are you shocked? [chuckling] I really like romantic love ballads. I guess it’s something interesting people don’t know about. I try to go to the karaoke with my friends once a week, or once every fortnight. Are you judging me now?
HSD: No, not at all! Just a little surprised. What are your three top songs?
QO: They’re always changing!
HSD: If we go to KBOX now which ones will you choose?
QO: Well, usually when we go singing we’ll pick warm-up songs first.
HSD: Wow. Really?
QO: Yeah, we’re professionals! For a four hour session you gotta start out slow. I guess I’ll go with singers I like. I like the latest album of J J Lin’s. That’s the one I’m practising at the moment.
HSD: And what about dancing?
QO: I used to do hip-hop, but that’s not really my thing. I also did Latin ballroom, and currently I do salsa. More social dancing. I used to dance a lot in school, and I picked up some skills that allow me to dance socially on a dance floor. I just do as and when I feel the itch. But I do go singing more than I do dancing, but I want to dance more, because it burns more calories!