Since it’s international debut during the 2010 New York Fall/Winter fashion
show, Singaporean fashion label Raoul has been busy winning over loyal
followers around the global. Best known for its designer looking products,
the affordable luxury brand was founded by husband and wife duo Douglas and
Odile Benjamin 2002. Within the span of two months, the homegrown brand has
been awarded ‘Brand of the Year – Fashion’ during the World Branding Awards
and ‘Outstanding Homegrown Fashion Brand in Singapore’ at the Asian Couture
Federation Awards Gala.

Odile, who is creative director for the label, believes the recognition is
a “little pat on the shoulder” and confirms the Raoul is on the right
track. FashionUnited took a moment to talk to her about Raoul.

Where did the idea to launch Raoul come from?

Odile: “It has always been Frank’s, (Douglas father)
dream, since the early 90s and 00s to start FJ Benjamin’s own brand and be
more in charge of the company’s own destiny. As times changed over the
years, business began to boom in Asia, all the big brands slowly wanted to
take back control of their own business, so partners operating on a
franchise model sometimes found themselves losing their contract after a
certain period of time. So the whole business model changed and we started
mooting the whole idea of starting our own brand, on and off over several

“Then one day my husband, Douglas, woke up one morning and whilst getting
dressed he noticed his shirts were not looking too great. They were fraying
around the edges. He would go to London and buy a couple of expensive
shirts every season, but they just wouldn’t last. He turned to me and
asked; ‘How are you washing my shirts? Why aren’t they lasting? Are you
putting them in the dishwasher?’ Of course, I said no, they just aren’t
great quality. He was upset and confused because of the amount of money he
spent on them. ‘You know what? We are gonna do something about this,’ he
told me. ‘I am going to start my own brand of mens shirts.’ At first I
thought he was joking, I knew he had better things to do, plus men didn’t
really shop at the time. But Douglas believed this was because men didn’t
have anywhere to shop.’There is a need for this,’ he said.”

“At the time, which was early 2000s, either you went to very expensive
brands and shirts would cost upwards of three hundred dollars or they were
very cheap from brands like Zara. There was nothing in between them, no
well made, feel good shirts that you could buy without having to spend an
arm and a leg. So we zoomed in on that niche.”

When did you first launch Raoul?

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“Well immediately that same day, Douglas called in the architect to start
designing the store interior, the landlords to start looking for the store
space and he called me into his office to start sourcing fabrics and study
the makeup of mens shirt. We also started looking for factories and in
six months we opened the first Raoul store. It was very quick, but our
impulse hit a soft spot for a lot of men and we found that it was
successful immediately.”

“The first store was just about shirts and accessories to go with shirts,
but we did in a cool way, we placed a Ducati motorcycle in our store
window, we had a pool table in the middle of the shop floor, so that it
looked like a mens club and men loved it. Stores starting mushrooming
everywhere, in Singapore, in Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and there was
such demand for the product.”

What made you decide to branch out into women’s wear and other

“The brand really grew out of demand from our customers, rather than
us overthinking it. It was very much a demand driven development. Women
starting asking for the same thing we were making for men soon after the
first store opened. Because we did not offer anything for women and most
men tend to shop with women, we had a lot of women engaging with our stores
and many of them were excited by the product. They started buying our
shirts in smaller sizes and altering them to fit. Which did not sit well
with us, so we decided to try and start making shirts for women as well.”

“Raoul grew organically from there. Women started buying the shirts so
easily because it’s such an easy product to pick up and then they started
asking for skirts to go with them, and jackets, accessories and handbags.
By 2008/ 2009, we were doing a full collection of men’s ready to wear,
women’s ready to wear, accessories, handbags, shoes and small leather
goods, the full spectrum.”

What sets Raoul apart from other fashion labels in your

“What is interesting about Raoul is that the product is luxury, but
niche located. It is a designer looking product, but price wise it falls
into the middle segment. That is what we felt was the whole theory behind
the brand, that you have great quality, great fit, great design, it looks
and feel expensive but you are not actually paying a high ticket price for
it. Which for us was both an advantage and a disadvantage because when we
first launched the brand there was nothing else like it on the market.”

Raoul currently has a number of standalone stores throughout South East
Asia and stockists across Europe and the US. Are there any plans to open
additional stores any of these locations?

“We are actively looking for the right locations to open stand alone stores
in the US and Europe, it’s been in pipeline for a while, but we have been
waiting for the right opportunity to come along and present itself. We have
been looking in Europe, but it has been going through a rough patch, so we
are not 100 percent certain this is the right time to step into the market.
We will see how the economy progresses over the next 18 months before we
make any decisions.”

“Opportunities for a store in the US look more hopeful. I think the economy
is definitely picking up there. But we are just being very careful at the
moment. We are very happy with the distribution system we have in place at
the moment, happy with the clients we have. The brand has a good strong
following and many clients have started to come looking for us, so we are
happy with how we are progressing. We just launched our e-commerce, so
that’s another way of reaching out to others as well. It’s really just
striking the right balance between the brick and mortar and e-commerce to
make sense financially.”

As creative director for such an international brand, you must
have a strong artistic team working with you. What is the design team for
Raoul like?

“Well, we are based in Singapore where our headquarters are, so I have
a design team based here as well as a product development team. Everything
gets developed here in Singapore, cutting, sampling, pattern making,
everything gets done here in my studio, in house. We have a full studio
with our own pattern makers, cutters, seamstresses, digital plotting
machines. I have a team of about 40 people in Singapore and then another
team in Hong Kong and China who do all the various work developments and
sourcing for me as well.”

“But to make sure that I am not cocooned in the small world that Asia can
be, I also work with a team of designers in London, because I feel the
pulse is there. The energy, understanding what happening in streets and in
stores, getting a feel for the latest direction, whether it’s hem length or
the mood of the people, there is just such a buzz in London. We also do a
lot of vintage sourcing out of London and Paris. To make sure I am not too
European-centric or leaving the US out of the picture, I also work with a
stylist in New York, who gives me her input and helps Americanize the
product. There’s slight difference in terms of taste, what works for one
market versus what works for another, so the American stylist comes into
the picture to give me her input.”

“So in the end I get a little bit of everything. I get the Europe
aesthetics, which is my main aesthetics, but I also make sure I am dressing
the American market. Based in Asia I am on top of all the latest resources
and developments and all the latest technologies, in terms of fabrications,
materials, different techniques which we can get our hands on very easily
sourcing out of Asia. So we are widespread in that sense.”

Where do you find your inspiration for Raoul’s collections?

“It varies a lot from season to season. Me and the design team get
influenced a lot by art, when it comes to doing some of our prints, but I
have to say that I think that inspiration for me tends to be very much
driven by my customers and clients. They are the ones who inspire me in
terms in which direction I need to take every season. Understanding the
social pressures and demands and the state of mind that society is in at
the time all influence the design direction that I take. When it comes to
prints, I always think that art is a great influence that we fall back on,
or vintage pieces, we find a lot of inspiration in iconic pieces too, as
well as the high points in fashion history mainly the 60s, the 70s and the
90s is a great fall back. These are influences that we tap into at various
times, but it should always fit into that woman that I am trying to
address, who is the woman I am dressing, who completes my collection when I
am looking at it.”

Lastly, who do you think ‘the Raoul woman’ is?

“The Raoul woman is a working woman, the woman who leads the type of
lifestyle I lead, she has a very active social schedule, she works, she
has family and juggles a lot things. She wants to look great and feel that
she has a wardrobe that is going to work for her, so it’s a very
interesting niche market. It’s not the niche designer market, it’s not the
mass market, it’s not the middle market in terms of look, it’s combining
all these areas in one at a great price point. It’s hard getting the
balance just right, but we’ve found our formula.”

“She can’t be too old or too young, or too mature or contemporary, it has
to be the right balance that addresses the right woman. Although the Raoul
woman may be leading the same lifestyle, aesthetically she may need
something else for life in Europe than life in Asia. There are various
things that come into play. So we strike a balance between it all.”