By: Susannah Jaffer
We finally catch up with Emma Femminile just before she finishes her expat stint in Singapore to move back to the UK (via a stop-off in Bali!). As it turns out, the busy mum of four and owner of hit resort label White Ginger is already planning a future return to the tropics.
If I try to think of a fashion label that best epitomises the mood of island living, White Ginger ticks all the boxes. Prints influenced by travels around Asia? Check. Bold colours and patterns? Check. Woven fabrics constructed into loose silhouettes? Check, check, check!
It’s also clear that British-born owner Emma Femminile is a walking, talking advertisement for her designs – all of her clothes hang picture-perfect on her leggy, slim figure. While we’re sitting down for this interview inside her cosy Tanglin Mall store, two women come in and buy the top she’s wearing, while another toys with the same idea in the dressing room, all in the space of an hour. Not only that, she acknowledges each of them fondly; I can tell they are regulars.
And, although on the surface it might seem like yet another expat resort label, there are other style influences at work that set White Ginger apart. “I’m not inspired by fads and trends,” says Emma, “but rather by classic shapes – the shift, tunic and shirt dress, for example – mixed with a bit of a seventies influence. It adds sophistication. I think that’s what keeps women coming back, because the designs don’t date.” I’m inclined to agree. I’ve spotted a black-and-white printed shift number that I could just as easily wear to a CBD work meeting with heels and a structured leather bag, as I could dressed down with sandals for beach cocktails at sunset.
Emma injects her own style requirements into her designs too. “I always wear White Ginger myself, so if I’m going somewhere and I can’t find anything suitable frommy collections, I’ll figure out how I can incorporate that look into my next range.” she says. “You could say the brand is definitely driven by my personal needs and wants, but if I find an element that’s lacking, I imagine my customers are missing out too!”
Originally from a small town in the English county of Cambridgeshire, Emma’s Singapore adventure started after she fell in love with the city while en route to Bali for a friend’s 40th birthday. “My husband and I thought it looked like such a fun place. His company had a small office here too, so we put steps in motion and everything just fell into place after that. The birthday was in May, and we’d moved out here by the August.”
That was six years ago, and she’s been lapping up life in Asia ever since. “I love the culture and climate, especially the heat,” she says. So much so that, even though the family has made the decision to move back to the UK for the kids’ secondary school education, Emma already has dreams to come back and live here. “I meet so many customers who come back a second time around without the kids and have a blast!”
To ease the blow of leaving – and to satisfy her obvious sense of adventure – Emma and her husband are going to live in Bali for six months on the way home. “I’m looking forward to being close to our factory in Seminyak to really get stuck into designing, as well as working more closely with an orphanage there. I’ll be back and forth to Singapore between now and Christmas for a few events too. Lots of people will probably say ‘I thought she’d already left!’ But you can’t get rid of me that easily,” she laughs.
Although she’s moving back to her country abode, Emma hopes to establish an outlet in London too, to be in the hub of the fashion industry. “I’ve got lots of repat customers based there who are often asking me when White Ginger will be coming to the UK!”
A stylish solution
Emma’s journey to setting up the label was sparked by discovering a lack of affordable and fashion-forward clothing suited for the tropics. Although she originally started out in the sleepwear market, selling at fairs and pop-up events, she soon moved onto designing the resort wear she’s now known for. “I brought all my summer clothes from the UK with me to Singapore, and they still felt too hot! The materials were just all wrong. I came to realise there was a real gap in the market, and being in Asia I was so close to lots of fantastic manufacturing options. It was a natural direction for me.”
That was four years ago, and since then she’s held more pop-up events and has had clothes stocked at concession stores, including the now closed Chillax Market at The Grandstand, Bukit Timah, before opening up her own bricks-and-mortar space a year ago.
In turn, it’s resulted in an even greater demand for her easy-wearing designs, which does come with its challenges. “To be honest, I sometimes find it hard to juggle all the business requests, as there are times when stock just flies off the shelf! That’s another reason I’m looking forward to getting a manager to look after the shop while I’m gone. It means I’ll be able to maximise my time designing and building our collections, rather than spending too much time on the admin side.”
Despite having to satisfy the demands of a larger customer base, Emma keeps her lines exclusive, ordering only small runs at a time. “Thankfully, now that we have a shop, our customers are more varied. I remember back when I produced one of my first collections for a fair in town, I sold twelve tops in the same style, and the next day four mums at my daughter’s school wore them for the school run! It was hilarious – and, of course, flattering!”
The design process
The fact that White Ginger’s designs aren’t led by trends means the label has kept its strong aesthetic – one that has built momentum over the years. “I love halter necks, shirt dresses, off-the-shoulder details; I always want to give my own spin on classic styles.”
Emma is obviously very colour-driven – the store is peppered with blues, reds, greens and more in between. “I often start off with a combination of shades that have caught my eye, such as cobalt and tangerine, or navy and lime, and then I figure out the best prints to break up the colours,” she explains, while showing me pieces from off the racks. Some of her fabrics come pre-printed, but the rest are designed exclusively for White Ginger, created through traditional screen-printing techniques. “There’s nothing high-tech about it, which means there can be some slight variations in the fabric; but that’s what makes a piece unique, right?”
Thanks to her own sourcing trips, and her discovery of a fantastic leather supplier, Emma has an array of beautiful jewellery, bags and accessories in store too. I notice a pair of snakeskin sandals with a leather strap that winds up the ankle: it’s a beautiful, sensual and unique design. “This is yet another reason why I’m looking forward to the move to Bali, even though it’s temporary. It’s always important to develop a good working relationship with your suppliers, as it only improves the manufacturing experience.”
Learning from failure
Though she’s now well-established, Emma’s journey as a fashion retail entrepreneur hasn’t been easy. Her greatest lesson? Failure. There’s an Einstein quote that she likes to live by: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”. “Thankfully, I’m ordering clothing in small quantities,” she says, “so if I make a mistake I’ve only lost the cost of twenty rather than 2,000 pieces!” That hasn’t happened too often, happily, and she has learnt to trust her instincts.
Einstein aside, Emma draws inspiration from her customers, and from the fact that White Ginger is worn all over the world. “I always get such a thrill from seeing people wearing my designs, and social media makes brand visibility that much easier to attain!”
A simple “#whiteginger” search on social media shows that Emma has women wearing her clothes on their holidays not just in Asia, but everywhere from Oslo to Brazil. Now she wants to take her plans for world domination that much further by relaunching her website later this year, including international shipping for the available products. “I’m halfway there, I promise!” she laughs. “There’s so much involved, it’s starting to feel like a separate job. I’ve found a great logistics centre here, so Singapore will be the shipping hub,” she says. “It’s such an efficient way to operate as import duties are low. I’m going to be running ten of our bestselling styles on our new site to start off with, and we’ll see how it goes from there!”
Doubtless the site will open up a whole new world of customers to Emma, and she’ll probably be busier than ever. Still, considering her energy levels and zest for business, I can tell she’s up for the next challenge.
This article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy for the full article, or subscribe now so you never miss an issue!