In Conversation With
Talenia Phua Gajardo:
What's Next For Tech And Luxury Retail?
The entrepreneur and founder of The Artling, shares her thoughts and plans for the future.
By Hong Xinyi
Talenia Phua Gajardo has been thinking about space. Not the kind filled with galaxies far, far away, but something else that is no less infinite, in its own way—virtual space, which tech-minded wunderkinds have conjured seemingly out of thin air, and are fast bending to the force field of their ingenuity.
Google recently created a 3D virtual reality (VR) painting application called Tilt Brush, she shares with palpable excitement when we ask the e-commerce entrepreneur to spotlight some recent trends that have piqued her interest. “It’s a completely immersive experience that enables artists to paint in 3D space, on a 3D canvas, inside a VR world. It’s completely mind-blowing.”
She is also excited about how Google’s Art Project is digitising the collections of 1,200 art institutions worldwide. “One can already browse their archives and take virtual 360-degree tours of these art spaces and cultural heritage sites. I’m very keen to see how quickly VR and the actual application of all these technologies will become mainstream and whether that will translate into sales for artists and galleries in the future.”
Her interest in these developments is both personal and professional. In 2013, she launched online art platform The Artling as a pioneering digital showcase for contemporary Southeast Asian art. It is a genre that this art lover feels passionate about championing, partly because it is still emerging on the global scene. Her attachment to the region’s artistic expressions is also tied to her sense of cultural identity. As the only child of a Singaporean Chinese father and a Chilean mother, Talenia lived in Singapore till the age of 16, when she was sent to boarding school in Australia. She then began her adult life in London, first studying architecture at Central Saint Martins, then working for starchitect Zaha Hadid’s eponymous firm before returning to Singapore in 2013. “Southeast Asian art is what I relate to. I am half-Chilean, but I feel more Asian. And although I was away for almost 12 years, I still feel very connected to Singapore and our neighbouring countries.”
Singapore’s bid to position itself as a regional art hub shows promise, she believes. “With the opening of National Gallery Singapore, Gillman Barracks, Art Stage and more recently, the strongest Singapore Biennale we’ve had so far, the Singapore art scene has come a long way in a short period of time,” she says. “There have been hiccups and we certainly have a way to go, but we have to start somewhere.” In the meantime, The Artling’s offerings have expanded in scope. It now features a curated selection of over 1,000 artists from top galleries in Asia, and recently acquired its direct competitor, Hong Kong‑based Artshare. In 2015, Talenia also launched Luxglove, Asia’s first and only curated shopping portal for high-quality pre‑loved luxury items, including vintage cars, rare whiskies, and watches and jewellery. Earlier this year, Edipresse Media Asia (publisher of Singapore Tatler) acquired a $2.5m stake in The Artling Pte Ltd, which owns both platforms.
Navigating the field of e-commerce as an entrepreneur has been intoxicating, Talenia says. “There’s so much to do, explore and learn. Social media has changed the way we communicate with customers and platforms such as ours are even making direct sales through channels such as Instagram. I believe we’ll see more consolidation in the e-commerce market and there may be an emergence of ‘super aggregators’. You already see it with fashion sites like Lyst, which list other platforms and consolidate many sites in one place. This will in turn make the online consumer experience more streamlined.”
As struggling brick-and-mortar retailers know, the strengths of operating online are considerable. Sellers are freed from rental pressures, and consumers can access a staggering array of products, price points and information. Still, selling luxury is arguably a different ball game, and old-fashioned reality has some distinct advantages in this particular segment of retail. The experiential pleasures of browsing a plush boutique—not to mention the thrill of actually seeing and handling potential purchases in the flesh—count for a lot more when you are talking about a rare car or a collectible piece of jewellery. There is also the vaunted service luxury retailers stake their reputations on, which for many customers is the whole point of shopping offline.
“I don’t think the tangible experience can be fully replaced, but being online does offer a different and complementary set of tools and services,” Talenia says. In customer service, for instance, “new client relationships can and are being built online, every day. Specialised customer service is definitely something we’ve brought online and we’re constantly refining our scope of services on both platforms”. For example, both The Artling and Luxglove have online concierge services that help customers source for items if they’re looking for something extra special that can’t be found online. “We also maintain seller profiles and offer full-stack services such as art consultancy, installation and insurance. We’ve gone beyond just being an online platform and place a very strong emphasis on the customer experience.”
That said, there are some areas where she is happy to acknowledge the primacy of tangibility. For instance, within the art ecosystem, The Artling plays a complementary role to galleries, not a competing one, Talenia stresses. “While we participate in art fairs, host collector events and organise pop-ups, we do not run regular artist exhibition programmes like galleries do, which requires a whole different skill set. Despite the growing importance of online channels, physical exhibitions are still very critical. They serve as a connection between art and ideas and the public, providing the fundamental interface between the three parties. This tactile, physical experience can be simulated but not duplicated, even with the advancement of augmented and virtual reality technologies. But while the online and offline spaces are very different, we do share common challenges, the main one being to expand our databases and find new clients as quickly as possible.”
She also thinks the very nature of luxury products will prove to be a boon for luxury purveyors of all stripes. “Art and unique luxury collectibles are not mass-manufactured, and the man-made and handmade will increase in rarity and value,” she asserts. “Everything has become automated; what will we have to hold on to 30 years from now that’s entirely handmade? If we’re not conscious of what we’re collecting, not very much. Our collections become a part of us and reflect a particular time in our lives. I believe it’s human nature for collectors to collect things that represent or express themselves in some form or another. Over time, the role of art in encapsulating time and memories thus takes on a whole different meaning, and its intrinsic value will grow.”
Talenia married The Hour Glass group managing director Michael Tay in 2014, and the couple are known to share a passion for contemporary art. For her, this interest in art and aesthetics started early. “I’ve been predominantly affected and inspired by three main types of people throughout my life—peers, professors and parents,” she shares. “I’m lucky enough to have always been encouraged to explore and chase my passions. The support from my mum, Eugenia Gajardo, was a huge boost. I’ve also been lucky enough in my professional life to have been surrounded by peers who are extremely talented and creative, and this has inspired me tremendously to keep creating and evolving.”
These peers include her former colleagues at Zaha Hadid Architects, whom she describes as “the most amazingly talented people, many of whom I still keep in touch with”. Hadid passed away suddenly in 2016, and Talenia pays tribute to the way she inspired so many women. “She was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize and also received the prestigious Royal Gold Medal awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects before her passing. But her contributions to the world go far beyond her buildings and ideas. She was a role model for all women, not just those in the architecture industry. She stuck to her guns through the years and built a strong and loyal team. One of the most important things I’ve learned working at her firm is that no one can make it alone. It’s all about the team.”
She now finds herself in the thrilling position of building her own team and making her own mark on the world. Her ambitions are distinct: “Our goal with The Artling is to bring Asian art and design to a global audience. With Luxglove, we want to enable our sellers to create their own storefronts, and become the region’s top resource for luxury vintage pre‑owned collectibles. Ultimately, we want to bring amazing things directly to collectors, and create a strong and vibrant community where art, design and architecture enthusiasts can convene, both online and offline.”
Ask her if she ever misses being an architect, and Talenia replies: “Yes and no. I prefer to look ahead instead of looking back.” She still works closely with developers, architects and interior designers. The Artling also offers an art consultancy service where they source for both private and corporate projects, tapping on Talenia’s strengths in architecture and interior design. The website recently launched Design as a new vertical, adding items such as limited‑edition furniture to its offerings.
“It’s been such an amazing journey to date and I think the biggest change in myself so far has been how I deal with stressful situations and pressure,” she shares. “I used to allow things to affect me much more. But once you have investors on board and the team grows, you have to learn not to dwell on things for too long and to just move on and look ahead. It’s a challenging balance to strike—mitigating risk and navigating the team and company through hard times, while seeking opportunities and staying constantly optimistic.”
Photography: Darren Gabriel Leow
Fashion Direction: Desmond Lim
Hair and Make-Up: Grego/Indigo Artisans, using La Biosthétique and Elizabeth Arden
Buying luxury online is catching on. The first Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report released this year showed that 56 per cent of online sales generated by art and antiques dealers in 2016 were made to new clients who had never been to their galleries or met them in person. Here is a selection of items listed on The Artling and Luxglove, picked out by Talenia Phua Gajardo herself.
“Ruben Pang is one of our Singaporean gems. He’s a great young painter and ceramicist who doesn’t produce that many pieces, so a piece of this scale is a rarity. He’s definitely one to keep an eye on.”
Composition Chair by Kouichi Okamoto
“This limited-edition piece is designed and handmade by Japanese designer Kouichi Okamoto. It takes him over six months to create a single chair and each piece is created without the use of any bolts or welding; the only tools used for this design are a jig and a pair of pliers.”
Karuizawa 48 Y.O 1964 OB
“We’ve sold some amazing rare bottles on Luxglove so far and this Karuizawa has gotten many eyeballs. Currently, there’s a big Japanese whisky craze and our team is constantly on the hunt for rare and limited-edition releases.”
Limited Edition Patek Philippe London Edition 5159-012
“This Patek Philippe perpetual calendar with moonphase and retrograde date in white gold is one of our very special listings as there are only 80 pieces in the world. This piece was also notably part of the Patek Philippe 175th Anniversary London 2015 Limited Editions.”