Michael Tay Brings Us Authentic Luxury with Malmaison by The Hour Glass
Calling it a "tribute to the culture of humanity", Michael Tay's latest venture, Malmaison, is a veritable playground of luxurious objects. Asia Tatler gets the scoop from the man himself
Following in The Hour Glass tradition of leading the way as a cultural retail enterprise, Malmaison by The Hour Glass is a one-of-a-kind house of luxury dedicated to the handcraftsmanship and artisanship that make an item worthy of the label "authentic luxury". It recently opened its doors and has already become the talk of the luxury industry.
For Michael Tay, executive director of The Hour Glass, this is one project he is seriously taking under his wings as he scours the globe for brands that lend themselves to a high degree of handcraftsmanship and artisanship, be they watches, jewellery, perfumes, suits or shoes . He takes some time out to walk us through the spanking new 8,000 sq ft space, and looks back at where his journey through authentic luxury began.
Asia Tatler: Tell us about your growing up years and how they shaped your career path.
Michael Tay: I had planned on a career in dance and drama. I did theatre studies for my O'Levels as well as for my A Levels and later got accepted into a four-year course to do performing arts. So I knew that I had options. Strangely enough my parents weren't too keen on the idea of their son being a dancer, nor were they very impressed with me wanting to be an actor, so when my A level results were out and I did I better than I had expected, I decided to take up business and management studies at Oxford Brookes University. It was there that I grew to love the areas of accounts and finance. After university, I applied for a position in banking and had an offer from an investment bank in London. The idea was to spend several years away from Singapore and the family business acquiring other skills, but it so happened that when I graduated from university, the world was at the depths of the Asian financial crisis. On the one hand, my parents were proud that I could land myself a job after college, but I think they also felt the need for me to come back and assist them [at The Hour Glass] because it was a really a troubling period for the group.
AT: How did the inspiration for Malmaison by The Hour Glass come about?
MT: We started thinking about it at a time when the world was going into a completely sort of hedonistic consumption drive. It was a period when anything with a high price would be labelled a luxury item by sole virtue of its high price, not by the intrinsic value of the quality inherent in the object itself. We got very concerned at that point because we thought that all the tenets of what we deemed to be luxury had fallen by the wayside. People were largely ignoring the traditional values of authentic luxury, which are craftsmanship, exclusivity, artisanship and longevity, being able to inject perpetual value into an object of creation. Global brands were erecting these largely homogenous temples of luxury, where irrespective of where you were around the world, every one of these global flagship stores you walked into had a very similar environment. I can understand the need for that - as a global brand there is a need to somehow codify and homogenise your brand DNA. And by the same token, it wasn't our vision of luxury. Our vision of luxury was that it was meant to be unique to some degree, about creating new experiences, and we felt this was lacking.
AT: You've obviously chosen to work with some of the most renowned artisans in the world and a very eclectic mix that includes French perfumer Frederic Malle, shoemaker Pierre Corthay, French jewellery Aurelie Bidermann, and the world's oldest candlemaker, Cire Trudon. How do choose which brands you work with?
MT: We're very clear in our merchandising philosophy here. We go with brands that effectively lend themselves to a high degree of handcraftsmanship and artisanship. So whether it is a pair of Corthay shoes we have that is handmade, seven-fold Rubinacci hand-stitched ties, to watches that are assembled by the human hand and finished by the human hand... this handcraft quotient is absolutely vital to our merchandising mix. We're not rushing to merchandise the whole store; it's a large store and I'd say we've only just merchandised about half of it. But then again, we have time on our hands.
AT: And what do you expect will be top sellers in the boutique?
MT: Watches are a fundamental foundation of our business but what's surprising us is also how interested clients are in the other categories of objects we've brought in. For example, Frederic Malle perfumes and the Corthay shoes. The jewellery has also received tremendous response.
AT: With Malmaison, what kind of a client mix are you targeting?
MT: I think the type of client that would be attracted to a boutique like Malmaison is one that is largely interested in the world. They're intrigued, and at the same time, they're inquisitive about cultural differences, about the cultural forces that shape humanity. Because what is Malmaison but possibly a tribute to the culture of humanity?
AT: You're creating a very holistic and authentic luxury experience for clients at Malmaison. Apart from these two factors, what else is crucial to your business model?
MT: Our people. Everybody contributes different ideas and we encourage our teams to be creative. We trust our people because when you're in the luxury business, it's really about the frontline personnel you have. Our mission is to be recognised as the world's foremost cultural retail enterprise. I say cultural retail enterprise because we're not just a for-profit enterprise; we believe in developing the fundamental quotient of the sectors that we have or are exposed to, whether it's in watchmaking or it's now in the areas of shoes and fine tailoring, fine perfumery or high jewellery.
AT: So what would you say has been your greatest achievement or the highest point in your life so far?
MT: I haven't gotten there yet I think. I was fortunate that when I joined the business everything couldn't have been worse. It wasn't easy back then, but looking back now to see how far it's come is nice. But highest point, no, I don't think I've reached there yet nor do I think I will ever reach that point and I hope never to, because the moment you say you hit it, it's downhill all the way.
AT: What are the moments you cherish most?
MT: In the business of time, we have very little time and what you cherish most is having a little time to yourself. And I think I've been able to sort of balance it up pretty well, when I get time to travel to see things. I cherish the time that I have when I get the opportunity to visit galleries and museums so those are the few things, and obviously, all the better still if my wife is with me, but those are the simple little things that I enjoy.
Malmaison by The Hour Glass is at #01-01 Knightsbridge, 270 Orchard Road, Tel: 6884 8484. Read more about Michael Tay in the June 2011 issue of Singapore Tatler.