Far East Plaza was the fashion haven for many teenagers in Singapore. Local streetwear brand 77th Street, spawned the zeitgeist of 1980s and ‘90s youth culture from the fourth floor of Far East Plaza, and its defining presence was the soul of the shopping complex. Through the vision and work of one person, 77th Street became more than just the retail of clothes and accessories – it was a statement about the youth community; they were bold, edgy and spunky.  After more than three decades, that dynamic spirit of youth continues to burn in its founder, Elim Chew.

Many adults today have fond memories of the erstwhile homegrown fashion brand 77th Street. Once a retail chain with 16 outlets, 77th Street is said to be responsible for introducing youth fashion brands to our shores. Brands such as JNCO Jeans, Stussy and Billabong owed a large part of their existence here to 77th Street before they became mainstream. With their variety of streetwear and accessories, 77th Street dressed a generation of youths in the ’90s and inspired them to express themselves and find their space in society.

Elim Chew arrived for the interview dressed in a fashionable camouflage jacket from a contemporary youth brand. Just minutes into the meeting, it is clear that Elim knows her brands, and keeps abreast of trends. Her family background, however, was a far cry from the sartorial world for which she became known. Her father ran a family clinic called Asia Dispensary on Cantonment Road, and her family was also involved in grassroots activities.

Elim Chew sharing her journey with us. Photo by Lynette Lee

Elim didn’t do well academically, and left Singapore with the intention to enrol in a public school in London but then switched to studying hairdressing instead.

“After returning from London in 1986, I started work as a hairstylist,” she said. Back then, she was already seen as a fashionable individual – one with a keen entrepreneurial sense. “Everybody wanted to buy what I was wearing. They’d tell me that they like my jacket or my accessories, and I’d just take it off and sell it to them on the spot. $150 here, $50 there.”

“Because everybody was asking me where I got my clothes from, I was inspired to start 77th Street in 1988,” said Elim. “My sister Sulim, who lived in London then, became my buyer. We’d fax each other, and she’d ship things over. That was how it all started.”

Elim’s foray into fashion retail was a huge success at the time. In its prime, the streetwear chain boasted 16 stores across the island, and was a mainstay of popular youth hangouts like Far East Plaza and the Heeren shopping centre.

Initially, Elim was still running a hair salon while her fashion retail business came into its own rather quickly. But she could not split her time and energy between the two businesses and effectively grow both. Hence to focus on the streetwear chain, Elim made the tough decision to sell off her successful hairdressing business in 1994.

Running 77th Street in an era where digital communications was still not mainstream was a challenge for Elim, but it had to be done. When we asked her how she knew what to bring into the Singapore market, she attributed it to numerous rounds of trial and error.

“It was a lot of flying around, and then buying [the goods] back [to Singapore] to test the products. In those days it was, like, 20 hours of flight, staying in the cheapest motels, buying the items, and flying back immediately on the cheapest flights. Either you make it, or you lose the entire bulk if things don’t sell,” shared Elim. “And if it really does sell, we would go back to buy more.”

“We brought in Dr Martens shoes, we brought in baggy jeans [and] tiny tees. We started the trend of all the Tweety Bird and upside-down Mini Toons t-shirts. We made ear piercing affordable. We started a lot of trends, and built a whole community of young people that really hung out in Far East Plaza.”

Some of the shoes imported by 77th Street from the UK when its first store, the flagship, opened at Far East Plaza in 1988. Source: 77th Street Facebook page

To some, 77th Street might just be another clothes and shoe store. For many, though, it represented a safe haven and a community that was welcoming, that celebrated the idea of belonging.

“For 28 years, we’ve been there,” said Elim. “At the centre for everyone. We were their crying buddies when they went through breakups, or when they’ve lost their wallets, or when they were being followed by people. They would all run to our shop.”

“Sometimes my staff would stay at my house so that when the delivery arrives the next day, they would be the first to open the goods. I remember when New Kids on the Block released a few products, and we brought them to our shop,” recounted Elim with a chuckle. “The customers were waiting outside before the store opened. And when we opened our doors, they were all grabbing the items and crying over the music. It was like the early K-pop days. These are memories that you remember.”

Elim in her Far East Plaza shop in 1996. Source: 77th Street Facebook page

“These days, we’re always talking about wanting to build a community of people. But in those days, we were precisely that. We were the community.”

Elim has always made a conscientious effort to contribute, encourage and stimulate the youths in Singapore. Even after the closure of 77th Street’s last outlet in Far East Plaza in 2016 due to high rental, Elim found herself, time and time again, in the position to help build and push the envelope for youths in Singapore, most notably as a member of the programming committee that helped bring *Scape – a non-profit organisation that supports the development of youths – to fruition.

When we asked Elim about her motivations behind empowering the youth, she said, “I guess it’s because I was young myself. Growing 77th Street and myself, I’ve never stopped being in the presence of young people, and they’ve never failed to engage with us. With the Internet, there’s no limit to what we can do on social media, to pitch for change, and to learn from one another.”

Although 77th Street is no longer around, Elim continues to keep her finger on the pulse of youth trends. In between devoting her time to youth programmes at *Scape and School of the Arts (SOTA), she also runs a slew of food-and-beverage chains and an online delivery service. She intends to continue tapping on her experience of working with youths to continue building platforms for future generations. Asked why she wants to focus on youths, she simply smiled and quipped, “I still feel young.”

Written by: Adam Chan

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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