In an era so focused at preserving (and at times, breaking) traditions, subtlety is often a practice that runs deep in the multi-faceted realm of fashion decorum. Even for the plethora of fashionable carryalls, few bag makers dared to venture into the fanciful and fantastical realms.
Founded on the notion that bags can go beyond basic functionality to become a greater medium for storytelling, the coveted carryalls from “Gnome & Bow” have more dialogue than its mundane counterparts. Using literary references as core inspirations for much of the brand’s multiple collections, “Gnome & Bow” ’s design philosophy often subtly chases the stories’ ebullient mood and at times, rebellious spirit. Its brand name, it seems, is equally befitting as well.
“The Gnome represents that element of fantasy and storytelling while the Bow symbolises classic design,” says Quanda Ong, the brand’s founder. Quanda, who was working full-time in the finance industry after he graduated from Singapore Management University, only forayed into the fashion scene and established “Gnome & Bow” in 2013.
“Bags, in particular, are things that I am obsessed about,” he says in an interview with podcaster Michael Waitze. “I spent a lot of my time looking for bags, seeing how they were constructed, seeing like if there were any interesting quotes within the bag, or if there was an interesting lining or pocket that served a particular purpose.”
For the 33-year-old entrepreneur, the decision to leave his full-time job was a conscious choice. It was one stemming from years of chanced encounters and encouragement — his ex-girlfriend groomed his eye for detail while his father, who was a businessman, encouraged him to manifest his entrepreneurial spirit.
The ideation for the brand’s first collection, “The Hare & The Flying Tortoise”, came to mind when he was scouring for bags that could strike a chord within him. “Back in my job, I spent a lot of time traveling around and I always start to daydream on the plane. To me, that is the best time for ideas to appear in the mind,” he adds. “That was also when I thought, what if a bag could tell a story? I started developing the idea and scribbling on my little book.”
At the forefront of the brand’s debut collection, “The Hare & The Flying Tortoise”, which runs the gamut from the classic messenger bag, duffel and briefcases, is eclectic and spirited. Reimagined from the classic story from Aesop’s Fables, race-inspired elements — take for instance, the checkered stitching which symbolises the monochromatic race flags or the zipper tags that have been embossed with the characters from the fable — are elusively interweaved into the minimalist and clean silhouette.
“When I first visualised the two zippers being parallel to each other, they reminded me of racing. And then the first related story that I thought of was the hare and the tortoise. We gave the essence of the story a twist, giving the tortoise wings, and re-imagined the race to take place on the zipper,” he recalls while explaining how the brand had amassed over $30,000 in a fortnight to become the largest fashion crowdfunding campaign on that time.
In the years that follow, “Gnome & Bow” has since been featured on numerous publications, including Augustman and CNA Lifestyle, and is now stocked in nine countries. In 2017, the homegrown brand became a finalist for “Fashion Designer of the Year”.
There are many telling signs that Quanda is master storyteller. Of course, the most illustrative ones are stemmed from the brand’s subsequent releases. If anything, “Gnome & Bow” strives to harness precision into its bag making craft and imbue a character into its offerings. The result? An impregnable and distinctive brand identity.
The brand’s second collection, entitled “Jekyll’s Hyde”, yet again recalls the founder’s flair for blending creative muse with a twist. Modernised from Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic novella, “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, the ensuing collection calls to mind the idea of double personalities, much like Mr Hyde’s mellow personality and his contrasting evil alter ego. Featuring the element of reversibility among its ranks of carryalls, “Jekyll’s Hyde” presents itself as a sophisticated and audacious statement collection for those who seek two contrasting but stylish looks at the same time.
Quanda elaborates, “When it came to designing Jekyll’s Hyde, we wanted both sides of the bags to be so drastically different that people don’t know it is the same bag.”
Interestingly, the founder was not adept in the field of fashion and design when he started. He reveals in the podcast interview that he had learnt the nuts and bolts of the trade through “trial and errors”, “experimentation”, and “observation”. In many ways, the innovative entrepreneur demonstrates his willingness to explore with venture into setting up pop-up stores at fairs and including an inventive and new mode of e-payment to drive sales conversion.
For the latter, he explains, “There is a business and marketing funnel needs reviewing. People do drop out at the payment segment. That’s where hoolah steps in with an affordable payment philosophy to help increase conversion.”
The brand’s third collection, entitled “The 4th Musketeer“, tips hats to Alexander Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers”. Featuring a hidden zippered compartment which also acts as a detachable pouch, the collection pays homage to the underdog, an integral individual of the team, who justly deserves more recognition.
At its core, Gnome & Bow’s powerful storytelling feels like a private discovery of sorts. It is an inescapable and immersive experience that brings a quiet form of unbridled joy. It is an experience that you want to protect rather than to share and talk about it. And despite its secrecy, it will, ever so subtly, continue to, surface into our lives.