In the last 15 years, Singapore’s retail scene has changed dramatically. But one brand has remained constant, and that is escentials. In spite of ever changing trends, escentials has remained steadfastly true to its ethos: A customer-centric philosophy and a tight curation of brands that meet the individual's needs. In a three-part series to mark #15YearsOfescentials, we speak to a regular customer, a beauty editor, and a leading industry figure to tell the escentials story.

He is one of Luxasia’s top executives, but Alwyn Chong didn’t exactly set out to be one.

In fact, his heart was set on quite a different role – a zookeeper to be exact – due to his love of animals, and a career in banking, when adulthood took over.

The managing director of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand & Philippines and escentials sat down with us recently to recount how he didn’t get to realise those dreams, but instead, lent a hand in running one of the biggest names in the beauty industry in Asia.

Alwyn Chong

“I wanted to be a zookeeper when I was young. I’ve always liked animals and I’ve always been amused by what they do and always wanting to learn more about them. I think a zookeeper would be an ideal job because you could choose the animals you get in your own zoo right and that’s quite interesting.

I majored in philosophy and economics in Melbourne University and I wanted to go into banking. It was around 2002 at that time, and the job market wasn’t good, so when I went into banking, they always questioned how long I was gonna stay in banking because Singapore is a small place and they knew that I was a part of the family business. While I was interviewing for jobs, I started working in Luxasia as well.

I started off as a marketing executive for a brand called Etienne Aigner, before becoming a marketing executive for the PUIG group and thereafter, moved on to do Guerlain and YSL cosmetics when we brought them into the group. I went into business development after that for a few years and then I went into the spa business. And after the spa business I looked into escentials for a few years and after that I went to China.

I’m currently overseeing the restructuring and the strategy of the larger developing markets such as the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. I also look at some mergers & acquisitions projects for our business.

During my early primary school years, I remember my dad (founder of Luxasia, Patrick Chong) gave us perfumes to use and I think back then, it was Drakkar Noir.

I wasn’t involved with escentials in the beginning, only from about a decade ago. When we first started escentials, we wanted people to buy fragrances not for the brand or the gifts with purchase, which happens very regularly in Asia. We wanted them to buy it purely for the scent, which is why we came up with this concept of fragrance profiling. And we did it in bottles, which people didn’t know what scent they were getting. And only after they chose through the consultation did we explain to them the different scents.

When we first started, we used all the niche brands. These were very early days in Singapore and nobody really used brands like Annick Goutal, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s. So that’s how we started escentials at Raffles Hotel in a small boutique facing Seah Street. I think we probably had about 12 brands back then.

So the word started to spread about us doing niche perfumery and slowly, other niche brands came to seek us out, such as those By Terry, skincare like Nooks, as well as Molton Brown. They came to speak to us and said: “Hey since you’re doing niche perfumery, what about doing niche skincare and makeup as well?”

That’s when we decided to speak to TANGS. They were also forward looking and said, “Hey we’ll give you a space. Why don’t you open escentials as a multi-category (store) inside TANGS? So that was the first time we opened another store at TANGS.

escentials is definitely broader today than it was before. These days, escentials is seen as a multi category store serving a much wider variety of customers. In the past, it was reserved to the few who were in the know and had the money to spend but I think escentials is all about what’s trendy out there and we try to make it accessible because we believe that beauty should be accessible to everyone. Everybody should be able to find something they want to have in escentials.

The first brand I used at escentials was probably L’Artisan Parfumeur. The scent I liked was called Mechant Loup. It had very earthy, herbal notes and the scent just identified with me. I don’t use it anymore today because we also don’t carry it anymore in the store.

Alwyn Chong

I started using Verso Skincare when we first started carrying the brand end 2015. When I was living in Shanghai, some of my friends in the fashion industry noticed that my complexion improved substantially. Actually, Verso is the skincare brand that I have been most loyal to. My skin looked a lot healthier and more radiant than before.

I really like BYREDO’s 1996 too because it’s very animalistic.

MEMO Paris’ Eau de Memo is a very fresh scent, which drives down to very woody notes, which I like. In hot and humid countries, it’s very difficult to always use very strong fragrances. You would also want some light fragrances when you go to the beach or for a Sunday weekend, so Eau de Memo was a refreshing change to the regular citrus fragrances out there.

I’ve been using Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Oud since it was launched. It’s my travel spray so I use it when I fly. It makes me think of Paris. I don’t know, when I smell it, it’s velvety and to me, it’s a very romantic scent.

For me it’s really wearing a different fragrance to suit a different mood so I wake up in the morning and depending on the mood I’m in, I decide on the fragrance to use.

Alwyn Chong

I tend to use BYREDO’s 1996 more for evenings when I go out to dinners and in colder countries, I think it’s a nice fragrance to use. I use the Vetiver Oriental and Santal Blanc from Serge Lutens, which we don’t sell. I also use Benjoin 19 from Le Labo’s City Exclusives collection.

I guess it’s obviously nostalgic to see escentials turning 15. I think it was always a struggle at the start, especially in Asian markets where the culture of using fragrances isn’t as strong.

For the first seven to eight years, it was very difficult. It was really a project of passion and we decided that we should do this and stuck with it.

It was only after nearly a decade did we really see it start to take off in Asia and people beginning to appreciate finer fragrances. In Singapore at least, the taste for fragrances using better ingredients and brands featuring more unique scents started changing back then.

Looking back now, we have seen many iterations of escentials and our next goal is to bring this concept to the region, in places such as Malaysia and Thailand.

I don’t think there’s really one specific achievement that makes me go: “Oh I’m so proud that we actually did it." 

I think there are a few things: The fact that the brand is still around today despite having struggled for so long, I think that’s a great achievement for escentials. The fact that now escentials is recognised worldwide as the niche/cult store for Singapore, I think that’s a great achievement. 

In the end, the ability to bring brands in that can really make the consumer happy is key. That’s a simple achievement you hope to achieve every single day with every single consumer that comes into the store.

The fact that people can walk into our store and leave with something they really feel is special and their own is probably a bigger achievement than anything else.

Alwyn Chong

I think escentials will continue evolving as a concept along with the trends. Obviously we have launched escentials.com, that’s an area that we are going into. I think digital and beauty tech is something we really need to infuse into the concept and going regional – those will be the key focuses in the short term. 

I’ll always be involved with escentials, in the sense that I’m always out there looking for brands and will always have an input as to how the brand develops.”