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The Rebirth of School Uniform Companies

By Guan Tan

Felicia Yap

Most of us graduate from school uniforms at some point in life. Even after we put our school uniforms aside, hundreds of teenagers are picking it up afresh, psyched up for a new phase in life. 

Come every November, Doris Yeo, managing director at Shanghai Uniforms observes this dramatic passage into adolescence. To ensure all students smoothly transition into their new schools, she and her team toil tirelessly for six months ahead. "Now we are stocking up. All the shipments are coming in," she quips. 

The three massive warehouses will soon be overcrowded with boxes of school uniforms, PE attires, sports team tracksuits, shoes and bags. And they will come in carefully calculated sizes – not one student will walk in to discover that there's not a uniform in his size. He will leave in 15 minutes with a bag in his hands, ready to start school. 

It seems like an efficient, well-oiled machine running at full speed here. But it's not always been like that. 

According to Yeo, the school uniforms industry in Singapore dates back to pre-independence years. Where there were schools, there were uniforms. It used to function in a haphazard, unregulated manner. "If you can do tailoring, you can make a few uniforms to sell to make some money... If your mum knows how to [sew], she can just buy the cloth and sew." Yeo is in her forties now. As a student in the 1980s, she could buy a set of uniform from just about any shop in the mall or neighbourhood stores. 

Back then, small home businesses could pull that off only because there were only a few designs. "Everything was white and white or pinafore. That's all. The pinafore is usually the Raffles Girls Primary School kind – dark blue." 

Felicia YapNew uniforms arrive in the warehouse, waiting to be sorted.
New uniforms arrive in the warehouse, waiting to be sorted.

About that time, the school uniform industry revolutionalised for the first time. Shanghai Uniforms' founder, Chiang, approached schools and asked, 'Hey, I do the uniforms, you give me a contract.' Schools started pegging their uniforms to exclusive suppliers. With that came the potential for customisation and new designs. "That's how it all started," Yeo adds. 

Yet, these suppliers were more often than not, family businesses. They are what we might now consider, 'traditional' businesses. 

Fast-forward two decades, the once-revolutionary business model now seems dated, stagnant and potentially unproductive. "They do it in a very traditional way – no system, no calculators... Because they have a very cost-cutting mentality." 

It was about time for another rehaul. In the past six years, Yeo and team revamped the warehouse. What used to be a disorderly warehouse full of cardboard boxes is now an Amazon-like warehouse. "It's for easy picking." All the boxes are labelled and filed into a Dewey Decimal-like system. 

Later, she introduced digital technology to the company. "Last time they didn't even have emails. Then there's the website." Multiple contact points with customers aside, they installed a new database for stock taking and analytics. The analytics were for sizing, in particular, for a more precise supply of uniforms. 

Over the years, Yeo realised that the school uniform size gap is growing wider – skinny students are getting skinnier, while the obese are getting larger. She thinks she has an idea why students are getting unhealthier – the rich poor divide. "I'll say the gap is widening." 

For that, the standardised small, medium, large sizing system no longer fits the bill. They are made to manufacture 11 sizes, labelled by measurements in inches. 

Felicia YapFrom left: Girls' uniform from Nanyang Primary School and Henry Park Primary School.
From left: Girls' uniform from Nanyang Primary School and Henry Park Primary School.

In the past decade, schools have gradually been veering towards active wear, away from crisp, formal school uniforms. "Our sales of PE attire actually increased... Sales of uniforms dropped – year on year it could be 5 to 10%." Lian Hua Primary School, for instance, was founded in 1946. Ten years ago they ditched their uniform in favour of T-shirts. Many schools have followed suit, like Henry Park and Northland primary schools. 

These T-shirts are modelled after Nike's patented Dri-Fit technology, made of 100 percent polyester. Schools either submit their designs to their designated suppliers, or the suppliers like Yeo design it for them. 

Yet some things never change. "The very traditional ones won't change – the famous seven buttons," Yeo quips. She is referring to traditional Chinese schools' white on white uniforms that are often punctuated with seven coin-sized metal buttons. "Catholic High School... It won't change." The convent schools too, "CHIJ St Nicholas won't change. Who dares to change?"

Traditional uniforms like these do not succumb to changing times. To Yeo, it's an indicator and measure of unwavering discipline. "That's the essence of school uniforms, isn't it?... You conform. Just like why you wear army uniform in the army. It's about discipline and conformity – unity." 

In the month ahead, Yeo and team will unload over 300,000 pieces of school uniforms in their warehouses. These garments will be despatched to the schools come November till January, and Yeo will meet thousands of parents and students once again. It's a massive three-month-long transaction, but her team is all prepared with their updated operational protocols. But Yeo knows that many of her fellow suppliers might remain stuck to their traditional ways. Yeo and team have paved the way for the local school uniforms industry to progress, and the others might catch on soon.