Leading Man Material: Nelson Yap

Leading Man Material, NFT Collector And Founder Of Benjamin Barker: Nelson Yap

by Rohaizatul Azhar  /   March 18, 2022

It has been more than a decade since he started menswear label Benjamin Barker in 2009. Now, Nelson Yap has his sights on a global empire—and the metaverse.

Midway through his interview, Nelson Yap, founder of home‑grown menswear label Benjamin Barker, asks: “Have you heard of the Bored Ape?” 

Unfortunately, not really. Just enough to know that international celebrities, including American talk show host and comedian Jimmy Fallon, NBA superstar Stephen Curry and socialite Paris Hilton, all own one and are proud members of the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC). The 39-year-old Singaporean, it seems, is also part of this exclusive club, having purchased a Bored Ape recently for about $200,000. For the uninitiated, BAYC is a sold‑out collection of 10,000 profile pictures of a primate, each with its own character traits and outfits, minted as non‑fungible tokens, or NFTs.

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Yap’s sharing of this information is not without reason. “We’re currently finalising our assets to launch our very own NFT collection, and my Bored Ape, dressed in Benjamin Barker, will be utilised as the storyteller for the launch,” he reveals the news with excitement in his voice. 

He remains rather tight-lipped about the details of the collection that is set to launch in the metaverse in the next couple of months, but shares that holders of the NFTs will be able to “dress avatars in the brand’s pieces, such as motorcycle and hunting jackets, three‑piece suits, blazers and parkas”. 

“It’s like a game,” he elaborates. “For now, we have planned a year‑long road map for this storytelling fashion journey, with various touchpoints so that our customers will look forward to the next drop. Plus, they will also be able to receive exclusive physical merchandise.” 

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Leading Man Material: Nelson Yap
Shirt, Dolce & Gabbana. White gold and diamond Piaget Polo Skeleton watch, Piaget. Photo: Phyllicia Wang

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This foray into the metaverse is a step in the right direction for a brand that has prided itself on embracing technology to gain a competitive edge in the menswear market. For instance, in recent years, Yap has made sure that the brand is consistently seeking technological advancements in fabric development, hand‑picking sustainable fabrics that are made using advanced nanotechnology. 

It is a natural progression, he says, especially when the fashion world is moving towards the sustainability route. Yap even enrolled himself in an intensive six‑week‑long online executive course on the circular economy and sustainability with the University of Cambridge. “We didn’t start off as a sustainable brand, but we were always interested in this space, and questioning ourselves. So, why not?” 

When the pandemic hit and people were spending a lot more time at home, Yap and his team decided to take comfort to the next level. “We wanted to see if we can make something that already exists better. So the first thing we did was to create what we felt was the perfect premium t-shirt,” he says. 

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Leading Man Material: Nelson Yap
Steel Piaget Polo Chronograph watch, Piaget. Vest; shirt; trousers; tie; blazer (in hand), Yap’s own. Photo: Phyllicia Wang

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For a label known for its tailored suits and executive wear, this segue was rather ironic. Nonetheless, the casual wear collection of t-shirts and polo tees, made of sustainable biodegradable Tencel fabric, became an instant hit. Today, it makes up more than half of the business. 

Benjamin Barker’s evolution has been constant and it has cemented itself as a leading menswear label in Singapore—having won numerous business awards and accolades, including the Enterprise 50 Awards, which is jointly organised by The Business Times and accounting organisation KPMG Singapore, and recognises 50 of the most enterprising local, privately held companies that have contributed to the economic development of Singapore, both locally and abroad. And by the looks of how things are going, there is still more room to grow.

At the time of this interview, Yap reveals that he has just signed the franchise for a third Benjamin Barker boutique to open in Cambodia. Franchising the brand internationally, according to Yap, has worked well: “A local person is always better at handling operations because they understand the culture as well as the demographic.” 

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Leading Man Material: Nelson Yap
Blazer; shirt; trousers, Dolce & Gabbana. Scarf, Herm s. Loafers, Tod’s. Photo: Phyllicia Wang

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So far, so good. Besides the three outposts in Cambodia, the brand also franchises in Australia and Malaysia, on top of the 12 stores in Singapore. Yap has also opened a café and intends for the customers to have an immersive shopping experience. “Every store is different and is slowly evolving into something else. It has always been our goal to incorporate F&B into fashion and lifestyle retail,” he shares. 

And while he does not intend to stop expanding any time soon (he is currently busy finalising the plans for the renovation of the standalone store in Cathay Cineleisure Orchard), the road to success has not always been easy. For starters, Yap never intended to venture into fashion, having obtained a Creative Arts degree from the University of Melbourne, with a major in film-making. The opportunity to do so, as he puts it, came to him by a cruel twist of fate. “When my father passed away, after being diagnosed with cancer, I had to take over the discounted‑suit business he was running. There were financial issues and a lot was at stake—my mother and I almost lost our house,” he recalls. 

He then took a leap of faith and opened the first Benjamin Barker store in Marina Square. Despite not being formally trained in fashion, Yap, who also has a master’s degree in accounting and information technology, put his skills into practice, creating video campaigns for the brand, and worked on the company’s branding and marketing. “Basically, everything that I’ve learned, I applied to the job at hand,” he says. 

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Leading Man Material: Nelson Yap
Sunglasses, Oliver Peoples. Blazer; vest; shirt; trousers; tie; shoes, Yap’s own. Photo: Phyllicia Wang

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It took him the next five years, working the shop floor, manning the cashier and learning the ropes of the business, to make enough revenue to clear the outstanding debt of the previous company and take the family out of the red. 

Today, Benjamin Barker has transformed from a simple menswear label focused on executive wear and tailored suits into a growing fashion and lifestyle empire that includes, among other things, bedding and homeware collections as well as outdoor and activewear collections. 

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When asked if he owns anything other than pieces from his own brand, Yap, who counts Sir Paul Smith and Ralph Lauren as his business and style heroes, lets out a soft chuckle. “Actually, one of my [go-to] brands other than my own is Ralph Lauren’s Double RL,” he lets on. “[The designs] are classic, with a vintage twist, and embody Ralph’s personal aesthetic and style.” 

So what is his big dream? To finally move into hospitality and open a Benjamin Barker boutique hotel, he shares. “That is the moonshot for me, which has been postponed due to the pandemic. So we’ve slowly started the journey by introducing the Home collection in the stores, which includes the bedding and towel ranges.” 

He envisions the future hotel to be architectural in its design and with a “touch of Wes Anderson vibes”—just like the Benjamin Barker man, who is adventurous but never a trend chaser; classic elegance in the overall look but always practical in his dressing, he says. 

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Stylist: Gracia Phang
Producer: Navin Pillay
Makeup and hair: Manisa Tan using YSL Beauté and ANTI 
Makeup artist and hairstylist’s assistant: Jane Lau 
Stylist’s assistant: Brandon Chia 
Special thanks to Wanderlust