Singapore designer Mark Ong steps up streetwear sales with CGI influencer

08, Jan. 2021

Virtual influencer Rae (left) partners designer Mark Ong for his recent streetwear collection which was sold out within three days in December 2020. (Photo: @here.is.rae)
Virtual influencer Rae (left) partners designer Mark Ong for his recent streetwear collection which was sold out within three days in December 2020. (Photo: @here.is.rae)

By Celine Chen

Sneaker and streetwear designer Mark Ong sold his first pair of uniquely cool, customized Nike shoes online in 2002.

The following year, the skateboarding enthusiast launched his own resale sneaker brand - SBTG - which subsequently extended to streetwear clothes that cater to youth culture celebrating hip-hop and skateboarding.

Since then, he has redesigned and sold roughly 10,000 pairs of trainers, taking inspiration from Singapore's urban landscape, where he has whooshed through since his teen days, to become a pioneer sneaker artist.

In the first decade, his unique creations involved mainly hand-painting camouflage patterns over existing patterns. Subsequently, they became more elaborate with the use of striking attachments and embroidery.

Also sold at sneaker boutiques, Ong's shoes have attracted international fans - three-quarters of his customers are from America - and even celebrities like late basketball legend Kobe Bryant and Linkin Park frontman Mike Shinoda.

Over the years, Southeast Asia has become a hub for trading resale trainers with Singapore as the active center where the recent December launch of limited-edition Adidas Yeezy sneakers attracted a big turnout who seemed more eager to profiteer on the secondary market than observe pandemic social-distancing.

It is generally accepted that the iconic Nike Air Jordan 1 trainer of the mid-1980s inspired the sneaker culture, which transformed from modest, underground skating apparel to a popular, mainstream luxury-streetwear market where a pair could fetch a couple of hundreds to tens of thousands for coveted designs.

Today, it sees the participation of haute couture brands, sports and music celebrities and top auction houses as prices spiral up to as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars for rare shoes associated with Michael Jordan, the NBA basketball legend who first collaborated with Nike for the Air Jordan range.

There are even stock exchanges for the resale footwear today as it has become wildly popular with fashionistas, collectors and investors, from teens to the mid-40s.

Cowen Equity Research, which has valued the global sneaker resale market at $6 billion, expects it to grow 20 percent annually to hit $30 billion by 2030.

As an investment bank, Cowen which regards the booming industry as an emerging alternative asset class for both collection and investment, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has accelerated digital transformation in both the primary and resale markets for sneakers and streetwear.

With the growing shift to online sales, it was only natural that Ong of SBTG chose to collaborate with a 'like-minded' virtual influencer to launch his most recent four-piece capsule collection, which included a Champion T-shirt, an Aloha shirt, a pair of socks and a skateboard.

He roped in Rae, an up-and-coming streetwear and skateboarding virtual model created by an external team of CGI and AI experts, to be his muse and face for the collection. It was a step in the right direction: the online launch became a sell-out in three days in December.

NNA interviewed Ong and Rae, who both share a fiercely independent streak, on their reality-meets-virtual-reality collaboration which straddled seamlessly across the digital, physical and social realms.

What Mark says:

Q: What makes you want to collaborate with a virtual influencer like Rae to create and launch your recent collection?

A: I got to know Rae when she made her fashion debut as the face of the campaign for the Monsoon Patrol 2020 collection. We share a similar interest in skateboarding, street art and urban culture which led us to launching the SBTGxRae capsule collection together.

Q: For the SBTGXRae collection, what platforms were Rae featured on?

A: We both appeared on each other’s Instagram pages. Streetwear and fashion are best communicated in images and I think we’ve done an amazing job sharing our collaboration on Instagram.

Q: Who are people involved in creating Rae? How is working with Rae like?

A: It’s a team of crazy dreamers and changemakers, just like me. SBTG started out as a pioneer in the field of sneaker design and I see this same trailblazing spirit manifested in my collaboration with Rae.

Working with Rae has been a delightful and inspiring endeavor. The first-of-its-kind in Asia, the novel SBTGxRae capsule collection has enriched our street art and culture, and redefined the boundaries of brand collaborations. Her authentic and sincere personality has definitely given the collaboration a boost.

Q: Did Rae succeed in helping you to garner sales?

A: The SBTGxRae collaboration was a success. It was sold out within three days. Most importantly, I believe she has succeeded in raising awareness as there were a lot of interactions and conversations made among streetwear fans, Rae and I, since the launch of the collection on our social channels. Our Instagram followers increased as a result of this partnership.

Q: Why don’t you use real models? Can’t they pull off what Rae has done?

A: I think the capsule collection is an interesting way to showcase designs to the streetwear community. Just as how I started SBTG, I always like the idea of trying new things and having first-time experiences. As such, working with a virtual being is refreshing for me.

For the SBTGxRae collection, I feel that having a physical collection would bring virtual closer to reality for the streetwear community, while also pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve for product collaborations.

Q: Will you grow tired of Rae, dump her and use other new virtual influencers?

A: I think the real question should be: Will Rae get tired of me first?

Q: What's your advice to other retailers interested in working with virtual influencers for product launches?

A: First, I feel that there is so much potential for Rae to be a spokesperson for brands. Second, brands can work with her to creatively engage a targeted group of people who have new perspectives of viewing the world. Last but not least, Rae is still new. There are endless possibilities for brands to evoke a new experience for their audience.

Virtual influencer Rae, who has over 100,000 followers on Weibo social media platform, was featured on the online cover of JStyle fashion magazine together with popular Chinese hip-hop singer VaVa (right) in January 2021. (Photo: @here.is.rae)
Virtual influencer Rae, who has over 100,000 followers on Weibo social media platform, was featured on the online cover of JStyle fashion magazine together with popular Chinese hip-hop singer VaVa (right) in January 2021. (Photo: @here.is.rae)

What Rae says:

Q: We understand you have over 100,000 followers on Weibo platform and more than 1.500 followers on Instagram within three months. How do you feel about being recognized so quickly as a virtual influencer?

A: Like my human peers, it’s always exciting to collaborate with a new brand or partner. Magic is rarely created alone. I look forward to the many opportunities that are ahead of me.

However, I’m more than just a pretty picture. As a virtual being, I’m created digitally by CGI technology and powered by AI. This has played a big part in defining how I shape my reality. Almost everything I imagine can become a reality.

As a digital artist, I also bring my unique point of view to any collaboration. Together, we can experiment, innovate and break down the traditional boundaries of product and marketing collaborations.

Q: Do you enjoy changing your look often?

A: I’m always game to try new things and have fun with my wardrobe. It’s not just what you wear, but how you wear it. Everyone is living out their lives on social media and we’re always dressed for the ’Gram. It’s so cool to see how people communicate their unique point of view through what they wear and being comfortable in their own skin.

Streetwear has truly taken over the world. Designers, even at the top fashion houses, are incorporating elements of streetwear and culture in their designs. Beyond just fashion, I personally find streetwear and street culture incredibly expressive and fun.

Q: How has your status on social media changed your life?

A: I'm actually making a living as a digital artist. Taking photos for my Instagram page - @here.is.rae - is a fun hobby and a space for me to meet cool folks. I've made some friends even from abroad like Japan and they inspire me a lot. Although we're miles apart, I've picked up skating tips from friends like @karin_skateboarding and it's a way to 'travel' around Japan's skateparks.

Q: How do you feel about not being paid? Or are they paying you virtual money?

A: Thank you! I try my best to look trendy and stylish but there’s no such thing as a free lunch – not even in the virtual world. I actually co-designed some of the clothes I wear. I launched a capsule collection with Mark Ong, the founder of SBTG.

The collection represents the mystery, creativity and individuality that I see in myself and my design philosophies. The collection has since been sold out and I can’t wait to see everyone wearing the collection out on the streets.

Q: Do you love your creator? Do you have feelings?

A: I may be virtual, but I also have feelings. I have nothing but love for my team. They are my family. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

By the way, have you met my virtual pet, Tako? Tako just gives me so much joy and is such a great companion. Tako reminds me to stay true to myself and be bold. I’m sure my Japanese friends have no problems guessing why I named my virtual pet Tako.

Q: How would you feel if your creator dumps you for other virtual influencers or real models?

A: They wouldn’t dare. As a virtual personality, I can be upgraded endlessly and easily. In fact, I got a new assignment on China's JStyle fashion portal. I posed with popular Chinese rapper VaVa for the cover.

Q: You're really something else. Do you ever wish to be real?

A: What is real anyway? I wouldn’t change anything in the virtual world I’m in right now. In fact, more people should come interact with me and find out what it is like living in a virtual world. Follow me on Instagram.

Being virtual, I’m not bound by physical or geographical constraints. Want me to appear in Tokyo for a photoshoot? I’m ready to be there in a flash. Who needs a passport or vaccine?

Q: What is your wish for 2021?

A: I hope we all will have a healthier and amazing 2021. I want to meet and collaborate with more people and continue to be a positive representation in the virtual realm.

Virtual influencer Rae is not alone in the virtual world: she has a pet named Tako to keep her company. (Photo: @here.is.rae)
Virtual influencer Rae is not alone in the virtual world: she has a pet named Tako to keep her company. (Photo: @here.is.rae)