If you have ever visited Singapore, there is a chance you might have been to one of the many institutions Earn Chen has had a hand in building. From establishing Ambush, one of the first stores of its kind in South East Asia, stocking international brands like Gimme 5, Recon, Project Dragon, Good Enough UK, Kostas and more in the late 90s to introducing the Indonesian hospitality brand Potato Head to Keong Saik, Singapore. Throughout his 20-year career Earn has based his movements on the influence of subculture and the energy of youth, filtering outside influences through the lens of his own upbringing engaging with underground music and cinema. Opening his second retail venture, SURRENDER, with Mo Wax label owner James Lavelle in 2004, the space was ahead of its time, with more of a focus on the experience of the customer than the profit-margin of their sales, they created a retail concept that blurred the lines between merchandise and art. Currently he runs his own label The Salvages, a cut-and-sew project whose namesake was borne from the archive of clothing he had collected throughout his life as a homage to fashion.

We had a quick chat with Earn about his history within this world, and what he has been up to lately...

What have you been up to lately?

My fiancée and I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles last year, and recently we are spending more time in New York & London, working on projects. We are fortunate to be able work anywhere in the world so we have been travelling. Wherever we lay our luggage, that’s our home. Life of a nomad; it’s always good to spend more time to explore other cities and cultures before we have kids. 




In 1999, you opened Ambush store in Far East Plaza, Singapore that sold hard to find labels. Do you still remember what brands you stocked there?

Yes, I was blown away by what I saw and heard in London and New York. I have met a lot of people who remain as my close friends till this day. I was very influenced by the music, fashion and culture so I wanted to bring that energy and vibe to Singapore. There were brands like Gimme5, Silas and Maria, Tonite by Fergadelic, Futura & Stash’s Recon / Subware, Ssur, Kaws, Sarcastic, aNYthing, Natural Born by Kevin Lyons, etc. It was the only store that stocked these labels in South East Asia. Majority of the people didn’t understand it, so we didn’t really make any money. However, we managed to build a tight like-minded community in South East Asia and that gave me the most joy and satisfaction.  




From Ambush, you opened Surrender with Mo Wax/UNKLE founder, James Lavelle, in 2003. How did the relationship between you two begin?

I am a big fan of Mo Wax, which influenced me with music, fashion and art. When James visited Singapore in 2002 and my friends brought him to the store, he was surprised to see a store like Ambush existed outside of Japan. We share similar interests and became good friends. Not long after, we were talking about setting up a record and clothing label. 




Surrender was ahead of its time, having an in-house label that had a full line including cut-and-sew garments with high quality. What prompted you to develop custom garments?

James is a visionary and he understood exactly what he wanted to do. We were very influenced by the DIY culture, so we were hand-screening t-shirts from the back from our office everyday. We would do 20-30 pieces a night and sell them the following day. James also introduced me to Japan; it really opened my eyes and met inspiring people. Amongst them were Kazuki Kuraishi, Shin Takizawa and Hiroki Nakamura. At that time, Hiroki just started visvim and it was cool to be able to witness the growth and build a good relationship with the brand. 




Did working with James bring something unexpected to the traditional retail layout and experience?

Both of us were rebellious in nature so we were doing exact opposite of what others were doing. The store only had one rack of clothing and it seemed more like a gallery than a retail store. We were more interested in the experience of being in the store than selling to customers. We were doing exhibitions for Kostas Seremetis, Rostarr as well as UNKLE / Mo Wax rarities. 




Music is a big influence for you; I have read that you have roots in post-punk, coming from that generation. Surrender being co-founded with James Lavelle, how does music inform you nowadays?

I started as a 10 year old BMX kid. Then movies like Wild Style and Beat Street, and also Style Wars really got me into breakdancing in 1982 until 1986. I was really into breakdancing and graffiti when I was 12 years old, so early hip-hop has influenced me a lot. From Newcleus’ “Jam On It”, Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache", Grandmaster Flash, Chaka Khan to Run DMC, Beastie Boys and so on… Those battle scenes of New York City Breakers vs Rock Steady Crew in the subway and The Roxy are still in my head. 

Then came the post-punk and new wave music in1984. It was the post-punk era when I was a teenager so I caught on to Goth music (Bauhaus, Alien Sex Fiend, X'mal Deutschland etc). 

I disliked pop music in the 80s, Michael Jackson, Prince, Wham, George Michael, Madonna and all that. I thought popular music was uncool. I spent most of my teenage and adult years digging into the 60’s & 70’s underground music that influenced glam rock, punk, hip hop etc. 

Only to realise that it was so ignorant of me to be so close-minded. Good music is good music. Regardless of whether they are pop or underground. 




What has been on your playlist lately?

These days, I find a lot of joy and excitement in all forms of music. So I am trying to catch up and learn. 

I have been really into 80s and 90s pop, disco and house music, which I have completely missed out in the 80s. You can say I am 30 years behind when it comes to music. 



Salvages is your latest project, can you please explain a little about it?

My fiancée always complained that I am a hoarder. I have collected a lot of stuff over the years: records, memorabilia, furniture, toys, artwork, shoes and lots of clothes that I don’t wear. Basically, I drew energy from them and I lost interest after a while. And they needed to be passed on... So the journey never ends and am always look for the next thing. The greatest pleasure for me is to buy something ahead or behind of everyone else….  I like to dig for stuff that people have overlooked or forgotten. Hence the name - “The Salvages.” With the current fashion cycle, everything is moving so fast. I believe good clothing are things like vintage watches, classic cars or art. They should be salvaged and passed on to the future generations. I do not have 10,000 items in there but I focus on the iconic pieces.

Also I do have a lot streetwear from the late nineties from designers like Raf Simons in the early 2000s; I realised I have loads of stuff to get rid of and I am not the sort to sell on eBay or Grailed. So I set up a platform to share the museum quality pieces with other enthusiasts. However, I do not resell any current or past recent season pieces on my website as I am not a reseller.  I have been an official stockist for brands since 1999 and plan to stick to that. This draws the line between sharing with enthusiasts and reselling. 

The Salvages is my creative outlet where I can release my positive energy. So far, the merch has been very well received and there has been a steady organic growth. As long as I know the brand stays true and it is a timeless, well-designed and good quality product, I am happy. 



Thanks Earn!


Images via Earn Chen

Questions: Anthony Kwang 

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