“First to Bata, then to school.” I think most people of a certain vintage will remember this refrain from Bata’s advertisements. For many of us in Singapore, Bata has been synonymous with white canvas school shoes with green soles. In the 1970s, the Badminton Master was the must-have article of school clothing. Then it morphed into the stylish BM2000 in the late ’80s, if I remember correctly. All the cool girls in school wore a pair. There were also those wonderful bottles of white wash which Bata sold, with the sponge applicators, so we could whitewash our shoes midweek when they got too dirty, and there was no time to wash them.
Bata was the brand that literally carried me – and many others and over several generations – through my childhood. Their white canvas shoes and sneakers took me from school and playground to assorted longkangs (drains) on guppy- and spider-catching missions. But when I grew up, I ventured away from this reliable old Czech shoe brand that many people probably thought was a local, or Asian brand, to more fashionable stores. Still, Bata hung on at various malls and their flagship at the positively unglamorous Peninsula Plaza, with their reliable, inexpensive, generally conservative shoes.
Many years later when I had my child, I returned to Bata, this time, to buy my daughter’s shoes – first, her tiny sneakers for playdates and playgrounds, and later, her school shoes. “First to Bata then to school.” The refrain returned to my memory. I didn’t notice those bottles of whitewash anymore. But then again, she didn’t go longkang fishing either, so there was less midweek dirt on her shoes. It was then that I gave Bata shoes a good look again as an adult. They weren’t bad, and ventured to buy a casual pair or two.
But apart from the bright sparkly kids’ shoes, Bata was unfortunately still not exciting. But it was a dependable, essential and quiet brand that has been part of Singapore’s shopping landscape forever, like NTUC Supermarket. You needed the product, it was there, and not expensive. It ticked all the right boxes but it didn’t tickle one’s fancy.
Then on a visit to Prague a few years ago, we saw Bata, a proud shop in the middle of town. We pointed out a familiar brand, and our tour guide went gushing about it. The Czechs viewed the brand and its founders — Tomáš Baťa, his brother Antonin and sister Anna — with much national pride. They came from a family of cobblers. The Czechs looked up to them as role models and inspirations, a historic brand which survived wars and hardships; a national success story that, to them, reverberated around the world. My tour guide’s son got to shake Mr Bata’s hand long ago and for many days, did not want to wash his hands.
That was a new, refreshing perspective to me.
So when Bata announced a brand revamp this week, with a new look, brand direction and refreshed flagship store in Vivocity, it made me sit up. Having been around for 123 years, this was long overdue for the brand. Now, its looks reflect the changes. The store, now doubled in size, is brighter, more fun, with digital screens showcasing international trends. Even the shoes look somewhat fresher, a little less stodgy and ‘sensible’ perhaps. Their marketing slogan is ‘Me & Comfortable With It’. I like that. It has a nice ring: fun, unapologetic, unpretentious and down to earth.
It may not convert devoted fashionistas, and I doubt that is their intention. But it’s refreshed looks will certainly get people revisiting this brand, and likely get fresh converts too. For a brand that’s been around 123 years, Bata’s stamina for the ‘common touch’ and its longevity is admirable.
Take a look at the shoes and the store in these pictures, and decide for yourself. Nursing a bad flu, I didn’t make it down to the opening, but I am looking forward to making my way there sometime soon. Who knows? It could be a return to an old friend and the revival of an old, soleful relationship. Let’s see…