When Ben Ang ran an 8-session airbrush workshop for $50 in the 1990s, he never imagined that he would one day be a key part of Singapore’s new creative economy.
XM is the homegrown design business he co-founded and serves as CEO, and is based on Mickey Mouse, Captain America, Batman, Superman, Godzilla and Transformers.
It all started when the 48-year-old decided to enter the licensing industry. After two years of courting the big boys, Disney finally struck a licensing deal with Marvel in 2013.
But XM Studios is no child’s play.
These aren’t the $19.99 line toys you’d gift your 10-year-old nephew at Christmas. (Even his two young children are more interested in Lego sets than XM collectibles, Ang admits, and his wife is a housewife.) Considering his merchandise consists of numbered limited editions, each piece They’re all in the $600-$6,000 range—and that’s not including the money you’d need to pay for a hard-to-find, discontinued design on the second-hand market.
Fans of XM are predominantly male, ranging in age from 18 to 64, with some hardcore collectors owning up to 600 in total. “We have 300 designs, so having 600 means they probably bought replicas of every one!” he says proudly.
Often made of multi-stone, each figurine is the culmination of more than 10 steps: from blueprint sketches to 3D modeling and printing, as well as casting and hand-carving. Some of the more intricate pieces showcase engineering ingenuity and technique, such as replicating the ripped denim look of Red Hulk jeans or making Batman’s cape appear to be suspended in mid-air.
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Selling fragments of people’s childhood
There is also the post-production stage, where the finished product undergoes meticulous quality control checks. XM employs about 30 people in China to handle this work and the final packaging review. The QC is done three or four times instead of one, “We invest in quality packaging to provide a better experience,” Ang revealed. Manufacturers used to ship figurines by simply “taping the side of the box”, but Ang decided to revolutionize this overlooked aspect by using Velcro straps for easy, effortless handling. “It’s easy to open the box and you can reuse it.”
The self-proclaimed “anime guy” who, for the record, collects not figurines but manga, puts so much effort and capital into the process “from start to finish” because he knows the smallest details for the avid collector how important it is.
“It’s about the unboxing experience, the customer experience. Every day, you’re cleaning your figurines and looking at them, so the interaction between collectors and collectibles is very important. We bring joy and laughter to our customers and we’re selling them Part of my childhood. It kept me creative for 26 years,” said Ang, whose firm also works with artists and statue sculptors around the world to inject more diversity and creativity into the work.
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Next: Bringing Van Gogh’s Masterpieces to Life
He is about to collaborate with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. While he couldn’t reveal details, he hinted that it would make the Dutch painter’s masterpiece more accessible to a wider audience, especially to a younger generation in their 20s who may not be familiar with the post-Impressionist master.
“Van Gogh’s paintings are too expensive. If we made 3D versions of his sunflowers, would you actually be able to arrange them however you want?” he teased.
While others may simply be creating works inspired by famous art, Ang went straight to the museum to discuss licensing deals with Van Gogh’s family. “We respect artists and prefer to do things the right way, which means reaching out to them or their representatives directly.”
Creativity and meticulousness have not gone unnoticed. In the city-state, where much of the money and focus has gone to industries such as food and beverage, healthcare, construction, blockchain technology and education, Ang’s XM caught the attention of Temasek subsidiary Heliconia Capital, which is now an investor. In addition, Ang recently told The Business Times that despite the pandemic, revenue doubled to $16.9 million for the year ended December 2020, with profit after tax reaching $4.2 million.
Creating a community space for collectors
Ironically, few people other than avid figurine collectors know about XM. “In the beginning, we focused more on the global market. Most people here didn’t know us, except for those in the collector community,” at XM’s new 19,000-square-foot concept store and gallery in the Kitchener Complex Ang said he wanted it to be a community space for collectors.
Visitors can book or buy, but many are just for display and not for sale. Various comic and movie universes are presented in themed pods, including the awesome Transformers Optimus Prime and Megatron busts, almost a meter tall.
He even opened 99 Gelato Coffee Bar in-store, offering unusual ice cream flavors like Strawberry Tomato for those who “need to sit down after a long walk in our galleries.” Behind this gleaming new store and gallery is UNIC, which sells limited-edition and vintage designer clothing and streetwear brands from around the world.
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Start with inkjet anime characters
Ang has come a long way in his airbrush studio days, when he and his older brother Ang Kok Seng (he simply called Seng) painted Sailor Moon and Sailor Moon in a cozy 500-square-foot shop in Bras Basah. Statue of characters from the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series.
Today, Ang, the youngest of the three brothers, considers Seng and his eldest brother Clair to be the co-founders of XM. Seng is the creative director and Clair is the logistics director. More than 90 employees work in XM’s Kitchener Complex gallery and offices, Yishun warehouse and Guangzhou processing plant.
But don’t expect him to tell you the dramatic story of how he overcame the forces of evil to get to where he is today. It’s amazing how stoic, pragmatic, and even sombre he is for someone in the creative field. However, his story is a very personal one and very engaging.
Now there is a famous, or rather infamous, backstory of how he and Seng rented their hobby shop in Bras Basah Complex for a month with money that was supposed to be set aside for Seng’s polytechnic semester. Two years later, Hong himself dropped out of the mechanical engineering program at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
Although neither brother had any artistic training, when they began airbrushing anime figurines to stand out from other hobby stores of the time, they gained a large following among customers. Because of their high quality work, they have a year-long waiting list for them to paint figurines. Those clients then encouraged the pair to turn to licensing.
Storytelling through quality collectibles is the key to his success
When asked how he managed to attract Disney, Hong attributed it to his storytelling skills and product quality. Captain America, he said, was his first figurine for Disney and “changed the collectible scene by modernizing the superhero.” This award-winning piece still stands proudly at the reception of the XM Concept Store.
Even now, he’s not simply designing and making a figurine like Batman. One of the more elaborate dioramas on display at XM shows Batman surrounded by all of his main enemies, from penguins to the Joker. This is a scene that could very well be the nightmare that Bruce Wayne finds himself in.
Following Disney, XM licensed the DC Comics Statue Collection under Warner Bros. Consumer Products (WBCP). In a rare move, XM received creative license to co-create the Batman Samurai series with WBCP, featuring the Batman character in a never-before-seen setting for the samurai, and introducing an all-new design , such as General Batman and the Joker Orochi.
Ang has since worked with the WBCP in more unusual and groundbreaking ways. For example, XM recently launched The Great Gatsby Collection, a collection of single-cask selections of Scotch whisky and cognac in Art Deco film-inspired packaging designed by the XM team.
Collectibles can be an art form
He hopes to expand into the lifestyle space, as this will give his team more creative opportunities.
“In the ’90s, hobby stores were seen as places for hobbies, not for art. Through the work of XM Studio, we show that figurative collections are also an art form – through crafts such as sketching, 3D sculpting, engineering and painting and skills to creatively tell a story,” Ang said. “We want to encourage young people to develop an appreciation for art and design.”
What is Ang’s favorite comic book character? “Doraemon,” he said with a childlike smile.
While XM is eager to license Disney, Warner Bros., Hasbro, Godzilla, Ultraman and Sanrio, he has yet to approach the Doraemon team. “I have a Doraemon poster in my office, I look at it every day, but I never feel the urge to knock on the door of Doraemon’s office. I love Doraemon so much, so I want to put my work Separate from that. I mean, I love to eat, but that doesn’t mean I want to be a chef. I guess I don’t want to spoil the feeling of first love.”
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