Tait That!

TT Grp 1

Thomas Tait autumn/winter 2014 at Audi Fashion Festival 2014

A short while ago, it was announced in Paris that Thomas Tait has won the inaugural LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize. The first winner! If anyone knows what that feels like, it has to be Kelly Clarkson. While designing is not quite like singing, to be the earliest victor of any opening competition must be the most exhilarating, life-changing experience one could wish to go through. Among the twelve finalists (picked from a pool of 1,221 hopefuls!), Mr Tait is possibly the least known, but the appeal of his designs is most impactful. This could be augmented by the influential supporters he has garnered, among them Cathy Horyn, the ex-fashion critic of The New York Times, who once called him a “maverick as pragmatist”.

The non-conformist-meets-the-down-to-earth vibe was evident almost two weeks ago, when Mr Tait showed his now prize-winning collection at Audi Fashion Festival. While only a contender for the award at that time, his collection was generally well received even when it did not enjoy the rave accorded to more established designers such as Prabal Gurung and clearly established designers such as Oscar de la Renta. Yet, for the discerning eye, not the indiscriminate wallet, Mr Tait’s clothes on the catwalk in the Tent @ Orchard had a special quality about them. It was not unimaginable that fashion icons such as Anna Dello Russo would want to wear them ahead of the season.

A Canadian based in London, Mr Tait’s designs captured a certain spirit that speaks of his adopted city: vibrant, irregular, lively. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of another London-based designer: Ashley Isham, who, too, showed at AFF. While Mr Isham tried to capture, as usual, a certain red-carpet pizzazz that could exist in any celebrity-centric city, Mr Tait vivified the English tradition of tailoring with his shape and cut. His use of colour within collages of asymmetrical forms—although sometimes bordering on over-design—could be a reflection of the vibrant mosaic that makes up London today. In terms of skills, there is a discernible following of the footsteps left behind by fellow Londoners such as Lee McQueen and John Galliano.

Even without the prize, Mr Tait’s achievement is not short of amazing. At just twenty four, he has earned an MA in fashion from Central Saint Martins (making him the youngest to receive the degree) without completing the BA course. He started his own label (fresh out of grad school) when others were still dreaming of a debut collection. Despite his youth, his work reflects maturity, sophistication, and refinement way past his age. These are qualities rarely seen in the work of our compatriots, even the older ones and those with many more years of experience. Some of them showed at AFF—a daring move since they offered nothing that could be added to the conversation about modern fashion in Singapore. Does this reveal our island’s lack of credible talent or AFF’s desperate need to fill the stage in the Tent @ Orchard?

There are—even when the numbers are small—talented designers in our city-state, and most of them toil quietly away in their little ateliers, not completely restrained or discouraged by the lack of resources. One good thing about Mr Tait’s triumph is that it spotlights young designers putting together a label that’s huge in spirit and undersized in funds. He himself has admitted, when he was here, that he “does not sleep and can’t afford dinner”, a plight many rookies would not be unfamiliar with. He cited production limitations too: his orders do not meet factory minimums, another constraint that local designers know so well since production for majority of them here is off-shore. Mr Tait’s prize money of €300,000 will be of help, so will the mentorship from LVMH that comes with the win, as well as the corporation’s immense influence.

Perhaps this is what young Singaporean designers need as a kick-starter programme: the generosity of a private corporation that has the foresight to nurture budding talents. But this isn’t Europe. Here, we wait for the government to make the first move.