Two days before showing at Digital Fashion Week, Singapore’s preeminent couturier Thomas Wee speaks exclusively to SOTD about the “King of Jacket” accolade that has stuck for too long, the craft he continues to love and share, and—a bombshell—bowing out!
As a designer, Thomas Wee (黄华) does not return to yesterday. Like Gordon Ramsey, he does not look back. “I don’t like crying over spilt milk,” Mr Ramsey once said. “I look for the next cow.” Mr Wee, too, does not weep over ruined dresses or unrealised concepts; he merely picks up his scissors and cuts the next cloth. Even less (practically never) is referring to the past to forge a present. With each collection since returning from an eleven-year hiatus in 2008, his style moves further and further away from what he was known for at the height of his career in the 1980s. Now, even with a design DNA that is evident and recognisable, the output is as different from yesteryears as (tailor’s) chalk and cheese.
Preparing for the upcoming Digital Fashion Week, he does not keep the clothes from scrutiny. There’s complexity to his designs. Perhaps it’s more pertinent to say there’s even greater complexity now. It is not always discernible, but it is there: in the minimal seams, in the billowy volumes, in the seemingly straight lines. In spirit, Mr Wee’s approach is not unlike the Italian artists of the Futurismo movement of the early 20th century. His dresses, even his trousers, were cut to effect a flow and dynamism that is akin to Umberto Boccioni’s sculptures. Describing his aesthetic today, he says, “It’s very tailored, very architectural. It’s my version of origami done with fabrics. My way of interpreting origami: about folding and joining, with the least seams.” The allusion to origami is not lost. You do sense that Mr Wee treats his fabrics as if they are paper.
Despite the forwardness and dressiness that has come to characterise his latter-day designs, Thomas Wee is still associated with one item of clothing that has become a badge of honour he can’t shake off: the office-ready jacket. He has come to be known and is still referred to as the “King of Jacket”. The reality is, by 1992, when his company—which included the labels Divine and Atelier—was sold to Heshe Holdings, he was already slipping off the garment that had singularly built his fortune. Under Heshe, he created the new label Preta. It was, as he describes it, “less office-y”. Preta was never meant to reprise the successful Mixables, a label born in 1986 to offer more affordable versions of what he was already doing in the original boutique Thomas Wee, then located at Far East Plaza. It was a time when Scotts Road had lustre. In the presence of a larger audience, Mixables firmly established his skill in tailoring: the jackets were so sleek and faultless, they were professional women’s de facto uniform. With Preta, “I stopped doing colours and went with neutrals,” he says. “There were still some jackets, but they were not so corporate.” After Preta closed in 1995, Mr Wee nearly completely left the “executive look” behind.
“It was a painful transition period,” he recalls. “I was wondering if I wanted to stay in fashion. I did not want to do career wear anymore. The others were selling jackets for S$49.90!” He repeats that low price in case you do not share his disbelief and disdain. “Moreover, he continues, “I did not need to prove that I can do better jackets. I needed to move on.” And move on he did. However, the sticky accolade “King of Jacket” stuck like ironed-on fusing. “I don’t know who gave me that title,” Mr Wee professes. “I read it somewhere in the papers.” Then, somewhat self-deprecatingly, he added, “The thing is, I am not trained to do bespoke tailoring, if you call me that, 我很惭愧 (I am ashamed),” switching to Mandarin when he knows you understand it, which he often does even when he is, in fact, eloquent in English, his first language.
By the mid-Nineties, fashion was experiencing monumental shifts. What was trickling down into Singapore was a more relaxed—even casual—approach to dressing. In New York, Marc Jacobs had shown the “grunge” collection for Perry Ellis in November 1992, one season that springboarded his dismissal from the label. The corporate bigwigs may have hated it, but Mr Jacobs’s grunge left its mark, even if negatively. Inspired by thrift store clothes that rock stars wore at that time, Grunge was considered ugly. The New York Times called it “anathema to fashion”. Inadvertent perhaps, but the grunge Mr Jacobs hoped to make big was inexorably heading to death’s door. Cool girls were already doing grunge. Mr Jacob’s reiteration was not new, not glib, not hip. He made Perry Ellis look derivative. Regardless, casual fashion, by then, had such a grip on popular taste; it was at the point of no return.
Simultaneously, across the Atlantic, there was this fashion and cultural phenomenon known as Kate Moss. Ms Moss, through compatriot photographer Corrine Day, had forged an aesthetic that emerged just in time to replace the fading appeal of the statuesque, unapproachable, perfectly coiffed supermodels of the Eighties. The vintage-y looks she adopted off-camera and off-catwalk came to inspire a new generation of young women. Despite her skinniness—exacerbated by the “heroin chic” look of her Calvin Klein ads—and her usually limp hair and the formless clothes (and the omnipresent cut-off denim shorts!), Kate Moss would be the unstoppable and perpetual It Girl, and a generation’s most influential model. It mattered not that most who adopted her sloppy look were no Kate Moss. In 1998, eight years after “The 3rd Summer of Love’ cover for the now-defunct British magazine The Face that truly launched her, Kate Moss became a trademark, registered by her agency Storm.
Although Mr Wee wasn’t looking at these developments with grave concern (on the popularity of Doc Martens boots at that time, he remarked, “how will these girls ever know how to wear high heels?”), his shifting away from the restrictive tailored look was timely. Throughout the first half of the Nineties, Singapore women were starting to cast off the professional shield afforded by the immaculately constructed jacket. The adoption of casual Fridays among corporate types further sealed the fate of a more formal way of dress. Work-appropriate was being redefined. Before the Heshe buyout of 1992, Thomas Wee was, in effect, already editing out jackets from what he was designing. With the Divine line, an all-white collection that he describes as “resort”, first seen in Style Singapore (a multi-local-label store at Park Mall), jackets were conspicuously absent. In their place were fine-looking white chemises and smart, relaxed shell tops and shift-dresses. The breakaway from Mixables was nearly complete.
Yet, synonymous with the jacket Thomas Wee remains. It is inescapable that Mr Wee’s jackets, particularly from the affordable Mixable line, captured the imagination and affection of a generation of Singapore women. They were not only perfectly made, they were relevant to the workplace culture and politics of that time. Not overtly masculine and always with what he used to call “the important swing” (which also meant not stiff), these jackets were worn by many of Singapore’s high-profile women such as the eye surgeon and Singapore’s foremost conservationist Dr Geh Min. They not only elevated the status of the Mixable jacket, they heighten its visibility. You really saw women wearing them in the office, as well as on the street.
The back story of Thomas Wee’s initial obsession with the jacket, specifically a tailored suit-jacket, can be traced to his first visit to Paris in 1981. He had gone to the French capital as part of the Trade Development Board’s mission to showcase Singapore talent. While most first-timers would make the Eiffel Tower their first sight of call, Mr Wee sped, as soon as he could, to the Yves Saint Laurent boutique in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “I pushed the two big glass doors with brass handles and walked right in,” he recalls. “And these sales people looked at me and wondered what this insipid Chinatown boy was doing here.” But there was a task at hand: to see for himself the le smoking, Saint Laurent’s seminal tuxedo jacket that first appeared as part of the autumn/winter ‘Pop Art’ collection in 1966 and immortalised, almost a decade, later by Helmut Newton in an iconic shoot for French Vogue.
Far from being the sensational garment it was supposed to be, the le smoking was to Thomas Wee “not something new.” And new it certainly wasn’t by the time he saw it in Paris, fifteen years after the original debuted. A masculine jacket was not an oddity in a woman’s wardrobe in the Eighties; it was a staple. From a very young age, Mr Wee had always been in a flurry of tailoring activity, seeing more than his peers did. “My mother—she was a very good cheongsam maker—used to make many suits for my father’s boss, who wore grey flannel suits with spectator brogues. This was in the Fifties. It was a time people did dress like that. I would help my mother hand-stitch what she made. I saw and handled many suits. When I read about the le smoking, I wanted to know what the big deal was. When I finally saw it, it was just a female version of the tuxedo.”
Not quite the impressionable young man on a maiden trip to Paris that one would imagine. If Mr Wee was crestfallen, he did not disclose. After leaving the Yves Saint Laurent boutique that day, what he saw on the street excited him. At a sidewalk café, still in the Left Bank, a vision of Parisian chic appeared. “She was walking her poodle,” he describes eagerly. “She wore a turban and she had gloves on. She took a seat that was two tables away from me. She placed her handbag on a chair; she took off her coat, and there was this ultraviolet blue jacket. A magenta blouse peeked from it. She took off her gloves and placed them on the table. She pulled out a cigarette and smoked.” He describes her as if he had met her only the day before. Who this woman was, he never found out, but what she wore that day, “three or four” in the afternoon in Saint-Germain, was, to him, an epitome of sophistication and a prelude to the journey that would make Thomas Wee “King of Jacket”. “I wasn’t doing jackets yet,” he continues, still with relish. “It was this vision that made me realise I didn’t want to do the Japanese look (which was gaining traction in the early Eighties and had inspired him, following a visit to Tokyo at the start of that decade); I wanted to do French chic.”
Although tailored jackets don’t feature prominently in his repertoire now, he isn’t opposed to sharing what he knows about the tailleur with anyone willing to learn, especially the young. Mr Wee, who is entirely self-taught, went into teaching in 1999, conducting master classes on fashion design and pattern drafting at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art’s (NAFA) School of Fashion Studies. The dean of the school at that time was Gladys Theng, a gregarious doyenne of fashion education. She was known to have told the students, “You’re lucky to have Thomas Wee teach you.” But luck wasn’t what brought Mr Wee to the school. He had decided to stop designing, and wanted to teach in an institution such as NAFA that he never had the chance to attend. “Tan Yoong once said to me,” he remembers, “that both of us are a disgrace as we have never been to fashion school. ‘Look at the other Asian designers,’ he had said. It’s true—he was not wrong. After that, I knew that I must make up for not having formal education by being the best.” And by teaching what he has learnt.
Fashion school had by then increased in numbers, compared to the time when Mr Wee was of school-going age. The classroom setting appeals to him and the students’ curiosity motivates him. “What I like seeing from the students,” he says, “is their reactions. From the first line I draw to the flow of the patterns, I can keep them spellbound. They would ask, ‘为什么您想得到，我们想不到？’(‘Why is it that you’re able to think of it, and we can’t?’). I think teaching is in my blood.” And opening eyes is his passion. “People look at fashion with a tissue paper in front of their face. If you poke holes through it, they will see clearer.” Former students of his classes continue to recall how fun and lively and witty his instructions were, even when he could be strict. “But I am very patient. Because I have never been to fashion school, I teach my own way. And as I teach, I learn too. Even now, I am still learning. The thing is, no matter how old you are, you don’t let the learning stop.”
The learning may not come to a halt, but there has been talk among those who know him intimately that he may wish to discontinue designing. And the collection for Digital Fashion Week on Saturday evening may be his last. This would be shocking news to many. We put the question straight to him: is he retiring?
The 66-year-old does not answer directly, but smilingly counter-questions, “Do I want to continue to work like an idiot and not make enough money? After Digital Fashion Week, what next?” This is not rhetorical. Since the closure of his last stockist Coda in Scotts Square earlier this year, the Thomas Wee label is no longer retailed. While he continues to do projects such as the pop-up store in Galeries Lafayette Dubai by Anthropology of Design (an “exploration of designers and cities” initiated by entrepreneur Futtaim Beljaflah) and the recently concluded Kimono Kollab, and to take private commissions, the critical mass required to keep his atelier sustainable is not there. “I don’t see the buying power of the locals,” he says, “and my pool of customers does not get bigger.
“I don’t see myself moving on from here. I have been on this pattern-making table for 40 years. To me, I think I have come to a 段落 (phase). I don’t want to struggle to sustain this studio. If you want me to answer, it’s still a big question mark. If you look at my work, there’s still energy. But I have to be realistic. If there’s no market, then I have to seriously consider what to do next.”
The “next”, many hope, will not be the retirement of the anointed one, reluctant “King of Jacket”, who, in 2011, was recognised by CNN Power List as one, among thirty others, that have shaped modern Singapore. Some chapters should not be prematurely closed.
Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre