It is perhaps no coincidence that Max Tan’s show was staged on Halloween night. When beauty sleeps, horror comes out to play. Paring a pounding soundtrack to clothes of immense monstrosity, Mr Tan’s opening show for this year’s Digital Fashion Week struck as a catwalk version of the Best of Singapore Ghost Stories. What was shown wasn’t so much scary as ghastly: heat-trapping neoprene jackets shaped to form hyper-exaggerated distensions that, when worn, would make the Michelin Man—voted by Time in 2011 as one of the “Top Ten Creepiest Product Mascot”—look like he has been on a detox diet.
“Maximizing on minimalistic ideas, this complex language results in details that are blown out of proportion”, went a description in Mr Tan’s profile for the DFW brochure. Seeing the clothes, we finally understood! Exaggeration is the vernacular here just as distortion is the design approach. “Creating unexpected silhouettes”, Mr Tan proved he could mutate the natural to the fantastical. Apparently they were “experiments with quirk cuts”. Is that the same as Victor Frankenstein dissecting corpses to create his celebrated monster?
The thing is, Mr Tan’ experiment with mass was audacious but unconvincing. His oversized outerwear was neither conceptually original nor technically muscular. Jumbo jackets with swollen sleeves were a dip into the playbooks of a certain American designer who’s known for sending out clothes that defy conventional proportions or a particular Japanese who is definitely distinguished by her refusal to let silhouette trace the contours of the body. Garments bloated Mr Tan’s way require an intimate understanding of the space between body and fabric, but that did not show. Instead, there was little or no thought for the dynamic between sculpture and volume. Size, in this case, was for effect rather than function. Armature—spongy as they were—to enhance the aggressive styling? If these were not encumbered clothes, what else could be?
Of course, exaggerated forms created to redefine the body’s natural silhouette are nothing new. From Helen Storey to Rei Kawakubo, designers have often transmogrified ordinary shapes into figures that will compel the viewer to rethink what is acceptable for wearing. History has shown that women have used all sorts of contraption to constrict or bloat various parts of the body: the corset and the pannier—just to name two—redrew the natural silhouette of the body, sometimes to quite incomprehensible extremes. Often enough, exaggeration and severity are partners-in-crime of fashion.
As neoprene or bonded fabric was used to achieve the whopping silhouette, it did not underscore Mr Tan’s technical ability. The inherent quality of neoprene—essentially a synthetic rubber—is its pliable form. The suppleness and natural bulk of this fabric allow easy manipulation as it holds its shape without resistance. Even when not using curved lines and darts, neoprene can be simply worked to give volume. The case would have been different if Mr Tan had employed a softer cloth such as wool gabardine—using this for voluminous effect will reveal a designer’s skill. Here, then, was the problem: there seemed to be a lack of understanding of the properties of the fabric used. It was puzzling, for instance, that a neoprene shirt should have a fly front. The covered placket fashioned with such a thick fabric didn’t allow the placket to sit flat: left ajar, the plastic buttons were in full view, which defeated the purpose of designing a shirt with a covered placket. In addition, there was the unnecessary and overuse of top stitch throughout so much of the neoprene pieces. Synthetic textile such as neoprene do not fray. With modern cutting tools such as the laser, smooth edges can be achieved without hemmed finish, but perhaps Mr Tan didn’t know that.
It was, however, not so slack that such a fabric was chosen. It is currently the synthetic textile of choice, brought to the fore by a certain American designer collaborating with a Swedish fast fashion retailer. And they’re everywhere in the fabric markets of China, merchandisers will tell you. In fact, neoprene is in such widespread use now that they were out as soon as they were in. The fabric choice—not to mention the silhouette—provoked a crucial question too: what season’s collection were we looking at? Surely, these weren’t for spring/summer since the sum effect was ponderous rather than light. For sure, it wasn’t indicated on the DFW program or communication material, but as this fashion week appears during what is mostly seen as a period to showcase for spring and summer, it would not be immoderate to suppose Mr Tan was following international schedule. If so, was he really proposing warm-weather dressing? It was not enthralling, if that’s the case, to see his star model, the 83 year-old Carmen Dell’Orefice, carry on her shoulders a coat so unwieldy that she was struggling to drag them across the catwalk.
It became apparent that Mr Tan’s collection was big (forgive the pun) on facade rather than utility, looks rather details. Once the volumes stop arousing your interest, your eyes start to trail those elements that make a garment polished, or the lack of them. This was, we were led to believe, a designer show. But rather then find smooth, flat seams or collars that fit the neck flawlessly, puckered joints and irregular necklines beckoned. Mr Tan teaches part time at his alma mater Nayang Academy of Fine Art’s Department of Fashion Studies. Were these his students’ handiwork?
When bulky was not the game, drapey was. Since his label’s debut in 2010 at Parco’s Next Next, the failed project at Millennia Walk, conceived to “help” young and inexperienced designers thrive (ironic then that the concept store did not succeed), Mr Tan has been partial to swathe the body with folds so as to shy away from a more tailored structure. One of his most popular pieces is a one-sleeve shirt-dress with half a collar. When worn, the dress pulls itself into shape based on the body of the wearer. As it undulates, it is very forgiving even to unflattering body types. This is Mr Tan bread-and-butter silhouette, and he continues to show them, now with both sleeves on and even more complicated draping, sometimes with fabrics worn selendang across the bodice.
The thing with liquid silhouettes, especially those not controlled is the inevitable relationship between the hang of the fabric and gravitational pull. The Japanese understand this and they have the mastery to draw together indeterminate forms to yield clothes that look like clothes. Mr Tan’s seeming randomness and the lack of graphic heft forged dresses and tops that look like pieces of fabrics dropped on the wearer. An editor with an e-mag blamed it on his manufacturer. “He can’t find good factories,” she claimed. “That’s why the clothes look terrible.”
As is often said, we all have our demons. Happy Halloween.
Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim