On the opening day of Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Urban ran a one-page piece on Singapore’s last major fashion event of the year. Accompanying the article was a sidebar entitled “6 shows you must not miss”. Of the seven local labels participating in this year’s DFW, only four were mentioned. Thomas Wee was not one of them. Later, someone said that only those retailing through e-commerce site Inverted Edge (a DFW supporter and where the clothes of the shows could be pre-ordered), got listed. That, however, couldn’t be true as only two of the six brand names will be available via Inverted Edge (Mr Wee’s clothes, too, will eventually be available online). Moreover, the article entitled “Front Row at Home” was about watching the shows of DFW from your residence or wherever your PC resides.
Urban’s picks were hardly surprising. On their team is a trio of writers who considers themselves young and hip. To them, styles reminiscent of the Nineties are vintage. Fashion that existed before that then is a relic of the past. The shows they consider unmissable equate to a part of alternative culture that had, by the late Nineties, become mainstream, and is now considered fashion. DFW itself, too, seemed subsumed by this; its designers mostly court the unconventional, copping the zeitgeist, rather than contributing to it. Yes, it’s a generational thing: a generation of anyone-can-be-designers, anyone-can-be-a-model, anyone-can-be-online-stars. DFW is a show for these anyone-can-bes, as well as what the organisers proudly called “influencers”—those selfie-obsessives-as-bloggers hogging the front row, and preening and posting with total abandon. Twenty four of them from different countries (Singapore included) were invited to the event. With iPhone 6 in tow, they have more to shoot than to say. Are they snapshots of today’s collective taste or delineations of individual vanity?
Thomas Wee seemed unfazed by the Urban snub and nonplussed by the social media buzz. Popping out of the backstage on the second day of DFW to greet his special guests, he merely said, “I hope they like it.” When the first model stepped out, a rousing applause ensued: like, they surely did. It was clear that this was going to be a wellspring of visual thrill and pleasure. The outfit of admiration was a cropped, white, silk organza blouse with black banded V-neck that suggested a kimono’s. What’s unusual is the yoked back and front, brought low to the bustline, from which the sleeves dropped and the front opening notched as an overlapped inverted V. These deceptively simple components belied the clever interplay of geometric shapes. The blouse was worn with a pair of black polyester crepe palazzo pants with ribbons in the inseams that could be tied to the ankles!
The first ensemble set the tone for the show: sensuousness as quiet as the break of dawn. And as rousing—especially in the wake of the dark, somnolent (cultish, they call it!) presentations that dominated DFW. Mr Wee’s clothes, no matter how they’re styled, always project the sophistication, polish, confidence, culture, and grace that together can be described as elegance. The strength of line (not always straight), the sense of shape (never exaggerated), and the control of proportion (not at all contrived) collude to yield an overall image of effortless stylishness. These days, even a passing comment on Thomas Wee will include “elegance”. But, elegance, like vicuña cloth, is becoming uncommon, even rare. As a definitive, however, elegance is not off the mark when characterising Mr Wee’s designs.
Truth is, we are weary of using a word such as elegance. Just as fashion has changed, so too has elegance. Elegance was at its height in the Thirties and Forties, which coincided with the golden age of French haute couture. By the mid-Eighties, elegance has taken a backseat to glamour, which although heady through the early years of cinema, had by then, with the aid of television, become a quality—an aesthetic veneer—anyone can adopt. Elegance, waning in popularity, has now lost out to glamour. Glamour has more resonance than elegance; it has movie and pop stars to carry its torch, while elegance is already one foot in the tomb. Glamour can be glamourous without elegance (look at Rihanna), but elegance alone may not be glamorous (look at Tilda Swinton: incidentally, Thomas Wee’s muse). Elegance, too, has become a mere shadow outside the spotlight of edge. Women these days want to be edgy; few wish to be elegant. To describe clothes as elegant risks putting them in a time trap. Are we saying they’re old?
Yet, the one standout quality of Thomas Wee’s clothes is their innate elegance. It is the sound and the refined that triumph over the peculiar and the fussy, subtleties and subtitles over conspicuous and clamorous. And that’s why Mr Wee’s clothes don’t age nor do they suggest the far-off future. They’re where they should be: here and now. The skirts he showed, for example, had seams tapering to multiple points, dispensing with the discussion of skirt lengths (an obsession too circa 1985 to be relevant!). When you trace his outfits from the neck and shoulder down to the waist and hip and further on to the calves and ankles, elegance is infused to the very last stitch. And if you count the stitches, there were simply fewer than what you will encounter in standard dressmaking. Mr Wee took away so much from his designs that if he could make a dress with one seam, he would, and he had! This near-obsession with making as much with as little has forged the current signature: garments without the traditional stitched hem. This is achieved by folding back the fabric to where it started, doubling the use of fabrics. He said recently, “When I design, I also think of my sewing staff. Why should they spend so much time with the sewing machine?” For Mr Wee, as for Coco Chanel, “Elegance is refusal.”
The sum of Mr Wee’s design ideas is so cohesive that it does not, as Robin Givan (then writing for the Washington Post) said of Yohji Yamamoto’s spring/summer 2000 collection, “push one to think about construction”. Yet, it is in the construction of his clothes—often referred by Mr Wee as engineering—that distinguishes his designs. Mr Wee is his own chief pattern-maker, and pattern-making is integral to his design process and thinking. Many frequently refer to his technical virtuosity—a skill that cannot be over-rated since Mr Wee is entirely self-taught—but few truly know what that means. Mr Wee honed his craft in the early years of his career when drafting was not (at least among local designers) the constant rethinking of what can be manipulated that it is today. Recurrently, his approach is still old-school, but there’s also a synthesis of the new. There’s always that almost meditative questioning of what can be achieved without sticking to set ways. He enjoys the process of transformation: seeing the fabric he loves turned to the design he is pleased with. The results can be witnessed on the DFW catwalk.
We were partial to this particular blouse. In its barest form, it was a sleeveless top with an eye-catching scooped neck in the shape of a splayed U. It was bound with a narrow band, cut straight so that when stitched to the neckline, it had a natural, off-kilter, but not unattractive warp. What was truly novel was the use of trapezoid panels in the rear—both sides, off centre-back—constructed so that they could be brought forward to envelope the shoulder caps by fastening them to the armhole’s top-front with attached ribbons. From the rear, the blouse took on the silhouette of a caped jacket, in front it was a blouse with a hint of petal sleeves. But this need not be the only way to wear it. Those flaps could be ribboned to the back, creating clipped wings!
Mr Wee called his collection Asia: Past, Present & Future. What went before intermingled with what is now and what will become in such a discreet manner that the Asian-ness was but a hint, like the sweetness of flowers in the evening breeze: discernible even when the bloom is not immediately spotted. Something innocuous like lacing fastened in the inside of the back of a vest then brought to the front through the armhole, and tied high in the middle, over (or above) the bust to suggest the goreum of the Korean hanbok was new and unexpected. Compared to the Orientalism of, say, John Galliano’s spring/summer 2007 haute couture collection for the house of Dior, Mr Wee’s was modest. It could be so nuanced that you only sensed it when it revealed itself by accident. During the show, a model in a sheer silk organza panelled coat walked back to the rear of the catwalk, and unintentionally allowed the floaty garment to slip off her shoulders. As it cascaded to her derrière just in time for her to save it from complete descend, you saw, even for that brief moment, a Qing dynasty maiden disrobing as she went down into a pool for a bath. Thomas Wee’s clothes were evocative, if not of elegance, at least of Oriental reticence.
But the best was saved for the last. The final outfit was, as we saw it, a tease. Mr Wee had recently been underscoring the fact that he has not been doing jackets for quite a while, and, therefore, no longer deserves the honour “King of Jacket”. Just as we thought the jacket has retired from his repertoire, he sent out America’s Next Top Model (cycle 20) winner Jourdan Miller in a diaphanous, white, silk organza pantsuit! Worn with the lapels turned up, the jacket had a fit and softness unlike anything he had done before. It advanced the Mixable jacket that made him famous into something more pared down, with a silhouette that was striking for its purity of line. In spirit and in style, it was classic Thomas Wee.
Backstage, immediately after the show, Asia’s Next Top Model’s (cycle 1) Sofia Wakabayashi, when asked what she thought of the clothes, said, “I love mine so much, I didn’t want to take them off!” Resident host of DFW Yvette King, recalling how enamoured she was of the collection said, “His clothes have volume, but they don’t overwhelm the woman.” Thomas Wee should be deservedly proud of the compliments. The seduction of a new generation of fans was won.
Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim