A year ago, Thomas Wee revealed that he was going to retire after his swansong at Digital Fashion Week 2014. Now, nowhere near giving up designing, he has opened a new shop. It seems that the tailoring and craftsmanship that make his design unforgettable isn’t coming to an end… at least, for the moment
At the closed end of the 710 square-foot boutique, Thomas Wee (黄华) sat on a black settee alone, his diminutive size propped up by two large cushions of electric blue and acid yellow. The colours are a little at odds with the whole shop—mostly white, with a soupçon of black. Equally jarring was the noise of several hair dryers whirring at a go, emanating from the hairdressing shop behind. He seemed unperturbed.
Approaching the designer, it became clear he was sewing a button loop closure. This he did by first anchoring a cotton thread onto the predetermined position on the tip of the opened neckline. The thread was then chain-looped until the desired length and the loose straight end was finally stitched onto the opposite side of the first point, creating a neat, discreet loop that laid flat along the edge of the opening of the centre-back of the garment.
This hand finish in relation to the craftsmanship of Thomas Wee in itself is not unusual. In fact, those in the know, continue to choose his clothes precisely because of such attention to detail. If, however, you take a look at the price of the shell-top, on which the button loop described above was stitched, you’d be quite astonished that a garment of this make and quality can be had for just S$240. This is even more incredible if you know that the piece you’ve selected is the only one. It is amazing not more women are hitting the store and wiping it clean, this new collection known simply as Thomas Wee White.
The gallery-like back wall of the Thomas Wee boutique
Mr Wee is unfazed by our amazement. “That’s why the clothes are exclusive,” he responded. Exclusivity, as with any brand that offers one-of-a-kind, is chargeable—and at a premium, yet this seems immaterial. “Exclusivity is not important to me,” Mr Wee continued, “but it is important to the customer. That’s why I offer it; that’s why what we have here is quite special.” Why such one-off garments can be had is also due to a production capacity that Mr Wee describes as “very small”.
“I don’t have a factory to produce by mass,” he explained. “When you have a small workshop like I do, three to six pieces per style is a lot, and a strain on my resources.” Of note is that most, if not all, of what is available do not go beyond one piece per style. In the industry, this is known as sample quantity (even up to six pieces), and, as designers are wont to say, anything produced by the sampling room for the retail floor is expensive (among many reasons is the maintenance of highly-paid, skilled sewers). However, Mr Wee is unwilling to factor this into what he charges, reflecting the realist that he is, working against a retail environment that has increasing caved to the low pricing of fast fashions.
It is known that Mr Wee runs a tight ship in his atelier. A regular customer who goes to him for custom orders, and who wishes to remain anonymous, revealed that the designer is essentially a one-man show. As it is often stated, he drafts and cuts the paper patterns, as well as cut the fabrics. He has only one sewer—sometimes his older sister, who taught pattern making at NAFA’s School of Fashion Studies—who brings his designs to fruition. Contrary to the popular perception of a fashion designer, Mr Wee does not have an assistant, let alone the minions that will do his bidding. This limitation was one of the reasons why he contemplated retirement, a move many considered premature.
The refined and infinitely elegant blouses and jackets of the Thomas Wee Demi-Couture collection
When the news of Thomas Wee retiring broke last year, fans expressed disbelieve and regret. His last catwalk collection—Spring/Summer 2015 at Digital Fashion Week 2014, titled Asia: Past, Present and Future—was considered by many who attended the presentation to be one of his best. After reprising the show for Bangkok International Fashion Week (BIFW) shortly later, the organiser Siam Paragon invited Mr Wee to a meal with an invitation to return for BIFW the following year, as well as an offer of retail space in one of the largest mall in downtown Bangkok (both, unfortunately, did not materialise). It seemed Mr Wee had struck a chord with those seeking the exquisite and elegant, but rarely found them.
Perhaps encouraged and buoyed by the response, and still unwilling to split from a craft he has dedicated all his life to and dearly loves, Thomas Wee decided to strike on his own. For the first time in forty years, this retail project is entirely his, sans a partner. While the choice of Mandarin Gallery is a little unexpected (the 4-level complex is not exactly known for its massive footfall), the Orchard Road spot is a return to form of sorts for the designer. This would have been Thomas Wee’s ninth presence on what is marketed by Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) as “A Great Street”.
Mr Wee opened his first boutique at Far East Plaza in 1983—it was then a much swankier looking mall than the sad shopping centre that it now is. Most observers of Singapore fashion, however, will more likely remember the highly successful Mixables, the label and Wisma Atria store that made Mr Wee a mid-Nineties household name. The clothes resonated with an upwardly mobile customer base that was enjoying financial independence and freedom of self-expression. The success of Mixables paved the way for the first all-white collection Divine that was only available at Style Singapore, followed by Thomas Wee Luxe in 2001, situated at Shaw Centre. Concurrently, Mr Wee created the line Preta under the auspices of HeShe Holdings, with stores in Wisma Atria, Orchard Point, and Takashimaya. There was also a brief stint with a collection known as Sino (a joint venture with the bedding manufacturer Aussino) at Scotts Shopping Centre (pre-Scotts Square). A more-than-a-decade hiatus stretched out before his clothes were seen in Orchard again: Coda in Scotts Square in 2009 and Tangs at Tang Plaza in 2013.
Racks of Thomas Wee White, a new line of “resort dressing”
One can hope that Thomas Wee’s return to Orchard Road may enliven the increasingly monotonous and lacklustre retail offerings of Singapore’s major shopping street, but one would be glad if it could just add to the dismal offering of local designer labels currently available. His objective, however, is a lot less grand. On why he’s starting a shop now, he said, “People have heard of Thomas Wee, but not many know what my clothes are about, and they’ll never get to see my designs without a Thomas Wee boutique. And people, too, are always asking me where they can see and buy my clothes. I think there is a demand for Singaporean designer clothes: well-made, well-designed, and well-priced.”
Analysts have described the present retail climate as “gloomy” (Mr Wee, more optimistically, called it “soft”). It’s, thus, not easy to determine if there is such a demand for a relatively inactive designer label, or if Singaporeans do care about the creative output of even the most esteemed names in local fashion. With the speed that moves today’s fashion from trend to trend, it is, as counselled by many business executives, vital to remain tuned to the zeitgeist, to know specifically what consumers are buying and buying into, to hit a sweet spot known as ‘now’. In fact, it’s so crucial for fashion businesses to partake in the present—regardless of where they’re based—that Alber Elbaz, recently departed from the house of Lanvin, once highlighted: “Fashion is like a fruit. You couldn’t eat it a day before and you couldn’t eat it a day after. It’s just about today.”
For an audience not weaned on the exact elegance that defines the Thomas Wee style, “today” may not be apparent. Mr Wee is, by his own admission, partial to the looks of the mid-Fifties to Sixties. In conversations with him, you’ll hear mentions of the “big circular skirt”, the Capri pants, the Bettina collar (specifically the collar of the Bettina blouse designed by Givenchy in 1952 and made popular by the French model Bettina Graziani), and Jackie O (who would have been 86 this year)—not quite his muse, but certainly a style icon. While these references are never quite out of modern fashion, they do not really define much of what is really “today” or reflect the fixations of a generation of shopper-Instagrammers. In essence, Mr Wee’s designs for the White line do hark back to a past era even when they enjoy a contemporary, possibly forward, approach to pattern drafting.
Thomas Wee’s clothes are no different from the illustrations, seen here adorning a wall in the boutique
Mr Wee’s affection for past eras is also kept alive by the ideal woman that remains vivid in his mind. This woman, like him, loves, among many items of clothing, the crisp white shirt. When asked if women still wear this white shirt he loves, he said, “It’s the most fundamental and sensible clothing. With a white shirt, they can wear it in the morning, when they take the dog for a walk, when they go to the office, to high tea, to an intimate dinner.” Although he did specify that the women he caters to are “professionals: stylish women who work in advertising and promotions, bankers, those who need to dress for meetings and business deals,” it does seem that he is addressing the desires of folks of a time when life can be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace.
Mr Wee stressed that the newly conceived White line is a “resort Line, not a casual line.” Furthermore, “it’s about fine dressing for vacations by the beach, holidays on a cruise, or wedding by the poolside,” he elaborated. While resort dressing is no longer set apart by colour, shape, and dress type, just as a resort is no longer classified based on proximity to the beach or thatched roofs, these clothes—immaculate in both colour and execution—deserve an audience and geographical reach wider than a resort and its visitors. The positioning of the White line is, therefore, a consistency of imagination rather than misguided creativity.
Whether the target audience is truly readily available, and in numbers that are critical to the White line’s success, the fact is, Thomas Wee does make appealingly wearable clothes. They may not all be machine-washable or yield to the smooth sole-plate of an electric iron, but they do go over and caress the body beautifully. The White Line may seem limited in chromatic terms, but if you step back, what hangs before you could easily be a reinterpretation of Thomas Wee’s greatest hits.
A white shirt reinterpreted by Thomas Wee
It is tempting to consider this as an antithesis to fashion’s incessant quest for the new. And it is possible that Mr Wee is seeking, instead, his own perfection, which, arguably, was established at the height of his career back in the mid-Nineties. To be sure, these are no retro clothes. Thomas Wee is too technically savvy to peruse the past and not bring it forward. Yet, one can’t help but feel that, whether consciously or not, he is romancing the past. For some customers, it is time to bring back the good ol’ days.
A woman walked past the boutique, stopped and looked at a tunic-dress that was hung in the window. She asked for the outfit, and proceeded into the fitting room to try it. Pleased with how she looked, she asked for other pieces to try on. She emerged in a coat-dress, stood in front of a huge mirror, and decided she wanted what she was wearing. But she had a request: could Thomas Wee, who had by then attended to her, do something about the sleeves? “I am Jewish,” she explained, “and for us, we have to cover our arms.” Mr Wee told her he would be happy to take a custom order. Delighted with his proposal, she removed the coat-dress to reveal what she wore inside: an utterly sheer three-quarter-sleeved top that demonstrated she had on no brassiere!
As she turned to leave after the order was confirmed, the excited woman said, “This should be in Neiman Marcus or Barneys!”
Thomas Wee is at 03-23, Mandarin Gallery. Photos: Galerie Gombak