Singapore Fashion Week: Now A Two-In-One

DFW & SFW 2015Left, Max Tan at Digital Fashion Week 2015 and right, Dzojchen at Singapore Fashion Week 2015. Photo: Jim Sim

It was announced in last Thursday’s Life of The Straits Times that Singapore Fashion Week (SFW) will become one with Digital Fashion Week (DFW) as an annual event. More than a month ago, there was talk that such a union will take place, with industry observers saying that, given the increasingly gloomy fashion retail climate, two fashion weeks in our tiny island are not feasible or even necessary. Contrary to the perception of such twosomes, SFW and DFW are not seen as fiercely competing events since both are in different format and target, even if moderately, different audience. Of the two, Singapore Fashion Week is larger and more aggressively marketed, with a high-profile face fronting it: marketing agency of the moment Mercury M&C’s Tjin Lee.

As early as the last DFW in October last year, there were whispers at the Capitol Theatre, where the shows were staged, that Charina Widjaja, project director and co-founder of the event, was shopping for a partner. This was unsurprising as Ms Widjaja had then parted ways with her key associate Keyis Ng, who had served as DFW’s creative director and ardent driver of the event’s digital direction since its entrance in 2012. He was also a founding partner of the parent company DFW Creative. Whether the separation was amicable, no one could say for sure. Some participants of previous DFWs did suggest that Mr Ng, not the model of up-to-the-minute trends and not always collected amid the behind-the-scene turmoil that’s typical of fashion shows, appeared to be the one doing most of the leg work, and that he was possibly burnt-out and not getting enough credit for his effort. Mr Ng would later co-found Cafebond, a yet-to-be-launched online service that facilitates coffee connoisseurs’ search and purchase of “the best coffee brands in the world”.

It did seem that, while Ms Widjaja was the project’s media darling, DFW had lost a point man. This was exacerbated by a dread hovering like a relentless drone that DFW risked losing major sponsorship. In 2014, when the shows were held at the National Design Centre, backstage talk centred on the British Council and the British High Commission rethinking their support. Ms Widjaja had been able to court the high commission of Britain (two DFW after-parties were even held at Eden Hall, the British High Commissioner’s colonial-era residence on Nassim Road that sat on what was once a nutmeg plantation) as well as the embassies of France and Italy. It was through connections in high places that DFW was able to secure the presence of designers such as Fyodor Golan and journalists such as Hilary Alexander, the New Zealand-born British editor, formerly with the Daily Telegraph, as well as fashion stars such as Naomi Campbell to strut its catwalk.

Influencer's selfie momentA selfie opportunity for a front-row influencer at SFW 2015. Photo: Jim Sim

DFW touted itself as the “World’s First Shoppable Live Streaming Fashion Week”. As live streaming was the core attraction and the reason for its being, the broadcast of DFW on the main platform Youtube (as well as its own website was not a permanent post until much later. A designer who participated in the debut edition of DFW in 2012 was concerned that “people kept saying they can’t find my show online”. In 2014, when DFW had its first Bangkok offshoot, some guests attending the closing show of Fly Now were overheard wondering aloud, “Who’s watching online when fashion people are all here?” Whether Bangkokians followed DFW online or not, the City of Angels wasn’t going to be the last stop on its outward hop. As Ms Widjaja told her hometown newpaper The Jarkata Post last year, “I hope in the years to come, you will see DFW in at least 10 to 12 different countries.”

Also in 2014, it was announced that online retailer of “Style for Unboring Women”, Inverted Edge, was DFW’s “official e-commerce partner”. No sales figures were revealed by Inverted Edge, and it was not certain if “shoppable” encouraged what we presently call see-now-buy-now retail therapy. Some designers did lament that sales were dismal or nought. Would it be absurd to say that DFW was ahead of its time even when Ms Widjaja did reveal that she was inspired by the live streams of Burberry? Or was it a case of ambitious undertaking and lacklustre delivery? Or was it the typical Singaporean indifference, exacerbated by too connected a life? Or, simply, no one wanted to buy those clothes shown?

At one of the shows during last year’s DFW, the curiosity of the attendees was aroused by the appearance of an unexpected guest: Mercury’s Tjin Lee. Amid the audible chatter that DFW was unable (as well as unwilling) to go on as a one-woman act, Ms Lee’s gracing of the event put the rumour mill into overdrive. Could she be the courted potential partner? Surely she wasn’t there to check out the not-nearly-equal competitor? The two women had eyes follow their every move with indecorous zeal. Ms Lee, although smiling, held a hint of aloofness that contrasted with Ms Widjaja’s affability that seemed to beam through a veil of nervousness. To one, perhaps it was the satisfaction of attending someone else’s event for a change, and the other, garbed in scene-stealing splendour of the brand that was to take to the catwalk, possibly pre-show jitters.

Chraina Widjaja & Tjin LeeWomen of fashion weeks in Singapore: left, Charina Widjaja and right, Tjin Lee. Photos: Twitter/Charina Widjaja and Crib/Tjin Lee

Both women have much in common: they come from affluent homes; they started in marketing before branching into fashion shows; they profess to support local talents; they bask in the media glare; they are attractive and photogenic; they wear their hair long, they are trendily attired; they don the clothes of participating designers at their respective events; they seem to love fashion; and they are both mothers of—at that time—a son. Ms Lee is older and has run fashion weeks much longer, and is edging herself towards the status of doyenne of Singapore fashion weeks. She, by many accounts, has one leg up on any possible partnership.

Two weeks ago, the grapevine was creeping out of its messy trellis. If what branched out is to be believed, Ms Widjaja was rebuked in an SFW meeting. Admonishments in meetings are nothing extraordinary—in fact, to some, they’re commonplace—but there was suggestion of insubordination in this case, prompting some observers to suggest that she is out of her league. By now, people were saying both events have “merged”. According to the Life report, DFW’s absorption into SFW is an “acquisition”. Tjin Lee, now SFW’s chairman, would not say how much she paid for DFW, which impelled some to suggest that the figure was probably not high enough for bragging rights. In any case, SFW is now poised to advance unchallenged.

Although it seems to have started last year, the Singapore Fashion Week that will take place in the coming October has a rather long and somewhat tricky-to-track history. As an event directly linked to Ms Lee, its genesis can be traced to the Singapore Fashion Festival (SFF) that started in 2001. A project initiated by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to “position Singapore as the region’s shopping destination for designer labelled fashion products”, SFF was considered timely as the one major event then to attract fashion consumers was the Great Singapore Sale (GSS). The GSS is, however, not a glamourous affair that will lure shoppers to drop thousands of dollars a pop at full retail price. STB wanted to entice those who truly splurge—the big spenders that collectively could make Singapore blink like a beacon in the burgeoning tourism that was sweeping across the region, aided by the advent of low-cost airlines.

DFW 2015Singapore’s oldest shirt maker CYC reimagined by David Wang in DFW 2015. Photo: Jim Sim

STB’s plan for SFF was apparently mooted in 1997, but that year turned out to be an inauspicious one for the region, as well as the Lion City. By July, the contagion effect of a financial disaster that started in Thailand with the collapse of the Thai baht—hence the Tom Yum Goong crisis, as the West had called it—spread across much of Asia, with disastrous results for the countries in the southeast of the continent. By 1988, Singapore was reeling from an economic contraction of 1.4% in terms of real GDP. This was shocking to many of us as we had enjoyed an average growth of 14% per annum from 1986 to 1997. Casting another pall over the national mood was the crash of SilkAir flight 185 in December into the Musi River in Palembang, killing all 104 on board. A fashion festival, even a low-key one, without doubt had to be scraped.

Brighter days returned to an eagerly waiting island in 2000. By then the economy and the tourist arrivals had recovered. Visitors to our city racked up S$2.5 billion on shopping. Out of this then-staggering figure, S$1.07 billion was spent on apparel, jewellery, cosmetics and perfume. The eyes of the directors at STB probably lit with delight. It was thought that the fashion industry—then mostly retail and distribution, rather than design and manufacture—could be a source of revenue if tourist spending was factored. The idea for SFF was revived and, in 2001, the first was launched. From 2001 to 2003, SFF was organised by an event-management company called MS Twilight. It was not until 2004 that Tjin Lee boosted the then 4-year-old Mercury’s visibility with a winning pitch for SFF.

Mercury’s triumph was, however, short-lived. To brand owners and many attendees, Ms Lee’s debut at SFF was unimpressive as it was plagued by operational and set-up problems that reflected the rookie she was and the down-to-one-person business that Mercury had become after two of her partners left. Financial nous and ability, too, she was lacking. As she told ST last year, “I was really allergic to spreadsheets and numbers so I couldn’t see where I was going wrong, even though on paper I was running such a successful business.” And, during her first SFF, when rainwater began to leak through the tents hours before the opening show headlined by an unlikely name: Chanel, “I remember sitting in the tents and crying alongside the skies for a good five minutes before pulling myself together and getting back to work.” In the next year, Ms Lee lost the prized account to a newly formed partnership IMG-Pico that saw the pairing of New York-headquartered International Management Group (IMG)—headed by Australia-based Simon Lock—and our very own event (now better known as “total brand activation”) company Pico Art International.

I remember sitting in the tents and crying alongside the skies for a good five minutes before pulling myself together and getting back to work — Tjin Lee


At this point, the narrative may be confusing and requires a little back story to straighten a potentially convoluted telling.

IMG’s Simon Lock (now owner and CEO of The Lock Group) was strongly connected to Australia’s Mercedes Fashion Week, an event that he initiated with his company, Australian Fashion Innovators, back in 1992. As the principal sponsor of SFF 2003 (until 2005) was Mercedes Benz, a brand he had been in close collaboration with back in his country, Mr Lock was asked to organise the Mercedes Benz Asia Fashion Award, an SFF competition opened to 10 Asian countries. The top prize that inaugural year went to In Good Company’s Sven Tan. Mr Tan was a total newbie at that time, having just completed national service with the police force. One of Mr Lock’s collaborators on his marketing team was former ST journalist of considerable influence Cat Ong. At the end of the competition, Ms Ong connected Mr Tan with The Link Group’s Tina Tan-Leo. The following year, one of Singapore’s most visible labels Alldressedup was born.

When SFF 2005 was awarded to IMG-Pico, many had expected it, given Mr Lock’s track record and his pro-local stance, and the fact that he already had one foot in the door. Surprising to quite a few later was that, atypical of STB contracts, what went to IMG-Pico was for three years instead of the usual one. It would be until 2008 that Mercury was able to release IMG-Pico’s 36-month grip on SFF. And Tjin Lee returned with a bang, producing what many thought was the best SFF yet. It was her one chance to do right what she didn’t in 2004. She had those preceding years to prepare and she did. One shrewd move was installing Singapore’s Godfather of Fashion Daniel Boey as SFF’s creative director. What Mr Boey did, which no one then thought was achievable, was to convince two of Singapore’s esteemed designers out of self-imposed retreat from fashion shows to stage a collection: Tan Yoong and Thomas Wee. As Mr Boey described in his autobiography The Book of Daniel: Adventures of a Fashion Insider, it was “the crowning glory of that year”.

Audi Fashion Festival 2014Marketing material from the final Audi Fashion Festival in 2014 featuring a model framed by what can be considered a kavadi

In 2009, Mercury was able to again secure SFF, which, surprisingly and boldly, underwent its first name change: Audi Fashion Festival (AFF). By then, Singapore Tourism Board, with new products to market, had decided to drop the project that they kick-started in 2001. Unshackled by the restrictions that STB had imposed, Ms Lee was able to canvas for private funding as well as find a title sponsor for AFF. Audi was able to see its brand go on the marquee, unlike Mercedes Benz of the previous years. The German automobile manufacturer’s financial support, however, ended in 2014 after its MD Reinhold Carl relocated to Hong Kong. With co-branding requirements lifted, it was decided that another name change was necessary to give Singapore what it truly needs: a fashion week that is aligned to the objectives of global fashion showcases. Rather than come up with a new name, Mercury decided to stick to what was already there, and to keep to a naming convention that is consistent with that of the big four fashion capitals of the world.

Also in 2009, Tjin Lee had strengthened her business by taking on a new partner—Jeremy Tan of a smallish event management company called One Werks. Mr Tan, according to Ms Lee’s account to ST last year, wasn’t only keen on straightening her books that had by then looked bleak, he wanted in on her business too. “He proposed that I sell him half my business,” she said, “with a promise that he would quadruple my profits in five years”. In 2014,  a new corporate confidence came to the fore; it enhanced Ms Lee’s standing in the industry, elevating her to a position of considerable clout. Audi Fashion Week, with its high-profile opening and closing shows that featured international, news-making, press-ready designers, was set on the rather smooth-sailing and straightforward path to becoming Singapore Fashion Week.

The original Singapore Fashion Week started in 1990 as version 2.0 of Fashion Connections, a multi-programme event that had its debut in 1987, the year we hosted the 36th Miss Universe pageant at The World Trade Centre (Marion Nicole Teo, wearing Hayden Ng, was placed in the top 10, a position haters were sure she would not have found herself in if the contest were to be held in a different country), and when the MRT’s first section between Yio Chu Kang and Toa Payoh was opened.

SG Fashion Weeks illustratedSOTD retraces the origins of our island’s various fashion weeks

Fashion Connections was organised by Society of Designing Arts (SODA), a group initiated by Dick Lee and business partner Alan Koh. It was formed in 1985 with 10 founding members that included Tan Yoong, Francis Cheong, and Celia Loe. The highlight of Fashion Connections was the SODA show, which, at its height, was main stage to as many as 14 Singaporean designers—a stunning figure if considering what was offered at the debut of Singapore Fashion Festival in 2001, when the only local brand that showed was Tang’s in-house label Island Shop.

Jointly organised by the Trade Development Board (TDB)—now International Enterprise (IE) Singapore—and Textile and Fashion Federation Singapore (TAFF), the new SFW in 1990 was, in fact, not quite the spin-off many had thought it was. Fashion Connection’s chairman Alan Koh held the same position at SFW, and the event was still Asian, if not ASEAN-centric. In its early years, SFW was, to some, disadvantaged by a single theme: New Asiatropic Style. Despite its suggestion of all-sunny-climes that could limit buyers looking to stock other-than-single-season collections, SFW did trail the spotlight on Singapore, at that time considered among our neighbours as vanguard of current fashion. Through the years, its core programmes would change to accommodate what the organiser thought catered to shifting market needs.

SFW, post-00s, was essentially a trade event and shown around September, while SFF was a consumer showcase that took place mainly in May. To the confusion of even the most ardent local fashion week follower, between them there were two others: Asia Fashion Week in 2005 that was organised by SingEx Exhibitions and supported by STB and Fashion TV in addition to Fidé Fashion Weeks (yes, plural) spearheaded in 2011 by Frank Cintamani, who, interestingly, was Audi Fashion Festival’s festival director just 3 years earlier. Although he was a fashion week fledgling with a four-year-old interior design company Fidé Living under his belt at the time of the first AFF, Mr Cintamani’s passion for fashions shows was apparently palpable. That foretaste led to those fashion weeks staged by Fidé, including the curious Haute Couture Week that inspired the audacious Asian Couture Federation and the “first” Men’s Fashion Week outside Europe that curiously morphed into Music and Men’s Fashion Week in 2012. All of them ran out of steam by 2014.

Elohim by Sabrina Goh @ SFW 2015Elohim by Sabrina Goh at Singapore Fashion Week 2015. Photo: Jim Sim

If all this appears to be traipsing, blindfolded, a misty field, it is and clarity isn’t appearing in the horizon soon. As indicated earlier, fashion week history in Singapore is a confusing one as it has meandered through many—not always illustrious—hands, and picked up and dropped by various government agencies. Ms Lee explained to this way: “Audi Fashion Festival started in 2009, and is sort of a hybrid. The entire history is a whole separate story. Singapore Fashion Festival belonged to the Singapore Tourism Board, and Singapore Fashion Week used to be organised by TAFF and funded by IE Singapore. One is B2B, and the other is B2C, so they have completely different agendas. But after 3 years, the government felt that it didn’t make sense because no one knew the difference, and it was very confusing.

“The government asked if we could bring the two together, but it’s not possible. What works for B2C, does not work for B2B because of the timing. Audi Fashion Festival is held in May because my objective is to bring international designers like Roberto Cavalli, Missoni, etc to Singapore. If I hold the event during March or April, they will not come as they are busy launching their own collection at Milan Fashion Week. Unfortunately, having a trade show in May is a challenge because the buying season is in March and April. This has been a huge dilemma, and even up to this point, it is still not fully resolved.”

It’s astonishing to think how in the last 30 years our attempts to put Singapore and, perhaps not as crucially, Singaporeans designers in the fashion spotlight have been so insubstantial. Mercury may argue that their Fashion Futures programme springboards Singaporean designers to the North American market. If that sounds familiar, it’s because back in 2005, Access USA, organised by TAFF and supported by IE Singapore and Spring Singapore, attempted to do the same. As with Fashion Futures, in Access USA’s first year, three labels were picked: Daniel Yam, Allure, and Womb. Whether anything concrete emerged from the brands’ sojourn in the US, nothing much was said about it.

To many industry folks, the past decade’s fashion weeks have been less the dreams of fashion professionals than the stabs at the perceived glamour of such events by entrepreneurs who think they can do something about Singapore’s “potential” or, in the case of Ms Lee, a passion that is also “like national service”. As one brand owner said, “In the end it’s business, and anyone can start a fashion week business.” Has Singapore’s fashion weeks then become a case of too many cooks spoiling the congee?

Audience SFW 2015The press photographers and audience as one at Singapore Fashion Week 2015. Photo: Jim Sim

British fashion writer Colin McDowell, who served as AFW’s creative director in 2014, didn’t mince any words when he told ST that “if your goal… is to build Singapore as a fashion hub with world-class local designers, then you need continuity. What has happened so far is like having a four-storey building with four different contractors building each storey, it just doesn’t work.” Supporters of local fashion thought it drips with shame when we needed a foreigner to tell us what should have been obvious from each inception of fashion week.

The identity crisis is made worse by the persistent preference of showcasing western designers in large numbers with the belief that when they open and close the fashion week, credibility can be discerned and enhanced. As a fashion festival, that approach is perhaps understandable since local shoppers are still easily ensnared by non-Singaporean names, but as a fashion week, it shows lack of support and even faith in the home-grown. The reality, too, is that credible (or what Mr McDowell called “world-class”), working Singaporean designers are not in the quantity large enough to warrant a fashion week dedicated to native names. And you can’t bring in that many international labels to fill vacant spots. So you put in a hair show.

The need for our own fashion week has always been fodder for debates. Tokyo has their own fashion week for decades, but they’ve never been able to go far enough to add themselves to the global quartet to form the big five. How is Singapore going to capture the world’s attention when we don’t have a fashion week that can bank on elementary consistency in areas such as moniker, concept, or schedule? Tokyo, seen as Asia’s leading light in fashion and home to many successful designers such as current faves Sacai’s Chitose Abe and Anrealage’s Kunihiko Morinaga, has never really had a fashion week considered important enough despite their persistent courting of overseas buyers and media, and in recent years, presence abroad in Italy, India, and China. Tokyo Fashion Week, on a global scale, is more like a fringe event that trend hunters go to seek under-the-radar labels such as And Wander and Ethosens. That in itself is an interesting proposition and has made Tokyo’s the renegade fashion week that, oddly, is now sponsored by a very conventional Mercedes Benz.

It is interesting to note that when you click the ‘About’ tab on the Singapore Fashion Week website, the first line that grabs you reads “Singapore Fashion Week (SFW) is a high-profile event organised by Mercury Marketing & Communications”. The company behind it, as it turns out, is more vital than what it really is or what it aspires to be. In the following five paragraphs, the genesis of the original SFW receives no mention, and the present event is traced to “its previous eight successful editions as a consumer-centric fashion festival”— in other words, the parent Singapore Fashion Festival, from which Mercury made its mark.

It’s not certain how the coming together of Singapore Fashion Week and Digital Fashion Week will pan out. SFW’s clinch of DFW likely took into consideration the intensity of digital communication in a highly networked world. DFW’s Charina Widjaja told Life that both events complement each other, but whether the two-as-one will be a more enhanced experience for attendees and online viewers, it is not said. The fashion activities lined up in the six months prior to the main event in October is indication that Mercury isn’t going to undo the consumer bent that has been closely associated with Singapore Fashion Festival. It looks like no matter the guise, Singapore Fashion Week isn’t going to bear semblance to any of the big four soon.

Note on dates: SOTD has made the best effort to verify the dates cited here, but due to conflicting personal accounts and press reports, some of the dates may not be exact. Your understanding is appreciated.

5 thoughts on “Singapore Fashion Week: Now A Two-In-One

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