The main runway of the SGFW: the Supreme Court Terrace of the National Gallery
The expression ‘awkward silence’ always seems to us stating the obvious. Silences, whenever there are people, are awkward. Ambient noises in good company make silences even more intense. At the Naeem Khan presentation last Saturday, this awkwardness was never more pronounced when we asked an attendee—dressed as splendidly as an ‘influencer’—whose show she had liked up to then. Perhaps displeased by our intrusive question, she merely said, “Aijek”. Then silence. “Why do you like Aijek,” we continued. Silence. She then directed her chat to something we cannot see on her smartphone, which seemed also to be the chaperone. For that moment, we knew exactly what spoke louder than words.
The National Gallery, for the most part, is a silent expanse of space. The quiet is perhaps the best setting for the noise of fashion or the Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW) 2016. Between shows, when we allowed what we had just seen to jog through our head, it was silence that stilled the visual boom. This rang in the tranquillity that enveloped the room under the handsome rotunda of what was once the Supreme Court.
The just-concluded SGFW was supposed to be our republic’s premier fashion event, but we weren’t sure if it turn up the volume for Singapore fashion Or, perhaps, amid the noise, both harmonious and discordant, we had expected a little too much. Questions, audible and not, floated on the grounds of the National Gallery, all possibly within the earshot of prized portraits, such as that of Georgette Chan, whose thin and highly arched eyebrows are in line with the shape now increasingly favoured by fashionistas. And outside too, but no one knows for certain if there can be real answers.
It took us a while to cut through the noise and see beyond the din. Here’s what we think…
In the peaceful calm of the former Supreme Court, no one would have guess that behind those windows of the rotunda, fashion shows were staged
The National Gallery is a grand building designed primarily to house the art of our nation, as well as those of the region. Visitor arrivals and ticketed exhibitions are not enough to keep the museum commercially viable. It is, therefore, unsurprising that from the start, rentable space “for events such as product launches, private receptions and seated dinners”, as stated on the National Gallery website, are an important revenue stream. Events permissible at its show piece, the Supreme Court Terrace, include “sponsor exhibition previews, exhibition openings, private functions, product launches, high-end boutique events, cocktail receptions, and corporate evenings.” No mention of fashion shows.
Yet, this is the main runway for SGFW. The 330-square-metre Terrace’s centrepiece is the rotunda that sat atop the former Supreme Court. Just the dome framed by the oddly shape space that is the Terrace made the area look like a viewing gallery from which to admire a windowed igloo. The use of the space (in the shape of a stretched U) and the configuration of the seating were such that guests at either end were not able to see any models when the pacing of the show was particularly slow, such as the opening act Guo Pei’s. Small LED television screens placed on pillars and walls did not help. This wasn’t a sports bar. Eyes were focused on the action on the runway.
For an event that expected media coverage, there was no real photographer’s pit at Supreme Court Terrace. There was a designated space at the entrance into the venue, where the cameramen assembled, but not a properly demarcated confine. That led to many photographers (and—especially—camera-wielding, iPhone-on-tripod Instagrammers) spilling into anywhere that was unblocked. As the runway was very narrow, it afforded wide-brimmed hats and smartphone-attached hands from both sides of the front row to find their way into the photographers’ viewfinder.
The other runway at the Auditorium Foyer
The other venue, a significantly smaller space, was at the Auditorium Foyer in the basement of what is the former City Hall, a good 10-minute walk from the Supreme Court Terrace. The accidental fashion show spot, Auditorium Foyer—not the auditorium proper—is set up like a black box theatre, which by definition is low-cost, and which Stolen’s Ely Wong exploited to full advantage by presenting a compelling performance-art piece. Other designers, such as Max Tan, had to content with squeezing as many attendees as possible into the tight space, which resulted in an unattractively narrow runway that recalled discotheque fashion shows of the ’80s.
With the two venues split in separate buildings (and not just “a few levels” apart, as The Straits Times described the proximity), show guests had to commute between two distant points. Not everyone, however, was a repeat attendee and the National Gallery is a new building for most. For first timers, moving to and between venues is, at best, confusing. The holding area of the Supreme Court Terrace shows was on level three of the Padang-facing atrium of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery. Here, one was treated to limitless drinks by various sponsors (which meant you had “official champagne” and other “official” beverages) as well as introduced to the products on display, such as the “official hair dryer” Dyson’s Supersonic. Once you’ve had enough of all those and were ready to proceed to the shows, you did not take the elevator there up to level 4M, where the Supreme Court Terrace is situated. You had to take a longer, more scenic route.
Most evenings, it was a ritual of follow the crowd. Leaving the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery by the staircase, you walked down to and through the Supreme Court Foyer, took the escalator down at the Padang Atrium to Concourse Gallery 2, from where you’d take the elevator up to the Level Four Gallery, walked across the Upper Link Bridge before you arrived at the Supreme Court Terrace. It was usually a long wait at the lift landing, so most who had navigated the museum before and had become familiar with the layout took the other route, via the City Hall wing, up three or four flights of escalators to get to the rotunda-centred show ground. This, for regular show goers, was part of a daily shuttle.
The sponsor’s booth at the atrium of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery
In the first two days of the show, many guests arrived flustered. They knew not from which side of the building to enter and where to go once inside the museum. The situation was compounded by taxi drivers not knowing exactly where to alight passengers. Most got off on the Coleman Street side of the building, entered by the side entrance, and were met by a reception area for Auditorium Foyer shows. If your target was the Supreme Court Terrace, you’d have to traverse the entire length of the City Hall building to reach the central Padang Atrium, which would not put you anywhere near your final destination. The entrance to the holding area and its attendant registration counter were at the Supreme Court Foyer, which is closer to Parliament Place. In front of that, there is no place to stop a vehicle and alight from it. The same problems apparently affected delivery people as well as those who provided backstage work.
The fashion weeks that preceded SGFW 2016 had been staged at the Civic Plaza of Ngee Ann City (only in 2013, was it held at F1 Pit Building), which show-goers favour as it is centrally located, with full and easy access to public transport, as well as food and refreshment outlets. In addition, most, if not all, people are familiar with Ngee Ann City.
The Civic Plaza comes with an added advantage: it is right along Orchard Road, a stretch preferred by fashionistas, bloggers, and ‘influencers’ as pre-show mingling and peacocking meant a display on the busy pavement of Singapore’s favourite shopping street that came with a ready captive audience. This year, vain pots hanging around at the Padang Atrium saw no on-lookers, let alone admirers. Their heartrending dismay was too much to bear. No wayang performer enjoys playing to an empty street.
Bland displays of the dresses of participating designers on the Concourse Gallery 2
The Designer Line-Up
By the shortlist of participating designers and brands alone, SGFW 2016 could have been a mall fashion week in a posh setting. If Singapore was pitching itself against regional, if not global, fashion weeks, it must have a line-up of names that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the company of the rising as well as established giants of this part of the world.
Sure, we had headliners such as Guo Pei and Naeem Khan, but they are not exactly future-proof designers; conventional at best. We need newer and more progressive practitioners of the craft, such as (keeping to SGFW’s Asian slant, we’ll select only Asian names) Yin Yiqing (who, like Guo Pei, is a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture) and London-based Zhang Huishan (who cut his teeth in the haute couture atelier of Dior and whose eponymous collections have been archived at the Victoria and Albert Museum).
Asian designers who do great work are not only those working in fashion capitals of the Western world. Of course, SGFW’s other headlining guest designer, the London-based Penang native Han Chong of Self-Portrait captivated with his deconstructed, cut-out lace, flounces gone askew, as well as charming spoken English. But closer to us are designers doing equally, if not more, innovative and daring work.
If we look at China, which, as a country of fashion innovation, is moving way ahead of our very first-world nation, there are designers that could put SGFW in good stead, such as Shanghai’s favourite daughter Masha Ma (a classmate of Alexander McQueen and, like the latter, a student of the legendary Louise Wilson at Central Saint Martins) and Beijing’s “poster boy of the Chinese fashion pack” Xander Zhou (a Western-media darling who counts actress Fan Bing Bing as fan).
The finale of the Naeem Khan show
Perhaps, for organizer Mercury M&C, the purpose was to first salute the economic giants China and India (even if it was by way of the US of A). Unfortunately, just Ms Pei and Mr Khan—while competent and, for many in the audience, creators of beautiful clothes—won’t be adequate to push SGFW onto an attention-grabbing stage that will turn our island into a must-stop for journalists, buyers, and retailers.
When the full list of participating designers and brands was finally made available through singaporefashionweek.com.sg, one jarring inclusion immediately had observers rolling their eyes: Hardy Hardy. For certain, when participating fees are necessary to finance the cost of staging an event of the scale of SGFW, doors are open to those willing to pay. But could judicious eyes be cast in the selection process for the credibility of the event? Or, using fashion marketer’s favourite tired cliché, could this have been better curated? The one-year-old label from LA-based Ed Hardy—a name associated with tattoos—trots the same path that failing US brands are now desperate to abandon: bland American basics (skull tees, anyone?). Even Fann Wong and her MediaCorp cohort’s appearance at the show could not push up the glamour quotient. Seriously, how will Hardy Hardy improve SGFW’s grades?
And Hardy Hardy isn’t even an Asian brand. Mercury M&C’s decision to go the Asian route is, in fact, a rather late one. When it was announced back in February that the Singapore Fashion Week was to be moved to October from its previous May dates, there was no mention of an Asian-focused line-up of designers. In fact, the festival chairperson Tjin Lee—also Mercury M&C’s founder and managing director—told The Straits Times that the old “five-day event once a year does not give enough substance and breadth to what we need to do for the local fashion industry. A six-month long calendar of events will help to sustain awareness of the industry.” It is rather puzzling that no theme emerged for an event that will cover a good half of the year when the announcement was made.
The MDIS graduation show was part of 13 Singaporean collections that participated in SGFW. Interestingly, the work of Koki Abe came out strong, even more so than what was shown by established designers
Only in September, just a month before the event, did news start to appear on media outlets about an Asian-cetric SGFW. Even on its own Facebook page, there was no broadcast of this intended direction. In a late September online Harper’s Bazaar Singapore’s “Everything you need to know” piece, which Singapore Fashion Week called “comprehensive”, the sentence “This year, SGFW is going back to its Asian roots” nearly slipped past you. But “Asian”, it surely became. It is unsurprising then that this prompted talk among industry veterans that the Asian angle was inevitable as Mercury M&C was not able to entice the likes of Diane Von Furstenburg and Victoria Beckham to show on our shores. “Isn’t it clear no one wants to come?” was the common rhetorical response.
It has always been a point of contention that our very own fashion week is short on local names. For sure, it’s an up-hill task for Mercury M&C to gather enough of them considering what a drought it is for credible Singaporean fashion brands. This year, SGFW embraced 13 home-grown collections (including those of school graduation), compared to last year’s seven. The number may have doubled, but it is debatable if the creativity or quality of work shot up too. It also piqued the kaypoh in us when the dozen-plus-one excluded esteemed names such as In Good Company, and current media fave Beyond the Vines.
If SGFW was willing to give unknown and unremarkable Thai labels such as Sheranut (whose designer Sheranut Yusananda was invited because, one suspects, she could also videogenically contribute as SGFW’s digital-media partner Digital Fashion Week’s “DFW Insider” and appear on their inane Style on the Go series), why have they not considered less-recognised, but clearly forward Singaporean labels such as Nuboaix? Designers Jessica Lee and Yong Siyuan—two talented women’s wear designers who turned to men’s wear due to unfavourable market forces—irrefutably deserve a platform, or a show to communicate their gutsy approach to men’s fashion. Instead, social media “star” Yoyo Cao got to peddle her Web-born rummage so that Instagram can be flooded with even more dross.
When it comes to fashion, we often think only of garments. Sure, SGFW included Mashizan shoes. However, jewellery—a huge category with many independent designers working away quietly—should be spotlighted, such as those by the completely under-the-radar label Argentum, a highly distinctive collection handmade by the reclusive craftswoman who goes by the single name Shing. Ms Shing has been designing for a long time (more than a decade). In the early days, her tactile and rustic rings and charms were sold in the long-defunct Bluemoon, an edgy store of the ’90s at HPL House conceived by a division of Hotel Properties Limited, HPL Retail. Bluemoon later morphed into the Club 21-managed Black Jack, which eventually became today’s Club21b. As any fisherman will say, casting your nets wider will yield a bigger haul.
Screen grab on Tuesday, 1 Nov, of the Gallery tab of the Singapore Fashion Week’s website
Screen grab on Tuesday, 1 Nov, of the Photo Gallery tab of the Digital Fashion Week’s website
The Digital Component
It was announced in late May that Singapore Fashion Week will merge with Digital Fashion Week (DFW). For those who would be unable to watch the shows at their respective venues, this seemed at that time like a terrific idea on the part of SGFW. However, as our tech correspondent Low Teck Mee wondered from in front of his MacBook, “Did they shoot the shows with a budget Chinese smartphone and streamed via a server from 1985 that was installed in someone’s toilet?”
On Thursday evening of the 27th (second day of SGFW), Mr Low reported that access into the DFW website was met with this message: “Resource Limit Is Reached: website is temporarily unable to service your request as it exceeded resource limit. Please try again later.” After reloading, another message appeared: “Service Unavailable. The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later”. Additionally, a “503 Service Unavailable error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.”
Throughout the five days of events, viewers hoping to catch the live streaming of the shows saw inconsistent broadcasts, plagued by poor camera work, consistent lag, and uneven audio quality. HD streaming is now not uncommon, and most international fashion brands live-stream with amazing smoothness and clarity. DFW’s appalling digital transmission this year belied their experience as local pioneers of fashion-week live streaming. From Aijek’s impossible to watch show to the sudden recording via some kind of a fish-eye lens (which degraded the resolution of the moving images) of some of the weekend presentations, the video quality was so deplorable that it would test the threshold of even the most patient of online citizens.
If video streaming proved less satisfactory, it would not be immoderate to assume that viewers might wish to look at photographs. On the same night that our correspondent encountered those glitches, he was surprised that clicking on the gallery tab of SGFW’s homepage brought him to photos of the Diane Von Furstenburg fall 2015 shows! Similarly, at DFW’s gallery page, icons of albums from the 2015 shows laid waiting to be clicked like overused lift buttons. When we checked those tabs on the morning of the 1st of November, by then more than two days after SGFW ended, we were met with the same photos seen earlier—ghosts of fashion weeks past.
In the end, perhaps being confined to the quiet vicinity of an uncooperative video broadcast beats shuttling between up there and down below to see loudness that is increasingly difficult to mute.
Note on names: to keep to the way Chinese names are used in most of Asia, we’ve chosen to spell them with the surname in front. Photos: Chin Boh Kay