Return Of The Singapore Fashion Awards

sfa-2016-pic-1Class 95FM radio DJ Yasmine Cheng hosted the Singapore Fashion Awards with aplomb

As fashion awards go, this was low-key: plain-weave rather than jacquard. Last Friday’s Singapore Fashion Awards (SFA) 2016 at the National Gallery wasn’t like the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) sit-down-to-dine ceremony. Yet, it was not less important. Our city has not been one that’s big on saluting fashion talent. There is, of course, the annual President’s Design Award Singapore, but that does not go to a fashion professional yearly. There’s also the clubby StyleXStyle awards’ nod to fashion folk (so far, Trailblazer Awards 2016 and StyleXSG50 Awards), but those seemed more like popularity contests than one that truly acknowledges talent.

The SFA is organized by the Textile and Fashion Federation Singapore (TAFF). According to the press release issued by TAFF, SFA “aims to honour the industry greats as well as give recognition to the brands and/or individuals’ potential to be the stars of the fashion industry locally, and make a mark on the global fashion landscape”. TAFF’s CEO Lynette Lee took it a step further: “There are many talented designers in the fashion industry and many have established their brands locally and internationally. We feel that the time is right to recognise and elevate the designers and brands that are putting Singapore on the fashion map.”

displays-on-the-stepsThe work of the nominees, such as Max Tan (above), were displayed at the Supreme Court Terrace of the National Gallery

Singapore Fashion Awards 2016 was, for many (including members of the media), an “inaugural” presentation. Truth is, it really isn’t. In fact, TAFF’s president Mark Lee told the audience at National Gallery’s much-feted Supreme Court Terrace that there was a hiatus between this year’s presentation and the last, which was “more than ten years ago”. SOTD’s editorial team came together to work this one out, and we believe that the last awards were handed out in 2003, just three years after its inauguration, during Singapore Fashion Week, a very different version from the one staged last month, also at the National Gallery.

Our nation’s first-ever Singapore Fashion Awards was staged in August 2001 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel ballroom to cap the Singapore Fashion Week (SFW), then an umbrella event under which the Singapore Apparel show was once the main event in SFW’s earlier years. At the first Awards presentation, eight individuals were honoured. They included Photographer of the Year, Fashion Stylist of the Year (Editorial), Hair Stylist of the Year (Editorial), Make-Up Artist of the Year (Editorial), Male Model of the Year, Female Model of the Year, and Label of the Year. Joanna Fong, then deputy director of TAFF, told the media that the awards distinguished “the bright and the brightest” of the fashion industry. Oddly, no fashion designer then was bright enough.

biro-sfa-2016Live mannequins wearing some of the nominees’ designs such as this by Birofashion-presentationA brief show of Frederick Lee Couture before the start of the award presentation

Present-day TAFF’s Ms Lee put it more prosaically—“recognise the contribution and achievement of those in the fashion industry”—and it was this lack of rah-rah that characterised the presentation and the list of nominees. The categories—and they’re just that, suggesting neither one-of-a-kind nor one-and-only—are quite different from those of 2001. This time round, awards go to Emerging Designers of the Year (fashion and accessories), Top 3 Most popular Brand of the Year, Honorary Award, Best Collaboration of the Year, Best Marketing Award, Outstanding Contribution to Fashion (make-up, styling, photography, and hair-styling), Designer of the Year (accessories and fashion).

The nominees of the SFA were selected by a group of industry veterans, referred to by TAFF as “judges” (and the competitive nature of the Awards is not lost when the presenters announced “the winner”): CEO of TAFF Lynette Lee, editor of HerWorldPlus Niki Bruce, former editor-in-chief of Elle Singapore Sharon Lim, owner of the now-defunct Link Tina Tan, founder and managing director of Mercury M&C Tjin Lee, fashion designer Thomas Wee, and “digital influencer” Andrea Chong. If there’s one conspicuous difference between the present and earlier SFA, it is the appointment of social media darling Ms Chong, who, in a video post on YouTube for HerWorldPlus, described a Beyond the Vines outfit as a “blazer-vest-dress”—a split personality of a garb if there ever was one. She sits atop the list of photos of the judges on the SFA website, no doubt to give the event the necessary social-media clout, and to bring SFA into the present digital decade.

winner-ginlee-studioGeorgie Lee accepting the Emerging Designer of the Year Award on behalf of her sister from presenter Dick Leewinner-onepointsixoneOne.61’s Jennifer Alejandro accepting her Emerging Designer of the Year (Accessories) Award

The first awards of the evening—Emerging Designer(s) of the Year—went to the fashion label GinLee Studio and the accessory brand One.61. Ms Lee’s triumph (her award was accepted by her sister, Georgie, as the former was in Israel) is unsurprising as her clothes are generally well-made even if they do not seduce those who look for designs that break new ground. Although GinLee Studio is touted as a Singaporean label, Ms Lee—a Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts School of Fashion alumna—is, in fact, largely based in Israel (where her husband is from), while her showroom is in Singapore.

One.61’s victory (read as one point six one, and not to be confused with the New York fashion label OnePointSix) came as a surprise: the handbag brand was formed only in 2013 and consists of, to our knowledge, five styles so far. Designer Jennifer Alejandro, formerly a TV journalist with Channel NewsAsia, makes handcrafted bags inspired by the architecture of Singapore. Her “winning entry” (these two categories saw submissions from nominees to convince the judges of their talent and skill) is a kitschy bag in the shape of the rotunda of the former Supreme Court, surely a thrill to the National Gallery, a venue sponsor of SFA.

winner-beyond-the-vinesBeyond the Vines’s Rebecca Ting giving her acceptance speechwinner-by-invite-onlyBy Invite Only’s Trixie Khong expressing thanks for the awardwinner-love-bonitoLove, Bonito’s Rachel Lim and Viola Tan receiving their award from TAFF’s Mark Lee

As if to underscore the fact that Singaporean labels that are accepted and admired do exist, TAFF offered not one, but three Top Most Popular Brand of the Year awards (they include both fashion and accessory brands). In its selection criteria, “strong social media presence” seemed to be more important than “creativity of design and quality”, which was placed second in a list of four. It is not surprising then that the accolade went to those labels that are especially buzzy online rather than offline, and to those that are adept at playing down any weakness in design with trending hype.

Beyond the Vine, a one-year-old label by married couple Rebecca Ting and Daniel Chew; By Invitation Only, the jewellery brand conceived by Trixie Khong in 2011; and Love, Bonito, that favourite born-online label among those tired of Forever 21, are the three deemed most popular. In the minds of the many attendees, there was no doubt that Love, Bonito—now run by two of the original three founders, Rachel Lim and Viola Tan—was the one whose popularity can be attested by its 103,000 Instagram followers. Love, Bonito may lead IG followers, but that’s no indication they are fashion leaders.

recipient-thomas-weeThomas Wee posing with guest-of-honour Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and Ministry of Trade and Industry

Thirteen years after the last Singapore Fashion Awards, the come-back event paid homage to “accomplished designers in the industry… who have contributed to elevating the Singapore Brand of fashion at home or on the global stage.” The Honorary Award was presented to revered design veteran Thomas Wee, and it sealed Mr Wee’s indisputable standing as one of our fashion greats, even when that was already ratified at the time he was inducted into the CNN Power List of 2011 as one of the 30 people who shaped Singapore. While Mr Wee has intermittently showed abroad and thus elevated brand Singapore on the global stage (his last show overseas was in Surabaya in September this year during the city’s Ciputra World International Fashion Week), it is here, at home, that Mr Wee has left an indelible, if not influential, mark. It is not yet heard, but we hope someday soon, some designer will say, “I’m inspired by Thomas Wee.”

Collaborations, although not a big, publicity-generating business in Singapore, got a boost too. The Best Collaboration of the Year Award went to Love, Bonito’s pairing with Tex Saverio, the Indonesian designer who has dressed pop heavyweights such as Lady Gaga and Ayumi Hamasaki. This was not Love, Bonito’s first collaboration. Back in October 2013, during the now-defunct Fidé Fashion Weeks, the brand showed a capsule collection that was conceived together with the French couturier Julien Fournié. This immediately elevated the brand once known by the City-Plaza-sounding name of Bonito Chico into a serious fashion label. While it isn’t clear how the collaboration with Mr Savero fared, this recognition, their second of the night, may propel Love, Bonito to unimaginable heights.

Love, Bonito, too, was awarded the Best Marketing Award, which made them the biggest winner of the evening. This so thrilled BFFs/partners Rachel Lim and Viola Tan that they were not, in their jubilant outburst, able to return to the stage in time to receive their final award. Love, Bonito may have a stronger marketing program than their fellow nominees, but we are not certain that what they have generated is effective or attractive. Based on what has been hitherto put out online, Love, Bonito’s marketing efforts are remarkable by how ho-hum they have been.

recipient-celestine-sngMake-up artist Celestine Sng delivering her acceptance speech

Fashion has always been more than brands and the designers behind them. The whole universe includes many cameo players. This year’s Outstanding Contribution to Fashion went to Celestine Sng (make-up), Johnny Khoo (styling), Wee Khim (photography), and David Gan (hair-styling). The recipients in this category were a little unexpected, yet expected. In the era of the “digital influencer”, these four familiar names seemed decidedly pre-Facebook.

Make-up artist Celestine Sng, a former manager with the Estee Lauder Group (and the only one in this category who came to receive the award), is now more into producing commercials than working on models’ faces. The other three, they’re certainly no stranger to SFA—past and present. The stylist Johnny Khoo, a former marketing manager who made a name for himself in the ’90s with work he gleefully described as “deviant” (shot in HDB estates), as well as sending Christopher Lee to the 1997 Star Awards in an apron, had already won the same award twice—in 2001 and 2002. Photographer Wee Khim, who is married to the alt-folk-singer-turn-café-owner Jessica Soo, too, bagged the same award twice before—in 2002 and 2003. David Gan won the Hairstylist of the Year at the debut of SFA in 2001. The Malaysian-made-good-in-Singapore had not received his Singapore citizenship yet. That night, he was so moved by the recognition that tears welled up in his eyes while he received his plaque—perhaps a realisation that he had indeed come that far. And this was even before the very public pat on the shoulder that PM Lee Hsien Loong gave during the National Day Rally Speech of 2006.

winner-carrie-kCarrie K’s Carolyn Kan accepted her award as Thomas Wee looked on

Carolyn Kan of the jewellery label Carrie K was awarded Designer of the Year (accessories). Ms Kan, who was a former general manager of M&C Saatchi, is no stranger to being awarded. Back in 2010, she was Elle Singapore’s Jewellery Designer of the Year, and Carrie K has remained a favourite among the members of the press. Started in 2009, the brand has also caught the attention of overseas retailers, such as Yuji Yamamoto, the fashion impresario son of Yohji Yamamoto. The younger Yamamoto represented Carrie K and helped the label establish distribution points in Tokyo, such as Seibu in Shibuya. It is our hope that Ms Kan’s award will push her to achieve more, especially in the area of creativity—the type that seduces as much as surprises.

It was not unexpected that Designer of the Year (fashion) went to the In Good Company boys, Sven Tan and Kane Tan. Many had, in fact, hoped the duo would be honoured. The support that they have garnered is remarkable—even unprecedented—given how difficult it is for Singaporean brands to win the adoration and dollars of Singaporean shoppers. IGC has been a retail hit since its inception in August 2012, and with their own flagship in the heart of Orchard Road showcasing a striking range of their own products as well as those by others who share their distinct aesthetic, they seemed to be on the path to greater things.  Although both Tans told the media that there was “no expectation to win”, it was obvious to many that, against the other two nominees, IGC is leaps ahead with their winning designs and visible (and appreciated) quality. Fashion—indeed Singaporean fashion—can do with more of those.

winner-igcIn Good Company’s Sven Tan accepting his award with a speech as his co-designer Kane Tan (on his left) looks on

It is commendable that the Textile and Fashion Federation has decided to bring back the Singapore Fashion Awards. Honouring talents has always been a good way of raising standards and encouraging betterment. Awards can create awareness—in the case of the SFA, in Singaporean fashion. For the consumer, an award is an indicator of trust. But trust is a two-way street. In order to trust in what an award symbolises, the award must come to stand for something. Winning one must mean something. Those selected for the awards must be worthy of nomination and the nomination must be of some worth. Visible social media presence alone is no indication that a brand is first-rate. Quietly working on one’s craft away from online glare does not mean one is out of touch with the digital environment.

Fashion, both as craft and enterprise, is not exclusionary; it involves more than just designers. Brands such as IGC are aware of that. Their collaborative efforts, including pairing with skincare brands, independent artists, and devoted food outlets, indicate that they are tuned into the idea that fashion is inclusive, and involves an eco-system that goes beyond the vines, to steal the name of a just-awarded brand. SFA, as it ventures further down the road (and we hope another hiatus won’t come too soon) should expand its scope to other associated fields, such as journalism, graphic design, advertising, visual merchandising, and technology.

Sure, the award presentation is a resource-intensive investment. Even the trophies and plaques cost a considerable amount (TAFF could reprise the idea used in 2002 when the awards came in the form of customised stuff animals conceived by the graphic designer Theseus Chan). But it should be noted that what’s key here is ‘investment’. Invest to gain, to strengthen, and to add value. And, there should be no doubt, for the long run.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji and Chin Boh Kay