Ethereal Designs, Ephemeral Life

Obituary | Tan Yoong, one of Singapore’s most illustrious and creative designers passed away three weeks ago. It is irrefutably our nation’s loss. There will never be another like him

tan-yoong-pic-1A ten-year-old, multi-layered silk tulle dress from 2007 that was a further exploration of one of Tan Yoong’s favourites themes: the cattleya orchid. Just last year, he described this as his “all-time favourite design”. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Tan Yoong is known to be an extremely private person, sometimes solitary. Even in death: he died alone, away from Klieg and kin, in a manner not unlike the passing of John Keats. Comparing his demise to an English romantic poet’s is deliberate for Tan Yoong’s legacy is one of poetry with fabric. His designs bore the Keatsian hallmark: “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”.

If a thing of beauty is that rare combination of shape, form, and colour that pleases our aesthetic sensibilities, then Tan Yoong’s designs were irrefutably a composition of immeasurable beauty and more. SOTD rarely ascribe beauty to the work of Singaporean designers, but in the case of Tan Yoong, there is no description more apt, more telling, and more laudatory.

Since 1996 until the closing of his couture house in 2015, Mr Tan offered mainly beauty to brides. Yet, his ethereal sumptuousness was also appreciated by those not considered his target audience, both men and women. His designs for so many were “the stuff of dreams”, as one customer so ardently put it. Mr Tan once told a former journalist—when asked why he had chosen to concentrate on bridal wear— that “every woman wants to look beautiful, like a bride. So for me, a bride has to look even better than that.” He often said—whether out of humility or candor, it wasn’t certain—that he did “not cater to beauty and those with money. Women come to me because my gowns make women more confident and, therefore, more beautiful.”

tan-yoong-bridalDespite his obvious flair in fashion design, Tan Yoong was mostly known for his bridal couture and women swoon at the sight of his signature gossamer layers, swirls and twirls. Photo (originally for an ad), courtesy of Lightspade Studio and the House of Tan Yoong

Every woman can look beautiful if she thinks she is. How the mind can be seduced into this thought is often the result of what is worn. More than just an attractive outfit, a dress can also offer elements of fantasy, among them, the illusion of looking like a princess-bride. Fantasy is a powerful agent in the elevation of self-esteem. Mr Tan knew that, and he spun fantasy in spades. A fashion-designer-turn-educator said of Tan Yoong’s designs, “It’s the fantasy that I’ll remember him for.”

The fantasy is best exemplified in his drawings. A gifted illustrator, Mr Tan drew with a deft hand, expounding Western glamour with distinctive Eastern strokes—their sweeps and linearity akin to Chinese calligraphy. He drew from a young age and, prior to enrolling in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1967, made fashion drawings that were inspired by models such as Twiggy and the German sensation Veruschka. His girls were outfitted by clothes born of his imagination, which, by his own admission in later years, were attributed to the influence of Dior, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Mr Tan’s unique fashion illustration style was honed in the post-design competition years (the last was also his most remembered: the Her World Young Designers Contest in 1978), when his eponymous label was taking definite shape. Aware of the artistic value of his drawings, and their accurate representation of his uncommon style, he used them—framed like art—in his Lucky Plaza shop window, in place of mannequins. This predated even Stilla’s use of illustrations to sell a line.

So captivating were his illustrations that magazines such as Her World (the first to commission him as an illustrator in the ’70s) and Female, both usually proponents of fashion photography, would happily publish Tan Yoong’s illustrations of his own clothes whenever he preferred the use of drawings to photos. They were never met with resistance from any editor or art director.

bridal-dress-detailTan Yoong’s couture dresses were about handcrafted details such as this feathered bodice designed to look like a bouquet of flowers. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

One former editor recalls, “Back then, I was only familiar with the work of Rene Gruau and Antonio Lopez, but when I saw Tan Yoong’s drawings, I was completely bowled over. He depicted his women in groups just as Gianni Versace did through his photographs lensed by Richard Avedon. As a student, I would go to his Lucky Plaza shop just to see those framed drawings in the window, hoping that he had put out a new one. But he did not change them often enough. Still, those drawings were totally entrancing.” Indeed, for many a young person struggling to pursue what was then an uncommon career in the rag trade, Mr Tan’s illustrations were catharsis by fashion.

While the drawings of his formative years tended to be delineations of his favourite European models in the looks of the day, those that came later, during his heyday, were distinctive for their watercolour washes or coloured-pencil shadings over inked lines that gave form to sumptuous shapes. And there were those unmistakable eyes: multiple skinny strokes that seemed to suggest Cyclops’s visor, but it is doubtful Mr Tan intended for his women to be containing massive optic blast force. Rather, those eyes—obscured, thus mysterious—were complementary to the strikingly bald heads, sometimes punctuated with a clutch of flowers, that he favoured for a period.

It is thus not inaccurate to say that for Mr Tan, the foundation of his designs and attendant work was those drawings. Many of his signature styles first emerged from pen and paper. So sure was he of his drawings and so much faith had he in them that often times even photographic output was based on illustrations (interestingly, he never used a bald model). Most of his studio shoots were based on a prepared sketch or full-colour illustrations. Those who worked with him knew of his exacting demands. The creative director period of his life (specifically his time at Batey Ads in the mid-’70s), the story boards—they did not ever leave him.

tan-yoong-illustration-heartTan Yoong was as much admired as an illustrator as a designer. Illustration, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

tan-yoong-illustrations His illustrations captured the imaginations of scores of aspiring designers and students. Clockwise from top left: a sketch during his teenage years, Veruschka-inspired drawing from the late ’60s, poster illustration of the mid-’90s, the Her World Young Designers award winning collection, illustrations for the Cattleya collection,  and definitive Tan Yoong illustration of the late ’80s.  Illustrations, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Photographer Joyce Choo, a constant collaborator in the ’90s, vividly remembers the shoot for the Seashell collection. “This was way before Photoshop, and back then, we shot on film,” she says. “Each composition could comprise up to three layers. I had to shoot all of them individually and then assembled them as seen in the illustration that he first showed during the brief.”

It can be said that spontaneity was not Mr Tan’s modus operandi. His style was a studied glamour—precise, deliberate, and appreciated by women that were, according to him, “sophisticated and chic”. The ingénue seemed less interesting or inspiring to him, unlike, say, to Hubert de Givenchy. This is reflected in his choice of models. One of Tan Yoong’s favourites in the ’80s was Susan Ang, a petite individual with features that were unmistakably Oriental. Ms Ang was no lass in the cusp of womanhood. She looked grown, worldly, and clearly able to carry designed garments that were not your every-day threads.

From the start, Mr Tan considered what he did to be couture (even when he did not specifically referred to his work as ‘haute’), and it was couture in the French (or European) tradition, not the glue-gun-and-feathers variety. As he is not known to open up his atelier to anyone except his staff, no one had had the opportunity to see how he worked. Ex-staffers recount that the designer was very hands-on and that he positioned every bead, every slip of lace, every wisp of appliqué on the dress-in-progress himself. As with the photographs of his collections, surface embellishments on the garment much corresponded to the sketch made before the commencement of the drafting of the item of clothing. Although not trained at storied couture houses, his insistence on finishing much of his designs by hand stood shoulder to shoulder with the practices of the maisons of Paris.

tan-yoong-risis-orchid-seriesFor his collaboration with Risis Orchids in the mid-’90s, Tan Yoong conceived a series of photographs that looked very much like his illustrations. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

tan-yoong-seashells-collectionThe Seashell collection of the ’90s shot by Joyce Choo featured Photoshop-style layers before digital imaging was the norm in fashion photography. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Undoubtedly, his design aesthetic—at least in his formative years—was influenced by couture greats: Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent. Yet, his style was as disconnected to mode Française as he is to China, or wherever his Eastern flourishes could be traced to, outside his homeland. Although he did not see the need to maintain an “Eastern identity” in his designs, Mr Tan never negated his Eastern roots. His structured forms confined to a Western norm, but the details and the surface treatment of his designs bore an identifiable Oriental sensibility. And the reverse is true: on his famed cheongsams, the embellishments were conversely European.

Despite his own Western image and outlook, and the Western lands he visited so ardently in his retirement travels, Mr Tan was, at heart, an aesthete whose thinking was very Chinese. To those he knew well, the bilingual designer mostly spoke to them in what could have been his most comfortable language: Mandarin. He would also use dialects such as Cantonese to chat and joke with fellow designers.

Mr Tan’s primary school years were spent in an institution associated with Chinese schools (although they were no longer popular in the late ’50s and were phased out in the ’70s): Mi Tuo Primary, now Mee Toh School and a Government-Aided School since 1957. He continued his secondary schooling in the Catholic environment of Maris Stella High, and furthered his education at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, an education centre that was set up in 1938 in the tradition of Chinese art academies. Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (the abbreviation NAFA was not officially used when Mr Tan enrolled in 1967; the school was mostly known by its Chinese name 南洋艺术学院) was a part of the art movement, Nanyang Style. One of Singapore’s most celebrated artists associated with the movement and also linked to the school was the Chinese-fluent Liu Kang.

Tan Yoong revealed very little of his fine arts training, his time in school, his relationship with classmates and his lecturers. It isn’t known how he reconciled his love for Western fashion with the education in a school so synonymous with the Nanyang Style. But the exposure to did-Singapore-proud artists must have bolstered the believe in his own talent and the willingness to salute other local artists such as Eng Tow, whose fabric and paper art inspired a memorable collection Mr Tan created in 1990. The product of fine art can be a result of a long, labour-intensive process. Mr Tan did not see fashion differently. He approached it as a painter would his canvas: using mostly hands, regardless of the medium. But fashion, to the trained artist, is not art. To a designer, it can be just as revered; it can be couture.

tan-yoong-pic-3One of Tan Yoong’s favourite models in the ’80s, Susan Ang, in a top that typified his play with sheerness and opacity. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

If one were to read Mr Tan’s designs the way the Chinese du hua (读画 or read a painting), one can discern a lyrical serenity, particularly in his early years (less so in the bridal designs, but that could be just a bridal thing—commerce being all-important), or, to put it more in line with the perspective of Chinese paintings, quiet poetry. Many of Mr Tan’s peers looked at his Eastern leanings with admiration since the expressions in his designs were original. Yet, sometimes, with disregard, for some thought he overly romanticised Chinese motifs and symbolism. Was a Westernized Tan Yoong making Oriental references similar to the Shanghainese of the 1920s copying modern occidental society and was tagged with what was then a derogatory term: haipai ((海派 or ‘Shanghai Style’)?

That thinking may be reductive just as the considering of Tan Yoong only as a bridal designer is reductive. Mr Tan passionately loved fashion and he did not let his lack of formal training in fashion design diminish his ability to traipse familiar and uncharted territory. Yet, one senses he tried harder and was more expressive than anyone else because he did not attend classes for fashion or cut his teeth in a fashion house. Designer Thomas Wee remembered Tan Yoong pointing out to him during one of the ASEAN Designer Shows in the ’90s that, among the regional designers presenting that evening, the two of them did not go to fashion school. He considered that “sao kar” (羞家, a now uncommonly used Cantonese expression that’s roughly the equivalent of the Mandarin diulian or 丢脸, or to lose face).

This rare revelation of professional inadequacy hinted at an insecurity that few knew or sensed. But it does explain why no one (except his staff) had really seen Mr Tan at work. A former magazine and commercial stylist explained, “Tan Yoong was a perfectionist and he never considered what he did good enough. Therefore, he wouldn’t show you how he did what he did.” One surprising act seemed to concur with this line of thinking. About a year before he closed his business in 2015, Mr Tan instructed his staff to destroy all the clothes in his archive and whatever was not sold. According to one ex-staffer, they were instructed to “cut everything up”and discard. Tan Yoong did not want to leave any trace of perfection or imperfection.

tan-yoong-pic-6Another signature design from the early ’80s: appliqué of sheer longitudinal stripes to mimic leaves and petals. Tan Yoong was the first designer here to use baby-lock stitching in place of hem as part of the decorative effect. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Said the stylist, “I am not the least surprised that he had destroyed everything. Tan Yoong was very secretive about his techniques. Maybe he knew they were not standard techniques, and authenticity was very important to him.” Mr Tan’s evolution as a designer was never a journey to an end point; it was always a work in progress. Even the clothes he used to send for shoots were unfinished dreams. It was known among stylists and photographers that quite a few of those clothes were only completed in the front. Mr Tan often attended shoots with cloths and decorative fabrics such as his hand-cut cut-outs and laces that were used at a sudden moment to stitch onto the garment being shot. Every petal, every stripe, every curlicue was applied as if he was doing a collage on paper.

This going-by-gut-instinct approach to design is, in fact, rather couture in spirit, yet Tan Yoong was not necessary sure his was the right way. Thomas Wee recalled, “He used to come by my shop and would slowly push the front door open, peer in and sheepishly say to me, ‘来偷师’ (here to steal a master’s craft). He would examine my clothes very closely.” Mr Tan may not have started as the tailoring master that Mr Wee has always been, but he did progress to the point when his clothes exhibited a master’s hand with silhouettes. And his customers knew they could trust his cuts.

Yet, this was not quite enough to bolster his self-confidence. He kept his work day within his atelier and rarely talked about his design process, particularly to journalists, who he had an uneasy relationship with. He did not particularly trusted them to report accurately what he thought, led alone interpret his work, nor understand what he did. This is ironic considering that it was through press accolades and the ardent support of editors such as Her World’s Betty Khoo that Tan Yoong acquired much of his early successes.

tan-yoong-pic-7One of Tan Yoong’s last innovations (in 2014): multi-layer coloured silk tulle for what he called “water-colour effect”. He was adamant no one thought them to be “hand-painted”. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

One particular article turned him away from the media even more resolutely. In February of 2008, former journalist Michelle Tay of the The Straits Times (ST) opined in the Life column The Monday Interview, that Mr Tan “could in fact be mistaken for your friendly neighbourhood uncle.” A close friend of Mr Tan said that the designer had called to say he “was unhappy” with that description. “Why must she put it that way,” he had said. And he was not over-reacting. Would anyone have described Tan Swee Hian as an ‘uncle’, however avuncular he may look?

To Mr Tan, just as it was to Jane Austen when she wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously.” No one who knew him would consider Mr Tan someone interested in dressing like a designer (or trendily, or flashily) even when he was partial to turning out impeccably, mostly in variations of beige, and some form of head wear. Mr Tan took pride in everything he did, including how he appeared in public, even when pushing his mother in a wheelchair—before she passed away—when they went for walks in Orchard Road.

Following his death, the lack of curiosity about Tan Yoong’s craft continued to characterise media reports. More eager to give an account of the cause and time of death than to mourn the passing of an indisputably great talent, ST’s first article by Melissa Heng approached his demise with the same snooping flair as those reporting a suspicious fatality in an HDB heartland. Her follow-up a week later had “fashion insiders remember the couture pioneer for his visionary designs and skillful craftsmanship”, never mind that it is doubtful young-ish designers such as Priscilla Ong Shunmugam and Mae Pang could “remember” Tan Yoong at the height of his career. Ms Heng herself had nothing insightful to offer. She availed a set of photos to her interviewees and asked them to “comment”. While she labeled some of the dresses “couture” (in fact, they all are), she had asked if they “would have been difficult to make.”

tan-yoong-pic-8A cocktail dress of multi-layered coloured silk tulle at Tan Yoong’s last catwalk presentation in 2008. Photos, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

It is hardly surprising that in his last years, Mr Tan had chosen to lead a quiet, almost reclusive life, completely away from media glare, uninvolved in the ignorance that spawns insipidity in today’s old and new media (his one social-media indulgence was an Instagram account that he maintained, where images of past work and current travels were posted). From the start, his designs seemed to suggest retreat from a regular world, recoiling from its woes and its increasing banality. Hence, the prevalent “fantasy”.

Some observers think that Tan Yoong did not, in the twilight of his eponymous label, really caught up with the celebrity-led redefinition of elegance—his was too old-fashioned, they say. Under and above his many, many ways with silk tulle, Tan Yoong had at all times strictly adhered to the pursuit of the ultimate expression of the most beautiful and the most creative. For the likes of Ms Heng, Ms Shunmugam, and Ms Pang, this is possibly quite beyond their ken.

The United Nations put it aptly when it said in a statement in response to Tan Yoong being selected to represent Singapore in the inaugural World Fashion Awards in the World Fashion Week (now defunct) in Hollywood back in 2008, “He is an active force in the growth and beauty of his own country’s fashion industry.”