Two weeks ago, Textile and Fashion Federation Singapore presented the annual Singapore Fashion Awards. Despite news preceding the event that speculated on the Awards’ uncertain future, as well as the unexpected downgrade of the presentation to a “tea gala”, many attendees and industry stalwarts concurred: the show must go on
The SFA presentation at the W Hotel, Sentosa Cove
It is heartening that Singapore Fashion Awards (SFA) isn’t leaving the stage. Two months before the sophomore presentation of the come-back SFA, rumours were afloat that organiser Textile and Fashion Federation (TAFF) Singapore may put SFA on a hiatus next year. Among designers and brand owners, this was disappointing news, especially when it was earlier reported that Singapore Fashion Week will likely be no more in 2018—one platform less, not that there are numerous to begin with, on which to trump home-grown fashion.
The initial talk was that TAFF was facing budgetary constraints in staging an increasingly expensive SFA. That this year’s event had to be put in the less glamorous, working-hour time slot of tea (inexplicably termed “gala”) in a place that’s far from the maddening crowd—the W Hotel in the hard-to-get-to Sentosa Cove—was suggestion that TAFF had too tight a purse string to pay for the venue and catering expense, and had to depend on whichever establishment willing to be the sponsor, putting them in a beggars-can’t-be-choosers position.
The sustainability of budding-again SFA was also called to question as the selection committee had a hard time coming up with names in the fashion categories that were not the usual suspects, or last year’s nominees, or winners. The names that were eventually shortlisted were so unexceptional that some of the judges felt this year’s SFA would be severely uninspired. It was heard that at the last minute, two labels were brought to the table and had delighted the judges so much that things started to look up. Nuboaix and Ametsubi were suggested for the Designer of the Year (Fashion) and Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion) categories respectively to the surprise of many as the co-designers of both labels were unknowns. The two nominations, too, surprised the respective designers as none of them had considered themselves to be part of a fashion circle framed by individuals of cultivated visibility.
The always in-control Yasminne Cheng holding the show together
It is now said that SFA will be presented next year and, thereafter, many more years to come. This was encouraging and uplifting news to not only the fashion community, but also to those who think design awards are instrumental in the raising of industry-wide standards and the visibility of the work Singaporean fashion designers do. The limit in budget is understandable and may be improved by better fund-raising programs or by welcoming a title sponsor. The lack of credible names, unfortunately, is very real, and may not necessarily improve in the years to come.
Should TAFF then field those already nominated before, or have been awarded already? There seems to be the thought that each year, SFA should witness a new set of names and labels. The reality is that, despite new entrants in fashion retail yearly, there is still a very small pool of designers that TAFF can turn to. Except for the Emerging Designer category, which, by definition, is to honour the new, all other categories do not have to shy away from those previously considered for the SFA. As one marketing consultant said after the presentation, “Does Meryl Streep not qualify for the following year’s Academy Awards if she is nominated for the current year?”
Designers Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon of Ametsubi holding a pose with their Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion) award
Fashion needs a certain cycle, as it needs selling seasons. It also requires something that practitioners can look forward to. That TAFF was willing to resurrect the once thought to be forever departed Singapore Fashion Awards points to the Federation’s understanding of the value of an annual salute to those who have put their very creative best into their work. Fashion folks like the proverbial pat on the back regardless of how independent, how strong, how unaffected by the opinions of others they are. And nothing is more assuring than accolades from one’s peers and recognition from industry notables. A fashion award such as SFA may prompt designers to work harder, to embrace innovation more fervently, and to adopt originality more passionately. They may aim higher too, since winning once does not mean win no more.
The Singapore Fashion Awards should, therefore, be prized as support, as much as encouragement to designers steering their brand in an industry characteristically faced with unabated challenges. Many designers, even after passing the industry-standard five-year mark that makes them no longer ‘emerging’, continue to manage their brands like fledgling businesses, with profitability a constant inconstancy, so much so that some of them have to supplement their brand’s income by taking on an extra job, often—the heart-wrenching truth—employment that has nothing to do with the perceived allure of fashion. SFA recognition may, thus, make the hardships easier to bear, allowing designers to continue to struggle, as artists do, for their craft, rather than the glamour.
Support for young, up-coming designers is especially important. There is a general lament that our island nation is utterly lacking in talents that can be nutured to fly the Singapore flag. It is also a reality that many budding designers, however gifted and prolific, are not able to propel themselves to a bigger audience without a more established organisation such as TAFF to act as some kind of launch pad. Private sector and government initiatives, thus, often allow greenhorns to see and learn more, and may expose them to markets not previously thought reachable. Case in point: This past Thursday, Singapore saw for the first time ‘Finland’s Fashion Frontier’, a fashion show featuring five of Helsinki’s best fashion design graduates that was organised by Helsinki New, a private enterprise that pairs Finnish designers and brands with the international marketplace, in collaboration with Aalto University and Helsinki Marketing, a company backed by the city itself. Sure, we’d probably not see these designers’ work for a while to come, but the satisfaction from witnessing talents in action from the Nordic land is immeasurable. It is not improbable that some day we may wear some of these names on our back.
State Property’s Lin Ruiyin and Afzal Imran with their Emerging Designer of the Year (Accessories) award
But our young designers can only dream of support that has such far-reaching consequence. Sure, TAFF has, for many brands, acted as link to overseas markets though consultations and trade missions abroad, even if the trips have not enjoyed the visibility of those co-organised with the then Trade Development Board in the ’80s, of which those particular excursions that launched the careers of “The Magnificent Seven”—among them Tan Yoong, Thomas Wee, and Bobby Chng—are still talked about today. But can the Federation alone offer consequential reach with their woefully inadequate resources without members of the media, for one, helping to bolster the small efforts put together to give those designers a leg up?
Shortly after the SFA presentation, The Straits Times ran a report of the event on their online edition that curiously omitted the names of the co-winners of the Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion). An update published a few hours later did not correct the irregularity; neither the follow-up the next day—save a mention in the caption that accompanied the main picture—or the version that appeared in the print edition two days later. It was not, curiously, an omission particular to ST. Other online reports, including those by the members of the Chinese media, published similar exclusion. This collective blank-out (in some cases, one-half of the duo was mentioned) prompted the whisper of conspiracy theories, including one that suggested that TAFF had wanted to play down the fact that the winning brand Ametsubi’s design studio is based in Japan, never mind that they’re a Singapore-registered company and label.
Carolyn Kan of Carrie K won big this year, with three awards: Best Collaboration of the Year, Champion for Creatives and Designers, and Bespoke
This was an odd development. It is not likely that TAFF would sanction such a reporting anomaly. Surely they would have ascertained all selected brands’ country of origin. As one creative director rightly pointed out, “In this connected world, where many of us do business from all corners of the globe, does it matter where the design studio is based? A designer can design in the middle of the Indian Ocean if he or she, or they wanted to.” Or, could the non-acknowledgement be the result of appeasing disgruntled nominees claiming unfair competition, as some attendees had later inferred? Even to that, it is possible that TAFF had anticipated such an unseemly expression of displeasure and planned a course of action to deal with it.
It is, therefore, possible, after a process of elimination, that the names of the winners of the Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion)—Elizabeth Soon and Keita Ebihara—were excluded because these are monikers that do not arouse the interest of the respective editors, or will not ring even the lightest bell among the titles’ readers. If the suppositions are true, then some members of the media may be well served to be reminded that the biggest winner of this year’s SFA, Carolyn Kan, was a fashion nobody when she started Carrie K, even when she had made a name for herself in the advertising industry. The same can be said of the winner of Designer of the Year (Fashion), Dzojchen’s Chelsea Scott-Blackhall, who, by her admission, has been spending a lot of time in New York, presumably to design, and Vietnam, where she had acquired a factory to produce her collection. To not talk about those with a dream and the talent to make it big, even if that will happen in the distant future, is to deny them the hope with which many project their prospects.
Marilyn Tan receiving the Designer of the Year (Accessories) award from Carolyn Kan
In tandem with the honours that they bestow, Singapore Fashion Awards should be produced to be worthy of Event of the Year. A “tea gala” in the resort hotel W on Sentosa is hardly the premise of something that would grab the attention of the industry or imbue the Awards with the prestige that would make a momentous difference to the honorees. While this year’s presentation enjoyed a significant improvement from last year’s, which was staged in the ill-suited space of the Supreme Court Terrace of the National Gallery, it could have been better appreciated and, indeed, attended if it had been held at a more accessible location. Nobody, it can be certain, expects the equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall, where the British version of the SFA, The Fashion Awards, also a sophomore outing, was held this past Monday. Nobody is going to pretend that the choice of the W, no doubt a lovely hotel, is an artistic decision.
In fact, SFA does not have to be a splashy event in a plush setting. As an industry occasion, it can be a little more intimate, with the atmosphere of a family gathering that generates a sense of belonging for all. It could, for instance, be staged at the main atrium of the National Design Centre, a fitting location for an event that celebrates design. The best fashion often takes inspiration from previously unthought-of places, and tells stories yet narrated. TAFF may put SFA in better standing by trekking that path.
Chelsea Scott-Blackhall receiving the Designer of the Year (Fashion) Award from guest-of-honour, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and Ministry of Trade and Industry, Sim Ann
If more boxes are to be ticked, it should also include calling out those nominees and winners who have opted to give SFA a noticeable miss. Support for the fashion industry does not come from only those watching or cheering from the sides or below the stage. It ought to also come from those who have the talent and the good fortune to be nominated. Even if you are not the winner, it is always an appreciable act of grace to be present to applaud those who walk away with a trophy. The high number of no-shows of those whose names were announced and flashed on screen, therefore, left a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste at the end of the presentation, not because of the indifference suggested by those individuals’ absence, but because of their plain rudeness.
Among the winners of the Marketing Awards—Most Popular Brands and Best Marketing, only Trixie Khong of By Invite Only and Rebecca Ting of Beyond the Vines attended and went on stage to collect their trophy. No one from Love, Bonito was present; no one from Benjamin Barker showed up to collect the Best Marketing award. It was a now-show, too, for Contributor Awards winners—the Fashion Hairstylist of the Year, Fashion Make-Up (Artist) of the Year, Fashion Photographer of the Year. Jeremy Tan, who won Fashion Stylist of the Year, had at least sent a friend to collect the trophy on his behalf.
For as long as you’re a nominee, attendance is expected. To not be able to meet that expectation would be akin to letting your brand skip a fashion season. Buyers may overlook the professional mis-step, but consumers may think your playing hooky is ignoring the fact that they’re watching you. Bye for now may not beget hello tomorrow.
Singapore Fashion Award 2017: Full List of Winners
Emerging Designer of The Year (Fashion): Elizabeth Soon and Keita Ebihara for Ametsubi
Emerging Designer of the Year (Accessories): Lin Ruiyin and Afzal Imram of State Property
Top Three Most Popular Brands: Love, Bonito; By Invite Only; Beyond the Vines
Best Marketing: Benjamin Barker
Best Collaboration of the Year: Carrie K X Disney
Honorary Award: Tan Yoong
Bespoke Award: Carolyn Kan of Carrie K
Fashion Hairstylist of the Year: Marc Teng
Fashion Make-Up (Artist) of the Year: Elain Lim
Fashion Photographer of the Year: Stefan Khoo
Fashion Stylist of the Year: Jeremy Tan
Designer of the Year (Accessories): Marilyn Tan of Marilyn Tan Jewellery
Designer of the Year (Fashion): Chelsea Scott-Blackhall of Dzojchen
Photos: Chin Boh Kay and Zhao Xiangji