Running Stitch: From Fashion To Art

This is an entry for the UOB Painting Of The Year 2019. And it was submitted by former fashion designer Tan Woon Choor, who was awarded the Bronze prize in the Emerging Talent category, which proves that, in art, thread can be a serious medium, and as imaginatively used as oil or acrylic


TYC UOB POTY 2019.jpgSweet Dots: Another by Tan Woon Chor. Photo: artist

It might be safe to say that the annual UOB Painting of the Year prize, in its 38th year and is the longest-running art competition in Singapore, has rarely (or never?) received a piece of work to judge that is painted with thread. This year, there are two entries in the Emerging Talent category that employ the material associated with sewing, with one of them a portraiture delineated entirely by thread, or, to be more specific, composed of embroidered discs. This textually unusual art, not quite in the same vein as needlepoint (or the cutesy pieces of custom embroiderer Deer Folks) or fabric-based patchwork, such as those by Lee Suet-Fern, the award-winning quilter who happens to be the wife of Lee Hsien Yang, is the stylish and compelling handicraft of erstwhile clothing designer Tan Woon Choor.

Last Wednesday, Mr Tan won the Bronze prize in the Emerging Talent category of the UOB competition (the other thread user, winner Vanessa Liem’s Frankenstein of an entry is primarily in the more traditional medium of oil on canvas, with squares stitched to form two parallel oblong wholes, with loose threads as curlicues), a place that the new, soft-spoken artist considers a privileged placing. “I was already very happy to be in the final,” he told SOTD the day after his triumph, “getting a third prize just makes me happier”. His winning work, simply titled ‘Another’ (not linked to or inspired by AnOther magazine, as some might assume), is a culmination of two-and-half months of work, and is one in “a series of four (so far) that is dedicated to the women who have inspired, motivated and helped me throughout my life,” Mr Tan let on. ‘Another’ is also “another journey” that he has embarked as he explores art; it’s also another person in his life (after many), and “another stitch after another” of the eye-straining embroidery he now does.

If you look at the UOB Painting of the Year microsite where a grid of this year’s entries is shown (scroll all the way down), Mr Tan’s organised collage of hand-embroidered circles—each with different stitches and unique textures and patterns, all of such deftly handled stitch densities—opaque and net-like, coming together to form a vaguely-Cubist and exaggeratedly pointillist portraiture of Mr Tan’s older sister Joyce, has the unmistakable distinction of looking strikingly modern, the way Serbian collagist Laslo Antal’s work is spiritedly urban. That the visage in Another requires some scrutiny before it can be discerned adds to the painting’s power and mystery. If you visit the UOB Art Gallery (a lift/escalator foyer, really) to view the work of the participants of the competition up-close (and are not too bothered by the lamentable, inappropriately glassed-up framing of Another), you may sense that Mr Tan’s affecting work does not really belong. And the professional judgement on it may have escaped scholarship or even a knowing eye.

Tan Woon Choor.jpgArtist Tan Woon Choor, November 2019. Photo: Jim Sim

Tan Woon Choor has always been somewhat of an outsider. As a fashion designer, he was not a media darling as the style-setters of the day were, such as Heng Juit Leng (formerly of Future State, now retired), Yang Derong (now a CNA stylist/presenter) and David Wang (now VP of education and training at TAFF). He had a taste of fashion early, when he participated, as a teenager, in the 1986 Her World Young Designers Award (the only competition of its kind then, and given a coveted standing as past winners included the late Tan Yoong), for which he was awarded the second prize. Neither was Mr Tan standing with striking visibility alongside other rising stars of a few years later, such as Alfie Leong, designer of MU (now morphed into BSYM) and AWOL, and brand gatherer behind the serial pop-up store Workshop Elements, and a friend, with whom Mr Tan found support—mid-career—in the now defunct, pioneering streetwear store 77th Street.

Mr Tan’s biggest break, he recalled, was being selected by Dick Lee as a participating designer (with his first label, PR Individual) in the ’80s hipster hotspot, Hemispheres, during a time local media consider to be Singaporean fashion’s “golden age”. But his encounters with those willing to give him a chance, despite clearly being a newbie, went even further back: to his ACS schoolboy days, including one when he showed up—even now surprised by his gumption (“I just walked in, no appointment, nothing”)—at presently-retired Celia Loe’s retail store, First Stop, in the old Plaza Singapura (when Yaohan was an anchor) to show her a few of his sketches. To his surprise, she was sufficiently impressed with them to buy the lot at S$8 a piece. He would, years later, join Mrs Loe as a designer of Editions, the “young career line”, not once, but twice.

In the annals of Singaporean fashion, it requires study and scrutiny to specifically place Mr Tan’s earmark contributions. He clearly didn’t belong to the Pioneer Generation of createurs such as Thomas Wee and Peter Kor, nor those who came after him—the fortunate ones who were able to have commercial representation in stores, such as Taro Chan (now a consultant) Peter Teo (ProjectShop-turned-PS Café) and, even later, Leslie Chia (first Haberdasher, then Haber and PIMABS, and now Closeknip). Mr Tan had always followed his own stitches, not totally affected by the pressures of the evolving fashion scene. In that way, he could be seen as part of the sandwiched generationthe in-betweens, so to speak, who worked quietly on their own, just below the radar, such as Vik Lim (a designer/stylist, who, in 2014, co-led the successful Kimono Kollab) and Tan Khee Gek (of the label Khee). These were a diligent few who modestly existed between the SODA designers of the ’80s and the digital-native brands of the Noughties. In that sense, Mr Tan could be considered to be part of the almost-veiled fringe.

Woon Choor SS 2012.jpgA dramatically simple sheath from Mr Tan Woon Choor’s last collection, retailed at the first Workshop Elements in 2012. Photo: designer

Yet, as a fashion professional, Mr Tan’s career had been impressive. He designed for others, such as the now-folded Hong Kong brand Theme; the streetwear/club clothes of Tattoo by the late Andy Ng; the Red and White Lines of 77th Street and for his own collections—“clubbing clothes” of T-shirts and printed mesh tops (“I was in my Gaultier phase!”) for the Zouk Shop, during the dance club’s early years at Jiak Kim Street; 12B (pronounced one-two-B), which was initially conceived for the former Tangs Studio; and an eponymous label, which finally debuted in 2012 for, regrettably, half a year. He was also a buyer at one time for labels such as Gaultier Junior, Luciano Soprani, Canali, and the French mass l’étiquette Kookai in a stint with Hong Leong Fashion. And, a retailer when he started the multi-label store Plan B (two of them—in Bugis, as well as Wisma Atria, which “nearly killed” him) to promote young Singaporean designers and labels, such as Mian (Han), Tattoo (by Andy Ng), Gog Meng Hee, and just-out-of-schoolers Joey Khoo and Alfie Leong.

Although Mr Tan had chalked up a remarkable résumé by the time he veered from fashion design for embroidery-as-art, he has been totally self-taught. “I love looking at clothes,” he said, when we sat him down for a breakfast chat recently. By that, he didn’t mean he glances at garments the way social media habitués scroll down IG pages, clicking the heart-shaped icon to like and approve what they see, but registering little or nothing of what the images might elucidate, if at all. “I look at the inside of clothes as much as the outside; I lay then down and try to understand how they’re all done.”

He isn’t reticent about his own abilities or the limitations they impose. “I always try to do the best with whatever I have. I’m more an improvising kind of designer. Whatever I can’t do, I improvise. So I try to achieve the effect with what I know. I know the patterns, but if you ask me to alter, I can’t because I can’t get the calculations right. In that sense, you can say I’m not a technical designer.” Even with admitting to a lack of technical finesse, Mr Tan’s approach to designing can be considered rather technical: he prefers the specificity of cut than the distraction of embellishments, the manipulation of shapes than the mere meeting of seams. Some saw his work as avant-garde. A school mate recalls Mr Tan’s dogged determination to understand the foundational aspects of garments. “Back in the early days, I remember watching him—in his home—cut a top, and he would try it on paper repeatedly until he got the shape exactly the way he wanted it. I didn’t know then if he did it the right way. That he could cut and sew was impressive enough. The result always looked smashing to me. Meanwhile, Grace Jones’s Nightclubbing would be played on the turntable as soundtrack to an imaginary fashion show in which that top would be featured.”

Tan Woon Choor Another Nov 2019To see the hidden portraiture, Another (left) is best viewed from afar. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Mr Tan’s last stint as a fashion designer was in 2012, when he put together a collection for the opening of the first Workshop Elements (WE) in Wisma Atria, set up by his friend and former colleague Alfie Leong. He had, by then, shifted gears, developing home furnishings/decor items, and was working with Como Hotel and Resorts on products for their gift shops and for room use. (Aside: Mr Tan remembered his first audience with the head of Como Group, Christina Ong, during the job interview to be “like a meeting with Anna Wintour”.) At WE, he finally launched a collection that bore his name, some thirty odd years after his debut in Hemispheres. And it was, as a former editor stated, “smart, well-conceived and well-made; clothes that captured the spirit of unhindered creativity and were deserving of a designer name”.

The WE months for him, although a mere six, marked a career high for Tan Woon Chor: the clothes sold so well that he could not keep up to meet the demand. Still cut and sewn by him alone, they showed an aesthetical maturity that industry watchers noted and his customers—some new, some followers—appreciated. The designs could stand on their own without the hype that had, by then (thanks to the advent of social media and the feverish adoption of it), became crucial for brand recognition, never mind if the clothes held up to scrutiny. Although at the beginning of WE, the idea was to present a “curated” mix of merchandise, it was obvious the organiser did not have enough brands with notable design value to fill the space, which, ironically allowed Woonchoor the label to stand out and reach a captive audience.

Unable to cope with the production and unwilling to see the rack that he, too, designed stand with insufficient merchandise, Mr Tan decided to stop just as things went well for him. There was, however, another reason too, one that had, in fact, presented itself earlier, but seemed more pertinent in post-blog-shop 2012. By now, fashion has been adopted by many, or, for a lack of a better phrase, the denizen. “I didn’t like to see fashion so mass,” he recalled. “When I was working (for fashion companies), I thought the exposure was good for me because I wanted to see what really went on behind the scenes. But after seeing it all, after knowing how things are done, how the buying houses actually got their accounts. I was a little disappointed with the whole system—ethically, it was not me. And now that fashion has changed so much, I feel that if I can’t really contribute or add to the conversation, maybe I should stop. I’m up to here with fashion;  I don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it.”

Studio Curio early works.jpgMr Tan’s early hand-embroidered works. Photo: Studiocuriosg/Instagram

The dabbling with embroidery began last year. Mr Tan had, by then, left Como and was considering slowing down or doing something that allowed him to appreciate processes that they can’t be rushed. “I had the time and I wanted to use the time to really enjoy the things that needed time to do,” he said, “and even more time to do well”. As with fashion design, Mr Tan taught himself how to embroider, gleaning mostly from YouTube videos, like millennials are wont to do when they need animated instructional guidance. But unlike many of the young viewers, Mr Tan applied what he took in seriously and, quickly, found that he could be creative with embroidery, but more importantly infuse his work with modern simplicity.

When contributing editor of Her World Brides Steve Thio saw Mr Tan’s initial output last year, the former was so impressed with the work that he immediately commissioned special pieces that he would use as gifts. In no time, Studio Curio started (“I just needed a name at the time to register an IG account; I thought what I did could be considered ‘curios’.”) and Mr Tan came to the confident conclusion that thread can be as valid and serious a medium as the more traditional used in fine art, such as acrylic, oil, or ink.

He began to seriously consider working on larger pieces that could be destined for walls (opposed to those suitable-for-desk/dresser/beside-table he had, until then, produced). But the work turn out to be more time-consuming than he had thought. Contrary to what it might appear to be, each piece of Mr Tan’s embroidered work is stitched directly onto the canvas, not individually completed pieces appliquéd onto the artist’s base. The long process, which eventually led to the idea of designs that are slow to execute and complete, allowed him to slip into snatches of calming reverie. It became a reflective time. He thought, in particular, a lot about the women who had been instrumental in prodding him along in this journey: his mother, his sister, his aunt (who gave him a box-ful of embroidery threads), even his one-time employer Celia Loe.

19-11-14-18-18-43-890_deco.jpgThe exhibition Favourite Things at the Arts House, featuring the works of Tan Woon Choor. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

When he showed Another to his friend, former designer and present senior lecturer at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Fashion Studies, Gary Goh (himself an alumnus of the Her World Young Designers Award), there was no doubt in Mr Goh’s mind that Another should have a shot at the UOB prize. He encouraged the budding artist to join. When we saw it just before submission, we were struck by the polished and sensitively rendered delineation that tacitly tried to convey to us Man Ray, expressed by the Japanese illustrator Macoto Takahashi, disguised as embroidery swatches in circles!

This evening, Mr Tan and two of his also just-turned-artist friends—art directors Patrick Sin and Sherli Chong—open Favourite Things, a three-day exhibition at the Arts House, featuring their recent works. Unfortunately, Another would not be on display as it now belongs to UOB, and the bank has installed it in the above-mentioned exhibition. In keeping with the theme of taking time to do something well, the exhibits from the three artists have a common conceptual idea, if not a common theme: the quality that would emerge in embracing ‘slow’.

Despite an exhibition he can be proud of and a prize-winning work, Mr Tan is still treading (and threading) with trepidation. “It’s quite scary, this transition to an artist. You know it’s…,” he hesitated and then continued, “an unstable career.” When it was suggested to him that it need not be a shaky career choice, he added, “Usually if you want to be an artist, you’d have to be very commercial in order to sell.”

The sense of disquietude is understandable: even as a fashion designer, Mr Tan had never submitted to the demands or vagaries of the commercially advantageous. “Career-wise, there’s still a question mark,” he said, “but I’ll still go on. I’ll see where it takes me.” Back to fashion? “If there’s anything next for me in fashion, it’d probably be something to do with taking all my old clothes and make something new.” That sounds like a line out of the DBS Sparks online mini-series, but this is no fiction—Tan Woon Choor will make it happen, stitch after another stitch.

Favourite Things is on at the Arts House at the Old Parliament from today to 16 November. Another is available to view at UOB Art Gallery, UOB Plaza 1 at 80 Raffles Place from Nov 9 to Feb 20, 2020

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