Stepping Up

Design Orchard, in the month of its second anniversary, is finally stocking ‘designer’ clothes. But is it enough?

Thomas Wee gets a street-facing window and dedicated space for his first collection at Design Orchard. Photo: 路人甲

After close two years in business, Design Orchard is upraising its positioning. At a media event yesterday evening, when operator Textile and Fashion Federation (TAFF) announced their “exciting plans in-store for 2021” and to “unveil” their Chinese New Year windows, one sensed that the operative word ‘design’ is finally taking tentative root in a store conceived to showcase what Charles Eames called “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose”. It is still not yet clear what purpose Design Orchard has set out for themselves other than to foster the spirit of “Shop Local, Grow Global”, but the current mix of names could portent well for a store that has not quite found its footing.

After protracted grumblings that there were no true designer styles in their merchandise mix, they have managed to invite some recognisable names to their fold, even successfully coaxing veteran designer Thomas Wee out of his serial retirement to present his first collection for Design Orchard. To be sure, at the 2019 opening of TAFF’s Cocoon Space, also in the building that houses Design Orchard, formerly operated by Naiise, Mr Wee had shown a selection of past fashion-show clothes. But as we understood at the time, that was a static display to fill the empty nooks of Cocoon Space, not a prelude to the availability, at Design Orchard, of our city’s premier designer line. Now that Thomas Wee is finally in the store and an “anchor label”, as one fashion buyer called it, would this be the charm to draw other revered names and to elevate Design Orchard’s standing among the design and retail community?

As the grand elder of Singaporean fashion, Thomas Wee gets his own private corner. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

The sizeable Thomas Wee collection takes up a space in an extreme corner of the store, on the opposite end of the main door, at what was another entrance (or rear exit) until the COVID-19 social-distancing mandate required stores to have a single point of entry and exit, to better control and monitor shopper movement. What Mr Wee is assigned is rather unusual in that, based on our earlier understanding, brands are not usually allotted their own designated spot. Within the roughly 50-square-metre corner, with a street-facing window, Mr Wee has set up shop in a layout that feels familiar: simple racks, headless mannequins (five of them—more than the other labels), the largely monochromatic scheme, a bench, which appears to welcome resting—a sum that hints at the elegant simplicity of his clothes. If not for the distracting UOB logo on a lightbox from next door, this would be a corner that could easily induce the appreciable description, cosy.

The familiarity extends to the clothes too. On the five mannequins that line the window, we could discern the discernible silhouette: relaxed, slightly voluminous, with drop shoulders, and a flare towards the hems (for both tops and skirts); the sum of which would not be out of place in today’s preference for a more relaxed approach to dress. Upon closer inspection, many pieces—some are tweaked or updated—have had their place in past collections. This could be, yet again, The Best of Thomas Wee fashion mixtape—a boon to those who are fans and for those who collect his designs or wish to replenish well-worn favourites. It is to the designer’s advantage that his clothes are situated away from the other labels. Mr Wee designs for a specific customer, a woman of a certain age, who is unconcerned with what’s trending, who has every reason to be dressed, attractively. But would the typical Design Orchard customer, weaned in the last two years on the store’s ho-hum offerings, be enticed? One attendee at last night’s event told us, “Only Thomas Wee’s things look and feel nice. They are really classy. Wear his designs and you will straightaway look ex.”

As the darling of the local designer pack, Max Tan gets the best spot to showcase his dramatic lines. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Mr Wee is not the only designer invited to showcase and sell here. Close to Mr Wee’s space is that of Max Tan, the Boy Wonder of Singaporean fashion. Mr Tan has not been this visible—and strikingly so—since closing his first free-standing boutique and exiting Capitol Piazza in 2016. He continued to sell in various pop-ups and to export. In the mean time, he earned his BA (Hons) at NAFA through a joint programme with the University of East London. Max Tan the label is in its 21st year, and there are some hints of maturity of thought and sophistication of execution, although his insistence, till today, on what he continues to call “quirk cuts” has somewhat hit the breaks on his progress. His collection at Design Orchard is appealing at first sight until, as is often the case with Mr Tan’s work, you come up close and touch. Refinement is still elusive. One round neckline stands out: it is gathered with a rather wide tape and, given the fabric’s inherent weight, forms a rather thick ring round the neck, as if with the intent to choke, if not to wring it.

Another name that’s new to Design Orchard, but not an unexpected one, given the approach of Chinese New Year, is Lai Chan by Goh Lai Chan. Although Mr Goh is a popular designer of occasion wear and a name bandied about among some society women, he is still the go-to name for his unchanging retro-modern cheongsams. A profitable sub-line, the cheongsams are reportedly in demand among women who favour this dress style, as well as among stockists that bank only on products that move, especially with the lead-up to CNY. The close-to-forty-years veteran provides Design Orchard with his usual, neatly sewn, not-too-constricted cheongsams, distinguished by the row of coloured spherical stones of indeterminate gemological value on the right, in place of Chinese frog buttons—an aesthetical sum Mr Goh seems to have churned out forever. These will likely sell well for the store, although if you already own one—or two—of this particular style, they may have less subsequent pull, however floridly vintage-looking some of the fabrics are. Nostalgia has its limits too. Change might inspire a more bloom-ful present than a mirrored past could.

Rows of Lai Chan’s signature cheongsams. Photo: 路人甲

Two unexpected names appear. The first, national-song-meister and occasional designer Dick Lee, with a new shirt line, put together in collaboration with custom tailor Pimabs, the brainchild of Leslie Chia, previously of Haberdasher (and, later, Haber) and the oddly named The Clothes Publisher. The “limited-edition” Dick Lee X Pimabs is really more the former than the latter. Mr Lee’s weakness for florid prints, which he often recounts (in his concerts too), harking back to the days when he went shopping with his mother at the first Metro department store in High Street, is again in full display, recalling his last menswear collab with the short-lived The Modern Outfitter in Tiong Bahru in 2014. Back then, shirts with micro-floral prints dominated. Presently, they still do. Only now, as Mr Lee boasted on Facebook, they’re “in mixed-up Liberty prints”. A la the Mad Chinaman. Although a trained designer, he seems to have overlooked the overall aesthetics of the line.

The shirts—especially those with open collars (some with an odd crease above the notch)—could be kin to the auntie blouse. The “mix-up” means a clash of prints (at least two different florals in one shirt), but it is hard to find in them print pairing that hints at something more contemporary. Loud is all that matters. In addition, we find it odd that with the use of silk and ultra-fine poplin in shirts that are mostly casual, there is a need to have fused, rather than unfused stand collars, with the interlining unnecessarily stiff. We expect more from the input of a experienced tailor that Mr Chia is. Is this Mr Lee’s contributive follow-up after criticising Design Orchard in a remark published by The Straits Times last June: “I went into Design Orchard and it’s shocking, the standard of clothing stocked there. Things are so basic and there’s no nice fabrication or nice finishing”? Is he showing us what “nice” is?

The other name new to Design Orchard that will surprise is Yang Derong. On hindsight that shouldn’t, in particular when Dick Lee is in the picture. Both of them are the best of friends, and Mr Lee’s song Follow your Heart (from the 1991 compilation album When I Play and, later in the OST of the 2017 autobiographical film Wonder Boy) was said to be written for Mr Yang. It is, therefore, not immoderate to assume that, this time, Mr Yang was roped in by Mr Lee. A designer who hails from the late ’80s, and who is reportedly retired from fashion, Mr Yang has, in recent years, made a name for himself as the creator and sole model of the quirky and unapologetically outrageous Instagram page FaceOfTheDaySG, which was followed with a 2019 exhibition at the National Museum, and also as the makeover stylist on Channel News Asia’s Style Switch. But rather than design clothing that many still remember him fondly for, he created a “lifestyle” line to appeal to not-yet-returning tourists. The refinement-lite collection of T-shirts, bags, face masks, cushion covers, and greeting cards are based on the Chinese zodiac. Labelled Sayang Sayang, the manja-ish name and the kitsch-driven products have Mad Chinaman written all over them.

A new collaboration between Dick Lee and custom tailor Pimabs. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Yang Derong’s Sayang Sayang collection. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

It is heartening to see familiar names with a storied past in the history of Singaporean fashion appear in Design Orchard, but are these individuals still able to pull in shoppers and, perhaps more pertinently, are they still relevant? Since its opening, Design Orchard has mostly availed easily accessible designs, such as those by Weekend Sundries and Little Match Girl, to their not-necessarily-in-the-know customers. Weaned on these not-artful labels (even when actual painting is involved), shoppers are not likely able to put themselves up to the level the new (old?) names are hoping to effect. That these names may give the store the directional heft it lacks is a plus. Young brand owners may feel a sense of pride to share the same platform as the established brands, but some may use the opportunity to be seen in the company of those they do not belong. Just a look at the window displays that TAFF has so proudly unveiled: the evidence is clear.

Despite all the efforts on the part of TAFF, mistakes (or oversight?) appear to dog Design Orchard, even in the digital-sphere. Yesterday afternoon, before the Cocoon Space event, we clicked on the store’s flat website to confirm the new names already talked about among those interested in such matters. To our astonishment, two captions incorrectly paired to two photos stared at us*. A picture with a model languishing in a recognisable cheongsam was attributed to Max Tan, while another woman looking haughty in a military-style trench coat to Lai Chan! As we write this post, no corrections are made or erratum published. One editor told us that the mis-match is “likely an honest mistake”. We are certain it is, but errors as easy to spot as these should not have their share of exposure online (or even off) when Design Orchard is positioned as the premier destination—the “hub”—for Singaporean labels. Or, perhaps, no one knew any better. One designer said to us, “Do you think they can tell what is Goh Lai Chan’s signature look or that Max Tan probably never made a qipao in his entire career?” We’re not referring to being intellectually fervid about the power of image and text coming together. Captioning is a marketing necessity, as well as an informational opportunity. If some of the Design Orchard brands are to be “featured”, such erroneous descriptions is palpable disservice.

The opening page of the Design Orchard website, with the incorrectly captioned photographs (blurred text inherent). Screen grab: designorchard.sg

This should not be mistaken as casting the proverbial wet blanket on Design Orchard. In the bleakness of the present, not-yet-post-pandemic time, what TAFF continues to strive for is laudable. But sometimes, we wonder if they truly have their heart in this and if the right people are recruited to see Design Orchard rise to greater heights. Design Orchard, unlike during Naiise’s watch, is now supposed to benefit from TAFF’s experience and industry leadership. If TAFF, with the resources (perhaps, not, as we’re repeatedly told, financial), does not discern, filter, or guide, who would take on the role? Who will be able to distill the essence of the work of those who are truly creative and encourage more from whence it came? Who will spur the vitality so necessary in growing a design community? How different is Design Orchard from, say, The Editor’s Market if they do not distinguish themselves with turbo-ed enthusiasm and intellectual might? Or are they just content with giving whoever’s interested in setting up a fashion (or lifestyle) label a hotchpotch confine to do their thing, and fizzle out within?

Even if we do not play on an international stage, we can aspire to play to an international audience. Design Orchard needs to go beyond its Singapore tag. Singapore Tourism Board’s “Made with Passion”, which Design Orchard yokes itself to, is good, but is geographical limitation encouraging designers to look beyond our front or back yards to scale higher? The view, as any climber or apartment hunter will attest, is always more impressive and inspiring when we’re aloft. But the trend seems to be for many to stay grounded: look back and dwell in the past, the more conspicuous and kitschier the better. Do we, therefore, invite committed and skilled designers to participate in the conversation of what fashion is now and will be in the future, or do we request the participation of those on/off practitioners who can’t give up living in their teenage years? The answer really lies with TAFF, and Design Orchard.

*Update (16 Jan 2021, 11.15pm): The content on the Design Orchard website has been amended to show the correct captions

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