The Fashion Week That Can’t Be

What in our troubled world is this?

Just after Paris Couture Week, which officially ended on 28th January, as stated by the French Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, a little-known fashion event, hosted on our shore, was similarly live-streamed to the world. The Ist ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week 2021 made its discreet appearance and, frankly, baffling debut. Hosted on the equally puzzling website The Home Ground (THG), a supposed current affairs portal (“platform” is their word of choice) which publishes news that, according to their About Us, “capture the conversations, concerns, and curiosity of Singaporeans through the lens of locals living and breathing their home ground.” It doesn’t seem like a digital stomping ground on which a fashion event of this imagined magnitude would find synergistic force. But it is here that this year’s first digital fashion week on our island was posted, lost in undirected miscellany: a review of Netflix’s Bridgerton, a listing of Singapore Art Week, and a feeble piece “Life Is Too Short for Bad Sex.”—Sexual Contracts Explained.

The ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week is the initiative of the hitherto little-known ASEAN Fashion Designers Showcase, founded by Singaporean designer Hayden Ng (above). Mr Ng, an ardent overseas fashion week participant, formed AFDS in 2015 as a loose “collective whose key mission is to raise awareness of and appreciation for ASEAN’s unique and diverse fashion and design”, according to AFDS’s WordPress page. Keywords in their “vision” statement include “nurture, foster, mentor”. To date, they have 41 “esteem (sic) members” across the region (including China), each country with their own AFDS head (except Myanmar and Vietnam). Members seem to automatically become “ambassadors” of their respective countries upon acceptance although it is unclear what ambassadorial role they play. For SG alone, there are seven: Terry Yeo (The InSane Studio), Esther Choy (ESH), Audrey Tang (One Day We Forayed), Joanna Lim ( Joannalsm), Joanne Quek (together with Joanna Lim, B1nary), Pooja Nanikram (Güven), as well as Mr Ng, who also considers himself as the “Premier Founder”.

AFDS’s first major event since its 2015 inception is the ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week, broadcast over four days (concluded yesterday) with a reported 64 designers from 21 countries, of which 34 are from ASEAN, while the rest are “guest” designers (they can be from anywhere in the world), who, according to Mr Ng, “are not signed up with any of the organisations that the ASEAN Fashion Designers Showcase has partnerships with.” It isn’t clear what the advantages of signing up are other than to come together virtually to do a fashion event. Singaporean organisations seem to enjoy taking regional leadership roles in fashion. Mr Ng’s is certainly not the first. AFDS appears to be the RTW version of the now-gone-quiet Asian Couture Federation (ACF), founded in 2013 by Frank Cintamani, who launched the now-also-quiet Fidé Fashion Weeks in 2011, and installed the late Kenzo Takada as honorary president. Mr Cintamani has gone deafeningly quiet. ACF, according to those in the know, is presently not active.

Participants of ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week 2021. Screen grabs: The Home Ground

Nor is Mr Ng’s ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week the first digital fashion week of its kind to be launched here. It comes after last year’s The Front Row (TFR), a protracted 10-day affair—conceived by the “Godfather of Singapore Fashion” Daniel Boey—that was met with mixed reviews and divisive responses. TRF’s total of 31 local and 10 regional labels was considered massive—a considerable feat to pull off, and the result was, at best, uneven. (Or go back to 2012, and consider Charina Widjaja’s and Keyis Ng’s original Digital Fashion Week) It is interesting that both events have been linked to single persons rather than industry bodies or government agencies. Mr Boey’s part seemed like a natural fit, having been a fashion show and event organiser for more than two decades. Well-known in the industry, he glamorously fronted TFR, singularly hosting chats with designers and trade veterans nightly, during the duration of the event. It could have been called The Daniel Boey Show. Mr Ng, on the other hand, is known, since the ’80s, primarily as a designer of gowns; he has not established himself as a fashion week organiser (other than his deep ties with the mall event Aspara Fashion Week in Kazakhstan), although he is known in the industry for his work in pageants, in particular, the Singapore chapter of Miss Universe.

ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week, like TFR, is a daily live stream of fashion films and runway presentations (traditional or otherwise), but rather than respective shows within a given time slot, the former is an hour-long, stitched-together video pastiche of inconsistent quality and visual narrative. You get anything from built runways to photo studios that double as catwalks to those that are beyond-the-backyard forest patches on which models prance bare-footed! In fact, it is hard to understand why most of the models appear the way they do: like friends (or customer, even co-workers?) of the designers rather than professionals from an agency, as if just-awaken-to-fashion rather than already experienced much, or thinking they’re shooting a TikTok video rather than a short film for an international event. It is hard, therefore, to pin the international tag to output that is this home-made, this provincial, this devoid of finesse. You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a small-town fashion week, touting ‘villagecore’ as a possible trend, like what those youngsters from the Chinese and Thai countryside promote, scoring massive likes for their fashion-with-whatever-is-lying-around-the-paddy-fields. Yet, just because it can be worn on the body doesn’t mean it is design par excellence, or deserves an audience.

It is really hard to understand what any of these collections have to do with fashion. While designers of ASEAN are no doubt ethnically diverse and have continued links to their rural roots, they are also collectively expressing a more progressive outlook on unabashedly urban life. ASEAN fashion—or Asian fashion—does not need to be represented by ethnical aesthetics that border on looks from a gift shop in a cultural centre. As a nation that exemplifies the embracing of the 21st century in all its wonders and glories, we are leading an aggregation to sell bland, kitschy, and downright unattractive eastern exotica to the world? What happened to the modern or the semblance of something not obviously related to the way-past or remote? Organiser AFDS’s idea of modern is the designs of Thai (primarily) menswear designer Pitnapat Yotinratanachai, whose up-to-the-minute is a collection based on one print of colourful graffiti text (words include sweetheart, love, kiss, daisy, and Anglicised Thai expressions) and fake fur shag, and is featured as the event’s key visual in their online communications. It is a fashion week after a fashion.

Hayden Ng’s ‘Bridging the Seasons’ collection featured on ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week. Screen grab: The Home Ground

Why do fashion weeks have such pull for individuals here? Are they marketing opportunities that are great for targeting mass audiences? Are they branding exercises for those persons whose only measure of success is ‘reach’? Or are they the proverbial vanity project? From the sensational headline on the very platform that hosts this online event, “AFDS Founder Hayden Ng Spills All on the ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week”, Mr Ng said, “To put it succinctly, we want to grow the [fashion] scene for both ASEAN and international designers into a more global matter.” That is ambition even a famously driven Tjin Lee, the amalgamator of our truly first digital fashion week and Singapore Fashion Week, would have found to be monumental. Mr Ng has been mostly a fashion designer since graduating from St Patrick’s School in 1982. His formative years were spent in Flamingo Boutique in Beach Road, as designer of “special occasion dresses,” according to those who knew him back then, for “a lot of cabaret customers.” Contemporaneous with him at Flamingo Boutique was Taro Chan, a noted designer of the era, who had previously interned with Thomas Wee. While Mr Chan would go on to be a successful designer of contemporary wear, Mr Ng’s particular talent for glamourous attire caught the attention of the organisers of beauty pageants, and he was soon dressing the contestants of Miss Universe, as well as participants of mass displays that require the collective wow of over-the-top costumes, such as those of the National Day Parade. His eponymous store Hayden Boutique opened in 1987, and reportedly remains a tai-tai favourite.

A long career in fashion is not necessarily indicator of accrued discernment, refinement, or taste. As the initiator/organiser of ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week and founder of the organisation behind it, Mr Ng is reasonably expected to not only pull off a fashion week of this size, but also lead by example: showing the best presentation of the entire event. Tom Ford, as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFD), for example, would kick of New York Fashion Week (owned and organised by CFDA) to a rousing and memorable start. Quite the opposite, Mr Ng’s closing show visibly darkened any hope that this digital fashion week would be saved by ending with a bang. It was really a dim view, in more ways than one. Shot in the civic district, between Anderson and Cavenagh Bridges (to visually underscore the collection called Bridging the Season?) after sundown, the show appeared to be the trailing of nearby middle-aged residents killing time in their favourite housecoat. Who would have guessed this auntie aesthetic to be the work of a pageant gown aficionado? Was Mr Ng perhaps aware that his collection is not up to scratch and, therefore, shot it under the cover of night, with only street lights for additional illumination?

Mr Ng’s lieutenant Terry Yeo, also AFDS’s logistics director, did not fair any better—or brighter. Choosing to close the show, as well, on opening day, his collection for his own The InSane Studio (possibly the spin-off of his earlier label, For Insane Humans, or was it the other way round) was a moody display of clothes that would not spark any joy. But Mr Yeo has always played the non-conformist. His BA graduate collection at NAFA (in a joint programme with University of Huddersfield; one of his course mate was Yong Siyuan of Nuboaix) featured, curiously, winter wear that he had insisted to be made of linen. And he is fond of nonsensical names for his collections and brands, such as ThisLabelisUnknown (yes, spelled as if hashtagged). His drape-y styles and drab colours and his affinity of pseudo-Asian silhouettes parallel those of the other renegades of Singaporean fashion, such as Andrew Loh and Kenny Lim, the duo behind the persistently gloomy Depression.

Terry Yeo’s collection for The Insane Studio. Screen grab: The Home Ground

While Mr Yeo closed the first day’s line-up, fellow AFDS member/ambassador, the stylist-turned-designer Pooja Nanikram opened with The Kleur Collection of her barely two-months-old, three-part menswear label Güven, started with her brother Vishal. Ms Nanikram counts her “involvement” with fashion events such as Fidé Fashion Weeks (that name again!), to have “refined (her) skills in styling and increased (her) love for fashion,” as written in her brand’s website. Although she has been in the fashion industry for the past 11 years, she appeared a greenhorn as seen in her look-at-me shirts, with too tight a fit (or was the lone model doing his cheesy dance just too big?), and too dated a cut, as if the venerable CYC has been the tailoring consultant. But Ms Nanikram is an experienced stylist, she should have been more mindful of how the shirts, a mix of solid colours and oddly placed Ankara prints, look on the body. Or was that deliberate, just as loud floral shoes and matching belts were? Sure, Güven is not for the Balenciaga or Junya Watanabe customer, but as opener for ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week, it would have been seen as prologue to what lies ahead .

And a foretaste it sure was. The following show by another Singaporean label, Yeomama Batik (guest), was simply too painful to watch, and recount. The collections of the other compatriots that followed were just as agonising. In fact, it is difficult to review these four days of hour-long shows without succumbing to some anguish. What really was the point of Mr Ng’s fashion week? Did the unfiltered mish-mash brought about a compelling event? As he spilled, “I would say there’s no curation because at the end of the day, it’s about each designer’s aesthetics.” To each his own? For sure, different aesthetics prevail in fashion weeks, but the aesthetics of fashion in an “international” setting need to connect the dots between dress and modernity, between stint and skill, between fashion and mere clothes. In an article, From Baudelaire to Christian Dior: The Poetics of Fashion, published in the The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1959, the humanities academic Rémy G. Saisselin wrote, “a dress may be at some moment of its existence, a poem of form, color, and motion, and that at such a privileged instant the dress may transform the wearer into a poetic apparition.” Not one designer at ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week attempted such a dress.

After four evenings, what ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week is really about or what it hopes to achieve isn’t perceptible. As a fashion week, it’s too massive and too ambitious, and delivered too little. Its production is, at best, pedestrian, born of a prosaic mind, not a creative one. It seems AFDS isn’t aware that it isn’t easy standing out in a crowded field. As a window to what ASEAN fashion has to offer, it is indiscriminate enthusiasm for the kitschy, the amateurish, the costume-y, the uninspired, the juvenile, the flashy, the vapid, and, frankly, the nothing-to-look-at. As a joke, however, it is has its many marvelous moments.

Illustration: Just So

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