The French Connection, A Story Of Hope

From Paris, Sharon Au lets us in on a little known fact: she’s an aspiring fashion designer

‘Red Carpet’ dress worn by Sharon Au (left) and seen in the Akinn look book. Photos: sharonau13/instagram and Akinn/Wee Khim Studio respectively

Who would have guessed that Sharon Au (欧菁仙), now based in Paris, would be the next Kelly to Akinn’s Song? Song Whykidd that is. Mr Song, some may remember, was part of the design duo Song and Kelly and their eponymous label that enjoyed considerable visibility and success in the ’90s, so much so that the Club 21 Group bought what was reported to be a “majority stake” in the label Song+Kelly (then textually identified, with the plus symbol) in 2000, and suffixed it with ‘21’. In no time, Song+Kelly21 was retailing through free-standing stores at Forum the Shopping Mall and Ngee Ann City, as well as their own corner in Isetan at Wisma Atria. Regionally, they were sold at Paragon Department Store in Bangkok, as well as Parkson in Kuala Lumpur. According to press reports, Song+Kelly21 was also sold in Selfridges and Harrods in London and Barney’s in New York. The brand parted ways with Club 21 in 2007, and with that, Song+Kelly21 folded.

Song Wykidd has looked Westwards in affirming his design sense: The ACS alum studied fashion and textile in the UK, at Kingston University (formerly Kingston Polytechnic), and he showed Song+Kelly briefly at New York Fashion Week and London Fashion Week in the late ’90s. And, now, for his three-year-old label Akinn, there is a Paris link—not the pret-a-porter, not a retail space, but a collaboration with résidente parisien Sharon Au, whom Mr Song referred to as “my perennial muse (a vintage expression, if there is one)”. An investment director with a private equity firm there, Ms Au has been in the City of Lights since 2018. Many of those we spoke to were not aware of Ms Au’s connection to fashion and were hard-pressed to remember her style—or if, indeed, she had one. “She designs?” was a repeated rejoinder. Although she was not quite the fashion plate that is Zoe Tay or Fann Wong, Ms Au did start and edit the Mediacorp e-magazine StyleXStyle in 2012 and was made the publisher of Elle Sg in 2017 to assist in the transitioning of the publication to an online title. She was also known to support young talents, not only by featuring them in her magazine, but also by encouraging them at their school, such as Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, attending their graduation shows.

Sharon Au prancing the streets of Paris in an Akinn X Sharon Au ‘A Fresh Start’ dress. Photo: sharonau13/Instagram

In her latest post on her healthily-followed Instagram (134K), liked by fellow Singaporean-in-Paris, designer Andrew Gn, the still-tethered-to-Mediacorp personality shared an ill-lit photo of her with the Tour Eiffel behind her, in an Akinn X Sharon Au dress called ‘Red Carpet’, presumably named after something she or her former MediaCorp colleagues might wear to the Star Awards (红星大奖). An ankle-length, loose-fit sleeveless dress, with an inverted pleat placed in the middle of the scoop neckline, the ‘Red Carpet’ is of a silhouette, we should say, that’s familiar: body-skimming, but still roomy enough to accommodate assorted bodily girths without risking the misfortune of looking like a downright sack. Ms Au wrote in the comments of that post—somewhat gleefully, “…you can eat as much bak kwas as you want wearing this. No matter what body shape you are, you can rock the Red Carpet”.

Akinn, even without the Sharon Au touch, has found the saleable shape that would be appealing—a circumscription adopted by many local brands now enjoying a retail renaissance, from The Closet Lover to The Editor’s Market. Dresses must have the preferred looseness of a housecoat, the happy vibe of a sundress, and the conservative length of a caftan. If its predecessor brand Song+Kelly21 captured the aesthetical zeitgeist of its time, Akinn reflects what sells today. While the brand is better made than many of its contemporaries, it does not quite enjoy the dashes that made Song+Kelly21 the standout that it was in the pre-Design Orchard days of SG fashion. One makeup artist recalled, “I bought a lot of their stuff in the early 2000s. What I remember most are the details worked into the clothes. Even a simple shell top has unexpected seam placement and asymmetric inserts. You sense the pieces had design thinking behind them”.

The Akinn X Sharon Au label, featuring her cat Rudon. Photo: sharonau13/instagram

Akinn X Sharon Au, launched last week, is a small, six-style, dresses-only capsule called ‘A Story of Hope’, one among half a dozen descriptions that aligns with Ms Au’s often upbeat, yet contrived, optimism. Ms Au, who is now home, reveals on IG that she named all the six dresses herself, such as the mint-green shirt-dress she wore shopping at the fleuriste Stephane Bellot, called optimistically ‘A Fresh Start’, because, as she wrote, “I have been given many chances in life to start over and I know how important second and repeated chances are” and “I believe a dress truly comes alive only when you wear it and own your style”. Netizens have, before this collab, frequently commentated on how regrettably trite her posts can be. For Akinn X Sharon Au, there is no discernible attempt to correct that perception: a slick two-tone ‘convertible dress’ bears the unfortunate moniker ‘Mademoiselle-in-Love’ and a lovely ‘ruffled neck blouson dress’ is, regrettably, ‘Spring in Paris’.

Apart from the naming of the dresses, it is not clear how involved Ms Au was in the design exercise of the capsule or if she was, in fact, present when it was put together. This is not the first time Mr Song has collaborated with local stars. Last October, there was a pairing with the singer-songwriter Inch Chua. In a livestream on IG, Mr Song said that the Akinn X Inch capsule had “gone through the fingers of Inch Chua”. Although that does not say a lot, it could indicate that the same might have benefitted Akinn’s team-up with Ms Au. The designer told CNA in 2019 that Akinn’s “vision is to build a collaborative design platform that goes beyond fashion”. And, that platform “could take the form of Akinn working with or being inspired by a celebrated personality with a distinct style, or with a designer or artist (he) admire(s), creating products at the same level of sophistication that customers expect”. Designing not expected? Despite Sharon Au’s admirable attempt at imbuing the collab—at least in the photographs of her in the dresses bearing her name—with a Parisian vigueur, the clothes emanate an SG post-blogshop vibe, even with a “level of sophistication”, with neither the Gallic ease of, say, Sandro or the edginess of The Kooples.

Akinn X Sharon Au communication image. Photo: akinndesign/instagram

Song Wykidd met British graphic designer Ann Kelly in the UK and a partnership was established in 1993. Mr Song came home, bringing along Ms Kelly, and both started Song+Kelly in 1995, a fairly late debut, considering that his schoolmate in ACS, Peter Teo, who also studied in England, launched the now defunct Project Shop, first a T-shirt label, in 1990 (followed by Project Shop Bloodbros, which eventually morphed into the popular PS Café). Song+Kelly enjoyed a good start as Mr Song were friends with many in the fashion scene here, such as the photographer Wee Khim, who shoots Mr Song’s designs till this day. When Club 21 bought into Song+Kelly, they paved the way for another multi-label store to have their own Singaporean label: The Link’s Alldressedup, launched in 2005 and closed in 2013. The designers Sven Tan and Kane Tan left a year earlier to start In Good Company, which some observers initially thought was reminiscent of Song+Kelly21, with their take on the “new minimalism” that emerged from the final Helmut Lang years. Mr Song did not stay away from fashion. After leaving Club 21, he started WK Design, offering bespoke clothing, on top of ready-to-wear and other fashion-related services. In 2014, he joined the Hong Kong premium womenswear label Anagram as their senior design/development manager. Before Akinn was born, he was head of the design faculty at MDIS.

The journey to the birth of Akinn was, reportedly, not an easy-sailing one. At Boutique Fairs in 2019, where the brand had a space (at the F1 Pit Building, the venue of the event that year), Song Wykidd was heard telling a visitor that it had been “hard” to “sell fashion to local shoppers”, but as “fashion was still in (his) blood, will still try”. At that time, less than 500 metres away, veteran designer Esther Tay, too launched her comeback eponymous label. Interestingly, another designer from the past was also a participant at the event: Thomas Wee, in another return of sort. When asked if these old-timers’ output would impact his new label, or emanate competitive heat, Mr Song said diplomatically, “we’re all doing different things”. To that, perhaps, he had (and still has) a trump card the other two did not: appreciating the value of collaborative partnerships and staying more visible as a result of them. It is not known publicly how long the designer knows his muse, but Ms Au’s endorsement of Akinn may augment the positioning of the fledgling brand and the credentials of Mr Song. As she wrote on IG, “I know how important second and repeated chances are”.

Akinn X Sharon Au capaule is available at Design Orchard and akinn.com