Visited: #SGFASHIONNOW (2022)

At the second instalment of the only exhibition here to salute Singaporean designers, “Architecture of Drape” is this year’s theme. Is either seen?

Entrance of #SGFASHIONNOW that mimics incomplete renovation

Wide-angle view of the exhibition space

By Raiment Young

Many of us here, as we know, are not terribly rule-abiding. An invitation to a formal event may come with a dress code that reads ‘formal’, but attending in jeans is not out of the ordinary. At important openings, talking noisily at the same time a guest-of-honour is delivering a speech is not considered a lapse in decorum, even decency. Mask-up mandate in an indoor setting, such as a museum, during this wave of COVID infection is to be flouted because behavioural freedom is under threat, just as creative liberty under a main idea could be too. It is, therefore, not surprising that the theme to this year’s #SGFASHIONNOW—Architecture of Drape—is not closely adhered to. Or that the individuals behind the exhibits concerned themselves with something as restrictive as a theme. A unifying idea in an increasingly divided world—and a metaverse developing in tandem—is inconsistent with the selfness of fashion?

The second edition of #SGFASHIONNOW is a bolder thematic exploration than last year’s, loosely based on “craft”. The host Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and its partners “take on the theme Architecture of Drape to survey the diverse fashion space in Singapore”, according to the exhibition notes. Also titled Architectural Drape (which is rather different from the architecture of drape or examining the relationship between the two) in the e-book that accompanies the exhibition, #SGFASHIONNOW continues, according to ACM’s director Kennie Ting, to “explore the question: ‘What is SG fashion?’” but, as before, with no real answers. Mr Ting also suggested that the exhibition could ask “important questions” about the “Singapore identity: Who we are, who we want to be.” When I asked one fashion student the same questions, she replied, “should what I wear determine my national identity or should it say who I am, what I believe in? Do I need to mindlessly wear a red and white outfit on National Day to show how patriotic I am?”

From left, designs by Brian Yeo (partly seen), Shawna Wu, Harry Halim, Latika Balachander (Labal)

Despite the clarion call to “Shop SG Brands” and a design competition to convince us that there are “Singapore Stories”, identity through distinctive, well-designed and well-made clothing has not emerged from infancy. Perhaps this is why the exhibition space is designed as confines “under construction” or, as was repeated to me by those who could see the subtext, a “work in progress”—incomplete possibly the pseudonym for immature. ACM also describes this as a construct that “frames Singapore’s fashion identity as work in constant progress: generative, evolving, and open to change.” Walk into #SGFASHIONNOW in the Contemporary Project Gallery of the Kwek Hong Png Wing and I won’t be surprised if you thought that a change of display or a set-up is underway. The exhibits, 16 of them (a significant jump from last year’s meagre eight), are displayed on wooden pallets, surrounded by bare partition boards on which the croquis (illustrations) and images of the work of the designers are pasted on. Under the metallic cuboid of the glass extension of this part of the museum, the exhibition looks to me a transplant of a more grassroots affair at a community club. A former designer who attended last night’s opening remarked to me this morning, “I thought it was a graduation show more than a museum exhibition.”

That perception is, perhaps, understandable. For the second year, #SGFASHIONNOW is a collaboration with Lasalle College of the Arts, and Architecture of Drape is a “winning pitch” (I keep hearing that stressed) of the students of the school’s BA(Hons) Fashion Media and Industries, led by former student Ethan Lai, also a photographer and the one who lensed the raw images of the exhibition. According to Steve Dixon, president of Lasalle, who wrote in the e-book Architectural Drape, it “marked the first time ACM handed over the curatorial reins to an external team.” Yet, Mr Ting shared that it “represents our exploration of a new collaborative approach to exhibitions: students from LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion take on the task of curating, with guidance from faculty and ACM’s professional curatorial, audience, and exhibitions teams.” ACM curator Dominic Low seconded that when he wrote that Mr Lai “co-curated” the event to include ACM’s “selection of three important designers—Thomas Wee, Ashley Isham and Max Tan” and that “by bringing together members of the fashion ecosystem, #SGFASHIONNOW provides a platform for ACM to collaborate with the fashion community.”

From left: designs of Thomas Wee and Ashley Isham. In the rear: Chong Kenghow and Chong Kage (Biro) and Lina Osman (Linaoth)

From left, designs of Ashley Isham, Lina Osman (Linaoth), and Chong Kenghow and Chong Kage (Biro)

Architecture of Drape is a fascinating proposal, although a challenging one. With all the chatter about engaging the “fashion ecosystem” of this island, the definition of the show’s theme seems to have been overlooked: What is the Architecture of Drape? Are they contradictory terms? As nouns, are drape and draping the same, and can they be used interchangeably? And why was draping not considered in the title? In a CNA interview two days ago, Mr Low was asked by anchor Dawn Tan to “briefly explain… what (the theme) means”. He did not. Making it clear is, perhaps, not compulsory. Designers are, after all, not expected to cleave to restrictions. I overhear one visitor to #SGFASHIONNOW exclaim to another who could not understand the theme and wonders where the drapes are, “chin chai, lah.” This anything-goes approach perhaps necessitates the categorising of the exhibition into broadly three areas, “Construction, Deconstruction, and Freeform”, to give it what architects may call ‘principal mass’ or what fashion designers might refer to as ‘body’. Apart from helping the “Under Construction” visual approach (one, Mr Ting admitted, “completely not like anything I’ve ever allowed in ACM”) make sense, it favours more of the freeform and the “subversion of traditional draping”, even the ignoring of it. And, to better accommodate “inclusivity”, which means, this year, accessories also share the spotlight, not just clothing.

A garment conceived by draping traditionally begins life as a piece of fabric positioned and pinned on a dress form, such as a tailor dummy, to shape an outfit that will fit the body. From this placement, a basic pattern can be made after it’s marked and removed from the form. Those who chose to design organically may tease a garment out on the form by playing with the fabric—splicing, twisting, crunching, tucking. This first-hand manipulation of fabric is primarily associated with high-end dressmaking, such as haute couture, as it requires considerable skill to bring together the many variables of the process, bearing in mind, too, how nicely they might effect, say, the verticality and movement of the intended garment. This is not a common approach—even if it’s a freer one—to designing among local practitioners, many have told me, as opposed to the more controlled (and controllable) flat pattern-making, which is done on a level, horizontal surface in basically two dimensions with tools such as rulers—the lines created are primarily right angles to correspond to the grain of the fabric or curved to follow the contours of the body.

From left: designs of Max Tan and Jon Max Goh

Draping is considered to be the oldest form of pattern making (at its simplest, the pelt that early man threw on his body could be considered a draped garment). Until the beginning of the industrial revolution (and even after), much of the clothes considered ‘fashion’ were realised at its conception by draping. The French call it moulage, and it was French designers such as Madame (Alix) Gres and Madeleine Vionnet, who elevated draping to a form much regarded, as it was like sculpting with fabric. There is snob appeal attached to its adoption too. I have met designers here who studied abroad, telling me that they “design by draping”. In practice, this is rather uncommon. Unless one offers custom services, most designers adopt flat pattern making or, very likely, employ computer-aided design (CAD) software, even 3-D CAD, to pattern. In my mind, as I approached #SGFASHIONNOW, draping—in relation to fashion design—is really adapting fabrics straight on to the dress form to yield three-dimensional clothes. As draping, being largely instinctual (it is hard to explain, for example, why a fold has to be precisely here, just as a floral arranger would not be able say why a bloom must be in the position he chose), allows considerable room for creativity, innovation, and, for sure, drama. Of course, to drape can also mean to wrap or hang, so that a piece of cloth may fall gracefully, with folds or not. At ACM, this was what I mostly saw—the selendang approach to drape, as well as design. “Chin chai” keeps coming back to me.

I do not, of course, think it would be really a visual thesis on the Architecture of Drape. I remind myself that this is the curatorial output of students and it is, as Nadya Wang, fashion lecturer at Lasalle, wrote in the e-book Architectural Drape, “conceived self-reflexively, from the point of view of Gen-Z fashion practitioners”, who are largely, I am thinking, themselves. If so, the inclusion of the three established designers selected by ACM seem only to lend gravitas to the exhibition, rather than to suggest that there is masterful evolution of draping as a form of pattern making favoured by our designers. The rest of the participants were picked by the student curators, and these exhibits would not be out of place as photographic subjects for social media, where surface is more important—and works better—than substance. One of them, Jon Max Goh, was the industry’s sole inclusion. Mr Goh was last year’s winner of Textile and Federation of Singapore-initiated design competition Singapore Stories, and now works with Love, Bonito. The piece from his winning entry of primarily loose shapes “takes cues from the form of the kebaya”, another garment that acquires its drape predominantly from how it hangs.

From left, designs of Bryan Yeo, Harry Halim, and Latika Balachander (Labal)

Accessories at #SGFASHIONNOW. Clockwise from top left: face mask by Rachael Cheong (Closet Children), batik corset by Putri Adif, platform boots by Firdaos Pidau (Charles & Keith), polyester bag by Gin Lee (Gin Lee Make), nylon bonnet by Joshua Suarez, tote bag by Fahmy Ishak and Erliana Kamiti (FIN Crafted Goods)

Puzzling and less convincing to me are the lame pieces by accessory designers, such as a clearly-not-draped recycled denim tote by FIN Crafted Goods (whose clichéd boroboro patchwork was already seen at Uniqlo’s global flagship store at Orchard Central when they partnered with the Japanese brand in 2021) and the tired pleated bags of Gin Lee, who admitted that her exhibit is made with “fabrics (that) are firmly tied in between patterned piece template before steaming to create a structured bag with fluid shapes”. Could this be the Architecture of Drape that eludes me? Elsewhere a pair of deformed platform boots (that curiously cannot be made in a finer fabric other than “faux leather” or polyurethane) by Charles and Keith tries to trick the eye into believing that draping was involved by the creasing of the upper. If the footwear was wrapped over a last, perhaps. One bonnet (do women here wear such a close-fitted hat?) by Joshua Soarez could be draped: Fashioned on a head form. Similarly, a metal-chain face mask by Rachael Cheong of Closet Children could have benefitted from the links shaped directly on a similar dummy. But I am guessing. The exhibition does not allow me to conclude affirmatively.

The space allotted to #SGFASHIONNOW is very small. To be this wide in scope is disingenuous on the part of the curators. “Inclusive” keeps coming back to me. But it would have been more informative and enriching if the exhibition focuses on just garments and the developmental stages behind them. Regrettably, none of the videos of interviews with the designers that accompany the exhibits shows even one of them in the act of draping or using a drape, let alone extol the virtue and advantage of draping, as opposed to other means of developing a pattern not based on, say, a block. A tailored, cut-away men’s jacket by Biro’s brother-designing-duo Chong Keng How and Chong Kange offers no clue to where a drape can be found. In the video and on the partition boards, only flat drawings are shown. While a jacket can be draped (I am thinking of John Galliano), it is not commonly applied to the tailleur of menswear. Across the hall, a “harness halter” by Shawna Wu, is made with what she calls “butterfly knots (蝴蝶结)”, but appear to me crude panchang knots (盘长结), which hang rather than drape. Perhaps these point to what ACM in its “curatorial statement” calls the “fluid nature of fashion”?

Design by Harry Halim

If the draping approach to designing is placed against the backdrop of architecture, there is also the need to consider the engineering component. But, there is no mention of engineering at all, except fleetingly, in Thomas Wee’s explanation of achieving form. A skilled designer would be able to use draping—or partially—to attain both fit and fullness. Mr Wee’s design, as it appears to me, is not executed at design stage by draping. He is a true technician and is often considered an “engineer” of fashion. His signature “one-seam” shift is conceived by essentially folding the fabric (here, he uses silk taffeta) in half (the folded end, as a result, requires no hemming), and then again lengthwise, cutting out the armholes, and allowing that single seam in the centre-back, where the zip is also situated. The excess flaps on both side of this seam can then be arranged and crunched up, and fashioned as a drape, which seems to be the intended effect. And this he does, on a dress form, I suspect, after the garment is completed; this could be draping upon completion, not before.

In addition to Construction and Deconstruction, there should, therefore, be an additional category that takes into consideration the flat-pattern-making-first-then-draping approach: Post-Construction. It is not clear how the curators came up with the categorisation and what criteria are required to fit into them. Regardless, I find myself wondering, is skill a requisite? It is sad that, even knowing their clothes would be scrutinised when placed in a museum space, many designers do not find it imperative to offer their very best model. Some pieces allow the spotlight to pick up irregularities not consistent with designer fashion: hems that are not flat, seams that pucker, even lapel roll that warps (they are not Deconstruction!). I do not sense anyone playing their highest card. The reality is that fashion no longer astounds, and designers have to try harder. But the irony is that lackluster designs now qualify as museum pieces. I ask a designer if he thinks standards on our island have improved, as #SGFASHIONNOW seems to suggest. Smiling, he replies, “if you kick a chatek under the bed, how high will it go?”

#SGFASHIONNOW (2022) is now on at the Asian Civilisations Museum till 16 October 2022. Photos: Chin Boh Kay