Was it a coincidence that Singapore Stories 2022 was held on the weekend of Halloween?
One of the entries by Jamela Law of Baëlf Design. Photo: KC for SOTD
Yesterday evening, in the riparian party central that is the Boat Quay, merrymakers were all out to enjoy the weekend before Halloween arrives on Monday. On Circular Road, a just-violated bride frolicked with an ogre who could be Shrek’s uglier cousin. At the edge of the Singapore river, Snow White, who looked like Cinderella in disguise, was cross with her very drunk prince. In a dark corner, a well-fed witch with an MLB cap was snogging with Batman’s Robin. Just a few of the more colourful characters among the usual gathering of the bedraggled and the bloodied. This year’s Singapore Stories at the Asian Civilisations Museum, just across the river, was just as delirious in spooking its unsuspecting attendees. At its first-ever runway presentation since the inauguration of Singapore Stories in 2018, the second-level Shaw Foundation Foyer of the museum was mood-lit like a soundstage for Fright Night. A pull into what could be a tantalising new direction for Singapore Stories under the watch of the newly–named Singapore Fashion Council (SFC).
Yet, was it? Succumbed we tried not to, but irresistible it was to see the entries for Singapore Stories this year as hacks for hantu heroines, and we were horrified. These could be creative output for the inhabitants of the yinjian (阴间 or netherworld). CEO of SFC Semun Ho said in her welcome address that “it’s hard to talk about design” given the chilling challenges of the industry now. It is imperative, therefore, to built a viable “ecosystem”, and bring “sustainability” into focus. Singapore Stories, it could then be understood, is not design-centric. More important is the narrative that the contestants bring to their clothes. Appraise the Incredible Tales, rather than the designs, or the design finesse needed for the telling to be vivid and believable. Sure, story-telling is integral to contemporary visual culture, but with good design, stories illuminate; they clarify, they uplift, they reassure. Design is a better story-teller than mere stories. But, yesterday evening, on the squarish runway, surrounded on three sides by “function chairs”, those Singapore Stories emerged, frightening and daunting.
From left to right: the designs of Claudia Poh of Werable, Felicia Pang of Feel Archives, and Hu Ruixian of Studio HHFZ. Photos: KC for SOTD
The winner of the Singapore Stories this year is Kavita Thulasidas of the Indian emporium Stylemart. Those colourful silk mishmash of cultural references rather scared us out of our wits. Perhaps a deliberate staying away, but not entirely, from her understandably more ethnic tendencies, she attempted “Heritage Reinterpreted and Beyond”. Was it, in fact, from the beyond? There seemed the thought that apparitions sent down the runway would be less ghastly if there was evidence of embroidery or whatever surface treatment that could be applied. Apart from the obligatory flowers, there was the he (鹤) or crane, popular symbol of good luck and longevity in East Asian culture. The bird selected for the garments could have been picked from festive food packaging—there was no reimagining of the mythological crane. Perhaps this was key to her win: Asian exotica. The six-piece entry would appeal to ACM’s acquisition of Asiatic arts. At the post-show reception, ACM’s Kenny Tng urged Ms Thulasidas to continue designing such work so that the museum might acquire more, and eventually give her her own exhibition.
In design competitions, there are always those who are just not in the same league as the other contestants. If so, it becomes an uneven, haunted playing field for them. The lone wolf, if you will, of the night was Jamela Law of Baëlf Design. Her clothes were nothing like the rest of the contestants’, and perhaps that was her disadvantage. Ms Law and co-founder of Baëlf Design, Lionel Wong are known for their flair with laser cutting and for intricate three-dimensional printing, which are transformed into garments and other objects. She opened the show with a form-fitting dress, with sleeves that, in the dimness, appeared to be formed by rods (bamboo or resin, we couldn’t tell) assembled with the intricacies of takeami (Japanese bamboo weaving). It was, even at this early stage, easy to see she could win. And it would turn out that Ms Law was the only contestant who showed fabric manipulation (not merely surface embellishment) and the creation of unusual silhouettes that defied the natural contour of the body. While there were hints of Iris van Herpen couture, the clothes were, nonetheless, intriguing and deserved far more merit than what was accorded to her (she was in the top three, but unplaced). To be certain, Ms Law’s work was still not near what could be seen as refinement (and the inner wear used to introduce modesty under the open-work or gauziness looked woefully an afterthought), but the approach and the thinking behind the designs point to possibly more imaginative compositions to come.
Kavita Thulasidas (centre-front) of Stylemart with her winning designs. Photo: Shirl Tan for SOTD
From the first award handed out in 2018 to the one bestowed last night, there was no trajectory that suggested the awardees showed greater potential with each passing year. The standard did not budged. All the other three of the five finalists presented what could have been, at best, graduate collections. Hu Ruixian of HHFX Studio, known for their purported modern take on the qipao, unnerved with ill-construction on a massive scale. She daringly attempted a cartridge-pleat skirt that had the gainly edge of a barrel. As always, Ms Hu was unable to emancipate herself from chinois cuteness. Some trims looked decided cheap, such as the the row of short tassels that fringed a skirt—they could have been those found in Golden Dragon (金龙) Store in People’s Park Centre—those dangles sought after for making hongbao (红包) lanterns during Chinese New Year. Felicia Pang of Feel Archive left us quite incapacitated to feel for any of the half-a-dozen looks she sent out. Swinging from jokey to cheesy, and back again, the only thing consistent in the girly and meretricious collection was the shocking pink platform heels the models wore. The six looks of Claudia Poh of Werable (yes, spelled that way) were haunted by the ghosts of the simply bad, with no garment that appeared to fit. One top with spaghetti straps was a pair of oversized bust-cups that refused to cup. (Perhaps, that is not totally her fault. The ‘models’ for the entire show were Miss Universe Singapore contestants!) Ms Poh preferred the theatre of fashion: Two models with an extra garment each, stopped in the centre of the presentation area. They proceeded to pull the superfluous outfit, which was hung via the shoulder straps on the elbow pit, on top of the other. The point? We rather not hazard a guess.
Someone in the audience was heard saying that the designers “put a lot on one garment”, probably as expression of praise. But, as Ovidia Yu’s protagonist in Aunty Lee’s Delight believes: “people ought to go through the ideas they carried around in their heads as regularly as they turned out their store cupboards. No matter how wisely you shopped, there would be things in the depths that were past their expiration dates or gone damp and moldy—or that has been picked up on impulse and were no longer relevant”. Every writer, no matter how talented, knows the advantages of working with an editor in penning their prose. Unfortunately, fashion designers on our island rarely enjoy the benefits of the process of editing before they put out their final looks. Singapore Stories might have been better told if the narrative was well-shaped and the focus sharpened, with the emphasis on design that befits a design competition. Story-telling in fashion is not new, but the difference between riveting and tedious is a thread-fine line, just as the difference between zingy and scary is a tacky mask. Scream.