Andrew Gn has always been proud of his Singaporean roots. Despite having spent about only two decades of his life here, his home island still holds tremendous stories and considerable influence in his professional capacity away from our city
Andrew Gn : Fashioning Singapore and the World, the Asian Civilisations Museum’s (ACM) current special exhibition, shows the Singaporean designer at the height of his 28-year career. Welcoming visitors to the exhibition in part one of three are twenty seven outfits (excluding two gowns housed in a glassed cabinet under a stairway by the main entrance of the museum) worn by international celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, as well as royalty such as Princess Alessandra of Hanover and Crown Princess of Mette-Marit of Norway. Cut to May 2023: At the Buckingham Palace reception after the coronation of King Charles III, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark wore a dress from the maison of Andrew Gn. ACM opens the retrospective with the dresses that women of fame and fortune have worn, rather than those that have established Mr Gn as a designer of extraordinary technical finesse. In fact, his fame by association with these “influential woman”, as ACM calls them, is so widespread that a social media page imitating his own appeared recently. Ten days after the exhibition opened, the office of the brand announced that there is a “fake” Andrew Gn Instagram account online. Fans and followers beware.
The gowns on display would make those eager to pursue their own dream of Mr Gn’s celebrity-fueled success giddy with delight. However Euro-centric his designs are generally, with a sense of exotica that panders to a largely American/Middle-Eastern audience, ACM tries to dovetail his aesthetical narrative into their own: That while Mr Gn designs are, as Jackie Yoong, the museum’s senior curator of fashion and textiles, said to WWD last month, “used by celebrities to project glamour and also as a form of power dressing internationally”, it is his “East-West style that align (sic) with the stories that [ACM] tells”. More cogent, perhaps, is that the exhibition celebrates Mr Gn’s Singaporean ties and his willingness to trace his success to his country of birth, even if it isn’t a straight line. And his unwavering—and admirable—pride in his nationality. Mr Gn told The Straits Times (ST) in 2003, “I would never give up my red passport. Globalization is important but ultimately, Singapore is still my home” and in 2006, on not being tempted by French citizenship, “I’m born Singaporean, so I’d like to die Singaporean, rather than that turn French halfway.”
The glamorous gowns of Andrew Gn on the red carpet
According to the press, Andrew Gn Chiang Tiew (鄞昌涛, yin changtao) was born in 1966, about six months after Singapore gained independence. Curiously, those who know him have identified two earlier years—1965 and 1964 (a contemporary was able to say confidently that Mr Gn is an Aquarius). Almost all local media reports state 1966 as his year of birth. It is not certain why there is such a disparity, even if a small one. In a yearbook from Hwa Chong Junior College (the last local school he went to), a gathering of photographs of his classmates, with a recognisable Mr Gn in it, is attributed to the year 1981. Whether that picture was shot in his first year in JC or the second, simple calculation does not point to 1966. While his year of birth may be immaterial to his achievements thus far, and many creative people do succumb to fictive inventiveness when it comes to their ages, it is important to many Chinese, as it determines one’s Zodiac sign, and a way for others to understand an individual‘s personality traits. In China—and on our shores—individuals are still often asked, instead of their numerical age, “你属什么 (ni shu shenme)” or what is your (Chinese) zodiac sign?
Although the year of his birth is not certain, there is no doubt that his father is Gn Yong Kiat, a Teochew immigrant from China, and his mother is Ang Gek Siang, a Chinese/Japanese Singaporean. Andrew Gn likes telling Western journalists that he is “one quarter Japanese”. But there have been hints—he has not said it outright, publicly—that he is part Peranakan too. In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报) to preface the exhibition, he said that in the memories of his childhood, his 外婆 (waipo) or maternal grandmother chewed 槟榔 (binglang) or sirih (betel nuts) while she beaded sandals, presumably kasut manek. The optics are rather clear. So too is a description in a WWD article published on the day the exhibition opened to the public: “Peranakan Chinese grandmother”. He also spoke to Zhaobao of her dress style and her “色彩冲突感 (yanse chongtugan)” or sense of colour clash and her “混合传统图案 (hunhe chuantong tu an)” or mix of traditional patterns, presumably referring to the Nonya baju kebaya. If his maternal grandmother was Peranakan, does that make his maternal grandfather Japanese, or partly? Mr Gn is known to converse in Teochew with close friends. Harper’s Bazaar SG noted that he “speaks English, Italian and French fluently, along with several Chinese dialects”. No one we have asked has heard him mouth Peranakan Malay, even a smattering of it.
A snapshot of Andrew Gn’s maternal grandmother Chen Mei Zhi shown at the exhibition
Gn senior, from an unspecified part of China, has been described as a constantly-on-the-move “merchant”, whose frequent travels throughout Asia meant he could bring home to his wife “wonderful hand-dyed batiks from Indonesia, beautifully woven and embroidered kimonos from Japan and amazing silks from China”, according to Mr Gn in an interview with Forbes in 2018. His mother, a homemaker, would then “go to her tailor (in Chinatown, as per Lianhe Zaobao)”, a man known to a young Mr Gn as “Wong sifu (师傅)”, who had the fabrics “transformed into dresses, suits and cheongsams”. Mr Gn told Haute Living magazine during a trip to San Francisco in 2017 for an AGN trunk show: “My mother is a very elegant woman. She was one of the first women in Singapore who used to keep a house in England and she would shop at Ossie Clark, Browns, and Geoffrey Beene; she would wear Chanel gowns.” In a 2022 podcast What We Wore with the Charlotte (North Carolina) fashion retailer Laura Vinroot Poole (behind the luxury store Capitol), Mr Gn said that his mother also wore “Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Jean Muir… and when she was in New York, she was shopping at Martha (an upscale Park Avenue boutique opened by Martha Phillips, the city’s earlier version of Joyce Ma)”. He also told Harper’s Bazaar SG’s EIC Kenneth Goh in 2021 that after his mother passed in 2019, “she left about 350 suits from Chanel that she collected since the ’70s”.
Mr Gn’s father was less enthusiastically talked about, other than the textiles and other gifts he brought home from his frequent travels. Unlike his wife, he did not seem to have his clothes custom-made. Mr Gn told Le Figaro in 2019 that he spent part of his childhood in his family home where his grandparents “accumulaient” (accumulated) 17th- and 18th-century porcelain. He added that his “father was also a great collector.” Some friends who knew him from their youth recalled that his dad had a store in South Bridge Road (one area identified was Circular Road, known in the old days as sio po chap buay geng [小坡十八间] in Hokkien), selling dried goods (it was also said that his family’s business was in the retail of 山珍海味 [shanzhen haiwei] or luxury foodstuff, such as bird’s nests and shark’s fins). It was Gn senior who, in 1995, furnished his son with what the latter called a “loan” to start his own fashion house (although both parents had initially objected to his choice of career). Lianhe Zaobao (and other press reports) stated that the figure was S$40,000. In 2007, ST wrote that Mr Gn took an additional S$20,000 in the form of a loan from a French bank.
Andrew Gn (age not indicated) with his mother Ang Gek Siang and father Gn Yong Kiat in an undated photograph shared in the exhibition
The media in Singapore is inclined to report that Andrew Gn was “born in Hougang”, as though this part of our island in the north-east is a state or a city. To be specific, Mr Gn grew up in a compound house on Simon Road, an approximately 165-metre street—off Upper Serangoon Road—that was named after Dr Max Simon, a.k.a. Max Aroozo, a prominent Eurasian of Portuguese descent. The unfancy, one-storey dwelling that the Gn family occupied was not far from Upper Serangoon Market, popularly known as the luck kok jio pasat (六条石巴刹) in Teochew (in 1999, four years after the Andrew Gn label was established, the market halted operations). Neighbouring Hougang—or ao-kang (后港) in Teochew or ‘river’s end’, as it’s sited upstream of Sungei Serangoon (now a reservoir)—is known for its predominantly Teochew residents.
Most Gn families are believed to be chaozhouren (潮州人) or Teochews. In written Chinese, the surname 鄞 (yin)—homophonically identical to 银 (silver)—is also used among the Cantonese and the Hakka people. The word is thought to refer to the Yin county (鄞县) in Zhejiang Province (浙江省). Spelled Gn, without a vowel, the Anglicised family name is more commonly used here on our island than anywhere else in the Chinese diaspora. Proudly Teochew, Andrew Gn’s family residence in this part of the city is unsurprising. The area is now a part of Kovan, with the Hougang housing estate, as it is mostly known, to the north. Until both his parents’ death and the house was eventually sold, Mr Gn came home at least annually (usually at the end of the year), and stayed in the Simon Road abode, in which a fabulous library once famously existed, comprising books that he could turn to fervently, to dream, and for pleasure and inspiration. It included the 18th century Chinese classic he often cites with relish, 红楼梦 (hong lou meng) or Dream of the Red Chamber (that he told the media in China was read at age eleven), as well as Histoires Naturelles (Natural Histories), an encyclopaedic tomb by the French naturalist Comte de Buffon (whether he read it in the original French version is not known).
Introductory notes to the Andrew Gn aesthetic, set against the wallpaper of the colour of the passport he will hold to the end
Andrew Gn is the youngest of six children. Little is known about his siblings (three other boys and two girls) or if he is close to them. He offers scant information of his pre-pubescent years, or which primary school he went to, but he did tell Prestige magazine in 2020: “When I was seven years old, in Primary 3 (unusual since most Singaporean children are in primary 1 at that age), I was given an assignment to imagine what a Singaporean national costume would be like (in which class, he did not say).” In a 2022 interview on the podcast What We Wore, he told the host Laura Vinroot Poole, when she asked him if he “went to boarding school early”: “My parents sent me to boarding school when I was 10½ in the UK, Stratford-upon-Avon (the famed 16th century birthplace of William Shakespeare).” The same story was recounted to Time earlier, in 2012. Similarly, in a 2019 article in the French weekly Le Point, Mr Gn was reported to have been “éduqué en Angleterre dans un rigide pensionnat”or educated in England in a rigid boarding school. Did he then interrupt his primary education to go abroad? If his mother was the owner of a house in England, that would not be unusual. Mr Gn did not identify the UK school that he went to, nor did he say how long he was there.
London was a city he reportedly visited with enviable regularity when young. He told Vogue China in 2021 that his parents “常常带我到伦敦的Mr Chow中餐馆去用餐 (frequently took me to the Chinese restaurant Mr Chow in London for meals)”. Mr Gn said that it was here that he met the late vintage-couture-collecting-and-wearing Tina Chow, and both of them—a kid and famous wife of a restaurateur—became friends. He went on to describe her couture collections and how she styled herself as if he was present at every momentous appearance of the Shiseido model and fashion icon. Although he said, “我很小的时候就认识Tina了 (I’ve known Tina since I was very young)”, using her first name, he was not known, prior to leaving for London in 1987, to have mentioned his friendship with Ms Chow to people he knew back home. Travel was truly a taste-forming part of his young life. He told Time in 2012 that he first went to Paris when he was 11 and to India when he was even younger—nine. It is understandable why ACM could not resist hailing Mr Gn as “citizen of the world”.
Activity room, part of the exhibition that provides the opportunity for visitors to mimic what Mr Gn might have done when he was young
In his early teens, Andrew Gn attended River Valley High School (he shared a photo of him in school uniform on IG, and the school recently helped him plug his retrospective in FB, calling him, with palpable pride, “super duper talented”), and after that, to Hwa Chong Junior College, both institutions were noted in the recent ST profile of him in Life Weekend. Curiously, Mr Gn told Ms Poole just last year that “after boarding school, I went back to Singapore to serve my military service for two and a half years.” A huge part of his secondary and pre-university education on home soil was either edited from the podcast or entirely self-omitted. But Sharon Au, fellow Paris resident, did proudly say that both of them went to Hwa Chong. Although he attended what could be considered two of our island’s top schools, he did not seem to have enjoyed academic life. He told Prestige in 2020, “I was daydreaming a lot then. I felt that doing homework and passing exams were duties to please my parents.”
During National Service (NS), Mr Gn served as a medical orderly (commonly known as a medic). He assured Ms Poole on What We Wore: “Yes, I know how to use a rifle.” It was during this period of zero combat-training hardship that he convinced himself that fashion was truly for him. “I used that time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do,” he has said, although he “was always toying with the idea of that while growing up.” He added, “I finally decided that, ‘You know what? I really love fashion, and this is exactly what I want to do’.” And he began moonlighting as a designer. The military years seemingly went by quickly and without perceptible physical stress. In his teens and right through the army, Mr Gn enjoyed Canto-pop and had shared on IG that Sam Hui (许冠杰, Xu Guanjie) of the Aces Go Places (最佳拍档, zuijia paidang) fame was his “idol”, even if it is hard to imagine Andrew Gn as a mere 打工仔 (dagongzai) or worker, as sung by Mr Hui in the 1976 hit 半斤八两 (banjin baliang) or Half Catty Eight Taels. More fascinating was Me Gn’s love for and ability to croon the uniquely Japanese musical genre of enka (演歌), as well as Japanese pop of the day; he loved singing the songs of Seiko Matsuda, among other artistes of the era, possibly imagining the soundtrack of his future fashion shows.
The catalogue that accompanies the retrospective, available to purchase
When referring to his time in Singapore in the ’90s (or earlier), the formative years before furthering his education abroad, Mr Gn often points to the material cache available to him then that were foundational to his fashion awakening. Or gifts, such as a white porcelain bowl from 19th-century China’s daoguang era (道光年间) that his mother gave him on his 18th birthday, as he told Singapore Tatler recently. Rarely, if ever, does he mention the friends around him or the burgeoning fashion scene of the time that he was eager to be part of. There was, apparently, no clique that many emerging designers endear themselves to. In the 2016 book Fashion Most Wanted, Mr Gn said, when asked what got him interested in fashion, “I’ve always been interested in all forms of art… That somehow got me interested in fashion.” But it is known among certain circles that Mr Gn was moving with a coterie of individuals who had piqued his interest in fashion more than books did, or art, and who were instrumental to his awareness of fashion not circumscribed by the changing coastline of our island. Yet, in the catalogue that accompanies the retrospective, one introductory essay (out of seven!), written by author/biographer Tan Siok Sun, states that, even when young, he was alone in his own fantasy world and amused himself accordingly: “He wrapped towels around his head to imitate headwear,” she wrote, “adorning them with his mother’s costume jewellery and accessories. Posing in front of a mirror, he told himself he was a princess from a faraway land.”
Throughout much of his late teens, Yves Saint Laurent was frequently on Andrew Gn’s lips, according to fashion folks who knew him. Yves Saint Laurent debuted in Singapore in 1976 through the first luxury multi-label store of the time, Glamourette (a cheekily antipodal name as the boutique was situated above a supermarket—Fitzpatrick). Mr Gn would have been 10 years old then. About eight years later, while fulfilling his national service obligations, he found the art-infused, culture-evocative designs of Mr Saint Laurent captivating as they paralleled his love for art and ornamentation, opulence and glamour. His ardour for Yves Saint Laurent (during the designer’s active years) never waned and was likely a motivational pull behind his decision to make Paris home. Some of the pieces exhibited in the retrospective bear identifiable “YSL codes”, one visitor was heard commenting. In an ST article in 2001, six years after his brand was founded, he said, somewhat seriously, “I had only one dream—to become a household name like Armani, and Yves Saint Laurent.”
Stay tuned for the final part of our first-ever post on Andrew Gn. Note on dates: Chronological detail vary according to publication referred to, and who said what
Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World runs from now to 17 September 2023 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Admission fee is applicable. Photos, except when indicated: Chin Boh Kay