Gosh, I Wish

DFW 2014 P1Audience getting seated before a show

By Raiment Young

Perhaps it’s a little early to make Yuletide wishes, but if you look carefully enough, it’s really looking a lot like Christmas. So, I’m wishing.

I wish I could like the just-concluded Digital Fashion Week more. I don’t regard it with disapproval or aversion; I just wish it was put (or pulled?) together with flair. It’s not quite comprehensible that three years after the project started, DFW 2014 was still as raw as the first. Opening-show reception mayhem and confusion, guests queuing too long for entry, shows starting hours later than the advertised schedules, the lacklustre staging and the uninspired productions amid gossips of designers unhappy with the hair and makeup teams (The Body Shop for a major fashion event?!) as well as the gaggle of not-the-best models (reportedly, organiser DFW Creative was only willing to pay the lowest rate, much to the chagrin of the modeling agencies), and rumours that main sponsor, the British Council, was keeping a close watch to determine if they will continue to support DFW next year—unfortunately shared the limelight.

DFW’s participation in Bangkok International Fashion Week (BIFW) a few days later only served to amplify what the former lacks: the panache and élan to stage something that was streamed to the world. The Bangkok designers and show choreographers, by contrast, offered their audience runway performances that were enthralling and spectacular, and videogenic to boot (Fly Now’s closing show, despite the shockingly derivative designs, was extravagantly staged!). It spoke volumes that the “Singapore Collective” show on 8 November (part of a DFW exchange program; the Thais designers earlier showed in Singapore too) was not the full-house event Singaporean attendees had hoped it to be. I wish I could have cheered majulah throughout the show; I wish members of the audience were bowled over by what they saw; I wish our designers were able to feel that they had outshone the Thais. I wish.

DFW SG 2014 P5Designers receiving the customary bouquets at the end of their catwalk show

I wish I could rave about our young designers more. I don’t regard them with contempt or disapproval. I just wish they know what it really means to take to the catwalk at the end of a fashion presentation. When you go out bowing and receiving flowers and basking in the applause, you want more than to show a face and a gait that can be identified with your brand; you want to be regarded as a ‘designer’, a title loaded with expectations. Yet, often than not, you are unable to hold up the high standards that come with such a recognition. You are given the runway; you have to deliver. A fashion show isn’t a platform for you to show your narcissistic self. Hubris has to match output: you have to present what is truly worthy of a catwalk show; you have to present clothes of technical finesse and artistic quality. Even if the audience do not demand it, you have to demand it! I wish this isn’t stating the obvious; I wish this does not require mentioning. I wish.

I wish I could like Max Tan’s designs more. I don’t regard Mr Tan’s clothes with shame or scorn. It was disappointing that Singapore’s favourite designing son did not put out a collection that befitted his designer standing. It was enticing fodder for Instagram, no doubt, but it was far from fashion that could garner esteem or respect. It has to be said that, for someone with puny mastery of tailoring to do those absurdly clumsy coats, tremendous courage and nerve were displayed. There was evidence of magnanimity too: Mr Tan shared the stage with his protégé duo, Jac and Zhiying of YouYou, but I wish he didn’t have to share those bootees with the girls too. Both collections did not draw from one aesthetic vision, why then should their models sport identical footwear? I wish Mr Tan had thought of that. I wish.

DFW 2014 P2The bloggers or “influencers”—as DFW called them—were front-row fixtures

I wish I could appreciate Mash Up more; I wish the clothes didn’t look so messed up! I don’t regard Mash-Up with derision, just doubt. Primarily a T-shirt label, Mash Up offered scant answers to why their clothes deserved to be on a catwalk. Like so many young designers of their ilk, the Mash Up trio of Daniela Monasterios-Tan, Nathaniel Ng, and Shaf Amis’aabudin primarily assembled rectangular pieces of cloth as clothes: the T-shirt school of design. They barely worked with darts (since those loose shapes did not require structure and the body-con dresses were made of stretch fabric), they did not concern themselves with armholes (since those drop shoulders did not require well-fit arms), and, not counting two biker-jacket-wannabes, they did not use collars (as that would require some real shirt-making skill). Their strength, it was often pointed out to me, is in their madcap graphics, but I wish they had tried harder. Their Pocahontas-meets-The-Little-Match-Girl aesthetic was completely at odds with a recurrent portrait—plastered over the bodice—that was Cubist in spirit and Gauguin in pose. Mashed up indeed! If the Mash-Up show was meant to buff its street cred up, it did not. I wish it had. I wish.

I wish I could like Pauline Ning more, but it was hard. I don’t regard Pauline Ning with dismay, just discomfort. An earlier review on this blog has already expressed disapprobation of what the brand showed. Still, it bears repeating that a fashion show deserves better-made clothes and the audience deserves more respect. Pauline Ning isn’t a sideline business; it is designer Pauline Lim’s day job. Yet, she was not inclined to impress, as designers are wont to. The impact she made was with the poor finishing of her clothes, which may be palatable to fast fashion consumers, but not to those who must have better. I wish Pauline Ning will find a competent sampling team soon. I am assuming, of course, that she has a sampling room from which her show pieces were produced. I wish her clothes will one day not look like castoffs from an H&M factory. I wish.

DFW 2014 P3Show favours occupied the seats before guests took over

I wish I could like Depression more. I don’t regard Depression with gloominess or repugnance. It’s just that their presentation was deathly cold, so they needed something to heat the runway, but it didn’t emerge, not in the form or wit, not in the shape of sexiness. The sinister-looking clothes, styled to extend their Dark Nature theme of autumn/winter 2014, were, at best, gimmicky. And all the ideas of “fear” swirling around were just a promotional hook, not a design statement. I couldn’t grasp the persistent (or was it leftover?) pseudo-cultish patina, just as I couldn’t perceive Depression in dressier mode. Was it just a spoof of their unchanging aesthetic? Designers Kenny Lim and Andrew Loh like to project themselves with the bravado of what seems to me The Crow in an unholy union with Death of The Sandman, but it is far from organic, far from convincing. In the end, there was no shock—let’s not even mention awe.

The thing is, there isn’t real counterculture anymore, at least not in sterile Singapore, and certainly not when the underbelly of society is mostly a romantic reminder of our more colourful past, not when tattoos are now mainstream adornment and no longer arouse suspicion in national service (when once permanent inking of the body—any part—warranted a strip inspection). Perhaps it is due to our sanitised world, socially and stylistically, that Depression is able to find validation. Authentic or not, theirs is a cult label that can birth a Sects Shop! This is not quite a depressive spiraling in darkness. This is a blackness that stands out because of a generally pristine environment. Against a conventional idea of sophistication and beauty and order, the Depression outfits at DFW looked suitably drab yet imposing. I understand what they were trying to do. I wish it wasn’t all show and tell. I wish it had design panache; I wish it had technique; I wish it had heart. I wish.

CR P1Christiano Burani Spring/summer 2015

I wish the foreign designers—Italian and British—invited to participate in DFW as credence to “European Exchange” had a nice time in Singapore. I wish they didn’t think Singaporean designers strange; I wish they didn’t consider it bizarre that, given the heat of that week—typically 32°C even in the late afternoon/early evening—our designers were sending out clothes for spring/summer 2015 in neoprene and kindred fabrics, and in unrelenting black. How odd, they must have thought, that anyone working in this temperature would want to churn out garments that, even at a glance, appeared like wearable ovens. How peculiar it must have been to them that our designers could be so oblivious to our punishing weather. I wish they did not believe the common remark: that Singapore has two seasons—hot and air-conditioned. I wish.

I wish more of the fashion-buying (not clothes-consuming) public saw Christiano Burani’s light-as-East-Coast-Park-breeze collection. Mr Burani’s clothes were moderately girly, with a touch of sporty, but mostly with a sense of ease that so few designers can muster. You would not think they were a challenge to wear or to match with your excising wardrobe; you would not think they were only for special occasions. Yet, these clothes were rather special, in the use of the light-weight fabrics, in the interpretation of gingham checks, and in the cheerfulness that would take the humdrum out of any mundane life. Practical and stylish, as it were, could be BFFs. I wish Mr Burani could show more. I wish he had a positive influence on the local participants of DFW. I wish.

FG P1Fyodor Golan’s spring/summer 2015 collection

I wish, too, that more of the fashion-buying public—especially those with a fondness for the fancy—saw Fyodor Golan’s high-octane collection. If the Butter Factory was still around, Fyodor Golan would have held their after-show party there. These were highly visual clothes that would connect to club kids and career clubbers such as Butter Factory founders Ritz Lim and Bobby Luo, both presently proprietors of Superspace, a Mash Up stockist, and the kind of shop Fyodor Golan frocks could reside in, happily and contentedly. The London-based designing duo of Fyodor Podgorny and Golan Frydman wedded sportswear to design-school quirkiness, uniting practical shapes with wacky flourishes, such as the cropped jacket that looked country-club proper in front and hippy-shaggy from the back!  I wish our young designers saw the show and learned something from the collection. I wish they realised that a little fun and a little zing in a collection need not look foolish and juvenile. I wish.

I wish DFW will return next year. I wish it will be with a better line-up of participants. I wish there will be concession that content is crucial. I wish the event will, by then, show a coming of age, an elevation of standards. I wish it will be staged for on-site audience viewing as much as YouTube consumption, acknowledging that, either way, it communicates with equal speed, and before it ends, the ideas presented quickly becomes common currency, aided by those flamboyant “influencers” in daily attendance. I wish the presentations could be what The Guardian’s fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley once said of Dries Van Noten’s: “occasions of grandeur and emotion”, to which he replied, “I put my soul into the shows”. I wish.

I’m still wishing. But the night has turned to day.

Why Depression Is Still Depressing


“…I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes” –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

For its first full-collection catwalk show at Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Depression continued with what it has always advocated: clothes that work best in the shadows. There was no negating the brand’s proclivity to dark attire, deathly makeup, and brooding attitude. The show attracted a huge fan base—many of them suitably garbed in dreary swathes of black, overwhelming the small show venue with their gloomy presence. For that, Depression rewarded them with a presentation that had the requisites for All Tomorrow’s Parties, as sung by the Velvet Underground: “A blackened shroud/A hand-me-down gown/Of Rags and silks, a costume/Fit for one who sits and cries/For all tomorrow’s parties”.

To be sure, Depression has never looked so arresting. The collection was well-focused; it had energy and it still rebuked what people consider fashionable. There was the chilling aloofness of the models, whose faces looked battered, a style first seen in George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. There was the monotonous soundtrack that seemed to drone on forever. There was the video, projected on the back wall of the catwalk, of a relentlessly beating black heart, wishing evil upon the rapt audience. The clothes appeared, for once, better made, even when they suggested disarray and impairment. There were pieces for women—a second since the Blueprint show earlier this year—that was as sinister looking as the men’s. The old truism about the dark is true: you cannot dispel darkness with darkness.


Whether Depression duo, Andrew Loh and Kenny Lim, are practitioners of—to borrow from Harry Porter—the “dark arts”, we may never know. But from the clothes they showed, they seem to inhabit a shadowy dystopian world. This is not the dystopia of Veronica Roth’s Divergent. This is much darker: a funereal outpost where psychopomps rule and people are perpetual mourners. It is, perhaps, no coincidence then that the Depression show took place on the Day of the Dead (or Dia de Muertos, a Mexican holiday dedicated to the remembrance of the deceased). This occasion may be foreign to us, but for some, it’s their Hungry Ghost Festival.

One question kept popping up during the 13-minute show: why did these clothes look the same as those from past seasons? The problem, as it soon appeared to us, was the colour choice. Black, while versatile and good at pulling disparate elements together, is not the easy-to-work-with colour that less deft designers imagine it to be. On inferior fabrics, black looks, well, inferior. You can use all the black in the world that you want, but if they’re not expressed in the best textiles so that black can articulate its mysteriousness and allure, it’ll look like the soot of chimneys rather than the ink of artists. Depression did not avail to their design studio fabrics that could allow black to be held in high esteem. On the catwalk, they look common and cheap, compounded by the scary plethora of synthetics, including Depression favourites such as polyester netting. They may wish to symbolically use black to project sartorial (and possibly social) rebellion, but on lesser fabrics, their light-absorbing shade looks corporeal and mundane, not aggressive and powerful.


Still, black is necessary to strengthen Depression’s cult standing (and to mask the label’s technical deficiencies). Someone in the audience was heard calling the collection “street Goth”. But Goth (not to be confused with the Germanic tribe, the Goths), whether born on the street or not, is a subculture that has strict codes of imagery and cultural tastes. A skinny lad kitted in black shirt and black low-crotch pants (topped with a black felt wide-brim hat)—what one of the attendees wore, for example—was no Goth. A poseur, yes; Goth, no. A practising Goth, even an androgynous one, would not succumb to Depression’s blousy tops; backless shirts with floppy bibs; see-through pants of polyester netting; flaccid tunics slit to the thigh; and cropped numbers that looked like they were inspired by a bat’s carcass. What’s most puzzling (and unacceptable to a Goth, surely) is the strange, inauspicious-looking headwear that looked like a nun’s habit deconstructed by someone from the Ku Klux Klan, to be worn at a Chinese funeral somewhere in Tainan, Taipei!

In the end, perhaps it wasn’t about design or tailoring or fit. What Mr Loh and Mr Lim went for was a look, as with so many designers these days. As long as they could send out the Grim Reaper—a (Goth) rock opera version, it really didn’t matter if the clothes were not the epitome of brilliant design. What Depression did was the continual selling of an expression that, by now, should have evolved, but has not. How long do you want to stay depressed? Eight years after the label was started, the guys were still talking about those days when they “hit a low point in their lives”. They could have created a high out of the low, but they did not. There could have injected some irony into their designs, but they did not. They could have brought a sliver of joy into the long-drawn misery, but they did not. The clothes were not “street luxe”, to quote another enthusiastic description from the audience; they still look like they were made for department stores or corner shops in malls under cineplexes. Or was that just the look?


Two Chinese characters appeared with persistent regularity: 心魔 or xinmo (literally, evil in the heart). It was a curious, ominous word choice. The noun+noun compound comprises of the character for heart and for evil (or magic, which in the case of Depression is improbable, unless it’s black magic!) They first appeared on socks (some worn with one character on each side, and, strangely, the character for heart did not show on the left foot), then on clothes. Bold (font) and in your face they were, but the characters, we suspected, were more for effect—not even graphic interest—than to communicate the designers’ understanding of them. Xinmo is the title of a 2009 Hong Kong movie (At the End of Daybreak, in English), but it is unlikely Depression would draw ideas from this film since it is a mushy love story. Xinmo is also the name of the Chinese edition of the video game The Evil Within (known in Japan as Psycho Break), published by Tango Gameworks, a company founded by Shinji Mikami, the creator of The Resident Evil series. It is possible that Depression’s Mr Loh and Mr Lim are avid gamers, but it is doubtful that the collection was inspired by this survival-horror game, since its protagonist, Sebastian Castellanos, looks like he’s dressed by the Italian mafia.

This was all very confusing because the Depression theme for what was shown was supposed to be, by most accounts—their own too, based on “fear”. Evil in the heart could be fearful, but that sounds too much like a B-grade scare romp to instil fear. So what is it that would arouse the dread of impending peril or malevolence? Perhaps, Depression did not know. Together with the DFW programme booklet was a black A5-sized card printed as a survey form with the question, “What are your demons?” It looked like Depression’s fear mongering came to nought.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim

When Third Time’s Not A Charm


Despite having staged three shows in consecutive years with Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Pauline Lim is no old hat when it comes to catwalk presentations for her label Pauline Ning. Her latest recalled her first: a neophyte endeavor of over-ambitious moves in a world already engulfed by excess. It’s been five years since Ms Lim graduated from LaSalle College of Arts (where she now also lectures), yet what she displayed on the catwalk parallelled the output of a graduate fashion show. As outfit after outfit appeared and disappeared, it was trying getting to the soul of the collection. What was the narrative, this “Wounded Rhymes”, as it’s called? The plot was lost in the hodgepodge that was crammed with dizzying overload of trendy items worn by models sporting uninspired makeup and tragic hair (messily swept to one side—apparently the label’s favourite look). The real question is: would any of what was shown be remembered after the show?

It appeared that too much consideration was given to ‘design’ (“complex cuts with curved structures”?!) while execution was left to neglect. The underwhelming details were unrelenting; the coupling of the slapdash and the superfluous glaring. From the very first outfit, Ms Lim’s lack of attention to finishing was drawing the attention. The sleeveless, black, silk satin jacket, curiously affixed with half a pleated skirt of orange and purple panels (or was that one part of a coattail?), was robbed of the neatness of finish that such a fabric deserves. The one button to hold the two front pieces together was clearly inadequate as the pivoting allowed the right half to sag. With the second outfit, any hope to see better workmanship was dashed: the tented tank top had an opening at the left shoulder, and it wouldn’t sit flat, and if you went further down, the hem was so warped; you wondered how it could have escaped the designer and her sewer. The accompanying bottom was a peplumed skirt with a fly front that refused to stay level, gaping between fastenings. This oversight meant that fly fronts of similar flaws would continue to come down the runway, as well as waist bands with openings that were ajar so that the hook-and-eye fastening could be clearly seen.


Ms Lim is known to pay particular attention to design, but the investment in design, no matter how large, quickly becomes inconsequential when the execution at the assembly stage is overlooked. It, therefore, raised the suspicion that all the flaps, bits, and asymmetrical protrusions so favoured by Ms Lim were, in fact, visual distractions to camouflage failings of finishing. One by one, the mischance appeared, challenging what is considered acceptable in basic dressmaking. The first oversight, you could ignore; perhaps, the second too. But when they appeared again (and again), drawing your attention like a tear in a stocking, you began to wonder if there were some serious problems going on. It came to a point when these diverted what one came to see: the designs. (Even the Pauline Ning website isn’t spared. Despite the dramatic images to suggest Ms Lim’s flair with graphic shapes, it is the unintended plethora of dents, tucks, and puckering that immediately catches the viewer’s eye.)

Ms Lim is also recognised for her use of fabrics, and love of mixing them, however, incongruous the combinations. This season, it seemed she resorted to what’s on trend, or what is available that could be conveniently and inexpensively had. The use of performance-wear synthetics, for example, attested to this observation. One of them was what looked like warp-knit polyester air mesh; those mostly used in shoes and bags, but have, of late, migrated to garments, thanks to the escalating output from mills in China and the trend that Pauline Ning’s brand communication calls “luxe sports”. “Many brands are using them,” noted one product development manager watching the show. Plentiful is not necessarily a boon to a designer, and if Ms Lim had looked carefully enough, she would have learnt that the cloth had become quite overused—from Patpong to Katong.


Part of the pioneering group of Parco Next Next incubator project, Ms Lim, started her label in 2009, as soon as she graduated from LaSalle College of Arts. From the onset, she wanted to create “a brand that would be synonymous with edgy, contemporary and innovative fashion”. The edginess notwithstanding, Ms Lim is a designer of extremely feminine clothes. Within the on-trend shapes, she applies asymmetry as counterpoint so that some kind of avant-garde veneer could be discerned. But the asymmetrical dimension often lacks balance, so much so that her clothes on the body look lopsided. The sum effect are silhouettes that are floppy, and not flattering to the wearer. But Pauline Ning is what merchandisers would call “garmental”—clothes that look like clothes, regardless of the quality or design. It’s commercial too, which adds to its appeal. But, as we have often seen, commercial acumen is no indicator of artistry.

Some of Ms Lim’s students from her alma mater came to cheer her on. One of them, who calls herself JuJu the Zealot and looks like a Depression fan girl, would later post on her blog page Fashion Fanatique that “the show was short and sweet, and it really has the essence of spring”. It is doubtful if this schoolgirl knows what the essence of spring is; but it is fortunate for Ms Lim that the pupil wasn’t able to see what we saw. Students might miss the shortcomings of a staged collection, but someone who teaches them shouldn’t. This, sadly, is the daunting part: what kind of graduates are we turning out if those who teach them turn a blind eye to those small but crucial parts of dressmaking? As Ms Lim took the customary walk down the runway at the end of the presentation, she looked uncannily like the models that came out before her (the swept-to-one-side messy hair too!). One thing became clear: she designs for herself.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim

Elegance Revisited

TW G1On the opening day of Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Urban ran a one-page piece on Singapore’s last major fashion event of the year. Accompanying the article was a sidebar entitled “6 shows you must not miss”. Of the seven local labels participating in this year’s DFW, only four were mentioned. Thomas Wee was not one of them. Later, someone said that only those retailing through e-commerce site Inverted Edge (a DFW supporter and where the clothes of the shows could be pre-ordered), got listed. That, however, couldn’t be true as only two of the six brand names will be available via Inverted Edge (Mr Wee’s clothes, too, will eventually be available online). Moreover, the article entitled “Front Row at Home” was about watching the shows of DFW from your residence or wherever your PC resides.

Urban’s picks were hardly surprising. On their team is a trio of writers who considers themselves young and hip. To them, styles reminiscent of the Nineties are vintage. Fashion that existed before that then is a relic of the past. The shows they consider unmissable equate to a part of alternative culture that had, by the late Nineties, become mainstream, and is now considered fashion. DFW itself, too, seemed subsumed by this; its designers mostly court the unconventional, copping the zeitgeist, rather than contributing to it. Yes, it’s a generational thing: a generation of anyone-can-be-designers, anyone-can-be-a-model, anyone-can-be-online-stars. DFW is a show for these anyone-can-bes, as well as what the organisers proudly called “influencers”—those selfie-obsessives-as-bloggers hogging the front row, and preening and posting with total abandon. Twenty four of them from different countries (Singapore included) were invited to the event. With iPhone 6 in tow, they have more to shoot than to say. Are they snapshots of today’s collective taste or delineations of individual vanity?


Thomas Wee seemed unfazed by the Urban snub and nonplussed by the social media buzz. Popping out of the backstage on the second day of DFW to greet his special guests, he merely said, “I hope they like it.” When the first model stepped out, a rousing applause ensued: like, they surely did. It was clear that this was going to be a wellspring of visual thrill and pleasure. The outfit of admiration was a cropped, white, silk organza blouse with black banded V-neck that suggested a kimono’s. What’s unusual is the yoked back and front, brought low to the bustline, from which the sleeves dropped and the front opening notched as an overlapped inverted V. These deceptively simple components belied the clever interplay of geometric shapes. The blouse was worn with a pair of black polyester crepe palazzo pants with ribbons in the inseams that could be tied to the ankles!

The first ensemble set the tone for the show: sensuousness as quiet as the break of dawn. And as rousing—especially in the wake of the dark, somnolent (cultish, they call it!) presentations that dominated DFW. Mr Wee’s clothes, no matter how they’re styled, always project the sophistication, polish, confidence, culture, and grace that together can be described as elegance. The strength of line (not always straight), the sense of shape (never exaggerated), and the control of proportion (not at all contrived) collude to yield an overall image of effortless stylishness. These days, even a passing comment on Thomas Wee will include “elegance”. But, elegance, like vicuña cloth, is becoming uncommon, even rare. As a definitive, however, elegance is not off the mark when characterising Mr Wee’s designs.


Truth is, we are weary of using a word such as elegance. Just as fashion has changed, so too has elegance. Elegance was at its height in the Thirties and Forties, which coincided with the golden age of French haute couture. By the mid-Eighties, elegance has taken a backseat to glamour, which although heady through the early years of cinema, had by then, with the aid of television, become a quality—an aesthetic veneer—anyone can adopt. Elegance, waning in popularity, has now lost out to glamour. Glamour has more resonance than elegance; it has movie and pop stars to carry its torch, while elegance is already one foot in the tomb. Glamour can be glamourous without elegance (look at Rihanna), but elegance alone may not be glamorous (look at Tilda Swinton: incidentally, Thomas Wee’s muse). Elegance, too, has become a mere shadow outside the spotlight of edge. Women these days want to be edgy; few wish to be elegant. To describe clothes as elegant risks putting them in a time trap. Are we saying they’re old?

Yet, the one standout quality of Thomas Wee’s clothes is their innate elegance. It is the sound and the refined that triumph over the peculiar and the fussy, subtleties and subtitles over conspicuous and clamorous. And that’s why Mr Wee’s clothes don’t age nor do they suggest the far-off future. They’re where they should be: here and now. The skirts he showed, for example, had seams tapering to multiple points, dispensing with the discussion of skirt lengths (an obsession too circa 1985 to be relevant!). When you trace his outfits from the neck and shoulder down to the waist and hip and further on to the calves and ankles, elegance is infused to the very last stitch. And if you count the stitches, there were simply fewer than what you will encounter in standard dressmaking. Mr Wee took away so much from his designs that if he could make a dress with one seam, he would, and he had! This near-obsession with making as much with as little has forged the current signature: garments without the traditional stitched hem. This is achieved by folding back the fabric to where it started, doubling the use of fabrics. He said recently, “When I design, I also think of my sewing staff. Why should they spend so much time with the sewing machine?” For Mr Wee, as for Coco Chanel, “Elegance is refusal.”


The sum of Mr Wee’s design ideas is so cohesive that it does not, as Robin Givan (then writing for the Washington Post) said of Yohji Yamamoto’s spring/summer 2000 collection, “push one to think about construction”. Yet, it is in the construction of his clothes—often referred by Mr Wee as engineering—that distinguishes his designs. Mr Wee is his own chief pattern-maker, and pattern-making is integral to his design process and thinking. Many frequently refer to his technical virtuosity—a skill that cannot be over-rated since Mr Wee is entirely self-taught—but few truly know what that means. Mr Wee honed his craft in the early years of his career when drafting was not (at least among local designers) the constant rethinking of what can be manipulated that it is today. Recurrently, his approach is still old-school, but there’s also a synthesis of the new. There’s always that almost meditative questioning of what can be achieved without sticking to set ways. He enjoys the process of transformation: seeing the fabric he loves turned to the design he is pleased with. The results can be witnessed on the DFW catwalk.

We were partial to this particular blouse. In its barest form, it was a sleeveless top with an eye-catching scooped neck in the shape of a splayed U. It was bound with a narrow band, cut straight so that when stitched to the neckline, it had a natural, off-kilter, but not unattractive warp. What was truly novel was the use of trapezoid panels in the rear—both sides, off centre-back—constructed so that they could be brought forward to envelope the shoulder caps by fastening them to the armhole’s top-front with attached ribbons. From the rear, the blouse took on the silhouette of a caped jacket, in front it was a blouse with a hint of petal sleeves. But this need not be the only way to wear it. Those flaps could be ribboned to the back, creating clipped wings!

TW G 5

Mr Wee called his collection Asia: Past, Present & Future. What went before intermingled with what is now and what will become in such a discreet manner that the Asian-ness was but a hint, like the sweetness of flowers in the evening breeze: discernible even when the bloom is not immediately spotted. Something innocuous like lacing fastened in the inside of the back of a vest then brought to the front through the armhole, and tied high in the middle, over (or above) the bust to suggest the goreum of the Korean hanbok was new and unexpected. Compared to the Orientalism of, say, John Galliano’s spring/summer 2007 haute couture collection for the house of Dior, Mr Wee’s was modest. It could be so nuanced that you only sensed it when it revealed itself by accident. During the show, a model in a sheer silk organza panelled coat walked back to the rear of the catwalk, and unintentionally allowed the floaty garment to slip off her shoulders. As it cascaded to her derrière just in time for her to save it from complete descend, you saw, even for that brief moment, a Qing dynasty maiden disrobing as she went down into a pool for a bath. Thomas Wee’s clothes were evocative, if not of elegance, at least of Oriental reticence.

But the best was saved for the last. The final outfit was, as we saw it, a tease. Mr Wee had recently been underscoring the fact that he has not been doing jackets for quite a while, and, therefore, no longer deserves the honour “King of Jacket”. Just as we thought the jacket has retired from his repertoire, he sent out America’s Next Top Model (cycle 20) winner Jourdan Miller in a diaphanous, white, silk organza pantsuit! Worn with the lapels turned up, the jacket had a fit and softness unlike anything he had done before. It advanced the Mixable jacket that made him famous into something more pared down, with a silhouette that was striking for its purity of line. In spirit and in style, it was classic Thomas Wee.

Backstage, immediately after the show, Asia’s Next Top Model’s (cycle 1) Sofia Wakabayashi, when asked what she thought of the clothes, said, “I love mine so much, I didn’t want to take them off!” Resident host of DFW Yvette King, recalling how enamoured she was of the collection said, “His clothes have volume, but they don’t overwhelm the woman.” Thomas Wee should be deservedly proud of the compliments. The seduction of a new generation of fans was won.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim

Just To The Max


It is perhaps no coincidence that Max Tan’s show was staged on Halloween night. When beauty sleeps, horror comes out to play. Paring a pounding soundtrack to clothes of immense monstrosity, Mr Tan’s opening show for this year’s Digital Fashion Week struck as a catwalk version of the Best of Singapore Ghost Stories. What was shown wasn’t so much scary as ghastly: heat-trapping neoprene jackets shaped to form hyper-exaggerated distensions that, when worn, would make the Michelin Man—voted by Time in 2011 as one of the “Top Ten Creepiest Product Mascot”—look like he has been on a detox diet.

“Maximizing on minimalistic ideas, this complex language results in details that are blown out of proportion”, went a description in Mr Tan’s profile for the DFW brochure. Seeing the clothes, we finally understood! Exaggeration is the vernacular here just as distortion is the design approach. “Creating unexpected silhouettes”, Mr Tan proved he could mutate the natural to the fantastical. Apparently they were “experiments with quirk cuts”. Is that the same as Victor Frankenstein dissecting corpses to create his celebrated monster?

The thing is, Mr Tan’ experiment with mass was audacious but unconvincing. His oversized outerwear was neither conceptually original nor technically muscular. Jumbo jackets with swollen sleeves were a dip into the playbooks of a certain American designer who’s known for sending out clothes that defy conventional proportions or a particular Japanese who is definitely distinguished by her refusal to let silhouette trace the contours of the body. Garments bloated Mr Tan’s way require an intimate understanding of the space between body and fabric, but that did not show. Instead, there was little or no thought for the dynamic between sculpture and volume. Size, in this case, was for effect rather than function. Armature—spongy as they were—to enhance the aggressive styling? If these were not encumbered clothes, what else could be?


Of course, exaggerated forms created to redefine the body’s natural silhouette are nothing new. From Helen Storey to Rei Kawakubo, designers have often transmogrified ordinary shapes into figures that will compel the viewer to rethink what is acceptable for wearing. History has shown that women have used all sorts of contraption to constrict or bloat various parts of the body: the corset and the pannier—just to name two—redrew the natural silhouette of the body, sometimes to quite incomprehensible extremes. Often enough, exaggeration and severity are partners-in-crime of fashion.

As neoprene or bonded fabric was used to achieve the whopping silhouette, it did not underscore Mr Tan’s technical ability. The inherent quality of neoprene—essentially a synthetic rubber—is its pliable form. The suppleness and natural bulk of this fabric allow easy manipulation as it holds its shape without resistance. Even when not using curved lines and darts, neoprene can be simply worked to give volume. The case would have been different if Mr Tan had employed a softer cloth such as wool gabardine—using this for voluminous effect will reveal a designer’s skill. Here, then, was the problem: there seemed to be a lack of understanding of the properties of the fabric used. It was puzzling, for instance, that a neoprene shirt should have a fly front. The covered placket fashioned with such a thick fabric didn’t allow the placket to sit flat: left ajar, the plastic buttons were in full view, which defeated the purpose of designing a shirt with a covered placket. In addition, there was the unnecessary and overuse of top stitch throughout so much of the neoprene pieces. Synthetic textile such as neoprene do not fray. With modern cutting tools such as the laser, smooth edges can be achieved without hemmed finish, but perhaps Mr Tan didn’t know that.

It was, however, not so slack that such a fabric was chosen. It is currently the synthetic textile of choice, brought to the fore by a certain American designer collaborating with a Swedish fast fashion retailer. And they’re everywhere in the fabric markets of China, merchandisers will tell you.  In fact, neoprene is in such widespread use now that they were out as soon as they were in. The fabric choice—not to mention the silhouette—provoked a crucial question too: what season’s collection were we looking at? Surely, these weren’t for spring/summer since the sum effect was ponderous rather than light. For sure, it wasn’t indicated on the DFW program or communication material, but as this fashion week appears during what is mostly seen as a period to showcase for spring and summer, it would not be immoderate to suppose Mr Tan was following international schedule. If so, was he really proposing warm-weather dressing? It was not enthralling, if that’s the case, to see his star model, the 83 year-old Carmen Dell’Orefice, carry on her shoulders a coat so unwieldy that she was struggling to drag them across the catwalk.


It became apparent that Mr Tan’s collection was big (forgive the pun) on facade rather than utility, looks rather details. Once the volumes stop arousing your interest, your eyes start to trail those elements that make a garment polished, or the lack of them. This was, we were led to believe, a designer show. But rather then find smooth, flat seams or collars that fit the neck flawlessly, puckered joints and irregular necklines beckoned. Mr Tan teaches part time at his alma mater Nayang Academy of Fine Art’s Department of Fashion Studies. Were these his students’ handiwork?

When bulky was not the game, drapey was.  Since his label’s debut in 2010 at Parco’s Next Next, the failed project at Millennia Walk, conceived to “help” young and inexperienced designers thrive (ironic then that the concept store did not succeed), Mr Tan has been partial to swathe the body with folds so as to shy away from a more tailored structure. One of his most popular pieces is a one-sleeve shirt-dress with half a collar. When worn, the dress pulls itself into shape based on the body of the wearer. As it undulates, it is very forgiving even to unflattering body types. This is Mr Tan bread-and-butter silhouette, and he continues to show them, now with both sleeves on and even more complicated draping, sometimes with fabrics worn selendang across the bodice.

The thing with liquid silhouettes, especially those not controlled is the inevitable relationship between the hang of the fabric and gravitational pull. The Japanese understand this and they have the mastery to draw together indeterminate forms to yield clothes that look like clothes. Mr Tan’s seeming randomness and the lack of graphic heft forged dresses and tops that look like pieces of fabrics dropped on the wearer. An editor with an e-mag blamed it on his manufacturer. “He can’t find good factories,” she claimed. “That’s why the clothes look terrible.”

As is often said, we all have our demons. Happy Halloween.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim