The Max Factor

Max Tan SS 2016 G1Fashion editors love Max Tan. And Max Tan loves them back. He does that by consistently delivering the kind of clothes that are deemed ideal for photographic editorials. These garments have an affinity for the camera; their striking shapes lend fashion narratives the kind of drama many magazines consider eye-catching. For the creative heads with a penchant for something out of this world, Mr Tan’s clothes provide a punch to the stylistic senses. But peel away the journalistic overkill and the misguided rah-rah, the superfluous just stares right back at you.

For his latest collection, the closing show of Digital Fashion Week 2015 (DFW) last Sunday, Max Tan once again wouldn’t let up on his “experiments with quirk (sic) cuts” and “results that are sometimes blown out of proportion” (mantras repeated for a second year in the DFW booklet, possibly, for emphasis). You can’t say the guy isn’t sticking to his guns. He’s offering longer lengths when women want shorter. He’s keeping to the distended when they want close-to-the-body. He is using more cloth when they want less—a lot less. He’s piling the layers when they want to expose their bra straps. Max Tan’s strength is his dogged consistency.

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For a young eponymous label, consistency is good. It allows the designer to drive home a message, even if oblique. Fashion, however, often acts as an incisive commentator of the present, as well as the environment in which the fashion is created. What does Max Tan wish to say with these clothes? We can only hazard a guess. Is it possible that he’s saying that overzealous design can surpass underwhelming craft? Is it possible that he is proposing that one track can lead to many roads? Is it possible that he’s indicating that, contrary to the one challenge that confronts Singaporean designers, he’s able to get fabrics in limitless yardage?  Is it possible that he’s suggesting that local women are easy to dupe? There are no easy answers just as there are no easy ways to grasp the meaning of the clothes.

His themes, too, avoid deviation. He’s been largely inspired by the Scriptures—from spring/summer 2014’s ‘Genesis’ to the following season’s ‘Revelation’—and the world’s best selling book has tossed up more ideas for him as he exhorts, in spring/summer 2016, ‘Thou Shalt Not’. It’s hard to make out the implication of that. What kind of limitation is he imposing on his potential customer? Or is it directed at himself? Could this be a reference to Deuteronomy 22:11 (King James Version): “Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together”? If so, how odd, as there are “garments of divers sorts” in the collection. Or, is this, perhaps, a statement to discourage criticism?

Max Tan SS 2016 G3The thing is, Max Tan’s designs do elicit reactions. Take his first look: oddly, a wrap-reefer. Extra-large, and droopy, it moves like a duster, but hangs like a bath robe. Mr Tan adores coats, and big characterises them. But it is not only in terms of size. He likes them to sport huge lapels and huge sleeves, so that the garment simply looks too big. This is not oversized, this is outsized. In an age when even fast fashion can offer near-perfect fit, this is puzzling. In addition, the overall effect is outerwear that seems weighted down. The notched lapels on this particular coat, at their widest points, are the width of the shoulder. The visual ponderousness is exacerbated by the wide sash employed in place of buttons to hold the front opening of the jacket together—it is positioned and tied at the hip, and allowed to hang loose, like a fascia of an untidy cleric. Perhaps lightness of touch wasn’t considered in the design process. When even a tall model can’t pull it off convincingly, it’s hard to imagine this coat on any woman not wanting to look as if she mostly shops at the Salvation Army thrift store.

The problem with fit has plagued Mr Tan’s collections in the past, and it continued to trouble the latest. By the third look, a sort of pinafore dress with a bodice that refuses to sit nicely on the body and a bare back that exposes the gaping sides, it is possible that in the collection, fit is secondary to form. This muddles the understanding of what the brand is about as Mr Tan is known to draft his own patterns. Compounding the confusion is the oft-mentioned, but not quite evidenced “tailoring”. Of the 40 looks presented (including a single incoherent men’s), not one is, strictly speaking, a tailored garment. Ironic, since the shapes Mr Tan loves would be better served by a deft hand in the art of the tallieur. In the end, if looks supersede design, then, perhaps, it does not matter. Let it all hang loose.

Photos: Jim Sim

The Passive Side

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If Ying the Label is named to suggest yin, then a yang in the designs may be what is needed to lift the brand from blandness. Meet, however, the twain did not. Showing for the first time at this year’s Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Ying the Label sent down the catwalk clothes bereft of newness, amusing itself, instead, with the familiar. At the end of the presentation, the Label is just the inert outfit that it is, like so many countless others in an already crowded marketplace catering to the smartphone-totting, selfie-ready clothing consumer. One unremarkable button in a bag of many unremarkable buttons.

What this year’s Digital Fashion Week (DFW) lacked in terms of local designer names, it made up with brands linked to Singapore’s burgeoning fashion e-commerce. Of the four Singaporean fashion labels (shirt maker CYC not included), two of them have their roots in blogs/blog shops. Apart from Ying the Label, there’s Run After, the line conceived by “social-media star” Melissa Celestine Koh and put together with players of the future-undetermined Whole 9 Yards. Fashion born of blogs was having its day.

The look of these labels won’t be alien to DFW’s target audience, as well as the many “influencers” that were invited to the event. In fact, the clothes could have been exhibited as part of an audience-participation segment. The separates or ensembles do not differ from those seen off-runway. You sensed you were watching a sixteen-year-old’s Pinterest page come alive on the catwalk. They, too, were homage to KissJane, to Love and Bravery, to the brands in Taobao. The shows themselves could have been mall productions at Bugis Junction. At some point, they looked like a mise en scène of Sunday in Lucky Plaza.

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There’s nothing wrong with churning out clothes that typify the blandness of blog-shops and the preference of their followers. So many of these brand owners (also models of their own brands) have, by their own admission, a “strong passion for fashion, shopping and the social media”. They know what entices their admiring audience and why the latter keeps coming back. Those who make it a habit to visit these online outlets mostly do so out of admiration of the bloggers or blog-shop owners. These are often young, lovely (to look at), and feminine women who have turned their love of self and own clothing choices into successful online businesses. By making purchases at these sites, these consumers are living vicariously through these women; each buy ratifies the seller’s perceived-to-be flawless taste. Question is: do these clothes deserve to be shown on a catwalk of a major fashion event, such as the DFW?

Ying the Label, like so many of its counterparts, work with design acuity and parameters that speak to a community of women between 20 and 30, women whose fashion education is largely provided by the daily updates of bloggers. The clothing choices of these online stars are invariably a kind of sales pitch. The clothes fall into very specific categories: feminine, girly, sweet, cutely-patterned, and moderately sexy.

Designed by social-media-savvy, brand founder Phuay Li Ying, Ying the Label was launched in November last year as “a highly wearable range of clothes which distinguishes itself with a whimsical colour palette and friendly silhouettes”. Its spring/summer 2016 collection succeeded in presenting the same wearability and friendliness; in other words, what have been consistently seen in the blogosphere in at least the past eight years: camisole tops, shell tops, tented slip tops, peplumed tank tops (presently a fave), housewife-y blouses, cute shorts, high-waisted culottes, high-waisted skirts, circle skirts, pleated tulip skirts, and column dress… what you really want to sell online.

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To be sure, this is not about Ying the person. Yet, the clothes are largely the results of skills honed through experience rather than training, taste shaped by sisterhood rather than scholarship. The lack of refinement is evident in the details, the finishing, and the proportions. There was a pair of rather shocking knee-length shorts with wide cuffs embellished with over-sized bows at the outseams. Questionable too was the origami rose that appeared like an afterthought just below the end point of the V-back of a sack dress. Attempts at tucks of fabrics on the bodice looked like napkins in the hands of an especially inept hostess.

Consistent with the branding, there were the prints. As explained in Ying the Label’s homepage, “We are not just a designer (sic), we seek to inspire. We sketch, fold, paint, stitch, deliver and celebrate.” The “paint” aspect was intriguing. Playschool paper cutouts that adorned the catwalk were a foretaste of things to come. On the clothes, there were inky lines punctuated by splotchy, coloured dots, vaguely recalling the kitschy work of Jo Soh of Hansel. Referring to those brush-stroke lines, Ms Phuay said, in an interview that was broadcast prior to her show, “Everything is like art.”

You almost believed her.

Photos: Jim Sim