Not The Next Level

Supreme Court Terrace.jpgThe main runway of the SGFW: the Supreme Court Terrace of the National Gallery

The expression ‘awkward silence’ always seems to us stating the obvious. Silences, whenever there are people, are awkward. Ambient noises in good company make silences even more intense. At the Naeem Khan presentation last Saturday, this awkwardness was never more pronounced when we asked an attendee—dressed as splendidly as an ‘influencer’—whose show she had liked up to then. Perhaps displeased by our intrusive question, she merely said, “Aijek”. Then silence. “Why do you like Aijek,” we continued. Silence. She then directed her chat to something we cannot see on her smartphone, which seemed also to be the chaperone. For that moment, we knew exactly what spoke louder than words.

The National Gallery, for the most part, is a silent expanse of space. The quiet is perhaps the best setting for the noise of fashion or the Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW) 2016. Between shows, when we allowed what we had just seen to jog through our head, it was silence that stilled the visual boom. This rang in the tranquillity that enveloped the room under the handsome rotunda of what was once the Supreme Court.

The just-concluded SGFW was supposed to be our republic’s premier fashion event, but we weren’t sure if it turn up the volume for Singapore fashion Or, perhaps, amid the noise, both harmonious and discordant, we had expected a little too much. Questions, audible and not, floated on the grounds of the National Gallery, all possibly within the earshot of prized portraits, such as that of Georgette Chan, whose thin and highly arched eyebrows are in line with the shape now increasingly favoured by fashionistas. And outside too, but no one knows for certain if there can be real answers.

It took us a while to cut through the noise and see beyond the din. Here’s what we think…

rotunda-at-the-supreme-courtIn the peaceful calm of the former Supreme Court, no one would have guess that behind those windows of the rotunda, fashion shows were staged

The Venue

The National Gallery is a grand building designed primarily to house the art of our nation, as well as those of the region. Visitor arrivals and ticketed exhibitions are not enough to keep the museum commercially viable. It is, therefore, unsurprising that from the start, rentable space “for events such as product launches, private receptions and seated dinners”, as stated on the National Gallery website, are an important revenue stream. Events permissible at its show piece, the Supreme Court Terrace, include “sponsor exhibition previews, exhibition openings, private functions, product launches, high-end boutique events, cocktail receptions, and corporate evenings.” No mention of fashion shows.

Yet, this is the main runway for SGFW. The 330-square-metre Terrace’s centrepiece is the rotunda that sat atop the former Supreme Court. Just the dome framed by the oddly shape space that is the Terrace made the area look like a viewing gallery from which to admire a windowed igloo. The use of the space (in the shape of a stretched U) and the configuration of the seating were such that guests at either end were not able to see any models when the pacing of the show was particularly slow, such as the opening act Guo Pei’s. Small LED television screens placed on pillars and walls did not help. This wasn’t a sports bar. Eyes were focused on the action on the runway.

For an event that expected media coverage, there was no real photographer’s pit at Supreme Court Terrace. There was a designated space at the entrance into the venue, where the cameramen assembled, but not a properly demarcated confine. That led to many photographers (and—especially—camera-wielding, iPhone-on-tripod Instagrammers) spilling into anywhere that was unblocked. As the runway was very narrow, it afforded wide-brimmed hats and smartphone-attached hands from both sides of the front row to find their way into the photographers’ viewfinder.

Auditorium Foyer.jpgThe other runway at the Auditorium Foyer

The other venue, a significantly smaller space, was at the Auditorium Foyer in the basement of what is the former City Hall, a good 10-minute walk from the Supreme Court Terrace. The accidental fashion show spot, Auditorium Foyer—not the auditorium proper—is set up like a black box theatre, which by definition is low-cost, and which Stolen’s Ely Wong exploited to full advantage by presenting a compelling performance-art piece. Other designers, such as Max Tan, had to content with squeezing as many attendees as possible into the tight space, which resulted in an unattractively narrow runway that recalled discotheque fashion shows of the ’80s.

With the two venues split in separate buildings (and not just “a few levels” apart, as The Straits Times described the proximity), show guests had to commute between two distant points. Not everyone, however, was a repeat attendee and the National Gallery is a new building for most. For first timers, moving to and between venues is, at best, confusing. The holding area of the Supreme Court Terrace shows was on level three of the Padang-facing atrium of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery. Here, one was treated to limitless drinks by various sponsors (which meant you had “official champagne” and other “official” beverages) as well as introduced to the products on display, such as the “official hair dryer” Dyson’s Supersonic. Once you’ve had enough of all those and were ready to proceed to the shows, you did not take the elevator there up to level 4M, where the Supreme Court Terrace is situated. You had to take a longer, more scenic route.

Most evenings, it was a ritual of follow the crowd. Leaving the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery by the staircase, you walked down to and through the Supreme Court Foyer, took the escalator down at the Padang Atrium to Concourse Gallery 2, from where you’d take the elevator up to the Level Four Gallery, walked across the Upper Link Bridge before you arrived at the Supreme Court Terrace. It was usually a long wait at the lift landing, so most who had navigated the museum before and had become familiar with the layout took the other route, via the City Hall wing, up three or four flights of escalators to get to the rotunda-centred show ground. This, for regular show goers, was part of a daily shuttle.

sgfw-sponsors-boothsThe sponsor’s booth at the atrium of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery

In the first two days of the show, many guests arrived flustered. They knew not from which side of the building to enter and where to go once inside the museum. The situation was compounded by taxi drivers not knowing exactly where to alight passengers. Most got off on the Coleman Street side of the building, entered by the side entrance, and were met by a reception area for Auditorium Foyer shows. If your target was the Supreme Court Terrace, you’d have to traverse the entire length of the City Hall building to reach the central Padang Atrium, which would not put you anywhere near your final destination. The entrance to the holding area and its attendant registration counter were at the Supreme Court Foyer, which is closer to Parliament Place. In front of that, there is no place to stop a vehicle and alight from it. The same problems apparently affected delivery people as well as those who provided backstage work.

The fashion weeks that preceded SGFW 2016 had been staged at the Civic Plaza of Ngee Ann City (only in 2013, was it held at F1 Pit Building), which show-goers favour as it is centrally located, with full and easy access to public transport, as well as food and refreshment outlets. In addition, most, if not all, people are familiar with Ngee Ann City.

The Civic Plaza comes with an added advantage: it is right along Orchard Road, a stretch preferred by fashionistas, bloggers, and ‘influencers’ as pre-show mingling and peacocking meant a display on the busy pavement of Singapore’s favourite shopping street that came with a ready captive audience. This year, vain pots hanging around at the Padang Atrium saw no on-lookers, let alone admirers. Their heartrending dismay was too much to bear. No wayang performer enjoys playing to an empty street.

corridor-displayBland displays of the dresses of participating designers on the Concourse Gallery 2

The Designer Line-Up

By the shortlist of participating designers and brands alone, SGFW 2016 could have been a mall fashion week in a posh setting. If Singapore was pitching itself against regional, if not global, fashion weeks, it must have a line-up of names that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the company of the rising as well as established giants of this part of the world.

Sure, we had headliners such as Guo Pei and Naeem Khan, but they are not exactly future-proof designers; conventional at best. We need newer and more progressive practitioners of the craft, such as (keeping to SGFW’s Asian slant, we’ll select only Asian names) Yin Yiqing (who, like Guo Pei, is a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture) and London-based Zhang Huishan (who cut his teeth in the haute couture atelier of Dior and whose eponymous collections have been archived at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

Asian designers who do great work are not only those working in fashion capitals of the Western world. Of course, SGFW’s other headlining guest designer, the London-based Penang native Han Chong of Self-Portrait captivated with his deconstructed, cut-out lace, flounces gone askew, as well as charming spoken English. But closer to us are designers doing equally, if not more, innovative and daring work.

If we look at China, which, as a country of fashion innovation, is moving way ahead of our very first-world nation, there are designers that could put SGFW in good stead, such as Shanghai’s favourite daughter Masha Ma (a classmate of Alexander McQueen and, like the latter, a student of the legendary Louise Wilson at Central Saint Martins) and Beijing’s “poster boy of the Chinese fashion pack” Xander Zhou (a Western-media darling who counts actress Fan Bing Bing as fan).

naeem-khan-finaleThe finale of the Naeem Khan show

Perhaps, for organizer Mercury M&C, the purpose was to first salute the economic giants China and India (even if it was by way of the US of A). Unfortunately, just Ms Pei and Mr Khan—while competent and, for many in the audience, creators of beautiful clothes—won’t be adequate to push SGFW onto an attention-grabbing stage that will turn our island into a must-stop for journalists, buyers, and retailers.

When the full list of participating designers and brands was finally made available through, one jarring inclusion immediately had observers rolling their eyes: Hardy Hardy. For certain, when participating fees are necessary to finance the cost of staging an event of the scale of SGFW, doors are open to those willing to pay. But could judicious eyes be cast in the selection process for the credibility of the event?  Or, using fashion marketer’s favourite tired cliché, could this have been better curated? The one-year-old label from LA-based Ed Hardy—a name associated with tattoos—trots the same path that failing US brands are now desperate to abandon: bland American basics (skull tees, anyone?). Even Fann Wong and her MediaCorp cohort’s appearance at the show could not push up the glamour quotient. Seriously, how will Hardy Hardy improve SGFW’s grades?

And Hardy Hardy isn’t even an Asian brand. Mercury M&C’s decision to go the Asian route is, in fact, a rather late one. When it was announced back in February that the Singapore Fashion Week was to be moved to October from its previous May dates, there was no mention of an Asian-focused line-up of designers. In fact, the festival chairperson Tjin Lee—also Mercury M&C’s founder and managing director—told The Straits Times that the old “five-day event once a year does not give enough substance and breadth to what we need to do for the local fashion industry. A six-month long calendar of events will help to sustain awareness of the industry.” It is rather puzzling that no theme emerged for an event that will cover a good half of the year when the announcement was made.

mdis-grad-showThe MDIS graduation show was part of 13 Singaporean collections that participated in SGFW. Interestingly, the work of Koki Abe came out strong, even more so than what was shown by established designers

Only in September, just a month before the event, did news start to appear on media outlets about an Asian-cetric SGFW. Even on its own Facebook page, there was no broadcast of this intended direction. In a late September online Harper’s Bazaar Singapore’s “Everything you need to know” piece, which Singapore Fashion Week called “comprehensive”, the sentence “This year, SGFW is going back to its Asian roots” nearly slipped past you. But “Asian”, it surely became. It is unsurprising then that this prompted talk among industry veterans that the Asian angle was inevitable as Mercury M&C was not able to entice the likes of Diane Von Furstenburg and Victoria Beckham to show on our shores. “Isn’t it clear no one wants to come?” was the common rhetorical response.

It has always been a point of contention that our very own fashion week is short on local names. For sure, it’s an up-hill task for Mercury M&C to gather enough of them considering what a drought it is for credible Singaporean fashion brands. This year, SGFW embraced 13 home-grown collections (including those of school graduation), compared to last year’s seven. The number may have doubled, but it is debatable if the creativity or quality of work shot up too. It also piqued the kaypoh in us when the dozen-plus-one excluded esteemed names such as In Good Company, and current media fave Beyond the Vines.

If SGFW was willing to give unknown and unremarkable Thai labels such as Sheranut (whose designer Sheranut Yusananda was invited because, one suspects, she could also videogenically contribute as SGFW’s digital-media partner Digital Fashion Week’s “DFW Insider” and appear on their inane Style on the Go series), why have they not considered less-recognised, but clearly forward Singaporean labels such as Nuboaix? Designers Jessica Lee and Yong Siyuan—two talented women’s wear designers who turned to men’s wear due to unfavourable market forces—irrefutably deserve a platform, or a show to communicate their gutsy approach to men’s fashion. Instead, social media “star” Yoyo Cao got to peddle her Web-born rummage so that Instagram can be flooded with even more dross.

When it comes to fashion, we often think only of garments. Sure, SGFW included Mashizan shoes. However, jewellery—a huge category with many independent designers working away quietly—should be spotlighted, such as those by the completely under-the-radar label Argentum, a highly distinctive collection handmade by the reclusive craftswoman who goes by the single name Shing. Ms Shing has been designing for a long time (more than a decade). In the early days, her tactile and rustic rings and charms were sold in the long-defunct Bluemoon, an edgy store of the ’90s at HPL House conceived by a division of Hotel Properties Limited, HPL Retail. Bluemoon later morphed into the Club 21-managed Black Jack, which eventually became today’s Club21b. As any fisherman will say, casting your nets wider will yield a bigger haul.

sfw-pageScreen grab on Tuesday, 1 Nov, of the  Gallery tab of the Singapore Fashion Week’s website

dfw-pageScreen grab on Tuesday, 1 Nov, of the  Photo Gallery tab of the Digital Fashion Week’s website

The Digital Component

It was announced in late May that Singapore Fashion Week will merge with Digital Fashion Week (DFW). For those who would be unable to watch the shows at their respective venues, this seemed at that time like a terrific idea on the part of SGFW. However, as our tech correspondent Low Teck Mee wondered from in front of his MacBook, “Did they shoot the shows with a budget Chinese smartphone and streamed via a server from 1985 that was installed in someone’s toilet?”

On Thursday evening of the 27th (second day of SGFW), Mr Low reported that access into the DFW website was met with this message: “Resource Limit Is Reached: website is temporarily unable to service your request as it exceeded resource limit. Please try again later.” After reloading, another message appeared: “Service Unavailable. The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later”. Additionally, a “503 Service Unavailable error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.”

Throughout the five days of events, viewers hoping to catch the live streaming of the shows saw inconsistent broadcasts, plagued by poor camera work, consistent lag, and uneven audio quality. HD streaming is now not uncommon, and most international fashion brands live-stream with amazing smoothness and clarity. DFW’s appalling digital transmission this year belied their experience as local pioneers of fashion-week live streaming. From Aijek’s impossible to watch show to the sudden recording via some kind of a fish-eye lens (which degraded the resolution of the moving images) of some of the weekend presentations, the video quality was so deplorable that it would test the threshold of even the most patient of online citizens.

If video streaming proved less satisfactory, it would not be immoderate to assume that viewers might wish to look at photographs. On the same night that our correspondent encountered those glitches, he was surprised that clicking on the gallery tab of SGFW’s homepage brought him to photos of the Diane Von Furstenburg fall 2015 shows! Similarly, at DFW’s gallery page, icons of albums from the 2015 shows laid waiting to be clicked like overused lift buttons. When we checked those tabs on the morning of the 1st of November, by then more than two days after SGFW ended, we were met with the same photos seen earlier—ghosts of fashion weeks past.

In the end, perhaps being confined to the quiet vicinity of an uncooperative video broadcast beats shuttling between up there and down below to see loudness that is increasingly difficult to mute.

Note on names: to keep to the way Chinese names are used in most of Asia, we’ve chosen to spell them with the surname in front. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Highly Conventional Forms


Naeem Khan dresses she who rules and roosts in the White House (until January 2017, anyway). His clothes have a familiarity not unlike the most recognized casa blanca in Washington, so much so that, after just a few minutes into his show for Singapore Fashion Week, we were able to guess what will come out next. This predictability is perhaps his selling point. Mr Khan’s clothes are not challenging; they do not deviate from what is expected of him—gowns that look good on the White House front steps, on international red carpets, and certainly here at the Supreme Court Terrace of the National Gallery.

The spring/summer 2017 shown—“highlight” of the SGFW—on Saturday night was, according to seat-allotted show notes printed sans semblance of a layout (and in full caps too!), “dedicated to my mentor, Halston, whom I work for in the 70’s (sic).” Mr Khan is, of course, not the only person to be inspired by Halston. His compatriot Tom Ford, a Halston devotee, continues to walk his idol’s footsteps, whether he’s conscious of it or not. Although Mr Khan’s own work is less imitative, the first four colour-block jersey dresses left no doubt the source of his inspiration.


Ironically, it is in the homage to a past fashion god that the clothes looked most modern, even if they were a smidgen too Halston to align seamlessly with the embellished prettiness typical of Naeem Khan. The quartet of slightly flared dresses with geometric panels and strategic slits to reveal limbs, will no doubt appeal to GOOP girl Gwyneth Paltrow, or any woman who can live without a hint of blink.

However, that unadorned simplicity quickly took a back seat, which was, of course, no surprise. From then on, Mr Khan was in full force, and the visual serenity gave way to an off-shoulder baby doll dress that looked like a giant reticule with armholes. It was nearly completely embroidered, and from where we were seated, appeared beautiful, but it did look like someone (or some people) laboured over it. “A lot of my embroidery is made in India,” Mr Khan had told the media, which, although uncalled for, made us think of the other embroidery-loving designer Guo Pei.


Chinese embroidery goes back more than 5,000 years—the much-lauded su xiu (苏绣) of Suzhou, for example, is believed to have a genesis that dates to 2,000 years ago. Ms Pei, for all her love of dramatic styles, offered embroidery that looked light—silk-fan light, as if it was effortless needlework by one individual. It probably isn’t, but it looked that way. Mr Khan’s own family was in the embroidered textile business, and India, too, has a rich history of hand embroidery with many different regional styles, just like in China.

But for this collection, Mr Khan’s application just looked a bit too heavy, so much so that they seemed more like embroidered appliqué. Even the sulam-looking needlework looked overwrought. For those who love decorative excess, this is surely no problem. In fact, they “keep style-watchers gasping with admiration”, exactly just as USA Today said when describing one of Michele Obama’s Naeem Khan gowns.


For designers who love this much embroidery, beading, lace and floral prints (which, together, Mr Khan calls his “own signature materials”), somehow bridal wear is often part of the repertoire. And those wedding dresses that make Mr Khan the go-to designer, just like Vera Wang, appeared in the last part of the presentation. Mr Khan usually stages bridal couture in separate shows, so it must have been an extra treat for those who came to see what would have been just occasion wear. Well, bridal wear is occasion wear!

It seems such a long-gone past when wedding dresses closed the French couture shows. (We’re thinking of Yves Saint Laurent as we write this.) So it was fascinating to see Mr Khan’s bridal pieces, which seemed to be designed for Princess Leia Organa’s wedding to Han Solo. Okay, it was the headdress that looked like something Anakin Walker and Padmé Amidala’s daughter might have worn, but the Princess, if you remember, was fond of donning a bridal-white, ankle-length dress when fighting Storm Troopers. Naeem Khan’s wedding frocks are, of course, prettier, but, just like Star Wars, they articulate fairy-tale, even if this here isn’t “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”.

Cheongsams M.I.A.


Ong Shunmugam opened her Singapore Fashion Week ‘Cheongsam 2017’ show by sending out all the models at one go. They strode hurriedly by, as if in haste to exit the Supreme Court Terrace due to some unknown dishonor. We saw just as quickly that despite what designer Priscilla Shunmugam had been touting, this was not a cheongsam show. Were we duped?

When the first model re-emerged after the march past in a tri-panel peplumed number with stout Mandarin collar of contrast white like a clergyman’s, you knew immediately that Ms Shunmugam was going to take liberties with the cheongsam. Again. Not that that’s a bad thing, really, but our stand has always been unchanged: if you’re going to deconstruct or re-imagine a classic dress, do that dress faultlessly first!

By the appearance of the second outfit—a red, Mandarin-collared dress with a fitted bodice and flared, knee-length skirt, which looks uncannily like something OG would inevitably stock during the CNY season, we knew this was going to be just a stylistic update of what she’s been doing rather than a real re-imagination. This was the fashion equivalent of mobile app users’ regular confrontation—“bug fixes and speedy performance improvements”. Serve our dim selves right for taking the title of her show so literally!


We’ve always been delirious with joy by Ong Shunmugam’s serious, wit-free, and intelligent (a popular media description) take on traditional Asian wear. But if our adrenaline runs uncharacteristically low this time, what else can we say about the clothes? We were fanning ourselves with hopefulness even when dress after dress was two steps away from trite, but stronger was the feeling that the brand could be experiencing a slow exhaustion of ideas.

To be sure, there were details previously not seen in Ong Shunmugam cheongsams. Admirers would no doubt be thrilled, for instance, that the cheongsams now come with cold-shoulder treatment, arguably the high-street’s detail du jour. The rest of the sleeves—in bishop and bell-shaped styles (a pair on a white and blue dress looked like lampshades, to be more precise)—fell from the armpit level so that skin of the upper arm could be revealed to catch a bit of sunshine or conditoned air. Is this to make up for the concealment of the thighs since the side slits that distinguish the cheongsam were done away with?

Some of the pieces comprised of juxtaposed fabrics that appeared to be a take on the placement prints that Ms Shunmugam previously had a weakness for. The mix bore the spirit of colour-blocking that could back-tracked to the Seventies, with some pieces tracing the top outline of the bust as if there were bras worn atop the dress. It is understandable why purists consider hers “angmo pai” (红毛派 or Western) cheongsams. Indeed, her aesthetic sensibility differ not drastically from Lisa Von Tang of Chi Chi Von Tang. Why, both designers paired their cheongsams with flat-soled shoes! How uncanny was that? Just a trend in the making?

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct

What Was Taken Away At Stolen?

Despite a potentially pretentious presentation, last night’s Stolen show nearly stole the limelight of the entire Singapore Fashion Week, even before the event ended. Ely Wong has turned her debut at SGFW into a performance more in keeping with what normally happens on stage than a catwalk. Was she merely staying on trend by adopting the visual caper associated with Kanye West’s Yeezy Season shows or was this something with a cryptic, Lemonade-era message?

For a festival mostly devoid of an elevated runway, Stolen’s show configuration—right in the middle of the Auditorium Foyer of the National Gallery—of boxes and props and wooden chairs on which the models sat, stood, and seduced hinted at something far more intelligent than the usual walk-on-by that Singaporean designers favour. Coupled with the models’ war-paint makeup, this could be SGFW’s most directional show yet.

Despite showing in a major local fashion week for the first time (the brand has participated in trade events in the New York, mainly showroom affairs), Stolen is not a new label. Almost a decade of existence and a brief run at Robinsons later, Stolen has remained a fairly little-known label. It is considered a minimalist line, not in the tradition of Jil Sander, but more in the spirit of Phoebe Philo’s Celine. To us, as we watched her show for the first time, designer Ely Wong’s two-dimensional approach to design vaguely recalled the work of even more obscure Singaporean designer Grace Tan, whose early experiments on her label Kwodrent (now an “inter-disciplinary practice”) was manipulation of planes.

Stolen is about flatness and straight lines, and it is now even more so. How this linearity can be manipulated to bring about accord with the three-dimensionality of the human body, Ms Wong has, till now, not shown convincingly. From the start in 2007, her ideas have been conceptually strong, and she goes through the details of her work with a rigour uncommon among her contemporaries, but there is still scant evidence of technical finesse. There was talk once that as recent as a couple of years back, she had approached a veteran Singaporean designer to help her with pattern-making. It seemed nothing came out of that. Ms Wong still works primarily with an ad-hoc group of drafters and sewers, some of whom possibly cannot grasp her rather high-minded ideas.

These mostly stem from the upper back. Ms Wong is fascinated by the rear of the body, and her designs expose the spinal column and, occasionally, with details such as interplay of straps, underscore the beauty of the trapezius and the dorsum. For her spring/summer 2017 season, some of the backs are still uncovered or partly so, but there seems to be a shift of attention to the shoulder and the neck, which is an area of interest initially seen in 2014 when she introduced ruffs—though not quite Elizabethan—to crown otherwise plain bodices. Now, diaphanous pleats and overlapped panels were shaped into turtle necks, shoulder coverings in the form of abbreviated capelets, extra-long bibs (a plain one looked like a table runner!), and dorsal swirls, all fashioned on what were essentially column dresses loosely based on the Grecian ideal.

The show opened with a model reciting, in the dark, verses from Warsan Shire: a portentous “…my existence is not about how desirable you find me.” All rather performance-arty, but once the models came together in the finale, the colours—nude and whispers of pink and blue—bring to mind immediately the affected hip-hop-as-art leaning of (again) Mr West. Those exposed underpants in skin tone, too. In the end, when the picture was complete, you could see that Ms Wong still designs as if piling paper on top of another. There was almost no dart work, and certainly no unusual placement of seams prevalent in ‘shaped’ garments.

Perhaps true to the earlier not-a-crowd-pleaser proclamation, some members of the front row seem a little too eager to leave when the presentation ended, perhaps to rush off to see the Naeem Khan show, up next. They knew that would be less somnolent, definitely less plain, less linear. That’s the fashion women like Michelle Obama want, and will swoon over. That is why Ely Wong’s defiant “it’s-not-my-responsibility-to-be-beautiful” stance is the sole encouraging spark in the SPGW calendar.

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct


Toon Town Tang


Fashion is sometimes like a joke: there are good jokes and there are bad jokes. And, now and then, you don’t get the joke at all.  In line with the ‘Anime’ theme of the collection, Chi Chi Von Tang’s debut Singapore Fashion Week show opened with a video presentation of a purported sighting of a super vigilante—“an elusive powerful woman” that is “tall, slender, Asian, in her mid-thirties”. But this was not a motion-picture animation. Rather, it was an amateurish live-action “breaking news” flash that could have been one of the class assignments submitted at the Singapore Media Academy. As if all that was not enough, talents (the brand’s own staff, it was reported) acted out the scenes on the catwalk!

By now, we’re not left in the dark that the mysterious one-woman rescue mission is a Chi Chi Von Tang aka Lisa Von Tang aka Lisa Crosswhite. Ms Von Tang (for simplicity, will stick to this moniker) is a girl-powered go-getter of Chinese and Canadian descent, who has quietly worked on her Chi Chi Von Tang label about a year ago and came to some prominence when it was reported that one of her yet to-be-released pieces from the ‘Anime’ collection was seen on a guest at this year’s Met Gala to celebrate the opening of Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.

That cute number—with manga, not anime, illustrations by Canadian-Chinese artist Liao Mujia for the skirt—was picked up by our local media and celebrated as some breakthrough. Suddenly Chi Chi Von Tang became a label to watch. And watched we did. The spirited show was opened by Ms Von Tang’s favourite Malaysian model, the Seremban native Tinie Bibbaby, who storm-twirled the runway with a fierceness worthy of a Chi Chi Warrior, as fervent followers of “Chi Chi fashion” are called. It’s all very Mother Monster and her Little Monsters, of course. Ms Bibbaby wore a sleeveless top emblazoned with the question “Who is Chi Chi Von Tang?” (the back should have read, “Who cares!”) and shorts over which a printed fabric was somehow fasten to the waist as an open-front skirt. So pleased Ms Bibbaby must have been with what she was given to wear that prior to the show, she posted a 14-plus-minute live feed of the backstage action on Facebook, declaring how she and fellow model Tuti Mohd Noor “make Malaysia proud”.

The opening number immediately left you feeling that this would be about styling rather than design. Chi Chi Von Tang has been described as a “street-luxe” label with what the brand says is a focus on “statement jackets”. The debut collection early this year was “inspired by Chinese couture (oxymoron or not, we leave it to you to decide) and the fire and swagger of Grace Jones (still firing and swaggering?)”. And where’s the street and the luxe and the Chinese-couture? It’s all exemplified by the Chi Chi Warrior Bomber—a flight jacket with frog buttons added to it and ethnic fabrics for sleeves. Should the exploration of Chinese or Asian motifs be this simplistic or reductive?

Lisa Von Tang’s ‘Anime’ collection stays close in spirit to what she has set out to do from the beginning. The designer, by her own admission, “does not come from a traditional design background” and Chi Chi Von Tang “celebrates unique spirits, courage and color”. On the narrow runway in the Auditorium Foyer of the National Gallery last night, there was the predictable pastiche of styles loosely held together by Oriental details such as frog buttons and fringes. Whether any of these can be considered unique really depends on one’s cultural standpoint. In Ms Von Tang’s case, it is a Western mind reconnecting with her Eastern roots, hence the potentially tacky amplification of Oriental exotica. Ms Von Tang even crossed into Priscilla Shunmugam’s territory by sending out her interpretation of a cheongsam, which looked like something Sun Ho might wear if she were still shaking her booty to stardom in LA.

The disparate world of fashion is full of brands that are born in an alternate universe, a colourful recess that does not tune into the aesthetic common denominator that connects the groundbreaking designers of worth. Chi Chi Von Tang’s ‘Anime’ collection seems to be from that other cosmos, where “street” is euphemism for not pursuing refinement. In fact, to us, it has the requisites that will prompt Tim Gunn to say, “Clothes do not exist to humiliate their owners. Please do not force garments into performing psychological tasks for which they were not designed!”

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct


Totally Girl Girl


Danelle Woo has been quietly running her frilly Aijek label to enviable success. Regardless of where the line is carried, from the now-defunct Mporium to Tangs, her most visible stockist, Aijek has chalked up top sales, and has been enjoying a large following of customers who look at the clothes uncritically. On the sales floor, that is understandable: you see, you buy. But once the garments are shifted to a runaway, they attract far more intense scrutiny. Clothes on hangers can get away with many things, on models working a catwalk, it’s harder—a lot harder.

For her Singapore Fashion Week show yesterday, Ms Woo broke no new ground. Perhaps that isn’t imperative. Once you’ve built your line on a formula—essentially producing what’s already the rage and seen in the marketplace, you can bore your audience to tears, and people will say that you’re staying true to your signature. Aijek is easy to wear and easy to love. The thing with anything this easy, is that you may just as easily tire of them.


How many dainty rompers does a woman’s wardrobe require? Or, for that matter, cold-shoulder tops that look suspiciously like those you saw in Forever 21, just yesterday? Or lace dresses that will be picked up by a bride-to-be for her bridesmaid? There’s a pattern-book approach to assembling the collection: every conceivable neckline, sleeve or skirt length and shape, all manner of tactile properties in fabrics were given a fighting chance. (Interestingly, of the 35 looks Ms Woo presented, there was only one pair of pants.) This is a merchandiser’s way of pulling together a line rather than a designer’s: more, more, more; repeat, repeat, repeat.

An inductee of this year’s Fashion Futures (so too are Max Tan and Stolen’s Elyn Wong), Ms Woo basically offers the kind of ultra-fem clothes that straightforwardly qualify for webzine listicles: “10 outfits you’ll wear non-stop”, “20 maxi-dresses to buy for a BFF gathering”, “30 bustier numbers to stunt colleagues at the annual D&D”, “50 items your boyfriend absolutely hates”. It’s all well and fine, of course, but do these clothes deserve to be put on a runway?

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct

Who’s Cup Of Tea?

In Bangkok, a label such as Sheranut is a dime a dozen. They can be found across the city, in many stores where glamour in its lurid and exaggerated forms is appreciated and desired. Often times, the person behind the label is an attractive individual of some social standing who did not necessarily start out in fashion design, but through love of dressing up, retail therapy, and social-media-as-market-place, birthed a clothing label. The Bangkok’s fashion scene is awash with them, such as BFFs Sawitri Rochanapruk and Jirada Yohara’s Hahaha: The Happy Girls, blogger Nun Stannard’s Blatantly Blue, restaurateur Anchalee Vikasidnakhakun’s Anchavika, and fashion editor at Thai Marie Claire Guitar Patinya’s eponymous Patinya that, last week, hosted a private showing at the Four Seasons Hotel here.

And now there’s Sheranut, a two-year-old label conceived by Thai actress cum singer Sheranut Yusananda. Known by her nickname Namcha (literally, tea in Thai), Ms Yusananda is a recent full-fledged (co-)designer of her label after first finding modest success selling her wares on Instagram. Truth is, she does not have the pedigree of Pimdao Sukhahuta of Stretsis. Even her career in film and music is, to Thais, mediocre, at best. That’s why the brand’s appearance last night at Singapore Fashion Week, now supposedly poised to take the event to the next level, is a bummer, simply because SGFW deserves the best, not the commonplace or the accidental fashion designer.

Ms Yusananda may have served a deep-hued pot of tea at her first, er, brewing in Singapore, but it was a flavourless infusion. Despite a fierce presentation choreographed by Bangkok’s veteran show producer Sombatsara Thirasaroj, affectionately known as Tue (pronounced as ‘pig’ in Hokkien), with a military-style finale that recalls Vanessa Beecroft’s display for Kanye West, her clothes had sex and scintillation, but no substance. All the pumped-up skin-tight sexiness was oddly paradoxical to the intro, unveiled unexpectedly to the audience, who was called to stand to attention as a photo of the recently deceased King Bhumibol was projected on the rear wall of the National Gallery’s Auditorium Foyer, while the royal anthem Sanrasoen Phra Barami played, immediately recalling the ritual prior to a movie screening in a Thai cinema.

Once the clothes emerged, it was obvious the solemn prelude was a token formality. The first model appeared in a constricted skirt so tight she could barely strut. Body-hugging was really the order of the day; together with every cliché Thai designers have a tendency to embrace when it comes to sexiness with a certain sternness: the halter neck, the bare shoulders, the bare back, low V-front as well as back (so that some form of horizontal strap was required in the rear to hold the top together), the barely-there slip, the sequinned nude dress, swingy tented shapes, fringed skirts, ‘car-wash’ skirts and dresses, body stockings, and the obligatory skinny pants. The collection, with its oblique reference to tribal Africa (the face paint was more half-baked than convincing and the full-face jewellery was more joke than jaunty), was a hodgepodge more in common with a market such as Bangkok’s famed Chatuchak than the swank seen in malls such as the new Siam Discovery. A zebra-print pantsuit, Ms Yusananda might wish to note, does not Africa make.

To understand the appeal and the viability of a brand such as Sheranut, it is useful to know that the Bangkok beau monde includes a group known as “hiso”, a uniquely Thai word that’s a portmanteau of high and society. It is not necessarily a term of compliment or endearment. Hiso, sometimes scorned by the intelligentsia, refers to both male and female, and may include another category, the dara—stars. Sheranut Yusananda is not only a member of the hiso, she is—because of her other professions—also a dara. The hiso-dara is more often than not a fashion plate with a taste quite identifiable by the carefully struck balance of sexiness, trendiness, and pretend modesty. Sheranut’s debut here allows the uninitiated a peak into this distinctive world that has less to do with real design talent than the love of dressing the hiso-dara self. Fashion is actually secondary.

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct

Not Maxed Out


With his past collections, Max Tan’s work sometimes seemed gormless. You sensed that, like so many of his generation, his design education and inspiration is, respectively, derived and drawn from either Pinterest or Tumblr. Mr Tan himself has admitted—in an undisguised, three-and-half-minute video plug for Microsoft’s Surface (a sponsor) that preceded his spring/summer 2017 show at this year’s Singapore Fashion Week—that he gleans heavily from the online world. “I spend a lot of time on the Internet,” he said earnestly. “It’s a wonderful never-ending source of images and inspiration.”

Although Mr Tan is producing clothes that few, if not none, are churning out, it cannot be said with gusto that his output is completely original. His designs are imaginative, sure, but it seems to be imagination fired by what beckons from the computer screen, or in his present case, the high pixels-per-inch LCD touch pad of the Surface Pro. Through the World Wide Web, Mr Tan could garner from both visibility and obscurity to bring together ideas that are familiar and unfamiliar. The thing about such an approach—using cyberspace as research centre—is that anyone from anywhere can be also similarly positioned, looking at the same thing/site/page/link or plenitude of pictures, to knock together a collection. Isn’t this what students these day, including Mr Tan’s own at NAFA, do as evidence of research?


Staged last night on the opening day of SGFW, Max Tan’s latest offering has that sense of assemblage born of haste. Picking familiar themes that he has previously explored, he rehashes his usual slouchy tops and bottoms, throwing the one-shoulder seen at so many brands during Paris fashion week not too long ago for good measure. What appeared to be refreshing—the swingy outfits in striped fabrics—in fact recall those that he presented, while still unshackled from national service, for Singapore Fashion Designers Contest during SFW 2007, a second-place collection with a school-age resonance called ‘Borrowing from my Boyfriend’s Wardrobe’.

Followers of Max Tan’s brief 6-year, do-the-nation-proud career will be able to nod knowingly and appreciatively at the asymmetry, the distended shapes, the dropped shoulders, the handkerchief hemlines, and those superfluous, sometimes unlovely details that flinch not from his avant-garde standing and are completely IG-friendly. The 28-piece collection is replete with those Max Tan touches, which, to us, are too early in the fellow’s vocation to be considered DNA. But, we’ll give him this: here is semblance of aesthetic consistency.

While there were no surprises, it was heartening to see that Mr Tan has moderately refined his cuts, bettered the fit (gasp, there were dresses flattering to the body!), and improved on the finishing of his garments, which until now, tended to glare on the catwalk in their own inferiority. Could this be the upside of participating in the Fashion Futures program, which allowed him to acquaint himself with the US market under the auspices of the Council of Fashion Designers of America?


What was surprising was the no-show of those too-big and ungainly coats he loved in the past two seasons. In fact, coats were conspicuously absent, and with them, those terribly-drafted, clownish lapels. But just as you thought all was fine and dandy , out came a belted jacket with boulders for shoulders. While it was not unexpected that Mr Tan would cross into Vetements territory (after all he has repeatedly—and still does—traipse Comme des Garçons domain), the heart sank with despair, and fast. Did we not hear him utter so persuasively just minutes ago on screen: “I really do not want to just throw out the first thing that comes to my mind because I’ll just be referencing the past, something I’ve seen before”?

After Mr Tan closed his Capitol Piazza store suddenly and surreptitiously post-Chinese New Year this year (a nocturnal clear out, it was said), speculation was rife that business had failed and that he may want to quit the trade. Then he appeared in April in the W.E. X Togetherly pop-up space at Isetan Orchard. His showing at SGFW last night may put to rest that his label is in dire straits. Max Tan is a designer that’s very much a product of his generation, a fashion enabler tapping the gruntled liberalism that the digital age has provided, delighting sponsors with marketing muscle such as Microsoft. Like apps, Max Tan is coded for update, not necessarily an upgrade.

As Singapore’s brightest light, he was strangely not allotted the best show spot in the sprawling National Gallery. The Max Tan show was sited at the Auditorium Foyer, a basement space as large as a boardroom that, the following day, is show grounds for graduation presentations. He can’t cough out the rates organiser Mercury is asking for, even with big-name sponsorship? So small it is this auditorium that models had barely a one-metre wide catwalk to perform and camera lenses were consistently blocked by wide-brimmed hats and iPhones perched on flailing arms. Despite the disappointingly crammed conditions, radio DJ Rosalyn Lee, seated in the front row, was visibly thrilled with quite a number of the pieces, pointing to them as the models walked pass with the same delight as a child eyeing her favourite doll in Toys ’R Us. In some of us, Max Tan may not have found an ardent fan, but in her, he’s recruited an exposure-for-sure admirer.

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct

The Old Comes Here As New

For Singapore Fashion Week’s opening show at the National Gallery, Guo Pei brought over what she showed in Paris two seasons back


As guest designer of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, China’s  Guo Pei has been enjoying Parisian exposure for two seasons now. Yet, for the debut of the re-branded Singapore Fashion Festival—Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW)—this evening at the National Gallery, Ms Guo showed the older of the two: what she unveiled for the first time during Paris Couture Week in January this year: the spring/summer 2016 collection, now called the “Courtyard” collection.

Is it probable that, perhaps, Ms Guo does not take SGFW seriously? After all, this is not Paris, where the designer had set up an atelier last year to better impress the world. In fact, her label—as seen on her website—now reads ‘Guo Pei Paris’. Despite past attempts at establishing our island as a couture point of sale, it is possible that there are those who do not consider us a source of sizeable business. It is, therefore, tempting to surmise that Ms Guo was showing for the sake of showing, if not to humour the organisers of SFW.

Despite a collection not on the scale of the famed omelette dress or the mind-boggling 1002 Nights collection, Guo Pei’s work is not easy to appreciate or view as relevant. For those conditioned by the aesthetics of couture as it is known—essentially French and centred in Paris, Ms Guo’s predilection for princess gowns is barely palatable, let alone awe-rousing (the crowns were especially tawdry). These are, no doubt, special-occasion wear, but you can’t be certain if she’s designing a prom dress or a bridal kua, or the two rolled in one. The show was visibly Guo Pei’s very own Princess Diaries.


To be sure, fantasy has always been part of Ms Guo’s repertoire. From 1002 Nights to Samasara to Legend of the Dragon, her designs mirror a flight of the imagination that is manifestly an Oriental vision of a regal Western world. Although what she showed at the Supreme Court Terrace of the National Gallery was not as dramatic and ethnic as her past presentations here, such as the Chinese Bride collection for Digital Fashion Week (now merged with SGFW) in 2013, Ms Guo clothes are still removed from the stylishness that is consistent with what women want today.

Certainly, the clothes are exquisitely embroidered, beaded, laced, appliquéd and fringed—surface treatments that have become known as “her DNA”. It is well to want to embellish, but to adorn without a judicious eye can be what the Chinese are inclined to call mei pin (没品) or lacking in taste. Ms Guo repeatedly claims to be inspired by ancient Chinese designs and crafts. That she feels passionately for decorative techniques of her country’s past is understandable, even admirable, but zeal that traipses into kitsch and costume is dangerous territory. Should Ms Guo be reminded that she’s not designing for a period TV series brought forward a few hundred years? This is not costume for Empresses in the Palace (also known as The Legend of Zhen Huan or 后宫·甄嬛传) updated for the 21st century!

The visual excess presents another problem: it is hard to see design finesse in areas such as cut and tailoring when there is so much adornment going on. Ornamentation, trimming, and gilding are only a part of couture. What goes beneath matters too. In fact, one never reads of Ms Guo’s work in terms of tailoring and draping. But, as we have noted before, Ms Guo may have some understanding of engineering since her heavy clothes would require a framework to sit on the body. Unfortunately, therein lies what’s disturbing. For many of the dresses, the body is merely a hanger, even for a professional model. In the second look of the collection, for instance, a bib-front dress looked like it had an embroidered tongue just plonked on the chest. Which came first—the heavily embellished panel or the dress? Or was the latter an afterthought?


It is not unreasonable to assume that Ms Guo’s atelier comprises mainly the flou, an assumption that could be consistent with the dressmaking she had learnt at Beijing Second Light Industry School, where she graduated ten years after the Cultural Revolution ended. In her couture, she shows very little tailoring and no stiffness and form associated with suiting—perhaps as recoil from the surfeit of Mao suits she saw and experienced during her formative years. In this “Courtyard” collection, Ms Guo offered three pairs of pants—all cut pyjamas style (or like auntie slacks) and none with the sharpness and snug of, say, Armani’s.

Strangely missing is the reference to “courtyard”. The Supreme Court Terrace is, of course, no courtyard. It is a new fourth-floor space designed around the rotunda that once sat atop the Supreme Court. Unlike her Paris show, which was made to look like a Chinese courtyard, albeit one that could have been transplanted from a restaurant on Beijing’s Guijie in Dongzhimen, the National Gallery show gave no hint of what was described by the media as inspiration derived from imperial ladies walking in a Chinese courtyard.

In fact, if there were any allusion, it was in the pacing of the show: soporific, compounded by music that’s on the side of monotonous. If the gowns in the end were meant to be the crescendo of the evening, it was really the confectionery at a wedding that nobody wants to eat. Whether the presentation was about ladies walking in a courtyard, Ms Guoi’s destination seemed less the wardrobe of customers than storied museums, such as the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris that staged her first solo exhibition in the city in July 2015. Art and fashion: whether the twain shall meet, Guo Pei won’t stop trying.

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct. Photos: SOTD