What Comes Next?

If Singapore Fashion Week is no more, can a regional event be an ideal stand-in?

SGFW to endSingapore Fashion Week to fade to oblivion?

What we blogged three days ago turns out to be quite true. Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW) has possibly drawn to a close. After a comeback that spans three short years, the 2017 edition will be the last, according to an online report.

In an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore this past Wednesday, Tjin Lee, founder of Mercury M&C, the company behind SGFW, said, “After 11 editions*, that is my last Singapore Fashion Week. It means next year it will be ‘go big or go home’.”

It isn’t quite clear what she meant by “go big or go home”. Street expression aside, for many observers, increasing the size or duration of SGFW is not tenable since, by Ms Lee’s own admission, the pool of designers who are able to support SGFW is very small. Or even non-existent since, according to her, our “designers can’t fund themselves”. And “go home?” Has SGFW not always been staged on home turf?

The business talk of this morning was that Ms Lee has “registered the Asia Fashion Week URL”.  An online check confirmed that the domain name asiafashionweek.com has been registered to Tjin Lee using the Mercury’s office address, with a “creation date” of “2014-05-14” and an “updated date” of “2017-05-26”. It is, therefore, possible that Ms Lee has entertained the idea of creating a potentially massive Asia Fashion Week as far back as 2014, the last year of Audi Fashion Festival, precursor to her version of SGFW.

In the Yahoo interview, Ms Lee offered little details about the form this new fashion week will take other than her eagerness to “change the format” and “completely evolve and pivot” it. She said, “It’s got to be bigger than Singapore; think regional, think Asia… Whatever I do next, it will either be a bigger Asian focus or it will not be.” And she reiterated, “Go big or go home.”

Pull quote 1

An Asia Fashion Week is a fascinating although frightfully ambitious proposal. With most Asian hub cities—such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, and Tokyo—staging their own visible fashion weeks, designers from the continent, young or established, may not see the lure in participating in a Singapore-based (assuming it’ll be held here) event that is a spin-off of a relatively low-key and humble one of debatable success.

Do other Asian designers have money? That was the question asked when SOTD spoke to some in the fashion business. The one issue, as Ms Lee has plainly noted, is the lack of financial means among local designers to pay to be part of a runway-centric event. The production of the collection itself is usually the main cost consideration for designers and, consequently, staging a show that they have to pay for is an unappealing proposition. Does spreading the net wider mean attracting fatter fish?

“The China designers have money,” said a product development manager. That is not entirely true. While there are designers who can be considered financially successful, there are also those who work on their collections with modest budgets, much like their Singaporean counterparts, and are not necessarily able to afford to stage shows. Those who are able, such as Masha Ma and Uma Wang, show in Paris, or elsewhere in Europe. Small, independent designers, as with the social-media/designer darlings, have trifling sums for marketing, let alone participate in a “big” fashion event. It can be said that for most fashion designers anywhere not blessed with munificent backing, a splashy catwalk presentation is not ticked for consideration.

In China, the main fashion weeks are sanctioned by the Ministry of Commerce, and supported by local or municipal governments, and may not be in the form of funding. Rather, it could come as provision of venues or logistical aid. Together with corporate and media sponsorship, the final budgetary burden on show organisers is significantly lighter, and that helpfully relieves the financial load weighing down on designers. China’s fashion (not garment manufacturing) industry is a fairly young one, and it is common understanding that fledgling designers would not be able to stage a massive show without assistance.

There are more fashion weeks in China than film festivals—a situation also seen in India. According to the organizers of Shanghai Fashion Week, there are about 30 fashion weeks throughout China, with Shanghai Fashion Week and China Fashion Week (in Beijing) being the two most important and under international media radar. Chinese designers and those outside the mainland are, therefore, spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing an ideal platform for their collections or a larger, more receptive audience. What then could be the appeal of the suggested Asia Fashion Week? Ms Lee has not made her case.

SGFW audience

Singapore Fashion Week fashioned by Mercury is, as many observers have underscored, a business, and one that has to have a more-than-healthy bottom line. It was shared during the event last week that this year’s SGFW may run a six-figure loss. We have not been able to independently verify this sum, but if true, it is understandable why SGFW has to end, or morph into a remunerative version. Taking into account that Mercury reportedly received no aid from the government, their income prospects had mainly come from corporate sponsorship, charging designers for participation (whether the charges were equitable, no one could say for sure), and ticket sales.

Corporate sponsorship has always been the main means to fund SGFW, but, as Ms Lee wrote in her personal blog, “even big companies are often happy to give product, lots of it, but are often reluctant to part with cash.” It has been said that since the generosity of Audi during the ‘Festival’ days of Mercury’s fashion-show extravaganzas, corporate support has not quite been what it was. Whether that means reduced monetary sponsorship, sponsors are unwilling to say. Money received from charging designers to stage their shows is even more dismal. It is known that Mercury had in the past hook designers up with sponsors—but that did not necessarily improve the ledger. Increasingly, designers were unwilling to pay (chances are, Jason Wu did not, as he was “invited”). And door tickets, despite the high price (up to $250 for a package for the inaugural Zipcode forum), did not sell enough to delight any finance manager.

“If the business opportunity is so gloomy, would a larger fashion week that encompasses Asia really work, and how,” SGFW followers have asked, “and what happens to the raising of the Singapore flag?” Perhaps, in the end, business viability overrides noble causes, whether they’re idealistic or not, especially if they are. It would be a pity to see Singapore Fashion Week, with a history that dates back to 1990 (not since Mercury’s founding, as it seems to be the thought), come to a complete close. While an Asia Fashion Week may continue to shine the spotlight on our island, it will still not change the fate that, as Ms Lee despairingly told Yahoo, “Singapore is too small a country to support its own local domestic fashion”.

For veterans of the Singapore fashion scene, and some newcomers alike, Tjin Lee’s idealism is not without its charm. Her love for fashion weeks, her steely determination, and her dream to embrace all of Asia are reminiscent of the reverie of Ms Lee’s one-time collaborator Frank Cintamani of Fidé Fashion Weeks. Mr Cintamani had sought to bring his fashion weeks—first staged here—across the region to salute Asian designers. His resolve saw the formation of the curious Asian Couture Federation. Following friction with organisers that took to social media during Vietnam International Fashion Week, which he teamed up with in 2015, Fidé Fashion Weeks is rather silent in the past year, except for the “democratically priced couture-infused British label” Couturissimo, which is strangely now doing the pop-up rounds here.

SGFW may not be a stable foundation for a bigger fashion week since it was built on not-completely solid ground, but it is on top of SGFW that Ms Lee will “evolve” the event. Perhaps she’s starting anew, creating a clean slate, from which to better repackage a fashion week. As one PR manager said, “It looks like she’s sinking the ship that she built.” For Ms Lee, it is possible that in order to start afresh, she has to close the door that she opened years ago so that another might be unlocked. Opportunities do come through many entrances, whether they’re narrow or wide, whether they welcome or spurn.

Stay tuned.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

* The Singapore Fashion Week in the form of the last 3 years began in 2015 as a remade Audi Fashion Festival, primarily a shopping-related event



A Fashion Week Of Reduced Circumstances

The third outing of the re-branded Singapore Fashion Week is the shortest it has ever been—down from last year’s five days to three. But brevity is only a small part of the sadly diminishing allure of what has been billed as the city’s “premier” event. Will there be a 2018 edition?

SGFW 2017 posterVertical banner of SGFW spotted outside the CBD and Orchard Road, along Havelock Road

The word that went round this year’s Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW), staged at the National Gallery for the second year, was that this could be the last. Even staff of the event’s organizer Mercury M&C was not able to say that the 2018 edition of SGFW will be a certainty. Some attendees helpfully suggested that perhaps it could be just a one-year hiatus so as to allow Mercury to “reorganise and consolidate”.

It is no secret that this year’s SGFW was especially hard to pull off, given the unchanging bleak retail climate and reduced business among Singaporean designers, a reality more complex and far-reaching than the average show-goer would know. Founder/managing director of Mercury, Tjin Lee, aka Lee Huei Tjin, betrayed her fears when she posted in Facebook last month: “It’s been an extremely challenging year as we sought solutions to stay relevant as a fashion week in Singapore. With the digital revolution, retail slowdown, our small market size and difficult fundraising climate, it’s been the most challenging year in all 11 years that I’ve organised the fashion week in Singapore.”

How challenging has it been? It really requires no telling that even malls are pulling back on fashion shows (when was the last time you attended one in a shopping centre?). The Orchard Fashion Runway of Fashion Steps Out is no more, too. If there’s contemplation of ending SGFW, chances are, a marketing head opined, there are “dismal figures in the ledger.” This regrettably encourages cynics to reiterate that Singapore is a lost cause for fashion.

SGFW runwayGuests getting into their seats at National Gallery’s Former Supreme Court Terrace

The possibility of an SGFW financially disadvantaged is surprising. In March, marketing-interactive.com reported that “Mercury M&C and Lumina Live look to merge services”, and had quoted Ms Lee as saying that a merger “brings together an integrated 360 experience for clients in events, PR and marketing”. If confirmed, the merger was expected to be completed in 2018. But it was more than just “look”. A new company Mercury Live has since been formed. Lumina Live was founded in 1999 by David See, an industry veteran whose clients include Burberry, Dior, and Hermès.

The announced merger was a bolt from the blue for many who remembered that in 2009, Miss Lee had found a partner, Jeremy Tan, to put Mercury’s books in order, and to improve the bottom line. She told The Straits Times in 2015 that she was “taken by his style of working and how he managed to have much higher profit margins than me despite operating a smaller business.” At the same time, she revealed that fashion weeks are not a money spinner since “we get little to no funding from the Government and have to push so hard to fund the entire event through the private sector.” And the private sector had been supportive, with Audi as the title sponsor when she ran the precursor of SGFW, Audi Fashion Festival, from 2009 to 2014.

Prior to the merger with Lumina Live, it was shared among industry insiders that the once-lauded Jeremy Tan had left Mercury. Mr Tan had said that it was a business decision to part ways—whether to continue with the company 1Werk that he founded before partnering with Mercury, it isn’t certain, but he does continue to produce fashion events, such as the Heineken X F1 fashion show at the unlikely venue Lau Pa Sat in September. A solo act again at the beginning of 2017, Tjin Lee, it seemed, needed a Jeremy Tan and she found him in David See. How this turn of events is going to pan out or bode for Mercury, or affect SGFW is anybody’s guess.

SGFW opening showGoh Lai Chan, left, on the catwalk after the presentation of his collection on the opening night of SGFW

Despite the challenges and a sponsorship environment that is less than forthcoming with funding, Ms Lee was able to bring together a respectable 20 sponsors, including the National Gallery, where the SGFW was held. But, according to a show producer SOTD spoke to, sometimes even with backing, fashion weeks may not be profitable as many designers get their slots free. “It is hard to imagine very young brands such as Arissa X with the means to pay to do a show,” he said. It is known, in fact, that some young designers/influencers with their own—often dubious—fashion label get “invited” to participate in order to fill empty slots, or to lend SGFW a certain quick-gain cachet that will appeal to the all-important Millennials.

One fashion PR professional said emphatically, while queuing to be admitted to the opening show Laichan, “SGFW has always been a business, not national service, not a platform to nurture young talents. If there’s no business, there’s no SGFW. It’s as simple as that.” That perhaps explains why tickets to the shows are sold—an uncommon practice at fashion weeks. A Singaporean designer earlier shared similar view when asked if he was invited to the shows, “No, lah! She (Tjin Lee) is an entrepreneur. Business is her priority. Associates like us must patronise to support her.”

How much support has Ms Lee received? Not insignificantly. People are still happily attending the shows, she’s still able to entice designers and brands to participate in SGFW (in some cases, even encourage unfledged and untried social media stars to start their own label so that they may be featured in SGFW), and the event has still retained the ‘premium’ tag in which the fashion show-hungry masses allowed her to indulge.

SGFW show about to startWaiting for the Zalora-supported Fashion Futures 1.0 show to start

An encouraging thing to note is that despite what some thought to be an eleventh-hour scramble to get SGFW going (even the press conference was a late affair, conducted a day after ST Life’s first report and three days after our post; 45 days before the first shows), the event proper itself saw improvements over last year’s not-hiccup-free staging. For one, the shows were now sited in one venue—in the National Gallery’s Former Supreme Court Terrace, although, to many, still not an ideal catwalk location. The one-runway site could also be because there were fewer shows, but, for attendees, it was a relief to know they did not have to shuttle between two points in the museum, as they had to last year.

There was also a photographers’ pit, which meant that, unlike the previous installation, which allowed lensmen to roam free, there would be no jostling with iPhone-wielding friends-of-designers eager to put the shows on Facebook Live. But it was still a no-win for many photographers and videographers as they had to deal with front-row attendees who were unable (or unwilling) to retract stretched limps, as well as extended and stationary arms bent on filming the show for whatever reason SGFW needed to be recorded with their smartphone. This was compounded by a relatively narrow catwalk flanked by three-row deep bleachers. It was a runway that was not palazzo pants and ball gown-friendly, as seen at the more-songs-than-clothes presentation of two-year-old Singaporean label Feayn, by graphic-designer-turn-tukangjahit Sufian Hussein.

The opening show of this year’s SGFW enjoyed a few firsts. It was the first time the event opened with a Singaporean designer and the first appearance of The Singapore Dress since its disappearance from stores and public consciousness in 2002. It was Goh Lai Chan’s first opening act and his first showing at SGFW (discounting the 8-piece capsule that he showed during the now-defunct Blue Print trade event in 2010). It was, however, not the first collection to see the marrying of ethnic fabrics and decorative arts in one pageant-style outfit after another.

Ling Wu SS 2018 bagsThe bags of Ling Wu, presented as a catwalk show

Applause to the strong showing of Asian designers is deserving, but the collections regrettably said almost nothing of what Asian designs are about today, or what it means to be designing in this region, or what it comports with showing at SGFW. How the final selection of names came about isn’t certain, but one senses that this could be a knee-jerk reaction to past criticisms that SGFW lacked local and Asian names, rather than a concerted effort to showcase Singaporean and Asian designers who can truly train the world’s attention to our shores and to see us as a critical and inspiring source of fashion design that can truly propel us forward, the way Seoul and Tokyo are regarded as elevating and future-bound.

It is also increasingly unclear what SGFW, beyond its Asian posturing, is really about. Sure, to expect it to be a fashion extravaganza as in the good old days, or as recent as the 2008 Singapore Fashion Festival (a winning comeback for Mercury) may, at this point, seem quaint and old-fashioned and irrelevant. And to hope that it could be a B2B affair, as some have, negates the fact that it never was, and never will be. SGFW is a spin-off of Singapore Fashion Festival; it is entertainment, pure and simple.

But as entertainment, was it first-rate? No one was expecting a Chanel show with sets so magnificent and awe-inspiring, you’d think you were in a movie studio. But a bunch of preening social-media types wanting to be in fashion and thus stage a fashion show is not fashion; it’s a D&D performance. Immoderate it really is not to hope for something more stimulating to the senses. There could have been attendees going to SGFW for the entertainment or to be seen and photographed, but there were many who seriously—or foolishly—went for the fashion. At the end of most shows, particularly the Zalora-supported Fashion Futures 1.0, it was a struggle not to feel insulted. If this was a film festival, Fashion Futures 1.0 would be, at best, a fringe event.

To paraphrase a line from the Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 film The Limey, you’re not specific enough to be fashion. You’re more like a vibe. What many of the SGFW participants were truly offering was just body coverings—so many of the clothes were literally two pieces of rectangles joined at the sides—styled to look influencer-credible and IG-ready, as if to better tag them #OOTD and nothing else. These participants were basically banking on their personal brand. There was no point of view, no voice, and positively no fashion.

SGFW Jason Wu SS 2017Finale of Jason Wu’s spring/summer 2018 collection

The question of a credible fashion week arose on the last day of SGFW. While the hot ticket of the night was Jason Wu’s much-anticipated show, it did not close the event. That went to the one-year-old brand Arissa X, the baby of Arissa Cheo, photogenic Singaporean wife of Taiwanese actor and singer Vanness Wu. In allocating Arissa X that prime slot, it seemed that local celebrity (with a Mando-pop star husband) trumped international star (with connections to the former FLOTUS of the White House), provisional business surpassed complete fashion enterprise, and small-network e-shop outdid global distribution. It was later explained that Mr Wu could not be given the last time slot because plans to take him out for dinner could not be changed—reservations had been made. If he was indeed the last to show, the wrap-up would end too late for a grand feast. In Singapore, what else do you with an overseas guest other than eat?

This year, SGFW was touted as “beyond the runway”, with Zipcode: A Fashion Tech Summit in the bag. Although Zipcode wasn’t the G20, it is commendable that SGFW looked into addressing the inevitable influence of technology on fashion, particularly in marketing and retail (although, ironically, their digital presence was considerably diminished. Since the start on SGFW on 26 October, there have been only one post on their FB page and 18 on IG. Meanwhile, last year’s link-up with Digital Fashion Week has terminated). While at it, Mercury should also consider either completely re-conceptualising SGFW or creating a separate fashion week for Yoyo Cao (of Exhibit) and her cohorts to show. This would perhaps do away with the uneven platform of career designers jostling with look-at-me-now dabblers.

Before it is said that SGFW has been doused with prejudice, it should be noted that many of the young brands, born of an e-shop or social media following, or sheer vanity, truly leapt onto the SGFW runway in a single bound, with almost no experience in the fundamentals of dressmaking, nor exposure to a drafting table and its content, let alone the insides of a factory or the confines of a sampling room. This isn’t discriminatory; this is a new reality. While the rag trade needs to acknowledge the existence of such a fashion category—designer by name, not by practice, a national platform for the promotion of true local (and regional) talent should rethink how it embraces such indeterminates.

SGFW 2017 sponsors' boothsThe sponsors’ booth on the upper floor of the Former Supreme Court Terrace that few went to look

And a national platform should preclude designs that can be joined by dots to the versions of others already in circulation. Dismay with weak shows, it should be noted, soon deepened into indignation when flagrant disregard for originality seized the runway. It can be considered conceit when designers fail to think that viewers of their show are so ignorant that near-facsimiles of other designers’ work can breeze past them without being noticed and noted. No amount of handwork and the hours spent on these clothes can negate the fact that they are not true own-creations.

It is undeniable that getting a group of credible designers together from a pool that is barely wet is a trying endeavour. This is another reality of the state of the industry, if it can still be identified as one. Whoever is selected must not be led to believe that SGFW is platform to instant greatness and once on its runway, he or she is infallible or cannot be met with censure. It is disheartening that despite creative output of disputable finesse, there’s a generation of designers with ego as massive as the sky, but tolerance for criticism as capacious as a snuff bottle. Could this be because our society is increasingly seeing a demographic so emotionally fragile that an honest opinion is immediate damnation? As a lecturer at a local design school remarked, “These days, tell a student that her work has not improved from last semester, and see tears roll down her eyes.”

Criticism is part of the creative universe, and creators can benefit from it. When the Japanese designers—namely Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—showed in Paris in the early ’80s, they were derided for making hideous and unwearable clothes. But they soldered on, in Paris, no less. More than 35 years later, they are still making waves, together with another generation of designers—also with shaky starts—gathering media raves: the “Japanese designers are by far the coolest at Paris Fashion Week”. We may not have seen anything at SGFW that bowled us over, but we are hopeful that someday, somewhere, at SGFW or not, we will get to say, Singaporean designers are plain cool.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Enough Said


We will no longer be posting commentaries on the shows we saw during Singapore Fashion Week 2017.

We were thwarted in our mission by repeated nothingness.

Even the fashion police know their limits.

Broadcasting the sound of silence means we will be able to dodge the charge of incessant negativity.

There’s no pleasure talking to the hand.

We’ve decided, for now, to withdraw from commenting on:

Whole 9 Yards, Weekend Sundries, Deboneire, Ying the Label, Wai Yang, Nida Shay, Exhibit, and Arissa X

It’s time to go back to tending the dendrobiums.

We would like to thank our followers for your unceasing support, as well as those who have waited eagerly to read our reviews. We know we have let you down; we just hope not too much.


The editor

The Gin Cocktail

GL SS 2018 G1

It’s not unreasonable to expect a little more from the collection of Singapore Fashion Award (SFA) 2016’s Emerging Designer of the Year, Gin Lee. At the same time, it is also reasonable that we will soon enough discover that it isn’t a breeze to live up to the accolade so eagerly bestowed on a not-quite newbie.

The latter is unfortunately true. And it happened on Thursday evening when GinLee Studio, Ms Lee’s label, showed its spring/summer 2018 collection on the first day of Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW). Anticipation evaporated the minute a strange dancer appeared on the catwalk, making some indeterminate gestures and sashayed off. What did it mean? It seemed that the feeble hand movements and the nothing of a sleeveless tented dress that she wore were foretaste of things to come.

And came it did: the blandness of just about everything. Ms Lee’s work has never been really design-driven, that much we concede. Put it another way, she does not design with the deep desire to be original, surprising, and certainly not inspiring. These clothes looked everyday—those that you go to Fairprice in, have an early lunch with a BFF, and thereafter, pick the kids from school. They’re low-key to a fault.

Don’t get us wrong. There’s a place for such clothes, just not on a national runway, staged to show the city’s best. Even if SGFW does not dream big, participants should. It is possible that Ms Lee’s label is built on humble ambition and that it is perfectly alright if the clothes, even at a long glance, could be mistaken as merchandise of The Editor’s Market, although, to be fair, the make of GinLee Studio apparel are many notches better. The thing that is often overlooked in the pursuit of commercial viability is that there really is a surfeit of clothes missing the necessity of being.

GL SS 2018 G2

Even more, Ms Lee, 39, seemed to be playing a woman who designs to reflect her current station in life. This is a peek into the humdrum. This is a hodgepodge for the perfunctory purpose of wearing, not the more pleasurable act of expressing. Her designs have been described as “timeless”, but in the constant quick-change that characterises fashion today, “timeless” is quite often the euphemism for boring.

There was something terribly forlorn about the presentation too. The models appeared deeply unhappy wearing almost no makeup and those joyless clothes, never mind that some of them looked like they’ve just been to the market for flowers, usually a sign of good tidings. Could it be that the models did not feel particularly attractive in the outfits, bags of blooms aside?

The silhouettes, too, were hardly that that suggest joie de vivre. Longish, languid, and loose, they were more akin to house coats (or lounge wear, as merchandisers call them) for rainy days than something spiffy for the swagger of urban life. The collection seemed guided by the proper than the progressive, by symmetry than spontaneity. A shirt-and-skirt combo looked like an outfit chosen by a relief teacher who abides by the school’s handbook to educators on how to dress appropriately for the work they do. But is this fashion?

So “the basics that belong to every wardrobe”, as one online report describes the six-year-old GinLee Studio, went on and on and on until the monotony was interrupted by a hint of ‘design’. One style of pants stood out for its anything-but-arresting detail: a slit, splayed out like a wishbone, on the centre-back of each leg! Was this cold shoulder for calves? An indiscriminate slit on a skirt is bad enough; on pants, they look positively ill-placed. And why the clumsy length, so extended that they make the wearer’s walk so ungainly?

GL SS 2018 G3

An obligatory go at sexiness turned out a sheer, round-neck blouse with a sort of peplum for the bust as appendage of modesty, but had the unintended effect of emphasising a too-short over-bust measurement. A feeble attempt at the use of print saw a shadow of a palm leaf applied over the right shoulder of a tunic-dress and as faded pile-up on a skirt, with results neither striking nor unexpected, and could have been the kindred motif of a pareo in a Club Med gift shop.

The colour palette, too, added to the ho-hum outcome of the collection. Ms Lee, is not known for her keen colour sense, preferring to work with neutrals that seem to reflect the ancient walls of Jerusalem, where she is based, after relocating to the city with her husband in 2010. But even in Yerushalayim, the old stones tell a more spirited chromatic story. It would have downplayed her lack of daring if she had cleaved to black and white and anything between, rather than inject incongruous shots of earthiness: the colour of pumpkin pie filling and, under that palm leaf, dried thyme.

We were expectant for this Emerging Designer of the Year, but, in the end, expectation was waylaid by disappointment right there on the catwalk. As we shuffled out, someone was heard saying that Ms Lee had work very hard to meet expectations. So did the girl promoting the LG Styler upstairs. Hard work is, of course, appreciated, but unfortunately, is only one part of the equation that makes a collection artistically sophisticated, hence alluring. Flair is more valued, but, more than talent, it tends to be elusive. This night, it was.

Singapore Fashion Week is on at the National Gallery from 26 to 28 October. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Costume Before Couture

LC SS 2018 G1

The Singapore Dress: how quaint, how retro, how 1990!

Last night, the ghost of Singapore fashion past appeared in full cross-cultural regalia at the opening show of Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW). Cheongsam maker Goh Lai Chan staged his first major catwalk presentation at the National Gallery for his 26-year-old label Laichan with a six-outfit opener “The Singapore Dress: Inspired by Identity, Re-Imagined”.

That’s something we’ve not heard for a long while. Since 2002, in fact, when the offspring of The Singapore Dress (TSD), the Ms Joaquim fashion label eventually folded. Those old enough may remember The Singapore Dress, first unveiled in 1990 after the idea was mooted by then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong a year earlier. But for many, this success-undetermined attempt at creating a “national dress” was as dead as the proverbial door nail. For the rest, it did not occur, unless you count the lame National Day collection by Ying the Label, presently so adored by the young political set.

Mr Goh’s revival of TSD awoken memories of a very past era. Was his present foray to make up for what he had not done at that time, to bring back what he did not partake? Or, as the first Singaporean designer to open a Mercury-organised fashion week, a rush of national pride? Unlike the first time, Mr Goh’s TSD2.0 did not employ the orchid as central motif—characteristic of the earlier very vanda version. To be sure, there were flowers—in the form of print and embroidery—but they were evocative of China and India, not good ol’ Singapura.

So what did Mr Goh “re-imagined”? A rojak of baju, kurta, and shan that had more in common with outfitting Miss Singapore than smartening a new demographic for whom casual contemporary fashion is more appealing. Lest we’re mistaken, these are pretty clothes; they’re just a smidgen too ethnic-pretty, which risks their limited use to National Day functions and the occasional state dinner, when semblance of costume can be worn with pride.

LC SS 2018 G2

It is fascinating that some of our designers are still fixated with ethnic dress, following the inconclusive experiment that was TSD, or are certain that the aesthetics of different cultural styles can come convincingly together as a cohesive whole. That has yet to be seen. Sure, multiculturalism is now transnational, but have we created anything cogent that we want to wear beyond weddings, the month of August, and various New Years, or to charm the already culturally varied world?

More often than not, the optics of the amalgamations are despairing since the obvious are put together in even more obvious ways. Pairing the sulam with pearl studs is, at best, token, not elevated. Throwing an oversized Indian-style scarf over a samfu top is afterthought, not design process. Even Dries Van Noten, whose influence is not disguised here, has moved away from the mad clash of cultures and textures that formed the basis of his design DNA.  Mr Goh did try, however, to temper all that by bringing East to West so as to have a stab at the modern and, dare we say, street-savvy.

For his main collection, called Wonderluxe, he amped up the European and American message, but remained committed to Asian blare. One plain denim jacket, for example, was teamed with a 19th/20th Century, Chinese, tasseled yún jiān (云肩) or cloud collar (which, for the Chinese, was more a shoulder covering than actual collar, lĭng or 领, and dates back to the Later Han Dynasty of the 1st Century A.D.). A second yún jiān had an additional marabou-topped denim layer, as if the fabric of jeans can instantly modernise dated styling. Perhaps, the meeting of the old and the new appeared “cute”, as someone in the audience exclaimed audibly, but is plonking what is usually seen in wayang costume (or the ruff of Elizabethan dress) on a plain neckline really design? Or decoration? Or indolence?

Mr Goh is known for his service to tai-tai clients who go to him for mainly special-occasion dresses. In that way, he’s not different from Heng Nam Nam, the other go-to designer that ball habitués flock to. Although the media has frequently described Mr Goh’s work as “couture creations”, it is not known, or heard, that the designer himself has referred to his own output as couture. He prefers the term “bespoke”, made-to-order being a business model that allows designers to skip churning for the retail rack and show off their craft and express what is perceived as “elegant”.

LC SS 2018 G3

Goh Lai Chan’s fashion foundation was laid in the early ’80s, and last night, it showed. Self-taught, he came into the industry’s radar in 1981 when he was a finalist of the Her World Young Designers’ Contest, then a seminary of future fashion stars. It produced one of our most illustrious names in the annals of Singapore fashion, Tan Yoong, when he won the inaugural competition in 1978. Mr Goh’s entry that year was awarded a consolation price, alongside other entrants such as Island Shop’s former designer Sylvia Lian, one-time fashion photographer Gary Sng, and the current social editor of Prestige, Lionnel Lim.

Mr Goh’s predilection for glamour—so rapidly underscored by an online report of The Straits Times barely an hour after his show—is consistent with that of his peers, such as Francis Cheong and the now-retired Allan Chai, both also competitors in the same contest thirty-six years ago, with each winning the first and second runner-up places respectively (the winner was Steve Kiang, a newbie designer and former boyfriend of Singapore’s earliest supermodel Ethel Fong).

Head-turning glamour was, however, not associated with Mr Goh at the time he was picked for consolatory honour. His first foray into his own label was in 1982, a year after the Her World Young Designers’ Award exposure, when he set up The Dress Shop with his sister Sue Ann Goh at Liang Court, then known as an outpost for Japanese brands (Muji and Takashimaya opened their first store there), but, in truth, was dominated by the tame offerings of Daimaru department store.

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The Dress Shop was a rather quiet affair and it offered what could now be described as attire for the working girl and her social life. After designing quietly for close to a decade behind a brand that was essentially bread-and-butter in its offering, Mr Goh decided to start a label bearing his name. In 1991, Laichan was opened at the once-prestigious Raffles Hotel Arcade (now closed for refurbishment). Two years later, The Dress Shop shuttered when Mr Goh’s sister decided to leave the business. Liang Court was, by then, no longer riding high on its Japanese image and early promise of differentiated shopping experience. In 2003, after twenty years as Laing Court’s anchor tenant, Daimaru closed.

The opening at Raffles Hotel Arcade was, therefore, well timed. Laichan did not immediately launch itself as a cheongam and eveningwear brand. At various points during its 26-year tenure, the boutique appeared to stock rather frumpy, if not ordinary, clothes. However, due to the boutique’s location and the shoppers that it attracted, it was an organic development that the Chinese dress associated with Shanghai in the ’30s and glittery evening finery would soon become the label’s major offering and a Goh Lai Chan specialty. Given that the Chan in Mr Goh’s name is the Chinese character 灿 (càn), which means brilliant or resplendent, it is perhaps fitting that the glamorous gowns he espoused would become core to his business.

“My taste is classic,” Mr Goh told Today in 2010. “For my designs, I like a certain kind of style… It’s always something that’s updated, but not so outrageously fashionable that after 10 years, you’d look back and feel embarrassed about it.” It would be interesting to talk about Wonderluxe in 10 years’ time, but for now, the classic is punctuated with the outrageous-enough: two caged garments, one capelet that ended at the bust high point, not, oddly, below the bust line and a cropped jacket that had more than a whiff of what La Perla had done.

But classics, in the hotel-ballroom ball sense, dominated the runway collection. Mr Goh did not, in this respect, disappoint his customers and fans, including some TV stars and members of the theatre community. There was the swish and the ravishing, and all the lace you may want in a lifetime. Despite the intermittent outrageous touches and ungainly shapes of the outers, the gowns seemed to have been designed with the next society gala in mind. The “certain kind of style” was certain—Mr Goh took only tentative steps to show he could leap beyond those ready-to-wear, one-size-fits-all cheongsams.

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In some ways, Goh Lai Chan is disadvantaged by his reputation as a cheongsam designer, one who, to his credit, has transformed a traditionally made-to-measure garment into one that can be manufactured en masse and hung on racks after racks. His cheongsams are unmistakable for their loose fit (the media refrain “figure-flattering cheongsams” is misleading); oftentimes strong, solid colours; and a closely-spaced row of reportedly jade beads-as-buttons, from the centre of the neck to the right hip. The buttons, more decorative than functional (although there are loops for closure, they don’t actually work), are a signature, but whether they could be uncomfortable when the wearer needs to let her arm hang by the side of her body (or, as a show-goer cheekily remarked, “enemy of the armpit”), no woman has shed light on the matter.

A little disconcerting was the appearance of those very same beads/buttons on the catwalk. Why did “bespoke” fashion share the same buttons as off-the-rack cheongsams? Or are we nit-picking? Truth is, the popularity of the cheongsams with the skewed row of buttons cannot be overstated, however uniform they look, if the many women wearing them last night, from senior minister of state Sim Ann to SPH Magazines group editor Caroline Ngui, were any indication. In all fairness, Mr Goh’s cheongsams can look eye-catching, and he has a better understanding of the finer points of cheongsam-making than Priscilla Shunmugam, although, by his own proud admission, he is “untrained”.

Perhaps then, it is the oversight of technical details than the over-attention to surface embellishment that threatened to undermine the brand’s Wonderluxe projection. Amid the profusion of three-dimensional appliqués on corded lace, sequined curlicues, and floral embroidery, few would have noticed some technical slip-ups: darts that end with dimples, collars that gape at the neck, and, unexpectedly, the cigarette pants with loose and creased crotch!

In August this year, Laichan relocated to The Paragon (following a brief pop-up appearance at Raffles City) after a 26-year tenancy at the Raffles Hotel Arcade. The new boutique, while utilitarian, is a vast improvement over its first, which in the latter years was showing signs of age and insufficient housekeeping. Now with an Orchard Road store, Goh Lai Chan is presently only the second Singaporean couture/bespoke designer after Francis Cheong with presence on our island’s renowned shopping stretch—perhaps reason enough to open Singapore Fashion Week.

Singapore Fashion Week is on at the National Gallery from 26 to 28 October. Laichan is at level 3, The Paragon. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

There Will Be SGFW 2017

If you thought that Singapore Fashion Week will go into hiatus this year, you’re not alone. Many observers and those keen to attend consider it odd that, with just a month or so to go, SGFW has just about announced this year’s date, but not the line-up, or where the shows will be held

SFW 2017 home page as of 2 Sep 2017The Singapore Fashion Week homepage as of 2 September 2017 (and prior to this post)

Land on Singapore Fashion Week’s homepage, and you will be greeted with images and information that stood still since last year. The first photograph of the top slider announces the “highlight designer”, which, if you don’t remember, was Guo Pei. Just after that visual, under the crosshead Live Show, you’ll see the announcement of the first show, dated Oct 26, 2016.

Around this time in 2016, SGFW had already run almost six months worth of intermittent activities that, according to the event’s media release at that time, were put together “to increase interaction and engagement amongst designers, media, fashion industry experts and consumers”, all receiving obligatory exposure on SGFW’s Facebook page.

These included a LaSalle Graduate Fashion Show (a May presentation not connected to the main SGFW), an event sponsored by Nars that consisted of one “delightful morning of beauty-boosting breakfast and empowerment”, the accidental partnership for the launch of the book Fashion Most Wanted that lauded 51 women—“industry stalwarts”, a four-part video series on Facebook called Style on the Go that took “a peek into the busy lives of fashion week IT girls”, a #WeWearSG “campaign in support of local designers and labels” (just five: Max Tan, Stolen, Chi Chi Von Tang, Nida Shay, and ALT the Collection—all supporters of SGFW2016), and other un-stirring, for-sponsors shout-outs. There was also what was touted as the “very first Apprenticeship Programme”—above a designed-to-be-noticed headline “We’re Hiring”.

The lead-up to SGFW 2017, conversely, has been lacking in activity-led buzz. It is possible that “increased interaction and engagement” is not as required as before. One brand manager wondered: “Who attends those activities other than kaki lang (自己人 in Hokkien, or those on the side) of the organiser?” One (annual) activity did materialise: in February this year, the Tjin Lee/Mercury M&C-initiated programme Fashion Futures picked six brands into the fold: ALT, Ying The Label, Deboneire, Weekend Sundries, Nida Shay, and Wai Yang. It affirmed how much SGFW believes in this part of their commitment to supporting local.

SFW FB postOne of the earliest notifications that ran last month was a Mac visual, stamped with the SGFW logotype and a barely discernible date

Amid rumours that changes to the event are afoot, SGFW this year will run from 25 to 29 October, according to, first, a Facebook post on the page of Modestyle Marketplace on 24 July, and then in the top slider of their homepage early this month. Modestyle is a website/e-commerce platform dedicated to, well, modest wear. How did we get here? From the hashtag ‪#‎sgfw2017 in which Modestyle’s Facebook page was visibly linked.

We suppose, like this year’s “reserved” presidential election, SGFW is tweaked to be more inclusive (or exclusive?). Some observers consider this an act of desperation rather than inclusion as SGFW was suspected to be unable to lure enough designers—“international, Asian, and home-grown”, as Ms Lee told The Straits Times last year—to grace its catwalks. But modest fashion is a fast-growing and legitimate category. Even not-quite-modest Dolce & Gabbana is into it. To include it, SGFW appears to present itself as forward-thinking. It shall be interesting, therefore, to see how SGFW is able to elevate what until recently has been a fringe interest.

Is, however, SGFW’s courting of the modest wear market a tad belated? Back in April, there was the inaugural Singapore Modest Fashion Weekend (SMFW) staged at the Marina Bay Sands, and put together by event organiser RoseValley, with the lofty objective of “positioning Singapore as the region’s best destination for modest fashion brands”.

Second, a recruitment exercise for volunteers, which ran in Facebook on 1 August, with an announcement that applicants would have to be available from “26th to 28th Oct”. Three weeks later, there appeared, on 21 August, an SGFW Facebook message that Nars will return as official make-up partner. The accompanying product photograph sported the white SGFW logotype on the upper left-hand corner, and to the left of the three-line text sat the dates in red. It was so indistinct that you could have easily missed it. About an hour after that post, another photo appeared: this time of the LG Styler as “official backstage partner”. It, too, ran the said logo and date. And both also showed “26th to 28th Oct”.

Date changes of events that are usually planned a year ahead are not unusual. And there is the possibility that the wrong dates were communicated to Modestyle Marketplace, or the latters typographical error.  More important to potential attendees of the event: dates are announced. But what’s surprising is nothing extracurricular, as far as we could gather, has been scheduled this year in the lead-up to SGFW’s announced dates. Last year, up to September, there were 16 posts on SGFW’s Facbook page. This year, there have been 27 posts so far. Although they do not rally around SGFW with rousing cries, could this larger number be what we had initially thought to be the missing “increased interaction and engagement”? You be the judge.

SFW 2017 in ModestyleSeen on modestyle.com, one of earliest glimpses of what SGFW this year could be like and when it will take place

This year, Mercury has kept SGFW so well sealed that they make Apple’s notoriously secretive product launches positively open (the new iPhones were leaked before their reveal tomorrow. Surely you have heard of ‘X’ by now). But nothing these days are so air-tight. Just last month, there was talk in the industry that SGFW’s marquee name this year may be Cindy Crawford. When asked if it’s really true, the informer said that he isn’t sure, but he had heard that it was mentioned by “Cindy’s people”. We checked Ms Crawford’s Twitter page of 1.63 million followers, and found no excited announcement that she would be coming our way.

Amid this month’s fashion chatter, there was also the let-slip that the photographer Jayden Tan has shot some of SGFW’s publicity campaigns (he was one of their eager lensmen last year). Mr Tan himself has hinted at SGFW’s return when he posted and exclaimed at the end of August on Instagram that he “can’t wait to feel the adrenaline rush of @singaporefashionweek yet again”. Why, even the cover photo of his FB page is a snap of the backstage of the Guo Pei show!

One of the places we thought more information could be gleaned was Digital Fashion Week (DFW), which, last year, was absorbed into Singapore Fashion Week. The newest entry (as of yesterday) in DFW’s homepage is a retail event in a Jakarta mall: Rising Fashion, a “pop up (sic) store of curated designers from Singapore and Indonesia”. (That, regrettably, sounds devoid of elegance since you curate an art exhibition or a retail space and not designers. Even in a zoo, we doubt they are inclined to “curate” animals.) Word from that event was that DFW will still be handling the live streams of SGFW. Despite earlier pronouncements that DFW, by default borderless, will be brought to Jakarta, it is only the Bangkok leg that had materialised. Rising Fashion’s announcement on FB is preceded by a video blurb of sort that, like SGFW’s website, clearly showed an SGFW of last year.

Despite what some considered a poor match, SGFW and DFW coming together streamlined what had become a rather confusing and messy fashion week calendar. Two-as-one appear to comport with the needs and desires of the industry, at least on the surface. Notably, DFW’s adventure in Jakarta—hometown of DFW’s co-founder Charina Widjaja—seemed to have taken place independent of SGFW. A close look at the list of supporters of the Jakarta event saw a distinctly absent SGFW logo. Singapore Fashion Week in an Indonesian event may, of course, be a little odd.

DFW in JakartaThe Digital Fashion Week event in Jakarta in August

That SGFW 2017’s fairly late announcement may be due to the many obstacles that they have been up against is understandable. Unimpressive staging of SGFW and not-ideal venue when Mercury debuted the event last year aside, SGFW has been primarily disadvantaged by a serious lack of home-grown designers with products and means (cost is often cited as a main reason) to stage a fashion show. Also from the recent grapevine: not enough Singaporean designers have showed interest in participating, thinking that SGFW would not provide them with long-term benefit, valuable networking, and market recognition.

But the response previously was not so unenthusiastic. Priscilla Shunmugam of Ong Shunmugam told ST last year: “Designers should approach it positively as an opportunity to be discovered, rather than consider it an inferior platform”. However, this time, it is rumoured that Ms Shunmugam will not be participating in SGFW 2017, having staged her own independent show at the Violet Onn Satay Grill and Bar last month. If her opting out turns out to be true, the irony won’t be lost.

Singapore Fashion Week is not an inferior platform even if it’s stretching it to call our sole surviving major fashion runway event exceptional. SGFW, together with its former form, is one of the oldest fashion weeks in Southeast Asia. It would be a pity to see it relegated to memory, or overshadowed by new comers such as Vietnam International Fashion Week—presently in its third year. With their experience and an ambitious leader, Mercury M&C won’t be seeing anyone wrestle SGFW away from them any time soon. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do better.

Singapore Fashion Week is, as of now, from 26 to 28 October 2017. Watch this space for more details. Photos/ screen grabs: source

This post has been update to reflect Singapore Fashion Week’s official abbreviation: SGFW