Stepping Up

Design Orchard, in the month of its second anniversary, is finally stocking ‘designer’ clothes. But is it enough?

Thomas Wee gets a street-facing window and dedicated space for his first collection at Design Orchard. Photo: 路人甲

After close two years in business, Design Orchard is upraising its positioning. At a media event yesterday evening, when operator Textile and Fashion Federation (TAFF) announced their “exciting plans in-store for 2021” and to “unveil” their Chinese New Year windows, one sensed that the operative word ‘design’ is finally taking tentative root in a store conceived to showcase what Charles Eames called “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose”. It is still not yet clear what purpose Design Orchard has set out for themselves other than to foster the spirit of “Shop Local, Grow Global”, but the current mix of names could portent well for a store that has not quite found its footing.

After protracted grumblings that there were no true designer styles in their merchandise mix, they have managed to invite some recognisable names to their fold, even successfully coaxing veteran designer Thomas Wee out of his serial retirement to present his first collection for Design Orchard. To be sure, at the 2019 opening of TAFF’s Cocoon Space, also in the building that houses Design Orchard, formerly operated by Naiise, Mr Wee had shown a selection of past fashion-show clothes. But as we understood at the time, that was a static display to fill the empty nooks of Cocoon Space, not a prelude to the availability, at Design Orchard, of our city’s premier designer line. Now that Thomas Wee is finally in the store and an “anchor label”, as one fashion buyer called it, would this be the charm to draw other revered names and to elevate Design Orchard’s standing among the design and retail community?

As the grand elder of Singaporean fashion, Thomas Wee gets his own private corner. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

The sizeable Thomas Wee collection takes up a space in an extreme corner of the store, on the opposite end of the main door, at what was another entrance (or rear exit) until the COVID-19 social-distancing mandate required stores to have a single point of entry and exit, to better control and monitor shopper movement. What Mr Wee is assigned is rather unusual in that, based on our earlier understanding, brands are not usually allotted their own designated spot. Within the roughly 50-square-metre corner, with a street-facing window, Mr Wee has set up shop in a layout that feels familiar: simple racks, headless mannequins (five of them—more than the other labels), the largely monochromatic scheme, a bench, which appears to welcome resting—a sum that hints at the elegant simplicity of his clothes. If not for the distracting UOB logo on a lightbox from next door, this would be a corner that could easily induce the appreciable description, cosy.

The familiarity extends to the clothes too. On the five mannequins that line the window, we could discern the discernible silhouette: relaxed, slightly voluminous, with drop shoulders, and a flare towards the hems (for both tops and skirts); the sum of which would not be out of place in today’s preference for a more relaxed approach to dress. Upon closer inspection, many pieces—some are tweaked or updated—have had their place in past collections. This could be, yet again, The Best of Thomas Wee fashion mixtape—a boon to those who are fans and for those who collect his designs or wish to replenish well-worn favourites. It is to the designer’s advantage that his clothes are situated away from the other labels. Mr Wee designs for a specific customer, a woman of a certain age, who is unconcerned with what’s trending, who has every reason to be dressed, attractively. But would the typical Design Orchard customer, weaned in the last two years on the store’s ho-hum offerings, be enticed? One attendee at last night’s event told us, “Only Thomas Wee’s things look and feel nice. They are really classy. Wear his designs and you will straightaway look ex.”

As the darling of the local designer pack, Max Tan gets the best spot to showcase his dramatic lines. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Mr Wee is not the only designer invited to showcase and sell here. Close to Mr Wee’s space is that of Max Tan, the Boy Wonder of Singaporean fashion. Mr Tan has not been this visible—and strikingly so—since closing his first free-standing boutique and exiting Capitol Piazza in 2016. He continued to sell in various pop-ups and to export. In the mean time, he earned his BA (Hons) at NAFA through a joint programme with the University of East London. Max Tan the label is in its 21st year, and there are some hints of maturity of thought and sophistication of execution, although his insistence, till today, on what he continues to call “quirk cuts” has somewhat hit the breaks on his progress. His collection at Design Orchard is appealing at first sight until, as is often the case with Mr Tan’s work, you come up close and touch. Refinement is still elusive. One round neckline stands out: it is gathered with a rather wide tape and, given the fabric’s inherent weight, forms a rather thick ring round the neck, as if with the intent to choke, if not to wring it.

Another name that’s new to Design Orchard, but not an unexpected one, given the approach of Chinese New Year, is Lai Chan by Goh Lai Chan. Although Mr Goh is a popular designer of occasion wear and a name bandied about among some society women, he is still the go-to name for his unchanging retro-modern cheongsams. A profitable sub-line, the cheongsams are reportedly in demand among women who favour this dress style, as well as among stockists that bank only on products that move, especially with the lead-up to CNY. The close-to-forty-years veteran provides Design Orchard with his usual, neatly sewn, not-too-constricted cheongsams, distinguished by the row of coloured spherical stones of indeterminate gemological value on the right, in place of Chinese frog buttons—an aesthetical sum Mr Goh seems to have churned out forever. These will likely sell well for the store, although if you already own one—or two—of this particular style, they may have less subsequent pull, however floridly vintage-looking some of the fabrics are. Nostalgia has its limits too. Change might inspire a more bloom-ful present than a mirrored past could.

Rows of Lai Chan’s signature cheongsams. Photo: 路人甲

Two unexpected names appear. The first, national-song-meister and occasional designer Dick Lee, with a new shirt line, put together in collaboration with custom tailor Pimabs, the brainchild of Leslie Chia, previously of Haberdasher (and, later, Haber) and the oddly named The Clothes Publisher. The “limited-edition” Dick Lee X Pimabs is really more the former than the latter. Mr Lee’s weakness for florid prints, which he often recounts (in his concerts too), harking back to the days when he went shopping with his mother at the first Metro department store in High Street, is again in full display, recalling his last menswear collab with the short-lived The Modern Outfitter in Tiong Bahru in 2014. Back then, shirts with micro-floral prints dominated. Presently, they still do. Only now, as Mr Lee boasted on Facebook, they’re “in mixed-up Liberty prints”. A la the Mad Chinaman. Although a trained designer, he seems to have overlooked the overall aesthetics of the line.

The shirts—especially those with open collars (some with an odd crease above the notch)—could be kin to the auntie blouse. The “mix-up” means a clash of prints (at least two different florals in one shirt), but it is hard to find in them print pairing that hints at something more contemporary. Loud is all that matters. In addition, we find it odd that with the use of silk and ultra-fine poplin in shirts that are mostly casual, there is a need to have fused, rather than unfused stand collars, with the interlining unnecessarily stiff. We expect more from the input of a experienced tailor that Mr Chia is. Is this Mr Lee’s contributive follow-up after criticising Design Orchard in a remark published by The Straits Times last June: “I went into Design Orchard and it’s shocking, the standard of clothing stocked there. Things are so basic and there’s no nice fabrication or nice finishing”? Is he showing us what “nice” is?

The other name new to Design Orchard that will surprise is Yang Derong. On hindsight that shouldn’t, in particular when Dick Lee is in the picture. Both of them are the best of friends, and Mr Lee’s song Follow your Heart (from the 1991 compilation album When I Play and, later in the OST of the 2017 autobiographical film Wonder Boy) was said to be written for Mr Yang. It is, therefore, not immoderate to assume that, this time, Mr Yang was roped in by Mr Lee. A designer who hails from the late ’80s, and who is reportedly retired from fashion, Mr Yang has, in recent years, made a name for himself as the creator and sole model of the quirky and unapologetically outrageous Instagram page FaceOfTheDaySG, which was followed with a 2019 exhibition at the National Museum, and also as the makeover stylist on Channel News Asia’s Style Switch. But rather than design clothing that many still remember him fondly for, he created a “lifestyle” line to appeal to not-yet-returning tourists. The refinement-lite collection of T-shirts, bags, face masks, cushion covers, and greeting cards are based on the Chinese zodiac. Labelled Sayang Sayang, the manja-ish name and the kitsch-driven products have Mad Chinaman written all over them.

A new collaboration between Dick Lee and custom tailor Pimabs. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Yang Derong’s Sayang Sayang collection. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

It is heartening to see familiar names with a storied past in the history of Singaporean fashion appear in Design Orchard, but are these individuals still able to pull in shoppers and, perhaps more pertinently, are they still relevant? Since its opening, Design Orchard has mostly availed easily accessible designs, such as those by Weekend Sundries and Little Match Girl, to their not-necessarily-in-the-know customers. Weaned on these not-artful labels (even when actual painting is involved), shoppers are not likely able to put themselves up to the level the new (old?) names are hoping to effect. That these names may give the store the directional heft it lacks is a plus. Young brand owners may feel a sense of pride to share the same platform as the established brands, but some may use the opportunity to be seen in the company of those they do not belong. Just a look at the window displays that TAFF has so proudly unveiled: the evidence is clear.

Despite all the efforts on the part of TAFF, mistakes (or oversight?) appear to dog Design Orchard, even in the digital-sphere. Yesterday afternoon, before the Cocoon Space event, we clicked on the store’s flat website to confirm the new names already talked about among those interested in such matters. To our astonishment, two captions incorrectly paired to two photos stared at us*. A picture with a model languishing in a recognisable cheongsam was attributed to Max Tan, while another woman looking haughty in a military-style trench coat to Lai Chan! As we write this post, no corrections are made or erratum published. One editor told us that the mis-match is “likely an honest mistake”. We are certain it is, but errors as easy to spot as these should not have their share of exposure online (or even off) when Design Orchard is positioned as the premier destination—the “hub”—for Singaporean labels. Or, perhaps, no one knew any better. One designer said to us, “Do you think they can tell what is Goh Lai Chan’s signature look or that Max Tan probably never made a qipao in his entire career?” We’re not referring to being intellectually fervid about the power of image and text coming together. Captioning is a marketing necessity, as well as an informational opportunity. If some of the Design Orchard brands are to be “featured”, such erroneous descriptions is palpable disservice.

The opening page of the Design Orchard website, with the incorrectly captioned photographs (blurred text inherent). Screen grab: designorchard.sg

This should not be mistaken as casting the proverbial wet blanket on Design Orchard. In the bleakness of the present, not-yet-post-pandemic time, what TAFF continues to strive for is laudable. But sometimes, we wonder if they truly have their heart in this and if the right people are recruited to see Design Orchard rise to greater heights. Design Orchard, unlike during Naiise’s watch, is now supposed to benefit from TAFF’s experience and industry leadership. If TAFF, with the resources (perhaps, not, as we’re repeatedly told, financial), does not discern, filter, or guide, who would take on the role? Who will be able to distill the essence of the work of those who are truly creative and encourage more from whence it came? Who will spur the vitality so necessary in growing a design community? How different is Design Orchard from, say, The Editor’s Market if they do not distinguish themselves with turbo-ed enthusiasm and intellectual might? Or are they just content with giving whoever’s interested in setting up a fashion (or lifestyle) label a hotchpotch confine to do their thing, and fizzle out within?

Even if we do not play on an international stage, we can aspire to play to an international audience. Design Orchard needs to go beyond its Singapore tag. Singapore Tourism Board’s “Made with Passion”, which Design Orchard yokes itself to, is good, but is geographical limitation encouraging designers to look beyond our front or back yards to scale higher? The view, as any climber or apartment hunter will attest, is always more impressive and inspiring when we’re aloft. But the trend seems to be for many to stay grounded: look back and dwell in the past, the more conspicuous and kitschier the better. Do we, therefore, invite committed and skilled designers to participate in the conversation of what fashion is now and will be in the future, or do we request the participation of those on/off practitioners who can’t give up living in their teenage years? The answer really lies with TAFF, and Design Orchard.

*Update (16 Jan 2021, 11.15pm): The content on the Design Orchard website has been amended to show the correct captions

Design Orchard: One Year After

Eighteen months after opening, Design Orchard does not appear to have budged beyond the lacklustre of its early months

 

Design Orchard June 2020

In an article in The Straits Times last month about the future of Singapore fashion in the wake of the pandemic, multi-hyphenate Dick Lee was quoted saying, “I went into Design Orchard and it’s shocking, the standard of clothing stocked there. Things are so basic and there’s no nice fabrication or nice finishing.” That remark was subsequently much discussed on social media. The words of Mr Lee—a trained designer, once with his own labels, and was an impresario of young fashion designers, and still an ardent supporter of Home talents—must mean something. That the founder of our island’s first multi-label store for homegrown labels, Hemispheres, could be shocked by what he saw must have been discouraging to the project’s owners, the triumvirate of Enterprise Singapore, Singapore Tourism Board, and Jurong Town Corporation.

Design Orchard opened at the end of January in 2019 in a building purpose-built to be home to Singaporean design talents—not necessarily just fashion. If you could whip up a nice curry paste, you could sell it there too. But clothing does take up a substantial real estate in the store. They comprise labels that, unless you are an ardent follower of local fashion, would draw a blank among even the most regular fashion shopper. It is not known how well the brands are doing or whether Design Orchard is indeed a showcase for designers to reach a larger audience, but according to another ST report at the end of January, “more than 40 of the 60 labels stocked at Design Orchard have chosen to sign new contracts and stay on for another year.” With such encouraging contract-renewal figures of 67 percent, could Mr Lee be mistaken?

It was all quiet during our visit on the second weekend of Phase 2 of the Circuit Breaker. Not a single shopper was in sight. The clothes, as in our previous encounters, did not speak to us. They looked ignored, unappreciated, and in need of a home or a body of a willing wearer. We were not deterred from physical contact with them. In the present climate, when even touching our own faces is understandably discouraged, the tactile connect was strangely assuring, even if we only gave a few of the pieces a light tap (we were conscious to act responsibly). And it was through touch that we could feel, not just see, for ourselves what Mr Lee meant by “no nice fabrics”.

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The lack of good fabrication is just one part of Design Orchard’s feeble merchandising, regrettably evident from the first day of its operations. As a store purported to highlight “design”, it is design that have not been in stock. It, therefore, has not become a pull for those who want to uncover design, to support the creators and cheer them on. Design Orchard seems to lure mostly clothes that would not be out of place in an equatorial beach resort. It reminds us of the doomed Aseana, the Malaysian multi-label store conceived by Singapore-born, Kuala Lumpur-based Dato’ Farah Khan (aka Chan Keng Lin), that opened in Millenia Walk in 2002 and closed two years later. It is also evocative of—for those who can still remember—the 1997 Fashion Connection theme, Asiatropics. Despite a confident start, the concept never took off. One fashion marketer we spoke to conceded that Design Orchard “still needs to iron the creases”.

To some observers, Design Orchard’s prospects were hampered by Naiise, the retailer picked to run the operations of the store and, as we understood last year, the merchandising of the products too. This was a surprising choice, as many had thought, since Naiise—even with multiple stores of their own opened at that time—was not exactly operating a paragon of retail and merchandising panache. During the media walk-through, it was mentioned among the attendees that Naiise had even employed a buyer from Robinsons to oversee the merchandise mix. If that was the case, could it be possible that, as one designer said to us, “Naiise made a bad hire?”

When news broke even before Design Orchard opened that Naiise was appointed as the store’s operator, chatter was rife that the company had been tardy in their payments to brand owners. Founder Dennis Tay admitted to “some gaps in the company and internal issues”. He also said that “we’re looking at the foundation of the company. And what we’re trying to do is ask ourselves how we can be better with each passing day.” In January, when COVID-19 was a mere outbreak, The Business Times reported that “years of repeated late payments have led to several brands removing some or all of their products from… Naiise’s shelves.” Are the gaps still gaping and is the company still looking at its foundation?

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It was also reported in ST that those “more than 40 of the 60 labels” that renewed their contract with Design Orchard gave the store “thumbs up despite management Naiise’s troubles”. Apparently, “they have not encountered payment delays”. The promptness of payment could be due to the fact that government agencies are behind Design Orchard’s existence. Brands supplying to the Naiise stores do not have that advantage. It is also suggested that the individual brand’s sales in Design Orchard are not significant enough to result in payment being held up.

Naiise is not known to release sales figures or the ranking of brands. Designers supplying to Design Orchard tend to be reticent when it comes to talking about sales performance (“okay” can’t be considered revealing). It is possible that attractive consignment deals have been struck between the retailer and brand owners to retain the latter. It isn’t clear how Naiise picks the brands for Design Orchard. It As reported in the press, STB conducted a round of selection last year. Naiise has not elucidated the tourism board’s involvement, but this may explain why some shoppers thought that Design Orchard looks like a tourist gift shop. We do not know what the selection criteria is, but it would push us to lying if we say we found what STB’s Director of Retail and Dining, Ranita Sundra, considered at the time of Design Orchard’s impending opening to be “the best of Singapore talent under one roof”. Or, according to their website “Singapore’s most beloved brands, lauded designers and talented newcomers”.

At Design Orchard last Christmas season, one tourist was heard asking her companion, believed to be local, “are these famous brands?” A curt “don’t know” was the reply. The obscurity of many of the brands might have been inconsequential if the designs indeed reflected talent, hitherto still elusive. But whether Naiise was able to suss out talent is also unknown. It is generally believed that anyone interested can have their products displayed for sale. We are sure some vetting would have been in place, but how stringent it is, can’t be said. The result is a jumble of names with assorted, yet same-same looks that ultimately appear to cater to those who really don’t care if they wear the output of talents.

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Talent, like creativity, is used rather loosely these days. A person who dabbles in water colour and likes clothes and, subsequently makes them is considered talented. We concede that talent in the digital era cannot resist redefinition. A talented designer in the 1920s needed to be able to draft and cut, a talented designer in 2020 needs no such skills. Regardless, talent in designing is as much required as talent in handling fabrics and in finishing garments to yield a certain polish. One common regret for the past 40 years is that we do not have the manufacturing base with which to nurture designers with the understanding of off-studio garment production. Is it possible that the labels in Design Orchard are beset with “production woes” as those cited in the ST article in which Dick Lee and other designers—some practising, some not—were quoted?

Throughout much of the ’80s—often lauded as the “golden age of Singaporean fashion”—that gave conscious recognition to an emerging fashion design scene, a recurrent problem was manufacturing, though not from the lack of it. Textile companies and factories producing clothes were significantly large enough in numbers that there was a Textile and Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Singapore (TGMAS, 1981—1996), the precursor to TaFF. It was reported by ST that in 1982, a year after TGMAS was formed, “the clothing industry was the second largest industrial employer. Its 31,000 employees accounted for 11.14 percent of the country’s manufacturing workforce”. Just two years earlier, the Economic Development Board (EDB) was “pushing for the top-end market”, according to another ST report. But that mission soon trailed off, and not one spoke about the manufacture of clothing as a possible pillar of our economy.

In one article in ST in 1987, the then president of the now-defunct SODA (Society of Designing Arts) Alan Koh was quoted saying that something needed to be done for young designers to “take away the burden of their lack of a manufacturing base”. By then local garment manufacturing was becoming a dwindling possibility for designers. According to a 1983 report in The Business Times on garment manufacturers moving their operations to Indonesia, “the cost of production in Singapore has gone up by 20 percent. Some factories also have difficulty recruiting enough manpower, and the cost of production is relatively cheaper in Indonesia.”

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In the ’90s, inadequate manufacturing support, again, was reported to be the bane of designers. There were still factories, but most of the larger ones had started moving their production facilities off-shore, namely to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. If in the decade before, when manufacturers still had factories on our island, and designers still had a hard time seeking resources to produce their clothes, it was just as tough now to find those who could be their production backbone. Dick Lee is well acquainted with the problem. As a young designer, production snags were as real as design issues. Mr Lee, whose retail quantities were not large enough, was often at the mercy of tailoring services, such as Stitch By Stitch at Orchard Towers, to get his collection, well, stitched up.

As dire as the lack of production sounded, many designers were able to soldier on. One independent name who practised through the ’90s remembers this decade to be “tiring (but fun)” as he had to use up to five factories at any one time—“I could not depend on one,” he said. “Some factories were better in wovens than knits, and vice versa. And other designers were using them too. So there was a queue system. Depending on just one factory was really not feasible.” He recalled too that it was mostly small-time designers who were doing the running around, “it makes you more resourceful and creative.” Back than, established names such as Bobby Chng, David Wang, Celia Loe, and Esther Tay (who launched a comeback label last year), and even Thomas Wee had their own factories (the sizes varied).

A name that was very much associated with garment production in the ’90s is CMT (cut, make, trim) pioneer Tan Boon Lan (known in the industry as Wen Lan), whose son Patrick Chia is the highly-regarded industrial designer behind the National University of Singapore’s Design Incubation Centre. Ms Tan started in the mid-’70s, operating out of her flat in Toa Payoh. The cottage operation soon upgraded to a HDB shop in Circuit Road, Macpherson, with a crew that mainly comprised of housewives. It was known as Monray Fashions, but few remember that. Designers went to her because she was amicable, flexible, and fast in equal measure. She was willing to take small orders, too, sometimes as little as 24 pieces. When she eventually set up a more professional outfit in Kallang Pudding Road in the ’90s, many young designers of the day went to her as she was one of the few who had machines to handle both wovens and knits. Ms Tan is now retired.

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Throughout the ’90s, modest and informal production facilities like Ms Tan’s emerged to support fledgling, resource-starved designers who had no confidence to approach large garment factories, or a tech pack to go to them with. Quite a few were run by ex-staff of the backrooms of retailers such as Chomel (once a clothier) and Esprit (now closed); most were, interestingly, concentrated in the area of Paya Lebar, before it’s the commercial hub that it is today. The availability of these small-scale services meant that many designers were able to produce sufficient numbers to supply to department stores, such as the long-closed Tangs Studio, as well as indie retailers, such as those in the old Heeren, where the music store HMV was the anchor tenant.

When we arrived in the 2000s, nearly all fashion designers with their own factories have given them up to be freed of financial and operational burden. Most of the big manufacturers of the ’80s had moved their factories abroad or diversified. One of the largest, Wing Tai Garments, is no longer in manufacturing. Its parent company Wing Tai Holdings is now a property developer, and fashion retailer. Others such as Sing Lun (now Group), whose third-gen CEO Mark Lee is the former president of TaFF, has diversified into equity funds and real estate, even when they still own 13 factories across the region. Mido Textile, whose retail store China Silk House (now defunct) was named in 1987 Singapore Tourist Promotion Boards’ Store of the Year, has investments in China and diversified into real estate and travel. Foreign direct investments into China was, in fact, prevalent as business and labour costs and rising Singapore dollar were often said to be insurmountable. In the ’70s and ’80s, we were attracting FDIs (especially in electronics and technology), but by the ’90s, local garment firms were directing investments overseas.

These large FDIs outward may have led to the impression that Singaporean garment manufacturers were hungry for a larger market and more amenable to big brands such as the Gap, Nike, and Adidas than local labels. One merchandising executive who worked in a buying house here once said to us, “when these factories received an order from these brands, the numbers were huge. Each time the Gap ordered for one item, even just a white T-shirt, it was worth hundreds of thousands. USD!” Many young designers broke out in such a climate, and believed that there was no production back-up for them. If you can’t meet the minimum order, as it was often repeated, forget it.

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“A lot of people depend on China to produce their designs, but China won’t touch you with a 10-foot pole unless you can hit their minimum order,” Thomas Wee was quoted in that ST article from two weeks ago. Is that still true? Is it possible that despite much industrial advances in production and huge changes in the supply chain, designers operating tiny businesses, with production quantities that are usually modest, are unable to find manufacturers willing to accept small orders? Or, is this a perception left over from the ’90s and one that ST journalists can’t shake off? It is rather curious that four decades after the era of the EDB overseas trade missions, and years of dramatically different supply chains, with many garment manufacturers now also serving as apparel solutions provider, ST is still harping on how our poor designers have no one to sew clothes.

One Singaporean merchandiser and textile specialist now based in Hong Kong told us that the problem, if it exists, is that many brand owners here do not “source deep enough”. Even FPP (full production package) may be available to the young designer if cost is no concern. In Hong Kong, buying houses that will take small orders “are all over the place,” he said. If even those are not able to meet a designer’s needs, he could go to Sham Shui Po, an industrial area in Kowloon, where one could source not just for fabrics and trims, but also manufacturers. “In some of these industrial buildings,” he explained, “there are small factories upstairs from the fabric suppliers. You buy your fabrics and trims downstairs and go one floor up, they will sew for you, and the output would be definitely garmental. In Hong Kong, the clothes are always garmental.” These almost self-contained cottage set-ups can similarly be found in Seoul’s famed Dongdaemun, where pick-your-fabrics-and-have-CMT-do-the-rest keeps many of the stalls in business in the area’s famed wholesale markets.

There are similar small-order-friendly set-ups in China, too—only larger. And they will touch you—no 10-foot poles required. In Jiangsu, for example, entire garment-production villages—comprising modern factories—welcome customers without the same production requirement as the likes of Uniqlo. These places offer a full eco-system, including garment wash, special techniques such as fagotting, or sourcing of hardware, and others, all within the village. One Singaporean designer told us that if orders are too small, the factories may suggest using their sampling facility, but the charge would not be astronomically higher, as it usually is. “There are often sewers who handle what is known as ‘shipping samples’ (required by brands to be sent to different retailers or buyers),” he said. “During low months, they would take on small quantities.”

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In Thailand, many young designers, too, face the same problems as newbies everywhere, but they have been able to meet production challenges. In Samut Prakan, south of Bangkok, local brands without huge retail presence in the capital work with small factories to produce both wovens and knits. One womenswear designer in Bangkok told us that “many of us go to Samut Prakan for our production needs. They can do anything that you want. I am sure they will be happy to sew for foreign customers.” Such small-scale set-ups and the accessibility to them could explain why it has been relatively easy for any Thai interested in fashion design to set up shop in Bangkok, even in Chatuchak weekend market.

Moving into the third decade of the 2000s, there is, in fact, an explosion of local brands here, although many do not enjoy the visibility of, say, Fayth or Weekend Sundry. The fact that they have clothes to sell must be indication that they have found production facilities to accept their unlikely-to-be-large orders. Following the rise of blogshops in the Noughties, would-be label owners saw that these businesses had no problems with production, even when the production quality has been, till now, debatable (often attributed to the lack of a garment technician to control the production). Although many designers are not inclined to reveal their source, they are likely using one of these small-scale factories, rather than go to “the neighbourhood tailor”, as Mr Wee suggested in that ST story.

Design Orchard’s first anniversary on 25 January came and went without a whimper. Two days before that, Singapore registered its first case of COVID-19 infection. With the subsequent Circuit Breaker measures, it is understandable that sales at Design Orchard could hardly be described as brisk. Now that retail businesses have been allowed to open, its low footfall is expectedly disquieting. With the typhoon of recession now picking up speed, it is unclear how Design Orchard is going to rejig what is clearly stagnated merchandising, and garments that have scant design value and finishing finesse. The local labels they stock may have a place in the market, but not in a retail outfit conceived to spotlight Singaporean design. This could just be an emporium of Singaporean brands. As one noted fashion retailer said—somewhat diplomatically, the store “needs more work.” We think she meant a lot more.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Reprise: Listening To Another ‘Home’

A nation in song earlier this evening, but some of us aren’t moved. Do we have to be?

 

TH Home album

By Raiment Young

It has been a grey day, but the evening is not a natural progression of the day-time gloominess into sedative twilight. The night looks agreeable, with a discernible petrichor of earthy familiarity and an increasing darkness, dappled with leftover blue that struggles to express. Still, there is a sureness that seems to agree with what American school teacher Jeb Dickerson observed, “A setting sun still whispers a promise for tomorrow”.

If this night has a social media account, I’d sent it a Friend Request. But this night, with a digital life or not, has many others to connect with than to address my pointless entreaty. Sing Together Singapore was just broadcast, a roughly six-minute crepuscular chorus, led by Dick Lee and digitally patched to encourage citizens to sing the pop-track-turn-national-song Home in the quiet of night. Communicating via social media in song has gained traction during this pandemic, affirming, once again, that not only is our life increasingly connected, it is so by means of entertainment, or what is entertaining. More and more, the unconnected and unentertained self is too lonely a dwelling.

I’m replacing Dick Lee with Terry Hall, supplanting one Home by another, a 22-year-old song by a 26-year-old album. Terry Hall’s Home accompanied me through the early years of my professional life. Formerly of the Coventry band The Specials, Mr Hall was the indie-pop act with a jaunty vibe and a jangly sound that, post-Brit-synth-pop, I found greatly appealing. Looking back, I hear a sparkling optimism that seems right for today.

DL & co

Before I could past track three, Dick Lee Peng Boon (李迪文) appeared on my TV screen as sprightly as he usually is, attired as if ready to be subject of a Warhol portrait. When he spoke, “Hello, Singapore…”, I kept waiting for it to end with “weather report brought to you by Mitsubishi Electric”. As he was looking rather closely into what I assumed to be a webcam, he loomed a little larger than what I normally would find comfortable. Even newscasters don’t fill the viewable space to this extent (maybe BBC’s Rico Hizon). Or, was it because I was not sure having a hi-def familiar stranger in my living room, close-up-as-backdrop, singing Home the umpteenth time could be deemed conducive to my stay-home well-being.

I like to think it’s Home fatigue, but I’m not alluding to cabin fever. You know what they say about too much of a good thing. Frankly, I’m sick of it. For some reason, the song has never struck me in a way it has others, or the nation. I like the original Kit Chan (陈洁仪) version of 1997/98 in that it was then not sung with nationalistic fervour to rally a people. Ms Chan has one of those warm voices that is beguiling, especially in lower registers. No one who sang Home after her has come close to the intimacy and tenderness that she imbued the song with. Not even Dick Lee himself, now leading the eight-person sing-a-long, not as a choir master but as the leader of cheer leading, and that was what Sing Together Singapore essentially was.

Home will have its place it the history of national songs, but will it leave a legacy in the pop domain? As a pop tune, it ticks the boxes for simplicity of lyrics, structure, and melody. This is as karaoke-friendly as any Canto-pop hit. Yet it has the anthemic mark of songs that can be sung nationally by a sizeable mass, with a manageable tessitura to match. But as with many chart-toppers, Home has outlived its freshness—its sentimentality is beginning to feel tiresome, and its repeated broadcast, especially the singing with comely comradeliness, is on the verge of annoying. I’m not even sure that the broadcast of Sing Together Singapore is providential. How has the exercise made us forget that much of our island is still pestiferous? Of is it, as one media outlet posed, “empty distraction from meaningful action”?

DL

Seeing only a handful of waving torches outside my window, I think of what I would really like to hear. It’s odd that when it comes to songs that can move a nation, we consider only those by the self-styled Son of SG Dick Lee. At the time he was a prolific songwriter, someone else too was managing quite an impressive musical output, the far more percipient Liang Wenfu (梁文福). And one particular song—easy to sing too—I now desire to hear again in these bleak days is the up-lifting Catch the Sunrise with Me (陪我看日出) from 2005, sung by the now mostly forgotten Joi Chua (蔡淳佳). Mr Liang was the lyricist for this track, and the hard-warming narrative that speaks of a better tomorrow—sun after the rain—seems more befitting of the present climate than the reminder of self and nation in Home: “The rain has fallen, walk carefully, I shall remember these words/However hard the wind blows, good blessings will not be carried away with it/After the rain, there would be a way for us to see the sunrise as in the year past (雨下了走好路这句话我记住/风再大吹不走祝福/雨过了就有路像那年看日出).

Admittedly, this (literal) translation captures not the nuances, imagery, and positivity that Mr Liang intended. And not many may consider xinyao heavy with schoolyard innocence—however evocative of our home—not Home enough to sing on a national level. If Dick Lee’s contribution to our city’s catalogue of patriotism-stirring songs must be sung, could it not benefit from some rearrangement, if not reimagining? I am thinking of the rousing rendition of Foo Fighters’ Times Like These, initiated by BBC Radio 1’s Stay Home Live Lounge, featuring Chris Martin, Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, and others. Or the 100-year-old fundraiser Captain Tom Moore’s duet with Michael Ball, singing The Weeknd’s You’ll Never Walk Alone, backed by the staff of Britain’s National Health Services (NHS). The latter, this week, charted at number one. These are not only inspiring, they sing of what Jeb Dickerson wrote with palpable hope (and I reiterate), “a promise for tomorrow”.

I am (still) playing Terry Hall’s Home—on loop, something I have not done since my Spotify subscription of many moons ago. Produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds (also on my playlist), Home is Mr Hall’s debut album. I was very much drawn to his lyrics, as much as I was a few years earlier, to Stephen Duffy’s for their art-school vim, tinged with Euro-centric swish. On the opening track, Forever J, Mr Hall croons, “Like Isabelle Adjani/She glides by upon a bank of violets…” It is, hopefully, understandable why, for this evening, as a form of escape from the unsettling reality outside, I’m giving “the river which bring us life” and one that “always flows” a decided miss.

Update (26 April 2020, 3.30): if you need a new take on Home, listen to Mr Brown’s deliciously funny version. Now, he should be leading the sing-a-long

Photo: Jim Sim. Screen grabs: YouTube

Is Mad Still Rad?

It’s been 30 years since Dick Lee’s Mad Chinaman album was released. To celebrate the pearl anniversary of what to some was—and still is—the definitive Singaporean album, Mr Lee staged an orchestra-backed concert at the Esplanade. Was it a fresh sound to a vintage recording, or was it strictly for fans?

 

Dick Lee MC 30th Anniversary Op

By Cooper Low

I am guilty of listening to Dick Lee’s 1989 album Mad Chinaman back in, well, 1989. Guilty as in the feeling that is also linked to pleasure. Mad Chinaman was not an album I typically enjoyed in those days. I was very much into The Cure’s Disintegration—an album of heartbreak (then, a recent discovery) and melancholy that was tremulous of the songs’ epic-ness (even on cassette tape!). The guitar intro of Pictures of You entranced me, rather than the almost-juvenile synthesised keyboard and drums of Mad Chinaman’s. Besides, most of the people I knew were listening to either ‘harder’ machismo-affirming stuff such as Nirvana and Aerosmith, even Beastie Boys, or, conversely, the diva-esque—Kylie, Madonna, or Lisa Standsfield.

Except one, my friend Bong, who had been listening to the songs of Dick Lee and following his career since the 1974 debut album Life Story. When I finally paid attention to Mr Lee’s music, it was not even sung by him. During a period when I was totally mad about Depeche Mode, I also discovered Silence, the 1983 album Mr Lee wrote for Jacintha, her first. This was way before Drama Mama (which, I have always suspected to be Mr Lee’s creation)—eight years before, I believe. Silence opened my ears to something I had not yet hear in songs written and produced in Singapore. For a while, my Walkman played almost nothing else except Silence and Jacintha’s clear, rich, warm, unique, believable, pre-Ben Webster voice enthralled me. This was Singa-synth-pop! And catchy too. Bong and I sang to every song; we were especially crazy about the still-unforgettable interpretation of the Bee Gees’s Run to Me, the touching and relatable Still Burns, and the duet with Dick Lee, It Takes Two (I can hear Jacintha singing you wouldn’t leave things so one-sided, would you?). That was the last track, I remember, and it would bring us back to the first, Bad News, and we would instantly break into dance! Bad news will find a way to bring you down, any time, any place… Gosh, I can still sing it.

Mad Chinaman was… a pastiche of sounds, both singing and instrumental, that I thought grated

Truth be told, when I first heard Mad Chinaman, I did not quite like it. While Silence was synth-smart-and-sophistication (Fender Rhodes and Jupiter 8 now sound so quaint!), intriguing/catchy chord progressions, and clever word play, Mad Chinaman was—how do I put it delicately?—a pastiche of sounds, both singing and instrumental, that I thought grated. I admit that there was some snobbery at work here. Mr Lee is still proud to be one of the first local songwriters to use Singlish in his songs (and he would, years later, repeatedly regale the audience with the proud recount of how the songs were once “banned”), but back then, the lyrics sounded a little rough to me, or, to use a favourite Peranakan word that describes the unrefined, kasar. And Mr Lee does not have the voice to make them more lembut, soft. You can understand why I might be embarrassed if other people found out about my musical taste, which can be called many things, but questionable.

My hesitation with Mad Chinaman at first hearing was also compounded by another 1983 album I had grown to love and rather intensely—the more ‘serious’ sounding, Lou Reed-influenced, and polished Regal Vigour by Zircon Lounge, whose frontman was the non-pop Chris Ho, a radio (Rediffusion!) DJ I had held in considerable awe. Dick Lee, too, was in that seminal album, co-producing it and playing, unsurprisingly, keyboards, but any madness or Chinaman was held in check. Jacintha, too, was in Regal Vigour, although I now cannot remember on which track. These albums, including Mr Lee’s, were part of a strong body of work released by Warner Music Singapore (WEA) in the late ’80s. Sadly, WEA dropped Zircon Lounge as quickly as they picked the band up because the debut album reportedly sold a sad 1,000 copies, while Tracy Huang’s three albums that year, such as the Lou Reed-free Love of Angel (天使之戀, from rival Polygram), averaged 50,000.

Dick Lee Op

But I did give Mad Chinaman further listening. And some songs started to shine. At around this time, I discovered the Hong Kong duo Tat Ming Pair (達明一派) and was most sold on their second album, 1987’s The Story of The Stone (石頭記). The titular track stood out for me as it was unmistakably oriental, yet it sounded far from the Canto-pop that was heard and enjoyed at that time. If you took away lead singer Anthony Wong’s distinctive and clear vocals, this could be a track released by 4AD or one of the British indie bands I was listening to. Together with the massive hit Angels of the Road (馬路天使), I was certain that the Tat Ming Pair was the future of Asian pop, even not quite commercial they might have been.

Mad Chinaman, I thought, was not as subtle, urbane, and polished as The Story of The Stone. But in the former, I could hear something I had earlier heard in the latter: a sound, one that reflected the city in which it was made, and so evocative you could see and smell the place. Dick Lee has always had a sense of what is local and how that could be worked into his melody-making, which was influenced by the pop music of the ’60s and ’70s. While the Tat Ming Pair freely incorporated historical references and folk tunes into their music, they were usually less barefaced. Mr Lee’s were, of course, more perceivable—a lot more. By his own admission, Mad Chinaman “was not really written” by him since half were based on existing tunes, identifiably so.

There was nothing special, but somehow the unembellished, not-Idol-style singing and the English lyrics to what I knew as a Mandarin song appealed…

While I was not grabbed by the ditty-like Ni Ni Wo Wo, the kitschy Mustapha (supposedly of Egyptian origin, featuring Jacintha en route to becoming Drama Mama), and the erred-on-the-cheesy Rasa Sayang and Bengawan Solo, I took to the titular track, the anthemic Centre of Asia, The Windchime Song, and, strangely, Little White Boat that I knew as the Chinese xiao bai chuan 小白船, reportedly a Korean folk song, now sung by Mr Lee in English. There was nothing special about this track, but somehow the unembellished, not-Idol-style singing and the English lyrics to what I knew as a Mandarin song was really appealling. The reason was not apparent to me until a few years later when I heard the lullaby-like 是否真爱我 (shi fou zhen ai wo, or Do You Really Love Me?), which Mr Lee wrote for Tracy Huang, and was later sung in English as Everything I Know: Dick Lee has a knack for melodies that can be sung in more than a single language without one sounding worse that the other.

Although Mad Chinaman is now touted as “an attempt to create a Singapore soundtrack”, the idea had, in fact, appeared in Mr Lee’s 1984 album Life in the Lion City, which he had called “an enthusiastic (but unappreciated) expression of being Singaporean”. Until Mad Chinaman, Mr Lee’s work was largely Western pop, conceived for an audience of mostly friends-as-listeners who also enjoyed similar pop of the West. While the folk tune Rasa Sayang appeared in Mad Chinaman as a full (rap!) song, a refrain was first sung by Mr Lee at the end of Culture, from Life in the Lion City. Was this a foretaste of things to come? Did Dick Lee, in fact, predate the Tat Ming Pair whose first album appeared in 1986?

Dick Lee, Ja & Denise Op

Cut to the present, it felt strange listening to Mad Chinaman again after, well, thirty years, as Dick Lee reminded us in his one-night-only concert at the Esplanade last night. Surprisingly, the album has never been performed here in its entirety, except in Japan, where, presumably, it had novelty value. Still, this was familiar territory for Dick Lee: going back to where he started or left off. If you have been to any of his concerts, you would have been familiar with the inevitable look-back, the easy, one-sided banter and the okay singing. I think people still attend his concerts because 1) he truly has many supportive friends, 2) his songs are entertaining for their ability to jolt the memory, and 3) the majority don’t listen to The Sam Willows, unless, perhaps, it is Benjamin Kheng singing Fried Rice Paradise.

What struck me last night was how few there were the under-twenty-fives. Many of the attendees could be Mr Lee’s contemporaries—Merdeka Gen, we call them now—or older, who would certainly remember the government campaign that he sang about in Let’s All Speak Mandarin. Lyrically, much of Mad Chinaman stood rooted in a particular time. Throughout the two-hour long concert, words that I had forgotten now stuck out: “the ketupat at Satay Club” (Rasa Sayang) and “a star from SBC” (Let’s All Speak Mandarin), so unambiguous b efore Soundcloud and, definitely, IG. Unless you are from Choo Bee Lean’s era, “…selling rings and things from China…” (Fried Rice Paradise, sung for its popularity and to stretch what would have been a 50-odd-minute-long album into a two-hour show), is really the mega-e-biz known as Taobao. Maybe, Dick Lee had, after all, the gift of foresight?

Soaring strings to familiar tunes may be appealing to those who no longer have the patience for one note misplayed, but the songs too require something far more fun

The concert had the backing of a full orchestra, which was the opportune moment for Dick Lee to declare, perhaps a little too earnestly, “I am a serious musician, and it takes an orchestra to prove it!” (I noticed he didn’t say ‘singer’). To be sure, the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO) that accompanied him is no SSO. Still, they played competently—hiccups aside, but Mr Lee’s music, especially Mad Chinaman, requires not just competence, but cheek. Soaring strings to familiar tunes may be appealing to those who no longer have the patience for one note misplayed, but the songs too require something far more fun—which has always characterised Mr Lee’s music and musicianship. What was needed was what Nigel Kennedy might have called “pathos”, not perfection.

Mr Lee was accompanied by “muse-my-whole-life” Jacintha, who no longer appears as the vivacious and immensely listenable side-kick she once was. Predictably, she came on to duet with Mr Lee on Mustapha, a song given a “Bollywood movie theme song” treatment. Ja, as she is known to music industry veterans, could once possibly be Singapore’s Sade (her version of Smooth Operator—never, as far as I am aware, recorded—surpassed any version I have ever heard), but now with a hardcore, traditional jazz recording career, she seemed unable, last night, to give Dick Lee songs the girlishness and, at the same time, sultriness they require. What surprised me was how self-conscious she appeared and sounded, and how unable she was to deliver, near the end of the song, “you naughty, naughty” with the Indian impishness it deserved. Dick Lee’s music, as one of my friends noted, can be quite camp. He needs Jacintha to deliver it. As for the other guest star, Denise Tan, if Caldecott is no more, so should that sound.

Perhaps, I no longer listen to Dick Lee’s music for reasons of nostalgia. When I was an impressionable teen, the Mad Chinaman’s music was charming because it was amusing. Perhaps I have grown up and Dick Lee has not. Thirty years later, I was hoping for something more full-bodied, but, despite the orchestral backing, got something quite thin. (Sadly, the song I was most hoping to hear, Little White Boat, was omitted. Or, did I, somehow, miss it?) Approaching the Esplanade last night, haze hung like a heave, I had hope this could be how Spandau Ballet re-recorded their back catalogue in the 2009 album, Once More. Instead, I left, thinking, not again.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Not The Wonder Years

It’s tempting to dismiss Wonder Boy as a vanity project, and many have submitted to the temptation, but Dick Lee’s debut film is homage to self, as well as a dare-to-reveal look at a surprisingly more uninhibited time

 

Kheng as LeeBenjamin Kheng as Dick Lee

By Raiment Young

Some people not only grew up to the music of Dick Lee, they had actually lived the world of Singapore’s most recognisable songster. I often hear of those whose lives have somehow crossed path with the man who dabbled in many things creative or, as it was known in Mr Lee’s heyday, “lifestyle”. There are those who had actually worked with him; there are those who had, through supplying the stuff he needed for his work, interfaced with him; and there are those who had co-conspired with him in his many schemes that had impacted the fashion, modeling, and music scenes of Singapore, not to mention, our national psyche.

Many of those that are connected to him, even loosely, have stories to tell of Dick Lee, and are curious to see if Wonder Boy contains any narrative that will match theirs. Unfortunately for them, this is not a recount of Mr Lee’s successful decades, or the unveiling of the backstory to Home. This is a filmic memoir of three of his teenage years, before and after a family tragedy, and the events leading to the release of the 1973 album Life Story, his first long-playing vinyl. This is not an account of Dick Lee the fashion impresario who created the ’80s retail experiment Hemispheres or the music lover/writer who became the Mad Chinaman in 1989. This is, disappointingly, a prosaic telling of not an untypical teenager struggling with the loneliness of wanting to break free—from parental expectations and the musical tastes of an era that weighed heavily on him.

The Wonder Boy film still 1Dick Lee’s first pop group known in the film as The Wonder Boys

This is a film with music

It is not unsurprising that you would think this movie to be a musical. But it is not. A Dick Lee film without songs is, I suppose, like fried rice without egg. So, there is more than an opening track, but the songs—mainly those from his breakout album Life Story—do not string the narrative with emotional heft or arouse feelings to let the spirit soar, as the Mamas and Papas tunes did for the 1996 British film Beautiful Thing.

Life Story is the first record Mr Lee released after being discovered while singing the song at Ready, Steady, Folk, a talent contest organised by the cable radio service Rediffusion in 1973. That the album should form the basis of the film is ironic as Mr Lee had told his Japanese audience during the Orientalism tour of 1992 that it was a “very, very, very bad, bad record—bad”. Although, to be honest, I have not heard the original press of Life Story, I do not consider the songs, while catchy, emotionally reflective enough to soundtrack an autobiographical film.

The Wonder Boy film still 2Dick Lee (seated) and sister Pat (left) perform for friends

The result is a loose pastiche of tracks that I suspect will arouse the memories of those old enough to recall them. That, however, may pose a problem: those old enough—Mr Lee’s contemporaries—are not the movie goers they once were. Those who can sing along to Fried Rice Paradise are most likely Gen Xers who remember it as title song from the eponymous musical (1991) than a track from Mr Lee’s debut LP (1974). In fact, many people did not have a TV set at that time, and were not audience to the songs that Mr Lee had performed during the Talentime series of 1973, when he appeared not as contestant, but “guest artiste”. If the songs are intended for a new generation of film fans—as I think they are, they sound terribly kitschy, with a musicality that went the way of Bugis Street.

Perhaps that explains why Home, written in 1998 when Mr Lee was in Hong Kong as regional VP of artiste and repertoire for Sony Music Asia, was inevitably sung at the end of the film, the way artistes promoting new songs tend to finish with something familiar, something that the audience can sing to. I was rather surprised that Mr Lee wrote no new material (rather, they are, according to the man himself, “music that has never been released to the public before”) or a love theme (there are love songs, but not in the tradition of, say, Where Do I Begin from 1970’s Love Story, with the specificity of the film’s story line) considering that love, in its many guises, feature strongly in the Wonder Boy.

Wonder Boy film still 3Party wear in 1972?

This is a film with fashion

The ’70s is a decade that can be easily exploited for visual shiok but Wonder Boy fell disappointingly short. Flower power was impotent, flares inconspicuously represented. It may have been “the decade taste forgot”, but the ’70s was, by many accounts—no less Mr Lee’s own—a colourful era, easy to ape for the big screen. In his autobiography, Dick Lee: The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman, Mr Lee admits to being a fashion plate from young: “started to notice clothes—how they were constructed, what colours they were in, what trends of the moment were” from age 11, and, at 13, “was the best-dressed boy in town with… a floral shirt”.

According to his description of the era, “youth culture was very adult-oriented. For example, we dressed like adults; the guys in fitted shirts with huge collars, worn with high-waisted flares, and the girls in elegant dresses and stiletto heels.” Being the truly fashion-conscious teen that he was, “a typical night out” would see him wearing his “favourite Swiss voile shirt in a green floral print, with an enormous Peter Pan collar. This would be tucked into my brown Oxford Bags, coming up to above my navel and with hems wide enough to accommodate shoe boxes”. Oddly, picking out clothes, getting dressed, and preening were not worked into the script.

Wonder Boy film still 4Indistinctive fashion of the film. The cold shoulder (second from left) is a little disconcerting

Few of those florid attire and exaggerated shapes appeared in Wonder Boy. The silhouettes were disconcertingly current. Costume designer Daniel Goh, former editor of Style magazine and an on-and-off stylist, seems remiss in his research for the film. I want to think differently, but it is not unreasonable to assume that he had picked most of the clothes from H&M and Forever 21, or such (City Plaza, a friend suggested), save, perhaps, for the lead characters. A major party scene saw attendees dressed in outfits teenagers today could see themselves wear. The tight shirts and their accompanying huge collars did not stand out; neither did flares, let alone Oxford Bags. The girls (with today’s brows!) wore printed dresses with a natural waist, but they could be any dress you will encounter in the MRT trains today.

The lack of attention to detail is especially glaring in the choice of brassiere in a seduction scene in which Julie Tan, playing a moral-dubious girl called Linda, who chain-smoked in school uniform, descended on Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee. The close-up of Ms Tan’s upper body not only revealed her not-so-ample assets, but a bra that could have been picked from Wacoal’s Une Nana Cool line, conceived in 2001 for young girls, rather than a Triumph Lycra/nylon, pre-Sloggi bra of the ’70s that reflected the youth and sexual freedom of that time. I’m sure if asked, Triumph International will gladly loan an era-correct bra from their archive or make one for Ms Tan to wear. If not, there are always the many photos of Guy Bourdin.

Detail was overlooked too in the scene when Dick Lee had a fight and then made-up with his sister Pat: he was wearing a striped, long-sleeved ringer tee, and a pair of bright blue flares with patch-pockets—the zip opened from the left! Is the fly detail to bear out the not-in-the-film fact that Mr Lee spent an inordinate amount of time fashion shopping with mom Elisabeth Lee in his pre-teen and teenage years, and “had to look as trendy as my mother”? Did he borrow her slacks?

Wonder Boy film still 5Dick Lee and his mother Elisabeth in their living room

This is a film with (foreign) locations

Much, if not most, of Wonder Boy was filmed in Penang—hardly a surprising location since Singapore of the ’70s is no longer evident, and the film’s S$1.3 million budget is not large enough to build a set that can depict 6½ Mile Bukit Timah Road, or Binjai Park to those in the know, where Dick Lee’s family home is situated, and St Joseph Institution (SJI) on Bras Basah Road, where he went to school for ‘O’ Levels.

The Lee home in the film appears to be a large house, but not as bungalow-like as those in Binjai Park are (including his cousins’—actors Lim Kay Tong and Lim Kay Siu—house), and much of the action took place in a living room that, according to Mr Lee in a behind-the-scenes publicity video, looks like the room he knew well. But the large grounds on which the house sat appeared only in a flash, and were referred to by Julie Tan’s character Linda, without the camera taking the audience there. The macramé pot hangers in the dining area, I thought, were a nice, evocative touch. The sum effect, however, was a home that could be anywhere in Singapore and the Malay Peninsular rather than the exclusive residential greenery not far from the rail corridor’s truss bridge that stretches across Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads.

Wonder Boy film still 6Classroom scene in Penang Free School

A good deal of the retro-coloured scenes was filmed in a school setting. Mr Lee went to St Joseph Institution for his secondary education, but in the film, the school is known as St Peter’s (could it be because he did not want to further upset his alma mater with insinuation that illicit shenanigans took place in the school compound?). The school of choice for the film is the very secular Penang Free School. PFS, which celebrated their 200th anniversary last year, is the oldest English-medium school in Southeast Asia. Students are known as Frees, and these include Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singapore’s first chief justice Wee Chong Jin. Interestingly, Mr Lee’s great-grandfather Lee Keng Kiat, a Penangite, went to the Catholic institution, St Xavier’s, PFS’s long-time archrival.

But it was PFS rather than the younger St Xavier’s that was picked, which suggests that the colonial architecture of the PFS building came to represent SJI rather than its religious leaning. Still, SJI’s distinctive crescent-shape front was not shown since PFS has a linear façade. Those who have been to SJI before it became the Singapore Art Museum also noted that the school did not have windows and doors painted in blue, and the hall/auditorium seemed a tad small. SJI in Bras Basah may only be a part of our faded memory now, but the school and the bus stop outside it (don’t expect to see the row of book and sporting goods shops that was very much a part of that area then) in the film did not look or feel like it is in the heart of the fast-modernising Lion City.

Wonder Boy film still 7Dick Lee with Louise who persuades him not to give up

This is a film with heart

I thought it would be. I saw the film twice: in the first viewing, I was not able to establish an emotional connect with it. In the second, I found myself finding its faults. The film, in many ways, is like Dick Lee’s songs—it draws you in, but leaves you not feeling. It has the colour and the vim (interestingly, not the camp), but once you leave the cinema, it does not stay with you, not even until the bus-stop. To be fair, Dick Lee appeared to have put in his darnest best, like he did for the National Day Parade in 2015, but do you remember NDP50?

Personally, what may have worked against it is the familiarity of the story. Mr Lee is fond of recalling his child-hood days in his concerts, and Wonder Boy feels like a replay of that unabashed conceit. Like those stage performances, the film is short of subtlety and shade—nuances not exactly Mr Lee’s lodestar. At times, I thought I saw bits of MediaCorp’s Growing Up even when I think he was gunning for the late Yasmin Ahmad’s storytelling, particularly Talentime (2009), a film of considerable emotional depth, and the title, coincidentally (?) Wonder Boy’s recurring theme. A comment in Letterboxd was unmistakable about Ms Ahmad’s skills at tugging at heartstrings: “Its 3am and I have the OST of this movie on loop while tears stroll down my face.” For me, I still get goose bumps when I hear Go sung by Mohd Syafie Naswip as the good Muslim boy Hafiz.

Kheng as Lee pic 2Benjamin Kheng’s geeky Dick Lee

As a first-time film maker, it would be aiming too high to scale the height Ms Ahmad had reached, just as it was when Mr Lee, as a school boy, aimed for Elton John’s musical sophistication. Rather, I see Jack Neo’s grassroots anguish (co-director Daniel Yam’s part?) set instead in upper-middle class surroundings, with the protagonists going about the way the chief director remembers things to be. Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee with bad hair plays it one note shy of over-the-top (or is it just teenage angst?). While, from certain angles, he has the boyish charm of the young Dick Lee, there’s an impishness about the pop singer that he was not able to portray. In contrast, the ill-casted Julie Tan as sex-bait Linda has the emotional range of teak. A surprisingly more striking and believable performance was from Zachary Ibrahim as Marc de Souza, the band mate with a tortured background and testosterone-charging, machismo-pushing anxiety.

As far as authenticity goes, the Wonder Boys was really Harmony, Dick Lee’s first band that he did not form and that predated Dick and the Gang, a group that he did form, comprising Mr Lee and his siblings, much like Jackson 5 or the Osmonds (it is rather odd that the younger brothers have virtually no speaking parts in the film even when John Lee would later play a crucial role as arranger of many of his pop-star brother’s songs). I am not sure why Harmony could not retain its original name. Perhaps the founding members did not agree to it. The Wonder Boys is really too similar to The Wonders in the Tom Hanks-directed That Thing You Do!, with none of the latter’s root-for-the-underdog energy. Which makes one wonder if, in our era of fake news, this is a fake biopic.

Film stills: YouTube/MM2 Entertainment, Bert Films and Dick Lee Asia

Wide Angle, Narrow Vision

In March last year, the SG50-themed exhibition Fifty Years of Singapore Design opened to scant fanfare. After a year, the “permanent” exhibition still languishes without a crowd on the second floor of the National Design Centre

 

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 1

Our second visit to Fifty Years of Singapore Design took place on a Friday afternoon. It was deathly quiet, the stillness not unlike that in a forgotten ancestral shrine. Only the faint murmur from the always busy Tanuki Raw, the café situated at Kapok, the National Design Centre’s (NDC) only retail outlet not connected to anything it exhibits, could be heard. As with our first visit last year, we contemplated and completed the display in a flash.

For an exhibition that chronicles 50 years of design, it is surprisingly undersized. During our first visit a few days after its official opening, we had allotted about an hour to take in all of Fifty Years of Singapore Design, but we finished it in twelve minutes. Fifty years of nationhood may not seem like a very long time, but five decades of design evolution is. Yet, this exhibition painted our island-republic’s business with design in one short, skinny brush stroke. Five decades, it seems, deserve only a feeble précis.

The smallness of the exhibition is magnified by the space in which it is installed: on the second-floor gallery of the NDC that’s about the size of a 4-room HDB flat, possibly less. In the opening month, Fifty Years of Singapore Design sat above what appeared to be the key event of the Centre: New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio. Staged in the building’s re-purposed indoor courtyard, the exhibits of the Heatherwick Studio (best remembered for their design of the London Olympics Cauldron in the summer of 2012) drew attention with their suitably impressive models, although regrettably crammed in a fairly tight space. In contrast, upstairs, tucked away from the main hub of the Centre, Fifty Years of Singapore Design looks like a transplant from an atrium exhibition at the National Library, just across the street.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 2From left, the designs of Thomas Wee, Tan Yoong, and Benny Ong

Even in NDC’s sleek SCDA Architects-designed interior (headed by one of the recipients of the inaugural President Design Award, Chan Soo Khian), there is a community-centre (now called club) vibe to the exhibition. You would have thought the People’s Association commissioned the exhibition rather than DesignSingapore Council (DSC). It is likely that the aim is to reach out to as many people as possible, including those not design-savvy, rather than to a growing public interest in and consumption of design. Hence a non-alienating, visually-tame, all-can-understand approach was adopted to downplay the potentially high-brow status design may project. The flat, some parts dim, lighting and a distinct lack of atmosphere, and playroom cubes that were used as compositional elements, therefore, suited the original use of the space: the most community-focused of spaces: the classroom. It, too, was like walking into a set of RTS—Radio and Television Singapore, circa 1975, and Ahmad Daud was about to sing.

Design, however, deserves a more engaging and visually stimulating platform, even when not installed in an actual museum. The NDC is, of course, not a museum. It is not bound by the traditional goal of museums to collect, record, research, and then display what they have amassed for public enjoyment and education. It offers exhibition spaces just as the National Library avails its atrium as exhibition space. So, we venture to suggest that the onus is on DSC. It is really not immoderate to expect the Council to demand a more inspired approach to installation and to ask the curators—(curiously from the French architecture/design firm WY-TO) for more rigorous selection to spotlight Singapore’s design history.

It is, of course, tempting to say that design in Singapore, despite five decades of growth and discovery, has not reached a level of excitement that deserves a grand display. It has been said that Singapore design deserves what it gets: boring begets boring. However, we tend to agree with Irene Etzkorn, co-author of Simplicity: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity: “There is no such thing as a boring project. There are only boring executions.”

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 3From left, the qipao of Gary Lau/Kang’s Boutique and the shirt of Dick Lee

Since this is a fashion site, we shall not comment on the other disciplines of design except fashion, specifically clothing design. And that, sadly, is the biggest let down of the exhibition. With boutiques now designed to place products for maximum attention in spatial terms–museum-like almost, it is surprising that 50 Years of Singapore Design is so diametrically opposite even the simplest retail design seen in mass labels such as Bershka, only a stone’s throw away at Bugis+. The NDC is situated among design schools, yet the exhibition, too, isn’t able to scale higher than those of graduate shows.

As clothing is best appreciated when worn, it is mostly exhibited on mannequins. It is no different here, but we did come to the conclusion that the mannequins used for the exhibition are either donated by a supplier or picked up from a few clothing shops that have been served bankruptcy notice. Headless dummies of different stock, some with ill-fitted caps at the top of the neck, mean the clothes do not fit properly. Each designer submitted one outfit, and since none are based on one-size specification, the mannequins have to fit the clothes, not the other way round. This hampers the viewer’s ability to truly appreciate a garment’s cut and fit since, in a couple of cases, the bust darts, for example, are off-point. In addition, some of the clothes look like they are not granted a requisite meeting with an electric iron.

What Charles Eames once said came to mind: “The details are not the details. They make the design.” We really should state that we were not expecting ICOM (International Council of Museums) standards for handling valuable dress in a museum (or the Costume Committee’s Guideline for Costume). However, unless the clothes are accorded the respect they deserve, and the acknowledgment that there are talents behind these designs, the exhibition is no different from those retail events staged in “event halls” of department stores put together to clear stocks. No one expects OCBC’s very publicly displayed Henry Moore sculpture—the bronze Large Reclining Figure—to be poorly installed, and for the same reason, no one expects 50 Years of Singapore Design exhibits—clothes no less—to be less than perfectly set up.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 4From left, dresses by Hansen and Raoul

Sadly, they are not. Mannequins too large or too small for the clothes aside, the handling of the garments could benefit from nimbler and abler hands. Even if the exhibition is not about scale or ambition, surely there could be some vestige of quality in the execution. It is disturbing—and the designers are partly to blame—to see the history of Singaporean fashion reflected in clothes that are displayed in a manner that could not hold up to close scrutiny. Whether a dress that requires pearl-head pins to stay up or another with a bodice that won’t remain flat after buttoning, they’re all there to our horror.

The choice of clothes on show, too, throws up questions on the curatorial decisions made. It is understandable that putting together an exhaustive list of fashion designers who have impacted how we dressed as a nation is near impossible. Given the historical breadth, 50 Years of Singapore Design should, instead, establish the link between clothing forms and the general psyche of the time(s) and illustrate how fashion has played out in the building of our nation, how it reflects our aspirations or moral dispositions. We did not see this connection in the clothes and designers selected. The final nine (why not ten?) given a mannequin to hold a signature look seem to reflect desperation to get anyone willing to participate than true scholarship.

What’s perhaps even more difficult is finding those clothes that truly represent the decades that the exhibition depicts. Nothing from the ’60s is represented (Roland Chow received a cursory mention). The ’70s is reflected in a single uniform: the Singapore Girl’s Pierre Balmain-designed kebaya, suggesting, perhaps, that it was time of work as we pursued economic wealth, even if an air stewardess’s dress is so far removed from the reality of a citizenry with a much more mundane life pursuit. The golden age of Singaporean fashion design—the ’80s—is represented by Thomas Wee, Tan Yoong, Benny Ong, and Dick Lee. The rest of them are only mentioned in the descriptive texts that accompany the exhibits. Of “The Magnificent Seven” cited—the septet that not only created ripples in the local scene, but also brought Singaporean designs to Paris, only Mr Wee’s and Mr Tan’s clothes are shown.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 5From left, the designs of Depression and the stage costume of Frederick Lee

To the uninitiated, this decade may not look like it produced some of our best fashion design talents, or that many of them have laid the foundation for what we see today. It was as much an issue of aesthetics as the substantive. Thomas Wee’s yellow and black skirt suit is supposed to be from the designer’s most successful line: Mixables. The curators, unaware that Mr Wee no longer designs such styles and unable to find clothes from that period, had the designer re-produce something for the exhibition. The result is clearly not anything akin to what Mixables was about. The shoulder of the jacket, for example, is very telling: Mr Wee has shaped and proportioned it in the aesthetic of today. What we saw isn’t an iconic garment of an era, but the uniform (again) of an off-duty cosmetic salesgirl.

Benny Ong, considered the Singapore boy made good in London (on that note, Andrew Gn, who succeeded in Paris, is curiously omitted), is summarised by a strange, low-waist dress with notched fichu-collar of velvet and a sort of calvary bodice of shantung silk, and in a black and orange pairing that recalls Halloween. It was hard for us to reconcile this frumpy ensemble with London, and even harder with Princess Diana, who once wore Mr Ong’s conservative designs before she embraced Gianni Versace’s and the like. Dick Lee, the multi-hyphenate, jolted our memory that he was once a fashion designer. His dress-avatar is a cutesy men’s shirt that is in the happy colours of Stephen Burrows and had more than a whiff of teen spirit. The close-up allows one to examine Mr Lee’s not-perfected tailoring skills, made worse by a mannequin with a neck too thick for the shirt’s collar.

Of the group, Tan Yoong’s dress stood out. Here is without doubt the work of a master, whose ability to translate something as potentially clichéd as petals into sumptuousness of pure visual pleasure is, hitherto, rare and unmatched on our island. Inspired by the cattleya orchid, and based on the iconic William Travilla-designed dress that Marilyn Monroe wore, standing astride a subway grating that blew the dress up in the Billy Wilder film The Seven Year Itch, Mr Tan’s version should go down the history of Singapore design as a classic. Lest we’re mistaken, this is no copy; this is completely the designer’s take, and it boasts the technical finesse—those baby-lock stitches on the hem to stiffen the gauzy silk petals-as-skirt’s edge so that, when tacked at discreet points, the skirt appears to be caressed by the wind—that corroborates his standing as one of our best and most accomplished designers.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 6What’s amiss? Clockwise from top left: the collar of Dick Lee’s shirt collar is too small to fit the mannequin’s neck; strange tape and marking, and poor finish below the add-on collar of Depression’s shirt; the crumpled, bunched-up bust line of Benny Ong’s dress; and the exposed velcro and fastenings of Frederick Lee’s “dress”

Except for Tan Yoong’s cocktail dress, most of the other designers are represented by clothes that seem to suggest that local women’s clothes went no further than the humdrum, or that they dressed as an act of instinct, not adornment, with none of the exhibits reflecting the different tempos of the passing eras, the disparity of rising and shifting urban life. It is as if nothing has changed. Indeed, the exhibition, like so many of the SG50 events, is just a show or a product of what has been called a “catwalk economy”; it is not particularly reflective or critical, and is not a platform for debate to establish those Singaporean designers who have truly contributed to our contemporary culture.

Singapore’s fashion history is not long enough to leave behind a legacy. It is also too short to reflect the social strata of fashion. Even society women, conventionally the adopter of the latest dress designs, were not visible enough, until recently (thanks to social media), to set trends or influence what women wear. None are cited as exemplary bearer of Singaporean fashion. Television and pop stars are similarly passed over since there are not that many of them or, perhaps, because they have no real influence on our lifestyle and fashion choice. Scanning the displays of the different decades, it is hard to determine if these are indeed fashionable clothing of the day, and if they speak of the zeitgeist of the respective eras. It is even harder, tried as we did, to see any ‘design’, the principal theme of the exhibition. In the end, they are just clothes.

A puzzling inclusion is Frederick Lee’s costume for Wild Rice’s staging of Stella Kon’s play Emily of Emerald Hill in which Ivan Heng wore the designer’s glammed-up and far-from-bibik-looking frock. In an accompanying description, Mr Heng was shown in a sleeved dress, quite unlike the one on display. Upon closer inspection, the strapless dress is unable to sit properly over the bust. It is too small and, in fact, requires the aid of flat and pearl-head pins to stay up on the mannequin. From the side view, the short front and long back of the outfit suggest that, perhaps this is a skirt worn as a pretend-dress! If art imitates life, then may be this costume illustrates that Singaporean fashion design is still in want of a good fit.

Fifty Years of Singapore Design is on at the National Design Centre till March 2017. Admission is free. Photos: Jim Sim

Is Dick Lee A Modern Outfitter?

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Some people just want to come back, again and again. As a fashion designer, Dick Lee has beaten even Jil Sander when it comes to resurrecting his design career. Just last week, it was revealed that Mr Lee has launched a line of shirts under the label The Modern Outfitters with young, retail newcomer Clinton Zheng. There are people who have such a worshipful relationship with fashion that they become born-again designers, time after time.

Mr Lee’s first outing in fashion design was in the early Seventies when, at 16, he designed for his mother Elizabeth Tan’s boutique Midteen in Tanglin Shopping Centre, and his last was in 2002, when he co-conceived Love On Earth with the doyenne of local fashion Celia Loe. Between those lines, others came and went like the monsoon. After the last stint, it has been another hiatus, this time a 12-year lull that allowed Dick Lee the singer, the composer, as well as the Singapore Idol judge to overshadow Dick Lee the fashion designer, so much so that few of the young consumers today are aware of Mr Lee’s garment-industry roots.

The vocational irregularity aside, Mr Lee is qualified to design fashion, having studied the subject at Harrow School of Art in Middlesex, London, in 1977. It was here, two decades earlier, that a teenaged Vivienne Westwood had taken a course—without completing it—in silversmithing and jewellery-making before becoming wildly famous in the early Seventies for her provocative designs, which were conceived in collaboration with Malcolm McLaren. In his second school year, Mr Lee designed his first commercial collection for Rene Reveur Paris, a now-forgotten Italian house, then more noted for its accessories than ready-to-wear. This one-off collection was surprisingly girlish: what stood out were dresses with smocked bodices and ruffled hems—styles that Olivia Newton-John would have loved to wear on television, pre-Grease. It was never established if Mr Lee was as an exceptional student, since he was not reported to have made ripples, compared to the waves that John Galliano would create at Central Saint Martins six years after Mr Lee left Harrow.

Not long upon returning to Singapore in 1982, Mr Lee opened Ping Pong, a little boutique in the briefly-popular Orchard C & E (where Midpoint Orchard now stands). Ping Pong, as the rhythmic name suggests, was not short of zing. It stood out with its Fisher-Price colours, leaned towards somewhat Oriental shapes (specifically, boxiness), and comprised of pieces that had certain pop relish about them: clash of colours (boy, were they bright!), kitschy graphics (his mother’s face was used in the square hang tags!), and Brody-ish typography (those condensed fonts!). It was understandable, therefore, why the first season was called ‘Colourama’, a description that rang of Mr Lee’s propensity to impart drama into what he created to bring out vivid, moving, and nostalgic results.

Singapore had not seen anything like Ping Pong at that time. It introduced colour-blocking at a time of the blackness of Japanese design that had become popular to local fashionistas who lapped up the shirt-blouses with contrast-colour collar, pocket, and sleeves or the tunics, also with mismatched sleeves, that were often cinched at the waist with a brightly-hued belt. It was also the first to throw sports clothes into the mix. The label’s secondary line Ping Pong Athletic Club introduced track pants as casual wear, an idea now so mainstream that French-terry jogging trousers with cuffed hems can be found even in Uniqlo. In the far-off days of the Eighties, Ping Pong captured the period’s zeitgeist: to stand out loud. It appeared during the heydays of the Memphis movement, and, while it can’t be said that its creator was the Ettore Sottsass of fashion, Ping Pong was fun, attention-seeking, and randomly alluded to the fashion choices of the young Mr Lee’s growing up years.

Run by his close friend, Gwen Tan, whose irrepressible joyfulness was matched by the cheerful colouring of the clothes and the celebrity of the clientele, Ping Pong’s popularity grew rapidly. This was partly due to the support of the press, in particular, Mr Lee’s bosom buddy and, later, wife Jacintha Abisheganaden (before she became simply Jacintha when she started singing), who, as a writer/stylist for The Straits Times, featured Ping Pong clothes with welcomed frequency. The resultant recognition was remarkable considering that newspapers were not printed in colour or laid out with today’s digital enhancements.

Although the brand enjoyed visibility unusual for a start-up, Ping Pong was not a game changer. The designs were usually clever, but in the Eighties, cleverness was mostly good for hype, not accolade, which tended to go to something else: technical finesse. While Mr Lee was not a technical designer (you would never, for example, associate ‘constructed’ with his designs), he had the flair for offering a transformative experience to the shopper. At a time when European chic and American basics were preferred, Ping Pong moved back and forth between Western aesthetics and Oriental kitsch without dizzying side effects. The clothes (and the graphics employed) were often infused unapologetically with Singaporean flavours or Chinese references. At the brand’s first anniversary fashion show, entitled Beauty World (an appellation that predated Michael Chiang’s 1988 musical of the same name), Mr Lee paraded clothes that paid tribute to Madam Sun Yat Sen, as well as “The Decline of the Cultural Revolution”. To his credit, this was pre-Vivienne Tam!

Dick Lee OrientalismThroughout much of his career as designer, songwriter, and creative-concept initiator, Mr Lee has embraced Orientalism (in fact, the name of his solo album in 1991) through various motifs. While these are not trivial enough to be considered cultural tokenism, they’re not significant enough to be considered cultural nationalism (or regionalism, since he draws inspiration from beyond our shores). Oriental influences are brought into play to affect what can be considered reborn exotica, and one akin to the exotica from which Westerners derive aesthetic pleasure. It arouses the senses, but only momentarily, and does not have emotional impact. Some people consider it to be random sampling—just as a DJ might draw from past materials to create the familiar, yet new. To be sure, Mr Lee’s efforts are not self-conscious, but they are short of the punch that can forge a strong or convincing national identity. Till today, he has given culture theorists much to think about.

For all its freshness and joie de vivre, Ping Pong was not a long-drawn sport; its allure was as ephemeral as the charm of Memphis furniture. As Ping Pong slowly lost its bounce, Mr Lee’s designs were soon to emerge in a new outlet he conceived in 1985: Hemispheres. Our island’s very first multi-label store supporting local design, Hemispheres opened to much fanfare. Excitement was build around the hype that it had more than a whiff of Hyper Hyper, London’s retail hotbed of new designers of the Eighties, a less-sleek precursor to today’s highly-curated Dover Street Market. Situated at Delfi Orchard, Hemispheres had a deliberately retro interior (interestingly, dubbed by Mr Lee as “Memphis kopi tiam”) designed by Katherine Kng, who was behind popular Eighties’ designer boutique Glamourette’s luxurious looks, and would later be known for her work with Christina Ong’s Como Hotels and Resorts. It was managed by D&A Consultants, one of the leading fashion event companies of that time, owned by Dick Lee and his serial business partner Alan Koh, and was the second act to their earlier Runway Productions.

Despite the rave he received with Ping Pong and the initial popularity of Hemispheres, Mr Lee’s collection under his own name at his second store did not generate equal enthusiasm. His fashion design paled beside his creative direction for Hemispheres. The bristling energy that had earlier defined Ping Pong had dissipated. As he was the visible face of the store, it was assumed, perhaps not quite fairly, that the fashion designer played second fiddle to the storekeeper.

Not much was made public about his actual involvement in the design process of his collections, but it was known that during this time, Mr Lee dispatched his sketches to Stitch By Stitch, a tailoring service at Orchard Towers, to have his designs realised without always his personal supervision. These drawings were not technical flats, and were not marked out with dimensions. And he gave no paper patterns. The dressmakers at Stitch By Stitch had to determine lengths and widths based on what Peranakan cooks would call “guesstimate”. Many designers at that time, such as Mr Lee, weren’t backed by a manufacturer, and few had the advantage of even CMT production. Hemispheres, however, used this as a unique selling position. The small output of many of the labels—due to production and yardage limitation—offered consumers “exclusivity”, selectiveness that the store often trumpeted.

Outsourced, the Dick Lee collection met the same fate as many other small-scale designers of the time who were at the mercy of their tailors: inconsistency of finish and quality. While Ping Pong could get away with a more informal approach to production since the line was veered towards the sportif, his namesake label’s attempt at traditional dressmaking required the deftness of a pattern maker and a sample sewer, both not always evident, judging by the end products. These were unlike his earlier designs, and were dominated by the shirt-dress/sundress variety, composed of different floral fabrics in one garment, sometimes contrasted with stripes—all rather post-hippy Ossie Clark. The newness of Hemispheres and its young, avant-garde designers such as Heng Juit Leng and Tan Woon Choor, almost instantly showed up Dick Lee’s lack of forwardness. By now, the Japanese designers had truly made their mark in Singapore, and the local designers who dared—mostly self-taught—were avoiding traditional dressmaking in favour of methods and results that challenged the conventional.

Hemispheres eventually closed in 1987. Shortly before that, the Dick Lee label was discontinued. During this time, Mr Lee’s music career had taken off. By 1989, the Mad Chinaman avatar had set him firmly as Singapore’s most bankable pop star. He took a break from fashion when he moved to Tokyo in 1990 to make it big in Japan. Conceptually, Mr Lee’s music was very much like his fashion: a zesty pastiche of Asian elements built on recognisable forms, and although the rojak sounds were charming, they broke no new ground. Returning to Singapore after 2000, he continued to design intermittently for retailers such as Tangs while he wrote and sang.

The closure of Hemispheres was, to both shoppers and designers, a loss to Singapore fashion. During its two-year tenure, the store was really more community centre than kopi tiam. It was a place to be seen; a setting for models, stylists, brand owners and consumers to mingle and get acquainted; a testing ground to see what worked and what did not. While his designs at this time did not catch on, Dick Lee did leave a deep impression as a fashion impresario. Through Hemispheres, he was able to use his fashion sense, marketing smarts, and social connections to champion Singapore design. He encouraged the emerging designers of the time to embrace their heritage, and he led by example, basking in the new-found glow of the ‘Singapore designer’. While he did not rewrite the rules of design or retail, he did facilitate opportunities for aspirants to realise their potential.

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Fast forward to the present: Mr Lee has picked up pencil, paper, and fabric swatches again. And the resultant collection appears in Tiong Bahru, a location completely in sync with his cultural awareness and penchant for nostalgia. The Modern Outfitters is stocked at Intercontinental, a multi-label store in Seng Poh Lane. The space was once occupied by Nana & Bird and their other permutations (including Two.O.Ri). Just last month, online retailer Zalora started their first physical store here although only for six days. Habitués to this part of town will be familiar with the now-closed Por Kee Eating House, that zi char place known as much for the good food as the surly service and confusing queuing system. Intercontinental is directly across the eatery.

The Modern Outfitters fronts the shop, so it can’t be missed. In fact, the first thing that welcomes you is the over-large logo—designed to draw attention to the word ‘modern’—plastered across the glass door. Inside, the sales guy Malcolm was quick to point out that “all the shirts here are designed by Dick Lee”, a pitch delivered with palpable pride. Unmissable to even the most laid-back shopper are those shirts in cotton that are printed with flowers. There’s something retro about these blooms contained within shapes of shirts that are as regular as any you’ll find away from here. Freed from their racks, they do recall some of those shirts Mr Lee did in the late Eighties for what was known as the Century collection: those floral bodices with black sleeves come quickly to mind. Think harder, and there is an uncanny resemblance to the now-defunct label Allan Ross, a proud-to-to-be-loud shirt line that was once available at Takashimaya Department Store, and was conceived by Johorean-turn-Singaporean designer Allan Chai and his partner Ross Chng.

DSC_1104The bright flowers, especially those scattered against black background, are also not dissimilar to those depicted in the drawings of the debut exhibition of Dick Lee as an artist in October last year. These were bright blooms, drawn not to depict them in their natural setting, but as flatten flora that might be found in vintage wallpaper. As Mr Lee told The Business Times, “The colourful floral prints were inspired by my mother… (who) would take me to textile shops for fabric and I remember being stunned by the bales of multi-hued cloths.” The subjects—men and women—were delineated in black and white “to convey nostalgia” even when the clothes, clearly from the Fifties and Sixties, offered enough clues to suggest looking back at the past. More illustration than art, these pieces brought to mind the early multi-media collages of Karen Hoisington.

So much of Mr Lee’s artistic endeavours are based on or affected by recall that nostalgia inevitably works its way into most of his designs. In fashion, he has never negated his fascination with past eras, but nostalgic burn does lose its flame. Mr Lee’s looking back does not always lunge him forward. In his reminisces, he dwells on the obvious rather than the nuanced. As he said in the same BT article, “I don’t draw boundaries between high and low.” There is, however, a difference between looking to Sixties Biba and looking to Sixties Balenciaga.

The Modern Outfitters shirts, while reasonably well made, could not escape the grip of nostalgia. They may look charming to those who have not lived through a certain past, but on a body not terribly young, they may appear dated. Examining the finishing of the shirts, it is not immoderate to assume that Mr Lee has, as before, left the details to the decision of the tailor. For shirts not designed as business wear, the interfacing for the collars and cuffs, for example, were unnecessarily stiff. It would, therefore, seem that Mr Lee’s shirts are produced by tailors schooled in the past. These are young designs sewn by old hands.

Tiong Bahru is, no doubt, the ideal setting for a Dick Lee fashion come-back (although that may sound like a musical in the making!). Despite the infectious enthusiasm that characterises Mr Lee, his latest project (and it’s likely to be just that) continues to prove that his fervour is better suited for generating ideas than designing fashion. However frequently present-day trends rely on the past, fashion design cannot be gleaned from vintage styles alone, especially not when ‘modern’ is employed in the branding. Surely, Mr Lee does not think he can evolve by shuttling backward. Indeed, must his brand always be associated with the two eras leading up to the Eighties? Or has he simply run out of ideas?

(Dick Lee’s return to fashion, interestingly, appears to be in keeping with the resurgence of names once associated with Eighties fashion in Singapore. The Modern Outfitters is reportedly assisted by Judith Chung, the one-time luxury retail maestro behind the long-gone Man and His Woman. Over at Tangs, fashion merchandising is now headed by the store’s menswear alumnus Howie Leong, who was the first to introduce Japanese fashion to a department store with labels such as Pashu and Grass. Metro, rumoured to exit Paragon, will bring back at Centrepoint, Metro Grand, the high-end store that debuted in Lucky Plaza in the Eighties, and the first to stock the quintessentially Italian pop label Fiorucci.)

When a 25 year-old turns to a 58 year-old for guidance, creative sparks may fly. However, in one corner of Tiong Bahru, Intercontinental is no Internationaland, and The Modern Outfitters is no Asia Major.

Intercontinental is at 61 Seng Poh Lane #01-05. Orientalism CD cover: Warner Music