Two Of A Kind: To Dubai With Love

Michael Cinco & Frederick Lee

The photo (right) of Frederick Lee at work came to us via WhatsApp around 5pm, shortly after it appeared on the designer’s Facebook page. And it was not just once, but twice (from different senders)! It required no prompting for us to immediately think of Michael Cinco, circa 2014 (picture: left). Should we assume that it was ‘inspiration’ at work, as it tends to be these days?

We are in the era of the Trumps: Donald for “fake news” and Melania for “common words”. The latter’s speech at the Republican National Convention last year was called out for its similarities to Michele Obama’s in 2008. Well, better Michele Obama than Barbara Bush, no? While the media was quick to point out the resemblance, no one really called down the wrath of the plagiarism god. Her minders, conversely, passed her word choice off as ordinary and frequently used.

In design these days, work resembling the creation of others is easily and swiftly called inspiration or, just to be certain reverence is noted, homage. Alessandro Michele, he who has made Gucci over-the-top and feverishly loved, was recently charged for making a jacket for the cruise 2018 collection too alike a particular piece made by an obscure-in-these-parts designer Daniel Day, aka Dapper Dan. When Netizens pointed out the similarities and the original owner of the one-off jacket, Olympic gold medalist Diane Dixon, took to Instagram to announce, “As Fashion Repeats We Must Give Credit To The Originators”, Gucci issued a statement to say that the said garment is “homage” to Mr Day “in celebration of the culture of that era in Harlem.”

Similarly, Frederick Lee adulates without a shadow of a doubt when he’s ‘inspired’, not, however, just by birds and flowers, but by the works of individuals in the same trade. It’s not surprising, therefore, that his creativity would be aroused by the work of others, such as fellow designers of the Asian Couture Federation (both Mr Cinco and Mr Lee are members). Keep it within the family since the work of Asian designers is less scrutinized?

Now, he’s gone from China to United Arab Emirates, from omelette to doily. The white, shapely dress in question is, of course, not an exact repro of what we believe to be Michael Cinco’s gown from his couture spring/summer 2015 collection. But you can’t say the colour isn’t similar, nor the placement pattern of the lace/embroidery (here, both had a whiff of the symmetrical patterns of 18th-century damask and brocade upholstery), nor the hip-enhancing silhouette. Sure, Mr Cinco worked his on fine tulle while Mr Lee’s output is realised on netting, but both aesthetics stem from the same sprout.

That there is resemblance is as much the result of imitation as aesthetic similarity between the two designers. Both come from the school of fashion design where adherents love to closely trace the outline of the female body to better define the silhouette. Both have a penchant for dramatic effects and shapes, and both their designs attract women who have no use for the undramatic and the commonplace.

Both, too, have a weakness for dictums and truisms and, more often than not, inanities. Mr Cinco, a Filipino based in Dubai, says, sans irony, on his website, “A Michael Cinco woman is moneyed. She may not be born into royalty but she better be married into one.” Mr Lee loves to assert, as he does on Facebook, similarly stripped of irony, such as: “My brides are a class of their own. What makes you different makes you beautiful.” He is also prone to the lingo of Bryan “I’m so gay I sweat glitter” Boy: “You know you’re putting a good thing out into the universe when you put on glitter.”

Sisters, as the Eurythmics song goes, are doin’ it for themselves. Imitation be damned.

Photos: (left) Ian Gavan/Getty Image, (right) Frederic Lee/Facebook

Frederick Lee, Too, Serves Up An Omelette!


Sometimes, designers are like cooks. Cooking is not about originality. It can be done using common ingredients, and methods no different from those already employed among cooks. Simply put, a shared knowledge base. A cook is as good as the delicious food he produces. Goodness of quality is affirmed as long as his cooking is tasty. The food does not have to be original. Original dishes are rare since so much of what we eat is mostly passed down or reproduced from what have always been enjoyed, such as the omelette.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Frederick Lee has chosen to walk the paths of cooks since he is known to be a good one. At this year’s Vietnam Fashion Week, where he has been showing annually since 2014 under the auspices and promotion of the Asian Couture Federation, Mr Lee took the whisk already wielded by Guo Pei and whipped up an omelette of a train. To be sure, his is more a squishy popiah skin (a bar was fitted in the middle to keep it stretched out) compared to Ms Pei’s ponderous jian bing (煎饼 or Chinese pancake). Yet, there’s no denying that there’s visual parallel. You may use different pans, omelettes are still omelettes.

What made the dress and the train stood out even more during the catwalk presentation in Hanoi on 6 November is that the collection was called ‘Red’. Indeed, the entire show comprises of gowns of scarlet, until the final piece: an interjection in a vivid golden yellow. This was clearly meant to be a show-stopper (even if those that preceded were unqualified show-stoppers too), and you can’t help but marvel at the similarity it bore to the cape-dress Rihanna made astonishingly famous. Frederick Lee is not really celebrated as a beacon of originality, but must he really be such a fan of the obvious? Or was he designing in favour of a hashtag?


The gown, in fact, seemed to exist for the sole purpose of carrying the omelette-train, which contrasted so dramatically in its visual semi-splendour to the plain and oddly sportif bodice that, in order to give the upper body sufficient punch, an oversized and over-blinked body jewellery (as stole?) was necessary to keep the balance, or to screen what did not overwhelm underneath. This does not take into consideration the overwrought headdress. You sense Mr Lee telling himself: “If she can do it, so can I” rather than “Anything she can do, I can do better”.

Since Mr Lee started showing abroad, we’ve missed him a lot. Ever the consummate showman and master of the meretricious, he does not disappoint, leading overseas audiences to believe that, in Singapore, we have a huge bevy of women with the occasion and inclination to wear his brand of couture. Mr Lee likes referencing cultures, especially those that easily lend themselves to campy delineations. He’s done African (somewhere in Africa) and ornithic (particularly birds of prey as well as display) and now, in Hanoi, he’s interpreting Chinese, however risible the attempt may be.

If originality is dead, authenticity is one step from banging on death’s door. Guo Pei mining deep into her native traditions to reprise the crafts that she likes is understandable, even laudable. Singaporean designers taking for themselves a Chinese culture that is so far removed from their own is tantamount to appropriation or parody, and can pivot on the pretentious. Omelettes may be omelettes wherever you cook them, but they don’t necessarily taste the same.

Photos: Vietnam International Fashion Week

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

The Showman And His Feathers

FL AAt the press conference announcing the participating designers of Fashion Week 2013 in the Marina Bay Sands in September, Frederick Lee previewed a sheer, black tunic-dress with hybrid dolman-kimono sleeves and a kind of bib-front strung with sparkly beads. This was not the typical cabaret-costume-as-couture of Mr Lee. Instead, it brought to mind this past summer’s collection of a certain LA-based French designer reviving a particularly esteemed Parisian label. The model, with curiously unstyled hair let loose, was fitted on the head with a pair of antlers, recalling the fascinators of a certain “Dante” collection during the winter of 1996 in a church in London’s Spitalfields.

Against the sample showing of the other invited French and Asian designers, Mr Lee’s diaphanous dress looked decidedly un-couture and not on form. But perhaps something was afoot. More than a week later, he showed a collection entitled “A Night Flight of Gargoyles” at the Amber Lounge as part of the club’s 10th anniversary celebrations that coincided with the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix weekend. The above dress appeared together with fourteen other outfits that bore no semblance to stone grotesques—sans La Gargouille too—despite the nearly all-black colour story. If anything at all, the collection with Mr Lee’s characteristic pastiche of embroidery, beading, sequins, and feathers was unabashedly campy.

FL G1Many familiar with Mr Lee’s work did not think his floor show sensibility will be replaced by the monstrous. Closing the Asian Couture segment of Fashion Week, and the only Singapore designer to represent the host country, he was to prove them wrong. The Amber lounge presentation was not reprised in its entirety; it wasn’t big enough and lacked histrionics. Broadening the earlier theme of darkness, he called version 2.0 “Death and Destruction”. The opening soundtrack, which sampled the ominous revelation of Haley Joel Osment in the The Sixth Sense, set the mood for a show of ornithic creatures passing through the fires of Hades (hence the catwalk’s red light and manufactured smoke?). The sweeping and grandiose premise of “Death and Destruction” quickly faded away as the models appeared between half-naked sentinels (with more of those ridiculous antlers) in one dress after another festooned with feathers as if performing in an avian hell-circus.

Mr Lee’s predilection for plumage is well known, even celebrated, but these were not the feathers of Maison Lemarié. Dark, epidermal, and bogged-down, they could have been the quills of predatory birds such as the vulture—a complete contrast to the kind of feather work usually associated with high fashion. Like many Asian couture designers, Mr Lee relies almost solely on the visually dramatic: his feathers had to remind you that they really came from birds. There was a floaty A-line dress with a plumed one-sleeve that slipped off the model’s shoulder, as she walked, like an injured wing; a bolero with sleeves akin to the wings of some wildfowl marauder; a multi-hued whole-bird torso that not only brought to mind Bjork’s infamous Oscar dress, but, too, the work of plumassière Nelly Saunier, whose parakeet bolero dazzled at the debut haute couture collection of a certain enfant terrible of Nineties French fashion; and the final number: the Egyptian god of rebirth and creation Khnum emerged as a female deity with wings! Or, for gamers of today, a creature out of Final Fantasy? Sharp fashion observers will, no doubt, recall a certain jacket from the Spring/Summer 2010 collection of a certain London-based Serbian designer.

(There was, perhaps, a hint of death, but where was the destruction? Were birds killed in the removal of their feathers?)

FL G2It needs no repeating that Mr Lee has a weakness for theatricality, but it may require pointing out that he is not a designer who can expand the vocabulary of forms. Whether with lateral extensions for (imaginary) flight or not, his core shape is one that follows the contour of the body from shoulder through to the bust and hip, and to around the knee, thereafter flaring out into a triangular spread similar to the caudal fins of fish. In other words, it is one that is sexy. This is the base on which he works his surface embellishment, and it also explains why he loves stretch tulle.

Unlike a typical couture setup, Mr Lee rarely shows a collection that distinguishes the fou (dressmaking) from the tailleur (tailoring). By working on a fundamental shape that is essentially a body stocking, he dispenses with tailoring—a variant of the couture that often tests a designer’s technical ability. The beauty of a couture dress is the aggregate of internal structure and external manipulation. This is held together with a workmanship so fine and invisible that you may not guess human hands touched the finished outfit. On the catwalk, Mr Lee’s clothes were eye-catching (even when—or because—some seams went askew). At close range (when two of his creations were displayed four days ago, following the inauguration of the Asian Couture Federation), some of his finishing did not hold up to scrutiny.

A feathered mermaid dress with one sleeve long and the other capped was fashioned from a base garment of stretch tulle. A zip ran through the middle in the rear, and at the point where it met the neckline, the top tape extensions were so untidily stitched, they formed a gridlock with the hook-and-eye closure. If something so visible could not be subjected to immaculate execution, then what’s under the plumage could boggle the mind. Perhaps that explained the need for distractions such as scarlet lighting and eye-smarting smoke. And the penchant for excessive embellishment.

At the risk of ruffling some feathers, let’s consider what Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.