Visited: Two Fashion Exhibitions

Both are small and thematically rather similar, but both are vastly different too, as one discovers the past in some detail, while the other looks at the present with a cursory glance

Foreground, an Andrew Gn gown at #SGFASHIONNOW

Republican-era and late-Qing clothing at Modern Women of the Republic

By Raiment Young

Fashion exhibitions don’t come by often enough. So when two are happening at the same time (till mid-December, and staged only eight kilometers or so apart), it seems like a bonus for those of us desiring to see superlative designs up close. These are not just exhibits of any fashion; these are, as the titles enthusiastically inform me, about our fashion—those that show what our women wore and what they wear through times of significant societal shifts. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore (一袭华裳) at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and #SGFASHIONNOW at the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) explore clothing that, between the eras they each highlight, show aesthetic differences, separated by some 130 odd years. Yet, it is the fashion of yore that seems to speak more eloquently and with far more refinement than those of today. Nonetheless, it is the latter that attempts to articulate what it is that defines Singaporean design now.

When I visit a fashion exhibition in a museum, rather than, say, at an atrium of a shopping mall, I always expect it to provide strikingly well designed and made fashion—not just clothes—and, above all, insight into what stitches these creations together, other than just the thematic thread. If I could be entertained too, that would be a bonus. Fashion in such a setting increasingly caters to visitors that are more exposed to popular visual culture than fashion as an artistic phenomenon. These days, even the most esoteric of sartorial subjects need to be presented with a popular spin. ACM’s approach to modern fashion in #SGFASHIONNOW is especially so, and, as a result, lacks emotional power for an exhibition that is supposed to arouse national pride. What’s even more apparent is the inadequate learning opportunity—to explain how the aesthetics, gleaned from Asian costumes, have been adopted today and why the results deserve a place in a museum exhibition. As Valerie Steele of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology wrote in the Fashion Theory (issue: Exhibitionism), an academic journal, “there is no reason why exhibitions cannot be both beautiful and intelligent, entertaining and educational.”

I am, of course, not deluding myself that these are the blockbuster fashion exhibitions in the same scale and breadth as those associated with overseas national museums, such as the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Perhaps due to limitations, mainly spatial, material, and budgetary, our latest two exhibitions are euphemistically described as “intimate affairs”. The flashier #SGFASHIONNOW has only eight dresses (and one headgear) to cover a scope that is far too wide and complex than the curators would have visitors believe, while Modern Women of the Republic packed over 90 costumes (specifically 13 outfits, including one bathing suit), artifacts and photographs (and a truly informing period fashion show) in a room considerably smaller in width and height than the space for #SGFASHIONNOW. From a museological perspective, the attempt on ACM’s part to show dresses with their historical place or artistic value is feeble. I’m not arguing if fashion is—or not—considered a true form of art; I would like to see if what we have, in terms of fashion as cultural treasures, deserving of museum space. Are these clothes, however well displayed, exhibition worthy?

#SGFASHIONNOW

The entranceway to #SGFASHIONNOW at the Contemporary Gallery of the ACM

It is heartening that one of the most respected museums in the region believes there is modern Singaporean fashion. The Asian Civilisation Museum’s #SGFASHIONNOW (yes, hashtagged and in all caps) exhibition is the “first display of contemporary Singapore fashion, exploring creative practice in Singapore in the context of Asia’s cultural heritage”, according to the exhibition’s publicity material. As it is staged in the ACM, the Asian component is crucial. Despite its trendy (with the hope that it’ll be trending?) name, targeted at the digitally-savvy who know what hashtags indicate, the exhibition looks at far more analogue approaches to dressmaking (except possibly one outfit with 3D-printed ornamentation). Perhaps this may allay the fear that the time-honoured will be superseded by the “now”—the past shrugged off by the present, dress history disregarded by contemporary fashion.

To be sure, #SGFASHIONNOW is not about constructing fashion heritage. Yet, it is the past that the participating designers looked at, though not necessarily a specific time or clothing no longer worn, but to what CNA’s Jill Neubronner described as “twists on Asian arts and culture”, but mostly Chinese. According to the event’s publicity material, “the exhibition was conceived in collaboration with LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion and the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF).” This is “ACM’s first tripartite partnership within Singapore’s fashion ecosystem” and, as Ms Neubronner noted, “the first time the museum handed over the central task of curating the exhibition to five students.” Perhaps the “firsts” explain why the result is somewhat abecedarian, and that my expectations, while not unreasonable for an exhibition staged at the ACM, were set foolishly high.

It is a curatorial challenge to put what fashion we have now in the spotlight. It is more difficult for students not advantaged by the breadth of knowledge of the industry here—past and present—to stage an exhibition with the potential in scope that is ultimately hard to realise. As it turns out, #SGFASHIONNOW is a “competition”, wrote student-curator Felicia Toh in Men’s Folio, to sell “curatorial ideas for #SGFASHIONNOW.” Five female students from the Lasalle’s BA(Hons) Fashion Media and Industries programme made the cut. According to Ms Toh, the exhibition brief was framed “to encourage new ways of thinking about Singapore fashion today, especially in the larger context of Asian fashion.” Designers selected—a total of eight—must “either practice in Singapore or are Singaporeans based abroad.” The students were only required to come up with four names (the rest were, as Ms Toh wrote, “pre-selected” by ACM), and they chose the relatively unknown Baëlf Studio and Studio HHFZ, Indian fashion label from the ’50s Stylemart, and the Crazy Rich Asian red-carpet sensation Time Taken to Make a Dress (TTMD). ACM picked, probably with input from TaFF, Singaporean-in-Paris Andrew Gn; TaFF darling, American-in-Singapore Carol Chen; true-blue Singaporean cheongsam maker Goh Lai Chan, and Malaysian-in-Singapore Ong Shunmugam. Collectively, they allowed ACM director Kennie Ting to realise his ”dream (of featuring) Singaporean fashion designers in the context of Asia and the World,” as expressed in the accompanying (unexpectedly laggy) e-book.

From left: Carol Chen, Studio HHFZ, and Ong Shunmugam

In his introduction to #SGFASHIONNOW, Mr Ting wrote that the exhibition “is the first that follows ACM’s 2020 repositioning as Singapore’s National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art. The repositioning allows us to champion #InnovationInTradition, and to extend the timeline of our curatorial focus to the contemporary day.” Clothing is commonly associated with decorative arts, hence ACM’s enthusiastic embrace of fashion, not necessarily design. Across the world, museums’ affinity for fashion is growing remarkably (this year alone, despite the on-going pandemic, there are at least 18 fashion exhibitions around the globe tagged “unmissable”). With #SGFASHIONNOW, ACM seems to focus on decoration than design, although both are just as important in applied arts. Boning that position, Felicia Toh’s schoolmate and co-curator Celestine Wong said in the CNA report, “What better way to showcase Singapore’s identity (than) through the lens of fashion and craftsmanship?” It is not certain if this angle was wholly the students’ or partially ACM’s, but it is a compelling one.

What is this “Singapore identity through fashion” that Ms Wong and others harped on? I had thought, prior to visiting the exhibition, that this “identity” would be an evaluation by dress through the application of design. But it is not. Despite having stayed at the exhibition for over an hour a few days after it opened on 25 June, I could not say what puzzled and disheartened me, in equal measure, until I read (and heard) those magic words: “craft”, “crafting”, and “craftsmanship”. In the article for Men’s Folio, Ms Toh wrote, “When we think about fashion and what defines our local identity in multicultural Singapore, the first line of thought is whether we have a national attire or a particular look that represents the country. In search of an answer, my team turned our attention to a tangible aspect of fashion—the craft of making clothes.” In his foreword to the e-publication, the president of Lasalle offered that, “the winning proposition is a fascinating exploration of Singapore’s fashion identity through the lenses of craftsmanship and heritage, both tangible and intangible.”

Indeed, craft, from the Old English word cræft, appears repeatedly. Yet, design is the main theme of the exhibition. Interestingly, nothing in the exhibition notes satisfactorily defines craft. In the curatorial statement, “modes of craftsmanship” is described as “running the gamut from tailoring and embroidery to laser-cutting and 3D printing”— also a line used by Ms Toh in the Men’s Folio article. After spending time with the exhibits, it appeared to me that surface embellishments are what the student-curators’ mean by “craft“. Of the eight outfits shown, only one is without decoration, not even trims, not even a single pankou (盘扣 or knotted buttons)—a girlish riff on the cheongsam by Hu Ruixian of Studio HHFZ. Andrew Gn is surprisingly the most minimalist of them all, offering not his usual embroidered flourishes, but an unadorned caped bodice with ultra-long fringing. The most embellished outfit is offered by the design duo Jamela Law and Lionel Wong of Baëlf Studio, who use 3D printed fractals that look like terra-cotta bits to recreate, on a clear TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane, as used in shower curtains) dress, the symbolic images of Jing opera (京剧 or Beijing opera) costumes (did I also sense Schiaparelli X Dali’s ‘Skeleton’ dress from 1938, especially in the back?). Decoration, it seemed to me, is the draw here.

From left, Goh Lai Chan, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Stylemart, and Baëlf Design

Craft, at its most elemental, is skill. But not just any ability that is the result of watching TikTok videos past midnight. Craft is earned skill. You say, for example, the craft of the carpenter or, closer to fashion, the craft of an embroiderer. But that does not mean that these craftspeople are designers. Many skilled practitioners of the crafts of fashion, from pattern makers to plumassiers, are not. The processes and systems of fashion are, of course, dependent on these skills. As Mr Gn said in an accompanying video shown on site, “you need great craftsmen”. With technological advances in the making of clothes and attendant decorating techniques (as seen in the Baëlf Studio exhibit), a one-size-fits-all definition of “craft” is limiting. Yet, to me, “craft” invariably calls up history, tradition, handwork (now debatable since machines have won over the hearts—and hands—of many practitioners), and, without doubt, a high standard of quality. Nick Offerman, the co-host of the NBC show Making It, considers “craft” as “the skill developed, applied, and made manifest through practice and discipline in the fabrication of a work of art.” He was speaking as a wood worker, but he could have been expatiating for fashion designers.

In the curatorial statement of the e-book, we are told that “Hu Ruixian at Studio HHFZ and Carol Chen push the envelope to craft thoughtful pieces.” Even with considerable effort, I failed to see the crafting (nor the thoughtfulness) of the submitted work, just as I struggled with the answers to the ‘whys’ of the designs (but the exhibition is not about that). Despite what I assumed to be the two designers’ bespoke operation, there were glaring irregularities when it came to achieving some semblance of craftsmanship. The addition of Ms Hu’s qipao seemed like an afterthought. It could be because of the size of the mannequin (which is a deplorable excuse, given the museum setting), but hers is the most ill-fitted outfit. Many details that should have been exemplary crafting were curiously absent. It was puzzling to see how large the armholes are, how puckered the seams run, how the base of the collar can’t rest flatly on the neckline and along the shoulder, and how the pocket bags of her extended side pockets threatens to emerge to consume the top edge. Could this be a new way of crafting?

When I looked at Carol Chen’s “Empress Jumpsuit” (an obvious and inexplicable two-piece), I was, similarly, unable to see the craft in the work. The token-Asian metal zardozi embroidery that caused so much puckering on the fabric aside, what stared shamelessly at me was the shockingly ill-fitted trousers. From the front, the waist won’t sit properly. The is no smooth waist or edge, and the crotch point takes after the shape of the pudendum. From the rear, problems with the crotch length and depth, and the hip line yield odd vertical drapes and a V-fold at the crotch. (As with the Studio HHFZ qipao, it is possible that the pants was not made for the mannequin, but it is puzzling that ACM, with the intention of strengthening its fashion division, would not have the resource to get the rightly-sized dummy for the exhibits.) I’ll give the flat-chested top a miss. In all, there is barely engineering of form, forget about manipulation of fabrics. Ms Chen, of course, has the freedom to “craft” as she pleases, but, to me, a museum deserves higher qualitative standards. I am not saying I did not appreciate the emotions or, possibly, the stresses that go into the making of Ms Chen’s two-piece. Perhaps I did not understand what she was attempting to do, but because there was such a lack of the very thing the exhibition was promoting—craft—that irritation took the place of intrigue.

Five (only four shown here) out of eight outfits sport the round qipao collar. None was perfection. Clockwise from top left: Ong Shunmugam, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Studio HHFZ, Laichan

Another way with crafting? Or, at best, dressmaking loosely tethered to craft? There would be those for whom this is merely a matter of semantics and that I am nit-picking, but the distinction is important. Why? I do not think visitors to a fashion exhibition wish to see—for (another) example—tailor’s chalk marks or, in the case of Baëlf Studio’s adorned plastic outer, ink (or pencil?) lines still evident in the seams. Or, are we to believe that such an oversight can bear the true weight of craft? It is understandable that many of our designers are not availed the skilled individuals to provide the artisanal aspects of dressmaking, or those with the eyes to ensure and maintain the refinement associated with supreme tailoring and needlecraft. We do not have a network of specialist tradespeople and craftsmen, who make up the proverbial fashion ecosystem. In his video message recorded in Paris, Andrew Gn explained why he chose to be based in the City of Lights, “You need great craftsmen,” who provide the “savoir faire—the know-how of all the ateliers and all the workshops in France.” Conversely, many designers here have to depend on their own not-necessarily-well-informed judgment on what is skilled execution. And this may fail, or vary, since what is considered skill is, as in the case of beauty, in the sight of the beholder.

Mr Gn’s submission (also a donation) of a strikingly plain, white, silk crepe gown is perhaps a master stroke. Admittedly, the modest dress was, at first glance, a tad disappointing. It isn’t unreasonable for anyone to want to come to see Mr Gn’s beautiful, often custom-designed fabrics and his delicate handwork (I know I did), but this exhibit is one of the least typical, selected from his spring/summer 2012 collection Let there be Light. Yet it is through this stark design of a gown with a fringed, waist-length-in-the-front-and hip-length-in-the-rear cape over the shoulder, purportedly based on the Manila shawl (a square-folded-into-a-triangle covering derived from the Filipino pañuelo), but could easily be a Chinese xiao pijian (小披肩 or capelet), that we see the exemplar of symmetry, precise tailoring, and first-rate finishing. Without doubt, simplicity allowed me to take in the fineness of the work or the “craft”—mostly elusive at #SGFASHIONNOW. I did wonder if perhaps the exhibits’ high-profile, headlining representation is more important that actual craftsmanship. Two are clearly picked for their exposure on the red carpet, rather than their craft: Ong Shunmugam’s derivative caped qipao, worn by designer Priscilla Shunmugam’s pal Paige Parker at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 (when the latter attended as executive producer of Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice) and the unstirred bandung neo-qipao that Crazy Rich Asian cast member Constance Lau donned at the film’s Hollywood premier in 2018.

When clothes are placed in a museum, they must hold up to scrutiny. They are worn on mannequins, I believed, to be studied and, in turn, admired. #SGFASHIONNOW offers little that are technically challenging or decoratively spectacular, or uncompromisingly well-made. Before we can begin to understand or interpret the clothes, to wigwag between the extravagant and the not, we have to be first convinced that they are crafted with great élan. And then we can begin to ask ourselves where we stand today as a nation from the standpoint of dress. I reminded myself that this exhibition is partly the work of students. I then wondered what they really took away from this in terms of techniques and workmanship—craft? And how has #SGFASHIONNOW added to the discourse about good designs that show our island as a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity—those that can truly gin up excitement? The eight exhibitions are positioned in the gallery with no scenography, each framed within vitrines with four sides (only one glassed). They looked to me like glorified store windows, which is ironic since window-shopping is increasingly so other-era an activity in our COVID-impacted world. But perhaps that’s intentional: the showcase as spotlight. Still, you can’t level up what won’t be next-level. Even with the risk of getting this bent of shape, I won’t deny that I was dismayed that this is what ACM and its collaborators see as national pride.

Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore

Entrance to the Modern Women of the Republic exhibition

Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is a sumptuous tribute to an era of swift societal and sartorial change, witnessed in the late 19th century, through the time when we were a British colony or, as the National Museum of Singapore prefers to put it, a “Crown Colony”. The exhibition opened last month at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, also known as Wanqing Garden (晚晴园). It was renamed by the Teochew rubber magnate and revolutionist Teo Eng Hock (张永福, Zhang Yongfu), when he bought it in 1905. Modern Women of the Republic sets Chinese national and diasporic fashion styles in a colonial-era villa with considerable vigour. It was in this pleasant intimacy and contextualised space that I happily spent more than an hour, one weekday afternoon, looking at the clothes women wore that were beginning to be described as “modern”.

Wanqing Garden was built in 1902, the same year the YMCA here was established, and forty four years after one little Spicer & Robinson opened at Commercial Square (today’s Raffles Place). Inside the first-storey main gallery of the nearly 120-year-old mansion, the exhibition was, interestingly, also set up as a department store, Wanqing Co. Ltd (晚晴百货公司), with a suitably retro store front and posters flanking it. In that sense, Modern Women of the Republic’s standing would not be disadvantaged from being compared to store windows, and those complete with visual merchandising, as we know it today that truly captures the viewers’ attention. Unlike #SGFASHIONNOW, this exhibition looks at everyday clothes. Or, those that were custom-made to be worn—possibly for special occasions, possibly not; but unlikely for the red carpet (except, perhaps, one showstopping gown by Goh Lai Chan, the showstopping gown-maker). More than 90 artefacts and accompanying archival photos (including 14 outfits, almost double that of #SGFASHIONNOW) were assembled to tell how modernisation necessarily meant shedding clothes of considerable bulk—hence obscuring the body—for those that are form-enhancing.

Without dramatic scenography, but the very grandness and elegance of the villa, the exhibition creates a walk-back-in-time experience, made more emersive through the well-considered range of mediums, from actual clothes to dainty footwear to kindred accessories to vintage photographs. To be sure, I have seen more compelling and striking exhibitions of similar theme in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but Modern Women of the Republic’s partially local context makes it more meaningful. It covers the periods between the late 1800s to the 1970s (with the exception of that showstopping gown—a very present-day creation), telling the stories of modern-fashion adopters and their influence, such as Teo Eng Hock’s daughter Teo Soon Kim (张舜琴) who was Singapore’s first female barrister (and Hong Kong’s when she moved there later) and a proud adopter of the cheongsam (Romanisation of the Cantonese 長衫 (or long shirt) as everyday dress despite her clearly Western education (she graduated in the UK).

A trio of cheongsams from the ’50s and ’60s, two worn with jackets

The oldest outfits in Modern Women of the Republic are from the late Qing period—those that are precursors to what we can identify as today’s qipao (旗袍 or Manchu robe). In the first, entrance-facing showcase that welcomed visitors, a winter jacket lined with rabbit fur and an embroidered ao (袄) blouse-jacket (the mianao [棉袄 or padded cotton jacket] is still worn today) decorated with fertility symbols and motifs reflect a grander and possibly more decadent age when compared to a Republic-era blouse-and-skirt ensemble hung next to them. The latter would have ushered the arrival of Western dress and casual clothes: simplicity of line and print (as opposed to embroidery)—here, it is Art Deco in style. Although the blouse has narrower waist and sleeves, they embody the looser silhouettes of the 1920s, which, in Europe, who have been the beginning of the modern fashion era as well, spearheaded by designers such as Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and, most notably, Gabrielle Chanel. It was a joy to me to be able to examine these clothes up-close, to see that collars that stood, stood; the seams that are flat, stayed flat, as well as the exquisiteness of the embroideries. Craft here was indeed well and alive.

In the exhibition, I was especially fascinated by a small-screen,1929 film footage of a fashion show in Shanghai, the only video offering among 90-plus objects on display. The simple outdoor presentation was staged in what appeared to be a well-manicured courtyard, featuring Chinese models who emerged from an arched entrance in the rear onto what was a very short catwalk (compared to what we often see today). The women appeared unlike what novelist Eileen Chang (张爱玲) described in her 1943 non-fiction, Chinese Life and Fashions—“the ideal Chinese female, petite and slender, with sloping shoulders and a hollow chest, made herself pleasantly unobtrusive, one of the most desirable qualities in a woman”. These feminine ideals, ironically, had to be concealed under layers of clothes during the Qing rule. The models in the video had unyoked themselves from the restrictions of that time, but not feminine grace; their deportment and confidence heralded a new socio-cultural era.

I was held rapt by the young host of the show, introducing the different looks, presumably the rage of the time, in English! She did not say in great detail what the making of the garments entailed or provide commentary on the genesis of the styles, but it was apparent to me that the clothing was targeted at women (possibly foreigners too) who were trend-aware or who were ready and had the means to adopt these clearly fashionable looks. These are variations of the qipao and what is known as “civilised new attire” (文明新装), prevalent during the early 20th century. Following the May Fourth Movement (五四运动) of 1919, the anti-imperialist and political shifts that were considered momentous for China at that time, students (mainly young women) began wearing what was considered simpler, and garments that were usually in plain weaves, and were visually clear departures from those of the ancien régime. The “civilised new attire” was so popular that even older women adopted it, looking, amusingly, like schoolgirls.

‘Cantonese style’ cheongsam from the early Republican period

The difference between the past and the present is best exemplified by how the clothes are displayed. For the Qing jacket and the ao, horizontal rods are passed through the arms and hung, offering the same effect when similarly stretched out on a Qing garment rack, so that the unmistakable T-shape of the tops—the prevalent silhouette of imperial fashion then—is discernible. Exhibited this way, the immense amount of silk used and the full embroidery can be taken in and admired. I estimated that the Qing tops require at least 4.5 metres of fabric (assuming it is 0.9-metres in width or 36-inches), while the qipao that came after the 1950s would require no more than half of that. The change in fashion era that came with the fall of Imperial China is further contrasted by having the shapelier and lighter (and even shorter) qipaos (or blouses and skirts) worn on mannequins. Women by then were more than ready to don single-layer garments that were cut closer to the body and were shorter, too. The qipao, by now, had nearly obliterated the memory of the “civilised new attire”.

Modern Women of the Republic spans eighty-odd years. With just fourteen outfits, it is not possible that the changes accompanying each decade can be represented by at least one dress. In place of the gaps, the curators have availed photographs and other printed materials to offer an impression of the corresponding styles. Descriptions unfortunately tend to be brief, providing a scant picture of the stories and the crafts behind the exhibited garments. I would have liked to know (even if I could not see), for example, what the layers worn under the Qing ao were that made women look bulky, thus “suppressing their individuality and restricting their freedom”, as noted in an accompanying publication of the exhibition, which is, oddly and regrettably, just as skimpy. Or, the style of embroidery that are on some of the pieces, even when they look rather Cantonese (粤绣 or yuexiu) to me. Perhaps I was expecting scholarship when the curators had something more prosaic in mind. Or accessible?

What really sticks out in Modern Women of the Republic is the inclusion of cheongsam master Goh Lai Chan’s very 21st century gown. Yes, that showstopper. Its lonely appearance in a glass cabinet, placed in a corner, stood incongruously with the clearly less glamorous exhibits across from it. Mr Goh’s chilli-red piece is a qipao fashioned as a floor-sweeping doupeng (斗篷) or cloak, a Western-style garment believed to be introduced to China during the Qing dynasty. As a reinterpretation, he added a qipao collar to it, shortened the front hem to the knee and into an inverted V, on which surprisingly crude embroidered flowers are appliquéd over and weighted down by two short tassels: the sum serving as a headdress-like bouquet, under which a pleated skirt cascades to the floor. But what was annoyingly glaring to me was how shockingly messy the sleeves are set (creating unsightly puckering along the armholes) and how the shoulder refuses to rest flatly. As I glanced further down, two impertinent lines smiled at me: bust-darts that are warped and end in the front with two cheery dimples! Mr Goh’s gown should be lauded for being on-theme, but, sadly, it also reflects what #SGFASHIONNOW desperately tries to illustrates: “craft”, or the sheer lack of it.

#SGFASHIONNOW is on at the Asian Civilisation Museum till 19 December 2021. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is on at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall till 12 December 2021. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

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

Costume Before Couture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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