Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
Max Tan wants to “rewrite this whole language of the wrap”. In doing so, he brings us back to a 1950s village, complete with scurrying chickens
Considered one of our city’s most forward designers, Max Tan has always taken the path less travelled. For his latest collection, that jalan brings us to Kampong Lorong Buangkok, a traditional Malay-style village that enjoys the reputation as “the last surviving”, situated in not-so-rural-anymore Yio Chu Kang. The video-show (film this month “in compliance with prevailing Safe Management Measures”, we are told) of his latest collection (season unspecified) debuts online today. Since it’s still the month of August; it seems de rigueur that it would appear like a National Day homage to a lost way of life and a rural relic, destined for the National Archives. This is a part of our island that few have ever seen: the home to a reported 28 families who live in one-storey wooden houses with corrugated zinc roofs, on a plot of land the size of three football fields. Kampong Lorong Buangkok is privately-owned by the Sng family, whose patriarch Sng Teow Koon, a TCM seller, bought the 12,248-square-metre verdant expanse in 1956, the year Nicoll Highway and the Merdeka Bridge were officially opened, 40-odd kilometres away to the south. Although long-term evolution (LTE or 4G) cellular signals can be picked up here, the kampong has retained much of its idyllic air, including almost-clichéd, swaying coconut trees.
To be certain that viewers are not taken elsewhere other than the past that Max Tan looks at (or, as he says, “to tell people where I’m from as a designer”), the show is set to music that harks to the early ’60s (a decade before the 38-year-old was born): P Ramlee’s Getaran Jiwa (Soul Vibrations, aka Yearning Heart), made popular in English by the American singer Lobo in Whispers in the Wind. And Ye Feng’s (叶枫 aka Julie Yeh) 神秘女郎 (shenmi nulang or Mysterious Maiden), a song now often associated with compatriot Cai Qin (蔡琴 or Tsai Chin). Both oldies are sung mournfully by the husky-voiced stage actress Zelda Tatiana Ng. The choice of a Malay lagu and a Chinese ge is perhaps deliberate to better reflect the racial mix of this kampong. In Getaran Jiwa, written by Mr Ramlee, with lyrics by Syed Sudarmaji, we hear of the jiwa of possibly a place: “tak mungkin hilang/irama dan lagu/bagaikan kembang/setiasa bermadu (it will never fade/the melody and song/such as a flower/always in bloom)”. Could this koleksi be Mr Tan’s fashion blossoms, redolent of kampong spirit?
Mr Tan, the second-place awardee at the China Fashion Creation Contest in 2010, who ends the online show with a personal plug of his brand, “decided to rewrite this whole language of the wrap, which is really a humble piece of Southeast Asian garment, which is a sarong.” Rewriting seems to be Mr Tan’s present preoccupation. For his spring/summer 2021 collection (called wanita or woman in Malay), it was about “rustic moods re-written with an urban touch”, as well as “structured tailored qualities stripped back and rewritten (yes, sans hyphen) with a looser hand”, as described on his website. This time, the seemingly bold recast “revolves around drapes, around the body—simple folds and tucks,” Mr Tan tells us. Simplicity is, of course, relative. To his fans, his clothes appeal because they are not that simple. And simplicity doesn’t necessarily equate with minimalism, which is often doing away with the superfluous. Mr Tan does not eliminate the unnecessary. Dress over dress, flaps over shoulders, asymmetric drapes on top of more, sleeves too long, and cords that do not function as a fastener—all composited so that the end results appear to be simple. And so that, as Mr Tan declares with delight, “you’ll see a very, very much softer side to what I’ve usually been doing.” He has, of course, put aside easy-to-form fabrics such as neoprene, and has embraced rather enthusiastically more of the pliable, such as polyester jersey and kindred modals, hence the “softer side”, evident since his graduate collection in 2020.
The problem with simplicity is that in its very freedom from anything perceived to be complex, it may expose one’s weaknesses. A straight line, for example, may not be exactly horizontal or, in the case of Mr Tan’s rewriting of the wrap, a neat line. The sarong, in its most elemental form, is a rectangle, joined at the two ends to form a tubular garment. Mr Tan’s approach to design is based on a similarly planar construction. Almost everything comes from flatness—the fabrics hang down (movement allows the skirt to flare or open up, sometimes to drag on the floor), or stretched across the upper chest, straight. A horizontal neckline of a cream column-dress, for example, held up by spaghetti straps, puckers. The plackets of shirts and shirt-dresses, too, gape and won’t sit flat. If these issues are unmissable on video, it would be regrettable when one see them close-up. Designer fashion, if the term is still relevant or revered, deserves better.
“What I really wanted to show,” Mr Tan cajoles, “and to say with the collection from post-pandemic (sic) is to look back at where I’m from and be inspired by where I grew up from, my experiences as a childhood (sic), who I became—how I became a designer, and all these different elements that really made me who I am.” It is not clear how he is connected to the kampong (or if, indeed, he grew up in one since most kampongs in Singapura made way for urbanisation in the ’80s), but situating the adoption of the sarong in kampongs and in Southeast Asia alone negates the other forms, such as the lungi of the Indian subcontinent (also known as the longyi in Myanmar where it is worn by both men and women) and the izaar of the Arabian Peninsular, just to identify two. But what is rather puzzling is the need to drape some pieces from the collection on clothes lines, the way the kampong folks might, if they were drying the day’s laundry. Was this to augment the kampong theme? Or to exoticise what would otherwise just be a bunch of clothes in what’s, foremost, a residential area?
It would be surprising if the ketua kampong (village head) or “the landlord”, as the sole Ng still residing here is called, find this amusing. Not quite cantik, we imagine the respond to be. The models walk in and around the kampong listlessly (the chicken are in better spirit), as if they were paid just to do that; what they wear offer no latitude for understanding the connection between designs conceived in Mr Tan’s studio in McNair Road (quite the heart of our city) and the presentation in a conserved kampong. This is not a soul vibrating; this is without soul. As it is written in Getaran Jiwa, “andainya dipisah/irama dan lagu/lemah tiada berjiwa/hampa (if they should part/the song and the melody/they grow weak and dispirited/and empty)”. Perhaps the same can be said of design and craft, and, just as importantly, fashion and tradition.
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: ChinBohKay
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
Three out of five of Max Tan’s graduate collection. Screen grabs: nafa.edu.sg
Hidden among this year’s graduate cohorts of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ (NAFA) Fashion Studies is Max Tan, one of the few homegrown designers operating under his own name. The casual observer may not, however, know that he is one of the graduates of the school’s Bachelor of Arts (Hons) program, jointly conducted with the University of East London, as Mr Tan has chosen to be identified by his Chinese mingzi, Tan Shu Lin (or, as it is also indicated, Chen Shulin). There is, of course, a small photograph to identify him, and, in addition, his drapey designs are unmistakable, but by name alone, he could have escaped recognition.
It is not known why Mr Tan has chosen to be somewhat anonymous in furthering his studies, but it is ironic that he goes by his Chinese name to graduate, as he has publicly stated that in his younger days, he felt aversion to what he was called. “Growing up, I hated my Chinese name (书林),” he posted on Instagram just last month. “I found it too effeminate sounding and I often get ridiculed for a feminine boy with a girly name.” The teasing during his childhood is, without doubt, cruel and the impact—psychologically and emotionally—seems to be protracted. At the end of the IG post, he did admit to reconciling himself to the moniker his parent gave him: “ I’ve learnt to accept myself and my name.”
Dropping his professional name (it is not known if Max is a legal name; i.e. appears in his I/C) to pursue a degree is unnecessary as academic excellence is not tethered to the words by which a person is known. Interestingly, his course mate is Mediacorp’s “principal image stylist/designer” Annie Chua Yi Jun (蔡宜君, an undeniably masculine identifier). She graduated in the same degree program with her full name. Both Mr Tan and Ms Chua enjoy a media profile that can be considered to be high (Ms Chua is a multiple award winner solely under her employer Mediacorp. Conversely, Mr Tan has received regional awards), and the attendant public scrutiny, or curiosity, is regrettably unavoidable.
Advancing one’s knowledge and skills through study is, from time immemorial, a respectable enterprise, and, in the case of Max Tan, commensurate with the shu (书 or book) in his Chinese name, a word evocative of the Book of History (书经, shujing), one of the (Four Books and) Five Classics of Confucianism (四书五经), as well as Chinese calligraphy (书写, shuxie), and the exalted title, scholar (书生, shusheng). With such erudite associations, there is much Mr Tan can be proud of.
A display of Max Tan’s graduate collection at NAFA. Photo: Hao
What is more interesting is whether study—specifically the applying of one’s mind to the acquisition of knowledge—can result in better designs. Mr Tan launched his eponymous label in 2010, merely four years after graduating from NAFA with a diploma in fashion design, simultaneously winning the accolade Best Graduate. He later taught pattern-making at the school. For much of the decade as a full-fledged designer, he is considered to be an avant-gardist. To be sure, his designs can be broadly categorised as ‘experimental’, but we couldn’t be certain that avant-garde wasn’t euphemism for flawed. Graduating again a decade later, can he offer something improved from his formative years? Could refinement be stitched into his work? Can ‘designer’ be discerned?
After a close look, little seems to have changed. Mr Tan is no doubt an ideas-driven designer, but the execution and the finishing have always been wanting in finesse. It is possible that Mr Tan’s professional set-up lacks a garment technician to ensure consistency in the finish of the retail pieces, but for a collection that is less than half a dozen, created to be exemplars that benefitted from design school instruction, the refinement struggles to surface. It is not easy to make out if the BA capsule reflects learning and longing—to yearn for betterment, or just the completion of course requirement. Whatever was taught, and presumably grasped, does not transmute into extraordinarily fineness. Does his high concepts become, in the end result, a tad muddled?
As it turns out, Mr Tan’ graduate five-piece is titled Muddled Collection Season. According to his mood board, inspiration came from 99-year-old Singaporean artist Lim Tze Peng’s (林子平) self-conceived Muddled Writing (糊涂字 or hutuzi). Winner of the Cultural Medallion for Art in 2003, Mr Lim is noted for his work in ink—calligraphic typography that is stylistically so unlike the more graceful work of traditional calligraphers that he described them as “muddled”, which Mr Tan inexplicably (or mistakenly?) also called “Nanyang style”, an aesthetical uniqueness mostly associated with artistes linked to his alma mater NAFA. However long we looked at the clothes, it was impossible to connect the dots.
Parted to reveal a surprising waistband. Screen grab: nafa.edu.sg
Rather, the output bears an uncanny resemblance to the costume designs of Chen Minzheng (陈敏正) for Zhang Yimou’s (张艺谋) 2018 period piece Shadow (影子, a winner for Best Costume at the 55th Golden Horse Awards). There is the black brush strokes (more painterly than calligraphic), as well as the languid, vertically-linear shapes, rendered in ascetic monochrome. Characteristic of Mr Tan’s past output are the too-long proportions—and their raw edges—even when he has now supplanted humongous shapes with a silhouette that is softer and flows more naturally. Mr Tan, who still “experiments with quirk (sic) cuts”, seems, for now, to be fascinated with flat lengths of cloths, effecting an assemblage of oblongs.
Everything flows—or gapes—as they do until suddenly a pair of orange trousers appears, peeking from behind flowy door-curtain (门帘) panels that emerge from the bust. What caught the eye is the elasticised waist. Did the designer buy this at Uniqlo, where their Relaco line is extremely popular, especially now, when lounge wear is gaining traction? That really sticks out—an erroneous detail that derails our search for the thoughtful, the special, the refined. Max Tan may have graduated from tertiary education, but we still keenly wait for him to scale from rough-cut to exquisite.
With his past collections, Max Tan’s work sometimes seemed gormless. You sensed that, like so many of his generation, his design education and inspiration is, respectively, derived and drawn from either Pinterest or Tumblr. Mr Tan himself has admitted—in an undisguised, three-and-half-minute video plug for Microsoft’s Surface (a sponsor) that preceded his spring/summer 2017 show at this year’s Singapore Fashion Week—that he gleans heavily from the online world. “I spend a lot of time on the Internet,” he said earnestly. “It’s a wonderful never-ending source of images and inspiration.”
Although Mr Tan is producing clothes that few, if not none, are churning out, it cannot be said with gusto that his output is completely original. His designs are imaginative, sure, but it seems to be imagination fired by what beckons from the computer screen, or in his present case, the high pixels-per-inch LCD touch pad of the Surface Pro. Through the World Wide Web, Mr Tan could garner from both visibility and obscurity to bring together ideas that are familiar and unfamiliar. The thing about such an approach—using cyberspace as research centre—is that anyone from anywhere can be also similarly positioned, looking at the same thing/site/page/link or plenitude of pictures, to knock together a collection. Isn’t this what students these day, including Mr Tan’s own at NAFA, do as evidence of research?
Staged last night on the opening day of SGFW, Max Tan’s latest offering has that sense of assemblage born of haste. Picking familiar themes that he has previously explored, he rehashes his usual slouchy tops and bottoms, throwing the one-shoulder seen at so many brands during Paris fashion week not too long ago for good measure. What appeared to be refreshing—the swingy outfits in striped fabrics—in fact recall those that he presented, while still unshackled from national service, for Singapore Fashion Designers Contest during SFW 2007, a second-place collection with a school-age resonance called ‘Borrowing from my Boyfriend’s Wardrobe’.
Followers of Max Tan’s brief 6-year, do-the-nation-proud career will be able to nod knowingly and appreciatively at the asymmetry, the distended shapes, the dropped shoulders, the handkerchief hemlines, and those superfluous, sometimes unlovely details that flinch not from his avant-garde standing and are completely IG-friendly. The 28-piece collection is replete with those Max Tan touches, which, to us, are too early in the fellow’s vocation to be considered DNA. But, we’ll give him this: here is semblance of aesthetic consistency.
While there were no surprises, it was heartening to see that Mr Tan has moderately refined his cuts, bettered the fit (gasp, there were dresses flattering to the body!), and improved on the finishing of his garments, which until now, tended to glare on the catwalk in their own inferiority. Could this be the upside of participating in the Fashion Futures program, which allowed him to acquaint himself with the US market under the auspices of the Council of Fashion Designers of America?
What was surprising was the no-show of those too-big and ungainly coats he loved in the past two seasons. In fact, coats were conspicuously absent, and with them, those terribly-drafted, clownish lapels. But just as you thought all was fine and dandy , out came a belted jacket with boulders for shoulders. While it was not unexpected that Mr Tan would cross into Vetements territory (after all he has repeatedly—and still does—traipse Comme des Garçons domain), the heart sank with despair, and fast. Did we not hear him utter so persuasively just minutes ago on screen: “I really do not want to just throw out the first thing that comes to my mind because I’ll just be referencing the past, something I’ve seen before”?
After Mr Tan closed his Capitol Piazza store suddenly and surreptitiously post-Chinese New Year this year (a nocturnal clear out, it was said), speculation was rife that business had failed and that he may want to quit the trade. Then he appeared in April in the W.E. X Togetherly pop-up space at Isetan Orchard. His showing at SGFW last night may put to rest that his label is in dire straits. Max Tan is a designer that’s very much a product of his generation, a fashion enabler tapping the gruntled liberalism that the digital age has provided, delighting sponsors with marketing muscle such as Microsoft. Like apps, Max Tan is coded for update, not necessarily an upgrade.
As Singapore’s brightest light, he was strangely not allotted the best show spot in the sprawling National Gallery. The Max Tan show was sited at the Auditorium Foyer, a basement space as large as a boardroom that, the following day, is show grounds for graduation presentations. He can’t cough out the rates organiser Mercury is asking for, even with big-name sponsorship? So small it is this auditorium that models had barely a one-metre wide catwalk to perform and camera lenses were consistently blocked by wide-brimmed hats and iPhones perched on flailing arms. Despite the disappointingly crammed conditions, radio DJ Rosalyn Lee, seated in the front row, was visibly thrilled with quite a number of the pieces, pointing to them as the models walked pass with the same delight as a child eyeing her favourite doll in Toys ’R Us. In some of us, Max Tan may not have found an ardent fan, but in her, he’s recruited an exposure-for-sure admirer.
Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct
Fashion editors love Max Tan. And Max Tan loves them back. He does that by consistently delivering the kind of clothes that are deemed ideal for photographic editorials. These garments have an affinity for the camera; their striking shapes lend fashion narratives the kind of drama many magazines consider eye-catching. For the creative heads with a penchant for something out of this world, Mr Tan’s clothes provide a punch to the stylistic senses. But peel away the journalistic overkill and the misguided rah-rah, the superfluous just stares right back at you.
For his latest collection, the closing show of Digital Fashion Week 2015 (DFW) last Sunday, Max Tan once again wouldn’t let up on his “experiments with quirk (sic) cuts” and “results that are sometimes blown out of proportion” (mantras repeated for a second year in the DFW booklet, possibly, for emphasis). You can’t say the guy isn’t sticking to his guns. He’s offering longer lengths when women want shorter. He’s keeping to the distended when they want close-to-the-body. He is using more cloth when they want less—a lot less. He’s piling the layers when they want to expose their bra straps. Max Tan’s strength is his dogged consistency.
For a young eponymous label, consistency is good. It allows the designer to drive home a message, even if oblique. Fashion, however, often acts as an incisive commentator of the present, as well as the environment in which the fashion is created. What does Max Tan wish to say with these clothes? We can only hazard a guess. Is it possible that he’s saying that overzealous design can surpass underwhelming craft? Is it possible that he is proposing that one track can lead to many roads? Is it possible that he’s indicating that, contrary to the one challenge that confronts Singaporean designers, he’s able to get fabrics in limitless yardage? Is it possible that he’s suggesting that local women are easy to dupe? There are no easy answers just as there are no easy ways to grasp the meaning of the clothes.
His themes, too, avoid deviation. He’s been largely inspired by the Scriptures—from spring/summer 2014’s ‘Genesis’ to the following season’s ‘Revelation’—and the world’s best selling book has tossed up more ideas for him as he exhorts, in spring/summer 2016, ‘Thou Shalt Not’. It’s hard to make out the implication of that. What kind of limitation is he imposing on his potential customer? Or is it directed at himself? Could this be a reference to Deuteronomy 22:11 (King James Version): “Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together”? If so, how odd, as there are “garments of divers sorts” in the collection. Or, is this, perhaps, a statement to discourage criticism?
The thing is, Max Tan’s designs do elicit reactions. Take his first look: oddly, a wrap-reefer. Extra-large, and droopy, it moves like a duster, but hangs like a bath robe. Mr Tan adores coats, and big characterises them. But it is not only in terms of size. He likes them to sport huge lapels and huge sleeves, so that the garment simply looks too big. This is not oversized, this is outsized. In an age when even fast fashion can offer near-perfect fit, this is puzzling. In addition, the overall effect is outerwear that seems weighted down. The notched lapels on this particular coat, at their widest points, are the width of the shoulder. The visual ponderousness is exacerbated by the wide sash employed in place of buttons to hold the front opening of the jacket together—it is positioned and tied at the hip, and allowed to hang loose, like a fascia of an untidy cleric. Perhaps lightness of touch wasn’t considered in the design process. When even a tall model can’t pull it off convincingly, it’s hard to imagine this coat on any woman not wanting to look as if she mostly shops at the Salvation Army thrift store.
The problem with fit has plagued Mr Tan’s collections in the past, and it continued to trouble the latest. By the third look, a sort of pinafore dress with a bodice that refuses to sit nicely on the body and a bare back that exposes the gaping sides, it is possible that in the collection, fit is secondary to form. This muddles the understanding of what the brand is about as Mr Tan is known to draft his own patterns. Compounding the confusion is the oft-mentioned, but not quite evidenced “tailoring”. Of the 40 looks presented (including a single incoherent men’s), not one is, strictly speaking, a tailored garment. Ironic, since the shapes Mr Tan loves would be better served by a deft hand in the art of the tallieur. In the end, if looks supersede design, then, perhaps, it does not matter. Let it all hang loose.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Max Tan’s show was staged on Halloween night. When beauty sleeps, horror comes out to play. Paring a pounding soundtrack to clothes of immense monstrosity, Mr Tan’s opening show for this year’s Digital Fashion Week struck as a catwalk version of the Best of Singapore Ghost Stories. What was shown wasn’t so much scary as ghastly: heat-trapping neoprene jackets shaped to form hyper-exaggerated distensions that, when worn, would make the Michelin Man—voted by Time in 2011 as one of the “Top Ten Creepiest Product Mascot”—look like he has been on a detox diet.
“Maximizing on minimalistic ideas, this complex language results in details that are blown out of proportion”, went a description in Mr Tan’s profile for the DFW brochure. Seeing the clothes, we finally understood! Exaggeration is the vernacular here just as distortion is the design approach. “Creating unexpected silhouettes”, Mr Tan proved he could mutate the natural to the fantastical. Apparently they were “experiments with quirk cuts”. Is that the same as Victor Frankenstein dissecting corpses to create his celebrated monster?
The thing is, Mr Tan’ experiment with mass was audacious but unconvincing. His oversized outerwear was neither conceptually original nor technically muscular. Jumbo jackets with swollen sleeves were a dip into the playbooks of a certain American designer who’s known for sending out clothes that defy conventional proportions or a particular Japanese who is definitely distinguished by her refusal to let silhouette trace the contours of the body. Garments bloated Mr Tan’s way require an intimate understanding of the space between body and fabric, but that did not show. Instead, there was little or no thought for the dynamic between sculpture and volume. Size, in this case, was for effect rather than function. Armature—spongy as they were—to enhance the aggressive styling? If these were not encumbered clothes, what else could be?
Of course, exaggerated forms created to redefine the body’s natural silhouette are nothing new. From Helen Storey to Rei Kawakubo, designers have often transmogrified ordinary shapes into figures that will compel the viewer to rethink what is acceptable for wearing. History has shown that women have used all sorts of contraption to constrict or bloat various parts of the body: the corset and the pannier—just to name two—redrew the natural silhouette of the body, sometimes to quite incomprehensible extremes. Often enough, exaggeration and severity are partners-in-crime of fashion.
As neoprene or bonded fabric was used to achieve the whopping silhouette, it did not underscore Mr Tan’s technical ability. The inherent quality of neoprene—essentially a synthetic rubber—is its pliable form. The suppleness and natural bulk of this fabric allow easy manipulation as it holds its shape without resistance. Even when not using curved lines and darts, neoprene can be simply worked to give volume. The case would have been different if Mr Tan had employed a softer cloth such as wool gabardine—using this for voluminous effect will reveal a designer’s skill. Here, then, was the problem: there seemed to be a lack of understanding of the properties of the fabric used. It was puzzling, for instance, that a neoprene shirt should have a fly front. The covered placket fashioned with such a thick fabric didn’t allow the placket to sit flat: left ajar, the plastic buttons were in full view, which defeated the purpose of designing a shirt with a covered placket. In addition, there was the unnecessary and overuse of top stitch throughout so much of the neoprene pieces. Synthetic textile such as neoprene do not fray. With modern cutting tools such as the laser, smooth edges can be achieved without hemmed finish, but perhaps Mr Tan didn’t know that.
It was, however, not so slack that such a fabric was chosen. It is currently the synthetic textile of choice, brought to the fore by a certain American designer collaborating with a Swedish fast fashion retailer. And they’re everywhere in the fabric markets of China, merchandisers will tell you. In fact, neoprene is in such widespread use now that they were out as soon as they were in. The fabric choice—not to mention the silhouette—provoked a crucial question too: what season’s collection were we looking at? Surely, these weren’t for spring/summer since the sum effect was ponderous rather than light. For sure, it wasn’t indicated on the DFW program or communication material, but as this fashion week appears during what is mostly seen as a period to showcase for spring and summer, it would not be immoderate to suppose Mr Tan was following international schedule. If so, was he really proposing warm-weather dressing? It was not enthralling, if that’s the case, to see his star model, the 83 year-old Carmen Dell’Orefice, carry on her shoulders a coat so unwieldy that she was struggling to drag them across the catwalk.
It became apparent that Mr Tan’s collection was big (forgive the pun) on facade rather than utility, looks rather details. Once the volumes stop arousing your interest, your eyes start to trail those elements that make a garment polished, or the lack of them. This was, we were led to believe, a designer show. But rather then find smooth, flat seams or collars that fit the neck flawlessly, puckered joints and irregular necklines beckoned. Mr Tan teaches part time at his alma mater Nayang Academy of Fine Art’s Department of Fashion Studies. Were these his students’ handiwork?
When bulky was not the game, drapey was. Since his label’s debut in 2010 at Parco’s Next Next, the failed project at Millennia Walk, conceived to “help” young and inexperienced designers thrive (ironic then that the concept store did not succeed), Mr Tan has been partial to swathe the body with folds so as to shy away from a more tailored structure. One of his most popular pieces is a one-sleeve shirt-dress with half a collar. When worn, the dress pulls itself into shape based on the body of the wearer. As it undulates, it is very forgiving even to unflattering body types. This is Mr Tan bread-and-butter silhouette, and he continues to show them, now with both sleeves on and even more complicated draping, sometimes with fabrics worn selendang across the bodice.
The thing with liquid silhouettes, especially those not controlled is the inevitable relationship between the hang of the fabric and gravitational pull. The Japanese understand this and they have the mastery to draw together indeterminate forms to yield clothes that look like clothes. Mr Tan’s seeming randomness and the lack of graphic heft forged dresses and tops that look like pieces of fabrics dropped on the wearer. An editor with an e-mag blamed it on his manufacturer. “He can’t find good factories,” she claimed. “That’s why the clothes look terrible.”
As is often said, we all have our demons. Happy Halloween.
Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim