The Startling Transformation Of Ying The Label

With help from a fashion design veteran, Phuay Li Ying turns Ying the Label into something even more women would want for National Day or Chinese New Year

Ying the Label before & afterFrom this to that, juvenile to sophisticated: Ying the Label finally adopts fashion, but is it authentic? Photos: Ying the Label/Instagram

People do grow up. Designs do mature. Fruits do ripen. National-Day favourite, Ying the Label, once indistinguishable from the surfeit of brands of comparable aesthetic, has, like buds, blossomed. Or, in tech speak, received an upgrade. Founder Phuay Li Ying has, this year, punched up the sophistication and re-imagined her four-year-old label as ‘designer’. This is possible because Ms Phuay recently “collaborated” with Thomas Wee on ‘Ink’, a capsule collection of indeterminate season. Launched last Saturday—during the month that precedes the Great Singapore Sale—at The Cocoon Space of Design Orchard, the clothes now come under a truncated, monosyllabic, four-letter Ying.

Shortened the brand name may be, but it isn’t immediately clear if it is a long shot of the creativity and finesse one usually sees in fashion described with a capital F. To be sure, every look from the new collection is not anything close to those Ms Phuay created, based—at first—primarily on her water-colour doodles, blotches, smudges, and whatnot. Ying the Label has always had a whiff of the juvenile—her approach, as we saw it, somewhat like playing masak-masak. From her first presentation during Digital Fashion Week in 2015 to her collaboration with another water-colourist Aaron Gan last year, her designs mostly veered into play-play—at most grad-show—territory. They were girlish in the way fashion for a certain demographic had been, and still is. Ms Phuay merely held up a mirror to what was going on in fashion, at a certain price point.

These new clothes—that made up a mere twenty or so looks—now communicate a womanly, even modest, vibe; their designs show a deft hand, their execution a confidence that belie the brand owner’s inadequate experience. To those who are familiar with the work of the co-creators, between them an age gap of some 40 years, it is not clear how collaborative the collection is. At the end of the show, when the five models emerged and stood in one row, something was discernible: the overt sensibility of a master and the obvious lack of active participation of the novice. The DNA is clearly not Ying’s.

Thomas Wee X Ying the Label May 2019Ying X Thomas Wee collaboration. Photo: Ying the Label/Instagram

Some of the attendees of the show had this on their lips: how did Phuay Li Ying come to collaborate with Thomas Wee? Mr Wee is known in the industry to help those designers who need pattern-making expertise, but he is not known to team up with a potential competitor to output a collection, even a really small capsule. According to what has been swirling earlier, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information & Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann—who is a customer of Mr Wee’s—has been the link. It was said that both the Sims and Phuays are family friends, and the senior minister had asked if the veteran designer could help the willing fledgling.

Although Ms Phuay had, by her own admission, taken “part-time courses in Melbourne and Lasalle”, her technical skill, if seen in her finished garments, is not quite on par with those who can churn out a full collection sans a drafting team. This has been the point of contention between her unquestioning supporters and those who think she isn’t quite the sterner stuff that serious fashion design demands. Which comes first: art or the dress?

But in 2017, just two years after Ying the Label was launched, Ms Phuay had become a different designer. She found herself professionally elevated when, encouraged by Sim Ann and her friends, she put out red-and-white dresses, separates, and scarves sporting orchid motifs that can be proudly won on National Day. Ministers and MPs’ wives enthusiastically lent support and wore her label for the NDP.

It was like she had won the Oscar.

Phuay Li Ying's InkThe “Ink” drawing of cherry blossoms that formed the basis of the new Ying capsule. Photo: Ying the Label/ Instagram

While her brand received a huge boost during the National Day celebrations of 2017 with a “Singapore Identity-inspired project to showcase iconic elements of Singapore with sophistication and painterly styles… adorned by our women politicians”, the trajectory of Ying the Label was not exactly flaming like a comet’s.

To be fair, Ms Phuay seemed genuinely interested in dressing Singapore. But how to, as one observer pointed shortly after her National Day designs became somewhat divisive, “with those clothes?” Avoiding the use of the word ‘fashion’ is telling. A few splotches is no start to garment-making and beginning with so-called “art” isn’t the best approach, a former design lecturer told SOTD. We concur: Not many can be Mary Katrantzou. Perhaps the senior minister, became aware of Ms Phuay’s shortcomings and thought that mentoring-as-collaboration might shine a new light on her young charge’s work, if not on her clothes, at least on her water-colour art destined for fabrics.

Thomas Wee's illustration for Ying the Label
Despite her keen interest and her “ immense passion for painting”, it doesn’t appear there is consensus to state that Ms Phuay’s art is compelling. To us, she has not produced anything that one can admire for its complexity, for its distinctive voice, despite the four-year journey. Although her own description of her paintings is often an emotive use of words, the brush strokes are not an emotive use of form. When shown her “ink” work of cherry blossoms, which is the basis for the print in the capsule produced with Mr Wee, a fashion illustrator thought it lacks “tonal value.” And if “you contextualise it, then it might not work for fashion.”

For certain, we are not expecting dramatic washes akin to the work of, say, the Ming painter Xu Wei. Ms Phuay’s painting can be considered oriental, if not specifically Chinese. It is pretty, as one show attendee said, yet we are not sure if its art or illustration. Painting in ink has been very much a part of the Chinese literati, and is often discussed in terms of resonance and vitality, but on the Ying clothes, her drawing is evocative of those on Chinese New Year cards or packaging for moon cakes on the 8th lunar month.

Curiously, despite Ms Phuay’s professed love of drawing, the illustrations (above) for the collaboration are clearly in Mr Wee’s distinctive hand (so is, may we add, styling of the photographic images). It is not known if Mr Wee had a say in the painting that was used, but it was said that he did suggest to Ms Phuay to explore cherry blossoms. Based on our own unscientific observation, the cascade of the flowers and placement of the branches are typical of Mr Wee’s floral-and-leaf compositions if he were to take up a brush to paint directly on fabric.

Ying the Label @ the National LibraryPhuay Li Ying’s designs and illustrations displayed at the National Library last year. Photos: Cecilia Kong

But what is obvious to us is the Thomas Wee silhouette, so distinctive that we can trace it as far back as the spring/summer 2015 season, shown during Digital Fashion Week 2014, a collection steeped in Orientalism and so poetical in its visual lyricism and gorgeous in shapes (still evident up till last year, as seen in the reprisal of sorts for Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week) that it gave many in the audience goosebumps. Back then, nobody would have guessed that a designer of such refined, modern elegance would some day collaborate with another whose style is, at best, daintily enthusiastic.

In all likelihood, Mr Wee does not know how to design with Ms Phuay’s sweet-and-light-as-cotton-candy prints. Nor is he keen on her it’d-be-just-as-cute-as-a-version-for-the-wearer’s-daughter transmutability. It is possible that Ms Phuay provided the ink drawing (with input from Mr Wee) and the rest has been up to the senior designer. Mr Wee took shapes fundamental to Ying and gave them a polish previously not achievable in the hands of Ms Phuay, who has said that she usually keeps “the silhouette simple” as “ultimately” she wants “people to focus on the art (and) the print I create using water colours because I hand-paint them and there is a story behind it.” We can understand why she would want to focus on the art: Ms Phuay is not, foremost, a fashion designer. She may make clothes, but, ultimately, she does not create fashion.

Don’t get us wrong—there is nothing unsound about approaching the rag trade in this manner. There is a market for such clothes, and there are shoppers who see the value in prints first drawn by hands and later digitally rendered on fabric, as well as those who place a premium on prints over design. But it is not clear how Ms Phuay’s “artistic expression via fashion and designing” can elevate her to be placed alongside vocationally strong and artistically gifted designers such as Jessica Lee of Nuboaix or Elizabeth Soon of Ametsubi without the hand-holding of experienced technical masters such as Thomas Wee.

Thomas Wee & Phuay Li YingFront left and right: Thomas Wee and Phuay Li Ying. Photo: source

According to the notes on the show’s invitation, Ink is “a capsule collection representing the permanency of beauty.” It is hard to equate “permanency” with cherry blossoms since the flowers are admired for their fleeting allure. Is this then perpetuation of the clothes themselves? This would be an odd proposition since the designs were probably executed to reflect the present rather than eternity. But based on their ‘classic’ styling and a vague Chinese-ness, it is possible Ms Phuay is hoping to sell the clothes for a very long time to come, especially during times when hint of ethnicity is considered—rightly or not—indicator of nationality.

This must not be construed as sneering. Ms Phuay’s heart is in the right place; her talent, we are, however, not so sure. Although Ying the Label has not climbed to a glorious apogee and we don’t see that happening soon, the brand—now simply Ying—is making gentle waves with the help of a wave maker. To be blunt, the clothes don’t break new ground except, perhaps, help the brand improve sales. It is possible that the shift in design direction is to coincide with a milestone of sort for Ms Phuay: she turned turned 30 this past March (also the month DBS unveiled their new uniforms designed by Ms Phuay). Taste, however, don’t change overnight just as flair doesn’t suddenly appear at sunrise.

It isn’t known if this is a one-off collaboration or ongoing counseling. Nor, whether new tricks can eventually be imparted and, more importantly, learned. Can the difference between Ying and a brand such as Weekend Sundries be merely the former’s “instinctive and arty” prints? Perhaps, these do not matter. Phuay Li Ying had her moment that afternoon. Or, as she posted, “experienced passion, determination, love, patience and so much more in this journey of creation.” If only she knew fashion involves so much more.