Ethereal Designs, Ephemeral Life

Obituary | Tan Yoong, one of Singapore’s most illustrious and creative designers passed away three weeks ago. It is irrefutably our nation’s loss. There will never be another like him

tan-yoong-pic-1A ten-year-old, multi-layered silk tulle dress from 2007 that was a further exploration of one of Tan Yoong’s favourites themes: the cattleya orchid. Just last year, he described this as his “all-time favourite design”. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Tan Yoong is known to be an extremely private person, sometimes solitary. Even in death: he died alone, away from Klieg and kin, in a manner not unlike the passing of John Keats. Comparing his demise to an English romantic poet’s is deliberate for Tan Yoong’s legacy is one of poetry with fabric. His designs bore the Keatsian hallmark: “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”.

If a thing of beauty is that rare combination of shape, form, and colour that pleases our aesthetic sensibilities, then Tan Yoong’s designs were irrefutably a composition of immeasurable beauty and more. SOTD rarely ascribe beauty to the work of Singaporean designers, but in the case of Tan Yoong, there is no description more apt, more telling, and more laudatory.

Since 1996 until the closing of his couture house in 2015, Mr Tan offered mainly beauty to brides. Yet, his ethereal sumptuousness was also appreciated by those not considered his target audience, both men and women. His designs for so many were “the stuff of dreams”, as one customer so ardently put it. Mr Tan once told a former journalist—when asked why he had chosen to concentrate on bridal wear— that “every woman wants to look beautiful, like a bride. So for me, a bride has to look even better than that.” He often said—whether out of humility or candor, it wasn’t certain—that he did “not cater to beauty and those with money. Women come to me because my gowns make women more confident and, therefore, more beautiful.”

tan-yoong-bridalDespite his obvious flair in fashion design, Tan Yoong was mostly known for his bridal couture and women swoon at the sight of his signature gossamer layers, swirls and twirls. Photo (originally for an ad), courtesy of Lightspade Studio and the House of Tan Yoong

Every woman can look beautiful if she thinks she is. How the mind can be seduced into this thought is often the result of what is worn. More than just an attractive outfit, a dress can also offer elements of fantasy, among them, the illusion of looking like a princess-bride. Fantasy is a powerful agent in the elevation of self-esteem. Mr Tan knew that, and he spun fantasy in spades. A fashion-designer-turn-educator said of Tan Yoong’s designs, “It’s the fantasy that I’ll remember him for.”

The fantasy is best exemplified in his drawings. A gifted illustrator, Mr Tan drew with a deft hand, expounding Western glamour with distinctive Eastern strokes—their sweeps and linearity akin to Chinese calligraphy. He drew from a young age and, prior to enrolling in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1967, made fashion drawings that were inspired by models such as Twiggy and the German sensation Veruschka. His girls were outfitted by clothes born of his imagination, which, by his own admission in later years, were attributed to the influence of Dior, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Mr Tan’s unique fashion illustration style was honed in the post-design competition years (the last was also his most remembered: the Her World Young Designers Contest in 1978), when his eponymous label was taking definite shape. Aware of the artistic value of his drawings, and their accurate representation of his uncommon style, he used them—framed like art—in his Lucky Plaza shop window, in place of mannequins. This predated even Stilla’s use of illustrations to sell a line.

So captivating were his illustrations that magazines such as Her World (the first to commission him as an illustrator in the ’70s) and Female, both usually proponents of fashion photography, would happily publish Tan Yoong’s illustrations of his own clothes whenever he preferred the use of drawings to photos. They were never met with resistance from any editor or art director.

bridal-dress-detailTan Yoong’s couture dresses were about handcrafted details such as this feathered bodice designed to look like a bouquet of flowers. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

One former editor recalls, “Back then, I was only familiar with the work of Rene Gruau and Antonio Lopez, but when I saw Tan Yoong’s drawings, I was completely bowled over. He depicted his women in groups just as Gianni Versace did through his photographs lensed by Richard Avedon. As a student, I would go to his Lucky Plaza shop just to see those framed drawings in the window, hoping that he had put out a new one. But he did not change them often enough. Still, those drawings were totally entrancing.” Indeed, for many a young person struggling to pursue what was then an uncommon career in the rag trade, Mr Tan’s illustrations were catharsis by fashion.

While the drawings of his formative years tended to be delineations of his favourite European models in the looks of the day, those that came later, during his heyday, were distinctive for their watercolour washes or coloured-pencil shadings over inked lines that gave form to sumptuous shapes. And there were those unmistakable eyes: multiple skinny strokes that seemed to suggest Cyclops’s visor, but it is doubtful Mr Tan intended for his women to be containing massive optic blast force. Rather, those eyes—obscured, thus mysterious—were complementary to the strikingly bald heads, sometimes punctuated with a clutch of flowers, that he favoured for a period.

It is thus not inaccurate to say that for Mr Tan, the foundation of his designs and attendant work was those drawings. Many of his signature styles first emerged from pen and paper. So sure was he of his drawings and so much faith had he in them that often times even photographic output was based on illustrations (interestingly, he never used a bald model). Most of his studio shoots were based on a prepared sketch or full-colour illustrations. Those who worked with him knew of his exacting demands. The creative director period of his life (specifically his time at Batey Ads in the mid-’70s), the story boards—they did not ever leave him.

tan-yoong-illustration-heartTan Yoong was as much admired as an illustrator as a designer. Illustration, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

tan-yoong-illustrations His illustrations captured the imaginations of scores of aspiring designers and students. Clockwise from top left: a sketch during his teenage years, Veruschka-inspired drawing from the late ’60s, poster illustration of the mid-’90s, the Her World Young Designers award winning collection, illustrations for the Cattleya collection,  and definitive Tan Yoong illustration of the late ’80s.  Illustrations, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Photographer Joyce Choo, a constant collaborator in the ’90s, vividly remembers the shoot for the Seashell collection. “This was way before Photoshop, and back then, we shot on film,” she says. “Each composition could comprise up to three layers. I had to shoot all of them individually and then assembled them as seen in the illustration that he first showed during the brief.”

It can be said that spontaneity was not Mr Tan’s modus operandi. His style was a studied glamour—precise, deliberate, and appreciated by women that were, according to him, “sophisticated and chic”. The ingénue seemed less interesting or inspiring to him, unlike, say, to Hubert de Givenchy. This is reflected in his choice of models. One of Tan Yoong’s favourites in the ’80s was Susan Ang, a petite individual with features that were unmistakably Oriental. Ms Ang was no lass in the cusp of womanhood. She looked grown, worldly, and clearly able to carry designed garments that were not your every-day threads.

From the start, Mr Tan considered what he did to be couture (even when he did not specifically referred to his work as ‘haute’), and it was couture in the French (or European) tradition, not the glue-gun-and-feathers variety. As he is not known to open up his atelier to anyone except his staff, no one had had the opportunity to see how he worked. Ex-staffers recount that the designer was very hands-on and that he positioned every bead, every slip of lace, every wisp of appliqué on the dress-in-progress himself. As with the photographs of his collections, surface embellishments on the garment much corresponded to the sketch made before the commencement of the drafting of the item of clothing. Although not trained at storied couture houses, his insistence on finishing much of his designs by hand stood shoulder to shoulder with the practices of the maisons of Paris.

tan-yoong-risis-orchid-seriesFor his collaboration with Risis Orchids in the mid-’90s, Tan Yoong conceived a series of photographs that looked very much like his illustrations. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

tan-yoong-seashells-collectionThe Seashell collection of the ’90s shot by Joyce Choo featured Photoshop-style layers before digital imaging was the norm in fashion photography. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Undoubtedly, his design aesthetic—at least in his formative years—was influenced by couture greats: Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent. Yet, his style was as disconnected to mode Française as he is to China, or wherever his Eastern flourishes could be traced to, outside his homeland. Although he did not see the need to maintain an “Eastern identity” in his designs, Mr Tan never negated his Eastern roots. His structured forms confined to a Western norm, but the details and the surface treatment of his designs bore an identifiable Oriental sensibility. And the reverse is true: on his famed cheongsams, the embellishments were conversely European.

Despite his own Western image and outlook, and the Western lands he visited so ardently in his retirement travels, Mr Tan was, at heart, an aesthete whose thinking was very Chinese. To those he knew well, the bilingual designer mostly spoke to them in what could have been his most comfortable language: Mandarin. He would also use dialects such as Cantonese to chat and joke with fellow designers.

Mr Tan’s primary school years were spent in an institution associated with Chinese schools (although they were no longer popular in the late ’50s and were phased out in the ’70s): Mi Tuo Primary, now Mee Toh School and a Government-Aided School since 1957. He continued his secondary schooling in the Catholic environment of Maris Stella High, and furthered his education at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, an education centre that was set up in 1938 in the tradition of Chinese art academies. Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (the abbreviation NAFA was not officially used when Mr Tan enrolled in 1967; the school was mostly known by its Chinese name 南洋艺术学院) was a part of the art movement, Nanyang Style. One of Singapore’s most celebrated artists associated with the movement and also linked to the school was the Chinese-fluent Liu Kang.

Tan Yoong revealed very little of his fine arts training, his time in school, his relationship with classmates and his lecturers. It isn’t known how he reconciled his love for Western fashion with the education in a school so synonymous with the Nanyang Style. But the exposure to did-Singapore-proud artists must have bolstered the believe in his own talent and the willingness to salute other local artists such as Eng Tow, whose fabric and paper art inspired a memorable collection Mr Tan created in 1990. The product of fine art can be a result of a long, labour-intensive process. Mr Tan did not see fashion differently. He approached it as a painter would his canvas: using mostly hands, regardless of the medium. But fashion, to the trained artist, is not art. To a designer, it can be just as revered; it can be couture.

tan-yoong-pic-3One of Tan Yoong’s favourite models in the ’80s, Susan Ang, in a top that typified his play with sheerness and opacity. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

If one were to read Mr Tan’s designs the way the Chinese du hua (读画 or read a painting), one can discern a lyrical serenity, particularly in his early years (less so in the bridal designs, but that could be just a bridal thing—commerce being all-important), or, to put it more in line with the perspective of Chinese paintings, quiet poetry. Many of Mr Tan’s peers looked at his Eastern leanings with admiration since the expressions in his designs were original. Yet, sometimes, with disregard, for some thought he overly romanticised Chinese motifs and symbolism. Was a Westernized Tan Yoong making Oriental references similar to the Shanghainese of the 1920s copying modern occidental society and was tagged with what was then a derogatory term: haipai ((海派 or ‘Shanghai Style’)?

That thinking may be reductive just as the considering of Tan Yoong only as a bridal designer is reductive. Mr Tan passionately loved fashion and he did not let his lack of formal training in fashion design diminish his ability to traipse familiar and uncharted territory. Yet, one senses he tried harder and was more expressive than anyone else because he did not attend classes for fashion or cut his teeth in a fashion house. Designer Thomas Wee remembered Tan Yoong pointing out to him during one of the ASEAN Designer Shows in the ’90s that, among the regional designers presenting that evening, the two of them did not go to fashion school. He considered that “sao kar” (羞家, a now uncommonly used Cantonese expression that’s roughly the equivalent of the Mandarin diulian or 丢脸, or to lose face).

This rare revelation of professional inadequacy hinted at an insecurity that few knew or sensed. But it does explain why no one (except his staff) had really seen Mr Tan at work. A former magazine and commercial stylist explained, “Tan Yoong was a perfectionist and he never considered what he did good enough. Therefore, he wouldn’t show you how he did what he did.” One surprising act seemed to concur with this line of thinking. About a year before he closed his business in 2015, Mr Tan instructed his staff to destroy all the clothes in his archive and whatever was not sold. According to one ex-staffer, they were instructed to “cut everything up”and discard. Tan Yoong did not want to leave any trace of perfection or imperfection.

tan-yoong-pic-6Another signature design from the early ’80s: appliqué of sheer longitudinal stripes to mimic leaves and petals. Tan Yoong was the first designer here to use baby-lock stitching in place of hem as part of the decorative effect. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Said the stylist, “I am not the least surprised that he had destroyed everything. Tan Yoong was very secretive about his techniques. Maybe he knew they were not standard techniques, and authenticity was very important to him.” Mr Tan’s evolution as a designer was never a journey to an end point; it was always a work in progress. Even the clothes he used to send for shoots were unfinished dreams. It was known among stylists and photographers that quite a few of those clothes were only completed in the front. Mr Tan often attended shoots with cloths and decorative fabrics such as his hand-cut cut-outs and laces that were used at a sudden moment to stitch onto the garment being shot. Every petal, every stripe, every curlicue was applied as if he was doing a collage on paper.

This going-by-gut-instinct approach to design is, in fact, rather couture in spirit, yet Tan Yoong was not necessary sure his was the right way. Thomas Wee recalled, “He used to come by my shop and would slowly push the front door open, peer in and sheepishly say to me, ‘来偷师’ (here to steal a master’s craft). He would examine my clothes very closely.” Mr Tan may not have started as the tailoring master that Mr Wee has always been, but he did progress to the point when his clothes exhibited a master’s hand with silhouettes. And his customers knew they could trust his cuts.

Yet, this was not quite enough to bolster his self-confidence. He kept his work day within his atelier and rarely talked about his design process, particularly to journalists, who he had an uneasy relationship with. He did not particularly trusted them to report accurately what he thought, led alone interpret his work, nor understand what he did. This is ironic considering that it was through press accolades and the ardent support of editors such as Her World’s Betty Khoo that Tan Yoong acquired much of his early successes.

tan-yoong-pic-7One of Tan Yoong’s last innovations (in 2014): multi-layer coloured silk tulle for what he called “water-colour effect”. He was adamant no one thought them to be “hand-painted”. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

One particular article turned him away from the media even more resolutely. In February of 2008, former journalist Michelle Tay of the The Straits Times (ST) opined in the Life column The Monday Interview, that Mr Tan “could in fact be mistaken for your friendly neighbourhood uncle.” A close friend of Mr Tan said that the designer had called to say he “was unhappy” with that description. “Why must she put it that way,” he had said. And he was not over-reacting. Would anyone have described Tan Swee Hian as an ‘uncle’, however avuncular he may look?

To Mr Tan, just as it was to Jane Austen when she wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously.” No one who knew him would consider Mr Tan someone interested in dressing like a designer (or trendily, or flashily) even when he was partial to turning out impeccably, mostly in variations of beige, and some form of head wear. Mr Tan took pride in everything he did, including how he appeared in public, even when pushing his mother in a wheelchair—before she passed away—when they went for walks in Orchard Road.

Following his death, the lack of curiosity about Tan Yoong’s craft continued to characterise media reports. More eager to give an account of the cause and time of death than to mourn the passing of an indisputably great talent, ST’s first article by Melissa Heng approached his demise with the same snooping flair as those reporting a suspicious fatality in an HDB heartland. Her follow-up a week later had “fashion insiders remember the couture pioneer for his visionary designs and skillful craftsmanship”, never mind that it is doubtful young-ish designers such as Priscilla Ong Shunmugam and Mae Pang could “remember” Tan Yoong at the height of his career. Ms Heng herself had nothing insightful to offer. She availed a set of photos to her interviewees and asked them to “comment”. While she labeled some of the dresses “couture” (in fact, they all are), she had asked if they “would have been difficult to make.”

tan-yoong-pic-8A cocktail dress of multi-layered coloured silk tulle at Tan Yoong’s last catwalk presentation in 2008. Photos, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

It is hardly surprising that in his last years, Mr Tan had chosen to lead a quiet, almost reclusive life, completely away from media glare, uninvolved in the ignorance that spawns insipidity in today’s old and new media (his one social-media indulgence was an Instagram account that he maintained, where images of past work and current travels were posted). From the start, his designs seemed to suggest retreat from a regular world, recoiling from its woes and its increasing banality. Hence, the prevalent “fantasy”.

Some observers think that Tan Yoong did not, in the twilight of his eponymous label, really caught up with the celebrity-led redefinition of elegance—his was too old-fashioned, they say. Under and above his many, many ways with silk tulle, Tan Yoong had at all times strictly adhered to the pursuit of the ultimate expression of the most beautiful and the most creative. For the likes of Ms Heng, Ms Shunmugam, and Ms Pang, this is possibly quite beyond their ken.

The United Nations put it aptly when it said in a statement in response to Tan Yoong being selected to represent Singapore in the inaugural World Fashion Awards in the World Fashion Week (now defunct) in Hollywood back in 2008, “He is an active force in the growth and beauty of his own country’s fashion industry.”

An Incomplete Picture

Fashion Most Wanted

On the weekend just before National Day, a book on Singapore fashion—past and present—quietly made its way to the shelves in Kinokuniya. Fashion Most Wanted, penned by three seasoned, one-time Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) journalists, John de Souza, Cat Ong, and Tom Rao, sat on an island display near the entrance in silence, like a plain T-shirt, in the company of more captivating titles such as A Chance of a Lifetime (Lee Kuan Yew and the Physical Transformation of Singapore), Neurotribes (a New York Times bestseller, as noted on the cover), When Breath Becomes Air, Ted Talks, The Euro, The Caliphate, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and Kampung Tempe (Voices from a Malay Village).

The much anticipated publication that took more than two years to complete was, however, exciting fashion insiders, with designer Francis Cheong posting on Facebook, a few days later: “Woke up and happy to see that a new book… had arrived in my house. Thank you for the 2 beautiful pages that was (sic) dedicated to me for fashion that took place in Singapore for the past 5 years.”

Five decades in the fashion capitals of the world is not a long time, but in Singapore it is, more so if you consider that we’ve only celebrated our 51st National Day (Paris, as a city of fashion, dates back to the 17th century), and that notable Singaporean style and the consumption of fashion (if defined as clothing conceived by designers) really began in the late ’70s and enjoyed a so-called “golden age” briefly in the ’80s. Chronicling a subject as complex and contentious as fashion—and sometimes considered frivolous, or worse, to some here, non-existent—is no doubt a complicated task, and one that may not yield an account that is all-encompassing.

Fashion Most Wanted pic 2.jpg

It is unsurprising, therefore, that Fashion Most Wanted does not reach the bowels of the industry or include as many colourful—and cantankerous—characters as there were and still are. To uncover the real nodus of fashion in Singapore would require far much more than just unpicking hems. Every seam would need to be unstitched to better examine how the many parts truly came together; even the fabric needs to be studied. Moreover, just because you’ve undress a woman doesn’t mean you know her. Fashion Most Wanted contains nuggets of information that are, even to the writers, “ah ha moments”. Yet, for many who have lived through a good part of the years described in the book, there are absent friends.

In the introduction, it is stated that “this is not a book of lists” nor “a Yellow Pages of fashion, or a who’s who of local designers, or a book for students conducting research”, but “a treasure trove of history and insider information”—described on the cover as “top insider secrets”. Fashion Most Wanted, for the most part, seems to be built on info provided (by selected interviewees) rather than what is gained from rigorous research. It is narrative minus the delicious drama and egregious egomania that characterise the industry. Is Singaporean fashion then like Singapore itself: clean and lacking in excitement, as is the common perception, even if mostly external?

Singaporeans—particularly in the creative field such as fashion design—are known not to brook criticisms. Which, perhaps, explains why the authors have taken the typical ST reportage route: sing and gloss over, and keep it simple and stay safe. However rough, ruthless, and rivalrous the whole scene was and has been, it was not given any eye-opener except with the unilluminating comment by Jacob KH Choong, the co-owner of the now-defunct Glamourette: that by the 1980s, fashion retailing was a “dog-eat-dog world”.

Fashion Most Wanted pic 3

For sure, it is not likely that readers are expecting Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall, a scintillating story of the rivalry between Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld that is set against the excesses of the ’70s. It is possible though that Fashion Most Wanted is conceived to stay clear from casting an unflattering light on a subject that will continue to bring its authors recognition. Would the fabric of fashion in Singapore be irreparably ripped if we are able to see the capriciousness, the petulance, and the temper that typify sententious people steering the creative business? What “insider secrets” have been spilled?

The discussion on Singaporean fashion can be daunting in its breadth, yet any such discourse should really include our national identity in relation to the fashionable clothing worn or the efforts in dress-as-identifier of national pride that our city-state had tried to forge. One conspicuous exclusion in the book is our attempt in finding and establishing the elusive “national dress”.

In February 1990, the Singapore Dress Fashion Extravaganza was staged at Westin Plaza, kicking off an annual affair that saw the orchid as fashionable emblem. At the start of the project, initiated a year earlier by the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) for the creation of attire patterned with orchids for the May Day Rally, chairperson Yu-Foo Yee Shoon told the media, that it “would take at least five to 10 years for a Singapore dress to materialise.” A decade later, the orchid of a Singapore dress withered.

Fashion Most Wanted pic 4

NTUC’s eventual ceasing of support for the realisation of garments Singaporeans would wear and identify as uniquely ours was not met with any curiosity or analysis of its end. This, hitherto, still arouses the inquisitive mind since much was put into the project. At the start, its unofficial patron Ong Teng Cheong, then second deputy PM and NTUC’s secretary-general, as well as president Wee Kim Wee were ardent supporters, to such a degree that the annual catwalk presentation of the Singapore Dress (also known as the Orchid Dress) became the President’s Charity Gala when Mr Ong took office as Singapore’s 5th president.

The Singapore/Orchid Dress must have enjoyed some success, it was presumed, since a fashion label Ms Joaquim was conceived in 1998 to give the project the visibility it needed. Cat Ong, one of the three behind Fashion Most Wanted, titled a Singapore Dress story for The Straits Times in 1999 “Vanda’s Not Joking”. By then, the Singapore Dress was a serious business run by Singapore Dress Co, part of NTUC. It no longer involved only local designers; it had regional designers on board, namely Indonesia’s Ghea Panggabean and Biyan, and India’s Gitanjali Kashyap. General manger of Singapore Dress Co. Staphnie Tang, previously the operations and marketing head of Glamourette, told the media that the Singapore Dress was no longer just for “national occasions”. To augment the concept’s more haute leaning, Ms Joaquim was retailed in its own stores: in Millennia Walk, Liat Towers, and CHJMES. In 2002, the label came to an end.

Curious too is the omission of one of the most important events of the 1980s for Singaporean designers: the Trade Development Board’s (TDB) fashion missions overseas. The first, in 1983, was in Paris for the trade fair Salon International du Prêt-a-Porter Feminin. Fifty Singaporean designers and manufacturers were selected to exhibit in a 250 square-metre spot of the International Hall, set up at the Porte de Versailles, an exhibition centre that, today, is still the venue for the Pret, as visitors call it.

Fashion Most Wanted pic 5

The following year, another group participated in the Japanese leg of Singapore Apparel, a TDB-initiated project in Tokyo (co-organised with Jetro, or Japan External Trade Organisation), where designers and manufacturers showed their designs in the Laforet Museum. It was deemed a daring foray, considering that, at the time, Tokyo was seeing its influential second wave of designers—the unapologetically avant-garde Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—take the world by storm. Would anyone pay attention to a group who wasn’t there to show how Singaporeans were changing the game?

Unsurprisingly, it was the Paris mission that was considered the more successful. In its first year, the participants secured an encouraging S$5.1 million worth of orders. Although the value of trade varied in the following years, TDB was unwavering in its support of Singaporean designers. Edith Cheong, TDB’s textile manager and mission chief told The Straits Times in 1984 with palpable fervour, “We’re going to Paris to show our all-round fashion capabilities, as well as tremendous amount of design talent we have.” How impressed the French were with our showing, it was not certain nor subsequently reported. After the fourth mission in 1985, talk about Singaporean designers and manufacturers wooing buyers at the Pret fizzled out.

The exposure in Paris brought recognition to Singaporean designers back on home turf. In the latter half of the 1980s many of the designers thought to be exportable became household names. In 1985, the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) put local designers on prime-time television for the first time in a popular Channel 8 variety show called Live from Studio One so that “viewers can learn something about how to dress”. Five were featured: Corrine Low of Cori Moreni, Allan Chai, Lam Wan Lai, and the two masters, Tan Yoong and Thomas Wee (who would a year later launch the immensely successful Mixables line in a free-standing store in Wisma Atria). Singaporean designers were finally hailed as talents we could be proud of and learn from.

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While the Paris trade missions of the ’80s and the Singapore Dress of the ’90s came to define the tenacious efforts to succeed in the respective eras, they did not last or morph into projects that elevated local fashion. There were many reasons why the projects came to naught. In the case of the Singapore Dress, its grassroots beginnings, for some, did not augur well for the idea. However, Alan Koh, president of Society for Designing Arts (SODA) was upbeat when he insisted that failure cannot be ascribed to the national dress: its success simply fell short of what Mr Ong envisioned.

As for the overseas trade missions, TDB’s priorities shifted when garment manufacturing in Singapore no longer became a significant industry. By the mid-90s, many garment factories have either shuttered or moved to China, where, since the 1980s, the manufacturing sector was burgeoning and employing more than 3 million workers in the sector alone, according to the International Labour Organisation. That was more than the population of Singapore! The effects of what had become known as globalisation were certainly felt on our shores. Without factories, we were positioned as a sourcing and marketing hub for fashion. The mission to court buyers abroad was shelved.

Singaporean designers that emerged during “the golden era of local fashion”, as described in Fashion Most Wanted, did not get the kind of spotlight in the book that many fans had hope to see. It is odd, for example, that one of Singapore’s most illustrious designers Tan Yoong received only a 5.1cm-wide column (of a three-column page) mention that is 8.6-cm high. That’s less than the height of a bar of chocolate or a carton of milk. It is speculated that Mr Tan did not grant the authors an interview, being increasingly reclusive since his retirement in 2015. Could it be because of his no-talk that the book can only manage “his gorgeous evening gowns and fabulous bridal frocks were the stuff of legends”?

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It is doubtful that the extremely private Tan Yoong would want to be associated with anything legendary, but in the annals of Singaporean fashion, he is a creative force as peerless as a phoenix. From his training as a graphic designer in the ’70s, Mr Tan approaches fashion in a two-dimensional way, layering to stunning effects his gossamer shapes as if applying Letraset transfers. In this respect, he is different from friendly rival Thomas Wee, whose precise cut and manipulation of form are deeply rooted in tailoring. If we were to compare the two in haute couture terms, Mr Tan is the master of the flou, while Mr Wee the tailleur.

Tan Yoong is more than just the extremely expensive eponymous label. Few know of the man’s efforts in making his designs accessible. In 1990, the same year that the Orchid/National Dress debuted, Mr Tan, whose company was once backed by B.P. de Silva, launched the stunning Cattleya Collection under the supremely refined label Tze. There was also the so-called diffusion line Zhen, with a polished, graphically-skewed Orientalism that had by then become the hallmark of Mr Tan’s romantic designs. In 2008, Tan Yoong represented Singapore in the World Fashion Week (WFW), organised by the United Nations. Although WFW was a short-lived program—aimed at supporting the UN’s causes, Mr Tan’s presence affirmed the belief then that Singaporean fashion designers were ready to grace the world stage.

Also receiving a near-cursory mention is Peter Kor, placed curiously under the heading “The Survivor”. While it is true that Mr Kor has gone through many career highs and lows (which designer has not?), it is rather narrow to underscore his business struggles as survival mode. (Interestingly, in the preceding pages, Yang Derong, ’80s darling of the young designer set and later studio director at Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, was described as “The Free Spirit” even when Mr Yang’s career was as shifting.) An effectively bilingual intellectual always in tune with his Shanghainese ancestry, Mr Kor is, as noted in a 1990 Female magazine article on Singapore Apparel’s Premier Designer Show of that year, “a modernist not separated from his roots.”

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Peter Kor, for many observers of the time when he shone, was among the top three designers that could truly carry the flag for Singaporean fashion. The other two were Tan Yoong and Thomas Wee. Mr Kor’s eponymous designs were less immediately identifiable than his contemporaries’ as he was mostly ‘ghosting’ for in-house labels, such as Metro’s best-selling Marisa (now no more). Ever the realist, his designs reflected the desire for practical clothes (such as the white shirt) that were, at the same time, different. With a controlled hand and a lightness of touch, he created separates that were Eastern and stripped-down—a minimalism that earned him the tag “monastic”, which he did not mind since he had always been the opposite of meretricious.

Some names are entirely not within the pages of Fashion Most Wanted. One of them is Projectshop, a label born in 1989 that, by 2006, grew into a 12-door business that was spread from Singapore to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. A collective fronted by designer Peter Teo, Projectshop was the first to rethink how tourist-centric products could be designed and marketed that would not look like anything sold in Lucky Plaza.

The result is a line of souvenir T-shirts (they started with just ten styles) with colourful illustrations and cheeky text that introduced foreign visitors to uniquely local comestibles and sights, such as the Singapore Sling and the by-then-infrequently-seen street wayang. Each tee was also attractively packaged, in brown paper frames that sported hand drawings. Unlike products in the same category, Projectshop’s were not sold in crammed and chaotic gift shops. Instead, they were available in Tangs, where growing sales allowed the brand to trampoline to higher reaches.

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By 1993, Projectshop’s success led to their first women’s wear line, also stocked at Tangs. A year later, the men’s collection Bloodbros was conceived and debuted at the newly opened Tangs Studio. The designs of Peter Teo (and co-creator Richard Chamberlain) were nothing like those of designers from the previous generation: supremely luxe and elegant. Theirs was a nod to street wear—which, for the mid-Nineties, was rightly body-conscious—as well as Southeast Asian elements such as sarong drapes and batik prints. Mr Teo, who had once worked for the London label Workers for Freedom after graduating from Kingston College, proved that a well conceived and produced mass-market label, with what he called “the right attitude”, was achievable and desirable.

In 1996, the two names came together as one. ProjectshopBloodbros was consolidated and the label now offered accessories, mainly bags, which soon became their biggest sellers. The bags included then-uncommon items such as totes, and were seen by many fans as Singapore’s answer to the Japanese label Porter. Its success truly predated local bag brands such as former Bodynit designer Gary Goh’s Trevor, and, in the post-Noughties, Colin Chen’s Fabrix, and Young Kong Shin’s Carryall James. In its final incarnation, ProjectshopBloodbros bags were re-branded as Property Of… at its last outlet in The Paragon before it was discontinued last year.

Equally odd was the no-mention of how the Japanese designers’ explosive entry into the Paris scene and, consequently, the world stage in the ’80s, affected or influenced Singaporeans. One of the popular hairstylists at that time, Gina Lau of The Hair Shop, was an early adopter, and was frequently seen head to toe in the “Hiroshima-chic” sacks of the era that had initially divided fashion folks. Although journalist-turn-retailer Judith Chung’s  Man and His Woman had, since the early ’70s, stocked Japanese labels such as Damon, Men’s Bigi, Jun, and Rope, it was the aesthetics of heavyweights Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto that captured the imagination of local fashionistas.

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These days, few remember that Japanese fashion was available in department stores and indie retailers too. Isetan, unlike now, was a proponent of its nation’s designers since the ’70s and had Comme des Garçons, Kanzai Yamamoto, and Studio V in its stable of Japanese labels. The store was so certain of the appeal of these names that it staged a fashion show in the ballroom of the Pavilion Inter-Continental Hotel (now the Regent) in 1985 to rousing reception. At a time when European designers, particularly Italian, held sway, it was a rare opportunity to see the diverse aesthetics of Japanese style: Comme’s intriguing shapes in colours other than black, Kanzai’s colourful clothes with outlandish illustrations and graphics, and Studio V’s loose, feminine and playful Kenzo-esque separates.

In 1982, one of the earliest to take on established boutiques such as Man and His Woman in stocking Japanese labels was Banzai at the Hilton Shopping Arcade (now called Gallery). Amid the European posh that was the Hilton Shopping Arcade, Banzai’s edginess was like a slice of naruto (white Japanese fish cake with pink-swirl centre) atop a bowl of brown miso ramen. Co-owner Serene Po was often in the boutique introducing enthusiastic customers to more affordable labels such as Mistsuhiro Matsuda’s Nicole and Monsieur Nicole, Takeo Kikuchi’s Half Moon and Men’s Bigi, and Yohji Yamamoto’s Y’s Workshop (now simply Y’s).

Not long after Banzai’s debut, Scandal opened in Lucky Plaza, offering lesser-known labels, but not less-alt styles that the Japanese have increasingly peddled. Scandal was co-owned by Leslie Goh, who had earlier retailed the Italian brand Fiorucci. Like Ms Po, she too was often on hand to introduce her uncommon threads to customers. Scandal’s success spawned the sister store Shoot. By the mid-Nineties, the Nippon craze faded. Singapore did not wake up to the influence of Japanese designers again until the introduction of Yohji Yamamoto’s-ex-assistant-gone-solo Atsuro Tayama in Isetan in 1998.

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Omissions are not only within the covers of the book. What’s missing, in the eyes of many fashion folks, is on the exterior: a hard cover and an attendant jacket. That Fashion Most Wanted should be a soft back sans dust jacket is, in fact, surprising for many who are looking forward to something more substantial—not unreasonable for a fashion title. Sure, no one is expecting Assouline refinement and heft, since the book is published by Straits Times Press, a publisher not in the same league. But a paperback with the appearance and feel of a text book is far from even the lowest expectations. Did the publisher think they were doing another edition of the Singapore Chronicles series?

It has been suggested that the retail price of S$37.45 does not warrant a hard back. That is hardly persuasive as another title, displayed side-by-side in Kinokuniya’s fashion section, has a hard cover and is sold at S$30.50: My School Uniform by Yixian Quek, published by Basheer Graphic Books and, like Fashion Most Wanted, supported by the National Heritage Board. At the cashier, you won’t miss the equally hard-backed The Strangely Singaporean Book (The Little Drom Store) by Stanley Tan and Antoninette Wong, to be had for S$31.99. Selling price is, perhaps, not the reason.

The word going round is that the book is largely self-financed. The use of Straits Time Press then has its advantages as the authors could tap into SPH’s photo archives at no charge. Regrettably, many of the photographs are not attractive or of decent resolution, and are not rendered more engaging (or “saved”, as one fashion stylist put it) by deft design. At some point, one wonders if the book was commissioned by Her World, co-author Tom Rao’s former employer. Every intro page to the different decades is illustrated by only photos of the past covers of the magazine, effectively placing SPH’s most profitable title and our country’s oldest woman’s magazine right in the middle of the altar of Singaporean fashion.

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And there’s the cover. The 21cm X 27.5cm paper back is surprisingly not free of design clichés, with a button literally taking centre spot to replace the letter ‘O’, and repeated as interpunct to separate the names of the authors, placed at the bottom. Seeing the four-hole button, a designer was quick to say, “At least it’s horn!” As if to leave no one in doubt of its subject matter, the book’s cover sports a full-bleed photo-print that suggests the fabric seersucker. Two girls, presumably from one of our design schools, were flipping through Fashion Most Wanted when one of them asked imperturbably, “Don’t you think our graduation book looks better?”

If the cover of the book does not appeal to the present generation of readers, it may be a disappointment to the young who hope to find a substantial narrative on the scene post-2000. Fashion Most Wanted’s most engaging chapters appear in the first part of the book, specifically between the ’70s and ’90s. It is not hard to see that these were the authors’ most active years, in which they are most connected. The recall is, therefore, imbued with palpable fondness. Some people think there’s nothing much to say about Singaporean fashion in the Noughties since we no longer see the kind of creativity and quality that distinguished the early years. Could the latter chapters’ smaller reports mean the authors concur?

Despite its shortcomings, Fashion Most Wanted is a book that needs to be written. Whatever we feel about fashion in Singapore, and whether we consume it here or not, there were—and are—individuals who strove to make our city a beautiful, if not fashionable, place. Fashion will always be contentious, just as it is infinitely mutable. We should not stop talking about it.

Fashion Most Wanted is available at stpressbooks.com.sg and in Kinokuniya. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Wide Angle, Narrow Vision

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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