Stepping Up

Design Orchard, in the month of its second anniversary, is finally stocking ‘designer’ clothes. But is it enough?

Thomas Wee gets a street-facing window and dedicated space for his first collection at Design Orchard. Photo: 路人甲

After close two years in business, Design Orchard is upraising its positioning. At a media event yesterday evening, when operator Textile and Fashion Federation (TAFF) announced their “exciting plans in-store for 2021” and to “unveil” their Chinese New Year windows, one sensed that the operative word ‘design’ is finally taking tentative root in a store conceived to showcase what Charles Eames called “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose”. It is still not yet clear what purpose Design Orchard has set out for themselves other than to foster the spirit of “Shop Local, Grow Global”, but the current mix of names could portent well for a store that has not quite found its footing.

After protracted grumblings that there were no true designer styles in their merchandise mix, they have managed to invite some recognisable names to their fold, even successfully coaxing veteran designer Thomas Wee out of his serial retirement to present his first collection for Design Orchard. To be sure, at the 2019 opening of TAFF’s Cocoon Space, also in the building that houses Design Orchard, formerly operated by Naiise, Mr Wee had shown a selection of past fashion-show clothes. But as we understood at the time, that was a static display to fill the empty nooks of Cocoon Space, not a prelude to the availability, at Design Orchard, of our city’s premier designer line. Now that Thomas Wee is finally in the store and an “anchor label”, as one fashion buyer called it, would this be the charm to draw other revered names and to elevate Design Orchard’s standing among the design and retail community?

As the grand elder of Singaporean fashion, Thomas Wee gets his own private corner. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

The sizeable Thomas Wee collection takes up a space in an extreme corner of the store, on the opposite end of the main door, at what was another entrance (or rear exit) until the COVID-19 social-distancing mandate required stores to have a single point of entry and exit, to better control and monitor shopper movement. What Mr Wee is assigned is rather unusual in that, based on our earlier understanding, brands are not usually allotted their own designated spot. Within the roughly 50-square-metre corner, with a street-facing window, Mr Wee has set up shop in a layout that feels familiar: simple racks, headless mannequins (five of them—more than the other labels), the largely monochromatic scheme, a bench, which appears to welcome resting—a sum that hints at the elegant simplicity of his clothes. If not for the distracting UOB logo on a lightbox from next door, this would be a corner that could easily induce the appreciable description, cosy.

The familiarity extends to the clothes too. On the five mannequins that line the window, we could discern the discernible silhouette: relaxed, slightly voluminous, with drop shoulders, and a flare towards the hems (for both tops and skirts); the sum of which would not be out of place in today’s preference for a more relaxed approach to dress. Upon closer inspection, many pieces—some are tweaked or updated—have had their place in past collections. This could be, yet again, The Best of Thomas Wee fashion mixtape—a boon to those who are fans and for those who collect his designs or wish to replenish well-worn favourites. It is to the designer’s advantage that his clothes are situated away from the other labels. Mr Wee designs for a specific customer, a woman of a certain age, who is unconcerned with what’s trending, who has every reason to be dressed, attractively. But would the typical Design Orchard customer, weaned in the last two years on the store’s ho-hum offerings, be enticed? One attendee at last night’s event told us, “Only Thomas Wee’s things look and feel nice. They are really classy. Wear his designs and you will straightaway look ex.”

As the darling of the local designer pack, Max Tan gets the best spot to showcase his dramatic lines. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Mr Wee is not the only designer invited to showcase and sell here. Close to Mr Wee’s space is that of Max Tan, the Boy Wonder of Singaporean fashion. Mr Tan has not been this visible—and strikingly so—since closing his first free-standing boutique and exiting Capitol Piazza in 2016. He continued to sell in various pop-ups and to export. In the mean time, he earned his BA (Hons) at NAFA through a joint programme with the University of East London. Max Tan the label is in its 21st year, and there are some hints of maturity of thought and sophistication of execution, although his insistence, till today, on what he continues to call “quirk cuts” has somewhat hit the breaks on his progress. His collection at Design Orchard is appealing at first sight until, as is often the case with Mr Tan’s work, you come up close and touch. Refinement is still elusive. One round neckline stands out: it is gathered with a rather wide tape and, given the fabric’s inherent weight, forms a rather thick ring round the neck, as if with the intent to choke, if not to wring it.

Another name that’s new to Design Orchard, but not an unexpected one, given the approach of Chinese New Year, is Lai Chan by Goh Lai Chan. Although Mr Goh is a popular designer of occasion wear and a name bandied about among some society women, he is still the go-to name for his unchanging retro-modern cheongsams. A profitable sub-line, the cheongsams are reportedly in demand among women who favour this dress style, as well as among stockists that bank only on products that move, especially with the lead-up to CNY. The close-to-forty-years veteran provides Design Orchard with his usual, neatly sewn, not-too-constricted cheongsams, distinguished by the row of coloured spherical stones of indeterminate gemological value on the right, in place of Chinese frog buttons—an aesthetical sum Mr Goh seems to have churned out forever. These will likely sell well for the store, although if you already own one—or two—of this particular style, they may have less subsequent pull, however floridly vintage-looking some of the fabrics are. Nostalgia has its limits too. Change might inspire a more bloom-ful present than a mirrored past could.

Rows of Lai Chan’s signature cheongsams. Photo: 路人甲

Two unexpected names appear. The first, national-song-meister and occasional designer Dick Lee, with a new shirt line, put together in collaboration with custom tailor Pimabs, the brainchild of Leslie Chia, previously of Haberdasher (and, later, Haber) and the oddly named The Clothes Publisher. The “limited-edition” Dick Lee X Pimabs is really more the former than the latter. Mr Lee’s weakness for florid prints, which he often recounts (in his concerts too), harking back to the days when he went shopping with his mother at the first Metro department store in High Street, is again in full display, recalling his last menswear collab with the short-lived The Modern Outfitter in Tiong Bahru in 2014. Back then, shirts with micro-floral prints dominated. Presently, they still do. Only now, as Mr Lee boasted on Facebook, they’re “in mixed-up Liberty prints”. A la the Mad Chinaman. Although a trained designer, he seems to have overlooked the overall aesthetics of the line.

The shirts—especially those with open collars (some with an odd crease above the notch)—could be kin to the auntie blouse. The “mix-up” means a clash of prints (at least two different florals in one shirt), but it is hard to find in them print pairing that hints at something more contemporary. Loud is all that matters. In addition, we find it odd that with the use of silk and ultra-fine poplin in shirts that are mostly casual, there is a need to have fused, rather than unfused stand collars, with the interlining unnecessarily stiff. We expect more from the input of a experienced tailor that Mr Chia is. Is this Mr Lee’s contributive follow-up after criticising Design Orchard in a remark published by The Straits Times last June: “I went into Design Orchard and it’s shocking, the standard of clothing stocked there. Things are so basic and there’s no nice fabrication or nice finishing”? Is he showing us what “nice” is?

The other name new to Design Orchard that will surprise is Yang Derong. On hindsight that shouldn’t, in particular when Dick Lee is in the picture. Both of them are the best of friends, and Mr Lee’s song Follow your Heart (from the 1991 compilation album When I Play and, later in the OST of the 2017 autobiographical film Wonder Boy) was said to be written for Mr Yang. It is, therefore, not immoderate to assume that, this time, Mr Yang was roped in by Mr Lee. A designer who hails from the late ’80s, and who is reportedly retired from fashion, Mr Yang has, in recent years, made a name for himself as the creator and sole model of the quirky and unapologetically outrageous Instagram page FaceOfTheDaySG, which was followed with a 2019 exhibition at the National Museum, and also as the makeover stylist on Channel News Asia’s Style Switch. But rather than design clothing that many still remember him fondly for, he created a “lifestyle” line to appeal to not-yet-returning tourists. The refinement-lite collection of T-shirts, bags, face masks, cushion covers, and greeting cards are based on the Chinese zodiac. Labelled Sayang Sayang, the manja-ish name and the kitsch-driven products have Mad Chinaman written all over them.

A new collaboration between Dick Lee and custom tailor Pimabs. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Yang Derong’s Sayang Sayang collection. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

It is heartening to see familiar names with a storied past in the history of Singaporean fashion appear in Design Orchard, but are these individuals still able to pull in shoppers and, perhaps more pertinently, are they still relevant? Since its opening, Design Orchard has mostly availed easily accessible designs, such as those by Weekend Sundries and Little Match Girl, to their not-necessarily-in-the-know customers. Weaned on these not-artful labels (even when actual painting is involved), shoppers are not likely able to put themselves up to the level the new (old?) names are hoping to effect. That these names may give the store the directional heft it lacks is a plus. Young brand owners may feel a sense of pride to share the same platform as the established brands, but some may use the opportunity to be seen in the company of those they do not belong. Just a look at the window displays that TAFF has so proudly unveiled: the evidence is clear.

Despite all the efforts on the part of TAFF, mistakes (or oversight?) appear to dog Design Orchard, even in the digital-sphere. Yesterday afternoon, before the Cocoon Space event, we clicked on the store’s flat website to confirm the new names already talked about among those interested in such matters. To our astonishment, two captions incorrectly paired to two photos stared at us*. A picture with a model languishing in a recognisable cheongsam was attributed to Max Tan, while another woman looking haughty in a military-style trench coat to Lai Chan! As we write this post, no corrections are made or erratum published. One editor told us that the mis-match is “likely an honest mistake”. We are certain it is, but errors as easy to spot as these should not have their share of exposure online (or even off) when Design Orchard is positioned as the premier destination—the “hub”—for Singaporean labels. Or, perhaps, no one knew any better. One designer said to us, “Do you think they can tell what is Goh Lai Chan’s signature look or that Max Tan probably never made a qipao in his entire career?” We’re not referring to being intellectually fervid about the power of image and text coming together. Captioning is a marketing necessity, as well as an informational opportunity. If some of the Design Orchard brands are to be “featured”, such erroneous descriptions is palpable disservice.

The opening page of the Design Orchard website, with the incorrectly captioned photographs (blurred text inherent). Screen grab: designorchard.sg

This should not be mistaken as casting the proverbial wet blanket on Design Orchard. In the bleakness of the present, not-yet-post-pandemic time, what TAFF continues to strive for is laudable. But sometimes, we wonder if they truly have their heart in this and if the right people are recruited to see Design Orchard rise to greater heights. Design Orchard, unlike during Naiise’s watch, is now supposed to benefit from TAFF’s experience and industry leadership. If TAFF, with the resources (perhaps, not, as we’re repeatedly told, financial), does not discern, filter, or guide, who would take on the role? Who will be able to distill the essence of the work of those who are truly creative and encourage more from whence it came? Who will spur the vitality so necessary in growing a design community? How different is Design Orchard from, say, The Editor’s Market if they do not distinguish themselves with turbo-ed enthusiasm and intellectual might? Or are they just content with giving whoever’s interested in setting up a fashion (or lifestyle) label a hotchpotch confine to do their thing, and fizzle out within?

Even if we do not play on an international stage, we can aspire to play to an international audience. Design Orchard needs to go beyond its Singapore tag. Singapore Tourism Board’s “Made with Passion”, which Design Orchard yokes itself to, is good, but is geographical limitation encouraging designers to look beyond our front or back yards to scale higher? The view, as any climber or apartment hunter will attest, is always more impressive and inspiring when we’re aloft. But the trend seems to be for many to stay grounded: look back and dwell in the past, the more conspicuous and kitschier the better. Do we, therefore, invite committed and skilled designers to participate in the conversation of what fashion is now and will be in the future, or do we request the participation of those on/off practitioners who can’t give up living in their teenage years? The answer really lies with TAFF, and Design Orchard.

*Update (16 Jan 2021, 11.15pm): The content on the Design Orchard website has been amended to show the correct captions

Design Orchard: One Year After

Eighteen months after opening, Design Orchard does not appear to have budged beyond the lacklustre of its early months

 

Design Orchard June 2020

In an article in The Straits Times last month about the future of Singapore fashion in the wake of the pandemic, multi-hyphenate Dick Lee was quoted saying, “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.” That remark was subsequently much discussed on social media. The words of Mr Lee—a trained designer, once with his own labels, and was an impresario of young fashion designers, and still an ardent supporter of Home talents—must mean something. That the founder of our island’s first multi-label store for homegrown labels, Hemispheres, could be shocked by what he saw must have been discouraging to the project’s owners, the triumvirate of Enterprise Singapore, Singapore Tourism Board, and Jurong Town Corporation.

Design Orchard opened at the end of January in 2019 in a building purpose-built to be home to Singaporean design talents—not necessarily just fashion. If you could whip up a nice curry paste, you could sell it there too. But clothing does take up a substantial real estate in the store. They comprise labels that, unless you are an ardent follower of local fashion, would draw a blank among even the most regular fashion shopper. It is not known how well the brands are doing or whether Design Orchard is indeed a showcase for designers to reach a larger audience, but according to another ST report at the end of January, “more than 40 of the 60 labels stocked at Design Orchard have chosen to sign new contracts and stay on for another year.” With such encouraging contract-renewal figures of 67 percent, could Mr Lee be mistaken?

It was all quiet during our visit on the second weekend of Phase 2 of the Circuit Breaker. Not a single shopper was in sight. The clothes, as in our previous encounters, did not speak to us. They looked ignored, unappreciated, and in need of a home or a body of a willing wearer. We were not deterred from physical contact with them. In the present climate, when even touching our own faces is understandably discouraged, the tactile connect was strangely assuring, even if we only gave a few of the pieces a light tap (we were conscious to act responsibly). And it was through touch that we could feel, not just see, for ourselves what Mr Lee meant by “no nice fabrics”.

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The lack of good fabrication is just one part of Design Orchard’s feeble merchandising, regrettably evident from the first day of its operations. As a store purported to highlight “design”, it is design that have not been in stock. It, therefore, has not become a pull for those who want to uncover design, to support the creators and cheer them on. Design Orchard seems to lure mostly clothes that would not be out of place in an equatorial beach resort. It reminds us of the doomed Aseana, the Malaysian multi-label store conceived by Singapore-born, Kuala Lumpur-based Dato’ Farah Khan (aka Chan Keng Lin), that opened in Millenia Walk in 2002 and closed two years later. It is also evocative of—for those who can still remember—the 1997 Fashion Connection theme, Asiatropics. Despite a confident start, the concept never took off. One fashion marketer we spoke to conceded that Design Orchard “still needs to iron the creases”.

To some observers, Design Orchard’s prospects were hampered by Naiise, the retailer picked to run the operations of the store and, as we understood last year, the merchandising of the products too. This was a surprising choice, as many had thought, since Naiise—even with multiple stores of their own opened at that time—was not exactly operating a paragon of retail and merchandising panache. During the media walk-through, it was mentioned among the attendees that Naiise had even employed a buyer from Robinsons to oversee the merchandise mix. If that was the case, could it be possible that, as one designer said to us, “Naiise made a bad hire?”

When news broke even before Design Orchard opened that Naiise was appointed as the store’s operator, chatter was rife that the company had been tardy in their payments to brand owners. Founder Dennis Tay admitted to “some gaps in the company and internal issues”. He also said that “we’re looking at the foundation of the company. And what we’re trying to do is ask ourselves how we can be better with each passing day.” In January, when COVID-19 was a mere outbreak, The Business Times reported that “years of repeated late payments have led to several brands removing some or all of their products from… Naiise’s shelves.” Are the gaps still gaping and is the company still looking at its foundation?

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It was also reported in ST that those “more than 40 of the 60 labels” that renewed their contract with Design Orchard gave the store “thumbs up despite management Naiise’s troubles”. Apparently, “they have not encountered payment delays”. The promptness of payment could be due to the fact that government agencies are behind Design Orchard’s existence. Brands supplying to the Naiise stores do not have that advantage. It is also suggested that the individual brand’s sales in Design Orchard are not significant enough to result in payment being held up.

Naiise is not known to release sales figures or the ranking of brands. Designers supplying to Design Orchard tend to be reticent when it comes to talking about sales performance (“okay” can’t be considered revealing). It is possible that attractive consignment deals have been struck between the retailer and brand owners to retain the latter. It isn’t clear how Naiise picks the brands for Design Orchard. It As reported in the press, STB conducted a round of selection last year. Naiise has not elucidated the tourism board’s involvement, but this may explain why some shoppers thought that Design Orchard looks like a tourist gift shop. We do not know what the selection criteria is, but it would push us to lying if we say we found what STB’s Director of Retail and Dining, Ranita Sundra, considered at the time of Design Orchard’s impending opening to be “the best of Singapore talent under one roof”. Or, according to their website “Singapore’s most beloved brands, lauded designers and talented newcomers”.

At Design Orchard last Christmas season, one tourist was heard asking her companion, believed to be local, “are these famous brands?” A curt “don’t know” was the reply. The obscurity of many of the brands might have been inconsequential if the designs indeed reflected talent, hitherto still elusive. But whether Naiise was able to suss out talent is also unknown. It is generally believed that anyone interested can have their products displayed for sale. We are sure some vetting would have been in place, but how stringent it is, can’t be said. The result is a jumble of names with assorted, yet same-same looks that ultimately appear to cater to those who really don’t care if they wear the output of talents.

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Talent, like creativity, is used rather loosely these days. A person who dabbles in water colour and likes clothes and, subsequently makes them is considered talented. We concede that talent in the digital era cannot resist redefinition. A talented designer in the 1920s needed to be able to draft and cut, a talented designer in 2020 needs no such skills. Regardless, talent in designing is as much required as talent in handling fabrics and in finishing garments to yield a certain polish. One common regret for the past 40 years is that we do not have the manufacturing base with which to nurture designers with the understanding of off-studio garment production. Is it possible that the labels in Design Orchard are beset with “production woes” as those cited in the ST article in which Dick Lee and other designers—some practising, some not—were quoted?

Throughout much of the ’80s—often lauded as the “golden age of Singaporean fashion”—that gave conscious recognition to an emerging fashion design scene, a recurrent problem was manufacturing, though not from the lack of it. Textile companies and factories producing clothes were significantly large enough in numbers that there was a Textile and Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Singapore (TGMAS, 1981—1996), the precursor to TaFF. It was reported by ST that in 1982, a year after TGMAS was formed, “the clothing industry was the second largest industrial employer. Its 31,000 employees accounted for 11.14 percent of the country’s manufacturing workforce”. Just two years earlier, the Economic Development Board (EDB) was “pushing for the top-end market”, according to another ST report. But that mission soon trailed off, and not one spoke about the manufacture of clothing as a possible pillar of our economy.

In one article in ST in 1987, the then president of the now-defunct SODA (Society of Designing Arts) Alan Koh was quoted saying that something needed to be done for young designers to “take away the burden of their lack of a manufacturing base”. By then local garment manufacturing was becoming a dwindling possibility for designers. According to a 1983 report in The Business Times on garment manufacturers moving their operations to Indonesia, “the cost of production in Singapore has gone up by 20 percent. Some factories also have difficulty recruiting enough manpower, and the cost of production is relatively cheaper in Indonesia.”

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In the ’90s, inadequate manufacturing support, again, was reported to be the bane of designers. There were still factories, but most of the larger ones had started moving their production facilities off-shore, namely to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. If in the decade before, when manufacturers still had factories on our island, and designers still had a hard time seeking resources to produce their clothes, it was just as tough now to find those who could be their production backbone. Dick Lee is well acquainted with the problem. As a young designer, production snags were as real as design issues. Mr Lee, whose retail quantities were not large enough, was often at the mercy of tailoring services, such as Stitch By Stitch at Orchard Towers, to get his collection, well, stitched up.

As dire as the lack of production sounded, many designers were able to soldier on. One independent name who practised through the ’90s remembers this decade to be “tiring (but fun)” as he had to use up to five factories at any one time—“I could not depend on one,” he said. “Some factories were better in wovens than knits, and vice versa. And other designers were using them too. So there was a queue system. Depending on just one factory was really not feasible.” He recalled too that it was mostly small-time designers who were doing the running around, “it makes you more resourceful and creative.” Back than, established names such as Bobby Chng, David Wang, Celia Loe, and Esther Tay (who launched a comeback label last year), and even Thomas Wee had their own factories (the sizes varied).

A name that was very much associated with garment production in the ’90s is CMT (cut, make, trim) pioneer Tan Boon Lan (known in the industry as Wen Lan), whose son Patrick Chia is the highly-regarded industrial designer behind the National University of Singapore’s Design Incubation Centre. Ms Tan started in the mid-’70s, operating out of her flat in Toa Payoh. The cottage operation soon upgraded to a HDB shop in Circuit Road, Macpherson, with a crew that mainly comprised of housewives. It was known as Monray Fashions, but few remember that. Designers went to her because she was amicable, flexible, and fast in equal measure. She was willing to take small orders, too, sometimes as little as 24 pieces. When she eventually set up a more professional outfit in Kallang Pudding Road in the ’90s, many young designers of the day went to her as she was one of the few who had machines to handle both wovens and knits. Ms Tan is now retired.

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Throughout the ’90s, modest and informal production facilities like Ms Tan’s emerged to support fledgling, resource-starved designers who had no confidence to approach large garment factories, or a tech pack to go to them with. Quite a few were run by ex-staff of the backrooms of retailers such as Chomel (once a clothier) and Esprit (now closed); most were, interestingly, concentrated in the area of Paya Lebar, before it’s the commercial hub that it is today. The availability of these small-scale services meant that many designers were able to produce sufficient numbers to supply to department stores, such as the long-closed Tangs Studio, as well as indie retailers, such as those in the old Heeren, where the music store HMV was the anchor tenant.

When we arrived in the 2000s, nearly all fashion designers with their own factories have given them up to be freed of financial and operational burden. Most of the big manufacturers of the ’80s had moved their factories abroad or diversified. One of the largest, Wing Tai Garments, is no longer in manufacturing. Its parent company Wing Tai Holdings is now a property developer, and fashion retailer. Others such as Sing Lun (now Group), whose third-gen CEO Mark Lee is the former president of TaFF, has diversified into equity funds and real estate, even when they still own 13 factories across the region. Mido Textile, whose retail store China Silk House (now defunct) was named in 1987 Singapore Tourist Promotion Boards’ Store of the Year, has investments in China and diversified into real estate and travel. Foreign direct investments into China was, in fact, prevalent as business and labour costs and rising Singapore dollar were often said to be insurmountable. In the ’70s and ’80s, we were attracting FDIs (especially in electronics and technology), but by the ’90s, local garment firms were directing investments overseas.

These large FDIs outward may have led to the impression that Singaporean garment manufacturers were hungry for a larger market and more amenable to big brands such as the Gap, Nike, and Adidas than local labels. One merchandising executive who worked in a buying house here once said to us, “when these factories received an order from these brands, the numbers were huge. Each time the Gap ordered for one item, even just a white T-shirt, it was worth hundreds of thousands. USD!” Many young designers broke out in such a climate, and believed that there was no production back-up for them. If you can’t meet the minimum order, as it was often repeated, forget it.

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“A lot of people depend on China to produce their designs, but China won’t touch you with a 10-foot pole unless you can hit their minimum order,” Thomas Wee was quoted in that ST article from two weeks ago. Is that still true? Is it possible that despite much industrial advances in production and huge changes in the supply chain, designers operating tiny businesses, with production quantities that are usually modest, are unable to find manufacturers willing to accept small orders? Or, is this a perception left over from the ’90s and one that ST journalists can’t shake off? It is rather curious that four decades after the era of the EDB overseas trade missions, and years of dramatically different supply chains, with many garment manufacturers now also serving as apparel solutions provider, ST is still harping on how our poor designers have no one to sew clothes.

One Singaporean merchandiser and textile specialist now based in Hong Kong told us that the problem, if it exists, is that many brand owners here do not “source deep enough”. Even FPP (full production package) may be available to the young designer if cost is no concern. In Hong Kong, buying houses that will take small orders “are all over the place,” he said. If even those are not able to meet a designer’s needs, he could go to Sham Shui Po, an industrial area in Kowloon, where one could source not just for fabrics and trims, but also manufacturers. “In some of these industrial buildings,” he explained, “there are small factories upstairs from the fabric suppliers. You buy your fabrics and trims downstairs and go one floor up, they will sew for you, and the output would be definitely garmental. In Hong Kong, the clothes are always garmental.” These almost self-contained cottage set-ups can similarly be found in Seoul’s famed Dongdaemun, where pick-your-fabrics-and-have-CMT-do-the-rest keeps many of the stalls in business in the area’s famed wholesale markets.

There are similar small-order-friendly set-ups in China, too—only larger. And they will touch you—no 10-foot poles required. In Jiangsu, for example, entire garment-production villages—comprising modern factories—welcome customers without the same production requirement as the likes of Uniqlo. These places offer a full eco-system, including garment wash, special techniques such as fagotting, or sourcing of hardware, and others, all within the village. One Singaporean designer told us that if orders are too small, the factories may suggest using their sampling facility, but the charge would not be astronomically higher, as it usually is. “There are often sewers who handle what is known as ‘shipping samples’ (required by brands to be sent to different retailers or buyers),” he said. “During low months, they would take on small quantities.”

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In Thailand, many young designers, too, face the same problems as newbies everywhere, but they have been able to meet production challenges. In Samut Prakan, south of Bangkok, local brands without huge retail presence in the capital work with small factories to produce both wovens and knits. One womenswear designer in Bangkok told us that “many of us go to Samut Prakan for our production needs. They can do anything that you want. I am sure they will be happy to sew for foreign customers.” Such small-scale set-ups and the accessibility to them could explain why it has been relatively easy for any Thai interested in fashion design to set up shop in Bangkok, even in Chatuchak weekend market.

Moving into the third decade of the 2000s, there is, in fact, an explosion of local brands here, although many do not enjoy the visibility of, say, Fayth or Weekend Sundry. The fact that they have clothes to sell must be indication that they have found production facilities to accept their unlikely-to-be-large orders. Following the rise of blogshops in the Noughties, would-be label owners saw that these businesses had no problems with production, even when the production quality has been, till now, debatable (often attributed to the lack of a garment technician to control the production). Although many designers are not inclined to reveal their source, they are likely using one of these small-scale factories, rather than go to “the neighbourhood tailor”, as Mr Wee suggested in that ST story.

Design Orchard’s first anniversary on 25 January came and went without a whimper. Two days before that, Singapore registered its first case of COVID-19 infection. With the subsequent Circuit Breaker measures, it is understandable that sales at Design Orchard could hardly be described as brisk. Now that retail businesses have been allowed to open, its low footfall is expectedly disquieting. With the typhoon of recession now picking up speed, it is unclear how Design Orchard is going to rejig what is clearly stagnated merchandising, and garments that have scant design value and finishing finesse. The local labels they stock may have a place in the market, but not in a retail outfit conceived to spotlight Singaporean design. This could just be an emporium of Singaporean brands. As one noted fashion retailer said—somewhat diplomatically, the store “needs more work.” We think she meant a lot more.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

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

From 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.

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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orchard Fashion Runway: Pointless Street Show

Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 1The Raffles Privato collection, initiated by Raffles Design Institute and supported by Paragon, at OFR 2016

About a week after National Day last year, a postcard was found circulating on Orchard Road. The front of the card, dated August 18, 2015, mimics a tabloid cover of the ’60s and is provocatively blurbed: “Orchard Road—Doomed for the Future?” Other cover lines that suggest equally dismal prospects include “Bored Shoppers”, “Empty Streets”, and “Dopey Retail Stuff”. Flip it over, and you soon realise this is a cheeky little marketing material, distributed to entice shoppers into a deli for a meal to “get a free lemonade daily before 6pm”.

The consumers targeted to receive the postcard did not know then that the cover “story” of this fun title could be so portentous. According to research on Singapore’s retail sector published by London-based real estate services provider Savills, retail sales in the last three months of 2015 were “subdued”. In October, November and December, comparable figures against 2014 were down, with declines of 4.5%, 2.1% and 3.6% respectively. And these are, traditionally, supposed to be good months of the retail calendar. As Q1 of this year comes to a close, things do not look cheerier. On 2 March, The Straits Times ran the headline, “Rents in Orchard Road fall again for the seventh quarter in a row”. It requires no wild speculation then that retail business is, as The Business Times calls it, “anaemic”.

Something needs to be done. The solutions: Fashion Steps Out (FSO) and “signature runway show” and the FSO’s “curtain raiser” Orchard Fashion Runway (OFR). Orchard Road’s less-than-gleaming retail performance is, of course, not a recently recorded gloom. FSO to the rescue is, in fact, into its 7th year, and OFR has transformed 550m of Orchard Road into a catwalk—from outside Tangs Plaza to the Paragon—for 6 years. Our premier shopping belt has been in need of rallying since 2010, “when the Orchard Road shopping belt celebrates the Spring/Summer fashion season with local and international brands, as well as exciting events and shopping promotions”, according to yoursingapore.com, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) visitor-centric website.

Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 2Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 3One-time Kato Jay Chou’s label Phantaci seen on Orchard Road for the first time

No one knows for certain if we “celebrate” any fashion season at all, but many are sure Orchard Road needs to be inspired anew. With the oft-mentioned competition from suburban malls, and, more significantly, online stores, our oldest shopping belt is facing a tough and protracted battle, yet its troubles have been only momentarily solved, with ideas that have no long-term gains. To be sure, the street itself has undergone many improvements—even busking, once frowned upon, is now allowed. The real step up should go beyond the cosmetic and token public entertainment. To give the entire stretch of Orchard Road the appeal it needs, a vibrant retail culture such as those seen in Tokyo’s various shopping districts—Shinjuku, Shibuya, Omotaesando, just to name three—must be fostered.

Instead, the powers-that-be are contented with something as lame as Fashion Steps Out (no prizes for where that name really came from). Touted as “Singapore’s biggest fashion festival” (now that the official Fashion Festival is no more, the description is up for grabs), FSO is a six-week “extravaganza”, according to the SPH Newspaper: Special in ST’s Life that ran last Friday. Whether there’s going to be any lavishness or opulence that’s alluded to, shoppers are none the wiser. A mere six weeks to enhance Orchard Road’s weak retail standing, however, is fodder for detractors to question the value and usefulness of FSO. And what happens during the 45 days? Nothing much. According to ORBA’s micro-site for FSO, from 25 March to 8 May, shopping vouchers and 15 sets of Samsung’s new Galaxy S7 4G+ smartphones could be won. It would take considerable effort to find the “extravaganza” in those.

Orchard Fashion Runway is, thus, the flag bearer of the FSO. Its star billing this year is augmented by the presence of local and, for the first time, regional personalities: singers JJ Lin and Malaysia’s Aisyah Aziz, a couple of models (that did not walk the show), a fashion stylist, and the ever-important “influencers”, five of them (two Singaporeans, a Taiwan-based Malaysian, a Filipino, and an Indonesian). Whether their presence will make a difference (and who the influencers will influence) isn’t quite clear, but the ST supplement seems certain that the important invitees “will make waves”. A day after the event, Instagram was not inundated with selfies shot on Orchard Road the Runway.

Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 4The cute-as-hell, kitschy-like-mad designs of the irrepressible Mash-Up 

Given the dreary shows of the past years, it is admirable that ORBA, supported by STB, has not given up the idea of doing a runway presentation. It is said that, despite retaining the “curtain raiser”, ORBA still desires change. In the past, OFR was put together by the externally appointed creative director, Jeffrey Tay from ModernAge Design & Communication, a company that was involved in OFR since 2012. In his place this year is Daniel Boey, a seasoned show producer known for his theatrical productions and his good relationships with Singaporean designers. Mr Boey told ST that he’s directing the spotlight on local labels (and some Asian).

If that sounds like a familiar refrain, it’s because the show last year—SG50 year—was about local designers too. On the surface, Mr Tay and Mr Boey appear to have tremendous support for our home-grown names. There’s no negating that local brand owners are easier to cajole than their international counterparts, who do not participate in shows that are not at one with their own brand management and marketing plan. There was never any question about involving those names with strong global standing. It would have been more convincing if the organisers simply stated that Singapore’s “iconic street’ is the ideal platform for Singaporean labels.

Not that we have that many deserving a concerted national display, or that there are those willing to share street exposure with a motley group of designers with steeply varying degrees of design flair. It was, therefore, surprising to see Thomas Wee showing alongside those whose references are clearly not in the same line of sight as the veteran designer. Although he closed OFR with a wow factor more suited to a hotel-ballroom catwalk than a torrid tarmac, Mr Wee’s lost-era elegance stuck out, like his white, silk taffeta jumpsuit, against a jumble of jokey costumes conceived to humour the young and stand out, even absurdly, for the sake of standing out, and for the final destination: social media.

Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 5Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 6No clowning matter: Révasseur puts a circus and its principal designer (in harlequin check), Gilda Su, and her dog out there

ORBA’s objective is, therefore, rather clear. The need for influencers and clothes that will turn up well in the likes of Snapchat suggests that Orchard Road is scrambling for a trending makeover. No place along this street, not even the swanky ION Orchard, is uploaded to social media sites with the same frantic regularity as Bangkok’s Siam Paragon, which, in 2013, made it to the Most Frequently Instagrammed place on the planet, and has, hitherto, remained in the top 10. Siam Paragon’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider its location; it is not situated on “A Great Street” (in fact, that stretch of Rama I Road is a traffic and pedestrian nightmare!). Orchard Road’s lack of geo-tagged snapshots in the digital media-sphere seems to suggest that whatever is happening (or not happening here), it is not scoring big with youngsters or selfie-eager tourists.

OFR should have been what Mr Boey calls “a fashion Mardi Gras”. And the runway a sambadrome. If you’re assembling a group that mostly communicates via madcap visual antics, stay consistent to the zany miscellany. If Révasseur’s costumes for the non-practising, but ever-posing circus crowd are clothes of the moment, then send in the clowns. If fashion is only so when it is steep in street vibe and drips with way-out (or daft) excess, then strip away the artifice of deportment-class strolling and flood the street with badass, ass-bare individuals who can truly rock the malls down.

Unfortunately, Orchard Road is unable to use humour, wit, and daring for its own betterment. If “retail is stuck in its own mud”, as experts are inclined to say, then Orchard Road is trapped in its own perceived greatness. Still branded as “A Great Street” by ORBA, it forgets that it is the experiential component that determines what is great about a street. “Enhanced experience” is often bandied about on Orchard Road—in the malls too—as the way to differentiate itself, but rare is the enhancement palpable. If ORBA must persist with Orchard Fashion Runway, then it must deliver exhilaration that shopping inside one of Orchard Road’s increasingly dull malls cannot offer. Last Saturday, that, regrettably, did not happen.

Photos: Helena Tan

Thomas Wee Presents His Greatest Hits

A year ago, Thomas Wee revealed that he was going to retire after his swansong at Digital Fashion Week 2014. Now, nowhere near giving up designing, he has opened a new shop. It seems that the tailoring and craftsmanship that make his design unforgettable isn’t coming to an end… at least, for the momentTW @ Mandarin Gallery

At the closed end of the 710 square-foot boutique, Thomas Wee sat on a black settee alone, his diminutive size propped up by two large cushions of electric blue and acid yellow. The colours are a little at odds with the whole shop—mostly white, with a soupçon of black. Equally jarring was the noise of several hair dryers whirring at a go, emanating from the hairdressing shop behind. He seemed unperturbed.

Approaching the designer, it became clear he was sewing a button loop closure. This he did by first anchoring a cotton thread onto the predetermined position on the tip of the opened neckline. The thread was then chain-looped until the desired length and the loose straight end was finally stitched onto the opposite side of the first point, creating a neat, discreet loop that laid flat along the edge of the opening of the centre-back of the garment.

This hand finish in relation to the craftsmanship of Thomas Wee in itself is not unusual. In fact, those in the know, continue to choose his clothes precisely because of such attention to detail. If, however, you take a look at the price of the shell-top, on which the button loop described above was stitched, you’d be quite astonished that a garment of this make and quality can be had for just S$240. This is even more incredible if you know that the piece you’ve selected is the only one. It is amazing not more women are hitting the store and wiping it clean, this new collection known simply as Thomas Wee White.

TW interiorThe gallery-like back wall of the Thomas Wee boutique

Mr Wee is unfazed by our amazement. “That’s why the clothes are exclusive,” he responded. Exclusivity, as with any brand that offers one-of-a-kind, is chargeable—and at a premium, yet this seems immaterial. “Exclusivity is not important to me,” Mr Wee continued, “but it is important to the customer. That’s why I offer it; that’s why what we have here is quite special.” Why such one-off garments can be had is also due to a production capacity that Mr Wee describes as “very small”.

“I don’t have a factory to produce by mass,” he explained. “When you have a small workshop like I do, three to six pieces per style is a lot, and a strain on my resources.” Of note is that most, if not all, of what is available do not go beyond one piece per style. In the industry, this is known as sample quantity (even up to six pieces), and, as designers are wont to say, anything produced by the sampling room for the retail floor is expensive (among many reasons is the maintenance of highly-paid, skilled sewers). However, Mr Wee is unwilling to factor this into what he charges, reflecting the realist that he is, working against a retail environment that has increasing caved to the low pricing of fast fashions.

It is known that Mr Wee runs a tight ship in his atelier. A regular customer who goes to him for custom orders, and who wishes to remain anonymous, revealed that the designer is essentially a one-man show. As it is often stated, he drafts and cuts the paper patterns, as well as cut the fabrics. He has only one sewer—sometimes his older sister, who taught pattern making at NAFA’s School of Fashion Studies—who brings his designs to fruition. Contrary to the popular perception of a fashion designer, Mr Wee does not have an assistant, let alone the minions that will do his bidding. This limitation was one of the reasons why he contemplated retirement, a move many considered premature.

Tw Demi CoutureThe refined and infinitely elegant blouses and jackets of the Thomas Wee Demi-Couture collection

When the news of Thomas Wee retiring broke last year, fans expressed disbelieve and regret. His last catwalk collection—Spring/Summer 2015 at Digital Fashion Week 2014, titled Asia: Past, Present and Future—was considered by many who attended the presentation to be one of his best. After reprising the show for Bangkok International Fashion Week (BIFW) shortly later, the organiser Siam Paragon invited Mr Wee to a meal with an invitation to return for BIFW the following year, as well as an offer of retail space in one of the largest mall in downtown Bangkok (both, unfortunately, did not materialise). It seemed Mr Wee had struck a chord with those seeking the exquisite and elegant, but rarely found them.

Perhaps encouraged and buoyed by the response, and still unwilling to split from a craft he has dedicated all his life to and dearly loves, Thomas Wee decided to strike on his own. For the first time in forty years, this retail project is entirely his, sans a partner. While the choice of Mandarin Gallery is a little unexpected (the 4-level complex is not exactly known for its massive footfall), the Orchard Road spot is a return to form of sorts for the designer. This would have been Thomas Wee’s ninth presence on what is marketed by Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) as “A Great Street”.

Mr Wee opened his first boutique at Far East Plaza in 1983—it was then a much swankier looking mall than the sad shopping centre that it now is. Most observers of Singapore fashion, however, will more likely remember the highly successful Mixables, the label and Wisma Atria store that made Mr Wee a mid-Nineties household name. The clothes resonated with an upwardly mobile customer base that was enjoying financial independence and freedom of self-expression. The success of Mixables paved the way for the first all-white collection Divine that was only available at Style Singapore, followed by Thomas Wee Luxe in 2001, situated at Shaw Centre. Concurrently, Mr Wee created the line Preta under the auspices of HeShe Holdings, with stores in Wisma Atria, Orchard Point, and Takashimaya. There was also a brief stint with a collection known as Sino (a joint venture with the bedding manufacturer Aussino) at Scotts Shopping Centre (pre-Scotts Square). A more-than-a-decade hiatus stretched out before his clothes were seen in Orchard again: Coda in Scotts Square in 2009 and Tangs at Tang Plaza in 2013.

TW 2

Racks of Thomas Wee White, a new line of “resort dressing”

One can hope that Thomas Wee’s return to Orchard Road may enliven the increasingly monotonous and lacklustre retail offerings of Singapore’s major shopping street, but one would be glad if it could just add to the dismal offering of local designer labels currently available. His objective, however, is a lot less grand. On why he’s starting a shop now, he said, “People have heard of Thomas Wee, but not many know what my clothes are about, and they’ll never get to see my designs without a Thomas Wee boutique. And people, too, are always asking me where they can see and buy my clothes. I think there is a demand for Singaporean designer clothes: well-made, well-designed, and well-priced.”

Analysts have described the present retail climate as “gloomy” (Mr Wee, more optimistically, called it “soft”). It’s, thus, not easy to determine if there is such a demand for a relatively inactive designer label, or if Singaporeans do care about the creative output of even the most esteemed names in local fashion. With the speed that moves today’s fashion from trend to trend, it is, as counselled by many business executives, vital to remain tuned to the zeitgeist, to know specifically what consumers are buying and buying into, to hit a sweet spot known as ‘now’. In fact, it’s so crucial for fashion businesses to partake in the present—regardless of where they’re based—that Alber Elbaz, recently departed from the house of Lanvin, once highlighted: “Fashion is like a fruit. You couldn’t eat it a day before and you couldn’t eat it a day after. It’s just about today.”

For an audience not weaned on the exact elegance that defines the Thomas Wee style, “today” may not be apparent. Mr Wee is, by his own admission, partial to the looks of the mid-Fifties to Sixties. In conversations with him, you’ll hear mentions of the “big circular skirt”, the Capri pants, the Bettina collar (specifically the collar of the Bettina blouse designed by Givenchy in 1952 and made popular by the French model Bettina Graziani), and Jackie O (who would have been 86 this year)—not quite his muse, but certainly a style icon. While these references are never quite out of modern fashion, they do not really define much of what is really “today” or reflect the fixations of a generation of shopper-Instagrammers. In essence, Mr Wee’s designs for the White line do hark back to a past era even when they enjoy a contemporary, possibly forward, approach to pattern drafting.

TW 3Thomas Wee’s clothes are no different from the illustrations, seen here adorning a wall in the boutique

Mr Wee’s affection for past eras is also kept alive by the ideal woman that remains vivid in his mind. This woman, like him, loves, among many items of clothing, the crisp white shirt. When asked if women still wear this white shirt he loves, he said, “It’s the most fundamental and sensible clothing. With a white shirt, they can wear it in the morning, when they take the dog for a walk, when they go to the office, to high tea, to an intimate dinner.” Although he did specify that the women he caters to are “professionals: stylish women who work in advertising and promotions, bankers, those who need to dress for meetings and business deals,” it does seem that he is addressing the desires of folks of a time when life can be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace.

Mr Wee stressed that the newly conceived White line is a “resort Line, not a casual line.” Furthermore, “it’s about fine dressing for vacations by the beach, holidays on a cruise, or wedding by the poolside,” he elaborated. While resort dressing is no longer set apart by colour, shape, and dress type, just as a resort is no longer classified based on proximity to the beach or thatched roofs, these clothes—immaculate in both colour and execution—deserve an audience and geographical reach wider than a resort and its visitors. The positioning of the White line is, therefore, a consistency of imagination rather than misguided creativity.

Whether the target audience is truly readily available, and in numbers that are critical to the White line’s success, the fact is, Thomas Wee does make appealingly wearable clothes. They may not all be machine-washable or yield to the smooth sole-plate of an electric iron, but they do go over and caress the body beautifully. The White Line may seem limited in chromatic terms, but if you step back, what hangs before you could easily be a reinterpretation of Thomas Wee’s greatest hits.

TW white shirt.jpgA white shirt reinterpreted by Thomas Wee

It is tempting to consider this as an antithesis to fashion’s incessant quest for the new. And it is possible that Mr Wee is seeking, instead, his own perfection, which, arguably, was established at the height of his career back in the mid-Nineties. To be sure, these are no retro clothes. Thomas Wee is too technically savvy to peruse the past and not bring it forward. Yet, one can’t help but feel that, whether consciously or not, he is romancing the past. For some customers, it is time to bring back the good ol’ days.

A woman walked past the boutique, stopped and looked at a tunic-dress that was hung in the window. She asked for the outfit, and proceeded into the fitting room to try it. Pleased with how she looked, she asked for other pieces to try on. She emerged in a coat-dress, stood in front of a huge mirror, and decided she wanted what she was wearing. But she had a request: could Thomas Wee, who had by then attended to her, do something about the sleeves? “I am Jewish,” she explained, “and for us, we have to cover our arms.” Mr Wee told her he would be happy to take a custom order. Delighted with his proposal, she removed the coat-dress to reveal what she wore inside: an utterly sheer three-quarter-sleeved top that demonstrated she had on no brassiere!

As she turned to leave after the order was confirmed, the excited woman said, “This should be in Neiman Marcus or Barneys!”

Thomas Wee is at 03-23, Mandarin Gallery. Photos: Galerie Gombak

 

Elegance Revisited

TW G1On the opening day of Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Urban ran a one-page piece on Singapore’s last major fashion event of the year. Accompanying the article was a sidebar entitled “6 shows you must not miss”. Of the seven local labels participating in this year’s DFW, only four were mentioned. Thomas Wee was not one of them. Later, someone said that only those retailing through e-commerce site Inverted Edge (a DFW supporter and where the clothes of the shows could be pre-ordered), got listed. That, however, couldn’t be true as only two of the six brand names will be available via Inverted Edge (Mr Wee’s clothes, too, will eventually be available online). Moreover, the article entitled “Front Row at Home” was about watching the shows of DFW from your residence or wherever your PC resides.

Urban’s picks were hardly surprising. On their team is a trio of writers who considers themselves young and hip. To them, styles reminiscent of the Nineties are vintage. Fashion that existed before that then is a relic of the past. The shows they consider unmissable equate to a part of alternative culture that had, by the late Nineties, become mainstream, and is now considered fashion. DFW itself, too, seemed subsumed by this; its designers mostly court the unconventional, copping the zeitgeist, rather than contributing to it. Yes, it’s a generational thing: a generation of anyone-can-be-designers, anyone-can-be-a-model, anyone-can-be-online-stars. DFW is a show for these anyone-can-bes, as well as what the organisers proudly called “influencers”—those selfie-obsessives-as-bloggers hogging the front row, and preening and posting with total abandon. Twenty four of them from different countries (Singapore included) were invited to the event. With iPhone 6 in tow, they have more to shoot than to say. Are they snapshots of today’s collective taste or delineations of individual vanity?

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Thomas Wee seemed unfazed by the Urban snub and nonplussed by the social media buzz. Popping out of the backstage on the second day of DFW to greet his special guests, he merely said, “I hope they like it.” When the first model stepped out, a rousing applause ensued: like, they surely did. It was clear that this was going to be a wellspring of visual thrill and pleasure. The outfit of admiration was a cropped, white, silk organza blouse with black banded V-neck that suggested a kimono’s. What’s unusual is the yoked back and front, brought low to the bustline, from which the sleeves dropped and the front opening notched as an overlapped inverted V. These deceptively simple components belied the clever interplay of geometric shapes. The blouse was worn with a pair of black polyester crepe palazzo pants with ribbons in the inseams that could be tied to the ankles!

The first ensemble set the tone for the show: sensuousness as quiet as the break of dawn. And as rousing—especially in the wake of the dark, somnolent (cultish, they call it!) presentations that dominated DFW. Mr Wee’s clothes, no matter how they’re styled, always project the sophistication, polish, confidence, culture, and grace that together can be described as elegance. The strength of line (not always straight), the sense of shape (never exaggerated), and the control of proportion (not at all contrived) collude to yield an overall image of effortless stylishness. These days, even a passing comment on Thomas Wee will include “elegance”. But, elegance, like vicuña cloth, is becoming uncommon, even rare. As a definitive, however, elegance is not off the mark when characterising Mr Wee’s designs.

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Truth is, we are weary of using a word such as elegance. Just as fashion has changed, so too has elegance. Elegance was at its height in the Thirties and Forties, which coincided with the golden age of French haute couture. By the mid-Eighties, elegance has taken a backseat to glamour, which although heady through the early years of cinema, had by then, with the aid of television, become a quality—an aesthetic veneer—anyone can adopt. Elegance, waning in popularity, has now lost out to glamour. Glamour has more resonance than elegance; it has movie and pop stars to carry its torch, while elegance is already one foot in the tomb. Glamour can be glamourous without elegance (look at Rihanna), but elegance alone may not be glamorous (look at Tilda Swinton: incidentally, Thomas Wee’s muse). Elegance, too, has become a mere shadow outside the spotlight of edge. Women these days want to be edgy; few wish to be elegant. To describe clothes as elegant risks putting them in a time trap. Are we saying they’re old?

Yet, the one standout quality of Thomas Wee’s clothes is their innate elegance. It is the sound and the refined that triumph over the peculiar and the fussy, subtleties and subtitles over conspicuous and clamorous. And that’s why Mr Wee’s clothes don’t age nor do they suggest the far-off future. They’re where they should be: here and now. The skirts he showed, for example, had seams tapering to multiple points, dispensing with the discussion of skirt lengths (an obsession too circa 1985 to be relevant!). When you trace his outfits from the neck and shoulder down to the waist and hip and further on to the calves and ankles, elegance is infused to the very last stitch. And if you count the stitches, there were simply fewer than what you will encounter in standard dressmaking. Mr Wee took away so much from his designs that if he could make a dress with one seam, he would, and he had! This near-obsession with making as much with as little has forged the current signature: garments without the traditional stitched hem. This is achieved by folding back the fabric to where it started, doubling the use of fabrics. He said recently, “When I design, I also think of my sewing staff. Why should they spend so much time with the sewing machine?” For Mr Wee, as for Coco Chanel, “Elegance is refusal.”

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The sum of Mr Wee’s design ideas is so cohesive that it does not, as Robin Givan (then writing for the Washington Post) said of Yohji Yamamoto’s spring/summer 2000 collection, “push one to think about construction”. Yet, it is in the construction of his clothes—often referred by Mr Wee as engineering—that distinguishes his designs. Mr Wee is his own chief pattern-maker, and pattern-making is integral to his design process and thinking. Many frequently refer to his technical virtuosity—a skill that cannot be over-rated since Mr Wee is entirely self-taught—but few truly know what that means. Mr Wee honed his craft in the early years of his career when drafting was not (at least among local designers) the constant rethinking of what can be manipulated that it is today. Recurrently, his approach is still old-school, but there’s also a synthesis of the new. There’s always that almost meditative questioning of what can be achieved without sticking to set ways. He enjoys the process of transformation: seeing the fabric he loves turned to the design he is pleased with. The results can be witnessed on the DFW catwalk.

We were partial to this particular blouse. In its barest form, it was a sleeveless top with an eye-catching scooped neck in the shape of a splayed U. It was bound with a narrow band, cut straight so that when stitched to the neckline, it had a natural, off-kilter, but not unattractive warp. What was truly novel was the use of trapezoid panels in the rear—both sides, off centre-back—constructed so that they could be brought forward to envelope the shoulder caps by fastening them to the armhole’s top-front with attached ribbons. From the rear, the blouse took on the silhouette of a caped jacket, in front it was a blouse with a hint of petal sleeves. But this need not be the only way to wear it. Those flaps could be ribboned to the back, creating clipped wings!

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Mr Wee called his collection Asia: Past, Present & Future. What went before intermingled with what is now and what will become in such a discreet manner that the Asian-ness was but a hint, like the sweetness of flowers in the evening breeze: discernible even when the bloom is not immediately spotted. Something innocuous like lacing fastened in the inside of the back of a vest then brought to the front through the armhole, and tied high in the middle, over (or above) the bust to suggest the goreum of the Korean hanbok was new and unexpected. Compared to the Orientalism of, say, John Galliano’s spring/summer 2007 haute couture collection for the house of Dior, Mr Wee’s was modest. It could be so nuanced that you only sensed it when it revealed itself by accident. During the show, a model in a sheer silk organza panelled coat walked back to the rear of the catwalk, and unintentionally allowed the floaty garment to slip off her shoulders. As it cascaded to her derrière just in time for her to save it from complete descend, you saw, even for that brief moment, a Qing dynasty maiden disrobing as she went down into a pool for a bath. Thomas Wee’s clothes were evocative, if not of elegance, at least of Oriental reticence.

But the best was saved for the last. The final outfit was, as we saw it, a tease. Mr Wee had recently been underscoring the fact that he has not been doing jackets for quite a while, and, therefore, no longer deserves the honour “King of Jacket”. Just as we thought the jacket has retired from his repertoire, he sent out America’s Next Top Model (cycle 20) winner Jourdan Miller in a diaphanous, white, silk organza pantsuit! Worn with the lapels turned up, the jacket had a fit and softness unlike anything he had done before. It advanced the Mixable jacket that made him famous into something more pared down, with a silhouette that was striking for its purity of line. In spirit and in style, it was classic Thomas Wee.

Backstage, immediately after the show, Asia’s Next Top Model’s (cycle 1) Sofia Wakabayashi, when asked what she thought of the clothes, said, “I love mine so much, I didn’t want to take them off!” Resident host of DFW Yvette King, recalling how enamoured she was of the collection said, “His clothes have volume, but they don’t overwhelm the woman.” Thomas Wee should be deservedly proud of the compliments. The seduction of a new generation of fans was won.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim

Thomas Wee: A While Ago And Recently

Two days before showing at Digital Fashion Week, Singapore’s preeminent couturier Thomas Wee speaks exclusively to SOTD about the “King of Jacket” accolade that has stuck for too long, the craft he continues to love and share, anda bombshellbowing out!

Thomas Wee 2014Photo: Toon

As a designer, Thomas Wee does not return to yesterday. Like Gordon Ramsey, he does not look back. “I don’t like crying over spilt milk,” Mr Ramsey once said. “I look for the next cow.” Mr Wee, too, does not weep over ruined dresses or unrealised concepts; he merely picks up his scissors and cuts the next cloth. Even less (practically never) is referring to the past to forge a present. With each collection since returning from an eleven-year hiatus in 2008, his style moves further and further away from what he was known for at the height of his career in the 1980s. Now, even with a design DNA that is evident and recognisable, the output is as different from yesteryears as (tailor’s) chalk and cheese.

Preparing for the upcoming Digital Fashion Week, he does not keep the clothes from scrutiny. There’s complexity to his designs. Perhaps it’s more pertinent to say there’s even greater complexity now. It is not always discernible, but it is there: in the minimal seams, in the billowy volumes, in the seemingly straight lines. In spirit, Mr Wee’s approach is not unlike the Italian artists of the Futurismo movement of the early 20th century. His dresses, even his trousers, were cut to effect a flow and dynamism that is akin to Umberto Boccioni’s sculptures. Describing his aesthetic today, he says, “It’s very tailored, very architectural. It’s my version of origami done with fabrics. My way of interpreting origami: about folding and joining, with the least seams.” The allusion to origami is not lost. You do sense that Mr Wee treats his fabrics as if they are paper.

Despite the forwardness and dressiness that has come to characterise his latter-day designs, Thomas Wee is still associated with one item of clothing that has become a badge of honour he can’t shake off: the office-ready jacket. He has come to be known and is still referred to as the “King of Jacket”. The reality is, by 1992, when his company—which included the labels Divine and Atelier—was sold to Heshe Holdings, he was already slipping off the garment that had singularly built his fortune. Under Heshe, he created the new label Preta. It was, as he describes it, “less office-y”. Preta was never meant to reprise the successful Mixables, a label born in 1986 to offer more affordable versions of what he was already doing in the original boutique Thomas Wee, then located at Far East Plaza. It was a time when Scotts Road had lustre. In the presence of a larger audience, Mixables firmly established his skill in tailoring: the jackets were so sleek and faultless, they were professional women’s de facto uniform. With Preta, “I stopped doing colours and went with neutrals,” he says. “There were still some jackets, but they were not so corporate.” After Preta closed in 1995, Mr Wee nearly completely left the “executive look” behind.

TW SS 2015 for SOTDThomas Wee spring/summer 2015. Styling: Vik Lim. Hair/makeup: Shirley Li. Photo: Toon. Sittings editor: Just So

“It was a painful transition period,” he recalls. “I was wondering if I wanted to stay in fashion. I did not want to do career wear anymore. The others were selling jackets for S$49.90!” He repeats that low price in case you do not share his disbelief and disdain. “Moreover, he continues, “I did not need to prove that I can do better jackets. I needed to move on.” And move on he did. However, the sticky accolade “King of Jacket” stuck like ironed-on fusing. “I don’t know who gave me that title,” Mr Wee professes. “I read it somewhere in the papers.” Then, somewhat self-deprecatingly, he added, “The thing is, I am not trained to do bespoke tailoring, if you call me that, 我很惭愧 (I am ashamed),” switching to Mandarin when he knows you understand it, which he often does even when he is, in fact, eloquent in English, his first language.

By the mid-Nineties, fashion was experiencing monumental shifts. What was trickling down into Singapore was a more relaxed—even casual—approach to dressing. In New York, Marc Jacobs had shown the “grunge” collection for Perry Ellis in November 1992, one season that springboarded his dismissal from the label. The corporate bigwigs may have hated it, but Mr Jacobs’s grunge left its mark, even if negatively. Inspired by thrift store clothes that rock stars wore at that time, Grunge was considered ugly. The New York Times called it “anathema to fashion”. Inadvertent perhaps, but the grunge Mr Jacobs hoped to make big was inexorably heading to death’s door. Cool girls were already doing grunge. Mr Jacob’s reiteration was not new, not glib, not hip. He made Perry Ellis look derivative. Regardless, casual fashion, by then, had such a grip on popular taste; it was at the point of no return.

Simultaneously, across the Atlantic, there was this fashion and cultural phenomenon known as Kate Moss. Ms Moss, through compatriot photographer Corrine Day, had forged an aesthetic that emerged just in time to replace the fading appeal of the statuesque, unapproachable, perfectly coiffed supermodels of the Eighties. The vintage-y looks she adopted off-camera and off-catwalk came to inspire a new generation of young women. Despite her skinniness—exacerbated by the “heroin chic” look of her Calvin Klein ads—and her usually limp hair and the formless clothes (and the omnipresent cut-off denim shorts!), Kate Moss would be the unstoppable and perpetual It Girl, and a generation’s most influential model. It mattered not that most who adopted her sloppy look were no Kate Moss. In 1998, eight years after “The 3rd Summer of Love’ cover for the now-defunct British magazine The Face that truly launched her, Kate Moss became a trademark, registered by her agency Storm.

Collar TW SS 2015A collar in the making. Thomas Wee spring/summer 2015. Photo: Jim Sim

Although Mr Wee wasn’t looking at these developments with grave concern (on the popularity of Doc Martens boots at that time, he remarked, “how will these girls ever know how to wear high heels?”), his shifting away from the restrictive tailored look was timely. Throughout the first half of the Nineties, Singapore women were starting to cast off the professional shield afforded by the immaculately constructed jacket. The adoption of casual Fridays among corporate types further sealed the fate of a more formal way of dress. Work-appropriate was being redefined. Before the Heshe buyout of 1992, Thomas Wee was, in effect, already editing out jackets from what he was designing. With the Divine line, an all-white collection that he describes as “resort”, first seen in Style Singapore (a multi-local-label store at Park Mall), jackets were conspicuously absent. In their place were fine-looking white chemises and smart, relaxed shell tops and shift-dresses. The breakaway from Mixables was nearly complete.

Yet, synonymous with the jacket Thomas Wee remains. It is inescapable that Mr Wee’s jackets, particularly from the affordable Mixable line, captured the imagination and affection of a generation of Singapore women. They were not only perfectly made, they were relevant to the workplace culture and politics of that time. Not overtly masculine and always with what he used to call “the important swing” (which also meant not stiff), these jackets were worn by many of Singapore’s high-profile women such as the eye surgeon and Singapore’s foremost conservationist Dr Geh Min. They not only elevated the status of the Mixable jacket, they heighten its visibility. You really saw women wearing them in the office, as well as on the street.

The back story of Thomas Wee’s initial obsession with the jacket, specifically a tailored suit-jacket, can be traced to his first visit to Paris in 1981. He had gone to the French capital as part of the Trade Development Board’s mission to showcase Singapore talent. While most first-timers would make the Eiffel Tower their first sight of call, Mr Wee sped, as soon as he could, to the Yves Saint Laurent boutique in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “I pushed the two big glass doors with brass handles and walked right in,” he recalls. “And these sales people looked at me and wondered what this insipid Chinatown boy was doing here.” But there was a task at hand: to see for himself the le smoking, Saint Laurent’s seminal tuxedo jacket that first appeared as part of the autumn/winter ‘Pop Art’ collection in 1966 and immortalised, almost a decade, later by Helmut Newton in an iconic shoot for French Vogue.

TW paper patterns SS 2015Paper patterns of his spring/summer 2015 collections drafted by Thomas Wee. Photo Jim Sim

Far from being the sensational garment it was supposed to be, the le smoking was to Thomas Wee “not something new.” And new it certainly wasn’t by the time he saw it in Paris, fifteen years after the original debuted. A masculine jacket was not an oddity in a woman’s wardrobe in the Eighties; it was a staple. From a very young age, Mr Wee had always been in a flurry of tailoring activity, seeing more than his peers did. “My mother—she was a very good cheongsam maker—used to make many suits for my father’s boss, who wore grey flannel suits with spectator brogues. This was in the Fifties. It was a time people did dress like that. I would help my mother hand-stitch what she made. I saw and handled many suits. When I read about the le smoking, I wanted to know what the big deal was. When I finally saw it, it was just a female version of the tuxedo.”

Not quite the impressionable young man on a maiden trip to Paris that one would imagine. If Mr Wee was crestfallen, he did not disclose. After leaving the Yves Saint Laurent boutique that day, what he saw on the street excited him. At a sidewalk café, still in the Left Bank, a vision of Parisian chic appeared. “She was walking her poodle,” he describes eagerly. “She wore a turban and she had gloves on. She took a seat that was two tables away from me. She placed her handbag on a chair; she took off her coat, and there was this ultraviolet blue jacket. A magenta blouse peeked from it. She took off her gloves and placed them on the table. She pulled out a cigarette and smoked.” He describes her as if he had met her only the day before. Who this woman was, he never found out, but what she wore that day, “three or four” in the afternoon in Saint-Germain, was, to him, an epitome of sophistication and a prelude to the journey that would make Thomas Wee “King of Jacket”. “I wasn’t doing jackets yet,” he continues, still with relish. “It was this vision that made me realise I didn’t want to do the Japanese look (which was gaining traction in the early Eighties and had inspired him, following a visit to Tokyo at the start of that decade); I wanted to do French chic.”

Although tailored jackets don’t feature prominently in his repertoire now, he isn’t opposed to sharing what he knows about the tailleur with anyone willing to learn, especially the young. Mr Wee, who is entirely self-taught, went into teaching in 1999, conducting master classes on fashion design and pattern drafting at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art’s (NAFA) School of Fashion Studies. The dean of the school at that time was Gladys Theng, a gregarious doyenne of fashion education. She was known to have told the students, “You’re lucky to have Thomas Wee teach you.” But luck wasn’t what brought Mr Wee to the school. He had decided to stop designing, and wanted to teach in an institution such as NAFA that he never had the chance to attend. “Tan Yoong once said to me,” he remembers, “that both of us are a disgrace as we have never been to fashion school. ‘Look at the other Asian designers,’ he had said. It’s true—he was not wrong. After that, I knew that I must make up for not having formal education by being the best.” And by teaching what he has learnt.

TW & modelThomas Wee adjusting a blouse on a model during a photo shoot for his spring/summer 2015 look book. Photo: Jim Sim

Fashion school had by then increased in numbers, compared to the time when Mr Wee was of school-going age. The classroom setting appeals to him and the students’ curiosity motivates him. “What I like seeing from the students,” he says, “is their reactions. From the first line I draw to the flow of the patterns, I can keep them spellbound. They would ask, ‘为什么您想得到,我们想不到?’(‘Why is it that you’re able to think of it, and we can’t?’). I think teaching is in my blood.” And opening eyes is his passion. “People look at fashion with a tissue paper in front of their face. If you poke holes through it, they will see clearer.” Former students of his classes continue to recall how fun and lively and witty his instructions were, even when he could be strict. “But I am very patient. Because I have never been to fashion school, I teach my own way. And as I teach, I learn too. Even now, I am still learning. The thing is, no matter how old you are, you don’t let the learning stop.”

The learning may not come to a halt, but there has been talk among those who know him intimately that he may wish to discontinue designing. And the collection for Digital Fashion Week on Saturday evening may be his last. This would be shocking news to many. We put the question straight to him: is he retiring?

The 66-year-old does not answer directly, but smilingly counter-questions, “Do I want to continue to work like an idiot and not make enough money? After Digital Fashion Week, what next?” This is not rhetorical. Since the closure of his last stockist Coda in Scotts Square earlier this year, the Thomas Wee label is no longer retailed. While he continues to do projects such as the pop-up store in Galeries Lafayette Dubai by Anthropology of Design (an “exploration of designers and cities” initiated by entrepreneur Futtaim Beljaflah) and the recently concluded Kimono Kollab, and to take private commissions, the critical mass required to keep his atelier sustainable is not there. “I don’t see the buying power of the locals,” he says, “and my pool of customers does not get bigger.

“I don’t see myself moving on from here. I have been on this pattern-making table for 40 years. To me, I think I have come to a 段落 (phase). I don’t want to struggle to sustain this studio. If you want me to answer, it’s still a big question mark. If you look at my work, there’s still energy. But I have to be realistic. If there’s no market, then I have to seriously consider what to do next.”

The “next”, many hope, will not be the retirement of the anointed one, reluctant “King of Jacket”, who, in 2011, was recognised by CNN Power List as one, among thirty others, that have shaped modern Singapore. Some chapters should not be prematurely closed.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre

Kimono: A New Life

Kimono from the V&ASilk crepe kimono resist-dyed and embroidered with silk threads from the 19th century, part of a collection at Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Photo collage: Just So

Kimonos—fabric and dress—are evocative of a romantic Japan. For some, they speak of the feudal past, for others, the tradition today. A kimono is steep in ritual, beauty and art, yet few of us are aware of the kimono in the shadows—a dress unworn due to tarnish and tear, relegated to storage unseen by light. A geisha can live forever in the okiya, but even with age she need not be hidden. A kimono, however, when no longer perfectly resplendent is folded and denied its full splendour, confined in a closet or chest, threatened with disposal or destruction as space for unworn clothes is rarely expandable.

Such is the fate of the kimono in much of Japan today. A kimono is to be worn, but wearing a well-worn piece is not the thing to do. Like all clothes, a kimono is susceptible to the rigours of use, yet no matter how unnoticeable the signs of wear, a blemished kimono’s fate is set: it will not be worn. Bereft of a wearer, the kimono often sits languishing among the unworn or the unwearable. The tragic end is almost certain unless there is someone to salvage it. Fortunately for some of the condemned kimonos, there is Noriko Collins.

Ms Collins, a Japanese married to a New Zealander, and living in Singapore, is a rescuer committed to liberating many kimonos from certain doom. As she told it, “I was stricken by the tragedy of all these beautiful kimonos collecting dust in warehouses. I couldn’t bear the thought of them being tossed away like worthless trash. I had to do something.” That something is to revive the kimonos by bringing the garments outside the country that accepts their sad destiny to a place that might see these barely scratched and stained clothes as something that can be re-purposed. That place is our little island.

TW Kimono Kollab jacketCropped jacket of silk crepe de chine flecked with spring flowers, S$480, by Thomas Wee. Left: Mr Wee’s embellishments on top of the kimono fabric’s existing embroidery

“I was pregnant with this project for three years,” Ms Collins revealed, unable to contain her excitement that what she had in mind has finally culminated into the Kimono Kollab, an initiative that pairs the kimonos with Singapore designers keen on working with these robes. The result can be seen from tomorrow in a pop-up store erected in Takashimaya Department Store, which adopted Kimono Kollab as part of their 21st Anniversary in Singapore celebrations.

What will be seen—one-offs that cover a gamut of product categories and styles—belie the amount of kimonos that made their way here. In June, more than 100 kilos of vintage kimonos and obis were flown in from Osaka, where, through a friend, Yumiko Teraoka, a dealer and collector of “high-end vintage kimonos”, Ms Collins was able to acquire her bounty. Although what she eventually got are “castoffs”, they do not reveal their imperfections until upon very close inspection. “In the old days,” Ms Collins elaborated, “kimonos were worn every day, so some stains were inevitable. But nowadays, the kimono is worn only on special occasions, so a blot or a tear is not good.” In fact, all the kimonos that arrived were so intrinsically beautiful that any blotch, if immediately visible, seemed insignificant: a reminder of human use and living culture than smeared artistry.

In the hands of the selected Singapore designers—presently, nine of them—the outcome were, as expected, different, yet two broad groups can be discerned. There are the clothes that showed tremendous restraint and respect for the kimono, allowing the textile to regain its undiminished glory, and there are those that leaned on an anything-goes starting point. The designers were not restricted in what they could do, and this freedom yielded a motley selection of styles and, regrettably, finishes. A thing of beauty, such as the kimono, reborn does not necessarily beget its original loveliness.

VL X Kimono Kollab long vestSilk brocade kimono with Japanese landscape transformed into a zip-front shift, $389, by designer/stylist Vik Lim

The standouts are those by Thomas Wee and stylist/designer Vik Lim, as well as stylist/fashion all-rounder Lionnel Lim. Each of them took a measured approach to their designs, allowing the kimono’s inherent grace and exquisiteness to shine through, all the while shaping finished products that are in keeping with what is current and, more importantly, elegant. In a kimono, surface treatment of the garment is more important than the cut, and these designers have allowed it to shine through rather than limit its decorative function.

Thomas Wee, a master of the tailleur and the flou, constructed pieces that hark back to an era of time-consuming dressmaking. While his recent styles have moved away from the tailoring that characterised his designs, the pieces for Kimono Kollab have more than a whiff of the past Thomas Wee. This has to do with the in-built limitations of the kimono. As he explained to SOTD, “The kimonos come in such narrow panels (typically 14-inch wide). I cannot do sumptuous, loose cuts. I have to be very careful about the lines and seam joints. You work with the limitation of the fabric.” But limitation has never constricted Thomas Wee, and the results have the refinement and delicacy that are akin to the original kimonos. In a cropped, round-neck jacket (above), virtually no clues are present with regards to how narrow the panels of fabric the pattern had to be applied to. “The original kimono looked mumsy,” he pointed out, “but I was able to do a fully tailored jacket with it, including attractive placement of the flowers. The fabric was used up almost entirely (a pair of shorts goes with the jacket); there’s less than 18-inch remnant”.

The challenge that comes with working a fabric woven specifically for a traditional Japanese robe and not a Western dress is also what attracted Vik Lim to the project. “The entire kimono is made up of rectangles,” he explained to SOTD. “So you don’t have a length of your choice to work with. When I laid out the kimono for the first time, it was sacrilegious, I thought, to dissect it!” Yet, cut apart the kimonos he did, and what emerged are clothes in minimalist, modern shapes that wouldn’t be out of place in a wardrobe of similar staples. What is especially fascinating is how, despite the traditional prints, Vik Lim’s designs do not appear as pastiche from the past. “With traditional fabrics and motifs, I do the opposite: make the designs less traditional,” he elucidated. “But if the fabric is modern, I’d make the designs more traditional.”

Kimono up closeTo Vik Lim, the kimono has the hallmarks of haute couture (or “Asian couture”). And it is not hard to see why such a conclusion can be drawn. The kimono has a rather prosaic meaning—“the thing worn”, yet it reflects Japan’s rich textile history more than the nation’s way of wearing (it). Silks, linens, and cottons are used in the making of kimonos, and regardless of the fabric, once they’re destined to be used for the robe, are woven for its specific use and, in some economically-advantaged circumstances, also for the wearer. The choice of yarn employed, how it’s dyed, as well as the weave influence the tactile quality, heaviness, and drape of the kimono. Kimonos also show uniquely Japanese textile techniques such as shibori (a way of tie-dyeing) and kasuri (a way of weaving). Embroidery, often designed in tandem with dyeing, is so sophisticated; embroiderers enjoy the same elevated status as painters and calligraphers. The adornments are crucial indicators of wealth and status of the wearer, and hence important elements in kimono design. Kimonos are sewn by hand (photo left) with silk threads, and while the straight seams may appear mechanical and merely practical, they do make complete sense for a garment that is essentially linear and, as Vik Lim rightly pointed out, quadrilateral. Hand sewing also allows the kimono to be taken apart since, in the old days, the kimono was rarely washed as a whole garment.

The kimono’s offering of multifarious traditions in a dress is compelling. It is, therefore, understandable why some of our designers are drawn to it. Throughout the history of modern fashion, the kimono has constantly enticed those mostly clad in Western dress to explore its sartorial potential in a modern-day urban setting sans a Nippon cityscape. Pop artistes have often lead the way: Madonna’s punk kimono in the video of Nothing Really Matters designed by Jean Paul Gaultier or Bjork’s Naboo-esque kimono on the album cover of Homogenic designed by Alexander McQueen (who also directed her in the music video of Alarm Call)—these have exploited the kimono’s lean silhouette and simple shapes to dazzling effects, debunking the belief that traditional designs should not be tampered with.

LL X Kimono Kollab blouseModern T-shirt-style blouse with short silk shantung sleeves, S$260, by stylist Lionnel Lim

In tampering with the construction of the kimono, exploration is the prelude to deconstruction. And the potential of discovery and learning is extremely appealing to the designers. Said Vik Lim, “How many designers can truly have such a chance: to study the kimono inside out?” Lionnel Lim shares the same sentiment: “These are clothes that we rarely get to see so closely. No one goes to a geisha, for example, and ask, ‘May I see the inside of your kimono?’.”

Lionnel Lim’s reinterpretation of the kimono has a Harajuku-esque pop flavour, yet it respects the kimono’s simplicity and blockish form. In one blouse with contrast sleeves of vibrantly-coloured check (above), the kimono’s standard fold-over front is moved to the back, and cut away at the hemline to reveal a little skin—shifting cheekily downwards the Japanese woman’s preference of exposing the nape. Pleased with the result, he said, “I hate the idea of these gorgeous kimonos going to waste. I relish the chance to make a difference: call it recycle, call it re-engineer, I want my designs to showcase the original fabrics in something contemporary so that the kimonos can be given a new lease of life.”

Kimono Kollab The Pop-Up Store is at L2, Takashimaya Department Store from 3 to 12 October. Photos: Jim Sim