What Comes Next?

If Singapore Fashion Week is no more, can a regional event be an ideal stand-in?

SGFW to endSingapore Fashion Week to fade to oblivion?

What we blogged three days ago turns out to be quite true. Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW) has possibly drawn to a close. After a comeback that spans three short years, the 2017 edition will be the last, according to an online report.

In an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore this past Wednesday, Tjin Lee, founder of Mercury M&C, the company behind SGFW, said, “After 11 editions*, that is my last Singapore Fashion Week. It means next year it will be ‘go big or go home’.”

It isn’t quite clear what she meant by “go big or go home”. Street expression aside, for many observers, increasing the size or duration of SGFW is not tenable since, by Ms Lee’s own admission, the pool of designers who are able to support SGFW is very small. Or even non-existent since, according to her, our “designers can’t fund themselves”. And “go home?” Has SGFW not always been staged on home turf?

The business talk of this morning was that Ms Lee has “registered the Asia Fashion Week URL”.  An online check confirmed that the domain name asiafashionweek.com has been registered to Tjin Lee using the Mercury’s office address, with a “creation date” of “2014-05-14” and an “updated date” of “2017-05-26”. It is, therefore, possible that Ms Lee has entertained the idea of creating a potentially massive Asia Fashion Week as far back as 2014, the last year of Audi Fashion Festival, precursor to her version of SGFW.

In the Yahoo interview, Ms Lee offered little details about the form this new fashion week will take other than her eagerness to “change the format” and “completely evolve and pivot” it. She said, “It’s got to be bigger than Singapore; think regional, think Asia… Whatever I do next, it will either be a bigger Asian focus or it will not be.” And she reiterated, “Go big or go home.”

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An Asia Fashion Week is a fascinating although frightfully ambitious proposal. With most Asian hub cities—such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, and Tokyo—staging their own visible fashion weeks, designers from the continent, young or established, may not see the lure in participating in a Singapore-based (assuming it’ll be held here) event that is a spin-off of a relatively low-key and humble one of debatable success.

Do other Asian designers have money? That was the question asked when SOTD spoke to some in the fashion business. The one issue, as Ms Lee has plainly noted, is the lack of financial means among local designers to pay to be part of a runway-centric event. The production of the collection itself is usually the main cost consideration for designers and, consequently, staging a show that they have to pay for is an unappealing proposition. Does spreading the net wider mean attracting fatter fish?

“The China designers have money,” said a product development manager. That is not entirely true. While there are designers who can be considered financially successful, there are also those who work on their collections with modest budgets, much like their Singaporean counterparts, and are not necessarily able to afford to stage shows. Those who are able, such as Masha Ma and Uma Wang, show in Paris, or elsewhere in Europe. Small, independent designers, as with the social-media/designer darlings, have trifling sums for marketing, let alone participate in a “big” fashion event. It can be said that for most fashion designers anywhere not blessed with munificent backing, a splashy catwalk presentation is not ticked for consideration.

In China, the main fashion weeks are sanctioned by the Ministry of Commerce, and supported by local or municipal governments, and may not be in the form of funding. Rather, it could come as provision of venues or logistical aid. Together with corporate and media sponsorship, the final budgetary burden on show organisers is significantly lighter, and that helpfully relieves the financial load weighing down on designers. China’s fashion (not garment manufacturing) industry is a fairly young one, and it is common understanding that fledgling designers would not be able to stage a massive show without assistance.

There are more fashion weeks in China than film festivals—a situation also seen in India. According to the organizers of Shanghai Fashion Week, there are about 30 fashion weeks throughout China, with Shanghai Fashion Week and China Fashion Week (in Beijing) being the two most important and under international media radar. Chinese designers and those outside the mainland are, therefore, spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing an ideal platform for their collections or a larger, more receptive audience. What then could be the appeal of the suggested Asia Fashion Week? Ms Lee has not made her case.

SGFW audience

Singapore Fashion Week fashioned by Mercury is, as many observers have underscored, a business, and one that has to have a more-than-healthy bottom line. It was shared during the event last week that this year’s SGFW may run a six-figure loss. We have not been able to independently verify this sum, but if true, it is understandable why SGFW has to end, or morph into a remunerative version. Taking into account that Mercury reportedly received no aid from the government, their income prospects had mainly come from corporate sponsorship, charging designers for participation (whether the charges were equitable, no one could say for sure), and ticket sales.

Corporate sponsorship has always been the main means to fund SGFW, but, as Ms Lee wrote in her personal blog, “even big companies are often happy to give product, lots of it, but are often reluctant to part with cash.” It has been said that since the generosity of Audi during the ‘Festival’ days of Mercury’s fashion-show extravaganzas, corporate support has not quite been what it was. Whether that means reduced monetary sponsorship, sponsors are unwilling to say. Money received from charging designers to stage their shows is even more dismal. It is known that Mercury had in the past hook designers up with sponsors—but that did not necessarily improve the ledger. Increasingly, designers were unwilling to pay (chances are, Jason Wu did not, as he was “invited”). And door tickets, despite the high price (up to $250 for a package for the inaugural Zipcode forum), did not sell enough to delight any finance manager.

“If the business opportunity is so gloomy, would a larger fashion week that encompasses Asia really work, and how,” SGFW followers have asked, “and what happens to the raising of the Singapore flag?” Perhaps, in the end, business viability overrides noble causes, whether they’re idealistic or not, especially if they are. It would be a pity to see Singapore Fashion Week, with a history that dates back to 1990 (not since Mercury’s founding, as it seems to be the thought), come to a complete close. While an Asia Fashion Week may continue to shine the spotlight on our island, it will still not change the fate that, as Ms Lee despairingly told Yahoo, “Singapore is too small a country to support its own local domestic fashion”.

For veterans of the Singapore fashion scene, and some newcomers alike, Tjin Lee’s idealism is not without its charm. Her love for fashion weeks, her steely determination, and her dream to embrace all of Asia are reminiscent of the reverie of Ms Lee’s one-time collaborator Frank Cintamani of Fidé Fashion Weeks. Mr Cintamani had sought to bring his fashion weeks—first staged here—across the region to salute Asian designers. His resolve saw the formation of the curious Asian Couture Federation. Following friction with organisers that took to social media during Vietnam International Fashion Week, which he teamed up with in 2015, Fidé Fashion Weeks is rather silent in the past year, except for the “democratically priced couture-infused British label” Couturissimo, which is strangely now doing the pop-up rounds here.

SGFW may not be a stable foundation for a bigger fashion week since it was built on not-completely solid ground, but it is on top of SGFW that Ms Lee will “evolve” the event. Perhaps she’s starting anew, creating a clean slate, from which to better repackage a fashion week. As one PR manager said, “It looks like she’s sinking the ship that she built.” For Ms Lee, it is possible that in order to start afresh, she has to close the door that she opened years ago so that another might be unlocked. Opportunities do come through many entrances, whether they’re narrow or wide, whether they welcome or spurn.

Stay tuned.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

* The Singapore Fashion Week in the form of the last 3 years began in 2015 as a remade Audi Fashion Festival, primarily a shopping-related event



A Fashion Week Of Reduced Circumstances

The third outing of the re-branded Singapore Fashion Week is the shortest it has ever been—down from last year’s five days to three. But brevity is only a small part of the sadly diminishing allure of what has been billed as the city’s “premier” event. Will there be a 2018 edition?

SGFW 2017 posterVertical banner of SGFW spotted outside the CBD and Orchard Road, along Havelock Road

The word that went round this year’s Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW), staged at the National Gallery for the second year, was that this could be the last. Even staff of the event’s organizer Mercury M&C was not able to say that the 2018 edition of SGFW will be a certainty. Some attendees helpfully suggested that perhaps it could be just a one-year hiatus so as to allow Mercury to “reorganise and consolidate”.

It is no secret that this year’s SGFW was especially hard to pull off, given the unchanging bleak retail climate and reduced business among Singaporean designers, a reality more complex and far-reaching than the average show-goer would know. Founder/managing director of Mercury, Tjin Lee, aka Lee Huei Tjin, betrayed her fears when she posted in Facebook last month: “It’s been an extremely challenging year as we sought solutions to stay relevant as a fashion week in Singapore. With the digital revolution, retail slowdown, our small market size and difficult fundraising climate, it’s been the most challenging year in all 11 years that I’ve organised the fashion week in Singapore.”

How challenging has it been? It really requires no telling that even malls are pulling back on fashion shows (when was the last time you attended one in a shopping centre?). The Orchard Fashion Runway of Fashion Steps Out is no more, too. If there’s contemplation of ending SGFW, chances are, a marketing head opined, there are “dismal figures in the ledger.” This regrettably encourages cynics to reiterate that Singapore is a lost cause for fashion.

SGFW runwayGuests getting into their seats at National Gallery’s Former Supreme Court Terrace

The possibility of an SGFW financially disadvantaged is surprising. In March, marketing-interactive.com reported that “Mercury M&C and Lumina Live look to merge services”, and had quoted Ms Lee as saying that a merger “brings together an integrated 360 experience for clients in events, PR and marketing”. If confirmed, the merger was expected to be completed in 2018. But it was more than just “look”. A new company Mercury Live has since been formed. Lumina Live was founded in 1999 by David See, an industry veteran whose clients include Burberry, Dior, and Hermès.

The announced merger was a bolt from the blue for many who remembered that in 2009, Miss Lee had found a partner, Jeremy Tan, to put Mercury’s books in order, and to improve the bottom line. She told The Straits Times in 2015 that she was “taken by his style of working and how he managed to have much higher profit margins than me despite operating a smaller business.” At the same time, she revealed that fashion weeks are not a money spinner since “we get little to no funding from the Government and have to push so hard to fund the entire event through the private sector.” And the private sector had been supportive, with Audi as the title sponsor when she ran the precursor of SGFW, Audi Fashion Festival, from 2009 to 2014.

Prior to the merger with Lumina Live, it was shared among industry insiders that the once-lauded Jeremy Tan had left Mercury. Mr Tan had said that it was a business decision to part ways—whether to continue with the company 1Werk that he founded before partnering with Mercury, it isn’t certain, but he does continue to produce fashion events, such as the Heineken X F1 fashion show at the unlikely venue Lau Pa Sat in September. A solo act again at the beginning of 2017, Tjin Lee, it seemed, needed a Jeremy Tan and she found him in David See. How this turn of events is going to pan out or bode for Mercury, or affect SGFW is anybody’s guess.

SGFW opening showGoh Lai Chan, left, on the catwalk after the presentation of his collection on the opening night of SGFW

Despite the challenges and a sponsorship environment that is less than forthcoming with funding, Ms Lee was able to bring together a respectable 20 sponsors, including the National Gallery, where the SGFW was held. But, according to a show producer SOTD spoke to, sometimes even with backing, fashion weeks may not be profitable as many designers get their slots free. “It is hard to imagine very young brands such as Arissa X with the means to pay to do a show,” he said. It is known, in fact, that some young designers/influencers with their own—often dubious—fashion label get “invited” to participate in order to fill empty slots, or to lend SGFW a certain quick-gain cachet that will appeal to the all-important Millennials.

One fashion PR professional said emphatically, while queuing to be admitted to the opening show Laichan, “SGFW has always been a business, not national service, not a platform to nurture young talents. If there’s no business, there’s no SGFW. It’s as simple as that.” That perhaps explains why tickets to the shows are sold—an uncommon practice at fashion weeks. A Singaporean designer earlier shared similar view when asked if he was invited to the shows, “No, lah! She (Tjin Lee) is an entrepreneur. Business is her priority. Associates like us must patronise to support her.”

How much support has Ms Lee received? Not insignificantly. People are still happily attending the shows, she’s still able to entice designers and brands to participate in SGFW (in some cases, even encourage unfledged and untried social media stars to start their own label so that they may be featured in SGFW), and the event has still retained the ‘premium’ tag in which the fashion show-hungry masses allowed her to indulge.

SGFW show about to startWaiting for the Zalora-supported Fashion Futures 1.0 show to start

An encouraging thing to note is that despite what some thought to be an eleventh-hour scramble to get SGFW going (even the press conference was a late affair, conducted a day after ST Life’s first report and three days after our post; 45 days before the first shows), the event proper itself saw improvements over last year’s not-hiccup-free staging. For one, the shows were now sited in one venue—in the National Gallery’s Former Supreme Court Terrace, although, to many, still not an ideal catwalk location. The one-runway site could also be because there were fewer shows, but, for attendees, it was a relief to know they did not have to shuttle between two points in the museum, as they had to last year.

There was also a photographers’ pit, which meant that, unlike the previous installation, which allowed lensmen to roam free, there would be no jostling with iPhone-wielding friends-of-designers eager to put the shows on Facebook Live. But it was still a no-win for many photographers and videographers as they had to deal with front-row attendees who were unable (or unwilling) to retract stretched limps, as well as extended and stationary arms bent on filming the show for whatever reason SGFW needed to be recorded with their smartphone. This was compounded by a relatively narrow catwalk flanked by three-row deep bleachers. It was a runway that was not palazzo pants and ball gown-friendly, as seen at the more-songs-than-clothes presentation of two-year-old Singaporean label Feayn, by graphic-designer-turn-tukangjahit Sufian Hussein.

The opening show of this year’s SGFW enjoyed a few firsts. It was the first time the event opened with a Singaporean designer and the first appearance of The Singapore Dress since its disappearance from stores and public consciousness in 2002. It was Goh Lai Chan’s first opening act and his first showing at SGFW (discounting the 8-piece capsule that he showed during the now-defunct Blue Print trade event in 2010). It was, however, not the first collection to see the marrying of ethnic fabrics and decorative arts in one pageant-style outfit after another.

Ling Wu SS 2018 bagsThe bags of Ling Wu, presented as a catwalk show

Applause to the strong showing of Asian designers is deserving, but the collections regrettably said almost nothing of what Asian designs are about today, or what it means to be designing in this region, or what it comports with showing at SGFW. How the final selection of names came about isn’t certain, but one senses that this could be a knee-jerk reaction to past criticisms that SGFW lacked local and Asian names, rather than a concerted effort to showcase Singaporean and Asian designers who can truly train the world’s attention to our shores and to see us as a critical and inspiring source of fashion design that can truly propel us forward, the way Seoul and Tokyo are regarded as elevating and future-bound.

It is also increasingly unclear what SGFW, beyond its Asian posturing, is really about. Sure, to expect it to be a fashion extravaganza as in the good old days, or as recent as the 2008 Singapore Fashion Festival (a winning comeback for Mercury) may, at this point, seem quaint and old-fashioned and irrelevant. And to hope that it could be a B2B affair, as some have, negates the fact that it never was, and never will be. SGFW is a spin-off of Singapore Fashion Festival; it is entertainment, pure and simple.

But as entertainment, was it first-rate? No one was expecting a Chanel show with sets so magnificent and awe-inspiring, you’d think you were in a movie studio. But a bunch of preening social-media types wanting to be in fashion and thus stage a fashion show is not fashion; it’s a D&D performance. Immoderate it really is not to hope for something more stimulating to the senses. There could have been attendees going to SGFW for the entertainment or to be seen and photographed, but there were many who seriously—or foolishly—went for the fashion. At the end of most shows, particularly the Zalora-supported Fashion Futures 1.0, it was a struggle not to feel insulted. If this was a film festival, Fashion Futures 1.0 would be, at best, a fringe event.

To paraphrase a line from the Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 film The Limey, you’re not specific enough to be fashion. You’re more like a vibe. What many of the SGFW participants were truly offering was just body coverings—so many of the clothes were literally two pieces of rectangles joined at the sides—styled to look influencer-credible and IG-ready, as if to better tag them #OOTD and nothing else. These participants were basically banking on their personal brand. There was no point of view, no voice, and positively no fashion.

SGFW Jason Wu SS 2017Finale of Jason Wu’s spring/summer 2018 collection

The question of a credible fashion week arose on the last day of SGFW. While the hot ticket of the night was Jason Wu’s much-anticipated show, it did not close the event. That went to the one-year-old brand Arissa X, the baby of Arissa Cheo, photogenic Singaporean wife of Taiwanese actor and singer Vanness Wu. In allocating Arissa X that prime slot, it seemed that local celebrity (with a Mando-pop star husband) trumped international star (with connections to the former FLOTUS of the White House), provisional business surpassed complete fashion enterprise, and small-network e-shop outdid global distribution. It was later explained that Mr Wu could not be given the last time slot because plans to take him out for dinner could not be changed—reservations had been made. If he was indeed the last to show, the wrap-up would end too late for a grand feast. In Singapore, what else do you with an overseas guest other than eat?

This year, SGFW was touted as “beyond the runway”, with Zipcode: A Fashion Tech Summit in the bag. Although Zipcode wasn’t the G20, it is commendable that SGFW looked into addressing the inevitable influence of technology on fashion, particularly in marketing and retail (although, ironically, their digital presence was considerably diminished. Since the start on SGFW on 26 October, there have been only one post on their FB page and 18 on IG. Meanwhile, last year’s link-up with Digital Fashion Week has terminated). While at it, Mercury should also consider either completely re-conceptualising SGFW or creating a separate fashion week for Yoyo Cao (of Exhibit) and her cohorts to show. This would perhaps do away with the uneven platform of career designers jostling with look-at-me-now dabblers.

Before it is said that SGFW has been doused with prejudice, it should be noted that many of the young brands, born of an e-shop or social media following, or sheer vanity, truly leapt onto the SGFW runway in a single bound, with almost no experience in the fundamentals of dressmaking, nor exposure to a drafting table and its content, let alone the insides of a factory or the confines of a sampling room. This isn’t discriminatory; this is a new reality. While the rag trade needs to acknowledge the existence of such a fashion category—designer by name, not by practice, a national platform for the promotion of true local (and regional) talent should rethink how it embraces such indeterminates.

SGFW 2017 sponsors' boothsThe sponsors’ booth on the upper floor of the Former Supreme Court Terrace that few went to look

And a national platform should preclude designs that can be joined by dots to the versions of others already in circulation. Dismay with weak shows, it should be noted, soon deepened into indignation when flagrant disregard for originality seized the runway. It can be considered conceit when designers fail to think that viewers of their show are so ignorant that near-facsimiles of other designers’ work can breeze past them without being noticed and noted. No amount of handwork and the hours spent on these clothes can negate the fact that they are not true own-creations.

It is undeniable that getting a group of credible designers together from a pool that is barely wet is a trying endeavour. This is another reality of the state of the industry, if it can still be identified as one. Whoever is selected must not be led to believe that SGFW is platform to instant greatness and once on its runway, he or she is infallible or cannot be met with censure. It is disheartening that despite creative output of disputable finesse, there’s a generation of designers with ego as massive as the sky, but tolerance for criticism as capacious as a snuff bottle. Could this be because our society is increasingly seeing a demographic so emotionally fragile that an honest opinion is immediate damnation? As a lecturer at a local design school remarked, “These days, tell a student that her work has not improved from last semester, and see tears roll down her eyes.”

Criticism is part of the creative universe, and creators can benefit from it. When the Japanese designers—namely Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—showed in Paris in the early ’80s, they were derided for making hideous and unwearable clothes. But they soldered on, in Paris, no less. More than 35 years later, they are still making waves, together with another generation of designers—also with shaky starts—gathering media raves: the “Japanese designers are by far the coolest at Paris Fashion Week”. We may not have seen anything at SGFW that bowled us over, but we are hopeful that someday, somewhere, at SGFW or not, we will get to say, Singaporean designers are plain cool.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji