At the press conference announcing the participating designers of Fashion Week 2013 in the Marina Bay Sands in September, Frederick Lee previewed a sheer, black tunic-dress with hybrid dolman-kimono sleeves and a kind of bib-front strung with sparkly beads. This was not the typical cabaret-costume-as-couture of Mr Lee. Instead, it brought to mind this past summer’s collection of a certain LA-based French designer reviving a particularly esteemed Parisian label. The model, with curiously unstyled hair let loose, was fitted on the head with a pair of antlers, recalling the fascinators of a certain “Dante” collection during the winter of 1996 in a church in London’s Spitalfields.
Against the sample showing of the other invited French and Asian designers, Mr Lee’s diaphanous dress looked decidedly un-couture and not on form. But perhaps something was afoot. More than a week later, he showed a collection entitled “A Night Flight of Gargoyles” at the Amber Lounge as part of the club’s 10th anniversary celebrations that coincided with the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix weekend. The above dress appeared together with fourteen other outfits that bore no semblance to stone grotesques—sans La Gargouille too—despite the nearly all-black colour story. If anything at all, the collection with Mr Lee’s characteristic pastiche of embroidery, beading, sequins, and feathers was unabashedly campy.
Many familiar with Mr Lee’s work did not think his floor show sensibility will be replaced by the monstrous. Closing the Asian Couture segment of Fashion Week, and the only Singapore designer to represent the host country, he was to prove them wrong. The Amber lounge presentation was not reprised in its entirety; it wasn’t big enough and lacked histrionics. Broadening the earlier theme of darkness, he called version 2.0 “Death and Destruction”. The opening soundtrack, which sampled the ominous revelation of Haley Joel Osment in the The Sixth Sense, set the mood for a show of ornithic creatures passing through the fires of Hades (hence the catwalk’s red light and manufactured smoke?). The sweeping and grandiose premise of “Death and Destruction” quickly faded away as the models appeared between half-naked sentinels (with more of those ridiculous antlers) in one dress after another festooned with feathers as if performing in an avian hell-circus.
Mr Lee’s predilection for plumage is well known, even celebrated, but these were not the feathers of Maison Lemarié. Dark, epidermal, and bogged-down, they could have been the quills of predatory birds such as the vulture—a complete contrast to the kind of feather work usually associated with high fashion. Like many Asian couture designers, Mr Lee relies almost solely on the visually dramatic: his feathers had to remind you that they really came from birds. There was a floaty A-line dress with a plumed one-sleeve that slipped off the model’s shoulder, as she walked, like an injured wing; a bolero with sleeves akin to the wings of some wildfowl marauder; a multi-hued whole-bird torso that not only brought to mind Bjork’s infamous Oscar dress, but, too, the work of plumassière Nelly Saunier, whose parakeet bolero dazzled at the debut haute couture collection of a certain enfant terrible of Nineties French fashion; and the final number: the Egyptian god of rebirth and creation Khnum emerged as a female deity with wings! Or, for gamers of today, a creature out of Final Fantasy? Sharp fashion observers will, no doubt, recall a certain jacket from the Spring/Summer 2010 collection of a certain London-based Serbian designer.
(There was, perhaps, a hint of death, but where was the destruction? Were birds killed in the removal of their feathers?)
It needs no repeating that Mr Lee has a weakness for theatricality, but it may require pointing out that he is not a designer who can expand the vocabulary of forms. Whether with lateral extensions for (imaginary) flight or not, his core shape is one that follows the contour of the body from shoulder through to the bust and hip, and to around the knee, thereafter flaring out into a triangular spread similar to the caudal fins of fish. In other words, it is one that is sexy. This is the base on which he works his surface embellishment, and it also explains why he loves stretch tulle.
Unlike a typical couture setup, Mr Lee rarely shows a collection that distinguishes the fou (dressmaking) from the tailleur (tailoring). By working on a fundamental shape that is essentially a body stocking, he dispenses with tailoring—a variant of the couture that often tests a designer’s technical ability. The beauty of a couture dress is the aggregate of internal structure and external manipulation. This is held together with a workmanship so fine and invisible that you may not guess human hands touched the finished outfit. On the catwalk, Mr Lee’s clothes were eye-catching (even when—or because—some seams went askew). At close range (when two of his creations were displayed four days ago, following the inauguration of the Asian Couture Federation), some of his finishing did not hold up to scrutiny.
A feathered mermaid dress with one sleeve long and the other capped was fashioned from a base garment of stretch tulle. A zip ran through the middle in the rear, and at the point where it met the neckline, the top tape extensions were so untidily stitched, they formed a gridlock with the hook-and-eye closure. If something so visible could not be subjected to immaculate execution, then what’s under the plumage could boggle the mind. Perhaps that explained the need for distractions such as scarlet lighting and eye-smarting smoke. And the penchant for excessive embellishment.
At the risk of ruffling some feathers, let’s consider what Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.