UK-based Eshamuddin Ismail of Ashley Isham continues to show in hometown Singapura even with exposure to a more international audience via London Fashion Week. This willingness to preserve the Singapore connection has endeared him as “one of the most famous Singaporean fashion designers around” or “one of the most prominent figures in fashion” even when fame is not the synonym of prominence.
Earlier this evening, Mr Ismail presented what was essentially a trunk show in the private rooms of the new Robinsons Orchard to a small audience that comprised some members of the media, potential customers, as well as his family. Seated quietly by herself, Mr Ismail’s 62-year-old mother Rokiah Abu looked at the models expressionlessly, perhaps not comprehending what the statuesque women wore—clothes that were so distant from her own pakaian tradisi.
But upon closer scrutiny, the Ashley Isham look was not entirely a contrast to Tradisi, the line of baju kurung and baju kebaya that Mr Ismail debuted during Hari Raya this year. A part of this evening’s showing featured a “preview” of the Spring/Summer 2014 collection that first appeared in September in London’s Freemasons’ Hall (although staged during London Fashion week, it was not part of LFW’s official calendar). So many of the outfits stood out because of their semblance to Malay baju: blouses or tops that ended somewhere between the hip and the knee over straight skirts (sarung!) or what appeared to be skirts due to their separate fabrication, which, when paired, were not unlike the baju kurung; as well as lace and embroidery placements (even on the sampling of men’s wear) that were akin to those typically found on a kebaya top.
To give the clothes a less ethnic appearance, Mr Ismail used rain wear fabrics such as PVC, but that did not take away the obvious. It is not an impairment to design judgement when Asian motifs and shapes are employed, but the challenge for designers based far away from home is one of judicious use. How much is too much? How clear without being derivative? How blatant before it appears too keen to pander to Western sense of Eastern exotica? In forging a recognisable Asian identity, Mr Ismail wasn’t heavy-handed with his silhouettes and details, but neither was he merely hinting. Naturally, he is not expected to totally abandon his roots, but heading West, in his case, was to become “an international designer” which could mean a less geography-centric attachment. It is admirable that Mr Ismail has never refuted his Southeast Asian source of inspiration, but the obvious could suggest ideas coming from the obtuse.
Ashley Isham, once stocked at the now defunct Link, has, since its inception 13 years ago, been a about a certain shapeliness that would do Saloma (the famous singer who was P. Ramlee’s last wife) proud. By his own admission, his designs are aimed at the femme fatale. The goddess dress and its various interpretations—his catwalk staple—clearly has a destination: the red carpet. Although based in London, his work shows not a bit of wit or quirk or irony that the city, as a fashion capital, is associated with. Instead, he packs so much sexiness in most of his designs that it would not be immoderate to assume that they came out of Los Angeles.
The real reason for this evening’s display is the line Mr Ismail has developed for Robinsons. Called Draperie (above), it is his first collaboration with a department store. According to Doris Loh, the store’s women’s wear merchandise manager, who had approached the designer directly in London to conceive Draperie, “he was very enthusiastic and supportive and keen” and undeterred by the extremely short time to assemble the collection, which Ms Loh said was partly made in England and partly made locally. The show is also testament to Robinsons’s believe in the Ashley Isham label although the main line is available diagonally across the street in Orchard Central, and despite the failure of Mr Ismail’s earlier attempt at a diffusion line, AI (FJ Benjamin was appointed as the buying house then). The AI store in Mandarin Gallery was shuttered last year. For many, it is hard to recall what AI was about except for the unusually large label stitched to the clothes.
While it is clear that Mr Ismail is trying to avoid his usual overly sexy aesthetics with a more geometric and technical approach to design, as evident in his A/W 2013 collection, the pared down treatment seemed like a token dodge. He is not by nature a minimalist designer. As such, Draperie’s clean-lined pieces seem unconvincing only because you know they have been done before. The shell-top fashioned after a tee (with leather thrown in the mix of fabrics) recall a London-based English designer’s earlier output for a certain French label; the shirt with contrast bodice that were at one time prevalent in the collections of a German designer who left her house only to return again (and again); and the jersey dresses that share similar drapes with the staid styles of Mphosis: these, of course, have become standards of retail racks and they mirror market wants rather than design savvy. In this respect, one suspects the unseen but deft hands of Robinsons’s merchandising team supervising the development of the line.
Draperie, a name that reflects the Ashley Isham penchant for drapery, is noticeably a saleable line that is well merchandised, and not badly made. If the excited response of the invited guests to the clothes placed strategically at the event’s holding area, just by the exit, was any indication, the new label is off to a good start.
Draperie by Ashley Isham is available exclusively at Robinsons Orchard, level 3