Is Dick Lee A Modern Outfitter?

DSC_1102Some people just want to come back, again and again. As a fashion designer, Dick Lee has beaten even Jil Sander when it comes to resurrecting his design career. Just last week, it was revealed that Mr Lee has launched a line of shirts under the label The Modern Outfitters with young, retail newcomer Clinton Zheng. There are people who have such a worshipful relationship with fashion that they become born-again designers, time after time.

Mr Lee’s first outing in fashion design was in the early Seventies when, at 16, he designed for his mother Elizabeth Tan’s boutique Midteen in Tanglin Shopping Centre, and his last was in 2002, when he co-conceived Love On Earth with the doyenne of local fashion Celia Loe. Between those lines, others came and went like the monsoon. After the last stint, it has been another hiatus, this time a 12-year lull that allowed Dick Lee the singer, the composer, as well as the Singapore Idol judge to overshadow Dick Lee the fashion designer, so much so that few of the young consumers today are aware of Mr Lee’s garment-industry roots.

The vocational irregularity aside, Mr Lee is qualified to design fashion, having studied the subject at Harrow School of Art in Middlesex, London, in 1977. It was here, two decades earlier, that a teenaged Vivienne Westwood had taken a course—without completing it—in silversmithing and jewellery-making before becoming wildly famous in the early Seventies for her provocative designs, which were conceived in collaboration with Malcolm McLaren. In his second school year, Mr Lee designed his first commercial collection for Rene Reveur Paris, a now-forgotten Italian house, then more noted for its accessories than ready-to-wear. This one-off collection was surprisingly girlish: what stood out were dresses with smocked bodices and ruffled hems—styles that Olivia Newton-John would have loved to wear on television, pre-Grease. It was never established if Mr Lee was as an exceptional student, since he was not reported to have made ripples, compared to the waves that John Galliano would create at Central Saint Martins six years after Mr Lee left Harrow.

Not long upon returning to Singapore in 1982, Mr Lee opened Ping Pong, a little boutique in the briefly-popular Orchard C & E (where Midpoint Orchard now stands). Ping Pong, as the rhythmic name suggests, was not short of zing. It stood out with its Fisher-Price colours, leaned towards somewhat Oriental shapes (specifically, boxiness), and comprised of pieces that had certain pop relish about them: clash of colours (boy, were they bright!), kitschy graphics (his mother’s face was used in the square hang tags!), and Brody-ish typography (those condensed fonts!). It was understandable, therefore, why the first season was called ‘Colourama’, a description that rang of Mr Lee’s propensity to impart drama into what he created to bring out vivid, moving, and nostalgic results.

Singapore had not seen anything like Ping Pong at that time. It introduced colour-blocking to local fashionistas who lapped up the shirt-blouses with contrast-colour collar, pocket, and sleeves or the tunics, also with mismatched sleeves, that were often cinched at the waist with a brightly-hued belt. It was also the first to throw sports clothes into the mix. The label’s secondary line Ping Pong Athletic Club introduced track pants as casual wear, an idea now so mainstream that French terry jogging trousers with cuffed hems can be found even in Uniqlo. In the far-off days of the Eighties, Ping Pong captured the period’s zeitgeist: to stand out loud. It appeared during the heydays of the Memphis movement, and, while it can’t be said that its creator was the Ettore Sottsass of fashion, Ping Pong was fun, attention-seeking, and randomly alluded to the fashion choices of the young Mr Lee’s growing up years.

Run by his close friend, Gwen Tan, whose irrepressible joyfulness was matched by the cheerful colouring of the clothes and the celebrity of the clientele, Ping Pong’s popularity grew rapidly. This was partly due to the support of the press, in particular, Mr Lee’s bosom buddy and, later, wife Jacintha Abisheganaden (before she became simply Jacintha when she started singing), who, as a writer/stylist for The Straits Times, featured Ping Pong clothes with welcomed frequency. The resultant recognition was remarkable considering that newspapers were not printed in colour or laid out with today’s digital enhancements.

Although the brand enjoyed visibility unusual for a start-up, Ping Pong was not a game changer. The designs were usually clever, but in the Eighties, cleverness was mostly good for hype, not accolade, which tended to go to something else: technical finesse. While Mr Lee was not a technical designer (you would never, for example, associate ‘constructed’ with his designs), he had the flair for offering a transformative experience to the shopper. At a time when European chic and American basics were preferred, Ping Pong moved back and forth between Western aesthetics and Oriental kitsch without dizzying side effects. The clothes (and the graphics employed) were often infused unapologetically with Singaporean flavours or Chinese references. At the brand’s first anniversary fashion show, entitled Beauty World (an appellation that predated Michael Chiang’s 1988 musical of the same name), Mr Lee paraded clothes that paid tribute to Madam Sun Yat Sen, as well as “The Decline of the Cultural Revolution”. To his credit, this was pre-Vivienne Tam!

Dick Lee OrientalismThroughout much of his career as designer, songwriter, and creative-concept initiator, Mr Lee has embraced Orientalism (in fact, the name of his solo album in 1991) through various motifs. While these are not trivial enough to be considered cultural tokenism, they’re not significant enough to be considered cultural nationalism (or regionalism, since he draws inspiration from beyond our shores).  Oriental influences are brought into play to affect what can be considered reborn exotica, and one akin to the exotica from which Westerners derive aesthetic pleasures. It arouses the senses, but only momentarily, and does not have emotional impact. Some people consider it to be random sampling—just as a DJ might draw from past materials to create the familiar, yet new. To be sure, Mr Lee’s efforts are not self-conscious, but they are short of the punch that can forge a strong or convincing national identity. Till today, he has given culture theorists much to think about.

For all its freshness and joie de vivre, Ping Pong was not a long-drawn sport; its allure was as ephemeral as the charm of Memphis furniture. As Ping Pong slowly lost its bounce, Mr Lee’s designs were soon to emerge in a new outlet he conceived in 1985: Hemispheres. Our island’s very first multi-label store supporting local design, Hemispheres opened to much fanfare. Excitement was build around the hype that it had more than a whiff of Hyper Hyper, London’s retail hotbed of new designers of the Eighties, a less-sleek precursor to today’s highly-curated Dover Street Market. Situated at Delfi Orchard, Hemispheres had a deliberately retro interior (interestingly, dubbed by Mr Lee as “Memphis kopi tiam”) designed by Katherine Kng, who was behind popular Eighties’ designer boutique Glamourette’s luxurious looks, and would later be known for her work with Christina Ong’s Como Hotels and Resorts. It was managed by D&A Consultants, one of the leading fashion event companies of that time, owned by Dick Lee and his serial business partner Alan Koh, and was the second act to their earlier Runway Productions.

Despite the rave he received with Ping Pong and the initial popularity of Hemispheres, Mr Lee’s collection under his own name at his second store did not generate equal enthusiasm. His fashion design paled beside his creative direction for Hemispheres. The bristling energy that had earlier defined Ping Pong had dissipated. As he was the visible face of the store, it was assumed, perhaps not quite fairly, that the fashion designer played second fiddle to the storekeeper.

Not much was made public about his actual involvement in the design process of his collections, but it was known that during this time, Mr Lee dispatched his sketches to Stitch By Stitch, a tailoring service at Orchard Towers, to have his designs realised without always his personal supervision. These drawings were not technical flats, and were not marked out with dimensions. And he gave no paper patterns. The dressmakers at Stitch By Stitch had to determine lengths and widths based on guesswork. Many designers at that time, such as Mr Lee, weren’t backed by a manufacturer, and few had the advantage of even CMT production. Hemispheres, however, used this as a unique selling position. The small output of many of the labels—due to production and yardage limitation—offered consumers “exclusivity”, selectiveness that the store often trumpeted.

Outsourced, the Dick Lee collection met the same fate as many other small-scale designers of the time who were at the mercy of their tailors: inconsistency of finish and quality. While Ping Pong could get away with a more informal approach to production since the line was veered towards the sportif, his namesake label’s attempt at traditional dressmaking required the deftness of a pattern maker and a sample sewer, both not always evident, judging by the end products. These were unlike his earlier designs, and were dominated by the shirt-dress/sundress variety, composed of different floral fabrics in one garment, sometimes contrasted with stripes—all rather post-hippy Ossie Clark. The newness of Hemispheres and its young, avant-garde designers such as Heng Juit Leng and Tan Woon Choor, almost instantly showed up Dick Lee’s lack of forwardness. By now, the Japanese designers had made their mark in Singapore, and the local designers who dared—mostly self-taught—were avoiding traditional dressmaking in favour of methods and results that challenged the conventional.

Hemispheres eventually closed in 1987. Shortly before that, the Dick Lee label was discontinued. During this time, Mr Lee’s music career had taken off. By 1989, the Mad Chinaman avatar had set him firmly as Singapore’s most bankable pop star. He took a break from fashion when he moved to Tokyo in 1990 to make it big in Japan. Conceptually, Mr Lee’s music was very much like his fashion: a zesty pastiche of Asian elements built on recognisable forms, and although the rojak sounds were charming, they broke no new ground. Returning to Singapore after 2000, he continued to design intermittently for retailers such as Tangs while he wrote and sang.

The closure of Hemispheres was, to both shoppers and designers, a loss to Singapore fashion. During its two-year tenure, the store was really more community centre than kopi tiam. It was a place to be seen; a setting for models, stylists, brand owners and consumers to mingle and get acquainted; a testing ground to see what worked and what did not. While his designs at this time did not catch on, Dick Lee did leave a deep impression as a fashion impresario. Through Hemispheres, he was able to use his fashion sense, marketing smarts, and social connections to champion Singapore design. He encouraged the emerging designers of the time to embrace their heritage, and he led by example, basking in the new-found glow of the ‘Singapore designer’. While he did not rewrite the rules of design or retail, he did facilitate opportunities for aspirants to realise their potential.

DSC_1103Fast forward to the present: Mr Lee has picked up pencil, paper, and fabric swatches again. And the resultant collection appears in Tiong Bahru, a location completely in sync with his cultural awareness and penchant for nostalgia. The Modern Outfitters is stocked at Intercontinental, a multi-label store in Seng Poh Lane. The space was once occupied by Nana & Bird and their other permutations (including Two.O.Ri). Just last month, online retailer Zalora started their first physical store here although only for six days. Habitués to this part of town will be familiar with the now-closed Por Kee Eating House, that zi char place known as much for the good food as the surly service and confusing queuing system. Intercontinental is directly across the eatery.

The Modern Outfitters fronts the shop, so it can’t be missed. In fact, the first thing that welcomes you is the over-large logo—designed to draw attention to the word ‘modern’—plastered across the glass door. Inside, the sales guy Malcolm was quick to point out that “all the shirts here are designed by Dick Lee”, a pitch delivered with palpable pride. Unmissable to even the most laid-back shopper are those shirts in cotton that are printed with flowers. There’s something retro about these blooms contained within shapes of shirts that are as regular as any you’ll find away from here. Freed from their racks, they do recall some of those shirts Mr Lee did in the late Eighties for what was known as the Century collection: those floral bodices with black sleeves come quickly to mind. Think harder, and there is an uncanny resemblance to the now-defunct label Allan Ross, a proud-to-to-be-loud shirt line that was once available at Takashimaya Department Store, and was conceived by Johorean-turn-Singaporean designer Allan Chai and his partner Ross Chng.

DSC_1104The bright flowers, especially those scattered against black background, are also not dissimilar to those depicted in the drawings of the debut exhibition of Dick Lee as an artist in October last year. These were bright blooms, drawn not to depict them in their natural setting, but as flatten flora that might be found in vintage wallpaper. As Mr Lee told The Business Times, “The colourful floral prints were inspired by my mother… (who) would take me to textile shops for fabric and I remember being stunned by the bales of multi-hued cloths.” The subjects—men and women—were delineated in black and white “to convey nostalgia” even when the clothes, clearly from the Fifties and Sixties, offered enough clues to suggest looking back at the past. More illustration than art, these pieces brought to mind the early multi-media collages of Karen Hoisington.

So much of Mr Lee’s artistic endeavours are based on or affected by recall that nostalgia inevitably works its way into most of his designs. In fashion, he has never negated his fascination with past eras, but nostalgic burn does lose its flame. Mr Lee’s looking back does not always lunge him forward. In his reminisces, he dwells on the obvious rather than the nuanced. As he said in the same BT article, “I don’t draw boundaries between high and low.” There is, however, a difference between looking to Sixties Biba and looking to Sixties Balenciaga.

The Modern Outfitters shirts, while reasonably well made, could not escape the grip of nostalgia. They may look charming to those who have not lived through a certain past, but on a body not terribly young, they may appear dated. Examining the finishing of the shirts, it is not immoderate to assume that Mr Lee has, as before, left the details to the decision of the tailor. For shirts not designed as business wear, the interfacing for the collars and cuffs, for example, were unnecessarily stiff. It would, therefore, seem that Mr Lee’s shirts are produced by tailors schooled in the past. These are young designs sewn by old hands.

Tiong Bahru is, no doubt, the ideal setting for a Dick Lee fashion come-back (although that may sound like a musical in the making!). Despite the infectious enthusiasm that characterises Mr Lee, his latest project (and it’s likely to be just that) continues to prove that his fervour is better suited for generating ideas than designing fashion. However frequently present-day trends rely on the past, fashion design cannot be gleaned from vintage styles alone, especially not when ‘modern’ is employed in the branding. Surely, Mr Lee does not think he can evolve by shuttling backward. Indeed, must his brand always be associated with the two eras leading up to the Eighties? Or has he simply run out of ideas?

(Dick Lee’s return to fashion, interestingly, appears to be in keeping with the resurgence of names once associated with Eighties fashion in Singapore. The Modern Outfitters is reportedly assisted by Judith Chung, the one-time luxury retail maestro behind the long-gone Man and His Woman. Over at Tangs, fashion merchandising is now headed by the store’s menswear alumnus Howie Leong, who was the first to introduce Japanese fashion to a department store with labels such as Pashu and Grass. Metro, rumoured to exit Paragon, will bring back, at Centrepoint, Metro Grand, the high-end store that debuted in Lucky Plaza in the Eighties, and the first to stock the quintessentially Italian pop label Fiorucci.)

When a 25 year-old turns to a 58 year-old for guidance, creative sparks may fly. However, in one corner of Tiong Bahru, Intercontinental is no Internationaland, and The Modern Outfitters is no Asia Major.

Intercontinental is at 61 Seng Poh Lane #01-05. Orientalism CD cover: Warner Music

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