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 exam 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

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