Not Maxed Out

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With his past collections, Max Tan’s work sometimes seemed gormless. You sensed that, like so many of his generation, his design education and inspiration is, respectively, derived and drawn from either Pinterest or Tumblr. Mr Tan himself has admitted—in an undisguised, three-and-half-minute video plug for Microsoft’s Surface (a sponsor) that preceded his spring/summer 2017 show at this year’s Singapore Fashion Week—that he gleans heavily from the online world. “I spend a lot of time on the Internet,” he said earnestly. “It’s a wonderful never-ending source of images and inspiration.”

Although Mr Tan is producing clothes that few, if not none, are churning out, it cannot be said with gusto that his output is completely original. His designs are imaginative, sure, but it seems to be imagination fired by what beckons from the computer screen, or in his present case, the high pixels-per-inch LCD touch pad of the Surface Pro. Through the World Wide Web, Mr Tan could garner from both visibility and obscurity to bring together ideas that are familiar and unfamiliar. The thing about such an approach—using cyberspace as research centre—is that anyone from anywhere can be also similarly positioned, looking at the same thing/site/page/link or plenitude of pictures, to knock together a collection. Isn’t this what students these day, including Mr Tan’s own at NAFA, do as evidence of research?

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Staged last night on the opening day of SGFW, Max Tan’s latest offering has that sense of assemblage born of haste. Picking familiar themes that he has previously explored, he rehashes his usual slouchy tops and bottoms, throwing the one-shoulder seen at so many brands during Paris fashion week not too long ago for good measure. What appeared to be refreshing—the swingy outfits in striped fabrics—in fact recall those that he presented, while still unshackled from national service, for Singapore Fashion Designers Contest during SFW 2007, a second-place collection with a school-age resonance called ‘Borrowing from my Boyfriend’s Wardrobe’.

Followers of Max Tan’s brief 6-year, do-the-nation-proud career will be able to nod knowingly and appreciatively at the asymmetry, the distended shapes, the dropped shoulders, the handkerchief hemlines, and those superfluous, sometimes unlovely details that flinch not from his avant-garde standing and are completely IG-friendly. The 28-piece collection is replete with those Max Tan touches, which, to us, are too early in the fellow’s vocation to be considered DNA. But, we’ll give him this: here is semblance of aesthetic consistency.

While there were no surprises, it was heartening to see that Mr Tan has moderately refined his cuts, bettered the fit (gasp, there were dresses flattering to the body!), and improved on the finishing of his garments, which until now, tended to glare on the catwalk in their own inferiority. Could this be the upside of participating in the Fashion Futures program, which allowed him to acquaint himself with the US market under the auspices of the Council of Fashion Designers of America?

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What was surprising was the no-show of those too-big and ungainly coats he loved in the past two seasons. In fact, coats were conspicuously absent, and with them, those terribly-drafted, clownish lapels. But just as you thought all was fine and dandy , out came a belted jacket with boulders for shoulders. While it was not unexpected that Mr Tan would cross into Vetements territory (after all he has repeatedly—and still does—traipse Comme des Garçons domain), the heart sank with despair, and fast. Did we not hear him utter so persuasively just minutes ago on screen: “I really do not want to just throw out the first thing that comes to my mind because I’ll just be referencing the past, something I’ve seen before”?

After Mr Tan closed his Capitol Piazza store suddenly and surreptitiously post-Chinese New Year this year (a nocturnal clear out, it was said), speculation was rife that business had failed and that he may want to quit the trade. Then he appeared in April in the W.E. X Togetherly pop-up space at Isetan Orchard. His showing at SGFW last night may put to rest that his label is in dire straits. Max Tan is a designer that’s very much a product of his generation, a fashion enabler tapping the gruntled liberalism that the digital age has provided, delighting sponsors with marketing muscle such as Microsoft. Like apps, Max Tan is coded for update, not necessarily an upgrade.

As Singapore’s brightest light, he was strangely not allotted the best show spot in the sprawling National Gallery. The Max Tan show was sited at the Auditorium Foyer, a basement space as large as a boardroom that, the following day, is show grounds for graduation presentations. He can’t cough out the rates organiser Mercury is asking for, even with big-name sponsorship? So small it is this auditorium that models had barely a one-metre wide catwalk to perform and camera lenses were consistently blocked by wide-brimmed hats and iPhones perched on flailing arms. Despite the disappointingly crammed conditions, radio DJ Rosalyn Lee, seated in the front row, was visibly thrilled with quite a number of the pieces, pointing to them as the models walked pass with the same delight as a child eyeing her favourite doll in Toys ’R Us. In some of us, Max Tan may not have found an ardent fan, but in her, he’s recruited an exposure-for-sure admirer.

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct

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