Costume Before Couture

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The Singapore Dress: how quaint, how retro, how 1990!

Last night, the ghost of Singapore fashion past appeared in full cross-cultural regalia at the opening show of Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW). Cheongsam maker Goh Lai Chan staged his first major catwalk presentation at the National Gallery for his 26-year-old label Laichan with a six-outfit opener “The Singapore Dress: Inspired by Identity, Re-Imagined”.

That’s something we’ve not heard for a long while. Since 2002, in fact, when the offspring of The Singapore Dress (TSD), the Ms Joaquim fashion label eventually folded. Those old enough may remember The Singapore Dress, first unveiled in 1990 after the idea was mooted by then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong a year earlier. But for many, this success-undetermined attempt at creating a “national dress” was as dead as the proverbial door nail. For the rest, it did not occur, unless you count the lame National Day collection by Ying the Label, presently so adored by the young political set.

Mr Goh’s revival of TSD awoken memories of a very past era. Was his present foray to make up for what he had not done at that time, to bring back what he did not partake? Or, as the first Singaporean designer to open a Mercury-organised fashion week, a rush of national pride? Unlike the first time, Mr Goh’s TSD2.0 did not employ the orchid as central motif—characteristic of the earlier very vanda version. To be sure, there were flowers—in the form of print and embroidery—but they were evocative of China and India, not good ol’ Singapura.

So what did Mr Goh “re-imagined”? A rojak of baju, kurta, and shan that had more in common with outfitting Miss Singapore than smartening a new demographic for whom casual contemporary fashion is more appealing. Lest we’re mistaken, these are pretty clothes; they’re just a smidgen too ethnic-pretty, which risks their limited use to National Day functions and the occasional state dinner, when semblance of costume can be worn with pride.

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It is fascinating that some of our designers are still fixated with ethnic dress, following the inconclusive experiment that was TSD, or are certain that the aesthetics of different cultural styles can come convincingly together as a cohesive whole. That has yet to be seen. Sure, multiculturalism is now transnational, but have we created anything cogent that we want to wear beyond weddings, the month of August, and various New Years, or to charm the already culturally varied world?

More often than not, the optics of the amalgamations are despairing since the obvious are put together in even more obvious ways. Pairing the sulam with pearl studs is, at best, token, not elevated. Throwing an oversized Indian-style scarf over a samfu top is afterthought, not design process. Even Dries Van Noten, whose influence is not disguised here, has moved away from the mad clash of cultures and textures that formed the basis of his design DNA.  Mr Goh did try, however, to temper all that by bringing East to West so as to have a stab at the modern and, dare we say, street-savvy.

For his main collection, called Wonderluxe, he amped up the European and American message, but remained committed to Asian blare. One plain denim jacket, for example, was teamed with a 19th/20th Century, Chinese, tasseled yún jiān (云肩) or cloud collar (which, for the Chinese, was more a shoulder covering than actual collar, lĭng or 领, and dates back to the Later Han Dynasty of the 1st Century A.D.). A second yún jiān had an additional marabou-topped denim layer, as if the fabric of jeans can instantly modernise dated styling. Perhaps, the meeting of the old and the new appeared “cute”, as someone in the audience exclaimed audibly, but is plonking what is usually seen in wayang costume (or the ruff of Elizabethan dress) on a plain neckline really design? Or decoration? Or indolence?

Mr Goh is known for his service to tai-tai clients who go to him for mainly special-occasion dresses. In that way, he’s not different from Heng Nam Nam, the other go-to designer that ball habitués flock to. Although the media has frequently described Mr Goh’s work as “couture creations”, it is not known, or heard, that the designer himself has referred to his own output as couture. He prefers the term “bespoke”, made-to-order being a business model that allows designers to skip churning for the retail rack and show off their craft and express what is perceived as “elegant”.

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Goh Lai Chan’s fashion foundation was laid in the early ’80s, and last night, it showed. Self-taught, he came into the industry’s radar in 1981 when he was a finalist of the Her World Young Designers’ Contest, then a seminary of future fashion stars. It produced one of our most illustrious names in the annals of Singapore fashion, Tan Yoong, when he won the inaugural competition in 1978. Mr Goh’s entry that year was awarded a consolation price, alongside other entrants such as Island Shop’s former designer Sylvia Lian, one-time fashion photographer Gary Sng, and the current social editor of Prestige, Lionnel Lim.

Mr Goh’s predilection for glamour—so rapidly underscored by an online report of The Straits Times barely an hour after his show—is consistent with that of his peers, such as Francis Cheong and the now-retired Allan Chai, both also competitors in the same contest thirty-six years ago, with each winning the first and second runner-up places respectively (the winner was Steve Kiang, a newbie designer and former boyfriend of Singapore’s earliest supermodel Ethel Fong).

Head-turning glamour was, however, not associated with Mr Goh at the time he was picked for consolatory honour. His first foray into his own label was in 1982, a year after the Her World Young Designers’ Award exposure, when he set up The Dress Shop with his sister Sue Ann Goh at Liang Court, then known as an outpost for Japanese brands (Muji and Takashimaya opened their first store there), but, in truth, was dominated by the tame offerings of Daimaru department store.

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The Dress Shop was a rather quiet affair and it offered what could now be described as attire for the working girl and her social life. After designing quietly for close to a decade behind a brand that was essentially bread-and-butter in its offering, Mr Goh decided to start a label bearing his name. In 1991, Laichan was opened at the once-prestigious Raffles Hotel Arcade (now closed for refurbishment). Two years later, The Dress Shop shuttered when Mr Goh’s sister decided to leave the business. Liang Court was, by then, no longer riding high on its Japanese image and early promise of differentiated shopping experience. In 2003, after twenty years as Laing Court’s anchor tenant, Daimaru closed.

The opening at Raffles Hotel Arcade was, therefore, well timed. Laichan did not immediately launch itself as a cheongam and eveningwear brand. At various points during its 26-year tenure, the boutique appeared to stock rather frumpy, if not ordinary, clothes. However, due to the boutique’s location and the shoppers that it attracted, it was an organic development that the Chinese dress associated with Shanghai in the ’30s and glittery evening finery would soon become the label’s major offering and a Goh Lai Chan specialty. Given that the Chan in Mr Goh’s name is the Chinese character 灿 (càn), which means brilliant or resplendent, it is perhaps fitting that the glamorous gowns he espoused would become core to his business.

“My taste is classic,” Mr Goh told Today in 2010. “For my designs, I like a certain kind of style… It’s always something that’s updated, but not so outrageously fashionable that after 10 years, you’d look back and feel embarrassed about it.” It would be interesting to talk about Wonderluxe in 10 years’ time, but for now, the classic is punctuated with the outrageous-enough: two caged garments, one capelet that ended at the bust high point, not, oddly, below the bust line and a cropped jacket that had more than a whiff of what La Perla had done.

But classics, in the hotel-ballroom ball sense, dominated the runway collection. Mr Goh did not, in this respect, disappoint his customers and fans, including some TV stars and members of the theatre community. There was the swish and the ravishing, and all the lace you may want in a lifetime. Despite the intermittent outrageous touches and ungainly shapes of the outers, the gowns seemed to have been designed with the next society gala in mind. The “certain kind of style” was certain—Mr Goh took only tentative steps to show he could leap beyond those ready-to-wear, one-size-fits-all cheongsams.

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In some ways, Goh Lai Chan is disadvantaged by his reputation as a cheongsam designer, one who, to his credit, has transformed a traditionally made-to-measure garment into one that can be manufactured en masse and hung on racks after racks. His cheongsams are unmistakable for their loose fit (the media refrain “figure-flattering cheongsams” is misleading); oftentimes strong, solid colours; and a closely-spaced row of reportedly jade beads-as-buttons, from the centre of the neck to the right hip. The buttons, more decorative than functional (although there are loops for closure, they don’t actually work), are a signature, but whether they could be uncomfortable when the wearer needs to let her arm hang by the side of her body (or, as a show-goer cheekily remarked, “enemy of the armpit”), no woman has shed light on the matter.

A little disconcerting was the appearance of those very same beads/buttons on the catwalk. Why did “bespoke” fashion share the same buttons as off-the-rack cheongsams? Or are we nit-picking? Truth is, the popularity of the cheongsams with the skewed row of buttons cannot be overstated, however uniform they look, if the many women wearing them last night, from senior minister of state Sim Ann to SPH Magazines group editor Caroline Ngui, were any indication. In all fairness, Mr Goh’s cheongsams can look eye-catching, and he has a better understanding of the finer points of cheongsam-making than Priscilla Shunmugam, although, by his own proud admission, he is “untrained”.

Perhaps then, it is the oversight of technical details than the over-attention to surface embellishment that threatened to undermine the brand’s Wonderluxe projection. Amid the profusion of three-dimensional appliqués on corded lace, sequined curlicues, and floral embroidery, few would have noticed some technical slip-ups: darts that end with dimples, collars that gape at the neck, and, unexpectedly, the cigarette pants with loose and creased crotch!

In August this year, Laichan relocated to The Paragon (following a brief pop-up appearance at Raffles City) after a 26-year tenancy at the Raffles Hotel Arcade. The new boutique, while utilitarian, is a vast improvement over its first, which in the latter years was showing signs of age and insufficient housekeeping. Now with an Orchard Road store, Goh Lai Chan is presently only the second Singaporean couture/bespoke designer after Francis Cheong with presence on our island’s renowned shopping stretch—perhaps reason enough to open Singapore Fashion Week.

Singapore Fashion Week is on at the National Gallery from 26 to 28 October. Laichan is at level 3, The Paragon. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

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One thought on “Costume Before Couture

  1. Pingback: A Fashion Week Of Reduced Circumstances | Style On The Dot

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