The Gin Cocktail

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It’s not unreasonable to expect a little more from the collection of Singapore Fashion Award (SFA) 2016’s Emerging Designer of the Year, Gin Lee. At the same time, it is also reasonable that we will soon enough discover that it isn’t a breeze to live up to the accolade so eagerly bestowed on a not-quite newbie.

The latter is unfortunately true. And it happened on Thursday evening when GinLee Studio, Ms Lee’s label, showed its spring/summer 2018 collection on the first day of Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW). Anticipation evaporated the minute a strange dancer appeared on the catwalk, making some indeterminate gestures and sashayed off. What did it mean? It seemed that the feeble hand movements and the nothing of a sleeveless tented dress that she wore were foretaste of things to come.

And came it did: the blandness of just about everything. Ms Lee’s work has never been really design-driven, that much we concede. Put it another way, she does not design with the deep desire to be original, surprising, and certainly not inspiring. These clothes looked everyday—those that you go to Fairprice in, have an early lunch with a BFF, and thereafter, pick the kids from school. They’re low-key to a fault.

Don’t get us wrong. There’s a place for such clothes, just not on a national runway, staged to show the city’s best. Even if SGFW does not dream big, participants should. It is possible that Ms Lee’s label is built on humble ambition and that it is perfectly alright if the clothes, even at a long glance, could be mistaken as merchandise of The Editor’s Market, although, to be fair, the make of GinLee Studio apparel are many notches better. The thing that is often overlooked in the pursuit of commercial viability is that there really is a surfeit of clothes missing the necessity of being.

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Even more, Ms Lee, 39, seemed to be playing a woman who designs to reflect her current station in life. This is a peek into the humdrum. This is a hodgepodge for the perfunctory purpose of wearing, not the more pleasurable act of expressing. Her designs have been described as “timeless”, but in the constant quick-change that characterises fashion today, “timeless” is quite often the euphemism for boring.

There was something terribly forlorn about the presentation too. The models appeared deeply unhappy wearing almost no makeup and those joyless clothes, never mind that some of them looked like they’ve just been to the market for flowers, usually a sign of good tidings. Could it be that the models did not feel particularly attractive in the outfits, bags of blooms aside?

The silhouettes, too, were hardly that that suggest joie de vivre. Longish, languid, and loose, they were more akin to house coats (or lounge wear, as merchandisers call them) for rainy days than something spiffy for the swagger of urban life. The collection seemed guided by the proper than the progressive, by symmetry than spontaneity. A shirt-and-skirt combo looked like an outfit chosen by a relief teacher who abides by the school’s handbook to educators on how to dress appropriately for the work they do. But is this fashion?

So “the basics that belong to every wardrobe”, as one online report describes the six-year-old GinLee Studio, went on and on and on until the monotony was interrupted by a hint of ‘design’. One style of pants stood out for its anything-but-arresting detail: a slit, splayed out like a wishbone, on the centre-back of each leg! Was this cold shoulder for calves? An indiscriminate slit on a skirt is bad enough; on pants, they look positively ill-placed. And why the clumsy length, so extended that they make the wearer’s walk so ungainly?

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An obligatory go at sexiness turned out a sheer, round-neck blouse with a sort of peplum for the bust as appendage of modesty, but had the unintended effect of emphasising a too-short over-bust measurement. A feeble attempt at the use of print saw a shadow of a palm leaf applied over the right shoulder of a tunic-dress and as faded pile-up on a skirt, with results neither striking nor unexpected, and could have been the kindred motif of a pareo in a Club Med gift shop.

The colour palette, too, added to the ho-hum outcome of the collection. Ms Lee, is not known for her keen colour sense, preferring to work with neutrals that seem to reflect the ancient walls of Jerusalem, where she is based, after relocating to the city with her husband in 2010. But even in Yerushalayim, the old stones tell a more spirited chromatic story. It would have downplayed her lack of daring if she had cleaved to black and white and anything between, rather than inject incongruous shots of earthiness: the colour of pumpkin pie filling and, under that palm leaf, dried thyme.

We were expectant for this Emerging Designer of the Year, but, in the end, expectation was waylaid by disappointment right there on the catwalk. As we shuffled out, someone was heard saying that Ms Lee had work very hard to meet expectations. So did the girl promoting the LG Styler upstairs. Hard work is, of course, appreciated, but unfortunately, is only one part of the equation that makes a collection artistically sophisticated, hence alluring. Flair is more valued, but, more than talent, it tends to be elusive. This night, it was.

Singapore Fashion Week is on at the National Gallery from 26 to 28 October. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

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