A Fashion Week Of Reduced Circumstances

The third outing of the re-branded Singapore Fashion Week is the shortest it has ever been—down from last year’s five days to three. But brevity is only a small part of the sadly diminishing allure of what has been billed as the city’s “premier” event. Will there be a 2018 edition?

SGFW 2017 posterVertical banner of SGFW spotted outside the CBD and Orchard Road, along Havelock Road

The word that went round this year’s Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW), staged at the National Gallery for the second year, was that this could be the last. Even staff of the event’s organizer Mercury M&C was not able to say that the 2018 edition of SGFW will be a certainty. Some attendees helpfully suggested that perhaps it could be just a one-year hiatus so as to allow Mercury to “reorganise and consolidate”.

It is no secret that this year’s SGFW was especially hard to pull off, given the unchanging bleak retail climate and reduced business among Singaporean designers, a reality more complex and far-reaching than the average show-goer would know. Founder/managing director of Mercury, Tjin Lee, aka Lee Huei Tjin, betrayed her fears when she posted in Facebook last month: “It’s been an extremely challenging year as we sought solutions to stay relevant as a fashion week in Singapore. With the digital revolution, retail slowdown, our small market size and difficult fundraising climate, it’s been the most challenging year in all 11 years that I’ve organised the fashion week in Singapore.”

How challenging has it been? It really requires no telling that even malls are pulling back on fashion shows (when was the last time you attended one in a shopping centre?). The Orchard Fashion Runway of Fashion Steps Out is no more, too. If there’s contemplation of ending SGFW, chances are, a marketing head opined, there are “dismal figures in the ledger.” This regrettably encourages cynics to reiterate that Singapore is a lost cause for fashion.

SGFW runwayGuests getting into their seats at National Gallery’s Former Supreme Court Terrace

The possibility of an SGFW financially disadvantaged is surprising. In March, marketing-interactive.com reported that “Mercury M&C and Lumina Live look to merge services”, and had quoted Ms Lee as saying that a merger “brings together an integrated 360 experience for clients in events, PR and marketing”. If confirmed, the merger was expected to be completed in 2018. But it was more than just “look”. A new company Mercury Live has since been formed. Lumina Live was founded in 1999 by David See, an industry veteran whose clients include Burberry, Dior, and Hermès.

The announced merger was a bolt from the blue for many who remembered that in 2009, Miss Lee had found a partner, Jeremy Tan, to put Mercury’s books in order, and to improve the bottom line. She told The Straits Times in 2015 that she was “taken by his style of working and how he managed to have much higher profit margins than me despite operating a smaller business.” At the same time, she revealed that fashion weeks are not a money spinner since “we get little to no funding from the Government and have to push so hard to fund the entire event through the private sector.” And the private sector had been supportive, with Audi as the title sponsor when she ran the precursor of SGFW, Audi Fashion Festival, from 2009 to 2014.

Prior to the merger with Lumina Live, it was shared among industry insiders that the once-lauded Jeremy Tan had left Mercury. Mr Tan had said that it was a business decision to part ways—whether to continue with the company 1Werk that he founded before partnering with Mercury, it isn’t certain, but he does continue to produce fashion events, such as the Heineken X F1 fashion show at the unlikely venue Lau Pa Sat in September. A solo act again at the beginning of 2017, Tjin Lee, it seemed, needed a Jeremy Tan and she found him in David See. How this turn of events is going to pan out or bode for Mercury, or affect SGFW is anybody’s guess.

SGFW opening showGoh Lai Chan, left, on the catwalk after the presentation of his collection on the opening night of SGFW

Despite the challenges and a sponsorship environment that is less than forthcoming with funding, Ms Lee was able to bring together a respectable 20 sponsors, including the National Gallery, where the SGFW was held. But, according to a show producer SOTD spoke to, sometimes even with backing, fashion weeks may not be profitable as many designers get their slots free. “It is hard to imagine very young brands such as Arissa X with the means to pay to do a show,” he said. It is known, in fact, that some young designers/influencers with their own—often dubious—fashion label get “invited” to participate in order to fill empty slots, or to lend SGFW a certain quick-gain cachet that will appeal to the all-important Millennials.

One fashion PR professional said emphatically, while queuing to be admitted to the opening show Laichan, “SGFW has always been a business, not national service, not a platform to nurture young talents. If there’s no business, there’s no SGFW. It’s as simple as that.” That perhaps explains why tickets to the shows are sold—an uncommon practice at fashion weeks. A Singaporean designer earlier shared similar view when asked if he was invited to the shows, “No, lah! She (Tjin Lee) is an entrepreneur. Business is her priority. Associates like us must patronise to support her.”

How much support has Ms Lee received? Not insignificantly. People are still happily attending the shows, she’s still able to entice designers and brands to participate in SGFW (in some cases, even encourage unfledged and untried social media stars to start their own label so that they may be featured in SGFW), and the event has still retained the ‘premium’ tag in which the fashion show-hungry masses allowed her to indulge.

SGFW show about to startWaiting for the Zalora-supported Fashion Futures 1.0 show to start

An encouraging thing to note is that despite what some thought to be an eleventh-hour scramble to get SGFW going (even the press conference was a late affair, conducted a day after ST Life’s first report and three days after our post; 45 days before the first shows), the event proper itself saw improvements over last year’s not-hiccup-free staging. For one, the shows were now sited in one venue—in the National Gallery’s Former Supreme Court Terrace, although, to many, still not an ideal catwalk location. The one-runway site could also be because there were fewer shows, but, for attendees, it was a relief to know they did not have to shuttle between two points in the museum, as they had to last year.

There was also a photographers’ pit, which meant that, unlike the previous installation, which allowed lensmen to roam free, there would be no jostling with iPhone-wielding friends-of-designers eager to put the shows on Facebook Live. But it was still a no-win for many photographers and videographers as they had to deal with front-row attendees who were unable (or unwilling) to retract stretched limps, as well as extended and stationary arms bent on filming the show for whatever reason SGFW needed to be recorded with their smartphone. This was compounded by a relatively narrow catwalk flanked by three-row deep bleachers. It was a runway that was not palazzo pants and ball gown-friendly, as seen at the more-songs-than-clothes presentation of two-year-old Singaporean label Feayn, by graphic-designer-turn-tukangjahit Sufian Hussein.

The opening show of this year’s SGFW enjoyed a few firsts. It was the first time the event opened with a Singaporean designer and the first appearance of The Singapore Dress since its disappearance from stores and public consciousness in 2002. It was Goh Lai Chan’s first opening act and his first showing at SGFW (discounting the 8-piece capsule that he showed during the now-defunct Blue Print trade event in 2010). It was, however, not the first collection to see the marrying of ethnic fabrics and decorative arts in one pageant-style outfit after another.

Ling Wu SS 2018 bagsThe bags of Ling Wu, presented as a catwalk show

Applause to the strong showing of Asian designers is deserving, but the collections regrettably said almost nothing of what Asian designs are about today, or what it means to be designing in this region, or what it comports with showing at SGFW. How the final selection of names came about isn’t certain, but one senses that this could be a knee-jerk reaction to past criticisms that SGFW lacked local and Asian names, rather than a concerted effort to showcase Singaporean and Asian designers who can truly train the world’s attention to our shores and to see us as a critical and inspiring source of fashion design that can truly propel us forward, the way Seoul and Tokyo are regarded as elevating and future-bound.

It is also increasingly unclear what SGFW, beyond its Asian posturing, is really about. Sure, to expect it to be a fashion extravaganza as in the good old days, or as recent as the 2008 Singapore Fashion Festival (a winning comeback for Mercury) may, at this point, seem quaint and old-fashioned and irrelevant. And to hope that it could be a B2B affair, as some have, negates the fact that it never was, and never will be. SGFW is a spin-off of Singapore Fashion Festival; it is entertainment, pure and simple.

But as entertainment, was it first-rate? No one was expecting a Chanel show with sets so magnificent and awe-inspiring, you’d think you were in a movie studio. But a bunch of preening social-media types wanting to be in fashion and thus stage a fashion show is not fashion; it’s a D&D performance. Immoderate it really is not to hope for something more stimulating to the senses. There could have been attendees going to SGFW for the entertainment or to be seen and photographed, but there were many who seriously—or foolishly—went for the fashion. At the end of most shows, particularly the Zalora-supported Fashion Futures 1.0, it was a struggle not to feel insulted. If this was a film festival, Fashion Futures 1.0 would be, at best, a fringe event.

To paraphrase a line from the Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 film The Limey, you’re not specific enough to be fashion. You’re more like a vibe. What many of the SGFW participants were truly offering was just body coverings—so many of the clothes were literally two pieces of rectangles joined at the sides—styled to look influencer-credible and IG-ready, as if to better tag them #OOTD and nothing else. These participants were basically banking on their personal brand. There was no point of view, no voice, and positively no fashion.

SGFW Jason Wu SS 2017Finale of Jason Wu’s spring/summer 2018 collection

The question of a credible fashion week arose on the last day of SGFW. While the hot ticket of the night was Jason Wu’s much-anticipated show, it did not close the event. That went to the one-year-old brand Arissa X, the baby of Arissa Cheo, photogenic Singaporean wife of Taiwanese actor and singer Vanness Wu. In allocating Arissa X that prime slot, it seemed that local celebrity (with a Mando-pop star husband) trumped international star (with connections to the former FLOTUS of the White House), provisional business surpassed complete fashion enterprise, and small-network e-shop outdid global distribution. It was later explained that Mr Wu could not be given the last time slot because plans to take him out for dinner could not be changed—reservations had been made. If he was indeed the last to show, the wrap-up would end too late for a grand feast. In Singapore, what else do you with an overseas guest other than eat?

This year, SGFW was touted as “beyond the runway”, with Zipcode: A Fashion Tech Summit in the bag. Although Zipcode wasn’t the G20, it is commendable that SGFW looked into addressing the inevitable influence of technology on fashion, particularly in marketing and retail (although, ironically, their digital presence was considerably diminished. Since the start on SGFW on 26 October, there have been only one post on their FB page and 18 on IG. Meanwhile, last year’s link-up with Digital Fashion Week has terminated). While at it, Mercury should also consider either completely re-conceptualising SGFW or creating a separate fashion week for Yoyo Cao (of Exhibit) and her cohorts to show. This would perhaps do away with the uneven platform of career designers jostling with look-at-me-now dabblers.

Before it is said that SGFW has been doused with prejudice, it should be noted that many of the young brands, born of an e-shop or social media following, or sheer vanity, truly leapt onto the SGFW runway in a single bound, with almost no experience in the fundamentals of dressmaking, nor exposure to a drafting table and its content, let alone the insides of a factory or the confines of a sampling room. This isn’t discriminatory; this is a new reality. While the rag trade needs to acknowledge the existence of such a fashion category—designer by name, not by practice, a national platform for the promotion of true local (and regional) talent should rethink how it embraces such indeterminates.

SGFW 2017 sponsors' boothsThe sponsors’ booth on the upper floor of the Former Supreme Court Terrace that few went to look

And a national platform should preclude designs that can be joined by dots to the versions of others already in circulation. Dismay with weak shows, it should be noted, soon deepened into indignation when flagrant disregard for originality seized the runway. It can be considered conceit when designers fail to think that viewers of their show are so ignorant that near-facsimiles of other designers’ work can breeze past them without being noticed and noted. No amount of handwork and the hours spent on these clothes can negate the fact that they are not true own-creations.

It is undeniable that getting a group of credible designers together from a pool that is barely wet is a trying endeavour. This is another reality of the state of the industry, if it can still be identified as one. Whoever is selected must not be led to believe that SGFW is platform to instant greatness and once on its runway, he or she is infallible or cannot be met with censure. It is disheartening that despite creative output of disputable finesse, there’s a generation of designers with ego as massive as the sky, but tolerance for criticism as capacious as a snuff bottle. Could this be because our society is increasingly seeing a demographic so emotionally fragile that an honest opinion is immediate damnation? As a lecturer at a local design school remarked, “These days, tell a student that her work has not improved from last semester, and see tears roll down her eyes.”

Criticism is part of the creative universe, and creators can benefit from it. When the Japanese designers—namely Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—showed in Paris in the early ’80s, they were derided for making hideous and unwearable clothes. But they soldered on, in Paris, no less. More than 35 years later, they are still making waves, together with another generation of designers—also with shaky starts—gathering media raves: the “Japanese designers are by far the coolest at Paris Fashion Week”. We may not have seen anything at SGFW that bowled us over, but we are hopeful that someday, somewhere, at SGFW or not, we will get to say, Singaporean designers are plain cool.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

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One thought on “A Fashion Week Of Reduced Circumstances

  1. Pingback: What Comes Next? | Style On The Dot

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