A Colourful Life

Obituary | Few hairstylists working on our island, indeed anywhere, could count Lee Radziwill and Christie Brinkley as clients. Fewer still had worked on their hair in the celebrities’ residence. Shunji Matsuo was one

Publicity shot of Shunji Matsuo in 2016. Photo: 大色影师

Yesterday morning, it was revealed by staff of Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio that the Japanese hairstylist/founder of the eponymous salon, has passed away in his hometown of Kobe. Mr Matsuo died of cancer; he was 67.

Considered one of our city’s most successful hairdressers, Mr Matsuo owns (or co-owns) 10 salons in Singapore. The number does not include branches in Kuala Lumpur and Yangon, which had prompted The Business Times to call him “a veritable salon mogul”. The 18-year permanent resident had become one of the biggest players in the business, beating even David Gan, arguably the most famous celebrity hairstylist here, by the sheer number of salons under his name.

Yet, Mr Matsuo did not share Mr Gan’s staggering client roster of famous local and regional names. He did, however, enjoy many moments working with some of the most noted personalities in international fashion, especially in New York City, where he started in 1974. Among the many names associated with the New York beau monde of the ’70s and ’80s, one stood out for Mr Matsuo: Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy. Mr Matsuo liked to regale willing listeners with this particular story. He was at Ms Radziwill’s apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue one day, working on her hair, when he accidentally spilled water on the floor. Mortified by his own clumsiness, he immediately asked for a dirty towel to mop up the mess. She replied, and he often retold this with relish, “We do not have dirty towels.”

Shunji Matsuo styleShunji Matsuo’s 2008 version of the layered cut, styled with a gentle beehive. Photo: Rui Liang/Lightspade Studio, Styling: Vik Lim, Makeup: Yuan Sng

Shunji Matsuo’s reminiscences of the early days of his career were often spiked with comedic incidences and name-dropping, all the while full of the wonder of a small-town boy made good in a big city. He claimed that at the start, he did not know who the people he had attended to were, such as model Karen Graham, model/actress Lauren Hutton, and Victoria Newhouse, the wife of Condé Nast Publication’s Si Newhouse. But, interestingly, when it came to Polly Mellon, he knew who she was, enough at least to be disappointed that she did not invite him to do a shoot with her for Vogue. He would later recount that “although she told me, ‘you’re a genius’, she had never asked me to work for her”, unaware that the affectations of New Yorkers shouldn’t be taken seriously. However, Mr Matsuo’s scant knowledge of the society which he served was brief for he soon knew he was onto bigger things when he assisted in a shoot lensed by Richard Avedon.

Like many successful Asian hairdressers, including the Segamat-born David Gan, Mr Matsuo rose from humble beginnings. Born in Kobe to a restaurateur father and housewife mother, he was not academically inclined, nor, by his own admission, “a lover of sports or anything”. At age fifteen, shortly after his father died of liver failure, he chanced upon an article in a woman’s monthly Joeseishin that featured a Japanese man who was known to the local media as “Widow Kennedy’s Hairdresser”. Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, even in mourning, had always looked immaculately groomed and her Oleg Cassini for hair was a petite New Yorker from Tokyo named Suga Yusuke.

Known simply as Suga, Mrs Kennedy’s go-to hairdresser probably inspired many young Japanese eager to leave their country for the much-admired USA. Born in a Japanese colony close to Beijing, Suga and his family moved back to Japan after his father died in a car accident when he was 10 months old. The Yusukes finally settled in Tokyo, where Suga later studied and worked. Unmotivated in the capital and in love with everything American (“I loved chocolate kisses and Bazooka bubblegum,” he told the press), Suga moved to New York and quickly found employment with hairdresser-to-the-stars Mr Kenneth. Through hard work, determination, and no small measure of luck, he soon became the widowed Mrs Kennedy’s hairdresser.

Suga & ShunjiSuga and Shunji Matsuo in New York in the mid-’70s. Photo: Shunji Matsuo

Mr Matsuo was completely taken with Suga’s success story and was so inspired by it that he made up his mind instantly to be a hairdresser—the decision no longer requiring the blessing of a paternal figure. That article, an eight-page spread, was so central to his resolve that he had it laminated for posterity. A former journalist who had seen the preserved, yellowed black-and-white tear-sheets told SOTD that “Shunji was quite obsessed with that magazine profile of his idol. He was a rather sentimental person, and he won’t forget that editorial piece because it really changed his life.”

In 1968, he left Kobe for Tokyo and enrolled for a hairdressing course in Yamano Beauty School, unsurprisingly Suga’s alma mater. Three years later, Suga visited Tokyo to scout for new talents to staff his first salon in Manhattan. Mr Matsuo, who had by then graduated and returned to Kobe, was beyond ecstatic when he read about it in a magazine, and, without hesitation, applied for the selection and left immediately for Tokyo. 

Although he was picked after a surprisingly simple selection process, nothing came out of it. Suga had left the city. Undeterred, Mr Matsuo made his way to Los Angeles in 1973, first, to receive an American license at the US branch of Yamano Beauty School so that he could work, and second, to somehow reconnect with his idol. He called Suga, who had not forgotten the young man, and immediately invited him to New York to work. In 1974, his Big Apple adventure began.

Two years after he relocated to New York, Shunji Matsuo was to witness Suga enjoying his most intoxicating professional high. The place was Innsbruck, Austria in 1976, and figure skater Dorothy Hamill’s double axels and stupendous spins had won her Olympic gold. But the audience that day witnessed more than just sporting excellence; they saw a short, lively hairdo dubbed the “wedge” and fell in love with it. The “wedge” would forever be synonymous with Suga, opening more doors for him than he had ever hoped to open.

A tear sheet of the Christian Dior ad featuring Kelly LeBrock

Mr Matsuo began to reap Suga’s success, assisting the latter on both commercial and editorial shoots. One of these was with Richard Avedon, who was just commissioned by a very young and new Gianni Versace to helm the campaign for his first boutique in the US. Gianni Versace was the breakout star of 1981, but Mr Matsuo wasn’t aware of that, and recalled that he “had to work very fast because there were so many models”. In fact, during this period, Mr Matsuo did the hair of some of the best models of the time: Iman, Kelly LeBrock, Janice Dickinson, and Pat Cleveland. But all this while, he had only been an assistant to Suga.

Things changed in 1983. Suga had to go to Tokyo to discuss a business partnership with haute couture designer Hanae Mori. According to Mr Matsuo, he was not aware of what that was about. He was only a little upset that the boss had not asked him to go along. As it turned out, Suga was in talks with Ms Mori’s son Kei to set up Studio V, a chain of salon cum boutiques. During Suga’s absence, Shunji Matsuo was asked to attend a Richard Avedon shoot on his own and the client was Christian Dior. That became the turning point for Suga’s young assistant.

“Although he never said if both of them really got on (they had a professional relationship rather than a social one), he was full of respect for the guy,” the former journalist told SOTD, “but in the end, he did not want to walk in Suga’s shadow.” In 1984, Shunji Matsuo decided to part ways with his mentor/idol Suga Yusuke. After he left, he did not immediately set up his own salon. Instead, he chose to freelance, a professional arrangement common among hairdressers. He soon met Christiaan Houtenbos, a Dutchman working the New York fashion circuit and was known as the “Master of Short”.

Shunji Matsuo with Andre Leon Talley. Photo: Shunji Matsuo

It is not hard to see why Mr Matsuo found himself drawn to Christiaan, as he was called. Like Suga, Christiaan preferred short, ‘sassy’ hair, and was behind some of the most iconic looks of the ’80s, such as Debbie Harry’s messy locks and Grace Jones’s flat top (later so strikingly paired with a Giorgio Armani jacket for the Jean Paul Goude-designed cover of her album Nightclubbing). In 1986, Christiaan invited Mr Matsuo to Paris to assist the former in his work during Paris Fashion Week. The designer show that the Japanese found himself doing was that of a compatriot’s: Comme des Garçons.

Through Christiaan, Mr Matsuo found himself working more on fashion shows, such as those by Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, who became a mentor of sorts; and socialising with up-and-coming editorial stars, such as the stylist Paul Cavaco (who mostly teamed up with Bruce Weber) and the fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley (then with Interview). In 1986, Mr Matsuo accepted a print job, which turned out to be a high point of his career since going solo. Shot in Big Sur, California, the photograph of model Kirsten was selected for the cover of the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar, his first American title. Covers beget covers, and he was soon commissioned to work on more Bazaar covers, as well as those of New York and Interview.

All through the latter half of the ’80s, one photographer was a constant in Mr Matsuo’s attempts to align himself with fashion bigwigs of the time and to score editorial features: Gilles Bensimon. Credited for assisting in the launch of American Elle in 1981, Mr Bensimon—what 21st Century New Yorkers call a ‘modelizer’—married Elle Macpherson after his first divorce. Mr Matsuo met model Christie Brinkley in a shoot lensed by Mr Bensimon, and the model and hairdresser, by Mr Matsuo’s account, hit it off. Soon he was asked to visit the residence Ms Brinkley shared with then husband Billy Joel to do her hair. These were happy times, as he recounted, but things took a turn when he made an unwise request. Mr Matsuo had asked the model’s agent if it was alright that in accepting no charge for his services, he could announce that he was Christie Brinkley’s hairdresser. He got his answer when she did not called him back again.

A lover of wigs, Shunji Matsuo posed with his creations before a show in 2016. Photo: 大色影师

It was never really discussed if, despite his high-profile clients of the ’80s, Shunji Mastuo was a truly talented hairstylist. People do choose hairstylists the way they choose bartenders: based on inclination to listen. Fashion folks here who have worked with him consider him a good “shoot stylist”, but no one could recall if he, like Suga and Christiaan, had created anything memorable with cuts. From the bob to balayage, he has done them all, often under the guise of “Japanese techniques”. No one, however, could confirm if they were. To be sure, he is a competent hairdresser, but nobody would say for certain that he was extraordinary. His work in recent years, as one of them noted, was about dreaming up all sorts of effects on hair using hair (sometimes with hair pieces), the effect much like flower arrangement or ikebana.

Mr Matsuo’s love of hair pieces, usually coloured like kueh lapis kukus, came about at the time he had some hair designs photographed for the biographical book, Mane Man, which he was preparing in 2007. He wanted to create some rather over-the-top looks, but was limited by the length and thickness of the hair of the models he had booked. Someone suggested that he could cut hair from wigs, colour them, and attached them onto the models’ head in any fashion he wished. The idea fired his imagination, and he would from then on work with lengths of coloured hair that could be piled like Lego bricks. Unhindered (unhinged, some would say), he laid heaps of them on heads with gusto.

It is not clear if this penchant for the dramatic was a belated expression of what to him was real creativity, or if he was compensating for what he was not able to do in the salon. It is also plausible that this was to show that he had come into his own, no longer eclipsed by Suga or anyone else to whom he was a mere assistant. The creative outburst was less about leaving behind an artistic legacy than simply doing what he wanted to do without being told that he could not. He once said, “In America, I always had a boss or a partner. In Asia, I am my own boss, and I could do anything my own way.”

IMG-20171009-WA0027.jpgShunji Matsuo working on a model during a hair show. Photo: 大色影师

As the ’90s unfolded, Mr Matsuo may have realised that he was not going to leave a mark on New York fashion the way others before him did. America had taught him to survive the fashion system there, and to play the publicity games and manoeuvre the social circuit to stay afloat, but it had not fostered the innovation that would elevate him to the iconic status of those he had admired. As a former stylist remarked to SOTD, “During those days, being an Asian in America wasn’t easy. There was only room for one Suga.”

In 1990, Suga—the reasonMr Matsuo went to America—passed away, and the news deeply affected his one-time assistant. Mr Matsuo realised that an era had passed and he sensed that a new chapter of his life had to be written. After opening two moderately successful salons—37.57 on 57th street and Salon Ziba, a precursor to today’s ‘quick cuts’—Shunji Matsuo decided, in the mid-’90s, to leave New York City.

His next port of call was Jakarta. Odd as his choice might have been, he was certain that the Indonesian capital was where he would rebirth the glory he had experienced in New York. Tokyo would have been a logical choice, but he would be, as he told friends, “just a Japanese working among Japanese.” He felt Jakarta would be where he could stand out and be outstanding. Sadly for him, just a year after his salons opened (he moved from one location to another), Indonesia experienced the worse political turmoil of its modern history. The capital city was descending into chaos, an inevitability that resulted from the resignation of President Suharto, whose regime was not able to escape the contagion effect of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997. Mr Matsuo had to leave—“escape” was how he put it.

He arrived in Singapore in 1998, part of a hastily put together plan to flee a city in disorder that he had thought to call home. After a month holed up in the YMCA on Stamford Road and unable (or unwilling?) to do anything (“I was depressed,” he had admitted), he decided to return to Kobe upon the urging of his family. Two weeks later, he was back in Jakarta, then on the road to recovery, but things were not going to be the same. He then decided to rebuild his professional life in Singapore. It was here that he finally found success and recognition, and, more significantly, a salon that bears his very own name. In 1999, Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio opened in Wellington Building, right in the heart of Orchard Road.

In 2010, after Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio vacated Wellington Building, where the first salon was opened, it relocated to Takashimaya Shopping Centre. Photo: Zhao XIangji

But Singapore was not to be his next New York. The market was too small and the celebrities that he had hoped to charm were ensnared by others such as the ebullient and ambitious David Gan. Moreover, most of his target customers had not heard of him. His spanking new salon at Wellington Building was no Passion, a sweeping anchor at Palais Renaissance. Mr Matsuo understood the need for publicity and he was determined to be the celebrity hairstylist he had come to consider himself to be. Accept for the executives of hair product brands, he knew very few people here. His best bet was to seek a conduit, and he found it in Jennifer Dunbar, a PR old hat who was not a fashion industry staple, but was able to get her client into magazines, such as the now defunct NTUC Lifestyle. Mr Matsuo was disappointed that he was not doing the high-profile jobs that he desired, but he did not let on. He was grateful for the opportunities, and he soldiered on, as he had before.

A breakthough of sorts presented itself in 2008 when Mr Matsuo did the hair of the models of Thomas Wee’s comeback show during Singapore Fashion Week of that year. “I think he is good,” Mr Wee had said, “With his many years of experience and with old-school training, he is not your average ‘Orchard Road Salon’ hairstylist. I like to think that he has a lot of energy to be creative.” Bitten by the local fashion show bug, Shunji Matsuo would position his salon as a major sponsor for many of our city’s catwalk presentations.

But his love of fashion shows was not restricted to what went on backstage or the mayhem among the models. He liked it upfront, on the runway, in full view of an audience. A keen participant in hair shows, he would organise his company’s annual dinner and dance as a hair show too, with competing teams creating outlandish styles that encouraged boisterous cheers. He would invite industry folks to serve as judges. It was fun and it was serious, and it reflected his belief that the hair-styling business is glamourous.

Shunji Matsuo Makeover Magic Kobe in Apr 2016Shunji Matsuo with his ‘models’ before the Makeover Magic in Kobe last year. Photo: Shunji Mastuo

In 2013, a new idea for a show emerged. It would put not only his hair designs on stage, but also the creator in the limelight. Following his fixation with hair pieces, Mr Matsuo came to know a wig maker who wove pieces out of real hair. So impressed by these wigs was he that he decided that he would do a hair show by styling the wigs on those who needed them most: cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Makeover Magic was thus born and the first show was staged in Kobe. It would become an annual event (in Singapore too), and it would be extended to elderly ladies who wanted a chance to look simply extraordinary. Modern business practices would have called this corporate social responsibility, but Mr Matsuo did not describe it as such.

Makeover Magic was well received in Japan, bringing accolades to its Japanese creator, who, prior to this, did not think he had made it in his home country. But skeptics found what Mr Matsuo did to be too over-the-top to be a makeover in the conventional sense. He was not working with wigs alone; he added those hair pieces he had come to love. Some attendees thought the old ladies looked victimised—a ridiculous remodeling that was the vain indulgence of one man than the true enjoyment of the duped. In Singapore, some called it “搞笑行动” (gao xiao xing dong) or comedy routine, or, to steal an Italian Vogue cover blurb, “makeover madness”, but conceded that for many of the participants, it was the fun rather than the fantasy that was magical. Mr Matsuo was unfazed by his critics, and he believed in his mission of making people happy, even for the brief moment they were playing dressed-up, more so after being diagnosed with the dreaded disease cancer.

An admirer of Lee Kuan Yew (and other dogmatic personalities such as his favourite author, the “god of business consulting” Yukio Funai), Mr Matsuo considers Singapore very much his home. It was only in the last two years that he started going back to Japan frequently, partly to stage Makeover Magic, partly to seek treatment for his debilitating illness. Against the odds, and against an industry dominated by an influential few, he was able to produce Shunji Matsuo 2.0. Although he did not create anything akin to the “wedge” of his first employer in America, nor left a legacy that would be invaluable to the annals of Singapore fashion, Shunji Matsuo will always be remembered as the one who came and conjured.


Close Look: Ines De La Fressange Designs Men’s Wear

The embodiment of Parisian chic Ines de la Fressange, together with Uniqlo, is trying to grab the sartorial attention of guys. Are you thrilled?

Ines X Uniqlo AW 2017

By Ray Zhang

There’s always the first time, as the saying goes, but was it as good for her as it was not for me? Ines de la Fressange’s debut men’s pieces for Uniqlo did not get my pulse racing the way the Undercover and (first) Lemaire collaborations did. To make matters less appealing, Uniqlo has to include pieces from their house line into the merchandise mix as the Ines de la Fressange collection was not large enough to fill the space dedicated to its somewhat quiet launch. If there is an essence—Parisian-ness, for example—to be discerned, it is, sadly diluted.

This is Ines de la Fressange’s 8th collection with the Japanese fast fashion giant. To be fair, she’s become quite an old hand at it. The woman’s wear is a confident mélange of the familiar and the ‘elevated’. It is nice to see that she’s not stuck to those tiny floral prints that seemed to suggest far, far from Paris (Alsatian wine country?) and have offered, instead, rather charming prints of small double blooms spaced apart on polka-dots. Nothing terribly sérieuse, you see. Oh, and those shirt-dresses; they make Diane Von Furstenberg’s look positively inspired by thrift-stores and ready to go back there.

Ines X Uniqlo Mens 1

But the men’s! Ines de la Fressange, were you picking up the clothes for your man’s wardrobe? I sense that Ms de la Fressange is like some women: they would look impossibly chic—they have to, but they prefer their male companions to be just about right—conventional, not too branché. How else do you explain the pattern of Fair Isle knitting on sweaters for men while the women get far more modern colour blocking? Or, with the same fabric, the men get a plain shirt and the women a Western shirt?

With Uniqlo’s collaborative efforts, people seek out pieces that are a little different from what the brand normally does. I know I do. The involvement of another entity seems futile if the output does not visibly distance itself from the exceedingly plentiful already seen on the same floor. Do we need yet another black or navy blazer? Do we need yet another check flannel shirt? Do we need yet another slim-fit Chinos (when less than 100 metres away, there’s a roomy, single-pleat-front pair that’s a tad more outre)? I know I don’t.

Ines X Uniqlo Mens 2Clockwise from top left: wool blend blazer, S$149.90; striped cotton shirt, S$49.90; check flannel shirt, S$49.90; cashmere sweater, S$149.90

Lest, I am mistaken, I do take into consideration that with Uniqlo, collaborators have to respect their successful concept of LifeWear, which means clothes have to be user-friendly—fashion, I assume, being secondary. Perhaps Uniqlo thinks that enough of us buy into proper nouns associated with glamour and that alone may be sufficient. Ines de la Fressange’s name may move fashion for women, but it may not do the same for men. Or maybe there are really those who are easily seduced by the Euro-association and its attendant romance, such as ST’s former music reviewer and current director of the Singapore Writers Festival Yeow Kai Chai, who was seen going through the pieces like an eager beaver.

Maybe I am just nostalgic for the good old days of +J. Conceptually, that pairing was the strongest ever for Uniqlo, and successful enough for a greatest-hits drop after the collab ended. There was the discernible LifeWear sensibility, plus Jil Sander’s masterful and subtle twist on things, which years later still communicates a certain sophistication not since repeated. And, dare I add, usable dash.

Ines de la Fressange X Uniqlo AW 2017 collection is available at Uniqlo, Orchard Central. Photos: Uniqlo

Shanghai Tang Lost Its Founding Sifu

Shanghai Tang flagship in Raffles City. Photo: Gallery Gombak

By Raiment Young

Two days ago, it was reported in the British press, followed quickly by the world’s mass media, that David Tang—actually, Sir David Tang—has died. Many people, I think, reacted to the news with regret, but some with relief, and others resentfulness. Mr Tang may not mean much to us here, but in England and Hong Kong, where he split his time, he was quite an eyebrow-raising, nothing-can’t-be-said figure, or “obstreperous”, as the British wit Stephen Fry described his friend, who once proclaimed in mutual admiration that “there’s no greater ‘Emperor’ of Twitter than Stephen Fry.”

An impenitent bon vivant, Mr Tang was born into wealth in 1954, but, according to him, wasn’t entitled to the fortune of the family, considered by those who know of such things to be Hong Kong’s most philanthropic. As he recalled in the Financial Times, a paper in which he had a regular column as “resident agony uncle” (in 2016, the articles were compiled into a book, Rules for Modern Life), “my grandfather was very rich in colonial Hong Kong, [but] he did not like my grandmother, his first concubine, nor her only son, my father. All of us were cast out of the family home and left to fend for ourselves on a very modest income that my grandfather reluctantly provided.”

Still, he was able to go to England to study even when, according to reports, he spoke no English in the beginning. He did well in boarding school and eventually studied philosophy at King’s College and graduated with honours, followed by law at Cambridge, where he received a master’s degree. For a year after tertiary education, he taught English literature and philosophy at Peking University, where he was supposedly paid 600 yuan a month!

David TangA dapper David Tang. Photo: AP

Academia was, however, not really his calling. Cuban cigar-smoking Mr Tang became known, first as the man behind the expensive and private China Club, and then, in 1994, as the unlikely fashion hero behind the emporium revival, Shanghai Tang—a store and “luxury” label that salute Chinese design aesthetic (particularly Shanghainese) with a nod to the modern, predating the Hermès-backed Shang Xia. Both these businesses would quickly thrust Mr Tang onto the international stage, and he would soon make friends and party with fashion luminaries such as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.

Without prior fashion cred, Mr Tang’s success, for many industry watchers, was startling —and maddening. In the mid-Nineties, Hong Kong designers such as Benny Yeung, Lulu Cheng, and William Tang barely made a dent in the international fashion scene. Yet, Shanghai Tang’s coquettish cheongsams (in the 2000 Wong Kar Wai film, In the Mood for Love, Maggie Cheung wore stunning versions designed by William Chang and made by the store’s master tailors) and relaxed kungfu jackets with fluorescent-bright lining were drawing attention even more than the glamourous output of established Hong Kong names Walter Ma (husband of the renown retailer Joyce Ma) and designer-to-the-Canto-stars Eddie Lau.

Shanghai Tang was the first store in the Fragrant Harbour that was unabashed about inspiration drawn from Chinese culture and production centred in China (at one time, its label was printed with the tag “Made by Chinese”). It debuted on the first storey of Central district’s Pedder Building, then known for its factory outlets in the upper floors. I remember one particular Label Plus that had Prada and Valentino, among other brands, as well as clinics of GPs as incongruent neighbours. Despite the somewhat down-market tenants, Shanghai Tang, with its (almost) gaudy window displays, is a synergistic match with Pedder Building, the last surviving pre-World War II edifice on Pedder Street, where luxury shoe emporium On Pedder got its name.

Shanghai Tang @ Pedder BuildingOriginal Shanghai Tang store in Pedder Building. Photo: Jing Daily

My first visit to the original Shanghai Tang store was in 1998, less than a year after Hong Kong’s news-generating return to China. Walking in, I was surprised by how ‘pop’ it looked despite its Art-Deco-on-the-Bund elegance, and by the predominantly Caucasian and foreign shoppers. Hongkongers in the mid-Nineties were very much like the mainland Chinese of today. Oriental styles, no matter how modernised, held very little appeal to them. With the Landmark across the street offering the best of French and Italian labels, Shanghai Tang’s style de Chine was, at best, kitschy. It projected very little snob appeal to those who needed and used imported fashion as a symbol of advanced economic and social standing.

I remember buying a pair of cuff-links that were two workable miniature quartz clocks, with Chinese numerals on the dials, which, in hindsight, the white clientele must have found exotic. Apart from the cuff-links, I saw nothing terribly enticing to buy. Truth be told, much of the merchandise were so immodest in their Chinese-ness that even the frog buttons on simple office shirts would appear contrived back home, where Giorgio Armani was the epitome of modern chic. If TVB series were to be believed, changshans and cheongsams were worn on festive occasions in Hong Kong, but over here, I knew that anything that hinted at traditional Chinese dress would only elicit unwelcome comments.

I revisited Shanghai Tang about a year later. It was curiosity rather than desire that dragged me there. This time, it was in New York. The store was situated on Madison Avenue, one stretch of the city that was home to American names such as Calvin Klein, and, possibly to its disadvantage, across from Barney’s. By now, the day-glo zeal of the brand’s colour preference has reached a level only pre-schoolers won’t get a headache from it. And China’s pre-revolution glam sat incongruously with its Cultural Revolution kitsch. I was not sure what Shanghai Tang was bringing to New Yorkers other than a bit of colour Mao’s China did not enjoy. Or, maybe, Mandarin-collared polo shirt! It was, to me, one big, multi-storey, 12,500-square-foot, (reportedly) USD$2.7-million-a-year joke.

The interior of Raffles City’s Shanghai Tang, where the colour lime green is never too far from the corner of the eye. Photo: Gallery Gombak

Not parked on the Hermes side of the retail continuum, Shanghai Tang did not quite score with the Americans. Nineteen months after it opened, David Tang’s beloved emporium was shuttered. Unless you lived in the Upper East Side, I doubt many New Yorkers today remember Shanghai Tang’s sojourn in their city. In Hong Kong, people still remember the Shanghai Tang of the mid-Nineties, to the point that the gaudiness of the past still informs many what the brand is about today, even when it has moved to a more contemporary spin on Chinese designs (the lime green is, sadly, still around). To Mr Tang’s credit, changshans and Mao jackets with fluorescent-coloured lining became much copied. They were even available at Yu Hua Chinese Emporium in Chinatown.

David Tang, by his own admission, ran Shanghai Tang for seven years. It is not quite clear if he designed during those years. The brand continued to maintain its presence in Hong Kong and the mainland. At one point, there were 32 Shanghai Tang stores in the world, including Singapore, Bangkok, and Tokyo. Today, most of it is in China, and the only store in the US is in Miami, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I do not think the fashion consuming public took Shanghai Tang seriously, nor, for that matter, the fashion establishment. In 1998, Swiss luxury group Richemont (Cartier, Montblanc, Alfred Dunhill, and others) took a controlling stake in Shanghai Tang, and acquired full ownership in 2008. In June this year, the store was let go to Alessandro Bastagli—mostly described as an “Italian fashion entrepreneur“—and Hong Kong-based private equity fund Cassia Investments.

It isn’t clear yet where the new owners intend to take Shanghai Tang and onto what level (still “affordable luxury”, as the founder himself once described his brand?). I think David Tang wanted to create something more snobby—his China Club certainly was—but Shanghai Tang was too modern-clever and irreverent for it to really go higher than what Mr Tang aspired to. He told Financial Times in a video interview (interesting that they would feature one of their own columnists): “It’s important to be elitist in a way because when you have elitism, the bottom bits can come up.”

Google Doodle Salutes Eiko Ishioka

Google Doodle 12 Jul 2017

Movie fans, especially film costume aficionados, would know Eiko Ishioka. Therefore, if you use Google Search today, you may recognise the five illustrations that appear on Google Doodles: Ms Ishioka’s costumes from 2006’s The Fall, a film so fantastical, outlandish, and unlike any out there that Roger Ebert calls it “a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists”. In fact, it is in the genre of fantasy films that Ms Ishioka made her mark.

Ms Ishioka passed away in 2012. Today would have been her 79th birthday. And Google—a salute to them—decided to honour one of film’s most creative costume designers. If The Fall is unfamiliar to you, consider Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula of 1992. It scored Ms Ishioka an Oscar for best costume. We remember quite vividly the outlandish ruff worn by the coquettish Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) and how it stood beautifully even in the midst of an exorcism.

This is not the first time Google Doodles pays tribute to fashion figures. Back in 2013, there was also homage to another film costume name: Edith Head. Last December, there was animation to celebrate the work and invention of Charles Macintosh, whose namesake outerwear is synonymous with rainwear. Since its introduction in 1998, Google Doodles has celebrated the works of giants of design such as Sir Norman Parkinson and Zaha Hadid.

Eiko IshiokaEiko Ishioka. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

The choice of Eiko Ishioka proves that Google does not hide from less conventional fashion figures or those not immediately identifiable by the average Google user. Ms Ishioka did not share Colleen Atwood’s fame and vast body of work; she did not, in fact, have her start in films. She was trained as a graphic designer, began with Shiseido, and later made her mark in the advertising scene in Tokyo, where, for those old enough to remember, her work for the retailer Parco caught the admiration of her peers. In one of Parco’s television commercials, Ms Ishioka art-directed a chiselled-face Faye Dunaway to do nothing other than crack, peel, and eat an egg!

Her Oscar win led to other film projects. Apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Fall, there’s also Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (her first film in 1985) and those by her partner-in-crime Tarsem Singh: The Cell, Immortal and Mirror Mirror (not just The Fall). She also designed for the stage, garnering two Tony nominations in 1988 for M Butterfly. Proving that the art director in her never left, she won, a year earlier, a Grammy for the Miles Davis album Tutu.

While her creative output was varied, including the monochrome and minimalist music video for Bjorg’s Cocoon which showed almost no clothes (a break from costume design, or, as Tarsem Singh told WWD, “Eiko had only two gears: full-out or no gear at all”?), it was her costume work for strange worlds that continue to capture the adoration of fans. These included Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai and the massive stage wear of Grace Jones’s 2009 Hurricane tour that only the singer can pull off.

Many of Ms Ishioka’s fans note that she made a success for herself in an industry dominated by men. But we think it is more remarkable that she had left such a legacy in show business that was, and still is, the domain of the West. Eiko Ishioka, you are missed.

Weird, It Eventually Is No Longer

People who understand and love Comme des Garçons talk about the “transformative power of the clothing”. On the eve of the Met’s latest spring exhibition The Art of the In-Between, SOTD looks at how CdG, in particular, its designer Rei Kawakubo, has transformed our perception of what can or cannot be clothes and how the unconventional becomes conventional

Rei KawakuboRei Kawakubo (centre) in Paris. Collage: Just So

Rei Kawakubo (centre) in Paris. Collage: Just So
People break rules all the time, but few are serial rule breakers. To smash established notions of anything, for some, leads to emancipation. In fashion, liberation from the past era’s, century’s, decade’s, previous generation’s, yesteryear’s idea of what is wearable, can-face-the-day clothes has been effected for as long as garments are made and worn. From Paul Poiret to Coco Chanel to Yves Saint Laurent to Mary Quant to Helmut Lang to Raf Simons to Demna Gvasalia to so many more, fashion codes have been rewritten, and clothing has, in many ways, become the freeing of oneself from the constraints of the markedly contemporaneous.

Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo is a serial rule breaker. Some designers challenge the zeitgeist long enough to see the desired changes and then revolutionise no more. Ms Kawakubo constantly contorts our view of what can be considered suitable to the body and what can be construed as clothes. As she told WWD in 2012, “The more people that are afraid when they see new creation, the happier I am.” If this fashion outsider’s success—culminating in the Met spring exhibition opening on 4 May in New York City—is any indication, Ms Kawakubo may be rather less happy these days.

Perhaps she is. “It’s a Met show for Comme des Garçons, not a Comme des Garçons show at the Met,” she told the media recently, in the few, possibly reluctant, interviews she granted to market the exhibition. And they detected or deduced that she likely had to compromise, something possibly unheard of in the modus operandi of Rei Kawakubo.

The Met 2017 exhibition catalogueThe Met spring exhibition catalogue by curator Andrew Bolton. Collage: Just So

But it wasn’t this way in the beginning. From the start, Ms Kawakubo was really the ready radical, a petite Oriental woman who dared to go to Paris in 1981 to show in the same city as then-newsmakers Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana. But hers wasn’t like the powerfully feminine clothes of her French counterparts; hers were new creations that she likes people to be afraid of, and they were, so much so that the media of that time described what she did disparagingly as “Hiroshima chic”.

She was not the least fazed, and has stuck to showing in Paris till today. Despite the coldness of her designs—mostly in black—people warmed up to them. By the mid-Eighties, CdG, though still odd, funereal, and boyfriend-repelling, appealed to the taste of women for whom ‘power dressing’ encouraged aversion. These were largely those who worked in creative fields, individuals not compelled to dress in the way corporate environments demanded.

Holes in pullovers, tops and shirts with puckered armholes, skirts with unfinished—meaning un-sewn—hemlines that did not accentuate the hips, dresses that could have led a double life as a sack for potatoes, these were novel to a new generation of consumers of designer labels not yet weaned on the elegance of the day. Torn and rough and imperfect, as opposed to refined and smooth and perfect, were visual cues to communicate the message that women were now dressing for themselves rather than for the opposite sex. Visually and obviously feminine styles took a back seat.

CDG Mode et PhotoPoster of the Comme des Garçons photo exhibition in Paris in 1986. Photo: Jim Sim

The growing success of CdG indicated to other designers—established, emerging and those waiting in the wings—that desirable designs need not follow the footsteps of French couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent, who, in fact, preceded Ms Kawakubo as the first living designer to be honoured by the Met with a solo exhibition in 1983. Ms Kawakubo was in her third year showing in Paris at that time, and probably did not imagine that, 34 years later, she would share Mr Saint Laurent’s good fortune and be selected by the Met to display 150 pieces, as many as the latter, of her designs for public viewing.

Even Marc Jacobs, who does not deny that he’s inspired by CdG, has worn CdG to the Met Gala—a lace tunic shirt to the 2012 Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. Mr Jacob’s coping of CdG not only makes the label a designer’s label, it also elevated the brands visibility. By now, Comme des Garçons, although not an instantly recognisable name as Louis Vuitton, has become what rivals would call successful. Ms Kawakubo is still considered by her peers to be an iconoclast, but the label that she started in 1969 has gone somewhat mainstream too, with pop stars such as Lady Gaga wearing CdG to the delight rather than bafflement of her fans, and with fast fashion imitating their house codes of mixed fabrics/patterns, asymmetric hemlines, and strange proportions.

CdG was not conceived for the masses. It’s disavowing of conventions set it apart, pulling those who are not seduced by the ordinary to the brand. Yet, it has become a bit of a victim of its uncommon success. To be sure, CdG is, in the end, a business, and the company has to survive, and they did so rather well with commercial “non-fashion” items such as those of the popular Play line. Because Ms Kawakubo makes clothes unlike her contemporaries or creates looks ahead of them, her clothes seem to defy time—they don’t date. Vintage CdG is still so in demand (just look at Tokyo’s Rag Tag) that even the company reprises their past pieces in the ‘Evergreen’ collection.

Stalwart supporters of CdG will continue to embrace Ms Kawakubo’s what-will-she-think-of-next designs. For the uninformed, CdG clothes may not look “designer”, but as John Walters once said, “Only you know you spent money when you wear Rei’s creations.”

Ethereal Designs, Ephemeral Life

Obituary | Tan Yoong, one of Singapore’s most illustrious and creative designers passed away three weeks ago. It is irrefutably our nation’s loss. There will never be another like him

tan-yoong-pic-1A ten-year-old, multi-layered silk tulle dress from 2007 that was a further exploration of one of Tan Yoong’s favourites themes: the cattleya orchid. Just last year, he described this as his “all-time favourite design”. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Tan Yoong is known to be an extremely private person, sometimes solitary. Even in death: he died alone, away from Klieg and kin, in a manner not unlike the passing of John Keats. Comparing his demise to an English romantic poet’s is deliberate for Tan Yoong’s legacy is one of poetry with fabric. His designs bore the Keatsian hallmark: “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”.

If a thing of beauty is that rare combination of shape, form, and colour that pleases our aesthetic sensibilities, then Tan Yoong’s designs were irrefutably a composition of immeasurable beauty and more. SOTD rarely ascribe beauty to the work of Singaporean designers, but in the case of Tan Yoong, there is no description more apt, more telling, and more laudatory.

Since 1996 until the closing of his couture house in 2015, Mr Tan offered mainly beauty to brides. Yet, his ethereal sumptuousness was also appreciated by those not considered his target audience, both men and women. His designs for so many were “the stuff of dreams”, as one customer so ardently put it. Mr Tan once told a former journalist—when asked why he had chosen to concentrate on bridal wear— that “every woman wants to look beautiful, like a bride. So for me, a bride has to look even better than that.” He often said—whether out of humility or candor, it wasn’t certain—that he did “not cater to beauty and those with money. Women come to me because my gowns make women more confident and, therefore, more beautiful.”

tan-yoong-bridalDespite his obvious flair in fashion design, Tan Yoong was mostly known for his bridal couture and women swoon at the sight of his signature gossamer layers, swirls and twirls. Photo (originally for an ad), courtesy of Lightspade Studio and the House of Tan Yoong

Every woman can look beautiful if she thinks she is. How the mind can be seduced into this thought is often the result of what is worn. More than just an attractive outfit, a dress can also offer elements of fantasy, among them, the illusion of looking like a princess-bride. Fantasy is a powerful agent in the elevation of self-esteem. Mr Tan knew that, and he spun fantasy in spades. A fashion-designer-turn-educator said of Tan Yoong’s designs, “It’s the fantasy that I’ll remember him for.”

The fantasy is best exemplified in his drawings. A gifted illustrator, Mr Tan drew with a deft hand, expounding Western glamour with distinctive Eastern strokes—their sweeps and linearity akin to Chinese calligraphy. He drew from a young age and, prior to enrolling in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1967, made fashion drawings that were inspired by models such as Twiggy and the German sensation Veruschka. His girls were outfitted by clothes born of his imagination, which, by his own admission in later years, were attributed to the influence of Dior, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Mr Tan’s unique fashion illustration style was honed in the post-design competition years (the last was also his most remembered: the Her World Young Designers Contest in 1978), when his eponymous label was taking definite shape. Aware of the artistic value of his drawings, and their accurate representation of his uncommon style, he used them—framed like art—in his Lucky Plaza shop window, in place of mannequins. This predated even Stilla’s use of illustrations to sell a line.

So captivating were his illustrations that magazines such as Her World (the first to commission him as an illustrator in the ’70s) and Female, both usually proponents of fashion photography, would happily publish Tan Yoong’s illustrations of his own clothes whenever he preferred the use of drawings to photos. They were never met with resistance from any editor or art director.

bridal-dress-detailTan Yoong’s couture dresses were about handcrafted details such as this feathered bodice designed to look like a bouquet of flowers. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

One former editor recalls, “Back then, I was only familiar with the work of Rene Gruau and Antonio Lopez, but when I saw Tan Yoong’s drawings, I was completely bowled over. He depicted his women in groups just as Gianni Versace did through his photographs lensed by Richard Avedon. As a student, I would go to his Lucky Plaza shop just to see those framed drawings in the window, hoping that he had put out a new one. But he did not change them often enough. Still, those drawings were totally entrancing.” Indeed, for many a young person struggling to pursue what was then an uncommon career in the rag trade, Mr Tan’s illustrations were catharsis by fashion.

While the drawings of his formative years tended to be delineations of his favourite European models in the looks of the day, those that came later, during his heyday, were distinctive for their watercolour washes or coloured-pencil shadings over inked lines that gave form to sumptuous shapes. And there were those unmistakable eyes: multiple skinny strokes that seemed to suggest Cyclops’s visor, but it is doubtful Mr Tan intended for his women to be containing massive optic blast force. Rather, those eyes—obscured, thus mysterious—were complementary to the strikingly bald heads, sometimes punctuated with a clutch of flowers, that he favoured for a period.

It is thus not inaccurate to say that for Mr Tan, the foundation of his designs and attendant work was those drawings. Many of his signature styles first emerged from pen and paper. So sure was he of his drawings and so much faith had he in them that often times even photographic output was based on illustrations (interestingly, he never used a bald model). Most of his studio shoots were based on a prepared sketch or full-colour illustrations. Those who worked with him knew of his exacting demands. The creative director period of his life (specifically his time at Batey Ads in the mid-’70s), the story boards—they did not ever leave him.

tan-yoong-illustration-heartTan Yoong was as much admired as an illustrator as a designer. Illustration, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

tan-yoong-illustrations His illustrations captured the imaginations of scores of aspiring designers and students. Clockwise from top left: a sketch during his teenage years, Veruschka-inspired drawing from the late ’60s, poster illustration of the mid-’90s, the Her World Young Designers award winning collection, illustrations for the Cattleya collection,  and definitive Tan Yoong illustration of the late ’80s.  Illustrations, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Photographer Joyce Choo, a constant collaborator in the ’90s, vividly remembers the shoot for the Seashell collection. “This was way before Photoshop, and back then, we shot on film,” she says. “Each composition could comprise up to three layers. I had to shoot all of them individually and then assembled them as seen in the illustration that he first showed during the brief.”

It can be said that spontaneity was not Mr Tan’s modus operandi. His style was a studied glamour—precise, deliberate, and appreciated by women that were, according to him, “sophisticated and chic”. The ingénue seemed less interesting or inspiring to him, unlike, say, to Hubert de Givenchy. This is reflected in his choice of models. One of Tan Yoong’s favourites in the ’80s was Susan Ang, a petite individual with features that were unmistakably Oriental. Ms Ang was no lass in the cusp of womanhood. She looked grown, worldly, and clearly able to carry designed garments that were not your every-day threads.

From the start, Mr Tan considered what he did to be couture (even when he did not specifically referred to his work as ‘haute’), and it was couture in the French (or European) tradition, not the glue-gun-and-feathers variety. As he is not known to open up his atelier to anyone except his staff, no one had had the opportunity to see how he worked. Ex-staffers recount that the designer was very hands-on and that he positioned every bead, every slip of lace, every wisp of appliqué on the dress-in-progress himself. As with the photographs of his collections, surface embellishments on the garment much corresponded to the sketch made before the commencement of the drafting of the item of clothing. Although not trained at storied couture houses, his insistence on finishing much of his designs by hand stood shoulder to shoulder with the practices of the maisons of Paris.

tan-yoong-risis-orchid-seriesFor his collaboration with Risis Orchids in the mid-’90s, Tan Yoong conceived a series of photographs that looked very much like his illustrations. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

tan-yoong-seashells-collectionThe Seashell collection of the ’90s shot by Joyce Choo featured Photoshop-style layers before digital imaging was the norm in fashion photography. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Undoubtedly, his design aesthetic—at least in his formative years—was influenced by couture greats: Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent. Yet, his style was as disconnected to mode Française as he is to China, or wherever his Eastern flourishes could be traced to, outside his homeland. Although he did not see the need to maintain an “Eastern identity” in his designs, Mr Tan never negated his Eastern roots. His structured forms confined to a Western norm, but the details and the surface treatment of his designs bore an identifiable Oriental sensibility. And the reverse is true: on his famed cheongsams, the embellishments were conversely European.

Despite his own Western image and outlook, and the Western lands he visited so ardently in his retirement travels, Mr Tan was, at heart, an aesthete whose thinking was very Chinese. To those he knew well, the bilingual designer mostly spoke to them in what could have been his most comfortable language: Mandarin. He would also use dialects such as Cantonese to chat and joke with fellow designers.

Mr Tan’s primary school years were spent in an institution associated with Chinese schools (although they were no longer popular in the late ’50s and were phased out in the ’70s): Mi Tuo Primary, now Mee Toh School and a Government-Aided School since 1957. He continued his secondary schooling in the Catholic environment of Maris Stella High, and furthered his education at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, an education centre that was set up in 1938 in the tradition of Chinese art academies. Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (the abbreviation NAFA was not officially used when Mr Tan enrolled in 1967; the school was mostly known by its Chinese name 南洋艺术学院) was a part of the art movement, Nanyang Style. One of Singapore’s most celebrated artists associated with the movement and also linked to the school was the Chinese-fluent Liu Kang.

Tan Yoong revealed very little of his fine arts training, his time in school, his relationship with classmates and his lecturers. It isn’t known how he reconciled his love for Western fashion with the education in a school so synonymous with the Nanyang Style. But the exposure to did-Singapore-proud artists must have bolstered the believe in his own talent and the willingness to salute other local artists such as Eng Tow, whose fabric and paper art inspired a memorable collection Mr Tan created in 1990. The product of fine art can be a result of a long, labour-intensive process. Mr Tan did not see fashion differently. He approached it as a painter would his canvas: using mostly hands, regardless of the medium. But fashion, to the trained artist, is not art. To a designer, it can be just as revered; it can be couture.

tan-yoong-pic-3One of Tan Yoong’s favourite models in the ’80s, Susan Ang, in a top that typified his play with sheerness and opacity. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

If one were to read Mr Tan’s designs the way the Chinese du hua (读画 or read a painting), one can discern a lyrical serenity, particularly in his early years (less so in the bridal designs, but that could be just a bridal thing—commerce being all-important), or, to put it more in line with the perspective of Chinese paintings, quiet poetry. Many of Mr Tan’s peers looked at his Eastern leanings with admiration since the expressions in his designs were original. Yet, sometimes, with disregard, for some thought he overly romanticised Chinese motifs and symbolism. Was a Westernized Tan Yoong making Oriental references similar to the Shanghainese of the 1920s copying modern occidental society and was tagged with what was then a derogatory term: haipai ((海派 or ‘Shanghai Style’)?

That thinking may be reductive just as the considering of Tan Yoong only as a bridal designer is reductive. Mr Tan passionately loved fashion and he did not let his lack of formal training in fashion design diminish his ability to traipse familiar and uncharted territory. Yet, one senses he tried harder and was more expressive than anyone else because he did not attend classes for fashion or cut his teeth in a fashion house. Designer Thomas Wee remembered Tan Yoong pointing out to him during one of the ASEAN Designer Shows in the ’90s that, among the regional designers presenting that evening, the two of them did not go to fashion school. He considered that “sao kar” (羞家, a now uncommonly used Cantonese expression that’s roughly the equivalent of the Mandarin diulian or 丢脸, or to lose face).

This rare revelation of professional inadequacy hinted at an insecurity that few knew or sensed. But it does explain why no one (except his staff) had really seen Mr Tan at work. A former magazine and commercial stylist explained, “Tan Yoong was a perfectionist and he never considered what he did good enough. Therefore, he wouldn’t show you how he did what he did.” One surprising act seemed to concur with this line of thinking. About a year before he closed his business in 2015, Mr Tan instructed his staff to destroy all the clothes in his archive and whatever was not sold. According to one ex-staffer, they were instructed to “cut everything up”and discard. Tan Yoong did not want to leave any trace of perfection or imperfection.

tan-yoong-pic-6Another signature design from the early ’80s: appliqué of sheer longitudinal stripes to mimic leaves and petals. Tan Yoong was the first designer here to use baby-lock stitching in place of hem as part of the decorative effect. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Said the stylist, “I am not the least surprised that he had destroyed everything. Tan Yoong was very secretive about his techniques. Maybe he knew they were not standard techniques, and authenticity was very important to him.” Mr Tan’s evolution as a designer was never a journey to an end point; it was always a work in progress. Even the clothes he used to send for shoots were unfinished dreams. It was known among stylists and photographers that quite a few of those clothes were only completed in the front. Mr Tan often attended shoots with cloths and decorative fabrics such as his hand-cut cut-outs and laces that were used at a sudden moment to stitch onto the garment being shot. Every petal, every stripe, every curlicue was applied as if he was doing a collage on paper.

This going-by-gut-instinct approach to design is, in fact, rather couture in spirit, yet Tan Yoong was not necessary sure his was the right way. Thomas Wee recalled, “He used to come by my shop and would slowly push the front door open, peer in and sheepishly say to me, ‘来偷师’ (here to steal a master’s craft). He would examine my clothes very closely.” Mr Tan may not have started as the tailoring master that Mr Wee has always been, but he did progress to the point when his clothes exhibited a master’s hand with silhouettes. And his customers knew they could trust his cuts.

Yet, this was not quite enough to bolster his self-confidence. He kept his work day within his atelier and rarely talked about his design process, particularly to journalists, who he had an uneasy relationship with. He did not particularly trusted them to report accurately what he thought, led alone interpret his work, nor understand what he did. This is ironic considering that it was through press accolades and the ardent support of editors such as Her World’s Betty Khoo that Tan Yoong acquired much of his early successes.

tan-yoong-pic-7One of Tan Yoong’s last innovations (in 2014): multi-layer coloured silk tulle for what he called “water-colour effect”. He was adamant no one thought them to be “hand-painted”. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

One particular article turned him away from the media even more resolutely. In February of 2008, former journalist Michelle Tay of the The Straits Times (ST) opined in the Life column The Monday Interview, that Mr Tan “could in fact be mistaken for your friendly neighbourhood uncle.” A close friend of Mr Tan said that the designer had called to say he “was unhappy” with that description. “Why must she put it that way,” he had said. And he was not over-reacting. Would anyone have described Tan Swee Hian as an ‘uncle’, however avuncular he may look?

To Mr Tan, just as it was to Jane Austen when she wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously.” No one who knew him would consider Mr Tan someone interested in dressing like a designer (or trendily, or flashily) even when he was partial to turning out impeccably, mostly in variations of beige, and some form of head wear. Mr Tan took pride in everything he did, including how he appeared in public, even when pushing his mother in a wheelchair—before she passed away—when they went for walks in Orchard Road.

Following his death, the lack of curiosity about Tan Yoong’s craft continued to characterise media reports. More eager to give an account of the cause and time of death than to mourn the passing of an indisputably great talent, ST’s first article by Melissa Heng approached his demise with the same snooping flair as those reporting a suspicious fatality in an HDB heartland. Her follow-up a week later had “fashion insiders remember the couture pioneer for his visionary designs and skillful craftsmanship”, never mind that it is doubtful young-ish designers such as Priscilla Ong Shunmugam and Mae Pang could “remember” Tan Yoong at the height of his career. Ms Heng herself had nothing insightful to offer. She availed a set of photos to her interviewees and asked them to “comment”. While she labeled some of the dresses “couture” (in fact, they all are), she had asked if they “would have been difficult to make.”

tan-yoong-pic-8A cocktail dress of multi-layered coloured silk tulle at Tan Yoong’s last catwalk presentation in 2008. Photos, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

It is hardly surprising that in his last years, Mr Tan had chosen to lead a quiet, almost reclusive life, completely away from media glare, uninvolved in the ignorance that spawns insipidity in today’s old and new media (his one social-media indulgence was an Instagram account that he maintained, where images of past work and current travels were posted). From the start, his designs seemed to suggest retreat from a regular world, recoiling from its woes and its increasing banality. Hence, the prevalent “fantasy”.

Some observers think that Tan Yoong did not, in the twilight of his eponymous label, really caught up with the celebrity-led redefinition of elegance—his was too old-fashioned, they say. Under and above his many, many ways with silk tulle, Tan Yoong had at all times strictly adhered to the pursuit of the ultimate expression of the most beautiful and the most creative. For the likes of Ms Heng, Ms Shunmugam, and Ms Pang, this is possibly quite beyond their ken.

The United Nations put it aptly when it said in a statement in response to Tan Yoong being selected to represent Singapore in the inaugural World Fashion Awards in the World Fashion Week (now defunct) in Hollywood back in 2008, “He is an active force in the growth and beauty of his own country’s fashion industry.”