In March last year, the SG50-themed exhibition Fifty Years of Singapore Design opened to scant fanfare. After a year, the “permanent” exhibition still languishes without a crowd on the second floor of the National Design Centre
Our second visit to Fifty Years of Singapore Design took place on a Friday afternoon. It was deathly quiet, the stillness not unlike that in a forgotten ancestral shrine. Only the faint murmur from the always busy Tanuki Raw, the café situated at Kapok, the National Design Centre’s (NDC) only retail outlet not connected to anything it exhibits, could be heard. As with our first visit last year, we contemplated and completed the display in a flash.
For an exhibition that chronicles 50 years of design, it is surprisingly undersized. During our first visit a few days after its official opening, we had allotted about an hour to take in all of Fifty Years of Singapore Design, but we finished it in twelve minutes. Fifty years of nationhood may not seem like a very long time, but five decades of design evolution is. Yet, this exhibition painted our island-republic’s business with design in one short, skinny brush stroke. Five decades, it seems, deserve only a feeble précis.
The smallness of the exhibition is magnified by the space in which it is installed: on the second-floor gallery of the NDC that’s about the size of a 4-room HDB flat, possibly less. In the opening month, Fifty Years of Singapore Design sat above what appeared to be the key event of the Centre: New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio. Staged in the building’s re-purposed indoor courtyard, the exhibits of the Heatherwick Studio (best remembered for their design of the London Olympics Cauldron in the summer of 2012) drew attention with their suitably impressive models, although regrettably crammed in a fairly tight space. In contrast, upstairs, tucked away from the main hub of the Centre, Fifty Years of Singapore Design looks like a transplant from an atrium exhibition at the National Library, just across the street.
From left, the designs of Thomas Wee, Tan Yoong, and Benny Ong
Even in NDC’s sleek SCDA Architects-designed interior (headed by one of the recipients of the inaugural President Design Award, Chan Soo Khian), there is a community-centre (now called club) vibe to the exhibition. You would have thought the People’s Association commissioned the exhibition rather than DesignSingapore Council (DSC). It is likely that the aim is to reach out to as many people as possible, including those not design-savvy, rather than to a growing public interest in and consumption of design. Hence a non-alienating, visually-tame, all-can-understand approach was adopted to downplay the potentially high-brow status design may project. The flat, some parts dim, lighting and a distinct lack of atmosphere, and playroom cubes that were used as compositional elements, therefore, suited the original use of the space: the most community-focused of spaces: the classroom. It, too, was like walking into a set of RTS—Radio and Television Singapore, circa 1975, and Ahmad Daud was about to sing.
Design, however, deserves a more engaging and visually stimulating platform, even when not installed in an actual museum. The NDC is, of course, not a museum. It is not bound by the traditional goal of museums to collect, record, research, and then display what they have amassed for public enjoyment and education. It offers exhibition spaces just as the National Library avails its atrium as exhibition space. So, we venture to suggest that the onus is on DSC. It is really not immoderate to expect the Council to demand a more inspired approach to installation and to ask the curators—(curiously from the French architecture/design firm WY-TO) for more rigorous selection to spotlight Singapore’s design history.
It is, of course, tempting to say that design in Singapore, despite five decades of growth and discovery, has not reached a level of excitement that deserves a grand display. It has been said that Singapore design deserves what it gets: boring begets boring. However, we tend to agree with Irene Etzkorn, co-author of Simplicity: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity: “There is no such thing as a boring project. There are only boring executions.”
From left, the qipao of Gary Lau/Kang’s Boutique and the shirt of Dick Lee
Since this is a fashion site, we shall not comment on the other disciplines of design except fashion, specifically clothing design. And that, sadly, is the biggest let down of the exhibition. With boutiques now designed to place products for maximum attention in spatial terms–museum-like almost, it is surprising that 50 Years of Singapore Design is so diametrically opposite even the simplest retail design seen in mass labels such as Bershka, only a stone’s throw away at Bugis+. The NDC is situated among design schools, yet the exhibition, too, isn’t able to scale higher than those of graduate shows.
As clothing is best appreciated when worn, it is mostly exhibited on mannequins. It is no different here, but we did come to the conclusion that the mannequins used for the exhibition are either donated by a supplier or picked up from a few clothing shops that have been served bankruptcy notice. Headless dummies of different stock, some with ill-fitted caps at the top of the neck, mean the clothes do not fit properly. Each designer submitted one outfit, and since none are based on one-size specification, the mannequins have to fit the clothes, not the other way round. This hampers the viewer’s ability to truly appreciate a garment’s cut and fit since, in a couple of cases, the bust darts, for example, are off-point. In addition, some of the clothes look like they are not granted a requisite meeting with an electric iron.
What Charles Eames once said came to mind: “The details are not the details. They make the design.” We really should state that we were not expecting ICOM (International Council of Museums) standards for handling valuable dress in a museum (or the Costume Committee’s Guideline for Costume). However, unless the clothes are accorded the respect they deserve, and the acknowledgment that there are talents behind these designs, the exhibition is no different from those retail events staged in “event halls” of department stores put together to clear stocks. No one expects OCBC’s very publicly displayed Henry Moore sculpture—the bronze Large Reclining Figure—to be poorly installed, and for the same reason, no one expects 50 Years of Singapore Design exhibits—clothes no less—to be less than perfectly set up.
From left, dresses by Hansen and Raoul
Sadly, they are not. Mannequins too large or too small for the clothes aside, the handling of the garments could benefit from nimbler and abler hands. Even if the exhibition is not about scale or ambition, surely there could be some vestige of quality in the execution. It is disturbing—and the designers are partly to blame—to see the history of Singaporean fashion reflected in clothes that are displayed in a manner that could not hold up to close scrutiny. Whether a dress that requires pearl-head pins to stay up or another with a bodice that won’t remain flat after buttoning, they’re all there to our horror.
The choice of clothes on show, too, throws up questions on the curatorial decisions made. It is understandable that putting together an exhaustive list of fashion designers who have impacted how we dressed as a nation is near impossible. Given the historical breadth, 50 Years of Singapore Design should, instead, establish the link between clothing forms and the general psyche of the time(s) and illustrate how fashion has played out in the building of our nation, how it reflects our aspirations or moral dispositions. We did not see this connection in the clothes and designers selected. The final nine (why not ten?) given a mannequin to hold a signature look seem to reflect desperation to get anyone willing to participate than true scholarship.
What’s perhaps even more difficult is finding those clothes that truly represent the decades that the exhibition depicts. Nothing from the ’60s is represented (Roland Chow received a cursory mention). The ’70s is reflected in a single uniform: the Singapore Girl’s Pierre Balmain-designed kebaya, suggesting, perhaps, that it was time of work as we pursued economic wealth, even if an air stewardess’s dress is so far removed from the reality of a citizenry with a much more mundane life pursuit. The golden age of Singaporean fashion design—the ’80s—is represented by Thomas Wee, Tan Yoong, Benny Ong, and Dick Lee. The rest of them are only mentioned in the descriptive texts that accompany the exhibits. Of “The Magnificent Seven” cited—the septet that not only created ripples in the local scene, but also brought Singaporean designs to Paris, only Mr Wee’s and Mr Tan’s clothes are shown.
From left, the designs of Depression and the stage costume of Frederick Lee
To the uninitiated, this decade may not look like it produced some of our best fashion design talents, or that many of them have laid the foundation for what we see today. It was as much an issue of aesthetics as the substantive. Thomas Wee’s yellow and black skirt suit is supposed to be from the designer’s most successful line: Mixables. The curators, unaware that Mr Wee no longer designs such styles and unable to find clothes from that period, had the designer re-produce something for the exhibition. The result is clearly not anything akin to what Mixables was about. The shoulder of the jacket, for example, is very telling: Mr Wee has shaped and proportioned it in the aesthetic of today. What we saw isn’t an iconic garment of an era, but the uniform (again) of an off-duty cosmetic salesgirl.
Benny Ong, considered the Singapore boy made good in London (on that note, Andrew Gn, who succeeded in Paris, is curiously omitted), is summarised by a strange, low-waist dress with notched fichu-collar of velvet and a sort of calvary bodice of shantung silk, and in a black and orange pairing that recalls Halloween. It was hard for us to reconcile this frumpy ensemble with London, and even harder with Princess Diana, who once wore Mr Ong’s conservative designs before she embraced Gianni Versace’s and the like. Dick Lee, the multi-hyphenate, jolted our memory that he was once a fashion designer. His dress-avatar is a cutesy men’s shirt that is in the happy colours of Stephen Burrows and had more than a whiff of teen spirit. The close-up allows one to examine Mr Lee’s not-perfected tailoring skills, made worse by a mannequin with a neck too thick for the shirt’s collar.
Of the group, Tan Yoong’s dress stood out. Here is without doubt the work of a master, whose ability to translate something as potentially clichéd as petals into sumptuousness of pure visual pleasure is, hitherto, rare and unmatched on our island. Inspired by the cattleya orchid, and based on the iconic William Travilla-designed dress that Marilyn Monroe wore, standing astride a subway grating that blew the dress up in the Billy Wilder film The Seven Year Itch, Mr Tan’s version should go down the history of Singapore design as a classic. Lest we’re mistaken, this is no copy; this is completely the designer’s take, and it boasts the technical finesse—those baby-lock stitches on the hem to stiffen the gauzy silk petals-as-skirt’s edge so that, when tacked at discreet points, the skirt appears to be caressed by the wind—that corroborates his standing as one of our best and most accomplished designers.
What’s amiss? Clockwise from top left: the collar of Dick Lee’s shirt collar is too small to fit the mannequin’s neck; strange tape and marking, and poor finish below the add-on collar of Depression’s shirt; the crumpled, bunched-up bust line of Benny Ong’s dress; and the exposed velcro and fastenings of Frederick Lee’s “dress”
Except for Tan Yoong’s cocktail dress, most of the other designers are represented by clothes that seem to suggest that local women’s clothes went no further than the humdrum, or that they dressed as an act of instinct, not adornment, with none of the exhibits reflecting the different tempos of the passing eras, the disparity of rising and shifting urban life. It is as if nothing has changed. Indeed, the exhibition, like so many of the SG50 events, is just a show or a product of what has been called a “catwalk economy”; it is not particularly reflective or critical, and is not a platform for debate to establish those Singaporean designers who have truly contributed to our contemporary culture.
Singapore’s fashion history is not long enough to leave behind a legacy. It is also too short to reflect the social strata of fashion. Even society women, conventionally the adopter of the latest dress designs, were not visible enough, until recently (thanks to social media), to set trends or influence what women wear. None are cited as exemplary bearer of Singaporean fashion. Television and pop stars are similarly passed over since there are not that many of them or, perhaps, because they have no real influence on our lifestyle and fashion choice. Scanning the displays of the different decades, it is hard to determine if these are indeed fashionable clothing of the day, and if they speak of the zeitgeist of the respective eras. It is even harder, tried as we did, to see any ‘design’, the principal theme of the exhibition. In the end, they are just clothes.
A puzzling inclusion is Frederick Lee’s costume for Wild Rice’s staging of Stella Kon’s play Emily of Emerald Hill in which Ivan Heng wore the designer’s glammed-up and far-from-bibik-looking frock. In an accompanying description, Mr Heng was shown in a sleeved dress, quite unlike the one on display. Upon closer inspection, the strapless dress is unable to sit properly over the bust. It is too small and, in fact, requires the aid of flat and pearl-head pins to stay up on the mannequin. From the side view, the short front and long back of the outfit suggest that, perhaps this is a skirt worn as a pretend-dress! If art imitates life, then may be this costume illustrates that Singaporean fashion design is still in want of a good fit.
Fifty Years of Singapore Design is on at the National Design Centre till March 2017. Admission is free. Photos: Jim Sim