Pinning down one’s identity is an elusive task. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1990) has written that identity is “a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside representation”.1 Similarly, Dorinne Kondo (1990) discussed the notion of complex and fluid identities, stating that “identity is not a fixed ‘thing’” and that “it is negotiated, open, shifting, ambiguous – the result of culturally available meanings and the open-ended, power-laden enactments of those meanings”.2 In this vein, #SGFASHIONNOW is not meant to be an exhaustive capture of Singapore fashion today, but an exploration of its identity.
The second iteration of #SGFASHIONNOW stemmed from a winning pitch by Ethan Lai, a student in the School of Fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts. A student curatorial team was assembled to execute the proposal, which includes Leonard Wong and Vrinda Maheshwari. It is conceived self-reflexively, from the point of view of Gen-Z fashion practitioners. How do they experience fashion, and what does Singapore fashion mean to their generation? To the student curators, the show is a celebration of the various types of fashion that Singapore has to offer, and includes the well-known and the less known, the mainstream and the unconventional.
In the Afterword of Rethinking Fashion Globalisation, Sarah Cheang, Erica De Greef and Takagi Yoko (2021) wrote that “in knowing and addressing the fashion world as multi-centred, we begin to acknowledge diversity and welcome viewpoints that are different, even oppositional”.3 We hope that the students’ interpretation of the fashion system will help to engender conversations about how it works, and possibilities for further engagement within and outside of it.
Together with the curatorial team at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), the student curators are highlighting the works of nine fashion labels with ties to Singapore: Ashley Isham, Bryan Yeo, Harry Halim, Jon Max Goh, Kage Chong and Keng How of Biro, Latika Balachander of LABAL, Lina Osman of LINAOTH, Max Tan, Shawna Wu, and Thomas Wee. While the original curatorial premise focused on the architecture of draping in the designers’ works, other considerations have added interesting layers to the exhibition. For one, both established and emerging designers, from veteran designers like Wee who has sustained his fashion practice since the 1980s to Osman who recently opened her studio during the COVID-19 pandemic. This allows the exhibition to sketch the development of the Singapore fashion industry from its earlier days to the present.
Another innovation for this version of #SGFASHIONNOW is the inclusion of accessories. Just as garments are supplements to the body, so are accessories, and they have included masks, bags and shoes and other accoutrements from Erliana Kamiti and Fahmy Ishak of FIN Crafted Goods, Firdaos Pidau of CHARLES & KEITH, GINLEE, Rachael Cheong of Closet Children, Putri Adiff and Josh Suarez. These allow us to appreciate the gamut – and diversity – of fashion offerings. To shoot the photographs in this e-publication, Lai has also made a conscious choice to showcase the garments and accessories on diverse bodies, in a reflection of the diversity of consumers who participate in the fashion system.
As a complement to the exhibits, the students conducted interviews with the garment designers which can be accessed here in this e-publication and in the exhibition’s physical space. Listening to the journeys, processes and aspirations of the designers, we can appreciate the similarities that bind them and the uniqueness that makes each of them stand out. In making fashion, they do not work in silos but are in constant negotiation with sources of inspiration they encounter and seek, and realised via opportunities available locally and abroad. And in the e-publication, the students have presented additional information about the stories behind the accessories.
Presenting their version of the story of Singapore fashion today, in collaboration with the ACM team and the architecture studio FARM, the students have dreamed up a presentation that imagines the Singapore fashion industry as a construction site, for it is an ongoing project. Lise Skov (2011) used the word “dream” to explain the aspirations of small nations to participate in a polycentric fashion world. She wrote that “the ‘dream’ brings together individual fashion designers bringing culturally significant inspiration into his or her collections, the trade association’s organization of catwalk shows or an overseas trade mission, the municipality’s city branding strategy, and the magazines’ write-up of global and local stories”.4 Her explanation reveals the complexity of developing a fashion industry, and the various stakeholders who contribute their efforts individually – and collectively – to make it work.
Singapore has consistently tried in multifarious ways to achieve its dream of becoming a fashion city. In 1981, Singapore Department of Trade organised the first overseas fashion mission, with seven designers and local manufacturers travelling to San Francisco and Los Angeles to sell “Singapore high fashion”. 5 Soon after, the first major local fashion event, Singapore Apparel ‘83, was put together by the Singapore Textile and Garment Manufacturers’ Association (STGMA), with support from the Economic Development Board (EDB), the Department of Trade, Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) and assistance from Singapore Airlines. It aimed to sell the “Made-in-Singapore” label internationally, to stimulate a market for the fashion industry as well as for the government to brand Singapore as a global city through its cultural talents. The designers who took part were Thomas Wee, who is featured in this exhibition, Tan Yoong, Allan Chai, Corinne Low (of Cori Moreni), Benjamin Tay, Tenny Wong (of Mims), and artist-turned-batik-designer Seah Kim Joo. 6 These efforts, and many others over the years, have been featured in local publications such as The Straits Times and Her World, and follows Skov’s description of a nation’s efforts towards participating in the fashion world at large.
As a further example of how stakeholders come together to push the industry forward, I would like to highlight the value of competitions to bolster the careers of fashion designers. Wee was a finalist in the first Young Designer Fashion Award offered by Her World magazine in 1978, for example, and Harry Halim won the Asian Young Fashion Designers Contest in 2006. More recently, Latika Balachander, a LASALLE College of the Arts alumnus, was Men’s Folio Designer of the Year 2020, and Jon Max Goh won Singapore Stories 2021, put together by the Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore. These organised efforts provided by the local fashion community have all helped in significant ways to move the designers careers forward, by giving them a platform to show their work, and connecting them more closely with the industry at home and beyond. In doing so, the Singapore fashion industry can move forward as a whole.
Both iterations of #SGFASHIONNOW document and interpret at least part of the Singapore fashion “dream” and its realisations. It is also an intentional gathering of the designers, museum curators and other professionals, students and educators to collaboratively contribute to the achievement of this dream. We hope you will enjoy #SGFASHIONNOW in this spirit.