Collectively Building A Community of Fashion



The second instalment of #SGFASHIONNOW considers the ecologies of the industry that contribute to a fashion culture in Singapore. The multiplicity of business models are reflected in the inclusion of accessory brands and designers with a variety of approaches that include ready-to-wear, slow fashion and the global high street.

This year, there is a strong sentiment in student Ethan Lai’s winning pitch for #SGFASHIONNOW for the need to support the emerging fashion community, while celebrating the achievements of the brands that have established themselves. Accompanying Lai are a group of graduating students who are supporting his project: Leonard Wong and Vrinda Maheshwari in curatorial; Chan Jian Hong, Kiara Hu Enhua and Xia Xuan Ong in publicity; and Sophie Tan in programming. 

Responding to the Asian Civilisations Museum’s designer selections, Lai made a conscious effort to include the works of designers at different stages of their careers. This approach highlights the diversity within the fashion ecosystem in Singapore.

In this exhibition, we see the work of contemporary designers who show alongside the international fashion week calendar such as Harry Halim (f. 2010), as well as homegrown high street brands like CHARLES & KEITH (f. 1996) who have made their mark on the retail landscape globally for over two decades. The fashion system comprises structures that allow for a centralised dissemination that relies on seasonal schedules and processes such as fashion shows, trade fairs and press offices. Globally and similarly in Singapore, there have been examples of slower, decentralised approaches to fashion amongst emerging designers. Within the show, we see the inclusion of such designers like Rachael Cheong from Closet Children (f. 2020), Lina Osman from LINAOTH (f. 2020), Shawna Wu (f. 2020) and upcycling studio FIN Crafted Goods (f. 2012) by Fahmy Ishak and Erliana Kamiti who work on a custom-made scale.

Mash-Up Spring/Summer 2014 at Digital Fashion Week. Image courtesy of Digital Fashion Week.

While considering the importance of the wider community that supports the fashion industry in Singapore, I recalled my experience with fashion collective Mash-Up, which I co-founded with Nathanael Ng and Shaf Amis’aabudin in 2012. Mash-Up was part of the incubator experiment Parco next Next (PNN), from which fashion designer Max Tan (f. 2010), who is included in this exhibition, also launched his brand at. The PNN incubator program was supported by Japanese retailer Parco, government institutions Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) and SPRING Singapore. The incubation program lasted for 18 months for each new batch of designers, and included subsidised rental and mentorship. The project drew a following of enthusiastic customers and was a one-stop destination for students, stylists and fashion enthusiasts to discover Singaporean labels. Until today, I continue to meet individuals who recall this space fondly. I learnt first hand that creative labour needs to be supported by numerous institutions, agencies and individuals. Through the incubator, we were fortunate to have access to a team of public relations and marketing teams, as well as mentors selected by TaFF. The program ran from 2010 to 2014 and launched the careers of over 35 fashion and accessories designers. Despite the support and mentorship during the incubation period, only a handful continue to operate in the same capacity today.

Parco next Next incubator and retail space, 2011. Image courtesy of Vera Mao.

The recurring narrative of fashion in Singapore that was conveyed to us centred around our small market, the lack of manufacturing and fabric mills, and the necessity to export overseas. Exporting takes considerable effort as trade show prices can be prohibitive and rely on a network of showrooms, agents and middle persons. This narrative also does not consider that there is more to fashion than the manufacturing and retailing of clothes. A thriving fashion ecosystem already exists, and has existed and evolved for decades. What worked well for Mash-Up and brands like us was the support of various multi-label boutique stores that mushroomed in the 2010s. Many began in soon-to-be-trendy neighbourhoods such as Jalan Pisang, where Blackmarket first called home, or Ann Siang Road where Front Row and Asylum could be found. Others began to open in new malls like Orchard Gateway that wooed multi-stores such as Superspace (now Superfreak), Actually and SECTS by Depression. These boutiques housed cult international brands as well as regional and local labels. As a young fashion student, and then a brand owner, they were indispensable and remain etched in my memory of Singapore fashion. In 2012, Rocket Internet introduced Zalora and with it, e-commerce took off exponentially. Both small indie boutiques as well as department stores saw the decline of the brick and mortar model. As I consider what #SGFASHIONNOW is in my roles as both fashion practitioner and educator, what excites me is the multiplicity of ways we can experience, create and disseminate fashion while creating authentic communities around us. It has been exciting to see how fashion entrepreneurs today have leveraged on technology and new economies to introduce disruptive services like swapping by The Fashion Pulpit or clothes rental platforms like Style Theory.

The first Blackmarket store at Jalan Pisang. Image courtesy of Slow Retail.

However, we have to think beyond the design label and consider the other tangents that fashion takes. I hope that #SGFASHIONNOW can be a reminder that fashion has various other social functions. It is a designer’s expression of creativity, a way to negotiate cultural identity and to provide a livelihood for all the makers in the supply chain. In everyday life, the embodied experience of fashion-ing is often a safe space for non-normative identities. This is best exemplified in the choice of diverse bodies and gender identities that are cast in campaigns and fashion shows by designers like Harry Halim, Max Tan, Shawna Wu and Jon Max Goh. Increasingly, young designers also consider the environmental, social and emotional sustainability of running a fashion brand. This sentiment comes across strongly in Shawna Wu’s choice of materials, and in Lina Osman and Max Tan’s choice to stay in a smaller scale instead of mass market.

Beyond the manufacturing and retailing of clothing, the visual culture of fashion has been supported for decades by home-grown publications such as GO Magazine and Female, as well as numerous fashion photographers, stylists and producers. As part of the execution of #SGFASHIONNOW, Lai also conceptualised a photo-shoot highlighting the way that the fashion image contributes to the dissemination of a vocabulary of fashion. Lai considered models from a variety of both established and emerging agencies such as Misc Management  (f. 2018) and Platinum Angels Management  (f. 2022), agencies that have identified the desire for greater representation in fashion and lifestyle visual culture. Misc Management positions itself as a young, digital street casting agency whose models have been featured on both local and international publications and campaigns. Platinum Models is founded by managing director Pat Kraal and co-founders Beatrice Andre-Besse and Brandon Barker, former models from the 1970s and 1980s, addressing the gap for senior representation.

Max Tan’s designs for Ceremonial Enactments, performed at Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA) 2022. Image courtesy of SIFA.

To round off, #SGFASHIONNOW is also about the resilience of our local fashion community. There are countless examples of brands and designers pivoting their brands and expanding their offerings. Biro (f. 2013), whose work is also featured in the exhibition, has successfully built a community of loyal customers around them and diversified their product mix which they introduce through their concept store, Shouten. I am especially impressed by the next generation of designers and creatives that have been included into this show. During the pandemic, Lina Osman from LINAOTH began a custom-made studio independently as did Rachael Cheong from Closet Children. They speak to our collective voice and aspirations for a thriving fashion ecosystem with a diversity of designers and scale, allowing brands and designers to flourish on their chosen paths.

Image References:
Mao, Vera. "Parco Next NEXT- A Look at Singapore's Design Talents". Web blog post. Kisses, Vera. January 18, 2011.