Much like Diane Vreeland’s controversial approach to fashion exhibitions – “Everything must look Now” – contemporary fashion continues to confront assumptions and skepticism about its place within the museum, often provoking fears of factual inaccuracy and market influence. 1
Much like Diane Vreeland’s controversial approach to fashion exhibitions – “Everything must look Now” – contemporary fashion continues to confront assumptions and skepticism about its place within the museum, often provoking fears of factual inaccuracy and market influence.1 More recently, curator and archivist Cyana Madsen charts the blurring of the distinction between institutional and retail spaces, as well as the “false dichotomy of sacred knowledge and profane commerce.”2 This supposed binary opposition between money and scholarship is similarly questioned by Valerie Steele (Director and Chief Curator, The Museum at FIT) who points out that “there is no reason why exhibitions cannot be both beautiful and intelligent, entertaining and educational.”3 Despite being similarly enmeshed within commercial networks, Steele notes that fine art is rarely subjected to the same prejudices.
#SGFASHIONNOW paves the way for an alternative model. It functions as a developmental platform for ACM to work with the fashion community in order to discuss the question of ‘What is Singapore fashion?’ through the lens of Singapore’s port city heritage. Each edition of #SGFASHIONNOW should be understood not as a comprehensive survey but a snapshot; not a definitive retrospective but a proposition; not the ultimate conclusion but an invitation to discussion and alternative perspectives. Feedback gathered from each showcase informs subsequent editions in this evolving conversation.
The #SGFASHIONNOW process began with exhibition proposals by final-year students from the BA (Hons) Fashion Media and Industries at LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion, as part of their Graduation Project module. Responding to the theme “Architecture of Drape”, as well as ACM’s concept of Asia in Fashion and selection of three important designers — Thomas Wee, Ashley Isham and Max Tan – students presented to a panel of judges including representatives from partner institutions. Ethan Lai, the student who won the pitch, co-curated this year’s experimental contemporary fashion showcase with the support of his peers and under the guidance of their LASALLE lecturers and ACM staff from the curatorial, exhibition, audience and marketing teams. Additionally, the winner of Singapore Stories 2021 – an annual fashion design competition organised by the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) in collaboration with ACM, is featured in the exhibition. By bringing together members of the fashion ecosystem, #SGFASHIONNOW provides a platform for ACM to collaborate with the fashion community.
The prism of Asia in Fashion through which contemporary fashion is presented uniquely characterises #SGFASHIONNOW and the presentation of fashion at ACM. With the repositioning of ACM in 2020 as Singapore’s National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art, ACM began to champion innovation in tradition, craftsmanship and cross-cultural design in earnest, as well as to celebrate Asia in Fashion. The concept of Asia in Fashion recognises the necessity to extend ACM’s collecting strategy to include both historical and contemporary dress in order to challenge and resist Eurocentric tendencies in fashion discourse. The writings of British psychoanalyst John Carl Flugel serve as an example of this discourse:
A fact that must be regarded as one of the most characteristic features of modern European civilization, since, in other civilisations both of the past and present, fashion seems to have played a much more modest role than ourselves. Outside the sphere of western influence, dress changes much more slowly, is more closely connected with racial or local circumstances, or with social or occupational standing – it exhibits, that is, to a much greater degree, all the distinguishing features of the ‘fixed’ type.4
For Flugel, non-Western dress is “fixed”, as opposed to Western dress which he calls “modish or fashionable”. Change, fashion, modernity, and European civilisations were thus conflated, with Asian civilisations squarely excluded from the equation. Working against such monolithic and erroneous presumptions about the otherness of Asia vis-à-vis the West, Asia in Fashion provides the conceptual framework to document and explore the role, impact, and influence of Asia in the global history of fashion and textiles, both historically and at this present time. It demonstrates the complexity, diversity and continuous-evolving nature of Asian cultures, and celebrates the fashion designers who lead the way by innovating in the space of tradition. Given that fashion is a continuum – with a past, present, and future – contemporary fashion serves to highlight the connections between past and present, reinforcing their mutual relevance.
Another key pillar of Asia in Fashion is the prioritisation of cross-cultural design over the purported purity of national styles. In step with the rest of the ACM, where Asia’s artistic heritage is explored through the lens of Singapore’s port city heritage, which is characteristically cosmopolitan and multicultural, Asia in Fashion proposes that it is more productive to explore the encounters between different cultures and the creative expressions that result from these exchanges. In his essay “Dressing Badly in the Ports: Experimental Hybrid Fashion”, art historian Peter Lee charts the freedom of dressing enjoyed by residents of port cities. He observes that “Asian fashion is currently still heavily entrenched in referencing a mythological past… The whole concept of traditional fashion is in fact a modern one, which developed from the early twentieth century, and became more contagious from the mid-twentieth century in the era of Asian nationalism.”5
The three important Singapore designers who were selected by ACM as points of reference for the students to respond to in their exhibition proposal embody in many ways the concept of Asia in Fashion. Having been brought up in multicultural Singapore, these designers from three different generations are unencumbered by expectations to perform their ethnicity to domestic and international audiences, and thus are free to fully express their own unique design aesthetics.
Thomas Wee was the first of the three designers to establish his label, garnering public attention as one of the finalists in Her World’s Young Designer’s Contest in 1978. He opened his boutique in 1982 at Far East Plaza, before moving to Wisma Atria in 1986, where he launched Mixables – the first career line for women by a Singapore designer. Wee quickly became a household name in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and was promoted by Singapore’s Trade Development Board as part of a group of designers known as ‘The Magnificent Seven’. With the economic downturn in the mid-1990s, Wee left Singapore and subsequently started teaching at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in 1999.
The one-seam dress first appeared in Wee’s comeback collection in 2008, which was presented at the Singapore Fashion Festival. It is a design he has produced on several more recent occasions, including variations of this signature look. The dress was the culmination of a process of distillation where Wee had repeatedly removed elements he considered unnecessary – zips, buttons, hooks, belts, joints – until all that was left was a single seam, thereby allowing the dress to, in Wee’s own words, “speak in terms of volume and drape” for itself. In fact, Wee doubled the fabric instead of lining the dress in order to avoid the seams and joints that would shine through when ironed. The result was a purity of form when viewed from the front. “Clothes are all about form. They are three-dimensional,” Wee declared in an interview conducted by the LASALLE student curators. He favours architectural silhouettes – “trapeze” or “cocoon-shaped” – where the garment sits away from the body. The back of the dress, on the other hand, is dominated by exuberant draping. Silk taffeta responds to the touch of the wearer, allowing it to be shaped and adjusted around the neck and down the back.
In 2000, Ashley Isham established his label. His designs are popular both in Singapore and the United Kingdom, where he is based. He first garnered media attention when he dressed Zara Phillips, granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II, for the Ascot races. Celebrities, like singers Kyle Minogue and Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine, have been known to wear his creations. He started showing at London Fashion Week in 2003. In Singapore, Isham received the Achiever of the Year from Berita Harian in 2007. Isham is also well-known for his use of jewel tones. Selected from hundreds of samples, the colour of this gown, which he calls “amethyst”, was developed and dyed specifically for him by MarioBoselli Jersey, a mill in Italy which had collaborated with major brands like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada. He had indefatigably sought to work with that mill in order to achieve the quality of colours that would meet his exacting standards, including the right balance between shine and sheen.
The stunning gown in this #SGFASHIONNOW showcase was presented in Isham’s Spring Summer 2012 collection, in which he focused on ruching and twisting on a relaxed silhouette. It was the result of a long process of working together with his atelier and experimentation with the numerous possibilities of draping. The difficulty in what Isham called “a labour of love” stemmed from the use of viscose liquid jersey which he prized for “its fluidity, sensuousness and sophistication.” But, the fabric “moves” and was challenging to manipulate, much less pleat and secure in panels as Isham has done to create the bodice. Hidden behind the lining is a structure pieced together from numerous components that collectively serve to hold the viscose liquid jersey in place. To Isham, the dress represents a perfect marriage between the hardness of structure and the softness of draping.
Max Tan launched his brand MAX.TAN in 2010, a decade after Ashley Isham. He obtained his diploma in fashion design from NAFA, where he was taught by Wee. Tan was the recipient of the Best Graduate Collection in 2006, and went on to clinch the second runner-up prize in the Singapore Fashion Designers Contest the following year. In an online interview Tan explained, “A lot of press and buyers have said that my design approach is very Asian but cannot seem to put a finger to which part of Asia it is. I guess being based in a cultural melting pot such as Singapore has allowed me to fuse and work seamlessly between references be it East or West. At the same time, I think it is what makes my work different from others.”6
The same sophistication is palpable in the Hujan Jumpsuit from Tan’s Spring Summer 2021 collection, titled Wanita. A sleeveless, white-coloured version was worn by Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui for the National Day Parade in 2021. Living in Singapore, Tan is no stranger to saris and sarongs, and is particularly taken with the way in which fabrics are draped around the body to create garments perfect for Singapore’s tropical climate. Avoiding literal references, Tan does not see the need to recast what he calls “Southeast Asian garment archetypes” for the 21st century, but expresses his lived experiences in his own characteristically geometrical design language. The gentleness of rain is echoed in both the name of the Hujan Jumpsuit (hujan means rain in Malay) as well as in the soft curves that fall across the body and the flutter of the detachable handkerchief-tip sleeves that hang from the shoulders.
In #SGFASHIONNOW 2022, Lai’s winning curatorial concept both responds to and includes the work of these three important designers. He has also completed the line-up by bringing together a diverse group of young designers at various stages of their careers. As the experimental contemporary fashion showcase reveals, they each provide important insights into the ongoing conversation about Asia in Fashion and Singapore fashion.
The transitive state of becoming and the latent potential for expansion are further amplified by the bold exhibition design by the team led by Willie Koh from Singapore multi-disciplinary design studio FARM. Elements commonly associated with construction sites – raw gypsum walls, exposed struts, unfinished paint, pallets and crates – function both metaphorically and structurally to locate the #SGFASHIONNOW series of exhibitions within the NOW, and as an invitation to build towards the future together with the larger community.