Singapore’s young fashion designers call for change

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“Fashion… is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

So said Oscar Wilde, wit and writer extraordinaire, over a century ago. Here’s an irony that he would have appreciated: change, what fashion proposes every six months or fewer, is the very thing it has struggled to accept.

Until now. Today, fashion is examining its faults, such as racism, elitism, consumerism and the lack of pragmatism in following a seasonal cycle that not even our planet, plagued by climate change, does anymore. But these conversations, centred on the big four cities — New York, London, Milan and Paris — may not accurately diagnose the problems in Singapore’s own fashion industry.

And what are they? The biggest one is the most obvious: “There is such a lack of support for the local fashion industry as a whole, on all facets,” says Samuel Chua, a fashion design graduate from Lasalle College of the Arts. He echoes a sentiment often expressed by Singapore’s artists and writers, whose creativity rarely gets to blossom before it’s nipped in the bud by the very people who are supposed to nurture them.

For Samuel, the soil on which young fashion designers root themselves is barren from the first. “When was the last time you saw a photo story [in local fashion magazines] that wasn’t just a full look from advertisers?” he questions. “Or are there just no other local clothing or accessories that would remotely fit a 10-page spread?”

“Vogue [US] can do a cover story featuring main advertisers mixed with indie design brands, so who’s to say we can’t?”

By advertisers, he means foreign imports like Dior, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and other luxury fashion brands that have the means to permeate local media. If Singapore designers feel invisible in their own home, they’ll inevitably struggle to be seen outside of it.

Graduate collection by Samuel Chua. Image: Lasalle College of the Arts

“I wish that the local fashion industry would receive more appreciation and support not only from Singaporeans but also from other countries as well, especially in the Southeast Asia region,” says Kwok Minh Yen, a fellow Lasalle fashion graduate.

“A dedicated platform to showcase new homegrown designers would be good,” offers Mazri Ismail, another emerging fashion designer. Singapore Fashion Week, now discontinued, was not it; contrary to its name, it featured talents not just from Singapore but also from around the world. There is, indeed, a very small playing field for homegrown fashion designers.

Even smaller if you’re a minority, like Mazri. “With attention turned towards the Black Lives Matter movement, I hope to see more representation of minorities in our creative and fashion industry,” he adds.

Image: Mazri Ismail

His peer, Latika Balachander, asks for diversity of a different kind. “I hope to see more opportunities for professionally inexperienced, yet creatively experimental designers,” she says. “I would also wish for the industry to further encourage newcomers, new ways of working and more diverse conversations.”

But “experimental” is the last word anybody would use to describe Singapore’s conformist, comfortable society — at least sartorially. “I feel that the Singapore fashion scene is saturated with a certain style that I can describe as practical and smart-casual,” notes Felicia Agatha. “However, during my time in university, I realised that most of my classmates are actually buying clothes from overseas online retailers, instead of purchasing locally.”

“I believe there is a style gap in the Singapore fashion scene, at least for youths,” she says. “There is still a shortage of fashion brands here that focus on streetwear and Y2K styles so my hope is for this to change, to be able to see more of such brands and styles in the local market.”

But will Singaporeans pay the full price for it? Maybe not. “I would like for [Singaporeans] to re-asses the value of clothes,” says Lasalle graduate Kristen Cheah. “Not in the aspect of price, but more so on what clothes mean and represent to them.”

Graduate collection by Kristen Cheah. Image: Lasalle College of the Arts

“Fast fashion has depreciated the value of garments in the minds of consumers so much that they think it’s ordinary to demand for clothes to be stylish, inexpensive, and of quality at the same time,” she elaborates. “Many still overlook the fact that said garments are made by workers in ethically questionable working environments and at minimum wages, or even less.”

Singapore designers, then, have to face hell and highwater for the bare minimum: recognition. “There might be the argument that there isn’t good enough talent around,” says Samuel. “But my rebuttal would be to open your eyes and find them, since the local media’s 50-page, advertiser-only spread is the reason why we’re so hard to find in the first place.”

“I obviously have very strong opinions wherever local fashion is concerned,” he continues. “I think it comes from the experience of knowing what goes on behind these glossy doors and my own personal struggle as a designer. We’re all part of the problem and with a looming financial crisis that is predicted to worsen, it’s time for us to change.”

Main image: Mazri Ismail 

This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia 

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