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Project Run(a)way
As Singapore struts her way into the pages of international style books, will our local fashion designers be left behind? Asks Zaki Jufri

By Zaki Jufri | Jun 10, 2010

  • Project Run(a)way
  • Project Run(a)way
  • Project Run(a)way
  • Project Run(a)way
  • Project Run(a)way

Just a couple of months ago, Singapore played host to the inaugural Asia Fashion Exchange (AFX), and it was just how you would imagine: Bright runway lights, leggy sultry beauties, free-flowing bubbly, red carpet glamor, botoxed smiles and a multitude of glitzy after-parties. Costing a cool $2 million to stage, this multi-faceted fashion spectacle—a revamp of previous affairs—saw the who’s who of the local and international fashion set rubbing shoulders at satellite events across the city.

Not only is AFX quite unlike any previous Singapore fashion event, it is also the biggest, comprising a fashion design competition (Star Creation), trade show (Blueprint), fashion forum (Asia Fashion Summit) and main consumer fashion show (Audi Fashion Festival). While AFX is generally welcomed as a step in the right direction when it comes to establishing Singapore as a regional fashion hub, its success has been dampened by criticism from some local designers and fashion experts.

While the style-conscious public enjoyed the main fashion show (Audi Fashion Festival), the city’s fashion industry was looking to the trade show (Blueprint) for commercial opportunities. Sadly some local designers were disappointed with Blueprint which they say lacked prominence, had an offbeat location and seemed overshadowed by the Audi Fashion Festival. Despite being pegged as the backbone of the main fashion show, some felt it was a second-tier event to which the public were only invited on the last day.

But for others, the tradeshow opened doors into the global fashion industry—despite its lower profile. Alicia Ong from local fashion brand Al & Alicia says: “With Blueprint 2010 being our first trade show, we had the opportunity to meet lots of people in the media and press, other established designers as well as buyers and boutique owners, both local and international. It was awesome to be able to make a connection with all of them and to have international fashion editors attracted to our booth.”

Despite criticism, AFX organizer and director Tjin Lee expects Blueprint to grow into a prestigious and respected event. “Buyers that came to Singapore were from some of the world’s leading fashion boutiques and stores. In the long run, the trade event will be able to give our Singapore designers a much needed boost into the international marketplace,” she explains.

Other complaints concerned the domination by international brands at the Audi Fashion Festival which was staged at Tent@Orchard. While the runway was set ablaze by big names such as Canadian wonder twins Dean and Dan Caten of Dsquared2, Roberto Cavalli, Henry Holland and KTZ, local labels were noticeably missing. The only exceptions were local houses Raoul and Alldressedup who proudly flew the fashion flag for Singapore.

Singapore Fashion … Weak?

So why weren’t there more Singapore designers at AFX? Are we just being bullied off the runway by the big boys of fashion? Sadly, we have only ourselves to blame. A straw poll conducted by I-S along Orchard Road revealed that only 15 percent of respondents could name a local fashion label while only 10 percent have bought a piece of clothing from a local label in the last two months. Almost all of the respondents that could name a local label only named a mass market brand. Despite efforts to promote the city as a shopping hub, Singapore fashion is not on everyone’s minds. What is the problem then with our sartorial savants that even they lack of patronage of their countrymen and women.

One of the biggest and perennial challenges that Singapore designers face is Singaporeans’ preference for foreign labels. Without a doubt, brand-name conscious Singaporeans would rather pay top dollar for a foreign label than a local one. Also, our penchant for mass market and high street labels is irrefutable. Jo Soh of Hansel, a contemporary womenswear label, explains: “There are still many fashion consumers here that view local fashion labels as being inferior to fashion labels from overseas.” Singaporean fashion designer Ben Wu agrees, saying: “Some of the unhealthy challenges we face include putting up with discrimination against Singaporean labels by local audiences and fashionistas.” He also observes that this discrimination prevails predominantly among the older crowd. “Maybe most of them were exposed to some inferior purchases before,” he adds. Alicia Ong from Al & Alicia also believes that Singaporeans stereotype local designers. “They compare us to mass market or budget labels that surfaced in the earlier part of our generation.”

It’s hard to fathom such negativity when you consider many of our fashion talents were trained in some of the best fashion schools in the world, worked in established fashion houses and have even shown their work overseas. Soh herself graduated from the renowned fashion school Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design and has shown her work at fashion events like the Australia Fashion Week. Ong graduated from Parsons School of Design and worked at labels like Marc Jacobs, DKNY, J Crew and Richard Chai before returning home to pursue her craft.

Money Matters

So what will it take for local designers to stake a claim in our wardrobes? Money seems to be the crux of the matter and local labels tend to charge high prices. To get prices down and get their creations more widely worn, some in the industry say that local designers need to understand the local market better, be less niche and operate more like a mainstream business and less like a small-time manufacturer. With no economies of scale, prices tend to soar due to the high manufacturing costs and the low volume made.

Someone who doesn’t have a problem selling local brands with price tags upwards of $150 is Zach Wong, owner of Antipodean, a lifestyle boutique in Holland Village which carries Singapore labels like Hansel, Yumumu, Posse, Al & Alicia and Vice & Vanity among others. He says: “At first the customers might not be receptive to paying as much for a local label compared to an international brand but once they understand they are paying for good design and quality, then the customers’ mindset will change.”

But some in the fashion industry assert that lowering prices is not the magic bullet and will only further undermine efforts made to promote and support this fledgling industry. Ann Kositchotitana of Front Row Studio says: “Being affordable and cheap shouldn’t be what local labels are known for. Leave that to the high street brands. The idea that because the brand is local, it should be cheap is ridiculous and very, very flawed. A lot of local brands have done very well on their own and in the way of the trickle-down theory, the niche target audience will get to know them first, which is great, and then they will slowly spread out to a wider audience. It will happen—they just have to hang in there!”

A Question of Talent

What seems to be missing from the racks and catwalks, is a truly identifiable Singapore fashion style—one that is local but still relevant and marketable overseas. Flipping through the lookbooks and catalogues of some Singaporean designers, it is easy to understand what’s wrong. Most of the clothes produced by our younger designers either look like they belong in a temperate-climate country like Europe or they look rather similar to what’s been on the catwalks before.
William Q (not his real name), an industry insider, blames the Internet and the media’s preference for international brands. He says: “Everything looks bland and the same. It is all copied, all the individuality has disappeared.” Although he is impressed with the quality and standard of work that the fashion school graduates possess, he admits the work lacks the originality and market-savvy necessary to make it in a fickle consumer atmosphere like Singapore. “In terms of originality, we still have some ways to go,” sums up fashion publicist and industry veteran Lionnel Lim. “Our designers need to be the trendsetters, not the followers of current trends.”

The Nuts and Bolts

Another challenge which can result in Singapore fashion designers becoming frustrated and heading overseas to work is a lack of design and manufacturing infrastructure, for example, skilled pattern cutters and seamstresses, as well as a limited range and supply of materials like quality fabrics, zippers, buttons and other hardware.

Local designer Suraj Melwani manufactures the clothes for his brand Sifr in nearby Indonesia where there are lots of factories which will do small-scale jobs unlike in Singapore. He adds: “In Singapore we’re also not able to get intricate trims or buttons to really make a product look unique. We’re able to do research and design but we can’t follow through on it.”

Designers also say that getting a clothing sample done here is costly. A clothing pattern or sample created here can cost up to $150 each or more depending on the complexity of the piece, but is usually free overseas. “Unnecessary bills like that can kill your business,” adds Melwani. Other fashion labels here that are manufacturing abroad include Frü Frü & Tigerlily whose dresses, top and accessories are made in Hong Kong and W/A by Woods & Woods in China.

One thing local designers hope to see more of are opportunities for them to produce their creations at home, as close proximity enables them to exercise more control over their work. Not to mention that working locally aids communication, avoids errors and helps them keep track of quality.

Hitting the Headlines

Flip through any fashion magazine on the racks and you’ll be greeted by page after page of glossy photographs of models all togged out in the latest threads by international labels. So where are the local labels? Lionnel Lim explains: “Most local media give editorial preference to advertisers who are mostly imported labels. The percentage of coverage for local designers is miniscule, except during National Day month when the usual practice is to showcase the designs of local talent or during some kind of fashion week or design competitions.”

If the media profiled Singapore labels alongside prestige international brands and dedicated more pages to local designers, public perception may gradually change. AFX organizer and director Tjin Lee says: “That will also help the perception that Singapore designers are equal to the international labels which people are happy to shell out hefty fortunes for. I would like to see the media mix up the styling of Singapore labels such as Nicholas, Raoul and Alldressedup alongside brands such as Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein and Vivienne Westwood.”

Future Fashion

Despite all the challenges, the future looks good for the Singapore fashion scene. Lionnel Lim is optimistic that local designers will soon appear on every Singaporean’s fashion radar. “The younger generation are more embracing of local designers, and as such there is a slow but steady revival of appreciation.” The upsurge of multi-label stores is also helping local designers who, in the past, would have been forced to either stay very small scale or go mass market. Now they can find a middle ground and put out interesting labels and produce increasing numbers of designs which are affordable and well-produced. Front Row Studio’s Kositchotitana agrees. “There used to be two different camps, in one you had very niche, avant-garde and uncommercial labels, and in the other, mass market brands with very little quirk but a lower price. Multi-label stores have created an opportunity for something in between,” she says.

Last year Kositchotitana set up Front Row Studio, a one-stop fashion agency for discovering new labels. The agency employs a dual approach, one as a sales agent and the other, as a media showroom promoting new brand collections to top fashion editors and stylists. It also has a sales component which targets prominent boutiques in the region. The brands it represents include Singapore labels Antebellum, Iamwhoiam, Utt’er and W/A by Woods & Woods.

In spite of what some naysayers think, AFX’s Blueprint looks like one of the best things to have happened to local fashion in Singapore and has received lots of positive feedback from stores, designers and buyers. Al & Alicia’s Alicia Ong says: “As part of the first step to bring fashion in Singapore to greater heights, Blueprint is definitely a good initiative.”

Several other platforms that seek to cultivate emerging design talent have sprung up within the last two years as well. One of them is Parco next NEXT, a fashion incubator programme between PARCO and the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFf) which arranges rent subsidies for 25 local and Singapore-based labels like Max Tan, Sundays, Tilly and Fuchsia Lane, so they can afford to sell their designs in the mall.

Even dance club Zouk has a fashion project called The Wardrobe which launched in 1999 and showcases our new wave of fashion designers. Local designers who were featured in the annual fashion showcase and have since become reputed tastemakers in Singapore include Yumumu, Tian, Elohim and FrüFrü & Tigerlily. This year’s instalment, happening on Jun 25 will see labels Bedlamite and Amuse grace the catwalk inside the club.

Another is Star Creation, a competition for local and regional design talent held under the Asia Fashion Exchange umbrella and organised by TaFf. The three winners, Malaysian Daniel Ngoo, Singaporean Audrey Lim and China’s Kitty Miao, each received $10,000 and a one-year attachment with local fashion retailer FJ Benjamin. They will also be given the opportunity to launch capsule collections under the mentorship of FJ Benjamin.

Design schools are also getting in on the act to promote their talents. Most recently, Paragon Shopping Centre saw the opening of Raffles Privato. It is an initiative between Raffles Design Institute and Paragon to provide an incubator space for young fashion designers to promote and retail their work to consumers. Seven fashion design graduates from Raffles Design Institute were handpicked by Paragon Shopping Centre and the school to commercialize their graduation collections into capsule collections for sale at Raffles Privato.

So what does it take for us to reserve a space for that next Singapore designer to-die-for piece? Only time will tell. But with fresh talent, bigger platforms and the exciting new opportunities that we have now, the future of Singapore fashion looks bright indeed.

What’s your favorite Singapore fashion brand and how much would you pay for them?

"I love the works of veteran designers like Francis Cheong, Frederick Lee and Lai Chan. I think I would shell out $2,500-3,000 for a made-to-order gown because these are once-in-a-lifetime couture pieces that have impeccable tailoring and are designed to fulfil your dreams, not theirs" Joanna Koh, make-up artist

"Nicholas! His cuts are flattering and I’ve never had one of his pieces that didn’t fit well. I think I would spend about $500-600 for a dress—as much as I would pay for a foreign fashion label, because quality, fit and fabric are most important to me, not the designer’s country of origin." Victoria Bay, fashion boutique owner

"Hmmm ... What local brands are there? [laughs] I would pay about $100 tops. We do not have a tradition of tailoring or innovative material treatments. With the humidity, products like leather, if handmade in Singapore, won’t last. On top of that, Singaporean brands manufacture their clothes in places like Thailand or China. I am a firm believer in quality, and if possible, handmade clothing pieces." Wilson Wang, student

How can the local fashion industry improve?

"It would be great to see Singaporean designers achieving a distinctive look that sets us apart from other fashion capitals. And I don’t mean some horrid interpretation of orchid motifs or weird kebaya-meets-cheongsam ethnic mishmash." Aaron De Silva, freelance writer

"More brands with competitive pricing. I buy quite a bit from local brands and they’re usually expensive compared to the international brands that are similar. I think that if they want to make it in the market, they need to be priced competitively." Jasmine Teow, property agent

"I’d like to see more originality as well as better fitting and well-finished clothes." Lionnel Lim, fashion publicist

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