No cutting from the same cloth, literally

The possibilities of punning with the name Time Taken To Make A Dress are endless. After all, for the bespoke dress brand time is the currency at play—whether it’s to hand-sew an entire beaded top, consult on designs with clients, or indent a particular fabric from overseas.

“It takes time,” says co-founder Letitia Phay, without missing a beat.

Time Taken was started in 2010 by Singaporean designers Phay, 34, and Jade Swee, 35. The two had met as designers in a bridal studio, where they realized they shared a common love for dressmaking, and dislike of the business side of the trade. They wanted to create dresses, but not feel constricted to the rules and confines of bridal wear—so they started Time Taken.

From the get-go, business has been brisk. At the time, they gained prominence for being a brand that was neither bridal apparel nor ready-to-wear; an exciting new niche label with experimental cuts and intricate handiwork. Over the years they’ve also taken part in local designer showcases, like the New Wives' Tales exhibition by Carrie K., which saw them create three bespoke pieces reimagining the ceremonial kwah.

More recently, they made international headlines when local actress Constance Lau wore a Time Taken design to the Hollywood premiere of Crazy Rich Asians. The dress, a slimming oriental white number with hand-sewn fringe and red lace, was first commissioned for an exhibition during the Chinese Cultural Week here in September 2016. Lau’s stylist who had seen the dress suggested it to her, and she approached the pair two weeks to the premiere to have it altered to fit. One mad rush later, actress and gown glowed as one on the global stage.

 

 

Time is money, and yet Phay and Swee have no qualms devoting extra time to a gown if it means guaranteeing customer satisfaction. Phay shared that they don’t always give accurate quotes, because “if the client comes to us with an interesting brief, and it was something we wanted to do anyway, we don’t really think about the money-making aspect of it.” She’s let slide a beading job that took 10 days when it was supposed to take five; other times, she’s returned deposits when clients backed out of the project for various reasons.

Is that wise for the business? “Probably not,” she laughed. “But I mean there’s a reason why we’re still doing this after eight years. If you love what you do, it’s very hard to put a price on it.”

“Sometimes after you meet clients and you become friends with them, it’s so hard to say ‘this is better, but I don’t want to give it to you’. If I feel like, okay I’m not going to make much money but it’s really going to make a difference to the dress, I think more often than not we just do it.”

Now eight years strong, the brand does have plans to launch an off-the-rack bridal collection, for customers who want a dress but don’t necessarily have the time to invest in a full consultation. Off-the-rack dresses are more made-to-measure, while bespoke pieces are very specific to taste, budget, body shape, and price, explained Phay.

“The consultation of the design is what takes time, and the sourcing of the fabric. Everyone has different expectations, different fabrics that work for them; it’s not like I can cut from the same fabric,” she said.

“At least then that would free us up to work on the bespoke clients and do more interesting work.”

It takes truly passionate crafters to put aside profit in the name of innovation. Eight years in the business is a long time to survive, but Phay and Swee seem nowhere near the end of their run. As time-strapped as they are, we took the time to sit down and find out more about the time-consuming world of bespoke dressmaking.

*Jade was not present at the interview


So how much time does it take to make a dress?

LP: We ask for three to four months from start to finish. From consultation I usually take one to two weeks to come up with a sketch, and then upon confirmation it’s usually another month before we do a mock-up of a design in calico—just so she can see the design lines and I can see her body better; if the designs need to be changed to fit the body, that usually happens during the mock-up stage. When the mock-up is good, then we proceed with the first fitting with the actual fabric.

Your aesthetic is pretty unique. Was it like that from the start?

I would say we were a little more adventurous actually, at the beginning; and then we slowly had to tone down. While we did start out wanting to do more interesting work, because of the nature of the job we also started doing more bridal stuff. In the past we would have been more experimental with cuts—for example even if it’s out of the body proportion. We didn’t want to restrict ourselves with a particular category or silhouette; it was just like go with the flow and see how we feel. So you’ll see like in the past a lot of our pieces were very free-form, might or might not necessarily have a certain woman in mind. It doesn’t have to fit her body; it was for us to explore our different crafts.

How easy or hard was it to start the brand?

The way we work is when we meet the client, we always get the brief from them, just to get an idea of the style and the sense of style that they like. We also look at things like their personality and body shape and size, and the most important thing for us is to look at their budget—so we know how far to push the design. Say if their budget is bigger, then we know we can source some materials from Italy and France, which we have suppliers for; and then clients who have a smaller budget, we have other suppliers who do more for Japan and Korea, and Asian countries. The main thing is that we do not commit to buying the materials until we meet the client, and she has given us the go-ahead.

Who are your main clientele and what is the price range of your dresses?

Mostly brides, but we do have some regulars who get dresses done—some do it because they just enjoy it and then they wear it to people’s weddings and stuff; and then we have another handful that wear our gowns for their socialite events. Short dresses start from $1,800, long gowns start from $3,500 thereabouts. If it’s a ball gown or lace gown it starts from about $5,000.

What’s the most expensive material you’ve had to use?

I’ve easily worked with fabrics that cost like $400-$500 a meter; usually it’s either lace or has some form of beading on it already. Say if it’s like a long dress I’ll need 5-6m of it; already that’s just a few thousand dollars just on the material, without me starting to sew or cut.

Do you do all the actual making?

Very rarely—we’re not the hands that are doing the drafting, but we are very involved. Because our seamstresses also look to us to guide them to do it—at the end of the day what we’re providing them is just a sketch; it takes a lot of trial and error to get it to where I see it in my head.

You don’t like making?

There’s no time! Because to be the ones seeing the clients, sourcing the fabrics, sewing, then hand-sewing—it’s not possible.

Have you ever turned away a design?

At the end of the day it’s a matter of budget and time. If they wanted this beaded ball gown, of course we can make it, but whether they have the budget and time for it then that’s something else. I think a lot of them don’t realize how much time it takes. So they come thinking that a dress like that would cost $2000, when in actual fact it would cost like $15,000. It’s whether or not they’re prepared to invest that kind of amount for the design that they want.

Did you ever think you’d be clothing someone on the red carpet?

Not really, because we don’t look out for these things. We’re so out of the fashion industry in Singapore that I don’t think we would have known if (Constance) didn’t approach us. We don’t take part in fashion week, we don’t really look out for influencers; it’s just not in our nature to do that sort of thing.

Sometimes our collection is five pieces, sometimes it’s 20 pieces. The main thing is that we don’t follow seasons, and we don’t have a fixed time of the year that we’ll definitely do a collection. Even to release a dress is so difficult—like Constance’s dress took so long to do. And we have clients’ dresses, and our clients are always our priority. It’s only when we have time, when we’re not doing any client stuff, then we take the time to think about what stuff we want to try and make—which rarely comes by.

Were there any hiccups with loaning Constance the dress?

Initially we didn’t think we’d loan her the dress—not because we didn’t want to support her, but she came pretty late, and the fit wasn’t good (it was way too long), and at the time we were busy with client stuff as well. But she was really sweet, and she really wanted to wear the dress. She told us to do whatever we could—if it’s too long she’ll wear 6-inch heels; if her underwear is showing, then she’ll make do with nude underwear. She was very accommodating; she made me feel like she wanted to wear the dress, and I felt like how can I not let her? To me the fit could have been better, because I’m so used to things fitting so well in my studio, but I guess she wanted to wear it enough to say okay she will manage.

Are there any misconceptions about local designers?

I think (people) don’t think we can do good work. For Constance’s case, we created that dress like two years ago. And the only reason why people started paying attention to it was because international publications started talking about it. So I think there’s just that mentality that maybe they don’t see what the talent in Singapore can do—until someone else tells them to look at it.