This is usually the time of the year when the nation’s brightest fashion design students take to the runways to showcase their collections—the culmination of months of research and hard work. Being the next generation to carry the design torch forth, their work as a collective whole forms a snapshot of where Singaporean fashion is headed. While runway shows in front of a live audience might not be possible this year, the message that these designers want to get across is no less diminished. Amid restrictions and uncertainties, these graduates prove that creativity, resilience and resourcefulness can indeed flourish. For them, fashion transcends the idea of just clothes to become vehicles through which they can explore issues pertaining to identity, society, heritage and multi-culturalism. These, of course, have always been issues at the heart of Singaporean fashion and of Singapore itself, but they feel even more pertinent today—making for rich fodder when it comes to creative authorship.
Jackie Yoong, the Fashion and Textiles Curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum, which is currently staging its first exhibition on contemporary Singaporean fashion, believes that Singaporean fashion occupies a unique position in Asian culture, which is exactly why there is so much space for imagination and growth. “As a cosmopolitan port city open to migrants and ideas over the past two centuries, Singaporean style has always been cross-cultural and experimental. Rather than being limited to one exclusive “national” style, Singaporean fashion embraces designs, silhouettes and materials from Asia and beyond—reflecting our location in Southeast Asia, our colonial past and our ancestral cultures, especially from China, India and the Malay diaspora.”
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She sees this spirit as something that “continues to manifest itself in contemporary Singaporean fashion” and the thing that excites her most about the landscape today is the coming together of its many various components. “In great fashion cities, many partners in the ecosystem converge and collaborate,” she says. “These include the industry players, the media and the educational sectors of which museums are a part. For instance, the ‘#SGFASHIONNOW’ exhibition gives a snapshot of the different possibilities that Singaporean fashion has taken in recent years; I hope that a display like this can encourage further conversations about Singapore and Asia in the context of fashion.”
Lai Chan, a veteran of the industry with 30 years of experience under his belt, also notes this new-found solidarity in the industry that he believes is propelling it forward. “Today, we see established designers standing shoulder to shoulder with a new generation, Singaporean brands collaborating with businesses in Asia, and the government lending its support,” he says. As a result, he finds that “young Singaporean designers today are talented, fearless, and equipped with knowledge, contacts and support systems. With these, the industry can and will move forward.”
The designer himself plays a key part in moving the industry forward. For several years now, Lai Chan has served as one of the mentors of the Harper’s BAZAAR Asia NewGen Fashion Award, alongside our editors and other industry insiders, helping young designers refine their ideas, hone their craftsmanship and translate their work on a commercial level. The prize itself was established in 2013 to nurture the region’s emerging talents in all aspects of the fashion business. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, BAZAAR partnered with Singapore’s Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) on A New Slate—an initiative to support previous local NewGen winners Silvia Teh and Rena Kok with a commercial platform. The exclusive capsule collections they created were given a big media boost by this publication, and retail support by TaFF’s online marketplace One Orchard Store (oneorchard.store) and Design Orchard.
Semun Ho, CEO of TaFF, thinks that the industry is on the verge of entering its next chapter. “I believe that the Singaporean fashion industry has reached a high point in the past decade,” she says. “With families being more affluent, parents are more supportive of younger Singaporeans pursuing fashion. We also see more Singaporeans willing to support local labels. This could be a result of social media, which enables young brands to expand their outreach quickly.” As to what excites her the most about this younger wave of brands and designers, she points to their “passion and willingness to explore”. She brings up Gin Lee’s on-demand production capabilities for her signature pleated pouch at her retail outlets as an example. “I’m also inspired by their willingness to collaborate. We’ve seen many brands pairing up to complement each other with products that are interesting to their joint market segments, such as the partnership between PINKSALT and The Missing Piece.”
The elements of community and collaboration noted by Yoong, Lai Chan and Ho are indeed present in the works of many of this year’s graduating designers, but beyond that, what really stands out are also their fearlessness and sophistication in addressing sociocultural or deeply personal issues. In reflection of a changing, more conscious world, many are also championing slow fashion and more sustainable ways of creating.
Featured here are some of Singapore’s best new design talents.
This article was originally published in Harpers Bazaar.