MAX Tan remembers his first collection 10 years ago: “I was like any other young designer, I didn’t really think things through – I just jumped straight into it . . . So when my debut collection was listed on Stylesight.com (an influential trend website now part of wgsn.com) as one of the Top 10 Spring/Summer 2010 collections in the world, I was totally stunned.”
Listed together with major names such as Alexander McQueen and Miu Miu, Tan’s label Max.Tan instantly got attention, with calls from buyers across the globe. He continued to garner critical raves and a following among fashionistas for his unique monochromatic designs. But that didn’t exempt him from the challenges many Singapore designers face such as stiff competition from global brands, high overheads and a small domestic market.
He has weathered the industry’s turmoils better than most and stayed in the game.
It’s reason enough for him to celebrate his 10th year in the business with a retrospective collection debuting at The Front Row, Singapore’s first virtual fashion festival, running from August 20 to 29on www.thefrontrow.style.
Max.Tan and 40 other labels from Singapore and other Asian countries are showcasing their creations through online runway shows, fashion filmlets, designer discussions and hands-on workshops conducted in a cyber festival village. Supported by Enterprise Singapore and organised by Daniel Boey Creatives and AP Media, it features other top Singapore brands such as Elohim by Sabrina Goh, State Property, Reckless Ericka and Graye, as well as regional powerhouses such as Tube Gallery and Carven Ong.
Tan says: “A lot of people know me for my black-and-white creations in a certain silhouette. But I’ve also experimented a lot with textures and deconstruction. These tend to be featured in fashion editorials, but they’ve gone mostly unnoticed by the local audience . . . So I thought this would be a good chance to bring them back at the 10-year mark so you can see a different side of me.”
For his exclusive fashion shoot for BTLifestyle directed by Daniel Boey, Tan dressed five models from different generations in his monochromatic glory.
They include former supermodels Anita Akhbar and Lyn Wang who once ruled the magazine covers and catwalks of Singapore; current It-girl Kaigin Yong who just this year walked for Viktor & Rolf, Yohji Yamamoto and Lemaire, and newcomer Simone Lowther. Lowther is the daughter of former model Melinda Ho once signed to the famous 1980s model agency Carrie Models. The photo also features male model Srri Ramm dressed in Graye, a local menswear label.
Staying in the game
Tan says the competition from top luxury brands, fast fashion labels and popular e-commerce sites, such Love, Bonito and Second Nature, has only intensified over the years.
Since closing his retail store in Capitol Piazza in 2016, he’s adopted a wholesale approach, which means “working directly with my agents in Paris where they present my collections to buyers, while also making pieces for my faithful Singapore-based clients who’ve been following my story”. He designs costumes for theatre productions too, and has clinched awards for them.
Like Tan, other local designers have also adopted unusual business strategies – some of which seem almost counter-intuitive at first glance.
For instance, Shannon Lee of Shirt Number White spends an entire year creating a line-up of five to eight shirts for women. But they’re unlike anything you’d find in a fast fashion store. The shirts have elongated sleeves, asymmetrical hems, unusual folds, billowing capes and peek-a-boo backless cuts.
He says: “Having worked in various womenswear and menswear labels for several years, I’ve learnt certain things. And one of them is that most clothing lines feature tops, bottoms, outers, accessories and so on. But tops sell much, much better than bottoms and outers . . . Hence I decided to focus my energies on just one product category – namely shirts for women.
“Rather than producing a collection every six months – which is not hard to do but can generate a lot of waste, something the industry is struggling with – I focus my attention on a line-up of five to eight shirts that are not only unique in the market, but also accessible and lasting.”
The gambit has worked. Shirt Number White has a growing following among fashionistas that has kept the business going through the pandemic. It is the closing show for The Front Row festival.
Daniel Boey, the festival’s creative director, says being nimble is critical for local designers: “Looking at the labels I’ve curated for the fest, all of them – from the established to the raw and new – have a strong signature look, a business model that strengthens their brand proposition, and the foresight to pick up on business and digital trends before the pandemic hit.”
When the government instituted a circuit-breaker period in April, brands that quickly pivoted online – such as State Property, Maisha Concept, GINLEE Studio and Binary Style – did better-than-normal sales, selling out even their premium items whose price points previously deterred online shoppers. The Front Row festival is making a big push to make Singapore and Asian brands more visible online where they can hopefully find a wider global audience to further drive digital sales.
Looking forward, Boey notes the emergence of virtual trends such digital imaging, 3D-prototyping and computer-generated models (such as the fashion avatar Lil Maquela who has over 2.6 million Instagram followers) which may again transform how consumers see and shop for clothes.
“Digital is vital in the future of fashion retail, and designers must keep up . . . The key to staying alive in this tough business is to stay ahead of the curve; adapt to business, retail and technological trends; and keep oneself relevant, interesting and different from one’s competitors.”
The Front Row runs from August 20 to 29. Visit www.thefrontrow.style
This article was originally published in The Business Times.