Kennie Ting dresses sharp. A Ted Baker floral tie, a rose-patterned changshan (a traditional Chinese robe), and a floaty scarf from Jaipur-based studio Anokhi: Whatever the occasion, the director of Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) can be counted on to turn up in style.
No surprise, then, that his favourite among the institute’s thousands of decorative pieces is a gold embroidered robe with a ship’s wheel motif, gifted to a Danish navy admiral by Thai king Chulalongkorn in 1902. Its silhouette is equal parts Napoleonic suit and Indo-Persian jacket; the latter later finds its way into Malay baju, Ting outlines in a running commentary that never peters out during our interview.
His unflagging narrative about the historic lineage of attire reflects the ardour with which Ting has driven ACM’s fashion-forward momentum since taking its helm in 2016. Leveraging the vault’s massive stash of style artefacts, he wants to go big on garments, presenting heritage designs and modern labels as living history.
“The museum world has changed. There’s a lot more fashion,” says Ting, the former chairperson of the Asia-Europe Museum Network, while rattling off a list of global galleries also embracing vesture, such as China’s Shanghai Museum and Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum. “Everyone has clothes. Everyone has a view on how people ought to dress. It’s emotional. People come to exhibitions that make them feel something.”
As for ACM, he is “trying to pull together a picture of our past but also build up a collection [of present items]; trying to build a kind of canon of great designers of Asia”. “We treat designers like artists, and we’re collecting for the future in the same way, looking at aspects of craft and technicality or key milestones in the design practice,” he says. “We do these shows like fashion shows, in some ways. Each show is an experiment.”
Asian fashion, then and now
Among the fruits of the museum’s sartorial endeavours are a series of firsts, including a fashion and textiles gallery bursting at the seams with historic Indian trade textiles, and award-winning exhibits feting acclaimed designers like Singapore’s Andrew Gn and China’s Guo Pei, which have drawn “phenomenal” footfall.
Another triumph is #SGFASHIONNOW, which began as a small-scale trial to showcase a compilation — curated by fashion students — of garments by emerging and established local designers. Its third, largest-ever instalment this year is on the road from Busan to Seoul, after being snapped up by curators from cultural organisations in South Korea. “They said, ‘Contemporary Singapore fashion? Nobody’s ever seen this’,” Ting recounts.
“Singapore fashion is port-city fashion. We’re constantly reinventing materials and techniques that come from everywhere. We have quite a few streetwear labels, like Youths In Balaclava, discovered by Adrian Joffe of Comme des Garcons. It still relates to Singapore because we’re urban and edgy.”
A caveat: Some visitors may find this wider narrative hard to make sense of since the pandemic threw timelines into disarray. The Indian cloth exhibit, for example, was meant to complement a collection from renowned couturier Tarun Tahiliani, capped by a drape-themed lineup from #SGFASHIONNOW. Instead, Gn is in and #SGFASHIONNOW is overseas, so what’s on offer looks fragmented.
Never mind; order will be restored by next year, and Tahiliani’s show is still a go. For the occasion, the designer will craft fresh couture inspired by items that catch his eye from the museum’s vault, which holds treasures from the National Collection too numerous to display all at once.
Given Tahiliani’s penchant for draping, inspired by classical statues and embroidery influenced by heritage prints, Ting is looking forward to having a handy reason to liberate more objets d’art from storage. This is how the head honcho sees the museum’s place in the modern world: A creative library of influence for the next generation.
“The world’s taste, whether historically or today, allows us to argue that old and new are a continuum,” he says. “Until very recently, the West looked to Asia for luxury fashion. Sophisticated gold jewellery. Indian chintz. When you go to London, Tokyo, or Paris, you see that the creative community takes inspiration from museums there. So when you come here, you use our collection to create new collections.”