Check out our special section for runway galleries from Singapore fashion week.
I was sifting through the mass emails sent to me by unknown PR reps and the contact form spam that crowds my Papierdoll inbox when I almost missed one of the most important emails I would receive this year. I wouldn’t know that at the time. It read like a Publisher’s Clearinghouse piece of snail-mail, or in other words, an offer that was too good to be true: “On behalf of our selections committee, we are pleased and honored to invite you to attend Singapore Fashion Week 2006 as our guest…you will receive invitations to all fashion shows and exhibitions and an all expense paid trip including round-trip flight, full hotel 5 nights accommodation, daily venue transfers and personalized staff to assist you during your visit.” I double checked the “to” field—the email had been personally addressed to me. Yes, I had just covered New York fashion week, and received a few lovely personal notes from designers who’d enjoyed my reviews of their work… but a free trip to across the world? It seemed just too good to be true.
So with a mixture of cautious skepticism and the hope that you feel in that moment when the first two lotto numbers match your ticket, I walked into the Access USA showroom, having taken the sender of the dubious email up on her offer to pay a visit to preview the design talent of Singapore (to which I was admittedly completely oblivious). What I encountered at that collection preview, and what would continue to unfold during my first trip to Singapore Fashion Week (SFW), was the pioneering approach that Singapore is taking toward its fashion industry growth. And I would be one of the first Americans to attend what may possibly the beginnings of the next major international fashion week.
Access USA is an American consultancy that works intimately with Singapore’s Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFf, a government agency), whose explicit charge is to bring Singaporean designers to the US market. Daniel Lonergan, founder of Access USA with a hefty track record of American product launches from Australia, New Zealand, England, France and China, understands that in order to carry out this mission of bringing Singaporean fashion to the States, he must first bring the US fashion market, in the form of key industry players, to Singapore. For wooing these delegates, as we would be officially deemed, Daniel relied on the best resource in his arsenal—not the free airfare and accommodations to the small tropical island country, nor even the fresh, exciting talent that awaited us there, though these were surely significant factors in tipping the scales—but his wife and business partner, Sharon Bykerk-Lonergan, who I am confident was the driving force to win over myself, and the 27 others who joined me, with the sheer force of her personality and her unbridled enthusiasm for both Singapore and its designers.
Without losing a beat from the moment I stepped in the door, Sharon whisked me straight to the showroom racks while simultaneously christening me as “darling,” with her American-turned-Aussie-returned accent, placing the organza dresses of Daniel Yam in my hands, while reaching for designer profiles, photo sheets and schedules which she then piled into a folder and stuffed in my handbag, all the while giving me a thorough rundown on the shows, designers, nightlife and everything she could possibly think to share about the tiny island nation that roughly takes up the size of greater New York city. While I scrambled to jot down the key points of information while also examining the stitching on éWomb’s latest collection, the one thought to resonate, and which needed no recording, was that I would be going to Singapore in less than a month, and that for some inexplicable reason, I was overwhelmed by anticipation for what awaited me there.
My invitation quickly solidified into much more than just a free trip. It embodied the unique role that the Singaporean government has adopted towards its fashion industry—both internationally and within the island country itself. Whereas the New York City government is lobbying to remove fashion week from its symbolic epicenter of Bryant Park, the Singaporean government is proactively investing in its own fashion week, making it a publicly-funded (and heavily subsidized for presenting designers) rather than a private affair. The country, opportunely poised as a trading outpost between Malaysia and Indonesia, with strong ethnic ties to India and China, is classified as an East Asian Tiger—a small country whose government, defiant of the poverty that plagues its neighbors, rose above it to a per capita GDP equivalent to leading Western European nations through the aggressive pursuit of economic development, especially in the financial and high-tech industries.
As Singapore’s economy grew, the fashion industry was placed in a precarious position: wages were too high to compete with the cheap labor of neighboring countries, and so the manufacturing part of fashion became unviable for Singapore. David Wang, the designer of iS and next year’s Vice Chair of Fashion Week explained that fashion was considered a “sunset industry,” in Singapore—until the government realized the economic value of the creative design process. As Sharon tells it, “The Singapore government, by way of TaFf, opened its eyes, and has finally embraced and recognized the unique original design talent coming from their own nationals.” And talent, as those of us who religiously follow names and shop by labels know, directly translates into markup. Instead of cheap production, Singapore would find economic value in expensive design.
As an export economy, Singapore set it sights square on international fashion’s economic heartbeat: New York, and set up an initiative with Access USA to import designers who were already well-established in Singapore. What followed was a delegation of, as Sharon either lovingly or smarmily (with her charm, the difference is hard to tell) calls them, “the dirty dozen,” Americans to SFW in 2005. This first foray into SFW had solid results: three labels were brought back to the US (Daniel Yam, Allure, and éWomb), SFW gained visibility through a write-up by Carolyn Moss of the Tobe Report, and, most importantly, IE Singapore (another government agency that works with TaFf) developed a learning agenda for the 2006 by actively collecting feedback from the delegates.
One of the most important lessons culled from the first go-around was that buyers are the most valuable delegates. Sharon says it best, “buying offices are like goddesses and their word is gospel to USA retailers, so whoever they suggest is top priority. Access USA wants SFW designers to be in that demographic. Also, they are a good sounding board on issues of trends, designer viability and commerciality into the US market.” In other words, buyers are key to expanding a new line within the US. In 2005, the invite list was too small in scope. This year was much more targeted, with names on the guest list that evoked the other invitees to sign-on. In explaining her decision to attend SFW, Sylvia Ferrari, a NY-based buyer (Sylvia Ferrari Buying Services) who places labels such as Badgley Mischka, Diane von Furstenberg and Nanette Lepore, explained, “They had [Rochelle Aliotta of] Precision NY and [Shirin Tagavi and Bahram Hamidi of] The New York Look, so this year [she had declined the first year] I felt that I had to come to keep up with my peers.” Indeed, Sharon filled the roster of buyers with these powerful names and others: Lucy Jordan from Lucy Jordan Buying Services, Marsha and Peter Posner from JP & Associates, and even retailers like Harvey Nichols (Saudi Arabia), and uber-chic Factory People (owned by Le and Thomas Popov) from Austin, TX. With Carolyn Moss as one of the few delegates chosen to return, the trade publication angle was covered. Sharon just needed one more press person, someone from a hip, on-the-edge-of-the-industry publication with the vision and understanding to appreciate Singapore design, someone who Sharon would refer to as a “rare bird.” That person was apparently me.
What I saw at SFW did awaken the “rare bird” within me—my love of art, expression, invention, and progress—reminding me of all my original motivations for becoming a fashion writer. Yes, there were shows that bordered on amateurish and showcased commercial fluff of which you could find the equivalent on the clothing racks at Target; and some shows were so ridiculous and tirelessly long that a I began fidgeting in my seat, but overall, the week had a strong showing, and three designers ultimately made the 18 hour flight and 12 hour jet lag worthwhile: Tian, Khoon Hooi, and éWomb.
K.Mi Huang had taken éWomb, whom Access USA had brought to the US market in 2005, to the next level with special attention to the label’s new presence in the American market. Influenced by the duel markets for which she was now designing, K.Mi produced collection theme of “two creatures.” K.Mi believes that New Yorkers “want to simply put on something and look good”, while Singaporeans “want to look different and have distinction, so I decided to blend the two, and create a new angle in my design process.” The resulting collection featured the Asian ideals of balance and symmetry, with a western easiness for wearability. Her broader market broadened the horizons of her designs, a testament to the success of Access USA’s program.
Ben Wu, a former environmental engineer of eleven years, presented his first collection at SFW to delegates and attendees who were arrested by the application of his structural training to “four dimensional” clothes. As his program described, “This strong architectural movement is evident in the infusion of details with tucks, darts and straps pattered against a soft silhouette, using methods of overlapping, draping and experimenting with tensile techniques.” The collection perhaps skewed towards editorial, but key pieces will have bold hauterflies salivating.
Khoon Hooi, who has designed his own line from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for over six years, made the biggest splash with the American delegation. Le Popov from Factory People knew from the moment she saw the collection that it was destined for her store, comparing it to Marni, and buyer Sylvia Ferrari called the clothes “exceptional looking.” Bows comprised of black beaded zippers were inventive and yet restrained, giving character to simple yet gorgeous silhouettes, and origami influenced the shapes without looking too ethnically derivative.
Seeing presentations from these three designers was enough to understand where Sharon derives her unbridled energy for Singapore fashion. This is the kind of design vision that one of us “rare birds” cannot help but want to do everything to see these labels in fine department stores and in glossy print. They inspire a Peggy Guggenheim-like desire of patronage and promotion. Thus, it was no surprise when Sharon confirmed, post SFW, that éWomb would return (with the other 2005 labels) along with newcomers Tian, Khoon Hooi two other inspired (but not as consequential) collections: Francis Cheong’s daywear line and Additions by Celia Loe.
These newcomers will benefit from an introduction to the program’s sophomore year. The designers who have already been vetted through the process recognize Access USA and TaFf’s crucial role to bringing them Stateside. Keith Yap, from Allure, describes the agencies as “having provided a shortcut to the brands of Singapore for penetrating the US market. They enables designers to meet the right people, and that is what fashion is all about.” Designer K.Mi Huang affirms this, noting that the services, which are free to designers and include thorough consultation on the “structuring, editing and balancing of collections, the need for time-sensitive seasonal collections, and specific product specifications and details (fit, colors, fabrics, etc),” are not something her fledgling label would be able to afford on its own.
But does a handful of exceptional talent necessarily mean that Singapore could be the next major fashion week? Not on its own. Surely these designers will be cherry picked and absorbed into the New York or European fashion scene once their talent has been popularized among the fashion community’s inner circles (facilitated, of course, by Access USA). And so in the short term, these rising starts are not enough. But SFW is quietly and steadily building its presence, and with the Asian economy and population on the edge of (or as some would argue, in the midst of) a boom, the region may look to Singapore as its industry base. Singapore itself is strategically positioned geographically (as a long standing trade center wedged along other the Southeast Asian countries), culturally (like the US, Singapore is a melting pot of Asian races and cultures), and socioeconomically (a free market economy who has steered clear of controversial Asian geopolitics) and thus would not only have the infrastructure, but also the diversity and neutrality to represent Asia in the international fashion marketplace.
One could easily predict SFW’s progression: first it will become an insiders’ event, for those with connections to Access USA and who plan on piggybacking their free trip with excursions to Bali, Cambodia and other nearby exotic, temple-strewn locales; then, as it gains momentum, the crowd will diversify—expanding in international reach and industry scope, so that WWD and some prominent department stores may send a rep or two on their own dime; and in the not too distant future, the Asian market will reach a tipping point, and fashionistas could be booking flights from Paris to Singapore every February and September.
Of course, this is a leap from SFW’s present state. Practicalities such as differences in merchandising, sizing and quality/pricing are still being ironed out, but while there is much work left to be done before SFW is on the major fashion calendars, TaFf and IE Singapore are actively incorporating feedback into their processes to make the experience more hospitable and desirable to internationals. Carolyn Moss observed vast improvements from last year in the simple logistics of the event, noting that the “dirty dozen’s” points of feedback had been taken seriously, and remarking that while some elements needed a bit polish, the event had evolved significantly in a short period of time. Designer Francis Cheong, a SFW veteran with his own Singaporean couture line, admitted that Singapore is “not a fashion hub yet, but a stopping connection,” and that he sees the TaFf-Access USA alliance as “bringing Singapore to a whole other level.”
What could impede Singapore from realizing its potential as a fashion week destination is perhaps what Sharon adores the most about Singapore, “What makes SFW special to me is the natural style and grace of the Singaporean people. Their humble attitude towards the importance of high fashion is a refreshing approach and contrast to that of the rest of the world.” While humility is virtuous, is it conducive to the world of fashion? Broader Singaporean culture indeed skews toward the functional rather than superfluous: “hawker markets” are the preferred dining establishments, touted over fine dining, and the city center is composed of a sprawl of overground shopping malls to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity (the island is located one degree north of the equator). Such sensibilities are appealing in their pragmatism, but when has fashion ever aspired to practicality?
The fashion week itself must find a way to balance these cultural aspects with the broader fashion community’s need for a little pomp and circumstance. This year, SFW was set in an exhibition hall in the Singapore expo—the hall was divided into the runway show area, a “buyers’ lounge” and the main event: a large trade expo featuring the showcased designers, as well as booths from other clothing vendors, jewelers, and services from Asia and Africa. Thus, besides the free flowing G.H.Mumm champagne and Perrier (both sponsors) and massage chairs in the buyers’ lounge, the fashion week was tailored to be functional: the shows are more of an afterthought, as the booths are where the real wooing of prospective buyers takes place. Just as within the rest of the country’s infrastructure, business and efficiency take first priority. And couldn’t fashion use a bit of that?
It may be a long, steady upward climb for SFW, but once it rises to the top, it will not simply be absorb into the international fashion scene, it will redefine it.