When Singapore Fashion Week rolls around again this month, well-regarded local labels such as Ong Shunmugam and Max Tan will present their latest designs alongside internationally renowned names such as New York-based Indian-American designer Naeem Khan and Chinese couturier Guo Pei. And as we celebrate our design talents, it is also a good time to take a look back at the evolution of the fashion industry here.
Written by former fashion journalists John de Souza, Cat Ong and Tom Rao, Fashion Most Wanted: Singapore’s Top Insider Secrets From the Past Five Decades spotlights movers and shakers ranging from self-taught pioneering designers to business owners who first introduced international brands to our shores. It’s a timely reminder that an industry – even one that celebrates individualism – does not develop in a vacuum. Below are our top four takeaways from the book.
01: OUR EARLY STYLE ICONS WERE NO MERE FASHION PLATES – ONE WAS EVEN A FORMULA ONE CHAMP.
As the authors of Fashion Most Wanted put it, “If you think pre-independence Singapore was a fashion backwater, you’re in for a big surprise.” A number of style icons did more than just inspire the way women dressed: As founders of their own boutiques, fashionistas such as Eunice Wong and Marjorie Sng also directly clothed many fashion-forward women in the early days. Epitomising the multi-tasking It girl, Wong was also a Grand Prix champion driver.
02: SINGAPORE’S FIRST LUXURY MULTI-LABEL STORE WAS MORE THAN JUST A FASHIONABLE CONCEPT.
These days, multi-label boutiques are known for their carefully considered selections. When Glamourette – Singapore’s first luxury multi-label store – opened in 1958, it brought European brands like Biba, Mary Quant, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent to our shores for the first time. But the store represented more than that: At a time when made-to-measure clothing was the norm, the store was a pioneer in ushering in the arrival of ready-to-wear.
03: LOCAL FASHION HAS LONG HAD A PRESENCE ON THE INTERNATIONAL SCENE.
Some of our homegrown talents are thriving overseas – one example is Paris-based Andrew Gn, who has been in the business for 20 years – and this is by no means a recent occurrence. Based in London until 1996, designer Benny Ong’s designs were stocked at stores like Harrods and Selfridges in London, and he was often named as one of Britain’s top designers. And it wasn’t just designers who put Singapore on the map: Top local models like Hanis Hussey (then known by her maiden name, Hanis Saini) and Ethel Fong were hand-picked by Yves Saint Laurent and Giorgio Armani respectively to appear in their shows and ad campaigns.
04: EACH ERA BRINGS ITS OWN SET OF CHALLENGES.
Right now, it seems like every other day brings a new report on the sluggish state of fashion retail. But as chronicled by Fashion Most Wanted, each decade has seen its own challenges. The 1960s, for instance, saw made-to-measure fall out of favour, thanks to the advent of imported ready-to-wear. But this paved the way for the rise of distributors like FJ Benjamin and Club 21. Later, the financial crisis of the 1990s saw many brands exit Singapore. This, too, had a silver lining: Designer Thomas Wee notes that the ’90s was “the decade that made him a household name”. Today, the industry faces new challenges – and if history is any indication, it will evolve yet again, adding another colourful chapter to this ongoing tale.
Images: SPH – The Straits Times