With numerous rooms and event spaces spread across an expansive space of 690,000 sq ft – plus a flight of stairs or two at the entrances – the National Gallery Singapore is not the easiest space for stiletto-sporting fashionistas to navigate. But that did not stop the well-dressed attendees from being all praise for the venue of the most recent edition of Singapore Fashion Week, or SFW (and a fortnight later, the Singapore Fashion Awards, or SFA, organised by the Textile and Fashion Federation).
Despite half-jokingly suggesting “comfortable shoes” as her top tip for those attending next year’s edition of SFW – which will once again take place at the National Gallery – anaesthetist Dr Loh May Han says: “The juxtaposition of a modern fashion event with this historical location was special and unique. One could feel the gravity of the space and how it has borne witness to milestones in our nation’s history – and another positive was the number of Instagrammable opportunities, thanks to the beautiful architecture!”
Housed within two historical monuments dating back to the 1920s and 1930s – the former Supreme Court and City Hall – the art museum marked the first change of venue for the annual fashion event in years. Prior to SFW 2016, the fashion extravaganza was held within a large tented area outside Takashimaya Shopping Centre, one of the best-known malls along the retail artery that is Orchard Road.
It was no snap decision to hold the event at National Gallery, says chairman of Singapore Fashion Week, Tjin Lee. She reveals: “The building was under construction for five years, and we had been keeping an eye on its progress.” Aside from its impressive interiors and rich history, the gallery’s focus on South-east Asian and Singapore art made it the perfect space for SFW 2016, which for the first time had an all-Asian focus: Chinese couturier Guo Pei and Indian-American designer Naeem Khan, among others, presented their collections within the elegant and expansive space of the Supreme Court Terrace, which is built around the preserved dome of the former Supreme Court.
FASHION ON SHOW
In recent years, museums – once upon a time associated mostly with fine art to be admired in hushed tones – have become the hottest showrooms for high fashion. Last year, the Artscience Museum at Marina Bay Sands co-curated and hosted The Art And Science Of Gems, an exhibition of Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery alongside equally spectacular raw minerals from the French National Museum of Natural History.
It was one of the most high-profile fashion-themed museum shows on our shores in recent years, following buzzy exhibitions such as Hermes’ Leather Forever (2015, Artscience Museum) and Etourdissant Cartier high-jewellery exhibition – Cartier’s first public showing of a full contemporary collection of high jewellery – at the now-defunct private art museum Pinacotheque de Paris at Fort Canning in 2015. During SFW 2016, Tiffany & Co – one of the event’s jewellery sponsors – also held a mini-exhibition at the National Gallery, showcasing archival watches and documents marking key points in its 180-year history.
Abroad, the huge success of Manus X Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, also affirms the fact that style-themed showcases are very much in fashion. An examination of the connection between the hand-crafted and the machine-made in high fashion, the exhibition has become the Met’s seventh most-attended show of all time, welcoming more than 750,000 visitors during its five-month run last year.
Such fashion-themed exhibitions have found favour with the likes of Paige Parker, a gemologist and well-known figure on the local social scene, who names the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 blockbuster, China: Through The Looking Glass, as her favourite such exhibition to date. She recalls: “It offered a creative way to examine the inspiration and creativity leading to a two-way relationship between West and East. With cinema, music, and even a sense of imagination, the exhibit was a bit of art, madness, fashion, noise, lights, and even children dancing, when I visited.”
It’s not just such overseas spectaculars that have left a deep impression on the frequent traveller. Locally, the avid supporter of Singapore fashion singles out The Art And Science Of Gems as an exceptional showcase. “I was blown away by how the show made the history and science of gemstones very sexy,” she says, referring to the exhibition’s unusual premise of displaying stunning jewellery pieces alongside equally spectacular raw minerals from the French National Museum of Natural History (think a gigantic piece of quartz weighing 800kg, or an uncut 340-carat black diamond).
In fact, one of Parker’s own Van Cleef & Arpels’ pieces, a diamond and sapphire ballerina brooch – the first ballerina pin sold by the jeweller here, in 2013 – was part of the exhibition. It was important for her, however, that the show was not just about putting “pretty baubles on display – which we can see in the stores, frankly”. She notes: “It was a meaningful exhibition that showed us how the stones and raw crystals become the gorgeous gems we adorn ourselves with. It off ered a science to the fantasy, which I greatly appreciated.”
ART MEETS COMMERCE
While Dr Loh and Parker have long been museum-goers and are fans of diff erent types of art, one important benefi t of the rise of fashion-centred activities at museums is that they have an accessible appeal that can attract new audiences who might not have otherwise come close to, say, the works of local ceramicist Iskandar Jalil (the subject of a current exhibition at the National Gallery).
Sharing that the National Gallery has welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors since it opened in November 2015, Kola Luu, director of partnership development at National Gallery Singapore, says: “Events such as SFW and SFA have also introduced the gallery to many first-time visitors. We are hopeful that many of these visitors will return to experience our exhibitions and programmes.”
Tickets to the SFW 2016 fashion shows also gave guests access to the museum’s exhibitions. Honor Harger, the executive director of the Artscience Museum, off ers another interesting example of the convergence of art and commerce. While the Artscience Museum’s fashion- and jewellery-themed shows attracted many of its regulars, Harger notes that both shows were also well-attended by shoppers from its sister mall. “We saw a great conversion of audiences from The Shoppes, as shoppers chose to extend their experience at Marina Bay Sands by attending the exhibitions.”
Conversely, by telling the rich stories behind a luxury brand or a piece of clothing within a setting that has more gravitas than your typical high-end boutique, museum exhibitions can have long-term positive commercial effects. Says anaesthetist Dr Adrian Ng, who has attended a number of fashion-themed exhibitions with his wife, Dr Loh: “As a child, we grew up listening to fairy tales. Even after we grew older, I think we always love to hear a good story. Hollywood movies and Korean dramas are exciting and lucrative because people are willing to pay for an experience, even if imaginary. I think the same goes for most brands – bring us on an adventure and watch that bottom line grow!”
As high-end representations of wearables that most people can identify with, haute couture and high jewellery can clearly bring in the crowds for museums, and make for a largely win-win situation. Nonetheless, curators we spoke to are mindful about making sure fashion-centred exhibitions go far beyond the surface.
Revealing that The Art And Science Of Gems took two years to realise, Harger says: “An exhibition’s credibility comes from the fact that there’s an educational story being told. If there is a sense that the exhibition has been created for commercial purposes, audiences will not engage in the same way. Visitors to museums need to feel that there is substance and authenticity at the heart of each show. That’s why they are in a museum, not a convention centre.”