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Daniel Boey is one of the most influential personalities in the Singapore fashion scene. A sought-after but much-feared mentor to designers and models, he has helped their careers, often by just giving them the blunt truth. For evidence, watch the long-running TV show Asia's Next Top Model where he is a regular judge, passing withering comments on contestants.
"I say what I say because I care" is his line, but before dismissing it as an excuse for sheer nastiness, consider this: Mr Boey has frequently worked overtime to support emerging talents he believes in. Space in his own wardrobe is also devoted to local labels, wearing them at chi-chi events so he can name-drop a homegrown designer when the inevitable question "Who is that you're wearing?" pops up.
On top of his work as a creative director, show producer, fashion choreographer and stylist who's worked for Vivienne Westwood, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton, he's also a bona fide wordsmith. In 2014, he produced the massive 459-page coffee-table book about Singapore fashion titled Book Of Daniel: Adventures Of A Fashion Insider.
Now he has a new book titled Behind Every *Itch Is A Back Story. It tackles a most unfashionable topic - his lifelong struggle with serious, life-threatening eczema. True to fashion form though, the book is written in a breezy manner and leavened with pages of clothes that augment the writing. A chapter on traditional and spiritual cures is accompanied by a picture spread of glamorous models posing with Chinese opera singers. A chapter on dietary restrictions boasts photos of an overdressed model grocery-shopping. Because he is Daniel Boey and everything needs to be done with maximum flair.
Judging by your two books, you certainly have a flair for writing. Did you once nurse ambitions of being a writer?
When the first book came out, people asked me if I wrote the book myself. Just because I'm in fashion, people assume certain things about me. But I did study Literature in the National University of Singapore. So I know what good writing is. Back then I wrote short stories and kept a personal diary. I used to watch movies and come out of the theatre inventing my own stories to fit the titles. As a child, I loved to read. But admittedly, the kind of books I loved had elements of style in them, like Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Famous Five - they were sleuths but stylish sleuths.
You've been dubbed the Godfather of Singapore Fashion by some. How do you feel about that title?
I'm a little embarrassed about that and I'm not sure I deserve it. But if I can use that bit of fame to help others and open doors for young talents, then why not? That's what I've tried to do. I used to watch, say, a beauty pageant and start bitching about how bad the girls or the national costumes looked. But I've decided to stop bitching, get off my fat ass and do something about it - because I happen to be in a position to do something about it. If the national costume is ugly, the girls aren't good, the show is terrible, I get up and get involved instead of complaining. That's why I'm involved in shows like Asia's Next Top Model, Miss Universe and The New Paper New Face.
You've championed many designers. Which local designers, past or present, continue to impress you?
I'm still a big fan of Thomas Wee. He can draft, he can cut, he's a true technician. Whatever he envisions, he can make it himself - without help from anyone, if it comes to that. The fact that he's still surviving when all his contemporaries - except Peter Kor - have been forced out of business because of ridiculous rental prices and high overheads speaks volumes. He still gets a steady stream of clients. But business-wise, he hasn't kept up with the times. He needs to update his business model and adapt to today's world, what with its social media politics and influencers. At the end of the day, fashion is still a business.
What about young designers? Who's caught your eye?
I'm impressed by these twin sisters, Santhi and Sari Tunas, who design a range of scarves under the label Binary Style. I think they're amazing. They incorporate certain icons and images of Singapore in a remarkably stylish way. Over the years, there've been attempts to design the Singapore outfit, but they always return to the same trope - the orchid dress. Seriously, there's more to Singapore than the stupid orchid dress! I also like Joe Chia, a Malaysian who has a distinctive style and has steadily built his portfolio so that now he sells at Tranoi, the biggest trade show in the world.
Why do you think so few local designers have managed to break into the regional or international market?
Designers need to take a long hard look at their businesses, identity their strengths and weaknesses. Recently, a very influential industry person gave feedback to a young designer who had created clothes for some ministers and their wives for a very recent national event. I saw these clothes on TV. They were badly-made and badly-fitted. They're beautifully designed, but the prints on the clothes were on the wrong kind of fabric. But the designer responded:
"I've never had complaints from my clients." The thing is, you have to take all feedback seriously. There's a reason why Thomas Wee is still in business and gets repeat clients.
So many local labels have fallen because of poor business sense. They complain about the manufacturing, but these are problems faced the world over. If you can design but can't cut, then learn. Or you're at the mercy of your tailor. Young designers like to say they're selling out when they have to do certain things. But I do that all the time - it's called survival. You don't have to lose your integrity when you take on such jobs. "Selling out" is when you start selling shoddy products in blog shops.
Then, once you get your business model right, you need to play the game. If you have to go abroad and make it there before anyone pays attention to you here, then do that. I did it - I went to London and directed shows there before government officials started hiring me to do things here.
You've complained about Singaporeans' dress sense. How can we all dress better?
You really don't need a lot of money to dress appropriately. Make sure your clothes are neat and coordinated, and fit well. That's it. My best jeans are from Uniqlo because they fit me the best. And stop using the weather as an excuse to dress sloppily.
We're not the only hot country in the world. Summers in Europe can be just as bad, you know.