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Singapore fashion designers of yesteryear - where are they now?
IF YOU WERE following fashion in the last 10 to 20 years, you would have heard these names - Song+Kelly, Ashley Isham, Hansel, and so on. In fact, they might well evoke a vague sense of deja vu as some of the brands that helped put Singapore on the international fashion map.
You don’t hear of them so much now as fast fashion dominates and a new generation of designers lead the way to Singapore’s fashion future, but it doesn’t mean that the names of yesteryear have been put out to pasture.
As we celebrate all things Singaporean this National Day, we catch up with some familiar fashion names to find out what they’ve been up to, and we’re happy to report that they’re still going strong in the industry, and putting their years of experience to good use.
Designer: WYKIDD SONG. Brand: AKINN. Years Active: 1994-PRESENT
When Song+Kelly folded in 2007, Wykidd Song dropped out of the fashion spotlight. But he still stayed in the trade, starting his own design studio, working in Hong Kong and on a host of fashion-related projects. He also taught part-time at LASALLE College of the Arts. He was involved in designing shirts for APEC leaders, which saw former US President Barack Obama wearing one of his creations.
He also designed the uniforms of Changi Airport staff which still “makes me proud” when he sees them.
But starting a new fashion label was always on his mind, although that hasn’t quite come to pass. Until now.
Song is finally set to make his fashion comeback with an all-new label Akinn, an online-only womenswear brand that makes its official debut in September. “Each month we will present a capsule collection of dresses and separates,” explains Song. “We are also a design platform, so we are looking to collaborate with established or new designers, creatives and personalities that inspire us.”
At the height of Song’s career - he started Song+Kelly in 1994 together with graphic artist Ann Kelly - the brand was distributed in Harrods, Barneys and Selfridges, while they showed their collections at New York Fashion Week and London Fashion Week. They also opened their first retail shop in Ngee Ann City in 1996. Club 21 subsequently acquired the label until its demise. All that is in the past and Song is firmly in forward mode now.
“For me it’s always about what’s next — and what’s new.”
Song is optimistic about Akinn, citing his “passion for construction and finishing and making heritage craft relevant, slowing down fashion” as his design philosophy. Structure and minimalism are key to his designs, and Song counts the likes of Jil Sander, Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein as his heroes.
Song adds that in the 90’s, “before Zara and H&M came along”, Singapore’s fashion labels catered to the mid-market range where there was a growing demand for well-made clothes that didn’t cost as much as top designer brands. But with the proliferation of fast fashion, independent local labels need to work harder to be on top of the consumer’s mind. “Fashion has largely democratised itself, starting with fast fashion in the 2000s which gave consumers unlimited choices and cheaper alternatives.” He recalls how only the wealthy could afford an ever-changing wardrobe but now with the sea of online and high street brands, everyone can, “so there’s no excuse for anyone to dress badly.”
The problem with that, which he is well aware of with his new label, is the sheer wastage that fast, throwaway fashion created. His plea to the current generation is to be more environmentally conscious. “Good design improves lives — that has always been my mantra. Buy smart, buy less.”
Designer: ASHLEY ISHAM. Brand: ASHLEY ISHAM. Years Active: 2000-PRESENT
Ashely Isham found international fame relatively early in his career as a fashion designer. He says, “Unfortunately, I had to leave Singapore to pursue my dreams in 1995 as there weren’t many opportunities then. It was daring but looking back, I feel it was the best decision I’ve made in my life. I am lucky to be where I am today.”
Since he launched his eponymous collection in 2000, this Singaporean London-based fashion designer has showcased at London Fashion Week and boasts a string of high profile clients from royalty like Queen Rania of Jordan and Princess Zara Philips, to celebrities Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyoncé.
The Central Saint Martins alumnus, who once created a bespoke look for Princess Zara Philips for the Royal Ascot; Christina Aguilera’s Grammy-performing dress; and various designs for Kylie Minogue’s concert, also has his own line of modern baju kurung and kebaya, which he started in 2013. It’s a project dear to him and which he is particularly proud of as a reflection of his heritage. He is also working on his own bespoke prints for silk and linen with a French mill to develop jacquard which is almost identical to the traditional Malay songket. With the closure of his Mandarin Gallery boutique, he no longer has a permanent presence in Singapore, apart from an annual pop-up store he runs with his sister during the Hari Raya period.
“I am still a fashion designer as it’s my life’s passion but I am fortunate that I am still an independent fashion brand so I have the freedom to do other projects,” he says, when asked about his latest plans. “Recently I was approached by a hedge fund in London and now I’m splitting my time with my other passion which is interior design, architecture and property development. Fashion these days is not just about clothes… I now design villas and homes — but from a fashion point of view.”
Designer: FREDERICK LEE. Brand: FREDERICK LEE COUTURE. Years Active: 1991 - PRESENT
At 53 and actively in the fashion business for almost three decades, Singapore’s darling couturier Frederick Lee is not slowing down. He just finished his couture show at Vietnam International Fashion Week and wrapped up designing costumes for Broadway Beng — which is now running at the Capitol Theatre.
Up next, Lee will be working on the costumes for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and then creating all the costumes for Wild Rice’s charity ball in October. If that’s not enough, he’s already committed to designing the costumes for the National Day Parade 2020.
While many of his peers are graduates from prestigious universities, Lee is self-taught. He started in his early 20s, making clothes for his friends. Later, his career flourished in the bridal business, but soon more doors opened for him to design over-the-top costumes for national events including the National Day Parade, Miss Universe, and the Youth Olympic Games. The avid reader gets most of his inspiration from books on everything from fashion design, tailoring and dressmaking to art theory, design theory and fine art.
His perfectionism is evident in his intricately embellished creations that according to him, is a “reflection of dreams”. The sketchbook is still his best friend all these years. He does not use the computer to design because according to him, “couture is oldschool”.
For the uninitiated, a custom handmade couture dress could take 300 hours to make. “You can’t rush things like hand-painting feathers and letting each one dry,” he once said in an interview. “That’s the beauty of it. It has been like that for years and will be the same in the years to come.”
In Lee’s universe, the most powerful asset you can have is your individuality. “Being original is the key to your craft,” he emphasises.
Designer: ALFIE LEONG. Brand: BSYM, AWOL WE+STUDIO. Years Active: 1999-present
More than two decades ago when he was just starting out, Alfie Leong noticed that people were more experimental and progressive. “At that time, people were more willing to dress up,” he says, compared to today’s youth sporting a similar look.
Many who have followed Leong’s work since he started his label in 1999, know his love for draping. His design aesthetic of marrying tailored construction with soft drapery has earned him accolades - his proudest being the President’s Design Award for Designer of the Year in 2013. Being a fashion designer these days is an uphill task, says Leong. Especially when craftsmanship and design are no match for the unlimited choices out there for consumers. “You have to raise the bar no matter who you are,” he says, adding that rather than compete with fast fashion, one should just focus on quality and authenticity.
Leong is always challenging himself to create striking silhouettes, which is why he is a household name when it comes to cocktail dresses and ball gowns. Says the 49-year-old Leong, “I like designing gowns because it allows me to expand my imagination.”
Today Leong works with his team at We+ Studio to specialise in made-to-measure orders as well as Workshop Element, a multi-label concept store which provides a platform for other local designers to showcase their works. He also just sponsored the Singapore International Jewellery showcase with a new collection of gowns.
While Leong still produces retail merchandise for his BSYM label (he produces new designs weekly) currently stocked at Zalora, he now considers himself more of a “creator” than a fashion designer.
“I’m not sure if I like or dislike where fashion is headed these days. I like the fact that as a brand our customer base reaches a wider range, but I dislike the over-saturation of brands.” His hope for Singapore’s fashion future is that people prioritise dressing up and invest in quality clothes just as they would on a car or a house.
Designer: KEITH PNG. Brand: KEITH PNG. Years Active: 2007 - PRESENT
Zhang Ziyi, Fann Wong and Lin Chi Ling are some of the famous names Keith Png has designed for. As a stylist, he’s well known in the celebrity circuit and is a regular face on local TV variety shows.
As a fashion designer, Png has come a long way. A decade ago, he set up Hide & Seek, a lifestyle boutique housed in a quaint twostorey shophouse in Telok Ayer. Besides carrying his former ready-towear label Koops, he also featured other designers to offer shoppers a comprehensive shopping experience of local brands. Besides fashion, one of the highlights of Hide & Seek was the lifestyle section where he and celebrity makeup artist Clarence Lee curated a range of cult perfumes never before brought into Singapore.
Png recalls how “I was full of passion and drive when I first started, but as I got older, I became more practical and business-driven.” That was what led him to close Hide & Seek after four years to focus on growing his eponymous bespoke brand. “When I first started in the business, we did not have as much competition from the foreign brands, and online shopping was not an option yet. Now, people are so used to online shopping, fast fashion has taken over quality. Social media has taken over print...it is a whole new world.”
While he is still designing, the 42-year-old is not actively pushing out collections season by season. Instead, he has his hands full tending to clients wanting bespoke gowns, or companies who need uniform designs.
Looking to the future, the everenterprising Png is working on an underwear venture for men. “We are at the research and development stage of creating customised underwear and boxers. I can’t elaborate, but the end goal is to create an underwear line for the working gentleman to keep his shirt tucked in neatly.”
Designer: JO SOH. Brand: HANSEL. Years Active: 2003 - 2015
In the early 2000s, fresh-faced Central St. Martins alum Jo Soh was one of Singapore’s budding designers and every aspiring fashion girl was a fan of her work. Though her designs were mostly minimalist, she was known for her bold hand-drawn prints and her unique take on retro-inspired styles. “For my own ready-to-wear brand, I was able to express my personal style and I would summarise Hansel’s aesthetic simply as form, function and fun!”
Looking back to 2003, Soh explains that there were very few fashion companies in Singapore creating their own original designs. It spurred her to create a platform to commercialise her ideas. “Singapore has always been much stronger in the fashion retail industry where we import established brands.
Most of the fashion companies who had their own product lines were able to offer product development roles instead of true fashion design.”Says the 43-year-old Soh about sustaining her brand for more than a decade: “I am proudest of the fact that I created a fashion label from scratch in Singapore where the fashion industry was small and for having done it without much experience at all other than a belief that I could!”
Soh lived in the UK for seven years and launched Hansel soon after graduation. The quirky brand made its impressive debut in Australian Fashion Week in October 2003 and was subsequently carried in boutiques in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the US.
After 12 years and 22 collections, she closed Hansel after she was headhunted by Laura Ashley Asia to become their Head of Fashion, first for Singapore, then for Singapore and London. She has since left her role at Laura Ashley to take up a new position as Programme Director for a new TaFF (Textile and fashion Federation) initiative, The Bridge Fashion Incubator (TBFI).
TaFF is an initiative housed at The Cocoon Space in Design Orchard, and TBFI is a 30-week long business incubation programme for innovative companies that operate at the intersection of fashion, technology and sustainability. It will kick off in mid-August, and its role is to guide and expose the 12 companies to industry mentors.
As someone in a position to help young talents in the local fashion industry, Soh is hopeful about her role. “It’s terribly exciting because I enjoy understanding how it all works, and then applying this knowledge as a service to help small business owners realise their dreams — this gives me a great sense of purpose and meaning.”