Dick Lee on turning 60 and ageing gracefully

From sophisticated suits to loud printed shirts, veteran composer-performer Dick Lee loves them all

It is just past 3pm on a sunny Monday afternoon and composer and performer Dick Lee is getting ready to be photographed.

Salt-and-pepper hair slicked back, he looks every bit the debonair gentleman, with his fitted suit jacket, bow tie and signature pocket square.

In the zen oasis of his living room, stylishly decorated with wooden furniture and plush sofas in calming hues of white and chocolate brown, his Saville Row-esque outfit fits right in - pointing to a man who knows a fair deal about design and aesthetics.

But unbeknown to most visitors to his shophouse home near Outram Park, his real sanctuary is, in fact, two floors up, amid the riot of colour and chaos that make up his office and study.

There, surrounded by hundreds of CDs, murder mystery DVDs, comic character figurines, posters and memorabilia from his illustrious career, is where the 59-year- old works - his shrine a testament to his love of living life colourfully, in more ways than one.

"The two distinct facets of my home are very much an analogy of my life and style choices," he says when asked how he would describe his personal aesthetic.

"There is that calm, sophisticated side of me with the blazers and the pocket squares that have become my signature look. But, at the same time, I am fascinated by print, colour and artifice - the more loud and fake-looking, the better."

His love for experimenting is unsurprising, considering it was fashion, not music, that was his first love. He studied the subject at Harrow School of Art in Middlesex, London, in 1977.

Inspired by the pop culture boom in the 1960s and supermodels such as Twiggy, the teenage Lee would help his mother, the late Elizabeth Lee, design clothes for her Tanglin Shopping Centre boutique, Midteen, which catered to teenage girls. His father ran the family shipping business.

There is a picture of me performing as a 17-year-old, wearing a shirt that I made myself which has one style of print on the sleeves and a completely different bold print on the body. So I guess you can say I haven't changed much. I've always been this eclectic person.

DICK LEE on whether his style has evolved over the years

  • Lee's favourite wardrobe pieces

  • VERSACE SILK SHIRTS

    Costing between US$450 (S$600) and US$2,000 each, Lee's collection of Versace silk shirts numbers more than 50 pieces and he continues to buy more. One of his favourites is a vintage 1990s piece with a Tarzan print, which was released before designer Gianni Versace's death in 1997.

    GUCCI LOAFERS

    He has more than 30 pairs of sneakers and 10 pairs of boots, but his favourite kicks are his Gucci loafers, which he loves for their quality and timeless style. He has more than 10 pairs in classic colours such as black and brown.

    BESPOKE BEADED T-SHIRTS

    Inspired by an old beaded Sylvester The Cat T-shirt he had when he was a teenager, he asked his then-domestic helper Josephina if she could try and bead some of his printed T-shirts. She turned out to be very good at it and helped create bespoke beaded versions of many of his printed T-shirts, including some from his music tours in the 1990s. She has since returned to the Philippines.

    PATCHWORK DENIM JACKET

    An homage to a similar jacket he bought in London when he was 14, this patch- and badge-covered Levi's denim jacket is one of his most prized possessions. He collected the patches and badges during his travels around the world and continues to add to the jacket.

The oldest of five siblings recalls first falling in love with colour and print while wandering through bales of fabric then sold at the former Metro department store in High Street, during shopping trips with his mother.

By the time he was 17, he was helping her stage a fashion show at the now-defunct Tropicana nightclub in Scotts Road.

"I designed all the clothes, roped in friends to model, choreographed the show and recorded all the music.

"That first show very much set in motion the career I would continue with for the rest of my life," Lee says with a laugh. "I still do the same now - just that now I do it for the National Day Parade."

These days, he tackles myriad projects, which last year included directing the Jubilee year National Day Parade, writing the theme song and contributing to the SG50 finale, The Future Of Us exhibition, at Gardens by the Bay.

This year, ahead of his 60th birthday in August, he will be holding a commemorative concert called Singapop! at The Star Theatre, which will take audiences through his musical life journey, complete with songs and stories to inspire the next generation of young talents.

The singer-composer, who swims at the Singapore Island Country Club and hits the gym at the Grand Hyatt regularly to stay fit, has also found a new hobby: collecting Versace silk shirts from collections that were released before designer Gianni Versace's death in 1997.

The pieces in his collection of fantastically printed shirts have been carefully selected and were bought for about US$1,000 (S$1,340) each from online sites such as eBay. He has more than 50.

"I bought three just yesterday," he says sheepishly. "Nowadays, I visit eBay every day just so I don't miss a bargain."

For him, the shirts are much more than a superficial love of the luxe.

They are also an investment that reflects his deep love for all things nostalgic, given that similar Versace silk shirts were what he wore while performing overseas in countries such as Japan in the 1990s.

"My memories were jogged when I saw an old picture of myself from a concert back in the day," he says.

"But because most of my old shirts were ruined after I ended up sweating through the delicate fabric, I began collecting them again this year.

"I love how bold they are. They've quickly become the pride of my wardrobe."

And that is saying something, given that his wardrobe is every fashion maven's dream - filled with brands such as Tom Ford, Dries Van Noten and Gucci, vintage finds sourced online, bespoke suits by Leslie Chia at Pimabs and all manner of beautiful accessories, including more than 20 pairs of cufflinks that fill a large Godiva chocolate box.

But for Lee, it is evident that style is much more than a fancy brand on a label. His carefully curated home and wardrobe speak of a man who has always been bold, colourful and sentimental, rather than one who is eccentric for eccentricity's sake.

"There is a picture of me performing as a 17-year-old, wearing a shirt that I made myself which has one style of print on the sleeves and a completely different bold print on the body," he says when asked how his style has evolved over the years.

"So I guess you can say I haven't changed much. I've always been this eclectic person. I've stayed true to myself."

And even though he admits with a smile that he now visits doctors for a "little more than getting my temperature checked", he says he has stayed away from any aesthetic surgical procedures.

"I'm open to doing some non- invasive treatments such as Thermage for a little skin tightening once in a while, but that's about it. I've let my hair go grey because I'm not on a mission to look young forever," he says. "To me, youth is much more a state of mind."

One just has to look at the framed mint-condition denim jacket that sits in his study to know that what he says is true.

Covered in colourful patches, it was a purchase he made in Carnaby Street in London on his first visit to the city as a 14-year-old.

Now, he has a grown-up version, a similar Levi's denim jacket covered in a rainbow array of ironed-on patches and badges that he has collected from all over the world. It is a sentimental homage to his younger self.

"Don't get me wrong, I believe very much in ageing gracefully," he says when asked how his style will evolve in the future.

"But what I think won't ever change is that I will always be young at heart. That's something my style will always celebrate, no matter my age."

• This story first appeared in the January 2016 issue of The Life digital magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2016, with the headline 'Man with many looks'. Print Edition | Subscribe