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Singapore Fashion Week

Meet top Asian designers Naeem Khan, Guo Pei and Han Chong

A record 22 shows took place at the cosy setting of the National Gallery Singapore to full-house crowds. Melissa Heng & Alyssa Woo report

The recent Singapore Fashion Week 2016 hosted a smaller audience compared with previous years, but delivered a bigger bang.

Held at the National Gallery Singapore last week, it attracted a full house each day, hosting about 6,000 guests in total over five days. Last year's event, held in a tent at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza, saw about 12,500 people.

The drop, says organiser Mercury M&C, was due to a smaller seating capacity.

Ticket prices were raised to help cover part of the cost of running the event - an estimated $1.6 million, including the amount raised from sponsors and government funding.

Big-name shows last year by designers such as Dion Lee from Australia and Briton Victoria Beckham, commanded $120 to $180 a ticket, while all other shows cost $65.

 

This year, tickets to the three headline shows cost $180 each. The ALT x Lasalle show, a collaboration between home-grown accessories label ALT and graduates of Lasalle BA (Hons) Fashion Design and Textiles 2016, cost $68. All other shows cost $88 a ticket.

The audience, however, got what they paid for.

The festival was held at an arguably better location this year, offered two stages for the first time, a performance element and a record number of shows - 22, up from 13 shows last year and 17 in 2014.

The main stage was set up at the gallery's Supreme Court Terrace with the Rotunda dome and stunning skylight creating a sophisticated backdrop for the runway.

The second stage, where most of the shows by local designers were held, was at the Auditorium Foyer - a smaller, more casual space that allowed designers to use performance elements in their shows.

In that respect, home-grown womenswear label Stolen stole the show. Models in the brand's signature backless outfits perched on white blocks of differing heights with spotlights trained on them. They were accompanied by dramatic live music from a cellist and xylophonist providing tension to the segment.

Another Singapore brand, Chi Chi Von Tang by Lisa Von Tang, opened with a choreographed acrobatic fight between two martial artists, setting the mood for an anime-inspired collection which featured comic book-style prints on streetwear.

This year's headliners, Beijing- based haute couturier Guo Pei, Indian-American Naeem Khan and London-based Malaysian designer Han Chong, however, were undoubtedly the biggest draws.

Guests at these three shows were decked out in long gowns and Oscar-worthy suits, with numerous social media personalities and Singapore celebrities spotted.

They were treated to the intricate embroidery and feminine pastel shades of Guo's Spring/Summer 2016 collection; Khan's 1940s- styled capes and striking floral embellishments; and Chong's signature lace dresses and military- styled pieces.

The Straits Times catches up with the three big acts.


Naeem Khan can't help using intense colours


India-born Naeem Khan loves combining history with modern concepts in his fashion designs. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

When he was a child making factory visits with his grandfather, designer Naeem Khan would watch in admiration as Indian craftsmen made sequins, hammering away with wooden mallets.

"There would be 50 men banging away and I still remember the noise it created, the 'tick-tock, tock-tick'," recalls the New York-based designer, whose father and grandfather ran textile workshops in Mumbai.

The type of sequin he describes requires craftsmen to curl a thin wire around a nail to form a circle. The wire is then removed from the nail and beaten flat with a mallet to make a sequin - a painstaking process.

Speaking to The Straits Times two days before his show at Singapore Fashion Week 2016 last weekend, the India-born haute couture designer says that he has drawn on the memory for inspiration.

"As a child, I thought that was so cool - how they could hammer the metal into sequins," he says.

This type of sequin was what the 58-year-old designer used to adorn the pale-yellow, strapless, fitted gown worn by United States First Lady Michelle Obama to her first State Dinner in 2009.

Khan, who is married to a jewellery designer, says he loves the idea of combining history with modern concepts.

"The first State Dinner dress was created with a simple strapless form. I used the sequin - which is historical and used to be made in 24K gold or sterling silver for very influential people - and a pattern inspired by Warhol," he says, referring to American artist Andy Warhol.

"So you have a combination of my culture and an American icon on a simple form."

Such juxtaposition can be seen in his creative collections.

His Spring 2016 line features floral designs inspired by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, with bold primary colours and intricate symmetrical patterns; and classic full-skirted silhouettes inspired by Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly.

His Fall 2017 Bridal collection features bohemian cuts with deep necklines, paired with headpieces inspired by Star Wars character Princess Leia.

The father of two says his background plays a big part. Growing up in India, where his grandfather started his embroidery and fabric- making business, meant that Khan was always exposed to a wide variety of textures and colours - typical of Indian culture and clothes.

"I come from a very rich heritage, so how can I not use that as part of my vocabulary. Colour is so important where I come from so I have no inhibition to colour."

His ornate and richly detailed gowns, which span the full spectrum of intense colour, have caught the attention of many.

Besides Mrs Obama, American singers Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez and actresses Penelope Cruz and Emily Blunt have walked the red carpet in Naeem Khan designs.

Khan, who was mentored by legendary American fashion designer Halston in the 1970s and 1980s, started his eponymous label in 2003. Now, his collections sell globally in about 250 stores.

Sales, he says, grew by 10 to 15 per cent this year, despite the weak economy.

"I design luxury. When you are designing for that society, the economy factor is far less relevant," he says.

Sipping on a glass of Yamazaki whiskey on the rocks during the interview, there is little doubt that he, too, knows how to appreciate life.

Certain designers, he says, are driven by conflicting, darker emotions. But he chooses to embrace life and beauty.

"I like good things. I like happiness. If I don't have happiness, that would be a horrible thing. My happiness keeps me creating these beautiful, colourful things," he says.

"To me, if I can enjoy everything that I do, it just provides me with ideas."


Peranakan culture inspires Guo Pei


Haute couture designer Guo Pei is known for pairing traditional Chinese motifs and embroidery with Western silhouettes such as A-line skirts and ball gowns. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Several of haute couture designer Guo Pei's creations may have been inspired by Singapore. The renowned Chinese fashion designer is particularly fond of Peranakan culture and is a fan of the The Peranakan Museum in Armenian Street, which she has visited many times.

"I make it a point to go there every time I'm here," says Guo, who showed for the fourth time here at Singapore Fashion Week 2016.

Speaking to The Straits Times last week, the 49-year-old says through a translator that she likes Peranakan culture for the "pureness of Chinese history in it".

"The original designs of the Hokkien Chinese can be seen in the designs of the clothes," she says. "Unfortunately, not much of it has been maintained or passed down in China due to the Cultural Revolution.

"Some of my designs are partly inspired by the Singapore culture, for example, the design of Chinese wedding gowns."

Indeed, many of her creations bear a strong resemblance to Peranakan apparel, known for the use of labour-intensive and elaborate beading and needlework designs.

Pieces in Guo's Spring/Summer 2013 couture collection, for instance, are similar to the kua, the traditional Chinese wedding gown, with floral and fauna embroidery and flashes of bright greens and pinks - colours and details typically seen in Peranakan design.

It is such local flavours that Guo, a mother of two, thinks Singapore designers should infuse into their creations. Singapore-made labels, she says, now have a more international style and designers seem to lack a "global outlook", merely content with appealing to the South-east Asian market.

The articulate designer, born to a high-ranking civil servant father and teacher mother, believes that "strong cultural flavour" is what gives her an edge.

Her designs are often worn by high-flying women entrepreneurs and, more famously, Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi and Li Bingbing, as well as American pop singer Rihanna.

Guo is known for pairing traditional Chinese motifs, such as dragons and phoenixes, and elaborate embroidery with Western silhouettes such as A-line skirts and ball gowns.

But the fashion design graduate also credits her fame to the world's attention on China in recent years.

At one of her shows in Paris recently, 800 guests turned up even though she is quite new to the fashion scene there. Her Paris agency had planned for only 300 people.

"People are paying attention to the different aspects of the country such as China's culture and the arts. This is the reality now," says Guo, who is one of the first Chinese designers to be granted the haute couture designer label.

There are strict criteria for haute couture. One must have a Paris- based atelier employing at least 20 full-time staff and show two collections a year, each with 50 looks.

Apart from her haute couture business, Guo also runs a bespoke clothing business, Rose Studio, which she started in 1997.

The world, she says, is ready for haute couture, custom-made clothing of the finest fabrics and sewing techniques. She pointed to an opulent gold Magnificent Gold gown which she completed in 2005 after 50,000 hours of work.

"At that time in China, no one understood what I was doing and people thought I was crazy," she says, adding that making the dress was challenging.

"I had to put aside my thoughts, stop worrying about whether it would sell and just express myself."

Last year, that same dress, which was initially disregarded by the designer's critics, attracted more than 800,000 visitors at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, China: Through The Looking Glass.

Guo, who is on Time magazine's The 100 Most Influential People list this year, has laid the foundation for the next 30 years.

She wants to build a museum or set up a school to mentor the younger generations. She says: "I want to pursue my dream in education. I'd like to be able to influence other people's thinking and share my experiences with the young."


Self-Portrait designer unfazed by copycats


Han Chong is known for designing high-quality dresses with his signature lace and hand-cut embroidery. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Malaysian designer Han Chong last set foot in Singapore 20 years ago.

He returned last week for his first show in Asia, with Singapore Fashion Week 2016 as his platform of choice.

Speaking to The Straits Times before the event, the affable London-based founder, who was born in Penang, says: "I'm excited. I've never shown in Asia even though I have a huge following in Asia, including Singapore. I want to interact and meet my customers and understand the culture."

Singapore, Hong Kong and China are the top three best-performing markets for his womenswear brand Self-Portrait.

Although the 37-year-old bachelor declines to reveal revenue figures, the 350 points of sale worldwide that carry his three-year-old brand - including multilabel luxury retailer Club 21 and Et-i-kit boutique at Mandarin Gallery here - are testament to his success.

His dresses, known for their signature lace and hand-cut embroidery, have also been worn by celebrities such as American singer Beyonce and actress Kristen Stewart.

Chong's success is hard-earned.

The eldest of three children of parents who run a bak kwa business worked at various fashion design firms after graduating from London's Central Saint Martins college, known for its design courses. The fast-paced environment taught him "how to react to things quickly".

Recalls Chong, who has a team of 15 staff based in London: "I thought, how hard can this be? Many people make it at a very young age.

"But when I started, there were so many things I didn't know. But if you're really passionate about it, you'll find a way to do it - you ask people or you learn."

The turning point came when famed London department store Selfridges ordered his brand's second collection in 2014, which promptly sold out in a week.

Other luxury retailers such as Net-a-Porter.com and Matches fashion.com soon came calling.

But still, the designer is learning.

He learnt, for instance, that it was important to design for the customer and to constantly innovate.

He says he thinks about the Asian woman's body frame and her lifestyle when he designs his pieces.

As for innovation, he and his team developed a new technique - where suede fabric is embroidered and laser-cut to look like lace - which he used in his latest Spring 2017 collection.

"We're always thinking of how to make our signature lace fresh and new. We just want to test things every season to give it excitement," he says.

His success has also led to the inevitable: copycats.

Several fast-fashion brands have designed dresses almost identical to Self-Portrait's signature lace Azaelea dress, among others.

But shrugging this off, he quips, drawing reference to a luxe French brand: "There will (always) be copycats - they can copy Chanel or they can copy me."

But success, he says, ultimately boils down to business strategy, including factors such as quality, production methods and profit margins.

Chong, for instance, is known for pushing out high-quality products at relatively affordable prices.

His design aesthetic has been compared with that of luxury labels with much heftier price tags. Prices for his Spring 2017 range from $360 for a top to $760 for a dress.

"At the end of the day, it's all about the business strategy. If you're not too greedy and if your margin is not sky-high, then it is achievable," he says.

•For videos from Singapore Fashion Week, go to www.straitstimes.com/ lifestyle

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2016, with the headline 'Fashion puts on a stunning show'. Print Edition | Subscribe