IG It Girl Mae Tan: 'I love fashion but I also know how much waste there is'

Mae Tan leans towards a rawer aesthetic. PHOTO: HARPER'S BAZAAR SINGAPORE

This article first appeared in Harper's Bazaar Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to www.harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The December 2020 issue is out on newsstands now.

In a sea of beautiful, stylish Instagram It girls, Mae Tan (@marxmae) stands out for the realness she brings to the table.

A cursory glance at her social media reveals an aesthetic that is a far cry from the perfectly lit, artfully (if artificially) posed perfection that saturates people's feeds.

Instead, Tan, who has 113,000 followers on Instagram, leans towards a rawer aesthetic, amplified by her penchant for tomboyish pieces, vintage gear, cult streetwear brands and indie designers on the rise - a reflection of the curatorial eye she honed in her previous role as creative manager for multi-label boutique Surrender.

That rawness seeps into conversations as well. Tan, who is 25 and works as a creative consultant, is candid, unfiltered and unvarnished - traits familiar to those who binged on last year's hit Netflix reality show Singapore Social, in which she was a central cast member.

When I meet her, fresh from the Bazaar shoot, she had just changed into a black, oversized Prada Re-Nylon shirt and matching boxer-like shorts. "Now I feel like myself again," she says, laughing as she settles into a cross-legged position.

We are at her family home, a 31/2-storey Peter Tay-designed gem nestled in the quiet, leafy enclave of Bukit Timah. The sleek, supersized Modernist monument is exactly what one would expect the residence of one of Singapore's most prominent retail families - her father Dave Tan brings in Swiss luxury watch brand Richard Mille, Milan-based fashion label Off-White and French perfume brand Henry Jacques - to be.

But within that, Mae Tan has carved out an idiosyncratic space all her own. Her generously sized personal quarters on the first floor have been split into three distinct spaces.

"I wanted the bedroom to be a calm space where I can chill, so the palette is muted and relaxed. I wanted to have plants and that's also where my candles and books are. After a long day, I just sit on the bed and, immediately, I feel calm," she says.

Her favourite space, though, is the lounge at the other end. "It's where I spend the most time. My friends and I hang out there, watching Netflix or listening to music."

That space is grounded by a bright red Fornasetti rug featuring a polka-dotted feline.

"My dad bought all of us rugs when we moved in last year. Initially, I wanted this space to be mellow as well, but because this became the centrepiece, I worked everything else around it," she says.

As a result, bright colours spill over onto the walls, with every surface covered by prints, photographs and paintings.

A Takashi Murakami painting - "the first piece of art I ever bought" - takes pride of place, alongside posters bought on her travels, prints from fashion brands, paintings made by friends, framed scarves and handkerchiefs, a skate deck, a vintage Karl Lagerfeld photo and a wall hanging from a Virgil Abloh x Ikea collection.

A refurbished desk from Second Charm paired with a Pierre Jeanneret-inspired chair make up her work space.

Mae Tan's major preoccupation when it comes to fashion lies more in high-impact details. PHOTO: HARPER'S BAZAAR SINGAPORE

In between the bedroom and the lounge is Tan's massive walk-in wardrobe, anchored around a huge central island on which a DJ console sits.

"I didn't plan to put that there," she says, "but somehow, everyone loves it in there, so now, when I have friends over, we just party in the wardrobe, which is crazy."

The fact she has enough space in the wardrobe to throw parties is, admittedly, a little whack. "Everybody was asking why I needed so much space for the wardrobe, but with my styling work, and especially during fashion weeks, we're pulling things in and out so much that I need as much floor space as possible," she says.

The wardrobe is filled to the brim, but Tan confesses she has been trying to be more conscious of her consumption. "I love fashion a lot, but at the same time, I've also been in the industry for so long that I understand how much waste goes into it," she says.

"Last year, I went through a sort of crisis because I was torn between my morals and what I loved doing. Then I realised it didn't have to be one or the other. It's about finding a balance.

"So now, I no longer buy fast fashion. I buy more vintage or if I buy designer pieces, I ask myself, 'Will this item hold its value? Will I love it just as much after 20 years?'"

The designers she loves have proven their longevity and value far beyond 20 years. "I love Vivienne Westwood and Prada because their clothes make me feel strong, confident," she says.

"For Westwood, even though the clothes are quite bohemian, she always finds a way to structure them that creates this nice fit and strong silhouette.

"With Prada, I'm drawn to the workwear and the simpler stuff. Prada's women are strong women. I love that she always plays with the idea of femininity and juxtapositions. She might add an element of sexiness. Her sexy is different."

Asked if sexiness is something she strives for when dressing up, she says: "Naturally, I'm more of a tomboyish character, so for my day-to-day outfits, I like big fits and men's clothing. But sometimes, I do want something that shows my figure or a sense of sexiness. Even then, it's still all about juxtaposition for me, so it'll probably be a men's shirt over a tight little cropped top and oversized trousers."

Her major preoccupation when it comes to fashion lies more in high-impact details.

"Everything else can be super subtle, but I like to have one item - like a bag, shoe or a vintage jacket - that is a conversation-starter piece."

When it comes to vintage, she is spoilt for choice - her mother, Ms Janet Toh, 56, has an extensive collection.

"I'm so happy I can take all her vintage stuff. I've stolen her belts, bags - everything, really. Her first Chanel bag is with me, as well as her first Louis Vuitton Keepall," she says with a laugh.

Ms Toh chimes in: "From a young age, I was interested in fashion. Every trend you can think of, I've pretty much tried it. Disco with the gogo trousers? I did that. And a lot of the things that are now in fashion are things from my time making a comeback. So I guess, in a way, her fashion sense came from me?"

It seems Tan's sartorial boldness, too, was in some ways shaped by her mother.

"When I don't know if something works, she's the one I go to and ask, 'Do I look too crazy?'" says Tan. "And she'll usually tell me, 'You just do you. If you think you look good in it and you feel good in it, then just wear it.'"

Ms Toh adds: "I'm open-minded about a lot of things. I don't stop Mae from doing anything because I feel you have to let your children learn and discover on their own."

The learning and the fashion influence certainly go both ways.

Ms Toh says: "A lot of the things she likes are things I'd also like. And sometimes, she also likes the things I buy."

Tan adds: "Like right now, she's buying more Prada, which I love. I think we meet somewhere in the middle."

That give-and-take is evident in the way they approached the decor of the family home as well.

If she had her way, Tan would have kept the outdoor area as wild, leafy and grassy as possible, interjecting it with modern, even avant-garde, art and sculptures. Her parents, however, have a predilection for traditional Asian artwork and a polished, classical aesthetic.

"At the end of the day, it's a family home," Tan says. "Even though I was super meticulous during the design process, I recognise it's a joint effort and if someone else isn't happy, I can't just impose my wants on him or her."

The spaces the family built together have brought them closer, especially during the circuit breaker period, says Tan, "when we spent so much time together, which was quite rare".

"The place we spent the most time as a family was the dining area, as we made an effort to eat together. My brother and I also spent a lot of time doing jigsaw puzzles together in the living room - which was designed to be a social space, with no TV, because we wanted it to be a place for people to gather and have conversations."

It is this precise combination of heart and high style that makes Tan one of the most exciting style-setters of a new generation.

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