Drama outfits rule Best Costume Design nominations at M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards

The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers.

The nominees for Best Costume Design clothed an emperor, transformed the cheongsam and made 100 years of outfits

Big describes this year's contenders for Best Costume Design in the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

All five nominations have gone to designers of epic productions, from Moe Kasim for the swashbuckling Chinese martial arts play, Legends Of The Southern Arch by The Theatre Practice; to Thai designer outfit Tube Gallery for its work on the Wild Rice pantomime, The Emperor's New Clothes.

The husband-and-wife designer duo of Reckless Ericka debut in the category for their work on Ong Keng Sen's sprawling, transnational production, The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers at last year's Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), while designer Theresa Chan earns her first nod for another Sifa epic, Wild Rice's Hotel.

Rounding off the race is veteran fashion designer Yang Derong, whose exquisite cheongsams were the sartorial centrepieces in a restaging of home-grown musical Beauty World last year.

The award, among others, will be given out on April 25 at an invitation-only event at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

Reckless Ericka.


Nominated for: The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers by Singapore International Festival of Arts

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None

For their first foray into costume design, husbandand-wife duo Louis Koh, 33, and Afton Chen, 29, who run Singapore fashion brand Reckless Ericka, had to design 148 costumes in three months for Ong Keng Sen's show, The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers.

Their challenge: to capture the evolution of the looks of 22 border crossers of varying nationalities and ethnicities across different times.

Chen interviewed the performers about their ancestry and lives, drafting sketches for each based on their past, present and future.

"We've been doing retail fashion all along, but for this, we had to tailor everything to each performer to make sure they could move and dance in it. We had to make the costumes fit and be comfortable, as the play is about five hours long, and taking into account the weather in Paris," she explains.

Chen and Koh then travelled with the costumes to Paris for the production's debut at Singapour en France - Le Festival at the Palais de Tokyo. They stayed there, helping with rehearsals and working on wardrobe changes up to the last minute.

Chen says: "We had a lot of fun doing the show, experimenting with design. The best thing was seeing the different cultures melding together so nicely."

Phisit Jongnarangsin (left) and Saksit Pisalasupongs (right).


Nominated for: The Emperor's New Clothes by Wild Rice

Previous nominations: Maha Moggallana (Toy Factory, 2011)

Previous wins: 881 (Toy Factory, 2012)

Fairytale meets Lady Gaga was the brief given to Thai designers Phisit Jongnarangsin (right), 44, and Saksit Pisalasupongs (far right), 41, better known as Tube Gallery, for The Emperor's New Clothes by its director Pam Oei.

"It was supposed to be fun and insane. I think we followed that brief quite precisely," the duo say in an e-mail interview.

Their work earned praise from Life theatre reviewer Akshita Nanda, who said that the "surreal costumes would delight even the most fevered fashionista with a frenzy of frills, frou-frou, tutus, neck-ruffs and even space-boots, Roman breastplates and spangled gold-and-green baju Melayu".

The Emperor’s New Clothes.

The play was not set in any specific era, so they had to "mix and match fairytale designs with an avant-garde touch and a dash of pantomime look", the designers say.

"There is no specific time and space. It could look like Singapore, but it's not. It's not the traditional way of costume design we're used to," they add.

Another challenge was designing the vain emperor's unflattering outfits.

"The hard bit was to design his costumes to look bad, but not to the degree that people might think we have bad taste," they say.

The pair instantly related to the play as it is about two tailors who rescue people from a crazed ruler with their skills and wit.

"We knew we could never do something like dress our emperor in 'naked clothes', but we know one can change the world with the power of design and strong will."

Moe Kasim.


Nominated for: Legends Of The Southern Arch by The Theatre Practice

Previous nominations: Dangerous Liaisons ( Toy Factory, 2006), The Enchantment Of Sangkuriang (SimplyWorks, 2009), Beauty World (Wild Rice, 2009), The Last Temptation Of Stamford Raffles (Wild Rice, 2009), Snow White And The Seven Dwarves (Wild Rice, 2009), Beauty And The Beast (Wild Rice, 2010), Victor/Victoria (Zebra Crossing Productions, 2010), Aladdin (Wild Rice, 2012)

Previous wins: Oi! Sleeping Beauty! (Wild Rice, 2006), Titoudao (Toy Factory, 2008), Liao Zhai Rocks! (The Theatre Practice, 2011)

Moe Kasim is tickled pink by how he has won twice in this category for Chinese productions and is nominated again for the Chinese martial arts play Legends Of The Southern Arch by The Theatre Practice.

Legends Of The Southern Arch.

"I've learnt a lot about wuxia, Chinese opera and the different themes through working on these plays," he says.

The cultural barrier meant he had to sit down with the play's director, Kuo Jian Hong, to thoroughly discuss how to develop the characters through costumes.

"We opted for a fusion look that borrowed influences from Japan, Mongolia and China. We also chose a sombre and darker colour palette, which I'm not used to as I love working with bright colours, so that was another challenge," he adds.

For the villains in the show, the costume designer, who is single, even drew on looks in the Star Wars films for inspiration.

The veteran, 45, with close to 25 years of experience working on events ranging from the National Day Parade (2007) to the Asean Para Games last year, says his secret to success is "having knowledge and sincerity. Your work must come from the heart".

Yang Derong.


Nominated for: Beauty World by Singapore Street Festival

Previous nominations: Hotpants (Annie Pek, 2015)

Previous wins: Special mention for Forbidden City (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2003)

In the hands of designer Yang Derong, the Chinese cheongsam, a restrained traditional dress, transformed into an elegant yet pliable outfit in Beauty World.

"The cheongsamis fragile as it pulls and rips easily, so we had to make allowances for the actresses to kick and dance. But we retained the look of it as much as we could," says the designer, 50, who has been nominated twice before in this category.

He rendered the dress in darker shades to go with the grittier look that director Dick Lee and playwright Michael Chiang were looking for.

Beauty World.

He also used specific colours, textures and fabrics to define each character: a shiny, luxurious look for Jeanette Aw's cabaret hostess Lulu, polka dots for Frances Lee's Rosemary Joseph, and shades of black, white and silver for Janice Koh's mamasan.

He estimates that there were more than 100 costume changes in the show.

"I love theatre," says Yang, who is single. "It's one of the few places in the world where everything is handmade, like couture. The dress has to fit the production, the movement, the lights... The beauty of costume is that it is transformative, it helps you get in character."

Theresa Chan.


Nominated for: Hotel by Wild Rice

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None

For her work on Hotel, a production which spans a century of Singapore's history, costume designer Theresa Chan got onto the Internet.

"The director wanted a natural look, so we had to be authentic and portray that era. I spent hours on the Internet looking up anything I could get my hands on to find out what outfits people wore then," she recalls.

She compiled a set of notes titled History Of Costumes and devised different looks for each decade.

One of her biggest challenges was actress Siti Khalijah's 1930s outfit as a rich woman, Tengku Mariam.


"I had to do a lot of trial and error and alterations to make the dress fit her voluptuous body and to emphasise the right places," Chan, 30, says.

She estimates that the production required more than 200 costumes, about half of which were made overseas.

Some of these were remade after her suitcase containing the outfits went missing while she was returning to Singapore from Bangkok, where she had them made. It was a "heart attack moment" for Chan, who is single.

With the production being restaged at this year's Singapore Theatre Festival, she looks forward to refining her own work.

She adds with a chuckle: "There're a lot of things I want to improve. Also, I need to watch the show this time. I didn't get to see it the first time because I was so busy working on it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Dressed to impress'. Print Edition | Subscribe