Fashion Most Wanted celebrates Singapore’s style icons and fashion history

Former fashion journalists chart the growth of Singapore from a kampung into a fashionable city in a new book

Former fashion journalists (from left) Cat Ong, John de Souza and Tom Rao are behind Fashion Most Wanted.
Former fashion journalists (from left) Cat Ong, John de Souza and Tom Rao are behind Fashion Most Wanted. ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Singapore might not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about fashion capitals of the world, but through its 51-year history, the small nation has developed its own style identity.

From embracing the mod dresses and high boots of London in the 1970s to the glamour of Singapore supermodels in the 1980s and the rise and fall of masstige in the noughties, Singapore's fashion scene is more than what you see on Orchard Road.

To encapsulate and chronicle the nation's fashion landscape of the past five decades, three former Singapore fashion journalists - Tom Rao, Cat Ong and John de Souza, who have more than 80 years of experience between them - have put together Fashion Most Wanted.

The book, supported by the National Heritage Board and published by Straits Times Press, is "both an analytical and an anecdotal testimony of what we wore and how Singapore evolved from a traditional kampung into a fashionable global city", according to a press release.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Ong, 59, a former fashion correspondent with The Straits Times, says the book holds insights and surprises for all.

The book chronicles Singapore fashion over 50 years and includes photos of top home-grown model Hanis Saini in the 1990s (above). PHOTOS: STRAITS TIMES PRESS

She adds that the three authors had "so many 'ah ha!' moments" as they were producing the book.

"It was hugely informative of the Singaporean identity. It was a lot of learning for us too. And if we were surprised, what more the casual fashion-loving shopper."

The 160-page book is not just a historical text. The authors spent 15 months interviewing 80 people - from models to major fashion retailers to entrepreneurs - to document Singapore's fashion identity as described by the people who lived and built it.

The book contains narratives of each era, with insights gleaned from interviews with big names such as Singapore-born fashion mogul and designer Farah Khan, veteran Singapore fashion designer Thomas Wee, composer Dick Lee and former top model Ethel Fong.

It also has more intimate questions and answers with fashion movers and shakers such as Singaporean designer Benny Ong, Singapore-born designer Andrew Gn and Singaporean fashion retailer Tina Tan-Leo.

• Fashion Most Wanted retails at $35 (excluding GST) and is available at Books Kinokuniya.

Each decade in the book also includes a first-person account by a leading fashion and lifestyle journalist of that era.

For instance, former Her World fashion and beauty writer Cynthia Wee-Hoefer looks back at the 1970s, when the upgrading of Singapore's business district meant that office workers also elevated their ready-to-wear ensembles, and Singapore creative minds who studied abroad came home to share their knowledge and skills.

In her first-person narrative, she recalls how Lee studied fashion in London and returned to spearhead his now-defunct boutique Ping Pong. Similarly, hairstylist Alan Soh took a course in London and came back to open the Alan Simon salon at Lucky Plaza with English songwriter and record producer Simon Napier Bell.

The Sunday Times' fashion journalist in the 1980s, Lim Phay-Ling, writes about working with models and designers before they became famous. She recalls top home- grown model Hanis Saini being a shy, leggy 16-year-old at her first shoot for The Sunday Times. The model went on to work for labels such as Yves Saint Laurent, Balmain, Givenchy and Dior.

De Souza, 62, a former fashion and lifestyle journalist at The Sunday Times and former fashion and beauty editor at Her World, says the book is something he has been thinking about for years, but that Rao was the one who made the push to get the book done.

Ong says: "This book has been percolating for a long time. Whenever anyone from our era met, we would say that it would be great if we could remember more things and chronicle it. Tom's resolve and focus took us off the bandwagon to get this to the end of the line."

Rao, 65, a former associate fashion editor with Her World who now teaches fashion communication at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, says: "I thought it would be wonderful to leave a legacy, write a book and use it as a textbook reference for fashion students."

But the trio agree that the book is not just for those studying fashion.

Fashion students will find in the book Singapore's fashion history of the last 50 years. For fashion entrepreneurs, the book documents what has been done in the past, how the game was played and what they can do differently. And for those who are not into fashion, they can discover a side of Singapore they might not have known.

Rao says: "Different readers will take away different things. You can be 14, 24 or 64, you'll still come out with something."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore style over 50 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe