Features

In conversation with: Felicia Toh on curating #SGFASHIONNOW exhibition

SGFashionNow hero image

What started out as a competition, pitching our curatorial ideas for #SGFASHIONNOW organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) to a diverse panel of judges representing the fashion industry, turned into a huge opportunity that we would never have expected – a highly talked-about exhibition amongst Singapore’s fashion media and practitioners. 

#SGFASHIONNOW was conceived as ACM’s first display on local contemporary fashion. As such, the design brief given to us BA(Hons) Fashion Media & Industries students at LASALLE sought to encourage new ways of thinking about Singapore fashion today, especially in the larger context of Asian fashion. Exhibiting a total of eight selected designers who either practice in Singapore or are Singaporeans based abroad with a distinctive style, #SGFASHIONNOW explores designs and approaches that reflect today's Singapore fashion and Asian heritage. 

When we think about fashion and what defines our local identity in multicultural Singapore, the first line of thought is whether we have a national attire or a particular look that represents the country. In search of an answer, my team turned our attention to a tangible aspect of fashion — the craft of making clothes. We see craft as a crucial trait in today’s fast-paced and globalised world where artisans' craftsmanship is increasingly being overshadowed by fast fashion. Additionally, the significance of craft in shaping fashion designs, silhouettes, and wearers' identities concurrently align with a core theme at ACM. Hence, we hope to utilise this platform to shine a light on the highly valuable and diverse modes of craftsmanship practiced by Singapore fashion designers, running the gamut from tailoring and embroidery to laser-cutting and 3-D printing. 

Through conversations with designers, we dove into their processes and memories to discover what informs their practices. Some prompting questions when deciding on designers to feature included, “does this active label (based in Singapore or Singaporean abroad) have a distinctive and original style?”, “who wear(s)/wore the label/piece, when and why?”, and “does the piece reflect a significant moment in time?”.

Style Mart
Stylemart by Kavita Thulasidas.

Among the list of eight exhibiting works, four designers were pre-selected by the team at ACM. The challenge we faced while shortlisting the other four designers was the consistently common trait of the traditional cheongsam element across most of the designers. Given the unique multicultural aspect of Singapore, we felt the need to showcase the diversity of culture prevalent in our community yet fulfill the requirement of featuring craftsmanship as a key factor in their line of work. After deep research, we came across the designer Kavita Thulasidas. She is the owner and designer of Stylemart, started in the 1950s as a tailoring business for officers during the British colonial era. Stylemart is now a fashion business that has passed down three generations and have become predominantly known for their Indian-fusion-wear that offers customisation. We were strongly inclined to feature her work at the exhibition as it presents the passing down of craft through generations and the intricacy of the handicraft in every garment produced. 

Baëlf
Baëlf by Jamela Law and Lionel Wong

Another designer whose work instantly caught our attention was Baëlf, founded in 2016 by fashion artist Jamela Law and industrial designer Lionel Wong. Baëlf Design specialises in novel manufacturing technologies such as 3-D printing and laser-cutting. The label works with machine and artificial intelligence to create fashion artworks that challenge the norm and experiment with possibilities. We admire the designers' thought-provoking design inspiration and craftsmanship in challenging the norm of producing garments through traditional craft techniques such as embroidery and beading. Baëlf has undoubtedly introduced us to the possibilities of technology, in this context 3D printing as a technique in producing garments. As we ease ourselves into the digital age, the presentation of our selected piece from Baëlf is a perfect embodiment of the endless possibilities of what SG fashion entails now and in the future. Living in a fast-paced and ever-changing world, it is undeniable that craft will constantly evolve with newer creations replacing the old. Thus, #SGFASHIONNOW hopes to present a series of works that not only showcase the intersection of traditional and contemporary craft practised by our local designers today, but also to create a space for visitors to anticipate future works that defy traditional craft techniques in creating unexpected yet extravagant pieces.

Photo courtesy of ACM
Photo courtesy of ACM

After the selection of our four designers, we proceeded with liaising and conducting interviews with all eight designers with an objective to better understand their design practice. This is crucial for us to best convey their brand stories and inspiration at the exhibition for our visitors. We had the opportunity to visit their ateliers and observe the artisans at work, which was an eye-opening experience for us as student curators. Conversing with the designers has also allowed us to have a clearer perspective of the rich cultural representation of Singapore fashion and the promising future that lies ahead for our local fashion scene. Their stories have been well-captured and presented in the e-publication www.sgfashionnow.com, which is an extension of the physical exhibition to allow visitors to dive deeper into the designers’ exclusive workspace beyond the exhibits available onsite. 

Proposal


As student curators, we were also actively involved in proposing the spatial concept of the exhibition space. In an attempt to present the design inspiration of the garment visually, we suggested incorporating tiles within the vitrines. Through our research and understanding of the unique craft employed for each piece of garment during the interviews, we decided to have individual vitrines to present the works of each designer. The choice of sleek black metal vitrines further express the contemporary aspect of the exhibition we hope to convey while inviting intimacy among the visitors through the open glass display. 

Image courtesy of ACM
Photo courtesy of ACM

Fast forward to the exhibition set-up at the museum earlier last month: we were very fortunate to be invited to go behind the scenes, entering into the restricted areas of the museum where preparation works are conducted to witness how an exhibition is put together, from the careful handling of the garments to the setting up of the space by the onsite team. It has been an insightful and valuable experience to take on our very first curatorial work on an industry level guided by the professionals at a prestigious museum, and we could not be more grateful for this rare opportunity. As we observed our proposal coming to life, we all felt a huge sense of achievement.We would like to sincerely express our appreciation for the teaching team at LASALLE and the team at ACM who have made this collaboration possible.

Story reproduced and courtesy of Men’s Folio. Access the original here.