Fashion can frequently be seen as a tight-knit, exclusive club that can be challenging for newcomers to enter or find success. Or so School of Fashion lecturer Nadya Wang thought. After working as a secondary school teacher for many years, her long-dormant passion for fashion led her to pursue an MA in History of Arts programme specialising in History of Fashion at The Courtauld Institute of Art.
Now a well-known name in the industry, Nadya teaches cultural and contextual studies in fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts and was recently featured by Harper’s BAZAAR in their Fashioning the Future series, which spotlighted women who are shaping the fashion landscape in Singapore. She also hosts the fashion podcast In the Vitrine with fellow lecturer Daniela Monasterios Tan which explores a broad range of topics – from fashion after COVID-19 lockdowns to the use of plastic in fashion. On top of all that, Nadya is pursuing her PhD at Courtauld with the support of LASALLE’s Academic Qualification Funding scheme.
We check in with Nadya to find out more about the Singaporean fashion identity, the increasing sophistication in self-branding for artists and fashion upstarts alike as well as the mounting pressures on fashion to be woke.
Why were you interested in fashion?
My interest in fashion was initially very superficial: I enjoyed viewing, buying and wearing beautiful things. But as I started to research and read a bit more, I realised that it's so much more – fashion tells us about our society, it tells us about our individual selves and there's a lot more to it than meets the eye. Eventually I became interested in writing about Singapore fashion because there's not much research about fashion in Southeast Asia. I try my best to bring my students along on that journey, by lecturing about these issues and encouraging them to research similar areas.
What are your areas of research?
Recently, I was at a conference in Melbourne where I talked about how Singaporean fashion designers are trying their best to create an identity for local fashion. This includes being conscious of local elements they can use as well as global trends they need to follow. How do they hybridise all these things to create something coherent that appeals not only to the Singapore woman but also to a larger market? My PhD research is about Singapore fashion in the 1970s and 80s: what happened, who did what, where did they go, who was involved and that's been fun to figure out.
Courtauld is more known for being a fine arts institution. What was the approach to fashion at Courtauld and how has that influenced your approach towards fashion?
At Courtauld, what they privilege is visual analysis above all else, which is very much in line with a history of art kind of training. From that perspective, when I examine fashion, I look at images and try to pick up on things that might be lost. Contrary to what is oft-repeated in the media, that ‘there is no Singaporean fashion identity’, what I'm doing right now for my PhD dissertation is to look at images thatSingaporean fashion designers have created and try to pick out elements that people might have missed. This could mean highlighting things that are indigenous to Singapore or the region, and highlighting where creativity was at play, so that we haven't and aren't merely being copycats.
This discourse is encouraging for my students, as they can see what designers have done previously, that they didn’t just copy and paste foreign trends. Our students can try to do the same by looking at what's in their cultures. The more I learn, the more I think the local fashion scene is much more sophisticated than what people give the industry credit for.
What motivated you two to start a fashion podcast?
In the past, Daniela and I would always find ourselves chatting about wide-ranging topics about fashion, and we thought it made sense to record our conversations. At that time, we had this lofty ideal that our students would be eager listeners of our podcast. Some of my former students have told me that they miss sitting in on lectures. This has been a way for them to continue keeping in touch with us, and with what's going on in both the fashion industry and in academia.
Of course, we also hope that it will add to the discourse about fashion in the region. There are numerous fashion podcasts out there, but because they are rather Western-centric, we thought it would be good to offer a new perspective.
What has been your favorite topic so far?
The ‘Plastic Fantastic? The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ episode which is the favourite of many of our listeners. I think it's because we were passionate about it. It started from my love for plastic shoes from a Singapore brand called Riccino. They've been around since the 1970s and so we talked about that and the challenges of wearing plastic. While it’s not very sustainable to wear plastic, how do we reconcile that with wearing polyester, which is a form of plastic? Polyester is actually not great for the weather here, especially if you perspire a lot. It resonated with our listeners.
Something great that came out of that podcast was when a friend who works at the National Archives told me that they had been planning to have someone interview Gino Singh who owns Riccino. So I took on the interview with Gino which was fantastic because I have admired this fashion pioneer for so long.
Another episode that I really liked was the one on bags. There are many unexpected trends when it comes to bags. For example, people have carried the IKEA bag in ironic ways, or there are those who carry tiny bags that don't quite serve a function, so it seems like anything goes! I think some episodes are more academic than others and this one hit that sweet spot where we looked at popular culture with an academic lens.
What's your current obsession or interest in fashion?
I have long been interested in the intersection between fashion and art. Aside from teaching and doing the podcast, I am the founder and editor of Art & Market where I feature contemporary art in Southeast Asia. RIght now, I am particularly invested in the rise of Singapore artists and fashion designers – how people are really savvy these days at marketing not just products but also themselves. So that's been something on my radar – self-branding, self-marketing and what people have dared to put out there, including LASALLE students!
Fashion is seen as a luxury item, even as it is trying to respond to contemporary issues like climate change and sustainability. What do you make of the mounting pressures on fashion?
It's tough because people are trying to be conscientious. We want to be sustainable, or we want to be vegan, but it's not easy. If we buy vegan, we are really buying synthetic or plastic material which is not sustainable. Also, when we say we want to democratise fashion, what can young people like our students realistically afford other than fast fashion? It's a strange time for the industry.
So our students have to consider these shifts in the industry when they think about starting their own fashion business: how can they be globally relevant – like being sustainable and adhering to ethical labour practices – while also being culturally relevant, to distinguish themselves from readily available mass-market fashion? It’s not easy. But at LASALLE, we try our best to equip students with the knowledge, skill sets, opportunities and confidence to launch their careers in this fast-changing industry. I’m positive we’ll find a way together.