Singapore’s New Custodian of Southeast Asian Fashion Heritage

Select works by local fashion graduates.

Singapore lacks a fashion museum. While it is not an imperative for every metropolitan city to have one, the Lion City has been trying to position itself as a serious fashion hub for Southeast Asia for decades now. A steady slew of fashion weeks like the previously Audi-backed Singapore Fashion Week, Digital Fashion Week, and Fidé Fashion Week just to name a few, fashion-focused reality television series ranging from fashion model searches to design competitions, legitimising “Fashion” as a degree in higher education fine art institutes and even a dedicated Singapore Fashion Council are amongst many of the pushes for the local fashion scene.

To be fair, fashion-skewed exhibitions aren’t uncommon for the city. Aside from brand-specific exhibits by fashion giants like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès, there have been numerous international fashion designer retrospectives as well as culture-related highlights. The latter is often a responsibility undertaken by the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). But for the past couple of years, the museum has been ramping up on a meatier fashion programme.

Works from #SGFASHIONNOW by students from La Salle College of The Arts with the assistance of ACM mentors.

It started off with 2019’s blockbuster Guo Pei: Chinese Art & Couture, a study of Chinese couturier Guo Pei’s creations — including the infamous Rihanna gown from the 2015 Met Gala— and their cultural references. After a pandemic-break, the ACM debuted #SGFASHIONNOW in collaboration with La Salle College of the Arts in 2021, followed by a second edition a year later. In the same year, batik became the centrepiece of a two-pronged exhibition displaying a menswear collection by students of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in collaboration with Indonesia batik producer, BINHouse.

The ACM’s latest fashion exhibition continues the trend. Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World traces the journey of one of Singapore’s most prolific fashion designers, Paris-based Andrew Gn. The exhibition is the museum’s largest ever dedicated to a contemporary Singaporean designer.

“Fashion isn’t new for us,” professes Kennie Ting. The director of the ACM and Peranakan Museum is the man behind the developmental shift in the ACM’s curatorial approach. One might add that it’s a necessary evolution of the museum’s raison d’être given how the charting of history must encompass both past and present. Ting reasons that the ACM’s move into more contemporary design disciplines —fashion, jewellery and furniture — are “natural extensions” of the museum’s existing collections.

The 2022 edition of #SGFASHIONNOW featured a roster of both established and up-and-coming designers with roots in Singapore (from top to bottom, left to right): Thomas Wee, Ashley Isham, Harry Halim, Max Tan, Latika Balachander, Jon Max Goh, Lina Osman, Bryan Yeo, Shawna Wu, and Chong Kenghow.
The 2022 edition of #SGFASHIONNOW featured a roster of both established and up-and-coming designers with roots in Singapore (from top to bottom, left to right): Thomas Wee, Ashley Isham, Harry Halim, Max Tan, Latika Balachander, Jon Max Goh, Lina Osman, Bryan Yeo, Shawna Wu, and Chong Kenghow.

In 2020, the ACM completed a refresh of its permanent galleries and officially inaugurated two new additions: the “Fashion and Textiles” and “Jewellery” galleries. Both are housed within the ACM’s Materials and Design wing and serve as a celebration of Southeast Asian decorative arts.

“The strengths of our collection currently lie in historic fashion and textiles up to the mid-20th century, including Indonesian batiks, Indian trade textile, and Peranakan fashion,” shares Jackie Yoong, senior curator (Fashion and Textiles) at the ACM and Peranakan Museum. Yoong has played an integral role in curating the ACM’s fashion exhibitions as well as the permanent fashion gallery of the recently reopened Peranakan Museum. “We work closely with associated communities and collectors on significant loans, with special attention to provenance. Our Peranakan collection has travelled quite extensively for overseas display including Paris, Seoul, Tokyo and Fukuoka.”

The expansion into the contemporary sphere is also aligned to state initiatives, namely the Singapore National Heritage Board’s “Our Singapore Heritage Plan 2.0” — a set of initiatives guiding the city-state’s cultural heritage and museum landscape for 2023 and beyond. Since the plan was rolled out, more than 160 pieces of Andrew Gn’s creations have been added to the National Collection.

The Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World exhibition is the biggest solo showcase of a contemporary Singaporean designer to date.
The Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World exhibition is the biggest solo showcase of a contemporary Singaporean designer to date.

“We hope the Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World exhibition spurs more local designers to think about their legacy… and about ACM when they think about preserving their legacy,” Ting says. The ACM has already begun connecting with new and upcoming local fashion designers through #SGFASHIONNOW, tapping on the series’ student collaborators to bridge past gaps between young designers and local fashion institutes.

One would assume that holding more contemporary fashion exhibitions would immediately rake in visitors in droves. After all, New York’s Metropolitan Museum has made its fame on its annual Costume Institute exhibitions becoming important global events. There’s also Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, an exhibition so successful that it was shown years apart in New York City and London, prompting art institutions in both cities to introduce unprecedented measures to meet public demand. Yet, at the ACM, Ting reveals that the inverse is true. The museum’s classical exhibitions still make still make up the bulk of the footfall, at least for now.

“I think there is still a disjoint between the public’s perception of what the ACM was versus what it has become. There is also very little exposure for local designers in general,” Ting laments. “Most Singaporeans still don’t know very much about the Singaporean fashion design scene. If we did a show on a major Western fashion label or designer (or even a major Asian one), it would almost certainly be a huge hit. But featuring a Singaporean designer? Huge risk. Then again, between supporting a major Western one and supporting our own, I would choose the latter without hesitation. We have to take risks in order to progress.”

Andrew Gn's red carpet creations for a number of internationally famous figures.
Andrew Gn’s red carpet creations for a number of internationally famous figures.

There is however still much hope despite such “risks”. Ting says that the fashion exhibitions organised so far have introduced the ACM to an entirely new crowd, encouraged by statistics that show about half of the visitors to the contemporary fashion exhibitions have in fact been first-time ACM attendees with a majority ranging between teenagers to those in their 20s.

But with all that is said and done, what exactly is Singapore fashion? It’s a perennial question that often comes up as a dissenting voice against art institutes like the ACM working hard to highlight a scene still in its infancy.

More than 160 pieces by Andrew Gn have been added to the National Collection at the Singapore ACM.
More than 160 pieces by Andrew Gn have been added to the National Collection.

As someone who has spent her career studying and dissecting Southeast Asian fashion, Yoong offered some wisdom: “As a Southeast Asian port city at the crossroads of international trade, people in Singapore have been exposed to a multitude of influences across the region and the world for centuries. The multiculturalism in Singapore has fostered a society that values experimentation and appreciates diversity. This ethos is reflected in the fashion choices of people in Singapore, who celebrate and incorporate different cultural elements into their style. Fashion becomes a platform for self-expression and cultural exchange, allowing individuals to experiment with their different styles and a hybrid aesthetic that reflects the essence of the Singapore story. This should be recognised instead of seeking a single, imagined ‘national’ style.”

It’s a poetic notion, yet one that rings true. If there was an aspect to lean in on when it comes to Singapore fashion, it is there no discernible singular look. What others may see as having a lack of identity could actually be a strength. We are a community open to new and foreign ideas and welcoming of different cultures — a trait that make us, perhaps quite tritely, uniquely Singapore.

The ACM may not be Singapore’s official fashion museum but is perhaps the institution most fit to take up the mantle. The permanent galleries serve as more than mere historical reference to understand and learn about the past. Rather, they’re a continuation of a journey towards crafting a creative vision for the now. In the bigger scheme of things, Ting hopes that the Singaporean public will grow to appreciate the kind of creative and design talents that the city has been home to through the ACM’s continued efforts to highlight them. “And feel compelled to support them,” he adds. “That would constitute success.”

This article was first published on Esquire Singapore.

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