Art What! Arts Singapore

Art What!: #SGFASHIONNOW at the Asian Civilisations Museum

Can contemporary fashion ever be held to the same standards as ancient artefacts and art? The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) certainly seems to think so, with #SGFASHIONNOW, their first ever display of contemporary Singapore fashion.

Presented in collaboration with LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion and the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF), #SGFASHIONNOW presents several showstopping outfits crafted by local designers, each modernising and taking inspiration from our Asian cultural heritage.

In the first section, ACM x TaFF, the ensembles by Singapore-based finalists of fashion design competition Singapore Stories 2020 are on show at the ACM Lobby; the second, ACM x LASALLE, showcases works by eight practising local designers, including established professionals Andrew Gn, Goh Lai Chan, and Priscilla Shunmugam, whose works are mounted alongside Singapore Stories 2020 winner Carol Chen’s debut creation.

“As an exhibition, #SGFASHIONNOW is a first for us in many ways. It is our first display of contemporary Singapore fashion, and in typical ACM fashion, we explore creative practice in Singapore within the context of Asia’s cultural heritage,” says Kennie Ting, Director of ACM and the Peranakan Museum. “It is made possible by way of a first-time, multi-party collaboration between museum, community and industry – ACM x LASALLE x TaFF x Singaporean and Singapore-based designers. It is also the first time ever that the central task of curating an exhibition has been ceded by ACM curators – in this case to the School of Fashion students, with ACM staff and LASALLE faculty providing mentorship.” 

“I hope #SGFASHIONNOW encourages new ways of thinking about the question “What is Singapore fashion?” from the perspective of Singapore’s essence as a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan port city. Having recently re-positioned ourselves as Singapore’s National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art, the exhibition also represents our commitment to championing innovation in the space of tradition.”  

– Kennie Ting, Director of ACM and the Peranakan Museum.

Visitors are first greeted at the ACM Lobby by the #SGFASHIONNOW: ACM x TaFF display. Presented by 2020 finalists of Singapore Stories, Singapore’s national fashion design competition, the designs pay tribute to the heritage of Singapore fashion and envision its future. Each finalist was given the rare opportunity to view exquisite textile pieces from the ACM stores housed at the Heritage Conservation Centre, resulting in innovative final pieces that paid tribute to our heritage in its look and feel, and elevating it with a modern touch.

Highlights of this segment include Adelyn Putri’s Samsui jumpsuit and handbag, from her label Nude Femme. Taking inspiration from the samsui women of the 20th century, Adelyn’s design modernises the outfit for the modern working woman, maintaining the same colour scheme in denim, while tailoring a more sleek, feminine figure. The iconic red headgear has been repurposed into stylish leather handbag.

In addition, this segment also features a jacket, shirt and trousers by Cara Chiang, under her brand CYC, a family business best known for their tailored menswear. This is a rare time formal menswear is featured and takes on a distinctly Asian touch, and the set takes inspiration from her migrant forefathers in search of a better life, creating the shirt’s prints by turning photographs of the Singapore sky into computer code, then infusing imagined journal entries of her forebears into the code. This resulted in corrupted files that produced the organic glitches and colours of the design.

Further into the museum, at the Contemporary Gallery, visitors will encounter the anchor display – #SGFASHIONNOW: ACM x LASALLE. This segment of the exhibition showcases the diverse approaches and craftsmanship of eight Singapore designers. Continuing the focus on textiles and materials ACM introduced with their refreshed Fashion and Textiles Gallery, this exhibition engages with the idea of slow fashion, prioritising local artisans over industrial production, and innovation in craft, from methodology to use of eco-friendly materials.

Detailing on Baëlf Design’s 3D printed creation

Capturing the Singapore fashion landscape, with works by both emerging designers and veteran labels, this segment serves to highlight contemporary applications of traditional craftsmanship and ideas for the modern, international audience. For instance, Singapore’s cheongsam maestro Goh Lai Chan shares the same space with experimental works like Baëlf Design’s 3D printed creation, the latter of which shows a Singaporean label’s take on the future of sustainable fashion, and the museum’s importance in presenting and supporting innovative ideas. 

Cheongsam by LAICHAN, from the WANDERLUXE 2018 Spring/Summer Collection

Rather than presenting one singular “Singapore” look or style, the display shows some of the wide range of approaches in craft and ideas taken by diverse designers in imagining Singapore fashion today. They are united by a shared commitment to making well-crafted fashion, and in their cross-cultural, cosmopolitan, experimental spirit, which has characterised fashion here in this multicultural, predominantly migrant nation for the past two centuries. 

Cheongsam with Cape by Ong Shunmugam, worn by Paige Parker during the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Certain items were not only chosen for their craftsmanship, but also for their cultural significance, and how it reflects different ideas of beauty and nationality. For example, the donor of the Ong Shunmugam custom dress – author, activist and philanthropist Paige Parker, wore the creation to the 2016 Cannes Film Festival (where she was executive producer of Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice) as she felt the design and colours expressed Singapore well.

Time Taken To Make A Dress’ cheongsam, which actress Constance Lau wore to the red carpet premiere of the movie Crazy Rich Asians in San Francisco

The actress Constance Lau chose to wear Time Taken to Make a Dress’s work to the red carpet premiere of the movie Crazy Rich Asians in San Francisco to represent her Singapore roots and support a local label.

Stylemart’s gara and kebaya

It is particularly unusual and unprecedented that ACM left the curation mostly to five final-year students at LASALLE College of the Art’s School of Fashion: Gabrielle Yeo, Celestine Wong, Jessica Faustine Suwito, Felicia Toh, and Guo Li Le. Among three submissions, their proposal was unanimously selected, where they suggested the central exhibition theme of “Craftsmanship”, centering on four designers’ works (Baëlf Design, Stylemart, Studio HHFZ, and Time Taken to Make a Dress) for display. The student curators were given valuable access to ACM’s resources, including curatorial and programmes staff mentorship as well as exhibition expertise, which allowed them to produce a comprehensive experience for the public to enjoy.

The students’ roles also included developing their curatorial vision, leading the exhibition design, and proposing programmes to run in conjunction with the exhibition, alongside giving tours of the exhibition. An e-publication was also produced by the students, consisting of exhibition content, video interviews with the designers, and essays by the LASALLE and ACM project mentorship teams, and serves as a companion resource and a permanent digital record for this project, accessible via QR codes in the exhibition.

“This collaboration with the ACM has been a fantastic opportunity for LASALLE’s students. Not only have they been able to put their curatorial ideas to the test with expert guidance from ACM, they have also gained valuable exposure to different facets of what makes an exhibition, from public engagement programmes to marketing,” says Steve Dixon, President of LASALLE College of the Arts.

“Partnerships such as this between industry and education play a crucial role in cultivating the next generation of Singapore’s fashion designers and curators. We look forward to many more opportunities to collaborate with the ACM.”

– Steve Dixon, President of LASALLE College of the Arts.

“The partnership with ACM in Singapore Stories has been invaluable. It helps to bolster our efforts in creating a dynamic fashion industry with cultural appreciation. Through the learnings and interpretation from ACM artefacts, the Singapore Stories contestants are encouraged to create a truly Singapore-inspired capsule,” says Semun Ho, Chief Executive Officer of TaFF.

“TaFF’s vision is to position Singapore as the innovative fashion hub of Southeast Asia through three key areas of focus: Technology and Innovation, Sustainability, and Asian Craftsmanship. These defined themes differentiate us in the global fashion context and highlight the uniqueness of Singapore as a multicultural city nation,” she adds

“Singapore Stories is one of the key programmes that TaFF has created to galvanise the community, with the goal of spotlighting and supporting homegrown and locally based fashion talents. Founded three years ago, the aim of the initiative is to encourage designers to delve into the history of Singapore fashion and arts, which, many a time, is a fusion of different cultures. TaFF is grateful to be able to participate in the museum’s #SGFASHIONNOW showcase as it provides the opportunity to shine a light on Singapore fashion.”

– Semun Ho, Chief Executive Officer of TaFF.

The #SGFASHIONNOW doesn’t stop here, and promises to return in 2022 should there be fond public reception to the first two instalments, with the ACM, TaFF and Lasalle continuing to tell the Singapore story through fashion.

Photo Credit: Asian Civilisations Museum

#SGFASHIONNOW opens on 25th June and runs through 19th December 2021. Entry is free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. For more information, visit their website.

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