THOMAS WEE

Fashion

Maison Thomas Wee

https://www.designorchard.sg/brands/thomas-wee

Pioneer Singapore fashion designer Thomas Wee is something of a legend in the local fashion design industry. He first blazed onto the scene in 1978 after emerging a finalist in the inaugural Young Fashion Designer Contest organised by Her World magazine, and was swiftly named one of “The Magnificent Seven” designers of Singapore thereafter. Over the next four decades, his dedication towards impeccable tailoring and innovating the classics gained him a loyal following among those in pursuit of sharp style and elegant glamour. In this interview, we pick his brains about the challenges of the fashion business, the importance of good taste, and the DNA of the Thomas Wee brand.
  • Company Name

    Maison Thomas Wee

  • Company Founded in

    1975

  • Founder

    Thomas Wee

  • Founder's Birth Year

    1948

  • Education

    Self-Taught

  • 1st Boutique

    Vintinaro (1978)

  • 2nd Boutique

    Vintinaro Balestier (1980)

  • 3rd Boutique

    Thomas Wee Boutique, Far East Plaza (1983)

  • 4th Boutique

    Thomas Wee Mixables (1986)

  • 5th Boutique

    Thomas Wee Luxe (1994)

  • 6th Boutique

    Made in Heaven (1995)

  • 7th Boutique

    Maison Thomas Wee, Mandarin Gallery (2015)

  • 1975

    Rented a shop in Toa Payoh and began work as a tailor

  • 1978

    Finalist in the Young Fashion Designer Contest organised by Her World magazine

  • 1978

    Opened a boutique, “Vintinaro”, with a few partners, featuring the Thomas Wee label

  • 1980

    Was one of “The Magnificent Seven” designers of Singapore, selected by the Trade Development Board. Showcased collections in Tokyo, Osaka, and Paris

  • 1980

    Expanded Vintinaro to a larger shop unit in Balestier

  • 1983

    Opened “Thomas Wee Boutique”, his first high-end boutique on the 5th level of Far East Plaza

  • 1986

    Launched “Thomas Wee’s Mixables”, his first career-wear line for women, at Wisma Atria

  • 1994

    Opened “Thomas Wee Luxe” at Shaw Centre

  • 1995

    Opened “Made in Heaven”, a bridal wear label and store at Millenial Walk

  • 1996

    Created a new label, “Preta”, under HeShe Holdings

  • 1998

    Went to China for consultation work, and was a visiting lecturer at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

  • 1999

    Returned to Singapore and taught fashion design at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

  • 2008

    Returned to Singapore and taught fashion design at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

  • 2008

    Made a highly-lauded comeback to the fashion runway at the Singapore Fashion Festival

  • 2008

    Created pieces for Coda.Co, a multi-label store at Scotts Square

  • 2011

    Voted by CNN Power List as one of 30 people who shaped Singapore

  • 2015

    Opened “Maison Thomas Wee”, a pop-up boutique at Mandarin Gallery

  • 2020

    Thomas Wee’s designs are available at Design Orchard

A Master of the Classics

By Michelle JN Lim, 29 December 2021

Hi Thomas, what do you think of the state of local fashion design today?

A lot of people have got very bad and wrong perceptions about designers. And it's very sad that a lot of the young designers or young talent, or fashion school students have a very weak understanding of what a true designer is. The school doesn't teach them. When I was teaching in NAFA (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts), those early days, of course, my students, I tried to educate them, but then they're too young. They can't relate to what you're saying, because, you know, they don't have any experience, they're not exposed at all, in terms of fashion. The only thing that they can see – during those early days, of course, hard copies of fashion magazines – nowadays, they go through the computer and everything is there. But still, this is not the way that the old guards, people like me, have experienced the true essence of fashion and fashion designing.

So in your opinion, what really is the essence of fashion design?

Firstly, clothes are made in different industry in different ways. When we talk about haute couture, it's actually one-of-a-kind items, handmade. 80% of the garment is hand-stitched, plus a lot of pain and work goes into it. The Parisians call them an invention. Haute couture is high fashion, is an invention, which later will filter down to ready-to-wear. That means an idea, for example, in the 80s, the good old days of the big broad shoulder pads and all that, it is from haute couture that they invented this big, broad shoulder silhouette and all that. And then later on, designers like Thierry Mugler and Montana started to adapt that. And then it was mainstream. Even the brands like Armani and Donna Karan and all that adopted that broad shoulder look. That was the 80s.

Of course fashion has got its so-called phases. But then after you picked up haute couture, it will filter down to do ready-to-wear, you know, which is actually things that you can buy off the rack, not custom orders, and they come in sizes and all of that.

But who makes them? It's the factory. A team of people, a highly sophisticated company with good infrastructure to produce them. And what people don't realise is that ready-to-wear is not just 36 pieces, 48 pieces per style; it is by the hundreds and perhaps thousands, because it's a worldwide distribution. So who are the people who are totally involved in the first place? It's not the designer, it's the fabric mills. Without raw material, how can we have things done? Isn't it? It's just like you have a housing contractor. If he hasn't got all these raw materials at hand, he cannot build a house or renovate a house. So it's the same thing in fashion business.

Fashion is a business. You have got to really have very good business sense to do fashion.

Yes...

The most important thing a designer has got to get totally involved in and understand and become what I call artisanal, is the raw material. They have to know the sources. They have got to get connections to get the best or even if not the best, then a good price. Good price meaning you're a businessman: when you get something at a very reasonable price, it is easier to sell rather than you get something really beautiful but high price, because when you're doing ready-to-wear you can't sell.

Fashion's a business. If you have things stuck there for three months, you know, besides the depreciation, it's an off-season thing. You can't repeat it, you can't sell it after three months, you know. So fashion is a business. You have got to really have very good business sense to do fashion. And you've got to work very fast. Very painful thing about designing, you know, especially when we're doing ready-to-wear, is that we're working one year ahead of the crowd, a lot of other people. Whatever is on our rack retailing, we've conceptualised and done it like a year ago, at least six months ago, because you have got to source for your raw material, then you've got to plan your whole collection in terms of a look.

The most important thing about designers, their weakness is that they do not have a DNA of their own clothes. I mean, it's just like with singers. When a singer sings, the moment his or her music comes on, you know it's their songs. Whether it's R&B or hard rock, whatever it is, the moment he or she opens her mouth and articulates, you know it's their style. That voice has got a power. That's the style you're listening to.

The most important thing a designer has got to get totally involved in and understand and become what I call artisanal, is the raw material.

So what you're saying is that most designers don't know their DNA – what do you think happens along the way that, you know, makes it the case?

No, already from the beginning, they don't have a DNA because they get ideas from fashion magazines, and runway shows and all that and they lap everything up. Why do they not have a so-called DNA is because they're technically not strong. They depend on tailors. They depend on factory to produce their things.

Whereas for you, what I've learnt from what you shared with A Life Less Ordinary (a 2018 podcast hosted by Udhara de Silva and Vanessa Fernandez) is that you started from a very young age, you know, learning from your mother, who was also a very talented tailor herself.

It's all about the timing, and the environment. Don't forget that the 50s, actually it was one of the most beautiful periods in terms of fashion. You know, a lot of people now I talked to, they really wish they lived in the 50s. Yes, I've lived through the 50s, 60s, 70s, all the way. And I think, of course, the 50s was the most beautiful period. Why? Because after the World War, which ended in 1944, Europe and America, they didn't want to remind themselves of those bleak, bad days. So when MGM and all these filmmakers made movies, you always see glamour. You'd never see one actress who is badly dressed. All their marketing and promotion is all about a glamorous lifestyle, whether it's American, English, or total European. So it was just an environment that allowed itself to grow according to everybody's lifestyle.

I see...

You don't have to be rich, but it's a matter of cultivating good taste. Good fashion sense. In fact, a lot of things are not even fashion-related during those days – from cars to you know, interior to everybody's lifestyle. But everything falls together, then you get the 1950s image. And when you look at people like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, during those days. Yes, they are being fabricated to act such character in the movie. But without the people behind thinking about a whole set, whole visual, the whole introduction of a lifestyle to the audience, do you think that would exist? It wouldn't exist.

You don't have to be rich, but it's a matter of cultivating good taste. Good fashion sense.

So do you think then that there is a dearth of aesthetic and glamour at this point in our lives? Because now we're saturated with fast fashion and Taobao furniture? Is there anything that gives you hope at all in these days?

No, I think it's– I don't detest. Of course we're talking about progressive society and culture. I think of course, there are a lot of things that are going to be super ultramodern and futuristic. But still, I think at the bottom of it is still the aesthetic level of sophistication. And whether it's a young designer or somebody who's established, the most important thing is that whatever they do, you can see from all angles and elements that there's a lot of good taste to it. That a lot of pain and thought that goes into creating that item or that collection.

So, back to the 50s. You get all these wonderful things. I mean, television started during that time, and it really influenced everybody's lifestyle. You don't see an actress in a sit-com that is badly dressed, even if she's cooking in the kitchen. The actress is so well dressed in the kitchen with kitten heels and big mambo skirts, and a nice shirt and all that. And everybody is well dressed. And especially when Sunday is concerned, there was this good thing called Sunday dressing. Everybody dressed up. Not like now – everybody dresses down. They don't even dress. If they could walk around in a fig leaf, they would.

Back in the 50s, everybody dressed up. Not like now – everybody dresses down. They don't even dress. If they could walk around in a fig leaf, they would.

Oh gosh, I hope nobody does that.

You would be surprised. Because vulgarity is no more vulgarity to these people.

Yeah, it's not even avant-garde anymore, actually.

Thanks to the Kardashians.

That's the TV of our generation.

It moves on to the 60s. This aesthetic evolved, and it becomes fairer, and designers and young designers at a time became better and introduced new ideas, new skirt length, new silhouette, new colour, new fabric and everything to fit into the 60s lifestyle. And of course, music is a very important part of everyday lifestyle. And then it flows down to the 70s and 80s and all that.

But by this millennium, 2000, I find that a lot of people are very confused, very mixed up. So there's no longer that understanding of good taste. Anything to a lot of people is, "well let's try it," you know. It may not be bad, there are a lot of people willing to accept it. And yes, it's true. With a lot of the new generation, they will accept anything, because they've not seen the best. Same like a lot of young designers – why are they designing things like that, is because they have not seen the 50s and 60s, the glamourous days, the elegant days of fashion. And they call it old-fashioned, but then on the other hand, they contradict themselves by telling you, oh they love what their grandmother wore, they love what their grandfather wore. It's really contradictory.

So in your opinion, is there anyone whom you feel is a promising young designer these days?

In the present moment? You cannot ask me that question because frankly, I am still in the fashion business…

It’s a conflict of interest?

I do not want to point my finger at any particular person - whether they are very good now or what they would be in the future- because we cannot dictate. I’m sure you know there are a lot of brands – if you look back in the past 10 years of fashion history of Singapore -, what happened to them? Today, they dropped out, they failed, or they didn’t make it, although they originally professed that they love fashion so much. No offence, especially the female designers. At the end of the day, they knew they had to be a homemaker and make babies, so they cannot put so much concentration into their careers. And especially when they find a husband or boyfriend who can afford the lifestyle, they are complacent enough to accept their new role. How many female designers are good today? Even Christian Dior’s new designer Maria Grazia Chiuri - I don’t think she is good. She just has got that Italian Mama sense in her work. To me, it’s all dollars and cents, it’s all advertising, it’s all promotion.

For the bigger brands, right? About their ability to market?

Everybody! In fact, even with small brands, they need to do their marketing. Whether they are online or they do a runway show, or they are the top league of fashion, everybody needs to market themselves…with money. And with the big boys, of course it’s all about advertising and promotion. It’s about making a lot of noise. So whether they have really good or bad taste, you have got no say to it because they have the money and they dictate, you know?

What do you think makes a good fashion designer?

I think it takes a lot. It really takes a lot for a young designer. Are you talking about a young designer in this case?

Sure, let's go with that. I guess the yardsticks change, right, with the decades?

The older designers are getting from bad to worse, because they stopped.

And stopping is the worst, would you say that?

It's something which I don't know whether it occurs to them or not, but they cannot see from their point of view that their work has deteriorated and they already have stopped somewhere. They don't know how to create anymore because they are quite satisfied with the kind of business they have, or the kind of style, artisanal styles that they created in their backroom, with their tailors. So, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Whereas with the new younger generation, as I said, they have not seen the 50s glamour, they have not seen 60s high style, they have not seen you know, the 70s' really super big shows and 80s as well. So, when we have not seen glamour, when you have not seen high style, you just cannot imagine it.

And I would like to ask a lot of young designers today, have they seen a proper fashion show in Singapore for the past six, seven years? The last one probably was Singapore Fashion Week by Mercury group. But then even those shows are not, to me, the epitome of high style and good taste. They are just brands that need to retail themselves on the catwalk.

And I would like to ask a lot of young designers today, have they seen a proper fashion show in Singapore for the past six, seven years?

So it sounds like the qualities of a good fashion designer would be then that daring to push the boundaries whether you are an established designer or a new one. It's about whether you have the imagination.

It's also about the infrastructure and this designer's own passion for creating fashion. You see, I was very lucky when I was born. My mother was a tailor. So she created beautiful clothes and the engineering part of it intrigues me a lot. And when her customers come for fittings I'm there to witness how immaculately the clothes were made. And she taught me a lot of things about dress-making, from the most important thing, pressing work and needlework and all that. Then of course, is the cutting part. And even how to handle a pair of scissors. And as it goes, along the way – I have never been to a fashion design school – I picked up fashion aesthetic from fashion magazines. I read a lot. And I care about my work being observed.

From that time up until today, there's been nobody who has offered to criticise or give me a comment on my work. Until today. Honestly, if I were to do a fashion show now – in fact this happened many years ago as well – I can finish illustrating or drawing a full collection after I edited, I can draw a 300-style collection and edit to about 40 styles for the catwalk. But with this piece of paper, with the illustrations there, who do I approach and ask for comments?

I have never been to a fashion design school – I picked up fashion aesthetic from fashion magazines. I read a lot. And I care about my work being observed.

Do you feel like there's no one in Singapore who can?

Nobody dares, in the first place.

How do you feel about that?

Well, I've got friends who always like, you know, always, I mean, they're always like, "Oh, I love this. Oh, Thomas it's so nice, this is not you, but then it's so new." That's all. But would they say something like, "Hey, you're passé already"? You know, that kind of thing?

Do you wish that they were more honest and more scathing?

Yes, of course. But this person must be credible.

Yes – it cannot just be any random passerby.

I do have a couple of friends who are very literate and cultured. I always say in Chinese, 文化基础顶尖 (have excellent foundations in cultural matters). You understand Mandarin, right?

Oh, you're talking about them, right? That they have good foundations.

Their taste level. Because, of course, from the way they dress, to their whole lifestyle, the way they live, the books they read. And the movies they see, you know that they are of a certain level of real sophistication. These are the only friends that would say that "I love the collection," or "I'm not too sure". But they know that, you know, even when they say that, I can accept it, and I would edit it again, but I wouldn't change it. Because is my DNA.

The way I cut, the way I shape every garment, the way I make sure my garments are three-dimensional. That's me, that's my style. I don't design out of the blue, or in the middle of the night. I design when I'm making my paper pattern. Because it's from the engineering process that you invent, you know, a certain detail, or certain silhouette or a certain shape. For example, a sleeve, or the finishing of a hem, and all that. So these are special details to me. And the set of the armhole to me is very critical because I cannot stand it when I see clothes that are badly assembled.

So from a young age, I began to cultivate all this. When I was in school, of course, you know, after school– we couldn't afford to buy fashion magazines in those days, but I happened to be in St. Joseph Institution and it's just along Bras Basah Road where all the best bookstores were. And after school we'd just go to these bookstores– can't afford to buy but take a fashion magazine and–

I don't design out of the blue, or in the middle of the night. I design when I'm making my paper pattern. Because it's from the engineering process that you invent, you know, a certain detail, or certain silhouette or a certain shape.

Yeah, flip through on the spot right?

We don't copy actually, but we admire the photography, we know which model is on the cover. We read the credits. I read the credits inside: which model, which photographer, which makeup artist, where are the clothes from, and even the prices.

That was your education.

Yeah, of course. Nobody taught me, so I had to learn this myself. Because I had a lot of friends interested in fashion also, whether they are school classmates, crewmates or friends. So you have got to know. Don't make yourself a fool by saying some rubbish things. The more you educate yourself, the more literate you are in terms of fashion knowledge, the more people respect you. And you have to learn to be very articulate when you describe something. That goes from schoolwork until whatever I do after school.

Can we talk about the DNA of the Thomas Wee brand? Because I mean, you've been around for four decades, you've seen styles come and go. But then how would you say your style evolves? Or is it something that stands still and true to itself throughout this whole time?

Before we talk about this, have you done any research on me and my work?

I have.

So, from your point of view, what kind of a designer am I?

I think you're very sharp in terms of laying down certain foundations, I mean, I know what I know from what I read, you see. So what I can tell is what is regurgitated from the interviews that you've done before, but it's about the line, the tailoring, that knowledge of the garment from the start of it, like from the sourcing of the fabric. I've read about how you're very particular about the kinds of cloth that you use the relationships that you have with your manufacturer-

Actually it's not.

It's not all that. So will you tell me then?

It's how the media put me in that kind of a light. But let me tell you, yes. I always believe in sophistication, a little bit of glamour, but don't have to be snobbish. Clothes are clothes, you know, it's supposed to envelope a woman's body. And I don't think a woman should wear an hourglass dress to be feminine. I like clothes that are loose-fitting. But when they are loose-fitting, the most important thing is that it has got to have a three-dimensional form. Design, to me is actually three-dimensional. It's just like a piece of furniture or a car. Whenever you see a Philippe Starck piece of furniture, or an electrical appliance, you know it's a designer piece. Secondly, it sits so beautifully well at that area where he puts it. You practically, sometimes you need an empty loft to put that Philippe Starck furniture there. That's what I call good taste. You can't have everything cluttered together because then you've lost the Philippe Starck aesthetic.

I always believe in sophistication, a little bit of glamour, but don't have to be snobbish. Clothes are clothes, you know, it's supposed to envelope a woman's body.

So to me, clothes are for a woman and how she wears it. Until today, I really believe very much in retail, ready-to-wear, selling clothes. Because it's from retailing – it's from my customers, when they walk in and pick the clothes up and go inside the fitting room and come out again, that I observe that, oh yes, we do have such customers. I do have this kind of customers. My job is to cultivate customers. I don't shove the thing down their throat to sell them. "Oh, you look good in this, you must wear it and this is the look at a season," – no. I think it all depends on this person's lifestyle and her carriage and her whole aura.

My style is actually, frankly, really clean aesthetic. Less is more, yes, but most importantly, where it is the "more" part? It's actually in the finishing. I mean, why do rich men buy a Mercedes Benz or Lamborghini? Because it's so beautifully made, you know, leave alone the power of the engine. But you can see it's an elegant car. It's such elegance. And where clothes are concerned, it's the way I finish the garment. To me, designer clothes are all about luxury. But luxury doesn't have to be expensive. I always stress this to my students. A good designer can use a cheap piece of fabric and make it look very expensive. Because that is through his skill, technical skill. A bad designer can use an expensive piece of fabric and just make it look so horrendous, homemade.

Design, to me is actually three-dimensional.

That is very true.

You hang it there and it's like, oh my god, where did it come from? And the worst part is, you can have a design from a foreign designer picked from a tear sheet. Give it to five tailors to execute, and the five garments will turn out differently. Because not every one of these tailors are designers. They cannot understand the proportions because from just looking at pictures you can never tell how broad is the collar, how broad is the shoulder seam, how is the armhole set. These are the little details, not just whatever is applied on the bodice or the garment.

My style is actually, frankly, really clean aesthetic. Less is more, yes, but most importantly, where it is the "more" part?

So there is something unspoken, that's not in the pattern that a tailor has to bring to the table. And that's why you're so particular, right?

You know, no insult to a lot of tailors, no offense, especially a lot of fashion firms, designers, and all that. They have a bunch of people behind them to help solve their problem. They design, they draw, and they pass the sheet and the fabric, probably, to the tailors. And the tailors are actually the people who are the engineers. They are the people who draft that pattern, cut it, and then send it down to the sampling room, instruct the sampling girl or guy how to sew and how to assemble it. Does the designer do it himself?

Because they don't know whether it will fall correctly.

Because they don't even know how to make patterns. And even if they know how to make patterns, a lot of people tell me, "I don't like to make patterns because it's very tedious. And my maths is no good. I've got to calculate, you know, how many cm from here to there," which to them is very painful.

So that's another thing that makes a good fashion designer – they have to know how to draft patterns.

You've got to be technically very strong. As I said, a good designer can use a cheap piece of fabric, like $5 or $6 a metre, or 45-inch width, narrow width and make a beautiful tunic out of it. It depends on what you apply in between, like the lining, the interfusing, you know, the armhole set, whether you another extra piping inside – this is the whole process of making the garment tailored, or draped. So it's not how expensive this fabric is. Yes, when you get an expensive fabric, definitely, you can tell it's very expensive. But when you have poor engineering, you just kill the fabric. And so a lot of people don't know.

Today, very few people go to tailors. All the aunties don't go to tailors anymore. But during my time, everybody went to the tailor. And there are a lot of tailors, even though they're trained from the dressmaking school, but it's through many years of doing tailoring that they cultivate and they improve this skill. Then they understand how to make anything from a shirt to a suit to a Chinese qipao. They improve, because they care that when they deliver this piece of garment, the customer doesn't reject it. So at the end of the day, let me tell you: to be a good designer, you must make sure you do not have thick skin. You must feel shame of what you do if it is not good enough.

To be a good designer, you must make sure you do not have thick skin. You must feel shame of what you do if it is not good enough.

So that you will be motivated to improve?

Yes! So long as the customer comes in and looks at your clothes and says, "Such-and-such designer, I think your clothes are very well made," this is good enough. When I price it, or the designer prices it, we call it 'perceived value'. But does it deserve that price? It all depends of course, on this designer – how much pressure he puts into finishing the garment, pressing the garment, hanging it on a hanger and fitting the customer when she wants to try it. It all boils down to feeling proud of your work. When you wear the jacket or the customer comes with the dress, you just tie it for her and wrap it up for her and you just feel that, yes, you got it.


And if there's anything wrong, any alteration needed, that's a lesson learnt. You learnt what not to do in the first place and you learn that, okay, there are certain parts of that garment that, when you have to repeat a certain style again, you make sure that has to be edited. So I think we are always in the process of learning. We are always in the process of editing and correcting from errors. But a good designer usually is quite confident of his DNA. So if you ask me, my DNA is: I evolve. And I am also totally very into all kinds of concepts and themes. I can do oriental very well because I'm Chinese. I know the 5000 years of Chinese dynasty. You cannot cheat me – you cannot put an emblem there and tell me that is Qing dynasty when it's actually Ming dynasty – that kind of thing.

I tell my students, 你们中国五千年的历史, 你没有一样东西骗的过我. (There is not one thing in China's history of 5000 years that you can fool me about.) I know. I read. I go and see. And when I was in Shanghai, of course when we went to the museum we saw so many beautiful things over there. Who says Chinese is ching-chong? The Chinese culture is one of the best cultures in the whole world, leave alone the Indian culture.

I love everything Indian. I wish I would have gone to India for a one-year study of their industry, from their weavers to their dyeing process and all that, it's gorgeous. And of course, the detail. At one time when I was doing my high fashion haute couture, all my beadwork and embroidery were all done in India. I got an Indian beader as an agent that comes to Singapore and collect my orders and go back and dive right in. And these cottage factories are the people who do work for Armani and Yves Saint Laurent!


So when you have seen the best of all these cottage factories, without a doubt you will know how to use this thing to add value to your garment. But on the other hand, I'm also a very western-inclined designer – I love suits. The first thing I did when I went to Paris was I went to the Yves Saint Laurent boutique and I just pushed myself through the two glass doors and went straight to the Le Smoking jacket that YSL is famous for and just look and check what's so interesting about this old suit? And yes of course it's a tuxedo, it's very, very well made. And it was very obnoxious of me at that time to say, but when I came out, I said, "If he can do it, I can do it". Because, as I said, that's an education.

We are always in the process of learning. We are always in the process of editing and correcting from errors. But a good designer usually is quite confident of his DNA. So if you ask me, my DNA is: I evolve.

I go into not a school, I go into an Yves Saint Laurent boutique and I learnt something, came out, free of charge. Very few people have that opportunity. So that's why I say today a lot of designers, they don't really look into their things, they design something and they pass it on to their tailors. They have a rough idea how will it look like. But do they ever bother to go and beg, borrow or steal a Dior, a Chanel, to show the tailor "I want it to be done this way"?

There's a lot of education that goes into it. Name me one designer or one brand in Singapore's fashion scene whose backroom tailor has touched, or seen a Dior or a Chanel. If they have not, how can they make you one? And if the designer does not take the pain to go and find something similar to show them "I want it to be done this way – look at the finishing, look at the cut, look at the lining, look at all those secret details they put inside the garment. Can we do it like this?"

Of course, the tailor will say, aiyah it's very difficult, it's too much work and all that. Yes, it's a lot of work. But you'll have to sell it a little bit more expensive because a lot of pain goes into it. That's research. So when these tailors have not worn a Chanel or a Dior, what do they know about luxury? When you slip on – even those days – a Donna Karan dress, it's so luxurious, it just clings to your body. It hangs from your shoulders. This is the kind of thing a lot of young designers have never experienced, can never visualize and can never know. Unless they wear it themselves. Or they walk into Chanel or Dior or Gucci to really fit the thing themselves.

I go into an Yves Saint Laurent boutique and I learnt something, came out, free of charge.

This makes me really curious about how you teach your classes because I think what you're highlighting here is the inability, I think, of fashion school to teach fashion design.

I motivate students by bringing in beautiful things to show them what you have not seen. That's very important. I mean, no offense to these people. Of course, the day they're born, they're facing an HDB flat, they're facing four concrete walls, their parents don't instill this thing called proper dressing up at home, or even when they go to the neighbourhood market and all those sort of things. But it's how much this student gets the chance to see. You have got to show them.

Those days when I was teaching in NAFA, I really brought in an Armani or a Donna Karan, or a Yves Saint Laurent jacket. I borrowed from friends. I put them on the dummy mannequin and show them the whole three-dimensional aura of that jacket. How the collar sits, how the armhole is cut, falls according to you know, from a straight line, how many degrees. You have to observe all this. Why do you call this a cigarette sleeve? Because it's really shaped like a cigarette. Or all those darts and detailing, which to me is a fashion element. Darts doesn't just– they don't make darts just because it has got to shape the body. They make the darts also as a fashion detail. The darts don't have to go here, the darts can, from princess-cut to French darts, these are fashion details and the student has got to know it all. You don't have to apply things on the garment.

It's very easy to design avant-garde, modern things. But it's very difficult to design a classic or call a design a classic.

So what would be your advice to young fashion designers?

So a lot of designers fail in their work because to them fashion design is add, add, add, apply, apply, apply, embellish and embellish and embellish. They do not know the most difficult thing to do in terms of fashion design is to eliminate, eliminate, take out, take out, remove, remove, remove everything from this so-called piece of garment – but you can still tell it's a designer piece. That's the most difficult, isn't it? So how do I tell them that this is pure aesthetic? I have got to prove it by making my own clothes to tell them this is pure aesthetic.

Honestly, I am very happy sometimes when a customer wears my clothes from the fitting room they come out and they, you know, or after they fit already they pass the skirt or the pants or the dress to me or my salesperson and they say, “Thomas, don't think I never see what's inside - it's so beautiful.” It makes me feel good because it's worth my bloody time planning for all this. You know what I mean? So it's something which I think is part of my DNA. It’s part of what I'm known for. Customers who buy my clothes, after many years, they still have them. They still keep them. They say, "I sayang (can’t bear) to throw that away. Because Thomas, your labour is there, in the finishing."

You know, it makes you feel good, that you're wanted. Whether the media knows or not is another thing. But the most important thing is I'm a businessman. When I sell something, I want to make sure that I put myself in the customers' shoes. Buy something worth it. Buy something which I can wear seasons after season. We don't have seasons here, but we can still call that a classic. It's very easy to design avant-garde, modern things. But it's very difficult to design a classic or call a design a classic. Because we evolve. And looking back, sometimes – that's the reason why I encourage a lot of people in Singapore I don't know whether we have, to go to the vintage or thrift shops. These are the places with things that a designer can learn: what the professionals before them did.

A lot of designers fail in their work because to them fashion design is add, apply, and embellish. They do not know the most difficult thing to do in terms of fashion design is to eliminate, take out, take out, remove everything from this so-called piece of garment – but you can still tell it's a designer piece.

And get a sense of history and heritage also.

Even the young designers when they walk into my counter, I just let them touch my things, it's fine, if you can learn from it.

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