MAX TAN

Fashion

Max Tan Studio

https://www.max-tan.com/

Max Tan draws inspiration from traditional Asian silhouettes that resonate in Paris, Middle East and Scandinavia. How does he bridge the practicalities of a fashion brand, while pushing forward ideas and concepts of a designer brand? An award-winning designer, Max prepares his next season for 2023 while making and crafting theatre costumes for Singapore International Festival of Arts 2022, and all this while teaching the next generation of design students, hungry to make their mark in the fantastical world of fashion.
  • Company Name

    MAX.TAN Studio

  • Company Founded in

    2010

  • Name of Founder

    Max Tan

  • Founder Birth Year

    1984

  • Education

    Diploma, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (2006)

  • Education

    Degree, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (2020)

  • Previous Job

    Costume Designer and Stylist, Mediacorp, (2007-08)

  • Other Pursuits

    Adjunct Lecturer, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (2010 - Present)

  • 1st Office

    29 McNair Road

  • Period of Occupancy

    2015 - Present

  • Estimate Space

    2500sqft

  • Number of Staff

    3

  • 2007

    Attained 2nd Runner Up in the contest held in conjunction with Singapore Fashion Week.

  • 2008

    Image styling and costumer designer for Mediacorp TV, worked on a variety of television shows and concerts. Highlight projects include President’s Star Charity, Marina Bay Countdown Show, Campus Super Star, The Ultimatum etc.

  • 2009

    Founded MAXTAN Apparel Private Limited, a fashion design studio dedicated to the designing of women’s ready to wear collections.

  • 2010

    Became first Asian label to be featured on Styletight.com, a premier trend forecasting website, as one of the top ten Spring/Summer 2010 womens-wear collection.

  • 2010

    Showcased at Modefabriek #29 at the Cutting Edge Platform Show.

  • 2010

    Awarded the silver medal at the China Fashion Creation Contest.

  • 2012

    Invited to showcase the Autumn/Winter 2012-13 collection as part of the Fier Showroom during Berlin Fashion Week.

  • 2012

    Participated in a runway show as part of Future Fashion Now showcase at the Audi Fashion Festival Singapore.

  • 2012

    Invited to showcase on the official schedule of Copenhagen Fashion Week.

  • 2013

    Invited to create an exhibition garment for Nuyou’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

  • 2013

    Became the only Singaporean label to be invited as a participant in a tradeshow held in conjunction with Copenhagen Fashion Week.

  • 2013

    Showcased in the Hello Shibuya Tokyo Show, a cultural exchange show with designer from Tokyo Fashion Week.

  • 2014

    Opening Show for Digital Fashion Week, featuring fashion legend Carmen Deli Orefice, in partnership with the British Council.

  • 2015

    Selected to join a higher curated list of international designers in the Revolver Tradeshow.

  • 2015

    Closing Show for Digital Fashion Week.

  • 2015

    Selected as an international designer to present for the inaugural edition of “Who is on next? Dubai” talent scouting program.

  • 2016

    Appointed costume designer for the theatre company, The Finger Players.

  • 2016

    Presented collection at the 10th anniversary fashion show, Runway Hits, Senayan Fashion Nation organised by Studio One and Senayan City Mall (Jakarta, Indonesia).

  • 2016

    Selected designer for Fashion Futures 2.0, a program initiated by SPRING Singapore and Mercury Marketing and Communications in strategic partnership with CFDA, Council of Fashion Designers America, (New York City, United States of America).

  • 2017

    Won Best Costume Design for Life Theatre Awards.

  • 2017

    Appointed costume designer for Independence Day celebration in Singapore.

  • 2018

    Invited to be Singapore’s ambassador for the Microsoft Surface Studio Launch.

Yet to Max Out

By Chris Low, 30 May 2022

Hi, welcome to Studio SML. We have with us today fashion designer Max Tan. Hi Max, you are a busy person. Please share with us what you are currently busy with.

I'm currently busy with the Spring Summer 2023 collection, and it will be showcased at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2022 (SIFA). So it's a 40-look collection and besides that, I'm also working on the costumes for various productions for SIFA this year.

I understand for SIFA this year, you are involved in more than one production?

Yes, that's right. So I'm designing costumes for MEPAAN, which is the opening show at the Pasir Panjang St James Power Station. It's a collaborative show between Singapore Chinese Orchestra and the Tuyang Initiative from Sarawak. The next show I'm working on is Ceremonial Enactments, which features my fashion show and it's also a triple bill together with Nadi Singapura (percussion ensemble) and the Bhaskars Arts Academy. And the third one that I'm working on is Ubin. I took that on really last minute and the last one is the closing show for Teater Ekamatra, which is the Bangsawan Gemala Malam.

And there's quite a lot of pressure, right? Because you have the opening and closing. And then you have the Ceremonial Enactments. Can I just ask, like, how do you juggle and kind of compartmentalise between the three?

I guess the good thing is that I'm given the luxury of time. I started work way back in 2021; in about June 2021. So there's a lot of creative discussions with the various groups and the various creative directors and all the creatives that are involved. But at the same time, the making of the garments come together at the same time, which is from December all the way till now. And because of the sheer number of pieces that we have, making it has been really hectic but also really fulfilling at the same time. I guess theatre is really a creative avenue for me as a fashion designer, where I get to do things that are not what I'm familiar with doing or am comfortable with doing because you know, with fashion and with the label, there's a standard design code, and I guess I have more facets to me and I can't just be happy doing just black and white – the monochromatic stuff that I'm known for. So I'm really thankful for the theatre industry and the theatre scene for giving me all these wonderful projects to work on.

I guess theatre is really a creative avenue for me as a fashion designer, where I get to do things that are not what I'm familiar with doing or am comfortable with doing.

You won the Best Costume design last year as well, for the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Oiwa.

Yes, I won the Best Costume design for Oiwa. It's a show by the Finger Players and it was also under SIFA 2021. It was a Japanese inspired piece where I get to collage various design elements such as Kabuki, our southeast Asian sarongs, using construction and deconstruction to create these visually very rich costumes that you see on stage.

So was that your first time you were involved with the theatre design works?

No, I started way back in 2015, and 2015 was my first show with Huayi Festival. It was a production under Toy Factory called Upstage. There were three casts and it was essentially three looks that were transformative and they could transform into 15 looks on stage and off stage. So yeah, I guess my theatre foray really started from there.

Wow. Okay. I did actually look through and watched the interview that was carried out for Oiwa after coming across the works. And so this is a very layperson question. Do you design every single thing that is worn in the play itself or only for the key characters?

I take care of every single thing, yes. So from the dancers to the puppeteers that you don't see: the full blacks. I design everything because everything has to be thought through. For example in the case of Oiwa, the puppeteers who are manipulating the human puppets who are standing in front of them; these puppeteers need to be dressed in full black and be shrouded with a veil. But if I were to just give them a black veil, I don't think you'll be able to see anything. And we also have to take into consideration the lighting, whether that fabric is going to be too translucent on stage, if it's going to be more opaque, whether it will affect the puppeteers’ performance in terms of their visibility. So I guess there are a lot of things that are unseen, that a costume designer does as well.

Wow, okay, that's really, really new to me. Because I was thinking, maybe they just do the key characters and then everything else is "you guys sort it out yourself".

No, we have to take care of things right down to the shoes because you know, the whole cast is barefooted. There's a lot of movement from the gliding to the sliding on the stage, so the idea of having friction or avoiding friction, is important for the cast. We have to design and take care of those. Of course, some of these items are sourced, for example socks and these anti-slip socks, but we do have to think about the performance as a whole.

Okay, so when you switch back to retail fashion, do the two fields actually begin to inform each other? Do you get very affected if you switch back to retail after working with a lot of traditional costumes? What is that like?

Well, I guess a part of what the brand stands for is, you don't see much of the traditional or Southeast Asian dress codes that is obvious in the garment’s outcomes. But if you look at inspiration; if I have the chance to speak to customers about the inspirations, you will see that there's a lot of Southeast Asian influence that is in my fashion garments. For instance, in Spring Summer 2021, the whole collection was inspired by a Southeast Asian garment; a very humble garment which is the sarong. Without really making a sarong, we explored the wrapping action of the sarong, how it drapes around the body, and we use that as a collection to inform the rest of the designs for the entire collection. So I would say that, although I'm inspired by tradition, and this whole Nanyang style, I don't take a linear and very literal approach to it. It's always more lateral. And, it's very interesting to see how, without replicating traditional garments, I can use traditional and heritage inspirations to inspire modern designs. I guess that's my interests.

Although I'm inspired by tradition, and this whole Nanyang style, I don't take a linear and very literal approach to it. It's always more lateral. And, it's very interesting to see how, without replicating traditional garments, I can use traditional and heritage inspirations to inspire modern designs.

And I suppose that also extends towards the materiality of the cloth and the fabric?

Yes. Well, the focus of the brand depends on the fabric. What are the qualities that you are seeing in the fabrics? Are you talking about prints? Or are you talking about motifs? I guess for me and the label, my interest is really in the draping and the construction of garments. I guess this is a burning question I always have. For example, if I were to visit a museum, and there's a showcase on Asian garments, for example, the sarong or the sari, most of the time it's always displayed as a flat piece of garment. I don't get to see how it's been worn. I don't get to observe what's being held in place because there's literally not much construction to it. Therefore I guess this is in my discipline and in my artistic approach.

I do want to explore cuts. What do I mean by: "Can we define a Nanyang cut? Can we define Nanyang style of cutting clothes? Can we define a Nanyang style of constructing or constructing clothes in a minimal manner?" But that doesn't mean I don't take inspiration from motifs and patterns. For instance, if I were to look at a piece of batik fabric, I don't just look at : "Oh there's this print over here". But rather, the batik is like, I won't say cut out, but you know how it's waxed and I don't know what's the exact term to use, but there's some form of subtraction in there. So I will use that and apply a subtraction cutting method in the way I construct the garments.

So it's never really looking at the element as it is and then loosely translating it as it is. Because then I think to me, it's a very 'souvenir' kind of designing method. It's like a Western garment, where you put on a batik print and then call it Asian inspired. To me that's very souvenir and a reduction of culture. And I don't think that's right.

The focus of the brand depends on the fabric. What are the qualities that you are seeing in the fabrics? Are you talking about prints? Or are you talking about motifs? I guess for me and the label, my interest is really in the draping and the construction of garments.

So then that is actually very flat, isn't it?

Yeah, it's almost like putting on a 'Welcome to Singapore', Merlion print on a t-shirt. I think that's how I see things. And besides the print, there's nothing about the t-shirt that is inspired by this region that we come from.

Okay, you mentioned quite a bit just now about the cut and the fold and how it's draped. So what is the construction process for you? Are your garments made here or are they done somewhere else? What is that like?

So for the studio process, I have a very small team and in my workshop I tailor and drape the entire collection, all my collections, by myself. I do believe in that because I can't depend on someone to translate my vision. But sometimes the garments are draped around and most of the time, I think, tailors outside take a more controlled approach to things whereas I don't like to be in so much control. So unfortunately I have to do everything myself but I'm thankful I have a very supportive team and it's a very collaborative process. As I'm drafting something, my sewer will be with me and my sewer is my assistant designer, actually. So as I'm drafting we go into communicating on how certain things should be finished, whether certain things should be drafted this way.

So that in my process I involve him and in his sewing processes, he involves me as well. Take for example if there's a certain kind of finishing that we are looking at. I wouldn't just give him like a textbook 101 answer: "Oh, this is a piece of chiffon, please finish it in this way." Rather we take about two to three hours just to explore: "Okay, let's use emotive words to explore the finishing. How would an angry edge look like? How would a sad hem look like?" And in these creative workshops, we throw all the rules from the textbook answers away and come up with rather emotive solutions to fabric finishings.

Is that unusual in the market, that a designer is also a sewer?

I'm not too sure. I guess in Singapore there are few people who do that. And of course if we are talking about the scene as a whole; with regards to the whole world, I'm sure there are designers who would do that. But of course there are retail brands – for me, I would like to make a distinction between a fashion brand and a designer brand. I think a fashion brand is a brand that of course prides retail more than any other thing. Whereas a designer brand takes in a lot more consideration for how the clothes are made and the processes involved.

If you were to look at Yohji Yamamoto, he has a team of drafters and tailors but he's a very accomplished tailor himself. And in the case of Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garcons she has a team of pattern makers. And she doesn't hire designers.

So I guess each designer house has their own practice. But it's very clear for a fashion brand. The practices are more template like: "Oh, let's do research. Let's do consumer research. What do the consumers want? Let's design according to that. And is this aligned to the brand's image? How do we sell this?" It's very business focused. Not to say that it's not important, but I think in the grand scheme, not grand scheme, but in comparison between a designer brand and a fashion brand, I feel creative processes are lacking in fashion brands.

I think a fashion brand is a brand that of course prides retail more than any other thing. Whereas a designer brand takes in a lot more consideration for how the clothes are made and the processes involved.

So you also teach in your alma mater NAFA (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)?

Yes, that's right. I teach the final year of pattern making which is tailoring.

Is this something you try to get students to see and understand: the difference between fashion brand and designer brand, and I suppose the different weight they carry?

This is so interesting, because for the students, they behave as though they are only designer brands. And then you try to introduce the idea of a little bit of business and the business of fashion to them.

Which is reality actually, right?

Yes, which is reality. So, it's very different. The priorities get switched a lot although I think I am a designer brand. At the same time while I teach the students the importance of creative and design processes and methodologies, I can't just neglect the business side of things.

Is this speaking from your own personal experience? Because then, when you graduated, did you find it a surprise that: oh, it's not just, if I'm a designer, then, you know, that covers everything.

Yeah, you're right. I think when I just graduated, actually when I first started my label it's a very steep learning curve for me in terms of making this label a sustainable business. But at the same time, we don't have a fashion industry to speak of. We have the 80s designers, we have the 90s designers. But I guess each decade and generation comes with its own set of problems and new things to learn and to observe, according to how the world is changing.

I'm very thankful to my mentors who have guided me along the way in the fundamental years. But at the same time, I think I can't just take their advice wholesale because what was relevant back then, isn't relevant to me when I first started. Take for example, someone told me: "Hey, you know, your things are too unapproachable. Why don't you start a diffusion line?", which I did. And I think it did very well. But I guess at the same time it took attention away from running the main core, the main line and I think that affected how I saw fashion differently. And, so I put a stop to the diffusion line, although it was doing relatively well.

Each decade and generation comes with its own set of problems and new things to learn and to observe, according to how the world is changing.

Okay. So you have quite a lot of fingers in the European market as well. Do you feel that it is the Asian-ness of your designs, that is appealing or is it because you find it could be that your works are very transcendental, almost, you know, bridging between everything?

I've never really thought about this. But I guess the way I design appeals to a certain group of women regardless where they are geographically. So while my agent is based in Paris, I think my strongest market is actually Middle East and the Scandinavian countries where it's just different. Say for my Middle Eastern markets; these are women who don't want to wear abayas but they still want to be modestly covered up, adhering to religious dress codes. So this is where I'm very thankful that they see my garments as something - that they see my garments as objects that they can express themselves but also adhere to and be respectful to where they come from. And all these other things in place. So yeah.

So it must have been a pleasant surprise, right? I imagine when you design the garment you don't design specifically for a nationality or an ethnic group. And so when you say that, oh, maybe the same set of collection actually appeals to Scandinavian countries and you know, Middle East as well. So, does that then once again begin to affect your next season of clothes? Do you find yourself beginning to tailor toward these customers or preferences?

Well, I guess there's a reason why you're attracted to the clothes in the first place. I don't tailor my design according to 100% of their needs. For example, if buyer A says "Oh, can you do something more resort?" Well, I guess I will do a different kind of resort wear that can take you from work to the beach. But I guess my customers really do buy into my ideas and they are very discerning customers who appreciate and look for the little details in my garments and how they're constructed. They find little surprises in them. I've got some customers who tell me that they feel really powerful when they wear my clothes, even though it's so drapery. So I guess in a way I hope my garments still make people feel something. And I'm always very happy to hear that.

I guess my customers really do buy into my ideas and they are very discerning customers who appreciate and look for the little details in my garments and how they're constructed. They find little surprises in them. I've got some customers who tell me that they feel really powerful when they wear my clothes, even though it's so drapery. So I guess in a way I hope my garments still make people feel something.

I think it’s also interesting that you talk about receiving feedback. What is that process like? How do you get feedback when you are, let's say here, and your clothes are sold in just stores, right? How does this communication happen?

Because this communication really happens through my agent. My agent does this consolidated feedback on what is working; the business side of things – “oh the arm holes a little bit too loose this season, the skirt lengths are a little bit too short. Well, can we have more buttons on this?" So these are the feedback that I get through my agent.

But I also have direct conversations with my buyers who buy through my agent. And yeah, I guess in this time and age, it's always WhatsApp. They will take a photo screenshot: "I think this is working really well. Can you think about designing along this line or can we have more of these silhouettes? This is really interesting. Can we extend this idea for the next season?" So going back to your previous question, yes, I don't tailor to the end consumer needs. But yes, I do take feedback when they are a little bit more generic or allow room for extension and to think about things.

Okay. So, is there another arm of fashion that you would like to be involved in, now that I guess you can see you are quite a veteran when it comes to theatre and costume design. Is there something else that you think you can actually move towards?

Well, I don't think I'm a veteran, yet. But because there's always something to learn and with each production it's different. I really do enjoy costume designing and fashion a lot but at the same time, I don't think I have the bandwidth to think about any other thing but if there's something I want to do, I guess it probably won't be fashion.

I see. Interesting. So maybe that brings me to the other question, which is if you are not a fashion designer, what is another field that you're interested in?

I'm really interested in cooking. And I love animals. So it's probably social causes for animal rescues and all that that I'm really interested in doing. But at this moment, I think fashion is my priority. And I really like the challenges that comes with it. It's a tough industry and I think a lot of fashion people who are in the industry would agree with me that it's a hard industry to stay in because there's just so many elements to balance and to work around with. We are always chasing timelines. We are not allowed... there's very little creative space or time for creative space and explorations, which is why I value creative processes so much.

But at this moment, I think fashion is my priority. And I really like the challenges that comes with it. It's a tough industry and I think a lot of fashion people who are in the industry would agree with me that it's a hard industry to stay in because there's just so many elements to balance and to work around with.

So what would be some word of caution that you will give to your students who want to embark into the fashion scene and start a business exactly like what you have done? What are some words of caution?

Stay really receptive to criticisms and feedback. Take them all in, but at the same time, don't take them all in. Be very critical about who you are as a designer and the feedback that you can take in and decide whether that's even relevant for you or not. The fashion industry is not a one man show. Be prepared to work in teams or to be able to work with different people. Stay very hungry, stay very hard working. Because, it's a tough one to be in.

"Stay very hungry". What does that translate into? Does it mean trying to get as much commission's as possible, joining as much competitions as possible?

In the case of a young designer who is starting the business, I think when I say stay very hungry, it depends on what each person wants. For me. I value creative growth. So I hunger for creative growth with every set of new challenges that presents itself whether it's a collection or it's a new show. For example, if this young designer wants to start a fashion brand instead of a designer brand and I guess stay very hungry to make this brand a successful one and a big and a well-known one.

Be very critical about who you are as a designer and the feedback that you can take in and decide whether that's even relevant for you or not. The fashion industry is not a one man show. Be prepared to work in teams or to be able to work with different people. Stay very hungry, stay very hard working.

Okay. I have some fun questions. All right. They are kind of just trying to get to know you better.

So what will you search for? Will you search for answers or questions?

I search for... answers.

Okay and what do you prefer, dawn or dusk?

Dusk. I think dusk is a beautiful time to unwind or not think about things and it's, I go into this contemplative state whenever dusk comes.

If you have a choice of drink, would it be soya bean or chin chow?

Soya bean.

And if you could, would you wear a one piece or two piece?

If I could, I would wear a one piece and that will only be a sarong. It's too hot in Singapore. And I really do think that the sarong makes a lot of sense.

Right? Okay.

What do you think is the most underrated garment that we wear?

The most underrated garment that we wear? Hmm… I've never thought about this. I think the most underrated garment that we wear would be a t-shirt. Yes, I guess I say a t-shirt because a well-made and relatively simple t-shirt will take us through many occasions. But yet, it always plays a supporting role you know, when layered under a dress it becomes an inner layer, but it's never really quite celebrated because it doesn't allow for that. I mean, it's a simple t-shirt, but if you look at it, it's a highly functional piece of garment to have ever come up from the west.

Okay, and if you look at the components of a garment, which part is the most difficult to make or get right?

The slit of a lapel on a jacket. It's very difficult to get right because a commercial lapel just does not fit as well, because everybody's body shape is different. That's always the most difficult to get right or close to right.

Okay. Very interesting. All right. Thank you so much. Thank you for joining us today for this short chat. We wish you all the best and we look forward to the programmes in the upcoming SIFA.

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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