Singapore lacks a fashion museum. It’s not imperative for every developed metropolitan city to have one, but we have been trying to position ourselves as a serious fashion hub for decades now, and not having one seems off brand.
We’ve organised a steady slew of fashion weeks—there were the previously Audi-backed Singapore Fashion Week, Digital Fashion Week, and Fidé Fashion Week just to name a few—and encouraged fashion-focused reality television series ranging from fashion model searches to design competitions. Fashion is also a major in a number of art schools in Singapore. There’s even a Singapore Fashion Council.
To be fair, fashion-skewed exhibitions aren’t uncommon here. Aside from brand-specific exhibits by fashion giants the likes of 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.
It started off with 2019’s blockbuster Guo Pei: Chinese Art & Couture, a study of Chinese couturier Guo Pei’s creations—including that heavily meme-d gown worn by Rihanna to the 2015 Met Gala—and their cultural references. After a year’s break due to Covid-19, the ACM debuted #SGFASHIONNOW in collaboration with LASALLE College of the Arts in 2021 that was followed by a second edition a year later. And in 2022, batik became the centrepiece in a two-pronged exhibition that included a display of 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 prolific fashion designers, Paris-based Andrew Gn. The exhibition is the museum’s largest ever dedicated to a contemporary Singaporean fashion figure.
“Fashion isn’t new for us,” says Kennie Ting. The director of the ACM and Peranakan Museum is the man behind the developmental shift in 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 doesn’t stop till time, well, stops. 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.
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 ACM’s Materials and Design wing located on its third level and serve as a celebration of the decorative arts in the region.
“The strengths of our collection currently lie in historic fashion and textiles up to the mid-20th century, including Indonesian batiks, Indian trade textiles, 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 former’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—including fashion and textiles—has travelled quite extensively for overseas display, including Paris, Seoul, Tokyo and Fukuoka.”
Opening up to the contemporary sphere means that the collections will reflect that too. As part of National Heritage Board’s Our Singapore Heritage Plan 2.0—a set of initiatives guiding Singapore’s heritage and museum landscape for 2023 and beyond—the ACM is seeking to expand its fashion, furniture and jewellery collections with contemporary ones. For example, more than 160 pieces of Andrew Gn’s creations have been added to the National Collection.
“We hope the Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World exhibition spurs more local designers to think about their legacy, and to think 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 connections between the two.
One would assume that holding more contemporary fashion exhibitions would immediately rake in visitors in droves. After all, New York’s Metropolitan Museum has managed to make its annual Costume Institute exhibitions 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, and prompted the institutions in both cities to introduce unprecedented measures to meet public demand. At the ACM, Ting reveals that that’s hardly the case. The footfall of the museum’s classical exhibitions still make for its more popular ventures—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. And there is also very little exposure for local designers in general,” Ting proffers. “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.”
There’s still much to be positive about, especially with such “risks”. Ting says that the fashion exhibitions organised thus far have introduced the ACM to an entirely new crowd. He’s encouraged by statistics that show about half of the visitors to the contemporary fashion exhibitions have been first-time ACM attendees, and a majority of them range between teenagers to those in their 20s. And the fact that they’re being exposed to a more diverse pool of Singapore’s fashion design talents? Priceless.
But what is Singapore fashion? It’s a perennial question that often comes up, almost as a dissenting voice to the efforts that multiple organisations like the ACM work on to highlight a scene that’s still somewhat in its infancy.
As someone who has spent her career studying and dissecting fashion by people from and of the region, Yoong offers this 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 and hone when it comes to Singapore fashion, it’s that there’s hardly an identifiable look. What others may see as having a lack of strong identity could actually be a strength. We’re a community open to outside ideas and welcoming of different cultures—traits that make us, perhaps quite tritely, uniquely Singapore.
The ACM may not be Singapore’s official fashion museum, but given how as a country, we’re connected and influenced by the many different cultures in the region, there’s unlikely another institution that could fill the role quite as harmoniously. The permanent galleries serve more than mere historical references to understand and learn about the past. Rather, they’re a continuation of a journey towards crafting a creative vision for the now. It may not be an apparent link (what could perhaps be a potential exhibition by the ACM) but the next time the museum holds a contemporary fashion exhibit, take a gander at the permanent galleries as well and you may notice such interwoven connectedness.
In the bigger scheme of things, Ting hopes that the Singaporean public will grow to appreciate the kind of creative and design talents that we have through the ACM’s continued efforts to highlight them. “And feel compelled to support them,” he adds. “That would constitute success.”