WITHOUT THEM, MODEL LAYLA ONG MIGHT HAVE NEVER WALKED FOR GUCCI; THE CULT LABEL YOUTHS IN BALACLAVA MIGHT NOT LOOK AS COOL; AND, WELL, SOME OF THE STUFF YOU SEE IN THIS MAGAZINE MIGHT NEVER HAVE MATERIALISED. KENG YANG SHUEN GETS 10 USUALLY UNSEEN FORCES (ALL WOMEN, BY THE WAY) WHO DESERVE THE AWARD FOR BEST SUPPORTING ROLE IN OUR FASHION INDUSTRY TODAY TO STEP INTO THE SPOTLIGHT.
"A render of the set for the 2019 TV production Mixed Signals (top), for which Tan played production designer and scenes from the hyper-stylish music video for Jasmine Sokko’s Hurt (bottom row), art directed by Tan"
THE MODEL BOOKER PUTTING SG ON THE GLOBAL MAP: BONITA MA
What she does: What do some of Singapore’s most-in-demand models-of-the-moment like Fiona Fussi, Aimee Cheng-Bradshaw and the Alessandro Michele-approved Layla Ong – our multi-time cover girl with this month’s marking her third in two years – have in common? They’re all represented here by Basic Models Management, the agency started by Ma and her husband in 2012 (out of the HDB home of Ma’s mother, to boot). That would make the 34-year-old Ma – who also bears the title of head booker – their industry mum, so to speak (yeah, her surname couldn’t be more apt).
A typical day for her involves meeting models hourly from the minute she steps into the office (now located in an industrial building in the MacPherson area) to discuss their progress and even content for their social media channels. Come 4pm, she switches over to EU time when the agencies in Europe start work and she has to coordinate placements and bookings for her models who are based there. Things only get more intense during the Fashion Week season when she’s “practially on call at all hours”, toggling multiple time zones to tend to all of her models’ needs.
“They should be able to ring at 2am here because they know that I’ll be there to assist them,” she says matter-of-factly. Take for instance how she had to go into emergency mode in February and rebook flights for models Ong and up-and-comer Kaci Beh so that they could return home earlier from Milan Fashion Week as the Covid-19 pandemic encroached on the Italian city.
To think that Ma fell into the industry 13 years ago because she had wanted a job with no dress code restrictions and stumbled upon a talent agency looking for a project coordinator. These days, her focus lies in championing local faces. Her answer when asked to cite her career highlights says plenty. “Fiona getting picked by L’Oreal to be its first non-celebrity ambassador in China; Aimee nailing a Neutrogena endorsement; Layla getting confirmed to walk Milan Fashion Week,” she rattles off, all while beaming like, well, a proud mum.
Her advice for those looking to break into the industry: “It is very important to know that you’re not here to party and make friends. You’ll be sacrificing a lot of personal time and space for work because you’ll be on your phone all the time. You need to be good with stress and know how to align the expectations of clients and models, which is often a tough balance”. (PS. Being a polyglot helps, she adds, as a booker deals with models and agents from all over the world.)
THE MILLENNIAL ART DIRECTOR/PHOTOGRAPHER/ SET DESIGNER/ARTIST: YANG ER TAN
What she does: Where to begin with this convivial, multi-dimensional 26-year-old? Chances are you’ve probably already come across her work in one form or another, but here, let’s focus on her commercial endeavours.
There’s her stint as production designer for the television remake of the absurdist Michael Chiang play Mixed Signals, which premiered last October and marked the first time her work was showcased on telly. She’s also the prodigious linchpin behind some of local popdom’s most high-profile projects, what with her being BFFs and a frequent collaborator with songstress Narelle Kheng – she was behind the surrealist artwork for the latter’s 2019 single Outta My Head, for example.
In 2017, she was crowned Best Visual & Art Director Of The Year at the Mnet Asian Music Awards for the video for Keep Me Jealous, a hit by Kheng’s now-on-hiatus band The Sam Willows. She followed that up a year later with the hyper-stylish MV for electronic phenom Jasmine Sokko’s Hurt (in which a sultry Kheng made a cameo).
Oh, and she’s a multi-disciplinary artist, makes her own props and basically has a finger in nearly every aspect of the visual storytelling process behind the camera. Trial by fire” process that calls for her to constantly be on her toes and “planning for worst-case scenarios”.
It’s a thrill however that she’s been addicted to since her second year as a communications studies undergraduate at the Nanyang Technological University, when she was tasked to transform the campus grounds into a horror-themed circus on a shoestring budget for a freshman camp video. “Spatial transformation” – both physical and visual – is how she describes what she does.
And let’s not forget that when everything’s over, she’s also often the one responsible for cleaning everything up. “The tearing down of sets and returning of props are very painful processes,” she says. “It’s very telling of character when someone carries them out well – a life of craft is so much more than making something look good.”
Her advice for those looking to break into the industry: “Have something worthwhile to say. It will come through in your designs. The resulting work will then be meaningful instead of purely decorative.” And no, you don’t have to be trained in set design or anything along those lines. Speaking from her own experience, she says: “Transferable skills are valued as long as you know how to apply them intelligently.”
Tan (dressed in a Fendi cardigan and shirt, and her own jeans and accessories) is the consummate multi-hyphenate creative – except that she prefers to stay behind the camera. Her repertoire includes art direction, photography, set design, business management (she co-founded the dive bar/working space 21 Moonstone) as well as her own multi-disciplinary art practice with history and current affairs her greatest sources of inspiration.
HAIR MIHO KIM / 1TTO + LIM MAKEUP BENO LIM, USING PIXI BEAUTY
THE CURATORS BEHIND SINGAPORE’S FIRST PERMANENT JEWELLERY AND FASHION AND TEXTILES GALLERIES: NAOMI WANG AND JACKIE YOONG
What they do: Yoong is behind the 2,010 sq ft fashion and textiles room while Wang, the one on Southeast Asian jewellery (which is a tad smaller at 1,640 sq ft). Putting together these spaces on the third floor of the Asian Civilisations Museum has been a behemoth task more than two years in the making, especially considering that they’re the first permanent galleries in Singapore and the world respectively specialising in their disciplines.
Certainly, a big part of the job is library research – how else could Wang have started assembling a breathtaking showcase of jewellery from the region hailing from as far back as the Neolithic period (read: more than 12,000 years ago) to the 20th century? Yoong is however quick to point out that being a curator is not all about burying oneself in books.
One of her favourite aspects of the job, for example, is meeting the collectors and families who loan or donate items. Through such interactions, she gleans intimate facts and anecdotes about the artefacts that are unlikely to have made it to literature or second-hand sources. (One fun fact that she learnt when working on the fashion gallery: The Mao suit on display at its debut exhibition – dedicated to Chinese dress between the late Qing period and 1976 – was crafted from extra-fine wool, revealing that its owner was of a high social status as such suits were typically made from cotton.)
And while all that research alone could take a year, making sense of the information and then translating it for a broad audience – all while being aware and respectful of factors such as cultural sensitivities – is another formidable task. Like how the museum labels that accompany each artwork or artefact must appeal to a casual attendee such as a child as much as the informed insider with history and context all crammed into approximately 60 words. Not an enviable job, but Wang wrote all 164 pieces for the jewellery room herself.
Then of course there’s the exhibition design: strategising how best to display selected artefacts for the user’s experience alongside technical considerations like scenography and lighting. (The latter’s partly why the fashion gallery will rotate exhibitions yearly – its exhibits tend to be fragile and can’t be exposed to strong lighting for an extended period. Unveiled to the public early last month, both galleries jointly showcase over 200 exhibits and tell diverse stories of Asian history and culture and how they’ve shaped identities through history. And when it’s time to change their installations, Yoong and Wang will do it all over again.
Their advice for those looking to break into the industry: Yoong points out that it is helpful to major in related fields of studies such as art history, but volunteering at a preferred institution is also a good way to get a sense of whether the job – and place – is suitable. Adds Wang: “Liking history or the visual arts is not enough. Having a specific area of interest that you really want to explore, research and add value to will help to set you apart.”
Curators Jackie Yoong (this page in a Sportmax coat, Max Mara shirt and pants, and her own accessories) and Naomi Wang (opposite in a Gucci blouse,
pants and sandals) head the Asian Civilisations Museum’s new permanent galleries dedicated to fashion and textiles and jewellery respectively.
THE INDEPENDENT STYLING ASSISTANTS: JAMIE LEE, MISATO KATOH, YUAN KUN & SHANNAHLETTE JENN LIM
What they do: Where would any photo shoot be if not for the diligent assistants like the four freelancers opposite, who help in so many ways to make things happen? For one, a typical day-to-day routine is hard to pin down as different shoots have different to-do lists; the hours – usually long and unpredictable.
Among the common tasks that each has to deal with: running around town – sometimes multiple times a day – to fetch fashion loans from various brands and stores; unpacking of said items on set; steaming and polishing them up so that they look picture perfect; organising them for the stylist; and dressing the model/ celebrity/newsmaker in the pieces as instructed. And when it’s finally a wrap, putting everything back into place, including making sure that all loans are packed and get returned safely.
Clothes and accessories aren’t the only things that they have to source for though. Check props (Katoh was once tasked to find a salangai, an anklet usually worn during classical Indian dances) and locations (watch out for security guards who might chase one out, warns Lee). For anyone who thinks that working in fashion is glamorous, this will be one of the harshest reality checks with one more often than not being taken for granted as a scrub.
The upside, all four agree though, is that the experience exposes one to various sides and people in the industry. Katoh – who regularly assists the Japan-trained stylist Josiah Chua – for example has met her Harajuku idols on set and even got the chance to design a costume for the singer Joanna Dong.
It’s also the best kind of education for anyone interested in being a stylist. Says Lim: “You get to work with and pick up skills from not just one, but a few stylists and this enables you to broaden your perspective... The tasks at each job might be similar, but you take home different knowledge because each shoot and crew is different.” (PS. All four also agree that the depiction of industry assistants in popular culture is anything but true, though sometimes the devil does wear Prada.)
Their advice for those looking to break into the industry: Work for someone you admire, and work hard and conscientiously no matter the task – the accumulated experience will come in handy in the long run, says Lim. Oh and be prepared for plenty of heavy lifting so if you don’t work out, you better start, quips Lee.
HAIR ZOEL TEE, USING KEVIN. MURPHY MAKEUP SHA SHAMSI, USING CHARLOTTE TILBURY / SEPHORA
"Many of the visuals produced for commercial projects and magazines including this one would not have been possible without freelance styling assistants like (from left) Jamie Lee, Misato Katoh, Yuan Kun and Shannahlette Jenn Lim, who styled themselves here in their own clothes and accessories – no assistant needed."
THE GIRLS IN YOUTHS IN BALACLAVA: ARIANNA ALEEZON AND ELSA WONG
What they do: Since we last shot the proudly +65 collective Youths In Balaclava – or YIB for short – less than a year ago, it’s presented at Paris Fashion Week twice; been flagged as a brand-to-watch by trade publication Women’s Wear Daily; and picked up by some of the most discerning retailers in the world. That’s a lot of growing up and development to do in a pretty short amount of time, including the way this 13-man outfit operates.
Among its quieter members are Aleezon, 23, and Wong, 21. They also happen to be the only women in the pack, but their gender and low-key mannerism have far from any bearing on their places in it.
The apparel design-trained Aleezon, for example, who was first roped in by YIB co-founder Taufiq to work on the sampling for the Spring/Summer 2020 collection now heads the design and execution for YIB Bandits, a secondary line launched late last year and meant to be friendlier in style and price. (By YIB standards, that means plenty of tees and sweatshirts with a strong DIY spirit, scrawled with witty slogans and art that reflect the posse’s unbridled youth and individualistic MO – essentially what the YIB started out and found fame with.)
Meanwhile Wong leads the visual communications team with two other members. Jointly they conceptualise, execute and handle the campaigns, social media content, store installations and even media relations (a new role created due to the YIB’s fast-rising visibility) for both the main, more fashion-forward line and YIB Bandits.
One of her favourite projects, she says, is the campaign for Lost In Transit, YIB’s Spring/Summer 2020 collection, that saw the trio working on everything from the storyboarding to the rental of lights for the shoot.Starring their friends and shot in one of their homes, the sepia-tinged images deliver a sharpened sense of the YIB’s disaffected cool and spontaneity. Reportedly, Adrian Joffe – president of Dover Street Market, where the brands are stocked, and the YIB’s unofficial fairy godfather – approves.
Their advice for those looking to break into the industry: The best way to learn, Wong posits, is on the job. “Keep reading, watching and meeting different people. Don’t be afraid to share your work. In this age of social media, people can get connected easily and a collaboration or opportunity could come your way.” Aleezon’s manifesto meanwhile should land on the next YIB Bandits slogan tee: “Know your strengths and what you can do... Question everything. Stop talking.”
HAIR ZOEL TEE, USING KEVIN. MURPHY MAKEUP ALISON TAY, USING NARS
A look back at the Youths In Balaclava’s visuals over the years right up to its Spring/Summer 2020 campaign – all stylised, nostalgia-laced and co-conceptualised by Wong and the group’s visual communications team
Originally brought on to work on the sampling for the Youths In Balaclava’s Spring/Summer 2020 collection, Arianna Aleezon (left) now heads design for the
collective’s sub-line YIB Bandits while Elsa Wong, who’s been with the group since late 2017, leads its visual communications team.
HAIR ZOEL TEE, USINGKEVIN. MURPHY MAKEUP ALISON TAY, USING NARS
PHOTOGRAPHY VEE CHIN ART DIRECTION & STYLING ADELINE ENG