A new generation of talent is championing community and creative freedom over commercial conventions. Jeffrey Yan talks to the home-grown fashion collectives making waves

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

"A look from the graduate collection of Putri Adif presented at the Why Not? guerilla fashion show in 2019"

From Yves Saint Laurent launching ready-to-wear in the golden age of haute couture to Marc Jacobs showing a grunge collection when sleek, glossy luxury ruled the day, fashion history has always been made by the young and the hopeful who are unafraid to march to their own beat. They are the ones who felt an itchy change in the air and reacted decisively to help shape the zeitgeist. Now, a world away from the fashion capitals of Paris, Milan, London and New York, a new wave of Singaporean designers are showing a similar fearlessness. Youths In Balaclava exploded onto the scene with its anarchic streetwear when so much around them was safe and sanitised. Why Not? was birthed as a response to the repressiveness they felt from the establishment. Though atdifferent career stages, what both collectives share are a commitment to finding their tribe and doing things their way.
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"Clockwise from left: Khairyna Mazin’s collection. A guest at Why Not?’s first fundraiser, Y Party. Manfred Lu’s collection. Lydia Kok’s presentation. Racy Lim. Izwan Abdullah. Miyuki Tsuji. Manfred Lu"


Frustrated by the rigidity they saw in the fashion school system here, designer Manfred Lu teamed up with Creative Director Izwan Abdullah last year to put on their own showcase. They enlisted like-minded design students to join them, as well as editor-curator-PR practitioner Racy Lim. The result was part guerilla fashion show, part performance art, and a pure manifestation of youthful energy—with each designer conceptualising every last detail of his or her segment. In a year, the collective has grown from nine to over 20 members, encompassing not just designers but also creatives with backgrounds in writing, fine arts, theatre and graphic design.

How did the collective come about?

Manfred Lu (ML): It started out with fatigue from the traditional art school frameworks in Singapore. We had enough of participating in a system that has not changed for decades—often a 30-second runway show no one watches. Questioning our discipline, our goals and our careers, we came up with the question and the name: “Why Not?”

Izwan Abdullah (IA): Designers spend half a year working on a collection to eventually have someone else decide how it’s going to be presented—it’s something that we need to start deciding ourselves. When something is not handed to us, we work for it and create it for ourselves.

What changes do you want to see in the industry?

IA: On an institution level, I believe young designers deserve more autonomy. They’re pressured to achieve an unattainable level of commerciality and a lot of artistry is lost. Take away the unnecessary embellishments; we don’t need more competitions. What we really need is a platform that allows for more collaboration, resulting in relevant experience and exposure.

Racy Lim (RL): Greater representation of non-binary identities, and more non-capitalist modes of working. Those we involve need to feel truly respected rather than merely “filling a gap”. Empathy and humanity are buzzwords often thrown around to make projects seem socially conscious, but they may not be reflected in the process. That in itself is also a form of exploitation.

Is there a common thread in the work of the collective?

ML: It’s interesting because most of us are designers and writers who have never received a formal fashion education. It’s a great balance of different points of view, and I think our collective critical questioning of the fashion system was what brought us all together.

Miyuki Tsuji: We thrive on one another’s creativity and energy. Every designer’s starting point and inspirations are completely different, so the outcome and mood are different. However, because we work very closely as a team, this could somehow unintentionally form that thread of similarity; but it’s never too apparent nor in any way emphasised.

What were your plans for 2020 before the pandemic and how are you navigating it?

IA: As with last year, we were working towards our guerrilla show; the collective was working on fundraising parties and the show content. The pandemic has challenged us further to think about the form and structure of our show.

ML: Without spoiling too much, I think we’re looking at a bigger picture now. With the digitalisation of shows and growing signs that the system is going to indeed slow down after this, I think there’s an opportunity for a dialogue and a change in our message.

What drives your work?

RL: Class and community divisions have existed for a long time, but the recent slowdown has made them a lot more difficult to ignore as our behaviours are concentrated more than ever in the digital space. This has led us to think about how we—as individuals and a collective—can motivate more tangible actions to help bridge those societal and structural gaps.

What are your hopes for the collective?

IA: Our biggest goal is to raise fashion to the same stature as art. We want to change the Singaporean perception of fashion, and for young creatives to be more daring and empowered.

ML: It’s not easy, but it has to become the norm for designers to aspire for autonomy in all aspects of their work.

RL: The project cannot exist to soothe egos. An initiative that is aimed at motivating progress cannot function in a self-serving manner—we’re extremely mindful that the process and outcomes must remain genuine. In the long run, we want to be a space that people trust and turn to because they know there’s no social alienation or people doing things just because “it’s cool”.
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From left: Members of Youths In Balaclava. Looks from Lost In Transit, the collective’s spring/ summer 2020 collection, which was shown at Paris Fashion Week 

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This 13-member collective banded together in 2015 to create fashion that reflects their tastes and experiences. With a unique aesthetic that blends the languages of streetwear, Singaporean youth, film, music and various subcultures— so different from everything going on locally at that time—it quickly gained a reputation for being a rebel and an outsider. It wasn’t too long, though, before mainstream recognition came knocking at its door. In 2017, it hit retail holy grail—Dover Street Market—and fashion insiders the world over quickly sat up and took notice. Last year, it upped the stakes with a Paris Fashion Week debut and now, Youths In Balaclava is stocked at the most cutting-edge global retailers, from SSENSE and Selfridges to 10 Corso Como and Galeries Lafayette.

What led to the start of the collective?

The idea of bringing together different people from different backgrounds to exchange ideas and collaborate creatively. It’s a platform for these creative individuals to find an outlet for their voices without the need for any prior art background or a well-rounded résumé.

What drew the collective to fashion?

Fashion was introduced to different members of the collective through different experiences, such as music and movies, and these made us pay attention to style. There was a strong attraction to dressing well and knowing your references—most of which stemmed from things we observed around us, such as media, music and art. The inspiration from these made us turn to the world of fashion as a form of expression.

How has the industry changed from when you first started?

We haven’t seen a major change, although we have noticed that more support is being granted to creatives with smaller followings. There is more attention being spread out to new creatives and the industry is giving them a platform. Compared to when we started, the local arts scene is now more supportive. I think what we’ve managed to do showed local creatives that anything is possible with a little time.

You went from being outsiders to being part of the system. How does that feel?

One advantage is simply the recognition of what we do and for that to be deemed as accomplishments; we were able to make a name for ourselves, not just locally but on a global platform. People now understand that we are able to produce basic, everyday apparel in addition to a full collection with layers in our concept. The best part of it is, we enjoy what we do—what we used to do just for fun is now our actual job.

And what do you want to express with your clothes?

We want to pay homage to the rejects of every era while injecting our personal life experiences into the styles we create, through fabric.

Who are the people that inspire you?

The radicals who are not afraid of the dark: Martin Scorsese, David Bowie, Tim Burton, Salvador Dalí and Gravity Boys, to name a few.

What other changes would you like to see?

Thanks to the current pandemic, this is now a reflective moment for the industry to make changes to its structure, such as the number of collections a year and the resources used. Fashion is important in many different ways, and now is a good time to think about how it can still play its part and remain relevant as the world recovers. The industry can look at changing how it does seasons so that brands are less burdened to keep up and are encouraged to produce less.

What were your goals and plans for 2020 before the pandemic hit?

Our goal was to branch out onto more platforms and for the brand to grow bigger. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, Paris Fashion Week in June was cancelled. There was fear initially, since we have only just started our journey. However, we remain optimistic and we’re taking this as another challenge to overcome. We look forward to improving ourselves and there’s also excitement to come as some of us approach the end of National Service.