Why Not: Subverting orthodoxical approaches in the Singaporean fashion realm

by Kimberly Kiong
10 August 2019

The  fashion and visual art collective is looking to set the platform in a wholly independent, self-sufficient direction – steering away from handing its organisational power to existing powerhouse designers and leading producers. It continues to challenge the commercialism of products, turning its head towards revolutionising the ways in which Singapore fashion has been being presented within the spheres of contemporary art. 

Cover Image: aetll, courtesy of Leica SL

In Singapore, the banality of constructing appeal through pragmatic reasoning—drafting, making and seeling—is wearing thin the creative potential of emerging designers. It is a trickle-down fatigue from structural frameworks geared towards productivity and efficiency. Having wide market appeal is deemed as key to keeping a local fashion business afloat because of the small pool of target consumers. The safety net of preformulated models to pique the interest of consumers is seeing an opposition. The next wave of creatives who see fashion as an art form are poking through, questioning outdated systems of business and artistry.

In June, Why Not questioned the worn out scaffolds of local fashion at The Substation. It brought together visual art and fashion as a functional system, sparking conversation amongst young creatives. By drawing the audience’s focus to the narratives of each collection rather than banking the value of the collections on visual and practical enticement, the designers included the audience in their stories.

With current sterile selling approaches, consumers are not given the opportunity to absorb, let alone fully digest the story and significance of each collection. If gaps in communication continue to persist, the growth and understanding of fashion is bound to turn stale. It is in the establishment of a dialogue that made Why Not effective in commanding attention.

The collective saw it point to flesh out each narrative without limiting itself to the traditional runway model. The direction away from a dispassionate, transactional relationship between designer and consumer has been a nugget of thought in the local artistic community. Why Not’s Creative Director, Izwan Abdullah brought forward, “everyone’s into the whole immersive experience. People want to be present and they want to be involved. That sort of interaction with the audience is what we aim to achieve.”

Participating designer and Show Director, Manfred Lu observed, “Fashion is, and will always be, dependent on commercialism. We’ve seen multiple changes now, where bigger labels present themselves with unique and artistic presentations. But what’s unsettling is it’s not done with pure intentions. It’s done for virtual views, for media intention. It’s all shock, good shock, just to earn as much money as possible. With this initiative, you could say it’s sort of how fashion presentations could be where the designers have no intentions to sell or propose anything. We did it because it was fun. We did it because it’s something we’re truly passionate about.

Production manager, Marion Narisma, also weighed in about the importance of paying attention to the emotional threads of each collection, “Some of the collections in Why Not have strong emotionally-driven concepts, and watching them from a screen will not do the collection’s objective justice. When watching a presentation in person, we get to experience the intensity of the music and lights physically, aspects that aid the designer in expressing a certain emotion to the audience.”

Perhaps it is also the expressions of self-identity and agency of each designer that drew a crowd in eager anticipation to witness the stories unfolding before them. Each inspired by the ownership the designers held over their collections and remembered once again, the rules were ultimately not written by institutions or industry veterans.

Marion highlighted, “I feel like that is an important step to take towards in building our current structure of fashion and artistic showcases in Singapore. Often times, concepts are watered down so that they can be shown to the general public. Creatives should be given more liberty in choosing what they put out, without the pressure of whether or not their works would be accepted by the public. When we announced Why Not to the public, we received messages from other creatives in Singapore being grateful and taken aback that an event like this was happening. That alone speaks volumes on our local fashion and artistic showcases in Singapore, where an event like this is seen as ‘rebellious’. But when you think about it, all we are doing is expressing ourselves freely.”

To liken freedom of expression with rebellion also reflects the restrained state of conversation amongst creatives here. “Fashion can’t thrive on exclusivity, not in Singapore. It shouldn’t be a privilege. You shouldn’t feel like you can’t be interested or involved, and you shouldn’t feel like an outsider. There’s a certain attitude that the fashion industry entails and it’s quite toxic. It’s a prideful attitude that’s unwilling to look away and give in to change.” says Manfred.

In the lead-up to the showcase, Izwan Abdullah and Manfred Lu as creative director and show director respectively had different approaches to putting together the show. As a graphic designer, Izwan is trained to do in-depth research, go through many rounds of exploration to settle on a concept and be a solution maker to design problems while Manfred is more driven by aesthetics and visual thinking. Manfred recounted, “it was difficult for me to work that way, I’d argue over things and say “you can’t do that with fashion, it’s not that deep”. And I realised how I was just perpetuating the same problems and issues that led us to do the show in the first place. So I listened, I learned to work the way a graphic designer does, and Izwan learned to think as a fashion designer as well. Both Izwan and I are the two negatives that make a positive. With both our understanding, we made something neutral that benefits both point of views.”

Being able to sit with conflicting schools of thought, make room and listen instead of being dismissive and seeing anything different as an attack on one’s foundation of values or expectations is a working culture that needs to be honed. Not only will this validation of differing opinions nurture a more conducive space for creating and collaborating, it will help sharpen creative processes by learning and unlearning from one another. The subversion Why Not presents is a nudge for people to rethink what they think they know well and be open to feedback and change.

Yet, this will not be the last we see of them. The collective will continue honouring the narratives of emerging designers and building a strong collaborative spirit by expanding their circle. Since the first presentation at The Substation, the organisers of Why Not have been working with their team to plan the next showcase. Manfred remarked, ‘I’d like more support systems for young designers. It’s easy to apply for a scholarship or join a competition to make a name for yourself but it’s aid from institutions that will really push the industry forward. It doesn’t even have to be monetary support, it could be affordable or free short courses for designers to expand on what they know.”

A cultural writer at sand magazine, Kimberly Kiong is also a creative who seeks to bridge existing communication gaps across communities through visual and text-based mediums. She firmly believes in the power of inclusivity, diversity and exercises her interest through social projects such as offering haircuts in exchange for knowledge and resources.

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