A man from Punjab, India, once lived next door to Thomas Wee, one of Singapore’s finest and most established fashion designers. This man had come to Singapore to work in construction; he was one of ten of thousands of migrant labourers in our city. His name is Vicky. Like many other migrant workers, Vicky trudged to work on a construction site almost everyday, and trudged back to his workers’ flat, his story, life and aspirations unbeknown.
The two men struck up a friendship and over the course of their chats, Vicky revealed that he knew how to sew clothes. He had learnt to sew from his father, who was a tailor in Punjab, he told Thomas.
Sewing is a rare skill here, and the fashion designer was intrigued. He invited Vicky over to his place one Sunday to demonstrate his skills. Vicky went over, sat down at Thomas’ sewing machine, and began to sew. “My jaw dropped,” says Thomas. “The way he handled a sewing machine was amazing. He could sew perfectly without any lines or markings. What is a person like you doing on a construction site? I asked.”
Thomas had found a gem and was determined to keep him, somehow. But he couldn’t hire Vicky here in Singapore. So when Vicky returned to India after his construction job was done, Thomas started working with Vicky long distance. He would send Vicky his blueprints, from which Vicky would sew the garments and send them back to Thomas. And so a master-apprentice relationship was struck up, with Thomas showing Vicky the art of making a fine garment and Vicky learning more about the world of fashion design than he ever could as a tailor’s son in Punjab, both enthralled by each other’s talents.
“There are no artisans in Singapore and we can’t get the visas to bring them in,” Thomas says. “This is why fashion designers can’t make it in Singapore. With no sewers, designers all go to the three or four local contractors that are around, and all the garments come out with the same workmanship. The sewing is mediocre—department store quality—shoddy even. There are tailors in Singapore but they are expensive, so designers go to these contractors.”
Raw materials and space are lacking too. Fabric, accessories like beads, and trim are costly here, and rents, as is well known, are through the roof. “When I had my boutique, I was just feeding my landlord,” says Thomas frankly. “Rent here kills small businesses. Add that to the lack of materials and skilled labour, and we don’t have a fashion industry. And the government does nothing.”
But designers here, particularly the young ones, need to step up too. Thomas taught fashion design at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts for 12 years and has this to say about aspiring designers here. “They cannot make their own patterns. They are taught a bit of it in design school but not enough, and they find it difficult. They don’t like working out the measurements and have no eye for line, so they come out of design school not knowing how to make patterns. They can draw, but they are clueless about the engineering of a garment, the tailoring.”
“The beauty of a garment is in the line, the cutting and the fit. From the day I started designing, I worked at my pattern-making table. I still work there, and be will there till the end.” Looking at the meticulous cut and flow of Thomas’ clothes, such as his elegant, minimalistic black-and-white 2015 Spring/Summer Collection that was presented to a packed house at Digital Fashion Week, you understand exactly what he means.
Meanwhile, in India, Vicky longs to return to Singapore. And Thomas is looking to set up a workshop in Bangkok, where space is more affordable and materials are also cheaper and available in much greater variety. “Maybe Vicky can go there instead,” Thomas thinks.
It’s painful to listen to Thomas’ frustrations, and I know others in creative fields of work in Singapore share them. I am touched by his dedication and commitment to his art, and also wish we live in a society that values artistic integrity more.
So in this tough world, why then does a designer like Thomas—whose impeccable standards and uncompromising view of design and tailoring puts him ahead of the industry here—persist? It’s simple. “I’ve been a designer for 40 years,” he said. “Designing makes me happy. I love fashion.”
"There is No Fashion Industry in Singapore"
Talking to top designer Thomas Wee after this year’s Singapore Digital Fashion Week, Elaine Ee gets a glimpse of struggle underneath the style.