‘A Decolonial Approach to the Singapore Fashion System,’ by Baey Shi Chen

Image Caption: Menswear that stages a conversation between Eastern and Western fashion while challenging gender norms. Label: Jon Max Goh. Image Credit: amfuku.com

Singapore is often known as a melting pot of cultures, a perfect amalgamation of East and West. Indeed, while the island state is geographically situated in Southeast Asia and has roots that stem from ancient civilisations, its populace consumes American and European culture as much as it does that of India, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea. However, despite its constant exposure to global influences, Singapore has never quite culminated in successfully projecting a cohesive image of national identity and style despite—or because—of its rich diversity of ethnic cultures. In fact, the national costume that will be taking the stage at the upcoming Miss Universe pageant—a rather literal take on the Trump-Kim summit that took place this June—borders on pantomime and is tragicomic in its failure to deliver an authentic reflection of the emerging talent and serious endeavours to represent local  Singaporean fashion design. 

Nonetheless, Singapore’s inherent hybridity is arguably the key to credible cultural production, and part of my PhD research deals with how the creation of products that are based on a decolonial and transnational approach at its core is essential in developing its fashion system. With its historic reputation as a port city, Singapore perfectly embodies the gathering of global flows in the exploration and consolidation of a modern Asian identity, or the Asian Modern, where an “alternative modernity” to the Anglo-Saxon model that has been imposed by the West can be envisioned and enacted. While Asian art practitioners are deeply influenced by the West through their culture and education, they nonetheless need to rebuild the Asian identity—however fractured and complex notions of identity have become—from the remnants of colonial inheritance. It is also a component of a larger desire by Asian nations to take their cultural place in the New World Order.

A modern take on traditional Southeast Asian clothes with vibrant prints and contemporary silhouettes. Label: Ong Shunmugam.
Image Credit: ongshunmugam.com

I look into the ways in which the Singapore fashion industry can contribute to the decolonisation project through the re-imagination of design and the production chain. I believe that the production of fashion products needs to be executed alongside an active attempt to de-link from and rigorously question Western intellectual and cultural influence in a way that pays greater attention to pre-colonial knowledge, skills and sensibilities. Indeed, while it is inevitable that Singapore is influenced by the West due to its colonial legacy and modern geo-political circumstance, a decolonial approach that is oriented towards greater critique of and disengagement from the West is vital for the development of Singapore’s creative economy and its status as a UNESCO Creative City of Design.

Part of my research involves studying how resistance towards the prevailing Western influence in fashion design and its tendency to exoticise Asian dress, is beginning to take root in Singapore in the creation of an aesthetic pluriverse by some local designers. In doing so, their creative practices attempt to de-link from the Eurocentric creative paradigm and help to redefine a new Asian modernity. While the West has tended to define fashion standards and trends in Singapore and many local designers have also been trained in the Western design canon, these new design efforts present an important step towards de-centering from Western legacies of beauty and achieving epistemic reconstitution that rejects all claims to a universal truth but instead reflects a plurality of alternative modernities and a new post-colonial autonomy. 

“You are not alive to please the aesthetic of colonized eyes.”
Image from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/153122456057722942/

However, simply enacting decolonisation through clothing design is not enough, and needs to involve more aspects that contribute to the realisation of garments as the theory of decolonial aesthesis also involves valuing the communal rather than the individual, conviviality rather than individual success and slow motion rather than speed, where decolonial options start from the principle that the regeneration of life shall prevail over primacy of the production and reproduction of goods at the cost of life. Therefore, other than the design of clothes, decolonisation can be extended to the manufacturing process, where designers seek out ways to de-couple from colonial models of labour exploitation and mass production via partnerships with regional and/or local craftsmen to help traditional tailoring and textile techniques flourish. It also facilitates a more a more product-centred approach where goods are created at lower volumes. Not only does this deviate from the relentless fast fashion model of mass manufacture that originated with Western high street labels, it can help to curtail the culture of unfettered consumption and environmental damage. Moreover, the assumption of a middleman role by fashion labels in bringing together design and craft also creates a transnational network where traditional craft from Asia can be accessed by the international market, producing—in addition to its products—a supply chain and market that are truly global.

Of course, other than the individual initiative of designers, decolonisation will require enlightened and concerted policy intervention as well as an evolution in everyday consumption practices, but with greater awareness and the realisation that alternative pathways to economic success and ways of knowing, living and being are possible, decolonising can gradually become an everyday reality for average Singaporeans. Eventually, just as it was a meeting point for different cultures whose resources were martialled to serve the needs of its masters in its colonial past, Singapore can re-invent itself as a port city in charge of charting its own cultural course and relevance in the 21st century.


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