Opinion: Will There Ever Be A Sartorially Unique Singaporean Style?

Mhd Alif reckons we should learn from one of the our favourite local dishesórojak.

BY Mhd Alif | May 3, 2016 | Fashion

Take a walk down Orchard Road on a busy weekend. A cursory glance around would lead you to spot the ubiquitous Singaporean male, dressed in a fitting crew-neck tee, skinny jeans (probably Nudies) and boat shoes (probably Sperrys). Switch out the boat shoes with a pair of designer sneakers and you get the streetwear heads, resplendent in black tees, rocking a Supreme cap.

Scattered amongst the sheep are pockets of sartorially inclined men, tailored jackets and trousers freshly pressed, polished shoes glistening in the sun. And then you have the others-those arty hipster types who detest any sort of labelling, but upon closer inspection, belong to a tribe of their own with similar proclivities.

While I’m pretty confident the boat shoe-skinny jean-wearing hordes are a Made in Singapore product, mention the styles of the various groups described above without a particular locale and you’ll be hard pressed to believe I’m not talking about the prevailing fashion scene in either New York, Paris or London, let alone Singapore.

With the rise of globalisation and widespread usage of the Internet, the hot and on-trend looks around the world can easily be digested and appropriated by fervent fans looking to “rep” the scene they most identify with. Not to be left behind, more and more brands are clueing in on the desired articles of clothing and bringing them onto our shores, increasing accessibility even further.  And then there’s always the fail-safe option of online shopping. Sometimes with eye-wateringly expensive shipping costs.

Let’s take a look at the upward surge of classical menswear tailoring, for example.

This renewed interest in #menswear is reflective of the prevailing zeitgeist in men’s fashion today. Worldwide men are rediscovering the suit and tie, and on wearing it with élan, driven in part by portrayals of sharply dressed gents in the fashion capitals of the world. In lieu of fashion week, these menswear aficionados look towards the biannually held Pitti Uomo trade fair, feverishly noting down style cues from industry insiders and buyers, and taking hints from the menswear cognoscenti who stride gallantly across the plaza, posturing every once in awhile to be captured by street style photographers for the rest of the world to see. I know, because I do that a lot too.

Far away from the glamour of Florence, the notions of what defines sartorial elegance is trickling down to our sunny island, voraciously lapped up by men who regard dressing well as an art form and way of life, no matter the weather.  Wool suits are replaced by cotton or linen ones; lined for unlined. American preppy style? We have those here. Italian sprezzatura? British stuffiness? We’ve got those bases covered too.

But a distinctly Singapore look that we can call our own? Now that’s difficult to define.

John Turner, a social psychologist, once remarked that, “the physical body when dressed reflects the “social body” or surrounding societal system.” Rather apt statement I would think.

Since it’s inception as a city-state, Singapore has progressed as a nation by learning from, and implementing the best practices and systems around the world, then tweaking it until it became world-class. That’s just how we are. Blame the Asian mentality, if you will. Cases in point: the education system, the banking system, and public transportation (current MRT fiasco notwithstanding).

I’m not pointing any fingers, but the seemingly ethnocentric view of the West in the general populace may have arisen from the continued emphasis on the importance of English as a main language. Bombarded by a non-stop barrage of Western ideals and practices through the media; anything West is good, and East not so good. We see this very much in men’s fashion, let alone fashion in general. 

Many of us place the western style of dress high on a pedestal to be worshipped, while ethnic ones are banished to the shadows, grudgingly worn out only for cultural festivities.

However, it is this ethnic heritage, this wealth of cultural nuances and intricacies that should be harnessed. An image of Singaporeans doesn’t only conjure up a single race, but of many races that make up who we are.

In largely monoethnic countries such as Japan and Korea, the abundant cultural heritage spawning generations shine through in everyday life, and especially in their fashion sense. Looking through street style snaps of Tokyo evokes a certain Japanese vibe to it; similar observations can probably be made of Seoul as well.

But what of Singapore?

Are we just Asian men striving to emulate Western ideals by dressing like them? Or can we become something more? If fashion really reflects the underlying societal sentiments, then there is hope yet.

The emergence of local designers such as Priscilla Shunmugam, of Ong Shunmugam fame for womenswear and Jon Max Goh, 2015 Parsons Menswear Designer of the Year Award for menswear, is heartening. In China we have Li Den Ting of Wander; in Japan, Kenji Tsuji of Blue Blue Japan. Artfully blending Asian cultural influences and Western know-how into their collections, these designers show us that yes, it can be an arduous process, but most importantly, it’s not impossible.

For the longest of times, Singapore has continually looked outward for sources of inspiration because honestly, the better ideas, systems and practices were all found elsewhere. But as we advance as a nation, both economically and culturally, (it’s been over 50 years) there’s never been a better moment to tap into the rich multi-ethnic heritage from within, hopefully amalgamating as a distinctive voice that we can call our own. A sartorially and culturally robust Singaporean menswear style? I’d love that to happen.

Think of it as this way: the myriad of ethnicities and cultures in Singapore form the ingredients of a rojak. You can mix in different ingredients and call it rojak. What makes the rojak in Singapore unique then? It’s the special blend of ingredients that only we have. Oh, and don’t forget the sauce. Yum.