The Veteran Couturier Who Defined the Golden Years of Fashion in Singapore

These days, Thomas Wee spends a great deal of time shuttling between “teaching and doing nothing.” The 72-year-old lectures part-time at Temasek Polytechnic, teaching pattern-making to the school’s fashion design students, but he considered himself retired earlier this year. “After 40 over years, I’m really tired of being here,” he admits. To the former couturier, the fashion industry, whether in the context of Singapore or the world at large, has been lacklustre for the longest time.

Wee has been an outspoken, and perhaps the harshest, most honest critic of the local fashion scene’s “uninventive designs” and the industry’s unsustainable production capacities. Witnessing the slow death of the industry he once was pivotal in has been frustrating for him.

Thomas Wee at Design Orchard’s The Cocoon Space, photographed on July 3, 2020.
Thomas Wee at Design Orchard’s The Cocoon Space, photographed on July 3, 2020.

It’s obvious Wee regards the ’80s and early ’90s as the most seminal and dazzling eras of fashion in Singapore. When he talks of his work, it’s impossible to not talk about these years. They were, after all, the glory days in which the industry madly thrived. The government pumped in grand financial backing in its efforts to recast the country as a fashion hub that was to be taken seriously. Large-scale fashion shows were regularly held. Local designers were celebrated and kept on their toes by the abundant competition. Orchard Road, with its buzzing shopping malls and diverse offerings, easily became Southeast Asia’s gleaming monolith of retail.

And of course, these were, after all, the years that were definitive to his career as a fashion designer.

Over the years, the notoriously precise designer — seemingly always in his uniform of black loose-fit jacket cinched at the waist — earned himself a flurry of nicknames that paid homage to his tailoring repertoire. The “King of the Jacket” is one that has stuck the longest. His suits were known for their impeccable construction; for their sharp precision that created lean, authoritative silhouettes. It could be said that what Giorgio Armani did for the West’s career women in the ’80s was what Wee did for Singapore’s career women at the time.

 

As long as people have to wear clothes, there’s still fashion to do.

Malaysian actress Deanna Yusoff wearing Wee’s unstructured career wear suit, 1986.
Malaysian actress Deanna Yusoff wearing Wee’s unstructured career wear suit, 1986.

“I don’t call myself a fashion designer. I call myself a clothes engineer,” he once declared in a post-fashion show interview in 2013. “I love the process of engineering clothes. Fashion is all about engineering, like architecture. When you use raw materials to materialise and to visualise something, it’s all about engineering.”

Wee is a self-taught designer. He never had any formal fashion training. As the son of a seamstress mother and a father who was a stickler for Chinese traditions, he grew up in a world in which tailoring became second nature but was also somewhat inherently verboten. “In the ’60s, which Chinese father would send his son to Europe to study fashion?” he posits. But he was a voracious magazine reader, a peripheral observer of the city-state’s escalating reputation as one of the East’s magnetic orbits of fashion.

The veteran fashion designer’s later collections were known for their hidden seams and streamlined construction.
The veteran fashion designer’s later collections were known for their hidden seams and streamlined construction.

In the ’70s, Wee, who just finished two years studying medicine, chose to become a neighbourhood tailor. He rented a little corner shop at the ground floor of an HDB block in Toa Payoh. It was only in 1978, when Her World, a local women’s magazine, hosted a contest for young designers, that Wee decided to sink his teeth into the fruit deemed forbidden to him. He sent in his sketches. “It won’t be very modest of me to say this, but since I was young, I have always illustrated very, very well,” he says. “I was a finalist — but because I didn’t understand the concept of a fashion collection, I didn’t place in the top three.”

Despite not winning, the attention garnered from the contest was enough to propel Wee into what was the beginning of his series of successes. Calls to wholesale his designs came in, and by 1986, Wee had opened his first high-end boutique. Making his designs lucrative came natural to him. His previously wide-eyed view of the fashion industry swiftly matured into one that was unfazed by its theatrics. His keen sense of observation kicked in, and three years later, he launched his career wear line, Mixables — the first of its kind that was made by a Singaporean designer. Other sister and diffusion lines soon followed: Pretá, Sino and bridal gown label Made in Heaven, which was popular among well-heeled brides of the time.

 

“As a designer, you have to be a business person, you have to be very sensitive about world movements, about consumers,” he says. The designer has always understood the times. And when the Asian economic recession hit in 1998, he knew it was time he shuttered his labels.

Since then, Wee has actively taught fashion design in schools, continuing to keep his finger on the pulse of fashion while he nurtures and cautions the nation’s next class of would-be designers of the industry’s unforgiving state. Wee says he’s fully aware of what’s happening. The demise of retail was once predicted when the age of e-commerce dawned. But now, he believes, in a time when uncertainty prevails, it’s the other way around: There’s a collective digital exhaustion, and people are increasingly seeking real-world experiences.

If this is indeed true, a resetting of Singapore’s fashion industry might well be underway. “But let me tell you, whatever the case is,” says Wee, “as long as people have to wear clothes, there’s always still fashion to do.”

Photographs by Rosalynn Tay