Interview with Singapore veteran fashion designer Frederick Lee
Photography / Soon Tong
Fashion Direction / Ashburn Eng
Make-up / Mav Chang
Hair / Annie Tay
Model / Nastya Kolganova & Vilma P (Upfront Models)
Text / Luth Seah Zhiqiang
Milliner / Frederick Lee
Local veteran couturier Frederick Lee established himself as a household name by creating costume pieces for countless of notable local events; from the National Day Parade to the recent Youth Olympics Games. In addition being an extraordinary bridal and evening gown designer, not many know that he is an outstanding milliner as well! Test Shoot Gallery is honoured to present a series of one-of-a-kind millinery works that Frederick Lee produced specially for our shoot! Along with this amazing opportunity to admire Frederick’s work, we bring you an exclusive interview with the man as well. By Luth Seah Zhiqiang
I believe that fashion design flows in my blood. As a kid, I made paper clothing for my paper dolls while my peers were playing outdoors. That also fed my love for fantasy and weaving stories with elements plucked from legends, myths and magic. But I truly began my design career in my early 20s as a self taught designer by creating and making garments for friends. From then on, my confidence in designing grew along with my flair for the unusual. I also enjoy and am intrigued by the elegance which inspired me to look for perfection and glamour in old-hollywood. Think Dietrich and Crawford in Balenciaga, Schiaparelli to Garbo and Davis in Vionnet or Dior, their positivity exuberant art-decor flamboyance.
Personally, I find it beautiful when mundane materials maneuvered with the proficient and perfect skills of haute couture to become unequivocally beautiful garments. Even from a young age, I knew I wanted to be a couturier.
TSG: How would you describe your design aesthetic?
Rather than to worry about finding the next best-selling commercial designs, I prefer to create clothes that reflect different moments or dreams. I believe in individuality and diversity. I create and ignore the conventional, avoiding the rituals of seasonal demands. Wearing a Frederick Lee’s couture piece will bring together extravagance, glamour, wit and originality. I make clothes for the feminine, confident, and seductive woman who is enchanted by bold new ideas; A women who never has a dull moment in her life.
TSG: What, or who inspires you and influences your work the most? (e.g, the revolutionary cuts that highlights the femininity of the body in your work?)
There are many great fashion designers that have inspired and influenced my work. Top of my list is Spanish-born french couture designer, the late Cristobal Balenciaga, who was credited as the one who changed the silhouette of womenswear. Balenciaga was revered as a couturier of couturier who created astonishment with his collections and the mastery of his cuts. I respect that kind of integrity and his creative ideals.
TSG: What do you like most about the age we live in?
In the age we are living now, everything is possible. We’re constantly exposed to stories about people who become stars over night. So there’s a high possibility that everyone will be famous at least for 15 minutes in your lifetime. However, because of that, many people lost their sense of reality. They lack personality and imagination in living their lives.
TSG: What is the quality that makes your hats come to life?
The traditional characteristics of a good hat are wit and style. They are hard to achieve as wit can easily be reduced to vulgarity and attempts at style frequently result in meaningless extravagance. I realise that only by breaking the rules can highly imaginative, stylish hats be created. What gives my hats indefinable but immediately recognized spirit is “control”.
No element is allow to overrun the others in the overall design. Shapes, trim, and lines are all given equal consideration in order to produce millinery that is deceptively unique and memorable.
TSG: Would you identify yourself as a conceptual or romantic designer?
The definition of conceptual design is subjective. I believe that conceptual designing comprises the creation of an idea, the exploration of the intentions of that idea, and the representation of it. Thus, I guess I’m a conceptual designer!
TSG: Besides designing for your own evening wear and bridal lines, you work as the director of costumier for large-scale events such as the Singapore National Day, Youth Olympic Games & many other theatre productions as well. How do you manage your working process to fit the time-line? Would you consider yourself as a workaholic?
We have all experienced that appalling sense of having far too much work to do but too little time to do it in. We can choose to ignore this, and continue to work unreasonably long hours to stay on top of our workload. The alternative is to work more intelligently by focusing on the things that are more important. While this may seem obvious, in the hurly-burly of a new, fast-moving, high-pressure role, there’s often times where something can be overlooked easily.
Prioritizing helps me to get the greatest return from the work I do, and keep my workload under control. Although the term “workaholic” usually has a negative connotation, it is sometimes used by people who wish to express their devotion to one’s career in positive terms an I’m one of them.
TSG: What are the difficulties faced being a designer today?
To become a fashion designer one must be willing to work hard and handle rejection. Rejections are unavoidable in this industry; it’s perseverance despite the rejection that is more crucial.Though the fashion industry can be exciting and alluring to some, it might be a different story behind the scenes. I like how TV shows like Project Runway gives a realistic depiction of the type of criticism you can expect. The main problems most designers have are missing connection to their potential customer base ; missing exposure and a downward spiral of low volumes. If you don’t have enough customers, you won’t be able to sell and
produce enough pieces. Industry manufacturers will then be less interested in working with you and you might end up working with far more expensive tailorshops. High production costs lead to horrible selling prices and low customer conversion. As a result you receive more rejections from boutiques to stock your products.
TSG: What does the term beauty mean to you?
Beauty to me is feeling good about yourself, as well as enjoying the pleasure and joy that life gives you; A smile, a nice twinkle of ones eyes, a fragrant body, a nice clean outfit. Beauty is when you know you can go anywhere in life having the right clothes, or even the wrong clothes worn in the right way.
TSG: How important is it for a celebrity to wear one of your dresses, from a business point of view?
Although fashion designers can achieve celebrity status on their own, the designers often seek assistance from celebrities in other industries to help launch their labels.
As a fashion designer, the goal is to have the celebrity wear your pieces when they are captured on film and on the red carpet. Keep in mind that the images taken will often end up in a magazine, newspaper, or on television. Either way, this will help publicize the designers brand. In addition to having movie stars and pro athletes wear designer fashion on a daily basis, it is equally or more important to have glamorous celebrities appear in your designs at fashion week events. To be a successful designer, you can not simply put on a fabulous cat walk display of beautiful models and stylish accessories. It is very important to have the room full of photographers, fashion editors and celebrities.
TSG: What has been your best career or fashion moment so far?
One of my fashion moments will have to be able to create the costumes for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the inaugural Youth Olympic Games Singapore 2010. I was challenged and inspired to create new costumes for the international event that inspires global unity and national pride; an event that celebrates youth in sports, as well as marking a new chapter in Olympic sporting history.
I’m still waiting for that fashion moment because everyday is still a learning experience. In fact, I believe my best work will be when im 60!
TSG: Do you think haute couture will keep on existing in future?
Today, the haute couture is neither haughty nor supernatuated, it is an aesthetic essay in which cherished and extraordinary skills are practiced. It remains a discipline of ultimate imagination, unaccountable to cost, with the paradox of being the fashion most cognizant of its ideal clients. It is a dream for quality in an era of industry and its succession.
I still strongly feels that Couture persists in providing us with a paragon of the most beautiful clothing that can be envisioned and made in any time.
A seductive, confident, glamourous and feminine women. Fashionable, yet not trendy. She understands what kinds of clothes suits her body.
TSG: Besides platforms like Singapore Fashion Festival to create awareness, what kind of support do you feel home grown labels need?
In the words of Vivienne Westwood, “Fashion is very important, It is life-enhancing and, like everything that gives pleasure, it is worth doing well”.
Indeed, the undercurrents of Westwood’s philosophy holds true for Singapore as well. The Singapore Fashion Scene has not just arrived ; it has arrived unbelievably well in the past few years. The Singapore Fashion Week (SFW) and Singapore Fashion Festival (SFF) not only have launched many young and budding designers, they are also the most supportive and friendly platform that enable designers to have complete exposure to the media, domestic and international buyers.
Both SFW and SFF – with active participation from fashion designers, fashion houses, jeweler, models and sponsors – have generated a lot of interest and optimism in the local fashion industry. With the platform getting bigger and better, no one’s complaining.
Frederick Lee is located at No.2 Jalan Klapa, Singapore 193314 Tel: +65 6323 4372