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Interview with Singapore veteran fashion designer Jo Soh (Hansel)

September 17th, 2010





Hansel, a local label that constantly produces sweet and whimsical designs capturing hearts of many Singaporean women of all ages truly made Jo Soh, founder and designer of the label, one of the most recognisable names in local fashion scene. That is why we here at TSG wanted to know more about the innovative mind that is behind the signature geeky spectacle frame and quirky bowl-cut bob hairstyle. Read and enjoy as Joh shared how she got interested with fashion all thanks to her fashionable mother, the latest store interior installations which never failed to capture her customers’ attention, and all things that is Jo So in our exclusive interview! By Luth Seah Zhiqiang




TSG: From pop out cardboard furniture to doodling a house for your paper dolly collection, what is your starting point for such interior face-lift each season? Will there be another surprise for this upcoming “Lily the lady” collection?

The starting point comes from the theme of each collection – a two dimensional home for a paper doll, or, in the case of the temporary pop-up shop, a pop-up book inspired cardboard interior. The desire to have the environment suit the different themes stems from a love of theme parks since childhood. Each time you step into a different part in a theme park, your mind is transported to an entirely different world. Your senses are heightened and you get excited and curious about EVERYTHING inside that world. When I pass through the gift shop at the end of that experience, I always wanted to buy a little souvenir to remind me of my experience. As such, I believe that apparel retail is not just about the apparel – it’s the whole experience as well.

In keeping with the ladylike theme of “Lily the Lady”, I have created an oversized white pearl necklace and oversized paper dollies for the front window display. On the walls are words and phrases associated with acting and dressing like a lady, such as “POISE”, “MANNERS”, “LACE”, “PEARLS” and just in case our hansel shoppers should wonder what to do: “WHEN IN DOUBT, DRESS UP”. All these have been “cross-stitched” onto traditional bunting strung on the shop walls. I have also arranged the display tables with chairs and glassware as if there is a genteel tea party happening in the shop!



TSG: What made you decide to get into fashion? Have you always been interested in it?

My mother was a very fashionable woman who picked up on new trends with ease and confidence. She had a few different wigs, she would perm her hair at home (often times I was the guinea pig for her new home-perming kits!). She had false eye lashes, lots of shoes and accessories. In fact, her wardrobe was so large that her clothes overflowed from her cupboard into my brother’s and mine! At that time, my brother must have been about 8 years old, and his reaction to her storing her clothes in his cupboard was to charge her rent of 50 cents per month! (Today he is working as an auditor in a bank.)

I must have been just 6 years old then. My reaction was the more typical for a little girl – I tried on her clothes in the mirror and would sometimes sit inside the cupboard, in sheer joy just to be surrounded by all the clothes! So it was my mother who showed me the joy and complexities of clothes and appearance, and I decided at age 12 to pursue fashion design.



TSG: What was the idea using Singapore Art Museum as a backdrop and how did it relate to the themes and inspirations behind the collection itself?

“Lily the Lady” is about an imaginary aristocratic, cultured young urban girl doing “cultured” things like visiting museums, having tea, cycling on a old fashioned bicycle and other such ladylike activities. The Singapore Art Museum was a natural choice with its elegant colonial architecture. I love old-fashioned, elegant and ladylike dress styles with their womanly silhouettes because I feel they do really bring out the WOW factor of the curvy feminine body. I love the playful tease that comes through with the idea of up-keeping modesty and class by wearing demure twin sets and strings of pearls, although the VERY feminine silhouettes suggest other ideas.



TSG: You’ve collaborated with so many different and fascinating individuals. Could you tell us a little about some of those relationships and how they came about?

Luis Cantillo is a Colombian multimedia artist currently living in Beijing. When he was living and working in New York, he created the animation video for Captain Cheese.


Luis and I got to know each other when we were both studying in London. He is one of the few people who instantly “get” my ideas and work! The video he did required NO guidance from me at all, apart from my Captain Cheese drawing that I sent to him. I absolutely LOVED what he did! Luis also photographed my collection when I graduated from Central St Martins in 1999.

Adrian Wee (also known as DJ wee.like.me – he runs the Poptart nites at Butter Factory, where he works as their marketing manager) and I have known each other since year 2000 when I worked as a waitress in the now defunct Insomnia Cafe (NO, not the one at CHIJMES). It was a very “underground” bar/club in Bugis Village). He created the tracks for all my fashion shows starting with my 2003 debut show in Australia. He also created the tracks to hansel’s animation videos, including Luis’ “Captain Cheese”! He is also someone who was able to grasp what I wanted without much complex explanation.

Zi Xi (otherwise known as Messy MsXi) was my student when I taught part-time at Temasek Polytechnic years ago. She was a great student with buckets of talent. She has since graduated from Central St Martins and is working as an artist/illustrator. She has also created an animation video for hansel – it was for the “Robot Girl” collection.






TSG: If you could create your own retreat what would it be like?

A luxurious tree house on the edge of a lush green forest, right by a private stretch of white sandy beach. Mmm…



TSG: If you could use three words to describe the Hansel label, what would they be?

Quirky, fun, wearable.



TSG: What are you working on at the moment and what future projects do you have on your agenda?

After 7 years of practice, I have experimented with various ways to create the concept for a collection and now have my own process of what works well for me. I have learnt to recognize when an idea is good to turn  into whole collection and when it would not. I am more confident in my designs now, and have found the right balance between expressing my own ideas and producing wearable clothes that my fans would want to buy and wear. At the moment, I am working on AW2011, for release in shops in Aug 2011. We are also wrapping up on our uniform design projects for DBS Bank and POSB Bank.



TSG: Your designs won you a sort of celebrity fanbase that includes Katy Perry, Denise Keller, and Chiaki Kuriyama, how do you feel about it?

These ladies are beautiful, successful and influential! It is such a big compliment and an honor that they have worn hansel. This is especially the case for Katy Perry, where she had picked to wear that hansel Sequin Bustier Dress herself!



TSG: Besides platforms like Singapore Fashion Festival to create awareness, what kind of support do you feel home grown labels need?

The most important support that Singaporean fashion labels could get is the support of Singaporeans, ie, Singaporeans to buy Singaporean. Australian pride for their own Australian fashion labels is strong and I would like Singaporean pride for their own labels too. Currently, the local market is still largely divided between those who shop for cheap mass fashion labels because of the low price points, and those who shop at famous international brands because of the status associated by wearing them.  There is a growing group of Singaporeans who think otherwise and this is the group that I hope will continue to grow!



TSG: Do you have any tips and suggestions for young people who would like to start a designing career, and participate in collaborations with different companies one day?

Collaboration is easy and will come naturally, when you connect with fellow like-minded companies that have styles that complement yours but doesn’t compete with you for the same market. In terms of setting up their own businesses, I think that’s the tougher part because not all people are suitable for owning and running their own businesses. It is a completely different thing from being a designer!



TSG: What are the difficulties faced being a designer today?

In terms of a self-owned fashion label like hansel, we don’t have the budgets of larger companies so sometimes we are unable to afford that market outreach that larger labels have, for example, opening up several retail outlets at one go, or have sales/PR agents in a few countries at one time. We also don’t have the economies of scale compared to mass labels nor the fame of international brands. So we compete more on design value and
also, if you compare us with the mass brands and the international brands, our products are actually extremely good value-for-money!



TSG: Who are your favourite designers and why?

I really love IKEA for the way they democratize good furniture design!



TSG: What was your favourite outfit from the 80s?

I remembered that I had a happy yellow dress with a Peter Pan collar and a sash that I tied in the back with a bow that I loved for many years.

Campaign Photo Credits:

Location: Singapore Art Museum
Photographer: Ming
Hair and Make-up: Kenneth Lee
Bicycle from

Vanguard Designs



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