Cheah Wei Chun is the award-winning creative director of Clanhouse, an influential creative studio in the fashion industry which shapes how the region perceives and digests fashion through editorials and advertising in magazines. He shares his views on fashion in Asia and his personal philosophy on design.
The Columnist (TC): You have been in this business for almost 20 years. How has it changed?
Cheah Wei Chun (CWC): In terms of fashion art direction and editorials, it has become a little more professional. Magazines have their own identity and are more aware of their branding and positioning. But I say ‘a little more’ with caution as I also feel that the long-established magazines in Singapore have not kept up with their audience. For most, readership numbers are dropping. I feel this is not so much a case of people not wanting to read magazines but that the relevance and appeal of all these magazines simply isn’t there. SPH has also monopolised most of the major titles in Singapore. Knowing their monolithic and hierarchical culture, I don’t see this as healthy.
In terms of my fashion advertising work, I am lucky to ride the wave of rising Asian fashion and lifestyle brands. Most of my clients come to me because of my speciality, something they can’t get from the big advertising agencies.
TC: Asia has been great at digesting fashion trends from the West but are you seeing signs that Asia is also shaping the world?
CWC: Definitely. In my own work, I have been aggressively pushing pure Asian models (as opposed to the Pan-Asian trend, or worse, blonde Europeans who seem to be the current preferred choice for Singapore fashion magazines). I feel that many countries in Asia and in particular, Singapore, are ready to embrace their distinct identity and quirks. The signs are all there, but many companies lack the imagination to pursue this. Being Asian, and being Singaporean, is what makes us unique and different. I am currently consulting with RISIS. The work is very exciting to me as I feel that we are producing jewellery that is uniquely Singaporean and modern, something not seen before.
TC: What are some of the exciting things that we should look out for in Asian fashion?
CWC: Japan has always led the way in terms of Asian fashion but we are also finally seeing a crop of young fashion designers making their mark in Singapore. Do we have a Tom Ford or Raf Simons? Maybe not, but we are getting there!
In terms of local brands, I like what shops like GG>5 are doing. They reinterpret current trends and make it their own. I believe they have the potential to make it much bigger as a brand. There are also a bunch of new accessory designers in Singapore. I like the work of Vice & Vanity. Its costume jewellery has a sleek polish to the design.
TC: Which publication or website in Asia is really capturing the trends and shaping the minds of fashion designers here?
CWC: I am not sure that fashion designers go to websites just because they are specifically based in Asia. In terms of publications, definitely local publications like STYLE influence our young designers. I do feel, though, that STYLE tries too hard to look like a European publication and seems to be afraid to embrace Singapore, visually anyway. A recent edition of FEMALE magazine had a big cover line that said ‘Asia Rules’ juxtaposed against a Caucasian model with blonde hair and blue eyes. I thought it was shameful, ridiculous and, frankly, kind of racist.
For my own work with the Malaysia magazine, GLAM, I have been using Malaysian models and focusing on Asian themes for the last few years. We are proud to be Malaysian, and feature only Malaysians on our covers. This direction has served us well. Our readers get excited, and they get unique content that is not found in foreign magazines. For instance, we have done high fashion spreads based on batik. This is not something you will find in American Vogue. You can view more at Clanhouse Online.
Interesting fashion editorials are all about symbolism. Instead of copying just European icons and movies like Blowup, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni back in 1966, how about getting inspired by a P. Ramlee movie? If I explore a Western theme, I will reinterpret it using Asian models or celebrities. As more Singaporean and Malaysian magazines explore local themes, the collective language gets richer and more sophisticated. The industry needs to understand this. It’s time we celebrate Asia!
Our championing of Malaysian models has also boosted their careers. Other Malaysian and rival magazines have started using more and more local models. The high quality editorials we produce with them also helps me push the same models for my commercial/advertising work. It’s a chicken and egg thing. Only if local models are able to make a living, will others see this as a viable career.
TC: Are you seeing the emergence of a new generation of designers (from any design discipline) who are shaping how people perceive Asian fashion? Any names in particular?
CWC: I cannot say that I am very in touch with the Singapore local fashion scene. Most of my editorial work is done in Malaysia. The young designers in Malaysia are very much influenced by edgy brands such as Rick Owens, whilst the older designers still very much cater to the cocktail/high society crowd. But as a general observation, I can see that each successive generation seems better than the previous. But being a great designer is about consistency and being able to produce interesting ideas, collection after collection. I am not sure if I can name such a Singapore designer yet. You see occasional flashes of brilliance and originality but consistency is not easy!
In other disciplines, I like the work of people like FARM. They marry a strong local aesthetic with a sense of practicality. I like seeing how FARM brings in Singapore heritage to their interior and architecture work, and yet are able to be modern and new.
TC: What is a common misconception about your work?
CWC: That fashion is brainless work. Fashion (and all its related components, such as styling) can be as dumb as you like, or as smart as you can make it. Fashion can work on many levels. Most local magazines seem content just to copy the latest fashion editorial from Vogue Italia. With my work for GLAM, we always try and put an interesting, original local spin on everything. After all, everyone can feature the same Chanel jacket. Our Chanel jacket is worn with a traditional Malay sarong and even a sari.
TC: What is your design philosophy?
CWC: I always try to produce work that I find exciting and I never show clients anything I don’t like. With my editorial work, I always try to do something new each time so as to push myself.
TC: What will be considered an ideal project for you?
CWC: I think I am already doing my ‘ideal project’. My monthly work with GLAM allows me great creative freedom and we really try and push new ideas every time. We don’t always succeed. We have our highs and lows. But at least we try!
This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.