Whole9Yards creative director Daniel Ngoo is calm and collected. We’re meeting at the label’s tiny studio nestled in the serene Peranakan district of Joo Chiat a week before Whole9Yards’ inaugural Singapore Fashion Week show, and sitting across us in a crisp white tee is the brand’s design spearhead. The Alexander McQueen-trained designer (Ngoo interned as a patternmaker under the supervision of revered creative director Sarah Burton, who is the late McQueen’s then-right hand) sheepishly confesses to feeling certain about the label’s home turf debut: “I don’t feel anything yet. Definitely excited, but if you ask me if I’m nervous or anxious, no, I’m not.”
To be fair, this may be largely due to the fact that Whole9Yards has been showing its collections everywhere else — Paris, Milan, Shanghai, to Perth Fashion Weeks — but here. Launched in 2013 by Widelia Liu, it first embarked on its journey as the typical local label putting in everything it’s got to establish a regional presence with two brick-and-mortar stores opened in Singapore. Still, the competition with other international fashion vanguards the local market favours, proved tough to tackle — thus the change of strategy.
Ever since Ngoo and French designer Frank Pouchoulin joined the team in mid-2014 to helm its creative and artistic direction, the Singapore-based collective started positioning itself as an international label, shutting down its stores and rebranding its whole image. “We went overseas instead of staying in Singapore, so we decided to do international wholesale. The local market is very difficult. People either buy really expensive branded goods, or very cheap stuff. There wasn’t any opportunity for mid-level pricing brands,” Ngoo reminisces.
Now the label has sporadically seeped into the market, albeit under the radar. With over 60 point-of-sales dotted from London to Tokyo, it’s quietly taking the industry by storm.
At first glance, Whole9Yards designs seem very feminine. But they’re actually pretty subversive: Campaigns see models skating in voluminous tulles, romping on tables in frilly floor-length multi-pastel gowns, or blowing up bubblegum in thigh-high floral booties. It challenges the prim-and-proper notion femininity has always been closely interlinked to. Ironic femininity.
The brand’s official Instagram hashtag takes a jab at that: #UnconventionalFemininity. It’s the refreshing contrast Ngoo is interested in: “Back in the day, when you talk about femininity, you’ll think girly, sexy, sweet. All these were the definition of being feminine. We wanted to be unconventional, you know, in terms of fabrication and styling as well. We didn’t want to restrict ourselves to do a certain thing.”
With disruptive appeal and eccentric frills toeing the line between fantasy and subcultures, Whole9Yards’ clothes are for women who love the theatricality of fashion. “You need to have the confidence to wear our pieces out,” Ngoo points as he scoots his chair to a nearby rack filled with in-process Pre-Fall 2018 collection. He points to a pair of jarringly fuchsia pink pants made of sturdy, structured material. “Most of them aren’t made for everyday wear. But if you want to wear our pieces to the office, you can pair statement pieces and less-statement pieces. You can throw on a white shirt with these pink pants. It’s really all about confidence.”
The brand has its feet firmly planted on reality, though. Trends are still a huge part of Ngoo’s creative process. “Some designers have a really artistic mindset, but the world is always changing,” he says. “So for Spring 2018, we have tops, shirts, and dresses employing the one-shoulder, cold-shoulder trend. There’s also a bit of deconstruction thrown in, too.”
The latter collection is what Whole9Yards is showing at Singapore Fashion Week this week. Ngoo says Joe Johnston’s 1995 fantasy flick Jumanji is the key reference for it. “We wanted to do something adventurous, to inject a utilitarian spirit into the collection, and also a bit of sports element. When you talk about Jumanji, it’s about running in the jungle, you know, and being active.”
And up next? A venture into feminine-meets-rock paradox. Ngoo tips us off, “Next season we’re doing rock chic. We’re lowering the delicate softness and raising the edgy factor. It’s mainly inspired by Jackson Pollock, the American painter. He’s brilliant in creating artworks that are very expressive. He contrasts soft and sharp palettes, expressing different kinds of stages of life and personal emotions.”
We can’t wait.