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Behind the rise of Singapore’s anarchic fashion collective, Youths in Balaclava

Black eyeliner intentionally smudged onto powder-caked faces. Timeworn black leather jackets studded with spikes. Multi-hued manes frozen into don’t-mess-with-me mohawks. Such is the image associated with the punk movement — a genre known for aggressive dissent. Yet as the political climate across the globe dipped for the worse, punk is said to have evolved into something softer and more inclusive.

This is what Singapore’s 18-person fashion collective, Youths in Balaclava embodies.

“Someone once told us we’re like new wave punks,” 21-year-old Taufyq Iskandar asserted of YIB, the acronym he fondly wields to address the posse he founded and now spearheads as creative director. “The thing is, people are confusing punk for a style of a certain period. But no, we don’t have to have a mohawk or ripped jeans to be a punk. The idea of punk evolves with time.”

youths in balaclava
A fraction of Youths in Balaclava.

Spurred by a dissatisfaction towards the local fashion industry’s elitist exclusivity, Youths in Balaclava was inaugurated in 2015 with six members made up of Taufyq, his eccentric brother and like-minded school peers. None of them had fashion-related training at the time, though their role models ran the gamut of Hedi Slimane to Martin Margiela, David Bowie to Mick Jagger. Collectively, they design irregular capsule collections, write their own hardcore music and churn digital journals with a DIY cut-and-paste method.

The plan was to be an underground alternative art, music and fashion community for the homegrown scene. But here’s where they are now: YIB’s gender-neutral t-shirt projects are stocked in all Dover Street Market digital and physical outposts, from London to Tokyo. Members have grown to triple its original quantity, most in their late adolescent years from 18 to 24. Raving features on the likes of and Dazed are stored under their belt. How did a crew of unknowns grasping on the cusp of adulthood do it?

It all happened organically when London-based photographer Ryan O’Toole Collet — who has shot for the likes of Off-White and Burberry — came to document the launch of Dover Street Market Singapore. Tasked with capturing a never-before-seen side of Singapore, Collet was introduced to YIB, the personified antithesis to Singapore’s ultra-regulated, straight-laced environment.

Pictures were taken, a photo documentary book was put together, and Adrian Joffe — husband to Rei Kawakubo and president of Comme des Garçons International and Dover Street Market — took notice.


A post shared by Adrian Joffe (@adrianjoffe) on

In true YIB style, the gang took Joffe and his Dover Street Market team to Fong Seng, their go-to roadside nasi lemak joint in Pasir Panjang. An invitation to be a guest in their office, as its open-air tables often double up as a roundtable for group discussions. “We didn’t go to any of the bougie restaurants where you’d expect we’d bring him to. And he took the train with us from Orchard all the way there,” Taufyq reminisced in evident amusement. “He was so easy-going, so chill.”

Joffe, now a mentor figure to the tribe of younglings, offered to consign their line at Dover Street Market, without compromising on YIB’s creative freedom. “We didn’t want anyone to interfere with our members-only process. Adrian loved the idea of us being free, but still helping to support us,” said Taufyq.

Many investor hopefuls approached the gang only to be turned down. The work-with-what-we-have proverb YIB stands by is, no doubt, distinctively appealing. More so if the fact that they’re building a subculture brand from scratch within a status-preoccupied society is put into perspective. Their pure brand DNA is rare. Genuine at a time where authenticity is scarce.

youths in balaclava
Taufyq Iskandar, founder and creative director of Youths in Balaclava.

“I like that we’re an ‘anyhow’ brand. You look at all the big brands — Chanel, Margiela, you name it — they have a concept. A certain kind of style,” the creative director mused. “With YIB, you get different styles. It’s like rojak.”

Taufyq himself is a consummate representation of what his band of outsiders stand for. We were sitting in an indoor café and against the generic surrounding, his tousled fluoro blue-green hair seemed out of place. That, and his thick-framed Kurt Cobain shades he had perched low on the bridge of his nose. When he first strode over, the curious family of silver hardware attached to a chain hanging off his pants clinked rambunctiously.

He shared that the team rarely shops ready-made retail products, preferring to customise whatever is easily available. “This chain accessory I’m wearing, I got most of the parts from hardware stores.” He pointed to a giant clothing pin any style aficionado could’ve mistaken for Balenciaga. “It’s taken from my dad’s overalls.”

A fascination with Singaporean proletariats is their constant pool of inspiration: “We’d wear whatever aunties or uncles would wear. We’ll take elements from school uniforms, white- or blue-collar workers, cleaners. Just people-watching while daily commuting on the bus.”

youths in balaclava
Honey Memory fashion show at a derelict building, somewhere in Ubi’s neighbourhood.

Tapping into an undiluted spirit of punk where freedom of expression is boundless is YIB’s manifesto. Such is the case with their first fashion show. Underpinned by the notion of having it done as a “big fuck-you” to elitism, 2017’s Honey Memory collection was presented at the rooftop of a run-down building in Ubi. The audience’s chairs were borrowed from a coffee shop downstairs. Models were Instagram-casted friends, who had to do their pre-show fittings at a nearby alley as the makeshift ‘backstage’. The show’s 20-looker was hand-stitched in a month, deconstructed and reconstructed from past collections’ existing pieces, including those from their first-ever capsule that paid tribute to the Hock Lee bus riot.

“We live in such a tight system in terms of laws, what you can say, what you cannot say. So we make clothes in reflection of certain ideas we want to express. At the end of the day, that’s what we want to project out to the people,” Taufyq surmised. This proposed disposition of new punk uproots fury from suppressed frustration. Instead, channelling it towards a progressive empathy manifested in a read-between-the-lines sartorial output.

youths in balaclava
Come as you are.

As YIB best exemplifies, it’s about making noise through their work, first and foremost. “It’s noise where we don’t expect everyone to go crazy about it but maybe, what we do can raise conversations or certain questions about how things work. Clothes, for us, are never just clothes,” declared Taufyq.

Big things are lined up in YIB’s agenda. As to what they are? We’ll have to wait and see. Though one thing is for the absolute surest: This new representative voice for Singapore’s marginalised youths won’t tone it down for anyone. And ever-loud we hope these new-wave anarchists continue to be.

Youths in Balaclava recently unveiled a new ready-to-wear line dubbed YIB, as well as a capsule of one-off tees titled Bleed to Feel that’s now available online here.

(Main and featured images: Ryan O’Toole Collet)

Behind the rise of Singapore’s anarchic fashion collective, Youths in Balaclava

Bianca Husodo

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