Moments of Introspection
With Max Tan
When you think “Singapore Fashion”, you think “Max Tan”. Known to fuse androgyny with geometry, his chic but minimal experimental style has earned him accolades from around the world, making him a household name. In light of his 10th year anniversary, we decided to speak to Max about his journey, recollecting the moments and reflecting on the important lessons thus far.
Considering how you are celebrating your 10th year anniversary soon, what are the standout moments in your journey thus far and where are you at with your business right now?
“I’m very blessed to have been able to do what I love for 10 years! I’ve been very lucky to have a few milestones in my career so far.
My first collection in SS2010 was listed as one of the top ten spring summer 2010 campaigns by premier trend forecasting website, stylesite.com (now under wgsn.com)
“ I was really surprised because not only was that my first collection but to be placed alongside big names such as the great Alexander Mcqueen, Miu Miu, Valentino and A.F Vandevorst, which opened many doors for me. “
Chosen as one of the exhibitors for the 2015 edition of “Who is On Next?, Dubai”, organised by Vogue Italia.
“To be part of Vogue’s list of talented,emerging designers, is incredibly humbling and I am very thankful for the opportunity”
Having legendary Supermodel, Carmen Dell’orefice close my show in Singapore, 2014
“Need I say more? It was amazing!”.
Seems like Max’s career has quite the run. These accomplishments are no mean feat, however Max remains humble and owes his success to hard work and the support of those around him. More than his achievements, we are inspired by his humility.
As someone who works closely with a team, how would the people around you describe you?
“I’ve had people who have known me for a long time say that I look really unapproachable. I guess that’s my defence mechanism; I find it difficult to open up or to engage in a conversation with new friends. However, people who do know me well enough will know that I truly care as a friend and that I’m really quite an extrovert!”
People are often quick to judge, but it would be in everyone’s best interest to be less critical. Especially in the fashion industry, people tend to have a certain impression of “high fashion”, what was the greatest challenge you had to overcome as a fashion designer?
“To balance creativity, commercial viability while managing a small team and being based out of Singapore. I think I am still struggling with that. But now, I see these as opportunities for me and my team to grow rather than as setbacks.”
It definitely has not been easy, with many Singaporeans not being as supportive of local talent, many artists take their work overseas before coming home. We believe that culture needs to change and we should support our creative talents wherever they choose to go.
Having said that you do a lot of work outside of Singapore, how would you compare your experiences?
“I think the overseas consumers have a lot more individuality. While the situation in Singapore is definitely improving, we are still rather slow. I think that has a lot to do with design education and arts appreciation in Singapore.”
We have certainly made headway with appreciation of The Arts of late, but people still judge our local talent for pursuing their passions because they doubt its financial viability. Art is not only about making money, it serves as a platform to change perspectives and drive impact.
People like Max dared to dream, we should celebrate that, but have you felt like your work is not appreciated enough? How does that affect you personally?
“I used to care a lot about what others think or say about me. Yes I do feel like my work is not appreciated enough sometimes, but that does not stop me from trying harder. It is not in an effort to be recognized or be affirmed by them, but rather, I feel that sometimes these checks and balances are important for me to stay balanced in all aspects of the business. However, at the end of the day, the choice is up to me as to who I'd like to listen to.”
By recognising that life is not a bed of roses and hard work does not necessarily guarantee success, we are able to be more gentle with ourselves, to see our setbacks as opportunities to grow rather than a point to berate ourselves over.
Speaking of criticism what is the harshest critic or comment that you have received?
“While answering this, I honestly cannot think of any! Critics, yes. But I wouldn’t label them as harsh. Fashion is the most accessible of visual design to the masses. It is perfectly normal for me to receive honest opinions about my work, but then again, there are a lot of people who want to have a hand at “playing the designer”. I choose to brush these comments off if I know that’s coming from a self-fulfilling place.”
Being able to accept constructive criticism is one thing, but letting negative comments and seeking validation from people that do not necessarily want the best for you may have ruinous impact on one’s state of mind. It is important to remain discerning and take each day at a time, reminding yourself of your true purpose, instead of working tirelessly to please those who say hurtful things that do not do you good.
The fashion industry, as volatile as it is, tells us that success is not always guaranteed. Given that people are moving towards sustainable options, do you see this trend affecting your work? Are you bothered by these movements?
“I guess this depends on how one looks at sustainability. These days, it has become such an overused word. I’ve seen designers label their Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) as vegan leather, or worse – organic vegan leather and peg a whole sustainability and anti-animal cruelty story to it. There sure are a lot of sustainable options that fashion designers can look into. However, a lot of these options are just not cost viable to emerging designers or smaller brands like mine. In my practice, I do not follow trends and therefore my consumers are not the type to blindly chase trends. Being focused on cuts and producing quality pieces, enables my consumers to have garments that will last them for a much longer time.”
Sustainability can mean many things. It is not surprising to see many jumping on to the bandwagon to cater to the masses. What people fail to realise is how supply chains are still not entirely transparent, they are simply taking the word of the brand. This creates a false impression that the planet is being saved when in actuality, it just repackages consumerism into something more palatable. Instead of just supporting “sustainable” lines, consumers need to understand that everything is based on demand and supply, in making better decisions to purchase longer lasting clothes, they can better play their part in reducing fashion waste.
More than sustainability efforts, we need to talk about the sustainability of the business, tell us, have you been in a situation where you had to find a balance between designing collections you like and being commercially viable? How did that affect you as a creative?
“All the time! I am thankful to have my consumers encourage my creative vision and I always look forward to sharing every new collection’s vision and story. My other creative outlets include designing for theatre. I truly enjoy costume designing as that gives me free reign to “design” a character without having to worry whether the outcome is commercially viable or otherwise.”
As the demand for content grows, people are starting to monetise their creative passions. However, detriments of making money out of your hobbies, especially in the creative industry have yet to be properly addressed. Inspiration does not always come to you as and when you want it to, for people that constantly create, there would be enormous pressure to make something amazing because someone paid for your skill. It is important for creatives to have the space to just explore, with no pressure of meeting a deadline, pleasing a client or even doing stellar work. Allowing yourself time to reconnect with what you love is important to maintain balance.
Because of the pressure that comes with doing what you live for a living, have you ever thought of switching industries?
“Despite the many challenges, I have never thought of switching industries. Having a good team that understands me really helps!”
It goes to show that being supportive can make a difference. What would you like people to know about you, but no one has ever asked?
“I would like people to know that because of my work, I hardly have any weekends. I wished people can stop asking me why I am tired all the time. But rather, ask me how they can better support me as a friend. I don’t need a lot!”
Support comes in different forms and the best way you can help someone that is struggling is ask them “what can I do to make this easier for you” instead of giving help that you think is best for them. If you want to be a supportive friend but are not exactly sure how, check out our previous article here to read more about supporting people in times of need.
Fashion has always celebrated people on the edge, sometimes going so far as to glorify mental health issues, but as the great Alexander Mcqueen once said, “Fashion should be a form of escapism and not a form of imprisonment.” Let us all be more aware of what we think about and ensure that we do not lose ourselves in the pursuit of success.
UNDERCOVER is a social series brought to you by VF+c and STATE Creative. Through the series, we seek to impact the lives of our community through authentic stories of inspiring individuals. Each edition, we partner with a social enterprise to shed light on the issues that matter.
For the first edition of UNDERCOVER, we partnered with The Lion Mind, a non-profit organisation (NPO) whose mission is to promote mental wellness and positive psychology through education and partnership with the community. Due to the rise of mental health cases around the world, we endeavour to do our part to normalise conversations around mental health issues through the subjects featured in our campaign.