At Star Creation 2012, three victors from last year took to the runway to debut their maiden capsules under the mentorship of Douglas and Odile Benjamin (of the FJ Benjamin empire) as part of their winning prize. Tiang Boon Tieon’s in particular moved me to goosebumps and a little tearing. Designers able to make a quality, powerful statement out of quiet minimalism are hard to come by, but Tiang Boon Tieon’s got it down completely. And he’s local. So why isn’t he all the rage right now, back in his homeland? I felt compelled to pick his brain, so here we are – Tiang talks growing up as a Manga fan in Kepong and the intricacies of simplistic design.
Tiang Boon Tieon, winner of Star Creation 2011
Tell us your background story.
I grew up in Kepong. I have always been interested in Japanese comics (that have been translated into Chinese), and spent a lot of time as a teenager drawing and trying to copy characters out of them. My older brother recognised my talent and interest, and suggested that fashion design made sense as a course of study, so I enrolled at the Raffles Design Institute in KL to do just that. And I really enjoyed it, so I went on to do my Bachelor of Arts at Raffles Design Institute (Singapore).
Did you always want to work in fashion?
Actually, not really. When I was young, I didn’t give much thought to my future, and viewed fashion more as an interest that a career option – I didn’t realise I could actually make a living from it until much later! It was only when I began studying fashion design that I learnt about the various (and complicated) aspects of the fashion industry. Fashion is about business, consumer appeal, market trends, profits and bottom lines, and at the same time, you have so many other things to play with, from colours and fabrics to different design genres. It goes so much further than just sketches and basic designs. What makes it even more exciting for me is that there is so much more than I have yet to learn, so the discovery continues.
How did you hear about Star Creation?
I read about Star Creation 2011 on a friend’s Facebook page when I was living in Kuala Lumpur, and decided I would send in some sketches and try my luck. I was actually quite surprised to make the finals, let alone win. That being said, I was incredibly happy to make the cut and, especially, to get the one-year internship at FJ Benjamin (Singapore) Pte Ltd and be able to live here. My internship will likely end in July, and who knows what will come after.
Describe your Star Creation 2011 entry, Along – what were your inspirations, and how did you process them into a collection?
Along came to me while I was working at a womenswear store in Kuala Lumpur. It catered to women between 20 and 35, and I had a first-hand view of shoppers and the way they styled themselves. What intrigued me most was the relationship between shoppers’ outfits and bags – they either matched, or were (intentionally or unintentionally) in contrast in terms of colour or style. Their bags were accessories, served a functional purpose and were even status symbols all at once.
That’s when I came up with initial sketches incorporating bag details into outfits, and instead of treating bags as accessories, re-casted them as apparel, drawing on various types and shapes of bags. To capture a sense of emotional detachment, I chose to work with white. I also chosen lighter materials like mesh and cotton so I could play with the idea of translucence, and “hide” or “blend in” the bags into the outfits. Overall, the design process and logistics of getting the collection done went relatively smoothly – it took two weeks to come up with the sketches, and then upon hearing I had made the finals, managed to complete preparing the collection in a month.
How has your prize internship with FJ Benjamin been going along? Describe a typical day for you at work.
At FJ Benjamin, I am involved in various aspects of merchandising, following up on the sampling process and learning to resolve problems that crop up. It has been a real eye-opener trying to understand how the industry works, and how much goes into supporting the design process on the back-end. I have come to realise that so much more goes into being a fashion designer than coming up with great sketches.
My typical day starts off with checking emails, and then updating my supervisor on the progress I am making on the various tasks I do. I also sit in on the various meetings that are held concerning product development and sourcing. After lunch, there are more emails and sometimes, I sit and come up with sketches. I also have a great working environment, so it’s rare that an afternoon goes by without some joking around or getting ribbed by my supervisor. Sometimes, I join in on fitting sessions and log comments or do the necessary alternations. Really, though, each day presents new tasks and challenges, and I really enjoy that.
Part of your Star Creation 2011 prize was to have Douglas and Odile Benjamin closely mentor your maiden capsule. What was that like?
It is really great to get comments and feedback from both Douglas and Odile as I was working on the collection. I have a lot of respect for them both – they are successful designers and strong businessmen at the helm of a retail giant. They have been very patient – listening to my concepts, guiding me along and alerting me to aspects of the design process that I sometimes may have overlooked or neglected. I consider myself very fortunate for having had that experience.
Describe the collection you showed at this year’s Star Creation.
This year, I presented a collection based on two concepts – minimalism, with its clean lines and sleek sophisticated silhouettes, as well as nomads, which allowed me to play with the idea of escapism from the urban jungle. There is a quiet control in the overall silhouette and mood of the 16-piece collection, and I kept the colours monochromatic so I could capture the lack of emotion in urban living. I also used soft weighted materials interlaced with some Nappa leather and patent leather to create conflicts and contrasts. Slashing the leather also allowed me to soften it somewhat, by creating the illusion of soft drapes and texture of an otherwise flat material. I also incorporated a handkerchief square detail on my pieces that “peeped out” from the clean silhouette.
In terms of putting the collection together, I was really lucky because my colleagues at FJ Benjamin gave me some great contacts in Hong Kong who were able to provide me the fabric, leather and other necessary materials. I went there and met with them to get what I needed. I really didn’t expect so many people to be so willing to help me this much and for that, I am very grateful.
Why was your maiden capsule left untitled?
Actually, the truth is that it was left untitled because I only came up with a name for the collection later! It’s now called Incognito.
How do you feel you’ve evolved since last year’s Star Creation?
While my fundamental approach to design has not changed that much, I certainly have evolved. Being exposed to other parts of the fashion business has inspired new designs, and I also think differently about my approach to fashion as a career. While fashion is an art and a platform to express my ideas, I need to factor in business considerations. It also takes a lot of effort and skill to come up with the finished product that consumers see – and they rarely understand how much hard work has gone into it. I also have started to appreciate the fun and challenges of designing for consumers, understanding what they want, instead of what I think they would like.
You’ve got a very specific aesthetic – describe it in your own words.
I like to find beauty in the simplest forms. I like the idea of drawing inspiration from monotones, mono-textures, mono-patterns and so on. It might seem boring to some but in my mind, I see texture and movement in them. They inspire me.
What’s one thing you wish you had known when you first started out?
I have learnt so much since then, that I wouldn’t know where to begin answering this question. I guess I wish I had known in the lead-up to Star Creation 2011 that I was going to win! I was really stressed out and had many sleepless nights. But I guess that’s half the fun of being in a competition!
What are your immediate future plans, now that you’ve launched your first capsule collection?
The launch of my capsule collection was a checkpoint for me, one at which I could take stock of what I had learnt over the past year. I realise there is still so much out there for me to learn. What I hope is to be able to continue to work with leading fashion retailers and gain more experience as well as understanding the fundamentals of the fashion business.
Last question, what advice would you give to someone who’s looking to be a designer?
Explore, experience and embrace the possibilities presented by an industry that has so many faces, in which there are so many different genres and trends. If you try too hard to stick to just one, it’s easy to start feeling lost or uninspired.
Images by Jonathan Liu, and courtesy of Audi Star Creation.