Journey of a garment with Mash-Up

SEE PHOTOS: Singapore fashion designers – soon to be on sale at Parco Next Next – explain just how they go about creating a garment; first up is Mash-Up

From the initial inspiration and sketches to picking out fabric and putting together a piece, a fashion designer can experience the heights of exhilaration then be in the depths of depression in a single moment.

herworldPLUS follows fledgling Parco Next Next designers on their journeys from raw idea to rack, in time for their April 14 retail launch.

First up, and in their own words, is Singapore fashion label Mash-Up created by Daniela Monasterios Tan, 25, Nathanael Ng, 24 and Shaf Amis’aabudin, 23.

The Storyteller Dress from Mash-Up’s Spring Summer 2012 Totemania Collection
The Spring Summer 2012 Totemania Collection was inspired by North-West Coast Native Americans, or First Nation Peoples, and the visual narrative language of their totem-poles.

While most Native American tribes are known for adding fringes to their traditional dress, the tribes of the North-West are known more for woodwork and their totem poles, which created a stronger visual language.

The Storyteller Dress is a culmination of all the stories that have gone into the collection – tales of men turning into salmon, wolves turning into whales and even ravens turning into needles and stealing the sun from an old man. We wanted a dress that would capture all those stories.

Research time: The ideas flow based on what we come across in books, films, photographs and stories that we find online about Native Americans in the North-West Coast.

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Anything that is visually arresting is printed and put on walls and sketchbooks, or be saved in our laptops. We draw on books that interest us and refer to them for inspiration. Anything we find could potentially get incorporated into our prints and garment cuts.

Daniela spots totem poles (pictured above), Nathanael suggests killer whales (commonly referred to as orca) of indigenous culture mythology (pictured above). Sometimes inspiration can even come from legends that the Native Americans used to tell.

This dress is inspired by how the Native Americans made use of every single part of the animal they killed – animal skin for clothing, flesh for food and bones for accessories. The concept for this dress is that nothing goes to waste, even the trims and denim patchwork are made of recycled fabric. 

We start sketching our interpretation of the stories. Mash-Up tries to bring together things from different sources to create a new story, so in our illustrations there are narratives about, for example, the way the culture and livelihood of Native Americans were threatened by colonization.

We also don’t want it to be all gloom and doom so we go with the idea of whales and transformation and also decide to give some of the characters crowns and adidas sneakers – a throwback to the 1980s and 1990s golden era of hip hop and graffiti artists like Basquiat whose “tag” was a crown.

Basquiat is one of our favourite artists. While his images had childlike cartoon qualities to them, he also made his own symbols like the crown. He inspires us with how he created his own visual image and like him, we want to be able to create images and symbols that represent us.

The plan for this statement piece is to hand-embroider all the designs and embellishments – time-consuming work! And while the fabric will be a statement in its own right, the dress has to be modern and wearable.

The shape also needs to allow the surface area to be the main focus so it cannot have a lot of panels. We also want to construct the skirt to add dimension like a totem pole. Most skirts are usually fitted or flared. We added triangular darts that stick out of the skirt for dimension, just like how there are arm or wing features that extend out of totem poles.

The whole dress needs to be covered so we start to transfer the drawings to bigger A3 sheets. That is the only way to gauge the actual size of the embroidery work. It is very stressful. We want the dress to be awesome, colourful and textured.

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But that will take a lot of time – something we do not have a lot of. To make the most of it, we need to plan each piece of embroidery well and choose which designs will be hand-embroidered separately and which ones will be done on the base fabric of the dress itself.

Next up: deciding on the fabric of the dress, and denim is our natural choice. Denim is the fabric of our generation. We like denim’s humble beginnings, and how it was first made into overalls and jeans for the working class. Even today, you see denim clothing in different forms sold at both high-end stores and street wear shops. It is the fabric that people of our time can relate to.

Like how the use of skin was part of the Native American culture, the same way denim is to our generation, making it the choice fabric for us. We love denim because it is a democratic fabric, and not like exclusive and luxurious fabrics like silk.

We want to recycle old clothes but don’t want to put people off, so we plan to pay a lot of attention to the embellishments and embroidery work to add “worth” to them. We also dig into our box of second-hand trims for more inspiration, picking out which ones are most suitable for the concept of this dress (pictured above).

We also need to plan out where each piece of embroidery is going to go, which means having to draft the dress ourselves. We work from the paper pattern and make our first toile, or mock up, in a mixture of denim and calico – denim so we could tell how the skirt would fall and calico for the bodice.

It looks really different in 3D. You can never get the complete scale of how a piece would look like when its in 2D. Some of the embroidery will turn out differently when it is translated. We did not colour our sketches and built on it as we translated it into the mock up. It took a life of its own as we went along. We also needed to change fitting issues.

We wanted the proportions to be different and had to lower the waist and change the positions of the embroidery so they would not be blocked by the arms of the wearer. We also need  to decide on details like the positions of the hem, sleeves and waist/bust.

We keep making changes but at some point we need to simply stop and get to the next stage - embroidering.

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We plan to do a placement print for the embroidery going directly onto the dress, so all the positions on the fabric are pre-established. We thought it would be able to tell the story better, and in turn, look better. It also gives us more control over where the embroidery would go on the dress, instead of leaving it to the seamstress to decide.

For example, we actually specified that the embroidery of the sun would go on the top, while the embroidery of the sea would be at the bottom of the dress. That means we cannot cut the fabric and have to trace out the different panels of the dress onto a two-metre long piece of denim. But such a long piece of fabric is hard to manoeuvre!

At some points we ended up working on opposite ends of the fabric using two sewing machines at the same time. In order to meet the deadline for our campaign shoot that was scheduled for January 2, we worked overnight and took it in shifts.

And then comes the embroidering, which is not easy. It is one thing to draw images on paper but to do them on textiles means having to translate out black and white sketches into colour and dimension. We keep adding different stitches onto stitches just to get the effect we need and it is physically draining- especially on deadline!

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Meals become optional just so we can get things done. While it was really tiring, we never regretted setting foot into the industry. We constantly remind ourselves of the reason why we started, and to have the big picture of the end in mind instead of focusing on our fatigue at the moment.

Then we have to start attaching the pieces onto the cloth, otherwise the dress is never going to get done. All the individual parts of the dress look great – but we still can’t see it as a whole (pictured above).

We discover that some of the embroidery has to be cut off – the pattern draft has changed during the toile stage and it means that this raven has lost a wing. We were heartbroken. All our hard work over the festive period was gone, but for the benefit of having a well-cut dress, we had to lay down our pride and sacrifice the wing of the bird.

However, the incident taught us a lesson- never to  make a dress during the holidays. We rely on seamstresses to complete the sewing of our dresses but their working hours are usually not the same as ours, and they definitely do not work on public holidays. We have to ensure that we meet their deadlines, so that they can meet ours as well.

We’re trying to get the sample done but that is a challenge in itself. It is coming up to the year-end festive period and we cannot find a seamstress willing to take on any more jobs!

A lot of phone calls later, we finally find three willing to take on a statement piece each. As they were all recommended by Shaf’s father, we could be sure that they would do a good job, although they were all expensive due to the holiday season.

We rush to get everything ready for them, including the zips and trimmings. Christmas Eve comes and goes – we work all night to have the fabric for the dress ready to go to one of the seamstresses. She has already told us that if she gets it any later than Christmas Day, it will not be ready. We make the deadline and then we wait.

This is it! The dress is finally ready. The minute we have it in our hands we know that we love it.

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The final outcome is very wearable and you can see the fun details on closer inspection (pictured above). That the embroidery has been done on denim will also come as a nice surprise to people, we’re sure. We get it ready for the all-important photo shoot and it’s amazing to see it on an actual model (pictured below).

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The dress also goes down well at our the media launch, and finds favour even with the most critical journalists (pictured above). Most of them don’t realise we have used recycled denim, and they think its a fun twist. The lady who ends up buying this statement piece is a lucky one!

The Storyteller Dress is a statement piece from Mash-Up’s Spring Summer 2012 Totemania Collection. It will retail at $499 and will be available from Mash-Up’s store at Parco Next Next, Milenia Walk, Level 2. Go to for more information.