Veteran designer Thomas Wee is back in the retail scene with a boutique at Mandarin Gallery, called Maison Thomas Wee, and he has a clear agenda for opening it.
The 67-year-old wants Singaporean shoppers to know what proper design and tailoring is.
He bemoans the fact that many young designers now are not up to standard in the technical details of fashion design.
The former Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts lecturer says: “There are a lot of young designers who draw a garment without armholes. How can one design a shirt without armholes or a pair of pants without a pant rise? These are simple, fundamental details in garment design.
“The finishing and proportions of the garment are very important. Everything contributes to the designer’s aesthetic.”
For the launch of his 700 sq ft shop two months ago, he created a collection called Thomas Wee White, comprising all-white tops, full-circle skirts, pants, coats and dresses. Prices start from $240 for a top to $860 for a dress or coat. There are 35 designs in total.
He mans the shop and does all the pattern-making as, after 39 years in the business, he still has not found someone who can envision the exact form and silhouette of a design he has in mind. Two tailors, who have been working with him for about six years, help him with the sewing and construction.
He displays one piece per design at his shop and makes another only if it is sold. Sales have been brisk, with four to five pieces of clothing sold a day. About 80 per cent of his debut collection has been sold.
He says: “People come to buy my clothes to be exclusive. If there are only one or two pieces of my design and it costs about $360 for a blouse, they find the price worth it.”
Customers range from tourists and businesswomen to fans who have been wearing his designs since the 1980s.
“My muse is British actress Tilda Swinton,” he says. “She has poise and class and there are many women like that in Singapore. Their intelligence and beauty show in the way they talk and walk.”
His white shirts, which come in various styles such as a long tunic, a “poet’s shirt” with exaggerated flared sleeves and wrap blouses, are the most popular.
He will launch an all-black collection, titled Thomas Wee Black, by mid-March. The White and Black labels will be his two mainstay collections. He will introduce designs in colour and prints as “styling perks to match or coordinate” by the end of this month.
He says he was approached by Mandarin Gallery to open a boutique last year and it took him about two months to accept its offer as he had offers from other malls.
He started his career in 1978 when he entered (but did not win) the Her World Young Designer’s Contest and became known for his sharply tailored jackets. His last boutique was Thomas Wee Luxe at Shaw Centre, which he opened in 2001 and closed in 2003. His clothes were carried at Tangs and multi- label fashion boutique Coda Co. at Scotts Square for a year until 2014.
Prior to that, he took custom orders for mostly formal evening wear for clients at his atelier off Kitchener Road. He says he still can take custom orders at his boutique, but on a very selective basis.
Wee, who also mentors young designers, says his style has stayed consistent all these years.
“As a long-time designer, I’ve come to the stage where the most difficult part is to pare down all the unnecessary details and yet have the garment still look beautiful. It is like a piece of art,” he says.
He subscribed to this design aesthetic after a trip to Paris in the 1980s, where he entered a Yves Saint Laurent boutique and studied the construction of the label’s famous Le Smoking tuxedo jacket. He was also influenced by the pared-back minimalism of Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto.
Fashion show director Daniel Boey, 50, says of Wee’s return to the fashion retail scene: “It is great to have the master back. It is time a new generation got acquainted with a genius and learn what real fashion is. I hope this will inject some excitement back into the fashion scene here.”
Maison Thomas Wee is located at 03-23 Mandarin Gallery, 333A Orchard Road, tel: 8618-5279. It is open daily from 11.30am to 7.30pm
A version of this story was originally published in The Straits Times on January 21, 2016. For more stories like this, head to www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle.