Meet The Real Crazy Rich Asians: Dick Lee
September 5, 2018 | BY Cheryl Chan
If reality is stranger than fiction, then you wouldn’t be surprised to know that the colourful characters featured in the pages of Singapore Tatler lead lives that truly embody that crazy rich Asian spirit. In part two of this three-part series, we chat with Dick Lee, the Mad Chinaman himself
He doesn’t call himself the Mad Chinaman for nothing.
A celebrated entertainment industry veteran, one must applaud Dick Lee for injecting an Asian flair and “Singaporean-ness” into everything he does, from music to fashion—and all with an intense passion for love and life. As someone who’s had a big hand in shaping Singapore’s fashion industry in the 1980s and ’90s, he shares with us his thoughts on the future of Asian fashion and where Singapore’s fate lies in it all.
Why do you think it is so hard for Asian designers to make it big globally?
Dick Lee (DL) I do believe that Asian designers have taken off, but there are few and far between, and they’re all from Japan. Even Singaporean designer Andrew Gn has plateaued in terms of his visibility and popularity. But to answer the broad question, the fashion that we’re familiar with today is of a Western tradition. Historically, fashion stems from couture and that dressmaking from the West was way more superior that the quality in the East.
Do you think there is a future for Asian fashion?
DL We need to infuse our identity into the Western forms that we’re working with, which is why Comme des Garçons is so successful—it puts its whole Japanese aesthetic into the brand. Globalisation and fast fashion have changed things. But I don’t know if it’s so much about culture anymore. Do we care where our clothes come from as long as they look good? Maybe the time has come for Asia to rise. But is that important? What’s the big deal?
What does Singapore’s current fashion industry need to succeed?
DL Market size. We just don’t have the industry here to support them. We have no factories here, we have to go to China and that costs more. You need money to go global. Charles & Keith has gone global thanks to LVMH’s investment, but accessories are clearly easier to sell than clothes. It’s hard for the current crop of designers to succeed because they cannot afford the rents.
Also, what culture do we have? Who are we on the world stage? What is Singapore to people? That’s what we lack as well. We need the support first. But because of globalisation right now, if someone was to make a dress here, you have so many choices.
What would you consider Asian fashion?
DL Right now, the only country that has defined the Asian style and has made a strong impact is Japan. They’re so unique and highly developed in their culture that they’re in a place where it can now evolve. When you look at all the internationally established Japanese designers, they’re unique and stick to what they do, like Issey Miyake.
The Chinese as designers haven’t been successful in deriving inspiration from their ancient culture and refining it. It’s going to take a while, whereas the Japanese have had a few uninterrupted hundred years to do it. Now, the Chinese designers’ only reference is French couture, and that’s what couturier Guo Pei is doing. But Guo Pei can’t just design for the West when not enough people in China are wearing her creations. When the Japanese designers go out of their own country and try to branch out internationally, they were already well-accepted in Japan, and people supported them. That’s what China needs to do.
As an Asian and a former designer, what do you look for when it comes to fashion?
DL I like prints. If I see a nice print, I’ll buy it. I don’t care where it’s from. When the whole bespoke suits trend came about, I was interested but Singapore’s so hot! You need to be in air-conditioned places all day to wear those. Now I like to have a bit more of a casual style. I wear a lot of silk because it’s cooling but it’s also warm enough to bring abroad. I love fashion, so I watch all the seasons’ shows. I look out for major trends, because they affect everything I do, from my creative designs, events and even music.
Are there any Asian fashion designers that you love?
DL There’s a Thai brand called Theatre. I bought my first sequinned jacket from there for $150 before Saint Laurent started making them for like $5,000. And that’s where Thailand was a forerunner—they started making handicrafts, sequins and beaded things way before they became trendy. Another one that I like is an Indonesian label called Dian Pelangi. Her work reminds me of Belgian label Dries Van Noten but done in a more glamorous way.
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