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Driving change for a fashionable future

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 10 min read
Driving change for a fashionable future
Semun Ho discusses the rebranding of Textile and Fashion Federation to Singapore Fashion Council, and its strategies to build a more connected fashion ecosystem PHOTO: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore
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A trade association that has been supporting textile manufacturers and apparel retailers since its inception in 1956, the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) is now elevating its profile with a new name change to encapsulate its wider purpose in serving the entire fashion value chain.

Now known as the Singapore Fashion Council (SFC), the organisation unveiled a revised strategic positioning aimed at building a more connected fashion ecosystem through diverse partnerships across sectors and geographics.

According to CEO Semun Ho, the renewed focus on partnership emerged from consultations with industry leaders to review Singapore’s strategic strengths as a fashion hub, and areas in which the local fashion industry can make a positive impact in.

In a press statement, Ho says: “SFC plays a catalytic role in supporting the growth of the industry by connecting stakeholders across the fashion ecosystem to unlock strategic opportunities for meaningful collaborations and community-building.”

“We are particularly focused on capability development to help Singapore’s fashion ecosystem expand and transform as an innovator amid changing consumer demands. Having talents joining the industry will help to achieve our vision of positioning Singapore as the regional nexus for fashion, and allow us to continue providing pathways for local industry players to make a mark in the fashion world of tomorrow.”

To unlock new opportunities for impact and bring more benefits across the fashion network, the council has outlined three key areas of focus: Asian Craftsmanship, Sustainability, and Innovation and Technology.

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To execute these three pillars, SFC has sought the support of ten industry partners who will provide the association with readily-accessible resources, meaningful networking, sustainability-focused innovations and future-forward insights. They included Asian Civilisations Museum, B Lab Singapore, Deloitte Singapore, DBS, HSBC, LaSalle College of the Arts, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, STACS, StarHub, and Temasek Polytechnic.

SFC plays a crucial role in efforts to position Singapore as an innovation fashion hub in Southeast Asia. Since joining the organisation in 2018, Ho has been instrumental in the development of several notable initiatives. Under her leadership, SFC secured the appointment to run the Design Orchard co-working space in 2019, and retail space in 2020.

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Ho also spearheaded The Bridge Fashion Incubator programme, launched in 2019, with the support of Enterprise Singapore. As the region’s first fashion, beauty and fashion-tech incubator, it has nurtured over 50 emerging brands and 59 incubatees.

Another successful initiative was the introduction of Singapore Stories in 2020, an annual design competition which presents the perfect platform for designers to gain local and regional exposure, as well as up to $100,000 worth of benefits and prizes.

With this year’s rebranding of SFC, Ho’s team will be busy addressing critical challenges that the industry is facing today, while executing the company’s three new directives.

To promote craftsmanship, the council will be working on ways to create more immersive programs to showcase Asian artisans and their ecosystems. In the areas of technology and innovation, they will look at ways to use new and existing technological solutions to disrupt and reshape industry practices, such as 5G, holographic telepresence, augmented reality, virtual reality and the metaverse.

“We want to leverage on the halo effect of what Singapore is good at. We may be a small nation, but we are digitally very savvy and controlled. Intellectual property (IP) is well protected, IP laws are good, logistics is good. It's a great launchpad for people to roll out new ideas,” says Ho.

With fashion as the world’s second biggest polluter (after oil and gas), SFC’s action plan moving forward will be finding end-to-end solutions that help to mitigate environmental impact. They include building standards-based frameworks, introducing capacity building programmes like green financing, training and upskilling of workforce, and development of a future talent pipeline.

Speaking with Options at Design Orchard — where SFC’s headquarters is located — Ho sheds light on why it’s imperative for industry stakeholders from all across the supply chain to make sustainability its number one priority.

For more lifestyle, arts and fashion trends, click here for Options Section

What exactly does the Singapore Fashion Council do?

SFC is a trade association created to uplift the fashion industry made up of consumers, businesses and communities. Although a large part of what we do is support and champion local designers, we are not limited by that. Our ambition is to really see how we can work with neighbouring countries to make this part of the world an important fashion region. Asia is one of the largest garment manufacturers in the world matched by a growing consumer market. While we have no manufacturing presence here in Singapore, we would like to empower our partners by being an industry think tank to drive change in the fashion ecosystem. The priority is to tackle supply chain issues and circularity, starting from the cotton farmers all the way to post-consumption waste management.

How do you see sustainability impacting the work of fashion designers?

To answer this, I like to use chefs as an analogy. Not only do chefs need to learn how to cook, they also need to understand ingredients and nutrition, and know how to plate food. If you apply this to fashion, it's no longer just about making pretty clothes. Consumers are getting more savvy. They now question: where are you getting your products and are they sustainable?

Designers now not only need to know how to be creative, but they need to source for ethically-made materials and work with the factories that allow them to be much more cost efficient but without doing the traditional MOQ (minimum order quantity). The challenge for them is how to be more customised in your approach that is least harmful to the environment? One way to reduce carbon footprint is onshoring (manufacturing closer to home) so your products don't need to travel half the world.

Being digitally savvy is also key to sustainability. In today’s context, it is no longer enough to say I am just creative. We offer workshops on digital patterning so that designers can email samples to clients, rather than manually producing a sample, which takes time and money to courier over. Big brands are already doing this, and they do put pressure on manufacturers to say, ‘unless you know how to do digital patterning, you're not getting my business’. I think smaller players can scale faster if they follow suit.

Can you tell us more about the Zero Fashion Waste Market Study you conducted?

According to an NEA report, in 2021, Singapore produced 182,000 tonnes of textile waste, 38% more than in 2020, and recycled just four percent of the waste. These findings drove us to perform our own study conducted by PwC Singapore and supported by Enterprise Singapore.

What we found is that world textile production continues to grow steadily and the global fashion market is expected to grow at 6% CAGR (compound annual growth rate), with upstream production emitting the highest carbon emissions. Southeast Asia is a key textile manufacturing hub for the world, accounting for 30% of the world’s textile production.

While a majority of brands recognise the need for more sustainable practices, textile-specific regulations are very limited and much more progress can be made by the industry.

Literal dirty laundry has come out of this study. But it’s given us very helpful insights in how we can draw up a sustainability road map, and curate the relevant programmes for our members and community.

Sustainability is not a sprint. It is such a big problem because it's so complex. To start, I urge everyone to learn and have some basic understanding of what climate change is and what we can do to delay the inevitable.

How do you think the fashion landscape in Singapore has changed?

Singapore has done a tremendous job positioning itself as a financial hub. For a long time, parents wanted their kids to go into banking because that’s where you earn the big bucks. But these days, mindsets are shifting, where now both parents and children feel that fashion is an acceptable field to go into. In spite of this, we still lack talent because we are in competition with other industries like finance and tech, or students are leaving to study overseas like St Martin's, while others are switching industries for better prospects.

I think there is actually scope and a future for one to pursue a career in fashion. People should give fashion designers the respect they deserve. They are architects in their own right, not just seamstresses. I think the whole idea is how do we change the paradigm and engage diverse groups of people to enrich the system.

Have you seen any new trends emerging in the last few years?

I think the pandemic has definitely created more awareness about sustainability, which in turn, is helping us push our agenda further. Consumers themselves definitely shop more consciously and try to recycle to promote circularity. I must say that since managing Design Orchard, I’ve observed a step up from Singaporeans who are more willing to support local brands.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that because of current geopolitical dynamics, more MNCs are relocating to Asia and setting up their global HQs in Singapore. With close to 700 million people living in this region, there’s more opportunity for good high profile jobs.

Coming from a tech background, what have you learnt in your time at SFC?

I am more conscious of shopping, and look at apparel or fashion pieces quite differently now. I have a deep respect for designers like Thomas Wee (who I’m wearing now) who understands the cutting and flow of fabric. I also like younger designers such as Gin Lee who infuses her avant garde style into her creations. A piece of clothing is actually the most mobile piece of identity, culture or personality. It tells us a lot about what you are, who you are, and what you stand for.

I hope younger designers keep going and believe in what they do. It’s important to have passion because this industry can get exhausting. If they can continuously work on their craft, I think we will see some very interesting products.

Designer spotlight

GinLee Studio

Established in 2011, GINLEE Studio is a contemporary womenswear label helmed by Singaporean & Israeli designers Gin Lee and Tamir Niv. Equipped with Fashion and Industrial design backgrounds, their designs extend towards 3D elements that not only flatter the female form, but make wearable pieces of art.

Thomas Wee

Designing for over 40 years, Thomas Wee emerged from the golden age of Singapore fashion of the ’80s but continues to push boundaries in design today. In 2011, he was inducted into the CNN Power List as one of the 30 people who have shaped modern Singapore.

Nyananyana Eco

Focusing on a better product for the earth, Nyananyana Eco uses eco-friendly batik and hand-woven fabric with natural dye from plants. The brand also instils ethical labour practices throughout its supply chain, engaging with crafters in rural areas and disadvantaged communities across Java Island.

Protesta

Sleek and sustainable, Protesta’s accessories are typically made of recycled aluminium, which takes up to 95% less energy to produce than primary aluminium, and are packaged in recycled felt.

Kavita Thulasidas

The winning capsule collection for Singapore Stories 2022, 'Heritage Reinterpreted and Beyond' by Kavita Thulasidas, will be showcased on the global stage during Paris Fashion Week in October 2023

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