Internationally renowned fashion designer-turned-artist Benny Ong explains how he harnesses his creativity to give back to society, express his feminist views, and more.

There is something about Benny Ong that instantly strikes me as familiar, before we even have the opportunity to exchange words. I am in the midst of touring the textile artist’s latest exhibition at UOB Art Gallery when I hear a voice warmly wishing the security guard “Good morning”, coming from behind the panel display boards.

Ong turns up looking comfortable in a loose, open-collared shirt and slacks, and plain brown sunglasses perched atop his head — far from what I had ima gined a fashion veteran famed for having dressed celebrity royals, including Queen Noor of Jordan and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, would look like. Beaming, the exuberant 68-year-old grabs my hand and shakes it, apologising profusely for being tardy even though he is only a few minutes late.

What I find even more endearing about Ong is how he takes the time to stop and acknowledge everyone who passes his way. Such as the counter personnel who clearly recognises him and greets him excitedly in Cantonese, and whom he responds to in the same dialect and with equal zeal, before we adjourn to the conference room upstairs for our interview.

Lively, affable, yet exuding a quiet dignity, the artist smiles often and demonstrates an eloquence and introspection that make my conversation with him utterly absorbing.

Male feminist
Women.Shoes.Freedom, on display at UOB Art Gallery from March 8 to April 7, is a collaboration between Ong and Singapore’s Breast Cancer Foundation. Proceeds from the sale of one of the art pieces will be donated to the non-profit BCF to support its cause.

Each handwoven piece, created with the help of a community of master Laotian weavers that Benny has been working with for over a decade, is a juxtaposition of traditional weaving techniques and materials with modern imagery designed to explore the views and roles of women in society. Ong explains that “shoes” is a phonetic pun on the word “choose”; the former is used to reference his background as a fashion designer in the late 1900s.

“In my own little way, I often try to showcase and promote an awareness that women are equal but, at the same time, different. It’s not a matter of questioning or comparing; it’s about finding the balance between gender differences and respecting the ability to be ourselves. Coming back to the exhibition title, I’m saying we all have a choice and life is up to us. So, let’s do this together and make a choice for freedom; in other words, empower oneself,” expounds Ong, who maintains that he has “always been a male feminist”, just as he has always been interested in fashion.

He describes art as therapy, not just in the visual sense but also as a means of reaching out and encouraging viewers to help others. “For every new collection I do and as part of my own corporate social responsibility, it is important that I give back as an artist. Because I am ‘ gifted’, it is only when I give through my work that I can replenish my creative ideas. I thought it would be nice to support BCF, which talks about the empowerment of women, especially those who have been through a difficult patch in their life,” he adds.

In fact, before Women.Shoes.Freedom has even run its course, Ong is already charting plans for his next exhibition, which he hopes will serve as a prequel to the collection on display. With The Secret Language — a working title — he intends to explore the subject of nushu, a syllabic script used exclusively by women as early as the 14th century, to communicate with each other in traditional Chinese society.

“What I want to talk about again [in the next show] is the survival and empowerment of women; how they have worked out solutions for themselves despite their circumstances. To me, a woman’s instinct is like water: It navigates; it takes on different shapes in different vessels. That’s the kind of story I want to tell.”

From runway glamour to simplicity
Ong sees the concept of style as one of balance and respect, which can be found within oneself. “It’s an intuitive thing. You just have to be yourself. To me, style is about striking a balance, a [way] of respecting oneself. That feeling has evolved since I started working as a fashion designer, but the essence of finding the balance has always been with me. I would describe my present style as more ‘bare’, which I’m happy to be as I believe the more ‘empty’ you are, like a blank canvas, the more you can create,” he says.

Ong spent some two decades in London, where he studied fashion and cut his teeth producing evening wear and cocktail gowns under his private label, The Ong, which was stocked by stores throughout Europe such as Harrods and Blooming dales. It was only in the 2000s that he began to move towards contemporary textile art.

“All the hard knocks [I got] in life were during my years in London as a fashion designer,” he recalls, likening the experience to attending a school where the student both produces and answers his own exam papers, which are then marked by his teachers and peers. “When each of my new collections came out, the press and buyers would judge and ‘grade’ my work... I had no say in whether I passed or failed. If both parties liked the collection, I would survive until the next [one]. But if they didn’t, things became very tough for me. This went on for 20 years.”

Cause and condition
Fashion designer or textile artist, Ong believes his life’s work and philosophy simply boil down to what he abbreviates as “CC” — cause and condition, a term he uses frequently throughout the interview and which he is eager to impart. “Cause creates my art; it happens only when the conditions are right. Let’s take a creative idea as the cause, or seed. No matter how beautiful the seed’s potential is, at the end of the day, it will not flower if the conditions aren’t right,” Ong explains.

Using Women.Shoes.Freedom as an example, he likens his desire to use his inherent artistic gift to support a women’s cause to a seed. And, his partnership with UOB provides the right conditions for the seed to bear fruit.

“This is the first time I’m exhibiting at UOB Art Gallery. I am very fortunate and grateful that UOB has embraced my work. The bank is a fantastic supporter of the arts, as is Raffles Hotel, where I held an exhibition last year. It was then that I first met the people from UOB and eventually began discussions to stage Women.Shoes.Freedom together,” reflects Ong, who adds with a laugh: “You see? That’s another example of what I call CC.”

Upholding Singapore’s heritage
Ong does not seem to make much of a distinction between fashion and his style of art, often referring to his main medium, textiles, as the foundation of fashion. He sees himself as a “conduit” between the tradition of Laotian weaving and the contemporary world, travelling to Laos several times a year to check on the progress of his “family” of weavers. He draws on the master weavers’ skills to express his concepts and designs in the form of hand-woven textiles, thus creating a “dialogue between the past and the future”.

“As the Chinese say, guanxi [relationship] is very important. Once you have developed that trust, you can work through all the differences. This fact is reflected in whatever we do in our work. It’s all about humanity and attaining an understanding on the level of family, to achieve a better chance of surviving on the world stage together,” says Ong.

“I discovered this ‘family’ over 10 years ago. They have a network of weavers and help members of their community by giving them a means of livelihood [through weaving]. Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to exchange knowledge; it’s a unique symbiosis. I think they have set a very good example in upholding the Laotian heritage and I am very glad to see them do that.”

Ong also operates on the belief that the nature of his work allows him to participate in upholding Singa pore’s heritage as an immigrant society. “As descendants of immigrants, we are very rich in terms of multicultural knowledge. By gaining knowledge from beyond Singapore and coming back to share it, we are enriching our immigrant culture. By going out to Asean countries and working with our neighbours, I am living out our legacy, working with talent of different nationalities to make something happen, just like our ancestors did.

“This is how Singapore has managed to change so much over the years, and how we have built an identity over time, even though we are still so young. We just keep evolving. And in this way, we stand out as a nation.”

This article appeared in Issue 775 (April 17) of The Edge Singapore.