Designers' workspace: Frederick Lee

Designers' workspace: Frederick Lee

Local designer Frederick Lee, 45, of Frederick Lee Couture, in his 1,000-sq-ft office-studio in Aljunied Industrial Complex. He shares the space with one assistant.

How did you end up in this space?

I've been in a lot of places over my 21 years in the business. I was in Jalan Klapa near Arab Street for eight years but the rent went up every year.

I finally bought this space and made it a home last year. I needed more space, so I have the unit next door where I keep archived designs in storage.

I like that a lot of people who come in, go "oh!" because the space looks and feels very different from the industrial loft-like look outside.

Has the office changed a lot since you've been here?

The structure has remained the same but it's filled with more stuff now. Every time I go somewhere, I come back with vintage items from flea markets so the space is getting more crowded.

My old shop had so much stuff I had to start giving things away.

Describe your creative process.

I have a wall of bookshelves (above) filled with various items. It's like a mood or story or inspiration board. I toy with a lot of ideas, but I do my best work under a deadline.

I might think about something for six months with nothing to show for it, but then create 30, 35 looks in a short time. I like to work under pressure.

There are a few things I can't work without - books, movies and music. They take me to different places and that helps me transport an audience with my clothes in runway shows.

Designers have to be good storytellers. It's not just about showing dresses but also the stories behind them.

What is your favourite thing in the room?

A one-armed shoulder sleeve made of peacock feathers.

I made it for the queen of Thailand a few years ago for an event here. It's so fine, made of 18 different types of feathers, and we have to maintain it carefully and constantly repair it.

What is the most useful thing in the room?

All my fashion books. I do costume design for theatre productions like The Importance Of Being Earnest and I need references.

A 1940s look versus pre-war, a 1960s flower power look versus one from the 1970s.

You need to give the actors the correct clothes to help them do their work.

What is the strangest thing in the room?

Maybe the decorative skulls? It helped inspire the last collection, which was created with the theme of death and destruction.

Do you live close by?

I actually live in the Holland area, which is quite far from here. I cannot see myself eating, living and sleeping in the same place.

Sometimes, if I don't feel productive, I can leave and go home to a different world and come back fresh the next day.

Inspiration can strike any time, even in the middle of the night, but if I'm stuck, it's good to be able to leave things and start again.

Do you conduct meetings here?

I meet clients here, but I also have big theatre meetings at other venues. I work on multiple projects at a time.

Right now, I'm working on Dim Sum Dollies' next production, Royston Tan's new movie and a Resorts World Sentosa production, all on top of my regular work. It's good, it keeps me going.

Do you work on the computer?

I prefer not to. Couture is old-school. It's painstaking and hands-on and slow.

I mean, it could take 300 hours to make a gown. You can't rush things like hand-painting feathers and letting each one dry. That's the beauty of it. It has been like that for years and will be the same in the years to come.

When you are done with a project, do you keep the materials or throw them away?

I move on. I try not to repeat the things that I've done. If you keep the materials, you tend to go back to the same ideas.

Now, our audience here is more clever, more sophisticated. They expect more. It helps me to be better and challenges me.

This article was first published on Oct 17, 2014.
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