What's cooler than wearing vintage finds? Making your own vintage-style frocks, of course. Not that Lilian Choo is your run-of-the-mill hipster maker. A former advertising account lead, the 37-year-old is passionate about keeping the art of dressmaking, and not just the more glamorous job of fashion design, alive.
"Although this is one skill that is harder to pick with age (poor eyesight will hinder the ability to sew properly and having to sit for long hours will affect one's posture), I was more afraid that the more I delayed my training, the chances of me finding someone to impart this skill would lower," says Ms Choo.
"The institute I attended is one-of-its-kind in Singapore. It is a real gem and I am very fortunate to be able to learn directly from the still surviving founders. They are getting older each year and I would say soon the skill of dressmaking will be lost in Singapore without them!"
Despite not having trained to design clothing, Ms Choo used her skills in garment construction to create figure-flattering, retro-style dresses from whimsical, vintage fabrics.
"When I was a kid, my sis and I would take scraps of cloth from pillow cases to hand stitch-clothes for our Barbie dolls," says Ms Choo, who spent four years training to be a seamstress in an old dressmaking institute that taught traditional techniques.
"Later when I was studying, I would go to a regular seamstress and with fabrics bought off the shops, get her to make clothes of my own designs. They would always be vintage styles as these were always not available in the shops. I never knew where I could take up sewing then so I remembered hanging around in the seamstress' shop as long as I could."
When she first decided to swap a Macbook for a sewing machine as her tool of the trade, however, her decision wasn't entirely popular with her loved ones.
"In today's context, especially in Asia, sewing is often associated as a job you would do if you lived in a third world country," explains Ms Choo. "Friends often sound shocked that as a graduate I would forgo a cushy 9-to-5 job to bend over a sewing machine making clothes, when you can buy them cheaply in the shops. Only after they saw what you can actually make with your bare hands that people really do take you seriously as a seamstress."
Instead of scoring cheap wholesale stock and becoming the next big blogshop retailer, Ms Choo explains that picking up the old-school craft of tailoring takes a high level of perseverance and skill, and it isn't a metier easily mastered.
"The art of pattern drafting is the most sophisticated skill I have ever acquired in my life, that involves common sense, sound mathematical knowledge and attention to very fine details," says Ms Choo. "How a pattern is drafted affects how the dress is worn on a person's body."
Although today she doesn't have the time to personally sew every garment she sells due to time constraints, she nevertheless sews a few pieces for sampling and takes charge of cutting every piece of fabric.
"The fabric cutters who do it well will demand a higher minimum quantity to make it worth their time, so to sustain a small production run like ours with well cut clothes, I have no choice but to handle this myself," says Ms Choo. "I find it hard to be hands off when it comes to production since I am well-versed in this aspect. I look into every single detail from the size of the buttons, to the stiffness of the interfacing (used in collars)."
Today, Ms Choo heads a small team comprising machinists who sew together pieces of fabric based on the samples she creates, and a freelance drafter who assists in pattern making. And it doesn't look like she is going into mass production any time soon.
"I often say that chasing one's own dream is always lonely, so when faced with adversity or obstacles, being human, I definitely thought of giving up," admits Ms Choo. "When that happens, I would take a step back and make clothes for my own wear just to remind myself why I love making clothes: to make someone look great with clothes I made."
This article was first published on June 27, 2015.
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