Socialites turn to designers Heng Nam Nam & Chen Kah Lee for custom creations

Socialites turn to designers Heng Nam Nam & Chen Kah Lee for custom creations

At the glittering Icon Ball last Wednesday, polished society ladies swanned the room in beautiful gowns, competing for the title of best-dressed. Four of the 20 winners that night - in looks ranging from a voluminous green-and-black confection to a slinky white tuxedo-inspired dress - were dressed by Heng Nam Nam boutique.

The next morning, Heng Nam Nam and Chen Kah Lee, co-designers and co-owners of the boutique, describe the line-up as a happy surprise, adding that the personalities of the women matter as much.

The glamorous world they inhabit - of champagne, balls and effusive air kisses - seems worlds away from their starter shop in the mid-1990s, a dark, dingy basement space in Park Mall prone to water leakages thanks to the construction of Dhoby Ghaut MRT nearby.

"When it rained, we had to catch the water and pour it out of our shop. You can't imagine these women in their Rolls- Royce cars visiting us there," saysChen, 48, in an interview with Life! over green tea at their shop in Palais Renaissance.

Regardless of the location, women have been going to their boutique for 23 years, making the local brand a go-to name for evening and bridal wear.The designers, both bachelors, made more than 10 gowns for the recent ball alone, not to mention other society soirees that are held throughout the year, including the Prestige and Tatler balls.

Roughly 80 per cent of their work is custom, while the rest are off-the-rack, one-off styles. Each dress takes about a month to complete and prices start from four figures.

Their affluent clients - about half are local and half are from countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and China - are willing to spend on gowns that, in the designers' words, make them look good.

The process is usually collaborative, with customers bringing in a picture or describing an idea and the two men finding ways to refine it and make it a reality.

"They have to trust us," says Heng, 50, whose mild-mannered demeanour contrasts with Chen's gregariousness.

If they believe the client's concept can be improved, they will suggest new ideas, he says. One of the winners at the ball, Ms Jessie Foo Yuli of Yuli Inc - Fine Jewellery, benefited from their suggestions to keep her white gown free of unnecessary embellishment, for example.

Chen and Heng also emphasise the uniqueness of the brand's looks as part of their appeal. "Someone else can use the same bolt of lace, but our dress will look completely different," says Chen. He adds of their propensity to mix materials: "Our style is like a collage of fabrics."

Themed dress codes at these balls pose a good challenge. Last year's Icon ball was centred on art, so dresses included those inspired by origami and pop art.

The designers recognise the friendly rivalry among their clients and stagger fittings and hide gowns so nobody else gets a peek before the clients' big debuts.

While they work on each gown, they split up some duties. For instance, Heng does more sketching, while Chen handles the choice of fabric. They do the embellishments and have five staff who help with cutting and sewing.

There is a clear difference in personalities. Chen, who is more outspoken, takes the lead in the conversation, while Heng chimes in only when he feels the need to. The younger designer also handles more of the marketing and business side of the boutique, duties Heng is happy to hand over. In fact, the outgoing Chen is often mistaken as Heng by those who do not know the two-man team.

Though his conversational dominance and decision-making duties seem to give him a boss-like air, the roles were reversed when the two met through Heng's assistant Kenneth Tan, who was Chen's clubbing friend.

Then teaching at Quest hair school, Chen started working part-time for Heng, who was employed at Flamingo gowns boutique at Orchard Emerald. When Heng was offered the opportunity to set up shop at Saga, a space for ASEAN designers at Park Mall's Metro, he asked Chen to come aboard.

They invested $15,000 of their money in a small 238 sq ft space to set up their boutique, which debuted in May 1992. A year later, they left their day jobs to devote themselves fully to the business.

The store moved to a new unit on the first floor of Park Mall when Metro shut down. They moved again to the basement when the mall started focusing on furniture and wanted the front-facing stores to reflect that. Prominent faces in the 1990s such as socialite Tanny Kea, who appeared on many best-dressed lists, started frequenting the store.

In 2010, the two moved to Palais Renaissance. Along the way, the Heng Nam Nam label showed at Singapore Fashion Week as early as in 2001 and at the first F1 fashion show in 2008.

When asked if he wishes his name is on the label as well, Chen shakes his head and says: "Both of us have worked to make Heng Nam Nam what it is. We're like family now. We often know what the other is thinking."

Of course, the two argue from time to time, he adds, but problems exist to be solved. It may be a back-and-forth about realistic time management versus continuing to fiddle to perfect a gown.

Both are united in their love of fashion and, in particular, gowns. They have never delivered a gown late and have burnt many weekends finishing their elaborate creations. "There's satisfaction there," says Chen of gowns compared with casualwear. "When someone wears a gown, people stop to appreciate it, like a work of art."

Their 23-year-old friendship is going strong. Along with fashion, the two first bonded over a mutual love of Taiwanese singer Tracy Huang. Coming full circle after two decades, the pair are attending her concert in Taipei next month.

llim@sph.com.sg

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