Audi Fashion Festival goes solo

Left inset: Audi Fashion Festival (AFF) director Tjin Lee

Audi Fashion Festival (AFF) director Tjin Lee is not sweating it that government funding for the event ended last year.

On the contrary, she says it means she can now run the annual fashion extravaganza, which she started in 2009 (along with some partners), on her own terms.

Ms Lee, 41, says the Singapore Tourism Board signed on to fund the $2 million-a-year event on a declining basis in 2010, but the endorsement came with conditions.

"One of our key performance indicators (KPI) set by the STB was to keep growing the festival. Now that we're independent, we're not bound by the same objectives," says Ms Lee, who is the managing director of Mercury Marketing & Communications. She declined to elaborate on how much she was expected to grow the event, but she says it included increasing the number of tourists to the festival every year.

Even though STB funding amounted to just 5 per cent of the festival budget last year, those KPIs still had to be met. STB declined to reveal how much of the festival's annual budget it sponsored over the years.

Without the mandate to increase the number of visitors, Ms Lee is turning this year's instalment, happening from May 14 to 18 at Ngee Ann City, into a more intimate affair.

"The intent is not to make it smaller, but more experiential. I can't do that if my event has 800 to 1,000 people at every show," says Ms Lee. There are 17 shows this year, compared with 13 shows last year.

This year, there will be 650 seats for each show, instead of 800. In 2009, the festival started with 600 seats and had 11 shows. With fewer seats and a 30m runway, up from 24m, there will be better views for showgoers.

Most shows will be open to the public. The show venue is at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza, its home before it moved to the Marina Promenade last year.

AFF is part of the Asia Fashion Exchange (AFX), which aims to promote Singapore as an Asian fashion hub.

The other key AFX events are Blueprint, a trade show; Asia Fashion Summit, a conference for industry professionals; and Audi Star Creation, a design competition for aspiring designers in the region.

Mr David Wang, vice-president of the Textile and Fashion Federation, says that, as a whole, the AFX has helped to raise Singapore's fashion profile on a global level. AFF, in particular, helps to raise the profiles of local designers by showcasing them alongside international designers.

Over the years, local labels such as Ashley Isham and Raoul have showcased their collections alongside prominent names such as Missoni, Roberto Cavalli, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Roland Mouret.

"But aside from the glitz of AFF, Blueprint is important as well to give local designers business and networking opportunities," says Mr Wang.

Before AFF came about, there was the Singapore Fashion Festival (SFF), which ran from 2001 to 2008, and was meant to complement the Singapore Fashion Week, which was organised for more than 20 years to develop local designers. But instead of generating buzz, the two events caused confusion as the public could not tell the difference between the two. Both events ended in 2008.

AFF was started in 2009 by Ms Lee. Mercury Marketing and Communications had organised SFF in 2008. Getting it off the ground after taking over was hard work, with Ms Lee having to go door-to-door to pitch it to sponsors. But she managed to win over sponsers including Audi, Samsung and MasterCard. In 2010, STB started funding the event. Government funding was timely, but the apron strings had to be cut eventually.

Says Ms Ranita Sundramoorthy, STB's director of attractions, dining and retail: "As with all events, our funding is not perpetual and we encourage event organisers to find ways to make their events sustainable in the longer term.

"We are happy that AFF is now fully independent and continues to receive strong support from their sponsors."

There are more than 30 sponsors this year, about 15 per cent more than last year.

LOCAL DESIGNERS TAKE THE SPOTLIGHT

Another first this year is that four local labels - Exhibit, hansel, Ong Shunmugam and Saturday - will have stand-alone shows. This is the largest number in the festival's six-year history.

At last year's festival, the only home-grown brands with solo shows were Raoul and Zardoze. The year before, only Raoul and Alldressedup had shows.

The rest of the local labels were grouped together or partnered with better-known designers in bigger shows. For example, Ong Shunmugam was showcased together with Japanese designer Jun Okamoto last year.

Ms Lee says there are more solo shows for home-grown talent this year because she was able to match more of them with interested sponsors.

It costs about $1 million to stage about 15 shows, which works out to about $65,000 per show, an expense that local designers might not be able to afford.

Mr Wang says: "Even a non-prime time slot is expensive. Having your own show also means having to produce a huge collection of 40 to 48 outfits, which again is a huge financial expense."

This is even with a discount that Ms Lee says she always extends to local designers. This is why she tries to find sponsors for individual designers.

The matching process depends on how well an aesthetic resonates with a company.

For example, this year, Sony Xperia took a liking to the quirky aesthetic of hansel and Haagen-Dazs was drawn to the social media influence of Exhibit's designer, Yoyo Cao, who has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram.

There will be four international names this year: industry veteran Oscar de la Renta, Nepalese-American Prabal Gurung, London-based Singaporean designer Ashley Isham and Canadian Thomas Tait, a relative newcomer. Last year, there were five.

She says that the team strives to have at least three international designers every year.

THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA

While this year's event will see a smaller group of showgoers, it does not mean the festival will have a smaller reach.

This year, Ms Lee is revving up social media efforts by inviting popular Instagrammers, or "social media influencers" as she calls them, who can "broadcast" shows at the click of a button.

Previously, popular fashion bloggers, such as BryanBoy, Susie Bubble and Liberty London Girl, were invited but the reach is explosive with Instagram.

"If one of my 650 visitors has 100,000 followers, I can reach so many more people," says Ms Lee, who herself has 10,000 Instagram followers.

Social media influencers who will be at the event include local model-actress Sheila Sim, who has more than 23,000 followers; British DJ Chelsea Leyland with about 40,300 followers; and local It girl Arissa Cheo and wife of Taiwanese singer Vanness Wu, who has 185,000 followers.

Ms Cheo also stars in a promotional video for the festival that is on the AFF Instagram account.

Designer Priscilla Shunmugam, 32, of Ong Shunmugam, says: "AFF comes as close as possible to what a fashion week should be about. The curation is brave and experimental enough to feature both the established houses as well as lesser-known designers."

However, she feels that "it could give more showtime to Singapore labels. Because, at the end of the day, a fashion week should always aim to take ownership of its own designers. Nothing beats showing on home ground. So hats off to the organisers - one can really see an evident effort to do more of that this year".

staceyc@sph.com.sg

This article was published on May 9 in Urban, The Straits Times.

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