Inspired by mother's spirit

SINGAPORE - When feathered mullet hairdos, fingerless gloves and big shoulder pads were fashionable in the 1980s, a young Alfie Leong was awash with ideas on how to dress cool.

Inspiration came from American rapper M.C. Hammer, who swaggered across the television screen in low-slung, voluminous harem pants; and pop queen Madonna, who struck a pose in her messy, yet chic, layered look on MTV.

The 44-year-old fashion designer says: "Watching those music videos got me interested in fashion. I wanted to have baggy pants just like M.C. Hammer, but no tailor would make it for me because they didn't know how."

With a needle, thread and elastic bands, the 15-year-old hand-sewed his first pair of Hammer-style pants.

Leong would go on to become a darling in the Singapore fashion scene, with his own labels Mu and A.W.O.L. His 23-year career hit a high when he was one of six people to win in the Designer of the Year category at the President's Design Award last December.

It was the first time in six years that a fashion designer had won the award, which is given out to Singapore designers across industries from architecture to advertising. They must have developed iconic projects that make an impact on the local and international design scene. Paris-based fashion designer Andrew Gn received the accolade in 2007.

Leong says: "I never expected my passion to turn into a business. It was not easy getting here but I felt so much hope along the way from people who worked hard to help me get here."

Indeed, he came up through the school of hard knocks.

Growing up poor, he was the younger of two children. His sister is two years older.

They had an alcoholic father who drank daily and flew into fiery rages. His father was a construction foreman who worked on a project basis and stopped working altogether when he was 48.

His mother, a housewife, made ends meet by doing odd jobs such as weaving baskets and stitching cloths.

She also took care of her niece and nephew during the week and her younger sister, who had to work, would take them home on weekends.

The family lived in a room in a shophouse they rented in Lavender, and sub-let the other rooms for extra cash.

Leong speaks candidly about his childhood. He recalls the time his father, who died at age 63 of liver failure in 1999, tried to drown him in a large urn where water was stored for bathing. His father also threatened his mother with a knife.

He remembers seeing his father being handcuffed for drunken behaviour in a police station on the first day of Chinese New Year and adds: "It was like living with Jekyll and Hyde. He was really nice if he wasn't drinking. We lived in fear of what would set him off because he would destroy things in the house and beat us."

Seeing his mother tolerate the abuse and raise the children on her own, Leong was determined to give her a better life.

"My mother had a hard life. She gave us children what little meat there was at dinner and ate only rice with soya sauce herself in the kitchen, so that we wouldn't know. I wanted to make it easier on her."

He became the lifeline to a better life for his family when his sister dropped out of Nanyang Junior College to work. She had to earn money for his education and worked as an administrator in her uncle's new trading firm, earning $300 a month. She also worked in a bookshop at night and gave tuition part-time.

Leong chose an electronics and communications course at Singapore Polytechnic as technology and computers were starting to get popular then. But he felt like a fish out of water, calling the course "not my cup of tea".

It did not help that he could not focus at school as he took on part-time jobs, working in hotels and restaurants to earn some extra money for the family.

Leong, who worked at the now- defunct Neptune Theatre Restaurant in Collyer Quay, well-known for its topless dancers, and Shangri-La Hotel, among others, says: "If they paid for extra hours, I would take it. Work would end at 3am and I would wake up three hours later to go to school. I felt like I was a burden because I wasn't doing well at school."

His sister May, now 46 and a market support manager, says the family had a discussion about whether he should quit. She says: "He was quite insistent that he wanted to leave and told our mother that he had a flair for fashion. It was a hard road for him but he did well."

He left the polytechnic and while waiting to enlist for the army, he got a job as a salesman at Khee, a local fashion label which had a counter at Tangs. After completing his national service, he returned to work for the label.

Even though he was only a salesman, he felt that he had found his calling. He says: "I would check out what other designers were selling and what customers liked or disliked. I would watch their body language to see how they reacted to the clothes and rang the regular ones to tell them about new designs."

At the same time, he was sketching his own designs.

Khee's owner, Ms Tan Khee Gek, felt that he was serious about the business and let him work in the office, meeting fashion buyers and designers.

Leong's mother had also taken ill and needed to make regular hospital visits to treat her breast cancer. Ms Tan let him take the mornings off to accompany his mother on her appointments.

Ms Tan, who is in her 40s and now works in technical design and product development at fashion and lifestyle group FJ Benjamin, says: "I felt for him because he was similar to me. We both had no formal fashion education. He had the passion and should be given the opportunity to grow.

"He was still a young kid when he came to work with me and was unlike anyone else his age I knew. Most would have been trying to keep with the trends or were into themselves with no time for their families. But Alfie was such a filial son to care for his mother like that."

His mother died in 1993 when he was on the cusp of launching his fashion career.

He took part in the Singapore Young Designer Fashion Contest in 1994, creating 24 looks which included casual wear, work wear and evening outfits. All the clothes were in navy blue and off-white. The style was inspired by his working-class mother, whom he describes as having a "samsui woman attitude", the never-say-die spirit of Chinese immigrant women in the 1920s and 1940s who came here from China and worked in the construction industry.

But not everyone who saw the collection was as excited as he was about the clothes, which featured blue stripes, basket weave patterns and samfoo collars.

Leong, who was a runner-up in the competition, says: "Some of the judges thought it was lame that my mother was my inspiration for clothes. At that time, I didn't know how to put together a concept for a fashion line but I just wanted to thank my mother."

He took part in the Singapore Fashion Designer Contest the following year, while he was working as chief designer for Basic Black, another local label, and did something no one else had done. He put on an autumn/winter collection. The clothes, in brown, grey and black, were lined with beautiful silk brocades on the inside. Some of the looks were reversible too.

The bold move paid off and he came out tops. He received a scholarship to study fashion design at the University of Montreal but turned it down to take care of his father, who was sick then.

Instead, he asked to study fashion here after calculating that it would be more cost-efficient and he would be closer to home if anything happened to his father.

"My love-hate relationship with my dad didn't stop me from taking care of him. He was dying and I needed to be here."

In 1996, he attended Raffles LaSalle International School of Design as an older student and encountered scepticism from some of the lecturers, who thought that he was overqualified to study there.

"They knew my background... where I worked and the competitions I had taken part in. Their expectations were different for me, possibly some were worried that I would tell them what to do."

As a testament to his talent, he picked up numerous awards during his studies. These included winning the Smirnoff International Contest in 1997 and the Home Furnishing Fabric Fashion Design competition in 1998.

He also flew the Singapore flag at international fashion events such as the Smirnoff International Contest in 1998, where he was judged by fashion bigwigs including the late Alexander McQueen, and Beijing Fashion Week in 2000.

In 2001, he made the Top 20 list of international designers at the Enkamania International competition, which was judged by Italian Vogue editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier and American model- actress Milla Jovovich.

He went on to open two shops here with local actress Constance Song - Capsule at the Annex @ The Heeren in 2000 and Flag at Bugis Junction a year later. After a three-year partnership, the pair decided to close the stores.

He then moved on to streetwear label 77th Street as a creative director but stayed for only 2½ years.

He declines to elaborate on this part of his career, saying: "We just had different directions and opinions."

In 2004, he set up a company, The Little Voice, and his label Mu, which means wood in Chinese. Six years later, he launched a more luxurious label with more unconventional designs called A.W.O.L, short for "all walks of life".

Having worked his way up the rungs, from being a salesman to running his own fashion business, he has become a godfather of sorts to young fashion upstarts.

In 2012, he opened Workshop Element, a pop-up store at Wisma Atria to promote local fashion designers. There were 19 Singapore brands including Coupe-Cousu, Ling Wu, Woon Choor and his two brands. He paid the six- figure rental for the 6,000 sq ft space for the nine months that it was open. He took a cut from designers who were able to sell their designs.

The store closed in April last year but is now at a bigger space in Westgate mall in Jurong East and has 21 design labels.

He says: "A lot of independent designers might not want to do it because it's a big project. Some might see it as wasting time but I think I've received help from so many people to get to where I am, so I should help others with what I've learnt."

Today, he has a 2,000 sq ft office in Kallang Place, where 10 full-timers and interns make pieces for the store.

He has been burnt at times because of his loyal and protective nature. He relates stories of how staff at his shops have stolen apparel. Once, he paid for a Thai friend to come to Singapore to learn hair and make-up styling, only to be ignored once the friend had completed his course.

His cousin, Mrs Sharon Koo, 37, who was brought up by Leong's mother, says: "Alfie is such a selfless person. It's just in him to be nice to everyone who needs his help. Even now, when I have a problem, he's the first one I will call."

Despite being in the industry for so long, the designer, who is a bachelor, has not seen his star dim.

Leong, who lives in a four-room flat with three Chihuahuas, is looking to branch out into designing shoes with local footwear label Pretty Fit. He is also preparing for fashion weeks in Seoul and Tokyo.

On how he has lasted in a fickle business that changes with the seasons, he says: "I don't think I'm talented but I'm hungry and passionate. And I stay humble, so that I'll always have room to grow."

My life so far

"I learnt everything through experience, but it was all over the place. I needed to go to school, to learn how to curate my ideas and the technical aspects of designing."

Alfie Leong on why he wanted to go to school. He graduated top of his class in 1998

"I'm not looking to be a rich designer. A rich man can't change time or his age with his money, so I can still be a poor person who lives happily. My achievement is everything I've created with my designs. I'm not in it for the money."

On not chasing the celebrity designer tag

"I regret that I've taken my mother only as far as Kuala Lumpur. If she was still around, I'd be travelling with her all the time. I owe her so much."

On his mother dying before she got to see him make it big

"I do want to go out and explore how my designs will work elsewhere. But there's still a market for me here. I've tried looking for opportunities overseas but projects just keep coming. I don't want to rush things. I just try to do what's best for the label and not overpromise."

On venturing into overseas markets

 

 

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