DesignSingapore scholar and winner of the 2015 Parsons Menswear Designer of the Year award Jon Max Goh exhibited his thesis collection entitled NOSTOS X ALGIA at the National Design Centre earlier this month. This exhibition which Goh titled Menswear Through Memory traces questions of national identity and challenges the common conventional understanding of menswear. Recently, Harper’s BAZAAR Singapore sat down with the designer to talk to him about what it has been like for someone so inspired by Singapore and its history to exhibit in Singapore.
“The response has been very welcoming! A lot of girls have been coming in saying ‘hey, you should do womenswear so that I can wear it’, but my response is that, well I’m a big supporter of ‘borrowed from the boys’ so there’s no reason why we can’t shop each other’s racks,” Goh says with a casual shrug. And indeed, with the atypical silhouettes of Goh’s pieces, one is compelled to wonder why we insist on holding on to what seem to be increasingly irrelevant ideas about what menswear can and should look like.
In fact, from the kilt to the sarong, men from both Western and Eastern cultures have embraced shapes that we today associate with womenswear. “We are so used to just one prescribed understanding of what menswear looks like. Our eyes are so accustomed to seeing a certain shape and saying, ‘okay, skirt.’ Then because of the language of it, we immediately associate it with womenswear,” Goh responded when asked about how receptive men have been to the collection. “And so I thought that was interesting, and, in this collection, I was trying to push those boundaries by asking, ‘if I’m designing this shape but presenting it on the male body, can we still consider it to be menswear?’”
Asking questions and pushing boundaries seems to be second nature for Goh, who not only interrogates Western sartorial conventions with his work, but also addresses the often-confounding question of what it means to be Singaporean. A question which became even more apparent to him when he moved to New York to pursue his degree at Parsons School of Design.
“When I moved to New York, coming from Singapore there wasn’t much of a culture shock. We’re so globalised and so privileged in the sense that we have almost homogenous access to ‘Western’ culture, but it’s also scary because we take it all in without a filter, really. And so when I was in New York, I had to spend a lot of time trying to understand and reconnect with my own heritage. How much of being Chinese do I really know? How much of being Peranakan do I really know?” Goh adds.
Ironically, in an attempt at understanding Singapore by reading about its history, what Goh found was that the history was not something he could fully own because even its writers are from the West. “That was the turning point when I decided that to understand what Singapore is and to explain it to a Western audience, I would have to turn to a Singaporean’s experience directly. So I chose to then go into what I remember growing up in Singapore looked like. My hope is to conjure some sort of personal memory from the viewer as well, even though these pieces are reflections of my own memories that I’m drawing from.”
Walking into his exhibition at the National Design Centre, it was immediately clear that Goh intends for his work to be part of an interactive conversation. “I wanted to display the pieces to look more sculptural so that you can walk 360 degrees around it and experience the details up close,” he says.
“With anything I do, it takes a whole village!” he added, describing how he enlisted the help of his family to set up the exhibition. Family has been important for Goh every step of the way, from inspiring his aesthetic to helping him with his material. “Some of the prints are from my grandmother’s curtains. In fact, my dad took a picture of the curtain and sent it to me, and I recreated it digitally.”
Talking about Singapore, Goh says he’s looking forward to coming back in a few years time. “After getting a chance to speak to other local designers and see what’s going on in the local design community, I am really excited to come back in two to three years. A lot of conversations have opened up and I’m excited to be able to be back at a time where those voices are being heard in a space where I can effectively contribute.”
As for what sorts of contributions we can expect from him, he says that the themes of memory and heritage are always going to be important in his artistic practice. “I realised that for this generation of designers, and artists, and writers, that’s our job. We are the ones sort of slowly writing what our culture is and what our history is.”
By Tanvi Rajvanshi