Interview with local design talent Jon Max Goh: "I tried to represent what growing up in Southeast Asia meant"
On dreams, ambition and being Singaporean
Amidst the set up displaying his thesis collection of garments constructed with elements of his childhood — such as the print from his grandmother's curtains — woven in, sits the DesignSingapore scholar Jon Max Goh post-prep and pre-exhibition. The New York-based Parsons Menswear Designer of the Year (2015) was back on our sunny isle just for a few days, with the sole objective of piecing together his Menswear through Memory exhibition held at the National Design Centre (NDC) earlier this month.
Speaking to the affable Goh was a treat — the young designer was accommodating, open and obliging enough to field the barrage of questions one has for a fellow Singaporean chasing his dream. As a surprisingly early turn-up of exhibition goers trickle in, Goh responds to my suggestion to wind down our chat, "Nah, I knew I had this interview. And, since when did people turn up for events early anyway?"
So our conversation wore on, and Goh never once skimmed the surface of my laundry list of questions and topics. He opened up about his full-time job at Canadian high streel label Joe Fresh and the challenges of designing for a mass audience, dispensed tidbits of advice for aspiring young creatives and, most of all, shared a slice of his childhood that held sway over the direction of his graduate menswear collection.
The collection really is me finding a language to describe what being Singaporean means to an overseas audience
Shall we start with you taking me through the collection?
Sure. The floral print came from a couch that we had when I was growing up in the '90s. When I was doing my thesis research, this was one of the memories that really came to mind. You'll see here in the inner waist construction, this is a print from my grandmother's curtain in her house. A lot of these materials are featured in the construction elements of the garments to bring back that idea of how memory is the basic building block of identity.
You've really delved deep into your childhood for your graduate work.
Yes, and a lot of the inspiration came from looking at olden day Singapore. Post-colonial Singapore before the '60s. I looked to that as my secondary research. For my primary research, I took inspiration from a picture of my grandmother on her wedding day. It's a grainy black and white picture and she's kneeling in front of an alter wearing this full white lace bridal gown. Beside her are my great-grandmother and my great-grandfather in completely traditional clothes, and he was wearing a black oversized wrap trouser and a white tunic.
The collection really is me finding a language to describe what being Singaporean means to an overseas audience that doesn't have any conception of what it's like to be Singaporean.
It's definitely a job well done and eye opener to all non-Singaporeans, right down to the presentation with the bamboo poles and laundry clips. All of this is menswear, yes?
Yes. So I designed it from a menswear perspective and that's how I started, but I'm definitely a big believer of borrowed from the boys. There's no reason why we can't shop from each other's racks.
Will these clothes be on sale anywhere?
Not yet. Definitely not this thesis collection. I'm not in a rush to start anything on my own and I really think that I have so much to learn before I jump straight into my own business or even think about sending any of these pieces to production. I'm not ready to own a business of my own and I'm enjoying myself in New York. There are so many people that I would love to be able to work with that I've met through school and outside of it. There are just so many possibilities that I want to keep all those doors open for just a little while more.
Of course, you're just beginning your journey post-graduation in New York. Let's touch on your background. How and when did you get into design?
My parents have really been the largest supporters of local art and talent. From a very young age, they saw my potential and did what they could to help me nurture that talent. Be it going to art class at Lasalle or NAFA on the weekends or allowing me to do art when I was in secondary school and junior college (JC). At the end of the day, I realised that I'm a designer who produces work when I have a problem to solve and constraints to work around. That has given me a lot of fulfilment in what I do, whether it's schoolwork or in my full-time job. Being able to be in a situation where I can solve problems.
In that case, with your thesis collection, what would you say was the problem you were trying to solve?
Because it was a thesis, the problem that I was proposing was that we design — especially in the fashion industry — very much from a Western vocabulary. The design language we speak belongs to the Western world. It paralleled how I was trying to understand what it meant to be Singaporean. With our upbringing, we borrow a lot of that Western language and take it for granted.
But, how do we design in a context without that language that we're so used to seeing in clothes and constructing? I was trying to capture or create a language that could convey my message without having to borrow from the West. I tried to represent what growing up and living in Southeast Asia meant.
It's clear that you identify strongly with who you are and what it means to be a Singaporean — do you think you'll return back home any time soon?
Well, I've just graduated and I have a full-time position in New York right now. I work at a mass market Canadian brand Joe Fresh as a menswear designer. It's really interesting and eye-opening, and I want to spend time in New York to learn as much as I can about the industry, especially at a larger company like Joe Fresh. I want to be able to see the opposite spectrum of designing — from such a mass perspective and how to produce at that scale. It's a wonderful opportunity for me, especially coming straight out of school. I'm spending the next two to three years there to learn as much as I can. Eventually I'll be back, you know, because I am a DesignSingapore scholar, so they'll be expecting me back (laughs).
Congratulations, that's a fantastic opportunity you've got there. As you've said, Joe Fresh is a mass brand. Do you sacrifice creative freedom to fulfil commercial goals?
So that's what's been interesting. I think it's definitely the perspective you take into work. I still find that there are a lot of design challenges even though it is a mass brand, simply because there are more constraints. So it really becomes a matter of problem solving in that aspect and being creative and producing new clothes despite all those layers. As a designer, I do believe in the idea of staples and accessibility when it comes to clothing.
Out of curiosity, how important are trends at a mass brand?
I think at a mass brand of that scale, at least with the brand I'm with now, trends do play a part. The menswear line is a smaller production and we do take our ques from the women's team, but we also work towards building a cohesive concept between all the lines within the brand. So for children and babies, I think definitely at that market level, trends do play a big part. Moving forward with my own work though, I'm very interested in looking at how we can step out of the cycles of consumption and production.
For example, what if you were to design four pieces a month instead of releasing a huge collection twice to four times a year? Those are the challenges that I find interesting.
Now that you've brought up multiple releases per season, the CFDA recently spoke out about reviewing the fashion week calendar to make it more relevant to consumers due to the prevalence of social media.
There are definitely many levels to this. There are mass brands that will take their ques from other mass brands, so these trends trickle down. If you talk about Zara, definitely. They're the fastest at translating whatever they see on the runway. At the end of the day it is a challenge because sometimes you're designing six months to a full year ahead — those trends you see on the runway don't necessarily get translated immediately.
It is also interesting to see that whatever comes out of the runway, people are expecting to be able to buy. Technology has really shifted the way we look at fashion and how fast we want to consume it. It would be nice to engage more designers to start slowing down that process, and for us to look at how much we're buying and if we need it. Also, the pattern of supply and consumption interests me — how things are made and who is making them. It's not only about the narrative of the designer.
It definitely sounds like you've got your work cut out for you. But, always dream big. Who are your favourite fellow local designers?
I've had the pleasure of meeting a great product designer and of course, Carolyn Kan of Carrie K. who has been an amazing mentor and, who just so happens to be a growing designer in Singapore. People who have a story to tell and who are affecting the community around them — be it the community that they're designing for, the community they're working with, and bringing local designers and artists together like what Carrie does.
What made you decide to hold a presentation here, and what do you hope to achieve from it?
It was really serendipity that I had the chance to have this space. I've known Carrie for about five years and I interned with her shortly before I left for New York. She's checked up on me every year and she recently showed at a trade show in New York last September. She asked if I would work for her for a day, and I did. During that period Carrie got wind that the NDC was offering her the space to hold Keepers and bring in exhibitors. She suggested that I should show everyone back home what I've been up to.
What are your thoughts on the local design scene?
The conversation about being creative in Singapore is really opening up and I think that the landscape has changed so much even in the last four years since I've left. I really am very excited to be back when it's time for me to come back. I see a space where I can fit myself in and be an effective designer in Singapore.
Will you be pursuing a label of your own in your free time?
So I've been trying to keep busy and I am trying to get the works in motion but I do have a few small projects and freelance gigs on the side. My resolution for 2016 is to manage my time better and learn to devote my time equally to all the things I'm committed to.
Would you say that you get more design opportunities in New York?
I think it's just from the way that New York is set up to be — to be able to house so many creative industries and also, the infrastructure that they have. In Singapore, it's a very different landscape and a different way of figuring out how you can be an effective creative or designer. Given that, you know we don't have a history of having many creative industries for graduates to work at coming out of school. That is definitely a challenge and hopefully in the next few years, things will start to change and open up. There are a lot of brave souls in our local creative scene who are paving the way.
New York is exhilarating because everybody's there to chase a dream and it's so condensed with people who are trying to get somewhere. That energy in itself is so vibrant. The people you meet are so full of ambition and you're in a community where everyone keeps pushing each other to be the best versions of themselves. I've met cab drivers who have their medical textbooks on their dashboards. It's changed my perspective, definitely.
And lastly, any advice for young creatives looking to go down a similar route you have?
Yes. Don't be afraid to ask. The worse answer you can get from asking a question is no. Pick yourself up and go on to ask the next person. You never know who's going give you that opportunity. I got my first creative job right out of JC without a design diploma. My friends and I were setting up our exhibition in Katong and there was a lady standing on the street. We invited her to our exhibition and found out that she worked for a graphic design company. I asked for an internship immediately, offering to make coffee and do photocopies — I just wanted any job I could get my hands on. She asked for my portfolio and it went from there. I had a role as a junior graphic designer and met Carrie shortly after that. I guess the rest is history.
Be brave, put yourself out there and look for the opportunities. Make sure you're sincere with your work and your message will come through on its own. My biggest compass has been my gut, but this one is from my parents: Make sure that at the end of the day when you go to bed, you are happy with whatever you're doing, making or creating.