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Playhood: Singaporean designer Sarah Lai’s painterly pieces are rooted in the ancient language of flowers

Playhood: Singaporean designer Sarah Lai’s painterly pieces are rooted in the ancient language of flowers

In bloom

Text: Ryan Sng


Image: Julian Tan

This Valentine's Day, why not skip the bouquets and treat yourself or your significant other to flowers of the 2D, illustrated variety? We're talking, naturally, about Playhood, the homegrown, unisex label founded by London-trained designer Sarah Lai. At its 2017 inception, the brand's offering encompassed vintage denim and streetwear hand-painted with Lai's stunning — and we're not exaggerating, 'cause a Team Buro. member liked her illustrations so much that they recently got a sizeable tattoo of Lai's work — flowers, and has since expanded into ready-to-wear, with more categories to follow.

Having built a solid client base locally as well as abroad — thanks to the far-reaching power of social media — Lai recently moved her studio to buzzy Tiong Bahru and is steadily growing her team in anticipation of the Playhood's next chapter. We chatted to her about the challenges of running a small fashion business in Singapore, the marvels of floriography, and how to be a boss at work and off-duty.

 

Could you describe your earliest memories of fashion? 
When I was young, I remember being very observant of what my mother, her friends and my relatives would wear at formal events and parties. I was also intrigued by the clothes at the boutiques my mother took me to when she went shopping.

What are your formative design influences?
I've always been interested in vintage stuff. When I moved to Brick Lane in London, I would visit vintage shops in area like Rokit and Beyond Retro. Those hours spent trying on vintage clothes and studying them really influenced the my current aesthetic.

How do you stay consistently creative and open?
I try to visit as many boutiques and exhibitions whenever I'm abroad. Fortunately, my work allows me to travel often, so I'm always exposed to fresh perspectives from creatives who live elsewhere.

What is it about the language of flowers that fascinates you so?
Despite their beautiful appearance, not all of them have positive meanings, and when different types are combined, they can even form a new messages.

What three floral messages should everyone commit to memory?
One important flower to remember is the chrysanthemum, different colours of which bear different meanings; yellow signifies neglected love or sorrow, while red signifies love. In the Victorian era, Geraniums were associated with stupidity and folly; so, it's always good to read up a little on a flower's background before giving them to anyone!

 

How did the idea of fashion as a career first plant itself in your head? 
I wanted to become an illustrator at first, but advice from a teacher who saw some fashion sketches of mine led me to reconsider my path. She saw that I had a good sense of colour and put my female figures in interesting clothes, and suggested that I pursue a career in fashion. She also gave me some names of fashion schools overseas, which I then began researching.

Describe your design training.
I spent nearly 6 years in the UK, where I obtained a bachelor's degree in womenswear design from the London College of Fashion. My education in London is where I acquired my skills as a designer and developed my creative flair. My experiences with tutors, friends and internships taught me teamwork, how to work efficiently under pressure, and to seek opportunities at every given chance.

 

As a first-time business owner, employer and team leader, what are you learning about yourself and other people? 
I've had to learn to be less critical of others and myself, as we all make mistakes.

What tips do you have for building rapport with clients and getting exposure abroad?
I organise events for when we first meet, where they're also invited to bring their friends if they wish. Whether it's a private event at nice café or a tea party at an Airbnb, I want them to relax, have fun, and experience Playhood as more than just a retail concept. I also involve them as much as possible in the design process for their custom garment.

 

Local resources for Singaporean designers are scarce. In both cost and quality control terms, how does this help or limit your work?
I've had to find a balance between using local and overseas manufacturers, to ensure a smooth production timeline. Interestingly enough, after some bad experiences involving delays and quality control overseas, I've found it much easier to manufacture locally despite slightly higher costs. I save on shipping costs, flying over for quality control, and logistics and communication is also much easier.

What's your pet peeve?
Lemongrass. I really hate the smell and taste of it, so unfortunately I don't eat a lot of Thai food!

 

Achilles Heel.
Cats, especially fat ones; the fatter and rounder, the better! I have two myself, and always I hug and squish when I feel down and need a boost.

Proudest moment thus far.
Having my family and friends cheer me on at graduation, after a particularly tough final year at uni.

Most surprising moment of your career.
In December, Jay Park wore my jacket while performing in concert; I had given it to him over a year prior and I did not expect him to wear it more than once. I'm a big fan of his, too, so it was pretty surreal.

 

What film should everyone see before they die?
Everyone, and I mean everyone should watch at least one Studio Ghibli film. They were a huge part of my childhood, and I still re-watch them several times each year.

What Instagram account deserves a place in the history books?
I'd like to shout out @avantgardecats for their hilarious posts. 

 

Playhood custom orders and ready-to-wear are available on playhood.net

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