TaFF's The Bridge Fashion Incubator: Designer and programme manager Jon Max Goh on the changing face of Singaporean fashion
When it launches this August, the Textile & Fashion Federation's (TaFF) The Bridge Fashion Incubator aims to animate Singapore's fashion and fashion-tech startup culture. The programme's supporters include industry heavyweights like Naiise founder Dennis Tay and fashion designers Jo Soh and Thomas Wee, but also features some younger players; after all, who better to understand the challenges facing today's freshly-minted fashion entrepreneurs than one of their own peers? Enter programme manager Jon Max Goh, a DesignSingapore scholar and Parsons School of Design alumnus whose personal work is deeply connected to Singapore's heritage and culture. As The Bridge Fashion Incubator's (TBFI) inaugural crop of mentees begin their journey, we spoke to Goh about TBFI's great ambitions, the importance of failure, and the irrestistible pull of home.
What are your earliest memories of fashion?
Being enthralled by Alexander McQueen's early collections. Back then, they were the epitome of romanticism, theatricality, and socio-political commentary on the runway. That really inspired me to explore how clothing and body could come together to make a bold statement and move an audience.
Is McQueen's work — or any other influence — something you find yourself returning to over and over?
I always come back to 'home', wherever, and whatever I find myself calling 'home' in the moment. Sometimes home literally means Singapore, other times it means my memories of growing up here. Sometimes it means planet earth and the impact we have on it. Ultimately, it is about community, or people I am inspired by and feel we need to shed more light on.
What activity or stimulus sparks your creativity, and helps bring these abstract ideas to life?
Silent commutes. My headphones are rarely plugged in, and I find myself doing a lot of creative thinking and resolving ideas as I walk or sit from one place to the next, lost in my thoughts. A lot can happen if we spend more time checking out of the world, and checking in with ourselves honestly.
Could you name an obscure technical design term for us, and define it for our readers, please?
P.O.M. or "point of measure" is a measurement guideline that technical design and production teams formulate to share with factories and sample rooms, which are often overseas. It ensures that everyone is measuring the exact same thing on a garment, for consistent communication of changes.
I don't suppose quality control is something that many consumers think about in such detailed terms! What do you think is the best weapon against people's fondness for fast fashion?
Our — by which I mean consumers' — strongest weapon is self-awareness. I think that, increasingly, the enemy is no longer just the 'fast-fashion' players, many of whom are genuinely trying to reduce their environmental footprint and ensure better conditions for workers. We need, now more than ever, to believe that our money has the power to tell businesses what we want and don't want.
Consumers can drive real change with what we choose to purchase. We should re-evaluate how much we really need, why we are shopping, and if there's anything truly wrong with our existing wardrobes. Just because there's a sustainable line out in the market doesn't mean that we should buy it all, especially if we've no real need for it.
How do you think your current work as TBFI's programme director will contribute to that discussion on the local level? Also, describe your progression into your current role.
As a DesignSingapore scholar, I was fortunate to receive the opportunity to study at Parsons School of Design in New York. It was the heart of all the action, in terms of activism, innovation, and debate within the fashion industry. After graduating, I cut my teeth at Joe Fresh — but grew frustrated with the slow pace of change which I felt needed to happen.
When I returned to Singapore, I knew that I wanted to contribute more than just starting yet another label. I had already made an effort to maintain connections to the Singaporean fashion industry and government while I was abroad, and repeatedly made my intentions for the future known. When I got wind of a new incubator programme brewing, I threw myself at the opportunity, and here I am.
It sounds like you've always had a plan. What would your younger/less experienced self be most surprised at by your current career?
My young, starry-eyed, McQueen-awed self would be surprised that fashion isn't just about the runway or red carpet, and that my life would not revolve around designing the next It dress for Beyoncé at The Grammys.
What's the most interested or unexpected part of your typical work day?
I get to meet really talented, intelligent individuals from all walks of life, who have founded companies that have been sold for millions of dollars, invested in groundbreaking startups, and spoken at the UN. During our conversations, they give me the time of day and listen. It's really quite amazing.
What was the most challenging part of getting this program running?
It's true that "you don't know what you don't know.", and it's been a really steep learning curve. But when your intentions are sincere, and when you are honest with what you don't know, people are quick to lend a helping hand.
Being open about one's shortcomings is a good lesson to learn. What other quality do all good designers need to have?
Empathy. As designers, we need to be aware, and should be driven by a desire to change things and solve problems. The only way to do this is to be humble, ask the right questions, and seek involvement from the people you are designing for.
What specific qualities are hardest to teach or to equip designers with via training?
Openness to failure. It happens, and you just have to evaluate, learn, move on, and repeat. And the cycle repeats itself for good reason, because it's a natural part of the design process and of personal growth. Too often, we are held back by our fear of failing.
What was a formative moment involving mentorship in your own career?
It would definitely have been with Carrie K., way back when. She's been a huge supporter and mentor over the years, even while I was studying in New York. Carrie always had time to listen and chat about my growth, and for that I'm really thankful.
It seems as though you've always retained a powerful connection to Singapore and its local industry, even while abroad. What unique perspective — shaped by geography, history, politics or culture — can Singaporean creatives bring to the table?
Where do you even begin?! I think Singaporean creatives are sitting on a wealth of a heritage and history that goes far beyond the shape of a Peranakan tile or batik motif. There is a lot more depth and critical analysis that we can develop fashion design-wise. Who are we as a people, and where did we come from? The world needs these answers.
What should everyone read before they die?
Without a doubt, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It answers every creative's burning questions from a place of great love and courage. It's written for anyone needing to find their place and path in life.
What internet-age phenomenon deserves a place in the history books?
Beychella. Can you tell I love Beyoncé? [Laughs]
Find out more about TaFF's The Bridge Fashion here.