Max Tan, 33
If we had to pick a word to define Singaporean fashion designer Max Tan’s approach to design, it would be “antipodal”. The 33-year-old’s creations explores the dichotomy between strong and soft, male and female, clean cut yet voluminous, and more.
First breaking out into the local scene in 2010, Max’s eponymous label MAX.TAN has grown from strength to strength. His designs have been showcased and won numerous accolades all over the world, including being the first Asia-based label to be invited to showcase at the prestigious Modefabriek in Amsterdam.
Six years and ten collections later, Max has made the leap from being an “emerging designer” to one who has truly made a name for himself in the industry. His designs are now stocked in specialist boutiques in cities such as Copenhagen, Germany, Norway and San Francisco.
This year, Max will be featured as one of the opening shows at the Singapore Fashion Week (26 – 30 October), presented by Microsoft as the Official Device Sponsor.
“Singapore is my home, and coming back to the Singapore Fashion Week and being able to open it with my work as a Singaporean designer means a lot to me, and I hope it’s equally significant for local fashion fans and enthusiasts too,” Max said.
“Ultimately, we have a lot to prove, especially the fact that Singaporean designers are just as good as, or even better than, foreign designers and labels,” he added.
How is Max gearing up for the bit event? Despite the frenzy in the lead-up to his big showcase, Max finds time for a breather with Microsoft as we sit down for a chat.
Microsoft: Hi Max, it’s nice to finally meet you! Can you tell us a little more about what you do and how you made your first step into the world of fashion?
Max Tan: That’s a good question, and I don’t exactly have a clear answer!
I come from an average, lower middle income family, and both my sister and I fell sick very often when we were young. My mum had to take up seamstress work from home in order to look after us and earn some money at the same time.
As a result, I grew up surrounded by sewing machines, bolts of cloth and fabric, and tailoring tools and equipment. A lot of women came in and out of our home working with my mum, and I think this seeped really deep into my design DNA.
My mum also used to send me to art classes at the neighbourhood community centre, and I guess that’s where my artistic inclinations started to flower.
I pursued my fashion design passion at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and graduated in 2006 as Best Graduate before making my debut at the Singapore Fashion Week in 2007.
I mainly design for my own label MAX.TAN, the latest collection of which I’ll be presenting Singapore Fashion Week 2016. I’m really excited to be part of this year’s show and look forward to receiving feedback and comments on my collection.
I also lecture at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts to extend the passion of fashion and design into the next generation,
MS: What can we expect from MAX.TAN at Singapore Fashion Week this year?
MT: I’m keen to further explore the theme of androgynous and non-gender specific design.
It’s one thing to see a woman in a suit, or a man in a dress, but that’s not what this is about; I think there’s so much more to androgyny. If I’m feeling masculine, I can put on a ruffled top and still feel macho, for example, or if I put on tights with floral print.
So being masculine or feminine is a state of mind. It’s not just about putting on a “manly” or “womanly” outfit and calling it a day. This is the mentality we want to challenge with the latest collection. I want to explore how a garment make someone feels.
MS: How does Surface Pro 4 play into your showcase?
MT: I’m rather attracted to the modern Windows aesthetic, and I’ve been using a Windows Phone myself for some time. Surface Pro 4 takes this up to another level and really shows me what I can accomplish with the right technology.
I hate designing with the keyboard and mouse, so the Surface Pen is the most useful feature for me. I’ve tried a Wacom connected to a computer, but it’s still not the same. Surface Pro 4 and Surface Pen comes the closest to replicating the pen-and-paper experience that I love, and it’s been working very well.
To me, every designer absolutely must carry a sketch book, but it gets bulky and can only hold so much sketches and notes. Surface Pro 4 has none of those problems, and I’m in fact in the process of digitizing my huge stack of old notes and sketches so I can access them wherever I go. I can’t be carrying 10 sketchbooks around all the time!
I also like how you can switch between pen tips. It makes a huge difference in the texture and feel of the pen, making my creative process even more frictionless.
Collaboration is important in my work, and I like how the device is so thin and light that I can just pass it around the room for my team to contribute their ideas.
I didn’t use to rely on technology much, but Surface Pro 4 has really made me a convert.
MS: Speaking of collaboration, you’re working with Darren Ng and Ong Kian Peng for the design of your entire showcase. How has this experience been?
MT: Yes! We’ve collaborated several times in the past, so we’re familiar with each other’s creative style and workflow.
We met when we were working on a project for 2 years ago, and found that we really hit it off in terms of our creative vision and workflow. We’ve worked on a number of projects since, and this time we really want to push the boundaries of both fashion and technology, especially with Microsoft’s participation.
(Ed’s Note: read our Q&A with both Darren Ng and Ong Kian Peng to get inspired!
We’re particularly interested to capture the essence of the versatility and understated minimalism of Surface Pro 4, and explore how its form and function can be fused into our showcase. Stay tuned for the final showcase to find out how!
MS: It can be difficult to keep up with the pulse of fashion. How do you stay inspired in this fast-paced industry?
MT: I think I owe a lot of my subconscious design sensibilities to my mum, whom I was close to when I was young. As mentioned earlier, my mum was an enormous influence in my decision to enter the fashion industry.
I also draw inspiration from the people around me. My team, for example, sometimes dress in a very non-Max Tan way, if you know what I mean: cheerful, colourful, and optimistic. This does in fact play into how I think about my next collection.
There are also figures in the industry that I sometimes look to for inspiration. I admire the clean lines of Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons, for example. Local designers that guides my threads include Thomas Wee, whom I admire for his precise and poetic approach to tailoring.
Perhaps this collaboration with Microsoft will shape my next collection too.
MS: The fashion industry is definitely an up-and-coming one in Singapore. What sort of advice do you have for youth who wants to follow in your footsteps?
MT: Don’t do it unless you have a lot of passion and are ready to work very hard!
It may sound like a clichéd external perspective, but the fashion industry is incredibly intense and self-indulgent. You will meet a lot of people, suffer a lot of setbacks, and recovering from all of these is what shapes you as a designer.
You need to have a unique story to tell, especially regarding how you can contribute to the design scene in Singapore and Asia. Do not just think about a designer-consumer relationship, but dream big and set out on a bigger mission.
Mentorship is important, and being an emerging designer today is very different from, say, in the 70s. The challenges have evolved, and you need to find a mentor who can give you advice that relevant to today’s world. Just like how technology is shaping the world, for example, it can also help us solve the unique challenges in our industry.
Pay attention to the diverse culture in the countries around us. These countries have more emphasis on the arts and design, while our education system is framed for more practical subjects. This exposure will help you shape your vision and your journey.
If you do want to do this, start as young as you can!
MS: Thank you for sharing with us, and we look forward to your showcase at Singapore Fashion Week!