SINGAPORE: He’s a fashion consultant, show producer and director and reality TV show judge.
Daniel Boey is also known as the “godfather of Singapore fashion” – despite the fact that he is not a fashion designer. With his almost three decades in the fashion industry however, he has fought for recognition for Singaporean designers and models, in addition to creating theatrical shows of merit which have seen him work with international names such as Vivienne Westwood, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton.
His first book was autobiographical and aptly titled The Book of Daniel: Adventures of a Fashion Insider. In it, he also looked at the heydays of Singapore’s fashion industry. His recently released second book, Behind Every *itch is a Backstory, is a personal story of victimisation as an eczema sufferer and how that affected his career. More importantly, it’s a story of rising above adversity to achieve an enduring dream.
He went On the Record with Bharati Jagdish about why Singaporeans still devalue local creative talent, what local designers need to do to make a mark and his painful growing-up years.
Boey: Fashion was an accidental career. When I was at the National University of Singapore, I was a full-time ECA (extra-curricular activities) student and part-time literary student. I organised everything that there was to organise and way back then, you had to canvas for your own money. You had to go out and meet sponsors. Through that, I met a lot of people who offered me work after I graduated, and fashion seemed to be the one thing that was really exciting. I loved the life. I loved the visuals. I loved the pace. I loved the theatricality of fashion. I started to discover the likes of Vogue and GQ. Even all the earlier books which I had read – the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books - inspired me.
Bharati: You were dressing Nancy Drew in your mind?
Boey: Yes, I began to visualise the characters in Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. It's that wonderful thing about fashion which drew me in. Plus, I can be working with the same designer for decades, the likes of Frederick Lee and Thomas Wee, but every single collection has a different starting point. It’s got a different aesthetic. It's got a different story. It feels as if every six months, I start afresh.
Bharati: I understand that your parents were pretty good dressers as well. How much have they influenced you?
Boey: My dad was a very nifty dresser. My dad was the one who introduced me to well-cut suits. He used to dress me for prom night, and whenever I needed to go out and meet older people who are of importance, meaning his friends, I would also sneak into his wardrobe and borrow his jackets and trousers. When I started to outgrow these clothes, that was when I started to accessorise everything that I had with his pocket squares, his tie pins and cufflinks. He instilled in me from a very young age the importance of dressing well and dressing appropriately.
Bharati: Why didn't you become a fashion designer yourself?
Boey: I don't think I have the aptitude to become a fashion designer, although a lot of people think I am one. That’s a misconception. To draw a comparison, I am like a theatre director and producer who works with the playwright who, in this case, is the fashion designer. I take the “script”, which is the designer's clothes, and we find a platform to showcase these clothes, be it in a publication, on stage, in a runway show. It’s this excitement that drew me to it. I also realised at the onset of my career that I'm not technically driven. I know I’m the sort who did pure humanities and I failed math.
Bharati: You did geography and literature in university.
Boey: Yes, geography, literature, history, English. Those were the subjects I excelled in. Anything that had to do with numbers, anything that had to do with formulas like science, chemistry, math just didn’t do it for me.
Bharati: Did you ever wish that you could have become a designer?
Boey: No, because I’ve always had so much fun telling the stories of the designers.
AN AWKWARD "LOBSTER"
Bharati: A few years ago, you published a book, The Book of Daniel, and in that book you talked about your childhood, your adolescence. You talked about how you were awkward and you were bullied a lot. Why was this happening?
Boey: Truth be told, I’m actually an introvert who forced myself at the onset of my career to break out of my shell, and I consider myself an ambivert now. There are moments when I'm surrounded by lots of people and I force myself to be social and I actually enjoy it, but there are also moments when I just need my own personal space. This is why I built my home to be my sanctuary. I can just go back, and spend time on my own. Growing up, I was also socially awkward because of my eczema.
Bharati: Was that what turned you into an introvert? Or do you think that was your disposition to begin with?
Boey: I think I was a naturally introverted person and the medical condition made me withdraw into my shell even further. If I were a hermit crab, I wouldn't just be withdrawing into my shell, I would be withdrawing into the depths of the ocean. I found it awkward to talk to people. I found it awkward to start conversations. The eczema made things worse. You know how kids can be really cutting, not because they’re evil, but because they are innocent. So I sought refuge in the library and books were my best friends. Looking back, it wasn’t such a bad thing. If not for that, I wouldn’t have developed an active imagination.
Bharati: What types of things did the other kids say to you?
Boey: I think they were really curious about the red patches that were growing and sprouting out from my joints, from my face and on my neck. They would come and point at the rash, and think I'm a freak. This became a lot worse when I went into the army. Nobody could understand why I looked different. Some people thought I was diseased. And then later on, when I started in fashion, there were people who said: “Oh my god, I think he’s got AIDS. Why is his face so red? There's no place for someone like that in fashion.”
Bharati: I heard someone once called you a lobster.
Boey: Yes, a photographer I was working with said that when he saw my red face and he continued calling me “lobster”, even when my face was not red.
Bharati: What effect has all this had on the way you live today?
Boey: Even today, sometimes, I feed off the energy of people. Do you know how sometimes, when you walk into a room, you just naturally gravitate towards certain people because you click immediately. I’m like that. Even though I try to force myself to talk to people, there are some people that I really enjoy having conversations with, but there are some situations, some events, where I just stand there and feel completely awkward. I have a problem with worshipping in a church, because I'm always afraid of what people will think of my voice. I hate the sound of my voice.
I’m always afraid that I might be singing off-key and if other people (are) going to judge me. When people look at me, I also worry about what they are thinking. Am I wearing the wrong outfit?
When I was in the army, especially, my rashes really flared up because I'm allergic to my own sweat and I'm allergic to grass. And way back in those days, unless you actually are on the verge of death, everybody went to Basic Military Training. They used to send me to the National Skin Centre which was wonderful because they would give me creams and all.
But it didn't really help because you could apply the creams but then you would go back to Tekong and you’d be back in the field and the cycle would start again. I had rashes on my face, on my neck, on my fingers and I guess I became paranoid. I’d be walking around and I’d hear a giggle and immediately I’d think they're laughing at me.
THE DEMONS HAVE NOT BEEN EXORCISED
Bharati: Whether or not they actually were?
Boey: Yes, it plays with your mind. When I first started writing this book, I kept telling myself I think I've come to terms with it. I think I have accepted my condition. But the first draft of the book came out sounding really angry. So I realised there were demons that I hadn't exorcised yet.
Bharati: You were still angry with all these people who judged you.
Boey: Yes, angry with the things that happened in the past. But writing this book has been quite cathartic for me. It’s forced me to confront these demons again. I think right now I'm at peace with myself. There are still a lot of things that irk me. I still have a lot of demons in my closet, but I think I'm better equipped to approach them and to fight them.
Bharati: What are these demons in your closet still?
Boey: I don't know. Every day, I find something new that freaks me out. I think I have found a way to live with my eczema, but then suddenly a rash appears and I can’t take it. The day before my book launch, I was busy working with my team to clear the place, and then I had an allergy attack. It bothered me. But then someone said to me: “Hey, these things happen and if you write a book about eczema, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you actually had a rash at the book launch?”
Bharati: How do you cope with your condition today? I know you take anti-histamines when you need to, but what else do you do?
Boey: When I was in junior college, I went to see a dermatologist and he finally put a name to my condition. Before that, I didn’t know what it was. He told me that eczema is a lifelong condition and it can't be cured, but you can control it. He recommended lifestyle changes, what to eat, what not to eat. Knowing your triggers is really important. A major one is stress. We are stressed out all the time, but you learn to find your comfort zone and quiet time.
Bharati: It’s also been said you had thought about an early death several times.
Boey: That was when I was younger. Sometimes the eczema gets to you. You just wish an early death to get out of that suffering. I used to wish I’d die earlier. But I think I’m a lot more at peace now. Maybe it’s because I’m older. My metabolism has changed. I’ve kept my allergies under control.
Bharati: Why choose such a career though, one that is highly stressful and one that requires interacting with so many people who, at various points, have judged you harshly?
Boey: I love the work. After some time, you learn to put on your blinkers, you learn to just plough through life. One of my early mentors said: “If this is really the career that you've set your sights on and people don't accept you, then be so influential that you can write the rules that other people will have to live their lives by.”
Bharati: Did you ever think of leaving the industry?
Boey: The thought did cross my mind many, many times. It was tough and I would go back and agonise when someone said that I have no place in this industry, when somebody has called me “lobster”. But as long as the industry continues to inspire me, as long as the people I work with continue to inspire me, and the jobs continue to inspire me, I'll continue.
Bharati: If you had left, what would you have done instead?
Boey: I thought about writing, but being a creative and being such an emotional writer, I could never write about things that did not interest me. If I had joined the national newspaper and you had sent me to cover say, an election, I would have absolutely no interest. What am I going to write about? The beautiful clothes and the politicians who wore them? So that was out for me.
I thought about advertising – copywriting, but then again, if I am forced to write something that I had no passion for, I would not be able to do it. So after ticking off all the job options on that list, I decided that this is what I really want to do.
Throw everything at me, throw all your rocks, throw all your brickbats at me, bitch at me. I think I've grown enough. I think I've built up a reputation in this industry and if you're going to judge me based on how I look, rather than my work, then you're not really a person I want in my life. Initially though I did get very defensive and being defensive, I became very angry, very argumentative.
Bharati: And mean to others as well?
Bharati: Considering that you knew what it was like to be at the receiving end of unkind behaviour, why were you mean to others?
Boey: It was really the defensiveness. One day, I encountered someone who was exactly like me in that angry state and I looked at him, and I went: “Oh no, that's me. What have I become? I have become this horrible, bitchy, scary, unlikeable monster.” It took the other person to make me realise it's not worth it because at the end of the day, the only person affected by it, is me.
Bharati: Some still describe you as being blunt and sometimes brutal.
Boey: I think there is a need for that sometimes. I value honesty a lot. I think that’s a virtue I value in people. And I try to infuse everything I say with a sense of honesty as well. Yes, there could be better ways of saying it. Yes, I am very blunt. Yes, I can be very nasty. But I am always truthful because I care.
Bharati: I understand that you once came very close to dying.
Boey: Yes, my car was completely totalled. And I used to drive an SUV, like a tank. For that tank to be completely totalled, it was a really bad accident. That also happened at a time when I was angsty and angry and I used to drive in that state. Maybe it took an accident to wake me up too. It was one of the turning points for me. It’s made me take stock of my priorities, and work is still important to me but so is life. My time with myself and friends who care and I care about.
NO RESPECT FOR PEOPLE IN THE CREATIVE INDUSTRY
Bharati: You said earlier that one of your mentors told you: “If this is really the career that you've set your sights on and people don't accept you, then be so influential that you can write the rules that other people will have to live their lives by.” Do you think you’ve achieved that?
Boey: I hope I have and I measure it in that I try not to take on jobs that I don't believe in. But having said that, let me qualify it. There’s also survival and there are certain jobs that I have to take on, because I run a company and I have mouths to feed. But the difference is, I try to build up my reputation so that I have a voice that people would listen to, and if I take on these jobs, I can infuse my style, my aesthetic, my voice to turn it into a uniquely “Daniel Boey job”.
Bharati: You said that you try not to take on jobs that you don't believe in. Give me an idea of what such a job looks like.
Boey: For example, if a designer comes to me and shows me his or her collection, and I don't feel for the collection, and within 10 minutes, I can't envision how I'm going to put it on the catwalk, the kind of set I'm going to put it on, then I know that it's not a collection that speaks to me and I’ll be doing the designer a huge injustice by taking on the job.
Bharati: Have you ever felt like doing certain jobs would be selling out?
Boey: Selling out is when you take money and you don't put your 100 per cent into the job. I think every single job, regardless of how big or how small the job is, or the budget is, once you've accepted it, put in your 110 per cent into it, 200 per cent into it. It doesn't matter whether it’s a shopping mall job, it’s a ballroom job, a designer job, a job in Paris, or a job in Timbuktu. Every single job is different. Selling out is when you take the designer’s money, take the client’s money and just close your eyes and sail through it without any thought put into that job. That is selling out.
Bharati: Have there been jobs that insulted your sensibilities?
Boey: Well, this year, I celebrate my 27th year in the fashion industry and until today, I still get clients coming to me, saying: “Do it for credit. Do it for profile. Do it for visibility.”
Bharati: Meaning they don't want to pay you?
Bharati: What do you think these people are thinking?
Boey: I see it as a lack of respect. There’s absolutely no respect for people in the creative industry and when I say creative industry, I don't just mean designers. You're in the creative industry too. I’m in the creative industry because I work with other creatives. I get clients asking: “Why am I paying you so much money? The show is only five minutes long.”
It's absolutely insulting. They don’t think about the work that goes into producing those five minutes. What about the pre-production? I don't wave a magic wand and the clothes just miraculously fly onto the models. The models don't just miraculously appear. Stop being condescending towards creatives. A lot of training and experience goes into a five-minute show. Just like if you are a doctor, a lot of training has gone into you, preparing you to be a good doctor, or an engineer. Likewise, creators.
DEVELOPING EMPATHY AND RESPECT THROUGH THE HUMANITIES
Bharati: What do you think are the reasons for this lack of respect?
Boey: Well, recently there has been a lot of talk about how humanities are not important and all that, but I do think it's important. I do think that from the very start, even if you're not literary-inclined, even if you want to become a doctor or engineer, it is important to have some form of literature in your life. Because that will help you respect the creative industry. That will help you see through their eyes and think creatively. Whether you're an engineer or you're a teacher, whether you're a designer or you work at SMRT, you need to be creative, but creative thinking is such an undervalued skill.
Bharati: At a time when businesses are generally going through challenges, how have you been affected?
Boey: I’ve had to keep up with the times. I’m blessed that I still have people who call me after 27 years. I'm glad I'm still relevant. But you have to fight to keep that relevance. You have to keep up with the times. And I'm learning. I'm still learning every single day. There is no place for complacency. Just because I've been doing this for 27 years doesn't mean that I can just sit on my fat ass or rest on my laurels. The world has changed. I have to force myself to learn how the world has changed.
Bharati: What are the most important lessons that you have learnt so far?
Boey: You’re only as good as your last job. I could've done wonderful jobs but all I need is to trip up once, and that’s the job that everyone is going to remember me by. So every single job is important and there is no place for slacking.
Also, being creative is not an excuse for you to be sloppy. It is a business at the end of the day. We are not doing this because it's a hobby. We do this because we love it and we have a passion for it. But it’s a business.
Bharati: In this context, what do you mean by sloppy?
Boey: For instance, when you hire staff, you have to feed them and therefore every single month, you've got your overheads, you've got your rentals. You've got to look at this as a business. Some creatives feel they don’t have to. I’ve seen people forget about their schedules. They go for a meeting and don’t take notes, thinking they can remember every single thing and when it comes to executing that job, they've forgotten half the things that were discussed. So you've got to be very, very organised, no matter how creative you are. Creativity is no excuse to be disorganised.
Bharati: How selective are you about the jobs you take on? I know of people who say they wouldn’t do anything at a suburban mall, even if it pays well.
Boey: I have to admit, in the past, I’ve caught myself saying that as well.
Bharati: That could be construed as being snooty.
Boey: I know I’m a horrible person.
Bharati: Why? Don't heartlanders deserve exposure to fashion and high-quality fashion showcases?
Boey: Oh, most definitely. And the scene has changed tremendously since the 80s and 90s, when the word "heartlands" used to connote a different experience.
Today, if someone comes to me and says they want me to do a show in say, Tampines or in Bukit Batok and I go and I like the ambience of the mall, I do it. Also, if a client decides that they want to bring me in, I think they are valuing my skillset and they clearly see something in my aesthetic that they would like to infuse into the mall or the label. So I’d work with the client and do my best, regardless.
THE HEYDAYS OF SINGAPORE FASHION
Bharati: In your earlier book, you talked about the local fashion scene in the early years. How would you compare those years to the present?
Boey: The 80s were the heydays. If not for the 80s fashion, I would not have been drawn into that world. I would not have opened my eyes to the fashion industry and I would not have this career today. Singapore designers were treated like rock stars. Shopping malls used to actively go out and court designers to open stores, open boutiques because it was a bragging right for them. Thomas Wee is in this mall. David Wang is in this mall. Mall owners thought of it as: “Designers have opened stores in my mall. I have finally arrived.”
It was a little more difficult to get international designers then, so people respected Singapore designers and then fashion labels started to create second lines and third lines to make the clothes more accessible to the masses. But suddenly all these international labels started to come in and people had more choices.
Bharati: Why weren’t the Singaporean designers able to withstand the competition?
Boey: I think it’s partly becasue magazines started to book foreign faces and not Singaporean faces or Asian faces. People started to think: “White is good. Foreign is good.” In terms of quality, our designers were just as good, but I think that was the beginning of the end.
Bharati: We’ll talk more about that bias in a moment. But in terms of marketing and meeting the needs of the local market, have our designers done enough? Are they worthy of local support?
Boey: Yes, the designers themselves have to react as well to the changes. But many have. Thomas Wee, for instance. Instead of just having the main line, Thomas Wee, he started TW2, Thomas Wee 2. Not everyone can afford Thomas Wee. So it's all about diversifying your business and that is why after all these years, Thomas Wee is still around.
PREJUDICES AGAINST SINGAPOREAN TALENT
Bharati: You mentioned Singaporeans’ proclivity for foreign things earlier. To what extent does that work against Singaporean designers today?
Boey: It still does. That’s one thing that really irks me is when someone picks up a piece and goes: “Oh my god, this piece is really good, but it's local. Why is it so expensive?” They say this even when the piece is slightly cheaper than a foreign label.
Bharati: They don’t value it simply because it’s local?
Boey: Yes. But if the item is well-made, if the item is made out of a good fabric, then you should pay for quality. How can you say because it’s made by a Singaporean designer, it should be cheaper?
That’s really unfair. But at the same time, I always tell designers that you know that the world is like that. You know that the situation is like that. You must learn how to play the game. If people only accept you when you've made it overseas and if your pieces can be retail-able overseas because they are of a certain standard, then push your label overseas and the minute you start selling overseas, market the hell out of it, so that people here will say: “This is a Singapore designer and it's selling in Paris, in Belgium. I want to support them.”
Bharati: Some designers have done that. Ashley Isham, for instance.
Boey: Yes, people like that managed to understand the game and play the game.
Bharati: But do we have to continue playing this game? First of all, why do you think we are like this. Why don't we value our own Singaporean talent when it comes to a lot of things – fashion, music, film ...
Boey: I don’t know. It's only us within the region. The Filipinos are so supportive of their own talent. Likewise, the Thais and the Malaysians. Could it be because we are such a melting pot and we get too many influences from the West? If you start life by watching American programmes or British programmes, perhaps that sets the yardsticks of how you judge everything. Maybe it’s because we are not confident in our own opinions, so we always need our opinions to be validated by someone else.
Bharati: What do you think it will take for Singaporeans to start valuing Singaporeans’ work, be it in fashion, music, etc?
Boey: If Singaporeans can’t come to this realisation themselves – that we have quality work made by Singaporeans - then all essential bodies have to come together to make this happen. The Singapore Tourism Board is doing “Singapore Inside Out” which travels around the world. It’s a showcase of Singapore creatives, maybe use that as a platform ...
Bharati: To sell Singapore creatives to Singaporeans?
Boey: Exactly. The fact that we've got initiatives by MPs and their wives to wear Singapore designers, that is a start as well. That's what we need. We need role models.
SINGAPOREAN DRESS SENSE
Bharati: We’ve been talking about the fashion industry, but let's talk about fashion that we see on the streets of Singapore. You’ve been quite a harsh critic.
Boey: Yes, I think price is an excuse that no one can use anymore, because there is fashion at every single price point. You can buy cheap and cheerful fashion and you can buy expensive fashion. There is fashion at every single pricing point for every single person. You could've used that excuse maybe in the 80s or the 90s when fashion was a little more territorial, a bit more exclusive. But I wear my fair share of cheap and cheerful fashion. My jeans cost less than S$100. You just have to wear clothes that fit, you just have to wear right clothes for the right occasion.
I think it’s just laziness, a lack of respect for yourself. You must have a really, really low sense of respect for yourself if you can walk out in an outfit you rolled out of bed in. Clothes give you confidence. People form an impression of you based on that.
Bharati: Some might say that’s superficial.
Boey: But that’s what the world is like. And who wouldn’t admit to feeling better when they look better. Again, it doesn’t need to be fancy. There are outfits made for sleeping in bed. There are outfits made for walking into the market to eat your chwee kueh. There are outfits made for going down to Orchard Road. And you don’t have to wear a tuxedo everywhere you go. Sometimes, it’s about wearing a nice-fitting T-shirt.
Having said that, I have seen an improvement, especially among the younger generation. They are taking pride in what they wear. I am getting more and more excited by what I see on the street right now. I see people picking up on trends. Maybe that could be a reason. It could also be the fact that fashion is a lot cheaper now, there are different budgets. Fashion is a lot more democratic now. Fashion is not the sole domain of tall, skinny, anorexic girls. There are so many role models. There is fashion for curvy girls, for bigger-sized men, for skinny men, for tall people, for short people. It’s a lot more democratic.
THOSE ORCHID AND MERLION DRESSES PLEASE
Bharati: Another issue you’re known for being quite vocal about is our national costumes at beauty pagaents. I understand you’re involved in this year’s Miss Singapore Universe pagaent. How are you trying to influence the look of the national dress?
Boey: Yes, every single year I don’t remember who Miss Singapore Universe is, but I will remember the national costume because I’ve probably bitched about it.
Bharati: Yeah, you’re sick of the orchids and merlion.
Boey: The first thing we need to realise is we don’t have a national costume. We are a mix of cultures. Let’s draw upon our experiences as Singaporeans and let it develop organically. At the end of the day, it’s a costume. It’s not something you wear out in your daily lives. Look at Myanmar last year. Her costume last year was inspired by the theatre of Myanmar. She was a puppet. And that’s what we need to do. We need to work with designers to infuse that sense of theatricality. What about Singapore inspires you? So that we can create a costume out of it. I’ve criticised the orchid dresses but if you’re inspired by the orchid and you can create a wonderful dress out of it, then fine, do it. But don’t do it for the sake of it.
Bharati: Finally Daniel, what is the legacy you want to leave?
Boey: I just want people to just go: “Daniel’s touched my life.” In any way. It doesn’t have to be in fashion. It could be in the way I fought my battles. It could be my mindset. It could be in the advice that I’ve given them. I want to leave this world having made a difference to people. It doesn’t have to be the world. I will never ever be a Mother Theresa or Princess Diana, but as long as I’ve touched one person or two people, and I’ve changed their lives, I’ve inspired them, I’m happy.