It was an extremely sunny morning when we went to Katong to meet fashion designer and owner of The Emporium Group, Sylvia Lim. As we waited for her to make her appearance, the sunlight bathed us and everything in her boutique store in warm, vibrant hues.
Surrounding us were handmade apparel, bags, crockery, paintings, and trinkets, like hand-painted tingkats (stackable lunchboxes), and python skin purses. Motifs of shophouses, Singaporean snacks and rattan baskets were immediately recognisable. A print of Peranakan-style beaded shoes, or kasut manek, flew like a flock of birds out of an old wardrobe on a white dress. Hovering over the racks of clothes were mixed-media pieces featuring old shopfronts and shophouses. Up on a shelf sat a round mirror in the shape of the most tangy and refreshing of tropical fruits: the Pineapple.
Madame (/məˈdɑːm,ˈmadəm,French madam/)
Def. Used as a title for women in artistic or exotic occupations,
such as musicians or fortune-tellers.
As she strode into The Emporium, Sylvia beamed at us and exclaimed happily about her many guests.
She was, of course, dressed in her own threads. On her skirt were the outlines of Katong shophouses in bold red and white colours. Her top was comprised of a black and white, repeated motif reminiscent of old-school Peranakan tiles. Her bright, shrewd eyes shone through a pair of clear cat-eye glasses. On her ears were artfully mismatched silver earrings; their contemporary style creating a pleasant dissonance when matched with her outfit. One of them was in the shape of a paperclip, the other: a safety pin.
When she speaks, her voice is stately and rich, the kind of voice that carries without becoming noise.
When asked what she loved about designing clothes, her answer surprised all of us.
“I don’t think of myself as a fashion designer,” She deadpanned. “I think of my fabrics as what I use to tell my stories.”
“I am a storyteller.”
To understand the kind of stories Sylvia tells with her threads, we have to look at who she works with and why she does what she does.
Like many creatives, Sylvia has an unusual and demanding schedule. She begins her day at 7am and her first order of the day is making sure her customers have what they need. Fittings need to be penciled in. Alterations need to be catered to. Orders need to be checked against the inventory.
Meetings with her team happen around noon. She spends the whole day at the shop. Drafting new designs at the table only happens in the still of the night, when she will be left undisturbed. That usually happens anytime from midnight to 3 or 4 in the morning. Sylvia hardly sleeps.
When I ask what kind of food fuels her busy lifestyle, she says matter-of-factly, “Oh, I don’t eat.”
When I express confusion, she cheekily admits that she is particularly fond of coconut-filled tutu kueh. She laments that it is becoming a challenge to find. This is unlike the png kueh, a staple of Singaporean breakfasts and coffee shops.
The png kueh’s iconic bright pink hues were borrowed for The Emporium Group’s collaboration with The Breast Cancer Foundation. The eye-catching kueh was applied generously to playsuits and cheongsams, set against a backdrop of interlocking tiles for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For the campaign, Sylvia handpicked a whopping total of 60 different pantones of pink to be included.
Sylvia revealed that the png kueh collection has become a hit with customers.
“They would call,” She said, with a wry smile. “And they would say, hello? I want png kueh.”
Other work The Emporium Group had done that Sylvia is particularly proud of concerns their partnership with the disadvantaged. Her one-of-a-kind, intricate tingkats are hand-painted by single mothers living in Malaysia. Her team of master seamstresses, which is comprised of only aunties, are wholly responsible for putting The Emporium Group’s pieces together from start to finish.
There are about five of these elite seamstresses and they are scattered all over the island. It took Sylvia six years to find the right “golden girls”.
“They are above 50, 60, some of them are in their 70s,” Sylvia tells me. “They all have decades of experience behind them.”
When you talk to her, it becomes clear that Sylvia believes strongly in Singapore and Singaporean’s capacity for style and creativity. She wants everyone to know that there is so much to love and discover about Singapore. That’s why The Emporium Group’s goods are saturated with local flavour. It’s also why she used to teach future fashion industry professionals at the Textile and Fashion Industry Training Centre. And why when The Emporium Group needed a logo, she got the then nascent &Larry to do it.
Together with her team of women, Sylvia has been keeping the Singapore story alive in the global scene.
Since 2013, the year The Emporium Group first came into being, they have been part of many fashion shows, which has helped to raise profile of the brand. For instance, The Emporium Group was featured in the Audi Fashion Festival in 2014 and the Maritime Silk Road Fashion Culture Week, in 2019.
When she graduated from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design in London during the 1990s, it was a different world. It seemed to Sylvia then, that very few people, if any, looked to Singapore brands for fashion.
Now, she says, there’s more interest in local brands, which shows a maturation of the scene and the increased pride and confidence Singaporeans have today in local fashion design.
When asked what she sees happening in Singapore’s fashion scene in the future, she predicts a continued shift away from big box fashion brands.
“Maybe people will head back to the tailors. We always have everybody’s sizes,” She says. “The future of fashion will move from mass production, to mass customisation.”
“Perhaps it already has!”
*This article is a paid partnership with The Emporium Group