SINGAPORE - Fashion weeks in London, Paris and Milan may be over but in Singapore, the beautiful season will take off in May when the Audi Fashion Festival (AFF) returns for the fifth year as part of a long-running effort to turn the city into the fashion hub of Asia.
As the likes of Carolina Herrera and Hussein Chayalan glam up the catwalks specially built for the festival, the challenge to keep AFF fresh and relevant, while boosting the tills at sister trade show Blueprint, remains an uphill one.
The game plan this year is to bring everything under one roof and package it as a lifestyle event rather than a glamorous soiree for tai-tais and the fashion elite. Hence, organisers are introducing first time concepts such as a fashion cafe and gourmet food and wine from France and Italy - home of fashion capitals Paris and Milan.
There will also be fashion and lifestyle photography exhibitions. In other words, you don't need to know Lacroix from Lagerfeld to enjoy the festival.
AFF director Tjin Lee says: "The new lifestyle content allows us to reach out to a wider audience, even people who are not necessarily attending the shows, but would like to head down to Fashion by the Bay to soak up the atmosphere of the fashion festival."
Fashion by the Bay is the name given to Asia Fashion Exchange's (AFX) new location at Marina Promenade, beside the Singapore Flyer and at the F1 Pit Building. AFF will no longer be at Ngee Ann City, where the festival was housed since 2004 as the former Singapore Fashion Festival. A new tent will be erected at Marina Promenade which will be 40 per cent bigger, to cater to a growing number of visitors. The festival is targeting 20,000 of them this year, up from 13,200 last year.
Despite its higher public profile, AFF is but one of the pillar events of AFX, a joint private and public sector initiative to position Singapore as Asia's leading fashion capital. Started in 2010, it involves the Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore (TaFf), Mercury Marketing and Communications and government agencies, International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, SPRING Singapore (SPRING) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).
Besides AFF, the other three key events are: trade show Blueprint, the Asia Fashion Summit conference and Audi Star Creation, a fashion design competition to spot budding talent.
Instead of being held at different locations like before, all four AFX events will convene under one roof at Fashion by the Bay.
"The idea is to make it more convenient and accessible for visitors to the event that could include trade buyers, consumers, regional and local media," says Ms Lee. "Previously, buyers had to travel to two locations for AFF and Blueprint, so there was a lot of shuffling back and forth. With one location, everything is within walking distance."
In addition, the four events are taking place almost concurrently.
"This will encourage greater cooperation and networking across all the different aspects of the fashion industry in Singapore," says Ms Ranita Sundramoorthy, STB's director of attractions, dining and retail. "The four events can leverage off each other, so there's more value to participants and visitors. It helps AFX to position itself as a one-stop destination for anyone who wants to be in the fashion business in Asia."
While AFF has the glitz and glamour elements, sister event Blueprint fulfils AFX's objectives of creating business and networking opportunities for designers.
Tracy Phillips, Blueprint's project director, says that moving it to the Pit Building allows for about 40 per cent increase in exhibition space. There will be more brands this year: more than 160 emerging and established womenswear, menswear and accessory brands taking part in this fourth edition, up from 140 last year.
So far, AFF and Blueprint have played a steady role in lifting the profiles of both established and up and coming local labels.
Homegrown brand Raoul has been a fixture at AFF since day one. "We felt confident that it would be a good platform for us to showcase our collection to the regional and international buyers the event would attract," says co-creative director and chief operating officer of FJB Holdings Douglas Benjamin. "As a trade event for new and upcoming designers, the AFF has opened many doors for new brands."
From its first outlet in Millenia Walk in 2002, Raoul is now stocked in more than 100 stores - from department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Printemps in Paris and Harrods in London to multi-label shops in Europe.
"We hope to close more international sales accounts," adds Mr Benjamin. He is already expecting temperatures to rise at Raoul's fashion show, when Victoria Secret's supermodel Erin Heatherton struts the catwalk for it. Mr Benjamin quips: "We are already getting requests from many people to be on the guest list even though our invitation cards have not even been printed yet."
Meanwhile, at Blueprint, jewellery designer Carrie Kan is back for the third time after two successful runs. She says that participating at Blueprint "fast tracked Carrie K.'s business growth locally and has been a conduit to our development internationally".
She recalls that participating in Blueprint in 2011 was a "steep learning curve for Carrie K.", where she had to find out which markets Carrie K. appealed to and should focus on, what it took to be export ready and buyer considerations. Through Blueprint, Ms Kan was selected to show at Tranoi, at Paris Fashion Week and Seoul Fashion Week in 2012.
At last year's Blueprint, she had a much clearer view of what buyers and their customers were looking for and was confident that she had designs with a unique point of view that fit those markets. This year, she is showing a new collection called A Beautiful Mess, a range of pieces that look like splattered paint.
Her goal this year is to grow the brand's distribution in key overseas markets such as Japan and Korea, and open up opportunities in Hong Kong.
Colin Chen, creative director of Fabrix, is a second time participant at Blueprint. "What I hope to achieve this year is to introduce Fabrix to a larger international clientele through meeting more media writers and buyers," he says. He will be showcasing new designs in his range of bags and related accessories, as well as reintroduce popular styles from past season updated with new colours and design refinements.
Apart from local brands, Blueprint - which runs from May 16 to 19 - will see brands from Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong to as far as Trinidad & Tobago showing their pre-spring 2014 collections. More than 180 labels are expected, including American Rory Beca, Australian Finders Keepers and Elizabeth Cole Jewelry from New York. The show opens to the public on the last two days.
"With AFF targeting to attract more than 20,000 visitors, we can expect a spill-over crowd at Blueprint Emporium," says Ms Phillips. Last year, 9,000 people shopped at Blueprint Emporium. Like AFF, Blueprint will also have a lifestyle vibe, with pop-up beauty stores by the Spa Esprit Group which will sell products and services as well as pastries from its popular Tiong Bahru Bakery.
"We want to inject much needed life into the retail scene and create the right atmosphere that would encourage people to take their time to discover all the brands on show and enjoy their shopping experience," says Ms Phillips.
Like in previous years, big names are the main draw at AFF. While more names will be announced closer to the date, Venezuelan-American fashion designer Carolina Herrera and her daughter Carolina Jr will open the festival on May 15. It will be her first visit to Asia.
Closing the show will be British-Turkish designer Hussein Chalayan, who was twice named British Designer of the Year. He will showcase his autumn/winter 2013 womenswear collection.
It's not easy getting these names to come too. Ms Lee says that the international designers generally have to be invited up to a year in advance, as many of them have schedules that are packed back to back.
"We have had to deal with everything from private jets to villa bookings in exotic locations such as Bali and Maldives to woo some of the top designers," she reveals.
Even with such obstacles, it'll be quite a while before a Singapore label can do the opening or closing honours, says Ms Lee. "Even the youngest of the big four fashion weeks - New York - is over 20 years old," she says. "Singapore labels and designers are still fairly young, and I have no doubt that one day, perhaps within the next five years, there could be a Singapore label that is ready to take the spotlight as an opening or closing show."
Until then, other highlights include Japanese designer Tsumori Chisato, whose Autumn/Winter 2013 collection will feature her trademark beading, embroidery and appliques. Some dazzling bling will also be on offer as Singapore label Zardoze makes its festival debut with a show-stopping dress, made in an atelier in Paris, which will have diamonds totalling 130 carats and valued at $550,000. Rounding off the names is the festival regular, London-based Singaporean Ashley Isham.
With a new broad-based approach that taps a wider audience and offers a better after-show experience (with the wine and dine events), AFF and Blueprint look set to be an experience worth waiting for. How it translates into the bottom line of the fashion industry is another question but as it is with most catwalk shows, it will at least get people's attention.
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