Straddling the worlds of art and commerce, fashion and costume designer Hayden Ng has spent his entire adult life dressing people to look their best. Witty, attentive and articulate, he tells us how he got his start, the pains of kitting out 10,000 performers, and why clothes make the man (or woman).
Hayden Ng wears many hats. Fashion designer. Entrepreneur. Costume designer. Autodidact. Founder. Project manager.
One of his earliest? Rebel.
Having set his heart on working in fashion from a young age, he took a radical step, even by today’s standards: despite having been accepted into junior college, and against his parents’ wishes, he left school after his ‘O’ levels at 16 to devote himself entirely to fashion.
Hayden, 52, grinned wryly as he recalled their reaction. “My parents were…umm….not very happy. Like most Asian parents, they weren’t very supportive of me leaving school. But it’s been such a long time, they’ve come to accept it along the way. Or rather, they had no choice!”
He had long been interested in fashion and the arts, starting with a love of drawing, which grew into experimenting with fabric and form. He taught himself how to sew, a process he described as “Cut. Get poked. Bleed. Repeat.”
“Feel, touch, experiment with fabric blends, experiment with finishing, break a few needles…I think there’s no better way to learn than through trial and error. You can learn technique, but if you work based on theory alone, it’s very dead. But if you go out and try things, you’d learn more. It’s part of the whole process of learning.”
Hayden’s showroom in Clarke Quay, where it has been in business since 2009. Photo by Catherine Nicholas
Young, scrappy and hungry
By the time he was 18, Hayden had already completed apprenticeships with several boutiques, including at the now-defunct ninetonine collections, Unique Bazaar and Flamingo Boutique.
“[Fashion apprentices] in those days basically had no skills when we started. We might know how to draw and paint but not much beyond that, not the skills actually involved in making a dress,” he explained.
“When you start out as an apprentice, you do all sorts of menial tasks – vacuuming carpets, washing plates and cups…but along the way, someone might take notice of you and say ‘oh, this one has a bit of interest, a bit of talent, let’s cultivate him.’] That was the case with me.”
While at Flamingo, he cut his teeth designing outfits for variety shows, mostly on Channel 8. Back then, without social media and street photographers, celebrities would dress up for variety programmes as these would have reach and visibility.
Even entering National Service (NS) wasn’t enough to dim Hayden’s rising star. In fact, he got his big break while he was still a serviceman: dressing Miss Singapore Universe 1987, Marion Nicole Teo, for the Miss Universe pageant final.
“I used to drop into Flamingo on the weekends when I booked out. The Miss Universe final was being held in Singapore that year, and one day Alex Liu (the late veteran beauty pageant organiser and founder of the “Manhunt” competition) called and said, hey, could you dress Marion?”
Somehow, the stars had aligned: Singapore’s beauty queen needed a gown, Flamingo specialised in evening wear, and there was a young, up-and-coming designer eager to make his mark. From there, there was no looking back for Hayden. Fresh out of NS and basking in his success at Miss Universe, he took another leap and set up his own eponymous label.
“You come to a point where you have to do something. I was 21 by then. How long could I go on being a tailor?”
The business of fashion, then and now
Hayden first set up shop in a pre-war house at the far end of Oxley Road, where Winsland House stands today. He could count several famous faces – Patricia Mok, Aileen Teo, and Florence Lian – among his first clients.
Atlhough he was nervous about striking it out on his own, given the capital required to get the business going, he feels that he has had an easier time of it than young designers today. “During the late 1980s, consumers didn’t have so many choices. There wasn’t taobao, there weren’t online stores, there wasn’t high-street fashion. It was more limited, in a sense. Most designers during that time did very well.”
In his opinion, young designers today have it much harder. With the competitive online shopping sphere, Singaporeans’ preference for foreign labels, and the rise of fast fashion, it is increasingly difficult for young talents to keep a business going. “If you can’t run a profit, what’s the point? Yes, fashion might be fun, but it’s not just about fun. At the end of the day, fashion is a business, and if you keep going about in that manner, you will die.”
In Hayden’s case, his insistence on sticking to beautiful, high-quality pieces has kept his clients coming back.
“We do everything in-house, so my pieces can’t be bought anywhere else. If you want something that is a little different, something that’s well-made and detailed to your body, we do that.”
Meanwhile, as his understanding of the craft evolved over the years, so did his philosophy towards design. “When I started out, my approach was to make everyone beautiful, full stop. I mean, at 16, you don’t know about the aesthetics of bodies, you don’t understand a person’s lifestyle, how a person would move,” he explained.
Today, his approach is much more nuanced, driven by how fashion is “about balancing the body”: deciding what to hide and what to flaunt, and what would suit the lifestyle of his target client – the cosmopolitan, globe-trotting, go-getting consumer.
Dressing for the stage
A few years after starting his label, Hayden began branching out into costume design for theatre. A friend of his who worked with Theatreworks (the local theatre company) recruited him to design costumes for their 1992 play, Private Parts. “The show used multimedia, it was the first of its kind to do so here and that interested me because of the work I’ve done for TV,” he commented.
The playbill for Private Parts. Hayden keeps copies of the playbill for every single production he has been involved in over the years – enough to fill two thick folders. Photo by Catherine Nicholas
Another memorable piece he had worked on was Ah Gong’s Birthday Party by the Singapore Repertory Theatre in 1998 – an “interactive dinner theatre” performance where theatregoers arrived as “guests” to the birthday banquet, dining alongside the actors as the play unfolded.
“To me, costumes help tell the story,” he explained. “They guide the audience through [the passing of] time and characterisation. In a way, my background as a fashion designer suited this because when designing clothes for people, you create pieces according to their lifestyle. Costume design is about bringing characters from a paper script to life.”
Project National Day Parade
Of the dozens of plays he has designed for over the decades, however, being appointed the chief costume designer for the National Day Parade (NDP) in 2001, 2002, and 2003 was arguably his biggest challenge. Up to that point, choreographers for the parade had also designed performers’ costumes; Hayden’s appointment was the first time a dedicated professional costume designer had been commissioned for the task.
He drew on his wealth of design experience – 15 years by that time – in tackling the mammoth task of dressing 10,000 performers. “In the 1960s and 1970s, it was all track pants and t-shirts. So when I came in, the first thing we did was to storyboard and get the main storylines fleshed out,” he said.
Then Hayden had to figure out how to make the costumes aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. “Shoes must be comfortable. Costumes must be comfortable. Those are the priorities. Hair and makeup must be able to tahan (withstand) the heat for seven hours,” he explained.
A sketch of one of Hayden’s designs for the 2003 National Day Parade, complete with fabric swatches. Photo by Catherine Nicholas
“There are lots of considerations in costume design, which are just as applicable to people performing out in the open. Hours of preparation, just for them to perform for five minutes! The least you can do is make them look beautiful.”
As might be imagined, being in charge of costumes for 10,000 people was not a task for the faint of heart. “There’s no way I could see all 10,000 people individually, so after doing the storyboards we would send the project out for tendering and get companies to help with taking performers’ measurements. And this is really, really hard!” he exclaimed.
“The numbers might add up one week and they might not the next. If a single performer drops out and is replaced, someone has to go down and measure them again. Shoes have to be re-ordered. All these tiny logistical details add up. But at the end of the day, it was a good experience. I enjoyed it.”
Weaving a path to the future
After three years of working on the NDP, Hayden focused on his label and theatre work. In 2009, he returned to his beauty pageant roots, working with Miss Singapore Universe for another three years. And in 2015, he started a new venture – the ASEAN Fashion Designers Showcase (ASFD), a collaborative showcase of fashion designers and models from ASEAN.
With the heavy challenges facing the local fashion industry, he is also a big proponent of getting Singaporeans to support local brands and designers. “This issue [lack of sustained domestic support] goes much bigger than fashion. There are local craftsmen and artisans who make shoes, furniture, all sorts of things. I’m also a big supporter of using local models. Why should brands selling to locals use ang moh (Caucasian) models? Their body proportions are all different!”
Another of his bugbears is Singaporeans’ tendency to dress down, even during formal occasions. “Singaporeans’ dress sense has become very laid-back – too laid-back,” he lamented. “There are certain times when you simply have to make the effort to dress up and not just go in jeans or flip-flops.”
“Take Bangkok, for example. There’s a big difference in attitudes to dressing up there. You hardly ever see people in the street dressing shabbily. At weddings, every woman wears a gown, every man wears a suit. You might say it’s because the weather is so hot here, but isn’t Bangkok just as hot?”
It’s a point that’s hard to disagree with – not least coming from someone whose success has been built on attention to detail, whether in craftsmanship or standards of service.
“A dress isn’t just a dress, it’s you. If you make an effort or dress badly, that reflects who you are.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
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