When Jon Max Goh flew over to study fashion design in New York, he brought along unexpected baggage. It’d take months for him to discover the valuables in his possession, but they have proven essential ever since. “Being abroad, being the only Singaporean in a class of three-hundred students—” Goh recalls. “It made me dig deep into finding a voice that would help me stand apart from everyone else.”
In doing so, it turned out that being away from home actually brought Goh closer to it. “I realised that it wasn’t enough to be on the nose aesthetically or trend-wise. I had to find something which resonated on a personal level—for me, that was the ideas of home, memory, culture, and identity.”
Through championing these ideas, Goh has found himself a place among the five finalists for Singapore Stories 2021—an annual competition hosted by TaFF, at the end of which, one participant gets to showcase their collection at Paris Fashion Week and the Asian Civilisations Museum.
In other words, it’s the perfect opportunity for a budding designer to kickstart their label. “It’s something which I’ve had on the back-burner for quite some time,” Goh says. Between running his apparel brand, Livingwear, and navigating the pandemic, there hasn’t been much of a window for him to take on a new venture. “I kind-of realised that there was never going to be a perfect time to do it. So when the Singapore Stories call came along, I thought I’d use it as an opportunity to explore some of my more conceptual ideas.”
The competition called for a six-look collection marrying the themes of technology and the Singaporean identity. While Goh might’ve preferred to work without such creative confines, they have proven useful over the course of his five iterations thus far. “It’s made me be more disciplined about the concepts that I’m exploring with each and every look,” he says. “Without these guard rails, it’d be easy to go wild and include looks just because they’re fun or because I really like them.”
"We talk about and consume fashion with a very Eurocentric language. But there’s still opportunity to explore and interrogate Asiacentric approaches to dressing in a global context."
Responding to these themes has called for tough sacrifices but ultimately, such decisions have helped Goh bring cohesion to his collection. “As a designer, I’m an overthinker and a bit of a maximalist,” he explains. “When I put my ideas to paper, what I’m thinking makes complete sense to me—I can see all the tangents. It can be overwhelming for others though, who might be seeing them for the first time.”
Through conversations with the judges and mentors, Goh has been able to focus his vision. “I think the collection has really refined itself from the very first iteration I put forth. The ideas are a lot more concise. It has grown and evolved to a point that I’m very proud of where it’s at right now.”
Reaching this stage has been a delicate balancing act. On one hand, Goh has been soaking up the advice directed his way, but fashion being a subjective artform, he has had to ensure that his own voice doesn’t get lost either. “The process of discerning what people are saying versus what it is that I’m trying to create—it’s led me to dig deep into who I am as a designer,” he says. “I think it reaches a certain point where I won’t compromise certain things because it’s important for me to believe in my vision.”
“A fantastical alternative future where the clothes that we wear speak a more Asiacentric language,” Goh describes his six-look collection. He’s expanding on the foundations which he explored while studying in New York—ideas which he believes will help him stand out in Singapore too.
“Singapore, being a global city, we do take on a lot of western sensibilities. We talk about and consume fashion with a very Eurocentric language—with respect to what a shirt is, what a blouse is, what a skirt is. But there’s still opportunity to explore and interrogate Asia-centric approaches to dressing in a global context. We’re living in a time where there’s an ongoing conversation about what the Singaporean identity looks like, and the way we’re representing it through garments is really growing.”
On the brink of making his eponymous label a reality, Goh finds his work flushed with a sense of purpose. “The aesthetic revolves around Southeast Asian traditions, especially cultures which are prominent in Singapore. I’m finding ways to represent them in a mode that’s perceived as contemporary and not just ethnic costume.”
Although his six-look collection is built for the runway, he has provided opportunity for his pieces to be merchandisable in a ready-to-wear sense. “Those willing to experiment beyond the norm of what pants can be, guys who’d wear sarong as part of their everyday outfit—those are the people whom I’d love to see appreciate JONMAXGOH.”
Follow Jon Max Goh on his journey through the finals of Singapore Stories 2021.