It is hard to quantify the meteoritic rise of Singaporean label, Youths in Balaclava. For the fear of being reductive, it seems like this group of young designers came out of nowhere to launch a book at Dover Street Market (DSM) Singapore. And in a huge achievement for a local label, Youths in Balaclava counts the retail institution as one of its stockists. Overseas media outlets are quick to label them as the anarchic voice in Singapore. So we decided to speak to the collective to find out more about their origin story and to meet Ryan O'Toole Collett who photographed their book and their recent presentation in Paris.
ESQ: Can you tell me more about your childhood?
Taufyq Iskandar: We met at Gan Eng Seng Secondary School. We were friends from different cliques. I met Spencer first, I met Yi Chen and the rest afterwards, and then kind of got them all to hang out together.
ESQ: So how did you guys go from hanging out to starting this collective?
Taufyq Iskandar: Me and Spence always had this interest in fashion. For us it’s a lot of the music that we listened to at that time. Spence was more into K-pop and I liked Guns and Roses, Jimmy Hendricks and all that. So we found something in common that we felt we could do. We were working in different retail stores at the time and picking things up along the way like managing a store, seasonal launches. At the same time, I was learning basic Photoshop and creating graphics.
It started as a hobby. We didn’t think it would be something of a huge scale. There were a lot of things popping up, like the local retail store Alley, but they weren't selling many local labels. We decided to take the whole thing to a different aspect, to elevate it. That was when it became interesting.
ESQ: What was the first collection like?
Taufyq Iskandar: We called it Traitors to Society. It was a bit political. It was a reference to the youth unions and the Hock Lee bus riots. There was a point where the bus workers were going against the company, but with the help of the youths—who supplied food and sang songs with them and all that—it’s the power of the unity of the youth. So I think that first collection and that first spot that we were trying to hit was the essence of the brand itself.
ESQ: Ryan, could you tell us more about how you met these guys?
Ryan O’Toole Collett: We bumped into each other in Singapore. I came to do a job for Dover Street Market Singapore. During that stint, I was asked to do a project on Singapore. I wanted to look at the unseen side of it. Singapore has a very strong idea of how it presents itself as a country and how the government presents itself outwardly, but there’s always an undercurrent or alternative movements everywhere. So asked around if they knew anyone cool. I eventually got introduced to Taufyq and then I just started hanging out with them. I think at first they thought it was kind of weird because I was older and I was like 'hey can I come and take pictures of you?'
ESQ: So what were your thoughts when Ryan first approached you guys?
Taufyq Iskandar: We were like, 'who is this ang mo?" (laughs) Jokes aside, he was discussing his project. I was supposed to guide him along and show him Singapore. I brought the rest of the crew and he said it would be cool if you could take pictures and stuff like that. The shoots were long and tedious because Ryan was specific about the way he wanted to shoot us, so it was quite an experience. But it was during these times that our friendship was forged.
Ryan O’Toole Collett: After we made that first book, I went back to London and Taufyq and I stayed in touch. It’s a friendship now.
ESQ: Are you part of the collective now?
Ryan O’Toole Collett: Yes.
Taufyq Iskandar: Officially, after Paris. (laughs)
ESQ: Is it fair to say that Ryan had a big part of putting you guys on the map?
Ryan O’Toole Collett: No, no. (laughs) Their work speaks for itself.
Taufyq Iskandar: I remember us trying to reach out to a lot of stockists, but we kept getting told that they weren't interested. That was quite frustrating. We wondered why they weren't accepting of local designs but were willing to stock other brands from around the world?
Ryan O’Toole Collett: Most of the stuff is chance—the quality of the work, the creations that they make, the ideas behind it and all of that stuff is self-evident, right? High level. But you can be of a high level but no one has heard of you. It's sometimes very difficult, especially in an industry like fashion, to make that breakthrough. It was just complete chance that I happened to meet Taufyq, who happened to be a designer, DSM happened to be opening which is why I was there, then he was introduced to Adrian Joffe and the team. From there it blossomed into this new thing.
Taufyq Iskandar: There wasn't a lot of interest in our brand back then. What we lacked was the support. It was really difficult. We asked Singapore Design Centre if they could provide us with a loan or some funds and they immediately rejected us because we had no background or anything special. It was really, really difficult, everything was just within our means, using money that we earned from part-time jobs. But of course, DSM has allowed us to do more, a lot more, than we wanted without feeling like there was a financial setback for us.
Ryan O’Toole Collett: That's like an award, isn’t it, for persevering? They were doing all of this stuff before DSM, believing that they’re going to get there.
Taufyq Iskandar: We did our fashion show because we felt that Singapore Fashion Week was filtered towards the privileged. We couldn’t even attend and learn about what’s on the runway and we were so frustrated with that, which is why we set out to make our own fashion show. It was at Geylang and it was all DIY. We borrowed chairs from coffee shops one day before the show and got trucks to transport all the stuff. I feel like the interesting part is that people didn't know that we existed back then.
ESQ: I am pretty sure the narrative has always been that a British photographer found this bunch of kids and shot this book for DSM.
Ryan O’Toole Collett: It’s not like that, I don't feel comfortable with that narrative. It’s like when Europeans went to America and said they found America. Nah, you didn’t. It was already there.
Taufyq Iskandar: It is basically like, this guy is (Sir Stamford) Raffles and we are this fishing village. (laughs)
ESQ: So what is Ryan's role now in the collective?
Taufyq Iskandar: He’s like the consigliere, he’s our adviser.
ESQ: Tell me more about your experience with Adrian. How has he helped shaped this?
Spencer Yeo: We get a platform to do whatever we want freely and creatively. He doesn't try to control what we do, he just tries to help us get to the point where we believe that we can do it. He helps us financially as well.
ESQ: You presented your latest collection, Lost in Transit, at Paris Fashion Week. What were some of the reactions to it?
Taufyq Iskandar: They liked the collection and they said the story was interesting because it’s something that wasn’t relatable to most of the European buyers. I think the response was great and all was positive. I think it was only a few things here and there about how European and Asian cuttings are different.
ESQ: Did the whole collective head up to Paris?
Taufyq Iskandar: All 10 of us went. We risked the entire company's savings (laughs). But it was important for everyone to experience this. We wanted to open our eyes to different cultures and perspectives.
ESQ: Tell me more about the Lost in Transit collection.
Long Yi Chen: All Singaporean guys have to go through National Service, so what the collection captures is how we go from this stage to another. Amid the transition, we gain new knowledge and apply them to our lives. It is about change.
Spencer Yeo: It is an expression of going through this process. Like this inkblot print that you see on the T-shirt, it changes colours under UV light. It is a reference to the Rorschach test, where it reflects going through the stages of teenage years to serving in National Service and back to civilian life.
ESQ: Do you feel your work challenges the norm in Singapore?
Taufyq Iskandar: There is a certain way that we need to react to what the world is going through right now. For example, being environmentally and socially aware. You can’t be that kind of subculture where you are just complaining. To be part of something you need to be part of the industry. We get asked if being at Paris Fashion Week will cause us to lose the anti-establishment ethos of the brand. I think not. If we are part of the industry then our voice will grow louder and I think that’s how we change the world. We can’t be on the sidelines, saying what we want to say with only a few hearing us. This larger audience, they have never heard of this smaller scene or community that we are from so being able to do that and express this thing to a larger audience is for me more anti-establishment because we can say what we want to say and not have our words censored.
ESQ: What is next after Paris?
Taufyq Iskandar: This collection is a starting point of what we can do. Designing this collection was hard because we had to learn the commercial aspect of this business, but we learnt the rules and how the game is being played and that will allow us to go further.
ESQ: What would your runway show look like?
Taufyq Iskandar: The first show has to capture the essence of Singapore. To showcase elements of where we grew up, places like Bukit Merah and Pasir Panjang. To capture the raw elements of Singapore, like HDB flats, the playground and a rundown shopping mall. If we had a billion dollars to do our runway show, I would book Queensway Shopping Centre (laughs).
ESQ: How would you like to be remembered?
Taufyq Iskandar: To be the first brand to shake things up in Singapore. That was the whole vision, to create a ripple effect even if we don’t change anything. Inspire kids who are not in an academic stream to do something else. We are all Normal Academic students who took five years to finish our O levels. What came after was even harder, to compete with the Express students. It is not just about the Normal Academic, but also the Normal Technical students.
I hope that we can be a motivation for the rest of the people, especially those in school who are trying to figure out what they want to do. Sometimes being a doctor is not what you want to do, working a nine-to-five job is not what you want to do. There is an alternative and you can do it if you put your mind to it. Not only in the fashion scene, but in the whole youth culture here in Singapore.