It is said that time and tide wait for no man. In a wave, time can take with it an entire universe—seamlessly deforesting its roots in a ruthlessly transient world. On our soil, change has proved nothing short of a mudslide. Standing on ground, however, is a league of old guards, quietly but tirelessly upholding a Singapore once delicately weaved.
Just as rattan makers, street barbers and traditional bakers grapple with periods past, tailors perhaps hold the biggest reflection of time in their hands: clothes. Here, Vogue Singapore speaks to three first-generation tailors about their triumphs, their struggles and the age-defying beauty of getting dressed.
Ang Kum Siong of Wellie Batik Fashions
On the third floor of Holland Road Shopping Centre sits a store draped in throngs of Indonesian fabric. Its 95-year-old owner, affectionately known to customers as Wellie, also goes by the name Ang Kum Siong. And despite what the sign might allude to, the business of fashion wasn’t quite the path he set out on.
Singapore-born Ang spent most of his formative years in Nan’an, Fujian, China. Returning to Singapore after World War II, he assisted his father as a hawker peddler and second-hand clothing dealer, which included handling batik sarong acquired from pawn shops. Life, however, was as taxing as it was unpredictable. After his father’s death, Ang found himself the sole breadwinner for his family.
“There was no time to think of what I wanted to do but to go on with what I had on hand,” he shares. And so, the glimmer of material in Ang and his father’s findings set the foundation for something greater. Wellie Batik Fashions was registered in 1978 and at its helm, a self-taught tailor. Working on swathes of vibrant material, Ang taught himself to sew, spurred by the satisfaction of conjuring beautiful silhouettes out of formless fabric. From the axis of a Singer sewing machine came sarongs, aprons and dresses fashioned out of trial and error—imperfect, occasionally frustrating, but always an emblem of pride and joy.
The glimmer of material in Ang and his father’s findings set the foundation for something greater.
“I took out all my savings of $5,000 to set up my shop. I could hardly earn enough to pay the rent for the first six months. Now, that’s all passed,” he adds. Forty years on, and now in the hands of two of Ang’s children, the store is known for its impressive selection of Indonesian batik from Central Java—sourced from cities like Solo, Klaten, Pekalongan and Cirebon.
Ang’s passion for design has reached ardent batik lovers in far corners of the globe, all of whom patronise the store for its close-to-limitless range of options. Its owner, however, remains its core and a beacon of hope. Looking back on his journey, Ang muses: “The satisfaction of being able to sew beautiful things, the happiness in my customers’ faces, raising nine children and still being able to sew—these are some of my biggest successes.”
And as for his personal most-loved piece? A mauve-purple shirt that he’s had for over 20 years, still crisp and pressed to perfection.
Wellie Batik Fashions is located at 211 Holland Avenue, #03-18 Holland Road Shopping Centre, 278967.
Inquiries: 9171 5662 / [email protected]
S Sakunthala of Beauty Queen’s Classic Tailoring
As far as tailoring institutions go, few places hold a candle to Little India. The area has historically served as a nexus for various trades such as goldsmithing, astrology and tailoring. One such unit is Beauty Queen’s Classic Tailoring, nestled in the heart of Buffalo Road. And its owner, S Sakunthala—known to customers as Elizabeth—is a disarming presence: immediately warm, appropriately stern and an embodiment of the term ‘boss lady’.
Born in India, Elizabeth moved to Singapore at the age of four. Her brush with retail began in her mid-teens, where she cut her teeth as a sales assistant at an independent denim store at People’s Park Centre. The experience ignited her entrepreneurial spirit, one that would see a young visionary through various wireless ventures: a small departmental store, a beauty salon and subsequently, her crowning jewel in the form of Beauty Queen’s Classic Tailoring—all built from the ground up.
Her affinity for design, however, is as clear-cut as she is. Not one to embellish or reminisce, she shares matter-of-factly: “Customers go for good designs and good prices. The bottom line is money.” As we speak, piles of luscious cotton, silk and blended saree material, sourced from India, are stacked across shelves,waiting to be turned into pavadais, gargaras and punjabi suits with intricately styled blouses. Peppered behind her are hair pieces and salon chairs.
S Sakunthala—known to customers as Elizabeth—is a disarming presence: immediately warm.
While she doesn’t divulge much about how she began designing, she breaks into a smile when asked about her family. The store, she shares, is run with the help of her daughter Vanessa, her sister and a tight-knit group of employees. “It’s only possible because of them.” Today, the establishment has become an under-the-radar institution of sorts, a meeting place for women who stop for pampering fare from eyebrow threading to facials and henna.
As they exchange stories about love and loss, Elizabeth joins in, a calm but alert listener. As she watches over them, she shares that a shortage in tourists has hit the business, which now sees an occasional stream of customers, both old and new. She is preparing for orders before Onam—a Malayali harvest festival.Based on her phone calls, the designs seem complex. The saree Elizabeth is wearing, however, is a classic; a checkered, lime green number she stitched herself. As she steps out in it, her demeanour softens. “This one is my favourite.”
Beauty Queen’s Classic Tailoring is located at 22 Buffalo Road, Singapore 219790.
Inquiries: 9238 7207 / [email protected]
Nancy Kong of Vega Tailoring and Dressmaking
“I used to make dresses for the wife of former president Benjamin Sheares,” shares Nancy Kong, referring to former first lady, Yeo Seh Geok. In her late 60s, the dressmaker and 40-year Bukit Timah Plaza tenant is soft-spoken, stopping to speak in between a stream of customers on a rainy Sunday evening. Behind her sits a poster of an H&M campaign she was a part of—a pandemic-spurred initiative organised by the Swedish Chamber of Commerce Singapore, Kong was selected as one of a few businesses to be spotlighted.
Despite her accolades, she remains a picture of humility. Kong’s story is one of unparalleled resolve. In what can often feel like a relentless chasing of one’s passions, hers has been slow and considered, laced with moments of refreshingly honest self-doubt. “I became a tailor for myself. For me, it wasn’t about the money, it was to pass the time. I have no idea why so many people started coming to me,” she says with a chuckle.
I became a tailor for myself. For me, it wasn’t about the money, it was to pass the time.
Vega Tailoring and Dressmaking was set up in the late 1980s and marked Kong’s official foray into the world of clothes making. It also marked her second attempt at a business after the first, a decade earlier, ended in an unexpected closure. Her decision to venture out on her own resulted from the restlessness of having been a housewife. “I was bored,” she shares, her voice dipping. When asked what she enjoys most about tailoring, however, Kong bursts into childlike giddiness.
Despite the struggles that plague small businesses such as a lack of technically trained employees and an ample supply of resources, Kong’s devotion to her craft is evident. “I love everything about sewing. Everything.” Kong has dressed generations of customers, unknowingly cultivating their personal style, confidence and taste in small ways. On a rack of completed orders is a mix of cheongsams and blouses, meticulously pinned and sewn to perfection.
Her clients, she adds, have amassed through purely word of mouth. While they might have mostly been professionals like teachers at one point, today, they’re a mixed bag—young girls with floral dresses in tow, middle-aged women with cocktail dresses, and high-fashion lovers donning all black—different, sometimes fussy, but, as Kong puts it, the best part of her job.
Vega Tailoring and Dressmaking is located at 1 Jalan Anak Bukit, #01-07 Bukit Timah Plaza, Singapore 588996.
Inquiries: 6466 4041
Photography Ethan Lai
Grooming Delanie Wong-Bonnefoy