Fashion designers have a reputation for creating memorable ensembles for artists on stage and on the silver screen: Kansai Yamamoto made a wide-leg vinyl jumpsuit for David Bowie’s 1973 Aladdin Sane tour; Jean Paul Gautier did costumes for Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element; and Iris van Herpen’s haute couture dresses clothed ballet dancer Jing Jing Mao in the brand’s fashion film, Biomimicry.
Such collaborations illuminate the vital role garments play in visual storytelling and world building. This is where Singapore-based fashion designer and dancer, Josh Tirados, creates his work from. For the 24-year-old artist, his garment creations have found themselves on electronic producer Mervin Wong, on performance artists and not to mention, himself. “My approach is to start by imagining characters and the rituals surrounding the individual. That’s how I perceive a person’s work and personality,” says Tirados. “The setting and considerations of a garment’s movement, level of restriction and interactive features come into play when I create clothes for a performer.”
Attention to how clothes interact with the body is a sensitivity that Tirados prioritises, as small details on garments can make a big difference. Earlier in March, Tirados worked on the costume and set for Mervin Wong’s performance of his EP, Akasha, at Pasir Panjang Power Station.
“Wong’s soundscapes are evocative of cosmic, ethereal worlds. It made sense to design something heavenly and priestly for him,” explains Tirados. “I imagined Mervin as a bishop leading the masses in prayer, so I choreographed a walking procession and created this diaphanous white cloak with a long train that trailed behind as he moved.”
It’s no surprise then that Tirados is also informed by his work as an active butoh practitioner. Butoh, a style of Japanese dance theatre, is typified by elements like white body paint and arrhythmic body contortions. Originally called ankoku butō, its direct translation means “the dance of darkness”—but butoh is far from a grotesque and grim art form.
“Butoh is the dance of life. Movements are shaped by personal memory or collective experiences. It’s primal and quite indescribable as some masters would say,” explains Tirados. “It’s like how poetry, art, and music convey what is true when they don’t necessarily speak about facts. They just hit you at the right spot, saying something about the temperament of the self.”
With such a multidisciplinary practice, Tirados’s source of inspiration knows no bounds: designers like Rick Owens, philosophy, science fiction and the writings of Maya Angelou and Vandana Shiva—all of which shape his vision of making art that profoundly expresses the personal.
As Tirados focuses on his current residency at conceptual label, An Asylum, he has sights set on creating his own brand. And as for what fashion and style mean to Tirados? “Fashion enables me to claim my body and identity. I believe style is about how you wear something and what you choose. The people I find to be stylish are often my friends or people on the streets.”
Here, Tirados shares with Vogue Singapore his journey as an up-and-coming fashion designer and dancer.
What sparked your interest in butoh and fashion? How do they influence you?
Beauty is the first thing that drew me to them. Both butoh and fashion are powerful in the manner of non-violent resistance—the idea of solidarity in the self and the strength of nature that makes you entranced in being. I started learning butoh on my own in 2019 and when I was in New York recently, I trained with a master at the Vangeline Theatre, the city’s butoh institute. Merging the two art forms came naturally. Butoh taught me that the body truly cannot lie and I came to realise that fashion brands are more than just the clothes, there’s a much larger world surrounding garments that people want a piece of.
How would you describe your work?
My art is prayer, in the sense that it is not about forcing change into the world but expressing a hope for something better. My practice is quite meditative, involving things like waiting for a moment of revelation or a powerful emotion.
Do you have a signature style or piece of clothing?
I don’t have a signature now but people thought I was a hat maker for a moment because of the custom bonnets I made for people on my Instagram. I also have a hat piece currently at the Asian Civilisation Museum for #SGFASHIONNOW. I think the beauty of being an artist is that you can make a signature style or item for yourself, but you can also shift away from that to do what your demographic does not expect. It’s completely up to you.
“My art is prayer, in the sense that it is not about forcing change into the world but expressing a hope for something better.”
As a butoh dancer, how have your performances been received?
There was a performance I did with pipa player Gildon Choo, where his rhythmic string and tapping sounds made me feel like I was in a natsu matsuri procession. I did this movement which I imagined as an old man walking with a cane, but to the audience my dancing looked like a newborn calf stumbling around. At another one of my shows, I was contorting my limbs in a way that was sprawling and curling. My friend who used to be a medic said she enjoyed my performance but the movements looked like a seizure to her. Audience reactions are interesting because I get to hear different interpretations and see what butoh draws out in people.
What is a challenge that you face as a young designer?
For me, it’s more about a difficulty with the self and overcoming mental obstacles. It was freeing when I realised how you can never predict whether the work you put out goes well or when you’ll make it big. It’s like rolling dice. What is within your control is how many you throw out. The chances of finding success will get higher when you just keep trying and doing yourself proud.
There’s too much pressure on oneself when the mindset is “This body of work has to be the best of all”. Because often what is considered “best” is what is the most perceived or highly valued by others. I find it dangerous to hinge one’s art-making on people’s opinions and be solely motivated by gaining recognition. It also took time for me to understand that comparison is unnecessary. It’s the thief of joy. Everyone is on their own specific path and dealing with the cards that they’re dealt.
“I’m looking at relationships between silhouettes and form, and how they intensify ideas of presence, an emotion or an identity.”
How would you describe your style now compared to when you studied fashion design in polytechnic?
Back then, I used to be more interested in big, voluminous shapes and things that were intentionally avant-garde. Currently, I’m more into clothes that are light and delicate. I’m looking at relationships between silhouettes and form, and how they intensify ideas of presence, an emotion or an identity. I’m also interested in how to make garments look like skin, exploring textures and making clothes that are adaptable to Singapore’s weather.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a collection that will be presented in May. I’m planning to do a show that combines fashion design, set design and performance art in the whole presentation of the work. As for my butoh dances, I’m doing a performance at the end of this month at Haw Par Villa and another one at a rave in Kuala Lumpur next February.