There are many hidden treasures which offer a window into Singapore’s past. Before Henderson Waves and the enclaves of trendy, upbeat cafes along Eng Soon Street, Telok Blangah was once home to a late Javanese princess, Radin Mas Ayu.
Those privy to her tale are instantly brought back to a time when Singapore was under the political and cultural confines of the East Java-based empire of Majapahit. Back then, its pristine, sandy beaches offered respite to settlers who searched for a new start—a reasoning that resonated deeply with the princess after losing her mother in a fire. Her father, who was a king, eventually remarried, alas to an evil wife, which led the entire family to move to Singapore.
In the stepmother’s desperation for power and inheritance, Radin Mas Ayu was arranged to be married to a Tengku that schemed to kill her father. On her wedding day, the princess was stabbed by the groom whilst she lunged forward to protect the king—an unfortunate twist of fate that no one saw coming. Today, her tomb still stands, saved from disrepair, and tenderly looked after in honour of her sacrifice and familial love.
Despite how private Radin Mas Ayu was, the brave princess’s legacy lives on in different ways. A primary school, community centre, and housing estate that all bear her name have withstood the tests of time and are homes to a bustling and culturally diverse society. Stories of the late princess continue to trickle down generations and are still shared at the Keramat Radin Mas—her place of burial on the quiet, scenic slopes of Mount Faber.
For Temasek Polytechnic Apparel Design and Merchandising student Helaine Izea Lara Ercia, 19, the beloved yet tragic tale of the late Radin Mas Ayu grew to become the overarching inspiration behind her design. In tandem with sustainability initiatives from Singapore Airlines, she upcycled retired aircraft items such as unused napkins and leather seats into commercially wearable pieces; a resourceful trait she believes the princess might emulate if she was still alive today.
Below, she shares her thoughts on what the late Radin Mas Ayu might have worn in modern times and her message for other Singaporeans in light of National Day.
What was it about Radin Mas Ayu that intrigued you?
When I was reading about her, I thought it was interesting to know how she got to Singapore, and why. Although her death was unfortunate, her sacrifice was commemorated by the neighbourhood she lived in. Her legacy continues to live on as a school, community centre and housing estate that are all named after her.
I wondered what it would be like if she was still alive. Would Singapore have had our own princess although she came from Indonesia? When I saw pictures of her, I was intrigued by her style and fashion sense. I thought it would be interesting to know how living here would influence her, her culture, and her wardrobe. My design inspiration revolved around what I thought all that would look like.
While many people may not know about this legend, her bravery and sacrifice in order to save her father shows her loyalty to family and it is truly inspiring.
Tell us about the concept behind your pieces.
We were tasked to upcycle items that were given to us by Singapore Airlines to come up with a concept and collection surrounding Singaporean culture and influences. It was a requirement for the design to be commercially wearable, and at least 80% of the outfit be made of materials from retired Singapore Airlines aircraft. We were also encouraged to use sustainable methods of fabric manipulation, such as getting creative with natural dyes instead of chemical ones.
You mentioned using orchids and the vanda miss joaquim during your design process. Tell us about why and how you incorporated them into your designs.
In my designs, I used orchids and the vanda miss joaquim to create silkscreened motifs on the fabric. It just seemed natural to include Singapore’s national flower to my garment. I also visualised Radin Mas Ayu being inspired by it as she lived in Singapore, so she would also look for motifs like that in her clothes. Since there’s a lot of batik in traditional Indonesian costumes, I knew I wanted to include that subtle yet rich pattern in my prints.
The outerwear that is draped over the top and skirt is reminiscent of a sari in the way that it drapes across and falls on the body. The drape is over one shoulder and is similar to how most saris are worn. The outerwear is secured with a pankou, which is a button used mostly in cheongsams. After researching Indonesian accessories and magnificent headdresses, I found that they utilise a lot of circular motifs in their jewellery. I created the pankou, as I wanted to incorporate that shape as well. I also tried to design for Singapore’s humid weather, while keeping in mind what the average Singaporean woman would wear.
Is your design sustainable?
Yes, the entire design is made of 90% recycled Singapore Airlines materials and I used zero waste methods to sew the garment. I did patchworking for the skirt, and I draped the bodice with rectangular pieces of fabric, imitating zero-waste draping.
Working with the fabrics given, as they were not made to be naturally worn, I had to think of ways to make them wearable. Moreover, the colour choices I had were pretty limited—I had to work with what was given to me, so my colour palette was pretty much fixed. I persevered and eventually found a way to make the colours work together with my concept.
What message do you want to send with your design in light of National Day approaching?
Embrace your culture—because everyone is unique, but also be inspired by other legacies and traditions. I think that the abundance of culture and racial harmony in Singapore can be of great inspiration. It is important to stick to your roots and honour your culture, but it is also important to be open-minded and to learn and appreciate other customs. This is what makes Singapore special and unique since we have the privilege of interacting in a multi-cultural society.