For half of my life, my public identity has been that of a national swimmer and more recently, a Paralympian. I have been swimming competitively for more than 10 years, but I can recall early and sheltered memories of fashion experiences—of sensuality and gentleness in silver and cloth—in the quiet admiration of my grandmothers, my mother and the other fashionable women in my life. These moments helped to originate the spirit which now springs forth in a flurry instead of hesitant possibilities, which I had either repressed or resigned because I feared that I could not fulfil them.
Nowadays, I have the courage to believe I can. It was love for a woman that completed this world and which generated love for a passion which I thought was otherwise dead or irrelevant. I now pursue this through my own fashion magazine and a daily reverence for the state of the world as they evoke my memories of her.
I recollect now to preserve memories I am afraid to grieve. Fashion held her absence in my world because it was an interest of hers and it was one of the few worlds we did not share. I pull the string of memories taut and think of long drives to Yishun and the most comfortable portions of silence and connection I had ever felt in the cafes, bars and rooms we spent time in. We could speak of everything and nothing in everything except the language of fashion. This difference made me a stranger to myself in those conversations—dissociated and drawn to a mysterious pull of nostalgia—until I realised what fashion signified within me; it was somewhere I had forgotten I had once loved.
When she left the country and wanted nothing else, I suffered in silence a penance for the feelings which had realised themselves too late. What remained was the world she reawakened in me like a dream. Like Marcel Proust or Annie Ernaux, fashionable words are the reminiscence I choose and which I kept secret until now because it feels over—I continue the memory trail alone.
“What I love about fashion itself is its transformative power—it is a signifier of dreams or a dream-like sign—and I adore the dreams she weaved me to dream.”
I cannot remember what brands she wore—an alloy of second- and first-hand pieces. On our first outing, I wore a flowered off-white shirt and beige pants from Club Monaco. It was my first sincere purchase after I had met her, having thrown the rest of my wardrobe out at the end of a relationship with someone else. Classic, charming but intelligent; those were the adjectives I wanted to become. By wearing this combination, I felt thatI had regained some power over my inner life by signifying a change through clothes, like what Roland Barthes wrote of fashion as sign-signifier-and-signified in his 1967 book The Fashion System. It was a new signifier for hope in my life, represented in the physical form of buttons, hems and textiles.
That evening, I drove us to a small place near Chinatown, sitting and saying little to each other, and yet being enamoured by no awkwardness between us. We were accessories to each other that night, pairing our outfits by unspoken intuition—she wore a loose white shirt and a beige skirt with knife pleats.
This was in the middle of 2022. In the span of a few months, those moments became memories. When I look back at the decade leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, it took a lot out of me. Like many athletes at this level of performance, we feel as if we have sacrificed our souls for our sport, or that we had so little time to develop a soul that many of us suffer an existential question at the end of our careers.
I never wanted that for myself, and so I struggled with the lack of creative beauty for years. Thus I had to live gallantly with more loves and fuller glories, whether it was fluff poetry or prose. When I met her after Tokyo, it was during a lull in the momentum that had carried me a decade forward. There was a moment of peace. I had stepped into the name of a Paralympian and a long sought-after dream had come true.
On our last outing, I wore a deep-blue linen shirt from Boggi Milano and khaki pants with curved seams by Issey Miyake. She co-ordinated with a light blue top and a denim skirt and her signature jade bangle on her left wrist. These are the images I remember and cherish.
I have to claim fashion for myself now—this world she reawakened and then left me in—and I continue to live in that world as penance for the feelings I did not consciously choose to have. I use fashion as a sacred sign to be close to her when she was no longer there to evoke it herself. What I love about fashion itself is its transformative power—it is a signifier of dreams or a dream-like sign—and I adore the dreams she weaved me to dream. Like fashion, she signified freedom. I was not limited to being a Paralympian.
My journey into publishing my own fashion magazine is the minor reinvention of my life; it is my shore unto Purgatorio. A magazine combines the secret experience of my publishing work with the fashion world. I have been a publisher of books on philosophy and poetry as another passion of mine, and I have written in my spare hours several dozen essays on philosophy, mythology and art. Fashion sits at the intersection of all three for me; it flourishes as a field of relations, signifiers and concepts, and manifests as the stuff of dreams, mythology and signs. Attend a fashion show and you are looking at physical dreams; the models are sleepwalking as it were, signifying beauty and stature through the signs of silhouettes and colours like a dreaming artwork. Intellectually and emotionally, fashion can be dissected and adored like my other loves; but like a finished sentence—where you only know the meaning by its end—I know why and what I love about it now.
Order your copy of the March ‘Roots’ issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands today.