My friend and I published our first fashion catalogue when we were eight years old. With some old stubby pencils, we scrawled dresses, shirts, and heels on crinkled printer paper. After stapling the sheets together, we proudly wrote our names on the first page, just as Christian Dior or Coco Chanel would sign off on their fabulous design sketches. Unlike them, we did not revolutionize fashion. I simply copied the prettiest clothes and shoes I saw on television or in fancy storefronts.
That changed when I joined Raffles Runway, the fashion design club in my high school. Unlike the student activity groups at Swarthmore, most of my high school clubs held interviews to select their members at the start of each year. I walked into my interview with a hastily prepared, eclectic portfolio that contained sketches of long flowing gowns, skirts, and the occasional business casual outfit. To my surprise, my interviewers were sufficiently impressed, and I became a new member of Raffles Runway.
Raffles Runway held annual fashion shows. I participated in two fashion shows throughout my time in high school and created four outfits in total. What I never realized, as a child distracted by the glamour of high fashion, was the sheer amount of time and effort involved in designing, sewing, publishing (actual) catalogues, and organizing fashion shows.
I was frequently crouched over my dining room table, drawing and cutting out paper patterns. I learned to use a sewing machine, discovering all kinds of stitching for various fabrics I never imagined were possible. Together, my friends and I often huddled in our club room after class. Someone would be working at a sewing machine, its needle whirring furiously in the late afternoon stillness. Someone else might be ironing their newly-finished dress or shirt. Another person might be pinning paper flowers onto a skirt or hand-sewing beads onto a collar.
Like many of my friends, I have a keen eye for detail, and so I spent countless hours embellishing my outfits. For one of my dresses, I sewed gold and silver sequins onto indigo satin to create glimmering curves that resembled the city’s lights under a night sky. For another outfit, I glued colorful wooden popsicle sticks onto a creamy white top and puffy skirt, their colors reflecting the vibrant tropical city, Singapore, in which I grew up.
I always felt anxious in high school, but my stress seemed to melt away as I methodically worked on my outfits. Every little step — one more sequin, one more stitch — brought my design to life. I felt secure in knowing that the end product was truly mine, something precious that embodied my labor and spirit.
Designing and sewing took up most of my time, but there was much more to do. To select our models for photoshoots and the fashion show, we held auditions open to all of our schoolmates. Aspiring models learned a simple routine that involved doing a short walk and striking a few poses. The auditions were pretty popular, and out of nearly a 100 attendees, we selected around 10 to 15 models.
After our model auditions, we organized photoshoots and created catalogues with pictures of all our outfits. Raffles Photographers, our high school photography club, collaborated with us on our photoshoots. The catalogues were professionally printed in color on magazine paper, a far cry from the one I made at eight years old. We took some of our pictures outdoors. I enjoyed the outdoor photoshoots because there was more space for designers to be creative and make the most out of the surroundings, whether they were foliage or buildings.
Leading up to the fashion show, all of us — designers, models, photographers — were busy backstage. I ran around with hairspray, combs, two boxes of hair elastics, and about ten thousand bobby pins in tow, making sure every model’s hair remained impeccable. Some of my friends had colorful fingers stained by lipstick, eyeshadow, bronzer, and all kinds of cosmetics as they applied makeup on the models. There was a seemingly endless array of shoes, clothes, and various accessories lying around.
We remained backstage during the show, so the full dress rehearsal was as close as I got to seeing the actual show. Behind the curtains, I heard the audience applauding and cheering whenever a model walked down the runway. And after the show, people stood in line to buy our catalogues and flip through their glossy pages. I felt glad that someone out there, whom I may never meet, would see my designs and marvel at them for a fleeting moment.
Although I have graduated from high school, my journey in fashion design continues. If you see me on campus, I may not look the part of a designer, because hoodies and sweatpants are just too comfortable. But I still take out my notebook occasionally and sketch some outfits that come to mind.
For my recent designs, I draw inspiration from the flora and fauna on Swarthmore’s beautiful campus. The fiery red of a cardinal’s feathers may look good on a dress. The barren branches of winter may form a washed-out print on a pair of pants. Through creating fashion, I fine-tuned my eyes to discover beauty residing in seemingly ordinary landscapes. In my daily life, I am more attentive to little things that catch my attention, and I feel myself living in rich detail.
Fashion is incredibly time-consuming, but it is also immensely rewarding. Even if I do not create outfits from scratch anymore, I still retain the aesthetic sensibilities that I developed in high school. My forays into fashion will remain with me for the rest of my life and remind me to appreciate the wonders of everyday life.