Arguably one of Singapore’s most popular local labels, hansel has garnered a loyal following since bursting onto the local fashion scene a decade ago, and has even caught the eye of international celebrities such as Katy Perry, The Veronicas and Hollywood actress Rose Byrne.
Yet Jo Soh, the founder and designer of the fashion label, remains firmly grounded, and has never strayed from the design philosophy she had set out with way back in 2003.
“Since day one, I have focused on creating products that are fun, imaginative and playful, but ultimately wearable and useful in our daily lives. My approach has been to focus on the product and the rest simply evolved from there,” she shares.
When she says “the rest”, she means hansel’s significant milestones such as moving their flagship store onto Singapore’s most popular shopping district, Orchard Road, and having the label’s designs worn by the likes of Katy Perry – which only goes to show how humble the affable designer really is. Though even she has to admit those are “nice big cherries on top on all that I’m doing,” she says with a laugh.
As hansel celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, Jo goes back to her roots by releasing a collection that pays tribute to something all Singaporeans will find familiar: HDB flats.
“When you reach a milestone such as a 10th anniversary, it is natural to look back and reflect on where you have come from,” Jo muses. “Singapore shares many similarities with our neighboring countries but the one thing that is unique to us is our HDB flats! I grew up in one; most Singaporeans live in them; and we see them everyday.”
Of course, it’s not just the sight of the buildings that strikes a chord amongst Singaporeans – it’s the recollections and emotions that these HDB blocks evoke, which may include memories of monkeying around the nearby playgrounds as a child, being fed porridge in bed by worried mothers after coming down with the flu, mugging for school examinations late into the night, or, god forbid, squabbling with neighbours over their overgrown plants along the corridor.
“Whether we are conscious of it or not, Singaporeans have an emotional connection with HDB flats, especially the ones that they grew up in,” shares Jo. “True to hansel’s vintage-inspired style, I have chosen to depict HDB blocks from the 60s and 70s in my hand-drawn print designs. HDB blocks have evolved to very different styles today but most people would recognise the styles of these early-day HDB blocks.”
Even though every hansel collection differs in theme and story, the general style of the label hasn’t changed much, if at all, since its birth 10 years ago – though Jo does admit that her designs have matured a little.
“Each hansel collection is always whimsical and playful,” she explains. “The style has developed over the years – the early day collections were, I would say, less evolved in terms of design, while the designs in recent and current collections are much more well thought out, flexible, wearable and flattering for the wearer.”
As the years went on, she extended her reach to fans and suppliers alike, and, along the way, managed to get her hands on custom fabric printing resources, which means that she could inject her signature hand drawn patterns and motifs into her collections – “Which puts my drawing skills to good use!” she exclaims.
Having been in the industry for a decade, Jo has some insightful observations on the state of local fashion – “The fashion retail industry has certainly developed and grown a lot over the past 10 years,” she says. “It is highly competitive today, and receives a lot more attention than it did before, with more people becoming fashion designers and starting their own fashion labels.
But that doesn’t mean that the local fashion industry is at its optimum level yet, she cautions. “As a whole, the local fashion design industry still has a long way to go,” she notes.
When it comes to shopping, Jo is 100 per cent a needs-based shopper. “Needless to say, I wear my own work 99 per cent of the time. I do this because I am the poster girl for my own label and also because I want to use my own designs to see if there is anything I could learn in order to improve on future designs,” she offers.
“The things that I do buy are accessories and basics such as underwear or socks, for example,” she continues. “When I find something that fits me well, I would be the kind of shopper who would buy the same design in all the colours available at one go.”
So it comes as no surprise that she doesn’t have a particular country that she enjoys shopping in – after all, she has everything she needs right in her own workshop, unless, of course, Singapore runs out of underwear and socks. And that’s only as likely to happen as Jo veering away from the quirky, yet homely style she’s established for herself – which certainly isn’t happening any time soon.
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