Late last year, I revisited Singapore after four years of living abroad and I encountered a brand that took me by surprise. DEPRESSION‘s clothes are like ninja goth gear for those open to such alternative looks. Walking into the store was like watching a blacked out samurai fight scene, but instead of katanas flashing cuts onto the screen, there were the unorthodox designs of their latest collection, Life & Death. What made it even better was thinking that those designs were a stand against Singapore’s conservatism and uniformity because that style was a rare (remarkable) find on the streets, like a black rose extending from a thorn in the city’s side. On my second visit to the store I met Kenny Lim, one of the brand’s designers, and reached out for an interview. The most important thing to take away from it is how DEPRESSION is not about depression, but about being an island of creativity in an ocean of homogeneity.
You’re one-half of the design duo for Depression. How did you and Andrew Loh decide to start the brand together? What roles do each of you play in this collaborative effort?
Well we met while working in advertising. It was Japanese agency called Dentsu. Andrew was my Art Director and I was his creative partner and Writer.
I guess we got tired and ‘depressed’ over the lack of creative control on projects that we worked on together. We felt very stifled on being told what to do all the time. We felt the only way out was to start our own company and create anything unabasedly, and without fear. You can say we channelled our depression into a rebellious streak of creative expression.
We started the label in 2006, and we had a little t-shirt store in Far East Plaza (back in the days when the place was still hip. Today, it’s full of shitty blogshops). We designed together and ran the shop together. And was pretty much very underground, very indie. We didn’t do any interviews or made any connections. We just wanted a little space of our own to do whatever we wanted to. So, lots of graphic tees (very inspired by Tim Burton at that time) and we taught ourselves to sew and created one-off pieces for a select circle of customers. Andrew paints regularly, and he also hand-painted on t-shirts. Each piece was different, and people really like that. Today, of course, we have grown and expanded. And I’m more macro now, while Andrew is more micro. I oversee the direction and mood of the brand, and Andrew works more closely on design and manufacturing. Although we still do discuss everything together.
The style of Depression is kind of goth, kind of punk, but all darkness. Yet it seems fundamental to use mostly black fabric. Even those that use white fabric or design make the black blacker. Given your understanding of the feelings of depression, does the brand mean to explore and face those feelings? I mean, I understand that the brand doesn’t romanticize it, but how does the name apply?
We use black simply because that is our favorite color. No surprises there! Anyways, we never sought to make a statement on ‘Depression’. We named ourselves DEPRESSION because that was how we felt at that time, after we left our cushy but unhappy jobs. I guess we were both born to create. Till today, we still feel intense passion and pleasure when we create something amazing. Of course, aesthetically, we are very drawn to punk and street goth / nu goth elements. It’s a subculture that we love, because ‘blackness’ and darkness can be very beautiful. Singapore is such a conventional and ‘happy’ place, and local designers/retailers always focus on the happy things. We prefer to throw light on the flip side of life and society. That life is not a bed of roses everyday. That it’s ok to not be happy sometimes. But it’s ok to be sad. There is the dark side of life, that can be beautiful too.
This reminds me of the time when we got into trouble when ‘urban outfitters’ started selling our tees and the public got angry that we were celebrating depression. But, it didn’t bother us.
Regarding the Inner Demons collection, the website states, “The concept of ‘Inner Demons’ (心魔 xin mo) was to present a sense of fear to the audience, because people forget beauty, but they never forget fear.” By being upfront with these darker ideas, do you think consumers will be inclined to think differently about them?
We can’t be happy all the time. And that’s life. I don’t get it that designers need to create happy things and be inspired by rainbows and unicorns all the time. It’s kind of silly to pretend to be happy by wearing bright and cheerful colors everyday. So, it’s our job to focus on the dark side of things. To show that darkness and gothic styles can be more beautiful. Every designer can create beautiful things. But I think it’s more important to be able to convey a mood and emption through design. That’s what we usually aim to do. To have a reaction and a feeling. I want to hear the audience say ‘ Wow that was intense’ Instead of ‘ Hmm that was pretty’. Pretty is boring and mundane.
Sects Shop houses 3 labels derived from you and Andrew, namely Depression, Antidepressant, and NCE Not Cool Enough. At the beginning, there was just Depression. What led to the launch of the following brands? Were they created as remedies to balance the concept of Depression? What makes them so different from each other?
As I said we can’t be happy all the time. So, we can’t be ’emo’ all the time too! On happy days, we come together and create quirky tees for the Antidepressant line. And Singaporeans love t-shirts. I suppose it’s a necessity to create the Anti line from a business point of view, because this line (friendly on the wallet too, as compared to the main line) sells out very quickly.
The newest line is NCE not cool enough. It’s a therapeutic collection. We started it in 2014 because we felt fatigued with the main Depression line. The main line has a framework and a certain style and palette that we have to stick to. So, with NCE, it’s supposed to be a blank canvas for us to let loose. While DEPRESSION is more ‘intellectual’ and dark, NCE is basically, ‘anything goes’. Whatever we feel like. No restrictions at all. It was numbers for version1, then skulls for version2, arrows for version3, and clowns for version4. The only thing we stick to is that NCE must be street wear and sporty.
I had a recent conversation with a friend from Singapore who has made an exceptional life for himself as a bartender. He told me about how, years ago, when he was starting out, he was met with criticism that didn’t consider his bartending career a “real job.” But now it is gaining recognition as a solid trade. From an interview with SG Magazine, I gather you’ve received similar criticism from people who visited the Far East Plaza T-shirt store and your mother. Now that you have 3 labels under your belt, do you think the mindset of consumers has changed over time? Or have you just proved them wrong?
As compared to 10 years ago, the consumers have really changed. Today, the shoppers are very supportive of local design. Locals and tourists are always looking for Singapore labels. Especially since we are running 2 multi-label stores that carries international brands, yet a lot people are still more interested in our in-house labels. Not the same can be said of the media, stylists and events companies in Singapore. Most (not all) are very unsupportive of Singapore labels like DEPRESSION. I think it’s because Singapore media favors mainstream and ‘luxe’ (ie. BORING) labels. We are always considered too extreme or too weird. Or so I’ve been told. Haha.
Just walking down Orchard Road, I managed to spot a rare few who caught my eye because of what they wore. The general style I noticed was that people like to wear clothes with clean cuts and bold colours, which appears … proper. Do you think Singapore’s conservatism stands in the way of locals wearing your unorthodox designs?
YES! Singaporeans are mostly boring. The media and the stylists mostly cannot ‘accept’ or do not ‘appreciate’ our creations. We are always too ‘much’ for them. And you are right that Singaporeans favor simple and basic designs. A plain tee with shorts and canvas shoes. To me, it’s pretty bad taste, but that’s the culture here. The preference is to blend in instead of stand out. Having said that, there is community here that supports and understand us. Well, we are pretty niche in Singapore. It’s either you like it or you don’t. We are playing our part in educating the people about different styles, other than h&m.
Are there plans for expansion to increase international attention? Do you hope that someday more locals will be receptive to local, untraditional designs?
It’s been 10 years. And in a nutshell, we’ve done quite a fair bit of trial and error. We’ve done tradeshows in Singapore, Milan, Seoul etc. We’ve done runways in Singapore, Malaysia. We’ve had stockists from Paris, Hong Kong, Japan, Dubai, Taipei, USA, Canada, Malaysia, Jakarta, Antwerp, Italy, London etc etc. We’ve collaborated with names like Leslie Kee, Pioneer, Casio, Miguel Chevalier etc. We’ve had celebrities wearing our creations from Kat Von D and Adam lambert as well as many Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars such as Jam Hsiao, Sonia Sui, Zhang Ziyi etc etc. We’ve judged design competitions (Star Creation) and starred in TV commercials (Starhub).
I don’t think we’ve done it all yet. BUT, I think we’ve done quite a lot! At the moment, we don’t know what’s next. The retail scene has slowed down for the past one year, and expansion might not be a good idea. The world is embracing fast fashion, tao bao and blogshops (who are offering cheaper alternatives). All these changing factors need to be considered and we will need to think of strategies to stay relevant.
If you or Andrew had received formal fashion training, do you think your designs would have been vastly different? Were there other concepts either of you had in mind that might have been worth developing?
We are both very happy that we don’t have any formal training. I graduated with BA in Literature and Andrew did graphic design. I think it allows us think differently and more conceptually. Fashion design students (I have come to realize) all think in the same mould. They all get taught the same thing. In fact, there are even lecturers in Singapore that tell the students to remain conservative. It’s ironic, because shouldn’t design school be all about experimentation and exploration? After all, talent cannot be taught.
Images courtesy of Kenny Lim.