At the age of just 24, Phua Chun Huen has become one of Asia’s emerging fashion designers to look out for. He was crowned the winner of the coveted Harpers’ Bazaar Asia New Gen Fashion Award 2017.
Yet despite such an achievement, he remains a humble soul.
He does not believe that he is particularly talented in any way – much to my amazement as I recalled being awed by his works that were showcased on the runway in October.
“Upon graduation, I realised I have no talent. I still believe I don’t possess any particular talent today.”
Taking The First Step
Doodling clothes on empty spaces in worksheets was an unconscious habit for Chun Huen during his school days. Yet it did not strike him then that he would pursue a career in fashion design.
“How is it possible to enter design school without any art background?” He wondered skeptically and pushed aside the thought.
It was only after his O Levels did he decide to take a leap of faith and enrolled in the Fashion Design diploma course offered at Temasek Polytechnic.
Not All Smooth Sailing
Unfortunately, Chun Huen’s career in fashion design did not immediately take off after graduation. Instead he found himself bothered by a lingering query – What is his talent? Was he meant for fashion design?
Plagued by self-doubt, he did not continue to seek opportunities in the fashion industry.
He moved on to explore alternative education pathways, ones that are deemed safer by societal expectations. After National Service he began working for his mother.
While he seemingly strayed away from fashion designing, a nagging voice within him was reluctant to give up. He told himself he would take another year to consider carefully while working for his mother in the meantime.
However, time flies – a year had become two.
That was when he decided it was time to make a decision.
Even though it has been four years since he last held needles and fabric, he had decided to join Harper’s Bazaar New Gen Competition. Only the industry experts could answer his inner query – whether he could continue in fashion.
A Competition, A Test, A Learning Journey
From the start, Chun Huen had decided to treat the competition like a test for himself. His main goal was to learn and improve himself.
“I wasn’t exactly the typical art student you will find in any design school. I wasn’t particularly good or bad, so I really wanted to test myself and learn more about fashion at the same time,” he confessed.
His experience in the competition was like a rollercoaster ride – daunting yet thrilling, and most certainly rewarding. The learning curve was steep and his self-doubt and ineptness at conveying his ideas did not help.
“To make matters worse, I am a bit of an old soul, thus my initial designs were quite old and frumpy,” he added.
However, he is grateful to the editors of Harper’s Bazaar who were also his mentors.
Under their guidance, his collection evolved into something more modern. He has also learnt how to combine creativity and commercial viability with currency.
Inspirations From Memory Lane
When asked about the inspiration behind his collection, Chun Huen expressed that he cannot pinpoint a specific thing. Rather, it is a bit haphazard, like jigsaw pieces from his personal memories.
It could be a lazy Sunday with the Sun gleaming through the curtains, to a delightful exploration into the wild during an overseas trip, to denim – the very first fabric he worked with.
“It is like a mood, a feeling of being confused, but it is okay to be confused so as long as you are comfortable and being genuinely yourself.”
One of the greatest takeaway from his invaluable experience in the competition has to be self-affirmation. Finally, he had his answer.
As part of the prize, Chun Huen is also awarded a scholarship at the prestigious Istituto Marangoni.
With a thirst for knowledge, he looks forward to starting his Masters soon as he is eager to learn as much as possible, about anything and everything to do with fashion.
He also hopes that in the process he will get to learn more about himself and discover his style.
“I have no idea what my style is to be honest. I only knew I love jackets!” Chun Huen said with a laugh. His love for jackets can clearly be seen in his collections.
Words of Advice
Lastly, I asked if he had any advice to share with aspiring local designers.
He replied modestly that he is unsure if he is in a position to do – he mentions how there are many other Singaporean designers who are doing well and other veterans in our local fashion industry.
However, this is the advice that he would like to give to his younger self:
“If there is one advice that I would like to give the 18 year old me, I will advise my younger self to actively challenge myself.”