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“Forgive my honesty, but is there a local fashion or modelling scene in Singapore today?”

Ethel Fong appeared in an Italian magazine with an Armani fashion shoot. (Photo: Ethel Fong)
Ethel Fong at home in the Bahamas. (Photo: Ethel Fong)
Yes, Ethel Fong made the cut to become a model for Ford. (Photo: Ethel Fong)
Junita Simon strikes a pose.
From left to right: Ethel Fong, Huda Ali , Pat Kraal and Charmaine Harn were among the biggest names in the local modelling industry back in the 80s and 90s.

“Forgive my honesty, but is there a local fashion or modelling scene in Singapore today?”

Supermodels of the 80s and 90s Ethel Fong and Junita Simon on why Singaporean models no longer make an impact today

From walking the runways in Paris and Milan to appearing in the vaunted pages of American Vogue, the top Singaporean models in the Eighties and Nineties were superstars — not just in our little red dot, but also on the international modelling circuit.

Local supermodels Hanis Hussey, Ethel Fong, Nora Ariffin and Junita Simon were household names, and regularly graced the covers of magazines here. They were also sought after in the international fashion capitals of Paris, Milan and London, with Hussey being the first Singaporean ever to walk the catwalk during Paris Fashion Week, closing the Yves Saint Laurent show in 1983.

Fong was the first local model to front a major advertising campaign for a fashion giant, with her Giorgio Armani ad splashed across major international fashion titles such as Vogue and Elle in the mid-1980s. Nora not only starred in a solo Chanel global perfume ad campaign (for the fashion house’s Allure fragrance), she was also our first (and only, to date) Cover Girl, appearing in the cosmetic brand’s ad campaign in the early 1990s alongside supermodels Niki Taylor and Rachel Hunter.

In an era where an elite band of supermodels dominated the global fashion scene and magazine covers, these pioneering women put Singapore on the fashion map with grace and style. The recent launch of a tome on the local fashion scene, Fashion Most Wanted: Singapore’s Top Insider Secrets From The Past Five Decades, as part of the Singapore Fashion Week, which presented its first show on Wednesday night, saw 51 of the most prolific female fashion movers-and-shakers gather for a photoshoot, including former models Fong, Pat Kraal and Huda Ali.

The book was co-authored by veteran fashion journalists Tom Rao, Cat Ong and John de Souza, and was inspired when Rao, a part-time lecturer at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art’s School of Fashion Studies, realised that many of his students were completely ignorant about Singapore’s fashion history.

“It was the Golden Age of local fashion in the Eighties,” declared Rao. “The global fashion scene has changed dramatically with the Internet and social media. The same scenario applies to our local fashion scene. The current fashion players would have to play a different game of fashion and be relevant in order to succeed today.” And going by how our stars have dimmed in the modelling arena in the last couple of decades, it might appear that the same rings true for our homegrown models today.

Ethel Fong

One of our most iconic runway stars, Fong had modelled for Chanel and Dior, posed for the covers of Italian Vogue and W magazine, and was signed on to the legendary Ford Models agency in New York, which had represented the elite group of supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Brooke Shields. The mother of two grown-up children is now shuttling between her base camps of Singapore and the Bahamas, where she does philanthropy work with her French husband, who is a private investor.

Q: What was the local fashion scene like when you first started?

A: Modelling was so exciting then. It was an up-and-coming scene. We had talented and passionate local designers. Hotels were hosting fashion events every week with local designers. We had “disco fashion shows”, “secretarial week fashion shows”, local designers contests. Magazines were using only local models. Singapore designers were invited to Paris to do trade shows. Singapore was embracing and supporting local talents. We were busy!

Q: What was the most seminal moment in your modelling career?

A: There are so many moments in my nine years of modelling that I would not know which ones best to describe. One clear turning point, however, happened when Emmanuel Ungaro came to Singapore and hired me. At the end of the show, his right-hand woman came to me and asked if I ever thought about going to Paris to model. I was 18 then and she had seeded this ‘never-crossed-my-mind’ thought in (my head). It did not take long for it to germinate and I was on the plane to Paris! If it wasn’t for her, I would probably have stayed local.

Q: And your most exciting experience?

A: There is a story I love to share, especially with my children (they are tired of hearing it by now!), that showed me it is important to realise that when you have nothing to lose, you just need to push yourself to step out of your comfort zone and go for what you want. The worst response you can receive is a “no”. On my first modelling trip to New York, I had a few hours to kill after the show before getting back on the plane to San Francisco. I had heard of the legendary Ford Models agency and decided to walk in to see if they would be interested in me. The receptionist coldly told me that no interview would be granted without an appointment. I explained that I had only a few hours in New York but I could not convince her. As I turned to leave, Katie Ford (the granddaughter of founder Eileen Ford) came down the stairs, saw me and signed me on immediately.

Q: How have the local fashion and modelling scenes changed since your time?

A: Please forgive my honesty, but is there a local fashion or modelling scene in Singapore today? As far as I can see, Singapore is neither supporting nor embracing local talents. Local magazines are using only foreign models or celebrities. Local designers have no outlets (to retail). Moreover today, models are not just models; actresses are not just actresses; singers are not just singers. Celebrities (have taken all their places)! It has definitely changed tremendously from my time.

Junita Simon

One of the most recognisable faces of the Nineties, Simon began modelling when she was talent-spotted by Hussey when she was 17 years old. She was catapulted into the international arena after clinching a spot in the top 10 at the prestigious Ford Models Supermodel of the World international competition in Las Vegas in 1995. After stints in Hong Kong, London and Paris, Simon returned home and helmed the weekly TV programme Fashion Unlimited. She now splits her time between freelance hosting work and taking care of her nine-year-old son Rayaan.

Q: What was it like working the modelling scene in the Nineties?

A: It was incredibly vibrant! There were lots of local girls who were really strong and high-profile then, like Charmaine Harn, Celia Teh … girls who were really striking and beautiful and photographed really well. I was extremely busy, there was so much work both here and overseas. I had a lot of work here, in Hong Kong, Paris and was also based in London for some time with IMG Models.

Q: What was the seminal moment in your career as a model and host?

A: (The Fashion Unlimited crew and I) were covering the Yves Saint Laurent show in Paris and we were told not to approach Mr Saint Laurent at all. So we were just standing around backstage, and lo and behold, he actually walked up to me and started talking to me! Maybe he thought I was one of the models in the show.

Q: What does it take these days for local models to break into the international fashion scene?

A: You know, I was a Nineties girl and it was a different time when you had to be tall and stunning; and nowadays, you don’t have to be conventionally beautiful like Christy Turlington. People who look a little kooky can be a model; sometimes it seems like the girl next door can also be a model, so I really don’t have a clue what works now. It all depends on the designer and what they are looking for in their brand aesthetics.

Q: How do you think the upcoming Singapore Fashion Week will impact the local fashion scene?

A: It’s fantastic that it is showcasing local and Asian designers! We should support our local labels and our local models more.

Fashion Most Wanted: Singapore’s Top Insider Secrets From The Past Five Decades is priced at S$35+ and available at all major bookshops, including Gallery & Co at the National Gallery.