It is 4.30pm on a Wednesday, and Grace Thomas and I are having a chat in her Sentosa Cove home. Midway through our conversation, there is commotion at the front door. Two pairs of little feet come bounding through, along with the chorus of their curious voices repeatedly asking, “Who is that? Who is that?” as they approach.
“My boys are home from school,” Grace says, and introduces me. But when the five- and six-year-olds come up to the dining table and spot the three-tiered tray of sweets and cookies, their attention shifts. “What is that?” they ask, pointing at the various items as their mother patiently answers, “Chocolate, cookies… chocolate…”
As they wolf down the chocolate chip cookies, Grace tells me she baked them fresh that morning. In fact, before she moved to Sentosa from Orchard Road over a year ago, her passion project was selling cookies online. “Because Mummy is the expert!” the boys chime in.
The dedicated mum is also the chef at home and often cooks dinner thrice a day: once for the kids, then for herself and her mother who lives with her, and a third time for her husband just before he reaches home so that he has a piping hot meal to tuck into after work.
“Before my husband and I got married seven years ago, he told me he would only have two or three home-cooked meals a year, because he has always been quite nomadic,” says Grace. “I was like, ‘You poor thing!’ And that was when I picked up a cookbook for the first time. Now, I love cooking because when someone eats my food and enjoys it, it makes me happy. It’s a warm, fuzzy feeling.”
Growing up, Grace spent most of her time at home with her nose buried in a book. An only daughter to immigrant parents, she had a strict upbringing and was not allowed to have many friends when the family moved from Shanghai to the us when she was about seven.
“I lived a very sheltered life,” says Grace, who attended an all-girls Catholic high school in California and graduated from Massachusetts’ prestigious Wellesley College, a private liberal arts college for women. “My parents had so many conspiracy theories about bad things that would happen to me if I left the house, because as immigrants, you’re very scared when you don’t know the language or the people. I wasn’t allowed to have play dates or sleepovers, or go out, so I just read voraciously.”
The art history major says reading a lot meant that writing has always come easy to her. Back in high school and college, she wrote for the school paper, often covering topics such as the arts and culture. These days, Grace is writing her first young adult novel.
She was inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s hit vampire- themed fantasy novel, Twilight, which she acknowledges is “badly written and no Emily Brontë”. But as a teenager, she had found the story engrossing. About a year ago, Grace started to write a coming-of-age story set in college. Much of her book is based on her own experiences, like jumping into the dating pool after attending all-girls schools.
“I like writing light-hearted stuff because I’m not a very serious person. Life is too short to be serious,” she quips. “I also think anything that gets teenagers to read is good. Reading is always better than playing video games.”
Through books, Grace discovered a second passion early on: Fashion. As a teenager, she pored over Victorian novels such as Madame Bovary and The Count of Monte Cristo, and became fascinated with the description of the characters’ opulent outfits, from their laced corsets to feathers and powdered wigs.
“It was a lot more exciting than the Gap that was being worn in my hometown growing up,” she jokes, and credits the characters’ flamboyant fashion for her own tendency towards more dramatic and elaborate style choices. “I think that’s why even though I grew up very suburban, I’ve always had a taste for high fashion – because it gives you that much more room to experiment.”
At the same time, fashion was a way for Grace to come out of her shell. “I found fashion very empowering,” she says. “I think as girls, we definitely go through that phase where we feel very insecure, and fashion gave me the confidence I needed before I felt comfortable in my own skin. I love the idea that you can be a different person; you can be demure one day and a vixen the next. There is no limit because it’s not permanent. You just have fun with it!”
Today, Grace is known for her impeccable style and has attended Paris Fashion Week many times. Standing at 171cm tall and model-thin (who would have guessed from these photos that she’s five months pregnant?), she not only looks the part, but also possesses a wide breadth of knowledge about fashion and the business of it. Throughout our conversation, the fashion fiend references many designers but counts Tom Ford as her favourite. “He is the ultimate designer because he is consistent. He’s doing the same thing now as he did at Gucci in the ’90s. He’s got a consistent silhouette, likes black, and likes jewel tones. He is understated and sexy, and you need to be confident to wear his stuff.”
Naturally, friends go to Grace for fashion advice. After about five years of styling and shopping for friends, she started to take on clients earlier this year. She has about a dozen now, most of whom are working professionals who “want to look good but find getting dressed painful”. She spends a lot of time getting to know them first and understanding what they want. A key starting point is to visit their wardrobes and sort out items to keep, which also gives her a sense of their style and budget.
One of her biggest challenges is ridding her clients of their preconceived notions of what works or does not work for them. It takes some convincing to bring them out of their comfort zones, but Grace empathises. “I was a bit like that before,” she admits. “When I was younger, I used to dress more for men. Like, can this skirt be shorter? Can the dress be tighter? I think I was dressing sexy because I wanted that confidence boost.
“But as I got older, and as my husband showed me so much love and support and made me feel very comfortable in my own skin, I dress more for myself. I appreciate silhouettes, and play with textures and patterns more. My skin can be covered and that can still be sexy. That’s what I’m sharing with other women; that it doesn’t have to be ‘Look at me!’ to make an impact. Not everything that shines is golden.”
After helping them build a basic wardrobe with staple pieces, the goal is to help her clients find their personal style. “It’s understanding what suits you rather than what’s popular. What I try to provide are the tools, but I’m not telling you what to do. What’s important is that one day, you can do it on your own.”
Seeing her clients happy with their new looks gives her a great sense of satisfaction. “It’s the whole idea of making someone’s life a little bit better. I see their eyes light up when they look in the mirror. And if they can go to a party and feel confident, and have all these people suddenly telling them, “You look amazing”, that makes me really happy. Because not everybody gets to experience that.” With her third little one arriving later this year, it seems like an odd timing to be embarking on her passion projects. “In a way, it’s the worst time to start something,” she says. “But I was always confused about what I wanted to do in life, and it’s only recently that I questioned myself and discovered it.”
She adds: “I think maybe the pregnancy also spurred me on. As my kids get older, and perhaps because I’m now expecting a girl, I want them to know that Mummy has a good work ethic and that Mummy has a career. I want to be a good role model for my children.”
Fashion direction: Johnny Khoo
Art direction: Audrey Chan
Photography: Joel Low
Fashion styling: Jacquie Ang
Grooming: Marc Teng/Atelier, using Sebastian Professional & Giorgio Armani Beauty
Photography assistance: Alfie Pan
Fashion assistance: Bernadetha Woenardi