A testament to the enduring appeal of all that is pretty, glittery and decorative, fashion designer Francis Cheong picked up a pencil in 1978, designed a winning collection for the inaugural Singapore Young Designer Contest (a Her World magazine tent pole), and has been designing his signature pretty, glittery and decorative dresses ever since.
Not many of his peers can claim to be still making a living from fashion after 40 years. In Singapore, this longevity makes Francis, at 59, something of a legend, one of the rare survivors from our pioneer generation of fashion practitioners — Cheong’s peers included Tan Yoong, who passed on in 2017 and Thomas Wee, who still makes austere clothes, opposite in style to Cheong) — who peaked in the 1980s and then faded like Fiorucci T-shirts.
Francis Cheong, known as the Jean Paul Gaultier of Singapore for his “let them eat Swarovski” credo, was born to the fashion industry while still in Catholic Junior College, buying Paris Vogue with his lunch money. “I wrote that I wanted to be a designer in my year book in 1976,” he remembers fondly.
Despite having no formal training, he was hired as a designer by the Jean Yip Group, which owned a boutique called Just A Second, right after serving his National Service. He launched the Francis Cheong label in May 1984 in Singapore with the opening of his first boutique in Lucky Plaza, when Lucky Plaza was the jewel in the crown of Orchard Road. “I also designed clothes to wear myself, sashaying like an international model up and down Orchard Road,” he says.
Francis’s presence in Orchard Road history has never ceased since, each subsequent move a trail of bugle beads and ostrich feathers, to ever more rarefied locations: He was in Wisma Atria for a large part of the 1990s, before relocating to The Promenade (now part of Paragon) in 1999. He then moved into Paragon in 2001 and then Orchard Hotel in 2004. And his atelier has been in Delfi Orchard since 2013.
In his long reign, his well-heeled who’s who clients comprised queens of every strata, from superstar Beyonce to Tracy Huang (a renowned singer who was popular from the 1960s right through to the ’90s); wives of Indonesian oligarchs to Thai royalty, as well as drag queens and movie queens. “I alter each creation to flatter each individual customer. This way, I can be creative and make personalised cocktail, gala and wedding gowns.”
Needless to say, Francis has also dressed our local TV queens. Cheong recalls befriending the unknown schoolgirl Zoe Tay partying in 1983. “She told me that she was interested in getting into the fashion line and sensing her potential, I put her on her first cover, the Petticoat Annual cover of 1986,” he quips. “I also put her in my fashion show – and that’s how she was discovered.”
Besides Tay, Cheong also designed the fiery gem-encrusted $37,000 tango dress Fann Wong wore in the movie Dance of the Dragon (starring Hollywood star Jason Scott-Lee and Korean heartthrob Jang Hyuk). You may not remember the movie, but you certainly remember the lead actor Jang’s lycra bodysuit with a plunging down-to-there V-neck, also designed by Cheong.
After dressing some of the most prominent women around the world, who does he want to dress next? His reply: Ho Ching.
“Designing is a gift — either you have it or you don’t. I’m partial to highly-decorated styles in rich fabrics, lace, detailed embroidery, pearls, crystals and silk threads. The most challenging thing for me has been to make clothes that suit a client’s persona without changing my aesthetic drastically. My signature pieces combine polish with a twist of naughtiness and quirkiness without being too overboard. And I always infuse some local flavour whether be it Oriental, Western, Malay or Indian.”
A child of the 1970s, Francis was inspired by his beautiful friends of different races, as well as the giants of that era. “The late Yves Saint Laurent was a very strong influence for me. He was very inclusive — Mr Saint Laurent drew many influences from his wide array of couture customers, many who came from the Middle East. So I would say that I am partial to ethnic influences in my work.”
So what next for this iron butterfly, in this age of social media influencers and designers who can’t scribble a straight line? “I’m working with an investor from China on a label that is less formal for the China market,” he offers. “ And I target to launch this in 2020”