Why Can’t Singapore be a Fashion Capital? Asks Tjin Lee

I’m a middle child. I’m used to getting bullied and pushed around by my older sister. I’m very much easygoing and free-spirited. Being one of four girls means I have to work harder to differentiate myself.
I used to get sent out of class for all kinds of reasons. I even got sent out for yawning in class. The teachers just didn’t like me, I think. I was a bit rebellious in school. I wouldn’t even draw the way the art teacher wanted us to draw. For the GCE O level examination, everyone had to do a still life piece. I told my teacher I didn’t want to paint; I wanted to sketch with a Pilot V-Tech pen. She said I couldn’t. I showed her the criteria for the O Levels, which clearly stated the mediums allowed and said, “The rules say I can.”
I’ve always liked to ask, “Why not?” Why couldn’t I do things in a better way? If I was better at drawing with a pen, why should I use watercolor?” You have to believe in yourself because even if people tell you it’s not the way it should be done, if you really believe this is the best for you, things will work out in the end.
I belong to an industry where everyone is domineering and wants to be at the top, but all I want to do is bring the industry together and get the job done. I’m not a dominant person but I’m really passionate about making my dream come true. If I wasn’t so easy-going, I wouldn’t be able to meet the challenges of the industry.
Being a woman allows me to be more compassionate and think of everything from others’ point of view. Women are just naturally more prone to listening and wanting to find solutions, compared to just banging on the table and saying, “No, it’s not going to work.” I think I’m a very open person. If someone comes to me and says, “Tjin, there’s a better way to do this,” I will consider it.
When we organized the Singapore Fashion Festival in 2004, I was so amazed. We had a Chanel opening gala and Christopher Bailey came to Singapore. For me, it was a great start. I said to myself, “Wow, imagine where we can go from here.” To my great disappointment, we didn’t get to continue with the festival from 2005 to 2008. The contract was awarded to IMG [Artists] instead. Of course I was upset. I took those three years to nurture my team and develop my connections so that when the opportunity came back in 2008, I was ready. I had only three people in my team then, including me. Now I have 18.
I always say, “Don’t let your setbacks kill you.” I’m the kind of person who will find the best way to do something and make it happen.
The East is the biggest fashion market in the world. We spend US$232 billion a year on fashion and this amount is increasing. In five years, we will overtake the US and Western Europe but we don’t even have a fashion capital!
I submit my leave just like everybody else. Just because you own a company doesn’t mean you can take off as and when you like. It’s very rare for me to exceed 18 days of leave.
Singapore inspires me. We are so small. When people said we’d never make it, I’d disagree. We’ve got some huge things going for us. We’ve got geography and hardworking people and it’s those two things that are going to make us the fashion capital of Asia. Why can’t Singapore be a fashion capital? I’ve looked at it since 2004 and I feel like we can. If anyone is going to bring together the rest of Asia, it’s Singapore.