[Editor and Interviewer]
Anatomy of a Dress
Letitia Phay of gown atelier Time Taken to Make a Dress, on continuing the journey of discovery and love for making dresses.
Five years ago, Letitia Phay and Jade Swee launched their fashion label Time Taken to Make a Dress (TTMD), with a focus on making garments that stemmed from the artistry of dressmaking. Conceived with a conceptual rigour and a boldness to experiment with texture, fabrics, details, patterns, geometry, form and technique, they redefined the way a garment can wrap, embellish and structure the female form.
Their methods have attracted a bevy of like-minded customers—bold, spirited women who encourage the duo to push the boundaries of their craft in constructing their ideal gowns, pieces of art created over hours of labourious handsewing and which transform the wearer into more ethereal, confident versions of themselves.
TTMD has worked on serveral collections that its creators use as a base for testing out personal obsessions, but it is their customisation service that has driven the atelier, requeste by clients for weddings, stage moments or simply for the desire to own a bespoke piece of wearable sculpture. With Jade recently having given birth and taking a break from the atelier, we find out from Letitia about TTMD’s direction at this point of its creative journey.
Hi Letitia, how did you and Jade get into the world of fashion design and what led the both of you into this creative partnership?
Jade was trained at Temasek Polytechnic, I was self taught. We both met in the bridal industry, after which I took a year off last year after starting TTMD to focus on cutting and sewing at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo.
Fashion designers, dressmakers, artisans—how would you choose to define yourselves?
It’s limiting to just pick one label; we are all of the above, sometimes one more than the other depending on the project.
TTMD was formed out of friendship. Can you tell us how this defines your working relationship? To be working closely together everyday must be enjoyable but also a challenge.
We started TTMD because we love the process of creating a dress; money was never part of the motivation, which often complicates most partnerships. Our priorities was always and still is friendship first, everything else after. That means knowing each others’ thoughts without needing to speak, which made designing and making decisions together easy. Most of the time it feels like marriage, where you vow to love each other no matter what happens.
Your first collection in 2010, titled ‘Of Veil Skin and Bone’, featured 11 dresses experimenting with translucency, structure and form. Would you say this collection set the artistic direction for TTMD’s future approach?
I guess it does because the collection was very true to how we felt and what we wanted to say. We will always chase for something different and new but the honesty will always stay. As with all our collections, it’s always about what we felt like doing at that moment. That first collection was about the parallels between a dress and the human body. For example, there were ‘bones’ in our dresses like how there are bones in the human body, both with the purpose of support, giving a foundation to the outer, softer material.
After that you had two more collections: ‘Cheong Sam’ (2011) and ‘Life Cycle’ (2012). What inspired these collections? Are you working on future collections?
‘Cheong Sam’ was inspired by cheongsams (coincidentally it was Chinese New Year) but for 10 split personalities. ‘Life Cycle’ was about the blossoming of life, from the simple, early stage to its peak. We have been trying to work on a new collection for a very long time but our schedule has been so full with customised orders, it had to take a back seat.
TTMD is based on a celebration of craftsmanship, which places importance on the technicalities of dressmaking, individualisation, authenticity and quality of materials. It is described on TTMD’s website that you ”aspire to be authors of good design, with a focus on the backroom process, to manifest artisan-grade pieces that are much coveted and cherished.” Can you take us though your design process? How do you start on a creation? Do you work with a team in the atelier?
We are nothing without our team! So many hands and heads go into making a dress; there are always better ways, better ideas. When we design for our collection, it’s very organic and starts from anything—a fabric, pictures, a feeling. We often go from that to a texture we want to create then a silhouette we want to try. From there anything goes, depending on how we feel.
For our customisation service, it starts with knowing the client—her personality and style, her body shape, her insecurities and her budget. Then we come up with a sketch with fabric suggestions. Upon confirmation of the design, we proceed with the mockup in a lining material, for them to get an idea of the silhouette and design lines. Changes to the design are to be made here. Once the mockup gets the ok, we will then proceed to build the dress in the actual fabric that will lead us to the first fitting. Remaining fittings are for alterations and any additional handcrafted detailing.
Five years since TTMD debuted, it appears that your bespoke gown-designing service, particularly for the wedding dress market, has become the main part of your business rather than the collection. Has this direction been an organic or strategic one? Is this the direction for TTMD that you are happy with, and what about each of these processes do you enjoy most?
It’s definitely organic but a necessary progression. I don’t think we will be in our fifth year if we didn’t do bridal. (Laughs) As much as we wanted to avoid it in the beginning, we have met so many amazing girls through making custom bridal gowns; it would be hard to imagine TTMD without them now. Until this day we still don’t know for sure what our direction is, we just want to keep creating, and being able to so is a gift.
The collection is more play and customisation is more work but both are still about the process of dressmaking, which we love. With a collection, you can be irresponsible with your creativity, its about expressing how we feel, experimenting on textures and concepts without a thought on whether it’s flattering or not, which caters to the artistic side. Customisation is about precision, getting the right silhouette on the right body type, giving the clients the figure they always wanted, highlighting their strengths and covering their flaws, putting who they are and how they want to feel into the dress, making them the best versions of themselves; there is a satisfaction in there that is priceless. Occasionally a client likes something we did in our collection but alterations are needed to fit them better.
TTMD is known for its adventurous spirit and taking a bold approach to dressmaking that differentiates you from many ubiquitous fashion designers. What are some of the interesting artistic adventures that have resulted this daring to explore unconventional forms and methods?
We are? (Laughs) Well we started using chain stitching for our beadwork, layering nude organza over nude satin to give a realistic translucent look of naked skin; we discovered double-sided interfacing that can adhere two pieces of fabrics together, which makes for a very interesting laser-cutting detail.
Origami appears to be a key influence in the way you construct your gowns. In the ‘Cheongsam’ and ‘Ori’ accessory collection, for instance, you have employed this technique but made it your own. What is it about this technique that fascinates you?
We are so over it now. (Laughs)
Yohji Yamamoto once mentioned in another interview: “Avant-garde is now just a tiny fashion category. It became so cheap and pretentious. I hate it. But still, I strongly believe in the avant-garde spirit: to voice opposition to traditional values.” How would you relate to this quote, with reference to TTMD’s more ‘experimental’ approach to dress making.
I find the word avant garde is usually used when people don’t understand something and it’s their way of categorising things that don’t make sense to them. Our idea of beauty has been influenced at a young age from our parents, from society, which makes those ideas not really ours. I want to think freely from what I was a taught—to be my own person in the purest form, to re-think what beauty was taught to me and define my own. We had some difficulty when we started TTMD; people didn’t know how to place us: were we designers, a label, a bridal shop? It was hard to explain that ‘Yes, we design but we aren’t a label, we don’t care to follow seasons and we are definitely not a bridal shop, we actually don’t have bridal dresses off the rack for trying, we just like to create things you can wear’.
While your gowns are all timeless in their construction, they vary in the level of creative exploration. How do you balance the traditional and the experimental?
We let our clients decide how far they want us to push their designs.
These open-minded clients allow for you to test out many of your ideas. Are there any other fascinations and obsessions that you have not yet have the chance to explore in a garment? What is your dream project?
We always look forward to trying things we haven’t done before. Maybe more detail-oriented, three-dimensional sort of things, something really dramatic that is out of the body silhouette.
You shifted your atelier from Niven Road to Beach Road (when was this?). Tell us about this new space.
It was important for us to have everyone on the same floor—the production team, hand sewers and designers—so that we can have an eye on every dress with as little miscommunication as possible. The new atelier provides for this.
Have you ever thought of taking TTMD into the international market?
Yes, but we are not ready yet.
What or who, within or outside of fashion inspires you?
Lastly, can you share with us your experience at Bunka Fashion College and how it has enhanced your artistic skills and sensibility for TTMD?
I was there for a year, and it was physically and mentally challenging. The Japanese really don’t rest until they get things done perfect. It was just really good for the soul, I could think clearer and I finally learnt how to draw. I was never trained in a school so I never knew for sure if the methods I picked up by myself for my sewing and drafting were the best way. Going to Bunka has reassured me that this is really what I was meant to do with my life.