In a time where you can google practically anything about anyone, Jonathan Seow – the local designer behind the much-revered, now-defunct label Woods & Woods – is an anomaly.
Here and there, there are crumbs. A 2005 New York Times interview detailing the wave of buzzy Singapore fashion brands growing an international presence in the noughties. Loving threads dedicated to his past collections on TheFashionSpot – the long-running online forum known for being a space where hardcore fashion enthusiasts share unvarnished, no-holds-barred opinions on industry bigwigs.
But that’s about it.
A sample from the upcoming Jonathan Seow for Katong Dinner capsule collection.
This is intriguing especially considering how the now-44-year-old remains one of the few Singapore designers who have successfully shown at Paris Fashion Week. His vision was markedly different from that of his peers who were also staking out claims globally at the time (said NYT article also singles out the dress and glamour-loving Andrew Gn and Ashley Isham, for example).
A polished, romantic take on street culture if you will, Woods & Woods held presentations in places such as a garage in the lived-in Parisian neighbourhood of Bastille well before the likes of Vetements (which might explain the Margiela references that were often thrown at Seow).
In the late ’00s, he founded now-defunct Studio Prive. A joint project with DesignSingapore, it was meant to showcase emerging designers as well as train them not just in the flashy parts of the business, but the nitty-gritty bits too: production, promotion, retail trade connections et al. Through it, Singapore saw the emergence of some of its most progressive if short-lived fashion labels of the decade.
An invite to the Woods & Woods’ Spring/Summer 2006 show in Paris.
For the uninitiated, Seow’s own work – which covered both men’s and women’s outfits – was known for its exacting cuts, gentle drapes and a youthful yet sensitive spirit. Timothee Chalamet might have made an apt ambassador had he been born a decade earlier and a Woods & Woods collection wouldn’t be out of place on the Fall/Winter 2021 runways where gender-blurring and the soft boy aesthetic have gone into overdrive.
“Jonathan proposed some really interesting material combinations such as mixing knits with woven fabrics and pairing tailored cuts with draped panels. He also paid great attention to detail right down to the trimmings and button choice,” says the stylist Josiah Chua, a self-avowed fan who – to make up for being unable to afford Seow’s pieces when he was younger – hunts down and collects archival Woods & Woods. “His clothes were tailored but not boring, refreshing yet not trendy – a great balance of different elements that makes the brand a standout.”
Seow’s modernist and understated designs coupled with his low-profile nature further encouraged the comparisons to Margiela by the press and, like the mysterious cult Belgian designer, he did a disappearing act. Despite the acclaim and devoted band of in-the-know admirers that he had accrued, he quietly wound down Woods & Woods in 2012, relocating first to Shanghai then other far-flung cities to explore other mediums such as film-making.
Backstage at the Woods & Woods Fall/Winter 2007 show.
Probe him about his time away and it’s hard to get a direct answer. He doesn’t see the move so much as a closure to his time as a fashion designer as he does a continuation of his other creative interests, he says.
He shares stories of helping out on the sets of the visionary Filipino auteur Lav Diaz and bumping into Francis Ford Coppola on a trip to Cuba. Some of his own short films have been screened at film festivals in places like India, Poland, Germany and Russia.
The one thing that Seow does admit of the period though is that he had needed a change of environment. “Sometimes you need to step back in order to carry on,” he says. “I’m not obsessed with outcomes. It’s more about the experiences that one lives through along the way.”
(This is why he weighed carefully on a job offer at John Galliano’s menswear department at the start of his career, before eventually deciding to have a go with Woods & Woods, he lets on. “Creating your own show in Paris – now that’s an experience.”)
An archival Woods & Woods image.
The point here: If you aren’t a personal friend of his, Seow is a secret. So it came as a surprise to hear from inside sources a few months ago that he was back in town and, more curiously, working on a fashion project in collaboration with the buzzy private dining outfit Katong Diner co-founded by the architect Jasper Chia of Fuur Associates fame.
Even with old pals, the guy can still be an enigma. Though Chia’s known Seow since the days of Woods & Woods and remains an avid collector of the brand, he had not been aware that the pandemic had brought the latter home. As the story goes, he had run into Seow by chance earlier this year and thought of getting him to create a couple of simple, well-made Cuban collared shirts that staff of Katong Diner could wear to match the stylish yet unpretentious mood of the F&B experience.
That idea has since blossomed into a capsule collection of 20 or so men’s and women’s separates to be released later this month via a website that’s in the works (the best source for updates: Katong Diner’s namesake Instagram account).
Head pattern maker Teo Ying Hui (far left), Katong Diner co-founders Nicholas Anand Pereira (second from left) and Jasper Chia (far right) and designer Jonathan Seow (second from right).
Still in the fitting stage during FEMALE’s meeting with the team in June, the pieces are relaxed with the likes of raglan sleeves and drawstring closures; all meant to be one-size-fits-all.
True to his reputation for quality and considered details, Seow’s used European linen and denim sourced from Okayama, Japan, while one print was chosen for its resemblance to the nebulous works of the Scottish painter Peter Doig – one of his favourite artists (and also heavily referenced by Kim Jones at Dior Men for Fall). Overall, the effect is clean-cut yet elevated, guaranteed to please discerning aesthetes.
Ask about how the collection had come together and there are no obscure references or fancy bluster. Instead, Seow emphasises that it’s down to the people involved – from everyone around him being a source of inspiration to those who actually work on it.
The latter is made up of a list of long-time collaborators – some of whom he’s trusted since the start of his career: the pattern maker Teo Ying Hui (his protege who was behind Demisemiquaver, one of the labels incubated by Studio Prive); seamstress Agatha Lee and the lensman Ivanho Harlim whom he insisted on having to shoot the photos here.
Architect and collaborator Jasper Chia tries on a sample shirt jacket from the upcoming collection.
Is this project meant to signal the revival of his former label? The elfin Seow guffaws. “I’m very clear that it’s not a Woods & Woods thing here. I myself am not even sure what the label is any more,” he says. “This current project represents all of our collective efforts. To me, the design process is one that is always collaborative and dialogical.”
Post-interview, Seow has all present – Chia, Katong Diner’s other co-founder Nicholas Anand Pereira and this writer – try on samples from the collection by turn, thoughtfully evaluating how we feel in the garments and if we think any amendments should be made. He might be a mystery, but he’s far from cold.
If anything, there’s something strikingly human about his way of working. “One needs to have a lot of rigour and empathy, no matter what you do,” he says. Welcome back.