We the People: “Art makes everything better,” says local fashion collective Youths in Balaclava

We The People is a column commemorating Singapore’s independence and the people who are working towards making our country an even better place. In it, we speak to a diverse slate of personalities, from environmentalists and entrepreneurs to trailblazing creatives for their vision of society. These are the voices that make Singapore home.

For the initiated, Youths in Balaclava needs little introduction.

The young fashion collective — made up of individuals who are as diverse, free-spirited, and non-conforming as its designs — formed in 2014 when the 17-year-olds met in high school, only they were simply seeking an outlet for their collective creativity then. The pieces they created, each cut up and reworked from existing pieces they had, were their way of making clothes they would’ve otherwise not been able to afford then.

But like a classic underdog story, these youths — whose creativity and passion for fashion and design knew no bounds — found an avenue for expressing themselves which would forever change the course of Singapore fashion. They amassed themselves an underground following, but it wasn’t too long before they were discovered by Dover Street Marker’s Adrian Joffe, who gave them the biggest affirmation of all: Presence in Dover Street Markets around the world.

Youths in Balaclava

They’ve since become the first Singaporean fashion collective to show at Paris Fashion Week, where they showed their ‘Lost in Transit’ collection in a showroom in the city’s fabled Place Vendôme. For a bunch of then-students who grew up thousands of miles away from fashion’s most recognised capitals, and in a society that doesn’t always value creativity and thinking out of the box, Youths in Balaclava is truly a success story for the ages. Besides being fashion designers, the collective is now also an inspiration for aspiring creatives in Singapore who want to break free from colouring within the lines.

Here, they talk about how Singapore has shaped their work, how they’re coping with the pandemic, and what other youths can do to follow in their footsteps of becoming successful creatives.

Hi guys! Let’s start by defining what Youths in Balaclava means to you guys.

It’s a journey of growth, a platform to express, and an excuse to meet each other.

It must’ve been a dream come true to be able to succeed as a brand and even stock at Dover Street Market globally, but I’m sure there was plenty of hard work behind the scenes. What was it like starting out as a fashion collective and brand in Singapore?

We were just a bunch of secondary school kids fooling around with Photoshop in the bedroom after school making designs. We saved up every penny we had so we could produce a few T-shirts. The brand was mainly spread through word of mouth. Finances were our biggest and most constant struggle when we started out. 

How has growing up in Singapore shaped your view of fashion, and how has your life here inspired your work?

Youths in Balaclava’s ‘Lost in Transit’ collection.

It definitely did inspire our work in some form through our experiences of growing up in this system. We showcased our first collection in Paris with pieces inspired by our experiences through National Service (NS) and the transitioning back into society after NS titled “Lost In Transit”.

Covid-19 has been rough for everyone, how did you guys cope with the pandemic?

Youth In Balaclava SS22 Ace of Spades Collection

Covid-19 pretty much hit us right when we entered Paris Fashion Week and when things were starting to pick up. The thing we were pretty bummed about was not being able to travel to Paris every season for our showroom (laughs).

Other than that, moving from doing stuff in our studio together to doing things digitally took some getting used to, as we are used to doing things together.

Were there any silver linings from the pandemic?

Things moved much slower during the pandemic, which gave us time to really focus on ourselves and the brand’s direction, solidifying how the brand should be presented and what we can do in the future. Each of us came out of the stay-home period with new skills that we learnt during the free time we had, such as 3D-rendering as motion graphics. We pretty much love staying at home anyway.

What was it like showing in Paris as designers from Singapore?

We were extremely proud to represent Singapore, especially our parents (laughs). We got the chance to interact with the people in the industry and explain where Singapore actually is.

It was pretty emotional for us too, thinking how far we have come from designing together in our bedrooms together after school years ago to showing in Paris just a few years later.

Do you think there’s enough freedom in Singapore to truly be creative?

Youth In Balaclava SS22 Ace of Spades Collection

Singapore is pretty small and resources aren’t plenty when it comes to any form of the arts but if you really want things to work, it will work. It kind of channelled our DIY spirit and made us find different ways to achieve what we want. After all, creativity comes from experiences and every individual has different experiences, which makes things interesting.

How do you think Singapore (be it the educational system or society) can help youths like yourselves achieve their dreams of becoming respected creatives?

Being a creative in Singapore can be pretty costly which is a huge obstacle to overcome for young artists. There are grants and subsidies in place but the requirements to get them are pretty tough; we applied for them previously when we first started the brand but got rejected. The system can definitely be improved, and making resources easily accessible is the first step to take.

Schools can also take up more extracurricular activities such as painting, sewing, and drawing, to name a few, instead of mostly promoting sports. It can really allow students to really find ways to express themselves and also find their interests.

If you could give one piece of advice to youths who want to follow your path, what would it be?

Youth In Balaclava SS22 Ace of Spades Collection

It’s going to be a long journey but stick to it. It can be daunting sometimes feeling like you’re drifting in an endless cycle of creating. Focus on the satisfaction of completing every project and it will eventually reward you.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt throughout your journey with the brand?

Not to limit ourselves and think something is impossible.

What’s next for Youths in Balaclava?

Doing a big-scale fashion runway.

What is Youths in Balaclava’s personal vision for Singapore?

To be a city of art. Art makes everything better.

Check out the rest of Youth in Balaclava’s SS22 Ace of Spades Collection here.

(All images: Youths in Balaclava)


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