How Vogue Singapore insidiously entered and left our fashion media scene

For an offshoot of the world’s unofficial fashion bible, Vogue Singapore was virtually unknown to readers and fashion enthusiasts alike.

The first issue of Vogue Singapore — September 1994. Image Courtesy of Russel Wong.

The shutdown of print titles should come as no surprise. Just last month, Mediacorp announced that Elle Singapore will be discontinuing its print edition, with the October 2018 issue being its last.

The demise of mainstream glossies is often attributed to a pick-and-mix of dismal print sales, insufficient advertising capital and most recently, the influx of online media. To investors and advertisers, it looks like it makes fiscal sense — between a few thousand sold copies and a few hundred thousand views online, the advantages of the latter seem to outweigh the former.

But long before digital content usurped the fashion media landscape, one magazine saw its end within less than three years in circulation. This was none other than Vogue Singapore.

On paper, Vogue Singapore folded because advertisers were withdrawing and print sales were dropping. But the fall of Vogue Singapore was due to more than just poor print sales. It was symptomatic of what Singaporean readers expected from their fashion content.

If you were born after the 1980s, chances are, you might not even have heard of a Singaporean edition of the internationally-recognised style bible. Lasting just 29 issues from September 1994 to January 1997, Vogue Singapore was a surreptitious agent in our local fashion media scene, leaving close to no trace behind after it ceased publication.

The launch of Vogue Singapore was first announced in 1994, reported as the “Singapore edition of Australian Vogue” by The New York Times. Vogue Singapore was Conde Nast’s first dip in the Asian market, and was launched by the Asia Pacific arm of Conde Nast, the same team behind Vogue Australia. Vogue Australia has been in circulation since 1959, and continues to publish monthly — begging the question: what went wrong with Vogue Singapore?

“The timing of the launch was by no means an accident,” said Nancy Pilcher, then-editor of both Vogue Australia and Vogue Singapore, to United Press International in August 1994. She described the arrival of Vogue Singapore as “a nice twist from the days when Asia was where you did your manufacturing and not your marketing”.

The fall of Vogue Singapore

But in 1996, The Wall Street Journal reported that Conde Nast Asia-Pacific would be “suspending publication of its Vogue Singapore edition because of the slowing economy in the city-state.” Then-president of Conde Nast Asia-Pacific, Didier Guerin, expressed, “The magazine was no longer economically viable in such a small market unless we compromised the quality of the magazine.”

About a year before Vogue Singapore folded, things were apparently looking up for the short-lived magazine. According to a 1995 article published by The Sydney Morning Herald, a full-time editor was brought on board, a bigger budget was granted, and “more zipped-up (by Vogue standards) content” allowed the magazine to develop. Bernie Leser, founder of Vogue Australia, was reported in the article saying that its launch “wasn’t a failure, [but a] success with teething problems — too small a budget, too little staff, [and] not enough Singapore content”.

Starting at a cover price of S$3.25 and a print run of 35,000 copies, the distribution of Vogue Singapore remained primarily in Southeast Asia — 10,000 copies in Malaysia, and 1,000 each in Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Today, physical copies have become collectors’ items, and the only publicly accessible archive can be found in Singapore’s Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, but only by request. Even then, not all 29 are archived.

On a quest to track down every single cover is Warren Hallett, a former fashion journalist from Malaysia who currently resides in London. Hallett’s first encounter with Vogue Singapore was one of chance — as an avid fan of ’80s Singaporean supermodel Nora Ariffin, Hallett had been collecting most of her editorial work. In 2008, he bumped into Ariffin in London, who expressed regret over not keeping copies of her past work. Hallett then took it upon himself to find as many editorials with Ariffin as he could, with the hunt bringing him to the archives of the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library.

Little did he know, that his fandom-fuelled excavation would lead to the rediscovery of the long-lost Vogue Singapore. “My aim was to see if she was ever on the cover, but I found all these other Singaporean girls on the cover,” says Hallett.

“When I saw the covers, I thought, I’m sure many Singaporeans had no idea that once upon a time, they had their very own Vogue,” says Hallett. This prompted Hallett to start an online archive on Instagram, under the unverified handle, @voguesg and a bio that reads, “Help me find all 29 issues — post and hashtag #VogueSingapore”. With luck, Hallett has only managed to score one issue from the Philippines on eBay, after being outbid for another from California. And after a year of running the account to crowd-hunt all 29 issues, Hallett is still eight covers short.

“When the account started getting a bit of traction, it was as if I had opened doors to the past,” says Hallett. Singaporeans — both industry veterans and fashion enthusiasts alike — started reaching out to Hallett, many expressing curiosity and surprise over what almost seemed like an urban legend.

The peak of Singapore fashion

The newly unearthed fashion relic shed light on a whole new facet of Singapore’s fashion history, in which a whole chapter was characterised by both big name designers and sought-after supermodels. Hallett, who grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, remembers Singapore being the “fashion capital of Asia” at its peak.

But since the rise of neighbouring markets in China, Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong, the Singaporean fashion scene has noticeably quietened down since its heyday. “The glory days of Singapore fashion belonged to the ’80s and early ‘90s,” recalls veteran fashion director, Daniel Boey. “Designers were treated like rock stars and all the top malls at the time hosted a variety of Singaporean designer boutiques.”

“In a time where international glossies were still predominantly white, the conscious decision to spotlight Asian models meant that Vogue Singapore — in its infancy — was well ahead of its time.”

There even used to be a Singaporean equivalent of the Antwerp Six — the Magnificent Seven, which included Thomas Wee, Tan Yoong, Bobby Chng, Celia Loe, Esther Tay, Kelvin Choo and Peter Kor. And when it came to homegrown supermodels, we had Ethel Fong, Hanis Hussey and Pat Kraal whose careers propelled them to the catwalks of Paris Fashion Week, landing deals with the likes of Giorgio Armani, Givenchy and Saint Laurent.

Perhaps to Conde Nast, all this made Singapore seem like the perfect breeding ground for Vogue’s first Asian edition. The introduction of Vogue Singapore saw a precocious push for Asian representation in fashion — the first issue was fronted by Hollywood actress Joan Chen, known for her work in The Last Emperor and Twin Peaks.

In a time where international glossies were still predominantly white, the conscious decision to spotlight Asian models meant that Vogue Singapore — in its infancy — was well ahead of its time. “It was nice to see Asian women on the cover — it was a big thing, and as an Asian myself, being from Singapore, I was glad to see Asians represented on the cover,” says Russel Wong, the fashion photographer who shot the cover of Chen himself, along with multiple covers to follow.

Wong was the first photographer Pilcher had approached to shoot the very first cover of Vogue Singapore. His subsequent covers for the publication continued to feature leading Asian models at the time, including local model Celia Teh.

Wong remembers the launch being a significant moment for Singaporean fashion media. “People liked it, people were excited, obviously — it was Vogue. People were proud that there was a Vogue Singapore and the readers enjoyed it,” says Wong. “And when people were excited, advertisers were excited.”

But starting on a strong note was not enough to keep the magazine around. The later half of Vogue Singapore’s issues saw its content becoming progressively less Singaporean, causing it to lose its foothold in the wider fashion publishing scene.

Not Singaporean enough?

At the time, Her World took the throne as the top women’s magazine in Singapore, with a circulation of 66,000 copies. Today, the leading women’s titles in Singapore include Her World, Female, Women’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar. These titles have all managed to outlive Vogue Singapore’s three-year lifespan, calling into question the importance of brand names when it comes to magazines. Her World and Female are both local titles that have sustained readership since 1960 and 1974 respectively, and continue to top the ranks of women’s publishing in Singapore.

While these titles were exclusively helmed — or in the case of Her World and Female, founded — by Singapore-based editorial teams, Vogue Singapore was not. From start to finish, it was largely managed out of the Sydney-based offices of Vogue Australia. Little editorial input came from our shores — Singaporean contributors were roped in by Australian editors; content was largely conceived out of the Vogue Australian offices; and at one point, almost all production had been moved back to Sydney.

“With close to little editorial agency granted to the Singaporean team, locally relevant ideas were barely given the room to shine.”

Perhaps the most curious factoid about Vogue Singapore was how it was referred to. In multiple articles announcing its launch, and even in the catalogue of the national library, it’s labelled as the ‘Singapore edition of Vogue Australia’, a baffling label seeing as no other international edition of Vogue is parented by two countries. This minor detail certainly seemed to reflect in the way Vogue Singapore was managed editorially.

“They failed to separate themselves from Vogue Australia,” says Hallett. “That’s where the downfall lay.” In early issues, the Vogue masthead would feature both ‘Singapore’ and ‘Australia’ in two different typefaces, with ‘Australia’ occupying the letter ‘O’, and ‘Singapore’ shelved below the letter ‘E’. It was only later on where the magazine dropped the ‘Australia’ label.

But that didn’t necessarily signal a move away from the Australian edition. On the contrary, the majority of the magazine’s production was taken to Sydney, resulting in largely Aussie-produced, Aussie-centric content. “It was as if they were pulling away from Asia, and they were doing all the production over in Sydney,” recalls Wong. “I think maybe that was a factor that made advertisers go, ‘Why is it starting to look more like Vogue Australia than Vogue Singapore?’”

With rehashed editorials and plain unrelatable content (trend pieces often featured humidity- unfriendly pieces such as fur coats and heavy velvet), it was only a matter of time before Vogue Singapore’s declining readership caught up with its out-of-touch editorial strategy. “If it’s not aimed at you, why buy?” Hallett points out. “You can’t wear a fur coat in Singapore.”

For Wong, it boiled down to the originality of the content. “It was almost three times the price to buy a copy of Vogue Italia or British Vogue, but you would because the information in there was different and new,” says Wong. “It goes back to creating content, scooping stories and sniffing them out. To me, it was the basic journalism that was missing.”

Hallett agrees, “Comparing Vogue Singapore to American or British Vogue, I think it lacked identity. They were trying so hard to be international, they lost sight of that Asianness.” In retrospect, the chain reaction of events that led to Vogue Singapore’s fall made sense — when the content wasn’t relatable, readers stopped buying, and when readers stopped buying, advertisers stopped investing. But to say that Vogue Singapore folded solely due to dwindling numbers on a chart barely touches upon the problems that plagued it.

With close to little editorial agency granted to the Singaporean team, locally relevant ideas were barely given the room to shine. For Asia’s first Vogue, its pages reflected a dilution and erasure of Asia itself — an approach that evidently failed to strike a chord with both Singaporean and Southeast Asian readers. The lessons are clear from the fall of Vogue Singapore — there is no formulaic, one-size-fits-all approach to content. And resonating with your reader remains the number one rule in any kind of journalism.

“What’s sad to me, is that even though titles like Her World and Female are entirely Singaporean, they still fell victim to the whole ‘look to the West’ approach,” says Hallett. At this point, it might be worth wondering — if Conde Nast were to relaunch Vogue Singapore today, would it manage to garner — and more importantly, sustain — a loyal readership?

Hallett believes it would take a lot to convince Conde Nast, especially with Singapore’s current less-than-shiny fashion industry in mind. “It has to have a different mindset, a more global mindset,” suggests Wong. “It should come from Asia and Singapore — done by Singaporeans, for Singaporeans.”

An earlier version of this article misstated that Russel Wong photographed the covers featuring Jenny Shimizu and Rojjana Phetkanha. Wong shot the covers featuring Joan Chen and Celia Teh.