Singaporean brand Baëlf Design believes fashion “requires experimentation and room for failure”
The local brand is the brainchild of Jamela Law and Lionel Wong. The emphasis is on “brain”: their designs, highly conceptual yet wearable, arise from the intersection of fashion and technology. For the last five years, the duo has been quietly exploring the uncharted territory of 3D printed fashion within their studios in Singapore and Hong Kong.
The results are out of this world: imagine dresses built from intricate honeycomb structures, like those seen in their debut “Beeing Human” collection, or a futuristic take on a Chinese opera costume. The latter, now on display at Asian Civilisations Musuem’s exhibition on Singapore fashion, is birthed from data and features skeletal forms sculpted on a computer. Baëlf Design calls this “neo-couture”.
“It seems like we are living in a time when 3D printing technology for fashion is on the brink of greatness,” says the brand. “We have many ideas on how we can create the fashion we want, and we find ourselves waiting for the technological innovations to catch up and empower us in what we do.”
In a time when fashion has become formulaic, Baëlf Design is that rare example of a brand championing creativity — with all its mistakes, misfires and miraculous moments — over commerciality. They also believe that more Singapore designers should do the same. Below, founders Jamela and Lionel take us through their philosophy, the reality of 3D printing fashion, and how technology will be woven into our clothes.
What drives you both as designers?
Before getting into fashion and art, Jamela was a science student, always intrigued with technology, machines, nature’s laws and formulas, and more. She was convinced that the kind of intricacy in design that intrigues her can only be achieved with the help of computation. 3D printing technology is by far the most direct fabrication method that brings all her interests together.
As for Lionel, after his stint as a product designer in the States, he developed a strong interest in computational methods of fabrication. He believes that is going to be a dominant form of production in the future, which will be made available to all.
How did your creative collaboration come about?
We met at a tech start-up meeting at Hackerspace. After working together, we found that we share a language — one of the conceptual and the imagination. We agreed that fashion is an under-explored medium that allows the translation of art onto the human body. Baëlf Design was born to address that inherent question: when we reside in the zone where technology, art and fashion coincide and flourish, what rich ideas may germinate from this co-existence?
What sparked your interest in 3D printing?
We have the same notion on what 3D printing represents: it helps us break away from traditional entrenched structures of capitalism. We believe that things made in bulk with the sole objective of maximising profit for a corporation and its shareholders is an inherently destructive concept. With 3D printing, we own the means of production. We can adopt a slow, artisanal approach befitting our vocation as crafters. Our machines are extensions of our hands. Just because we are using new technology doesn’t mean we need to emphasise efficiency and profit margins all the time.
How do you incorporate sustainability in your designs?
Eco-friendliness is a big part of Baëlf Design’s philosophy. Everything we create is made-to-order and made to be as modular as possible, which means that things are reparable and there is less wastage. Most of our 3D printing materials are biodegradable as well. We also upcycle and reuse our materials whenever we can. If we are going to preserve a suitable living environment for ourselves in the future, we definitely need to take make a strong statement with our own actions.
What has been the most challenging part about working with 3D printing technology?
Working with 3D printed dresses involves many different challenges that you will not face with common garment manufacturing applications. We frequently need to print huge to build structures that can be worn on the human body. That means we require plenty of physical space to work and experiment. We spend a lot more time printing — days instead of hours. We have to be increasingly conscientious of our printing parameters to minimise time and material consumption; mistakes at this scale can be expensive for us.
Large-scale printers that can achieve the results we need are uncommon and expensive. In terms of materials, the ones most suited for garments also require the heaviest investment. More affordable options are not suited for wearability due to their rigid nature, although we make it a point to use materials which are eco-friendly and biodegradable to tie in with our message of sustainability.
And what has been the most rewarding?
We have the opportunity to do things outside of industry norms, prove their potential and share the results with the greater community. We love that we received invitations to various tertiary institutions and get to share our work with students and inspire what they do. We have been showcased in many exhibitions and runway shows, as well as being featured in written media, both local and overseas. This was great for us as a brand; it also helps put Singapore on the world map for 3D-printed fashion design.
Lastly, we appreciate all the times that institutions such as the National Museum of Singapore and the Asian Civilisations Museum took a leap of faith in us, commissioning us to embark of new, experimental projects. All these opportunities excite us and encourages us in everything we do.
What are some changes that you’d like to see or inspire within the Singapore fashion industry?
Fashion, like other fields of design, requires constant experimentation and room for failure. It is unfortunate that the design industry in Singapore is relatively conservative in contrast to places such as the UK or Japan. We find that many local brands are gripped by the fear of being ridiculed; they are content on capitalising on what’s comfortable and safe.
Unpaid artistic labour is also a real thing. Not too many sponsors are willing to fund for projects that are experiments; they do not care too much about the process and are only concerned with the (eye-catching) visual outcome. What we hope to see is a break away from this mindset. We hope that experimentation is duly rewarded, missteps are applauded, and there is a budget for failure.
What would you like more Singaporeans to understand about what you do at Baëlf Design?
Understandably, we have gotten a lot of questions from the public on how our dresses are worn, the processes and materials we used and how comfortable they are. What we love for our audience to understand is also our philosophy, on why we do the things we do. It is not about making new products to sell, but to push our boundaries in terms of our techniques, be it in terms of materials, fabrication technologies or computational tools. We are not here to offer solutions, but to ask questions.
How has the pandemic impacted the way you work?
Taking advantage of the extra time we had, we built up on our skillsets by exploring new software and techniques, as well as learning to operate and repair our tools. We particularly appreciate that since online communications have become the norm, meeting with professionals around the world has become easier, more efficient, and more convenient.
Our key takeaway from the last two years is that we really have to look out for our own welfare and health, both physically and mentally, as well as be conscientious of the difficulties faced by others. When we found ourselves facing the strain, we made it a point to take a break and distance ourselves from work whenever necessary.
What are some new technologies and techniques that you’ve been exploring?
We are eager to explore how data can be more strongly tied to our design work. There has not been much progress in utilising data for wearable design. We are studying how we can bring that into our toolkit, by conceptualising generative, self-growing wearable structures which are brought forth through code inspired by the processes of living organisms.
What are your personal visions for Singapore?
Much like what we hope to see in Singapore’s fashion industry, we think there is room for growth in the encouragement of innovation and acceptance of failure in Singapore. For too long, we have been so constrained by narrow ideas of success that acts of creativity are usually regarded as frivolous. Indeed, we have been witnessing changes taking place. It takes a lot of financial support and opportunities provided by the government for an art or design form to be recognised. In this respect, we are optimistic, as in recent years there has been an increase in funding and support.
(All images: Baëlf Design)