The Legacy of Benny Ong: Singapore's Celebrated Fashion Designer

© Sean Chin/Flickr
© Sean Chin/Flickr
There is some irony in lauding Benny Ong as Singapore’s most famous fashion designer considering he gave up the profession almost two decades ago. However, that doesn’t change the fact that between his impressive collection of private clients and laundry list of accolades, he is arguably Singapore’s most famous designer.

Benny Ong moved to London in 1968 to study fashion at St. Martin’s School of Art and soon after shot to fame in the 1970s for his sophisticated evening wear and elegant cocktail gowns. In 1977, Ong was busy, not only with his debut collection but also as one of the founding members of the prestigious London Designer Collections, which now represents the best of British designers. By the mid-1980s, his list of high-profile clients included the late Princess Diana, Queen Noor of Jordan and the Duchess of Kent. His original fashion lines were characterised by luxurious silks, soft cottons and eventually expanded to include classic linen and cashmere knitwear ranges. These collections were always quickly snapped up by the likes of Harrods in London and Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan.

© Paisley Scotland/Flickr 

Through the 1980s, Benny Ong expanded the reach of his fashion empire by producing lines for the middle-price market as well as competing for several corporate commissions. Winning a bid for the British Airports Authority clothing project led to other contracts with British Telecom and eventually the prestigious and internationally famous Raffles Hotel here in Singapore.

© William Cho/Flickr 

At the turn of the new millennium, Ong moved away from fashion, choosing instead to focus on contemporary art. His decision was influenced by the transient nature of fashion and he felt that by combining fashion and art he could rise past fashion’s disregard for the craftsmanship and effort that go into the creation of each piece.

After making the transition from designer to textile artist, Ong has been inspired by his many travels in Laos which led to him developing an interest in Laotian weaving techniques. He found that people viewed these woven pieces as souvenirs and he wanted to make them relevant in the contemporary world. His first attempt at giving this Laotian cultural practice contemporary status was a 2007 exhibition at the Singapore Arts Museum titled Re-Woven. More recently, Ong has been working under the guidance of a family of master weavers he considers the best in the country. In early 2016, he had another exhibit of his woven work, this time entitled For The Pioneering Spirit wherein he fully embraced his fashion background. With these pieces, Ong focused on the textiles and then carefully styled each piece. A few of the pieces feature Laotian women in traditional accessories such as silver earrings or a traditional scarf.

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As the recipient of the 2015 Singapore Design Golden Jubilee Award, it will be exciting to see what Benny Ong embarks on next, but regardless, it is guaranteed to have a lasting influence on the worlds of fashion and art.