Meet Grace Wong, S'pore’s leading costume-designer

Ang Kai Fong
Singapore 9

When she was ten, she would stitch pretty little dresses from her seamstress-mother’s fabric scraps for her Barbie dolls.

Two decades later, she’s designing and producing creative costumes for Singapore’s thriving arts scene.

Grace Wong, founder and creative director of Awesome Costumes, now wants to put Singapore on the world map with her craft.

“I want to let people know there’s a Singaporean who is awesome in making her costumes,” the 31-year-old, a finalist in the Yahoo! Singapore 9 campaign, said during a recent hour-long interview at her rented work studio along North Bridge Road.

“Whatever you think that somewhere else can do, we can do it here too,” she said. “Sometimes, I just hope that people would look inwards, look at local, homegrown talent, instead of looking out all the time.”

Having been in the costumes industry for the past nine years, Wong has made a name for herself.

Besides designing for local stage and television productions, she’s also been involved in 2010’s Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, 2011’s President’s Star Charity, and the Chingay parades in 2008 and 2012.

Surprisingly though, Wong never thought that sewing could be her calling. “I actually hated sewing,” she confessed.

“Grace, you can sew very well,” her mum and her teachers kept telling her. But she herself was never convinced.

“I hated the machine back then,” Wong said with a laugh. “But because I had to pass my fashion and fabric module in secondary school, I started sewing more.”

So what attracted her to the industry in the first place?

Wong topped her cohort when she graduated from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 2001, where she majored in fashion studies.

After a subsequent two years working as a retail executive for UK fashion label Accessorize, which was then carried under Metro department store, she decided to take a big leap of faith.

“It took me a while but I finally realized that I don’t want to do retail. I can do sales, but there’s just no satisfaction,” she explained.

With only S$500 left in her bank account, a young and determined Wong left the company and chanced upon the world of costumes.

“It was only after I started sewing again, after two years into merchandising, that I found it’s what I really like to do,” she said.

But why costumes and not traditional fashion design, which was after all what she had studied?

Laughing at the frequently-asked question, Wong shrugged. “The way I see it – you can buy things, clothes at any price; it really depends on your budget. And fashion just defines a style on you.”

“But costume is like art – wearable art. It’s a lot more challenging,” she pointed out. “Beautiful clothes, when worn by people, it’s nice. But how do you make a set of outfits that fulfill, at that point in time, what a story wants to portray?”

Challenges starting out

But as one would expect, it wasn’t easy starting out. Wong didn’t know anyone in the industry, for one.

Together with her husband, a dance instructor whom she wed in 2007, Wong strove to grab every opportunity to showcase her work – from small-scale company launches and trade shows to massive concerts and theatre productions.

They soon proved too much for her to handle.

“I was a one-man-show back then,” Wong recalled. “There were nights when I had to keep sewing. I couldn’t sleep because I had to keep sewing; I had committed to the timeline.”

Even when she was pregnant with her first child, who’s now three years old, Wong was sewing every night, “all the way until I gave birth”.

“I was sewing so much by myself, I was so tired, I cried, I broke down,” Wong said. “I told my husband I cannot keep doing this alone. It is fun to sew costumes but I cannot sew alone, it’s too slow.”

The couple soon decided to engage external sewers – Wong now splits her never-ending workload with three of them.

Even though things still get hectic every now and then, it’s clear Wong is not giving up on her love affair with the beautiful costumes she so painstakingly sews.

Turning to the perks of her job, she said, “I love it most when my regular clients give me the freedom and liberty to play around with my designs, knowing that I’d deliver.”

Her eyes sparking, she added, “That’s when I can go crazy.”

Doing charity

When asked if she is making enough to cover her expenses, Wong hesitated for a moment before letting on that her profits are not high.

“There’re good days and there’re bad days. For now, we’re just trying to make sure that we sustain our company above anything else,” she said.

That has not stopped her from giving to society. Wong was one of the sponsors for last month’s Cosmo Youth Parade, part of the annual SHINE Youth Festival organized by the National Youth Council.

She’s presently sponsoring brand new costumes for Singapore Management University’s law school’s musical production, which is raising funds for children suffering from Down Syndrome.

“They came to me with a very low budget, and then no budget at all after realizing that they didn’t have enough finances. But I told them, ‘I don’t mind the budget, I’ll do whatever you need.’”

“After designing for so long, I just thought I wanted to do something more,” Wong explained. “And if I get a chance to do charity within my means, I’ll definitely do it.”

What’s next?

Even as Wong contemplates going to school next year to further her art in costume-making, she’s confident that Awesome Costumes will continue to make new strides in the industry.

I’m just not contented stopping where people think I should stop, she said. “There’s still so much more to know, so much that can be done.”

Besides looking forward to having “a bigger shop and a bigger production line” in the years to come, Wong also hopes to have a hand in “even bigger shows”. She’s currently working towards becoming a costume designer for the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil, which arrived in Singapore last Thursday, and other musicals in the UK and US.

On how she’s planning to achieve that, Wong said, “I think the only way is to keep doing my costumes and hopefully, be able to showcase them on bigger platforms – Marina Bay Sands, Resorts World Sentosa, Universal Studios even – where people from other countries can see our works and realise that there is talent here.”

Every time Wong hears of a foreign production making its way to Singapore, she will write to them and ask for a meet-and-greet.

“Whatever we can do or try, we’ll just ask,” she said matter-of-factly. “Because if you don’t ask, you’ll never know, they’ll never know us.”

Which is the same reason why being shortlisted as a Yahoo! Singapore 9 finalist in the Business category means a lot to Wong, who admitted that she’s seldom one to “boast about myself”.

“I didn’t start out wanting to be known, at least not for who I am, but what I can do, what I can contribute.”

“And now that I’m on Yahoo!, I’m on the web; people from overseas can finally see my talent, Singapore’s talent. There’s that sense of pride I feel, definitely.”

Wong added, “I didn’t expect to come this far and I don’t know how much further I’ll go, but I just want to keep making and sewing and making and sewing… I’m very thankful that I can do this, that I have this touch that even today, I can’t explain it.”

“Being nominated – it’s a start for me, and a beginning for greater things.”