The Style Issue
Cantopop's Queen of Pop, Sammi Cheng, and celebrated lyricist, Wyman Wong, headline our Fall Fashion Extravaganza, interview by Tomas Chan
It doesn’t take a serious Cantopop fan to appreciate the impact Sammi Cheng and Wyman Wong have had on Hong Kong’s cultural scene. They are serious supernovas in the city’s music industry, with a combined Weibo following of almost four million. In a nutshell, that’s half of Hong Kong’s population.
Cheng is the city’s answer to Kylie Minogue. For over a decade, the 39-year-old has sold more than 25 million albums and was a Best Actress nominee at the 62nd Venice Film Festival. Wong, a former Commercial Radio DJ who is adored by his listeners, is also a prolific wordsmith whose witty lyrics have glorified more than 1,000 Cantopop melodies for some of the best superstars in the business – including HOCC, Eason Chan and Cheng herself, the Queen of the Scene.
But, apart from their great musical prowess, Cheng and Wong’s unique approach to fashion on and off stage has seen them earn the titles of the ‘shapeshifting tin hau’ and the ‘fashion guru’ respectively. While Cheng is a feted supporter of HK designs – previously wearing a Ccchu (see p34) dress on one of her album covers – and Wong is a regular front-row patron in London, Milan, Paris and New York, their fashion journeys seem to converge at the same point. And at that point stands a man called Tomas Chan, a stage costume designer. He’s the guy Cantopop megastars like Cheng, Faye Wong and Joey Yung turn to when outwardly stylised outfits are needed for their Hung Hom Coliseum concerts. Chan’s work parallels Nicolas Formichetti’s designs for Lady Gaga – the only difference being that he preceded that legacy by 20 years.
Wong has previously labelled Chan as ‘my style marharishi’, saying that, without him, ‘my fashion journey would have been much thornier’. The mysterious Chan rarely gives interviews and lets himself be photographed. But Time Out speaks to him, Wong and Cheng about how they overcome personal limitations to achieve style. Very little is known about Tomas, so our interview begins with him lifting his veil…
Tomas: I view myself as a ‘servant’, not a creator.
Wyman: Don’t be so humble!
Tomas: I don’t see the term as derogatory or inferior at all. I respect my job, and I think every microscopic role serves an important function on a macroscopic scale.
Sammi: How did you begin your career, actually?
Tomas: I read economics and mathematics at Queens Elizabeth College in London! My friends like him [points to Wyman] suggested I tried my hands in costume making as I had nothing better to do when I first got back from London. My first big job was to design Faye Wong’s stage outfits for her 1994 concert at the Hung Hom Coliseum. It was also the only time I did the dancers’ outfits as well. And then I’ve been working with you [Sammi] for all your concerts since your X-Live concert in ‘96…
Sammi: And you created four wardrobes for the same set list for my Hong Kong, Taiwan and two Macau concerts this year!
Wyman: When designing stage costumes for, say, Sammi, are you worried about how they’ll be received by the public?
Tomas: I guess if you turn up to work and your colleagues shoot you that ‘what are you wearing?’ look… no matter how bullet-proof you are you’d still secretly wish you’d worn something different.
Wyman: Actually, every time after a public event, when I turn a corner and nobody sees me, I always wipe a big drop of sweat off my forehead… [much laughter]
Sammi: But you’re in such a lucky position! People see you as a fashion guru and even if you make a mistake people think it’s deliberate and cool. You just simply can’t make mistakes any more. I think you and I are the same in the sense that neither of us ever wanted to go after that pretty dolly image.
Wyman: I think looking pretty is a very vague concept. Take 1,000 people and they all have their own spin on the idea of prettiness. Say if I post a ‘look’ up on the web and it gets 700 likes, there are still 300 people out there who would put a ‘WTF’ comment on it. But if I have to please everybody I’ll never be happy.... I knew this very early on.
And somehow dressing myself for happiness has become my own personal style.
Tomas: I think when it comes to style there’s no beacon or rulebook. Here are two people whose life goal isn’t to look good. For example Sammi captivates people with her songs, her acting and her stage presence. And people love Wyman because they resonate with the emotions that his words instill. And it just so happens these two people have style and that’s just a bonus.
Wyman: I recently wrote an article about ‘style icons’. If you list out all the icons in the recent decade and examine them closely, 99 percent – or even all of them – became style icons not merely because of what they wear, but the extraordinary things that they do. Take Picasso and his trademark sailor’s top. There were millions of fishermen out there in Europe who dressed exactly like he did. So why did this garment become a feted classic? I am sure if Picasso wore a Hawaiian shirt it’d become a legendary item as well. So it’s really not about style per se. It’s about captivating people by doing something unique that deviates from the mainstream. You’ll drown in drabness if you just follow trends in fashion and in life, or become superficially obsessed with looks.
Sammi: I think finding style is also about finding yourself. Vogue is also a soul searching journey. Ask yourself what is inside you that prevents you from becoming a stylish person? What do you dislike about yourself? Everybody has limitations.
Tomas: Can I point out that Sammi trains very hard to maintain her figure and the spirit of it all has become the source of her confidence? But within her trimmed frame lives a fat girl… [all laugh] Her journey to combat that limitation is an admirable thing and people love her more for it. Confidence plays a very important role in developing your own sense of style.
Wyman: Well then, inside my 200lb body lives a thin boy too… I pick clothes as if I am Daniel Wu [laughs]. I think my merit is that I am brave. I’m 42 and I have just found an inner zen. I could punish myself daily at the gym so that I can look like a model. Or I can be courageous and try different clothes to make myself look happy and good.
Tomas: True, it’s an old cliché but style is really about being able to love yourself...
Wyman: ...And do things to make people love you.
Sammi: ...And work hard to identify and overcome your limitations.
Sammi Cheng is currently filming with Andy Lau.
Wyman Wong and I.T’s collaboration opens this month.