Dress For Success with Frederick Lee

Fashion maven Frederick Lee takes us on a tour of his workshop as he shares some of the tricks of his trade. What keeps him returning to the theatre? Find out here!

Frederick Lee knows better than anyone how much work and skill it takes to create a runway-ready dress. For over two decades, he’s been designing haute couture masterpieces that have graced catwalks all over the world.

No less effort goes into the work he does in the theatre – as anyone who’s laid eyes on his fabulous costumes for La Cage Aux Folles would tell you!

“There are close to 210 costumes in this entire production,” Frederick says as he takes us on a tour of his atelier in Aljunied. It’s a beautiful space, practically overflowing with racks of stunning dresses and books on design.

He draws our attention to an exquisite yellow gown that will be worn by Ivan Heng during one of the show’s biggest musical numbers.

“We’ve spent over 300 hours working on this one gown,” Frederick notes, as he runs his fingers over the tiny Swarovski crystals that have been painstakingly sewn by hand into the fabric.

In Stitches: each individual crystal is sewn onto the gown by hand!

The wow factor of the dress is further enhanced with ostrich feathers – just one of the 250 different varieties of feathers Frederick has sourced for the costumes in the show.

“This is La Cage Aux Folles, after all – which translates into ‘The Birdcage’ in English,” he observes.

That’s why he has taken pains to incorporate feathers into every single scene of the show, even though doing so involves a great deal more work for him and his team. “You have to treat each feather with dye or colour, and sometimes, you have to finger-paint them!”

There are specific challenges, too, that Frederick encounters in designing for the theatre that do not plague him on the runway.

The quick change is a prime example. Sometimes, an actor has just 30 seconds to change costumes. To complicate matters, that might even have to happen during a song, while on stage.

Over the years, Frederick has developed various tactics to make quick changes as swift and seamless as possible.

One of his tried-and-tested tricks is to use magnets – instead of Velcro, the more conventional fastener of choice – in his quick changes. He’s found that this is less distracting for the actor, something he takes very seriously in designing his costumes.

“Actors have so many things on their minds – at any point, Ivan might have to sing, dance, kick and wear a headpiece when he’s on stage,” says Frederick. “So I try to make it easy for the performer and create clothes that are a breeze to wear.”

For La Cage Aux Folles, he’s challenged himself to whip up costumes that are “as light as possible”. This has required him to figure out, through trial and error, how to make some items, like harnesses, function just as effectively at half the weight.

Drawing Inspiration: Frederick’s sketch springs to life!

That’s a lot of extra effort, energy and ingenuity that goes into designing for the theatre. Why, then, does Frederick keep coming back for more?

“The theatre provides an escape for me, into another era or universe,” he explains. “In the fashion world, it’s clothes, clothes and more clothes on the runway. My hope is that my costumes will take you to another world, or transport you to a different time. Pulling that off is very rewarding for me as an artist.”

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