Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly gives prominence to 18 distinguished and powerful women who are successful in their own right as part of the Great Women Of Our Time awards. Meet 2020’s Design & Style Nominee, Chee Sau Fen, Founder of Heads of State Millinery.

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Meet Chee Sau Fen – Great Women Of Our Time 2020 Design & Style Nominee

To say Chee Sau Fen is a milliner is both a precise characterisation and Herculean minimisation of what she really does. As a milliner, Sau Fen founded Heads of State Millinery, where she creates statement headwears through overlooked raw materials and indigenous craft traditions. 

“I always liked to make things and my introduction to people nowadays is very short: I make hats. It’s by and large true, that’s I guess the easy way to talk about it but there’s a lot of other things that I do just to get the hats done. At the same time, also things beyond making hats.”

With more than 15 years of experience in the visual arts, exhibition, and events industries, Sau Fen has earned recognition for her art in the fashion industry which explores issues on sustainability. After many years of being involved in the creative work of others and working with contemporary artists in Singapore, and even globally, she always wondered what she would be like as an artist. Questions like what would her medium be, what kind of materials would she use, how could she best express herself persisted. 

Chee Sau Fen Great Women Of Our Time
Working with materials and inspirations from nature, her designs highlight the beauty of overlooked natural raw materials and address ecological concerns and their social impact.

“I always liked the idea of wearables as art. I find that in my past work in the museums and galleries, most people are intimidated by something that is in that context. Something that is being hung on the wall and labeled as a work of art… it creates a distance between the meaning of the work and the person who is doing it. So I like to put something into people’s hands, have them wear it on their bodies. So nobody is intimidated by a hat, whereas a lot of people will admit they are intimidated by art. I guess that’s why I like it as a medium, and to me, it is the same creative process. The same way of communicating ideas and inputting what I believe into it and expressing what I want to express through it.”

“I think working in the arts, you get a pretty good idea of the limitations of the one versus the power of the many. And in the art and non-profit kind of fields, you are pretty much left to your own devices. You recognise very quickly that you are limited in so many ways by resources and you get exhausted very fast in so many ways. But at the same time, you also understand the power of making real connections between people and working and collaboration with people. It gave me a kind of courage to stake out on your own, to do things that nobody is thinking of doing.”

As an award-winning self-taught designer, she decided to focus on her own creative work as a milliner. By applying radical redesign to the art of hat-making, she wanted to create fresh applications for regional indigenous craft traditions. One of the core values that the brand has committed themselves to is sustainability. 

Chee Sau Fen Great Women Of Our Time
As an award-winning self-taught designer, she aims to create fresh applications for regional indigenous craft traditions.

As someone who was involved in setting up exhibitions and large scale events, Sau Fen was familiar with the kind of resources that are expended to go into making something beautiful and perfect. Knowing firsthand how much wastage there is, she’s become attentively mindful about the resources used in her works. 

“I find it strange when I talk to people about making environmentally friendly choices. We talk as though we have a choice. But we don’t have a choice, there is no Planet B. It’s not that we want to be eco-friendly because we are making a noble choice. But we don’t have a choice. We can’t be un-eco, you know? It is not an option. There are no choices.”

“You have to operate in a certain way. I really feel this when I travel to indigenous communities. In the village in the Philippines for example, everything they use is from the environment and everything they don’t want anymore goes back to the space around them, back to the mountains. So there is no central rubbish collection where it goes somewhere and is recycled in another country. There is no such thing.”

As a SkillsFuture Fellow, Sau Fen’s work has also been recognised by WDA and TAFF.

Sau Fen shares that the other way she sees it is that when she works closely with these communities, it’s also a reality check and accountability check for her. If she really wants to benefit the environment, she has to benefit the people too. In order to protect the nature reserve and the tribe that these communities live in, she believes we have to create employment opportunities and a future for the youth. It’s something that works in tandem and whatever your business or intention is, it cannot be at the expense of people’s lives. 

Sustainability is not a choice or an option, it is the only way to operate and it is this belief that anchors Sau Fen’s approach to her brand and her designs. 

The Great Women Of Our Time Awards 2020 is brought to you by the presenter, Lancôme.