Building a Timeless Wardrobe with Alicia Tsi

Alicia Tsi championed sustainability and ethical production in Singapore before they became buzzwords. Having worked in fashion, she’s seen first-hand the impact of fast fashion on the environment and the people who make them. Esse, her fashion label, is known for its timeless designs and quality fabric.

We caught up with Alicia in her Joo Chiat studio about the importance of curating staple pieces, why clothing is meant to last a long time, and how fashion can be deeply thoughtful.

You run your own fashion label, Esse. Can you tell us a little about how you got into fashion design?

I’ve dreamt of starting my own fashion label ever since I was a child. I used to sketch my designs on little fashion figures and cut up scrap cloth to make clothes for my dolls. When I was a university student, I took dressmaking night-classes from a local seamstress for a number of years and fell in love with the mastery that goes into creating a piece of garment. This led me to pursue a career in the fashion industry at luxury fashion retailer, Club 21.

Championing for sustainability in the fashion industry has been a calling since 2016. Three years ago, I decided to embark on a personal journey to understand the impact the fashion supply chain has on the environment. This journey ultimately led to the inception of Esse, one of Singapore’s first sustainable fashion labels.

What's your design process like?

The fabrics that we use dictate my design process. Since we only work with sustainable fabrics, I usually design around the properties of the fabric like their drape or thickness.

I also like to look at classics like shirt-dresses, sheath dresses, and basic tops and see how they can be improved or tweaked to cater to the lifestyles of women today. Our customers are a big part of our design process — we gather and listen to their feedback and then make incremental improvements to our designs in terms of finishing, comfort and functionality. Nature is my biggest source of inspiration for my colour palettes. I often put together colour palettes based on what I see when I’m out on a hike or on the beach.

The next step of my design process is to turn sketches and technical drawings into prototypes. The prototypes go through several rounds of fittings and wash tests to see how they hold up against wear and tear. After prototyping, we determine whether the design will go into production or if it needs to be refined.

Why have you chosen not to design with synthetic fabrics?

Many people don’t know that synthetic fibres like polyester is actually made from plastic, the same material used to make our water bottles and plastic bags, and is derived from petroleum. Like all other plastics, polyester isn’t biodegradable and will not decompose or return back to the earth at the end of its life-cycle. What this means is that most of our synthetic garments are going stay in landfills for hundreds of years and will contribute to the huge amounts of waste that we’re generating.

Another reason why I’ve avoided synthetic fabrics is because the dyes used on polyester are insoluble and highly toxic, and wastewater from textile factories containing leftover dye is usually difficult to treat. The wastewater then causes environmental problems and can harm plant and animal life. Humans are also affected — dye workers who are exposed to these type of dyes have been shown to have higher incidences of cancers and lung disease than the general population.

Alicia drinking tea in her sunny Joo Chiat studio.

There have also been multiple studies showing that synthetic fibres make up a significant percentage of microplastics found in waters. As they do not biodegrade, they bind with molecules from harmful chemicals found in wastewater. These fibres are then eaten by small fishes and plankton, inadvertently entering our food and bodies.

And in terms of fabric properties, synthetic materials are less breathable, and are especially harmful to people with sensitive skin since the chemicals that go into producing these fabrics are usually toxic.

What are your wardrobe staples? Do you have any tips on building a timeless wardrobe that can work all year round — even through special events like parties and weddings?

I started on my personal capsule wardrobe project two years ago, picking only 30 pieces of clothing and footwear to wear over a 30-day period. That really challenged me to pick out the essentials within my wardrobe and style them creatively for different occasions. It changed my perspective of how many clothes we really need and encouraged me to wear each garment more frequently. It’s also a great way for anyone to de-clutter, find the essentials or the pieces they absolutely love in their wardrobe, and shop more consciously.

I’m not a big fan of denim jeans, which is why I designed Esse’s Organic Cotton Double Layered Pants and Paper-Bag Pants, which are super light and breathable for Singapore’s climate. I wear them both at least once a week and they go with almost everything! I can easily tuck in my tops for a more formal look and tuck them out for casual days.

Other staples include a fitted, tailored dress that I can dress up and down easily, like the Cross Back Dress and Relaxed Sheath Dress which I can wear for meetings and to formal functions just by accessorising differently. A good white shirt and a comfortable muscle tank top are necessary I love Source Collections’s range of basics they go well with any bottom.

Pillow Talk is an interview series done in collaboration with Public Culture, an editorial experience studio that believes in connection over communication. This feature was photographed by Christopher Wong for Sunday Bedding and Public Culture.

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