Fashion designer Eshamuddin Ismail was born in Singapore and rose to fame in Europe as Ashley Isham – he changed his name for practical purposes to make it easier for others to remember. Over the 11 years he has worked in the fashion industry Ashley has created a sensual and bold signature style all his own. Kylie Minogue, Cheryl Cole, supermodel Erin O’Connor, Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera have all been spotted wearing his dresses on stage and red carpets. Why did Ashley, like so many other designers, choose namely London to promote his brand? How do tastes in his native Asia differ from those in Europe, and how does he manage to be a success on two continents simultaneously?
You were born in Singapore where fashion plays a very important role. Why did you leave your home country and choose the UK to study, live, and develop your brand in?
I’ve always wanted to be an international designer and for that needed to receive an education that was recognised throughout the world. That’s what Saint Martin’s London College of Fashion and later Middlesex University could offer me. English is the second language in Singapore, therefore it was more logical for me to come to London than to Paris or Milan.
Do you consider a formal education important for a designer?
I personally have learnt a lot! One of the most important things is that you are taught to work thoroughly and methodically, to develop a collection like you would tell a story, not as a collection of random looks. But at the same time I believe that after a formal education you learn a lot from the industry and you adapt what you learnt at school to what you see in the big wide world.
What were the hardest lessons reality taught you as a young designer when you were newly hatched from your Alma mater nest?
I felt like I fell out of it! The hardest revelation after university was that fashion is not just about creating dresses – fashion is a business. It wasn’t easy to fully accept how much my creativity was controlled by finance. In order for designers to survive, they need to sell. Fashion is a business. I learnt to understand my target audience, how to roll funds, how to get money to fund the next collection. I’ve been doing it for 11 years now, and what a great learning process it has been!
What have you learnt over these 11 years?
First of all, I learnt to love my family – they have always supported me. I learnt not to rush – I started small and grew the business organically. Another important thing to learn was that the designer is only as strong as his team – pattern cutters, machinists, hand-finishers – everyone is a really important part of the business. They taught me how to make designs more mature.
Was there anything else on the cards or did you always think you would be a fashion designer?
If I had the option to turn time back and choose a different path, my head would say ‘no’ and my heart would say ‘yes’. My mother wanted me to be a surgeon, it was considered a better and a more stable profession. She was right, of course, as the world of fashion is very transient. She was a seamstress, making traditional clothes, and her work was a huge inspiration for me. She had an old-fashioned Singer sewing-machine, and at the age of 11-12 I spent a lot of time with her, always asking her to make things for me as I couldn’t find anything suitable in the shops. From that my interest in fashion started and now I am blessed and fortunate and do what I enjoy doing. I’m convinced that when you’re passionate about something, no matter how hard it is, you tend to find a way to make it work.
When you look at fashion today do you notice it’s moving at a different pace?
Absolutely! There are so many cheaper options on high streets today – back in my youth that variety didn’t exist. And, on the one hand, it’s great but as a designer I understand that it’s almost impossible for me to compete with the likes of Zara and H&M who change their collections 10-12 times a year. We’re used to the fact that in January shops already sell spring-summer; in June – autumn-winter. I was on holiday in Italy last summer and saw fur coats in shop windows – we don’t think it’s insane any more.
You have many loyal clients in Asia – does it help that you are based in the West and well-known over here?
I have core clients in Asia who have been very loyal to me for years, but overall people in Asia are still very much into big brands. So they would prefer to buy a dress from a well-known brand, even if the production or fabric were of an inferior quality. Even the start of my popularity in Singapore was me getting into a shop called Links which also stocked big brands like Chloe and Cavalli, and that helped. People in Asia still love extravagant garments and many of my gowns look too simple for them.
Many famous and hard-to-please women are in love with your dresses – what do you think attracts them to the Ashley Isham brand?
Even when my dress is subtle on the outside, you can be sure that a lot of work has been done on the inside. So when a woman puts my dress on, it hugs her in the right places. I pay a lot of attention to the lining – it’s natural silk, and many women tell me that wearing it next to their skin makes them feel empowered, sexy, and sensual. My clients appreciate quality. I only work with fabrics of the highest quality from Italy and France. All the pieces are made in London – that, actually, means something to my Asian clients. One of my stockists in China doesn’t want to have a single component made in China.
Your collections for Asia and Europe can be different – is this due to the difference in clients’ tastes and mindsets?
Without any doubt – I make more luxurious evening gowns for Singapore. There they have six major balls during the year, and my clients need to have something new for each event. In Asia people tend to dress up more when they go out – it’s all about vavawoom. Everyone wants to look expensive – I notice the same trend in Russia. When girls are planning to have a great night out they go to have their hair and a manicure done, they dress up to stand out. The opposite trend prevails in Europe – the majority of people will still take care of their appearance when going out but will not go out of their way to look dazzling. In Asia the designs are made to impress, often they are rather revealing.
Singapore has become one of the most dynamic and popular destinations in the world – why aren’t you there?
O my God, it’s booming, just like some other parts of Asia now. Everyone speaks English in Singapore, so lots of businesses from around the world find it easy to operate there. It’s safe, tax-free, international, and now it’s great for shopping and eating out. Now I share my time between Singapore and the UK. I will happily live there when I’m older. For me it lacks the vibrancy and diversity of London, which is the most fashionable city in the world! It is the fashion capital of the world!
What’s so unique about London style then?
The Brits are more adventurous – when creating their own looks, they aren’t afraid of experimenting. The street culture is alive and inspires fashion. People aren’t just into big brands, they can mix vintage, couture, high street, and something they found on a street market. And, of course, London is becoming a bigger and bigger hub for new designers, so the talent here is represented in all its abundance and variety. I’ve recently found a brand called Modern Love by Sarah Arnett – she creates amazing modern graphic prints.
You’ve been showing at London Fashion Week for 11 years – once you walked the catwalk there in a T-shirt sporting the ‘Size 00’ logo. Don’t you think anorexia among fashion circles is a problem that needs to be highlighted, and the industry should take better care of the girls?
It was an act of rebellion as I was tired of how the media were handling the subject. Yes, several models have died of anorexia, and it’s a very sad affair, and models should be looked after. But let’s be smart about it. For example, when they introduced BMI-scanning, Gisele who has hips and boobs, was told to be under ideal BMI figures. How is that possible? People should remember that many models are only 15-16 years old, and not only are they naturally skinny and tall, at this age their metabolism is very fast. Honestly, I don’t need sick models – they often have to work long hours, a person who is fainting every five minutes cannot do this job properly. I was accused by some people of being anorexic – it was actually very unpleasant. Has anyone thought about the effects that these accusations can have on young skinny girl models who are otherwise healthy? And, anyway, this country‘s biggest threat is obesity, not anorexia. Telling everyone that big is always beautiful is wrong.