Dexter Wong: Renaissance man

Dexter Wong's futuristic menswear defined Nineties clubbing style. Now, after a spell in the wilderness, he's back on the high street. Glenn Waldron meets him
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The Independent Online

Fashion loves a survivor. As brutal and fickle as it can sometimes be, it's also an industry that likes to feed off its own fabulous history, endlessly celebrating and recycling the glories of its past. In recent years, the growth of the vintage market has meant that reputations are, by necessity, reassessed and revived on a seemingly constant basis, with designers and labels falling back into fashion as swiftly as they fell out.

Dexter Wong, the man whose sharp, shiny aesthetic defined the club-obsessed fashion of the early Nineties, is currently experiencing such a turnaround. Having been in self-imposed fashion exile for the past half-decade, he has recently designed a capsule range for Topman (as part of Lens, its new instore area) and also relaunched his own eponymous label. For those who remember his bright and brilliant designs from the first time around - and for the new generation of stylists and fashion folk now switching on to his work - it's a more-than-welcome return.

Softly spoken and naturally good-humoured, the Malaysian-born designer seems rather bemused by the attention. Having last produced a collection back in 2001 before taking time off to travel and teach, he talks about his past achievements with a heightened sense of modesty. "To be honest, it's all a bit of a blur," he laughs. "Too, too long ago..."

Moving to London in the mid-Eighties, Wong developed his craft at that familiar site of fashion forwardness, Central Saint Martins. Studying there at the same time as the hat-maker Stephen Jones, Wong says that it was "a bit like joining a very expensive club. It was an exciting time to be there, working alongside a lot of the Blitz kids and New Romantics. Everyone was dressing up and going to costume stores to buy their clothes. We were a tight group, telling the tutors that they needed to get out there and have a look at what was going on in London before they could judge our work."

After graduating, Wong spent some time "panicking and wondering if I should get a proper job" before producing his first collection, a range of oversized women's shirts that took inspiration from men's tailoring. The range was picked up by the fashion PR Lynne Franksand Wong began garnering the kind of serious fashion press that would follow his work throughout the late Eighties and into the mid-Nineties. Today, he makes it sound like a fluke. "If you were a foreign person in London, it was quite scary - I'm sure it still is," he says. "You don't know what to do. I was lucky that the collection was right for the moment."

In the late Eighties, Wong began to sell his work in Hyper Hyper, the much-missed alternative fashion emporium on Kensington High Street. It was a large retail space dedicated to young, emergent style, and has attained a near-mythical status. "Hyper Hyper was great in those days," Wong recalls. "I wish they had something like that now. For young fashion graduates, it gave them a chance to test how their product would sell, because otherwise you just wouldn't know. You might have fantastic press but then no sales. People would go to Hyper Hyper and you'd get an instant reaction to your work. It was priceless."

Wong was helped by the New York club queen Suzanne Bartsch, and his designs were soon reaching an international audience. "She picked up on a lot of things that were happening at the time in the city and organised a show, "London Goes to New York", with John Richmond, Leigh Bowery and Betty Jackson," recalls Wong. "Then we took it to Tokyo and English designers really started taking off."

Combining an innovative, futuristic use of fabrics with a heightened sense of pop and drama, Wong's clothing seemed to chime perfectly with the fast, flash spirit of the early Nineties, particularly with a club scene returning to a more glamorous attitude following the decline of acid house and rave. As Matthew Murphy, the founder of London's b store and the curator of Topman's Lens project recalls: "Dexter arrived at a time when clubs were finally coming out of rave culture and that whole baggy look. People were starting to dress up again and Dexter produced the 'statement wear' that everyone wanted."

Despite his clothes being worn by the likes of David Bowie, U2 and Robbie Williams, Wong says that he was not overly concerned with generating publicity, allowing his (sometimes very loud) clothes to speak for themselves. "Really my job was just to make clothes, although I was always determined that they should have some kind of special element to them," he says. "But I never thought about the press side of things. Just that the clothes should sell." The more eccentric and elaborate pieces that he produced were often adapted into more wearable items. "I liked my clothes to have a combination of commercial sense and creativity," he says. "For instance, I made a top in a spiky fabric that Michael Jackson wore in his 'Scream' video, and at the time I looked it at and thought, 'My God, this fabric is so over the top.' But then, once it was made into a T-shirt, it became very easy to wear."

Wong has relied largely on his own funds throughout his career, and he saw a gradual decline in his fortunes in the late Nineties. Like many British designers without serious backing from a major conglomerate, he began to suffer from the cyclical nature of the industry. "We were showing every season, which is a nightmare, but is necessary in this business," he says. "It never seemed to stop." In 2001, Wong chose to wrap up the label, a decision that he found liberating. "I was really knackered by then. It had been quite a tough period. There were a few seasons where the production went really wrong and the fabrics weren't quite right. I'd just had enough."

Today, Wong says that the major impetus for restarting the label was his dissatisfaction with the current state of menswear. "Increasingly I go into shops and I'm not able to find the what I want," he says. "So I make them instead." His five-year hiatus has allowed the fashion industry time to reappraise his work, so that when Matthew Murphy was approached by Topman to create a showcase for contemporary menswear design within the Oxford Street store, Wong became an obvious choice.

Sitting alongside the likes of Siv Stoldal, Licentious and Loud, his clothes bridge the gap between the more outré designers and Topman's on-season outlook. "It's very in line with what we're trying to do with Lens," says Murphy. "We needed a trend-led brand and it's been very refreshing to work with him. Often, you have to lead the younger designers by the hand. But Dexter knows what he's doing and just gets on with it."

As with Wong's own-name collection, there's a sense of focus to the clothes that is wholly refreshing. The theatrics have been toned down, and instead the focus is on the basics of luxury menswear. Albeit with a few fun Wong-like twists. "I feel like the time is right for me," he says. "Once again, men want clothes for going out in."

Lens for Topman opens on 31 August at Topman Oxford Circus, W1 (08451 214 519)

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