Poverty, hunger drove a talented kampung girl to make a name for herself in fashion.
By Wong Kim Ho
Deprivation, a wit once said, can sometimes be a most marvellous teacher.
Ann Teoh would agree. Brought up by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet, her childhood was marked by hunger and dispossession.
“I was tall and skinny and always hungry because there was never enough to eat. I never had new textbooks in school, they were all donated, old and dog-eared. My clothes were hand-me-downs. I told myself I had to get out of that situation,” she recalls.
The hollow gnawing at her belly goaded her to be go-getting and self-reliant. Few things in life, she learnt quickly, were free. When opportunities presented themselves, she had to grab them. And when there were none, she had to create them herself.
That is how the self-taught designer became an award-winning couturier with an upmarket atelier in Orchard Road, boss to a team of 10 seamstresses who make dreamy wedding and evening gowns, both bespoke and ready to wear.
Willowy with a tinkling laugh, the 1.73m entrepreneur is one of 14 children sired by a roving Casanova who had two wives.
Her mother was the second wife and Ms Teoh, the third of her four daughters. “Both wives lived with my father in a two-bedroom attap house in Kangkar,” she says, referring to the area now known as Sengkang. “Each wife had a room, and my father decided every night which room he would sleep in.
Rolling her eyes, the 51-year-old adds: “Both wives could get pregnant at the same time. A couple of my sisters are the same age as our half-siblings.”
A salesman who peddled cameras and other souvenirs to sailors and tourists in Collyer Quay, her father was a handsome but abusive and irresponsible man.
“The two wives were like sisters and got along well. In fact, my mother would always protect the older wife when my father came home drunk and became violent.”
When Ms Teoh was five, her mother moved out with her brood to a rented room in St Joseph’s Lane, now Hougang Avenue 3. They fended for themselves.
“To make ends meet, my mother became a home tailor and a washerwoman; she also made cakes and other pastries to sell,” she says. “We could not depend on my father. He had too many children and had girlfriends outside too.”
A few years later, her mother cut off all ties with her husband. “She took me along when she followed him one day to find out what he was up to in Collyer Quay. cheap hotels We ended up in a bar where we saw him with one of his girlfriends.”
Life was hard. Probably because of the hand she had been dealt, her mother became a hard, frustrated woman, often resorting to the cane to discipline her girls.
“Because I was tall, skinny and looked undernourished, I was put on the free milk programme,” she says, referring to the nutrition programme for children from poor families. “It tasted awful, because it was often cold and lumpy.
“I told myself then, ‘I don’t want to be hungry, I don’t want to drink funny milk and I don’t want to be caned.”
”She knew she had to help herself if she wanted to change her life. “I decided that if I wanted a good future, I needed to master English,” says Ms Teoh, who was a top pupil at the then Chinese-medium Holy Innocents’ Primary School.
Two months after enrolling into another Chinese school, Hai Sing Girls High School, she took matters into her own hands and got herself transferred to the English-medium Serangoon Secondary. “My mother was too busy sewing clothes to look into our education,” she says.
At Serangoon Secondary, she earned her own pocket money by making blouses for her classmates.
“We had to make a blouse for Home Economics but a lot of my classmates would rather mix with boys. So I’d make it for them and charge them $5 each,” recalls Ms Teoh, who inherited her mother’s gift for dressmaking and was making her own school uniform from the age of 12.
“The boys would also pay me 50 cents to cut their hair so that they wouldn’t get in trouble with the discipline master,” she says.
Junior college was not an option as her mother could not afford it, so she started working after completing her O levels.
As a clerk in a textile company, her first job earned her $130 monthly, $80 of which she handed over to her mother.
Not long after, she spotted a small newspaper advertisement for a fashion illustration course conducted in the evenings.
To get the money for the course, she gave tuition on weekends and also freelanced as a model after being spotted in Hong Lim Complex by an agent. Her mother, though skeptical that the course would be useful, grudgingly gave her a loan too.
It was a three-month basic course, but she did so well that the principal asked her to conduct classes. In return, she got to attend the advance- level course for free. The principal then recommended her to work for a friend who sup- plied clothes to department stores such as the now defunct Yaohan and Cortina.
“So I ended up working for this woman at her house in Thomson for $400 a month. Six days a week, I would just sit there and draw. There was no lunch time. The woman had a helper who cooked for us,” she says. “The job did nothing for my creativity but I got to know some fabric suppliers.”
Her next stop was Estabelle, a boutique by local design veteran Esther Tay, where she had a pay jump of $1,000.
Although she started at the bot- tom, she had a lucky break when one of Ms Tay’s designers had to go for his national service training. “Esther had committed herself to a fashion show for Secretaries’ Week, which was very popular in those days, so I did a collection for her,” she says.
A couple of years later, she decided to strike out on her own by designing collections which she then sold to boutiques, including one in the upscale Promenade mall that was owned by a former mamasan.
She was then just in her early 20s and making as much as $10,000 a month, a lot more than many of her schoolmates who had gone to university.
“I was working seven days a week. Other people were dating but I was either at the textile centre carrying bales of cloth, or running from one shop to another, delivering clothes. But I was happy because I was showing results,” she says.
When she was 23, she went to Paris on a trip organised by the Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore.
“The owner of the Promenade boutique wanted to take part in the pret-a-porter show and decided I should represent her brand,” she recalls. Pret-a-porter refers to ready to wear clothing.
Paris opened her eyes and changed her. “I looked at the stage where the pret-a-porter show was held and thought of the small stage where many fashion shows were held in Singapore.
“That’s when I realised the world was so big and I knew so little. I knew how to make clothes to sell but had no sense of what high fashion was. I didn’t know what personal style was.” From Paris, she travelled to Britain and Italy.
On her return to Singapore, she was employed by clothing company Vintinaro to not only design but also manage its three boutiques in Scotts Shopping Centre, Wisma Atria and Peninsula Plaza.
The learning curve was steep but she did well. Not long after, she started dating a suave Chinese Singaporean who grew up in Hamburg. A couple of years later, she moved to Hamburg with him.
“I tried but I didn’t fall in love with the country so I came back here,” says Ms Teoh, who picked up German in her one year there.
Her beau followed her home, and they got married. Not long after she came back, the boss of Vintinaro – which had faltered after she left – came knocking on her door. “He said he would give me the business, he just wanted me to take care of the seamstresses who had been working for the company for many years. I didn’t want the company but I told him I would take care of the staff,” she says.
With Vintinaro’s five seamstresses and one shop assistant, she started Ann Teoh in 1996. Her son came along the next year, and a daughter three years later.
With a sigh, she says tying the knot was not a wise decision. “We had different values. I was thinking about the future, he was thinking about retirement and slowing things down. peta dunia satelit . He was a free spirit and a great lover, but not a good father or husband,” she says. She knew the union was doomed when she told him she was pregnant with her second child. “He said, ‘S**t, I hope not’. That’s when I knew it was game over.”
The next few years were tough. Although she decided not to fight for alimony, her former husband wanted to sell their apartment and take his share of the proceeds.
“I told him my children needed a home so I bought him out. I didn’t want to fight. I just want to make my business work and raise my kids.” Her former husband died five years ago from prostate cancer. Before he died, she visited him often in a hospice and a hospital here. “It was heartbreaking to see the handsome man I used to love become like that. He was so skeletal he could not even close his mouth. He asked me to forgive him. I told him I was not angry with him, I was just thankful he gave me two beautiful kids,” says Ms Teoh, whose children are now 17 and 14.
Although her business is now sturdy and robust, it went through some tumultuous times especially when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) struck in 2003.
“I had eight staff on my payroll, a nanny for my children and a mortgage to pay. My shop was in a five-star hotel but when Sars struck, there were only two staff in the lobby taking temperatures. There were no guests, let alone shoppers.”
Desperate times called for desperate measures. She lost a few hundred thousand dollars and had to cash out a couple of her insurance policies to make ends meet. “I told my staff I could pay them only by piece but thank God, they stuck with me. They’re still with me today,” says the designer.
A few years ago, she moved from Mandarin Hotel to Delfi in Orchard where she started to make a name for herself for designing high-end bespoke wedding pieces, which cost between $3,000 and $15,000. She has clients from all over the globe.
Working with two budding designers, she is now planning to launch an online store selling affordable ready-to-wear pieces in the next few months. Meanwhile, she is on the look- out for designers to mentor.
“I would like to take under my wing girls from poor families. They need help and they are hungry. I had no one to guide me in my time. But I would like to guide them so that they will be even more successful than me.”