The Cheongsam Designer
“I think it’s very important to not forget where we came from”
Goh Lai Chan is a self-taught couturier who is famous for his beautiful bespoke designs of the Chinese Cheongsam (Cantonese for ‘long gown’) and Qi’pao (Mandarin for ‘banner robe’). His store, Laichan, is at Paragon Shopping Centre.
“While I was growing up in the 1980s, my mum wore Qi’pao and Sam’fu (Chinese waisted blouse and trousers) constantly, and I started designing Qi’pao for her when I was 14. I’d begin by sketching designs on paper, then I would draft, cut, and staple the panels together. After that, I’d dismantle all the panels and continue working on a sewing machine. By my second year at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, I already had customers for my cheongsams, evening gowns, cocktail dresses and bridal gowns.
My brother, Eddie, left his full-time job in metalwork in the 90s to join me at my boutique. We’ve been working together for 20 years, developing made-to-measure and off-the-rack pieces. While I design the cheongsams, Eddie works on the embroidery and other intricate details.
As much as I love the culture around Asia, I was born in Singapore, a crossroad where east meets west. While I adore the traditional Qi’pao, contemporary life is different now. Fashion has changed, but I don’t want the Qi’pao to be left displayed in museums. That’s when I started thinking, if the cheongsam isn’t made more accessible, young people will wear it even less, and as generations continue it will disappear. I think it’s very important to not forget where we came from.
It takes around three days to cut, tag, and hand-sew the simplest Qi’pao without the drafts and extra trimming. There are many new fabrics available, but you must understand how it works; its weight, textures, volume, how it’s weaved. The best part of the design process is in my mind. I imagine how a person will feel when they put the dress on, the colours that will suit them, the correct proportions needed.
You’d be surprised how comfortable the Qi’pao is to wear and how much better it can make you stand and look. My modern version must be comfortable so that wearers can drive, go grocery shopping, run around.
At Chinese New Year we have many special orders of the cheongsam, and I keep the designs ordered by clients a secret. People will come to me anything from a year to three months before the celebrations. As for me, CNY is a time for friends and family – I have15 siblings so I’m already a Great Grand Uncle! The best part of CNY is to share, love and be loved.”
Signs of a Lai Chan Cheongsam
- Comfortable, so the wearer can move around
- Each off-the-rack piece has its own unique print
- The buttons are made of semi-precious stones