Wynn Lim’s light beige newsboy hat was the first thing that caught my eye upon stepping into Coffee Club at Northpoint City. It sat atop her blackish-blond bowl cut; short, frazzled golden strands of hair jutted out from underneath the hat’s droopy brim, forming a distinctive line against the shaved black hair lining the sides of her head. Worn with an oversized dark olive collared shirt, her outfit was a conspicuous juxtaposition of light and dark colours, which was as striking as the personality of the girl who I was about to meet.
She was seated on a wooden chair in the centre of Coffee Club beside Sarah, her girlfriend, hunching over an enormous iPad Pro. “It’s for my projects,” the twenty-three year-old Graphic Design student mused as she turned it off upon noticing my arrival. Wynn, who is a Year 2 student at Lasalle College of the Arts, had been working at her assignments while waiting for me, and had been poring over her iPad screen. “Design is a reflection of myself, and a way to voice my own ideas,” she responds when I asked why she had chose to pursue design in her studies, and subsequently in her career.
Her creative tendencies are evident primarily from her clothes. For Wynn, every single day is a no-holds-barred, full-body exercise in street style that is comparable to Japanese youth during Tokyo Fashion Week. Her wardrobe consists of ultramarine and green denim overalls, orange and purple baggy t-shirts, and conspicuous patterned socks that are often pulled up to her mid-calfs. A penchant for oversized clothing reduces her smallish frame, enhancing the demure aura that she emanates. Don’t let her petite figure fool you though. In spite of her frame, Wynn is not submissive, nor is she weak. If anything, her colourful stylistic choices hints at the personality underneath: they sound bold, impressive, and strong. Wait till you hear her speak.
“Always learn to be uncomfortable, because that is how you achieve growth,” she reflects, her voice fading at “growth”. At times, what boldly begins as a powerful statement fades into an introspective murmur, as if she’s reflecting on what she has just said, and taking the time to plan her next sentence. Wynn speaks her mind as audaciously as she styles herself, and delivers her thoughts at her own certain pace. Just like how she pairs an oversized multi-coloured shirt with a pair of orange pants — juxtaposing the noisy multicoloured top against a static, singular-coloured bottom, the words that flow from her mouth are considered and uttered with intent.
The pitch of her voice rises to a bubbly crescendo whenever she’s speaking about something of interest, and wanes whenever she recedes into an introspective mood. Her tone ebbs and flows throughout our conversation, and you can never anticipate the next aphorism about to slip out her lips. One thing is for certain, however — Wynn is never boring. Like any other Singaporean teenager, she speaks with a casual, laidback tone, sometimes sprinkling raw dashes of Singlish at the end of her sentences. But unlike most teenagers, her words are laced with raw, genuine intellect. “Risk-taking and embracing discomfort is what we should do when we are young.” Her words are imbued with wisdom gained from years of contention against societal conventions, as I discovered further along our conversation. It was as if she too was internalising what she had just said, while digging through her mind for anecdotal snippets of her past, and the wistful gaze radiating from her brown eyes signalled the commencement of an imaginative introspection on how far she had come from her childhood days.
Childhood was a harrowing experience, to say the least. Of course, Wynn wasn’t born with a burning desire to upend social convention. Nobody is conceived with social rebellion boiling in their blood or anarchy running through their veins. Quite the contrary, in fact: Society moulds them to be this way.
“I was bullied a lot when I was a kid,” Wynn recalled. She remembers an incident when she was thirteen years old: a female classmate would pick on her incessantly. “She used me as a verbal punching bag. Hitting and tripping me at the classroom’s corridor, taking away my personal belongings and watching me struggle as I attempt to get it back.” She detailed the bullying even further, while peering into the distance with a pensive gaze as she brought to mind her thirteen year-old self. “Back then, my build was small and the bully was bigger than I was.” One especially memorable incident stood out. “There was one time during a sex-education class when she took my shoe off, removed the sole and proceeded to hit me with it. I raised my hand and tried to get the teacher’s attention but was dismissed as a total joke which the entire class laughed at.” Such a detailed recollection reflects the depth of her trauma, and reveals the extent of her strength. Being forced to submit herself to such unwanted, cruel treatment also ignited a spark of resolve in her to craft an unwavering identity of her own. Her unique identity was formed as a means of defiance against a life dictated by others, and an escape from a harsh, vicious world.
Her weapon? A kind heart.
“My bully came from an incomplete family where her parents were separated,” Wynn added, suggesting that the bully’s familial background might contribute to her unruly behaviour. This empathetic perspective only took form years after her ordeal, but Wynn was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Parental upbringing remains a highly personal topic to Wynn, whose father is a freelance pastor and mother a teacher. “They are really traditional, but they were supportive of me pursuing design,” she said, “since my father was also an artist who did fine arts.” Her father, who Wynn described as a “really old-school kind of artist that paints and uses different mediums,” played a monumental role in shaping her appreciation for visual arts, and by extension, design. “I looked up to him since I was a kid,” Wynn recalled. He had taught her how to draw since childhood, and gradually instilled in her the importance of self-expression.
Spurred on by her artistic father’s influence, Wynn’ resolve to express herself only continued to enkindle further as she grew older. She failed her ‘O’ Levels — much to the dismay of her conservative parents who thought she had been playing truant, and chose to transfer to a private school in order to retake them. Her problems only exacerbated there, when she finally had the liberty to wear comfortable home clothes to school. “T-shirts and jeans were my everyday outfits along with the short hair cut,” she reminisced, referring to the bowl cut that still exists today. Finally freed from the constraints of a uniform, she started experimenting with different styles of clothes, using fashion as a visual medium to portray her independent identity. Her baggy green overalls, orange trousers and newsboy hats were a striking juxtaposition against the conventional t-shirts and flip-flops that define casual Singaporean style. Naturally, Wynn’s unapologetic self-expression through her eccentric style was met with a frosty reception from the majority of students, who were not accustomed to seeing such bold sartorial expressions in Singapore. “I was bullied because of the way I looked; the boys at school often made fun of how I dressed, made jokes about my chest being flat and looking like a lesbian,” Wynn said of her days there.
All these years of undeserved torment caused Wynn to develop an innate uncertainty surrounding her identity and her quest for self-expression. “It made me question myself a lot,” she said, her voice descending to a low murmur while recollecting the years of bullying she had once endured. Soon, anxiety and depression set in as the struggle for self-expression was met with the insensitivity of other people’s opinions, and the banality of a conservative society. For years, Wynn struggled to find solace in her own existence. Years of getting bullied for her unconventional appearance resulted in insecurities surrounding her physical self, especially her height and the shape of her face. “My jawline,” she admitted without hesitation, when I asked her about her deepest insecurity that continues to perturb her till this day. She lamented how her jawline isn’t as sharp or as well-defined as that of a model or those influencers on social media, demonstrating a rare glimpse of self-doubt.
As with most girls, Wynn dreamt of becoming a model. Raised under the influence of advertisements, social media and Hollywood, every girl has dreamt of becoming a model at least once in their lives. Wynn is not idiosyncratic in this regard. For most girls, the allure of modelling stems from the fame and glamour that one might associate with the role. For others, perhaps being acknowledged as a model reduces the intensity of the pain of an innate gnawing insecurity. Unlike most girls, however, Wynn identified modelling as a method of healing. “Modelling has made me more confident with myself, and made me learn to accept myself,” Wynn says of her experience in front of a camera. After years of cruel, undeserved torment by unreasonable aggressors and unfair circumstances, Wynn recognised modelling as the affirmation — and celebration — of her own identity, which was that very objective she had sought to seek all throughout her adolescent years. Modelling was a means to sooth the anguish endured in her adolescence, together with its accompanying trauma, and she yearned for a life departed from her past self.
Thankfully, escapism arrived — literally, in the most surreal, unexpected form. In March last year, she was fortunate enough to be shortlisted and selected for a month-long trip to New York with a group of thirteen strangers, out of over a thousand potential participants. Organised by NewYork.sg, a creative immersion initiative, the eye-opening trip was arguably the most liberating moment in Wynn’s life. What cemented the experience, however, was the thirteen strangers who she had travelled with, who Wynn described as “a very supportive group of lovely people that encourages self-growth and development.” While they had been strangers at first, she recalled bonding closer than ever with the group of creatives over time. Every one of them took turns to share their personal struggles, and Wynn mused that she “was able to openly share [her] mental illnesses, depression and tell [her] story without any judgement.” A sparkling glimmer radiated from her eyes, and the edges of her lips curled upwards in joy as she beamed widely while reminiscing her month in New York.
During this immersion programme, the participants were paired and tasked to complete individual and group assignments. Wynn was paired with Tovey, another budding Singaporean creative, who soon became her role model. “I was still, at that point, very shy to be in front of a camera,” Wynn recalled, “while she [Tovey] was always ready and looked so confident.” Her confidence, charisma and energy radiated so strongly onto Wynn that it inspired her to view Tovey as a better version of herself — someone who she strived to emulate in the future.
Throughout her stay in New York, Wynn worked together with Tovey on their various creative projects, and continued to collaborate at home in Singapore. “Tovey asked me to join her,” she recalled, in what had been Wynn’s second photoshoot. According to Wynn, posing in front of a camera did not result in a tangle of frayed nerves, as you might expect from an amateur model. Instead, it was a therapeutic and invigorating avenue that facilitated her healing, encouraging her to continue developing her self-confidence.
Modelling in photoshoots inspired Wynn to be emboldened in her own style, which she saw as a form of self-expression that she continuously imbues into her identity. “Has your unique sense of style ever caused people to put you into certain stereotypes?” I asked Wynn, thinking of all the people who have cast strange glares at me whenever I had walked under the blazing sun in a sweatshirt or a suede jacket. I had always assumed that they might be thinking I was weird, eccentric or downright crazy. If a slight deviation from the conventional Singaporean casual ensemble of a t-shirt and shorts already renders curious stares from onlookers, what would people be thinking when they see Wynn clad in her psychedelic outfits?
“I think my unique style puts me out of a stereotype,” Wynn professed, pausing for a moment after the word “out” for emphasis. “I dress based on my mood, and yes, people do turn their heads and stare.” However, she acknowledged that if people were to speak out about her style, they would usually be complimentary or out of curiosity. “At Lasalle, my friends and teachers do commend me for putting in effort to dress up every single day,” she grinned in gratitude. “In public, sometimes people might ask me where I get my clothes from. But usually, they’re just curious.” She nodded, agreeing that there might be a minority who classify her as weird or different, but their opinions usually get played down and silenced by her self-confidence.
A general consensus is that fashion acts as a barometer that measures the cultural pulse of society. While dressing oneself is a daily regimen, many choose not to consciously bend over backwards when selecting their outfits for each day. Wynn, being an outlier, elevates fashion beyond regimentation to a level of religion. Fashion has become a symbol of self-acceptance — her clothes are her canvas for self-expression, and her personal style a sign of freedom. Years of maintaining this stylistic status quo have led her to be noticed by multiple photographers, who have cast her in their shoots. Her big break came after a photoshoot at Dakota Crescent, and their photographs had been published on Vogue Italia. With her face appearing on an international fashion publication and viewed by thousands of readers worldwide from the fashion industry and beyond, it could be said that Wynn has been liberated from the shackles of conformity and her traumatic past, while achieving her aspiration of becoming a model. In a sense, fashion has set her free.
As our conversation drew to a close, Wynn gestured at my pen, which I had been using to scribble notes throughout the interview. “May I?” she signalled at a blank space below my scrawled notes, before beginning to draw two points that are spaced apart, and connecting them with a squiggly line. She then drew a double-pointed arrow underneath the line, labelling it as “experience”. “This,” she proclaimed, gesturing at the squiggly lines’ crests and troughs, “is life.”
As someone who grew up within a traditional Singaporean education system where emphasis on science and mathematics towered over the arts, and failed her ‘O’ Level examinations twice, Wynn is no stranger to failure, uncertainties or humiliation. Yet, she embodies a resolve and intelligence that no grades or degrees can provide, and possesses wisdom that few would attain this early in life. With her wisdom grounded in years of struggle, Wynn’s words following her sketch of the squiggly line revealed an unyielding tenacity.
Perhaps what remains the most startling trait about the Singaporean creative is the fact that she was never born creative. For someone who had “never known about design” until she started learning graphic design in ITE, it remains captivating how she has designed herself from the ground up into a bubble of optimism using the bullying, unfairness and hate cast at her throughout her life. Today, the eccentricity of her personal style symbolises an innately unique character; the kaleidoscopic colour palette of her clothes reflecting her confidence and vivacity. Despite my multiple acknowledgements of her strength and bravery throughout our conversation, however, she denied all of the compliments with a sheepish smile.
“Strip everything away, and we are all the same, insecure human beings.”
Model: Wynn Lim
Photography: Jing Wen (@wondurless)