Singapore’s Own Punk Rock Fashion Label, Youths in Balaclava

Collective co-founder Taufiq Iskandar takes us back to their early days

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7:00 PM HKT, Thu June 27, 2024 5 mins read

Youths in Balaclava (YIB) is a Singaporean fashion brand that has embodied rock and youth culture in its many amorphous forms since its official start in 2018. The self proclaimed band of outsiders met during their teenage years as classmates or friends of friends. In the center of this chaotic crew is Taufiq Iskandar, an instigator of sorts bringing disparate individuals and elements together through friendship, music, and culture.

Speaking to Taufiq, I wanted to uncover the early days of YIB. In less than a decade, the group has achieved what many designers can only dream of, and more; catching the eye of Dover Street Market’s Adrian Joffe, getting stocked worldwide, having their seasonal showroom in Paris, and designing collaborations with Converse and G-Shock. Most recently, the brand has also entered celebrity wardrobe rotations, as seen on the likes of Puerto Rican singer Ozuna, singer-rapper Zico, and K-pop groups like ITZY and NewJeans.

The laundry list goes on. Better to hear the backstory from the horse’s mouth. Taufiq takes a video call with me having confirmed a timing at the last minute, the call screen on Google Meets revealing a curly haired, bandana-wearing 27-year-old in an underlit storeroom located somewhere in Jalan Pemimpin, an area that Singaporean designers and creatives have been moving their studios to in recent years.

The following text has been edited for brevity and flow:

I founded the brand alongside the friends that I made in Gan Eng Seng Secondary School. There’s also my brother, like my real blood brother, Kasyfi. It has been almost 10 years. We’ve learned how to make clothes all the way to presenting it at Paris Fashion Week. And finally now we are at a different stage of life. Some of them want to settle down, they want to buy a house. So they are taking the back seat to find more income to support themselves although they still have part ownership of the brand. Right now only me and my brother are active at YIB.

To answer your first question, which is to describe YIB in three words, off the top of my head: enigmatic, chaotic, and driven.

When I first started, I was making clothes for our clique for fun. I met Spencer as he was my assigned seat partner. Yi Chen and Michael, I met a year later. At first they didn’t care about fashion. I remember I would be like “Oh my god, you know these shoes. Check out these shoes. Have you seen this shirt? Check out this shirt.” Zach was my senior. I got to know him as he helped me get a part time job at Topshop and through that we got much closer.

Spencer was really into this computer game called Cyber Attack and he also had an interest in music. At that point, I was listening to rock like Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, and Guns N’ Roses and all this. I've always been very fascinated with what they were wearing as well. And I think this was what sparked my interest in fashion— through the culture it’s surrounded by.

Back then our fashion world was what we could find at Haji Lane. I started designing clothes that we would wear together, for us to go out or for their birthdays. They were all parody shirts. I made a Raf Simmons inspired graphic shirt for my friend. And then for Zach, I did like this Versace logo where it says Zach-A-C-E, you know, and his face is there. I thought it was quite funny. That was like the formative years for us.

Our first line of t-shirts came about because we heard from my relative who heard from his friend, of this city in Indonesia which had a whole setup for screen printing run by a whole community of artists. We all took a six- hour long bus ride together to this place. Eventually, we manufactured our first line of YIB t-shirts. From the profit of selling the T-shirts we started experimenting with different things. When people liked them and it started selling, we got more excited.

I was learning more about other designers. My first designer, and still, my hero today is Margiela. You know, I took his spirit of being anonymous, that’s how the name Youths in Balaclava came about. It’s not about us, it’s about the work that we produce. So that became the DNA.

Having no prior knowledge of making clothes, we learned through trial and error. With the money from the t-shirt sales, we went to buy fabrics and did our own measurements and even hand distressed the flannels ourselves. Because of Margiela, we even tried using wall paint on our garments. That’s how we did things.

The third collection was massive. It started because I remember writing to fashion companies for access to their fashion shows, or like Singapore Fashion Week, but kept getting rejected. So we had this vendetta and resolution of “I’m going to do my own fashion show.” We collaborated with the fine art collective called soft/WALL/studs for our DIY runway. They had a rooftop which we used as our location. Our chairs were loaned from the coffee shop uncle. I remember we always had beef with him, but on that day itself, we begged him to lend us his chairs for $50 and he actually came through.

I was into grunge music at the time, the concept of the collection was inspired from how Kurt Cobain designed his Jag-Stang, which is a mix of a Jaguar Fender and the Fender Mustang. He would take a Polaroid of each guitar and he would cut it out and dissect the images, and then he would paste it in a collage. That’s what I envisioned the garments to be. So we used a lot of materials from what the Seattle scene would wear — flannels, Chicago shorts, Grandma shirts, ripped jeans and all of that — and styled it ourselves. We didn’t have much money so we took whatever fabric we already had and built and deconstructed a collection out of hand-me-downs.

Taufiq Rahman, the photographer, helped us scout the models for that show. He’s also the one who initially took all our photos. He had a really important aesthetic influence in the founding years of YIB.

That was the last thing we did before we decided to take a break before entering polytechnic and just started to hang out for fun. We didn't even think about starting a brand. We were photographed by Ryan O’Toole Collett as a crew whilst we were showing him around Singapore back when Dover Street Market was going to be opened in Singapore. We got discovered by Adrian Joffe through a roll of film that Collett had handed in for a project and the rest everyone kinda knows.

I mean, I don’t want to talk about our legacy as it’s going to sound arrogant. We have to date nine seasons in Paris. We did the showrooms, then finally last year we had a runway schedule. I feel like I’ve already had all my wishes. But I still have this desire. You know how each city has its own distinct style, like London is experimental, Paris has houses like Dior, I want YIB to be the fashion aesthetic for Singapore.

In recent years, I’ve also helped some local punk bands with their styling and image. In the past me and the YIB guys would go to these hardcore punk shows — many of the bands like Fuse, Hollow Thread, Fader have now disbanded or changed their sound — we were kinda judged because of the way we dressed. But I think now, with the success of YIB and other bands who are more stylish, local musicians are seeing how fashion can help them communicate their music as well.

I don’t think Singapore’s fashion scene needs to change. I see a lot of small brands and younger creatives starting their own brands. They sometimes come to me to ask for advice but I think what they’re doing now is amazing and they just need to keep going. Having YIB being a known brand has shown others that it’s possible to run a fashion label even in a city like Singapore.

Banner image by Haedi Yue.

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