TALES THROUGH TEXTILES
Architects by training, twin sisters Santhi and Sari Tunas left their stable careers in the field behind in 2015 to found Binary Style, a fashion brand that specialises in scarves featuring graphic art in bold colours. Their scarves aren’t merely statement pieces — they’re conversation-starters. Each scarf is informed by a rich story that the sisters translate into vibrant, wearable art.
Four years in, Binary Style has already had several notable collaborations under its belt, including Singapore Airlines and Naiise UK. They were also commissioned by the local Ministry of Trade and Industry to design neck ties and scarves worn by Singapore’s liaison officers at the 33rd ASEAN summit in 2018. In this interview, Santhi, one half of the bespectacled twins, shares with us how Binary Style is helping to keep the art of storytelling through fabric alive in Singapore, and how the stories in their scarves help bring people together.
What’s the story behind Binary Style?
My sister and I started the brand four years ago. Ever since we were kids, we loved art and drawing, and when we finished high school we told our parents we wanted to be artists. But they told us to get more sensible degrees, and so we did — we went to architecture school. After graduating, I became an architect while my sister became an architectural researcher. When she was in between jobs, she said “you know what, I haven’t been doing art for a long time,” and started doing a series of artworks inspired by her walks at places like Bukit Timah and MacRitchie: in fact, one of her first designs was of the Bukit Timah forest. She would sketch these places and digitise those sketches. Then we started asking ourselves what we could do with them, and we thought, why not turn the sketches into scarves, since both of us like wearing scarves. So we made prototypes and showed them to friends. Many of them were keen on buying from us, and since the response was good we decided to turn it into a business.
Where do you guys seek inspiration from?
Anywhere! During our morning walks or even when we go to the wet market. Or we could just be talking to customers or friends, and they will throw us ideas for designs. It’s an ongoing process. Sometimes we’re just reading the newspaper, and we’ll read something interesting that inspires a design. In Bishan, they turned a water canal into a river, and one day we were reading about how the river was slowly attracting wildlife like otters back to the city. That inspired us to create a design with otters!
Are there certain themes or stories that you both are drawn to and want to help tell?
We tell a lot of different stories, but we do find ourselves drawn to architecture. Perhaps it’s because of our background. When we designed the Peranakan scarf, we included the architecture of the Baba Houses, and our Chinatown scarf design features People’s Park Complex, rows of shophouses, and the Majestic Theatre. When we create design details, we’ll observe buildings, and pick up on architectural details like the carvings or window grills to feature as motifs if we don’t show the building as a whole.
What is the process you guys go through when attempting to tell a story through your scarves?
It really depends on the theme, but most of the time, if we are inspired by a certain place, we will go there, take lots of pictures, and sketch. There, we’ll discuss which elements we want to include in the design and where to place them. Then we’ll go back and do the sketches on the computer and play around with it. Normally one of us will start designing first, and then we trade drafts back and forth. It’s a negotiation process. When we are both happy, we’ll make the prototype. And when we can’t agree, we’ll make several prototypes. It’s interesting because most of the time you can imagine how it looks like on the scarf but there is still an element of surprise when you see it life-sized. Sometimes it’s a nice surprise, but other times it doesn’t turn out as well. (chuckles)
Lots of our scarves have backstories which we try to fit into the design. Our Tiong Bahru scarf for example, has a silhouette of a satay uncle in there because a friend who was visiting from Indonesia went there, and told us she found the most delicious pork satay on a pushcart by an old uncle. We didn’t believe her so we googled it, and true enough, he exists. He embodies this aspect of Tiong Bahru which is nearly forgotten or disappearing. Then at the same time, there are these hipster cafes. So for us, when we talk about Tiong Bahru, we don’t just talk about the architecture —we also talk about the people and the changes. When you talk to people about the design, you can also tell them about the story behind it. And we love doing that.
Have your scarves brought together certain communities of people?
We’d like to think so! During pop-ups — which is when we see a lot of our customers — it’s really heart-warming when they pick up a scarf, and share their stories related to the design. There’s a connection; a shared knowledge, whether you’re a local or an expat. When you know things related to the theme behind the scarves, you’re able to retell the story of the scarves, and I think that creates a beautiful connection. Plus each time, there’s always a different story to be told so it’s nice.
For us, we’re connecting as well. We’re originally from Indonesia, but have been here for 18 years. A lot of people ask why we do Singaporean stories — it’s because we love this place. We feel almost like Singaporeans, and this is how we relate to the country. We reach out to people here and our Singaporean friends, and we feel the connection. I also think that Indonesia and Singapore share a lot of cultural similarities.
What are you guys most excited about for your collaboration with SCENE SHANG at Street of Clans?
We love the girls and their furniture. When I first saw their products, I thought that they were so beautiful and elegant. It’s clearly design that is very proud of its heritage, and at the same time also very contemporary. I feel that they’ve really struck the balance nicely. We got to know them through the Boutiques Fair, and they’re just really humble. We really connected, and this collaboration with Scene Shang is actually our second one. The first one, they used one of our prints — the nutmeg one — to cover their Paramour Screen. But for Street of Clans in particular, we feel both our brands embody the theme of embracing your culture really well, because in one way or another we are doing that.