Looking beyond her trademarks of winged eyeliner, reading glasses and an impeccable menswear-inspired wardrobe (in which hats, ties and beautiful shoes make frequent appearances), it is Janie Cai’s warm and open smile that is the most formidable tool in her style arsenal. The now Fashion Director of Esquire Singapore had her start in the industry in 2004 and has quickly built her reputation as one of the region’s foremost men’s stylists. With more than a decade of industry experience under her belt, Janie has retained the same wonder and passion of any rookie and yet has done away with the bitchiness and cynicism of many a veteran. A favourite of street-style snappers the likes of Tommy Ton, Adam Katz Sinding and Scott Schuman, read on to find out how a woman came to dominate the menswear scene.
Did you have an early interest in fashion? Tell us about what you did in university and how you ended up in publishing.
My interest grew from my mum, who was a fashion designer who studied in London. I remember hanging out with her on Wednesday afternoons, watching Video Fashion on TV and seeing a young Karl Lagerfeld being interviewed with his fan and loving everything about those hourly sessions. Then I went to Central St Martins in London and did a jewellery design degree, worked for a bit with Stephen Webster and Wright & Teague before coming back to Singapore and starting as a stylist at Men’s Folio.
You’re very well known for your flair for menswear. How did you come to be a men’s stylist?
It was serendipitous: I saw an ad for the stylist position at Men’s Folio when I came back from London in 2004 and decided to apply for the job. I aced the interview and then panicked because I really didn’t know that much about menswear at the time. It was an intense learning period and after a while I realized that I really enjoyed learning more about men’s fashion and putting a spread together. To me, menswear is all about the details. I was attracted to the formality and structure that was the backbone of men’s fashion. The idea that personal expression in clothing for men came out mainly through the way they wore their clothes and the little details intrigued me. It still does.
How would you describe your personal style?
Slightly scruffy with tailored elements. A bit of dressing in the dark but always with good shoes.
What are your top three style rules?
1. Have fun.
2. Attitude is more important than a perfect look.
3. No Crocs.
What is your favourite shopping memory?
Aged 11, getting a pair of brown suede brogues from the departmental store in preparation for Chinese New Year. I insisted.
What is your shopping philosophy?
Know your budget.
Who or what has been an inspiration to you on your style journey?
My mum has been an enormous influence and inspiration. She used to make clothes for us when we were young and has always been an incredibly dynamic force in pushing us to pursue our interests, regardless of how difficult or unusual they seemed to be. When I look through old pictures of her and my dad, I’m always struck by how adventurous they were with style and the clothes they used to wear. And a lot of those dresses and shirts and jackets were self-made. Because of the times and their circumstances, there was a lot more involvement in creating fashion for everyday use. Even now I wear a lot of my dad’s vintage ties from Lanvin and Christian Lacroix and a few shirts made from imported fabrics that my mum made for him when they were dating. They are still as wearable now as they were then.
If you could only wear one designer for the rest of your life, who would it be and why?
Alessandro Sartori. He used to be the creative director for Z Zegna and is now the artistic director for Berluti and even though he designs menswear, his designs are so spot-on in their detailing and aesthetic that they never date. I think if I had to wear something for the rest of my life I would definitely need a designer who is able to constantly surprise me, without abandoning his core vision to create beautiful, wearable, desirable clothing. Sartori has that talent.
Pet style peeve?
Brown belt, black shoes. And vice versa.
A style icon (one male, one female)?
Paul Smith—I love how his style is so British. And how he really wears his clothes and has so much fun in them. You meet him and he’s a really lovely person and he might be wearing a plain jumper and a coat but he’ll have bright stripey socks or the lining of his jacket might be a crazy print. That’s what style is: you never shout; you’re not a peacock; instead, you have tons of personality and you wear your look. Never the other way round.
If you could change any one person’s style, who would it be and what would you put him/her in?
Hamburglar. He looks a little like a convicted mime artist now; all he needs a good suit. Navy, single-button, roped shoulders and a crisp white shirt. He can keep the mask but swap his cap for a Borsalino fedora and lose the tie and gloves. Nothing too fancy but it’ll do lots for his A-game. Then maybe he won’t have to steal burgers for a living.
Most cherished item in your wardrobe?
Currently? All-white leather sneakers by Tod’s.
Why do you love fashion? What drives you to stick with this industry when oftentimes it seems as though you work so hard for very little reward?
Because what we are doing is creating a beautiful dream. And if we work hard enough, that dream can become a reality.
What do you find yourself gravitating towards these days? What kind of materials/textures/silhouettes?
Natural fabrics like linen, cotton and silks. Looser, more voluminous trouser silhouettes, longer jackets and softer shirts. And I’m also quite into mixing sportswear with tailoring now. I like to be comfortable lah.
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