What’s My Obsession: Talking Fashion with Tan Min-Li
Dainty, vivacious and spunky, one would never have guessed that Tan Min-Li battled with self-image issues during her childhood days. “I used to be a fat kid until I was about 13 or 14, and the reason why I stopped being one was because I discovered fashion,” she says endearingly. While many know Min-Li as a high-powered lawyer, there is a ‘human’ side to her—and this unexpected display of vulnerability is probably a huge departure from how she handles board meetings or negotiations. Remaining earnest, she divulges more about her struggles: “In my heart, I will always be that little fat girl, and I’m thrilled whenever I can fit into fashion dresses. People made fun of me when I was a kid, and kids can be really cruel.”
And just like that, the barrier has been broken. She’s relatable, and although our stories may differ from one another, at some point, we may have experienced similar body issues or the desire to fit into the ideal image of beauty.
The more time you spend with Min-Li, her mettle and strength shine through, evident in her svelte figure and how she has managed to rise through the ranks to become a partner at Colin Ng & Partners LLP—proving that hard work does pay off. While there are certain aspects of her life that show unflinching resolve and rigour (she goes to body combat classes every morning), she keeps the evolution of her style open, allowing it to be a way to express herself.
We speak to her about her eternal pursuit for new experiences, her love of fashion, and just how much her collection is worth.
HNW: What’s your story?
Tan Min-Li: Personally, I’ve been giving that a lot of thought… about who I am and what gives me fulfilment. I am in a transitional phase, because I’m still a full-time lawyer, yet I’m trying my hand at different things at the moment. I have a strong hunger to learn and to discover, and I never want this journey to end. I realised that I am an adventurer at heart, and that’s my personality.
What was your first memory of fashion?
I used to sit on the bed and watch my mother get ready at the dressing table. She used to backcomb her hair. I wouldn’t consider my mother fashionable, but she cared about how she presented herself and was always appropriately dressed. Her love for fashion and clothes definitely rubbed off on me.
When did you realise that you were into fashion? Was there a catalyst that ignited your passion?
I used to be a fat kid until I was about 13 or 14, and the reason I stopped being one was because I discovered fashion. I had a sketchbook and would draw models that I had seen in fashion magazines belonging to my mother. I would even put new clothes on them! When my mother started to buy me things, that’s when I realised that I really loved clothes and dressing up, which motivated me to go on a diet. I did multiple sit-ups every day and even told my mother to buy me clothes that were a size smaller.
Do you still suffer for fashion?
Definitely! I can’t eat anything because I’m naturally fat. I think my love for fashion is tied to my body image. In my heart, I will always be that little fat girl, and I’m thrilled whenever I can fit into fashion dresses. People made fun of me when I was a kid, and kids can be really cruel. Perhaps that is why I wanted to fit into a certain image that I have of myself. I am very determined and although I have an incredible, crazy wardrobe today, deep down, I still see myself as that fat kid.
How would you define your style?
I like to look posh, but I wouldn’t go overboard just to look a certain way. My style is really effortless, but at the same time, chic and elegant with a bit of edge. I don’t believe in putting too much effort into the way you look, life is so short.
What is your definition of ‘too much effort’?
People who look really done up? I think that you should take pride in the way you look and a little vanity is not a bad thing. However, you should not become obsessed until it reaches a point where it takes over your life. That is not what I want. There are people who feel that way, and it’s fine. Personally, there are other things I want to explore, and looking good shouldn’t be the only focus. You shouldn’t get carried away with it.
Does your style evolve based on your mood, trends or seasons?
It’s a combination of where I am in my life and what I am currently doing. Recently, I have been travelling a lot, so my style has evolved over the last few months due to my lifestyle. I started wearing sneakers more because I need to walk a lot and be comfortable. If I am going to attend an event, my style will be a little different. When it’s the festive season, I will dress up and wear a lot of heels. The way I look is also affected by how I am feeling. Some days I just don’t feel like dressing up, and some days I will put on something crazy. One thing’s for sure, I am very experimental when it comes to fashion and I do take into account trends. It is in my blood to discover new things and that includes fashion.
Any trends that you are currently obsessed with?
I am into the see-through trend, as it allows you to reveal and yet conceal yourself at the same time, and that intrigues me. I do like crop tops as well. I like to pair my crop tops with something high waisted for a more dramatic look. I also dig denim-on-denim, it is essentially my uniform for travelling.
Min-Li whips out her phone and swiftly goes through her image gallery. She starts showing us some of her recent outfits: a full tracksuit and a see-through dress.
I am pretty daring, but I wouldn’t wear that dress in Singapore. I was in France when I wore it.
The air is very different.
In France, it’s absolutely fine. On that day, I got out of the car and my friend Alicia said to me, “Sister, I think you made a mistake. What you are wearing is lingerie, not a dress.” Later, when we went to the bathroom, two girls came in and one of them looked at me and said, “Your dress is so stunning and trendy! I love it. Where did you get it?”
Only in France.
Only in France. It’s interesting how something can be completely wrong or completely right depending on where you are.
It’s also how people interpret your style and whether they can appreciate it. It’s not about right or wrong.
Well, that’s true, but it may not be appropriate. People will question your motive and purpose, but to me, I’m solely trying to express myself in a different way.
I’m all for individuality. As a lawyer, what does power look like to you?
Admittedly, I will dress a certain way if I am going to a negotiation or if I have opposing counsel. I always wear a Balmain jacket. I think that if you look the part, you feel the part as well. Therefore, I have a series of Balmain jackets that I wear. They are like my power suit; it’s like armour to me.
What does sexy look like to you?
My see-through dress? My perception of sexy is wearing something covered up, but yet figure-hugging. Interestingly, just 3 days ago, I was in a restaurant in LA called Avra—I’ve been out the whole day so I was wearing a long-sleeve top with a high neck. I was feeling a little out of place because everybody was wearing next to nothing, and I was all covered up. Midway through dinner, my friend leaned over to me and said, “Guess what? There’s this guy that approached me just now to ask me about you.” Shortly, the guy came over and said, “The moment you walked in, I noticed you. You have this glow about you, and I’m going to marry you one day.” Honestly, I thought I was the most conservative, prudish-looking person in the entire restaurant. It’s interesting what people notice.
What is it about fashion that speaks to you? Is it self-expression? Or is it about living out your fantasy?
Fashion is a way to express myself. At the same time, it is a fantasy. My wardrobe is full of clothes for the glamorous life that I do not lead. I practically have like 3 things that I wear to work every day. With the number of gowns, Cinderella dresses and sexy dresses that I have, I get to play a role whenever I slip one on.
In your mind, who are you when you wear these different types of dresses?
It depends on who I want to be. For example, if I want to be the really cool girl without a care in the world, then I will dress to fit the bill, or if I want to be a swanky woman who lives in a Manhattan loft, has a really cool job and goes to art gallery openings all the time… Whenever I travel, I do that a lot—I take myself out of my everyday life, and it’s a little game that I play with myself.
You are going out for dinner tonight, what will you be wearing?
I’m going to be wearing my Dion Lee dress, which is a bespoke piece that I saw at the New York fashion week. They told me that it was not going into production, but they still made one for me. It fits me perfectly.
How do you keep stock of what you have? Do you tag all your clothing?
Frankly, I am quite disorganised, so I am looking at apps that can help you organise your wardrobe. Currently, I buy almost everything online, so I will use the closet organising app on the websites. With a click of a button, you can look at your ‘virtual’ closet, and everything is there.
How about storage space?
I have a huge storage problem, so I’m waiting for Vestiaire Collective to let me start selling on their platform because I have a staggering amount of amazing pieces.
Clothes, shoes, bags, jewellery… what do you have the most of?
Definitely clothes. I’m a dress girl.
How much do you think your whole entire collection is worth?
Hundreds of thousands, maybe more? I don’t have an actual number, but it’s exorbitant, especially when formal clothing is so expensive. Maybe even more than a million?
What is the biggest purchase you have bought on an impulse?
I buy a lot of fantasy gowns. I once bought a Cinderella gown because I was so enamoured by the idea of being Cinderella.
What are your thoughts on like haute couture and street fashion? With the rise of streetwear and Supreme collaborating with LV, the lines are being blurred.
Fashion always used to be trickled down, but now it’s being trickled up. I love that now the lines are being blurred, and that there are such collaborations, as high fashion is recognising the power of street fashion and the power that these street brands have. I also relish the fact that art is also being intertwined with fashion. Look at what Alessandro Michele has done with all these artists that Gucci is collaborating with, and so many other brands are doing the same. Because of my interest in art, I look at that with great fascination. I appreciate all these different creative elements coming together, and it can only be a good thing because right now, this is a reflection of where everything is headed toward. It’s such an exciting time.
What are some of your essential pieces in your wardrobe?
Bodycon dress for a night out, heels, an amazing timepiece that elevates any outfit, and a chic bag.
Have you ever thought of starting your own fashion label?
I did a capsule collection with a local fashion label “Mad About Hue”. The reason for that was because I wanted to learn about fashion or experience fashion from a different perspective. I wanted to open myself to new experiences, so I did that. I created about 7 pieces. It’s not something I will do again, but it made me aware of the different aspects of fashion like merchandising, designing, and how you have to work around a lot of different issues.
How do you dress for comfort?
What about when you are at home?
Denim shorts and t-shirts.
To the movies?
A nice pair of sneakers.
Do you ever feel like pressurised to look glamorous or stylish all the time? You have such a packed social calendar.
Yes and no, because I always feel that I need to dress appropriately and look a certain way, and part of me really wants to. I want to make the effort to look stylish regardless of the pressure.
What is one thing that never goes out of style?
I think style is more than just fashion. Timelessness and grace will never go out of style.
Finally, who do you dress for?
Just like all women, I dress for other women. Women dress for women and men dress for women. Women never dress for men.
[Read: What’s My Obsession: Talking Sneakers with Danial Mok]