Editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Singapore Kenneth Goh turned down his big role three times.
Once in 2006 when he was still a fashion director at the magazine, and on two more occasions when two editors came and went while he was a creative director.
In all three instances, he had not felt ready for the role. Preferring the creative process of styling, writing and travelling to work with production teams, he found an editor’s job too desk-bound and “consumed with the business side of things”.
“The fourth time, my then-publisher told me ‘Look, Ken, I’m not going to offer you this position again. If you turn it down again, that’s it.’ So I took it,” Goh, who is in his 40s, tells The Straits Times with a sheepish grin.
This year marks his 17th at Harper’s Bazaar, which recently saw a revamp for its print and digital mediums.
New to the website are a Bazaar Man section, a monthly guide that curates for men “through a woman’s gaze”; and A Fashionable Life, a series that offers a glimpse into the lives and homes of personalities and celebrities – inspired by how “Covid-19 brought new interest in stylish women’s homes”, says Goh.
The boyish editor with his signature bowl cut and aviator spectacles looks at home in Ion Orchard, where this interview takes place, against the backdrop of luxury stores. After all, fashion is his biggest passion.
He fell into the industry – and publishing – quite naturally.
The only child of former newspaper journalists – his mother, Ms Teresa Ooi, is in her 60s – Goh grew up with the sight of newspapers and magazines strewn on the floor.
“I come from newspaper stock,” he says. “I used to sit on my parents’ bed on Sunday with croissants, coffee, tea and a million papers all around us.”
In 1985, the family migrated to London, where Goh completed his primary and secondary education.
Growing up in 1990s London – living and breathing the English capital’s fashion – shaped him. It was the era when Princess Diana was a global style icon, he recalls, and her pictures “made the front page of every newspaper”.
“My formative years were in London, which was really at the forefront of journalism and fashion in the 1990s. That was what informed my career goals, I think – being immersed in British pop culture,” he adds, a slight British accent lingering today.
He had hoped to enrol in art school Central Saint Martins in London to study fashion, but this fell through when he had to return to Singapore to do national service. He ended up studying mass communications and journalism at the University of London.
Unable to secure a fashion internship in London upon graduating, he returned to Singapore to work.
He landed his first full-time job as a writer and stylist at Lime magazine, working under playwright and then editorial director of Mediacorp Publishing Michael Chiang.
His publishing career took him to various other glossies, including Elle magazine and 8 Days, before he joined Harper’s Bazaar in 2003 – three years after the international fashion title was launched in Singapore.
The previous fashion director was Australian, and Goh was brought in to give “a high-fashion point of view with a distinct understanding of the Singapore market” and engage the local fashion community in shoots and features.
In 2013, the magazine launched the Harper’s Bazaar Asia NewGen Fashion Award, to nurture and develop fashion talent across Asia. The awards will return in a non-competitive format this year, to instead celebrate and uplift the past Singapore winners.
THE ORIGINAL INFLUENCER
While social media has often been described as a double-edged sword in the publishing world, Goh believes it has only helped him in his journey.
In fact, it was what gave him the confidence to finally accept the role of editor-in-chief in 2014, says Goh, who today straddles both the traditional media and influencer worlds, with a modest following of his own on Instagram (33,400 followers at @kennieboy).
“By then, the landscape had changed significantly – social media was really beginning to gain traction and I felt that I could be a lot more of a creative editor-in-chief.”
He launched Bazaar’s Instagram in 2012 and its website in 2014.
Then there was his unnerving but meaningful stint on television. He recalls with apprehension being “suddenly pushed in front of the camera” for reality television show Asia’s Next Top Model (2012 to 2018), for which Harper’s Bazaar was the official media partner.
Critiquing models as a guest judge on live television was no easy job, says Goh.
Because each model represented her country, his criticism sometimes ruffled the feathers of viewers and their strong “nationalist spirit”.
“The show became like the modelling equivalent of Miss Universe,” he says.
Facing haters, he had to deactivate his social media after the first season aired because netizens started harassing him and his loved ones online.
“Suddenly you’ve got an audience that follows the model or the show because he wants to root for his country. I was facing a very new, young audience whose understanding of fashion was very different from what I was used to.”
But along with battle scars and thickened skin, the show left him new takeaways – like realising what young audiences around the world wanted in fashion. Namely, influencers.
Youth looked up to them and fashion designers he met at the NewGen Fashion Awards wanted to dress them, Goh says.
“I realised that these influencers are able to cut across so many markets and regions because they have that global influence – which no title in Singapore has.”
He linked up with Instagram It girls Nicole Warne (formerly @garypeppergirl) and Irene Kim (@ireneisgood), inviting them to be mentors and guest judges at the NewGen Fashion Awards.
In return, they were bestowed magazine covers.
Asked if he views himself as an influencer, Goh squirms and answers: “I see myself as more of a person of influence.”
“Influence can come in your thought process, one-on-one engagement; it can come in the way I engage with brands behind the scenes,” says Goh, who has been approached numerous times as an unofficial fashion consultant by brands looking to enter the Singapore market.
One such brand was footwear label Roger Vivier from the Tod’s Group, which consulted him on entering Singapore in 2013; it now has a store in Ngee Ann City.
And when Ion Orchard was first built in 2009, international brands sought his opinion on having a store presence at the new mall.
“That’s the private side of influence. I’ve been very fortunate in helping to, I guess, contribute to the fashion landscape in Singapore over the past 20 years.”
These days, he is busy with producing stay-home content for Bazaar’s Instagram – partnering with craftsmen, artists and influencers – to make quarantine life more engaging.
Reflecting on his colourful career, Goh counts the many travel opportunities (he has been flown to Cuba, Mauritius and Marrakesh on various press junkets) and interviewing fashion legend, the late Karl Lagerfeld, in 2013 as some of his personal career highs.
Yet what he misses most is styling shoots – “the process of creating movie scenarios with lights, fashion, brilliant hair and make-up”.
He has styled and shot designer and former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham in London, pop star Janet Jackson in Tokyo and supermodel Cindy Crawford twice – in Kuala Lumpur and Los Angeles.
“I think my career goal would be to style Beyonce,” he finishes with a laugh. “That would be fascinating.”
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