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Marina Bay Sands' 68-year-old wardrobe mistress is in charge of 170,000 uniforms: ‘I’m fascinated by the technology’

In a world dogged by constant dialogue on anxiety, fatigue and burnout, Helen Tan is a breath of fresh air. 

Tan, 68, is the wardrobe mistress at Marina Bay Sands (MBS) and to truly understand what a massive undertaking that is, a couple of facts have to be made known.

MBS is the largest hotel in Singapore and sixth largest in Asia, with more than 2,500 rooms. In 2011, less than a year after it opened, the integrated resort welcomed more than 30 million guests.  

It is such a gargantuan operation that the hotel’s “back of house” is a whole “underground city” reminiscent of a subway interchange. It’s a sea of people, checking things in and out of lockers, pushing trolleys of luggage and garment bags, and hot footing it to the staff cafeteria for a free buffet lunch. There’s even a 7-Eleven. 

Tan’s job is to make sure that every one of these employees is suitably dressed in a uniform that stands up to the hotel’s styling standards – evidently not a mean feat. 

The uniform has to be altered to fit each individual’s body shape. It has to be comfortable and easy to move around in. It has to be spotless and essentially flawless – not a single thread out of place. And it has to be freshly laundered in time for each person’s shift and at a hotel, well – there’s someone clocking in practically every minute. 

So it’s no surprise that the wardrobe department at MBS looks the way it does – like the self-serve warehouse at IKEA, except with clothes.

Tan isn’t just the keeper of all this tech. She also manages the people that keep its wheels turning – all 38 of them. 

The total process of creating a uniform takes six months. The wardrobe department first works with an in-house stylist to brainstorm ideas for a uniform for a specific department, consulting with the department on requirements such as number of pockets needed, and the fabrics and other materials that are most suited for the environment the employees will be working in. 

A vendor produces the uniforms and Tan’s team of tailors then steps in, rushing alterations to make sure the uniforms are a good fit for the hotel employees.

“The world is running out of tailors. We are lucky to have the seamstresses in our team,” Tan explained.

“We have 10 experienced tailors who work three shifts, eight hours each, and they rotate every once in a while. There isn’t a single day where there isn’t a team of tailors on standby – they work weekends and they work public holidays.”  

With sewing being a dying art, it’s not surprising that most of Tan’s tailoring team is made up of seamstresses aged 60 and above. One is over 70 years old. 

“They do shift work, full-time, and most have been with us since Day One.”

The wardrobe department also has seamstresses recruited from China who are in their 30s. 

But the average age of the core team has me stunned. Exactly what is it about dressing hotel staff that makes one choose it over, well, retirement? 

“THERE’S JUST SO MUCH TO LEARN”

Sitting across from her at her desk, I felt like I was in the school principal’s office. It’s a clean desk with a ’90s-looking desktop computer in a corner and behind her is a wall shelf holding plaques and trophies. 

One said “You are magnificent”, which she tells me it was a gift by the hotel to the wardrobe department. There was also her long service award. 

So when she was invited to apply, she jumped at it. The MBS operation was set to be so massive that she would be in charge of wardrobe and only wardrobe. Laundry would be handled by a separate department. Even so, the new role would require her to manage more people than she’d ever had. It would require her to also quickly master a completely new way of doing things.   

“You have to tell yourself you’re here to learn something. It will be challenging, but you have to make it,” she said. 

“WHEN YOU HAVE SUPPORT, YOU FEEL ENCOURAGED”

Thirteen years on, Tan is still thriving. She has no plans to retire. And her family is supportive of her decision, even though her husband, who was formerly in the construction industry, is now retired. 

Synergy, it appears, is key to career fulfilment. 

“Opening season was a very tough time. There were so many people involved and we had to mass produce, and I hadn’t produced on that kind of scale before. But every department supported each other and when you feel supported, you also feel encouraged. You tell yourself you have to carry on,” Tan shared. 

“When you overcome challenges, like when staff come in saying they can’t find a uniform in their size and you do your best to make alterations, they come to you personally to thank you. 

“That kind of consolation, that feeling of achievement … It makes you want to work harder,” she added. 

As a manager, Tan herself is exemplary. During our conversation, she consistently compliments her “very strong team”. And she doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Listen,” said the mother of two, when asked about her experience with leadership. “And don’t just listen to one person. If one team member talks to you about someone or something, go to the source and find out more. 

“Get feedback. Share your challenges with your team and listen to their challenges, then figure out the next steps together.”

CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.

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