Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
At the Opening Ceremony, did the finest male athletes of the world show the rest of the blokes watching on TV or their smart devices that skirts do not choose the gender of the wearer?
Tonga’s flag bearers Malia PasekaandPita Taufatofua in national costume, together with their skirted team mates. Photo: Getty Images
Tokyo 2020 in 2021 is strange enough; the Olympics opening ceremony unveiled in a quiet Tokyo Olympic Stadium without spectators (the few who there could not really be seen) is downright eerie. To make matters worse (is that an appropriate word?), the Parade of the Nations segment of an already watered-down Opening Ceremony—with its tradition-meets-contemporary, Harajuku-meets-Sensoji (understandably not-quite) mass display—was just that much yawn-inducing. And weird. Who were these participants waving to, many so enthusiastically? And what (or who) were they filming with their phones? Were they really that happy to walk (or dance) into the US$1.5 billion stadium (designed by Kengo Kuma, not Zaha Hadid, as originally planned) with unmistakably quiet, empty seats, some 68,000 of them? And why were some of the Parade of Nations participants allowed to go mask-less during what was feared to be a “super spreader event”? Were we too observant?
For an Olympics Opening Ceremony this low-key, attention naturally turned to the participants/athletes, or what they wore as part of their national costumes, or, for many, uniforms during the Parade. Sure, this is no Miss Universe pageant (although the Cook Islands did put their female flag bearer, the swimmer Kirsten Andrea Fisher-Marsters (in a floor-sweeping, fish-tailed gown that, according to local media, was valued at NZD1,500 or SGD1,422), but there were countries that still aimed to impress. But many of them probably knew this was not going to be a ramped-up Rio 2016, given the situation, and, up till four days before the grand event would open, the Tokyo organising committee’s chief Toshiro Muto announcement that the city did not rule out even an 11th-hour cancellation of the global sporting showpiece if more athletes tested positive for the virus. Could this be why many nations were not dress to impress? Even the delegates of China, outfitted by a team from the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, looked astonishingly bland, especially when their own sports megabrand Li-Ning is making waves in the fashion-sphere.
Vanuatu’s flag bearer Rillio Rii in coloured grass skirt. Screen grab: Mediacorp
Reportedly, thirteen countries sent only two athletes to the Games. The smallness of those contingent meant we did not register and remember what they wore, but for many other nations, their athletes came dressed with layered festive cheer. It is amazing that Tokyo’s summer heat did not seem to bother them. They didn’t look bothered to us. That evening, our Google Assistant told us that it was 27 degrees Celsius in Tokyo, but, we guessed that it probably felt like 30℃ and above. The Japanese capital is known for its unbearable summer temperatures and humidity (yes, worse than our July/August highs). Many journalists, too, had earlier wondered how the athletes would deal with the punishing heat. Yet, some participants, such as those from Puerto Rico wore three-piece suits! In fact, the blazer—now appropriately referred to as the ‘sport coat’—was an extremely popular garment, never mind the setting: a stadium. Two nations did stand out for their distinctly different outers: Costa Rica chose the safari jacket, interestingly in navy and belted too, designed by compatriot menswear tailor Fabrizzio Berrocal, while Columbia picked the very Japanese yukata, with prints of “national flora”, produced by the 34-year-old local bag and accessories brand Totto.
Some nations were just a lot more practical than others, attested by the omnipresence of shorts, especially bermudas, which where worn by the small contingent from, where else, Bermuda. In pink, no less. The Australians were in shorts too, so were the Austrians, and at least another two dozen countries. Our own team SG did not turn up in the national dress of T-shirts, shorts, and slippers. Predictably, they wore blazers in hongbao-worthy red and what appeared to be chinos of khaki from the darkest end of that colour family (described more appetisingly by our media as “latte”), designed by uniform maker Esther Tay. Doing away with the full National Day look was, perhaps, deliberate, as the Singapore National Olympic Council probably didn’t what the team to appear similarly dressed as those from other contingents, such as China or Monaco. Did our athletes look good? Did they stand out? Were they in any best-dressed list? Best left unanswered.
Flag bearers of Tuvalu, Karalo Hepoiteloto Maibuca and Matie Stanley in grass skirts. Photo: Getty Images
Although the turn-out for the Parade of the Nations of the Opening Ceremony was a mixed bag—some dressed as athletes, others as flight attendants, bank clerks, nurses, even like our Safe Distancing Ambassadors!—memorable were the many men who appeared in non-bifurcated bottoms. In fact, what was spectacular were the skirts sported on the male athletes and officials, worn unselfconsciously. Most outstanding was Tongan star Pita Faufatofua’s (taekwando/rowing) traditional Tongan dress of a tupenu (a kin of what we recognise as the sarong) and taʻovala (a mat made of plant fibre that is typically wrapped around the waist)—a combo worn on formal and semi-formal occasions. On his upper body, he wore only body oil (coconut, we were told). Not to be outdone were his team mates, dressed in skirt-like tupenus of dark grey and topped by shorter, fringe-, zig-zag- and scallop-hemmed taʻovalas in the colour of straw. Although the Tongans were a small team, they made a striking sight.
As it turned out, it was quite the competition of the shirtless and the skirted. This was Mr Faufatofua’s third scene-stealing appearance at the Olympics. But, this year, he was not without serious sartorial match. Vanuatu’s Rillio Rii (rowing) was just as shirtless and just as gleamingly oiled. He wore a traditional, multi-coloured, striped, ankle-length grass-skirt (rather than the famous namba or penis sheath of the tribes people of the island), and he looked a lot more dashing than some of his trouser-wearing fellow athletes. Another grass-skirt wearer (but not entirely topless) was Tuvalu’s Karalo Hepoiteloto Maibuca (athletics), who wore a titi (skirt) on top of which the more decorative, paneled te titi tao was laid upon. His fellow flag bearer Matie Stanley (athletics) wore a similar titi, showing the world that skirts really recognise no gender. Surprisingly, there were few sarongs worn. The team from American Samoa, therefore, set themselves apart with black, knee-length versions paired with what were the handsomest holiday shirts of the night. And those, for whom the sarong is acceptable attire, chose something far more skirt-like. Team Malaysia’s traditional kain samping (a short sarong) in untraditional graphic print, conceived by the Design and Art Faculty of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, was worn (or looked) very much like a cheer leader’s skirt although the National Sports Council of Malaysia insisted that it is kain samping.
Fiji’s flag bearers Taichi Vakasama and Rusila Nagasau in long dresses. Screen grab: Mediacorp
Team Burundi’s Belly-Cresus Ganira in traditional gown-like garb. Photo: Getty Images
Apart from the thwabs of the Middle Easterners or the boubous (long tunics) of the Africans (including Liberia’s Telfar Clements-designed, calf-length-and-below sports jerseys), there were those men’s styles that were rather dress-like. Fijian flag bearer Taichi Vakasama (swimming) wore a traditional column dress with fringing, all made from a local reed called kuta. From Burundi, Belly-Cresus Ganira (swimming) and his fellow male athletes wore a decidedly modern-looking, chocolate-brown-with-white-polka-dot, floor-length pagne, a wraparound garment (or, possibly, the more formal imgega), topped with a short cape, placed fetchingly askew. We thought Mr Ganira looked rather dapper in his traditional dress. These athletes stood out not only because of the perceived feminine style of dress they adopted or that they were willing to go against global athletic wear conventions (not regional or local), but because of the surprising freedom with their choice of clothes in the traditional power structure of the athletic world, as well as its attendant institutional and cultural bias. This is no less pronounced even if, among this Olympics’ three core concepts, there is the yet-to-date call of “accepting one another”.
And these men’s choice of clothes also showed that there was no need for a famous designer to design garments that would capture the imagination of the world watching from digital devices across the globe. Team USA was outfitted by Ralph Lauren (since 2008!) and the contingent, bursting with spurious preppiness (striped T-shirt, navy blazer, denim jeans) showed why American fashion is in unceasing decline. These clothes were communicating New England summer, circa 1985! But perhaps, more annoying was the oversized, kiasu Polo logo on the left pocket of the blazer—brand recognition or a reminder that Polo the sport is largely played and enjoyed by wealthy white individuals? Or, that the game was not included in the Olympics since 1936? If some Olympians could adopt fashion in non-gender-binary terms, perhaps many more could also not seek security behind the sport coat, especially those marked by a white man riding a horse, holding up a mallet—all in total white. Could this also be what author David Goldblatt—quoting the “godfather” of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin—referred to as the “display of manly virtue”?
Elaine Heng’s digital-native Ilo the Label is shut, just a year after she started it
Click on the New In tab, and “0 products” is shown
It left as discreetly as it arrived. Ilo the Label—influencer Elaine Heng’s rookie hand at fashion retail—has stopped trading. The eponymous website is now only a landing page, with a still banner offering a “10% off when you purchase Tasha Twist Front Top & Tina Mermaid Midi Skirt as a set!” No Tasha or companion Tina is available. Oddly, a video from her last season—“Citrus Summer: 07.07.2020” remains. We noticed this non-activity at least four months ago at the eponymous website, but we thought it was going through some maintenance or renewal exercise. But it seems that isn’t quite the case. At the end of January, Ilo the Label shared on Facebook what was their “third and final Chinese New Year collection”. Their last post on Instagram was a photo of an off-shoulder romper on 7 February. Ms Heng’s last post with the hashtag #lovebyilo was twelves days later. The last of the #happyilogirls to post (also in February) did so to announce that she was selling an Ilo the Label jumpsuit. Since March, we also noticed a rise in viewership on our post of the birth of Ilo the Label, resulting from searches on Ms Heng’s clothing business. Shoppers or the simply-curious could be wondering what happened to the “fashion brand that cares about your feelings”, according to the label’s self-description.
Back in March this year, Elaine Heng (aka Elaine Jasmine or Elaine Ruimin [瑞敏], depending on the stage of the influencer’s digital life) posted on IG a photograph of herself and a rack of three dresses (followed by four more snaps in that one post, showing her work space being cleared out), with an accompanying farewell message: “Bidding goodbye to my first ever office space.” In the rather lengthy post, she also wrote: “Such a bittersweet feeling because there’s been so much memories and emotions experienced in this humble space.” That spot of humility was in Kallang Place, in one Four Star Building, owned by the people behind Four Star Mattress. (Strangely, she thanked the company that renovated her office when she was closing it!). Spaceportal descibes what could be seen from the building as such: “…the stunning view of the Kallang Stadium along Kallang river is spectacular and well appreciated by our tenants, some call it a ‘fireworks view’”.
If Elaine Heng fashioned Ilo the Label after her own cheery personal style, she might not have realised that, some time down the road, the jelak factor would just as happily set in
Launched on 18 March last year after two years of gestation, Ilo the Label was met with less fanfare: no fireworks. Essentially an online brand, the collections were available through their own website shortly before last year’s Circuit Breaker was implemented. They were heavily touted on the brand’s IG pages, as well as on Ms Heng’s own IG account, where she continually posted photos of herself, looking vivacious, in her own label, as well as of her friends wearing the same, such as fellow influencer Melissa Jane Ferosha (何青燕 or He Qingyan). As we understood it, Ms Heng did not design the collections: she had what was described as “a team of designers”. One fashion buyer we spoke to said that the brand did not seem to be “conceived to last. It is really hard to sell very similar things, season after season. How many rompers and jumpsuits do you really need?” If Elaine Heng fashioned Ilo the Label after her own cheery personal style—as it appeared, she might not have considered that, some time down the road, the jelak factor would just as happily set in.
Another victim of the pandemic? It is hard to say. Ilo the Label is available only online—and just that one point of sale. It has no physical store. According to Globaldata figures published last year, Singapore’s online sales were set to hit S$9.5 billion, despite the pandemic. Singstat data showed that by the time we came to last November, we reached “an estimated total retail sales value” of “about $3.6 billion. Of these, online retail sales made up an estimated 14.3%, higher than the 10.5% recorded in October 2020”. It would appear to be relatively encouraging then for those brands who were available online. In that March IG post to announce that she was clearing out of her Kallang Place office, Elaine Heng wrote: “now that the one year (sic) lease has ended, it’s time to move on to a new space & look forward to better things ahead”. That did not sound like Ilo the Label would be totally folded. But just a month later, she posted (also on IG) about “trying to juggle between my new full time job & night grooming course”. Ilo the Label’s bland positioning might have been eternal-blooms-in-solar-radiance but, alas, like many flowers, is monocarpic—bloom, seed, and then die, quite the contrary to their early upbeat belief that “the flower that follows the sun does so even in cloudy days.”
Both are small and thematically rather similar, but both are vastly different too, as one discovers the past in some detail, while the other looks at the presentwith a cursory glance
Foreground, an Andrew Gn gown at #SGFASHIONNOW
Republican-era and late-Qing clothing at Modern Women of the Republic
By Raiment Young
Fashion exhibitions don’t come by often enough. So when two are happening at the same time (till mid-December, and staged only eight kilometers or so apart), it seems like a bonus for those of us desiring to see superlative designs up close. These are not just exhibits of any fashion; these are, as the titles enthusiastically inform me, about our fashion—those that show what our women wore and what they wear through times of significant societal shifts. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore (一袭华裳) at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and #SGFASHIONNOW at the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) explore clothing that, between the eras they each highlight, show aesthetic differences, separated by some 130 odd years. Yet, it is the fashion of yore that seems to speak more eloquently and with far more refinement than those of today. Nonetheless, it is the latter that attempts to articulate what it is that defines Singaporean design now.
When I visit a fashion exhibition in a museum, rather than, say, at an atrium of a shopping mall, I always expect it to provide strikingly well designed and made fashion—not just clothes—and, above all, insight into what stitches these creations together, other than just the thematic thread. If I could be entertained too, that would be a bonus. Fashion in such a setting increasingly caters to visitors that are more exposed to popular visual culture than fashion as an artistic phenomenon. These days, even the most esoteric of sartorial subjects need to be presented with a popular spin. ACM’s approach to modern fashion in #SGFASHIONNOW is especially so, and, as a result, lacks emotional power for an exhibition that is supposed to arouse national pride. What’s even more apparent is the inadequate learning opportunity—to explain how the aesthetics, gleaned from Asian costumes, have been adopted today and why the results deserve a place in a museum exhibition. As Valerie Steele of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology wrote in the Fashion Theory (issue: Exhibitionism), an academic journal, “there is no reason why exhibitions cannot be both beautiful and intelligent, entertaining and educational.”
I am, of course, not deluding myself that these are the blockbuster fashion exhibitions in the same scale and breadth as those associated with overseas national museums, such as the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Perhaps due to limitations, mainly spatial, material, and budgetary, our latest two exhibitions are euphemistically described as “intimate affairs”. The flashier#SGFASHIONNOW has only eight dresses (and one headgear) to cover a scope that is far too wide and complex than the curators would have visitors believe, while Modern Women of the Republic packed over 90 costumes (specifically 13 outfits, including one bathing suit), artifacts and photographs (and a truly informing period fashion show) in a room considerably smaller in width and height than the space for #SGFASHIONNOW. From a museological perspective, the attempt on ACM’s part to show dresses with their historical place or artistic value is feeble. I’m not arguing if fashion is—or not—considered a true form of art; I would like to see if what we have, in terms of fashion as cultural treasures, deserving of museum space. Are these clothes, however well displayed, exhibition worthy?
The entranceway to #SGFASHIONNOW at the Contemporary Gallery of the ACM
It is heartening that one of the most respected museums in the region believes there is modern Singaporean fashion. The Asian Civilisation Museum’s #SGFASHIONNOW (yes, hashtagged and in all caps) exhibition is the “first display of contemporary Singapore fashion, exploring creative practice in Singapore in the context of Asia’s cultural heritage”, according to the exhibition’s publicity material. As it is staged in the ACM, the Asian component is crucial. Despite its trendy (with the hope that it’ll be trending?) name, targeted at the digitally-savvy who know what hashtags indicate, the exhibition looks at far more analogue approaches to dressmaking (except possibly one outfit with 3D-printed ornamentation). Perhaps this may allay the fear that the time-honoured will be superseded by the “now”—the past shrugged off by the present, dress history disregarded by contemporary fashion.
To be sure, #SGFASHIONNOW is not about constructing fashion heritage. Yet, it is the past that the participating designers looked at, though not necessarily a specific time or clothing no longer worn, but to what CNA’s Jill Neubronner described as “twists on Asian arts and culture”, but mostly Chinese. According to the event’s publicity material, “the exhibition was conceived in collaboration with LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion and the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF).” This is “ACM’s first tripartite partnership within Singapore’s fashion ecosystem” and, as MsNeubronner noted, “the first time the museum handed over the central task of curating the exhibition to five students.” Perhaps the “firsts” explain why the result is somewhat abecedarian, and that my expectations, while not unreasonable for an exhibition staged at the ACM, were set foolishly high.
It is a curatorial challenge to put what fashion we have now in the spotlight. It is more difficult for students not advantaged by the breadth of knowledge of the industry here—past and present—to stage an exhibition with the potential in scope that is ultimately hard to realise. As it turns out, #SGFASHIONNOW is a “competition”, wrote student-curator Felicia Toh in Men’s Folio, to sell “curatorial ideas for #SGFASHIONNOW.” Five female students from the Lasalle’s BA(Hons) Fashion Media and Industries programme made the cut. According to Ms Toh, the exhibition brief was framed “to encourage new ways of thinking about Singapore fashion today, especially in the larger context of Asian fashion.” Designers selected—a total of eight—must “either practice in Singapore or are Singaporeans based abroad.” The students were only required to come up with four names (the rest were, as Ms Toh wrote, “pre-selected” by ACM), and they chose the relatively unknown Baëlf Studio and Studio HHFZ, Indian fashion label from the ’50s Stylemart, and the Crazy Rich Asian red-carpet sensation Time Taken to Make a Dress (TTMD). ACM picked, probably with input from TaFF, Singaporean-in-Paris Andrew Gn; TaFF darling, American-in-Singapore Carol Chen; true-blue Singaporean cheongsam maker Goh Lai Chan, and Malaysian-in-Singapore Ong Shunmugam. Collectively, they allowed ACM director Kennie Ting to realise his ”dream (of featuring) Singaporean fashion designers in the context of Asia and the World,” as expressed in the accompanying (unexpectedly laggy) e-book.
From left: Carol Chen, Studio HHFZ, and Ong Shunmugam
In his introduction to #SGFASHIONNOW, Mr Ting wrote that the exhibition “is the first that follows ACM’s 2020 repositioning as Singapore’s National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art. The repositioning allows us to champion #InnovationInTradition, and to extend the timeline of our curatorial focus to the contemporary day.” Clothing is commonly associated with decorative arts, hence ACM’s enthusiastic embrace of fashion, not necessarily design. Across the world, museums’ affinity for fashion is growing remarkably (this year alone, despite the on-going pandemic, there are at least 18 fashion exhibitions around the globe tagged “unmissable”). With #SGFASHIONNOW, ACM seems to focus on decoration than design, although both are just as important in applied arts. Boning that position, Felicia Toh’s schoolmate and co-curator Celestine Wong said in the CNA report, “What better way to showcase Singapore’s identity (than) through the lens of fashion and craftsmanship?” It is not certain if this angle was wholly the students’ or partially ACM’s, but it is a compelling one.
What is this “Singapore identity through fashion” that Ms Wong and others harped on? I had thought, prior to visiting the exhibition, that this “identity” would be an evaluation by dress through the application of design. But it is not. Despite having stayed at the exhibition for over an hour a few days after it opened on 25 June, I could not say what puzzled and disheartened me, in equal measure, until I read (and heard) those magic words: “craft”, “crafting”, and “craftsmanship”. In the article for Men’s Folio, Ms Toh wrote, “When we think about fashion and what defines our local identity in multicultural Singapore, the first line of thought is whether we have a national attire or a particular look that represents the country. In search of an answer, my team turned our attention to a tangible aspect of fashion—the craft of making clothes.” In his foreword to the e-publication, the president of Lasalle offered that, “the winning proposition is a fascinating exploration of Singapore’s fashion identity through the lenses of craftsmanship and heritage, both tangible and intangible.”
Indeed, craft, from the Old English word cræft, appears repeatedly. Yet, design is the main theme of the exhibition. Interestingly, nothing in the exhibition notes satisfactorily defines craft. In the curatorial statement, “modes of craftsmanship” is described as “running the gamut from tailoring and embroidery to laser-cutting and 3D printing”— also a line used by Ms Toh in the Men’s Folio article. After spending time with the exhibits, it appeared to me that surface embellishments are what the student-curators’ mean by “craft“. Of the eight outfits shown, only one is without decoration, not even trims, not even a single pankou (盘扣 or knotted buttons)—a girlish riff on the cheongsam by Hu Ruixian of Studio HHFZ. Andrew Gn is surprisingly the most minimalist of them all, offering not his usual embroidered flourishes, but an unadorned caped bodice with ultra-long fringing. The most embellished outfit is offered by the design duo Jamela Law and Lionel Wong of Baëlf Studio, who use 3D printed fractals that look like terra-cotta bits to recreate, on a clear TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane, as used in shower curtains) dress, the symbolic images of Jing opera (京剧 or Beijing opera) costumes (did I also sense Schiaparelli X Dali’s ‘Skeleton’ dress from 1938, especially in the back?). Decoration, it seemed to me, is the draw here.
From left, Goh Lai Chan, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Stylemart, and Baëlf Design
Craft, at its most elemental, is skill. But not just any ability that is the result of watching TikTok videos past midnight. Craft is earned skill. You say, for example, the craft of the carpenter or, closer to fashion, the craft of an embroiderer. But that does not mean that these craftspeople are designers. Many skilled practitioners of the crafts of fashion, from pattern makers to plumassiers, are not. The processes and systems of fashion are, of course, dependent on these skills. As Mr Gn said in an accompanying video shown on site, “you need great craftsmen”. With technological advances in the making of clothes and attendant decorating techniques (as seen in the Baëlf Studio exhibit), a one-size-fits-all definition of “craft” is limiting. Yet, to me, “craft” invariably calls up history, tradition, handwork (now debatable since machines have won over the hearts—and hands—of many practitioners), and, without doubt, a high standard of quality. Nick Offerman, the co-host of the NBC show Making It, considers “craft” as “the skill developed, applied, and made manifest through practice and discipline in the fabrication of a work of art.” He was speaking as a wood worker, but he could have been expatiating for fashion designers.
In the curatorial statement of the e-book, we are told that “Hu Ruixian at Studio HHFZ and Carol Chen push the envelope to craft thoughtful pieces.” Even with considerable effort, I failed to see the crafting (nor the thoughtfulness) of the submitted work, just as I struggled with the answers to the ‘whys’ of the designs (but the exhibition is not about that). Despite what I assumed to be the two designers’ bespoke operation, there were glaring irregularities when it came to achieving some semblance of craftsmanship. The addition of Ms Hu’s qipao seemed like an afterthought. It could be because of the size of the mannequin (which is a deplorable excuse, given the museum setting), but hers is the most ill-fitted outfit. Many details that should have been exemplary crafting were curiously absent. It was puzzling to see how large the armholes are, how puckered the seams run, how the base of the collar can’t rest flatly on the neckline and along the shoulder, and how the pocket bags of her extended side pockets threatens to emerge to consume the top edge. Could this be a new way of crafting?
When I looked at Carol Chen’s “Empress Jumpsuit” (an obvious and inexplicable two-piece), I was, similarly, unable to see the craft in the work. The token-Asian metal zardozi embroidery that caused so much puckering on the fabric aside, what stared shamelessly at me was the shockingly ill-fitted trousers. From the front, the waist won’t sit properly. The is no smooth waist or edge, and the crotch point takes after the shape of the pudendum. From the rear, problems with the crotch length and depth, and the hip line yield odd vertical drapes and a V-fold at the crotch. (As with the Studio HHFZ qipao, it is possible that the pants was not made for the mannequin, but it is puzzling that ACM, with the intention of strengthening its fashion division, would not have the resource to get the rightly-sized dummy for the exhibits.) I’ll give the flat-chested top a miss. In all, there is barely engineering of form, forget about manipulation of fabrics. Ms Chen, of course, has the freedom to “craft” as she pleases, but, to me, a museum deserves higher qualitative standards. I am not saying I did not appreciate the emotions or, possibly, the stresses that go into the making of Ms Chen’s two-piece. Perhaps I did not understand what she was attempting to do, but because there was such a lack of the very thing the exhibition was promoting—craft—that irritation took the place of intrigue.
Five (only four shown here) out of eight outfits sport theround qipao collar. None was perfection. Clockwise from top left: Ong Shunmugam, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Studio HHFZ, Laichan
Another way with crafting? Or, at best, dressmaking loosely tethered to craft? There would be those for whom this is merely a matter of semantics and that I am nit-picking, but the distinction is important. Why? I do not think visitors to a fashion exhibition wish to see—for (another) example—tailor’s chalk marks or, in the case of Baëlf Studio’s adorned plastic outer, ink (or pencil?) lines still evident in the seams. Or, are we to believe that such an oversight can bear the true weight of craft? It is understandable that many of our designers are not availed the skilled individuals to provide the artisanal aspects of dressmaking, or those with the eyes to ensure and maintain the refinement associated with supreme tailoring and needlecraft. We do not have a network of specialist tradespeople and craftsmen, who make up the proverbial fashion ecosystem. In his video message recorded in Paris, Andrew Gn explained why he chose to be based in the City of Lights, “You need great craftsmen,” who provide the “savoir faire—the know-how of all the ateliers and all the workshops in France.” Conversely, many designers here have to depend on their own not-necessarily-well-informed judgment on what is skilled execution. And this may fail, or vary, since what is considered skill is, as in the case of beauty, in the sight of the beholder.
Mr Gn’s submission (also a donation) of a strikingly plain, white, silk crepe gown is perhaps a master stroke. Admittedly, the modest dress was, at first glance, a tad disappointing. It isn’t unreasonable for anyone to want to come to see Mr Gn’s beautiful, often custom-designed fabrics and his delicate handwork (I know I did), but this exhibit is one of the least typical, selected from his spring/summer 2012 collection Let there be Light. Yet it is through this stark design of a gown with a fringed, waist-length-in-the-front-and hip-length-in-the-rear cape over the shoulder, purportedly based on the Manila shawl (a square-folded-into-a-triangle covering derived from the Filipino pañuelo), but could easily be a Chinese xiaopijian (小披肩 or capelet), that we see the exemplar of symmetry, precise tailoring, and first-rate finishing. Without doubt, simplicity allowed me to take in the fineness of the work or the “craft”—mostly elusive at #SGFASHIONNOW. I did wonder if perhaps the exhibits’ high-profile, headlining representation is more important that actual craftsmanship. Two are clearly picked for their exposure on the red carpet, rather than their craft: Ong Shunmugam’s derivative caped qipao, worn by designer Priscilla Shunmugam’s pal Paige Parker at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 (when the latter attended as executive producer of Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice) and the unstirred bandung neo-qipao that Crazy Rich Asian cast member Constance Lau donned at the film’s Hollywood premier in 2018.
When clothes are placed in a museum, they must hold up to scrutiny. They are worn on mannequins, I believed, to be studied and, in turn, admired. #SGFASHIONNOW offers little that are technically challenging or decoratively spectacular, or uncompromisingly well-made. Before we can begin to understand or interpret the clothes, to wigwag between the extravagant and the not, we have to be first convinced that they are crafted with great élan. And then we can begin to ask ourselves where we stand today as a nation from the standpoint of dress. I reminded myself that this exhibition is partly the work of students. I then wondered what they really took away from this in terms of techniques and workmanship—craft? And how has #SGFASHIONNOW added to the discourse about good designs that show our island as a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity—those that can truly gin up excitement? The eight exhibitions are positioned in the gallery with no scenography, each framed within vitrines with four sides (only one glassed). They looked to me like glorified store windows, which is ironic since window-shopping is increasingly so other-era an activity in our COVID-impacted world. But perhaps that’s intentional: the showcase as spotlight. Still, you can’t level up what won’t be next-level. Even with the risk of getting this bent of shape, I won’t deny that I was dismayed that this is what ACM and its collaborators see as national pride.
Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore
Entrance to the Modern Women of the Republic exhibition
Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is a sumptuous tribute to an era of swift societal and sartorial change, witnessed in the late 19th century, through the time when we were a British colony or, as the National Museum of Singapore prefers to put it, a “Crown Colony”. The exhibition opened last month at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, also known as Wanqing Garden (晚晴园). It was renamed by the Teochew rubber magnate and revolutionist Teo Eng Hock (张永福, Zhang Yongfu), when he bought it in 1905. Modern Women of the Republic sets Chinese national and diasporic fashion styles in a colonial-era villa with considerable vigour. It was in this pleasant intimacy and contextualised space that I happily spent more than an hour, one weekday afternoon, looking at the clothes women wore that were beginning to be described as “modern”.
Wanqing Garden was built in 1902, the same year the YMCA here was established, and forty four years after one little Spicer & Robinson opened at Commercial Square (today’s Raffles Place). Inside the first-storey main gallery of the nearly 120-year-old mansion, the exhibition was, interestingly, also set up as a department store, Wanqing Co. Ltd (晚晴百货公司), with a suitably retro store front and posters flanking it. In that sense, Modern Women of the Republic’s standing would not be disadvantaged from being compared to store windows, and those complete with visual merchandising, as we know it today that truly captures the viewers’ attention. Unlike #SGFASHIONNOW, this exhibition looks at everyday clothes. Or, those that were custom-made to be worn—possibly for special occasions, possibly not; but unlikely for the red carpet (except, perhaps, one showstopping gown by Goh Lai Chan, the showstopping gown-maker). More than 90 artefacts and accompanying archival photos (including 14 outfits, almost double that of #SGFASHIONNOW) were assembled to tell how modernisation necessarily meant shedding clothes of considerable bulk—hence obscuring the body—for those that are form-enhancing.
Without dramatic scenography, but the very grandness and elegance of the villa, the exhibition creates a walk-back-in-time experience, made more emersive through the well-considered range of mediums, from actual clothes to dainty footwear to kindred accessories to vintage photographs. To be sure, I have seen more compelling and striking exhibitions of similar theme in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but Modern Women of the Republic’s partially local context makes it more meaningful. It covers the periods between the late 1800s to the 1970s (with the exception of that showstopping gown—a very present-day creation), telling the stories of modern-fashion adopters and their influence, such as Teo Eng Hock’s daughter Teo Soon Kim (张舜琴) who was Singapore’s first female barrister (and Hong Kong’s when she moved there later) and a proud adopter of the cheongsam (Romanisation of the Cantonese 長衫 (or long shirt) as everyday dress despite her clearly Western education (she graduated in the UK).
A trio of cheongsams from the ’50s and ’60s, two worn with jackets
The oldest outfits in Modern Women of the Republic are from the late Qing period—those that are precursors to what we can identify as today’s qipao (旗袍 or Manchu robe). In the first, entrance-facing showcase that welcomed visitors, a winter jacket lined with rabbit fur and an embroidered ao (袄) blouse-jacket (the mianao [棉袄 or padded cotton jacket] is still worn today) decorated with fertility symbols and motifs reflect a grander and possibly more decadent age when compared to a Republic-era blouse-and-skirt ensemble hung next to them. The latter would have ushered the arrival of Western dress and casual clothes: simplicity of line and print (as opposed to embroidery)—here, it is Art Deco in style. Although the blouse has narrower waist and sleeves, they embody the looser silhouettes of the 1920s, which, in Europe, who have been the beginning of the modern fashion era as well, spearheaded by designers such as Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and, most notably, Gabrielle Chanel. It was a joy to me to be able to examine these clothes up-close, to see that collars that stood, stood; the seams that are flat, stayed flat, as well as the exquisiteness of the embroideries. Craft here was indeed well and alive.
In the exhibition, I was especially fascinated by a small-screen,1929 film footage of a fashion show in Shanghai, the only video offering among 90-plus objects on display. The simple outdoor presentation was staged in what appeared to be a well-manicured courtyard, featuring Chinese models who emerged from an arched entrance in the rear onto what was a very short catwalk (compared to what we often see today). The women appeared unlike what novelist Eileen Chang (张爱玲) described in her 1943 non-fiction, Chinese Life and Fashions—“the ideal Chinese female, petite and slender, with sloping shoulders and a hollow chest, made herself pleasantly unobtrusive, one of the most desirable qualities in a woman”. These feminine ideals, ironically, had to be concealed under layers of clothes during the Qing rule. The models in the video had unyoked themselves from the restrictions of that time, but not feminine grace; their deportment and confidence heralded a new socio-cultural era.
I was held rapt by the young host of the show, introducing the different looks, presumably the rage of the time, in English! She did not say in great detail what the making of the garments entailed or provide commentary on the genesis of the styles, but it was apparent to me that the clothing was targeted at women (possibly foreigners too) who were trend-aware or who were ready and had the means to adopt these clearly fashionable looks. These are variations of the qipao and what is known as “civilised new attire” (文明新装), prevalent during the early 20th century. Following the May Fourth Movement (五四运动) of 1919, the anti-imperialist and political shifts that were considered momentous for China at that time, students (mainly young women) began wearing what was considered simpler, and garments that were usually in plain weaves, and were visually clear departures from those of the ancien régime. The “civilised new attire” was so popular that even older women adopted it, looking, amusingly, like schoolgirls.
‘Cantonese style’ cheongsam from the early Republican period
The difference between the past and the present is best exemplified by how the clothes are displayed. For the Qing jacket and the ao, horizontal rods are passed through the arms and hung, offering the same effect when similarly stretched out on a Qing garment rack, so that the unmistakable T-shape of the tops—the prevalent silhouette of imperial fashion then—is discernible. Exhibited this way, the immense amount of silk used and the full embroidery can be taken in and admired. I estimated that the Qing tops require at least 4.5 metres of fabric (assuming it is 0.9-metres in width or 36-inches), while the qipao that came after the 1950s would require no more than half of that. The change in fashion era that came with the fall of Imperial China is further contrasted by having the shapelier and lighter (and even shorter) qipaos (or blouses and skirts) worn on mannequins. Women by then were more than ready to don single-layer garments that were cut closer to the body and were shorter, too. The qipao, by now, had nearly obliterated the memory of the “civilised new attire”.
Modern Women of the Republic spans eighty-odd years. With just fourteen outfits, it is not possible that the changes accompanying each decade can be represented by at least one dress. In place of the gaps, the curators have availed photographs and other printed materials to offer an impression of the corresponding styles. Descriptions unfortunately tend to be brief, providing a scant picture of the stories and the crafts behind the exhibited garments. I would have liked to know (even if I could not see), for example, what the layers worn under the Qing ao were that made women look bulky, thus “suppressing their individuality and restricting their freedom”, as noted in an accompanying publication of the exhibition, which is, oddly and regrettably, just as skimpy. Or, the style of embroidery that are on some of the pieces, even when they look rather Cantonese (粤绣 or yuexiu) to me. Perhaps I was expecting scholarship when the curators had something more prosaic in mind. Or accessible?
What really sticks out in Modern Women of the Republic is the inclusion of cheongsam master Goh Lai Chan’s very 21st century gown. Yes, that showstopper. Its lonely appearance in a glass cabinet, placed in a corner, stood incongruously with the clearly less glamorous exhibits across from it. Mr Goh’s chilli-red piece is a qipao fashioned as a floor-sweeping doupeng (斗篷) or cloak, a Western-style garment believed to be introduced to China during the Qing dynasty. As a reinterpretation, he added a qipao collar to it, shortened the front hem to the knee and into an inverted V, on which surprisingly crude embroidered flowers are appliquéd over and weighted down by two short tassels: the sum serving as a headdress-like bouquet, under which a pleated skirt cascades to the floor. But what was annoyingly glaring to me was how shockingly messy the sleeves are set (creating unsightly puckering along the armholes) and how the shoulder refuses to rest flatly. As I glanced further down, two impertinent lines smiled at me: bust-darts that are warped and end in the front with two cheery dimples! Mr Goh’s gown should be lauded for being on-theme, but, sadly, it also reflects what #SGFASHIONNOW desperately tries to illustrates: “craft”, or the sheer lack of it.
#SGFASHIONNOW is on at the Asian Civilisation Museum till 19 December 2021. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is on at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall till 12 December 2021. Photos: Zhao Xiangji
The Axe Brand front page ad shows that The Straits Times is staffed by those insensitive to their surroundings and the tasks before them
These are difficult and sensitive times. The two stories on the front page of today’s issue of The Straits Times (both print and digital) tell us that. But the appearance of the sole, quarter-page advertisement that runs beneath the cover stories is the proverbial rubbing the wound with salt. “Sec 1 student allegedly killed by Sec 4 student in school” and “local Covid-19 cases continue to spike…” are not exactly alerting readers to the bright spots in an increasingly distressing pandemic year. Sure, the Axe Brand Universal Oil (斧標驱风油) ad has nothing to do with the editorials above it, but even without reading the story related to the murdered student of the first report, many of us knew by yesterday afternoon, despite the authorities urging us “not to speculate”, that “an axe was seized by the police” in relation to the school homicide. How is it possible that no one in ST saw how crassly at odds the editorial and the advertisement are? Or, discerned I.N.S.E.N.S.I.T.I.V.E spelled across the page?
Appearing like an underscore of the two reports, the Axe Brand ad is, by itself, not wrong, but its very placement, positioning, and prominence are. It is unsurprising that ST’s oversight—or carelessness—is met with scorn and derision on social media. Axe Brand was quick to response (not ST), following the negative reactions on social media, posting on Facebook, “It has come to our company’s attention that our Axe Brand advertisement has been placed below an article on the Straits Times today concerning the recent alleged killing at the River Valley High School. The advertisement placement was not intentional by our company but a very unfortunate coincidence. The advertisement was arranged and booked in December 2020 with Straits Times. Our company is in deep sympathy and grief with the victim’s family.”
This is the cover of the main English paper of our city-state. Surely more than a pair of eyes would have given it a once-over—or twice?
This is, in all likelihood, an error of human judgment. But ST might think otherwise. In March 2019, an ad by AirAsia offering “free seats” appeared within close proximity of reports on the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. ST attributed that to the ad space bought through “programmatic channels”—basically third parties than through ST directly. It is not (yet) known if Axe Brand, the 93-year-old Singaporean name, booked the front page space through such a service (considered to be cheaper), which then would possibly have allowed the placement to escape ST’s own “safety filters”. But wouldn’t it be to ST’s gain to protect the interest of the brands that advertise with them? Moreover, this is the cover of the main English paper of our city-state. Surely more than a pair of eyes—other than the sub-editors’ (or their all-seeing AI’s)—would have given it at least a once-over—or twice?
Perhaps the on-going pandemic has really revealed our true nature, socially and professionally. We are totally indifferent to how our action would affect those around us. Or, inaction. We have seen too often, for example, the many individuals who, up till now, refuse to wear masks or social-distance. Just this morning, at a hawker centre, a woman (accompanied by three others) chose to sit on a fixed stool marked diagonally across with a bold red tape. When we drew her attention to the seat crossed out with the unmissable stripe, she replied with no regret, “Oh, cross-out mean (sic) cannot sit, ah? I don’t know, leh.” And we can’t be cross! We have no idea why ignorance can be used so conveniently and vehemently to cover bad behaviour or total disregard to the morally right thing to do. “I don’t know” and, just as often used, “I can’t see” have become the preferred and acceptable vindication. Don’t be surprised if they’re the ST editors’ lines of defence too.
Update (20 July 2021, 17:00): In what appears to be an e-mail reply to a reader’s enquiry that was shared online, editor-in-chief of The Straits Times Warren Fernandez wrote at 3.31pm, “The juxtaposition of the advertisement, which was book (sic) in advance, was unfortunate and inadvertent. It was insensitive; we regret and apologise for the anxiety and unease caused by this, especially in light of this tragic incident.” Inadvertent. Convenient. The apology was offered “for the anxiety and unease caused”, but not for the action and decision that caused the anxiety and unease. Charmed.
Update (21July 2021, 10:30): On the online edition of The Straits Times, a similar non-apology was posted at 5am this morning. “This juxtaposition was inadvertent and unfortunate, in the light of the tragic incident,” it read. “The Straits Times apologises for the distress caused.” Sounds familiar?
Apparently not.Dior shows that there really can be no limit to the use of their name and initials
Kiasuism has hit luxury brands, in particular Dior. Sure, we have seen before the unceasing use of their logos and monograms on much of what they make, but we have yet to see branding so concentrated in a single product, as the above sunglasses, the Blue Dior Oblique Pilot, also known as the CD Link A1U. When paired with their Sunglasses Cord and the Dior X Kenny Scharf T-shirt, as shown in the photo above, you’ll have the full Dior, visually. Or, full of Dior? Is nothing too much? Or, too obvious? Discreet is not fashionable, Dior seems to be telling us, and the world needs not to know what you are wearing, but who. Not even the ’80s and ’90s were there such overuse of logos. It is no longer your good ’ol logomania. Dior is paving the way for hypermania.
We thought the proliferation of logos peaked at the end of the ’90s. We were so wrong. The love of logos never went away, but it has, in recent years, become more pronounced and the presence of the attendant products overwhelming. And even more so during a pandemic. We remember going to the Dior men’s store last year, shortly before Christmas, and was really taken aback to see virtually no product without a visible font or symbol of their trademark. We remember asking ourselves, will designers be hired if they are not good at using logos other than for labels? Is fashion design increasingly about logo placement?
Just look at the pilot sunglasses. The CD Link A1U would look like most aviators if not for its patterned lenses. Do people love Dior so much that they wish to be seen with the Dior Oblique monogram for eyes? Apparently so. According to the brand’s marketing material, the “blue lenses feature a silver mirrored Dior Oblique motif to complete the urban sunglasses”. Motif? Branded! We do not know, if looking through them from the other side, we’d see the possibly headache-inducing logo feast, but this shade sure goes with B23 high-tops. More to match if they are crucial to the look. (Despite the tonal difference on the lenses, they offer 100% UVA/UVB protection). If the logo-ed up lenses is still discreet, the metal arm of the glasses sport “an openwork ‘CD’ signature”. So that no one would mistake it for LV?
Of course to strengthen the branding and to “lend the finishing touch to any pair of glasses”, you’d have to attach the eyewear to the Dior Sunglasses Cord. And in case no one knows what ‘CD’ stands for, it is all spelled out in full caps with clear reverse-white, sans-serif font on the polyester nylon jacquard lanyard. On the “silver-finish metal lobster clasp”, the four-letter brand name is engraved on it. If even that is not enough, set both against a cotton T-shirt with ‘CD’ embroidered on the left top corner of the pocket. The look is now complete. More, not less.
Is this spectacle lanyard made from a leftover handbag strap or someone’s bicycle security cable?
By Mao Shan Wang
Burberry has just released images of their resort 2022 collection. Among the pieces sporting graphic prints, monograms and camo-on-tartan is this striking spectacle cord. At first, I thought I was looking at a strap of one of their bags, hung upside down. Then I noticed it was attached to the red-lensed wrap-shades. They have to be an eyewear accessory. Besides, Burberry handbags come with far much wider straps—the Olympia and Grace do. I have never seen such thick spectacle cords. Sure, thanks to Virgil Abloh, they are those that mimick his chains for the Louis Vuitton Keepall Bandouliere, but these are, like bicycle cables, really clunky and conspicuous. That is, perhaps, the whole idea?
I can see that to use one, you simply slip the arms of the glasses through the rubber ring on each end of the smooth leather cord. There is a cube of a charm hanging from the other ends of the rings, cinched in the middle like the numeral 8. Looked to me that even arms of eyewear need danglies. Odd to call them earrings. Arm rings perhaps? I wondered if they are heavy, and if they can be easily put away for storage, say, in a bag. I could see other uses for this luxury accessory. Could they be attached to surgical masks so that when one is not in use, they can hang down the chest like a plate-pendant? Or, might they be given the function of defensive—even offensive—weapons? You are, as it’s often said, only limited by your imagination.
BOF just revealed that Phoebe Philo will have her own eponymous, backed by LVMH. Some designers are just luckier than others
Following the most hyped-up haute couture season in recent memory, the news now trending is Phoebe Filo’s return to fashion. According to Business of Fashion in a report earlier today, Ms Filo will launch her own label with some backing from LVMH, who has “taken a minority stake in the new venture”. The English designer was reported to have said, “I have had a very constructive and creative working relationship with LVMH for many years. So, it is a natural progression for us to reconnect on this new project.” This would only be LVMH’s second new label they’ve backed after Rihanna’s Fenty, which was “paused” in February. But Ms Philo’s own brand is expected to do much better. And she is a trained designer, with an unerring eye for the splendidly spare yet immense cool. And her ability and allure were proven too. Her reboot of Céline* in the early ’00s gave LVMH an extremely profitable label in its stable of high-profile luxury brands, improving the brand’s annual profits from €200 million to €700 million, according to analysts at that time.
We do not yet know when the new collection will be launched or if the name-sake brand will be shown in Paris or in London, where Ms Philo had led Céline with full creative control of the French house, and where she will reportedly continue to be based. Her return to fashion is thought to be unsurprising, only that it has taken this long. Ms Philo was mostly away from the limelight as she enjoyed a three-year hiatus from designing while her protégé at Céline, Daniel Lee, went on to re-awake Bottega Veneta. During this time, she was rumoured to be up for the creative directorship of Chanel, even Alaïa. Nothing came out of those speculations. Although quiet throughout the three years’ absence, she was reported to have already built the Phoebe Philo Studio in London.
It was while studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design that she met Stella McCartney. After graduating in 1996, she joined Ms McCartney as design assistant when her friend succeeded Karl Lagerfeld as creative director of Chloé. In 2001, Ms McCartney launched her own label in a joint venture with the then Gucci Group (now part of Kering). Ms Philo was not asked to go along. Ralph Toledano, then Chloé’s CEO, reportedly played on the rift and installed her as Chloé’s new CD. She was then only 24, but she was able to prove the massive promotion worthy, and continued to augment the brand’s cool-French-girl aesthetic. She left Chloé in 2006 to look after her young children. It was at Céline, where she joined two years later, that her star truly shone, turning the LVMH-owned label into the conglomerate’s coolest, seriously desired by women who enjoy fashion, not trends; designs, not looks. When she left Céline in 2018, supporters were encouraging Ms Philo to start her own label.
That is now happening for her. Not, unfortunately, for other designers linked to Celine, but unable to enjoy the same fate. No one knows if Ms Philo will revive the feminine simplicity that endeared her to so many of her followers. Or the equivalent of those capacious coats that predates the ones currently the rage everywhere, or those roomy, high-waisted slacks with the legs that distends and swirls at the feet, or the Boston tote (way ahead of Dior’s significantly simpler Book), or the Birkenstocks with the fur-backed straps, but there is a strong feeling that, with her own house to better give shape to her ideas, Phoebe Philo’s taste would still captivate, and her return would be the one to watch, and eagerly embraced.
*To keep to the Phoebe Philo-era Celine, we have chose to spell the brand in the old way: Céline. Photo: #phoebefiloarchive/instagram
So this is couture now? Of course, like everything else in fashion, including elegance and refinement, couture needs to be redefined. A clump of anything, too, can be clothes. To be sure, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss did say to Vogue, “I wanted to do this like Sesame Street and Pixar.” Still, the collection, despite their serious themes, really appeared like a big joke to mock Parisian couture. Do the French even know that they need a peanut butter jar as a dress? Or, a bottle cap as skirt? Is there ever a reason to dress like a supermarket mascot if you are not working for one? That it is custom-made with the best fabrics, is not going to make a difference if, despite the efforts, you look ridiculous or, worse, mad. But these are confusing times: Ugly is not, vanilla is. So it is possible that, for Mr Jean-Raymond, mad is rad.
Until this: a grab of an outfit that looks like something expelled from the body, emerging in the shape of a fo shou gua (佛手瓜 or Buddha’s hand gourd)! And for some reason, a mop is a good accessory. When we look closer, we realise that the garment is actually a padded coat of sort, worn over identically coloured pants. The similarity to the emoji is, to us, uncanny. It could be because we have been reading in the American media last week of the CDC’s amazing warning: “not to swim with diarrhea”, including a message on Twitter, “Don’t leave your mark at the pool this summer!” Even CNN ran a piece on it, with Jeanne Moos talking about “code brown on a slide”. We are not going to identify the colour of the outfit to stay on the side of the polite, and woke.
As the collection, called Wat U Iz by Pyer Moss and “imaginative” by the press, is supposedly a visual thesis on Black erasure and Black inventions, our comparison would be seen as inappropriate. Take it seriously, we hear people say. Mr Jean-Raymond used household objects and shaped them into supple couture, which seemed rather similar to the soft sculptures of everyday objects by the American artist Claes Oldenburg. The mop refers to inventor Thomas W. Stewart, who patented one with a clamp. In this composition could also refer to the domestic lives of black women throughout their history in the US, and the domestic work they do. And the arm grabbing the entire body, domestic violence they experienced? Or unwanted sexual advances? We are, of course, guessing. The Pyer Moss collection was reportedly assembled with the help of Hollywood fabricators and costume staff. Could this be to amp up the theatricality of the clothes and their kitsch-ness, just as the very show itself is to grandly celebrate the first Black designer to show on the official couture calendar in the Chambre Syndicale’s 150-plus-year history? Couture week may be less than a week in duration, but some of us are really pooped.
Inspired by the works of British fashion photographer Jamie Hawkesworth, Junya Watanabe’s spring/summer 2022 collection is peppered with alluring neo-ethnic touchesthat are ready for some unknown quest
Enticingly wearable and irresistibly fab have always been how fans of Junya Watanabe view his effortless melding of work wear and the artistic, incorporating into the line collabs with heritage brands across the globe. In many ways, Mr Watanabe is a fashion vagabond. There is no fixed point on which to stay put. This season, he looks at the travel photography of Jamie Hawkesworth (specifically the Bhutan photos, such as those published in Holiday), admired by fellow Brit J W Anderson, who paired with the former for both Loewe and his collaboration with Uniqlo. In the accompanying collection notes, Mr Watanabe quoted the photographer saying, “It’s such an incredible feeling turning up to a place with no ideas or expectations, and just walking and exploring and taking photographs—it’s incredible what you find.” The same feeling can perhaps also describe encountering Mr Watanabe’s designs: you do not know what to expect, but you won’t be disappointed. For those familiar his work, Junya Watanabe may be destination familiar, but there would always be unexplored territory and untasted fare.
Mr Watanabe’s work this season riffs on Asian motifs, prints, and details, which he has intermittently done in the past. More pronounced now are his use of visuals by Asian illustrators: Chinese illustrator/artist, Shenzhen-based Rlon Wang; Japan’s pop art fave Keiichi Tanaami, Nepalese artist/Californian resident Ang Tsherin Sherpa, Thailand’s fashion darling Phannapast Taychamaythakool, and Vietnamese children’s book illustrators Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien. But rather than just use them as patterns on fabrics, he has employed them as he would with parts of his favourite garments. The prints are used on yokes—like bibs, some are in grid form, some as repeated patterns, some as a single delineation of, say, a head. There are prints used as linings of jackets too. A surprising large number of T-shirts with those artists’ illustrations are shown. In fact, this seems to be the summeriest collection of the menswear season, even when there considerable outers too.
Presented against what looks like a makeshift art gallery, randomly placed with Mr Hawkesworth’s photographs, and accompanied by a soundtrack featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Ma Mere L’Oie (from 1984’s Ongaku Zukan) and Thousand Knives (from 1978’s same-name album), the collection seems to be focused on—as Mr Sakamoto also sang in Ongaku Zukan—Steppin’ into Asia. The original opening track features a chorus of children singing, which sounds suitably Bhutanese, although in the album, references were made to Tibet and Paradise Lost. While Mr Watanabe is not susceptible to the obvious, the Asian-ness is seen in the fabrics, some evocative of Bhutanese textiles made into the national costumes of gho and kira for men and women respectively, as well cropped and draped trousers with shapes that recall the Thai sarouel (fishermen’s pants). In fact, the whole collection comprises separates that are truly approachable and commensurate with the present desire for clothes that are relaxed (we resist using the word ‘lounge’!). The silhouettes suggest something more for the outdoors than a corporate meeting room, but Junya Watanabe has never been a business wear label, and those who succumb to it’s charms tend to be individuals in the creative business, and the many unshakable diehards.
As usual, there are collaborations galore, including his on-going work with The North Face, Levi’s, and New Balance. Others include Ark Air (blousons!) Dickies (work pants), Brooks Brothers (shirts and blazers), and also the Harajuku vintage outlet BerBerJin, which Time Out calls a “classy vintage store”, from which select pieces are printed with Mr Watanabe’s choice images from those illustrators mentioned above (not sure how those can be produced in large quantities). There is clearly a sense of sartorial adventurism here. Regional prints meet the Tokyo-urban, folk costumes convene with work wear, hipster sandals stride alongside hypebeast sneakers, all in an unmistakably happy convergence. We call it ‘exploracore’.
Their last store—in 313@Orchard—closed two weeksago
File photo of Forever 21after last year’s Circuit Breaker
It isn’t easy to be known as “forever”. Eternal is extremely distant and never ending is wishful thinking. Forever 21 is proof that it is hard to live up to such a name. Their storefront at 313@Orchard was completely hoarded up this week. No sign was posted to announce their closure or who the next tenant might be. “They have closed down since two weeks ago,” staff of a nearby store told us. A search for Forever 21 on 313@Orchard’s website, yielded this message: “Whoops! We can’t find that store”. The name is also no longer listed in the shopping centre’s directory, online and in-mall. On Google Map, the store is marked “permanently closed” (the nearest store it offered was in Kuala Lumpur!). Two girls approaching the former 313@Orchard store on a Wednesday evening were heard saying, “Huh, really died?” For some, Forever 21’s obituary was already written in 2019, when the company was reported to have filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in September that year. One leasing manager told us, “It wasn’t if the SG store will close, it was when.” Next to the store’s entrance inside the mall, a very tall poster was erected, telling shoppers to “forget the rules: wear what you want.” Perhaps Forever 21 is hard to think no more of?
Founded in 1984 by South Korean immigrants in Los Angeles, Forever 21 was popular among teens who love the accessible trendiness and pocket-friendly prices. In addition, new products were stocked frequently—quick-turnaround designs were their key strategy. You could visit a store every other week, and there would seem to be new things. Success encouraged rapid expansion in the US and in no time, the retailer became known as “king of the malls”. According to Business Insider, global sales peaked at $4.4 billion by 2015. They operated 480 stores that occupied enormous prime spaces in malls across America. When the privately held company filed for bankruptcy protection four years later, news headline typically preceded with or followed by “fashion fail”. Business analysts quickly attributed Forever 21’s downfall to a glut of stores and an anemic response to e-commerce.
Storefront of the Forever 21 unit early this week
Forever 21 opened in 313@Orchard in 2009. At the height of its popularity, there were four stores across our island. The two-storey 313@Orchard store remained their most popular (they had menswear here too), even when their keenest competitor, H&M, operates a flagship less than 500m away on Grange Road. Shortly after the news of the filing for bankruptcy protection emerged, we visited the 313@Orchard outlet, which had by then looked a sad dump of its former self. Many shoppers had visited, thinking the store was to close. Reports in the press stated that the down-to-one SG store was “not affected”. When we spoke to the staff then, they told us they didn’t know what would happen. Sharaf Group, a conglomerate based in the United Arab Emirates that is involved in numerous industries, was licensed to run the Forever 21 store here. The company later issued a statement to the media: “Forever 21’s partners in Singapore, United Arab Emirates, India and the Philippines are not impacted by the US filing and it continues to be business as usual in those markets.” They didn’t say for how long.
Forever 21 was bought out of bankruptcy by Authentic Brands Group (ABG) last year. The New York City-based company also owns mass-market labels such as Aéropostale and Izod and fashion brands such as Geoffery Beene and Herve Leger, and the luxury department store Barney’s New York. Nick Woodhouse, president and chief marketing officer of ABG told Forbes in April, “there’s permission to make Forever 21 a lifestyle brand again” and that “there’s a lot of room to grow in Eastern and Western Europe and Southeast Asia…” Meanwhile, in this tiny part of SEA, despite increased competition, Forever 21 did not significantly set themselves apart. Or, made significant moves to establish themselves as what marketers like to call “top-of-the-mind brand”. They may have had an impressive level of inventory, but regulars were beginning to see “variations of the same things” and “just racks and racks of clothes”. Read: they had not changed. Another constant—their paper bags, under which were printed clearly “John 3:16”, referring to the biblical verse that ends with “…shall not perish but have eternal life”. It’s hard not to see the irony in that.
Chitose Abe’s take on Jean Paul Gaultier couture for autumn/winter 2021 is all singing and dancing Sacai
It’s certainly a masterclass on “’ow to do dat in a new way”, as Jean Paul Gaultier rapped in the soundtrack of his Michel Gaubert-remixed 1989 “house couture” single, How to do That. In the original track, Mr Gaultier spoke-sang through the song and answered his own question: “Bring some technic… idea…” (which spun into another song Technic Idea, with the catchy refrain “How to do that”!). And techniques and ideas were certainly what Sacai’s Chisato Abe brought to JPG in her debut collection for the French house—indeed, her first attempt at haute couture. Fans of JPG were thrilled that the brand could be fashioned in such and haute and outre manner. All JPG’s favorite visual themes (or ‘codes’) were there, but turned upside down, inside out. This is the Frankenstein love child of Sacai and Jean Paul Gaultier that you could adore—born immaculately— since this is not Sacai X JPG (or vice versa). This is JPG by Sacai. And what jumped out at us are Sacai hacking JPG; this is less homage than let’s put Sacai on the JPG stage.
To be sure, it is a momentous take on JPG by Chisato Abe, and a testament to her astounding technical ability to bring together different parts, indeed different garments, together by stitching that could possibly be beyond even JPG’s most advanced metier (how do you join so many shoulders-looking parts to a waist to form a skirt?). But Ms Abe cannot divorce herself from her RTW roots. While Sacai seems to be paring down the splicing and the conjoining (as seen in the spring/summer 2021 and the recent autumn/winter collections), she is amping up the melding (not necessarily unifying) at JPG, as if to show off what she can do. Must every look be an obvious draughting challenge or a technical marvel? It was also sometimes difficult to see the difference between this couture and her own pret-a-porter. Or, whether the clothes were assembled in Paris or Tokyo (for it to qualify as haute couture, they have to be made in Paris, although “guests designers” can work outside the city. But you get our point). The beauty of having carte blanche to do as one pleases!
Chisato Abe told WWD Japan: “I loved his collections since I was in my twenties, and what I was conscious of was the feeling of happiness and the freedom of breaking preconceived ideas. However, it is not the same as the old Gaultier. I wanted to make clothes that are just like Sacai.” And that she did. Ms Abe is a maximalist designer, but not in the Dolce & Gabbana school, or, closer home, Guo Pei. Encrusting and bejeweling is not her vernacular—not in a major way (when she did decorate—metallic embroidery, no less, she obscured them with profusion of tulle!), yet she could astonishingly create a sum so much more than its unlikely parts or extrusions. We think even Mr Gaultier himself has never assembled this many components in a single garment (excluding embellishments).
She interlaced and intertwined, wed and weaved recognisable JPG codes until they were not quite. An outfit might look like an identifiable bustier corset (less pointy than those Madonna wore, more Cardin than Gaultier) on the top, but if you allowed your eyes to marvel further down, it looked like a trench coat mis-worn. What you see in front is not what you’Il get in the back: a denim trucker-and-skirt-onesie is, in the rear, a jacket and bustle-skirt. No part of a garment cannot be undone and decamped for somewhere else. The shoulder of a military jacket can be repositioned so that there would be a one-sided pannier to the right hip. She used denim jeans (Levi’s upcycled, unlike Balenciaga’s custom-woven in Japan using vintage American looms, more like Maison Margiela’s “found pieces”? Or Junya Watanabe?) not as pants; she joined multiple pairs at the waist so they formed cartridge-pleated skirts. Nothing was what they seemed, even the prosaic could have the guise of historical homage.
She didn’t only pick the JPG pieces Madonna wore to reimagine, but also what Bjork modelled, in particular the jerkin coat with the massive JPG logo for the autumn/winter 1994 Le Grand Voyage collection, one inspired by Tibetan sherpa’s garb that surprisingly has not been tagged cultural appropriation (not in 1994, but presently?). Mr Gaultier famously put men in skirts. Ms Abe put them in dresses. Wasn’t this a first, too, for her? By now, of course, there is nothing subversive about men in non-bifurcated garb, as it was in the mid-’80s. Nor, respectable Breton stripes made of layered, ripped fabric strips, nor sneakers (extending Sacai’s collaboration with Nike) in couture. While there was indeed a lot to take in, we really wanted something more agitational, something that would blow us away. That truly didn’t appear.
Screen grab (top): Jean Paul Gaultier by Sacai. Photos: Gorunway
On Wednesday evening, the boys appeared in a special Seoul edition of Virgil Abloh’s autumn/winter 2021 collection for Louis Vuitton. This was really one for the Army
By Colin Cheng
Why do you need to show autumn/winter twice? Because you can. And you must finish telling the story. Louis Vuitton was not quite done with their autumn/winter 2021 narrative, so they took it to Seoul to complete it, together with additional 34 new looks. And if you were going to Seoul, you might as well get what CNN called “the biggest boyband in the world to model”, all seven of them. Yes, BTS was the star of the (officially) “spin-off show” and the main draw. The septet was installed as LV’s brand ambassadors just last April, but unlike others similarly appointed, the boys were asked to perform (LV calls it “integrated”) in the fashion show (Blackpink’s Rose didn’t have to strut for Saint Laurent, not yet anyway), and, strangely, a rather static one. And, boring too.
It was quite a rush for me yesterday evening. I was watching the Balenciaga couture show on my smartphone, ensconced in a sofa seat at Starbucks. The show was running late, about 20 minutes or so; it started only after Bella Hadid arrived, tardiness for the world to see. The live streaming of both shows was only 30 minutes apart (5.30pm, our time, for Balenciaga and 6pm for LV), but because Balenciaga was late (and I did want to see the presentation till the last outfit appeared—a beautifully ghostly apparition of a wedding dress), I could not switch to LV. And I do not, as many others seem to be, especially the Pokémon Go-playing ones, carry more than one phone. As my best friend and I WhatsApped, “isn’t this like those days when we had to rush from one show to another, and hopping that the one we were on the way to see had not already started?” When I was finally able to go to LV’s webpage some 15 minutes or so later, the show had already begun, but not by much.
Clockwise from top left: Jimin, RM, Suga, Jin, Jungkook, V, and J-Hope
Directed by South Korean auteur Jeon Go-woon (Microhabitat, 2017), the Yeezy-ish, pseudo performance-art film was set in Bucheon Art Bunker B39, just outside of Seoul. The building was once a complex of incinerators. This time, a different fire was burning, and it was smoldering through seven hot-blooded Korean males. Only the BTS boys were walking through the space (which included one central scaffolding/structure). The rest of the models just stood (or sat) still. Like so many of Virgil Abloh’s recent artsy presentation, this is painfully pretentious. With a small hot-air balloon—emblazoned with the word “Hope”—hovering ominously, I was not sure anything was going hopefully forward. Where were the overly made-up boys going to? Or where they seeking Permission to Dance? Why was V (Kim Tae-hyung) wondering aimlessly with a LV-logo-ed coffee cup?
This collection/presentation is a Black-American embracing Asian sex appeal by way of a French brand. Internationalism and inclusivity have never made such visually striking bedfellows. I am not going to say anything about BTS’s usefulness in all this because, as so many have found out, one never says anything about the boys, even if one is right, as the stans or the BTS Army will wage war against anyone who dares put their biases in any perceived-to-be-negative light. The clothes have a Black aesthetic about them, and for fervent Asian rappers could be amusing, even ideal, to wear. According to LV, “the collection re-appropriates the normal through extreme elevation” and “employs fashion as a tool to change predetermined perceptions of dress codes”. I am not sure any of the BTS boys are such alert thinkers.