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
Malaysian singing sensation Aina Abdul, appearing to be wearing a sleeping bag, woke up the dismay of her alert fans
Similarly padded. Left, Viktor and Rolf’s bedding-as-fashion. Photo: Marcio Madeira. Right, Aina Abdul in Masyadi Mansoor’s sleeping bag. Photo: ainaabdul/Instagram
It is likely conceived as an Instagram bait, and many fell for it. Malaysian pop star Aina Abdul (top right) recently wore what seemed to be a fancy sleeping bag on an episode of the singing competition Big Stage (she’s a judge on the show). Ms Abdul is known for wearing massive clothes for her performances, but she has not been seen encased in a padded baju that not only made her appear to have come straight from some camp site on Brinchang Mountain, the undulating stripes of the garment could suggest the many layers of the mattress in Princess and the Pea, augmenting the visual effect of a ranjang (bed). The outfit came attached with a travel pillow large enough to cushion her scarvedhead.
Her fans (and not) are unimpressed with her tilam kutior (mattress couture). Netizens haven been up in arms, telling her to “berhenti berpakaian begitu pelik (stop dressing so weirdly)”. There is, of course, nothing really that strange about Ms Abdul’s stage costume, except that in the heat Malaysia and our island state share, it is curious that anyone would want to be togged like an Eskimo on New Year’s day in Alaska. In fact, the idea behind Ms Abdul’s floor-length cover-all is not new. We remember the autumn/winter 2005—musim luruh/sejuk!—ready-to-wear collection of Viktor & Rolf, inspired by bedclothes, but ended with models seemingly wearing the bed. But there is an artfulness to the duo’s madness. On one look (above left), the Euro-shams on which the model’s head ‘laid’ stayed up and the duvet which became the coat had what seemed like the top sheet cleverly folded over the quilt, like a skewed fichu.
Aina Abdul’s pakaianpentas (stage fashion) is designed by relative newcomer Masyadi Mansoor whose fledgling label MSYD is about three years old. Mr Mansoor, a 2020 graduate of Universiti Teknologi Mara, is partial to padded garments, and has professed to love Moncler. That he would clothe Ms Abdul in a duvet with a bantal (pillow) to frame her head is, therefore, unsurprising, but that she looked like she picked her outfit from Decathlon is perhaps more amusing than incensing. The designer, in a reaction to the outrage over his design on Instagram, theorised that ”people experience a variety of emotions, ranging from some of the happiest and most euphoric feelings to some of the greatest anxieties and deepest sorrows. At the end of the day, the bed is the place we let it all out.”
And on stage, too. Aina Abdul, usually a strong supporter of Behati’s equally exaggerated style, shares the same perasaan (feeling). She told Yahoo News: “I chose that wardrobe to fit the theme, which is the turbulence of feelings. I thought the image will earn some entertaining comments since I have worn something even bigger and baggier than that.” Bigger, as many know, is not necessarily better, nor modest. But the “entertaining comments” did appear, although some bordered on the clearly unkind. She said, “Aside from face shaming, some Netizens even wanted to boycott me because of my style when I have spent thousands to maintain my looks as a celebrity.” There is considerable expense beneath the duvet. Spurn not the mattress maju (progress).
The shoes are back. And the rush for them ensued. Kanye West is laughing to the bank
Screen grabs of the Adidas Confirmed app on the morning of the re-release of Yeezy X Adidas
By Awang Sulung
They’re back! Yeezys, at first destined to die, has come back. But the person to stay alive with the last laugh has to be Kanye West. According to news reports, the man who created Yeezys supposedly made US$25 million (or about S$33.7 million) on the first day of the re-launch of Yeezy sneakers—those that Adidas were stuck with and unable to dump after they broke off their business deal with the rapper. And what a “great” day it was—for Mr West and Adidas, and even better for fans. You and I would think that after the long-drawn and very public fallout of Mr West’s deplorable behaviour, online and off, on social media and in private (but exposed), the craze for the shoes that he first launched with the German sports brand in 2013 (after failed talks with Nike, Mr West’s prior collaborator) would have waned, or cooled like a twenty-minute old goreng pisang.
But no, Yeezys are as hot as ever. I don’t own a single pair and have never tried to buy any, but out of curiosity, I decided to experience for my self what buying—or attempting to purchase—a pair of Yeezy, the very last ones, would be like. Sadly, I was not able to walk into any Adidas store to see, try, and buy. Instead, the sale of the Yeezys are only available online (from 1 June onwards), and not on the Adidas website, but via a dedicated app—Adidas Confirmed—that you have to download. That’s the only way even to just have a glimpse of the side-view images of those shoes. Adidas assumed you already know your Yeezys, so no 360° view of the sneakers or slides that you may like was available. Click on what you like before it’s to late. No time wasted on deliberating.
Screen shot of the page on the Adidas website that told visitors to download the ‘Confirm’ app to shop for Yeezys
Like shoppers in other parts of the world, Singaporeans approached the (re)release of Yeezys with new-broom enthusiasm. But ‘Confirmed’ does not mean you are assured a pair of the kicks. And there isn’t what Hossan Leong is prone to utter, “double confirm”. I have to say that I was not so determined that I hit the sale at the stroke of midnight. By the time, I downloaded the app, it was past noon. And by then, “Final Call” or “Sold Out” was indicated beneath many of the shoes available. There is no indication of how many styles were for grab at a time or if more will be put out. In fact, the shoes are not available for immediate sale. I had to click on “Enter Drop” when a shoe is marked “Drop Started”. That essentially meant I had the chance to “enter the queue”. But when the shoe is tagged “Final Call”, I had to “Enter Draw”. Frankly, it was all very confusing. And, pening (dizzying).
The prices are not low. The Boost 700 was going for S$410 and the Boost 350 V2 was asking for a far-from-humble S$380. For such pricing, it is strange that Adidas would not make the shopping experience pleasant and as straight-forward as possible. (And you could not buy without registering or surrendering all information about you.) Or was the draw, levelling the playing field for all fans (the mere curious lumped together)? What happened to first come, first serve? Or, is that just too old-fashioned, too easy? Adidas Confirm is a fairly easy to navigate app, full of ads to connect you to other of the brand’s desirable collabs, but when it came to the sale of the Yeezys, it was set up to lure the determined. I, alas, was not so serious or single-minded. The craze will past. No need to get all worked up.
Singapore’s Paris-based star designer, Andrew Gn, whose clothes have never really been sold here, is lavishly celebrated at the Asian Civilisations Museum
Suitably glamorous. The red-carpeted stairway to the main exhibition on level two of ACM
Unsurprisingly, the exhibition opens with red-carpet looks, even if some ofthe dresses are short
Andrew Gn with ACM’s Kenny Ting on opening night
In the world of French luxury fashion, Andrew Gn Chiang Tiew (鄞昌涛, Yin Changtao) is rather a standout. He is the only Singaporean with an eponymous label based in Paris. Unlike many of those not originally from France, who chose to show in the capital city, Mr Gn (pronounced ‘gen’ as in hen, with a hard ‘g’) has never sold his designs back home. The designer may be an “international name”, but not many here were able to easily buy his clothes or be deeply acquainted with his work. That could change. The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) has unveiled Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World, a retrospective of 28 years of his overseas career, featuring a reported 160 pieces (out of an archive of more than 10,000 pieces), including those worn on red carpets by recognisable stars. And as we understand it, Andrew Gn the label, now abbreviated to AGN for social media oomph, will be available at the evening dress and special occasion wear store, Pois, soon (purportedly from the autumn/winter 2023 season onwards). It is definitely a homecoming of sort for the Singapore son, who has been designing in Paris since 1995, when the brand was birthed.
Mr Gn is the most famous Singaporean designer practically unknown in his country of birth, and without a single point of sale yet (to be accurate, in 1997, two years after the founding of his label, there was a very short selling season of his clothes at the long-gone Glamourette. A source told us that the store had to drop the line as the prices were “very, very high and shoppers were not willing to pay”.) But he does have a body of prêt-à-porter that easily fills the smallish ACM. So restricted the museum space is that the exhibition has to be sectioned and sited at the opposite ends of ACM, across two floors. In fact, there are more pieces on display here than at the Costume Institute of Metropolitan Museum’s ongoing tribute, Karl Lagerfeld: In the Line of Beauty exhibition (150, according to the Met). The AGN retrospective charts Mr Gn’s design progress throughout his 30 years in Paris, and his embrace of Western aesthetical tradition, and his love for Asian decorative arts. This is, as former TV host, current Paris resident Sharon Au enthusiastically touted on Instagram, “when traditional designs and contemporary fashion merge.” It is, however, hard to come to the conclusion that the twain met in an impressive union.
More red-carpet fashion worn by celebrities
The general public’s first close look at an Andrew Gn dress was at the debut #SGFASHIONNOW exhibition—also at ACM—in 2021. Mr Gn donated to the museum a white, caped/fringed gown of startling simplicity, perhaps to serve as a clean-canvas of the foretaste of things to come—which would be a visual contradiction to that dress. The house of Gn is known for its uninhibited use of colours and prints, as well as not shying away from extravagant embellishments. In 2007, when he won the President’s Design Award for Designer of the Year, Design Singapore Council was clear that Mr Gn is “not a designer who withholds on extravagance.” ACM’s static pageant examines that lavishness, or “what Singapore has never seen before”—someone at the opening night was heard saying. Indeed Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World has been described as the “exhibition of the century”. It may not be an exaggeration: Our social media feeds have not stopped buzzing with posts and stories about it. Even Dick Lee, who attended the opening in a coral shirt as homage to the designer’s own tribute to undersea calcareous skeletons, urged his followers on Facebook to “please visit” the retrospective. The whole island, it appears, is riveted.
The exhibition is a highlight of ACM’s 25th anniversary line-up of entry-chargeable shows. The museum heralds it as the “largest showcase celebrating a contemporary Singapore fashion designer”, even when they have not staged a retrospective of a single Singaporean fashion name—living or dead—to be able to effect an accurate comparison. Or were they saying that it is unlikely that there would be another on this scale? Or bigger? Although spread out and in five sections, the entire display can easily be viewed in less than 30 minutes. The most popular section is likely the ‘gala gowns’ in the Shaw Foundation Foyer, now a patina of scarlet to give the impression of an evening of a red carpet event. Here, you will be able to see the dresses—mostly dresses (24 out of 27 looks)—that were worn by the stars who matter (and do not), and if you cannot visualise them in the shown frock, even if considerable media coverage were accorded them, accompanying photographs of the wearer in the outfits are able to free you from jolting your memory.
Looks from the ‘East Asian Art and Fashion’ segment of the exhibition
The more arousing designs are in the opposite end of the museum, in what is the Special Exhibitions Gallery. Here, the clothes are not necessarily conceived for the red carpet, but represent those that are more able to satisfy the viewers’ aesthetic curiosity, that embody what has been touted as “cross-cultural expressions of Asian and Western art”—both not necessarily paired, although Asian motifs and details do appear in unmistakably Western dress silhouettes. It could, perhaps, be more fascinating if ‘European Baroque’ meets, say, Heian splendour. But, while he enjoys clashing patterns, like his maternal grandmother did (according to a Lianhe Zhaobao report last week), Mr Gn is more controlled in his visual mashups. He is no doubt a lover of artistic expression in forms that are not garmented; he has been able to incorporate what is visually stimulating to him in decorative ways. These are eye-catching clothes, yet it is possible that more could be gleaned when viewing those very things that Mr Gn has said inspire him: ceramics, corals, or coromandel screens.
Among the 160 pieces that have been selected for the exhibition, director of ACM Kenny Ting (陈威仁) identified, in a Facebook post, a “coromandel dress” from autumn/winter 2021 as his favourite. The black, floor-length silk number, with longer-at-the-back bishop sleeves is one among nine outfits that ACM has highlighted in an A5-sized brochure introducing the exhibition (it appears on the cover, as well as the commemorative catalogue’s). The gown is inspired by a coromandel screen of unspecified provenance. Coromandel screens are lacquered, ebony folding screens—known as pingfeng (屏风) in China—that often depicts mythological figures, landscapes, or scenes of court life. Elaborately decorated with a technique known as kuancai (款彩 or sectionalised/incised colours), they first appeared during the late mingchao (明朝) or Ming dynasty. Despite their origin, they owe the name to India’s Coromandel Coast in the southeast of the subcontinent, where they were sent to and re-exported to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The coromandel screen was especially popular in France, but in their final destination, the screens were not always employed as such. They were cut up and used in cabinetry or as panelling on walls.
One of the ‘highlights’ of the exhibition, the ‘coromandel dress’ (middle)
In the Paris of the ‘20s and ‘30s, one of the most ardent collectors of the coromandel screen was Coco Chanel. According to the maison, she had 32 of them during her lifetime, of which eight were used in her apartment at rue Cambon in Paris. She once said, sounding like Diana Vreeland: “I’ve loved Chinese screens since I was eighteen years old. I nearly fainted with joy when, entering a Chinese shop, I saw a Coromandel for the first time. Screens were the first thing I bought.” So synonymous her dwelling was with those folding screens that Karl Lagerfeld created four looks inspired by them in the Chanel couture collection of the autumn/winter season of 1996, all embroidered by the house of Lesage. It was the year the Andrew Gn label was founded. And coromandel, like camélia, has been so much a part of the Chanel lexicon that there is even the fragrance Chanel Coromandel.
There is no denying the decorative quality of the kuancai on the mingchao pingfeng. Collectors acquire the screens to adorn interiors. In similar vein, the ACM retrospective appears to show Mr Gn as an ornamentalist, even when there is more than one approach to design. Mr Gn has endeared himself to certain visual consistencies and a somewhat narrow range of silhouettes: The shapes of his clothes have remained largely similar in the past 28 years, only the surface treatments vary. A marketing consultant, after seeing the exhibition, told us that in the ’90s, he remembers reading in a magazine what an earlier son-of-the-soil-made-good-overseas (in London) Benny Ong, now an artist, had said: “Design does not mean having to change the sleeve every season”. It is possible, therefore, that Mr Gn has embraced a comparable spirit and largely adhered to those silhouettes, within which to place some of his favourite details, such as the zippable key hole that appears on the front-centre seam of the bodice, bishop (or sometimes puffed) sleeves, decorative treatments such as appliqué, embroidery, and beading, and accessories such as belts (some in surprisingly jarring leather, and with metal grommets) to define the natural waist. It isn’t that the approach is unfavourable if the main aim is to flaunt the intricate embellishments, such as the beaded corals that he adores.
The renowned ‘coral’ dresses from spring/summer 2022
The decorative components that Andrew Gn employs are no doubt the handiwork of appreciable skill, all—as he is wont to say—“done in-house”: the needlework, beadwork, and all the detailed stitches that require a well of patience. In all their sumptuousness, a soupçon of the past is quickly sensed, as opposed to those seen at, say, Prada or Louis Vuitton (under Nicolas Ghesquière’s watch), where discernible is what the French might consider broderie moderne. It is understandable why the effects appear so undeviating on the AGN clothes. The motifs and patterns Mr Gn uses directly depict what he sees in the art he admires, in the images he draws from, or the underglaze of pottery and tableware that he finds attractive. Nature is pictured as naturally as possible, petals in their recognisable shapes, corals in their brittle beauty. No tweaking, such as Tom Ford’s Saint Laurent qipao (旗袍) from autumn/winter 2004, with the sequinned dragon—inspired by the longpao (龙袍)—that was pixelated! Those hoping to be intrigued might find the designs and the ACM curation a tad too vanilla. There is, surprisingly, no textile manipulation (except the pleating and one example of distressed denim), no reimagination of textural effects, no modification of the application of lace, to identify just three areas.
Mr Gn’s approach to dressmaking, as well as shapes, can also be described as conventional. ACM is more concise—they call it “classic cuts”. An SOTD reader exclaimed, “Oscar de la Renta!” In March, Mr Gn was quoted in a news post of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode website: “my creative mind works à l’ancienne”. Viewers looking for technical and engineering flair might be astonished to find scant complexity of cut or a lack of unusual placements of seams. Even bust darts are pivoted the old-school way (there are mostly the standard and French darts, and princess seams). There is also a smaller-than-expected representation of the tailleur, and no hint of subversion, possibly a curatorial decision to better reflect the label’s synonymity with glamorous dresses and gowns—the core of the business. Mr Gn’s target audience basically falls into two groups: the wildly wealthy or privileged who require a certain soignée turnout that conforms to the beauty standards and sense of exotica of the upper crust. And, the women who admire these wearers with jaw-dropping envy. Experimentalism, vigorous or not, has virtually no part in this orthodox order.
Floral fantasies, with the butterfly as lead insect, are very much a part of Andrew Gn’s visual vocabulary
In almost all his collections, there is always a sense of correctness—visual, technical, decorative, cultural. Mr Gn, as has been frequently said, knows his international customers—queens and pop/movie stars, and those between—very well and is able to dream up exactly what they need for royal soirées, state dinners, high society weddings, opera season, movie premieres, and the always important red carpets. These occasions necessitate not only looking regal, fashionable, camera-ready, status-appropriate, wealth-confirming, but also projecting the comeliness that befits the magnified ravishment that is social media. Mr Gn has always been aware that his clothes must “look good on screen”, and this isn’t just on Net-A-Porter, but on also Instagram and the like. Which may explain the winsome motif, the butterfly.
It is tempting to imagine Mr Gn likening himself to the beautiful insect: (finally) emerging from perseverance to soar to prominence. But the butterfly does bring to mind Hanae Mori, a designer before his time. Ms Mori was one of the earliest Asian designers to show in Paris—in 1977, after Issey Miyake (1973), before Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçon’s Rei Kawakubo (1981), and also the first Asian to be admitted as a member of the esteemed Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne. Butterflies were nearly synonymous with her (the late Princess Grace of Monaco was a fan of her designs). After Ms Mori’s death last year, Nikkei Asia quoted her saying, “Butterflies appear to be quite fragile, but they have a surprisingly sturdy core.” Perhaps that, too, could be said about Andrew Gn—initial vulnerability that did not betray the steely resolve. Yet, it isn’t quite clear why the common die (蝶) or butterfly—his is vaguely Art Nouveau—is preferred, rather than, say, the chan (蝉) or cicada, also a revered insect, more prominent in Chinese art, conferred high status, and considered pure as they survive on dew. And there is also Diaochan (貂蝉), one of the sida meiren (四大美人), the four great beauties of ancient China.
Quartet of looks inspired by European artists
In one of the several introductions that prefaces the commemorative catalogue of the exhibition, Anne Sophie von Claer, deputy editor-in-chief of Le Figaro, wrote that Andrew Gn “is also a great admirer of French designer Yves Saint Laurent”. This is not an unknown fact. As early as his national-service years in the mid-’80s, Mr Gn was enamoured with the romantic work of the man who popularised the le smoking. The sense of wonder and the admiration of the late Frenchman’s designs could have been two of the reasons for his choosing Paris as base, and the undisguised YSL tribute in 2014/15 spring/summer seasons, with two chosen pieces (above left) that are evocative of Mr Saint Laurent‘s spring/summer 1988 couture collection Hommage à Braque, and another two (above right) that saluted Monet’s Water Lilies as his French idol did with Van Gogh’s Irises and Sunflowers. One follower of Singaporean fashion remembers seeing the Andrew Gn collection that was sold at Glamourette in 1997, two years before the boutique closed for good. He said, “I remember those silk georgette blouses with the ethnic trims—they looked to me a YSL reference.” Yves Saint Laurent, considered one of the design greats of the 20th century, is key influence in Mr Gn’s maturation as a designer, and the retrospective beautifully spotlights it.
Yet, it is Mr Gn’s east-meets-west aesthetical leaning that appears to enjoy the highest regard. One dress, highlight nine in the introductory flier, receives considerable attention among visitors: A long-sleeved coat from spring/summer 2003—embroidered with dragonflies and appliquéd (more like tagged) with butterflies—that could come close to a modern-day chaofu (朝服) or court dress, if such an article of clothing is ever needed in present times. Through this outfit, Mr Gn portrays himself to be a fascinating collagist. It is a spirited amalgamation of arts and crafts and appliquéd motifs usually considered Oriental, including suede cut-outs of lotuses emerging from ripples in ikat. The outer is crowned on both sides of the shoulders with epaulettes that ACM describes as “pagoda”, but could well be feiyan (飞檐) or flying eaves. In 1997, Mr Gn said to Suzy Menkes, formerly fashion editor of the now-defunct International Herald Tribune (and presently an octogenarian-influencer) that his clothes were parts (equal or not he did not say) “European chic, American comfort, Chinese depth”.
European history reinterpreted
Although the curation purports to illustrate his journey from the time he made Paris home to this retrospective-as-homecoming, it does not provide an insight into the designer’s very early years. Mr Gn has said that his first season in 1996 was a “micro collection”, as he told the South China Morning Post in 2006. “It’s grown into a collection of day, cocktail and evening wear, along with jewellery and shoes.” Unfortunately, that growth or how Mr Gn evolved as a designer is not immediately discernible. The clothes are arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, and heavy on event dressing. The earliest outfits displayed are a quartet of separates with identical silhouettes from 1999, presented as a store window display (of another, also-closed clothier Colette). One wool skirt with folksy leather appliqué stood out for its evocation of a blouse from Yves Saint Laurent’s 1981 autumn/winter collection that was the faithful realisation of a Henri Matisse 1940 painting La Blouse Romaine. At the end of the exhibition, back to level one, in the Contemporary Gallery, set up to look like the designer’s atelier, the “European chic” of Andrew Gn’s 28-year oeuvre is unmistakable.
Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World does not lack verve. However, ACM’s enthusiasm in staging the retrospective of this scale may have overlooked their main man’s declaration: “My clothes are very couture without being couture,” as he said to the UAE e-paper The National in 2011. Fashion exhibitions draw not only the merely curious, but also those who are inclined to give the clothes careful study. The exhibits may not, technically, fall under couture, but they have been repeatedly touted for their craftsmanship—ACM’s favourite catchword. It is eye-opening enough that, despite the high prices the house of Andrew Gn is known to charge, the use of synthetic fabrics—acetate, polyester jacquard, and “silk-polyester”—is considerable. But more astonishing is how possible mishaps, as the retrospective took shape, are left unaddressed: a rear zip that threatens to burst (possibly because the dress is too small for the mannequin), hems that buckle or are not flat, skirts that are not properly pressed. In a museum, couture or not couture, craftsmanship applies.
Andrew Gn: Fashioning Singapore and the World runs from now to 17 September 2023 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Admission fee is applicable. Photos, except when indicated: Chin Boh Kay
Issey Miyake inprint ME has made a bag that is, if you are imaginative enough, also a necklace of sort
The Issey Miyake studio is known for their many innovative products. And also for the incorporation of traditional crafts, such as origami, within their deeply modern approach to design. In fact, it can be said that Issey Miyake and the paper craft are rather synonymous, having bases many of their ideas for both clothing and bags on folding fabrics into beautiful geometric shapes. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there could be such a bag, as pictured above. This may look like a mini-me of an existing style of bag, but it isn’t.
Folded into a flat pinwheel (if even your grandmother can’t tell you what this is, let’s just say it’s a kid’s toy from long, long ago, made of a ‘wheel’ from a piece of cut square paper and attached in the middle on a stick. Hold it against the wind, and it spins. Not good enough? Ask ChatGPT!), it opens up into a rather capacious tote that can be strapped across the body. The real challenge could be in the folding it back to this.
To us, the bag in its utility form is the not the main lure. This could be the ideal shopping bag to bring out, except that it does not need to be cast aside in the main satchel that you carry on a daily basis. A pinwheel with straps, it is attractive enough to be worn as a neck pouch or even a crossbody. We like the neckwear idea better. On a white shirt or tee, the bold, symmetrical, graphic shape beats the tiny pendants that so many prefer on the their necks. Conspicuous need not be bland or, worse, loud.
Issey Miyake ME Boom Pleats Crossbody Bag, SGD165 is available at Issey Miyake, voco Orchard. Photo: Issey Miyake
Demna Gvasalia showed street fashion right in front of the Balenciaga HQ
Whatever Demna Gvasalia has said about starting anew after Balenciaga’s marketing scandal of last December, he is back on familiar turf, now on the very doorsteps of the Balenciaga HQ in Paris, on a street named after the British monarch George V. The resort 2024 show, revealed ahead of the Paris Fashion Week for menswear, takes place in front of the maison’s Avenue George V home, where the house’s historic salon and atelier (first opened in 1937), as well as their present-day, somewhat oxymoronic “couture store”, were installed. Despite the storied address which is a short walk from the more touristy Champs Elysees, the presentation, live-streamed as a video, showed pedestrian traffic that exists purely in the mind of Mr Gvasalia. This could be the Mega City of the Matrix. Or, his Springfield-in-Paris.
And Balenciaga invited no one to the real-life set, they flew no celebrity into the city. All of them watched the livestream—assuming they did—from wherever they were. And one of them could have been Kanye West. Although Balenciaga’s relationship with Mr West was severed, Mr Gvasalia continued to pay homage to the rapper with looks that Yeezy probably would love to have in their own recent show (in fact, we don’t know if both men remain chums). It was easy to come to that conclusion when there were a walk-past of sinister, covered-up looks of the hoodie-and-shades variety that has become so synonymous with the pre-self-destructive era of Kanye West, whose anti-semitic comments ended all his fashion partnerships—including Gap—and his throne atop the fashion pile, stateside. Were these looks the reinstatement of the irony that Mr Gvasalia is known for?
While the cruise collections are less and less conceived for any real cruise vacations, the resort looks of Balenciaga, similarly, appeared at odds with anything that might be found in the luggage bound for, say, Bali or Boracay, or Banff. Mr Gvasalia was in modest fashion mode, again; his designs continued to obscure the body with the usual upsized layering and sometimes close-to-elliptical silhouettes. Balenciaga has since 2016 pushed through with the undeniably influential forms, based on exaggeration and what was happily called “couture attitude”—disposition to enhance design. One puffer and one extremely waisted blazer, reminiscent of those shown at Mr Gvasalia’s debut for the house were, for better or worse, still here. Or, have these pieces become such classics that their appearances were simply unavoidable, lest fans were disappointed?
As in the previous, post-scandal collection, nothing in the latest was really tweaked for a refreshed or reborn Balenciaga. (Except the rain, even when manufactured? What with precipitation this season, anyway?) Everything that you liked about the brand and had not already acquired was reprised, including those multi-coloured, vertical-striped bags that recalled the massive, woven PVC versions for laundry or whatever reason such a bag is required. Or the extremely long oblong clutches, with which you might be able the create the now-forgotten social distancing, in gowns that were the anthesis of the trends on the Met Gala red carpet. This was Balenciaga in true form. It was also a look at their greatest hits. But these days, we would be told not to take anything so literally. Or, for that matter, so seriously.
Foam slides will remain insanely popular. This Nike version makes wearing them less a trip to the wet market
By Shu Xie
When I caught sight of this Nike Jordan Hex slides, I was reminded of a receptacle that sushi was served in. This was in one of those conveyor belt sushi bars, except that the sampans of sushi came floating down river. Sure, the food reference is not exactly appropriate for something that’s destined to meet feet, but that was truly what came to my mind. Anyway, the slide did attract my attention and I did, subsequently, try them on, and they are the most comfortable pair of slides I have ever slipped my feet into. I appreciate the surprisingly deep heel cup, which does help keep the rear of my feet better supported. No, Nike did not pay me to say this. These are truly like stepping on firm sponge.
The Jordan Hex, just by the look and feel of it, are clearly made of moulded foam, the material that every brand is using, including for sneakers. But unlike the many ‘organic’ shapes out there, not to mention some that are clearly alien in form, the Jordan Hex is more angular and simple, almost blockish, bracketed by the squared-off toe and heel. The shape is, to me, the main draw. As Nike says, not “your grandma’s slide”. With just one broad strap across, my feet did not feel constrained, which mean this is the ideal footwear for the punishing weather we have been experiencing. Yes, even better than clogs. While I usually restrict the wearing of slides to the neighbourhood mall, I am considering this—yes, definitely in that pale mint—for my next trip to some place fancier. Why not?
Nike Jordan Hex slides for women, SGD85, are available in Nike stores and online. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
Louis Vuitton isn’t afraid of embracing the fantastic or the offbeat for the cruise season
While most luxury houses choose to make the cruise season their most commercial, releasing items that are conceived to sell in large numbers, Louis Vuitton has preferred to defy even the category itself. Like most brands with deep pockets, LV chose to show outside of Paris—in Italy, in fact, specifically on the island of Isola Bella (beautiful island in Italian), a small land mass punctuating Lake Maggiore, near Stresa, Northern Italy. The grounds are palatial, with includes a palazzo and an Italianate garden, and could easily be a stop on a series of itineraries of an actual cruise, the clothes Nicolas Ghesquière presented happily resisted the immediate connection with anything done/enjoyed onboard a ship or the activities between different ports of call. It is hard to imagine anyone packing for a holiday and asking for the what-you-might-call-it, rather than, say, silk slacks. And therein lies the infinite charm of the pieces, even if weird might not be an exaggeration when used to describe the 50 looks.
The show, LV’s first in Italy, was supposed to be livestreamed, but, as it turned out, was not. It rained, so LV used a recording of an earlier version that was—overlook the pun—a dry run. Unlike a particular show in Mexico City, guests in the island did not see what the rest of us in front of our screens saw; they were moved indoors—inside the palazzo, but, by most social media accounts, the show was spectacular even when the clothes were thought to be better represented if seen amid the garden, with the peripheral sea in the distance a gleaming halo. Perhaps, the models thought they were walking in a rehearsal and did not look particularly like otherworldly creatures from some sea kingdom—like Neptune’s nymphs, perhaps. The aquatic theme that Mr Ghesquière intended was still in tact, although with a whiff of cosplay. Attendees at Aquaman’s riparian birthday party?
The thing is, it’s hard to accurately describe what Mr Ghesquière has designed when his work is conceived to be indiscripable. Or, at least, to defy simple straightforward description since everything shown was clearly not so plain-dealing. Back to the under-sea references, there was a sense that the looks were what Ariel would have adopted after her successful deal with the sea witch and a meeting with a fantasist-designer born on land but longing for life in the sea. Was it a coincidence that Disney’s live action remake of The Little Mermaid is due to hit the cinemas very soon? It is doubtful that Mr Ghesquière would design a collection to coincide with the film-release schedules of Mickey Mouse’s parent company (or Ron DeSantis’s nemesis!), even when he was quoted in the media for being attracted to the Italian lake and the “fairy-tale creatures”, which to him could be “mythological lake mermaids with dragon wings”. Something that Peter Jackson would understand and can visualise, too?
When personified, those mermaids don scuba-wear-gone-rogue, even one turned into a babydoll dress with a drawstring neckline. Others were technical fabrics in fascinating prints that were a melange of patterns evocative of the sea or seaside. When scuba wear was obvious, it was tempered with ruff-like collars mimicking seashells and, on bodices, incredible decorative touches that looked like droplets of water. There were also the roughly and vertically gathered fabrics to form strapless shifts or those dresses with draped neckline that could be from the wardrobe of the goddesses of Atlantis (those majestic headwear!). And the quilted tops in the shape of scallop shells, too, were awash with potential and were a definite lure. But perhaps most astounding were the last seven evening gowns. With their lightness and the sea foam texture, they looked like they were birthed in the waters that lapped on the shores of Isola Bella. When Nicolas Ghesquière described the show venue as magical, he was talking about the clothes too.
In Malaysia, Swatch made the news not over the scarcity of the Moonswatch. Or, that disgruntled shoppers were still unable to score one. Rather, over 100 pieces of the plastic Swiss timepieces were confiscated earlier in the week for their depiction of a problematic symbol
‘Stripe Fierce’, one of the Swatch watches a Malaysian ministry does not consider fit for retail
If they have left them on the display wall or shelf, chances are, few shoppers would have taken serious notice of the plastic Swatch watches. They would not have stood out dramatically among the other colourful pieces that are very much a part of the Swatch Original timepieces. But the home ministry of Malaysia made a quick decision and seized the watches from what is dubbed the “Pride collection”, in an exercise described by the Malay Mail as a “raid”. Now, the impounded goods, reportedly “over 100 watches”, have made international news. Reuters said in a headline that the watches were ”confiscated”, so did The Guardian. Reportedly, between 13th and 15th of this month, a total of eleven shopping malls throughout Malaysia where Swatch outlets are found, including in Kuala Lumpur, were raided. A Google search suggested that there are at least eight Swatch stores in the capital alone.
It is unclear why the authorities considered the koleksi pelangi to be unfit for retail. It is speculated that the use of the rainbow ‘flag’—a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community—on the front/back-facing part of the free strap loop (and on the face of one model) was a red flag to certain sectors of Putrajaya. Swatch told CNBC that those watches “bore LGBT connotations”, which the Malaysian ministry probably found objectionable. According to local news, the ministry in question has not responded to questions about the reason behind the raid or if the seized merchandise would be released after review. But, as Sarah Kok, Swatch Malaysia’s marketing manager, told the media, “As per instruction from Switzerland HQ, we will still replenish the stock and display them on-shelf.” Swatch also confirmed to the Malay Mail that Malaysia is the only country in the world that has opposed the sale of the said watches. According to the paper, when asked “if there were also any raids or seizure of watches from Swatch’s Pride collection or similarly themed items in Swatch stores in other countries”, the Swiss watch company said, “no.”
Four of the Swatch “rainbow collection”. From left, Proudly Red, Orange, Yellow, and Green, each representing life, healing, sunlight, and nature respectively. Proudly Blue and Purple for harmony and spirit are not shown here
To see for ourselves if the Swatch watches warranted such a big reaction from individuals more concerned with lively colours than living costs, we headed to the Swatch store at ION Orchard. When we walked in, we missed those timepieces Malaysia didn’t want on their retail shelves. We only caught sight of them when we turned to face the entrance. The watches did not stand out in any particular way. When we looked at one named Stripe Fierce (top photo), a sales staff told us in Mandarin that it was a new item and a limited edition. We asked her if the watches before us were selling well. She replied, “还可以 (haikeyi or well enough)”. Beside us, two men were totally unaware of what we were discussing. When they caught the attention of the staff, they asked her about the availability of the Moonswatch they wanted. Later, another guy walked in. He turned out to be a Malaysian working here. When we asked him if he knew about the Swatch raid in Malaysia, he said, “Yes, but, you know, when I walked in, I didn’t even see those colourful watches. I mean, Swatch always makes colourful watches, don’t they? No big deal.”
Swatch probably thought so too if they allowed the release of the watches in Malaysia. On their website, the brand announced: “This year, we are celebrating Pride with a vivid collection of watches inspired by the iconic Pride flag”, with a single reference to “rainbow loops” that “bring the colors together to celebrate the unity and diversity that make our society—and Swatch—so strong”. The Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek said cheekily in response to the authority’s action taken forcibly “We wonder how the home ministry’s enforcement unit will confiscate the many beautiful natural rainbows that are showing up thousand times a year in the sky of Malaysia.” In fact, Swatch made no mention of LGBTQ+ anything in their public materials, preferring to urge users to “say it proudly: Love is Love.” However, on one of the watches in question, the Strip Fierce, there is the even longer abbreviation LGBTQIA2S (arranged in an arc on the face), which can be read as the combined initial letters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), intersex, asexual, and two-spirit. The sequence of letters is synonymous with a movement still considered taboo in Malaysia. But as the shopper we spoke to said, “It’s just a watch.”
Update (25 May 2023, 6.30pm): the Malay Mail confirmed that 172 pieces were seized and estimated the value to exceed RM62,000 (or about S$18,800)
When store fronts have to cater to the selfie-obsessed shopping crowd
By Lester Fang
Nope, I didn’t flip this image after shooting it. When I saw this unmistakable Desigual shop at Jewel recently, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Did the shop’s contractor install the brand’s logotype incorrectly? It looked like it was a mirror text. But why? Was it so that only those exiting the store could see the name that made sense? Then I realise the same mirror text in the rear of the shop. This was beginning to appear deliberate. And then it dawned on me that the word that rhymes with bilingual might be in the right order if I took a selfie with it behind me. To he sure, I foolishly took out my smartphone, turn on the camera, and chose the front-facing lens on the controls on the screen. I held the camera in front of me, arms stretched, and directed the lens at the store front, my face way below the phone. And true enough, Desigual was there in my screen, reading left to right, as it should be. Mystery solved.
That the store is in Jewel might have something to do with the decision to flip the text of their brand above the entrance and in the back (their outlet in Raffles City, for example, is not). It is possible that the Spanish brand had designed their shop front in anticipation of the many visitors—selfie-inclined individuals—expected in this mall. The clothier’s unit is situation on the same floor as the arrival hall of Changi Terminal 1, diagonally across from the passageway at which the HSBC Rain Vortex could be seen and is often admired and enthusiastically photographed. They may have, perhaps, hoped that those selfie-takers would make a roughly 180-degree turn and snap away, and among the shops captured, Desigual’s store sign would be read right. Interestingly, Desigual’s first overseas store is here on our island. And it is likely they are the first retailer here to arrange their brand name in such a fashion. I wonder who might follow? Charles and Keith?
At the Dior Cruise 2024 show in Mexico City, it rained, but the show did go on, unsensationally
Dior chose the wrong day for their cruise show in Mexico City. It rained. While the international guests sat sheltered from the shower, the model had to walk in the open—in the courtyard of los Pasantes of the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, where the subject of Maria Grazia Chiuri’s inspiration Frida Kahlo went to school to study art in the 1920s (it’s now a museum)—and let the heavy clouds do their thing. We do not known if the models’ contract allowed them to continue working alfresco, even when the weather is clearly inclement, but the girls sure looked unhappy, as if they were under the rain against their wishes. At the Jil Sander presentation during the label’s spring/summer 2023 show last September, they knew they could not avoid the rainfall of that day. When the time came and the clouds could not hold back, the models were each given an umbrella to saunter in the downpour. No such luck for those walking for Dior. They carried on calmly, the clothes seemingly impervious to the water.
As with the Dior cruise 2023 shown in Seville, Spain last June, or the fall 2023 show in India two months ago, the latest cruise collection left you in no doubt as to which country the maison is paying homage to. Not that doing so is a bad thing, but, increasingly, these shown-in-distant lands collections, conceived to reflect local aesthetical traditions, as well as to showcase their crafts are just exercises to let the indigenous voice do much of the talking. While supporting those craftspeople whose work would otherwise not enjoy the platform that is synonymous with Dior’s marketing might can be viewed as corporate social responsibility of sort, Maria Grazia Chiuri’s dalliances with folksy dress have been, at best, surface treatment. Oftentimes, they could be merchandise destined for gift shops, for tourists who want a pinch of local flavour—holiday clothes that the Sex and the City girls would wear when exploring exotic bazaars or partying the night away. They are mostly alluring in the settings they are shown in. Take them home, and they are just holiday finds.
The clothes Ms Chiuri sent out that wet evening were not habiliments that museums would queue to buy, but unsurprising canvases on which to adorn the decorative applications of Méxican dress that she found appealing. The silhouettes too were familiar—traditionally and safely feminine, to the extent that some appear mumsy, such as the tented blouses with butterfly (a motif) sleeves (reimagined Mexican blusas?) that brings to mind the seu kor krachao (literally basket-collared blouse) that elderly Thai women in the countryside love wearing, especially in the pre-monsoon heat. There, too, were sundresses and summer frocks with puff sleeves that would not look out of place at Kate Spade, augmenting Dior’s penchant for accessible styles, especially for the cruise season. They would not be out of place in The Love Boat. To make the collection seemingly more modern, or Euro-urban, Ms Chiuri included sportif elements and denim separates that felt token and torpid.
The collection was, therefore, not agog with the exuberance and colour of, say Tehuana, as one might imagine. Which meant this was less transportive than it might have been. Some of the brand’s enthusiasts called the Dior cruise collection a “cultural celebration”. Fashion is so global now that it must go as far as it could to spotlight dead artists or lesser-known sartorial tribes, complete with grand narratives told through the lens of zesty feminism. But did the Mexicans really need the Europeans to momentary celebrate their culture or promote their artisan traditions? The thing about luxury brands supporting these crafts and the hands behind them: It is usually a one-time, one-season affair. After Dior left the colegio, will the clothes that were shown there be remembered? Or just the rain?
In an interview with a Hong Kong paper, Chris Tam attempted to quell some rumours about his family and himself as “crown prince” of his now-sold family restaurant business, but he said little about his wife, her wealth, or her serious penchant for haute couture
Chris Tam with Abby Choi. Photo: wujie/Douyin
“I myself is a 內向 (neixiang) introverted person,” Chris Tam, the grieving husband of murdered and mutilated social media star Abby Choi Tin-fung (蔡天凤), said recently in a 专访 (zhuanfang or special/exclusive interview) with Hong Kong’s 星岛日报 (Sing Tao Daily), “I never know how to express my emotions.” It has been more than three months since the shocking death of his wife, and Mr Tam was finally able to go public with the press, sort of. It is not known if he initiated the interview with the paper or if he was contacted by the editors, but Mr Tam’s opening up came just days after the suspects in his wife’s killing appeared in court and their cases were adjourned to 31 July for to give the police more time to complete their investigation. What was he hoping to elucidate? This time, Mr Tam did not leave the speaking to others. As he explained, he, “in times of extreme pain, left to friends to face the media.” The friends have been mainly a mysterious 豹太 (baotai) or Madam Bao, a former insurance agent and known cat lover—now identified as Joey Wong H.W.—and her husband, Bernard Cheng.
Mr Tam, as we have noted before, is not known by his Chinese name. In the Sing Tao Daily report, he continued to be referred to as “谭仔「太子爷」Chris” or (literally) young Tam crown prince Chris. Even confirmed friends Ms Wong and Mr Cheng, who speaks on his behalf, call him Chris, not even 谭仔. While Hong Kong celebrities and stars do use a Western name, they are mostly refered to, in the local media, by their Chinese moniker (Andy Lau is 刘德华 or Lau Tak-wah, for example). In the rather brief article, there was no description of Mr Tam’s physical self or indication of him speaking to the reporter, face to face, and how he sounded. Despite the repeated association of him with his father’s successful and well-known rice noodle chain restaurant 谭仔云南米线 (Tamjai Yunnan Mixian, which was sold in 2017 to Japan’s largest operator of noodle shops Toridoll Holdings), Mr Tam played down his own social standing and importance, describing his life as “低调 (didiao)” or low-key.
He did not directly address the speculation of his family’s supposed wealth either. Rather, he said that he was born into an uncomplicated family (described by the paper as “简单朴素 [or simple and plain]”), not referring to their financial status and avoiding the common expression used to describe the Tams: 豪门 (haomen or rich/powerful families). His father, Mr Tam said, had the foresight to start a business, and preserved despite several failures. After Tamjai Yunnan Mixian was sold, the elder Tam placed the earnings in a trust fund, as well as invested in properties to let. The family’s income, therefore, comes from these investments, “nothing else”. Referring to being called a “富二代 (fuerdai or children of wealthy business folks)”, he said, he, too, needed a job: “I am presently helping my father with the rental of the properties, and the revenue that comes from this rental company, held by my father, is also my sole income.”
Chris Tam and Abby Choi in a wedding video. Screen shot: Douyin
He did he speak at length about his couture-wearing spouse, or how she became as famous as she was, only that he hasn’t been able to forget his “loving wife”, and promised to be “a good person and a good father”. Has he not been either while she was alive? When asked how he met Abby Choi, he said that he, initially, knew his wife’s first husband Alex Kwong Kong-chi (邝港智) when they were in middle school (he did not name the institution, but online chatter suggested that it was possibly Chan Shu Kui Memorial School that Mr Kwong supposedly attended). However, he did say that Mr Kwong “后来转校认识了Abby” or later changed schools and knew Ms Choi. He stated that subsequently he became acquainted with his wife through Mr Kwong, making no mention if, at that time, Mr Kwong and Ms Choi were already lovers, in school uniforms. There was no comment about the subsequent teenage marriage, or if he attended the couple’s wedding.
Neither did he speak of his relationship with Alex Kwong, especially after he married the latter’s ex-wife (did Mr Kwong know that they were dating after his divorce with Ms Choi?). There was not a squeak about the ex-husband’s alleged criminal past either. Or, the extent of their closeness as “one family” when children—four in total—from both fathers were reported to spend considerable time together. Or, what has been described as a “complicated” familial relationship between the Kwongs, the Chois and the Tams. There was no mention of the shocking actions of the alleged murderer of his wife or how she could have come to such a tragic fate. The fleeting mention of Mr Kwong seemed unstirred by anger or the need for justice to be served. Similarly, he did not address his perceived “closeness” to his mother-in-law, Zhang Yanhua (张燕花), also popularly known as 五姐 (wujie) or fifth sister. Numerous photographs of the two shared online showed he and his wife’s mother in poses that many considered “异常亲密 (yichang qinmi or unusually intimate)”.
One of the tattles he wanted to clarify was the speculation that the Tam family was involved in money laundering. Specifically, he pointed to Paomes Charitable Org (also known as 爱豹仕爱心慈善机构; the Facebook page, renamed as Abby & Paomes Charitable Org in memory of the deceased, was later deleted), to dispel the rumour that it is a cover to 洗黑钱 (xiheiqian) or launder money. Rather, he explained, it is a fund-raising body—supposedly co-founded by Ms Choi last October—that the FB introduction claimed to “donate 10 million yuan every year for the care of stray cats and dogs”. The charity is also linked to Joey Wong. She and Ms Choi reportedly shared a love for Asian leopard cats (and likely included Bengal cats), which may explain Ms Wong’s online handle Madam Bao—the bao (豹) in Chinese refers to the spotted carnivore. Chris Tam was emphatic that “our charity has never received any donations from my family [the Tams]”. And the main aim of the organisation was “to improve society’s treatment of the problems of stray animals”, and “it became our activity outside of the family.”
Pals in happier times. From left, Chris Tam, Abby Choi, Joey Wong, and Bernard Cheng. Photo: SCMP
There seemed to be a conscious effort to make clear the financial status of Paomes Charitable Org. Mr Tam pointed out that the organisation’s bank account was opened only in January this year, and just a month later, they had to pay a fall-below fee due to insufficient funds in the account. He claimed that there had not been expenses incurred and salary payouts were never made with 捐款 (juankuan) or contributions, definitely not from his family. There could, therefore, be no suspicion of money laundering or fraud. The application of charity status for the organisation was eventually halted because, after the “创伤(chuangshang)” or trauma, “some members [of the organisation] had to receive treatment for mental problems, and the decision then was to suspend the application.” He did not say why their Facebook page had to be permanently deleted if it was (re)named to honour his wife or to draw attention to the plight of strays, as was the original mission.
It is interesting that he mentioned Madam Bao, as well as Paomes Charitable Org. Was clearing the air about the organisation his wife co-founded also shedding light on the goodness of Madam Bao? And why did she need approval from the Tam family. The two friends of Abby Choi—Joey Wong and Bernard Cheng—have been described as “close” to the fashion influencer, to the extent that Ms Wong was “authorised” to speak on behalf of Chris Tam and Abby Choi, following the latter’s death last February. In fact, HK$1 million (about S$172,000) for information relating to the case was offered by Ms Wong, then only known as Madam Bao, shortly after the gruesome murder was discovered. She was among two other women who offered the same reward money. Other than what was put up monetarily, Ms Wong also provided significant details to the media regarding Ms Choi’s daily routine—who her drivers were (she had “several”) and who among them was tasked to pick the children of her first marriage from school. She also revealed that Ms Choi’s ex-brother-in-law Anthony Kwong Kong-kit (邝港杰), who was also her driver, was hired only during the Lunar New Year season. Her astonishing familiarity with the deceased’s domestic arrangements led many observing the murder case to think that Ms Wong could be helping the Tams and the Chois to conceal something—what that could be has been mostly speculative.
In the final paragraph of the Sing Tao Daily article, the attention was shifted to Joey Wong. She was quoted saying, in response to the termination of the application of the registration of the charity she co-founded with Ms Choi, that the decision was made after she discussed the matter with her husband, Bernard Cheng, and Mr Tam. She spoke of her relationship with Abby Choi and the latter’s in-laws: “My husband and I met Chris and his wife in 2018, and later became 形影不离 (xingying buli) or inseparable-as-form-and-shadow friends,” she said. “When the unfortunate case happened, everyone was heartbroken beyond words. Before Abby met with that tragedy, we did not know Abby and Chris’s parents. After that, to prevent Chris and his family from being harassed, we stood up to assist them in facing the media.” Even if Joey Wong had initially rose to the task as the mysterious Madam Bao. A false front, but a true friend to the end.
“There was a time long ago when women ruled with unparalleled power… Cleopatra walked through the sandstorm of history and left footprints so deep that no man could ever erase them (never mind that no man could get to those footprints, if they’re still there, in a sandstorm).” That’s how Netflix presents the epilogue to the documentary series Queen Cleopatra. It is narrated by executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith, no less. This is not just illustrating the power of the famed ruler of Egypt, but also the power of the production team that could come up with a “re-imagined Cleopatra”, as director Tina Gharavi huffed in Variety. In order to sit through this, we thought it is best to ignore the controversial casting of the lead and look at the dramatic aspects of the docu-drama. Queen Cleopatra is not an Egyptian Bridgerton, nor a Timeline feature. The story of the short life of the last pharaoh of Egypt is part Nat-Geo, part Animax. Much of the “factual photography” could have come out of something from the History Channel. And the repeated use of massive intertitles (not just the tittle) in bold, san-serif font denoting place and time that stretch across the screen has a cartoonish quality about it. If this is “fiction with some documentary”, as Ms Gharavi once described her work, it really is a mishmash that would be better aligned with MTV. The connection became stronger when current pop—such as Unbreathable by Konstantine Pope (and company) and Set the World Alight by Nick Evans and Jake Shillingford—are used in the soundtrack instead of Egyptian music, even if modern.
Much of what is revealed does not add to what we already know about the amorous and power-seeking queen. The script of the dramatised enactment is so weak—bordering on the trite, in fact—that it was near-torture even to get to the end of the first episode of the four-parter. From the second, the story became draggy. The continual need to prove and tell—and tell—that “I-want-it-all” Cleopatra, “mother to a nation of millions” (and after her liaison with Julius Caesar, became “mother of two nations”), was formidable became really tiring. While it is likely that this is a show by women for women, portraying a queen to be more than queenly is just going for the unnecessarily exaggerated. Queen Cleopatra not only emphasised the pharaoh’s qualities, but it also particularised her abilities—in addition to being “a leader of undeniable power no one could ignore” and “first and foremost, a scholar, she was a scientist, she was a linguist” and a host of other selves that qualify as comic-book super, she is seen as a swordswoman and a falconer! And, more importantly, one who is able bear the excruciation of childbirth (such high threshold for pain she has that they have to show her screaming at two deliveries of three pregnancies, the last resulting in twins). Agonizing labour contractions put her above even the most of powerful fellows of her time: “Women must face dangers no man ever will”, Ms Pinkett Smith’s narration reminds us.
Unsurprisingly, much of the depictions of key characters are seen through feminist lens. Of the half dozen guest commentators, only one is a guy—a token representation in the presence of the British-Egyptian doctor of philosophy of English literature (and TV personality) Islam Issa, who explored what he called “my version” of the last pharaoh’s story in the 2019 BBC documentary Cleopatra and Me: In Search of a Lost Queen. Expectedly there is no White male expert on the panel. Their scholarship is likely not crucial in this reimagined Netflix docu-series. Because in this day, post-BLM, no one cares what a White man says? While Mr Issa, who attributed the “misrepresentation of Cleopatra in the West” to William Shakespeare in Cleopatra and Me, was emphatic in the documentary he hosted that Cleopatra was “exoticised and sexualised”, Ms Pinkett Smith’s telling still showed the queen willing to use her sexuality, “strategically”. To be sure, they try to play down her reputation as a seductress—there is nothing terribly erotic about the meetings-that-lead-to-sex with the two Roman generals thought to be besotted with her—but there are scenes of her in bed, post-coital, totally naked.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the men are delineated to be incredibly lame. They are practically useless. This is all about Cleopatra. So even if she could not have become who she is or desires without them, the guys have to appear less able, less determined, less strategic. While she is the “mother of two nations” (and “the earthly embodiment of divine motherhood”) after her not-that-torrid affairs, the two men she sleeps with are mere “sons of Rome”. Julius Caesar is weak, a much disliked statesman, waiting to be executed. Mark Antony is lame, although battleground-hardened, and is not as strong as Cleopatra. Both men are not as financially-endowed as she is. In her court, Pothinus, who turns her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIII against his sister, “wants to be the real power. Cleopatra stands in the way” and that is all he is. And Julius Caesar’s heir-apparent, his grand-nephew Octavian (Caesar Augustus, who would become emperor) does not even speak, until the second half of the last episode. He conquers Egypt in the end, but is not seen conquering. He does not confront his nemesis Mark Antony, only Cleopatra. At his first encounter with the pharaoh, he allows her to belittle him—“You’re a lot shorter than I thought you’d be.” (To be fair, he insulted her first, calling her a “witch”.) Even the well-known orator and writer Cicero is no match for Cleopatra, who Mark Antony in episode one describes as “someone who bested Cicero”, leaving you in no doubt that the African queen is an intellectual.
If they have taken liberties with the Cleopatra’s story (as Netflix warns, “some of the characters and situations have been altered for dramatisation purposes”), they certainly have with the costume too. Some reviewers describe what Cleopatra has on in the series as “sumptuous”. This does not say that the wardrobe is true-to-life. One white linen pleated two-piece that she wears (or is shown in) with considerable frequency has aesthetic similarities to what Sacai produces, in particular the asymmetric wrap and drape of the pleating. We sense that the costume is not important in the telling of the story of a philosopher and intellectual, as she has better things to worry about than her clothes. In fact, as a Queen, she does not seem to have that many outfits to wear or to parade in (about a dozen sets for a four-episode series), even if no one is asking for the 65 costume changes in Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of her in the 1963 movie of the (thought-to-be-fashionable) pharaoh. For her coronation, Cleopatra wears a not-quite-regal, V-necked, caped linen dress, which is also the garment she chooses when she travels to Thebes to celebrate the installation of the new Buchis bull (representing the war god Monty). If the real Cleopatra controlled her public image, as it is often said of her, it is hard to imagine that she did not use clothes to augment the power she supposedly wanted to secure.
For her first meeting with Julius Caesar, Cleopatra appears in his chamber in what looks like a dirty sack, not—as has been told in the popular version—wrapped in a carpet. She wears a loose, white, opaque dress (like a column) that is held up by a some kind of neckwear, although in episode two, Caesar tells her, “you were naked, I was distracted”. It is hard to see the distraction as Cleopatra does not seem to have spent much time in prettifying herself to seduce the most powerful man of the Roman empire then. After Caesar reinstalls her as the pharaoh, she appears among her courtiers in the series’ most elaborate get-up, with a long, decorated train that would not be out of place on the red carpet of the Met Gala. When she first meets Mark Antony in Tarsus (present-day southern Turkey)—entering the “port city in the most lavish ship ever created”, as guest Egyptologist Colleen Darnell tells it—she “dresses herself like the goddess Venus”, although in other accounts, the historical queen wore costume to appear as Isis, supposedly with eye-catching young men fanning her as she received the important guest. But in the show’s pivotal moment, she makes herself alluring in a large usekh or bib necklace overwhelming a bra top and diaphanous layers below that. (There is, curiously, virtually no close-up of her clothes, even when she appears as a goddess.) While it is said that Cleopatra brought together both Egyptian and Greek or Roman looks and details to her fashion choices, she tended to keep to what was unique to each national style depending on which side of the Mediterranean sea she was. Yet, in Queen Cleopatra, she could look un-Egyptian if she chooses to, even when in Alexandria. We see that fashion is mostly secondary to her power as the mighty ruler.
Although the Cleopatra of antiquity was known for her beauty rituals, the series chooses not to dwell on such frivolous pursuits. Rather, it is better to show her abilities in armed combat and her skill as a military strategist (so that she could pull out her naval support of Mark Antony when she thinks he is losing the Battle of Actium?) than the flawlessness of her skin. There is no beauty regime (she is seen to take a bath once, before her suicide). Seeing her go through childbirth is more compelling than being privy to her putting on make-up, or a lady-in-waiting doing it for her (her afro-textured hair is teased just once). Egyptian women of the Pharaonic era were known to love their cosmetic pigments, often ground from minerals such as azurite for the blue, but, while some colour were bright, they were not glittery as seen in what the queen wears in the series. Cleopatra might be meeting her lover of the moment, but she could well be made-up to go to the some Mediterranean Studio 54! She was also known to love perfume, but the scriptwriters prefer not to show their Queen dab any. None of her lovers who get physical with her comment on how marvelous she smells. Or how lovely it is to caress her skin. According to Islam Issa in Cleopatra and Me, it was the moderns who “projected… Western beauty ideals” on her. Just as Netflix projected the producers’ racial/ethnic ideals on her?
No historian is able to be sure if Cleopatra was truly beautiful, even for the standards of the time. The Greek philosopher Plutarch claimed, possibly speculatively, that “those who had seen Cleopatra knew that neither in youthfulness nor in beauty was she superior to Octavia (Mark Antony’s Roman wife and the sister of Octavian)”, who appears in the show fleetingly. Yet, Shakespeare wrote that “for her own person, it beggared all description.” For Queen Cleopatra, beauty is not part of the equation of her allure. We’re led to believe that Cleopatra’s appeal to Roman men—generals, in particular—is not due to her beauty, but the fact that she is “unlike Roman women, who traditionally are expected to stay at home and not take part in political affairs, Cleopatra was a world leader, and Julius Caesar can speak of his military campaigns, of literature, philosophy, on almost equal terms.” But before all that serious chatter, surely there must be physical attraction? The series also does not say what Cleopatra thinks of her own appearance, even when she does pick up a mirror to look at herself at one point. Or, if she considers herself beautiful or is delighted when told so. But as Octavian tells her spitefully when her end is near, “The talk of your beauty flatters you, immensely.”
“Few knew the woman, her truth,” Jada Pinkett Smith tells us. But what is indeed Cleopatra’s truth? Could her truth be incompatible with the truth? Much of the telling in Queen Cleopatra is based on we-don’t-know-but positioning. “We don’t know her exact racial heritage; we don’t know who Cleopatra’s mother was. There’s been a lot of research to prove that her mother was Egyptian, but we can’t know for sure,” says Shelly P. Haley, retired professor of Africana studies and classics, whose grandmother (now) famously said to her, “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.” She does not say how is it that her grandmother could be so sure, or who told the old lady. So, for Jada Pinkett Smith and Tina Ghavari, as the latter wrote in Variety in response to the show’s casting backlash, it was an opportunity to “liberate our imaginations, and boldly create a world in which we can explore our historical figures without fearing the complexity that comes with their depiction.” That not-quite-evident complexity, strangely, includes portraying Cleopatra’s offsprings as dark-as-the-mother, even when the procreation involved visibly fair-skinned men, and, perhaps as rejection of past delineations, not depicting her too much as a sexually appealing and active woman. Even after she (likely) had sex with Mark Antony in Tarsus, where they first met, Colleen Darnell tells us that Cleopatra “entertains” him. A powerful woman’s fertility is to be celebrated (she becomes the mother of the land), but her sexuality, not so much. “What is a pharaoh?”, Ms Pinkett Smith asks. “She is the sands and the skies and everything in between.”
That world-between they created is marginally evocative of ancient Egypt (or perhaps ancient Alexandria, the queen’s seat of power) and Rome, although there is virtually no wide-angled shots of the hub cities. Strangely, in the Saharan heat of Egypt, Cleopatra’s attendants are not seen fanning her, but while waiting for Caesar in Rome, she is kept cool with the waving of a feathered fan. It is not clear either what a British actress speaking American English says about an ancient Egyptian (let’s put Macedonian-Greek aside for now), but the scriptwriters for the enactment seem to get quite a kick out using phrases and words that social media users can relate to (“okay” is especially jarring). And Cleopatra as a teenager learning in a library while eating a piece of fruit will no doubt appeal to TikTokers who enjoy speaking to their rabid audiences while doing something—anything. There are also her “trusted confidantes”, Charmion and Iras (Ms Haley tells us, “often scholars don’t realise how important they were to Cleopatra”) constantly looking like bridesmaids, but are more like girlfriend, BFFs. The three even die together, on the Queen’s bed. As with her ethnicity, the true cause of her death is uncertain. Ms Haley says, “We do not know the method with which Cleopatra committed suicide.” So it is death by date, the fruit. It is not, as the popular telling of her death goes, because of the bite of an asp (Egyptian cobra).
While Queen Cleopatra tries to portray the last pharaoh as an able and admirable woman, it does not, surprisingly, make her very likeable. She does not speak to those around her nicely and she seems to be in a perpetual state of frustration and acrimony. She even has her siblings killed. The two main men in her life die tragically after they meet and bed her. From this part of the world, she might be seen as a 扫把星 (saobaxing or the star of ill luck that also brings misfortunes to others around them). “She was using these relationships strategically in order to elevate her own status,” we are told. That sounds startlingly selfish, more so when the Netflix Cleopatra stresses that she is “mistress of the true land” and “queen of kings”, egotistical oomph intact. Before she kills herself to avoid her fate in the hands of Octavian, she rejects the Roman soldiers who are sent to capture her, and hits back defiantly, “I’m a god. Do not disrespect me.” We already did, four episodes earlier.