The Showman And His Feathers

FL AAt the press conference announcing the participating designers of Fashion Week 2013 in the Marina Bay Sands in September, Frederick Lee previewed a sheer, black tunic-dress with hybrid dolman-kimono sleeves and a kind of bib-front strung with sparkly beads. This was not the typical cabaret-costume-as-couture of Mr Lee. Instead, it brought to mind this past summer’s collection of a certain LA-based French designer reviving a particularly esteemed Parisian label. The model, with curiously unstyled hair let loose, was fitted on the head with a pair of antlers, recalling the fascinators of a certain “Dante” collection during the winter of 1996 in a church in London’s Spitalfields.

Against the sample showing of the other invited French and Asian designers, Mr Lee’s diaphanous dress looked decidedly un-couture and not on form. But perhaps something was afoot. More than a week later, he showed a collection entitled “A Night Flight of Gargoyles” at the Amber Lounge as part of the club’s 10th anniversary celebrations that coincided with the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix weekend. The above dress appeared together with fourteen other outfits that bore no semblance to stone grotesques—sans La Gargouille too—despite the nearly all-black colour story. If anything at all, the collection with Mr Lee’s characteristic pastiche of embroidery, beading, sequins, and feathers was unabashedly campy.

FL G1Many familiar with Mr Lee’s work did not think his floor show sensibility will be replaced by the monstrous. Closing the Asian Couture segment of Fashion Week, and the only Singapore designer to represent the host country, he was to prove them wrong. The Amber lounge presentation was not reprised in its entirety; it wasn’t big enough and lacked histrionics. Broadening the earlier theme of darkness, he called version 2.0 “Death and Destruction”. The opening soundtrack, which sampled the ominous revelation of Haley Joel Osment in the The Sixth Sense, set the mood for a show of ornithic creatures passing through the fires of Hades (hence the catwalk’s red light and manufactured smoke?). The sweeping and grandiose premise of “Death and Destruction” quickly faded away as the models appeared between half-naked sentinels (with more of those ridiculous antlers) in one dress after another festooned with feathers as if performing in an avian hell-circus.

Mr Lee’s predilection for plumage is well known, even celebrated, but these were not the feathers of Maison Lemarié. Dark, epidermal, and bogged-down, they could have been the quills of predatory birds such as the vulture—a complete contrast to the kind of feather work usually associated with high fashion. Like many Asian couture designers, Mr Lee relies almost solely on the visually dramatic: his feathers had to remind you that they really came from birds. There was a floaty A-line dress with a plumed one-sleeve that slipped off the model’s shoulder, as she walked, like an injured wing; a bolero with sleeves akin to the wings of some wildfowl marauder; a multi-hued whole-bird torso that not only brought to mind Bjork’s infamous Oscar dress, but, too, the work of plumassière Nelly Saunier, whose parakeet bolero dazzled at the debut haute couture collection of a certain enfant terrible of Nineties French fashion; and the final number: the Egyptian god of rebirth and creation Khnum emerged as a female deity with wings! Or, for gamers of today, a creature out of Final Fantasy? Sharp fashion observers will, no doubt, recall a certain jacket from the Spring/Summer 2010 collection of a certain London-based Serbian designer.

(There was, perhaps, a hint of death, but where was the destruction? Were birds killed in the removal of their feathers?)

FL G2It needs no repeating that Mr Lee has a weakness for theatricality, but it may require pointing out that he is not a designer who can expand the vocabulary of forms. Whether with lateral extensions for (imaginary) flight or not, his core shape is one that follows the contour of the body from shoulder through to the bust and hip, and to around the knee, thereafter flaring out into a triangular spread similar to the caudal fins of fish. In other words, it is one that is sexy. This is the base on which he works his surface embellishment, and it also explains why he loves stretch tulle.

Unlike a typical couture setup, Mr Lee rarely shows a collection that distinguishes the fou (dressmaking) from the tailleur (tailoring). By working on a fundamental shape that is essentially a body stocking, he dispenses with tailoring—a variant of the couture that often tests a designer’s technical ability. The beauty of a couture dress is the aggregate of internal structure and external manipulation. This is held together with a workmanship so fine and invisible that you may not guess human hands touched the finished outfit. On the catwalk, Mr Lee’s clothes were eye-catching (even when—or because—some seams went askew). At close range (when two of his creations were displayed four days ago, following the inauguration of the Asian Couture Federation), some of his finishing did not hold up to scrutiny.

A feathered mermaid dress with one sleeve long and the other capped was fashioned from a base garment of stretch tulle. A zip ran through the middle in the rear, and at the point where it met the neckline, the top tape extensions were so untidily stitched, they formed a gridlock with the hook-and-eye closure. If something so visible could not be subjected to immaculate execution, then what’s under the plumage could boggle the mind. Perhaps that explained the need for distractions such as scarlet lighting and eye-smarting smoke. And the penchant for excessive embellishment.

At the risk of ruffling some feathers, let’s consider what Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.

The French Just Do It Better

French Couture G`1Intermittently, in the past 20 years, French haute couture has been reported to be dying. Hand-made, one-off clothes of exorbitant prices, it was speculated, wouldn’t be able to attract clients affected by an increasingly unpredictable world economic climate. Five years back, at the height of the global financial meltdown, which the International Monetary Fund called the biggest financial shock to the global economy since the 1930s, both big and small couture houses had to scale down to the point that many observers thought the business wouldn’t survive. And for one of them, it didn’t. In May 2009, Christian Lacroix, filed for bankruptcy and by the end of the year, it was shuttered. Since its inception in the 1980s, the house was never profitable. In 2008, a year before it closed, it was reported that Christian Lacroix lost €10 million.

However dismal the situation, French haute couture cannot be obliterated—it is a survivor. The business—more than a century old—has carried on remarkably well despite two World Wars, the US-Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and several economic slumps. In the past two to three year, interest in high fashion soared as Asia yields ever-increasing number of haute couture customers. Boding well for the business was the return of the house of Schiaperelli last year, which, ironically, was kick-started with a one-time collection by Mr Lacroix. The business of high fashion is not under threat… again.

French haute couture is so dominated by storied couture houses such as Chanel , Dior and Givenchy that others not of the same league are often overlooked if they do not have the marketing muscle to alleviate their names to marquee status. In fact, the average consumer of fashion may not even have heard of them. Despite lacking in big-time publicity, these designers are not doing anything less extraordinary than their more esteemed counterparts. In fact, quite a number of them are producing rather impressive work and maintaining a clientele large enough to keep their maisons sustainable. The three names that showed at this evening’s second last night of Fashion Week are a collective testament that haute couture is not a moribund French institution, but one that can be repeatedly celebrated through creativity, charm, and complete chic.

AM G1Of the three designers to show us what they can do in Paris, Alexis Mabille is the most traditional. His silhouettes celebrated the female body unapologetically, with an emphasis on the waist and hips that seemed rather late Victorian. This became understandable when Mr Mabille claimed that he was inspired by the nineteenth-century Italian artist Giovanni Boldini, who was considered the most fashionable portrait painter of his time. Some of Mr Mabille’s dresses were evocative of those worn by the artist’s subjects such as the actress Sarah Bernhardt or those in Ladies of the First Empire.

It was a collection that eschews hard lines in favour of liquid drapes, rounded shoulders, and curvy hips. Mr Mabille’s love for evening dresses—possibly a source of fine income—was palpable but they offered no sparks to ignite your fervor. Most were confined to the fitted bodice and flared skirt or the mermaid shape, all with the obligatory embellishments. The sleekness was, however, oddly, disrupted by the appearance of a ball gown with massive leg-O-mutton sleeves that recall those by a certain Dutch designing duo!

OATV G1Unlike Mr Mabille, the pair behind On Aura Tout Vu, Bulgarian designers Livia Stoianova and Yassen Samouilov, depended less on the standard feminine codes of haute couture. The collection, which comprised some pieces from the Spring/Summer 2013 collection as well as the current season’s, was a happy synthesis of tradition and innovation, with tongue-in-cheek stirred into the mix. You sensed irreverence, too, in the use of non-luxury fabrics such as PVC, which were teamed with leather and digitally-printed silk satin. Such street sensibility, for some, is where the charm of On Aura Tout Vu can be found, and the reason why their clothes look young.

The ornamentation, too, tended to lean towards the unconventional. There were the strung plexiglass cutouts, between which crystal beads were sandwiched to form vertebrae-like shapes that were attached to bodice, sleeves, and necklines or the Thai beetlewings ((traditionally applied on jewellery or shawls known as pha biang), iridescent ovals that were used like giant sequins. They were perhaps aiming for the fresh and modern (the entomological idea being on-trend) or even exotic, but for many in Asia, both of these materials are not entirely novel as they can easily be found in Chatuchak weekend market of Bangkok.

JF G1Closing the French Couture segment of Fashion Week was Julien Fournié, who started his own house in 2009 after working for Torrente (before that, there were experiences with Givenchy, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana). Mr Fournié has a certain way with the female form that reflects his training at past houses: a femme fatale that is old Hollywood and new anime. For the current season, his was a strong silhouette, augmented by cuts of such precision that the clothes sheathed like second skin, as well as by details that mildly suggested a sort of space-age femininity seen through the eyes of a medieval princess.

Mr Fournié showed such eye-catching day separates that he could easily tempt women to expand their couture purchases beyond evening wear. There was a bolero with oversized rosettes at the shoulder, a comfortable-looking corset that possibly paid tribute to his grandmother who was a corset maker, a shirt with a bib-front that had its top-end corners rise to give the illusion of pagoda shoulders, and those high-collared blouses with beautifully shaped bishop sleeves. These were clearly wearable clothes. The flounces, the frills, the pleats were never over-the-top, employed as much to lend graphic interest to the clothes as to skew the traditional silhouettes towards the modern. Mr Fournié was able to lend newness to areas where you thought inventiveness could not reside.

The three designers that showed this evening have very different styles, yet they share common traits: a taut embrace of haute couture traditions and techniques, and the passion for clothes that reject the vulgar. What they did was also not a slavish adherence to the aesthetics of the past. Their work reflects their own métier that is clearly moving in tandem with the times, and their clothes destined for the wardrobes of women other than social sirens or provocation-crazy pop stars. In their hands, French haute couture not only has a bright future, but a global one.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F and ends on Saturday night

Grand China Dolls


If mothers know best, then what they’ve been saying merits heeding: never compare apples to pears. Similarly, the work of Chinese designer Guo Pei cannot be weighed against, say, French couture or any collection shown during Fashion Week for what she did went beyond even the most exquisite dressmaking. Ms Guo is more than a fashion designer; she’s also a latent architect and engineer. It is nearly impossible to view her work in mere dressmaking terms as every one of her creations (and they are!) is a calculated mélange of embroidery, beading, gilding, mosaic work, weaving, pleating, origami and a staggering amount of Chinese craft, not to mention carpet making.

For so much to be worked into an outfit, she has to perceive the body in architectural terms, and for some of the garments to stand— literally, she needs to possess engineering finesse. Ms Guo’s clothes sometimes defy gravity, if not logic. They are part garment making, part set construction. The second last designer to show at the Asian couture segment of Fashion Week this evening, she sent out an asymmetric fluted cone enclosing the waist, a dress of fans swirling madly around the body, and a pannier so huge and rigid it could have been borrowed from the shipbuilding industry: an upturned hull.

The collection was called “1002 Night”, and should not to be confused with Paul Poiret’s costume party “1002nd Night” of 1911. If you were expecting homage to Scheherazade, the Persian Queen, there was no direct connection to the anthology Arabian Nights, yet it did show that Ms Guo likes telling stories: the more outrageous the better. This is even more astounding if you realise that the designer is a woman gentle of disposition and diminutive of physique.

GP G1But hers is not a quiescent mind, as she digs into her own culture and the fairy tales of other lands for ideas, re-imagining iconic styles as hyperbolic creations worthy of a place in the hall of fame of the Disneyland of fashion. That she is a fantasist like Mr Poiret is not an overstatement. Sure, most designers fantasize, but Ms Guo’s flights of the imagination could come alive with the aid of a team of 300 workers headquartered in her atelier Rose Studio, two hours away by car from Beijing. Her clothes, oftentimes weighing 50 kilos (as heavy as the models!), typically require four to six people to assist the wearer, a situation not always easy to arrange even by the most well-staffed show producers, yet they accommodate her even when, like at last year’s Fashion Week, she insisted on using her own sets because she gives them a good show, a blockbuster of a show.

It is clear that she designs her clothes to be staged, but they will be equally compelling on a YouTube video since they are such displays—quite a few are veritable human floats! While some of what she showed at last year’s Fashion Week could be considered wearable couture—blouses were blouses, pants were pants, none of what she presented this year seemed fit even for the red carpet. It was the awe factor that mattered, and the confections that thrilled, recalling costumes worn by Japanese singers during the annual kōhaku (also known as the Red and White Song Festival), or, in Ms Guo’s world, chunjie lianhuan wanhui, the CCTV New Year’s Gala, a variety show that attracts more than 700 million viewers, which makes them the world’s largest audience for an entertainment program.

GP JacketTherefore, designing clothes to stand out and be remembered is understandable. This evening, after a two-hour delay, the first outfit that appeared seemed like a ceremonial gear for the royal family of Naboo, home of Padmé Amidala and Jar Jar Binks: a union-suit worn under a bolero with sleeves consisting of embroidered conical cylinders that also spanned the back, which together looked like the giant whistles of a pipe organ. After that opening number, the clothes got progressively unbelievable and increasingly indescribable even when some of the reference points were obvious. As you sat awestruck, you could not decide where to start looking. Ms Guo’s approach to design is 360 degrees: the front was as dazzling as the back—no side was left to afterthought.

The acres of silk used were mind-boggling, so were the amount of beads or sequins, and the length of thread that went into the embroidery. Nothing was of modest scale, even the footwear. The platform shoes were so towering, they challenged even the most sure-footed models, causing all of them to walk with a deliberately measured gait (resulting in a show that ran one-hour long!). Some of these were footwear that had a clear Chinese characteristic: the heel, unlike in the West, was positioned in the middle of the sole, a feature associated with the Qing dynasty (which also gave China the qipao). And as 17th Century Manchurian women (with bound feet) would tell you, walking in them requires the balancing ability of stilt walkers.

GP G2In the end, when, for example, trains of dresses and a pair of sleeves were really thick-pile carpets, one question begged to be asked: is this fashion? If fashion is a prevailing style of dress, then Guo Pei’s designs may not qualify since they do not run parallel to what is prevalent as so little of what she does is in response to current demand and preference. Yet fashion is a manifestation of the times, or, in Ms Guo’s case, the times in China. In this respect, she has achieved in creating fashion in a society that has only come to fashion as we know it in the last twenty years or so. China, while still importing a sizeable amount of what her citizens wish to wear, is now increasingly seeking home-grown talents to meet domestic demand even when fashionable appearance is not yet (and may not be) a specific feature of national character. Ms Guo could be using her out-of-this-world designs to draw interest to her more approachable products since she could not only be designing for staging, However, even when what she showed can be worn does not mean they are wearable. That they made a good show does not mean they are desirable. That they are amusing does not mean they’re alluring. Yet Ms Guo’s efforts should not be mistaken as frivolity for there is palpable passion and discernible skill in her output.

A visual tour de force with the lavishness of European court gowns and the intricacies of Chinese applied and decorative arts, Ms Guo’s seams make the scene. There’s nothing dark or subversive in her work; they mostly tell of memories, magic and moments that, together, represent unbridled indulgence, an excess that, in the context of her homeland, equals a fashionableness that begets admiration. As Ms Guo told Vogue China last year, “When a work of design brings its own emotions, culture, and story, it will then have value, as well as be better able to gain approval and respect”.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now through 19 October

The Thais That Bind

VI G1Thai fashion designers have been getting quite a bit of international press in the past five years, thanks to Thakoon Panichgul and Nunthirat ‘Koi’ Suwannagate. Mr Panichgul and Ms Sunwannagate, interestingly, do not consider themselves to be Thai designers, preferring, it is heard, to be identified as New York designers. In fashion, where you’re based is more important than where you’re born. Mr Panichgul is reported to shy away from the overtures of Thai buyers to represent him in Bangkok as he wishes to be associated with New York so as, many suspect, to better attract a powerful clientele. Despite the snub, Thais are so enamoured with these two overseas fashion stars that the pair’s high-profile customers are considered to “have flown the flag for Bangkok’s designers”.

Flag-bearing, however, may not have been Vatit Itthi’s main objective, even when the brand has relocated its base from Chicago to Bangkok. During the on-going Fashion Week, the label showed mainstream looks that perpetuated a common belief: for fashion to qualify as high style, it has to subscribe to shapes of the past, preferably from the Forties, Fifties or Sixties. Two guys are behind the Vatit Itthi label: Vatit Virashpanth and Itthi Metanee, and the pairing offered double the nostalgia. With such fashionable elegance of another time, it seemed that these fellows had been watching quite a few Hollywood movies costumed by Edith Head while defining their American sportswear sensibility.

VI G2The old-fashioned approach to their designs brought to mind Thai fashion of the past or designers such as Pichita (Boonyarataphan Ruksajit, who is now usually remembered as the woman behind the Thai Airways uniforms) or Kai (Somchai Kaewthong, who is now the man to go to when your mother needs a dress for your wedding). It was a return to the classic, a celebration of already celebrated stylistic forms. Perhaps, for the designing duo, it was a more realistic view of couture since it is possible that their customers could be women of a certain age.

Tried as they did with varying the silhouette, their outfits did not pack a punch, never mind not breaking new ground. A form-fitting bustier dress was topped with tulle that had negligible embroidery, a fit-and-flare ball gown was designed with an inverted U-shape cutout to reveal a jewel-tone underskirt, a bustier dress with a bubble skirt that ended above the knee was finished with chiffon the rest of the way, and, to add interest, floral appliqués cascaded from where the two fabrics met like decorations on costumes of Loy Krathong beauty queens.

And you had a feeling you have seen them somewhere in Siam Centre.

The show closed with a yellow and cream gown, first worn by former Miss Thailand Cindy Sirinya Burbridge during Elle Fashion Week in Bangkok, less than a week before Vatit Ithhi was due to show here. The dress comprised a bodice of a bustier fronted by another with ears, and a full skirt parted, curtain-like, in the middle, recalling a certain “Propaganda” dress from London during the Fall/Winter 2005 season. What was disconcerting was the token embroidery in black that sprouted—like common orchids—from the right hip to part of the posterior. These spray-bits were a recurrent theme, but given their sparseness and odd placement, they were not modest, but meagre. As one woman in the audience said, “Thai designers usually offer more.”

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now through 19 October

Pinoy Panache

MC mainAlthough based in the unlikely city of Dubai, Filipino designer Michael Cinco was able to set up his own couture house and reach out to Tinseltown. His face, nearly always obscured by massive shades, may be unfamiliar to many, but it has been basking in the light of an especially good year.

In January, Lady Gaga wore one of his over-the-top dresses to a charity event with the Chicago Bulls. Then in July, Christina Aguilera sported a short and fitted number on The Voice. Between that, Modern Family star Sofia Vergara traipsed down the red carpet in a bustier gown at the Golden Globes Awards, Britney Spears was seen in a front-and-back-revealing dress at the 21st Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation’s Oscar Viewing Party, and Jennifer Lopez sang a duet with Andrea Bocelli in a scorcher of a gown on Dancing with the Stars.

If that wasn’t quite enough, the man was featured in America’s Next Top Model (cycle 16), televised in the US in March. Still insufficient? In the same month, Mr Cinco’s collection closed the LA Fashion Week!

MC G1Fashion cognoscenti may scoff at appearing in an unimportant fashion event, but Mr Cinco was all-beaming when interviewed on video, declaring his love for LA. It is understandable why the city appeals to him. Only in Hollywood do you have the clients who want so much sparkle in a dress that even houses in the Valley during Christmas do not dazzle as brightly. A producer excitedly declared at the end of the LA fashion show, “I want him to dress me for the Oscars”.

Mr Cinco’s clothes are not for the faint-hearted. Those idols give us an idea who he usually dresses. If you’ve got the curves and have an unhealthy love for crystal, beading and embroidery, usually all at once, he’s your man. At Fashion Week, gowns after gowns after gowns of dazzling sumptuousness floated past with near sameness: embellished where it matters, and sheer where it shouldn’t be. There, too, was a sense of the theatrical: gowns with tiered skirts so large, the Victorians would have been proud of its designer. This, it would later be ascertained, is a Michael Cinco signature.

At the finale, when all the models stood still on the catwalk, it became apparent that Mr Cinco’s approach to couture was one dimensional. If the mostly black and red dresses were to morph into white, they would easily be wedding gowns for showgirls. This was not surprising because Mr Cinco has always been known for his bridal couture. When he arrived in Dubai 15 years ago, he was geared to give the Arab women, who, according to him, “love bling and opulence”, exactly what they wanted. There are other Filipino gown designers in Dubai such as Ezra Santos and Furne One, and, collectively, they would out-bling each other to ensnare the most important Arab clients.

MC G2The quality of Mr Cinco’s labour-intensive embellishment cannot be denied. With a team of 100 craftsmen from various countries, the atelier could churn out dresses that typically take at least 100 hours to complete or, in Lady Gaga’s case, five days to sew up. This season, inspiration was drawn from Andalucía and the flamenco. Mr Cinco used motifs usually found on dance costumes, on which unconventional shapes like rectangles and baguette cuts were hand-stitched unto the garments. They glitter with hedonistic glamour, these dresses, and for the likes of Lady Gaga and her stylists, they could leave a deep impression.

In this respect, although he is based in a city 6,916 kilometres by air from the Philippines, Mr Cinco’s style is quintessentially Filipino as he shares a common love of extravagant garments with designing countrymen such as Francis Libiran and Oliver Tolentino (both, too, have dressed America’s Next Top Model), a love that could be traced to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. What the Spaniards left behind played a social role as well as a cultural one. But with the Philippines GDP not quite catching up with the rest of Asia, the lavishness these designers bestow on their clothes needs a wider audience. It is, thus, not surprising that they would court the Middle East and the American West Coast. As Michael Cinco enthused, “I always design for women who has (sic) money.”

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now through 19 October

More Fairy Than Tale

SG G1When it comes to Indonesian fashion, one name stands out: Biyan Wanaatmadja, or simply Biyan. Mr Wanaatmadja is not only one of the archipelago’s most in-demand designers, he’s probably its most successful. His label, established in 1984, was once retailed in Singapore through the now-defunct Link. Recently, it’s available on Net-A-Porter, and the prices show how far he has come. A floor-length silk evening dress with a beaded/embroidered bodice retails for S$2,196.

Biyan on Net-A-Porter is testament to the Indonesian’s design strength and saleability. His are not breakthrough styles, but they do not stand poorer against the Continental names stocked by the e-commerce site. A beaded top with raglan sleeves is teamed with Stella McCartney pants and the pairing is as natural and convincing as anything you’ll see on Alexa Chung. What Mr Wanaatmadja has done with his label is a fine balancing act: a penchant  for beading and embroidery on lightweight fabrics, a decorative finesse that can be traced to his Surabaya roots, and simple, modern shapes that will not stick out in a woman’s present-day wardrobe.

Sebastian Gunawan, on the contrary, does not primarily provide for such a wardrobe. To be sure, these are not ready-to-wear. Like so many of his couture compatriots who love to bead and embroider with abandon, Mr Gunawan depends almost solely on surface adornment to express himself. In fact, his embellishments appear to be the only thing he can bank on. At Fashion Week, it was hard to see the breadth of his ability beyond the sparkly encrustation. As he showed mostly evening/party dresses, it was as clear as the crystals he used that Mr Gunawan designed for the woman who dreams, she who, even after girlhood, floats into reverie of a royal wedding. As the dresses glided past, one could visualise Mia Thermopolis, heir to the throne of Genovia, choosing a gown for the Independence Day Ball. The Princess Dairies franchise could have found a new costume designer.

SG G2This ethereal woman to Mr Gunawan was his “modern muse” even when she loved the details you’d mostly find on a Barbara Cartland heroine: sweetheart necklines, miniscule capped sleeves, gathered peplums, flouncy tiered skirts, and hip-enhancing fish tails. It was romantic, no doubt, and it was possible to be wholeheartedly absorbed in the fantasy, and many women in the audience appeared to be. The men, too, for these were what trophy wives should wear, muse or not. But it was not the modern romanticism of Romeo Gigli or, to pick a more current name, Alexander McQueen.

To the less starry-eyed, Mr Gunawan stuck to a clichéd idea of couture, preferring the silhouettes and shapes of another age. An open-tulip skirt embroidered on the underside, the waisted jacket with Watteau pleats at the back, the body-conscious gown with cowl drape in the rear: these revealed a confident hand, but when he moved from the traditional to the classical, such as the gown with the panniered skirt, his deftness was as shaky as the distended hips.

For couture craftsmanship, there was, oddly, an over-reliance on skin-coloured tulle to hold together necklines and fall-away sleeves, to prevent plunging Vs from splaying or to prop up shapes that cannot, by themselves, cling to the body. Even a bustier had to be held up by a tulle foundation. This was disconcerting because Mr Gunawan utilised a rather sophisticated, not, what he called, “simple” design language. A princess, no matter how forward-thinking, still needs her modesty.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now through 19 October 

Steady Does It


The popularity of Korean fashion in Singapore is a predictable effect from the spell K-pop has cast over the local pop-psyche in the past eight years. For many fans, to love Girls’ Generation is to want to look like them. Or like G Dragon, who was a bigger news maker during Fashion Week than the event’s 19 participating fashion designers.

Hallyu Style hasn’t really overwhelmed consumers as rapidly as Korean Pop, yet it is attracting more-than-enough attention for local retailers such as Front Row’s Ann Kositchotitana to open Headline Seoul last year. Although touted as “Korean fast fashion”, Headline Seoul isn’t entirely a Korean label (since it is conceived by a Thai based in Singapore) and is not as massive a brand as 8Seconds (Korea’s answer to H&M), but like the latter, it offers the kind of clothes that will only add to their customers’ already staggering quantity of the cute and the girly.

Even before the appearance of Headline Seoul, small retailers and e-shops have been selling clothes sourced from the frenetic wholesale district of Dongdaemun, which comprises a staggering 26 shopping malls over 10 blocks, all offering inexpensive merchandise.  A CNN report in July this year noted that “Korean fashion is furiously fast and fickle”, which could also describe much of fashion everywhere else in the world. So, what is Korean fashion, and is there a Korean look beyond those found in Doosan Tower of Dongdaemun?

Lie Sang Bong is considered one of Korea’s most renowned designers, yet his clothes do not correspond to the styles preferred by his country’s visible pop and drama idols. Indeed, Mr Lie’s designs do not reach out to a particular woman. His fondness for structure and tailoring, and his strong graphic sense seem not to speak to the likes of Sohee from Wonder Girls. This is not to say Mr Lie’s clothes are not current—they are, but there’s an old-world charm to his modern sensibility, and this is where the beauty stands out.

LSB G2Even in his most forward styles, Mr Lie adheres to a lady-like silhouette, not a girly one. In his Spring/Summer 2014 collection, first seen in Paris early this month, the clothes were feminine without embracing the ridiculous juvenile excesses of dolly glam (preferred even by grown-ups such as blogger du jour Xia Xue). There was the technical aspect too. A ‘skort’ (that increasingly popular hybrid of skirt and shorts) in his hands had a certain couture refinement—the front was skinny-legged like bike shorts and the back, semi-full skirt. And that sleeveless jacket— the extended seam in the rear of the armhole tagged to the front so that they form almost tulip-like petals.

Mr Lie’s love for flowers was evident. Stylised Rose of Sharon, Korea’s national flower, would emerge in various forms—prints, laser cut-outs, collages, corroborating his reputation as a designer rooted to his homeland. But unlike in the past, when motifs were employed to underscore their cultural importance, this season’s Korean-ness was evident only as a mere hint.  As the brand becomes more cosmopolitan, this is necessary for it to go beyond Korea and to set itself apart from early-gen designers such as Moon Young Hee and the late Andre Kim.

Although the clothes were womanly, they had a youthful zing to them. This was seen in the proportions: shorter jacket sleeves over long shirt sleeves, cropped jackets teamed with longer blouses, knee-length coat-dresses above shorter shirt-dresses, and such parings that, together with the playful prints, provided the currency for the brand to remain relevant. Even when Korean fashion can’t escape the pop-culture ethos, it is showing design strength through the work of Lie Sang Bong.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now till 19 October 

The Way Of Distinction

SR G1On the day the Asian Couture Federation was inaugurated, Stéphane Rolland showed his Autumn/Winter 2013 haute couture collection in a ballroom setting, away from the main runway, to an audience seated for dinner. Unless you were at the VIP tables, and not at the back of what was called the Crystal Ballroom (overhung with 27 chandeliers), you would have missed the chance at seeing master craftsmanship up-close. More than that, you would have let pass the opportunity to witness an elegance that seemed new because it was the elegance that had lost its way among the noise that is fashion today.

Elegance is a modern rarity; it has become too restrained for our image-glutted age. Understated sensuality has been replaced by calculated effrontery. At Fashion Week, this was personified by Jeannie Mai, the LA-based Vietnamese-Chinese TV personality who was appointed as the event’s “Digital Correspondent”. Ms Mai appeared to prefer flash to dash. Like most of her Twitter-mad generation, she went by the motto: dress to impress, pose to post. As many of the attendees visually concurred, quiet fashion would not help you stick out of the online din. You could be mediocre, but you had to be meretricious. Miley Cyrus knew it, so did Jeannie Mai. Mr Rolland’s pared down clothes were, therefore, at odds with this fixation.

The show was accompanied by a flamenco dancer, but his energetic performance did not distract from the breathtaking grace of the collection. Mr Rolland’s streamlined style was a calm counterpoint to the vigorous Andalusían moves. Each outfit appeared serene—unruffled even with ruffles! So much of the body was covered up, yet sheer fabrics thoughtfully used and placed suggested that these were not for the prude. It was prim without the proper.

SR 22The silhouette was the most striking part of the collection, but it was not a silhouette that brazenly celebrated the female superbody. It was not about powerful shoulders, a constricted waist, twerkable derriere, and long limbs. While his clothes do perceive the body in shapely glory, they do not exaggerate the curves. It’s about gentle contouring: how smooth the shoulder, how even the hips, how relaxed the legs. Mr Rolland conceived quite a few pieces based on the column, his pillar of strength. For the woman who is statuesque, these are clothes that heighten her regal carriage. They allowed her to glide, a move reminiscent of the movie stars of the Thirties.

For all the formal control and the restrictive black-navy-white palette, there was dramatic whimsy, such as his treatment of sleeves: petal sleeves that drop to the ankle or puffed sleeves the size of balloon skirts or the silk chiffon fluted sleeves (of what could be a wedding dress) that dropped into trains! He provoked with clerical and school uniform collars (the prim) and teased with sheerness across the thigh (sans proper) so that the skirt looked like it had slipped down to the knees, revealing the petticoat. He had a weakness for halves: half capes, half jackets, half lapels; half solid, half sheer, all to affect something deliberately missing or cleverly omitted.

Some of the ideas were brought forward from his Spring/Summer collection. Continuity not being common in fashion today, this illustrated that good ideas need not be a one-season trick. Mr Rolland knew how to build on his strengths and it showed beautifully. But what stood out above the controlled designs and unmistakable refinement was the fit, whether in dressmaking or tailored form. It is a fit for comfort and a fit for beauty. This, for those who understand, is the true value of haute couture. Although these clothes were not worn by models from his original show in Paris, they sheathed each girl like second skin.

If haute couture is about refined luxury, Stéphane Rolland’s got it.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now till 19 October 

The Japanese Influence

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When Japanese fashion is brought up in any social discourse, two names are never left out: Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garcons). Although these designers began their work in Tokyo, it was in Paris that they achieved global recognition. Yet, unlike earlier foreigners such as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli, and even Karl Lagerfeld, the duo did not tote their success in France like a passport. This is due largely to the un-French, indeed, un-Continental look of their clothes, which, despite appearing like nothing else of that time, had a visual language that can be traced to their homeland.

Even before the success of these two non-conformists, Japanese designers were not alien to Paris. Other compatriots have earlier made their mark in the city although without the same far-reaching impact (with the exception of Issey Miyake): Kenzo Takada (who arrived in Paris in 1964 before showing for the first time in 1970), Issey Miyake (in 1973, after stints with Guy Laroche, Hubert de Givenchy, and Geoffrey Beene), Kansai Yamamoto (in 1974, showed ahead of the designer he apprenticed with: Junko Koshino), Yuki Torri (in 1975, as a result of a partnership with Jean-Jacques Picart, who would later launch Christian Lacroix, and, more recently, “pushed” Riccardo Tisci for the position at Givenchy), Hanae Mori (who was the first Japanese designer to exhibit abroad in New York in 1965, and then in Paris in 1977, after Grace Kelly became a customer), Junko Koshino (in 1978, twelve years after the success of her retail outlet in Tokyo called Collette), and Sueo Irié (simply known as Irié, was Kenzo’s assistant; never showed although he had a boutique in the city).

What makes a Japanese designer Japanese? Nationality alone is surely not enough, nor the city in which one chooses to show. Even from aesthetics alone, designers such as Kenzo and Hanae Mori leaned towards European traditions. Kenzo, now retired, was, in fact, considered “the most French of the Japanese”, having studied at l’Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture and nurtured by Paris. As more of them show in this capital city in later years, the cutting-edge once associated with Japanese designers of the Eighties can no longer satisfactorily define Japonisme.

On the fifth day of Fashion Week, the Japanese had it all to themselves and the opportunity to illustrate what it means to be a Japanese designer today. Alas, that was not to be as the three who showed this evening belong mainly to one part of a broad spectrum of Japanese fashion design, those who are rooted to the East while looking to the West, those not seeking to break new ground.


The most senior of the three, and one of the earliest to show in Paris, Junko Koshino opened with a collection that gave a strong nod to traditional Japanese ideas of beauty, yet offered contemporary elements that would entice socialites dreaming of Shibuya. The East-West pull was unmistakable, and the presentation was bracketed with kimono shapes (for which she’s a strong proponent) of exaggerated proportions floating over lean, body-skimming dresses. It was dramatic, which was not surprising since Ms Koshino regularly designs costumes for the theatre (and was nominated for a Tony for her designs in Amon Miyamoto’s Broadway production of Pacific Overtures).

The show opened with a striking silk taffeta coat with pointed slip-case ends on each side that billowed into a jib of conjoined scalene triangles as the model glided by—her body sheathed in a strapless striped top and slim, floor-length skirt. And closed with more of such an ensemble, each time the coats ballooned more fantastically. The composition of a slim solid body and the airy, voluminous outerwear was almost like flagpole and flag: imperturbable as it was graceful.

Between these coats that float, she offered separates that were a lot less arresting, as well as more of those kimono-inspired dresses she’s known for. What did not escape the keen eye were her use of unusual bonded fabrics and the effect of Oriental art that mimicked gold dust. Such craft-like treatment contrasted with the kind of Sixties futurism found at the start of her career. Ms Koshino no longer shows in Paris, and, perhaps, felt less pressure to pander to a Western audience.


Who the target audience was for Yoshiki Hishinuma was less clear. Although his label debuted in Paris in 1992, Mr Hishinuma, who had a short stint at Miyake Design Studio in the late Seventies, started his ‘couture’ line in Paris only last spring. He is known for technological effects on textile and, at the same time, handwork. This season, he married the pretty to the progressive, using basically feminine silhouettes on which the femininity was enhanced by manipulating the shell to give the flat fabrics (organic silks, linens and cottons) life as ruffles and flounces. He was also partial to appliqués: demonstrating his preference for textures over plain weave. This very conscious attempt at creating surface effects—even on printed fabrics—so as to enhance tactile value seemed like mere decorating. In this respect, the approach was almost French, since it can be linked all the way back to 18th Century France, to the practice of Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker who was known to swag and swathe a la minute so as not to let the queen’s already large gowns look plain and dull. Mr Hishinuma’s dresses, while considerably more streamlined, looked just as over-embellished, if not over-designed. With some of the dresses, one sensed they came from the Scarlett O’Hara school of dressmaking.


In contrast, Keita Maruyama’s collection looked extremely commercial. The designer, who first showed in Paris in 1997, does not cut his cloth the way the Eighties Japanese designers deface their fabrics. For Spring/Summer 2014, Mr Maruyama’s clothes were so mall-friendly they could have been Esprit on a good day. These were cute clothes for housewives who do not want to look dowdy: tea-time-ready blouses and slim skirts, sweaters and shirts for a night at the cinema, macramé-knit tops for looking sweet with the BFFs. And to augment the girly loveliness, adorable bags such as the clutch in the shape of an origami crane were included. To seal his Japanese identity, the obligatory kimono-inspired happy coats made their appearance, complete with to-be-expected embroidery.

When Mr Maruyama took to the catwalk for his bow, he was met with a smile in the front row from the man who was there in Paris at the very beginning: Kenzo Takada. Mr Takada was not part of those who would show the “Hiroshima chic” of the Eighties. Like him, the three designers seen this evening could play the race card, but they did not show anything that could be described as iconoclastic, regardless of the inclusion of the Japanese icon, the kimono. Perhaps thirty years after they invaded Paris, the Japanese no longer need to challenge Western dress, reject popular culture or confront design conventions. Embracing is easier.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now till 19 October 

Alternative Song

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Among some female members of the audience at Songzio’s presentation this evening, “avant garde” was bandied with the same fervour as “cute” at the sight of a desirable model. When even the work of Rick Owens is no longer considered radical, designer Song Zio’s clothes can hardly be considered so. It is usually the puzzled that employs the term avant garde, which is no longer adequate in describing fashion today, however daring. In fact, avant garde has increasingly become a euphemism for bad taste or a dispassionate response for those incapable of comprehending design with an unconventional core.

Mr Song’s clothes, of course, push the boundaries of men’s wear. But he’s not the only one to do so. Japanese designers have challenged the three-piece suit since their arrival on the international stage some thirty years ago. The thought that men should not wear flaccid, draped, or diaphanous clothes should be put aside as quickly as last year’s trends.

(When Richard Gere appeared in the 1980 film American Gigolo dressed entirely in Giorgio Armani, men had not, till then, seen those limp jackets with weak shoulders. The Armani jacket came to characterise a new era for men’s wear, re-defining masculine looks with no threat to the existing machismo even if they astounded. The jackets were supple and fluid, qualities of clothes associated with women than men, yet they afforded guys a naturalness that is still preferred today.)

The stealthy rise of men’s wear that does not actively seek to differentiate itself from women’s wear—such as ‘skorts’ and even skirts—is not just an indication that times have changed, but gender aesthetics have shifted. In such a climate, is it reasonable to determine a collection’s merits by stacking them against those labels whose core business are shirts and suits for the boardroom types?

The truth is, there are male customers out there who like their daily existence unencumbered by formal or constricted clothes, as well as the not few who connect with attire closer to feminine form and silhouette, whether for practical reason or visual impact. Mr Song recognises them. His Spring/Summer 2014 collection, first shown during Paris Men’s Fashion Week four months ago, stayed away—just so—from what would be deemed regular: i.e., these are not bloke clothes.

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Shortened was the operative word. Sleeves of jackets grazed the elbow, jacket hems swung above the hip, the legs of pants ended just below the knee, and shorts, well, short! When hemlines are brought upwards, proportions need tweaking. The almost fifteen-year veteran cut his clothes fairly close to the body, but he had a propensity to include flared pieces as a counterpoint to the linear, so gauzy shirts were tunic-like and liquid shorts moved like very roomy silk boxers.

A recurrent motif was a print used on scarves, jackets, shirts, and pants. In red, it looked like streaked blood from afar, but was, apparently, based on an abstract painting called “Pine Forest”. This print, appearing on almost every article of clothing, could have benefited from more judicious use since it was not a pattern that was easy on the eye.

While Mr Song’s designs had a modernist sense, they, in fact, belied an Oriental aesthetic. The sleeveless jackets, for example, were cut so that the shoulders did not follow the natural slope of the top of the male trunk, instead, they were horizontal and extended, creating a silhouette with a whiff of the warrior armours of 5th Century Korea. Most of the shirts and tees were roomy and were worn un-tucked (slipping the top neatly into trousers is essentially a Western practice), thus, not allowing the viewer to see the waist of the pants. Given the hang of some of them, it would not be unreasonable to assume that a few were held by drawstrings, also very Eastern.

The almost pajamas-like ensembles (and, especially, the blousy tops) perhaps point to Mr Song’s training as a women’s wear designer. Dressmaking fundamentals do influence some Asian designers in their men’s wear, such as Thailand’s Nagara Sambandaraksa, who rarely shows men’s wear based on tailoring. The result: clothes that defy the conventions of what makes a man’s garment manly.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now till 19 October 

Mostly Charming Moments

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The logo-heavy MCM backpacks are ubiquitous these days, but not many carrying the typically SGD 1,000 bags are aware that the brand has a ready-to-wear line. This afternoon, two mini-skirted women at the opening of the MCM boutique at Marina Bay Sands—Singapore’s first—were overheard asking, “Since when did they sell clothes?”

Shortly after their re-launch in 2005, MCM offered some garments, mostly outerwear, but these were always second fiddle to their hugely successful bags. During last year’s Men’s Fashion Week, a full Autumn/Winter 2013 ready-to-wear line was unveiled for what was then believed to be the first time. The jazzed-up basics that were shown seemed to be targeted at the CBD crowd with a desperate need to look cool for the weekend: double-breasted suits, college jackets, hooded shirts, floaty dresses, many trench-coats. To add design heft, there were leather jackets (studded, of course!), and for design dash, leopard spots, zebra stripes, and snake skin, all brought together with a happy nod to brash American style.

What a difference a year makes. For Spring/Summer 2014, the direction seemed to have taken a different turn, possibly so as to return to its European roots. But as more were revealed, you could not resist wondering if they were co-designed by members of a K-pop band. More so when in attendance was Rain.

For a moment, the show threatened to be overshadowed by the presence of Rain, a misnomer of a name since precipitation usually drives people away. But the Korean star had quite the opposite effect. He had earlier made a very brief and un-dramatic appearance at the opening of the MCM boutique, but now, in the front row, attracted the attention of photographers who shoot stars for a living than for Instagram, and a fairly large gaggle of paying young fans. (On Facebook an hour and a half after the show, an Indah Mayasai posted “that will be the best Fashion Week event ever, and that’s because of Rain”.)

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For those who did not care if Rain was downpour or star, the show was an opportunity for a close-up of MCM expanding beyond its leather goods beginning. If those studs on the logo-ed bags could be used as a gauge, the ready-to-wear line was not going to be a whisper above a hush. Throughout the collection (touted as “Flower Boys in Paradise”!), full blooms were a recurrent motif, an apt companion to the brand’s omnipresent beribboned laurel leaves. There was a certain prettiness, especially with the floral prints against white, but there was something perverse too.

The skinny pants with multiple horizontal buckled straps—the top-most ones positioned so high up the thigh that, from the rear, they clearly underscored the roundness of the wearer’s buttocks—seemed to target stage performers inclined to a hip hop repertoire or attendees of fashion weeks who must be the sideshow or those clever few who can see the hidden link between bondage and blossoms.

Kink aside, unlike what was shown here last year, the clothes revealed a technical aspect that reflected vigour at MCM’s design studio, particularly the team’s flair for tailoring. Despite the sometimes heavy-handed details, there were no discernible slip-ups in the construction of the jackets and outerwear (which were plentiful). The respect for classic forms was evident yet there, too, were consideration for forward-thinking innovation. In this respect, it was not surprising that the men’s wear was stronger than the women’s, which seemed too often to target the off-duty Rihanna.

It couldn’t be ascertained if this unexpected show of strength had to do with the chief creative director Adrian Margelist, (re)appointed only in January this year. The flower boys this evening was interesting to see. However, even the best garden needs pruning: a snip here, a trim there. In paradise, excess is not heavenly.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now till 19 October

Soft Opening

Pierre Balmain FFW 2013

If you were to attend the opening show of a film festival, what would you have expected to see? Perhaps expectations were already there: big and the best—headlined by a marquee-name director, whose picture had probably already won numerous awards in the festival circuit or well-loved by critics all over. At the end of the screening, whether with tears in your eyes or warmth in your heart or both, you were enthralled, inspired, and challenged, and wanted more. The film had engaged your capacity to laugh, to feel, and to marvel.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the opening show of Fashion Week 2013 (actually, more than seven days, and is, in fact, an amalgamation of previously three fashion weeks: Men’s, Women’s and Couture). If fashion cannot be compared to films, then at least, like a movie, it can entertain. Pierre Balmain kicked off this year’s event with as much delight as an atrium show of the opening of a shopping mall.

To venture further, it is vital to first note that this is a Pierre Balmain show, not Balmain. Is there a difference? The dissimilarity is like jet beads and iron-on crystals. Pierre Balmain, despite the full name, is, in fact, a “young line” (read: diffusion), put together and distributed by the Italian manufacturer Ittierre SpA, a business that identifies itself as “the leader in the development of young lines, jeans wear, contemporary, prêt-à-porter of high range”. What was shown earlier this evening was, therefore, not the collection designed by Olivier Rousteing, who took over from Christophe Decarnin when the latter parted with the house in April 2011 (and now rumoured to be assisting Kanye West revive the rapper’s failed eponymous label). Ittierre SpA is the licensed company behind such secondary lines such as C’N’C and Galliano, just two labels in a roster that has no retail superstars.

Not all who attended the show at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre had knowledge of this brand discrepancy. The guests—many dressed for Instagram—came expecting a Paris-worthy assault. Forty-five minutes late, the show opened with an abstract print blouse and skinny pants, laced down the front of the legs. Your heartbeat did not accelerate. Next came a man’s bleached-to-almost-white denim jacket and equally pale jeans. Your shoulders drooped. By the time the crumpled gold evening dress with the un-pressed seam on the front slit appeared near the end, you have sunk in the chair. The presentation of about 30 outfits that appeared to be pulled from the shop floor was characterised by a leitmotiv of ordinariness. There wasn’t even a styling ruse, no attempt at distorting your perception of what these designs were: bland. Compounded by the weak choice of models, these could be clothes from any of the units on B2 of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.

A good fashion show, not just an opening show, should have the power to arouse as you absorb, seduce as you succumb, enchant as you enjoy. According to the marketing material issued by organiser Fidé Fashion Weeks, it will be a season of “captivating shows”. For a start, the promise was not a plump one.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from 9 to 19 October