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