Just To The Max

MT G1

It is perhaps no coincidence that Max Tan’s show was staged on Halloween night. When beauty sleeps, horror comes out to play. Paring a pounding soundtrack to clothes of immense monstrosity, Mr Tan’s opening show for this year’s Digital Fashion Week struck as a catwalk version of the Best of Singapore Ghost Stories. What was shown wasn’t so much scary as ghastly: heat-trapping neoprene jackets shaped to form hyper-exaggerated distensions that, when worn, would make the Michelin Man—voted by Time in 2011 as one of the “Top Ten Creepiest Product Mascot”—look like he has been on a detox diet.

“Maximizing on minimalistic ideas, this complex language results in details that are blown out of proportion”, went a description in Mr Tan’s profile for the DFW brochure. Seeing the clothes, we finally understood! Exaggeration is the vernacular here just as distortion is the design approach. “Creating unexpected silhouettes”, Mr Tan proved he could mutate the natural to the fantastical. Apparently they were “experiments with quirk cuts”. Is that the same as Victor Frankenstein dissecting corpses to create his celebrated monster?

The thing is, Mr Tan’ experiment with mass was audacious but unconvincing. His oversized outerwear was neither conceptually original nor technically muscular. Jumbo jackets with swollen sleeves were a dip into the playbooks of a certain American designer who’s known for sending out clothes that defy conventional proportions or a particular Japanese who is definitely distinguished by her refusal to let silhouette trace the contours of the body. Garments bloated Mr Tan’s way require an intimate understanding of the space between body and fabric, but that did not show. Instead, there was little or no thought for the dynamic between sculpture and volume. Size, in this case, was for effect rather than function. Armature—spongy as they were—to enhance the aggressive styling? If these were not encumbered clothes, what else could be?

MT G2

Of course, exaggerated forms created to redefine the body’s natural silhouette are nothing new. From Helen Storey to Rei Kawakubo, designers have often transmogrified ordinary shapes into figures that will compel the viewer to rethink what is acceptable for wearing. History has shown that women have used all sorts of contraption to constrict or bloat various parts of the body: the corset and the pannier—just to name two—redrew the natural silhouette of the body, sometimes to quite incomprehensible extremes. Often enough, exaggeration and severity are partners-in-crime of fashion.

As neoprene or bonded fabric was used to achieve the whopping silhouette, it did not underscore Mr Tan’s technical ability. The inherent quality of neoprene—essentially a synthetic rubber—is its pliable form. The suppleness and natural bulk of this fabric allow easy manipulation as it holds its shape without resistance. Even when not using curved lines and darts, neoprene can be simply worked to give volume. The case would have been different if Mr Tan had employed a softer cloth such as wool gabardine—using this for voluminous effect will reveal a designer’s skill. Here, then, was the problem: there seemed to be a lack of understanding of the properties of the fabric used. It was puzzling, for instance, that a neoprene shirt should have a fly front. The covered placket fashioned with such a thick fabric didn’t allow the placket to sit flat: left ajar, the plastic buttons were in full view, which defeated the purpose of designing a shirt with a covered placket. In addition, there was the unnecessary and overuse of top stitch throughout so much of the neoprene pieces. Synthetic textile such as neoprene do not fray. With modern cutting tools such as the laser, smooth edges can be achieved without hemmed finish, but perhaps Mr Tan didn’t know that.

It was, however, not so slack that such a fabric was chosen. It is currently the synthetic textile of choice, brought to the fore by a certain American designer collaborating with a Swedish fast fashion retailer. And they’re everywhere in the fabric markets of China, merchandisers will tell you.  In fact, neoprene is in such widespread use now that they were out as soon as they were in. The fabric choice—not to mention the silhouette—provoked a crucial question too: what season’s collection were we looking at? Surely, these weren’t for spring/summer since the sum effect was ponderous rather than light. For sure, it wasn’t indicated on the DFW program or communication material, but as this fashion week appears during what is mostly seen as a period to showcase for spring and summer, it would not be immoderate to suppose Mr Tan was following international schedule. If so, was he really proposing warm-weather dressing? It was not enthralling, if that’s the case, to see his star model, the 83 year-old Carmen Dell’Orefice, carry on her shoulders a coat so unwieldy that she was struggling to drag them across the catwalk.

MT G3

It became apparent that Mr Tan’s collection was big (forgive the pun) on facade rather than utility, looks rather details. Once the volumes stop arousing your interest, your eyes start to trail those elements that make a garment polished, or the lack of them. This was, we were led to believe, a designer show. But rather then find smooth, flat seams or collars that fit the neck flawlessly, puckered joints and irregular necklines beckoned. Mr Tan teaches part time at his alma mater Nayang Academy of Fine Art’s Department of Fashion Studies. Were these his students’ handiwork?

When bulky was not the game, drapey was.  Since his label’s debut in 2010 at Parco’s Next Next, the failed project at Millennia Walk, conceived to “help” young and inexperienced designers thrive (ironic then that the concept store did not succeed), Mr Tan has been partial to swathe the body with folds so as to shy away from a more tailored structure. One of his most popular pieces is a one-sleeve shirt-dress with half a collar. When worn, the dress pulls itself into shape based on the body of the wearer. As it undulates, it is very forgiving even to unflattering body types. This is Mr Tan bread-and-butter silhouette, and he continues to show them, now with both sleeves on and even more complicated draping, sometimes with fabrics worn selendang across the bodice.

The thing with liquid silhouettes, especially those not controlled is the inevitable relationship between the hang of the fabric and gravitational pull. The Japanese understand this and they have the mastery to draw together indeterminate forms to yield clothes that look like clothes. Mr Tan’s seeming randomness and the lack of graphic heft forged dresses and tops that look like pieces of fabrics dropped on the wearer. An editor with an e-mag blamed it on his manufacturer. “He can’t find good factories,” she claimed. “That’s why the clothes look terrible.”

As is often said, we all have our demons. Happy Halloween.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim

Thomas Wee: A While Ago And Recently

Two days before showing at Digital Fashion Week, Singapore’s preeminent couturier Thomas Wee speaks exclusively to SOTD about the “King of Jacket” accolade that has stuck for too long, the craft he continues to love and share, anda bombshellbowing out!

Thomas Wee 2014Photo: Toon

As a designer, Thomas Wee does not return to yesterday. Like Gordon Ramsey, he does not look back. “I don’t like crying over spilt milk,” Mr Ramsey once said. “I look for the next cow.” Mr Wee, too, does not weep over ruined dresses or unrealised concepts; he merely picks up his scissors and cuts the next cloth. Even less (practically never) is referring to the past to forge a present. With each collection since returning from an eleven-year hiatus in 2008, his style moves further and further away from what he was known for at the height of his career in the 1980s. Now, even with a design DNA that is evident and recognisable, the output is as different from yesteryears as (tailor’s) chalk and cheese.

Preparing for the upcoming Digital Fashion Week, he does not keep the clothes from scrutiny. There’s complexity to his designs. Perhaps it’s more pertinent to say there’s even greater complexity now. It is not always discernible, but it is there: in the minimal seams, in the billowy volumes, in the seemingly straight lines. In spirit, Mr Wee’s approach is not unlike the Italian artists of the Futurismo movement of the early 20th century. His dresses, even his trousers, were cut to effect a flow and dynamism that is akin to Umberto Boccioni’s sculptures. Describing his aesthetic today, he says, “It’s very tailored, very architectural. It’s my version of origami done with fabrics. My way of interpreting origami: about folding and joining, with the least seams.” The allusion to origami is not lost. You do sense that Mr Wee treats his fabrics as if they are paper.

Despite the forwardness and dressiness that has come to characterise his latter-day designs, Thomas Wee is still associated with one item of clothing that has become a badge of honour he can’t shake off: the office-ready jacket. He has come to be known and is still referred to as the “King of Jacket”. The reality is, by 1992, when his company—which included the labels Divine and Atelier—was sold to Heshe Holdings, he was already slipping off the garment that had singularly built his fortune. Under Heshe, he created the new label Preta. It was, as he describes it, “less office-y”. Preta was never meant to reprise the successful Mixables, a label born in 1986 to offer more affordable versions of what he was already doing in the original boutique Thomas Wee, then located at Far East Plaza. It was a time when Scotts Road had lustre. In the presence of a larger audience, Mixables firmly established his skill in tailoring: the jackets were so sleek and faultless, they were professional women’s de facto uniform. With Preta, “I stopped doing colours and went with neutrals,” he says. “There were still some jackets, but they were not so corporate.” After Preta closed in 1995, Mr Wee nearly completely left the “executive look” behind.

TW SS 2015 for SOTDThomas Wee spring/summer 2015. Styling: Vik Lim. Hair/makeup: Shirley Li. Photo: Toon. Sittings editor: Just So

“It was a painful transition period,” he recalls. “I was wondering if I wanted to stay in fashion. I did not want to do career wear anymore. The others were selling jackets for S$49.90!” He repeats that low price in case you do not share his disbelief and disdain. “Moreover, he continues, “I did not need to prove that I can do better jackets. I needed to move on.” And move on he did. However, the sticky accolade “King of Jacket” stuck like ironed-on fusing. “I don’t know who gave me that title,” Mr Wee professes. “I read it somewhere in the papers.” Then, somewhat self-deprecatingly, he added, “The thing is, I am not trained to do bespoke tailoring, if you call me that, 我很惭愧 (I am ashamed),” switching to Mandarin when he knows you understand it, which he often does even when he is, in fact, eloquent in English, his first language.

By the mid-Nineties, fashion was experiencing monumental shifts. What was trickling down into Singapore was a more relaxed—even casual—approach to dressing. In New York, Marc Jacobs had shown the “grunge” collection for Perry Ellis in November 1992, one season that springboarded his dismissal from the label. The corporate bigwigs may have hated it, but Mr Jacobs’s grunge left its mark, even if negatively. Inspired by thrift store clothes that rock stars wore at that time, Grunge was considered ugly. The New York Times called it “anathema to fashion”. Inadvertent perhaps, but the grunge Mr Jacobs hoped to make big was inexorably heading to death’s door. Cool girls were already doing grunge. Mr Jacob’s reiteration was not new, not glib, not hip. He made Perry Ellis look derivative. Regardless, casual fashion, by then, had such a grip on popular taste; it was at the point of no return.

Simultaneously, across the Atlantic, there was this fashion and cultural phenomenon known as Kate Moss. Ms Moss, through compatriot photographer Corrine Day, had forged an aesthetic that emerged just in time to replace the fading appeal of the statuesque, unapproachable, perfectly coiffed supermodels of the Eighties. The vintage-y looks she adopted off-camera and off-catwalk came to inspire a new generation of young women. Despite her skinniness—exacerbated by the “heroin chic” look of her Calvin Klein ads—and her usually limp hair and the formless clothes (and the omnipresent cut-off denim shorts!), Kate Moss would be the unstoppable and perpetual It Girl, and a generation’s most influential model. It mattered not that most who adopted her sloppy look were no Kate Moss. In 1998, eight years after “The 3rd Summer of Love’ cover for the now-defunct British magazine The Face that truly launched her, Kate Moss became a trademark, registered by her agency Storm.

Collar TW SS 2015A collar in the making. Thomas Wee spring/summer 2015. Photo: Jim Sim

Although Mr Wee wasn’t looking at these developments with grave concern (on the popularity of Doc Martens boots at that time, he remarked, “how will these girls ever know how to wear high heels?”), his shifting away from the restrictive tailored look was timely. Throughout the first half of the Nineties, Singapore women were starting to cast off the professional shield afforded by the immaculately constructed jacket. The adoption of casual Fridays among corporate types further sealed the fate of a more formal way of dress. Work-appropriate was being redefined. Before the Heshe buyout of 1992, Thomas Wee was, in effect, already editing out jackets from what he was designing. With the Divine line, an all-white collection that he describes as “resort”, first seen in Style Singapore (a multi-local-label store at Park Mall), jackets were conspicuously absent. In their place were fine-looking white chemises and smart, relaxed shell tops and shift-dresses. The breakaway from Mixables was nearly complete.

Yet, synonymous with the jacket Thomas Wee remains. It is inescapable that Mr Wee’s jackets, particularly from the affordable Mixable line, captured the imagination and affection of a generation of Singapore women. They were not only perfectly made, they were relevant to the workplace culture and politics of that time. Not overtly masculine and always with what he used to call “the important swing” (which also meant not stiff), these jackets were worn by many of Singapore’s high-profile women such as the eye surgeon and Singapore’s foremost conservationist Dr Geh Min. They not only elevated the status of the Mixable jacket, they heighten its visibility. You really saw women wearing them in the office, as well as on the street.

The back story of Thomas Wee’s initial obsession with the jacket, specifically a tailored suit-jacket, can be traced to his first visit to Paris in 1981. He had gone to the French capital as part of the Trade Development Board’s mission to showcase Singapore talent. While most first-timers would make the Eiffel Tower their first sight of call, Mr Wee sped, as soon as he could, to the Yves Saint Laurent boutique in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “I pushed the two big glass doors with brass handles and walked right in,” he recalls. “And these sales people looked at me and wondered what this insipid Chinatown boy was doing here.” But there was a task at hand: to see for himself the le smoking, Saint Laurent’s seminal tuxedo jacket that first appeared as part of the autumn/winter ‘Pop Art’ collection in 1966 and immortalised, almost a decade, later by Helmut Newton in an iconic shoot for French Vogue.

TW paper patterns SS 2015Paper patterns of his spring/summer 2015 collections drafted by Thomas Wee. Photo Jim Sim

Far from being the sensational garment it was supposed to be, the le smoking was to Thomas Wee “not something new.” And new it certainly wasn’t by the time he saw it in Paris, fifteen years after the original debuted. A masculine jacket was not an oddity in a woman’s wardrobe in the Eighties; it was a staple. From a very young age, Mr Wee had always been in a flurry of tailoring activity, seeing more than his peers did. “My mother—she was a very good cheongsam maker—used to make many suits for my father’s boss, who wore grey flannel suits with spectator brogues. This was in the Fifties. It was a time people did dress like that. I would help my mother hand-stitch what she made. I saw and handled many suits. When I read about the le smoking, I wanted to know what the big deal was. When I finally saw it, it was just a female version of the tuxedo.”

Not quite the impressionable young man on a maiden trip to Paris that one would imagine. If Mr Wee was crestfallen, he did not disclose. After leaving the Yves Saint Laurent boutique that day, what he saw on the street excited him. At a sidewalk café, still in the Left Bank, a vision of Parisian chic appeared. “She was walking her poodle,” he describes eagerly. “She wore a turban and she had gloves on. She took a seat that was two tables away from me. She placed her handbag on a chair; she took off her coat, and there was this ultraviolet blue jacket. A magenta blouse peeked from it. She took off her gloves and placed them on the table. She pulled out a cigarette and smoked.” He describes her as if he had met her only the day before. Who this woman was, he never found out, but what she wore that day, “three or four” in the afternoon in Saint-Germain, was, to him, an epitome of sophistication and a prelude to the journey that would make Thomas Wee “King of Jacket”. “I wasn’t doing jackets yet,” he continues, still with relish. “It was this vision that made me realise I didn’t want to do the Japanese look (which was gaining traction in the early Eighties and had inspired him, following a visit to Tokyo at the start of that decade); I wanted to do French chic.”

Although tailored jackets don’t feature prominently in his repertoire now, he isn’t opposed to sharing what he knows about the tailleur with anyone willing to learn, especially the young. Mr Wee, who is entirely self-taught, went into teaching in 1999, conducting master classes on fashion design and pattern drafting at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art’s (NAFA) School of Fashion Studies. The dean of the school at that time was Gladys Theng, a gregarious doyenne of fashion education. She was known to have told the students, “You’re lucky to have Thomas Wee teach you.” But luck wasn’t what brought Mr Wee to the school. He had decided to stop designing, and wanted to teach in an institution such as NAFA that he never had the chance to attend. “Tan Yoong once said to me,” he remembers, “that both of us are a disgrace as we have never been to fashion school. ‘Look at the other Asian designers,’ he had said. It’s true—he was not wrong. After that, I knew that I must make up for not having formal education by being the best.” And by teaching what he has learnt.

TW & modelThomas Wee adjusting a blouse on a model during a photo shoot for his spring/summer 2015 look book. Photo: Jim Sim

Fashion school had by then increased in numbers, compared to the time when Mr Wee was of school-going age. The classroom setting appeals to him and the students’ curiosity motivates him. “What I like seeing from the students,” he says, “is their reactions. From the first line I draw to the flow of the patterns, I can keep them spellbound. They would ask, ‘为什么您想得到,我们想不到?’(‘Why is it that you’re able to think of it, and we can’t?’). I think teaching is in my blood.” And opening eyes is his passion. “People look at fashion with a tissue paper in front of their face. If you poke holes through it, they will see clearer.” Former students of his classes continue to recall how fun and lively and witty his instructions were, even when he could be strict. “But I am very patient. Because I have never been to fashion school, I teach my own way. And as I teach, I learn too. Even now, I am still learning. The thing is, no matter how old you are, you don’t let the learning stop.”

The learning may not come to a halt, but there has been talk among those who know him intimately that he may wish to discontinue designing. And the collection for Digital Fashion Week on Saturday evening may be his last. This would be shocking news to many. We put the question straight to him: is he retiring?

The 66-year-old does not answer directly, but smilingly counter-questions, “Do I want to continue to work like an idiot and not make enough money? After Digital Fashion Week, what next?” This is not rhetorical. Since the closure of his last stockist Coda in Scotts Square earlier this year, the Thomas Wee label is no longer retailed. While he continues to do projects such as the pop-up store in Galeries Lafayette Dubai by Anthropology of Design (an “exploration of designers and cities” initiated by entrepreneur Futtaim Beljaflah) and the recently concluded Kimono Kollab, and to take private commissions, the critical mass required to keep his atelier sustainable is not there. “I don’t see the buying power of the locals,” he says, “and my pool of customers does not get bigger.

“I don’t see myself moving on from here. I have been on this pattern-making table for 40 years. To me, I think I have come to a 段落 (phase). I don’t want to struggle to sustain this studio. If you want me to answer, it’s still a big question mark. If you look at my work, there’s still energy. But I have to be realistic. If there’s no market, then I have to seriously consider what to do next.”

The “next”, many hope, will not be the retirement of the anointed one, reluctant “King of Jacket”, who, in 2011, was recognised by CNN Power List as one, among thirty others, that have shaped modern Singapore. Some chapters should not be prematurely closed.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre

This Market: The Mess And The Mass

Club 21 Bazaar

By Raiment Young

Waiting to cross the traffic lights from Millennia Walk on Temasek Avenue, I could see, right ahead, the queue stretching across the entire length of the second floor of the Pit Building. Normally, as the name suggest, this would be the nerve centre of the world’s most famous Grand Prix, but on this day and for the next four days, it would serve as the disposal point from which one of Singapore’s largest fashion retailers will clear old stocks. A woman with a trolley bag too big to be allowed into any aircraft cabin was impatient for the light to turn green. She asked her companion in Chinese, “What if everything is gone by the time we get there?” The prospect of losing out is a damper more disheartening than queuing in the stifling afternoon heat for a length of time, quite unnatural for the purchase a few discounted frocks.

I was attending with friends the annual Club 21 Bazaar, a sale of such massive popularity that it now attracts shoppers from the region. It was mid-week, and the first day of the event, which, I was told, was designated “family and friends” (tickets were required for entry). The doors were supposed to open at 3pm (in previous years, the sale commenced at 5), but by 2 in the afternoon (the time we had just arrived), the line was easily more than two hundred strong. I did not realise Club 21 has so many supporters that could be considered kin and chum. A sale such as this, as it turned out, made everyone related to the discount provider, advertised to be offering up to 90% markdown. As we were crossing the car park in front of the Pit Building, it was clear the sale had long begun. Shoppers had already completed their mission, laden with shopping bags—in one case, enough to fill the entire boot of a taxi, plus the back seat!

Club 21 Bazaar Pic 1

We joined the queue, which had snaked onto the first floor, meandering into the car park. There was something festive about the atmosphere, as jolly as the queue outside Lim Chee Guan during the week leading up to Chinese New Year. The people that had formed this length of fashion-hungry humanity wasn’t just the eager and voluble youngsters that would typically line up outside H&M during the launch of a designer collab or Nubox and Epicentre stores to welcome the release of new iPhones. There were others: older individuals in practical dress who looked like they were there to receive an MP during a ministerial walkabout, and, of course, the non-natives.

The queue moved along and in twenty minutes, my companions and I arrived on the second floor of the Pit Building. No sooner had we turn to catch sight of the traffic jam ahead of us, a skinny, sleekly dressed teen, no older than 20 years, appeared from nowhere and slipped into the narrow space in front of us. It was an appearing act that had the hallmarks of Houdini. While I was sure he had jumped queue, one of my friends suggested that perhaps he had come to join the people in front. The sneaky guy immediately messaged someone, and in less than 3 minutes, two others—similarly attired and mysterious—joined him. It was clear by now what has happened. Annoyed by this blatant disregard for courteous conduct, I inched forward and rebuked, “Excuse me. Please join the queue from the back!” Without looking at me, he said, “Oh” and hurried his friends away. One of them looked at me quizzically and exclaimed, “I didn’t know.” Ignorance isn’t an entry ticket, and, we were determined, won’t have its fashion moment.

Once inside the three-hall sale space that was the Bazaar, you’re really on your own. You’ll come as a group, as I did, but you’ll gravitate towards what appeals to you, completely oblivious to what caught your companions’ eye. The crowd was overwhelming, and there was no one on hand to orientate the newbie shopper. I knew what I wanted or what will appeal to me, and headed straight for that area. The clothes were organised by brand, but by then, the racks were a jumble, and the most determined shoppers—they were all determined—would be sweeping garment after garment aside, as they inspect each with the single-mindedness of retail buyers at a wholesale mart. Before I could pull one out to see if I may like it, the piece will be brushed out-of-the-way by the persons doing the frantic selecting on both sides of me. I did not exist.

Club 21 Bazaar Pic 2

Who were these people? They were not your regular bargain hunters during GSS. These were upgraders going from ‘masstige’ brands to those with unpronounceable names. These were seekers of anything with prices drastically reduced, more concerned with low cost than high design. These were the style-challenged hunting down a statement piece to wear to 1 Altitude. Truth be told, I was intimidated by them. These were not Club 21 habitués, yet they knew what to nail. Choices were made based on brand names. If unfamiliar, there was always a friend who could enlighten. They picked everything the way a locust devours. It was select first, decide later. The clear plastic bags handed out at the entrance had to be filled (“Why is your bag so empty?” was frequently heard). The grab-fest had the buzz of refugees attacking UN trucks bearing humanitarian aid. I was in an unfamiliar territory.

The Club 21 Bazaar wasn’t always like this. My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I do recall rather vividly the early days of the Bazaar. It was not such a massive affair, nor as frenetic. The first one I attended was when it was held at the now-defunct Concorde Hotel on Outram Road. Spread out in the Concorde Ballroom that ran a part of the perimeter of the tubular building, the space was curved, not the linear expanse that is the Pit Building. Clothes were laid on tables as well as hung on racks. Sale staff from the Club 21 group of stores was in attendance, and will assist familiar faces in picking the best buys. It was busy, as typical of sales, but it was not crowded and manic. The customers weren’t desperate or anxious, and they were certainly better-dressed; they were fashion, not fishing folk. Picking up bargains naturally arouses adrenaline rush, but no matter how heady things may get then, there was always a moment among the whirl. You had the chance to admire the clothes and make informed purchase decisions. You didn’t sense the pressure to accumulate your finds in a battered plastic bag, lest someone else beat you to them. With the purchases made, my friends and I would go down to the coffee house, Melting Pot Café, where we could have a meal while pouring over what we had bought.

Club 21 Bazaar MRT station ad

There was something elitist about the early Club 21 Bazaar. Not everyone knew about it as they know now. It was a treat to be able to go. You felt privileged. I certainly did. Fashion—designer fashion—was consumed by those who knew about it and were genuinely interested in it. It was a world peopled by those in the industry, as well as those in the arts and in the media, many making that first step on the ladder of upward mobility (do we call it that now?!). Even at a sale, they bought with care, and with admiration of what were to be purchased. The Club 21 Bazaar was a relatively insider event. I do not remember the ads they have now, or the free-of-charge bus such as the one provided to ferry shoppers from The Adelphi to Pit Building. It was pre-smartphone, when human interaction wasn’t circumscribed by text message interface, and they certainly did not Tweet about the event as they now do, with shoppers showing off their buys at once, amid the frenzy.

With the introduction of convention centres such as Singapore Expo in the late 90s, fashion sales became very big events. The John Little and Metro “Expo sales”, just like the IT shows (the precursor, though these are not sales per se), were crowd pullers. You’d go to them as an outing, with loved ones. As the Singapore Expo usually stages concurrent events—travel fair in this hall, electronic in the other (10 halls in all), you could really make it an all-day jaunt, just as you would when you go to Orchard Road. The mega-sale became a part of our social life, and Club 21 would soon join the fray.

Club 21 had turned into one of Singapore’s largest fashion retailers, not the one-store multi-label boutique it once was. In the early days, their sales—even clearance sales—were conducted in-store, as were those of many of the other Singapore-born boutiques of its ilk, such as the now-gone Man and his Woman, Glamourette, and the more recent casualty, The Link. By the mid-Nineties, the fashion crowd had consecrated Club 21, while the rest were slowing fizzling out of the luxury retail landscape. With size comes huge inventory, and this inventory does not necessarily have a healthy sell-through. In later years, even inventory from its Hong Kong stores were shipped back here for disposal. Club 21 would need a much bigger space than a modest hotel ballroom to purge its warehouses of dead stocks.

Club 21 Bazaar Pic 3

At the Pit Building, in front of the racks of Comme des Garçons, I was suddenly surrounded by a group of guys—like characters from the Taiwanese film Monga, more hooligans than hipsters—determined to spare the clothes a boxed-up journey back to storage. They were grabbing every shirt that they could lay their hands on, and dumping into their plastic bags, by now so scratched they were no longer clear. As they rummaged, they would edify each other with what the clothes really meant in the scheme of things or in the thick of their social lives: “This one you can wear to Robert (sic) wedding.” One of them lifted a shirt with chess-board patchwork front, and another said, “No”, adding “this one looks like you can buy from Far East Plaza”. With a fling, the shirt landed on the floor.

It was heartbreaking for me to see what could be considered classic CDG treated this way. This wasn’t merely a rejection of what wasn’t desired, this was denunciation of design. If clothes are not respected, surely the designs are immaterial. What, then, were the people buying into if not mere brand names and slashed prices? In fact, so many of the shoppers showed scant regard for the clothes that it was worse than fruiterers throwing away spoilt produce. I saw striking Marni and Balenciaga coats tossed like soiled blankets in the wash. No one folded away what they did not want, most dumped. The recalcitrant ones would litter the entire length of area with piles of clothes. Was this Club 21 Bazaar or Thieves’ Market? By a gondola filled with Lanvin merchandise, a woman, hair streaked blond, picks and flings, and, at some point, a blouse slammed into me. Looking at her in disbelief, she returned with a “what?” and walked away. I really didn’t expect “family and friends” of Club 21 to treat the store’s clothes this way.

Club 21 Bazaar Pic 4

The venue offered no fitting room—not even one curtained corner—for the shoppers to try the garments. Trying was, in fact, not allowed. There was also not even a shard of mirror for anyone to look at. There are mirrored pillars throughout the halls, but all were plastered with paper to block its reflective surface. However, there was one thing they could not obstruct: smartphones. The less demanding were happy to just look at the reflection on their black smartphone screen, but most were selfie-ready, trying one outfit after another before their phone’s front camera. Technology has come out handy in a fashion sale. But technology cannot rid those with a predilection to—borrowing from army-speak—pasar malam their intended buys. A woman, seated on the floor with legs split opened like Kim Kardashian’s neckline, had spilled the contents of her plastic bag between her thighs to make the final select. As she was blocking the way of an increasingly long line to the cashiers, she was asked to move away by security staff—a shift she made with visible disdain.

Unable to find my friends, I decided to leave. I had been inside this overcrowded place for nearly an hour. Out of the three halls filled with stuff, only the first I had some interest in. The heat during the 50-minute queue to get in was affecting me the way a bad smell could be disorienting. The sea of clothes, mostly an indiscriminate black or dark-ish hue, was beginning to overwhelm. Only the music—a mix tape of British New Wave of the ’80s—coming out of the PA system was an amusing distraction. Outside, I could smell the salt of the sea. It was oddly comforting. Five hours later, happily lolling on my sofa at home, I received a WhatsApp message from my friends: they were still at the Bazaar, stuck for four hours in a slow-moving queue to pay. I was only able to wish them good luck.

A One-Sided Affair

Teddyfish X Kapok carryall F&B

Tote bags are such a staple in our stash of bags and so openly carried and accepted that they no longer make a user stick out like a sore thumb, which was the case, say, five years ago. For guys, especially, totes were such a bane to masculinity that only self-confessed metrosexuals (now a forgotten breed) would carry them with no regard to public disapproval. And now it seems, many of us—male and female—cannot get enough of this practical bag.

One of our current favourites is this carryall by the four year-old French bag-maker Teddyfish, conceived together with the Hong Kong indie retailer Kapok. What’s really eye-catching about this particular tote is that the print is silk-screened on one side only, which leaves the other in a monotone that can be used to face the world, particularly when patterns do not clash beautifully with what the user is wearing. This bag is made of heavy-duty 16-oz cotton canvas in a green—closer to olive—that is attractively military. It sports no logo (a major plus) accept for the brand’s tiny button: a little red dot (how appropriate for our island!) applied in the centre-top of the front. Those fearful of unwelcomed hands or prying eyes would be delighted to know that the opening is zippered so that belongings can be concealed. The bag comes with removable and adjustable shoulder strap so that, in the event that hand-carry is a peril to your machismo, it can be conveniently transformed into a messenger!

Teddyfish X Kapok carryall (comes also in navy), SGD490, is available at Kapok TOOLS@Tangs, Orchard Road and Kapok@National Design Centre, Middle Road

The Other Tweed Sneak

OT X AP AW 2014 tweed shoe

If you ask us, and we know you didn’t, but we’ll say it anyway, these sneakers in tweed are much more interesting than those by a certain couture house that has aroused the passion of the fashionistas of the world. What’s more crucial than the fancy fabric is that they look and feel like you can really do sports in them. Even if you’re not going to put them through the rigours of a workout (other than that on the dance floor), it is good to know that are made of sterner stuff. And they should be since they’re manufactured by Onitsuka Tiger, the 65 year-old Japanese label that has a long tradition of making groundbreaking athletic shoes.

While many Onitsuka Tiger trainers now appear to be from another era, this tweed version of their best-selling Colorado 85 series does not. Conceived in collaboration with the Italian designer Andrea Pompilio, it sidesteps vintage sensibilities for fashion forwardness. The black and white bouclé is quirky enough, but to pair it with a dusty pink leather front, that is cheeky and surprising.

Mr Pompilio is an unfamiliar name here so this may help amplify his standing: he cut his teeth with Alessandro Dell’Acqua, Prada, Calvin Klein and Yves Saint Laurent, just to list the more illustrious names. He is known as much for his urban-smart ready-to-wear (characterised by sportswear shapes—oh, that again!) as well as his quirky but immensely wearable footwear (notably for men). This is not his first collab with Onitsuka Tiger. In fact, if you count the upcoming spring/summer 2015, it would be his fifth season with the Jap co. We hope there are more to come.

Onitsuka Tiger x Andrea Pompilio Colorado Eighty Five Black Tweed, SGD199, is available at Onitsuka Tiger @ VivoCity. Artwork: Just So

They’re Foldable Too

Ray Ban round classic foldingRegular readers of SOTD may be aware that we love classic shades given a modern makeover. No other brand reinvents their well-loved frames better and more convincingly than Ray-Ban. Take this classic Round Metal. They’re the Aviator’s sexier sibling and they come in a more organic form factor: something Puyi, the last emperor of China, might have picked if he needed sunglasses. This new reiteration is fitted with lenses that have a clear rim, allowing the tinted shapes to ‘float’ right in the middle of the frames while offering the wearer’s eyes UV protection. The overall handsomeness is enhanced by the curved bridge, which is etched with what appears to be vintage details. In addition, they can be folded to a size no larger than a camera’s lens cap. That’s nifty!

Ray-Ban Round Folding Classic, SGD 520, are available at Sunglass Hut, island wide

Reason To Shop: StyleLoft3

SL3 Debut 1

Perforated poly-blend blouse with lantern sleeves and bell-shaped, banded miniskirt

Indie retailers with allure are so few and far between on Orchard Road that expecting one to appear is like hoping to find an Assouline book in the newsstand of 7-Eleven. So when one shows, you’d want to get closer, as you would when sighting a rare bird, to see its plumage in all its glory. StyleLoft3 opened last Wednesday in Mandarin Gallery, and it has already attracted the attention of the stylish set—a rare feat, considering that it’s not exactly situated in fashion’s holy land. It’s hard for Orchard Road landlords to attract retailers with a strong sense of place, let alone those with a strong sense of style. StyleLoft3’s addition into Mandarin Gallery’s mixed bag of boutiques augurs well for its standing as a shopping arcade with a difference, even if a reluctant difference.

First, the bad news: StyleLoft3 is a pop-up store. Its existence, by definition, is short-term—in this case, just six months. But, temporary does not mean under-provided. The store is not defined by its tenancy duration, and it’s certainly not deterred by its impermanence. In fact, it recognises that fashion is, by nature, transient, and its merchandise reflects the disposition of the spending crowd: we want it now! Fashion consumption cycle is so short these days that slow-to-act on the part of the retailer is a death knell of business viability. Here’s the good news: StyleLoft3 curates (appropriate description even if we dislike the word) its selection from the point of view of both merchandiser and consumer. The buyer is store buyer and buying public. And what he selects has appeal: that simple.

SL3 shopfrontStyleLoft3 is the brainchild of three friends (hence the prime number in the name of the shop): makeup artist to the stars Yuan Sng, ex-model and director of communication with a private investment firm Sherry Lim, and long-time resident from Indonesia Debora Kusnandar. The trio’s work dynamic is not unlike a pop group’s, with Mr Sng as band leader, and the réalisateur of the store’s clear direction and to-the-point merchandising. Mr Sng scours Seoul for his stash. His taste is so specific and informed and cross-cultural that it does not unravel the merchandise’s Korean roots. In fact, the products here are unlike anything in those ragtag shops that purport to source from Seoul. Mr Sng—indefatigable, according to those who have gone on buying trips with him—understands trends and knows how they can be distilled to serve a discerning, fashion-hungry clientele.

“Seoul has the most amazing things, but also not so amazing things. You have to open your eyes to what’s nice,” he told SOTD recently with palpable fervour. “On the whole, the finishing and quality are very good. Trends and looks are spot-on.” With a love for jewellery, Mr Sng uncovers some of Seoul’s best. “The jewellers there really care about details and finishing. Most of the pieces we carry are hand-made.” His partner Ms Lim added enthusiastically, “They’re costume jewellery set as fine jewellery.” It is this eye for invisible, but special qualities that distinguishes the store, rather than the prices, which, it has to be said, are certainly attractive and sharp—a boon to many a pocket.

SL3 Debut 2

Sporty outer of poly netting over shell top and gathered skirt of poly shantung

StyleLoft3 is not a hipster store, but an elegant counterpoint to hipness. Cool is not what it’s about, yet it captures the mood of the moment. The clothes salute shape and form, the accessories, craftsmanship and exquisiteness. You won’t find anything explicitly girlish or tacky—fashion’s current obsessions. You won’t find paragons of originality—not fashion’s present preoccupation. What you will uncover are products for women with certain comportment, those who subsist on surefooted style without looking to their daughter’s Instagram for inspiration.

The interior of StyleLoft3 is a spirited amalgam of vintage furnishing and retail fixture castoffs, but you’d never guess since they’re mixed with flair, as might a talented chef with a plated salad. Unfortunate is the duration of its stay here, this throve of trinkets and trifles, wardrobe of wondrous.

StyleLoft3 is at 03-28, Mandarin Gallery, Orchard Road.  Model: Serena Adsit. Styling: Vik Lim. Makeup & hair: Yuan Sng. Photo: Jim Sim.

Tennis Shoes That Won’t Meet a Court

Nike X Fragment tennis classic

Now that classic tennis shoes are seriously enjoying life outside the likes of Le Stade Roland Garros, more brands are pushing theirs to the fore. Nike, not wanting to prance in the shadow of competitor Adidas, has also up the profile of its classic tennis shoe (confuse not with Federer’s souped up monstrosity!). But the ones to own follow the current craze for mostly-white versions, save the heel tab. That means Nike’s instantly recognisable Swoosh is obscured, just as in this pair, a collaborative effort with Fragment.

It may be debatable if the all-white tennis shoe trend really began with the re-start of the life of the Adidas beauty, the Stan Smith, but there’s no denying that even Nike’s updates kicks appropriated some of the ideas of the former. Perforated outline of the logo, for instance? Whatever, the case, there’s no denying that this is a handsome shoe. Fragment, the Japanese design collective headed by Hiroshi Fujiwara, has approach this reissue with a light touch, offering sneakerheads a minimalist shoe with maximum style.

This is not the first time the Nike Tennis Classic is re-imagined. Supreme has placed their stamp on it last year, and just last month, Dover Street Market released a stark, truly pristine version as part of their 10th anniversary limited edition merchandise. The white tennis shoe isn’t going away any time soon.

Nike X Fragment tennis classic, SGD190, is available at Surrender, Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade

Wang, Bang, Thank You, Man

AW X H&M G1Composite of images from the Alexander Wang X H&M marketing communication

By Raiment Young

Thanks to H&M’s live stream, I sat in front of my 10-year-old PC this morning to watch the presentation of Alexander Wang’s much anticipated collection, created with the Swedish clothier. I was not transfixed. Although sunlight had by then filtered through my study, what was on my screen was very dark and dreary. It’s known for a while that Mr Wang designs will be based on “sportswear”, so it was not surprising that the show was staged in a track-and-field facility, but the runway was sort of like an athletic meet for The Walking Dead, born out by the models strutting on the two-lane running track as barely-dressed, fashion-victim zombies.

The incorporeal demeanour was perhaps required to intensify the patina of black that cloaked the entire show. The collection itself was dripping with so much black that I wondered if Mr Wang was boycotting Pantone. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge consumer of black, particularly head-to-finger-to-toe black. So it took considerable effort to get past the inkiness to see what the clothes were about.

AW X H&M WG1

Yes, the clothes. They were seriously body-hugging, that I didn’t miss, and they showed lots of abdomen, that I noted too. Whatever Mr Wang will have us believe—they’re for “street, gym, and club” (likely in that order), I don’t see them worn in the fitness centre. In fact, I don’t see them worn anywhere except on the streets, en route to some YG Entertainment concert. These were attire that spoke a specific language and demanded immediate attention: look at me, look at my body, and look at how I move in these clothes. In American parlance, it was “ghetto fabulous”, enhanced by the location of the show, and the presence of 90s hip-hop stars such as Missy Elliot. I already see the hashtag: #FabInWang!

I am not sure if Mr Wang’s approach to sports clothes is really so new. Deprived of the over-the-top styling, I suspect the pieces worn without the attendant extras (oh, Kinesio tape!) would be hard to pull off with aplomb. Look at Rihanna when she previewed the collaboration a month ago! How lian, I had thought. I suspect, up-close, those constricted clothes would have nothing to shout about. Aesthetically, Mr Wang does not traverse territory not already explored by Yohji Yamamoto for Y3 or Dirk Bikkembergs. Yes, he makes them tighter and shorter—expectedly, hyper-sexualised, but he has not exactly set down a new silhouette that could make me relook the rags I wear in (not to) the gym. Who works out in boxy neoprene sweatshirts and leggings? Moreover, this fierce athleticism has already been covered by HBA, and, to a large extent, Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy. The sportif overtones, in fact, can be traced to black urban fashion that coincided with the rise of hardcore hip-hop of the previous decade, when bling and Adidas track suits were not odd bedfellows.

AW X H&M MG1

What Mr Wang is really giving those who will queue outside H&M, come 6 November, is his brand, and the relatively inexpensive way to buy into his brand. Designer name excess is back, and this aggressive Wang won’t be ignored. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to wear this four-letter word on my abdomen, on my calves, or, gasp, on my crotch! It was brought to my attention that Wang is a slang word for the male sexual organ (not to be confused with wank, which is an act!). Well, over here and throughout the Malay Peninsula, it means money in bahasa melayu. Fashion is often a broadcaster of one’s wealth, but do we really want to announce our prosperity on our sleeves?

Mr Wang has always been lauded for having a strong connection with what’s happening in street culture that centres on hip-hop and throbs through clubs that thumps with the music of the likes of Dr Dre. To me, his interest rather bears semblance to a Westerner’s weakness for Orientalist romanticism: the fascination is more in surface than heart. If Alexander Wang X H&M is the modern uniform for the street, er… count me out.

Alexander Wang X H&M will be available on 6 November at H&M, Grange Road

Subtle Plaid for Masculine Wrists

Tatteosian braceletNot since Louis Vuitton’s ‘Digit’ bracelet in the house’s signature Damier Graphite canvas, has there really been another more subtle, yet visually engaging bracelet for men. Until now. This double-wrap wrist adornment by the English accessory maker Tatteosian London is a discreet leather cord on which is printed a green-based plaid that is vaguely Scottish (if tartan is too much for you, there are always manlier fabrics such as leather and paracord). The ‘pop’ clasp—in a green brushed metal—snaps together and pulls apart easily so that you can put it on and take it off  yourself without the assistance of the missus. Just the bracelet to pair with those bland fitness bands to give them a much needed visual lift.

Tatteosian plaid leather bracelet, SGD269, is available at the Tatteosian counter, Takashimaya Department Store. Photo: Jim Sim

When A Store Caves

Robinsons The HeerenThe change of name to reflect the building in which Robinsons resides rather than the street on which it stands

At first, there was the departure of MD Franz Kraatz. Then there was talk among suppliers and brand owners that modifications were afoot. Very quickly unfashionable labels such as Goldlion took up prime space in the men’s department. There was also ex-staff members’ eager confirmation that the store was giving up its attempt at fashion leadership. And then the name change of the Orchard store (Robinsons The Heeren, effective on 1 September). Finally, the report in yesterday’s ST: “Steering changes at Robinsons.”

You don’t need a modest article in The Straits Times to confirm that Robinsons is stepping out of a dress it deems does not fit. A walk in the Orchard Road flagship last month to check out the fall merchandise quickly revealed a store putting on a new outfit, even if not a particularly trendy one. A keen eye is not required to notice the gradual omissions of those things that earlier made it a pleasurable shopping destination. Did we propose too soon that Robinsons Orchard could be Singapore’s best department store?

Its new managing director Christophe Cann told ST: “I want to bring more common sense to this business.” It would appear that “common” is the operative word, as much as, if not more than, sense: “You have to provide customers with what they want and not what you want to sell to them.” By “customers”, it is not immoderate to assume Mr Cann meant the Fashion Majority. Like the Moral Majority, the Fashion Majority yields more power. What they enjoy and enjoy buying generates the demand for things. This demand is, for so many fashion retailers, essential to sustaining their business. It is not surprising that Robinsons prefers to sell what is already in demand, rather than put out something that will eventually be in demand. That would take too long.

Goldlion shirts at Robinsons The HeerenIn August, Goldlion shirts infiltrated what was once the premium jeans section of the men’s department at Robinsons The Heeren, ousting hip Japanese labels such as Johnbull

Mr Cann was adamant: “I am here to run a profitable retail operation and not to run a museum of fashion.” This commitment to his employer, the United Arab Emirates-based Al-Futtaim Group, is admirable, but what does it say about the fashion retail climate in Singapore, and what will it mean for Orchard Road? Naturally, the health of one’s business is more important than the status of a shopping street, never mind if the latter is losing its sheen as our island’s premier retail hub. Just last Saturday, Orchard Road was closed to traffic to become what ST called in a report last month “a walker’s paradise” (why not a shopper’s paradise, we do not know). And the closure—every first Saturday of the month—will continue till March, next year as a trial program to enliven the place. This move, the Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) hopes, will “revitalise the area, which is facing stiff competition from new shopping haunts like Marina Bay as well as suburban malls.”

The fact that Orchard Road needs revitalising indicates that it is has lost its vitality. If shopping is central to its appeal, then what gives it vim and vigour is primarily the shops and stores. Orchard Road is saturated with them, yet diversity does not characterise the malls in which they inhabit. Increasingly, the usual suspects—those chain businesses that are not run as “museum of fashion” —dominate, creating a repetitiveness that spreads, not even stealthily, across most of the retail space available. It would take a very busy shopper to miss the uniformity of configuration, shop types, store fascia, and even smell (now that environment fragrance is in vogue)! As Mark Almond sang in Soft Cell’s Monoculture, “Over and over and over, again and again and again. Monoculture. Mediocre.”

The fact that Orchard Road finds it hard to face-off with the competition, such as the less-established Marina Bay area, shows that perhaps it has allowed complacency to dwell on its kerbs for too long. Before The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands emerged to steal an entire street’s thunder, Orchard Road had the concentration of swank. But what ORBA calls “A Great Street” is actually losing its appeal as more malls with no distinguishable shopping ambiance pop up to outdo each other in blandness. Despite the S$40-million upgrade in 2009, Orchard Road has not been able to introduce newness to its roadside and in-mall experiences. In the mean time, out in the HDB heartlands, the burgeoning retail scenes, from east to west, are trying to offer the ineffable “Orchard Road experience”.

Sale bins @ Robinsons The HeerenThese sale bins have been missing in Robinsons The Heeren since the opening until today, the start of their mid-season sale 

But Orchard Road isn’t only facing competition from within our city. Further afield, the shopping belts of Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are awakening to the discernment and spending power of Singaporean (and other foreign) shoppers, and setting up malls that offer something experientially more exuberant. Bangkok’s Siam Center, for example, continues to attract after a recent refurbishment with its spirited mix of local fashion, international brands, and enjoyable eateries, bolstered by in-centre activities that constantly elevate the mall’s fashion standing without alienating its customers. Its palpable high energy and fun often prompt visitors to rate it as one of the best shopping centres in the world. And Siam Center is 41 years old! Among the Thais—the young especially, it is the go-to shopping destination even when there are other newer, larger, and busier malls.

The Bangkok experience deserves further scrutiny. Thailand’s capital city is not blessed with one uninterrupted shopping street as is the case here in Singapore. The main drag is Rama 1, which connects to Sukhumvit Road via a short Ploenchit Road. Mall shopping (and hopping) for most begins at Mahboonkrong Center at the junction of Rama 1 and Phayathai Road and then continues in one line eastwards to Emporium in Sukhumvit (Soi 24), covering a distance of about seven kilometres. That’s more than three times the length of Orchard Road (Ion Orchard to Plaza Singapura). Between these two points there are about as many shopping centres as there are along Orchard Road (give and take one or two), but since Orchard Road is shorter, the concentration of malls is higher.  Despite the distance (not to mention Bangkok’s punishing heat), shoppers (tourists in particular) do no mind covering the length, visiting mall after mall like bees going from one nectar source to the next, and the next.

Many of these shopping centres are massive, yet one does not sense that in order to fill leasable space, every recognisable brand is thrust in there (it certainly isn’t the case with F&B). While the usual popular labels do convene in mega-malls such as Siam Paragon and Centralworld, the overall picture is one of very dissimilar positioning and branding. The latest to sprout is Central Embassy on Ploenchit Road. Designed by Future Systems—better known for their work on the Selfridges building in Birmingham, it is presently the city’s swankiest, and it looks nothing like its closest competitor Siam Paragon. One distinguishable highlight is Eat Thai, the local cuisine-themed food court in the basement that has been rapidly gaining accolades, both among locals and visitors. Apart from the usual luxury brands, the mall has welcomed lesser-known labels, quirky concept stores, as well as the urban rarity, indie book shops. Central Embassy’s emergence does not add to the multitude of malls in central Bangkok; it raises the quality of mid-town shopping venues, and, in doing so, augments the enjoyment that has come to be associated with retail therapy in this city.

Supplements sections @ Robinsons The HeerenIf this looks familiar it’s because Robinsons has brought back its popular supplements section to The Heeren store, but if it’s not going to look better than Guardian, should it really be here in a flagship?

Orchard Road is, in many respects, similar to other shopping streets in Southeast Asia. Like the rest among our neighbours, it isn’t fashioned after the urban designs of European high streets such as those conceived by Baron Haussmann for the renovation of 19th Century Paris. Even without a boulevard in the scale of Champs Élysées, Orchard Road was able to morph into what it is today, more remarkable considering its lack of the elegance that typifies shopping streets such as Avenue Montaigne in Paris or Bond Street in London, or even Huaihai Lu in Shanghai. Despite its style-deficient appearance, it still looks much more urbane than Bangkok’s Rama 1, which is often choked with hawkers selling anything that can be sold (possibly to preserve Thailand’s residual third-world charm), blighting the facades of the buildings already obscured by the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) tracks and station.

The problem—for a lack of a better word—with Orchard Road is that everything happens on this one short thoroughfare. There’s no veering into arterial streets where surprises can be found, such as those in Aoyama Dori in Tokyo. Even adjacent Scotts Road is, at best, ancillary, a poorer cousin from the next plantation. There are no side lanes, no hidden quadrangles, where rents are less crippling and atmosphere more electric to encourage businesses that are not part of retail conglomerates to set up shop. Nothing non-mainstream is proximate to Orchard Road, where footfall strength is more important for mall operators than shop floor diversity. The lateral competition along Orchard Road concentrates retail activity so intensely on one stretch that anyone who wishes to vend outside of it find himself out of the action.

There are those who think Singapore is too small for street-side retail buzz such as New York’s Soho, and that developers are too preoccupied with vertical construction—the edifice mentality, we call it—to even consider covered open streets such as Osaka’s Shinsaibashi. Packing as much as possible into any given space is such a standard approach to land use that no one is willing to erect properties that can strike a balance of large-scale buildings and open spaces such as Tokyo Midtown or the “villages” of Sanlitun in Beijing. And there are those who simply think we’re not ready or sophisticated enough for any of the above. Some even posit that Singaporeans don’t care about the place they shop in as long as they get to shop.

Robinsons The Heeren facadeRobinsons has the frontage and the floor space to make a difference on Orchard Road, but have chosen to be “more accessible”

Are we really so indiscriminate? If the bland homogeneity of Orchard Road is anything to go by, perhaps we are. The average shopper is concerned only with what’s inside a mall, not how it looks on the outside. The developers know this too; hence, for example, the insipid expanse of a façade that juxtaposes 313@Sommerset, Orchard Gateway, and Orchard Central, as well as the standard offerings behind it. For as long as retailers are happy to be housed in architecturally lame buildings, and let the safe and saleable guide what they sell, there will be more of the same on Orchard Road. If we continue to consume the uninspired, oblivious to the surroundings in which the consumption takes place, we will allow, if not encourage, them to flourish.

Robinsons The Heeren’s going “more accessible” will not give Orchard Road a boost in the uniqueness stake, neither will it enhance the latter’s retail standing. The store, we fear, will just go back to being what it has been before throughout most of the Nineties: an emporium of no exceptional selling position. Perhaps they do not need to assume any pose. Since the advent of e-commerce, we no longer look to department stores as tastemakers. Those who lead trends these days come from a broad base of online stores such as Net-a-Porter, portals such as Farfetch, and content generators/style influencers such as bloggers and e-magazines. Will Robinsons be drowned out by the din that’s blaring from the other shopping universe known as the Internet? Time, as usual, will tell us.

“I want to cater to a larger fashionable crowd,” Robinsons’s Mr Cann told The Straits Times, “not just the younger crowd who has less money, but also to the not-so-old crowd who has more money to spend”. It is odd that Mr Cann should think that the younger set is not financially endowed when it is the young who are not thinking twice before splurging on S$500 KTZ T-shirts and S$1,500 Valentino sneakers. Maybe they do not constitute “a larger fashionable crowd”. Bigger, widespread, pervasive—in the end, they rule.

Tweed For Feet

Chanel tweed sneakers AW 2014Chanel gym shoes, anyone?

Some people attribute the current craze for sneakers to Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel couture kicks, revealed back in January for the Spring/Summer season. Although Raf Simon’s Dior, too, showed footwear clearly derived from sports (we say they look like bejewelled kungfu shoes!), it was Chanel’s that rocked the couture establishment and thrilled the fashion pack. If there’s a place in haute couture for commonplace sneaks, athletic shoes should be doing a victory dance (and they have) for the overdue recognition. The desirability quotient shot up when it was reported that those shoes were not for sale: you got the chance to buy a pair only when you ordered a couture outfit. Made by Massoro Bottier, the century-old French shoe maker behind Chanel’s wardrobe for feet—of note, the black and beige signature styles, the high fashion sneakers were each 30-hours worth of hand work, and were as intricate and lavish as the clothes.

Hanker for them no more as Chanel has released prêt-a-porter versions for Autumn/Winter 2014. These are even more striking than the earlier couture issue: less confections of fairy dust, more concoctions of disco glitter! The happy mix of tweeds and bouclés, among other materials, made us wonder if these were discards from the house’s cutting floor. As eye-catching as they are in the boutique’s window, once held in the hand, these mixed-media shoes look surprisingly conventional and feel as ordinary. It is not clear if they will perform under intense sporting conditions (well, it’s another kind of performance wear!) since it’s hard to imagine any woman wanting to put the near S$2000 shoe to test. Under the rubber sole, Chanel’s double C logo is brightly affixed, waiting for the wearer to create imprints on wet sand.

It isn’t the first time Chanel showed sneakers and certainly not the first in tweed either, but this time, they’re begging to be Instagrammed. And that, perhaps, is good enough reason to join the mad rush for them.

Chanel tweed sneakers, SGD1,820, are available at Chanel boutiques. Photo: R. Zhang