Why Depression Is Still Depressing

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“…I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes” –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

For its first full-collection catwalk show at Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Depression continued with what it has always advocated: clothes that work best in the shadows. There was no negating the brand’s proclivity to dark attire, deathly makeup, and brooding attitude. The show attracted a huge fan base—many of them suitably garbed in dreary swathes of black, overwhelming the small show venue with their gloomy presence. For that, Depression rewarded them with a presentation that had the requisites for All Tomorrow’s Parties, as sung by the Velvet Underground: “A blackened shroud/A hand-me-down gown/Of Rags and silks, a costume/Fit for one who sits and cries/For all tomorrow’s parties”.

To be sure, Depression has never looked so arresting. The collection was well-focused; it had energy and it still rebuked what people consider fashionable. There was the chilling aloofness of the models, whose faces looked battered, a style first seen in George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. There was the monotonous soundtrack that seemed to drone on forever. There was the video, projected on the back wall of the catwalk, of a relentlessly beating black heart, wishing evil upon the rapt audience. The clothes appeared, for once, better made, even when they suggested disarray and impairment. There were pieces for women—a second since the Blueprint show earlier this year—that was as sinister looking as the men’s. The old truism about the dark is true: you cannot dispel darkness with darkness.

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Whether Depression duo, Andrew Loh and Kenny Lim, are practitioners of—to borrow from Harry Porter—the “dark arts”, we may never know. But from the clothes they showed, they seem to inhabit a shadowy dystopian world. This is not the dystopia of Veronica Roth’s Divergent. This is much darker: a funereal outpost where psychopomps rule and people are perpetual mourners. It is, perhaps, no coincidence then that the Depression show took place on the Day of the Dead (or Dia de Muertos, a Mexican holiday dedicated to the remembrance of the deceased). This occasion may be foreign to us, but for some, it’s their Hungry Ghost Festival.

One question kept popping up during the 13-minute show: why did these clothes look the same as those from past seasons? The problem, as it soon appeared to us, was the colour choice. Black, while versatile and good at pulling disparate elements together, is not the easy-to-work-with colour that less deft designers imagine it to be. On inferior fabrics, black looks, well, inferior. You can use all the black in the world that you want, but if they’re not expressed in the best textiles so that black can articulate its mysteriousness and allure, it’ll look like the soot of chimneys rather than the ink of artists. Depression did not avail to their design studio fabrics that could allow black to be held in high esteem. On the catwalk, they look common and cheap, compounded by the scary plethora of synthetics, including Depression favourites such as polyester netting. They may wish to symbolically use black to project sartorial (and possibly social) rebellion, but on lesser fabrics, their light-absorbing shade looks corporeal and mundane, not aggressive and powerful.

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Still, black is necessary to strengthen Depression’s cult standing (and to mask the label’s technical deficiencies). Someone in the audience was heard calling the collection “street Goth”. But Goth (not to be confused with the Germanic tribe, the Goths), whether born on the street or not, is a subculture that has strict codes of imagery and cultural tastes. A skinny lad kitted in black shirt and black low-crotch pants (topped with a black felt wide-brim hat)—what one of the attendees wore, for example—was no Goth. A poseur, yes; Goth, no. A practising Goth, even an androgynous one, would not succumb to Depression’s blousy tops; backless shirts with floppy bibs; see-through pants of polyester netting; flaccid tunics slit to the thigh; and cropped numbers that looked like they were inspired by a bat’s carcass. What’s most puzzling (and unacceptable to a Goth, surely) is the strange, inauspicious-looking headwear that looked like a nun’s habit deconstructed by someone from the Ku Klux Klan, to be worn at a Chinese funeral somewhere in Tainan, Taipei!

In the end, perhaps it wasn’t about design or tailoring or fit. What Mr Loh and Mr Lim went for was a look, as with so many designers these days. As long as they could send out the Grim Reaper—a (Goth) rock opera version, it really didn’t matter if the clothes were not the epitome of brilliant design. What Depression did was the continual selling of an expression that, by now, should have evolved, but has not. How long do you want to stay depressed? Eight years after the label was started, the guys were still talking about those days when they “hit a low point in their lives”. They could have created a high out of the low, but they did not. There could have injected some irony into their designs, but they did not. They could have brought a sliver of joy into the long-drawn misery, but they did not. The clothes were not “street luxe”, to quote another enthusiastic description from the audience; they still look like they were made for department stores or corner shops in malls under cineplexes. Or was that just the look?

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Two Chinese characters appeared with persistent regularity: 心魔 or xinmo (literally, evil in the heart). It was a curious, ominous word choice. The noun+noun compound comprises of the character for heart and for evil (or magic, which in the case of Depression is improbable, unless it’s black magic!) They first appeared on socks (some worn with one character on each side, and, strangely, the character for heart did not show on the left foot), then on clothes. Bold (font) and in your face they were, but the characters, we suspected, were more for effect—not even graphic interest—than to communicate the designers’ understanding of them. Xinmo is the title of a 2009 Hong Kong movie (At the End of Daybreak, in English), but it is unlikely Depression would draw ideas from this film since it is a mushy love story. Xinmo is also the name of the Chinese edition of the video game The Evil Within (known in Japan as Psycho Break), published by Tango Gameworks, a company founded by Shinji Mikami, the creator of The Resident Evil series. It is possible that Depression’s Mr Loh and Mr Lim are avid gamers, but it is doubtful that the collection was inspired by this survival-horror game, since its protagonist, Sebastian Castellanos, looks like he’s dressed by the Italian mafia.

This was all very confusing because the Depression theme for what was shown was supposed to be, by most accounts—their own too, based on “fear”. Evil in the heart could be fearful, but that sounds too much like a B-grade scare romp to instil fear. So what is it that would arouse the dread of impending peril or malevolence? Perhaps, Depression did not know. Together with the DFW programme booklet was a black A5-sized card printed as a survey form with the question, “What are your demons?” It looked like Depression’s fear mongering came to nought.

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

When Third Time’s Not A Charm

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Despite having staged three shows in consecutive years with Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Pauline Lim is no old hat when it comes to catwalk presentations for her label Pauline Ning. Her latest recalled her first: a neophyte endeavor of over-ambitious moves in a world already engulfed by excess. It’s been five years since Ms Lim graduated from LaSalle College of Arts (where she now also lectures), yet what she displayed on the catwalk parallelled the output of a graduate fashion show. As outfit after outfit appeared and disappeared, it was trying getting to the soul of the collection. What was the narrative, this “Wounded Rhymes”, as it’s called? The plot was lost in the hodgepodge that was crammed with dizzying overload of trendy items worn by models sporting uninspired makeup and tragic hair (messily swept to one side—apparently the label’s favourite look). The real question is: would any of what was shown be remembered after the show?

It appeared that too much consideration was given to ‘design’ (“complex cuts with curved structures”?!) while execution was left to neglect. The underwhelming details were unrelenting; the coupling of the slapdash and the superfluous glaring. From the very first outfit, Ms Lim’s lack of attention to finishing was drawing the attention. The sleeveless, black, silk satin jacket, curiously affixed with half a pleated skirt of orange and purple panels (or was that one part of a coattail?), was robbed of the neatness of finish that such a fabric deserves. The one button to hold the two front pieces together was clearly inadequate as the pivoting allowed the right half to sag. With the second outfit, any hope to see better workmanship was dashed: the tented tank top had an opening at the left shoulder, and it wouldn’t sit flat, and if you went further down, the hem was so warped; you wondered how it could have escaped the designer and her sewer. The accompanying bottom was a peplumed skirt with a fly front that refused to stay level, gaping between fastenings. This oversight meant that fly fronts of similar flaws would continue to come down the runway, as well as waist bands with openings that were ajar so that the hook-and-eye fastening could be clearly seen.

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Ms Lim is known to pay particular attention to design, but the investment in design, no matter how large, quickly becomes inconsequential when the execution at the assembly stage is overlooked. It, therefore, raised the suspicion that all the flaps, bits, and asymmetrical protrusions so favoured by Ms Lim were, in fact, visual distractions to camouflage failings of finishing. One by one, the mischance appeared, challenging what is considered acceptable in basic dressmaking. The first oversight, you could ignore; perhaps, the second too. But when they appeared again (and again), drawing your attention like a tear in a stocking, you began to wonder if there were some serious problems going on. It came to a point when these diverted what one came to see: the designs. (Even the Pauline Ning website isn’t spared. Despite the dramatic images to suggest Ms Lim’s flair with graphic shapes, it is the unintended plethora of dents, tucks, and puckering that immediately catches the viewer’s eye.)

Ms Lim is also recognised for her use of fabrics, and love of mixing them, however, incongruous the combinations. This season, it seemed she resorted to what’s on trend, or what is available that could be conveniently and inexpensively had. The use of performance-wear synthetics, for example, attested to this observation. One of them was what looked like warp-knit polyester air mesh; those mostly used in shoes and bags, but have, of late, migrated to garments, thanks to the escalating output from mills in China and the trend that Pauline Ning’s brand communication calls “luxe sports”. “Many brands are using them,” noted one product development manager watching the show. Plentiful is not necessarily a boon to a designer, and if Ms Lim had looked carefully enough, she would have learnt that the cloth had become quite overused—from Patpong to Katong.

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Part of the pioneering group of Parco Next Next incubator project, Ms Lim, started her label in 2009, as soon as she graduated from LaSalle College of Arts. From the onset, she wanted to create “a brand that would be synonymous with edgy, contemporary and innovative fashion”. The edginess notwithstanding, Ms Lim is a designer of extremely feminine clothes. Within the on-trend shapes, she applies asymmetry as counterpoint so that some kind of avant-garde veneer could be discerned. But the asymmetrical dimension often lacks balance, so much so that her clothes on the body look lopsided. The sum effect are silhouettes that are floppy, and not flattering to the wearer. But Pauline Ning is what merchandisers would call “garmental”—clothes that look like clothes, regardless of the quality or design. It’s commercial too, which adds to its appeal. But, as we have often seen, commercial acumen is no indicator of artistry.

Some of Ms Lim’s students from her alma mater came to cheer her on. One of them, who calls herself JuJu the Zealot and looks like a Depression fan girl, would later post on her blog page Fashion Fanatique that “the show was short and sweet, and it really has the essence of spring”. It is doubtful if this schoolgirl knows what the essence of spring is; but it is fortunate for Ms Lim that the pupil wasn’t able to see what we saw. Students might miss the shortcomings of a staged collection, but someone who teaches them shouldn’t. This, sadly, is the daunting part: what kind of graduates are we turning out if those who teach them turn a blind eye to those small but crucial parts of dressmaking? As Ms Lim took the customary walk down the runway at the end of the presentation, she looked uncannily like the models that came out before her (the swept-to-one-side messy hair too!). One thing became clear: she designs for herself.

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