The Shoes With The Tattoos

Doc Martens Tattoo collection SS 2015

Closewise from left: Doc Marten women’s Adaya Sandal, men’s1460 Boot, women’s Polley Shoe, and men’s 1461 Shoe

By Shu Xie

Tattoos, like plastic surgery, can be addictive. A friend related to me recently how, these days, she’s more inclined to go to a tattoo rather than a beauty palour. What began as a small, permanently inked memento on her right upper arm to remind her of a terrific holiday (later revealed to be a romantic encounter!) in Bangkok soon became an obsession that covered two arms completely. She has no fear that the fixation could one day mean all over the body. I was only able to say, “how yakuza of you!”

And that had me thinking of the ‘Tattoo’ shoes by Doc Martens (DM). Part of the spring/summer 2015 collection, these are clearly inspired by Japanese body art. The all-over tattoo DM prints on their leather uppers is akin to traditional Jap tattooing called irezumi, with motifs such as koi fish, cherry blossoms, peacocks and clouds—all muted in colour—on what the brand calls “tan”, or what some of us call nude. According to DM, ‘Tattoo’ is a “tribute to the West Coast hardcore punk scene, which helped popularize Dr. Martens in the US in the mid-’80s”. Hardcore punk scene may sound unyielding and aggressive, but on yakuza grounds, that’s probably marketing talk. Members of Japanese organised crime syndicates, who are tattooed as part of their initiation or gang identity, take irezumi rather seriously, with many of them going for full-body tattoo, including armpits and genitalia.

Japanese body art is so steep in history, symbolism, and gangsterism that it is tempting to digress! I don’t think you would disagree, but let’s go back to the DM shoes. This isn’t the first time Doc Martens dabbles with tattoos, but the previous version were a little too Ed Hardy for my liking. This time, authenticity won out. The women’s versions—the platform Adaya Sandal and the Mary Jane-looking Polly—sport a reduced amount of leather and show more of the wearer’s epidermis. They do appear less menacing and should appeal if you’re easily intimidated by anything associated with ruthless gangsters. The men’s version—1461 shoes and 1460 boot—are rather fierce footwear and should bolster your standing as a tough guy. My admiration of these shoes has increased with each viewing even if I risk being charged with proclivity to pai kia aesthetics. Doc Martens made it more appealing when I learned that the shoes are treated with leather protector, presumably to make the tattoo indelible. It’s such an uncommon extra that resistance, as the Borg would say, is futile.

Dr Martens Tattoo collection, from SGD219, is available at Doc Martens stores

With The Write Company

Fourteen years ago, Louis Vuitton launched a series of bags that would dramatically elevate the status of the brand’s staid Monogram canvas. And all it took was to deface the signature fabric with graffiti writing. Today, scribbled text across perfectly respectable surfaces continue to make loud fashion statements

Stephen Sprouse Graffiti on Monogram Canvas

Close-up of Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti on Louis Vuitton’s Monogram Canvas in 2001

Handwriting has a long history, but anthropologists and educators now declare that it belongs to the past. Their proclamation may not be so overstated. Texting with a keyboard—physical or virtual—is, after all, more prevalent than putting pen to paper. Yet, high tech has a knack of reviving the interest in the low tech it replaces. If you look at the resurgence of the long playing record despite the popularity of digital downloads, there’s hope that hand-penned lettering may not entirely be replaced by fonts of electronic lineage. No matter how popular Brandon Grotesque may still be, free-form handwriting is not losing out. In fact, the less orderly, the less uniform, and the less rigid the handwriting, the more appealing they are. And no other industry love scrawls and scribbles more than fashion. Graffiti has a soul mate.

If credit must be given to he who merits it, then Marc Jacobs deserves to be commended for popularising handwriting-as-pattern, bringing toilet-stall shorthand and neon warehouse-wall inscriptions to fashion’s hallowed grounds. Back in 2001, Mr Jacobs collaborated with Stephen Sprouse to breathe new life to Louis Vuitton’s Monogram canvas. Created in 1896 for the making of luggage, LV’s signature patterned fabric had become, a century later, a reminder of faded glories and a way of travel no longer preferred. What Mr Sprouse did to the Monogram canvas with his almost-naïve lettering not only gave it street cred, which LV needed rather badly at that time, it also gave it shock value. No one could imagine such irreverence. The aesthetic blow was a punch to the taste of the soignée set, but to the young consumer group (Gen X?), it was an appealing sock to a design institution. It wasn’t just graffiti writing, it was script in neon, and it was confrontational and attention-grabbing, and to its detractors, it fed into the vacuity of capitalist consumerism.

Louis Vuitton's Graffiti collectionTop left, Louis Vuitton X Stephen Sprouse Speedy 30 bag. Top right, Louis Vuitton store in New York’s Soho during the launch of the Graffiti series. Below: Marc Jacobs posed in the nude for New York Magazine in 2008

Mr Jacobs, installed at Louis Vuitton during the frantic brand revivalism of the Nineties, would later tell the press that he did receive instructions not to defile LV’s iconic motifs, but, unsurprisingly, he wasn’t one to follow decrees. Whether this was an act of disaffection or strutting on a whim, it was hard to tell. Always in tune with the pop culture of any given time, Mr Jacobs would pluck from the zeitgeist of the past with total abandon to infuse his designs with more than a whiff of long-gone vice and excesses. Some think this is his true talent. He told the Guardian in a 2009 interview of the first Stephen Sprouse fashion show he attended in 1984, aged 21: “It was like a rock concert. Deafening hardcore rock… the audience was downtown club-kids sitting next to Vogue and New York Times fashion editors. It was the first time that had happened in New York.” The first is always the most unforgettable, and 17 years later, he would pluck Stephen Sprouse out of obscurity and introduce street lettering to Parisian fashion.

Mr Sprouse was, at that time, an out-of-full-time-practice “cult” fashion designer—trained at Halston, but much associated with Day-Glo (colours) of the Eighties, and known among pop royalty as the designer of rock costumes, such as those for Duran Duran’s 1989 Big Thing tour (interestingly, before he became a full-fledge designer, he made clothes for the punk-pop ingénue Debby Harry, who was a downstairs neighbour). Mr Sprouse may have brought punk and fluorescence and downtown vibe together, but his approach and quality were steep in traditional dressmaking. His friends, who had the privilege of wearing his custom-made clothes, knew, for example, that he used Norman Norell’s tailor. Regrettably, design skill and business savvy wasn’t the downtown cool and uptown chic that Mr Sprouse had successfully paired. In 1985, much to the shock of the disco set that worshipped him, he declared bankruptcy.

Stephen Sprouse

Stephen Sprouse

Under the auspices of Louis Vuitton and with those bags he vandalised, Stephen Sprouse (left) became known as a “graffiti designer”, a title that belied his true legacy as a fashion designer since he used graffiti as an element of design, not quite as a style of art such as those of working graffiti artists Lee Quiñones and Keith Haring. The collaboration emerged at a time when graffiti art was becoming increasingly mainstream; facilitated by the rapid rise of rap music. Graffiti visually expresses rap (and, the related hip hop) just as breaking physically articulates it. The influence of graffiti art on rap music—or pop music—goes as far back as the late Seventies, when in 1979, Blondie’s music video for the single Rapture (in which Debbie Harry raps somewhat unconvincingly) featured Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Vivienne Westwood jacket

A jacket from Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Witches’ collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum

While the result of the Jacobs-Sprouse partnership appeared headily new at that time, fashion observers across the Atlantic thought it déjà vu. In the Autumn/Winter season of 1983, Vivienne Westwood and one-time partner and co-designer Malcolm McLaren hatched a conceptually strong collection with hip-hop overtones called ‘Witches’. The idea came about after meeting Keith Haring in New York. Ms Westwood found Mr Haring’s drawings to be “a magical, esoteric sign language” and was keen to use them as prints for that season’s collection. The separates—characterised by oversized tops—were etched with Mr Haring’s distinctive graffiti. The British design duo was, however, no stranger to defacement graphics. In 1975, they renamed at existing shop of theirs—Let It Rock—to Sex! Situated at the suitably named World’s End on London’s King’s Road, it was fronted by its name in pink rubber letters, 1.2 metres high! Inside, graffiti of pornographic images ravished the walls. It was totally in keeping with Sex’s maxim: “Craft must have clothes but truth loves to go naked”. ‘Witches’ was the last collection jointly designed by Ms Westwood and Mr McLaren.

While fashion and music played down the social nuisance that graffiti represented, on our shores, graffiti in the guise of art did not take a grip of our pop consciousness since it was not condone by our government, at least not in public spaces, where the presence of graffiti would be considered vandalism (since 1994, an American, a Swiss and two Germans have found out the painful way). In 2001, Louis Vuitton changed how we saw graffiti, and illustrated graffiti’s relevance and parity to modern fashion via its bags. In no time, graffiti’s social standing and creative value were elevated. And since it was not unlawful to have graffiti on your handbag (always private property whether in the shop or in your hand), women thronged the LV stores to acquire one (or more), only to be told that there were sold out.

By many accounts, the collection enjoyed a 100 percent sell-through, and it was reported that the Speedy 30 travelling bag alone enjoyed sales in excess of USD300 million in its first year. Mr Sprouse died of lung cancer in 2004, three years after the collaboration, but Louis Vuitton continued to produce the Graffiti series in the six years that followed. Mr Jacobs was so thrilled with its success (including latter reiterations) that he would appear in a series of LV print ads with nothing more than graffiti scrawled all over his body. Only an adequately sized, graffiti-covered Keepall protected his modesty. Who could have known that the defacement of an iconic fabric would prove so wildly lucrative for what, at that time, was still essentially a bag brand?

Longchamp X Jeremy Scott Le PliageLongchamp X Jeremy Scott’s makeover of the luggage label’s best-selling Le Pliage bag

Following in Marc Jacob’s footsteps is Jeremy Scott, whose appropriation of popular icons in madcap ways has elevated him to a position that few designers using classical motifs can reach. His latest in a long collaboration with Longchamp sees the Le Pliage bag that he favours smothered with glyphs of the zodiac in Halloween orange. Rihanna was one of the first to carry this version even before it hit the stores. Le Pliage, one of the most knocked off brand-name bags (just explore Bugis Street market), is Longchamp’s most successful product. Introduced in 1993 by Philippe Cassegrain (son of founder Jean Cassegrain), who also designed the bag, Le Pliage’s success can be traced to two attributes not always evident in luxury products: undeniable practicality and attractive price. The early issues of Le Pliage, if you look back now, were the antithesis of the IT bag, and were attractive to women who did not need her handbag to define her. But the simplicity of its design easily lends itself to counterfeiting. With lookalikes flooding the market, Longchamp’s iconic tote no longer enjoyed the advantage of a charmed genesis.

Jeremy Scott for Moschino SS 2015

Jeremy Scott for Moschino SS 2015

If the Monogram canvas needed a jolt of new life, Le Pliage’s unexciting nylon, too, required creative tempering. Jeremy Scott, the American designer who placed teddy bears on Adidas sneakers and gave Moschino’s cross-body bag the shape of McDonald’s French fry cup, is the guy to do just that. Mr Scott has been prescribing makeovers for the Le Pliage since 2006. True to his penchant for plastering the low brow onto high style, he made Longchamp’s star bag a canvas on which to transfer his goofy graphics: from holiday postcards to the ugly faces of the Eighties’ cartoon series Madballs. But graffiti has always been on the mind of Mr Scott, whose popularity among hip hop stars has never waned. Le Pliage’s latest face is possibly an extension of what he did at the house of Moschino for the current spring/summer season: red-carpet-worthy gowns are fashioned out of fabrics with graffiti that look like it has been transposed from abandoned buildings in certain seedy American neighbourhood. To some, this is the genius of Jeremy Scott: the knack for celebrating his own national identity through sneaky Americanisation of European brands.

Sebastian Lester S

Sebastian Lester’s calligraphic art

The popularity of handwritten text has also been boosted by the viral sharing of the work of the English typographer and calligrapher Sebastian Lester. One of the most popular blogs on YouTube is Mr Lester’s hand-drawn calligraphy, in particular the one that shows him illustrating recognisable logotype with a broad-tip pen (at last check, the post hit 1,276, 049 views, not counting the reposts and shares). That a video that’s not about a pop star twerking or someone’s pet doing something painfully silly could ensnare more than a million hits attests to both Mr Lester’s amazing skill and the elegance of lettering by hand. Mr Lester has shown that unadulterated handwriting can make beautiful art. Technology may make work for most of us easier, but, in the end, our hands still easily make the best work.

Longchamp X Jeremy Scott ‘Zodiac’ Le Pliage travel bag, SGD440, is available at Longchamp stores

Prints Talking

Marimekko flagship store

The brightly-hued Marimekko lookbook for Autumn/Winter 2015

In the song ‘Special Shades’ from the album White Orchid by indie band French Films, the lads sing of “brighter grace”, “lemony haze”, “flowery space”, and the need for summertime. It sounds like an ideal soundtrack to a Marimekko television commercial. The song’s music video is equally trippy: back-lit, rose-tinted, and tie-dye-kaleidoscope-screened, with singer/guitarist Johannes Leppänen wearing a gaily-printed shirt. If names can sometimes be misleading, then French Films is. The quintet is not French, and its music is not particularly cinematic. Brimming with The Beach Boys’ sun-lit jollity and spiked with jangly guitars, their sound is more akin to those coming out of Manchester than their native Helsinki, yet, like Marimekko, French Films is from Finland. Similarly, Marimekko, new to Singapore, has many shoppers stumped: does a brand name that sounds Japanese and offers prints that could have come from the Polynesian islands really hail from a Nordic country?

We’re not implying a misnomer here. Far from it, Marimekko is as Finnish as, well, cloudberry, or Lapland. But it does aesthetically appear to be at odds with a country known for its dark winters, when daylight is seen for no more than 6 hours a day. Marimekko’s prints, patterns, and colours are so cheerful, they suggest a genesis bathed in sunshine, the way Ken Done’s are evocative of sunny Sydney. Its first Singapore store in Capitol Piazza—surprisingly not as showy as the floral prints—welcomes so much natural light that you’d think they’re compensating for the lack of it in native Helsinki. But, perhaps, that’s the beauty of the 240 square-metre space: it’s airy, it’s bright, and it’s cheery. You can’t approach it with a black face.

Marimekko storeThe Marimekko flagship store with its distinctive Unikko print, here rendered in blue

On a Sunday afternoon, four days after the official opening last week, shoppers have come to see the Marimekko flowers. Huge, unapologetic, and splashy, these blooms are the brand’s mascots, in particularly the Unikko—a flattened poppy that looks to be inspired by the papaver rhoeas than the papaver somniferum (from which, gasp, opium is derived) as seen in its vivid red petals, punctuated by a black dot at its base. The Unikko beckons like a smiley, and has, since 1964, gone quite viral, appearing in other colours and on surfaces other than textile.

Marimekko’s affinity for flowers is akin to the love some of us have for the other ‘blooms’ on the far side of our terrestrial ground: those brilliant buds we see in Orion and Cassiopeia. While Marimekko’s floral prints have come to characterise the brand, it is interesting to note that its founder Armi Ratia had not, in the beginning, felt for flowers. As the story Marimekko is happy to tell goes, Ms Ratia and her husband bought a textile company. To revitalise the yard goods business, she decided to create prints for her fabrics, but first with clear instructions that no floral designs were to be considered. As with many successful creative endeavours, however, a clash was in the horizon. It came as a defiant woman, Maija Isola, one of Marimekko’s freelance design contributors. She put out explosions of outsized flowers—the Unikko, one among a few. No one could say for sure why Ms Isola would go against the wishes of her paymaster, but many, who would later progressively turn Marimekko into a global business, were glad she did.

Marimekko AW 2015The autumn/winter 2015 preview at the Marimekko flagship store

At the start, however, the company did not quite know what to do with the prints (to date, reportedly 3,500 are in their archives). With no background in garment manufacture, Ms Ratia engaged a friend to turn the fabrics into uncomplicated shifts so that the prints could do the talking. Company enthusiasm informs us that, “the clothes were sold almost right off the models’ backs”. This is not quite hyperbolic since this was during the post-World War II years. Colours were understandably welcome after the drab patina of military conflict. The turning point for Marimekko came in 1957, when they were invited to show at La Rinascente in Milan, possibly Italy’s most up-scale department store that’s more than a century old, now owned by the Central Group of Thailand. And who should be the one extending the invitation? The then visual merchandising manager, Giorgio Armani.

Last year the Unikko turned 50, making the print just a year older than our nation. Some flowers in fashion, such as roses, considered a classic, simply bloom forever. The camellia—favoured by the house of Chanel—seems to be heading the same way. The poppy’s longevity, on the other hand, isn’t quite certain, and five decades may not an icon make. To improve its visibility, the Unniko has gone multimedia; appearing on cups, plates, trays, shower curtains; the insides of subway cars; on the fuselage of airplanes (Finnair, of course!); and on the envelopes of hot air balloons. Poppies do not have the romantic connotations of roses; many of us associate them with Anzac Day, or paper “remembrance poppies”, worn to commemorate those who died in war. Compounded by the poppy’s connection to narcotics and opiates, the flower may not be auspicious enough to have long-wearing appeal. Still, the reverse could hold: if the poppy has a less-dreamy standing, it may be cool enough for hipsters to transplant it from Pohjoisesplanadi to Coachella!

TasaraitaThe Tasaraita striped T-shirt, seen here against other Marimekko patterns, is one of the best-selling items at the store

Flowers, however, aren’t all there is to Marimekko. Stripes, too, have become an integral part of their collections. In fact, the Tasaraita—evenly-spaced parallel lines in contrasting colours—is one of their most popular patterns. If proof of Marimekko’s cool is requisite of its fashion standing, a visit to the agreeably outré Dover Street Market in Ginza, Tokyo, will bring one to the “special” Pitkahiha T-shirts: long and three-quarter sleeved ringer styles with contrast-colour striped pocket that are in sync with the Japanese aesthetic. In fact, it is in Tokyo that many Singaporeans who know of the brand first encountered Tasaraita and Unniko and her kindred prints. As one retail marketing consultant said of the Marimekko flagship store in Omotesandō, “It is a breath of fresh air in the part of an area that’s dominated by often chaotic Harajuku!”

While Marimekko is considered a “lifestyle” store, fashion and accessories takes centre-stage at its debut standalone in Singapore, occupying more than half of the space. Still faithful to the original silhouette of simple forms, best exemplified by the shift, the women’s wear embodies a simplicity that borders on the bare. Sure, with bold—some say loud—prints that speak with such alacrity, extra seams, insets, and appliqués et al seem superfluous. The prints communicate without distractions. Yet, the sum of dress form and fabric patterns requires something that would lift the clothes from repetitive plainness. To some, they may be cute, but to others, they lack a little playfulness that so many women, even in middle age, enjoy and appreciate. Whimsy and a definite silhouette could be brought neatly together without affecting what Marimekko calls “strong emotions”. The prints could be paired with other prints in a happy collision or they could be deconstructed. Imagine the Unikko in the same spirit as Lucas Simões’s Unportrait! To quote Richard Dawkins (who was remarking on the natural world, rather than fashion), “when we unweave a rainbow, it will not be less wonderful”.

HomewareHome ware: Marimekko’s Unniko print (foreground) works perfectly well with other patterns in their seasonal collections

Marimekko’s extroverted print designs are clearly alluring to many women, but more than a few find the sizes of the clothes large and some of their “classic” tented shapes unflattering. A PR consultant at the opening of the store said, “Even the XS is still too big for me.” Could this be due to their Euro-centric approach to design and sizing? Northern Europeans, particularly those of Nordic and Alpine stock, are known to be heavyset, and Marimekko’s avoidance of dresses skimming the body perhaps bears this out. Yet, the brand is going places, in particular the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for one-fifth of its sales last year. If indeed Asian women are its target audience, Marimekko may have to look into the playbook of a brand from its neighbour, Sweden’s ubiquitous H&M. Sure, both are not like the other, but H&M has captured the hearts (and wallets) of the Asian shopper not just with trendy and crazily affordable clothes, but with sizes that clearly suit the Asian body and appeal to their body self-image.

Fashionable clothes may be borderless, but body types, in reality, are region-specific. There’s no negating the smaller Asian frame, or that women here do not like their clothes roomy. If Marimekko’s clothes at one glance—sack-silhouette with visibly large arm-holes—give the impression they’re for the auntie population, the younger set, cable of elevating the brand’s image, may stay away from them. Savvy marketers know the power and the peril of association. To appear young, a brand has to look young.

The Marimekko flagship store is Capitol Piazza, 13 Stamford Road, L2-17/18. Photos: Jim Sim