When Fidé Fashion Weeks (FFW) launched its series of shows in 2011, it was said that Singapore finally enjoyed “a complete fashion season”. Four years down the road, the season is awfully quiet. Elsewhere, however, FFW is still staging fashion spectacles. Have we been abandoned while it goes a-wandering?
“I’ve got the outfit for the party,” sang Rufus Wainwright, “but you’ve taken away the invitation.” Whatever regret he was feeling in the rock-inflected song Rashida, the singer wasn’t missing the revelry he was supposed to partake. Unlike Mr Wainwright, no one with a party dress is relieved of an invitation now that the October shows by Fidé Fashion Weeks (FFW) are conspicuously absent, and nothing is missed either. However, the inquisitive mind has been inviting itself to hear the hum of an increasingly audible poser: what happened to FFW’s noble aim of “positioning Singapore as a global fashion city”?
Local media have not paid much attention to FFW’s movements since the organiser announced in September last year that the shows would go on a “World Tour”, starting with Telstra Perth Fashion Festival in the same month, and followed by the debut of Vietnam International Fashion Week (VIFW) three months later. In total, that’s one percent of all the countries in the world. VIFW was, by FFW’s own brag, so successful that Fidé Productions (part of FFW’s sprawling group of companies) was invited to stage the second VIFW, which took place in Ho Chi Minh City two weeks ago.
FFW’s lack of noise locally led to loss of recall for what was considered one of the most exciting events on Singapore’s fashion calendar. The stillness, however, was un-hushed last week by a 19-October, 4.13-am post on Facebook that aroused much curiosity across our city’s fashion-scape and in those seeking bite and rage: “I have decided to quit fashion production in Vietnam in PROTEST of the UNSCRUPULOUS and UNPROFESSIONAL practices of KEY management at Fide Fashion Weeks and Asian Couture Federation.”
The full-cap fury was made by Vietnamese-American, Ryan Hubris, following an announcement, also made on Facebook, an hour and thirteen minutes earlier that made clear he had “left job at Vietnam International Fashion Week”. What could have transpired that would push a man to make such a public statement in the wee hours of the morning?
Lebanese fashion designer Basil Soda’s haute couture collection at the first anniversary celebrations of the Asian Couture Federation last year
A Storm Brews
Before Fidé Fashion Weeks became associated with a series of shows that made the “complete fashion season”—the first Men’s Fashion Week (hyped as the first outside Europe), Women’s Fashion Week, and Haute Couture Week, there was Fidé Multimedia, a company closely associated with its founder Frank Cintamani. The debut of Men’s Fashion Week in 2011, produced to the tune of S$2 million (according to the event’s press release), kick-started what became an annual celebration of fashion seen through the eyes of a small group of individuals behind the glamour-saturated project.
By 2013, Fidé Fashion Weeks became the overseer of the fashion seasons that was steadily gaining attention. In the same year, the FFW-linked Asian Couture Federation (ACF) was inaugurated, and in November 2014, it threw a lavish black-tie party at the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) to celebrate its first anniversary. The evening’s program and show were concocted to project glamour and imbue ACF with grandiosity. Inside the conjoined Heliconia and Hibiscus ballrooms of MBS, a raised catwalk took to the centre like a bed in a bedroom, flanked by troughs of white roses.
In front of the blooms, the special guests, as well as the members of ACF, sat to eat a dinner dreamed up by restaurant Hide Yamamoto (operated by proprietor-chef Yamamoto Hidemasa, who, according to his PR spin, “held the esteemed distinction of serving three generations of Presidents: Reagan, Bush and Clinton”). From those linear vantage points, the attendees took visible pleasure in the presentations—couture confections by invited designers as well as those recognised by the ACF as “Couturier Extraordinaire”. It was a night that “youth seem age, and age seem youth”, as elegantly phrased by Walter Scott in the poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel.
Those who came that evening were a mix of socialites (old and new money), FFW supporters (moral and financial), models (new and ex), and those who are simply wealthy. Among the well-heeled was Ryan Hubris, then not mired in anything that would lead to early-morning outbursts on social media. Despite the relative jollity, there seemed to be scepticism about what the evening was really about.
What intrigued some of the more inquisitive guests was the absence of French couturiers. This wasn’t really about them, the proceedings of the evening served as reminder. Had ACF, the curious wondered, dispensed with the blessing of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (France’s regulating body that agrees on those fashion houses qualifiable as true haute couture practitioners) now that the former is able to stand on its own? There was even talk at some point in the evening that the Chambre Syndicale had issued letters to its members to distance itself from ACF, fascinating, if true, since it was the Chambre Syndicale that had, in the beginning, supported FFW’s first couture show here. But what caused the relationship to thaw?
Korean pop-star Rain performing at the first anniversary gala dinner of the Asian Couture Federation
Until 2011, few in Singapore without the means would dream of coming close to haute couture. For quite a few, however, haute couture did come, and closely too. The inaugural Haute Couture Week in Singapore four years ago was touted by Fidé Multimedia as “a dedicated Haute Couture Week endorsed by La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture”. It gave our island-nation a high-fashion boost we have never enjoyed before. Fidé Multimedia was fairy godmother to those impoverished of the sight of impossibly expensive clothes.
With eight collections from Paris, of which four were by members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the event promised to take fashion shows in Singapore to an all new height. With one of France’s most artistic disciplines showing in the country, Singapore was getting spotlighted on the international stage (even when the three Singaporean designers that participated—Ashley Isham, Frederick Lee, and Thomas Wee—received scant mention). Fidé Multimedia’s Haute Couture Week was “supported” by what it termed as “the title sponsor” Marina Bay Sands, and, as it turned out, the event was enchanting; it was romantic and it was escapist.
Then, Haute Couture Week 2012 arrived. On the surface, the second showing appeared grander. There were 16 designers participating, but this time, from three regions, resulting in a segmented week: Asian Couture, Japanese Couture, and French Couture. FFW described it as a “milestone for Singapore’s fashion industry”. There were a total of six French couturiers—returning and newcomers—and, although the figure was equal to that of the year before, the French constituted less than half of the total number of participants.
Still, Didier Grumbach, then President of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt à Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode (French Federation of Fashion and of Ready-to-Wear Couturiers and Fashion Designers) and leader of the French contingent for both years said, according to a Fidé Multimedia press release, “In a period when mass production is the rule and uniformism a trend, it is refreshing to observe that Haute Couture Week in Singapore promotes individuality and savoir faire. Associating French couture with Singapore in these circumstances is an exciting experience… It is the beginning of a long-term relationship”.
The last pronouncement now seemed premature. In a Business of Fashion (BOF) article ‘A Couture Stage Beyond Paris: Destiny, Dream or Delusion?’ published in February last year, Mr Grumbach sounded like he was distancing himself from ACF’s events when he said: “As for what they show in Singapore, that’s something else. It’s not haute couture; it’s a kind of ready-to-wear. It’s well done; clever; it has its position. But it is not really couture.”
The members of the Asian Couture Federation in 2014
How successful, in dollar terms, the two Haute Couture Weeks were, no one knew (or revealed). By the third edition in 2013, also supported by and held at MBS, French participation dropped to four designers. Didier Grumbach was not present. The French couture FFW was trumpeting with gusto just three years earlier appeared downplayed when the Asian Couture Federation was established. The Asians, this time, dominated in the glare of publicity, which was intense as the retired Kenzo Takada had graced the presentations and was appointed the “honorary president” of the AFC.
Ten Asian designers, including Singapore’s sole representative Frederick Lee, showed, seemingly delighted that there was to be a platform for couture that they could call their own. Following the formation of the ACF, which FFW announced was “inspired by La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and the Council of Fashion Designers of America”, some minds boggled. Could two vastly different organisations with vastly different missions really be placed on the same platform to inspire another with no real experience in promoting what the French recognises as couture? And would the French, proud to near imperiousness of an artistic tradition that characteristically speaks of France (or Paris), be pleased to be associated with the Americans?
Fashion has always been about creativity as much as rivalry. When ACF’s founding members were announced in October 2013, the discussions that played out among the audience were potentially contentious too: is there Asian couture and is couture really couture if it’s not French? (It should be noted that ACF has hitherto carefully avoided using the word “haute” in their description of what Asian designers do, suggesting, perhaps, they know the difference.) Despite ACF’s efforts, the answer is not as glaringly clear as bugle beads on silk satin.
In the same BOF report, Frank Cintamani, ACF’s founder, spoke out: “To suggest that any one city has the monopoly on couture is clearly nonsensical.” To prove how absurd the suggestion is, FFW and ACF started moving their events abroad. Their fashion weeks would be an itinerant show. In August last year, it was announced that FFW and ACF would bring their “Couture Extraordinaires” Sebastian Gunawan (Indonesia) Michael Cinco (the Philippines) to participate in the 16-year-old Telstra Perth Fashion Festival. Four months later in Ho Chi Minh City, together with local partner Multimedia JSC, FFW staged the city’s very own Vietnam International Fashion Week, billed as “the largest international fashion week to have taken place in Vietnam”. Like the circus, the travelling has begun.
In November last year, it was also announced that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Couture Council (MCC) will be inaugurated under the auspices of the Asian Couture Federation. The MCC is needed because, as ACF noted, “there has been no region-wide organisation to recognise these couturiers and to represent their interests” although the region “has been associated with a number of exceptional couture level designers”. Its main mission “is to inspire, support, and promote the highest levels of couture design, talent and artistry based in the Middle East and North Africa to both regional and international markets.” Initial MCC members, in spite of MENA’s geographical scope, were just two Lebanese designers Basil Soda and Abed Mahfouz.
However FFW and ACF spin it, many observers maintain that couture will lose much of its significance, appeal, and even worth when it is no longer associated with the country (or city) of its origin. It should be noted, again, that in none of ACF’s communication is the word haute used. On its own, couture means ‘sewing’ and this could apply to any dressmaking that exists in any city. However, in popular usage, and specifically in fashion, couture mostly refers to haute couture. Truncating long and tricky-to-pronounce foreign fashion phrases is not uncommon, but that does not mean that, reduced to a single word, the original connotation is lost or can be redefined. In addition, while there is a tradition of dressmaking that adheres to Western standards and aesthetics, a dress made following these guidelines does not necessarily become a couture dress.
Haute couture as descriptive term and, in particular, branding, is protected by French law. For close to 150 years, it is also regulated and fiercely guarded by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. To qualify as a member and to have the right to use the term haute couture to brand his designs, the designer must operate in an atelier located in Paris. For the same reason, only French wines produced in the region of Champagne can be called champagne. In fact, the laws of the European Union and most countries limit the name ‘champagne’ to wines that originate from this region, about 160 kilometres east of Paris. But haute couture, to the practitioners of the craft, is more than a spot on the map. It’s the embodiment of an entire industry, as well as French skills and dressmaking savoir faire.
Crucial to the ateliers are the dwindling groups of petites mains or ‘little hands’—the skilled craftspeople who provide so much of what is seen and unseen in a couture garment. Apart from the couture ateliers, there are the specialist ateliers, in which those who work with feathers, embroidery, leather and other materials are found. These skilled mains are so vital to haute couture that the house of Chanel salutes them annually with the Metiers D’Art Show.
Stéphane Rolland’s autumn/winter 2013 haute couture collection that was shown during the gala dinner of inauguration of the Asian Couture Federation
The coming together of the talents of these artisans is, to many, what haute couture is all about. It is these rarefied skills that are truly the beauty and magnificence of France’s exquisitely wearable art. Few cities in the word have the traditions and support network that are found in Paris. These legacies can be traced to the 17th Century when French sumptuary laws were used to support native textile industries such as lace.
In the exaltation of couture, ACF has ironically also brought about the erosion of reverence. The historical context, too, is perhaps overshadowed by modern entrepreneurial drive. Furthermore, to say no city has the monopoly on couture is like K-pop stars declaring that no one has the monopoly on blond hair. Just as it is not expected of the French to say the Indonesians have no monopoly on batik, there really should be no succumbing to the belief that couture can be free for all cities.
It is commendable that ACF and FFW are carrying the torch for what they believe can be labelled as Asian couture, but the over-confidence it projects may be construed as arrogance and its criticisms deemed incendiary. Those who have worked the grapevine have heard the disappointment and displeasure of FFW’s previous partners. One of them, Lee Kien Meng, whose company Senatus (also the name of their online magazine) was co-organiser of Women’s Fashion Week in 2011 and provider of digital media services to Fidé Multimedia, was embroiled in a 2012 court battle with FFW’s chairman, Frank Cintamani. While Mr Lee lost the case, the result of the ruling—announced in February this year—did not bear positively on FFW.
Then came the extremely early morning of 19 October, just a week ago. Ryan Hubris had before that appeared to be enjoying himself at VIFW, posting pictures of his hobnobbing with the attendees of the event (and still posting even much later, including photos of him and his family) on Facebook. He appeared to be a cognoscente of Vietnamese fashion although, in news on public domain, he is a business consultant, as well as a “serial entrepreneur” with interest in the restaurant business. The excitement on VIFW’s digital media outlets gave no clue to what was to strike. Mr Hubris’s post was a long, two-paragraph chiding that ended with a warning: “I will hold off on naming names for now but if you don’t take corrective measures, I will spend my days unraveling everything you have done…”
No one would say what happened, not even those who had attended VIFW last week. Not wanting to jump into the fray was the reason offered almost unanimously. Some information, however, did come out of Ho Chi Minh City: it appeared that the organisers of VIFW, Multimedia JSC (one of the leading media companies in Vietnam), was deeply unhappy with its co-organiser over matters relating to who was getting what out of whom—the kind not uncommon between stakeholders involved in fashion-related businesses that are highly visible. Still, the discord must have been so deep, the rift so wide, and the exchange so strident that Mr Hubris, who is known to be close to the founder of Multimedia JSC, Trang Le Thi Quynh, needed to take to social media to air his grievances.
Amid the flare-up, another FFW-linked project emerged. Couturissimo, an e-shop that purports to be “the only premium site offering affordable access to Couture creations designed by a collective of world renowned Couture Designers”, is doing the rounds of social media. From staging couture shows to selling couture clothes, FFW can now add e-tailer to their roster of enterprises. On its Facebook page, an entry last Monday urged followers to “get dressed in affordable ‘fast couture’ with COUTURíSSIMO™ that aims to allow Couture designers to present ‘fast-couture’ at very affordable prices!” It garnered 1,297 likes (as of 26 October 2015).
Despite the bargain-slant urging on social media, Couturissimo’s website does not offer a workable e-commerce page. Last week, however, a click on the homepage did allow visitors to access merchandise for sale. What was available did not by any remote chance appear to have any couture cred. It could have been a Walmart page mis-linked! The site was eventually redesigned, and merchandise is no longer available. A header presently reads, “Stay tuned for more updates on the official launch of COUTURíSSIMO™ in New York City.”
“New York!”, went the collective wow.
It is not exactly clear at the present who is truly running the show for Couturissimo, but based on FFW’s preference for prefixing the word ‘couture’ to names, such as the after-party of last year’s ACF anniversary celebration that was called ‘Couturista’, it is not unreasonable to assume that FFW is behind this new project. Couturissimo not only shows that FFW can change the geographic importance of couture, it can revolutionise how couture garments are sold. Additionally, it can audaciously pair ‘couture’ with ‘fast’ (it typically takes 100 to 700 hours to create one couture dress), as well as with ‘affordable’ (according to the New York Times, a Stéphane Rolland couture gown costs between €35,000 and €45,000).
Yes, it can do it all, all over the world.
Note on usage: when referring to French couture (haute or otherwise), we use the italic form. Couture not associated with the French is set in roman
This article was updated on 28 October 2015 to reflect the additional information SOTD received following the publication of the original post
Photos: Zhao Xiangji