Thomas Wee Presents His Greatest Hits

A year ago, Thomas Wee revealed that he was going to retire after his swansong at Digital Fashion Week 2014. Now, nowhere near giving up designing, he has opened a new shop. It seems that the tailoring and craftsmanship that make his design unforgettable isn’t coming to an end… at least, for the momentTW @ Mandarin Gallery

At the closed end of the 710 square-foot boutique, Thomas Wee sat on a black settee alone, his diminutive size propped up by two large cushions of electric blue and acid yellow. The colours are a little at odds with the whole shop—mostly white, with a soupçon of black. Equally jarring was the noise of several hair dryers whirring at a go, emanating from the hairdressing shop behind. He seemed unperturbed.

Approaching the designer, it became clear he was sewing a button loop closure. This he did by first anchoring a cotton thread onto the predetermined position on the tip of the opened neckline. The thread was then chain-looped until the desired length and the loose straight end was finally stitched onto the opposite side of the first point, creating a neat, discreet loop that laid flat along the edge of the opening of the centre-back of the garment.

This hand finish in relation to the craftsmanship of Thomas Wee in itself is not unusual. In fact, those in the know, continue to choose his clothes precisely because of such attention to detail. If, however, you take a look at the price of the shell-top, on which the button loop described above was stitched, you’d be quite astonished that a garment of this make and quality can be had for just S$240. This is even more incredible if you know that the piece you’ve selected is the only one. It is amazing not more women are hitting the store and wiping it clean, this new collection known simply as Thomas Wee White.

TW interiorThe gallery-like back wall of the Thomas Wee boutique

Mr Wee is unfazed by our amazement. “That’s why the clothes are exclusive,” he responded. Exclusivity, as with any brand that offers one-of-a-kind, is chargeable—and at a premium, yet this seems immaterial. “Exclusivity is not important to me,” Mr Wee continued, “but it is important to the customer. That’s why I offer it; that’s why what we have here is quite special.” Why such one-off garments can be had is also due to a production capacity that Mr Wee describes as “very small”.

“I don’t have a factory to produce by mass,” he explained. “When you have a small workshop like I do, three to six pieces per style is a lot, and a strain on my resources.” Of note is that most, if not all, of what is available do not go beyond one piece per style. In the industry, this is known as sample quantity (even up to six pieces), and, as designers are wont to say, anything produced by the sampling room for the retail floor is expensive (among many reasons is the maintenance of highly-paid, skilled sewers). However, Mr Wee is unwilling to factor this into what he charges, reflecting the realist that he is, working against a retail environment that has increasing caved to the low pricing of fast fashions.

It is known that Mr Wee runs a tight ship in his atelier. A regular customer who goes to him for custom orders, and who wishes to remain anonymous, revealed that the designer is essentially a one-man show. As it is often stated, he drafts and cuts the paper patterns, as well as cut the fabrics. He has only one sewer—sometimes his older sister, who taught pattern making at NAFA’s School of Fashion Studies—who brings his designs to fruition. Contrary to the popular perception of a fashion designer, Mr Wee does not have an assistant, let alone the minions that will do his bidding. This limitation was one of the reasons why he contemplated retirement, a move many considered premature.

Tw Demi CoutureThe refined and infinitely elegant blouses and jackets of the Thomas Wee Demi-Couture collection

When the news of Thomas Wee retiring broke last year, fans expressed disbelieve and regret. His last catwalk collection—Spring/Summer 2015 at Digital Fashion Week 2014, titled Asia: Past, Present and Future—was considered by many who attended the presentation to be one of his best. After reprising the show for Bangkok International Fashion Week (BIFW) shortly later, the organiser Siam Paragon invited Mr Wee to a meal with an invitation to return for BIFW the following year, as well as an offer of retail space in one of the largest mall in downtown Bangkok (both, unfortunately, did not materialise). It seemed Mr Wee had struck a chord with those seeking the exquisite and elegant, but rarely found them.

Perhaps encouraged and buoyed by the response, and still unwilling to split from a craft he has dedicated all his life to and dearly loves, Thomas Wee decided to strike on his own. For the first time in forty years, this retail project is entirely his, sans a partner. While the choice of Mandarin Gallery is a little unexpected (the 4-level complex is not exactly known for its massive footfall), the Orchard Road spot is a return to form of sorts for the designer. This would have been Thomas Wee’s ninth presence on what is marketed by Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) as “A Great Street”.

Mr Wee opened his first boutique at Far East Plaza in 1983—it was then a much swankier looking mall than the sad shopping centre that it now is. Most observers of Singapore fashion, however, will more likely remember the highly successful Mixables, the label and Wisma Atria store that made Mr Wee a mid-Nineties household name. The clothes resonated with an upwardly mobile customer base that was enjoying financial independence and freedom of self-expression. The success of Mixables paved the way for the first all-white collection Divine that was only available at Style Singapore, followed by Thomas Wee Luxe in 2001, situated at Shaw Centre. Concurrently, Mr Wee created the line Preta under the auspices of HeShe Holdings, with stores in Wisma Atria, Orchard Point, and Takashimaya. There was also a brief stint with a collection known as Sino (a joint venture with the bedding manufacturer Aussino) at Scotts Shopping Centre (pre-Scotts Square). A more-than-a-decade hiatus stretched out before his clothes were seen in Orchard again: Coda in Scotts Square in 2009 and Tangs at Tang Plaza in 2013.

TW 2

Racks of Thomas Wee White, a new line of “resort dressing”

One can hope that Thomas Wee’s return to Orchard Road may enliven the increasingly monotonous and lacklustre retail offerings of Singapore’s major shopping street, but one would be glad if it could just add to the dismal offering of local designer labels currently available. His objective, however, is a lot less grand. On why he’s starting a shop now, he said, “People have heard of Thomas Wee, but not many know what my clothes are about, and they’ll never get to see my designs without a Thomas Wee boutique. And people, too, are always asking me where they can see and buy my clothes. I think there is a demand for Singaporean designer clothes: well-made, well-designed, and well-priced.”

Analysts have described the present retail climate as “gloomy” (Mr Wee, more optimistically, called it “soft”). It’s, thus, not easy to determine if there is such a demand for a relatively inactive designer label, or if Singaporeans do care about the creative output of even the most esteemed names in local fashion. With the speed that moves today’s fashion from trend to trend, it is, as counselled by many business executives, vital to remain tuned to the zeitgeist, to know specifically what consumers are buying and buying into, to hit a sweet spot known as ‘now’. In fact, it’s so crucial for fashion businesses to partake in the present—regardless of where they’re based—that Alber Elbaz, recently departed from the house of Lanvin, once highlighted: “Fashion is like a fruit. You couldn’t eat it a day before and you couldn’t eat it a day after. It’s just about today.”

For an audience not weaned on the exact elegance that defines the Thomas Wee style, “today” may not be apparent. Mr Wee is, by his own admission, partial to the looks of the mid-Fifties to Sixties. In conversations with him, you’ll hear mentions of the “big circular skirt”, the Capri pants, the Bettina collar (specifically the collar of the Bettina blouse designed by Givenchy in 1952 and made popular by the French model Bettina Graziani), and Jackie O (who would have been 86 this year)—not quite his muse, but certainly a style icon. While these references are never quite out of modern fashion, they do not really define much of what is really “today” or reflect the fixations of a generation of shopper-Instagrammers. In essence, Mr Wee’s designs for the White line do hark back to a past era even when they enjoy a contemporary, possibly forward, approach to pattern drafting.

TW 3Thomas Wee’s clothes are no different from the illustrations, seen here adorning a wall in the boutique

Mr Wee’s affection for past eras is also kept alive by the ideal woman that remains vivid in his mind. This woman, like him, loves, among many items of clothing, the crisp white shirt. When asked if women still wear this white shirt he loves, he said, “It’s the most fundamental and sensible clothing. With a white shirt, they can wear it in the morning, when they take the dog for a walk, when they go to the office, to high tea, to an intimate dinner.” Although he did specify that the women he caters to are “professionals: stylish women who work in advertising and promotions, bankers, those who need to dress for meetings and business deals,” it does seem that he is addressing the desires of folks of a time when life can be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace.

Mr Wee stressed that the newly conceived White line is a “resort Line, not a casual line.” Furthermore, “it’s about fine dressing for vacations by the beach, holidays on a cruise, or wedding by the poolside,” he elaborated. While resort dressing is no longer set apart by colour, shape, and dress type, just as a resort is no longer classified based on proximity to the beach or thatched roofs, these clothes—immaculate in both colour and execution—deserve an audience and geographical reach wider than a resort and its visitors. The positioning of the White line is, therefore, a consistency of imagination rather than misguided creativity.

Whether the target audience is truly readily available, and in numbers that are critical to the White line’s success, the fact is, Thomas Wee does make appealingly wearable clothes. They may not all be machine-washable or yield to the smooth sole-plate of an electric iron, but they do go over and caress the body beautifully. The White Line may seem limited in chromatic terms, but if you step back, what hangs before you could easily be a reinterpretation of Thomas Wee’s greatest hits.

TW white shirt.jpgA white shirt reinterpreted by Thomas Wee

It is tempting to consider this as an antithesis to fashion’s incessant quest for the new. And it is possible that Mr Wee is seeking, instead, his own perfection, which, arguably, was established at the height of his career back in the mid-Nineties. To be sure, these are no retro clothes. Thomas Wee is too technically savvy to peruse the past and not bring it forward. Yet, one can’t help but feel that, whether consciously or not, he is romancing the past. For some customers, it is time to bring back the good ol’ days.

A woman walked past the boutique, stopped and looked at a tunic-dress that was hung in the window. She asked for the outfit, and proceeded into the fitting room to try it. Pleased with how she looked, she asked for other pieces to try on. She emerged in a coat-dress, stood in front of a huge mirror, and decided she wanted what she was wearing. But she had a request: could Thomas Wee, who had by then attended to her, do something about the sleeves? “I am Jewish,” she explained, “and for us, we have to cover our arms.” Mr Wee told her he would be happy to take a custom order. Delighted with his proposal, she removed the coat-dress to reveal what she wore inside: an utterly sheer three-quarter-sleeved top that demonstrated she had on no brassiere!

As she turned to leave after the order was confirmed, the excited woman said, “This should be in Neiman Marcus or Barneys!”

Thomas Wee is at 03-23, Mandarin Gallery. Photos: Galerie Gombak

 

A Store That Isn’t Afraid To Stay In The Shadows

image

The Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade is the last place you’d find a store selling fashion with a certain edge. Sure, there’s Surrender, but that’s where you’d discover rather conventional (but still cool) clothes. And there was Front Row, but that, as you have noted, was. Yet, it is in the retail wing of this grand dame of a hotel that you’ll locate a shrine dedicated to gloomy, goth-centric clothes. L’armoire, officially opened last Friday by Shanghainese husband-and-wife retail newcomers Rocco Wu and Celyn Pan, is, to be more accurate, an armoury for those who need to be shielded in a cloak of mystery or a patina of the deathly.

One name that lords over the 20 odd labels here is Rick Owens. Considered the godfather of gothic resplendence, Mr Owen offers clothes that are not immediately comprehensible, yet are the centre of an alternate universe, where, it seems, the sun don’t shine, and is still populated by a rapidly growing number of fans that completely live and breathe his monochromatic and monastic aesthetic. No figures have been released by the privately owned label, but one projection for the company reported in Complex cited USD120 million (possibly more) of sales for 2014 alone. Small cult following, as it is frequently described?

imageRick Owen’s Seoul store in Shinsa-dong, Gangnam welcomes shoppers with a towering, Madame Tussauds-worthy statue of the designer

The Rick Owen image, while one that marches to its own indefinable beat, is a product of its time. Yet, it is not visually circumscribed by present-day conventions. It is part Judean robes of the 1st Century, part Sith Order coats of an imprecise past (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”) and part Acolytes motorcycle gear of the “not-too-distant future”. Despite its high-fashion cred, the clothes can look menacing, ironic given the generally languid looks. Mr Owen’s T-shirts, if you can really call them that, are typically so long that the uninitiated are likely going to consider them dresses. These predate anything Givenchy or HBA has done to popularise the elongated men’s wear staple. Together with equally long pullovers and shirts, they influence even the most influential, such as Jay Z and Lenny Kravitz. So well regarded is the Rick Owens tribe that there’s even a Tumblr page called People Wearing Rick Owens.

Adding to the burgeoning figure is the consumption of the brand in the city of Seoul, where Asia’s first Rick Owen store opened in 2011 in a quiet corner of Shinsa-dong, just by Dosan Park, and opposite the Assouline book shop cum café. Bigger than even the Paris flagship at the Palais Royal, the Seoul outpost attests to the stealthy growth of this not-quite-underground renegade label. Even in staid Singapore, guys who appreciate G-Dragon more for the singer’s sartorial sense than vocal might, are adopting Mr Owen’s leaner, longer, looser silhouette. These are more than clothes that bridge the the gender divide.

L'armoireL’armoire’s unassuming store front belies the wealth of alternative fashions to be found inside

To supplement the Rick Owens aesthetics, and in doing so, define L’armoire’s own brand image, other equally dark and dystopian-looking brands hang alongside the former. From Tatsuro Horikawa’s Julius to Munich-born, Barcelona-based Boris Bidjan Saberi to Chinese designer Uma Wang, these names offer all the cowl necks, asymmetric tunics, and distressed leathers you could ever want for your wardrobe. However, despite their hewn edges and crushed surface treatments, these clothes have a certain polish about them that does not negate their luxury status.

Apart from clothes, L’armoire—meaning ‘cabinet’ in French—offers an appealing selection of footwear that, just like the store’s garments, veers towards the off-kilter. Of note is KKtP, a Shanghai-based shoe label conceived by designer Kim Kiroic who produces kicks very much in the vein of Mr Owen’s clomp of footwear. In other words, these are shoes that are perched relatively high on the mid-sole and slapped in the middle, lengthwise, with a monstrous tongue. They boot in the heel what, to many, is considered well-shod. Still, we applaud L’armoire for bringing this alternative world of fashion to Singapore. We sure need it.

L’armoire is at 02-25, Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade. Photo: Jim Sim

This Pink’s The Thing

Pink PowerFrom top left: Samsung Fast Charge Batter Pack 5200mAh, Apple Watch Edition 38mm 18-karat rose gold case with rose gray modern buckle, Garmin Vivofit 2 with rose gold band, iPhone 6S, Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch, Ray-Ban Round Metal Flash Lenses, and Adam Elements 256GB iKlips Lightning USB3.0 dual-interface flash drive

By Low Teck Mee

Please don’t say pink is the new black. It isn’t. I’ll take orange for my black; just don’t make me think pink. Well, not the pink Apple is trying to pass off as ‘Rose Gold’. A pink in any other name is still pink even in a hue that’s not quite easy on the eye at first glance. Thanks to the Cupertino company, much of the tech world is now enamoured with this shade of diluted air bandung. Even fashion accessories cannot escape the grip of this weak colour. And men are taking a shine to it as if life will be rosier with it.

I really don’t get iPhone 6S and the Plus version that are stained in that misleading, if not trying, ‘Rose Gold’. I was, frankly quite shocked when I first saw it at Nubox months ago. I asked the eager-to-sell-me-this-pink (!) sales guy what he thought of it and he smugly answered with a question: “Do you know it is the most popular colour now?” Or course I did not know. Who would have guessed that the chromatic love child of gold ingot and png kueh could find so many admirers?

Know I came to when I started seeing USB drives, USB data/charging cables, USB car chargers, portable hard drives, mini speakers and so many more I cannot now remember in that colour that makes me weep. And then there’s Ray-Ban’s Round Metal—a style I truly like—looking at me as if it had emerged from the wrong vat of dye. Poor thing. Ray-Ban’s eyewear has always been associated with a certain machismo. You can’t get manlier than a pair of aviator. Yet, here we have a pair of sunglasses eager to be part of Apple’s epicene ecosystem!

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t subscribe to colours as determinant of gender identity. I don’t dislike pink; I equate it with a shade of subtle pleasure: strawberry milkshake, cotton candy, cherry blossoms, and albino dolphins. I don’t connect it to the back of what’s considered the world’s best-selling smartphone. Pink is a nice colour for clothes—Chanel does some pleasing pinks, so does Raf Simons. Pink’s good for sneakers, too—even Nike’s Air Max 90, a hunk of a shoe, comes in pink (regrettably, Asics Gel Lyte 3 has released, gasp, a ‘Rose Gold Pack’!). But this pink, the metallic pink that’s oddly on the cloying side, this pink that’s neither Champagne nor Zinfadel; this is, to me, a poor pink.

‘Tis the season of giving: some hapless chap is going to be stuck with a thing in this pink.

Going (Pea)nuts!

Peanuts 65th Anniversary collaboration

Clockwise from top left: Lacoste X Peanuts, Uniqlo X Peanuts, and Peter Jensen X Peanuts

The original normcore bunch strikes! It’s the 65th year of the Peanuts gang, and fashion brands aren’t going to let the occasion pass without injecting some Snoopy cuteness into their select pieces. And it isn’t just the usual mainstream labels that are celebrating this anniversary. From Japan’s Digawel (the Joe Cool shirt!) and Porter (Snoopy as a porter!) to the Lausanne-based Bata (tennis shoes with Woodstock and Snoopy on each foot!), Charlie Brown and company are taking worldwide wardrobes by storm.

However, here in small-time Singapore, we have to count our blessings: three brands are releasing their collaborations with Peanuts. One of the most anticipated is Lacoste’s. A smile comes to our face when seeing that Lacoste, as with its first collaboration with Peanuts in 2010 to mark the latter’s 60th Anniversary, has revisited Charles Schulz’s characters with a sense of humour. Snoopy fishing a crocodile from above his kennel? Yes, the Flying Ace dares!

Not one to miss out on the action, Uniqlo, too, has released a range of Peanuts merchandise as part of their UT Graphic T-Shirts collection and is put together to coincide with the screening of the upcoming 3D animation, The Peanuts Movie. Typical of their T-shirt designs, the Peanut characters are basically comic-strip delineations made for the shopping crowd less concerned with wit and irony.

Then, there’s Peter Jensen’s take. Here, installed unusually large on the chest are two of the world’s most famous BFFs (even before that abbreviation caught on): Charlie Brown and the security blanket-totting Linus Van Pelt. Linus, with security blanket in hand, is seen turning his back on Charlie Brown, who is holding baseball bat. We don’t know what transpired, but we’re sure neither is walking away from friendship.

Lacoste X Peanuts, SGD179—SGD219, is available at Lacoste, Vivo City (from 3 December); Uniqlo X Peanuts, SGD29.90, is available at all Uniqlo stores; Peter Jensen X Peanuts, SGD139, is available at Tangs @ Tang Plaza

A Simple Thing That Makes A Big Difference

 

COS fabric covered necklace AW 2015

It really does not have to be complicated. A line and a curve—two simple forms can be combined for striking effect. That’s what COS has done with this unassuming necklace. Taking the basic shape of an unadorned band, it has created a piece of jewellery that looks like the outline of a necklace fused to a disc pendant.

Up close, the tactile quality is surprising and alluring. The entire necklace—essentially a partial ring pendant attached to a ball chain—is sheathed in a stretch, tubular sweater-knit. It’s unabashedly simple, yet there’s something incredibly arresting about it. It’s not at all hard to visualise it against a white cotton tee; or a cream, silk shell-top; or a heather-grey, cotton jersey turtleneck pullover. It’s really that straightforward. And therein lies its beauty.

Simplicity has always been a COS hallmark. The ease of style that it adopts for its clothes is extended to its jewellery too. Geometric shapes play a big part in the design of necklaces, earrings, cuffs, bracelets, and rings, but they are never overly bold and clumsily chunky. This necklace exemplifies COS’s flair with fine lines and off-kilter shapes.

Sometimes the best things in fashion are black, matte, and simple.

COS fabric covered necklace, SGD49, is available at all COS stores. Photo: COS

Asia Condensed In A Store

Mporium

Big is beautiful, it is said, but in the world’s largest continent, what’s beautiful is not massively homogenous. Asia is not only vast in terms of land mass, it is also immensely populated: consider the over 4 billion people versus North America’s roughly 522 million. In this expanse of humanity, do we love beautiful clothes equally? Do women of, say, Bangkok appreciate the same silhouette as her sisters of Seoul? Can the successes of one city’s fashion labels be repeated in another? Could one person’s design be another woman’s not-so-divine?

Mporium, a new multi-label store that opened last month, is dedicated to Asian designers, and appears to represent the confidence that Asia, having risen, will adore Asia. The self-love could be evidenced, it suggests, regardless of where it is expressed. The clothes conceived for the Asian designers’ respective markets, it supposes, can be as alluring off-shore. Just as many trade barriers are removed with the rapid spread of FTAs in Asia, fashion retail obstacles, too, can be taken down as women increasingly share the love of styles that unite them in their femininity, in their sexuality, and in their prosperity. Mporium fancies itself to be the arbiter of what’s fashionable in Asia and a gateway to modern Asian fashion, an access through which women will find other expressions of style to fill their wardrobe.

Mporium pic 3

Whether the 35 or so labels the store carries are a reflection of the burgeoning love of Asian designer fashion, it won’t be known, at least not in these early days. Despite the many names, what Mporium offers, in terms of variety, are narrowed by a distinct lack of a voice. At a glance, you’d see incredible breadth and would think they have a huge inventory. Inside, among the racks, however, it is hard to discern what the store is attempting to articulate. Trying to be too many things to too many people seems to be the emergent picture. It is hard to figure out what a rack of Yesah’s for-the-club clothes is doing amid rows of ultra-feminine dresses such as those by Aijek and Individual Expression. Sure, Asia is diverse, but is it this fragmented?

Initially curated by David Wang, the fashion designer-turned-fashion impresario, Mporium’s sundry labels together do not clue the visitor to their dissimilar and disconnected origins. They do seem to emerge from one aesthetic core, and a commercial one at that. You, too, sense that many of the clothes come from one factory. Mr Wang, as a designer, was not always known for originality, and as patron-saint of Singapore fashion, has mostly veered towards those with a keen sense of commerciality. His last large-scale project was as incubator head of the Parco Next NEXT project (now closed), conceived to give budding designers a fighting chance. Launched in 2010 at Millenia Walk, it was a venture supported by the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) and Spring Singapore. Despite the heavyweights behind it, Parco Next NEXT shuttered in February last year after four years languishing in a mall that wasn’t attracting the serious fashion consumer.

Mporium pic 5

Mporium, in fact, recalls Parco Next NEXT. Only now, Mr Wang gets to work with relatively established designers, spread across the region. Overall, Mporium might be interesting if you’re not already jaded by clothes of indeterminate personality and inconsistent quality. Similar to Parco Next NEXT, Mporium is situated in a frightfully quiet and lacklustre part of a mall: Suntec City’s newly unveiled Phase 3 of its S$410-million overhaul, a zone smack in the middle of the sprawling complex that presently stands out for its lack of buzz and hustle. Despite its high-profile “remaking”, Suntec City isn’t the go-to destination when it comes to on-trend fashion. Even Uniqlo launched its Carine Roitfeld collaboration at its Ion Orchard store (only the media preview was held at the Suntec City outlet). It is not hard to imagine the uphill task Mporium faces in drawing those customers whose wardrobes are filled with the latest and trendiest garb.

There’s also the peculiar name. Mporium is a 5,000-square-foot store that is not quite large enough to be the space the moniker suggests, yet not small enough to be a boutique. Why the more conventional spelling—with the ‘e’—was not adopted could only succumb to the speculation that it was an excess of cleverness. Although of Greek origin—from the word emporion, which comes from emporos (meaning merchant), the word ‘emporium’ in Singapore is, regrettably, evocative of a particular department store of the past: Oriental emporium (东方百货公司), mostly known as Emporium (英保良), that was founded in 1961. Attributed to two Lim brothers, the company Emporium Holdings, at its peak in 1985, had 133 businesses spread across the region, namely Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Hong Kong. Although it was the largest department store chain on our island, and is no longer around, Emporium has never shaken off its image as a seller of less-sophisticated, Chinese-made products amid an increasingly English-educated and Westernised populace.

Mporium interior 1

A Failed Experiment

Mporium declared itself to be Singapore’s first: it is not. Back in June 1992, there was SA.GA, the 4,180-square-foot store at Park Mall (interestingly now a part of Suntec REIT, owner of Suntec City) that, like Mporium, housed a motley selection of Asian designers—more than 50 of them. SA.GA, according to its proponent and the store’s executive director Alan Koh, was “the world’s first”. This was Mr Koh’s second act after SODA (Society of Designing Arts, which he co-founded with Dick Lee) and, for many in the local design scene, his Hemispheres 2.0. Hemispheres, a project initiated by Mr Lee in 1985, was Singapore’s first local multi-label store that boasted an assemblage of those considered at that time to be the city-state’s best designers. Its potential longevity was overestimated when Hemispheres closed in 1987, just two years after it opened.

Once the chairman of Singapore’s premier event—Fashion Connections, Mr Koh was certain that Singapore alone wasn’t enough to draw global attention to the fashions of this part of the world: it needed its neighbours. The opportunity was ripe as Mr Koh was instrumental in staging the ASEAN Designer Show of the annual Fashion Connections that debuted in 1988. SA.GA was the culmination of his tireless zeal. Named after the seed, bijik saga of the saga tree—commonly found in Malaysia and Singapore, the store was to be a hotbed of Asian designs, even when the ’90s saw no real emerging Asian fashion capital, Tokyo excluded. This was pre-K-pop, pre-hallyu wave, pre-fast fashion. It was, no doubt, an ambitious project.

Mporium Pix 6The store was one-and-a-half times larger than Style Singapore, Park Mall’s other anchor tenant that was habitat to home-grown labels, and the brainchild of Chia Shi Teck, the MD of Heshe Holdings, also manufacturer and retailer of local label Lea Fashion. The vast interior of SA.GA was segmented along the perimeter into smaller shops in which designers could express their own individuality. The mix was unlike anything Singapore had seen. From Hong Kong, there was Walter Ma and Lawrence Tang. From Bangkok, there was veteran designer Kai (Somchai Kaewthong). From Manila, there was Inno Soto and Digna Rosales. From Kuala Lumpur, there was Sonny San, Edmund Ser, and Douglas Chew. From Jarkata, there was Biyan (Wanaatmadja), Ghea (Panggabean), and Prajudi (Admodirdjo). And from home ground, there was Peter Teo, Frederick Lee, Amy Wang, LAM (Lam Wan Lai), and others. Singaporeans accounted for about half the designers selected for the store.

The S$8-million project was backed by Metro, then seeking to up its fashion leadership by attempting something that went beyond its traditional department store business. The director of projects at that time, Ong Jin Seng, told The Straits Times, “Unlike the present concessionaires in our department stores, we do not control the merchandise or the prices at SA.GA.” It was believed that designers had full control over what they wanted to sell. Who they were really selling to, no one quite knew. As it turned out, the merchandise wasn’t what shoppers wanted to buy. And the store wasn’t one they really wanted to go to.

Mporium interior 2

Three months after their debut, it was reported in the press that SA.GA was not doing too well because of the “thin crowd”. Despite its “mid-price” positioning, the store was not able to draw shoppers, and many observers had squarely placed the blame on its off-the-heart-of-Orchard-Road location. Park Mall (formerly Supreme House)—despite efforts by past owners (including Wing Tai Holdings) and the present—has never truly had a real retail identity. Many equated the building with one of Singapore’s first coffee houses, the Silver Spoon, and little else. By November 1993, just one-and-half years after they opened, SA.GA announced that they would close. Metro was to remake and re-brand the space as a factory outlet. The saga of SA.GA was its over-ambition and the pressure-cooker effect of containing too many designers with egos too inflated to manage.

In their press ads, SA.GA touted itself as a purveyor of the “fashions of Asia”. Mporium takes the more reverential—even confident—route: it pays “tribute to Asian Designers”. The subtle difference in the marketing approaches between the two speaks volumes of the times in which both stores operate. In the early 1990s, there were hardly any recognisable Asian labels, so the more general, all-purpose “fashions of Asia” was sufficient though vague. In the era of pre-budget airlines and the hordes that take weekend getaways on a whim, there was no major, cross-border retail hit of regional designer names. SA.GA’s selling of the idea of the possibility of a vibrant and superior fashion market outside Singapore was enough to entice the would-be seeker of Asian fashion, whether he or she even existed.

Mporium logo

The specificity of Mporium’s clarion call—Asian designers—not only reflects consumer awareness of today’s regional eponymous labels, but underscore their possible appeal and saleability. With the rise of Asian-American designers such as current hot-shots Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow and Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, and more established names such as Thakoon Panichgul, Phillip Lim, and Jason Wu, Asian consumers are more than ever willing to give Asian designers a shot. Jennifer Yii, CEO of the store’s parent company Qi Shop, said, “Asian designers have come into their own over these past years. The quality and the design have tremendously improved, and the works of the designers are more creative than what we’ve seen ten years ago.” The high visibility of Asian designers, however, is no indication that the acceptance rate is elevated. Mporium’s self-belief that Asian-born labels have real appeal is refreshing given our retail environment’s partiality to Caucasian names.

At the opening of SA.GA in 1992, Steven Goh, managing director of Metro was quoted in ST to have said, “SA.GA would suit the needs of the increasing sophisticated taste of Asian women, and provide a vehicle for Asian designers to market their fashions abroad.” This sounds rather similar to what Mporium attempts to do. In a press release issued at its opening, it is stated that “Mporium is built as a platform to give some of these (Asian) designers—not only the established ones, but aspiring ones as well—the space to showcase their best products.” Can different designers from a region characterized by immense diversity come together in one space to offer shoppers the range and variety that characterise fashion consumption?

Mporium products 1

A Tough Sell

For more than a decade, fashion, as with luxury goods, has thrived exceedingly well in Asia. The growth is fuelled by—not necessarily in equal measure—rising economies, lively retail activities (including the luxury goods investment spree of the Nineties quite unseen before), and a middle class that seems to be growing, and visibly too. However, the success of largely imported European labels has not paved the way for their Asian counterparts (excluding, perhaps, the Japanese and Koreans) to flourish. Local consumers have been so pre-conditioned to respond favourably to European and American brands that Asian-born names cannot, no matter how hard they try, gain the cachet to prevail.

Unlike Asian food, Asian fashion does not always travel well—at least, not, in our view, within Asia. Take Thai food out of Thailand and put it here, and if it’s good, it’ll sell. But fashion, sometimes dependent on emotions influenced by region-specific peculiarities, is a little harder to cross borders. The Thais, for example, love fashion to be over-the-top as a sign of fashion credibility, but that’s not the case in Singapore. Oftentimes, Asian brands, taken away from their local context and their local culture, lose their allure, their identity, and their relevance. In Singapore alone, there have been too many failed try-outs.

Mporium products 2

Our island-state may look greener from the other side, but over here, seedlings don’t always take root and grow. From Malaysia, there was East India Company of the Nineties that doomed after years of fruitless expansion. From Indonesia, Biyan (possibly the first Indonesian label to be sold on Net-a-Porter) lost its place in a plot of European names favoured by its sole stockist, the now-defunct Link. From Thailand, Fly Now met a similar fate when it closed last year, two years after it planted itself in Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade. From Korea, Headline Seoul (HLS), opened with fanfare in 2013, seems to be heading towards an uncertain, branchless future now that its owner Ann Kositchotitana (who brought in Fly Now) has shuttered her main store Front Row.

While it is true that well-travelled Singaporeans are exposed to many of the region’s most visible brands, is it also spot-on to say that they desire to buy those same brands when not on vacation, when not enjoying the exotic spoils of a vacation spot, when rooted to the humdrum of everyday life? Mporium seems to think so. According to Ms Yii, “Mporium aims to bring together these Asian designers so that your appreciation of good Asian designs need not stop when your holiday ends.” That may be a positive move to help those returning from a trip to alleviate the withdrawal syndrome that could result from over-indulgence, but is Mporium experiential enough for repeat visits or is it a second best when you can’t enjoy the offerings at their source?

Mporium products 3

For a store that purports to favour designers, there’s a decidedly un-designer feel about Mporium’s interior. True, it is not always necessary to equate designer fashion with luxuriously appointed spaces. Many multi-label boutiques, such as Colette in Paris, do without lushness and gilded fittings, but a store that tags itself with the ‘designer’ label needs to assure its customers that it’s able to put them in exclusive company. It is not likely shoppers are expecting art deco chandeliers, marble flooring, or antique carpets since one does not need to yield to interior extravagance to part with money. Yet, a well designed store can augment the value of ‘designed’ products. Mporium is not unattractive, but with its concrete floor and black metal racks behind a pseudo-Euro store front, it looks decidedly like a pop-up store occupying a vacated shop; it’s not a space that heightens the senses.

When it comes to the products, it is, as one merchandiser noted, “a mish-mash”. Mporium is like a retail version of a ‘listicle’: 35 Asian Labels You May Like. It’s a compendium, no doubt, and one that’s likely to appeal to the lunch-time crowd with that extra 20 minutes for trend-snacking. The styles selected are easily digestible, whether for the shoppers’ consumption, or their smartphone cameras’. Psychologically, the offerings are seductive because it proposes upfront a condensed and manageable assortment of what it deems to be good regional fashion.

The miscellany, however, makes it difficult to discern which Asian city—among those that represent what the store considers to have a thriving and stimulating design scene—is the star attraction. Which designer, one is tempted to ask, comes to Singapore with a story of their home city to tell? Do these designers represent what typifies their respective cities? What’s different about them that warrant a visit to the store? These questions were asked before—back in the early ’90s, back in the day when it was believed that there were immense opportunities for Asian designers in Singapore. Perhaps now, the difference will be Mporium finding the answers, if it does not already have them.

Mporium is at #01-477—480 of Suntec City’s North Wing. Photos: Galerie Gombak

These Boots Are Made For Collecting

Timberland 6 inch bootTimberland’s best-selling shoe, the 6-Inch Boot

There is classic footwear and there is classic footwear, but some are destined to be more classic than others. Take the Timberland 6″ Boot, for example. Its fate wasn’t foreseeable in 1973 when it was released. It didn’t even have a real name (6” is a description, not a moniker). The company now calls it an “icon”. Even on the store shelves, it is branded as such. This is, perhaps, no exaggeration. It has been the boot of choice for two large groups of wearers for more than four decades that such a status is very real for them.

Timberland originally marketed the 6” as work boots (internally it’s known as Style #10061) to construction workers. And it did win their support. These boots worked as promised: tough, hard-wearing, and water-proof (injection-molding tech allows soles to be fused to the leather uppers without stitching). If you’ve ever slipped into a pair, you’d know why these boots can survive tough conditions such as those on a construction site. First-timers would need some time to break into them as they are heavy and rigid, and definitely not as easy to put on and go as, say a pair of Chelsea boots.

Timberland Yellow Boot wall

The Yellow Timberland Boot takes its pride of place in Timberland’s flagship store in Raffles CIty

Somewhere along the Timberland 6” Boot’s journey forward, it caught the attention of people not the least connected to the work the target customers were doing. By the mid-Nineties, the 6” boots gained traction among hip-hop artistes without any intent on the part of Timberland. This was so incongruent with the boots’ blue-collar culture that Timberland was reported to have tried distancing themselves from the rappers. But as we know about fashion, the more you resist, the more the other side won’t yield. In time, these boots became synnymous with American hip-hop, just as Dr Martin boots, across the Atlantic, is linked to British rock.

According to American lore, the 6” Boot was first worn in New York City by drug peddlers who, due to the hazards of the job, had to stand on street corners all night. This required boots that would keep their feet warm and dry. Whether the boots helped their trade, no one knew (nor did Timberland desired to find out!). Rappers, always keen to augment their bad-boy image and from-a-tough-‘hood credentials, started adopting the boot as their footwear of choice. As with oversized athletic tops, the 6” Boot, by now known simply as Timbs, quickly identified the kick-ass, tough-as-nails, booty-loving hip-hop star, from Tupac to Wu-Tang Clan to Jay Z to Kanye West. As we know, you can’t apply a brake on the influence rappers have on urban style.

Kanye West in TimberlandKanye West in unmistakable Timberland 6-Inch Boots

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Timberland’s distinctive boots on the MRT floor

How this essentially winter boot caught on in sunny Singapore is unclear. The staff at Timberland stores is usually eager to tell you that the 6” Boot is the brand’s best-seller. It is unlikely that construction workers—mostly imported labour—could afford these boots. And there is not a hip-hop scene here large enough to boost the boots’ visibility. Yet, at any one time, when you scan across the length of an MRT train, there’s a good chance you’ll spot the unmistakable yellow nubuck that is the 6” Inch Boot. At a recent visit to the store in Ion Orchard, a lanky boy—with jeans so skinny they definitely looked painted on—tried a pair of the boot. He struggled to get into them, and when successful, stood up, and admiringly said to his female companion, “Love it: my feet look big!”

In spite of its popularity, the Timberland 6” Boot is not to be dismissed as common. Work wear, in fact, continues to be an important category of influence for major designers, and the boot has found collaborators among the most unlikely of supporters, including edgy names such as Mastermind JAPAN and Colette. Our present favourite is the reiteration by the joint forces of Supreme and Comme des Garçons. The output: a subtle tweak on a very recognisable form and colour. Sadly, this is not available in Singapore. Timberland was not able to say why.

The Best Timberland 6″ Boot Collaboration Of 2015

Timberland X AtmosTimberland X Atmos

Timberland X Supreme & Comme des Garcons SHIRTTimberland X Supreme & Comme des Garçons SHIRT

Timberland X Bee Line for Billionaire Boys ClubTimberland X Bee Line for Billionaire Boys Club

Timberland 6″ premium boots, SGD329, are available at Timberland stores nationwide

Three Animals, Triple The Style

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The handcrafted fabrics of Three Animals. Photo: Three Animals Paris Workshop

In a conversation SOTD had with a Singaporean designer following the shows at Digital Fashion Week two weeks ago, a possible scenario was discussed: in time to come, the designers of the region will overtake those in Singapore for international acclaim. One of the countries discussed was China. While it is not yet evident in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou that any fashion revolution is afoot, outside of the mainland, some China-born designers are doing extraordinarily interesting work in Europe. It is a matter of time when they will make it big.

One of them is a Ming Yin, a young Chinese woman based in Paris who does unexpectedly sophisticated men’s wear. Her label Three Animals produced by her company Three Animals Paris Workshop is a quiet embodiment of artisanal know-how and urbane finesse. Her passion is in natural fibres dyed with plant-derived indigo. While this predilection follows those of Japanese craft-based labels such as Kapital and Blue Blue, Three Animals has an unmistakable European polish. The blues and the patterns may look Eastern, but the shapes and silhouette are clearly in line with the West’s.

Three Animal indigo shirt AW 2015

Three Animals indigo shirt with contrast turn-back cuff. Photo: Menlook

Ming Yin is deeply involved in the developmental stage of her designs, particularly in the production of her fabrics. So enamoured is she with working with the Chinese country folks who dye her fabrics and yarns that she often posts videos of the processes on Facebook. Seeing these village artisans plucking the leaves of the indigo plant or their hands plunged into vats to stir the dye brings forth a sentimental reaction to the clothes even before seeing or touching them.

Ming Yin graduated in fashion design at Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology. Convinced that she’d only be better if she furthered her studies in what to her is the fashion capital of the world—Paris, she moved to the city in 2000 to enrol at Studio Berçot. Considered one of the top 20 fashion schools in the world, Studio Berçot is the alma mater of many other female designers of note, such as Martine Sitbon, Isabel Marant, and Véronique Leroy. Following her graduation in 2005, it would take Ming Yin another six years to birth Three Animals.

For the curious, the three animals in the name refers specifically to the elephant, camel, and goat. Although not quite a menagerie, the trio, to the designer, collectively represents “treasure, a free mind, and a classic yet adventurous spirit”. Conceptual heft aside, these are clothes that are made with cloths that have a genesis linked to humanity, and imbibed with what French stockist L’exception calls “intellectual and culturally stimulating design.”

A surprisingly small edit of Three Animals, from SGD139, is available at Manifesto, Capitol Piazza

Adrian Joffe: Serenity Amid The Excitement

Adrian Joffe B&WThe welcome token at the Comme des Garçons party two Fridays ago was an oddity. If you’re dressed in CDG, you’ll receive a gold chain with a pendant bearing the name of the house, spelled out in its entirety (including the cédille of the ‘c’ in Garçon as a star). People seemed amused. Think gold chains, and you recall Run DMC. Yes, there’s also LL Cool J, and Eric B and Rakim. Furthest from your mind is anything associated with the work of the vanguard of the Japanese avant garde. Sure, CDG does some outré stuff, but chunky gold chain? Surely that’s in the domain of Jeremy Scott!

Of course, for those in the know, there has never been anything straightforward about CDG. Yet, the Comme look is so distinctive and recognisable that aficionados would not need a flashy gold chain to identify the label’s clothes to one another. Glitziness, however, was what CDG was offering to its guests as a badge of honour. What cryptic message was there? Perhaps, there was none. CDG has been consistent in letting its fans construe a certain image of itself that many will miss even the most evident irony flashing in their face. This was no dumb bling. Gleaming gold against an essentially matte CDG aesthetic is true to the intriguing contradiction that has kept the brand so alluring for the past 34 years, since its first showing in Paris in 1981.

CDG chain and pendantParty favours at the Comme des Garçons bash

In the middle of the I’m-in-more-outrageous-CDG mode of comparison and admiration, another incongruity: Adrian Joffe. CEO of Comme des Garçons Co, Ltd, Mr Joffe moved among the near-clones of CDG customers like a priest among his wayward flock. He was all serene smiles in the company of the fashionably dead-serious and achingly plastic. In the seeming frivolity of the occasion, here was a counterpoint, cool and collected. A week earlier, it was transmitted that Mr Joffe and “a team from Japan” would grace the CDG in-boutique do, a sort-of annual affair that brings fans into the store at the Hilton Gallery for some socialising and shopping. Meeting the man, for some of us, was the reason to attend.

Suited in nondescript black—possibly from the Comme des Garçons Homme Deux line, Mr Joffe offered no outward clue to his connection to the person that has been described as the most successful Japanese designer of modern times: he’s married to the founder of the brand Rei Kawakubo for 23 years. Just as CDG requires no caricature of itself for identification, Mr Joffe needs no obvious get-up to be his wife’s spokesman and interpreter. In person, he could pass off as Lord Voldemort, but one unencumbered by Horcruxes, who has come to peace with what the Buddhists would say is the transient nature of life. He conducts himself like a Japanese salaryman in the company of superiors, with reverence and immense courtesy. In the middle of a conversation with us, when he was pulled away to attend to something undisclosed, he said calmly, “Excuse me.”, then turned to add, “Stay here. I’ll be back.”

CDG party 1Guests outside Comme des Garçons, Hilton Gallery

Rare is the person of such stature who could have used an opportunity to break away from an unimportant conversation but did not. As he walked towards the brightness that emanated from the CDG store, where he was required, it was a little hard to immediately discern the synergy between this small, affable man and the giant of an independently held company that is Comme des Garçons. Built and geniality clearly do not determine how one thrives in the cut-throat world of the business of fashion. Mr Joffe, who hails from South Africa, has been with CDG since 1987, when he was appointed the commercial director of the brand’s European markets. In 1992, he married Ms Kawakubo. Uncommon is their marital, as well as business compatibility. It was through their combined vision, and his verve and strength that saw the conception of the world’s first pop-up retail format, the Guerrilla Store that debuted in Berlin in 2004; and, in the same year, the iconic multi-label emporium, Dover Street Market in London’s Mayfair.

The Guerrilla Store—including various iterations in Singapore—is no longer part of the CDG stable of stores. Its eventual demise is not, many believe, due to loss of interest on the part of the owners, but the omnipresence and overuse of the pop-up concept. Dover Street Market, presently a four-city fashion destination, took the experiential component of the Guerrilla Stores, gave it brand plurality and, more importantly, permanence of locality. DSM (the abbreviation is preferred by habitués) was then nothing the market has seen before. It was a confluence of different styles from different cities, but all had one commonality: difference. Within its multi-storey space (in DSM New York, there are seven levels), a market spirit exists, in the old, almost souk-like sense of the word: variety can come together to provide a lively mix of products that arrive from shared values.

DSM LondonDover Street Market in London. Photo: Dover Street Market International

Walk into any DSM, and it’s immediately apparent that the store is poles apart from others. Inside, it’s rare not to be inspired, not to feel that you’re in another retail planet, not to succumb to the urge to spend. It’s a visual treat and engaging pleasure, especially for those jaded by the same-sameness of the retail offering in many cities trying to project a shoppers’ paradise image, including Singapore. DSM allows one to feel, to sense, to react, to wonder, to marvel, to touch, to feel. Mr Joffe told Suzy Menkes of Vogue last year as DSM celebrated its tenth year in London, “We want to make DSM stronger and stronger and more and more exciting, not only as a retail experience but also as a place for conversation, the sharing of ideas – where accidental synergies can arise, where people can interact openly and see the possibilities of being different.” The report also revealed that DSM London will move from Dover Street (hence the name) to a larger space in Haymarket, south of Piccadilly Circus.

Unlike other multi-label stores such as Colette in Paris, DSM does not attract in large numbers the tourist crowd or those who visit solely because they need to partake in what is perceived as cool. DSM Tokyo, for example, is in touristy Ginza, right behind the equally touristy Uniqlo (a 12-storey flagship), but it draws mostly those who know its precise appeal and what can be gleaned from it. Mr Joffe told us that the London store is the best-performing (the Evening Standard reported a £13.2 million in sales last year) and “Ginza is coming up fast”. While DSM has largely kept it within admirers of its indie vibe and aesthetics that are not always comprehensible, its main store Comme des Garçons has unfortunately become a victim of its own success. At the Aoyama flagship in December last year, one of our correspondents who was there reported what he saw: “It was shocking. The crowd—yes, crowd—didn’t look like the typical customers; they were scrambling to buy—mostly from the Play line. The store was in a mess: clothes laid in a pile, a few strewn on the floor. It didn’t look like a CDG store if you only saw who were in it.”

CDG AW 2015 in storeComme des Garçons autumn/winter collection now in the store at The Shopping Gallery, Hilton Singapore. 

In the last eight years or so, the CDG signatures of colour-blocking, mixed media, and pattern-clash have gone quite mainstream, and can be seen across many price points. CDG has so successfully positioned itself as the forerunner of edginess that anyone who wants to be seen as cool, rather than individualistic, adopts the brand compulsively. At that Friday night party, one of the attendees was Vernon A, one half of the Muttons in the Morning on Class 95. Accompanied by a female, he strutted his stuff wearing an untucked white shirt with CDG emblazoned across his chest—the marker-stroke font of the ‘C’ and ‘G’ outlined with shell buttons. Even with the obvious branding, there was nothing characteristic of CDG in his entire look. Style was sacrificed for misguided cool.

Despite the risk of CDG achieving critical mass (that’ll dismay its dare-to-be-different fans), more of the brand will be welcomed in Singapore, especially when the single store here is known for its rather conservative buying (in comparison with, say, Hong Kong). We asked Mr Joffe if there might be a DSM Singapore and he replied by enquiring, “Do you think it’ll work here?” Our answer was in the affirmative, and he said, “There is a possibility of working with a local party.” That was encouraging to hear. Asia’s only DSM outside Tokyo is in Beijing, and that was put together in partnership with Hong Kong’s I.T Group (hence the name I.T Beijing Market). A DSM Singapore would make it Southeast Asia’s very first, and show that alternative retail concepts can work on our shores. At the moment, it is logical that Club 21 could be that “local party” since it has been the official CDG distributor and stockist for SEA. Club 21 Singapore Market, there’s an oddly appealing ring to it.

Before we could explore that possibility with him, Adrian Joffe was, again, led away by his minder. Just as he turned to go, he left us with a fascinating parting shot: “See you in Dover Street Market Singapore!”

Photos (except indicated): Jim Sim

Scuffle To Get These?

H&M X BalmainNo, we’re not kidding. You can’t see our incredulous smile, but, like yours, it’s there. Fracas for fashion: there are really those who do forgo grace for a gown! According to the Guardian, “Scuffles broke out on Regent Street in London as impatient shoppers jostled to get into H&M for the launch of a collection by the designer label Balmain.” If that’s not bad enough, consider The Racked’s headline: “Terrifying Footage of Shoppers Laying Waste to a Store.” Out of context, this could have been Kabul, Afghanistan!

H&M’s latest collaboration was launched worldwide on 5 October. The response, as described, was, according to the brand’s spokespeople in major cities, “unprecedented”. What’s astonishing is that it’s only Balmain, Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain. Mr Rousteing, by most standards, is a newcomer—a baby among older giants of the industry. It’s understandable if it’s, say, Alaïa, but it is not. Sure, Mr Rousteing, all of 29 (he was installed at Balmain at 25), connects to his generation, but are these really alluring clothes, born of vast experience and refined taste? Whatever they are, he’s put them out there in H&M and all hell broke loose. On Instagram, with the fine-tuning of filters, they are the glamorous glad rags that make IG the unfathomable repository of questionable sartorial choices.

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Screen grab of Mrs Christopher Lee doing a Kendall Jenner for her IG followers 

Fann Wong—not exactly Mr Rousteing’s peer, was eager to post her made-for-the-masses Balmain on her IG account in the early part of the day of the launch, possibly to beat everyone to it. She wore the green sequinned dress, looking pleased, as if she has just won a best actress award. It could, of course, be backstage at a getai performance. It is doubtful if she queued for the dress (and goodness knows how many others availed to her—likely the results of her stylist Martin Wong’s good connections), but it is certain everyone wants a piece of the action. Some just don’t have to be that active.

While scuffles were not reported in the queues here, people were anxious to show their afraid-to-lose side. As early as 4pm on Tuesday, SOTD spotted a line at H&M’s Orchard Building flagship on Grange Road (many looked ready to call a store front home for the next couple of days). According to The Straits Times, people, in fact, started queuing at 7pm on Monday, and by the morning of the launch day, more than 500 people got in line. Although the waiting shoppers were not rowdy, their willingness to camp out on concrete pavement does constitute extreme behaviour. Where, if parents or spouse had asked, would they have said they had spent those nights?  It is ironic that in order to get your hands on a couple of “glamorous dresses” you had to yield to something as unglamorous as sleeping on a public walkway.

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Shoppers queuing overnight outside the Orchard Building store to grab a piece of affordable Balmain. Photo: A.B. Tan

At the Orchard Building store the clothes were sold out in four hours, possibly less. An hour after it opened at 8am, while some of you were sauntering into the office, most of the items were reported by shoppers, who managed to get into the store, to be gone. Before noon, only a couple of zip-back tube tops in black and white were left. Any merchandiser will say that’s effectively a 100 percent sell-through. Who in fashion today can boast of such a success?

Elsewhere in the region, frenzy, too, rather than scrum was reported. In Kuala Lumpur, our source told us that people queued over 50 hours outside the H&M outlet at Lot 10. And merchandise vanished in as little as five hours, with many people claiming they were unable to get several of the pieces they wanted. Over in Bangkok, our correspondence told us that there was no overnight queue as H&M is inside Paragon mall (given the city’s sensitivities over security, after-hours sleepover inside shopping centres is not permitted), and the store had issued coloured bracelets earlier to regulate the crowd on the actual day. Before noon, all the racks were empty save one with a few tube tops, just as in Singapore. The sell-out rate in Bangkok is surprising because just across the street in Siam Square, similarly “opulent, glamorous, sexy”—as described by H&M’s Ann-Sofie Johansson—numbers can be had for a song. For the most ardent (and patient) fans, however, you’ll have to look at Seoul. According to local reports, the die-hards started queuing a week ago!

The empty racks in less than 4 hours at H&M, Paragon, Bangkok. Photo: Jagkrit Suwanmethanon

How much of this madness is media-induced? For so many writers and bloggers, H&M X Balmain is the fashion event of the year. Adidas X Kanye West step aside. The Telegraph told its readers to “Prepare to fall in love with Olivier Rousteing”. At vogue.com, they swooned: “all as chic and distinctively Balmain as the collections Rousteing shows on the runway season after season.”A report in Huffington Post on 15 October to announce the approaching launch was prefaced with 30 emojis depicting hands-up jubilation. Yes, 30. Go figure!

Are these garments really so covetable? Do shoppers truly think these are beautiful clothes or are they merely buying into the hype that these are “affordable” designer duds? Who knew Balmain is this big? Despite the sequins, has Balmain really added some stardust to H&M? One product development specialist we know told us, “ugly sells, tacky sells”. He is not exaggerating. Mr Rousteing’s Balmain may have elevated trashy ostentation with the house’s atelier, but with H&M, you can’t seriously bring up what’s never positioned high in the first place. Much of H&M X Balmain is the kind of showy excess once associated with street walkers and bar girls who aimed for maximum flash with minimum cash. That’s ironic because even hookers don’t dress like this anymore.

The Max Factor

Max Tan SS 2016 G1Fashion editors love Max Tan. And Max Tan loves them back. He does that by consistently delivering the kind of clothes that are deemed ideal for photographic editorials. These garments have an affinity for the camera; their striking shapes lend fashion narratives the kind of drama many magazines consider eye-catching. For the creative heads with a penchant for something out of this world, Mr Tan’s clothes provide a punch to the stylistic senses. But peel away the journalistic overkill and the misguided rah-rah, the superfluous just stares right back at you.

For his latest collection, the closing show of Digital Fashion Week 2015 (DFW) last Sunday, Max Tan once again wouldn’t let up on his “experiments with quirk (sic) cuts” and “results that are sometimes blown out of proportion” (mantras repeated for a second year in the DFW booklet, possibly, for emphasis). You can’t say the guy isn’t sticking to his guns. He’s offering longer lengths when women want shorter. He’s keeping to the distended when they want close-to-the-body. He is using more cloth when they want less—a lot less. He’s piling the layers when they want to expose their bra straps. Max Tan’s strength is his dogged consistency.

Max Tan SS 2016 G2

For a young eponymous label, consistency is good. It allows the designer to drive home a message, even if oblique. Fashion, however, often acts as an incisive commentator of the present, as well as the environment in which the fashion is created. What does Max Tan wish to say with these clothes? We can only hazard a guess. Is it possible that he’s saying that overzealous design can surpass underwhelming craft? Is it possible that he is proposing that one track can lead to many roads? Is it possible that he’s indicating that, contrary to the one challenge that confronts Singaporean designers, he’s able to get fabrics in limitless yardage?  Is it possible that he’s suggesting that local women are easy to dupe? There are no easy answers just as there are no easy ways to grasp the meaning of the clothes.

His themes, too, avoid deviation. He’s been largely inspired by the Scriptures—from spring/summer 2014’s ‘Genesis’ to the following season’s ‘Revelation’—and the world’s best selling book has tossed up more ideas for him as he exhorts, in spring/summer 2016, ‘Thou Shalt Not’. It’s hard to make out the implication of that. What kind of limitation is he imposing on his potential customer? Or is it directed at himself? Could this be a reference to Deuteronomy 22:11 (King James Version): “Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together”? If so, how odd, as there are “garments of divers sorts” in the collection. Or, is this, perhaps, a statement to discourage criticism?

Max Tan SS 2016 G3The thing is, Max Tan’s designs do elicit reactions. Take his first look: oddly, a wrap-reefer. Extra-large, and droopy, it moves like a duster, but hangs like a bath robe. Mr Tan adores coats, and big characterises them. But it is not only in terms of size. He likes them to sport huge lapels and huge sleeves, so that the garment simply looks too big. This is not oversized, this is outsized. In an age when even fast fashion can offer near-perfect fit, this is puzzling. In addition, the overall effect is outerwear that seems weighted down. The notched lapels on this particular coat, at their widest points, are the width of the shoulder. The visual ponderousness is exacerbated by the wide sash employed in place of buttons to hold the front opening of the jacket together—it is positioned and tied at the hip, and allowed to hang loose, like a fascia of an untidy cleric. Perhaps lightness of touch wasn’t considered in the design process. When even a tall model can’t pull it off convincingly, it’s hard to imagine this coat on any woman not wanting to look as if she mostly shops at the Salvation Army thrift store.

The problem with fit has plagued Mr Tan’s collections in the past, and it continued to trouble the latest. By the third look, a sort of pinafore dress with a bodice that refuses to sit nicely on the body and a bare back that exposes the gaping sides, it is possible that in the collection, fit is secondary to form. This muddles the understanding of what the brand is about as Mr Tan is known to draft his own patterns. Compounding the confusion is the oft-mentioned, but not quite evidenced “tailoring”. Of the 40 looks presented (including a single incoherent men’s), not one is, strictly speaking, a tailored garment. Ironic, since the shapes Mr Tan loves would be better served by a deft hand in the art of the tallieur. In the end, if looks supersede design, then, perhaps, it does not matter. Let it all hang loose.

Photos: Jim Sim

The Passive Side

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If Ying the Label is named to suggest yin, then a yang in the designs may be what is needed to lift the brand from blandness. Meet, however, the twain did not. Showing for the first time at this year’s Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Ying the Label sent down the catwalk clothes bereft of newness, amusing itself, instead, with the familiar. At the end of the presentation, the Label is just the inert outfit that it is, like so many countless others in an already crowded marketplace catering to the smartphone-totting, selfie-ready clothing consumer. One unremarkable button in a bag of many unremarkable buttons.

What this year’s Digital Fashion Week (DFW) lacked in terms of local designer names, it made up with brands linked to Singapore’s burgeoning fashion e-commerce. Of the four Singaporean fashion labels (shirt maker CYC not included), two of them have their roots in blogs/blog shops. Apart from Ying the Label, there’s Run After, the line conceived by “social-media star” Melissa Celestine Koh and put together with players of the future-undetermined Whole 9 Yards. Fashion born of blogs was having its day.

The look of these labels won’t be alien to DFW’s target audience, as well as the many “influencers” that were invited to the event. In fact, the clothes could have been exhibited as part of an audience-participation segment. The separates or ensembles do not differ from those seen off-runway. You sensed you were watching a sixteen-year-old’s Pinterest page come alive on the catwalk. They, too, were homage to KissJane, to Love and Bravery, to the brands in Taobao. The shows themselves could have been mall productions at Bugis Junction. At some point, they looked like a mise en scène of Sunday in Lucky Plaza.

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There’s nothing wrong with churning out clothes that typify the blandness of blog-shops and the preference of their followers. So many of these brand owners (also models of their own brands) have, by their own admission, a “strong passion for fashion, shopping and the social media”. They know what entices their admiring audience and why the latter keeps coming back. Those who make it a habit to visit these online outlets mostly do so out of admiration of the bloggers or blog-shop owners. These are often young, lovely (to look at), and feminine women who have turned their love of self and own clothing choices into successful online businesses. By making purchases at these sites, these consumers are living vicariously through these women; each buy ratifies the seller’s perceived-to-be flawless taste. Question is: do these clothes deserve to be shown on a catwalk of a major fashion event, such as the DFW?

Ying the Label, like so many of its counterparts, work with design acuity and parameters that speak to a community of women between 20 and 30, women whose fashion education is largely provided by the daily updates of bloggers. The clothing choices of these online stars are invariably a kind of sales pitch. The clothes fall into very specific categories: feminine, girly, sweet, cutely-patterned, and moderately sexy.

Designed by social-media-savvy, brand founder Phuay Li Ying, Ying the Label was launched in November last year as “a highly wearable range of clothes which distinguishes itself with a whimsical colour palette and friendly silhouettes”. Its spring/summer 2016 collection succeeded in presenting the same wearability and friendliness; in other words, what have been consistently seen in the blogosphere in at least the past eight years: camisole tops, shell tops, tented slip tops, peplumed tank tops (presently a fave), housewife-y blouses, cute shorts, high-waisted culottes, high-waisted skirts, circle skirts, pleated tulip skirts, and column dress… what you really want to sell online.

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To be sure, this is not about Ying the person. Yet, the clothes are largely the results of skills honed through experience rather than training, taste shaped by sisterhood rather than scholarship. The lack of refinement is evident in the details, the finishing, and the proportions. There was a pair of rather shocking knee-length shorts with wide cuffs embellished with over-sized bows at the outseams. Questionable too was the origami rose that appeared like an afterthought just below the end point of the V-back of a sack dress. Attempts at tucks of fabrics on the bodice looked like napkins in the hands of an especially inept hostess.

Consistent with the branding, there were the prints. As explained in Ying the Label’s homepage, “We are not just a designer (sic), we seek to inspire. We sketch, fold, paint, stitch, deliver and celebrate.” The “paint” aspect was intriguing. Playschool paper cutouts that adorned the catwalk were a foretaste of things to come. On the clothes, there were inky lines punctuated by splotchy, coloured dots, vaguely recalling the kitschy work of Jo Soh of Hansel. Referring to those brush-stroke lines, Ms Phuay said, in an interview that was broadcast prior to her show, “Everything is like art.”

You almost believed her.

Photos: Jim Sim