Season’s Changed, Wardrobe’s The Same

SS 2016 window 1

By Raiment Young

It’s the Ides of March, as they say in Roman times, circa 44 BC. So here I am, in the middle of the month, when once (date that to pre-Google times) the fashion-correct among us pondered on what to acquire (“invest” was preferred then) to get our wardrobe ready for the coming months. Never mind that we did not have the habit of putting away clothes worn during colder climes to mark the start of a new season. (So not in the habit that presently there are those still wearing neoprene tops from two winters ago—I saw one just now—in the punishing heat of March, the Ides!) What mattered was a chance to renew the wardrobe even if that renewal, technically, took place a month earlier during Chinese New Year.

The new fashion season may be upon us, but it is hard for me to get excited about it. In the past, it was easy to succumb to the thrill that consuming fashion offered. There was enjoyable build-up: you had to wait for at least three months after the respective fashion weeks before you were able to see the reports in a magazine (if you wanted them fast, it was not consumer monthlies such as Vogue, but trade titles such as Mode et Mode), from which you would succumb to the key, though not quite trending, pieces. There would then be another month or two before the clothes appeared in the stores. Anticipation was immense, and the reward, while variable, gave you a high.

Today, it’s too much, too quickly. Fashion is a speed demon, racing from catwalk to consumer, first via live stream, then through the hyper-effective distribution network of fast fashion. Inexorable, I feel, is the journey towards the much-discussed show-now-sell-now business model. Even inchoate, it will appease the appetites of an impatient generation consuming voraciously via online social channels. In fact, our digital lives have mostly taken the heat for it. Fashion is never far away and you can get up to speed, thanks in no small part to mobile technology, a fast-evolving one at that, and one that has widespread affect on our lives as active, no-respite-from-trends consumers.

When it comes to modern communication, adoption is discussed in terms of penetration rate. According to the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), for example, ‘mobile population penetration rate’ in 2015 was an average of 148 percent. The figure is staggering if we consider that Singapore has enjoyed 28 years of mobile phone use: we’re not a new market (in fact, a 2014 Deloitte survey stated that smartphone penetration in Singapore is the highest globally). If the IDA’s figures can provide a snapshot of how ardently we embrace cellular tech, I think it would be rather illuminating if the Textile and Fashion Federation (TAFF) look into the penetration rate of fashion, both luxury and fast: how quickly are we consuming fashion, and how widespread is this rapid consumption?

SS 2016 window 2

Fashion is in a transitory state. When it’s been going this fast, it needs to slow down, if not to take stock, at least to catch its breath. No one can say for sure where it’s heading. Or if real change can be effectuated. All the talk about reducing the number of collections a year, even doing away with seasons, will only amount to something if there’s accord among designers on output periods and selling seasons, as well as scheduling adjustments with manufacturers. Simply put, timetables have to change, but marking calendars isn’t as simple as it looks, not when there are those who still would not play by industry-wide practices. If indeed designers like to supply with the same speed and regularity of high-street labels, would there be anything left to set both sides apart? Or would we, by then, be in an era of what Marc Almond calls “monoculture”?

In recent times, fashion is rather like electronic music: it doesn’t date much. Across all selling spaces, online or in-store, there’s a serious surfeit of fashion that has not distinguished itself from the past in a manner that can be considered truly new. It is ironic, considering how ‘newness’ is integral to the survival of the retail business. Instead, sameness seems to be the stock-in-trade. A fashion buyer I know rather well lamented that she has been buying nipped-in-the-natural-waist floral dresses for so many seasons that she would like to cut them up into something else each time she sees them. Clearly some items have longevity built into them—like in the case of skinny jeans—so much so that it’s tempting to consider the phenomenon a retail conspiracy to keep us buying the same things over and over again, thus saving retailers the need to innovate.

Electronic music, too, endures. In 1978, the German group Kraftwerk released a quirky little single called Das Model (the English version, The Model, came out in 1981). It wasn’t until February 1982 that the track reached no. 1 in the UK, where it stayed for 21 weeks in the top 75 of the singles chart. The four-year gap did not diminish the catchy and kitschy appeal of Das Model. And this was even before the rise of Linda Evangelista and co. Close to four decades later, The Model, is still a must in any synthpop playlist and regularly broadcast on Internet radio channels such as the Madrid-based Synth Hero Radio. No matter when and where you listen to it, and no matter which mix (old or new, electronic or acoustic), The Model does not sound like a musical relic of the past, and you forget that Kraftwerk took pop, like Burberry did with fashion, into the fascinating sphere of technology.

In 1997, the German electro-rock band Rammstein released a cover version of Das Model (I have counted 8 variants I like, including one by The Cardigans, but I revisit the first cover in 1979 by Snakefinger a lot). Later an “official” music video appeared, starring Keira Knightly in what seems to be scenes from the 2005 film Domino, in which she plays “the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey turned away from her career as a Ford model to become a bounty hunter”, as described by IMDb. The intro to the MV, in fact, features catwalking models in a slugfest. What is interesting to me are the clothes: the sharp-shouldered dresses that bear an uncanny resemblance to Hedi Slimane’s recent “haute couture” collection for Saint Laurent.

Okay, I concede; I digress.

SS 2016 window 3

In the peer-to-peer sharing of fashion-consumption of today, there seems to be less about distinctiveness than be at one with the rest of the community. That, and the rampant mimicking of what celebrities wear—not always flattering to everyday lives, but who’s noticing. If shoppers can look to Instagram, Pinterest, and the like for ideas and inspiration, so can retailers. And those sites are where merchandising heads are training their professional gaze at, doing away with storyboards, since the narratives are already out there, already influencing thousands, if not millions. They need only to give what their consumers have seen and, consequently, crave. In reality, stores no longer need to provide context, not even temptation; they only need to lay out the familiar clothes. Problem is, the open-source nature of fashion means other retailers, other store buyers, too, can see what has been seen and circulated. It’s no surprise at all that selling floors are overstocked with clones.

The fashion connection between brands and consumers has changed too. In the past, luxury fashion was sold through distributors or local agents. Now, the parent company is behind the distribution. Gucci, for example, was once available locally via FJ Benjamin, the player behind Goyard and Guess and their house brand Raoul. These days what you see in the Gucci stores in Paragon and The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands are put there directly by Kering-owned Gucci. The missing middleman is also evident in how fashion is communicated to us. When once our taste in clothes was influenced by fashion editors, especially those who could cut through the noise to inform us what is truly on trend, these days, we see fashion for ourselves through live streams, letting brands talk to us directly. And that’s a conversation we share with the rest of the world.

I find myself in the cavernous ION Orchard, unguided by social media, moving in and out of duplex stores and uncovering almost nothing that could entice me or fill the gap I think I see in my wardrobe. Some of the clothes I like aren’t so alluring on the rack, where they sit in pairs, spaced four fingers apart between the carefully coordinated twosomes. I’ve seen them via my PC and smartphone months ago and being there online in perpetuity means by the time I encounter them in-store, the freshness is relieved of these “new arrivals”, as the sales people invariably must inform me, which makes me think of refugees. I move to Paragon, and it is the same here. Except for a bag or two at Loewe, everything I am seeing is frightfully dull.

My afternoon of shopping brings me to 313 at Orchard. It is an indescribably annoying feeling seeing more of the same here, Orchard Road’s belly button where below twenty-fives gravitate towards. Yes, that camo-print is very familiar; that contrast sleeve too. By now, I do not want to recall where I saw them earlier. Not quite a glut, but what I am seeing is doing something to my gut. There’s only one unfashionable word for it: satiated.

Photos: Galerie Gombak

Is Luxury T-Shirt An Oxymoron?

imageThis T-shirt by Saint Laurent costs S$1,250. Or S$32 more than the RRP of the cheapest iPhone 6S Plus. Or S$8 less than an air ticket to London (as advertised by Cathay Pacific in today’s The Straits Times). Don’t get us wrong. This is a nice expensive tee, even when left on the hanger and relieved of its boutique surroundings, it could be mistaken as merchandise of the Salvation Army Family Thrift Store. It feels good to the touch, not unlike those at Givenchy (priced at a not-too-distant S$1050 for the all-over print ‘Cockfight’ tee). In fact, they could have come from the womb of the same manufacturer-mother. Recurring on souvenir jackets, bags and espadrilles, the print of the Saint Laurent T-shirt has aesthetic and chromatic similarities with those in tourist shops of Oahu. Hedi Slimane sure has an expatriate’s eye for American West Coast kitsch.

It is hard to consider a T-shirt as an investment buy, but the pricing of these designer versions encourages one to see them as such. The irony of it all is that, unlike a suit, a tee is a garment destined for the rough and tumble of an active life, as well as that of a washing machine. Out of 23 people randomly polled by SOTD recently, only two use a laundry net when laundering an expensive tee in a front or top loader. None wash by hand. None “dry flat”, as recommended by many brands. Only one irons. How does a S$1,250 tee survive urban abuse and the lack of TLC?

There are those who buy rather than wash (since cheap tees are aplenty): true, but it is hard to believe that there are individuals who wouldn’t take serious care of their four-figure single purchase. Perhaps they know that the high-priced T-shirt is, in terms of real cost, not different from anything they will find in a fast fashion store. As such, tees can be treated equally. While the chasm between a T-shirt’s production cost (whether from a factory in a Bangladeshi ghetto or Tuscan town) and retail price is not a deep, dark industry-only secret, shoppers are not terribly concerned when they succumb to the seductive call of designer duds.

The cheerful Saint Laurent tee indicates that it is made in Italy. A T-shirt may be made in Italy, but is it made by Italians, using Italian cloth? As the BBC reported in 2013, many factories in Italy are now owned and manned by mainland Chinese. Just in the town of Prato (not far from Florence), around 4,000 factories are Chinese-owned, prompting a local observer to suggest that “there are now more Chinese garment manufacturers than there are Italian textile producers.” In fact, in Prato, it was reported that more than 30% of textile employed is from China. Does the percentage include cotton jersey, the fabric used to make most tees?

It is also, therefore, hard to consider the T-shirt a luxury garment as cotton jersey, however fine, is not a fancy knit. Jersey is so named because it was in Jersey, part of the Channel islands sandwiched between England and France, that the fabric (in wool) was first made in medieval times. While there are luxury silk and wool jerseys, there is, arguably, no luxury cotton jersey, just as there is no luxury denim. The pricing of T-shirts at luxury level is a fairly recent practice since designer brands, at the beginning of the advent of prêt-a-porter, had no real need for plainly basic garments to boost the bottom line. The promotion of the T-shirt as desirable designer wear really coincided with Calvin Klein elevating underwear to dizzying new heights in the ’80s, and later pushed forth by luxury conglomerates creating ever-expanding “entry-level” merchandise, a strategy possibly borrowed from the mobile phone industry.

Brand owners would like us to believe that pricing these days is a complex exercise, especially when managing a brand is costly too. There is also material costs, they’ll add. Cotton, a natural product, is subjected to price fluctuations also experienced by other agricultural goods. If the price of cotton continues to soar as it did in the past five years, the price of cotton jersey T-shirts will only escalate. There’s no turning back now, however humble the T-shirt’s beginnings, not even if you turn your back to Saint Laurent’s coconut-trees-in-the-sunset tee.

Photo: Saint Laurent