Orchard Fashion Runway: Pointless Street Show

Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 1The Raffles Privato collection, initiated by Raffles Design Institute and supported by Paragon, at OFR 2016

About a week after National Day last year, a postcard was found circulating on Orchard Road. The front of the card, dated August 18, 2015, mimics a tabloid cover of the ’60s and is provocatively blurbed: “Orchard Road—Doomed for the Future?” Other cover lines that suggest equally dismal prospects include “Bored Shoppers”, “Empty Streets”, and “Dopey Retail Stuff”. Flip it over, and you soon realise this is a cheeky little marketing material, distributed to entice shoppers into a deli for a meal to “get a free lemonade daily before 6pm”.

The consumers targeted to receive the postcard did not know then that the cover “story” of this fun title could be so portentous. According to research on Singapore’s retail sector published by London-based real estate services provider Savills, retail sales in the last three months of 2015 were “subdued”. In October, November and December, comparable figures against 2014 were down, with declines of 4.5%, 2.1% and 3.6% respectively. And these are, traditionally, supposed to be good months of the retail calendar. As Q1 of this year comes to a close, things do not look cheerier. On 2 March, The Straits Times ran the headline, “Rents in Orchard Road fall again for the seventh quarter in a row”. It requires no wild speculation then that retail business is, as The Business Times calls it, “anaemic”.

Something needs to be done. The solutions: Fashion Steps Out (FSO) and “signature runway show” and the FSO’s “curtain raiser” Orchard Fashion Runway (OFR). Orchard Road’s less-than-gleaming retail performance is, of course, not a recently recorded gloom. FSO to the rescue is, in fact, into its 7th year, and OFR has transformed 550m of Orchard Road into a catwalk—from outside Tangs Plaza to the Paragon—for 6 years. Our premier shopping belt has been in need of rallying since 2010, “when the Orchard Road shopping belt celebrates the Spring/Summer fashion season with local and international brands, as well as exciting events and shopping promotions”, according to yoursingapore.com, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) visitor-centric website.

Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 2Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 3One-time Kato Jay Chou’s label Phantaci seen on Orchard Road for the first time

No one knows for certain if we “celebrate” any fashion season at all, but many are sure Orchard Road needs to be inspired anew. With the oft-mentioned competition from suburban malls, and, more significantly, online stores, our oldest shopping belt is facing a tough and protracted battle, yet its troubles have been only momentarily solved, with ideas that have no long-term gains. To be sure, the street itself has undergone many improvements—even busking, once frowned upon, is now allowed. The real step up should go beyond the cosmetic and token public entertainment. To give the entire stretch of Orchard Road the appeal it needs, a vibrant retail culture such as those seen in Tokyo’s various shopping districts—Shinjuku, Shibuya, Omotaesando, just to name three—must be fostered.

Instead, the powers-that-be are contented with something as lame as Fashion Steps Out (no prizes for where that name really came from). Touted as “Singapore’s biggest fashion festival” (now that the official Fashion Festival is no more, the description is up for grabs), FSO is a six-week “extravaganza”, according to the SPH Newspaper: Special in ST’s Life that ran last Friday. Whether there’s going to be any lavishness or opulence that’s alluded to, shoppers are none the wiser. A mere six weeks to enhance Orchard Road’s weak retail standing, however, is fodder for detractors to question the value and usefulness of FSO. And what happens during the 45 days? Nothing much. According to ORBA’s micro-site for FSO, from 25 March to 8 May, shopping vouchers and 15 sets of Samsung’s new Galaxy S7 4G+ smartphones could be won. It would take considerable effort to find the “extravaganza” in those.

Orchard Fashion Runway is, thus, the flag bearer of the FSO. Its star billing this year is augmented by the presence of local and, for the first time, regional personalities: singers JJ Lin and Malaysia’s Aisyah Aziz, a couple of models (that did not walk the show), a fashion stylist, and the ever-important “influencers”, five of them (two Singaporeans, a Taiwan-based Malaysian, a Filipino, and an Indonesian). Whether their presence will make a difference (and who the influencers will influence) isn’t quite clear, but the ST supplement seems certain that the important invitees “will make waves”. A day after the event, Instagram was not inundated with selfies shot on Orchard Road the Runway.

Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 4The cute-as-hell, kitschy-like-mad designs of the irrepressible Mash-Up 

Given the dreary shows of the past years, it is admirable that ORBA, supported by STB, has not given up the idea of doing a runway presentation. It is said that, despite retaining the “curtain raiser”, ORBA still desires change. In the past, OFR was put together by the externally appointed creative director, Jeffrey Tay from ModernAge Design & Communication, a company that was involved in OFR since 2012. In his place this year is Daniel Boey, a seasoned show producer known for his theatrical productions and his good relationships with Singaporean designers. Mr Boey told ST that he’s directing the spotlight on local labels (and some Asian).

If that sounds like a familiar refrain, it’s because the show last year—SG50 year—was about local designers too. On the surface, Mr Tay and Mr Boey appear to have tremendous support for our home-grown names. There’s no negating that local brand owners are easier to cajole than their international counterparts, who do not participate in shows that are not at one with their own brand management and marketing plan. There was never any question about involving those names with strong global standing. It would have been more convincing if the organisers simply stated that Singapore’s “iconic street’ is the ideal platform for Singaporean labels.

Not that we have that many deserving a concerted national display, or that there are those willing to share street exposure with a motley group of designers with steeply varying degrees of design flair. It was, therefore, surprising to see Thomas Wee showing alongside those whose references are clearly not in the same line of sight as the veteran designer. Although he closed OFR with a wow factor more suited to a hotel-ballroom catwalk than a torrid tarmac, Mr Wee’s lost-era elegance stuck out, like his white, silk taffeta jumpsuit, against a jumble of jokey costumes conceived to humour the young and stand out, even absurdly, for the sake of standing out, and for the final destination: social media.

Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 5Orchard Fashion Runway Pic 6No clowning matter: Révasseur puts a circus and its principal designer (in harlequin check), Gilda Su, and her dog out there

ORBA’s objective is, therefore, rather clear. The need for influencers and clothes that will turn up well in the likes of Snapchat suggests that Orchard Road is scrambling for a trending makeover. No place along this street, not even the swanky ION Orchard, is uploaded to social media sites with the same frantic regularity as Bangkok’s Siam Paragon, which, in 2013, made it to the Most Frequently Instagrammed place on the planet, and has, hitherto, remained in the top 10. Siam Paragon’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider its location; it is not situated on “A Great Street” (in fact, that stretch of Rama I Road is a traffic and pedestrian nightmare!). Orchard Road’s lack of geo-tagged snapshots in the digital media-sphere seems to suggest that whatever is happening (or not happening here), it is not scoring big with youngsters or selfie-eager tourists.

OFR should have been what Mr Boey calls “a fashion Mardi Gras”. And the runway a sambadrome. If you’re assembling a group that mostly communicates via madcap visual antics, stay consistent to the zany miscellany. If Révasseur’s costumes for the non-practising, but ever-posing circus crowd are clothes of the moment, then send in the clowns. If fashion is only so when it is steep in street vibe and drips with way-out (or daft) excess, then strip away the artifice of deportment-class strolling and flood the street with badass, ass-bare individuals who can truly rock the malls down.

Unfortunately, Orchard Road is unable to use humour, wit, and daring for its own betterment. If “retail is stuck in its own mud”, as experts are inclined to say, then Orchard Road is trapped in its own perceived greatness. Still branded as “A Great Street” by ORBA, it forgets that it is the experiential component that determines what is great about a street. “Enhanced experience” is often bandied about on Orchard Road—in the malls too—as the way to differentiate itself, but rare is the enhancement palpable. If ORBA must persist with Orchard Fashion Runway, then it must deliver exhilaration that shopping inside one of Orchard Road’s increasingly dull malls cannot offer. Last Saturday, that, regrettably, did not happen.

Photos: Helena Tan