The Venue, Too, Makes It New

LV Cruise 2017 Pic 1

At one time, it was impressive to see a steam locomotive chugging into a fashion presentation. Marc Jacob’s Louis Vuitton autumn/winter 2012 collection was such a show. It’s not surprising that you thought that would be hard to top. Since the ’80s, fashion shows have oftentimes been spectacles, but in the ’00s, they look more like movie sets designed by Hollywood studios. If a train through a station-as-runway wasn’t enough, Karl Lagerfeld opened a Chanel supermarket back in the autumn/winter 2014 and, for last year’s showing of spring/summer 2016, an airport, served only by one carrier: Chanel Airlines, of course.

However spectacular, a fashion venue is traditionally a confined space, even if it’s the palatial Grand Palais in Paris. For even more stunning setting, designers of cash-rich labels are looking beyond the interior of buildings and setting their shows against actual buildings. This month alone, two shows for the cruise 2017 season attempted to outdo each other in the staging stakes with catwalks set in the outdoors of South America, but both are as different as land and sea. Twenty-first century French fashion imperialism saw Chanel in Cuba and Louis Vuitton in Brazil.

LV Cruise 2017 Pic 2

Chanel’s flirting with Cuban exotica may be intoxicating for some, but it is Louis Vuitton’s salute of modernist architecture in Rio de Janeiro that made the Vuitton show striking. Staged at the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, which is situated on a cliff side in the sun-soaked city of Niterói (reputed to be Brazil’s richest city) with the Atlantic Ocean as backdrop, the presentation is a continual expression of designer Nicholas Ghesquière’s love for show-stopping architecture. Last season, it was the equally space-agey former Palm Springs house of Bob Hope designed by American architect John Lautner that set the scene. This time, the flying saucer-like building by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer dwarfed the models and the LV logos, but in the shadow of the towering, it was Louis Vuitton that stood taller.

LV Cruise 2017 Pic 4

Is this luxury brands’ way of saving themselves from waning elitism by showing in faraway locales that many of us would not see ourselves going to in our lifetime? While air travel has brought the world closer, it is long-haul, continent-spanning travels, not regional escapades reachable by low-cost carriers that are are seen as jet-setting. Distant lands with unfamiliar cultures and unexplored attractions—not over-visited Hong Kong—are where the customers of the cruise collections likely seek pleasure. Watching the Louis Vuitton show on YouTube is like watching an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, minus the unrushed, cartoon-like voice of Robin Leach. With drone-aided cameras swooping up and down showing models, building and sea—all distant and unattainable, you begin to wish and dream “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

Luxury fashion needs this sense of beyond your reach. For a long time, it has been too accessible, too targeted at the middle-class, and too emphatic on the entry-level. Luxury needs to get back its aspirational value, its only-in-my-dreams appeal. The cruise show, once a poor cousin of prêt-a-porter, has risen in importance and its staging in uncommon locations not only put the clothes in context, they put the awe back in increasingly ho-hum luxury branding.

LV Cruise 2017 Pic 5

It is believed that Karl Lagerfeld was the first to romance far-flung lands when he staged the Fendi autumn/winter show 2007 at the Great Wall of China. Not only did the event boost intercontinental first-class air ticket sales, it improved, more importantly, the brand’s luxury standing. At that time, it was reported that the Italian house paid USD10 million to produce the show, no doubt much to the delight of China’s inland revenue department. Since then, Mr Lagerfeld has presented the Chanel pre-collections in Salzburg, Edinburgh, Shanghai and many more places—yes, they include Singapore in 2013—and each has been headline-grabbing. Cuba, for many, was the icing on the cake.

Chanel in Cuba did, however, spark a cultural backlash for the house. Global capitalism now pouring into socialist Cuba, detractors felt, ignore the country’s widespread poverty to create an artificial glamour that locals can’t consume. French fashion in a socialist nation, in fact, has an antecedent: Dior in Moscow. Back in 1959, Christian Dior, under the stewardship of Yves Saint Laurent, showed in what was then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR. While the new Russian regime at that time welcome Western fashion designers, in particular la mode française, it did so while the country was not in an era of business oligarchs.

LV Cruise 2017 Pic 6

Mr Ghesquière was probably aware of Brazil’s current problems when he chose Rio for LV’s cruise collection. It is difficult to resist the allure of the Americas now that the southern neighbours of the US are drawing world attention, but since Cuba was taken, Brazil made sense as the Summer Olympics Games is heading that way. Mr Ghesquière has always had a love for spaces that are not conducive to standard catwalk shows since he has, from the start at LV, eschewed traditional linear presentations for something more sprawling. Additionally, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum allowed the show to spread skywards, through the building’s spiralling ramp. As seen in his designs, Mr Ghesquière is adept at spatial manipulation.

LV Cruise 2017 Pic 8

As for the collection, the clothes are looking more in sync with the designer’s own aesthetic. The sportswear details applied in unexpected ways, the abstract cutouts on unlikely places, the leaner silhouette, the modern art references (this time, Brazil’s Helio Oiticica and Aldemir Martins), all point to the Nicholas Ghesquière we love and remember. As he confidently remakes LV’s fashion division started by Marc Jacobs, Mr Ghesquière is creating new codes that are intriguing and, at the same time, unashamedly wearable and seductively fresh. The present cruise line may have nothing intrinsically Brazilian, but, showing in an iconic site is, as he told the media, “a sensorial experience”.

These days, the venue makes the collection new as it makes the news, too.

In Another Pond

Singaporean brand Raoul is now only available at Robinsons. In America, it has popped up in one of New York’s most popular outlet stores

 

imageRaoul is now available online via American discounter Century 21

For Singaporeans, theirs is an unfortunate story. Once hailed as local fashion’s great big hope—a label that even ministers talk about and praise, Raoul is now quickly becoming but a memory. In future reminiscences, it shall be Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge’s wearing of that sole Raoul dress on her maiden visit to Singapore that’s a milestone in the brand’s 14-year history than design or retail breakthrough.

In February, Raoul closed its Paragon store—the last on our island—and announced simultaneously that it was going to concentrate on the wholesale side of the business. Douglas Benjamin, chief operating officer of FJ Benjamin, owner of the brand, told The Straits Times back in April, “We didn’t want to keep the Paragon store open and pay the rents that were being asked.” Weak sell-through, retail observers reasoned, did not justify keeping the lease. In March, Raoul resurfaced in Robinsons at The Heeren as a concessionaire, according to the ST report. Market talk, however, contradict that. It was said that Robinsons made an outright purchase of the line. In any case, the own-store environment in which the brand could communicate some swank is gone.

imageRaoul’s only outlet here,  a concession corner in Robinsons at The Heeren. Photo: Galerie Gombak

For consumers elsewhere (and even here), Raoul is now available through one of New York City’s favourite outlet stores Century 21. Its latest marketing e-mail sent out just yesterday pointed to a selection of Raoul clothes marked down by as much as 72%. A site search revealed 24 items for the picking—not a lot, but the dresses, shell tops, shirts, pants, and shorts appeared to be discounted to clear. While Raoul’s entry into Century 21 may be a plus for some, others consider this a sign of downward crawl for the brand.

Century 21 is what smartdestinations.com calls a “hot spot for cheap shopping.” It’s a go-to destination for bargain hunters as well as fashionistas who consider it the cemetery for couture collectibles awaiting rebirth. Traditionally, stockists of designer brands offload past season’s collections at Century 21 so that the former need not go into deep discounting when the end-of-season sale concludes. For many high-end retailers, this is one way of getting rid of old stocks without seriously sullying the brands’ name.

Despite Century 21’s ability to speedily move past-their-prime designer duds at what the Americans call “off-price”, the store is not considered the place that presents high-end shopping experiences. Retail experts are divided as to the value or de-value Century 21 can offer brands. For some, the store is a great off-site to quietly purge unmovable merchandise, while for some the drastic markdowns could affect the perceived value of designer goods. For customers, the fun is in finding anything as pseudo-designer as Vince Camuto and those as advanced as Rick Owens. The clashing aesthetics does not matter.

Raoul SS 2016Raoul’s surprisingly weak spring/summer 2016 advertising images. Photo: Raoul

It’s hard to say where Raoul’s fate truly lies now that it is available in Century 21. Some think it is an honour to be in the company of European designer labels and with a store that has been expanding across the US when many competitors have shuttered. Others, however, consider it a prelude to even more dump-down clearance. Raoul in Century 21 unfortunately appeared around the same time as the disclosure of FJ Benjamin’s quarterly earnings. As reported in the Business Times two weeks ago, the company posted “fifth red quarter with S$5.1 million loss”. Fashion buyers familiar with the brand speculated that a chunk of that figure may be attributed to Raoul’s performance. The slide of Raoul—visible by its rather rapid store closures, not only locally but regionally—is surprising if only because the organisation behind it is no start-up. In fact, parent company, the SGX-listed FJ Benjamin Holdings, dates back to 1959.

It was not this way for Raoul in the beginning. Born in 2002, about five years after FJ Benjamin’s failed multi-label store Rachel B, Raoul began as a men’s shirt line. Three years later, women’s wear was added. At the start, shirts designed for women were available, but that reportedly wasn’t enough to meet customers’ demand for a wider merchandise mix. When the full ready-to-wear line appeared, many were, however, rather disappointed with the vintage-y looks as well as the styles and silhouettes that appeared to be in keeping with design director Odile Benjamin’s personal taste.

Odile and Douglas AFF 2011Odile Benjamin and her husband Douglas took the catwalk at the 2011 Audi Fashion Week. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images Asia Pacific

COO Douglas Benjamin’s wife Odile, who admits that she finds the ’70s “the most iconic fashion decade”, has such a firm grip over the design direction of Raoul that despite hiring a consultant, Haidee Findlay-Levin, in around 2010, the brand has not been able to shake off its neo-psychedelic posturing. In fact, it was reported that Mrs Benjamin has amassed 1,000 vintage pieces in an archive from which select clothes are usually present in meetings with the creative team. Raoul would continue to be defined by looks rather than be led by design.

As we look back, Raoul’s plight brings to mind the failure of another Singaporean brand with sight set on the world: alldressedup. Both share a promising start, but unsustainable momentum. In the end, there’s one reality: you can be vaunted as the future of Singapore’s fashion industry, but the future may not be yours to have . Media attention does not indicate that there’s a demand for your products. Rave does not mean love, and consumers go on to the next big thing as soon as your aesthetic looks stale. This is fashion today. It changes faster than you can pick a needle and make the first stitch.

Earphones For The Wrist

image
By Low Teck Mee

If you are, like me, prone to forgetting your earbuds, and they are necessary for a bearable MRT ride, then maybe you need a set that can be worn on the wrist. Here, just above the hand, is really the best place to keep your wired set within reach. An over-populated bag, where, for most of us, earphones usually reside, truly hampers retrieval. Nothing is more annoying than not finding your earphones when the person next to you is watching Youtube on his smartphone at full volume and you really need to block out the cacophony.

Wraps wristband headphones are such a wearable peripheral. They look rather regular until you twist them round your wrist and secure the ends at the attached catch. Voilà, wristband! The best part is that you get to choose from a selection of cords, including one that looks like a string of beads. They come in assorted colours too.

Unfortunately, as it sometimes is with a thing of practical beauty, some sacrifices have to be made. These earbuds don’t generate the most captivating of sounds. To me, they’re a little on the bright side, which is generally fine if you have mostly Meghan Trainor and her pop sisters on your playlist. But if bass is your priority, you may need a portable amp to corpulate with it.

Wraps wristband headphones, from SGD48, are available at The Assembly Store, The Cathay

One Flashy Kick: Does Football Need It?

NikeLab X Olivier Rousteing

The visuals of Nike’s latest collaboration are one flashy swan dive into what was once Gianni Versace’s territory in the 1990s. Well, it’s not unexpected when the collaborator is Olivier Rousteing, young master of what the media likes to call “opulent aesthetic”. After all, the Frenchman does share the Italians’ love of ostentation (well, he did kick-start his career with Roberto Cavalli). Now, he’s brought that opulence to, of all games, football!

The collaboration, called Football Nouveau, is done sans Balmain, but not without the OTT punch that Mr Rousteing has brought to the brand. This, in the end, is his code, or to borrow from English football, his “bend it like Beckham”. Question is, will David Beckham, the original metrosexual, wear these flashy clothes and shoes? Becks is an Adidas man (in 2003, he signed what was then the biggest endorsement deal: USD160 million lifetime contract), so it’s doubtful he will embrace the “opulent aesthetic”.

NikeLab X Olivier Rousteing 2

Cristiano Ronaldo, however, endorses Nike, so he will, and he does. In fact, he is cast in the advertising campaign and happily supports Mr Rousteing too. It’s not clear how (or if) this will affect his deal with Giorgio Armani. Considered the “muse” of modern men’s fashion, Cristiano is probably the best bridge between fashion and the beautiful game. Still, it’s hard to see scores of footballers and football types crossing it, but one Tweet from Kanye or Kim may send many excitedly over to the dark—and gilded—side.

To be fair, these aren’t excesses as cringe-worthy as those seen in Mr Rousteing’s Balmain. There’s only the colour gold making its dazzling cameo in a collection that’s all-black. It’s athleisure glammed up for nights under dimly-lit mirrored balls, rather than to watch a match in flood-lit Wembley stadium, or Jalan Besar. Nike hails the pairing as “a golden touch” and let on that the output takes “the lifestyles of professional football players competing in Europe’s biggest championship this summer as inspiration”. Their lifestyles? If The Secret Footballer, writing in The Guardian is not sharing fib, the lifestyles of those in the Premier League are not that inspirational!

Olivier Rousteing

Nike is perhaps trying to emulate H&M’s wild success with the French brand. To be more accurate, this is a project with the division NikeLab, which is known for their technically advanced garments and footwear, much of it predate Alexander Wang’s dabbling of so-called athletic wear. There are very few NikeLab stores globally, and not many stockists either. It shall be interesting to see what mayhem will break out when the line drops on 2 June.

It is always thought that Nike prefers to work with less mainstream designers. One of the earliest to collaborate with the Oregon-based company is CDG’s Junya Watanabe. In fact, till today, Nike offers exclusive pieces in unusual colour ‘packs’ at Dover Street Market. However, after it’s pairing with Ricardo Tisci some seasons back, it seems Nike is now taking the same path as rival Adidas: choose partners whose social media presence can be felt even when you don’t check your IG account incessantly. Problem is, so many of them, such as He Who Loves To Rant, tend to err on the Beng side. Olivier Rousteing, to quite a few of us, is the same.

No news yet on the availability of Nike X Olivier Rousteing in Singapore. Photos: Nike/Nick Knight

The Birkin Is Not In

Triple its original size, the new Hermès flagship store has everything a rabid fan would want, except the Birkin

Hermes Liat Towers 19 May 16

Yes, the cash cow of Hermès was conspicuously absent. This, it should be said, isn’t totally accurate since we have not included those on the arms of the many who attended the grand opening of the new Hermès flagship. Last Thursday evening was clearly for the go-go social set, and the Birkin, like its owners, can’t really be absent. Inside the vertically expanded store, you’d think it’s the best time to ensnare those not yet satiated, but somewhere in France, artisans are meeting orders not necessarily destined for this store. Since many women already have a Birkin, not seeing one this evening isn’t a tragedy. There’s always the saddlery.

It is amazing that Hermès has stayed put in this part of Orchard Road—specifically Liat Towers—for 30 years. There are no competitor brands in the vicinity. The store is flanked by Zara on its left, and, across the street, a jewellery store, House of Hung, that encloses the right end of the 42-year-old Far East Shopping Centre like a photo corner. Sure, Hermès has a new neighbour Audemars Piguet on Angullia Park, but both are separated by a passageway that leads to the lift foyer of Liat Towers.

Try as we did, it was hard for us to remember any notable former tenants of Liat Towers except Chico’s and Charlie’s, Singapore’s first Mexican restaurant that operated on the 5th floor from 1979 to 2001. Oh, there was Galeries Lafayette, then back to our republic for a second time before exiting for good in 1996. Its space is now occupied by Starbucks and the café/bar Overeasy, and Zara. Luxury was not really part of Liat Tower’s DNA.

Hermes Level 1

And there’s this area’s susceptibility to the deluge of the monsoon season. A heavy and protracted downpour on the morning of 16 June 2010 saw the lower-than-ground-level first floor of Liat Towers inundated. Hermès was not spared. When photos of the store partially submerged in brown rain water appeared on social media, a joke went viral: rush to Liat Towers and stand in the torrent to seize any Hermès bag that floats out!

It was on this flood-prone floor that we began our exploration of the new Hermès. The men’s department is on this first level, as well as the watch, jewellery and perfume. Here is clearly merchandise that will survive Mother Nature’s no-warning inundation. We asked one of the sales staff if she and her colleagues worry about another flooding, and she said happily and confidently, “We’ve had people improve the drainage around the store.” Lucky she; too bad for the potential monsoon opportunists.

Although it is spread over four floors, the store has only three for the retailing of merchandise. The no-sale zone on the top-most level, called Aloft at Hermès, is set aside as gallery space, one of five around the world run by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès. That a floor with rent obligations can be allowed to generate no profit must reflect its very healthy bottom line even when the corporate line is to support the visual arts. For the opening, Singaporean multi-disciplinary artiste Dawn Ng—whose work, the odd bunny-popping photograph series Walter, was acquired by the Singapore Art Museum—set up a sort of pastel-smoke-and-mirror installation titled How to Disappear into a Rainbow. Silly us: when we stumbled into it, we thought it was the VM prop room.

Hermes Level 3

One floor down, the space is dedicated to home ware and furniture and everything you may need for horse riding. Velvet Brown could really live here. Impressed by a tall tripod shelving unit, we stroked its very caressable legs only to be told by a security staffer, “don’t touch.” “Oh?” “Today is the opening, you cannot touch; tomorrow open you can touch.” “Oh!”

On level two, women’s wear and accessories take pride of place. Here, discerned by the smell of leather rather than perfume, is where, we assume, Hermès exceeds its monthly sales per square foot. The leather accessories naturally drew the guests’ attention more, we thought (and saw), than the ready-to-wear. It’s a space designed for shopping as well as relaxing—those inviting one-arm arm chairs, positioned to afford a street view, so ideal for a tête-à- tête, if you don’t mind conducting such discourse in public and amid such tasteful clothes.

A passerby stopped outside the window along Angullia Park to look at the interior action. She appeared interested in the party atmosphere and lifted her arms, palms upwards, as if to ask what’s going on. We pointed to the clothes and tried—charade-style—to communicate to her that the women were shopping. Could she, perhaps, see that, in fact, no one seemed really interested in the garments hung on the racks? Hermès makes beautiful clothes, and superbly crafted too, yet they are a smidgen too safe, too predictable, too for-the-social-pages-of-Icon. France’s most luxurious brand has perfected refinement to the point where its own good taste seems to be the dictate of a set of analytics or sales reports rather than the impulse of Gaelic joie de vivre or spontaneous creation.

Hermes Level 2

In order to appreciate the Hermès store with actual retail buzz, we came back the next day, when touching was henceforth permitted. Unsurprisingly, it was crowded. Despite the harsh daylight streaming in through the glass windows, the store was aglow with light that bulb sellers would call warm, a tone-setter that lent the fragrant surroundings a peculiarly autumn smoulder. A woman with an admirable bouffant was heard saying it was “homey”. CEO Axel Dumas, a sixth generation member of the Hermès family, would be delighted to overhear the remark. In his message to the media, he said, “It is with great enthusiasm that we open our doors to you, our Singaporean friends and treasured customers, to share our newly extended home.”

“Home” may, however, be a little underwhelming for a flagship that has more in common with a department store than a boutique. While it may be intimidating to some, Singapore’s largest Hermès is a browse-able retail space that is hospitable even if only because it’s too crowded for the staff to notice that you’re only looking around. If you can un-crown its halo of exclusivity, Hermès is possibly a Robinsons (minus a bed and bedding department) with better fixtures and lighting. As Hermès visibly augments its presence, has the surfeit of luxury inevitably dulled us to what in the past was quite special? If Hermès hopes to enchant for another 30 years, let’s hope not.

The new Hermès flagship store is at Liat Towers, corner of Orchard Road and Angullia Park. Photos: Galerie Gombak

Two Of A Kind: Pocket Issues

Tees with framed pockets

Which came first? In this case, it’s hard to say. Our Kuala Lumpur correspondent spotted the Nike (left) as early as March in the brand’s store in KLCC. In Singapore, it arrived sometime last month. We didn’t discover the H&M (right) until last week. Since we could not determine the production timeline of either, perhaps great design minds do think alike?

Framing the seamed part of the left pocket of a T-shirt is not a new design idea. In fact, Nike has already introduced something similar last year. With all manner of easy-transfer tapes available at the haberdashery, these strips are increasingly employed as trims on almost every part of clothes. Drawing attention to a plain tee’s otherwise unremarkable pocket, at one time by using a contrast fabric, appeared in Japan a few years ago.

Here, the black borders of the pocket on both tees are different. On the Nike, it is knitted into the bodice, which means no additional stitches to make the underside abrasive to the skin. The H&M, too, is stitch-less as the border is a print (the same T-shirt, in fact, appears with other geometric prints). The difference, too, is in the shape of the pocket: one is a rectangle while the other is a pentagon that’s usually seen on shirts.

If price determines quality, then the Nike wins hands down. Here’s no ordinary T-shirt and it isn’t made of cotton jersey. It looks like a sweater knit to us, but Nike calls it “body-mapped fabric” which is, in fact, computer-aided knitting with yarns of 55% cotton and 45% nylon. The selling point? It “delivers superior fit”. That, to us, means it is shaped to hug the body, not something terribly on-trend these days. The problem, if it is one, can be solved by choosing a tee one size up.

Apart from the fit described as superior, other details do make this T-shirt better. There’s the classic crew neck and the raglan sleeve (fashioned like a split yoke in the back), which sits beautifully on the shoulders. There’s also the looser-knit panel in the upper, centre-back that appears to be designed and placed for ventilation, a thoughtful detail since such a top could be a possible heat trap, given the punishment often meted out by our weather.

The H&M version—part of the new ‘Conscious’ range—is designed to appeal to those who are into more relaxed shapes. Its potential handsomeness is, however, somewhat negated by the oddly wide, slightly misshapen neckline in a non-ribbed 100% cotton that’s in actuality the same as the tee. Perhaps our obsession with details does not matter at all here. In fact, in H&M, that’s a tad silly.

Nike Tech Knit pocket tee, SGD169, is available from Nike, Shaw Centre. H&M ‘Conscious’ crew-neck T-shirt with pocket, SGD14.90, is available at H&M. Photos: respective brands

Another Surprising Pairing

Cole Haan X Mastermind Japan SS 2016The sleek broques of Cole Haan X Mastermind Japan. Photo: Jim Sim

One is a fairly conservative shoe company till Nike bought it. The other is a Japanese label mostly described as “punk-influenced”. Together, they have created two pair of shoes that confirm what the Sex Pistols sang in 1977: “Your future dream is a shopping scheme”. Cole Haan and Mastermind Japan’s reiteration of the American shoe company’s Zerogrand sneaker/dress shoe hybrid is definitely shoppable, but is it likeable?

Cole Haan is not really known to collaborate with obscure names. Their partnership with Todd Snyder last year yielded shoes that teetered on the unadventurous side. In fact, until its association with Nike, Cole Haan had not offered a shoe as liberal-leaning as the Grand series, footwear with soles that tapped into Nike’s wealth of cushioning technologies.

As part of its divestiture plan back in 2012, Nike sold Cole Haan to private-equity firm Apax Partners. It is unclear how long more the air technology introduced by Nike after its acquisition of Cole Haan in 2008 can be used now that the latter is not part of what many consider the biggest sportswear brand on earth. Cole Haan has renamed its first Grand shoe with engineered-sole, the Lunargrand, as Original Grand, perhaps to distance itself from its one-time partner—understandable since one of Nike’s most popular soles is the equally light Lunarlon, a foam-based cushioning system on which the Lunargrand was built, and is now even an insole, as seen in the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star II.

Cole Haan X Mastermind Japan SS 2016 Wing OxfordThe Zerogrand Zerogrand Wing Oxford. Photo: Cole Haan

The Zerogrand was introduced in 2014 as Cole Haan’s lightest and most flexible shoe. At its inception, the Zerogrand weighed no more than 290g each. With 8 slots in the sole, it is unsurprisingly bendable, a boon to those who have a tendency to run for their public transport. It came at the right time as sneaker/dress shoe hybrids were gaining traction faster than you can say dash.

Now, there’s the surprising collaboration with Mastermind Japan. We say surprising because we expect an alt-brand such as this to work with the likes of Dr Martens whose history with the British punk movement provides a natural fit. Mastermind Japan is unconventional in sartorial terms even when the brand is categorised as “luxury”. Designer Masaaki Honma, formerly with Yohji Yamamoto, has created a collection of anti-establishment looks symbolised by the logo of scull and crossbows. Given his background, Mr Honma does not operate in the shadow of Saville Row although his label is known for its expensive, often artisanal fabrics. These are clothes Sid Vicious, if alive, would approve.

Upfront, the re-imagined Zerogrands are very handsome shoes and extremely comfortable to boot. Two versions—both limited editions, the sales staff will be quick to tell you—are available: the Wing Oxford and the Chukka Oxford. The broguing of the former is especially appealing since it continues Cole Haan’s marrying of the decorative details of country gentlemen’s footwear to the performance-enhancing sole of modern sneakers. As expected, the shoes are entirely black, except for the white Mastermind Japan logo positioned on the outside counter that is patterned with tone-on-tone micro-skull-and-crossbows, as well as the branding on the tongue. They’re discreet little shout outs of the shoes’ potentially subversive stance.

Cole Haan x Mastermind Japan Zerogrand Wing Oxford (and Chukka Oxford), $499, is available at Cole Haan, Paragon and Suntec City

Not Low On Camo Mojo

Valentino Uomo front

By Raiment Young

If Valentino women’s wear boutique is the totem of unabashed femininity, then I think the newly opened men’s store is a bastion of masculinity. This is, of course, not a regular bloke’s perception of maleness for which fashion has little purpose other than to clothe. Yet, Singapore’s first Valentino Uomo store is rich with symbolism of what can be considered manly, but the interpretation speaks more to an open mind than true alpha-male disposition.

Disobliging those who expect a traditional men’s wear store—gentlemen’s club or quasi-auto mechanic’s workshop vibe, the Italian house has created a rather light and airy space that is evocative of a Roman villa (even Turkish bath!). Tough-looking grey terrazzo walls; white, broken floor tiles; green marble slabs; and blond wood come together with the same delight usually witnessed in a bunch of buddies at a beer fest, minus the rowdiness.

Valentino Uomo interior

The military flourishes that Valentino Uomo has come to be known for are seen only on the merchandise. Just like me, you can’t escape the signature camouflage even if you try not to be seduced by it—too much of a good thing can get to you, just as alcohol at a point always does. It is really to the credit of design directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli that a potentially florid pattern, almost overused by street-wear brands aiming to augment their urban cred, can be coaxed to give so much to their relaxed luxe.

My first visit to a Valentino men’s wear store was in Hong Kong back in 2014. Situated in the basement level of the Landmark (the still-haute attraction for brand-name shopping in the SAR), Valentino Uomo stood in full command in a garrison of luxury brands fighting for shopper attention. It had relocated from another location in the same building, where, when it first opened in 2011—touted as Asia’s first—it attracted a huge celebrity turnout that included movie and IG star Huang Xiaoming, also China’s most-watched fashion peacock, and a target of marketing heads at the big European houses. By then, Ms Chiuri and Mr Piccioli had turned a previously conservative men’s line into one that convincingly straddled high fashion and street casualness.

Valentino Uomo interior fixtures

At the new HK store, what was particularly attractive to me was a heather-gray sweatshirt with a tone-on-tone camouflage treatment that, from afar, looked three-dimensional. The random shapes were, as I saw, a clever interplay of print and heat-bonded appliqué (this season, the same technique is applied to denim and felt). By then, the camouflage print had become quite a Valentino Uomo signature, having been applied extensively on their best-selling sneaker, the Rockrunner. As I looked further inwards, it was clear the store’s buyers consider the camouflage a very profitable print.

Over in Rome last Christmas season, a visit to Valentino’s spacious flagship store on Piazza di Spagna brought me into the thick of camo-overload. The minute I touched a black, backpack in tri-textured camouflage print to admire its matte-shine effect, the attentive salesman jumped next to me to open the bag so that its gut could be admired. When I told him I wasn’t planning to buy another item with all-over camouflage print, he said, in an accent I was certain was blessed by the Roman gods to encourage romance and procreation, “Our camouflage is special and it is best seller.” I shot him a smile that should have read “That’s why I don’t wish to have it” but had not.

Valentino Homme SS 2016Valentino Uomo’s spring/summer 2016 collection. Photos: Valentino

To be sure, military references have always been strong at Valentino Uomo: the combat shirts, the commando sweaters, the cavalry jackets, and those colours that suggest you’ve been spending too much time in a trench-as-listening-post. This season, however, you sense that a war veteran has gone for a holiday and returned with some cheerful threads from a land where pineapple is both economic crop and fashion motif. That’s the odd appeal of the brand: it is not circumscribed by a fixed definition. Just as you thought that nothing can be more masculine than a military training suit, a gaudy Hawaiian shirt—more Tom Selleck than Tom Ford—is thrown in the mix.

Valentino Uomo is at B1-7, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. Photos: excepted indicated, Galerie Gombak

 

Top And Bottom, Front And Back… A Pretty Picture

Issey Miyake X Ikko Tanaka bag T&BJust as we thought Issey Miyake’s bags will forever be the Bao Bao series, madly beloved throughout Southeast Asia, out comes something completely poles apart. Here’s a handbag that has less to do with the avant garde and more a reflection of tradition and art. That’s not saying the Bao Bao isn’t artistic, but Miyake’s use of graphic designer Ikko Tanaka’s illustrations for this hard bag of non-changing shape has more in common with silk kimonos, even paper fans, than pleated shifts.

Here, the ‘Carapace Sharaku’, as it is called, is an apt description. Firstly, the bag comprises two hard vinyl-chloride resin shells that belie its rather capacious interior. Secondly, when completely unzipped to its hinge, it can hang vertically as upper and lower pieces, depicting the full length of Mr Tanaka’s charming illustration: a stylised Japanese kabuki actor, shyly hiding behind what appears to be a shield (possibly a fan). This is Mr Tanaka’s take on the work of Toshusai Sharaku, a ukiyo-e print artist from the 18th century hitherto still not conclusively identified. In this version, the delineation is flatter and devoid of extraneous symbols, or what Apple users will identify as the flat UI on their screens, starting from IOS 7.

Issey Miyake X Ikko Tanaka bagThe front and back of a closed ‘Carapace Sharaku’

Ikko Tanaka is one of Japan’s most known and illustrious graphic designers. He was part of the trio—including writer/marketer Kazuko Koike (who wrote Issey Miyake: East Meets West) and Super Potato Design’s Takashi Sugimoto—that conceptualised and designed Mujirushi Ryohin, or what we know today as MUJI. Mr Tanaka, who died in 2002, was recognised for his unabashed Japanese-ness in graphic design that was communicated in a Western vernacular, especially minimal, geometric shapes. The East-West aesthetic was so powerful in its arresting simplicity that it drew admirers such as Issey Miyake, who worked with Mr Tanaka on the former’s advertising for much of the ’90s.

In 2012, past collaborator Kazuko Koike curated the “Ikko Tanaka and Future/Past/East/West of Design” exhibition at 21_21 Design Centre, a museum and research facility—part of the Tokyo Midtown complex—that was initiated by Issey Miyake and designed by Tadao Ando. Fast forward to 2016, the house of Miyake pays its own tribute with a capsule Pleats Please collection that features Mr Tanaka’s unique Japanese countenance. In the world of video-telephony (and amid the omnipresence of front-facing smartphone cameras), the ‘Carapace Sharaku’ and plissé dresses will no doubt connect to a generation that grew up on FaceTime.

Issey Miyake X Ikko Tanaka ‘Carapace Sharaku’ handbag, SGD730, is available at Pleats Please, Forum Galleria. Photos: Issey Miyake

Dress Watch: Multiple Rounds

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The first thing that strikes you when confronted with this Marni tunic top is the fabric. Does it come this way, or are the coin-sized dots individually tacked to form the whole? Examining every stitch (and we bothered), the consistency suggests two possibilities: superb sewing machine or unparalleled textile weaving facility. The sales women in the shop were, unfortunately, of no help. Whichever way, the effect is an unusual fabric with a piece-together flexibility that allows designer Consuelo Castiglioni to create some rather arresting clothes.

We are truly fascinated by the way the circles are held together. Placed flat, it seems that the cotton/viscose felt dots are fastened to some kind of webbing when in fact they hold to each other at six equidistant points along the edges via a sort of twisted chain stitch that themselves form an octagonal frame in which a circle is suspended. There’s clearly some symmetry to it that craft folks will appreciate and calculation involving geometry that geeks will be charmed with. To us, the repetition of a single shape brings to mind a Suffolk-puff quilt, something that gave grannies of a previous age immense joy when they made them.

To be sure, there is nothing grandmotherly about this top, certainly not the colour-blocking and, through the manipulation of the placements of the dots, the asymmetric silhouette. If this were to be made of metallic plastic discs, rather than the very matte felt pieces, and if it were shaped closer to the body, would this not have been rather Paco Rabanne, circa 1966? Consuelo Castiglioni is, however, too busy with pushing her art-and-craft aesthetic to the present to look back at Sixties futurism for ideas, dotted or not.

Marni sleeveless ‘Dot Macramé’ tunic, SGD2,990, is available at Marni, Hilton Shopping Gallery and The Paragon. Cotton inner (in picture) is not part of the top. Photo: lyst.com

All-White Comes To The Sandal

Teva X Beauty & Youth river sandalsJust as white, old-school tennis shoes are de rigueur in the spring/summer season, river sandals are indispensable in a fashion-correct person’s wardrobe. And the white that has in recent years dominated sneakers of all stripes is now the colour of cool for sandals. And none are more pristine that these by Teva and the Japanese store United Arrow’s sub-label Beauty & Youth.

Truth be told, we have been waiting for the Teva X Beams (colour-blocked straps!) collaboration to hit our shores, but, unsurprisingly, that didn’t touch our grounds. It was much to our delight, then, to discover Teva’s collaboration with Beauty & Youth, the third, in fact, after the successful run of the former’s ‘Hurricane’ sandal in 2014  to celebrate the American footwear brand’s 30th anniversary.

Teva X Beauty & Youth river sandals pic 2Beauty & Youth has chosen not to tweak Teva’s classic design, turning the sandal back to what may be considered its “factory setting”—completely colour-free. The ‘Hurricane’ itself is believed to be one of the most comfortable and durable “sports” sandals available, which explains why brands—in Japan, especially—keep going to Teva for their own iterations. The shock absorption unit in the heel and the Velcro closures for a comfortable fit point to a pair of footwear that can replace sneakers when our punishing heat demands it. For some, the Beauty & Youth branding centralised at the heel strap has added allure.

It goes without saying how appealing the white will look against tanned skin. But since there’s less of it covering the feet, you won’t look like a nurse. Now, can we be hopeful that Teva X Ganryu’s bi-coloured Hurricane will be available next?

Teva X Beauty & Youth ‘Hurricane’ XLT river sandals for men and women, SGD109, are available at Left Foot Entrepôt, The Cathay, and selected World of Sports stores. The sandal is also available in navy. Photo: Teva

From The Banks Of Chaos In The Mind

Christian Dada shop frontThe first shop to open at the hirtherto desolate 268 Orchard Road. Photo: Galerie Gombak

By Raiment Young

The name reminds me of a song by The Police, the one that tells of our inability to resist the persuasiveness of “poets, priests and politician… ’cos when their eloquence escapes you/their logic ties you up and rapes you. De do do do, de da da da…” At the same time, I am recalling the ‘logic’ of the bourgeois capitalist thinking of the mid-1910s that, together with the onset of WWI and the opposition to it, led to the Dada art movement. I remember, too, what Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, said: “Dada puts an artificial sweetness onto things, a snow of butterflies coming out of a conjurer’s skull.”

That suggestion of surrealism is not at all incongruent with the newest brand to take its street-view place in Orchard Road: Christian Dada. First things first, this isn’t a brand that has anything to do with what the proper nouns in the name suggest. Well, maybe half of it does. The label is, in fact, the brainchild of Japanese designer Masanori Morikawa. As I suspected—since this is so typical of Japanese naming convention (John Lawrence Sullivan, for example, is really Arashi Yanagawa, not the American boxer aka Boston Strong Boy, but being a professional boxer before, it’s not surprising who inspired him), Mr Morikawa had deliberately picked a name that sounds Western. As he told The Japan Times last year, “I started out by wanting to parody a French house’s name. Christian Dada was my respectful riff on Christian Dior and Dada being a reference to my own love of the anarchy of Dadaism.”

Christian Dada SS 2016Christian Dada spring/summer 2016 women and men. Photos: Christian Dada

So I wasn’t off the mark in my thoughts. Mr Morikawa added, “I really didn’t think about potential Judeo-Christian misunderstandings or that, further down the line, people might assume the brand isn’t Japanese.” He really shouldn’t have to worry about that since no one ever thinks Hello Kitty is not a la Nippon! And what can be more Dada than the “artificial sweetness” of the mouth-less cat purported to be a British school girl (itself “a snow of butterflies coming out of a conjurer’s skull”)? In the same vein, the religious suggestion joined to the anarchy of a certain art movement can be Dada too, no?

Mr Morikawa has not claimed to be a Dadaist, yet it is tempting to seek evidence in his work, and I did. In the first look of his women’s wear spring/summer 2016 show, the model wore a white shirt under a black tee with the words in full caps “NO LOVE LOST”. The idiom is repeated in the sole neck wear (a sort of scarf-as-choker) worn by the models.  If Dadaism in its earliest and basic form was an anti-war stance, then perhaps the message of animosity is a declaration of Mr Morikawa’s own undeclared battle. I am, admittedly, being needlessly pedantic. The clothes themselves pay no obvious homage to the likes of Jean Arp. In the juxtaposition of shapes and the pairing of beading and embroidery to sporty/biker silhouettes, I do, however, see the spirit of Kurt Schwitters. Or, by the brand’s own admission, “the rejection of perfection, reason, and logic… a feeling of deconstruction and mystery.”

Christian Dada interior 1Christian Dada’s mostly monochromatic interior dotted with strange perforated shapes. Photo: Galerie Gombak 

This is, however, not the deconstruction or the mystery that we have come to associate with the Japanese since the early ’80s. Mr Morikawa does not overhaul garments the way Yohji Yamamoto does although his sense of mystery can faintly be traced to the latter’s. Unlike many of his compatriots, he is not quite resistant to the use of embellishments to lend extra dimension to his clothes, which, unsurprisingly, are highly visual. I was drawn, for instance, to the sprays of blue appliqué flowers on a trio of blouses (and also gold on a quartet of dresses), blooms that happily recall the cherry blossoms he introduced in the last spring/summer season. They are a chromatic aberration from his mostly black collection, suggesting, perhaps, that Mr Morikawa does not only dwell in darkness.

What’s interesting to note, too, is that Christian Dada is the first Japanese brand to be situated on the first floor—in fact, upfront by the entrance of a shopping centre, in this case the still forsaken-looking 268 Orchard Road (formerly Yen San Building) that is owned by Ngee Ann Development. That a prime spot could go to a rather obscure brand, I was told, is likely due to favourable rentals, given the oft-repeated gloomy retail scene, a sad state that was also reported somewhat gleefully by Life of The Straits Times two Thursdays ago. And the space was not cinched by a conglomerate such as LVMH or Kering, but by a Singaporean company, D’League. What’s little-known is that D’League, proprietor of what some consider to be the best men’s wear store on our island, Surrender, is also an investor in Christian Dada.

Christian Dada interior 2The 1,700-square-foot interior of the store. Photo: Galerie Gombak

It was reported that with D’League’s take-up of 51% in Mr Morikawa’s company in 2013, Christian Dada was able to make its Paris debut a year later, during the spring/summer 2015 season. A relatively small retail player investing in a fledgling designer label is rather striking, at least to me, since the only Singaporean fashion company to have done something similar, as far as I can recall, is the much larger Club 21. In 2000, the Christina Ong-owned corporation invested over £7 million (or about 30%) of Mulberry’s equity, landing it a controlling stake in the brand. D’League—once associated with Jamie Chua (and her maiden retail venture Cloud 9 Lifestyle) and ex-husband Nurdian Cuaca and consequently their complicated divorce—first stocked Christian Dada in its luxury store, Salon by Surrender in the Shoppes at Marina Bay. It surprised many that, among the edgy labels the boutique retails—including the supremely pricey sneaker label Buscemi, Christian Dada should be singled out for investment.

Christian Dada’s prominent presence on Orchard Road should be seen as a good sign for less mainstream brands. Amid top-tier European luxury labels with duplex stores now fronting ION Orchard, I was thinking Singapore’s most important shopping street may not entice those without the marketing muscle of, say, the Prada group. Christian Dada’s quiet entry offers others of its breed hope that our oldest retail belt isn’t quite adverse to brands not in the first twenty pages of Her World. Its eye-catching store—designed by Fumiko Takahama Architects, whose eponymous founder was formerly with Herzog and de Meuron—speaks in the vernacular of retail design not with plush carpets and costly wood, but with sheets of perforated metal stained black and formed into rock-like shapes that echo those of Zen gardens or karesansui. Like the building that houses it, Christian Dada sticks out, but it does so beautifully.

Christian Dada is at level one, 268 Orchard Road