An Incomplete Picture

Fashion Most Wanted

On the weekend just before National Day, a book on Singapore fashion—past and present—quietly made its way to the shelves in Kinokuniya. Fashion Most Wanted, penned by three seasoned, one-time Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) journalists, John de Souza, Cat Ong, and Tom Rao, sat on an island display near the entrance in silence, like a plain T-shirt, in the company of more captivating titles such as A Chance of a Lifetime (Lee Kuan Yew and the Physical Transformation of Singapore), Neurotribes (a New York Times bestseller, as noted on the cover), When Breath Becomes Air, Ted Talks, The Euro, The Caliphate, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and Kampung Tempe (Voices from a Malay Village).

The much anticipated publication that took more than two years to complete was, however, exciting fashion insiders, with designer Francis Cheong posting on Facebook, a few days later: “Woke up and happy to see that a new book… had arrived in my house. Thank you for the 2 beautiful pages that was (sic) dedicated to me for fashion that took place in Singapore for the past 5 years.”

Five decades in the fashion capitals of the world is not a long time, but in Singapore it is, more so if you consider that we’ve only celebrated our 51st National Day (Paris, as a city of fashion, dates back to the 17th century), and that notable Singaporean style and the consumption of fashion (if defined as clothing conceived by designers) really began in the late ’70s and enjoyed a so-called “golden age” briefly in the ’80s. Chronicling a subject as complex and contentious as fashion—and sometimes considered frivolous, or worse, to some here, non-existent—is no doubt a complicated task, and one that may not yield an account that is all-encompassing.

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It is unsurprising, therefore, that Fashion Most Wanted does not reach the bowels of the industry or include as many colourful—and cantankerous—characters as there were and still are. To uncover the real nodus of fashion in Singapore would require far much more than just unpicking hems. Every seam would need to be unstitched to better examine how the many parts truly came together; even the fabric needs to be studied. Moreover, just because you’ve undress a woman doesn’t mean you know her. Fashion Most Wanted contains nuggets of information that are, even to the writers, “ah ha moments”. Yet, for many who have lived through a good part of the years described in the book, there are absent friends.

In the introduction, it is stated that “this is not a book of lists” nor “a Yellow Pages of fashion, or a who’s who of local designers, or a book for students conducting research”, but “a treasure trove of history and insider information”—described on the cover as “top insider secrets”. Fashion Most Wanted, for the most part, seems to be built on info provided (by selected interviewees) rather than what is gained from rigorous research. It is narrative minus the delicious drama and egregious egomania that characterise the industry. Is Singaporean fashion then like Singapore itself: clean and lacking in excitement, as is the common perception, even if mostly external?

Singaporeans—particularly in the creative field such as fashion design—are known not to brook criticisms. Which, perhaps, explains why the authors have taken the typical ST reportage route: sing and gloss over, and keep it simple and stay safe. However rough, ruthless, and rivalrous the whole scene was and has been, it was not given any eye-opener except with the unilluminating comment by Jacob KH Choong, the co-owner of the now-defunct Glamourette: that by the 1980s, fashion retailing was a “dog-eat-dog world”.

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For sure, it is not likely that readers are expecting Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall, a scintillating story of the rivalry between Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld that is set against the excesses of the ’70s. It is possible though that Fashion Most Wanted is conceived to stay clear from casting an unflattering light on a subject that will continue to bring its authors recognition. Would the fabric of fashion in Singapore be irreparably ripped if we are able to see the capriciousness, the petulance, and the temper that typify sententious people steering the creative business? What “insider secrets” have been spilled?

The discussion on Singaporean fashion can be daunting in its breadth, yet any such discourse should really include our national identity in relation to the fashionable clothing worn or the efforts in dress-as-identifier of national pride that our city-state had tried to forge. One conspicuous exclusion in the book is our attempt in finding and establishing the elusive “national dress”.

In February 1990, the Singapore Dress Fashion Extravaganza was staged at Westin Plaza, kicking off an annual affair that saw the orchid as fashionable emblem. At the start of the project, initiated a year earlier by the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) for the creation of attire patterned with orchids for the May Day Rally, chairperson Yu-Foo Yee Shoon told the media, that it “would take at least five to 10 years for a Singapore dress to materialise.” A decade later, the orchid of a Singapore dress withered.

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NTUC’s eventual ceasing of support for the realisation of garments Singaporeans would wear and identify as uniquely ours was not met with any curiosity or analysis of its end. This, hitherto, still arouses the inquisitive mind since much was put into the project. At the start, its unofficial patron Ong Teng Cheong, then second deputy PM and NTUC’s secretary-general, as well as president Wee Kim Wee were ardent supporters, to such a degree that the annual catwalk presentation of the Singapore Dress (also known as the Orchid Dress) became the President’s Charity Gala when Mr Ong took office as Singapore’s 5th president.

The Singapore/Orchid Dress must have enjoyed some success, it was presumed, since a fashion label Ms Joaquim was conceived in 1998 to give the project the visibility it needed. Cat Ong, one of the three behind Fashion Most Wanted, titled a Singapore Dress story for The Straits Times in 1999 “Vanda’s Not Joking”. By then, the Singapore Dress was a serious business run by Singapore Dress Co, part of NTUC. It no longer involved only local designers; it had regional designers on board, namely Indonesia’s Ghea Panggabean and Biyan, and India’s Gitanjali Kashyap. General manger of Singapore Dress Co. Staphnie Tang, previously the operations and marketing head of Glamourette, told the media that the Singapore Dress was no longer just for “national occasions”. To augment the concept’s more haute leaning, Ms Joaquim was retailed in its own stores: in Millennia Walk, Liat Towers, and CHJMES. In 2002, the label came to an end.

Curious too is the omission of one of the most important events of the 1980s for Singaporean designers: the Trade Development Board’s (TDB) fashion missions overseas. The first, in 1983, was in Paris for the trade fair Salon International du Prêt-a-Porter Feminin. Fifty Singaporean designers and manufacturers were selected to exhibit in a 250 square-metre spot of the International Hall, set up at the Porte de Versailles, an exhibition centre that, today, is still the venue for the Pret, as visitors call it.

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The following year, another group participated in the Japanese leg of Singapore Apparel, a TDB-initiated project in Tokyo (co-organised with Jetro, or Japan External Trade Organisation), where designers and manufacturers showed their designs in the Laforet Museum. It was deemed a daring foray, considering that, at the time, Tokyo was seeing its influential second wave of designers—the unapologetically avant-garde Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—take the world by storm. Would anyone pay attention to a group who wasn’t there to show how Singaporeans were changing the game?

Unsurprisingly, it was the Paris mission that was considered the more successful. In its first year, the participants secured an encouraging S$5.1 million worth of orders. Although the value of trade varied in the following years, TDB was unwavering in its support of Singaporean designers. Edith Cheong, TDB’s textile manager and mission chief told The Straits Times in 1984 with palpable fervour, “We’re going to Paris to show our all-round fashion capabilities, as well as tremendous amount of design talent we have.” How impressed the French were with our showing, it was not certain nor subsequently reported. After the fourth mission in 1985, talk about Singaporean designers and manufacturers wooing buyers at the Pret fizzled out.

The exposure in Paris brought recognition to Singaporean designers back on home turf. In the latter half of the 1980s many of the designers thought to be exportable became household names. In 1985, the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) put local designers on prime-time television for the first time in a popular Channel 8 variety show called Live from Studio One so that “viewers can learn something about how to dress”. Five were featured: Corrine Low of Cori Moreni, Allan Chai, Lam Wan Lai, and the two masters, Tan Yoong and Thomas Wee (who would a year later launch the immensely successful Mixables line in a free-standing store in Wisma Atria). Singaporean designers were finally hailed as talents we could be proud of and learn from.

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While the Paris trade missions of the ’80s and the Singapore Dress of the ’90s came to define the tenacious efforts to succeed in the respective eras, they did not last or morph into projects that elevated local fashion. There were many reasons why the projects came to naught. In the case of the Singapore Dress, its grassroots beginnings, for some, did not augur well for the idea. However, Alan Koh, president of Society for Designing Arts (SODA) was upbeat when he insisted that failure cannot be ascribed to the national dress: its success simply fell short of what Mr Ong envisioned.

As for the overseas trade missions, TDB’s priorities shifted when garment manufacturing in Singapore no longer became a significant industry. By the mid-90s, many garment factories have either shuttered or moved to China, where, since the 1980s, the manufacturing sector was burgeoning and employing more than 3 million workers in the sector alone, according to the International Labour Organisation. That was more than the population of Singapore! The effects of what had become known as globalisation were certainly felt on our shores. Without factories, we were positioned as a sourcing and marketing hub for fashion. The mission to court buyers abroad was shelved.

Singaporean designers that emerged during “the golden era of local fashion”, as described in Fashion Most Wanted, did not get the kind of spotlight in the book that many fans had hope to see. It is odd, for example, that one of Singapore’s most illustrious designers Tan Yoong received only a 5.1cm-wide column (of a three-column page) mention that is 8.6-cm high. That’s less than the height of a bar of chocolate or a carton of milk. It is speculated that Mr Tan did not grant the authors an interview, being increasingly reclusive since his retirement in 2015. Could it be because of his no-talk that the book can only manage “his gorgeous evening gowns and fabulous bridal frocks were the stuff of legends”?

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It is doubtful that the extremely private Tan Yoong would want to be associated with anything legendary, but in the annals of Singaporean fashion, he is a creative force as peerless as a phoenix. From his training as a graphic designer in the ’70s, Mr Tan approaches fashion in a two-dimensional way, layering to stunning effects his gossamer shapes as if applying Letraset transfers. In this respect, he is different from friendly rival Thomas Wee, whose precise cut and manipulation of form are deeply rooted in tailoring. If we were to compare the two in haute couture terms, Mr Tan is the master of the flou, while Mr Wee the tailleur.

Tan Yoong is more than just the extremely expensive eponymous label. Few know of the man’s efforts in making his designs accessible. In 1990, the same year that the Orchid/National Dress debuted, Mr Tan, whose company was once backed by B.P. de Silva, launched the stunning Cattleya Collection under the supremely refined label Tze. There was also the so-called diffusion line Zhen, with a polished, graphically-skewed Orientalism that had by then become the hallmark of Mr Tan’s romantic designs. In 2008, Tan Yoong represented Singapore in the World Fashion Week (WFW), organised by the United Nations. Although WFW was a short-lived program—aimed at supporting the UN’s causes, Mr Tan’s presence affirmed the belief then that Singaporean fashion designers were ready to grace the world stage.

Also receiving a near-cursory mention is Peter Kor, placed curiously under the heading “The Survivor”. While it is true that Mr Kor has gone through many career highs and lows (which designer has not?), it is rather narrow to underscore his business struggles as survival mode. (Interestingly, in the preceding pages, Yang Derong, ’80s darling of the young designer set and later studio director at Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, was described as “The Free Spirit” even when Mr Yang’s career was as shifting.) An effectively bilingual intellectual always in tune with his Shanghainese ancestry, Mr Kor is, as noted in a 1990 Female magazine article on Singapore Apparel’s Premier Designer Show of that year, “a modernist not separated from his roots.”

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Peter Kor, for many observers of the time when he shone, was among the top three designers that could truly carry the flag for Singaporean fashion. The other two were Tan Yoong and Thomas Wee. Mr Kor’s eponymous designs were less immediately identifiable than his contemporaries’ as he was mostly ‘ghosting’ for in-house labels, such as Metro’s best-selling Marisa (now no more). Ever the realist, his designs reflected the desire for practical clothes (such as the white shirt) that were, at the same time, different. With a controlled hand and a lightness of touch, he created separates that were Eastern and stripped-down—a minimalism that earned him the tag “monastic”, which he did not mind since he had always been the opposite of meretricious.

Some names are entirely not within the pages of Fashion Most Wanted. One of them is Projectshop, a label born in 1989 that, by 2006, grew into a 12-door business that was spread from Singapore to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. A collective fronted by designer Peter Teo, Projectshop was the first to rethink how tourist-centric products could be designed and marketed that would not look like anything sold in Lucky Plaza.

The result is a line of souvenir T-shirts (they started with just ten styles) with colourful illustrations and cheeky text that introduced foreign visitors to uniquely local comestibles and sights, such as the Singapore Sling and the by-then-infrequently-seen street wayang. Each tee was also attractively packaged, in brown paper frames that sported hand drawings. Unlike products in the same category, Projectshop’s were not sold in crammed and chaotic gift shops. Instead, they were available in Tangs, where growing sales allowed the brand to trampoline to higher reaches.

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By 1993, Projectshop’s success led to their first women’s wear line, also stocked at Tangs. A year later, the men’s collection Bloodbros was conceived and debuted at the newly opened Tangs Studio. The designs of Peter Teo (and co-creator Richard Chamberlain) were nothing like those of designers from the previous generation: supremely luxe and elegant. Theirs was a nod to street wear—which, for the mid-Nineties, was rightly body-conscious—as well as Southeast Asian elements such as sarong drapes and batik prints. Mr Teo, who had once worked for the London label Workers for Freedom after graduating from Kingston College, proved that a well conceived and produced mass-market label, with what he called “the right attitude”, was achievable and desirable.

In 1996, the two names came together as one. ProjectshopBloodbros was consolidated and the label now offered accessories, mainly bags, which soon became their biggest sellers. The bags included then-uncommon items such as totes, and were seen by many fans as Singapore’s answer to the Japanese label Porter. Its success truly predated local bag brands such as former Bodynit designer Gary Goh’s Trevor, and, in the post-Noughties, Colin Chen’s Fabrix, and Young Kong Shin’s Carryall James. In its final incarnation, ProjectshopBloodbros bags were re-branded as Property Of… at its last outlet in The Paragon before it was discontinued last year.

Equally odd was the no-mention of how the Japanese designers’ explosive entry into the Paris scene and, consequently, the world stage in the ’80s, affected or influenced Singaporeans. One of the popular hairstylists at that time, Gina Lau of The Hair Shop, was an early adopter, and was frequently seen head to toe in the “Hiroshima-chic” sacks of the era that had initially divided fashion folks. Although journalist-turn-retailer Judith Chung’s  Man and His Woman had, since the early ’70s, stocked Japanese labels such as Damon, Men’s Bigi, Jun, and Rope, it was the aesthetics of heavyweights Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto that captured the imagination of local fashionistas.

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These days, few remember that Japanese fashion was available in department stores and indie retailers too. Isetan, unlike now, was a proponent of its nation’s designers since the ’70s and had Comme des Garçons, Kanzai Yamamoto, and Studio V in its stable of Japanese labels. The store was so certain of the appeal of these names that it staged a fashion show in the ballroom of the Pavilion Inter-Continental Hotel (now the Regent) in 1985 to rousing reception. At a time when European designers, particularly Italian, held sway, it was a rare opportunity to see the diverse aesthetics of Japanese style: Comme’s intriguing shapes in colours other than black, Kanzai’s colourful clothes with outlandish illustrations and graphics, and Studio V’s loose, feminine and playful Kenzo-esque separates.

In 1982, one of the earliest to take on established boutiques such as Man and His Woman in stocking Japanese labels was Banzai at the Hilton Shopping Arcade (now called Gallery). Amid the European posh that was the Hilton Shopping Arcade, Banzai’s edginess was like a slice of naruto (white Japanese fish cake with pink-swirl centre) atop a bowl of brown miso ramen. Co-owner Serene Po was often in the boutique introducing enthusiastic customers to more affordable labels such as Mistsuhiro Matsuda’s Nicole and Monsieur Nicole, Takeo Kikuchi’s Half Moon and Men’s Bigi, and Yohji Yamamoto’s Y’s Workshop (now simply Y’s).

Not long after Banzai’s debut, Scandal opened in Lucky Plaza, offering lesser-known labels, but not less-alt styles that the Japanese have increasingly peddled. Scandal was co-owned by Leslie Goh, who had earlier retailed the Italian brand Fiorucci. Like Ms Po, she too was often on hand to introduce her uncommon threads to customers. Scandal’s success spawned the sister store Shoot. By the mid-Nineties, the Nippon craze faded. Singapore did not wake up to the influence of Japanese designers again until the introduction of Yohji Yamamoto’s-ex-assistant-gone-solo Atsuro Tayama in Isetan in 1998.

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Omissions are not only within the covers of the book. What’s missing, in the eyes of many fashion folks, is on the exterior: a hard cover and an attendant jacket. That Fashion Most Wanted should be a soft back sans dust jacket is, in fact, surprising for many who are looking forward to something more substantial—not unreasonable for a fashion title. Sure, no one is expecting Assouline refinement and heft, since the book is published by Straits Times Press, a publisher not in the same league. But a paperback with the appearance and feel of a text book is far from even the lowest expectations. Did the publisher think they were doing another edition of the Singapore Chronicles series?

It has been suggested that the retail price of S$37.45 does not warrant a hard back. That is hardly persuasive as another title, displayed side-by-side in Kinokuniya’s fashion section, has a hard cover and is sold at S$30.50: My School Uniform by Yixian Quek, published by Basheer Graphic Books and, like Fashion Most Wanted, supported by the National Heritage Board. At the cashier, you won’t miss the equally hard-backed The Strangely Singaporean Book (The Little Drom Store) by Stanley Tan and Antoninette Wong, to be had for S$31.99. Selling price is, perhaps, not the reason.

The word going round is that the book is largely self-financed. The use of Straits Time Press then has its advantages as the authors could tap into SPH’s photo archives at no charge. Regrettably, many of the photographs are not attractive or of decent resolution, and are not rendered more engaging (or “saved”, as one fashion stylist put it) by deft design. At some point, one wonders if the book was commissioned by Her World, co-author Tom Rao’s former employer. Every intro page to the different decades is illustrated by only photos of the past covers of the magazine, effectively placing SPH’s most profitable title and our country’s oldest woman’s magazine right in the middle of the altar of Singaporean fashion.

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And there’s the cover. The 21cm X 27.5cm paper back is surprisingly not free of design clichés, with a button literally taking centre spot to replace the letter ‘O’, and repeated as interpunct to separate the names of the authors, placed at the bottom. Seeing the four-hole button, a designer was quick to say, “At least it’s horn!” As if to leave no one in doubt of its subject matter, the book’s cover sports a full-bleed photo-print that suggests the fabric seersucker. Two girls, presumably from one of our design schools, were flipping through Fashion Most Wanted when one of them asked imperturbably, “Don’t you think our graduation book looks better?”

If the cover of the book does not appeal to the present generation of readers, it may be a disappointment to the young who hope to find a substantial narrative on the scene post-2000. Fashion Most Wanted’s most engaging chapters appear in the first part of the book, specifically between the ’70s and ’90s. It is not hard to see that these were the authors’ most active years, in which they are most connected. The recall is, therefore, imbued with palpable fondness. Some people think there’s nothing much to say about Singaporean fashion in the Noughties since we no longer see the kind of creativity and quality that distinguished the early years. Could the latter chapters’ smaller reports mean the authors concur?

Despite its shortcomings, Fashion Most Wanted is a book that needs to be written. Whatever we feel about fashion in Singapore, and whether we consume it here or not, there were—and are—individuals who strove to make our city a beautiful, if not fashionable, place. Fashion will always be contentious, just as it is infinitely mutable. We should not stop talking about it.

Fashion Most Wanted is available at stpressbooks.com.sg and in Kinokuniya. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Close Look: Vetements

Vetements @ Club 21

By Raiment Young

The only way to see if the unceasing rave for Vetements makes any sense is to have an actual look at the clothes. Last week, as part of Club 21’s introduction to the store’s autumn/winter 2016 collections, a little sake bash was held at its Four Seasons location. Two tweeny models were doing their rounds, wrapped in Craig Green, but the guests were not seduced. Instead, quite a few were entranced by a section at the women’s wear side of the 2-wing store, now dedicated to Vetements.

Coming from the Hilton Shopping Gallery side, I, too, was intrigued the moment I passed the right end of the store. It did not look like its usual set-up; it was not soinee enough. It won’t take more than a second to register the street vibes of the clothes. You would have thought it was Stussy gone bezerk until the eyes spotted some pieces that were without doubt from Vetements’s fall collection. My excitement was, however, mixed with dread—the dread of being let down by designs that won’t live up to the outburst of hype.

Inside, the potential visual effects of these clothes for both sexes made me think of my own insecurity towards anything extreme and illogical. Could these garments, huge and, at first sight, size-indeterminate, underscore aging rather than defy it? Nary a wisp that suggested the body-flattering tailoring that can be deemed sharp and elegant, these duds looked like they could only titivate the very young. Let it be known, I am no kid, and I have no desire to look like one. Also, I am not a hip-hop artiste. Nor a fashionista drunk on streetwear.

While I visually examined every piece of the Club 21’s small buy of one of Paris’s biggest new brands, I touched only one item: an oversized T-shirt with shoulders that would not be out of place in an American football match. What surprised me were the shoulder pads. Loosely affixed under the shoulder, they looked like those detachable ones from the polyester crepe auntie blouses of the ’80s. On the hanger, it would not sit without flopping forward. As I looked closer, I saw that the tee’s exaggerated shape is made pronounced by iron-on interfacing applied to the underside of the yoke. Clearly, to heave, no stiffening of the shoulders is required.

As I left, I kept thinking of Claude Montana. Those old enough would know what I mean. But my thoughts were then interrupted by a magazine editor I know. “What have you seen,” she asked, as chirpy as a merbok. Vetements, I said, but, as you may have guessed, not vehemently.

Photo: Galerie Gombak

The Rise And Rise Of The Lians (And Bengs) Of The World

See how one rules

 

Kendall Jenner Vogue Sep 2016Kendall Jenner on Vogue, shot by Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott. Photo: SOTD

Kendall Jenner is on the cover of The September Issue of American Vogue. On social media, there’s a collective growl of disapproval, one massive spit at fashion’s most in-demand model. Why the dismay and disgust?

As with the April 2014 cover featuring Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, many readers of the magazine—and non-readers alike—are disappointed with Vogue’s latest cover choice. The present consternation is misplaced if you consider that since that fateful April of two years ago, what is fashion bible to many has succumbed to its editor’s common touch, which has reared its head like an exposed seam for quite a while now. It is really a matter of time before Ms Kendall appears under the recognisable masthead; it’s as inevitable as her brother-in-law’s rants and boasts on Twitter.

Looking at the issue that we finally picked up last week, we weren’t taken by surprise. It is as we had expected her to be. Ms Kendall appears like she usually does on print: bored, or, at best, bland. Sure, as a model, her gracing of the Vogue cover is a sort of a return to form for the magazine. But Kendall Jenner is no Linda Evangelista (so, Vogue, please do not compare!), who scored two September covers, one in 1993, at the height of her career, and another in 2001, during a period when actresses rather than models dominated Vogue covers. Or any other models that had the privilege of making it to past September issues. Kendall Jenner, in whichever pose, is only Kendall Jenner, just as wood—whether pine, ash, or birch—is only wood.

Vogue Japan October 2016Kendall Jenner on the cover of the October issue of Vogue, shot by Luigi & Lango

Ms Jenner is not unattractive; she has an inexplicable magnetism that at the moment entrances the fashion world and those who follow it, so much so that she is able to score another Vogue cover after appearing on the biggest issue of the year (800 pages, this time, and weighing 1.4kg) with the Japanese edition. A cover (or two) gained is not a definitive that she is cover material, not when she has that expression: is she trying to control a bad case of flatulence? The reality is that Vogue no longer holds on to the glamour of cover girls such as Brook Shields, Kim Alexis, Kelley Emberg, and Nastassja Kinski—all with faces that had something to say.

A post-teen of the digital age in the footsteps of every other Instagrammer, she definitely is. A fashion mannequin in the league of Christy Turlington, Karen Elson, or Racquel Zimmermann, she’s nowhere near. In fact, Ms Jenner has not brought her game up another level, not a notch. Vogue says she reminds them of Ms Evangelista, but Ms Jenner has not offered anything resembling one of the former’s best covers, the September issue of Harper’s Bazaar of 1992, the first of a remade magazine under the editorship of a newly installed Liz Tilberis, who titled her pièce de résistance ‘Enter the Era of Elegance’.

As social media becomes a legitimate platform to launch careers in fashion, and Ms Jenner is one of its biggest stars, Vogue, like many designers, is using her like a talisman. Mango’s vice president Daniel López told WWD in defence of the brand’s casting choice for the spring/summer 2016 campaign, “As a celebrity she has huge repercussions in the market and among her followers.”

Kendall Jenner for Mango & CPS Chaps SS 2016Can you tell the difference? Left: for Mango. Right: for CPS Chaps. Photos: respective brands

However, Calvin Klein has publicly disapproved the use of Ms Jenner in the brand’s underwear advertisements when he said, during a talk at Savannah College of Art and Design with ex-CFDA president Fern Mallis, “Now, models are paid for how many followers they have. They’re booked not because they represent the essence of the designer, which is what I tried to do—they’re booked because of how many followers they have online.” Interestingly, neither brand has declared that Ms Jenner representing their products translates into notable sales.

Clearly, whether her social-media popularity directly influences her success remains a moot point. But there’s also the other aspect to consider: her lack of an innate, definable quality that makes her truly special. If Kendal Jenner has fashioned her model-self via Instagram, then the social media can be a mirror into which we can see the girl behind the posts. The more we observe it, the more we make out an aesthetic and behavioural make-up similar to a special breed called Lian, or as some Singaporeans now call her and her friends—including BFF Gigi Hadid, angmo Lian.

The term Ah Lian (阿莲) has been used in such a pejorative way for so long, that, in our dismissive manner, we do not notice women, who can be described as such, rise—stealthily storming the mass media. The Internet has levelled the playing field for everyone and the Lians, too, have taken advantage of the even ground to make their presence noticeable. In addition, fashion has lost its elitist status, reaching and touching everyone, and allowing the Lians’ cultural currency to climb. Fashion—in full gawk-at-me mode—has always been part of the Lian identity and so commonplace has the Lian aesthetic become that many people no longer discern Lian-ness. Familiarity does not lead to contempt.

kendall Jenner for CPS SS 2016Kendall Jenner fronting the CPS Chaps spring/summer 2016 campaign that was out early this year. Photo: CPS Chaps

Kendall Jenner Instagram picIs she pulling herself up towards Kim Kardashian territory? Photo: Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott/Kendall Jenner Instagram

The thing is, the Lian today is not, contrary to her standing of the past, of low education, lacking in intellect, shallow, material-minded, and a speaker of only Mandarin or Chinese dialects. As our society becomes more affluent, the Lians, too, have become upwardly mobile and English-speaking. So socially elevated is the Lian these days that you will see her as shopper at Saint Laurent, as pop singer on stage, as influencer on social media, even as student in NUS. Lian-ness is not just an outward appearance, it’s a total package. Increasingly, it reflects the socio-economic shifts of our city, to the extent that it no longer necessarily means lack of intellect or education. It’s a personal attribute with wider application. Modelling, one of them.

As a matter of fact, the Lians are not unique to our dot in this part of the world. In Asia, there is Malaysia’s lala mui (啦啦妹), Thailand’s skoy (สก๊อย) and, to some extent, Japan’s gyaru (ギャル). (Interestingly, in Hong Kong, where looking good is part of societal obsession, there is no known noun that’s the equivalent of Lian except for the Cantonese adjective 娘, which is pronounced—in street slang—as ‘learn’ rather than the traditional ‘leung’.) In the UK, there is the Essex Girl. And in the US, specifically in California, there is the Valley Girl (one who is from San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles).

Although Kendal Jenner has not been out-and-out described as a Valley Girl (even Vogue avoids it), she is in fact from the Valley, having grown up in Hidden Hills (not quite out of sight, a housing estate known in the US as a “gated community”), just next to the city Calabasas, where Ms Jenner’s half-sisters Khloe, Kim and Kourtney own a boutique called Dash. Those who watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians would be acquainted with the Valley talk, antics and aesthetics of the self-absorbed Kardashian/Jenner household.

Justin Beiber perfume and calvin klein undies.jpgFrom boy Beng to man Beng: Justin Bieber in his own perfume ad and a Calvin Kein Underwear ad. Photos: (right) Terry Richardson/Fiermenich and (left) Harley Weir and Tyrone Lebon/Calvin Klein Underwear

Before the Lians became known as Ah Lians, we called them Ah Huay (花, Hokkien for flower), which seemed less derogatory since women likened to a bloom was—and still is—rather complimentary. This was in the ’80s, but at the turn of the next decade, somehow Lian came into the picture. While some did use the name Lian Huay (莲花 or lotus flower), Lian by itself eventually won over. The male equivalent Ah Beng (阿明 or wise) similarly was once known as Ah Seng (阿成 or accomplished). However, Beng Seng never quite cut it since the two words together in Hokkien sounds like star or celebrity (明星)!

Just as the Lians are making waves in social media and in the fashion industry, the Bengs, too, are gaining a foothold in the pop, fashion, and sports world. Leading the pack of angmo Bengs is Justin Bieber, newly-crowned model for Calvin Klein Underwear. Mr Beiber’s dabbling in fashion goes back to the ‘One Less Lonely Girl’ range of nail polish that he launched, barely 18, in 2011, followed by his first perfume, the Beng/Lian-affirming ‘Somebody’. His Beng-ness, however, seemed underplayed when, conversely, Calvin Klein approves his casting in the brand’s underwear campaign (because the ex-designer “likes” the singer), clearly preferring Bengs over Lians.

Mr Bieber is only second to the most powerful American Beng-at-large, Donald Trump, whose way of life and dubious style has come to embody Beng-hood since he came into public prominence in the ’80s. It’s not clear how Macy’s had come to the desire of selling (they no longer do) Trump-branded shirts, which really look no different from those you may find in C K Department Store in Chinatown. Mr Trump’s Bengness is, of course, not limited to the fashion he sells and what he wears and his choice of part-time profession—like Kendal Jenner, a reality-TV star; it is even more pronounced in his viewpoints. You’d think that as a Beng grows older, he’ll leave behind what is considered immoderate or offensive. Mr Trump does not—proof that Beng-titude afflicts not only youths.

 

The Kardashian sistersThe Kardashian sisters at the opening of the Miami Beach branch of Dash. Photo: Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Lest it’s mistaken, we’re not having a go at this group of unique individuals. This is a way to understand what’s happening in and who’s dominating the fashion world. Social media has undeniably changed much of the realm of fashion, now a universe visibly peopled by undisguised Bengs such as Olivier Rousteing and Alexander Wang, and Ms Jenner’s fellow Lians du jour Gigi Hadid and her sister Bella and much of the Victoria’s Secret show girls, as well as the Lians-made-good Rachel Zoe and Victoria Beckham… just to name a few. Making much ado about their flashy personal style is a Beng and Lian trait and, egged on my admirers—Kendall Jenner has no less than 64 million on IG alone, becomes the bombast that empowers.

Yet, Ms Jenner, whether posing for Mango or with her sisters, is without surfeit of style or excess of imagination. Perhaps this does not matter. Her fame alone is stylish enough, and spurs the imagination adequately. At 20 years old, what she has achieved is the dream of even women twice her age. Her success, although aided by fame, is purported to be self-achieved, and not propelled by even a tinge of nepotism. As almost-Beng Riccardo Tisci told Vogue about a casting session, “Kendall came completely separate. I promise you.”

If a fashion magazine cover is meant to capture the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, or whatever is firing the desires of the critical mass at a given moment, then Vogue has not faltered in putting Kendall Jenner on the cover. We should be alert to the complicity in putting her there.

Beguiled By Hype

Pablo merchandise

By Raiment Young

Is it worth the queue: just to see what’s for sale at the ‘Kanye West: The Life of Pablo Temporary Store’? To me, the answer is not in the affirmative. But this is likely a once-only pop-culture event. I wanted to see for myself what the craze was all about, and to be acquainted, for the first time, with Kanye West-linked clothing. In uncovering the stuff behind trends, we sometimes end up wasting our time. This was one of them.

If you didn’t think there would be a queue, you probably only equate Famous with what happens after a certain Joseph Schooling won an Olympic gold. According to early media reports (and confirmed by security personnel in attendance at the site), people started getting in line as early as 2am on Friday morning so as to have a head start on gaining entry into the Pablo pop-up, as it is also known.

QueueThe queue outside an unmarked shopfront

It should perhaps be stated that I am no fan of Yeezy’s music, fashion, and antics. And I do not feel like Pablo. But I am curious about the work of this born-again fashion designer with a day job as a hip-hop singer-songwriter. Yet, I am not inclined to sacrifice sleep and other productive use of time to join a queue for hours in order see what I fear would be a non-event. So, I decided to try my luck this evening, the second day of the much-talked-about retail affair.

The Temporary Store occupied one half of the two-unit The Art Space @ Suntec in Tower 1 of Suntec City. This part of the mall has not experience such visitor traffic since it officially reopened last October after a massive mall-wide renovation. According to a service staff at the café Ovidia & Co, about 500m away, the number of people that turned up when he started work at ten on Friday morning was “crazy”. When I arrived at about 6pm (the shop closes at 8), I joined a line that was no more than 20-people long. A security guy dressed in a black shirt under a black suit—looking decidedly like a bouncer at a nightclub—was calmly organising the queue so that people did not stand blocking neighbouring retail units. I remarked that I had expected to see more shoppers, he said, “You should see yesterday.”

Stretching that to small talk—perhaps to relieve the monotony of his work, he continued with a forewarning: “Everything is sold out. You have to do pre-order.” There’s nothing we can buy today and take away? Smilingly, he replied, “Nothing left. The jackets were first to sell out.” Which jacket? “The military jacket. Singaporeans are really willing to pay $400 for it!” The disbelief in his voice didn’t escape me. I asked him if he was given a preview and if he had bought anything. “No, lah! I only listen to his music.”

Inside pic 1

Inside pic 2Inside the Life of Pablo Temporary Store

Which is more loved: the music of Kanye West or his fashion? It was hard to tell. The shoppers before me mostly looked under 25, with no visible clues that they were into the Yeezy aesthetic. They hardly looked like devotees. A Caucasian woman in front of me told her Singaporean companion, “If I can’t find anything for myself, I’ll get a T-shirt for my boyfriend.” Behind me, one of three possible NS lads said with purpose, “Better get at least a T-shirt.” A guy walking past the queue remarked to another, “Yesterday, my friend spent 240 dollars.” “On what?” the receiver asked. “On the Pablo, lah.”

The number of people allowed in each time was “about 20”, the sentry at the door told me. Once inside, you’d understand why the Louis Vuitton store-style crowd control was needed. It wasn’t a huge space, but it was spacious due to only three racks of clothes and the small group of shoppers. Not allowing the store to be packed with customers gave it a sense of exclusivity. Staff members came forward to offer a style sheet and to explain the pre-order procedure. You were then asked to browse. I asked if there was a time limit. They told me to take my time.

Inside pic 3Making payment at the cashiers’ counter

I was admittedly disappointed by how underwhelming the shop was. It reminded me of my first visit to the Supreme store in Tokyo. Here was a physical space that did not tally with the brand’s subliminal stimulation. For all that Supreme has been hyped to be, the experience it offered at retail level was regrettably below par. The Pablo setting did not appear to be the work of a retail genius. Like at Supreme in Tokyo, the products here were lined against the walls, leaving a huge central area quite empty, as in a museum. But the clothes were not exactly stuff akin to art.

You won’t be wrong to think that perhaps Mr West was celebrating National Day with us. Excluding two items already completely sold out (the military jackets), everything was either red or white. Was the merchandising put together with the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts? Or the NDP show committee? But, these clothes pale in comparison to SG51 merchandise sold at Giordano, just a few doors away!

Pablo teesThe cotton jersey T-shirts with ‘Singapore’ printed on the left side, along the waist

Style sheetThe digitally printed style sheet that was distributed so that shoppers could pre-order their desired pieces

It surprised me that all the cotton items—T-shirts (long- and short-sleeved) and hoodies—are Gildan-branded. Gildan Activewear is a Montreal-based company that is not unlike the American brand Fruit of the Loom: they’re commonly used as blank garments on which branding and logos can be screen-printed. The Pablo tops are manufactured in Bangladesh, which makes the asking price of S$60 for a T-shirt steep. They also aren’t in keeping with presidential nominee Donald Trump’s call for Americans to buy American and to bring manufacturing back to home turf. Perhaps Mr West does not share Mr Trump’s vision: to “make America great again”. These are, of course, merely garb to promote a music album and the attendant concert tour, but they’re no ordinary concert merchandise since they’re tied to a man trying to impress the world as a fashion designer and only available (outside American cities where the concerts are staged) in a retail store setting.

Despite its cool-and-minimal-as-any-indie-retailer’s store interior, there was scant attention paid to visual merchandising. The tops were hung on wired hangers, typically employed in a thrift store or a neighborhood laundry. There was no particular order of products (say, S to L), and eager shoppers who did not care to return what they had picked to its original state meant the clothes were in disarray. Enthusiasm for the merchandise was palpable, regard for their in-store attractiveness was not.

WallThe letters of Singapore arranged in a triangular shape placed visibly on one wall. The same design, too, appeared on the merchandise. The unique typeface is designed by LA artist Cali Thornhill DeWitt 

For an egomaniac such as Kanye West, it was astonishing that there was no text of his moniker or even an image of him plastered across walls or the floor. Not even his alter ego Pablo was idolised. Nothing on the store front too. Just white walls, white doors.

At the cashier, shoppers were reminded that merchandise must be collected within two weeks of notice. A hastily-scribbled note was stuck to the counter top, announcing where the paid-for products are to be collected: at an un-named office in North Star Building in the Lee Hsien Loong stronghold Ang Mo Kio.

Behind me two Malaysian boys were clearly disappointed that, having travelled here specifically for this, they could not enjoy immediate gratification. One of them, hand still holding the by-now crumpled style sheet, grumbled, “This really sucks.”

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo Temporary Store is at Suntec City Tower 1. It closes tomorrow at 8pm. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

So, Pablo’s Coming This Way

The Life of Pablo coverKanye West showed an alternative album cover on his IG page. Photo Kanye West

Kanye West is spreading his wings. According to Vogue.com, Mr West is setting up pop-up stores for merchandise that promotes his album Life of Pablo, as well as the Saint Pablo Tour outside of his home base, the United States. Singapore is one stop in a 21-destination global spread that will allow fans to uncover this character/avatar supposedly named after Picasso. According to a map posted on kanyewest.com, Singapore is the only country in Asia (and one out of only four in the southern hemisphere) to welcome Pablo. What’s odd is that Japan is excluded. Are we really rising in the ranks?

We won’t know what the Pablo pop-up will look like until we visit the store this weekend (truth is, we may not go). Based on online and resellers’ report, the New York event, opened on Wooster Street in Soho in March this year, took place in a roomy space with racks lined up against the wall. It looks to us like something Supreme has already done before: the luxury of space effectively playing down the lack of luxury of the merchandise.

Pablo hoodiePablo hoodie seen on a guest (left) at a Club 21 event on Friday evening. On the back, it reads “any rumour you ever heard about me was true and legendary”—from the track No More Parties in L.A. Photo: SOTD

Based on what we’ve seen posted on social media by die-hard fans, the Pablo pop-up will be filled with products that are scaled-down version of pieces from the Yeezy collections, mostly printed with attention-grabbing text (including “Feel like Pablo”) in a bold, gothic font, quite unlike the album cover seen above. There will also be plenty of skull motifs from artist Wes Lang. Already in Singapore, Kanye followers are seen in Pablo heat-trap hoodies when outside is 36 degrees Celsius.

Apart from clothes (hoodies and T-shirts galore!) and the expected caps (and possibly other head gear), we’re not sure what else would be on sale. Those bent on sticking to skinny and tight might want to sit this one out. Those averse to queues of many hours long should too.

The location of the Life of Pablo pop-up store in Singapore will be announced 24 hours before it opens on 19 August on kanyewest.com

Update (19/8/2016, 10pm): Pablo pop-up store opens at Suntec City Tower 1 till Sunday from noon to 8pm

Quietly (And Brilliantly) Goes Joseph

Joseph pre-Fall 2016 G1This pre-fall collection is truly a gorgeous intro to Joseph’s newly tuned direction. Designer Louise Trotter has upped the stakes in an increasingly difficult retail climate by offering an autumn/winter 2016 season that leans on the whimsical, but is still so wearable—the hallmark of this retail-turn-design house. Before we get to that (and we certainly shall later), a close look at the pre-fall to help fans ease into Joseph’s new dream coats.

Firstly, there’s something to be said of the model picked for the brand’s look book. At a time when long, luscious, and certainly bouffant hair is still preferred, it is surprising that Joseph has cast the buzzcut of Lina Hoss for its latest communication material. Ms Hoss really caught our attention three months ago, on the cover of i-D magazine, on which her hair was longer and more visible, but still short. For Joseph, she wears it even shorter, a style Mindef would be very glad to introduce to its new recruits.

Lina Hoss for Joseph

Ms Hoss reminds us of Persis Khambatta, the Indian actress who played Lieutenant Ilia in the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Ms Khambatta’s head was completely shorn for the part, but both star and Joseph’s model have a beauty impervious to the lack of luscious locks. Ms Hoss also reminds us of Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor (we love the cover of the 1992 jazz album of Am I Not Your Girl? on which the singer with the crew-cut wore a fitted shift and high heels), but not Demi Moore, not even as G.I. Jane. Or Natalie Portman for V for Vendetta!

There’s something right about Ms Hoss’s unadorned, low-key, bare-faced look. It’s a near-natural—blank canvas, if you will—that elevates Joseph’s simple, but dramatic shapes into stunning clothes. The volumes, in particular, are in keeping with the current mood of the season, and work especially well with hair that’s not fussed with and make-up not deliberately painted on.

Joseph pre-Fall 2016 G2Joseph has, of course, mostly trekked the minimalist route, but this time, Ms Trotter has made it less pared-down with touches that amplify the emphasis on chic with a palatable edge. We love the oversized sweaters (and extra long sleeves), the mannish jackets, and the A-line skirts with massive patch-pockets on the sides. Joseph has always been strong with pants, and this time they have reworked classic shapes to yield slacks that are superbly slouchy and valiantly voluminous.

All these are fine for fashion, but will it translate into dollars at retail? We certainly hope so. It would be such a pity if these fine clothes don’t end up on more bodies; sadder still if, due to a lack of appreciation, Joseph won’t continue to trade on our island.

Joseph pre-fall collection is out now at the Joseph flagship store, Capitol Piazza. Photos: Joseph/Raf Stahelin

No White Flag Even When Surrendering To Closure

Surrender pic 1

One of Singapore’s best men’s wear stores shall be no more. Surrender at Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade will halt its operations next week, on 23 August, but its closure does not mark the complete end of Singapore’s pioneer men’s wear retailer. According to the company’s farewell message to customers, Surrender will morph into a new project, cryptically named #SRD268, at the end of the year.

It requires no special talent to guess that SRD is Surrender abbreviated, and 268—on Orchard Road—is where the new store will be situated. The Raymond Woo-designed building (unnamed, just 268 Orchard Road) that occupies the former Yen San Building site is already habitat to other brands under Surrender’s parent company D’League: namely Christian Dada and the soon-to-open Off-White by Virgil Abloh. It looks like #SRD268 shall complete the triumvirate that occupies the entire ground floor of the glass-and-steel building.

Surrender’s departure may perhaps signal the fading of fashion cred for Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade, where the store has made the latter home for the past 6 years. The first men’s clothier with edge to open at Raffles Hotel’s retail wing, Surrender follows the steps of brands such as Prada, Louis Vuitton, APC, Visvim, and Front Row to depart what may be considered one of our city’s most atmospheric shopping destinations. Only L’Amoire now stands (without a fashion-strong neighbour), but for how long?

Surrender pic 2

Surrender’s exit is, perhaps, to be expected. According to those who are familiar with the store’s operation team, the end of the lease was cited as reason, as well as the Arcade’s “slow traffic”. But some observers feel that it would serve Raffles Hotel’s or Qatari owner Katara Hospitality’s interest to retain long-time tenants such as Surrender. Others feel that Surrender should leave as Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade has been in a dismal state for quite a while, with tenants complaining of poor upkeep.

Some Surrender customers have said that, for them, there’s no reason to visit the Arcade other than to go to their favourite store. Surrender, on level 2, is on the same floor as the Long Bar, where Raffles Hotel touts it as the birthplace of Singapore Sling. In the past year, it is only here that you’ll sense some buzz, as visitors experience what the hotel calls “one of the truest rites of passage of travel”—drinking the Singapore Sling and flinging peanut shells on the floor—grounds which the hotel proudly claims to be “the only place in Singapore where ‘littering’ is permitted.”

Surrender did not enjoy a location this posh when they started. Conceived by Earn Chen, the creative director of hospitality group Potato Head Folk, back in the ’90s, it began as a little skate-influenced fashion and footwear shop in Far East Plaza during a time when the mall had a vestige of cool, unlike now. Mr Chen, who, according to Apple Daily in 2014, was “seeing” the Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung, told the media that after a visit to New York City with friends, he was inspired by the “skateboarding, hip-hop, alternative lifestyle” scene there and decided to open a store that Singapore had not, until then, seen. And it was a store with a difference even when T-shirts and sneakers dominated. It was our first taste of refined and elevated urban style.

Surrender pic 3

After Surrender moved out of Far East Plaza, it shifted into a shop-house unit on Devonshire Road before relocating in 2010 to Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade, where it roosted for half-a-dozen years. It was here, during the Arcade’s grander days, that Surrender truly consolidated its standing as the premier men’s wear store with a difference. The store was eventually sold to Dave Tan, the man behind Richard Mille in Southeast Asia and D’League, and is managed by his 24-year-old son.

What makes Surrender unique in the men’s fashion retail scene here is the store’s merchandise mix—it is unabashedly skewed towards Japanese street wear. When once only an air ticket to Tokyo could connect you to brands such as Neighborhood, WTAPS, Uniform Experiment, Sophnet, and Bristol, Surrender was the vital outpost. And soon even more desirable brands joined the stable: Undercover, Nanamica, and Visvim (which, in 2012, briefly had its own free-standing store, also in the Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade). When the American artisanal label Geoffrey B Small was added, Surrender’s standing scaled many rungs. All this in a vintage/work-room interior that has more in common with Tokyo retailers such as Journal Standard than the Euro-centric swank typical of our local high-end stores.

While Surrender’s street style strengthened, a pricier Salon by Surrender in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands opened in 2013 (after debuting in Shanghai at the Mario Botta-designed Twelve at Hengshan hotel a little earlier). Here, refined British labels such as Casely Hayford, luxury street-wear brands such as Hood by Air, and expensive sneakers such as those by Buscemi (“obnoxiously high quality goods”!) grabbed the attention of those willing to pay top dollar. The Japanese leaning of Surrender was not discernible. The Salon was, however, a few steps ahead of Surrender: it closed some months back.

It would seem Surrender is now returning to and concentrating its efforts on Orchard Road. According to the company, “project #SRD268, albeit aimed to encompass an entirely new distinct perspective on retail, fashion, lifestyle and art, will still stay firmly rooted in Surrender’s forward-thinking attitude.” Sources told us that some of the existing brands stocked at the Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade store will be dropped. It is still hazy which will exit Singapore altogether. Still, hopeful are many that the new Surrender, even when abbreviated to letters and numbers, will not be short of those labels that make them give in to the store in the first place.

For a foretaste of #SRD268, visit its pop-up store at level 2, Mandarin Gallery. Photos: Galerie Gombak

Cover Story

SMB Miss smallSave My Bag’s new Miss bag has become the brand’s new Icon

Happy accidents are rare. Uncommon still are those that are followed by happily thereafter. When they do strike, they open up opportunities and spur creativity and bring about the dream of world domination. One Italian couple had such an encounter. Stefano and Valentina Agazzi were in Los Angeles some years ago to host a luxury jewellery event. As customary of such occasions, a gift was prepared for attendees. In this case, lightweight bags with the east-west orientation of those popular among many women were presented.

As the Agazzis have recounted to the media, rain fell when the event came to an end. Fearful of the damage the shower may do to their own possibly expensive bags, many of the guests placed what they were carrying into the one the Agazzis had gifted them. Bags, as it turned out, were inadvertently saved.

That day in the West Coast of America, the rain was a pouring of good fortune, just as the Cantonese believe, and it led to the birth of a bag that would change the life of the Agazzis. A bag that could protect another without looking like an unimaginative slip-case, the husband and wife realised, could have potential appeal aside from practical application. In 2013, Save My Bag was thus born.

Yasmine Cheng with MissMediacorp’s TV and radio personality Yasmine Cheng with her limited-edition ‘Graffiti’ Weekender Miss at the official opening of the Save My Bag flagship store

“It was for fun at first,” said Stefano Agazzi who was recently in town, together with his wife Valentina, to attend the official launch of the Save My Bag flagship store in Singapore. He could clearly see the humour in the conception of the bag: essentially a parody of bags that women seem to have an obsession with. His spouse agreed, “but it turn out to be a serious business,” she added.

Valentina thinks that the appeal of Save My Bag is in the familiar silhouettes and the direct attraction of their usefulness. “Women see them and like them immediately. It’s a bag that’s not hard to understand” And, for good measure, she added, “When Oprah Winfrey visited our shop in Southern Italy, she bought 17 of them. Just like that. The sales people didn’t even know who she was. And soon, she featured our bags in her magazine, O.”

Of course, one cannot underestimate the Oprah effect. In no time, Save My Bag became an instant hit even when detractors were eager to point out the bags’ similarity in shape—particularly its best-selling ‘Icon’ bag—to classic luxury handbags. As if to address the Icon’s resemblance-to-another standing, Save My Bag recently tweaked its design to yield the ‘Miss’. It now comes with a flap top that replaces the former straight rim with a zig-zag, vaguely scallop-like edge.

SMB Principe SpigatoThe ‘Principe’ Spigato with its herringbone pattern, a style targeted at men

Whether they take after the classics or are just a kitschy spin on It handbags, Save My Bag offerings quickly shed its original function as a bag cover and became a fashion bag in its own right. It is not hard to see why women would want to use them as a bona fide fashion item. 

Made in Bergamo, one of Italy’s most industrialised cities that is 40km northeast of Milan, these bags have the benefit of lightness due to the textile used. Save My Bag calls it a “poly-fabric with Lycra fiber”, which is essentially a spongy, synthetic material similar to neoprene, only much lighter, and has stretch and is waterproof and completely washable. Despite the fabric’s suppleness, the bag does not sag, as the bottom is fitted with a hard, removable base to keep the overall shape.

Such qualities are especially appealing to women (and men, evidenced by guys snapping up the generously-sized ‘Weekender’ versions, as well as those designs with patterns usually associated with tailoring such as pinstripes and herringbone) who lug a load and do not want to begin with a heavy bag. The brand describes the lightweight advantage as “weighing less than a bottle of water”. The standard Miss, in fact, weighs 380g: that’s about 120g less than a 500ml Evian.

Perhaps what truly seals the deal for many shoppers is the provenance of the bags. In a sea of bags sourced from countries with no couture tradition, only mass manufacture, the Made-in-Italy Save My Bag is deemed a good buy. As one shopper examining a hot-pink Miss was heard saying, after being told about its Bergamo origins, “I don’t care where in Italy, as long as it’s Italy.”

Save My Bag is at B1-05, Wheelock Place. Photos: Zhao Xiangji