See how one rules
Kendall 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.
Kendall 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.”
Can 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 fronting the CPS Chaps spring/summer 2016 campaign that was out early this year. Photo: CPS Chaps
Is 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.
From 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 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.