Cheongsams M.I.A.

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Ong Shunmugam opened her Singapore Fashion Week ‘Cheongsam 2017’ show by sending out all the models at one go. They strode hurriedly by, as if in haste to exit the Supreme Court Terrace due to some unknown dishonor. We saw just as quickly that despite what designer Priscilla Shunmugam had been touting, this was not a cheongsam show. Were we duped?

When the first model re-emerged after the march past in a tri-panel peplumed number with stout Mandarin collar of contrast white like a clergyman’s, you knew immediately that Ms Shunmugam was going to take liberties with the cheongsam. Again. Not that that’s a bad thing, really, but our stand has always been unchanged: if you’re going to deconstruct or re-imagine a classic dress, do that dress faultlessly first!

By the appearance of the second outfit—a red, Mandarin-collared dress with a fitted bodice and flared, knee-length skirt, which looks uncannily like something OG would inevitably stock during the CNY season, we knew this was going to be just a stylistic update of what she’s been doing rather than a real re-imagination. This was the fashion equivalent of mobile app users’ regular confrontation—“bug fixes and speedy performance improvements”. Serve our dim selves right for taking the title of her show so literally!

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We’ve always been delirious with joy by Ong Shunmugam’s serious, wit-free, and intelligent (a popular media description) take on traditional Asian wear. But if our adrenaline runs uncharacteristically low this time, what else can we say about the clothes? We were fanning ourselves with hopefulness even when dress after dress was two steps away from trite, but stronger was the feeling that the brand could be experiencing a slow exhaustion of ideas.

To be sure, there were details previously not seen in Ong Shunmugam cheongsams. Admirers would no doubt be thrilled, for instance, that the cheongsams now come with cold-shoulder treatment, arguably the high-street’s detail du jour. The rest of the sleeves—in bishop and bell-shaped styles (a pair on a white and blue dress looked like lampshades, to be more precise)—fell from the armpit level so that skin of the upper arm could be revealed to catch a bit of sunshine or conditoned air. Is this to make up for the concealment of the thighs since the side slits that distinguish the cheongsam were done away with?

Some of the pieces comprised of juxtaposed fabrics that appeared to be a take on the placement prints that Ms Shunmugam previously had a weakness for. The mix bore the spirit of colour-blocking that could back-tracked to the Seventies, with some pieces tracing the top outline of the bust as if there were bras worn atop the dress. It is understandable why purists consider hers “angmo pai” (红毛派 or Western) cheongsams. Indeed, her aesthetic sensibility differ not drastically from Lisa Von Tang of Chi Chi Von Tang. Why, both designers paired their cheongsams with flat-soled shoes! How uncanny was that? Just a trend in the making?

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct

What Was Taken Away At Stolen?

Despite a potentially pretentious presentation, last night’s Stolen show nearly stole the limelight of the entire Singapore Fashion Week, even before the event ended. Ely Wong has turned her debut at SGFW into a performance more in keeping with what normally happens on stage than a catwalk. Was she merely staying on trend by adopting the visual caper associated with Kanye West’s Yeezy Season shows or was this something with a cryptic, Lemonade-era message?

For a festival mostly devoid of an elevated runway, Stolen’s show configuration—right in the middle of the Auditorium Foyer of the National Gallery—of boxes and props and wooden chairs on which the models sat, stood, and seduced hinted at something far more intelligent than the usual walk-on-by that Singaporean designers favour. Coupled with the models’ war-paint makeup, this could be SGFW’s most directional show yet.

Despite showing in a major local fashion week for the first time (the brand has participated in trade events in the New York, mainly showroom affairs), Stolen is not a new label. Almost a decade of existence and a brief run at Robinsons later, Stolen has remained a fairly little-known label. It is considered a minimalist line, not in the tradition of Jil Sander, but more in the spirit of Phoebe Philo’s Celine. To us, as we watched her show for the first time, designer Ely Wong’s two-dimensional approach to design vaguely recalled the work of even more obscure Singaporean designer Grace Tan, whose early experiments on her label Kwodrent (now an “inter-disciplinary practice”) was manipulation of planes.

Stolen is about flatness and straight lines, and it is now even more so. How this linearity can be manipulated to bring about accord with the three-dimensionality of the human body, Ms Wong has, till now, not shown convincingly. From the start in 2007, her ideas have been conceptually strong, and she goes through the details of her work with a rigour uncommon among her contemporaries, but there is still scant evidence of technical finesse. There was talk once that as recent as a couple of years back, she had approached a veteran Singaporean designer to help her with pattern-making. It seemed nothing came out of that. Ms Wong still works primarily with an ad-hoc group of drafters and sewers, some of whom possibly cannot grasp her rather high-minded ideas.

These mostly stem from the upper back. Ms Wong is fascinated by the rear of the body, and her designs expose the spinal column and, occasionally, with details such as interplay of straps, underscore the beauty of the trapezius and the dorsum. For her spring/summer 2017 season, some of the backs are still uncovered or partly so, but there seems to be a shift of attention to the shoulder and the neck, which is an area of interest initially seen in 2014 when she introduced ruffs—though not quite Elizabethan—to crown otherwise plain bodices. Now, diaphanous pleats and overlapped panels were shaped into turtle necks, shoulder coverings in the form of abbreviated capelets, extra-long bibs (a plain one looked like a table runner!), and dorsal swirls, all fashioned on what were essentially column dresses loosely based on the Grecian ideal.

The show opened with a model reciting, in the dark, verses from Warsan Shire: a portentous “…my existence is not about how desirable you find me.” All rather performance-arty, but once the models came together in the finale, the colours—nude and whispers of pink and blue—bring to mind immediately the affected hip-hop-as-art leaning of (again) Mr West. Those exposed underpants in skin tone, too. In the end, when the picture was complete, you could see that Ms Wong still designs as if piling paper on top of another. There was almost no dart work, and certainly no unusual placement of seams prevalent in ‘shaped’ garments.

Perhaps true to the earlier not-a-crowd-pleaser proclamation, some members of the front row seem a little too eager to leave when the presentation ended, perhaps to rush off to see the Naeem Khan show, up next. They knew that would be less somnolent, definitely less plain, less linear. That’s the fashion women like Michelle Obama want, and will swoon over. That is why Ely Wong’s defiant “it’s-not-my-responsibility-to-be-beautiful” stance is the sole encouraging spark in the SPGW calendar.

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct