By Raiment Young
I’ve been looking at chests—full-bosomed, expansive, and sunken chests. Or, rather, the chests have been looking at me. Lest you should think there’s something improper—salacious even—in that, let me say that chests are sometimes mobile message boards and they ask to be looked at.
It was three days after the American presidential election. The world was (and, by most accounts, still is) shocked with the results. Some of us were in need of explanations. What happened? Why has the result been so unexpected and hair-raising? What does the future now hold? These questions were clinging to me like sweat when I was going down the escalator at Outram MRT station, heading towards the platform of the Harbourfront-bound North-East line. Diagonally beside, going up, was a tall and brawny guy, about 25, in a navy T-shirt. On the front, stretched across his pectorals, were three white letters U, S, and A, each the size of his palm.
There was an air of indifference about him. Yet, the trio of letters was heaving and called out for attention like squeezable toys beckoning an appreciative squeeze. Just as I thought that I may have paid too much attention to my subject’s attire, he caught my gaze. I turned away quickly and in a flash he was gone. What, I wondered, did he see in the mirror when he wore that T-shirt earlier in the day? For some reason, that question remained with me all the way to VivoCity.
At Singapore’s largest shopping mall, going up the escalator to the main concourse, the back of a man in front of me also caught my eye. The rear of his polo-shirt read USA, with the U partially obscured by a child’s blouson draped selendang on his shoulder. Why was I seeing these three letters again? Less than 500 metres away, a bespectacled man emerged from the Gap store and walked towards me, wearing a T-shirt also with those insidious letters forming a parenthesis between his biceps. Behind him, a buxom lass in ripped shorts and an identical top! Was some phantom following me?
In America, the political winds have changed and political fortunes have switched hands. But here, many don’t seem to care. (Even the joyous announcement that our next president will be picked from the Malay community was largely met with indifference.) On the MRT train a couple of days ago, an American man was telling his Singaporean companion that he “does not feel like going back to a changed America.” She asked, “Why? What has changed?” He explained to her what had just happened in his country. She asked again, “Is that bad?” Yesterday afternoon, when I told a kopi kaki that I was perturbed by the result of the American election and the ensuing rancour, he asked, “Why do you care what happens over there?” Just this morning, when I asked a fashion sourcing agent what she thought will happen if the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement were scraped, she looked at me quizzically and said, somewhat agitated, “The Americans can do what they want, what.”
I am not advocating anti-American sentiments—nothing like that at all. But can what America presently seems to stand for, following the election, still be desirable in the form of a three-letter graphic that can be worn ardently and proudly on one’s chest? Is North America still a nation that we look up to, so much so that we want brand USA as a sartorial badge of honour? Can America still assert any influence over our wardrobe choices when its soft power is weakened amid mixed national messages?
Before Gap made its entry into Singapore through a franchise arrangement with FJ Benjamin in 2006 (and before online shopping really took off), most Singaporeans got their fill of Gap jeans, khakis, and ‘USA’ T-shirts during travels in the US. Those with a generous holiday budget might pick something by Ralph Lauren, whose pride for country is worn on his sleeve and, in the case of his merchandise, on the conspicuous chest. Once back home, wearing an immediately identifiable T-shirt with either the name of the city in which it was bought or just USA splashed across the chest was proof that the wearer had been to the home of Coca Cola. Even for those who had somehow acquired such a top without stepping on American soil, the cool factor could not be overlooked. USA in oversized font perhaps affirmed USA the cultural powerhouse. The wearer was plugged into the zeitgeist.
By the time Abercrombie and Fitch arrived on our shores in 2011 with a splashy marketing campaign involving hunky men parading outside their sole Orchard Road, lit-like-a-nightclub store in nothing more than a pair of deep-red track pants (exciting even grandmothers), the allure of American brands was on the wane. Sure, there was the initial throes of excitement from late adopters or those still enamoured with A&F’s over-laundered, over-appliqued, and over-branded merchandise, but, for the most part, style-conscious individuals have moved on. The Americans may have birthed athleisure as a style and product category, but T-shirt USA was not part of the equation.
The reality is that the young are no longer weaned on cool Americana. I think A&F may have killed their appetite the moment its former CEO Mike Jeffries was reported to be unwilling to sell to “fat chicks” and had admitted that A&F is “exclusionary”. Perhaps more than that, A&F’s sunshine-y, all-American aesthetic (for both boys and girls) was slowly moving into the shade. The vintage-looking T-shirts, as one example, were no longer desirable when the rest of the world had moved to less wholesome and more extreme, indistinct, and deliberately unrefined graphics. Only gay boys were still buying into A&F’s pseudo-hetro athleticism.
Add to that was the downswing of American apparel brands. By 2014, A&F and fellow American labels were looking increasingly as tired as their too-familiar clothes. The situation worsened when, that year, American Apparel was reported to be heading towards the same trouble as A&F (both brands saw the firing of their company heads) and in October 2015, had to file for bankruptcy protection. Early this week, the Associated Press filed a story stating that American Apparel sought a second one—two in slightly over a year. Joining the bankruptcy protection club was Aérospostale—as reported by The Wall Street Journal in May. In Singapore, Aérospostale closed a couple of stores, and its future is not certain.
While other American brands may not be under such dire straits, their popularity, too, was looking as massive as the president elect’s. According to Statista, teens of the US are increasingly uninterested in brands that once held sway. Seventeen percent of girls, for example, are no longer interested in Aérospostale this fall season, while 12 percent are not inclined to buy Abercrombie and Fitch. But this is not unique to the US. On our shores, random poll among teens indicate that they have not stepped into A&F in the past six months, neither are they planning to do so in the near future. If you look at what the kids here are wearing these days, I suspect American high school jocks and the cheerleaders they go after are no longer sources of inspiration.
Rock and roll is born in the USA, but fashion, not quite. As my best friend from Malaysia once asked imperturbably, while pointing at the founding director of Condé Nast Archive Charlie Scheips’s book American Fashion, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” American apparel may not have the sophistication of design aside, there’s also America itself. The just concluded election shows us an America we’ve suspected exists, but not usually seen. Sure, we should not define Americans by the president elect’s campaign rhetoric, but the xenophobia, the misogyny, and the downright avoidance of grace and elegance of thought and expression have made ugly even the last vestige of American style. Can USA be an abbreviation for cool again?
Update (22 Nov 2016): Shortly after we published this post, it was reported by the Hong Kong press that the city’s Abercrombie & Fitch flagship on Peddar Street will be closed, leaving Hong Kong with no standalone A&F stores.
Photos: Chin Boh Kay