A Fashion Week Of Reduced Circumstances

The third outing of the re-branded Singapore Fashion Week is the shortest it has ever been—down from last year’s five days to three. But brevity is only a small part of the sadly diminishing allure of what has been billed as the city’s “premier” event. Will there be a 2018 edition?

SGFW 2017 posterVertical banner of SGFW spotted outside the CBD and Orchard Road, along Havelock Road

The word that went round this year’s Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW), staged at the National Gallery for the second year, was that this could be the last. Even staff of the event’s organizer Mercury M&C was not able to say that the 2018 edition of SGFW will be a certainty. Some attendees helpfully suggested that perhaps it could be just a one-year hiatus so as to allow Mercury to “reorganise and consolidate”.

It is no secret that this year’s SGFW was especially hard to pull off, given the unchanging bleak retail climate and reduced business among Singaporean designers, a reality more complex and far-reaching than the average show-goer would know. Founder/managing director of Mercury, Tjin Lee, aka Lee Huei Tjin, betrayed her fears when she posted in Facebook last month: “It’s been an extremely challenging year as we sought solutions to stay relevant as a fashion week in Singapore. With the digital revolution, retail slowdown, our small market size and difficult fundraising climate, it’s been the most challenging year in all 11 years that I’ve organised the fashion week in Singapore.”

How challenging has it been? It really requires no telling that even malls are pulling back on fashion shows (when was the last time you attended one in a shopping centre?). The Orchard Fashion Runway of Fashion Steps Out is no more, too. If there’s contemplation of ending SGFW, chances are, a marketing head opined, there are “dismal figures in the ledger.” This regrettably encourages cynics to reiterate that Singapore is a lost cause for fashion.

SGFW runwayGuests getting into their seats at National Gallery’s Former Supreme Court Terrace

The possibility of an SGFW financially disadvantaged is surprising. In March, marketing-interactive.com reported that “Mercury M&C and Lumina Live look to merge services”, and had quoted Ms Lee as saying that a merger “brings together an integrated 360 experience for clients in events, PR and marketing”. If confirmed, the merger was expected to be completed in 2018. But it was more than just “look”. A new company Mercury Live has since been formed. Lumina Live was founded in 1999 by David See, an industry veteran whose clients include Burberry, Dior, and Hermès.

The announced merger was a bolt from the blue for many who remembered that in 2009, Miss Lee had found a partner, Jeremy Tan, to put Mercury’s books in order, and to improve the bottom line. She told The Straits Times in 2015 that she was “taken by his style of working and how he managed to have much higher profit margins than me despite operating a smaller business.” At the same time, she revealed that fashion weeks are not a money spinner since “we get little to no funding from the Government and have to push so hard to fund the entire event through the private sector.” And the private sector had been supportive, with Audi as the title sponsor when she ran the precursor of SGFW, Audi Fashion Festival, from 2009 to 2014.

Prior to the merger with Lumina Live, it was shared among industry insiders that the once-lauded Jeremy Tan had left Mercury. Mr Tan had said that it was a business decision to part ways—whether to continue with the company 1Werk that he founded before partnering with Mercury, it isn’t certain, but he does continue to produce fashion events, such as the Heineken X F1 fashion show at the unlikely venue Lau Pa Sat in September. A solo act again at the beginning of 2017, Tjin Lee, it seemed, needed a Jeremy Tan and she found him in David See. How this turn of events is going to pan out or bode for Mercury, or affect SGFW is anybody’s guess.

SGFW opening showGoh Lai Chan, left, on the catwalk after the presentation of his collection on the opening night of SGFW

Despite the challenges and a sponsorship environment that is less than forthcoming with funding, Ms Lee was able to bring together a respectable 20 sponsors, including the National Gallery, where the SGFW was held. But, according to a show producer SOTD spoke to, sometimes even with backing, fashion weeks may not be profitable as many designers get their slots free. “It is hard to imagine very young brands such as Arissa X with the means to pay to do a show,” he said. It is known, in fact, that some young designers/influencers with their own—often dubious—fashion label get “invited” to participate in order to fill empty slots, or to lend SGFW a certain quick-gain cachet that will appeal to the all-important Millennials.

One fashion PR professional said emphatically, while queuing to be admitted to the opening show Laichan, “SGFW has always been a business, not national service, not a platform to nurture young talents. If there’s no business, there’s no SGFW. It’s as simple as that.” That perhaps explains why tickets to the shows are sold—an uncommon practice at fashion weeks. A Singaporean designer earlier shared similar view when asked if he was invited to the shows, “No, lah! She (Tjin Lee) is an entrepreneur. Business is her priority. Associates like us must patronise to support her.”

How much support has Ms Lee received? Not insignificantly. People are still happily attending the shows, she’s still able to entice designers and brands to participate in SGFW (in some cases, even encourage unfledged and untried social media stars to start their own label so that they may be featured in SGFW), and the event has still retained the ‘premium’ tag in which the fashion show-hungry masses allowed her to indulge.

SGFW show about to startWaiting for the Zalora-supported Fashion Futures 1.0 show to start

An encouraging thing to note is that despite what some thought to be an eleventh-hour scramble to get SGFW going (even the press conference was a late affair, conducted a day after ST Life’s first report and three days after our post; 45 days before the first shows), the event proper itself saw improvements over last year’s not-hiccup-free staging. For one, the shows were now sited in one venue—in the National Gallery’s Former Supreme Court Terrace, although, to many, still not an ideal catwalk location. The one-runway site could also be because there were fewer shows, but, for attendees, it was a relief to know they did not have to shuttle between two points in the museum, as they had to last year.

There was also a photographers’ pit, which meant that, unlike the previous installation, which allowed lensmen to roam free, there would be no jostling with iPhone-wielding friends-of-designers eager to put the shows on Facebook Live. But it was still a no-win for many photographers and videographers as they had to deal with front-row attendees who were unable (or unwilling) to retract stretched limps, as well as extended and stationary arms bent on filming the show for whatever reason SGFW needed to be recorded with their smartphone. This was compounded by a relatively narrow catwalk flanked by three-row deep bleachers. It was a runway that was not palazzo pants and ball gown-friendly, as seen at the more-songs-than-clothes presentation of two-year-old Singaporean label Feayn, by graphic-designer-turn-tukangjahit Sufian Hussein.

The opening show of this year’s SGFW enjoyed a few firsts. It was the first time the event opened with a Singaporean designer and the first appearance of The Singapore Dress since its disappearance from stores and public consciousness in 2002. It was Goh Lai Chan’s first opening act and his first showing at SGFW (discounting the 8-piece capsule that he showed during the now-defunct Blue Print trade event in 2010). It was, however, not the first collection to see the marrying of ethnic fabrics and decorative arts in one pageant-style outfit after another.

Ling Wu SS 2018 bagsThe bags of Ling Wu, presented as a catwalk show

Applause to the strong showing of Asian designers is deserving, but the collections regrettably said almost nothing of what Asian designs are about today, or what it means to be designing in this region, or what it comports with showing at SGFW. How the final selection of names came about isn’t certain, but one senses that this could be a knee-jerk reaction to past criticisms that SGFW lacked local and Asian names, rather than a concerted effort to showcase Singaporean and Asian designers who can truly train the world’s attention to our shores and to see us as a critical and inspiring source of fashion design that can truly propel us forward, the way Seoul and Tokyo are regarded as elevating and future-bound.

It is also increasingly unclear what SGFW, beyond its Asian posturing, is really about. Sure, to expect it to be a fashion extravaganza as in the good old days, or as recent as the 2008 Singapore Fashion Festival (a winning comeback for Mercury) may, at this point, seem quaint and old-fashioned and irrelevant. And to hope that it could be a B2B affair, as some have, negates the fact that it never was, and never will be. SGFW is a spin-off of Singapore Fashion Festival; it is entertainment, pure and simple.

But as entertainment, was it first-rate? No one was expecting a Chanel show with sets so magnificent and awe-inspiring, you’d think you were in a movie studio. But a bunch of preening social-media types wanting to be in fashion and thus stage a fashion show is not fashion; it’s a D&D performance. Immoderate it really is not to hope for something more stimulating to the senses. There could have been attendees going to SGFW for the entertainment or to be seen and photographed, but there were many who seriously—or foolishly—went for the fashion. At the end of most shows, particularly the Zalora-supported Fashion Futures 1.0, it was a struggle not to feel insulted. If this was a film festival, Fashion Futures 1.0 would be, at best, a fringe event.

To paraphrase a line from the Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 film The Limey, you’re not specific enough to be fashion. You’re more like a vibe. What many of the SGFW participants were truly offering was just body coverings—so many of the clothes were literally two pieces of rectangles joined at the sides—styled to look influencer-credible and IG-ready, as if to better tag them #OOTD and nothing else. These participants were basically banking on their personal brand. There was no point of view, no voice, and positively no fashion.

SGFW Jason Wu SS 2017Finale of Jason Wu’s spring/summer 2018 collection

The question of a credible fashion week arose on the last day of SGFW. While the hot ticket of the night was Jason Wu’s much-anticipated show, it did not close the event. That went to the one-year-old brand Arissa X, the baby of Arissa Cheo, photogenic Singaporean wife of Taiwanese actor and singer Vanness Wu. In allocating Arissa X that prime slot, it seemed that local celebrity (with a Mando-pop star husband) trumped international star (with connections to the former FLOTUS of the White House), provisional business surpassed complete fashion enterprise, and small-network e-shop outdid global distribution. It was later explained that Mr Wu could not be given the last time slot because plans to take him out for dinner could not be changed—reservations had been made. If he was indeed the last to show, the wrap-up would end too late for a grand feast. In Singapore, what else do you with an overseas guest other than eat?

This year, SGFW was touted as “beyond the runway”, with Zipcode: A Fashion Tech Summit in the bag. Although Zipcode wasn’t the G20, it is commendable that SGFW looked into addressing the inevitable influence of technology on fashion, particularly in marketing and retail (although, ironically, their digital presence was considerably diminished. Since the start on SGFW on 26 October, there have been only one post on their FB page and 18 on IG. Meanwhile, last year’s link-up with Digital Fashion Week has terminated). While at it, Mercury should also consider either completely re-conceptualising SGFW or creating a separate fashion week for Yoyo Cao (of Exhibit) and her cohorts to show. This would perhaps do away with the uneven platform of career designers jostling with look-at-me-now dabblers.

Before it is said that SGFW has been doused with prejudice, it should be noted that many of the young brands, born of an e-shop or social media following, or sheer vanity, truly leapt onto the SGFW runway in a single bound, with almost no experience in the fundamentals of dressmaking, nor exposure to a drafting table and its content, let alone the insides of a factory or the confines of a sampling room. This isn’t discriminatory; this is a new reality. While the rag trade needs to acknowledge the existence of such a fashion category—designer by name, not by practice, a national platform for the promotion of true local (and regional) talent should rethink how it embraces such indeterminates.

SGFW 2017 sponsors' boothsThe sponsors’ booth on the upper floor of the Former Supreme Court Terrace that few went to look

And a national platform should preclude designs that can be joined by dots to the versions of others already in circulation. Dismay with weak shows, it should be noted, soon deepened into indignation when flagrant disregard for originality seized the runway. It can be considered conceit when designers fail to think that viewers of their show are so ignorant that near-facsimiles of other designers’ work can breeze past them without being noticed and noted. No amount of handwork and the hours spent on these clothes can negate the fact that they are not true own-creations.

It is undeniable that getting a group of credible designers together from a pool that is barely wet is a trying endeavour. This is another reality of the state of the industry, if it can still be identified as one. Whoever is selected must not be led to believe that SGFW is platform to instant greatness and once on its runway, he or she is infallible or cannot be met with censure. It is disheartening that despite creative output of disputable finesse, there’s a generation of designers with ego as massive as the sky, but tolerance for criticism as capacious as a snuff bottle. Could this be because our society is increasingly seeing a demographic so emotionally fragile that an honest opinion is immediate damnation? As a lecturer at a local design school remarked, “These days, tell a student that her work has not improved from last semester, and see tears roll down her eyes.”

Criticism is part of the creative universe, and creators can benefit from it. When the Japanese designers—namely Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—showed in Paris in the early ’80s, they were derided for making hideous and unwearable clothes. But they soldered on, in Paris, no less. More than 35 years later, they are still making waves, together with another generation of designers—also with shaky starts—gathering media raves: the “Japanese designers are by far the coolest at Paris Fashion Week”. We may not have seen anything at SGFW that bowled us over, but we are hopeful that someday, somewhere, at SGFW or not, we will get to say, Singaporean designers are plain cool.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Enough Said

Notice

We will no longer be posting commentaries on the shows we saw during Singapore Fashion Week 2017.

We were thwarted in our mission by repeated nothingness.

Even the fashion police know their limits.

Broadcasting the sound of silence means we will be able to dodge the charge of incessant negativity.

There’s no pleasure talking to the hand.

We’ve decided, for now, to withdraw from commenting on:

Whole 9 Yards, Weekend Sundries, Deboneire, Ying the Label, Wai Yang, Nida Shay, Exhibit, and Arissa X

It’s time to go back to tending the dendrobiums.

We would like to thank our followers for your unceasing support, as well as those who have waited eagerly to read our reviews. We know we have let you down; we just hope not too much.

Respectfully,

The editor

The Gin Cocktail

GL SS 2018 G1

It’s not unreasonable to expect a little more from the collection of Singapore Fashion Award (SFA) 2016’s Emerging Designer of the Year, Gin Lee. At the same time, it is also reasonable that we will soon enough discover that it isn’t a breeze to live up to the accolade so eagerly bestowed on a not-quite newbie.

The latter is unfortunately true. And it happened on Thursday evening when GinLee Studio, Ms Lee’s label, showed its spring/summer 2018 collection on the first day of Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW). Anticipation evaporated the minute a strange dancer appeared on the catwalk, making some indeterminate gestures and sashayed off. What did it mean? It seemed that the feeble hand movements and the nothing of a sleeveless tented dress that she wore were foretaste of things to come.

And came it did: the blandness of just about everything. Ms Lee’s work has never been really design-driven, that much we concede. Put it another way, she does not design with the deep desire to be original, surprising, and certainly not inspiring. These clothes looked everyday—those that you go to Fairprice in, have an early lunch with a BFF, and thereafter, pick the kids from school. They’re low-key to a fault.

Don’t get us wrong. There’s a place for such clothes, just not on a national runway, staged to show the city’s best. Even if SGFW does not dream big, participants should. It is possible that Ms Lee’s label is built on humble ambition and that it is perfectly alright if the clothes, even at a long glance, could be mistaken as merchandise of The Editor’s Market, although, to be fair, the make of GinLee Studio apparel are many notches better. The thing that is often overlooked in the pursuit of commercial viability is that there really is a surfeit of clothes missing the necessity of being.

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Even more, Ms Lee, 39, seemed to be playing a woman who designs to reflect her current station in life. This is a peek into the humdrum. This is a hodgepodge for the perfunctory purpose of wearing, not the more pleasurable act of expressing. Her designs have been described as “timeless”, but in the constant quick-change that characterises fashion today, “timeless” is quite often the euphemism for boring.

There was something terribly forlorn about the presentation too. The models appeared deeply unhappy wearing almost no makeup and those joyless clothes, never mind that some of them looked like they’ve just been to the market for flowers, usually a sign of good tidings. Could it be that the models did not feel particularly attractive in the outfits, bags of blooms aside?

The silhouettes, too, were hardly that that suggest joie de vivre. Longish, languid, and loose, they were more akin to house coats (or lounge wear, as merchandisers call them) for rainy days than something spiffy for the swagger of urban life. The collection seemed guided by the proper than the progressive, by symmetry than spontaneity. A shirt-and-skirt combo looked like an outfit chosen by a relief teacher who abides by the school’s handbook to educators on how to dress appropriately for the work they do. But is this fashion?

So “the basics that belong to every wardrobe”, as one online report describes the six-year-old GinLee Studio, went on and on and on until the monotony was interrupted by a hint of ‘design’. One style of pants stood out for its anything-but-arresting detail: a slit, splayed out like a wishbone, on the centre-back of each leg! Was this cold shoulder for calves? An indiscriminate slit on a skirt is bad enough; on pants, they look positively ill-placed. And why the clumsy length, so extended that they make the wearer’s walk so ungainly?

GL SS 2018 G3

An obligatory go at sexiness turned out a sheer, round-neck blouse with a sort of peplum for the bust as appendage of modesty, but had the unintended effect of emphasising a too-short over-bust measurement. A feeble attempt at the use of print saw a shadow of a palm leaf applied over the right shoulder of a tunic-dress and as faded pile-up on a skirt, with results neither striking nor unexpected, and could have been the kindred motif of a pareo in a Club Med gift shop.

The colour palette, too, added to the ho-hum outcome of the collection. Ms Lee, is not known for her keen colour sense, preferring to work with neutrals that seem to reflect the ancient walls of Jerusalem, where she is based, after relocating to the city with her husband in 2010. But even in Yerushalayim, the old stones tell a more spirited chromatic story. It would have downplayed her lack of daring if she had cleaved to black and white and anything between, rather than inject incongruous shots of earthiness: the colour of pumpkin pie filling and, under that palm leaf, dried thyme.

We were expectant for this Emerging Designer of the Year, but, in the end, expectation was waylaid by disappointment right there on the catwalk. As we shuffled out, someone was heard saying that Ms Lee had work very hard to meet expectations. So did the girl promoting the LG Styler upstairs. Hard work is, of course, appreciated, but unfortunately, is only one part of the equation that makes a collection artistically sophisticated, hence alluring. Flair is more valued, but, more than talent, it tends to be elusive. This night, it was.

Singapore Fashion Week is on at the National Gallery from 26 to 28 October. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Costume Before Couture

LC SS 2018 G1

The Singapore Dress: how quaint, how retro, how 1990!

Last night, the ghost of Singapore fashion past appeared in full cross-cultural regalia at the opening show of Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW). Cheongsam maker Goh Lai Chan staged his first major catwalk presentation at the National Gallery for his 26-year-old label Laichan with a six-outfit opener “The Singapore Dress: Inspired by Identity, Re-Imagined”.

That’s something we’ve not heard for a long while. Since 2002, in fact, when the offspring of The Singapore Dress (TSD), the Ms Joaquim fashion label eventually folded. Those old enough may remember The Singapore Dress, first unveiled in 1990 after the idea was mooted by then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong a year earlier. But for many, this success-undetermined attempt at creating a “national dress” was as dead as the proverbial door nail. For the rest, it did not occur, unless you count the lame National Day collection by Ying the Label, presently so adored by the young political set.

Mr Goh’s revival of TSD awoken memories of a very past era. Was his present foray to make up for what he had not done at that time, to bring back what he did not partake? Or, as the first Singaporean designer to open a Mercury-organised fashion week, a rush of national pride? Unlike the first time, Mr Goh’s TSD2.0 did not employ the orchid as central motif—characteristic of the earlier very vanda version. To be sure, there were flowers—in the form of print and embroidery—but they were evocative of China and India, not good ol’ Singapura.

So what did Mr Goh “re-imagined”? A rojak of baju, kurta, and shan that had more in common with outfitting Miss Singapore than smartening a new demographic for whom casual contemporary fashion is more appealing. Lest we’re mistaken, these are pretty clothes; they’re just a smidgen too ethnic-pretty, which risks their limited use to National Day functions and the occasional state dinner, when semblance of costume can be worn with pride.

LC SS 2018 G2

It is fascinating that some of our designers are still fixated with ethnic dress, following the inconclusive experiment that was TSD, or are certain that the aesthetics of different cultural styles can come convincingly together as a cohesive whole. That has yet to be seen. Sure, multiculturalism is now transnational, but have we created anything cogent that we want to wear beyond weddings, the month of August, and various New Years, or to charm the already culturally varied world?

More often than not, the optics of the amalgamations are despairing since the obvious are put together in even more obvious ways. Pairing the sulam with pearl studs is, at best, token, not elevated. Throwing an oversized Indian-style scarf over a samfu top is afterthought, not design process. Even Dries Van Noten, whose influence is not disguised here, has moved away from the mad clash of cultures and textures that formed the basis of his design DNA.  Mr Goh did try, however, to temper all that by bringing East to West so as to have a stab at the modern and, dare we say, street-savvy.

For his main collection, called Wonderluxe, he amped up the European and American message, but remained committed to Asian blare. One plain denim jacket, for example, was teamed with a 19th/20th Century, Chinese, tasseled yún jiān (云肩) or cloud collar (which, for the Chinese, was more a shoulder covering than actual collar, lĭng or 领, and dates back to the Later Han Dynasty of the 1st Century A.D.). A second yún jiān had an additional marabou-topped denim layer, as if the fabric of jeans can instantly modernise dated styling. Perhaps, the meeting of the old and the new appeared “cute”, as someone in the audience exclaimed audibly, but is plonking what is usually seen in wayang costume (or the ruff of Elizabethan dress) on a plain neckline really design? Or decoration? Or indolence?

Mr Goh is known for his service to tai-tai clients who go to him for mainly special-occasion dresses. In that way, he’s not different from Heng Nam Nam, the other go-to designer that ball habitués flock to. Although the media has frequently described Mr Goh’s work as “couture creations”, it is not known, or heard, that the designer himself has referred to his own output as couture. He prefers the term “bespoke”, made-to-order being a business model that allows designers to skip churning for the retail rack and show off their craft and express what is perceived as “elegant”.

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Goh Lai Chan’s fashion foundation was laid in the early ’80s, and last night, it showed. Self-taught, he came into the industry’s radar in 1981 when he was a finalist of the Her World Young Designers’ Contest, then a seminary of future fashion stars. It produced one of our most illustrious names in the annals of Singapore fashion, Tan Yoong, when he won the inaugural competition in 1978. Mr Goh’s entry that year was awarded a consolation price, alongside other entrants such as Island Shop’s former designer Sylvia Lian, one-time fashion photographer Gary Sng, and the current social editor of Prestige, Lionnel Lim.

Mr Goh’s predilection for glamour—so rapidly underscored by an online report of The Straits Times barely an hour after his show—is consistent with that of his peers, such as Francis Cheong and the now-retired Allan Chai, both also competitors in the same contest thirty-six years ago, with each winning the first and second runner-up places respectively (the winner was Steve Kiang, a newbie designer and former boyfriend of Singapore’s earliest supermodel Ethel Fong).

Head-turning glamour was, however, not associated with Mr Goh at the time he was picked for consolatory honour. His first foray into his own label was in 1982, a year after the Her World Young Designers’ Award exposure, when he set up The Dress Shop with his sister Sue Ann Goh at Liang Court, then known as an outpost for Japanese brands (Muji and Takashimaya opened their first store there), but, in truth, was dominated by the tame offerings of Daimaru department store.

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The Dress Shop was a rather quiet affair and it offered what could now be described as attire for the working girl and her social life. After designing quietly for close to a decade behind a brand that was essentially bread-and-butter in its offering, Mr Goh decided to start a label bearing his name. In 1991, Laichan was opened at the once-prestigious Raffles Hotel Arcade (now closed for refurbishment). Two years later, The Dress Shop shuttered when Mr Goh’s sister decided to leave the business. Liang Court was, by then, no longer riding high on its Japanese image and early promise of differentiated shopping experience. In 2003, after twenty years as Laing Court’s anchor tenant, Daimaru closed.

The opening at Raffles Hotel Arcade was, therefore, well timed. Laichan did not immediately launch itself as a cheongam and eveningwear brand. At various points during its 26-year tenure, the boutique appeared to stock rather frumpy, if not ordinary, clothes. However, due to the boutique’s location and the shoppers that it attracted, it was an organic development that the Chinese dress associated with Shanghai in the ’30s and glittery evening finery would soon become the label’s major offering and a Goh Lai Chan specialty. Given that the Chan in Mr Goh’s name is the Chinese character 灿 (càn), which means brilliant or resplendent, it is perhaps fitting that the glamorous gowns he espoused would become core to his business.

“My taste is classic,” Mr Goh told Today in 2010. “For my designs, I like a certain kind of style… It’s always something that’s updated, but not so outrageously fashionable that after 10 years, you’d look back and feel embarrassed about it.” It would be interesting to talk about Wonderluxe in 10 years’ time, but for now, the classic is punctuated with the outrageous-enough: two caged garments, one capelet that ended at the bust high point, not, oddly, below the bust line and a cropped jacket that had more than a whiff of what La Perla had done.

But classics, in the hotel-ballroom ball sense, dominated the runway collection. Mr Goh did not, in this respect, disappoint his customers and fans, including some TV stars and members of the theatre community. There was the swish and the ravishing, and all the lace you may want in a lifetime. Despite the intermittent outrageous touches and ungainly shapes of the outers, the gowns seemed to have been designed with the next society gala in mind. The “certain kind of style” was certain—Mr Goh took only tentative steps to show he could leap beyond those ready-to-wear, one-size-fits-all cheongsams.

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In some ways, Goh Lai Chan is disadvantaged by his reputation as a cheongsam designer, one who, to his credit, has transformed a traditionally made-to-measure garment into one that can be manufactured en masse and hung on racks after racks. His cheongsams are unmistakable for their loose fit (the media refrain “figure-flattering cheongsams” is misleading); oftentimes strong, solid colours; and a closely-spaced row of reportedly jade beads-as-buttons, from the centre of the neck to the right hip. The buttons, more decorative than functional (although there are loops for closure, they don’t actually work), are a signature, but whether they could be uncomfortable when the wearer needs to let her arm hang by the side of her body (or, as a show-goer cheekily remarked, “enemy of the armpit”), no woman has shed light on the matter.

A little disconcerting was the appearance of those very same beads/buttons on the catwalk. Why did “bespoke” fashion share the same buttons as off-the-rack cheongsams? Or are we nit-picking? Truth is, the popularity of the cheongsams with the skewed row of buttons cannot be overstated, however uniform they look, if the many women wearing them last night, from senior minister of state Sim Ann to SPH Magazines group editor Caroline Ngui, were any indication. In all fairness, Mr Goh’s cheongsams can look eye-catching, and he has a better understanding of the finer points of cheongsam-making than Priscilla Shunmugam, although, by his own proud admission, he is “untrained”.

Perhaps then, it is the oversight of technical details than the over-attention to surface embellishment that threatened to undermine the brand’s Wonderluxe projection. Amid the profusion of three-dimensional appliqués on corded lace, sequined curlicues, and floral embroidery, few would have noticed some technical slip-ups: darts that end with dimples, collars that gape at the neck, and, unexpectedly, the cigarette pants with loose and creased crotch!

In August this year, Laichan relocated to The Paragon (following a brief pop-up appearance at Raffles City) after a 26-year tenancy at the Raffles Hotel Arcade. The new boutique, while utilitarian, is a vast improvement over its first, which in the latter years was showing signs of age and insufficient housekeeping. Now with an Orchard Road store, Goh Lai Chan is presently only the second Singaporean couture/bespoke designer after Francis Cheong with presence on our island’s renowned shopping stretch—perhaps reason enough to open Singapore Fashion Week.

Singapore Fashion Week is on at the National Gallery from 26 to 28 October. Laichan is at level 3, The Paragon. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Michelle Chong Spoofs Vogue’s 73 Qs

Michelle Chong for Dorothy Perkins

By Mao Shan Wang

You have the opening scene of 7+3 Q’s with Sonia: Michelle Chong, reprising the character from her cheesy little S$1.5 million film Lulu The Movie, walks in akimbo; her back to the camera. A guy with a Caucasian voice calls out to her and she turns around—deliberately, pretending to be surprised. I thought I heard the perfunctory applause. She then talks to the unseen male and proceeded to indulge him in what would be a Q&A involving a set of “7+3” questions. I thought I was going to sleep.

This is no doubt a spoof of the Vogue.com series 73 Questions—cheery interviews that make the interviewees shiny examples of my-life-is-perfect-that’s-why-I’m-so-contented celebrity, all set in domestic bliss or professional calm. Even the reputed ice queen Anna Wintour, in Season 1, appeared to be in high spirits although still playing up her to-be-expected coldness. An un-wintry Anna Wintour would be a letdown. Although the questions were posed to her in her Architectural Digest-worthy office, she offered no hint of editorial stress, let alone semblance of editorial work. Stilted and aided by minions, she revealed inconsequential and trite details about herself such as the fact that she’s not a discerning coffee drinker (breakfast = Starbucks).

Participants of 73 Questions are, in fact, often made to look so unshackled by the woes of life, but fettered by the insipidness of a positive video persona that they appear positively dull, even when flipping on a trampoline. It is, of course, all harmless fun, but not quite fun enough to beguile a long, lazy, humid afternoon. The questions themselves are to be blamed: “What’s the best piece of advice your mom has given you?” and, repeatedly, “What’s your spirit animal?” I have more engaging conversations with the Hubei fellow who sweeps the void deck of my block.

Why 73? According to Joe Sabia, the creator and director of the series, the figure came about after a process of elimination from the original 100 proposed questions. And “it sounded like a good number”. Why “7+3”? Because it sounds better than 10? But, perhaps more significantly, do you want to hear inane answers to inane questions for an insane 10 minutes? Not from Sonia!

Michelle Chong for Dorothy Perkins 2

Michelle Chong’s soporific turn as Sonia is a lame counterpoint to the Shanghainese lian Lulu, first fleshed to life in the TV series The Noose. Or her lian pang counterpart Apple Tham. Sonia gives me the impression that she might be the sister of Nida Goodwood, the newscaster, also from The Noose, who speaks with an accent that sounds like she had been schooled somewhere in the Philippines, but, as I later learned, is supposed to be slightly RP (received pronunciation or, simply put, what you hear on the BBC). In Lulu The Movie, she is scripted to be haughty and go-getting, and a fierce spelling police (“How many times have I said that fashion is spelled with an H?”) and, thus, unlikeable, but in 7+3 Q’s with Sonia, she’s shown to be sisterly, BFF-worthy, and—perhaps open to dispute—fashion-y.

In the YouTube post, Sonia wears an ill-fitting black, long-sleeved blouse with an unmissable pussycat bow that, by now, should have been relegated to a recess of the wardrobe where so little light comes in that it’s a fashion graveyard. The top is tucked into a slim gingham skirt with a peplum in the front. Whether irony is intended or not, it deserves notice: In the film, fashion personality Sonia berates a couple of assistants presenting the outfits they have picked for her on-screen appearance. “Do these clothes,” she thundered, “look like they belong to a fashion program? Or, is this the rack for the 9 o’clock news?” Maybe this is payback time. In 7+3 Q’s with Sonia, she looks like she is dressed for the 1 o’clock news! Some people will call it karma.

Ms Chong has made a name for herself out of spoofing, especially the many stereotypes that exist among us. I don’t find her jibes particularly humorous, but, apparently, many do. Therein lies her success: she has a common touch. Not that that’s a bad thing. Look at Jack Neo and his protégé Mark Lee. They’ve become moneyed by poking fun at our foibles and flaws, using mannerism and language that are part of our foibles and flaws. Ms Chong has chanelled her parody skills into money-churning advertising appearances, sometimes playing multiple roles in one screen, as Eddie Murphy did, or a more contemporary example, as Tyler Perry does. But unlike these guys, she vacillates between two domains: one called funny, the other not.

7+3 Q’s with Sonia is, unsurprisingly, an ad of sorts. It’s conceived for the brand Dorothy Perkins, which, by the way, is not a designer name. Now owned by the Arcadia Group (Topshop/Topman’s parent company), it is apparently named after the rambling rose of the same moniker. That the video was commissioned to score with social media-struck Millennials isn’t a marketing coup. There’s no ambiguity to where between the points of high and popular culture it attempts to pivot. That, I suppose, is where Sonia comes in. She’s suitably mild and middle-of-the-road. Let’s just say, don’t expect Saturday Night Life. Michelle Chong’s initials may be MC, but her other name is not (Melissa) McCarthy.

Screen grabs: YouTube/The Michelle Chong Channel

A Colourful Life

Obituary | Few hairstylists working on our island, indeed anywhere, could count Lee Radziwill and Christie Brinkley as clients. Fewer still had worked on their hair in the celebrities’ residence. Shunji Matsuo was one

 

Publicity shot of Shunji Matsuo in 2016. Photo: 色影师

Yesterday morning, it was revealed by staff of Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio that the Japanese hairstylist/founder of the eponymous salon, has passed away in his hometown of Kobe. Mr Matsuo died of cancer; he was 67.

Considered one of our city’s most successful hairdressers, Mr Matsuo owns (or co-owns) 10 salons in Singapore. The number does not include branches in Kuala Lumpur and Yangon, which had prompted The Business Times to call him “a veritable salon mogul”. The 18-year permanent resident had become one of the biggest players in the business, beating even David Gan, arguably the most famous celebrity hairstylist here, by the sheer number of salons under his name.

Yet, Mr Matsuo did not share Mr Gan’s staggering client roster of famous local and regional names. He did, however, enjoy many moments working with some of the most noted personalities in international fashion, especially in New York City, where he started in 1974. Among the many names associated with the New York beau monde of the ’70s and ’80s, one stood out for Mr Matsuo: Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy. Mr Matsuo liked to regale willing listeners with this particular story. He was at Ms Radziwill’s apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue one day, working on her hair, when he accidentally spilled water on the floor. Mortified by his own clumsiness, he immediately asked for “a dirty towel” to mop up the mess. She replied, and he often retold this with relish, “We do not have dirty towels!”

Shunji Matsuo styleShunji Matsuo’s 2008 version of the layered cut, styled with a gentle beehive. Photo: Rui Liang/Lightspade Studio, Styling: Vik Lim, Makeup: Yuan Sng

Shunji Matsuo’s reminiscences of the early days of his career were often spiked with comedic incidences and name-dropping, all the while full of the wonder of a small-town boy made good in a big city. He claimed that at the start, he did not know who the people he had attended to were, such as model Karen Graham, model/actress Lauren Hutton, and Victoria Newhouse, the wife of Condé Nast Publication’s Si Newhouse. But, interestingly, when it came to Polly Mellon, he knew who she was, enough at least to be disappointed that she did not invite him to do a shoot with her for Vogue. He would later recount that “although she told me, ‘you’re a genius’, she had never asked me to work for her”, unaware that the affectations of New Yorkers shouldn’t be taken seriously. However, Mr Matsuo’s scant knowledge of the society which he served was brief for he soon knew he was onto bigger things when he assisted in a shoot lensed by Richard Avedon.

Like many successful Asian hairdressers, including the Segamat-born David Gan, Mr Matsuo rose from humble beginnings. Born in Kobe to a restaurateur father and housewife mother, he was not academically inclined, nor, by his own admission, “a lover of sports or anything”. At age fifteen, shortly after his father died of liver failure, he chanced upon an article in a woman’s monthly Joeseishin that featured a Japanese man who was known to the local media as “Widow Kennedy’s Hairdresser”. Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, even in mourning, had always looked immaculately groomed and her Oleg Cassini for hair was a petite New Yorker from Tokyo named Suga Yusuke.

Known simply as Suga, Mrs Kennedy’s go-to hairdresser probably inspired many young Japanese eager to leave their country for the much-admired USA. Born in a Japanese colony close to Beijing, Suga and his family moved back to Japan after his father died in a car accident when he was 10 months old. The Yusukes finally settled in Tokyo, where Suga later studied and worked. Unmotivated in the capital and in love with everything American (“I loved chocolate kisses and Bazooka bubblegum,” he told the press), Suga moved to New York and quickly found employment with hairdresser-to-the-stars Mr Kenneth. Through hard work, determination, and no small measure of luck, he soon became the widowed Mrs Kennedy’s hairdresser.

Suga & ShunjiSuga and Shunji Matsuo in New York in the mid-’70s. Photo: Shunji Matsuo

Mr Matsuo was completely taken with Suga’s success story and was so inspired by it that he made up his mind instantly to be a hairdresser—the decision no longer requiring the blessing of a paternal figure. That article, an eight-page spread, was so central to his resolve that he had it laminated for posterity. A former journalist who had seen the preserved, yellowed black-and-white tear-sheets told SOTD that “Shunji was quite obsessed with that magazine profile of his idol. He was a rather sentimental person, and he won’t forget that editorial piece because it really changed his life.”

In 1968, he left Kobe for Tokyo and enrolled for a hairdressing course in Yamano Beauty School, unsurprisingly Suga’s alma mater. Three years later, Suga visited Tokyo to scout for new talents to staff his first salon in Manhattan. Mr Matsuo, who had by then graduated and returned to Kobe, was beyond ecstatic when he read about it in a magazine, and, without hesitation, applied for the selection and left immediately for Tokyo.

Although he was picked after a surprisingly simple selection process, nothing came out of it. Suga had left the city. Undeterred, Mr Matsuo made his way to Los Angeles in 1973, first, to receive an American license at the US branch of Yamano Beauty School so that he could work, and second, to somehow reconnect with his idol. He called Suga, who had not forgotten the young man, and immediately invited him to New York to work. In 1974, his Big Apple adventure began.

Two years after he relocated to New York, Shunji Matsuo was to witness Suga enjoying his most intoxicating professional high. The place was Innsbruck, Austria in 1976, and figure skater Dorothy Hamill’s double axels and stupendous spins had won her Olympic gold. But the audience that day witnessed more than just sporting excellence; they saw a short, lively hairdo dubbed the “wedge” and fell in love with it. The “wedge” would forever be synonymous with Suga, opening more doors for him than he had ever hoped to open.

A tear sheet of the Christian Dior ad featuring Kelly LeBrock

Mr Matsuo began to reap Suga’s success, assisting the latter on both commercial and editorial shoots. One of these was with Richard Avedon, who was just commissioned by a very young and new Gianni Versace to helm the campaign for his first boutique in the US. Gianni Versace was the breakout star of 1981, but Mr Matsuo wasn’t aware of that, and recalled that he “had to work very fast because there were so many models”. In fact, during this period, Mr Matsuo did the hair of some of the best models of the time: Iman, Kelly LeBrock, Janice Dickinson, and Pat Cleveland. But all this while, he had only been an assistant to Suga.

Things changed in 1983. Suga had to go to Tokyo to discuss a business partnership with haute couture designer Hanae Mori. According to Mr Matsuo, he was not aware of what that was about. He was only a little upset that the boss had not asked him to go along. As it turned out, Suga was in talks with Ms Mori’s son Kei to set up Studio V, a chain of salon cum boutiques. During Suga’s absence, Shunji Matsuo was asked to attend a Richard Avedon shoot on his own and the client was Christian Dior. That became the turning point for Suga’s young assistant.

“Although he never said if both of them really got on (they had a professional relationship rather than a social one), he was full of respect for the guy,” the former journalist told SOTD, “but in the end, he did not want to walk in Suga’s shadow.” In 1984, Shunji Matsuo decided to part ways with his mentor/idol Suga Yusuke. After he left, he did not immediately set up his own salon. Instead, he chose to freelance, a professional arrangement not uncommon among hairdressers then (and even now). He soon met Christiaan Houtenbos, a Dutchman working the New York fashion circuit and was known as the “Master of Short”.

Shunji Matsuo with Andre Leon Talley. Photo: Shunji Matsuo

It is not hard to see why Mr Matsuo found himself drawn to Christiaan, as he was called. Like Suga, Christiaan preferred short, ‘sassy’ hair, and was behind some of the most iconic looks of the ’80s, such as Debbie Harry’s messy locks and Grace Jones’s flat top (later so strikingly paired with a Giorgio Armani jacket for the Jean Paul Goude-designed cover of her album Nightclubbing). In 1986, Christiaan invited Mr Matsuo to Paris to assist the former in his work during Paris Fashion Week. The designer show that the Japanese found himself doing was that of a compatriot’s: Comme des Garçons.

Through Christiaan, Mr Matsuo found himself working more on fashion shows, such as those by Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, who became a mentor of sorts; and socialising with up-and-coming editorial stars, such as the stylist Paul Cavaco (who mostly teamed up with Bruce Weber) and the fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley (then with Interview). In 1986, Mr Matsuo accepted a print job, which turned out to be a high point of his career since going solo. Shot in Big Sur, California, the photograph of model Kirsten was selected for the cover of the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar, his first American title. Covers beget covers, and he was soon commissioned to work on more Bazaar covers, as well as those of New York and Interview.

All through the latter half of the ’80s, one photographer was a constant in Mr Matsuo’s attempts to align himself with fashion bigwigs of the time and to score editorial features: Gilles Bensimon. Credited for assisting in the launch of American Elle in 1981, Mr Bensimon—what 21st Century New Yorkers call a ‘modelizer’—married Elle Macpherson after his first divorce. Mr Matsuo met model Christie Brinkley in a shoot lensed by Mr Bensimon, and the model and hairdresser, by Mr Matsuo’s account, hit it off. Soon he was asked to visit the residence Ms Brinkley shared with then husband Billy Joel to do her hair. These were happy times, as he recounted, but things took a turn when he made an unwise request. Mr Matsuo had asked the model’s agent if it was alright that in accepting no charge for his services, he could announce that he was Christie Brinkley’s hairdresser. He got his answer when she did not called him back again.

A lover of wigs, Shunji Matsuo posed with his creations before a show in 2016. Photo: 色影师

It was never really discussed if, despite his high-profile clients of the ’80s, Shunji Mastuo was a truly talented hairstylist. People do choose hairstylists the way they choose bartenders: based on the inclination to listen. Fashion folks here who have worked with him consider him a good “shoot stylist”, but no one could recall if he, like Suga and Christiaan, had created anything memorable with cuts. From the bob to balayage, he has done them all, often under the guise of “Japanese techniques”. No one, however, could confirm if they were. To be sure, he is a competent hairdresser, but nobody would say for certain that he was extraordinary. His work in recent years, as one of them noted, was about dreaming up all sorts of effects on hair using hair (sometimes with hair pieces), the effect much like flower arrangement or ikebana.

Mr Matsuo’s love of hair pieces, usually coloured like kueh lapis kukus, came about at the time he had some hair designs photographed for the biographical book, Mane Man, which he was preparing in 2007. He wanted to create some rather over-the-top looks, but was limited by the length and thickness of the hair of the models he had booked. Someone suggested that he could cut hair from wigs, colour them, and attached them onto the models’ head in any fashion he wished. The idea fired his imagination, and he would from then on work with lengths of coloured hair that could be piled like Lego bricks. Unhindered (unhinged, some would say), he laid heaps of them on heads with gusto.

It is not clear if this penchant for the dramatic was a belated expression of what to him was real creativity, or if he was compensating for what he was not able to do in the salon. It is also plausible that this was to show that he had come into his own, no longer eclipsed by Suga or anyone else to whom he was a mere assistant. The creative outburst was less about leaving behind an artistic legacy than simply doing what he wanted to do without being told that he could not. He once said, “In America, I always had a boss or a partner. In Asia, I am my own boss, and I could do anything my own way.”

IMG-20171009-WA0027.jpgShunji Matsuo working on a model during a hair show. Photo: 色影师

As the ’90s unfolded, Mr Matsuo may have realised that he was not going to leave a mark on New York fashion the way others before him did. America had taught him to survive the fashion system there, and to play the publicity games and manoeuvre the social circuit to stay afloat, but it had not fostered the innovation that would elevate him to the iconic status of those he had admired. As a former stylist remarked to SOTD, “During those days, being an Asian in America wasn’t easy. There was only room for one Suga.”

In 1990, Suga—the reason Mr Matsuo went to America—passed away, and the news deeply affected his one-time assistant. Mr Matsuo realised that an era had passed and he sensed that a new chapter of his life had to be written. After opening two moderately successful salons—37.57 on 57th street and Salon Ziba, a precursor to today’s Korean ‘quick cuts’—Shunji Matsuo decided, in the mid-’90s, to leave New York City.

His next port of call was Jakarta. Odd as his choice might have been, he was certain that the Indonesian capital was where he would rebirth the glory he had experienced in New York. Tokyo would have been a logical choice, but he would be, as he told friends, “just a Japanese working among Japanese.” He felt Jakarta would be where he could stand out and be outstanding. Sadly for him, just a year after his salons opened (he moved from one location to another), Indonesia experienced the worse political turmoil of its modern history. The capital city was descending into chaos, an inevitability that resulted from the resignation of President Suharto, whose regime was not able to escape the contagion effect of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997. Mr Matsuo had to leave—“escape” was how he put it.

He arrived in Singapore in 1998, part of a hastily put together plan to flee a city in disorder that he had thought to call home. After a month holed up in the YMCA on Stamford Road and unable (or unwilling?) to do anything (“I was depressed,” he had admitted), he decided to return to Kobe upon the urging of his family. Two weeks later, he was back in Jakarta, then on the road to recovery, but things were not going to be the same. He then decided to rebuild his professional life in Singapore. It was here that he finally found success and recognition, and, more significantly, a salon that bears his very own name. In 1999, Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio opened in Wellington Building, right in the beating heart of Orchard Road.

In 2010, after Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio vacated Wellington Building, where the first salon was opened, it relocated to Takashimaya Shopping Centre. Photo: Zhao XIangji

But Singapore was not to be his next New York. The market was too small and the celebrities that he had hoped to charm were ensnared by others such as the ebullient and ambitious David Gan. Moreover, most of his target customers had not heard of him. His spanking new salon at Wellington Building was no Passion, a sweeping anchor at Palais Renaissance. Mr Matsuo understood the need for publicity and he was determined to be the celebrity hairstylist he had come to consider himself to be. Accept for the executives of hair product brands, he knew very few people here. His best bet was to seek a conduit, and he found it in Jennifer Dunbar, a PR old hat who was not a fashion industry staple, but was able to get her client into magazines, such as the now defunct NTUC Lifestyle. Mr Matsuo was disappointed that he was not doing the high-profile jobs that he desired, but he did not let on. He was grateful for the opportunities, and he soldiered on, as he had before.

A breakthrough of sorts presented itself in 2008 when Mr Matsuo did the hair of the models of Thomas Wee’s comeback show during Singapore Fashion Week of that year. “I think he is good,” Mr Wee had said, “With his many years of experience and with old-school training, he is not your average ‘Orchard Road Salon’ hairstylist. I like to think that he has a lot of energy to be creative.” Bitten by the local fashion show bug, Shunji Matsuo would position his salon as a major sponsor for many of our city’s catwalk presentations.

But his love of fashion shows was not restricted to what went on backstage or the mayhem among the models. He liked it upfront, on the runway, in full view of an audience. A keen participant in hair shows, he would organise his company’s annual dinner and dance as a hair show too, with competing teams creating outlandish styles that encouraged boisterous cheers. He would invite industry folks to serve as judges. It was fun and it was serious, and it reflected his belief that the hair-styling business is glamourous.

Shunji Matsuo Makeover Magic Kobe in Apr 2016Shunji Matsuo with his ‘models’ before the Makeover Magic in Kobe last year. Photo: Shunji Mastuo

In 2013, a new idea for a show emerged. It would put not only his hair designs on stage, but also the creator in the limelight. Following his fixation with hair pieces, Mr Matsuo came to know a wig maker who wove pieces out of real hair. So impressed by these wigs was he that he decided that he would do a hair show by styling the wigs on those who needed them most: cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Makeover Magic was thus born and the first show was staged in Kobe. It would become an annual event (in Singapore too), and it would be extended to elderly ladies who wanted a chance to look simply extraordinary. Modern business practices would have called this corporate social responsibility, but Mr Matsuo did not describe it as such.

Makeover Magic was well received in Japan, bringing accolades to its Japanese creator, who, prior to this, did not think he had made it in his home country. But skeptics found what Mr Matsuo did to be too over-the-top to be a makeover in the conventional sense. He was not working with wigs alone; he added those hair pieces he had come to love. Some attendees thought the old ladies looked victimised—a ridiculous remodeling that was the vain indulgence of one man than the true enjoyment of the duped. In Singapore, some called it “搞笑行动” (gao xiao xing dong) or comedy routine, or, to steal an Italian Vogue cover blurb, “makeover madness”, but conceded that for many of the participants, it was the fun rather than the fantasy that was magical. Mr Matsuo was unfazed by his critics, and he believed in his mission of making people happy, even for the brief moment they were playing dressed-up, more so after being diagnosed with the dreaded disease cancer.

An admirer of Lee Kuan Yew (and other dogmatic personalities such as his favourite author, the “god of business consulting” Yukio Funai), Mr Matsuo considered Singapore very much his home. It was only in the last two years that he started going back to Japan frequently, partly to stage Makeover Magic, partly to seek treatment for his debilitating illness. Against the odds, and against an industry dominated by an influential few, he was able to produce Shunji Matsuo 2.0. Although he did not create anything akin to the “wedge” of his first employer in America, nor left a legacy that would be invaluable to the annals of Singapore fashion, Shunji Matsuo will always be remembered as the one who came and conjured.

The Virtuoso At Valentino

Valentino SS 2018 P1

After seeing Pierpaolo Piccioli’s collection for Valentino, it is clear to us who among the two (once co-creators at the house) was the weaker that Christian Dior enticed. As a solo act, Mr Piccioli has quickly found his footing although some of us have seen it there all along, as we noted at his first one-man couture show for the house early this year. Or, perhaps, finally unhindered, he is able to conceive for a Valentino that strikes the delicate balance between the house’s unmistakable femininity and the present-day call for a sense of the street. It is a sweet spot.

According to those who quoted from his show notes, Mr Piccioli wanted to “make the ordinary extraordinary” with his spring/summer 2018 collection. His ordinary is, however, not the commonplace that has kept lesser brands afloat. Valentino Garavani’s own extraordinary, while not ground-shaking even at its height in the ’60s, is unapologetic femininity that ensured the head-to-toe good taste few women can resist. Under Mr Piccioli’s stewardship, the aesthetic has an even more alluring magic. Evocative of the blitheness of literary heroines of the past, the sometimes near-pious appearance and, at the same time, sweet girlishness have almost obliterated the memory of the uninspired collections of Mr Garavani’s successor, the by-now forgotten Alessandra Facchinetti, formerly from Gucci.

Valentino SS 2018 G1Valentino SS 2018 G2.jpg

Mr Piccioli’s predilection for high necks and long sleeves has prompted some women to think he uses too much cloth.  It is actually refreshing that he has given us reason to believe that fashion, in the end, is about fabrics, not the lack of it, and how they flow on the body, not how they expose it. By that, we don’t mean that Mr Piccioli’s designs are excessively proper and devoid of sex appeal. His short dresses have a youthfulness that is akin to anything worn at Coachella. Yet, he did not have to resort to tired tricks such as blatant transparency and all-over logos to set his message in the clear present.

The first set of the latest collection, in fact, took us quite by surprise. Who’d thought of outdoor wear at Valentino? But there they are: The North Face refaced, and the result sumptuous. These are parkas and kin that are not designed for the rough and tumble of challenging mountains; these are for the joy of get-togethers in an alpine lodge, more so when the outers come with sleeves aglitter with paillettes. Equally beguiling are the fabrics: gossamer veils more in line with couture than clothing that benefits from the use of Gore-Tex. And the layers in pale colours have the sublime lightness of feuillete.

Valentino SS 2018 G3

Valentino SS 2018 G4

To be sure, glammed-up outdoor wear has been explored at Sacai, where Chitose Abe has re-imagined them in unlikely tweed. Ms Abe has a flair for feminising sports and outdoor fashion without feminine overkill, first seen in her collaboration with Nike in spring 2015. Mr Piccioli’s versions are less avant garde, perhaps, and less of hybrids, but they are no less innovative. The pocket placements, the tops stitches, and the mix of fabrics in just a pair for a piece of garment suggest a penchant for the “extraordinary” indeed.

The youthful factor is enticingly augmented by rather un-Valentino details: exposed pocket bags on pants, allowed to hang out like Miley Cirus’s one-time over-exposed tongue. Whether this is a nod to how women—young and not so young—enjoy wearing short shorts with shredded or ripped crotch that exposes unusually long pocket bags, it is not quite clear. But Mr Piccioli’s version is nothing like the sad sacks described. In fact, the pockets are so exquisitely designed, proportioned, and embellished, they’re not the least extraneous, adding to the overall glamourous utility, like a handbag augmenting the stylishness of an outfit.

Valentino SS 2018 G5Valentino SS 2018 G6

There’s also something beguiling about the way Mr Piccioli works with rather conventional forms, but offers compositional daring within. The juxtaposition of prints and textures, the gathers and flounces asymmetrically fashioned, the multiple necklines and singular softness of the shoulders—they validate the notion that women do not need the aggression of extreme shapes to make a statement. His silhouettes do not challenge less outré tastes, yet they are seductive for women who are averse to the unsurprising. His dresses—from red-carpet-worthy gowns to those that would not be out of place on a prairie bathed in sunshine—have a sense of ease about them that does not suggest too effortless.

Despite all the highfalutin discourse about the moon that Mr Piccioli had supposedly shared with the media prior to the show, the clothes offer no perceptible hint of anything lunar. We like that so much of what he has showed is uplifting, just as the swishing of dresses, we imagine, could be euphonic. If fashion should not be minimal, as the prevailing winds suggest, it sure could be as astutely elaborate as Valentino.

Photos: (top) Valentino and (catwalk) indigital.tv

Beautiful Balance At Balenciaga

Like many of you, we were initially rather perplexed by what Demna Gvasalia did at Balenciaga. Admittedly, it took us a while to get used to his idea of what Diana Vreeland referred to as “devastating”. “One fainted. One simply blew up and died,” she said of her favourite designer’s work. We’ve since died other deaths. Mr Gvasalia not only resuscitated Balenciaga, he brought us from the brink… of what, it is hard to say other than something associated with excess. He opened us up to possibilities, such as oddness, plainness, or the fit of garments—they don’t have to cling; they can fall away from the body. And they can look good.

He has made us realise that we do like fashion that is not easy, that makes us think, that makes us wonder how it’s all going to sit into the general scheme of things or fit with the rest of our wardrobe. Perhaps, by now, we’re used to his less-than-ordinary proportions and the jab at femininity, with results that baffle the opposite sex. Mr Gvasalia understands irony and subtlety and the non-so-subtle (such as logos) and how all can come together with as much lure as Facebook feeds, dissonant as they may be. And some of us are—eventually—sold.

The first look, so appealingly worn by Stella Tenant, immediately drew us into its un-Balenciaga androgyny. But there is something else at work here: something lowbrow. The striped shirt is ordinary-looking (buttoned-down!); it’s unadorned and it looks large enough to belong to a guy at home or work (the accounts department?). And the skirt—what our mothers used to call the “tight skirt”—is as unassuming as they come. We won’t be surprised if a school teacher or a HR manager lays claim to it. For added interest, a charm belt fastened with a key chain is hung low across the waist. “Re-purposed office wear”, they call it, and we thought office wear, as a product category, has all but disappeared.

Balenciaga SS 2018 G1Balenciaga SS 2018 G2

The shirts may have the appeal of Van Heusens, but those with prints of international banknotes could have been from Japan’s Don Quijote general store! If one charm can be attributed to Mr Gvasalia, it is in the unpredictable high-low stir that keeps many a fashion editor fascinated and craving. His modus operandi seems to suggest a deliberate avoidance of the Balenciaga archives; he gives the impression that he procures solely from the karang guni, or the French equivalent of the rag-and-bone man. Maddening and, at the same time, delightful is this mixed bag, this disparate sources of influence: you never can know where he’ll glean from next. Even when he tackles the crass and the kitsch (and he does), the method in his calculated madness (invariably considered “cool”) makes us reconsider the elegance we were brought up with—chuck it out of the window.

To date, this is Mr Gvasalia’s most elegant collection for Balenciaga, and a wearable one to boot. Elegance as sum effect may be meaningless to Millennials, but before we scoff at it as dated grace and style or fixation, we should consider the point that effortless ingenuity will eventually take the place of vulgar overkill. Sure, the Balenciaga of today can no longer be the “very soul of discretion”, as writer and chief curator of fashion and textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratfs in Paris, Pamela Golbin, said, but it can still be looked to as arbiter of style with strength. Balenciaga today has captured the shape of things now, and possibly, to come.

On the surface, Mr Gvasalia may have disregarded the traditional Balenciaga shapes, but he has not abandoned shapes. Not one bit. Sure, these are not forms associated with the couture of yore, but they are those that ring as alluringly as a cocoon coat, only now they fall with an insouciance that is in step with a preference for the relaxed and the less studied.

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Despite the redefined shapes and the refreshing oddness, we sense a jolt of déjà vu: the newsprint pattern, which, although used differently, reminds us of John Galliano’s Dior and those coats that look like another is layered on top of each, a visual extra that has been seen at Comme des Garçons on more than one occasion. We are, however, not dismissing them as facsimiles. On the other hand, they make anew what’s been successfully birthed in much the same way his own Vetements breathed new life to trashy labels such Juicy Couture.

The fear-not-of-the-banal at Vetements is certainly brought along to Balenciaga. Just as you think that the haute bearing of the brand will be untarnished, out comes platform shoes by the crassest of crass footwear: Crocs. Its appearance towards the end of the show seems to give the collection the exclamation mark it does not need, but is fun to have—a ‘screamer’, as the exclamation mark is also known in the printing world. No one could imagine a campy Balenciaga, but no one expected it to be this delightfully twisted. We now wonder what it would be like if Demna Gvasalia takes over the house of Chanel. Now, that would be fun to witness.

Photos: Balenciaga