High Hopes

Culture Cartel’s sophomore outing is massive: all three levels of the F1 Pit Building. To better “make Singapore and Southeast Asia a street culture hub”?

CC 2019 P1CC 2019 P2.jpgFaçade (top) and the main video installation (below) that greets visitors at the entrance

By Ray Zhang

Given the dismay expressed to me about this year’s Street Superior (also known, confusingly, by its previous name Sole Superior), staged last month at Scape, I didn’t think Culture Cartel would top its debut last year. Street Superior (SS) is the old bird of street/sneaker festivals. Last year’s event at the Pasir Panjang Power Station was what my friend Adele called a “sneakerhead’s wet dream”. It was, to me, a pasar malam of a retail get-together, which looked more like an accidental convention than a bazaar of organised polish. This year, there was again a change of venue, and it was, to many attendees, too much of a jumble, too manic, and too inadequately curated in too crowded a confine. That SS spread over indoor and outdoor spaces slapped it with a too-all-over-the-place perception. It didn’t help that Scape has never been Orchard Road’s high point when it comes to retail, F&B, or the hub of youth culture.

Culture Cartel (CC), however, chose to remain at the F1 Pit Building, taking all of its three massive floors. Sure, this isn’t exactly the heart or most happening part of the city (the nearest MRT station—Promenade—isn’t at its very doorstep), never mind the Singapore Flyer, the ignored centurion keeping watch, but with successful events staged here, such as the recent Boutique Fairs and the Affordable Art Fair, this elongated block is increasingly associated with large-scale shopping events that happily do not commensurate with the predictable blandness offered nearby in the Marina Square/Suntec City stretch or even further north, in Orchard Road. If you drive, there is the added appeal/attraction of free parking.

Mercedes Benz X Coarse installationMercedes Benz X Coarse installation, featuring the CLA Coupé and Noop

Frankly, as I approach the F1 Pit Building after alighting at the nearest bus-stop (Promenade station or opposite The Ritz-Carlton: I prefer the latter), I feared that, with the three floors they have been touting, as opposed to last year’s two, CC may still be a gathering of space fillers than stalls/brands/creators/merch that compel me to look and enjoy and buy. As it turned out, my fear was speculative. What I appreciated about CC last year was how orderly and spacious the fair was. The same can be said of this year’s, but I did not immediately sense (nor did anyone forewarned me) that the exhibitors were not up to scratch.

In fact, this year, I feel things are taken up a notch. Street culture has always been a visual culture. And the space planners have made CC visually engaging. Even exhibitors were in on it, creating within their own spaces, regardless of size, inviting set-ups (imagine, Limited Edt goes camp with Sneaker Gala!). It helps that Culture Cartel has a title sponsor: Mercedes Benz. That its obligatory installations—by LA-based COARSE studio of Mark Landwehr and Sven Waschk, and the Spanish mural artist Ricardo Cavolo—were not the stuff associated with a car driven by a certain demographic well match CC’s aspiring street cred. These had the heart in the right places, so to speak. Even the normally staid Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the conservative DBS Bank were on board, with STB’s Executive Director Jean Ng saying through a media release that CC will “boost Singapore’s appeal as an entertainment and lifestyle events destination”.

Stadium Goods & Limited EdtWith Limited Edt as co-organiser, it is to be expected that our island’s most known ‘indie’ retailer has more than one unmissable spaceLimited Edt @ CCThose into the holy grail of kicks, this Limited Edt corner is glammed-up nirvana

Footwear is, as expected, a draw, but it isn’t a major highlight. It is visibly represented by Reebok, New Balance, Puma, Skechers, and Vans, but no major booth from Adidas or Nike, which is a pity since both brands are unavoidable in any conversation about street style. Their non-participation perhaps share the same reason why you’ll never find Apple in the likes of the IT Show: they just don’t do consumer fairs. The absence of the world’s two largest sneaker brands, however, is more than made up by what’s put out by Limited Edt, once again, co-organiser of Culture Cartel. Other indie re-sellers, including secondhand shoes, give the fair a vendor vibe that regulars of (sneaker or other) cons could relate to and enjoy.

An interesting concept is Ox Street—not a single shoe is for sale. You’d not be wrong to think what’s available is a service. The striking stand is set up to promote the trading e-platform Ox Street, a digital thoroughfare for sellers and buyers of sneakers that are often unavailable at the usual outlets. Its Dutch proprietor Gijs Verheijke was overheard telling an enquirer that “it’s ridiculous to wait a long time for the shoes you want”. For those willing to pay, Mr Verheijke suggests visiting Ox Street to see if there’s the shoe you must have, now. Authenicity is assured as a team of experts will make sure sellers offload the real deal and buyers get to wear the genuine stuff. Authenticated sneakers come with a verification tag. This is like Vestaire Collective or The Real Real for sneakers! With a focus on Asia. In the Ox Street space, two pairs of Nike X Sacai LDV Waffles are encased atop a box-stand. One of them is a fake. If you can guess which is the genuine article, you get to win a pair of shoes, apparently (I’m not sure which). FYI, the said Nike X Sacai kicks is listed on Ox Street for S$865!

CC 2019 P3.jpgThe Artist Series Program brings together different practitioners for a 12-piece collectionMacro ScrutinizationSneaker customiser SBTG’s clothing label Macro Scrutinization 

The fashion offerings, while no Supreme equivalent in the hype stakes, are interesting enough, and dominated by those brands selling T-shirts with an ‘attitude’, which often means a clever phrase—one “Magic Pussy” drew considerable attention (its Indonesian designer told an interested shopper the phrase is based on “an ex-girlfriend!”)—or striking digi-graphics such as those by Malaysian brand Stoned & Co. There is also the Artist Series Program, which allows graphic designers and artists to express the street side of their aesthetic sum. They’re, on a whole, quite good, but I wish the tees come in 100% cotton, rather than Tetoron Cotton (TC) jersey. One thing does stand out to me in a slightly disturbing way: every brand seems to have been produced by the same factory: identical fabrics, identical stitching, and identical shape, or sourced from the same blank canvas that’s not quite the equivalent of Gildan.

A few ‘personalities’ have taken up retail space at CC. One of them is the recently almost-disgraced Preetipls (Preeti Nair), the hip-hop artist, who, together with her brother/collaborator Subhas Nair, was offered “conditional warning” by the police for the “offensive” reactive rap video posted in the wake of one “brownface” ad for E-Pay (an app by NETS), starring a remunerated-to-do-the-job Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew. With the past behind her, Preetipls sat at her stall Preetily, and happily chatted with customers, who seemed more amused by her presence than interested in her black or white T-shirts with not-clever nor subtle messages, such as “YES IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE CHINESE” (yep, full caps and, yep, the one she wore in that video) sitting below another that says—irony probably not intended—美丽 or pretty, her screen moniker in Mandarin!

Preetipls @ CC 2019The hip-hop artiste Preetipls happily manning her stallMay Tan @ CC 2019Surrender’s Mae Tan, too, has set up stall

Another is Mae Tan, whose family is the second owner of the multi-label store Surrender and backer of Christian Dada, as well as distributor of Off-White. Ms Tan has set up a rather large, linear space selling vintage clothing and accessories, as opposed to, one might reasonably expect, old stocks of Surrender and others in her family’s fold. A similarly togged woman, who was earlier seen talking to the stylish proprietor, told a companion that she thinks Ms Tan “is selling her own clothes and her friends’.” Since I didn’t see any men’s wear, so none came from chums such as Jumius Wong—EIC of T mag and the come-back Elle. Provenance aside, I think she has a spirited mix of things that should appeal to those with a weakness for designer duds that ask to be looked at.

I am not sure if fashion is what people come here for. In fact, I doubt clothing is the main draw. Apart from sneaker customiser SBGT’s clothing line Macro Scrutinization (presented in what could be the handsomest space of CC), the other stall that seems to attract the most shoppers is the thought-to-be-defunct Japanese label íxi:z. This was, in the ’80s and ’90s, a rather popular casual wear brand, but according to a CNA Lifestyle report, it will be reborn on our island as a streetwear label. When I spoke to the friendly sales staff, pretending I knew nothing about this strange four alphabets that look like roman numerals, I was told that íxi:z is resurrected by the family who was the former distributor of the brand here. Why bring it back, I asked, but she couldn’t answer. The small collection comprises T-shirts in a few styles, emblazoned with the vintage íxi:z logo and Raf Simons-esque photo-prints.

Gakkin & Noko.jpgJapanese tattoist Gakkin and his daughter NokoTattoo @ CC.jpgTattoo artist at work

Tattoo continues to be a draw at Culture Cartel. I’d be the first to admit I know very little about permanently and decoratively inking skin, but it seems people do come here not only to see the art in action, but also to get something done on themselves. I spoke to a young chap who was contemplating getting “something small, even when my girlfriend is dead against it.” Where might that something small be inked on? “In the centre of my lower back,” he replied. Does that mean you’d have to take off your T-shirt? “If must, okay lah,” he grinned. What if an image of you stripped down to your shorts were circulated online and it went viral, prompting a newspaper headline, such as the recent one about an outcry in our northern neighbour, “Malaysian Minister of Tourism, Art and Culture condemns ‘obscene, half naked’ tattoo expo in Kuala Lumpur”? “Huh?” He didn’t look like he knew what I was asking. “Obscene, meh?” Probably not, I figured—not when Amsterdam-based Japanese tattoo star Gakkin is here with his 10-year-old daughter Noko, dubbed “one of the youngest tattoo prodigies in the world” to show their skill.

Even if not much in Culture Cartel interests you, the three levels of the F1 Pit Building that it occupies are a pleasure to walk through. I can’t say quite enough how the spaciousness of the set-up really makes the visit far more pleasant than, for instance, the packed-to-the-rafters Boutiques Fair of last month, in which, there was virtually no space to kick back with a cup of iced coffee (“sorry, we’re out of ice,” every stall told me). At CC, the Spinelli/The Glenrothes/The 1925 shared lounge, with their Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona-ish chairs, could be a destination itself. In his opening address, Convention Director of Culture Cartel (and the main creator) Jeremy Tan said that his goal is to “make street culture more accessible to people” and “Singapore and Southeast Asia a street culture hub”.

After I left and was crossing the traffic junction on Raffles Avenue to get to Millennia Walk, I saw Patricia Mok—sunglasses almost obscuring her face—approaching. She suddenly stopped before two fellow pedestrians beside me, and asked “you finished shopping, ah?” Yes, was the reply. The actress/comedienne didn’t prolong the chat. “I better hurry” and she dashed off. Jeremy Tan could really be on to something.

Culture Cartel is on till Sunday, 8 December. Admission, SGD24 (for single-day entry pass) is available at the door. Photos: Zhao Xiangji