Fashion In The Time Of Coronavirus

Now, we’re really all dressed up, with nowhere to go. And all the dresses out there, with so few to buy


20-03-13-17-38-23-503_decoWith the nearby casino traffic affected, the usually busy-even-in-the-weekday Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands is eerily quiet on a Friday afternoon

By Mao Shan Wang

The activation of DORSON Orange on the 7th of February, more than a month ago, have put a damper (limited?) on many people’s social life, as well as on the fashion retail front. But despite the gloomy news all around, what’s arrived at stores still need to be communicated and made known to those whose job or inclination is to share such information. I continue to receive communiqué from various brands or attendant PR agencies. While this is positive indication that work is uninterrupted (and a good thing), how some communicate, even behind the security of a PC monitor, makes me wonder if the COVID-19 pandemic is really affecting us in a way that should have tempered our salutary vigour.

“Hope you are doing amazing!” came the opening sentence of one e-mail I received recently, with the tall, unmissable exclamation, to be clear, the sender’s. Amazing is when people, despite the potential peril of the present, go about their lives bravely and quietly, without succumbing to panic and without inflicting inconvenience or threat, or harm onto others. Watching the news and learning about the lock down of, not an entire city or an entire province, but a whole country, or worrying that even just going to work may mean coming home with an unwelcome guest that would be detrimental to the health of my aged parents, is not. I am, regretfully, far from “doing amazing”.

If we’re discouraged to shake hands, even air-kiss, it is odd that we’re digitally communicating as if we’re giving the equivalent of a BFF hug. The plasticky exchanges and suspect chumminess the fashion industry has a weakness for seem unable to be toned down in their enthusiasm, even during sombre, health-challenging times. But there are extremes, too. I have been receiving e-mails that open without the sender asking how I am. They go straight to the crux of the message or missive. Better curt than affected? Only one in the entire month of February came with the welcome “I hope this email finds you well”.

20-03-13-18-52-49-507_decoThe Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands as quiet as a church on non-service days

Is it daft to broach the subject of fashion when the world has more dire concerns, when headlines are as grim as FT’s “Fashion designers hit by coronavirus outbreak”, when Nike (among others, in fact) will “temporarily close” their stores in the US, Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand? It is undoubtedly not the best of times to ponder what we will wear this weekend or buy. The thing is, would we be doing anything when the weekend comes? Is it not better to ensconce ourselves at home, even when our city is not in a state of lock down or when we have not chosen a hermetic life? Or is social distancing too distant a concept to adopt when somewhere out there, there are those having fun, drinking with buddies, singing with karaoke junkies, and discarding used masks—when they do wear one—on public grounds, on the way home?

Social media has been showing me that it’s frighteningly quiet in the malls, even when there is no call for stores to close. Friends in retail, too, have painted the same picture, sometimes even more bleakly. To see that for myself and to view racks full of untouched clothes, I thought an expedition to a mall or two might be the thing to embark on this uneventful Friday afternoon. Working the legs has always been more enjoyable to me than activating the fingers. In any case, if crowds—or lines—are not to be encountered, I thought, perhaps it would be a good time to experience browsing without the intrusive fervour of the compulsive fashion shopper.

20-03-13-19-34-01-647_decoTwo floors of Gucci without a single shopper inside

Yet, the appeal of going out is, for me, diminished to the point that thinking about it does not impel me to want to go further than the nearest Starbucks, which, for reasons even the staff is unable to elucidate, is always full. To see for myself the near-vacant malls, perhaps just once, may open my eyes to something I had not witness before. During the SARS outbreak of 2003, also the year we were introduced to Fusionpolis, NEWater, and SingPass, retail was hit like a tsunami. Many malls, I now remember—especially those in Orchard Road—were quieter than a church on non-mass days. It didn’t help, too, that two months earlier GST was raised from 3% to 4%, which may have additionally dampened the mood to spend. Somehow, the visible quiet made me feel safe—foolishly, now that I think back. It was social distancing at work, but, at that time, we didn’t know it as that.

This afternoon, around five, I took the train (that itself deserves its own story for another day) to The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands—usually a place with a healthy traffic, even on a weekday. I should state that prior to my MRT train ride to MBS, I did not have any respiratory symptom that would suggest I could be case number _ _ _ nor did I leave this island in the past two weeks. From the Bayfront station turnstiles, thermal scanning machine behind the cordoned-off entrance of the mall can be clearly seen. What you see is not dissimilar from now-controlled entry points of hospitals. However, no declaration form needs to be filled; visitors just walk in. A table is placed behind the stanchions, and is manned by a sole security personnel. There is nothing on the table. Not a single dispenser of hand-sanitiser is available, nor, in fact, anywhere in the complex that houses a reported 93,000 m2 of retail space. Perhaps the expected low foot-fall doesn’t require the precaution, or additional expense.

20-03-14-17-17-05-568_decoDeathly quiet across all floors of the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands

What has been said about malls is true here. There is traffic, but it is barely discernible; people are possibly going to or getting off work. The quiet surrounding would normally be conducive to shopping, but this time, it’s unnerving. It is the deathly stillness, the proverbial ghost town. I can’t make out if music is piped into the stores or the mall itself. Perhaps it’s how audible the unnatural tranquility is that mood music fails at its job. At the information counter, I stop to ask about the show times of Spectra, the promenade “light and water show” that is a visitor draw, thinking I might be able to have the entire display to myself, but I was told the show is “cancelled temporarily for safety reasons”. Is the traffic really bad, I ask. “Yes,” says the ebullient counter staff, “It’s been really quiet since February.” I pursue: Is it really this—pointing to what’s before us— bad? “Bad,” she repeats after me emphatically, “Really bad.”

It doesn’t take long to see money hasn’t been spent. My first stop was Gucci. Three masked salespersons, initially talking among themselves, chorus a “hello” as I appear, but have not stepped into the store. When I do, two of them trail me. Feeling watched and sized up, I leave as quickly as I entered. Next, Dior, where the equally empty store has the welcome air of a detention centre, the staff is indifferent to my presence. At Louis Vuitton, where there is no queue or a door person with an iPad, the store is not vacant, but the few customers browsing are like a live demo of what keeping a 2-metre distance with others is like (actually the separation is wider here. I am nearer to mannequins than people). At zero-customer Prada, a helpful staff offers to show me what has recently arrived as I strain to hear him speak behind a surgical mask. When I leave, the guy thanks me and his colleague follows with, “please come again.”

That sounds more like an urging than a farewell. What’s noticeable is how cheerless sales staff have generally become. It does not help that the mask in that unfriendly green that they wear can’t reveal a semblance of a smile. Eyes, not trained to communicate, are blank stares. At Saint Laurent, a pair of peepers look at me as if to say, “What are you doing here when no one is? Just as in-store sales have plummeted, so has geniality. Is being glum a national malaise or natural result of a global pandemic?

20-03-16-10-53-46-061_decoThe strange and uneasy hush at Dior

From outside Louis Vuitton, I can hear a buzz coming from below me, as if people are in some kind of group activity that encourages glee. That would be a contrast to the stillness up here. I stand behind the glass balustrade—not touching—and look down into the atrium. The outside dining area of TWG Tea Salon comes into view. It is busy—no different from TWGs in other malls. I see that all, but one table are occupied. No obvious distancing here: tables are spaced apart in what to me is the usual proximity, which is really almost edge to edge. The interaction between service staff and customers are intimate, so is that between the tea drinkers. A couple is sharing a cake; the woman feeding the man.

It is usually easy to spot the trendy at The Shoppes at MBS. Young Chinese tourists are particularly noticeable, in their logo-laden garb, hopping from store to store, in their designer sneaker-aided gait. The first time I saw someone in a pair of Balenciaga Triple S, it was here—the wearer, I later learn is an Indonesian, who is also a big spender at Dior. This afternoon (by now, early evening), trendy and trending looks are as visible as a certain contagion. Have the clothes and bags and shoes been left on the racks and shelves—now full and seemingly untouched, as I am presently witnessing, with a disconcerting measure of disbelief? Two Indonesians emerging from the casino interrupt my thoughts. One of them is audible in his surprise (or disappointment, I can’t say for certain): “Di dalam sunyi sekali (It’s so quiet inside)!”

20-03-16-17-50-28-461_deco20-03-16-17-53-27-232_decoAll quiet on the LVMH front

I am off to ION Orchard, a mall many consider to be the belly button of Orchard Road retail. It’s all very welcoming here: no thermal scanners and no hand sanitisers, and no buzz-free foreboding. Visitors are received with wide-open entryways, and traffic appears healthy—at least outside the MRT station on B2 (the entrance to Wisma Atria on the other side is just as bustling). Once on the first floor, the murmur of foot traffic and attendant chatter is barely discernible. I thought I might see some browsers here, if not spenders, but the shopper-lite stores tell me stock rooms are probably a little too full now. Of the few who are walking past store fronts, I see none with a shopping bag. Money, I guess, isn’t spent here too.

The first sight before me is the Gucci Psychedelic pop-up in the atrium, showcasing their new take on the double-G logo. The merchandise is totally devoid of human company, except a clearly bored sales staff, who explains haltingly that the colourful monogram is inspired by “’60s disco” (“I see” is my amused reply). I take a peak at Burberry: inside, as still as a library—when it’s closed. Walking in might mean the spotlight is on me, another with no desire to buy. That, even from the window, is the case with me when it comes to this British brand. I then walk into sleepy Bottega Veneta. The numerous Pouches, reposed, stare at me like morning-after pillows.

20-03-16-17-51-55-823_decoTotally un-visited Burberry

Over at Louis Vuitton, there is no line, nor any queue-enforcement barrier. I stand at the entrance, but the one attendant (or security personnel?) pays no attention to my occupying the hallowed space. He does not ask if I am here to see someone; he does not whip out an iPad to ask me to show him what it is I wish to buy; he does not ask me to join a queue. I walk in and then I walk out. I am not sure if they allow anyone without a purchase in mind to enter the gleaming space. Next door at Dior, the reception is a little warmer. A girl with an accent I better not place tries to impress me with what has “just arrived”. And shows me the Oblique sneakers when she caught me spying them. “Our best sellers,” she tells me. You have stock? “Oh, yes! What size you want?”

I have never been a sole shopper in a store in my entire adult shopping life. This must be what it feels like when the sultan of Brunei—or any member of his family—requires undivided attention during the time spent within brick and mortar confines to buy something, anything. Nor have I ever seen racks so packed with clothing—an optic, if I am not wrong, discouraged in luxury retail—that the three-finger-width spacing between hangers (a typical visual merchandising requirement) not only do not apply, they cannot apply. The clothes are so tightly packed in some stores that they make me feel sorry for the rack or rail that has to bear the irregular, possibly illegal, weight. Perhaps more unsettling is not being able to really see the full countenance (or, conversely, the scowl) of the person(s) serving me as surgical masks become de rigueur. Might this be the prelude to the end of service with a smile?

20-03-18-00-31-31-945_decoThe lure-none Gucci pop-up in the atrium of  ION Orchard

Not only is there a drop in the number of shoppers, there’s a dearth in the presence of the fashionably togged. I need to remind myself that when there are fewer and fewer social events, there is less compulsion to go full-fashion. An acquaintance who attends parties that lure socialites in large numbers revealed to me that there are hardly any of those these days, not even luncheons. Someone said to me that a journalist she knows told her that media invites to launches and such have virtually dried up. One sales manager lamented to me that since she’s not seeing clients anymore (they prefer not to meet her, she believes), there is no motivation to dressed her best just to go into a gloomy office.

Increasingly, the call in many countries is for citizens to stay at home. And some have to not by choice. The editor-in-chief of 品 (Pin) magazine Grace Lee Jiajing was issued a 14-day stay-home notice (not quarantine, she made known the difference) upon her return from Milan and Paris following the respective fashion weeks. She relates her work-from-home experience via blog posts on the digital issue of 品. She had initially thought that this arrangement might free her from the morning ritual of “how to dress in a way that won’t be considered to be of no pin (taste)”. But soon, she found herself “wearing Comme des Garçons at home to work”. Whether that was a result of boredom or a moment of vanity, she did not say, except that “even when no one sees her, she has to be fashionable and live interestingly.” 👍🏼 and 赞. To quote Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, to which I owe the title of this post, “The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not.”

Photos: Galerie Gombak

3 thoughts on “Fashion In The Time Of Coronavirus

  1. Pingback: First Strike | Style On The Dot

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