The End Of Esprit

Once a go-to label for those seeking affordable threads with a trendy spin, Esprit has lagged behind to the point it has to now close all of its stores across Asia, except, for the time being, China


Esprit SG 1Shuttered during the during the Circuit Beaker, Esprit will now close, probably for good. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Seriously blighted by the COVID-19, fashion retail in the region just witnessed its first major tragedy. Hong Kong-headquartered Esprit announced yesterday that it would pull out of the Asian market, except in China. Esprit’s closure surprised no one. Its appeal has waned for many years as shoppers—more discerning, we’re told—are lured by cheaper and even more casual rags offered by brands such as H&M and Bershka, as well as local outfits such as The Editor’s Market. It’s telling when digital-native news outlets react to such a large-scale regional closure by saying, “If your mum and aunt are fans, it’s probably best to break the sad news to them.”

Esprit has been talking about “turnarounds” since at least 2013. Yet it never quite achieved it. To be sure, the brand has been languishing, as if waiting for something as insidious as COVID-19 to strike. For most millennials, Esprit does not register on their radar, a situation evident from the time ‘millennials’ became an important consumer category. For many in the trade, it did not adapt despite clearly evolving retail and fashion trends. The situation became more dire after its entrepreneur-turned-billionaire chairman Michael Ying (邢李㷧), ex-husband of Taiwanese screen legend Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia (林青霞), vacated that corporate seat in 2006 and, as reported, cashed out half of his stake in the brand.

In the early ’70s, the stars had aligned for Mr Ying, then working in a garment factory at a time they still existed in Hong Kong. Fate intervened and it was here that he met Esprit founders Susie and Doug Tompkin. They described him to Time that he struck them as “confident and smart”. In 1972, he was appointed their sourcing agent, and two years later, with a borrowed USD2,600, joined the husband and wife, and created Esprit Far East Group. At first, the Tompkins designed the clothes (mostly the missus, by our understanding), while Mr Ying oversaw the production. In time, the Hong Kong operations grew to become Esprit Asia, allowing Mr Ying his own reign over the market he was thought to know best, while the Tompkins controlled the US operations and planned their European expansion. In 1993, Esprit was listed on the HK Stock Exchange, and three years after that, the Tompkins sold their shares to the man who made their brand big in Asia. The business on our island, similarly, was looking promising.

But fashion is not known to be lenient on the labels that lag. As the ’90s wound down, Esprit in the US went from trendy to fusty. By 2012, it closed all of its North American stores after banking on its past glory for a turnaround that barely struck for nearly a decade. As early as 2005, a year before Mr Ying stepped down from his influential role at the company he co-created, the media was speculating that Esprit was “at risk of being left behind by trends”. Zara had opened its first Singapore store in 2002 (Hong Kong in 2004). The near-instant success and widespread influence of Zara should have affected or alerted Esprit, by then considered a “tired brand”, but, enervated or not, they simply coasted.

Esprit SG 2A closed-during-Circuit-Breaker Esprit store. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Analysts said that Esprit was in serious need of trendy-looking stores, filled with trendy-looking (if not trendy) clothes. In their early, halcyon years here—when, as they say, your mum and aunt were fans, Esprit was, in fact, a sprightly clothing line retailed in swanky modernistic interiors that would not be out of place in post-Amazon Singapore, even today. Its Orchard Road flagship in the mid-’80s was conceived by the late Japanese design giant Shiro Kuramata, who was noted during that decade and after for his more avant-garde interiors for Issey Miyake’s stores throughout the world. Fans of Shiro Kuratama’s work also remember him to be part of the Ettore Sottsass-led design collective known as the Memphis group, once quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and FisherPrice”.

The duplex Esprit store was situated at the now defunct Crown Prince Shopping Centre (replaced by Knightsbridge where the Apple store is), a part of the Crown Prince Hotel that opened in 1984, with a three-storey retail podium, much of it barely visited except for Esprit. Although Esprit was a mass-market label that might have recalled the Gap, it was more Benetton in spirit, and very much captured the era that saw the birth of Swatch. Yet, its retail setting was unlike any of its ilk. For starters, that flagship was huge, and it was not packed to the rafters with merchandise the way it is today at, say, Uniqlo’s main Orchard Road store. Inside, it was not only spacious, it was a nod to modernism without that “shotgun wedding”.

We remember quite vividly the massive glass door-fronted entrance, after which lies an escalator, stretching diagonally from the second floor into the centre of the first. Under this pair of moving staircases was a circular cashier counter. The perimeter of the space is a meandering fringe of wire ropes, used not as balustrades, but as framework on which racks and shelves could be affixed. A former employee, who asked not to be identified, told us that “Esprit was really a nice space—very designer, not like their later stores. For many customers, Esprit was a very fun place to shop in. That it was very big for a mass-market brand probably helped. We moved the merchandise a lot, so that each time, a shopper walked in, they felt like they had entered a different space. We had a terrific visual merchandising team, too. They really made the store different from so many others at that time, such as Benetton, which I thought did not match what we did.”

EspritOne of the Esprit ads from the ’80s that depicted an infectious “Californian” cheerfulness. Photo: Esprit

One ex-editor seconded that: “Esprit was a great place to hang out for members of the press. It was easy to borrow merchandise for our shoots. We could walk in any time. And the staff would be eager to help. I remember one vivacious character Daisy—who is actually David. He would walk us round the store and show us things, even asking us to try them. In the mean time, models and the well-dressed would stop by—Daisy seemed to know them all. And there was their legendary sale!” We remember that too. The die-hards were reported to have queued as early as 7am. Back then, this was unprecedented as it was before the hyped-up collaborations that made camping overnight necessary outside H&M and similar, and certainty way before Robinsons’ Black Friday Sale, now seeing a repeat in the same area of the madness of some 30 years ago.

Esprit’s connection with our city, then one of Asia’s largest markets after Hong Kong, was more that their retail stores, which, at its height, numbered 20 (or more, but today only a dozen stores are scattered throughout the island—by June, as reported, they shall be no more). Yang Derong, a former Singaporean designer director with French label Jean Charles de Castlebajac, was Esprit’s global image director for a reported 11 years (he joined them in 1994). Now the visual maverick behind the irreverent IG page Face Of The Day, Mr Yang’s role, according to the company’s corporate literature, was “to create and ensure the smooth implementation of an integrated image system throughout the operating regions of the Group.” It isn’t clear if he was directly involved in the creation of the images that, by the Noughties, was less bouncy, sunshine-y, and Californian-casual, but his tenure with “a truly international lifestyle brand” was an illuminating beacon for Singaporean creatives.

Esprit’s has always been, for a good part of their successful years, about image. Foremost is the triple-bar ‘E’ in the split-font, stencil-like logo, designed by the American graphic artist John Casado in 1979. Mr Casado was better known later for the logo he co-created with Tom Hughes for the Mackintosh computer of the mid-’80s, specifically the incorrectly described “Picasso” squiggles that appeared on the screen when the computer booted up. And there were the eye-catching communication materials, including hang tags and in-store collateral. Throughout the late ’80s (and, to be sure, much of the early ’90s) Esprit had significant aesthetical impact on fashion retail, especially their visual communication, so much so that Japanese art publisher Robundo put out, in 1989, Esprit, the Comprehensive Design Principle, a compendium of the brand’s corporate design, penned by co-founder and self-styled “director of image” Doug Tompkins.

Esprit bookThe hardback Esprit, the Comprehensive Design Principle. Photo: publisher

Mr Tompkins was, by most account, instrumental in the ‘look’ of Esprit and the swanky retail environment that he accorded the clothes. According to popular telling, he met his wife-to-be Susie Quincey Russell in 1964 when he hitched a ride from her in San Francisco—she in a Beetle, on the way to Tahoe City. In less than a year, the couple were married. At that time, Ms Russell already had a clothing label of her own that was created with a friend. It was called Plain Jane, deliberately ironic since the puff-sleeved floral dresses they sold to stores were anything but plain. (Apparently, Mr Tompkins did not think the name au courant enough and later changed it by adopting the first word of the French expression of mainly military use, esprit de corp.) Concurrently, Mr Tompkins, too was in fashion—sort of. He started a then relatively unknown store across the street from what is considered to be SF’s most famous bookshop, City Lights, selling rock-climbing gear under the name The North Face.

It is arguable that Susie Tompkins’s designs were the stuff of design books, but her husband, many seemed to concur, had taste that could be described as contemporary, even visionary. An Italian design fanatic, he had engaged, apart from Shiro Kuramata, the father of the Memphis group himself, Ettore Sottsass, to design Esprit stores in Europe and in the US. He commissioned controversial Italian lensman and art director Oliviero Toscani, later best remembered for the shocking images he shot for Benetton, as well as for being the co-founder of the Benetton-owned magazine Colorsto churn out images that reflected Esprit’s affable Californian disposition, without the sex appeal that later characterised the work of Bruce Weber for Abercrombie & Fitch.

A better-world was what Esprit’s ads communicated, predating Benetton in its social-conscious rhetoric and even Gap in its use of “ordinary people” (sometimes staff, sometimes models made to look un-model-like). This marketing smarts in time came at the expense of the quickly-turning-lacklustre merchandise. Visual communication often enjoys the advantage of styling, which could project an aesthetical advantage not necessarily seen on the products of the selling floor. Clothes, conversely, have to stand on their own, on the strength of good design. Director of image Doug Tompkins was not quite moving in tandem with director of design Susie Tompkins, with reports of discord on the domestic front. By the time Esprit opened its striking flagship in Orchard Road in 1985, the Thompkins were living apart. The marriage formally broke down in 1988.

Esprit X OCThe Esprit X Opening Ceremony collaboration in 2017. Photo: Esprit/Opening Ceremony

As fast fashion gathered momentum in the late ’90s and dominated most of the ’00s, Esprit found itself lagging behind. In the US, where the two founders held sway over the company, corporate troubles were brewing even after their divorce, and it was in the courts that the disputes were sorted out. In Asia, Esprit USA’s problems hardly registered among shoppers. In Europe, where the business was far more buoyant, bothered not with the American unit was the dominant attitude. By 2012, Esprit closed all its stateside stores. In 2018, all Australian and New Zealand outposts shuttered too. The clothes’ persistent latching on to its past UPI of lively optimism, pseudo-retro looks and snatches of Americana made the output even until now look decidedly dated. Inside Retail Asia, in a 2018 report, wrote, “The product assortment was—politely put—dull”.

To be sure, Esprit did rejig its product assortment. It was at one time broaden into three groups, each—we do not remember—to be different from the other. There was Collection, which the brand described as “a distinctive concept with an urban and contemporary fashion and quality profile”, the young edc (abbreviation of the French phrase that inspired their name and spelled in lower case), which was “positioned closer to the ‘rule breaker’ and ‘restless individualist’ segment to reinforce the youthful Esprit image”, and the clearly unimaginative Casual, a line “injected with more emotional elements and higher quality perception”. The distinction may be obvious to the categories’ creators, but the shoppers’ “perception” did not change: Esprit was uninspired jumble.

At its height in the ’90s, Esprit in Hong Kong was unlike any local fashion retail outfit. Many stores were large-format, buzzy hubs that served the respective shopping districts in which they held court. In 1997, one megastore even housed an Esprit hair salon, conceived with Kim Robinson, the city’s hairdresser to the stars. It was superfluous enhancement and, as some still say, too little too late. Regardless, it tried to pull itself up to what might be considered current—fashion as lifestyle offering. In 2012, it inexplicably used high fashion, likely very expensive, Brazilian model Gisèle Bündchen in their campaigns, which we thought at the time to be like asking Queen Elisabeth to shop at Topshop. Catching up with the collaboration game, Esprit paired with the also-dipping Opening Ceremony in 2017 for a capsule that attempted to revive the former’s cheery casualness. It is hard to stoke lost cool. The most glorious of fruits, no matter how attractively arranged, when uneaten or untouched, simply go off.

Two Of A Kind: Rose By Any Other Name

A Burberry rose or a Vogue rose? As a bloom of un-gloom, both are shown to look—or smell?—as sweet, during a time when the whiff of adversity is ever present, even where the roses grow


Burberry rose vs Vogue rose

Valentine’s Day is over, yet the rose is still visible as a heart-tugging communicator. A single stalk, shy of a full bloom, spiky leaves not stripped, centrally placed—the rose is now fashion’s pick to symbolise optimism at a time not many in the industry are optimistic about. Or, is it perhaps spotlighting the troubles of flower growers everywhere or what Bloomberg in a headline two weeks ago called “the crash of the $8.5 billion global flower trade”?

Fashion and flowers are often intertwined, the former often inspired by the latter, especially during the spring/summer season. Unless you’re Miranda Priestly—“Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking”. Announcing their support for medical staff on social media, Burberry used a white-pink rose that looks to be of English provenance as floral mascot. “Burberry Supports…” series of communication material puts the spotlight on what the company is doing for the community and hospitals. The rose it chose, suggestive of purity, innocence, and youth in its colour, is for now bleached of its bridal associations.

As stated in its corporate message, Burberry is “repurposing our trench coat factory in Castleford, Yorkshire, to make non-surgical gowns and masks for patients in UK hospitals”. In addition, the company is tapping into its global reach and resources “to fast track the delivery of 100,000 surgical masks to the UK National Health Service for use by medical staff”, as well as funding research into the development of a vaccine, and donating to charities with the main mission of addressing food poverty throughout the UK. How this is best represented by the rose isn’t clear, nor is an explanation offered. Can the rose, with all its romantic associations, negate Britain’s beleaguered start at mitigating the spread of COVID-19?

Across the pond at American Vogue, a red rose is the cover subject, an inanimate—although living—object not usually associated with Anna Wintour’s beloved title (curiously, under the masthead on the right, the text reads Jun/Jul—two issues in one?). The red rose is considered a universal, although cliched, symbol of love. If Andre Leon Talley, in his publicity rounds to promote his new autobiography The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, is to be believed, love and the editor of American Vogue are not quite a twosome—Ms Wintour, he writes, is “not capable” of “human kindness.” That might sound like the reaction of a person scorned, but the charge clearly equals not a flower that evokes deep affection.

According to Condé Nast’s head creative director Raul Martine, Vogue’s cover bloom symbolises “beauty, hope, and reawakening”— no love there, and, according to the magazine, “a conduit between Vogue’s past and its present”. This flower-as-channel between eras allows the revisit of one of publication’s most compelling still-life photographers: Irving Penn. The cover photo was originally shot by Mr Penn in 1970 in London, and now makes a posthumous cover art. The rose, Vanda Miss Joaquim of England, is, as they say in fashion, having a moment. Around us we hear Elvis Costello singing, “As the door behind you closes/The only thing I have to say/It’s been a good year for the roses”.

Photos: Burberry and Vogue respectively

Reprise: Listening To Another ‘Home’

A nation in song earlier this evening, but some of us aren’t moved. Do we have to be?


TH Home album

By Raiment Young

It has been a grey day, but the evening is not a natural progression of the day-time gloominess into sedative twilight. The night looks agreeable, with a discernible petrichor of earthy familiarity and an increasing darkness, dappled with leftover blue that struggles to express. Still, there is a sureness that seems to agree with what American school teacher Jeb Dickerson observed, “A setting sun still whispers a promise for tomorrow”.

If this night has a social media account, I’d sent it a Friend Request. But this night, with a digital life or not, has many others to connect with than to address my pointless entreaty. Sing Together Singapore was just broadcast, a roughly six-minute crepuscular chorus, led by Dick Lee and digitally patched to encourage citizens to sing the pop-track-turn-national-song Home in the quiet of night. Communicating via social media in song has gained traction during this pandemic, affirming, once again, that not only is our life increasingly connected, it is so by means of entertainment, or what is entertaining. More and more, the unconnected and unentertained self is too lonely a dwelling.

I’m replacing Dick Lee with Terry Hall, supplanting one Home by another, a 22-year-old song by a 26-year-old album. Terry Hall’s Home accompanied me through the early years of my professional life. Formerly of the Coventry band The Specials, Mr Hall was the indie-pop act with a jaunty vibe and a jangly sound that, post-Brit-synth-pop, I found greatly appealing. Looking back, I hear a sparkling optimism that seems right for today.

DL & co

Before I could past track three, Dick Lee Peng Boon (李迪文) appeared on my TV screen as sprightly as he usually is, attired as if ready to be subject of a Warhol portrait. When he spoke, “Hello, Singapore…”, I kept waiting for it to end with “weather report brought to you by Mitsubishi Electric”. As he was looking rather closely into what I assumed to be a webcam, he loomed a little larger than what I normally would find comfortable. Even newscasters don’t fill the viewable space to this extent (maybe BBC’s Rico Hizon). Or, was it because I was not sure having a hi-def familiar stranger in my living room, close-up-as-backdrop, singing Home the umpteenth time could be deemed conducive to my stay-home well-being.

I like to think it’s Home fatigue, but I’m not alluding to cabin fever. You know what they say about too much of a good thing. Frankly, I’m sick of it. For some reason, the song has never struck me in a way it has others, or the nation. I like the original Kit Chan (陈洁仪) version of 1997/98 in that it was then not sung with nationalistic fervour to rally a people. Ms Chan has one of those warm voices that is beguiling, especially in lower registers. No one who sang Home after her has come close to the intimacy and tenderness that she imbued the song with. Not even Dick Lee himself, now leading the eight-person sing-a-long, not as a choir master but as the leader of cheer leading, and that was what Sing Together Singapore essentially was.

Home will have its place it the history of national songs, but will it leave a legacy in the pop domain? As a pop tune, it ticks the boxes for simplicity of lyrics, structure, and melody. This is as karaoke-friendly as any Canto-pop hit. Yet it has the anthemic mark of songs that can be sung nationally by a sizeable mass, with a manageable tessitura to match. But as with many chart-toppers, Home has outlived its freshness—its sentimentality is beginning to feel tiresome, and its repeated broadcast, especially the singing with comely comradeliness, is on the verge of annoying. I’m not even sure that the broadcast of Sing Together Singapore is providential. How has the exercise made us forget that much of our island is still pestiferous? Of is it, as one media outlet posed, “empty distraction from meaningful action”?


Seeing only a handful of waving torches outside my window, I think of what I would really like to hear. It’s odd that when it comes to songs that can move a nation, we consider only those by the self-styled Son of SG Dick Lee. At the time he was a prolific songwriter, someone else too was managing quite an impressive musical output, the far more percipient Liang Wenfu (梁文福). And one particular song—easy to sing too—I now desire to hear again in these bleak days is the up-lifting Catch the Sunrise with Me (陪我看日出) from 2005, sung by the now mostly forgotten Joi Chua (蔡淳佳). Mr Liang was the lyricist for this track, and the hard-warming narrative that speaks of a better tomorrow—sun after the rain—seems more befitting of the present climate than the reminder of self and nation in Home: “The rain has fallen, walk carefully, I shall remember these words/However hard the wind blows, good blessings will not be carried away with it/After the rain, there would be a way for us to see the sunrise as in the year past (雨下了走好路这句话我记住/风再大吹不走祝福/雨过了就有路像那年看日出).

Admittedly, this (literal) translation captures not the nuances, imagery, and positivity that Mr Liang intended. And not many may consider xinyao heavy with schoolyard innocence—however evocative of our home—not Home enough to sing on a national level. If Dick Lee’s contribution to our city’s catalogue of patriotism-stirring songs must be sung, could it not benefit from some rearrangement, if not reimagining? I am thinking of the rousing rendition of Foo Fighters’ Times Like These, initiated by BBC Radio 1’s Stay Home Live Lounge, featuring Chris Martin, Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, and others. Or the 100-year-old fundraiser Captain Tom Moore’s duet with Michael Ball, singing The Weeknd’s You’ll Never Walk Alone, backed by the staff of Britain’s National Health Services (NHS). The latter, this week, charted at number one. These are not only inspiring, they sing of what Jeb Dickerson wrote with palpable hope (and I reiterate), “a promise for tomorrow”.

I am (still) playing Terry Hall’s Home—on loop, something I have not done since my Spotify subscription of many moons ago. Produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds (also on my playlist), Home is Mr Hall’s debut album. I was very much drawn to his lyrics, as much as I was a few years earlier, to Stephen Duffy’s for their art-school vim, tinged with Euro-centric swish. On the opening track, Forever J, Mr Hall croons, “Like Isabelle Adjani/She glides by upon a bank of violets…” It is, hopefully, understandable why, for this evening, as a form of escape from the unsettling reality outside, I’m giving “the river which bring us life” and one that “always flows” a decided miss.

Update (26 April 2020, 3.30): if you need a new take on Home, listen to Mr Brown’s deliciously funny version. Now, he should be leading the sing-a-long

Photo: Jim Sim. Screen grabs: YouTube

The Talkative Us: They Are In Fashion

Staying at home does not mean people do not talk. Text conversations are sometimes more engaging than face-to-face chatter


TTU Apr 2020

What a time. “Unprecedented” keeps cropping up in the news we read and hear. And all the time spent at home is equally so. Although meeting others socially is disallowed, social discourse via digital chat is well and alive. Fashion as trend may be on hiatus, but fashion as temporal intrigue isn’t. Two friends, unhindered by space and time, accompanied by bags of Lay’s, continue with an on-and-off banter about some characters of the fashion world…

First: How are things?

Second: Going to 7-11 is the most exciting. Making choices over what crisps to get.

F: I make my own keropok. I have also been catching up with my reading. Just finished All That Glitter!

S: Which one is that?

F: The one about Condé Nast and the sparkling rivalry between Anna and Tina!

S: Oh, I want. Tina vs Anna, yes!

F: It first appeared in 1994 as Newhouse. The present version is expanded to include happenings in the Trump era. Actually the (Si) Newhouse way was recounted in small bites in Ruth Reichl’s autobiography Save Me The Plums.

S: Yes.

F: In the end, Anna prevailed!

S: Yes, and, on the way, killed HG.

F: Probably deliberately. If you can’t save it, why not fashion it to death? Actually, about three years after her reign at Vogue, she copped out. I feel that very strongly now. The book shows she’s essentially a very commercial EIC.

S: Beyoncé and Rihanna covers!

F: Don’t forget Kim and Kanye. Editorially, she could not beat Tina (who did, sadly, become too formulaic), at least in the beginning. She had good people with her, such as James Truman, who eventually took over Alex Lieberman. I think she never lived that down although Truman was part of her staff.

S: I was always bored by Tina.

F: Frankly, I find her a tad crass. And her taste is somewhat questionable.

S: A bit low-grade British.

F: Not quite the Town & Country set! That’s why she ended with Harvey Weinstein backing her Talk!!! After New Yorker—VF 2.0—went not quite anywhere. She seemed enamoured of Hollywood types.

S: Trash!

F: Anna, while also courting actresses for her covers, was doing a different scene, which regrettably (for her, I’m sure) included Donald Trump! Remember she featured Melania on a cover? Anyway, she moved in better circles than Tina. Hilary was, and is, a ‘friend’. And her tennis kaki is Roger.

S: Anna, because of her father, probably had better connections.

F: I think because of the presumably serious journalistic environment that she grew up in, perhaps knows who is better company to keep. She used fashion as a platform well, better than Tina using Hollywood!

S: Tina wanted Stallone: Blue collar.

F. At least, Anna has a costume centre to her name. What has Tina got? Even her so-called friendship with Diana is dubious! I don’t think Diana would be pleased if she knew their private lunch at The Four Seasons was exposed in the New Yorker!!! Anna was there too, but publicly she did not condemn Tina for the exposé. I think she was livid as she had arranged the lunch.

S: I can’t remember that lunch.

F: It was back in 1997, I think. The story came out three months after the car crash.

S: Oh!

F: That’s not cashing in? Actually, if I am not wrong, Anna was friends with Diana first. Diana consulted her on clothes. Apparently she used to call Anna for help—er, advice—at British Vogue.

S: Have you read the Loulou biography?

F: Oh, yes! So many characters!

S: It’s quite fun. Loulou’s camp was so savage with ALT. His bio’s coming out—dunno how many chapters on his grandmother (we already know her so well!).

F: It’d be a bitter reveal, I bet.

S: What I really want to know is what he eats for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and in between. That weight is not easy to maintain. 🤭

F: I never finished his first!!! To the French, ALT was probably a wannabe. He may know his European and fashion history, but I doubt he could sell it to the French, who, I feel, tend to be weary about those on the other side of the Atlantic. Can you imagine Catherine Deneuve wearing Marc Jacobs?

S: Personally, even though, of course, I don’t know them, I think Karl merely humoured him.

F: Or, because he was Anna’s deputy! Karl was already making her clothes.

S: Karl merely gifted him with muumuus using leftover fabric from, I’m sure, the ready-to-wear!

F: Ouch! Pierpaolo too!

S: Arghh! He’s so naive. They only invited him because of Vogue.

F: Or, as he himself said, “the mythology of Vogue”. Anyway, how with it, or aware, is a man who saw me and said, without hesitating, “konbanwa”?

S: Yes, I remember that. Monte Carlo!

F: Isn’t that very American—presumptuous? In all my years in Paris and attending fashion week, no one has ever greeted me in Japanese!

S: Exactly.

F: Loulou, foremost, kept YSL for company. ALT harped about his reading to an ailing DV.

S: She already couldn’t see clearly and couldn’t be choosy.

F: You are Lady Birley. “After a time, the claws surface”!

S: She was already so pretentious, so they would have gotten along.

F: I doubt she was as dependent on him as he suggested.

S: Actually Pierre Barge gave him a huge advance to write YSL’s official biography, but somehow it never got written and ALT returned the money.

F: Until 1990 he was still writing it. I think he was more inclined to pen DV’s biography.

S: DV’s life is easier to write on since it’s all ‘embroidered’—Lesage, of course.

F: Having cut his teeth at Interview, I thought he would be more suited for VF. Of course, he was there for a while when Anna was editing British Vogue, but I don’t remember anything from that tenure.

S: I’ve stopped reading VF for so long.

F: I don’t think Graydon made it significantly better (Hmmm… Radhika?). He never really walked out of Tina’s shadows, did he? I think he was better doing Spy. Tina mixing the high and low was not quite Karl doing motorcycle jackets with tulle skirts!

S: Those Hollywood covers—urghhh!

F: Entertainment Weekly, frankly, is a better read!

S: I wonder if he has appeared on Oprah. Will check. ALT talking to middle America about Paris fashion sounds good!

F: How would he introduce Demna to Durham?


The chat has been edited for length and clarity. Illustration: Just So

One Last Grab

It’s confirmed. We are addicted to bubble tea—totally mad about them, and crazy enough to fight over paopao cha


Last tea 1

By the SOTD Team

When it comes to bubble milk teas and their fans during this period of the Circuit Breaker, it’s never a dull moment. Things arrived at a fashionable frenzy a short while earlier. The minute the news broke at about 8.30 this evening, shortly after the Multi-Ministry Task Force on COVID-19 announced additional restrictions on food and beverage services (following the PM’s message to the people before that), bubble tea fans were out in full force to make this the most memorable night in the F&B history of 21st century Singapore. Rumours were rife since two weeks ago that bubble teas would be classified as non-essential. The online dismay could have broken the Internet. When this finally turns out to be true, the ensuing madness broke out into a fight.

The scuffle was witness, filmed, and shared online at around fifteen past ten. One Facebook post showed a Grab Food delivery guy shouting angrily in front of a Playmade shop on the B1 level of the four-year-old Waterway Point in Punggol New Town. At the time of this writing, it isn’t clear what led to the FB-worthy outburst, but it was, for those who, hitherto, do not understand what is really behind the bubble tea craze, one of the obvious reasons why zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶) shops had to be closed, together with other standalone food-and-beverage (F&B) outlets, according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI). Seriously, who goes into an altercation over what is mostly vapid tea or, as one FB user called it, “just sugared stuff with starchy mystery things inside (sic)”?

Last tea 2Part of the close to 200m long, 20-odd people strong queue outside one Gong Cha shopLast tea 3At Xing Fu Tang, the queue, no longer seen in past months, now returns 

Many Circuit Breaker-conscious folks had been saying for weeks that bubble tea shops should close, as the traffic at most outlets had not been exemplar of social distancing. In lieu of shopping that is virtually non-existent and as opportunity to meet mate and date, queuing for bubble tea has become the most visible activity in a city that is virtually stripped of retail life. Some lines were so long that they were obstacles for legitimate shoppers trying to reach supermarkets and the like to obtain true necessities. Bubble tea—specifically the craze—has trained the spotlight on those who have seemingly unquenchable thirst for them: the calorie-uncaring young, who have no concern about lost of income in the coming months and, more disturbing, the real possibility of infection by an insidious viral enemy.

This evening, many bubble tea lovers were not deterred by the length of queues or that their order would be prepared alongside those made through delivery services (often in totals larger than ten), necessitating a longer wait. At one in-mall Xing Fu Tang, a staffer was heard telling a customer that they would be serving the desperate till midnight or “until there is no more tea”. A security personnel confirmed that they would be allowed to “open till late”. Not all bubble tea shops drew crowds, only the perceived-to-be-cool or those with a staggering menu. At one Ten Ren’s Tea, there was no customer. Ditto for I♥Taimei, until the lines at other shops were too long for the impatient. Liho, usually in the shadow of their Taiwanese competitors, saw a line at one of their MRT station shops that could easily beat Chicha San Chen’s. Similarly, at the usually queue-free R&B, a snaking line was marketing and profit boost before the night ended and the island wakes up to a naicha-free world tomorrow. Spill-over business meant that non-Taiwanese milk tea joint Tuk Tuk Cha eventually drew the better-than-nothing group. Although the trimming of F&B-related services includes fruit juice and soya milk stalls, and coffee shops, it was oddly far quieter at Boost Juice, Mr Bean, and even Starbucks.

Last tea 4Although this is the third Koi within a roughly two-kilometre radius, the queue was as long as the other nearby outletsLast tea 5The patient in line at Playmade, even when the hour was close to ten

In a line that would end at a Chicha San Chen (吃茶三千), one young woman in negligee and cut-offs, who looked like she was about to hit the sack but decided instead to get her naicha fix, was heard huffing to someone on the phone, “You can tell me not to eat, but don’t tell me not to have bubble tea!” Not far away, outside Koi, one distraught lass was heard saying to an identical other, “This is not fair. Those old farts don’t drink bubble tea means we cannot drink, meh?” Near the counter, one pubescent chap exclaimed audibly, “Wah lau eh, order 18 cups! Can drink so much, meh? Wait lau sai.” At the rear end of the line outside one Gong Cha shop, we asked a middle-aged lady if she liked bubble tea so much that she was willing to join the youngsters in the daunting line. She replied in Mandarin, somewhat unhappily, “I have just finished work, but my daughter text me and ask me to buy enough to last a week! I am just going to buy one. She’s crazy.” A short walk away, a twentysomething woman was seen getting into a car with three bags full of milk teas, saying to the driver, “Slowly, okay? Cannot spill.”

And bubble tea fans wonder why their favourite naicha shops have to close. (The dismay is even more pronounced when, two days earlier, McDonald’s announced that they’re temporarily suspending all retail operations—now a double whammy for empty-calorie fans.) While not all are cuckoos of the clan, there are sufficient in numbers this evening alone to show that the humble tea with many brews to match coffee is now, with or with milk (primarily hydrogenated palm oil-based creamer), mostly defined by the boba that goes into it and the throng that come with their sale. In the annals of milky-beverage-as-pop-culture, this is clearly one dark night to remember.

Last tea 6A long line is not associated with R&B, but this evening, it was a different storyLast tea 7Local brand Liho is usually queue-free until this history-making evening 

Photos: Team SOTD


Two Of A Kind: Cock-A-Double-Do

Staying at home means spending more time online. Not necessarily a bad thing: You get to see a lot, including, like it or not, accessories in the stylised shape of the male genitalia

JW Anderson Vs Vivienne Westwood

By Ray Zhang

Let it be known, I am no prude, but that is not to say I am partial to accessories that depict the male sex organ. Lockdown, a noun I have not heard of until four months ago, is motivating us to go online for all our amusement and entertainment. E-shopping, I hear, isn’t quite a major pursuit, but bored stay-at-homers are spending considerable time parked between HTMLs. If buying—for adornment, especially—is stricken by limited appeal, online viewing may not translate into offline wearing. Besides, who really cares about what is worn within the four walls of home, or when snuggling in bed with a notebook, or when you start to wonder, as the popular beng retort goes, “wear to where”? Yet, these dick danglies are out there.

They were likely conceived before daily grind and telecommuting merged (not mingle!), when some of us still had the habit of looking into a closet, or accessory drawer. One is in leather, the other in steel, and both depict an organ not in flaccid state, which is understandable since a limp phallus would be a downer if it were to arouse even the mildest shock. On the left is a JW Anderson charm that looks like something destined for a handbag, not likely a Birkin. On the right is a Vivienne Westwood keyring with the carabiner shaped like a boner. Nothing exceptionally shocking here as Ms Westwood has already released a larger penile likeness in 2014, in the form of the Penis Clutch Bag.

I’m not sure who these are designed for. Would a man buy either piece for himself or for a lady friend? Or for another man? Would a woman buy for herself or for a male friend? What does succumbing to its appeal say, even if both do not correspond to sexual excitement? Could they have pride of place next to Line’s popular Brown or Coney, frequently in charm form? Or has buying and gifting conventions changed so much that products need to come under the umbrella of porno-suggestive to be buyable and giveable? Is this timely, considering that even the BBC reported, while debunking its immune-boosting advantage, acknowledged that, during masturbation, “men had higher white blood cell counts when they were sexually aroused, and during orgasm”? Frankly, I really don’t know, but do click and add to cart.

Product photos: source

Teh, See?

It takes a pandemic and a lockdown to show us how mad we are about bubble milk tea


20-04-16-21-59-13-310_decoIn front of the wildly popular Chicha San Chen milk tea stall

It’s a week since the (partial) lock down, known here euphemistically as “Circuit Breaker measures”, and yet many people are still out in visibly large numbers to queue and purchase their essentials. What is considered absolutely necessary, of course, needs a redefinition, post COVID-19. A day before all non-essential services and stores were to close (on 7 March), alert retail staff at Takashimaya Shopping Centre spotted and shared on social media photographs of the queue outside Chanel, with one recipient of the notice describing the line as “staggering”. Clearly, Chanel, to quite a few with the means, is essential. Nearer to where the rest of us live, essentials were facial (tissue) masks, at-home hair colour, and for one customer at a Bobbi Brown store, “Eye Opening Mascara”.

Even in the category of food—doubtlessly essential—or groceries, some are more essential that others. What is in your basket may be more essential than what is in ours. Based from what we have seen, essentials appear to be all pasta (even uncommon ones such as bucatini, we’re sure) and bottled sauce to go with them, ice cream (Magnum!), Yakult, yoghurt, prawn crackers (especially Calbee’s—without fancy flavours such as Grilled Squid Seaweed). Outside supermarkets, now the place to shop, essentials are, of course, milk teas, specifically bubble (or boba) milk teas (珍珠奶茶), rather than teh C peng. And one of them stood out for their persistent long lines and a warning from the authorities: Chicha San Chen (吃茶三千). A lockdown can indeed reveal deep devotions.

20-04-15-23-44-29-035_decoSame Chicha San Chen stall, a day after social distancing was mandatory from 27 March

SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang was at the basement of Tampines One to visit Cold Storage when she saw what she thought was “the response to a shop giving something away for free”. She recalled, “I was shocked. What was going on? Officially, social distancing had just started, but I was certain this looked like people queuing to get the latest iPhone. But it turned out they were in line to buy Chicha San Chen. I had to ask to be excused before they would let me through.” This outlet (and another at Jem) was later issued with an “advisory letter” for non-compliance with social distancing measures. Some observers feel that those in line should be served the same missive. In one case, a mere letter wasn’t apparently enough—another Taiwanese chain Playmade was fined S$1,000 for “failing to enforce the safe distancing measures properly, despite repeated warnings”. Even that and the risk of punishment meted out to customers as well would not dent the incomprehensible popularity of bubble milk tea.

The thing about bubble milk tea is that it is not the least novel, compared to one particular coronavirus now causing worldwide distress and global economies to plunge. Taiwan-born milk tea with the tapioca ‘pearls’, as we know it, first appeared on our shores in 1992. However, it was not until 2001 when we started seeing people in substantial numbers drinking them to constitute a trend. But its eventual popularity was short-lived. By 2003, bubble milk tea became a mere memory, prompting food trend chasers to call it “the first phase” of the fashion that drinking milky tea with tapioca pearls became. Although old-timers such as Each-A-Cup preserved, it would take “big” Taiwanese brands to capture the taste of a new gen of tea drinkers and the memory of those who still pined for their zhenzhu naicha.

Teh 6Always get your priorities right: Bubble milk tea before groceryTeh 4Despite the enhanced social distancing measures, some still can’t resist enjoying bubble milk tea in public, while seated at closed food shops

In 2007, bubble milk tea returned slowly and modestly, with Koi, being one of the earliest entrants of the second phase, followed by Gong Cha two years later. These two brands would dominate the business until other players started appearing in the last two years, including The Alley and Xing Fu Tang, culminating in the most upmarket-looking Chicha San Chen. It’s hard to account for Chicha San Chen’s astonishing popularity, evidenced by the inevitable long lines in front of their stores. Even The Alley is no longer seeing such queues (in Bangkok, where it started ahead of Singapore, snaking lines were no longer seen last year). Some say they love the presentation (unnecessarily fancy and a waste of packaging material, if you ask us), while others love the taste of their teas, but all Taiwanese milk teas tend to be thin, and pale—in terms of taste and colour—to those of other origins, such as Hong Kong’s laicha, Thailand’s cha nom yen, or even our own trusty standbys teh tarik and teh C peng.

Bubble tea shops are practically everywhere now, with some HDB town centres dotted with as many as a dozen outlets in amazing close proximity. Could this explain why they are so essential? Have bubble milk tea shops become the heartbeat of heartland refreshment, so much so that people gravitate towards them when craving strikes and social distancing becomes unimportant? The lines at some of the bubble milk tea shops makes the queue at McDonald’s look like a caterpillar, rather than the proverbial snake. On the last day of school last week, kids in uniform were crammed into small bubble milk tea shops that there were in clear contradiction of what the authorities have said—that the youngsters are well taught in school about safe social distancing. Among many of the young, working adults included, going out for bubble tea is a good enough excuse for friends to meet, lovers to date, and bored kids to have some me time away from their parents. Although we are not quite a nation of tea drinkers like the British or mainland Chinese, it is possible that bubble milk tea, at least, has become entrenched in our way of life.

Teh 5View from the top at TWG Tea Garden at Marina Bay Sands before Circuit Breaker days. File photo: Zhao Xiangji

Tea is appealing not only as an affordable, multifarious beverage, but as a status-affirming brew too, drawing those with a penchant for the finer things to settings of considerable fineness. In mid-March, when social distancing was just becoming a buzzword, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands was ghostly quiet, except for a murmur emerging somewhere from the lowest floor. If you followed the sound, you would have come to an atrium. At the bottom, in a semi-circular spread, was a busy TWG Tea Garden, giving you an idea what tea with the suffix ‘-porn’ might look like. It was the only place with people. In fact, this was not unlike bubble milk tea establishments of the late ’90s, only less posh: sit-down affairs, and known—those old enough would surely remember—as bubble tea huts. These days, bubble teas are mainly for taking away, which may explain why their business have not suffered tragically in these Circuit Breaker days.

The queue alone (sometimes blocked by the waiting food delivery guys) is enough for anyone to guess that, when the normalcy of life returns, most of these businesses would not need economic aid. Conversely, coffee sellers are in visibly dire straits. According to one Starbucks staffer at an always packed branch, their biz has dropped by “70 percent”, which makes coffee the less appreciated beverage during a health crisis. Could it be because cappuccino and co are best enjoyed in a café, in the presence of company? Bubble tea’s mainly take-away model has served the business well, to the point that long queues during a lockdown isn’t deterring thirsty customers. Such a lure the likes of Chicha San Chen is that when the authorities announced recently that some essential services would be removed in the middle of the Circuit Breaker restrictions, social media was buzzing with the fear that bubble milk tea shops would be one of them. A chance to fix the addiction then? Allow us one leap of imagination.

Update (21 April 2020, 8.30pm): News have been trickling in, announcing that bubble tea shops will no longer be considered essential and will have to cease operations from a minute to midnight

Photos: (except indicated) Mao Shan Wang

😷😷 The Mask-Have 😷😷

Now that we’ve been told, after conflicting professional opinions, that even a cloth face mask may help in the fight against COVID-19, supported by the issue of one to every citizen by the government, a lot more people are indeed wearing them. Will fashion masks, once a novelty, now be very much sort after?


Mask 1The government-issued cloth mask

Cloth masks: Who’d think they would be so approved that they are now worn as barrier between us and one dreaded coronavirus? Although many experts have said that cloth masks are as effective as a placebo, they are now adopted as a better-than-nothing shield, encouraged by our government who has started issuing a black, suitable-for-the-cinematic-baddie piece to its citizens since last Sunday. So villainous-looking they are, it would be surprising that just two weeks ago, banking halls would allow any visitor into their premises without its removal. Now, many are wearing the freebie at points of transaction, from Fairprice to Gong Cha, yes, to POSB, with more diligence than actresses and their Book tote at the grocers’.

Up close, there is something strangely underclothes-like about these masks. Made in Indonesia, of a fabric that is 95 percent (not 100) cotton credited as BCI (Better Cotton Initiative, or “global not-for-profit organisation and the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world”) and five percent Spandex (for stretch), they are essentially leotard for face. And the ellipses, with a dart in the top-centre (to accommodate the nose), fit like one too—skin-tight, unless the front of your head is narrow across the cheeks and incredibly V-shaped at the chin. But for many—guys especially—these cloth masks slip on too closely like gloves. So fitted they are for some, that there are those who thought they had received masks for kids! Sure, these are not akin to compression wear, which could be of up to 30 percent of Spandex, but the considerably thick three-ply mask may cup too effectively, like good brassieres.

Washing them actually makes them a tad softer, and repeated use will render them a slight looseness (we’ve put ours for a five-day trial). If you wear them daily, and wash them as often (recommended), chances are, you’ll end up with a mask that will give your dish cloth tough competition in the looking good stakes. We tested the cloth mask during the day and at night. There is no tangible difference—the face will be heated up, whether at sun up or down. Not recommended for making a dash to 7-Eleven, unless you are a qigong master who has mastered the art of breathing slowly, minimally, or not breathing at all. As the straps are in the same cotton-blend fabric and not adjustable, they may be too tight for some wearers, even tugging the ears, which could mean that wearing for long hours would be uncomfortable. Comfort is, of course, subjective. Don’t take our word for it. Try them.

Mask 2BP hires copyDouble the protection?

We have seen, since the distribution of the mask (already on sale at Guardian prior), individuals personalising them. The ubiquity of that one black mask (apparently there are others issued with those not in solid black, such as green and white awning stripes. We have not been able to independently verify this talk) unsurprising spurs individualists to make theirs less stark and less evocative of a dystopian world. Often seen is the use of a bandana, folded into a triangle, and worn in a manner that would not be inconsistent with the face coverings of robbers in a John Wayne western. It isn’t certain if this is to double the protection or give the black mask an attractive outer. We have also witness guys wearing a balaclava or a snood over the said mask. Why create more of a heat trap is not immediately understandable.

Now that we have to wear a mask on public transport, as well as in malls and markets, it is likely that what we have amassed, when the single-use were still available, would soon run out. And one free cloth mask will, in no time, be worn till torn. Those with a flair are starting to sew their own. Even if you have never touched a needle in your life and can’t tell the difference between a spool and a bobbin, you can make your own mask, or so we have been told. Countless tutorial are now posted on line, with some blogs offering printable paper patterns too, which would surely delight those for whom such precision matter. Even Wired ran an article entitled “How to Make a CDC-Approved Cloth Face Mask”, if the (US) Centres for Disease Control’s approval makes a difference or is added inducement.

Then there are the no-sew face masks, essentially a handkerchief or the like, folded in a very specific way, to which hair ties are attached to be looped behind the wearer’s ears. Even filters (such as coffee filters, apparently) can be folded inside for added protection. This may be more popular among DIY-ers as they can use whatever fabric (recommend is 100% tightly woven cotton), in their preferred print or pattern, to fashion face masks. We heard that some socialites have been using their Hermès scarves for this very purpose. While T-shirts, too, can be used, we weren’t told of those who have gleefully sacrificed their Balenciaga tees since that would require the cutting up of the garment. What we found more interesting are cloth slipcases sewn by certain individuals in the hair and make-up fraternity, and shared among members of the fashion media. These are essentially for use with the surgical mask, which is slipped into slipcase, itself sans elasticised ear loops, but are pleated to match and stretch open like the mask within.

Mask 4BPretty is the point: Some masks just look better than others

Expectedly, the fashion set has been building a wardrobe of masks, in particular, from three brands known to offer striking (not necessarily virus-repellent) ones: Off-White, Marine Serre, and Marcelo Burlon County of Milan (unsurprisingly, most stockists, such as Ssense, will show ‘Sold Out’ under the product photos). Masks are also made by luxury giants such as Prada, Dior, and Louis Vuitton (there’s even a video showing LV seamstresses at work in the presence of strategically-placed products), but these are destined for medical facilities not their respective flagship stores. It is not fathomable that fashion is so vital now that we would need a few masks fetching enough to go with one’s on-trend togs. Who is thinking of fashion when going out is not fashionable? 

Apparently quite a few, enough of them, in fact, to allow local company Hwa Seng Textiles, a fabric distributor that also offers bespoke tailoring service and professional instruction in tailoring, to see a business opportunity and a new product category: masks. Promising “low running cost”, HST Masks (as they are branded) are CAD-designed and sewn in their facilities here, using their own (mainly) shirting fabrics. The result are masks that invite the description “handsome”, if not for the fabric choice, at least in the decidedly 3-D form factor. Aware of their cloth masks’ potential appeal among the fashion conscious, Hwa Seng Textiles even hashtagged their products “#designermask” in their social-media marketing. At S$30 a pop, these are by no means cheap, but they do look attractive, even if wearing one makes no difference to pandemic viruses that have no appreciation of the aesthetically superior, just as they have no respect for national borders.

Cloth masks may not offer the same protection as surgical masks, but they may, according to the CDC, block large particles ejected from sneezing and coughing. COVID-19 isn’t fading or yesterday’s news. We need to blunt this very real threat. Get—or make—yourself a cloth mask.

Update (14 April 2020, 9.00pm): it was just announced that the “public must wear mask when outdoors in Singapore from now on”. Please take heed.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Holding Out For A Hero

Is Uniqlo’s message sent by Superman and Louis Lane?


Uniqlo on FB

This appeared on Facebook some time today, the start of what is called Circuit Breaker, in response to the increasingly critical situation brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Circuit Breaker (unlike most, we will not use the abbreviated form, so as to edge to the side of propriety) will change the entire local retail landscape, and Japan’s Uniqlo, which, in 2019, ranks 8th in terms of retail sales worldwide, won’t escape the clutches of the business havoc the coronavirus will wreak. Despite the closure of all physical stores on the island, Uniqlo saw it necessary to send a positive message to its customers and followers: “Our stores may be closed for now, but our support for you, our staff and the entire Uniqlo community has not.”

The succinct and optimistic message is accompanied by an illustration of a couple in a classic nan zuo nu you (男左女右 or man on the left, woman on the right) positioning, with their backs facing the viewer. Together with the caption, “We’re Here For You”, it is not unreasonable to assume that Uniqlo is telling us they’ve got our backs covered, but what caught our eyes is the red cape of the male. Could this be the Man of Steel (the blue, skin-tight sleeve also corresponds to the Krptonian’s crime-fighting costume), and if so, is Superman’s arm protectively around his “primary” love interest, Lois Lane, the Daily Planet journalist who married the superhero in 1996?

There is something comforting about this image. Curiously named Secret 7s, it made an earlier appearance: on the cover of Uniqlo’s debut in-house magazine LifeWork (Fall/Winter 2019), and is drawn by Copenhagen-based British illustrator, Adrian Johnson (not, to our knowledge, related to Boris). In fact, it was seen even earlier, as part of the sleeve artwork of the catchy Beck-ish 2015 single The Less I Know the Better by Tame Impala, a psychedelic-pop project of Australian musician Kevin Parker, whose stylo-retro-ish music and videos are a neat fit with the artist’s Procreate-rendered picture. Mr Johnson’s simple yet striking, colour-blockish pieces have appeared in The New Yorker and Monocle,and in the marketing communications of brands such as Stussy, Norse Project, and the Japanese fashion label and retail store Tomorrowland.

As much as we are aware, Mr Johnson has not identified the two individuals of his art. Named or not, a superhero is a symbol of hope, beacon of strength; a graspable certainty that we will triumph over evil, which COVID-19, as the most destructive villains go, definitely is.

Photo: Uniqlo/Facebook

Home Of Nowhere

We’re told to work from home and to stay at home, but the restriction to domestic boundaries don’t seem to suit that many people. No reason to get dressed nicely, perhaps?


Stay @ home illus Mar 2020 SOTD

By Gordon Goh

I am staying home. I am listening to music played on my Rega, with Barbara Streisand (who not long ago praised the PM on Twitter for acing the Fareed Zakaria interview on CNN’s GPS show), singing the directed-at-Trump Don’t Lie to Me; reading the books that have been stacking up—higher and higher—by the side of my desk and bed; and laundering clothes I have not worn in the past two years to keep them fresh. Outside is no lure, not when so many, contrary to what we’ve been told, continue to go about their daily lives in groups and in close proximity—contiguous with you, without a care in the world. Social distancing should really be called by the less euphemistic safe distancing or better still, as CNN’s Sanjay Gupta suggested, “physical distancing”. Or, as one middle-aged fellow was heard telling a fellow shopper at Sheng Siong, “Stay away from me!” Say it like what it must be. The world is full of barmpots.

The COVID-19 pandemic really opened my eyes to what we are like as a people. Humanity is on full show—well-dressed or not, it’s warts and all in public view. You still meet people who take things so lightly, it’s as if the Year of the Rat has not already arrived, and they can go about as they well please. Manners, thoughtfulness, and prudence are used up as quickly as toilet paper. No matter how frequently Gurmit Singh-as-Phua Chu Kang bleat-pleads on telly, how loudly he squawk-sings for all to do otherwise, the reality on the ground is quite the opposite of what the higher-ups would have us believe.

The order now is for us to remain indoors, within the confines of what we call home. But I’ve heard people say it’s “inconvenient” to stay in one’s own residence. Why are people so uncomfortable in their own domesticity? Are their resistance to life circumscribed by the four walls of home the same as that of students who hog tables in cafés to do their school work because home is inexpedient to study? Even with the drip-feed of doomsday-like news daily, many cannot find their home a secure refuge, preferring instead to gather in groups outside to better serve as a mobile Petri dish. Way before any daunting amount of time is spent indoors, some are already saying how enervating it has been. Only Netflix, it seems, is the tonic to revive stay-at-home fatigue. How many e-mags are now recommending “The Best Shows to Watch on Netflix While You’re Social Distancing and Staying Home”?

Stay @ home illus V4 SOTD

It’s all rather curious if you consider that we have not been given the order for an actual lockdown, nor what our northern neighbour has in place—the Movement Control Order (MCO). Yet, lassitude has already set in. Many people are so fearful that shopping and browsing shall be no more and they would be so lacking in the essentials of life that they started thronging (and ending up queuing sans any sense of social distancing) stores that will close for the rest of the month, such as Swedish meatball giant Ikea. Or were they out to buy those items that will, as the mega-retailer urges, “Make Home Count”? Because, until now, it has not? It is mind boggling what home is like for most people. We don’t know how lacking our dwellings are (or how insufficiently stocked with toilet rolls) until a virus of unimaginable virulence strikes.

In places already with strict stay-at-home orders, some experts think that, as a result of the reluctance to abide with oneself or family, “anxiety is rampant”. I am starting to see and hear phrases I rarely encountered pre-COVID-19: cabin fever, which I thought was a condition confined to Pulau Ubin; prison pallor, which I thought was limited to the penitentiary in Changi; and stir crazy, which I thought was restricted to coffee cups at Yakun (although some of you may remember it as a 1980 Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comedy). A confining existence is punishing, just as it could be when one is marooned on an island, as Tom Hanks has shown in Castaway. Outside is the circulation of the temptation of entertainment, gastronomy, and the material, as well as a novel and not completely understood virus that is getting more pervasive. News constantly feeding into our mobile devices amplify both. How, then, do people reconcile the two, equally unnerving in scale? I really don’t know.

You’d think that since so many people are distancing themselves socially or working from home, the situation could become a social leveller of sort. Or what the media has been calling, the “great equaliser”. Yet, public behaviour hitherto witnessed shows that some people are more equal than you and I. Selfishness, to name one enduring—not, to be certain, endearing—trait, has become the un-equaliser. You want the over-packaged and overpriced beverages of Chi Cha San Chen (吃茶三千), you join a body-to-body queue, never mind that some of us are trying to get past this obstacle to the supermarket for next week’s sustenance. You bring your entire family out for a meal because soon dining in won’t be an option, never mind if the five of you mean more people would have to wait to enter a mall that already maxed out the allowable capacity. You go to the food court for lunch with your colleagues, and as you came in a group, “it is ridiculous” to sit a metre apart, even if an assemblage engaged in the aerosolising acts of slurping noodles and laughing hysterically is enhanced threat to the sole, socially-distanced diner.

Stay @ home illus 2 SOTD

Staying home, for some reason, makes people hungrier and, especially, thirstier than they would normally be when out and about with remunerated work. Cafés are busier than usual (one CBTL manager told me with amazement that their branch had yet to see a decline in business. In fact, sales until last weekend, have been above average, so much so that her bosses were baffled) and bubble tea stalls are still attracting unbelievably long lines (not taking into account orders received via Grab Food and similar services). Caffeinated drinks, it appears, are the affordable panacea to the dreaded anxiety that comes with staying at home. And the perfect excuse to leave one’s abode to get an essential

Going round and round (not quite appropriate to use that ‘V’ word these days) is the online demo of the ridiculous dalgona affogato—instant coffee granules whipped with water and sugar until mouse-like, and served on top of milk. People do have too much time on their hands, and instant coffee and sugar (which is necessary in unhealthy amounts for the coffee to foam up). Instagrammable coffee aside, the “quickest and easiest cakes to make” are also widely shared for those partial to “isolation baking”, with proudly promoting “Quarantine Baking in Times of Crisis”, which, frankly, sounds to me like a relief inmates at certain facilities might appreciate. It isn’t surprising then that the popular—and, consequently, clichéd—memes are built around Marie Antoinette’s leading-to-death, alleged quip, “let them eat cake” (more accurate and historical would be “let them eat brioche”) should emerge and spread.

Food, as always, can keep people busy or, better still, indoors. Even Unicef is offering “easy, affordable and healthy eating tips during the coronavirus outbreak”. If so many people are “sad” (as reported on CNA) that they can’t go drinking and partying with their friends now that bars and entertainment spots have been ordered to close, maybe they can “enjoy virtual happy hours” that some establishments in Hong Kong are reportedly asking those now-not-visiting patrons to do. Seriously! Might the devastated Boat Quay or Clarke Quay bars consider that one? Or would that encourage friends to gather at a chosen home to the blight of social-distancing measures and, for certain, the chagrin of the the Multi-Ministry Taskforce on COVID-19? Drinking and partying is probably still rife. Last Saturday, at the checkout of a Fairprice near my flat, a millennial couple in the adjacent line was paying for largely canned food and drinks. What struck me most were the four 12-can cartons of Carlsberg in their loot. When the receipt was handed to one of them, I spied a total spending of S$56 on beer alone. Since there is no purchase limit on alcoholic beverage, the two youngsters happily avoided restraint, but what were they going to do with that many cans of beer? Panic buy or party mood, I could not tell.

Stay @ home illus V3 SOTD

The thing about staying at home, even to work, is to not bother with what one wears. A ragged T-shirt is as good as any office-worthy shirt or client-ready dress. On the MRT train a week ago, I heard, even with a good two metres between us, a makeup-free woman tell her Felicia Chin-looking friend that the joy of working from home is that she does “not need to do” her face. She explained, “I wake up in the morning—late, usually; brush my teeth after breakfast; and that is it. I don’t wash my face till before I go to bed. So senang,” Such ease that saves on grooming is probably more welcome than we think. Yet, people are urged to dress nicely for teleconferencing or even writing a report without the semblance of a shadow of a colleague nearby, which naturally becomes divisive among both the established remote workers and the newly inducted. People can wear whatever they want, was the strident mantra. What really got Netizens in this region into a tizzy was the news report that in Malaysia last week, the Women and Family Ministry published an online advisory, counselling MCO-affected women, in particular “wives and mothers working from home” to “groom as usual”, including wearing make-up. That was not the end of the recommendation. If conversation is to be conducted at home, women should “talk like Doraemon”!

As long as looking spiffy is de rigueur, many brands are hopeful that long-time home-stayers would want to buy new clothes or even home-appropriate togs that have been, for years, sold as ‘loungewear’. Surely, marketing departments must have been working overtime to come up with ideas to tempt this novel consumer group. One of the earliest on the spin wagon is British knitwear label Sunspel. Their online curation is an “Edit for Working from Home”. Uniqlo, a purveyor of pyjamas-nice-enough-to-wear-out, through Facebook, persuaded followers to “relax in comfort at home, with our wide-ranging loungewear options.” And timely, too, “the first-ever launch of Airism bedding goods in Southeast Asia”, welcome news for those whose idea of staying at home is staying in bed. Even The Guardian is into it, instructing readers on “How to Build a Loungewear Collection”. Singapore’s go-to indie store, Surrender, sent out e-mails telling its customers that, at 30% off, it was “the last chance to get your stay-home-fits”. Getting a fit or not (likely, if staying at home is loathsome), another new phrase to remember.

While browsing CNN news feed a few days back, a video-ad from a brand I have never heard of suddenly appeared. Malaysian label Thousand Miles touting their Omniflex All Day Shorts, as it were. “These are designed to withstand the toughest obstacle course imaginable—the feeling like you’re sitting on a cloud at home with a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon.” Huh? Okay, despite the scene-setting, the pitch many not be convincing, so the promoter went on: “These shorts dry five times quicker, and three times more stretcher (sic) than your average pair of shorts, made possible by our proprietary bi-component material, designed to be fifty percent more breathable.” The affable guy concluded, “So these pairs right here are our love child.” Well, at least some people are productive!

Stay safe. Don’t let anyone tell you the end is nigh. I believe we will prevail.

Photo illustrations: Jim Sim

Social Distancing Not

How are these April covers consistent with what should be practised in the community?


HW vs Nuyou April 2020

It isn’t clear what these two SPH titles are supposed to mean or reflect, but one thing is apparent: the latest covers of Her World and Nuyou are not in keeping with the times. A trio and a quartet, especially when fashionably togged, appear to be what they are—a social gathering, now bane and ban. That they comprise individuals (models in one group and new Mediacorp artistes in the other) that undoubtedly fall into the category known as Gen Z, a not-easy-to-comprehend, don’t-wish-to-be-comprehended bunch, considered to be self-centred and indifferent to the present pandemic, intensifies the problems  of the covers, specifically the ‘optics’.

These photographs could, of course, have been shot before social distancing became the catchphrase and must-do that it has, but do they need to be placed right there on the front? Could a substitute not be found before readers scream “tone-deaf”? Monthly magazines typically go to the printers thirty days before they hit the newsstands, in the middle of the month. If both titles were due to be on sale on 15 March, it is possible that the cover photographs were decided by 15 February. At that time, we had a total of 72 confirmed COVID-19 cases, making us the worse-hit country outside China, which, ten days earlier, had announced the lockdown of the entire Hubei province. A little foresight on the part of the publications would have allowed the anticipation of a pandemic. Perhaps it was until Italy’s initial lockdown on 9 March that the worse was imaginable. By then, the well-occupied magazine covers would have seen their advanced copies sent to their respective editors.

The cover of the 60-year-old Her World, abbreviated to HW in 2017 (a pair of single-syllable words needs to be shortened?), is a composition of two reluctant faces and one vacuous smile, with an announcement at the top-right of the page, “Youth Takeover!” (exclamation mark conspicuously bold), now sounding a tad ominous. Given the bad light youngsters have cast on themselves in the wake of “elevated” social distancing measures, this photograph is, at best, untimely. If covers speak of the current climate, perhaps Her World is on to something, yet one can’t ignore the irony of this pictorial and textual emphasis on youth during a disease outbreak particularly detrimental to old people.

Nuyou, a Chinese magazine, has English cover blurbs. The Now Issue, it highlights, but what is “now”? For many (mainly the authorities), now is not the time to gather (in fact, this is one of three covers. Nuyou proudly declared on IG that these comprise the most artistes on a month’s covers to date—14 in total!). Proximity aside, what truly caught our eye is how heavy-handed the digital enhancement of the faces of the models is. “Brimming with youth (青春洋溢的他们)” isn’t enough to assure admirable skin. Complexions have to be refined to the state of completely no pores. Magazine covers is where Photoshop is mortician, perfection is imperfection, posterity leads to afterlife. Cover images are, of course, more durable than we are. And probably more than one pandemic-causing novel coronavirus.

Photos: respective magazines