Fashion Show In The Time Of Revolt

Troubled are current times in Bangkok and with their monarchy, but one fashion brand linked to the royal family has gone ahead to stage a runway presentation at the elite grand dame of a hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, ignoring the rumbling on the ground. But the protestors are not to be outshone

Discontent expressed in street protests has been rumbling throughout central Bangkok since July, like the whir of a troop of sewing machines. Participants of the marches and mass gathering initially made three demands: dissolve parliament, amend the constitution, and stop harassing critics of the government, as reported by The Bangkok Post. A month later, other demands were added to the list. Students of Thammasat University—the campus is near the Grand Palace—came up with more, including reforming the monarchy (highly contentious), and the abolition of what’s considered the world’s harshest lese majeste law against any criticism of the king and the royal family. Monarchy in Thailand is facing a crisis.

These are fraught times in Bangkok, to say the least. Protests are ongoing, people are determined, and the penchant for provocation seems unabated. The displeasure—some say vexation—with the king is out in the open, not cloaked in a vestige of polite ambiguity, or shielded at home. Yet, at a ballroom of a prestigious hotel last night, a member of the royal family, still cracking at fashion, staged a flashy runway show, attended by the city’s “elites”, the ones now despised by the protesting students, of whom, many, unconcerned with filtering, consider her “tone deaf”. Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya’s eponymous autumn/winter 2020/21 collection was indeed shut out, ensconced in an old-world, riverside rong ram, the Mandarin Oriental, touted as “Bangkok’s first hotel.”

Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya

“Bangkok is getting colder with SIRIVANNAVARI Autumn/Winter 2020-2021 Runway show”, the 15-year-old brand announced on social media. Were they predicting a winter of discontent? Or, will the brand’s show simply be a harbinger of dipping temperatures? No one knew. It is, however, obvious that, despite a collection daringly titled French Flair, the princess isn’t keeping to the Paris RTW calendar. One Thai fashion stylist suggested that she was offering a “see-now-buy-soon model”. It would be interesting to know how eager to own any of the show clothes the attendees were, seated dutifully in the Orentan hotel’s Royal Ballroom, the go-to wedding venue of the old rich and the old guard.

French Flair indeed left viewers with no doubt as to where the princess had cast her sight, or gleaned her ideas from. The first six looks would have immediately done Virgine Viard proud: all the tweed that those unwilling to pay the price a certain French house demands would find charming, and in the similar styling that would easily accord them with French flair, even if their provenance was next to the Chao Praya River. That mode Française would be the 33-year-old’s reference point is unsurprising as she had studied at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne, and is known to spend considerable time in Paris. Coupled with her paternal grandmother’s association with French couture, particularly Pierre Balmain, it is not unexpected—even predictable—that she should pay homage to the capital of France and, as some say, capital of the fashion world.

The full-house fashion show of Sirivannavari at the Royal Ballroom, Mandarin Oriental

Whether Gallic smartness of style was achieved is perhaps immaterial. The princess, as a designer, was connect to France early in her career. Just two years after she founded Sirivannavari at the tender age of 18, she was “invited”—so went the official word—by Pierre Balmain to show in Paris. It is understandable why opinionated Thais were skeptical. The princess had not yet then graduated from Chulalongkorn university, where, according to The Nation, she studied fashion and textile. It wasn’t known why the house that made the clothes of her grandmother, (now) queen mother Sirikit, in the ’60s would request for a novice, not yet twenty one and not known with certainty as a talent, to show in Paris even when she had already scored two shows under her belt at Bangkok Fashion Week. Some media reports later suggested that she was “sponsored” by Balmain, at that time designed by Christophe Decarnin. Her supporters were, however, certain the royal family could afford to pay for her “international debut”, attended by family, friends, and embassy staff. That Paris collection (she would only show again the following year) was so important in the annals of Thai fashion that the Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC) organised an exhibition, Presence of the Past: Love, Contradiction and Fashion, just a month after the staging in the City of Lights.

In the Paris of that September, 2007, Natasha Poly was on the cover of the city’s own Vogue, then 87 years strong. The Russian model wore a waisted leopard print Givenchy haute couture jacket with matching tights, no doubt the aesthetical preference of the magazine’s then-editor Carine Roitfeld. But that season would probably be best remembered for Valentino Garavani’s last collection for his house before Alessandro Facchinetti (of Gucci, after Tom Ford’s departure) took over. On a nippy evening of the 29th, at the Opera Garnier, Sirivannavari “opened” PFW not quite in tandem with what the rest of the city was feeling or would soon offer. The Bangkok Post described the collection as “a marriage of opposites” or “the clash between two fashion cultures—Thai and European”. Although such an approach was taken 47 years ago by the same house that sponsored her, the princess, too, explored the similar stylistic and technical contrasts between distinctly different fashion traditions, but her inexperience showed, and the clothes verged on costume. Did 21st-century Thailand still need to sell its fashion to the west as exotic?

Tweed at Sirivannavari autumn/winter 2020

That season in Paris, the princess was not the only Asian designer to debut in the city. There were two Indians: Manish Arora and Anamika Khanna, and one Japanese: Limi Feu. Mr Arora, presently the most renowned among the four from that year, set up his label in London in 1997 and had been showing in the English capital for two years prior to Paris. By then he was operating five stores in India and sold through 75 doors internationally. His compatriot Ms Khanna, at first a bridal-wear designer, started the Ana Mika label in 2004. A year later, she, too, showed in London, and was selling at 300 points of sale globally. Both of them were experienced designers when they appeared in Paris, so was Ms Feu, who was working for her father Yohji Yamamoto at the pre-Yohji sub-brand Y’s since 1996, before hitting the road on her own four years later and showing in Tokyo from 2000. In comparison, the princess was a fledgling, and, as one fashion stylist said then, “quite lightweight.”

However, the Bangkok press—probably out of words and as a result of habit, or fear, or all three—is wont to talk of her “signature creativity”, even in the Noughties. Back in the early days, the rumour in the city was that she didn’t actually design the clothes. Apparently, each season at that time, the princess would identify the Bangkok brand that she liked best and would have this name and its attendant team and facility “produce” the collection for her. Arrowed labels in the past included the Bangkok mega-brand Fly Now, but virtually none of these producers would talk about their collaboration with the designing royal or how involved she was. When coaxed, the common answer was, “Do you know who her father is?” As she tried to expand her brand in Bangkok, it was known that no store or mall would dare turn her down, even when it was not established if her clothes would sell. One department store buyer who “had to” consider one collection in the late 2000s, told us that it was the most “difficult” buying exercise of her career and that it took a “couple of days” to complete.

Party frock at Sirivannavari autumn/winter 2020

To be sure, Sirivannavari offers well-made clothes or what merchandising specialists would call ‘garmental’. She has a preference for tailored looks and offers competent, if not innovative, cuts. She has a love for intricate details too, which, to her, is a way to show off “Thai crafts”—her couture flourishes. But however superbly produced the clothes are, they don’t necessarily stand out in the area of design. Or, what might be considered contemporary. In fact, through the years, she seems to be designing for herself: compact royal gracefulness in constant need of statement clothes. Or, for attending charity events and hi-so (Thai shorthand for high society) parties, or for the countless ladies-in-waiting of the royal court and the women who are aligned with them—also with the same charity balls, birthday parties, and society weddings to attend. These are clothes to signify wealth and social standing, not to affirm the wearer’s keen eye for fineness and refinement and uniqueness. These days, women want to look like they dressed themselves effortlessly, but these clothes appear to require a lot of effort to get into! They are, on that note, rather retro, bringing to mind the contrived glam of yesteryear designers such as Tirapan Vanarat and Pichita Boonyarataphan. Up till now, no one is able—or willing—to tell us who actually buys Sirivannavari.

Or, if her collections are still produced by a seasonal brand of her choice, as they were in the past. With personal pursuits (she has a love for horses and is reported by Bangkok Post to own 7 of them) and royal duties, she has aroused the inquisitiveness of those who find running a fashion label tough: How does she do it? The compliant Thai media often note that she is “hardworking” and that her “love of fashion” keeps her going. Lest her detractors still think she isn’t the main woman behind her label, a month before her current show, she posted on Facebook, a video selfie of her behind a sewing machine, her fingers, with immaculately manicured nails, easing fabric of an incomplete garment under the presser foot. The princess and manual work, for courtiers and ordinary folks alike, mismatched.

A parallel runway on Silom Road

Even with the sleek catwalk and chandeliers above at the Mandarin Oriental at eight last night, the more compelling show of the evening was elsewhere. A few hours before the Sirivannavari presentation, a parallel event took place a kilometre away from the hotel, outside the oldest Hindu temple in Thailand, the Sri Maha Mariamman (also known to the locals as Wat Khaek), right down Silom Road, and towards the BTS station of the same name. Dubbed the People’s Runway, this event—apparently organised on the fly to thwart the police from anticipating their moves—was another protest activity, this time aimed to mock the royal family. Organised like a street fair, with protest art on sidewalks, the event, to our Bangkok companion “felt like a festive season event”, which was consistent with what has been described as “hybrid protest-festivals”, a uniquely Thai demonstration that can be traced to the Red Shirt sit-ins of 2010. Soundtracked with a cheeky remixed of the tune that typically precede TV announcements of royal news, the “fashion show” had student “democratic models” wear “rubbish” clothes—as one attendee on this muggy Bangkok evening told us—down the street-level runway. This is not a real show, she elaborated cheerily, “This is a protest!”

By the end of the evening, when the energised event-goers cleared out before the police could break their mockery-making with water canons, a short clip of the show was making the rounds on social media. To non-Thais, the two models’ appearances were innocuous enough: the first, a guy in a black singlet, worn cropped to just below the chest. But to Thais, this was to cheer-jeer to; they knew who the reference was. The other, a sweet damsel in pink traditional Thai dress walked down the red-carpeted runway and at a point, fawning well-wishers wai at her sandaled feet. The crowd went wild again. Who this pointed to was obvious as well. Just months ago, no one could have imagined such a flagrant disregard of monarchical respect for the world’s richest king and his queen. Fuelling the day’s tension was an earlier report published in the local media that allegedly listed the Thai national budget for 2020: one of the items, a sum of 29 billion baht (USD929 million) allocated to the monarchy, with 13 million baht for the Department of International Trade Promotion to boost the visibility of the Sirivannavari brand overseas. Did the princess even imagine, when she pressed ahead with the runway at the Mandarin Oriental, that the satirising of her show down in Silom was not out of cheekiness, but disdain and resentment?

The young princess (centre, front) with her whole family during happier times. Photo: source

The princess was born in Bangkok in January 1987. She was the only daughter among four brothers. Her mother was the father’s second wife (he’s into his fourth) and was expelled from the palace in 1996 when the princess was nine. According to what was allegedly transmitted out of the royal walls at that time, her mother had an “affair” with the father’s aide-de-camp, who was his long-time flying partner. This was revealed during preparations of the (former) king’s golden jubilee celebration, to the shock and disbelief of the mostly monarchy-loving Thai people. The mother took her children and fled to the UK, unable to handle the public scrutiny. Not long later, following suspicions wafting throughout the capital that the daughter was abused in England, the prince flew over there and “grabbed” her (some Western reports used a stronger word: “abducted”) and brought her home. It still isn’t clear why he took her instead of any of his sons, as royal watchers noted that he did not really care much about her then.

But returning to Bangkok had been good for the princess, who was since then thrice renamed, reportedly for “auspicious” reasons. By most accounts, she had a relatively easy and happy childhood. She is a sporty girl; she plays badminton and even represented Thailand in the SEA Games. Like Zara Phillips, she is an equestrian, and continues to train and compete to this day. She was admitted to the kingdom’s best university and graduated with a BA after her Paris debut. And, early this month, received an honorary degree from her alma mater that reportedly announced, as she received the award from her aunt—her father’s sister, the princess “is a genius in fine and applied arts and has especially improved the quality of life of the citizens.”

Like her father, she keeps her own residence outside Thailand, specifically France, in the picturesque commune of Bougival, 15-odd kilometres away from central Paris. The village is known for attracting French Masters, such as Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, when they wanted to paint scenes of the countryside. Hers is clearly a royal life, even when in 2011, it was reported that at an Elie Saab show in Paris, the Thai princess was snubbed by her UK counterpart, Princess Eugenie. This surely can’t be worse then being shunned by a city’s young population or be challenged with a fashion runway in a frankly unremarkable street, with no chandeliers.

Screen grabs: Sirivannavari Bangkok/YouTube. Photos, excepted indicated: Free Youth, Thailand

Out Of The Rabbit Hole(s)

Is Raf Simons’s spring/summer 2021 collection metaphor for finally emerging from this difficult year? Or something else?

There were two openings, in fact. In the 17-minute film-as-runway, the models crawled out as if through a pair of holes-in-fence (or were they the ends of tunnels?). The first, a curly-haired guy, emerged somewhat warily into a yard of sort—carpeted with what could be dried yarrow, the colour of marigold, and with trees stripped of foliage—that all seemed alien to him. He looked around him with the furtiveness of an escapee who was finally freed from a dystopian world—or, more relevantly, one ravaged by a pandemic. He wore a fitted, long-sleeved, turtlenecked top. On the chest, it read: “WELCOME HOME. Children of the Revolution.” We have no idea what Raf Simons meant by “revolution”. These past many months have been revolution-calling months. Or was it “Discord” (another message) in the presence of current social constraints and, sadly, confusion?

That (first) textual beckoning brought to mind T Rex’s 1972 hit, also titled Children of the Revolution, recently “interpreted” by Kesha. And also the 2000 film Billy Elliot—in the scene when the protagonist faced up to his father about learning ballet. But would it be naïve to think that, as the song goes, Mr Simons was saying “you won’t fool the children of the revolution”? The collection was themed “Teenage Dreams”. These were adolescents wearing (or dreaming of) grown-up clothes in a deliberate and individual way, or the only way they know how to wear them. There was nothing insouciant about the looks. Were they, then, revolutionising something? A sartorial hit-back at those straight-laced adults too concerned with political bickering to notice that the young have a clearer thought?

To us, this was classic Raf Simons. His distinctive style was born among the young, not necessarily the street, but certainly where the clearly youthful throng. Home is (for the present) Belgium, and assuming that is where he is hoping his followers will cast their taste and longing, it wouldn’t be immoderate to say that even there, the youths have certain “dreams” and these tone with youths elsewhere, even if the circumstances of others may be more complex. But these youths of Mr Simons’s picking aren’t your garden variety, street-style-bent youngsters whose style god is solely Virgil Abloh; these kids probably understand that Mr Simons has fine-tuned his craft through some of the best ateliers of Europe. However youth-centric his designs are, however street they seem, they are not left bare of that increasingly elusive quality called elegance.

In retail setting, Raf Simons the brand is quite often placed alongside other labels that easily fall into the category, street style. Or with designers and names that cannot be easily catergorised, other than left-field. Is his on-going collaboration with Fred Perry something to do with such an association? An eternal youth? We know by now that Mr Simons’s designs are not so straightforward, laden—usually imperceptibly—with codes drawn from his own youth; the music he listened to, the films that impressed him, and even with appliqués of photographs of the past, such as school year books. But his adapting from the days of yore has never been conspicuous. They are often ever so warped, such as the patterns of swirls in the current collection, used for both men and women, that were reminiscent of Pucci of the ’60s (revolutionary times too, for sure), but didn’t communicate Marisa Berenson frolicking on the beaches of Sardina.

This was supposed to be a womenswear “launch”, as described by some members of the media. But since 2006, when he debuted the Jil Sander women’s collection, Mr Simons has been designing for women. This then could be his first co-ed collection for his own label (he did show women’s with men’s for Calvin Klein). And, despite the binary presentation, the clothes seemed less concerned with gender. The turtlenecks, for example, appeared to be a unifying piece. It is odd to want to have the neck encased in such a manner for spring/summer (in an increasingly warmer world), but the the turtleneck is very much Mr Simons’s favourite top, appearing with some frequency before and at Jil Sander, as well as Calvin Klein. The turtleneck is also in line with the slimmer silhouette of the collection (love: worn with a calf-length pencil skirt). This is not necessarily a strong womenswear line—as opposed to his work for Jil Sander and Dior—but they reveal an exciting aesthetic for the future of womenswear that other luxury brands, save Prada and, to an extent, Louis Vuitton, are not exploring.

Sometimes, we wonder if Mr Simons is still playing the outsider, a fashion breed that’s becoming rarer than ever. His feelings about the fashion system—now forced by the pandemic to change—is not unknown. Is he then urging the impressionable young to take his side? On the clothes, both tops and dresses, were pins that urged the viewer to “Join Us” and to “Question Everything”. But it’s hard to question the seductiveness of sweater-knit vests/T-shirts over sleeveless blazers/jackets, oversized pullovers with slinky dresses (many appealingly wearable), outerwear-as-cape, and those deep, slightly dusty colours. It’s hard to say that, come next spring, Raf Simons imagined the world to be bathed in sunlight and breathing virus-free air, but one thing he seemed clear about: there would be no need to resort to loungewear. Easy need not be the only answer.

Photos and screen grab (top): Raf Simons

Kenzo Passes

Obituary | The founder of his namesake label succumbed to this year’s most dreaded disease

One death from COVID-19 that was widely reported last night did not emerge from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Maryland, Washington D.C., but from the American Hospital of Paris in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a commune in the West of the French capital. According to numerous news agencies, Kenzo Takada passed away due to complications from COVID-19, making him possibly the first renowned fashion name to die of this coronavirus infection. The founder-designer of the eponymous label—now owned by LVMH—was 81, and succumbed to his illness just five days after the spring/summer 2021 showing by the label’s current designer Felipe Oliveira Baptista.

With a style considered by many to be a “free-spirited aesthetic”, Mr Takada was what we today would call a trending sensation. In the ’70s, he, alongside Yves Saint Laurent, proved that ready-to-wear could be creatively conceived as the next (big) thing to haute couture and its attendant system. For four years he worked as a free-lance styliste—as Karl Lagerfeld did—after getting to Paris in 1964, the year of Japan’s first Olympics in Tokyo. Members of the media hitherto like to say how he arrived in the port of Marseilles by boat (as if it was more exotic. Mr Lagerfeld surely did not arrive in Paris via sea route!). Although commercial air travel had been available for 50 years, it was still expensive at that time to travel by air. Mr Takada himself recalled that back then in Japan, it was easier to get a passport than a plane ticket. The boat imagery would not fade. According to some reports, one Parisian astrologer told Kenzo in 1969, “You are going to be world famous and rich… rich enough to travel around the world in a huge boat!”

He was born about 50 kilometres to the east of Kobe, in a rather isolated town of Himeji, known for the stately, 674-year-old Himeji Castle (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which remained intact despite heavy bombing during World War II by the United States’ XXI Bomber Command. Mr Takada’s family operated an inn (some reports say teahouse) when he was a boy, growing up in a household of seven children. To satisfy his parents’ wishes, Mr Takada, at 18, attended the University of Kobe, where he studied literature, but found the subject unsatisfying. He dropped out and moved to Tokyo to attend the famed Bungka Fashion College, where he was one of the first batch of male students (another was Mitsuhiro Matsuda). In 1960, he won the prestigious Soen Prize and the rest was fate prepping his impending renown.

Mr Takada’s designs were not what Parisians familiar with couture were used to: youthful, loose-fitting, light, fun, and a mish-mash of ethnic influences

Mr Takada’s early professional days in Paris was as a freelancer. His first sketches were sold to Louis Feraud, whose wife Gigi reportedly bought five of them at US$1 a piece. In April 1970, just five years after stepping on Parisian soil (on which he had initially thought of staying for just six months), Mr Takada debuted a collection in his first boutique—called Jungle Jap—in Galerie Vivienne, a covered passageway/arcade first built in 1823. That collection, by most accounts, was considered a success. There were mini-kimonos in floral prints, knitted shorts, playful scarves, and even aprons in conflicting colours. It was all rather a happy clash—pieces of fabrics, mostly cotton, found in Paris and pieces bought in Tokyo (he returned home before the first show), pulled together with folksy embroidery. Everything could be mixed and matched. Mr Takada’s designs were not what Parisians familiar with couture were used to: youthful, loose-fitting, light, fun, and a mish-mash of ethnic influences, not always from Japan. The French—and soon global—press loved this cherry blossom-dappled blast from the East.

Kenzo Takada’s popularity, especially in his adopted city of Paris, was amazing for a newcomer and a non-European. At that time, he was the only Asian designer working in Paris. Unlike the other Japanese after him, Mr Takada arrived in the French capital as an unknown: In Tokyo, he was only an anonymous “company designer”, as such a job was known then (the one company often cited was Sanai, a now-defunct chain store). His compatriots who came later—Issey Miyake (1973), Hanae Mori (1977), Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (both 1981) were, more or less, established designers back home (Ms Mori started in the ’50s). It could have helped that the set-up of his first boutique in the space that was then described as a “dump” was the anti-thesis of a couture atelier, augmenting the exotic factor of his origin story. He spruced up the place himself, painting the walls with tropical leaves and flowers, as homage to Henri Rousseau’s Snake Charmer. Upstairs his friends sat behind sewing machines to sew. The clothes flew off the racks.

There was a social component too. Back in the ’70s, Mr Takada was very much a part of the Paris beau monde, and hung out in the same club that Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld did: Le Sept—the Paris version of the New York discotheque Studio 54 (but Le Sept opened earlier, in 1968). It was a heady mix of thumping music, total glamour, and free-flow of alcohol. According to Loulou de la Falaise, Mr Saint Laurent’s veritable muse and a friend too of Mr Takada, in all the partying, “Kenzo and Yves were the ones who paid, the ones who could foot the bill.” This could be indication that Mr Takada was already sufficiently well-known and financially successful in the early ’70s (with a reported revenue that amounted to US$10 million by 1977). According to Ms de La Falaise, “Kenzo was the first competition Yves had in years. They greatly admired each other. Kenzo really invented the laid-back look; his stuff was not so proper.” In 1976, Jungle Jap gave way to Kenzo and a spanking new flagship in the more upmarket Place des Victoires.

In the ’80s, winds of change could be felt in Paris, but this time, without the whiff of cherry blossoms. The duo anarchists of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (via Comme des Garçons) had arrived in Paris, with deconstructed looks that suggested “Hiromshima’s revenge”. Everyone in Paris was talking about them. Mr Takada, too, joined the conversation. “(They) were a big shock to the system,” he later recalled to the media. “But I understood their construction of the garment. What really threw me were (Thierry) Mugler and (Claude) Montana, and then Azzedine (Alaia). For me, someone like Montana was the polar opposite of what I was doing. Fashion had changed completely.” Not only was the wind from Japan blowing, the dizzying mood from within Paris was rising: Mugler with a vampy space cadet look, Montana and his suited fierceness (and upturned collars), and Alaia with his concentration on the body.

The pressure was on. Rumours emerged that Kenzo the label was not doing well and the designer was under tremendous stress to churn out clothes that had to capture the rage of the moment. By the mid-’80s, while the company was growing, the turnover declined. “I had to follow trends and I was not happy,” Mr Takada had said. It seemed Kenzo had stalled on a creative plateau. The unhappiness permeated the brand and it lost the energy with which it seduced the world in the ’70s. In 1993, Mr Takada sold his brand to LVMH for a reported US$80 million, and continued designing till his retirement in 1999, which coincided with Kenzo’s 30th anniversary. After he left the fashion house he built, he turned to painting and costume design; he also dabbled in home furnishings through Gokan Kobo, the lifestyle brand he conceived in 2004 and interior design through the firm he co-owned, K3, formed early this year.

In the past decade, Mr Takada was a rather frequent visitor to Singapore under the auspices of the now-quiet, mission-unclear Asian Couture Federation (ACF), spearheaded by the also now-muted Frank Cintamani. In one of his last sojourns here—in 2014, when he attended the 1st anniversary gala celebration of the ACF as its Honorary President, Mr Takada told SOTD that he was “happy to be an observer of fashion.” He added cheerfully, “I don’t have to do it to enjoy it.” When asked if he could contribute to a couture (by name mostly) federation when he had not been a couturier, he seemed amused, and said cheerfully, with diplomacy intact, “I am just supporting them. There are many talents in Asia.” For many that night, Kenzo Takada was the elder statesman of Asia’s still fledgling fashion world. In Paris yesterday, mayor Anne Hidalgo posted on Twitter that the city was “today mourning one of its sons.”

Photo: Zhao Xiangji. Sketches: Kenzo

A Different Givenchy

But is Matthew Williams’s remake better?

Understandable it is that Matthew Williams took the reigns of Givenchy during tough times. But Mr Williams, is not the only designer dealing with difficult conditions, as we have been repeatedly reading. If there’s anything that could be more advantageous to him is that he’s working for an LVMH brand, with better resources than others not operating under such a massive luxury group. Yet, Mr Williams’s debut for Givenchy isn’t quite the attention-grabber that it was when John Galliano or Alexander McQueen or even Clare Waight Keller debuted with the house. Or has installations of not-quite-proven designers at major luxury brands really lost their spark and pull?

Givenchy has, for some time, lost the cool (is that even relevant now?) that Riccardo Tisci—presently at Burberry—brought to the label during his tenure (2005–2017). His successor Ms Waight Keller, despite some compelling output, did not quite restore the buzz Mr Tisci generated. We’re not sure if short-time royal Meghan Markle—and occasional Givenchy customer—brought something to the brand or took away from it. She’s now a considerable distance from the heart of French couture, in Santa Barbara, California, 160-odd miles away from Los Angeles, where Mr Williams is from (actually, he’s originally from Evanston, Illinois). Mr Williams is the first American designer to head Givenchy, and a part of the close circle of LA creatives that orbit around California’s leading design lights, Virgil Abloh and Kanye West, many with the ambition to design for European houses.

Before the showing of Mr Williams’s designs, it would not have been unreasonable to think that Givenchy might take in this collective American design aesthetic (also reflected in the art and DJing quartet Been Trill — made up of Mr Abloh, Heron Preston, Justin Saunders, and Mr Williams). The work would generally spring from street wear and would be Instagram-worthy, and it did, which informed everything in the collection, from the suits to the accessories. And befittingly, Givenchy now appears to reach out to the fashionistas of Calabasas, Kardashian land. It is getting back its K-clan.

The collection started with suits—somewhat interesting sleeve treatment and a semi-rigidity of line that was reminiscent of early Armani. And then it moved into the territory that would delight beauty moguls and the star models who can’t wait to shed catwalk clothes for those that will prompt the media to say how they “stun”: long halter tops with a hooker vibe and knotted at the waist so that the rest of the fabric falls to the floor between the legs (reminding us of the displays in the fabric shops of People’s Park), sheer tops to reveal bandeau-as-bra inside, and apron-dresses with all the hardware that would make a technician think of his unkept worktop. Avant-garde (in the euphemistic sense) came in the form of what might be a giant, upside-down container for French fries worn as a top.

And there’s the eveningwear: akin to what pop-starlets might wear to the Met Gala so as to secure a spot on the worst-dressed list: slinky numbers with massive cutout in the rear ( and if that wasn’t enough, the elbows as well) to better reveal waist-high thongs, as well as unimaginative diaphanous dresses to make a statement about panty choices. Street thinking and VMA red carpet reigned. Who cares about what Meghan Markle wishes to wear? All these clearly appeared as Givenchy for the hip-hop/rock crowd, for Mr Williams’s buddies and their wives, and for their coterie of luxury fashion-wearing friends for whom fashion has to look this naff. Is this what Matthew Williams meant when he said, on the Givenchy website, that “it’s about the humanity in luxury?”

Photos: Givenchy