Visited: Beyond The Vines Design Store

Joyfulness characterises the new space, bringing a bright spark in what is increasingly a bleak retail landscape

By Pearl Goh

Homegrown label Beyond the Vines (BTV), five years strong, is going big—and places. There are stores in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. And last month, the largest outlet—a “concept store” at Takashimaya Shopping Centre—was added to the two stores they already operate (other than a corner in Tangs). Not long after they opened their second pop-up (that became a permanent store) in Mandarin Gallery in 2016, I overheard the designer Thomas Wee, who, around that time had a boutique in the same complex, saying to someone, “Have you been to Beyond the Vines? They’re quite good.”

Owners, husband and wife Daniel Chew and Rebecca Ting, received considerable publicity in the early days, and members of the media were singing the praises of the brand’s calculated minimalism. I was not—and am still—unsure if Singaporean women really take to clothing stripped of visible details or those that may fall on the side of bland. My initial reaction to BTV was one of detachment: these were not challenging designs. Sure, the clothes had an ease about them, the slip-them-on-and-forget-about-them effortlessness, but aesthetically, they were somewhat one-track. Their steady growth, however, must mean they have been doing things right.

When their 2,000 sq ft “flagship” Funan store opened in 2019, Beyond the Vines had fine-tuned the clean aesthetics that continue to lure what one stylist called the “CBD crowd”. Prior to this, BTV was, to me, coasting: the familiar and the safe dominated. But by the time of the Funan store launch, they were more valiant with colours, sometimes offering unexpected pairings, all the while keeping to their familiar tented shapes. While, the Chews told the media they design for “women at large”, they imbued their brand with a clear aesthetic that seemed more distinct than those of their competitors aiming for the same huge slice of the pie, such as their immediate neighbour in Funan, Love, Bonito.

BTVs latest, opened quietly last month, is—at 2,216 sq ft—their largest to-date. This is a store I had not expected. I always remember my first visit to the Mandarin Gallery debut, which seemed like an oversized dressing room, girdled with the plushness women dreaming of a life of luxury would appreciate. This time, there’s a more youthful vibe and a faint edge to the store, one that could have been spotted in a hipster neighbourhood in Tokyo, such as Nakameguro. Described as a “Design Store”, this BTV immediately reminds me of Urban Research, with a touch of Beams (particularly the Shinjuku flagship). It’s retro-industrial-modern interior, with touches of painterly colour, makes neighbour Massimo Dutti look, well, yesteryear.

What is alluring is that from the store front, with its pale pistachio frames, you could see this is no regular clothing shop (at least not by a local clothier), or one packed to the rafters with thoughtless merchandise. Here is a well considered and appointed space: with fixtures that look cheekily transplanted from a warehouse; areas zoned to define those for bags; women’s wear and men’s in their respective, well spaced-out areas; clothing interspersed with accessories and other goods. The spaciousness of the store is in itself a lure. You sense, as the name suggests, you could actually go beyond the vines—which in informal American English also means clothing.

One bridal wear designer friend had told me earlier that the new BTV store is “nice to browse in”. And it’s true that “have a look” is encouraged, if not by the staff, certainly by the way the merchandise is displayed and not screened behind glass or acrylic showcases. Touching is inevitable, especially when you discover that, for example, the nylon “relaxed” shopping bags (S$69), are reversible, or that the face masks (S$20 each) come with optional lanyards (S$15 for a pack of three). The clothes are less curiosity-arousing because you have probably seen them before. I sometimes wonder if the designs are based on the same few blocks that have become the crux of what are deemed saleable. Here, the pinafore/apron dress, sack-like shifts (some with expected asymmetry), and the dolman sleeve are recurrent. Talking about Thomas Wee, one particular BTV detail, a draw-tape back that creates a gathered rear—just below what would have been the scapula when worn—is reminiscent of one of Mr Wee’s designs from the time both were neighbours at the Mandarin Gallery.

The men’s side of the store, with its own separate entrance, is possibly the more enticing part, mainly because it is a newer offering of the brand. For a generation of guys now preferring a more relaxed silhouette, the line of easy-to-understand separates has drawn considerable attention. Details set some of the pieces apart, such as one style of shirt’s right corner of the left pocket—it can be unbuttoned to reveal a contrast-colour underside. Yet, there, too, are details overlooked, such as the oddly short crotch for pants, and the woefully shallow pocket bags. I overheard a male shopper complaining to his girlfriend that he “can’t see” the prices on the hang tag. True enough, they are microscopic. As I take in the commendable men’s section, I notice that they sized up the colour-blocked “Crunch carrier” for a more suitable proportion (S$89 for the “Mega” and S$69 for the “Mini”) that guys might find manly enough to carry.

On the day I visited, which was a Thursday afternoon, the store was quiet. When I walked in, two sales attendants were chatting at a central island-cashier-cum-display unit for key rings (S$12) and pens (S$12), and such. I was not sure if they were aware of my presence. I like how quiet and not intrusive the service was; I like how they stinged on hi. Throughout my time in the Beyond the Vines Design Store, there was absolutely no communication between the staff and I. I was not asked if I needed help or if there was anything that I was looking for or attracted to. When I pulled out a wrap dress with a cord for the belt (S$139) to examine, I was not asked if I might have liked to try it on. I was left entirely to my own browsing. The dialogue-free session was bliss. I left as I entered—not bothered. And empty-handed.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Photos: Galerie Gombak

Return With A Bang

While we wait for the comeback Uniqlo +J collection to hit the brand’s Global Flagship store next Friday, Hongkongers made a manic rush at the launch in the city today

Friday the thirteenth may be deemed an unlucky day in Western superstition, but here in Asia, it is quite auspicious, especially for Uniglo launching their comeback collaboration with the German designer Jil Sander, who no longer designs her eponymous label. At its Causeway Bay outlet in Lee Theatre Plaza on Hong Kong island, dubbed the “1st worldwide flagship store”, long queues were seen leading to the cashier early this evening. One happy shopper told SOTD she would have come in the morning if she could get away from work. She said, in Cantonese, that she was waiting for the launch since hearing about it on social media last month because the clothes “又平又靚 (yao paeng yao laeng, or cheap and attractive” and “好有設計感” (ho yao chit gai gam, or with design sense).

It is not surprising that this would be the reception to the +J collection in Hong Kong. We won’t know how it will fare here until next Friday when it will be revealed. Uniqlo has created what is possibly one of its most popular and successful collaborations, spanning some five seasons, from 2009 to 2011. Then there was the “greatest hits” collection of 2014, which allowed those who missed the earlier releases the fashion equivalent of back issues. Many thought that was the last chance of owning something that Ms Sander actually had a hand in designing, until it was announced, more than two months ago, that the collaboration would be brought back with a brand new collection. Now that WFH is very much a part of our lives, +J’s intelligently conceived, elevated classics are expected to score big. The GQ columnist Justin Myers posted on Twitter, “Looking forward to seeing everyone in their Uniqlo +J turtlenecks on their Zoom call screenshots.”

It is doubtful Zoom users here would make such an effort. Still, good design and good value do appeal. And it is not unreasonable that Uniqlo would be expecting enthusiastic response at Orchard Central next week, although it may not generate the same crowd as buzzy collabs at, say, H&M. Although collaborators and designers such as JW Anderson and Christophe Lemaire, who oversees the Uniqlo U line, have made classic designs with subtly tweaked details the mainstay of their collections for the brand, precision and nuance have not really caught on here. One Singaporean designer said to us, when we asked him what’s the lure of +J, “Honestly, I think not many people would understand the appeal of Jil Sander. Most won’t even know of her, let alone her style. Her designs are so understated that even if she executed an unusual pocket, most consumers can’t see how unusual.”

Which, seems to support the oft-said belief that Hongkongers are more sophisticated than us. The +J sell-through here would, therefore, tell. Back in the still-packed Causeway Bay Uniqlo store, the +J merchandise looked to be running low. One product development specialist who was there to consider a puffer jacket said, “I do like the women’s duffle coat. The outerwear is very now in terms of the details and silhouette. The knits, however, felt, to me, like she was repeating her styles from the past.” Revivals are not necessarily a minus for +J. Ms Sander has, more than other collaborating designers before and after her, created pieces for Uniqlo that can test the passing of time. One content development manager told us, “The first bubble coat I ever bought was from +J. I wanted to know if I would like it. And the price was sharp. That was more than ten years ago. I still use it now when I travel. And happily. It doesn’t date.”

Photos: K S Yeung for SOTD. Illustration: Just So

Is The Cropped Tank Top For Men Really A Thing?

It’s either been very, very hot, or a guy’s navel is the next sizzling zone

By Jagkrit Suwanmethanon

For quite a while, photos (and videos too) have been circulating online, purportedly showing one Asian monarch going about his life in public in cropped singlets, on at least four different occasions. These were not regular singlets, rolled up to cool the navel on a hot day, as some elderly men are still inclined to do. These were actually sleeveless tops hacked to extremely short lengths, covering the chest and little else of the upper body. It was probably no longer than 30 centimetre from the shoulder to the hem. Or, about the length of a mini skirt. Donald Trump’s tie is clearly longer.

Now, I am not one to judge or begrudge. These days, it is, of course, acceptable that a man can wear whatever he chooses—even a skirt, which is, frankly, not the least unusual. Fashion is no longer binary, the media keeps reminding us. Even monarchical style. But the said photos raised eye brows because in kingdoms across the world, subjects do expect the male—even female—members of royal families to dress in a conservative way. If not modestly, at least not in a manner that puts the torso out for show, like a belly dancer’s.

It seems that this monarch doesn’t concern himself with kingly style. No one I know could explain to me why he would be partial to so little fabric, except to say that he has “quirky” tastes. It is appreciable that a king does not adhere to the dictates of exalted convention, but such extremes are eye-brow-raising, even among the most liberal of any company. But it seems that this royal’s particular preference for cropped over crown isn’t unusual among some of males far away outside his court.

More cropped tops. Photos: (from left): Lazada, Asos, Lazada

By chance, I came across these very, very short tops on Lazada recently. Eleven eleven had drawn me into the black hole of discount shopping. I have no idea why Lazada thought I might be interested in an abbreviated lace vest that costs an unbelievable S$6, and gob them out as recommendation. It appeared under the category “Men’s T-Shirt”. Have things around me changed so much that ‘T’ is no longer of a shape I recognise? For a quick moment, I thought I had landed on a La Senza store. Or, viewing a Kardashian wardrobe. But the musculature before me was indisputably masculine. Could it be the narrow horizontal strip of lacy fabric that threw me off?

The accompanying description called it a “clubwear top”. I may be deprived of any semblance of nightlife for the past nine months, but I don’t think the lack of alcohol and a relentless beat is making me forget what dressing for the club was like. Perhaps things have changed during my social snooze. But then, I remember one king. And the past, which stretched back to around 1992, when Marky Mark—now, mostly Mark Wahlberg—wore an abbreviated black tank top in a Calvin Klein ad that also featured Kate Moss, held close to the then-rapper. Mr Wahlberg’s cropped piece didn’t look shocking then, as he wore a lot less in the same series, shot by Herb Ritts. Today, that top would be considered long!

I also remember, just two years ago, online retailer ASOS had availed a white cropped singlet (bottom photo, middle) for sale, much to the chagrin of Netizens. It was described as “reclaimed vintage inspired extreme cropped vest”. At least, ASOS didn’t mince words: Any top for men that ends just below the nipple is not only extreme, it’s radical. I always wonder why guys in the gym succumb to stringy singlets with armholes that open to the hips. Much of the body is exposed. One need not look hard at all. There must be something really pleasurable about clothing the body so minimally. When will it be that even the chest, too, won’t deserve cover? Unsurprisingly, Lazada has something for that look as well: it’s called a harness.

Photo: (top) Vgobuy/

The Crazy 1s

Is 11.11 really the biggest sale of the year?

By Truss Tan

Who’d thought that innocuous quadruple one, split in the middle by a period, can be such a big deal, and date. Yes, the symmetrical numbers are appealing, lined up in a neat row, like rubber trees in a plantation. But people don’t know them as “ones”. These are not simply a repetition of the lowest cardinal number, deemed lucky in numerology. As K-actor Lee Min Ho (now with more than 20 million followers on Facebook and Instagram) said in the Lazada ad, “eleven eleven” (I did not, at first, understand what he uttered). Or as they say in China, “shuang shiyi (双十一, or double eleven)”, the massive, 24-hour retail event that is so huge, a tally room is set up to track the sales and the millions made, by the second!

Like so many shopping phenomena, these days, much of them are emerging from China. Originally known as Single’s Day (光棍节, guang gun jie), 11.11 has gone beyond the celebration of singlehood and not be ashamed of going without a romantic partner to become a gargantuan and unfettered consumerist indulgence—so massive in scale, it’s often acknowledged as the largest online and offline shopping festival in the world! And Americans thought Black Friday is huge. Last year, in China alone, they chalked up a record-breaking (again) USD38 billion in sales! If that is not staggering, I don’t know what is. As I write this, I have not been fed this year’s numbers, expected to break records again since spending is predicted to be high, considering people have accrued a lot from not travelling overseas.

Lee Min Ho for Lazada. Photo: Lazada

As the popular telling goes, in 1993, four unattached, unnamed dudes from Nanjing University (南京大学), probably bored to death, was wondering how to mitigate the “monotony” of not having a romantic mate. An idea came to these guang guns—“bare sticks”, the slang word Netizen used for single men. They thought it would be a good time to organise fun activities (nothing to do with shopping) to occupy similarly single campus mates, and they did, which apparently became popular among the co-ed population of the school. Phallic symbolism aside, 11.11 was also meant to be a stand to show that men do not need romance to validate their masculinity. It was, therefore, also known as “anti-Valentine’s Day”.

But no good idea can escape the grip of some greedy entrepreneurs, especially those in tech, sitting behind their laptops, watching the world, all agog for action. In 2009, Alibaba, through the manic site Taobao, create the 11.11 that we know today. Who cares about the singles now or the increasing number of them, left on the shelf, when you can, instead, see the item(s) you have been lusting after fly off the shelf. In fact, 11.11 is now a veritable cultural event, with celebrity attendance. In 2018, Mariah Carey kicked-started the festival with a performance backed by the Cirque de Soleil. Last year, Taylor Swift plugged the buying frenzy with a splashy performance. In the past years, we, too, have caught up. As Alibaba has a sizeable investment in Lazada, 11.11 has gripped the imagination and aroused the appetites of shoppers here.

Club 21 sleek landing page. Screen grab:

I am not easily afflicted by any shopping fever. In the past years, 11.11 came and went, and I have not been disadvantaged by it. But when Club 21, this year, persistently appear on my social media accounts with their beckoning, I was seduced into experiencing 11.11, at least once. Now, atas Club 21 was never known to play by the typical sale-schedule rule book. In the past, they would not even participate in the now significantly less great Great Singapore Sale (which was “forced” to go online due to the pandemic). Yet, here they were, notifying me on FB and IG incessantly that there were, at first, two more days to go before 11.11 (shown in bold, patterned type), and then, there was a day more. The urgency it created and the possibility that FOMO may strike finally aroused my curiosity about Eleven Eleven.

The Club 21 e-shop is still one of the most unfriendly to navigate despite a supposed remake last year. They are, to be sure, not Qoo10; they are a lot more classy, for a lack of a better expression. But they are not what you would call engaging (the buzz word in e-commerce these 11.11-aware days) or experiential. A journalist friend had texted me yesterday to ask if “get your favourite items for the price of one” (according to the Club 21 ads) meant “two items for 50%”. The answer is not immediately available on the Club 21 homepage (I assume I’d have to “see ‘promotions’ for T&C”, which, despite the pointer symbol appearing when I hover over the line, wasn’t clickable).

Anyway, I was not really here to spend (at least not at twenty past midnight); I wanted to see how our island’s premier multi-label store is adapting to 11.11, or adopting it. Regrettably, it was a totally anti-climatic session. Once you click on ‘shop now’ on the main page, it’ll bring you to the products page. No fanfare. A click on any item did not immediately bring me to the merchandise. It took an unusually lengthy 11.25 seconds. In fact, my entire 30-minute browsing was characterised by very annoying lag. And especially curious was items listed under the ‘Sale’ tab: they were not discounted! And when I clicked on the back arrow, the page hanged!

Singaporean actors Wang Weiliang (王伟良) and Gurmit Singh, peddle for Shopee

Might it be better at Lazada, heavily advertise on TV this past week, featuring the hard-to-comprehend Lee Min Ho? The sheer number of items offered by Lazada, on the homepage alone, often makes me nervous. Where do I begin? And there are those coupons preceding the listing of products. I saw an inordinate amounts of coffee machines, kitchen storage, and electric fans! I tried a search: fashion. The first item that appeared was a “2020 Autumn Clothing New Style Hong Kong Flavor Chic Versitile (sic) Fashion Vintage Hong Kong Flavor qian kai cha(?) Backless Strapped Dress Women Fashion”. Thankfully, there was the picture. But, was I in the market for clothes to wear to a nightclub when they are allowed to open? At $8.80 (not marked as an 11.11 sale item), it was cheaper than a McDonald’s Breakfast Deluxe Extra Value Meal.

While Lazada took the more stylish—no less popular—choice of Lee Min Ho, kitted in a pink suit, for their 11.11 communications, Shopee adopted a more grassroots approach, selecting Singaporean actors, Wang Weiliang (王伟良), as himself, and Gurmit Singh as Phua Chu Kang to helm the selling. I’ll keep my feelings about Mr Phua as a salesman to myself for now. Clearly, Shopee is geared for the mass market. And those who must buy at a discount or what is perceived to be cheap. The homepage, however south you scroll, was slapped with discount coupons after discounts coupons after discounts coupons. I finally saw ‘Key Highlights’ after what seemed like the time I would need to pee. Still, there were no product so irresistible I would go weak in the knees (or knuckles—I was scrolling with my fingers) for. By now, my eyes were so fatigued I mistook a Military “Lensatic” Compass for a compact! It was really time to go to bed. In the morning, I’ll try Tekka Online Market; I heard they were doing 11.11 too.

Illustration (top) by Just So

It’s Over Now, Ivanka

Time for her to leave Washington and retire her power suits and modest dresses, and that fake smile?

By Emma Ng

The stitches have come apart for the second term of the Trump presidency and daughter-to-the-rescue Ivana Marie “Ivanka” Trump is unable to re-stitch it because, despite all the attempts at repairing her father’s irreparable wrong doings, I doubt she has ever held a needle her entire life. The sharpest thing she plays with, it appears, are her stilettos. Mending does not seem to be part of her skill set, or she could have tried to repair the social snags caused by the president’s poor (or non-existent) policies. The many white suits she has worn during her father’s tenure at the White House only showed more stains than a butcher’s apron when she proved to be complicit in her dad’s divisive and dangerous decisions. The senior advisor, it seems to me, has not been advising. Much.

Ms Trump, also the standby FLOTUS, was never qualified to take up the post in the White House, even if she was, reportedly, not remunerated. Of course, being unqualified has never been an issue. In 2011, she launched her namesake fashion label even when she had never been in the business of designing or selling clothes. (Her modelling—if you can call it that—‘experience’ was expendable.) I doubt many remember what it was she peddled; I certainly don’t. She told InStyle that year, “I wanted to build a strong and sustainable collection that is not overly trend-conscious”, adding, “I wanted the price points to be accessible, but ultimately we’re in the business of luxury, and these looks are consistent with that larger messaging.” If that was not attributed to Ms Trump, I would have thought it came from a JC Penney’s buyer.

In July 2018, due to pressures from ethical concerns of the first daughter setting up shop next to her father, Ivanka Trump the fashion label didn’t survive. That could have foretold her political ambition in 2020, or her chances of unrestricted access to the White House, but all the pussy bows she had fastened to her neck might have limited oxygen going to her brain. And all the floral prints she has been wearing were no tea leaves to be read. The pretty penny she has spent on her wardrobe to get her not only to the corridors of the White House and the power nucleus of Washington, but also the world stage, where she had been snubbed, has not been good investment—she won’t be able to continue as the administration’s sweet-faced supremo to defend and blandish the president. A deflated ball, as we know, loses its bounce.

For all the talk and rows of magazine columns that noted fashion has changed, Ms Trump remains trapped in her buttoned-up suits and Sunday dresses, and convinced of her corporate chic and her own fabulousness as counterpoint to her father’s misogynistic propensities

What was Ivanka Trump’s own “larger messaging”? Frankly, I couldn’t read any. Empowering women? Maybe empowering herself. Being her father’s “hot” girl and one he would date (recall: “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her”), she was more fembot mascot for brand Trump than the saviour of women in the workforce that her dad couldn’t be. I assume she thinks her fashion reflects the sartorial choices of working women, only they don’t. She is not a working woman like you and I. For all the talk and the rows of columns that noted fashion has changed, especially in the wake of WFH, Ms Trump remains trapped in her stodgy buttoned-up suits and prosaic Sunday dresses, and convinced of her corporate chic and her own fabulousness as counterpoint to her father’s misogynistic propensities.

Throughout her career as a political operative, Ivanka Trump looks the part of tasteful right-wing Trump surrogates (yes, among them, the belligerent Kellyanne Conway) with their less than tasteful assertions that the president was never wrong or never lied. The clothes they wear perpetually look like outfits picked to meet the boyfriend’s mother… for the first time, or to attend a high school classmate’s wedding at the golf course clubhouse. Blandness may serve your base, but they would not move the needle for fashion. Do Ivanka Trump, Hope Hicks, Kayleigh McEnany, Laura Ingraham, and Paula White, I wonder, go shopping together, all heavenly scented, hair flat-ironed so as to reflect the results of a study, as reported by The Atlantic, that suggested, “Republican congresswomen look twice as ‘feminine’ as Democrat”?

Ivanka Trump is, for many of her followers, the epitome of picture-perfect femininity. Or, red-state refinement. I suspect it’s all styled to go along with the popular imagination of what is worn to work in the White House and to meet world leaders. And it doesn’t come cheap. One Rodarte dress she donned to a bash to welcome French president Emmanuel Macron in 2018, the year her fashion label folded, was reported to have cost an eye-watering USD12,888. It was a frilly, micro-dotted, floor-length dress with six tiers for the skirt—sweet but spiritless, fashionable but familiar, beauteous as Barbie. Ms Trump once said, “I’m not a clone, and I’m not a minion”. From a fashion perspective, those are, to quote one former White House press secretary, “alternative facts.”

Illustration: Just So

Dress Watch: The Hydra Shirt

How many collars, or necks, does a chemise need?

Combining more than one outfit (or parts of) in a single garment is, of course, nothing new these days. We’ve seen it forever at Comme des Garçons and more recently at Y-Project and Balenciaga. Joining (pun, for sure) the rest is Burberry, the British house now still being remade by the Italian designer Ricccardo Tisci. This isn’t a simple one plus one, or one on one. Mr Tisci has made a simple shirt dress, conjoined with two halves-and-full-collars. This is the work of a Victor Frankenstein with an eye for symmetry.

The Burberry chemise-dress is interesting at first encounter. Pull back and it might be less fetching. The stand out parts are the two extra collars that, when worn, frame both ends of the shoulder, which, as a styling effect, is known as the “cold shoulder”. Think: summer of 2016. But the dress has less the sex appeal of those from four years ago. In fact, with the sleeve dangling by the side, it gives the dress a sack-like silhouette that may not be flattering for those not on the side of svelte.

What may, perhaps, be more appealing is to treat the two side collars as armholes. Yes, put your arms through them. It’s a twofer! Bring the sleeves to the middle, knot at the waist. In this manner, the dress would be unusual enough to intrigue even the keenest fashion observer. Is an extra shirt tied over the bodice?

What, to us, is a let down is the fabric used: The winter standard cotton flannel. And in WFH-friendly buffalo check and plaid! Fashion hack: do the same look by picking three flannel shirts from Uniqlo, and getting an able tailor to piece them together. Because that would cost you a total of S$89.70 (minus sewing charge) instead of the eye-watering S$3,950 you’d otherwise have to fork out.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Burberry Contrast Check Cotton Reconstructed Shirt Dress, SGD3,950, and a similar version for men, SGD1,880, are available at Burberry stores and online. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

A Good Let Down

Paris Jackson’s debut single is surprisingly listenable. And she didn’t have to take after her dad Michael

Paris Jackson doesn’t sound like a Jackson, not one bit—not vocally, not musically, and therein possibly lies her peculiar appeal. Nor, does she even look like a Jackson even when her father has unusually fair skin for a black man (attributed to vitiligo), which, to us, possibly gives her an edge. With her debut single let down (lower case her choice), she showed that she can go the musical route her own adult way. There isn’t the necessity to reach into her father’s back catalogue. And she need not ride on her family name, or the reputation of the King of Pop.

We really didn’t expect this. The eldest child of a child-prodigy dad really chose her own path. Unlike the youngest member of the Jackson 5, she took her time, starting rather late (her father’s career as a soloist began when he was 13. She’s now 22). As an artiste, she did not grow up in the presence of an adoring audience. Lyrically this is a rather a teenaged view of love lost, and but musically, it has a maturity that brings to mind Billie Eilish. We are not familiar with Ms Jackson’s influences, but it seems she is—at least for now—staying clear of the R&B much associated with the legacy of the paternal side of her family. Or, the two famous aunts.

When we first heard let down—from the up-coming debut LP Wilted, we thought of Sophie Zelmani (whose Going Home was covered by Faye Wong as Passenger [乘客] in the 2003 album To Love [将爱]). In that sense, the sound is rather European, compared to those of her American peers releasing first albums. Co-written with Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, the song surprisingly avoids a catchy dance hook or Thriller kind of hard edge, preferring strumming guitars and the gentle swell of rather lush orchestration. The sum borders on what might be considered trendy melancholy pop. With the name Jackson in mind, it takes a while to get used to her somewhat wispy voice (her father, for sure, isn’t exactly known for his deep power vocals). But Paris Jackson sings with conviction and the pleasing tune quickly wins us over.

The accompanying video isn’t visually ground-breaking stuff and Ms Jackson offers no impactful sartorial statement, unlike, again, Billie Eilish. She wears (to a ball?) vaguely Victorian gowns—seemingly corseted—and a prairie dress (or two) that suggests lounge wear of another era than what has been popular during pandemic lockdowns. And how the nose ring fits isn’t clear. Ms Paris has been a model (and still is), but she has not (yet) been a fashion darling. Gucci clearly hasn’t invited her to appear in their films-as-fashion-show. It is, however, possible that she may make a mark through her music—if listeners don’t find her a let down.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Screen grabs: Paris Hilton/Vevo

The End Of Robinsons

Long lines outside Robinsons over the weekend, once again, showed that we ardently queue up when retail businesses announce they’re going bust. This was literally The Sale Worth Waiting For

Not long after media announcements in May that Robinsons at Jem would be closed in August, after National Day, rumours abound that their remaining two stores will suffer the same fate. In the industry, that prediction was further strengthened when talk emerged that the owner of The Heeren, Chee Swee Cheng and Co, had invited Parco (Singapore) to see if the latter might be interested in the space, then still occupied by Robinsons. Parco, initially behind Bugis Junction (they sold their stake in 2005) and later the retail manager of The Central at Clarke Quay and PARCO Marina Bay in Millenia Walk (where they introduced the now defunct Parco Next Next), did not, at that time, appear to have expressed interest.

Although it was reported that no one knew of the impending shuttering of Robinsons until the very day of the “official” announcement last Friday, it was already a fate many anticipated will strike. Some retailers in Orchard Road also revealed a day before that they had heard that the store was placed under creditors’ voluntary winding-up. From Saturday, A4 signs on windows and (closed) entrances of the Raffles City store read: “FOR ALL CUSTOMER AND SUPPLIER PLEASE CONTACT…” an email linked to the Australian liquidator’s website was quoted (yes, in full caps). For Singapore’s oldest department store, there was really no hope.

The long queues at both Robinsons stores: at Raffles City (top) and The Heeren (below)

“Shoppers flock to Robinsons outlets after it announced store closures” went The Straits Times headline a day after the shock announcement that Singapore’s oldest department store will close. For good. Social media was buzzing with photos and videos showing the unbelievably long line outside The Heeren that, at some points, stretched all the way to the Apple store. We received these news with some concern. Have we become a nation of closing-down fans? Will potential brands—especially from overseas—see an island-city of willing shoppers only when an outlet announces liquidation procedures? Will we suspend shopping to wait for the next store closure? The thing is, we can get used to this. Reserving retail therapy for the last days of a business is addictive, since today’s economic climate means more closures are anticipated. Are we really becoming like this?

The sight of a long queue sure does intensifies FOMO, as a line—however long—is the visual equivalent of online stores telling you “X people are currently looking at this” so as to quicken the commitment to purchase. You don’t know who these people are, but the thought that any one of them could beat you to it—whatever ‘it’ is, could heighten the anxiety that there are those who are simply ahead of you. According to news reports, The Heeren store limited the number of shoppers to 1,500. Over at Raffles City, the security personnel controlling the sole entry point told those in line that “1,000 people are allowed inside at any one time”. This may explain the long queue outside each store, which only intensified the desperation of onlookers and those receiving updates from friends via WhatsApp and the like.

At The Heeren, a monitor indicating the number of visitors already in the store

Many who rushed down to Robinsons were hoping to buy at deeply discounted prices, but were disappointed that most merchandise they thought were there had vanished. Much of whatever products left were not marked down. Signs above many racks stated clearly that “All shoppers enjoy $20 off with minimum nett spend of $150” or “$30 off with minimum nett spend of $200.” This is consistent with what Robinsons had on the cover image of its Facebook page, which bore the message: “Time for a shopping spree” (what happened to the standard “Everything Must Go”?). Many in the two stores looked at those signs in disbelief. In addition, word went round that those holding Robinsons gift vouchers and cards could only use them if they were to spend twice the value of the voucher or card. Who was really enjoying anything?

That there was considerably reduced merchandise and empty shelves were hardly surprising. The reality is, the minute liquidation was announced, many brands had their merchandise removed from the stores for fear that they may not be able to do so later, or that they would never be paid for whatever would be sold during this sale. At the time The Heeren store opened in 2013, there was talk that Robinsons had boasted an unusually high 60% outright purchase (products bought directly by the store). Through the years, with declining sales and merchandising approach that didn’t work, the consignment-centric model was adopted. Consignees generally place stocks on the selling floor and are paid when the products are sold. One brand manager of a popular accessory label told us that he was down at The Heeren store the day after the liquidation announcement, even before the store opened, “to quickly get everything out.”

Severely empty shelves at both stores: (top) Raffles City and (below) The Heeren

Others were not so lucky. Murmur among suppliers described how some brand owners were told by Robinsons that there would be no moving of merchandising out of the stores. All such clearance had to be approved by the liquidator. Some consignors had not been paid for sales made during the months prior to the closing down announcement, and they fear that, if their goods were not taken away, they might have to incur all unforeseen losses. This could explain the many empty shelves that confronted hopeful shoppers over the weekend. Sunglass Hut, for example, wasn’t going to let their designer eyewear be associated with a store that was in the midst of a somewhat chaotic closing down. As for the rest of the merchandise that belong to Robinsons, no one is sure if they would eventually be marked down. One shopper was heard complaining to his friend on the phone, as he was leaving The Heeren store, empty-handed, that “one bloody denim sacoche was still priced at $519.”

By now, news was spreading that those who had paid in full for mattresses were told that it is not certain they would receive what they had purchased. Complains to the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) was swift. Robinsons took to Facebook to announce that these complaints were a “priority issue to be addressed with the mattress suppliers.” This did not assuage any complainant’s anxiety. Many had reached out to the mattress suppliers and the common response they received seemed to be, as one FB user posted on Robinsons’ page, “Supplier called and informed that they will not honour the delivery due to no payment from Robinsons.”

A familiar entrance with the curved glass sliding door shall be no more

How did Robinsons, with 162 years of business behind them, come to this? Did they have to exit their home here in such a disgraceful manner? The way many see it, Robinsons has seized to be a Singaporean brand the way we remember it when Dubai-based Al Futtaim Group bought 88% of the shares of Robinsons & Co in 2008. Although the company did grow the Robinsons brand in the Middle East—in Dubai and Riyadh, there is no emotional connection to the brand or the appreciation of Robinsons’ place in the social, economic, and retail history of our city. To them, losing Robinsons is no love lost. In 2013, Jim McCallum, then CEO of Robinsons Group, told the media leading to the opening of The Heeren store, that in deciding to bid for the department store, “We don’t buy companies to sell them, we buy to keep.” He didn’t say anything about killing them.

Some press reports call Robinsons the “victim of COVID-19”. Others consider it the casualty of the huge consumer shift to online shopping. Why not also take into account that the retail and pricing model that is Robinsons is not tenable in a consumption culture that elevates consistent discounting? Since the Great Singapore Sale (GSS) that, this year, coincided with the 9.9 sales, there was the 10.10 sale and the upcoming 11.11 sale (also known as Singles’ Day sale), all linked to online shopping destinations such as Lazada and Shopee, which are model platforms that national broadcaster Mediacorp enthusiastically supports, and retailers were told to emulate. Or, perish. Continually fed on a steady diet of considerable, if not deep, discounting, shoppers would not be motivated to go to a store such as Robinsons to confront regular offline prices. In time, people would remember Robinsons as a place of no discounts even in their last days. Who, indeed, will miss Robinsons when the store had not been receiving ardent support for years. On the possibility that The Heeren might be a white elephant on Orchard Road, one commentator on the forum page of wrote, “Let those dirty massage palor (sic) take over the Heeren lor. I don’t care.” Perhaps, no one does. Unless there is a closing down sale.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

All Of This And Nothing

Singaporean fashion, as the pandemic prolongs, culminated in one design award this month. This came after a major digital event and a re-imagined store in August. What high point did we see or experience? What inspiring creativity? Or, was it all hokum?

The winning collection of Singapore Stories 2020 by Carol Chen. Photo: Carol Chen/Instagram

Events of the past months have led us to believe that Singaporean fashion is on an inexorable journey to meet its demise. Yes, die out. As we write this post, news is out that the 162-year-old Robinsons will be shuttered. Orchard Road—A Great Street (still?)—is going to be deprived of a department store, a historic one at that. Other retailers, big and small, too, are struggling, or have put an end to the struggle. Fashion retail is in such a dismal state and Singaporean fashion so woeful now, anything can take its place in a “retail showcase” or be viewed from “the front row”. We are putting things on a pedestal when they should be on a back burner, at best.

Textile and Fashion Federation’s (TaFF) self-feted Singapore Stories capped three months of spotlighting the design offerings and climate of this red dot after the Circuit Breaker lockdown was eased in June. Singapore Stories is the single citation from the annual Singapore Fashion Award, now with dwindled budgets—and ambition. The result out last Thursday, it crowns a Singaporean name or Singapore-based label for the yarn he/she is able to spin, based on a theme decided by TaFF. It is odd that despite years of failed attempts at pivoting Singaporean designs to our island or the region, from The Singapore Dress first mooted by then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong in 1989 to the Asiatropics of ’90s Singapore Fashion Week, we are still hoping that great design can emerged from a collective national identity.

A mock catwalk at Design Orchard to promote the designs of the finalists of Singapore Stories

There is something factitious about such a design requirement. We live in difficult times and we each have our own stories to tell, but we should not have to be circumscribed by geographical or cultural boundaries to express ourselves in the most creative way. Sure, creativity can emerge from limitations, from parameters, but as a nurturer and promoter of talent, TaFF should encourage award nominees to be more global-minded, not think within shorelines. Indeed, the design exercise should be spontaneous, especially when executed specifically for an award, rather than restrictive. Even connecting the winner to Paris Fashion Week (PFW) as part of the prize (TaFF was careful to state that that does not include the air ticket and accommodation!) is not, as the results of the final proved, inducement for the participants to offer designs in the context of a changing world or, at its most elemental, those that could show alongside others who have been part of PFW for years.

This, to us, reflects the organiser’s lack of imagination. Or, understanding of the motivation behind and potential of a design competition. TaFF said they took more than six months to put Singapore Stories together. The result does not commensurate with over half a year’s work. To be sure, we were not expecting the LVMH Prize or the ANDAM Prize, or China’s recently announced Yu Prize. TaFF does not offer a prize money, but, this year, it did dream big, boldly announcing that they were “inspired by the 2020 Met Gala theme About Time”. It led them to “invite designers to examine the timeline of Singapore fashion—celebrating the past and interpreting the future.” Hats off to Andrew Bolton.

We noted that celebration was key, rather than design. Perhaps we have totally misunderstood the intention of Singapore Stories. Maybe the award isn’t about design, which, apart from skill, requires imagination and a certain mindset. Or about creativity, which is not necessarily innate. Possibly, it is, as the name suggests, about the tales, the fables, or the anecdotal. TaFF CEO Ho Semun seemed to have affirmed that when she told the Business Times in April, “As for the fashion itself, I think having a strong narrative and being able to tell a unique story are very important.”

Four windows at Design Orchard featuring four of the finalists: (clockwise from top left) CYC by Claire Chiang, Martha Who by Mette Hartman, Nida Shay by Nida Tahir Shaheryar, and Nude Femme by Adelyn Putri

Participants of Singapore Stories would likely dispute our observation that there’s a lack of design in the competition. The finalists have put in considerable effort, drawing from so many influences: there are Peranakan motifs, Mandarin collars, the “strength and values of samsui women”, our garden landscape, Chinese paper cutting, zardozi embroidery (Singaporean?); there’s even the “beauty” of our sky, and, between all that, “strong and powerful women”. These make up a compelling narrative, surely? But could there be more than these obvious images of our stories, images that, even when hackneyed, we still turn to, and so easy and accessible that some of the finalists share similar inspirations with those who dressed Mickey Mouse when the rodent was invited to Go Local?

We tried to find design flair and creative ferment in the five finalists, but we came to a dead end. It is disconcerting to think that digital printing on a plain shirt (possibly cut from an existing block), a reversible baju panjang, Mandarin collar atop a halter-neck dudou (肚兜, or underwear, and offered by two designers, no less!), surfeit of metallic embroidery, and profusion of netting are thought to be the height of good design. For sure, we weren’t looking for a Thebe Magugu (winner of LVMH Prize 2019) or Christelle Kocher (winner of ANDAM Prize 2019); we did not even try, but it was a massive let down that the sole design prize for fashion excellence on our island seeks not to honour imaginative abstraction of cut, technical finesse and inventiveness, or strategies of concealment, which clothing is ultimately about. Instead, it is impressed by the clichéd, the conventional, and the colourless. For a design competition, lacking was what Carmel Snow called “a dash of daring.”

It is not difficult to understand why Carol Chen won the top honour. She is a former beauty queen and, as named by E!, an “International Style Icon”. She has a following on social media. She is, by default, (re)presentable. She owns her own evening/special-occasion wear business, Covetella. Hers are not challenging clothes; her winning designs are familiar: Save one netting nightmare (or maybe not), you’ve already seen such outfits on Instagram, on the wealthy subjects who appear on CNA Luxury, at parties where the girl squad gathers to quaff champagnes and show off clothes; you may even have seen them in Ms Chen’s showroom. Perhaps with more bling than you’re used to. It is not easy to resist the temptation of calling the collection pageant fashion.

Up close with great designs? From left: shirt by CYC’s Claire Chiang, face mask by Carol Cheng, coat by Nude Femme’s Adelyn Putri, embroidered top by Nida Shay’s Nida Tahir Shaheryar, strapless top by martha Who’s Mette Hartman, and dress by Carol Chen. Product photos: One Orchard Store

The brief to the designers, according to the Singapore Stories micro-site, is for them to “examine the timeline of Singapore fashion”. We imagine that the design process would involve some element of backwards/forwards tension, but these clothes are as straightforward as the T-shirt you’re now wearing to read this. Which is, of course, entirely in tandem with what is happening, design-wise, at The Editor’s Market or The Closet Lover: it’s general currency; the aim is not sartorial high. But, this contest, based on our understanding, is to suss out the best fashion designer, not just a clothing label. The finalists—every five of them—should be good enough to show in Paris (part of what the prize facilitates), but sadly, none are, not even the winner. How does all this enrich Singapore’s fashion capital? Or, does it contradict what minister Sim Ann had said in support of the competition: “Singapore Stories came as efforts of people who all care about the advancement of Singapore fashion”? Are we too stagnated to advance?

What is totally curious too is the duration of access of the digital event itself; so difficult to view, in fact, that you’d think you’re gaining access into a secret cult. Registration was required (not even PFW has that restriction!) and, although the initial announcement was that the presentation/show was for viewing between 29 Oct at 8pm to 31 Oct to 9pm, access was halted on the second day, and on the final day, on which a notice stated that the video will be available till 10 pm, nothing was for us to watch before we were told to “tune in next year!”. Adieu. It is inexplicable why access to viewing the clothes should be this limited. If TaFF thought that the finalists are excellent, would the Federation not want more consumers to be better acquainted with them? Would extended publicity not be useful to the designers? Or, is the event only for the exclusive “TaFF community”? Just as hard to make out: TaFF’s last IG entry for Singapore Stories was posted on 28 October with the message, “The winner will finally be announced tomorrow night”. Ditto Facebook. That announcement never came.

Finalists get their own Orchard Road-facing window at Design Orchard

Since August, local fashion has enjoyed considerable exposure. Traditionally, the month of National Day was a time to pay homage to Singaporean fashion and labels. But this had not been the usual August and nothing can be conducted the traditional way. Still, we were treated to, in addition to Singapore Stories, the born-again Design Orchard and the protracted digital fashion week, The Front Row. A productive month! Yet, little could be discerned of what has become—or is becoming—of fashion dreamed up on our island.

There is a persistent belief that just because you have clothes to sell you are selling fashion. Or that when you have a label to your name, you are a designer. Increasingly, the profession ‘designer’ is bandied about with a loose definition, with ‘good’ even harder to qualify. Liking clothes does not make you a good designer. A love to shop does not make you a good designer. An influencer with a clothing line is not a designer. A cheongsum maker is not a designer. To make clothes because there’s nothing out there you like does not make you a designer. To want to promote culture and lost clothing styles does not make you a designer. To enjoy brush painting and hoping to see the output on a dress does not make you a designer. Conversely, having talent does, so do technical know-how. And a clear distinctive voice certainly communicates a design and aesthetical standing.

If we do not call them designers, what do we call them? Creators, the trending choice? Interestingly, social media platform TikTok and Byte call their participants “creators” too, never mind if what has been posted are mostly as creative as an egg being boiled, or a husband breaking wind in the face of his wife, or a mother squashing her baby’s cheeks to make a funny face. Sure, creativity, like fashion, is changing and being re-defined (increasingly by social media), but creativity must never be euphemism for the inane or the vapid. Fashion needs to be framed in better light. It is admirable that there are individuals who, and organisations that, believe Singaporean designers worthy of an award or a catwalk—even virtual—exist, that they can see what we, regrettably, are not able to discern. Singapore is still the proverbial melting pot and from within we may be able to offer a rojak of looks, but, let it not be the same, sticky rojak.

Photos, except indicated: Zhao Xiangji