Happy, Happy New Year!

It’s been a year like no other. And one we can’t wait to put behind us. Fashion, too, has been going through a tough time, with no one—not even captains of the industry—knowing where it is really heading. It’s actually a good year to be thinking about it. Or, reading. We know many of you have. In these past twenty four months—quite a few spent in lockdown—we have enjoyed the second highest readership since our inception in 2013. We like to thank you for your unwavering support and for continuing to believe that SOTD can be enjoyably perused. From all of us here, a better and healthier 2021 to you.

Photo illustration: Jim Sim

Man Of Many Trades

Obituary | Pierre Cardin may have been known as a fashion designer, but he would be remembered for doing much, much more

Photo: Pierre Cardin

Louis Vuitton’s first restaurant, Le Café V, at its Osaka flagship Maison Osaka Midosuji, Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Rei Kawakubo’s (now discontinued and highly collectible) furniture for the home, Hermès custom-made mahjong table, Dolce e Gabbana kitchen appliances, Bottega Veneta Intrecciato suede cushions, Versace dog bed, Balenciaga beach towels, Chanel boomerang and tennis racket, Berluti dumbbells, Prada water bottle—these are nothing unusual today. But they might not have been so if not for one man: Pierre Cardin, who died in Paris, barely three days before this upsetting year will end, according to Agence France-Presse. No cause of death was given. He was 98.

That short list above of non-fashion products conceived by fashion designers—now considered essential to luxury branding—does not take into consideration attendant merchandise such as accessories, bags, footwear, and makeup. That brands such as Louis Vuitton operating more like department stores than mere fashion boutique can be directly or indirectly traced to Mr Cardin. The first to turn his name into a label beyond fashion, he has allowed his moniker to be used on so many products that no one is really counting, or wishes to. For years at the height of his career, he claimed that his trademark enjoyed 800 licenses in 140 countries. Throughout his career, in particular after his “Space Age” halcyon days, Mr Cardin was often derided for having his name on some (many?) undeniably tacky products. But he didn’t care. As he told The New York Times in 2002, still defiant at age 80, “If someone asked me to do toilet paper, I’d do it. Why not?”

Pierre Cardin at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961. Photo: Getty Images

Pierre Cardin was born Pietro Costante Cardin in the commune of San Biagio di Callalta, near Treviso, northern Italy, where Benetton and Diadora are headquartered. At age two, his parents moved the family to France, in the industrial town of Saint-Étienne, reportedly to get away from the intensifying fascism of Italy in the mid-Twenties. In his teens, his father, then a wine merchant, wanted him to study architecture, but Mr Cardin preferred to pursue fashion, which he had developed an intense love for since an early age. By 14, he was interning for (un-named) fashion brands and at 17, he moved to Vichy in central France to become a tailor at Manby, a men’s shop, where it was said that he made suits for women. After World War II, Pierre Cardin relocated to Paris, where, to his father’s pleasure, he studied architecture. Fashion, however, never left him. He soon worked for Jeanne Paquin, and then moved on to Elsa Schiaparelli, before securing a place at Christian Dior where he was put in charged of the tailleur side of the couture atelier. Western journalists often note that Mr Cardin was never employed by Balenciaga.

In 1950, three years after Christian Dior’s “the New Look”, Pierre Cardin established his own fashion house, with couture shown in 1953, followed by what would be his best known dress shape in 1954, the “bubble dress”—a short-skirted, cocktail number, cut on a bias, and shaped over a stiffened base. By the ’60s, in tandem with the decade’s space race, Mr Cardin’s clothes departed dramatically from his couture beginnings. It was the era that Diana Vreeland called “Youthquake”. Just as today’s young consumers might find Kim Jones’s work hip, many during the decade they called “swinging” considered Pierre Cardin’s space-age-y dresses with cut-outs or geometric appliques deliciously cool and, simultaneously, provocative. But Mr Cardin was not the only one exploring design concepts related to what the future might be like. There, too, were André Courrèges and Paco Robanne. But unlike the rest of the French fashion establishment, Mr Cardin actually pursued his “space” ambitions. He was, in 1969, the first civilian to try on the Apollo 11 space suit that Neil Armstrong wore on his walk on the moon. After that, he even designed a space suit for NASA. Whether that was put to use in outer space, we don’t know.

Pierre Cardin Great Wall of China show, 2018. Photos: Pierre Cardin

Pierre Cardin was also credited for his foray into pret-a-porter, when he designed a collection for the Paris department store Au Printemps in 1959. Today, we might see such a commercial move as disruption, or a precursor to Karl Lagerfeld designing for H&M, but back then it annoyed the hell out of the establishment. It was, to them, a positive downgrade; a cop-out. In fact, much of what we know today as “masstige” could be attributed to Pierre Cardin, including the use of the logo as part of the design, at first just PC, which appeared as early as 1960. In the ’70s and onwards, licensing increasingly became the name of the game for him. As the number grew larger, the products that were churned out, for the most part, crossed over to the crass. His own designs started to look like they never left the ’60s, or went beyond 1975. The “futurism” of the Cardin years, like many trends of the era, fizzled out, and it became truly hard to pin cool to the brand when somewhere in the less posh part of any city, a Pierre Cardin keyring can be had for less than tips left at a restaurant for service staff. By the ’80s, Pierre Cardin the brand swung between staggeringly expensive couture gowns and cheap boxer shorts.

His persistence with pret-a-porter caused a riff with the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture: in 1959, after the Au Printemp stunt, they kicked him out. But as other designers saw the potential of ready-to-wear and were willing to embrace it, the Chambre Syndicale eventually invited him back, but in 1966, he resigned, and quit Paris Fashion Week altogether, to show at his own time and in his own space—the former Théâtre des Ambassadeurs, which he bought and converted to L’Espace Cardin. While he was a formidable businessman, buying up real estate as he became wealthier, Mr Cardin was not without a legacy of technical innovation. His clothes may have appeared rather naively futuristic, but more progressive was the development of a heat-molded, synthetic fabric, called Cardine, which was used to lend his mini-dresses their rigidity, on which geometric/abstract shapes were embossed or cut out. In 1981, F&B business was added to his portfolio: he bought the Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, followed by the licensing of food under the 142-year-old name.

Hiroko Matsumoto in Pierre Cardin, 1960s. Photo: Pierre Cardin

Somewhat rare among his peers was Pierre Cardin’s affinity to Asia. His first acquaintance with this part of the world was in Japan, where he was appointed professor emeritus at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo in 1958, which would be around the time a young Kenzo Takada attended the school. It isn’t known if Mr Cardin taught Mr Takada, but it was established that both became close friends in Paris (Jean Paul Gaultier, who started at the house of Cardin, was the other intimate fashion designer pal). Mr Cardin’s time in Japan opened Asia to him, and allowed him to establish a presence in the country. He would be so enchanted with Japanese culture, aesthetics and, in particular, beauty that he struck up a long-lasting friendship with Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto (1936—2003), and tempted her to go to Paris with him. Ms Matsumoto became not only his house mannequin (believed to be the first for a French fashion house), she was a muse too—and an Asian, which was considered extremely unusual at that time.

In 1979, he visited China, where he staged a fashion show at the Beijing National Culture Palace, marking, for the first time, the presence of an international fashion label in the capital city. The brand left such a lasting impression in China that the Global Times wrote in an obituary today that “Pierre Cardin was regarded as the peak of Western fashion.” Since that first show, the house has continued to exhibit in China, including a 2007 production on the desert of Whistling Sand Mountain in Gansu Province, 2018’s forty-years-in-China show on the Great Wall (Fendi, too, used the world longest wall for their show in 2020. The Italian label staged theirs at the more stunning Juyongguan Pass, while the French at the more commercial Badaling section), and early this year’s Qinhuangdao sea-side event in Hebei. Mr Cardin had his eyes on other Asian countries as well. In the Philippines, he gave the national costume (for men), the barong tagalog, a makeover in 1971, effectively modernising what was a rather fancy special-occasion shirt. In India, apart from the fashion, the biggest and most desirable item to own was the Pierre Cardin pen (with its own dedicated website!), first introduced in 1994. As “merchant to the masses”, it was clear that Pierre Cardin made sure that, even after his death, his name will live on… and on, and in ink too.

Pussycat, Yes!

Animals have inspired designers for as long as fashion has looked to the zoic kingdom for ideas. One creature stands out: the cat. No less than four of what are worn or used in fashion today are named after them

After watching the Dior pre-fall 2021 show recently, we got hooked to the remade and remixed Deee-Lite dance hit What is Love? from the 1990 album World Clique. This new track also has snatches of the feline-themed, vinyl-only single Pussycat Meow from the second album Infinity Within. It was the purring and the “pussycat… no!” cries of the band’s lead singer Lady Miss Kier that did it for us. For most of the rest of that week (and the week after), we allowed that groove to get into our heart. Two tracks on loop, however, became monotonous after a while. So we looked into our CD collection (yes, for some, they still exist and are played!), and found one of our favourites: Takkyu Ishno’s highly danceable 2017 song Kitten Heel. This whole afternoon, we had three tracks on loop, pumping through our Sonos One, allowing the bass to course through our willing body.

The dancing—and Lady Miss Kier purring and then rap-calling “here, kitty, kitty, kitty” and then tease-pleading “kiss me, you fool!”—also got us thinking of the influence of domestic cats (yes, those you keep as pets) in fashion. No, there won’t be references to Karl Lagerfeld’s too-famous Choupette. Or, the countless cat videos on YouTube and TickTok. Or, cute cat-faced accessories to wear around the neck. And not a clowder of cats on a T-shirt either. Rather, we’re looking at something more subtle—those articles of fashion inspired by parts of cats or the whole animal, or just suggestive of those things we associate with felines. And, like the cats themselves, these fashion items seem to have many, many lives! Here, we name four. If you know others, do tell.

Cat Glasses

Photo: Celine/24s

Cat glasses, or rather sunglasses with frames that supposedly mimic cat eyes, are not really inspired by the-cuddly-creature-that-meows. According to fashion lore and the documentary Altina, based on the life of the multi-hyphenate Altina Schinasi (1907—1999), they were inspired by Venetian masks. In fact, the first cat glasses, introduced in the ’30s, were known by the more mysterious and glamourous descriptor, Harlequin. At that time the designs of glasses for women were hardly fashionable, and reflected what Dorothy Parker famously said, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” originally a two-line poem News Item.

But, that didn’t deter Ms Schinasi. She related in the documentary: “I thought, well, something better can be done than just these awful glasses that look like the time of Benjamin Franklin. Then I thought, what would be good on a face and I thought of a mask, a Harlequin mask.” By the ’50s, when the glasses really took off—worn by movie stars such as Audrey Hepburn and, unmistakably, Marilyn Monroe (especially as Pola in How to Marry a Millionaire), they became mostly known as cat-eye glasses (now, just cat glasses) due to the shape of the frame, with the outer tips pointing upwards and alluringly, feline-like.

Catsuits

Photo: Warner Bros

Long before there was Michele Pfeiffer as Catwoman (in 1992’s Batman Returns), there was one Black Wild Cat, our mothers told us. This was Connie Chan (陈宝珠) in the titular role of 女贼黑夜猫 (Black Wild Cat), in the 1960s Hong Kong film that saw Ms Chan as a sort-of female Robin Hood, masked in a flat-top half-balaclava that was, presumably, like a cat’s head. To augment her feline mysteriousness, she leaves messages by throwing darts on walls on which her masked identity is reveal by, well, a Harlequin mask (see a recurring theme?). Ms Chan was so successful in playing these mysterious do-gooders operating under the cover of darkness that other characters emerged: The Black Rose (黑玫瑰) and The Black Killer (女杀手). And with each role she wore something black and close-fitting—not quite the catsuits we know today, but enough for her to move with the stealth and style of cats.

It wasn’t until Michele Pfeiffer’s campy interpretation of Catwoman (aka Selina Kyle) did we come to associate the catsuit with those that totally outline the body and in gleaming latex (a silicon-based top coat was used to effect the shine). Sure, Halle Berry’s titular turn in Catwoman (2004), too, saw her in a catsuit, but they appeared to be a part of it—the bikini dominatrix top didn’t cover enough, at least not the torso. Interestingly, Ms Berry’s Catwoman wore a full head mask that looks uncannily like what Connie Chan wore as Black Wild Cat! In fact, the catsuit was very much at first a costume, often linked to the Catwoman character, first introduced in 1940 as simply The Cat. The term catsuit didn’t come into popular usage until after 1955. Its origin is unclear although it wouldn’t be immoderate to assume that, once suited up, the slinkiness immediately accords the wearer a cat-like grace.

Pussy Bows

Photo: Saint Laurent

The pussy bow comes from something more extraneous: it’s not in anyway part of a cat. Or look like anything that might be akin to cats. According to media speculation—Vogue among them—the pussy bow probably got its name from a time in the late 19th century, when cat owners would tie a bow around the neck of their feline pets to prettify them before the arrival of guests. In French couture houses, they go by a less animal-linked description: lavallière (also the noun for a pendant, centred on a necklace, and hangs pendulously). Some fashion historians trace the pussy bow to the cravat, although the connection is hard to discern. Most of the pussy bows we now see can be linked to the versions first introduced by Chanel, and later, Yves Saint Laurent (paired with the Le Smoking). And in the past ten years, the popularity of the pussy bow has not waned, and (still) well loved by designers such as Hedi Slimane and Alessandro Michele.

However fancy it is tied, the pussy bow is essentially a strip of fabric, with the middle portion, lengthwise, stitched to the neckline of the blouse, leaving the rest hanging, and to be knotted. For many women, the pussy bows were very much a ’70s thing. A decade on, “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher made it her thing, and claimed the pussy bow softens her public appearance. A mere feminine flourish it, therefore, is not. Cut to 2016, Melania Trump wore her Gucci crepe de chine pussy bow defiantly (triumphantly, too?) against her husband’s self-confessed predilection for grabbing the female genitalia. Pussy bows today have long shed their dowdy Gibson Girl image. Just see how Anthony Vaccarello styled them for Saint Laurent (above). As in the past, there is power in them bows.

Kitten Heels

Photo: Prada

Interestingly, these heels weren’t originally worn by women, but by men—at least in Versailles, France. To be sure, the kitten heels that we now know is not quite the same as those the guys wore, in particular by Louis XIV of France and his courtiers. Those in the 17th century were a lot clunkier, at least where the heels were concerned, not the pin that they are in present times. According to common belief, the smallish Sun King chose heeled shoes to give him extra height (he was, reportedly, only five foot, four inches—or about 162cm—tall). This new-found stature caught on with the other royals too, but did not impress the monarch. He banned them outside his court, effectively denying himself as the footwear trend setter.

The kitten heels today can, perhaps, be more accurately traced to the 1950s. Many people associate them with Audrey Hepburn or more specifically her in Billy Wilder’s 1954 movie Sabrina, with (some of) the costumes by Hubert de Givenchy. Like the cat glasses, the kitten heels have come to represent the ’50s and a certain elegance that need not require a statuesque carriage. Another name linked to the kitten heel at this time is Roger Vivier, who was, conversely, more prolific with the stiletto, but in the ’50s, Mr Vivier created a more tapered and stout heel for “girls”, so that they can get used to the elevation and grow into higher shoes. In fact, in the US, kitten heels were also known as “training heels”, since they were bought for the (very) young high-heel novice who had yet able to handle the forbidding stiletto. For some, so well trained they were in kitten heels that they never truly graduated to the taller kin. Kitty, as it turns out, truly has a long, comfortable life.

Illustration: Just So

Orange Is More Auspicious

The circle line is really orange because we do not do trendy colours, such as those two Pantone says are the colours of the 2021

By Gordon Goh

Chinese New Year is not even here, and we’re talking about orange(s), just as Fairprice and Cold Storage are displaying CNY goodies before Christmas could get out of the way. Love letters are suddenly more enticing than stollen. Anyway, out of the blue, hotly discussed online during this holiday season is apparently the colour of the visual representation of the MRT’s Circle Line: is it orange or yellow? Frankly, I have never pondered this question before. As I was impertinently told to get my eyes checked when I daringly suggested that on the MRT map the line looks rather yellow to me, I thought it best to actually confront the line itself. Seeing is, after all, believing.

I live in the east, so I frequently commute on the East-West Line. Times were a lot simpler in, gosh, the old days. There were only two lines then: the one I used almost daily (and still do) and the North-South Line. I never bothered with the colours of the lines even when it is easy to remember that the first two MRT lines share the same colours usually associated with Christmas. Even now, I get on the train, get off at City Hall Station, walk across the platform to take the other train to Orchard Station, where I alight for most of my social activities. It’s really that simple. No colour required. Nor name.

It seems that people do identify MRT lines by their chromatic distinctiveness. Someone purportedly wrote to SMRT to clarify the Circle Line’s colour identity. Last week, an “Aleza (Ms) from SMRT Customer Relations replied, in the spirit of the season: “We wish to share that SMRT Circle Line is orange in colour.” That should have settled it. Auspicious colour et al. Until Xia Xue shared—’tis the season!—that reply and commented “I also think it’s orange are the rest of you blind (sic).” Missing punctuation followed by missing word: well, that is the way some Netizens communicate. But to be sure that I am not blind, I looked up from my seat on the train of the East-West Line, where I was reading what was on my phone, and saw a woman in an oversized T-shirt that allowed her to look like she had gone pant-less. And coincidentally, the tee was orange. Or was it yellow?

I made a trip to the Paya Lebar Station. The mission was to be sure that I would not later need to go to the National Eye Centre. Paya Lebar Station is one of those that is always busy and this day was no exception. On the map from the East-West side of the station, the line still looked yellowish to me. But by now, I was no longer able to trust my colour judgment. I headed towards the platform of the Circle Line, our fake Yamanote Line (in Tokyo, it’s a real circle, as in a loop service!). There they were, above the doors, the signage that bore the orange line, looking all bright and, er, tangerine? I was still hoping to see the colour of lemons. And I know another friend who would be too. But really, was I expecting SMRT to be on-trend and adopt one of the two that Pantone declared to be the colours of 2021: yellow? The issue is in no grey area at all.

Illustration: Land Transport Authority

It’s Still Busy

Rose Bakeries in Tokyo are temporarily closed due to COVID-19, but looking inside their Marunouchi café, you probably won’t know

Tokyo’s Marunouchi (丸の内), at this time of the year, is normally packed with shoppers and people coming out to enjoy one of the prettiest Christmas light-ups of the capital city. Flanked by the Imperial Palace East Garden and the stately Tokyo Station, it is a financial district with a formidable shopping stretch that, to us, could rival nearby Ginza. This year, being what it has been thus far, the main retail thoroughfare Marunouchi Naka-Dori Avenue is unusually quiet. This could be because the light-up is turned off at 8pm (usually till midnight) to discourage people from staying late or to throng the area to enjoy some seasonal illumination. Similarly, many shops have chosen to close early, which further augment the stillness of the area.

But one of those that has decided to shut—temporarily—is the English-French café Rose Bakery. There are four Rose Bakeries in Tokyo (the fifth in the trendy neighbourhood of Kichijoji [吉祥寺] was shuttered permanently in 2017), and all of them have chosen to close for the time being. The Rose Bakery at the Comme des Garçons’ store in Marunouchi (My Plaza), a stone’s throw from Tokyo Station, is closed until next February as a response to “a change in the business situation due to various circumstances,” according to a company statement. This has been one of our favourite of the Rose Bakeries, primarily because it is at street level, unlike the others housed in Dover Street Market London and DSM Ginza, both with the cafés in the topmost floor (we do not know why there isn’t a Rose Bakery at DSMS other than Como Lifestyle, linked to DSMS, also runs F&B outlets in the same area known as Como Dempsey). Although it is now closed, this Rose Bakery still caught our attention because it is still ‘packed’.

Rather than let the lights go out on the area it shares with the CDG boutique (as well as the Play corner) or have the space cordoned off, Rose Bakery has allowed its tables to be busy with customers—mannequins all togged in CDG. Of course. And the mannequins weren’t just standing, as in a typical window display. They were gathered around tables, some seated, others huddled: a veritable tableau of on-season CDG wearers (a few bag-totting), partaking in something festive, even when there was nary a tinsel in sight. These silent revellers, of course, needn’t practise social distancing. And, although faceless, they appear, like the celebrity guests at Jeffery Xu’s birthday bash and Max Lim’s wedding party, rather happy for it.

It is admirable that there are brands using temporary closure as a marketing opportunity with long-term effect. Charm can, indeed, be created in the clutches of crisis. And, as a consequence, hope too. If retailers are sanguine about future prospects, consumers will be as well. Does it only happen in Japan, where, despite a year that has to surrender to the vagaries born of a still-raging pandemic, retailers are expressing a will to survive, and creatively? On our island, the same cannot be said of those who had to shut during the Circuit Breaker. Shops were left completely dark, with some tightly covering their mannequins with plastic, as if to suffocate them, and others remained as if hastily abandoned. Perhaps looking real is a better way to survive than daring to dream.

Photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

Does The North Face Really Need Gucci?

The pairing that needn’t be

By Ray Zhang

Collaborations might still be the way forward, especially in these pandemic-stricken times. But is the Gucci X The North Face (TNF) pairing the stunning collaboration to end the stunned year? Gucci may need to expand its product categories, but I do not see TNF needing to align itself with more designer names. Are they planning to be the next Moncler? These are difficult times for fashion brands, so I won’t hazard a guess. But it seems odd to me that TNF thinks that by associating itself with Gucci, it shall improve its standing among fashion folk. To me, TNF has already been on the right path, doing what they do, pairing with whoever they have hitherto partnered with, but perhaps they didn’t think they’re doing enough. Or perhaps, all their previous collabs have not been sufficiently retro-cool? And that the Gucci tribe is too large—and influential—to ignore?

Have I missed something? Perhaps. Western media has stressed how Gucci and TNF can bring out the best of their respective brands. All I could see is Gucci bringing the best of Gucci. At least visually and chromatically. The collab appears to me a little lopsided. Even if I can see The North Face half-logo (or hybrid logo) and recognize some of the puffers, the collection is still more Gucci than The North Face. I can understand that there are those whose wardrobes are now so Gucci-fied that they would seriously need cold-climate wear, or climbing gear, or alpine togs that bear semblance to the Gucci aesthetics of topsy-turvy aberration, to survive the winter. But will only a Gucci puffer coat do, even if it’s, as the now-out ads, shot in the alps, suggest, warm enough for shorts (a black model even wore a white bikini)? You see, Gucci really wants to go everywhere—into the woods, and up the mountains.

Like every designer doing sneakers to remain on the street-wear roadway, I think Gucci’s Alessandro Michele just wants to try his hand at “Gorpcore”, to borrow a term from The Cut, so as to be able to say, he, too, has jumped onto the outdoor-performance-wear bandwagon. “Gorp” is the acronym for “good ol’ raisins and peanuts,” also known in the US as the “trail mix” (or, in Australia, scroggin), which hikers pack to bring along with them as a lightweight and healthy, protein-packed snack. (Here, they often appear in abundance, rather inexplicably, during Chinese New Year!) The operative words are “trail” and “hike”, and neither sounds particularly urban, or date nights at the movies. Perhaps that’s the point. Like athletic wear, people don’t adopt a particular category of clothing so as to wear them for participating in the activity the category suggests.

That trend report in The Cut appeared in 2017. But as far back as 2013 (if my memory serves me right), I have already observed in Tokyo the emergence of what the Americans called Gorpcore, for which the Japanese, masters of looks and creators of tribes, had no real name. Until, a group of girls—as it’s often the case—became regular and noticeable enough in their get-up, as they traipse into the woods, to be collectively known as yama gyaru (or “mountain girls”). I am not sure if these lasses wore their outdoor wear as a fashion statement or for practical reasons as they embrace shinrin-yoku forest therapy, but for certain, I know the Tokyo boys have been adopting hiking clothes and turning them into fashionable urban wear at least a decade before the Americans enthusiastically wear puffers and hiking boots with their Calvin Klein whatever.

The popularity of outdoor performance wear among Tokyoites went back much earlier, and it has something to do with The North Face’s trajectory in the Land of the Rising Sun. In 1978, at the height of TNF’s popularity among climbers and alpinist in the US, the Japanese conglomerate Goldwin, considered the “most important” among producers of technical outerwear, signed a deal with the former to exclusively distribute TNF in the country that would gain the status of the world’s third largest economy. TNF’s subsequent growth in sales and stature in Japan alone is nothing short of staggering. I won’t go into the figures, but one could be worth noting: In Tokyo, on a stretch less than a kilometre, along Meiji-Dori, off Harajuku (towards Shibuya), there is not one, but four TNF stores. These are The North Face (two of them), The North Face Alter, as well as my personal favourite The North Face Standard (all four floors!). This isn’t counting Goldwin’s own store and Arc’teryx on the same street, and TNF Kids, Columbia, and Helly Hansen just behind. And just a little further back, Chums. (There’s also Patagonia, but the store is over at Ura-Harajuku.) Or, the numerous other multi-brand stores that also carry outdoor wear, such as the Japanese version of Kelty. In case you don’t sense the scale, it is massive. This is like Gorpcore’s gravitational centre.

Goldwin’s massive standing is not only among consumers of TNF; it is with Japanese designers as well. One of them deserves singling out: Eiichiro Homma, a veteran designer at Goldwin for a long time. In 2003, the company decided to back probably their most outstanding employee with his own line, also one that has technical performance wear as its core. Nanamica was born, and in no time, The North Face Purple label. Now, these are not to be confused with TNF itself. Mr Homma himself has clarified that TNF Purple Label (the brand is so linked to him that sometimes the label also reads The North Face made possible by Nanamica) is to “adapt for city wear without compromising the core values of the original,” as he told Hypebeast back in the year the Purple Label was born. Despite all the charming quirks and unusual details that Mr Homma has given to both the Purple Label and his own Nanamica, there is, to me, innovation, and, more importantly, an authenticity about the two names under his charge than Gucci could never emulate.

There is also real difference between going to, say, the Tokyo mountaineering/outdoor gear retailer L Breath (or our own Outdoor Life) and buying the real deal and making them look fashionable and going to Gucci, and buying what’s designed to be fashion and wearing them wholesale, head to toe. Once in Tokyo, at Oshman’s—less of a fashion-potential treasure trove than L Breath, I saw a young chap in a Patagonia parka, Danton shirt, Levi’s, Timberland boots, Mystery Ranch tote, and all manner of danglies from Chums that, as I recall now, look like he could have been in the new Gucci campaign, minus the Guccis, and look better. Another time, in Sapporo, at Montbell’s Akarenga Terrace store, I caught sight of a guy with a buzz cut, who was so distinctively kitted—Visvim patchwork yukata coat, a rust-coloured quilted cape (there was a blizzard outside), and a United by Blue roll-top backpack—that he could have just stepped out of some stylish monastery in the Himalayas. These guys could use non-fashion items as fashion items, and that, to me, speaks so much more than wanting to look like one of Gucci goofy models.

The North Face seemed to have been rather judicious when it comes to who they collaborate with. Prior to Gucci, it was with Maison Margiela’s MM6, the street-inflected diffusion. The collection, interestingly, did not look weird. Build primarily on the house’s circle pattern, they have as much TNF’s DNA, and they look like you might actually be able to hike in them, not just frolic on flatlands. I like that both brands seem to share equally billing in the end products. Before MM6, there was Supreme, which requires no description. I don’t see why Supreme needed another collaboration, but I understand why TNF would agree to it. This was, to me, one of the lamest pairings ever. Even without Supreme, MM6 and, certainly, Gucci, TNF could hold nicely on its own with just the Japanese iterations, led so convincingly by Nanamica and The North Face Purple Label. Japan’s TNF, I suppose, is really perched on a different peak.

Sure, I can see that Mr Michele and his team has re-proportioned some of TNP’s classic outers, such as reshaping and shortening the sleeves of the women’s jackets. In addition, the breadth of the collection could mean that they’re not putting out some negligible capsule you’ll forget next week. This was conceived to sell, and in larger numbers than the typical collaboration. But that does not mean that stocks for individual items will be plentiful when they launch in January in the coming year. And the ’70s vibe is unmistakable too, in case you have not had enough of their romanticised version: Woodstock in the winter, if the cold is conducive to concerts. And there are backpacks, hats, beanies, and, of course, hiking boots, smacked with a massive logo. And just in case there is anyone seriously thinking of really wearing these clothes to go up the mountain or go down by the rapids, there is a tent too, even a sleeping bag. But will all these really tempt those who have not already adopted Gorpcore? Or, understand it? Will they seduce fashionistas to later consider a TNF not in collaboration mode?

Truth be told, I do subscribe to the Gorpcore aesthetics. But I can’t see myself buying the meaningless Gucci attempt. When in Tokyo, I visit, without fail, The North Face Standard in Harajuku, Nanamica in Daikanyama, And Wander in Marunouchi, White Mountaineering and the sensational Snow Peak flagship in Aoyama. But it isn’t always the high-end that I call on. There’s always the nine-storey L-Breath store in Shinjuku, where I end up buying more bags and such than I will ever need, mountain-bound or not, and, in contrast, a tiny shop smacked in the Tokyu Hands building in Shibuya, Function Junction, where hippies might stop by if they were heading for the hills (they have the most interesting range of carabiners). For all my cold-weather wear, I have always been able to rely on Nanamica and White Mountaineering, while resisting the soft spot I have for the terribly expensive The North Face collaboration with Junya Watanabe. As you can tell, it is in Japan—cities and mountaintops—that I get my Gorpcore wet dreams.

Photos: The North Face/Gucci

We Went To Wego

If you like inexpensive Japan-based brands, Uniqlo isn’t the only one available here

By Ray Zhang and Emma Ng

Uniqlo might be the biggest mass fashion brand from Japan, but they are by no means the only one. Or, to be more specific, the only brand that you can consider here. Wego, one of the many throbbing hubs of what has been known as Harajuku style (really a vague description and opened to interpretation), debuted here last June, in the now-three-year-old Lumine. Considered Japan’s earliest fast fashion labels, way before fast fashion became a dirty word, Wego is part Uniqlo, part Don Quixote (known as Don Donki here), with a dash of Ikebukuro’s Animate (manga emporium). The stores (mostly) can be either hypnotic or chaotic: it really depends on your threshold for the manic. If you are a Mustafa habitué, you might find the digging and discovering totally exhilarating. If you are a Marie Kondo devotee, these stores are no temples of retail zen. If you are mature shopper, you’ll probably walk in and walk out.

Yet, oddly, Wego here is quite unlike their Japanese counterparts. To be sure, it is still retains its trend-bent leaning, or what’s trendy among Japanese fans. But the first thing that struck us when we visited its Lumine space was how uncharacteristically neat it was and how a lot less frenzied-looking than what we’re used to seeing in their Tokyo stores—at least the one in Harujuku, at the corner of Omotaesando and Meiji-dori Avenue, where we go to only because all other stores in Ura-Harajuku and Aoyama are closed. We never found anything to buy, but we would visit, if only to acquaint ourselves with the not quite one-style Harajuku look. Increasingly, the Western media describe Wego as a “street” brand, and it does wear its street aesthetics on its sleeves like showa revivalists do with their ’60s florals. But Wego is also inviting because they are so hard to define.

Wego began life in 1994 as a second-hand clothing store in Osaka’s American Village (Amerika-mura or Amemura), which at that time was a lively mix of small malls, shophouses, and open-air markets (it’s now enjoying what some might called ‘gentrification’). It was not until 2003 that Wego established itself in Tokyo, specifically in Harajuku (we do not know where the first store was exactly), where it took root and captured the attention of shoppers, six years before H&M arrived. When the Swedish fast fashion giant debuted in Tokyo, many young Japanese shoppers already tasted and enjoyed cheap, disposable fashion with Wego. Interestingly, its Takeshita-dori store, considered a must-stop for tourists, did not open until 2008. It is now more a tourist destination than a spot that Harajuku regulars must visit.

That Wego is so identified with Harajuku—“epicenter of street style”—augments its standing as purveyor of what is truly cool among the young (it is identified on Google Map as a “youth clothing store”). To us, however, the brand captures more the spirit of Amerika-mura than Harajuku. In fact, Wego in Japan does not only sell its own namesake brand, it also offers other youth-targeting American labels such as Champion and Carhatt, just to name two, and, at one time, believe it or not, Hong Kong’s Giordano (didn’t figure that one out)! All in quite a jaunty jumble, and reminiscent of American jeaneries of yore, such as the now-defunct Canal Jean Co. in Manhattan, in the 90s. One apt description we were directed to was no exaggeration: “a riot of Japanese and American pop culture”. Simply put, Uniqlo, on their busiest day, is less headache-inducing,

But once here on our ‘fine’ island, the riot is quelled. The Wego store—corner, really—in Lumine is no way in the scale of even Uniqlo’s smallest (Changi Airport T1?). And it’s very bright and neat. When we approached the space from within Lumine, we’re surprised by how un-Harajuku-like it was. This could be one of those new shops in the also-new Shibuya Scramble Square. There was a distinct lack of buzz, in a good way. In fact, it was the orderliness and spaciousness that was a welcome sight. We could see everything at a glance without resorting to digging. Shelves were not piled high, racks were not packed tight—this was so unlike the fast fashion we’re used to. It was as if we were amid an environment that takes into consideration the needs of grown-ups.

The store is divided—but not evenly—into two adjacent areas, featuring womenswear, the larger, and menswear, the smaller. The women’s clothes look somewhat tame, as compared to what we’ve seen in Tokyo. But those who know how to turn seemingly Normcore styles into street-wear major might find the oversized sweater-vests, roomy shirts, peasant blouses, short-sleeved blazers, and wrinkled tea dresses the ingredients to a perfect riot. If you are into the Lolita look or dreaming of appearing on the cover of Larme, you’d have to have exceptional flair for styling to find pieces to test your skills. The stuff for guys, too, are cheerily accessible: huge range of T-shirts (many sized to be worn hanging off the shoulders), vintage-looking track tops, brightly-coloured drain-pipes, and short-sleeved shirts, all with the particular aesthetic that would lure the gangly teen. Approachable edgy, we would say. Unlike in Tokyo, if you’re not sure of how you’d want to look, immediate inspiration is elsewhere: There aren’t members of the sales crew who seem like they’ve just stepped off the ‘staff look’ pages of Seventeen. Sigh.

Wego is at Lumine, Clarke Quay Central. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Two Of A Kind: Pleated Are The Bags

With her new customisable pleated bags, Gin Lee won’t be the first nor the last to be inspired by the pioneering work of Issey Miyake

Pleats plenty: (left) Ginlee Make Bag. Photo: Ginlee Studio. (Right) Issey Miyake Crystal Rock Pleats Bag. Photo Issey Miyake Me

Some elements or details in fashion design are so connected to a particular designer that it’s almost impossible to disassociate one with the other. And vice versa. Take pleats, for example: one inevitably thinks of Issey Miyake. Sure, there is also the Spanish couturier Mariano Fortuny, but the works of both are not only decades apart, their outputs are worlds apart. Mr Miyake’s pleats, now attributed to the Issey Miyake Studio, are primarily effected as a finished garment, rather than product made from a pleated fabric. Through the years, Mr Miyake has introduced many innovations (and new technologies) in pleating, including curvilinear and bias pleating, as well as advances in micro-pleating, also known as plissé. And he does not only pleat clothes, he creates permanent folds on accessories and bags, too.

One of the fashion names here that appears to be taking a similar route is Gin Lee. The Singaporean, who overseas the creative output of the company, Ginlee Studio—co-founded with her Israeli husband Tamir Niv in 2011—didn’t incorporate pleats into her early output. In recent years, however, pleated garments seem to be the mainstay of her collections. There are the usual tented dresses, shell tops, and pajama-style pants that have become typical of pleated clothes, and now, in addition, bags. Just totes for the present, these were launched last month as part of a new sub-label called Ginlee Make, available at the brand’s flagship store in the refurbished Great World City.

The immediate reaction to these bags when seeing them for the first time could be best summed up by what two women at the store one weekend said, “so Pleats Please!” But that response has not only been evident with these bags. Similar comments were heard of her dresses, sold at Design Orchard. But the seeming similarity to the work of Issey Miyake was also apparent in the name of her new sub-label. Back in 1998, the year the A-POC (A Piece of Cloth) line was launched in Tokyo, Mr Miyake staged an exhibition at the Jean Nouvel-designed Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris titled, Issey Miyake: Making Things. Uncanny? Or, coincidence?

How long must a recognisable design, fabric treatment, retail concept, or branding exercise remain or circulate in the market before mimicking them can be accepted and not considered a copy?

The Ginlee Make bags are the manifestation of the in-store service Make In Shop, a retail concept that offers “last-mile production” of those items that can be finished before watchful shoppers. As Ms Lee told the press last month, “When a customer places their order for a pleated bag, we’ll proceed to make it for her there. They can see it being made and customise their own version of it.” In Tokyo last year, at the world’s largest Homme Plissé Issey Miyake store in Aoyama, the brand availed its pleating process for customers to witness. Three times a week, over a relatively short time of an hour in the afternoon, engineers (they are specialists indeed) from the company’s Internal Pleats Laboratory show how the clothes are made: a massive machine swallows a sewn T-shirt, for example, cut 1.5 times the completed size, and in ten minutes, reveals the pleated garment. This, too, is last-mile production. How long must a recognisable design, fabric treatment, retail concept, or branding exercise remain or circulate in the market before mimicking them can be accepted and not considered a copy?

Sure, on the same note, we could also say, for instance, that Mary McFadden mimicked Mr Fortuny, but if you examined her pleats closely, the effect, as one Singaporean designer told us, “is more liquid”, and her silhouettes more boxy. Technologies in garment manufacture do become widely adopted, and the onus is upon the adopters to output designs that are distinctly theirs. Issey Miyake certainly did not invent pleating (and he wouldn’t claim he did), but what he undeniably introduced was a whole new way of working with—and on—the pleats. And there is tremendous conceptual heft and mathematical calculations involved. Much of the output require origami-like folds, as well as ingenious geometry. More importantly, to fans, he was the first to introduce the pleats that we now mostly associate with his brand, especially Pleats Please Issey Miyake, the line introduced in 1993, after the exhibition of the same name at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990.

That Issey Miyake’s pleats would inspire Singaporean designers isn’t surprising. Pleating services here go as far back as the ’80s. Back then, there were primarily two major players: Mong Seng Pleats Garment, founded in 1974, and Owen Trading Company, launched in 1980. Between the two, Owen Trading was, as one designer told us, “at the top of its game”. The popularity of pleats rose in the mid-’80s, after Issey Miyake debuted a sub-brand Permanente in 1985, featuring the early forms of his distinctive creases and folds that culminated as the capsule Pleats in 1988. By the time Pleats Please was launched five years later, capturing the imagination of the world, many local designers were experimenting with pleats too, and many were doing so through the services of Owen Trading, owned and operated by three Tan brothers. One of them, Paul Tan, was the go-to guy for anything that can be pleated, even a scrap of fabric that can be turned into a small scarf.

Gin Lee at work in her Great World City store. Photo: Ginlee Studio

But towards the early ’00s, when pleated garments and accessories, and Pleats Please knock-offs were easily found, first in the fashion wholesale centres in China and, later, online, pleating was a dwindling business. In 2011, Owen Trading was sold to a young Raffles College of Higher Education fashion graduate Chiang Xiaojun, who renamed the company Bewarp Design Studio. With full access to pleating machines, Ms Chiang created Pleatation, the label totally dedicated to pleats, and a moniker—similar to Ginlee Make—unabashed of its alluding to Issey Miyake, in particular, Pleats Please and the older Plantation, introduced in 1981, and now part of the Issey Miyake subsidiary A-net, which produces brands such as ZUCCa and mercibeaucoup. The quality offered by the old Owen Trading, which counted some of our design luminaries, such as Thomas Wee, Frederick Lee, and the late Tan Yoong as customers, evaporated, according to some who have used the services of the renamed pleater. “She couldn’t keep up,” one of them told us, “she does only basic pleating. Nothing fancy.” Despite the skepticism, Ms Chiang opened two standalones for Pleatation: The Compleat Store, which, like Ginlee Studio, sold pleated totes. Both The Compleat Stores have closed. Even their website’s e-commerce component is now free of merchandise and activity. On the SGP Business website, the status of Bewarp Design Studio is marked “cancellation in progress.”

The sale of Owen Trading Company, after three decades of existence, to a then unknown individual, who is unable to protect it from total closure, perhaps serves as a cautionary tale. It is not quite clear why many brand owners choose pleating as the main design feature of their products. Is pleating an easy way to create a fashion line? Does it provide a differentiating factor to the clothes—or bags? Or, allow products categories that are more cost-efficient to produce (Pleats Please, being mainly made of a specially-produced polyester, is still less expensive than the main line)? If pleated garments and accessories offered low barriers to entry, why did Pleatation not take off? Some designers who had worked with Paul Tan in the past thought that he could have been retained by Bewarp Design Studio as a technical advisor. No one now knows what was the nature of the transaction. Mr Tan was last seen driving an SBS Transit bus.

It is possible that Gin Lee’s foray into pleated clothing and bags is the result of reduced competition. Based on the Make Bag alone, it isn’t difficult to see where her inspiration comes from. In a 2017 Financial Times interview, Issey Miyake, who is no longer actively involved in the designs of his numerous lines, said of his pleats: “It is my gift, my legacy, and if other designers look to Pleats Please for inspiration, I feel honoured and happy—it is a great compliment.” Whether that is Japanese niceness or diplomacy, or just resignation to the truth that he is widely copied, we may never know. But, as written on one decal we once saw in an atelier, “You can copy all you want, you’ll always be one step behind.”

AW Lab Is Closed

Another victim of the pandemic?

AW Lab in Suntec City, September 2018

The sneaker retailer is now closed, permanently. According to a former staff, all four stores ceased trading at the end of last month, which would have been AW Lab’s third anniversary of operations on our island. They were one of the three foreign-owned companies to open on our shores. The Italy-headquartered AW Lab, one of the largest multi-brand sportswear sellers in Europe, with “more than 200 stores world-wide” (according to their Facebook ‘About’), exited their business here rather quietly. Their last Facebook entry for their SG business was on 30th November, of a pair of Adidas Continental 80. On Instagram, they had an identical post on the same day. There was no official announcement, no media reports (they are, after all, not Robinsons), nor closing down sales, with long queues to draw other closing down sales hunters. It was a discreet exit.

AW Lab debuted in November 2017 in Suntec City Mall, with a 2,630-square-foot AW Lab store that was described by the media as “whopping” and touted by the retailer as this continent’s first. Head of Asia, AW LAB, Giuseppe Nisi, told members of the press at the store’s launch, through a media statement that “We are thrilled to bring AW Lab to Asia for the very first time. Singapore’s close proximity to high growth markets in Asia is a choice location for many global companies, including us—especially with today’s youths well acquainted with Western trends and the latest street wear movements.” That thrill was not intense enough and their “play with style” positioning not compelling enough to allow their stores here to go beyond three years.

AW Lab on the last day of their operation, 29 November

In fact, by mid-November this year, sneakerheads noticed something amiss. All AW Lab stores were looking rather lean, in terms of stock levels. Their usually rather impressive selection of Nikes, for example, was reduced to only those few they were getting rid of. The stores clearly appeared as if they had arrived at their end of days. But even a week before they permanently shuttered, a large poster was spotted hung on their windows, announcing a “Clearance Sale”. It also urged shoppers “to keep following (them)”, assuring that “there will be surprises”. When we asked a staffer at the Suntec City store if they were closing, seeing the way the store was, he replied with a terse, “I don’t know”. By 30 November, posts in Facebook began to appear, showing the stores shuttered. FB users began confirming that all four stores—in Suntec City Mall, Tampines 1, Westgate, and Wisma Atria—were closed for good. On Suntec City’s web directory, AW Lab is still listed, but with the word ‘closed’ in parenthesis, next to the store’s name.

The retailer that quickly replaced AW Lab in (at least) Tampines 1 and Wisma Atria is In:famous, also a sneaker shop (in operation since at least 2012), but one that seems to cater to the back-to-school crowd, with an unusually large number of plain white kicks. When we asked one of the the salespersons if this is a new iteration of AW Lab, she quickly said, “no, we are not the same company.” Over at Foot Locker in Suntec City Mall, we noticed that the store was busier than usual, and wondered aloud to one of the staff if the closure of AW Lab was good for them. He laughed and said, “Yah.” And then he added, “Former staff over there told us business had been bad.” It would not be unreasonable to assume that the pandemic has claimed yet another victim.

File photos: Galerie Gombak

Visited: Uniqlo ION Orchard

The third large-format store in Orchard Road, Uniqlo Ion Orchard sees it offering

By Truss Tan

With the opening of its third large-format store in ION Orchard on Black Friday, last month, Uniqlo has shown that it’s probably the only clothing brand here to be expanding so enthusiastically during these times of painful uncertainty, and not only to secure one store along Orchard Road, but three. Sure, there has always been three Unqlo stores on Singapore’s most famous shopping street, but they are now stronger, image-wise, and larger, collectively. The trio of multi-level stores is collectively called Uniqlotown (that nomenclature, to me, brings to mind a certain Nike Town!), which the brand describes as “one shopping destination, three different retail experiences”. Separated between them an average distance of just 900 metres, the three stores are within walking distance, enough to warrant a group naming that hints at a congenial—to me, on the contrary, homogeneous—urban area: a lively expanse in a commercial hub for its LifeWear.

All three stores stay in the same malls they are originally sited, but the Plaza Singapura outlet is relocated from the new wing to the older block, into two units formerly occupied by Marks and Spencer. The Global Flagship Store in Orchard Central remains unchanged. At ION Orchard, Uniqlo is expanded on the upper floor of its two-level space into the area vacated by Topshop in July. The original two-storey ION Orchard store it would seem wasn’t large enough to house more of largely-the-same-as-other-stores merchandise. Amazingly, apart from the area that was once Topshop, there’s a sort of passageway—previously unknown—in the rear that now links the existing womenswear zone to this new space, dedicated to its T-shirt collection, UT.

The UT space looks to me rather small. Nothing like its brethrens in Hong Kong (Lee Theatre Plaza) or Tokyo (Ginza). This isn’t the first here dedicated to the T-shirt line (full name: Uniqlo T-Shirt Project), but while it is similar to those in the regions to our north, the space is rather too small and too packed to be really the same as the other UTs overseas. I remember visiting the first standalone UT store in the world, on Tokyo’s Meiji-dori Avenue (明治道り), in the other half nearer to Shibuya, back in early 2000. The UT interior design has not changed much, but back then, what Uniqlo did at that two-storey store was to give the humble T-shirt not only its own showcase, but also its pioneering place in the history of the casualisation of fashion. One thing I’ll not forget: the plastic tube-cases (now so environmentally unfriendly) that housed those tees deemed special or of limited quantities. I don’t remember any fast fashion label paying such attention to the packaging of a mere T-shirt.

On the day Uniqlo ION Orchard (re)opened, there were long queues at the entrances to the men’s and women’s floors, but not over at this new entrance. A Japanese staff was manning the spot; he happily introduced me to the new areas of the store, and even gave me directions to navigate the space, and told me how to get to the other areas. The identifiable UT zone is a welcome addition to this Uniqlo, but, even after subsequent visits, is hard to make out how different this section is, or could be. As it is packed with shelves and racks of merchandise in the centre, it is does not stand out, or put the spotlight on its T-shirts, even with the rows of windows flanking the space, each housing a cotton jersey top, like framed art. While, during a time when travel is not an option, this really brought me back to my yearly visits to Japan, it did not induce me to pick something up to stress my wallet.

Although Uniqlo tries to give each store a unique identity, regular visitors would be hard pressed to find the dissimilar here. Sure, there is a whole new extended area of the women’s zone, which includes the kids collection, to explore, but very quickly you’d wish it didn’t look this familiar. The ION Orchard store is dubbed “The New Stage for Expression” (Plaza Singapura is “The New Family Hangout” and Orchard Central is “Where You Wear Life”), I sensed that perhaps it is an expanse for underscoring one’s individuality. But, while the mannequins are admittedly well styled (and brimming with ideas for, regrettably, winter), there is a sense that I was ensnared to buy even more of those oversized Uniqlo U tees that practically everyone I know now owns. As the total space is still considerably smaller that the Orchard Central store, and the aisles are blocked by shoppers totally disregarding the neat arrangements of merchandise or the efficient visual merchandising, it takes considerable effort to suss out what might encourage expression.

In Tokyo, Uniqlo’s recently-opened stores come with elements or areas not previously seen in their other outlets in the capital. In Harajuku (where the old Harajuku station stood), the store comes with an interactive wall, while in Ginza (Marronnier Gate Ginza 2), there is a LifeWear Square. It may be too soon for them to introduce these novel retail ideas here, but Uniqlo has been on our shores for 11 years. Their first store opened in Tampines One in 2009, a humble affair that could pass off as one from some quiet neighbourhood in Fukuoka. There are now 26 stores island-wide, and another in Tampines to open (Tampines Mall, where the two-level H&M used to be, to replace the relatively small space of the debut, which, according to staff, is “old”, and will close at the end of this month). But more than a decade later, would Uniqlo be better off with something more compelling? Or is the sameness a reflection of how unadventurous local shoppers are?

The two floors of Uniqlo ION Orchard is, as before, linked by a staircase. It is here that I saw what could possibly be something different: a massive mural by Singaporean artist Michael Ng, aka Mindflyer. Described as “a whimsical visionary depiction of a couple discovering the future garden city of Orchard Road”, this piece takes up the entire wall of the stairway. Mr Ng’s work, to me, has the wonderment of a child, the charm of Crayola colours, the exuberance of Ricardo Cavolo’s characters, and the sense of the cute of the Japanese. The artwork, which invites examination (it’s composed of four parts, representing the past to the future), contrasts with the seriousness of the store and all-the-garments-they-can-sell product overload. And it serves to remind us of the fun we can have with clothes, even if Uniqlo touts wearing for life with considerable seriousness.

I decided to buy an Airism T-shirt as it was on sale. I picked one up from about a dozen hung on the rack. I went to the cashier’s, but was immediately confronted with one truly new thing: self checkout. I experienced this in Tokyo last year, and was delighted with the convenience, ease, and speed of their system, and was happy that they’ve introduced it here. As I was going to pay by using NETS, I was told to go to the regular cashier instead, now reduced to just one till. As I was waiting my turn, one other Japanese staffer came up to me and said, offering to take my still-with-the-hanger-on tee, “So sorry, let me get you another one.” I told him that the piece I had was fine. “This one,” he said, pointing to the crew neck, “is stained.” True enough, there was a faint, blurred mark, like a smear someone with foundation trying the top earlier had left behind. And I, usually watchful for these spots, didn’t notice. I thanked him and he disappeared, and returned as soon as he left, with a new, packaged tee. I thanked him again. He said—with palpable sincerity—“my pleasure.” For a quick moment, I thought I was in Japan.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Underscored With Denim

Nike’s new Air Max Plus Tuned 1 is a jolly mix of patterns and a strip in the texture we associate with jeans

Although Nike makes shoes for sports, many of their iterations of classic styles are, in fact, destined for the fashion crowd. Case in point: the Air Max Plus Tuned 1 (part of the Tn-labeled series, “tuned for running”, available only at Foot Locker). Among all the Air Max series of running shoes, the timeless Air Max Plus often enjoys rather interesting—even surprising—uppers, frequently in mixed media and quirky colourways, even bold text. We are especially drawn to this version, simply known by their chromatic combination: multi-colour-white-university-red. They wouldn’t look out of place with a pair of White Mountaineering’s draw-string ‘Sarouel’ (or sirwal, also known as Punjabi pants) or the reconstructed denim jeans by Junya Watanabe and Levis.

In fact, the Japaneseness of the shoe is unmistakable to us, in particular the use of the plaid upper on which a camo-ish print runs over, and on top of that, the Air Max Plus’s unique skeletal-like marks. That would have been good enough for most sneakerheads, but Nike gave the shoe one more detail: a denim border (with gold top-stitching, no less, as in jeans), just above the mid-sole, underscoring the fabric above it. The plaid and denim might be somewhat country and western if they were clothes, but Nike has managed to combined the two in a way that is part old-fashioned grunge, part modernist rodeo. To break the overall monochrome, the top-most lace loops, lining of the tongue, and the arch of the mid-sole (that supports the plantar fasciitis) are in Nike’s famed ‘university red’.

Nike Air Max Plus was designed in 1998 by Sean McDowell, who said that the general idea for the design of the sneaker came about when he watched palm trees sway in the breeze as the sun set on some Florida beach. Early versions, with uppers of colour gradation, certainly had a Miami spirit about them. But, as the years went by, Air Max Plus became a lot more sophisticated. And some of the Tn iterations, created for Foot Locker, seem to come with elements evocative of clothes-making that a fashion follower would not be able to walk away from.

Nike Air Max Plus Tuned 1 multi-colour-white-university-red, SGD249, is available at Foot Locker. Photo Zhao Xiangji

Down By The Thames

…where it’s dank and dreary, Sarah Burton showed a collection for Alexander McQueen damp with the damper

So, the showing of spring/summer 2021 collections is still on-going. At this point, so close to what would be the first deliveries of the next season, it is unsurprising that many people can’t keep up. One product manager told us that he’s “so confused”. Alexander McQueen’s collection for next spring was just shown, and the brand is taking “pre-orders” on its website. Is that a new iteration of the now mostly forgotten see-now-buy-now model, once so fervently touted by the likes of Burberry and Tom Ford? Or, is this deliberately turning one’s nose up at conventional fashion-season schedules. Or, a brand “lead(ing) its own rhythm”, just as Saint Laurent has, when they announced on Instagram back in April?

Whatever the case, brands are finding ways to show to pique both customer and media-watcher interest. Alexander McQueen has eschewed the fashion show (even a reinterpreted one) for a fashion film by the English film-maker/commercial director Jonathan Glazer that shows both the women’s spring/summer 2021 collection and the men’s pre-fall 2021. Shot in a not-so-stunning part of the English river Thames, the film is what optimists might call “gritty”, compared to another on-location showing just days earlier: Saint Laurent’s stunning runway presentation in a North African desert. The Thames is not the Seine, and the film’s setting is perhaps a deliberate counterpoint to Sarah Burton’s underwhelming frocks. Those who love to uncover fashion film messages would consider this a worthy challenge, as they wonder what the two women opening the film were doing in the water, searching for a picnic their friends were already partaking (why could they have not walked on the river bank?). And why waste good tulle by making a model dressed in a froth create an angel shape in the mud?!

Perhaps mud and the muck are tropes for Sarah Burton being somewhat stuck in a sludge of sameness. In the early year since taking over Alexander McQueen after his death, Ms Burton has tried to put out some semblance of those complex and challenging cuts that the former was known for, with hints of consumable historicism. But in the ensuing years, it became one “love letter to women” after another. Ms Burton’s inability to push Alexander McQueen the brand further than just pretty clothes is one of the reasons why look-back Instagram accounts such as #mcqueen_vault is well and alive, and followed. There is no denying that Ms Burton is technically well-grounded, but that is not indication of the flair that made Mr McQueen the name once on everyone’s lips.

The film let on very little. So we viewed the lookbook, usually not the ideal medium to capture the mood of the season. It appears that statement sleeves are Ms Burton’s thing for next spring. As dramatic as they are and as alluring as they would be to the selfie-obsessed fashionistas, we feel we have seen it at Viktor and Rolf before. In view of the current social situation, these could well be (timely?) social-distancing sleeves. What is really ho-hum is the corseted bodice (extraordinary?) of fit-and-flare dresses with swirly symmetry of the skirt. These are low-barrier-to-entry designs, and they, like many other pieces, look tired even when it’s visible that, with some of the pieces, considerable work is invested in them. But, given the ease of dressing that women now prefer, must it be so obvious that she had tried this hard?

Photos: Alexander McQueen