Her Power

Billie Eilish’s new single from her upcoming second album has immense force and pull

By Ray Zhang

Every time I listen to Billie Eilish I have to remind myself that she’s nineteen. Barely out of her adolescence, she’s not supposed to sound like this. Way past my adolescence, I am not supposed to like her (!), or specifically, her music. But I do. Ms Eilish is not, image wise, my cup of teh C kosong. I do, however, like her songs—they have a pull that, by convention, I shouldn’t now enjoy—when I am supposed to be in reminiscent mode and collecting old Kean albums in vinyl! Her first album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? of 2019 really caught me the way teens releasing first albums almost never do. Like my colleague Mao Shan Wang, it took me quite a while to intensely enjoy Miley Cyrus, and it wasn’t until her much later, later albums and The Backyard Sessions that really got me hooked. That girl can sing. And Billie Eilish too. And neither just for the tween-aged.

The voice is always important to me. I am never into voices that scream, roar, or belt. Or that are desperate to be cute. I like it when they don’t sound forced, as if in participation of some vocal Olympics or a jam session where the crooners are clearly out of their league. I understand why there is so much hooha about Joanna Dong’s (董姿彦) performance at the Star Awards. She over did everything—impress took the place of express. Subtlety is not her style, showing off is. Ms Eilish, by contrast, sings as if to you only, in her ballads, especially. There is an intimacy that is rather uncommon in the Idol-era bombast. She does not make dramatic note leaps, but within the gentle coos of an ungirlish-sounding tone, I can hear that she uses her voice in a skillful and nuanced way. Her vocal ability does not attempt to outpace the music, and it works rather well with minimal arrangements. Such as her latest single.

Early this week, Ms Eilish announced through social media that she will be releasing her sophomore album Happier Than Ever in July. Since then fans have been expecting a teaser by way of a single. They didn’t have to wait long. Your Power is for the woke generation, a ballad with folksy undertones that draws you in. Against a rather spare arrangement, with strummy guitars, rather than fierce electronica, Your Power is for waking up to, for drive time, and for going to bed with. It is not for pre-club hours or to get you moving your hips while readying to go out or while doing housework. I find its simplicity not quite so simple, and extremely refreshing, as in her Bond theme No Time to Die. Both Ms Eilish and producer/co-writer brother Finneas have a flair for tunes. The lilt and the legato are nothing like what’s recorded these days; the hummability is easy to catch on, but maybe not; the accessibility not quite Taylor Swift. I feel I am listening to a follow-up to the lush Everything I Wanted. While much of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was tethered to teenage angst, Your Power is a far more grown-up confrontation with the real difficulties and threats young women have to navigate in the world of entertainment, and beyond.

Lyrically, Ms Eilish, now all-blonde and big enough to let a python curl around her, sounds like she grew up too soon in the glare of the spotlight and in the company of music-exec creeps. Your Power broaches the IRL prevalence of sexual abuse, especially by an older, abler person. The words suggest a scumbag in similar business that Ms Eilish is in: “Will you only feel bad if it turns out they kill your contract?” If only more women—the way-to-young as well: “She was sleeping in your clothes/But now she’s got to get to class”—will take the senior, more powerful person on! And to protest sooner than later: “How dare you and how could you?” Despite the dismay and anger, she is aware of her own vulnerability (as well as others in similar positions): “I thought that I was special, you made me feel/ Like it was my fault you were the devil”. This isn’t being only woke, it is being awake too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Screen grab: YouTube

The Bandung Suit: Here And There

Elvin Ng wore the ombre suit at the Star Awards, so did one Kori Rae at the recent Oscars. And others even earlier

The Alexander McQueen “bandung” suit on Elvin Ng (left) and Kori Rae (right). Photos: Mediacorp and Getty Images respectively

By Ray Zhang

Many people had a go at Elvin Ng (黄俊雄) after this year’s inert Star Awards. Or, to be more specific, they bashed his inoffensive Alexander McQueen suit. The jacket, in a gradation of pink at the top to bordeaux (as the brand calls it) at the bottom was compared by many viewers, even fans, to a glass of unstirred bandung—yep, that usually too-sweet coffee-stall drink made of rose syrup and evaporated milk. Online, there was even a photographic, side-by-side show-and-tell. And that was the kinder comparison. The more wicked commentators likened the blazer to a particular sanitary plug that some women use, which Mr Ng, rather forgivingly, considered “a bit offensive”. Only affable Fairprice, in a Facebook post, saw raspberry parfait in his red-carpet look.

I do not know if Mr Ng or his stylist Darryl Yeo or both of them picked the said garment, but, frankly, I didn’t see those humorous and nasty similitudes. Maybe it’s my imagination: it isn’t so vivid. To me, he was much better attired than, say, the now-disgraced Shane Pow, who, in ill-fitting Berluti two-piece, looked like he was costumed for a K-drama in which he appeared as a bratty, wealthy scion on his first day in his father’s boardroom. Whatever those many people did notice has brought much attention to not only the garment, but the brand name too. Alexander McQueen is no Alexander Wang here. So the publicity did give the former a rather big boost.

Colour gradation on Wang Yibo (left) and Kevin Hart (right). Photos: sina.cn and Aspictures/Chloe Le Drezen respectively

Mr Ng was, however, not the first or only person in the entertainment industry to wear the ombre (also described as “gradient-effect”) jacket, part of Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2021 collection. The tailored garment appears to be attracting a lot of admirers. A week after his TV appearance, another person wore the same outfit, 14,112km across two oceans. In Los Angeles, Pixar producer Kori Rae attended the Oscars in identical suit (not, interestingly, the version available for women). But she took it two steps further—she included a matching shirt and tie, in case the colour effect on the jacket alone was not enough for you to think bandung, or the other thing! I was surprised she didn’t colour her hair to match. Perhaps it was the setting Californian sun, but Ms Rae’s suit did look rather saturated. Forgive me, I am thinking of what Donald Trump, if he had watched, might say!

The ombre effect of the silk-wool jacket (priced at S$6,450) is, according to the brand, an “engineered dip-dyed print”, which means that the jacket or the fabric used was not actually partially submerged into a vat of dye (which may offer the assurance of no colour run). Some people think that the pink and the red do not make a good pairing; some also said the pink is too feminine for Mr Ng, who has never really concerned himself with fashion colours and details that are thought to be binary (look at the boat-neck Prada nylon top that he wore on the Channel 8 talk show The Inner Circle [神秘嘉宾]). Following the bandung alert, some Netizens pointed out that Chinese actor and former member of Korean boy band Uniq, Wang Yibo (王一博), too, wore a McQueen bomber jacket with identical chromatic print. No one questioned Mr Wang’s fashion choice. Nor, in fact, Kevin Hart’s. The comedian/actor also wore what Elvin Ng (and Kori Rae) did for a Fashion Bomb Daily fashion editorial, his masculinity clearly not threatened by sweet, unstirred-beverage colours.

Oscars 2021: Yawwwn

Woke up early to watch the 93rd Academy Awards. Big mistake

The Oscars red carpet outside Union Station. Photo: Getty Images

By Mao Shan Wang

Let’s start by talking about the end: why like that? I sat—okay, lolled—in bed for close to five hours, from 6.30 to 11.15, only to see the ending that I did not see coming: No one went on stage to receive the Oscar! There was, therefore, no speech. The whole show just fizzled out. It was all brought to a close by the Crocs-shod musical director Questlove, who, for some reason, reminded me of tWitch of the Ellen Show. The last award, presented by the bland Joaquin Phoenix, was for Best Actor and it went to Anthony Hopkins. The Sir didn’t show up (not anywhere else in the world either) and that was that! Show was over. Credits rolled. Television sets ready to be turned off. My breakfast of chashaobao still not eaten.

The traditional order in which the categories were presented was jumbled. Best Picture was not reserved for the last. The Best Actor and Actress categories were. And the no-show winner left the stage empty. Rousing! Sure, we’ve all been told before that this would be a different Academy Awards night, to be presented “like a film”. Well, there was the cinematic aspect ratio on my TV screen, but it surely didn’t unfold like a movie. Everything had to be kept small, including the attendance, and so controlled, that the show, like a movie, was very, very scripted, except the winners’ speeches. And it was very, very, dull—just like the game that was played as entertainment, half-way through: the one that had Glenn Close appear to be utterly with-it. Seriously, I did not want to see Ms Close, curiously dressed in what could be a Punjabi suit (Giorgio Armani, no less), twerk to Da Butt!

Regina King opening the show. Photo: ABC

One thing I have to say: Both the Star Awards and the Academy Awards have one thing in common: they were held in transport hubs: The Star Awards at Changi Airport Terminal 4 and the Academy Awards in Union Station in Los Angeles, a change from the usual Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where the show had been staged and televised from for the last 20 years. The 73-year-old Union Station is “the Sistine Chapel of railway stations in America”, Tom Savio of the Los Angeles Union Station Historical Society told the BBC. The 1982 film Blade Runner was shot here, in addition to more than other 150 films. It has become legendary, which, perhaps, made it suitable as an Oscars venue. The set decorators kept somewhat to the part-Art Deco and part-mission revival styles of Union Station, converting the Historic Ticketing Hall and the Grand Waiting Room into a nightclub, as if where an old Hollywood-era musical number might be staged. A train station, for one night, didn’t look like one, but, a week ago, on our island, for one award night, an airport certainly looked like the passenger terminal it is.

But in a pandemic year, must award nights be so sluggish? Sure, it hasn’t been a show-biz-as-usual year for this award season, but, despite its IRL production (thankfully, no Zoom acceptance appearances and speeches), the presentation wasn’t exactly celebratory. I get it. It’s still a pandemic year, still post-BLM and the George Floyd court case has just concluded amid more police shootings, and, for many, the Oscars is still not inclusive enough. Entertainment no longer in the picture, causes close to the heart are. Regina King, who got the show going in probably the best gown of the night by Louis Vuitton, set the tone when she made references to the verdict in Minneapolis, and if it had been diametrically so, “I would have traded my heels for marching boots”. Were nominees and attendees, therefore, looking out for lapses in inclusivity and justice? Is it a wonder that viewership of the Oscars this year was reported to be at an “all-time low”?

Oscars 2021 Red Carpet: Yawwwn

The skin-baring and the over-fluffy: (from left) Andra Day, Zendaya, Laura Dern. Photo: Getty Images

Asian aesthetic on the red carpet: Chloé Zhao’s village girl look. Photo: Getty Images

“This is Hollywood’s Christmas,” Angela Bassett, confident in red Alberta Ferretti and sleeves that could be props from Raise the Red Lantern, had said earlier, outside the red carpet/arrival “pre-show”. But, thankfully, few came noticeably as Christmas trees. Rather, in their post-pandemic, post-jogger-bottom best. Both Andra Day (in Vera Wang) and Zendaya (in Valentino Couture) showed us how to be mask-free for the waist. Laura Dern took the modest route, wearing Oscar de la Renta ostrich feathers, while looking like the bird. Her pal Reese Witherspoon decided to give her red prom-night dress (Dior. Did she pick the belt from Walmart on the way to Union Station?) another run. Or was that her old bridesmaid gown? Conversely, Olivia Coleman, who also wore a red Dior and a belt, looked far much more pulled-together and stylish. Carey Mulligan seemed to be telling us that when she went to Valentino (Couture), they were very happy: They found someone to use their dead-stock fabric on. What, to me, was palpably absent was the gathering of fashion heavyweights. There was no Nicole Kidman, no Thilda Swinton, no Cate Blanchett. This has been one Oscars confectionary that not only didn’t rise, it was missing the frosting.

In the end, it was really Chloé Zhao that really killed it for me. Ms Zhao may have won for Asians and women directors in Hollywood with her two awards, but her sartorial choice was no victory for fashion. Even Hermès was limited in their powers to make her look polished. Yes, I know her trademark look is fashion-free, but this was the “casual-is-really-not”-cool Oscars. She could have tried; she could have left the sneakers (Hermès too, so what?) at home (even if she was taking the subway) and she could have worn some makeup (even if she was going to a train station), but somehow, she couldn’t shake off her 村女之美 (cunnu zhimei) village lass beauty and those barnyard ponytails. She told Vanity Fair last year, when asked about her hair, “I haven’t been to the hair salon in five years”. Enough said.

The Ebullient One

Obituary | Alber Elbaz, considered one of the most likeable designers in the business, will always be remembered for turning around the fusty house of Lanvin

Alber Elbaz succumbed to complications due to COVID-19, as reported by The New York Times, quoting a statement issued by Richemont, the Swiss luxury group that backed Mr Elbaz’s latest venture AZ Factory. He was 59. The fashion designer died in the American Hospital in Paris, the same institution where Kenzo Takada too died from COVID-19 in October last year. According to Israeli media, Mr Elbaz was “infected with the South African COVID variant despite being fully vaccinated”. Poised for a major comeback in January, the Moroccan-born Israeli designer was once a major force of fashion when he held the design directorship at Lanvin, ushering an era of unabashed elegance tinged with fun and sometimes (subtle) irreverence for the more-than-a-decade-old French house. Women adored his clothes. Meryl Streep, who wore a gold Lanvin dress in 2012 to receive the Oscar for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, later told Vogue, “Alber’s dresses for Lanvin are the only ones that, when I wear them, I feel like myself, or even a better version of her.”

Born in Casablanca in 1961 to Jewish parents—a hairdresser father and painter mother, Albert Elbaz (he later dropped the T from his first name, apparently to ensure the right pronunciation in French) immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 10. As he recounted, he started drawing dresses when he was seven. Dana Thomas told British Vogue that he said to her, “I would sketch women—queens, nurses, women in pictures… It’s funny—a lot of what I’m doing now, I did then.” But he did not pursue that path—at least not as soon as he was old enough. After national service with the Israel Defence Forces (“I had asthma, so they put me in charge of the entertainment of the soldiers,” he once told Sarah Mower), Mr Elbaz enrolled at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan (a city in the district of Tel Aviv) to study design. He was close to his mother (his father died when he was 13) and with her blessing and financial support of US$800, left for New York in 1985, a month after his graduation, to pursue a career in fashion.

The finale of the AZ Factory spring/summer 2021 video-show. Screen grab: AZ Factory/Youtube

When in New York, Mr Elbaz began in an unnamed dressmaker’s shop in the Garment District. Some accounts thought that to be a bridal fashion house. He held that job—designing eveningwear—for two and half years. According to fashion lore, he met Dawn Mello who introduced him to Geoffrey Beene in 1989. But Mr Elbaz told Ms Thomas that it was his boyfriend who introduced him to the American couturier. He was offered a job as assistant after a ten-minute interview with Mr Beene, and he remained for seven-and-half years. Mr Elbaz always credited everything he had learned to Mr Beene, as well as everything about designing. In 2012, he said, “I was very much into design because I came from the house of Geoffrey Beene, which was all about design, and then we pushed it also to desire, to women, to reality, to be relevant.” In addition, what he admired there, remained with him forever: “the inside and the outside (of the clothes) were as beautiful—that the back and the front were as important.”

In 1996 (some reports state 1997), Mr Elbaz moved to Paris, where his first appointment was at the house of Guy Laroche, then looking unmistakably staid, unlike its heydays in the ’60s. The Observer declared in a 1998 headline that Mr Elbaz would be the “man who’ll put Guy Laroche back in your closet.” Suzy Menkes, then writing for The International Herald Tribune, enthused earlier that “(Mr. Elbaz) blew out the dust of the (Guy Laroche) couture house with a show that was spring clean.” But, as the designer himself said, “I didn’t forget that Guy Laroche’s customers can be, like, 75 years old and they like pink, bouclé and gold buttons.” But he would be at Guy Laroche for a mere two years. With Yves Saint Laurent, who also grew up in North Africa, retiring from prêt-à-porter, he was installed by Pierre Berger as YSL’s creative director in 1998. Many observers considered the appointment “a perfect fit”. This time, the tenure was similarly short. Just after three seasons, he was ousted when Gucci, then headed by Domenico de Sole, took over the brand and Tom Ford installed himself as the designer.

Alber Elbaz with is adorable sketches in his AZ Factory office. Photo: AZ Factory/Richemont

But it was at Lanvin where the world really saw and enjoyed his groove. Mr Elbaz joined what is considered the oldest operational French couture house in 2001. He brought to Lanvin a romance that was slipping the grip of fashion at that time. But Mr Elbaz preferred not to call it romance, saying to WWD in 2014, “I work mostly by intuition. Every time I think too much and try to rationalize every issue, it doesn’t work. I think that intuition is the essence of this métier.” The clothes—often draped—were designed for real occasions, during a time when the right clothes for those occasions still mattered. Memorable are the hyper-feminine details, such as ruffles and flounces, and the edgier, such as visible zips, and exposed and unfinished hems and seams, as well as costume jewellery set on or fastened with grosgrain ribbons. For menswear, which he oversaw the work of Lucas Ossendrijver, formerly Hedi Slimane’s assistant at Dior Homme, Mr Elbaz was one of the earliest adopters of athleisure and creators of luxury sneakers. So noted he was and so red-hot Lanvin was that in 2010, the French brand collaborated with H&M for a collection that sold out. Those who queued for a go at scoring a piece would remember.

When Mr Elbaz departed from Lanvin in November 2015, he left the fashion world quite in shock. His sudden parting was also mired in rumours of the breakdown of relationship with Lanvin owner, the Taiwanese media doyenne Wang Shaw Lan (王效蘭). He quit, it was initially reported and believed. But according to a New York Times editorial later, Mr Elbaz sat “at his home in Paris reading a letter from Lanvin telling him not to come into the office, because he had been fired.” Ms Wang had quite a reputation then as a formidable business woman. In August 2001, through her holding company Harmonie SA, she led a group of investors to acquire Lanvin from L’Oréal Group. Old-school and used to getting her way, she was described as “autocratic” and as China’s Jing Daily once wrote, “Even though the company has a clear executive structure, it was not surprising that she was willing to circumvent it.”

Lanvin spring/summer 2016, Alber Elbaz’s last collection for the house. Screen grab: FF Channel/YouTube

Sudden firings in the ateliers of luxury fashion was not new that year. Eleven months earlier, Gucci’s Frida Giannini was asked to leave and was replaced by Alessandro Michele. But Mr Elbaz’s termination was thought by industry folks and Lanvin customers to be especially unjust and undue. That Mr Elbaz was well liked by the many who knew him made the very public corporate divorce uglier on the side of the hirer, rather than the hired. After the acrimonious exit of Mr Elbaz, Lanvin reported its first annual loss in a decade. No one was surprised. The brand would subsequently only see a series of creative directors who failed to bring back the glory days of the Lanvin. It was finally sold to Forsun Fashion, part of China’s Fosun Group, also owner of St John and Wolford; it was their first acquisition of a key luxury brand. Lanvin’s current creative director is Frenchman Bruno Sialelli, former head of menswear at Loewe and womenswear at Paco Rabanne.

Post-Lanvin, Mr Elbaz said he would like to take an extended hiatus and travel. But he did collaborate with others, including the French parfumeur Frederick Malle on a fragrance called—oddly (or, perhaps, cheekily)—Superstitious. There was also a project with Tods, as well as a one-off with the Japanese-owned American bag brand LeSportsac. While acknowledged as a true talent, it surprised many that Mr Elbaz was not snapped up by a major house. Or that he and his life partner of more than two decades, Alex Koo, who had worked with Mr Elbaz in Lanvin as merchandising director, did not start their own label. But in 2019, it was reported that he was conceptualising a new brand that would be called AZ Factory. Richemont, the conglomerate that has Cartier, Chloé, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Yoox Net-a-Porter Group in its stable of brands was to back it. In January, AZ Factory was launched during Paris Couture Week to warm response, with many expecting more from the new label. Unlike the luxury brands he was associated with before, AZ Factory would be modelled as see-now-buy-now, and would be available from size XXS to XXXXL, and in what was thought to be accessible price points, which seemed so distant from how exclusive and costly Lanvin was (and is). In 2009, he explained to The New Yorker why his designs for Lanvin were expensive. “It’s so much work,” he said. “Doing a collection for me is almost like creating a vaccine.” Was Alber Elbaz really being prescient?

Illustration: Just So

Two Of A Kind: Jet Set

Before Mediacorp’s Star Awards 2021, there was Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel 2008, 2012, and 2016

An airport created inside the Grand Palais for Chanel spring/summer 2016. Photo: Chanel

The attendees at the Star Awards 2021 held inside the terminal building of T4. Screen grab: Mediacorp/YouTube

We are an island of many firsts. Mediacorp’s recent Star Awards, curiously staged at Changi Passenger Terminal T4, is one of them. It included a “fashion show” with a short runway on the tarmac, in front of an SIA jet. Another first. And stars strutting their stuff in front of an the aircraft—a first too. For the uninitiated, this must have been the grandest event Mediacorp has ever put together, and with more fashion than an average TV/MeWatch/YouTube viewer will get to see in their lifetime. But the aviation theme is hardly new in the world of fashion/entertainment. Watching the unreasonably long broadcast of six-and-a-half hours, with no real content in the first three, we started to stray and think of the grand sets of the old Chanel shows under Karl Lagerfeld’s watch that included an airport and aircraft. Grand. Monumental. Splendid. Stupendous! The descriptions came easily, but we struggled to find similar for Mediacorp’s dalliance with Changi Airport.

Outside their studios, Mediacorp was rather lost—a 孙公公 (sun gonggong, Eunuch Song!) in 21st century Singapore with a four-terminal, two-runway international airport. T4 is not the most attractive among all of Changi’s dissimilar terminals, and Mediacorp made it even less telegenic. From the “red carpet” on the red asphalt of the driveway to the plush, but utilitarian interiors of the departure gates, the show venues had the ambience of an MRT station during the Circuit Breaker. And to see the stars on both driveway and airport apron in sometimes laughable clothes that contradicted the spirit of red-carpet fashion (Chen Hanwei ridiculously over-fashioned by Q Menswear, for one) was really both highlight and downer of the whole event. It might be alright for us to laugh at ourselves, but thinking that the other regions with similar and far more polished award nights having a national giggle was pain-inducing. So, it was best to think of other memorable events.

Chanel cruise show in 2008 featuring a Chanel private jet from which models appeared. Photo: JKLD

Zoe Tay in Carolina Herrera at Changi T4. Photo: Mediacorp

Chanel’s over-the-top shows are, by now, legendary. No idea is too audacious or too unachievable for the house and their budget, and that includes creating a departure lounge and naming the check in counter Chanel Airlines. In fact, there was even a Chanel Line. Back in 2008, Chanel staged a couture show on an airfield in Santa Monica, Los Angeles. The audience was seated in a hanger and two planes—the Bombardier Challenger 601 (considered “business jets”, hence for private travel)—arrived to allow the models to alight. So spectacular the whole staging was (including a first-class departure gate set up in the hanger, complete with cocktail bars) that guests reportedly gave the show a standing ovation even before the first model, Raquel Zimmermann in an airport-ready navy jumpsuit, could deplane. So outstanding the presentation was that jet-setting attendees, such as Victoria Beckham and Demi Moore were duly impressed. If watching the action outside the aircraft was not quite enough, for the spring/summer 2012 couture collection, Chanel brought the show inside the cabin, with a set that allowed members of the audience aisle or window seat!

The house of Chanel had a long connection to aviation. In 1966, Coco Chanel herself even designed the uniforms—featuring her signature boxy jackets—of the flight attendants of Olympic Airways (now Olympic Airlines) of Greece, which was, at that time, marketed as a luxury airline owned by the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (who married the widowed Jackie Onasis). Back then, flying was a stylish affair. And an airport was not a place for T-shirts and shorts and flip-flops as it is now. In bringing back or remembering the romance of travel, Karl Lagerfeld had an airport terminal built in the Grand Palais for the Chanel spring/summer 2016 show. Models appeared as passengers ready to check in at the Chanel Airlines counter, manned by just-as-impossibly-good-looking staff. The flight information display system above (interestingly, not a split-flap) showed the final destinations of Chanel Airlines: Dubai, Seoul, Tokyo, and, amazingly, Singapore! We needed another country to show that we are worthy.

CDG Laughs Along With Yue Minjun

But Comme des Garçons Shirt’s latest collection may not necessarily let you in on the joke

It is not just a smile; it is clearly a laughter. And not just one, but a sea of them. Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s (岳敏君) xiaolian (笑脸, literally laughing face in Mandarin) is probably one of the most recognised icons to emerge from the Chinese art world of the post-Open Door Policy era. Now, Comme des Garçons Shirt has collaborated with the Beijing-based painter, featuring the distinctive pink laughing heads in a small capsule that comprises blazers, shirts, tees, pullovers, pants, shorts, totes, and sneakers, all in designs far less contorted than the depicted countenances. We may be in a time that deserves a good laugh, and we may wish to be seen expressing mirth, but how much should that be worn on our body?

Yue Minjun’s famous faces are those of his own. These were painted before ‘selfie’ was a nomenclature. By his admission, the choice of depicting his own laughter under a receding hairline and closed eyes was inspired by the late artist, compatriot Geng Jianyi (耿建翌), whose paintings of laughing faces, such as 第二状态 (dier zhuangtai or The Second State) Mr Yue would later say “were not quite right, in which meaning had been inverted, and expressions turned upside down.” It is hard to say if Mr Yue’s own cackling expression is one of pleasure or derision. Some of his earliest xiaolians were featured in the painting 枪决 (qiangjue or Execution). which, when sold in 2007 in London’s Sotheby for USD5.9 million, was the most expensive work by a Chinese contemporary artist. The laughing faces seemed to be mocking—and somewhat remorselessly—while being fired at (rifles were not painted in).

The faces picked by CDG are far more jubilant and appear to have less political reference. But the signature pink-skin countenances still fill the entire surface of the fabric (like they would have on canvas). And the laughter, still untraceable to a cause, hits you upon first viewing. This is not the first time that CDG has collaborated with a Chinese artist of immense standing. Back in 2009, when the CDG Hong Kong store on On Lan Street moved to its current location on Ice House Street, commemorative T-shirts were created with the controversial Ai Weiwei. The images then, too, seemed apolitical. But we’ll never really know, such as with Yue Minjun’s xiaolians now, the garment creator’s true emotions when placing them.

Comme des Garçons Shirt X Yue Minjun capsule is now available at CDG, Hilton Gallery and DSMS. Product photos: Comme des Garçons Shirt/DSM. Collage: Just So

What Happened, Dennis Tay?

How did our island’s biggest supporter of local designs become national bad guy?

At the entrance of the now-closed Naiise Iconic store in Jewel Changi, a brown sign in white san-serif font welcomed visitors with the proclamation: “Here we celebrate local design, creativity and community. Happy shopping and have a #Naiise day!” It was such personableness than endeared many shoppers to the retail brand. The sign-off in that notice read, “Love, Team Naiise.” With the massive 9,500 sq ft (882.5 sq m), two-storey store now shut for good, many shoppers and those who had dealings with the retailer wondered what happened to that celebration. “No one is celebrating now,” many were saying, certainly not when defaulted payments to many of the store’s consignors may no longer be recovered as Naiise goes into liquidation and the high-profile company winds down. A puzzling turn of events, eight years in the making.

Despite long-standing issues with paying consignors that allegedly go back to even before the reported 2016 start making media rounds last year, Dennis Tay Chi Wai (郑志伟) was hailed as a flag bearer of Singaporean designs across many product categories and the operator of the largest online and physical store of its kind here. One editorial in Life of The Straits Times in 2016 described “Mr Tay proving his business chops and Naiise making S$30,000 in its first year”. In the same article, his wife Amanda Eng was quoted calling him a “visionary boss”. But on 9 April, six years later, a couple of videos was shared on-line of a group of debt chasers in pursuit of Mr Tay, the founder and CEO of Naiise.

The showdown took place in the carpark of Jewel Changi, above which the HSBC rain vortex was doing its equally attention-grabbing job. Below ground, the view of Mr Tay, often blocked or cut off, almost supplicating to the debt hounds, was one of unbelievable wretchedness. The debtor was being grilled by the much younger man, who had a commanding lead in the confrontation. That was quite a sight, considering that just three years ago, Mr Tay was in Tatler’s Gen T list of 2018 (that “recognises 400 leaders of tomorrow who are shaping Asia’s future”). He shared the accolade alongside regional retail notables such as Barom Bhicharnchitr (son of Central Department Store Group CEO Yuwadee Chirativat), MD of the Bangkok mall Central Embassy and the Naiise-ish Central: The Original Store, as well as Gary Chen Wenhao (陈文豪) of Gentspace, the Shanghai-based menswear lifestyle store, including Gentspace Casa, with branches throughout China.

Naiise at PLQ, two weeks before it abruptly closed. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

In the same year, The Peak reported that Naiise’s topline figure for 2017 was “between S$4 to 5 million”. According to Mr Tay, as the article continued, “70 percent of the sales came from brick-and-mortar stores.” If the off-line business was this lucrative, no one understood why Naiise was unable to pay their consignors. An article in The Straits Times quoted an employer saying that “it was constant fire fighting. If we paid supplier A, we could not pay supplier B. The outlook wasn’t great, which is why many of us left in 2016.” By now, the question that kept going unanswered was, “what happened to the money made from the sales?”. Allegations—fueled by anger—were rife that Mr Tay was not forthcoming with the company’s finances. Some frustrated brand owners were amazed with “the great success” Mr Tay had made himself out to be in the media despite financial troubles in the office. Some started warning others not to believe what they read.

While news of non- or delayed payments to consignors were making the rounds, damaging chatter of paying employees late, too, started appearing on social media. One person, posting on Glassdoor in September 2016, said that the “pay (was) late” and that there was “no CPF”. But five months earlier, Mr Tay’s wife, Amanda Eng, posted holiday shots that showed the couple basking in Bali, in the upscale Soori resort, which World Luxury Hotel Awards and France 24 described as “best luxury beach-front resort hotel in Asia” and Financial Times calling it “no.1 luxury hotel for design” (hence, the appeal to the Tays?). Bali became a favourite vacation spot (the Maldives next). Between 2016 and 2019, there were five known holiday trips to the Indonesian island. When they were in London in 2017 to open the UK pop-up in Shoreditch, they stayed in the hipster hotel The Hoxton, described by the British media as “upscale”. It is understandable why there were so many—in the company and outside—who were affected by the unabashed display.

At the end of 2018, when news emerged that Naiise was selected as operator of the soon-to-be-opened Design Orchard, many in retail received it with disbelief. At the press conference in the new year to announce the launch of Design Orchard, Mr Tay was confident of his ability to make his new retail charge a great success. He said, “we have experience in the retail industry; we are relatively close to the design community; we have created design showcases for the last six years.” When asked about his poor payment record, he said, “What happened was that there was some gaps in the company, so we had internal issues—there are a lot of process failures… we are essentially resolving it by basically looking at the foundation…” Resolving? Not resolved? “No, it has not been resolved.” Eleven months after Design Orchard opened, Naiise at Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ) was launched. When we visited the store just before Christmas and saw the bustling footfall, we wondered—like others earlier, how could he be in debt?

Design Orchard in 2019, under the watch of Naiise. File photo: SOTD

Dennis Tay was born in 1985 to a remisier father and a school teacher mother. By his own telling, he was “a playful kid” and, as recounted in a video interview with The Ice Cream & Cookie Co., posted in YouTube in 2018, it was “a memorable childhood, growing up in a condo with a large and really strong community—kampung spirit.” According to ST, the family was staying in a “HDB maisonette in Bukit Batok.” Mr Tay claimed that, since young, he “had an interest in entrepreneurship.” He told The Business Times in 2017, “in primary school, I was selling erasers.” Even with the ardent vending, he finished the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) with a respectable score of 213 (over 300) and was admitted to Tanglin Secondary School. In the ST feature, he reported that his “first mini business (began) at the age of 17—doing tutor matching services.” It was also at that age that he met his future wife Amanda Eng, when both were school mates at Anderson Junior College. Into adulthood, he “started an events company when (he) was about 22, and co-founded a creative agency a few years after.” Mr Tay went to SIM-RMIT University, where he graduated with a bachelor in business, majoring in entrepreneurship in 2013.

Six months before graduating, he began planning the birth of Naiise. The business started in January 2013 with the by-now-famous seed money of S$3,000, which he grew to the even more glorious and just-as-noted S$30,000 in the first year, all managed from his bedroom in his parents’ flat. In 2016, just three years after he launched Naiise, he reportedly “made”, as the press ambiguously described, an enviable S$5 million. But the rosy picture was just that: rosy. In one report in The New Paper in 2018, “Naiise had failed to pay at least four companies”. According to TNP, Mr Tay’s business “was transitioning from a startup to a full-fledged company.” Two years later, BT stated that, back then, money from sold consignment was already owed “despite its core operating revenues growing by more than 40 per cent year on year.”

At the start, Mr Tay ran a one-man operation. After that encouraging first year, his JC mate Amanda Eng joined him in various roles, not initially defined. Ms Eng went to Raffles Girls Secondary School and after JC, continued her studies at the National University of Singapore, where she graduated in business administration. According to her, it was during their undergraduate days that they started dating. Before teaming up with Mr Tay, she worked between Singapore and Hong Kong as an equity research analyst, with an eye on Chinese Internet stocks. She made one more stop before her tenure at Naiise: the e-commerce platform Zalora, as their marketing director. In 2015, the colleagues of two years and couple of ten got married in a wedding happily covered by the media. Two years later, Mrs Tay was appointed the retailer’s buying and marketing director. In no time, her artful management—just like the company’s payment defaults—began appearing on social media: “The boss’ (sic) wife,” in one Glassdoor entry in 2018, “began to meddle a little in everything… her methods winds (sic) up rubbing people the wrong way.” In 2020, Mrs Tay suddenly stepped down from her post. She joined Shopee as their regional marketing head. Her husband told BT that “she has proceeded to venture out to pursue other options for her career.”

Naiise Iconic, shortly after it opened in 2019. File photo: SOTD

Dennis Tay, according to those who have dealt with him, is personable and chatty, and is often all teeth and smiles. He is convincing and appears to be deeply passionate about design although, as one brand manager who had once presented merchandise to him told us, “he has a loose definition of what design is. At first look, you won’t guess he is a seller of nice things.” A former operations manager wrote on Glassdoor, “Dennis is a charismatic person who constantly manipulates his employees, many who are fresh-grads into working long unpaid hours. He’s been pocketing a lot more than he lets on but when pay (is to be) given always tells us that ‘it’s been a bad month’ and then tries to psychologically sway us that everyone is in it together.” An ex-journalist told us that the Naiise founder “is a charmer. He is eloquent, has an answer for everything, and will give you a good interview. He just knows what to say.” And, as reporters and consignors noted, he always had a probable answer for every question asked about the allegations of payment defaults.

But despite the many editorial profiles (the Tays love write-ups about them, such as the regular plugs by friend Jacky Yap, the founder of Vulcan Post), it can’t be said people really knew the entrepreneur, or how he truly viewed fiscal prudence. In a 2015 article posted on dbs.com, Mr Tay said, “I actually don’t have secrets. I’ve built Naiise to be an open and transparent company, so everyone, including my employees, know everything about me.” Yet, when brand owners wanted to reach him, they were met with an opaque wall. Many complained that he would not answer calls, text messages, and e-mails. In April 2015, Mr Tay wrote on Facebook, “One of my greatest joys of being at Naiise is that everyday, I get to see customers walk in, smile and discover the amazing things that we sell.” Can retail be so one-sided, some now wonder? Does Mr Tay not want to see his consignors walk in, smile, and see the amazing things sold and them, consequently, receive payment?

In the beginning, Dennis Tay had frequently and proudly called his company a “bootstrapped” one (business with little or no outside cash or built from the ground up with just personal money). To augment that description, his wife Amanda Eng told Yahoo News that Naiise was developed “slowly and by saving every cent we could.” By the time they pulled out of Design Orchard last July and closed the PLQ store in the same month, few gave credence to those assertions. A lover of motivational quotes, Mr Tay is fond of placing them prominently in his office and also to share them online. One stood out: “Dream. Believe. Do. Repeat.” Those who have been owed money were sure he chose the last. In a Facebook post that appeared after announcing that Naiise will totally cease operations, Mr Tay started by saying, “It has been an extremely difficult two years, and the last few weeks have been the darkest of my life.” Reaction to this: “sob story”. By now, no one believed him.

Illustration: Just So

Fairprice Compares

The supermarket chain, like so many of us, weighed in

The last organisation we’d imagine to join the commentary on the fashions of Star Awards is Fairprice. Who’d guess that straight-laced NTUC—as many still prefer to call it—could be this visually tongue-in-cheek. On Facebook and Instagram, they compared the outfits worn by Elvin Ng (黄俊雄), Chantelle Ng ( (黄暄婷, unrelated), and Joel Choo (朱哲伟) to foods—dessert, pastry, and beverage respectively. Totally palatable humour for mass consumption, as opposed to the snarky comments appearing on social media, such as the annual bashing by former supervising editor at Channel News Asia Phin Wong, whose followers gleefully praise, “always gets it right” (his post seemed to have been deleted), and “always hungry, always bitchy” Dennis Lim whose Fashun Armageddon 2021 album (wittily called 红星大讲 or star talk) on Facebook gave the Star Awards a flaming roast.

For Elvin Ng, being compared to a raspberry parfait probably allowed him to sigh in relief after others distastefully linked his Alexander McQueen suit to a tampon. Chantelle Ng’s confection of a gown by bridal wear designer Jessicacindy was predisposed to be a food meme, so she, too, must have been delighted that her dress was likened to what Krispy Kreme offers, rather than considered inspiration for ex-Mediacorp radio darlings Daniel Ong and Jamie Yeo’s former bake shop Twelve Cupcakes. The colour of Joel Choo’s ultra-relaxed Zegna suit was seen to be similar to teh C peng (iced milk tea) instead of teh kor underpants, as trended. So happy he was with the association that the son of veteran actor Zhu Houren asked Fairprice on FB, “please send over 1 month’s supply of kopi peng!” You guessed it: crowd pleaser Fairprice cleverly obliged.

Screen grab: NTUC Fairprice/Facebook

Ding Dong, Swell

Joanna rings her knell

By Pearl Goh

Oh, Joanna Dong (董姿彦), you are so right: “Singaporeans deserve what they get.” During the six-and-half-hour broadcast of the Star Awards last Sunday, I know I did. I deserved what I got because I was foolish enough to sit through a show that should be in a theatre or an auditorium, but was instead staged in a passenger-free passenger terminal—all 390 minutes of it. I deserved what I got because I was blur enough to think that a red carpet on a driveway of an airport was where I could see the best fashion I’ll ever get to witness on our island. Or for not suspecting bandung could appear on the hongditan too. I deserve what I got because I so seriously believed any Singapore Airlines plane is worthy of being more than just an oversized prop of an inane fashion show.

I deserved what I got because I have no taste in music. I mostly listen to original songs, not covers—well, actually not lame covers. I deserve what I got because I am a big fan of Miley Cyrus’s The Backyard Sessions. I deserved what I got because I am easily put off by mature singers who try to sound cute and sweet, and like a brass instrument. I deserved what I got because vocal gimmicks annoy me. I deserved what I got for not adoring those who sing to show off. Or to impress vocal pedagogists or the judges of Sing! China (中国好声音), rather than to please the average listening ear. Euphonious, they call it. I deserved what I got because I did not know that the voice is an instrument, and can be misused. I deserved what I got for cringing. I deserved what I got because I thought you could sing.

I also deserved what I got because I have no taste in clothes. Or appreciation of shocking pink hair. I deserve what I got because I couldn’t see the beauty of your gown, to my everlasting shame. I deserve what I got because you chose Vaughn Tan, the Joo Chiat Place bridal wear designer, whose gowns Her World once enthusiastically described as “fashion-forward with a glamorous vibe”. I deserve what I got because the forwardness or glamour escaped me. I deserve what I got because your dress looked to me like a fallen-in black sesame chiffon cake, partly eaten by a neighbour’s cat. I deserved what I got because I appreciated Gigi Leung’s simple column gown. And sleek dark hair.

I deserved all of it.

Screen grab: Mediacorp/YouTube

The Blah Awards

Did Changi Airport and Jewel make for a better Star Awards show?

By Mao Shan Wang

This year’s Star Awards. (红星大奖) was supposed to soar, but it seemed to have gone as high as a paper plane could. Broadcast live yesterday from Changi Airport T4 and Jewel, the show felt like a bird in a wrong tree. Only here on our island is where an airport is also a leisure site. Or, an entertainment broadcast point. But, hard as I tried, I could not fathom why an airport terminal is an ideal location for an award ceremony that the stars decribed as 盛大 (shengda or grand). Would the Chingay be there next? National Day Parade? Or was T4 designed to be so admirably adaptable that it could be passenger building, vaccination centre and award ceremony venue? Or was this Mediacorp’s interpretation of using SingapoRediscovers Vouchers, while Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines was in enthusiastic marketing mode, in case we have forgotten about them?

It must have been hard for the attendees and the nominees appearing on the unmissable red carpet. I, of course, speculate since I wasn’t there, neither, in all likelihood, were you. But you and I can imagine. First, there was the weather. I live in the east, so I experienced what the attendees and participants must have had. It was blazing hot in the morning, which kept everything dry, but toasted the tarmac. Then the sky turned grey after noon, not the expectant grey of storm clouds, but the hoary expanse that just makes everything below muggy and so unfavorable to an afternoon of red carpet arrivals at the airport. You did not have to be in the stars’ shoes. If you had covered the anterior Jurassic Mile in such a day, you would not know what I mean.

Red-carpet hosts Desmond Ng, Vivian Lai, Lee Teng at the driveway of T4

Then there was the red carpet—not one but two! First encounter was a stretch on the driveway of the entrance to the departure hall and another, ridiculous as it was, on the airport apron, with SIA aircraft as backdrop. Not everyone got to walk in the front and the rear. You needed be a top star to be granted both. Or not either (Fann Wong and Jeanette Aw! Why were they exceptional, I wondered). All of them (those who mattered, anyway) did arrive on the driveway (which I only now realised is red asphalt—already a red ‘carpet’), but some did not alight kerbside. Zoe Tay suddenly appeared, with the top end of the red carpet behind her, with no car in sight, and with no companion. Did she take a bus? I hope not. Wearing a strapless, massive bow-front Caroline Herrera gown with a train, she gamely walked a considerable distance to the first of two platforms to be interviewed. No one was on hand to be chivalrous and to help her up the three-step platform, not even those around to open car doors for other stars. Her steady climb prompted host Lee Teng to say that Ah Jie “真的很有风范,完全是国际巨星的范儿—really has an air of stylishness, and it’s totally in the style of international superstars.”

Other luckier ones were allowed to alight closer to the two stages. I guess I have to count myself lucky too; I have never in my travelling life seen anyone in gowns and tuxedos dropped off at the entrance of an airport—not in Heathrow, not Charles de Gaulle, not Malpensa, not Pudong, not Narita, not JFK, not even LAX! It is fascinating—and horrifying—to see these stars navigate the red carpet in evening wear and towering heels that they get to wear only once a year (or, once since 2019, the year of the last Star Awards broadcast). But not everyone received the same memo. Some, I saw, were dressed as if they were attending a gala, some a wedding, others to perform on a getai, and one, to some debauchery involving paying customers. There were those who treated the event as the Oscars (or perhaps the Golden Horse Awards) and those who imagined it was the Grammys. What was really there on the driveway? Frankly, I don’t know what to call it.

Stars being interviewed on stage that overlooks Airport Boulevard

Star Awards is always touted as Mediacorp’s most glamorous event, but it has always been just a razzle-dazzle. No substance—this year especially. Right from the start, the union of Star Awards and Changi T4 was awkward and, as it turned out, not gratifyingly rewarding. We have so few events here that allow us to look at strikingly attired individuals who are more physically blessed than you and I are that we always fall for Star Awards (other annual events, such as the Tatler and Prestige balls are closed-door events). But when you have to take in the familiar airport locations—two boarding gates and a spot in the long departure lounge—in which the stars try to appear star-like, while socially distanced and their movement thwarted, you’ll be wondering when you can travel again, not who’d win what. Frankly, I struggled to reconcile gowns and airport lounge chairs.

What I was more at pains with was making sense of the pre-recorded runway performance earlier, on the airport apron that no regular passenger would have the privilege to prance on. Some selected (kena-arrowed?) stars were doing what has been described to me as a fashion show, right before a parked plane—an SIA Airbus A350-900. (Who could have guessed Mediacorp was out to beat two Karl Lagerfeld-era Chanel shows?!) Many of them would normally struggle to walk on an actual runway, but there they were, performing on the red-carpeted tarmac as if it was the most natural thing for them to do or part of their job description. Even former model Zoe Tay looked uncomfortable and embarrassed. Desmond Tan, in Alexander McQueen, appeared as if he was there against his will. Only Ian Fang, in Beng mode of his own design (did he don the same suit as the one worn in the 2019 Star Awards?) and the likely-borrowed-from-the-missus Chanel brooch, strutted as if he was already an award winner.

Two major stars Zoe Tay (top) and Desmond Tan performed before an SIA plane

For quite a few actresses, homage was paid to the Hollywood tape. Since so many gowns curiously did not perfectly fit, it was left to the sticky wonders of the double-sided adhesive to secure the edges of plunging necklines. No wardrobe malfunction for a conservative audience that we are. Only high slits on skirts were allowed to gape. One leg exposed, but with the thigh obscured by unsightly shorts. Vivian Lai was devious enough to wear, under the bustier-dress by Australian designer Alex Perry, a skin-coloured pair that was so close to the skin tone of her limbs that army boys in the coffee shop near my home, I heard, were cheering her on whenever she appeared as they viewed the show on their smartphones. Luckily she wasn’t in the running for the Top Ten Most Popular Female Artistes award. She’d pale in comparison to poor Ann Kok, whose Dolce and Gabbana gown seemed uncompleted due to insufficient fabric for the top left. But I suspected Ms Kok was most agreeable to exposing one side of her corset for all to appreciate.

It is sad and disappointing to me that after 26 years of the Star Awards (not counting last year’s hiatus), we are still witnessing attendees unable to understand what is dressing suitably for a special occasion, without looking like they were wearing yet another costume or blindly accepting the recommendation of their over-eager-to-make-a-fashion-statement stylists. Or, to make it easier for all the hosts to stick to the only two descriptions they know, year in, year out: 公主 (gongzhu or princess) or 女神 (nushen or goddess). Once again, it takes foreign artistes, invited to present, to show us how devoid of style many of our stars are: Gigi Leung in a sleek column with metallic bodice, Sandra Ng in an asymmetric dress and a half-cape, and Ella Chen in a gold long-sleeved gown. They wore the clothes, not, as the still-true cliche goes, the other way round.

😓😓😓😓😓

Screen grabs: Mediacorp/YouTube

Potent Pairing

In a collaboration that no one saw coming, Gucci seems to finally be shifting gears

Did the Gucci show really happen? Is Gucci really 100? Why was Balenciaga the elder (104!) roped in to celebrate? Is this a tap-thy-stablemate’s-mind Gucci for the next century? Did your head not spin? Does Gucci need Balenciaga to—finally—look this interesting? Are they not able to reinvent themselves on their own? Is this Balenciaga doing Gucci? A sort of guest editor? Or Gucci in homage mode? Or an expression of Alessandro Michele’s desire to do Balenciaga? Do we need a Balenciaga ‘Hourglass’ bag with Gucci monogram? Or Gucci jackets with Balenciaga shoulders? Or Gucci-Balenciaga suits with the logotype of both brands littered on them, like department store gift wrappers? Or the familiar printed leggings-cum-boots chez Balenciaga? What’s a coat fastened to the extreme left a la Balenciaga doing in a Gucci collection? Or an asymmetric dress with a draped hemline so evocative of the B appearing in a show (still) typical of the G?

Is the world we are living in now not confusing enough?

The action takes place in supposedly London’s Savoy Hotel, imagined as a club with a catwalk and a secret garden. The music is not house (as has been the choice of the season at other houses), but a mish-mash that is a narcissistic bang at Gucci as narcotic, from Lil Pump’s yo-bro chorus of “Gucci gang” to Tita von Tesse’s tease on Die Antwood’s “Gucci coochie”. And there is a lot to analyse and unpack. But we may risk misreading everything. Mr Michele is, of course, no stranger to collaboration (the allegedly sold-out collab with The North Face, the most recent). He is also quite the plunderer of the past and cultures not his own. This collection, conversely called “Aria” (essentially an operatic solo), although a “pop” version, looks to the past, to self, and to contemporaries in a show that seems to salute whatever deserves to be hailed. A greatest hits of Gucci’s own legacy, the now fashion culture that the house is largely part of, and the design contributions of another equally iconoclastic, if not more, label. As Mr Michele said, post-show, to the media, “I have been an excellent thief, a robber.”

This is not the Gucci we are used to. It’s less geeky (except some of the models), less foolish (except, maybe the accessories), and even less irreverent (except, again, the accessories). Could this be Mr Michele’s tame side; he on the periphery of reasonableness? The clothes do not look too vintage-y (the retro vibe cannot, of course, be totally rid of) nor do they deliberately look as though sourced from the Salvation Army. We keep seeking out Balenciaga, but the partnership is not so much the two designers coming together to design the collection as one expressing love for the work of another. This is not the same as, say, Dries van Noten and Christian Lacroix in 2019. Or, contemporaneously, Valentino and Undercover. And definitely not Miuccia Prada with Raf Simons (no way!). Rather, Mr Michele “quoted” Demna Gvasalia, according to the show notes, not copied. Euphemistic talk no doubt, but it makes the results very much Mr Michele’s singular doing. Apparently, he was granted permission by his Georgian Kering associate to create hacks of Balenciaga’s distinctive silhouettes for both the ready-to-wear and the leather goods. This truly speaks of the creative culture of today, when Balenciaga can be treated like Ikea. Replete with rhinestones and marabou!

The references make for absorbing viewing. For so long (it has been more than half a decade of Alessandro Michele’s tenure!), Gucci has been frustratingly predictable that we wanted to really not dislike this collection. Sure, we do not expect Gucci to suddenly become unprovocative. We want their fans to go on being enamoured. It is inevitable there is enough camp to keep both Harry Styles and Jared Leto delighted and sufficient logos and indeterminate forms to keep Billie Eillish coming back for more. And adequate 70s disco glam (glittered cowl-neck top for men!) to get night owls ready for the day when bars and club can open. At the same time, it is refreshing to see that some of the tailoring is ‘classic’ and that the clothes sit well; the oversized is not actually ill-fitting. And the return of equestrian details, even if they are harnesses for chests or saddles for shoulders—not so barefaced since Dawn Mello was hired to revive the brand in 1989. But we are not sure if we are used to seeing Balenciaga’s extraordinary (less so now), offbeat (that, too) shapes within the kooky universe—including a near-obsession with body parts held in the hand, such as this season’s glittery minaudières of anatomically-correct heart—that is the only Gucci that fashionistas know.

But Mr Michele did not only pay homage to Balenciaga, he also saluted fashion’s patriarch of sexy who changed Gucci forever, Tom Ford (totally snubbing John Ray, Alessandra Facchinetti, and, unsurprisingly, Frida Giannini). The first suit that appeared will always be associated with Mr Ford: in red velvet, and worn with a baby blue shirt, with two buttons deliberately undone. Thankfully, none of the pre-wokeness “porno chic” was revived. That Mr Ford’s designs could be easily riffed—er, hacked—is understandable: Mr Michele and the Texan designer/film maker have a maximal love of the ’70s, even when both dance on opposite ends—one with a deep reverence for the elegance of Halston, the other with the ardour for the hipness of the hippies. The Tom Ford-era suits, now with reshaped shoulders, have the sexed-up dapper cool associated with the oddball individuality of Balenciaga, rather than something akin to those in forgotten wardrobes of Haight-Ashbury. Mr Ford is relevant again.

In most cities, dance clubs are closed, but luxury fashion seems eager for them to open or to be looking forward to the mirrored ball spinning again. The just-concluded Dior pre-fall 2021 show in Shanghai is illustrative. At Gucci, the models, flanked by flash lights, finish their catwalk routine and move to a holding area (gosh, we are thinking of Prada. Again!). But rather than ending their job there, they are led by one of them, who opens a massive door, into a garden. There, they danced among white horses—interestingly, without saddlery—and albino peacocks. Very soon, as the frolicking suggests, the world can parallel Peter Pan’s. Perhaps, Alessandro Michele, in his mind, is singing I will Survive.

Screen grab (top) and photos: Gucci

Go With The Flow

Loewe’s decidedly vintage-y sneakers

It is refreshing to see a pair of luxury sneakers not tethered to the bombastic. Loewe’s latest is clearly an ode to the time when sneakers were not “grailed” kicks that sneakerheads furiously hunt down or those that have to be satanised with human blood to be cool and valuable. The newly launched Flow Runner shares the more low-key aesthetics and silhouettes of the athletic shoes of the ’70s, which, for many, was the “the pinnacle of sneaker design”. Those still unable to grasp the phenom known as social media might remember Nike’s Tailwind or New Balance’s 327 (currently enjoying a raging revival). Of, if you are of less advanced years, Nike’s also still-issued Air Pegasus. After a few years of flashy and clunky sneakers, it is unsurprising that brands are issuing those that are, shall we say, more sampan than schooner.

What could be an update of the Ballet Runner, the Flow has a welcome elegance about it, and is sleek, unlike the alien-looking clumps, Yeezys. We like the close-to-the-feet fit, and the simple upper of nylon and suede upper in shades of khaki, with the cursive-L monogram positioned on the side of the shoe, as if its military braiding. The not-shy rubber “wave” outsole, probably the longest ever seen on a running shoe, stretches to the rear, up the heel counter and is tucked under the heel notch, while in the front, it covers, in a tapered manner, the toe tip. The back does resemble the New Balance’s 327; it’s a detail that lovers of car shoes might appreciate. But, on a running shoe, we aren’t sure if there is any real advantage. Fashion footwear does not need technical superiority; it just has to look good. The Flow Runner certainly does.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Loewe Flow Runner, SGD990, is available for men and women at Loewe stores. Photo: Chin Boh Kay