Marimekko For Athletic Pursuits

The Finnish brand, beloved by women of a certain age, is going sporty, with Adidas joining the game

At each launch of the Marimekko X Uniqlo collaboration, now into their fifth season since 2018, women who have reached a particular station in life and age group make sure they are the first few to cop the cheerful tops and dresses. The collab’s success with this sizeable company of women allow it to be an ongoing project that suits the Japanese brand’s LifeWear positioning or what is described as “practical sense of beauty”. As Uniqlo is well embraced by all women, regardless of age and size, it is unsurprising that Marimekko’s tented shapes, in particular, are adopted and have quickly become the go-to silhouette for those seeking clothes that are forgiving. As one fashion stylist told us recently, “the Marimekko woman is not the Ines des la Fressange woman.”

Marimekko is probably well aware that it needs to break away from the sticky cliché that its designs appeal mostly to those who want loose, bright, graphic-strong clothes that detract attention from the body—unchallenging garments that make the wearer look youthful, too. Sportswear is an inevitable category to go into, even if Marimekko has never traipsed into the path of performance wear (not counting T-shirts) before this. Into the field came serial brand collaborator Adidas. And it’s timely too, considering that track tops and bottoms are presently the fashion choices of many women IRL. That Adidas has had success with pop-centric collabs—such as Beyoncé and Niki Minaj—likely prompted Marimekko to adopt the sports brand’s tried and tested formula.

The Finnish label, which turns 70 this year, calls the collaboration “the art of print and performance”. Indeed, print is synonymous with Marimekko—they can easily draw from an archive of reportedly more than 3,500 graphic motifs. But rather than employ those that have made their collaboration with Uniqlo so rewarding, such as their famous poppy flower (known by the Finnish name Unniko) or the jumble of blooms Siirtolapuutarha, they have opted far more graphic patterns, such as the repeated dots of Räsymatto and the vintage waves of Laine. Perhaps flowers do not hint at performance. The clothes are clearly pitched at the athleisure customer than an actual track-and-fielder. There’s a hip-hop, Missy Elliott-worthy vibe, too. In fact, it could even entice the gorpcore enthusiast if we go by the location of the shoot for the advertising: a hillside or a hiking trail.

The campaign images could also be one of the most inclusive among the collaborations of Adidas. The photographs all feature models of colour—there is not a single Caucasian (is that still inclusive?). The clothes seemed to be for women only, but in their publicity images made available to the media, there is one male model in a cycling top. These days, it is, of course, hard to tell who a brand’s intended audience really is. The clothes could be unisex or that the women’s items could also be pitched or “recommended” to guys. If so, Marimekko X Adidas is really a collaboration alert to the requirements that make today’s fashion brands really tuned in.

Marimekko X Adidas is available online in mid-June at adidas.com.sg. Photos: Marimekko/Adidas

When Is A Handbag A Sneaker?

When it’s the Balenciaga Sneakerhead

Do women love their sneakers so much that they want a look-a-like as their bags? Balenciaga seems to think so. Its latest offering—a top handle style—has the silhouette and arched base of the Hourglass, but looks to own the upper that could have been ripped from their avuncular Track running shoe that had been made for a giantess! It comes with a front flap that looks like a magnification of the Track’s flattened mesh-and-leather top, complete with lace guard, bare eyelet, lace stay, removable round cotton laces (the lacing appear on both sides of the bag too), and what appears to be a tongue that’s upside-down. That it’s called the Sneakerhead should surprise no one. Duly impressed will be sneaker-loving boyfriends. The ideal date bag, if one is ever needed.

Could this mark the return of the It bag? For a while, luxury bags that are on the side of OTT have been missing. Balenciaga own Hourglass—so iconic that even Gucci wanted a take on it—is somewhat conservative, when compared to the Sneakerhead. If this isn’t It, a statement piece it sure is. Of course, a bag pretending to be a sports shoe is not entirely new (you can even find one on Amazon that looks like Converse kicks), but a handbag that is inspired by what athletes wear on their feet while staying slightly away from the cheesy is still novel, even more so for a luxury house. But if Balenciaga can make Crocs impossibly cool, they sure can make the Sneakerhead so as well.

The Sneakerhead seems destined to be a collectible (not necessarily an investable). Many retailers are already reporting that the bag, available in sizes S and M, are “selling out fast”. On Balenciaga’s website, some colours—there are three available—are already indicated to be “out of stock”. Not even one Sneakerhead was seen at the Balenciaga store at the Paragon, amid the many Hourglasses in myriad fabrics and colours. That perceived rarity will only increase its desirability, among sneakerheads, hypebaes, and those clearly not.

Sneakerhead Top Handle Bag (M), SGD3,150, in limited colours is available online at balenciaga.com. Product photo: Balanciaga. Photo illustration: Just So

All For The Home

Daiso’s new store in Tokyo is completely dedicated to furnishings and kitchenware

Cheap and cheerful Daiso is already where one goes to find inexpensive stuff for the home. But now, the retailer of 100-yen anything (or S$2 here, as you know) has opened one in Tokyo, where only home ware is available. Yes, no nail polish or boxer shorts, but, interesting, there are wristwatches! And not everything is sold at the standard price of 100 yen; new prices are between 330 and 770 yen. The new Daiso store is called by another name, too: Standard Products, presumably to stand out from the (generally) one-price older sibling. And also to set itself apart from the original store, but not nearly enough for it to be different from more established compatriot brands, particularly Muji and, to a degree, Nitori. In fact, so much better looking is the new store—and higher the prices—that Tokyoites happily call it “upmarket Diaso”.

Opened in March and situated inside Mark City in Shibuya, just a hop from the Shibuya Bus Station, Standard Products will inevitably draw comparison with Muji and such (some even likened it to Ikea!). For starters, it’s much better looking than the average Daiso store (if you’ve been to those not in big cities, you’ll remember them to be quite humble). There is also the more staggering variety of products, and better storage/displays (attractively stacked!), even with a veritable semblance of visual merchandising. There is also a neatness not usually evident in Diaso. But that, for some, may take the fun out of shopping in Standard Products: it’s too posh and orderly. And it does not have quite the you-don’t-know-what-useful-stuff-you-may-find madness. If Standard Products makes you miss Diaso, the later is, in fact, just round the corner, and with the unmistakable hot-pink shop front and the crazy jumble inside too.

When approaching Standard Products, Daiso regulars might think they have stumbled upon a home emporium in the hipster neighbourhood of Daikanyama. The main store front is top to bottom aluminium-framed glass panels, on which the name is emblazoned in massive, black sans-serif font. There is no window display. The interior is for all to see. Merchandise immediately greet you at your first step. Inside, you will take a while to get used to the orderly space and wrap your head around the fact that this is a Diaso offshoot. As you explore the surprisingly wide aisles, you’ll find yourself wondering if you are, in fact, in a Muji store (like we said). Even the industrial-space-meets-modern-barn of some corners are unmistakably Muji. And the wares? You need to be a hermit just descended from Mount Fuji not to see the similarities and the matching minimalist aesthetics.

Stuff for the kitchen or dining takes up at least half of the reported 1,300 products available. There are more bowls, plates, mugs, and glassware than you’ll ever need, but truth be told, most of them are truly appealing, especially if you are susceptible to neutral-coloured ceramics and stoneware in simple shapes that can show off their equally stylish content. There is also a surprisingly large selection of acacia wood accessories such as caddies, platters, and pot holders, all handsomely fashioned. What seems to be missing are appliances. Still, the selection of merchandise is so extensive and the products so appealingly designed that it is hard, we think, even for the not house-proud to successfully resist.

Although retail in Japan is going through hard times due to the still-raging pandemic, retailers there have not given up or stopped innovating. Daiso going specifically into home ware with Standard Products makes sense. As WFH is still prevalent and the preferred work-place arrangement, consumers are opening up their wallets or Google Pay to shop for items that can spruce their domestic interiors, rather than those that will fill an already over-stuffed wardrobe. Instead of going by way of the even less expensive route (can they go lower than 100 yen?), the Hiroshima-based company has chosen a retail concept that is a winning combination of friendly prices and accessible designs, both in a setting that reflects the growing sophistication of the pandemic-era homeowner. But this isn’t the first time Diaso has adopted the more-than-100-yen merchandising approach. There is the Threeppy chain (which, according to the parent company, is a conflation of “300 yen and happy”) that was introduced in Japan in 2018. A year later, the first of six Threepy shops (they are nearly always smaller than Diaso) outside Japan opened here at Funan Mall. Will we also see a Standard products store here in 2022?

Despite the unmistakable home theme of Standard Products, the merchandising team also took pleasure in defining what home is or where it could be. As we well know, as long as there is access to the Internet, home (and the home office) could be anywhere, even in the mountains. Well aware of this, Standard Products has also a section for camping kits, complete with a tent, set up to give context to its attendant products, such as thermoses, water bottles, and even mess tins! Standard is clearly not quite the defining quality of the store, fun is.

Photos: Jiro Shiratori

Vetements Well Ahead

For spring/summer 2022, Vetements is way earlier than the rest. Does it matter?

Fashion seasons are really quite screwed up. Sacai just showed their autumn/winter 2021 collection, and so close to the season’s retail drop, and in the middle of what, for some others, is resort 2022. Vetements, conversely, presented their spring/summer 2022 so many months away from when stores might stock them. What is going on? Is anyone keeping up? Is anyone keeping track? We are not quite at the end of the present spring/summer season yet. Are we, therefore, poised to look at the next? Would we, by the time it is to buy them, remember what was shown nearly six months earlier (assuming that spring/summer now retails as early as late November)? Wouldn’t we, by then, be confused by another ultra-early who-knows-what-season? In a disregard-the-fashion-weeks world, those questions probably do not matter. And Vetements probably don’t give a damn.

Their proposals for next spring/summer were made available to the media through photographs that appeared to be Photoshop (PSD) files with the background removed (which would normally be viewable as a PNG or GIF file to the non-Photoshop user), but the model and clothes in full 2-D glory. The collection purportedly questions the relationship between man and machine, and some how the 1999 film The Matrix was thrown by the brand and its commentators into the mix. The tech talk and how “wires have become the only way for us to stay connected to the outside world and the reality we live in”, as posited in the PR notes, all seem to play up what would otherwise be the usual Vetements design tropes. A Vetements fan wouldn’t care to ask, as Guram Gvasalia did: “Are we becoming wires ourselves?” As long as there are those exaggerated shoulders and, for some, the body-obscurity shapes, the brand can do no wrong. Or, alienate fans.

Vetements has become so good at pushing their unmistakable look that sometimes it seems that they are parodying themselves or—oddly—staying a step behind Balenciaga. Perhaps that should be ahead? It is easy to pin it to the Gvasalia brothers thinking alike, even when they are working separately and independently. But since the strange call-out last September by Vetements that hinted at Balenciaga copying the former (followed by the unambiguous message, “WTF”), we can’t be sure if the aesthetical parallel is coincidental or the leftover from sibling collaboration that was once deep and seriously trend-setting. Even in pandemic-defining times, there is no stepping away from the goofy, the geeky, and grandma goon. Vetements continues to draw out the odd-balls among their adopters, who all seem to prefer the fringes of what is already on the periphery of fashion. Ugly, once associated with the brand, now does not matter, or is seen as such. Take the cheesy and the beat-up and throw in a dash of the sheen of luxury and you can make the unseemly in appearance the LV for the flashy.

These season, there are references to the big screen. And definitely technology-can-screw-us thrillers such as The Matrix, as seen in the fabric with the green alphabets and numerals that mirror the film’s title sequence. And it doesn’t end there. The homage-to-Vogue film of 2006, The Devil Wears Prada is also in the line-up (as in ‘The Devil Doesn’t Wear Prada’ T-shirts), but how that fits the whole us becoming wires spiel isn’t clear. At some point, we thought we saw something akin to what Tilda Swinton wore as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. All the referring to films also points to other brands. If the devil doesn’t wear Prada, perhaps they wears Versace? Or, gold curlicues that would make Donatella Versace beam with pride? Does the devil wear gender-neutral clothes too? Slip tops, for example, are for both women and men. Or, is the devil just the middle-aged uncle who prefers baggy avuncular suits over a cropped top that shows off a middle-aged paunch? Whatever the devil wears, the devil’s ally Vetements is still fashion’s diabolical adversary.

Photos: Vetements

A Bathing Ape Will Go Out With The Bath Water

Once a popular streetwear label, The Bathing Ape has lost its simian appeal, and will exit our shores on 18 June

Gone will be the good ape. The well-loved, urban primate that bathes will vacate its flagship premises at the Mandarin Gallery after 12 years. The impending closure of A Bathing Ape (also known as Bape) was announced on Vesak Day via the label’s Facebook page. “We hope to see you all one last time before we say a final goodbye,” went the message. Although another fashion brand to exit Singapore is hardly surprising these days, some observers thought Bape, one of the better-known and established Japanese streetwear names, would survive the retail havoc caused by COVID-19 since it had past the one-decade mark. When a member of the staff was asked yesterday why the store would be closing for good, he shrugged his shoulders and then added, “don’t know”. But it requires no effort to guess that even the great ape is unable to survive the pandemic jungle. Next month, the bath water will be thrown out of our island, and sadly, together with the ape.

The Bathing Ape opened its first Southeast Asian store here at the Mandarin Gallery in December 2009 (then, the seventh outside Japan. Three years earlier, Hong Kong saw Asia’s first). Distributed by the thirty-year-old fashion retailer Kwang Sia Fashion, a Singaporean company that brought to our shore brands such as Max Mara and Y3, and lost those, such as Hugo Boss, Dsquared2, and Replay Jeans, Bape was very much welcomed at its 186-square-metre debut. Prior to its opening here, most fans would cop their must-haves (mostly T-shirts) in Japan, or nearer, in Hong Kong. The opening of Bape also attested to the growing popularity and importance of streetwear here. And that there was a sizeable market for those willing to pay for what has been touted as a premium brand (no S$29.90 T-shirts!). Bape’s logo—a recognisable silhouette of a species-indeterminate ape—was the Supreme box logo of its day. It would not require extraordinary insight to know where our own The Slurping Ape (conceived in 2001, eight years before Bape’s splashy Orchard Road appearance) took inspiration from.

A Bathing Ape is the brainchild of Japanese street-fashion impresario Nigo—on his passport, it would have read Tomoaki Nagao. Mr Nagao is no longer directly associated with the line he created, but Bape and its sibling brands that emerged later are still linked to their creator/founder. Nigo’s A Bathing Ape emerged in the early ’90s alongside schoolmate Jun Takahashi’s Undercover. These were the fledgling years of street fashion in Japan. In the late ’80s, Mr Nagao, then a high-school student, met his idol-turn-mentor Hiroshi Fujiwara, the godfather of Japanese hip-hop, as well as its “living legend”, as Western followers of Japanese street style like to call him. As luck and the intervening hand of fate would have it, Mr Nagao ended up working for Mr Fujiwara, whose first clothing brand Goodenough (considered Japan’s “first streetwear brand”) was a rapid success after its launch in 1990. Soon, he decided to open his own retail store. It was situated in the then not-quite-frequented ura-Harajuku, and appropriately named Nowhere. Two of Mr Fujiwara’s friends were asked to operate the business: Mr Takahashi, who took one half of the space to stock his Undercover line, and Mr Nagao, who took the other half, sold imported labels, such as Stussy. But, Mr Nagao’s share of the store reportedly did not fare well. He realised that, just as with his mentor and friend, he needed to have his own brand.

A Bathing Ape was born in 1993, before, as we remind ourselves, the Internet, before Instagram. As many know by now, the name was derived from the old Planet of the Apes films that found a fervent fan in Nigo, who had (what we call today) binge-watched on them on television. The simian logo requires no explanation. The name, however, came not from any scene of the films in which a primate was bathing. Rather, as author Marx W. David wrote in the seminal book Ametora, Nigo “slapped on an English slogan—A Bathing Ape in Lukewater (sic)—borrowed from a line in an underground Takashi Nemoto comic that described an old man “like an ape in a bath of lukewarm water”. The initial run was T-shirts (just 50, reportedly) and jackets in the vein of American vintage wear that was popular at the time. From the start, A Bathing Ape (shortened to Bape in the late ’90s) was aligned with local hip-hop stars. And then there was the meeting with British electronic musician James Lavelle, also founder of the indie record label Mo’Wax and a member of the band UNKLE. Mr Lavelle wore a lot of Bape. He would also soon introduce Nigo to grafitti artist Futura (formerly Futura 2000, who, two seasons ago, collaborated with Comme des Garçons). In 1997, Nigo—even not a musician—surreptitiously debuted the album (B)Ape Sounds under Mo’Wax. The blink-heavy cover was, unsurprisingly, designed by Futura.

These deep connections with the music world, especially hip hop, led to long-lasting affiliations with those of similar taste, who eagerly endorsed Bape, such as Pharrell Williams, the Notorious B.I.G., and Lil Wayne. In no time, others came to sing Bape’s praises, including Kanye West and Virgil Abloh, with the rapper Souja Boy even going on about eagerly acquiring some Bapes in the 2007 Crank Dat. In return for the enthusiastic response he received in the West, Nigo (and his friends) would help launch Mr Williams’s now-waning labels, Billionaire Boys Club (BBC) and Ice Cream. The Japanese graphic designer Sk8thing (aka Shinichiro Nakamura) from the days of Goodenough, and a faithful Bape collaborator, would also create BBC’s astronaut logo and the brand’s well-loved repeated patterns. A Bathing Ape, now an international brand, sold in some of the buzziest streetwear stores in the world, and worn by performers from both sides of the Atlantic, gained even more traction in Japan, where it was sold in the Nigo-conceived Busy Work Shops. The success in America meant that they could open flashy Bape flagships, such as that in Aoyama in 2005 and in Shibuya in 2007, both designed by the bigwig Masamichi Katayama from the esteemed firm Wonderwall.

Market watchers believe Bape enjoyed a peak in popularity between 2000 and 2010. At its height, there was even a Bape café and a Bape TV station. But after 2010, adoration for the brand started to wane. There were always complaints of scarcity, a deliberate merchandising model to project the forced exclusivity that would come to define Supreme, but it became detrimental to Bape’s ability to win continued customer support. Quantity unfortunately remained below market demand. ‘Limited editions’ soon limited the brand’s appeal. Bape’s standing among Japanese consumers can perhaps be best summed up by what has been clearly observable. Vintage pieces are mostly found in the grungy neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa, for example, rather than those in the secondhand shops of swanky Ginza or Shinjuku, where Bape’s fellow brand in Nowhere in the ’90s, Undercover, could often be found. When one visited the Shibuya store (now closed), just next to the old Parco, one would often see mostly mainland Chinese tourists wanting merchandise that would allow them to boast about their visit to a Tokyo Bape store. Its arrival here in 2009, although rabidly received, was really at the tail-end of its popularity. Singaporean consumers, as it’s still often said, tend to be late adopters.

In 2011, the fashion world was brought to torso-straightening attention when it was announced that A Bathing Ape was acquired by the Hong Kong fashion conglomerate, the I.T Group. A year prior to that event, news had emerged that the Japanese brand had accrued a whopping ¥2.5 billion (approximately S$30 million) in debt. The sale to the Hong Kong owners was made for a surprisingly paltry ¥230 million (approximately S$2.7 million). Tomoaki Nagao stayed on as creative consultant for the next two years to “help with the transition”, as widely reported. Last December, another surprising announcement was made: founder and chairman of I.T Group Sham Kar Wai and co-investor of A Bathing Ape CVC Capital Partners had decided to keep the brand as separate company, independent of I.T Group. A year before the high-profile sale of the brand he created, Mr Nagao launched Human Made. It has, as we understand, yet to become as huge as Bape. In 2014, Uniqlo appointed Mr Nagao as creative director (namely for their UT line). A year later, he opened the rather out-of-place Store by Nigo in Harujuku’s Laforet. As expected, Human Made took the spotlight. Nigo, without his beloved Bape, is still a fashion force that brands turned to. Ten years after Bape’s staggering debt was announced, Louis Vuitton revealed a collaboration with Nigo—without doubt facilitated by pal Virgil Abloh.

At the time of its rage, many young fans found Bape expensive, even when purchased in Japan. Sure, if you look at just the T-shirts, they were cheaper than Supreme, but dearer than Stussy. Aware of the less-appealing pricing of Bape, the I.T group created Aape, which was available here in their short-lived multi-label store i.t at Orchard Gateway. But A Bathing Ape’s visual appeal slowly lost to the likes of the BFF of Kaws. Although the brand tried to counter the simian logo’s seriousness with other more affable-looking characters such as Felix the Cat and the other feline, Hello Kitty (with the cuter Baby Milo), Bape did not quite regain its footing at the apex of global streetwear, not even with best-sellers, such as the Nike Air Force 1 look-alike Bapesta (Kanye West even has his own made) or the no-longer-rare, quickly-jelak shark-head hoodie. Bape, like all primates, has aged.

A day after the closing down was announced, shoppers formed, outside the Mandarin Gallery store, a line that stretched past Michael Kors in the corner of the building. The waiting time in the scorching sun was, according to the Bape-clad crowd controller, “an hour and a half”. As with many brands suffering the same fate, A Bathing Ape is appealing when it is going out of business (50% off storewide, except T-shirts, which are marked down by 40%). A twentysomething guy in a tee with the name Alexander Wang repeated six times down his chest was deciding whether to join the queue. “Actually,” he told us, “I don’t wear Bape anymore. The last time I bought something in the store was when I was in secondary school.” He looked up, as if someone was beckoning. We looked too. On the façade of the store on level two, the familiar head of the twenty-eight-year-old primate was looking at all of us below. A speech bubble, larger than his face, sat alongside, with the text, “Go! Ape”. In all likelihood, that exhortation will be permanently gone.

Photo: Galerie Gombak

Sacai Does Soignée

Is Chisote Abe in a couture state of mind?

It’s five months after the last autumn/winter presentations during menswear fashion week in Paris, and we’re still seeing the season’s collections being shown. It is clearer than ever that fashion weeks as we know (knew?) them don’t matter much anymore. Nor if showing in Paris, traditionally the most important city in which to unveil a collection, really matters, even when the city, as a fashion capital, is still important. In stores, such as our Club 21, pre-sale of the spring/summer collections have already begun. It is, therefore, hard to place Sacai’s latest show, unmistakably broadcast from Tokyo, in the scheme of things and the selling season. Surely, the clothes were available to buyers much earlier? Or is Sacai pursuing some form of see-now-buy-now model?

In fact, designer Chisote Abe’s Parisian haute couture debut is near. In July, she will be showing her debut collection for Jean Paul Gaultier as the latter’s first guest designer to interprete Mr Gaultier couture. This was supposed to take place last year, but as with so many partnerships and events in fashion due to the pandemic, it didn’t happen. But no designer is turning back on their pairing, and Ms Abe will show in Paris in the month after next. It is a much anticipated couture collection, just as Balenciaga’s return to couture under Demna Gvasalia is (also for July). Which makes us wonder if the Sacai autumn/winter season is a foretaste of what Ms Abe might produce for JPG? It is, after all, remarkably elegant, almost to the point of special-occasion dressing.

That the outdoor show suggested nightfall (in Tokyo) rather than the time-non-specific of a staging in a neutral interior space seemed to say that the clothes are indeed for when dressing up under dim lights or atmosphere that suggests glamour is possible again. And that the models emerged from a Sacai private helicopter heightened the specialness of the occasion. These outfits are not just for a date at the deli; these would not be out of place at the opera. In fact, some could easily fit and stand out on a red carpet. Ms Abe has always been in touch with the part in her that loves a pretty and dazzling and enchanting dress, but she had always tempered those ultra-femme styles with elements that were off-kilter and definitely military. Her approach is known as ‘hybridising’, or bringing different—often opposing—ideas together, not just seen in those two-in-ones, but also the many-in-ones. She has made this so much her aesthetical signature that in recent years, she seemed to be coasting. Even ardent fans are saying she has become somewhat predictable.

The latest looks, while identifiably Sacai, have a certain beguiling glamour about them, and seemed conceived for women than girls, for keeping than trending. The military-inspired outwear is not surprising, but what is delightful are those dresses with their strength in the way they flow and flatter (the body), not how strangely they distend or tent out. It is the overall sleekness that makes every ensemble eye-catching. Pity the models did not remove the coats to reveal the dresses underneath. Just as it was regrettable that the show was filmed on a set that mimicked Tokyo’s famed Shibuya Crossing, rather than the pedestrian intersection itself. But perhaps this is indication that Sacai is now able to play alongside the big league. The last time a fashion label was able to have their own-branded aircraft, it was Chanel.

Photos: Sacai

Take It Or Leave It

Is Jeanette Aw not keen on what she sells? Are we allowed to ask without incurring some people’s wrath?

By Pearl Goh

Ads that pop up in my social media feeds are as welcoming as my mother in my bedroom. But advertisers need to invade our digital space, just as they once did during the time between us and our television. I was minding my own business one recent stormy morning, looking at the Instagram posts of one of my favourite Malaysian food bloggers, when the above ad by the celebrity-endorsed durian-seller Golden Moments (GM) appeared somewhat impertinently. GM has, of course, similarly interrupted me before on IG, but usually with unappealing and subfuscous pictures of crack-opened durians or richly dressed gateaux that never gave me reason to dwell on. This time, it was the face of Jeanette Aw (欧萱), former full-time Mediacorp artiste and the co-host of the new food show/competition on Channel 8, Crème De La Crème (糖朝冠冕). I am usually drawn to Ms Aw, one of the most attractive actresses in the Mediacorp stable, but this time, I wasn’t sure the picture of her was stop-me-while-I-browse alluring.

In the GM durian ad (top), as well as another, I soon saw, that hawked cakes (below), Ms Aw posed with her right arm folded across her stomach. The left was held up almost vertically, with the elbow hinged on the right wrist, and the forearm forming a V with her torso. Her double-bracelet-ed left wrist was bent at the point where it met the hand. The palm was open, as if holding an imaginary platter or tray, the way a waiter in a fancy restaurant might, even when serving a bottle of water. But it wasn’t just the pose, it was the visage too: not terribly inviting nor approachable, with the lips parted, but not quite amounting to a smile. There was something haughty about her expression, a coldness too—the better to counter the heatiness of the durian? She wore what appeared to be a shift dress, with a double neck-flounce, pulled down to bare her shoulders (the right in a near-shrug), in a colour often associated with mourning. Sorry, Ms Aw, in sum, the photo seemed to tell me, take it or leave it.

Jeanette Aw does not seem to be the kind of TV star who exploits the perceived powers of those around her, but many of us cannot, of course, be sure of that

When I asked people knowledgeable of image creation and styling what they thought of this visual, no one wished to comment for fear of being hit back by Ms Aw’s watchful friends, in particular those who are in the business of offering her free personal services. Jeanette Aw does not seem to be the kind of TV star who exploits the perceived powers of those around her, but many of us cannot, of course, be sure of that. One media professional was only willing to say that the photo “is a poorly art-directed shot”, which was a little curious to me because it was reported in the news last April that the actress/film-maker was appointed Golden Moment’s “brand ambassador and creative director”. Does creative direction not supersede art direction? Or do brand owners, keen on working with stars they wouldn’t normally interface with, have the final, not necessarily informed, say?

In commenting on TV stars who are cocooned in the protective friendship of their vindictive chums, I, of course, risk being berated—that I do not know them, and, therefore, am in no position to comment, even if the TV stars put themselves out there for public consumption and for others to have an opinion about the personalities. Or, that I have no guts to say how I feel to their comely faces because only those who are spineless resort to social media platforms to express their views. The sad thing is that even people speaking in their professional capacity will be put down and shamed. Even when there is no slander, and even when it is not expressed in the same acrimony as that found in the Forum pages of Hardware Zone (I sometimes feel I need to learn another language to understand what is voiced here). Perhaps it’s okay for these keyboard warriors to upset and to provoke—without knowing the stars—if they are just any one of the Forum’s ribald denizens?

The TV stars of today are, like so many others, active on social media. Yet, there are those who hope that the rest of us, even with just-as-intense digital lives, best be cave-dwellers. Surrounded by their cronies and those who are mother hens, these celebrated artistes want visibility, but would not deal with the criticism (I am not referring to trolling) that comes with being so well placed and so unobstructed in many people’s view. You have to be on their side, always with a rah-rah attitude. They only have space in their rosy world for adoration. The captivating thing to me is how both unflattering comments on the stars and the attendant defence by their incensed defenders really suit our love for retaliation and the sensational. You may not understand the well-said by the well-qualified, but you know you can hit back as you always have, and there will always be those who’d cheer you on. It is of no significance if what is said about the stars is the prevalent, ground-level sentiment; it only matters that you don’t care.

Always amazing TV stars are no longer the faces of fashion, but food. Their awesomeness now selling anything from chee cheong fun to collagen soup, mookata to financiers. Ms Aw’s appeal to me is that she’s a fellow baker, but unlike her, I am not Le Cordon Bleu-trained and I don’t have the inclination to open a bakery. I appreciate from a distance. I do not interact with her online (or offline), even when I observe her (I resist using “follow” because that sounds too persistent, almost like stalking) through her presence online. Yes, I do not know her, as her protectors and minders will point out. I’ve never met her in my life; I never will. I only appreciate from a distance. In fact, I can’t say I am a devoted admirer, as ardent as those who start fan clubs to feel a sense of belonging. I wish her well and wish to see her do well. But I don’t dial down the urge to comment, even if they are not glowing comments. And I’m frequently writing—for release, for diversion, for fun; I’m just not writing for 8-Days.

Screengrab: Golden Moments/Instagram

Can Balenciaga’s New X-Pander Be The Next Triple S?

Loud, waiting-to-be-stepped-on sneakers may still be selling, but some of us are suffering from fancy footwear fatigue

No matter how we look at the X-Pander, Balenciaga’s new sneakers, they appear to us like kicks trapped in some contraption. Regardless of the angle too. Could this be a shoe ensnared in a rodent trap? Or one stuck in a Brannock device, the instrument used to measure a person’s shoe size? Is the rear elevation a high heel? Or a visible heel lift? Can you walk, let alone run in them? Balenciaga, of course, has been churning sneakers that defy conventional silhouettes, but it has not quite needed superfluous engineering. What’s really with the Track-looking shoe on a hydraulic lift? Or a car jack? Is this hi-tech gone mad? Or as the Chinese would say, zuo huo ru muo (走火入魔, to go overboard)?

With a shoe looking like that, questions naturally plaque the X-Pander. The crucial part: what is the “suspended heel” for? We have not seen the actual shoe, so we can only go by enthusiastic media reports. Apparently when worn, the heel of the X-Pander—mounted on a spring—extends, but take a step and rest your heel, it compresses, and your heel is back to the ground. Up, down, up, down, it goes. What all that mechanical action does for your walk (or run, if you’re so inclined) isn’t really clear. Some reports say that the rear set-up is to “ensure optimal comfort and cushioning”. How true that is can’t be determined by just looking at the pictures.

Already, the fashion press is calling the X-Pander “the next street-style blockbuster”. We’re expecting it to be frighteningly popular, of course, but would it influence the future design of sneaker heels not already changed by Nike X Sacai’s split/gaping version for the Vaporwaffle? When the Balenciaga Triple S was launched in 2017, many thought it was outrageously clunky, but it made other sneaker brands take notice. Dad shoes, as they became known, soon ruled, and more abominable kicks emerged. Every brand with a worthy sneaker had their own take on the Triple S. Huge and bombastic shoes blasted their way into popular taste. After four long years, satiated we really have become. And jelak too.

Balenciaga X-Pander, SGD$1,790, is available at Balenciaga, Paragon. Product photo: Balenciaga. Photo illustration: Just So

Prada Outdoor: Tale Of Two Cities

Could Prada Outdoor be the world’s most compelling post-lockdown fashion? In Hong Kong and Singapore, Prada shows—rather seductively—what going out to open spaces to have fun could really look like. But why is one atrium exhibition more compelling than the other?

Outdoor indoor: Prada’s spectacular pop-up in Hong Kong’s IFC Mall

Our version in ION Orchard: considerably smaller and, curiously, dimmer

Fun. Do we still remember that? Enjoyment. When did that last strike? Mirth. Hasn’t that been missing for a long while? Well, we were already beginning to re-acquaint ourselves with what going out to play would be like, until the latest COVID-19 safety measures—a return to Phase 2, now also known as “heightened alert”—kicked in last Sunday. Many of us, of course, can’t wait to fully return to a post-lockdown, post-socially-distanced, post-movement-controlled world. Shopping, for example, is still muted here, but elsewhere, retailers are out to seriously entice. In Hong Kong, for instance, the locals are offered a glimpse of how alluring going out for a spot of fun can be, even only through the lens of Prada. The eye-catching mini-exhibition is concurrently available here too, but it is dismally smaller, and no shopper seems to bother with it.

This pop-up store/exhibition at IFC Mall in Central opened last Thursday to launch the brand’s across-season collection Prada Outdoor. In full visualisation of the theme, a massive diorama of a beach-side scene is brought indoor in the usually less outdoorsy IFC Mall. Awash with sky-meets-sea blue, the set-up clearly hints at fun and relaxing times by the waves. Awning-striped beach umbrellas and chairs hint at seaside fun that’s more Amalfi Coast than the East Coat, more Biarritz than Pulau Ubin. There is even a rather mid-Century-looking lifeguard tower, on which a mannequin in a Breton top sits. A blue pop-up canopy is put together to welcome whoever wants relaxation under the shelter. A polyhedron tent—blue too—is erected as well, in which a mise en scene of ‘glampers’ relaxing in a surprisingly utilitarian space (but no less suitably equipped) could be viewed—and envied.

A view from second floor of IFC Mall: going to the beach for the day or to camp overnight is more appealing than ever—going by Prada’s life-size diorama

Seen from level two of Ion Orchard, the SG set-up is oddly ill-lit and says precious little of the purpose

On Monday, three days ago, our own pop-up Outdoor opened in ION Orchard, in a small, rather low-lit corner of the mall’s fragmented concourse. Its diminutive set-up is in sharp contrast to Prada’s breadth of covering nature’s bounty. The beach umbrellas are there, the tent too, as well as the lifeguard tower, on which a mannequin (dressed in a logo-ed French terry sweat top) also sits. Missing is the pop-up canopy. All the shelters are placed on a relatively flat platform, unlike those in the HK display, which mimics the undulating dunes seen on some beaches. It is also dimly lit, as if it’s the beach at dusk, but no campfire was roaring. The Outdoor set styling at ION Orchard seems to be toned and scaled down to cater to an audience that wouldn’t be bowled over by anything not quite contemporaneous to real life here. Even the tent has a sole occupant, rather than more to suggest, or welcome, social times. Does this go with the oft-expressed belief that we’re too small for anything major or massive? Or, could this be Prada SG’s cheeky, glammed-up kampung version that we can relate to?

The seaside scene is only one part of Prada Outdoor’s trifecta of “nature in its myriad forms”. Dubbed “special project”, Outdoor comprises the Garden, the Coast, and the Mountain in their idealised articulations. These static displays are, according to the brand, “dedicated to the emotions conveyed by different settings”. Occupiable and enjoyable that they already are, every scene too comes with “a selection of original products recalling each particular environment.” In Hong Kong, despite the large size of the IFC Mall atrium, Prada has only what appears to be the Coast set up, but if you look closely, the canopy wouldn’t be out of place even in the most modest of gardens and the tent would be happy anywhere along a mountain trail. Is the outdoor this inviting or have we been holed up at home for too long?

It is doubtful anyone would be this stylish and so well kitted when enjoying nature and the outdoors, but Prada shows us we can dream

The SG proposal: Dressed for a night by a camp fire?

Prada’s embrace of the outdoors is possibly to pave the way for a return to the old normal of going out to enjoy oneself with a few friends. It also proposes that we should be in the open, rather than indoors or within closed quarters. As The Straits Times reported four days ago, “recent clusters have shown that the new Covid-19 variants are more infectious, with transmission more likely to take place in indoor settings where people do not wear masks”. Prada not only provides the clothes, but also the context in which to wear them. In addition, when viewed from above, the nicely outfitted, in-character, mask-less (presumably vaccinated!) models that dot the space are socially distanced. There is clearly no over-crowding. Retailers can, indeed, lead by example.

Prada Outdoor is, of course, also riding on the bandwagon of ‘gorpcore’, so gleefully adopted by Gucci and The North Face last December. The Mountain component corresponds to the rising popularity of outdoor brands such as Patagonia and Japan’s Snow Peak, Nanamica, and the rebranded Goldwin. Prada has always made outerwear that can stand the test of the harshest elements, but what makes it more appealing this time is the inclusion of the gear not typically seen in the stores. Sure, they have offered water bottles and thermoses before, but now they include camping kit such as mess tins and lunch bowls (made in collaboration with English brand Black & Blum) and reusable cutlery (even chopsticks!), stylishly sheathed in a logo-ed pouch. There are also accessories that are ready for any climb: paracord survival bracelets, with enamel Prada triangle as charm, of course!

The clothes alone are not quite enough. Complete the look with Prada’s camping kit

The Prada buying office here seems to know that we are not going to be seduced by camp-ready lunchboxes. In their place, huggable terrycloth handbags

This multi-product approach is also consistent with luxury brands going totally lifestyle. In fact, a Prada store is increasingly a department store—the Tokyo flagship in Aoyama, for example, is, without doubt, one. Prada Outdoor is not only category-breaking for a luxury brand, but also indication that they can sell almost anything. Apart from clothing, accessories, and wearables, there are also play things such as inflatable pool floats and rings, and even a hammock! What makes extra Prada Outdoor appealing is how wearable and usable every item is. There is also something delectably familiar about what is in stock: the tropical prints (and, yes, the bananas too); bold, colourful stripes; the loose, boxy shapes; the goofy footwear (fluffy slides) and the elegant (river sandals with Japan-esque knotted thongs), volleyball bags, and for men, the eve-popular camp shirts with bold graphics, only now multi-print and even bolder.

Hong Kong, like us, isn’t out of the pandemic woods, yet retailers there are not resistant to creating enhanced shopping experiences that are impressive not by content alone, but scale too. And it is experiential: Prada Outdoor in Hong Kong is open to walk-ins. The pop-up is not cordoned off. Shoppers are free to saunter in, examine the displays up-close and even touch what interests them. The sale staff happily tells you she is contactable whenever you need something, even after leaving the display area. She later sends you a message to thank you for stopping by. Here, the already small set-up is entirely surrounded by stanchion and velvet rope (Phase 2!). An attendant (accompanied by a security guard) is around to introduce the collection to you and to answer questions, and, no, you can’t walk into the exhibition area, not that anyone seems to want to. If there is anything you need, you would just be directed to the nearby Prada store. End of contact. Charming.

Prada Outdoor pop-up exhibition is on at ION Orchard from 17 May to 2 June. Prada encourages all shoppers to call ahead to secure a spot if a store visit is necessary. Photos: K S Yeung (HK) and Chin Boh Kay (SG)

Temt: Closing Too

Is the Pandemic weeding out brands that are too weak to exist?

Ongoing storewide sale at Temt

It is another impending closure. Today, the mass-market label Temt (Tempt spelled without the ‘p’) has announced on its website and on social media that they shall “be going out of the business in mid-June”, a month after Abercrombie & Fitch met with the same fate. When the news broke, some people said that Temt’s shutting down for good, after eight years here, is “tragic”. Is it really? That they will exit our market is unsurprising. For eight years, Temt has been tempting young women (the brand’s official target audience is between “mid 20’s—Mid 30’s”, but teens seem to be their biggest fans) with clothes of dubious quality that, in aware-of-what-we-wear times such as the present, would not be considered sustainable, relevant, or desirable. Temt did not issue any statement on its closure, not even citing difficult business conditions, given the on-going pandemic. But it would not be hard to hazard a guess: their clothes are no longer appealing.

While there is a market for every type of clothing store here, it is becoming more untenable for those that persist on the cheap-is-best, churn-out-what-others-are-making route. Temt, headquartered in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, was launched here in 2013, six years after compatriot budget fashion label Cotton On opened and established a foothold in the market for Aussie brands that won‘t stress the pocket. At its peak, they had a reported six stores throughout our island. At present, only two are left: in Jurong Point and in Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ). For all its time here, Temt’s offering has not wavered from the drab, the vapid, and the cruddy. We are not even crossing into ethical (and sustainability) territory that brands such as Temt and its American counterpart Forever 21 stay outside of. What has been Temt’s single lure is their low price. But inexpensive, as many are increasingly aware, need not look correspondingly cheap.

Temt is part of a trio of brands under the retail company, Fast Future Brands (FFB). Founded in 1996 in NSW as Valley Girl Fashions, their first label was—no surprises here—Valleygirl, presumably named after the fashionable and wealthy teenaged lasses from the San Fernando valley of southern California. For those old enough to know, the Hong Kong-born American songstress Coco Lee (李玟, now mostly a singing competition judge in China) is classic Valley Girl. Some of us might identify these girls as angmo Lians. As the name suggests, FFB’s Valleygirl targeted shoppers between “early 10’s—late 20’s”, according to the brand’s corporate profile. Valleygirl never came here, although they expanded to Korea in 2006 and, to the south, New Zealand in the same year. From the start, FFB’s low-price positioning for its brands were clear. When they launched Temt in 2002 in NSW (not exactly known for their smart urban style), nothing was very much changed, not even the price point and image. Only the targeted age group moved a little upwards. FFB would, in 2013, introduced the budget label for older women Mirrou in New Zealand.

Shoppers milling outside Temt at PLQ. The ‘closed’ sign on the glass door is a misnomer; the store is limiting the number of customers inside

Fast Future Brands (the name was changed from Valley Girl Fashion in 2007) was started by Korean immigrants to Australia, Jim Marr and his nephew Michael Ma (it is unclear why there is this discrepancy in the spelling of the family name). Although the two men largely stayed clear of the media, both were in the news in 2013 when they were in court cases involving the uncle claiming that his nephew infringed on the Valleygirl and Temt trademarks in New Zealand (the younger was apparently encouraged by the older to expand the business southwards). The case was, according to Australian media, “dismissed”. Some observers noted that the business for FFB brands was never the same since. Following the announcement of the closure of the Singaporean operations, we visited the Valleygirl and Temt Australian websites only to be greeted with the non-functional: one showed an error message (ditto for Mirrou) and the other indicated that the site was unavailable, respectively (Temt’s SG site ran a single notice: the closure announcement). In 2016, both Valleygirl and Temt in New Zealand entered into receivership. The fate of their Australian stores isn’t yet known. When we asked a salesgirl at the PLQ store if their e-shop would continue to trade, she said, “don’t know”.

When the Temt website was still accessible, it stated that the “Temt philosophy is about chic style, sophistication and this seasons (sic) ‘must have’ item (sic). Our passion is about capturing key on-trend pieces that are essential and affordable for creating signature looks for every occasion”. How “on-trend” they have been is, of course, debatable, but as one brand manager said to us, when asked what she thought of the label, “they are nowhere near H&M. How many mui (raggy) rayon dresses and shorts can you buy?” In Australia, as it is here, Temt is not known for any semblance of quality either. Charges of “rubbish material” and “poor sewing”, as well as “not sized for the petite” abound in Australian social media. Despite what is visibly lacking, Temt continued to crank up its quickly-becoming-unappealing disposable pitch.

The appeal of Aussie brands here, even when not constant, is understandable. Those who retail them—going back to Country Road in 1994 (they closed in 2007) and indie multi-label store Trixilini’s early years (entirely stocked with Aussie brands)—see similarity between what Australians like to wear and what Singaporeans are inclined to buy. Weather is often a consideration: the international autumn/winter season is Australia’s spring/summer, and just right for us. That we like our clothes “light and breezy” (read: casual) allow Aussie labels with just-as-relaxed image to find the ideal habitat here. Two women at the Temt PLQ store this afternoon were heard saying they “want to buy more shorts”. Australian fashion, contrary to what their fans (mostly those who studied in the country, and the first Western fashion retail culture there were exposed to) think, does not score big in the fashion factor. Sure, Australia has produced some big names, such as Akira Isogawa, Dion Lee, and Toni Matičevski, but their high-street labels are, at best, not catching up. Temt’s exit should be a cautionary tale. There are enough lacklustre brands here, whether from Down Under or elsewhere. We deserve better.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

No! She Won’t!

COVID-19 continues to spread, but one “MBS woman” was determined to be a serial no-masker. Virulent viruses be damned

You can’t judge a person by the mall she is in. You’d think that someone who shops (or dines) in The Shoppes in Marina Bay Sands (MBS) is sophisticated. Or, knowing, right-minded, compliant, respectful, empathetic, or amicable. But there is also a strong chance that she is strikingly none of the above. One woman very recently showed that patronising the swanky outlets in MBS can go hand in hand with patronising the attentive staffers of the mall. In a 90-second video circulating wildly since four o’clock yesterday afternoon (watch it here, if you have not), she showed that she was exceptional and that no one could tell her to mask up, even if the wearing of one, as everyone well knows, is still mandatory. Despite an even more real and present danger posed by the relentless pace of COVID-19 infection now, she would not be coaxed into doing what, at that time and place, was the right and socially responsible thing to do.

The woman was in a line to get into Toast Box. When told nicely to put on a mask by a safe distancing ambassador (and, later, another) because she clearly had not, she demanded physical identification of the person performing her duty. “If you have no badge, why are you asking me to do something?” With an expression of pure disdain, she demanded to know under whose instructions the uniformed enforcer operated under. “Who are you representing?” When told that she represented MBS, the older woman hit back by impugning the younger. “That’s what you say. I can say that I’m the police.” She challenged the officer to apprehend her. “Are you arresting me?” And to blow things up. “Are you creating a scene?” She will only respond to persons who are authorised to be instructional. “If you want authority (?), then put on a badge.” She dismissed the persistent girl as one too subordinate to warrant her attention. “I don’t wish to speak to you.” Her face continued: You can’t compel compliance; you can’t order obedience. I know. Be gone.

Not for one second did she appear to be aware that other shoppers were with masks on and that she was clearly the one sticking disturbingly out

It was not that she did not have a mask with her. She was seen carrying one—a blue surgical mask on her right hand, with one of the straps in the fingers of the left. At one point, she seemed to be twiddling with it. But she simply refused to be bring it to her face. Not for one second did she appear to be aware that other shoppers were with masks on and that she was clearly the one sticking disturbingly out. Or, care that others in the line and around her could be uncomfortable—even annoyed—with her objectionable refusal. In less than two hours after the video was shared online, photographs and two other videos of the said woman began appearing on social media, showing her also mask-less at other public places. She was similarly defiant: she was indifferent to those around her. She was recalcitrant.

Reacting to the video, some people said they were surprised that someone who spoke well, and dressed “so smartly” (in leather shoes!) would be that disagreeable and difficult. As we have pointed out in SOTD, manner of dress and a person’s behaviour are unrelated—the smartness of one is no guarantee of the decency of the other. The MBS woman, as she was referred to until her name was broadcast on social media last night, would know something about a smart turn out. She was reportedly an ex-officer in the navy. What is it about former military officers who are predisposed to easily take umbrage?

She was attired in an androgenous, no-nonsense style typical of women of a certain age. Everyone with a social media account saw that she wore a plain, blue, long-sleeved shirt, folded at the cuff, and knee-length and sand-coloured shorts. She carried a red leather (could be PU) east-west tote on her left shoulder and had on scruffy light-brown loafers. On her left wrist was a rectangular dress watch with brown leather strap. In that hand, she held a set of smartphone and a pair of dark sunglasses. It is arguable if what she wore was contemporary, let alone stylish, but it was pulled-together. All of which substantiates the visible truth: just because you look smart doesn’t mean you are smart.

Update (18 May 2021, 8pm): According to Lianhe Wanbao, the said woman will claim trial to a different charge of breaching COVID-19 rules in a separate incident in Newton Hawker Centre last year

Illustration: Just So.

Miss Universe Singapore: The Pinoy Connection

We are so starved of gowns for local beauty queens that this year, our Miss Universe had to outsource the creation of the national costume to pageant country, the Philippines

Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Wu Ong really flew Singapore’s flag high six hours ago, in Donald Trump’s post-presidency hometown Florida. The beauty contest is staged in Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, some 80 kilometres south of Mr Trump’s home and members-only resort Mar-a-Lago Club. Exactly two weeks back, when Ms Ong posted a video on Instagram, showing her proudly catwalking in Changi Airport—before departing for the US—with an SG flag floating above her head, no one had thought that she would actually wrap herself in a semblance of one on the pageant stage. Even when not clued in, no one could mistake where the inspiration for the floor-sweeping cape came from. According to the voice-over when Ms Ong was strutting her stuff during the National Costume segment, “the red represents equality for all (they were careful to omit the official description of red standing for the now-not-quite-woke ‘universal brotherhood and equality of man’) and the white symbolises everlasting virtue (skipping the unattainable ‘purity’).”

The bi-coloured piece, however, didn’t quite catch the fans’ and the pageant world’s attention as much as what was paint-written on it: “Stop Asian Hate”. This graffiti-like-text-meets-floating-rear-wrap-as-national-dress did not only express national identity, but more so the woke thoughts and convictions of the wearer. That an Asian participating in a beauty contest featuring women from different lands needed to use the platform to call attention to the ending of hostilities towards other Asians showed how political voice increasingly makes the costumes louder. As Ms Ong posted on Instagram, “What is this platform for if I can’t use it to send a strong message of resistance against prejudice and violence?” She also told Yahoo News, the pageant now “focuses more on advocacy, you as an individual, and how strong you are as a candidate through your past stories and heuristics (that should be the next ‘umbrage’!)” Or, was she just adulting?

Advocacy on our tiny island is, as we know, not really the stuff that move people, let alone mountains. No beauty queen that we can remember ever upgraded a pet cause into a cause célèbre. It is possible that because no one was willing to be co-participant in Ms Ong’s sloganeering, she had to take it to the Philippines. According to Ms Ong’s IG post, the dress was designed by her and executed by the still-in-school Filipino designer Arwin Meriales, with the oversized text painted by the cat-loving artist Paulo Espinosa. As Ms Ong wrote on IG this morning, “I reached out to Filipino designer Arwin Meriales to create a design of my own and he executed!” The reaction to that was unsurprising: how was it that the Singaporean organisers didn’t see this as potential affront to Singaporean design and attendant community? One stylist didn’t hold back when he told us, “designers here have all died.”

That Ms Ong would choose a designer from the Philippines to execute her costume is not at all surprising. She was born there. At age ten, she and her ethnic Chinese parents emigrated to our island-state. Ms Ong reportedly speaks fluent Tagalog, and still feels connected to her place of birth. To prep for Miss Universe, she went to Manila to be trained (yes, they are well-known for their “beauty boot camps”), which could explain her OTT catwalk style. Spotlighting the American-initiated plea #stopasianhate seemed to have wowed many viewers and her IG followers, bland as her actual message was. How magnificent—how maganda—seemed to be the common cheer. But whether Ms Ong as sartorial flag bearer was in itself a triumph, no one we spoke to was willing to say. Fashion folks preferred to keep mum as any criticism would be seen as directed at “not one, but two nations”, a designer told us.

We always remind ourselves that we can’t see Miss Universe gowns through the eyes of fashion. These are creations for a universe, a good way from ours. The costumes—rightly termed—are just that, but for those nations without their own traditional dress, it was often a challenge to dream one up. We have always had laughable results trying to push a Singapore dress out, and worse when we think rojak makes good baju. But even by our own grim standards for this entertaining segment of Miss Universe, the latest, oddly-sleeved outerwear is, at best, for memes. Hard it was for us to ignore how clumsily constructed the puffed sleeves were. They looked deflated, and with the gathered armhole (that appeared to be achieved with elastic bands), seemed exempt from the extra step of toile prototyping. Or how the painted text could be seen on the underside of the floaty panels—lining would have diminished the unsightliness. Ms Ong revealed on IG that the cape took two days to complete. It showed.

Arwin Meriales describes himself on his website as a “fast rising designer”, which says to us he is a relative newbie. The 21-year-old from Quezon City agreed to making the outfit for Ms Ong (it isn’t known if they are friends) despite the tight dateline (and studies in design school) because, as he posted on Facebook, it was more than a national costume that he was going to make, he would also be putting out a “STATEMENT” and “PROTEST” (yes, in caps) to halt the hatred of Asians. “Who wouldn’t want,” he asked, “to be a part of such cause?” It can be assumed that Ms Ong, who studied accounting, is an accidental designer (it isn’t known why she had to source her own pageant outfits) and Mr Meriales provided the technical support. It is easy to pin the flaccid results to the lack of time, but a maestro would be able to know what can or cannot be performed. Fellow Southeast Asian, Miss Philippines Rabiya Mateo wore a striking gown by a compatriot designer, the late Rocky Gathercole (who died in March before the outfit could be completed). The gown had near-vertical, (also) bi-coloured wings. Whatever needed to stand, stood, and stood out. If Bernadette Belle Wu Ong really required a cape to do her thing in Florida, she might have been better advised to approach Frederick Lee. No stranger to pageants, Mr Lee could have designed for her a dramatic cape, as he had produced in the past, and made it truly distend—and soar. And, as typical of the NatCos competition, camp enough.

Photos: #missuniversesg/Instagram