Watched: Cruella

A wicked tale of a baroness and a badass, played by two Emmas. The origin story of the 101 Dalmatians’ not-quite-a-supervillian nemesis and the fashion she dons are, cruelly, one big yawn

Cruella: fully transformed

In writing this post, we find ourselves with a reminder: Cruella is a Disney movie, a fantasy. It is made for kids (or those who identify as one), based on a book for children, published in 1956. It can’t go dark. And it’s never going to be sufficiently authentic to appeal to adults. This is a story of a woman (and to an extent, another) who is not really vilified (at least not in her professional capacity), but misunderstood. As a villainess-in-the-making, she is only detested by one nemesis. And, Cruella could never be that evil, even when she eventually adopted the name de Vil; she has to have a vestige of humanity. So Disney does a backstory, set in the ’70s, to show that innate quality in her, delineated to suit a feminist and woke world. It’s surprising that Maria Grazia Chiuri was not asked to design the costumes. As a film with fashion (would be a stretch to call it a “fashion film”, as some influencers have), Cruella is for fashion neophytes and for fashion-starved times. Or, for watching in the cinema where loungewear rules. It feeds the general belief that the fashion world is buoyed by bitchy designers who can’t deal with competition, and that the big names do not really do any designing (and can’t recognise their designs even if they see one up close); they leave the task to the lesser, long-suffering minions in their staff. And that in order for fashion to be Fashion, it has to be over the top or, as Cruella well knows, your attention won’t be grabbed.

We live in a period when everything happens for a reason and every person has a reason for their un-personable self. People are not by nature rude, unkind, or vicious: they had been traumatised in the past or are presently afflicted with mental health issues. Cruella, like The Joker, has an origin story, but unlike how Batman’s adversary became the madman that he was, the fashion star/antihero’s rise to animal cruelty (as recounted in the original story, anyway) requires complexity added to an otherwise one-dimensional character (even when played by Glenn Close as the villainess in middle age). You did feel pity for He with the Perpetual Smile, but you do not for She with the Pretend Scowl. Consumed by a burning vengefulness that a wuxia underdog of imperial China would relate to, Cruella allows competition and unsettled score to form her cruelty. But she is not depraved enough to make the revenge come to a life-for-a-life showdown. In fact, Cruella does not live up to her wickedly clever name, and Emma Stone as the titular character, with reportedly 47 costumes worn (a veritable collection for small labels), is just hamming it up. What really got to us while watching her was that we were clearly witnessing—again—an American actress speaking British English. But British English isn’t just an accent, it is also how the mouth moves, as well as the facial expression that goes with the verbal. To make Emma Stone sound even worse, they had to pitch her against Emma Thompson! Or is this tale really Mia Dolan’s (La La Land) secret fantasy?

The young Cruella, or Estella, as the improbable fashion-designer-in-waiting

The Baroness (von Hellman), played by Ms Thompson, has been compared to Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada). Both women have a total disdain for the inept and the incompetent, but the Baroness, who’s also a litterer, among her many sins, is decidedly more of a murderess than the latter. As we have often said here, how well people dress—or how fashionably—is no indication of their goodness, kindness, sanity, and respect of social discipline. The Baroness, Estelle, and her implacable dark side use fashion as weapons of dominance and indomitability. Fashionableness can conceal revenge and rage just as it can hide the flaws of the fashion industry—egomania, for one. The echelons of power and the determiners of what is fashionable must not be challenged, only to be feared (not to be mistaken for respected). Even Estella, who is depicted as a better designer than the Baroness, does not go against the later or openly express her disapproval. She had to secretly design in an alley, while pitifully lunching on an apple. Only as the disguised anti-autocrat does she display verve and daring, and a proclivity to dress outrageously to spite the woman she abhors.

Cruella is frame after frame of outfits designed to impress. The fashion press describes Cruella’s costumes as “scene-stealing frocks”, but often times, the cameras don’t dwell on them long enough for the dresses to steal anything, let alone our attention. In Cruella’s first outing as the novice baddie, the Baroness red ‘Flame’ dress (“1965 collection”!) that she wore to draw her target’s necessary attention (apparently inspired by the 1955 Charles James ‘Tree’ dress) barely receives a full shot so that we can appreciate its asymmetric intricacy. Even Estella, not as her enraged fashionista alter ego, did not look particularly ’70s or “the Decade Taste Forgot”, only what Tom Wolfe called the “Me decade”. Her sartorial sensibility and her design approach are decidedly post-’70s. (Concurrently screening, The Conjuring is set in the ’70s and the costumes show it.) In the scene where she bought the Baroness lunch for the first time, Estella wore a draped, asymmetric skirt with criss-cross straps and hardware that immediately brought to mind Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga pants for spring/summer 2022. Two names cited that provided inspiration for the costumes are Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano (the Dior years). Costumer designer Jenny Beavan (A Room with A ViewMad Max: Fury Road) reportedly wanted to pay tribute to British designers of the late ’80s and the ’90s. If they really wanted to salute these British fashion greats, why did they not use either of the two, both of whom are still very much alive and practising? If they needed corsetry and bag-lady glam, why did they not go to the originals? Ms Beaven is not, to use the Baroness’s favourite word, an “incompetent” costumer, but she did not truly wow with what post-war fashion and 21st century audience have not already seen.

Still Estella, the rookie designer

The Baroness in her “fabulous” but dated gowns

Two massive, unwieldy-to-any-villain dresses stood out: a spread-like-a-tent, red and black ruffled number (reportedly 393 meters of organza. With a wide-width fabric, you need about 2 metres to make a dress), worn atop an automobile and the other that came tumbling out of a refuse collection vehicle (what is it about vehicles that lend themselves to Cruella’s dressed-for-revenge drama?). The first, which has a scroll that could be unfurled to reveal the odd, social-media-era (hashtagged?) “PAST”, has been attributed to, among other names, Alexander McQueen. It looks to us something Viktor & Rolf had attempted, even Michael Cinco! The second a corseted top on which supposed newspaper clippings and discarded scraps of fabric (or garments) are stitched on could be homage to John Galliano’s controversial 2000 ‘Homeless’ couture collection for Dior. At that time, the clothes trained the spotlight on a group of people that did not, for a moment, asked for it. Cut to 2021, Cruella’s version no longer provokes anything, even when it emerges from a garbage truck and exited the dramatic unveiling, with with a train that could have been a spill from a homeless person’s bundle. How times have changed!

Estella is a street urchin in the tradition of Oliver Twist’s nemesis Fagin and his young bunch. Like Fagin, she needs to survive—to be in the “business”: pick-pocketing. Even her pet dog (and her wallet-snatching pals’) are trained to be accomplices. But unlike Fagin, Estella is far much better-dressed. She has set up a sewing facility in her lair, and, therefore could design her and her sidekicks’ “fabulous disguises” for their outward-bound enterprise. Estella is never seen actually designing, she only sketches. She is not shown learning to sew in her younger days, or at all, and yet sew she does; she could even stitch together a fitted leather jacket with sleeves in ketupat weave and another with embossed leather. All with a single sewing machine. We do not see her draft a single pattern or cut a piece of cloth, yet we are supposed to believe that she can make, for starters, those work clothes—mostly in black—with rather post-modern details, and un-contemporaneous technical treatments, such as the anomalous placement of seams, or fashion lapels as accessory. Her home-sewing set-up, although later overseen by Artie (her fashion soulmate from one 2nd Time Around store in Portobello) and modestly staffed, can amazingly turn out those gowns that are more fabulous than anything the expansive studio of the Baroness can produce. According to director Craig Gillespie, the Baroness’s atelier is based on archival pictures of Dior’s early Paris workroom, but looks assembled by the set decorators of Lego Masters.

Cruella does punk

Cruella does ‘trash’

And suddenly “Cruella is a new fashion darling”. She has no shop, isn’t supplying to the storied London department store Liberty (where the Baroness’s creations are available and where Estella was a former staffer), and no apparent customers, yet she is an immediate threat to the established and way-wealthier Baroness. The rivalry between the women also underscores the generational divide: the Baroness from the old couture world of rigidity and the constructional possibilities of the tailleur, still seeking her “signature look”, and Cruella from the more seductive art of the flou, as well as a society influenced by punk (never shown, except for a rock concert that served as a fashion show), hell-bent on revenge. As it turns out, Cruella is not only a fashion designer, she’s also a meticulous intrusion and burglary planner, a persuasive recruiter of talent, and a pugilist-fighter, admitting that “wrecking havoc at galas is my personal specialty”. To all that, add a guerilla “revenge” fashion show organiser! Even Wonder Woman isn’t that talented. Diana Prince, when not crime-busting or saving General Steve Trevor, is, at first, an army nurse before becoming an intelligence officer. She has, of course, other occupations, but they don’t show such amazingly varied flair. Even Cruella’s bad and dangerous driving is a talent.

Cruella tries to explain the protagonist’s wickedness, but not why and how the Baroness became a sociopath. The film is seamed together to reflect the current sentiment for young women: you can do anything. Both Cruella and Estella will inspire little girts to dream big. And for dreaming designers to believe that there are short cuts to success, even for a grifter. And the best approach to extolling or embracing fashion, whether a creator or consumer, is to resolutely go beyond the normal. As 2nd Time Around’s Artie said, “Normal is the cruellest insult of all”. Admittedly, we had expectations for Cruella. If we had played that down and not be bothered by the incongruence of the fashion and the revenge as their own stories, perhaps we could have enjoyed the film, even the gowns. But, as the Baroness said, when meeting Cruella for the first time, “nothing to see here”.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Cruella is in cinemas now. Photos: Disney+

Robinsons To Be Resurrected

…as an online store on 24 June. It is now owned by the Australian family behind Canningvale sheets

The news was released to the media just after eight this morning. The reactivated landing page was published “late last night”, according to a source. Three weeks ago, just after Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), talk was emerging that Robinsons could come back as an e-tailer. Some brands had been asked if they would like to sell through the new e-commerce site, which was marketed as “tightly curated”, one merchandise manager told us. Some former suppliers to Robinsons thought they were only “conducting a market study”. Six months after the sudden announcement of the total closure of Robinsons in late October last year, the brand is now back, but only with an online presence. Or, as described in the media advisory, “a fully digital, state-of-the-art, vertically integrated online department store.”

The return of Robinsons surprised industry watchers. While it is understandable that an online retail model is viable and right for the present time, it is also rather curious that Robinsons would stage a comeback at all, considering that their abrupt shutting down of their last two stores—in The Heeren and Raffles City—after 162 years of existence (that saw them survive two World War II bombings and a massive fire that razed their Raffles Place flagship in 1972) was not especially graceful or thought to be sympathetic to consignors and customers (particularly those who had paid for mattresses and not received them). But one retail veteran told us, “Robinsons has history behind it. Its name won’t be tainted. Singaporeans are sentimental.”

Robinsons shuttered for good in January. Its return—which the Australian media calls “rescue”—is led by Canningvale Australia, a manufacturer and retailer (online) of sheets and towels, and fabric goods, conceived “to make luxury homewares attainable”, according to the company’s vision statement. Canningvale’s former managing director Jordan Prainito (he now holds the same position at the newly named Robinsons Online) will lead the operations in Singapore. Mr Prainito is a third generation member of the family that founded Canningvale in 1997, when Italian father-and-son refugees from Libya started a terry cloth weaving factory in Perth that emerged to be Australia’s “main towel company”. It is widely reported that Canningvale is “one of the fastest-growing digital retailers in Australia”. According to the press release, the company “evolved from a wholesale supplier into a multi-million-dollar business in just five years”. Business News Australia reported that Mr Prainito led Canningvale Australia’s digital transformation since 2016. During this time, the company’s “e-commerce turnover surged tenfold”.

The Canningvale website. Would Robinsons Online look like this?

Mr Prainito is no stranger to our city. As reported, he did his tertiary education here and knew of Robinsons and the subsequent failure. He told Australian Financial Review, “When we heard the news it had collapsed, we had a chat as a family and I said it’s an amazing brand and an amazing heritage—why don’t we throw our hat in the ring and see what comes of it.” Robinsons was part of the Dubai-based Al Futtaim Group for 13 years. Sometime in the mid-2000s, it was rumoured that Thailand’s Central Retail Corporation (which owns and operates a local department store chain Robinson—without the ‘S’, apart from the more upscale Central) had shown interest in acquiring Robinsons, but dropped the idea because the asking price was too high. The sale to Canningvale—value not disclosed—includes the domain names for Singapore and Malaysia, customer data base, and some 50 product names, presumably former Robinsons house brands. It is not known if those names will be brought back.

Canningvale initially manufactured for bedding company such as Sheridan and fashion labels such as Country Road. They’ve now their own product ranges and are available mainly through the company’s website and select specialty retailers and department stores. Over here, Canningvale sheets and towels are stocked at Tangs and Courts, as well as on e-commerce platforms Amazon and Lazada. Those who were aware that Canningvale were behind Robinsons Online had, in fact, wondered if the e-store would be similar to Canningvale’s own, and if the latter’s merchandise would dominate. Might the emphasis then be on home goods? According to the press release, 200 “specially-curated” brands, including homegrown ones, will be made available. Names have not presently been offered. In addition, Robinsons Online “will present price-sensitive customers with a value oriented, rationalised product offering”. It is not unreasonable to assume that “price-sensitive customers” means bargain hunters. Or is that based on what Jordan Prainito calls “forensic focus on our customers”? Even in the present time of Trace Together, that reveal is oddly discomforting.

Watch this space for our review of Robinsons Online. Photo: file. Photo illustration: SOTD. Screen grab (below): Canningvale

Mutual Hacking: Balenciaga Does Gucci

Pray the two doesn’t become one

It’s a confusing time for fashion and to add to the confusion, brands that should be rivals, even under the same conglomerate, are featuring each other’s accessories. We don’t know why this has to be so other than for both to sell more bags and such. Call us naïve. But if even a storied house like Balenciaga has to feature saleable Gucci merchandise with additional Balenciaga branding, then perhaps we’ve moved from ugly to crass. This Balenciaga’s spring/summer 20211 and the Gucci part really got to us. We can understand Gucci wanting to share Balenciaga’s winning aesthetics, but for the B to want a sliver of the G is, frankly, bewildering. Do customers of both brands really want a Balenciaga Gucci or Gucci Balenciaga? The two-is-better-than-one-thinking? Don’t be so serious, we hear people say. Oh, is this some mischief we know not of? An inside joke between the two houses? Because, if we look closely, Balenciaga has done the Gucci diamond monogram with a double B! Oh, we forgot. It’s called “hacking”. And who can be mistaken when a monogrammed tote is scrawled with “This is not a Gucci bag”?Don’t let the red-and-green stripe fool you.

From the first outfit, a black number that could have been destined for The Conjuring to the final, a red gown that could have been for Cruella, Demna Gvaslia does not let us forget that he is determined to set Balenciaga on his own course. Or that Balenciaga could be an offshoot of the brand he first founded: Vetements. From the oversized—now supersized—jackets to those loose, long-sleeved, printed modest dresses, to the deviant tops and bottoms inspired by retro track wear, these shall continue to be Balenciaga signatures. And, oddly for spring, those bubble coats too, with their gravity-defying collars, worn standing up—like what Mr Gvasalia had done for shirts, framing the face (rather than as some pulled-back screen as there were once before) and with the elegance of a more traditional quilted coat. But are we really seeing Balenciaga that is refreshing? Or one offering clothes that a diehard fan wouldn’t already have lusted after and own? Perhaps such familiarity, such tropes, are to ensure that followers do not forget Mr Gvasalia’s design past and the kinship he still shares with the family-namesake who still helms the house they both created.

Exaggeration is still the name of the game, whether in the silhouettes or the geekiness. And the off-beat is now so standard here that even the over-washed, carpenter-style denim cargos with the surfeit of low-brow utilitarian D-rings as decoration (rather evocative of White Mountaineering and their use of fancier carabiners) and the Crocs, again ‘elevated’—now in the form of heels, pumps, wellies, and platform slides can no longer be seen as demystifying the traditionally-not-attractive. These are destined for TikTok just as the printed dresses will have a place, again, on Instagram, so too those outers with extended, droopy shoulders. But are they really taking us anywhere? Or is entering the world of the young, weaned indiscriminately on luxury streetwear good enough (more Billie Eilish, of course, than Olivia Rodrigo)? Or sustaining on a diet of the likes of the sweatshirt on which Homer and Marge Simpson and brood are depicted wearing last season’s Balenciaga—another suitably LOLzy satire? Sure, our eyes have adjusted, as The Washington Post predicted in 2018, but have they also not seen quite enough?

But everything could be an illusion. Balenciaga broadcasted a show that never actually took place. They admitted to producing a “deep fake”. We were happy to see an IRL show, even on a PC screen, but we were duped! It was all digital trickery, all produced with software magic (listed on the media advisory, which we don’t care to repeat here), and, like the Vetements poser, “Are we becoming wires ourselves?”, is a thesis on the effects of the our online existence on our very selves. The media quoted Mr Gvaslia saying and asking, “What we see online is not what it is. What’s real and what’s fake?” Being a partner-in-crime with Gucci also questions the state of fashion today, as observed by social media watchdogs, such as Diet Prada: What is authentic? Who’s copying who? And does it really matter? The spring/summer 2022 show is called Clones, which has a rather mid-’90s ring to it (remember Dolly the sheep?). But in cloning the show’s model (one person throughout for both the men’s and women’s outfits) and itself (or repeating their classic shapes), is Balenciaga also telling us to put our consumption on a loop, as it’s so easily done on a music streaming service? The more of the same you see, you want in, not out.

Photos: Balenciaga

A Stronger Ape?

Just a week after our only A Bathing Ape store announced its impending closure, the news now is that they’re embarking on an expansion drive. But not here

The closure of A Bathing Ape (Bape) at The Mandarin Gallery on 18 June 2021 would not be a sign that the brand is approaching any semblance of doomsday. There is, it seems, a long life ahead for the Ape. According to recent media editorials, private equity firm CVC Capital Partners—“co-investor” in Bape—has “successfully completed an investment” in the streetwear brand. The value of that investment is not announced. Bape’s Japanese company Nowhere Co was acquired by the I.T Group (the company behind the also-now-closed i.t multi-label store) in 2011 for what has been described as a bargain: US$2.8 million, which, according to the The Wall Street Journal, amounted to a 90% stake. Founder Tomoaki Nagao (aka Nigo) stayed on for the following two years to help with the transition. It is not known who ran the design studio thereafter or if a creative director was ever installed.

Last December, it was announced that I.T Group founder and chairman Sham Kar Wai has enlisted CVC to take Bape private. CVC’s fashion portfolio includes Breitling and Spain’s Tandem (manufacturer and retailer of the brand Springfield, once available in Isetan here). At around that time, Yahoo News informed that I.T was “delisted from Hong Kong Stock Exchange for US$168 million as it struggled with getting its online operations up to speed”. Despite its shoppable e-commerce platform, I.T curiously does not deliver outside of Hong Kong and China. According to the South China Morning Post, the retailer “reported a net loss of HK$337 million for the six months ended August 2020, a 373 per cent jump from HK$71.2 million a year ago”. It is not unreasonable to assume that A Bathing Ape was part of those losses.

Although it is widely said that Bape has lost much of its appeal and is no longer as cool as it once was, when it became inspiration behind other streetwear labels such as Pharrell Williams’s Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, both aided by Mr Nagao in their conception, Mr Sham and CVC seem to believe that there is still potential in the 28-year-old A Bathing Ape. In a press statement, Mr Sham said, “I take great pride in the success of the brand to date, which has been thanks to the commitment of our leadership and staff. CVC is the right partner to support the transformation of BAPE as we focus on our long-term growth.” Further reports indicated that “CVC will support the expansion of the business, both online and geographically”. Markets cited include China, the United States, and Europe. There is no mention of the continued presence of A Bathing Ape here or or anywhere in Southeast Asia. It is possible that the Ape, in a bath or not, would’nt be returning.

Photo: Chin Boh Kay

No Press

Naomi Osaka has refused to meet members of the media at the French Open despite contractual obligations. Can she do the same to Louis Vuitton as the latter’s brand ambassador?

Naomi Osaka with Nicolas Ghesquière, January 2021

Japan’s biggest tennis star has spoken: she won’t speak. The news that rocked the tennis world these past few days was that Naomi Osaka has cancelled her requisite meeting with the press, citing “mental health” issues. She was insistent on sitting the press conferences out even when she was contractually obligated to fulfil her duties. As a consequence, she was fined US$15,000 by the tournament organisers. (According to Forbes, she earned US$37 million in 2019.) They also threatened to expulse her. A four-time major champion at only 23 and presently the world number two, Ms Osaka reacted to that possibility of being shut out by choosing to leave the competition midway. This would be the first time a major star, as AP notes, “walked away from a major tournament without a visible injury”. In a statement posted on Twitter, the tennis player wrote, “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.” She added, “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly.”

Ms Osaka stepped out of Roland Garros to step into the spotlight that had nothing to with winning a game. That she has chosen to adopt Megan Markle’s approach of revealing her struggle with mental health issues is not surprising now that mental health has taken centre court and is what stresses famous persons or why they wouldn’t do what they do not wish to. We, too, are not trivialising mental health issues, their realness, and their prevalence, but it is apparently becoming easier to allow mental health to speak for one’s woes. Last March, in a CBS interview hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Ms Markle famously talked about suffering from depression and having suicidal thoughts while pregnant. It was a revelation. Ms Osaka’s speak-out was too. The rallying behind her “power move”, as The New York Times called it, came as quickly as it did for Ms Markle. The Guardian reported that “Japanese athletes and sponsors voice support for” her. Serena Williams, who was defeated by Ms Osaka in the controversial 2018 US Open championship, in which the former broke into what appeared to be a tantrum that cost her a point, said, “I feel for Naomi.”

We are not trivialising mental health issues, their realness and their prevalence, but it is becoming easier to allow mental health to speak for one’s woes

Will her action have far-reaching effects, even outside sports? Naomi Osaka is not only a star in the tennis world, she is also a star in the fashion world. In January, she accepted the brand ambassadorial role at Louis Vuitton. Ms Osaka appeared in LV’s spring/summer 2021 campaign photos, lensed by Nicolas Ghesquière. Some reports described Ms Osaka in those images as “perfectly incarnating the Louis Vuitton woman”. What if it was far from perfection? We do not know what is in the contract between LV and Naomi Osaka, but, as a brand ambassador, surely she has to deal with journalists too. Will she be tempted to do to LV what she did to the French Open? Or perhaps there is less impact on her mental health when she answers questions about dresses and her other love apart from tennis, fashion? And it isn’t just LV that she’s a face of. Ms Osaka is also in partnership with Nike, Comme des Garçons, Shiseido and, others, and has recently appeared as a model for Levi’s. She was also appointed co-chair of this year’s Met Gala. Will she turn down all attendant press interviews arranged for her?

Sure, being placed in the middle of a press conference is not the same as being in the centre of a tennis court, even if the pressures affecting mental health can exist on both. Curiously, no one asked if Ms Osaka’s desire to avoid the press was because she found post-match media sessions to be plain tedious. The press pack can be predatory and a player who had not performed may not be in a state of mind to take the tough questioning. Successful athletes—like successful artistes—facing the media is, for better or worse, a part of their job, but increasingly, those in the limelight do not need the press to speak to their fans or the simply curious; they have social media. So, they opt out. Or, use their platform to divert the spotlight to pet woke causes. In lauding her bravery shown at Roland Garros, we may have forgotten that Naomi Osaka is just 23 years old. She is also a member of Gen Z. And like those before her, the Millennials, she has been weaned on the believe that she can do whatever she wants, or not do. No one can tell her otherwise, not even the powers of the French Open. Or dutifully working sports journalists.

Photo: Louis Vuitton/Instagram