Has alternative, experimental, inclusive, diverse, or street dimmed and beclouded fashion as lovely to look at, even as art?
Publicity shot for #SGFASHIONNOW. Photo: Ethan Lai/Asian Civilisations Museum
Recently, in Tokyo, the pre-loved luxury goods retailer Komehyo opened a pop-up on the second floor of the multi-level department store Marui, in the Yurakucho neighbourhood, not far from the Hankyu Men’s Store. Called Start Komehyo, the well-appointed “concept shop” is targeted at a very specific demographic: Gen Z, a significant contributor to the growth of luxury fashion now. The pieces selected for sale commensurate with what Gen-Zers or zoomers—those born, according to the Pew Research Centre, between 1997 to 2012—like to buy and wear. These are mainly fashion items from the 1990s to the early 2000s, and include Japanese and European labels, and styles that could be considered to go with the “Y2K” trend, a sartorial run that Gen-Zers have not experienced. They reflect what the young with means are consuming and relate to. There is no such shop on our island.
But, from the latest #SGFASHIONNOW exhibition, now on at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), we may have an idea of what appeals to youngsters below 25, and what, to them, is considered fashionable clothing, including what constitutes a fashionable image. And, perhaps, more important, how they hope Singaporean fashion will evolve. If the above photograph represents Singaporean fashion or its future, could we be hopeful? This image shows the garments of the designers participating in the sophomore #SGFASHIONNOW that spotlights Singaporean designers. A line-up of models cast in poor lighting is perhaps no big deal in an aesthetical culture shaped by anything-goes social media, but could this image really be what current fashion on this island represents? Or is this, as noted in the e-book, Architectural Drape (companion to the exhibition), a “fresh take on local fashion design”? Perhaps, “a fresh take” could be a clever rephrasing—or even recasting—of fresh out of ideas?
The image is shot by photographer Ethan Lai, also, a street style lensman, a national serviceman (currently), a student of Central Saint Martins (it isn’t certain if he graduated), alumnus of Lasalle College of the Arts, and the student-curator of the second instalment of #SGFASHIONNOW, which was put together with the School of Fashion of Lasalle. Mr Lai is partial to flat lighting and feebly-lit faces to effect edginess or rawness, necessary or not, and his aesthetical choices have been imposed on the communication material (or “campaign”, as he called it on Instagram) of a museum associated with some of the finest Asian art and antiquities. The nine motley models that are shown were shot separately (some with shadows cast to the bottom half of the body, some without), digitally corrected, and transposed as a linear composition to a blank white space. One marketing consultant said, when we showed him this image, “it looks like they died and went to heaven.” We could see that what’s missing is Morgan Freeman as god in the distance.
The shoot did not benefit from the minimal or zero styling, although two photographer’s assistants are listed as “stylists”. One magazine and commercial stylist told us that he thought that “there is no styling” since “the hair doesn’t go with the makeup, which doesn’t go with the outfits. What has anything got to do with anything? The models look like they were just plonked there.” As they would be in a TikTok video? What stands out to us is how the clothes could not be seen clearly. For an image that speaks for an exhibition extolling Singaporean designs across generations, the focus, curiously, is not on the clothes. The Biro coat (second from right) was shot to show the bafflingly washed-out back, a rear that has no superlative design to speak of. The Thomas Wee shift (extreme left), with dramatically draped details in the back, was worn by the usually beautiful quadriplegic model Zoe Zora seated, front-facing, on a wheel chair. The campy layered, draped bustier of Harry Halim (front) on a model laid on the floor was completely consumed by some unknown entity intercepting the light. But perhaps, as with most G-Zers, fashion does not matter, the look does.
The photo shoot for #SGFASHIONNOW. Photographer Ethan Lai, second from right. Screen shot: sgfashionnow.com
And what is the look? What does the creator of the image hope to convey? Daniela Monasterios-Tan, fashion lecturer at Lasalle and co-designer of the collective Mash-Up, shared on Architectural Drapes that “as part of the execution of #SGFASHIONNOW, Lai also conceptualised a photo-shoot highlighting the way that the fashion image contributes to the dissemination of a vocabulary of fashion.” She does not explain what that vocabulary might be, except, perhaps, in Mr Lai’s choice of using a disabled model, trangenders, and the not traditionally beautiful from the smaller agencies MiscManagement and Platinum Models, the catchwords diverse and inclusive. But what is the creative buzz? Take aware the requisite wokeness, what is the artistic value? In so questioning, do we risk discrediting and discriminating? And what does it mean to show models wearing on their faces some version of glum?
In a recent video interview with Female magazine, Mr Lai said that, to him, “Singaporean contemporary fashion means garments that kind of reflect our current climate and culture. It is diverse (!) and has different modes and practices, not just about making clothes for people to wear and consume, but it’s more about the designers their narratives through the clothes.” All the requisite buzzwords are in there, but in that photograph for #SGFASHIONNOW, is the “narrative” evident? What does it really say? Has it upended the belief that Gen-Zers are self-important, apathetic, hack-loving, creatively shallow, and averse to the conventional? Perhaps Mr Lai, whose work has appeared in Men’s Folio and Vogue Singapore, is truly just showing us the preference and standing of his generation. But will it consolidate our position as a city of fashion?
Gen-Z life is highly documented online, with text and photographs. The zoomers are not acquainted with a time when there was no Internet and when their existence was not expressed digitally. For considerable many, they largely communicate creativity to merely look good in the virtual world (or an e-book), rather than output creativity born from solid grounding or scholarship. They mostly race to fame (or infamy) as quickly as they could, and they are able to do so as the Internet is the ultimate springboard to visibility and likes—the more one scores, the higher the validation that one is good. It is not necessarily based on the tangible or the discernible. Fashion photography is not the result of the imagination, but what is perceived to be a reflection of the current. Perception that something is fashion because it is based on their own experiences, and shared online and is liked is good enough to be considered credible.
In the end, is the visual presentation of the Architecture of Drape—to use a street style term—GOAT (greatest of all time)? Or is it just good enough for a fleeting moment? It is hard to mention the shortcomings of criticism-averse Gen-Zers without being attacked, as public relations professional Tjin Lee of Mercury Marketing & Communications and a judge on the selection panel for #SGFASHIONNOW recently found out. We are well aware of being deemed “too critical” in our reviews of trends, shows and, indeed, exhibitions; for speaking the truth few want to hear if it is not flattering. But, as ACM curator Dominic Low wrote in Architectural Drape, the exhibition, not “a comprehensive survey but a snapshot”, should be “an invitation to discussion and alternative perspectives.” Looking at this one snapshot, we except the invitation.