Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
While waiting for the Dior autumn/winter 2023 livestream to begin two hours or so earlier, we thought of Abby Choi. If she were alive, it is possible that she might appear on our screen, and we would be able to see her stand before the photo wall, like so many of the guests (such as Jisoo) did, and allow the photographers to happily snap away. This would be totally up Ms Choi’s street: the celebrities, the clothes, the atmosphere, the show. This season, Dior walked away from the old format of a long wall, on which massive paintings or photographs hang, in front of which the models walk; their profile, their side facing the audience seated as if in a gallery. Now, the models seemed to walk randomly, definitely not on a linear path, among the audience clearly not in a gallery. But it wasn’t the route or the dressed up but bored saunterers, or the mostly front rows that beckoned. It was what was above them.
The set was designed by Joana Vasconcelos, the French-born Portuguese artist known for her massive installations of colorful, fertile, pinata-like shapes, usually suspended from the ceiling. For the Dior runway, Ms Vasconcelos created just-as-colourful, wildly-pattern, abstract mammoth of a centrepiece—also hung from above—that could have been pieced together with giant maracas, some with dramatic stalactitical drops beneath. Each rattler-like piece is elaborately patterned. Between them are colour-saturated, cruller-like lengths of fabrics snaking through the installation like ruffled dragons of a dragon dance. This could be some Eastern bazaar; this could also be some fey bandid’s hideaway. But, to Ms Vasconcelos, it was Valkyrie Miss Dior. Could this then be the Valhalla. Where was Odin?
The Dior presentation was likely not intended for any male god, Norse or not; least of all, male gaze. As with all Maria Grazia Chiuri shows, the latest was a visual paean to the females she admired—another women for women celebration. Only this time the celebratory spirit was not in the clothes (they were usually not). Sure, they celebrated the woman’s body, but could there have been more by way of design? There has always been something repetitive about Ms Chiuri’s output. Perhaps these were her ‘signatures’ for the maison, but it’s hard not to say they were on repeat, insistent even. The white shirt and the high-waisted pleated skirt, the shirt and tie and slouchy trousers, the spaghetti-strapped dress, and sheer, panty-showing skirts—they were all there, some in different fabrics, some rumpled this time, but they were there. For sure.
Ms Chiuri has, no doubt, found her groove. And stuck with it. She’s been with Dior for seven years now, longer than most designers not working for their own house. Alessandro Michelle ended a seven-year run at Gucci last year. Analysts thought that Mr Michele had been doing the same thing for too long. “Brand fatigue” was bandied about. Ms Chiuri has not exactly rejuvenated Dior (more Book totes!), even after her fifth year. She makes “classic” clothes with just-as-“classic” silhouettes (more from the ’50s!) that we are often told exactly what women want. Feminine to the nth degree, for the nth time. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that. But season in, season out of the same things mean one thing—repetitive. Is that why the massive, scene-stealing set was required? So that we would be distracted from the same-same? Clever.
Who was the slain, haute couture-wearing HongkongerAbby Choi?
Abby Choi, wearing Elie Saab, in Paris early this month. Photo: xxabbyc/Instagram
Warning: This post contains description that some readers may find disturbing
She is on the news in Hong Kong daily since last Wednesday when her dismembered body was found in Lung Mei Tsuen (龙尾村), Tai Po (大埔), in the New Territories (新界), north of the SAR. “Reality is more gruesome than fiction” was a repeated comment on Weibo when the news broke. Abby Choi Tin-fung (蔡天凤), a model and an influencer who has been constantly referred to as a socialite, was found mutilated in a mysterious village flat. The grisly murder has been very much covered by the local media, including the discovering by police of cooked body parts, as well as a mincer and an electric saw at the crime scene. According to the South China Morning Post, “body parts were discovered in two soup pots police retrieved” and “two female legs were found in a fridge at the house” in a search that stretch to the Chinese Permanent Cemetery in Tseung Kwan O (将军澳), some 27 kilometres away from the Tai Po. In what has been described as 一家落网 (yijialuowang or one family netted), police have arrested four related individuals in connection with the case: first husband Alex Kwong Kong-chi (邝港智), his elder brother, and their father for murder, as well as their mother for perverting the course of justice. In addition, a “lover” of the father was also arrested. Reportedly, Mr Kwong was apprehended by police while waiting for a speedboat to abscond to the mainland at Tung Chung Pier (东涌码头) on Lantai Island. He was found with cash of HK$500,00 (or about S$85,857) and luxury watches, including a Patek Philippe, all estimated to worth a total of HK$4 million (or about S$686,858).
The backstory to the murder that emerged is, given the consistent glamour that Abby Choi projected, inconsistent with a fashion personality who has been a couture week fixture. In Paris, just this past January, she was seen lavishly dressed at Dior and Chanel, two labels she seemingly adored, as well at the shows of Giambattista Valli, Zuhair Murad, Elie Saab, and the Greek designer Celia Kritharioti. She also attended the Dior and Chanel dinners after the respective presentations. At 28, she was considered one of the youngest customers of French high fashion. Ms Choi loved ultra-feminine styles, and her adoration of all those maisons was not surprising. She was also seen on the front row at the Louis Vuitton men’s presentation, shortly before the start of couture spring/summer 2023 season. And just last Wednesday, Ms Choi shared on Instagram an image of her on the (digital) cover of L’Officiel Monaco. The e-mag described her with considerable enthusiasm as “a fashion icon and media personality who has taken the world by storm with her impeccable sense of style and her unbridled passion for fashion” and “a true trendsetter, with fans from all over the world following her every move”. And on that same day, she was reported missing after she was not contactable the day before. Two days later, police made the gruesome, partly-cooked find.
In Chanel at the Grand Palais Éphémère for the Chanel couture spring 2023 show in January
The flat in a quaint, nondescript four-storey block, where the body parts were found, is believed to have been rented by Ms Choi’s former father-in-law Kwong Kau (邝球) just a few weeks ago. The latest reports state that Kwong Kau’s mistress, a mainlander who works as a masseuse in Sham Shui Po (深水埗), Kowloon (九龙) and is known only by her surname Ng (伍 or wu) to media and Yung Yung (容容) to her customers, was the person who facilitated the rental of the flat. Police believes she also harboured Alex Kwong in another flat in Tsim Sha Tsui (尖沙咀). The rented residence where the dismemberment was carried out sits in a beach-side village—half an hour drive’s from the city centre—that tourists do not generally associate with the gleaming metropolis: verdant surroundings of the New Territories and the Pat Sin Leng (八仙岭 or ridge of the Eight Immortals) mountain range for a backdrop. Those who choose to live here generally prefer to get away from the manic heart of the city or to adopt a seriously quiet life. The village, by many accounts, “look(s) like forever holiday”, and it is in this tranquility that a brutal crime could easily be carried out. Tai Po is, ironically, home to the world’s tallest bronze Goddess of Mercy, and just three kilometres to Lung Mei Tsuen is a river that leads to a plunge pool, known locally as 新娘潭 (xinniangtan) or the Bride’s Pool.
According to the HK news site Mingpao (明报), Ms Choi’s petit body was discovered by the police in parts, separately. Two stainless steel pots found in the unfurnished flat contained a skull in one and bits of ribs, hair, and “small amount of human tissue” amid green and red carrot chunks in the other, as well as soup dregs. According to one Reuters report published after the body parts were found, a refrigerator apparently was where her legs were stored. At the time of this post, Ms Choi’s body was not completely found. Her torso and her hands are reportedly still missing. The police have not explained why searches (two, apparently) were required in the Tseung Kwan O cemetery or if clues pointed them there. It was also revealed that a 6.5 cm by 5.5 cm hole was found on the skull, behind the deceased’s right ear. Followers of Ms Choi on social media cannot reconcile the description of the dismembered body with images of the fashionista/influencer frequently seen on social media or society pages of magazines. “Who hacks a beautiful woman like that?” Or any body? Were the slayers so consumed by rage in whatever Ms Choi did or said to want to murder and mutilate?
The Lung Mei Tsuenflat where the gruesome mutilation took place. Photo: EPA/Shutterstock
Hong Kong news reports posit that the murder was set in irreversible motion by squabbles between Ms Choi and her former in-laws that related to a luxury property in Kadoori Hill (加多利山), a historic-enclave-turned-residential-neighbourhood-of-the-wealthy, south of Kowloon Tong (九龙塘). The hill is named after the prosperous Mizrahi-Jewish Iraqi family that is widely linked to Hong Kong’s oldest hotel The Peninsula in Kowloon. Kadoori Hill scores favourably among the rich—Andy Lau (刘德华) is an esteemed resident—for the many good schools in the area (known as the “Prestigious School District), as well as grand mansions and swanky low-rise flats, earning the area the reputation of the “address of the elite”. It is reported that back in 2019, Ms Choi purchased the disputed Kadoori Hill flat for HK$72.8 million (about S$12.5 million). Full payment was completed three months later, purportedly leaving behind no mortgage records. Her former father-in-law was apparently the name in the sales contract, witnessed by lawyers. It is not certain if this was a gift to the old man, but the media speculated that Ms Choi was trying to save on stamp duty that amounted to HK$7 million (about S$1.2 million). Hong Kong real estate portals estimated that the unit could fetch HK$67 million at current prices.
Her long-time unemployed ex-husband and his family lived in the luxury flat located on up-hill Kadoori Avenue. Most accounts claimed that Ms Choi continued to support Mr Kwong and his family financially even when the marriage was over. Even her brother-in-law, Alex Kwong’s older sibling Anthony Kwong Kong-kit (邝港杰) was employed as her personal driver. It is not known when she and the younger Kwong brother were divorced (common guesses place the year in either 2015 or 2016). She apparently met him in school when she was 15 and married him three years later, in 2012, and bore him two children. It is not known why she chose to wed at such a young age, if her parents agreed to it, or even if she was still in school at that time. Little is also known about her married life or why she chose someone “not her economic equal”, as Netizens had said. The Chinese edition of the BBC shared that Alex Kwong has a criminal record, having been charged in the past for seven counts of theft. China’s Sohu News (搜狐) claims it was fraud that involved deceiving four men into investing HK$5 million (about S$859,022) in a non-existent gold business. He disappeared after receiving the money. Financial crunch and trouble plagued the Kwong family. Both brothers were, at various times, hauled to court for credit card debts that included a purported HK$1.576 million (or about S$270,730) that Alex Kwong owed to American Express. Although their mother Jenny Li Ruixiang (李瑞香) was a retiree, she mysteriously filed for bankruptcy in 2016, presumably due to overwhelming debt. Despite this chronic familial financial debility, Abby Choi continued to support the Kwongs, who probably saw in her their chance to rewrite their fate.
In Dior couture with pal Moka Fang (right) at Ms Choi’s 27th birthday party last year. Photo: Photo: xxabbyc/Instagram
Sometime at the end of last year, Ms Choi made an unexpected decision: she wanted to sell the multi-million Kadoori Hill flat. Apparently her lawyers had told her that she could keep the proceeds of the sale if proof that she had paid for the unit could be produced. The possibility of the Kwongs no longer being able to use an “address of the elite” enraged the family. Ms Choi and her ex-husband reportedly were at loggerheads as a result. According to Hong Kong media, the elder Kwong, also known as 球哥 (kao gor in Cantonese), was infuriated too, and so incensed that one day he threatened his former daughter-in-law: “[如果] 你卖楼，不安置我哋，我会杀你 ([if] you sell the flat and do not find a replacement and settle us down, I will kill you)”. It was not expected that he would carry out his threat. Kwong Kau, who was a former police officer, but resigned after “being involved in a rape case” (he was allegedly the perpetrator, but was not known to have been prosecuted), was noted for his foul temper. Police believed that he plotted the murder based on his knowledge of criminal investigations in the Hong Kong police force, although he had left 18 years ago. The plan was to get Ms Choi to pick her daughter, born to her ex-husband, up from school, but that trip would be intercepted and she would end up in a seven-seater car in which she would be bludgeoned before arriving at the Lung Mei Village flat to be butchered. That part went according to plan. The Chinese have a perfect expression: 谋财害命. To plot and kill for the victim’s property/wealth.
Abby Choi was born in 1994 in Hong Kong to a family believed to be wealthy. The extent of their riches is not established, nor the source. Similarly, there is no mention in the media about her childhood, where she grew up, her teenage years, or her academic pursuits (no information about her school either). But it is said that her parents, business people with commercial interest in China, specifically Hainan Island (海南岛), brought up Ms Choi and two other sisters (both are younger, with the youngest only 17 this year) in a “富裕环境 (fuyuhuanjing) or well-to-do environment”. Her mother, Zhang Yanhua (张燕花), known as 五姐 (wujie) or fifth sister in the mainland, where she’s seemingly based, is from 文昌 (wenchang), a city in the northeast of Hainan Island that is famed for being the ancestral home of the Chinese political figures, the Soong sisters (宋氏三姐妹). Little is known about the mother of the deceased except that she maintains a Douyin (抖音) account and have been, according to mainland Netizens, ‘liking’ commentators’ consolatory messages. She has offered to take care of her grand children in the wake of her daughter’s death. Curiously, there has been no mention of Ms Choi’s father; his identity has not been disclosed.
With Pharrell Williams at a 2018 Chanel party in Hong Kong. Photo: xxabbyc/Instagram
In 2016, Abby Choi, reportedly worth HK$100 million (or about S$17.2 million), married her second husband Chris Tam (Chinese media, including those here, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, refer to him only as Chris), whose father 谭泽均 (Tan Zejun) is behind the popular TamJai Yunnan Mixian (谭仔米线) restaurant chain. Little is known of Mr Tam, but as the heir apparent of his father’s company (until it’s sold in 2017 to Japan’s largest operator of noodles shops Toridoll Holdings), is called “谭仔米线太子爷 (crown prince of TamJai Mixian)”. Although the couple’s nuptial celebration was described by local media as a lavish event, their marriage was, in fact, not registered. They are parents to two children, a boy and a girl. Friends consider Mr Tam a good husband, who is not concerned with his wife’s—in hindsight—complicated past, and loves the two kids born to her and Alex Kwong as if his own. As she found stability in wedded bliss, Ms Choi slowly began her social media career as a fashion influencer. For a social media star, however, she was relatively late in joining Instagram and Facebook. Her first IG post on 12 July 2012 was of a green snake-skin Lady Dior bag, while on FB, it was even later—on 1 January 2017 of herself sunbathing; both posts had no comments. It is not known when she started attending the European fashion weeks, but an IG post in February 2016 showing her at the Dolce & Gabbana show in Milan, which could possibly be her first.
Her social media posts soon showed more expensive fashion (especially in tulle) and, unsurprisingly, celebrities (it isn’t clear if Ms Choi knew them before). In January 2018, there was the pose with Pharrell Williams, who, like Ms Choi, was admirer and guest at a Chanel show (presumably couture, given the date) and the expected after-party. Mr Williams, as well as Ms Choi, probably didn’t know then what laid ahead for the singer. Even Bryan Boy was quick to Tweet that she was “an acquaintance”. One name that was often mentioned this past week is Moka Fang (方媛), Aaron Kwok’s (郭富城) model/influencer wife of six years and mother of his two daughters. Ms Choi, who has been called “温柔 (wenrou)” or gentle by those who know her, has described Ms Fang and her as “情同姐妹 (qingtong jiemei or deeply close sisters)”. Both women do look rather alike, with their straight, long hair; bright almond-shaped eyes; delicate lips; and pointed chins. The two friends were known to attend fashion events in Hong Kong together although, interestingly, there are practically no photos of the duo in Ms Fang’s IG page. In a recent IG post of a black-and-white photo of a white rose, Ms Fang wrote in Chinese: “Feeling extremely sad. For now, still can’t accept this as fact. The sadness in my heart is unspeakable; there are only a thousand whys. The great sorrow still can’t be subdued.” Reality is more gruesome than fiction.
If there is any brand in need of evidence that a house cannot be without a creative director, they should look at Gucci. The autumn/winter 2023 collection, shown earlier, was put together by the members of the design studio. They took the customary bow at the end of the show. Did 21 of them—a motley bunch with different tastes—sense, as we did, that this was not the roaring applause that Gucci usually received? Thirty minutes after the livestream, we were still in a state of disbelief. To be certain that we were not over-reacting, we showed some screen shots to a Gucci fan. She didn’t conceal her shock: “Eeeee… where got Gucci like that, one?” We, too, wondered. We’ll be the first to admit that after Alessandro Michele’s first few season, after he became too sure of himself and too carried away with the collections, we lost any sense of joy in his collections, even when the rest of the world raved and raved, and raved. But, this was exceptionally… bad.
We know, of course, that Gucci will have a new CD on board. Nothing could be gleaned from the latest show that could inform us what Sabato De Sarno will bring to the house. Mr De Sarno, whose appointment was announced just a month ago, would not be presenting his debut collection until September, during the fall season. Or, as Kering said earlier, until he has “completed all his obligations”. Eager press reports already excitedly proclaimed that “a new era at Gucci has begun”. So what was it that we saw; what was that really about? Why did Gucci even bother with this show? Could they not have skipped a season? Take a clean break? Do these tawdry clothes deserve a runway or would they be better placed in a Sam Smith music video? Or was Gucci hoping that a bevy of influencers, placed in the middle of the show space in two circular pits, would give the clothes the approval/endorsement needed? The opening look—a tiny metallic-chain bra sporting the brand’s interlocking Gs, worn with a long, slim, black skirt, made less of a hobble with a gaping slit in the rear—immediately raised that question and others. But by the end of the show, there was no answer.
It is hard to imagine that this would be expected of Mr De Sarno, whose credentials include roles at Prada and current work at Valentino. We like to think that the startling level of tackiness is the result of the lack of leadership. That was why sleazy dresses in the vein of the naked dress presided. Or why a strapped bandeau had to show the wearer’s nipples. Or, why indeed there were so many sheer these and those. Try imagining Harry Styles in any of these dresses. And, appear on another cover of Vogue. To be sure, Alessandro Michele did not stay clear of the diaphanous, but it was not this crude. If the transitional team attempted something more conservative and tailored, the effect was a pathetic imitation of early Balenciaga under the then newly celebrated Demna Gvasalia. Or Louis Vuitton when an odd panier skirt curiosity appeared. Editing, always advantageous when design output is rojak, somehow stayed elsewhere.
It appeared that Gucci was keeping the spirit, if not legacy of Mr Michele alive, even if his departure was what they needed to reinvigorate the brand. No palate cleanser in the offering. Cheap-looking pervaded. With such a meretricious collection, it seriously boggled the mind how these clothes will sell out. Or in sufficient numbers to justify their existence. With these pieces, can they really drive the droves to the their stores, now increasingly missing the front-door queues? Perhaps Gucci was hoping that the accessories would be crowd-pullers, as they have been, and sell like the proverbial hot cakes. But what was exceptional? Or investment-worthy? The clutch with the oversized horse-bit strap? The massive and furry boots? The gloves that covered only the fingers? The earrings that were so long that they were knee-dusters? Perhaps even the hosiery? For now, we’ll just say pass.
Prada goes from pencil to circle. All with gravitas and gallantry
Who’d send out on the runway a first look with a predominance of a white skirt except Prada? An unsexy ankle-length?Not high-waisted? And a plain grey sweater to go with that? And no accessory, not even a bag? But flat pumps with origami-like flaps? Prada had no qualms in allowing the fewest essential to be in the spotlight, to be held up to scrutiny and, consequently, be admired. There were no statement pieces (perhaps, the skirts?), not that Prada does not make statements. It’s just that they are usually less proclamations than propositions. Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons are not inclined to putting a loud-hailer to their designs. That white skirt (yes, we were taken with it) is not extraordinary in shape, but the sheer overlay on which floral-patterned medallion cut-outs, like Chinese 剪紙 (jianzhi or paper cutting), were neatly appliqued in a grid, did focus one’s attention on it. That it looked like giant motile cells added to its pull. Just one skirt.
Perhaps it was the bareness of the runway that allowed us to focus on what was coming down it. The show was, as before, held at the brand’s own space, the Fondazione Prada. Only existing pillars, painted in what could be traffic orange, could be considered sets. But as the show proceeded, floral casings—in white blooms and green foliage—slid down, as if a bridal show was to unfold. We were enthralled by the soundtrack too: First, a menacing industrial growl/hum, and then Roxy Music’s In Every Dream Home a Heartache, a brief transition of Vangelis’s electronic Spiral, before The Kinks’s I Go To Sleep. And then, totally unexpected was The Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss! Was the highly mixed genre (which, to us reflected more Mr Simons’s taste than the maison’s) a reflection of the no-fixed theme of the collection? Sure, the show notes mentioned, menswear, uniforms, and, er, wedding dresses—did these explain those white skirts? And the floral display?
Prada has, of course, been a proponent of uniforms for as long as we can remember their RTW. And their revisit this season was not unusual, and far from groundbreaking. But then Ms Prada and Mr Simons were not limited by what the need for uniforms usually entails—specific functions or the enhancement of unity. So they could, for instance, mix the military with the nuptial, not that both recognisable aesthetics appeared glaringly in one outfit. But a tad subversive it was of the pairing of a hint of bridal dress (that skirt!) with the noticeably military (that sweater!). Celebratory meets utility. There was also placing of work shirts—the type a commercial pilot might wear—atop mini skirts with folded or draped panels. Or those not at odds with the SAF’s No.2 dress, just with delightfully oversized epaulettes, and teamed with high-waisted skinny(!) pants. There were, too, very-Prada details elsewhere: flapping trains (even on printed, body-skimming dresses Anna Wintour would quickly place an order, but she very likely, too, would ask the train to be chopped), detachable collars (bi-coloured!) to go with oversized blazers (in case you wished to wear them alone), and the new spot for the Prada logo-plaque—on the white skirts, to the left, at hip level.
The beauty of Prada is that they don’t complicate things. They let their sense of proportion, control, and colour come through unambiguously. You know what you are seeing. Off-beat details are there to throw the orderliness, even neatness, off balance. Deconstructionism is not their urgent story (never have), but tilting the kilter is. The symmetry is so until you see a distraction. Yet, the distraction is not, well, distracting. The simplicity is still preserved, enhanced, beautified. Some people might think that we’re bias, eager to point out the restraint and directness of others, but not Prada’s. For avid followers of Prada (and we know there are many), that requires no defending. We’ve often been told that Prada isn’t for many women, not their sisters, or mothers. Perhaps, therein lies their immense charm.
Could this be Fendi’s most cheerless collection under Kim Jones?
At the end of the Fendi livestream, we wanted only to remember how many times we yawned, and yawned. But we could not recall. As with most fashion show livestreams, the presentation did not start on time—20 minutes later, in fact. It was a test of our ability to stay awake, even when it was not that late in the evening here (just after Channel 5’s slightly more arousing News Tonight). It didn’t help that it was a runway obligation devoid of energy-boosting colours, just a train of beige, baby blue, and grey, a union of the unsaturated (until towards the end when there were, finally, shots of fuchsia and red). We are not opposed to the neutral palette (some of our favourite brands make magic with it), just the joylessness of the event, the anti-pleasure-ness. It has to be said—and with delight—that the right soundtrack was picked: former members of Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey’s appropriate Lost Bliss.
And the staging was admittedly good. A lit, white, patterned circle (possibly composed of exposed bulbs)—like a paper doily or a lace coaster—first appeared at the far end of the long, darkened runway. Then a ring of spotlights, hung before that fascinating dot, cast fractured light around it, rapidly giving shape to a pattern, much like a kaleidoscope, only that the graphic formation didn’t change; it remained uniform and symmetrical. When your eyes were able to adjust to the illumination, you realised that there were very strong beams emerging from circular light sources that trace the perimeter of that ring. The rays were so powerful that they shot vertical lengths of light far forward, forming a tunnel in which the glum models dutifully did their work. It was spectacular, a light show deserving its own time slot, and an audience.
But we’re here to talk about the clothes. We hope it is not that obvious that we are holding back. Regular readers of SOTD would know that we’re not massive fans of Kim Jones’s Fendi. We do not think he is a very convincing womenswear designer. But women love Fendi and, we have been told—with considerable fervour—that Mr Jones’s designs are adored and appreciated, and sold. So we’re always curious as to what could prompt such ardour. And it is fun, we suppose, to trace the path forward, on which Mr Jones has so smoothly coasted along. This autumn/winter 2023 season, which marked two years Mr Jones has been with the brand, he went quite lean, keeping things simple. But simplicity is subjective and may only appear to be so. While there is the straightforwardness of a-dress-is-a-dress, the designs are a lot more beguiling, if you look close enough. But it’s the sum effect that is not pulling any heartstrings. The clothes just look stodgy, the stuff for a mundane life, and a similar wardrobe.
Some of the styling seemed to suggest a young girl’s first attempt at grown-up fashion. But, in fact, Mr Jones was inspired by an adult—Delfina Delettrez (and in case you don’t, journalist-turn-influencer Suzy Menkes made sure you did on Instagram), the daughter of Silvia Venturini Fendi, who is behind the label’s accessory, menswear, and kids’ lines. It is, of course, advantageous and career-protecting to butter up members of the family whose name is on the labels sewn on the clothes, just in case massive double F logos on a shirt or two aren’t quite enough. When not blaring the name, there were negligee dresses, as well as knit dresses with slits that can be unbuttoned to the rump, shirts and tops with halter-neck straps, the strange, not particularly attractive vests with additional panels on the sides that hid the forearm, but exposed the upper and shoulders, and many pairs of unremarkable—but no doubt immensely wearable—trousers. Pleated skirts are a thing, too: they are ankle-length or mini, some worn over pants. Excited yet?
Hong Kong star Shawn Yue’s streetwear label Madness will close its Beijing store this week. The future of the brand isn’t looking bright
Madness store in Beijing’s Sanlitun. Photo: Liu Zhuolan
At the height of its popularity in 2017, the sole free-standing Madness store in Beijing’s Sanlitun (renamed in 2013 as Sanlitun Taikoo Li) shopping district often attracted such a snaking crowd that the queue time to get in was typically an hour and a half. Opened in 2016 to considerable fanfare, the lavishly appointed store was considered by retail observers to be the height of Madness. The streetwear brand was started by Hong Kong actor/singer/model Shawn Yue (余文乐) in 2014. This week, on Chinese social media, the phrase 倒闭了 (dao bi le or close down) was shared like wild fire after Madness announced on Weibo (微博) that they will shut their one and only store in the world on 25 February, their last day of operation. It added, “我们稍后将以另外一种形式于北京和大家再次见面！敬请留意 (we will meet you and Beijing again in another form later. Please take note).” The only thing Chinese Netizens took notice was that Madness is scheduled to “close down”.
Signs of the brand’s retail failure had, in fact, emerged last month when Madness closed its Tmall (天猫 or tianmao, a B2C e-commerce platform) store on 29 January, confirming rumours circulating at the start of the New Year that the brand will shutter around the Spring Festival. The closure had upset fans, who took to social media to complain of how sudden the shutting down was. Apparently, the store left no notice of its impending closure. Mr Yue did not say anything on his social media pages either. The Madness Weibo page made one last post on 11 Jan, with no mention of the Tmall store’s fate. Shoppers were not directed elsewhere. When we visited the brand’s Tmall “旗舰店” (qijiandian or flagship), we were greeted with a notice “店铺终止经营公告 (shop termination announcement)” and the date of its closure. The brand’s official Instagram account, with 358K followers, curiosly has only 7 posts. The Madness online store is still operating (its opening page shows a pensive Shawn Yue behind a pair of impenetrable shades), but much of its merchandise is marked “sold out”.
Inside the Madness Beijing store. Photo: Madness
It is not yet known why Madness has chosen to shutter their Beijing store. The brand has not responded to Chinese media’s request for comments. Unsurprisingly, speculation has been rife. The protracted COVID shutdowns and restrictions are probable causes. Some say that the lease of the space is expiring and negotiation with the landlord amounted to nought. According to local news reports, interest in Chinese celebrity-conceived brands during the pre-COVID years of 国潮 (guo chao or the trend of consuming home-born brands) has waned. There is also the possibly that the shopping destination itself is no longer the shopper magnet that it was. When it opened in 2008, the Kengo Kuma-designed Sanlitun was touted as the capital’s most luxurious and the hippest shopping destination. Last year, Dover Street Market Beijing, with its own glassed, box-like building, moved out of Sanlitun after 12 years there for the newer WF Central in 王府井 (wangfujing) a commercial hub within walking distance from the Forbidden City. DSMB’s exit hinted at Sanlitun’s fading hipster, even avant-garde edge.
Closer observation has been made on Madness itself. Conceived in 2014, the brand rode on the popularity of the street style of the time that leaned heavily on the workwear and military fatigues favoured by Japanese brands such as Neighborhood and WTAPS, as opposed to the more skateboarding-centric or sporty styles of the Americans, as seen in brands such as Palace and Kith. It was thought that Madness embodied Shawn Yue’s personal style, which has remained largely unchanged: baggy tees, just-as-large Oxford shirts, military-style jackets, and roomy shorts or trousers. Or, what an SOTD reader from Hong Kong called “dads-who-think-they’re-cool look”. While Madness has a relatable vibe, it has not distinguished itself from those that are aesthetically similar, and have been around much longer. Mainland Netizens—as well as those from Hong Kong—pointed out that the brand has “copied” the labels they have modelled themselves after, including those they have collaborated with. They went as far as to say that even the Sanlitun store is evocative of the old Neighbourhood outpost on Hong Kong’s Ice House Street. One Hong Kong retail communications head told us that Madness was never targeted at the “true fashion consumer”, but “the Sham Shui Po kids who hang out in Mongkok”. The Chinese news portal 搜狐 (Sohu) was perhaps spot on when they described Shawn Yue’s style, “与其说潮，倒不如说他的穿衣风格易于模仿，适合大部分男生学习.” Simply put, rather then say he is trendy, why not just say his style is easy to immitate, suitable for most young men to learn from.
Madness themselves had been embroiled in controversy too, weakening the brand’s cachet. In 2018, two years after the Salitun store opened, Shawn Yue was impelled to issue a public apology after the Madness online store stated that all orders could be shipped to countries that curiously (or carelessly?) included Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. It requires little effort to imagine the rabid outburst on social media, especially Weibo and Xiaohongshu (小红书). Mr Yue swiftly reacted on Weibo: “As the owner of Madness,” he wrote, “I am so sorry for such a big mistake and [causing] misunderstanding. I will take responsibility for failing to monitor the company well. We will conduct a comprehensive review and will not allow such mistakes to happen again.” Strangely, the brand did not appear to be more careful in how they tread thereafter. The “review”, it seemed, did not include merchandise. In 2020, the actor had to aplogise again for a red sweater sold that sported an image in the rear of a pair of raised lower arms, with one hand showing five fingers and another with a stretched-out index finger. The optics were at odds with the sentiments in the mainland. Netizens read that as the 2019/2020 Hong Kong protesters’ angry slogan “5 demands, not 1 less”. To them, Mr Yue “踩雷 (cailei or stepped on thunder, a stock market term that generally denotes making yet another supposedly sound investment that crashed)”, again.
Aware of the potentially irreversible fallout, Madness quickly withdrew the offensive product (and others akin to it) and explained that the illustration was a visual take on 42-year-old Shawn Yue’s long-time nickname 老六 (lao liu or literally old six, ascribed to the number he was assigned to when he played basketball in secondary school) and also 六叔 (liu shu or sixth uncle) among his younger fans who cannot see him as the 小鲜肉 (xiaoxianrou or little fresh meat) that he was described as when he starred in his first film 忧忧愁愁的走了 (Leaving in Sorrow) 22 years ago. Few thought that a term of endearment that isn’t particularly cute could easily take such an unfortunate turn. After the corporate statement, Mr Yue wrote on Weibo, “The design was completed originally in March 2019. As the owner of the brand, my team and I have to express our apologies for not handling it well throughout the whole process.” Process issues or not, to followers of the brand, the missteps were sheer madness.
Madness merchandise still available online. Product photos: Madness. Collage: Just So
Madness isn’t Mr Yue’s first fashion venture. In 2010, he started Common Sense, a start-up, if you will, that was very much a vehicle to help him get into collaborations with his favourite clothiers, primarily the Japanese. Mr Yue distinguished Common Sense as “a creative unit” while Madness is “a clothing brand”. It would be difficult to find a Hong Kong fashion professional to say that Common Sense is key in the history of the city’s fashion, but the brand did quickly get him noticed as a streetwear aficionado, to the extent that he became a serial collaborator with the popular Cantonese infotainment weekly 東Touch (East Touch), who has put him on their covers more times than readers can remember. In return, Mr Yue would support the magazine’s promotional activities by availing the collaborative output of his brands to East Touch, such as last year’s 1,017th issue of the title, which came with a camouflage scarf by A Bathing Ape X Common Sense. His ability in attracting Japanese labels to co-brand with his, we suspect, is likely due to his celebrity reach than him being the Special Administrative Region’s own Nigo. Japanese labels, such as Neighborhood had a head start in the Fragrant Harbour after their successfully pairing with Hong Kong brand Izzue, established in 1999 by the I.T Group. Interestingly, Izzue’s own take on work and military wear predates that zealously adopted by Madness.
Shawn Yue and Madness have often been compared to the other Hong Kong celeb fashion entrepreneur Edison Chen and his label Clot. Both men loathe the comparison. Yet, there are some similarities in their brands and their creative trajectories. Clot was founded a decade earlier—in 2003, the year of the SARS outbreak. It is available through the multi-label store Juice, also owned by Mr Chen. Born in Vancouver, but found fame in Hong Kong, he actively pushes modernised Chinese motifs for Clot, even using Chinese typography and graphics rather freely. For many Hong Kong consumers, Clot is the OG celebrity-birthed HK streetwear brand. So credible and “authentic”, and sophisticated it is considered to be that Dover Street Market happily stocks the label (you can find Clot at DSMS), upping Mr Chen’s business clout. Whether by fate or design, both labels opened in Sanlitun and, notably, both have left (or, Madness soon will). Outside China, Clot is also available online and in their own Juice stores, including the newly opened outpost in Los Angeles. Madness had brief selling seasons with Asia-Pacific stockists such as Studious in Japan and Supply Store in Australia. But, it is best no parallels are drawn between them—men and brands. In one online spat from 2019, when a Netizen commented that he hoped to see a collaboration between Clot and Madness, Edison Chen replied, “We [are] many levels above that wack shit.” Shawn Yue may have been prescient when he chose his brand’s moto: “madness breeds madness”.
And checks too. Daniel Lee’s debut at the British house pointed to a cool Burberry again
We were up at four this morning to watch the livestream on our phone of what was surely the most anticipated show that closed the five-day London Fashion Week. It was hard to rise at that hour, so we remained in bed, watching the non-action of the attendees filling up the space. Twenty six to five, when we were fiercely resisting going back to sleep, it began—in a dark, set-less, well-attended tent, erected in St Agnes Place, once a squatter street in Kensington, South London, that had amazingly resisted eviction for more than 30 years. It is a different place today, mostly residential, and now a venue for the city’s most important people watching the UK’s most important luxury label’s autumn/winter presentation. Daniel Lee’s debut was expected to generate tremendous buzz, possibly even more than his first show at Bottega Veneta, where he suddenly left the brand in November 2021 amid rather strange circumstances. Now that he is back, on home turf, no less, was it as good as many had expected it to be. Was it the turning point Burberry anxiously needed? Did we waste our sleep for this touted-to-be-history-making moment?
It was not immediately clear that history was made. Perhaps we were too groggy to discern. The show, even just one-minute in, was admittedly a stark contrast to Riccardo Tisci’s debut for the house back in 2018. Then, Mr Tisci wanted a collection that catered to more than a group of customers: “all-generations”, as it was reported. His multi-part show, set on a polished, raised runway, offered that much, but said very little that we can now remember, except that everything was not as cool as it was expected. Or, it was, to us, not very British—eccentric even less. If we had wanted Italian sleekness, we would not have been eyeing a British heritage label. Mr Lee, too, appeared to try to cater to not one particular target. There were, similarly, rather many looks—for usually-forward indie musicians, football stars with money but not necessarily taste, the rich kids of celebs (the Beckhams?), the edgy folks who shop in Dover Street Market, tourists who must bring home a bit of the Britannic, and yes, even the chavs of the early 2000s (only now less brash or gaudy?). The clothes were not daringly innovative, but, in the styling that hinted at a certain uppity insouciance, coveted cool did come across, calculatedly.
Apparently Mr Lee was looking at archival material that did not only come from within Burberry. Sure, there was the trench, and there were the checks (but not those with the black and red lines against a beige background), now blown up so massively—and applied diagonally and in vibrant hues—that you might not have recognised them, but there were others not necessarily associated with the heritage details, such as, fur. Back in 2018, Burberry apparently put the breaks on the use of the real stuff. So it could be assumed that those employed here on the clothes and the accessories (that mop of a trapper hat!) were faux, including some destined-to-be-a-hit fox tail danglies (should that be swinggies?). The most obvious comeback was the Burberry logo of the galloping knight. It too was scaled up and was so massive that it became a lone rider on an asymmetric dress, or a wool blanket. Englishness would not be quite so without the English rose (both flower and woman). But, as Mr Lee would have it, “A Rose Isn’t Always…Red”. So that declaration and a rose in blue or green(!) appeared on a long-sleeved T-shirt, it’s best-seller status concurrently announced. And, by not always, he rather meant it. Prints of roses were in black and, erm, brown.
Despite the varied looks, all sufficiently swish and handsome, it was hard to determine if they would, as of now, bring Burberry somewhere, anywhere. Wearable clothes were aplenty (and a clutch of the not-so—the pair with chicken feathers, for example), but we did not sense they were directional, at least not sufficiently to help us determine where Burberry would go henceforth. Too curated? There was something reminiscent of Mr Lee’s first runway show for Bottega Veneta in 2019. Some silhouettes were reprised, as did shots of colour. The media back then was happy to say that he was enticing the old Céline customer. Now, with Phoebe Philo’s return very near, surely Mr Lee no longer needed to repeat the past luring. Back in South London, one unexpected accessory (a category expected to expand in size) that appeared repeatedly was the hot water bottle (even the guests received one, placed on their seat). The models held them close to their bodies, or chests. Did the fabric-wrapped, flat flasks aid us in allowing the collection to warm the cockles of our heart, to use a phrase now associated with one Sengkang MP? We may have to wait and see. Coolness is better cool.
Oscar Nominee Michele Yeoh was adorned with rubies and sapphires from Burma at the BAFTAs
Michele Yeoh appeared at the BAFTAs a day ago, part of her whirlwind tour of the award season leading up to the Oscars. As with the Academy which nominated her for the Best Lead Actress award, the BAFTAs chose her for the same category for her role in the strangely well-loved Everything Everywhere All At Once (the award went to Cate Blanchett in Tár). Appearing at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Sunday night, Ms Yeoh wore a dusty pink Dior couture suit. She was adorned with considerable jewellery, mostly by the London-based Moussaieff. She was seen in a pair of shoulder dusters, a ring, and a bulky bracelet, the latter two worn on her right hand and arm (all seen above) respectively. The media quoted the Ipoh native saying that she was “delightedto wear Moussaieff jewellery” (she, too, wore the brand at the 2023 Golden Globes and the 2019 BAFTAs). She said: “I fell in love with the brand and am always impressed by how beautiful and intricate the pieces of jewellery are.”
According to Moussaieff (and we quote verbatim), Ms Yeoh “wore a very rare natural colour Burma pink sapphire ring accompanied by Burma ruby and diamond earrings and a pink sapphire and diamond bangle”. Although the choice of gems were reported by the press, none has yet to question—like they did with Rihanna’s ruby ring worn at the recent Super Bowl Halftime performance—if the Malaysian actress wore what Global Watch considered “conflict rubies” and other equally problematic stones. Like Bayco, the company behind Rihanna’s controversial ring, Moussaieff too saw it necessary to trace the provenance of the ruby (and the sapphire) to Burma, present-day Myanmar, without stating clearly that they are ethically sourced. Reacting to Rihanna’s ring, the activist group Justice for Myanmar Twittered, “Myanmar gems fund junta atrocities. Ban the trade.” The group has not yet posted about Ms Yeoh’s gemstone choices. Did she make better ones than RiRi did?
That Rihanna’s ring drew considerable reaction may suggest that she is a bigger star than Michelle Yeoh. But, the now-Oscar-nominated actress needed to be even more aware of the source of the gems she wore and approved if they were indeed Burmese in origin, especially after playing Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2011 Luc Besson film The Lady. The 77-year-old Nobel laureate, despite having somewhat fallen from grace in the international community, is still considered a democracy proponent and defender, even when she is no more a democratically-elected leader in a nation that has reverted to military control. The ruling junta has sentenced Ms Suu Kyi to a total of 33 years for charges that amounted to 19 (she denied them all), including breaching COVID restrictions and “importing” two-way radio transceivers such as walkie-talkies. She is believed to be in detention under house arrest. Amnesty International, in 2012, said that “the harsh sentences handed down to Aung San Suu Kyi on these bogus charges are the latest example of the military’s determination to eliminate all opposition and suffocate freedoms in Myanmar.” Surely Michelle Yeoh would not just play a role and forget or ignore the rest.
These days, there is a TV programming trend here: the various cast of old television dramas get together to 话旧 (hua jiu) or reminiscence about the good ’old days. On Channel 5, there is On the Red Dot: Reunions and, on Channel 8, The Reunion (小团剧 or xiaotuanju). Each program banks on the viewers’ love of nostalgia and looks back at old TV series through the eyes of the cast. This reliving of the past are mostly dull, augmenting not the viewer experience. In some ways, the JW Anderson autumn/winter 2023 show is in the same vein, but they engaged the mind far much more, and tugged at the heart strings immensely too. Mr Anderson was looking at Scottish dancer/choreographer Michael Clark’s vast body of work. Both men have never collaborated before (Mr Clark did pair up with the ’80s British label Bodymap. The brand’s designers Stevie Stewart and David Holah had conceived costumes for the dancer’s performances and, in 1986, Mr Clark choreographed a Bodymap show), so this was hardly a reunion. But, it was an exercise at revisiting both their work, concurrently. As Mr Anderson explained in the show notes, “As I looked back through my own archive for this show, resurrecting elements from each collection of the last fifteen years, Michael let me rifle through his. It helped me pinpoint my own obsessions.”
Mr Clark was often described as the choreographer-provocateur who “brought punk to ballet”. He was also a fashion circuit regular: Hussein Chalayan designed his 1988 piece current/SEE, and he choreographed Alexander McQueen’s 2003 Spring/Summer presentation Irere. Mr Clark’s own dance performances in his early years were known for their “circus-like quality”. While Mr Anderson did not quite create a circus for his show, there was a hint of the entertainment in the form of a rink as runway (at the Roundhouse in Camden), and in which three, box-like installations were placed, adjacent to each other. On one, was a Warholian illustration of the male genitalia (in place of Mr Clark’s famed prosthetic dildos!). Another, a photo image of two fingers held up to denote the peace symbol. The third a rift on Coca Cola, but with the text, “Enjoy God’s Disco” instead, followed by the rhetorical “Is there nightlife after death?”. In sum, they seemed to offer a more controlled, even neater version of Mr Clark’s madcap, sexually-charged dance world. JW Anderson fitted this nonconformity (some might consider it deviancy) rather nicely, without quite shaking the conventions associated with current fashion the way Mr Clark did with the orthodoxies of dance.
If you were expecting cut-outs in the rear of pants, exposing bare bums, you’d be disappointment. JW Anderson is beyond what Mr Clark considered of the infamous (and impertinent at that time) buttocks-exposed costumes, design by the late London nightlife impresario Leigh Bowery: “I thought they were a lovely fashion detail”, he told the Barbican Centre in an interview to coincide with the 2020 exhibition Cosmic Dancer. There were, of course, details in the JW collection, but they were in technical finesse, rather than titillating minute parts: wrecked sweater ends (and still decorated with glittery bits), seemingly hand-torn hems of trousers, peplums that moved to the bodice, overalls with zouave-like bottoms (the inverted smiley face a clear reference to Mr Clark), or the triangular legs of the jodhpur-like pants. For those who hoped to own key pieces of JW Anderson’s past, there were smart (but never overly) gray pant suits and checked coats, or those with massive triangular—almost habit-like—collars, or sweater-knit pullovers with tubular necklines. We are partial to those shell tops with a sort-of-half-shawl wrapped asymmetrically to the left, a deconstructed trench coat truncated into a complex top-cape, and those mini-skirts that could have been an obi deliberately worn on the hip, askew.
In paralleling his past output with Michael Clark’s, Mr Anderson strangely made his eponymous work less subversive. There was, of course, the underground vibe of that dress that appeared to be made of Tesco (not the more posh Waitrose) plastic bags, but on the whole the collection was not a rigorous attempt to challenge anything, least of all his own 15-year output. This was, to us a casual look-back, a pleasing replay, a reiteration that was not offensive, penile glory on the chest of a top notwithstanding. In 2016, Michael Clark told the press, “I never really had a plan, except to express myself as purely as possible.” Mr Anderson has had a plan since the quiet birth of JW Anderson in 2008, and he has expressed himself, if not purely, at least unapologetically, and for that, we will look back with him, but we prefer casting our sight forward. Something greater awaits, we’re sure.
Shoes can’t stay hideous forever. So, they are, for now, happilysilly
Clockwise (from top left): Loewe, MSCHF, JW Anderson X Wellipets, Balenciaga, Product photos: respective brands. Illustration: Just So
It is a matter of time. Ugly will morph to silly, not back to pretty, while staying in the realm of the ludicrous, remaining decidedly not for everyone until everyone wants it. This is what’s happening to shoes: they look like a pair you’d only see on Sonic the Hedgehog and company. Still, they are not those with all-over cartoon prints, such as Balenciaga’s yellow Knife boots from 2018. For the present season, the shoes to covet seem to have leapt out of your favourite cartoon characters’ feet and landed on yours. The first to appear was at the Loewe spring/summer 2022 last October, when Jonathan Anderson showed shoes that have been liked to those Mini Mouse wears (some said Daisy Duck). And then these past weeks, during New York Fashion Week, appear did the clunky, rubbery boots by MSCHF that many thought to resemble Astro Boy’s although they could easily be those worn by Dora the Explorer’s monkey-friend, appropriately named Boots!
MSCHF’s gigantic Big Red Boots (as in Big Bad Wolf?) have been so much the rage and in the news (and desirable?) that, earlier in the week, SOTD readers sent us reports and TikTok videos about them and their wearers, wondering—possibly in dismay—why we have skipped commenting on the silly-looking footwear. There is really now not much to say about the choices people make so that, in whatever they wear, they will be a social media hit. We told ourself it’ll all pass until it has not. Those MSCHF boots just won’t go away from our news feeds, even when, prior, we did not search for them. These red, wellies-looking shoes have almost no aesthetic appeal; they could pass off as a silicone caddy for kitchen utensils. They look drawn on by a cartoonist with no interest in details, or 3D-printed. We once thought that no one would really go further than Crocs, but we were wrong. Fashion has, of course, turned consumers topsy-turvy. These days, we’re vending S&M teddy bear-bags via children and selling kiddy footwear to grown-ups. No mischief intended, apparently.
MSCHF doesn’t make shoes; it isn’t a footwear company the way Steve Madden is. Heck, it is not even a fashion company the way Supreme is. Or, Yeezy was. Based in Brooklyn, New York, the brand (they’ve been referred to as a “creative” too) creates stuff, but not necessarily for serious, world-changing consumption. These could be anything, but footwear has been what they have largely made their name on. In 2020, there was the infamous “Jesus Shoes” that was nothing like what the Jews of the Roman Empire wore. They were, in fact, Nike Air Max 97s with soles purported to contain “holy water” from the River Jordan. MSCHF sold them—online, of course—for a staggering US$1,425 (about S$1904). Mind you, this was not a collaboration with the Swoosh and you can imagine that the sneaker biggie was not amused. Nor the Vatican, for that matter. Unsurprisingly, the not-quite-pure Air Max 97 sold out, with the black market reportedly asking for US$4,000 a pair. Why anyone needed such sneakers and would pay staggering amounts for them is still not clearly known. The thought of possessing something ridiculous but with a perceived value of staggering levels was—and still is—enough for brands to want to tap it for a real business/branding strategy.
How do you describe these cartoon-shoes without using the convenient word ‘silly’? Like ugly, silly, too, is being redefined. Looking silly is not silly! It now dances within the increasingly vague parameters of beauty. It certainly was not for Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies between 1929 and 1939. Until the COVID era, no brand would have considered shoes, however simple they look, that only Olive Oyl types would think of buying and wearing (Ms Oyl might, in fact, desire the MSCHF pair in place of her beat-up brown ones if she were to consider what is presently fashionable). But now TikTokers and the like can’t wait to jump into a pair. Dainty pumps and kitty heels are too inconspicuous. Women have once again shown that they can occupy the big shoes they desire to fill. And look delightful, and adorable. With Lil Wayne and wrestling star Seth Rollins wearing the Big Red Boots, even the guys, amazingly, want to look Nitendo-cute, too.
She may have, as her fans described her, looked “like a diamond in the sky”, but Riri’s 2023 Super Bowl Halftime performance was not without its share of controversies. One bling on a finger stood out
Rihanna’s red-hot pregnancy was not the only thing noticed in her Super Bowl performance. Another protrusion was picked up—this one on the fourth finger of her right hand. The singer was wearing, according to media reports, a massive red jewel framed by what appeared to be diamonds. The New York Times reported a day after the performance that she had on a “19.47-carat Bayco ring on one hand”. To ensure that there was no ambiguity in that, the Madison Avenue fine jeweller described the ring—estimated to cost around US$3 million—on Instagram that Rihanna “bedazzled in an uber-rare Bayco ruby and diamond ring.” And if that was not sufficient, they added, stressing the massive stone’s one-of-a-kind appeal, “featuring a rare natural, unheated 19.47-carat sugarloaf cabochon Burma Ruby and 5.66-carats of trillion-cut and round-brilliant colorless diamonds set in platinum and 18kt yellow gold.” One problematic word in that puffery was Burma.
These days, we know the Burmese nation as Myanmar, part of the ten Member States of ASEAN and a nation mostly ruled by the military junta since it gained independence from the British in 1948. It amused itself with an election in 2020, but soon returned to the army’s control a year later. Myanmar is beset with what the East Asia Forum warned as “abject deterioration”. According to a World Bank report last January, the country’s “economy remains subjected to significant uncertainty.” To steady the spluttering amid on-going protests against the junta, it is alleged that the powers in Naypyidaw (also Nay Pyi Taw) had to resort to not quite legit means. The activist group Justice for Myanmar Twittered that “Myanmar gems fund junta atrocities” in reaction to Rihanna’s flashy display. Human rights watchdog Global Watch calls the Burmese stones “conflict rubies”, and that the “country’s natural resource wealth is proving to be an economic lifeline for the generals”. The New York Times reported in 2021 that “political conflict and trade embargoes have made rubies from Myanmar highly controversial for more than a decade, creating complicated sourcing problems for jewelers.”
Yet, the 42-year-old Bayco was not discreet about the provenance of the ruby seen on Rihanna’s finger, even boasting about it being from a country known for their specific corundum with a covetable brilliance and depth of colour. It is likely the ring was on loan to the singer (as every piece of jewellery on her was?) and it did not occur to her to ask if the gem was ethically sourced. Compared to accusations of her lip-synching during much of the half time performance (that seemed somewhat rushed), the charge of deliberate ignorance of where the ruby was from is moot and is likely to elicit fierce objection than the possibility that she was not really singing. Performing for an audience of that size for the first time in six years, it was hardly surprising that she was so sized up. Every single item on Rihanna was noted, especially the many pieces of jewellery adorned to offset the unspectacular costume. Even her gloves: We are now aware that they were made of lambskin and produced in Hungary. Rihanna chose to outfit herself to be as noticeable as her baby bump. Unaware of controversies pertaining to what was worn won’t win her sympathy.
Thom Browne went planetary in his latest show, but it much something grounded on earth
Back in New York, after showing in Paris for the past few years, Thom Browne affirmed that he is still the master of the conceptual. No designer in New York, not even Marc Jacobs, can carry a theme through and through, and so convincingly as Mr Browne. He is a veritable one-man, American Viktor and Rolf, with the latter’s couture sensibility, and wit to boot. His autumn/winter 2023 show was testament to not only his skills, but his imagination. He presented an amalgam of not only disparate elements, but also of design and creativity. Awe-inspiring work and clothes that truly engaged the mind. Mr Browne can make clothes and he can construct, and go beyond the mundane. No elemental hyped as radical. It is a wonder—and a shameful pity—that no European brand has knocked on his studio door. Instead, those seeking names to augment their brands went looking for hip hop entertainers.
The latest season was inspired by the 1943 French novella Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) written and illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who told the tale of a boy criss-crossing the universe to seek wisdom of adults, but found them to be of the unpredictable kind. The epic set, not seen since Marc Jacobs decided to leave his beloved Park Avenue Armory essentially blank, was a rink of sand, on which a clock is shown, and above which a crashed paper biplane (some of us here might not consider that auspicious as it looked like an aircraft that Taoists burn for the dead, even if it’s less colourful) landed to depict the air crash in the Sahara, as told in the book. On the runway, two women met, one presumably the pilot-narrator (in a balloon-sleeved aviator suit) and the other, Le Petit Prince (with the golden hair). Other characters in the story were less obviously delineated, perhaps the businessman, now in the deconstructed suits. The show was as surreal as the account of The Little Prince’s planetary travels, and just as somberly narrated by an Alexa-like voice , but there was palpable joy in the clothes.
Thom Browne has moved light years away from his early days designing for Brooks Brothers (2007—2015). His particular penchant for tailoring has been recast into skills that can transmute the fantastical into the sartorial, and nicely touched by the subversive. The 2023 pre-fall collection inspired by another literary work, Moby Dick, was not only marked by the designer’s unorthodox proportional sense, but also his interpretive ingenuity in taking motifs, physical and not, and turning them into something with narrative heft and visual humour. With Le Petit Prince, he did not go off course (even when the plane crashed!). Even in times when loungewear still sadly prevails, there was something deeply appealing about Mr Browne’s suited formality that shares no similarity with American sportswear ease. We like that he did not look at the ’70s, as his compatriots Tom Ford and Michael Kors do. And that he did not succumb to the lure of near-nudity, now the dominant aesthetical mood among New York designers, especially the newish—mostly vacuous—labels.
Mr Browne not only fascinated us with designs build around formal menswear (remaining comfortably grey), but also with the far-out mash-ups that increasingly characterise his work. It is always tempting to guess that he has been trying to communicate the frailty and the increasingly patched-up nature of urban life. But that might be too easy. Perhaps, more importantly, his work, and certainly the latest, made us wonder: How was it that a suit could be so mercilessly split and spliced? How was it that, in some, they showed no start nor end. How was it that a blazer could fall off the shoulder and pool around the waist, under which a massive bow could prevail and not appear foolish? How was another, turned inside out, fastened to the waist as part of a skirt, able to remain a three-dimensional garment? How would it feel wearing that much going on (if not fabric) around the body? How would a Thom Browne anything lavish us with vestiary advantage over others? Or, impart in us, a sense of dress that has nothing to do with undress? Fashion should have this much to see, and boggle at.