‘Classicle’ Teaching: Who is Brooke Lim?

The GP tutor who steered her tuition centre towards drawing “a six-figure sum in six months” and was recently accused of plagiarism is, like so many others of her generation, an influencer too

TikTok. If only it is just full of bad dancing and inane commentary. But TikTok is, for many of its rabid followers, window to real life, a voyeuristic peak at enviable existences not their own. And, for as long as there are those who make social media an easy platform to draw attention to themselves, if not spawn envy, there would be those who enjoy courting controversial behaviours and practices on it for better visibility. Private tutor Brooke Lim Ke Xin (林可心), founder of the tuition centre Classicle Club, recently made news for questionable practices regarding a self-penned essay about eating disorders and self-esteem on her blog page; she might have received less of a blow when exposed if she is not, at the same time, an influencer, with 183, 300 followers on TikTok (@sugaresque) alone. Between her dancing—which corresponds to the typical TikTok standard—and more dancing, she helpfully shares “study hacks” and “productivity tips” with her followers. An example of such tips that she put out early this year, before the scandal broke, expounded the beauty of emulating another person. Ms Lim said: “one that worked [it no longer did?] really, really well for me was scheduling a block of time where (sic) I would be the one person I really want to be.”

While that may fly in the face of the popular call to just Be Yourself, it is, for her, a tip that “just about changed my life [did it or did it not?].” The General Paper (GP) tutor went on to describe “this one girl in council” during her junior college days (which ended not too long ago) “that I really, really wanted to be like.” The subject of her adoration “worked really hard; she had fantastic grades; she was so humble; she was sweet; she was an absolute dream to be around.” (By now you can tell, Ms Lim really, really likes “really” especially when the adverb comes in pairs.). The said girl was so free of flaws that the impressed admirer-turned-tutor “essentially wanted to emulate her”, before adding “work ethic” to her acknowledgement. She then advised viewers to “think of someone you admire or some character that has some qualities that you want to embody. And you pick a day or just a few hours where (sic) you try to act like that person.” Remember what happened to The Talented Mr Ripley? Ms Lim called her adopting the part of someone else “fixed role therapy”. Only problem is, fixed role therapy, devised by American psychologist George Kelly in the 1950s, is when a patient “enacts a make-believe character drafted by the therapist to portray an alternative identity for a fixed period of time”, according to the Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. In present-day practice, it is largely based on a fictitious identity, not “a girl in council”.

The said girl was so free of flaws that the impressed admirer-turned-tutor “essentially wanted to emulate her”

That Ms Lim was happy to imitate someone else (to match up or surpass the target, it is not clear) does raise the question of how authentic she really is. If she urges her young followers to emulate others, might she, too, do the same, even if momentarily (or “a day”)? If this is her “productivity tip”, as she described it, could it also be a writing tip, to be used creatively and professionally? Ms Lim was called out for plagiarism by anonymous TikToker @sugaresqueessay days earlier. She posted a piece of writing, On Being Afraid Of Eating, on 18 April on her blog Grayscale Copy (was this meant to be telling?), which is now password-protected, that purportedly bore similarities to 13 different authors’ published works that included books and articles. According to a lengthy breakdown of her alleged appropriation, shared as a Google doc and broadcasted on TikTok by @sugaresqueessay, Ms Lim’s writing is an “autobiographical recount” in which “more than half of the original version of her essay was not written by her (the investigators pointed out “over 70%)”. As we are unable to read On Being Afraid Of Eating (the post has been removed), we go with the claim that “the similarities include sentences, whole paragraphs, plot points, and specific details… with no credit whatsoever to the original creators”. Could this be, to her, just another session of emulation, rather than plagiarism?

Following the accusation, Brooke Lim did not immediately remove the blog post. Rather, she edited her writing, hoping to dilute the plagiarism. Before she eventually got rid of the piece, viewers reported seeing a foreword, which apparently stated—rather curiously—that part of the article was penned when she was 14. Whatever she did to salvage the work and the situation, it was too little too late. Soon she password-protected her page and removed all references to the faulted writing in her Telegram channel. Then, she took to TikTok to apologise. With a video that was rotated right, she said—voice clearly less enthusiastic than usual—that in her “long-form essay”, she “made the very serious and regrettable mistake of plagiarising and for that [she is] so sorry.” As an educator, what example did she set? She said she has reached out to her students, “one by one to apologise”. She explained that the words she copied “resonated very deeply” with her, leaving out that it was to the extent that she could claim them as her own. She added that she “should have been more careful throughout the process of crafting the essay”. The skill she employed and the attention to detail—in other words, “crafting”—was, in fact, “just reaching into my past compilation of thoughts and insights that I had lifted from other authors.”

Screen shot of the Google Doc that lists the similarities between Ms Lim’s writing and those published by other authors

It was, for many, a lame pitch. She called her action a “mistake” (like adding salt to your tea instead of sugar?), which suggested that it was unintentional. But as it has been pointed out by Netizens that given the extent of the similarity of her writing to published work, it was deliberate. And we should add, reckless. In one post on Telegram that appeared before the questionable ”long form”, Ms Lim shared that she “desperately want[s] to be taken seriously as an essayist, copywriter, and teacher. I want to be more than just a face on social media.” Was she then desperate enough to adopt desperate measures? In the same post, she added, “I’ve always been drawn to words & essays & for the longest time I’ve wanted to build a career based on my writing ability [the use of the ampersand instead of ‘and’ appears on Classicle Club’s webpage too]. To some extent, I already have (and am so grateful for that!) but I do want to continue exploring the written word + push the boundaries of what I’m already doing.” Nobody knew what she was really already doing. Prior to publishing the piece, she shared it with “a few close friends”. They were impressed. She shared their comments on Telegram: “couldn’t put it down”, one wrote; “it’s a really interesting and well-written work,” said another. The making of a star essayist, even in noviciate, was well on the way.

Brooke Lim was born a Leo in 2004 to an engineer father and a mother whose occupation is unknown. Both parents, according to a now-deleted TikTok video, “are strict”. Social media is burning with curiosity about the way she speaks (as well as the way she writes, which could be mistaken for old Khmer script), that her English has an unusual lilt and her words sometimes come out garbled. She told Rice Media recently that “it has a lot to do with being raised in a family with a parent whose first language isn’t English.” Although she did not say which, it is possible she was referring to her mother. As seen in screen shots of the texting between mother and daughter, shared on Telegram, the tutor-essayist communicates with the older woman in Mandarin. When TikToker Ge Jiabao took to the video-sharing site to also level charges of copying at Ms Lim (that’s another saga altogether), she suddenly spoke in Mandarin after being amazed by how much the former charges for what was alleged as copied material—“你好意思吗 说真的 (you have the nerve, seriously). Ms Ge spoke with an accent that suggests a connection with China, and she sounded like she was talking to someone who would understand her, as if she was addressing a compatriot. Is it possible then that Ms Lim’s mother is from the mainland? In several other TikTok posts, another family member that she has mentioned is an older sister.

Little is known about her younger days or if she had always wanted to be a writer, or a tutor. She made no mention of the primary school she went to. There is scant reference to where she received her secondary education, but in a trio of early Instagram posts, she did tag Raffles Girls School (RGS) and in one IG entry, referred to RGS as “my alma mater”. In one mention of her RGS days, she shared that “very little of secondary school textbook knowledge is transferable”. A video from 2020, which showed her celebrating “the last day of A-levels”, she was seen in the uniform (house shirt with the heraldic symbol of twin eagles and a green pleated skirt) of Raffles Institution (RI), the school that’s mentioned in her social media posts and press interviews. She reportedly achieved “straight As” for her A-levels, which seems to enhance her marketability. In a Life feature, “The Z Factor”, that was published in The Sunday Times on 9 April, just ten days before @sugaresqueessay posted “@sugaresque (brooke) longform essay plagiarism problem” on TikTok, it was revealed that she found her first student in December 2021, after leaving RI. It is not known how she grew the intake, but seven months later, Classicle Club—her tuition centre with a website that many have described as “classy”—was launched. At the end of the year, she reportedly raked in “a six-figure profit”. So popular her classes were that, according to The Sunday Times story, there is “a waiting list of about 150 students for O-level classes that will begin only next year. It is not known if that number has now changed.

In 2022, about a month after she took her first student, she started a podcast (“because some of my followers told me it would be fun”) called All the World’s a Talking Stage that discusses anything troubling teens, from “Social Media Feels Increasingly Irrelevant (‘I have a lot of complaints,’ she said)” to “The Psychology of Overthinking Romantic Relationships” (it was AI, she revealed, that wrote the episode’s synopsis. Question is, did it stop there?)). The podcast is available to listen by subscription. She told the Rebound with Resilience YouTube Channel that she really likes the podcast as a medium because “you know, it’s just my voice; you know, nothing to do with my face, and I know that they are not listening to me just because of my face; they’re actually listening to me because of what I have to say.” While she prefers her followers to pay attention to her voice than her looks, she does share social-media posts of come-hither lures and then proclaim it is hard to live up to what’s expected of her. In one TikTok post, she said, “I am so self-conscious and aware of my looks. I feel I have certain expectations to fulfill, and if I fail to meet them, people wouldn’t like or care about me nearly as much any more. So, in the sense, it’s a constant internal battle.”

While she prefers her followers to pay attention to her voice than her looks, she does share social-media posts with come-hither lures

But, at the same time, she said, (also on TikTok), “when people look at me, they see a 19-year-old Asian girl, and they probably only think, ‘oh, you know, she’s a bimbo, she probably only cares about her looks, whether she actually have (sic) that’s valuable to who I am as a student.” Despite fearing others not taking her seriously, she would post videos of herself putting on lip colour—utterly red and glossy—up close and seductively. Or, adopt a flirtatious pose, and tell you, “the difference hair and makeup can make”. And even more doltish “proof that hair is everything”. Like so many of her fellow TikTokers with a message, Ms Lim often delivers hers while doing something—usually putting on makeup—even when she is in keenly telling you about what she learned from a public-speaking coach, who was paid “$300 per hour” to impart his wisdom. In a follow-up, which was about the “productivity tip” mentioned earlier, she was putting on accessories: a ruched hairband that sat on her head like a crown (her hairbands never needed to hold her locks in place) and a pair of earrings hidden by wavy hair that cascaded down both sides of her made-up face. It is difficult to understand that she wants to be taken seriously when she behaves frivolously or tells you that it’s ”time to put on a cute outfit and go to class.”

Apparently when she is not developing content, as many call what she does online, or teaching, she is “devouring self-help books”, which may explain why her constantly empowering tone, if not provoking annoyance, sounds like Rachel Hollis’s (Girl, Wash Your Face). She has “watched every Ah Boys to Men film [even when she cites Quentin Tarantino in one post without really saying anything] just so I would have a clue about what he’s going through [in the army]”, referring to her boyfriend, whose face she has not reveal on social media, even when he is seen alongside her. When not urging her followers to be unnaturally positive, Ms Lim enjoys dabbling in amigurumi—Japanese knitting (or crocheting) of small, stuffed animals, designed to be cute, which is how her fans describe her too. While it is hard to paint a substantial picture of anyone based on a single or two TikTok videos typically of no more than 40 seconds long and a few IG photos, it is possible to paint a discernible personality from even a modest 254 TikTok videos and 185 IG photos of student-life vignettes to date. Whether intentionally or not, Brooke Lim, aware of her looks, posts to be watched. If no one takes her seriously as an essayist, many will fervently regard her as a social media star.

Illustrations: Just So

Tina Gharavi: “What Bothers You So Much?”

Who is the director pushing for a Black Cleopatra?

Not many people have heard of the name Tina Gharavi until now. In the wake of the questionable casting of the up-coming Netflix docu-series Queen Cleopatra, Ms Gharavi is thrust into the public eye, especially after she penned an “exclusive” for the Variety, doubling down on the producers’ decision to cast dark-skinned, bi-racial, British actress Adele James as the titular queen and what she sees as her (“melanated”?) truth. Perhaps Ms James playing the Macedonian-Greek queen would not have aroused this much controversy if the Neftlix show is not touted as a “docudrama featuring reenactments and expert interviews” that included an unidentified individual who does not “care what they tell you in school”. Many consider a documentary—even dramatised—to veer to the side of established truth, but Netflix prefers that it “shows a side of the infamous royal you haven’t seen before”—a queen that Ms Ghavari describes as Black. She rebukes those who do not agree, “what bothers you so much about a Black Cleopatra?” Strangely, Netflix would not allow the viewers of the trailer to answer that question. On YouTube, it had the comment option turned off.

The streaming platform has not responded to the casting controversy either, but Tina Gharavi was quick to hit back at those who do not concur with her position on her subject’s skin colour, insisting that “it is more likely that Cleopatra looked like our actor than Elizabeth Taylor ever did”. In a laughable introduction to her Variety piece, the British-American Iranian director, who is based on both sides of the Atlantic, in Newcastle and Los Angeles, claimed that a “fortune teller” told her—“ever the sceptic but game for a laugh”—that she shares Cleopatra’s story and both “are connected”. The connection was established, as the seer foretold, when, a month later, the production company behind Queen Cleopatra called, and she was offered the directing job. “The joke”, she wrote, was on her. Perhaps, more than that, by regaling the reader with her exposure to such colourful divination, she was possibly also illustrating the triumph of oracular utterance and wishful thinking.

There is another connection. Ms Ghavari helpfully establishes that, born in Iran, she is Persian. She asserts that Cleopatra’s “heritage has been attributed at one time or another to the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Persians.” There is clearly kinship here, and, therefore, “why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?” Like she is? (She’d have you know “that Persians have a long, long history of female warriors,” as she once told Primetime.) Cultural and visual evidence, as cited by historians and Egyptologists (including Dr Zahi Hawass), be damned. I want her black! Ms Ghavari asked: “And why do some people need Cleopatra to be white?” Similarly, why does she need Cleopatra to be Black? Might she desire Joan of Arc, someone she’s “particularly inspired by” to be Black, too? She gleefully applies another wonky reasoning for her conclusion that the queen cannot be of a lighter skin colour: “Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.” Can the obsession for a Black Cleopatra distance one from thinking with a rational basis? If she is right, are the hans (汉人), for example, many more generations later, less Chinese than their ancestors? Or, “somewhat unlikely”?

In a laughable introduction to her Variety piece, the Iranian director claimed that a “fortune teller“ told her, “ever the sceptic but game for a laugh”, that she shares Cleopatra’s story and both “are connected”

Of the choice of the lead, Ms Gharavi writes, “we found in Adele James an actor who could convey not only Cleopatra’s beauty, but also her strength.” The Greek biographer Plutarch was less complementary when it came to how the ruler looked. Writing a century after the queen’s demise, he said: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her”. Team Queen Cleopatra would probably call that misogynistic. To Ms Ghravari, it would be “misogynoir”—her preferred charge, assuming she is right about Cleopatra being discernibly Black. We try not to connect this forcefulness of her thought to wokeness (essentially an African-American alertness), but it is hard not to when she is adamant that “we need to liberate our imaginations, and boldly create a world in which we can explore our historical figures without fearing the complexity that comes with their depiction.” Create! Does that mean she can delineate those historical figures as she pleases, let them evolved from her impassioned imagination, independent of established scholarship?

Tina Gharavi was born in Tehran in 1972, a month after Nixon visited the capital—the first time in thirteen years that a U.S. president stepped on Iranian soil. At age 6, in the year of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, she left her homeland to join her father in Loughborough, England. Her parents were divorced then. She revealed to her mom in her second documentary Mother/Country (2002), “You don’t understand how hard it was for me to grow up without my mother.” It is not known if she still carries that baggage with her or if it shapes her approach to making documentaries or how she sees her subjects. She calls herself “a citizen of everywhere” (on Twitter she is “stateless”), and claims to carry “no less than four passports”. She has lived in the UK, New Zealand, France, and the US, where she attended high school in New Jersey. Trained as a painter at Rutgers University initially, she continued her studies in film at Le Fresnoy, a “post-graduate art and audio-visual research centre” (in Northern France), as the school describes itself. It was during this time, when she was offered a residency position in the institution in 2000 that her first documentary Closer—a script-less portrait of a 17-year-old lesbian from Newcastle—was made. The biggest acknowledgement of her work came when she was nominated for a BAFTA in 2014 for I am Nasrine, a docu-feature about a pair of brother-and-sister immigrants from, unsurprisingly, Iran, and their life in the UK.

In a 2013 interview with film festival organiser Birds Eye View, Tina Gharavi said that her early attempts with film work “slowly became documentary and then documentary with fiction and now it’s fiction with some documentary.” She reiterated that equation to Zanan TV two years later, saying, “I make documentaries and fiction films; I have actually managed to combine both.” It can be said that with Queen Cleopatra, she demonstrated that skill—described as “cross-platform”, as well as showed that “people have been thought to fear Blackness”. Additionally, Ms Gharavi said she could care less in appealing to the “intellectual documentary” audience. “I’m not interested in objectivity,” she stressed. “In fact, I’m more interested in making sure my subjectivity is clear, and really pronounced. I want to tell people who I am when I am making a film. From your privilege comes subjectivity. When I teach documentary film-making… I say to students, ‘You, know, it is all fiction’.” Now, we do. Queen Cleopatra isn’t revisionist; it’s just a tale.

Illustration: Just So

Bold Retro Vibes

New Balance hits another winning stride with its collaboration with Junya Watanabe

Adidas might be on a collab rush, now that they have axed their partnership with the beleaguered Yeezy (however, the Three Stripes is still laden with stocks), but it is New Balance that is, judiciously, teaming up with some of the most noteworthy/established/discreet names. Their latest is with Junya Watanabe, featuring NB’s not-bombastic URC30, also dubbed as the ‘Trackster’. Nothing dramatic or shape-shifting is done to the shoe, but Mr Watanabe did put together some striking colour combos, and still letting the the retro posturing shine through. The shoes were shown last June’s in the collab-centric spring/summer 2023 collection, which saw licensed images/graphics from artists fashion brands love to turn to, such as Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein.

Mr Watanabe is a fairly regular NB collaborator. His choice of the URC30 this season is a silhouette that’s a tad fancier than the 574 of the previous season although the vibrancy is still there. The URC 30 shoe is inspired by football kicks as seen in the quilted upper (leather, suede and overlays of synthetic material) and the jagged rubber outsole. The mid-sole—twin laters of white and blue—sits atop the outsole in the back half of the shoe and juts out in the rear, as many so-called cool kicks still do, but ever so slightly, which is a boon to those who wear their shoes in sizes larger than 10 and fear the heel steppers among MRT commuters in a crowded train are ever present. The URC 30 is, in fact, not bulky on the feet—a sleekness that’s always appreciated.

Junya Watanabe X New Balance URC 30, SGD440, is available at DSMS. Photo: New Balance

Cleopatra: Black Or Not?

In Netflix’s latest docu-series, the famous Egyptian queen is played by an actress with dark skin. History buffs are not amused and Egyptologists are calling it “black-washing”

British actress Adele James plays Cleopatra in a soon-to-air Netflix series, Screen shot: Netflix/Youtube

The trailer of Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra from the new African Queens docu-series, despite being merely two-minute long, is ruffling more than a few feathers. The titular character, when she first appeared in a green usekh (neckwear), is visibly Black. For many scholars, historians, Egyptians, and Egyptian-royalty buffs, Cleopatra was not. The role of the queen who ruled the land of the pyramids from 51 to 31 B.C., but had eyes on Roman men is played by British actress Adele James. She looks not quite the Cleopatra of popular imagination, darker-skinned than most depicted on the big screen, which is not necessarily objectionable if the general consensus isn’t so skewed towards the belief that Queen Cleopatra of Egypt isn’t as Black as Queen Ramonda of Wakanda. So unacceptable the former’s presently depicted skin colour is that, in Egypt, a lawyer has taken legal action to prevent Netflix from screening the four-parter in his country. Famed Egyptologist and Egypt’s former minister of state for antiquities affairs Dr Zahi Hawass waded into the contentious flare-up, responding to the controversial Netflix casting in a Facebook post three days ago, “Cleopatra wasn’t brown… Cleopatra was not black.”

According to Dr Hawass, she “was originally Greek, and if we look at the statues and figures of her father and brother, we will not find any evidence to support this claim [that the queen was black]”. The last queen of Egypt’s ethnicity and skin colour has, for a very long time, been part of the discussion of her identity even if her acumen and achievement left more to history than the melanin in her skin. Most scholars concur that Cleopatra was of Greek-Macedonian stock. Or, southern European, simply out. She was legitimately part of the Macedonian-led Ptolemaic kingdom, an ancient Greek state based in Egypt. Her ancestor Ptolemy I was a general and a bodyguard (some even say “companion”) of Alexander the Great; he began his rule over Egypt after the former’s demise. Ptolemy I died in 282 BC and there was a 200-plus-year gap between then and the time Cleopatra was born. Anything could have happened in that time gap, the Netflix series seems to suggest—it’s hard to say for sure that the Ptolemaic line wasn’t diluted.

In fact, some scholars suggest that the family did not strictly adhere to the Greek-Macedonian pedigree. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was not Black either, but it is not certain he didn’t beget offspring with women who did not share his ethnicity (even when inbreeding was the norm back then and before among the Ptolemaic clan). It is not conclusively known who Cleopatra’s mother or grandmother was (just speculation). Women were not much mentioned, alive or dead, until the rein of Cleopatra (by now VII; yes, there were another six before her—including her supposed mother—named Cleopatra, essentially a Greek moniker, meaning ‘glory of the father’), who was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. Supporters of the idea of an ethnically African queen speculated that there could be Black wives or concubines, and, therefore, the possibility of the ruler with Egyptian/African blood coursing through her. But there is nothing that would say conclusively that Cleopatra was a Black African. But, a guest on Queen Cleopatra (which Netflix describes as “the true story”) insists, “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”

Adele James as Cleopatra without the royal diadem. Screen shotNetflix/Youtube

But, the producers of Queen Cleopatra, including the wife of an infamous he-who-slaps, Jada Pinkett Smith (who is also the narrator of the series), seem unconcerned that they could be walking on a minefield with their assertion and casting choice. Ms Pinkett Smith said of African Queens, “I really wanted to represent Black women”, as quoted in Tudum, “the companion site to Netflix”. But director Tina Gharavi was more vocal, writing—considerably miffed—in Variety, “the known facts are that her Macedonian Greek family—the Ptolemaic lineage—intermarried with West Asian’s Seleucid dynasty and had been in Egypt for 300 years. Cleopatra was eight generations away from these Ptolemaic ancestors, making the chance of her being white somewhat unlikely.” She did not say who the “known facts” are acknowledged by or who married who that led to a Black Cleopatra, only that “what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a Black actress.” While she concurred that, with the skin colour of her subject, “we do not know for sure,” she was proud with “a reimagined Cleopatra”. Defiantly, she added, “Why shouldn’t Cleopatra be a melanated sister?”

It is almost impossible to portray historical figures accurately—Cleopatra included. No woman would come close to resembling her, even when it can’t be determined how she looked or what her true skin colour was. When Gal Gadot was cast as Cleopatra in 2020 in a still-to-be-titled film (it is still in the making), there was accusations of “white-washing”. She told the BBC at that time: “First of all if you want to be true to the facts then Cleopatra was Macedonian. We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn’t there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.” And she wanted to bring the last of the Ptolemaic ruler in Egypt “to the big screen in a way she’s never been seen before. To tell her story for the first time through women’s eyes, both behind and in front of the camera”. Similarly, Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra is also a project put together by women, but only now, they believe their royal was “melanated”. Regrettably, there seems to be a defensive, take-it-or-leave-it response on the part of the participants of the docu-series to the casting of the titular role. Adele James, who, like Meghan Markle, is biracial, Tweeted in reaction to the disapproval (some hateful) of her lead role, “If you don’t like the casting don’t watch the show”—basically tell those who isn’t on her side to sod off.

Dr Zahi Hawass, careful to add that he was “not anti-black”, was emphatic on Facebook: “she was similar to the queens and princesses of Macedona,” he wrote, adding: “I am not against black people at all but here I am just listing the evidence that Cleopatra was not black at all.” Mr Hawass may have forgotten that we live in an era of a Black Anne Boleyn (Jodie Turner-Smith in the 2021 TV series of the same name). If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, why not history? Could that be the message of Queen Cleopatra? In an already complex world with different versions of a single truth, a revisionist take of characters of the past seems a consistent order of the day. Sure, we can understand the need for a Black designer at the White-owned Louis Vuitton with a considerably white history, but it is a tad tricky to comprehend Netflix’s commitment to an indisputably dark-skinned actress to take on the role of Cleopatra. In time, we should not be surprised if a Black actress gets to play the lead in the biography of, say, Jane Austin (why couldn’t she have more melanin than Ann Radcliffe, or Mary Shelly?)? And why stop there? Why not Angela Bassett as Wu Zetian (武则天)? We are also not anti-black, and can’t wait for a hei (Black) Yang Guifei (杨贵妃).

One Nylon Bag

…is top of The Lyst Index of Fashion’s “hottest products”. And it is not a luxury brand

Trending now from the just-released Q1 2023 “hottest brands” ranking of The Lyst Index is a pair of labels from the Prada Group that has taken the top two spots: Prada, followed by Miu Miu. Many Prada followers are thrilled that the once languishing proponent of nylon bags as luxury accessories has again stayed at the apex after Q4 2022’s admiral climb to the very top. The brand’s leading position is hardly surprising, considering that Prada has been enjoying an impressive run since Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons became co-designers in 2020, and generated €3.252 million (or about SGD4,755,278) in retail sales last year, as reported by the brand. Miu Miu is definitely no laggard, clocking at €432 million last year (possibly because they used less cloth with those popular ultra-mini-skirts?). Sure, the combined sales pale in comparison to Louis Vuitton’s (ranked 13 on the Index) €20 billion, but Prada has shown that not outdoing the world’s most valuable luxury brand is not necessarily a bad thing.

Prada’s nylon bags may still be the ones that many with no aversion to high prices turn to when looking for soft, less structured crossbodies, but one that seems to trump those with the inverted triangle plaque is from Uniqlo. According to The Lyst Index’s less buzzy “hottest products” listing, the Japanese brand’s ‘Round Mini Shoulder Bag’ is “the cheapest product to ever be featured” in the top-ten line-up (it sits at the top). And it’s one of only two bags that made the list (the other is the USD1,080 [or SGD1,440] heart-shaped Alaïa Le Coeur). A considerable triumph since the bag, launched last April, is not likely to be coveted for its exceptional stylishness, although Uniqlo does describe it as an article of “sophisticated design”. What clearly worked in its favour is the more-than-59-million views it has enjoyed on TikTok so far, with users showing how much more they can stuff into the little satchel.

It is a practical bag, moderately larger than the average sacoche, but definitely more capacious. Uniqlo is confident that “it easily handles all your daily essentials, such as your phone, wallet and water bottle”. You might, in fact, fit a compact umbrella in it if the water bottle is not a must. (There are two interior pockets for receipts and such.) Although Uniqlo describes the shape of the bag as “round”, it is more of a half-round, something akin to kidney shape, especially after it’s weighted, with hints of Loewe’s ‘Luna’ (or something cheaper, Kangol’s ‘Light Travel Round’). The bag is lightly padded and comes in two surface treatments, one with a smooth finish (water repellent) and the other “with a naturally wrinkled texture”. Both feel good to the touch As the bag is padded, it is comfortable to hold or to carry close to the body. The unisex bag is available in a large array of colours (we counted close to ten), as well as those in prints that are a collaboration with the estate of Keith Haring. Perhaps more crucial, at S$19.90, it is what social media users call “a steal”. Or, perhaps, to others, “luxury”.

Uniqlo Round Mini Shoulder Bag is available in stores and online. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Celestial At Coachella

Björk brough something out of this world to the American music festival. And it was heavenly

It is Coachella season in the US, which also means spring has arrived. Or, time for “festival dressing”. Appearing on stage this year is the Icelandic star Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Unlike other performers who chose sexy as the performance message (such as a very famous girl band that donned the more meretricious costumes of Dolce and Gabbana), Björk augmented her weird fashion sense (in a good way) by wearing Kei Ninomiya, a Comme des Garçons alum. The always-her-own chanteuse makes her third Coachella appearance and again, she bucked what the Kardashian-Jenner sisters and company would wear. Her outfits and her track set cemented Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival’s early reputation as an indie-rock festival, rather than the largely pop fare it offers these days.

As a performer, Björk has always made costume choices that are the antithesis of, say, what Beyoncé loves, to the extend that she does sometimes look like an alien, but one we’re happy to receive. Her stage costumes are not restricted by the limitations of live performances; they could look as lavish and fantastical as anything worn in her music videos, such as those in the more recent Atopos. Björk and Kei Ninomiya, who dressed her for her multi-stop performances in Japan last month, are a natural fit. For Coachella, she was togged in an over-the-head cloak from the Japanese designer’s Noir line that seemed to be made of tiny filaments (purportedly fiber optic cables) atop an asymmetrically draped dress. This two-layer went over a printed bodysuit by compatriot Thora Stefansdottir, the London-based textile and fashion designer. From afar, Björk looked like a bioluminescent bug. Or, perhaps, sundew?

The Reykjavík-born star, as a performer, has always offered a total experience. At Coachella, her costumes were not the only compelling component of the show. Just as the music was sonically wondrous (even if not exactly rocking, including the cinematic Hunter and Isobel, and the Oscar-nominated I’ve Seen It All), the stage set up was a visual treat as well. The action, in fact, was concurrently happening above-stage, as in the air. An army of drones, 864 of them, dotted the sky with military precision, just over the roof of the stage, forming gleaming fractals of shapes, some extraterrestrial, some human, such as a hulk with an incredible dong, squatting—and watchful.

But the singer in the strange clothes (and make-up and headpieces) remained the pull, performing with full “orkestral” (as she described on Instagram) accompaniment. Björk understands more than the average performer the importance of costume on stage and its effects it can have on focusing the attention on the singer. There was another change that saw her in another Noir Kei Ninomiya outfit—an also-spikey stole (and just as transparent) and a multi-plane skirt that could be designed by AI. Together with her moves, she remained dutifully the hyper-balladeer of style. Elsewhere in the dessert, now a massive concert site, Kendal Jenner wore a black, sleeveless, cropped top and a pair of slacks that Vogue online delightfully described as “anti Coachella”. If so, what would you call Björk?

Photo: Björk/Instagram and Björk’s vault of dank memes/Twitter

She Took It Easy

On the red carpet of the Hong Kong Film Awards yesterday, Michelle Yeoh chose a long shirt-dress that bordered on the too-casual

It was widely reported in the Hong Kong press that Michelle Yeoh Choo Keng (杨紫琼) was the last to arrive at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui for the 41st Hong Kong Film Awards. That she hit the red carpet after Sammi Cheng—tipped to be named the best actress (she was) for her role in 流水落花 (Lost Love)—was testament to Ms Yeoh’s new-found status as Oscar winner and Asia’s most prominent actress. She arrived alone, traipsed the red carpet with the confidence of a cat in her own backyard, and even, at some point, surprised Andy Lau (刘德华) and film director Ann Hui (许鞍华) when she crept up to them while the two were about to have their photographs taken, and joined them for the snap without appearing to be asked. Everyone, presumably, wanted their turn with the Malaysian owner of the world’s most famous gold statuette.

Did Michelle Yeoh, in fact, modelled herself as an ethereal she-Oscar? She was togged in a sheer, gold, long-sleeved shirt-dress by her go-to label, Dior. But unlike her red carpet appearances outside Asia in the past two months, she chose to arrive looking decidedly breezy, as if she was attending a wedding in Bali. Sure, what she wore was long—near floor-length, but she did not look dressed to the nines. The Dior looked far less splendid than what the other attendees were fitted with. Or were we simply reminded that Hong Kong was no Hollywood? The startling casualness was compounded by the pushed-up sleeves (to her elbow) and the disconcerting black belt, which provided a strange hard line across her waist (could it be something that had gone with a pair of jeans moments earlier, in the car, perhaps?). She wore her hair in loose curls, which looked like it was just towel-dried. To us, she came as a wealthy actress, not a recent Oscar winner.

Or was this the usual sentiment that back in Asia, you don’t have to try too hard. There were no more White folks to impress. She made her fashion mark. Time for post-Oscars prudence. It is possible that since Michelle Yeoh has received the highest award an actress can hope to have, she was now ready to be rid of the pressures to be worthy of any red carpet best-dressed accolade. 靚就得啦 (beautiful is enough in Cantonese). Hong Kong, even the city that launched her career, did not require her extra effort in getting dolled-up. At the Oscars last month, she wore a semblance of a wedding dress (by Dior too), but that was at least special-occasion wear. Now, she no longer needed to make a splash. Casual was comely, just as an Oscar to her name was enough. Michelle Yeoh, the last to step onto the red carpet at the Hong Kong Film Awards, whether deliberate on the part of the organisers or not, was plain anti-climatic.

Photo: AFP

Star Awards (2023): Sparkle Not

The stars were out last night at a shopping mall. SG celebrity glamour’s high point.

Zoe Tay’s entrance with younger man Qi Yuwu.

By Ray Zhang

From a Changi Airport tarmac to the Event Plaza of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, MediaCorp’s beloved Star Awards red carpet, also known as the Walk of Fame, certainly moved up. Curiously, the event must, on and off, be staged in the presence of the landmarks of our island. But, as usual, the red carpet was laid out on a passageway not normally used for fashion displays—a pop-up catwalk. This time, it framed the Plaza’s touristy Rain Oculus, the aquatic feature that on an active day would see water swirl down its shallow dish like waste flushed down a toilet bowl. But on this late afternoon, Mediacorp stars walked pass it like devotees at the (sunken) alter of fame, all in finery they did not own, worn with the confidence they did not have. The Star Awards, as I have noted with regret before, is not a presentation aligned with glamour, made worse by stars sharing on social media photos of them looking all done up against startlingly unglamorous backgrounds. Clothes overwhelmed the wearers, I kept seeing; fashion superseded moments.

By now, you’d think MediaCorp stars would have gotten used to getting all dressed up and going to the sole glamour-driven event of their social and professional year. But, it did not seem to be. This was, of course, an SG red carpet, incomparable with those in Cannes, Hollywood, or even Taipei. Yet, after 28 years of Star Awards and 23 (or so) for the red carpet display, it still amazed me that many stars carried themselves, overwhelmed by the clothes and not advantaged by style. It was, of course, understandably hard for those who, in the past year and all this while, played your neighbourhood types with ear-piercing shrill or sold “good quality products” on The Wonder Shop to suddenly become the height of the fashion season, convincingly. How many of them indeed look vastly differently from the roles they played when compared to their daily lives? On the Walk of Fame, too large a number appeared as the once-a-year gown wearer, not a red-carpet rabble-rouser. And as long as it looked ‘fashion’, it was good enough. Get-a-headline approach to dressing was preferred. It might work on Hollywood Boulevard, but I doubt, outside MBS, in the muggy weather, it registered in the annals of SG celebrity style.

Informally dressed Chantalle Ng and Xu Bin.

Chantalle Ng (黄暄婷), daughter of Lin Mejiao (林梅娇), stood out and possibly set the tone for the night: you might glimmer, but that did not mean you were scintillating. Dressed by local brand Denise Chong Adornments (whose namesake designer is a “beadwork artist”), Ms Ng wore a skimpy number strung together with silver beads and finished to look like a ferocious predator beat her to it before it was sent to the changing rooms at MBS. The need for cut-outs on the hips (even when there was one high slit on the right side of the skirt) to show skin and to suggest that Ms Ng was possibly without underwear straddled questionable taste and the desperation to 炫耀 (xuanyao or flaunt). I find it extremely hard to resist describing the get-up as tacky. How she went from last year’s Bottega Veneta gown to this year’s metallic mess was hard to comprehend. Some of the younger stars without acting/hosting chops to lean on just had to adopt risky risqué styles to feel that they had arrived on the grandest red carpet they’ll ever walk on.

Or, stylists who thought that they were the next Law Roach, cravenly promoting to their clueless charges that barely is plenty. Bombshell wannabe He Ying Yong (何盈莹) wore a strip of red sequinned fabric by LaQuan Smith to cover her breasts. What I saw was a mere piece of cloth. She was unsurprisingly touted as “性感撩人 (xinggan liaoren or titillatingly sexy)”. Regard not that her turnout was akin to Zendaya’s Vera Wang tube top and skirt that the American actress wore to the Council for Fashion Designers of America awards in 2021. Sexiness was all that mattered. Ms He told the show’s backstage host Jeremy Chan (田铭耀), “是我的造型师想的 (it was thought up by my stylist).” I had no doubt that many stars allowed their stylists to decide their sartorial fate. Or, left it in the hands of Mediacorp’s glamour guru Annie Chua, who has been delighting in Huang Biren’s best actress win online. Ms Chua’s “styled by me” declarations on Instagram confirmed that it was she who was involved in the dress that just happened to look like one created by Elie Saab.

The back must be bared: (left) Jessica Liu and (right) Rebecca Lim

Annie Chua told another backstage host Zhu Zheliang (朱泽亮) that the theme of the night “就是要 (has to be) glamorous”. But sexy threatened to overwhelm what she hoped to achieve. Out of her work area—on the red carpet, the looks that purportedly entranced were those that totttered daringly close to the edge of impropriety: let them have skin. Glam up was to strip down. It was once the sole domain of Ann Kok, but now more stars were crossing over (conversely, Ms Kok was very conservatively dressed this year). Baring skin on the red carpet became as natural as showing teeth. That seemed to be the message of the braless-is-better brigade. There was Rebecca Lim (林慧玲) in a silk apron-dress by Valentino and Jesseca Liu (刘子绚) in a 100% polyester gown from the Spanish label Isabel Sanchis, with a bow in the rear that was so big and billowy, I thought it was a bad case of flatulence trapped within, and Malaysian actress Bonnie Loo looking somewhat desperate in a viscose-blend cut-out, one-shoulder dress that exposed the right bra-top by Lebanese designer Eli Mizrahi’s label Mônot from spring 2021. There was Fann Wang (范文芳) too, who avoided the red carpet, but appeared on stage in Valentino to accept her husband’s win for best programme host, totally backless to the waist. Amazing it was that so many girls believed that if you don’t show skin, you won’t look glamorous.

It was surprising that no one thought that the blatant sexiness diminished what was once family entertainment. But there was a limit to the number of times one could describe the looks as 性感 (xinggan or sexy) without sounding repetitive and insincere. When Walk of Fame hosts Dennis Chew (周崇庆) and Hazelle Teo (张颖双) had really nothing better to ask the stars regarding what they wore, they requested that their interviewees, Romeo Tan (陈罗密欧), Denise Camillia Tan (陈楚寰), Koh Yah Hwee or Ya Hui (雅慧), and Desmond Tan (陈泂江), perform something painfully banal: strike a “cute pose”. Ms Koh, who revealed earlier that she starved for two days to get into her Norma Kamali bra-incompatible, halter dress, received a second chance to be cute, possibly to turn down the heat her revealing outfit was generating. Some sexiness just fell flat. Quan Yifeng (权怡凤) wore a black frock by Australian designer Toni Maticevski, with a slit that went all the way to her rump—and exposed it, but she strutted in such a clunky manner that it was hard to make out if the opening on the left side of the skirt did anything for her that might be considered xinggan.

The guys did not fare better: Herman Keh and Tyler Ten, flanking Ye Jia Yun

Sexy, too, was what the guys were going for, which inevitably meant going shirtless. Ayden Sng (孙政) and Desmond Ng (黄振隆) were the earliest two to emerge sans shirts under their non-black suits, but they were a year late. In the last Star Awards, Desmond Tan and others belatedly adopted Timothée Chalamet’s red carpet look. Perhaps of the popularity of suit jacket on bare skin then and the dread of embracing the late afternoon heat now in more than one layer, many others too, jumped on the bandwagon this year, such as Zong Zijie (宗子杰) and Joel Choo (朱哲伟), and Tyler Ten (邓伟德) and Herman Keh (郭坤耀), both so determined to appear near-identical that it truly illustrated what Mr Keh meant when, last year, he repeatedly referred to 制服 (zhifu or uniforms) in his descriptions of what he and others wore. Then, there was the other ridiculous extreme: mock turtleneck under the suit jacket. In fact, that could be another trend, as many actors were dressed this modestly: Qi Yuwu (戚玉武), James Seah (谢俊峰), Bryan Wong (王禄江), and another twinning, Pierre Png (方展发) and Shaun Chen (陈泓宇).

The need to cover the neck affected Zoe Tay (郑惠玉) too. Always the star to watch for uncontroversial glamour, she did not disappoint with vintage Oscar de la Renta from Vestiaire Collective that comprised a mock-turtle top embroidered with roses and a red pouf/tiered skirt. Her choice from the luxury resale store (bought or borrowed, I was not able to determine) possibly made her the first on the Star Awards red carpet to wear pre-loved ensemble as expression of her conviction to sustainability. As she said to Dennis Chew, what attracted her to the outfit when she went to the fitting was the “环保的感觉 (feeling of environmental friendliness)”, adding that “fashion, if well designed, could be everlasting.” To which Hazelle Teo rejoined with “timeless”. Curious comment: Did she know what that meant when she was wearing a black and white dress with an absurd one ruffled shoulder that was larger than her face by Olimpia Sanchis (a “younger line” of Isabel Sanchis. It was a good night for Pois, the stockist that provided many of the stars’ gowns for the night)? On the red carpet, as in life, sometimes less is indeed a lot more. Not to mention, enduring.

Updated: 12 April 2023, 21:00

Photos: MediaCorp/YouTube

Two of A Kind: Nude Slashes

When actresses trust their designers—and stylists—too much

Elie Saab Vs Francis Cheong. Photos: Elie Saab and Mediacorp respectively

It happened again and, interestingly, with the same sought-after dressmaker. For the 2017 Star Awards (红星大奖), Pan Ling Ling (潘玲玲) wore a flounced gown by renowned designer Francis Cheong that looked like one by couturier Zuhair Murad. This year, best actress winner Huang Biren (黄碧仁) was also outfitted in a Francis Cheong dress. And on the red carpet outside MBS and on stage inside, the floor-length piece, too, looked rather familiar. It did not take us more than five minutes to recall that what Ms Huang wore last night bore an astonishing resemblance to a gown seen in the Elie Saab autumn/winter couture collection of 2021 called Buds of Hope. A quick check on FF Channel’s YouTube account (while the Star Awards was on our television) confirmed what we suspected. The dress seen on the broadcast of the nation’s sole TV acting awards did indeed look disconcertingly similar to what Mr Saab presented for a show that did not travel to Paris that year due to the pandemic. It was not the most spectacular outfit in that collection and we almost forgot about it, until yesterday evening.

But that sleek dress that Mr Saab put out two years ago did leave an impression because it was one of three aesthetically similar gowns that were unlike the rest of the 63 looks for that just-emerging-from-lockdown season, or what could be considered the Beirut-based house’s signature. Mr Saab incorporated rather extreme sexiness into the trio by way of wide slashes incorporated diagonally across the finely-contoured bodices and the trumpet skirts. As a result, it showed considerable skin. And the bands held strikingly and securely to the bodies, clinging to and covering where they needed to, even when the models strutted somewhat purposefully. The gown that resembled what Ms Huang had on could be described as a bandage dress of sort, but it did not constrict the body in any way. It was, admittedly, a show-stopper that could swish beautifully on a red carpet while maintain the wearer’s modesty, which is not, as we have seen, a requisite these days.

Huang Biren, admittedly, did not look bad in that dress; she probably was not aware that what she had on first appeared elsewhere. On Facebook, Francis Cheong, who now mainly resides in Johor Bahru, congratulated Ms Huang for winning (it was her fiftth best actress Star Award in her 35-year career), and “wearing my 2023 spring couture (sic)”. It is not known if Ms Huang picked Mr Cheong as the designer of her 晚礼服 (wanlifu or evening attire). It is possible that the partnership was facilitated by Annie Chua (蔡宜君), the “principal image stylist” at Mediacorp and the Star Awards’ key fashion figure, as the designer did thank Ms Chua for “the collaboration”. Nor, do we know who among the them picked the Elie Saab piece for inspiration. There’s no missing Mr Cheong’s cleverness this year. He created not a total facsimile; he changed the sole sleeve to the left and used skin-coloured fabrics—nothing nude—to create the slashes so that Ms Huang bared little. And there was not a trace of embellishment! Going to local dressmakers to tailor a cheaper version of couture gowns is not an unknown practice. Many attendees of gala events here love such costumiers. But unlike, say, the Icon Ball, which is primarily a closed-door affair, Star Awards is broadcast to the world through Mediacorp’s YouTube page. And some things do stand out. Lookalikes, especially.

Update (11 April 2023, 17:30): Two hours ago, Annie Chua shared on Instagram her support for Huang Biren with a set of seven photos and a comment: “Thank you for the 💯 trust ❣️You totally slayed it both on & off stage! ❣️”. Replying, Ms Huang wrote: “Thank you very much for helping! Two consecutive years by you and won! You are superb!❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️”. Two hours later, with another set of six images of different people, which included one that saw Ms Huang carrying her trophy, Ms Chua added, “Making 💚Memories 💚 & Be 💚The Best 💚Version of Yourself 💚”. Amazing

Update (11 April 2023, 23:00): Francis Cheong has removed the congratulatory message and the photograph of Huang Biren wearing his “spring 2023 couture” (dress) from his Facebook page

Some Guys Are Bigger Than Others

Fashion photographer, occasional actor, and “Instagram sensation” Tan Chuan Do is releasing his first book soon. How much more huge can he become?

We admit that while we were writing this, we were listening to The Smiths’ Some Girls are Bigger than Others. We do not use big in a small way, or how Morrissey employed it. Tan Chuan Do (陈传多), also known by his initials CD, may not have been massive (although he was known) as a model back in the day, but he is, as The Straits Time’s Sumiko Tan wrote in a lightweight 2022 profile of the fellow in her benign column ‘Lunch with Sumiko’, “the man whose youthful good looks and washboard abs have made him an Internet sensation.” It has been about his stature—physical, social, and professional. And now it looks like Mr Tan, 56, is going to get even bigger: He shall be releasing an autobiography this day, next week. The renowned photographer and just-one-movie-under-his-belt actor shared on Instagram two hours ago that the book, in (traditional) Chinese, 人生,不需要每一次都贏 (In life, one does not need to win every time), will “convey [his] philosophy of life and the secrets of fitness and taking care of oneself”. In addition, he wrote that he “hopes everyone is able to absorb [his idea of] the meaning of life.” Serious stuff.

It looks like the book will first only be available in Taiwan. It is published by the Taiwanese imprint of the Japanese manga publisher Kadokawa (台湾角川, taiwan jiaochuan), known in the capital for their inaugural magazine Taipei Walker. Apart from periodicals, Kadokawa puts out mainly graphic novels, photo books (some are categorised “情欲”, [qingyu] or lust) and “轻小说” or light novels, including BL (boy love) comics. Where Mr Tan’s autobiographical debut fits in, it isn’t clear, yet. Kadokawa describes Mr Tan as a “冻龄男神 (male god frozen in age)”. His book, comprising 20 chapters with instructional titles, “analyses in detail his unknown inner world, philosophy of life, and his ways of keeping ageing at bay”, according to the publisher. The pages include photographs shot in Bali and the Maldives, presumably with beach scenes in which to better display his Herculean build. It seems that Mr Tan’s first printed work of non-fiction could be a photobook, not unlike those of Japanese aidoru (idols) or something akin to the numerous photobooks of Godfrey Gao (高以翔), published before his death in 2019.

On the admittedly striking black-and-white cover of 人生,不需要每一次都贏, Mr Tan is shot, eyes not meeting the viewer, emerging purposefully from the sea, with neoprene suit stripped to mere centimetres south of his bellybutton to deliberately reveal his hard, compact waist that spreads upwards to join what might be described as heaving chest. This could be the male version of Halle Berry in a similar appearance in the 2002 James Bond flick Die Another Day. In her ST interview, Sumiko Tan made sure to note her subject’s enviable specs: 1.85m in height and 78kg in weight (at the time of the story). In the books’s cover shot, Tan Chuan Do, who, in the introduction, describes himself as “害臊 (haisao)” or shy, looks self-assured, more than comfortable with his body, and possibly bigger. This could be more than what the cover blurb calls “养生之道” or the way of maintaining good health. Interestingly, chapter 16 of the book is titled, “由于我曾当过多年的专业模特儿,在镜头前展现身体并不会让我感到不自在”. As I had been a professional model for many years, I am not uncomfortable revealing my body in front of a camera. Show and tell: to his fans or the 1.2 million followers on Instagram he has garnered, this might be a book to buy and to cherish. But if it’s just the pictures they desire, would they pay when they could view to their heart’s content for free on social media?

We hope to get a copy of the book. If we do, a review won’t be far off. Photo: Kadokawa Taiwan

Pasar Malam For Sneakers

Sneaker Con SEA debuted on our island this past weekend. Exciting, experiential shopping was not the lure

By Shu Xie

They’re here. Finally, we get to see what many consider the OG sneaker fair is about. Sneaker Con is, as one attendee, who was there on both days, told me, “a sneakerhead’s wet dream”. And, as I learned, a messy one. It also drew those not necessarily that rabid about over-priced and over-hyped kicks, but willing to own a pair that would be the envy of the company they keep. This iteration of the acclaimed born-in-the-US event was marketed here as Sneaker Con SEA (SCSEA), and its access to the region was through its debut here on our island. This was a belated affair. It was announced back in 2020 that Sneaker Con was to launch their inaugural show here in June that year, but, due to you-know-what, had to be brought forward to last weekend. When I asked a very young chap wearing a grey Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 if it was worth the wait, he said with smug satisfaction, “better late than never.”

SCSEA was held at Singapore Expo. I did not attend the preview event, nor did I show up on the opening day, or bought VIP tickets (that meant a dedicated “VIP Event Access Lane”). But, I was told later by more than one early visitor that the response was “very good”. I made my appearance rather late—on Sunday afternoon. The attendance was, by then, not as manic as I thought it would be. It was not cheap to visit SCSEA. I paid an incomprehensible S$42 for single-day entry (excluding chargeable fees that I now can’t remember added how much more to the total). If you had wanted to attend both days of the event (why that was necessary, I do not know), the entry price was $75. Tickets were not sold at the venue (that was a bummer). Attendees had to purchase theirs online. A standee with a massive QR code greeted visitors at the entrance should they need quick digital access to a ticket. Despite a steep asking price for the entry ticket, SCSEA did not welcome me like a premium event might have. To me, it was the venue. Singapore Expo is not exactly a posh pit of exhibition space. This had the same atmospheric charm as the once-popular Metro Sale, once also situated in this very hall, if I am not mistaken. And this is surprising when back in 2020, The Business Times reported that Sean Wotherspoon, celebrated as “one of the most famous sneakerheads on the planet”, was to design SCSEA.

A bored boy taking a rest while his companions shopped

The utterly popular Trading Pit area of Sneaker Con

It is large enough a space, for sure, but this exhibition hall (and the others in this massive complex) is just a cavernous, pillar-less selling spot, in which SCSEA had basically plonked itself there. Except for some branding boards, it was essentially an open space for whatever needed to happen, to just happen. This was executed on the cheap. Some participants such as our nation’s pride SBTG had their own reasonably handsome set-up, but for most, it was just lelong wherever you were assigned a zone. Mind you, many of the kicks were not exactly bargains. I reminded myself that they were sneakers on sale, not bespoke leather shoes with lasting stacked heels. Yet, as widely reported, some kicks cost a scary five-figure sum. I couldn’t tell where those were, but I did see a few pairs totally encased and presumed that they were the prohibitively-priced ones. Those that I was willing to pay for (nothing that rare about them) were frustratingly not available in my size. Was I eyeing sneakers that were too common? The situation was more daunting when around me kids—many were really young, including some sellers at the Trading Pit—were shod in expensive collabs that were hard to score, even there at the event. What I was told not to miss was the customised Air Jordan 1 by Jeff Staple (he was there) and Mark Ong (aka Mr Sabotage, who was present too), but I have never loved them Air Jordans.

SCSEA was touted as “The Greatest Sneaker Show on Earth”. I didn’t get the feeling that it was that great. The immensity could be because it looked like the pinnacle of sneaker consumption, rather than mere retail. Sneaker Con, wherever they might be, is essentially a gathering of third-party retailers, indie-vendors, and serious collectors-turn-sellers, all within a setting that is not necessarily experiential retailing. The SEA imprint is similar, but with more of a pasar malam (night market) energy and optics to it. According to their publicity material, SCSEA brought together “150 traders and sneaker collectors from the world over” to this corner of our island. While there were single-brand stands, such as Puma and Crocs (yes, EVA foam footwear, and a non-athletic brand with their boutique-like space for their collab with the American label Salehe Bembury), or indie stockists such as Limited EDT and “Japan’s No. 1 marketplace for limited edition sneakers” SNKR DUNK (they also provided on-site authentication service near the Trading Pit), rather many of the vendors appeared to hawk sneakers part-time. I was drawn to two walls, one featuring Anrealage and the other Facetasm, both from Tokyo. As they flanked the SNKR DUNK booth, I suspected that the latter had brought them in, but with regrettably just T-shirts in limited styles, the offerings were not especially enticing.

One of the most in-demand offerings, the YZY Slide, restocked at Sneaker Con SEA

And, curiously, many non-sneaker brands were conspicuously situated. There was Carlsberg in a massive, eye-catching set-up and just as noticeable, the whiskey brand Monkey Shoulder, even when many attendees appeared to be below 18 years old. Perhaps that was why oat milk brand Oatbedient was there, and Fiji Water too, in case thirsty were those unable to guzzle a lager or a Scotch without staying out of the reach of the law. Early publicity for the event painted the event to be drenched with fun. Ticket seller Sistic described SCSEA as brimming with “hype activities”. I did not spend enough time there to be caught up with what action there was, hyped or not. Frankly, I did not want to stay. Nothing was a pull for me. And the market atmosphere and what seemed like repetitive merchandise, after a while, exhausted the initial interest I had in the event. I had expected more, but, perhaps I had been swayed by the local ‘cons’ here, mainly Street Superior and Culture Cartel—the latter’s last, a well-thought-out event at Scape last December was both a journey of discovery and an enjoyable acquaintance with the burgeoning streetwear community here.

Sneaker Con began life in 2009 in New York City under the stewardship of three sneakerheads Alan and Barris Vinogradov (they’re brothers), and Wu Yu Ming. It is still considered “the largest sneaker event in North America”. And often described as “a gathering of so-called ‘sneakerheads’ hoping to browse, buy and sell pairs of collector shoes”, as Newsweek put it. Alan Vinogradov told The Business Times in 2020 that “the sneaker craze is only just beginning.” Perhaps, for those below 15. I have been wearing sneakers for a good part of my adult life. While I have many—too many—pairs, I do not consider myself a sneakerhead, least of all one who collects or who only goes for the “grails”. As I looked around me in Hall 5 of the Singapore Expo, I noticed that most feet were shod in new shoes, expensive-looking ones, and many that were also sold on the pile-high tables of the Market Place, one of the several zones of Sneaker Con SEA. Nikes dominated, which had a homogenising effect on the event that, by the organiser’s own telling, had “more than 200 international and local renowned brands”. I did notice that Adidas Yeezys, now no longer produced but massively stocked in Adidas warehouses, were not much worn. One stall did have stocks of Yeezys. I asked a chap contemplating a pair if they were still popular. He said, “of course, because now even harder to find.” When I left, I spotted a trio with stacks of boxes of Yeezy Slides. Stupidly, I asked: “Are these legit?” One of them, with a look of disbelief, replied, “For sure. These were bought before the partnership ended.” When I walked away, a kid shyly asked me if they were selling those slides. I told him they were, and his eyes lit. “How much, ah?”

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Different Country, Same Story

Dior may take their collections outside France to show, but the design narrative barely shifts

Mumbai’s Gateway of India monument could easily be Paris’s Arch du Triomphe, but it has one up on the French capital now: a Dior fashion show staged in its presence. Synonymous with the city formerly known as Bombay, the Gateway was built in 1911 to welcome King George V and Queen Mary to the city, but, apparently, the royals did not get to walk through the 26-metre arched entrance—it was not built in time for their arrival. In place of the yellow basalt structure for that occasion was a “cardboard” version. The royal visitors had to content with that. But the models of the Dior pre-fall 2023 show were more fortunate; the attendees too, reportedly 850 of them. All saw the very gateway itself. But rather than that alone as the backdrop, the monument was partially blocked by another shorter archway (possibly, cardboard-backed!), placed before it. The fabric surface—a toran, which is also a frieze hanging—was an ardent expression of Indian textile craft, comprising appliqués, embroideries, beading, inlays of mirrors, and other surface embellishments. It was an impressive structure, flanked in the front by two ramps festooned with flowers, screaming with colours that were evocative of the land of holi.

This was a glorious moment for India. The fashion world has long looked to the country for not just inspiration, but for fabrics, for trims, for dyes, for patterns, and for the decorative handwork that Dior has been so enchanted with and was now celebrating. A fashion show of a French brand in a bustling Indian city could be the ceremonial affirmation of Indian’s poly-cultural influence on what has been acknowledged as the fashion capital of the world—Paris. That Dior would openly and enthusiastically call Indian artisans their allies was far more homage-paying than anything non-luxury brands have declared, even when Indian factories have been producing considerable quantities of clothes for much of the fashion-consuming world. The Times of India proudly enthused, “Maria Grazia Chiuri mixed her garments and patterns with Indian traditions for her Fall ’23 show. She blended her ingenious proficiency by incorporating Indian rituals in the most austere and genteel manners.” But if you took away the fine handwork, was this really any different in spirit from Uniqlo paying homage to Disney?

The use of colours in the Dior collection was a joyous celebration of Indian chromatic brilliance—such as those that were identified as peela (a yellow, even a green) jamuni (a purple), and neela (a blue). But it was the use of rani, a rather bright, assertive pink that prompted quite a few commentators and reporters to quote Diana Vreeland: “pink is the navy blue of India.” Ms Vreeland had made that proclamation more than a few times (when she first said it, it isn’t quite clear). In a 1980 Washington Post profile of the editor, the paper considered that quip “her most frequently quoted statement” (it appeared in Ms Vreeland’s memoir DV, too). And she had said that of pink to many figures of the fashion world while she was alive. One of them was the late Gianfranco Ferré, a former Dior designer (1989—1996) and an Indophile who had spent the early years of his fashion career in India. His reply to that Vreelandism was purportedly, “Naturally, pink is the navy blue of India because it is the cheapest dye.”

While Dior’s Gateway to India presentation trained the spotlight on Indian artisanship, specifically those of Chanakya International (a vocational school in Mumbai that describes itself as a “global export house”), as well as an affordable pigment, it offered little on the designs of Dior. Ms Chiuri chose to play it safe for her celebratory sense of Indomania, sticking to stock shapes of Indian dress for the 99 looks, authenticated by (a majority of) local models similarly made up to illustrate an indolent take on smokey-eye bridal make-up. This excluded the curious multi-strand pearl chokers that appeared on many of them, like misguided maharanis, just returned from a holiday in the decadent West. Perhaps ground-shifting design was not the objective. The Business Times, running a Bloomberg article, ran the headline, “World’s richest man eyes India’s luxury market with landmark Dior show”. In the end, to regale in Mumbai was likely a business decision than an artistic one.

Screen shot (top) Dior/YouTube. Photos: Dior