They’ve Got The Spirit

British daily The Guardian made an offering. So did broadcaster the BBC. No one is happy. Most are 😱

The Guardian’s CNY suggestions. Photos: The Guardian

By Zhao Guozhu

In the spirit of graciousness, I’d just have a laugh, a big laugh, 大笑一场. You would have read the reports and reactions by now. If you have not, let me have the pleasure. It was all about what to cook for the festive season. First, it was The Guardian with their not festively plated “pork and crab dumplings”, placed atop a sheet of joss paper (金纸, jinzhi, also known as 冥纸, mingzi or hell paper). Then there was the BBC with their dish of “lo mein” (the Cantonese pronunciation of 捞面, laomian, or what we know as dry noodles, not what the BBC described as “actually a very simple egg noodle stir fry”) next to a pair of envelopes—one of them, a hongbao (红包), the other, for use at funerals, on which it is clearly written 吉儀 (吉仪, jiyi or auspicious yi). The latter is usually given by the family of the deceased to the attendees of the funeral as a gift of appreciation (谢礼, xieli). Here, it is common to place in the envelope a small towel, candy, and a coin.

You can imagine the online shock and disdain, especially in this part of the world, where many of us are deep in the preparation of Chinese New Year. The Guardian heard or read them too. So did the BBC. The paper replaced that photograph with one that is missing the offensive joss paper. The broadcaster was more brutal—they deleted the picture altogether. The recipe that follows is now without a visual to tell readers what “lo mein” is. The thing that came to my mind: Why did the food stylists of the two shoots not think about what they had placed next to the dishes? The Guardian spread was attributed to Marie-Ange Lapierre (food styling) and Pene Parker (prop styling). Westerners must find it hard to style Asian food. On a plain plate, they don’t know how to make the dishes look good. So they have to resort to styling tricks, such as the use of items to exoticise the subject of the photograph, even if it means prop-hunting in a 香烛店 (xiangzhudian, joss and candle shop)!

BBC’s “lo mein”. Photo: BBC

There is something disconcertingly simplistic here too: As dumplings (饺子, jiaozi) “are traditionally served at the lunar new year feast”, The Guardian declared, they have to be styled with some assurance to the angmo creatives—something “traditional”. (Mostly northern Chinese eat jiaozi for the first meal of the Lunar New Year.) For many stylists in the West tasked to put together an image related to Chinese culture, anything that comes with Han characters (sometimes even Japanese text will do) or are at variance with their own aesthetical familiarity can pass of as inspired by China. It did not help that The Guadian’s dumplings could be gyozas and the BBC’s “lo mein” could be mee goong haeng (Thai dry noodles with prawns). Nothing about the two dishes say 中国菜 (Chinese food), so they need obvious visual cues, even extraneous ones.

Surely, they have knowledgeable people they could ask. Uncle Roger, perhaps? James Wong? Heck, Gemma Chan? I thought that following the 2018 fiasco over the Dolce & Gabbana ad, which showed a Chinese model eating a massive cannoli with chopsticks (both The Guardian and the BBC published reports), brands and the media too would be more mindful of how they effect representations of Chinese culture and cuisine. What would the British say if The Straits Times featured haggis served in a ciborium? Or, fish and chips wrapped in a (funeral) order of service? To The Guardian and the BBC, food prepared for Chinese New Year is for welcoming the start of spring, not the end of life. 别客气. You’re welcome.

With Actors, To Entice Pursuit

Prada’s autumn/winter 2022 presentation includes “10 globally-renown Hollywood stars”

Kyle MacLachlan opening the Prada show

Jeff Goldblum closing the show

Prada courting Hollywood actors is nothing new. Many will remember the autumn/winter 2012 show: on the red carpet with patterns resembling those of the Navajo (although the stadium setting could have been some place in Red Soviet) were William Dafoe, Adrien Brody, and Gary Oldman. These were not your typical matinee idols. For cinema fans, they were (and still are) the best character actors of both sides of the Atlantic. And then, now, there are ten: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Asa Butterfield, Jeff Goldblum, Damson Idris, Kyle MacLachlan, Tom Mercier, Jaden Michael, Louis Partridge, Ashton Sanders and Filippo Scotti. Once again, not your average leading men. Prada would never use Tom Cruise!

“Actors are interpreters of reality, employed to echo truth through their portrayals,” Prada tells us. The reality of an actor, whoever he portrays is, of course not necessarily our reality. But in choosing older actors for the runway, is Prada also saying something about experience as part of that reality? Fashion, of course, knows no age. And Prada’s menswear have often shown that to be true, as seen in how Jeff Goldblum has embraced the brand, pre-pandemic. Even the pick of Morale… You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling from The Human League’s first album in 1979, Reproduction, to soundtrack the show seems to target an older, post-disco pack that would no doubt instantly hum to “You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips/And there’s no tenderness like before in your fingertips (yes, originally sung by the Righteous Brothers in 1964—even earlier!)”.

Co-designers Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons are not literalists. Their references are often far more oblique. While both do look back, they do not bring to the fore a wholesale past. As per their collection communiqué: “Eschewing hierarchy, a dignity is proposed to pragmatic clothing, uniforms of reality, rematerialized in precious leather and silk tech as a mark of respect and value“. It is hard to imagine Prada not doing anything pragmatic, but there is always something a tad subversive to the pragmatism, even deviant. In case you are not too impressed with the spot-on tailoring, they’ve sneaked in something small, but so unexpected: dangling earrings! Sure, these are not in the chandelier style (they’re mostly geometrically-shape charms), but some are long enough to be, hmmm, shoulder dusters!

That is probably as far a feminine touch as Prada would go. Definitely no skirts. Or, should that be not yet?. In fact, we think this is one of the most masculine collections from Prada. The leather outers, with their hulky shoulders—they have an almost gangster quality about them, even in red. An SOTD reader messaged us to say that they reminded him of Claude Montana. Perhaps, but we were thinking of Demna (now, like his new best friend, going by one name) designing the costumes for a John le Carré movie (even the unlikely George Smiley!). And those one-pieces, with their suggestions of the the boiler room—workwear cool as sexy as military pomp. When Miuccia meets Raf.

Screen shots and photos: Prada

Do It Smartly

For the next autumn/winter, Fendi is hoping to get guys to really dress up

Silvia Venturini Fendi told the media she thinks that although there are so few occasions for occasion dressing these days, the habit of dressing well and smartly should “return in full force”, as WWD quotes her. That Ms Fendi is keen to promote and encourage men to dress up is understandable. As a luxury house, Fendi can’t be hoping to sell T-shirts and kindred garb—or more of them—to commensurate with the persistence of the pandemic that necessitates casual clothes (who goes for COVID testing or vaccinations and booster shots in a suit?). Or, to let guys be truly comfortable with donning T-shirts everywhere and every day to the point where the creature of habit in them takes over?

Ms Fendi’s solution is to bring back the “classics”, re-proportion them, and give them an overall softness. It is not immoderate to see them as feminine although that may increasingly be inappropriate an adjective to use to describe menswear. There are tunic shapes (to mimic a dress?), tented shorts (for winter?), and as it is de rigueur these days, a skirt (or what looks like one)—all happy friends with more convention shirts, sweaters, and parkas. Men, fashion presentation these days tell us, desire bottoms that are not pants. Still, we are not sure if the skirt is more option than must-have. Perhaps Ms Fendi is onto something when she refers to occasion dressing. There could be a time and place for men to don a good skirt, just not to meet the bank manager?

To defy convention (if it still matters), Ms Fendi tweaks the necklines too, but they are less minor adjustments than actually incorporating those usually devised to resemble a décolleté. Could the seen collar bone be the new mark of masculinity? Or is its exposure a sure sign that design details no longer distinguish roles according to gender? There is the inverted-triangular key holes on sweaters (one even appearing under a spread collar), and the split boat-neck of an evening jacket, on which a single-bloom corsage (they are too large to be called boutonnière, no?) is worn, just like Carrie Bradshaw is (still) inclined to. Pandemic-era dressing requires the projection of nuptial joy.

To further strengthen the gender-neutrality, the accessories appear to have—like certain contagions—made the jump. Sure, the Baguette has crossed over to the men’s camp for quite a few seasons now, and they still remain strong and handbag-like on masculine hips, but less expected are pearl necklaces, now worn over neck warmers, like an obijime (decorative cord) atop the obi. It is, of course, true that pearls under male chins, even unshaved, have not been unusual for awhile too, but as strap-ons for covered necks, they may preface jewellery for turtlenecks, mock or not. With surgical masks still necessary, and adopted by the fashionable set, is neckwear with their own accessories the next big thing?

Screen grab and photos: Fendi

Play It Loud

With Machine Gun Kelly behind the music, Dolce & Gabbana shows that you really can look deafening

Machine Gun Kelly performing on the runway

Bengdom has a new god. Make that gods: Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. Okay, perhaps not so new. They have held court in the Mount Olympus of visual excess for many years now, and those who come to worship at the foot of the giddy elevation can’t get enough of D&G’s boundless flashiness. Their shows are designed to top the excesses of previous presentations, the more dazzling, the better, the more gaudy, the merrier. Marketing missteps of the past be damned. They do not care what their naysayers think or post (although they did sue Diet Prada for what the Instagrammers shared online in 2018 that the brand claimed to have led to losses in revenue and deal). Over-the-top is their strong, showy suit. Dolce & Gabbana make Philip Plein look like a very minor deity.

Their autumn/winter collection emanates the sartorial energy of the time the two designers first met—in 1982, in a Milan discotheque—were eventually romantically linked. This time, their show is headlined by Machine Gun Kelly (aka Colson Baker), the American rapper/singer/actor, now engaged to Megan Fox, who is, expectedly, seated in the front row. Like MGK’s music, an ardent blend of hip hop and rock (as expected, My Ex’s Best Friend is performed), D&G is the visual fanciness to MGK’s aural fierceness. MGK struts down the runway to open the show in a white suit (one of three outfit changes) with pointy studs that form the outline of the jacket. As the camera zooms in, we see the ear, nose, and lip jewellery. Hardware is imperative and prolific. He dramatically pauses as he walks back, and cues the beat—a ringmaster ringing in the circus of fashion. And then closing it.

If the garish digital graphics and unrelentless flashing of disco lights are not enough, the clothes would definitely make up for the shortfall. Together, they provide a truly woozy viewing experience. So busy, in fact, is the sum of the show parts (including MGK!) that it is hard to understand what is really coming together in the massive display of the 107 looks. It is amazing how much one male body can don or need. D&G certainly shows the myriad possibilities and, in turn, the absurdities. Perhaps, they are inspired by Chinese New Year hampers (FYI, there’s a silver tiger print coat!). The designing duo has made outdoing themselves an art, although Mr Gabbana told the press before the show in more euphemistic terms, “We’re challenging ourselves; we’re questioning everything we’ve been used to.” The questionable, too.

There is no denying the free-hand approach to the designs: anything goes, and everything gets in. So what you see are clothes that are so exaggerated that unless one lives an outsized existence requiring sartorial extremes, they may not even fit—literally—in a typical wardrobe. Some of the puffers are really so large, the models could be wearing family tents. And, graffiti prints so packed onto fabrics, they make walls scrawled with spray paint look clean. In fact, pattern and prints dominate, but none more trying than the tedious repetition of two letter—yes, ‘D’ and ‘G’. They make LV’s appearances seem infrequent and tame.

Screen grab: Dolce & Gabbana/YouTube. Photos: Dolce & Gabbana

Star-Power Insistence

Unvaccinated Novak Djokovic is hell-bent on participating in this year’s Australian Open, largely through his standing as “the world’s number 1 tennis player”. Will his audacity enhance his appeal among brands behind his multi-million sponsorship deals?

By Lester Fang

The world is screwed. That much we know. The COVID pandemic has destructed civic life as much as the vaccine needed to bring about its end has divided it. Despite the climate problems we now face that may one day wipe us all off the surface of this earth, we have to preface that gloomy prediction by being caught between two opposing human forces: those who have accepted vaccination—and are inoculated—against the COVID virus (and the subsequent mutants) and those who have not and their dead refusal to receive it. I have not met an anti-vaxxer before. That is why the Serbian Novak Djokovic’s situation and defiance in Australia is so spine-straightening to me. Will he really get to play on Monday, and show the world how exceptional he really is—so out of the ordinary that he should be able to bypass immigration policies of a sovereign land when you and I would not be able to?

Let me lay it out: I am no tennis fan. Okay, to be more accurate, I am no fan of any tennis player, regardless of his world ranking. That kind of thing just does not impress me. Nor, how many pairs of shoes one can sell. Therefore, the individual known as Ye has not been able to make a fan out of me with his Yeezys, even less now that his name is the first syllable of Yeshua. No one is ever that big in stature and in wealth to be above immigration requirements of any independent state. Nor, is he able to impress the world by hiring a lawyer to fight his case in court, and then admit to failings, such as knowing that he tested positive when, last month, he attended a newspaper interview and photoshoot at his tennis centre in Serbia. And, in an unsurprising blame game, that his “agent” had conveniently made a mistake in a travel form. But we’re supposed to believe that Mr Djokovic is not a no one.

“It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt. But there is no one player in history that’s more important than an event.”

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal was a beacon of reason when he told the media in a pre-tournament press conference, “It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt. But there is no one player in history that’s more important than an event.” The spotlight now cast on Mr Djokovic unfortunately brightens his importance, as the player, the anti-vaxxer, and the exceptional. One tennis enthusiast friend of mine, a Roger Federer fan, agrees that the alienating refusenik should not be allowed to enter Australia because “he has not been honest with quite a few things in pertaining to his entry requirement, particularly his vaccination status”.

To me, Mr Djokovic’s border behaviour borders on the bratty. He is already a polarising player in Centre Court, he does not need to remind us why some of us won’t buy his pathetic stand as victim in an airport. Sure, many people can’t bear watching the Australian Open without him competing (his 21st Grand Slam title is at stake), but there are those of us who can’t take his refusal to be vaccinated half way across the world and insist he is to be treated differently from others who respect the entry requirements of foreign nations. Some supportive members of the media say that Mr Djokovic’s “reception (at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport) was not what the world’s No. 1 player anticipated”. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic even charged the Australian government for “mistreating” Serbia’s national pride. Australia is known to have one of the toughest border controls in the world (my mother was once almost denied entry for having on her a packet of peanuts distributed on the aircraft earlier that she did not finish!). Yet, the “World’s No.1” did not anticipate the airport staff would simply do their job.

Uniqlo sponsored Novak Djokovic from 2012 to 2017

According to Forbes last year, Mr Djokovic’s endorsement deals amounted to a not unimpressive US$30 million. So far, no brand has indicated that distancing themselves from him is on the cards. His insistence to be allowed to play, I can only imagine, is admirable qualities. Only the Swiss watchmaker Hublot has released a statement, assuring the public—fans, surely—that their sponsorship for the tennis star remains intact and, in addition, that “Novak Djokovic is his own person”. As most brands know of his stand on vaccination, whatever he does now, even if it doesn’t gain applause, likely won’t change what they think the value his name could bring to a product. Negative publicity has not hurt him in the past, it is possible it won’t ruffle him now. In 2012, when Uniqlo’s sponsorship of Mr Djokovic was announced, Tadashi Yanai, Chairman, President & CEO of Fast Retailing, said, “Uniqlo and Novak share a common, mutual desire to improve people’s lives and contribute to society”. What has happened in Melbourne since 6 January appear to contradict that view.

Mr Djokovic does not share headline space with luxury brands such as that between Naomi Osaka and Louis Vuitton. He is not, to me, the Christiano Ronaldo of the tennis world. He won’t, therefore, be on the marketing radar of, say, Kering. The most prestigious fashion brand to support him is Lacoste. The five-year sponsorship, which he accepted after the deal with Uniqlo (which came after Sergio Tacchini, 2009—2012) ended, is reported to be worth US$9.4 million annually till this year. Other non-garment sponsorships include the American label Head for racquets and the Japanese Asics for shoes, and, of course, Hublot for the timepiece(s). These brands’ no-reaction to the happenings in Melbourne of the past ten days, I am certain, would not have vaccinated fashionistas up in arms. By most indications, Novak Djokovic won’t go under Down Under.

Update (16 January 2022, 15:00): Novak Djokovic has lost his desperate court appeal against the cancellation of his visa. He will be deported from Australia just as he is looking forward to defending his Australian Open championship tomorrow evening.

Illustration: Just So. Photo: novakdjokovic.com

The French Connection, A Story Of Hope

From Paris, Sharon Au lets us in on a little known fact: she’s an aspiring fashion designer

‘Red Carpet’ dress worn by Sharon Au (left) and seen in the Akinn look book. Photos: sharonau13/instagram and Akinn/Wee Khim Studio respectively

Who would have guessed that Sharon Au (欧菁仙), now based in Paris, would be the next Kelly to Akinn’s Song? Song Whykidd that is. Mr Song, some may remember, was part of the design duo Song and Kelly and their eponymous label that enjoyed considerable visibility and success in the ’90s, so much so that the Club 21 Group bought what was reported to be a “majority stake” in the label Song+Kelly (then textually identified, with the plus symbol) in 2000, and suffixed it with ‘21’. In no time, Song+Kelly21 was retailing through free-standing stores at Forum the Shopping Mall and Ngee Ann City, as well as their own corner in Isetan at Wisma Atria. Regionally, they were sold at Paragon Department Store in Bangkok, as well as Parkson in Kuala Lumpur. According to press reports, Song+Kelly21 was also sold in Selfridges and Harrods in London and Barney’s in New York. The brand parted ways with Club 21 in 2007, and with that, Song+Kelly21 folded.

Song Wykidd has looked Westwards in affirming his design sense: The ACS alum studied fashion and textile in the UK, at Kingston University (formerly Kingston Polytechnic), and he showed Song+Kelly briefly at New York Fashion Week and London Fashion Week in the late ’90s. And, now, for his three-year-old label Akinn, there is a Paris link—not the pret-a-porter, not a retail space, but a collaboration with résidente parisien Sharon Au, whom Mr Song referred to as “my perennial muse (a vintage expression, if there is one)”. An investment director with a private equity firm there, Ms Au has been in the City of Lights since 2018. Many of those we spoke to were not aware of Ms Au’s connection to fashion and were hard-pressed to remember her style—or if, indeed, she had one. “She designs?” was a repeated rejoinder. Although she was not quite the fashion plate that is Zoe Tay or Fann Wong, Ms Au did start and edit the Mediacorp e-magazine StyleXStyle in 2012 and was made the publisher of Elle Sg in 2017 to assist in the transitioning of the publication to an online title. She was also known to support young talents, not only by featuring them in her magazine, but also by encouraging them at their school, such as Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, attending their graduation shows.

Sharon Au prancing the streets of Paris in an Akinn X Sharon Au ‘A Fresh Start’ dress. Photo: sharonau13/Instagram

In her latest post on her healthily-followed Instagram (134K), liked by fellow Singaporean-in-Paris, designer Andrew Gn, the still-tethered-to-Mediacorp personality shared an ill-lit photo of her with the Tour Eiffel behind her, in an Akinn X Sharon Au dress called ‘Red Carpet’, presumably named after something she or her former MediaCorp colleagues might wear to the Star Awards (红星大奖). An ankle-length, loose-fit sleeveless dress, with an inverted pleat placed in the middle of the scoop neckline, the ‘Red Carpet’ is of a silhouette, we should say, that’s familiar: body-skimming, but still roomy enough to accommodate assorted bodily girths without risking the misfortune of looking like a downright sack. Ms Au wrote in the comments of that post—somewhat gleefully, “…you can eat as much bak kwas as you want wearing this. No matter what body shape you are, you can rock the Red Carpet”.

Akinn, even without the Sharon Au touch, has found the saleable shape that would be appealing—a circumscription adopted by many local brands now enjoying a retail renaissance, from The Closet Lover to The Editor’s Market. Dresses must have the preferred looseness of a housecoat, the happy vibe of a sundress, and the conservative length of a caftan. If its predecessor brand Song+Kelly21 captured the aesthetical zeitgeist of its time, Akinn reflects what sells today. While the brand is better made than many of its contemporaries, it does not quite enjoy the dashes that made Song+Kelly21 the standout that it was in the pre-Design Orchard days of SG fashion. One makeup artist recalled, “I bought a lot of their stuff in the early 2000s. What I remember most are the details worked into the clothes. Even a simple shell top has unexpected seam placement and asymmetric inserts. You sense the pieces had design thinking behind them”.

The Akinn X Sharon Au label, featuring her cat Rudon. Photo: sharonau13/instagram

Akinn X Sharon Au, launched last week, is a small, six-style, dresses-only capsule called ‘A Story of Hope’, one among half a dozen descriptions that aligns with Ms Au’s often upbeat, yet contrived, optimism. Ms Au, who is now home, reveals on IG that she named all the six dresses herself, such as the mint-green shirt-dress she wore shopping at the fleuriste Stephane Bellot, called optimistically ‘A Fresh Start’, because, as she wrote, “I have been given many chances in life to start over and I know how important second and repeated chances are” and “I believe a dress truly comes alive only when you wear it and own your style”. Netizens have, before this collab, frequently commentated on how regrettably trite her posts can be. For Akinn X Sharon Au, there is no discernible attempt to correct that perception: a slick two-tone ‘convertible dress’ bears the unfortunate moniker ‘Mademoiselle-in-Love’ and a lovely ‘ruffled neck blouson dress’ is, regrettably, ‘Spring in Paris’.

Apart from the naming of the dresses, it is not clear how involved Ms Au was in the design exercise of the capsule or if she was, in fact, present when it was put together. This is not the first time Mr Song has collaborated with local stars. Last October, there was a pairing with the singer-songwriter Inch Chua. In a livestream on IG, Mr Song said that the Akinn X Inch capsule had “gone through the fingers of Inch Chua”. Although that does not say a lot, it could indicate that the same might have benefitted Akinn’s team-up with Ms Au. The designer told CNA in 2019 that Akinn’s “vision is to build a collaborative design platform that goes beyond fashion”. And, that platform “could take the form of Akinn working with or being inspired by a celebrated personality with a distinct style, or with a designer or artist (he) admire(s), creating products at the same level of sophistication that customers expect”. Designing not expected? Despite Sharon Au’s admirable attempt at imbuing the collab—at least in the photographs of her in the dresses bearing her name—with a Parisian vigueur, the clothes emanate an SG post-blogshop vibe, even with a “level of sophistication”, with neither the Gallic ease of, say, Sandro or the edginess of The Kooples.

Akinn X Sharon Au communication image. Photo: akinndesign/instagram

Song Wykidd met British graphic designer Ann Kelly in the UK and a partnership was established in 1993. Mr Song came home, bringing along Ms Kelly, and both started Song+Kelly in 1995, a fairly late debut, considering that his schoolmate in ACS, Peter Teo, who also studied in England, launched the now defunct Project Shop, first a T-shirt label, in 1990 (followed by Project Shop Bloodbros, which eventually morphed into the popular PS Café). Song+Kelly enjoyed a good start as Mr Song were friends with many in the fashion scene here, such as the photographer Wee Khim, who shoots Mr Song’s designs till this day. When Club 21 bought into Song+Kelly, they paved the way for another multi-label store to have their own Singaporean label: The Link’s Alldressedup, launched in 2005 and closed in 2013. The designers Sven Tan and Kane Tan left a year earlier to start In Good Company, which some observers initially thought was reminiscent of Song+Kelly21, with their take on the “new minimalism” that emerged from the final Helmut Lang years. Mr Song did not stay away from fashion. After leaving Club 21, he started WK Design, offering bespoke clothing, on top of ready-to-wear and other fashion-related services. In 2014, he joined the Hong Kong premium womenswear label Anagram as their senior design/development manager. Before Akinn was born, he was head of the design faculty at MDIS.

The journey to the birth of Akinn was, reportedly, not an easy-sailing one. At Boutique Fairs in 2019, where the brand had a space (at the F1 Pit Building, the venue of the event that year), Song Wykidd was heard telling a visitor that it had been “hard” to “sell fashion to local shoppers”, but as “fashion was still in (his) blood, will still try”. At that time, less than 500 metres away, veteran designer Esther Tay, too launched her comeback eponymous label. Interestingly, another designer from the past was also a participant at the event: Thomas Wee, in another return of sort. When asked if these old-timers’ output would impact his new label, or emanate competitive heat, Mr Song said diplomatically, “we’re all doing different things”. To that, perhaps, he had (and still has) a trump card the other two did not: appreciating the value of collaborative partnerships and staying more visible as a result of them. It is not known publicly how long the designer knows his muse, but Ms Au’s endorsement of Akinn may augment the positioning of the fledgling brand and the credentials of Mr Song. As she wrote on IG, “I know how important second and repeated chances are”.

Akinn X Sharon Au capaule is available at Design Orchard and akinn.com

Music Video Or Fashion Commercial?

With the new track from Kanye West’s Donda, the line is clearly blurred

Kanye West, er, Ye (since last October, we keep forgetting) has a new single from the 27-track Donda album, called Heaven and Hell. Between those poles, he has put out a music video two days ago that is quite unlike any seen on his YouTube channel. This is not awash with the most amazing video effects or full of sensational fashion, or elephantine footwear. At about two half minutes long, Heaven and Hell is a rather short track. The accompany video is dark, gloomy, and dystopian-looking, more hell than heaven, with many people in it, all looking rather like Ye has this past Balenciaga-enabled year: facially obscured, mysterious, and inaccessible. Even zombies have more expression.

We see only silhouettes of the indistinct people. They seem to be monks—just men. Maybe the gender is incorporeal, inconsequential. Maybe they are non-binary. Just single beings, single units, single entities, looking from the shadows towards the abode of the Almighty. The singularity is rather odd for a proudly cisgender Ye, more so when he reminds us in the new song, “women producing, men go work” (taken from 20th Century Steel Band’s 1965 track Heaven and Hell on Earth). Were the faceless men working as they go about slow-mo in what looks like a housing estate? In the stills towards the end of the video, the hordes seem to be in battle. The end of days?

Could they be angels? One thing is for certain, all of them are outfitted in a black hoodie of one design. And at the end of the video, we learned, at the sight of the familiar blue logo, that the top was from Yeezy Gap. Not likely the trousers since the Gap and Yeezy partnership has only released one hoodie and one puffer jacket, so far. Is the MV sponsored by Gap then, or is this part of the marketing exercise of the two names coming together? If there were to be roles/talents/characters in the video, the people would need clothes. But Gap (traditionally) takes pride in the many colours of one style that they could merchandise. It is, therefore, unclear how this gloomy video could augment the (still) fading glory of Gap, even if it was announced that Balenciaga would “engineer“ something with Yeezy Gap. Or, is it just the black similitude that the brand sees as the way forward?

As with most of Ye’s music in recent years, Heaven and Earth is a sharing of the power of the Christian God and a show of the rapper’s evangelical flair. This, like all of Donda, doubles as soundtrack for his popular Sunday service. It isn’t known how Ye—now, a monosyllabic moniker, like God—reconciles the materialism, swagger and self-absorption of fashion with the values of religious dogma. “Save my people through the music,” Ye raps, but not once does he plead, through clothes (instead, “no more logos“), even when he has used fashion merchandise to preach, such as as his label Yeezy Sunday Service, sold through the Coachella pop-up Church Clothes. Despite acknowledging the part that image and clothing play, Ye is still unwavering in his devotional bent, sing-preaching/suggesting more good than goods; more God than Gap.

Screen grab: Kanye West/Youtube

Carrie Bradshaw Goes Ethnic

Woke or cultural appropriation? No, it’s “cultural appreciation”. Confusing times, isn’t it?

Carrie Bradshaw decked up for Diwali. Photo: sarah.j.p.bradshaw/Instagram

And Just Like That… it’s Diwali. Carrie Bradshaw has a new gal-pal, her real estate agent Seema Patel (played by British actress Sarita Choudhury). Not only has Ms Bradshaw bought an apartment from the latter, she is getting rather close to her. And Just Like That… Ms Bradshaw is going to celebrate the Festival of Light with an Indian family in episode six of AJLT, titled—what else?—‘Diwali’. But before that, soul mate Seema took her to “my Soho” in Manhattan for sari-shopping. In the unnamed store, no sari was seen (we certainly did not see one), but Ms Patel said “sari” twice: “I’ll buy a stunning sari” and “let’s get you a sari”. Neither woman touched a sari; neither is shown leaving the store with a purchase of one.

(Okay, truth now: we did watch AJLT, even when we said we would not. The temptation to see how blah it would turn out is too great to resist.)

And then Ms Bradshaw is, 21 minutes (and a consultation with a facelift doctor) later, all dressed and ready to go celebrate Diwali somewhere in Queens. She emerges from her part-time home, a Brownstown on the Upper East Side, decked out in a long-sleeved choli and a full-skirted lehenga! Did Ms Patel not say, in “my Soho” that her friend should get a sari? Or were we mistaken (could not be bothered to rewind)? As she arranges her outfit outside the front door to her block, it is clear Ms Bradshaw is not wearing a sari, but a skirt, the lehenga, usually ankle-length—hers seems to be sweeping the floor. It is hard to imagine that fashion-mad Carrie Bradshaw did not know what she was wearing, exactly.

A supposed sari shop in Soho, but the women are flanking a set of choli and lehenga. Photo: Netflix

To be sure, she did let on that she knew little (or nothing?) about Indian dress and Indian festive seasons. She told Ms Patel shortly after entering the “sari shop” (she did later call it that): “Okay, these clothes, this holiday, I need to know everything about it (sic)”. As it turns out, she learnt nothing about them. When she was told to purchase a sari to go to the party, she asked with 2021-proper caution, “Is that allowed?” The buying? Sure! But, Ms Patel replied confidently, “You’re wearing it to a traditional celebration at my family home. That’s not cultural appropriation; that’s cultural appreciation”. It’s in the Borough of Queens, not the Republic of India! The wearing of ethnic clothes (let’s not talk about the blooming mohawk on her hair!) not related to the ethnicity of the wearer is not inappropriate adoption for as long one is given approval by a single person from that ethnic group, an entire diaspora? Or is it more lax in New York?

In this episode of AJLT, directed by cast member Cynthia Nixon, Carrie Bradshaw reminds us that “15 years” have passed. And in her mid-50s, she has an Indian friend and learning about Diwali for, both the first time. It is unfathomable that, in all these years, from the time they met (let’s go back further), the three women have so few Asian friends when New York is such a plural society, with Asians constituting the highest total Asian population of any US city. Sure, Charlotte York has an adopted Chinese daughter, Lily, but she is largely a peripheral character. Sex and the City, while progressive at the time of its broadcast, did not really have a sterling reputation when it came to embracing diversity. And Just Like That playing catch up is, regrettably, just that.

Tiger Beat: Happy Family

The lanterns for this year’s Chinese New Year light-up in Chinatown is about the alpha male and his family. Endearing, even when it reminds us of some scary beasts in a ’70s theme park along Pasir Panjang Road

When the Chinese-style lanterns in the shape of tigers (虎) were lit this evening, a throng had gathered outside Chinatown Point to take photographs of them. In real life, tigers are the largest living cat species known. On the road divider between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road, the tigers appeared to be live-sized. They struck an imposing figure. Most of the spectators across the intersection were pointing the camera on their smartphone at the subject; some were more seriously equipped—with DSLRs and tripods. The silent tigers were a clear draw, like those in a zoo. However, a woman, not snapping, was heard saying, “一点都不可爱 (yi dian dou bu ke ai, not cute at all).”

Unlike in Japan, we have never placed a premium on cuteness. We do not have or enjoy a culture of kawaii—where in the land of Pokémon, is itself a pop culture phenomenon. Through the years, the light-ups in Chinatown have banked mostly on a conventional Chinese aesthetic that borders on the run-of-the-mill. It has not been an interpretive depiction that conveys a sense of the adorable. Better be zhun (准, accurate) than cute. In their seriousness to be culturally on-the-dot (although not specifically appealing to any elite currency), the organisers of the Chinatown light-ups have frequently drawn criticism for their aesthetic faux pas, such as the manly and pregnant moon goddesses during the Mid-Autumn Festivals.

Before the LED lights did their controlled magic, the tigers looked— from a distance—grey, stony, and somewhat menacing, even when the adult beasts were standing on clouds and the brood frolicking with a gold coin and an ingot. In the light of an overcast day, the trigonal set-up was rather evocative of those hellish dioramas in Haw Par Villa (虎豹別墅, aka Tiger Balm Gardens) of the ’70s, then a major local attraction (without the influence of a pandemic) and now considered a cultural heritage. As dusk approached, the shadowy creatures looked the antithesis of an approaching festive season.

There are five tigers in the main display. We wondered if the quintet is to show the size of a family that is now encouraged in view of our shrinking population. Or, to match the number of people allowed in social interactions or to dine out. Could it also be to denote the five elements in Chinese philosophy: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Come 1 February, we will be welcoming the year of the water tiger (and so that you are not mistaken, blue ripples underscore the scenes of posing and prancing tigers along Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road). As soft as that sounds, the tiger of the Chinese Zodiac is a symbol of strength and confidence. The water tiger is not a tamed beast; it is believed to possess a self-esteem that is considered strong. Perhaps, that is why the organisers of the Chinatown light-up have avoided cute?

But soft is the pull elsewhere in Chinatown. Away from the light-up, inside the shopping streets, large quantities of bulaohu (布老虎 or stuffed cloth tiger) are available in many gift shops and those offering CNY decorations in staggering bulk. These made-in-China toys bear a cute countenance, compared to those now populating the main street outside People’s Park Complex. The bulaohu is a traditional folk handicraft that has been made and used in China since ancient times. Aesthetically, these seen in Chinatown may look different from those of the past, but its feline form is unmistakable, and is deliberately simplified to trot out its facial adorableness, and that grin!

The tiger, placed third in the Chinese Zodiac, was both worshipped and feared in ancient China. Known as bai shou zhi wang (百兽之王, king of beasts), it was also considered to be efficient in warding off the three domestic disasters of more rural times: fire, burglars, and evil spirits. But in the pandemic era of an urban world, the fierceness and courageousness of the tiger are somewhat played down. From tiger buns at Ikea to T-shirts emblazoned with “Gucci Tiger”, the king of beasts is not quite kingly, and is taking on a decidedly less ferocious role. Do they even roar anymore?

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Spirited Loewe

The Spanish house’s second collab with Japan’s Studio Ghibli is another happy romance of craft and anime

Loewe’s bus-stop ad for the launch of their collab with Studio Ghibli

In Hayao Miyazaki’ 2001 animated feature, Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し), the spider-like spirit Kamaji (釜爺), also the boilerman at the ghostly bathhouse, answered the servant Lin (リン) when she wanted to know what was going on, “Something you wouldn’t recognize. It’s called love.“ Those who come face-to-face with Loewe’s latest collaborative merchandise would recognise the vivid illustrations on the clothes and accessories, and they would call it love, too. A collaboration that is born of “a mutual passion for craftsmanship”, according to Loewe, and is lovingly conceived and created. If Loewe’s first pairing with Studio Ghibli last year, featuring characters from My Neighbour Totoro, was “inspired“, their sophomore outing with possibly Japan’s most famous animation studio is total homage.

Spirited Away, as the title suggests is set in the world of spirits—many not particularly appealing, even if they aren’t really scary. Yet, Jonathan Anderson is able to find muses in the characters, such as the not-quite-likeable Yubaba (湯婆婆), proprietor of the strange Aburaya (油屋 or bathhouse) in which much of the action of the film is centred; Kaonashi (顔無し), the lonely spirit, also known as No-Face in the English version of the film; and, of course, the ten-year-old protagonist Ogino Chihiro (荻野 千尋). Images of these characters appear on garments, as well as accessories, trotting out Loewe’s particular skills in crafting cloth and leather. Likely to be the most popular would be the Susuwataris (すすワタリ) or soot spirits, also seen in My Neighbour Totoro and in that debut collaboration with the animation studio. Apart from the obvious appeal, Loewe also made them into little pouch bags, something celebrity mothers are likely to buy for their kids.

A window hinting at what lies beyond it

Some of our fave products from the Loewe X Spirited Away collab. Product photos: Loewe. Collage: Just So

Unlike in the home of Spirited Away the hotly-anticipated collab is not launched here in a purpose-designed pop-up that is imbued with the magical mood of the film. In Tokyo, it is staged (and we use the theatrical term deliberately) in “a traditional Japanese-style home” in Harajuku that sits on a back alley, just off the famed Takeshita Dori. The 10-day retail site truly allows one to be lost in the world of Spirited Away “from the minute you walk past the vermillion gate post”, our Tokyo source told us. These days, we call such experiences “immersive” and, at the Loewe pop-up, it was so to the point that visitors are offered a yokikana tea, co-created by Sanzaemon Kasuya (a 600-year-old manufacturer of koji, a type of mold used in food production) and the Daikanyama cafe PELLS. The cups come with sleeves featuring characters from the film. A free collectible!

Conversely, inside the flagship store at ION Orchard, Chinese New Year blossoms have been chosen in place of any tableau that might give fashionistas, who are also Spirited Away fans, a foretaste of Ghibli Park, scheduled to open in Nagakute City, near Nagoya, Japan later this year. Only a single window, with a red bridge to denote the one outside the bathhouse of the film, hints at the filmic reference of the merchandise on display. In fact, if you are able to just walk into the store (you need to book a time and even then, you’d have to join a queue outside the store), you would not be greeted by a semblance of the bathhouse that is core to the film, or any part of the alternate world that Chichoro stumbled into and tried hard to get out of. No, but a staff would direct you to those products you would have already decided to buy. Anything cute, as you read this, is likely sold out.

The two-decade-plus-old, hand-drawn Spirited Away is considered by most film critics to be the best animated film of all time. It won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2002. Most of us saw the version dubbed in English. The deftly-done translation did not in anyway Westernise the narrative for a non-Japanese audience. The Japanese-ness is not diminished, not even with the unspeaking No-Face. Nor, was there a weakening of the folklorish charisma. And that, to us, is the lure of the film. In that regard, Loewe, too, has not made the products on which the characters appear more—or even less—Spanish, or, worse, Disney-fied. The Puzzle bag with the Soot Spirits, for example, isn’t overrun by the puff-ball creatures—they are judiciously placed, retaining the house aesthetics, as well as a distinctly Japanese way with cuteness. Charmed.

Loewe X Spirited Away is available at Loewe, ION Orchard. Photos (except indicated): Zhao Xiangji

Couturier Possessed

A high-fashion designer claimed he was under demonic influence when he was unable to show up at an arranged meeting to execute a paid job, and then he disappeared, as the client chased him to have her money back

Scandal to start the year: a S$1,000 photo shoot that did not materialise, the victim who reached out to The Straits Times to expose the service provider—a self-proclaimed “couturier” who seemingly vanished. The tale is not the equivalent of The House of Gucci, but it is still a story with cinematic potential, one that might interest Mark Lee (although it is unlikely he would cast himself as the main man). According to the ST report, admin assistant Katrina Rawther approached the paper with her story/grievance in October last year, claiming that the Singaporean “couturier” Dicky Ishak had not honoured the thousand-dollar photo shoot they had agreed to do and for which she had paid in full in two payments. Ms Rawther had, apparently, not been able to reach him after November last year. It is unclear why the ST report appeared only yesterday.

Dicky Ishak, who calls himself “Mr Dicky” (even in Malay, he is referred to as “Encik Dicky”), is a “bespoke” high-fashion designer, known for gowns and special occasion wear, in particular, baju nikah (wedding dress). Reportedly a professional since 1990, he claimed to have “designed the wardrobes for the Miss Singapore World contestants (yes, in plural)”, as well as those of “international beauty pageants such as Mrs Global, Miss World and Mrs Asia Pacific” although ST stated that he only “once designed a dress for the Miss Universe Pageant”. That single dress, according to a 2020 Berita Harian report, was supposed to have been made for Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Wu Ong of that year for the National Costume segment at the delayed staging of the event last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as we know now, Ms Ong wore a dress designed by Filipino Arwin Meriales, with a cape that had “Stop Asian Hate” written on it.

As Mr Dicky told the Malay-language paper, national director of Miss Universe Singapore Valerie Lim had sent him a letter with the “opportunity to sponsor the national costume, evening gown and cocktail dress, accessories and shoes” that Ms Ong would don at the finals in Florida. He said that, in the midst of the pandemic, designing the Miss Universe costumes: “ia bak bulan jatuh ke riba (it’s like the moon has fallen on your lap)”, by which he meant something good unexpectedly happened to him. With Ms Ong’s red-and-white dress making the news globally, she revealed on Instagram that she “reach(ed) out” to Mr Meriales “to create a design of my own”, It is not known what happened to the gowns Dicky Ishak had agreed to design or if he completed them at all. But, according to Low Hwee Lee of Red Carpet Invite (a “models and talents agency”), who shared on FB, “Designer Dicky Ishak is the key sponsor for most of MUS gown (sic)”.

Designing the Miss Universe costumes: “it’s like the moon has fallen on your lap”

A month after the Miss Universe staging and telecast, Mr Dicky met his potential client, Katrina Rawther. According to ST, Ms Rawther had organised a photo shoot of herself in “traditional costume” with “a local bridal services company”. Mr Dicky was reportedly hired as a stylist for the session. It is not certain if they spoke in person, but he told Ms Rawther that he was a fashion designer, experienced in dressing contestants of pageants, and “suggested that she hire him in the future”, To bolster his creative credentials, he allegedly showed Ms Rawther media coverage of his work (presumably the Berita Harian story was shown, although Mr Dicky himself claimed on Facebook to have been “mentioned” in The New Paper and the now-defunct Lianhe Wanbao [联合晚报]) and identified the talk shows he was on (these were not named).

About a month after that (and the traditional costume shoot we assume to have taken place), Ms Rawther was contacted by the baju nikah designer with a seemingly attractive overture: for S$1,000, he would organise a shoot and “loan her three costumes he had designed for her to be photographed in”, according to ST. It is not understood why he had three dresses “designed for her” when she did not ask for them, but she seemed to be happy with the fee and agreed to the service offered. Apparently, she thought the makeover would be a lovely birthday present to herself. The photos were to be ready by her birthday—16 September. To initiate the agreed project, Ms Rawther revealed to ST that she transferred, via PayNow, S$300 to him as a deposit on 17 July, followed by the rest of the payment eight days later. They now agreed to a shoot scheduled for 6 September.

When that day arrived, Mr Dicky called to postpone the photographic session. He told Ms Rawther the “photographer had tested positive for COVID-19” (then, before the emergence of the Omicron variant). It is not known if the S$1,000 that was paid included the photographer’s fee or those doing the hair and makeup. Stylists that we have spoken to said that the quote Mr Dicky offered to his client was likely a “package price” and that it was “competitive” if “a top photographer is not used”. It is, therefore, unlikely that he considered backing out for under-quoting her. He told Ms Rawther that he would get back to her for a new date for the shoot by 16 September. He contacted her on her birthday.

Image from Dicky Ishak’s last FB post on 10 September 2020. Photo: Akram TheLove

This was when the story took a comedic turn. Not only did Mr Dicky fail to deliver the photographs by the anniversary of his client’s birth (as initially agreed), he called her again on that day, this time offering a bomo hokum: he was “possessed”! It is not stated what possessed him, but as he told Ms Rawther that he needed “spiritual healing”, it might be safe to assume that a supernatural power was involved. Aware that the excuse this time might sound utterly foolish, he provided her with “proof” of the control of his body by spirits (we do not know if they were malevolent): “pictures, videos and an audio file”, all purportedly ST was privy to. Once again, Ms Rawther agreed to a postponement. As fate would have it, she saw, on the same day of the possession reveal, activity on Mr Dicky’s IG page, and proceeded to text him on WhatsApp, but was ignored. Afraid of a bad outcome, she tried all social media options to reach him, but met a blank.

As many Singaporeans would, Ms Rawther filed a report with the Small Claims Tribunals, but was informed that there was no business license in Mr Dicky’s name, although BH did report of a “studio” in Prestige Centre@Bukit Batok Crescent that he was working out of last year. Clearly at the end of the road now, Ms Rawther went to the police, and then spoke to ST about her case in October last year. When the paper tried to contact Mr Dicky, he did not respond. On the same day, he reached out to Ms Rawther and offered to reschedule the shoot, again. But in November, he changed his mind and supposedly cancelled the entire project and offered to return the S$1,000 he received from her. That was the last she heard from him. When we called the one number linked to Dicky Ishak Couturier, we were met with totally no response, not even a ring tone—it appeared to be an unused number.

In a hilarious “Details about Dicky” entry in FB, he stated that (and we quote verbatim) “Mr Dicky is one of the designer in Singapore today. Since 1990, it has developed a unique style of its own, reflecting the Fusion craftsmanship in a contemporary vocabulary. Mr Dicky understanding individual designs and the innovative use of modern crafts has created a new classicism. Today his name is renowned for its distinctive use of colors, quality of fabrics, intricate embroideries and a gloriously rich Wedding wear.” It was perhaps this fame that landed him, alongside eight others, in the semi-finals of last year’s Singapore Stories design competition, organised by TaFF (Textile and Fashion Federation), also the operator of Design Orchard. He did not advance to the final.

It is not stated what possessed him, but as he told Ms Rawther that he needed “spiritual healing”, it might be safe to assume that a supernatural power was involved

Not much is known about Mr Dicky’s training in fashion. According to some media reports, he “was born into a family of dressmakers”. He told BH that his mother was in the busana pengantin (bridal wear) business and that he helped her from an early age, allowing “bidang fesyen mendarah daging dalam dirinya sejak kecil (fashion to be ingrained in him since young)”. He revealed almost nothing about his formal education. According to him, he began his vocational training in hairdressing at Toni & Guy before taking up a makeup course at Cosmoprof as “he believe it takes a package to make all happen to make them look good, From head to toe (sic)“. Somehow fashion design came into the picture, and he “started full blast into Fashion World once the time strikes right for him to express his goal”. Wedding dresses in both Western and Malay styles seem to be his forte. By most online responses, his output was much appreciated.

An earlier BH story from 2018, reported that Mr Dicky expanded his fashion business into Malaysia a year before. Butterworth native, “Mrs Most Elegance Malaysia Global United 2017” Sally Ong, shared a photo on FB of her wearing a Dicky Ishak dress at the Dolby Theatre in LA, “walking on the Oscars red carpet”, she wrote, in July! He was soon dressing celebrities there, according to BH. They included actress Rita Rudaini and singers Aiman ​​Tino and Ziana Zain. Malaysia had been especially appreciative of his designs. In 2015, prior to his supposed venture into the peninsular to our north, Mr Dicky was the winner of the MEFA Malaysia (a “wedding festival“) Best Designer Award. This was followed by other accolades, mainly targeted at a Malay audience. In 2016, Mr Dicky participated in the Johor Fashion Week, held at the Persada Johor International Convention Centre. A year later, he started an eponymous online store on Carousell.

Although Mr Dicky generally receives positive responses online, he and his brand have minimal digital presence now, possibly a reaction to the ST report. On FB, which he joined in 2014, only one post from 10 September 2020 was left. There is nothing on IG or Tweeter. His TikTok account is set to private. Quite a few of his fans are unhappy with the ST report, commenting on the daily paper’s FB page that this is a “private matter” and that, based on a “single accusation”, the paper’s coverage is excessive. Moreover, he is, as one commentator, gripped by irrationality, pointed out, not “a serial cheat”. Sure, he is no Elizabeth Holmes, but now that the police are apparently involved, let them decide who is or not on the right side of the law. Perhaps, to quote BH, there is in this “pelangi selepas hujan”—rainbow after the rain.

Illustration by Just So

Recommended: For Him, For Her, For Them

More clothing brands are going gender-neutral, but most are really just saying a woman can buy a man’s shirt, even when many already have. Question is, are guys ready to shop in the woman’s department?

At Uniqlo, a tag offering men more options

By Raiment Young

Last year. What do we remember of it other than the arrival of Omicron? Or, the return of physical fashion shows? Or, the collaborations between luxury brands? One of the style issues trending into 2021 was the visible advent of non-binary styles. Men, especially, we were counselled, should be able to adopt traditionally-feminine fashion if they choose to. Gender-neutral and gender-inclusive brands were talked about alongside those that chose the sustainable and were aware of garment manufacture’s impact on the environment (other than using cottons from non-controversial regions). Leading the adoption of clothes that do not shout out their traditional masculinity are pop stars, such as Harry Styles and Troye Sivan. To them, wearing a dress is okay. Even lexicography is seeing a re-definition of dress by not ascribing it to gender. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the noun form of ‘dress’ as “a piece of clothing that is made in one piece and hangs down to cover the body as far as the legs, sometimes reaching to below the knees, or to the ankles”. That’s it.

At Uniqlo’s global flagship store during the festive season, two guys in until-recently-MIA office attire were looking at a long, loose, lapel-less knitted coat right in front of me. One of them, in a fitted and darted shirt, was holding up the hung garment to give it a proper look, as if to understand it better, rather than to consider buying it. The other then said, somewhat incredulously, “men can wear, meh?” This disbelief seemed to be a reaction to a little sign, clipped to the chest of the coat to draw attention. It read, in full caps, “RECOMMENDED FOR MEN TOO!”—the exclamation not just to denote vehement enthusiasm, but also to seemingly say “believe you me”. The guys looked at the soft and drapey outerwear from top to hem. There was a moment of silence. Then, the one still holding the hanger asked—in comfortable Hokkien—disbelievingly, “汝知嗎 (li zai bo, do you know)?” As Uniqlo intended, now both do.

Women’s clothes outrightly recommended for men is really a recent occurrence. I was only seeing the guidance with some regularity last year. Sure, some guys are now wearing what would be indisputably designed for women, including accessories such as pearls, but these individuals are not traipsing the town in numbers large enough to be considered normality. Even with the seeming popularity of skirts for men—now also championed by Louis Vuitton, I doubt that for many (most?) guys, shopping would not still be a gendered experience. The fact that male shoppers needed to be told that specific styles merchandised for the women’s department are suitable for them indicate that they still draw the line between his and hers, bifurcated and not. Uniqlo, mostly seen as a traditional, even family-oriented, brand, is, admirably, taking the lead, suggesting that gender-neutral is going mainstream. But, are guys ready for stores that disrupt gender norms, even mildly?

Seen on a Urban Revivo hanger in the men’s department

Whether retail is welcoming more non-binary customers or not, women have never needed prompting to shop men’s clothing for themselves. They have, for a long time, not been constricted by gender confines. And that can be said to go back as far as Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking of 1966. One buyer-friend told me that he is seeing more women purchasing menswear—especially tops—as “many now prefer larger and looser cuts that they do not find in the women’s department“. The oversized T-shirt, adopted so that the wearer looks like she is pants-less, has been visible for many years now. That is just one example. Increasingly, oversized shirts and denim truckers are preferred over those cut specifically for women. At the Nike store in Jewel on Boxing Day, I saw a trio of girls—dressed like paddlers after a training session—choosing a fleece hoodie from the Jordan men’s collection. The one purchasing said, with palpable glee, “good, they have my size.“

Such satisfaction is not uncommon. It was, therefore, to my surprise when I saw, in the men’s department of Urban Revivo recently, a wood hanger which accommodated a washed denim happy coat, proudly tagged “RECOMMENDED FOR WOMEN TOO”. I was not sure if it was really a statement of the garment’s gender-neutrality or that the masculine-not style isn’t incorrectly situated. The similarly-worded tag has been deployed at Uniqlo’s men’s department too, even when many women already shop there. While such recommendations are laudable, it does, to me, arouse the question: are we only taking baby steps towards gender-fluid fashion retail? Despite the growing social awareness of non-binary inclusion, we are still led to believe that, as Asians, we are conservative by default. And as long as retailers still stick to the binary departmentalising of their stores—and their merchandise, non-binary clothing, by design or not, is still uncommon.

One of the truly few retailers that appear to be positively gender-inclusive is Muji Labo, a brand that especially appeals to those for whom binary classification (that includes “recommended for”) is a turn-off when deciding what to buy and what to wear. According to Muji, the Labo line “aims to get rid of the unnecessary ‘fashion waste’, riding on the principle of unisexuality, producing basic wear that overrides age, sex and body size, demonstrating the versatility of Muji’s garments at every occasion.” Describing their clothes by the somewhat retro-term “unisex” (circa mid-’60s), Muji is adopting the more moderate and less activism-tinged approach to retailing clothes that are suitable for any gender (in the current climate, ‘them’?”). But gender, however neutral, is not such a simple and straightforward construct. Clothing, in whatever shape and form, does not inherently relate to gender. What I see as truly groundbreaking would be when Uniqlo tags an Ines de La Fressange dress with “RECOMMENDED FOR MEN TOO!”

Photos: Chin Boh Kay