Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
Virgil Abloh is good, very good. He can reference anything, and the results would be lauded and loved. In just one spring/summer 2022 collection, he can go, with considerable ease, from the winner of the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design’s unmistakable wrapped-up heads to comic super-villain the Riddler’s distinctive costume with those questions marks against that green. But only now, at the maison of Louis Vuitton, the Riddler’s onesie is still his. Mr Abloh has, without question, taken the question marks (in similar font and in different sizes) and the extreme green, but has turned them into a Keepall Bandoulière! It went almost unnoticed among the many other bags shown if not for the very bright colour and the very black interrogation points.
DC comic fans are familiar with The Riddler (aka Edward Nygma), the computer-genius and former employee of millionaire Bruce Wayne. In the comic, the Riddler was convinced by a prostitute he met in a bus that he could be a super villain! When he first appeared as the Riddler in 1948’s Detective Comics, he was kitted in what was commonly referred to as a unitard—essentially a catsuit. It was green (but not as bright as later versions) and littered all over with questions marks in different sizes. He also wore a purple domino mask that matched a rather wide belt with a squarish buckle. The Riddler’s costume went through several changes through the years. A suit, too, was introduced (so that he’d be better dressed when meeting Mr Wayne?). The onesie was tweaked frequently, some time appearing with one single punctuation mark, right in the middle of the chest.
The unmistakable five-sided side of the Keepall Bandoulière
in 1995’s Batman Forever, the Riddler, played by the inimitable Jim Carrey, wore what was then described as a return to the “original costume”. It was a leotard that Mr Carrey was surprisingly able to pull off well. Costume designers Ingrid Ferrin and Bob Ringwood gave the union suit a rather youthful fit (no doubt still tight), with more question marks, placed in graphically fetching randomness. Mr Carrey’s the Riddler had other costumes too, mainly a jacket (not blazer) in the style of the Stalin tunic (some might think it looks like a Mao suit!) that was also green and floridly logo-ed, but it was the leotard that most movie-goers remember. And it is this outfit that seems to be the inspiration behind the Louis Vuitton bag.
The Keepall is considered one of LV’s most popular weekenders. Introduced in 1930, it has been made in different colours and fabrics, and has enjoyed interpretations by the American brand Supreme and the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Mr Abloh made the Keepall the must-have when his first remake at his debut season with LV was an iridescent version in transparent embossed Monogram PVC, attached with a chunky cable chain. There has been many versions since, but none we can remember that can be traced to what super-villains wear. We can really hear the Riddler questioning: “Riddle me this, Louis Vuitton. Why won’t you leave me ALONE?”
With the latest re-imagining of the Birkin, Hermès shows that it need not take itself too seriously
It’s delightful to see thatHermès does not treat its signature Birkin bags too preciously—at least not to the point that they can’t be reimagined or delineated with artistic humour. On their official Instagram recently, Hermès posted images of their “iconic” bag dreamed up by the American artist/designer/publisher Ben Denzer, using vegetables and fruit—so distant from exotic skins Hermès is known for (the Nile crocodile hide that is the ‘Himalayan’ style, for example). Birkin acolytes (Jamie Chua?) may frown at this making of food porn out of their prized handbag grail(s), but the French house urged followers and viewers in their IG comment to “enjoy the detour as classic Hermès bags inspire art good enough to eat”.
Edible Birkin is surely a diversion. Who wouldn’t be drawn to food although, admittedly, not everyone is to vegetables and fruit, surely the lower end of the spectrum of coverings that can be imagined on what is often considered the most expensive bag in the world. To make the veggie versions even more intriguing, Mr Denzer did not use expensive greens (or even the heirloom variety); he didn’t succumb to the dearest, such as hop shoots, reportedly costing US$426 per pound (or 0.45kg). Rather he used market vegetables—shoots and cruciferous—and fruits (yes, the cucumber is one!). And there is considerable construction and engineering in his work. He didn’t merely plonk lemon slices or orange peel on illustrations and call them art!
To other heritage luxury brands (Chanel?), this exercise that could have been a Project Runway challenge might be considered downgrading, even desecration, but Hermès took it all rather lightly. It didn’t seem they commissioned Mr Denzer to make the bags, but it did appear that Hermès found the work charming and image-enhancing, enough for them to share it on IG, where the brand does post fun images not necessarily tied to their own already-rather-against-the-grain advertising. If we should not take fashion too seriously, neither should we with bags—they’re serious enough. Seriously expensive.
Two of the prettiest bags from what’s been called a “cult” collaboration—Sacai X Tomo Koizumi. And they’re unisex
Even if the It bag is not quite back, statement bags are, well, making quite a statement. The collaboration between Sacai and compatriot Tomo Koizumi is now one of the buzziest partnerships Chitose Abe has taken on (other than her approaching debut under Jean Paul Gaultier Couture). Both Japanese designers have transformed a simple ovaloid shape into a fluffed-up ruff in gradated colours that could be mistaken for oversized haute shower puffs. Amazingly, despite its delicate form, the bags are marketed to guys as well. Aptly 2021? In in one of the promotional images—released by Sacai—that featured ten ‘regular’ folks as models, exactly half are men, and each is carrying one of these tutus-disguised-as-bags, masculinity intact.
Tomo Koizumi is quite the star of the current group of rising Japanese designers. As the popular telling goes, Mr Koizumi was “discovered” by British stylist and Love mag’s EIC Katie Grand through fellow countryman Giles Deacon. He was tagged “breakout star” when he debuted his autumn/winter 2019 collection in New York, in the Marc Jacobs Madison Avenue store. Through Ms Grand, the who’s who of New York fashion supported and attended the event. International acclaim followed. He would go on to be the co-winner of the 2020 LVMH Prize (the €300,000 award was split equally among the eight finalists). In Asia, Mr Koizumi’s work gained tremendous traction from the time Hong Kong songbird Miriam Yeung (杨千嬅) commissioned the designer to create her 2019 world tour and Thai editor and socialite Nichapat Suphap wore a custom Koizumi dress to the Met Gala of the same year, themed Camp.
Initially launched in China last year, as part of the Hello Sacai pop-up’s special merchandise, the bags, available in three colours, have finally reached our shore. The crunchy ruffles are made of Japanese polyester organza and holds their fluffiness well, even after hugging them or leaning on them, like one would against a cushion. The tote bag (that’s what it’s called) comes with cowhide handles that sit comfortably in the crook of your arm, but aren’t long enough to go on the shoulder. It does, however, come with a slim, adjustable strap—also in cowhide—that can be attached to the tote for crossbody use.
By contrast, the more compact bum bag has more of Sacai’s sense of hybridisation. It sports details that reflect Ms Abe’s love of military wear. Here, the organza ombré gathers are paired with a nylon belt (on which kindred straps and hardware are afixed) that looks like shoulder straps dismembered from a backpack issued as part of the SBO during National Service! Strapped across the chest, it has a frou-frou front, but on the back, a totally tough-looking harness. Totally captivating.
Sacai X Tomo Koizumi tote, SGD1, 930, and belted pouch, SGD820, are available at Sacai, Hilton Shopping Gallery. Beware: many are sold out. Photos: Sacai
Do women love their sneakers so much that they want a look-a-like as their bags? Balenciaga seems to think so. Its latest offering—a top handle style—has the silhouette and arched base of the Hourglass, but looks to own the upper that could have been ripped from their avuncular Track running shoe that had been made for a giantess! It comes with a front flap that looks like a magnification of the Track’s flattened mesh-and-leather top, complete with lace guard, bare eyelet, lace stay, removable round cotton laces (the lacing appear on both sides of the bag too), and what appears to be a tongue that’s upside-down. That it’s called the Sneakerhead should surprise no one. Duly impressed will be sneaker-loving boyfriends. The ideal date bag, if one is ever needed.
Could this mark the return of the It bag? For a while, luxury bags that are on the side of OTT have been missing. Balenciaga own Hourglass—so iconic that even Gucci wanted a take on it—is somewhat conservative, when compared to the Sneakerhead. If this isn’t It, a statement piece it sure is. Of course, a bag pretending to be a sports shoe is not entirely new (you can even find one on Amazon that looks like Converse kicks), but a handbag that is inspired by what athletes wear on their feet while staying slightly away from the cheesy is still novel, even more so for a luxury house. But if Balenciaga can make Crocs impossibly cool, they sure can make the Sneakerhead so as well.
The Sneakerhead seems destined to be a collectible (not necessarily an investable). Many retailers are already reporting that the bag, available in sizes S and M, are “selling out fast”. On Balenciaga’s website, some colours—there are three available—are already indicated to be “out of stock”. Not even one Sneakerhead was seen at the Balenciaga store at the Paragon, amid the many Hourglasses in myriad fabrics and colours. That perceived rarity will only increase its desirability, among sneakerheads, hypebaes, and those clearly not.
Sneakerhead Top Handle Bag (M), SGD3,150, in limited colours is available online at balenciaga.com. Product photo: Balanciaga. Photo illustration: Just So
An unusual two-way carrier from the second White Mountaineering X Fila collaboration
When it comes to bags, athletic brands tend to create those that one can bring to the gym, the court, stadium, or even the poolside. Sportif is key. Uncommon are bags that can be togged along for a day out with friends or a date with the beau. The Fila X White Mountaineering collaboration this season yields a bag shape that isn’t usually seen in stores dedicated to performance wear: the bucket bag. This is so untethered to exercising and to the likes of sweatshirts that it looks almost out of place among Fila’s family of sporting kits and kicks.
And just as uncommon is the shell of the bag: pleated polyurethane (PU) that is subtly sheer. Within, is an inner bag of synthetic fabric in an ethnic print that is rather similar to those White Mountaineering employs in their own collections. The outer has a truly stylish vibe about it. On its own it can be used as a beach bag or, as the collab’s ‘Urban Mountopia’ positioning suggests, for hiking too. The details are pure ‘gorpcore’：apart from a pair of faux leather handles, the bag also comes with two para-cord handles, one short and another long to allow for cross-body use. These are in addition to hardware that’s consistent with mountaineering gear and knots that will make the most ardent boy scout proud.
The inner bag can be used on its own, even without handle or strap. It comes with a drawstring closure. If left inside the PU outer, the pattern can be seen discreetly, enhancing the bag’s striking silhouette. To be sure, this isn’t Fila’s first collaborative bucket bag (we remember one fabric one conceived with BTS, as well as another with 3.1 Philip Lim), but with White Mountaineering, they have created a distinctively fashion-centric carrier that brings the leisure in athleisure firmly to the fore. Fila has had numerous good runs with Japanese labels, such as Maison Miharayasuhiro. With White Mountaineering, they continue to push performance wear in directions that can truly be said to be appealing.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
White Mountaineering X Fila pleated bucket bag, SGD178, is available at Fila, Orchard Central. Photo: Chin Boh Kay
The Louis Vuitton Keepall has a new shape. And it’s ridiculous
A new aircraft will land in a Louis Vuitton store near you. And whether it will then take off isn’t certain yet as the big-ticket item is tagged at—fasten your seatbelt—USD39,000. Or, about the cheapest price of a one-way ticket from our island to the city of Tokyo on a private jet. Or, the COE for a Cat A car. People long to travel, we understand. But yearning is one thing, showing your cannot-be-concealed desire to fly (again) amid a pandemic by carrying a bag in the shape of a plane borders on absurd and, frankly, laughable. Louis Vuitton has just announced the availability of the Airplane Bag to order and its staggering price tag (to compare, the “entry-level” Hermès’s Birkin is reported to be USD9,000). When it was shown during the men’s autumn/winter 2021 show, we had thought that it would not go into production, as it could be just a prop—good for runway, not quite on a city sidewalk. But now that we know it can soon be purchased, it would appear that Virgil Abloh can really do anything.
Looking like it belongs to Fluffy Airport, in the company of Gugu and friends, Mr Abloh’s jet bag is consistent with his increased use of cartoon/stuffed-toy accessories to add interest to his tailoring that has yet become streetwear’s much awaited stand-in. The Airplane Bag brings to mind Thom Browne’s Hector canine carryall, so adorable that mature women are known to go weak in its presence. And to a lesser extent, Hermès’s Bolide Shark Bag, only far less capacious. And, to us, not cute like both. It does not take long to see that it is probably not quite the cabin bag to bring onboard, even in first class: not exactly overhead compartment-friendly. In fact, it is hard to imagine a grown man totting the bag anywhere. This is not a Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box dad has to bring for junior.
Understandably, Mr Abloh is into the present travel-again obsession, like so many people, especially fashion folks. We didn’t, however, quite get the supposedly dichotomic “Tourist-vs-Purist” message he was communicating or how the plane fits into all that. To be sure, the flying machine was a key motif. It appeared as oversized buttons and illustration on sweaters, even on earrings. But this unwieldy jet bag in the recognisable monogram is way too serious and too boys-and-their-toys to be clever or ironic. Mr Abloh, we know, likes to be literal; he is inclined, for instance, to naming things or identifying their function with descriptions in bold font. Is it a relief then that the Airplane Bag doesn’t come with a textual identifier? And in quotation marks?
Leaving on a Jet Plane is not a song to sing these days. Or an action to talk about. What about leaving with a jet plane?
Product photo: Louis Vuitton. Illustrations: Just So
With her new customisable pleated bags, Gin Lee won’t be the first nor the last to be inspired by the pioneering work of Issey Miyake
Pleats plenty: (left) Ginlee Make Bag. Photo: Ginlee Studio. (Right) Issey Miyake Crystal Rock Pleats Bag. Photo Issey Miyake Me
Some elements or details in fashion design are so connected to a particular designer that it’s almost impossible to disassociate one with the other. And vice versa. Take pleats, for example: one inevitably thinks of Issey Miyake. Sure, there is also the Spanish couturier Mariano Fortuny, but the works of both are not only decades apart, their outputs are worlds apart. Mr Miyake’s pleats, now attributed to the Issey Miyake Studio, are primarily effected as a finished garment, rather than product made from a pleated fabric. Through the years, Mr Miyake has introduced many innovations (and new technologies) in pleating, including curvilinear and bias pleating, as well as advances in micro-pleating, also known as plissé. And he does not only pleat clothes, he creates permanent folds on accessories and bags, too.
One of the fashion names here that appears to be taking a similar route is Gin Lee. The Singaporean, who overseas the creative output of the company, Ginlee Studio—co-founded with her Israeli husband Tamir Niv in 2011—didn’t incorporate pleats into her early output. In recent years, however, pleated garments seem to be the mainstay of her collections. There are the usual tented dresses, shell tops, and pajama-style pants that have become typical of pleated clothes, and now, in addition, bags. Just totes for the present, these were launched last month as part of a new sub-label called Ginlee Make, available at the brand’s flagship store in the refurbished Great World City.
The immediate reaction to these bags when seeing them for the first time could be best summed up by what two women at the store one weekend said, “so Pleats Please!” But that response has not only been evident with these bags. Similar comments were heard of her dresses, sold at Design Orchard. But the seeming similarity to the work of Issey Miyake was also apparent in the name of her new sub-label. Back in 1998, the year the A-POC (A Piece of Cloth) line was launched in Tokyo, Mr Miyake staged an exhibition at the Jean Nouvel-designed Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris titled, Issey Miyake: Making Things. Uncanny? Or, coincidence?
How long must a recognisable design, fabric treatment, retail concept, or branding exercise remain or circulate in the market before mimicking them can be accepted and not considered a copy?
The Ginlee Make bags are the manifestation of the in-store service Make In Shop, a retail concept that offers “last-mile production” of those items that can be finished before watchful shoppers. As Ms Lee told the press last month, “When a customer places their order for a pleated bag, we’ll proceed to make it for her there. They can see it being made and customise their own version of it.” In Tokyo last year, at the world’s largest Homme Plissé Issey Miyake store in Aoyama, the brand availed its pleating process for customers to witness. Three times a week, over a relatively short time of an hour in the afternoon, engineers (they are specialists indeed) from the company’s Internal Pleats Laboratory show how the clothes are made: a massive machine swallows a sewn T-shirt, for example, cut 1.5 times the completed size, and in ten minutes, reveals the pleated garment. This, too, is last-mile production. How long must a recognisable design, fabric treatment, retail concept, or branding exercise remain or circulate in the market before mimicking them can be accepted and not considered a copy?
Sure, on the same note, we could also say, for instance, that Mary McFadden mimicked Mr Fortuny, but if you examined her pleats closely, the effect, as one Singaporean designer told us, “is more liquid”, and her silhouettes more boxy. Technologies in garment manufacture do become widely adopted, and the onus is upon the adopters to output designs that are distinctly theirs. Issey Miyake certainly did not invent pleating (and he wouldn’t claim he did), but what he undeniably introduced was a whole new way of working with—and on—the pleats. And there is tremendous conceptual heft and mathematical calculations involved. Much of the output require origami-like folds, as well as ingenious geometry. More importantly, to fans, he was the first to introduce the pleats that we now mostly associate with his brand, especially Pleats Please Issey Miyake, the line introduced in 1993, after the exhibition of the same name at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990.
That Issey Miyake’s pleats would inspire Singaporean designers isn’t surprising. Pleating services here go as far back as the ’80s. Back then, there were primarily two major players: Mong Seng Pleats Garment, founded in 1974, and Owen Trading Company, launched in 1980. Between the two, Owen Trading was, as one designer told us, “at the top of its game”. The popularity of pleats rose in the mid-’80s, after Issey Miyake debuted a sub-brand Permanente in 1985, featuring the early forms of his distinctive creases and folds that culminated as the capsule Pleats in 1988. By the time Pleats Please was launched five years later, capturing the imagination of the world, many local designers were experimenting with pleats too, and many were doing so through the services of Owen Trading, owned and operated by three Tan brothers. One of them, Paul Tan, was the go-to guy for anything that can be pleated, even a scrap of fabric that can be turned into a small scarf.
Gin Lee at work in her Great World City store. Photo: Ginlee Studio
But towards the early ’00s, when pleated garments and accessories, and Pleats Please knock-offs were easily found, first in the fashion wholesale centres in China and, later, online, pleating was a dwindling business. In 2011, Owen Trading was sold to a young Raffles College of Higher Education fashion graduate Chiang Xiaojun, who renamed the company Bewarp Design Studio. With full access to pleating machines, Ms Chiang created Pleatation, the label totally dedicated to pleats, and a moniker—similar to Ginlee Make—unabashed of its alluding to Issey Miyake, in particular, Pleats Please and the older Plantation, introduced in 1981, and now part of the Issey Miyake subsidiary A-net, which produces brands such as ZUCCa and mercibeaucoup. The quality offered by the old Owen Trading, which counted some of our design luminaries, such as Thomas Wee, Frederick Lee, and the late Tan Yoong as customers, evaporated, according to some who have used the services of the renamed pleater. “She couldn’t keep up,” one of them told us, “she does only basic pleating. Nothing fancy.” Despite the skepticism, Ms Chiang opened two standalones for Pleatation: The Compleat Store, which, like Ginlee Studio, sold pleated totes. Both The Compleat Stores have closed. Even their website’s e-commerce component is now free of merchandise and activity. On the SGP Business website, the status of Bewarp Design Studio is marked “cancellation in progress.”
The sale of Owen Trading Company, after three decades of existence, to a then unknown individual, who is unable to protect it from total closure, perhaps serves as a cautionary tale. It is not quite clear why many brand owners choose pleating as the main design feature of their products. Is pleating an easy way to create a fashion line? Does it provide a differentiating factor to the clothes—or bags? Or, allow products categories that are more cost-efficient to produce (Pleats Please, being mainly made of a specially-produced polyester, is still less expensive than the main line)? If pleated garments and accessories offered low barriers to entry, why did Pleatation not take off? Some designers who had worked with Paul Tan in the past thought that he could have been retained by Bewarp Design Studio as a technical advisor. No one now knows what was the nature of the transaction. Mr Tan was last seen driving an SBS Transit bus.
It is possible that Gin Lee’s foray into pleated clothing and bags is the result of reduced competition. Based on the Make Bag alone, it isn’t difficult to see where her inspiration comes from. In a 2017 Financial Times interview, Issey Miyake, who is no longer actively involved in the designs of his numerous lines, said of his pleats: “It is my gift, my legacy, and if other designers look to Pleats Please for inspiration, I feel honoured and happy—it is a great compliment.” Whether that is Japanese niceness or diplomacy, or just resignation to the truth that he is widely copied, we may never know. But, as written on one decal we once saw in an atelier, “You can copy all you want, you’ll always be one step behind.”
Prada’s Cleo shoulder bag, brought back from the ’90s, deserves to be revisited
By Mao Shan Wang
Walking past a Prada window recently, a friend pointed to a bag held by the mannequin. She simply said, “it’s so you”, and she wasn’t wrong. In the window was a simple shoulder bag. Its simplicity makes it even more outstanding. No monogram, no busy embroidery, no clunky clasp. Just an enamel inverted triangle. This, to me, is classic Prada. It is the Cleo bag and it reminded me of the lady-like elegance Miuccia Prada is known for. Talking about it now seems so out of touch with the times. This elegance, for many women, is no longer relevant. But there, in the Prada window (and later on the arms of Freja Beha in the brand’s autumn/winter 2020 campaign, shot by David Sims), the bag spoke to me—softly, but definitely.
I like classic bags. Black, and in leather. Plain. No quilting. No embellishments. Just good sturdy leather, with a soft sheen that suggests a luxury that whispers. And so understated that I can’t call it “arm candy”. This Cleo, the first bag from the Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons partnership, is all of these and more. I am especially drawn to its shape: a measured meeting of two trapezoids, with the rear panel longer/larger than the front. Sure, this bag can’t stand, but I like laying it on it’s back, as bags were placed in the past. I like the curved bottom corners too—reminds me of the iPhone. And because this bag is not designed to bulge, I’d be sure not to carry too many things in it, keeping it suitably light. It’s not too big either, with about the surface area of an A4 paper—perfect, when it’s reclining, for my lap. Yes, I’m dreaming. In these difficult times, we can all do more of that.
Prada Cleo shoulder bag, SGD2,900, is available in Prada stores and online. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
Loewe’s collaboration with the artist Kenneth Price yields some rather drool-worthy unisex satchels
Loewe, under the watch of Jonathan Anderson, has been the champion of craft and craft-like work to rather alluring results. The latest is Mr Anderson’s interpretation of the cheerful work of American sculptor and painter Kenneth Price (1935—2012). The (above) illustration first appeared in a specially commissioned work for the Newport Beach (California) restaurant La Palme in the ’80s. Mr Price created vivid and optimistic landscapes on glazed plates and bowls, and these images are now reimagined as leather marquetry (so fine, it’s veritable art in itself) on the flap of this crossbody bag.
We like the simplicity of the bag and how the flap is made special by such simple but striking illustrative form. The positive vibe is so right for such dismal times. Mr Price, who, aside from art, studied the trumpet with Chet Baker, was known for the optimism he projected through his work, including often bulbous sculptures, and, in particular, Happy’s Curios (some of the works also appear in the Loewe collection), a six-year project, inspired by New Mexico, that was dedicated to his wife Happy Ward.
This crossbody is not a big bag. It reminds us of an oversized coin purse (and opens like one!). But, with a wider bottom, it is capacious enough for bag essentials such as portable phone charger, a wallet, as well as EarPods and their attendant case. Most people would say this a woman’s shoulder bag, and women will surely find it attractive (if money is no objection, also go for the totally loveable Easter Island bucket bag with bamboo handle). But as men are using smaller bags these days, they should not shut themselves out of this particular one. In fact, it was heartening to see this appearing in the Loewe store window, hung around the neck of a shirt, clearly pitched at guys. Man bags really do not need to be man-sized.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Loewe X Ken Price La Palme Heel bag, SGD 1,900, is available at Loewe stores. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
News that former Hermès staff have been making and selling knock-off Birkins and others are sending shivers through (expensive) bag-carrying society ladies
“So the rumours are true.” This has been a common refrain since it was reported, two days ago, that ten former Hermès staff are on trial in a French court for putting fake bags bearing the name of their former employer out in the market. According to The Guardian, a “forgery network manufactured bags between 2013 and 2014 for a profit of more than €2m”. This shocker is, unsurprisingly, the talk of the town. Many women who buy and hoard Birkins and kindred bags are alarmed (or relieved) to know that investigators in an unrelated case had bugged the apartment of “a man suspected of selling handbags stolen in France to customers in Asia”. It was through him that they uncovered the covert operation of the ex-employees of Hermès
The reaction to the news of purloined purses sold to Asian customers was swift. Who were these customers? Text messages exchanged expressed shock, dismay, and suspicion—who among them have been carrying the output of this inside job without knowing? Was the Birkin in the loot?
Many women stressed the importance of buying only from the Hermès store. Some were quick to confirm the hunch that some Hermès bags sold at secondhand dealers could be fake. Or that such places are where one could “get rid” of bootleg bags, noting that one “authentic Hermès purveyor” had “made S$49.8 mil sales in 2019 from pre-loved Hermès bags”, according to one media story.
That, based on our conservative calculation, could amount to over 3,300 bags. The Birkin, the most coveted and among the dearest of bags, is known for its limited quantity, available at authorised retailer, namely their own stores. We are no customer of the positional goods of Hermès, as such we cannot say for certain, but according to reports, a walk-in customer at an eponymous boutique is unlikely able to secure the Birkin. Joining the legendary wait list is required. The waiting time for the bag upon ordering can, reportedly, be up to six years. There is apparently a limit to how many a customer can buy, even as a top spender—said to be two a year.
If indeed the Birkin is as limited as they are thought to be, why are they so numerous in secondhand shops?
Old riddles are re-surfacing. If indeed the Birkin is as limited as they are thought to be, why are they so numerous in secondhand shops? Are there really that many sold? (Hermès doesn’t release figures on specific bags, but according to media speculation, more than one million Birkins are in circulation in 2019.) How is it, for example, that one known ardent collector of Birkin with a swanky walk-in wardrobe to house them all could buy that many?
Current tai-tai tattle includes the poser: were some of those no-longer-loved bags that she had re-sold in much earlier years obtained from dubious sources, commonly referred to as “third party”? Apparently this woman of immense means denied there was any question of authenticity regarding her Hermès bags. Whether she still disposes of her bags isn’t certain, but she herself probably owns more of them bags than any re-seller on our island.
It is, of course, difficult to swallow the possibility of buying what was once loved that turns out to be a counterfeit. One woman was more optimistic. “I have bought Birkins from re-sellers before. They told me they were authentic and I believed them. Anyway, if these bags were made by ex-staff, they know the quality. The bags are fake only by name.”
A week or so ago, we were brought to the attention of the post of a disgruntled, anonymous NUS student on the Facebook page, NUSWhispers*. In that 214-word “confession”, as the page admin calls the entries, the dismayed complainant said that “LV is for poor people who want to look rich.” How she came to that conclusion isn’t clear. But her thought on Louis Vuitton was spurred from not receiving the brand she wanted: Chanel.
As her straightforward telling went, “Recently my boyfriend bought me a Louis Vuitton wallet which costs around $700 for my birthday. When I saw the wallet, I felt really upset and disappointed. Because earlier this year, my sister’s bf got her a Chanel wallet which costs at least $1000 for her birthday. Chanel is so much nicer than LV.” Price, the world noted, equals nice.
That was not the only comparison she made, but we won’t explore them as they aren’t related to luxury bags/wallets, and will detract from the main thrust of this post (you can read about her grievance here). She concluded with clearly self-absorbed unhappiness: “Sometimes I really feel like a loser.” It, naturally, garnered no sympathy, certainly not from the commentators on NUSWhispers. It did, however, make us wonder: which is indeed more desirable—Louis Vuitton or Chanel?
There is, surprisingly, no definitive ranking of luxury handbag brands. According to one price-based list offered by the luxury shopping service The Luxe Link, Chanel ranks third, after Hermès and Delvaux. LV is fifth. In a listicle posted by the website Who What Wear on the “the 10 most popular designer bags ever” (and shared by Yahoo News in March), Chanel ranks 2nd (for quilted bags) and Louis Vuitton, 3rd (for the Alma). First goes to Hermès (for the Birkin).
While luxury-brand snobbery is rarely discussed among shoppers of expensive bags, it does exist
In an unscientific, un-representational, and unorthodox poll that we recently conducted among (admittedly small number of ) 12 fashion folks, we asked our interviewees one very simple question: “If you were to buy a handbag, LV or Chanel?” The answers were almost unanimous. Eleven chose Chanel, while one insisted on selecting Hermès. On why LV repeatedly ranks behind Chanel, one observer told us, ”LV is Coach for those with just enough money”. Still, “not for poor people who want to look rich.”
Once, as we walked past a line outside Chanel at Takashimaya Shopping Centre, we overheard a young woman tell her friend, while looking across at the LV store, “I’d rather die than queue opposite.” While luxury-brand snobbery is rarely discussed among shoppers of expensive bags, it does exist. Hermès fans know, for example, that you don’t buy a Birkin off the shelf (assuming you could); you join a wait list.
A fashion insider we spoke to noted that, despite the recent price hikes, many tai-tais who carry luxury handbags do prefer Chanel. LV is for “smallish bags”. Apparently some of them have recently been disappointed with LV for selling them what was touted as a limited edition: the S$2,570 “hybrid cross-body” Multi Pochette Accessoires. “But strange thing is,” the puzzled person continued, “that every lady said it was limited, and yet all of them have it!”
Jamie Chua showing the bags that she “regretted buying”. Screen grab: Jamie Chua/YouTube
Socialite Jamie Chua, who bought her first Chanel—the 2.55—when she was 17, could be a reliable person to shed some light on luxury bag ranking. We turned to her Youtube channel for guidance. In one of her videos that has chalked up an impressive 1.5 million views, she listed five bags that she “regretted buying”, and all of them are from Chanel: a gold mini ‘Boy’, a two-tone Lucite evening ‘Watch’ bag, a ‘Belt Buckle’ minaudière (small, decorative handbag), a pink (“that Jamie loves”) ‘Round as Earth’ patent leather bag, and a La Pausa ‘Life Buoy’ bag.
And the five she likes most? “I really feel kind of bad,” she said. “All my favourites are Hermes.” But that’s hardly surprisingly when you consider the 200 over Hermès bags she has collected—believed to be the largest in the world by a single individual—and displays in a famous, viewed-by-many, 700 sq ft, walk-in wardrobe. Although most of what she wished she hadn’t bought were deemed impractical due to their smallness, she was happy with one S$22,000 Chanel ‘Rocket Ship’ bag, as it “value-adds to the beauty of this closet”. Clearly there are women who don’t wait for their boyfriends to buy them bags, and be disappointed.
*Despite the page title, what’s posted in NUSWhispers is not even remotely academic or shared in hush tones. From acute friendlessness to jilted hearts to “really obsessed with boobs” to “girls need to improve their online dating app conversation starter skills”, one can’t escape the rather juvenile quality of the “confessions”, many so inane, they’re hard to read for longer than it takes to close a double-C clasp. There is chatter that the post we have been discussing here is just the person trolling. Even so, it could be troll mimicking life.
Chanel Classic—the 11.12— handbag created by Karl Lagerfeld in 1983 reinterpreted the 2.55 designed by Coco Chanel in 1955, hence the name. Illustration: Just So
The house of Chanel wasted no time. The moment lockdown eases in Europe and North Asia, prices of their bags and kindred leather goods went up. What they now charge are significantly high enough that in Seoul and Shanghai (and other Chinese cities) shoppers queue at the Chanel stores to cop their favourite bags before the new prices set in. So long the queues have been in Seoul that city officials are reportedly now pondering if they should ask Chanel to close. It is amazing that despite what Seoul (or South Korea) went through, there are those who could return to the consumptive life prior to lockdown, as if their present world is reset to that time. While it is widely said that life will not be the same before the pandemic ends, for some, it’s back-to-before with such haste and vigor. Along this social emancipation, Chanel resumed operations with a swift price hike, while other fashion businesses are waking up from a nightmare, struggling with managing inventories, and pondering closure.
The rush to buy seen in Seoul is understandable. This is as much revenge as desperate spending. COVID-19 has allowed us to realise that ‘essentials’ are different things to different people. Oftentimes they have nothing to do with staples and sustenance. Chanel knows that too. Their bags, more expensive than a fridge or a PC, are as essential now as before, perhaps even more—the apparent result of pent-up demand and aching despair. Sales, therefore, will likely be bloated than dented. Yet, making them dearer seems like a good strategy, never mind that Chanel will continue to sell the same quilted bags for many years to come. The 2.55 and its later reincarnation the 11.22 (also called the “Classic”, re-imagined by Karl Lagerfeld in 1983, the first year of his tenure), for examples, wouldn’t go out of fashion and will continue to sell in the multitude for decades to come. Regardless, a price increase is deemed necessary as if the cash cows shall be no more, as if two months of store closures will bring the great house down.
Chanel at Takashimaya Shopping Centre shortly before the Circuit Breaker
According to Chanel, as quoted in the press, “The price adjustments only regard Chanel’s iconic handbags, 11.12 and 2.55, as well as Boy, Gabrielle, Chanel 19 bags, and certain small leather goods.” And the purpose of the exercise? “These adjustments are made while ensuring that we avoid excessive price differentials between countries, in line with our commitments regarding price harmonization.” We are not in the luxury business, so we won’t know with certainty if that justification makes sense. But the timing of these “adjustments” seems add odds with the prevalent consumer mood. It sounds insensitive and opportunistic, more so when Chanel’s brand value this year, according to the annual ranking BrandZ Top 50 France, is worth USD43 billion, below number one Louis Vuitton’s USD$53.4 billion. For many average (if that’s not belittling) Chanel customer, it’s quite unfathomable that Chanel, with USD11.12 billion worth of sales in 2018, can’t stomach two months of no sale and attendant costs without resorting to making their popular products more expensive. Or is that naive?
“Harmonizing” of prices is, of course, not new. Chanel, proud of its practice and considers itself a transparent pioneer in this area, typically adjust their prices bi-annually to, according to the brand, “avoid excessive price differentials between countries”. We do not know of the percentages of past adjustments, but the current highest of 17% (in Euros) is described by some observers as “audacious”. Chanel, of course, can afford not to be cautious or modest. They are a luxury business. However, years before earnings were first announced in 2018, it was known that the privately-owned company made “subtle adjustments that were reflected on the price tags, not announced like that”, as an industry veteran told us. Welcome, we hear many say, to the school of Apple retail.
Despite the long queue outside Chanel, it’s always relatively calm inside—more conducive for bag buying regardless the price
No matter how the news broke, the surprise and dismay to many were palpable online. The common refrain, as uttered by an English YouTuber known for her unboxing videos, is that it “feels like the most insensitive time to be whacking your prices up, particularly by such a large amount.” What’s intriguing is that it’s not as if Chanel was not able to anticipate the quick return to form. There was already indication that their bag business was probably not going to be affected severely. It would bounce back. On 6 April, the day before our city went into lockdown that is euphemistically called Circuit Breaker, a snaking line was seen outside the Chanel store at Takashimaya Shopping Centre. The demand then was Circuit Breaker-defying and it’s not unreasonable to assume Chanel wouldn’t lose its brand value and ranking when social distancing measures are eased or lifted. Price hikes of anything on any day is hardly welcome news. Chanel’s prices, like those of its competitors, are expected to climb, but during an inadequately mitigated pandemic, with the very real threat of a second wave of infection, the increases smack of corporate indifference.
Diehard fans and those referred to as “elite customers” (presumably with direct access to a VIP room than the need to join a queue) will probably take the new prices in their stride, but others are miffed. It is understandable why people are. As one designer told SOTD, “it will only impact those who save their lunch money to buy the bags. The rich cannot be bothered, I’m sure.” The British YouTuber, too, said, “There’s so much uncertainty: People might have lost their jobs, people are not on full pay, people who are self-employed in the UK not getting any help… of all the times to put your prices up, now is not it.” It is doubtful that in deciding to raise their prices, Chanel had considered the jobless, those who suffered pay cuts, or the income-insecure part-timers. Which stirs the speculation that the brand is trying to weed out a particular group of queue-willing fans. If you have to worry about keeping your job or buying your next meal, Chanel is really another planet.