Spare Us

In his unsparing memoir, Prince Harry reveals, among many things, that he is circumcised. Do we really need to know this much from the horse’s mouth?

As it turns out, while Prince Harry hates the media for disrespecting his privacy, he has no qualms betraying his own—privates. In his much anticipated memoir Spare, the damaged Duke is so cocksure that he writes about his genitalia. And is keen that you know he is circumcised. “My penis was a matter of public record,” he tells his dear readers, “and indeed some public curiosity.” And, as with almost everything else, the British mass media is to be blamed. “The press had written about it extensively. There were countless stories in books, and papers (even The New York Times) about Willy and me not being circumcised.” And talking about his own willy is not enough, he has to expose his brother’s, too? (There is also the bit about a stag: after it was hunted down, and his entrails removed—“gralloching”, they “snipped his penis.) “Mummy had forbidden it, they all said, and while it’s absolutely true that the chance of getting penile frostbite is much greater if you’re not circumcised, all the stories were false. I was snipped as a baby.” Were the two snips the same? And you’d know, too, that there’s such a thing as penile frostbite. Prince Harry is no stranger to it. He recounts his “tender penis”, even when he says “it was an effort not to overshare” during a family evening when his father became “very interested and sympathetic about my frostnipped ears and cheeks (caught while on an expedition to the North Pole)” after he “regaled the company with the tales of the (South) pole.” If that was not clever enough, he told the doctor, when he finally saw one, “I went to the North Pole and now my South Pole is on the fritz.” So much for removing the foreskin.

The first mention of circumcision is when he writes of going back to Ludgrove School after his mother’s funeral. The boarding school was “where more than a hundred boys lived in close proximity. Everyone knew everyone’s business, down to who was circumcised, who was not. (We called it Roundheads versus Cavaliers.)” But why is knowing that he is a Roundhead crucial to the understanding of his problems with his family and the British press? Was this to inform his American readers, for whom male circumcision is taken seriously and preferred by both men and women? Or is a circumcised male a better man, and lover? We are relieved he stopped there at the manly tenderness, and did not go on to say what endowment—when finally apparent—was revealed years after his prepuce was “snipped”. Or if his girlfriends, or that older woman, to whom he lost his virginity to in “a grassy field behind a busy pub (a milestone he calls “inglorious”), and who “treated (him) like a young stallion”, liked him, cut. Or if Meghan Markle prefers her prince with a royal manhood—“the todger”—not whole. The book was, even prior to its completion, reported to be boldly contentious and highly revealing. We didn’t think that this much would be divulged, even the state of personal appendages. And, if you are burning with curiosity, “penis” is brought up eight times throughout the book.

Other bodily parts mentioned include his facial hair. It appears right on the second page—“to beard or not to beard”. As Prince Harry recounts, “a mate, trying to make conversation, asked Grandpa what he thought of my new beard.” Prince Philip said, “THAT’S no beard!” But by the time his grandson was to get married in 2018, the beard was beard enough to be a problem. We are told that the duke had to ask permission from the late Queen to keep his beard for the nuptial day. She did not object to it, but Prince William, his younger brother recounts, was not pleased: “You put her in an uncomfortable position, Harold (the name used at home)! She had no choice but to say yes.” And there, too, is mention of the lack of hair. When he first describes his brother, the Prince of Wales, he does not draw a flattering picture: “his alarming baldness, more advanced than my own”. Then there was the shaving of his own hair by his schoolmates that left him horrified, and in an attempt to gain sympathy from his brother (futile), the “fingering the nubs on my newly bare scalp”. From the top to the bottom: He also writes about his bum (he doesn’t say if that is hairless). On wearing kilts, an article of clothing his father is fond of donning, but he dislikes—mainly because of “that breeze up your arse.” And his exposed derrière during an infamous trip to Las Vegas in 2012, which was splashed across newspapers of the globe. He now ponders: “Is my bare arse that memorable?”

Why have we highlighted these asinine, X-rated details? Because everything else brought up in the book, you would have already read or heard, in the leaks that were published last week and in the interviews the prince gave, with relish, to Anderson Cooper and, with dismay, to Tom Bradby (there were, of course, others since). Whatever is juicy—or the preferred “explosive”—is already out there. From his “arch-nemesis” brother’s indifference to his plight (and that scuffle) to the outrage with the British press to the alleged villainy of his step-mother to the perceived public and press hatred—and disapproval—of his wife, little requires repeating here. Not even his inability to accept his fate as the royal “spare”. Without plunging into the book, you would have gathered that this memoirist is deeply aggrieved. The Chinese has a better phrase for it: 愤愤不平 (fen fen bu ping) or extreme anger that can’t be calmed. Prince Harry did not only begrudge scores of people for his misfortunes, he unloaded a staggering backlog of injustice—a one-man grievance committee. He has waited this long. It is time to settles old scores. No one escapes his wrath. This is a British prince doing what American celebrities do with remarkable flair: the unsparing spill all.

Is this then a career option? Prince Harry was a military man. Although going back to the uniform was not considered, it is now impossible when he inexplicably reveals in the book that he killed 25 members of the Taliban—who were, to him, “chess pieces taken off the board”—during his deployment in Afghanistan in 2012/13. Why did he not spare the British army? He knew—as stated in the book—that even military “exercises were always kept secret from the press”. But this was his memoir and it was not about secrets. The disclosure does make one wonder: How smart is he, really? Is he by nature just flippant? He does confirm in Spare that he is not academically inclined. For one, he did not like history, even English history. At Ludgrove, you’d never find him in the library; “better check the woods. Or the playing fields.” Later, at Eton, “heaven for brilliant boys, it could thus only be purgatory for one very unbrilliant boy”, he chose self-pity and then sports—it would be “my thing”, he writes, and rugby, which “let me indulge my rage”. He does not fail to let you know how angry he was (and still is). Could it be this fury that came between him and his studies? The hurdle to appreciating Shakespeare, which his father adored? But he did try, picking up a copy of Hamlet, and then quickly abandoning it. “I slammed it shut. No, thank you.” One book—only one—he did enjoy: American author John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, “a story about friendship, about brotherhood, about loyalty, it was filled with themes I found relatable.”

By now, the world knows that, back in England, Prince William and he was in a physical altercation (that broke a dog’s bowl) which the younger brother would not call a fight because he did not hit back. He allowed himself to hurt. But being hit was not new to Prince Harry. He could take a sock. He writes of visits, when he was an early teenager, to a Norfolk country estate of friends of his father’s, where, among the children, “hair-pulling, eye-gouging, arm-twisting, sleep holds” were normal play. And he “always took the brunt”, adding, “black eye, violet welt, puffed lip, I didn’t mind… Whatever my motivation, my simple philosophy when it came to scrapping was: more, please.” As Oliver Twist asked for more gruel? Is there a masochistic streak in the prince, even in the presence of his brother? Was he unable to retaliate unless he was on a real battlefield-chessboard? Surely he was not trained at Sandhurst to be a punching bag. Or was it because no matter how hard he took, he was always cushioned—he could call his therapist. And even when he was not beaten, he saw that others would get even with him someday. When, once, Prince William was asked to leave the car their father was driving, after the two brothers, seated in the rear, were squabbling, the heir went to and boarded the rear vehicle occupied by their bodyguards. Prince Harry recounts: “Now and then I peered out the back window. Behind us, I could just make out the future King of England, plotting his revenge.”

Spare opens with a scene in Frogmore gardens, with Prince Harry writing that “the trees were bare, but the air was soft. The sky was grey, but the tulips were popping. The light was pale, but the indigo lake, threading through the gardens, glowed”. Would a former military man, a rugby player pay attention to such details? The air was soft! It is hard to commensurate the description with the severe face on the cover. For someone who does not read, who has no affinity with history, he has the unexpected talent to describe a termite mound as “baroque architecture (he does not even describe the royal residences he enjoyed)”. We have to remind ourselves that although, on the cover, the book is credited to Prince Harry, it is, in fact, ghost-written by the American author J.R. Moehringer (Open, the memoir of Andre Agassi). That a stand-in was required (not even a co-writer) corroborates with the Duke’s own admission in the book that he “was a poor student, a dreadful writer.” It is unlikely that he is better now, poised for the Booker Prize. If you want entertainment for a lonely night, Spare is moderately pacey, with parts that, for some, might be charming, and naughty—consistent with the reputation he acquired back in the day. Also befitting a former soldier, who does not give or receive orders in compound sentences, the writing is simple, conversational even (and sentences-in-italics galore). But a “dreadful writer” need not be free of some semblance of erudition. So he writes, “how can you really describe light? Even Einstein had a problem with that one.”

Many would have a problem with that one. The attempt to make him sound smart, however, does not equal the effort to make him appear pitiful. At every turn, at every juncture, sympathy is milked out of the reader. In school, in his early teens, when he was punished for being naughty, for going against school rules, he was already so emotionally fractured that “there was no torture Ludgrove could dish out that surpassed what was going on inside me.” There is also a palpable defeatist attitude. In the army, when he was training to fly, his reaction to a flight instructor telling him, “don’t let one mistake destroy this flight”—“but I let one mistake ruin many a flight”. Jumping out of nearly every page, except those describing his military training, is the trauma that he was left with following his mother Princess Diana’s death in August 1997. She is within many pages of the book. Even during a safari in Botswana, when a leopard appeared before the campers. The wild cat, according to the motherless royal, “was clearly a sign, a messenger she’d sent to say: All is well. And all will be well.”

But Prince Harry does not show that all is that well. He is funny sometimes, but more often than not, he is angry, seething, unforgiving. When he mentions his mother, he is tender, reflective; when he talks of others he is (still) enraged with, the language is brutal. One person who crossed him intensely was an editor he did not name, who wanted to expose his drug-taking while he was still at Eton. She was seriously attacked, even when what she wanted to run in her paper did happen. He said of her: “loathsome toad, I gather (he isn’t sure?). Everyone who knew her was in full agreement that she was an infected pustule on the arse of humanity… (second-hand information?).” It is hard to ignore the hypocrisy. When Jeremy Clarkson wrote in The Sun last month those uncalled for words about the repugnant punishment that the Duchess of Sussex deserved, he and his wife were outraged. He later told Tom Bradby in an interview for ITV that what Mr Clarkson penned “is hurtful and cruel towards my wife.” Was his description of that editor a delineation of Mini Mouse? Perhaps the reader is expected to overlook the uneven tone that vacillates between “naughty Harry” and motherless boy, killer-pilot and his philosophical self. The prince is not the simple fellow or a marionette with the strings in the hands of his wife?

The 410-pager would have been a fairly dull read—if not for the small details, such as noting that there was a psychiatric hospital Broadmoor, down the road from his school and that before he was a student, a “patient had escaped and killed a child in one of the nearby villages.” Or, the bleak sandiness of the military outpost Dwyer: “Everyone and everything at Dwyer was either caked with sand or sprinkled with sand or painted the colour of sand.” Or, the rituals of hunting, such as being pushed into a stag after it was shot and its stomach slit opened (we did say some parts of the book are charming!). A book from a prince, who admitted, “when I was forced to sit quietly with a book, I freaked out”, could be considered with suspicion. “At all costs, I avoided sitting quietly with a book,” he wants you to believe. Yet, in weighing his options to make money, he chose to offer a book. Spare was projected to be one of the biggest best-sellers of the start of the new year. In the UK, it was just reported that it is their fastest-selling non-fiction, ever. We purchased it, hoping to hear from the man himself, but somehow, we aren’t sure it is his voice that is discernible. In one of his numerous trips to Botswana, he came face to face with an elephant, and caught the eye of the beast. He writes, “I thought of the all-seeing eye of the Apache, and I thought of the Koh-i-Noor diamond…” How was he able to go from the night vision system of a helicopter to a rock in the Crown of Elizabeth The Queen Mother, in the presence of a huge animal that might crush him? Believe him, we did try.

Spare is one of the most expensive memoirs available at Kinokuniya. It is priced at S$60.48 (for comparison, Haruki Murakami’s immensely enjoyable Novelist as a Vocation, also in hardback, is S$37.45). But in the UK, booksellers are offering it at half the recommended retail price. Even Suzy Menkes was surprised by the markdown just days after the book was published, sharing on Instagram a photo of a shop in City Airport, London, with the comment, “half price already?” When we expressed our surprise at and disapproval of the pricing to the cashier at the Bugis Junction store, he told us that the proceeds would go to charity. Are we then performing a charitable act when we buy the book we were not certain we would enjoy? After we made the payment, the book was passed to us, accompanied by a flyer (third photo from the top), presumably distributed last week to announce the arrival of Spare, as well as a similar bookmark, both with the face used on the cover. We were not sure if this was to allay our astoundment with the high price of the book, that, as it turns out, is not packed with information that is compelling or previously unknown.

Prince Harry’s telling of his life’s story up to now, since his mother’s death, could be a sad read. Even his aversion to schooling—when he was offered the chance to be a helicopter pilot and learned that the training would stretch for two years, he does not hide his disappointment: “Bloody help. At every turn, life was determined to drag me back to a classroom.” After marrying an older woman who is able to give him what he has hitherto lacked and craved, you’d think that he would be able to put the past behind him. Yet, he does not seem to be able to come to terms with maternal loss. And in his frustration, compounded by the fact that he is not the heir, but the spare, he has a go at anyone who has not coddled him or supported him or protected him. In the inside of the book’s back jacket, the description of the author reads: “Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, is a husband, humanitarian, military veteran, mental wellness advocate and environmentalist.” Achievements. Yet? Within the pages, he who is now man of a Montecito mansion recalls his Grandpa telling him, “you have to know when it’s time to go, Harry.” Perhaps, the old man said “let go”, and the young, troubled prince did not hear him. Or remember, correctly.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Photos: Jim Sim

When Céline Paid Homage to Joan Didion

Orbituary | The American writer was, at age 80, a style icon, thanks to Phoebe Philo

Joan Didion as model for a Céline advertisement in 2015. Photo: Céline

In reports bursting all over the Net like opened Christmas presents, we learned that Joan Didion, the high priestess of American “New Journalism” and literature, and a former Vogue writer, has died. Her publisher Knopf said in a statement that the cause of death was Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that often sees sufferers shaking or walking with difficulty. Ms Didion passed away at aged 87 (as did Coco Chanel), in her home in Manhattan, New York. It is not known how long the disease ailed her. Regular readers of her work would know that Ms Didion had a nervous breakdown in the summer of 1968, as she recounted in The White Album. Consultation with a psychiatrist revealed that she was ill with vertigo and nausea, and multiple sclerosis. She was also suffering from migraine—so frequently and so badly that she was inclined to write about it. “Three, four, sometimes five times a month,” she described in the 1968 essay In Bed (also published in The White Album), “I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache, insensible to the world around me.”

But the world did make sense of her. Or, many women of the ’60s and ’70s did. Unafraid to express what was in her mind, Joan Didion spoke for her peers—hippies, liberals, English majors, especially would-be writers. She was born in 1934 in Sacramento, described as “the dowdiest of California cities”. Yet, Ms Didion herself said, “It kills me when people talk about California hedonism. Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Her forebears came to Sacramento in the mid-1900s, and their pioneer experiences affected her growing up, which informed her debut novel Run, River, about the coming apart of the marriage and family of a Sacramento couple whose great-grandparents were pioneers. Ms Didion would, in the book of essays, Where I was From, censure her first novel as the work of someone “homesick”, and considered it spun with false nostalgia, creating an idealised picture of life in rural California that she would say did not exist.

According to her, she did not dream of a profession in writing. “I wrote stories from the time I was a little girl,” she told The Paris Review in 1978, “but I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t realize then that it’s the same impulse. It’s make-believe. It’s performance. The only difference being that a writer can do it all alone.” But write she did. In her final year in the University of California, Berkley, where she read English, Ms Didion participated in a writing contest, ‘Prix de Paris’. It was sponsored by Vogue. She came in first, and was offered the position as a research assistant at the magazine, then edited by Jessica Davis. She moved to New York to take up the job. In the beginning, she wrote mostly captions (then, not the one lines they are today), but she would eventually have her pieces published in the magazine (it was during her time at Vogue that Run, River was written).

Joan Didion in her signature black top. Photo: Everett/Shutterstock

Much of the dates are quite muddled now. But reports suggested that she was with Vogue from 1956 to 1963. Ms Didion, apart from writing the caption, also had duties that “involved going to photographers’ studios and watching women being photographed”, as she recounted in Esquire in 1989. We can’t be certain if she had worked under the inimitable Diana Vreeland, but if Ms Vreeland joined only in 1962 and was made editor-in-chief a year later, it is possible they were at least colleagues, if not superior and subordinate. Ms Didion did not cover the fashion beat, but she did, as we understand it, contribute—sometimes, without byline—to the column People are Talking About, and she profiled stars, such as Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand (who did not appear on the cover of Vogue until 1966), and even reported on the death of Marilyn Monroe, whom Ms Didion described as “a profoundly moving young woman.”

She eventually left Vogue. Some reports suggested that she was “fired” for panning the 1965 screen musical The Sound of Music, which she described as “more embarrassing than most, if only because of its suggestion that history need not happen to people… just whistle a happy tune, and leave the Anschluss behind.” (If true, she was not the only one whose review cost her her job—Pauline Kael of McCall’s too was dismissed at the time for calling the film “the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”.) One good thing came out of New York: Joan Didion met Time staffer John Gregory Dunne (younger brother of author Dominick Dunne), whom she married, at age 28, a year after she left Vogue, and in whom she found a sparing partner in writing. The couple moved to Los Angeles and would stay for more than two decades, during which, they adopted a baby girl, their only child.

In LA, the Dunnes would come to be known as “Hollywood insiders”. Not surprising since Ms Didion’s brother-in-law Dominick Dunne was a Hollywood type, having started his career in television in New York and was later brought to Tinseltown by Humphrey Bogart to work on TV productions there. The younger Dunne socialised with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor (and would draw on his Tinseltown experiences for his later novels). The brothers collaborated on the 1971 romantic drama The Panic in Needle Park. Ms Didion and her husband wrote the screenplay and Dominick Dunne produced the film which had Al Pacino in his first leading role. The writing duo (and director Frank Pierson) also wrote the 1976 remake of A Star is Born that starred Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

Joan Didion pictured on the cover of her book of essays. Cover photograph Hencry Clarke/Conde Nast via Getty Image. Photo: Jim Sim

While Hollywood appeared to suit them and their adopted kid, the movie town in Ms Didion’s writing was rather mercilessly dissected. In We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, she wrote: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” She told Vogue UK in 1993 that “Los Angeles presents a real culture shock when you’ve never lived there. The first couple of years you feel this little shift in the way you think about things. The place doesn’t mean anything. Los Angeles strips away the possibility of sentiment. It’s flat. It absorbs all the light. It doesn’t give you a story.” As she wrote in A Trip to Xanadu, published in the collection of essays Let Me Tell You What I Mean, “Make a place available to the eyes, and in certain ways it is no longer available to the imagination.” She was even more scathing when it came to the film industry and, in particular, film criticism, calling the latter—which she had previously done—in her 1973 essay Hollywood: Having Fun, “vaporous occupation”.

Apart from her style of writing, she was also noted for her style of dress. The Guardian, in what could be a fan-motivated homage, recently called her “a luminary of California cool”. It is doubtful that Ms Didion would describe herself that way or relate to that praise. And she would likely attribute her getting the job at Vogue to her writing, not her dress sense. It should be stated that the 5-foot-tall (about 1.5 metres) Ms Didion was an attractive young woman and it was possible that her appointment at Vogue had something to do with her looks. The magazine had a reputation of hiring mostly attractive lasses. But she must have had sartorial verve for her editors then to send her to watch women being photographed by—to name one—Robert Mapplethorpe. In fact, in one such session, an unidentified subject was so displeased with what she saw in the Polaroids that Ms Didion had to offer her what she had on. As she recalled for Esquire, “I lent the subject my own dress, and worked the rest of the sitting wrapped in my raincoat.” That had to be an agreeable outfit.

The dresses that she seemed to like were often long and loose. And sometimes, typical of the hippie era, floral-printed. She would wear them with flip flops, reflecting, perhaps, the Californian predilection for the unapologetically casual, as exemplified in the cover photo of her on Terry Newman’s 2017 book Legendary Authors and the Clothes they Wore. She had on a long-sleeved tee-dress; barely covering her thonged footwear. Her hair was slightly dishevelled; her left hand was holding what looked like a purse, and the forearm was folded across her waist; her right hand was on her left thigh, a cigarette barely noticeable between her thumb and index finger. These could possibly be one of the looks that inspired Phoebe Philo, who—during her time with Céline in 2015—had chosen Ms Didion, then 80, as the face of a Céline campaign. The New York Times would call the casting “prophetic”: Not long after, Saint Laurent, under Hedi Slimane’s watch, released their own ad with a geriatric beauty, the singer Joni Mitchell.

Joan Didion (right) with daughter Quintana Roo Dunne in a Gap ad from 1989. Photo: Gap

Céline’s image of Ms Didion was photographed by Juergen Teller. It showed her, from a somewhat top view, in a black dress that could have been from her own wardrobe. She wore a pair of oversized sunglasses that recalled what she used to wear in the ’60s/’70s and that obscured much of the top half of her face; the blackness of the shades contrasted with the paleness of her skin and underscored her thinning greyish hair. She also wore a necklace with an ember/copper-coloured pendant. Miss Didion told NYT that she “did not have any clue” to the chattering interests—online and off—with regards to her striking Céline appearance. Not everyone was that impressed. In her column ‘Ask Hadley’ for The Guardian, Hadley Freeman wrote, “It’s depressing to see your idol used to sell expensive clothes.” In fact, it is not known if Ms Didion herself wore expensive clothes, however iconic her looks were. Recently, The Cut opined, “Clearly, she had great taste and a point of view. But was it that special?”

In fact, the Céline modeling assignment was not Ms Didion’s first. Back in 1989, she was photographed by Annie Leibowitz for Gap’s ‘Individuals of Style’ campaign. She appeared with her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne (who died in 2005, just two months after her father John Gregory Dunne passed away). Both women were in USD19.50 black turtlenecks, with the mother sporting a barely visible chain. At the bottom of the image, the copy read: “Original. It’s how you twist the fundamental into something new.” That “Original” styling of Ms Didion would be reprised—not “twisted”—26 years later in the Céline ad. Many of her fans associate the writer with black turtleneck (or the mock sibling) tops, and she in them had transcended time. Even with grey hair, the look spoke of no zeitgeist. It was not that special.

“Style is character,” Joan Didion said in the1978 interview with The Paris Review. Although she was referring to writing, she could have been alluding to her own sartorial choices. Many women relate to Ms Didion’s famed itemised packing list, as described in The White Album. “This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily,” she wrote. “The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture.” Or, between Gap and Céline, either side of fashion.

Read: The Chiffon Trenches

There was the Gospel, now the Gossips. André Leon Talley’s second memoir is the fashion industry’s most anticipated read—bursting with tit-bits of fashion tattle alongside unrequited loves that, at the end, stir little pity for the man himself

 

ALT TCT

Warning: contains language and description that might be offensive to some

With a dust jacket photo of a face not exactly beaming with kindness, André Leon Talley’s second autobiography The Chiffon Trenches recounts the ways of an unkind fashion world to which he once belonged. By the time we received our copy (via Amazon, that came with a longer-than-usual delivery time of more than a month), we have, frankly, heard to death that Anna Wintour had left him with “scars” because “she is not capable of kindness”. If you hope for dirt to be dished on this woman—aka Nuclear (a force of energy not associated with the quality of being friendly and considerate) Wintour—there are some, but not nearly as much that her haters can then delightfully hope that her days at Vogue are numbered.

The Chiffon Trenches does not clearly explain why Mr Talley, once a fashion-week habitué and a front-row fixture, is so in need of affection—or sympathy—from Vogue, specifically the Devil Who Wears Prada, Anna Wintour. He didn’t require it in the beginning, not even at the time he learnt of his beloved grandmother’s death in 1989 (he was installed at the magazine only seven months earlier); he chose to be alone with his grief. As he wrote in his first autobiography A.L.T., “I told no one at Vogue. I just picked up my things and walked out the door…” When he learned of the death of his “spiritual mother” Diana Vreeland (having just returned home from “my first salon manicure at a Korean shop” (an odd, even flippant, detail to note while recalling the death of someone dear), there too was no one from Vogue to console him. Why (or how) it became for him a life of such emotional privation is still a riddle.

André Leon Talley is an uncommonly large man of fashion. In recent photos and him on stage, he is usually seated, which magnifies his largeness. Due to his size, he wears mostly muu-muu-like caftans that the media likes to describe as “trademark”, but it’s emblematic likely because of the little at retail that could fit his bulk. Mr Talley admits that he uses “the caftans to shadow the rise and fall of my adipose crisis.” Whether posing for press photos or delivering an address to Oxford students, or gracing a talk show, or hosting a segment (now no more) at the Met Gala, Mr Talley is nearly always on a chair or stool, and looks like a bell Quasimodo might have rung. Sometimes he forms a silhouette of a Renaissance cupola. This must not be taken as shaming; this is what has been seen. Which truly belies the fact that he was not, in the beginning, of a built that needed to be covered in such a startling yardage of cloth. Photographs of his early years, in fact, showed a trim, almost gawky man who stood out due to his impressive height of 1.98m—as tall as the late Kobe Bryant. Mr Talley even describes himself then as a “black American string bean”.

Stringy enough for Tina Brown to remember him—as she wrote in The Vanity Fair Diaries—“in a bespoke suit as thin as a number two lead pencil” at Andy Warhol’s memorial service. In his younger days, he must have cut a striking stature, if not a handsome figure. “I was tall, thin and adored by those who met me,” Mr Talley writes. Enough to tempt, earlier in his tenure at Interview, a looks-concerned Andy Warhol to molest him? In the pre-launch publicity of the book, the press could not resist mentioning how the pop artist had often and publicly placed his hands on Mr Talley’s crotch, to which the latter would merely “just swat him away”.

But what is perhaps more shocking (if anything still shocks) is Mr Warhol wanting to take a photo of his employee’s genitals. Mr Talley writes that his artist-boss said, “You could become famous, make your cock famous. All you have to do is let me take a Polaroid of you peeing on the canvas.” He politely rejected the request. But a guy pissing would oddly occur again in his life story. This time, with Loulou de la Falaise in a kinky, “but happening place in the Meatpacking District” of New York. As he describes it, “suddenly, a man stood on top of the bar and started urinating on revelers below him.” Additionally, he lets on—the world of fashion and pop music is so curious about and enamoured of black genitalia. “There is always the thought that as a black man, it can only be my genitals that people respond to.” Even Madonna, at their first meeting asked, after introducing herself, “do you want a blow job?”

The book is peppered with such gossipy, not usually salacious tales, but they are often akin to snippets

 

While he was not amenable to having his member touched or photographed, or fellated, Mr Talley was not opposed to looking at someone else’s. As he recounts one bedtime investigation, relish somewhat intact, “…I, curious about the legendary size of his penis, pulled back the white sheet and exposed the family jewels…” Mr Talley often writes about his “Southern manners”. Were they not applicable in a shared bed? The victim of this big reveal was Victor Hugo, the Venezuelan artist who was Andy Warhol’s assistant and model at the Factory, and Halston’s window display artist and purported lover. This took place one night in Calvin Klein’s house on Fire Island. Curiosity assuaged, Mr Talley went back to sleep, “Victor on one end, and me on the other”. Penises have their rightful place in his collective memory. Further down, he spied with no hesitation “long-hanging fruits” at the pool of Karl Lagerfeld’s villa in Biarritz.

Friends, friends, friends

The book is peppered with such gossipy, not usually salacious tales, but they are often akin to snippets. Even his relationship with Betty Catroux, “one of the permanent icons in the pantheon of Saint Laurent androgynous style”, is recounted casually, and is barely supported by explanations to tell why he considers her a friend. He also writes of “a great friendship with Miuccia Prada”, but does not really say why. It is the same with Bianca Jagger, Paloma Picasso, Loulou de la Falaise, São Schlumberger (Anna Wintour was not the only person he went to the couture shows with), Amanda Harlech, Lee Radziwill, Anne Bass, Annette de la Renta, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis; so much so that, after a while, it seems like just exuberant name-dropping.

Mr Talley, who has an MA in French Studies, writes of long “effortless” conversations with Mr Lagerfeld, including two to three-hour-long phone calls at night, but, curiously, not once did he say if both of them spoke in English or French, or a mix of both. They wrote letters to each other too, copiously. But, again, it is not known if the frequent correspondences were penned in which of the two languages both could speak and read and write (Mr Lagerfeld was fluent in French, German, English, and Italian). With Mr Saint Laurent, however, he did say that they conversed in French.

He likes to repeatedly give the impression that he was part of and moving between the inner sanctums of French couturiers—that only he and Paloma Picasso were able to navigate freely between the two reigning camps at the time he was in Paris, working for WWD: Karl Lagerfeld’s and Yves Saint Laurent’s. Both men were known to be rivals in business, stature, and the love of one man, Jacques de Bascher. For the purpose of maintaining peace, Ms Picasso had to have the two designers create her wedding dress—one did the day, the other did the night. “That level of diplomacy,” Mr Talley notes, “is exactly what it took to straddle the ice-cold pillars of fashion”. In that respect, it would appear that he did enjoy somewhat exalted status on hallowed grounds.

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André Leon Talley likes being praised and complimented. In the book, the contents are sandwiched between what could be good-luck tokens. Just after the front cover, as well as before the back cover, are strategically placed, almost trompe-l’œil, digital scans of written praises from “the great Delphic oracle” Diana Vreeland and Ralph Lauren respectively. He praises himself too: “I was at the apex of my good-looking young self”, “I had style and attitude. I could shine with the best of them in sartorial splendor and élan”, “My dapper and dandy appearance was paramount…”. Or how instrumental he was in getting John Galliano’s career launched (credit, as most know, went to Anna Wintour) when he helped organised (and even aided in securing the funds for) the autumn/winter 1994 show, held at the uninhabited hôtel particulier home of São Schlumberger. Not a chapter progresses without some self-acknowledgment or praise from others of how good he was. This might have worked in a biography, but for a memoir, it sounds like a long reference letter to himself.

A recurrent phrase in the book is “I was smart”. He says, for example, “People gravitated toward me because I was smart”—people includes Karl Lagerfeld and smart the synonym of intellectual prowess, rather than just learned inferences. This reminder to the reader that intelligence is a requite for a dazzling life in fashion seems to suggest that he needs to be validated, even if it is mostly self-validation. That he started at Interview, jumped to WWD/W, and scaled Vogue weren’t enough to parlay his keen mind and vast knowledge into a standing worthy of the “fashion elite”, some of whom did not graduate from university as he did, such as Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour.

He writes about his time at Interview; at WWD and W; and at Vogue, and even the one-year tenure at Ebony, but he did not once mention the (also one-year) employment at Numéro Russia, where he was hired as editor-at-large to launch the magazine in Moscow in 2013. Mr Telly left exactly a year after, reportedly because of Russia’s controversial position on homosexuality, after watching a Rachel Maddow report on the issue. Mr Telly has proclaimed his love for Russia, but made no mention about his time there. Yet, he spoke rather romantically of his first trip to Africa, when he was invited by Naomi Campbell to Lagos to participate in Arise, the Nigerian Fashion Week.

Intense insecurity

Mr Talley likes bringing up his childhood/teenage years in “segregated Durham”, a town North Carolina known for tobacco (although that was already well covered in A.L.T.), and contrasting that to his achievements in New York, and later Paris, and back to New York again. The insecurity and the stressing of that insecurity seem to be behind how he operates and how he dresses himself. “I depended on sartorial boldness to camouflage my exterior vortex of pain, insecurity, and doubt,” Mr Talley writes. That he, who earlier in his career was happy to accept cast-offs from Karl Lagerfeld and Halston, was able to don bespoke suits was a big deal and a visual validation. When caftans replaced suits, he too had them custom-made and would attribute them to the designers who made them. In fact, when describing what he wore, he fervently name-checks brands—even down to his gloves and the lining of his jackets—as an Instagrammer is inclined to by using tags and hashtags.

His insecurity was not only about his relationship with fashion folks. He was insecure about his work too. He likes to remind the reader of the importance of his editorial role and the significance of his output. Sometimes the need to repeat himself (or remind?) can be irritating. “Working for Vogue as the Paris editor was a serious job,” he writes. At the end of that paragraph, he adds, “Of course, the job came with great duties.” With each promotion at WWD, he does not speak of moving up the masthead, but “a massive jump”, which seems incongruent with the perceived humility associated with his early church-going years in the American south.

Courtier among couturiers

Two French designers professed to be influential in André Leon Talley’s life were Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. Between the two, it appears he was closer to Mr Lagerfeld and dedicates considerable pages to the couturier. “His importance in my life and career is without parallel,” he stresses. By the time the designer debuted his collection for Chanel in 1983, Mr Talley had been an expatriate in Paris for four years prior, and both were fast friends. Mr Talley was then, back in the Big Apple, not working (he was just asked to leave the magazine Ebony), so Mr Lagerfeld flew him “from New York to Paris first-class” and paid for his stay at Saint James Albany, a hotel on Rue de Rivoli that overlooks the 456-year-old Tuileries Garden.

And there were gifts of money, too. He told Fashionista that when he turned 50, Mr Lagerfeld “gave” him $50,000 (this monetary detail is not mentioned in the book). Such generosity and the closeness between them, led to the rumour that they were lovers. Mr Talley flatly denied that they were, or that he had “been in and out of every designer’s bed in Paris”, as suggested by Michael Cody, one of his bosses at WWD, a charge that led to the editor resigning from the publication. If Mr Talley had been indulgent, it seems to be more sensual than sexual. He had already clarified this in A.L.T.: “I never slept with anyone to get ahead”.

In the end, he was dropped by Mr Lagerfeld like unwanted fabric on the atelier floor. Yet, he consoles himself by saying, after Mr Lagerfeld’s death, “I love him, and he loved me right back

 

His relationship with Yves Saint Laurent seemed to be conducted from a distance, while with Karl Lagerfeld, it was often right in the heart of the action. He recounts trips to Mr Lagerfeld’s various homes, but not Mr Saint Laurent’s private retreat-oasis in Marrakesh, the Jardin Majorelle. Mr Lagerfeld is no longer able to counter Mr Talley’s rather lengthy and detailed account of their time together, often spent amid considerable luxury. It appears that more paragraphs are devoted to Karl Lagerfeld than to Anna Wintour. Despite acknowledging that the Kaiser didn’t treat his close friends well, Mr Talley was totally captivated by the designer of Chanel, stressing repeatedly that he learned a lot from Mr Lagerfeld and referring to the designer and himself as “the Socrates of high fashion and his best student”. In the end, he was dropped by Mr Lagerfeld like unwanted fabric on the atelier floor. Yet, he consoles himself by saying, after Mr Lagerfeld’s death (they never made it up), “I love him, and he loved me right back.”

That could be the point of the book that readers may find hard to reconcile. Mr Talley has a weakness for “unconditional love” or what he perceives to be that, received from both designers, society ladies, and celebrities. And also those that others give to others—he says, for example, that Betty Catroux “loved Yves unconditionally”. Emotionally, Mr Talley did not seem to have suffered hardships of the heart since the attraction to two men that is mentioned in the book amounted to really nothing. So he seek emotional warmth—real or imagined—from those who seemed to be able to give it, such as Diane von Fürstenberg and Lee Radziwill, as well as from those not known to be emotionally radiating, such as Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour.

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Mr Talley wrote that “Yves wanted to be Betty Catroux.” On that note, it is possible that Mr Talley wanted to be all those women he adored: From Jackie Kennedy of his youth to Diana Vreeland to Loulou de la Falaise to the other Bouvier sister, Lee Radziwill, even possibly Anna Wintour. Or, at least, he lived vicariously through them, which may explain why he was so eager to attend couture fittings not his own. Even when things were no longer rosy with Ms Wintour, he still attended her couture fittings to the very last. He writes, “I continue to advise her out of sincere loyalty, no matter if she remains silent.”

After all the drama, his feelings for the editor-in-chief of Vogue sounds familiar: “Not a day goes by when I do not think of Anna Wintour.” This is hard to digest after he slams her for how she treated him. And then goes on to say that he received “a moment of grace” when, to him, she “verified my important role, or one aspect of it, in her life as editor-in-chief of Vogue” in an interview for the documentary on him, The Gospel According to André. He then goes on to say she “has disappointed me in her humanity,” hoping “she will find a way to apologize before I die.” It is rather hard to bear, reading about someone punishing himself in such a manner. Reacting to his podcast with Vogue being cancelled with no prior warning, he says, “She decimated me with this silent treatment so many times. That is just the way she resolves any issue. And I soldiered on, through the elite chiffon trenches”. Soldiering on, in the face of being so clearly ignored, deserves no pity.

In his publicity rounds, Mr Talley calls his book an “epistle”. Readers here may identify much of it as redress or even complaint. In the context of modern digital communication and life, this could be fashion journalism’s equivalent of revenge porn. And like porn, it’s an enticing read. This isn’t the front row, this is a get-back. The “even-though-someone-smiled-at-me, they-could-be-plotting-against-me-behind-my-back” variety. Mr Talley told NPR that The Chiffon Trenches is “not a salacious tell-all. It’s not a dishy, gossipy, bitchy book.” Yet, you do get tell-a-lot, dishy, gossipy, and bitchy recounting.

The book is a breeze to read, and with the fashion show-like pacing, easy to finish in a day or, maximum, two. It is not created to be a literary masterpiece—at best, a piece of Vanity Fair reporting in book length and form. André Leon Talley likes to repeat himself, as we mentioned, just as he likes to be thanked and appreciated, which becomes a little tiring after a while, tiring to read. He is a thankful person, which is undeniably a virtue, but there is no need to be effusive in gratitude (or to expect the same), which can be shown, not only said. A thank you offered once is as valuable as a sorry hoped for, if uttered.

Photos: Jim Sim

Sometimes, A Book Needs To Be Dressed

Beahouse book cover

By Mao Shan Wang

I wish for my books what some women desire for their pets: suitable attire. But this has nothing to do with wanting to dress my books to reflect my considering them extension of myself, the way it tends to be with pet owners. (Admittedly, a well-dressed book could point to what the legendary editor Carmel Snow called a well-dressed mind.) Or to present a fancy exterior that tells the world clothing is not strictly a human priority and propriety. Rather, my books are given an outfit only when they’re being read. And because a book in use tends to be exposed to some rather tough conditions, they should be protected. Hands ready for gardening are always happy to see a pair of good gloves.

Truth be told, I have only two sets of clothing for my books, and both for those I tend to carry around than the tomes that mostly reside in my small library. One of them, bought in Beijing some years back, is a simple black jacket in a cotton that recalls those worn by coolies of the past. It’s a simple slip-case much like the plastic versions that were once sold in Popular Bookstore and were used to protect our school books. This one attracted me because of the side designated as the cover. On it are the Chinese characters xiang si (相思 or to yearn) embroidered in red. Next to the two words is a little dot, which could be a Chinese period, but, if you’re alert, you’ll realise that this is, in fact, a pictograph. Collectively, they read xiang si dou ((相思豆), referring to the red lucky seed, the Chinese symbol of love and longing!

The other is a recent purchase. I was drawn to it because it said “free size” on the packaging. Although the description is in Japanese, it was not difficult to make out from the illustration that this cover could fit a lot more books than my old one, which is essentially one size. Produced by Beahouse, a Japanese maker of cloth and leather book covers, it hints at a rather old-world way of carrying books around, much like the book band is associated with a practice no longer prevalent. What is it about the reading culture of China and Japan that makes readers want to protect the covers of their books? I have never seen, if they are to be seen at all, anyone here using a bought book cover; I have only seen books the result of terrible abuse.

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This made-in-Japan wrap, also in cotton, but of rather fine twill, is a 44cm by 45cm near-square that is folded from the top down to the three-quarter mark, and then from the bottom to the half-way point. The top fold is held in place by a vertical stitch in the middle while the bottom is unstitched, which means it can be adjusted to take any book with size ranging from the average paperback to the standard hardback. At each end of the folded rectangle is a Velcro strip that can be fastened to allow the book cover to fit snugly.

Having your own book cover this versatile means you do not have to pay for books to be plastic-wrapped. It is very annoying that in Singapore such a service is charged by booksellers. Kinokuniya makes you pay S$1.00 per book, although their stores in Bangkok offer it for free (no charge at Asia Books as well). Moreover, in this age of green living, a reusable book cover, like a reusable shopping bag, can play a small part in our quest for eco-equilibrium, never mind that we are no eco-heroes.

I am one of those who like to carry a book in my bag. Uncommon such a habit might be these days, I have not given it up, as I do read during my commute on the MRT train—a sight, I suspect, is as often witnessed as a person without a smartphone. Inside my bag, the book is always in communion with the umbrella, battery pack, sunglasses, earphones, digital music player, and the miscellany that inevitably ends up in there. Books, unlike the rest in that community, have a weak body. When properly clothed, they can survive the unwelcome chafing that prolonged close contact may bring. A handsomely jacketed book, too, may spark a conversation with a fellow commuter, pedestrian, or shopper. No fancily-dressed pet required.

Beahouse Free Size Book Cover, SGD26, is available at Tokyu Hands, Orchard Central. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

An Incomplete Picture

Fashion Most Wanted

On the weekend just before National Day, a book on Singapore fashion—past and present—quietly made its way to the shelves in Kinokuniya. Fashion Most Wanted, penned by three seasoned, one-time Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) journalists, John de Souza, Cat Ong, and Tom Rao, sat on an island display near the entrance in silence, like a plain T-shirt, in the company of more captivating titles such as A Chance of a Lifetime (Lee Kuan Yew and the Physical Transformation of Singapore), Neurotribes (a New York Times bestseller, as noted on the cover), When Breath Becomes Air, Ted Talks, The Euro, The Caliphate, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and Kampung Tempe (Voices from a Malay Village).

The much anticipated publication that took more than two years to complete was, however, exciting fashion insiders, with designer Francis Cheong posting on Facebook, a few days later: “Woke up and happy to see that a new book… had arrived in my house. Thank you for the 2 beautiful pages that was (sic) dedicated to me for fashion that took place in Singapore for the past 5 years.”

Five decades in the fashion capitals of the world is not a long time, but in Singapore it is, more so if you consider that we’ve only celebrated our 51st National Day (Paris, as a city of fashion, dates back to the 17th century), and that notable Singaporean style and the consumption of fashion (if defined as clothing conceived by designers) really began in the late ’70s and enjoyed a so-called “golden age” briefly in the ’80s. Chronicling a subject as complex and contentious as fashion—and sometimes considered frivolous, or worse, to some here, non-existent—is no doubt a complicated task, and one that may not yield an account that is all-encompassing.

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It is unsurprising, therefore, that Fashion Most Wanted does not reach the bowels of the industry or include as many colourful—and cantankerous—characters as there were and still are. To uncover the real nodus of fashion in Singapore would require far much more than just unpicking hems. Every seam would need to be unstitched to better examine how the many parts truly came together; even the fabric needs to be studied. Moreover, just because you’ve undress a woman doesn’t mean you know her. Fashion Most Wanted contains nuggets of information that are, even to the writers, “ah ha moments”. Yet, for many who have lived through a good part of the years described in the book, there are absent friends.

In the introduction, it is stated that “this is not a book of lists” nor “a Yellow Pages of fashion, or a who’s who of local designers, or a book for students conducting research”, but “a treasure trove of history and insider information”—described on the cover as “top insider secrets”. Fashion Most Wanted, for the most part, seems to be built on info provided (by selected interviewees) rather than what is gained from rigorous research. It is narrative minus the delicious drama and egregious egomania that characterise the industry. Is Singaporean fashion then like Singapore itself: clean and lacking in excitement, as is the common perception, even if mostly external?

Singaporeans—particularly in the creative field such as fashion design—are known not to brook criticisms. Which, perhaps, explains why the authors have taken the typical ST reportage route: sing and gloss over, and keep it simple and stay safe. However rough, ruthless, and rivalrous the whole scene was and has been, it was not given any eye-opener except with the unilluminating comment by Jacob KH Choong, the co-owner of the now-defunct Glamourette: that by the 1980s, fashion retailing was a “dog-eat-dog world”.

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For sure, it is not likely that readers are expecting Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall, a scintillating story of the rivalry between Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld that is set against the excesses of the ’70s. It is possible though that Fashion Most Wanted is conceived to stay clear from casting an unflattering light on a subject that will continue to bring its authors recognition. Would the fabric of fashion in Singapore be irreparably ripped if we are able to see the capriciousness, the petulance, and the temper that typify sententious people steering the creative business? What “insider secrets” have been spilled?

The discussion on Singaporean fashion can be daunting in its breadth, yet any such discourse should really include our national identity in relation to the fashionable clothing worn or the efforts in dress-as-identifier of national pride that our city-state had tried to forge. One conspicuous exclusion in the book is our attempt in finding and establishing the elusive “national dress”.

In February 1990, the Singapore Dress Fashion Extravaganza was staged at Westin Plaza, kicking off an annual affair that saw the orchid as fashionable emblem. At the start of the project, initiated a year earlier by the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) for the creation of attire patterned with orchids for the May Day Rally, chairperson Yu-Foo Yee Shoon told the media, that it “would take at least five to 10 years for a Singapore dress to materialise.” A decade later, the orchid of a Singapore dress withered.

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NTUC’s eventual ceasing of support for the realisation of garments Singaporeans would wear and identify as uniquely ours was not met with any curiosity or analysis of its end. This, hitherto, still arouses the inquisitive mind since much was put into the project. At the start, its unofficial patron Ong Teng Cheong, then second deputy PM and NTUC’s secretary-general, as well as president Wee Kim Wee were ardent supporters, to such a degree that the annual catwalk presentation of the Singapore Dress (also known as the Orchid Dress) became the President’s Charity Gala when Mr Ong took office as Singapore’s 5th president.

The Singapore/Orchid Dress must have enjoyed some success, it was presumed, since a fashion label Ms Joaquim was conceived in 1998 to give the project the visibility it needed. Cat Ong, one of the three behind Fashion Most Wanted, titled a Singapore Dress story for The Straits Times in 1999 “Vanda’s Not Joking”. By then, the Singapore Dress was a serious business run by Singapore Dress Co, part of NTUC. It no longer involved only local designers; it had regional designers on board, namely Indonesia’s Ghea Panggabean and Biyan, and India’s Gitanjali Kashyap. General manger of Singapore Dress Co. Staphnie Tang, previously the operations and marketing head of Glamourette, told the media that the Singapore Dress was no longer just for “national occasions”. To augment the concept’s more haute leaning, Ms Joaquim was retailed in its own stores: in Millennia Walk, Liat Towers, and CHJMES. In 2002, the label came to an end.

Curious too is the omission of one of the most important events of the 1980s for Singaporean designers: the Trade Development Board’s (TDB) fashion missions overseas. The first, in 1983, was in Paris for the trade fair Salon International du Prêt-a-Porter Feminin. Fifty Singaporean designers and manufacturers were selected to exhibit in a 250 square-metre spot of the International Hall, set up at the Porte de Versailles, an exhibition centre that, today, is still the venue for the Pret, as visitors call it.

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The following year, another group participated in the Japanese leg of Singapore Apparel, a TDB-initiated project in Tokyo (co-organised with Jetro, or Japan External Trade Organisation), where designers and manufacturers showed their designs in the Laforet Museum. It was deemed a daring foray, considering that, at the time, Tokyo was seeing its influential second wave of designers—the unapologetically avant-garde Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—take the world by storm. Would anyone pay attention to a group who wasn’t there to show how Singaporeans were changing the game?

Unsurprisingly, it was the Paris mission that was considered the more successful. In its first year, the participants secured an encouraging S$5.1 million worth of orders. Although the value of trade varied in the following years, TDB was unwavering in its support of Singaporean designers. Edith Cheong, TDB’s textile manager and mission chief told The Straits Times in 1984 with palpable fervour, “We’re going to Paris to show our all-round fashion capabilities, as well as tremendous amount of design talent we have.” How impressed the French were with our showing, it was not certain nor subsequently reported. After the fourth mission in 1985, talk about Singaporean designers and manufacturers wooing buyers at the Pret fizzled out.

The exposure in Paris brought recognition to Singaporean designers back on home turf. In the latter half of the 1980s many of the designers thought to be exportable became household names. In 1985, the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) put local designers on prime-time television for the first time in a popular Channel 8 variety show called Live from Studio One so that “viewers can learn something about how to dress”. Five were featured: Corrine Low of Cori Moreni, Allan Chai, Lam Wan Lai, and the two masters, Tan Yoong and Thomas Wee (who would a year later launch the immensely successful Mixables line in a free-standing store in Wisma Atria). Singaporean designers were finally hailed as talents we could be proud of, and learn from.

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While the Paris trade missions of the ’80s and the Singapore Dress of the ’90s came to define the tenacious efforts to succeed in the respective eras, they did not last or morph into projects that elevated local fashion. There were many reasons why the projects came to naught. In the case of the Singapore Dress, its grassroots beginnings, for some, did not augur well for the idea. However, Alan Koh, president of Society for Designing Arts (SODA) was upbeat when he insisted that failure cannot be ascribed to the national dress: its success simply fell short of what Mr Ong envisioned.

As for the overseas trade missions, TDB’s priorities shifted when garment manufacturing in Singapore no longer became a significant industry. By the mid-90s, many garment factories have either shuttered or moved to China, where, since the 1980s, the manufacturing sector was burgeoning and employing more than 3 million workers in the sector alone, according to the International Labour Organisation. That was more than the population of Singapore! The effects of what had become known as globalisation were certainly felt on our shores. Without factories, we were positioned as a sourcing and marketing hub for fashion. The mission to court buyers abroad was shelved.

Singaporean designers that emerged during “the golden era of local fashion”, as described in Fashion Most Wanted, did not get the kind of spotlight in the book that many fans had hope to see. It is odd, for example, that one of Singapore’s most illustrious designers Tan Yoong received only a 5.1cm-wide column (of a three-column page) mention that is 8.6-cm high. That’s less than the height of a bar of chocolate or a carton of milk. It is speculated that Mr Tan did not grant the authors an interview, being increasingly reclusive since his retirement in 2015. Could it be because of his no-talk that the book can only manage “his gorgeous evening gowns and fabulous bridal frocks were the stuff of legends”?

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It is doubtful that the extremely private Tan Yoong would want to be associated with anything legendary, but in the annals of Singaporean fashion, he is a creative force as peerless as a phoenix. From his training as a graphic designer in the ’70s, Mr Tan approaches fashion in a two-dimensional way, layering to stunning effects his gossamer shapes as if applying Letraset transfers. In this respect, he is different from friendly rival Thomas Wee, whose precise cut and manipulation of form are deeply rooted in tailoring. If we were to compare the two in haute couture terms, Mr Tan is the master of the flou, while Mr Wee the tailleur.

Tan Yoong is more than just the extremely expensive eponymous label. Few know of the man’s efforts in making his designs accessible. In 1990, the same year that the Orchid/National Dress debuted, Mr Tan, whose company was once backed by B.P. de Silva, launched the stunning Cattleya Collection under the supremely refined label Tze. There was also the so-called diffusion line Zhen, with a polished, graphically-skewed Orientalism that had by then become the hallmark of Mr Tan’s romantic designs. In 2008, Tan Yoong represented Singapore in the World Fashion Week (WFW), organised by the United Nations. Although WFW was a short-lived program—aimed at supporting the UN’s causes, Mr Tan’s presence affirmed the belief then that Singaporean fashion designers were ready to grace the world stage.

Also receiving a near-cursory mention is Peter Kor, placed curiously under the heading “The Survivor”. While it is true that Mr Kor has gone through many career highs and lows (which designer has not?), it is rather narrow to underscore his business struggles as survival mode. (Interestingly, in the preceding pages, Yang Derong, ’80s darling of the young designer set and later studio director at Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, was described as “The Free Spirit” even when Mr Yang’s career was as shifting.) An effectively bilingual intellectual always in tune with his Shanghainese ancestry, Mr Kor is, as noted in a 1990 Female magazine article on Singapore Apparel’s Premier Designer Show of that year, “a modernist not separated from his roots.”

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Peter Kor, for many observers of the time when he shone, was among the top three designers that could truly carry the flag for Singaporean fashion. The other two were Tan Yoong and Thomas Wee. Mr Kor’s eponymous designs were less immediately identifiable than his contemporaries’ as he was mostly ‘ghosting’ for in-house labels, such as Metro’s best-selling Marisa (now no more). Ever the realist, his designs reflected the desire for practical clothes (such as the white shirt) that were, at the same time, different. With a controlled hand and a lightness of touch, he created separates that were Eastern and stripped-down—a minimalism that earned him the tag “monastic”, which he did not mind since he had always been the opposite of meretricious.

Some names are entirely not within the pages of Fashion Most Wanted. One of them is Projectshop, a label born in 1989 that, by 2006, grew into a 12-door business that was spread from Singapore to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. A collective fronted by designer Peter Teo, Projectshop was the first to rethink how tourist-centric products could be designed and marketed that would not look like anything sold in Lucky Plaza.

The result is a line of souvenir T-shirts (they started with just ten styles) with colourful illustrations and cheeky text that introduced foreign visitors to uniquely local comestibles and sights, such as the Singapore Sling and the by-then-infrequently-seen street wayang. Each tee was also attractively packaged, in brown paper frames that sported hand drawings. Unlike products in the same category, Projectshop’s were not sold in crammed and chaotic gift shops. Instead, they were available in Tangs, where growing sales allowed the brand to trampoline to higher reaches.

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By 1993, Projectshop’s success led to their first women’s wear line, also stocked at Tangs. A year later, the men’s collection Bloodbros was conceived and debuted at the newly opened Tangs Studio. The designs of Peter Teo (and co-creator Richard Chamberlain) were nothing like those of designers from the previous generation: supremely luxe and elegant. Theirs was a nod to street wear—which, for the mid-Nineties, was rightly body-conscious—as well as Southeast Asian elements such as sarong drapes and batik prints. Mr Teo, who had once worked for the London label Workers for Freedom after graduating from Kingston College, proved that a well conceived and produced mass-market label, with what he called “the right attitude”, was achievable, and desirable.

In 1996, the two names came together as one. ProjectshopBloodbros was consolidated and the label now offered accessories, mainly bags, which soon became their biggest sellers. The bags included then-uncommon items such as totes, and were seen by many fans as Singapore’s answer to the Japanese label Porter. Its success truly predated local bag brands such as former Bodynit designer Gary Goh’s Trevor, and, in the post-Noughties, Colin Chen’s Fabrix, and Young Kong Shin’s Carryall James. In its final incarnation, ProjectshopBloodbros bags were re-branded as Property Of… at its last outlet in The Paragon before it was discontinued last year.

Equally odd was the no-mention of how the Japanese designers’ explosive entry into the Paris scene and, consequently, the world stage in the ’80s, affected or influenced Singaporeans. One of the popular hairstylists at that time, Gina Lau of The Hair Shop, was an early adopter, and was frequently seen head to toe in the “Hiroshima-chic” sacks of the era that had initially divided fashion folks. Although journalist-turn-retailer Judith Chung’s Man and His Woman had, since the early ’70s, stocked Japanese labels such as Damon, Men’s Bigi, Jun, and Rope, it was the aesthetics of heavyweights Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto that captured the imagination of local fashionistas.

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These days, few remember that Japanese fashion was available in department stores and indie retailers too. Isetan, unlike now, was a proponent of its nation’s designers since the ’70s and had Comme des Garçons, Kanzai Yamamoto, and Studio V in its stable of Japanese labels. The store was so certain of the appeal of these names that it staged a fashion show in the ballroom of the Pavilion Inter-Continental Hotel (now the Regent) in 1985 to rousing reception. At a time when European designers, particularly Italian, held sway, it was a rare opportunity to see the diverse aesthetics of Japanese style: Comme’s intriguing shapes in colours other than black, Kanzai’s colourful clothes with outlandish illustrations and graphics, and Studio V’s loose, feminine and playful Kenzo-esque separates.

In 1982, one of the earliest to take on established boutiques such as Man and His Woman in stocking Japanese labels was Banzai at the Hilton Shopping Arcade (now called Gallery). Amid the European posh that was the Hilton Shopping Arcade, Banzai’s edginess was like a slice of naruto (white Japanese fish cake with pink-swirl centre) atop a bowl of brown miso ramen. Co-owner Serene Po was often in the boutique introducing enthusiastic customers to more affordable labels such as Mastsuhiro Matsuda’s Nicole and Monsieur Nicole, Takeo Kikuchi’s Half Moon and Men’s Bigi, and Yohji Yamamoto’s Y’s Workshop (now simply Y’s).

Not long after Banzai’s debut, Scandal opened in Lucky Plaza, offering lesser-known labels, but not less-alt styles that the Japanese have increasingly peddled. Scandal was co-owned by Leslie Goh, who had earlier retailed the Italian brand Fiorucci. Like Ms Po, she too was often on hand to introduce her uncommon threads to customers. Scandal’s success spawned the sister store Shoot. By the mid-Nineties, the Nippon craze faded. Singapore did not wake up to the influence of Japanese designers again until the introduction of Yohji Yamamoto’s-ex-assistant-gone-solo Atsuro Tayama in Isetan in 1998.

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Omissions are not only within the covers of the book. What’s missing, in the eyes of many fashion folks, is on the exterior: a hard cover and an attendant jacket. That Fashion Most Wanted should be a soft back sans dust jacket is, in fact, surprising for many who are looking forward to something more substantial—not unreasonable for a fashion title. Sure, no one is expecting Assouline refinement and heft, since the book is published by Straits Times Press, a publisher not in the same league. But a paperback with the appearance and feel of a text book is far from even the lowest expectations. Did the publisher think they were doing another edition of the Singapore Chronicles series?

It has been suggested that the retail price of S$37.45 does not warrant a hard back. That is hardly persuasive as another title, displayed side-by-side in Kinokuniya’s fashion section, has a hard cover and is sold at S$30.50: My School Uniform by Yixian Quek, published by Basheer Graphic Books and, like Fashion Most Wanted, supported by the National Heritage Board. At the cashier, you won’t miss the equally hard-backed The Strangely Singaporean Book (The Little Drom Store) by Stanley Tan and Antoninette Wong, to be had for S$31.99. Selling price is, perhaps, not the reason.

The word going round is that the book is largely self-financed. The use of Straits Time Press then has its advantages as the authors could tap into SPH’s photo archives at no charge. Regrettably, many of the photographs are not attractive or of decent resolution, and are not rendered more engaging (or “saved”, as one fashion stylist put it) by deft design. At some point, one wonders if the book was commissioned by Her World, co-author Tom Rao’s former employer. Every intro page to the different decades is illustrated by only photos of the past covers of the magazine, effectively placing SPH’s most profitable title and our country’s oldest woman’s magazine right in the middle of the altar of Singaporean fashion.

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And there’s the cover. The 21cm X 27.5cm paper back is surprisingly not free of design clichés, with a button literally taking centre spot to replace the letter ‘O’, and repeated as interpunct to separate the names of the authors, placed at the bottom. Seeing the four-hole button, a designer was quick to say, “At least it’s horn!” As if to leave no one in doubt of its subject matter, the book’s cover sports a full-bleed photo-print that suggests the fabric seersucker. Two girls, presumably from one of our design schools, were flipping through Fashion Most Wanted when one of them asked imperturbably, “Don’t you think our graduation book looks better?”

If the cover of the book does not appeal to the present generation of readers, it may be a disappointment to the young who hope to find a substantial narrative on the scene post-2000. Fashion Most Wanted’s most engaging chapters appear in the first part of the book, specifically between the ’70s and ’90s. It is not hard to see that these were the authors’ most active years, in which they are most connected. The recall is, therefore, imbued with palpable fondness. Some people think there’s nothing much to say about Singaporean fashion in the Noughties since we no longer see the kind of creativity and quality that distinguished the early years. Could the latter chapters’ smaller reports mean the authors concur?

Despite its shortcomings, Fashion Most Wanted is a book that needs to be written. Whatever we feel about fashion in Singapore, and whether we consume it here or not, there were—and are—individuals who strove to make our city a beautiful, if not fashionable, place. Fashion will always be contentious, just as it is infinitely mutable. We should not stop talking about it.

Fashion Most Wanted is available at stpressbooks.com.sg and in Kinokuniya. Photos: Zhao Xiangji