‘In America’, The Europeans—And A Horse—Won

You’d think that with New York Fashion Week just concluded, attendees would have so much to choose from to meet the dress code that, on the invite, read, “American Independence”. But on the steps of the Met Gala, who really cared? Why choose American when they could have European?

Two extremes: Kim Kardashian (top) in Balenciaga. Photo: Getty Images. And Billie Elilish in Oscar de la Renta. Photo: Shutterstock

By Emma Ng

The Met Gala is where, for one time in a year—even a pandemic year, you can look ridiculous and everyone will call it fashion. I sometimes wonder if Anna Wintour organises the event and encourages everyone attending to “dress up” so that she could have a good and hearty laugh later. There is something juvenile about the idea of the Met Gala—it’s, to me, fashion folks’ prom night. Fashion is, of course, not important as long as you’re the belle of the ball, or whatever you call Saweetie’s I-don’t-have-enough-fabric-for-a-saree look. In fact, I do think that it is under Ms Wintour’s watch (since 1999!) that the Met Gala is the circus of the ridiculous that it is today. In fact, if you Google Met Gala and ‘ridiculous’, you’ll get at least six links in just one page (‘outrageous’ is in there too). The ridiculousness, sometimes teetering dangerously close to tackiness, is augmented by the chair’s and co-chairs’ outfits—often so bland and proper, they seem calculated to make everyone else look like they didn’t get the memo.

Queen bee Ms Wintour and her four worker-bee co-chairs—all more than half her age younger—were in clothes, not quite the costume that has come to characterise the Met Gala. The “most powerful woman” in fashion was in a predictably pretty, tiered, floral Oscar de la Renta dress (was she attending a wedding at a country club?). Amanda Gorman was in a short, studded Vera Wang bustier-thingy, with a sheer overlay; Timothée Chalamet in a satin Haider Ackermann tuxedo jacket, and Billie Eilish in a cotton candy of an Oscar de la Renta gown, probably her first-ever floor-sweeping dress and of this volume (a truly sharp contrast to the black and baggy tunic-and-skirt combo by Takahiromiyashita The Soloist that she wore at the VMA a day ago). Only Naomi Osaka looked the Met Gala newbie and fashion victim in a combo by Louis Vuitton that supposedly celebrated her heritage. I was expecting all of them to lead (or set the standard) by example, but I did not see the American-ness in anything they wore, least so Ms Osaka, with the un-American obi belt, deliberately tied askew.

Anna Wintour in Oscar de la Renta. Photo: Getty Images

Perhaps, I took the theme and the dress code too seriously and literally. But why would I not. What was the point of a theme and dress code if not to abide by? Could the attendant exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Center and other parts of the Met, then, be a very chin chai affair too? Would Andrew Bolton gasak buta with A Lexicon of American Fashion? The American attendees looked to me devoid of wit and irony (okay, the latter not so trendy anymore) in the choices they made that were supposed to honour the American heritage of fashion (let’s just say, for now, there is. Jeans are, to many Americans and non-Americans alike, a very real and iconic American fashion item). But, of course, country themes are tricky when the brands that can afford a (USD) six-figure table—or two—are mostly from out-of-country—European, specifically French and Italian. Common knowledge, at least in the US, would remind us that the stars and celebs do not buy tickets; they are invited by brands (and approved by Ms Wintour). Invitees, therefore, will be required to be outfitted by the brand doing the inviting.

Yet, according to Vogue’s own pre-event reporting, “the theme for this year’s Met gala is a celebration of American Fashion.” E Online earnestly called it “a deep dive into American ingenuity.” Yes, the livestream was quite early in the morning, but I was wide awake watching it. What celebration, what ingenuity? Although there was the discernible presence of Thom Browne and, to a lesser degree, Prabal Gurung (his deplorable excuse of a dress for Diane Kruger made me want to strike him out), I thought the Europeans won the night, in particular Iris Van Herpen, Valentino (even Ms Wintour’s daughter Bee Carrozzini, expecting her second child, was dressed by the house), and Balenciaga. And, as Vanessa Friedman pointed out via Twitter, Cartier.

But, perhaps, it was Balenciaga who may have enjoyed the last laugh and a clear win when Kim Kardashian appeared incognito, completely swaddled in a black fabric, a look attributed to Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, and believed to be conceived with Ms Kardashian’s (estranged, is it not?) husband Kanye West, who was also there on the Met Gala steps, in all-black, the kuroko (stagehands in traditional Japanese theatre) to the missus—the leading lady—(he was seen assisting her and adjusting her dress). Rihanna, the last to arrive, wore Balenciaga too, but it was the two Ks who stole the show with their black nothingness. Was Balenciaga mocking the excesses of American red carpet looks? Some Netizens think the couple were mourning the death of American fashion. I think they were merely acknowledging that it does not exist.

The Co-Chairs

Clockwise from top: Billie Eilish, Naomi Osaka, Amanda Gorman, and Timothée Chalamet. Photos: Getty Images

Her fans are not wrong. Billie Eilish, in her Met Gala debut, “killed it”. She did not come ready to be filmed for TikTok, but, with her old-Hollywood styling (Marilyn Monroe is really rather close), she could be filmed for a major movie role. She truly played a—and her—part. Would she be invited back again? I’m not sure if that would be in the affirmative if the question is posed to Amanda Gorman and Naomi Osaka. Ms Gorman might be disappointed that few saw the poetry in her dress and Ms Osaka might be similarly let down to learn that her fussy outfit and the amateur kabuki makeup were no victories for her. Timothée Chalamet bravely tackled more than one brand for his total look. Apart from the satin Haider Ackermann tuxedo jacket, he wore a Rick Owens turtleneck under that, and unidentified sweatpants. On his feet were Converse Chuck Taylors. There were even some 1920s Cartier brooches pinned to the sweats. Okay, that’s a bit much. No pin should ever go so near there!

The Show-Stopper

Lil Nas X in three different costumes. Photos: Film Magic, Wire Image, Film Magic

Someone had to do it. Why leave it to only Rihanna when just as willing was Lil Nas X, the fashion sponge who’d wear anything, and would come wearing everything. Lil Nas X is not one to shy away from an outfit that looks like a haberdashery fell on it. At his Met Gala-as-VMA appearance, he was inspired by Met Galas past. Either that or he forgot that Lady Gaga already did multiple costume changes back in 2019 (she revealed four, while he showed three), that the exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination (2018) is over, ditto for Manus ex Machina (2016). The only look that the Met has not quite paid tribute to is Michael Jackson as Catwoman. So Lil Nas X, with the help of Versace, did the most fashionable thing: at the end of the strip-down, he wore a derriere-enhancing, exotically-patterned catsuit.

The Actresses

Clockwise from top left, Kristen Stewart, Yara Shahidi, Sienna Miller, Lupita Nyong’o, Hailee Steinfeld, Indya Moore. Photos: Getty Images

For Kristen Stewart, it’s all in a days work, in Chanel. It is not a bad look if she was going shopping at Bloomingdale’s. Or lunch nearby. Actresses are not pop-stars—no day is the Grammy’s. So safe is the best dress. When an actress turns to the present-day Dior, safe is what she seeks, and safe was what Yara Shahidi got. And secure in the body-skimming Gucci was Sienna MIller, in a colour so safe, it’s called nude. Or, match the carpet! Conversely, Carey Mulligan braved a bright-pink Valentino, but looked just as safe, if not safer. Some actresses try. Lupita Nyong’o opted for denim and some bling by Versace and appeared rather like Wakanda royalty, not American. More challenging was Hailee Steinfeld’s Iris Van Herpen mini-dress with wispy leaf shapes, arranged artfully, revealing almost nothing, even if it came this close to a nude dress. Indya Moore, in Saint Laurent, clearly wore shorts (with a velvet bow as waistband), but it’s hard to be certain if she had anything else under that coat.

The Models

Clockwise from top left, Kaia Gerber, Cara Delevingne, and Kendall Jenner, Imaan Hammam, Gigi Hadid, Winnie Harlow,. Photos: Getty Images

Models, like actresses, are drawn to safe. They are supposed to be better at fashion since fashion is basically their job, but safe is chicer than sorry. Kaia Gerber, in Oscar de la Renta, looked like she prefers the taste of girls who won’t (can’t?) grow up. Cara Delevingne, in Dior, seemed like she was on her way to fencing class, but changed her mind. As for the red text—“Peg the Patriarch”—on the vest, there’s no doubt it’s a political message. If you were hoping for her to throw some light on what “peg” means, she said to an interviewer that people should look it up “because I’m not going to explain it, right now”. If an explanation is needed right now, pegging is, simply put, a sex act in which a cis woman plays the role of the opposite sex in a heterosexual union. Okay, that’s far enough! Kendall Jenner did not look like she the pegging sort. She wore a nude dress by Givenchy that, to me, flashed 2015, the year both Beyonce and Kim Kardashian wore see-through gowns to this very same event. Not to be outdone was the Dutch model Imaan Hammam in vintage Atelier Versace. And similarly see-all were also on Zoe Kravitz in Saint Laurent and Irina Shayk in Moschino. Gigi Hadid did safe too—old-Hollywood safe—in Prada. Vogue.com reported that she “offered a modern take on Audrey Hepburn”. I saw not. It was more like a modern take on Julia Roberts. Which brings us to Winnie Harlow in Iris Van Herpen. Even when I still do not see America, what’s there not to like?

The Singers

Clockwise from top left: Olivia Rodrigo, Teyanna Taylor (photo: Shutterstock), Jennifer Lopez, Megan thee Stallion, Rosé (photo: Wire Image), Jennifer Hudson. Photos: Getty Images

Super-young pop star Olivia Rodrigo wore a Saint Laurent lace catsuit with a wide marabou fichu, looking every bit the teen that she is, testing the dangerous waters of sexiness. Ms Rodrigo does not have a powerful breakout look as Billie Eilish did, so this was far enough for an 18-year-old newbie to show her granny knickers. Going the other extreme was Teyana Taylor, who wore so little in the Prabal Gurung that I hesitate to call the held-together-with-cords clothing. Surely there’s a difference between dress up and dress not? Surely the Met Gala deserved more cloth than rope, more dress than train? Even Jennifer Lopez, the one-half of born-again Bennifer, had to show cleavage and thigh, which I remember to be her very thing. But getting Ralph Lauren to do sexy is like asking Bob Mackie to do preppy. Surprisingly, Megan thee Stallion chose sweet, but Coach gave her part shrink-wrapped strawberry cheesecake, part dalgona froth. Blackpink’s Rosé, escorted by Anthony Vaccarello, was one of the few Asians in attendance, which was unexpected, given that this is the year of Shang Chi. In Saint Laurent, Rosé looked the ingenue I never thought she could be. By contrast, Jennifer Hudson picked an AZ Factory gown and a massive matching coat only for them to be underwhelmed by her bigger, bubbly personality. At some point on the stairs, Ms Hudson removed the coat to pose. Unfortunately for her, somewhere in the crowd, Isabelle Huppert, in Balenciaga, was in a similar fish-tail dress.

The One-Names

Rihanna, Grimes, Lorde, Maluma, Saweetie, Rosalía, Photos: Getty Images

Rihanna was the last to arrive, as expected, but there was no equivalent of an omelette to be seen. In fact, she was cocooned in Balenciaga couture of rather intense black. While the shape of cloak is beguiling, Rihanna needed heavier clothes for her to conquer those cumbersome stairs (that omelette coat was 25kg!). Grimes chose Iris van Herpen; she looked less a couture wearer than a cosplay newbie. Lorde had an unusual look. Her gaping Bode two-piece, with the floral appliques, was interesting, but why the headwear? Spanish pop star Rosalía’s Rick Owens heavily-fringed shawl wrapped more fetchingly than some dresses. Case in point: Saweetie. In Christian Cowan, she really showed how she punished her misbehaving boobs, and saw, I believe, many did. The Colombian singer Maluma wore a red leather Versace trucker jacket that was studded and fringed. There were matching pants and shoes too. Okay, no rhinestone cowboy here, but definitely a strutting Beng gaucho.

The Athletes

There has not been this many athletes at the Met Gala. Maybe it’s the Olympic year and athletes are making the news. But many sports people are not necessarily fashion folks. Sure, Lewis Hamilton bought a table and invited designers of colour, but they did not make the scene (Mr Hamilton curiously wore a sheath of café curtain on his right leg). It would take Serena Williams in a Gucci cape of ombre feathers to trail the spotlight on athletes, reminding us that, like her rapper sisters, sports stars enjoy OTT clothes too, especially those not made of plain fabric. As with Ms Williams, Simone Biles (fellow gymnast Nia Dennis attended too, outfitted in blue bodysuit to do cartwheels!) enjoyed relief work on the surface of her bustier-gown, which she wore over a floral (were they sparkly snowflakes?) bodysuit. The silver embroidery of the former reportedly weighed 40kg. The design team at Area X Athleta that put the outfit together might have forgotten that Ms Biles is a gymnast, not a weightlifter.

The Guys

Guys on the red carpet are usually no news, but on the cream carpet of the Met Gala, the guys are a braver breed. Surprisingly, the more unusual look didn’t come from a celebrity, but a techie, specifically Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, who wore a Bode suit with diamond-shaped pieces stitched to the bodice and arm. Others who abandoned the tuxedo, I’m not sure, did so for better choices. Poor A$AP Rocky—Rihanna was looking all couture-serious, but he appeared to have been dragged out of grandma’s bed. I think only Rihanna knew why he saw it fit to turn up at the Met Gala in a blanket made by ERL, the abbreviation of the name of the LA designer Eli Russell Linnetz, collaborator to Lady Gaga and Kanye West, who, by the way, was there, and equally blacked-out as his (former yet?) wife. Aussie, Troye Sivan, in choosing a slinky dress that Kim K might have worn 20 years ago (with cut-outs on each side of the waist!), continued to push the non-binary agenda on the red carpet—okay, cream. But the most begging-to-be-understood look went to Dan Levy, in Loewe. I don’t know why, but the getup, with puff/balloon sleeves and a map of the world in the shape of two men kissing (powerful message, no doubt), made me see a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I don’t know why, but I did.

The Designers

Clockwise from left, Donatella Versace, Vera Wang, Tory Burch, Virgil Abloh, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Tom Ford. Photos: Getty Images

Designers often take the bow at the end of runway shows in very nondescript, practical work clothes. But I think deep down inside they want to dress up. Some designer dress others better than they can dress themselves. I mean, look at Vera Wang. Did she spend too much hours making the bloomers that she had time only for a curtain as the rest of the outfit? Donatella Versace, on the other hand, dresses others as she would dress herself: not at all subtly. Tory Burch wore an interesting dress, but she looked too eager to please. The guys might score a tad better. Tom Ford couldn’t break away from black tie (it’s also safer), playing the suave charmer he has cultivated himself to be. Kerby Jean-Raymond, in a red Pyer Moss suit held in place with a matching hybrid vest-harness, was beaming with designer-to-watch energy. I’m just surprised he didn’t come in a peanut butter jar. Wouldn’t that be American? Meanwhile, Virgil Abloh, presumably in Louis Vuitton, came as the Easter bunny, lost in a party he shouldn’t have crashed.

The Others

Clockwise from top lfet, Whoopie Goldberg, Iman, Erykah Badu, Kim Petras, Debbie Harry (photo: AP), Ella Elmhoff. Photos: Getty Images

Whoopie Goldberg does not really wear dresses, so when she does, the world takes notice. Her yurt of a gown by the esteemed house of Valentino was, to be sure, not the same tent that Carey Mulligan wore, both flanking Pierpaolo Piccioli when they arrived. While Ms Mulligan was predictably saluting pretty, fashion iconoclast Erykah Badu took a different route: she abandoned her famous towering turbans in favour of a top hat and a lace face-screen that, together with the tuxedo skirt-suit and quilted cape, was designed by Thom Browne, seemingly the most worn American designer name of the evening. Ella Elmhoff, famous for being Kamala Harris’s stepdaughter, wore Stella McCartney to prove that the WFH look, even if more amped up, was still relevant, however glamorous the occasion, no matter how many women still preferred trains for evening wear. The biggest outfit of the night went to Iman. The former model wore a massive hooped cage that was the result of the collaborative effort of Dolce & Gabbana and the young, Central Saint Martin alum Harris Reed. With the just-as-large hat, she looked like some African fertility goddess. Rock star (still!) Debby Harry also wore a hooped cage (by Zac Posen), visible under a crinoline made of panels of fabric that, together with the deconstructed denim jacket, represented the colours of the American flag.

Perhaps nobody does America better than a foreigner. German singer Kim Petras (now based in LA) certainly expressed herself. In a wearable—aka piñata—by the sustainable brand Collina Strada, Ms Petras seemed connected to her animal spirit. The dress came complete with a face of a horse (could it be a donkey?), pannier for the animal’s body, and hair styled as a long pony tail to represent the beast’s tail. Frankly, I could not tell where the head began and the tail ended. Or, was this the night’s best visual lexicon of American fashion and designers—heads or tails, they’re just horsing around?

The Modern Newscaster

You’d think that Mediacorp anchors are conservative dressers, but some are not. Thumbs up?

By Mao Shan Wang

It has been a quiet Monday evening. I was watching Channel 5’s News Tonight as usual, and Glenda Chong was reading. Like most nights she’s on air, she was standing by the right side of her desk, opening with “Tonight’s Top Stories”. She wore a cream-coloured, form-fitting, knee-length dress. As she spoke and walked to the right side of the screen behind her, barely finishing a sentence, I caught sight of something I have never noticed of Ms Chong before. The dress is not unattractive. A somewhat Thirties silhouette, with a box-pleated neckline that formed, to the sides, fetching sleeves (possibly raglan) over her arms, it was one of Ms Chong’s better choices (over, say, the rather dowdy tweed jacket of some months back). But I did not expect to see, as she stood there telling me that “Singapore and the US are entering new areas of partnership” (truth be told, I was looking forward to see Kamala Harris), very clear and visible outlines of the protuberances of her breast. I look up at my clock: Nine, it told me, is not exactly the late-night hour.

I thought perhaps it was the lighting at that particular spot in the studio. Or, perhaps where she stood was just too draughty (despite the lights!). When she returned to the desk and the camera framed her much tighter, I realised I was not mistaken. Yes, there they were: distinct, dramatic, dauntless. I said aloud: “Oh, no.” My brother, who had just walked in from the kitchen to join me, said: “Why, not nice, ah, the dress?” Before I could offer a reply, he went, “Woah! Wow! WOW!” My mother, stirred by the living room commotion, also joined in. “哎哟,很难看啦! (aiyo, looks awful).” And I didn’t point anything out to them! Before Ms Harris’s face could appear, I received a WhatsApp message from my best friend, all the way from Sembawang. It was preceded by a screen shot of Ms Chong, seated (or standing?). “Correct me if I’m wrong,” she wrote. “Glenda looks like she’s bra-less. Surely it can’t be?”

I played the expert and the arbiter, not. “She is a liberated woman,” I texted back, not entirely sure of what I wrote or if I would come across as someone from the Seventies. Is anyone even supposed to look at her there? “I understand,” came the rapid reply, “but this is the national news, not an R-rated channel. I’m liberated too. But she’s reading the news, not acting in a movie. Am I a prude?” My friend, a PR professional, is not, and her reaction is totally comprehensible. This was the news and Kamala Harris was coming on! It is possible that Ms Chong did wear underclothes—a smooth, sheer, silky slip perhaps, just not a brassiere. Whatever, it was her choice. Just as it was ex-Mediacorp artiste, former 成人杂志 (City Beat) host Sharon Au’s choosing to go bra-less for work one day, as revealed by her pal Kim Ng in the latest installation of #JustSwipeLah. I am not sure if Mediacorp issues dress guidelines for their journalists who go on air, but I am sure the 23-year Mediacorp veteran’s superiors do not tell her what to wear—or not—under her dress. I am just surprised that no one behind the camera, not even the studio director, noticed and advised her accordingly when she walked in earlier to take up her position.

But in these ‘woke’ times, these minor indiscretions, not amounting to a wardrobe malfunction (so 2004!), are not supposed to bother us. When I mentioned this to another friend (a fashion industry veteran) after the newscast, she said very delightfully, “power to her!” Ms Chong, a former model, I’m sure, is empowered enough to know if she needed to be taped or not. And although she was standing at sedia (made more obvious by two diagonal pleats serving as bust darts) that did not mean our visual space had to be totally intruded. “Nippage” is real and is inevitable, as I recall reading somewhere, since women “simply have breasts”. I think the good news is that Mediacorp can finally be seen as a modern broadcaster and that, no matter how distracting—or titillating—the effect some clothes may have on their anchors, their on-air staff would not be dressed, as one stylist once said to me, “as if going to meet grandma”. Frankly, I think cascading locks to the right of the face are far more distracting than a pair of perky dots on the chest.

Updated: 24 August 202, 16:00. Unadulterated TV screen shot: Mao Shan Wang

No Pink Shorts In Prison

Defiant to the end, this British no-masker, with a penchant for pastel berms, was not able to convince the judge that the law here does not apply to him

As we have said here on SOTD before, there are those who find the face mask we have to wear for the past year and a half totally unwearable, offensive, and revolting, so much so that they are willing to face jail time to keep one off their delicate faces. The British expatriate, who became famous in May when his no-mask defiance on an MRT train was filmed and shared, was sentenced to six weeks in jail this afternoon after what the press described as a “brief trial”. Apart from not wearing a mask on two occasions, other charges included “causing public nuisance” and “using threatening words on public officers (according to the policemen who arrested him, he had adopted a “boxing stance” and told them, “I am going to fucking drop you”—both he denied). It staggers the imagination that this guy could find mask wearing so objectionable that rage would consume him while reason took flight.

Netizens were quick to express how light the sentence is. When the “Living Man” goes to a living jail, he won’t be spending all six weeks inside as his sentence is backdated to 19 July, the day he was first remanded. He will thus be released in no time. Many are wondering if the relatively lenient punishment for violation as egregious as threatening public health is due to the fact that he is angmo. This is truly how the sentence is seen, even by foreigners. An American reader messaged us to say “it’s ridiculous that expats get the kid glove treatment.” He added, “I’m surprised that the UK has the sovereign citizen movement. I thought it was a ridiculously American disorder.” The Brit expat had earlier called himself a “sovereign” (basically he who decides for himself, not judges or police officers, what laws to obey) and told the court: “I know what a crime is, there must be a victim which is a living man or woman, not a legal fiction which is what you are, officers. You are not living men and women, they are legal fictions. I am living man, I control my public trust,” as reported.

The “living man” controls his public image too. Much was discussed publicly about his attire when he appeared in court on 2 July, wearing a short-sleeved, blue/white foliage-print shirt and a pair of pink, narrow-legged bermudas. The casual turnout for a court hearing shocked many following the case, which led to the question, “are shorts allowed inside State Courts (the Briton was tried and sentenced here)?” According to their online FAQ for visitors, one must dressed “appropriately” when visiting the State Courts (formerly the Subordinate Courts). This means “business wear, smart casual wear and traditional dress”. An accompanying illustration does not show men—or women—in shorts (short-sleeved shirts are allowed). But even those who have never attended a court session know that one must never dress that casually. Yet, the British offender wore knee-baring bermudas to hear his case in court. So did a man purported to be his “legal representative” who had previously been turned away from the courts for “inappropriate attire”, as reported. It’s not clear how inappropriately dressed he was. Lawyers, it seems, are held to a higher sartorial standard. Back to that July afternoon, it could really be hot, but surely not in a court room?

Again, we hear people say they are surprised that those who look this smart would be this far from smart. Some women were astonished that a “not-bad looking” Caucasian man, who “dresses well” (also, they think, in that May video that got him caught, when he wore shorts too), would so flagrantly disregard our laws. Manner of dress never reveals the law-refusal or ignoring nature of people. Certainly not the show of legs either. For some reason, this pandemic has unambiguously point to us how selfish and uncaring individuals can be, how mandates can be ignored, even ridiculed, how public decency is somehow outmoded and to be cast into the bin of lost social discipline, along with chivalry and courtesy, mindfulness and kindness, and used masks. Perhaps prisoners’ garb may serve some corrective function. But the “living man” won’t be in prison long enough to miss his pink shorts.

Update (19 August 2021, 13:05): According to CNA, the Briton is out of jail and has been handed to Immigration and Checkpoints Authority for deportation.

Illustrations: Just So

Triple The Treat

For those of you who can’t get enough of Kim Lim, there are three cover stories of her this month. National Day celebration?

By Mao Shan Wang

Great editors think alike. In line with National Day celebrations, three local magazines have Kim Lim (林慧俐 or Lin Huili) graced their covers this month—not quite enough for you to think of 4D numbers, but definitely adequate for many to conclude that Ms Lim is our It girl, if they have not already before. And, as my brother reminded me, yummy mommy. I do not know why we need the three covers—Prestige, Icon (风华), and Her World—and the attended cover features at a go. Many folks of the media/advertising world don’t too, wondering if it’s anything to do with magazine revenue. One media professional WhatsApp-ed me: “I’m looking to see what the magazines got from her stable of companies.” Another, a PR manager, also texted me, after sending a screenshot from Magzter: “Wonder if it’s becoz they’re hoping to get ad $ from her spas.” The suspicions are understandable: an executive from her organisation had reportedly called some members of the media to ask if they would like to feature the beauty mogul-to-be.

Last Thursday, before the burgeoning buzz, I was flipping through magazines at Kinokuniya (curiously both Prestige and Icon are not out, only the latter’s online version). A fortysomething guy asked me, pointing to the Her World in my hands, “Is she so hot?” I could only manage a reluctant “no idea”. But Kim Lim is hot, just not the same hot as some scantily-clad influencers (she is, to he sure, not opposed to the occasional bikini shot for Instagram), but media-friendly hot. From dailies to monthlies, no publication will say no to a Kim Lim story, even if we’ve read them all before. It isn’t, of course, Ms Lim’s first multi-covers-in-one-month exposure. In fact, this August, she graduated from last year’s two (L’Officiel and Icon) to a plus one. It might have been three as well if HW had not published theirs a month earlier then. She was portrayed as an edgy influencer, as well as a loving daughter. This year, she is a sophisticate and a businesswoman. And, in view of National Day, model citizen? Wearing her long bob identically on all three covers, she is dressed differently on each, posing as a society lass in Fendi on Prestige, a wristwatch model in Dior on Icon, and a grand prix racer (or motor technician?) in Burberry on HW.

This month’s issue of what was once known—and marketed—as our island’s best-selling women’s magazine is as thin as the cover girl. Pages 4 and 5 of HW are a double-page advertisement for Illumia Therapeutics, Ms Lim’s one-year-old-plus medispa business which she calls “a beauty powerhouse”. It is an unsurprising industry choice since spa-visiting is increasingly a mass activity. Hers is the only beauty advertisement in the first quarter of the 112-page book, and, in fact, throughout. The Illumia Therapeutics ad, featuring a photo of the profile on the founder, is totally without competition from Estee Lauder or Shiseido, bona fide powerhouses. There are five ads in total, which is shocking to me. Admittedly, I have not read HW for years; I didn’t think they would be this skinny on advertisements. It is not unusual for magazines to feature products of advertisers, or the people behind brands. So, Ms Lim on the cover of HW is not unexpected, and does seem to commensurate with the editorial practice of picking the cover based on obligations to brands. I do not know how many insertions Illumia Therapeutics has committed to HW, but it is unlikely just one, since a single ad—even a double-page spread—is not quite enough to secure a cover story for its owner.

Kim Lim, Kim Lim, Kim Lim. From left, in Her World, Icon, and Prestige

Ms Lim, who turned 30 last month, is known as an influencer since she joined Instagram in late 2012. To date, she has 302K followers on IG, making her the more substantial ‘macro-influencer’. Exactly how influential she has been, no one could say for certain. I think she is able to impact especially those for whom a socialite who dresses fashionably has swaying power. Although oftentimes known as an “heiresses”, like Paris Hilton (now in Netflix’s offbeat series Cooking with Paris), Ms Lim prefers not to be saddled by such tags, even when many of her followers admire her as one who would come into considerable wealth (not that she isn’t already enjoying that, but, as one of her acquaintances said, to me, “her father is the billionaire, not her. Yet.”). She now communicates a more mature version of herself, and, as the reports in the above magazines go, wants to be taken seriously as a serious businesswoman. She told HW, “I want to try and make it by myself. I have a goal in life and somewhere I want to be”, even when she was honest about the initial financial kick-start she received from her tycoon father (whose high-profile business ownerships include Spanish La Liga Club Valencia CF and Thomson Medical Group). “Yes, he gave me a certain amount to start with,” she said. “But he also told me that if I run out, that’s it.”

It is unthinkable that Mr Lim, ranked 17th among SG’s 50 richest by Forbes in 2020, would leave her daughter in a lurch, but some influencers I spoke to think that Ms Lim can always leverage on her social-media fame and reach. One veteran medispa operator I know told me that it is “amazing” that the profile of Illumia Therapeutics (and sibling centre Papilla Haircare) could be raised in such a short period of time. In fact, Ms Lim runs a far bigger business than the two I mentioned earlier. She established the parent company Kelhealth Group, under which another half a dozen companies operate. Many observers think that it is upon the strength of her social-media reach (even when she has a degree in business management from Singapore Institute of Management) that Ms Lim is able to elevate herself and her ventures as successes rather visibly. She has not publicly released figures, so it is not known to what extend her success is. But she seems aware of the limitation of banking on her online fame. Icon quoted her saying, “但只要有更新鲜的面孔出现,随时会被取代。这是一个无可避免的问题 (for as long as fresher faces appear, [social media stars] will be replaced any time. This is inevitable).”

Apart from her online means of communication, Ms Lim is also able to count on the social hive to which she is part of, whose queen bee could well be the celebrity hairdresser David Gan (颜天发), whom Ms Lim calls “我的老娘 (my elderly mother)”—in line with the term of endearment Fann Wong (范文芳) and other Mediacorp artistes use: ah bu (啊母 or mother in Hokkien), as well as pal and fellow influencer, the controversial Xiaxue (下雪 or Wendy Cheng, as she is known to her friends). There are also her media chums, the editors who adore her—including Icon’s Sylvester Ng and Lianhe Zaobao’s Ng King Kang (吴庆康), known to be generous with editorial space when she is featured. Back in 2018, for the December issue, Icon produced a large-scale, multi-city shoot, covering Manchester, London, Paris, and Valencia (are you surprised?), to fill 60 pages of what Lianhe Zaobao, in an editorial to plug the fellow SPH title, called a “林慧俐特辑” (Kim Lim special issue). On Facebook, Sylvester Ng, who refers to Ms Lim as “my dear buddy”, revealed—I sense with great pride—that it was “the biggest (and most expensive) production ever in the 13 years of Icon”. That issue, I remember, had members of the media talking. Close to three years later, on three separate magazine covers, the heiress is similarly encouraging just-as-buzzy talk.

Update (11 August 2021, 18:30):

Elizabeth Leong (left) and Kim Lim in an Instagram post under which is the hashtag #bff. Photo: niawmitz/Instagram

Just four days after my post, and two after National Day, news relating to Kim Lim’s Kelhealth Group has emerged. Medispa veteran Elizabeth Leong, described by the press as Ms Lim’s “business partner”, has shared on IG—about two hours ago—of her “departure and disassociation from Kelhealth, Illumia Therapeutics, Illumia Medical, IllumiaSkin, Papilla Hair, Polaris Plastic, Orion Orthopaedics.” Ms Leong identified herself as a “co-founder” of the above brands on Linkedin. For most of her professional life, she has, in fact, been in the beauty and aesthetics business. Before she joined Ms Lim, she was the general manager of Cambridge Medical Group (CMG) for close to six years. Ms Leong also stated in Linkedin that she was the “co-founder” of Cambridge Therapeutics and other brands under CMG. Prior to establishing Illumia Therapeutics, Ms Lim was the brand ambassador of Cambridge Therapeutics, according to a 2018 Her World editorial.

In Elizabeth Leong’s two-paragraph IG post, she also stated that she is “moving on positively”. In addition, she expanded on what she would be moving on from: “Although it is painful to be pushed out, I am proud of what I have built…” Could this explain what the “departure” is about? She did not say who (or what) pushed her out. Folks in the industry did not hesitate to speculate. Slightly more than two weeks ago, Ms Leong shared on IG a photograph of Kim Lim celebrating her birthday with “30 cakes”. Two days earlier, she posted a nine-shot grid-picture of her and the birthday girl, with the message, “Kim, love you 300”. In her “departure” post (as I write this, there is 79 likes), one of the hashtags she added—among ten that she used (six in Chinese)—was #人要讲义气 (people have to value loyalty). Allegiance, as many of us know, is as fragile as love.

Illustrations: Just So. Profile photos: respective magazines

Tokyo Olympics: The Winner-Knitter

While watching other athletes in action, Great Britain’s Tom Daley kept busy by knitting. 👍🏼

Would any Olympian bring along knitting needles and yarn to the Games? And actually sit in the stand to knit? Diver Tom Daley would. And did. Photos making social-media rounds last weekend showed the diving gold medalist seated, hands together, with an incomplete purple-pink sheath of knitted yarn. Mr Daley did not only draw the world’s applause (perhaps, except Russia’s!) for the gold medal that he won in the men’s synchronized 10-meter platform event alongside diving partner Matty Lee, but also for his dexterity with the knit-stitch, seen so clearly. The action was attention-grabbing as the project-in-action, with a loose yarn draped across his right thigh (presumably ending in a ball in a bag placed on the ground), contrasts rather dramatically with the athlete’s attire of singlet and shorts, which projected something more physical than needlecraft. And more so if you consider the setting: the world’s biggest and grandest sporting meet.

Mr Daley was not the first guy seen at the Olympics going way beyond the first slipknot. Back in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, Finland’s snowboarding coach Antti Kroskinsen was filmed knitting while compatriot snowboarder Roope Tonteri was preparing to start a competition. Mr Kroskinsen was working with black yarn, and this blended with the black of his winter coat, but the action was unmistakable: he was turning loose yarn into stitches. This time in Japan’s capital, Mr Daley’s craft work seemed at odds with the scorching temperature experienced in the city, with participants calling this “Tokyo summer the worst in the history of the Olympics”, as reported by CNN. Still, Mr Daley knitted coolly away—the heat did not seem to bother him. In fact, he is such an ardent knitter that he has his own Instagram page, madewithlovebytomdaley in which many of his pieces are shown, including a little case, sporting the British flag on one side and the Japanese on the other, shaped to house his gold medal.

Not only was Tom Daley’s knitting skills (learned during last year’s lockdown in the UK)—and design flair—on display, his generosity was too. Yahoo News reported that he also knitted an orange/pink cardigan for Malaysian diver Cheong Jun Hoong (張俊虹, silver medalist in Rio 2016), whom he called “dear friend”. Mr Daley’s participation in Tokyo 2020 as a publicly-out gay athlete is seen as standing up for the LGBTQ communities around the world, as well as showing how inclusive the Games of the XXXII Olympiad is. In addition to that, he, too, demonstrated visibly that knitting is not just a “feminine interest” and that athletics and craft do mingle.

Photo: Getty Images

BTS In An LV Show

On Wednesday evening, the boys appeared in a special Seoul edition of Virgil Abloh’s autumn/winter 2021 collection for Louis Vuitton. This was really one for the Army

By Colin Cheng

Why do you need to show autumn/winter twice? Because you can. And you must finish telling the story. Louis Vuitton was not quite done with their autumn/winter 2021 narrative, so they took it to Seoul to complete it, together with additional 34 new looks. And if you were going to Seoul, you might as well get what CNN called “the biggest boyband in the world to model”, all seven of them. Yes, BTS was the star of the (officially) “spin-off show” and the main draw. The septet was installed as LV’s brand ambassadors just last April, but unlike others similarly appointed, the boys were asked to perform (LV calls it “integrated”) in the fashion show (Blackpink’s Rose didn’t have to strut for Saint Laurent, not yet anyway), and, strangely, a rather static one. And, boring too.

It was quite a rush for me yesterday evening. I was watching the Balenciaga couture show on my smartphone, ensconced in a sofa seat at Starbucks. The show was running late, about 20 minutes or so; it started only after Bella Hadid arrived, tardiness for the world to see. The live streaming of both shows was only 30 minutes apart (5.30pm, our time, for Balenciaga and 6pm for LV), but because Balenciaga was late (and I did want to see the presentation till the last outfit appeared—a beautifully ghostly apparition of a wedding dress), I could not switch to LV. And I do not, as many others seem to be, especially the Pokémon Go-playing ones, carry more than one phone. As my best friend and I WhatsApped, “isn’t this like those days when we had to rush from one show to another, and hopping that the one we were on the way to see had not already started?” When I was finally able to go to LV’s webpage some 15 minutes or so later, the show had already begun, but not by much.

Clockwise from top left: Jimin, RM, Suga, Jin, Jungkook, V, and J-Hope

Directed by South Korean auteur Jeon Go-woon (Microhabitat, 2017), the Yeezy-ish, pseudo performance-art film was set in Bucheon Art Bunker B39, just outside of Seoul. The building was once a complex of incinerators. This time, a different fire was burning, and it was smoldering through seven hot-blooded Korean males. Only the BTS boys were walking through the space (which included one central scaffolding/structure). The rest of the models just stood (or sat) still. Like so many of Virgil Abloh’s recent artsy presentation, this is painfully pretentious. With a small hot-air balloon—emblazoned with the word “Hope”—hovering ominously, I was not sure anything was going hopefully forward. Where were the overly made-up boys going to? Or where they seeking Permission to Dance? Why was V (Kim Tae-hyung) wondering aimlessly with a LV-logo-ed coffee cup?

This collection/presentation is a Black-American embracing Asian sex appeal by way of a French brand. Internationalism and inclusivity have never made such visually striking bedfellows. I am not going to say anything about BTS’s usefulness in all this because, as so many have found out, one never says anything about the boys, even if one is right, as the stans or the BTS Army will wage war against anyone who dares put their biases in any perceived-to-be-negative light. The clothes have a Black aesthetic about them, and for fervent Asian rappers could be amusing, even ideal, to wear. According to LV, “the collection re-appropriates the normal through extreme elevation” and “employs fashion as a tool to change predetermined perceptions of dress codes”. I am not sure any of the BTS boys are such alert thinkers.

Photos: Louis Vuitton

Two Of A Kind: The Floor-Length Padded Coat

Who wore it better?

Balenciaga isn’t quite the first to design it. But perhaps that does not matter as much as who wore it first. Andre Leon Talley, the connoisseur of the caftan, loves a large, floor-length coat too. Back in 2015, Mr Talley posted on Instagram a selfie and an OOTD that featured a long, ripe-red Norma Kamali puffer that is popularly known as the “sleeping bag coat” (Ms Kamali reportedly conceived it in the mid-’70s). He added the puffery “Luxe! Total Luxe” to the comments too. Apart from that, he would post photos of the coat another six more times—on IG alone. The tubular covering seemed to be his go-to outerwear for that season. He was photographed in front of his White Plains house wearing the said coat and, urghs, UGGs as the face of the American-own, born-in-Australia footwear brand. That photo was used countless times, other than for marketing communication purposes, even as illustration to articles that reported on his real-estate woes of early this year. And he appeared in the same glorious redness in the 2017 biographical movie, The Gospel According to Andre. The colour of chilli seems to be his favourite for outers in recent years: preceding the Kamali coat was an equally scarlet, just as omnipresent Tom Ford “kimono”.

Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, of course, loves to base his designs on what certain characters might wear, oftentimes also the supposed underbelly of society, as well as the regular blokes—accountants and athletes, even galactic folks. His red padded coat for the debut couture collection could very likely be for statuesque rappers to wear on stage (Jay-Z?) or whoever might appreciate the extra volume that such a well-girthed coat affords. It is not likely Mr Gvasalia had ALT in mind when the coat was on the drafting table, but surely he wasn’t only looking at the archive? Was it a coincidence that they picked a Black model to wear it? Truth be told, when it appeared silently during the livestream earlier, we did think of the unforgettable Vogue ex-staffer. Surely, the portable-bedding-as-outerwear he adores needs replacing by now, or next fall? Could Balenciaga then be his new Norma Kamali or Tom Ford? That’d be tres luxe, no?

Photos: (left) Balenciaga and (right) andreltalley/Instagram

No Press

Naomi Osaka has refused to meet members of the media at the French Open despite contractual obligations. Can she do the same to Louis Vuitton as the latter’s brand ambassador?

Naomi Osaka with Nicolas Ghesquière, January 2021

Japan’s biggest tennis star has spoken: she won’t speak. The news that rocked the tennis world these past few days was that Naomi Osaka has cancelled her requisite meeting with the press, citing “mental health” issues. She was insistent on sitting the press conferences out even when she was contractually obligated to fulfil her duties. As a consequence, she was fined US$15,000 by the tournament organisers. (According to Forbes, she earned US$37 million in 2019.) They also threatened to expulse her. A four-time major champion at only 23 and presently the world number two, Ms Osaka reacted to that possibility of being shut out by choosing to leave the competition midway. This would be the first time a major star, as AP notes, “walked away from a major tournament without a visible injury”. In a statement posted on Twitter, the tennis player wrote, “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.” She added, “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly.”

Ms Osaka stepped out of Roland Garros to step into the spotlight that had nothing to with winning a game. That she has chosen to adopt Megan Markle’s approach of revealing her struggle with mental health issues is not surprising now that mental health has taken centre court and is what stresses famous persons or why they wouldn’t do what they do not wish to. We, too, are not trivialising mental health issues, their realness, and their prevalence, but it is apparently becoming easier to allow mental health to speak for one’s woes. Last March, in a CBS interview hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Ms Markle famously talked about suffering from depression and having suicidal thoughts while pregnant. It was a revelation. Ms Osaka’s speak-out was too. The rallying behind her “power move”, as The New York Times called it, came as quickly as it did for Ms Markle. The Guardian reported that “Japanese athletes and sponsors voice support for” her. Serena Williams, who was defeated by Ms Osaka in the controversial 2018 US Open championship, in which the former broke into what appeared to be a tantrum that cost her a point, said, “I feel for Naomi.”

We are not trivialising mental health issues, their realness and their prevalence, but it is becoming easier to allow mental health to speak for one’s woes

Will her action have far-reaching effects, even outside sports? Naomi Osaka is not only a star in the tennis world, she is also a star in the fashion world. In January, she accepted the brand ambassadorial role at Louis Vuitton. Ms Osaka appeared in LV’s spring/summer 2021 campaign photos, lensed by Nicolas Ghesquière. Some reports described Ms Osaka in those images as “perfectly incarnating the Louis Vuitton woman”. What if it was far from perfection? We do not know what is in the contract between LV and Naomi Osaka, but, as a brand ambassador, surely she has to deal with journalists too. Will she be tempted to do to LV what she did to the French Open? Or perhaps there is less impact on her mental health when she answers questions about dresses and her other love apart from tennis, fashion? And it isn’t just LV that she’s a face of. Ms Osaka is also in partnership with Nike, Comme des Garçons, Shiseido and, others, and has recently appeared as a model for Levi’s. She was also appointed co-chair of this year’s Met Gala. Will she turn down all attendant press interviews arranged for her?

Sure, being placed in the middle of a press conference is not the same as being in the centre of a tennis court, even if the pressures affecting mental health can exist on both. Curiously, no one asked if Ms Osaka’s desire to avoid the press was because she found post-match media sessions to be plain tedious. The press pack can be predatory and a player who had not performed may not be in a state of mind to take the tough questioning. Successful athletes—like successful artistes—facing the media is, for better or worse, a part of their job, but increasingly, those in the limelight do not need the press to speak to their fans or the simply curious; they have social media. So, they opt out. Or, use their platform to divert the spotlight to pet woke causes. In lauding her bravery shown at Roland Garros, we may have forgotten that Naomi Osaka is just 23 years old. She is also a member of Gen Z. And like those before her, the Millennials, she has been weaned on the believe that she can do whatever she wants, or not do. No one can tell her otherwise, not even the powers of the French Open. Or dutifully working sports journalists.

Photo: Louis Vuitton/Instagram

Take It Or Leave It

Is Jeanette Aw not keen on what she sells? Are we allowed to ask without incurring some people’s wrath?

By Pearl Goh

Ads that pop up in my social media feeds are as welcoming as my mother in my bedroom. But advertisers need to invade our digital space, just as they once did during the time between us and our television. I was minding my own business one recent stormy morning, looking at the Instagram posts of one of my favourite Malaysian food bloggers, when the above ad by the celebrity-endorsed durian-seller Golden Moments (GM) appeared somewhat impertinently. GM has, of course, similarly interrupted me before on IG, but usually with unappealing and subfuscous pictures of crack-opened durians or richly dressed gateaux that never gave me reason to dwell on. This time, it was the face of Jeanette Aw (欧萱), former full-time Mediacorp artiste and the co-host of the new food show/competition on Channel 8, Crème De La Crème (糖朝冠冕). I am usually drawn to Ms Aw, one of the most attractive actresses in the Mediacorp stable, but this time, I wasn’t sure the picture of her was stop-me-while-I-browse alluring.

In the GM durian ad (top), as well as another, I soon saw, that hawked cakes (below), Ms Aw posed with her right arm folded across her stomach. The left was held up almost vertically, with the elbow hinged on the right wrist, and the forearm forming a V with her torso. Her double-bracelet-ed left wrist was bent at the point where it met the hand. The palm was open, as if holding an imaginary platter or tray, the way a waiter in a fancy restaurant might, even when serving a bottle of water. But it wasn’t just the pose, it was the visage too: not terribly inviting nor approachable, with the lips parted, but not quite amounting to a smile. There was something haughty about her expression, a coldness too—the better to counter the heatiness of the durian? She wore what appeared to be a shift dress, with a double neck-flounce, pulled down to bare her shoulders (the right in a near-shrug), in a colour often associated with mourning. Sorry, Ms Aw, in sum, the photo seemed to tell me, take it or leave it.

Jeanette Aw does not seem to be the kind of TV star who exploits the perceived powers of those around her, but many of us cannot, of course, be sure of that

When I asked people knowledgeable of image creation and styling what they thought of this visual, no one wished to comment for fear of being hit back by Ms Aw’s watchful friends, in particular those who are in the business of offering her free personal services. Jeanette Aw does not seem to be the kind of TV star who exploits the perceived powers of those around her, but many of us cannot, of course, be sure of that. One media professional was only willing to say that the photo “is a poorly art-directed shot”, which was a little curious to me because it was reported in the news last April that the actress/film-maker was appointed Golden Moment’s “brand ambassador and creative director”. Does creative direction not supersede art direction? Or do brand owners, keen on working with stars they wouldn’t normally interface with, have the final, not necessarily informed, say?

In commenting on TV stars who are cocooned in the protective friendship of their vindictive chums, I, of course, risk being berated—that I do not know them, and, therefore, am in no position to comment, even if the TV stars put themselves out there for public consumption and for others to have an opinion about the personalities. Or, that I have no guts to say how I feel to their comely faces because only those who are spineless resort to social media platforms to express their views. The sad thing is that even people speaking in their professional capacity will be put down and shamed. Even when there is no slander, and even when it is not expressed in the same acrimony as that found in the Forum pages of Hardware Zone (I sometimes feel I need to learn another language to understand what is voiced here). Perhaps it’s okay for these keyboard warriors to upset and to provoke—without knowing the stars—if they are just any one of the Forum’s ribald denizens?

The TV stars of today are, like so many others, active on social media. Yet, there are those who hope that the rest of us, even with just-as-intense digital lives, best be cave-dwellers. Surrounded by their cronies and those who are mother hens, these celebrated artistes want visibility, but would not deal with the criticism (I am not referring to trolling) that comes with being so well placed and so unobstructed in many people’s view. You have to be on their side, always with a rah-rah attitude. They only have space in their rosy world for adoration. The captivating thing to me is how both unflattering comments on the stars and the attendant defence by their incensed defenders really suit our love for retaliation and the sensational. You may not understand the well-said by the well-qualified, but you know you can hit back as you always have, and there will always be those who’d cheer you on. It is of no significance if what is said about the stars is the prevalent, ground-level sentiment; it only matters that you don’t care.

Always amazing TV stars are no longer the faces of fashion, but food. Their awesomeness now selling anything from chee cheong fun to collagen soup, mookata to financiers. Ms Aw’s appeal to me is that she’s a fellow baker, but unlike her, I am not Le Cordon Bleu-trained and I don’t have the inclination to open a bakery. I appreciate from a distance. I do not interact with her online (or offline), even when I observe her (I resist using “follow” because that sounds too persistent, almost like stalking) through her presence online. Yes, I do not know her, as her protectors and minders will point out. I’ve never met her in my life; I never will. I only appreciate from a distance. In fact, I can’t say I am a devoted admirer, as ardent as those who start fan clubs to feel a sense of belonging. I wish her well and wish to see her do well. But I don’t dial down the urge to comment, even if they are not glowing comments. And I’m frequently writing—for release, for diversion, for fun; I’m just not writing for 8-Days.

Screengrab: Golden Moments/Instagram

Miss Universe Singapore: The Pinoy Connection

We are so starved of gowns for local beauty queens that this year, our Miss Universe had to outsource the creation of the national costume to pageant country, the Philippines

Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Wu Ong really flew Singapore’s flag high six hours ago, in Donald Trump’s post-presidency hometown Florida. The beauty contest is staged in Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, some 80 kilometres south of Mr Trump’s home and members-only resort Mar-a-Lago Club. Exactly two weeks back, when Ms Ong posted a video on Instagram, showing her proudly catwalking in Changi Airport—before departing for the US—with an SG flag floating above her head, no one had thought that she would actually wrap herself in a semblance of one on the pageant stage. Even when not clued in, no one could mistake where the inspiration for the floor-sweeping cape came from. According to the voice-over when Ms Ong was strutting her stuff during the National Costume segment, “the red represents equality for all (they were careful to omit the official description of red standing for the now-not-quite-woke ‘universal brotherhood and equality of man’) and the white symbolises everlasting virtue (skipping the unattainable ‘purity’).”

The bi-coloured piece, however, didn’t quite catch the fans’ and the pageant world’s attention as much as what was paint-written on it: “Stop Asian Hate”. This graffiti-like-text-meets-floating-rear-wrap-as-national-dress did not only express national identity, but more so the woke thoughts and convictions of the wearer. That an Asian participating in a beauty contest featuring women from different lands needed to use the platform to call attention to the ending of hostilities towards other Asians showed how political voice increasingly makes the costumes louder. As Ms Ong posted on Instagram, “What is this platform for if I can’t use it to send a strong message of resistance against prejudice and violence?” She also told Yahoo News, the pageant now “focuses more on advocacy, you as an individual, and how strong you are as a candidate through your past stories and heuristics (that should be the next ‘umbrage’!)” Or, was she just adulting?

Advocacy on our tiny island is, as we know, not really the stuff that move people, let alone mountains. No beauty queen that we can remember ever upgraded a pet cause into a cause célèbre. It is possible that because no one was willing to be co-participant in Ms Ong’s sloganeering, she had to take it to the Philippines. According to Ms Ong’s IG post, the dress was designed by her and executed by the still-in-school Filipino designer Arwin Meriales, with the oversized text painted by the cat-loving artist Paulo Espinosa. As Ms Ong wrote on IG this morning, “I reached out to Filipino designer Arwin Meriales to create a design of my own and he executed!” The reaction to that was unsurprising: how was it that the Singaporean organisers didn’t see this as potential affront to Singaporean design and attendant community? One stylist didn’t hold back when he told us, “designers here have all died.”

That Ms Ong would choose a designer from the Philippines to execute her costume is not at all surprising. She was born there. At age ten, she and her ethnic Chinese parents emigrated to our island-state. Ms Ong reportedly speaks fluent Tagalog, and still feels connected to her place of birth. To prep for Miss Universe, she went to Manila to be trained (yes, they are well-known for their “beauty boot camps”), which could explain her OTT catwalk style. Spotlighting the American-initiated plea #stopasianhate seemed to have wowed many viewers and her IG followers, bland as her actual message was. How magnificent—how maganda—seemed to be the common cheer. But whether Ms Ong as sartorial flag bearer was in itself a triumph, no one we spoke to was willing to say. Fashion folks preferred to keep mum as any criticism would be seen as directed at “not one, but two nations”, a designer told us.

We always remind ourselves that we can’t see Miss Universe gowns through the eyes of fashion. These are creations for a universe, a good way from ours. The costumes—rightly termed—are just that, but for those nations without their own traditional dress, it was often a challenge to dream one up. We have always had laughable results trying to push a Singapore dress out, and worse when we think rojak makes good baju. But even by our own grim standards for this entertaining segment of Miss Universe, the latest, oddly-sleeved outerwear is, at best, for memes. Hard it was for us to ignore how clumsily constructed the puffed sleeves were. They looked deflated, and with the gathered armhole (that appeared to be achieved with elastic bands), seemed exempt from the extra step of toile prototyping. Or how the painted text could be seen on the underside of the floaty panels—lining would have diminished the unsightliness. Ms Ong revealed on IG that the cape took two days to complete. It showed.

Arwin Meriales describes himself on his website as a “fast rising designer”, which says to us he is a relative newbie. The 21-year-old from Quezon City agreed to making the outfit for Ms Ong (it isn’t known if they are friends) despite the tight dateline (and studies in design school) because, as he posted on Facebook, it was more than a national costume that he was going to make, he would also be putting out a “STATEMENT” and “PROTEST” (yes, in caps) to halt the hatred of Asians. “Who wouldn’t want,” he asked, “to be a part of such cause?” It can be assumed that Ms Ong, who studied accounting, is an accidental designer (it isn’t known why she had to source her own pageant outfits) and Mr Meriales provided the technical support. It is easy to pin the flaccid results to the lack of time, but a maestro would be able to know what can or cannot be performed. Fellow Southeast Asian, Miss Philippines Rabiya Mateo wore a striking gown by a compatriot designer, the late Rocky Gathercole (who died in March before the outfit could be completed). The gown had near-vertical, (also) bi-coloured wings. Whatever needed to stand, stood, and stood out. If Bernadette Belle Wu Ong really required a cape to do her thing in Florida, she might have been better advised to approach Frederick Lee. No stranger to pageants, Mr Lee could have designed for her a dramatic cape, as he had produced in the past, and made it truly distend—and soar. And, as typical of the NatCos competition, camp enough.

Photos: #missuniversesg/Instagram

The Bandung Suit: Here And There

Elvin Ng wore the ombre suit at the Star Awards, so did one Kori Rae at the recent Oscars. And others even earlier

The Alexander McQueen “bandung” suit on Elvin Ng (left) and Kori Rae (right). Photos: Mediacorp and Getty Images respectively

By Ray Zhang

Many people had a go at Elvin Ng (黄俊雄) after this year’s inert Star Awards. Or, to be more specific, they bashed his inoffensive Alexander McQueen suit. The jacket, in a gradation of pink at the top to bordeaux (as the brand calls it) at the bottom was compared by many viewers, even fans, to a glass of unstirred bandung—yep, that usually too-sweet coffee-stall drink made of rose syrup and evaporated milk. Online, there was even a photographic, side-by-side show-and-tell. And that was the kinder comparison. The more wicked commentators likened the blazer to a particular sanitary plug that some women use, which Mr Ng, rather forgivingly, considered “a bit offensive”. Only affable Fairprice, in a Facebook post, saw raspberry parfait in his red-carpet look.

I do not know if Mr Ng or his stylist Darryl Yeo or both of them picked the said garment, but, frankly, I didn’t see those humorous and nasty similitudes. Maybe it’s my imagination: it isn’t so vivid. To me, he was much better attired than, say, the now-disgraced Shane Pow, who, in ill-fitting Berluti two-piece, looked like he was costumed for a K-drama in which he appeared as a bratty, wealthy scion on his first day in his father’s boardroom. Whatever those many people did notice has brought much attention to not only the garment, but the brand name too. Alexander McQueen is no Alexander Wang here. So the publicity did give the former a rather big boost.

Colour gradation on Wang Yibo (left) and Kevin Hart (right). Photos: sina.cn and Aspictures/Chloe Le Drezen respectively

Mr Ng was, however, not the first or only person in the entertainment industry to wear the ombre (also described as “gradient-effect”) jacket, part of Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2021 collection. The tailored garment appears to be attracting a lot of admirers. A week after his TV appearance, another person wore the same outfit, 14,112km across two oceans. In Los Angeles, Pixar producer Kori Rae attended the Oscars in identical suit (not, interestingly, the version available for women). But she took it two steps further—she included a matching shirt and tie, in case the colour effect on the jacket alone was not enough for you to think bandung, or the other thing! I was surprised she didn’t colour her hair to match. Perhaps it was the setting Californian sun, but Ms Rae’s suit did look rather saturated. Forgive me, I am thinking of what Donald Trump, if he had watched, might say!

The ombre effect of the silk-wool jacket (priced at S$6,450) is, according to the brand, an “engineered dip-dyed print”, which means that the jacket or the fabric used was not actually partially submerged into a vat of dye (which may offer the assurance of no colour run). Some people think that the pink and the red do not make a good pairing; some also said the pink is too feminine for Mr Ng, who has never really concerned himself with fashion colours and details that are thought to be binary (look at the boat-neck Prada nylon top that he wore on the Channel 8 talk show The Inner Circle [神秘嘉宾]). Following the bandung alert, some Netizens pointed out that Chinese actor and former member of Korean boy band Uniq, Wang Yibo (王一博), too, wore a McQueen bomber jacket with identical chromatic print. No one questioned Mr Wang’s fashion choice. Nor, in fact, Kevin Hart’s. The comedian/actor also wore what Elvin Ng (and Kori Rae) did for a Fashion Bomb Daily fashion editorial, his masculinity clearly not threatened by sweet, unstirred-beverage colours.

Oscars 2021: Yawwwn

Woke up early to watch the 93rd Academy Awards. Big mistake

The Oscars red carpet outside Union Station. Photo: Getty Images

By Mao Shan Wang

Let’s start by talking about the end: why like that? I sat—okay, lolled—in bed for close to five hours, from 6.30 to 11.15, only to see the ending that I did not see coming: No one went on stage to receive the Oscar! There was, therefore, no speech. The whole show just fizzled out. It was all brought to a close by the Crocs-shod musical director Questlove, who, for some reason, reminded me of tWitch of the Ellen Show. The last award, presented by the bland Joaquin Phoenix, was for Best Actor and it went to Anthony Hopkins. The Sir didn’t show up (not anywhere else in the world either) and that was that! Show was over. Credits rolled. Television sets ready to be turned off. My breakfast of chashaobao still not eaten.

The traditional order in which the categories were presented was jumbled. Best Picture was not reserved for the last. The Best Actor and Actress categories were. And the no-show winner left the stage empty. Rousing! Sure, we’ve all been told before that this would be a different Academy Awards night, to be presented “like a film”. Well, there was the cinematic aspect ratio on my TV screen, but it surely didn’t unfold like a movie. Everything had to be kept small, including the attendance, and so controlled, that the show, like a movie, was very, very scripted, except the winners’ speeches. And it was very, very, dull—just like the game that was played as entertainment, half-way through: the one that had Glenn Close appear to be utterly with-it. Seriously, I did not want to see Ms Close, curiously dressed in what could be a Punjabi suit (Giorgio Armani, no less), twerk to Da Butt!

Regina King opening the show. Photo: ABC

One thing I have to say: Both the Star Awards and the Academy Awards have one thing in common: they were held in transport hubs: The Star Awards at Changi Airport Terminal 4 and the Academy Awards in Union Station in Los Angeles, a change from the usual Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where the show had been staged and televised from for the last 20 years. The 73-year-old Union Station is “the Sistine Chapel of railway stations in America”, Tom Savio of the Los Angeles Union Station Historical Society told the BBC. The 1982 film Blade Runner was shot here, in addition to more than other 150 films. It has become legendary, which, perhaps, made it suitable as an Oscars venue. The set decorators kept somewhat to the part-Art Deco and part-mission revival styles of Union Station, converting the Historic Ticketing Hall and the Grand Waiting Room into a nightclub, as if where an old Hollywood-era musical number might be staged. A train station, for one night, didn’t look like one, but, a week ago, on our island, for one award night, an airport certainly looked like the passenger terminal it is.

But in a pandemic year, must award nights be so sluggish? Sure, it hasn’t been a show-biz-as-usual year for this award season, but, despite its IRL production (thankfully, no Zoom acceptance appearances and speeches), the presentation wasn’t exactly celebratory. I get it. It’s still a pandemic year, still post-BLM and the George Floyd court case has just concluded amid more police shootings, and, for many, the Oscars is still not inclusive enough. Entertainment no longer in the picture, causes close to the heart are. Regina King, who got the show going in probably the best gown of the night by Louis Vuitton, set the tone when she made references to the verdict in Minneapolis, and if it had been diametrically so, “I would have traded my heels for marching boots”. Were nominees and attendees, therefore, looking out for lapses in inclusivity and justice? Is it a wonder that viewership of the Oscars this year was reported to be at an “all-time low”?

Oscars 2021 Red Carpet: Yawwwn

The skin-baring and the over-fluffy: (from left) Andra Day, Zendaya, Laura Dern. Photo: Getty Images

Asian aesthetic on the red carpet: Chloé Zhao’s village girl look. Photo: Getty Images

“This is Hollywood’s Christmas,” Angela Bassett, confident in red Alberta Ferretti and sleeves that could be props from Raise the Red Lantern, had said earlier, outside the red carpet/arrival “pre-show”. But, thankfully, few came noticeably as Christmas trees. Rather, in their post-pandemic, post-jogger-bottom best. Both Andra Day (in Vera Wang) and Zendaya (in Valentino Couture) showed us how to be mask-free for the waist. Laura Dern took the modest route, wearing Oscar de la Renta ostrich feathers, while looking like the bird. Her pal Reese Witherspoon decided to give her red prom-night dress (Dior. Did she pick the belt from Walmart on the way to Union Station?) another run. Or was that her old bridesmaid gown? Conversely, Olivia Coleman, who also wore a red Dior and a belt, looked far much more pulled-together and stylish. Carey Mulligan seemed to be telling us that when she went to Valentino (Couture), they were very happy: They found someone to use their dead-stock fabric on. What, to me, was palpably absent was the gathering of fashion heavyweights. There was no Nicole Kidman, no Thilda Swinton, no Cate Blanchett. This has been one Oscars confectionary that not only didn’t rise, it was missing the frosting.

In the end, it was really Chloé Zhao that really killed it for me. Ms Zhao may have won for Asians and women directors in Hollywood with her two awards, but her sartorial choice was no victory for fashion. Even Hermès was limited in their powers to make her look polished. Yes, I know her trademark look is fashion-free, but this was the “casual-is-really-not”-cool Oscars. She could have tried; she could have left the sneakers (Hermès too, so what?) at home (even if she was taking the subway) and she could have worn some makeup (even if she was going to a train station), but somehow, she couldn’t shake off her 村女之美 (cunnu zhimei) village lass beauty and those barnyard ponytails. She told Vanity Fair last year, when asked about her hair, “I haven’t been to the hair salon in five years”. Enough said.