Pussycat, Yes!

Animals have inspired designers for as long as fashion has looked to the zoic kingdom for ideas. One creature stands out: the cat. No less than four of what are worn or used in fashion today are named after them

After watching the Dior pre-fall 2021 show recently, we got hooked to the remade and remixed Deee-Lite dance hit What is Love? from the 1990 album World Clique. This new track also has snatches of the feline-themed, vinyl-only single Pussycat Meow from the second album Infinity Within. It was the purring and the “pussycat… no!” cries of the band’s lead singer Lady Miss Kier that did it for us. For most of the rest of that week (and the week after), we allowed that groove to get into our heart. Two tracks on loop, however, became monotonous after a while. So we looked into our CD collection (yes, for some, they still exist and are played!), and found one of our favourites: Takkyu Ishno’s highly danceable 2017 song Kitten Heel. This whole afternoon, we had three tracks on loop, pumping through our Sonos One, allowing the bass to course through our willing body.

The dancing—and Lady Miss Kier purring and then rap-calling “here, kitty, kitty, kitty” and then tease-pleading “kiss me, you fool!”—also got us thinking of the influence of domestic cats (yes, those you keep as pets) in fashion. No, there won’t be references to Karl Lagerfeld’s too-famous Choupette. Or, the countless cat videos on YouTube and TickTok. Or, cute cat-faced accessories to wear around the neck. And not a clowder of cats on a T-shirt either. Rather, we’re looking at something more subtle—those articles of fashion inspired by parts of cats or the whole animal, or just suggestive of those things we associate with felines. And, like the cats themselves, these fashion items seem to have many, many lives! Here, we name four. If you know others, do tell.

Cat Glasses

Photo: Celine/24s

Cat glasses, or rather sunglasses with frames that supposedly mimic cat eyes, are not really inspired by the-cuddly-creature-that-meows. According to fashion lore and the documentary Altina, based on the life of the multi-hyphenate Altina Schinasi (1907—1999), they were inspired by Venetian masks. In fact, the first cat glasses, introduced in the ’30s, were known by the more mysterious and glamourous descriptor, Harlequin. At that time the designs of glasses for women were hardly fashionable, and reflected what Dorothy Parker famously said, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” originally a two-line poem News Item.

But, that didn’t deter Ms Schinasi. She related in the documentary: “I thought, well, something better can be done than just these awful glasses that look like the time of Benjamin Franklin. Then I thought, what would be good on a face and I thought of a mask, a Harlequin mask.” By the ’50s, when the glasses really took off—worn by movie stars such as Audrey Hepburn and, unmistakably, Marilyn Monroe (especially as Pola in How to Marry a Millionaire), they became mostly known as cat-eye glasses (now, just cat glasses) due to the shape of the frame, with the outer tips pointing upwards and alluringly, feline-like.

Catsuits

Photo: Warner Bros

Long before there was Michele Pfeiffer as Catwoman (in 1992’s Batman Returns), there was one Black Wild Cat, our mothers told us. This was Connie Chan (陈宝珠) in the titular role of 女贼黑夜猫 (Black Wild Cat), in the 1960s Hong Kong film that saw Ms Chan as a sort-of female Robin Hood, masked in a flat-top half-balaclava that was, presumably, like a cat’s head. To augment her feline mysteriousness, she leaves messages by throwing darts on walls on which her masked identity is reveal by, well, a Harlequin mask (see a recurring theme?). Ms Chan was so successful in playing these mysterious do-gooders operating under the cover of darkness that other characters emerged: The Black Rose (黑玫瑰) and The Black Killer (女杀手). And with each role she wore something black and close-fitting—not quite the catsuits we know today, but enough for her to move with the stealth and style of cats.

It wasn’t until Michele Pfeiffer’s campy interpretation of Catwoman (aka Selina Kyle) did we come to associate the catsuit with those that totally outline the body and in gleaming latex (a silicon-based top coat was used to effect the shine). Sure, Halle Berry’s titular turn in Catwoman (2004), too, saw her in a catsuit, but they appeared to be a part of it—the bikini dominatrix top didn’t cover enough, at least not the torso. Interestingly, Ms Berry’s Catwoman wore a full head mask that looks uncannily like what Connie Chan wore as Black Wild Cat! In fact, the catsuit was very much at first a costume, often linked to the Catwoman character, first introduced in 1940 as simply The Cat. The term catsuit didn’t come into popular usage until after 1955. Its origin is unclear although it wouldn’t be immoderate to assume that, once suited up, the slinkiness immediately accords the wearer a cat-like grace.

Pussy Bows

Photo: Saint Laurent

The pussy bow comes from something more extraneous: it’s not in anyway part of a cat. Or look like anything that might be akin to cats. According to media speculation—Vogue among them—the pussy bow probably got its name from a time in the late 19th century, when cat owners would tie a bow around the neck of their feline pets to prettify them before the arrival of guests. In French couture houses, they go by a less animal-linked description: lavallière (also the noun for a pendant, centred on a necklace, and hangs pendulously). Some fashion historians trace the pussy bow to the cravat, although the connection is hard to discern. Most of the pussy bows we now see can be linked to the versions first introduced by Chanel, and later, Yves Saint Laurent (paired with the Le Smoking). And in the past ten years, the popularity of the pussy bow has not waned, and (still) well loved by designers such as Hedi Slimane and Alessandro Michele.

However fancy it is tied, the pussy bow is essentially a strip of fabric, with the middle portion, lengthwise, stitched to the neckline of the blouse, leaving the rest hanging, and to be knotted. For many women, the pussy bows were very much a ’70s thing. A decade on, “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher made it her thing, and claimed the pussy bow softens her public appearance. A mere feminine flourish it, therefore, is not. Cut to 2016, Melania Trump wore her Gucci crepe de chine pussy bow defiantly (triumphantly, too?) against her husband’s self-confessed predilection for grabbing the female genitalia. Pussy bows today have long shed their dowdy Gibson Girl image. Just see how Anthony Vaccarello styled them for Saint Laurent (above). As in the past, there is power in them bows.

Kitten Heels

Photo: Prada

Interestingly, these heels weren’t originally worn by women, but by men—at least in Versailles, France. To be sure, the kitten heels that we now know is not quite the same as those the guys wore, in particular by Louis XIV of France and his courtiers. Those in the 17th century were a lot clunkier, at least where the heels were concerned, not the pin that they are in present times. According to common belief, the smallish Sun King chose heeled shoes to give him extra height (he was, reportedly, only five foot, four inches—or about 162cm—tall). This new-found stature caught on with the other royals too, but did not impress the monarch. He banned them outside his court, effectively denying himself as the footwear trend setter.

The kitten heels today can, perhaps, be more accurately traced to the 1950s. Many people associate them with Audrey Hepburn or more specifically her in Billy Wilder’s 1954 movie Sabrina, with (some of) the costumes by Hubert de Givenchy. Like the cat glasses, the kitten heels have come to represent the ’50s and a certain elegance that need not require a statuesque carriage. Another name linked to the kitten heel at this time is Roger Vivier, who was, conversely, more prolific with the stiletto, but in the ’50s, Mr Vivier created a more tapered and stout heel for “girls”, so that they can get used to the elevation and grow into higher shoes. In fact, in the US, kitten heels were also known as “training heels”, since they were bought for the (very) young high-heel novice who had yet able to handle the forbidding stiletto. For some, so well trained they were in kitten heels that they never truly graduated to the taller kin. Kitty, as it turns out, truly has a long, comfortable life.

Illustration: Just So

Break Free, Shop Now

On the first day of Phase 2, Orchard Road was not as manic as many thought it would be. Conspicuous consumption isn’t so obvious. Yet

 

Phase 2 Day 1 P1Zara welcomes you back at ION Orchard

19 June 2020. It is probably the biggest day of the year, when so many people cooped up at home for the past eleven weeks are let loose, when retailers unable to open because of  Circuit Breaker measures recoup lost sales of the past two months, when the thirsty—and not—are able to drink all the bubble milk tea in the world. This is not only going to make the news this evening, it’ll be the stuff to delight historians. A prelude to how fashion will resurge, how retail will revive, how our economy will recover. Cautiously, we joined happy shoppers in Orchard Road to observe the expected and expectant crowd, to witness merchandise fly off the shelves, to see history in the making.

The MRT train ride was unexpectedly quiet until two young women, getting off at Orchard station, yelped: “At last!” The palpable enthusiasm did not, surprisingly, reflect the relative calm on the platform. There weren’t that many people. It was half past eleven and at this relatively early hour of the retail day, there was no beating-the-crowd, no I-can’t-keep-the-mask-on-anymore, and no I-don’t-care-if-I’m-not-one-metre-apart. There was no rush exiting the ION Orchard side of the station, nor entering the mall. SafeEntry screening held up the line moving in a little, but it was, surprisingly, not corrupted by impatience and hustle. Simply the calm before the storm?

Phase 2 Day 1 P2Still-quiet ION Orchard at noon

Once inside ION Orchard—the mall that had a head start on publicity the moment CNA told us before Phase 2 struck “what to expect when ION reopens”—the mood was even more restrained. Perhaps what the 87,490-square-metre complex did not expect was the surprising trickle of shoppers, at least before one in the afternoon. The place was not teeming. Most of the shops had opened by now, but short lines were seen outside only four stores: Daiso, Muji, Sephora, and Zara. There was no queue at Louis Vuitton. If you looked inside, there were more sales people than shoppers. We were not sure if this had anything to do with LV requesting customers to “schedule an appointment”, as stated on their website. Next door at Dior, a set of stanchion and belt was set up beside the entrance, but no one was behind them. Inside, one teenager was trying on sneakers. Directly across, Gucci’s stanchion and rope also had no company while behind the windows, we could make out less than a handful of customers.

An hour later, it seemed to us that the anticipated “revenge shopping” and the attendant cause, “pent-up demand”, were much muted, even if they materialised. Do people still buy with a vengeance? We saw no one laden with shopping bags, except a dressed-alike couple with massive ones containing what appeared to be polypropylene storage cases. The other one that caught our eye was a shopping bag as fashion statement—the Virgil Abloh X Ikea brown carrier emblazoned with the word “sculpture” and, yes, flanked by inverted commas. Has online shopping really diminished the lure of what a mall can offer? Has it prevailed? A woman we had seen earlier looking at the LV window was leaving ION Orchard at the same time we ‘checked out’. Curiosity got a better of us: “Didn’t buy anything?” She was cheerful: “No, lah. I get (sic) everything online now. Just wanted to get out of the house.”

20-06-19-22-29-11-533_decoLouis Vuitton at ION Orchard, with no queue outside

The queue-less store fronts extended to Takashimaya Shopping Centre too. A short while ago, one SOTD follower WhatsApped us a photo of the main concourse, showing a long queue to get into Takashimaya Department Store, where we later learned, Versace was causing considerable excitement with 50% discounts on their merchandise. When we got here, the queue was not evident. By the end of our excursion, we observed that if there were lines getting into malls, they were there due to the requisite SafeEntry—scanning of QR codes or ICs took time, and some shoppers were more dexterous than others. A few here were heard grumbling that they had already scanned upon entering Taka (the mall), and it was “wasting time” to scan again going into Taka (the store), probably unaware that both are not technically the same place.

When we arrived via the entrance between LV and Chanel, the line visible was composed of shoppers getting into the mall. There were three people outside Chanel going through the new-normal, triage-like, pre-entry procedures (we saw three members of the staff involved in this operation). Opposite, at LV, there were five waiting. It is debatable if a trio or a quintet is a line, but one audible delight—“Wah, no queue, leh”—outside Chanel was indication that the relative breeze in getting in was an unusual but welcome sight. One mother told her daughter, “quick, take picture.” Past these two sentinel-like stores to this entry point of the mall, fewer queues were seen. There was none at Celine, Dior, and Fendi. Most surprising was the longest line at that time: the one outside Tiffany. Jewellery was missed. Either that or the gifting season has arrived.

Phase 2 Day 1 pCIt was clear enough of people outside Chanel at Takashimaya SC for posed pictures

Further down what Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) calls “a great street”, the crowd seemed to be gravitating towards 313@ Somerset. Before we got there, we were surprised to see an impressive line outside Victoria’s Secret at Mandarin Gallery. Whatever it was they had inside, it was clearly not undisclosed. In contrast, Surrender in the building across, identified only by its number—268, saw no one awaiting to be let in. Its neighbour Off-White, too, had no shoppers lined up. Similarly, the H&M flagship store opposite of Victoria’s Secret, looked like it was still closed to business. There was no line to be seen and the inside looked strangely dark. With only one glass door ajar, it was easy to think they were only just opening or exercising some stringent checks. From here, looking towards the side entrance of 313@Somerset, it was within sight that getting into the mall would require getting in line.

Past the screening, it wasn’t as bustling as what the outside suggested. The busiest spot, unsurprisingly, was at a bubble tea shop—Chicha San Chen on level three, where the scene was reminiscent of those before 21 April, when all bubble tea shops were disallowed to operate during the rest of the duration of the Circuit Breaker. A queue was seen at Zara, as it was at their stores in ION Orchard and Takashimaya SC. A staff explained that it was not busier than usual, but that they were controlling the number of shoppers in the store. Surprisingly no line was spotted outside Limited Edt and its sister L.E. Underground (it was empty here when we past it at around three). In fact, earlier at JD Sports in ION Orchard, it was relatively quiet too. Similarly, there were few shoppers at AW Lab in Wisma Atria. Ditto for Nike in Paragon.

Phase 2 Day 1 pIGCIn Good Company not ready to receive shoppers

Over at Orchard Central, Uniqlo was, as they announced yesterday, closed. All their stores were actually lit, and the staff was clearly busy at work. No disinfecting activity was seen, but there was the stocking of merchandise and acceptance of delivery. At ION Orchard earlier, one woman was clearly disappointed. “why liddad,” she exclaimed, and went to a gap in the drawn and shut folding glass doors and asked the staff, who was organising clothes on a shelf, why wasn’t the store opened. We could not hear what the guy said. She walked away, muttering “waste my time.”

If a big Japanese chain store such as Uniqlo wasn’t ready to open, it was not surprising that local stores weren’t too. In Good Company’s flagship at ION Orchard was not opened. So was Love, Bonito at 313@Somerset. Even the benches in front of the store—usually husband and boyfriend central—were unoccupied. It is true people are “dying to get out”, but not necessarily to shop. For many out this afternoon, by now on the verge of enough of a crowd to make personal space a rare commodity, the Circuit Breaker is over. That isn’t quite accurate since we are in Phase 2, without an official declaration that all forms of restrictions are lifted. As we left Orchard Gateway to go into the MRT station, a stern security staff asked for our phones. She wanted to see if we had ‘checked out’.

Phase 2 Day 1 pHBThe direction of traffic is clearly marked out at all Hugo Boss stores

This ‘checking in’ and ‘checking out’, required by SafeEntry , the “national digital check-in system”, was not adopted consistently across all the malls we visited earlier. While checking in is a must and is ensured by security personnel, checking out is not regulated. Only at Orchard Gateway were we halted and asked for proof of having done so. While this requirement is acceptable at designated entry and exit points of malls, it was not implemented in a manner as to speed up, in particular, entry. The QR codes were placed or erected, in most cases, all over the place. During what for most was the first visit after the Circuit Breaker, many did not instinctively know where to look. At 313@Orchard, posters bearing the QR code were plastered onto the glass door of the entrance, along which was also where the queue had formed. Enthusiastic visitors stretched out their hands so that their smartphones were able to capture the matrix barcode, all the while their forearms were in front of your face.

For those of us who still consider the experience known as shopping to be fun, the need to check in and out at every single store after first entering the mall quickly diminishes the enjoyment. Frankly, it bordered on the annoying. And was disruptive to the rhythm of what many appeared to do—leisurely shopping. For that reason, we did not enter any store (we were, after all, observing). But for those who did, not every outlet offered the semblance of a nice, purchase-in-hand time. A few clothing stores reportedly had plastic sheets covering their merchandise, and disallowed the trying on of garments. The common reaction: isn’t see-no-touch just window shopping? This normal we were seeing will soon be new no more.

Updated: 20 June 2020, 10:35

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

No Turning Back

In the post-COVID-19 world, fashion can’t return to what it was. Dries Van Noten led the clarion for change by first issuing an open letter to address concerns about the future of the industry. Now, moving forward, another group is calling for the resolve of “rewiring fashion” as lockdown throughout the world eases. Will they be heard? Has the fashion business become too crumpled to be ironed out of its creases?

 

20-05-18-20-12-41-643_deco

By Raiment Young

Fashion has fallen on hard times. And before it crashes through the cutting room floor, many in the industry are calling for the change that was previously talked about, but not met with actual action. Last week, Dries Van Noten, leading a group that includes fellow designers Tory Burch, Erdem Moralioglu, as well as Acne Studio CEO Mattias Magnusson, Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo and others, initiated the call with an Open Letter to the Fashion Industry that said “the current environment, although challenging, presents an opportunity for a fundamental and welcome change that will simplify our businesses, making them more environmentally and socially sustainable and ultimately align them more closely with customers’ needs.”

It went on to propose “adjusting the seasonality and flow of both womenswear and menswear goods, starting with the Autumn/Winter 2020 season (which was already shown in February/March and January respectively)”. The recommendation asked for selling seasons to be “put back” to the time frame followed in the past—fall/winter in August—January and spring/summer in February—July. In addition, it urged for a “more balanced flow of deliveries through the season to provide newness but also time for products to create desire”. And discounting provided only at the end of the season so as to “allow for more full-price selling”.

In sync with the call for long-term socio-ecological balance in fashion, the letter-writers also advocated “increase sustainability throughout the supply chain and sales calendar” by producing “less unnecessary products”, adopting “less travel”, and reviewing the traditional fashion show format. These are all pertinent proposals that have been brought up in the past, especially among brands that have not been able to enjoy the production resources and marketing might of bigger names or those who are managed by conglomerates. It is, however, the first time they’re communicated so succinctly and purposefully in one missive, signed off by noted industry figures.

Signatories of open letterSome of the signatories of the Open Letter: (from left)  Acne Studios CEO Mattias Magnusson, Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo, Dries Van Noten, Tory Burch, Erdem Moralioglu. Individual photos: source

Shortly after the Open Letter was announced, another group headlined by Phillip Lim, Rodarte, and Proenza Schouler put together the plan, Rewire Fashion, which was soon followed by its own independent micro-site. “Facilitated by” the industry news portal Business of Fashion (BOF), Rewire Fashion is like one group seconding the proposals of another, while going into more details by identifying the problems and offering possible solutions, with very specific call out to fashion show pressures: “that there should be no rules—imposed by convention or fashion councils—regarding the format of shows, nor any expectations that every brand should show every season”, as well as fashion retailers’ deeply-rooted “addiction” to the very modern proclivity of “extreme discounting”.

These are proposals that have no doubt been brewing for a while. However necessary the changes put forward, it may be difficult to undo the forces and practices put into momentum by powerful corporate hands for a long time. In fact, some habits are so entrenched in the fashion consumption culture of today that halting them would be just like asking the community not to consume. Take discounting: many have been weaned on buying not regular retail prices that even if the full-price selling season could be restored, most would just wait out till the end-of-season sale. The reality of fashion is that few seasonal items are so desirable that they can’t wait to be bought three months or so later.

If brands are telling consumers that early and immoderate discounting must not be encouraged, why are consumers not able to sway brands from reducing the frequency of or holding back price hikes, especially at a time when it would be unseemly to do so?

 

With most brands and businesses facing overstock issues this season and likely the next, or even further down the road, discounting may be a necessary evil for a while and for the duration shoppers need to get accustomed to the next new-normal. The question we find ourselves asking in response to mark downs is on the other side of the practice—mark ups. If brands are telling consumers by way of retailers that early and immoderate discounting must not be encouraged (so don’t get used to them), why are consumers not able to sway brands from reducing the frequency of or holding back price hikes, especially at a time when it would be unseemly to do so? Prices climb from an already steep leap-off point. A S$560 Gucci T-shirt that could pass off as a Uniqlo offering don’t merit a discount before purchase consideration? How many, indeed, truly shop at full price? Even members of the fashion media don’t, not when they have the unsaid but well-enjoyed privilege of press or influencer discount.

Prices of designer fashion have reached such prohibitive levels this past decade that they are driving the engine of growth of the resale market. Just look at Japan, not only is second-hand fashion a massive and expanding business, major players—they have, in fact, become chain stores—such as Ragtag have a flagship that can be as large, if not larger, than even the European brands’. What makes these Japanese resale stops the go-to among both locals and tourists is the quality of the merchandise. More often than not, they are well curated and are as good as new. And fashionable individuals know they don’t need on-season clothes to look on trend. And it does not take a fashion observer with an acute sense to see that fashion is not just the desire of the wealthy. The presence of “entry-level” goods in every luxury store is clear indication that most brands offer products beyond the reach of more than 50 percent of those in the queue to get in, to the extent that entry-level is necessary to spur growth. For those who would not be mindlessly ensnared, there are resale vendors, where, for the price of one boutique’s entry-level, they are able to score the secondhand outlet’s sartorial grail.

20-05-19-00-53-59-504_deco

Fashion consumption these days may be somewhat homogeneous—the love of Dior dresses is as intense anywhere on the globe—but the time/period/season they are needed may vary. Take Asia, for example. It is widely acknowledged that China is the world’s main driver of spending on the high-end. According to McKinsey’s China Luxury Report 2019, “Chinese consumers at home and abroad spent 770 billion RMB (or 115 billion USD) on luxury items” in 2018. This is “equivalent to a third of the global spend”. If you include the rest of Asia, that would rank this continent the largest market for luxury goods. Many in this part of the world follow the lunar calendar, which makes, among other occasions, the Lunar New Year (or Spring Festival) an important date and celebration. All brands know the importance of tapping into pre-festival spending, so they release the first drop of spring/summer in December (even in November). If, according to both groups’ proposal of deliveries to match seasons, will many—in particular Southeast Asians—be shopping for Spring Festival by browsing the autumn/winter rack?

It is not yet certain how a motley gathering of fashion practitioners that include designers, buyers, and executives will be able to see the proposals through. So far, it has been a call to action, not quite a concrete plan hot-stamped on leather or fused on silk. After the past months of fashion retail standstill, the journey forward is expected to be fraught with yet-to-be experienced uncertainties and pitfalls. We’re all for change—that’s fashion’s DNA. But after extended periods of staying at home, where fashion is, at best, asleep, most consumers may be counting what they have not worn (yet?) than thinking if autumn/winter deliveries will be in time for a splurge on more clothes or bags that have done delivery schedules justice and the supply chains proud.

Illustrations: Just So

Death At Home

For now, fashion is departing the life it no longer is

 

D@Home

Fashion is a way of communicating to others something about yourself. But now that our lives are mostly subscribed by the four walls we call home, who are we communicating with? Your Zoomates not withstanding, does anyone really care? We may be encouraged to dress nicely at home when working, but it is doubtful people do. Nor, when out on an errand to acquire necessities—Balenciaga for boba tea? It’d be very curious that despite the relative anonymity face masks—now compulsory—afford, there are those who’d bother with what others in the socially-distanced queue, waiting to get into Fairprice, wear.

Home is where the heart is, but the heart alone may not be enough to save fashion from a certain fate: demise. Or, at least ebb. Home is not necessarily a great backdrop for fashion, unless home is a Sentosa Cove abode with an interior design inspired by the four seasons (the actual weatherly divisions of the year, not the hotel chain). Home is set up for attire other than what is worn out for tasks or activities that require even a smidgen of fashion. That’s why when we get home, we fall into the habit of slipping into something more comfortable. Home is not where fashion gets its moment. That’s why we have clothes set aside for wearing when in one’s residence. Homebound, over a period unnaturally long, encourages and hastens fashion into a flagging preoccupation. We unsubscribe from fashion.

For many of us, we have a set of clothes worn at home, whether old garments or bought specifically for home use (likely the former) that many do refer as home clothes, rather than home fashion. Sure, fashion types have tried to convince us that under lockdown, we can be attired as if we’re with friends at a cocktail bar. Why anyone would be inclined to do so is hitherto inexplicable. Home fashion is oxymoronic. Stay at home and in the latest fashion are so antithetical that it’s truly eye-opening when Vogue.com offered “4 Refreshing Spring Fashion Trends You Can Wear at Home”. We have always looked at fashion media for ideas that can be adopted outside. Now we’re seeking trends that can exist in a domestic setting? Perhaps Vogue staffers lead very different at-home lives than most of us.

Sartorial habits of home kill fashion; they destroy, if not diminish, desire and compulsion

 

Home is where we tend to “switch off”, where we can go (stay!) without—or with just—underclothes, where we don’t have to be concerned with how good we look, how raggy our rags. Home makes us creatures of habit: We get used to the comfort, to the familiar, to things. Habits tend not to change when we’re not out of doors. We also have the habit of keeping our best clothes for better occasions usually not confined to our habitat. Sartorial habits of home kill fashion; they destroy, if not diminish, desire and compulsion. And the longer we stay at home, even with productive work, the more likely fashion as we know or remember it, before isolating ourselves became a socially responsible act, will come to an end.

Home clothes are not anywhere near what we see worn on TV. From Friends to Modern Family to Fresh off the Boat, dressing for the commute between bedroom and kitchen requires considerable effort, not to mention makeup. It’s the same with K-dramas: Every character is attired as if they will be out to the swankiest part of the city the next minute; they don’t distinguish between outside clothes and home wear. Conversely, we tend not to draw a distinction between what we put on at home and what we don out, just as private and public behaviours are often indistinct. T-shirts and shorts are de rigueur, as prevalent in the living room as they are in spaces where fashion is expected. We are happy with how home clothes need not morph into something else even when we are going out on the town. We like home clothes so much, in fact, that many of us are happy that one of the perks of working from one’s residence is that we don’t have to dress for work. The old mores of office-appropriate are, well, old, just as working in an office is so pre-pandemic.

Perhaps it’s different elsewhere. Or in the digital sphere. If cyberspace is where you are most active, there maybe a small chance that home clothes may be better home clothes, not necessarily fashionable clothes. Perhaps the grim reaper isn’t quite ready to knock on fashion’s door. Going online allows many to go beyond their four walls of home. Fashion can have a social setting (it loves company), keeping its possible doom at bay. Recently we read of Netizens going on “video-chat dress-up dates”. This may, of course, creep some people out. Cyber debauchery or just shenanigans, who knows? But at least they’re wearing and showing and admiring what we hope is fashion.

Photo: Chin Boh Kay

One Last Grab

It’s confirmed. We are addicted to bubble tea—totally mad about them, and crazy enough to fight over paopao cha

 

Last tea 1

By the SOTD Team

When it comes to bubble milk teas and their fans during this period of the Circuit Breaker, it’s never a dull moment. Things arrived at a fashionable frenzy a short while earlier. The minute the news broke at about 8.30 this evening, shortly after the Multi-Ministry Task Force on COVID-19 announced additional restrictions on food and beverage services (following the PM’s message to the people before that), bubble tea fans were out in full force to make this the most memorable night in the F&B history of 21st century Singapore. Rumours were rife since two weeks ago that bubble teas would be classified as non-essential. The online dismay could have broken the Internet. When this finally turns out to be true, the ensuing madness broke out into a fight.

The scuffle was witness, filmed, and shared online at around fifteen past ten. One Facebook post showed a Grab Food delivery guy shouting angrily in front of a Playmade shop on the B1 level of the four-year-old Waterway Point in Punggol New Town. At the time of this writing, it isn’t clear what led to the FB-worthy outburst, but it was, for those who, hitherto, do not understand what is really behind the bubble tea craze, one of the obvious reasons why zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶) shops had to be closed, together with other standalone food-and-beverage (F&B) outlets, according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI). Seriously, who goes into an altercation over what is mostly vapid tea or, as one FB user called it, “just sugared stuff with starchy mystery things inside (sic)”?

Last tea 2Part of the close to 200m long, 20-odd people strong queue outside one Gong Cha shopLast tea 3At Xing Fu Tang, the queue, no longer seen in past months, now returns 

Many Circuit Breaker-conscious folks had been saying for weeks that bubble tea shops should close, as the traffic at most outlets had not been exemplar of social distancing. In lieu of shopping that is virtually non-existent and as opportunity to meet mate and date, queuing for bubble tea has become the most visible activity in a city that is virtually stripped of retail life. Some lines were so long that they were obstacles for legitimate shoppers trying to reach supermarkets and the like to obtain true necessities. Bubble tea—specifically the craze—has trained the spotlight on those who have seemingly unquenchable thirst for them: the calorie-uncaring young, who have no concern about lost of income in the coming months and, more disturbing, the real possibility of infection by an insidious viral enemy.

This evening, many bubble tea lovers were not deterred by the length of queues or that their order would be prepared alongside those made through delivery services (often in totals larger than ten), necessitating a longer wait. At one in-mall Xing Fu Tang, a staffer was heard telling a customer that they would be serving the desperate till midnight or “until there is no more tea”. A security personnel confirmed that they would be allowed to “open till late”. Not all bubble tea shops drew crowds, only the perceived-to-be-cool or those with a staggering menu. At one Ten Ren’s Tea, there was no customer. Ditto for I♥Taimei, until the lines at other shops were too long for the impatient. Liho, usually in the shadow of their Taiwanese competitors, saw a line at one of their MRT station shops that could easily beat Chicha San Chen’s. Similarly, at the usually queue-free R&B, a snaking line was marketing and profit boost before the night ended and the island wakes up to a naicha-free world tomorrow. Spill-over business meant that non-Taiwanese milk tea joint Tuk Tuk Cha eventually drew the better-than-nothing group. Although the trimming of F&B-related services includes fruit juice and soya milk stalls, and coffee shops, it was oddly far quieter at Boost Juice, Mr Bean, and even Starbucks.

Last tea 4Although this is the third Koi within a roughly two-kilometre radius, the queue was as long as the other nearby outletsLast tea 5The patient in line at Playmade, even when the hour was close to ten

In a line that would end at a Chicha San Chen (吃茶三千), one young woman in negligee and cut-offs, who looked like she was about to hit the sack but decided instead to get her naicha fix, was heard huffing to someone on the phone, “You can tell me not to eat, but don’t tell me not to have bubble tea!” Not far away, outside Koi, one distraught lass was heard saying to an identical other, “This is not fair. Those old farts don’t drink bubble tea means we cannot drink, meh?” Near the counter, one pubescent chap exclaimed audibly, “Wah lau eh, order 18 cups! Can drink so much, meh? Wait lau sai.” At the rear end of the line outside one Gong Cha shop, we asked a middle-aged lady if she liked bubble tea so much that she was willing to join the youngsters in the daunting line. She replied in Mandarin, somewhat unhappily, “I have just finished work, but my daughter text me and ask me to buy enough to last a week! I am just going to buy one. She’s crazy.” A short walk away, a twentysomething woman was seen getting into a car with three bags full of milk teas, saying to the driver, “Slowly, okay? Cannot spill.”

And bubble tea fans wonder why their favourite naicha shops have to close. (The dismay is even more pronounced when, two days earlier, McDonald’s announced that they’re temporarily suspending all retail operations—now a double whammy for empty-calorie fans.) While not all are cuckoos of the clan, there are sufficient in numbers this evening alone to show that the humble tea with many brews to match coffee is now, with or with milk (primarily hydrogenated palm oil-based creamer), mostly defined by the boba that goes into it and the throng that come with their sale. In the annals of milky-beverage-as-pop-culture, this is clearly one dark night to remember.

Last tea 6A long line is not associated with R&B, but this evening, it was a different storyLast tea 7Local brand Liho is usually queue-free until this history-making evening 

Photos: Team SOTD

 

Teh, See?

It takes a pandemic and a lockdown to show us how mad we are about bubble milk tea

 

20-04-16-21-59-13-310_decoIn front of the wildly popular Chicha San Chen milk tea stall

It’s a week since the (partial) lock down, known here euphemistically as “Circuit Breaker measures”, and yet many people are still out in visibly large numbers to queue and purchase their essentials. What is considered absolutely necessary, of course, needs a redefinition, post COVID-19. A day before all non-essential services and stores were to close (on 7 March), alert retail staff at Takashimaya Shopping Centre spotted and shared on social media photographs of the queue outside Chanel, with one recipient of the notice describing the line as “staggering”. Clearly, Chanel, to quite a few with the means, is essential. Nearer to where the rest of us live, essentials were facial (tissue) masks, at-home hair colour, and for one customer at a Bobbi Brown store, “Eye Opening Mascara”.

Even in the category of food—doubtlessly essential—or groceries, some are more essential that others. What is in your basket may be more essential than what is in ours. Based from what we have seen, essentials appear to be all pasta (even uncommon ones such as bucatini, we’re sure) and bottled sauce to go with them, ice cream (Magnum!), Yakult, yoghurt, prawn crackers (especially Calbee’s—without fancy flavours such as Grilled Squid Seaweed). Outside supermarkets, now the place to shop, essentials are, of course, milk teas, specifically bubble (or boba) milk teas (珍珠奶茶), rather than teh C peng. And one of them stood out for their persistent long lines and a warning from the authorities: Chicha San Chen (吃茶三千). A lockdown can indeed reveal deep devotions.

20-04-15-23-44-29-035_decoSame Chicha San Chen stall, a day after social distancing was mandatory from 27 March

SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang was at the basement of Tampines One to visit Cold Storage when she saw what she thought was “the response to a shop giving something away for free”. She recalled, “I was shocked. What was going on? Officially, social distancing had just started, but I was certain this looked like people queuing to get the latest iPhone. But it turned out they were in line to buy Chicha San Chen. I had to ask to be excused before they would let me through.” This outlet (and another at Jem) was later issued with an “advisory letter” for non-compliance with social distancing measures. Some observers feel that those in line should be served the same missive. In one case, a mere letter wasn’t apparently enough—another Taiwanese chain Playmade was fined S$1,000 for “failing to enforce the safe distancing measures properly, despite repeated warnings”. Even that and the risk of punishment meted out to customers as well would not dent the incomprehensible popularity of bubble milk tea.

The thing about bubble milk tea is that it is not the least novel, compared to one particular coronavirus now causing worldwide distress and global economies to plunge. Taiwan-born milk tea with the tapioca ‘pearls’, as we know it, first appeared on our shores in 1992. However, it was not until 2001 when we started seeing people in substantial numbers drinking them to constitute a trend. But its eventual popularity was short-lived. By 2003, bubble milk tea became a mere memory, prompting food trend chasers to call it “the first phase” of the fashion that drinking milky tea with tapioca pearls became. Although old-timers such as Each-A-Cup preserved, it would take “big” Taiwanese brands to capture the taste of a new gen of tea drinkers and the memory of those who still pined for their zhenzhu naicha.

Teh 6Always get your priorities right: Bubble milk tea before groceryTeh 4Despite the enhanced social distancing measures, some still can’t resist enjoying bubble milk tea in public, while seated at closed food shops

In 2007, bubble milk tea returned slowly and modestly, with Koi, being one of the earliest entrants of the second phase, followed by Gong Cha two years later. These two brands would dominate the business until other players started appearing in the last two years, including The Alley and Xing Fu Tang, culminating in the most upmarket-looking Chicha San Chen. It’s hard to account for Chicha San Chen’s astonishing popularity, evidenced by the inevitable long lines in front of their stores. Even The Alley is no longer seeing such queues (in Bangkok, where it started ahead of Singapore, snaking lines were no longer seen last year). Some say they love the presentation (unnecessarily fancy and a waste of packaging material, if you ask us), while others love the taste of their teas, but all Taiwanese milk teas tend to be thin, and pale—in terms of taste and colour—to those of other origins, such as Hong Kong’s laicha, Thailand’s cha nom yen, or even our own trusty standbys teh tarik and teh C peng.

Bubble tea shops are practically everywhere now, with some HDB town centres dotted with as many as a dozen outlets in amazing close proximity. Could this explain why they are so essential? Have bubble milk tea shops become the heartbeat of heartland refreshment, so much so that people gravitate towards them when craving strikes and social distancing becomes unimportant? The lines at some of the bubble milk tea shops makes the queue at McDonald’s look like a caterpillar, rather than the proverbial snake. On the last day of school last week, kids in uniform were crammed into small bubble milk tea shops that there were in clear contradiction of what the authorities have said—that the youngsters are well taught in school about safe social distancing. Among many of the young, working adults included, going out for bubble tea is a good enough excuse for friends to meet, lovers to date, and bored kids to have some me time away from their parents. Although we are not quite a nation of tea drinkers like the British or mainland Chinese, it is possible that bubble milk tea, at least, has become entrenched in our way of life.

Teh 5View from the top at TWG Tea Garden at Marina Bay Sands before Circuit Breaker days. File photo: Zhao Xiangji

Tea is appealing not only as an affordable, multifarious beverage, but as a status-affirming brew too, drawing those with a penchant for the finer things to settings of considerable fineness. In mid-March, when social distancing was just becoming a buzzword, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands was ghostly quiet, except for a murmur emerging somewhere from the lowest floor. If you followed the sound, you would have come to an atrium. At the bottom, in a semi-circular spread, was a busy TWG Tea Garden, giving you an idea what tea with the suffix ‘-porn’ might look like. It was the only place with people. In fact, this was not unlike bubble milk tea establishments of the late ’90s, only less posh: sit-down affairs, and known—those old enough would surely remember—as bubble tea huts. These days, bubble teas are mainly for taking away, which may explain why their business have not suffered tragically in these Circuit Breaker days.

The queue alone (sometimes blocked by the waiting food delivery guys) is enough for anyone to guess that, when the normalcy of life returns, most of these businesses would not need economic aid. Conversely, coffee sellers are in visibly dire straits. According to one Starbucks staffer at an always packed branch, their biz has dropped by “70 percent”, which makes coffee the less appreciated beverage during a health crisis. Could it be because cappuccino and co are best enjoyed in a café, in the presence of company? Bubble tea’s mainly take-away model has served the business well, to the point that long queues during a lockdown isn’t deterring thirsty customers. Such a lure the likes of Chicha San Chen is that when the authorities announced recently that some essential services would be removed in the middle of the Circuit Breaker restrictions, social media was buzzing with the fear that bubble milk tea shops would be one of them. A chance to fix the addiction then? Allow us one leap of imagination.

Update (21 April 2020, 8.30pm): News have been trickling in, announcing that bubble tea shops will no longer be considered essential and will have to cease operations from a minute to midnight

Photos: (except indicated) Mao Shan Wang

Fashion In The Time Of Coronavirus

Now, we’re really all dressed up, with nowhere to go. And all the dresses out there, with so few to buy

 

20-03-13-17-38-23-503_decoWith the nearby casino traffic affected, the usually busy-even-in-the-weekday Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands is eerily quiet on a Friday afternoon

By Mao Shan Wang

The activation of DORSON Orange on the 7th of February, more than a month ago, have put a damper (limited?) on many people’s social life, as well as on the fashion retail front. But despite the gloomy news all around, what’s arrived at stores still need to be communicated and made known to those whose job or inclination is to share such information. I continue to receive communiqué from various brands or attendant PR agencies. While this is positive indication that work is uninterrupted (and a good thing), how some communicate, even behind the security of a PC monitor, makes me wonder if the COVID-19 pandemic is really affecting us in a way that should have tempered our salutary vigour.

“Hope you are doing amazing!” came the opening sentence of one e-mail I received recently, with the tall, unmissable exclamation, to be clear, the sender’s. Amazing is when people, despite the potential peril of the present, go about their lives bravely and quietly, without succumbing to panic and without inflicting inconvenience or threat, or harm onto others. Watching the news and learning about the lock down of, not an entire city or an entire province, but a whole country, or worrying that even just going to work may mean coming home with an unwelcome guest that would be detrimental to the health of my aged parents, is not. I am, regretfully, far from “doing amazing”.

If we’re discouraged to shake hands, even air-kiss, it is odd that we’re digitally communicating as if we’re giving the equivalent of a BFF hug. The plasticky exchanges and suspect chumminess the fashion industry has a weakness for seem unable to be toned down in their enthusiasm, even during sombre, health-challenging times. But there are extremes, too. I have been receiving e-mails that open without the sender asking how I am. They go straight to the crux of the message or missive. Better curt than affected? Only one in the entire month of February came with the welcome “I hope this email finds you well”.

20-03-13-18-52-49-507_decoThe Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands as quiet as a church on non-service days

Is it daft to broach the subject of fashion when the world has more dire concerns, when headlines are as grim as FT’s “Fashion designers hit by coronavirus outbreak”, when Nike (among others, in fact) will “temporarily close” their stores in the US, Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand? It is undoubtedly not the best of times to ponder what we will wear this weekend or buy. The thing is, would we be doing anything when the weekend comes? Is it not better to ensconce ourselves at home, even when our city is not in a state of lock down or when we have not chosen a hermetic life? Or is social distancing too distant a concept to adopt when somewhere out there, there are those having fun, drinking with buddies, singing with karaoke junkies, and discarding used masks—when they do wear one—on public grounds, on the way home?

Social media has been showing me that it’s frighteningly quiet in the malls, even when there is no call for stores to close. Friends in retail, too, have painted the same picture, sometimes even more bleakly. To see that for myself and to view racks full of untouched clothes, I thought an expedition to a mall or two might be the thing to embark on this uneventful Friday afternoon. Working the legs has always been more enjoyable to me than activating the fingers. In any case, if crowds—or lines—are not to be encountered, I thought, perhaps it would be a good time to experience browsing without the intrusive fervour of the compulsive fashion shopper.

20-03-13-19-34-01-647_decoTwo floors of Gucci without a single shopper inside

Yet, the appeal of going out is, for me, diminished to the point that thinking about it does not impel me to want to go further than the nearest Starbucks, which, for reasons even the staff is unable to elucidate, is always full. To see for myself the near-vacant malls, perhaps just once, may open my eyes to something I had not witness before. During the SARS outbreak of 2003, also the year we were introduced to Fusionpolis, NEWater, and SingPass, retail was hit like a tsunami. Many malls, I now remember—especially those in Orchard Road—were quieter than a church on non-mass days. It didn’t help, too, that two months earlier GST was raised from 3% to 4%, which may have additionally dampened the mood to spend. Somehow, the visible quiet made me feel safe—foolishly, now that I think back. It was social distancing at work, but, at that time, we didn’t know it as that.

This afternoon, around five, I took the train (that itself deserves its own story for another day) to The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands—usually a place with a healthy traffic, even on a weekday. I should state that prior to my MRT train ride to MBS, I did not have any respiratory symptom that would suggest I could be case number _ _ _ nor did I leave this island in the past two weeks. From the Bayfront station turnstiles, thermal scanning machine behind the cordoned-off entrance of the mall can be clearly seen. What you see is not dissimilar from now-controlled entry points of hospitals. However, no declaration form needs to be filled; visitors just walk in. A table is placed behind the stanchions, and is manned by a sole security personnel. There is nothing on the table. Not a single dispenser of hand-sanitiser is available, nor, in fact, anywhere in the complex that houses a reported 93,000 m2 of retail space. Perhaps the expected low foot-fall doesn’t require the precaution, or additional expense.

20-03-14-17-17-05-568_decoDeathly quiet across all floors of the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands

What has been said about malls is true here. There is traffic, but it is barely discernible; people are possibly going to or getting off work. The quiet surrounding would normally be conducive to shopping, but this time, it’s unnerving. It is the deathly stillness, the proverbial ghost town. I can’t make out if music is piped into the stores or the mall itself. Perhaps it’s how audible the unnatural tranquility is that mood music fails at its job. At the information counter, I stop to ask about the show times of Spectra, the promenade “light and water show” that is a visitor draw, thinking I might be able to have the entire display to myself, but I was told the show is “cancelled temporarily for safety reasons”. Is the traffic really bad, I ask. “Yes,” says the ebullient counter staff, “It’s been really quiet since February.” I pursue: Is it really this—pointing to what’s before us— bad? “Bad,” she repeats after me emphatically, “Really bad.”

It doesn’t take long to see money hasn’t been spent. My first stop was Gucci. Three masked salespersons, initially talking among themselves, chorus a “hello” as I appear, but have not stepped into the store. When I do, two of them trail me. Feeling watched and sized up, I leave as quickly as I entered. Next, Dior, where the equally empty store has the welcome air of a detention centre, the staff is indifferent to my presence. At Louis Vuitton, where there is no queue or a door person with an iPad, the store is not vacant, but the few customers browsing are like a live demo of what keeping a 2-metre distance with others is like (actually the separation is wider here. I am nearer to mannequins than people). At zero-customer Prada, a helpful staff offers to show me what has recently arrived as I strain to hear him speak behind a surgical mask. When I leave, the guy thanks me and his colleague follows with, “please come again.”

That sounds more like an urging than a farewell. What’s noticeable is how cheerless sales staff have generally become. It does not help that the mask in that unfriendly green that they wear can’t reveal a semblance of a smile. Eyes, not trained to communicate, are blank stares. At Saint Laurent, a pair of peepers look at me as if to say, “What are you doing here when no one is? Just as in-store sales have plummeted, so has geniality. Is being glum a national malaise or natural result of a global pandemic?

20-03-16-10-53-46-061_decoThe strange and uneasy hush at Dior

From outside Louis Vuitton, I can hear a buzz coming from below me, as if people are in some kind of group activity that encourages glee. That would be a contrast to the stillness up here. I stand behind the glass balustrade—not touching—and look down into the atrium. The outside dining area of TWG Tea Salon comes into view. It is busy—no different from TWGs in other malls. I see that all, but one table are occupied. No obvious distancing here: tables are spaced apart in what to me is the usual proximity, which is really almost edge to edge. The interaction between service staff and customers are intimate, so is that between the tea drinkers. A couple is sharing a cake; the woman feeding the man.

It is usually easy to spot the trendy at The Shoppes at MBS. Young Chinese tourists are particularly noticeable, in their logo-laden garb, hopping from store to store, in their designer sneaker-aided gait. The first time I saw someone in a pair of Balenciaga Triple S, it was here—the wearer, I later learn is an Indonesian, who is also a big spender at Dior. This afternoon (by now, early evening), trendy and trending looks are as visible as a certain contagion. Have the clothes and bags and shoes been left on the racks and shelves—now full and seemingly untouched, as I am presently witnessing, with a disconcerting measure of disbelief? Two Indonesians emerging from the casino interrupt my thoughts. One of them is audible in his surprise (or disappointment, I can’t say for certain): “Di dalam sunyi sekali (It’s so quiet inside)!”

20-03-16-17-50-28-461_deco20-03-16-17-53-27-232_decoAll quiet on the LVMH front

I am off to ION Orchard, a mall many consider to be the belly button of Orchard Road retail. It’s all very welcoming here: no thermal scanners and no hand sanitisers, and no buzz-free foreboding. Visitors are received with wide-open entryways, and traffic appears healthy—at least outside the MRT station on B2 (the entrance to Wisma Atria on the other side is just as bustling). Once on the first floor, the murmur of foot traffic and attendant chatter is barely discernible. I thought I might see some browsers here, if not spenders, but the shopper-lite stores tell me stock rooms are probably a little too full now. Of the few who are walking past store fronts, I see none with a shopping bag. Money, I guess, isn’t spent here too.

The first sight before me is the Gucci Psychedelic pop-up in the atrium, showcasing their new take on the double-G logo. The merchandise is totally devoid of human company, except a clearly bored sales staff, who explains haltingly that the colourful monogram is inspired by “’60s disco” (“I see” is my amused reply). I take a peak at Burberry: inside, as still as a library—when it’s closed. Walking in might mean the spotlight is on me, another with no desire to buy. That, even from the window, is the case with me when it comes to this British brand. I then walk into sleepy Bottega Veneta. The numerous Pouches, reposed, stare at me like morning-after pillows.

20-03-16-17-51-55-823_decoTotally un-visited Burberry

Over at Louis Vuitton, there is no line, nor any queue-enforcement barrier. I stand at the entrance, but the one attendant (or security personnel?) pays no attention to my occupying the hallowed space. He does not ask if I am here to see someone; he does not whip out an iPad to ask me to show him what it is I wish to buy; he does not ask me to join a queue. I walk in and then I walk out. I am not sure if they allow anyone without a purchase in mind to enter the gleaming space. Next door at Dior, the reception is a little warmer. A girl with an accent I better not place tries to impress me with what has “just arrived”. And shows me the Oblique sneakers when she caught me spying them. “Our best sellers,” she tells me. You have stock? “Oh, yes! What size you want?”

I have never been a sole shopper in a store in my entire adult shopping life. This must be what it feels like when the sultan of Brunei—or any member of his family—requires undivided attention during the time spent within brick and mortar confines to buy something, anything. Nor have I ever seen racks so packed with clothing—an optic, if I am not wrong, discouraged in luxury retail—that the three-finger-width spacing between hangers (a typical visual merchandising requirement) not only do not apply, they cannot apply. The clothes are so tightly packed in some stores that they make me feel sorry for the rack or rail that has to bear the irregular, possibly illegal, weight. Perhaps more unsettling is not being able to really see the full countenance (or, conversely, the scowl) of the person(s) serving me as surgical masks become de rigueur. Might this be the prelude to the end of service with a smile?

20-03-18-00-31-31-945_decoThe lure-none Gucci pop-up in the atrium of  ION Orchard

Not only is there a drop in the number of shoppers, there’s a dearth in the presence of the fashionably togged. I need to remind myself that when there are fewer and fewer social events, there is less compulsion to go full-fashion. An acquaintance who attends parties that lure socialites in large numbers revealed to me that there are hardly any of those these days, not even luncheons. Someone said to me that a journalist she knows told her that media invites to launches and such have virtually dried up. One sales manager lamented to me that since she’s not seeing clients anymore (they prefer not to meet her, she believes), there is no motivation to dressed her best just to go into a gloomy office.

Increasingly, the call in many countries is for citizens to stay at home. And some have to not by choice. The editor-in-chief of 品 (Pin) magazine Grace Lee Jiajing was issued a 14-day stay-home notice (not quarantine, she made known the difference) upon her return from Milan and Paris following the respective fashion weeks. She relates her work-from-home experience via blog posts on the digital issue of 品. She had initially thought that this arrangement might free her from the morning ritual of “how to dress in a way that won’t be considered to be of no pin (taste)”. But soon, she found herself “wearing Comme des Garçons at home to work”. Whether that was a result of boredom or a moment of vanity, she did not say, except that “even when no one sees her, she has to be fashionable and live interestingly.” 👍🏼 and 赞. To quote Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, to which I owe the title of this post, “The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not.”

Photos: Galerie Gombak

Burgers Are Big

Are you buyin’ it?

 

Junya Watanabe burger teeJunya Watanabe Man T-shirt featuring a Diego’s Burgers, at DSMS. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

By Gambier Tan

I have never really been a meat guy. Sure, I do have a weakness for bak kut teh and bak kwa, but not to the point where, if I were to open a restaurant, I would name it The Meathouse. I am also not a burger guy, a lot less so after watching the 2004 Academy Awards-nominated documentary Super Size Me in which director Morgan Spurlock subjected himself willingly to a full month of subsistence on nothing but what’s in the extensive menu of McDonald’s. I enjoy food too much, anyone who knows me will tell you, to put myself through such punishing restrictions.

Which means you may understand my grappling to grasp the current fascination with burgers as motifs to gussy up clothing or items to grace a pad. Of course there’s nothing wrong with announcing to the world a love for food that allows you to be gastronomically inclusive by accumulating fat in the liver. Well-piled burgers, now redeemed by the prefix wagyu, with their layered goodness are so much sexier than a bunch of celery. Its all rather reality-discombobulating to me—I feel like I am waking up to a Michael Chiang play-turn-TV-series in which the real mixed signal is the protagonist, still from Batu Pahat, persisting to cook fried rice when she’s really better at kong bak pao.

One burger-themed T-shirt that caught my eye recently was a crew neck by Junya Watanabe (above). On the chest was a happy, personified burger that looked like an illustration one would find among the many offerings in Bugis Street that are stacked to appeal to souvenir hunters on a budget (and understandably so—if you’re travelling on the world’s most expensive city). But what’s Diego’s Burger or who’s Diego? Since, for expensive burgers, I know only of Shake Shack and the soon-to-be-here Five Guys, I decided to feed my curiosity by allowing Google to cough up what it knows about a chap who is not Dora the Explorer’s eight-year-old cousin. As it turns out, Diego is fake. Or, Diego in Buenos Aires is fake. There is a burger man Diego in Rotterdam, Netherlands, which Google also served up, is 11,384 km away from Argentina.

Madstore burger lamp.jpgMadstore burger lamp produced by Medicom Toys. Photo: Undercover/Madstore

Closer home and less to do with wearables is the Hamburger Lamp at Undercover’s Madstore. Conceived together with Medicom Toys of BE@RBRICKS fame, the table illuminator first appeared in 2002 and revived in 2015 (and again last fall), with rarity characterising every release. And those fangs too. So in demand was the lamp when it was made available here last week that Club 21 (the retailer behind Madstore’s much awaited entrance here) restricted the purchase of a total of 25 pieces to 25 individuals by stipulating that “a minimum spend of $300 will guarantee each customer the opportunity to purchase only 1 lamp”. Quite a condition for a model that is not nearly “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun”.

When it comes to hamburgers, the most recognisable name on earth, despite its celebrated standing with dietitians, is McDonald’s. Here, even after forty years of selling Big Macs without any decline in popularity, McDonald’s saw that it needed to be in the fashion game as well. On the 3rd of last month, the home of the discontinued Quarter Pounder (since December 2017) made an announcement on Instagram that they’ll be taking the wraps off “a new collection that’ll make nights in even better”. What could that be, I wondered at that time, other than new chicken burgers for supper?

It was soon revealed that McD was to release “loungewear sets” for both men and women with orders of, interestingly not burgers, but McNuggets and McWings that are dubbed McDelivery Night in Bundle. As unsexy as that sounded, the response was overwhelming, with one IG commentator posting on McD’s page, “better than Gucci”! He clearly knows his fashion. Or perhaps the bundle is sexy, because the disappointment with not being able to score those lounge sets was so palpable that McD placated the unsuccessful with a second release. If that sounds like limited sneaker drops, I’d say you know your stuff.

McD pajama topMcDonald’s pajama top, part of the fast food giant’s ‘Loungewear Bundle’

McDonald’s didn’t even have to try too hard. The tops were in a micro-print of hamburgers and packs of French fries. This was accompanied by shorts in the yellow that is the Golden Arches, which on the shorts was so saffron, they could have been worn as part of a PT kit in a monastery. I have always wondered why McD won’t resurrect the Hamburglar, that potentially creepy McDonaldland urchin whose burger-pilfering ways were always foiled by pal Ronald. Or any of his pals such as Grimace and Birdie. Hamburglar could work on T-shirts, just as Pillsbury Dough Boy still does.

But the burger—when did it debut in fashion? I don’t know, to be honest. If you really looked, food and fashion are, of course, intertwined. What’s good on the lips, as it usually turns out, is nice on the hips (or the feet, if you go by a certain pair of H&M socks). From the time Josephine Baker wore a skirt of 16 rubber bananas (during a 1926 performance of La Revue Nègre) to 1937, when Elsa Schiapparelli worked with images of the lobster (painted by Salvador Dalí, who, according to rumours at the time, wanted to spread real mayonnaise on the crustacean!) to the MTV Music Awards of 2010 when Lady Gaga donned a dress of real and very raw beef (which was later preserved as jerky and displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!), and everything between and after, anything that can be eaten can also be worn.

What will they think of next—a bubble tea skirt?

A Daring Gamble

Singapore’s pride Love, Bonito has opened in Hong Kong. As one of their mantras goes, they discovered the city, embraced it, and have been themselves. Can they seduce the Fragrant Harbour’s fashion folks?

 

LB HK 1

Love, Bonito is going brick-and-mortar in a big way.

Last month, they opened a 2,772-square-feet store with a two-storey-high frontage in Hong Kong, not in some sprawling suburban mall, which the city has many, but in a swanky tower, boasting a store-front that faces the main thoroughfare, Queen’s Road Central. It’s less than 500 metres from The Landmark, the city’s thirty-six-year-old home to the world’s biggest luxury brands, as well as the flagship of Joyce, Club 21’s closest competitor, and is almost at the foot of Lan Kwai Fong, Central’s shopping, entertainment and dining hub, and a mere hop away from the Soho-Mid-Levels Escalator.

Located in the newly-built H Queen’s, a somewhat predictable glass-and-steel skyscraper that is marketed as a “vertical art space” in a district with surprisingly few art galleries except those in the nearby Pedder Building, Love, Bonito contrasts with the address’s upmarket and art-leaning positioning. The fashion label has a somewhat equal neighbour to its right, though—the Korean-owned remake of the 114-year-old Major League Baseball (known simply as MLB) sportswear line. But just five floors up is anchor tenant David Zwirner, the New York-based contemporary art gallery that reps Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kasuma, and the Miffy-loving, Beijing artist Liu Ye (刘野). There are seven more large-scale galleries above, which perhaps explains why Financial Times happily called H Queen’s “the gallery space Hong Kong was waiting for”.

But was Hong Kong waiting for Love, Bonito? The once digital-native market player has been available globally for as long as they have been (curiously) popular on our island. It isn’t certain if Hong Kong women are the rabid fans of the label the way Singaporean girls are. Gushing influencers with their exuberant pre-opening posts are not an accurate barometer. On the morning its Queen’s Road Central store welcomed their first customers, there was a queue, but not the unceasing snaking line seen at the opening of its first free-standing shop in 313@Somerset. Shoppers may have simply come for the 100 free HKD388 (approximately S$68) gift cards handed out to early birds, who found the amount more than enough to have at least one item without charge, since prices start from HKD220.

When we passed the store a week after the opening, we heard a twentysomething shopper telling her friend, as both women came out—empty-handed, “依個新加坡牌子唔係好特別啊 (this Singaporean label isn’t very special)”. To which the reply was, “而家依啲款周街都係啦 (these day, such styles are everywhere on the streets)”. A little later, a Singaporean merchandiser working in Hong Kong told us, “It’s very audacious of them to think that Hongkongers, who, more than Singaporeans, are fashion-savvy, would buy into their aesthetics and quality”.

LB HK 2

Since establishing their first permanent store in 313@Orchard in 2017, Love, Bonito has been on an opening frenzy. They are now three-store strong in Singapore. With five doors in Malaysia, seven in Indonesia, and two in Cambodia, Love, Bonito is our most successful and well-expanded clothing label to date. This rapid overseas development has been possible as the brand managed to raise an impressive USD13 million last year, led by Tokyo Stock Exchange-listed Japanese comparison shopping website, Kakaku, as well as support from current investor NSI Ventures, the Singaporean venture capitalist firm with money in the Indonesian ride-sharing (and other businesses) conglomerate, Go-Jek.

While co-founder Rachel Lim has told the media that what they’re doing is “not a price game”, neither is Love, Bonito a design game. You’d think that, in venturing overseas, Love, Bonto could have done our city-state prouder by boosting the make of their garments and project an image that may allow “a little brand from Singapore” to be worthy of a place alongside Hong Kong labels such as Initial, all the house brands under the IT Group, or, if we’re really unconcerned with the “price game”, even many of the unheard of names in the narrow shopping mall, Island Beverly in Causeway Bay. But as one fashion editor told us, “Let’s be clear what is clothing business and what is fashion design”.

To be sure, the HK store has a fairly well-decorated and a definitely eye-catching window (maybe it’s the impressive height). Yet despite the influencer raves, once you past the front door, the familiar visual merchandising, crammed racks of the unexceptional and formulaic, and many unpressed clothes, all in a patina of pink, quickly tell you you’re on familiar girly ground. Perhaps they’re preserving visual and experiential consistency—even in Central, one of the most fashionable and upmarket commercial districts in Hong Kong, a Love, Bonito store should not look different from one in Jurong East.

Love, Bonito HK started its retail operations in the middle of the (on-going, mostly weekend) demonstrations (which saw the first on 16 June with a turnout of a reported “nearly 2 million” protesters) against what initially was the government’s (eventually-withdrawn) extradition bill. That Saturday morning was the sixth weekend of discontent for the city, but Love, Bonito opened its doors to a Central that was as busy—and peaceful—as it is on a typical Saturday before noon. No shopper nor Rachel Lim, who cheerfully posed on the street in front of the store for a photograph later, could have guessed that HK would eventually descend into a mess that culminated in the closure of the Hong Kong International Airport on 12 August. Was it an inauspicious start for the brand?

Perhaps not. To be noted is the fact that Love, Bonito on 80, Queen’s Road Central is, in fact, a four-month “pop-up”. The Hong Kong protests may be protracted, but Love, Bonito’s physical store will not be there that long.

Photos: 黃小銘

Why Can’t Western Brands Get Asia Right?

Versace, Coach, Givenchy, and Swarovski recently had to apologise for their missteps in Asia, joining an already shamed Dolce & Gabbana in a growing list of brands with a deplorable sense of cultural—and geographical—awareness

 

Versace T-shirt 2019The Versace T-shirt that riled mainland Chinese Netizens. Photo: Weibo

By Raiment Young

Many years ago, at a media event that I attended in Monte Carlo, I came face to face with the now-out-of-favour, former Vogue editor-at-large, companion to Diana Vreeland in her final years, André Leon Talley. Mr Talley was not a caftan-wearing man at the time, as he became, up till the 2017 release of The World According to André. Still, he was imposing in a dark suit, speaking in that loud, clear, and urgent voice of his, sounding exactly the way he sounded, years later, while observing—and commenting on—the stars at the Academy Awards for a TV audience. When I came before him that night on my way to the patio of the palatial grounds on which the soiree took place to enjoy the cooler outdoors, he looked down at me, smiled, and gleefully offered, “konbanwa”. I returned the greeting by saying, “Good evening, Mr Talley”.

If this was the present, and it happened not to me, but someone else—say, a ‘woke’ person, now one to be, offence could have been immediately taken. A scolding might have ensued or an online rebuke quickly posted. But this was then. I was used to Caucasians mistaking me for every nationality or race in this part of the world except Laotian. Or, Dayak. The Japanese, powerful consumers like the Chinese are today, were frequently travelling to Europe. I understood that it was easy to mistake me for someone from, say, Tokyo or Toyota since it was likely that the Asians many Europeans and Americans encountered then were nihonjins, just as many today are zhongguoren.

In my early travels to the US, Americans would frequently ask, upon learning that I am from Singapore, “are you from China?” So often was this question posed that it soon dawned on me that this was going to be a tiring cliché for as long as I was in a place where not that many people owned a passport. It was said to me then that most Americans, whether in the heartlands or hub cities, consider Asia as one homogeneous place. How they came to that conclusion I had no clue. Few knew Samarkan from Samarinda. If they heard of Singapore, even if in their mind we weren’t a sovereign state, we were lucky.

There are Chinese in Singapore, which is not in China?

 

“There are Chinese in Singapore, which is not in China?” Sometimes, I became lazy and just said, smilingly, “Yes, I am from China, 你这个笨蛋 (you fool) or bodoh (stupid)”, depending on my mood. This was, of course, way before Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un here last year and, as a consequence, shone a brighter spotlight on our island. (Interestingly, even then, the US State Department was mistaken: they made Singapore part of Malaysia.) This was also way before people heard of such expressions as cultural racism or racial profiling. But I think, back then, we were a lot less sensitive to the cluelessness (carelessness?) of others and we did not, even after repeated encounters, take the insensitivity seriously or personally; we were not easily riled up; we were less emotionally fragile, and we were more forgiving. And we had better things to do, such as see the country that we had come to see.

You’d imagine things would have changed now that the Internet is connecting the world. And Google has answers, frequently than not. But, more than a decade after my encounter with Mr Talley under a midnight-blue sky in Monte Carlo, there are Westerners and, indeed, Western brands that still can’t get Asia right. They can’t see the vastness of the continent and, hence, its plurality. Now that even once-less-visited countries such as Vietnam is on the verge of over-tourism, it is surprising and, frankly annoying, that there are those Westerners who think Hong Kong is a country. Does the city’s contingent at the Olympic Games mislead those outside Asia to think that the SAR is a sovereign state not connected to the mainland?

The recent case of Versace and Coach producing similar T-shirts with near identical blunders bolster the believe that Western brands are still not looking at Asia closely and carefully enough. There are those who think that no matter what they produce, however tone deaf or fact blind, we Asians will snap them up as if they’re another cup of boba milk tea. But I do wonder: is it mere oversight to not know China’s hard-lined stance on its sovereignty and territorial rights? A provocation to garner maximum online reaction and, hence, to project newsy appeal? Or, is it sheer, inexcusable ignorance?

Coach tee 2019.jpgThe Coach T-shirt that, too, angered mainland Chinese Netizens. Photo: Weibo

I had thought that the Dolce & Gabbana faux pas less than a year ago was bad enough—so bad, in fact, that other brands would start to become mindful of what they will say, communicate, or project. But one brand’s mistake is not necessarily another’s learning curve or awakening. While many brand owners acknowledge that Asia is an important market, if not the most important (China alone accounts for a third of the world’s luxury sales), they would not tread cautiously. Or, preemptively. Popularity, as movie/pop stars could tell you, may inure you to apathy, but that’s never good enough a reason to believe you won’t traipse a cultural minefield.

It appears that just because a brand has found favour among a sizeable number of spending consumers in Asia, it can step away from cultural, territorial, or political sensitivity. It is ironic that while brands are hiring ‘diversity chiefs’ to make sure they don’t exclude the non-Caucasian in product development and communication, none thought to appoint someone with the knowledge or interest in knowing that, for example, Taiwan is not, and likely never will be, a country.

It has become more apparent to many that admirable creativity in the atelier does not necessarily commensurate with awareness in marketing. It is often said that brands should decentralise their marketing, but few do. Away from Asia, some of the brands have become  intellectually lazy and incurious. And willing to only state the obvious to underscore the brand’s global reach. In the case of the above T-shirts, I think it is superfluous to juxtapose—in the show-off list—the city in which the brand is available with the corresponding country to which the former belongs. It is strange that any marketeer would imagine that those who buy Versace or Coach need to be informed that Paris is in France. How many people would equate the City of Light with Lamar County, Texas?

No More Cowboy Shirts

The first outfit of the first Calvin Klein collection that Raf Simons showed back in February last year. Photo: Yannis Vlamos/indigital.tv

It has been the talk of the fashion world for two weeks now. And it is finally confirmed. Raf Simons is leaving Calvin Klein, according to just-out reports by BOF and WWD. This is barely two years after his appointment in August in 2016, and reportedly eight months ahead of the end of his contract. We suppose if you were publicly noted by your boss for not bringing the results that he had hoped for, it is time to go.

Early this month, in an earnings report, CEO Emanuel Chirico of PVH Corp (the parent company of Calvin Klein that also owns Tommy Hilfiger) told the media how disappointed he was with the third-quarter earnings of the brand, especially the ROI in Calvin Klein 205W39NYC, the re-branded main line, which the company calls their “halo business”. In addition, Mr Chirico said that “some of Calvin Klein Jeans’ relaunched product was too elevated and did not sell too well.”

Not only were the styles elevated for Calvin Klein Jeans, the prices were elevated too. Is designer jeans still a category that has so much pull that Calvin Klein is still trying to maintain a lead? It isn’t clear if shoppers are willing to pay more than S$300 for what, to most of us, is a basic garment that we already own in numbers that are more than two. It does not require big data to know that people are now buying expensive hoodies rather than expensive jeans. With dismal sales, Mr Chirico was said to have described the new denim line as a “fashion miss”.

The signature shirt is also available for men. Photo: Mr Porter

But the problem it seems is the rather lukewarm response to Calvin Klein 205W39NYC at retail level. Sure, the fashion editors and fashion-correct influencers mostly love it, but from the first collection, we feel Mr Simons did not create anything as special as he did with his two earlier tenures: at Jil Sander and at Dior. We once heard a woman tell her boyfriend in DSMS that Calvin Klein 205W39NYC “doesn’t look expensive enough.”

The clothes shown on the runway may be eye-catching, but upfront, when they seen are on the racks, they are quite different. For all the minimalism they project, much of the lauded pieces feel heavy and thick to the touch, even in the summer season—more work wear than luxury threads. A common complain is the weight of the fabrics used in the frequently-featured western shirt (Melania Trump was an early adopter). It is in a cotton twill that is heavy enough for trousers.

Melania Trump in CKMelania Trump was one of the earliest public figures to wear the Calvin Klein 205W39NYC western shirt. Photo: Getty Images

The heavy fabric use has even filtered down to the cheaper CK Calvin Klein and Calvin Klein Jeans lines. The cotton poplin versions, too, weren’t breezy-light enough. It is a puzzling product development move and, as noted by some merchandisers, ignorant of the needs of much of Asia that constantly bake under equatorial heat. To be fair, the design team has translated the western shirt into some rather uncommon clothes for the other collections, such as polos and even puffer jackets.

Perhaps, most unnecessary is the relentless beating of the Americana drum. It isn’t certain if Americans are marching to the beat, but we suspect it may have increasingly become a difficult sell. Mr Simons seemed to get his kicks on Route 66, assuming the rest of the world is still enamored with American culture. He paid tribute not only to cowboys, but firemen too, and much in between, including the unlikely cartoonish sea terror Jaws. It is hard to believe that Americans will pay top dollar to cop these items that are already available, from mall stores to gift shops. That, to us, seem like peddling the Mandarin collar or tassel-earring to the Chinese.

We wonder if for European designers, Hedi Slimane included, America is exotic, which may explain why Mr Simons played with Yankee “icons” the way he did. We can imagine the twinkle in his eyes when he arrived in New York in 2016 to take up the post at Calvin Klein. Only thing is, this was no longer the America that he remembered and fantasized about. It was a wall-seeking/building America. And Andy Warhol, prophetic and unique, was, by then, dead.

Official: The Dad Look Is The Look Of 2018

Not your boyfriend’s jeans, but your dad’s jacket that made the cut

 

Zara Check Blazer AW 2018.jpg

This dad is no dud. What was initially a term to describe a shoe style that should have existed with regrets, dad has moved to a look for men (thank you, Balenciaga). It has also now inspired women, and aroused mass curiosity, if not outright adoption. According to the Year in Fashion report by the e-commerce site Lyst (also the compiler of The Lyst Index), dad the look is the “unlikely fashion icon of 2018”.

This is amazing considering that boyfriend (from jeans to T-shirts to sweatshirts) didn’t come close, even when it has been, for many years, the go-to aesthetical choice of women who don’t want to dress up. The dad look requires considerably more effort, and not literally what your father used to wear (although his old Zegna, custom-made blazer may help), unlike the boyfriend style which could be anything as long as you look like you had jumped out of bed in your guy’s rags.

The figure is astounding. According to Lyst’s search data, there has been a staggering 439% rise in views of “slouchy cardigans, fleeces, and ‘ugly’ shirts”. And, may we assume, oversized jackets. It isn’t clear if these views equate with women who actually shopped the look, but these days, proof of interest (or ‘likes’) constitutes a trend, which may explain why many brands, from Asos to Zara (above), have variations of dad to tempt.

Perhaps it’s a passing cloud, as with “nomcore”, which could have paved the way for what Vogue called Balenciaga’s men’s wear spring/summer 2018: “dadcore”. However long more the trend will exist, let’s hope that it won’t continue to be what girls will never think of their fathers: ugly.

Photo: Zara