Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
Max Tan wants to “rewrite this whole language of the wrap”. In doing so, he brings us back to a 1950s village, complete with scurrying chickens
Considered one of our city’s most forward designers, Max Tan has always taken the path less travelled. For his latest collection, that jalan brings us to Kampong Lorong Buangkok, a traditional Malay-style village that enjoys the reputation as “the last surviving”, situated in not-so-rural-anymore Yio Chu Kang. The video-show (film this month “in compliance with prevailing Safe Management Measures”, we are told) of his latest collection (season unspecified) debuts online today. Since it’s still the month of August; it seems de rigueur that it would appear like a National Day homage to a lost way of life and a rural relic, destined for the National Archives. This is a part of our island that few have ever seen: the home to a reported 28 families who live in one-storey wooden houses with corrugated zinc roofs, on a plot of land the size of three football fields. Kampong Lorong Buangkok is privately-owned by the Sng family, whose patriarch Sng Teow Koon, a TCM seller, bought the 12,248-square-metre verdant expanse in 1956, the year Nicoll Highway and the Merdeka Bridge were officially opened, 40-odd kilometres away to the south. Although long-term evolution (LTE or 4G) cellular signals can be picked up here, the kampong has retained much of its idyllic air, including almost-clichéd, swaying coconut trees.
To be certain that viewers are not taken elsewhere other than the past that Max Tan looks at (or, as he says, “to tell people where I’m from as a designer”), the show is set to music that harks to the early ’60s (a decade before the 38-year-old was born): P Ramlee’s Getaran Jiwa (Soul Vibrations, aka Yearning Heart), made popular in English by the American singer Lobo in Whispers in the Wind. And Ye Feng’s (叶枫 aka Julie Yeh) 神秘女郎 (shenmi nulang or Mysterious Maiden), a song now often associated with compatriot Cai Qin (蔡琴 or Tsai Chin). Both oldies are sung mournfully by the husky-voiced stage actress Zelda Tatiana Ng. The choice of a Malay lagu and a Chinese ge is perhaps deliberate to better reflect the racial mix of this kampong. In Getaran Jiwa, written by Mr Ramlee, with lyrics by Syed Sudarmaji, we hear of the jiwa of possibly a place: “tak mungkin hilang/irama dan lagu/bagaikan kembang/setiasa bermadu (it will never fade/the melody and song/such as a flower/always in bloom)”. Could this koleksi be Mr Tan’s fashion blossoms, redolent of kampong spirit?
Mr Tan, the second-place awardee at the China Fashion Creation Contest in 2010, who ends the online show with a personal plug of his brand, “decided to rewrite this whole language of the wrap, which is really a humble piece of Southeast Asian garment, which is a sarong.” Rewriting seems to be Mr Tan’s present preoccupation. For his spring/summer 2021 collection (called wanita or woman in Malay), it was about “rustic moods re-written with an urban touch”, as well as “structured tailored qualities stripped back and rewritten (yes, sans hyphen) with a looser hand”, as described on his website. This time, the seemingly bold recast “revolves around drapes, around the body—simple folds and tucks,” Mr Tan tells us. Simplicity is, of course, relative. To his fans, his clothes appeal because they are not that simple. And simplicity doesn’t necessarily equate with minimalism, which is often doing away with the superfluous. Mr Tan does not eliminate the unnecessary. Dress over dress, flaps over shoulders, asymmetric drapes on top of more, sleeves too long, and cords that do not function as a fastener—all composited so that the end results appear to be simple. And so that, as Mr Tan declares with delight, “you’ll see a very, very much softer side to what I’ve usually been doing.” He has, of course, put aside easy-to-form fabrics such as neoprene, and has embraced rather enthusiastically more of the pliable, such as polyester jersey and kindred modals, hence the “softer side”, evident since his graduate collection in 2020.
The problem with simplicity is that in its very freedom from anything perceived to be complex, it may expose one’s weaknesses. A straight line, for example, may not be exactly horizontal or, in the case of Mr Tan’s rewriting of the wrap, a neat line. The sarong, in its most elemental form, is a rectangle, joined at the two ends to form a tubular garment. Mr Tan’s approach to design is based on a similarly planar construction. Almost everything comes from flatness—the fabrics hang down (movement allows the skirt to flare or open up, sometimes to drag on the floor), or stretched across the upper chest, straight. A horizontal neckline of a cream column-dress, for example, held up by spaghetti straps, puckers. The plackets of shirts and shirt-dresses, too, gape and won’t sit flat. If these issues are unmissable on video, it would be regrettable when one see them close-up. Designer fashion, if the term is still relevant or revered, deserves better.
“What I really wanted to show,” Mr Tan cajoles, “and to say with the collection from post-pandemic (sic) is to look back at where I’m from and be inspired by where I grew up from, my experiences as a childhood (sic), who I became—how I became a designer, and all these different elements that really made me who I am.” It is not clear how he is connected to the kampong (or if, indeed, he grew up in one since most kampongs in Singapura made way for urbanisation in the ’80s), but situating the adoption of the sarong in kampongs and in Southeast Asia alone negates the other forms, such as the lungi of the Indian subcontinent (also known as the longyi in Myanmar where it is worn by both men and women) and the izaar of the Arabian Peninsular, just to identify two. But what is rather puzzling is the need to drape some pieces from the collection on clothes lines, the way the kampong folks might, if they were drying the day’s laundry. Was this to augment the kampong theme? Or to exoticise what would otherwise just be a bunch of clothes in what’s, foremost, a residential area?
It would be surprising if the ketua kampong (village head) or “the landlord”, as the sole Ng still residing here is called, find this amusing. Not quite cantik, we imagine the respond to be. The models walk in and around the kampong listlessly (the chicken are in better spirit), as if they were paid just to do that; what they wear offer no latitude for understanding the connection between designs conceived in Mr Tan’s studio in McNair Road (quite the heart of our city) and the presentation in a conserved kampong. This is not a soul vibrating; this is without soul. As it is written in Getaran Jiwa, “andainya dipisah/irama dan lagu/lemah tiada berjiwa/hampa (if they should part/the song and the melody/they grow weak and dispirited/and empty)”. Perhaps the same can be said of design and craft, and, just as importantly, fashion and tradition.
Just after Paris Couture Week, which officially ended on 28th January, as stated by the French Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, a little-known fashion event, hosted on our shore, was similarly live-streamed to the world. The Ist ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week 2021 made its discreet appearance and, frankly, baffling debut. Hosted on the equally puzzling website The Home Ground (THG), a supposed current affairs portal (“platform” is their word of choice) which publishes news that, according to their About Us, “capture the conversations, concerns, and curiosity of Singaporeans through the lens of locals living and breathing their home ground.” It doesn’t seem like a digital stomping ground on which a fashion event of this imagined magnitude would find synergistic force. But it is here that this year’s first digital fashion week on our island was posted, lost in undirected miscellany: a review of Netflix’s Bridgerton, a listing of Singapore Art Week, and a feeble piece “Life Is Too Short for Bad Sex.”—Sexual Contracts Explained.
The ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week is the initiative of the hitherto little-known ASEAN Fashion Designers Showcase, founded by Singaporean designer Hayden Ng (above). Mr Ng, an ardent overseas fashion week participant, formed AFDS in 2015 as a loose “collective whose key mission is to raise awareness of and appreciation for ASEAN’s unique and diverse fashion and design”, according to AFDS’s WordPress page. Keywords in their “vision” statement include “nurture, foster, mentor”. To date, they have 41 “esteem (sic) members” across the region (including China), each country with their own AFDS head (except Myanmar and Vietnam). Members seem to automatically become “ambassadors” of their respective countries upon acceptance although it is unclear what ambassadorial role they play. For SG alone, there are seven: Terry Yeo (The InSane Studio), Esther Choy (ESH), Audrey Tang (One Day We Forayed), Joanna Lim ( Joannalsm), Joanne Quek (together with Joanna Lim, B1nary), Pooja Nanikram (Güven), as well as Mr Ng, who also considers himself as the “Premier Founder”.
AFDS’s first major event since its 2015 inception is the ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week, broadcast over four days (concluded yesterday) with a reported 64 designers from 21 countries, of which 34 are from ASEAN, while the rest are “guest” designers (they can be from anywhere in the world), who, according to Mr Ng, “are not signed up with any of the organisations that the ASEAN Fashion Designers Showcase has partnerships with.” It isn’t clear what the advantages of signing up are other than to come together virtually to do a fashion event. Singaporean organisations seem to enjoy taking regional leadership roles in fashion. Mr Ng’s is certainly not the first. AFDS appears to be the RTW version of the now-gone-quiet Asian Couture Federation (ACF), founded in 2013 by Frank Cintamani, who launched the now-also-quiet Fidé Fashion Weeks in 2011, and installed the late Kenzo Takada as honorary president. Mr Cintamani has gone deafeningly quiet. ACF, according to those in the know, is presently not active.
Participants of ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week 2021. Screen grabs: The Home Ground
Nor is Mr Ng’s ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week the first digital fashion week of its kind to be launched here. It comes after last year’s The Front Row (TFR), a protracted 10-day affair—conceived by the “Godfather of Singapore Fashion” Daniel Boey—that was met with mixed reviews and divisive responses. TRF’s total of 31 local and 10 regional labels was considered massive—a considerable feat to pull off, and the result was, at best, uneven. (Or go back to 2012, and consider Charina Widjaja’s and Keyis Ng’s originalDigital Fashion Week) It is interesting that both events have been linked to single persons rather than industry bodies or government agencies. Mr Boey’s part seemed like a natural fit, having been a fashion show and event organiser for more than two decades. Well-known in the industry, he glamorously fronted TFR, singularly hosting chats with designers and trade veterans nightly, during the duration of the event. It could have been called The Daniel Boey Show. Mr Ng, on the other hand, is known, since the ’80s, primarily as a designer of gowns; he has not established himself as a fashion week organiser (other than his deep ties with the mall event Aspara Fashion Week in Kazakhstan), although he is known in the industry for his work in pageants, in particular, the Singapore chapter of Miss Universe.
ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week, like TFR, is a daily live stream of fashion films and runway presentations (traditional or otherwise), but rather than respective shows within a given time slot, the former is an hour-long, stitched-together video pastiche of inconsistent quality and visual narrative. You get anything from built runways to photo studios that double as catwalks to those that are beyond-the-backyard forest patches on which models prance bare-footed! In fact, it is hard to understand why most of the models appear the way they do: like friends (or customer, even co-workers?) of the designers rather than professionals from an agency, as if just-awaken-to-fashion rather than already experienced much, or thinking they’re shooting a TikTok video rather than a short film for an international event. It is hard, therefore, to pin the international tag to output that is this home-made, this provincial, this devoid of finesse. You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a small-town fashion week, touting ‘villagecore’ as a possible trend, like what those youngsters from the Chinese and Thai countryside promote, scoring massive likes for their fashion-with-whatever-is-lying-around-the-paddy-fields. Yet, just because it can be worn on the body doesn’t mean it is design par excellence, or deserves an audience.
It is really hard to understand what any of these collections have to do with fashion. While designers of ASEAN are no doubt ethnically diverse and have continued links to their rural roots, they are also collectively expressing a more progressive outlook on unabashedly urban life. ASEAN fashion—or Asian fashion—does not need to be represented by ethnical aesthetics that border on looks from a gift shop in a cultural centre. As a nation that exemplifies the embracing of the 21st century in all its wonders and glories, we are leading an aggregation to sell bland, kitschy, and downright unattractive eastern exotica to the world? What happened to the modern or the semblance of something not obviously related to the way-past or remote? Organiser AFDS’s idea of modern is the designs of Thai (primarily) menswear designer Pitnapat Yotinratanachai, whose up-to-the-minute is a collection based on one print of colourful graffiti text (words include sweetheart, love, kiss, daisy, and Anglicised Thai expressions) and fake fur shag, and is featured as the event’s key visual in their online communications. It is a fashion week after a fashion.
Hayden Ng’s ‘Bridging the Seasons’ collection featured on ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week. Screen grab: The Home Ground
Why do fashion weeks have such pull for individuals here? Are they marketing opportunities that are great for targeting mass audiences? Are they branding exercises for those persons whose only measure of success is ‘reach’? Or are they the proverbial vanity project? From the sensational headline on the very platform that hosts this online event, “AFDS Founder Hayden Ng Spills All on the ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week”, Mr Ng said, “To put it succinctly, we want to grow the [fashion] scene for both ASEAN and international designers into a more global matter.” That is ambition even a famously driven Tjin Lee, the amalgamator of our truly first digital fashion week and Singapore Fashion Week, would have found to be monumental. Mr Ng has been mostly a fashion designer since graduating from St Patrick’s School in 1982. His formative years were spent in Flamingo Boutique in Beach Road, as designer of “special occasion dresses,” according to those who knew him back then, for “a lot of cabaret customers.” Contemporaneous with him at Flamingo Boutique was Taro Chan, a noted designer of the era, who had previously interned with Thomas Wee. While Mr Chan would go on to be a successful designer of contemporary wear, Mr Ng’s particular talent for glamourous attire caught the attention of the organisers of beauty pageants, and he was soon dressing the contestants of Miss Universe, as well as participants of mass displays that require the collective wow of over-the-top costumes, such as those of the National Day Parade. His eponymous store Hayden Boutique opened in 1987, and reportedly remains a tai-tai favourite.
A long career in fashion is not necessarily indicator of accrued discernment, refinement, or taste. As the initiator/organiser of ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week and founder of the organisation behind it, Mr Ng is reasonably expected to not only pull off a fashion week of this size, but also lead by example: showing the best presentation of the entire event. Tom Ford, as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFD), for example, would kick of New York Fashion Week (owned and organised by CFDA) to a rousing and memorable start. Quite the opposite, Mr Ng’s closing show visibly darkened any hope that this digital fashion week would be saved by ending with a bang. It was really a dim view, in more ways than one. Shot in the civic district, between Anderson and Cavenagh Bridges (to visually underscore the collection called Bridging the Season?) after sundown, the show appeared to be the trailing of nearby middle-aged residents killing time in their favourite housecoat. Who would have guessed this auntie aesthetic to be the work of a pageant gown aficionado? Was Mr Ng perhaps aware that his collection is not up to scratch and, therefore, shot it under the cover of night, with only street lights for additional illumination?
Mr Ng’s lieutenant Terry Yeo, also AFDS’s logistics director, did not fair any better—or brighter. Choosing to close the show, as well, on opening day, his collection for his own The InSane Studio (possibly the spin-off of his earlier label, For Insane Humans, or was it the other way round) was a moody display of clothes that would not spark any joy. But Mr Yeo has always played the non-conformist. His BA graduate collection at NAFA (in a joint programme with University of Huddersfield; one of his course mate was Yong Siyuan of Nuboaix) featured, curiously, winter wear that he had insisted to be made of linen. And he is fond of nonsensical names for his collections and brands, such as ThisLabelisUnknown (yes, spelled as if hashtagged). His drape-y styles and drab colours and his affinity of pseudo-Asian silhouettes parallel those of the other renegades of Singaporean fashion, such as Andrew Loh and Kenny Lim, the duo behind the persistently gloomy Depression.
Terry Yeo’s collection for The Insane Studio. Screen grab: The Home Ground
While Mr Yeo closed the first day’s line-up, fellow AFDS member/ambassador, the stylist-turned-designer Pooja Nanikram opened with The Kleur Collection of her barely two-months-old, three-part menswear label Güven, started with her brother Vishal. Ms Nanikram counts her “involvement” with fashion events such as Fidé Fashion Weeks (that name again!), to have “refined (her) skills in styling and increased (her) love for fashion,” as written in her brand’s website. Although she has been in the fashion industry for the past 11 years, she appeared a greenhorn as seen in her look-at-me shirts, with too tight a fit (or was the lone model doing his cheesy dance just too big?), and too dated a cut, as if the venerable CYC has been the tailoring consultant. But Ms Nanikram is an experienced stylist, she should have been more mindful of how the shirts, a mix of solid colours and oddly placed Ankara prints, look on the body. Or was that deliberate, just as loud floral shoes and matching belts were? Sure, Güven is not for the Balenciaga or Junya Watanabe customer, but as opener for ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week, it would have been seen as prologue to what lies ahead .
And a foretaste it sure was. The following show by another Singaporean label, Yeomama Batik (guest), was simply too painful to watch, and recount. The collections of the other compatriots that followed were just as agonising. In fact, it is difficult to review these four days of hour-long shows without succumbing to some anguish. What really was the point of Mr Ng’s fashion week? Did the unfiltered mish-mash brought about a compelling event? As he spilled, “I would say there’s no curation because at the end of the day, it’s about each designer’s aesthetics.” To each his own? For sure, different aesthetics prevail in fashion weeks, but the aesthetics of fashion in an “international” setting need to connect the dots between dress and modernity, between stint and skill, between fashion and mere clothes. In an article, From Baudelaire to Christian Dior: The Poetics of Fashion, published in the The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1959, the humanities academic Rémy G. Saisselin wrote, “a dress may be at some moment of its existence, a poem of form, color, and motion, and that at such a privileged instant the dress may transform the wearer into a poetic apparition.” Not one designer at ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week attempted such a dress.
After four evenings, what ASEAN International Digital Fashion Week is really about or what it hopes to achieve isn’t perceptible. As a fashion week, it’s too massive and too ambitious, and delivered too little. Its production is, at best, pedestrian, born of a prosaic mind, not a creative one. It seems AFDS isn’t aware that it isn’t easy standing out in a crowded field. As a window to what ASEAN fashion has to offer, it is indiscriminate enthusiasm for the kitschy, the amateurish, the costume-y, the uninspired, the juvenile, the flashy, the vapid, and, frankly, the nothing-to-look-at. As a joke, however, it is has its many marvelous moments.
With the third digital fashion week since LFW last month, a trend is clear to see: there are no fashion shows, just an interruption in normal programming to broadcast advertisements
LV men’s ‘show’. Screen grab: Louis Vuitton/YouTube
Fashion week. What fashion week? By now, it is clear: There are no fashion weeks. We’ve been duped. Following Paris Men’s Fashion Week that wrapped up moments ago, no deep analysis is required to see that there are not only no shows, there are no clothes. Okay, that’s admittedly an exaggeration, but brands in general seemed to be displacing an event that offers the possibility of discerning fashion trends with a digital hub for a massive branding exercise. After London Fashion Week and Haute Couture Fashion Week, and now Paris Men’s Fashion Week, it is obvious that the “front-row seat” we were promised was there for us to watch mostly inane advertisements, one after another. Its been, for us, three long commercial breaks and little else.
If not, what would one call Louis Vuitton’s screening, The Adventures of Zoooom with Friends? Oscar contender it may not be, but it’s a live action/animated short, conceived to wean the young on LV, an approach akin to McDonald’s marketing strategy. Virgil Abloh may not be a brilliant designer, but we’d still like to see what ho-hum collection he’ll put out, what “changes” he will still introduce to men’s wear. There was nothing. We sat through the three-and-half-minute video featuring two porters carrying a trunk (sounds familiar?), loading it onto an intermodal container and allowing motley animated characters that did not appear to have the EU’s Category C1 licence to take over the driving of the LGV. Other vehicles soon joined this one. They arrived at the Seine and the containers were loaded on a barge that subsequently sailed down the river (sounds familiar?), led by a tugboat. There was no destination and the rest of the video showed the animated animals doing their groovy thing—dance. And somewhere in there, champagne was smashed. Talk about product placement!
Dior’s Portrait of an Artist. Screen grab: Dior/YouTube
If not advertisements, they are pseudo-docus, such as Dior’s. Mr Abloh’s colleague, Kim Jones, expressed his timely inclusiveness in the wake of BLM by collaborating with Amoako Boafo, the Vienna-based Ghanaian artist known for his exploration of blackness and identity in such works as the Black Diaspora portraits. The Dior video, Portrait of an Artist, opened with an intro of the painter and some his friends as models wearing the collection (the recent highly-hyped kicks were seen too). It was a 21st century newsreel shot with better cameras. There was the so-called fashion show segment at the end, but with the focus-and-then-out-of-focus treatment, the clothes worn by only black models barely registered, and, by the end of the 10-minute film, it was hard to remember what was seen. The Dior couture video was called out for its lack of diversity in the casting. The same could be said of Dior men’s.
There was an unmistakable and conscious attempt to salute blackness. It was perhaps woke and necessary for the image of the brands, and understandably so, but it was fragmentary that the support of one should be at the exclusion of others. And was it just a reaction or a token? Thom Browne featured a solo black man, the American singer-songwriter Moses Sumney in nothing except a pair of white sequinned wrap-skirt, with a pair of black stripes placed diagonally across from waist to hem. Mr Sumney sang, so this could be destined for Vimeo or the Grammy. The hot Belgian brand Botter by the duo Lisi Herrebrugh & Rushemy Botter, showed, after a one-and-half-minute intro in which they admitted “to trying to express our humble yet positive vision towards the Black Lives Matter movement and other large issues we have been facing all together at once”, parts of their collection on two black models pretending to be models. To be sure, Botter has been a woke brand. The spring/summer 2018’s Fish or Fight collection was dedicated to Caribbean immigrants.
The usual effortless ease of Lemaire. Screen grab: Lemaire/YouTube
There were attempts at fashion shows. Despite the earlier lockdowns that resulted in the digital version of (many) things, some designers have been busy at work. And they have the output to show. Semblances of a runway presentation were, therefore, tried out. Christophe Lemaire’s was the most obvious. The models—quite many of them—walked across what appeared to be a disused portion of a warehouse. There was no accompanying message from the designer, or explanation of how he came to do what he did, just the clothes. At CMMN SWDN, the married Swedes, Emma Hedlund and Saif Bakir, presented a catwalk flanked, not by an audience, but troughs of dried wheat. With just three models, they were able to show 21 looks. Yohji Yamamoto, too, presented a fashion runway—possibly the world’t shortest. Yet, the dreary show of video footages and slides was nearly 15-minutes long; it did not engage for more than five minutes before boredom set in. It was the monotony of both the choreography and clothes.
If viewers were put to sleep by Mr Yamamoto’s runway, would a fashion follower, then, sit through the Dries Van Noten show where there was nothing to follow, except a model playing an imaginary drum in headache inducing lighting? Or be poised enough to ignore the social-distancing-be-damned vibe of the 10-year retrospective video of Pigalle Paris? Or have the patience to watch a video of what could be a deeply unhappy model (actually) followed by someone wearing a switched-on action cam, such as at Études? Or is this merely a reflection of life during a lockdown?
At a Berluti fitting with Kris Van Ascche (rear). Screen grab: Berluti/Youtube
Berluti’s Kris Van Assche is the only designer who truly allowed us to go behind his inspiration that led to the collaboration with the ceramicist Brian Rochefort. A revealing and compelling documentary that showed a designer and sculptor at work, one doing a fitting, one bringing his art to life, told with clarity and through dialogue that was sincere. Amiri, too, showed designer Mike Amiri, at work, presumably in Los Angeles. The reveal was voiced by industry types, such as buyers from Bergdorf Goodman, Mr. Porter, and the Hong Kong multi-label store Joyce, as if to approve the American-Iranian’s work. Mr Amiri himself also joined the conversation, saying, “When I arrived (in Paris) just a few years ago, it would be easy to assume that a Los Angeles designer would be out of place within the conversation of global luxury.” He also added, as if to self-validate, “However, with each collection and every season, it seems that we are actually perfectly within our place.” Acceptance and inclusion continued to run through this fashion week.
Only one brand truly demonstrated, literally, how their clothes are to be worn. Y/Project’s Glenn Martens showed his Transformers fashion soundlessly, but engagingly. The screen was split into 3 panels. A model appeared on each panel in one look and, with the help of dressers, morphed into another, usually by unbuttoning and re-buttoning or untying and re-tying. It is compelling to watch how the looks/clothes are transfigured—not transmogrified—since on the runway we mostly see the end results. Or how silhouettes can change or details can be revealed when there were none at first. This may be helpful to those who have never been able to figure out how their two-as-one (sometimes three) garments should be worn and to yield what effect.
Y/Project in full demo mode. Screen grab: Y/Project/YouTube
Few designers worked outside the range of excess cleverness or deeply dull. It may be immoderate to expect enlightening, even immersive, but for most brands, the experiences offered were, at best, superficial. The whole Paris Men’s Fashion Week felt like a fringe event, not the real deal. The addition of “exclusive” this and that—interviews mostly—added to its peripheral sub-current. The one advantage of watching an online presentation is the option of moving the forward button on the timeline slider bar. Oftentimes, 30 seconds into a video, it can be decided if we wanted to sit through it. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a designer, however good in story-telling, to also excel in content creation, since we wouldn’t expect a film director to be equally excellent in costume design.
While it is true that fashion shows can’t return to pre-pandemic excesses (yet), we didn’t expect three fashion weeks in a row to be like this. Many seasoned journalists say “a computer screen can’t compare…” True, for the rest of us who have always been watching the shows live-streamed to our flat screens, those previous times were better than what’s currently available. Fashion shows, in the form before COVID-19, now seem poised for a necessary comeback. If that happens, not only would those behind the scenes of a runway presentation get back their jobs, trend-chasers too could reinstate themselves, as well as fashion critics (and, gasp, influencers). And fashion show reviews, too! In the Berluti video, Kris Van Assche said, “I really love fashion shows; I love the emotion. There is this one thing you can’t do in fashion shows which is put pause…” To that, we’ll add: Let them halt not.
Although concerted, it is hard to say that Haute Couture Fashion Week is a compelling online event
From top left: Alexis Mabille, Naomi Campbell, Azzaro, Guo Pei, Julien Fornié, Iris van Herpen, Margiela (centre)
Naomi Campbell opened Haute Couture Fashion Week (HCFW) from her home, somewhere. Wearing an un-couture black T-shirt with a message “Phenomenally Black”, she showed a political side not many have seen. She urged for change in the fashion business and to draw attention to the lack of representation in fashion. As she said, “the time has come to collectively call the fashion world to task regarding inequality in our work spaces and in our industry.” We did not expect a fashion week to open on such a sombre note, but these are, for many, gloomy days.
Yet, the just-concluded autumn/winter haute couture season chose not to reflect the gloom. Fantasy is still at the crux of couture, the style and attitude of indie pop stars too. Chanel’s Virginie Viard had her mind on the halcyon days of disco, saying in the video-show notes that she was inspired by those times when she went with predecessor Karl Lagerfeld to Les Bains Douches and Le Palace in Paris, both popular discotheques of the ’80s. Was she saying that she was missing the sybaritic night life now that nightclubs are not (yet) opened?
Of the 34 designers listed in the official calendar (strangely, Balmain is not named), none presented an entire collection, although some showed enough to provide an idea of what the season’s looks might be about. Guo Pei, in a video shot in Beijing, provided eleven from a collection called Savannah. Unsurprisingly, images of animals appeared as realistically as possible. The “sustainable couture” brand Aelis showed 15 looks in a weird and wonderful video that featured extraordinary dresses, some modelled by men.
For some brands, it was an opportunity for image building or enhancing. Iris Van Herpen, in a beautiful short film titled Transmotion, showed only one white dress. A single piece too was offered by the Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz who made a dress entirely with grosgrain ribbons. Margiela, too, showed one outfit, but you could not make out what it was in the barely-anything-to-discern colour-negative video posted, which could have been shot via a temperature scanner.
The Hedi Slimane domain of alt-music seems to be preferred by couturiers… unconventional vocals and strange beats, not necessarily the design seemed to drive the message of modernity
If one was not few enough, Valentino’s presentation takes the cake: The house showed none! Unless a fabric floating can be considered a dress. In fact, it was less a presentation than an invitation—soundtracked by FKA Twigs—to a later event in Rome involving the photographer Knick Night. It was the same with Elie Saab—the house showed their bejewelling and embroidery processes, spliced with scenes of nature that probably inspired the work, but there was no dress.
Songstresses shared the limelight with some of the dresses. There was the French singer Yseult, singing on a floating catwalk at Balmain. At Azzaro, Olivier Theysken’s first couture collection for the house was revealed in what could be a music video, featuring the Belgian musician Sylvie Kreusch. From the five outfits, it is hard to say if this could be the big comeback that has so far alluded him. The Hedi Slimane domain of alt-music seems to be preferred by couturiers. From Mandy Takes a Gun at Christophe Josse to Acid at Chanel, unconventional vocals and strange beats seemed to drive the message of modernity. There was, however, one without music: Adeline André’s soundless slideshow.
Humour and wit are almost entirely missing, except at Viktor & Rolf. Shot against a doorway of an empty room, the video was voiced by the musician Mika, who described the nine-piece capsule as “three wardrobes for three mindsets in these extraordinary times of change.” Of one sweeping, full-length coat, he said, “social-distancing never felt so sweet in this white faux-leather manteau.” The first and only video to bring on a smile.
Given that masks are accessories du jour and many, many more jours to come, only two designers showed them: Rahul Mishra—festooned with butterflies— and Viktor & Rolf, noting that the face mask has “won global acclaim as the smartest new accessory of the season”. There were face shields too. At Xuan, Vietnamese designer Thu Nguyen made them out of flowers; they totally obscured the face, while at Aganovich, entire heads were more completely covered than they would be with a balaclava!
Many couture houses claim they have ways to connect with their clients directly, to inform them of their latest collections. This digital HCFW, therefore, isn’t necessarily for those who have this special relationship. Touted as an event that gives everyone a front row view, it tallies with the notion that fashion is entertainment. But the video presentations are uneven, with some lost in their own artsiness. Sure, couture has always had its share of affected creativity, but how this can lift spirits and convince viewers that couture is good and necessary and to be supported, even if only voyeuristically, we really don’t know.
The all-new, all-digital London Fashion Week could be many things, but none was a fashion show
We landed on londonfashionweek.co.uk to view the shows of LFW, but we did not know where to start. And that, to us, was not a good thing. We were led to believe that all shows would be streamed—live or not—on the LFW portal, but we seemed to have stumbled upon a fashion-themed multi-media class in session. Expecting vogue.com’s Runway or SHOWstudio’s Collection page we were not, but hoping for an experience that augured well for the future we did. Instead, we were greeted by a curious opener called “My Non-Essential London”. Was this just an ironic teaser, fronted by the omnipresent face of singer Ella Eyre, clearly captured at home?
We weren’t aiming for a song (in fact, she didn’t sing). Instinctively, we scrolled downwards or, where applicable, swiped right or left, but we did not arrive at anything resembling a fashion presentation that we, up till now, recognise. Arranged chronologically, the shows scheduled within each day of the three-day event were organised in slots featuring videos not long enough to aid in the understanding of the collections or the brands. No fashion show, no runway, no 50 to 80 or so looks of before.
Hussein Chalayan and Elise by Olsen
Oddly there was no immediate access to LFW, the event. We had to scroll down and past three other appetiser crossheads, before we arrived at “Collections”. This was Sunday afternoon (our time), but not all of the shows scheduled thus far (London time) seemed to be posted. We could not say for certain. It did not appear to us that there was any live streaming either. Or perhaps we missed them. Events were reportedly scheduled, so we looked for them. There was a horizontal box-list of names, almost all unfamiliar. Not every box offered a fashion show video clip. Some were links to profiles, some were Q&As involving designers, such as the one familiar name Hussein Chalayan, who was interviewed by the Oslo-based publisher Elise by Olsen in the now recognisable split-screen of two people in their own habitat. Where were the collections?
After 20 minutes, we weren’t sure what we had been watching. There were scant compelling shows to watch—or those that mattered. Sadly, navigating the site was clicking forward into frustration. Clicking any spot on the boxes of the menu did not automatically pop up a page or a window. We had to click on the specific tag “Watch”, before another window appeared. There was a play button in the right-hand corner to activate, then the familiar YouTube’s own appeared in the centre, indicating a link was established. Press that play, then we were able to watch the show. Perhaps auto-play is too pre-COVID-19? When we clicked on the back button to get out of a video that we did not find interesting or revealing, the click inexplicably returned us to the top of the home page. We scrolled back down to “Collections”, but the last viewed show was mysteriously no longer there on the scroll-horizontally menu!
Looking at the line-up, we had, at first, thought that this was not the main event. There were no recognisable names such as pre-pandemic LFW regulars Burberry, JW Anderson, Christopher Kane, Molly Goddard, or Simone Rocha. Instead, we saw many new monikers interspersed with a few of the familiar. Very little clothes were shown and hardly any trend could be made out. Most videos could have been designers making the MTV music video they’ve always wanted to create, and the recent lockdown was the perfect time to produce them. Others could pass off as extended commercials.
Clockwise from top left, Zander Zhou, Ka Wa Key, Roksanda, Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, Teatum Jones, Stephen Jones
We clicked on the first familiar name that appeared—the Chinese-in-London Xander Zhou. His video was described as “Xander Zhou AW20 Critical Update/SS21 Public Beta Version”. The app development lingo perhaps hinted at the pseudo sci-fi feel of the narrative. There were six showcases, each voiced-over by a robotic/synthesised male monotone, delivering, at times, incomprehensible commentary that made us unnervingly anticipate “Danger: The emergency destruct system is now activated. The ship will detonate in T minus five minutes…” Abstract and artsy were the way to go for many of the designers. Most of the videos were very free-form and free-hand; very design school students given free reign.
The most captivating—even magical—was the animated short by milliner Stephen Jones. It featured the beloved, created-in-Munich, manga-eyed “fashion avatar” Noonoouri, identified as “special guest star”. She donned hats that showed the end result of Mr Jones’s creative process, from sketch to sample to actual article. Titled Analogue Fairydust, the film charmed in the same way old Hollywood motion pictures did and still do. Perhaps, more significantly for us, this was clearly a product of fashion, and, while wordless, it spoke the language.
Most of the videos didn’t come close to Analogue Fairydust. It is, of course, likely that due to mandatory social distancing and other attendant obstacles, designers had precious little to fall on that could generate compelling fashion stories. Creativity during isolation might not have been as potent as it could be in a design studio buzzing with activity. With insufficient fashion to offer, the digital edition of London Fashion Week was, in part, a conference of opinions. There was a lot of chatter, but, in the end, little content.
Did the Singapore-inaugurated Digital Fashion Week really see the future of fashion shows?
Thomas Wee’s presentation at the first Digital Fashion Week, Singapore
Back in October 2012, a small, wannabe of a fashion week was staged on the grounds of the Ritz Carlton. The venue was not the hotel ballroom, but a tented space, known as the Millenia Pavilion, that sat in the sloped, verdant corner bounded by Temasek and Raffles Avenues. Inside, you would not have guessed that this was set-up for fashion shows, but Digital Fashion Week (DFW) very much was. Earlier that month, in the French capital, Chanel presented what was becoming characteristic of their Paris Fashion Week staging: expensive and monumental. That spring/summer 2013 season at the Grand Palais, the models emerged from behind two tilted solar-cell panels—that looked like a split teeppee—onto an also solar-panel-laid runway that was lined with two rows of impressively sized wind turbines that had its propeller-like rotors in hypnotic motion. In comparison, the debut DFW was a fashion-school graduation show with what was said to be pittance for a budget.
At that time, there was already Audi Fashion Festival (AFF)—in its third year—and the one-year-old umbrella event known as Fidé Fashion Weeks—now in hiatus from travelling mode, which comprised three presentations: Men’s Fashion Week, Women’s Fashion Week, and Haute Couture Week. Fashion show fans were delighted as the Fidé trifecta gave our island what came to be described by the media as “a complete fashion season”. DFW’s entry was curiosity-arousing. Conceived by the marketing agency DFW Creative, they stood apart by being digital-centric, and so on-theme they were that the events of the earlier years saw extremely restricted number of guests at the show venue as they wanted to emphasise the digital broadcast, encouraging views on devices. Regardless, many thought that with the shows live-streamed, more fashion show junkies would be able to view the presentations, unlike AFF and the Fidé events, both positioned to be far more high-brow. DFW’s co-creator/founder Charina Widjaja, also the co-founder of DFW Creative, told the press that “the digital platform enables us to transcend geographical boundaries. It also allows our designers and sponsors to enjoy increased exposure to consumers from all over the world.”
DFW was touted as a “first, fully-digital, live-streamed fashion event”. They claimed, at that time, to be “the only 360 offline and online marketing platform focusing on digital strategies to globalize independent designers”. Its inaugural production was headlined by one of Singapore’s most known veteran designers Thomas Wee and China’s rising star Guo Pei (this was pre-Rihanna-in-that-omelette-dress). Both designers had to contend with a catwalk circumscribed by white plywood boards and lit with such harsh floods that many among the limited attendees thought the shows were “washed-out”. Guest model Andrej Pejic (reported to be doing just one show—Guo Pei’s—that entire season due to other fashion events’ “unappealing pay”) and VIP guest Patricia Fields seemed unfazed by the staging conditions. The shows’ creative director Keyis Ng (the other founder of DFW and DFW Creative) told the inquisitive that the set-up had to be so because of videographic requirements. Yet, at the end of DFW’s shaky debut, one marketing head at a retail conglomerate told us that “some day, fashion shows will not only be virtual to reach anyone who cares about them, but also out of necessity”.
Guo Pei debuted in Singapore at Digital Fashion Week
Despite its precarious start and sometimes patchy broadcasts due to buffer problems, Digital Fashion Week was indeed rather prescient. A year before DFW, Keyis Ng had started the now-defunct membership-driven fashforward.com, a B2C site with a live-streaming service that members could use to watch fashion shows. Mr Ng, who had briefly worked with veteran show choreographer/producer Dick Lee at the ad agency the also-singer formed with Japanese firm Chuo Senko in 2008 (it’s now, or last known, as Dick Lee Concepts), also described this digital-native business as the “Eyes of Fashion in Asia for the rest of the world”. Often mentioning how digital savvy his generation was, he was convinced that going online would be the way forward, at least for a fashion-resource-starved island such as ours. As Charina Widjaja said to Senatus in 2013, it was to “bring in the latest in live-streaming technology as a game changer”.
The game has certainly changed. After Paris Fashion Week in March this year, many cities were locked down in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Shanghai’s own had to go fully digital later that month. It was reported to be “the world’s first fashion-week event to livestream its entire roster of runway shows”. DFW would be happy to dispute that. To be sure, at their 2012 debut, the broadcast and live streaming of fashion shows had already gained traction although many heritage luxury brands wouldn’t be enticed. Fashion and its kindred runway presentations had a slow start in embracing digital technology. In 1998, the Austrian designer Helmut Lang—then still creating his eponymous line—availed his autumn/winter show online. But it was Alexander McQueen, 11 years later, who was the first designer to live stream a fashion show—the stunning Plato’s Atlantis, reportedly garnered 3.5 million views on YouTube.
Mr McQueen never followed that with another. That collection—spring/summer 2010—was his last. But he did pave the way for many others who quickly followed with their own live streams. By 2013, New York Fashion Week, ardent adopter of live streaming, reported that two-third of its shows were live streamed. YouTube, for both brands and viewers, have been the go-to platform to watch fashion show videos, be they live-streamed or archived. Fast forward to the present, Instagram, too, is tapping both demand and need. Last month, the Facebook-own photo-sharing site released a complete guide on how to host a digital fashion show on its popular platform, as well as how to post backstage photos and tap into the reach of influencers. The case for using Instagram to broadcast fashion shows is compelling. According to a study published by French trend forecaster Heuritech, there has been a whopping 70% increase in traffic at Instagram since lockdowns were introduced throughout the world.
CYC The Custom Shop designed by David Wang at the last Digital Fashion Week
Four years after its debut at the Ritz Carlton, Digital Fashion Week lost steam. Following its last show in 2015, staged at the historic Capitol Theatre, DFW was merged with Singapore Fashion Week (SFW). According to a report in The Straits Times in 2016, DFW was “acquired” by Mercury Marketing & Communications, whose owner Tjin Lee—the brainchild of Singapore Fashion Festival, precursor of SFW—declined to reveal the price paid for DFW. Charina Widjaja said that both events complement each other. Yet, the two-as-one SFW, despite DFW’s digital strength, did not make a significant impact on the digital fashion show sphere—barely locally, and not a blip regionally, even less globally. A year later, Ms Lee called it quits on SFW, saying that “the current model is not sustainable… It’s a question of cost.” Still, that was no deterrent as she was supposed to have been considering something “bigger than we are.” She told ST, “there is room for a bigger, more collaborative fashion week that engages and works with and supports the neighbouring fashion weeks as well.” It was believed that by “bigger” and “neighbouring”, Ms Lee meant Asia. That never happened.
Digital Fashion Week was initially conceived to showcase Singaporean “independent designers” to the world, but it soon included Bangkok (2014) and Jakarta (2017) off-shoots. The debut Bangkok show was tethered to Bangkok International Fashion Week, staged at Siam Paragon, while the Jakarta event, a home-coming for Ms Widjaja, was its own “full-fledged” show, with an attendant pop-up store in the event venue, Plaza Indonesia. In the year DFW Jakarta was inaugurated, Ms Widjaya created Rising Fashion, a retail pop-up in the capital’s Galeries Lafayette department store and, a year later, transplanted to our island in Paragon Shopping Centre. In both cities, Rising Fashion marked 50 years of bilateral relations between Indonesia and Singapore. The last of DFW event listed in “upcoming events” on its website was posted as a vague “pop-up in Paris” in December 2018.
At the start of DFW, shown annually, the idea of an all-digital fashion week was met with some skepticism, especially when physical attendance to such events was still preferred. The energy and glamour, typically high points of fashion shows, including the much-noted and important front row(s), were thought to be missing. Later DFWs in bigger venues, such as the National Design Centre and Capitol Theatre, provided for a larger on-site audience. Despite its online emphasis, viewership—up till now—has not reflected figures that DFW can sing about. Even big names of its first season were not the pull one expects. Thomas Wee’s show garnered 3,800 views. Guo Pei’s, after her Met Gala exposure, presently scored 79,000. In an admittedly inequitable comparison, that Chanel show with the wind turbines has to date enjoyed 979, 000 views. Next week, London Fashion Week: Men will be live-streamed on LFW’s website as a non-gender-specific event, designed to appeal to both trade buyers, as well as the members of the public. Some elements of see-now-buy-now, once thought to be crucial and the way forward, will be incorporated. LFW will be the first of the big four fashion weeks to go fully digital. No one knows how this will pan out. Meanwhile, some of us here, perhaps, take delight with the thought that we’re the first to do it that way.
Do we really need fashion entertainment when staying at home? CR Fashion Runway just told us we do. Or is it a narcissistic exercise by a selected few for the not-select many?
Models applauding their own ‘runway’ performance
By Raiment Young
Being by oneself is so undesirable and unbearable during what Pierre Png calls on television “these trying times” that we seem to be in a state of desperation. The stay-home order across the world has been so hard to endure and detrimental to persons or families alone that people want to break free like caged animals. Home may be where the heart is, but it isn’t where fun and gratification reside. People need to be—must be—entertained, more so the confined. Survival is not part of the equation, entertainment is. Our digital life is characteristically one huge orgy of providing and being provided with all that amuses us or deems enjoyable. This has become, online or offline, instinctive need. Self-isolation has only amplified our requirement for entertainment, however unimportant, however stupid or banal.
CR Runway with amfARAgainst COVID-19 Fashion Unites broadcast on YouTube earlier taps into this beastly desire. Touted as YouTube’s first fashion runway show, the digitally stitched up video of models sashaying in their homes (or surroundings) is spearheaded by Carine Roitfeld. After leaving her job at French Vogue in 2011, Ms Roitfeld has been re-inventing herself, with varying degrees of success. Her unimaginatively named CR Fashion Book, from which this show draws its title, is an attempt to keep her finger in the publishing pie and, at the same time—with publisher Stephen Gan—create an overly-thick title that merely crawls in the shadows of Mr Gan’s far artier Visionaire (now folded) and fashion heavyweight Italian Vogue (the partnership with Mr Gan ended in 2016). CR the runway, just as with the magazine, is ensnared in a fashion rut.
To borrow from a popular quarantine activity, half-baked is how this YouTube show appeared to me. Now that live fashion shows can be watched on video streaming’s favourite platform, as well as on not-video-centric sites such as Twitter and Instagram, any event titled as “runway” or, as host, YouTube’s head of fashion and beauty, Derek Blasberg called it, “a high fashion runway show entirely from home… essentially supermodels supporting superheroes (medical and front-line staff)”, needs to appear at least delightful. On the surface, it sounds glamourous, but when the show began, it streamed like other society-rousing, social-message patchwork, broadcast to galvanise the grassroots into action or support, now popular online. This was, at best, talk-show savvy. “Many of the beloved faces from the world of fashion” can’t save it from being what might be seen on The Wendy Williams Show.
CR Runway is a fashion effort not for a fashion audience. This is not even targeted at the Victoria’s Secret Show crowd. A crisis can spawn both the critical and inconsequential. CR Runway, also a charity effort, falls with the latter. Its pedestrian presentation and a perfunctory use of technology won’t do anything for the image of fashion, already considered out of touch and in dire need of hitting the reset button. I am not sure what Ms Roitfeld hopes to achieve with this lacklustre reveal. To be fair, she did not claim credit for the idea. She attributed the fashion show to her son Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, president of the company that publishes the magazine with his mother’s initials on it. This, as it turned out, was a family affair—his sister Julia walked the “runway” too.
Natasha Poly in Paco Rabanne
CR Runway was not, of course, a catwalk in the traditional sense. It was more playtime than showtime, girls having fun than at work. Confined at home, the models were only mimicking what so many others have been already doing when bored and the fashion bug bit. After watching the ridiculously lengthy show, I found The Pillow Challenge oddly more compelling. Irreverence, wit, and irony were not choreographed into CR Runway, nor fashion. The nugatory quality of the show and the ensuing blandness was assured when, out of the roughly half-an-hour broadcast, 17 minutes were used up for mutual admiration and expression of gratitude among its participants. Tiresome bunkum! Each frame was so unimaginatively filmed that I wondered why the CR brand needed to be stitched to it. Even Carine Roitfeld, a stylist of some repute, could not light herself well enough to look the fashion doyenne she is supposed to be. Whatever it was that the show attempted to communicate, the approach was very IG, very influencer with a smartphone, very shoot-your-next-campaign-via-Zoom.
Now that models and, indeed, modelling have been demystified, what is there about models even at home, that is fascinating to watch? Worse, when un-styled and un-directed? We now learn and can ascertain that models away from an actual runway, without the hands that make them, well, models, are just like most girls who follow them: They dress similarly (so what if the models wore their own designer togs), they can’t do their hair, and—believe it—not even their own make-up. The collective sigh among fashion folks: “Even a nearly-bare face does not have be a I-just-woke-up look!” To be sure, everyone working in the front line against COVID-19 deserves support and encouragement. Would it not be more convincing and moving if models were in the act of actually doing something for those workers. Surely that would play down the belief that the fashion industry is predictably self-absorbed and self-indulgent?