Visited: Two Fashion Exhibitions

Both are small and thematically rather similar, but both are vastly different too, as one discovers the past in some detail, while the other looks at the present with a cursory glance

Foreground, an Andrew Gn gown at #SGFASHIONNOW

Republican-era and late-Qing clothing at Modern Women of the Republic

By Raiment Young

Fashion exhibitions don’t come by often enough. So when two are happening at the same time (till mid-December, and staged only eight kilometers or so apart), it seems like a bonus for those of us desiring to see superlative designs up close. These are not just exhibits of any fashion; these are, as the titles enthusiastically inform me, about our fashion—those that show what our women wore and what they wear through times of significant societal shifts. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore (一袭华裳) at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and #SGFASHIONNOW at the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) explore clothing that, between the eras they each highlight, show aesthetic differences, separated by some 130 odd years. Yet, it is the fashion of yore that seems to speak more eloquently and with far more refinement than those of today. Nonetheless, it is the latter that attempts to articulate what it is that defines Singaporean design now.

When I visit a fashion exhibition in a museum, rather than, say, at an atrium of a shopping mall, I always expect it to provide strikingly well designed and made fashion—not just clothes—and, above all, insight into what stitches these creations together, other than just the thematic thread. If I could be entertained too, that would be a bonus. Fashion in such a setting increasingly caters to visitors that are more exposed to popular visual culture than fashion as an artistic phenomenon. These days, even the most esoteric of sartorial subjects need to be presented with a popular spin. ACM’s approach to modern fashion in #SGFASHIONNOW is especially so, and, as a result, lacks emotional power for an exhibition that is supposed to arouse national pride. What’s even more apparent is the inadequate learning opportunity—to explain how the aesthetics, gleaned from Asian costumes, have been adopted today and why the results deserve a place in a museum exhibition. As Valerie Steele of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology wrote in the Fashion Theory (issue: Exhibitionism), an academic journal, “there is no reason why exhibitions cannot be both beautiful and intelligent, entertaining and educational.”

I am, of course, not deluding myself that these are the blockbuster fashion exhibitions in the same scale and breadth as those associated with overseas national museums, such as the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Perhaps due to limitations, mainly spatial, material, and budgetary, our latest two exhibitions are euphemistically described as “intimate affairs”. The flashier #SGFASHIONNOW has only eight dresses (and one headgear) to cover a scope that is far too wide and complex than the curators would have visitors believe, while Modern Women of the Republic packed over 90 costumes (specifically 13 outfits, including one bathing suit), artifacts and photographs (and a truly informing period fashion show) in a room considerably smaller in width and height than the space for #SGFASHIONNOW. From a museological perspective, the attempt on ACM’s part to show dresses with their historical place or artistic value is feeble. I’m not arguing if fashion is—or not—considered a true form of art; I would like to see if what we have, in terms of fashion as cultural treasures, deserving of museum space. Are these clothes, however well displayed, exhibition worthy?

#SGFASHIONNOW

The entranceway to #SGFASHIONNOW at the Contemporary Gallery of the ACM

It is heartening that one of the most respected museums in the region believes there is modern Singaporean fashion. The Asian Civilisation Museum’s #SGFASHIONNOW (yes, hashtagged and in all caps) exhibition is the “first display of contemporary Singapore fashion, exploring creative practice in Singapore in the context of Asia’s cultural heritage”, according to the exhibition’s publicity material. As it is staged in the ACM, the Asian component is crucial. Despite its trendy (with the hope that it’ll be trending?) name, targeted at the digitally-savvy who know what hashtags indicate, the exhibition looks at far more analogue approaches to dressmaking (except possibly one outfit with 3D-printed ornamentation). Perhaps this may allay the fear that the time-honoured will be superseded by the “now”—the past shrugged off by the present, dress history disregarded by contemporary fashion.

To be sure, #SGFASHIONNOW is not about constructing fashion heritage. Yet, it is the past that the participating designers looked at, though not necessarily a specific time or clothing no longer worn, but to what CNA’s Jill Neubronner described as “twists on Asian arts and culture”, but mostly Chinese. According to the event’s publicity material, “the exhibition was conceived in collaboration with LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion and the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF).” This is “ACM’s first tripartite partnership within Singapore’s fashion ecosystem” and, as Ms Neubronner noted, “the first time the museum handed over the central task of curating the exhibition to five students.” Perhaps the “firsts” explain why the result is somewhat abecedarian, and that my expectations, while not unreasonable for an exhibition staged at the ACM, were set foolishly high.

It is a curatorial challenge to put what fashion we have now in the spotlight. It is more difficult for students not advantaged by the breadth of knowledge of the industry here—past and present—to stage an exhibition with the potential in scope that is ultimately hard to realise. As it turns out, #SGFASHIONNOW is a “competition”, wrote student-curator Felicia Toh in Men’s Folio, to sell “curatorial ideas for #SGFASHIONNOW.” Five female students from the Lasalle’s BA(Hons) Fashion Media and Industries programme made the cut. According to Ms Toh, the exhibition brief was framed “to encourage new ways of thinking about Singapore fashion today, especially in the larger context of Asian fashion.” Designers selected—a total of eight—must “either practice in Singapore or are Singaporeans based abroad.” The students were only required to come up with four names (the rest were, as Ms Toh wrote, “pre-selected” by ACM), and they chose the relatively unknown Baëlf Studio and Studio HHFZ, Indian fashion label from the ’50s Stylemart, and the Crazy Rich Asian red-carpet sensation Time Taken to Make a Dress (TTMD). ACM picked, probably with input from TaFF, Singaporean-in-Paris Andrew Gn; TaFF darling, American-in-Singapore Carol Chen; true-blue Singaporean cheongsam maker Goh Lai Chan, and Malaysian-in-Singapore Ong Shunmugam. Collectively, they allowed ACM director Kennie Ting to realise his ”dream (of featuring) Singaporean fashion designers in the context of Asia and the World,” as expressed in the accompanying (unexpectedly laggy) e-book.

From left: Carol Chen, Studio HHFZ, and Ong Shunmugam

In his introduction to #SGFASHIONNOW, Mr Ting wrote that the exhibition “is the first that follows ACM’s 2020 repositioning as Singapore’s National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art. The repositioning allows us to champion #InnovationInTradition, and to extend the timeline of our curatorial focus to the contemporary day.” Clothing is commonly associated with decorative arts, hence ACM’s enthusiastic embrace of fashion, not necessarily design. Across the world, museums’ affinity for fashion is growing remarkably (this year alone, despite the on-going pandemic, there are at least 18 fashion exhibitions around the globe tagged “unmissable”). With #SGFASHIONNOW, ACM seems to focus on decoration than design, although both are just as important in applied arts. Boning that position, Felicia Toh’s schoolmate and co-curator Celestine Wong said in the CNA report, “What better way to showcase Singapore’s identity (than) through the lens of fashion and craftsmanship?” It is not certain if this angle was wholly the students’ or partially ACM’s, but it is a compelling one.

What is this “Singapore identity through fashion” that Ms Wong and others harped on? I had thought, prior to visiting the exhibition, that this “identity” would be an evaluation by dress through the application of design. But it is not. Despite having stayed at the exhibition for over an hour a few days after it opened on 25 June, I could not say what puzzled and disheartened me, in equal measure, until I read (and heard) those magic words: “craft”, “crafting”, and “craftsmanship”. In the article for Men’s Folio, Ms Toh wrote, “When we think about fashion and what defines our local identity in multicultural Singapore, the first line of thought is whether we have a national attire or a particular look that represents the country. In search of an answer, my team turned our attention to a tangible aspect of fashion—the craft of making clothes.” In his foreword to the e-publication, the president of Lasalle offered that, “the winning proposition is a fascinating exploration of Singapore’s fashion identity through the lenses of craftsmanship and heritage, both tangible and intangible.”

Indeed, craft, from the Old English word cræft, appears repeatedly. Yet, design is the main theme of the exhibition. Interestingly, nothing in the exhibition notes satisfactorily defines craft. In the curatorial statement, “modes of craftsmanship” is described as “running the gamut from tailoring and embroidery to laser-cutting and 3D printing”— also a line used by Ms Toh in the Men’s Folio article. After spending time with the exhibits, it appeared to me that surface embellishments are what the student-curators’ mean by “craft“. Of the eight outfits shown, only one is without decoration, not even trims, not even a single pankou (盘扣 or knotted buttons)—a girlish riff on the cheongsam by Hu Ruixian of Studio HHFZ. Andrew Gn is surprisingly the most minimalist of them all, offering not his usual embroidered flourishes, but an unadorned caped bodice with ultra-long fringing. The most embellished outfit is offered by the design duo Jamela Law and Lionel Wong of Baëlf Studio, who use 3D printed fractals that look like terra-cotta bits to recreate, on a clear TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane, as used in shower curtains) dress, the symbolic images of Jing opera (京剧 or Beijing opera) costumes (did I also sense Schiaparelli X Dali’s ‘Skeleton’ dress from 1938, especially in the back?). Decoration, it seemed to me, is the draw here.

From left, Goh Lai Chan, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Stylemart, and Baëlf Design

Craft, at its most elemental, is skill. But not just any ability that is the result of watching TikTok videos past midnight. Craft is earned skill. You say, for example, the craft of the carpenter or, closer to fashion, the craft of an embroiderer. But that does not mean that these craftspeople are designers. Many skilled practitioners of the crafts of fashion, from pattern makers to plumassiers, are not. The processes and systems of fashion are, of course, dependent on these skills. As Mr Gn said in an accompanying video shown on site, “you need great craftsmen”. With technological advances in the making of clothes and attendant decorating techniques (as seen in the Baëlf Studio exhibit), a one-size-fits-all definition of “craft” is limiting. Yet, to me, “craft” invariably calls up history, tradition, handwork (now debatable since machines have won over the hearts—and hands—of many practitioners), and, without doubt, a high standard of quality. Nick Offerman, the co-host of the NBC show Making It, considers “craft” as “the skill developed, applied, and made manifest through practice and discipline in the fabrication of a work of art.” He was speaking as a wood worker, but he could have been expatiating for fashion designers.

In the curatorial statement of the e-book, we are told that “Hu Ruixian at Studio HHFZ and Carol Chen push the envelope to craft thoughtful pieces.” Even with considerable effort, I failed to see the crafting (nor the thoughtfulness) of the submitted work, just as I struggled with the answers to the ‘whys’ of the designs (but the exhibition is not about that). Despite what I assumed to be the two designers’ bespoke operation, there were glaring irregularities when it came to achieving some semblance of craftsmanship. The addition of Ms Hu’s qipao seemed like an afterthought. It could be because of the size of the mannequin (which is a deplorable excuse, given the museum setting), but hers is the most ill-fitted outfit. Many details that should have been exemplary crafting were curiously absent. It was puzzling to see how large the armholes are, how puckered the seams run, how the base of the collar can’t rest flatly on the neckline and along the shoulder, and how the pocket bags of her extended side pockets threatens to emerge to consume the top edge. Could this be a new way of crafting?

When I looked at Carol Chen’s “Empress Jumpsuit” (an obvious and inexplicable two-piece), I was, similarly, unable to see the craft in the work. The token-Asian metal zardozi embroidery that caused so much puckering on the fabric aside, what stared shamelessly at me was the shockingly ill-fitted trousers. From the front, the waist won’t sit properly. The is no smooth waist or edge, and the crotch point takes after the shape of the pudendum. From the rear, problems with the crotch length and depth, and the hip line yield odd vertical drapes and a V-fold at the crotch. (As with the Studio HHFZ qipao, it is possible that the pants was not made for the mannequin, but it is puzzling that ACM, with the intention of strengthening its fashion division, would not have the resource to get the rightly-sized dummy for the exhibits.) I’ll give the flat-chested top a miss. In all, there is barely engineering of form, forget about manipulation of fabrics. Ms Chen, of course, has the freedom to “craft” as she pleases, but, to me, a museum deserves higher qualitative standards. I am not saying I did not appreciate the emotions or, possibly, the stresses that go into the making of Ms Chen’s two-piece. Perhaps I did not understand what she was attempting to do, but because there was such a lack of the very thing the exhibition was promoting—craft—that irritation took the place of intrigue.

Five (only four shown here) out of eight outfits sport the round qipao collar. None was perfection. Clockwise from top left: Ong Shunmugam, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Studio HHFZ, Laichan

Another way with crafting? Or, at best, dressmaking loosely tethered to craft? There would be those for whom this is merely a matter of semantics and that I am nit-picking, but the distinction is important. Why? I do not think visitors to a fashion exhibition wish to see—for (another) example—tailor’s chalk marks or, in the case of Baëlf Studio’s adorned plastic outer, ink (or pencil?) lines still evident in the seams. Or, are we to believe that such an oversight can bear the true weight of craft? It is understandable that many of our designers are not availed the skilled individuals to provide the artisanal aspects of dressmaking, or those with the eyes to ensure and maintain the refinement associated with supreme tailoring and needlecraft. We do not have a network of specialist tradespeople and craftsmen, who make up the proverbial fashion ecosystem. In his video message recorded in Paris, Andrew Gn explained why he chose to be based in the City of Lights, “You need great craftsmen,” who provide the “savoir faire—the know-how of all the ateliers and all the workshops in France.” Conversely, many designers here have to depend on their own not-necessarily-well-informed judgment on what is skilled execution. And this may fail, or vary, since what is considered skill is, as in the case of beauty, in the sight of the beholder.

Mr Gn’s submission (also a donation) of a strikingly plain, white, silk crepe gown is perhaps a master stroke. Admittedly, the modest dress was, at first glance, a tad disappointing. It isn’t unreasonable for anyone to want to come to see Mr Gn’s beautiful, often custom-designed fabrics and his delicate handwork (I know I did), but this exhibit is one of the least typical, selected from his spring/summer 2012 collection Let there be Light. Yet it is through this stark design of a gown with a fringed, waist-length-in-the-front-and hip-length-in-the-rear cape over the shoulder, purportedly based on the Manila shawl (a square-folded-into-a-triangle covering derived from the Filipino pañuelo), but could easily be a Chinese xiao pijian (小披肩 or capelet), that we see the exemplar of symmetry, precise tailoring, and first-rate finishing. Without doubt, simplicity allowed me to take in the fineness of the work or the “craft”—mostly elusive at #SGFASHIONNOW. I did wonder if perhaps the exhibits’ high-profile, headlining representation is more important that actual craftsmanship. Two are clearly picked for their exposure on the red carpet, rather than their craft: Ong Shunmugam’s derivative caped qipao, worn by designer Priscilla Shunmugam’s pal Paige Parker at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 (when the latter attended as executive producer of Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice) and the unstirred bandung neo-qipao that Crazy Rich Asian cast member Constance Lau donned at the film’s Hollywood premier in 2018.

When clothes are placed in a museum, they must hold up to scrutiny. They are worn on mannequins, I believed, to be studied and, in turn, admired. #SGFASHIONNOW offers little that are technically challenging or decoratively spectacular, or uncompromisingly well-made. Before we can begin to understand or interpret the clothes, to wigwag between the extravagant and the not, we have to be first convinced that they are crafted with great élan. And then we can begin to ask ourselves where we stand today as a nation from the standpoint of dress. I reminded myself that this exhibition is partly the work of students. I then wondered what they really took away from this in terms of techniques and workmanship—craft? And how has #SGFASHIONNOW added to the discourse about good designs that show our island as a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity—those that can truly gin up excitement? The eight exhibitions are positioned in the gallery with no scenography, each framed within vitrines with four sides (only one glassed). They looked to me like glorified store windows, which is ironic since window-shopping is increasingly so other-era an activity in our COVID-impacted world. But perhaps that’s intentional: the showcase as spotlight. Still, you can’t level up what won’t be next-level. Even with the risk of getting this bent of shape, I won’t deny that I was dismayed that this is what ACM and its collaborators see as national pride.

Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore

Entrance to the Modern Women of the Republic exhibition

Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is a sumptuous tribute to an era of swift societal and sartorial change, witnessed in the late 19th century, through the time when we were a British colony or, as the National Museum of Singapore prefers to put it, a “Crown Colony”. The exhibition opened last month at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, also known as Wanqing Garden (晚晴园). It was renamed by the Teochew rubber magnate and revolutionist Teo Eng Hock (张永福, Zhang Yongfu), when he bought it in 1905. Modern Women of the Republic sets Chinese national and diasporic fashion styles in a colonial-era villa with considerable vigour. It was in this pleasant intimacy and contextualised space that I happily spent more than an hour, one weekday afternoon, looking at the clothes women wore that were beginning to be described as “modern”.

Wanqing Garden was built in 1902, the same year the YMCA here was established, and forty four years after one little Spicer & Robinson opened at Commercial Square (today’s Raffles Place). Inside the first-storey main gallery of the nearly 120-year-old mansion, the exhibition was, interestingly, also set up as a department store, Wanqing Co. Ltd (晚晴百货公司), with a suitably retro store front and posters flanking it. In that sense, Modern Women of the Republic’s standing would not be disadvantaged from being compared to store windows, and those complete with visual merchandising, as we know it today that truly captures the viewers’ attention. Unlike #SGFASHIONNOW, this exhibition looks at everyday clothes. Or, those that were custom-made to be worn—possibly for special occasions, possibly not; but unlikely for the red carpet (except, perhaps, one showstopping gown by Goh Lai Chan, the showstopping gown-maker). More than 90 artefacts and accompanying archival photos (including 14 outfits, almost double that of #SGFASHIONNOW) were assembled to tell how modernisation necessarily meant shedding clothes of considerable bulk—hence obscuring the body—for those that are form-enhancing.

Without dramatic scenography, but the very grandness and elegance of the villa, the exhibition creates a walk-back-in-time experience, made more emersive through the well-considered range of mediums, from actual clothes to dainty footwear to kindred accessories to vintage photographs. To be sure, I have seen more compelling and striking exhibitions of similar theme in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but Modern Women of the Republic’s partially local context makes it more meaningful. It covers the periods between the late 1800s to the 1970s (with the exception of that showstopping gown—a very present-day creation), telling the stories of modern-fashion adopters and their influence, such as Teo Eng Hock’s daughter Teo Soon Kim (张舜琴) who was Singapore’s first female barrister (and Hong Kong’s when she moved there later) and a proud adopter of the cheongsam (Romanisation of the Cantonese 長衫 (or long shirt) as everyday dress despite her clearly Western education (she graduated in the UK).

A trio of cheongsams from the ’50s and ’60s, two worn with jackets

The oldest outfits in Modern Women of the Republic are from the late Qing period—those that are precursors to what we can identify as today’s qipao (旗袍 or Manchu robe). In the first, entrance-facing showcase that welcomed visitors, a winter jacket lined with rabbit fur and an embroidered ao (袄) blouse-jacket (the mianao [棉袄 or padded cotton jacket] is still worn today) decorated with fertility symbols and motifs reflect a grander and possibly more decadent age when compared to a Republic-era blouse-and-skirt ensemble hung next to them. The latter would have ushered the arrival of Western dress and casual clothes: simplicity of line and print (as opposed to embroidery)—here, it is Art Deco in style. Although the blouse has narrower waist and sleeves, they embody the looser silhouettes of the 1920s, which, in Europe, who have been the beginning of the modern fashion era as well, spearheaded by designers such as Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and, most notably, Gabrielle Chanel. It was a joy to me to be able to examine these clothes up-close, to see that collars that stood, stood; the seams that are flat, stayed flat, as well as the exquisiteness of the embroideries. Craft here was indeed well and alive.

In the exhibition, I was especially fascinated by a small-screen,1929 film footage of a fashion show in Shanghai, the only video offering among 90-plus objects on display. The simple outdoor presentation was staged in what appeared to be a well-manicured courtyard, featuring Chinese models who emerged from an arched entrance in the rear onto what was a very short catwalk (compared to what we often see today). The women appeared unlike what novelist Eileen Chang (张爱玲) described in her 1943 non-fiction, Chinese Life and Fashions—“the ideal Chinese female, petite and slender, with sloping shoulders and a hollow chest, made herself pleasantly unobtrusive, one of the most desirable qualities in a woman”. These feminine ideals, ironically, had to be concealed under layers of clothes during the Qing rule. The models in the video had unyoked themselves from the restrictions of that time, but not feminine grace; their deportment and confidence heralded a new socio-cultural era.

I was held rapt by the young host of the show, introducing the different looks, presumably the rage of the time, in English! She did not say in great detail what the making of the garments entailed or provide commentary on the genesis of the styles, but it was apparent to me that the clothing was targeted at women (possibly foreigners too) who were trend-aware or who were ready and had the means to adopt these clearly fashionable looks. These are variations of the qipao and what is known as “civilised new attire” (文明新装), prevalent during the early 20th century. Following the May Fourth Movement (五四运动) of 1919, the anti-imperialist and political shifts that were considered momentous for China at that time, students (mainly young women) began wearing what was considered simpler, and garments that were usually in plain weaves, and were visually clear departures from those of the ancien régime. The “civilised new attire” was so popular that even older women adopted it, looking, amusingly, like schoolgirls.

‘Cantonese style’ cheongsam from the early Republican period

The difference between the past and the present is best exemplified by how the clothes are displayed. For the Qing jacket and the ao, horizontal rods are passed through the arms and hung, offering the same effect when similarly stretched out on a Qing garment rack, so that the unmistakable T-shape of the tops—the prevalent silhouette of imperial fashion then—is discernible. Exhibited this way, the immense amount of silk used and the full embroidery can be taken in and admired. I estimated that the Qing tops require at least 4.5 metres of fabric (assuming it is 0.9-metres in width or 36-inches), while the qipao that came after the 1950s would require no more than half of that. The change in fashion era that came with the fall of Imperial China is further contrasted by having the shapelier and lighter (and even shorter) qipaos (or blouses and skirts) worn on mannequins. Women by then were more than ready to don single-layer garments that were cut closer to the body and were shorter, too. The qipao, by now, had nearly obliterated the memory of the “civilised new attire”.

Modern Women of the Republic spans eighty-odd years. With just fourteen outfits, it is not possible that the changes accompanying each decade can be represented by at least one dress. In place of the gaps, the curators have availed photographs and other printed materials to offer an impression of the corresponding styles. Descriptions unfortunately tend to be brief, providing a scant picture of the stories and the crafts behind the exhibited garments. I would have liked to know (even if I could not see), for example, what the layers worn under the Qing ao were that made women look bulky, thus “suppressing their individuality and restricting their freedom”, as noted in an accompanying publication of the exhibition, which is, oddly and regrettably, just as skimpy. Or, the style of embroidery that are on some of the pieces, even when they look rather Cantonese (粤绣 or yuexiu) to me. Perhaps I was expecting scholarship when the curators had something more prosaic in mind. Or accessible?

What really sticks out in Modern Women of the Republic is the inclusion of cheongsam master Goh Lai Chan’s very 21st century gown. Yes, that showstopper. Its lonely appearance in a glass cabinet, placed in a corner, stood incongruously with the clearly less glamorous exhibits across from it. Mr Goh’s chilli-red piece is a qipao fashioned as a floor-sweeping doupeng (斗篷) or cloak, a Western-style garment believed to be introduced to China during the Qing dynasty. As a reinterpretation, he added a qipao collar to it, shortened the front hem to the knee and into an inverted V, on which surprisingly crude embroidered flowers are appliquéd over and weighted down by two short tassels: the sum serving as a headdress-like bouquet, under which a pleated skirt cascades to the floor. But what was annoyingly glaring to me was how shockingly messy the sleeves are set (creating unsightly puckering along the armholes) and how the shoulder refuses to rest flatly. As I glanced further down, two impertinent lines smiled at me: bust-darts that are warped and end in the front with two cheery dimples! Mr Goh’s gown should be lauded for being on-theme, but, sadly, it also reflects what #SGFASHIONNOW desperately tries to illustrates: “craft”, or the sheer lack of it.

#SGFASHIONNOW is on at the Asian Civilisation Museum till 19 December 2021. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is on at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall till 12 December 2021. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

The Met Looks At Its Front Yard

“American fashion” takes centrestage at this year’s Met Gala. Really

“Irony is over, oxymoron is next,” one marketing consultant said, when he heard the news. This year’s Met Gala and the attendant exhibition, to be held in September rather than the usual May (last year’s was cancelled), will be in salute of American fashion, according to Vogue. “Homegrown fashion”, as the organisers describe it, could possibly straighten the crumple post-Trump America is still wearing. This year’s event will be a two-parter (second to open in May 2022), and possibly larger than other previous ones. Could this be self-validation after a lame New York Fashion Week in February, amid a gloomy climate for American brands across all price points? Or is this a challenge to the believe that in the US, formulaic dressing and uniform-as-style can be replaced by fine examples of superlative design?

American fashion, two ends of the market and between, seems unable to capture our imagination for the past five years. Or even more. Storied names as Calvin Klein and mass appeal labels as Gap are fading in power, diminishing in influence, and declining in reach. More than ever America’s own needs an affirming boost. The mother telling her child, you are the best. In addition, the Met’s Costume Institute needs to WFA—work from America, now that borders are still not fully opened to facilitate any homage to designers of distant lands. Outside the US, its global standing, as a 13-nation Pew Research Center survey from last year illustrated, has “plummeted”—“majorities have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. in nearly every country surveyed”. Now is the time to look homeward and champion America.

Who truly represents American fashion? Tom Ford? Alexander Wang? Gosh, Kanye West, the “fashion mogul”? And pal Virgil Abloh? Or flag bearers Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors? Or, the retired Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Todd Oldham, Izaac Mizrahi? Or, to be inclusive, Carolina Herrara, Vera Wang, Phillip Lim, the Olsen twins, Lazaro Hernandez (the other half of Proenza Schouler), Dapper Dan, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Telfar Clemens? Or, to salute the pop world, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Selena Gomez, Sean Combs, Pharrell Williams? Or, to acknowledge the immigrants, Oleg Cassini, Rudi Gernreich, Fernando Sánchez, Adrienne Vittadini, Ronaldus Shamask, Naeem Khan? Or, to include the dead, Claire McCardell, Lilly Pulitzer, Bonnie Cashin, Mary McFadden, Anne Klein, Halston, Zoran, James Galanos, Perry Ellis, Oscar de la Renta, L’Wren Scott? Or, to take note of the Americans abroad, Mainbocher, Vicky Tiel, Patrick Kelly, Yoon Ahn, Daniel Roseberry? Or, to mark the (now) less-known, Stephen Burrows, Geoffrey B Small, Reed Krakoff, Rhuigi Villaseñor? Or, to rave about the he-who-can-be-anyone, Marc Jacobs?

You get the picture.

Illustration: Just So

Running Stitch: From Fashion To Art

This is an entry for the UOB Painting Of The Year 2019. And it was submitted by former fashion designer Tan Woon Choor, who was awarded the Bronze prize in the Emerging Talent category, which proves that, in art, thread can be a serious medium, and as imaginatively used as oil or acrylic

 

TYC UOB POTY 2019.jpgSweet Dots: Another by Tan Woon Chor. Photo: artist

It might be safe to say that the annual UOB Painting of the Year prize, in its 38th year and is the longest-running art competition in Singapore, has rarely (or never?) received a piece of work to judge that is painted with thread. This year, there are two entries in the Emerging Talent category that employ the material associated with sewing, with one of them a portraiture delineated entirely by thread, or, to be more specific, composed of embroidered discs. This textually unusual art, not quite in the same vein as needlepoint (or the cutesy pieces of custom embroiderer Deer Folks) or fabric-based patchwork, such as those by Lee Suet-Fern, the award-winning quilter who happens to be the wife of Lee Hsien Yang, is the stylish and compelling handicraft of erstwhile clothing designer Tan Woon Choor.

Last Wednesday, Mr Tan won the Bronze prize in the Emerging Talent category of the UOB competition (the other thread user, winner Vanessa Liem’s Frankenstein of an entry is primarily in the more traditional medium of oil on canvas, with squares stitched to form two parallel oblong wholes, with loose threads as curlicues), a place that the new, soft-spoken artist considers a privileged placing. “I was already very happy to be in the final,” he told SOTD the day after his triumph, “getting a third prize just makes me happier”. His winning work, simply titled ‘Another’ (not linked to or inspired by AnOther magazine, as some might assume), is a culmination of two-and-half months of work, and is one in “a series of four (so far) that is dedicated to the women who have inspired, motivated and helped me throughout my life,” Mr Tan let on. ‘Another’ is also “another journey” that he has embarked as he explores art; it’s also another person in his life (after many), and “another stitch after another” of the eye-straining embroidery he now does.

If you look at the UOB Painting of the Year microsite where a grid of this year’s entries is shown (scroll all the way down), Mr Tan’s organised collage of hand-embroidered circles—each with different stitches and unique textures and patterns, all of such deftly handled stitch densities—opaque and net-like, coming together to form a vaguely-Cubist and exaggeratedly pointillist portraiture of Mr Tan’s older sister Joyce, has the unmistakable distinction of looking strikingly modern, the way Serbian collagist Laslo Antal’s work is spiritedly urban. That the visage in Another requires some scrutiny before it can be discerned adds to the painting’s power and mystery. If you visit the UOB Art Gallery (a lift/escalator foyer, really) to view the work of the participants of the competition up-close (and are not too bothered by the lamentable, inappropriately glassed-up framing of Another), you may sense that Mr Tan’s affecting work does not really belong. And the professional judgement on it may have escaped scholarship or even a knowing eye.

Tan Woon Choor.jpgArtist Tan Woon Choor, November 2019. Photo: Jim Sim

Tan Woon Choor has always been somewhat of an outsider. As a fashion designer, he was not a media darling as the style-setters of the day were, such as Heng Juit Leng (formerly of Future State, now retired), Yang Derong (now a CNA stylist/presenter) and David Wang (now VP of education and training at TAFF). He had a taste of fashion early, when he participated, as a teenager, in the 1986 Her World Young Designers Award (the only competition of its kind then, and given a coveted standing as past winners included the late Tan Yoong), for which he was awarded the second prize. Neither was Mr Tan standing with striking visibility alongside other rising stars of a few years later, such as Alfie Leong, designer of MU (now morphed into BSYM) and AWOL, and brand gatherer behind the serial pop-up store Workshop Elements, and a friend, with whom Mr Tan found support—mid-career—in the now defunct, pioneering streetwear store 77th Street.

Mr Tan’s biggest break, he recalled, was being selected by Dick Lee as a participating designer (with his first label, PR Individual) in the ’80s hipster hotspot, Hemispheres, during a time local media consider to be Singaporean fashion’s “golden age”. But his encounters with those willing to give him a chance, despite clearly being a newbie, went even further back: to his ACS schoolboy days, including one when he showed up—even now surprised by his gumption (“I just walked in, no appointment, nothing”)—at presently-retired Celia Loe’s retail store, First Stop, in the old Plaza Singapura (when Yaohan was an anchor) to show her a few of his sketches. To his surprise, she was sufficiently impressed with them to buy the lot at S$8 a piece. He would, years later, join Mrs Loe as a designer of Editions, the “young career line”, not once, but twice.

In the annals of Singaporean fashion, it requires study and scrutiny to specifically place Mr Tan’s earmark contributions. He clearly didn’t belong to the Pioneer Generation of createurs such as Thomas Wee and Peter Kor, nor those who came after him—the fortunate ones who were able to have commercial representation in stores, such as Taro Chan (now a consultant) Peter Teo (ProjectShop-turned-PS Café) and, even later, Leslie Chia (first Haberdasher, then Haber and PIMABS, and now Closeknip). Mr Tan had always followed his own stitches, not totally affected by the pressures of the evolving fashion scene. In that way, he could be seen as part of the sandwiched generationthe in-betweens, so to speak, who worked quietly on their own, just below the radar, such as Vik Lim (a designer/stylist, who, in 2014, co-led the successful Kimono Kollab) and Tan Khee Gek (of the label Khee). These were a diligent few who modestly existed between the SODA designers of the ’80s and the digital-native brands of the Noughties. In that sense, Mr Tan could be considered to be part of the almost-veiled fringe.

Woon Choor SS 2012.jpgA dramatically simple sheath from Mr Tan Woon Choor’s last collection, retailed at the first Workshop Elements in 2012. Photo: designer

Yet, as a fashion professional, Mr Tan’s career had been impressive. He designed for others, such as the now-folded Hong Kong brand Theme; the streetwear/club clothes of Tattoo by the late Andy Ng; the Red and White Lines of 77th Street and for his own collections—“clubbing clothes” of T-shirts and printed mesh tops (“I was in my Gaultier phase!”) for the Zouk Shop, during the dance club’s early years at Jiak Kim Street; 12B (pronounced one-two-B), which was initially conceived for the former Tangs Studio; and an eponymous label, which finally debuted in 2012 for, regrettably, half a year. He was also a buyer at one time for labels such as Gaultier Junior, Luciano Soprani, Canali, and the French mass l’étiquette Kookai in a stint with Hong Leong Fashion. And, a retailer when he started the multi-label store Plan B (two of them—in Bugis, as well as Wisma Atria, which “nearly killed” him) to promote young Singaporean designers and labels, such as Mian (Han), Tattoo (by Andy Ng), Gog Meng Hee, and just-out-of-schoolers Joey Khoo and Alfie Leong.

Although Mr Tan had chalked up a remarkable résumé by the time he veered from fashion design for embroidery-as-art, he has been totally self-taught. “I love looking at clothes,” he said, when we sat him down for a breakfast chat recently. By that, he didn’t mean he glances at garments the way social media habitués scroll down IG pages, clicking the heart-shaped icon to like and approve what they see, but registering little or nothing of what the images might elucidate, if at all. “I look at the inside of clothes as much as the outside; I lay then down and try to understand how they’re all done.”

He isn’t reticent about his own abilities or the limitations they impose. “I always try to do the best with whatever I have. I’m more an improvising kind of designer. Whatever I can’t do, I improvise. So I try to achieve the effect with what I know. I know the patterns, but if you ask me to alter, I can’t because I can’t get the calculations right. In that sense, you can say I’m not a technical designer.” Even with admitting to a lack of technical finesse, Mr Tan’s approach to designing can be considered rather technical: he prefers the specificity of cut than the distraction of embellishments, the manipulation of shapes than the mere meeting of seams. Some saw his work as avant-garde. A school mate recalls Mr Tan’s dogged determination to understand the foundational aspects of garments. “Back in the early days, I remember watching him—in his home—cut a top, and he would try it on paper repeatedly until he got the shape exactly the way he wanted it. I didn’t know then if he did it the right way. That he could cut and sew was impressive enough. The result always looked smashing to me. Meanwhile, Grace Jones’s Nightclubbing would be played on the turntable as soundtrack to an imaginary fashion show in which that top would be featured.”

Tan Woon Choor Another Nov 2019To see the hidden portraiture, Another (left) is best viewed from afar. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Mr Tan’s last stint as a fashion designer was in 2012, when he put together a collection for the opening of the first Workshop Elements (WE) in Wisma Atria, set up by his friend and former colleague Alfie Leong. He had, by then, shifted gears, developing home furnishings/decor items, and was working with Como Hotel and Resorts on products for their gift shops and for room use. (Aside: Mr Tan remembered his first audience with the head of Como Group, Christina Ong, during the job interview to be “like a meeting with Anna Wintour”.) At WE, he finally launched a collection that bore his name, some thirty odd years after his debut in Hemispheres. And it was, as a former editor stated, “smart, well-conceived and well-made; clothes that captured the spirit of unhindered creativity and were deserving of a designer name”.

The WE months for him, although a mere six, marked a career high for Tan Woon Chor: the clothes sold so well that he could not keep up to meet the demand. Still cut and sewn by him alone, they showed an aesthetical maturity that industry watchers noted and his customers—some new, some followers—appreciated. The designs could stand on their own without the hype that had, by then (thanks to the advent of social media and the feverish adoption of it), became crucial for brand recognition, never mind if the clothes held up to scrutiny. Although at the beginning of WE, the idea was to present a “curated” mix of merchandise, it was obvious the organiser did not have enough brands with notable design value to fill the space, which, ironically allowed Woonchoor the label to stand out and reach a captive audience.

Unable to cope with the production and unwilling to see the rack that he, too, designed stand with insufficient merchandise, Mr Tan decided to stop just as things went well for him. There was, however, another reason too, one that had, in fact, presented itself earlier, but seemed more pertinent in post-blog-shop 2012. By now, fashion has been adopted by many, or, for a lack of a better phrase, the denizen. “I didn’t like to see fashion so mass,” he recalled. “When I was working (for fashion companies), I thought the exposure was good for me because I wanted to see what really went on behind the scenes. But after seeing it all, after knowing how things are done, how the buying houses actually got their accounts. I was a little disappointed with the whole system—ethically, it was not me. And now that fashion has changed so much, I feel that if I can’t really contribute or add to the conversation, maybe I should stop. I’m up to here with fashion;  I don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it.”

Studio Curio early works.jpgMr Tan’s early hand-embroidered works. Photo: Studiocuriosg/Instagram

The dabbling with embroidery began last year. Mr Tan had, by then, left Como and was considering slowing down or doing something that allowed him to appreciate processes that they can’t be rushed. “I had the time and I wanted to use the time to really enjoy the things that needed time to do,” he said, “and even more time to do well”. As with fashion design, Mr Tan taught himself how to embroider, gleaning mostly from YouTube videos, like millennials are wont to do when they need animated instructional guidance. But unlike many of the young viewers, Mr Tan applied what he took in seriously and, quickly, found that he could be creative with embroidery, but more importantly infuse his work with modern simplicity.

When contributing editor of Her World Brides Steve Thio saw Mr Tan’s initial output last year, the former was so impressed with the work that he immediately commissioned special pieces that he would use as gifts. In no time, Studio Curio started (“I just needed a name at the time to register an IG account; I thought what I did could be considered ‘curios’.”) and Mr Tan came to the confident conclusion that thread can be as valid and serious a medium as the more traditional used in fine art, such as acrylic, oil, or ink.

He began to seriously consider working on larger pieces that could be destined for walls (opposed to those suitable-for-desk/dresser/beside-table he had, until then, produced). But the work turn out to be more time-consuming than he had thought. Contrary to what it might appear to be, each piece of Mr Tan’s embroidered work is stitched directly onto the canvas, not individually completed pieces appliquéd onto the artist’s base. The long process, which eventually led to the idea of designs that are slow to execute and complete, allowed him to slip into snatches of calming reverie. It became a reflective time. He thought, in particular, a lot about the women who had been instrumental in prodding him along in this journey: his mother, his sister, his aunt (who gave him a box-ful of embroidery threads), even his one-time employer Celia Loe.

19-11-14-18-18-43-890_deco.jpgThe exhibition Favourite Things at the Arts House, featuring the works of Tan Woon Choor. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

When he showed Another to his friend, former designer and present senior lecturer at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Fashion Studies, Gary Goh (himself an alumnus of the Her World Young Designers Award), there was no doubt in Mr Goh’s mind that Another should have a shot at the UOB prize. He encouraged the budding artist to join. When we saw it just before submission, we were struck by the polished and sensitively rendered delineation that tacitly tried to convey to us Man Ray, expressed by the Japanese illustrator Macoto Takahashi, disguised as embroidery swatches in circles!

This evening, Mr Tan and two of his also just-turned-artist friends—art directors Patrick Sin and Sherli Chong—open Favourite Things, a three-day exhibition at the Arts House, featuring their recent works. Unfortunately, Another would not be on display as it now belongs to UOB, and the bank has installed it in the above-mentioned exhibition. In keeping with the theme of taking time to do something well, the exhibits from the three artists have a common conceptual idea, if not a common theme: the quality that would emerge in embracing ‘slow’.

Despite an exhibition he can be proud of and a prize-winning work, Mr Tan is still treading (and threading) with trepidation. “It’s quite scary, this transition to an artist. You know it’s…,” he hesitated and then continued, “an unstable career.” When it was suggested to him that it need not be a shaky career choice, he added, “Usually if you want to be an artist, you’d have to be very commercial in order to sell.”

The sense of disquietude is understandable: even as a fashion designer, Mr Tan had never submitted to the demands or vagaries of the commercially advantageous. “Career-wise, there’s still a question mark,” he said, “but I’ll still go on. I’ll see where it takes me.” Back to fashion? “If there’s anything next for me in fashion, it’d probably be something to do with taking all my old clothes and make something new.” That sounds like a line out of the DBS Sparks online mini-series, but this is no fiction—Tan Woon Choor will make it happen, stitch after another stitch.

Favourite Things is on at the Arts House at the Old Parliament from today to 16 November. Another is available to view at UOB Art Gallery, UOB Plaza 1 at 80 Raffles Place from Nov 9 to Feb 20, 2020

Watched: Yellow Is Forbidden

In last Sunday’s closing film of the Design Film Festival 2019, Yellow is Forbidden, the designer Guo Pei is shown—at work and at play—as complete contrast to her couturière self. But it is left to the viewer to decide if she would really leave a legacy in Asia that we can be proud of or just scoff at years later

 

Guo Pei June 2019 SGGuo Pei during a talk at TAFF, Design Orchard, in June. Photo: Jim Sim

It is easier to doubt Guo Pei’s (郭培) talent than her sincerity. Or her willingness to be unmasked, whether in the presence of a film crew or an audience. In Yellow Is Forbidden, a film that’s less about the disallowed than what is allowable in the design of clothes, Ms Guo reveals all the different aspects of being a working couturière, as well as, cliched as it might be, a mother, a daughter, and a wife. Documentary film-maker Pietra Brettkelly (A Flickering Truth, a narrative about Afghan cinephiles excavating and preserving the films of the nation’s past) created a surprisingly intimate portrait of Ms Guo, who allowed cameras beyond her atelier, into her home, as well as her parents’. In Ms Guo, the New Zealander found not only a willing subject, but a gregarious one—a world-famous woman unafraid to tear up before the camera. Or reveal her softer side, a lover and collector of teddy bears—400 to date.

At 52, Guo Pei has the effervescence of a 25-year-old. She sounds girlish, with an enthusiastic lilt most of the time, so much so that she would not be out of place among the many schoolgirls that gather in Starbucks to do whatever they do there. And sometimes, with her Taiwanese husband Jack Tsao (曹宝杰) in the picture, she sounded almost coquettish. But that teasing sweetness and the tendency to call people baobei (darling) do give way to a more aggressive voice, such as that used when she was not able to come to the right price, in the right amount of time with the rural embroiderers she was engaging. For a moment, the way she argued, the way she sat, the way she held herself, she appeared to us, even when her stance is understandable since she was dealing with out-of-city folks, as one of those irate China women at an airport—any airport, about to go ballistic on an airline staff.

Many people who have met Guo Pei like to speak of how amiable she is. The constant refrain and common first impression “she’s really nice” perhaps beget a just-as-agreeable reaction to her work as a fashion designer, and an eloquent one. But it is possible that her niceness could be a disarming front, engaged to discourage one from disparaging her or from looking at her work too critically. And she is mindful of how others view her, saying in the film (and off-camera, such as during the talk that she gave in June when invited by the Textile and Fashion Federation) that she does not want to be seen as a designer who caters only to celebrities. Or that she, when ask of what her work will be bring to China, is definitely “a designer, not a nation”.

Guo Pei @ Paris ExhibitionGuo Pei at the opening of the Paris exhibition. Film still: Madman Films

Yellow is Forbidden, made possible through the crowd-funding site Boosted, brings the audience surprisingly close to the sometimes close-to-tacky oppulence that Guo Pei sells and the people important to her. In fact, it’s surprising that the Tsao family is not forbidden to the film-maker’s cameras and husband Jack, also her business partner, takes up not insignificant screen time, by her side—at home, in the office, in the car. It’s also a peek into the world of her customer base in China, comprising what appeared to us the new rich (and reported elsewhere to be from the upper political, media, and social echelons of the country)—the many matrons may not be different from the women Ms Guo tried to court here through a couple of private shows that she hosted when she was in town in June to open the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) exhibition, dedicated to her, Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture. She urged her guests/customers not to don the qipao (旗袍 or cheongsam) when going to the West, urging them, instead, to consider her designs which are clearly Western garb characterised by Eastern details. The women were enraptured, as if she was deliverying a sermon.

Guo Pei, a non-English-speaking createur in a non-Chinese speaking world of the West, must have appeared impressive and admirable and a doyenne to her audience in China, so much so that this woman, the product of an earlier, just-after-the-Cultural-Revolution zhongguo and a graduate of Beijing Second Light Industry School (1986), can be allowed to shape their sartorial taste because, unlike them, she had made a deep impression among the laowai (老外 or foreigners), through Rihanna no less, and interfaced with the West and, through her visits to museums, explored close-up the couture gowns of Jeanne Lanvin, for example, and has become far more knowledgeable than the average knowledgeable fashion-consuming woman.

Westerners, including the milliner Philip Treacy, may be enamoured with the works of Guo Pei because of the detectable (delectable?) ‘Chinese-ness’, but many in Asia, including those in Ms Guo’s motherland, find her taste unable to give wholly to the refined. Her output may be so, but the sum for some of us escapes the discernment that characterised the work of, say, Charles James, whose designs Ms Guo’s favourite model Carmen Dell’Orefice has said the Chinese designer equals. We will never know what Mr James would have thought of that comparison, but Guo Pei has never truly left the fantasyland she ensconced herself to as a little girl and possibly lived through, even at Beijing Second Light Industry School, where, she admitted in the film, she did not even know what shizhuang (时装 or fashion) was. It isn’t clear she now does.

Yellow Queen P2The Yellow Queen, aka omelette cape/dress, that set Guo Pei on the path to Paris, here seen at the ACM. Photo: Jim Sim

Unencumbered by what defined (or defines) fashion, Ms Guo, we feel, designs from the memory of imagined places and people or from the mental notes she takes from museum visits. These, embellished with the palace tales and fashion her laolao (姥姥 or maternal grandmother) used to regale her with, constitutes the foundational aesthetics from which she launches her over-the-top designs—the Western silhouette is there, but the exaggerated forms that the possible lack of exposure afforded her, underscores what may be excess bereft of finesse. Despite not knowing what shishang was, she defined it not by any clear terms, and as such, was neither able defy it, which left much of her work in a sort of couture limbo.

Geographical placing may give the clothes a certain Gallic air (or the romantic notion of it), but what we have seen so far is nothing like what the French does, nor do the clothes bear Chinese aesthetical distinction, whether past or present. They may have emotional heft since so much is invested in them, but they lack soul, like stage costumes waiting to be given life by whoever is cast to wear them. The film does not go into what makes her desire to create clothes that weigh as much as the wearer (so heavy, in fact, that they are against French laws pertaining to how much workers can haul each time—35kg versus her 50kg gowns!), or if such surfeit of material, not just fabric, is a reflection of the past or the present, or the future. Or, just a self-assuring practice of more-is-better.

“I’m the slowest designer in the world,” Ms Guo, professes, but we are not certain if that is declared with regret or pride or a bit of both. As there is no real discussion of what saturates her work (nor does she truly explain), we may never know why the lack of speed is an asset or why superfluity of details and embellishments in a dress are pluses when they circumvent productivity or demand the prolonged dedication of those involved. Or why any outfit with the total weight of an adult North Pacific giant octopus, necessitating unrushed putting on, may make the outfit more appealing. Are long, impossible-to-imagined hours—50,000 man hours, a figure she cited more than once—on a single dress the only hallmark of couture? That, and embroidery and beading?

Guo Pei & familyGuo Pei and her parents. Film still: Madman Films

Guo Pei has positioned her work as yishu (艺术 or art) and, as such, it is possible this standing deters one from questioning the artist. It’s got to a point that many observers convinced themselves that if her designs are good enough for a star such as Rihanna, and can be the subject of museum exhibitions around the world, she must be good. The thing is, the converse is not necessarily true either: it would be grossly untrue and unkind to say she’s bad. So where does that leave Guo Pei? Or, is it not quite percipient to evaluate the work of someone who exists—creatively—outside the circle that we are familiar with? And therein lies the problem in deciding where her work can be best positioned within a conservative hierarchy of things: she does not fit in.

And the films doesn’t suggest she does. Instead, it shows her with her weaknesses and wonderment, foibles and fears, tantrums and tears. That she’s just as good a salesperson reminds us that Guo Pei runs a very tight ship, so tight, in fact, she does not have a sourcing manager or agent to assist her. Instead, she does most of the (leg) work herself (accompanied by her husband), such as buying her own fabrics at what could be the B2B marketplace Première Vision, where she, unsure of the visuals she wanted to apply on her fabrics, prodded her husband to ask the supplier if angels are areligious! There’s not only her lack of inter-faith knowledge, but also the blank on the meaning of spiritual beings in any religion or culture. Would it not be dicey to use a subject one has scant knowledge of?

When it comes to Guo Pei, how much is head, how much is heart, and how much is gumption? It is not entirely clear, nor is it shown. Ms Brettkelly allows Ms Guo to do most of the talking, which gave the film a platform on which only the designer’s views matter. Sure, there were cursory remarks and encouragements from others, but it would complete the picture if viewers could understand what her clothes—also designed for public consumption, not just for her own love—meant to others and why to them the designs are stunning and stirring. It could have been informative, even broadening, to know how officials of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, French governing body for couture that admitted her as a guest member, viewed Ms Guo or why followers such as Frank Cintamani (a glimpse of him was caught), the now-laying-low president of the just-as-quiet Asian Couture Federation (the organisation established a “base” in Beijing last year), are so ardent in their pursuit, or what those rapt customers during the trunk shows truly think of her designs and how the clothes could fit into their existing wardrobes.

Magnificent gold Guo Pei.jpgMagnificent Gold, one of the most featured dresses in the film, here seen at the ACM exhibition. Photo: Jim Sim

What Guo Pei is able to achieve is not endeavour of a single woman. So much of the details in her clothes, as one could see to one’s heart’s content at the ACM exhibition or, earlier, to one’s amusement at her show during Fidé Fashion Weeks in 2013, is not the result of her own craftsmanship alone, but the combined effort, push, and resolution of an incredible atelier—Rose Studio. Virtually no one in her team is given a voice to express what it is like to do the kind of work they do (except that it is hard work) or how gratifying it is, if it is at all. Of if they are.embarrassed to be associated with dresses that possibly beg as much ridicule as admiration. It has been pointed out by Western observers that what Guo Pei has done, by way of engineering the clothes and the ornamentation applied on them, few others in Paris can achieve. China doubtlessly has a long history of craftsmanship. And Ms Guo has no qualms in using them all, in one garment. It would, therefore, be compelling to see the actual toil behind the production and what it is like to be so deep in such hard handiwork.

Of the Yellow Queen, that cape/dress Rihanna wore to the Met Gala in 2015, Ms Guo said, “the weight of the dress and the height of the heels represent responsibility. I believe that the more responsibility a woman takes on in her life, the greater she becomes”. Greatness is not just the assuming of responsibilities, but also the people under which the responsibilities include their employment and welfare. There were snaps of the staff at work and a quartet manoeuvering a stairway with a massive gown to get it to some place, but these hardly revealed the labour involved in creating clothes with the theatricality that befits a show venue such as the Conciergerie, a former prison where Marie Antoinette spent her time before execution. Guo Pei is only the second designer after Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen to present a collection in the gloomy place (after her first choice, the L’église de la Madeleine unsurprisingly turned her down).

To be fair, she did show herself sharing her achievements with her family. She was comfortable for cameras to capture her daughters, with one of them so emotionally affected at the end of the first couture presentation in Paris that she broke into tears (followed by mother comforting her child before the former stepped out on the runway to acknowledge the applauding support). Surprising and heartwarming was a visit to her parents’, where she regaled the viewer with recalls of her relationship with her maternal grandmother and the tales the old lady told her. The nicest touch of the film came in the end: Ms Guo’s mother, a former school teacher, sang a song of tribute to mothers and daughters. This served as soundtrack to the end credits. For a moment, we forgot we were watching a fashion film. Zhang Yimou would have approved.

A Common Coarse

One-time fashion designer Heath Yeo’s just-concluded solo exhibition, One Machine, One Stitch, One Man, at The Arts House is a celebration of the applied arts of the Peranakan sulam. A few visitors were heard saying that the pieces were “pretty”, which, to some of us, did not necessarily point to refined

 

HY One P1.jpg

By Lee Lan Neo

As I approached the first three black mannequins to the right of the entrance of Gallery II of The Arts House, I immediately imagined what my grandmother, eyes dilated and kerosang quivering, would have said: “kus semangat, apa ni (my goodness, what’s this)?” As if reading my thought, a middle-aged woman next to me said, with no intention of hiding her feelings, to her male companion, “eh, sapa mati pulak (who died)?” I pounced at the delectable disdain and asked her, “modern, right?”

In front of me, two dummies were draped in kebayas—the blouse-jackets that have become synonymous with what the Nyonyas of the past wore. The one that provoked the woman and brought a smile to me was a Cruella de Vil of a baju: black—the right half of the bodice similarly ebony, with the sulam (embroidery) in white, while the left half in reverse, the sum possibly a chromatic affront to the typical modern Nyonya kebaya of colours so vivid that they’re only out-matched by those of Peranakan porcelain.

Of the three mannequins, one, with its back facing front, was left telanjang—naked—except for a small, white, embroidered, rectangular piece, the size of a credit card, on the nape that sported a cursive font for the word “one”, which, a staffer eagerly volunteered, denotes One Machine—Singer, One Stitch—running, also known as straight, and One Man—Heath Yeo, the half-Peranakan fashion/bridalwear-designer-turned-embroiderer, considered to be one (again!) of the two of the dying breed of sulam craftsmen (the other is Raymond Wong of Rumah Kim Choo fame) left in Singapore.

HY One P2

Scanning the space, I was rather puzzled as to why the works on display deserved the gallery of The Arts House. They looked, to me, underwhelming, like a Baba’s daily meal served on a tok panjang (long table) when a kitchen table will do. In total, the five-day exhibition comprised only 17 kebayas (although it did say 20 in the exhibition notes), all of minimal variation and hemmed-in aplomb. A smaller space, such as a meeting room in a community club, would have better afforded the intimacy attendees tend to seek in shows examining the details that speak of needle craft guided by hand.

It should be noted that Mr Yeo’s work is not the result of just needle and thread applied without other tools. It is mainly achieved with what he called “a regular sewing machine”—in his case, a handsome, black and gold Singer of indeterminate vintage, which, as he emphasised to a captive audience during a demo, “can do embroidery”. The flexibility of this sewing machine is somewhat legendary and dates back to the initial and popular years of the brand. As early as 1856, Singer marketed its sewing machines by way of window displays at its New York HQ that featured attractive ladies sewing and showing off “art” projects, including embroidery, probably without the foresight that it’d be one day used for sulam.

According to media reports, Mr Yeo, a Lasalle College of Arts alum, learned to embroider from the late Mdm Moi Tai Ee of the now-defunct Kim Seng Kebaya & Embroidery, a custom service of some repute in the ’70s and ’80s, at least in the Peranakan community. Mdm Moi had apparently earlier rejected Rumah Kim Choo’s Raymond Wong as a student (he was urged to use his degree in accountancy for better prospects instead) when he approached her to seek tutelage. Mr Yeo, as fate allowed, was a lot luckier; he had, in fact, met Mdm Moi during his NS days with the Music and Drama Company (dabbling in costume), and had later approached the senior embroiderer to accept him as a learner. He apprenticed for a mere two years before striking out on his own.

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Unless you are an aficionado of what Bibiks wore, the name Heath Yeo may be unfamiliar, but those who don’t forget local news may remember, as I do, that back in 2012, Manhunt Singapore winner Jason Chee wore Mr Yeo’s custom-made baju—“a sexy, modern warrior look”, as the designer told The New Paper—in the costume segment of Manhunt International in Bangkok. The two-piece (with accessories reportedly bought from Tekka Centre), comprised a sheer shirt of pale gold (or, was it yellow?), with Mr Yeo’s requisite sulam flowers (in blood red) and a sheath of batik that served as a sarong, but left little to the imagination, so little, in fact, that fashion show producer and author Daniel Boey commented to TNP that Mr Chee looked “like a Javanese rent-boy”.

Aesthetically, Mr Yeo, who by then was a proprietor of a shop (now closed) at the Tudor Court that went by the straightforward name of Sulam by Heath, would not have adapted the traditional Baba wear baju lok chuan (basically, loose-fitted Mandarin jacket that the menfolk preferred) for a Manhunt final. The kebaya, traditionally in semi-transparent rubia (also known by the trade name Robia, a lightweight cotton fabric of high thread count, usually English, but not always) or voile (cotton is common, but not necessarily Swiss), could, by 2012, be adapted to project a less ancestral—campier—masculinity, which was not at odds with the competition itself. Online trolls thought Mr Yeo was, simultaneously, promoting his sulam business, while I was not convinced that it was a statement about Singaporean fashion even when he was sure: “people look at this, they can identify that (Mr Chee) is from a tropical island”.

Unlike his Manhunt creation, Mr Yeo’s interpretations of the kebaya leaned on the more traditional. The fabric was mostly cotton voile and the sulam comprised running and satin stitches, and the kerawang (web-like cut work), in combinations that were unsurprisingly less complicated than those stitched by women in the past, who had all the time in the world to embroider to astound. Some seams were finished with a single line of ketok lobang—tiny, knocked (more precisely, punched) holes, which are a tad similar in resultant look to (and just as decorative as) fagoting. The sum effect, however, was somewhat lacking in what may be considered a sensual garment.

Heath Yeo and his creationsHeath Yeo (left) and his kebayas

And therein lies my beef. A kebaya top may be considered a “work of art”, but it is only one part of the equation. Modern, IG-crazy Nyonyas may wear their kebayas with tank tops and denim jeans or those irritating cut-offs, or nothing at all, but one whose reputation sits on creating them in a glorious light should present the sarong kebaya in its entirety—with the batik sarong, rather than having the blouses hung, unpressed, on mannequins with the indifference of a shirt draped over the back of a chair.

Any regular wearer of the sarong kebaya would insist that part of the appeal and sensuality and indeed the charm of the outfit is how the top is paired with the bottom: a clash of sulam and the batik motif, too, has artistic merit, and mirrors the keen eye of the wearer. Depriving the kebaya top of a deserving batik sarong also meant that the outfits were only half assembled—tak lengkap, and attendant accessories, such as the kerosang (a fastener of usually three brooches kept together by chain-links) and the pendeng (metal belt), both so vital in Peranakan fashion, were not given their rightful place in the compete look.

But I hear the upbraiding: that the highlight of the exhibition is the sulam, essentially Malay/Indonesia needlework that the Nyonyas adapted with Portuguese and Dutch lace-making techniques. Interestingly, the publicity material stated that this was an “exhibition of embroidery art and fashion”. Or, was that embroidery fashion? Let’s stick to the embroidery then. I must admit that, although I can jait (sew), I am not an expert the way Mr Yeo is, but I think I am sensitive to refinement, which in well-executed crafts do not waft off like the smell of curry left to cool on the stove top. Mr Yeo may have the advantage of the sewing machine and the hoop, but, to me, the embroidered flowers and such lacked a certain depth.

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It is more than just subject matter (which is influenced by cultivation and personal preference) or visual aesthetics (which is affected by taste). Mr Yeo’s work might have displayed a dash of deftness, but not daring. Nor does it express a flair for the imaginative. It was neither compositionally surprising or chromatically unusual. Some work showed restraint to the point of dullness; others, with cut work, flora, and birds coming together in such a way that they looked bedraggled.

I once heard one of my aunt’s cherki kaki (fellow player of a Peranakan card game, mostly popular among the ladies) said of the sulam she used to do when her eyes were better, “lebih benang kita guna, mestilah lebih halus, lebih hidup sulam itu (the more thread we use, the finer and the more three-dimensional the embroidery must be)”. Fine or halus is a Nyonya obsession: even the ulam in nasi ulam (herbed rice salad) must be hiris (sliced) so halus that they resemble strands of hair!

As if to contradict my observation, I overheard someone telling Mr Yeo that his work “is good enough” for use in French couture. The sulam on kebaya, in general, is essentially folk art, which, unlike the French or Chinese versions, can barely be traced to any royal court tradition (except perhaps to the Javanese’s) that resulted in a higher form of textile art. Couture? Perhaps Francis Cheong’s. The Peranakan womenfolk adopted this needle craft and made it their own by using Chinese motifs (sometime other culture’s) and effecting a sense of refinement already seen in many of their applied and culinary arts. Heath Yeo’s sulam was admirable for it reflected his keenness in preserving the craft, not the advancing of the embroidery’s creative potential. Simply put, he didn’t inch it to another level. As my grandmother would say of his work, “tak cukup rasa, tapi boleh makan lah”—not enough taste, but can be consumed.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Oh Mickey!

Mickey Mouse visits us on our 53rd birthday in 2018, and we put a hand towel on his head!

 

Mickey Go Local 1

By Mao Shan Wang

A friend of mine texted me yesterday to ask me to drop by Raffles City to look at “what they have done to Mickey”. “You have to see it,” he added for good measure. Since he put it that way, missing it might mean missing out! In case you don’t already know: like you, I suffer from a critical case of FOMO. So this afternoon, during my otherwise bo liao lunch break, I paid mi laoshu a visit.

What could you do to Mickey that Mini has not? It did not take long for me to see what my friend meant. There were many Mickey figurines, ninety to be exact, all painted/dressed/adorned differently. However, this is not quite like the painting of elephants (in 2011, our version of the Cow Parade) or other creatures that had previously gripped our nation and the celebrities who think they are artistic. This is desecration of a Disney icon. Unless you have a very wonky need to see the mouse Walt Disney drew become a Chingay charmer.

In a nutshell, Mickey is made to ‘Go Local’, very much like how it is for the APEC leaders’ Family Photo—as hackneyed but cheesier. This is a Disney and Raffles City partnership in conjunction with the shopping centre’s Art in the City program, which, this year, coincides with our nation’s 53rd birthday and Mickey’s 90th anniversary (on 18 Nov). Put art aside. Mickey is accorded the hospitality we’re known for: plunge the non-native in a vat of rojak.

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When we go local, we seem to think of cultural jumble or of the past. Nostalgia is big. It is as if most of the participants—Mediacorp stars, media types, and leaders of industry—had gone to the Naiise School of Art and Design and were taught by sentimentalist Jack Neo, aka Liang Ximei. We’re in our 53rd year of nationhood, yet we still see ourselves as emerging from the end of the Japanese Occupation. If it isn’t so, I don’t know why we desire to dress Mickey Mouse as a satay seller hawking on the street. And what’s with the obsession for the Good Morning towel?

I am unclear why Mickey Mouse is such a strong trigger for nostalgia. Could it be because he’s a cartoon character from another era, way before 4K televisions and digital transmission? A smart nation is what we’re aiming to be, yet Mickey going local in most of the 90 iterations appear to reflect a Singapore when the international airport was still in Paya Lebar and self-check-in was as fathomable as selfies. Interestingly and disappointingly, only one Mickey is depicted as a creature of a modern city: he is tattooed in digital motifs.

Talking about numbers, repeated ideas do say something about our national interests (or should that be obsessions?) and pride. We’re clearly a nation that loves to eat (food theme: 13); we’re delighted with our Garden City reputation (floral/orchid/garden theme: 10); we don’t like plush, fluffy French terry—we prefer Good Morning towels (it appears 7 times); we’re enamoured with Malay culture (batik/ikat motifs: 6); we love our HDB heartland (public housing/playground theme: 5); and we’re eager to salute NSmen (camo/national service theme: 5). Who’s surprised?

Mickey Go Local 3

Unexpectedly, love for Peranakan culture and cuisine is barely palpable (3), same for the Merlion (1), the night races of the F1 Grand Prix (1), and, gasp, 4D/gambling (1). Halfway through, I was expecting Singapore Girl representation, but I guess that’s a tough one. It’s a lot easier to do Phua Chu Kang—he’s all of us: more for most, less for the rest. Dick Lee is missing too, although above me, they were playing Home.

And like the majority of us, fashion is not Mickey’s strong suit, and we know it. So we are not careful with the aesthetic abuse. If we don’t make him look kopi tiam-ready, we make him bloom like he’s dressed by Far East Flora. When the preferred garment by most of us is the T-shirt, only two Mickeys have one on. And when sneakers are the footwear of choice, only four of them are given some semblance of trainers. Intriguingly, a kind soul has given him a square of a tuala for his head because “with such hot weather in Singapore, he would need… a cute little towelette mimicking the Samsui women whose hard work helped shaped Singapore…” If there’s any imitating to do, I’d pick a certain Balmain-designed kebaya, but, as I remind myself, this is a family exhibition.

I am not sure how we’re going to impress visitors already not impressed by our fashion sense. Or convince them we have fashion on our mind. Maybe it’s just easy to localise Mickey. He has been wearing what seems to be only red shorts for almost all his life that no matter what you pile on him, it’s better than those trunks. I am not suggesting we send Mickey to Ho Ching’s samfu maker, but there must be an approach to dressing an overseas guest that does not involve the preference synonymous with Miss Singapore dressmakers: chap chai campur that’s tenaciously Singapura.

Mickey ‘Go local’ is on at Raffles City, level 1 from today till 29 Aug. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Met Gala 2017: A Cop Out

Rihana Met GalaRihanna bursting with Comme des Garçons fabric petals. Photo: Neilson Bernard/ Getty Images

By Mao Shan Wang

I knew it was going to turn out like this: disappointing. The Met Gala, despite its standing as the “Super Bowl of fashion”, is really a chance for attendees to relive their teen-year prom night, not to honour a designer, living or dead. They turn out to outdo each other—a conference of gowns. Glamour reigned and glamourous is a gown.

I did not think there would be enough women woman enough to don Comme des Garçons, and true enough, few bothered with the theme The Art of the In-Between. There were no in-betweens, only princess-like dresses or lackluster counterparts. This year’s Met Gala, as in the year of Punk: Chaos to Couture, saw a parade that was not in tribute mode. It was a classic red carpet (which turned out to be white and blue) affair, and the bedecked guests walked down the passageway or climbed the stairs in something that stunned, something that elicited the response “how gorgeous.”

That, of course, is antithesis to the whole Comme des Garçons aesthetic or design thinking. Ms Kawakubo, the subject of this exhibition, once said, “For something to be beautiful it doesn’t have to be pretty.” Try telling that to the homecoming queen Anna Wintour. She wore Chanel and she only does pretty! Sure, I can’t imagine “the most powerful woman in fashion” in Comme des Garçons, but if she, also the chairwoman of the Met Gala, wasn’t going to observe the theme, who needed to? Just look, as the invitees always have on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, glamour-stricken.

Tracee Ellis Ross Met Gala 2017Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of Diana Ross, in Comme des Garçons. Photo: Benjamin Norman/The New York Times

And that is perhaps the inherent limitation of the Met Gala. I say do away with the red carpet, and maybe—just maybe—the women will not sense something amiss if they do not feel fabric hugging their hips or cloth swirling around their feet. Or, the drag of a train behind them—the ultimate red-carpet inconvenience. In fact, there were many trains this year, more than the globular blooms and stark bandages associated with Comme des Garçons that one had hoped to see.

I suppose women think they should reprise Rihanna’s ponderous Guo Pei omelette to gain social media stardom. How else do you explain the massive sweep of Priyanka Chopra’s Ralph Lauren trench coat with a personality disorder?

Hollywood actresses, being Hollywood actresses, will always approach the red carpet the way they always have, even if they’re on a different coast: sexy or pretty, never mind if they look insipid (Jessica Chastain and Diane Kruger, both in Prada), predictable (Halle Berry in Versace), va-va-voom (Blake Lively in Versace), fairy-like (Elle Fanning in Miu Miu), and confused (Priyanka Chopra in Ralph Lauren). The choice of dress added to a sartorial resume that will, I suppose, help them score an invitation to the next Oscars.

Pharrell Williams and Helen Lasichanh Met Gala 2017Pharrell Williams and Helen Lasichanh, both in Comme des Garçons. Photo: Getty Images

Did anyone wear Comme des Garçons on the red carpet? I woke up at seven this morning to watch Vogue’s 360° livestream on Facebook, hoping to witness true homage. It was such a yawn that I counted, as I usually do, the dried cranberries in my muesli to stay awake. In the end, I spotted six (there could be more, but I did not see them). Of a reported 600 guests invited, that only six were photographed wearing the brand they had come to honour seemed to me a little sad and pathetic.

Ms Kawakubo had earlier indicated that she may not attend. I hope she did not. To see what I saw could be very depressing for her. In fact, I can imagine the reaction of the Japanese watching this in Tokyo (or anywhere throughout the country). They must have felt let down. What do these gown wearers know about one of their nation’s most revered designers? Why were they there to celebrate her work?

As expected, Rihanna stood out again, even when she looked like she was wearing a project her grandmother did not get to finish. Her pick was a dress from the fall 2016 collection which Ms Kawakubo was reported to have been “imagining punks of the 18th century” when conceptualising it. Rihanna is, of course, a very 21st-century woman with very digital-age taste. Whether she too was imagining an imagined sub-culture—or nor, she baffled me with the shoes: those red strappy heels. Comme des Garçons is heels-averse. A pair of sneakers from her Puma/Fenty line would have been a better fit, but that would not be ideal or glamourous enough for scaling the steps of the grand old Met.

Anna Cleveland Met Gala 2017Anna Cleveland looking fresh in Comme des Garçons. Photo: W magazineMichele Lamy Met Gala 2017Michele Lamy in Comme des Garçons arrived with her husband designer Rick Owens. Photo: Associated Press 

Surprisingly, Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of Diana Ross, turned up in Comme des Garçons, and she looked rather good in the dress that I think is from the 1996 ‘Flowering Clothes’ collection. I thought Anna Cleveland, another daughter of a famous name—the model Pat Cleveland, looked fresh in her beribboned ensemble, showing rather convincingly that Comme des Garçons can be wearable.

A big letdown was big-time fan Pharrell Williams, who, although attired in Comme des Garçons Homme Plus (save the jeans), looked way too casual, as if he was on his way to a recording studio. If he could wear Chanel’s women’s clothes, why could he not have put on a Comme des Garçons women’s number? That would have been ‘In-Between’. His wife, the model/designer Helen Lasichanh, was more in keeping with the spirit of the event. She wore a sort of union suit that seemed to have restricted hers arms to within the garment—constraint that is very Comme des Garçons of recent years.

To me, the most authentic was Michele Lamy, wife of the designer Rick Owens. She wore a panelled dress with a rather bulbous hemline (in the middle, something that looks testicular!) that could be from the very red spring/summer collection of 2015, and appeared every bit the part of the dark master’s spouse. Ms Lamy, in fact, looked like she wore something assembled at the last minute, in the limo, on the way to the party. And therein lies the appeal: she didn’t look too precious. Here was one unafraid woman, unshackled by the imposition of the unnecessarily ceremonial red carpet. 

These were indeed some of the brave, even if they constituted, to the embarrassment of the Met Gala and its organising committee, only a handful.

Watched: Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker and The First Monday In May

Last week, two fashion films were screened at the Capitol Theatre as part of A Design Film Festival Singapore 2016. Both were as different as blouse and skirt even if they were, ultimately, about creative clothes

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By Mao Shan Wang

It is to be expected that at screenings of films about fashion, there would be more fashion students than industry folks. It is no different when Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker was shown recently. That is, of course, a good thing since it is often said that the young are learning from fast channels and what’s shared such as on social media than from long-form communications such as books and film. However, at the end of the screening, I wondered if the students were more daunted than motivated.

Part biography, part philosophical musing, Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is a documentary that will crush the dreams of design students. Not long into the film, Mr Yamamoto extols the virtues of working and gaining experience, rather than fame. “After graduation from art school,” he said, “you cannot be creative. No, no, it’s impossible.” This is, of course, not a new refrain. Similar to what he told Business of Fashion’s Imran Amedin in May this year, “When I speak with young designers, I tell them, ‘Shut your computer, don’t look at the computer… if you really want to see real beauty, you have to go there by walking. Go there and touch it and smell it. Don’t use the computer. Otherwise, you won’t get real emotion.”

I am not sure if watching Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is an emotional experience for my fellow film goers, many of whom could not tear away from their smartphone—the handheld computer—during the screening, but it was for me. “Creation is life’s work; creation is how you spend your life,” says Mr Yamamoto in his characteristically slow and deep voice—not unlike a monk’s. “You cannot divide life and creation; it’s impossible.”

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Yohji Yamamoto examining the movement of a skirt during a fitting

Such is his certainty: the indivisibility of not just life and creation, but of conviction and craft, hand and fabric, eye and form. It’s like how some people can’t split love and marriage. In the film, you repeatedly see Mr Yamamoto squat during fittings to study his designs, especially of skirts and pants. A lesser designer might consider that an ungainly stance, but not Mr Yamamoto. The fitting sessions, in fact, truly shows the designer’s skill and mettle. It is here, where he is sometimes half-hidden behind a standing mirror, sometimes hunkered down as the fit models walk past, that I see a createur truly concerned with the 360-degree view and fall of clothes. His designs, from every angle, have to be perfect.

Perfection, I have often been told by design lecturers, is something students today do no pursue. The young are only keen on following fashion, to produce some semblance of fashion, not the epitome of it. Mr Yamamoto once said, in the 2011 documentary This Is My Dream, “I’m not interested in fashion generally; I’m interested in how to cut the clothing—dressmaking, clothing-making.” With computer-aided designs embraced by both designers and manufacturers, the rigours and the creativity behind dressmaking may be lost… forever. It is, therefore, heartfelt to see a designer working in the traditional sense of ‘designing’.

So much of what is shown at work is away from the digital realm, or at least the film does not dwell on the dependence on software and the like. This deep passion for craft enthralls if only because it seems so removed from our present world. Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker isn’t a fashion film in the vein of those that seek to glorify the visual excesses of over-the-top designers. The close-ups of Mr Yamamoto working tug at your heartstrings.  To paraphrase Tom Ford, who said in the 2015 documentary series Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind, “you can feel rather than think.”

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From left, Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton, and ex Mrs Murdoch, Wendy Deng

In contrast, The First Monday In May is about the dazzle and the glamour of New York’s major fashion spring event, the Met Ball. At the same time, it spotlights the one woman who pulls the two together—Anna Wintour. At the start of the film, she’s shown, in Chanel couture, with her back to the camera—drawing attention to her very creased elbow—before turning around in slow-mo like a movie star at a movie opening. Is the by-now over-exposed American Vogue’s honcho still so fascinating that she merits a film camera trailing her?

Sure, there’s a lot of the behind-the-scene toil, but even that seems glamorous. I am not sure if this documentary is really about the Met Gala (specifically last year’s China: Through the Looking Glass that shows Chinese culture’s influence on Western fashion), one night hailed by Andre Leon Tally as “the Super Bowl of social fashion events” or the glorification of an editor who has, like Diana Vreeland in the 1970s, positioned herself as the sole instigator of fashion as museum spectacle. Ms Wintour has not only made hers a notch more memorable (and deserving of a documentary); she has made them climb onto the category ‘blockbuster’.

the-first-monday-in-may-pic-2Andrew Bolton making last-minute adjustments to an Alexander McQueen dress before the start of the show

The film may have benefitted from the gravitas of Andrew Bolton, the Thom Browne-clad head curator of the Metropolitan of Art’s Costume Institute, but it still can’t escape from being fluff. Is it surprising, for instance, that Ms Wintour and her crew would have had a frustrating time confirming the guest list or seating those invited? Is it enlightening that an event of this scale would have experienced technical and logistical hiccups? Is it eye-opening to know that Rihanna would have cost a fortune if you wanted her to attend and sing? Who’s not aware: the audience or one of Ms Wintour’s bimbo-minions who said, “We can’t lose her, right? We just didn’t realise how expensive”?

What’s revealing, though, is that Ms Wintour is less attuned to the world outside fashion than we think. When she made a fuss about shifting a column to accommodate the tables she wanted and commented that “it’s only a column”, she had to be corrected by a museum staffer: “It’s a Tiffany column.” Is toughness an impenetrable façade to conceal the indolence of the mind? The First Monday In May is as much a celebration of clothes as getting as many glamourous, veneered people in one room to lend credence to the otherwise under-rated art of dressmaking. However strong the glamour factor, it isn’t moving.

Photo (top): Jim Sim. Film stills courtesy of respective film makers and producers, as well as A Design Film Festival

Stylish Anniversary Narrative

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It’s not often a sneaker’s anniversary is celebrated with such style. New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc’s pop-up exhibition salutes their 580 model in its 20th year so strikingly that it will be a visual treat to those who can pry themselves away from the screens of their digital devices to be moved by the mutli-media display. Installed at its former retail store in the hotch-potch centre *Scape, the New Balance exhibition expresses the story of a shoe more experientially than a virtual room could.

The Japanese aesthetic is unmistakable. Opaque, all-white vinyl adhesive screens the store’s front doors, partially obscuring the gallery/retail space within. In the tradition of special-edition launches designed for those in the know, New Balance’s tribute shop is high design paired with what is essentially destined for the street. It could have been a transplant plucked straight out of Shinjuku. See-through casing, suspended amid a sea of white 580s that sticks out alluringly at you, house the star shoes. This is unquestionably sneakerporn.

imageDSC_0586EFor an athletic shoe, twenty years of existence can be considered longevity. The New Balance 580 did not, however, have a terribly auspicious start. Its genisis can be traced to the American-made 585, a running shoe that did not gain much traction when it was launched in the mid-Nineties. When it became the 580, it would take the Japanese’s spin for it to eventually take the sneaker world by storm.

In 1996, Mita Sneakers, the Japanese retailer almost every athletic brand wants to collaborate with, tweaked the original to give it, dare we say, a bolder silhouette while augmenting its retro vibe. Together with the now-defunct Japanese street wear label HECTIC, they started a trend in what Mita Sneakers’ creative director Shigeyuki Kunii, who is here for the launch event, calls “Japan-modified products”.

image imageTop and bottom: Mita Sneakers X New Balance MRT580

The New Balance 580 sneaker may not enjoy the attention that its sibling shoes numbered 9++ receive, but through the years since its introduction, each collaborative release has been much sort after, especially those with Mita Sneakers, which amounts to more than 40 to date. The 580’s distinctive midsole with diagonal, moulded heel has not changed significantly despite the proliferation of fancier, all-manner-of-material-infused versions from competitor brands. It’s this classic leaning that has kept the 580 enduring and a firm favourite among sneaker aficionados.

For the 20th anniversary issue, New Balance has once again tapped the flair of Mita Sneakers. The unsurprisingly limited edition of the MRT580—out of 96 pairs made available to the Asia-Pacific region, only 24 are assigned to Singapore—is distinguished by a tri-colour combo of navy, white, and red, which seems rather more flag-like than the unusual chromatic pairings sneakerheads usually seek. Still, for collectors, this is no doubt worth queueing for.

The New Balance 580 20th Anniversary Pop-Up Gallery is open till 17 July at level 2, *Scape. The Mita Sneakers X New Balance MRT580, SGD229, is available from this Saturday. Photos: Galerie Gombak

Wide Angle, Narrow Vision

In March last year, the SG50-themed exhibition Fifty Years of Singapore Design opened to scant fanfare. After a year, the “permanent” exhibition still languishes without a crowd on the second floor of the National Design Centre

 

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Our second visit to Fifty Years of Singapore Design took place on a Friday afternoon. It was deathly quiet, the stillness not unlike that in a forgotten ancestral shrine. Only the faint murmur from the always busy Tanuki Raw, the café situated at Kapok, the National Design Centre’s (NDC) only retail outlet not connected to anything it exhibits, could be heard. As with our first visit last year, we contemplated and completed the display in a flash.

For an exhibition that chronicles 50 years of design, it is surprisingly undersized. During our first visit a few days after its official opening, we had allotted about an hour to take in all of Fifty Years of Singapore Design, but we finished it in twelve minutes. Fifty years of nationhood may not seem like a very long time, but five decades of design evolution is. Yet, this exhibition painted our island-republic’s business with design in one short, skinny brush stroke. Five decades, it seems, deserve only a feeble précis.

The smallness of the exhibition is magnified by the space in which it is installed: on the second-floor gallery of the NDC that’s about the size of a 4-room HDB flat, possibly less. In the opening month, Fifty Years of Singapore Design sat above what appeared to be the key event of the Centre: New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio. Staged in the building’s re-purposed indoor courtyard, the exhibits of the Heatherwick Studio (best remembered for their design of the London Olympics Cauldron in the summer of 2012) drew attention with their suitably impressive models, although regrettably crammed in a fairly tight space. In contrast, upstairs, tucked away from the main hub of the Centre, Fifty Years of Singapore Design looks like a transplant from an atrium exhibition at the National Library, just across the street.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 2From left, the designs of Thomas Wee, Tan Yoong, and Benny Ong

Even in NDC’s sleek SCDA Architects-designed interior (headed by one of the recipients of the inaugural President Design Award, Chan Soo Khian), there is a community-centre (now called club) vibe to the exhibition. You would have thought the People’s Association commissioned the exhibition rather than DesignSingapore Council (DSC). It is likely that the aim is to reach out to as many people as possible, including those not design-savvy, rather than to a growing public interest in and consumption of design. Hence a non-alienating, visually-tame, all-can-understand approach was adopted to downplay the potentially high-brow status design may project. The flat, some parts dim, lighting and a distinct lack of atmosphere, and playroom cubes that were used as compositional elements, therefore, suited the original use of the space: the most community-focused of spaces: the classroom. It, too, was like walking into a set of RTS—Radio and Television Singapore, circa 1975, and Ahmad Daud was about to sing.

Design, however, deserves a more engaging and visually stimulating platform, even when not installed in an actual museum. The NDC is, of course, not a museum. It is not bound by the traditional goal of museums to collect, record, research, and then display what they have amassed for public enjoyment and education. It offers exhibition spaces just as the National Library avails its atrium as exhibition space. So, we venture to suggest that the onus is on DSC. It is really not immoderate to expect the Council to demand a more inspired approach to installation and to ask the curators—(curiously from the French architecture/design firm WY-TO) for more rigorous selection to spotlight Singapore’s design history.

It is, of course, tempting to say that design in Singapore, despite five decades of growth and discovery, has not reached a level of excitement that deserves a grand display. It has been said that Singapore design deserves what it gets: boring begets boring. However, we tend to agree with Irene Etzkorn, co-author of Simplicity: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity: “There is no such thing as a boring project. There are only boring executions.”

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 3From left, the qipao of Gary Lau/Kang’s Boutique and the shirt of Dick Lee

Since this is a fashion site, we shall not comment on the other disciplines of design except fashion, specifically clothing design. And that, sadly, is the biggest let down of the exhibition. With boutiques now designed to place products for maximum attention in spatial terms–museum-like almost, it is surprising that 50 Years of Singapore Design is so diametrically opposite even the simplest retail design seen in mass labels such as Bershka, only a stone’s throw away at Bugis+. The NDC is situated among design schools, yet the exhibition, too, isn’t able to scale higher than those of graduate shows.

As clothing is best appreciated when worn, it is mostly exhibited on mannequins. It is no different here, but we did come to the conclusion that the mannequins used for the exhibition are either donated by a supplier or picked up from a few clothing shops that have been served bankruptcy notice. Headless dummies of different stock, some with ill-fitted caps at the top of the neck, mean the clothes do not fit properly. Each designer submitted one outfit, and since none are based on one-size specification, the mannequins have to fit the clothes, not the other way round. This hampers the viewer’s ability to truly appreciate a garment’s cut and fit since, in a couple of cases, the bust darts, for example, are off-point. In addition, some of the clothes look like they are not granted a requisite meeting with an electric iron.

What Charles Eames once said came to mind: “The details are not the details. They make the design.” We really should state that we were not expecting ICOM (International Council of Museums) standards for handling valuable dress in a museum (or the Costume Committee’s Guideline for Costume). However, unless the clothes are accorded the respect they deserve, and the acknowledgment that there are talents behind these designs, the exhibition is no different from those retail events staged in “event halls” of department stores put together to clear stocks. No one expects OCBC’s very publicly displayed Henry Moore sculpture—the bronze Large Reclining Figure—to be poorly installed, and for the same reason, no one expects 50 Years of Singapore Design exhibits—clothes no less—to be less than perfectly set up.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 4From left, dresses by Hansen and Raoul

Sadly, they are not. Mannequins too large or too small for the clothes aside, the handling of the garments could benefit from nimbler and abler hands. Even if the exhibition is not about scale or ambition, surely there could be some vestige of quality in the execution. It is disturbing—and the designers are partly to blame—to see the history of Singaporean fashion reflected in clothes that are displayed in a manner that could not hold up to close scrutiny. Whether a dress that requires pearl-head pins to stay up or another with a bodice that won’t remain flat after buttoning, they’re all there to our horror.

The choice of clothes on show, too, throws up questions on the curatorial decisions made. It is understandable that putting together an exhaustive list of fashion designers who have impacted how we dressed as a nation is near impossible. Given the historical breadth, 50 Years of Singapore Design should, instead, establish the link between clothing forms and the general psyche of the time(s) and illustrate how fashion has played out in the building of our nation, how it reflects our aspirations or moral dispositions. We did not see this connection in the clothes and designers selected. The final nine (why not ten?) given a mannequin to hold a signature look seem to reflect desperation to get anyone willing to participate than true scholarship.

What’s perhaps even more difficult is finding those clothes that truly represent the decades that the exhibition depicts. Nothing from the ’60s is represented (Roland Chow received a cursory mention). The ’70s is reflected in a single uniform: the Singapore Girl’s Pierre Balmain-designed kebaya, suggesting, perhaps, that it was time of work as we pursued economic wealth, even if an air stewardess’s dress is so far removed from the reality of a citizenry with a much more mundane life pursuit. The golden age of Singaporean fashion design—the ’80s—is represented by Thomas Wee, Tan Yoong, Benny Ong, and Dick Lee. The rest of them are only mentioned in the descriptive texts that accompany the exhibits. Of “The Magnificent Seven” cited—the septet that not only created ripples in the local scene, but also brought Singaporean designs to Paris, only Mr Wee’s and Mr Tan’s clothes are shown.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 5From left, the designs of Depression and the stage costume of Frederick Lee

To the uninitiated, this decade may not look like it produced some of our best fashion design talents, or that many of them have laid the foundation for what we see today. It was as much an issue of aesthetics as the substantive. Thomas Wee’s yellow and black skirt suit is supposed to be from the designer’s most successful line: Mixables. The curators, unaware that Mr Wee no longer designs such styles and unable to find clothes from that period, had the designer re-produce something for the exhibition. The result is clearly not anything akin to what Mixables was about. The shoulder of the jacket, for example, is very telling: Mr Wee has shaped and proportioned it in the aesthetic of today. What we saw isn’t an iconic garment of an era, but the uniform (again) of an off-duty cosmetic salesgirl.

Benny Ong, considered the Singapore boy made good in London (on that note, Andrew Gn, who succeeded in Paris, is curiously omitted), is summarised by a strange, low-waist dress with notched fichu-collar of velvet and a sort of calvary bodice of shantung silk, and in a black and orange pairing that recalls Halloween. It was hard for us to reconcile this frumpy ensemble with London, and even harder with Princess Diana, who once wore Mr Ong’s conservative designs before she embraced Gianni Versace’s and the like. Dick Lee, the multi-hyphenate, jolted our memory that he was once a fashion designer. His dress-avatar is a cutesy men’s shirt that is in the happy colours of Stephen Burrows and had more than a whiff of teen spirit. The close-up allows one to examine Mr Lee’s not-perfected tailoring skills, made worse by a mannequin with a neck too thick for the shirt’s collar.

Of the group, Tan Yoong’s dress stood out. Here is without doubt the work of a master, whose ability to translate something as potentially clichéd as petals into sumptuousness of pure visual pleasure is, hitherto, rare and unmatched on our island. Inspired by the cattleya orchid, and based on the iconic William Travilla-designed dress that Marilyn Monroe wore, standing astride a subway grating that blew the dress up in the Billy Wilder film The Seven Year Itch, Mr Tan’s version should go down the history of Singapore design as a classic. Lest we’re mistaken, this is no copy; this is completely the designer’s take, and it boasts the technical finesse—those baby-lock stitches on the hem to stiffen the gauzy silk petals-as-skirt’s edge so that, when tacked at discreet points, the skirt appears to be caressed by the wind—that corroborates his standing as one of our best and most accomplished designers.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 6What’s amiss? Clockwise from top left: the collar of Dick Lee’s shirt collar is too small to fit the mannequin’s neck; strange tape and marking, and poor finish below the add-on collar of Depression’s shirt; the crumpled, bunched-up bust line of Benny Ong’s dress; and the exposed velcro and fastenings of Frederick Lee’s “dress”

Except for Tan Yoong’s cocktail dress, most of the other designers are represented by clothes that seem to suggest that local women’s clothes went no further than the humdrum, or that they dressed as an act of instinct, not adornment, with none of the exhibits reflecting the different tempos of the passing eras, the disparity of rising and shifting urban life. It is as if nothing has changed. Indeed, the exhibition, like so many of the SG50 events, is just a show or a product of what has been called a “catwalk economy”; it is not particularly reflective or critical, and is not a platform for debate to establish those Singaporean designers who have truly contributed to our contemporary culture.

Singapore’s fashion history is not long enough to leave behind a legacy. It is also too short to reflect the social strata of fashion. Even society women, conventionally the adopter of the latest dress designs, were not visible enough, until recently (thanks to social media), to set trends or influence what women wear. None are cited as exemplary bearer of Singaporean fashion. Television and pop stars are similarly passed over since there are not that many of them or, perhaps, because they have no real influence on our lifestyle and fashion choice. Scanning the displays of the different decades, it is hard to determine if these are indeed fashionable clothing of the day, and if they speak of the zeitgeist of the respective eras. It is even harder, tried as we did, to see any ‘design’, the principal theme of the exhibition. In the end, they are just clothes.

A puzzling inclusion is Frederick Lee’s costume for Wild Rice’s staging of Stella Kon’s play Emily of Emerald Hill in which Ivan Heng wore the designer’s glammed-up and far-from-bibik-looking frock. In an accompanying description, Mr Heng was shown in a sleeved dress, quite unlike the one on display. Upon closer inspection, the strapless dress is unable to sit properly over the bust. It is too small and, in fact, requires the aid of flat and pearl-head pins to stay up on the mannequin. From the side view, the short front and long back of the outfit suggest that, perhaps this is a skirt worn as a pretend-dress! If art imitates life, then may be this costume illustrates that Singaporean fashion design is still in want of a good fit.

Fifty Years of Singapore Design is on at the National Design Centre till March 2017. Admission is free. Photos: Jim Sim

When Louis Vuitton Flaunts

 The first two of the Louis Vuitton consumer exhibitions, simply known as ‘Series’, overlooked our little red dot. Now, Series 3: Past, Present, Future is here, and it’ll ensnare you into the brand’s world of heady luxury. If you’re hooked on the drug of their hype, this one’s for youLV Series 3 Pic 1

Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition for autumn/winter 2015 is the epitome of consumer goods posit as art. There’s a good chance you won’t sense it, caught, as you may, in a very persuasive narrative of the brand’s genesis, and what is deemed “iconic”: primarily the trunk, a sizeable suitcase secured by latches. These days, if any of us were to travel with such a capacious case/coffer, we’ll likely be mistaken for moving treasure, or loot! The trunk, however, remains a mascot of sort for the company, and it is this rectangular box of incredible girth and depth that welcomes you to the world of Louis Vuitton.

Everything about the exhibition, described by LV as a “sensorial journey”, is sleek. Even the short ride through the booking for (free) tickets (presumably for crowd control) is smooth and easy-to-navigate. You can do it via the LV website or event booking portal eventbrite.sg, where you’ll be offered e-tickets for either ‘entrance only’ or ‘guided tour’. When you arrive at the exhibition—in an obscure corner of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands called Crystal Pavilion South, you’ll be greeted by someone at the entrance way, who will show you to the counter where you register. Here, the staff will whip out an iPad and input your name, which appears on the screen instantaneously. Once you’re confirmed, you’ll be given brochures and told to enjoy the exhibition. From here, you’ll be directed into the exhibition proper. What’s amazing is that although we opted for ‘entrance only’ access, we were greeted at every entrance to every gallery (and even at lift and stair landings) and given personal explanation to every exhibit.

LV Series 3 Pic 2

What happened to Series 1 and 2, you may wonder. They went to cities northwards of us. Series 1 for autumn/winter 2014 wooed the urbanites of Shanghai and Tokyo in September last year, while Series 2 for spring/summer 2015 enthralled fans in Los Angeles, Beijing, Seoul, and Rome early this year. Series 3 debuted in London in September, and it now makes a sojourn here. We did not attend the London exhibition, but going by press accounts of it, Singapore’s version, in comparison, seems smaller. London’s Series 3 spanned 13 rooms, ours takes up no more than 9 (including a café). Have they down-scaled it for Southeast Asia’s only stop? No one at the exhibition could say.

Make no mistake, regardless of size, this is a grand exhibition, but, to be sure, it is not in the same breadth and depth as, say, those staged by The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or anything curated by Harold Koda or Akiko Fukai (of The Kyoto Costume Institute). In fact, Series 3 is not curated by a non-LV/LVMH professional. This is an inside job, which prompts one to ask: is this just a fancy way to sell a brand? That question is pertinent when you consider what Swedish ethnologist Orvar Löfgren called the “catwalk economy”—when runway antics influenced the corporate world. While some may consider Series 3 to be crossing the line of conceit, there’s no negating that Louis Vuitton is large enough, old enough, and far-sighted enough to write its own story and tell all of us about it. And relate it does, catwalk experience et al, with aplomb and visual splendour too.

LV Series 3 Pic 3

The first room, ‘Abstract Title’, where the exhibition begins, is dominated by an LED LV logo the size of giant lotus leaves. According to WWD, creative director Nicholas Ghesquière found it in the archives, and was instantly drawn to it. The beaming attendant was eager to tell us that this was originally the seal of the man himself, Louis Vuitton, and it’s now updated to appeal to a modern audience. All the same, it was just an LV logo to us. Sensing that we were not impressed by the nugget of information, he showed us to the next room.

From a dark space barely lit by an LV logo in red, you’re suddenly in ‘Master Mind’, a room that is walled on all four sides by video screens. The images move quickly and somewhat blindingly, showing models strutting (as if moving along the perimeter of the room), or flashing with collages of LV product images. In the middle, a gigantic white trunk takes its pride of place, the cover suspended above it to reveal what seems like a holographic image of an LV bag levitated. If you look ‘inside’ the trunk, another video screen reveals what are supposed to be Mr Ghesquière’s inspirations. The trunk is so huge that it is doubtful Monsieur Vuitton ever made anything this large for the travelling needs of his customers. If you’re all alone in the room, the solitary trunk is more funereal than surreal.

LV Series 3 Pic 4LV Series 3 Pic 5

Exhibition designer, Es Devlin, the OBE-awarded British stage designer who conceptualised the London 2012 Olympic closing ceremony, and who has been behind Mr Ghesquière’s last three runway shows, clearly relished marrying the old and the familiar to the futuristic. Series 3 has been described as an “immersive” experience. While it’s true that you’re almost completely surrounded by images and objects, and in juxtapositions not quite expected, it’s also true that you’re not quite wrapped up in the lore that is Louis Vuitton. The exhibition is designed to awe, but all the visuals are just that, and you’re only a watching bystander.

The most compelling room to us is ‘Artists Hands’, one floor up. Surrounded, again, by moving video graphics on the walls, five tables are placed in a straight line, one in front of the other. On each table are videos of different artisans at work. The visitor is encouraged to sit at the table (you will be told that that’s the best way to experience the room). Seated, and looking down, you will have the perspective of the artist at work—you become that person, and his hands seem like an extension of your own. It is an effective way to remind consumers that much of Louis Vuitton’s leather goods are made by real hands, not robotic ones.

LV Series 3 Pic 7

Once you’re aroused by the artisanal aspect of the brand, it’s time to move to something that will release dopamine and serotonin: the fashion show. Designer fashion is so synonymous with catwalk presentations that it is inevitable that one will be seen here. In this room, it’s called ‘Infinite Show’. As a staffer explained (after asking if we’ve ever been to “a real fashion show”), “this is designed to give you the feeling that you’re watching a real LV show.” We’re not sure if the realness is discernible. Sure, the double-sided vertical video screens are tall enough to project the models with their real-life height, but this is not a 3-D experience—you do not sense the models walking in front of you.

The room is oddly cold, as in a foyer of a civic building, and after a while, the video screens become repetitive in their flashing, static isolation. It is dark, too, which contradicts the actual presentation in the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris—all bathed in light. The attendant asked us to sit down on the stepped platforms to watch the show. It felt anomalous to be seated, almost to floor level, amid what is essentially a video installation. Did we relive the excitement and wonder that is a Louis Vuitton fashion show? Did we feel like we’re under the oft-cited geodesic dome, built for LV’s catwalk performances? Frankly, no and no. If Tony Stark needed a virtual fashion event in his Mansion to amuse Pepper Potts, this could be it.

LV Series 3 Pic 6Accessories

While we’re told that Series 3 showcases Mr Ghesquière’s “creative process and influences” (the entire series, probably), it is also likely that a good part of it is to move merchandise. If not so, why would the next room, ‘Accessories Gallery’, be placed in the path to fashion enlightenment? We thought we had stumbled into a visual merchandising class, or an outsized window display. The most desired LV accessories—displayed on mannequins, all in the likeness of Dutch model Marte Mei van Haaster (Mr Ghesquière’s “muse”, we were informed)—stood out in the whiteness of the room. What’s amazing is, no one stopped us from touching the objects, or taking photographs of them.

In fact, the exhibition is designed to be shared, and photography—which is likely to be selfies for most attendees—is actually encouraged. One of the guides had asked us if we would like to be photographed. This is clearly unlike what goes on in a classic, high-brow exhibition space. Some giggly visitors had themselves shot, draped over a seated Marte Mei van Haaster mannequin, hands all over her school-uniform white body. So in-line with the zeitgeist is the exhibition that it has, unsurprisingly, a hashtag: #lvseries3, which, at the time of this writing, scored 23,415 IG posts (Mediacorp artiste Rebecca Lim’s post alone garnered 8,838 likes). Across all rooms, the guides—not quite docents—are young, chirpy, and eager to expound the values and meaning of Louis Vuitton in fashion as well as popular culture, never mind if they sounded like students who have memorised text to impress their lecturer.

If this is not to enhance brand equity, then LV is in a very generous mood: eager to spend on a temporary exhibition that is designed so that visitors will “be able to feel it”, as CEO Michael Burke was quoted to have said. This is perhaps what chief executive Bernard Arnault meant when he told the media—in 2013 following the announcement that LVMH intended to slow down worldwide expansion—that the company planned to offer customers a more personal relationship.

Walk In Wardrobe 2

The most engaging room to us is the ‘Walk In Wardrobe’. You don’t really saunter into a wardrobe as much as confront a see-through closet. Here, the clothes—pieces from the autumn/winter 2015 collection (some already seen in the store in the same building)—are hung behind clear glass boxes (or trunks, to continue with the LV visual motif) that are juxtaposed to form a large cupboard that Jamie Chua would no doubt approve. We spent the most time here, examining the fascinating details that Mr Ghesquière has incorporated into his designs: many depend less on design acumen than technology and machinery available to the house.

Since this is really about the artisans and their skills, the exhibition wouldn’t be complete without a couple of them engaged in a serious, full-on demonstration, or tell ‘A Tale Of Craftsmanship’. At the reception, we were told not to miss this part of the exhibition, and to ask questions if we had any. We did: we wanted to know what will happen to the bags they were making. We asked if they would be sent to the store to be sold. One of the craftswomen, a forty-something, bespectacled blonde, said in a mixture of English and French, “Non, ce ne sont pas parfaits (No, these are not perfect).” She picked up a piece of canvas on which she was working on and showed us the imperfection: it was warped. She then took a rivet and asked us to have a look at it. We were free to examine anything on the worktop, she said.

LV Series 3 Pic 8

This is the last room of the exhibition, and it is a fitting reminder that at the heart of Louis Vuitton, lies the craftsmanship. But this isn’t the end of the journey. Further ahead, you’ll come to a café. Food to put a period to your visit: Louis Vuitton wants Singaporeans to remember this exhibition! Even if you plan to depart famished and parched, you will not leave empty-handed. Behind the café is a wall of stickers. You’re free to take them: a wall-full to choose from. Is there a restricted number, we wondered. Someone in front of us scored a handful. Question answered. Before we could decide which one we wanted, a gentle voice belonging to an extremely young-looking boy asked if we would like stickers of our initials. He showed us the other side of the wall. There were more! We picked out the letters S, O, T, and D—in the same font as the LV custom monogram service for, say, the Speedy bag. A member of the staff handed the stickers to us, together with a rolled-up poster of the event, and said, “Hope you’ve enjoyed the exhibition.”

Truth be told, we weren’t sure. Perhaps we had expected more, but more is a little too much when Series 3 spanned only the entire season of autumn/winter 2015. While it largely stays true to “celebrating the past, projecting the future”, as Mr Ghesquière told Vogue UK, the exhibition (in retrospect, installation is more apt) would have been more substantial, hence satisfying, if it is not confined to the breadth of one season. Mr Ghesquière has designed for Louis Vuitton since 2013. Sure, it’s not long enough for a retrospective, but it is of adequate length to reveal the minutiae of his craft, no doubt honed at the house of Balenciaga. Yet, Series 3 mostly skims, rather than swoops into the heart of where and how he began. Perhaps the best way to gain more from the exhibition is to view all three of the Series. No serious Harry Potter fan delves into the adventures of the boy wizard from book three—The Prisoner of Azkaban.

LV Series 3 Pic 9

The fashion exhibition as a strategic focus for luxury brands to play up their valuable heritage and boundless creativity has proven to be effective and is likely to continue. In Singapore these past two months, Louis Vuitton Series 3 is not the only exhibition offering free access to creative sanctums. Happening concurrently, and nearby too, is Hermès Leather Forever at the Artscience Museum. The maker of the Birkin bag had previously staged the Gift of Time at the disused Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in 2012. Last year, also at the Artscience Museum, there was Chanel’s The Little Black Jacket, a photographic display of the house’s most iconic item of clothing: less about the garment than the celebrities that endorse it.

The single-brand self-promotion-as-exhibition, although a fairly recent craze, takes its cue from as far back as 1983, from the debut of Diana Vreeland as curator, who orchestrated the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At that time, the exhibition was criticised for glorifying a living designer. In addition, it was thought to benefit the commercial interest of the house, which was becoming a shadow of its success in the Seventies. Ms Vreeland was known to favour and adore and wear the work of YSL, compounding the disdain. The perceived ties to business rather than creativity, too, irked locals when Cartier staged in Beijing’s Palace Museum (home of national treasures, not showcase for commercial merchandise, went the collective grouse) in 2009 Cartier Treasures: King of Jewelers, Jewelers to Kings. This was somewhat ironic considering that the Chinese then were en route to becoming the world’s largest consumers of luxury goods.

LV Series 3 publicity poster

One rather odd omission in Series 3 is the model Fernanda Ly and her unmistakable pink hair. Ms Ly, an Australian-Chinese, co-fronts the exhibition’s communication materials. Her face, with kohled eyes looking pensively at you, is splashed across the Bayfront MRT station leading into The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, as well as at vantage points in the mall. After opening the Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2016 show in March, Ms Lye’s cognoscibility is considerably increased. In a city where her Asian beauty could mean something to many people, her lack of presence in Series 3 is puzzling. Perhaps it is an oversight on the part of the marketing arm of Louis Vuitton, perhaps not. A token representation is sometimes inclusive enough.

Louis Vuitton Series 3 is on at the Crystal Pavilion South, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands till 23 December. Photos: Jim Sim. Poster: Louis Vuitton