The Wreck Of The Beautiful

Has alternative, experimental, inclusive, diverse, or street dimmed and beclouded fashion as lovely to look at, even as art?

Publicity shot for #SGFASHIONNOW. Photo: Ethan Lai/Asian Civilisations Museum

Recently, in Tokyo, the pre-loved luxury goods retailer Komehyo opened a pop-up on the second floor of the multi-level department store Marui, in the Yurakucho neighbourhood, not far from the Hankyu Men’s Store. Called Start Komehyo, the well-appointed “concept shop” is targeted at a very specific demographic: Gen Z, a significant contributor to the growth of luxury fashion now. The pieces selected for sale commensurate with what Gen-Zers or zoomers—those born, according to the Pew Research Centre, between 1997 to 2012—like to buy and wear. These are mainly fashion items from the 1990s to the early 2000s, and include Japanese and European labels, and styles that could be considered to go with the “Y2K” trend, a sartorial run that Gen-Zers have not experienced. They reflect what the young with means are consuming and relate to. There is no such shop on our island.

But, from the latest #SGFASHIONNOW exhibition, now on at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), we may have an idea of what appeals to youngsters below 25, and what, to them, is considered fashionable clothing, including what constitutes a fashionable image. And, perhaps, more important, how they hope Singaporean fashion will evolve. If the above photograph represents Singaporean fashion or its future, could we be hopeful? This image shows the garments of the designers participating in the sophomore #SGFASHIONNOW that spotlights Singaporean designers. A line-up of models cast in poor lighting is perhaps no big deal in an aesthetical culture shaped by anything-goes social media, but could this image really be what current fashion on this island represents? Or is this, as noted in the e-book, Architectural Drape (companion to the exhibition), a “fresh take on local fashion design”? Perhaps, “a fresh take” could be a clever rephrasing—or even recasting—of fresh out of ideas?

Perhaps “a fresh take” could be a clever rephrasing—or even recasting—of fresh out of ideas?

The image is shot by photographer Ethan Lai, also, a street style lensman, a national serviceman (currently), a student of Central Saint Martins (it isn’t certain if he graduated), alumnus of Lasalle College of the Arts, and the student-curator of the second instalment of #SGFASHIONNOW, which was put together with the School of Fashion of Lasalle. Mr Lai is partial to flat lighting and feebly-lit faces to effect edginess or rawness, necessary or not, and his aesthetical choices have been imposed on the communication material (or “campaign”, as he called it on Instagram) of a museum associated with some of the finest Asian art and antiquities. The nine motley models that are shown were shot separately (some with shadows cast to the bottom half of the body, some without), digitally corrected, and transposed as a linear composition to a blank white space. One marketing consultant said, when we showed him this image, “it looks like they died and went to heaven.” We could see that what’s missing is Morgan Freeman as god in the distance.

The shoot did not benefit from the minimal or zero styling, although two photographer’s assistants are listed as “stylists”. One magazine and commercial stylist told us that he thought that “there is no styling” since “the hair doesn’t go with the makeup, which doesn’t go with the outfits. What has anything got to do with anything? The models look like they were just plonked there.” As they would be in a TikTok video? What stands out to us is how the clothes could not be seen clearly. For an image that speaks for an exhibition extolling Singaporean designs across generations, the focus, curiously, is not on the clothes. The Biro coat (second from right) was shot to show the bafflingly washed-out back, a rear that has no superlative design to speak of. The Thomas Wee shift (extreme left), with dramatically draped details in the back, was worn by the usually beautiful quadriplegic model Zoe Zora seated, front-facing, on a wheel chair. The campy layered, draped bustier of Harry Halim (front) on a model laid on the floor was completely consumed by some unknown entity intercepting the light. But perhaps, as with most G-Zers, fashion does not matter, the look does.

The photo shoot for #SGFASHIONNOW. Photographer Ethan Lai, second from right. Screen shot:

And what is the look? What does the creator of the image hope to convey? Daniela Monasterios-Tan, fashion lecturer at Lasalle and co-designer of the collective Mash-Up, shared on Architectural Drapes that “as part of the execution of #SGFASHIONNOW, Lai also conceptualised a photo-shoot highlighting the way that the fashion image contributes to the dissemination of a vocabulary of fashion.” She does not explain what that vocabulary might be, except, perhaps, in Mr Lai’s choice of using a disabled model, trangenders, and the not traditionally beautiful from the smaller agencies MiscManagement and Platinum Models, the catchwords diverse and inclusive. But what is the creative buzz? Take aware the requisite wokeness, what is the artistic value? In so questioning, do we risk discrediting and discriminating? And what does it mean to show models wearing on their faces some version of glum?

In a recent video interview with Female magazine, Mr Lai said that, to him, “Singaporean contemporary fashion means garments that kind of reflect our current climate and culture. It is diverse (!) and has different modes and practices, not just about making clothes for people to wear and consume, but it’s more about the designers their narratives through the clothes.” All the requisite buzzwords are in there, but in that photograph for #SGFASHIONNOW, is the “narrative” evident? What does it really say? Has it upended the belief that Gen-Zers are self-important, apathetic, hack-loving, creatively shallow, and averse to the conventional? Perhaps Mr Lai, whose work has appeared in Men’s Folio and Vogue Singapore, is truly just showing us the preference and standing of his generation. But will it consolidate our position as a city of fashion?

Has it upended the belief that Gen-Zers are self-important, apathetic, hack-loving, creatively shallow, and averse to the conventional?

Gen-Z life is highly documented online, with text and photographs. The zoomers are not acquainted with a time when there was no Internet and when their existence was not expressed digitally. For considerable many, they largely communicate creativity to merely look good in the virtual world (or an e-book), rather than output creativity born from solid grounding or scholarship. They mostly race to fame (or infamy) as quickly as they could, and they are able to do so as the Internet is the ultimate springboard to visibility and likes—the more one scores, the higher the validation that one is good. It is not necessarily based on the tangible or the discernible. Fashion photography is not the result of the imagination, but what is perceived to be a reflection of the current. Perception that something is fashion because it is based on their own experiences, and shared online and is liked is good enough to be considered credible.

In the end, is the visual presentation of the Architecture of Drape—to use a street style term—GOAT (greatest of all time)? Or is it just good enough for a fleeting moment? It is hard to mention the shortcomings of criticism-averse Gen-Zers without being attacked, as public relations professional Tjin Lee of Mercury Marketing & Communications and a judge on the selection panel for #SGFASHIONNOW recently found out. We are well aware of being deemed “too critical” in our reviews of trends, shows and, indeed, exhibitions; for speaking the truth few want to hear if it is not flattering. But, as ACM curator Dominic Low wrote in Architectural Drape, the exhibition, not “a comprehensive survey but a snapshot”, should be “an invitation to discussion and alternative perspectives.” Looking at this one snapshot, we except the invitation.

Visited: #SGFASHIONNOW (2022)

At the second instalment of the only exhibition here to salute Singaporean designers, “Architecture of Drape” is this year’s theme. Is either seen?

Entrance of #SGFASHIONNOW that mimics incomplete renovation

Wide-angle view of the exhibition space

By Raiment Young

Many of us here, as we know, are not terribly rule-abiding. An invitation to a formal event may come with a dress code that reads ‘formal’, but attending in jeans is not out of the ordinary. At important openings, talking noisily at the same time a guest-of-honour is delivering a speech is not considered a lapse in decorum, even decency. Mask-up mandate in an indoor setting, such as a museum, during this wave of COVID infection is to be flouted because behavioural freedom is under threat, just as creative liberty under a main idea could be too. It is, therefore, not surprising that the theme to this year’s #SGFASHIONNOW—Architecture of Drape—is not closely adhered to. Or that the individuals behind the exhibits concerned themselves with something as restrictive as a theme. A unifying idea in an increasingly divided world—and a metaverse developing in tandem—is inconsistent with the selfness of fashion?

The second edition of #SGFASHIONNOW is a bolder thematic exploration than last year’s, loosely based on “craft”. The host Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and its partners “take on the theme Architecture of Drape to survey the diverse fashion space in Singapore”, according to the exhibition notes. Also titled Architectural Drape (which is rather different from the architecture of drape or examining the relationship between the two) in the e-book that accompanies the exhibition, #SGFASHIONNOW continues, according to ACM’s director Kennie Ting, to “explore the question: ‘What is SG fashion?’” but, as before, with no real answers. Mr Ting also suggested that the exhibition could ask “important questions” about the “Singapore identity: Who we are, who we want to be.” When I asked one fashion student the same questions, she replied, “should what I wear determine my national identity or should it say who I am, what I believe in? Do I need to mindlessly wear a red and white outfit on National Day to show how patriotic I am?”

From left, designs by Brian Yeo (partly seen), Shawna Wu, Harry Halim, Latika Balachander (Labal)

Despite the clarion call to “Shop SG Brands” and a design competition to convince us that there are “Singapore Stories”, identity through distinctive, well-designed and well-made clothing has not emerged from infancy. Perhaps this is why the exhibition space is designed as confines “under construction” or, as was repeated to me by those who could see the subtext, a “work in progress”—incomplete possibly the pseudonym for immature. ACM also describes this as a construct that “frames Singapore’s fashion identity as work in constant progress: generative, evolving, and open to change.” Walk into #SGFASHIONNOW in the Contemporary Project Gallery of the Kwek Hong Png Wing and I won’t be surprised if you thought that a change of display or a set-up is underway. The exhibits, 16 of them (a significant jump from last year’s meagre eight), are displayed on wooden pallets, surrounded by bare partition boards on which the croquis (illustrations) and images of the work of the designers are pasted on. Under the metallic cuboid of the glass extension of this part of the museum, the exhibition looks to me a transplant of a more grassroots affair at a community club. A former designer who attended last night’s opening remarked to me this morning, “I thought it was a graduation show more than a museum exhibition.”

That perception is, perhaps, understandable. For the second year, #SGFASHIONNOW is a collaboration with Lasalle College of the Arts, and Architecture of Drape is a “winning pitch” (I keep hearing that stressed) of the students of the school’s BA(Hons) Fashion Media and Industries, led by former student Ethan Lai, also a photographer and the one who lensed the raw images of the exhibition. According to Steve Dixon, president of Lasalle, who wrote in the e-book Architectural Drape, it “marked the first time ACM handed over the curatorial reins to an external team.” Yet, Mr Ting shared that it “represents our exploration of a new collaborative approach to exhibitions: students from LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion take on the task of curating, with guidance from faculty and ACM’s professional curatorial, audience, and exhibitions teams.” ACM curator Dominic Low seconded that when he wrote that Mr Lai “co-curated” the event to include ACM’s “selection of three important designers—Thomas Wee, Ashley Isham and Max Tan” and that “by bringing together members of the fashion ecosystem, #SGFASHIONNOW provides a platform for ACM to collaborate with the fashion community.”

From left: designs of Thomas Wee and Ashley Isham. In the rear: Chong Kenghow and Chong Kage (Biro) and Lina Osman (Linaoth)

From left, designs of Ashley Isham, Lina Osman (Linaoth), and Chong Kenghow and Chong Kage (Biro)

Architecture of Drape is a fascinating proposal, although a challenging one. With all the chatter about engaging the “fashion ecosystem” of this island, the definition of the show’s theme seems to have been overlooked: What is the Architecture of Drape? Are they contradictory terms? As nouns, are drape and draping the same, and can they be used interchangeably? And why was draping not considered in the title? In a CNA interview two days ago, Mr Low was asked by anchor Dawn Tan to “briefly explain… what (the theme) means”. He did not. Making it clear is, perhaps, not compulsory. Designers are, after all, not expected to cleave to restrictions. I overhear one visitor to #SGFASHIONNOW exclaim to another who could not understand the theme and wonders where the drapes are, “chin chai, lah.” This anything-goes approach perhaps necessitates the categorising of the exhibition into broadly three areas, “Construction, Deconstruction, and Freeform”, to give it what architects may call ‘principal mass’ or what fashion designers might refer to as ‘body’. Apart from helping the “Under Construction” visual approach (one, Mr Ting admitted, “completely not like anything I’ve ever allowed in ACM”) make sense, it favours more of the freeform and the “subversion of traditional draping”, even the ignoring of it. And, to better accommodate “inclusivity”, which means, this year, accessories also share the spotlight, not just clothing.

A garment conceived by draping traditionally begins life as a piece of fabric positioned and pinned on a dress form, such as a tailor dummy, to shape an outfit that will fit the body. From this placement, a basic pattern can be made after it’s marked and removed from the form. Those who chose to design organically may tease a garment out on the form by playing with the fabric—splicing, twisting, crunching, tucking. This first-hand manipulation of fabric is primarily associated with high-end dressmaking, such as haute couture, as it requires considerable skill to bring together the many variables of the process, bearing in mind, too, how nicely they might effect, say, the verticality and movement of the intended garment. This is not a common approach—even if it’s a freer one—to designing among local practitioners, many have told me, as opposed to the more controlled (and controllable) flat pattern-making, which is done on a level, horizontal surface in basically two dimensions with tools such as rulers—the lines created are primarily right angles to correspond to the grain of the fabric or curved to follow the contours of the body.

From left: designs of Max Tan and Jon Max Goh

Draping is considered to be the oldest form of pattern making (at its simplest, the pelt that early man threw on his body could be considered a draped garment). Until the beginning of the industrial revolution (and even after), much of the clothes considered ‘fashion’ were realised at its conception by draping. The French call it moulage, and it was French designers such as Madame (Alix) Gres and Madeleine Vionnet, who elevated draping to a form much regarded, as it was like sculpting with fabric. There is snob appeal attached to its adoption too. I have met designers here who studied abroad, telling me that they “design by draping”. In practice, this is rather uncommon. Unless one offers custom services, most designers adopt flat pattern making or, very likely, employ computer-aided design (CAD) software, even 3-D CAD, to pattern. In my mind, as I approached #SGFASHIONNOW, draping—in relation to fashion design—is really adapting fabrics straight on to the dress form to yield three-dimensional clothes. As draping, being largely instinctual (it is hard to explain, for example, why a fold has to be precisely here, just as a floral arranger would not be able say why a bloom must be in the position he chose), allows considerable room for creativity, innovation, and, for sure, drama. Of course, to drape can also mean to wrap or hang, so that a piece of cloth may fall gracefully, with folds or not. At ACM, this was what I mostly saw—the selendang approach to drape, as well as design. “Chin chai” keeps coming back to me.

I do not, of course, think it would be really a visual thesis on the Architecture of Drape. I remind myself that this is the curatorial output of students and it is, as Nadya Wang, fashion lecturer at Lasalle, wrote in the e-book Architectural Drape, “conceived self-reflexively, from the point of view of Gen-Z fashion practitioners”, who are largely, I am thinking, themselves. If so, the inclusion of the three established designers selected by ACM seem only to lend gravitas to the exhibition, rather than to suggest that there is masterful evolution of draping as a form of pattern making favoured by our designers. The rest of the participants were picked by the student curators, and these exhibits would not be out of place as photographic subjects for social media, where surface is more important—and works better—than substance. One of them, Jon Max Goh, was the industry’s sole inclusion. Mr Goh was last year’s winner of Textile and Federation of Singapore-initiated design competition Singapore Stories, and now works with Love, Bonito. The piece from his winning entry of primarily loose shapes “takes cues from the form of the kebaya”, another garment that acquires its drape predominantly from how it hangs.

From left, designs of Bryan Yeo, Harry Halim, and Latika Balachander (Labal)

Accessories at #SGFASHIONNOW. Clockwise from top left: face mask by Rachael Cheong (Closet Children), batik corset by Putri Adif, platform boots by Firdaos Pidau (Charles & Keith), polyester bag by Gin Lee (Gin Lee Make), nylon bonnet by Joshua Suarez, tote bag by Fahmy Ishak and Erliana Kamiti (FIN Crafted Goods)

Puzzling and less convincing to me are the lame pieces by accessory designers, such as a clearly-not-draped recycled denim tote by FIN Crafted Goods (whose clichéd boroboro patchwork was already seen at Uniqlo’s global flagship store at Orchard Central when they partnered with the Japanese brand in 2021) and the tired pleated bags of Gin Lee, who admitted that her exhibit is made with “fabrics (that) are firmly tied in between patterned piece template before steaming to create a structured bag with fluid shapes”. Could this be the Architecture of Drape that eludes me? Elsewhere a pair of deformed platform boots (that curiously cannot be made in a finer fabric other than “faux leather” or polyurethane) by Charles and Keith tries to trick the eye into believing that draping was involved by the creasing of the upper. If the footwear was wrapped over a last, perhaps. One bonnet (do women here wear such a close-fitted hat?) by Joshua Soarez could be draped: Fashioned on a head form. Similarly, a metal-chain face mask by Rachael Cheong of Closet Children could have benefitted from the links shaped directly on a similar dummy. But I am guessing. The exhibition does not allow me to conclude affirmatively.

The space allotted to #SGFASHIONNOW is very small. To be this wide in scope is disingenuous on the part of the curators. “Inclusive” keeps coming back to me. But it would have been more informative and enriching if the exhibition focuses on just garments and the developmental stages behind them. Regrettably, none of the videos of interviews with the designers that accompany the exhibits shows even one of them in the act of draping or using a drape, let alone extol the virtue and advantage of draping, as opposed to other means of developing a pattern not based on, say, a block. A tailored, cut-away men’s jacket by Biro’s brother-designing-duo Chong Keng How and Chong Kange offers no clue to where a drape can be found. In the video and on the partition boards, only flat drawings are shown. While a jacket can be draped (I am thinking of John Galliano), it is not commonly applied to the tailleur of menswear. Across the hall, a “harness halter” by Shawna Wu, is made with what she calls “butterfly knots (蝴蝶结)”, but appear to me crude panchang knots (盘长结), which hang rather than drape. Perhaps these point to what ACM in its “curatorial statement” calls the “fluid nature of fashion”?

Design by Harry Halim

If the draping approach to designing is placed against the backdrop of architecture, there is also the need to consider the engineering component. But, there is no mention of engineering at all, except fleetingly, in Thomas Wee’s explanation of achieving form. A skilled designer would be able to use draping—or partially—to attain both fit and fullness. Mr Wee’s design, as it appears to me, is not executed at design stage by draping. He is a true technician and is often considered an “engineer” of fashion. His signature “one-seam” shift is conceived by essentially folding the fabric (here, he uses silk taffeta) in half (the folded end, as a result, requires no hemming), and then again lengthwise, cutting out the armholes, and allowing that single seam in the centre-back, where the zip is also situated. The excess flaps on both side of this seam can then be arranged and crunched up, and fashioned as a drape, which seems to be the intended effect. And this he does, on a dress form, I suspect, after the garment is completed; this could be draping upon completion, not before.

In addition to Construction and Deconstruction, there should, therefore, be an additional category that takes into consideration the flat-pattern-making-first-then-draping approach: Post-Construction. It is not clear how the curators came up with the categorisation and what criteria are required to fit into them. Regardless, I find myself wondering, is skill a requisite? It is sad that, even knowing their clothes would be scrutinised when placed in a museum space, many designers do not find it imperative to offer their very best model. Some pieces allow the spotlight to pick up irregularities not consistent with designer fashion: hems that are not flat, seams that pucker, even lapel roll that warps (they are not Deconstruction!). I do not sense anyone playing their highest card. The reality is that fashion no longer astounds, and designers have to try harder. But the irony is that lackluster designs now qualify as museum pieces. I ask a designer if he thinks standards on our island have improved, as #SGFASHIONNOW seems to suggest. Smiling, he replies, “if you kick a chatek under the bed, how high will it go?”

#SGFASHIONNOW (2022) is now on at the Asian Civilisations Museum till 16 October 2022. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

A Couture Retrospective In Shenzhen

There will soon be a Viktor & Rolf exhibition in the “Silicon Valley of China”. Not in Shanghai. Not in Hong Kong. And not, unsurprisingly, in Singapore

That there should be a Viktor & Rolf exhibition is not astonishing. But that it will debut in Asia with a couture-only show is rather unexpected, and in Shenzhen (深圳)—that’s stunning. The southern city, the third most populous in China, is, of course, no longer where day-trippers from Hong Kong (as well as the tourists in the Fragrant Harbour) go for cheap knock-offs of their favourite designer labels or luxury watches. Shenzhen, many residents and folks from Hong Kong and Macau will tell you, is a far cry from those sleazy days. It is now a modern metropolis, as sleek and bustling as neighbouring Hong Kong. Still it isn’t immediate that anyone would associate the city, home to Huawei Technologies, Tencent, and even Hey Tea, with high fashion, yet haute couture would not be out of place there. It would seem our little island is not Shenzhen enough to lure a Viktor & Rolf exhibition to our shores.

Dutch design duo, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Schören, discontinued their ready-to-wear line in 2015, the second European label with an haute couture atelier to do so, after Jean Paul Gaultier about a year earlier. The couture collections of Viktor & Rolf—the label is now owned by Italy’s OTB group—have not diminished in their creative strength and social influence. Although not always practical (and we love them for that!), their pieces are steeped in ideas and themes, and humour not ardently appreciated by those who prefer the relatable output of Dior or Chanel. With design concepts gleaned from van Gogh’s paintings to royal regalia to Russian dolls, the creations do often border on the fantastical and sculptural, so much so that they’d lure the attention of those with a curatorial mission for museums.

Viktor & Rolf: Metafashion is organised by Shenzhen’s Design Society (设计互联), a “platform” and a promoter of design, focused on the Chinese public. The curator of the exhibition, Pookie Lee, told the media that “Victor & Rolf holds a unique place in the history of fashion. Their work has always been a way of making clever commentary on fashion through the creation of new fashions, a dominant visual arts style and identity. The form expands the public’s perception of fashion.” Metafashion, the title, is borrowed from a 1994 Artforum review of the duo’s work by Oliver Zahm, who wrote: “The fashion of Viktor & Rolf, or better metafashion, is the equivalent of a conceptual exercise in reconstruction.”

Reading the news of this approaching Viktor & Rolf 80-looks strong exhibition, we have to admit that we are envious of the people of Shenzhen. The last fashion exhibition here of the work of European masters that we can remember was 2010’s Valentino Retrospective: Past/Present/Future, at Resort World Sentosa. So rare are shows of such calibre organised here that we often wonder if we are indeed living up to the reputation that exists among the people of southern China, especially Hong Kong: “唔係好有趣 (not interesting)”. This island is, in other words, and as it’s often said, boring.

Victor & Rolf: Metafashion, from 29 April—8 October 2022, is held at the Sea World Culture and Arts Centre, Shenzhen. Photos: Shenzhen Design Society

Trunk Show: When Louis Vuitton Flaunts, Again

In 2015, Louis Vuitton showed us what they were made of through the exhibition Series 3: Past, Present, Future at Marina Bay Sands. They are back with another free exhibition; this time, with just 200 trunks

Two major-events are marked on Louis Vuitton’s global marketing calendar this month: the pop-up highlighting Virgil Abloh’s last men’s pre-fall collection in Soho, New York and the travelling show 200 Trunks, 200 Visionaries: The Exhibition, now on at Marina Bay Sands. One is to honour the brand’s most adored menswear designer and, concurrently, sell more merchandise; the other to commemorate the founder of the maison’s 200th birthday and peddle memorabilia in the form of books and notebooks. Fans of Mr Abloh would be disappointed that their hero is not getting freestanding retail salute here, but those who love free exhibitions would be delighted to visit this pop-culture homage to what is essentially an unaffordable piece of luggage, used only by those who traveled a certain way, (mostly) back in the day.

In keeping with the theme, the exhibition is housed in a purpose-built, literal pop-up in the shape of a ‘trunk’ that, in other settings, would be considered a veritable shoebox. It sits on the Event Plaza of the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, outside the Collyer Quay/Downtown Core-facing entrance of the luxury mall, as the bigger neighbour of the dome that is the Apple Store. The blockishness stands as an effective counterpoint to the mall’s curvilinear façade that forms the backdrop, but is in line with LV’s own hard-edge Island Maison, a pebble’s throw away. Our island is the exhibition’s first international stop after debuting in Asnieres, France, at the Vuitton family home last December. When we arrived at the exhibition site last Friday, just before sundown, a disheartening queue was seen outside. Many people not in line were milling around the building, enthusiastically taking selfies/wefies as if they had just met a Kaws installation.

The second exhibit at the entranceway where a compulsory briefing is conducted

The first room, apparently also known as the “briefing room”

Although we had scored a ticket online, as well as a time slot, we decided to give the exhibition a miss. Sure, all of us were now told that social distancing “is no longer required in mask-on situations”, but we weren’t exactly drawn to a scene with a throng that appeared unconcerned by a still-raging pandemic. A blond, United College type—with the top edge of his mask sitting above his lower lip—was shouting to his friends standing near the water’s edge: “come on, it’s free!” We were told by one of the young crowd controllers that those without tickets were allowed to view the exhibition too, which, we assumed, boosted the sizeable crowd. The guy assured us that we would be given priority to enter, but we decided to come back.

And return we did. This Monday afternoon. But you would not have guessed that it was the start of the week. While the turn out was discernibly smaller than three days earlier, it was by no means insignificant. Again, we made sure to secure our e-tickets (sent to us via email), but, again, it was not absolutely necessary. When we arrived, there was a short queue at the entrance, including another adjacent line for those who just walked up to the site. In front of us was a trio of aunties, seemingly enjoying an excursion that could have been organised by their neighbourhood community club. They were visually at odds with the twentysomethings, either totting an LV bag or shod in LV sneakers.

The Warehouse (top and bottom): trunks stacked up

The waiting was surprisingly quite short. We asked one of the staffers how long we would need to finish the exhibition, and she told us that it would not take longer than 30 minutes. When we got in, we were told that we had to be “briefed”. Standing in front of two trunks—one like a dismantled coffin (by Italian architect Gsetano Pesce), the other opened to reveal a pop-out bricked birthday cake by Lego—and the adolescent chap conducting the briefing, we were reminded “not to mask off” and “not to touch the exhibits”. And then we were shown a door to his left, held ajar by another young fellow. Inside, the first room, it was dark, with a lightbox of a trunk sitting in the middle. The roughly ten people in here were all scrambling to take selfies, even when the lights were low. On all four walls, multiple texts were projected on them, among the words, three appearing together were extremely familiar: “past, present, future”.

In 2015, Louis Vuitton held their first large-scale exhibition here, also at MBS. It was called Series 3: Past, Present, Future. And part of that exhibition was also a room in which a trunk was placed in the centre. Only now, this trunk was not split lengthwise, and its content not made known. Series 3 was broader in scope as it showed significantly more of what the maison was skilled at, including actual pieces of RTW for close inspection. This time, the focus is on one item—the trunk, a piece of luggage that may be synonymous with LV, but not with modern travel. That one-item theme, in fact, recalled Chanel’s The Little Black Jacket in 2013, held in same area, down at the Art Science Museum. Although Chanel’s was really a photo exhibition of the works of Karl Lagerfeld (collectively, a massive advertising work), the idea was somewhat similar—how many ways can you reimagine one classic fashion item?

The Dreamscape (top and bottom): the weird and downright macabre are here

This exhibition is clearly designed with mass appeal in mind, just as much of LV’s merchandise is. While the contributors (not everyone is an artist or a designer) were, according to LV, “offered the trunk in its purest state, stripped of all trimmings, as a metaphorical blank canvas or vessel”, not all participants returned them in a recognisable state. Some are not even reimagined as a trunk, such as Anglo-Brazilian interior/furniture designer Hamrei’s two side tables. Or French costume designer Charlie Le Mindu’s “yoyo” made with human hair! But it was when we came face to face with Nigo’s take, wrapped in just olive-coloured canvas (“inspired by furoshiki, the Japanese art of cloth wrapping”, the Kenzo designer said), with the LV logo on one side, that we thought of the Mickey Mouse exhibition, Mickey ‘Go Local’, at Raffles City in 2018: Anything goes.

Throughout the exhibition, the moniker ‘Louis’ appears repeatedly. It is possible that many visitors are aware that LV is the initials of a real person, but are we so familiar with the eponymous founder of the label that we would refer to him on first-name basis? In fact, the exhibition is dubbed “Louis 200”, as if the man’s name has the same ring as Rihanna. Ironically, there is almost nothing to help us better acquaint ourselves with the Frenchman, who left behind only one portrait and “whose story we know only from folklore”, as LV lets on in the preface of the exhibition’s accompanying book Louis 200. This was about an inanimate object, rather than a person who once lived.

The exhibition is zoned into five ‘rooms’. At the first, we were told by a staffer that this was the “briefing room” even when the briefing was conducted at the foyer prior to entering this space. When we were shown the next room, The Warehouse, we asked one of the guides the reason behind the name, and she told us enthusiastically: “The visionaries create the trunks from scratch here.” Why not ‘The Workshop’ then? The largest number of trunks appears to be housed in this tight confine, stacked as they would be in a warehouse. Or, could this be a tomb since some of the boxes look like ossuaries? The more atmospheric space is The Dreamscape, a darker area where the exhibits are more whimsical, such as balloon artist Robert Moy’s trunk made of small “latex balloons covered in 14 coats of resin” or dead serious, such as creative director Ben Ditto’s plastic-wrapped trunk with the label ‘Infectious Waste’, going back to the cholera epidemic of the 19th century to say something of the COVID pandemic of present.

But the most popular—and the brightest—room has to be the one singular space dedicated to the biggest boy band of today: Bangtan Sonyeondan, better known as BTS, whose members often wear LV, such as at the recent Grammys. As we approached that room, we saw visitors waiting outside and wondered why. It soon became clear: It was packed. Within the space, much smaller than Jamie Chua’s walk-in wardrobe, excited female fans were scribbling on the window-facing white wall, decorated with the cartoon avatars of the band members, flanked by two with facsimiles of the drawings and scribbles that appear on their trunk, which is placed in a portrait orientation, like a headstone.

The commemorative book available at the exhibition

The last room, the only other dedicated to one contributor, houses British DJ and music impresario Benji B’s (hence, the Benji B Room) trunk, in which he had a jukebox squeezed into it. A guy stands next to it to introduce the work, including “all the songs (the DJ) has used in the Louis Vuitton shows”. This is the only “interactive” exhibit in the whole event: You can choose a track to play. We, however, did not. The giggling girls from the previous room, opening the door repeatedly to get in, got to us. Outside, we were back to where we began, less than 15 minutes ago. People were crowding around a desk, on which books related to LV and the brand’s guide to cities were up for grab. It looked more like feeding than buying time. We asked a sales assistant if there were any LV merchandise and was told to go to the store. As we turned towards the door, she said chirpily, pointing to a waist-high container with rolled-up paper in it, “Take a poster. It’s free.”

Outside, back to the heat, the three aunties who were in the queue with us earlier were organising themselves to have photographs of two of them taken by the third. They unrolled the free posters, each holding one, and posed. A security staffer suggested that they take off their mask, to which they acted immediately. Their smiles were all Liu Ling Ling-wide and the photographer was delighted. At the holding area, where queues formed, the crowd did not appear larger than what we saw earlier. While waiting to enter, we asked the crowd controller: how many visitors are permitted inside each time? “Two hundred or 240, if you include the staff),” she informed us. As we now searched the entrance to re-enter MBS, we spotted a uniform-clad Louis 200 crew approaching people walking past the al fresco bar Le Noir. She asked them, with the spirit of a flag day kid, “Want to go to the Louis Vuitton exhibition?“ In olden days, we remember, that would be considered touting.

200 Trunks, 200 Visionaries: the Exhibition runs till 27 April 2022 before travelling to Beijing next. Reserve your tickets here. Photos: Chin Both Kay

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 Civilisations 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 well-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?


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 Civilisations 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.

HY One P3

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.

HY One P4

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.


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


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.”


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.”


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