Culture On!

Our island’s annual street-style, multi-activity fair Culture Cartel is back with their fourth edition. This time, in Orchard Road. Could this be the best retail event of the year?

The main concourse of Culture Cartel in Scape

In an op-ed last Monday for The Straits Times, ‘How to make Orchard Road great again for shoppers’, the former writer of the paper’s now-defunct Urban Karen Tee opined that “the shopping experience [on said street] does not always live up to expectations”. She isn’t wrong. The first reason Ms Tee cited is that “popular sizes and product models are often sold out”. Most retailers will say that it is nearly impossible to stock all the sizes and styles at once so that they are available to all customers whenever they walk into a store. Had it been just bad luck for the shopper? Additionally, Ms Tee is of the belief that brands are resistant to bringing in “too many statement pieces”. She did not explain why that many are needed if they are indeed those items that make a statement. A former buyer at Comme des Garçons once told us that “statement pieces are very expensive and it is not easy to sell them. Often, we have to mark down.”

What was interestingly missing in Ms Tee’s observation of shopping in Orchard Road was the no-mention of fashion—and culture—that correlates with youths, surely an important and influential market segment, and one that leads in terms of the experiential. She did write of the need to make shopping fun, and described the recently-concluded Boutique Fairs as “a nice break from the usual Orchard Road shopping experience”. What was fun or out of the ordinary to her at the Fairs? Apparently the chance “to meet designers in person and learn about their creative process (we, too, were there, but no designer spoke to us about that), making shopping a lived experience rather than just a mere transaction”. She then mentioned Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighbourhood and Seoul’s Hongdae, and how much she “enjoyed” both. Ms Tee did not indicate that Shimokitazawa and Hongdae, which is close to Hongik University, are essentially enclaves of a generally youthful consumer population. Retailers in these places do cater to the young; their businesses and the lively mix of tenants impart a distinct vibe to the place, as well as dynamism. Perhaps, more importantly, it’s easy to describe them as cool. In the end, we are curious to know if Ms Tee ever “met any designer in person” in those places. And, at the Boutique Fairs, were “popular sizes and product models” always in stock? And did she find her elusive statement pieces?

When we mentioned this ST story to a PR consultant, she was quick to say: “no fresh perspectives”. And we agree. Were these not the same gripes we have been hearing for the last 20 or so years? Orchard Road can never be Tokyo’s Omotesando—another street Ms Tee mentioned, nor should it try to be. In fact, “A Great Street”, as Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) likes to call it, cannot come close to any of the main shopping areas in the Japanese capital. Omotesando is unlike any other major shopping belt in the world, not even Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, or New Bond Street in London, is comparable. What makes Omotesando exceptional is that it is flanked and well served by the arterial streets of Ura-Harajuku and Aoyama/Jingumae on each side of the thoroughfare. And in these parts, you do find stores and brands that are not part of the usual European luxury conglomerates. Therein lies the opportunity for discovery, and gratification, and entertainment. Orchard Road is just one mall-lined street. Ms Tee mentioned the need to make shopping fun without saying what indeed makes for fun. Perhaps she might find it if she pops into Culture Cartel this weekend.

Massive installations dot Culture Cartel. Here, Singaporean toy and art studio Mighty Jazz’s CHXMP fronting Culture Cartel

Cuteness is often part of street culture. At Culture Cartel, a “Petting Zoo”

This year’s Culture Cartel is held at the (now significantly disused) *Scape. It is the fair’s first appearance in Orchard Road, and a rousing return to a physical space after 2020’s digital version and last year’s understandable hiatus. Culture Cartel is described as “the best and the only street culture event in Asia”, which may have been the selling point that snagged the Singapore Tourism Board as a firm supporter, hoping to “position Singapore as a street culture hub”. In his opening speech during the media preview this morning, convention director Jeremy Tan of Axis Group Asia revealed that the confirmation of the use of *Scape came only in July this year, which effectively gave him and his partners four months to prepare. Despite the short lead time, things came neatly to place because of the “creative passion, the bonds, and community spirit”. Culture Cartel is different from other street style-style-driven events in that it is a collective expression of what the culture is about: an amalgamation of obsessions, not just sneakers or T-shirts, but also figurines and toys, customised-ornamenting of motorcycles, even garments, and, for the first time, NFTs, and the very real art of tattooing. In fact, there are “six pillars” in all.

The event occupies the first three levels of *Scape, covering an area of 63,420 sq ft (or about 5,892 sqm), which is smaller than the F1 Pit Building, location of the first and second Culture Cartel. Housing the event here (possibly the last on such a scale as the 15-year-old building will, according to The Straits Times, “undergo a revamp” and reopen in 2024) is a boon to those participants who like proper, demarcated spaces, within which to tell their brand stories, and to do so with visual flair. Going from one brand space to another here is also a more agreeable experience. At the F1 Pit Building in the past, it took considerable time to go from one end to the other of the length of each floor. Conversely, *Scape, a building that’s triangular in shape, is a lot more compact. Mr Tan exclaimed to a member of the press: “It’s like a shopping mall experience.” Culture Cartel is not the first such event to be held here. In 2019, before the COVID 19 pandemic, the now-single-day-event-at-Drip-last-month Sole Superior (that once also went by the moniker Street Superior) staged their ‘con’ here, but with considerably less orderliness and, for some, pull.

One of the most popular areas of the event is the Archive Room, with Mark Ong’s SBTG on the left

One of the best local newcomers is the menswear brand N3AVIGATE

Regular attendees to Culture Cartel will be able to spot the regular exhibitors and the obligatory shops of the sponsors. The event is not discernibly zoned, except for the areas shared by tattoo artists. The most appealing set-up is by Pharaoh’s Horses, a Singaporean tattoo-parlour-cum-clothier, who offers fashion inspired by tattoo art. Many visitors appear to head straight for level three (the main atrium is on level two, and what appears to be the basement is, in fact, level 1). And the space that seems to draw them in is the Archive Room, curated by Chooee Hwang of the street-culture-centric media company Streething, with input from possibly the most beloved OG of the scene Mark Ong of SBTG. Mr Ong has his own space (thronged by fans) that offers, among the usual T-shirts and such, “neo-vintage” sneaks—new shoes made to look old. Mr Hwang explained that the idea of the Archive Room is to offer something that counters e-commerce platforms. “Everything is online, but I want a physical room, I want to create an on-site experience by putting out what I have, or sort of archive.”

One of the joys of an event such as Culture Cartel is to discover labels unheard of before (or unfamiliar), not necessarily just to meet the designers. One of the brands we were delighted to encounter in the Archive Room is the four-year-old N3avigate. As the numeral in the name suggests, there is a trio behind the brand—Aaron Yip, Alvin Tan, and Justin Low. N3avigate, founded in 2019, is a menswear label with a military/work wear aesthetic, reminiscent of WTAPS, and GR-Uniforma. Mr Tan says the clothes are “designed at home” since they do not operate out of a studio, as the guys have their “day jobs”. He happily reveals that he is working for Casio and has, in fact, “just finished setting up before coming over”. The clothes are produced in three countries: China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. We like the visual merchandising of the line, as well as the design consistency and the hand feel of the products, although the production would benefit from technical expertise. When we asked Mr Tan if he was invited by Mark Ong to participate in Culture Cartel, he replied, “Oh, we are friends!”

The unsurprising queue outside the Limited Edt unit, dubbed the Ice Cream Parlour

One of the few sneaker resellers, RAuthentic X District_Co, with their piled-up merchandise

Some names are the mainstays of Culture Cartel. Limited Edt certainly is, as the proprietor Mandeep Chopra is on the four-man organising team that includes Jeremy Tan, and Douglas Khee and Dave Chiam, co-founders of the event management outfit Division Communications. The almost twenty-year-old Limited Edt, with a gelato-coloured store front, sits in one corner of the third floor, next to an entryway, and it soon becomes clear why that is a vantage site. As soon as the event opened to the public, the first spot to draw a visibly long queue is Limited Edt (the line stretches past the glass sliding door of the building and into the corridor outside). Reportedly, there are “hourly drops” of limited-edition kicks for grabs. One teenaged guy in the line told us, with confident smugness, when we asked him what he was queuing for, “anything Limited Edt offers” and then qualified, ”they have the good stuff.” Apart from the sneakers, this time displayed in refrigerator units (likely not turned on) to mimic an ice cream parlour (the Limited EDT space is, ironically, the warmest on this floor), there is also a small collection from Patta, the much-watched streetwear-store-turned-brand from Amsterdam.

Sneakers are, surprisingly, not the biggest draw at Culture Cartel. Sure, there is that line at Limited Edt, but not quite elsewhere. With less than ten sneaker exhibitors, the offerings may not be the catch that such ‘cons’ are usually associated with. Mr Tan explains that as the venue was confirmed relatively late, many brands and retailers have already committed their budgets to other activities, but he did say that by representation, only Vans is not a participant this year. For those who like ‘con’-style kicks-stops, there is a lively corner jointly operated by Ruben Chan of RAuthentic and Edgar Goh of District_Co. Mr Chan, who primarily sells “sneaker accessories” such as crease guards (placed in the shoe to protect the toe box from furrowing), shoe trees, sneaker pills (deodorants), told us that he is “the top seller of (such) accessories on Shopee”. When we spotted several pairs of Yeezy in the tempting (but size-limited) pile of collectibles and wondered if there is still a demand for them, he said, “yes, there is, especially now that the partnership is over.” Has the price increased? “Not much, by the 10 to 20”, he replied while busy serving customers. Percent, we assume.

One of the best-looking set-ups at Culture Cartel is by the Hong Kong label Subcrew

Malaysian brand Nerdunit has the best sales drive in the whole event

From Culture Cartel’s overseas guest-exhibitors, two brands standout: Hong Kong’s Subcrew (appearing with Plants of Gods) and Malaysia’s Nerdunit. Subcrew—also known as 潜队 back in the Fragrant Harbour—is one of the smallest exhibitors, but they have created one of the simplest and sleekest space in the whole event, featuring ceramic incense burners in the shape of squat succulents by Plants of Gods (POG), an online plant store that “aims to promote a gardening culture”, as well as T-shirts with creepy-cute characters of plants, personified. Co-owner of POG Benny Fung informed us that presently Subcrew has a pop-up in Hong Kong’s Mongkok Sneaker Street (or 布鞋街). When we asked what the situation in Mongkok—and indeed Hong Kong—is like, he said, “everything is back to normal.” Subcrew is considered to be the SAR’s OG streetwear brand. POG’s collaboration with Subcrew is a tale of intertwining within the burgeoning street culture of the city. One name keeps popping up: Prodip Leung (梁伟庭), a bassist with Hong Kong’s influential hip-hop group LMF (Lazy Mutha Fucka). Mr Leung is also an artist and his work, such as the alien-looking POG Fever, appears on on ofthe T-shirts (limited quantities are available at Culture Cartel). When asked how he came to collaborate with members of Subcrew, Mr Fung said, “Oh, we used to skateboard together!”

Just as fascinating is Malaysia’s Nerdunit. And how they sell: Shoppers pay only S$120 and would be passed a small plastic basket, with which to stuff as many pieces of the mostly T-shirts as possible in 120 seconds. The stack must not go above the rim of the basket. Fun is indeed part of the experience here (was this what Karen Tee meant by fun?). Nerdunit takes up a considerable space in one of the units on level three, with a giant inflatable ‘sunflower’ sporting a smiley face welcoming shoppers. Founded and designed by Malaysian Ronald Chew in 2013, Nerdunit has a sub-brand Water the Plants (in collaboration with UK brand Smiley), also available at Culture Cartel, so is the label’s paring with Japanese imprint FR2 (or Fxxking Rabbits, the provocative other line by Ryo Ishikawa of Vanquish). The clothing of Nerdunit, designed out of a studio in Kuala Lumpur, has been retailing in Japan for four years and is available at Tokyo’s Laforet in Harajuku. General manager Raja Iskandar Shah gleefully tells us that they’re “on the first floor”, and is even more delighted when we noted that Undercover’s pop-up Madstore was on the same level too.

“Photo wall” inside the Mighty Jaxx space

The small but well-curated offering of Luca & Vic

Increasingly, toys are very much a part of the street culture, with many creatives/brand owners who are artists themselves, such as Plants of Gods’s Prodip Leung. Toys/figurines/art collectibles are reportedly a sizeable business on our island. One of the most noted names is Mighty Jaxx, the design studio that produces some of the most fetching little creatures you’ll ever dream of owning. Appearing at Culture Cartel is CHXMP, the company’s “first employee” in the Metaverse (smaller physical versions are on sale). While Mighty Jaxx is moving further into the digital world, their physical store is no less engaging. There is even a set-up where visitors can take selfies in possibly an office of the future. Small players are not left out. Luca And Vic, founded in 2019, is the brain child of Calvin Chua, who named his business and store after his two children. Mr Chua considers himself a toy collector first, then seller. In his motley stash is Lao Wang, the asymmetrical-eyes-above-mouth character, designed by Shanghai-based Malaysian artist Ken Wong. Also known by the Chinese moniker huabi laowang (花臂老王), the charming figures come in various guises, including one as Bruce Lee and another as Santa Wang! We wonder if Mr Chua’s buying is based on his own taste or what the market thirsts for. “I’m still learning,” he says. “There are major players here, and there’s the community.”

That keeps coming back throughout our exploration of Culture Cartel: the social heart of those who embrace the culture. Jeremy Tan is heard telling a journalist “that is why we as curators are apt for the job. We have earned the trust of the community.” Culture Cartel can indeed be the gravitational centre of a group/tribe that is no longer catered for in tangible ways. Physical spaces in the past include The Heeren and Far East Plaza, but they are no longer even a shadow of their former selves. Cathay Cineleisure, *Scape’s immediate neighbour, was headed in that direction, but lost its way; it’s now a ghost town. A four-day event, however, is not quite sufficient for sustained visibility of the community and the individuals who believe in it. Although the entry charge into Culture Cartel is somewhat steep, it opens one to this admirable group of individuals who are deeply knowledgeable of and passionate in what they do. And the camaraderie is infectious, which is rather absent in the larger fashion world. We left Culture Cartel shortly after 1pm. At the traffic junction of Grange and Somerset Roads, Mark Ong was waiting to cross the former to head for 313@Somerset. A trio of possibly fans spoke to him. He said cheerily, “I’m meeting Chooee for lunch. Some friends brought nasi lemak from JB for me. Want to share with the Japanese (exhibitors).” Community in action.

Culture Cartel 2022 opens today at *Scape and will run until 4 December 2022. Entry passes can be purchase on site: SGD30 for a single day or SGD69 for all four days. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Pasar Dalam

The Boutique Fairs, dubbed a “shopping event”, is basically an air-conditioned market with stalls. And it is products galore, but is there anything to buy?

The biannual Boutique Fairs is a misnomer and an oxymoron. There are no boutiques, only stalls, and it is largely a single fair, in one venue. Although spread over two floors of the F1 Pit Building, it is unmistakably a solo bazaar. The organizers refer to their retail assemblage as “Boutiques”. Which is which? Perhaps that does not matter. Despite its somewhat atas-sounding name, the 20-year-old Boutique Fairs is not quite a high-end affair, and therein, perhaps lies its attraction. Its mass appeal is obvious, which explains why it has been a crowd-puller in the pre-COVID years, so much so that they started charging for entry in the last in order to attract serious shoppers, one stallholder told us, and to control the foot traffic. E-tickets are issued, which means getting inside the venue requires joining a queue to scan a QR code for entry, and dealing with the enthusiastic sun in the unsheltered line.

The Boutique Fairs (BF) is huge. It occupies the entire length of the Pit Building (the nerve centre of the F1 night races), over two floors, of about 9,000 sqm in total (it can easily take three hours or more to cover the whole area). They do have a handy little “event guide”, if navigational assistance is what you need, or the exact location of a particular stall. But BF is known for their “curated” jumble of brands—this year, more than 240 make up the Gifting Edition (as it’s also known), according to their media release. Visitors do not mind getting lost in the borderline farrago. The set-up is pasar malam-style array, flanking the generous aisles, with vendors doing up their spaces as they please. Some put in more effort than others. One guy was heard saying rather loudly “angmo pasar malam”. In fact, we were reminded of the old YWCA fairs—merchandise miscellany brought together by Caucasian hucksters.

The Boutique Fairs was founded in 2002 by Danish expatriate Charlotte Cain and two of her friends. The Business Times reported in 2019 that Mrs Cain, a potter, wanted not only to sell her wares, but also desired to interface with the people buying her products. She rented a room at the Fort Canning Centre, and, with her friends, “found several like-minded vendors to take part”. Pottery was the primary focus back then, but that is no longer the case. Through the years, Mrs Cain moved away from ceramics and the like (but not entirely; they now form only a small part of the line-up), and was able to attract fashion designers who do not shun expo-like set-ups to peddle their merchandise, such as Max Tan, reportedly Mrs Cain’s “favourite”. BF’s neo-kampong vibe could be commensurate with Mr Tan’s recent design aesthetic. With the inclusion of SG fashion labels, BF slowly morphed into the general merchandise fair that has become part Blueprint Singapore (now defunct), part Singapore Gifts and Premiums Fair, part Singapore Food Festival.

While more SG brands (including several newbies) are now in the mix (many you would likely encounter for the first time), there is still the clique of the “like-minded”—those hawking what are especially a draw to Westerners-in-Asia in the business of lifestyle products. Inevitably, you get more floral sundresses (and matching cushion covers) you’ll ever need, more batik wear (and ware) than you’ll ever consider, and more of those items deemed Asian exotica that not many of us salivate over. On that note, BF has a whiff of Bali markets about it, but with just a smidgen of their vibrancy. Mrs Cain told BT that “it all boils down to the curation. I have done myself since the beginning and that will not change. Curation is very important, it is an instinct and a gut feeling.” Could this also boil down to the taste of one individual? Or her friends?

One product development professional, whose visit to BF was his first, told us, “I like that there is a variety of products, but I feel the curation can be segmented according to product types. So to make it easier for shoppers to look at the things they like within an area, rather than having different merchandise grouped in rooms with different names.” There are seven rooms in all, three on level two and four on level three, each—really a hall—named after a colour, except one where food can be consumed seated, known as Breathe. Other than a chromatic guide to pinpoint the precise location of the brand a visitor might wish to see, it isn’t clear what the colours of each room denote. Scarlet, their newest, for example, bears none of the old suggestion of immorality of a woman so labeled. And yet it is not known why a simple red would not suffice.

Perhaps, the zoning strategy is deliberate. Each room is seemingly calculated to be without discernible order. In this manner, it encourages shoppers to visit every room, rather than just zoom in on, say, a womenswear room and then discount the rest. And, you do not get a cluster of ‘designer’ brands. A clothier’s neighbour could be a seller of beddings. In fact, the no-fixed-order approach could be advantageous to first-timers. There would be none of the possible anxieties going into actual boutiques, or the intimidation. The minute you step into any of the rooms, you would be rather rapidly swept into the hive of the Fairs. And there is a dizzyingly wide range of merchandise, but few of it have real design value or quality of make that would encourage keen appreciation. In the end, your eager PayLah may not get activated.

Boutique Fairs is at the F1 Pit Building from today to Sunday. Tickets: $5 for single-day admission (four hours of shopping) and $25 for a three-day pass. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

High Hopes

Culture Cartel’s sophomore outing is massive: all three levels of the F1 Pit Building. To better “make Singapore and Southeast Asia a street culture hub”?

CC 2019 P1CC 2019 P2.jpgFaçade (top) and the main video installation (below) that greets visitors at the entrance

By Ray Zhang

Given the dismay expressed to me about this year’s Street Superior (also known, confusingly, by its previous name Sole Superior), staged last month at Scape, I didn’t think Culture Cartel would top its debut last year. Street Superior (SS) is the old bird of street/sneaker festivals. Last year’s event at the Pasir Panjang Power Station was what my friend Adele called a “sneakerhead’s wet dream”. It was, to me, a pasar malam of a retail get-together, which looked more like an accidental convention than a bazaar of organised polish. This year, there was again a change of venue, and it was, to many attendees, too much of a jumble, too manic, and too inadequately curated in too crowded a confine. That SS spread over indoor and outdoor spaces slapped it with a too-all-over-the-place perception. It didn’t help that Scape has never been Orchard Road’s high point when it comes to retail, F&B, or the hub of youth culture.

Culture Cartel (CC), however, chose to remain at the F1 Pit Building, taking all of its three massive floors. Sure, this isn’t exactly the heart or most happening part of the city (the nearest MRT station—Promenade—isn’t at its very doorstep), never mind the Singapore Flyer, the ignored centurion keeping watch, but with successful events staged here, such as the recent Boutique Fairs and the Affordable Art Fair, this elongated block is increasingly associated with large-scale shopping events that happily do not commensurate with the predictable blandness offered nearby in the Marina Square/Suntec City stretch or even further north, in Orchard Road. If you drive, there is the added appeal/attraction of free parking.

Mercedes Benz X Coarse installationMercedes Benz X Coarse installation, featuring the CLA Coupé and Noop

Frankly, as I approach the F1 Pit Building after alighting at the nearest bus-stop (Promenade station or opposite The Ritz-Carlton: I prefer the latter), I feared that, with the three floors they have been touting, as opposed to last year’s two, CC may still be a gathering of space fillers than stalls/brands/creators/merch that compel me to look and enjoy and buy. As it turned out, my fear was speculative. What I appreciated about CC last year was how orderly and spacious the fair was. The same can be said of this year’s, but I did not immediately sense (nor did anyone forewarned me) that the exhibitors were not up to scratch.

In fact, this year, I feel things are taken up a notch. Street culture has always been a visual culture. And the space planners have made CC visually engaging. Even exhibitors were in on it, creating within their own spaces, regardless of size, inviting set-ups (imagine, Limited Edt goes camp with Sneaker Gala!). It helps that Culture Cartel has a title sponsor: Mercedes Benz. That its obligatory installations—by LA-based COARSE studio of Mark Landwehr and Sven Waschk, and the Spanish mural artist Ricardo Cavolo—were not the stuff associated with a car driven by a certain demographic well match CC’s aspiring street cred. These had the heart in the right places, so to speak. Even the normally staid Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the conservative DBS Bank were on board, with STB’s Executive Director Jean Ng saying through a media release that CC will “boost Singapore’s appeal as an entertainment and lifestyle events destination”.

Stadium Goods & Limited EdtWith Limited Edt as co-organiser, it is to be expected that our island’s most known ‘indie’ retailer has more than one unmissable spaceLimited Edt @ CCThose into the holy grail of kicks, this Limited Edt corner is glammed-up nirvana

Footwear is, as expected, a draw, but it isn’t a major highlight. It is visibly represented by Reebok, New Balance, Puma, Skechers, and Vans, but no major booth from Adidas or Nike, which is a pity since both brands are unavoidable in any conversation about street style. Their non-participation perhaps share the same reason why you’ll never find Apple in the likes of the IT Show: they just don’t do consumer fairs. The absence of the world’s two largest sneaker brands, however, is more than made up by what’s put out by Limited Edt, once again, co-organiser of Culture Cartel. Other indie re-sellers, including secondhand shoes, give the fair a vendor vibe that regulars of (sneaker or other) cons could relate to and enjoy.

An interesting concept is Ox Street—not a single shoe is for sale. You’d not be wrong to think what’s available is a service. The striking stand is set up to promote the trading e-platform Ox Street, a digital thoroughfare for sellers and buyers of sneakers that are often unavailable at the usual outlets. Its Dutch proprietor Gijs Verheijke was overheard telling an enquirer that “it’s ridiculous to wait a long time for the shoes you want”. For those willing to pay, Mr Verheijke suggests visiting Ox Street to see if there’s the shoe you must have, now. Authenicity is assured as a team of experts will make sure sellers offload the real deal and buyers get to wear the genuine stuff. Authenticated sneakers come with a verification tag. This is like Vestaire Collective or The Real Real for sneakers! With a focus on Asia. In the Ox Street space, two pairs of Nike X Sacai LDV Waffles are encased atop a box-stand. One of them is a fake. If you can guess which is the genuine article, you get to win a pair of shoes, apparently (I’m not sure which). FYI, the said Nike X Sacai kicks is listed on Ox Street for S$865!

CC 2019 P3.jpgThe Artist Series Program brings together different practitioners for a 12-piece collectionMacro ScrutinizationSneaker customiser SBTG’s clothing label Macro Scrutinization 

The fashion offerings, while no Supreme equivalent in the hype stakes, are interesting enough, and dominated by those brands selling T-shirts with an ‘attitude’, which often means a clever phrase—one “Magic Pussy” drew considerable attention (its Indonesian designer told an interested shopper the phrase is based on “an ex-girlfriend!”)—or striking digi-graphics such as those by Malaysian brand Stoned & Co. There is also the Artist Series Program, which allows graphic designers and artists to express the street side of their aesthetic sum. They’re, on a whole, quite good, but I wish the tees come in 100% cotton, rather than Tetoron Cotton (TC) jersey. One thing does stand out to me in a slightly disturbing way: every brand seems to have been produced by the same factory: identical fabrics, identical stitching, and identical shape, or sourced from the same blank canvas that’s not quite the equivalent of Gildan.

A few ‘personalities’ have taken up retail space at CC. One of them is the recently almost-disgraced Preetipls (Preeti Nair), the hip-hop artist, who, together with her brother/collaborator Subhas Nair, was offered “conditional warning” by the police for the “offensive” reactive rap video posted in the wake of one “brownface” ad for E-Pay (an app by NETS), starring a remunerated-to-do-the-job Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew. With the past behind her, Preetipls sat at her stall Preetily, and happily chatted with customers, who seemed more amused by her presence than interested in her black or white T-shirts with not-clever nor subtle messages, such as “YES IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE CHINESE” (yep, full caps and, yep, the one she wore in that video) sitting below another that says—irony probably not intended—美丽 or pretty, her screen moniker in Mandarin!

Preetipls @ CC 2019The hip-hop artiste Preetipls happily manning her stallMay Tan @ CC 2019Surrender’s Mae Tan, too, has set up stall

Another is Mae Tan, whose family is the second owner of the multi-label store Surrender and backer of Christian Dada, as well as distributor of Off-White. Ms Tan has set up a rather large, linear space selling vintage clothing and accessories, as opposed to, one might reasonably expect, old stocks of Surrender and others in her family’s fold. A similarly togged woman, who was earlier seen talking to the stylish proprietor, told a companion that she thinks Ms Tan “is selling her own clothes and her friends’.” Since I didn’t see any men’s wear, so none came from chums such as Jumius Wong—EIC of T mag and the come-back Elle. Provenance aside, I think she has a spirited mix of things that should appeal to those with a weakness for designer duds that ask to be looked at.

I am not sure if fashion is what people come here for. In fact, I doubt clothing is the main draw. Apart from sneaker customiser SBGT’s clothing line Macro Scrutinization (presented in what could be the handsomest space of CC), the other stall that seems to attract the most shoppers is the thought-to-be-defunct Japanese label íxi:z. This was, in the ’80s and ’90s, a rather popular casual wear brand, but according to a CNA Lifestyle report, it will be reborn on our island as a streetwear label. When I spoke to the friendly sales staff, pretending I knew nothing about this strange four alphabets that look like roman numerals, I was told that íxi:z is resurrected by the family who was the former distributor of the brand here. Why bring it back, I asked, but she couldn’t answer. The small collection comprises T-shirts in a few styles, emblazoned with the vintage íxi:z logo and Raf Simons-esque photo-prints.

Gakkin & Noko.jpgJapanese tattoist Gakkin and his daughter NokoTattoo @ CC.jpgTattoo artist at work

Tattoo continues to be a draw at Culture Cartel. I’d be the first to admit I know very little about permanently and decoratively inking skin, but it seems people do come here not only to see the art in action, but also to get something done on themselves. I spoke to a young chap who was contemplating getting “something small, even when my girlfriend is dead against it.” Where might that something small be inked on? “In the centre of my lower back,” he replied. Does that mean you’d have to take off your T-shirt? “If must, okay lah,” he grinned. What if an image of you stripped down to your shorts were circulated online and it went viral, prompting a newspaper headline, such as the recent one about an outcry in our northern neighbour, “Malaysian Minister of Tourism, Art and Culture condemns ‘obscene, half naked’ tattoo expo in Kuala Lumpur”? “Huh?” He didn’t look like he knew what I was asking. “Obscene, meh?” Probably not, I figured—not when Amsterdam-based Japanese tattoo star Gakkin is here with his 10-year-old daughter Noko, dubbed “one of the youngest tattoo prodigies in the world” to show their skill.

Even if not much in Culture Cartel interests you, the three levels of the F1 Pit Building that it occupies are a pleasure to walk through. I can’t say quite enough how the spaciousness of the set-up really makes the visit far more pleasant than, for instance, the packed-to-the-rafters Boutiques Fair of last month, in which, there was virtually no space to kick back with a cup of iced coffee (“sorry, we’re out of ice,” every stall told me). At CC, the Spinelli/The Glenrothes/The 1925 shared lounge, with their Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona-ish chairs, could be a destination itself. In his opening address, Convention Director of Culture Cartel (and the main creator) Jeremy Tan said that his goal is to “make street culture more accessible to people” and “Singapore and Southeast Asia a street culture hub”.

After I left and was crossing the traffic junction on Raffles Avenue to get to Millennia Walk, I saw Patricia Mok—sunglasses almost obscuring her face—approaching. She suddenly stopped before two fellow pedestrians beside me, and asked “you finished shopping, ah?” Yes, was the reply. The actress/comedienne didn’t prolong the chat. “I better hurry” and she dashed off. Jeremy Tan could really be on to something.

Culture Cartel is on till Sunday, 8 December. Admission, SGD24 (for single-day entry pass) is available at the door. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

High On The Tide

The debut Culture Cartel, held at the F1 Pit Building over the weekend, banked on the rising wave of street style to offer a “curated” mix of sneakers, fashion, toys, art, and tattoos. Was it an inviting jumble?


Culture Cartel 2018 P1A Bearbrick welcome at the first Culture Cartel

By Ray Zhang

A curious thing happened as I arrived at the F1 Pit Building for the first edition of Culture Cartel, which I was told was the largest gathering of its kind, possibly in Asia, if not the world, for street style and kindred obsessions. But the people I met—both attendees and participants—before I could take in the displays and stalls, told me that I had to try the mee rebus.

Now, I didn’t know there would be food stalls. Nothing wrong with that. We are a nation of hungry citizens. But I had something else in my mind, such as the Adidas Consortium 4D which I had come to see after I was told, via Messenger earlier in the day, that it costs S$600, and would be available, unsurprisingly, though a raffle. That people were more excited about a Malay noodle dish suggested to me, prematurely perhaps, that Culture Cartel may turn out to be a little—how shall I say it?—lacking?

Bringing a different retail experience to those of us unimpressed with the way malls and, equally guilty, stores on our island have filled their spaces has always been what I encourage and support. When Culture Cartel was brought to my attention, it sparked the hope in me that such an event would encourage those with leasable space, even non-traditional such as a car park, to be more creative and imaginative in their use. I admit that as I write this, I am thinking of the now-closed pop-up The Park.Ing in Tokyo.

Culture Cartel 2018 P2.jpgAdidas launched their Adidas Consortium 4D sneaker for S$600 with a raffle draw

The name is perhaps a deliberate oxymoron. Culture Cartel: who’d want to or can own the cartel to culture, unless it’s to do with narcotics? Or oil? Culture belongs to the people, not a cartel. But perhaps it’s excellence in the arts—sorry, street style—that the organisers want to become the international syndicate of. Admittedly, a cartel sometimes has a reprehensible, hence appealing, aspect to it. Even a ring of grandeur. Yet, in a physical space that is the F1 Pit Building, it is the “culture” that the event had to live up to, even when it is no longer prefixed ‘sub’ as it once was.

The problem, for a lack of a better word, with the F1 Pit Building is its long, linear expanse. Retail-centric events such as the Club 21 Bazaar and the Boutique Fairs, which held their ‘Gifting Edition’ last month in the same location, seem unable to grapple with the generous space. Like the capacity of Pasir Panjang Power Station that the organisers of Sole (Street) Superior had committed themselves to in October, the F1 Pit Building, spread over two floors, was too large to fill.

One participant told me, before I could walk past the entrance, that he felt there wasn’t enough “quality exhibitors” and that the space “looked a bit spare”. That Culture Cartel had to include food sellers when major malls are within ten minutes by foot from the F1 Pit Building perhaps confirmed my earlier suspicion. But not being packed to the rafters with merchandise may have been a good thing. There was comfortable room to move in when viewing or shopping. In a fair like this, jostling that isn’t the proverbial necessary evil is definitely welcome.

Culture Cartel 2018 P3Design your own Air Force 1, co-organised by Limited Edition and Nike

In fact, the orderliness of the set-up was rather impressive and was counter to the perceived notion that anything street is characterised by a disordered condition. There was no grand welcome. Just walk in, after paying the S$20 entry charge, and its all there. Culture Cartel was organised under four broad categories: fashion, art, toys, and tattoos (which left food—a culture in its own right—an afterthought, I suspect). While street culture means many things to many people, one does not immediately equate with another. And since all categories at Culture Cartel had equal billing, no particular one stood out, although to fans of body art, the tattoo zone was the most impressive.

Street culture for the most part is an interconnected culture of cultures (and subcultures); a confluence, a clutter. Culture Cartel did not negate that. But for a linked culture to have some value proposition, some things have to enjoy a shout out. There were sneakers, but nothing really beckoned; there were clothing, but most languished; there were toys, but most belonged to someone else, there were art pieces, but they did not reach out; there were skate displays, but nothing major unless you were a groupie wanting to catch a glimpse of SBTG’s Mark Ong with some fancy footwork; there were the tattoos, of course, buy you’d have to be a true fan to have the patience to receive or watch the elaborate work being meticulously done on skin. What was memorable? I now struggle to remember.

You can’t tell from the loose assemblage of participants and brands that it was a result of a selection process that the organisers called curation. All four categories were overseen by a quartet of individuals reputed to be at the top of their field. Yet, I sensed that some of the participants were really just space fillers, offering not quite the stuff that aroused the senses or left an impression I could seriously call deep.

Culture Cartel 2018 P4T-shirts, such as those from Robinsons’s kitschy zahuodian, unsurprisingly, dominated the fashion offering 

There was Mandeep Chopra, overlord of our sneaker-sphere, whose family owns what one Culture Cartel contractor described as “a massive business”—Limited Edition and its kindred stores. He was in charge of sneakers and fashion (although in clothing Mr Chopra has not proved his mettle). Graffiti/comic/street artist Jahan Loh (former graphic designer with The Straits Times) took charge of the art pieces that littered the interior of the F1 Pit Building. Mr Loh is considered to have star quality for his collaboration with Edison Chen and friendship with Jay Chou. Jackson Aw of the renown toy/cartoon design studio Mighty Jaxx put in place the figurines that tempted but were not for sale since most, as I was educated, were part of his own personal collection. And tattoo master Augustine Nezumi of Singapore Electric (formerly Givemelovetattoo) assembled what I was told was the best gathering of tattoo artist on the island, not including ink stars such as Osaka-based Nissaco and the Amsterdam-based Gakkin.

By the thought of it, these merry men should have been able put together a fair of immense pull. I am not saying it did not draw a healthy crowd, but I was not certain that those who attended were terribly impressed, had opened their minds, or their wallets. In that respect, this was rather like the Boutique Fairs: Despite its name, it was not really about fashion, and the truly fashionable would not have been swayed by it. Culture Cartel’s heart is in the street, but aficionados may find it lacked soul.

According to Jeremy Tan, founder of Axis Group—one third of the organisers behind Culture Cartel, the event was “powered” by Mercedes Benz, which is not a name one associates with street culture. Fashion and art, yes, but not quite anything to do with sneakers and the like. But the world of fashion is changing. If the LVMH group recognises street culture’s global influence and reach, it is unsurprising that Daimler AG too want in on the action. The ‘Mercedes is Iconic’ campaign has, in fact, aligned itself with A$AP Rocky. But I am not sure parking some cars in the venue will augment the status of Culture Cartel as one that truly matters for street fashion and art, and the attendant culture. Understandably, an event of this scale requires financial muscle and Mercedes Benz could provide the bulk. Mr Tan was, however, unwilling to divulge how much the car company injected into his pet project, only that it was “less than what fashion week got”.

Culture Cartel 2018 P5Tattooing was probably the main draw as there were as many willing to receive as there were to watch

I do not pretend to be an expert on tattoo art, but on a whole, I could see that the exhibitors and tattoo artists had something going that spoke of their art and community. Perhaps it was the strength of their set-up and the willingness of customers to have their bodies (often whole backs or entire arms) worked on in full public view. Often times, inking is a private affair, unless you choose to do it in a stall at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Perhaps the strength of their presence was augmented by the appearance of the two masters Nissaco and Gakkin, both adding an air of celebrity to the zone.

Another message came to me via Messager prior to my visit; it alerted me to the only Singapore “designer” participating in the exhibition. Amos Ananda Yeo, trading under his first and middle name, had boasted in an IG post of his interview with the Mic, which awaken my curiosity about what the self-styled street wear proponent might show at Culture Cartel. Mr Yeo’s rise in the business has been, by many accounts, rapid, as he made inroads into China, where he has a production base in the IT hub of Shenzhen.

In the Mic article, Mr Yeo asserted that Singaporean fashion has “a lack of distinct local identity.” He claimed that “it was always inspiration arriving from overseas that influenced local fashion.” As I went through two racks of his clothes, I realised that, perhaps, Mr Yeo was referring to himself. Known to be heavily ‘influenced’ at one time by Craig Green, he has, as it appeared to me, moved on to Raf Simons and Gosha Rubchinskiy. I have to concede that Mr Yeo is rather versatile. And adaptive. There was considerable buzz at his store, perhaps bearing out his increasing celebrity.

Culture Cartel 2018 P6Another Limited Edition space, the first-ever collab between Nike and Carhatt

If you needed a pasar malam, Culture Cartel provided one in the form of the Marketplace, a short, narrow, table-flanking strip on which unknown jewellery brands such as Day by They (the fledgling business of two friends Kit Ang and Junie Lim) sold alongside established names such as the bag brand Gnomes and Bows whose affable createur Quanda Ong was at hand to explain the finer features of his literature-motivated leather pieces. This was probably the busiest part of the exhibition, a mix of street style and not, with buying and selling that were visible and encouraging.

Talking about jewellery, what I found interesting was the ring collection, Fragm_nt.of, by one-part owner of the eyewear company Mystic Vintage, Alvin Tan—also one of the players behind the multi-disciplinary art and design collective Phunk Studio. Mr Tan’s rings showed a weakness for exquisitely formed metalwork with artisanal attention to details that could have time-travelled from the era of the Byzantine Empire. The leap from eyewear to rings must have been massive, but as Mr Tan said, “I have always liked jewellery. It took a while, but I think we are doing okay.”

Culture Cartel’s own Merch Store, I thought, stood many rungs above some of the vendors. In two troughs, secondhand T-shirts (laundered, I was assured) can be picked for customisation. I thought that whoever was in charge of this store has a good eye as the selection of vintage tees constituted what would be considered coolly-cute. But even better was that, with each purchase (S$60 a pop), you could have the top customised whichever way you like using the iron-on graphics available for free. You can therefore do your own Doublet-like over-print on top of the existing pictures of the T-shirts, which, I thought beat those brands with a penchant for pedestrian graphics depicting tired, old Singapura.

Culture Cartel 2018 P7Acrylic painting, ‘Porcelain Boy’, by Singaporean artist Andre Tan, known for his visual commentary on fashion and pop art

Some of the ‘highlights’, unfortunately, did not quite move me. I had thought that the Limited EDT (LE) collaboration with Asics Tiger was lame because the pants immediately made me think of late-Nineties G-Star Raw. Even the graphics on the tops had the familiarity of the Dutch brand’s collaboration with Marc Newson. And the quietness of the dedicated space suggested to me that, despite the fancy and striking fit-out, visitors were not impressed, or swayed or engaged by work/military styles presented in a vertical-garden setting.

I don’t pretend to be mad about sneakers, unlike SOTD contributor Naike Mi, but from what I saw, this wasn’t a true, insider destination for sneakerheads, although those who went may have been delighted to see the Carhartt WIP X Nike collaboration on the Air Max 85—admittedly a handsome shoe. Elsewhere, the Air Force 1 customisation looked to have veered on the side of juvenile. And the Air Jordan XI display was, well, just that one shoe. LE’s presence was not by any means small, but they did not impart their spaces with the same energy they gave to their LE Convenience store at Sole (Street) Superior.

As with Sole (Street) Superior, Culture Cartel showed that, at present, street culture is the preoccupation of male youths. Or, what the ancient Greeks called kuoros. Axis Group’s Jeremy Tan happily admitted that he’s a street-style junkie, who “grew up with a BMX” and once had a shop in Queensway Shopping Centre, where LE laid their roots, called Tinted. “I dreamed about doing this for three years,” he enthused, the satisfaction so clear in his eyes. “I have an advantage because of the support from friends. You need people to support your cause, without friends you cannot succeed.”

Or feed! Yes, there was the mee rebus. I did not forget. Cooked and operated by Yunos & Family, a business founded in Ang Mo Kio since 1979, it was simply delicious.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay