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 Boutiques Fair 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