Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
Before Mediacorp’s Star Awards 2021, there was Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel 2008, 2012, and 2016
An airport created inside the Grand Palais for Chanel spring/summer 2016. Photo: Chanel
The attendees at the Star Awards 2021 held inside the terminal building of T4. Screen grab: Mediacorp/YouTube
We are an island of many firsts. Mediacorp’s recent Star Awards, curiously staged at Changi Passenger Terminal T4, is one of them. It included a “fashion show” with a short runway on the tarmac, in front of an SIA jet. Another first. And stars strutting their stuff in front of an the aircraft—a first too. For the uninitiated, this must have been the grandest event Mediacorp has ever put together, and with more fashion than an average TV/MeWatch/YouTube viewer will get to see in their lifetime. But the aviation theme is hardly new in the world of fashion/entertainment. Watching the unreasonably long broadcast of six-and-a-half hours, with no real content in the first three, we started to stray and think of the grand sets of the old Chanel shows under Karl Lagerfeld’s watch that included an airport and aircraft. Grand. Monumental. Splendid. Stupendous! The descriptions came easily, but we struggled to find similar for Mediacorp’s dalliance with Changi Airport.
Outside their studios, Mediacorp was rather lost—a 孙公公 (sun gonggong, Eunuch Song!) in 21st century Singapore with a four-terminal, two-runway international airport. T4 is not the most attractive among all of Changi’s dissimilar terminals, and Mediacorp made it even less telegenic. From the “red carpet” on the red asphalt of the driveway to the plush, but utilitarian interiors of the departure gates, the show venues had the ambience of an MRT station during the Circuit Breaker. And to see the stars on both driveway and airport apron in sometimes laughable clothes that contradicted the spirit of red-carpet fashion (Chen Hanwei ridiculously over-fashioned by Q Menswear, for one) was really both highlight and downer of the whole event. It might be alright for us to laugh at ourselves, but thinking that the other regions with similar and far more polished award nights having a national giggle was pain-inducing. So, it was best to think of other memorable events.
Chanel cruise show in 2008 featuring a Chanel private jet from which models appeared. Photo: JKLD
Zoe Tay in Carolina Herrera at Changi T4. Photo: Mediacorp
Chanel’s over-the-top shows are, by now, legendary. No idea is too audacious or too unachievable for the house and their budget, and that includes creating a departure lounge and naming the check in counter Chanel Airlines. In fact, there was even a Chanel Line. Back in 2008, Chanel staged a couture show on an airfield in Santa Monica, Los Angeles. The audience was seated in a hanger and two planes—the Bombardier Challenger 601 (considered “business jets”, hence for private travel)—arrived to allow the models to alight. So spectacular the whole staging was (including a first-class departure gate set up in the hanger, complete with cocktail bars) that guests reportedly gave the show a standing ovation even before the first model, Raquel Zimmermann in an airport-ready navy jumpsuit, could deplane. So outstanding the presentation was that jet-setting attendees, such as Victoria Beckham and Demi Moore were duly impressed. If watching the action outside the aircraft was not quite enough, for the spring/summer 2012 couture collection, Chanel brought the show inside the cabin, with a set that allowed members of the audience aisle or window seat!
The house of Chanel had a long connection to aviation. In 1966, Coco Chanel herself even designed the uniforms—featuring her signature boxy jackets—of the flight attendants of Olympic Airways (now Olympic Airlines) of Greece, which was, at that time, marketed as a luxury airline owned by the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (who married the widowed Jackie Onasis). Back then, flying was a stylish affair. And an airport was not a place for T-shirts and shorts and flip-flops as it is now. In bringing back or remembering the romance of travel, Karl Lagerfeld had an airport terminal built in the Grand Palais for the Chanel spring/summer 2016 show. Models appeared as passengers ready to check in at the Chanel Airlines counter, manned by just-as-impossibly-good-looking staff. The flight information display system above (interestingly, not a split-flap) showed the final destinations of Chanel Airlines: Dubai, Seoul, Tokyo, and, amazingly, Singapore! We needed another country to show that we are worthy.
The last American casual brand to leave our shores. Will we miss it?
It was bound to happen. But we did not think it would be on their 10th year here. A decade is a long time to be in any market. But there has been declining interest in Abercrombie & Fitch since at least five years ago. This week, at its sole store on Orchard Road (in what was formerly known as Knightsbridge), the calm and uniformity of the stretch of merchandise-free window is interrupted by a sale sign that says “entire store 50%”. This afternoon, two women rushing towards the entrance were heard saying, “quick, quick.” Although the store front was quiet, it brought to mind the long queues seen in the first week of its opening back in December 2011. There are those, however, who remember that during that week, the MRT broke down on three consecutive days, leading to massive public anger. At least five hundred thousand commuters, it was said, were affected during those days. Yet, those who rushed to and queued at the new store in town seemed unaffected by the train disruption and unconcerned that deep dissatisfaction with our mass rapid transit system was seriously mounting.
At the closing down sale, we sense a similar indifference to what’s even more severe than not being able to get home soon enough—an ongoing pandemic. Purchases had to be made. A sale had to be taken advantage of. Bargain hunters left no garment and price tag unchecked. One Caucasian woman with a Saint Laurent tote had both her arms, locked at the fingers, served as a basket. A young chap was scooping up so many track pants, you’d wonder if he wears anything else. Folks of the Merdeka Generation were so numerous, you would not have guessed A&F was once considered a teen brand. We notice that there was hardly any staff. Two were spotted, both manning the only cashier counter opened, on the first floor. A chat with one of them confirmed that the store will “close for good on 2nd May” (last day of sale). There was no mention of the closure on table/counter stands, except the half-price sale. Or, on social media. Why are you closing, we wondered. “They’re not making money,” she offered helpfully. Why, no one shops? “It’s because of the pandemic.” That was not unexpected. Is 50 percent off enough to clear the stocks? “We hope so.” Will you be out of a job next month? “We’ll be retrenched, I guess.”
The merchandise seemed to have ended its seasonal life last year. It is not unreasonable to assume that the stock replenishment and renewal exercise did not continue after the autumn/winter buy, possibly including their supply of environmental perfume. The store was surprisingly and welcomely unscented! You could depart with purchases not artificially fragranced. Much of what they were clearing were standard and familiar separates, but in thicker fabrics than what might be comfortable for our weather. Some shoppers had noticed that the holiday offerings of last December were noticeably unremarkable. Back then, there was already talk that the store would be closing permanently. When Robinsons was clearing out last November, some leasing managers were already saying that the next available large retail space on Orchard Road would be the corner that is Abercrombie and Fitch—2,000 sq m, all three levels of it. Similarly, when Gap bowed out in 2018, as well as American Eagle Outfitters and, two years earlier, Aeropostale, the question was, “when will it be Abercrombie’s turn?”
US casual apparel brands have lost much of its appeal from the time Gap arrived on our island in 2006 (even before the iPhone!) with a 836 sq m “Southeast Asia flagship” in Wisma Atria. Throughout much of the ’90s, when Gap was popular, most Singaporeans were buying their clothes when travelling. And they needn’t go to the US, as Gap and its ilk were available in Tokyo and—even nearer—Hong Kong, where once a little street in Tsim Sha Tsui called Granville Road gave Gap fans—and certainly Abercrombie—their fill of merchandise by way of outlet shops. By the time Abercrombie arrived here, the brand was not as new as it seemed since many of those who love the label had brought their share during their holidays in the US, or, for the less-travelled, across the Causeway in also-outlet shops such as the Reject Shop. Abercrombie, as did its compatriot brands, scored by selling basic merchandise characterised by conspicuous placements of logotypes, but with far sexier branding (campaigns were famously shot by the now-disgraced Bruce Weber). But the formula never changed, not even when copies such as Bangkok’s CC Double O emerged, complete with similar store interiors, to tempt visitors, such as those from our island. If we really required basics, and fashionable ones too, we already had Uniqlo—they were earlier than Abercrombie by two years.
When Abercrombie opened, national pride could be sensed as the store was only the second to launch in Asia after Japan. The opening was not without fanfare, and was certainly more attention-grabbing than any witnessed till then. It was conceived to be remembered. Half-naked men—with only red track pants—paraded the store front daily, amenable to gawkers who must take selfies with them and to those who can’t resist appreciating their musculature by running their fingers down their abdomen. Many onlookers, including those that would be known now as the “Pioneer” generation, showed that we have arrived at a time when what was considered indecent was being redefine. As SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang recalled, “even my mother wanted to touch them!” These weren’t shirtless men at a construction site (already rarely seen); these were men showing off, aware of their good looks, and their magnetism attracted both men and women to the store, even long after their sojourn. They were not guys seen on paper bags; they were flesh and gut. “From now till the opening,” one enthusiastic report at the time went, “you can expect these sexy hot bods to be in attendance.” If you really didn’t know better, you’d be wondering what the store was selling.
Abercrombie opened on our shores just two years after the Obama presidency. The first African-American to be elected president had promised “hope and change”. The US of A was to experience seismic shifts: demographically, socially, and technologically (Twitter was only picking up pace, no one was imagining a TikTok). Casual American fashion was slowly losing its wholesome appeal to not only the Americans, but also those abroad who were being converted by the Swedes and the Spaniards (and to an extent, the British) into fast fashion fans. H&M was selling retro-print T-shirts (so too was Uniqlo), but Abercrombie was stuck to the aesthetic dullness of its previous, controversial CEO Michael Jeffries, still banking on its appliqued graphics, heavy on the A&F logo. And, not forgetting how tight the clothes were (especially for the men). Mr Jeffries, himself a mature—and a bottle blond—personification of his Abercrombie ideal, told Salon in 2006 that his brand was for “cool” people, which presumably did not include the “overweight or unattractive people” he did not want seen in his clothes. Even before wokeness was a word, this did not score well with many people. Although Mr Jeffries issued a public apology when the comments were made known in 2013, the impact of his tone-deaf comments on Abercrombie could not be blocked or reversed.
Those heaving, bare-chested chaps on the pavement of Orchard Road only served to augment the positioning of the brand. Shoppers who did not care about their sexualised image, the dark-as-Zouk interior of the store, the dance music even at eleven in the morning, and the bothersome all-over scent that makes even Lush smelled discreet, just avoid it, like a bad joke. One segment of consumers who seemed more lured by it than others were gay boys. They wore the athletic, bicep-enhancing tees and polos as date clothes as much as club wear. Abercrombie made casual sexy and youthful insouciance equally so. The trick is to appear in the threads not self-aware, as though you’re naturally as glowingly appealing as those blonde gods lensed by Mr Weber. Or the store’s if-you-are-not-good-looking-you-can’t-work-here staff. The Abercrombie moose logo, whether on a plain crew-neck tee or a polo shirt, was like a badge that indicated you belonged to a club, one that honours only physical perfection. This ideal, often without sartorial merit, was eventually also appreciated by the masses, who had yet seen the fading glory of American preppy for a largely white consumer. Abercrombie was not hard to understand just as Americana, decades earlier, was not hard to digest.
But times do change, as well as consumer tastes. President Obama’s place in the White House elevated America’s image outside the US. But, when Donald Trump took over—to the horror of the world, that no longer held true. Which non-American would want to don anything that blatantly aligned the wearer with the MAGA States? In fact, Abercrombie’s still-blatant “all-American” branding was, and still is, its undoing—USA is no longer a seductive sell. Although its brand image was rehabilitated after Michael Jeffries’s departure (“ousted”, as was reported) from the company in 2014, things would not be the same for the brand. The cool that it so naturally exuded weaken, the clothes looked dated, and the store still dark, as if it could not come out of a doomed gloom. They did not, to borrow from an old phrase, get their mojo back.
Update (18 April 2021, 6.30pm): Abercrombie announced on Instagram earlier today that “the store is closing on 2 May 2021”, adding, “we’ve enjoyed being your Abercrombie”
“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, BonnieCashin, 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?
It’s true, some magazine editors have to TikTok themselves to the top
By Raiment Young
It isn’t easy being a magazine editor. With print media on a veritable decline, the magazine editor, these days, has to try harder. Now that many also have to play an active role in the digital version of their respective titles, editors have to be masters of more than one medium. In the past, they needed only to be adept at putting together a print magazine—fill the pages with engaging stories and striking photographs. A flair with pagination and packaging (stories), I was told, is a plus. Then some editors adopted Instagram, and they gained visual competency in not only selling products, but themselves too. Personal branding, as with OOTD, became a thing. Once an editor needed only to be good with text, now they’ve gone from shooting photographic selfies to video selfies. The journalist, not to be outdone by influencers, happily and actively becomes one.
A magazine is no longer the sum of its editorial pages or parts, or running heads. The content is not any more merely the editor’s signature. With digital iterations of print and the necessary attendant social media pages intersecting, I see editors have to be able to generate lively content across platforms. And then some: They also need to create personal pages as extension of their paid work, to spin-off the otherwise one-dimensional print page into something that engages so that the editor is then able to personally find new audiences—those who don’t read but view— and, in return, monetise what he/she posts, brilliant or banal, seemly or trite. By extending themselves, editors are also extending the brand. Mastheads need a digital life too; they sent out tweets and social posts, and these do not necessarily promote the content of the original medium. They are not merely a title; they are brands, and, as such, they can be a magazine, as well as a social-media page, a blog, a Youtube channel, a shopping portal, the merchandise, or even an app.
Editors need to be as multi-faceted, switching from the pages of a magazine to the pages of a website, or the tiles of Instagram. They have to show their audience what extracurricular talents they have, too. This is where TikTok comes in, with tremendous might. While fashion’s one-time favourite platform Instagram allows perfectly composed photos, they do not necessarily reflect the subject’s special/natural ability or aptitude. Sure, we can usually see an attractive face, but we can’t hear her voice (and even less in text form of, say, the editor’s page or letter or whatever they like to call it these days) or see his limp wrist limping. Who knows they can cavort so zestfully?! With TikTok videos—even just 15 seconds long—we can have a deeper impression, all the while enjoying, or not, the lowbrow or the high jinks (or high camp). The magazine editor comes alive.
Some editors reveal themselves as natural comedians and lip-sync talents, all packaged with intense fashion—sometimes, thanks to editing apps such as InShot, with multiple OOTD changes, accompanied by It bags, just by snapping fingers or jumping. They have the time! It isn’t clear to me if this is a case of old-fashioned showing-off or more-in-fashion-than-ever funded partnerships with brands. Either way, it’s an I-can-wear-this-many-trendy-and-expensive-clothes-and-you-can’t video brag. Some editors do this so well, I’d never guess they’re not entertainers or jokers by profession. Once virtually unknown, they are now the song-and-dance editors among the other singing and dancing zombies that populate TikTok, but they do it with better clothes or with more pronounced proclamation of their love for a brand. Nothing, as Oscar Wilde said, succeeds like excess.
Editors I spoke to admit that there’s no more downtime to their work, such as the period—even if short—after they put an issue “to bed”. One editor told me how, during her supposed own free time, she has to monitor social media content and create her own posts for her personal accounts that bear her own name. WFH makes it worse. So shackled to the demands of the digital life, professionally and personally, that her husband was convinced she is married to two: he and an indestructible entity that is pulling her further and further away from him. “Social media can really consume you,” she told me. “And we allow it.” It is not surprising then that there are many more addicted to TikTok than those to porn.
The suffix porn, as in food porn (or choose your favourite. Mine, word porn!), is very much a digital-era preoccupation/description (although food porn is said to date back to the late ’70s). Porn, from the Greek porne (which means “whore”), and now quite stripped (pardon the pun) of the intense and pervasive sex that it used to evoke, is an intensifier of the noun that precedes it. Food porn, the most used, and probably the most relatable, usually describes those photos that are exaggerated in their appetite-arousing appeal, with a fidelity that amplifies their sometimes unreal perfection, which, ironically, is un-erotic. Tiktok porn is alike and is not racy, but is more addictive. As reported by App Annie’s State of Mobile 2020, Android users clocked up 68 billion-plus hours using TikTok in 2019. That’s pornographic enough. And one magazine editor I chanced upon, who offered seven outfit changes in one 15-second video post, is without doubt a porn talent, even if he’s no stud, unveiling his cloth-based assets as the pornest of fashion porn.