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
Malaysian celebrity/influencer Cathryn Li made a sudden, heated departure during a Facebook Live session when she felt she was attacked by Netizens. Is storming out becoming a social trend?
First there was Piers Morgan, just a day ago. Mr Morgan, co-host of ITV’s Good Morning Britain show, was criticised by others on the broadcast he has been synonymous with, for his caustic comments on Meghan Markle’s allegations—during the recent Oprah Winfrey interview—that he thought to be spurious. He didn’t like what his colleague said (or was unable to fire back), so he upped and left. Now, closer to home, is Malaysian influencer/classical pianist/actress Cathryn Li’s (李元玲) departing in a huff (above), right in the middle of a Facebook Live session. She had been asked to play the piano and to jam along with the hosts. Those who tuned in didn’t think she played well and said so. She was not able to stomach the comments and got up and stomped off; her anger palpable and audible throughout her extended departure, leaving no doubt that she was truly offended.
Ms Li, who describes herself as “an ordinary girl” but is no stranger to controversy, had appeared as a special guest on the two-hour-forty-minute (Ms Markle’s interview was, a measly two hours!) live recording of the sixth episode of 正面交锋 (zhengmian jiaofeng) or FaceTalk, hosted by music producer and founder of Butterfly Entertainment, Andy Chan, and his music pals Fandi Foo and Zax Lee. FaceTalk is dubbed as “all about life’s bullshit and tell it out (sic)”. Broadcast in (Malaysian) Cantonese, it is essentially a web chat show with music thrown in, as the hosts sing and play their favourite songs. It seemed that Ms Li was not informed, prior to her appearance, that she would be asked to perform on the keyboard or to sing. She did say that she would need practice. Still, she was game enough to play when asked a second time. Things took a turn for the unpleasant when she opted out of playing to be audience and started paying attention to her phone (an insolent prelude to the impending fit?) and to the comments of her posted online. Some viewers clearly were not impressed by Ms Li’s performance of pop music and unsympathetically expressed their disappointment. She was seen deeply affected.
For her web appearance, Cathryn Li wore a seen-before-in-IG, dusty-pink, lace half-half number—dress in the front and romper in the back—that left her ample assets little to the imagination. The ruffled armhole appeared to be way too large for her: throughout much of her appearance on the show, she was seen adjusting the straps, even when in a state of mounting annoyance. Although it could be the ruffles irritating her skin, it did appear that she was pulling her straps up and backwards, so that the bust of the dress would not slip south. Ms Li is, of course, known for her preference of skimpy clothing. Her Instagram photos, which include one of her as Wonder Woman(!), could be seen as material for men’s onanistic delight. There’s a ditziness to her persona, affirmed by inane messages, such as “星星在天上，你在我心里” (“the stars are in the sky, you are in my heart”). What Ms Li, who believes that size “M = Fat” and “anything above M is as sinful as obesity”, wore on FaceTalk was consistent with her taste, if seen through just IG alone (presently, 1.9 million followers). At some point during the show, the microphone (on a stand) was repositioned so that Ms Li was not speaking too closely to it, but in the new spot, the mic cast a strangely phallic shadow on her cleavage, playing up the fantasy of her as the lubricious “Piano Goddess” (钢琴女神).
The show—admittedly an over-long interview that was, at best, trite) started well enough. Ms Li was cutely amicable. She even said, to the amusement of viewers, that she wants to be the “first female Asian weightlifter” who models rather than compete. Her “goal”, in doing so, is to “inspire women to take up weightlifting as a sport, and not to consider themselves as weaklings, who need protection, who leave the heavy-lifting to men.” That galvanising of strength soon whittled when she showed that she was not strong enough to take on her critics or haters. “Everyone is scolding me,” she yell-lamented in her choppy Cantonese. “I didn’t come here to be scolded,” her voice close to choking with tears. “I didn’t know I have to play the piano,” she insisted. “You guys didn’t tell me to prepare.” Throughout her outburst, she kept repeating, in English, that she’s “just a classical pianist”, and, emphatically, “not a keyboardist.” That distinction is important. Ms Li has a masters degree in piano from the Birmingham Conservatory of Music. It is said that she took further professional guidance from Li Yundi in summer residencies of sort. It was also reported that Ms Li was discovered by Fan Bingbing’s (范冰冰) assistant, which led her to roles in some (forgettable) Hong Kong movies.
After she marched off the performance area of FaceTalk, Ms Li returned to confront the three hosts in a hissy fit. The men had repeatedly placated her by saying that there were also many viewers who had praised her twinkling of the keys. They went as far as to say that, in fact, they played poorly, and could not catch up with her. But Ms Li would not have any of that. She had to blame someone for the criticisms levelled at her and the visible rage that followed. The three guys were now as culpable as anyone else. She asserted, “If you guys didn’t sing, there won’t be any problems.” By now, she was allowing her short hybrid outfit to be in full, front-centre view. Ms Li was dressed for an occasion, if not for a web performance. But rage has cut off her awareness of self and dress. As she clamoured confrontationally, with her arms flailing, a perceptible side boob became the veritable side show.
Storming off during an interview that is being recorded is, of course, nothing new or terribly shocking. Hollywood actors have done it, pop and rock stars have done it, even presidents have done it. Now, journalists do it to other journalists. It seems that, in our increasingly fracturable society, there are those who become so emotionally fragile that they, even as guest, would abruptly and angrily walking out of a video recording as the only way to express their anger at situations and reactions that can’t be controlled during a live, one-take session or streaming. However acceptable the behaviour, it’s hard to see it as becoming. Cathryn Li, despite her ‘classical’ training in music and ballet, and a weakness for the delicacy of lace, let herself go to cavort with the terrible twins, temper and tantrum. And very quickly forsaken grace for disgrace.
But not just any red. It was a Chinese garb that viewers—mostly—disapproved
By Mao Shan Wang
The poor guy probably didn’t know any better. Or, why he kena hantam (was hit). And I do feel sorry for him. RTM (Radio Televisyen Malaysia) decided to go non-binary when it came to outfitting their male news readers during the Chinese New Year season. While this is all fine and dandy, it appears to me a little too close to the side of cultural appropriation to make the Sabahan Malay reporter, Mohd Dhihya Sahla, of TV1’s Berita Wilayah wear traditional Chinese garb, never mind if its immediately unclear for which gender. Malaysian actor and radio personality Partick Teoh calls the questionable outfit a “cheongsam” in a now-deleted-but-gone-viral Facebook post. I also don’t blame Mr Teoh for thinking the bajuCina is akin to those worn by Maggie Cheung in the 2000 film, In the Mood for Love. Not by the silhouette, I’m sure, but by the floral trims on the top of the collar as well as those alongside the right-facing opening and on the ends of the sleeve. Little details can mislead.
RTM was clearly irritated by the online chatter, in particular what Mr Teoh’s wrote, which the irate broadcaster deemed “irresponsible”, so much so that it considered the post “a defaming comment”. In defending Mohd Dhihya Sahla, the station’s director of public relations K. Krishnamoorthy told the media that the newscaster was actually wearing a “samfu”. That, to me, sounded worse! While the Cantonese term samfu (or 衫裤, shanku in Mandarin) is a gender-neutral term that means shirt (or upper garment) and pants, it mostly refers to women’s everyday attire worn in Southern China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore (particularly in the ’60s). I have never heard of it used to describe menswear, but I wouldn’t be better informed than RTM’s stylist behind the choice of outfit, Jenny Kueh, who apparently told her employer that, according to K Krishnamoorthy, “this is trendy wear which originates from the Manchu ethnic group in China.” Ms Kueh was later quoted in The Star: “What Wong Fei Hung wears is a long samfu version that almost reaches the feet.”
As it turns out, I know nothing about a “long samfu version” or trends since I have not availed myself to the sight of hordes of men who wear such an attire to celebrate CNY or any male newscaster on Chinese TV stations appearing in anything close to this self-described “samfu”. I can understand if RTM tried to pass the particular garb as a changpao (长袍, a men’s robe), considered a hanfu (汉服 or Han Chinese dress), which, in the case of the piece the news reader wore, could be (in particular, with the front opening) described as a Manchurian robe (满族长袍, manzu changpao), worn during the Qing rule of China between the 17th to 20th century. Instead, the broadcaster said that their “mistake perhaps was giving the wrong size for (sic) our newsreader”. It got really funnier. Here was an Indian defending a Malay wearing a Chinese costume, and the small size has somehow a feminising effect on one laki-laki yang berotot (muscular man). This wasn’t a baju kebaya! Lest this is mistaken as a racial slur, it really isn’t. I should say that there’s some truth to the question of fit: the “samfu” he had on was rather body-enhancing, to the point that the wearer looked somewhat “busty”, one Malaysian expatriate here told me. Okay, that would be too haram (forbidden)—and, I fear, irresponsible—for RTM.
US Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris appears on the February cover of the most important fashion magazine on earth, and Netizens are not exactlythrilled. Nor we
There has never been a female VP in the history of American politics, let alone on the cover of American Vogue. Kamala Harris on its February issue is not, however, the first woman of the United State’s high-office political arena to appear on the cover, but hers seems to come with considerable speed. Michelle Obama appeared on the March cover of Vogue (she would appear twice more) four months after her husband won the US presidential election in 2008, and two month after his inauguration. The first FLOTUS to appear on Vogue was Hillary Clinton. Hers was five years in the making, finally set for the December 1998 issue, after the late Oscar De la Renta reportedly managed to persuade Anna Wintour to consider Ms Clinton cover-worthy. Kamala Harris made it to the Vogue cover, even before Joe Biden is inaugurated. In their haste to make Ms Harris a cover girl, did Vogue turn out a rushed job?
It appears so. Yesterday, Vogue shared two cover photos on Instagram: one (top left) supposedly for the print issue and the other (top right) for the digital edition. To us, we were looking straight at exemplars of mediocrity. The version for print appeared so haphazardly composed and so unbecoming of the magazine that many Netizens thought it to be fake. In the second, someone even thought they saw a coffin behind Ms Harris (it looks to us like a massage bed with fancy sheets). A playwright/lawyer/New York Times contributor, Wajahat Ali, wrote on Twitter, “What a mess. Anna Wintour must really not have Black friends and colleagues.” Does Ms Harris look white in the photos? Apparently so. One Twitter user posted, “Kamala Harris is about as light skinned as women of color come and Vogue still f****d up her lighting. WTF is this washed out mess of a cover?”
That there is the charge online of “whitewashing” of the photos of Ms Harris is perhaps a little curious since the photographer Tyler Mitchell is black, so is the sittings editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson. Can women of colour ever be photographed to the satisfaction of the many who not only want racial representation on magazine covers, they want exact skin colour duplication too, regardless of the real vagaries present in a fashion shoot, whether indoors or out? We are living in difficult and confusing times. Fashion magazines no longer need to offer a fashion statement of any distinction—or importance—as long as they capture the social calls of the moment. No wonder Ms Wintour is getting all the blame. She’s hardly the beacon or champion of societal change.
Ms Harris’s supporters feel there is nothing terrible about the drapes as they are in the colours of the VP-Elect’s sorority. The chromatic pairing isn’t the issue. It’s how the drapes are just hung up—sans effort
Kamala Harris is an attractive woman. She won’t be a difficult subject to photograph. Yet, there is something amiss in these two covers. The lustreless and uninspired set by Julia Wagner (was she hired because she did a swell job for the backdrop that was used at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Vanity Fair cover shoot of last December?), to start with. Ms Harris’s supporters feel there is nothing terrible about the drapes as they are in the colours of the VP-Elect’s sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha (Howard University, Washington, D.C.). The chromatic pairing isn’t the issue. It’s how the drapes are just hung up—sans effort, with the pink fabric allowed to pool at the subject’s feet. Sure, we weren’t expecting Tony Duquette, but neither were we hoping that the guys hired to give the studio a fresh coat of paint were the ones to do the draping, as if covering furniture and the floor with protective sheets before the paint rollers go to work.
According to reports, Ms Harris styled herself for both photos, meaning she chose her own clothes, likely from her personal wardrobe. As a pantsuit-lover, like Hillary Clinton, she surprised no one with what she picked. They may look fine—even excellent—for the temporary VP office, but for the cover of a fashion magazine, they lack the quality that affirms what one-time Vogue editor Diana Vreeland said, “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.” And heaven knowns, in the (ending) era of Trump, we have been acquainted with too much of the frighteningly banal. Curious, too, is how the black jacket (by Donald Deal, known for his gowns and “impeccable tailoring”, raved the CFDA) looked like it was ironed without a press cloth: there seem to be shiny iron marks. Is it not the job of the Vogue staffers—sitting editor Ms Karefa-Johnson, for example—to be sure that the clothes appear sleeker or more impeccable than they actually are?
Kamala Harris is, after all, no longer on the campaign trail. She could appear to embrace something special for this momentous occasion, even for a moment. No one is asking Vogue to imagine what the magazine hoped she’d look like in the inauguration ball. Nor is anyone likely to expect the equivalent of the fuchsia Jason Wu shift Michelle Obama wore for her debut Vogue cover, or the black velvet Oscar de la Renta gown Hillary Clinton wore on hers. Ultimately, this a cover of a fashion magazine, not a dry run for a TikTok video.
A blondie amid our recognisable landmarks, and a plate of chicken rice entice you to discover our city. Really?
By Gordon Goh
It is a truth locally acknowledged, that a man—or woman, or child—in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a holiday. I have Jane Austen to thank for that. Yes, the urge to travel, even within the shores of our 724.2-square-kilometre island, hasn’t been this strong, or relentless. We have the money and we want to spend it: buy more luxury handbags or eat at fancy restaurants. We have the patience and we want to test it: jam hotel lobbies to check in for our staycation. Business owners know this truth, so do statutory boards, and unicorn travel booking companies. Can you resist the “bundle promotions”? Who remembers that a global pandemic is still raging past the cruellest year? Leisure and recreation, usually conducted overseas, must be enjoyed on home turf. Right away.
The year-end holiday season may be over, but there are reminders throughout our island that vacation dollars can still be spent. Or, that the S$100 SingapoRediscovers voucher can still be redeemed and used. One such notice is the Traveloka lightbox dotted across our island. I was walking towards a bus-stop one evening when I caught sight of the illuminated message, featuring a bloom of a model, sticking out like a stamen, in the throes of introducing this city’s delights. Three guys, who looked like they might have just enjoyed a couple of Tigers nearby, was approaching too. One of them stopped and spoke loudly in Mandarin, “诶，这是男还是女啊?” (eh, is this male or female?). He read my thoughts.
Okay, in this era of inclusivity, it could be asking for trouble to pose such a question. If we now consider gender not to be perfectly binary, nor fashion, surely we can think similarly of the advertisements touting our island’s genderless attractions (the Merlion is non-gendered, right?). The three fellas were now debating whether the object of their curiosity was endowed with breasts, or not. While they stared at the lightbox and was not able to come to a conclusion of the gender of the model, I was more curious about how she (the bougainvillea-pink frock was the determinant), was styled: why was an untypical local (assuming), dressed as a cabaret hostess required in this art direction (which seems to share the same symmetry, visual style, and colour scheme of the publicity material of the new season of the game show We are Singaporeans)? Or has there been some seismic shift at grassroots level that I know not of?
What really caught my eye was the white opera glove, worn on the left arm. The other—also gloved—was compositionally blocked by a curl of a fluffy marabou stole and the biggest QR code I ever saw. However hard I tried, I was not able to remember such long gloves as part of fashionable attire here (nor, really, the scarf of feathers). Or was the gloves, conversely, a family member of a PPE? And what’s with the strands of pearls—not seen outside the set of The Great Gatsby? Or, should that be Beauty World? Was what she wore a bustier when it didn’t appear to support no bust? Who was this unnaturally blond character representing, anyway? And was her asking if I was “ready for a roarin’ good time” a tease beyond my ken? In my head, somewhere behind my eyes, I swear, these are confusing times.
So a man can’t appear on the cover of Vogue without wearing a dress?
By Ray Zhang
American Vogue is taking diversity seriously. Two covers back to back with black stars—Lizzo in October and Naomi Campbell in November—and then, on the December issue’s, the first-ever solo male in their 127-year history: Harry Styles. A guy as part of Vogue’s cover has been done before. There was, as I recall, LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen in 2008, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in 2014, Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid in 2017, and Justin Beiber and Hailey Baldwin in 2019. But Mr Styles up there all by himself—that’s clearly not done before. Looks like tumultuous 2020 has really got Vogue thinking and doing.
Harry Styles has style (or, as his second name suggests, styles), we’re constantly reminded by the media, and non-binary at that. It seems to me that Vogue is also telling us that Mr Styles has what it takes to appear unaccompanied on its cover: the willingness to don a dress. The others before him sure did not. Mr James was in a basketball tank top, Mr West in a blazer, Mr Malik was all suited up, Mr Beiber wore only his tattoos. Fashion was the responsibility of the women. Even Mr Malik, still the most dressed-up among them, was somewhat obscured by his then girlfriend (now mother of his child), although the cover blurb was certain to tell us that they “shop each other’s closets”. And if you were still in doubt, the editorial feature informed you that the couple was “part of a new generation who don’t see fashion as gendered.”
In the old days of fashion magazines, covers gave women a reason to buy an outfit that was deemed fashionable, or a look that might inspire, for example, those who sew their own clothes. I am not sure if any woman might rush out to buy the Gucci dress that the former member of One Direction wears on this Vogue cover, as they were once inclined to in, say, 1988, or 10 years later (more recently?), when this now forgotten name, Carrie Bradshaw, said, “…sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner. I felt it fed me more.” The traditional (okay, that’s not the new normal) cover hopes that women might actually cop a cover outfit after seeing it. I’d be fed, somewhat, to know if it’d be the same with this one.
I feel Vogue didn’t quite go all the way with Harry Styles. Both Lizzo and Naomi Campbell were shot full-length: We saw the whole dress. The photograph of Mr Styles, who reportedly identify as cisgender, was, conversely, cropped, and we witness only the upper body in vague half-drag. At a glance, we might not have guessed that the singer/actor wears a dress. I mean, it could have been a tunic, such as a thawb, but with a smocked upper body and lace-trimmed neckline. Would Alain de Botton-quoting Mr Styles—Beng as he appears to me—look just as fetching as the other two cover girls if he were captured with the dress in full length, which, as one photograph in the editorial feature did show, was a frilly, tiered tulle gown Mae West might have worn in her day?
The sight of a man in a dress, long or short, is not quite that unusual in the age of repeated Billy Porter flaunts. Never mind the muscularity of MAGA maleness. As one fashion observant friend said to me just this morning, “(the cover) is quite unremarkable. Men in women’s clothing for fashion shoots, gender-bending etc, etc—quite done to death. W’s editorials have been doing it for a few years. UK magazines, too.” In fact, frock wearing among pop stars—not just for magazine features—go as far back as David Bowie who, in the ’70s, wore what he called the “man-dress” (Michael Fish was a favourite designer). Yet, Vogue chose to go easy on the eyes of their readers, which is immensely ironic if you consider how religious in their zeal Americans have been in pushing for obvious inclusiveness.
If appearing on the cover of Vogue is a career high for many models, actresses, and reality TV stars, it could be one, too, for Mr Styles. Could he still be a cover boy sans dress? This has not been a great year for many of us. The singer, too, had it hard: the postponed world tour, the halted filming of the Olivia Wilde-directed film, Don’t Worry Darling, and the more mundane lockdown. While he admitted in the Vogue article to wearing mostly sweatpants when confined at home, he has not, as with so many less well-placed individuals also WFH, cast fashion aside. He has, in fact, embraced it in all its myriad forms. I’m all for guys to blur the lines of fashion—heck, even erase them—but Mr Styles, a Gucci model and their willing rep, doing so is really instinctive than disruptive. On the cover of Vogue, Harry Styles in a dress is not ground-breaking. If it were Jason Statham, that would be.
…cover to cover. Is it any good? Do we finally get our own voice?Or, is the magazine still shaped by angmo hands?
One of the three Vogue SG covers
It isn’t known if there is ever an edition of Vogue, among the now 27, raised from the dead. We dug, but we didn’t find any. So Vogue Singapore is the first. It is also uncertain if there was ever such a short-lived edition of Vogue. When our very first issue—with Joan Chen on the cover, photographed, expectedly, by Russell Wong—appeared in September 1994, no one suspected, although many feared, it would close—just twenty nine months later. We looked into that too: no Vogue anywhere in the world has ever died as a two-and-half-year-old.
In that sense, we are unique. It is here that international magazines have a second chance at life. Some may remember that Elle SG, born in 1993 and killed off in 2018, too, was resurrected—in 2019. But Vogue SG took a longer time to be raised from the dead: 23 years. That’s about a third of the age of Singapore’s oldest and best-selling women’s magazine Her World (60 this year). In these two decades plus, we saw the rise of digital media and the decline of print, and everything between that benefitted from the over-prized tag influencer. Vogue SG’s “Issue One—autumn/winter 2020—” arrives at not just a time that’s drastically changed by a still-raging pandemic (not, to us, “post-”), but also when magazines are increasingly unable to deliver to a reading public that expects stronger content, and more, not less.
Since this is the second time Vogue SG is trying to make it here, we don’t feel we need to check mercy at the front door. Talking about front, the launch issue comes with three covers that editor-in-chief Norman Tan grandly calls “triptych”, a pretentious reference to fine art for a title that has yet to prove itself, fashion-wise, let alone a treatise on art. On Instagram, Mr Tan touts the covers as “collectible”. One cover for a debut issue can’t be cherished enough for posterity or profit through eBay later? The EIC explains in his Editor’s Letter: the three are “to make a clear statement about what Vogue Singapore stands for—beauty, innovation, intelligence, sophistication, diversity, inclusion—as personified by three women hailing from different parts of Asia.”
Three is better than one? One the covers, (from left) Diya Prabhakar, Ju Xiaowen, and Nana Komatsu
That sounds like a strategic placement—to go beyond the dot. Singaporean women are not diverse enough; their ethnic plurality, and cultural, inadequate. Vogue SG needs to cast its net further afield. In fact, According to the privately held Condé Nast’s own media statement, “Vogue Singapore aims to establish itself as the region’s go-to fashion resource… with intelligent and impactful content that celebrates Vogue’s new audience in Southeast Asia”. Mr Tan wrote, in the preface to a special, boxed edition distributed to select recipients, promising this elite bunch that they “will experience what Vogue Singapore stands for—thought-provoking stories re-imagined with digital innovation with the people and culture of Southeast Asia firmly in the spotlight.”
Going by the three covers, it seems the title is even greedier: it aims to target the whole of Asia, not just SEA. That got us wondering—would people in Vietnam, for example, read a magazine identified by the city in which it is produced? What about China or Japan (where two of the cover girls are from)? If any of the non-English-speaking countries needed an English-language Vogue, would they not read the British or American (or even Australian) version? We reached out to our friends in the region for a smidgen of insight. An art director in Bangkok flatly said “no” to us. “We do read our Thai edition,” she added. One marketing head from Shanghai told us, “Because of my job, I read as many foreign Vogues as I can, but,” she added delightfully in Mandarin, “我们有自己的看啊!” (we have our own to read). Similarly, a manager from a tech company in Tokyo said, when asked, “I do read the Japanese Vogue, although my diet consists mostly of local magazines.”
In fashion publications, we do judge them by their covers. That’s why we remember Anna Wintour’s debut Vogue cover in November 1988, with that Christian Lacroix cross (now favoured by Chanel) or the late Liz Tilberis’s debut for Harper’s Bazaar, four years later, in September 1992, featuring Linda Evangelista, as if catching the third ‘A’, dislodged from the masthead. Ours needed to be launched with a bang, and that means triple the effect, and, hence, the power, the response, the influence? Mr Tan told South China Morning Post that “it’s been tough” and “super difficult”, and understandably so, given the Circuit Breaker restrictions during a time when the editorial department was visibly and delightfully working in full gear, but despite the difficulties, the magazine did not see it appropriate—even prudent—to launch with just one cover.
Back issues? Vogue SG strikes with three
More Vogue SG covers prove one thing: there are no Singaporean fashion photographers! All three are shot by foreigners: Singaporean model Diya Prabhakar’s cover was lensed by Canadian Bryan Huynh. Chinese model Ju Xiaowen was shot by New York-based New Zealander Gregory Harris and Japanese actress/model Nana Komatsu by Tokyo-based Chinese Fish Zhang. These days fashion photography is so subjective that it is hard to say which among the three is the best (or the worst), but something can be noted about the need for graphic intervention rather than letting the photographs work alone. All three cover girls are set within an oval, as if to create a counterpoint to otherwise unremarkable photographs. In the case of Ms Prabhakar, she is surrounded by indistinct digital flowers that seem to enhance the coldness of her lifeless expression.
While we can finally call this our own Vogue, the magazine isn’t, in fact, entirely shaped by local hands. Two countries pop up when joining the dots: Australia and Russia. Whether by chance or design, Vogue SG can’t de-link itself from Australia. Editorial heads of both Vogue SGs, past and present, was and is connected to Down Under: first, Nancy Pilcher (Vogue Australia, 1989—1997. Ms Pilcher is, in fact, an American, and, since leaving Condé Nast in 2013, has returned to the United States) and now, Norman Tan, from the coastal city of Melbourne. It is rather ironic that despite critics attributing the first Vogue SG’s failure to its Aussie signature, its come-back is helmed by one who hails from the country from which their Vogue could not thrust ours to greater glory.
Augmenting the foreign-seeming setup is the British art director Henry Thomas Lloyd, who has worked for Love, Pop, and Another, and who fashions our Vogue as if it’s one more alt title. There is also publisher Bettina von Schlippe, a German PR/media executive who once worked for Condé Nast Russia, and was formerly the publisher of Buro, the digital title by Vogue SG licensee Indochine Media Ventures (IMV). She is also the CEO and founder of R.S.V.P Agency, touted on their website as “a fashion & lifestyle marketing communications agency with 16 years of experience in Russia”. Ms von Schlippe is married to Michael Von Schlippe, the president of IMV, the ten-year-old publishing house, founded and based here on our island, with offices also established in Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, and with connections to Condé Nast Russia too, as he had also previously worked there. Ms von Schlippe as the publisher of Vogue SG, in spite of her experience, prompted critics to suggest that nepotism was at play. It is indeed not often that one sees a husband’s name atop a wife’s under the cross-head ‘Management’.
With a marketing budget, Vogue SG made sure it stood out at Kinokuniya
That EIC Norman Tan, ex-editor of IMV title Esquire SG, and a few members of his team are former IMV employees added to the 自己人顾自己人 (zi ji ren gu zi ji ren or “own people caring for own people”) perception—not, in fact, uncommon in the publishing world. Still, this led to some industry watchers wondering if Vogue SG would have the touch of Buro, Robb Report (another IMV brand), and even Esquire SG. For certain, the anticipated magazine is not a Vogue that die-hards would find compelling, breathtaking, and immersive enough to want to rush out to buy a copy, even just to hold. As Mr Tan was involved in or contributed to IMV titles, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he brought along with him a scintilla of his editorial past. But Vogue, despite its evolutionary changes, is still, foremost, a fashion title.
And it is the fashion in Vogue SG—and how it’s presented—that we find hard to connect. Or appreciate. There is a reason that Vogue goes by the unofficial description “fashion bible”. Nothing in the pages of the SG edition scratches the surface of fashion at its most creative, expressive, and refined, let alone plunges biblical depths. Even Ms Prabhakar’s Balenciaga cover dress is ineffectual, as if it was an afterthought, plonked on her—nothing else fits, this would do. She does not look like she likes wearing it or knows what to with it; she looks the novice that she is (more so alongside the spreads featuring Ju Xiaowen and Nana Komatsu). Mr Balenciaga himself once said, “A woman has no need to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my dresses. The dress will do all that for her.” Not this one.
Part reality, part virtuality (spot the QR codes that link you to online content), Vogue SG tries to straddle two sides of the digital divide, but balancing acts, as even gymnasts will say, are not easy to put up. One misstep and you’ll be split the wrong way. The magazine seems so concerned with its cyber-self (another story altogether)—“We love the transportive power of a well thought-out fashion story played out in print, but to add a new dimension to the experience, we’ve engaged the power of digital multimedia,” as Mr Tan wrote in his Editor’s Letter (an odd word choice that, conversely, suggests eras past)—that it feels like a by-product of its online preoccupation. The fantasies or “fashion stories” present a feckless telling, as if everything happens on cyber-streets than real ones. And to enhance its connection to the digital sphere, CGI is applied, as in the jejune spread featuring Ms Prabhakar or the incomprehensible and indistinct digital orchid that tells you the magazine tries—and too hard—to be ahead of the humdrum rest.
We weren’t sure if we are on a page from Vogue SG or Vogue Patterns
Cover girl Diya Prabhakar looks the modeling novice that she is throughout the spread that featured her
It is not easy to make one’s way through the pages of Vogue SG to the last. Visual irregularities were inexplicably set up to throw you off-course. Odd blank spaces (even when space is an element of design, these still look odd), the narrowest bottom margin, page designs that look like they are from another (lesser?) title—they make one pause and wonder. Need they really do that? One SOTD follower WeChatted us, “less than five minutes flipping the magazine and I am confused. It DOES NOT LOOK LIKE VOGUE (caps, all hers)!” She isnot wrong. We were surprised by how random and free-form the magazine appears visually. What is certain and annoying is the palpable need to look cool and edgy, and at the forefront (of whatever)—those qualities that are made ineffable by the shifting nature of fashion. When one tries to make the unfashionable fashionable, there’s a good chance you might be stuck in the former.
Experienced magazine folks might feel that perhaps the editors did away with the discipline of rigorous page planning. There is a sense that, in order to yield a not-unimpressive 266 pages, many of them had to serve as mere fillers. Content pages, for example, stretched to five (the first, with two columns, does not read from left to right. For all the talk of “innovation”, these extra pages are still an old-fashioned provision of additional right-hand pages for single-page ads). There are also generous two-page intros to sections, pull quotes floating in half-a-page of emptiness, and an essay by Amanda Lee Koe extended over ten when two would be enough—just three examples of injudicious use of space. This stretch-and-stretch approach to filling pages with meaningful content that they probably could not, makes for extremely tiring reading. Not to mention, a total waste of paper.
Perhaps the most irritating, “as you digest this fashion book—artfully crafted with our own Vogue Singapore font inspired by Sanskrit found on the Singapore Stone (a 13th century—possibly earlier—artifact)”, is this very font itself. You first see it on the cover. And it’s not at once easy to read. Hieroglyphs are easier to decipher. Our art director friend from Bangkok said to us, “Don’t you think it’s very Love?” We had to point her to the magazine’s art director. The font is also applied as a drop cap (always hard to read. Why stump the reader right from the start of articles?), to fill spaces, and as background graphic on which photographs are placed. Giving the font a historical reference does not lend it typographical heft. The squiggles, appearing like litter (you’d want to scratch them off!), are perhaps a deliberate contrast to the other oddities: font colour similar to the page, type size of running heads way smaller than the page numbers, both appearing in the same page and, in some cases, page numbers in the same point size as headlines. At this point, we can think of no other expression than the Hokkien geh kiang—roughly, excess of cleverness.
Graphic design book or fashion magazine?
The printer’s fault?
Although Vogue SG, version 1, did not last long, we were, in fact, the first-ever Vogue published in Asia back in 1994, the year we had to pay GST for the first time. Then came Korea in August 1996, Taiwan in October 1996, Japan in September 1999, China in September 2005, India in October 2007, Thailand in February 2013, and Hong Kong in March 2019. And Vogue SG again, in September 2020. We’re now the 8th Asian Vogue. When Vogue Thailand’s first issue hit the newsstand in 2013, it was sold out “within days”, according to The Nation. How our Vogue will fare is hard to say, given the precariousness of the present and the uncertainty of the future. The hope is that Vogue SG won’t suffer a second death.
But its prospect looks a tad dim. Some industry watchers wonder if it augurs well for the magazine to launch with a bimonthly issue (and apparently for the next issue too). It goes by the season: autumn/winter (does that mean that, in essence, there will only be two issues a year?). As far as we are aware, this is the first Vogue edition to debut in such a manner. Two issues of Vogue SG, presumably, for the rest of the year to support an editorial team that has been in place since at least April (if not earlier), when the EIC was announced, is daunting to consider. This led to the conclusion that the editorial team of IMV’s Buro had to be sacrificed to keep Vogue SG afloat.
Carrie Bradshaw had said, not frivolously, “Sometimes, I would buy Vogue instead of dinner.” It is hard to imagine anyone doing that here. We love our char kuay teow too much. The truth is, many of us are buying fewer magazines, even if we might still be reading them. Vogue SG arrives amid the very real declining habit of purchasing and then perusing fashion titles. There would have to be very compelling reasons to reverse that. Given its unspectacular debut, it would require the motivation of rabid fans (do they still exist?) to see the magazine snapped up at newsstands. Unlike Malcom McClaren, however, we simply couldn’t go Deep in Vogue.
The comeback publication has been sharing what its upcoming launch issue might look like. Too soon to make something of them?
A divisive image of one of the models that appeared on Vogue SG’s video posts. Screen grab: Vogue Singapore/Facebook
Couple of months before the launch of Vogue Singapore on the 23rd of this month, images of what the magazine’s visual aesthetic might be like has been shared by the born-again title on social media. Observers and the deeply curious are puzzled by what they have seen. So far, few comments have accompanied these editorially-produced images, but away from social media, the chatter borders on dismay and incredulity. To be sure, beauty and artistic taste are subjective, and are being redefined as we write this. But, it is not surprising that there are those who hold Vogue, regardless of where it is published, to a loftier standard.
The images in question are those featuring the Hong Kong-born, London-based Tibetan model/electronic music artiste Tsunaina (not to be confused with Tsunade of the Naruto manga and anime series). Reportedly discovered by the British makeup maestro Pat McGrath, Tsunaina Limbu (she goes by her first name) has made strides in the modelling world since last year. Those in the position to influence Ms Limbu’s career consider her beauty “unconventional”. In Asia, that term is mostly used euphemistically, as her stand-out features are not usually considered “model-standard”: her nose bridge too wide and high; her lips too thick and pouty. It doesn’t help that, as it is often said, she looks like she’s from the movie Avatar’s Na’vi tribe.
Video still of Tsunainain Robert Wun, styled by Xander Ang, and directed by Ryan Chappell and Marc Pritchard. Screen grab: Vogue Singapore/Facebook
Regardless, her looks have earned her a place in many beauty ratings, such as Elle’s “New Wave Beauty” from last year. Ms Limbu is not alien to international titles, having appeared in W magazine, Vogue Germany, and on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Kazakhstan. Fashion stylists and makeup artists we spoke to did not consider her features unattractive, but did say she won’t be easy to style or shoot, and that she needs to work with those who “can bring out the best of her”, as one stylist said. But with this particular pictorial (and video) post, social media followers seem to think that Vogue SG has not quite done a Vogue—“see the bad makeup and bad lighting”. Or, style her to assimilate into the magazine’s more sophisticated positioning. We just hope this would not turn out to be a Vogue SG’s Mulan moment.
It may be too soon to consider this as what Vogue SG is forging for the Singaporean edition of the fashion bible. Some observers wonder if a Singaporean girl would be featured on the cover of the debut issue. Or, if Singaporean-ness would be a mere token expression. In July, a leaked video showed some Singaporean models (and those considered “former”) strutting at a photo shoot, attributed to the magazine. One of the women is Celia Teh, a Vogue SG cover girl back in the November 1994 issue, and who is married to the fashion photographer Mark Law. Her inclusion for nostalgic reason? The video was probably shot by an attendee or member of the crew, using a smartphone; it showed the women walking and posing against a white, unadorned studio space.
Fahimah Thalib, reportedly the first Muslim model to be asked to appear on Vogue SG. Screen grab: Vogue Singapore/ Facebook
On Facebook, Vogue SG stated that “a core pillar of Vogue Singapore is to shine a spotlight on Asian talents, and to provide them with a platform to showcase their creativity.” This is possibly a reminder that the talent pool in our city is small, with few swimming in it. The magazine has, therefore, decided to cast the net wider so that the world’s largest continent can be a deep resource, never mind that, including the soon-to-be launched SG edition, there would be eight Vogues. And none has trained “a spotlight on Asian talents”, leaving a gap for dot-sized Singapore to fill?
It is possible that Vogue SG, in scouring the plural societies of Asia for talents, is trying to strike an inclusive tone, the way the British edition has, so vividly. In one of the videos Vogue SG shared on Facebook (shot in Gardens by the Bay—was One Orchard Store inspired by this footage?), the hijab-wearing Singaporean model Fahimah Thalib is featured in full, modesty-fashion splendour. Ms Thalib told Berita Harian that she was initially worried about what the magazine might want her to show, but was pleased that the end result “menjaga imej kesopanan wanita Muslimah (cared about the image of politeness of Muslim women).” Vogue SG has offered us a foretaste of their editorial wokefulness.
Man in bloom: Vogue SG’s editor-in-chief illustrating his love for orchids. Screen grab: musingmutley/Instagram
But it has not been all cultural cognisance. On both Instagram and Facebook, Vogue SG offers an unstimulating mix of inane fashion commentary, artists’ contributions to the “Vogue in Bloom” theme, birthday wishes to celebrities, and designer quotations to encourage (a pandemic is still raging) whoever needs encouragement, and staying with the perfunctory declaration that Vogue SG will keep “you updated with the biggest movements in fashion, beauty and wellness, celebrity, culture, art and more.”
Additionally, in tandem with the fun and irreverence that now often pervade both fashion’s and fashion magazines’ digital representations, Vogue SG has also delivered TikTok-ready content on its IG account. One of them is an interactive component—a 3-D filter that allows users to place metallic-looking, indistinct orchids, dubbed the Vanda Vogue (better as Vanda Vague?), anywhere on the face. One of the earliest to test this out was Vogue SG’s editor-in-chief Norman Tan, who gleefully hammed it up for an IG Stories post (above) on his Musingmutley account, telling viewers that he was “serving some serious face.” From this, it’s hard to tell if, as the title’s editorial head, Mr Tan would be able to augment the fashion standing and authority of the magazine. As one fashion editor said to us, “I think Anna would sit this one out.”
Before COVID-19, before Black Lives Matter, would Anna Wintour have admitted to “mistakes”?
Few would think that saying sorry is what Anna Wintour is inclined to do. But these are not the simplest of times. In the US (and many parts of the world), the confluence of COVID-19 and the ongoing protest against racism and police brutality is visibly and audibly shaking things up. Celebrities are mindful of what they say or do when taking a stand. Even when not. Given the known corporate culture of Vogue’s owner Condé Nast (just two days ago, it had to hold a company-wide town hall to conduct “studies” on diversity and pay equity), Ms Wintour is likely aware that she’s treading on shaky ground. A week earlier, she unexpectedly issued an internal e-mail to her staff, redressing past errors of judgment and the lack of remedial action.
For her, the stars have aligned. At first it was her former lieutenant Andre Leon Talley’s explosive autobiography in which he wrote that she is “incapable of human kindness”. In the course of the subsequent publicity, designer Ralph Rucci took to Twitter to praise Mr Talley and alleged that Ms Wintour conducts her work with a “satanic plan” and that he “will write about what (he) had to contend with concerning this very, very meaningless person”. Not long before Ms Wintour’s address to her team, the editor-in-chief of sister publication Bon Appetite Adam Rapoport, who reports to Ms Wintour, resigned after a 2013 photo of him in brown face for Halloween was shared online and charges of discriminatory work environment ensued. As it’s frequently said, everything happens for a reason.
There is suspicion among the cynical that Ms Wintour’s apology on race is a “fashionable” reflex action. Some said that her present acknowledgement of inattention to race issues is as belated as her embrace of black talents
Before something in the past comes back to haunt her, she reacted, even admitting to “mistakes”. There is suspicion among the cynical that Ms Wintour’s apology on race is a “fashionable” reflex action. Some said that her present acknowledgement of inattention to race issues is as belated as her embrace of black talents, such as the fact that it “took her 30 years to hire a black photographer to photograph the cover of Vogue… and Beyonce made that happen”, one Twitter user wrote. It is perhaps difficult to find her suddenly colour sensitive and sympathetic to those outside the world of fashion and celebrity when for most of her tenure at Vogue, she was associated with the wealthy and powerful. As Thomas Maier wrote in All that Glitters, “In building her power base at Condé Nast, Wintour showed high skill at courting the press and New York’s high society.” That is clearly distant from the present troubles of the world. It would be hard to layer wokeness over a foundation of elitism.
Cathy Horyn, when she was still at The New York Times, described Ms Wintour as “lacking mortal patience”. And this has been how many have seen her, augmented by being referred to as the “editrix”, and a demanding one. Although she has tried to soften her image by, for example, appearing on The Late Late Show with James Corden, playing a rather inane game, she has never really shed the “Devil” tag. Ms Wintour, who now also “teaches leadership and creativity” on MasterClass, has for too long excelled at being inscrutable. The signature sunglasses, even indoors, ensures that she is. If the eyes are windows to the soul, she’s certainly not letting anyone in. Yet, she wrote reassuringly in that e-mail, “I know that it is not enough to say we will do better, but we will—and please know that I value your voices and responses as we move forward.” Anna Wintour shall listen! Maybe she is capable of human kindness after all.
Tin Pei Ling returns, again with controversy in tow
Tin Pei Ling during a speech in parliament on 4 June. Screen grab: CNA
Yellow may not be MP Tin Pei Ling’s lucky colour. Nine years ago, during the 2011 general election, Ms Tin shared on social media a photo of a delighted her holding up a Kate Spade box, presumably containing a bag. Netizens saw red. In parliament last week, she drew their ire again with a particular content in her lengthy speech to other MPs. Bag was not the issue, back-of-the-envelope calculations were. On both occasions, she wore the colour of ancient Chinese emperors: yellow.
The latest was in the form of what appeared to be a capelet, with a batik-ish print of orchids smudged to the left side of the shoulder. Held together by one pearl button in the centre of the collarless neckline, the garment looked very much like what one might find at Design Orchard. This is a style favoured by women MPs or spouses of MPs, and is considered fashionable, with a touch of local flavour—championed by designers such as National Day favourite Phuay Li Ying.
Tin Pei Ling and her Kate Spade in 2011. Photo: Tin Pei Ling/Facebook
Back in 2011, in that expressive photo, Ms Tin wore something that could not be clearly made out. It could be a T-shirt top and a bottom, or a dress, but it certainly had a top half that was yellow. This could be what, in present times, we know as loungewear. That photograph is back in circulation this past week. When the controversy broke at that time, Ms Tin told YahooNews that it was a digital “keepsake”. Almost a decade later, such online mementos too ushered an editor and his editorial team into unwelcome spotlight.
Ms Tin’s outfit in the photo was upstaged and obscured by that massive, blue Kate Spade box. Her yellow top was barely noticed or remembered. But through the years, she made many public appearances attired in yellow, from polos to blazers. A quick Google Image search will reveal enough yellow outfits to encourage the assumption that yellow is her favourite political-office colour.
Yellow, for many of the electorate and Ms Tin’s constituents, is probably a positive colour, full of the warmth of sunshine, not a dirty-fellow-yellow with stigmatic potential. It recalls Bengawan Solo’s kueh ambon and Van Gough’s sunflowers, rather than unpleasant and negative memories, such as those related to the “yellow star” issued by the Nazis during World War II to persecute Jews or the jaundice in some patients suffering from the viral infection yellow fever. Despite yellow’s imaginable zing and zeal, many now remember the blue of that Kate Spade box. After her appearance on parliament, Netizens started sharing that particular Tin Pei Ling photo online with incredible speed. If an elephant’s memory is good, so is the Internet’s.
In what might be a precursor for the industry, Buro has retrenched members of its editorial team
The homepage of Buro SG. Screen grab: buro247.sg
Warning: contains language that might be considered offensive
At the end of the first month of the Circuit Breaker, some members of the fashion/lifestyle media have expressed fear that when they do eventually get to go back to the office, they might not be able to return to a job. This might have been the case for a reported five editors of the Buro Singapore team.
According to Yahoo News this evening, “Indochine Media Ventures (IMV) has axed five out of seven employees at the digital fashion platform Buro Singapore”. This came just a week after the scandal at the editorial office of IMV’s Vogue Singapore, where its editor-in-chief posted on Instagram photos of himself and his team in what appeared to be a gathering without safe distancing, flouting an MOM requirement.
At the time of this writing, Buro’s website has not removed the list of its editorial staff. While it is reported that five among seven editors were retrenched, it would, in fact, constitute all their editors, as the other two have “contributing” roles, usually a freelance appointment. If IMV isn’t keeping any of those editors, is it possible, as the speculation emerges, that they might also end Buro?
Buro 24/7, mostly known as Buro, was launched in Russia in 2011 and in SG in 2015. They tout themselves as “a world-leading digital destination for the affluent millennial”, while the SG edition, is considered to be “your trusted advisors for all things luxury lifestyle”. Co-founded by “internationally famous” Russian media veteran Miroslava Duma, the e-mag is now in ten countries, including Kazakhstan and Croatia.
Buro’s ‘About’ page. Screen grab:buro247.sg
Ms Duma is reported to be a friend of IMV’s founder Michael von Schlippe. Both were colleagues in Moscow, where they were staff of Condé Nast Russia. According to Mr von Schlippe’s telling, he “stumbled up Buro 24/7” in 2014, called his former co-worker, and offered to expand the title to Asia. Ms Duma was by then a seasoned media professional, having worked at major fashion magazines: Harper’s Bazaar, Tatler, Forbes Woman, L’Officiel, and, Vogue. The pair-up was instantaneous. Five months later Buro was launched.
In the fashion world, particularly of luxury, Ms Duma is considered “a firm fixture on the fashion week circuit”. Despite her impressive standing, she is not free of discreditable deeds. It has been reported that in 2018, during Paris Couture Week, she and Russian designer Ulyana Sergeenko (believed to be one of Kim Kardasian’s favourite couturières) shared a racial slur. Ms Sergeenko had sent a bouquet to her compatriot, with a note that read “Niggas in Paris”, also the title of a 2011 Kanye West and Jay Z song. Ms Dumas shared that note on Instagram Stories. Social media promptly stormed disapproval on the gaffe.
Not long after that incident, a video of Ms Duma making homophobic and transphobic comments against the Filipino blogger BryanBoy and the Bosnian-Australian model Andreja Pejic surfaced. In a Q&A session, she was asked what she thought of the two men wearing and modelling women’s clothes. She replied in Russian, “Honestly, I dislike that. Because somewhere, on TV or in a magazine, a little boy could see it and that boy wouldn’t understand it correctly, wouldn’t react correctly. And I think a certain kind of censorship and refined culture is needed here.” Two months later, she exited Buro 24/7, selling her stake in the company she co-founded.
On the homepage of the current issue of Buro SG, there are no discernible ads. The top banner space is a link to their YouTube channel. Industry folks we spoke to isn’t surprised. Rather, they felt sorry for the editors told to leave, especially the fashion editor, who departed Cleo SG to join them in April, just as the Circuit Breaker was implemented. That Buro would close is now on many lips. One PR professional told us via FaceTime that it “started with some fanfare, but has not made a mark in the scene here, so it won’t be missed.”
Note: SOTD does not tolerate nor condone the use of racial slurs.
For a rather long while, editors of fashion magazines are not expected to toil silently, unseen behind the scenes. They are now mostly adopting the modus operandi of influencers, and, for some, acquiring the following that befits opinion leaders who are considered key
Musingmutley’s last post, dated 30 March, showing Norman Tan in sea-side holiday splendour. Photo: musingmutley/Instagram
The recent controversial posts of Vogue Singapore’s editor-in-chief Norman Tan has trained the spotlight on high-profile editors and their glamourous digital presence. Mr Tan, who also identifies as Musingmutley, assembles a carefully curated Insta-self-promotion as a peek into his enchanting material life and world travels rather than enervating editorial work that others might consider hard. His braggy photographs show a world that many people might find aspirational: in the latest fashion, keenly styled, in locations that, minus the subject, could be sold as postcards at hotel lobby gift shops. In that respect, Mr Tan has perched himself alongside the countless influencers followed by those with a predilection for composed and enhanced fabulousness.
Three of those four photos, featuring him and his staff, of which two showed off their recent booty of Apple gifts on IG Stories, were talking points among members of the press corp last week, leading to a report in The New Paper today. Despite the unfavourable optics, some thought the posts—already deleted—were a shrewd move as it concurrently raised the visibility of the yet-to-publish Vogue SG. However, it isn’t certain if Mr Tan could capitalise on his 14,900 followers to draw readers to Vogue SG (or had, before this, to Esquire SG), but he has used social media well to augment his style cred and to appeal to those who reads by looking at tiles of people and their adventures. An ardent Instagrammer since December 2011 (his first post was a photo of lavender fields), with 2,211 posts to date, he has been able to highlight his editorial hand as well as his love for djellabas and hats, many hats—trilbies, fedoras, Pananamas, and boaters.
Like many influencers, Mr Tan is not opposed to posting videos of himself shirtless. One recently circulating—captioned “What did you learn? Tropical sun is no joke”—showed him, bare-chested, in what could be a shower room, saying to viewers, “Guys, look at how burnt I am. I went for a run during lunch, and now I am a freakin’ lobster.” Those who know him say that he is proud of his toned body, enough, in fact, to write a fitness article for sibling publication Buro, titled “How to look good naked and other fitness goals”, and set himself up as model for the photo-illustration. This is admirable multi-hyphenate flair that many influencer adore, but few are blessed with. Yet, some do wonder: among the 27 Vogue EICs throughout the world, including Anna Wintour, how many would go topless before a smartphone camera?
Kennieboy’s last travel photo, dated 30 March, showing Kenneth Goh in sea-side holiday splendour. Photo: kennieboy/Instagram
Norman Tan is considered one of Singapore’s most social-media active magazine editors with compelling content on IG. The other is Kenneth Goh (aka Kennieboy), EIC of Harper’s Bazaar SG. Like his counterpart at Vogue SG, Mr Goh is known for what he has on his head. In his case, a mop of hair that is frequently styled like an inverted bowl. In one video that was posted last January, shortly before Chinese New Year, Mr Goh took his mother to Goh Lai Chan’s boutique in Paragon Shopping Centre to shop. Mother and son have uncannily identical hairstyles. It is not unreasonable to assume that Mr Goh puts tremendous effort into how he looks in the 1,848 posts he has put out so far; his extraordinary fashion matched only by his intense chumminess.
He has taken to IG Live and video posts like the proverbial fish to water. In almost all his interviews (including and especially those on his Bazaar TV show Café a la Mode), he approaches his subjects, from Asia’s Next Top Model judge/photographer Yu Tsai (who is, technically, Mr Goh’s colleague since both were on ANTM) to Nga Nguyen (one of the first two Vietnamese socialite-sisters to have contracted COVID-19 from Europe and brought it back home), with palpable pleasure, so heightened the I’m-so-happy-to-see-yous, and so energetic the exchanges that transpired, the high degree of enjoyment might just seep through your Samsung Galaxy screen.
Unlike Norman Tan, Kenneth Goh does not seem partial to posting Edwin Hung-style topless photos of himself. But both do have a weakness for travel shots, with many depicting impossibly beautiful backdrops. Mr Goh even has a hashtag #kennieboytravels to enchant his 33,700 followers. What stands out is their compositional similarity. In front of a body of water with an infinity edge, for example. If the subjects are swopped, we’d be none the wiser as to who was where, when. In fact, if we transpose their bodies with any other KOL pix, the photos would be a droplet in the azure sea of influencer brilliance.
Her World’s Ng Yi Lian (left) and Female’s Noelle Loh (right). Photos: Yilianng/Instagram and Noelle.loh/Instagram respectively
In contrast, women EICs’ social-media entries tend to be less about self, even when they do not use handles other than their actual names. The Instagram pages of the EICs of Singapore’ top two women’s magazine Her World and Female, Ng Yi Lian and Noelle Loh respectively, tend to mostly tout the content of the publications they edit. There are, of course, photos of them out and about, but these infrequently punctuate (certainly the case with Ms Loh) the plethora of work-related travels, poses with designers, fashion shoots, their magazine covers and pages, and the odd stand on social activism. No mother of either is featured. Ms Ng, who’s also behind Yi Lian Ng Floral Atelier, appears to be the least of a clotheshorse among those reviewed for this post, perhaps reflecting Her World’s style-for-working women stance and selling point. Ms Loh, even with a spunky style that’s photogenic, infrequently relies on her clothes to make her IG pages quiver with modishness, yet, standing next to Kim Jones in river sandals in one photo, one senses that she transmits more fashion vibe than her IG tiles let on.
Among the most followable of the female EICs is Pin (品) magazine’s Grace Lee. Served a stay home notice in early March after returning from Milan and Paris fashion weeks, she spent part of her days in quarantine by blogging about it with considerable wit and humour, as well as posting photos of herself adopting fashion that was sometimes xiao-yuan (校园 or school yard) prim, sometimes housewife proud. Ms Lee appears rather frequently (at least for a Singaporean editor) on street style blogs since her previous tenure—also as EIC—at Nuyou (女友). Her IG posts comprise obligatory work- and fashion-related photos, as well as those of herself unbashfully goofing around or seriously checking proofs in the office, but they belie, according to friends, her not much known discomfort with the need to be so social-media-active.
EIC of Pin Grace Lee working from home. Photo: jiajinggrace/Instagram
It isn’t certain if these days an EIC’s personal social media account is part of the requirements related to their appointment and frequent updates showing a splendid life part of the job scope. If not, is an EIC obligated to maintain an active social media account? Is there pressure to post? Although there could be potential for conflict of interest, it seems many publishers now consider social-media savvy as skill that can go hand-in-hand with editorial finesse, both in glorious balance. If magazine readerships are less able to attract readers, as we’re repeatedly told, are editors now required to engage readers through their social media posts? According to a 2019 report by American creative agency We Are Social (with offices worldwide, including Singapore), “45% of the world’s population are now social media users: a whopping 3.5 billion people”. It also found that “86% of Singaporeans (are) now online, 76% active on social media and mobile subscriptions – amongst the world’s highest”. It is understandable why editors need to use their social media pages, in influencer fashion, to reach other social media users.
But how influential are our EICs? What they put on their magazine pages may be read as fact (admittedly increasingly redefined), but what they have on social media are not necessarily a reflection of reality. Are their posts then merely feeding social media users’ voyeuristic bent? Virtual images and real-world selves are, of course, not one and the same, and oftentimes, there is a lag between them. It isn’t known how many of the EICs’ followers prefer magazine content or social media posts. Norman Tan and Kenneth Goh have reached “micro influencer” status (thought to be between 10,000 and 200, 000 followers, which pales to the 179 million of billionaire-no-more Kylie Jenner’s IG page). With 33,700 followers, Mr Goh is currently at the top. The three women fall outside this marketable circle. Among the women, Ng Yi Lian has the highest number, with 9,783 followers, followed by Grace Lee with 2,085, and Noelle Loh with 1,975. But perhaps, as Mr Tan has shown, following is only one part of reach. Individually or collectively, do they have sufficient pull? Are hashtags more alluring than headlines?
Looking at that post again, an irony begins to appear. Back in 2016, four Vogue editors—Sally Singer, Sarah Mower, Nicole Phelps, and Alessandra Codinha—wrote a not-well received criticism of fashion bloggers, then beginning to appear in visible numbers at fashion shows and events, so much so that some members of the press consider them “irritating”. In their censure, the women did not mince words: “Note to bloggers who change head-to-toe, paid-to-wear outfits every hour: Please stop. Find another business. You are heralding the death of style.” Four years later, it’s difficult to tell the difference between editors and bloggers/influencers. That death hasn’t struck.
Note: all IG numbers quoted reflect what are indicated on 8 June 2020, 08:30
The present is indeed the time to see how creative magazines are. Or, how alike
Which cover is better? The June issues of Vogue Netherlands and Prestige Singapore
Unprecedented times call for unusual solutions. Creativity is still all-important, but even that can be squeezed due to restrictions beyond one’s control. Magazines, as we know, are hit especially hard. Photography, whether indoors or out, is almost entirely disallowed. No photo, no cover? Certainly not with the case of Vogue Italia’s April issue. Its cover was left blank, save the masthead. While there are some, such as Female and Pin, that have used illustrations to rather arresting effect, others prefer to stick by the old book. However hard it is now to organise a shoot, magazines—aided by apps and other tech, such as reigning star Zoom—continue to put a face to front their title.
The tiled cover seems to be the choice of the month. Why have one photo when you can have nine, or more? At least two magazines embraced this option. The June cover of Vogue Netherlands features nine models shot in the first week of the lockdown in Amsterdam. According to the magazine, the shoot was assembled over video calls, text messages, and phone conversations. There is a photographer involved, even a stylist. The models probably did their own hair and makeup. Each photo has a border and an almost retro quality about them, as if a ‘vintage’ in-phone photo filter is applied. The result is rather Warholian, and the tiling of the photos too—seductively pre-Instagram for an Instagram age.
Also opting for a tiled cover is Prestige Singapore. Consistent with their usual cover subjects, the current issue features face-masked society ladies, deliberately not named to suggest “resilience” as a collective whole. Although not identified, these women (and men and one family)—totalling 100 faces (including those featured inside)—are described by managing editor Yanni Tan as “friends of Prestige”. The photos, mostly selfies, were submitted by the participants. It is fascinating that all of these society figures are willing to obscure their faces and share the limited real estate that is the magazine page. These are unprecedented times indeed.