Skimming The Surface

Reading a recent story on Chanel by CNA Luxury, we sensed we would be confronting something unsatisfying when, from the start, we had to be reminded that the 112-year-old maison has an “exclusive atelier in Paris”. We were not wrong. Superficial observation is one thing, trite description is another

Just like the ceaseless supply of Chanel tweed jackets, there have been never-ending media stories on Chanel’s haute couture. A report by CNA Luxury shared online last week is another, and it won’t be the last. More than a century after Gabrielle ’Coco’ Chanel founded her eponymous label and nearly 50 years after her death, there appears to be constant craving, not about her, but the couture studio that she left behind that is still generating what CNA imaginatively calls “lavish clothes”. Is there anything in their editorial that isn’t a pallid reminder of what haute couture is not?

We feel bad for Chanel. By their “invitation” (which could mean this was a junket), CNA Luxury was in Paris to show readers “inside Chanel’s world of haute couture”, perhaps with the noble aim of demystifying it. The 1,290-word editorial, in fact, accompanies the 2.44-minute documentary, ‘Inside Chanel’s Haute Couture Universe in Paris’, for the CNA Lifestyle 2022 series. From the first paragraph, it was a journey of textual cringe. To set the scene, they told readers that the Chanel epicentre at Rue Cambon—a narrow, one-way, 449-metre long street in the heart of the French capital—“is chockful of French dreams” and, later, that it is “one of the most well-stocked flagship boutiques… in the world”. We are not sure, but were they describing a 杂货店, provision store? Or, recalling the set for the RTW autumn/winter 2014 show, a supermarket?

And who was Chanel before she became a “full-fledged fashion designer dreaming (again?!) up sartorial hits(!)”? Wherever she is now, we doubt Chanel would be amused to be called, at the start of her career, a “mere milliner”. Chanel did begin as a hat maker and, by most accounts, a rather successful one. Biographer Edmond Charles-Roux wrote in Chanel, “The truth was she had a really impressive talent” (so much so that one of her boyfriends at the time eagerly financed her venture). This was the early 1900s, a time when, as Mr Charles-Roux noted, “family, children, love, jewels—none of these aroused as much concern as the question of hats”. Her headwear, in particular a boater, “was absurdly simple, and it was curious to see how some of her friends reacted to this sparseness as a new form of eccentricity”. Her clientele expanded and they included “customers of Worth, Redfern and Doucet”. Chanel’s first proper shop (before that, she operated out of another boyfriend’s “bachelor flat”), Chanel Modes, that opened in 1910 was in Rue Cambon, at number 21. The number 31 address—where, according to CNA, ”is chockful of French dreams”—did not materialise until 1918 when Chanel, the “mere milliner”, purchased the building.

Wherever she is now, we doubt Chanel would be amused to be called, at the start of her career, a “mere milliner”

Above the store, we were told, “Chanel had an apartment where she used to work, daydream and entertain a small circle of friends. Curiously, the couturier (sic) never actually lived there, preferring to call one of the suites at the Ritz Hotel… home”. Yet, the apartment is an “abode” and, to be certain, a “historical” one. Then we were introduced to the ateliers above. “Everything is made-to-measure and made entirely by hand,” one of the premieres was quoted saying. “Haute couture is really about excellence. It is all about handwork and craftsmanship,” she expanded helpfully. Enlightening. And to add to your growing knowledge, “each haute couture garment begins from a sketch.” For the complicated nature of the work they do, we were offered a glimpse: “See-through (!) Guipure lace layered with gossamer lace; coloured lace inlaid onto Guipure lace; lace patterns reworked entirely by hand with sequins; lace hand-painted in resin; and cashmere wool woven into lace-like patterns.” Following?

Whether anyone at CNA knows what Guipure lace is, we can’t say (if you ask, it is openwork, therefore, nearly always “see-through”, with motifs, such as flowers, joined by fine bars or plaits instead of webs of nets or mesh, as in other laces). But they seem to be educated on the fineness of couture finishing, explaining away that “not only are the seams on the outside hidden from view, even those on the inside of the garment are ingeniously tucked away”. The ingenuity is in how, in this, we can’t discern the making of “really expensive clothes”. To banish all doubts that Chanel could be capable of even a whisper shred of shoddiness, we were informed that “nothing is left unfinished, everything is finished to perfection”. A friend from Kuala Lumpur, who had read the article too, said to us, “I’m surprised there isn’t ‘laboratory of ideas’. Maybe they are not informed enough to use that!”

A report startlingly littered with clichés wasn’t enough, it had to include the “icons” that “continue to thrive” and bear listing: “the tweed jacket, the ‘little black dress’, two-tone slingbacks and, of course, the inimitable Chanel 2.55 purse”, much, we suspect, to the delight of the brand (one media professional said to us, “Chanel will love it, lah. They obviously paid for the trip and they expect the media to fawn over them”). The article is probably targeted at those who are not acquainted with the creative and practical business of “custom-made artisanal garments fashioned entirely by hand by dressmakers skilled in creating one-of-a-kind garb that are more than worthy of their price tags”. But could they not have toned down the trite and the banal? “Every single detail matters,” they concluded, ”After all, this is haute couture, where precision is the name of the game.” Take note, you “stylish set”!

Illustration: Just So

Rather Wrapped Up

Before her reported comeback on the runway next month, Linda Evangelista appeared on a Vogue cover, looking like she has not changed, even when framed by a large scarf

Linda Evangelista, “permanently damaged” by a 2016 body-contouring procedure, wants to revive her modelling career. “I’m done with hiding,” she told People in a February cover story. So, she is back in sight. And she has many friends who could make her a model again. First there was Kim Jones who cast her in last month’s ad for Fendi, and—next month—the runway appearance for the Italian brand. “I loved being up on the catwalk,” she admitted to the American weekly in that revealing interview. And likely still does. But before that anticipated IRL appearance, she has Edward Enninful to thank for her return to magazine covers; for starters, the latest British Vogue. Ms Evangelista is in demand again. The return of the supermodel.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t American Vogue that got hold of the Canadian-born model (she appeared on their cover a whopping 11 times in her career). It was the British edition that gave her the cover opportunity, and it was its editor-in-chief Mr Enninful who styled her, in full modest fashion glory. It is possible that Anna Wintour preferred her Vogue to be graced by someone whole, even when she told People that “no model was more super than Linda”. Ms Evangelista said in the People cover story that the treatment Coolsculpting had “brutally disfigured” her. In a far more natural photograph published on that cover, Ms Evangelista looked less a fashion model: Her face seemed wider, her jaws more pronounced, her cheeks not as lifted, and her skin less smooth than before. CoolSculpting, a treatment that helps reduce unwanted fat by “freezing” them, left her with hard “bulges” due to a rare reaction known as paradoxical adipose hyperplasia or PAH.

The damages Ms Evangelista suffered probably could not be totally undone or significantly minimised, which may explain why in all the Vogue photos Mr Enninful had her face framed by scarves and topped by dramatic headwear. Worn like a babushka, the scarves are bound rather tightly, effecting a slimmer face, even a smaller head. For most, the cover is major and one that is considered “stunning”; as striking, to some, as Ms Evangelista’s Patrick Demarchelier-lensed 1992 cover for Harper’s Bazaar, under newly-installed editor, the late Liz Tilbiris, 30 years ago. This is Linda Evangelista as Linda Evangelista of the past, of our firm memory of her; this is not post-PAH. Her eyes are just as speaking, under the arch of the brows; her nose as perky; her lips as full; her teeth as white, all set in flawless and glowing skin.

According to British Vogue, makeup artist Pat McGrath “gently (how else?) drew her face, jaw and neck back with tape and elastics”. There were, of course, digital trickery too. Ms Evangelista has no illusion about the illusory contours seen. She said: “That’s not my jaw and neck in real life – and I can’t walk around with tape and elastics everywhere.” Nor, probably headscarves and hats, at least not everywhere, every day. Styling can truly recast even a “damaged” face and person into unimpaired familiarity. The cover girl said to People five months ago, “I don’t recognize myself physically, but I don’t recognize me as a person any longer either. She (and “she means Linda Evangelista, supermodel,” People wrote) is sort of gone.” But now, with this, perhaps not. With help, the model is again.

In weighing what might have prompted the super of the supers to go for body contouring, the British Vogue editorial put forth a conjecture that, apart for herself, “perhaps also in some warped way for everyone else who will forever compare you to the impossible ideals of your Vogue covers and campaign images”. Although good looks are now seen even in beauty outside known and accepted standards, Ms Evangelista’s altered visage is not quite gorgeous, recognisable, and admissible enough for a Vogue cover. In his editor’s page, Edward Enninful wrote that “perhaps no other face so effortlessly captures the essence of the fin-de-siècle supermodel as Linda Evangelista.” So the final effect has to commensurate with that. Let her look unchanged. Once a model, always a model.

Photos: Steven Meisel/British Vogue

End Of The Run For Con-Couple

They did not go far enough to escape capture. In Johor Bahru yesterday, the fraudster duo was caught and brought back to our island. They are, as many are now saying, not really that smart after all

Pansuk and Pi in police custody. Collage: Just So

They were masked when they were escorted to waiting police cars, as seen in last night’s news broadcasts, but even with faces half-concealed, it was not hard to distinguish them. Siriwipa Pansuk (aka Ann) and her husband Pi Jiapeng (aka Kevin), on the run since 4 July when they fled our island, were arrested by Malaysian police at a hotel in Johor Bahru (JB), where they had chosen to tarry and, likely, blend in. According to images from CCTV footage published by the press and shared online, the couple did not resist arrest. They were, according to the hotel staff, calm. When they were caught, they were dressed simply, with none of them wearing a watch, luxury or not. There were no Dior bags that Ms Pansuk had favoured either.

Mr Pi had on a dark green, baggy T-shirt with “Paris Balenciaga” printed in white on the chest—an original would have set him back S$880, retail—and a pair of slim, black, knee-length shorts of unrecognised provenance. He was carrying a black backpack of an indeterminate make when he was at the hotel (it was later held by the police). If it were a Balenciaga too, it would have cost at least S$1,250. His wife, with hair tied into a small matronly chignon, was even more nondescript; she was togged in a crumpled, black V-neck dress that did not look especially luxurious. Both were shod in black slides. As Netizens have been saying since last night, they did not look like they had enriched themselves with ill-gotten S$32 million; they looked like petty thieves.

…they did not look like they had enriched themselves with ill-gotten S$32 million; they looked like petty thieves

According to the Singapore Police Force, the arrest was made possible with help from the Malaysian authorities, based on information from the Royal Thai Police that it was likely the husband and wife were staying in a hotel right across the Causeway. Shinmin Daily News (新明日报) reported that the couple had remained in JB throughout these past 37 days, staying in different hotels—all amazingly possible without identification papers—to avoid detection. When the cash they brought along with them ran low, they switched to budget hotels, and one that set the stage for their capture is, ironically, called Bookme—a fitting end to their swindling and runaway life. This hotel can be reserved for as low as S$25 a night on booking.com. It is situated in the suburb of Bukit Indah, a residential and commercial area that is popular with those working here on our island. Bookme Hotel (formerly known as Smor Hotel) is just 1.5 kilometres away from a stretch of the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link highway. When the wanted two appeared at the hotel at around 10am last night (presumably to check in—without, again, passports?), and was apprehended, a sign on the glass door read, “Full House”.

One Malaysian working here, with his own residence in JB, told us that the couple made a poor decision to stay in Bukit Indah (meaning beautiful hill in Malay). “There are so many Singaporeans in this area, especially in the weekends” he said. “They would definitely meet someone who’d recognise them. For sure, I would not choose this place.” Bookme Hotel is, in fact, in a stretch of three-storey shop houses on a treeless road in the pusat (bellybutton) of Bukit Indah, right behind TF Value-Mart (former Giant), and within walking distance to Singaporean faves Tesco and, a little further, AEON Mall. Is it possible that, as they were used to a life of immense comfort, they needed to be in an area dense with urban conveniences? He added, “I think they cannot handle an environment with facilities wanting; they require a place that breathes with life.” Besides, we figured, if the nearby malls could not serve their still-to-change needs, the Johor Premium Outlet is really not that far away.

Bookme Hotel in Bukit Indah, Johor Bahru. Photo: agaoda.com

While initial reactions to the unbelievable escape (Mr Pi called it “our mistake” in his first comment after the arrest) were met with surprise at their daring and smarts, many are now saying that perhaps the two are not as clever or strategic as they had appeared to be. It is not clear why both, unencumbered with luxury bags, did not go away from the city centre, even leave the state of Johor entirely. Was it possible that they did not know how wanted they were? Or that an Interpol warrant was issued against them, or that Malaysian (and Thai) authorities were willing to assist in the search for this pair of absconders? It is likely that Malaysia was totally alien to the two of them, and the fear of not making it in remote places (let alone the wilderness), where Malay may be the only spoken language, kept them in the relatively mundane and relatable area of Bukit Indah.

Their choice of the hideout and the proximity to Singapore are not the only puzzlers. Just as baffling is how the Thai authorities knew the Pis were in JB when the talk for close to a month was that they were already in Thailand, completed plastic surgery, and had blended with the crowd. Thai social media is presently seeing rapid sharing of the video report of the couple’s arrest (even in Chinese, with chiding directed at Ms Pansuk) and is rife with speculation that someone she knows snitched on her. It is highly possible that she would stay in touch with individuals in her home country, even if it is surprising that she had not laid low enough. It seems that, other than her family (mother and brother are supposedly in hiding), most people are deeply angry with her. Even purported friends of Ms Pansuk’s were saying on social media, with links to the news reports here: “วันนี้ที่รอคอย (wan nee ti rao koy)”—the day I’ve been waiting for.

Not A Man In A Skirt

You know times have changed when new dad A$AP Rocky goes out wearing something that isn’t a pair of pants

Three days ago, A$AP Rocky took a break from fatherhood duties and stepped out in New York in an A-line, knee-grazing, leather Givenchy skirt. American Vogue said that he “went full cybergoth”. Its British counterpart was certain that he “sets the bar for modern menswear”. W magazine thought he “looked effortlessly cool”. GQ’s approving headline read, “Only for A$AP Rocky Is August Leather Kilt Season”, carefully avoiding the S-word. It was, overall, a strong show of support, if you ignore one unkind headline that went, “Shocker: A$AP Rocky Spotted Out… Wearing Rihanna’s Leather Skirt”.

He is, of course, not a “man in a skirt”; he is A$AP Rocky in a skirt. Just like it was Brad Pitt in a skirt days earlier (linen, by Haans Nicholas Mott) and Kanye West in a skirt even way before (2011, during a concert, when he was costumed by Givenchy, then designed by Riccardo Tisci). More mortal males would not be able to rock a similar skirt, even if it is based on a simple shape, so uncomplicated that they’re often the basic skirt taught in pattern-making and sewing classes. Guys without the same standing, social and fashion-wise, as the rapper, would not be blessed with such encouraging headlines. That A$AP Rocky chose a more ‘solid’ silhouette in a hulky fabric such as leather is to leave the viewer in no doubt of his cis gender and his procreative heterosexuality.

This was not A$AP Rocky’s first time wearing a skirt, but it was the first time he wore one as a father. Before his very public romance with Rihanna, he was seen in Rick Owens and Vivienne Westwood “kilts”—entry level skirts that could help the wearer graduate to more serious stuff. That he and his fellow artistes in skirts no longer receive derogatory comments could be due to the garment’s popularity among, in particular, Black rappers, such as P Diddy, Omar Epps, R Kelly, Snoop Dog, Coolio, just to name a few. Still, only a very small group of them gets accolades for wearing skirts. To quote, Quentin Tarantino, who said of Brad Pitt in this month’s issue of GQ, “It’s just a different breed of man”.

Photo: Backgrid

And This Is Miu Miu?

Rihanna does not need to mimick no runway look. She can, as we have been repeatedly told, wear anything she wants, however she desires, modest or not—mostly not

Rihanna, out for the night, scantily clad, again. Photo: Backgrid

In the duration of her internationally-viewed-and-followed pregnancy, Robyn Rihanna Fenty has exposed more of her body than the average expectant woman. But Ms Fenty, as we have been made aware, is not an average woman or mother-to-be. So whatever she has worn (or not) isn’t standard either, or maternity wear. Her visible stomach is the focal point of most of her outfits, from the first trimester to the present. The outers, if worn, do not provide cover either. Even if you follow the growth of her baby bump, it may not mean it grows on you. Not many women are comfortable putting their enceinte body in near-full display. Ms Fenty has not only been at ease; she has been eager too. And that, for many COVID-era societies of the West, is admirable, if not exactly imitable.

Such as the above look she adopted two days ago when she went out with A$AP Rocky to have dinner at their favourite restaurant, Giorgio Baldi, in Santa Monica. On social media, so many said she looked “wonderful” or “beautiful”, but no one said they wanted to dress like her. At a glance, it should have been an immediately recognisable ensemble, but Ms Fenty has taken considerable liberties with it and a double take would possibly be necessary to identify the brand. She would not wear something as it was intended (to begin with, she picked regular RTW pieces, nothing, as she vowed, from the “maternity aisle”). So this Miu Miu two-piece, part of the current spring/summer collection that is much loved, was given a Rihanna remake (she is, after all, a fashion designer!): The skirt was lobbed off to shorten it. And she dispensed with Miu Miu inner wear for—presumably—her own Fenty undies. The genius here is making Miu Miu as un-Miu Miu as possible.

Adut Akech on the runway in the same Miu Miu outfit for spring/summer 2022. Photo: Gorurway

Media reports were all raves and more raves: “Rihanna Bra & Skirt Set… Deserves All The Fire Emojis”, “Stuns In See-Through Set”, and our favourite—from Vogue—“One For The Record Books”. Some choice words excited journalists used included “glamorous”, “inspiring”, “incredible”, “style-forward”, “effortless”. The beauty of all this worship is that the goddess is, fashion-wise, faultless. Even if there was discernible wardrobe malfunction. Fans and journalists alike noticed her body glitter, her tattoos, even the linea nigra, but no one mentioned one exposure: In some photographs of her in the silvery crystal mesh top (and matching customised-to-be-mini skirt), part of her left nipple could be seen above the top edge of her brassiere that appeared to have slipped down on that side (it isn’t known why her bra was so loose). Or was that insouciant slide part of what Vogue euphemistically called the “risqué look”?

Just because the Miu Miu set appeared fetching on the model (in this case, Adut Akech), on the runway, it does not automatically mean the outfit would look good on the rest of us. Ms Fenty is, of course, a determined woman. Not to be told what maternity clothes are, or not, she is happy to break all rules (is there any rule in her rule book?) and go the opposite way by not covering a—not just the—large part of her body. It is possible that she was emboldened by the frequent rhapsodising of the press and social media. The more she revealed, the more she was lauded and encouraged. The reciprocal flaunts even gained her a Vogue cover. There was really no need to hold back. It is said that Rihanna’s pregnancy is important to expectant women—she empowers them, to the extent that she needs to be immortalised with a marble statue of her pregnant self sitting in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, among priceless antiquities of stone. If any pregnancy can be this powerful—and political?—and public, it would be Rihanna’s.

Closed For Good?

Vogue Russia is no longer suspended; it’s shut

January 2022 issue of Vogue Russia. Photo: Vogue Russia. Illustration: Just So

Two weeks after Russia attacked Ukraine, Vogue Russia announced on Instagram, as well as on their webpage, that the title “will be suspending broadcasts on our platforms until further notice”. The latest, as reported in the media, is that the magazine will no longer be published in the land of Vladimir Putin. Publish Condé Nast had e-mailed a memo to its staff, stating that “the escalation in the severity of the censorship laws, which have significantly curtailed free speech and punished reporters simply for doing their jobs, has made our work in Russia untenable”. It is speculated that the Russian edition of other sibling titles under Condé Nast, such as Glamour and GQ, will also be closed.

In addition to Russia’s oppressive censoring of the media, it is possible that the luxury retail climate in the country has hastened the publisher’s decided to close Vogue. All European brands, across all price points, have suspended their businesses in Moscow and all other Russian cities. As one magazine sales executive said to us, “I doubt they will be able to get ads if they continue to publish”. Moreover, sanctions against Russia is not likely to be lifted soon. Vogue, so tethered to Western fashion brands, would be at odds with the current business sentiment pertaining to the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Vogue Russia was launched in 1998, during the Russian financial crisis that arose from the double-dread actions of the Russian government and its central bank: devaluing the rouble and defaulting on its debt. But Vogue Russia remained strong as a flagship of the Condé Nast stable. According to the publisher’s website, the magazine has over 800,000 readers. It was thought to be the most-flipped-through premium fashion title in the country. In that public announcement posted in March, the magazine wrote: “We hope that this is not a farewell letter but rather just a pause and soon we will be able to reunite with you”. It appears that that is an unlikely fate.

The Priscilla Shunmugam Surprise

A modern designing woman with unfashionable views?

Less than six hours after the news broke that Priscilla Shunmugam made some “offensive” remarks came the designer’s swift apology: She told Today that what she said during an Asian Civilisations Museum-faciliated discussion last September about fashion and identity was “clumsy, hurtful, and insensitive”. In that Zoom session of the series ACMtalks, she had said—in response to a question about her designs being more ethnically Chinese—“historically, and even today, Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further, as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts”. Part of a two-and-half minute clip that was shared on social media, the broad remark had many viewers saying that Ms Shunmugam’s view is “racist”. In her response to Today, she added, “I apologise unreservedly for the comments I made”.

That ACMtalks session, “Designing Singapore’s contemporary fashion identity”, organised in conjunction with the museum’s #SGFASHIONNOW exhibition, has been removed from ACM’s Facebook page following the uproar. But in the said clip still circulating, there were more questionable remarks. Ms Shunmugam, who was not wearing anything that could be identified as Chinese, said: “This is not a modern-day phenomenon; this is just something that has been the way it’s been since, I think, the ’60s. In fact, for example, Chinese women were the first Asian women to shake hands with men. So, culturally, it was acceptable for Chinese women to shake the hands of men long before it was acceptable for Indian and Malay women to do so.” Her comment, we noted, did not take into consideration the social customs women had to observe (and still do) and the religious constraints they experienced before, and now.

Priscilla Shunmugam on ACMtalks. Screen grab: kebaya.societe/Instagram

As a proponent of ethnically-flavoured clothes and textiles, and their amalgamation, Priscilla Shunmugam’s observations were startling. CNA called her “the designer who reinvented the cheongsam with her unique flair for mixing traditional Asian textiles with modernised silhouettes”, yet this “flair” was blind-stitched into her surprisingly narrow view of how women across ethnicities have indeed progressed in the choice of their clothes. Playing the anthropologist, Ms Shunmugam also went on to say that “Chinese women, for example, were culturally the first Asian women to adopt Western dressing”. It’s hard to digest that. Thai women, for example, were no laggards. Look at Queen Sirikit: In the era that Ms Shunmugam singled out—the ’60s, she wore Western fashion by a French house—Balmain couture, no less—with as much ease as traditional Thai dress, and her choices influenced generations of women, even the present.

At the beginning of the clip, the Malaysia-born designer revealed that she did some research into the “emancipation of Asian women” before she started her brand Ong Shunmugam (named after her mother’s and father’s surnames respectively). If she was equating the emancipation of women only with the adoption of Western fashion (“the dress or the mini-skirt”), then she was negating the reality that education opportunities and economic circumstances influenced women in the clothes they bought and wore. And, if local non-Chinese women were slow to adopt Western clothes, have they been left behind “Singapore’s contemporary fashion identity”? Wearers of baju kurong or the sari are somehow stuck in a distance, away from progress, or denied it? We viewed the clip a few times and it surprised us that Ms Shunmugam, a trained lawyer, who touts herself to be “a regular on the speaking and judging circuit in the Asian design community”, could put forth her argument so unpersuasively. We thought that only happens with her fashion design.

Illustration: Just So

What Happened To Vogue Russia?

According to Condé Nast, all Russian publishing operations will be suspended

The March 2022 issue of Vogue Russia. Photo: Lea Colombo/Vogue

As Western fashion brands halted their businesses in Russia, what did the industry-anointed ‘fashion bible’ Vogue do? The response came on 9 March, 13 days after the ruthless attack on Ukraine by one villainous autocrat in the Kremlin. A terse message in Russian and English on Vogue Russia’s website, addressed to “dear readers”, states: “We are suspending all kind (sic) of broadcasts on our platforms until further notice.” In addition, “the April issue of Vogue Russia will not be published. All previously published pieces are still available on vogue.ru.” The pronouncement came in the middle of Paris Fashion Week. There is no explanation to their decision, no mention of the besieged country, no denouncement of war, even when at vogue.com, four days before the Russian edition’s online message, an intro accompanying the feature Images of the Week stated that “despite the glitz of Paris Fashion Week, the world’s eyes are still trained on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

But the note, signed off “with respect and love” by the “Vogue Russia team”, expresses firm optimism: “We hope that this is not a farewell letter but rather just a pause and soon we will be able to reunite with you” (no acknowledgement of the many displaced Ukrainians who are unable to reunite with their families and loved ones). According to the latest figures shared by Condé Nast, the Russian title enjoys 662K print readers (for comparison, the US edition has 9.1 million). Ad rate for a full page is €17,600 (for comparison, again, the US counterpart‘s asking price per full page has a “general rate” of US$191,361 or about €174,603). It is not clear if the “pause” of Vogue Russia and the deferred “reunion” will impact the group performance of Vogue itself, but based on the figures, it is possible that Condé Nast can afford the professional respite.

Screen grab of Vogue Russia’s message announcing their “pause”

In the said message to announce the magazine’s temporary suspension, the title claims that “all these years our mission was to cover not only fashion news and trends but also culture, art and social agenda.” In the intro of Vogue Russia’s online media kit, editor-in-chief Ksenia Solovieva, just a year into the job (she was former EIC of Tatler Russia), offers more: “we try to support the fashion industry, open up new talents, discuss the questions of sustained development and sex, are not afraid to touch upon politics…” But there is, at the moment, fear (did Vogue Russia’s team read their Ukrainian colleagues’ accounts of escaping the war in the online parent title’s How Vogue Ukraine Survived the First Days of War With Russia?).

Ms Solovieva’s and her editorial team now choose the safer bet, reticence. Perhaps, that is necessary (under the advice of her boss, Anna Wintour, although the latter is not averse to showing her political standing?) amid a looming Cold War 2.0—any voice of dissent in Russia today is especially strident. With dire warnings sent out by Russian prosecutors, “threatening to arrest corporate leaders there who criticize the government or to seize assets of companies that withdraw from the country,” as reported by The Wall Street Journal, silence is probably golden.

Oh, BBC. Grrr…

Is it that hard for Western media to get Asia right?

By Zhao Guozhu

We have moved ahead, BBC. Into another year. Nope, we are not stuck in the year of other zodiacal beasts. We are firmly in 虎年, the Year of the Tiger. 🐯 But the news and graphics editors at the BBC are not entirely aware. Or, perhaps, as some people say, they were sleeping. Eagle-eyed Netizens spotted the above faux pas on chuyi (初一, the first day of the Lunar New Year) and social media went bonkers with the indeterminate creature (above) that is clearly not the 百兽之王, King of Beasts. In a statement to Marketing Interactive, a BBC spokesperson said, “We inadvertently used last year’s bug on the channel, but will immediately remove it. We apologise for the oversight and thank our viewers for spotting it.”

Chinese New Year (CNY) has about 3,500 years of history. It is generally thought to date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). CNY is, therefore, not a festive celebration of modern times. Yet, some international news outlet can’t seem to get details pertaining to the most important date of the lunar calendar (农历) right. In the BBC title page, it looks to me like someone Google-searched a CNY image without entering the year and this came up, and they employed it. But, the news media said they used “last year’s bug” (roughly: label), but why does the animal look more like a rat than an ox? Could this then be from two years ago? Or were the BBC editors so charmed by the bug’s exotic potential—perhaps, all jianzi (剪纸, paper-cut) animals, in their eyes, look alike?—that it didn’t occur to them that the lunar year corresponds to a specific animal to form the 十二生肖, 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac?

It is disconcerting that the nearly a-century-old BBC, which I have regarded and read with respect, would be this slack in visual accuracy. That it has happened before, as recently as two weeks ago, making it the second error in less than a month, 重蹈覆辙, is not entirely digestible. 好事成双吗? Do good things really come in pairs?

Screen grab: BBC Lifestyle

They’ve Got The Spirit

British daily The Guardian made an offering. So did broadcaster the BBC. No one is happy. Most are 😱

The Guardian’s CNY suggestions. Photos: The Guardian

By Zhao Guozhu

In the spirit of graciousness, I’d just have a laugh, a big laugh, 大笑一场. You would have read the reports and reactions by now. If you have not, let me have the pleasure. It was all about what to cook for the festive season. First, it was The Guardian with their not festively plated “pork and crab dumplings”, placed atop a sheet of joss paper (金纸, jinzhi, also known as 冥纸, mingzi or hell paper). Then there was the BBC with their dish of “lo mein” (the Cantonese pronunciation of 捞面, laomian, or what we know as dry noodles, not what the BBC described as “actually a very simple egg noodle stir fry”) next to a pair of envelopes—one of them, a hongbao (红包), the other, for use at funerals, on which it is clearly written 吉儀 (吉仪, jiyi or auspicious yi). The latter is usually given by the family of the deceased to the attendees of the funeral as a gift of appreciation (谢礼, xieli). Here, it is common to place in the envelope a small towel, candy, and a coin.

You can imagine the online shock and disdain, especially in this part of the world, where many of us are deep in the preparation of Chinese New Year. The Guardian heard or read them too. So did the BBC. The paper replaced that photograph with one that is missing the offensive joss paper. The broadcaster was more brutal—they deleted the picture altogether. The recipe that follows is now without a visual to tell readers what “lo mein” is. The thing that came to my mind: Why did the food stylists of the two shoots not think about what they had placed next to the dishes? The Guardian spread was attributed to Marie-Ange Lapierre (food styling) and Pene Parker (prop styling). Westerners must find it hard to style Asian food. On a plain plate, they don’t know how to make the dishes look good. So they have to resort to styling tricks, such as the use of items to exoticise the subject of the photograph, even if it means prop-hunting in a 香烛店 (xiangzhudian, joss and candle shop)!

BBC’s “lo mein”. Photo: BBC

There is something disconcertingly simplistic here too: As dumplings (饺子, jiaozi) “are traditionally served at the lunar new year feast”, The Guardian declared, they have to be styled with some assurance to the angmo creatives—something “traditional”. (Mostly northern Chinese eat jiaozi for the first meal of the Lunar New Year.) For many stylists in the West tasked to put together an image related to Chinese culture, anything that comes with Han characters (sometimes even Japanese text will do) or are at variance with their own aesthetical familiarity can pass of as inspired by China. It did not help that The Guadian’s dumplings could be gyozas and the BBC’s “lo mein” could be mee goong haeng (Thai dry noodles with prawns). Nothing about the two dishes say 中国菜 (Chinese food), so they need obvious visual cues, even extraneous ones.

Surely, they have knowledgeable people they could ask. Uncle Roger, perhaps? James Wong? Heck, Gemma Chan? I thought that following the 2018 fiasco over the Dolce & Gabbana ad, which showed a Chinese model eating a massive cannoli with chopsticks (both The Guardian and the BBC published reports), brands and the media too would be more mindful of how they effect representations of Chinese culture and cuisine. What would the British say if The Straits Times featured haggis served in a ciborium? Or, fish and chips wrapped in a (funeral) order of service? To The Guardian and the BBC, food prepared for Chinese New Year is for welcoming the start of spring, not the end of life. 别客气. You’re welcome.

Music Video Or Fashion Commercial?

With the new track from Kanye West’s Donda, the line is clearly blurred

Kanye West, er, Ye (since last October, we keep forgetting) has a new single from the 27-track Donda album, called Heaven and Hell. Between those poles, he has put out a music video two days ago that is quite unlike any seen on his YouTube channel. This is not awash with the most amazing video effects or full of sensational fashion, or elephantine footwear. At about two half minutes long, Heaven and Hell is a rather short track. The accompany video is dark, gloomy, and dystopian-looking, more hell than heaven, with many people in it, all looking rather like Ye has this past Balenciaga-enabled year: facially obscured, mysterious, and inaccessible. Even zombies have more expression.

We see only silhouettes of the indistinct people. They seem to be monks—just men. Maybe the gender is incorporeal, inconsequential. Maybe they are non-binary. Just single beings, single units, single entities, looking from the shadows towards the abode of the Almighty. The singularity is rather odd for a proudly cisgender Ye, more so when he reminds us in the new song, “women producing, men go work” (taken from 20th Century Steel Band’s 1965 track Heaven and Hell on Earth). Were the faceless men working as they go about slow-mo in what looks like a housing estate? In the stills towards the end of the video, the hordes seem to be in battle. The end of days?

Could they be angels? One thing is for certain, all of them are outfitted in a black hoodie of one design. And at the end of the video, we learned, at the sight of the familiar blue logo, that the top was from Yeezy Gap. Not likely the trousers since the Gap and Yeezy partnership has only released one hoodie and one puffer jacket, so far. Is the MV sponsored by Gap then, or is this part of the marketing exercise of the two names coming together? If there were to be roles/talents/characters in the video, the people would need clothes. But Gap (traditionally) takes pride in the many colours of one style that they could merchandise. It is, therefore, unclear how this gloomy video could augment the (still) fading glory of Gap, even if it was announced that Balenciaga would “engineer“ something with Yeezy Gap. Or, is it just the black similitude that the brand sees as the way forward?

As with most of Ye’s music in recent years, Heaven and Earth is a sharing of the power of the Christian God and a show of the rapper’s evangelical flair. This, like all of Donda, doubles as soundtrack for his popular Sunday service. It isn’t known how Ye—now, a monosyllabic moniker, like God—reconciles the materialism, swagger and self-absorption of fashion with the values of religious dogma. “Save my people through the music,” Ye raps, but not once does he plead, through clothes (instead, “no more logos“), even when he has used fashion merchandise to preach, such as as his label Yeezy Sunday Service, sold through the Coachella pop-up Church Clothes. Despite acknowledging the part that image and clothing play, Ye is still unwavering in his devotional bent, sing-preaching/suggesting more good than goods; more God than Gap.

Screen grab: Kanye West/Youtube

When Céline Paid Homage to Joan Didion

Orbituary | The American writer was, at age 80, a style icon, thanks to Phoebe Philo

Joan Didion as model for a Céline advertisement in 2015. Photo: Céline

In reports bursting all over the Net like opened Christmas presents, we learned that Joan Didion, the high priestess of American “New Journalism” and literature, and a former Vogue writer, has died. Her publisher Knopf said in a statement that the cause of death was Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that often sees sufferers shaking or walking with difficulty. Ms Didion passed away at aged 87 (as did Coco Chanel), in her home in Manhattan, New York. It is not known how long the disease ailed her. Regular readers of her work would know that Ms Didion had a nervous breakdown in the summer of 1968, as she recounted in The White Album. Consultation with a psychiatrist revealed that she was ill with vertigo and nausea, and multiple sclerosis. She was also suffering from migraine—so frequently and so badly that she was inclined to write about it. “Three, four, sometimes five times a month,” she described in the 1968 essay In Bed (also published in The White Album), “I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache, insensible to the world around me.”

But the world did make sense of her. Or, many women of the ’60s and ’70s did. Unafraid to express what was in her mind, Joan Didion spoke for her peers—hippies, liberals, English majors, especially would-be writers. She was born in 1934 in Sacramento, described as “the dowdiest of California cities”. Yet, Ms Didion herself said, “It kills me when people talk about California hedonism. Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Her forebears came to Sacramento in the mid-1900s, and their pioneer experiences affected her growing up, which informed her debut novel Run, River, about the coming apart of the marriage and family of a Sacramento couple whose great-grandparents were pioneers. Ms Didion would, in the book of essays, Where I was From, censure her first novel as the work of someone “homesick”, and considered it spun with false nostalgia, creating an idealised picture of life in rural California that she would say did not exist.

According to her, she did not dream of a profession in writing. “I wrote stories from the time I was a little girl,” she told The Paris Review in 1978, “but I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t realize then that it’s the same impulse. It’s make-believe. It’s performance. The only difference being that a writer can do it all alone.” But write she did. In her final year in the University of California, Berkley, where she read English, Ms Didion participated in a writing contest, ‘Prix de Paris’. It was sponsored by Vogue. She came in first, and was offered the position as a research assistant at the magazine, then edited by Jessica Davis. She moved to New York to take up the job. In the beginning, she wrote mostly captions (then, not the one lines they are today), but she would eventually have her pieces published in the magazine (it was during her time at Vogue that Run, River was written).

Joan Didion in her signature black top. Photo: Everett/Shutterstock

Much of the dates are quite muddled now. But reports suggested that she was with Vogue from 1956 to 1963. Ms Didion, apart from writing the caption, also had duties that “involved going to photographers’ studios and watching women being photographed”, as she recounted in Esquire in 1989. We can’t be certain if she had worked under the inimitable Diana Vreeland, but if Ms Vreeland joined only in 1962 and was made editor-in-chief a year later, it is possible they were at least colleagues, if not superior and subordinate. Ms Didion did not cover the fashion beat, but she did, as we understand it, contribute—sometimes, without byline—to the column People are Talking About, and she profiled stars, such as Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand (who did not appear on the cover of Vogue until 1966), and even reported on the death of Marilyn Monroe, whom Ms Didion described as “a profoundly moving young woman.”

She eventually left Vogue. Some reports suggested that she was “fired” for panning the 1965 screen musical The Sound of Music, which she described as “more embarrassing than most, if only because of its suggestion that history need not happen to people… just whistle a happy tune, and leave the Anschluss behind.” (If true, she was not the only one whose review cost her her job—Pauline Kael of McCall’s too was dismissed at the time for calling the film “the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”.) One good thing came out of New York: Joan Didion met Time staffer John Gregory Dunne (younger brother of author Dominick Dunne), whom she married, at age 28, a year after she left Vogue, and in whom she found a sparing partner in writing. The couple moved to Los Angeles and would stay for more than two decades, during which, they adopted a baby girl, their only child.

In LA, the Dunnes would come to be known as “Hollywood insiders”. Not surprising since Ms Didion’s brother-in-law Dominick Dunne was a Hollywood type, having started his career in television in New York and was later brought to Tinseltown by Humphrey Bogart to work on TV productions there. The younger Dunne socialised with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor (and would draw on his Tinseltown experiences for his later novels). The brothers collaborated on the 1971 romantic drama The Panic in Needle Park. Ms Didion and her husband wrote the screenplay and Dominick Dunne produced the film which had Al Pacino in his first leading role. The writing duo (and director Frank Pierson) also wrote the 1976 remake of A Star is Born that starred Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

Joan Didion pictured on the cover of her book of essays. Cover photograph Hencry Clarke/Conde Nast via Getty Image. Photo: Jim Sim

While Hollywood appeared to suit them and their adopted kid, the movie town in Ms Didion’s writing was rather mercilessly dissected. In We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, she wrote: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” She told Vogue UK in 1993 that “Los Angeles presents a real culture shock when you’ve never lived there. The first couple of years you feel this little shift in the way you think about things. The place doesn’t mean anything. Los Angeles strips away the possibility of sentiment. It’s flat. It absorbs all the light. It doesn’t give you a story.” As she wrote in A Trip to Xanadu, published in the collection of essays Let Me Tell You What I Mean, “Make a place available to the eyes, and in certain ways it is no longer available to the imagination.” She was even more scathing when it came to the film industry and, in particular, film criticism, calling the latter—which she had previously done—in her 1973 essay Hollywood: Having Fun, “vaporous occupation”.

Apart from her style of writing, she was also noted for her style of dress. The Guardian, in what could be a fan-motivated homage, recently called her “a luminary of California cool”. It is doubtful that Ms Didion would describe herself that way or relate to that praise. And she would likely attribute her getting the job at Vogue to her writing, not her dress sense. It should be stated that the 5-foot-tall (about 1.5 metres) Ms Didion was an attractive young woman and it was possible that her appointment at Vogue had something to do with her looks. The magazine had a reputation of hiring mostly attractive lasses. But she must have had sartorial verve for her editors then to send her to watch women being photographed by—to name one—Robert Mapplethorpe. In fact, in one such session, an unidentified subject was so displeased with what she saw in the Polaroids that Ms Didion had to offer her what she had on. As she recalled for Esquire, “I lent the subject my own dress, and worked the rest of the sitting wrapped in my raincoat.” That had to be an agreeable outfit.

The dresses that she seemed to like were often long and loose. And sometimes, typical of the hippie era, floral-printed. She would wear them with flip flops, reflecting, perhaps, the Californian predilection for the unapologetically casual, as exemplified in the cover photo of her on Terry Newman’s 2017 book Legendary Authors and the Clothes they Wore. She had on a long-sleeved tee-dress; barely covering her thonged footwear. Her hair was slightly dishevelled; her left hand was holding what looked like a purse, and the forearm was folded across her waist; her right hand was on her left thigh, a cigarette barely noticeable between her thumb and index finger. These could possibly be one of the looks that inspired Phoebe Philo, who—during her time with Céline in 2015—had chosen Ms Didion, then 80, as the face of a Céline campaign. The New York Times would call the casting “prophetic”: Not long after, Saint Laurent, under Hedi Slimane’s watch, released their own ad with a geriatric beauty, the singer Joni Mitchell.

Joan Didion (right) with daughter Quintana Roo Dunne in a Gap ad from 1989. Photo: Gap

Céline’s image of Ms Didion was photographed by Juergen Teller. It showed her, from a somewhat top view, in a black dress that could have been from her own wardrobe. She wore a pair of oversized sunglasses that recalled what she used to wear in the ’60s/’70s and that obscured much of the top half of her face; the blackness of the shades contrasted with the paleness of her skin and underscored her thinning greyish hair. She also wore a necklace with an ember/copper-coloured pendant. Miss Didion told NYT that she “did not have any clue” to the chattering interests—online and off—with regards to her striking Céline appearance. Not everyone was that impressed. In her column ‘Ask Hadley’ for The Guardian, Hadley Freeman wrote, “It’s depressing to see your idol used to sell expensive clothes.” In fact, it is not known if Ms Didion herself wore expensive clothes, however iconic her looks were. Recently, The Cut opined, “Clearly, she had great taste and a point of view. But was it that special?”

In fact, the Céline modeling assignment was not Ms Didion’s first. Back in 1989, she was photographed by Annie Leibowitz for Gap’s ‘Individuals of Style’ campaign. She appeared with her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne (who died in 2005, just two months after her father John Gregory Dunne passed away). Both women were in USD19.50 black turtlenecks, with the mother sporting a barely visible chain. At the bottom of the image, the copy read: “Original. It’s how you twist the fundamental into something new.” That “Original” styling of Ms Didion would be reprised—not “twisted”—26 years later in the Céline ad. Many of her fans associate the writer with black turtleneck (or the mock sibling) tops, and she in them had transcended time. Even with grey hair, the look spoke of no zeitgeist. It was not that special.

“Style is character,” Joan Didion said in the1978 interview with The Paris Review. Although she was referring to writing, she could have been alluding to her own sartorial choices. Many women relate to Ms Didion’s famed itemised packing list, as described in The White Album. “This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily,” she wrote. “The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture.” Or, between Gap and Céline, either side of fashion.