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
Phoebe Philo has announced that her eponymous label will make its appearance in the eighth month of 2023
We now know that Phoebe Philo’s return is slated for September this year. Ms Philo announced just 12 hours ago on her Instagram page that the brand’s “inaugural collection will be revealed and available on our website… in September 2023.” This is indeed confirmation of a much awaited return. It is not, however, certain if this means that the label will be participating in the spring/summer 2024 show calendar or if the clothes—“available”—would be sold online through the Phoebe Philo website, which would indicate an autumn/winter 2023 first season. The IG message also tells us that “opening for registration” is in July. Is this for store buyers or consumers, we are unable to say for certain. There is little else by way of image to give us an idea of what the clothes would look like (would there be a men’s line?). At the end of the photo message on IG is the designer’s name, which could be in the label’s logotype. If so, Ms Philo could be joining the serif brigade, currently led by Burberry whose own logotype was recently redesigned under the watch of the brand’s new designer Daniel Lee.
It has been nearly four years since Phoebe Philo left Céline*, where she held the creative reigns for close to a decade. It is unlikely that her fans have stopped pining for her designs (#oldcéline is still active) despite good alternatives. In 2021, while the unpredictable pandemic raged on, it was announced that the world’s most powerful luxury conglomerate LVMH will back (“a minority stake”, reportedly) Ms Philo’s come back. A collective cry of delight was heard everywhere. According to Business of Fashion then, the namesake line would include clothing and accessories of “exceptional quality”. It is hard to imagine Phoebe Philo the label to be anything less. It was also thought that the line would launch last year, but 2022 came and left, and no news was heard of the launch, sparking speculation that her studio (she reportedly recruited two key members of the staff from Balenciaga) was not ready. Ms Philo, who has kept a very low profile (and whose new IG account contains only that one post), likely wanted to take her time to create something extraordinary. Many are expecting that. And until September may be just too long a time to wait.
*For this post, we’re keeping to the Phoebe Philo-era spelling of Céline
A week ago, the new Blackjack was unveiled. It’s now a free-standing store with their very own eponymous label. Will you bite?
Blackjack is back, as we announced two weeks ago. Once a multi-label store, they are now a single-brand boutique in The Shopping Gallery (voco Orchard) that is conceived to lure the Gen-Z—and younger—customer. That is unmistakable from the minute you come face to face with the all-glass façade of the next-to-the-escalator unit. Unlike the green-top table on which the casino banking game—which lent its name to this fashion label—is played, the interior is essentially in black and white, totally unlike the CC you know in your neighbourhood. It vaguely reminded us of Alexander Wang stores in China (interestingly, the one in The Shopping Gallery, opened in 2012, is now shuttered). And, also Tokyo’s #FFFFFFT and sibling #000T, stores offering white tees and black tees respectively. Blackjack is now a “luxury fashion label”, unabashedly with a street vibe.
The clothes are merchandised for those with a closetful of casual clothes and wish to keep it that way. Almost every piece in the debut “capsule”, described by the brand as “limited edition”, is for those occasions when dressy would elicit the respond, “going to a wedding?” Don’t get us wrong. The clothes could be suitable for an evening event, such as a night out at the bar or club with your close, clamorous friends, but beyond that, they lack the versatility that we imagine such a line would benefit from. There is a predominance of T-shirts and, unsurprisingly, hoodies, but they are not of the persuasion that might find you using them for sports or wearing to next month’s reunion dinner. (Curiously, every piece is for pre-order only.) Although we were told by the staff that the “clothes are unisex”, the store appears to be separated into two parts: for men and women. The crop tees and tanks are, as the staffer, said, picked up by women. They speak to us campus chic and will probably attract a pair of Havaianas or, if open toes are not preferred, Crocs—white, of course.
Despite being a store founded in the mid-’90s, Blackjack the label is not the jeans couture or the leisurewear in the form of Juicy Couture of the era. It has more in common with the athleisure of the present, moving along contemporaneously with the oversized aesthetics of Balenciaga (its fate, after the Christmas ad controversy, unknown). But unlike those brands that eagerly jumped on the bandwagon of the oversized T-shirts and the midriff-baring, Blackjack is rather design-centred. Considerable thought is paid to the fineness of the fabric choice (it felt like double-knit cotton jersey for the tees—truly nice hand feel), proportion of the garment (not ridiculously voluminous), logo placement (skewed!), and details/trims (even in the back). We rather like the truncated contrast binding in the rear hem of some of the T-shirts, but not the elastics with screaming logotype on the pants, shorts, and skirts—too Alexander Wang. regrettably.
It’s heartening that a physical, not just online, store is opened to encourage those who want to be acquainted with the brand to touch and properly feel the merchandise for themselves before committing to a purchase. This is especially vital when you consider that the clothes, being the output of a “luxury fashion label”, is not exactly cheap. The least expensive T-shirt is S$120 and a nylon tote is S$190. These prices are probably not alien to those already forking out astronomical sums for those by the likes of Gucci X Adidas. It can be confidently said that none in their target market would remember Blackjack of yore. This can be a totally new fashion name and few would know any better. The link to its past is, therefore, not quite decipherable. In the monochromatic space, faded photos of the first store at HPL House explain the brand’s origin. A pair of vintage Maharishi pants (apparently in collaboration with Blackjack then) is hung to the left of the entrance. Do tokens from the past lend credibility to a fledgling clothing brand of the present?
Blackjack is at voco Orchard. Photos: Chin Boh Kay
Two years after she was named the winner of the inaugural Singapore Stories competition, Carol Chen showed a small collection in Paris last March. She said, it was “40 years in the making”. A worthwhile wait? And for whom?
Carol Chen (right) with a model on the runway in Paris
There is a stark difference between “show(ing) during Paris Fashion Week” and presenting a collection as part of the PFW calendar, set by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM), or, as it is popularly referred to in English, the French Fashion Federation. Carol Chen (陈慧敏), the Taiwanese-American whose eponymous label is referred to as a “Singaporean brand”, was careful to describe her debut in Paris as the former. Last March, a month before our COVID restrictions were lifted, Ms Chen participated in a fashion show in the French capital that was part of her prize, promised to her by organiser of Singapore Stories 2020, the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF), that included a “retail collaboration with (the store) SocietyA”, as well as “one of the winning looks displayed in the contemporary gallery at Asian Civilisations Museum alongside renowned designers in #SGFashionNow”, and cash. In an Instagram entry before the presentation in The Westin Paris, she wrote that the “show is for Singapore, the country that made this opportunity possible and inspired me to design again”.
While that dedication might arouse pride among those waiting here for the next Andrew Gn to emerge, it was a tad misleading with regards to who organised the multi-label show or if TaFF was actively involved. Although Ms Chen and her segment were “sponsored” (or “supported”; she used the words interchangeably) by TaFF (the Federation had initially made clear—“airfare and accommodation not included”), she was in Paris as “Singapore’s representative for FD Paris fashion show during Paris Fashion Week 2021 (the presentation was postponed to this year due to the pandemic)”, as stated in the TaFF website. But what is the cryptic “FD” event that TaFF mentioned? After the competition, it became clear that FD is Fashion Division, a Jakarta-based organisation that is “the first International Fashion Career Center, redefining Fashion Learning by adapting French education system”, their website tells us. FD also organizes fashion shows (primarily) in Paris to coincide with PFW for designers of the region since 2019.
Carol Chen was the only Singapore-based brand at the FD fashion show, which primarily featured Indonesia labels selected and presented by Gerakan Ekonomi Kreatif Nasional (GEKRAFS) or National Creative Economy Movement of the archipelago to our south. It is not clear what the relationship is between GEKRAFS and TaFF, if any, or why there was a need to ride along with the Indonesians (including, curiously, the graduates of Bina Nusantara University, a private institution in greater Jakarta, as well as those from Lasalle and Ciputra, Surabaya). How the participation of Ms Chen, an American representing our nation, jibbed with GEKRAFS’s mission is not quite clear either. Further diminishing the SG presence, Ms Chen, who identifies as “hustler, designer, adventurer”, chose to work with Malaysian stylist Cho Wee Chee and New York jewellery designer Zameer Kassam (also the creator of her engagement ring). As it was at its inception, Singapore Stories were now told abroad through others, too. Could these be the individuals that Senior Minister of State Sim Ann, in describing the forces behind Singapore Stories, called “people who all care about the advancement of Singapore fashion”? The more caring non-natives?
After her win in 2020, Carol Chen told Vogue Singapore, whose publisher Bettina von Schlippe is often identified as Ms Chen’s “mentor”, in an editorial that she would launch her “first full collection during the most iconic week in fashion“. However full it was, only 10 looks were shown in Paris—one of them incomplete, or, as it appeared, missing a top. The model’s arms were sheathed to the biceps in opera gloves, but her body from the waist up was totally bare (save two strands of sparkly necklaces), so much so that she had to cup her breast during her entire saunter on the runway. The arms with the gloves that matched the waistband of the embroidered full skirt could be a substitute for a top (or bralet?). That is a presumption. But, Ms Chen could have forgotten to bring that garment since a bare torso was not a recurring theme. One other top (gowns dominated the show)—a wide band-as-boob-cover that strapped the arms to the body—had an unfortunate identity crisis: was it a bandage that failed as a bandeau?
The modestly-numbered autumn/winter 2022 collection, titled Florescence, was purportedly inspired by Gardens by the Bay, although it was hard to tell. In Ms Chen’s own words, it “depicts a futuristic world in bloom and the hope of a brighter future as the country (SG, of course) emerges from the pandemic to blossom again” (it is not immoderate to think that Ms Chen’s popularity at TaFF is attributed to her ability to gush with such propagandist gems). By “futuristic”, it could be assumed that she was referring to the metallic fabrics used, rather than any cutting-edge representation of clothing that might provide the viewer with a glimpse into the hereafter. The bi-coastal designer (the US is still home, and to which she also dedicated the show. It is, she wrote on IG, “the country that made [her] believe anything is possible”) is partial to visual tangles that correspond with Americans’ love for bigness. Colorado-born Ms Chen grew up in Texas, and spent time in Mississippi, too. All three southern states are not exactly known as fashion states. But, Ms Chen was certain to carry the US flag in Paris, offering what could be considered American-style prom fluff—gowns that tend to inch the viewer closer to cringe.
Ms Chen seemed to design with the aim of resigning the fate of her gowns to her store Covetella (“Singapore designer dress rentals”), which is, as stated on their website, “currently closed”—it is, in fact, shuttered in November 2020. If the show pieces did not generate buyer interest, she could easily put them out to renters, with or without a shop. According to a 2020 Business Times report, our island’s clothing rental/subscription business amounts to some “US$3.9 million (or about SGD5.3 million) a year”, and growing. Ms Chen is known to supplement her Covetella stocks with her own designs. In 2017, she told Forbes that “Covetella gives you the true ‘Cinderella’ experience”, presumably with the fairy godmother (Billy Porter’s Fab G?) rather than a generator of cinders. The name she chose is a conflation of covet, to have inordinate desire, and Ella, generally a woman’s name and also, perhaps intentionally, the English moniker of the latter-day telling of The Glass Slipper folk tale.
It is not imprecise to say that her own label similarly provides the fairy-godmother-spun, off-to-the-prince’s-ball fantasy: Gowns to twirl in, and attract the attention of whoever, if not the targeted suitor. A former beauty queen (‘Miss Scholastic Achievement’ at the Miss Asian American 2004 and Miss Chinatown USA in 2005, and Miss San Francisco in 2006), the 40-year-old is partial to pageant pomp—and frippery. As she often recounts to the media, it was during a trip back to Texas to visit her parents that her mother alerted the daughter to the stash of gowns (nearly 100, it has been said) that were kept: Mrs Chen wanted to get rid of them. Rather than discard her beloved dresses or relegate them to, say, Thrift Town in Austin, the fashion entrepreneur brought them back to gown-starved Singapore and Covetella was born. “A knack for the evening wear business”, as she proclaimed, no doubt aided the birth.
Although her winning the top prize of Singapore Stories may have suggested that Ms Chen was a design novice, she was, at that time, a born-again designer. In the mid-2000s, after graduating from Barnard College (Columbia University) in psychology and economics, she decided to realise a “childhood dream (she) had forgotten”: To be a fashion designer. So rather than embark on a summer business program at Stanford, where she was accepted, she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco (it is not known what she studied). She worked in fashion after leaving school, but found—somewhat belatedly—that the couture that she loved “isn’t very scalable”.
She then decided to start her own line: C.C. Couture, which, at its height in 2007, was, as she regaled BT in 2020, retailed through 300 doors. But that soon met with an end when the 2008/2009 economic downturn struck, a neat confluence of the bursting of the US housing bubble and the global financial crisis. (Interestingly, she did not abandoned the label. The alliterative name is now spelled out: Carol Chen Couture). C.C. Couture, as our friends in the US tell us, can still be found in discount stores. The economic gloom did not deter her. Keen to remain in the clothing industry, she went into partnership with a family friend from Texas to produce cheerleading uniforms in China. A former cheerleader herself, the business seemed sensible to go into, but the Texan soon found out that life in Donguan (东莞, an industrial city in Central Guangdong), where the factory was based and where she lived, was not one without its “challenges”.
There is a discernible linearity in Ms Chen’s professional fashion adventure, from pre-college to the present. Pageant and cheerleading fashions are for show, worn before an audience. They have to be conspicuous, if not ostentatious. She does not play down these qualities in her couture, possibly drawing from her own experience as a wearer (and collector) of such gowns. One of a kind is the best descriptor, and the kind, if not in the pageant context, falls between The Star Awards (红星大奖) and the bridal packages that can be found on Tanjong Pagar Road. Her finale gown (top) in Paris, with the puffed and elevated shoulders that were evocative of Viktor & Rolf’s recent haute couture, and swirls of fabrics sweeping the ground, has been described as “amazing”, a superlative frequently uttered in beauty contests, many a time euphemistically.
Ms Chen wrote on Instagram before her presentation, “To show at any of the Big Four Fashion Weeks would already be incredible, but to debut at (sic) Paris is something I never could have imagined.” Few of her 28.9K followers on IG would notice the possible implication of that statement. Ambiguity aside (and therein, possibly lies the problem), those unfamiliar with PFW proper may think that organisers Fashion Division was participating in the FHCM event. FD’s Paris office had to issue a memo (also shared on IG) that they were “*allowed* (asterisks included) to organise events during Paris Fashion Week, including mentioning it. (They) can’t, however, mention that (they) are part of the official schedule, but rather OFF (in full caps) schedule.” Whether that was a blow to the show’s prestige, or the participants’ pride, it is hard to conclude. It is understandable that Carol Chen was elated that her clothes enjoyed the rarefied air of Paris during PFW. The question that is more pertinent: Would she return? With Covetella now shuttered, perhaps. Or would she, like others before her, be a one-season pony?
BOF just revealed that Phoebe Philo will have her own eponymous, backed by LVMH. Some designers are just luckier than others
Following the most hyped-up haute couture season in recent memory, the news now trending is Phoebe Filo’s return to fashion. According to Business of Fashion in a report earlier today, Ms Filo will launch her own label with some backing from LVMH, who has “taken a minority stake in the new venture”. The English designer was reported to have said, “I have had a very constructive and creative working relationship with LVMH for many years. So, it is a natural progression for us to reconnect on this new project.” This would only be LVMH’s second new label they’ve backed after Rihanna’s Fenty, which was “paused” in February. But Ms Philo’s own brand is expected to do much better. And she is a trained designer, with an unerring eye for the splendidly spare yet immense cool. And her ability and allure were proven too. Her reboot of Céline* in the early ’00s gave LVMH an extremely profitable label in its stable of high-profile luxury brands, improving the brand’s annual profits from €200 million to €700 million, according to analysts at that time.
We do not yet know when the new collection will be launched or if the name-sake brand will be shown in Paris or in London, where Ms Philo had led Céline with full creative control of the French house, and where she will reportedly continue to be based. Her return to fashion is thought to be unsurprising, only that it has taken this long. Ms Philo was mostly away from the limelight as she enjoyed a three-year hiatus from designing while her protégé at Céline, Daniel Lee, went on to re-awake Bottega Veneta. During this time, she was rumoured to be up for the creative directorship of Chanel, even Alaïa. Nothing came out of those speculations. Although quiet throughout the three years’ absence, she was reported to have already built the Phoebe Philo Studio in London.
It was while studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design that she met Stella McCartney. After graduating in 1996, she joined Ms McCartney as design assistant when her friend succeeded Karl Lagerfeld as creative director of Chloé. In 2001, Ms McCartney launched her own label in a joint venture with the then Gucci Group (now part of Kering). Ms Philo was not asked to go along. Ralph Toledano, then Chloé’s CEO, reportedly played on the rift and installed her as Chloé’s new CD. She was then only 24, but she was able to prove the massive promotion worthy, and continued to augment the brand’s cool-French-girl aesthetic. She left Chloé in 2006 to look after her young children. It was at Céline, where she joined two years later, that her star truly shone, turning the LVMH-owned label into the conglomerate’s coolest, seriously desired by women who enjoy fashion, not trends; designs, not looks. When she left Céline in 2018, supporters were encouraging Ms Philo to start her own label.
That is now happening for her. Not, unfortunately, for other designers linked to Celine, but unable to enjoy the same fate. No one knows if Ms Philo will revive the feminine simplicity that endeared her to so many of her followers. Or the equivalent of those capacious coats that predates the ones currently the rage everywhere, or those roomy, high-waisted slacks with the legs that distends and swirls at the feet, or the Boston tote (way ahead of Dior’s significantly simpler Book), or the Birkenstocks with the fur-backed straps, but there is a strong feeling that, with her own house to better give shape to her ideas, Phoebe Philo’s taste would still captivate, and her return would be the one to watch, and eagerly embraced.
*To keep to the Phoebe Philo-era Celine, we have chose to spell the brand in the old way: Céline. Photo: #phoebefiloarchive/instagram