The Wreck Of The Beautiful

Has alternative, experimental, inclusive, diverse, or street dimmed and beclouded fashion as lovely to look at, even as art?

Publicity shot for #SGFASHIONNOW. Photo: Ethan Lai/Asian Civilisations Museum

Recently, in Tokyo, the pre-loved luxury goods retailer Komehyo opened a pop-up on the second floor of the multi-level department store Marui, in the Yurakucho neighbourhood, not far from the Hankyu Men’s Store. Called Start Komehyo, the well-appointed “concept shop” is targeted at a very specific demographic: Gen Z, a significant contributor to the growth of luxury fashion now. The pieces selected for sale commensurate with what Gen-Zers or zoomers—those born, according to the Pew Research Centre, between 1997 to 2012—like to buy and wear. These are mainly fashion items from the 1990s to the early 2000s, and include Japanese and European labels, and styles that could be considered to go with the “Y2K” trend, a sartorial run that Gen-Zers have not experienced. They reflect what the young with means are consuming and relate to. There is no such shop on our island.

But, from the latest #SGFASHIONNOW exhibition, now on at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), we may have an idea of what appeals to youngsters below 25, and what, to them, is considered fashionable clothing, including what constitutes a fashionable image. And, perhaps, more important, how they hope Singaporean fashion will evolve. If the above photograph represents Singaporean fashion or its future, could we be hopeful? This image shows the garments of the designers participating in the sophomore #SGFASHIONNOW that spotlights Singaporean designers. A line-up of models cast in poor lighting is perhaps no big deal in an aesthetical culture shaped by anything-goes social media, but could this image really be what current fashion on this island represents? Or is this, as noted in the e-book, Architectural Drape (companion to the exhibition), a “fresh take on local fashion design”? Perhaps, “a fresh take” could be a clever rephrasing—or even recasting—of fresh out of ideas?

Perhaps “a fresh take” could be a clever rephrasing—or even recasting—of fresh out of ideas?

The image is shot by photographer Ethan Lai, also, a street style lensman, a national serviceman (currently), a student of Central Saint Martins (it isn’t certain if he graduated), alumnus of Lasalle College of the Arts, and the student-curator of the second instalment of #SGFASHIONNOW, which was put together with the School of Fashion of Lasalle. Mr Lai is partial to flat lighting and feebly-lit faces to effect edginess or rawness, necessary or not, and his aesthetical choices have been imposed on the communication material (or “campaign”, as he called it on Instagram) of a museum associated with some of the finest Asian art and antiquities. The nine motley models that are shown were shot separately (some with shadows cast to the bottom half of the body, some without), digitally corrected, and transposed as a linear composition to a blank white space. One marketing consultant said, when we showed him this image, “it looks like they died and went to heaven.” We could see that what’s missing is Morgan Freeman as god in the distance.

The shoot did not benefit from the minimal or zero styling, although two photographer’s assistants are listed as “stylists”. One magazine and commercial stylist told us that he thought that “there is no styling” since “the hair doesn’t go with the makeup, which doesn’t go with the outfits. What has anything got to do with anything? The models look like they were just plonked there.” As they would be in a TikTok video? What stands out to us is how the clothes could not be seen clearly. For an image that speaks for an exhibition extolling Singaporean designs across generations, the focus, curiously, is not on the clothes. The Biro coat (second from right) was shot to show the bafflingly washed-out back, a rear that has no superlative design to speak of. The Thomas Wee shift (extreme left), with dramatically draped details in the back, was worn by the usually beautiful quadriplegic model Zoe Zora seated, front-facing, on a wheel chair. The campy layered, draped bustier of Harry Halim (front) on a model laid on the floor was completely consumed by some unknown entity intercepting the light. But perhaps, as with most G-Zers, fashion does not matter, the look does.

The photo shoot for #SGFASHIONNOW. Photographer Ethan Lai, second from right. Screen shot:

And what is the look? What does the creator of the image hope to convey? Daniela Monasterios-Tan, fashion lecturer at Lasalle and co-designer of the collective Mash-Up, shared on Architectural Drapes that “as part of the execution of #SGFASHIONNOW, Lai also conceptualised a photo-shoot highlighting the way that the fashion image contributes to the dissemination of a vocabulary of fashion.” She does not explain what that vocabulary might be, except, perhaps, in Mr Lai’s choice of using a disabled model, trangenders, and the not traditionally beautiful from the smaller agencies MiscManagement and Platinum Models, the catchwords diverse and inclusive. But what is the creative buzz? Take aware the requisite wokeness, what is the artistic value? In so questioning, do we risk discrediting and discriminating? And what does it mean to show models wearing on their faces some version of glum?

In a recent video interview with Female magazine, Mr Lai said that, to him, “Singaporean contemporary fashion means garments that kind of reflect our current climate and culture. It is diverse (!) and has different modes and practices, not just about making clothes for people to wear and consume, but it’s more about the designers their narratives through the clothes.” All the requisite buzzwords are in there, but in that photograph for #SGFASHIONNOW, is the “narrative” evident? What does it really say? Has it upended the belief that Gen-Zers are self-important, apathetic, hack-loving, creatively shallow, and averse to the conventional? Perhaps Mr Lai, whose work has appeared in Men’s Folio and Vogue Singapore, is truly just showing us the preference and standing of his generation. But will it consolidate our position as a city of fashion?

Has it upended the belief that Gen-Zers are self-important, apathetic, hack-loving, creatively shallow, and averse to the conventional?

Gen-Z life is highly documented online, with text and photographs. The zoomers are not acquainted with a time when there was no Internet and when their existence was not expressed digitally. For considerable many, they largely communicate creativity to merely look good in the virtual world (or an e-book), rather than output creativity born from solid grounding or scholarship. They mostly race to fame (or infamy) as quickly as they could, and they are able to do so as the Internet is the ultimate springboard to visibility and likes—the more one scores, the higher the validation that one is good. It is not necessarily based on the tangible or the discernible. Fashion photography is not the result of the imagination, but what is perceived to be a reflection of the current. Perception that something is fashion because it is based on their own experiences, and shared online and is liked is good enough to be considered credible.

In the end, is the visual presentation of the Architecture of Drape—to use a street style term—GOAT (greatest of all time)? Or is it just good enough for a fleeting moment? It is hard to mention the shortcomings of criticism-averse Gen-Zers without being attacked, as public relations professional Tjin Lee of Mercury Marketing & Communications and a judge on the selection panel for #SGFASHIONNOW recently found out. We are well aware of being deemed “too critical” in our reviews of trends, shows and, indeed, exhibitions; for speaking the truth few want to hear if it is not flattering. But, as ACM curator Dominic Low wrote in Architectural Drape, the exhibition, not “a comprehensive survey but a snapshot”, should be “an invitation to discussion and alternative perspectives.” Looking at this one snapshot, we except the invitation.

Through His Eyes

Orbituary | He shot many photographs for magazine covers of the ’80s and ’90s. But later he was shot down with allegations of shocking sexual misconduct, tainting a legacy that included the “iconic” photographs of Princess Diana for British Vogue

Patrick Demarchelier photographed for Vogue in 2010 by his son Victor Demarchelier

Considered one of the greatest fashion photographers of his generation, Frenchman Patrick Demarchelier has died. It was reported that Mr Demarchelier passed away on March 31, on the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy (popularly known as St. Barths), where he was known to have a house and where he conducted some of his beloved shoots. The cause of death was not officially announced but WWD, quoting a friend who asked not to be named, reported that it is cancer. News of his passing “rocked” the fashion world and was met with eager tributes on social media. Mr Demarchelier is survived by his wife Mia, his three sons, Gustaf, Arthur, Victor, and three grandchildren. He was 78.

Although born “near Paris” (according to most biographies—no exact location is known), Mr Demarchelier grew up in Le Havre, in the Normandy region of northwestern France with his mother and four brothers. Almost nothing is known about his dad, but his stepfather was instrumental in piquing the young man’s interest in photography. When he was 17, his stepfather gifted him with an Eastman Kodak camera, which led him to discover and learn film development and the retouching of negatives. He soon started photographing his friends, which led to work shooting weddings—like many lensmen—and, according to Vogue, passport photos. He would proudly declare that he was self-taught and that a career with a camera was never planned: “It came to me”.

Madonna photographed by Patrick Demarchelier in 1989. Photo: Vogue

At the age of 20, he moved to Paris and found work with the Swiss photographer Hans Feurer, who shot for Vogue, in 1983, lensed a Kenzo campaign featuring Iman. Mr Demarchelier remained in Paris for 12 years. In 1975, he moved to New York, reportedly to follow an unnamed girlfriend. It was in New York where he discovered fashion photography and was, in turn, discovered. Vogue covers soon followed, including one, in 1989, with Madonna, swimsuit clad, sitting in a pool looking rather unthreateningly Like a Virgin. But it was Mr Demarchelier’s work with Harper’s Bazaar that kick-started what was dubbed “the bidding war” of the early ’90s among magazines desperate to secure the best photographers.

Back in 1992, the late editor Liz Tilberis was lured across the pond from British Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar. She had worked regularly with Mr Demarchelier before. According to Alexandra Shulman in her book Inside Vogue, the photographer “decamped… to Harper’s Bazaar for a big contract” (Mr Demarchelier told WWD back then that the pay was very good). That meant Mr Demarchelier would shoot for no other fashion magazine. Until then, it was not known that photographers were offered contracts. Most worked on a part-time basis, and if any of them was favoured, could become the “featured” photographer, such as Irving Penn at Vogue, under the creative head, the Russian-born artist Alexander Liberman.

Linda Evangelista in 1992, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier for Harper’s Bazaar. Photo: Harper’s Bazaar

Ms Tilberis’s appointment at Harper’s Bazaar ushered in an era of rivalry among British editors at American magazines, specifically Anna Wintour at Vogue. When she took up her post in the US in January of 1992, Ms Tilberis had assembled a formidable team, including the French art director Fabien Baron (who was much admired for his work at Italian Vogue) as the creative director and the famed New York publicist Paul Cavaco as fashion director. Mr Demarchelier’s coming onboard meant New York publishing was seeing a powerful trinity. And the photographer’s “contract” meant that he would not be welcomed at Vogue, especially since Ms Wintour was said to have had issued a warning to her regular team of contributors: Work for Harper’s Bazaar, and be banned from all Condé Nast titles, not just in the US, but worldwide. In her autobiography, No Time to Die, Ms Tilberis wrote, “Patrick had the whole thing planned: I should hire Fabien Baron.” She also quoted Mr Demarchelier saying, “If you get Fabien, I’ll think of coming with you.”

The move was not only a risky one for the photographer, it changed the course of Harper’s Bazaar’s re-launch trajectory. His debut cover for the magazine’s 1992 September issue was so different, spare, and striking, it would still be talked about today. Linda Evangelista, at the height of her career, had her hand up, her palm a gentle cup, and placed on the page to appear to knock off one of the ‘A’s of the masthead, a clever design touch by Mr Baron. But outside fashion, it was Mr Demarchelier’s portraits of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, that raised his public profile beyond what even the photographer himself could imagine. Princess Diana had admired his work, so much so that, in 1989, she reportedly called him personally to commissioned him to photograph her and sons, William and Harry. He became the first non-British official photographer for the British royal family.

With Princess Diana in 1991. Photo: Patrick Demarchelier

In time, his images of Princess Diana would be known as his “best”, even if only because he shot the most famous woman in the world then. Those snapshots, keenly seen and admired around the world, and described by Ms Tilberis, then editor-in-chief of British Vogue, as “eternally famous”, also paved the path of an unlikely friendship between the princess and the photographer. As the popular telling went: In 1989, the princess saw a copy of British Vogue when she came upon a shot of a model and a child, and liked it. Liz Tilberis provided more details in No Time to Die: “I wrote to her asking whether she’d consider being photographed with her sons and sent the letter over to Kensington Palace with the portfolios of three photographers.” The princess chose Mr Demarchelier because of the cover picture for British Vogue, on which the child was, in fact, his son. That first shoot, with mother and brood “frolicking in the hay barn” did not make the cover of the magazine as intended.

In a second session, Princess Di—still in a playful mood, but now wearing a tiara and a gown with a beaded bodice—was photographed “on the floor laughing with her head thrown back, the folds of the gown pooling around her”. Still, the photos from this sitting were not deemed by Buckingham Palace to be cover material enough (but one with a smile would be the most loved to this day). Instead and surprisingly, the far more informal photo of the princess—in a simple turtleneck, with chin resting on her right hand atop the left—that Mr Demarchelier captured graced the cover of the Christmas 1991 issue of British Vogue. The publicity that went with that was immense, to say the least. By now, Patrick Demarchelier was a huge name. He would continue to be Princess Diana’s portraitist until her death in 1997. In 2007, Mr Demarchelier was named an Officer of the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French government. In the following year, he was awarded the prestigious Lucie Award for achievements in fashion photography.

The Boston Globe article of 2018 that exposed sexual abuses experienced by models. Screen grab: The Boston Globe

Warning: objectionable language ahead

Those who had still not heard of his name despite his having photographed the most famous woman in the world would become acquainted with him through the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, when Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) demanded, “Get me Demarchelier!” and the quick reply from the more competent of her two assistants: “I’ve got Patrick!” But a damning 2018 report by the Massachusetts daily, The Boston Globe, quickly brought him down from his “superstar status”. In an editorial entitled “Modeling’s glamour hides web of abuse”, the paper quoted models accusing “at least 25 photographers, agents, stylists, casting directors, and other industry professionals” of sexual misconduct, even assault. Mr Demarchelier was among the men accused and one that The Cut called “the biggest bombshell on the list”. According to the Bostonian paper that first broke the news, he had “long preyed on young women”. One of his former assistants purportedly even wrote to Anna Wintour about his “relentless advances… beginning when she was a 19-year-old intern“. Other women spoke of “unwanted sexual advances, including thrusting a model’s hands onto her genitals and grabbing another model’s breasts”. With one teenaged model, Mr Demarchelier—offering to make her famous—allegedly asked her, “Can I lick your pussy?”

Unsurprisingly, he denied the accusations, telling The Boston Globe, “People lie and they tell stories. It’s ridiculous.” But these stories did not arouse enough ridicule for industry heavyweights to ignore the charges. By then, Mr Demarchelier was no longer contracted to Harper’s Bazaar. He was shooting for Vogue again, and other titles. In February 2018, Condé Nast issued a statement: “We have informed Patrick we will not be working with him for the foreseeable future”, four months after the company came up with a “Code of Conduct” in response to sexual misconduct levelled at another photographer, the American lensman Terry Richardson, with an accompanying message, “There are no excuses for this type of behavior; it is completely unacceptable“. Patrick Demarchelier, that “bear of a man”, as it turned out, was barely bearable to many models. It is regrettable that a photographer, who rose to the top with his unerring eye for the supremely elegant, would also go down with his vile penchant for the despicably indecent.

Two Of A Kind: Fred Vs Juergen

Who does it better?

Left: Fred with Tyres (1984) by Herb Ritts. Photo: Herb Ritts Foundation. Right: Juergen with Tyres (2021) by Juergen Teller for Loewe. Photo: Loewe

Juergen Teller is considered a fine-art photographer, in addition to the work he does for fashion, but sometimes one wonders if his output, often described as “unfiltered” and predates TikTok, is destined for that social media. In his latest shoot for Loewe’s spring/summer 2022 collection, Mr Teller places six shots of near-naked him—some in provocative poses—in the brand’s lookbook. One that stood out is he standing with legs shoulder-width apart, holding a tyre in each hand. So that you won’t mistake him for a desperate auto-mechanic, a camera is worn round his neck. He is bare-footed even when the seamless paper backdrop on which he stands has the marks of footwear trampling all of it. Not digitally making it pristine is possibly deliberate—perhaps to better project the blue-collar sex bomb that the subject thinks he is. Still, the studio set up is no match in tyre-yard tip that is seen in the Loewe photographs.

But what struck us immediately as familiar is the pose and the prop. Back in 1984, a photo of a muscular guy similarly holding tires (but with more clothes on) appeared in the Italian magazine Per Lui. It was shot by the American photographer Herb Ritts, and is often considered one of the great images of the 20th century that changed fashion photography forever. The monochromatic photo would come to be known as Fred with Tires. According to Mr Ritts, the commissioning editor Franca Sozzani (when she was with Lei and brother title Per Lui, before heading Vogue Italia) had sent some “hideous rain coats” for the shoot. He “hated” them. With the British stylist Michael Roberts (also photographer and illustrator), they picked jeans and overalls as replacement. The model who posed in full muscular glory was a UCLA undergrad, named Fred Harding. Not much is known about the guy or what happened to him after that.

Franca Sozzani reportedly did not like the photo, but ran it in the magazine anyway

The photo became a massive hit after appearing in the Per Lui spread, not inaccurately titled The Boys of The Body Shop. The compositional effect of that rule-breaking shot is a salute to ancient Greek sculptures and, at the same time, is evocative of the auto-garages and their macho mechanics of the US. The aesthetic is, therefore rather American too, one that is another planet from the glamour of the popular TV series of the time, Dynasty. Ms Sozzani reportedly did not like the photo, but ran it in the magazine anyway. And this was a year before the unprecedented 120-consecutive-page spread for the Per Lui issue called USA by Bruce Weber!

Mr Teller’s photo, in its tell-it-like-it-is naturalism, is the total contrast to Mr Ritts’s formal aestheticism and sexy athleticism. In the body-inclusive world that we presently live in, it is ill-advised to say that the self-shots of Mr Teller, spared grooming, do not appeal to one sense of beauty, which now must be all-encompassing, including the setting in which the subject places himself. In Fred with Tires, Herb Ritts was, by his own account, not availed the best conditions for the shoot, yet he was able to turn those circumstances that should not be so noteworthy into an image that is unforgettable. Rare, indeed, is the photographer who can, through a commercial shoot, immortalise he who was just a college kid, insouciantly coming in for a paid editorial.

Photo illustration: Just So