The Met Looks At Its Front Yard

“American fashion” takes centrestage at this year’s Met Gala. Really

“Irony is over, oxymoron is next,” one marketing consultant said, when he heard the news. This year’s Met Gala and the attendant exhibition, to be held in September rather than the usual May (last year’s was cancelled), will be in salute of American fashion, according to Vogue. “Homegrown fashion”, as the organisers describe it, could possibly straighten the crumple post-Trump America is still wearing. This year’s event will be a two-parter (second to open in May 2022), and possibly larger than other previous ones. Could this be self-validation after a lame New York Fashion Week in February, amid a gloomy climate for American brands across all price points? Or is this a challenge to the believe that in the US, formulaic dressing and uniform-as-style can be replaced by fine examples of superlative design?

American fashion, two ends of the market and between, seems unable to capture our imagination for the past five years. Or even more. Storied names as Calvin Klein and mass appeal labels as Gap are fading in power, diminishing in influence, and declining in reach. More than ever America’s own needs an affirming boost. The mother telling her child, you are the best. In addition, the Met’s Costume Institute needs to WFA—work from America, now that borders are still not fully opened to facilitate any homage to designers of distant lands. Outside the US, its global standing, as a 13-nation Pew Research Center survey from last year illustrated, has “plummeted”—“majorities have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. in nearly every country surveyed”. Now is the time to look homeward and champion America.

Who truly represents American fashion? Tom Ford? Alexander Wang? Gosh, Kanye West, the “fashion mogul”? And pal Virgil Abloh? Or flag bearers Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors? Or, the retired Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Todd Oldham, Izaac Mizrahi? Or, to be inclusive, Carolina Herrara, Vera Wang, Phillip Lim, the Olsen twins, Lazaro Hernandez (the other half of Proenza Schouler), Dapper Dan, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Telfar Clemens? Or, to salute the pop world, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Selena Gomez, Sean Combs, Pharrell Williams? Or, to acknowledge the immigrants, Oleg Cassini, Rudi Gernreich, Fernando Sánchez, Adrienne Vittadini, Ronaldus Shamask, Naeem Khan? Or, to include the dead, Claire McCardell, Lilly Pulitzer, Bonnie Cashin, Mary McFadden, Anne Klein, Halston, Zoran, James Galanos, Perry Ellis, Oscar de la Renta, L’Wren Scott? Or, to take note of the Americans abroad, Mainbocher, Vicky Tiel, Patrick Kelly, Yoon Ahn, Daniel Roseberry? Or, to mark the (now) less-known, Stephen Burrows, Geoffrey B Small, Reed Krakoff, Rhuigi Villaseñor? Or, to rave about the he-who-can-be-anyone, Marc Jacobs?

You get the picture.

Illustration: Just So

From Manly To Preggy

For some reason, Chinatown can’t seem to lure an attractive moon goddess

By Mao Shan Wang

Last year, if you remember, Chinatown’s Mid-Autumn Festival celebration was visited by a shockingly masculine Chang’e (嫦娥). Unfathomable but true. I was thinking, perhaps the lunar immortal could not make the journey. The moon is, after all, 386,400 or so kilometers away. Was it possible that her husband Hou Yi (后羿) took her place instead? After all, it was a paid job. She could not have stood up the organiser, Chinatown Festival Committee. By hook or by crook, Chang’e had to be there, even in drag. But the people were disappointed. So un-goddess-like she was and so unappealing that a change was eventually put in place, but that jock-in-a-dress version stuck in my head.

However, not all lessons are to be learnt. The patroness of the Mid-Autumn Festival this year is, shall I say, also a less traditional moon goddess. Chang’e 2020 looks to be, er, pregnant. Now, lest I’m mistaken, there’s nothing wrong with an expectant goddess (in the Chinese pantheon, producing a good brood is not an alien concept), but I am not sure if it’s good for her to appear here, in Chinatown, with the suggestion that she has an active sex life with that archer husband of hers. Perhaps, she is merely reflecting what was written on one of the oblong lanterns nearby: 月圆人圆 (yue yuan ren yuan, moon round people round)! To be fair, if you view this Chang’e from the side, it appears that she is seated. But, to paraphrase the Big Bad Wolf, what big knees you have! Either that, or the poor goddess is suffering from elephantiasis!

The two Chang’es: from 2019 (left) and this year’s. Photos: (left) file and (right) Zhao Xiangji

I think this year, the real Chang’e is unable to be here—again—as she is possibly WFH (or should that be WFM—working from moon?). Inexplicably, it didn’t dawn on the Chinatown Festival Committee to install a video screen at the junction of Eu Tong Sen Street/New Bridge Road and Upper Cross Street so that Chang’e could Zoom with the pedestrians, on the way to buying mooncakes. Instead, they installed what could be considered a personal maid (tieshen yahuan 贴身丫鬟) of a mistress (zhuzi 主子)—not likely to be Chang’e since her only companion on the moon is a rabbit. The substitute (or, to be topical, fake) moon goddess is, to be sure, attired like a domestic assistant, even too poor to afford proper maternity clothes (I’ll stick to the front view) and sadly still working when a baby is on the way. And the hair! Chang’e is known for her gorgeous hair, affixed with dazzling hair ornaments. Or, at least that is how she was depicted in ancient art. Our Chinatown imposter does not even have one hair pin (fazan 发簪)!

I have to admit that my idea of beauty is informed by my early, pre-pubescent acquaintances with Bessie and Fanny (The Enchanted Forest) and Nancy Drew (of her own eponymous series). But that does not mean I didn’t later learn about ancient Chinese beauties. I know they don’t look like the two Chinatown delineations. Before stealing the elixir of immortality from her husband, drinking it, and flying to the moon, Chang’e was an earthly beauty that was renowned throughout China. She was known to have skin the colour (and smoothness?) of milk, hair as black as night, and lips as pink as cherry blossoms. In art (and mooncake packaging, on which we now mostly see her depiction), we take in a regal woman in elegant, flowing robes. At this time, Chinatown, as The Straits Times wrote, is “aglow”, but, sadly, there is nothing glowing about this year’s dumpy Chang’e.

Gucci Made An Announcement On Instagram

And it’s 18-posts long!

Gucci IG posts 23 May

Seriously?

It took Gucci 18 IG squares to announce that from now, the brand will show two collections a year. But you may not immediately see that in what was posted. Concise, it’s been said, is the way to go on IG, but Gucci, which earned parent company Kering US$10.7 billion of the latter’s $17.5 billion in revenue for 2019, has chosen to move with the opposite. The singular message comprises 6 textual posts each in English and Italian, separated by an illustration of a winged heart-shape with a single eye, captioned with “Notes from the Silence”. It is hard enough to read just one. To do all six requires some vestige of fortitude. Social entries these are not; pompous prose they are.

We love to read and we have no objection to lengths, but Gucci’s journal-like entries were a sharp contrast to prevalent social media communication: they were ponderous. And, frankly, pretentious. And they were made more unreadable by a font that seemed to be the effect of a faulty typewriter type head. Each post is titled, and what headers! Example: “The Sacred Power of Producing Reverberations”. How’s that for a stumper? Or are we missing something audio, something aural? As it turned out, “here comes the desire to baptise our new encounters by naming them after a language that has marvelously ancient roots: classical music language”.

Since it was written in the first person, we assumed the writer to be Alessandro Michele (there’s a signature at every end, but we are not sure it belongs to the designer). Each post is not only dated, the place where it was written identified—unsurprisingly it is Rome. Which led us to suspect that the verbose posts were penned in Italian and then translated by an overzealous PR appointee. To better reflect the superfluous that determines Mr Michele’s Gucci?

Reworking the fashion calendar is what many brands are now doing, or considering. Mr Michele proposed with a baroque flourish: “I will abandon the worn-out ritual of seasonalities and shows to regain a new cadence, closer to my expressive call,” he wrote. “And beyond, I would like to leave behind the paraphernalia of leitmotifs that colonized our prior worlds… I believe that we can build our tomorrow also starting from a renewed capacity of denomination… It’s a foundational act, audacious but necessary, that aims at building a new creative universe. A universe that essentialises itself in the subtraction of events and that oxygenates through the multiplication of senses…”

Yes—what was that?!

Photo: Gucci/Instagram

Home Of Nowhere

We’re told to work from home and to stay at home, but the restriction to domestic boundaries don’t seem to suit that many people. No reason to get dressed nicely, perhaps?

 

Stay @ home illus Mar 2020 SOTD

By Gordon Goh

I am staying home. I am listening to music played on my Rega, with Barbara Streisand (who not long ago praised the PM on Twitter for acing the Fareed Zakaria interview on CNN’s GPS show), singing the directed-at-Trump Don’t Lie to Me; reading the books that have been stacking up—higher and higher—by the side of my desk and bed; and laundering clothes I have not worn in the past two years to keep them fresh. Outside is no lure, not when so many, contrary to what we’ve been told, continue to go about their daily lives in groups and in close proximity—contiguous with you, without a care in the world. Social distancing should really be called by the less euphemistic safe distancing or better still, as CNN’s Sanjay Gupta suggested, “physical distancing”. Or, as one middle-aged fellow was heard telling a fellow shopper at Sheng Siong, “Stay away from me!” Say it like what it must be. The world is full of barmpots.

The COVID-19 pandemic really opened my eyes to what we are like as a people. Humanity is on full show—well-dressed or not, it’s warts and all in public view. You still meet people who take things so lightly, it’s as if the Year of the Rat has not already arrived, and they can go about as they well please. Manners, thoughtfulness, and prudence are used up as quickly as toilet paper. No matter how frequently Gurmit Singh-as-Phua Chu Kang bleat-pleads on telly, how loudly he squawk-sings for all to do otherwise, the reality on the ground is quite the opposite of what the higher-ups would have us believe.

The order now is for us to remain indoors, within the confines of what we call home. But I’ve heard people say it’s “inconvenient” to stay in one’s own residence. Why are people so uncomfortable in their own domesticity? Are their resistance to life circumscribed by the four walls of home the same as that of students who hog tables in cafés to do their school work because home is inexpedient to study? Even with the drip-feed of doomsday-like news daily, many cannot find their home a secure refuge, preferring instead to gather in groups outside to better serve as a mobile Petri dish. Way before any daunting amount of time is spent indoors, some are already saying how enervating it has been. Only Netflix, it seems, is the tonic to revive stay-at-home fatigue. How many e-mags are now recommending “The Best Shows to Watch on Netflix While You’re Social Distancing and Staying Home”?

Stay @ home illus V4 SOTD

It’s all rather curious if you consider that we have not been given the order for an actual lockdown, nor what our northern neighbour has in place—the Movement Control Order (MCO). Yet, lassitude has already set in. Many people are so fearful that shopping and browsing shall be no more and they would be so lacking in the essentials of life that they started thronging (and ending up queuing sans any sense of social distancing) stores that will close for the rest of the month, such as Swedish meatball giant Ikea. Or were they out to buy those items that will, as the mega-retailer urges, “Make Home Count”? Because, until now, it has not? It is mind boggling what home is like for most people. We don’t know how lacking our dwellings are (or how insufficiently stocked with toilet rolls) until a virus of unimaginable virulence strikes.

In places already with strict stay-at-home orders, some experts think that, as a result of the reluctance to abide with oneself or family, “anxiety is rampant”. I am starting to see and hear phrases I rarely encountered pre-COVID-19: cabin fever, which I thought was a condition confined to Pulau Ubin; prison pallor, which I thought was limited to the penitentiary in Changi; and stir crazy, which I thought was restricted to coffee cups at Yakun (although some of you may remember it as a 1980 Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comedy). A confining existence is punishing, just as it could be when one is marooned on an island, as Tom Hanks has shown in Castaway. Outside is the circulation of the temptation of entertainment, gastronomy, and the material, as well as a novel and not completely understood virus that is getting more pervasive. News constantly feeding into our mobile devices amplify both. How, then, do people reconcile the two, equally unnerving in scale? I really don’t know.

You’d think that since so many people are distancing themselves socially or working from home, the situation could become a social leveller of sort. Or what the media has been calling, the “great equaliser”. Yet, public behaviour hitherto witnessed shows that some people are more equal than you and I. Selfishness, to name one enduring—not, to be certain, endearing—trait, has become the un-equaliser. You want the over-packaged and overpriced beverages of Chi Cha San Chen (吃茶三千), you join a body-to-body queue, never mind that some of us are trying to get past this obstacle to the supermarket for next week’s sustenance. You bring your entire family out for a meal because soon dining in won’t be an option, never mind if the five of you mean more people would have to wait to enter a mall that already maxed out the allowable capacity. You go to the food court for lunch with your colleagues, and as you came in a group, “it is ridiculous” to sit a metre apart, even if an assemblage engaged in the aerosolising acts of slurping noodles and laughing hysterically is enhanced threat to the sole, socially-distanced diner.

Stay @ home illus 2 SOTD

Staying home, for some reason, makes people hungrier and, especially, thirstier than they would normally be when out and about with remunerated work. Cafés are busier than usual (one CBTL manager told me with amazement that their branch had yet to see a decline in business. In fact, sales until last weekend, have been above average, so much so that her bosses were baffled) and bubble tea stalls are still attracting unbelievably long lines (not taking into account orders received via Grab Food and similar services). Caffeinated drinks, it appears, are the affordable panacea to the dreaded anxiety that comes with staying at home. And the perfect excuse to leave one’s abode to get an essential

Going round and round (not quite appropriate to use that ‘V’ word these days) is the online demo of the ridiculous dalgona affogato—instant coffee granules whipped with water and sugar until mouse-like, and served on top of milk. People do have too much time on their hands, and instant coffee and sugar (which is necessary in unhealthy amounts for the coffee to foam up). Instagrammable coffee aside, the “quickest and easiest cakes to make” are also widely shared for those partial to “isolation baking”, with eater.com proudly promoting “Quarantine Baking in Times of Crisis”, which, frankly, sounds to me like a relief inmates at certain facilities might appreciate. It isn’t surprising then that the popular—and, consequently, clichéd—memes are built around Marie Antoinette’s leading-to-death, alleged quip, “let them eat cake” (more accurate and historical would be “let them eat brioche”) should emerge and spread.

Food, as always, can keep people busy or, better still, indoors. Even Unicef is offering “easy, affordable and healthy eating tips during the coronavirus outbreak”. If so many people are “sad” (as reported on CNA) that they can’t go drinking and partying with their friends now that bars and entertainment spots have been ordered to close, maybe they can “enjoy virtual happy hours” that some establishments in Hong Kong are reportedly asking those now-not-visiting patrons to do. Seriously! Might the devastated Boat Quay or Clarke Quay bars consider that one? Or would that encourage friends to gather at a chosen home to the blight of social-distancing measures and, for certain, the chagrin of the the Multi-Ministry Taskforce on COVID-19? Drinking and partying is probably still rife. Last Saturday, at the checkout of a Fairprice near my flat, a millennial couple in the adjacent line was paying for largely canned food and drinks. What struck me most were the four 12-can cartons of Carlsberg in their loot. When the receipt was handed to one of them, I spied a total spending of S$56 on beer alone. Since there is no purchase limit on alcoholic beverage, the two youngsters happily avoided restraint, but what were they going to do with that many cans of beer? Panic buy or party mood, I could not tell.

Stay @ home illus V3 SOTD

The thing about staying at home, even to work, is to not bother with what one wears. A ragged T-shirt is as good as any office-worthy shirt or client-ready dress. On the MRT train a week ago, I heard, even with a good two metres between us, a makeup-free woman tell her Felicia Chin-looking friend that the joy of working from home is that she does “not need to do” her face. She explained, “I wake up in the morning—late, usually; brush my teeth after breakfast; and that is it. I don’t wash my face till before I go to bed. So senang,” Such ease that saves on grooming is probably more welcome than we think. Yet, people are urged to dress nicely for teleconferencing or even writing a report without the semblance of a shadow of a colleague nearby, which naturally becomes divisive among both the established remote workers and the newly inducted. People can wear whatever they want, was the strident mantra. What really got Netizens in this region into a tizzy was the news report that in Malaysia last week, the Women and Family Ministry published an online advisory, counselling MCO-affected women, in particular “wives and mothers working from home” to “groom as usual”, including wearing make-up. That was not the end of the recommendation. If conversation is to be conducted at home, women should “talk like Doraemon”!

As long as looking spiffy is de rigueur, many brands are hopeful that long-time home-stayers would want to buy new clothes or even home-appropriate togs that have been, for years, sold as ‘loungewear’. Surely, marketing departments must have been working overtime to come up with ideas to tempt this novel consumer group. One of the earliest on the spin wagon is British knitwear label Sunspel. Their online curation is an “Edit for Working from Home”. Uniqlo, a purveyor of pyjamas-nice-enough-to-wear-out, through Facebook, persuaded followers to “relax in comfort at home, with our wide-ranging loungewear options.” And timely, too, “the first-ever launch of Airism bedding goods in Southeast Asia”, welcome news for those whose idea of staying at home is staying in bed. Even The Guardian is into it, instructing readers on “How to Build a Loungewear Collection”. Singapore’s go-to indie store, Surrender, sent out e-mails telling its customers that, at 30% off, it was “the last chance to get your stay-home-fits”. Getting a fit or not (likely, if staying at home is loathsome), another new phrase to remember.

While browsing CNN news feed a few days back, a video-ad from a brand I have never heard of suddenly appeared. Malaysian label Thousand Miles touting their Omniflex All Day Shorts, as it were. “These are designed to withstand the toughest obstacle course imaginable—the feeling like you’re sitting on a cloud at home with a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon.” Huh? Okay, despite the scene-setting, the pitch many not be convincing, so the promoter went on: “These shorts dry five times quicker, and three times more stretcher (sic) than your average pair of shorts, made possible by our proprietary bi-component material, designed to be fifty percent more breathable.” The affable guy concluded, “So these pairs right here are our love child.” Well, at least some people are productive!

Stay safe. Don’t let anyone tell you the end is nigh. I believe we will prevail.

Photo illustrations: Jim Sim

Fashion In The Time Of Coronavirus

Now, we’re really all dressed up, with nowhere to go. And all the dresses out there, with so few to buy

 

20-03-13-17-38-23-503_decoWith the nearby casino traffic affected, the usually busy-even-in-the-weekday Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands is eerily quiet on a Friday afternoon

By Mao Shan Wang

The activation of DORSON Orange on the 7th of February, more than a month ago, have put a damper (limited?) on many people’s social life, as well as on the fashion retail front. But despite the gloomy news all around, what’s arrived at stores still need to be communicated and made known to those whose job or inclination is to share such information. I continue to receive communiqué from various brands or attendant PR agencies. While this is positive indication that work is uninterrupted (and a good thing), how some communicate, even behind the security of a PC monitor, makes me wonder if the COVID-19 pandemic is really affecting us in a way that should have tempered our salutary vigour.

“Hope you are doing amazing!” came the opening sentence of one e-mail I received recently, with the tall, unmissable exclamation, to be clear, the sender’s. Amazing is when people, despite the potential peril of the present, go about their lives bravely and quietly, without succumbing to panic and without inflicting inconvenience or threat, or harm onto others. Watching the news and learning about the lock down of, not an entire city or an entire province, but a whole country, or worrying that even just going to work may mean coming home with an unwelcome guest that would be detrimental to the health of my aged parents, is not. I am, regretfully, far from “doing amazing”.

If we’re discouraged to shake hands, even air-kiss, it is odd that we’re digitally communicating as if we’re giving the equivalent of a BFF hug. The plasticky exchanges and suspect chumminess the fashion industry has a weakness for seem unable to be toned down in their enthusiasm, even during sombre, health-challenging times. But there are extremes, too. I have been receiving e-mails that open without the sender asking how I am. They go straight to the crux of the message or missive. Better curt than affected? Only one in the entire month of February came with the welcome “I hope this email finds you well”.

20-03-13-18-52-49-507_decoThe Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands as quiet as a church on non-service days

Is it daft to broach the subject of fashion when the world has more dire concerns, when headlines are as grim as FT’s “Fashion designers hit by coronavirus outbreak”, when Nike (among others, in fact) will “temporarily close” their stores in the US, Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand? It is undoubtedly not the best of times to ponder what we will wear this weekend or buy. The thing is, would we be doing anything when the weekend comes? Is it not better to ensconce ourselves at home, even when our city is not in a state of lock down or when we have not chosen a hermetic life? Or is social distancing too distant a concept to adopt when somewhere out there, there are those having fun, drinking with buddies, singing with karaoke junkies, and discarding used masks—when they do wear one—on public grounds, on the way home?

Social media has been showing me that it’s frighteningly quiet in the malls, even when there is no call for stores to close. Friends in retail, too, have painted the same picture, sometimes even more bleakly. To see that for myself and to view racks full of untouched clothes, I thought an expedition to a mall or two might be the thing to embark on this uneventful Friday afternoon. Working the legs has always been more enjoyable to me than activating the fingers. In any case, if crowds—or lines—are not to be encountered, I thought, perhaps it would be a good time to experience browsing without the intrusive fervour of the compulsive fashion shopper.

20-03-13-19-34-01-647_decoTwo floors of Gucci without a single shopper inside

Yet, the appeal of going out is, for me, diminished to the point that thinking about it does not impel me to want to go further than the nearest Starbucks, which, for reasons even the staff is unable to elucidate, is always full. To see for myself the near-vacant malls, perhaps just once, may open my eyes to something I had not witness before. During the SARS outbreak of 2003, also the year we were introduced to Fusionpolis, NEWater, and SingPass, retail was hit like a tsunami. Many malls, I now remember—especially those in Orchard Road—were quieter than a church on non-mass days. It didn’t help, too, that two months earlier GST was raised from 3% to 4%, which may have additionally dampened the mood to spend. Somehow, the visible quiet made me feel safe—foolishly, now that I think back. It was social distancing at work, but, at that time, we didn’t know it as that.

This afternoon, around five, I took the train (that itself deserves its own story for another day) to The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands—usually a place with a healthy traffic, even on a weekday. I should state that prior to my MRT train ride to MBS, I did not have any respiratory symptom that would suggest I could be case number _ _ _ nor did I leave this island in the past two weeks. From the Bayfront station turnstiles, thermal scanning machine behind the cordoned-off entrance of the mall can be clearly seen. What you see is not dissimilar from now-controlled entry points of hospitals. However, no declaration form needs to be filled; visitors just walk in. A table is placed behind the stanchions, and is manned by a sole security personnel. There is nothing on the table. Not a single dispenser of hand-sanitiser is available, nor, in fact, anywhere in the complex that houses a reported 93,000 m2 of retail space. Perhaps the expected low foot-fall doesn’t require the precaution, or additional expense.

20-03-14-17-17-05-568_decoDeathly quiet across all floors of the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands

What has been said about malls is true here. There is traffic, but it is barely discernible; people are possibly going to or getting off work. The quiet surrounding would normally be conducive to shopping, but this time, it’s unnerving. It is the deathly stillness, the proverbial ghost town. I can’t make out if music is piped into the stores or the mall itself. Perhaps it’s how audible the unnatural tranquility is that mood music fails at its job. At the information counter, I stop to ask about the show times of Spectra, the promenade “light and water show” that is a visitor draw, thinking I might be able to have the entire display to myself, but I was told the show is “cancelled temporarily for safety reasons”. Is the traffic really bad, I ask. “Yes,” says the ebullient counter staff, “It’s been really quiet since February.” I pursue: Is it really this—pointing to what’s before us— bad? “Bad,” she repeats after me emphatically, “Really bad.”

It doesn’t take long to see money hasn’t been spent. My first stop was Gucci. Three masked salespersons, initially talking among themselves, chorus a “hello” as I appear, but have not stepped into the store. When I do, two of them trail me. Feeling watched and sized up, I leave as quickly as I entered. Next, Dior, where the equally empty store has the welcome air of a detention centre, the staff is indifferent to my presence. At Louis Vuitton, where there is no queue or a door person with an iPad, the store is not vacant, but the few customers browsing are like a live demo of what keeping a 2-metre distance with others is like (actually the separation is wider here. I am nearer to mannequins than people). At zero-customer Prada, a helpful staff offers to show me what has recently arrived as I strain to hear him speak behind a surgical mask. When I leave, the guy thanks me and his colleague follows with, “please come again.”

That sounds more like an urging than a farewell. What’s noticeable is how cheerless sales staff have generally become. It does not help that the mask in that unfriendly green that they wear can’t reveal a semblance of a smile. Eyes, not trained to communicate, are blank stares. At Saint Laurent, a pair of peepers look at me as if to say, “What are you doing here when no one is? Just as in-store sales have plummeted, so has geniality. Is being glum a national malaise or natural result of a global pandemic?

20-03-16-10-53-46-061_decoThe strange and uneasy hush at Dior

From outside Louis Vuitton, I can hear a buzz coming from below me, as if people are in some kind of group activity that encourages glee. That would be a contrast to the stillness up here. I stand behind the glass balustrade—not touching—and look down into the atrium. The outside dining area of TWG Tea Salon comes into view. It is busy—no different from TWGs in other malls. I see that all, but one table are occupied. No obvious distancing here: tables are spaced apart in what to me is the usual proximity, which is really almost edge to edge. The interaction between service staff and customers are intimate, so is that between the tea drinkers. A couple is sharing a cake; the woman feeding the man.

It is usually easy to spot the trendy at The Shoppes at MBS. Young Chinese tourists are particularly noticeable, in their logo-laden garb, hopping from store to store, in their designer sneaker-aided gait. The first time I saw someone in a pair of Balenciaga Triple S, it was here—the wearer, I later learn is an Indonesian, who is also a big spender at Dior. This afternoon (by now, early evening), trendy and trending looks are as visible as a certain contagion. Have the clothes and bags and shoes been left on the racks and shelves—now full and seemingly untouched, as I am presently witnessing, with a disconcerting measure of disbelief? Two Indonesians emerging from the casino interrupt my thoughts. One of them is audible in his surprise (or disappointment, I can’t say for certain): “Di dalam sunyi sekali (It’s so quiet inside)!”

20-03-16-17-50-28-461_deco20-03-16-17-53-27-232_decoAll quiet on the LVMH front

I am off to ION Orchard, a mall many consider to be the belly button of Orchard Road retail. It’s all very welcoming here: no thermal scanners and no hand sanitisers, and no buzz-free foreboding. Visitors are received with wide-open entryways, and traffic appears healthy—at least outside the MRT station on B2 (the entrance to Wisma Atria on the other side is just as bustling). Once on the first floor, the murmur of foot traffic and attendant chatter is barely discernible. I thought I might see some browsers here, if not spenders, but the shopper-lite stores tell me stock rooms are probably a little too full now. Of the few who are walking past store fronts, I see none with a shopping bag. Money, I guess, isn’t spent here too.

The first sight before me is the Gucci Psychedelic pop-up in the atrium, showcasing their new take on the double-G logo. The merchandise is totally devoid of human company, except a clearly bored sales staff, who explains haltingly that the colourful monogram is inspired by “’60s disco” (“I see” is my amused reply). I take a peak at Burberry: inside, as still as a library—when it’s closed. Walking in might mean the spotlight is on me, another with no desire to buy. That, even from the window, is the case with me when it comes to this British brand. I then walk into sleepy Bottega Veneta. The numerous Pouches, reposed, stare at me like morning-after pillows.

20-03-16-17-51-55-823_decoTotally un-visited Burberry

Over at Louis Vuitton, there is no line, nor any queue-enforcement barrier. I stand at the entrance, but the one attendant (or security personnel?) pays no attention to my occupying the hallowed space. He does not ask if I am here to see someone; he does not whip out an iPad to ask me to show him what it is I wish to buy; he does not ask me to join a queue. I walk in and then I walk out. I am not sure if they allow anyone without a purchase in mind to enter the gleaming space. Next door at Dior, the reception is a little warmer. A girl with an accent I better not place tries to impress me with what has “just arrived”. And shows me the Oblique sneakers when she caught me spying them. “Our best sellers,” she tells me. You have stock? “Oh, yes! What size you want?”

I have never been a sole shopper in a store in my entire adult shopping life. This must be what it feels like when the sultan of Brunei—or any member of his family—requires undivided attention during the time spent within brick and mortar confines to buy something, anything. Nor have I ever seen racks so packed with clothing—an optic, if I am not wrong, discouraged in luxury retail—that the three-finger-width spacing between hangers (a typical visual merchandising requirement) not only do not apply, they cannot apply. The clothes are so tightly packed in some stores that they make me feel sorry for the rack or rail that has to bear the irregular, possibly illegal, weight. Perhaps more unsettling is not being able to really see the full countenance (or, conversely, the scowl) of the person(s) serving me as surgical masks become de rigueur. Might this be the prelude to the end of service with a smile?

20-03-18-00-31-31-945_decoThe lure-none Gucci pop-up in the atrium of  ION Orchard

Not only is there a drop in the number of shoppers, there’s a dearth in the presence of the fashionably togged. I need to remind myself that when there are fewer and fewer social events, there is less compulsion to go full-fashion. An acquaintance who attends parties that lure socialites in large numbers revealed to me that there are hardly any of those these days, not even luncheons. Someone said to me that a journalist she knows told her that media invites to launches and such have virtually dried up. One sales manager lamented to me that since she’s not seeing clients anymore (they prefer not to meet her, she believes), there is no motivation to dressed her best just to go into a gloomy office.

Increasingly, the call in many countries is for citizens to stay at home. And some have to not by choice. The editor-in-chief of 品 (Pin) magazine Grace Lee Jiajing was issued a 14-day stay-home notice (not quarantine, she made known the difference) upon her return from Milan and Paris following the respective fashion weeks. She relates her work-from-home experience via blog posts on the digital issue of 品. She had initially thought that this arrangement might free her from the morning ritual of “how to dress in a way that won’t be considered to be of no pin (taste)”. But soon, she found herself “wearing Comme des Garçons at home to work”. Whether that was a result of boredom or a moment of vanity, she did not say, except that “even when no one sees her, she has to be fashionable and live interestingly.” 👍🏼 and 赞. To quote Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, to which I owe the title of this post, “The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not.”

Photos: Galerie Gombak

Something Is Missing

Rows and rows or cascades after cascades of fairy lights on holiday leave at Christmas Light-Up 2019

 

Orchard Road Xmas 2019.jpg

By Ray Zhang

After 35 years, perhaps the novelty of the Orchard Road Christmas light-up has worn off. I look forward to it as I would the arrival of noon-day heat or the opening of another bubble tea shop. Still, it is the only Christmas draw that Orchard Road can offer, and even that increasingly borders on the lame. It is not clear what purpose the Light-Up now offers other than obligatory decorating of a street that otherwise would have as much pull as Far East Plaza.

A week before the Light-Up was officially switched on, I was in Orchard Road. Seeing just the lamp post decorations up, I thought perhaps, the work was incomplete. Last night, when I was out to catch the festive lights in their full glory (“A Great Gift”, as this year’s theme will have you believe), I was quite surprised—shocked would have been a better word, but I resist—to see emptiness directly above Orchard Road itself. There was nothing, not even a string of fairy lights. You could see the blackness that was the dark sky clearly. Unobstructed.

This year, for reasons not entirely clear, Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA, ) and its design company opted for a noticeable change: just road-side adornments, mostly lamp-post decorations and scant ornaments dangling from the trees that line both sides of the “great street”. This year’s decoration, however colourful pedestrians think it is, looks half-done.

 

Orchard Road Xmas 2019 P2

ORBA’s executive director Steven Goh told The Straits Times that “The Christmas street light design is refreshed in a new showcase format with the objective to create a more immersive pedestrian experience designed for visitors who walk along Orchard Road during this festive season.” If, in addition, there were no decorations from the buildings on both sides of the street, I wonder how immersive those one-dimensional “great gifts” up there can be.

As with window displays, street light-ups during this time of the year are notoriously unable to please everybody. I would be the first to admit that I’m not at all easily thrilled, especially when the embellishment and trimming look like they need more work—and lights (even when we’re told that the exact length of LED lights are the same as last year’s, some 60,620m of it)—to complete. A street light-up just has to have lights strung across or along the road. Call me old-fashioned.

I am baffled, too, as to why Mr Goh thought that the “light design is refreshed” when it looks to me a total break from last year’s much-maligned Disney theme-park blandness. The “commercialisation” of Christmas—as new as Santa itself—upset quite a few last year, rather that the light-up’s aesthetic value. Some, for whom Christmas must not move away from tradition, took umbrage at the crassness of Mickey Mouse enjoying Christmas. It was as if Be@rbrick characters were doing the nativity scene.

 

Orchard Road Xmas 2019 P3

I sometimes wonder if there’s a need for complete design change to our light-up every single year. Would that not result in eco-unfriendly waste? Could we not have recycled past decorations with thematic variations? If we don’t put up new ornaments on the same plastic tree every year in our living room, why should Orchard Road boast a new festive wardrobe every November/December? Some argue that the same light-up every year may be repetitive. But in other cities, where street illumination is festive necessity and tourist draw, recognisable consistency is not necessarily unvaried or uninteresting.

In London’s Oxford Street, light canopies of one colour have been used for many years, yet each time, the light-up seems different as the themes are changed (this year, it has been reported that there will be an upgrade to “LED light curtains”). And, the Oxford Street light-up has not seen a decrease in visitors. Similarly, closer home, the decorations on Tokyo’s Marunouchi Naka-Dori Avenue (just across from Tokyo Station) has remained somewhat identical through the years, yet the queues to get into the stretch with the most dazzling lights in the days leading up to Christmas have not, as I am aware, shortened.

Orchard Road’s aspirational days are, sadly, left behind like the fairy lights in this years Christmas light-up. Its feeble display is a lady of a certain age togged in finery that are no longer fine. Even the christmas.orchardroad.org website strains to convince us to “revel in the gift of the holidays at this wonderland of light and colour”. Wonderland. No characters or avatars except jolly Santa. This year, Orchard Road is carefully staying clear of controversy.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Does Red Still Matter?

CNY Red 2019Embroidery on H&M sweatshirt

By Mao Shan Wang

Chinese New Year is red no more. Well, not with what I have been seeing. I come from a relatively big, extended family and CNY is very important—red-letter days, if you will— to us. This means that on the two measly days of public hols that we get to guo nian, I have the chance to meet many relatives at my parents’ gaily-decorated xiqi yangyang flat. Most of them I see only once a year, so with each visit, the young gets older, the older gets older, and the oldest gets a walking stick. In years of the distant past, both young and old were always careful not to call on us in sombre colours, but these days, peer into our flat, and you might think our guests have been doused in squid ink.

My parents are not particular about what colours those who visit us during the CNY season wear. My grand parents—both paternal and maternal—were. But since they are no longer around, the juniors are emancipated from what, to them, is a silly, superstitious, and selective chromatic tradition that bears no relevance to fashion’s unceasing love for the deeply dark. Red, even Valentino red, is no match for the light-absorbing black. And, this year, the colour associated with the grim reaper dominated my parents’ living room, as well as many parts of our island, with as much cheer as fatt choy braised in the company of macerated shiitake mushrooms.

The festive-lite window display at Louis Vuitton

When did red lose favour among the Chinese doing their rounds during Chinese New Year? I don’t know, but I did notice some years back, about eight perhaps, that stores were starting to do away with windows dominated by red. Since 2015, I began to seriously observe. Many, including Louis Vuitton, Dior, Prada, and Fendi, have not bothered with a CNY window, just as they have forgone Christmas. There, too, has been little in terms of merchandise that is red or can be considered gaily festive. Sure, brands know they have to cash in during this period, hence animal-themed offerings to the reflect the Chinese zodiac year, for example. But these are mostly gimmicky rather than trendy, corny rather than snappy. And, they are not as heavy with meaning as red.

Like most, I was never told the true significance of red during CNY. My mother was not big on the colour and wore other brights that didn’t blend in with fire engines or anti-riot vehicles, the ang chia. To the young I, red was an auspicious colour, but from whom I learnt that, I have, hitherto, no idea. It was not until much later, as a young adult, did I read about nian the beast of pre-history China (not nian the year), one so ferocious and life-threatening that only fire, cacophony, and the colour red could send it back in defeat to wherever it came from. Red, synonymous with fire and itself a loud colour, became the choice of those who need to be rid of whatever beastly in life or are in celebratory mood.

At mass market label Iora’s Wisma Atria flagship, main store display shows that red is easily outnumbered

About a week before CNY, I saw a young girl looking admiringly at a plain, flaccid, black dress at Iora in Wisma Atria. I asked if she was buying that to wear as a new outfit for the festive season, she said yes. When I asked her if her choice could keep nian away, she replied with a question: “who’s nian?” I rephrased: why not wear red? Because, she told me—with furrowed brows, none of her friends do and that “it is not cool”. For sure, red is a warm colour and usually with enough heat to be considered passionate. But who, in wanting to look cool, is projecting warmth, passion, intensity, zeal, or energy any more these days? For many now, you may agree, CNY visiting is plain boring. Why bother to meet when you can simply send a WhatsApp message or greeting, if you bother? Or partake in your cousin’s festive fun via his/her IG posts, if you’re interested enough? No new dress required, red or otherwise.

According to one store buyer I know, the colour of chilli was once so in demand that “stores can’t stock enough of red. Nowadays, people don’t bother unless it’s the red that’s within the box logo of Supreme”. She told me that buyers now don’t consciously seek out red to stock in the month of February. It would appear that red is not an important colour in the planning of a collection at all. It isn’t the dominant colour at Louis Vuitton, it is shy at Burberry, and it stands away for the colours of night at Saint Laurent. A look at the men’s collection shows no difference. Kim Jones’s Dior has red conspicuously missing. Even the Kaws pink BFF character (called a “a masterpiece” by the media) dons a black suit! And over at LV, Virgil Abloh’s all-white Keepall, sans pop-up store, has its pride of place in the expensive, faintly psychedelic window.

CK Calvin Klein’s dour black boar

Red is also competing against the equally ancient Chinese sheng xiao zodiac, specifically the 12 animals that purport to predict the ups and downs of one’s life. Until the past five years or so ago, few thought of wearing something bearing the creature that corresponds with their birth animal. I know I never have. But this year, for example, retailers are going big on pigs (CK Calvin Klein is possibly the most prolific), not with charm or pull in every case. Those born in the Year of the Pig are not the only ones wearing porcine prints on their chest, or carrying on their bags. Others of other years do too. Frankly, I can’t reconcile a rat wanting to be a swine.

People are also looking at what colours zodiac masters such as Joey Yap tell them to wear, which means even the bleached of hue such as white may bring you luck on the first day of the Lunar New Year. Sometimes, red is not recommended because it may be too bright, too strong, too potent for an individual. Red may be the colour of luck, but it may not be lucky for you. One of my cousin who came and the only one in non-black wore a supremely dull shade of red that her fortune teller declared most ideal, hence auspicious. It was what I would call puce, that old colour with a history that dates back to the clothing of Marie Antoinette. It’s been described as the shade of dried blood. Or, to be more precise, “brown and maroon with only a hint of pinkish-gray”, according to another description. Apparently, when King Louis XVI saw his wife in a silk dress of said colour, he exclaimed “une puce”! That’s flea!

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Did The Grinch Steal Our Christmas Windows?

Orchard RoadDespite the Orchard Road light-up, Christmas is not quite discernible

By Ray Zhang

It’s the last Friday before Christmas*. I have taken time off from work to shop. Rather than the last-minute rush that seems to be what I see around me, I have decided to shop for myself… leisurely. That, and to soak in a bit of the festive atmosphere even when I was told to “not expect too much.”

“You’ve been away most Christmases,” my friends tell me as if berating. “This isn’t London. Don’t expect Tokyo either. Not even Bangkok!” To be honest, I am not expecting anything. Neither am I expecting this… Orchard Road retailers and mall operators have given up on Christmas.

Except to make the most money with the least interesting merchandise and virtually non-existing visual merchandising. I am not out looking for a Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas window or Ellen’s set during ‘12 Days of Giveaways’, but the thing is, this year’s Christmas windows are conspicuous by their absence. Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA**) may like you to believe that, with their heavily sponsored light-up this year, the festive season has arrived, but inside the air-conditioned comfort of malls, Christmas is no-season flatness. Retailers, like the Grinch, seem to have hearts “two sizes too small”.

TangsThe shockingly bland entrance of Tangs

Or a year-end budget too tiny to give windows a touch of—forgive the cliché—Yuletide magic. While I do not expect to see Orchard Road as Whoville, it is disconcerting to me that for most of the shops, stores, and malls, it is let’s-do-the-minimum-for-Christmas-this-year. Or, nothing at all. Could it be because there is no more Best Dressed Building Award*** that has been part of the Orchard Road Christmas Light-Up?

Once, we could always count on Tangs Department Store for more than a little festive cheer. Being a business proudly owned by Christians, it was unsurprising that Christmastime was when a huge portion of the marketing budget went into making their storefront and their interiors experientially stunning to bring in the crowds. But when I stepped off the escalator from the underground that connected me to this side of Orchard Road today, I was really rather shocked. Except for a box plonked in the middle of the entrance way that touted the offerings of their trim shop, the Tangs entrance was as bare as Santa’s shiny pate.

For many years since Tangs opened at Tang Plaza in 1982, the department store once known as C K Tang had been one of the most stylishly dressed during the year-end holiday season. One thing always impressed me: Tangs never had to resort to traditional Christmas motifs and mascots to decorate their store. Led by one of the best visual merchandising designers of the ’80s and ’90s, Ng Weng Sang (known professionally as Weng), Tangs, in the heydays of Orchard Road, was one of the very few retail stores willing to consider an equatorial Christmas, even intermittently employing Peranakan patterns and batiks.

bottega VenetaThe simple but striking pair of reindeer in the Bottega Veneta window

The result was always something that felt authentic even if it may be disingenuous to say so since Christmas, if identified by Santa and fir, and such, is largely a Western import or the subject of songs never written in this part of the world. Yet, Tangs was never deterred, and their Christmas aesthetic was always so unusual and yet familiar that other stores look to them with envy, or so I was told. But that Tangs was no more, particularly after they renovated their store in 2012 and basically forwent windows for a see-through into the ground floor, or space that can bring in what the industry refers to as “extra revenue streams” by renting parts of the frontage for advertising use. The long stretches of window, once festively glorious, now consigned to our memory.

Back at ION Orchard, thought to be the swankiest mall along the 2.2 kilometres of Orchard Road, once considered to have some measure of international standing, the Christmas cheer is a mere hum. This year, the mall—jointly owned by CapitaLand and Hong Kong-based Sun Hung Kai Properties (believed to be “the second most valuable real estate company in the world”)—tell us that is here “Where Christmas Truly Sparkles”. Frankly, I don’t see where the sparkles are (perhaps my astigmatism is blurring them from me). ION Orchard, for the most part, look like it always does: spanking sterile swank.

Even the outside, traditionally an expanse to draw selfie-mad shoppers, the decor/diorama is less grand than, say, last year. Sure, there’s the Ferris wheel in place of a towering Christmas tree, but this is not the site of a Christmas fair. Conspicuously sponsored by Cartier—even the seats are oversized versions of the luxury retailer’s jewellery boxes, the Ferris wheel gives the mall front of ION Orchard a decidedly playground vibe, yet one can’t ride the Ferris wheel, just as one can’t partake in the smörgåsbord that’s part of Dolce & Gabbana’s recycled window display, a stone’s throw away.

19-01-02-10-51-01-227_deco.jpgThe discreet decorations that are rather hidden in ION Orchard 

Inside, it was—as the office catchphrase goes—per normal. I am thinking: If the mall is not going to splurge on plastic Christmas trees and such, surely its tenants would do their part. Right in the middle of the atrium, two pop-ups—Bvlgari and Valentino—were set up. Both, nary a bauble in sight. In the windows of the other stores, it is anti-Christmas tinsel-free. That’s not counting Louis Vuitton’s trees, which could be transplanted from some enchanted forest, and decorated by Naiise.

Most festive at ION Orchard are the little troughs/planters that discreetly dot the mall, so discreet, in fact, that I almost miss them if I did not sit down on a bench near the escalator on level two to pen my thoughts for this blog post. These compositions of an imagine Christmastime in the woods, bauble-strewn and backdropped by poinsettias, are, I suppose, like secret gardens—when you stumble upon them, they rather make your day.

While looking at the only semblance of a Christmas window in ION Orchard—belonging to Bottega Veneta, I see a man near the entrance and strikes a conversation with him. As it turns out, he is from Bangkok and he is here with this wife, who is looking at a bag inside. “We came here to soak up the atmosphere,” he tells me. Do you like the atmosphere, I ask. “Not much atmosphere this year.” Why do you think that? “Maybe they are on a tight budget. Not so grand. Bangkok is not bad, you know. You should see IconSiam.”

FendiFendi has taken the maximum logo look for their clothes in recent seasons, but for Christmas, their windows are bare

I do not get to see IconSiam, of course, but I do get to see the rest of Orchard Road. The festive-free shops in ION Orchard are, as it turns out, not the exception. Luxury brands are as likely as fast fashion labels (H&M is particularly sad-looking) to go the without-Christmas-decor route. Inside Gucci at Paragon, it was business as usual and last-minute grab fest, sans festive decor. Even Paragon itself is a shadow of its usual Christmastime crowd-pleasing glory. Opposite, at Ngee Ann City, they are happy to just let the sole—this time not-sponsored—tree in the main atrium stand for the season’s high, for the rest of the mall.  Even the Santa’s nightcaps above glum faces at Gong Cha in the basement level are more festive! This bare minimum decorative approach stretches all the way to Raffles City, which, like other CapitaLand malls, has welcome the Grinch with open arms.

I suspect retailers and mall owners can’t be bothered because they are happy to let ORBA do the work. But cash-strapped ORBA is looking to Disney to sprinkle the festive dust, which has, unsurprisingly, upset the National Council of Churches of Singapore—more interested in getting people to go worshiping than shopping. As it is, shopping anywhere on Orchard Road is no fun. Minus the Yuletide decoration, retailers are minimising what is increasingly recognised as a key ingredient to drawing the spending crowd: experience.

Outside 313@Orchard, I saw a bored teen of about eighteen, unburden by even a single shopping bag, persuading his mother to go home. “回家啦,回家. (hui jia la, hui jia),”  he said, then, in English, added, “Nothing to see here.” The Grinch won. Even the Sugar Plum Fairy is of no match. And I am not hoping for a pas des deux between those two!

*A note on usage: Christmas here denotes Christmastime—the festive season rather than specifically the Christian holiday. ** Inexplicably, the ORBA website http://www.orchardroad.org has been down for more than a week. *** As such, we can’t confirm if the annual Best-Dressed Building competition is on this year

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Dress And Behaviour

The recent Toa Payoh food centre incident shows that “smartly-dressed” does not mean one has the smarts to temper an explosive situation with social grace. Clothing, as we know, is—and has been—mostly a façade

 

Smartly dressed 1

By Raiment Young

People are obviously easily deceived by appearances: the smarter you look, the more intelligent you are perceived to be, or least inclined to succumb to publicly unacceptable behaviour. This, however, was so quickly and easily debunked just last night.

That berating and that shoving of the seemingly harmless elderly gentleman in Toa Payoh Lorong 8 food centre on Friday evening that has gone viral were the responses to the rage of the couple that Netizens enthusiastically described as “smartly-dressed”. Such gossip! Some of them, as well as a report on alvinology.com, portrayed the duo as “well-dressed”. Such fake news!

I’ll be the first to concede that what constitutes smartly-dressed and well-dressed is subjective, and smartly-dressed and well-dressed may be diametrical, and are not necessarily indicators of fashion or trend. But I have seen enough disgraceful behavior on the part of the smartly turned out to realise that just because you look clean and tidy does not mean your manners are as impeccable.

Like the rest of you not at that food centre at that time, I saw the foul-mouth and the assailant in action online. Although the footage was no cinematic oeuvre, I could still discern that the now-infamous couple was no Bonnie and Clyde. Yet, despite the hazy video, it was their manner of dress that people remember, since, for most, spiffiness does not beget insolence. Smartly-dressed, of course, could also refer to the two’s office attire, which, by convention, is supposed to project professionalism, if not civility.

Here’s what I saw: the woman was in a white sleeveless top (battle-ready since she did not need to roll any sleeve up for a fight) and a pair of cream-coloured, high-waist pants. Her prone-to-push companion was in a long-sleeved shirt (so fitted at the torso that it’s obvious it’s darted at the back. Note, also, the pen in the pocket)) and a pair of dark-coloured trousers that formed a (’70s-looking) silhouette to better enhance his samseng stance. The female’s aggression seemed to indicate that she was completely able to hold her own, yet the man saw it fit to come to the expletive-loving maiden’s rescue, in crash and bang fashion. Hantam first, talk later.

Smartly dressed 2Screen grab from the viral video showing a man and woman and their elderly victim

Heroism has a long historical link to the smartly-dressed. In fact, in the annals of comic-book heroism, the superheroes that are dapper in dress when not in life-saving costume have a better chance at liberating the world from evil and saving maidens from tyranny and dramatic death. From Clark Kent to Bruce Wayne to Tony Stark, sartorial smartness enhances machismo and valour. In the case of the food centre Super Shove, people remembered that he was smartly-dressed because he operated in the traditional swank of comic-book superheroes. Rarely do bravery and brutality in a food centre come in such a package, so you keep the image in mind.

Bad behavior at communal dining tables appears to be more associated with the smartly-dressed set than the not so. The habit of choping, which appears to be a factor that led to the Toa Payoh kerfuffle, is more prevalent in food centres and food courts that are visited by the smartly-dressed office crowd. In fact, it has been suggested that it was “office ladies” that started the trend of using packs (one is no longer adequate) of tissue paper to chope seats.

I did a random, admittedly unscientific study and found that makan places such as Changi Village Hawker Centre and Old Airport Road Food Centre see less—a lot less—patrons wielding tissue packs/umbrellas to hold a seat/table than their CBD counterparts, such as Lau Pa Sat and Golden Shoe Hawker Centre (also known as Market Street Food Centre). Where the blue-collar smartly-dressed throng, choping is commonplace. And you’ll likely find a patron ready to attack you should you dare to question the rationale of a pack of tissue representing a living person.

But these days, a pack of tissue is not quite enough to indicate that the seat/table is taken. Last year, at a Kopi Tiam food court, I saw something I did not imagine could happen: a person had placed his OCBC name card on the table in lieu of a pack of tissue. When he returned with his lunch, I could see that, like Super Shove, he was smartly-dressed. I was tempted to write to the bank to enquire if this is how a business card should be used, but I, like many of you, succumbed to whatever-for.

What was even more astounding was this incident in which an umbrella had a starring role. I was with my 77-year-old mother at another Kopi Tiam food court. She spotted an empty table and walked towards it. As she was about to reach her destination, a woman from behind her quickly whipped out and extended her compact umbrella, and placed it across the table. In one swoop, an old lady was denied a seat at a food court table. My mother was stunned. From where did the umbrella shoot forth, she wondered.

Mom, a smartly-dressed woman.

Photo: A. B. Tan. Video screen grab: The Local Society

On The Biggest Date Night Of The Year, Fashion Did Not Step Out

Yes, it is the fourteenth day of February, but who asked fashion to be their Valentine?  By the looks of it, no one

on-valentines-dayBy Mao Shan Wang

On Valentine’s Day, fashion, like so many singles, stayed at home—ignored and, possibly, forgotten. Special occasion wear—if it still exists—has been relegated to some corner of the wardrobe, untouched and unloved. You’d think that on the day that celebrates love, fashion might be courted with as much fervour as this day is celebrated with so much ardour. That thinking is, of course, as intact as a pair of shredded denim cut-offs.

I would have been ensconced at home too if not for the urge to see what the trend among courting couples this year was. The girls, I had thought, would surely have something in mind to make them look good for their guy—more than good, possibly. Or did I have an outmoded idea of what it means to celebrate, or dress for, Valentine’s Day?

I decided to take my observation to 313@Orchard and Orchard Central, that continuous expanse of mall and the mass market that has a strange pull for the young and those on dates. The journey there, in fact, was a prelude to what I was going to see. Sales of roses, as a single stalk or as a bouquet, seemed to enjoy better business than clothes, if the number of peddlers (persistent as tissue sellers) on every street and corner is any indication.

On the MRT train, the casualness of every commuter’s attire was no different from that of Saturday afternoon rides. Seated in front of me, intertwined like a macramé knot, was a couple barely outside the border of teenage years. The girl sat in a manner that made it easy for her boyfriend to go all limbs over her, which meant that her body was aslant—hips jutting out into her neighbour’s space. This bodily intrusion was made more apparent by what the girl wore from the waist down: thigh-hugging micro-shorts that had a roughly two-inch zip on the side seam. Unsurprisingly, it was unzipped. Also unsurprisingly, her underwear was out to catch some air. Why, I wondered, isn’t seduction by Y-fronts a male practice?

What struck me most was the number of couples in shorts. Has this become a dating norm or is this just unique to our island? Sure, we’re known for our extremely casual sense of dress. And there’s always the punishing weather to blame, but isn’t there even a day in a calendar year that encourages one going out with a romantic partner to put in a modicum of effort?

As I stepped onto the escalator to reach the ground level of 313, I soon came eye-to-butt with a couple in shorts that fit only one description: ratty. The guy was in a pair of very crushed ‘berms’ that looked like it had spent most of its life in an urn used to salt vegetables. His girl was in a pair that could have been his sleepwear, cut so brief he would not have remembered it as his long pyjama bottom. Now, this is not a couple going downstairs from their flat to run an errand. I am sure of that because the girl was holding dearly a stalk of rose held rigid in a clear tubular plastic case, like a dozen or more girls did throughout the two malls.

This severely low in diversity quickly discouraged me from spending more time establishing the existence of fashionable couples. I thought I should go for dinner before it became impossible to find a table. At the upper, upper floors of Orchard Central, queues outside eateries were already too long to manage without affecting your patience, appetite or sanity, or all three. That’s the thing about dining on Valentine’s Day: if you’re not a couple, don’t! Even if you’re a couple, don’t!!! In any case, I was hungry; I was not going to give up without trying. I did not dress un-casually for nothing.

Luck came to me in the form of an empty (but not cleared) table, set on the corridor, no doubt to increase the seating capacity of the restaurant in times of a romance boom. A good table, I thought, since I could afford a view of the coming and going along the passageway. As soon as I placed my order, I was seized with pain-inducing regret. A queue started to form, snaking past my table as rapidly as Snake. It was not an unmoving line, and this was what bred annoyance: the queueing diners saw no reason to distance themselves from my table, and there I was in a posterior-privy position. Again.

One by one they passed by my face, a slideshow of shorts and thighs, of scantiness and unsightliness. A Valentine’s Day dinner date now really resembles supper at the most popular 24-hour nasi lemak stall. Just get in line. Nobody cares if you wear your sleep clothes; nobody notices, not, even sadly, your significant other. As people keep saying, love is blind. Totally.

Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Funerary Fashions: Designer Duds Disallowed

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Paper offerings in the shape of designer bags sold in shops at Red Hill. Photo: SOTD

Gucci’s brand management team in Hong Kong must have had a lot of time in their hands. And they weren’t going to sit around to swat the proverbial mosquitoes. Last week, according to a BBC report, Hong Kong shops that retail paper products as offerings to the dead received warning letters from the Italian house to inform the addressees of the possibility of intellectual property violation. Was Gucci annoyed by perceived counterfeiting or were they spooked by the likelihood of some unholy spirit carrying a paper Dionysus GG Supreme over there?

According to a statement by Gucci’s Hong Kong office quoted by the BBC, “We fully respect the funeral context and we trust that the store owners did not have the intention to infringe Gucci’s trademark.” That sounds to us like a teacher telling her charges, “I fully respect your propensity to play and I trust you’ll behave yourselves when I step out for a moment to the principal’s office.”

SOTD happened to be in the Bukit Merah area where a couple of shops sell paper offering that, in the weeks leading to the qing ming (清明) festival, are usually displayed with the flair of the visual merchandising of a Metro sale. Now, the selection wasn’t terribly wide, but there were many things those in the afterworld could possibly need, including some clothing in rather contemporary style, as well as digital must-haves such as the iPad. We asked an elderly shopkeeper if he sells brand name (名牌) clothing, accessories, and shoes to offer to the dead, he pointed to clear packages in the shape of east-west totes hung from the ceiling, just above him.

Each plastic bag contained a paper handbag and a pair of matching shoes. We couldn’t make out any Guccis, but we did take note of one handbag with what appeared to be Burberry checks and a charm that comprised of two letters of the alphabet: B and R. Below that was a bag that was conspicuously labelled COAGH and under that, an unmistakable Lady Dior that was branded DIORR! We were certain we could hear the Dior Singapore office go “Grrr.”

We asked the man, by now irritated with our questions, if he has received any warning letter from brand owners. He said he didn’t understand what we meant. Undeterred, we enquired if there were any customer who specifically asked for a Dior bag (we were careful to say it in Chinese 迪奥), but, again, he didn’t know what we were referring to. We were quite persistent, asking if customers requested for the latest fashion. He replied with no hint of humour, only annoyance, “If you love to be fashionable when alive, you’re the same when dead.” (“活着爱时尚,死了也一样。”)

Gucci funerary bags

A handbag with a logo that perturbed Gucci Hong Kong. Photo: BBC News

It’s a simple logic and it is not far from those applied in antiquity. We’re quite sure that the ancient Egyptians, who were buried with hoards of treasure, began their journey into the afterlife with the regalia that they were used to when alive. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that those preparing the burial would not have wanted to include the best clothes for the dead. The Chinese desire of wanting the departed to continue to enjoy material wealth in the hereafter is, in many ways, not dissimilar to the Egyptian’s. In present times, seeing how ubiquitous designer goods are, it is not unexpected that there’s the wish for the deceased to continue to take pleasure in what was available in the world of the living.

When our bodies end in this world, do they begin in another? What sort of physique do we retain? And if it’s a physicality that we are familiar with, is it a stretch to think we’d like to wear the same clothes (and brands) that we did when breathing and walking? Will we still want what we used to like in this otherworldly skin? Gucci probably doesn’t know, but they decided that they won’t take chances. If counterfeiting is pervasive here, now, among us, let’s not make it the same there, then, among them. Since paper handbags can be burned to reach the dead, surely a lawyer’s letter too can be set aflame to serve notice to the unrepentant, fake Gucci-totting spirits? Strangely, Gucci did not see the irony too. These paper handbag offerings, like those counterfeit cousins when found and confiscated by the authorities, have only one fate: destruction, whether by fire or the force of a bulldozer.

It is understandable why Gucci is protective of its logo. In the hands of the brand’s current designer Alessandro Michele, the logo is making a splashy return after years of hiding when minimalism stayed ahead. As reported by the Telegraph, Gucci’s president and CEO Marco Bizzarri said at last month’s New York Times International Luxury Conference that the brand’s newest designer has made the Gucci monogram “an ode to joy, not something worn by the devil.” It is rather clear then that Gucci, therefore, cannot be associated with anything as fiendish as death.

Still, a week after what many considered a PR faux pas, Gucci Hong Kong issued a letter of apology. “We regret any misunderstandings that may have been caused and sincerely apologise to anyone we may have offended through our action,” it said. Anyone? How about those from the other side?