It’s Still A Plus

+J Women

We can’t really be sure when she’s in, when she’s out, but for as long as she leaves her distinctive imprint on clothes, count us in. No designer vacillates between designing and not designing for an eponymous brand as frequently as Jil Sander does. She has left her own label thrice! And each time, there seemed no chance of revisiting her designs as she meant them to be. Fortunately for us, there’s her collaboration with Uniqlo, which today launches what they have dubbed as “The Best of +J Collection”.

A greatest-hits release, in essence, can be put together without the input of the designer. We’re, therefore, not surprised by Uniqlo’s reveal that Ms Sander is not involved in this project. Still, with these re-issues, the spirit of Jil Sander is not diminished, and those who dig her pared-down looks put out as +J for five seasons since 2009 (and ended in 2011) will still find the current collection comprising 27 pieces for men and 15 for women just as relevant, just as appealing.

+J Men

Of all the brand partnerships that have come to distinguish fast fashion since Karl Lagerfeld’s collaboration with H&M in 2004 (which he would later criticise as “snobbery created by anti-snobbery” for the line’s limited quantity), Jil Sander and Uniqlo’s +J is less about specific trends than stylish wardrobe basics that can truly stand the test of the short attention span of today’s fashion consumers. And in numbers that can reach as many as possible.

It has been said that you don’t need Jil Sander to do clothes like these, but without Jil Sander, Uniqlo wouldn’t have output such clothes. The beauty of high-low partnerships is that, jointly, a final product that would not be realised without the cooperation can come about to push boundaries. With +J, Ms Sander was able to tap Uniqlo’s unique strengths to create a line that offers just that little extra, nothing more, nothing less. Every wardrobe deserves her sharp tailoring and modern silhouette.

Until the next farewell…

Uniqlo The Best of +J Collection is available at Uniqlo at Suntec City, Ion Orchard, 313@Sommerset and One Raffles Place

Quiet Elegance With A Touch Of Whimsy

Anteprima 1The classic elegance of Anteprima’s autumn/winter 2014 headlined by Holly Rose Emery and lensed by Ben Hassett

Tasteful and elegant are often bandied when talking about Anteprima. They’ve held on to the same aesthetic position since the mid-Nineties when the brand emerged in the wake of the rising tide of Italian fashion. More sort-after for their bags than their clothes, Anteprima has, in fact, propelled both to attain global visibility despite consumers’ increasing fondness for brash luxury. This is remarkable when, in today’s social media-led maelstrom that is fashion, so many labels are spotlighting their presence by approaching design as if there are Christmas trees to be decorated.

The reality is, elegance has been redefined by agglomerates of prestigious brands and re-represented by American pop stars with a penchant for extreme stages of undress. Ostentation is the new norm. Yet, Anteprima does not seem concerned by these shifts in a dismally massified society. They continue to produce elegance-infused clothes that are stripped of the voice to shout. These are quiet styles for women whose existence is marked by subtlety and whose wardrobe shuns gregarious colours. It has been pointed out that Anteprima treads the path paved by Italian vanguards of classics such as Max Mara, but the former’s timeless, practical, and versatile clothes have always been tempered by the light-heartedness of their accessories, in particular, the bags.

Anteprima G1Models parading in the latest Anteprima collection at the Paragon store

Unsurprisingly, the bags were the highlight at the opening of the new Anteprima store last Friday. It was recently relocated from the first to the second level of the Paragon, and in time to launch the autumn/winter 2014 collection with a ready-to-wear line that deserves more attention than it is likely to get. As usual, it keeps the under in understatement firmly in place, all the while clearly articulating refinement and superlative tailoring. These are not clothes for fashion peacocks, and fans of the label are happy the exhibitionists show no interest.

Anteprima was founded in 1993 by Japanese Izumi Ogino, a true global nomad even before globalism’s style-shifting role arrived to define 20th century fashion. Conceived in Hong Kong, inspired by Tokyo, and produced in Milan, Anteprima has a cross-cultural aesthetic despite its European leanings. Ms Ogino herself is a walking embodiment of her label’s carefully calibrated chic. Even with early success of its leather goods, it would take its Wirebag to place the brand among luxury good’s biggest names.

Anteprima Wirebag TipoThe ‘Tipo’ Wirebag gets the bling treatment: whimsically bejewelled to wow!

The Wirebag brings to mind Pleats Please’s Bao Bao bag. There are, of course, no aesthetic similarities between the two, but both have yielded expanded product lines based on one original idea. The Wirebag’s genesis can be traced to Anteprima’s parent company, Hong Kong’s Fenix Group, which started as (and still is) a knitwear manufacturer, and now mostly known among locals as the operator of City Super, a high-end provisions supplier. Exploiting Fenix’s knitting know-how, Ms Ogino created a new-look bag by using materials never considered before.

As the story goes, the designer was in Italy when she came across wire cords used for making spectacle straps. Inspiration, as is often noted, can strike when encountering the most unlikely objects. She brought them back to Hong Kong and had the new material knitted into bags, but apparently no one in the company thought them to be attractive. Rather than cast aside the trial pieces, Ms Ogino decided to display them in one of the Anteprima stores for a test sale. In 1998, the Wirebag was born.

WirebagThe earliest Wirebag, still in production, is now available in assorted colours

The fact that it did not die a premature death shows how well received those early ones were. The result was not only surprising; it soon allowed the Wirebag to take a mantel reserved for the iconic. In the beginning, the bags were sold with other Anteprima merchandise under the brand Plastiq (which, as we write this, reminds us of the ’80s Japanese New Wave band The Plastics: fun and irreverent. It’s not unimaginable that lead singer Chica Sato personifies these bags!). Unfortunately, a Plastiq bag has other connotation, and, in 2009, a name change was effected.

Just as with the Bao Bao bag, the Wirebag has evolved beyond its original forms—reticule-like carriers—to a staggering range that now includes totes and handbags with amazingly intricate knit work and unexpected colour play. Although not made of valuable materials, the Wirebag can look precious, and, as with so many things linked to Japanese aesthetic preferences, playful too. Bags in the form of a panda or Hello Kitty may now not be contrivances to sing about, but they do reveal many women’s fondness for outwardly cuteness, rather than containing function.

Anteprima is on level 2, Paragon

Two Of A Kind: Handling Transparency

Dior Vs KorLeft, Christian Dior Autumn/Winter 2014 and right, Michael Kors Spring/Summer 2015

In a post bursting with delight, HerWorldPlus was over the moon, declaring that “Michael Kors approves of our favourite 5 looks from his SS15 show”. One of the looks is, according to the website, “how Kors wants you to wear transparent pieces—the embellished see through skirt was ideally conservative with a tucked-in dress shirt so long that it covers all your lady parts.” And the thigh and knee are no lady parts? But that’s beside the point.

A season earlier, or on 28 February in Paris, the house of Christian Dior, led by Raf Simons, showed some evening wear that were sheer embroidered tank-dresses over sleeveless T-shirts—also embellished. The beautifully fitted tees were fashioned to be long, with the hemline going way past the hip so that by themselves, the T-shirts were really dresses too. What was exceptional here wasn’t so much the design of the two separates (although the graphic interplay of the deep scooped neckline of the dress against the adorned oblong of the tee is no less design!), but the proposal of pairing a sheer dress over an opaque inner that had the right length to guard a woman’s modesty.

Mr Simons’s Dior would never be considered “ideally conservative”, yet it embraces traditional dressmaking in the sense that the finished designs are never improper, no matter how Mr Simons juxtaposes or layers fabrics of different textures and densities. This evening ensemble for the current AW 2014 season isn’t classic red-carpet dressing, but its take on sportswear shapes is acknowledging how younger women like to dress on a glamourous night out: with no fuss, and with the ease of slipping on a tank top for a weekend trip to the suburban mall.

Mr Kors’s long shirt (not a “dress shirt” since a dress shirt would not have sleeves that are too long) worn under the diaphanous skirt may appeal to those unable to reconcile fashion and the potential exposure of “lady parts”, but in essence, the idea comes six months too late. Putting the two outfits side by side, one looks decidedly present, the other, belonging somewhat to the past.


Tait That!

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Thomas Tait autumn/winter 2014 at Audi Fashion Festival 2014

A short while ago, it was announced in Paris that Thomas Tait has won the inaugural LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize. The first winner! If anyone knows what that feels like, it has to be Kelly Clarkson. While designing is not quite like singing, to be the earliest victor of any opening competition must be the most exhilarating, life-changing experience one could wish to go through. Among the twelve finalists (picked from a pool of 1,221 hopefuls!), Mr Tait is possibly the least known, but the appeal of his designs is most impactful. This could be augmented by the influential supporters he has garnered, among them Cathy Horyn, the ex-fashion critic of The New York Times, who once called him a “maverick as pragmatist”.

The non-conformist-meets-the-down-to-earth vibe was evident almost two weeks ago, when Mr Tait showed his now prize-winning collection at Audi Fashion Festival. While only a contender for the award at that time, his collection was generally well received even when it did not enjoy the rave accorded to more established designers such as Prabal Gurung and clearly established designers such as Oscar de la Renta. Yet, for the discerning eye, not the indiscriminate wallet, Mr Tait’s clothes on the catwalk in the Tent @ Orchard had a special quality about them. It was not unimaginable that fashion icons such as Anna Dello Russo would want to wear them ahead of the season.

A Canadian based in London, Mr Tait’s designs captured a certain spirit that speaks of his adopted city: vibrant, irregular, lively. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of another London-based designer: Ashley Isham, who, too, showed at AFF. While Mr Isham tried to capture, as usual, a certain red-carpet pizzazz that could exist in any celebrity-centric city, Mr Tait vivified the English tradition of tailoring with his shape and cut. His use of colour within collages of asymmetrical forms—although sometimes bordering on over-design—could be a reflection of the vibrant mosaic that makes up London today. In terms of skills, there is a discernible following of the footsteps left behind by fellow Londoners such as Lee McQueen and John Galliano.

Even without the prize, Mr Tait’s achievement is not short of amazing. At just twenty four, he has earned an MA in fashion from Central Saint Martins (making him the youngest to receive the degree) without completing the BA course. He started his own label (fresh out of grad school) when others were still dreaming of a debut collection. Despite his youth, his work reflects maturity, sophistication, and refinement way past his age. These are qualities rarely seen in the work of our compatriots, even the older ones and those with many more years of experience. Some of them showed at AFF—a daring move since they offered nothing that could be added to the conversation about modern fashion in Singapore. Does this reveal our island’s lack of credible talent or AFF’s desperate need to fill the stage in the Tent @ Orchard?

There are—even when the numbers are small—talented designers in our city-state, and most of them toil quietly away in their little ateliers, not completely restrained or discouraged by the lack of resources. One good thing about Mr Tait’s triumph is that it spotlights young designers putting together a label that’s huge in spirit and undersized in funds. He himself has admitted, when he was here, that he “does not sleep and can’t afford dinner”, a plight many rookies would not be unfamiliar with. He cited production limitations too: his orders do not meet factory minimums, another constraint that local designers know so well since production for majority of them here is off-shore. Mr Tait’s prize money of €300,000 will be of help, so will the mentorship from LVMH that comes with the win, as well as the corporation’s immense influence.

Perhaps this is what young Singaporean designers need as a kick-starter programme: the generosity of a private corporation that has the foresight to nurture budding talents. But this isn’t Europe. Here, we wait for the government to make the first move.

The Curious Allure of Ong Shunmugam

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Back in February 2012, in an interview with TimeOut Singapore, Priscilla Tsu-Jen Shunmugam was called a “cheongsam designer and tailor”. As though to validate the pronouncement, she went on to say how she would “dig deep at our sartorial and textile history and incorporate familiar influences into the modern wardrobe”. You got the impression that Ms Shunmugam was about to start a conversation about national dress—the elusive country identifier through clothes local authorities mooted in the Eighties and Nineties that came to nought. From the onset, the 4-year-old Ong Shunmugam label that she founded was built on the cheongsam (long dress in Cantonese), something Ms Shunmugam considered “too relevant a garment to ignore”. Relevant to what or who, we were not told. The cheongsam, like sweat, clings to her.

It made its appearance in various permutations again in the label’s autumn/winter 2014 collection, presented on Friday at this year’s Audi Fashion Festival. The Ong Shunmugam show was, arguably, the Festival’s most anticipated. The hype, however, fell short. As cheongsams were earlier reported—and, hence, expected—to appear, their emergence, not in their authentic form, was bereft of surprise. You waited for the pièce de résistance, but it didn’t show up. Ms Shunmugam sent out cropped tops and many dresses, nearly all crowned with a Mandarin collar. But a Mandarin collar does not a cheongsam make.

The dresses mostly adhered to the shape that Ms Shunmugam seems to love: lean, form-fitting, and waist-accentuating. Or, as so many of today’s fashion writers and bloggers have come to consider characteristic of Ong Shunmugam: “flattering silhouette”. This acclaim is hard to make out. The cheongsam is, traditionally, not an easy garment to wear, and not many women look flattering in it. Even women in Shanghai, where the genesis of the cheongsam can be traced to, avoid it. “They’re for slim girls,” is a common response, “and we have to wear our hair and carry ourselves in a certain way: too much trouble.” In addition to the figure-revealing contours, there’s the impractically high collar, not exactly a godsend to women who aren’t Nancy Kwan or Maggie Cheung. There’s also the nip-in waist, one that does not fare particularly well with mid-section protuberance. And, of course, there’s the side slits—clearly for trim thighs and lean legs.

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To be fair, Ms Shunmugam appeared to address these concerns. For the present collection, she reworked the proportion of the collar (they were at least half the traditional height and were less snug, but the fit, it should be pointed out, wasn’t necessarily evident); she added to the waist, panels in the shape of wrestlers’ championship belt (which, ironically, drew even more attention to the stomach); and she re-positioned the side slits (by moving them to the back, creating inverted Vs that arrowed the derriere). In cases where slits were not employed to facilitate ease of movement, she raised the hemline to above the knee. Yet, the sum effect seemed only cosmetic, more so if you consider the fixation with keeping mostly the front of the garment interesting by using geometrically placed patchwork, including, oddly, in one number, a centre-front (and back) panel that hung, way past the skirt hem, like a Dayak loincloth!

Prints are indispensable for Ong Shunmugam and the collection pulsed with them. The patterns were mixed up so that they yielded a calculated clash on the bodice and through to below the waist, some in combinations that vaguely recalled the 1930 Compositions of Sonia Delaunay. Unlikely pairings such as batik florals atop oversized zig-zags showed Ms Shunmugam’s bold touch, but the symmetry of not a few of the pattern placements had a whiff of those by digital-print maestro Mary Katrantzou. It’s a treatment that can now be seen from Bangkok to Barcelona, and is seriously on the verge of becoming an annoying cliché.

There seemed to be a vitality in Ms Shunmugam’s designs that was so thrilling to the audience who packed the Tent @ Orchard that you wondered how many will rush out to buy those dresses. The reality is that, for so many women today, the cheongsam (including its variants) is a special-occasion dress or one worn by senior womenfolk at weddings. Sure, there was a novelty factor to the Ong Shunmugam semi-cheongsam dresses. They embodied, although belatedly, popular design sensibility: mixed media assembled in symmetrical orderliness within contours that articulate unabashed femininity. This is especially conspicuous in an unrelentingly flooded marketplace of floaty fit-and-flare dresses cinched at the natural waist. To the uninitiated, there was newness in Ong Shunmugam.

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This admiration may be diminished if, despite the visual seduction, it could be noted that so many of Ms Shunmugam’s ideas had been expressed before. Whether to design the cheongsam anew or breathe new life into the use of batiks or find fresh pairing between East and West, they had their share of proponents. In the Eighties, Singapore’s Esther Tay created the hybrid sarong skirt (minis too!) that she was noted for with much commercial success. And she was never shy in her manipulation of ethnic fabrics such as batiks and ikats. Similarly, Malaysia’s Christopher Choo tempered the Eastern sensibility of his designs with songket, blurring the line between what was cultural and what was not. Indonesia’s Ghea, too, explored (and still does) her country’s textile heritage through her neo-hippie designs, yielding Western fashion that were cheekily Easternised. Presently, Guangzhou-born American designer Vivienne Tam re-invented the cheongsam with tongue firmly in cheek too frequently to be countable. Re-invention itself is so commonplace that you can find kooky versions in cheongsam outfitters such as Tong Tong Friendship Store on Beach Road. And if you thought Ong Shunmugam’s apron-like insets in her cheongsam-dresses were novel, you have not seen Phillip Lim’s 5th Anniversary show in Beijing in October, 2010.

(In the January 1993 ‘Ask Thomas…’ column that Thomas Wee wrote for Her World, the designer, who’s a skilled cheongsam maker himself, said, “The only women who look good in batik cheongsams are arty Theatreworks type. Otherwise, wear it only if you want people to call you Auntie!”)

It is admirable that Ms Shunmugam is keen to “fashion a rethink of traditional garments” so as to forge something a contemporary audience can accept. But was what she did a radical re-envisioning of the cheongsam, as some fans (including the National Museum of Singapore) seem to think? The hybrids she created married traditional elements of a cheongsam to contemporary dress shapes that, regrettably, were not on the side of exciting or innovative. To be certain, the cheongsam itself is a meeting of numerous influences, and, in the same spirit, the Ong Shunmugam dresses were a fusion of styles. They, too, could be lauded for their chromatic boldness. However, if you looked at the overall shapes, seam work, placement of darts, and the fit of sleeves, these harked back to dressmaking of a less technologically advanced past. It was hard to see why so many of the dresses merit showing on a catwalk.

It is not certain if Ms Shunmugam casts herself as cheongsam designer or tailor, but as an agent of change, she is not. Tinkering with icons of the past needn’t be a futile experience (or experiment). But to effect a persuasive synthesis of the old and the new, the sleek and the kitschy, Western and Eastern, it has to be done with finesse. Some things need to get better before they can be good.

Atelier Ong Shunmugam is at B1-36, Hong Leong Building, 16 Raffles Quay

Highland Fling, Not Singapore Sling

Prabal Gurung @ AFF P2

Last night, Prabal Gurung opened this year’s Audi Fashion Festival (AFF) to a 650-strong audience. The collection was met with such rapture you’d have thought they were presenting the retrospective of some long-gone French couture great.  It was, instead, a welcome-home embrace for Mr Gurung, who accepted it with a smile not often seen on the catwalk—these days a display platform on which any sign of mirth is as congruent as shouting in a library. Home is, of course, only figurative since Mr Gurung resides in New York, and any connection to Singapore, where he was born in 1979, weakened when his parents took him and his diapers home to Kathmandu not long after. Yet, the idea of home-coming is so powerful and appealing and newsworthy that The Straits Times could not resist featuring Mr Gurung on the cover of today’s main paper.

Until Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge wore one of his dresses during her visit to Singapore in 2012, few here had heard of Mr Gurung. That off-white, slim-fit silk dress with swashes and swirls of purple that could be abstract representation of Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’ stood in such contrast to what her co-host at the event she was attending wore that you were inclined to commit the outfit to memory. The Duchess is known to don clothes that acknowledge design talents of the host country: it was no exception during her sojourn here. There was the Raoul dress, but, following that, it seemed there was nothing else she could pick that shone with Singaporean pedigree. For the Duchess, Prabal Gurung was the next best thing. For Singapore, he was the best thing. Suddenly we have an overseas designer we can call our own, underscoring the obsession with foreign talent that has made us the nation we are today. Great, isn’t it? Watch out, Ashley Isham.

Prabal Gurung G1For AFF, Mr Gurung showed his autumn/winter 2014 collection: a look that may be summed up as Hollywood-hottie-goes-to-the-Himalayan-highlands. The wrapping, draping, and twisting—they were a nod to those non-city folks who have a flair for turning swaths of fabric into clothes, and will be alluring to those celebrities who love outfits that appear assembled by artisanal hands. The appeal was in the narrative too, the long and short of it meandering through a mountain-scape, picking up ideas seeded in Mustang, the Nepalese/Tibetan source of Mr Gurung’s declared inspiration. And since this landlocked district aloft ancient kingdoms is mostly alien to the audience, it was amazing how they could buy into his depiction like a child sold on Disneyland.

The collection could have been ponderous under the weight of the exotic and a scene set so far away but it wasn’t. It could have been an expression of something spiritual—Shangri-La discovered—but it wasn’t. Not monastic, not austere; not bucolic, not severe. In Mr Gurung’s landscape of fashion, flat and plain were not discernible. It was, and has been, rolling hills of rich and varied vegetation. This season, he mixed textures—plush pile with wispy drapes—and combined shapes that appeared to be built upon sportswear. And he showed he could tie scarves!

The Prabal Gurung aesthetic wasn’t always like this: his designs tended not to betray his early training with Manish Arora and the later years with Bill Blass. His woman: more Anna Wintour than Audrey Taotou; more Michelle Obama than Michelle Williams, and you’re usually conscious of what she wears, or as he puts it to, “a femininity with a bite”. Let’s chew on that.

Audi Fashion Festival is on at the Tent @ Orchard, Ngee Ann City until 18 May 2014. Prabal Gurung is available at Tribeca, Forum The Shopping Mall. Photos: