Vague World

Or, when the contents of the Vogue Closet fell onto a street in New York

Serena Williams opening Vogue World with an uninspired stroll

On the Vogue website, there was a black-and-white digital clock that had been ticking for days, counting down to an event that the brand/magazine did not describe in detail, possibly so that curiousity about it could be kept burning. Even Anna Wintour was mum about Vogue World: New York, as it is called, only hinting in the recently shared video 73 More Questions with Anna Wintour that it would involve lots of clothes, so much, in fact, that it required the “Vogue army” to organised them. Not even the venue was disclosed (was it even an IRL event?). It did eventually happen last night (New York time) on a street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, a now-“glamourous” hipster neighbourhood (its name gives you an idea of what it was before) that is sandwiched between Chelsea to its north and the West Village in the south. Much of the streets here are paved with cobblestones made of Belgian blocks. That Vogue would stage an event down here on streets that could be high heels’ enemy, rather than at some place glitzier and carpeted is perhaps indication that the magazine is making itself—and the brand—a lot more accessible.

It described Vogue World as a “first-of-a-kind event” and a “global” one. Although staged in New York, it was live-streamed to the rest of us nowhere near that part of the city. The show was also a celebration of the magazine’s 130th year. On account of that, it had to be big and boisterous. (And no one more so than Kanye West, who arrived late enough that, while walking to his seat, he was mistaken as a model.) The show was prefaced—somewhat inexplicably—by a group of runners exercising their legs in the dim light, some with what appeared to be flags flapping behind them, like capes. Then it opened with Vogue’s September-issue cover girl Serena Williams in Balenciaga cape and dress, who looked like she was not quite thrilled to be on the runway, sauntering while a voiceover of her saying how she wants to be remembered could be heard over the apt soundtrack of Arthur Russell’s This is How We Walk on the Moon.

‘Sports couture’ at Vogue World

Brooklyn Beckham and his wife Nicola Peltz enjoying themselves on the runway

Although Vogue World took place during New York Fashion Week, it was not quite a fashion show like the rest that were staged in the city at this time. This was a Chingay approach to fashion presentations. The carnival mood was unmistakable, with street-style performances between each fashion segment to pump up the revelry (the cultural part was there, too, when a trio of sari-clad girls came out to do their Bollywood number). The clothes, purported to show the trends of autumn/winter 2022, were not based on collections. They were single looks from many designers (name them and they were there), but you might not know or remember the styles unless you have an encyclopedic memory of what were mostly shown back in February and March. Who wore what was not identified for the benefit of viewers. Although Vogue had sussed out the supposed trends (there were five main ones, as vogue.com reported later), you can‘t help but feel that they were rather forced (gowns and boots!). And somewhat haphazardly grouped, rather luan (乱 or messy). Perhaps Lil Nas X’s performance (that began with the singer seated next to Ms Wintour) to wrap up the runway extravaganza was designed to play down that shortcoming.

Vogue World was not just a show. As it turned out, what the models and stars wore could be purchased, reviving the old see-now-buy-now model that brands introduced with enthusiasm some years back, but is now largely forgotten. You could go to the Vogue website and find the links to the items that caught your attention and shop away. If you need to try before buying, an AR element, conceived by Snapchat, allows you to virtually put on the clothes no matter where you are. Like its print form, this is to push purchases for their advertisers. Is vogue.com then also sort of an e-store, and did we see additional revenue streams for the multi-platform title? Is the site now into live-stream selling, minus an ebullient host? According to Vogue’s creative editorial director Mark Guiducci, the show is a reflection of “all the ways in which fashion is changing. It comes at a moment when designers have become multi-disciplinary creators, innovating how we engage with fashion—even virtually.”

Shalom Harlow, one of the many ‘supers’ in the final segment of the show

Lil Nas X starting his performance while seated next to a delighted Anna Wintour

Vogue World could be seen as a big-budget, celebrity-endorsed, brand-building exercise. It reminded us of the eponymous Fashion’s Night Out (also launched in New York), the just-as-flashy, get-people-shopping-again initiative that was launched on 10 September 2009, twelve months after the doomed Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. The year 2009 also saw Barrack Obama sworn in as the United State’s first Black president and the perpetuation of the financial crisis and recession that hit two years earlier, in late 2007. Fashion’s Night Out was Vogue’s contribution to improving the grim retail climate then. It eventually spun off into international editions in different hub cities. Could Vogue World—presently linked to New York—too have other editions in cities where Vogue operates. There was, for example, a Fashion’s Night Out in Tokyo in 2008. In 2013, Fashion’s Night out in New York ended it’s increasingly disfavoured run. But in Tokyo, the event continued until 2020, but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, took place as Fashion’s Night In—an online affair.

It is hard to say how Vogue World will pan out. The show might be enjoyable to those who were there to see it, but to some (perhaps more?) of us watching on our devices, it teetered discomfortingly close to blah. This was Vogue at its inclusive best. The community-arousing performance, with its strong street culture, would have won the approval of the late Virgil Abloh. But what else could we glean from it? Former British Vogue’s fashion director Lucinda Chambers, after she was “fired” by the then in-coming editorial head Edward Enninful in 2017, now considered the most powerful Condé Nast editor after Anna Wintour, told Vestoj in a revealing interview that “we don’t need any more bags, shirts or shoes. So we cajole, bully or encourage people into continue buying. I know glossy magazines are meant to be aspirational, but why not be both useful and aspirational?” And why not magazines’ promotional events too? This may be a Vogue World, but is it a new, better world?

Screen shots: vogue.com

The Prada Singlet

And the asking price of S$1,480

“Pragmatic garments acquire new importance and value”, Prada says on its website in reference to their “typically masculine tank top”. That Prada would give seriousness and status to clothing this practical is understandable. But what about value? Are they referring to merit or material worth? First shown in the autumn/winter 2022 show in Milan back in February, the sleeveless top is now available in stores here for the startling price of S$1,480. Under the same roof, a “wallet with shoulder strap” in the house’s recognisable Saffiano leather and with gold hardware is noticeably cheaper—S$1,070. And you thought the similar Marine Serre version (in organic cotton though), with her crescent moon logo in the middle, expensive at S$200 a pop. How does a mere singlet, as we tend to call such garment (Prada prefers the American phrase), that is essentially an undershirt become a four-figure item? Or is the price determined to deter wearers from letting it sit under? Surely it has to be seen?

To be sure, the Prada singlet has a nice hand feel. In baby-ribbed, cotton-knit jersey, it is soft and surprisingly rather thick and does not yield easily to enthusiastic stretching, possibly due to the heavier-gauge yarn used in the fabric, and that it is for the fall season. The neckline—described as “scooped” but is rather squarish—and the surprisingly wide armholes are piped (quite widely) in the same fabric as the body. Although of a “fitted silhouette”, as per Prada, the singlet sits rather loosely on an average-sized woman. In the middle, right below the neckline, a recognisable Prada inverted triangle in enamel catches attention, like a third eye—here, seeing from the cleavage. Without this, the singlet, even if it “embodies the luxury of simplicity”, would not have stood out from its less-worthy ilk, such as those by Hanes or the Japanese brand Gunze.

In the middle, right below the neckline, a recognisable Prada inverted triangle in enamel catches attention, like a third eye—here, seeing from the cleavage

This singlet, Prada tells us, is “is transformed” from a “typically masculine tank top… with the addition of feminine elements”. While the neckline and possibly the armholes are feminised, the garment is unable to divorce itself from the regular singlet once worn mainly by men. This top, when it emerges as outerwear in the mid-19th century has always been associated with the working class or, in Australia, where the name ‘singlet’ derives, shearers, miners, and farmers. It is a simple garment, made of durable, inexpensive rib cotton knit that is appreciated for its comfort and shape retention (the neck and the armholes are usually reinforced for added durability, as it is with the Prada). It is not associated with high-end fashion, but so are T-shirts. Nothing is too low-brow for luxury fashion when brands desire to offer everything one may need to fill one’s wardrobe.

This is not Prada‘s first singlet, of course. One iteration in the past that we recall has far less discreet branding on the chest (emblazoned with logo and crest). We cannot remember how much that cost, but it is unlikely above S$1,000. A Calvin Klein tank top under its Calvin Klein Jeans imprint, averages S$79 a piece, and that is still premium pricing. One Hong Kong-based sourcing agent told us that such tank tops “typically cost US$1 to 2” to produce if Chinese cotton is not used (they are now cheaper as most international brands are avoiding them—“nobody wants China cotton now”). Fabrics make up the largest component of the cost of the garment, and the fibre of the fabric usually the largest of that cost. Cotton fibres outside China preferred these days come from Peru and Barbados, to name two places. We do not, of course, know where Prada’s cotton for their singlet comes from, but, in all likelihood, it’s not a fabric so astronomically priced that they could justify the four-figure price the brand is asking for.

Garment pricing is, of course, somewhat complex and includes factors beyond manufacturing and the quantity produced. The one item on the singlet that is probably it’s selling point rather than the “pragmatic garment” itself—and a symbol of perceived value—is the triangular Prada plaque. As one marketing head told us, “the Prada brand value and their logos sit in the stratosphere. And they are worth more than the ribbed cotton singlet, which is just a vehicle to push the brand. You have to pay to wear that triangle, and not an insignificant amount. Somehow they have worked the ‘COE’ into the price of the garment.” The Prada triangle first mostly appeared on bags and accessories. It started to find its place on garments in a significant manner, sometimes just a mere triangle in fabric and sans text, after Raf Simons joined the company as co-designer in 2020. The plaque is appealing all over again, even on gloves.

But as with everything else in fashion, including ugliness, expensive is being redefined. That a singlet could cost this much is not due to the design and the sensuality that the brand has infused into its garments and one that has been described as cerebral, but a single hardware no taller than the length of an adult thumb. Prada is aware of the humble history of the singlet. That’s why they need to elevate it and team it with relatively fancy, not minimalist, skirts, as seen on the runway, in the current lookbook, and on store mannequins, not with just a pair of jeans—that would be too pedestrian. And to further augment its value, that small regular shape with three angles, a vestige of luxury that will cost the proverbial pretty penny. That way, you would single the singlet out.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Dior, Not Again

Chinese Netizens think Dior is guilty of cultural appropriation once more

Painterly parallel: (left) print on a Dior dress and (right) a Chinese painting by Lu Ji. Photos: Dior and collection.sina.cn respectively

Before the first accusation has died down, before an official statement is released in response to the denunciation, out comes another. Dior is not well placed in China this summer. It could be 流年不利 (liunian buli) or that the year has been inauspicious for Dior. Or, it could be that Chinese consumers have been paying the brand with 眼不转睛 (yanbu zhuanjing) or strict attention. After the controversy of the horse-face skirt, the maison is again criticised by Chinese Netizens for cultural and artistic appropriation. As with the previous drama, which saw Chinese students protest in front of the Dior store in Paris, the brand has not responded. They could be hoping that the furore would eventually die down.

Last week, the first complaint emerged on Weibo, when one Netizen sharing a side-by-side photo of a Dior varsity jacket and a traditional Chinese 花鸟画 (huaniaohua) or flower-and-bird painting, with the garment sporting similar blooms and winged vertebrates, even colours. Others started posting photos of a dress and a trench coat with prints that owe their similarity to Chinese paintings that are evocative of those of 10th century (or later) China. It doesn’t help that the choice of the “beige” fabrics is not dissimilar to (now-aged) Chinese paper or silk on which those paintings were executed.

Full view of the Dior shirt-dress with the Jardin d’Hiver motif. Photo: Dior

The Weibo users who disapprove the Dior motif possibly took offence at the brand describing the “Dior Jardin d’Hiver (winter garden)” as its “signature motif”. On the website, Dior states that the print is “a poetic and exotic representation of Mr Dior’s wall tapestries”. We do not know what the founder of the maison exactly had on his wall, or whether the provenance is Chinese. It is possible that what Mr Dior owned was a work in the style of Chinoiserie (also referred in Chinese as 中国风 [zhongguofeng]), a French word that refers to European interpretation—and also imitation—of Chinese (or Oriental) art, especially decorative art. Of course, something that was installed in a residence does not necessarily become a “signature motif” and with its similarity to Chinese artistic tradition, is not hard to understand that it might be thought of as a “copy”. Similarly, Dior considering its horse-face skirt lookalike a “hallmark silhouette” is provocative when, to the Chinese, it cannot be.

But Jardin d’Hiver as motif and inspiration go as far back as the Marc Bohan years. And the print looks quite different on the Book tote and silk scarves. When we studied the version that appeared on the SGD5,200, beige, cotton gabardine shirt-dress, it was, to us, evocative of paintings by the Ming dynasty painter Lu Ji (呂紀), such as the striking piece titled 秋鷺芙蓉 (qiulu furong or autumn heron and hibiscus). It is probable that Dior will remain mum on this new controversy too since it is, as some observers noted, unlikely that the brand will be affected by a few (and possibly not Dior costumers) who seem determined to “find fault”. But this could be seen as the result of consumers being culturally self-aware, and Dior might serve its image better if it can say that it did not just plonk a motif on a dress to lift it from being a nothing-to-look-at without considering how one of the largest markets for luxury goods would react.

What Is A Horse-Face Skirt?

In China, this Dior skirt is considered to be one, and not many are delighted that the French house called the silhouette its “hallmark”

Dior mid-length pleated skirt. Photo: Dior

In hanfu (汉服) or traditional Han Chinese dress, there is a skirt with two pleated sides and a flat front (and rear) panel known as ma mian qun (马面裙) or horse-face skirt. Worn since the Song dynasty (宋朝, 10th century) through the Qing dynasty (清朝, 1644—1911), even the Republic era, the skirt is characterised by side panels that are pleated (褶 or zhe), and the front and back that are not. This season, Dior offers a similar “mid-length pleated skirt”, as it is called. Nothing terribly wrong with that accept that the French house describes it on their website as “a hallmark Dior silhouette”. It was this description that ticked Chinese Netizens off this past week when they saw the skirt online (it is now removed from the Dior Chinese website). So similar it was to what the Chinese know as ma mian qun that many spoke up in disapproval, even the online Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. “The so-called Dior silhouette is very similar to the Chinese horse-face skirt,” it opined somewhat angrily. “When many details are the same, why is it shamelessly called a ‘new design’ and ‘hallmark Dior silhouette’?”

It is not known if the Dior skirt was indeed based on the ma mian qun or just inspired by it. Or, in fact, a take on Sacai’s own interpretation. Maria Grazia Chiuri has rather been into pleated skirts recently, churning out many versions of them for the house’s autumn/winter 2022 season. Some of the skirts are schoolgirlishly short, some are hipster-style asymmetric. Regardless, they are very much a part of Ms Chiuri’s re-imagining of what constitutes modern prettiness and what might be a badge of present-day feminism. On their website, the “mid-length pleated skirt” is recommended to go with a T-shirt that reads on the chest “Femininity, the trap”. Dior was apparently contacted by local Chinese media for comment regarding the former’s ma mian qun lookalike, but has yet offered a statement.

A Chinese full-length ma mian qun or horse-face skirt. Photo: 百科

The horse-face skirt, also known as the horse-face pleated skirt (马面褶裙 ma mian zhe qun) is not named after any equine face. If there is anything related to horses, it is in the openings of the four-panel (四裙门 si qun men), apron-like skirt in the front and the rear that facilitate the mounting and dismounting of horses (or, as one report suggests, donkeys), making riding easier. Its popularity through the many years could, therefore, be attributed to its functionality. The reference to horse faces could be due to the flatness of the front panel (usually unadorned too) of the skirt, which the Chinese called ma mian (马面) or horse face. The first use of the phrase is believed to be in the publication History of the Ming Palace (明宫史) by the Ming Dynasty eunuch Liu Ruoyu (刘若愚), although horse-face skirts date back to the Song.

With the rise in the popularity of hanfu in China and an increasing suspicion of Western brands (after so many created communication materials that purportedly put Chinese people in unflattering light. This would be Dior’s second misstep in China after last year’s photo that “smeared Asian women”) taking advantage of their culture, it is not surprising that Chinese consumers are becoming a tad sensitive when it comes to how their culture is represented or, worse, “appropriated”. The similarity of Dior’s skirt to ma mian qun is probably coincidental, rather than a deliberate attempt at seizing a silhouette for themselves. But we do live in sensitive times, and brands would serve themselves better by refraining from potentially problematic expressions such as “hallmark”. Dior would want to listen to public opinion and not wish the Chinese to think that the maison, in not acknowledging its skirt’s resemblance to one of the Chinese’s own, is—keeping to bodily parts—胸无点墨 (siong wu dian mo) or chest without a dot of ink (literally). In other words, culturally bereft.

Frightful Times Call For Monstrous Clothes

If fashion is a mirror of an era, Marc Jacobs’s newest collection is a reflection of what outrageous ugliness we need to fit in with the present

Probably the last to present his autumn/winter 2022 collection, Marc Jacobs is also showing us how horrible the world is. And what ugliness of dress we need to meet the atrociousness head on. What Mr Jacobs proposes is a near-deformity of shapes (or not the usual with which dressmaking classes will teach measurement and proportion) that will not look out of place in the presence of clothes that seek to change ’ugly’ from a negative to a positive. Much of the pieces are bulky; they alter the natural outline of the body, effecting volume and mass(!) where we once did not desire to see. If the oversized puffer—first offered by Balenciaga in 2016—normalised the bulky upper body, Mr Jacobs girthy sweaters recommend that any part of the wearer can be given extra volume, gainly or not. A sure lesson, we think, for fashion students learning about silhouettes and the aesthetics of lines: bulk up wherever you like.

Quoting Nietzsche (in the show notes)—“We have art in order not to die of the truth”, Mr Jacobs’s brand of fashion-as-art has a whiff of the proportions of Botero imagined on a skinny body. And what is the immediate truth confronting Americans presently that requires the distraction of art, wearable as it were? The overturn of Roe Vs Wade? Are the wraps, knots, drapes, and tucks of the clothes that cause the shape of the body to distend also the “creativity (that) is essential to living (Nietzsche again)”? Mr Jacobs is considered one of the most creative American designers of his generation, but his creativity has shifted considerably, from his early years of promoting grunge (that complicated his career then) to the avant-garde of the proportionally-challenging since last season. Mr Jacobs has never shied away from acknowledging who has inspired him. This season, it’s an edge by way of Rick Owens, Rei Kawakubo (again), and a touch of Charles James under the bulk, with a nod to TikTok.

“Super size me” is, of course, an American enlargement of everything, from cars to stores to (fast) food to fashion. “Go big or go home” often means things in the US are just larger than the same elsewhere. Does upsizing boost the desirability of the item bulked up, just like McDonald’s French fries? “The showman of New York” Mr Jacobs uses bigness theatrically, not necessarily to attract women for whom clothes are not inherently a visual display. The enormousness is not quite the same as The Row’s oversized blazers. Some observers appreciate his exaggerated shapes for their “couture-like sensibility”, but most of the looks are based on ultra-large pieces tied to the body to create the mass. Already bulky knitted sweaters are sized bigger so that when worn or tied to the front, they are even hulkier. A top (jacket?), with sleeves tied across the naked breast, is so huge that the sleeves are large enough to accommodate thighs. Similar tops go round the hips to create bustles without (presumably) padded cushions. Gowns have skirts that are so ballooned that they make Issey Miyake’s inflatable dresses look barely bloated. It is unclear how these clothes can escape being cumbersome.

But there are, conversely, the barely-there pieces too. Itsy-bitsy bra tops to cater to the likes of Emily Ratajkowski, who is at the show. Interspersed among the aberrantly massive clothes are slim skirts (with a gaping back!) and slender dresses (in lace) for those occasions when bulk would just take up too much space. However, not to be outsized are the bags: One shoulder tote in the style of the triangular Japanese azuma bukuro (or cloth market bags) is so large it could probably fit a week’s grocery in it. Or, those massive and tall, five-strap, platform clompers that would not look out of place in the TV series Pose. Mr Jacobs has loved those by Rick Owens since 2019, before the pandemic. He has made versions of it before, but in this season, every model—both men and women (the clothes are unisex, we understand)—are shod in a pair, either in black or white. One of them nearly fell! Despite the brand’s seemingly waning popularity, with this collection, and the recent reported restructuring of the brand, the storied New York name that is Marc Jacobs is not likely going to come tumbling down.

Screen shot (top): Marc Jacobs/YouTube. Photos: Marc Jacobs

Celine Equals Cool

But coolness is not necesarrily fierce or edgy

It takes a certain woman to wear Celine. She must be of a certain age (young, of course), have a certain height (tall, of course), a certain weight (thin, of course). And a certain insouciance (haughty, of course). If that’s not particularly inclusive, that’s because it is not. Hedi Slimane has a very specific woman in mind for Celine. That’s why in the show credits of the autumn/winter 2022 collection, it is clearly stated that it’s Mr Slimane who casted the production (and did almost everything, including the directing and filming). That is why he very specifically chose the pride of Thailand, Lisa (born as Pranpriya) Manobal of Blackpink, pictured above, as his purported muse (her second video-runway presentation for the house). Ms Manobal, of Swiss and Thai parentage, is 25 years old, 1.67 metres tall, and weighs about 45 kilograms. With a look that is part sexy, part schoolgirlish, and part ingénue, she is perfect. A native of the Isan province of Buriram, Ms Manobal is now the face of Parisian street-style cool, starring in Celine’s current ad campaign, Portrait of a Musician.

Mr Slimane, as it is popularly known, has a thing for singers and songwriters. This season, he has specially commissioned (and even co-produced) for his stubbornly still filmic runway, a track, Byron is Dead, by the American indie hipster-rocker Leah Hennessy, performing as Hennessy, her New York band. The song is a catwalk-as-disco extension (spin-off?) of their charming and infectious and immensely likeable dance-punk cover of The Waterboy’s We will not be Lovers (from the 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues), which purportedly first drew Mr Slimane to the alt-leaning artiste, looking somewhat Byron-esque in the MV of that single. It is admittedly a delicious pairing—the electro-moody pulse-thrust contrasts with the first venue, the 18th century interior of Hôtel de la Marine in Place de la Concorde of the French capital (designed by the same man behind Versailles’ Le Petit Trianon, Ange-Jacques Gabriel) and beats suitably in the “architectural pavilion”, as Celine describes, of the second that Mr Slimane has designed on the grounds of Hôtel des Invalides. It is doubtlessly a controlled affair, based on the exact obsessions of one man.

Mr Slimane told Vogue in 2020 how crucial music is to the clothes: “I just immediately recognise the sound that reflects the character I want to depict in a show and that could give a rhythm for a specific allure and walk for the models,” adding, “the soundtrack and cast are what define the styling, its degree of credibility, its authenticity. What you hear and what you see are all part of one thing, one world as a whole.” It is, of course, Mr Slimane’s world, his whole—an aggregate comprising everyday staples that have been raved by fans as “elevated” (the hoodie now an elliptical dress?). This has always been his approach, but whether anything is raised to a higher level is not always discernible. It is as if he plays the wardrobe master on tour with a rock musician. Mr Slimane does not design the way, say, Glenn Martens does. He has a keen affinity to ‘looks’ of the past and recreates them with the vernacular of today, born on the streets of Paris. There is always a vintage-y vibe. As one fashion journalist told us, “give me a few hours in Chatuchak, and I’ll be able to style a collection like that!”

Called Dans Paris (in Paris), the collection purportedly harks back to Celine’s roots. But it has less to do with the decade of its founding (in the ’40s) than the years of its heydays (in the ’60s and ’70s). Turtlenecks are the base for many of the ensembles, worn with thick chain-link necklace, under tops/outers that would be familiar among work-wear aficionados. Jackets are either oversized and slouchy, or boxy and cropped. Denim jeans of a lighter wash are prominent, with their stitched/laundered/unstitched hem. So too are slim-fitting skirts of varying lengths that suggest either secretarial sleek or party-girl scantiness. Leather this or that are aplenty too. Hedi Slimane’s Celine is the go-to label when women need something considered “dressed up” and the compulsory cool, whether a night with the BFFs or impressions-are-important dates. The dress with a ruffled top, the side-boob-revealing halterneck blouse, the long sheath with cutouts at the waist and the slit in the middle—and others—attest the truth of that observation. These are feel-good clothes for a good-time out. And the times are back.

Screen shot (top): Celine/YouTube. Photos: Celine

Bag For Two

…and three. And other sartorial delinquents of Thom Browne

The autumn/winter 2022 show is for both people and bears—teddy bears. In the middle of the show venue, Thom Browne sat a classroom (or conference?) of hundreds of teddy bears, all togged in Thom Browne, naturally. Mr Browne has, of course, a thing for toy animals, and they are there, such as the dog-bag Hector—only this time, it comes with two handles meant for a pair! Toy, as metaphor, extended to his beloved New York, to which the show is also homage to, as well as its inhabitants. It isn’t a surprising expression of pride. Mr Browne has always found kinship through his work with those whose outward appearance we might call gila. He calls his home “an island of misfit toys”. And those outsider-oddballs are dressed accordingly, totting bags that are the plush-toy embodiments of pets, as well as those that are more vehicular. Quite a sidewalk of curiosities.

Mr Browne has largely pivoted his designs on the suit, which brandishes his flair for tailoring that is often described as “fastidious”. He is partial to shades of grey, and patterns and textures much tethered to menswear and is even more favourably inclined to include lots of sport coats, especially the uniquely British regatta blazer. But in his hands, they have less in common with those adopted for the sport of rowing than the blazing pieces worn by ringmasters of a cirque (this season, a madcap schoolmaster, perhaps?). Preppiness may also be the seeming effect, but subversiveness is clearly part of the equation, for the Thom Browne fan is no collegiate stiff.

The show could be considered a two-parter: the first, what would be ‘standard’ (not disparagingly) Thom Browne. The regatta blazer with a particularly constricted tailoring that is very much a part of the brand’s recognisability plays its versatile role. The pieces are designed to be gender-neutral—teamed with skirts, no-issue staples among the guys. Most are pleated, with inserts that could be club ties. Or, paneled with what could be fancy washing machine outlet hoses, in clashing fabrics. Some of the skirts are above the knee and worn over demure wide-cuffed culottes. On the whole, the outfits are enchanting, with a digestible schoolhouse prim that is possibly even more appealing, perhaps, in the US, where the wearing of school uniforms is not adopted.

But Mr Browne has to have fun too, and when he does, so do we. In the second part, the clothes take a fantastical spin, crossing too closely over to the absurd, tempered by their couture-ness. There is no denying the skill level required to make these outfits that defy the shape of the body: massive quilted coat with lobster pincer to glove the hands, giant golf ball-as-bodice for a sweater, bulbous protuberances on lean dresses, multiple sleeves on one-piece outers, a box shape of a toy soldier for a top, and the immense crinolines that even Scarlet O’Hara’s Mammy would find challenging to handle. Despite their wow-inducing effect, it does beg the question: would all these aesthetical aberrations be possible without the path layed out by stalwarts such as John Galliano and Rei Kawakubo of Conme des Garçons? Regardless, they are all in time for next week’s Gilded Glamour at the Met.

Screen grab (top): YouTube. Photos: Don Lecca/vogue.com

The Skin Show

After being accused of sexual assault in 2019, Alexander Wang makes a tacky comeback with a late, autumn/winter 2022 show

When you look at the Alexander Wang clothes now, it would be hard to connect them to his two-year stint at Balenciaga. Or, remember that he was once there. Mr Wang’s designs for his eponymous label have never truly left the parameters of streetwear and partywear. And he is taking them to no wear—clothes that are barely there, between those that hip-hop artistes need when they want to show their panties on the red carpet or their under-boobs for racier-and-racier music videos and those that actresses choose for revenge-dressing after breaking up with a high-profile boyfriend. He knows what his customers want, we have often been told. He still does, undoubtedly. But why does a designer, blamed for sexual assault (to which he initially denied, then apologised, and then privately met the accusers), return with a collection that places sex squarely in its heart, with the kind of clothes that would prompt his haters to say that the skimpy outfits encourage the behaviours that he was accused of?

Many supportive celebrities (of course, friend of the house, K-rapper CL, was there)—as well as his rabid fans—seemed unconcerned with his predatory past; they were out giving him the thumbs up for his cheesy “Fortune City”—his make-belief emporium of party-on fabulousness. Alexander Wang made a “comeback”, not in his home city of New York, but in Los Angeles, specifically in LA’s gaudy Chinatown, with neon lights for store names and for outlining the kitschy architecture of what is typical of Chinese buildings. It was earlier reported in the American media that Mr Wang was re-connecting with his Chinese heritage. In Chinatown? And what is so Chinese about this part of Central LA other than the foods and the gift shops that he was concurrently helping to promote. As before, Mr Wang’s show was really about the “WangFest”—this time, a yeshi (夜市, night market) that offered guests dim sum and, of course, bubble tea. There is, to us, something terribly lazy about tapping Chinatown and its attendant clichés, and passing that off as aligning with one’s roots.

Mr Wang is, of course, looking at Oriental aesthetics through his Chinese-American eyes, but more the latter than the former, as if pandering to Americans’ idea of what Chinese (or Asian) is. Exotic is crucial as subtext for a collection that says nothing about how he saw his ethnicity in the greater language of design. Mr Wang, born in San Francisco, is, in fact, Taiwanese, and it was the Chinatown of the American West Coast that completed the mise-en-scène of his sleaze-tinged, chinois-not collection. Reportedly, Alexander Wang (王大仁, or Wang Daren) is doing well in China, but it isn’t the fashion equivalent of noodles that he is selling to the Chinese, it is urban Americana revealing substantial skin. Tackiness, as we know, is borderless. And skin-baring is nothing new to him, but coming after February’s New York Fashion Week, his skin show was rather belated. Yet, it did not deter Mr Wang. Or was this merely deflecting from those allegations of sexual misconduct?

If you were hoping to see some rehabilitation of his image, you would be disappointed. It really bordered on the irritating to see more of those skimpy horizontal fabrics revealing much of the breast as clothing. Is there really a huge market for a bodysuit that had more body than suit? Or those ruffled halter-necked pieces exposing much of the torso that one product development manager we know called “vulva tops”? A next-to-nothing Shein has not done and will not do? Even Adriana Lima, pregnant, was mirroring Rihanna on the runway. As we have lamented before, autumn/winter is this scanty? Or, is the US really not that cold any more? Well, if you need to keep warm, you could amp up the vampiness—there are also those crotch-high boots and up-to-the-armpit leather gloves that could have been those very boots wrongly sized at sampling stage! It is truly hard to discern a takeaway from all this. BOF was right to say, “but even before the allegations, Wang’s brand was waning”. Truly, is it still cool to wear Alexander Wang?

Screen grab (top): Alexander Wang/YouTube. Photos: Alexander Wang

All That Tweed

What is Chanel channeling?

A fashion collection may be conceived six months or so earlier, but at the time of its showing, it is hard not to put it in the context of what is happening around us. When the general mood reflects a troubled world, where, in one corner, a war rages, however upbeat the clothes are, they would just look unconvincingly optimistic. Chanel’s autumn/winter 2022 collection (not the models) tries to project a certain joie, but it falls flat under the weight of one of its own ‘codes’: the tweed. So enamoured with this fabric Virginie Viard is that the entire show venue—the temporary exhibition hall Grand Palais Éphémère in the greenspace Champ de Mars—is done up in tweed. Unsurprisingly, the collection is an unsubtle, effort-lite homage to this cloth that was once associated with menswear until Coco Chanel rattled the status quo in the mid-1920s.

The house calls it “a luminous tribute to the landscape of the River Tweed so dear to Gabrielle Chanel”. A natural stream, River Tweed (also Tweed Water)— however beloved to Coco—is not, in fact, directly connected to the history of the woolen fabric. As the story goes, it was an accidental name. In 1826, in the town of Hawick, a label on a shipment of the wool to London read “tweel”—the word the Scots used for twill (one of the weaves of the fabric; the other plain). It was misread and confused with the name of Scotland’s famed river, and the moniker stuck. Tweed, according to some lexicographers, is also an old Brittonic word meaning “border”, which makes sense as the river flows through the Anglo-Scottish border, also known as the Borders region.

Any mention of ‘border’ these days, unfortunately connects us to territorial security (or insecurity?) and conflict—in particular, the one now seen in Ukraine. Sure, Chanel’s colourful tweeds this season does not bring to mind the besieged nation (Ms Viard told the press she’s inspired by London in the ’60s), but the aesthetical sum seems to point to the dress preference of certain women of means of the attacker state. While tweed is a symbol of Scottish culture, it is also a show of immense wealth—the Chanel tweed jacket a veritable status symbol. That in itself does not stir much thought until one sees in the designs that Ms Viard has dreamed up for those undeniably sumptuous tweeds. Hard as we tried, we could not decipher who this collection is for other than the unquestioning die-hards and the paid muses. Could Chanel still be thinking of the wives (or mistresses?) of oligarchs, even when the company has stood alongside other French brands to pause their retail operations in Russia?

The platitude that Ms Viard is increasingly tacking Chanel to is hardly unnoticeable. Her designs appear to seduce the purchasing might of those with money but not taste, with power but not influence. Compounding that, the pieces are inexplicably frumpy! And, suppressing the urge for a rude modifier, boring. Apart from the tweed jackets, coats and dresses in relaxed shapes that would appeal to grannies (but truly those for whom brand name and celebrity endorsement could easily supersede brilliant design), there are those curious cardigans that could have been swiped from a Salvation Army. Or, that pink sweater with appliques and scarf borrowed from a GUM department store sales girl! Sure, an attempt is made to style them young, but even denim shorts and knit leg warmers under Wellingtons can’t distance the clothes from any pile marked stodgy.

Screen grab (top) and photos: Chanel

At LV, The Young Will Change The World

Nicolas Ghesquière pins his hope on youths

Louis Vuitton showed its womenswear outside the Louvre for the first time since 2017. The presentation this season took place at the Musee D’Orsay, situated roughly 800m diagonally opposite the Louvre, on the left bank of the Seine. As it turns out, the museum, a former railway station (Gare D’Orsay), is host to a fashion show for the first time. It is not known why the change in venue (the previous show was still at the Louvre, also a nascent fashion show venue with LV five years ago), but going from one museum to another may not be that much of a difference for Nicolas Ghesquière. The models (still) parade among the exhibits—sculptures, this time from the 1800s—under the watchful gaze of the musee’s famous 1900 clock on one side and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s The Four Parts of the World Holding the Celestial Sphere from 1872 on another. The clothes, typical of Mr Ghesquière’s output for LV, are, however, much more multifarious.

This is the mix and match that he does so well. Perhaps, more the mix than the match. And what has been described, as far back as his Balenciaga days (who even remembers that now, given how different the brand looks today?), a reflection of how the young, unconcerned with perfect pairing, dress—a mediation that never quite left him. Only now, the youths are not togged in the same devil-may-care disregard to styling as those of some twenty odd years earlier. Now, it’s still lacking the match, but with a heap of the mis. In addition, there’s the cradling of gender-neutrality. And a love of exaggerated shapes. The massive jacket, for one (the doing of a certain Demna Gvasalia?). And, to join that hulk, those oversized polos and rugby shirts. Just as clothes no longer stick to either function or occasion, could the last look—a Ralph Lauren-ish polo beefed up by IOC-frowned substances over an airy date dress—be an undergrad recovering from a night of partying in her boyfriend’s dorm room and leaving in the morning with his sports shirt?

The boyfriend’s polo aside (a natural progression from the boyfriend’s jeans?), Mr Ghesquière is partial to a more masculine aesthetic. We are not referring to the mannish blazers, sized to fit those with way broader shoulders; we are referring to shirts and trousers, and the overcoats that would just as easily fit a beau’s wardrobe. This androgyny has been rather consistent in Mr Ghesquière’s collections for LV, and they could be a deliberate consideration. We have been told on more than one occasion at LV stores that guys are buying from the women’s section, even when, a staffer once informed us firmly, “Nicolas Ghesquière does not design for men. But guys can buy”. Could it be because LV Men is too gender neutral? The women’ clothes do not, however, bank on masculine appeal. There are clearly feminine tropes—some previously explored, such as this season’s flaccid panniers (as opposed to the last’s more rigid and bouncier ones) and those vague mini-crinis with tails. A school-going lass with caparison in her mind than scholarship?

The general cheerfulness of the collection and the collegiate leaning, shown in a beautiful Beaux-Arts former train station, say almost nothing about the ongoing conflict in Eastern Europe. Not that it has to. LVMH has already announced a €5 million donation to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Perhaps that is enough for LV to stay mum about how it feels. Or perhaps, the choice of venue speaks adequately. Its own history as a railway station is connected to World War II. A plaque, hung on the side of the building, commemorates its role in the war years. It was used to collect parcels that were sent to prisoners of war, and when the conflict ended, it served as a reception centre for freed prisoners during their return. That perhaps is the message: the present war will end.

Screen grab (top): Louis Vuitton/YouTube. Photos: gorunway.com

Balenciaga’s Optics Of War

Models are still fashionably togged, but can they escape artillery shelling in spiked heels?

As the Balenciaga show goes on in Paris, news reports comes forth that Russian artillery attacks continue to rain on Ukraine’s residential areas throughout the country. Agreements with Russia earlier on a humanitarian corridor have largely fallen through, and residents are evacuating in droves. Reflecting this grim reality is the Balenciaga presentation, staged in Halle d’Expositions in Le Bourget, the northeastern suburb of Paris. Models brave machine-created snowstorm and gust, trudging, even in heels and above-knee boots (who has time to put them on under the threat of approaching attack?), through a scene originally created to be a warning about climate change. But with the war, the set becomes a timely discourse and, to a considerable extent, memoir of treacherous escape from military conflict. As Demna Gvasalia (now preferred to be known mononymously by his first name), told the press, “But it turned into something else, which often happens with my shows, somehow.”

The audience sees the presentation behind a see-through panel/shield. Looking on, what stands before could be a massive snow globe, but there is no fairy-tale or festive cuteness within. Instead, a diorama of people in peril, with a soundtrack of Slavonic piano to augment its bleakness. It is tempting to say that fashion is inclined to make light the gravity of things, but we do not sense that here. Demna himself said, “To me, fashion somehow doesn’t matter right now.” But fashion, like any show, must go on. The designer was a victim of war—at ten years of age, a refugee fleeing Abkhazia, Georgia in 1993, and was sheltered in Ukraine, where he went to school and learned to speak the language. At the beginning of the show, in total darkness, he reads a poem in Ukrainian. It roughly translates as “your sons will save you”. Although the words are intended for those who understands the language, Demna does intone, “the message is love, always. And fashion has to assume that, at least in terms of taking a position on it.”

But the allusion to war is not an equivocal one. It it can be seen and felt. And many do see and are touched, such as Bryan Boy, who quickly Twittered, “I don’t think I’ve ever bawled in a fashion show until now”. The show may be about evacuation, but it was about defiance too. Demna wrote in the show notes that cancelling the show to say no to the war would have been “surrendering to the evil that has already hurt me so much for almost 30 years”. The authenticity—a less-hackneyed word may be preferred aside—of putting together a show by someone who had been through what is happening concurrently perhaps adds to the poignancy of the production, and to the clothes that are not entirely visible in the precipitative blurriness. Still, there is a tad of incongruity, when freshly-single, always-visible Kim Kardashian, “friend” of the house, sat in the front row, all bound up—in caution tape, labelled Balenciaga no less!

It is not a show that’s easy to watch, not only because of what it evokes, but also because what is seen are mostly the teetering, and the mere silhouettes. These are identifiably Balenciaga silhouettes: beautiful but, at times, ghostly. In the fog of war and inclement weather, bagged-up shapes and floating trains could be either the bourgeoisie in escape or the peasantry in flight, or both. The models, with wet hair, appear to have just taken their last shower. There are the half-naked, covered by a blanket (or is that a towel?), plodding through the snow. Some of the outerwear look like there are taken off a neighbour’s clothesline. But others—the dresses—could be a refugee’s finest because even in fleeing, you’d want to look your best. Many of them carry bags that look like black versions of those used by hotels for laundry. Perhaps better to contain everything you wish to bring along at the last minute. As Demna told the press, he “made everything less madame, less bourgeois, less upper-class”. It is not hard to second that.

💙💛💙💛💙💛

Screen grab (top) and photos: Balenciaga

Dior: NFT-Ready?

But, is the Bar suit and the sheer skirt prepared to make the jump?

The opening look of the Dior show would have you believe that Maria Grazia Chiuri has embraced the metaverse and is readying her designs as possible NFTs. The first model—real, not digital—of this season’s show emerges into a dark runway, her material bodysuit lit with tracings of green-hued electroluminescence that is evocative of the colour of the title design of the 1999 film, The Matrix. The squiggly lines meander on both sides of the body and limbs, forming a symmetrical pattern. When the light comes on, the black bodysuit could be mistaken for the motion capture (or MoCap) suit actors wear to record their real-life movements and so that their actions could be digitally applied to a 3D character. But Dior’s feeble dalliance with the special effects is not quite the entry into the metaverse that we thought it might have been.

That out-of-place model merely prefaces the tech used in some of the clothes. This suggestion of technological advancement is not a rupture in Dior’s way forward or wrapping itself in digital legitimacy, just a visual gimmick. According to the brand’s press release, a tie-up with the Italian tech start-up D-Air lab, known for its D-air, described by the company as “a sophisticated personal protective airbag technology”, allows Ms Chiuri to re-invent, for example, the house’s Bar jacket. It is now given the external D-Air lab contraption that, we’re told, “transforms the structure of the original model (the jacket) into a system that regulates the body’s humidity and warms it up if necessary”. Does that not sound like Uniqlo’s Heattech (or Airism), minus the gadgetry? But add the tech and the garment becomes, as Dior states, “an ultramodern celebration of self-assertion”.

Take away the technological-innovation-as-feminist-predication, the clothes enjoy the usual delicate and traditional femininity that Ms Chiuri is partial to. All her favourite items are there, augmenting the waisted-and-flare that is de rigueur to the Dior of her tenure. Is it a wonder that many do say Ms Chiuri has no more than one silhouette in her repertoire? Sure, there is some branching off. Skirts are now asymmetrical, and those half accordion-pleated versions have a distinct whiff of Sacai’s. If you look closely at the clothes this season, there is something even more disconcerting: strange fit. The D-Air lab devices add bulk to areas of the body that normally are without. Puffers wrap the body to look like poorly shaped dumplings. Oversized trucker jackets hang on shoulders listlessly. Corsets, although emphasise the waist, do no follow the contours of the bodice and hips. Leggings have oddly loose crotches. Perhaps more baffling is the wear-it-like-a-blouse fit of one jacket—the common reaction, “why is there so much excess fabric on the chest?” We don’t know.

The set of the show is an installation, The Next Era, by Italian artist Mariella Bettineschi (reported to be a feminist), who has placed black and white portraits of “female figures from the History of Painting”, as per Dior’s description, on the four walls of the show venue, but now, each woman eerily has two pair of eyes (“All the better to see with”, to quote the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood?). Ms Chiuri named the collection after this exhibition, but we can’t be certain if her “next era” refers to the one after the pandemic or the Russo-Ukrainian war. With a space-age-y soundtrack that includes 2018’s Linnaea by the British electronic musician Pariah, you’d think that Dior is being topical, if not ironic. If you wonder how that would bode for the brand, consider another track: American post-rock/electronica trio Son Lux’s Lost it to Trying!

Screen grab (top): Dior. Photos: gorunway.com