Visited: & Other Stories

H&M’s girlish sibling is finally open. Could this be the closest we’ll get to Cottagecore?

The first & Other Stories in our city

The storefront two weeks earlier, at its opening

Back in April, after seeing the hoarding of the & Other Stories store in ION Orchard, we were told by the helpful staff at COS next door that their sister brand and new neighbour would open in the last quarter of the year. As it turns out, & Other Stories welcomed shoppers on the 19th of last month, considerably sooner that expected. As with any new opening (or for that matter, closing down!), the store drew a large, rummaging crowd, like pigeons at feeding time, in the first weekend of its rather quiet debut. To avoid the crush, we paid the store a visit two weeks later, and on a week day. And it was a pleasant roll in the barn for us. The imagery of the country building is deliberate. This is probably the closest to Cottagecore—an aesthetic trend that emerged around 2017—we’ll get here in a retail concept.

To be sure, it is not all-out rural charm. But on the day we did not enter the store—just after it opened, the entrance was flanked by a profusion of flowers in jars and plants in pots, and a kiosk-on-wheels that would not be out of place in a Tenille Townes music video. When we were there last week to shop, the country props fronting the entrance were removed, but the hint at Western agricultural life is still evident. From the farmhouse chair and wooden screen in the window to the coated iron racks and display tables with timber trestles, the vast interior is far more bucolic than the stores of its sibling brands, H&M and COS, have ever been, or desire to be. Atmospherically enhanced, this could be & Other Stories’ selling point: There is the very real possibility that you’d linger.

It is likely that the store’s visual merchandising is a strategic approach to capture the attention of shoppers increasingly accustomed to the near uniformity and predictability of e-shopping. Physical stores (H&M brands are primarily a brick-and-mortar business) have to try harder than their online counterparts. Although there is something old-fashioned about the in-store look of & Other Stories, the layout avoids lines of racks after racks of clothes, with pockets of space that are islands of accessories and others in what would otherwise be a lake of garments. This may bode well for the store’s ability to entice and engage those who do not consider shopping as a grab-and-go moment. Sure, there are many who do not consider physical stores to hold real value, but it is possible that more might not be underwhelmed by the physical sum & Other Stories.

The not-modernist lines of the store make for a space that is less cold, less uninviting than other similarly not-atas brands. The entrance is lined with plants on both sides, hinting at a warm, even cosy, interior ahead. Clothes are worn on tailor dummies, augmenting the interior’s subtly old-fashioned vibe, circumscribed by pale, near-white walls. These are not left bare, but appended with photo collages and what look corkboards (or the rear of framed canvas panels?) on which clothing hang, or more photographs are attached. We sensed that there is an attempt at recreating a schoolgirl’s room, with its natural disorderliness, but no clutter. Plants, placed on the tiled or wood-panelled floor, or on wooden stools, as well as dried variety on tables—continue to appear throughout the space, ensuring its calculated homeliness.

Although a single-brand store, the irregular-shaped space is separated into zones of various sizes. It is not immediately discernible if in each there are different fashion categories (excluding accessories, footwear, and bric-a-brac), but there are pockets in which discoveries could be made. This could, of course, be due to the novelty of a first visit. The clothes are, consistent with the Cottagecore sensibility, largely print-driven—flowers the mainstay. If the florals are insufficiently feminine, there are dresses with frills and flounces, and “flutter sleeves”. For most international brands, this is the season of the first drop for fall, but at & Other Stories, the collections seem to reflect a far warmer season, which could make a more sensible product launch for their debut here.

At the rear, the space is akin to a boutique—“more atmospheric”, as one SOTD follower said to us, which could be reference to the seemingly warmer lighting here, as well as the pale wood floor. Impressive is the width of the aisles, with the racks and shelves assigned to the perimeter, providing adequate room for a group of girlfriends to amuse themselves without creating too much traffic obstruction (regrettably, there is no space for bored boyfriends or spouses to wait, or even a stool on which to lay a heavy backpack). The clothes here seem dressier, even party-worthy. Plunging neckline, the halter neck, and the one shoulder provide the sexiness that frills and the like may not. It is also here that the fitting rooms (unusually not hidden) are situated. Each is a wood-framed unit with curtains for doors. And there is sufficient foreground for queues when they are necessary, or for those offering their opinion to observe comfortably. As we turned to walk away, we heard a young voice behind us exclaim approvingly, “yes!”

& Other Stories is at Level 3, ION Orchard. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

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

A Different Wang

Another streetwear brand banking on a family name. This is, however, not by that Wang

Team Wang Pop-Up store at The Shopping Gallery, Voco

It is probably the buzziest store opening since the start of the pandemic. Team Wang Design, a rising star in the firmament of “luxury street wear” opened yesterday evening to intensely enthusiastic response. If you are unfamiliar with the newish label, it is understandable that you’d think that Team Wang is linked to the designer Alexander Wang. But it is not. The label is, in fact, the brainchild of popstar Jackson Wang (王嘉尔). He has, as fans are well aware, added fashion designer to his resume. But if Team Wang sounds familiar, it is because Alexander Wang (王大仁) had used it too, and the phrase was employed for his collaboration with H&M in 2014. But Alexander Wang’s “team” of musicians, muses, and models who were associated with him were often referred to by the press as his “squad”. Team Wang is thus dissimilar as it is not about a clique (or, worse, hangers-on). Rather, it was initially set up to manage Mr Wang’s growing commitments in China and then to include a record label and now fashion design too. And Mr Wang seems to acknowledge that the brand’s creative output is a collective one.

And the clothes have found their way here through the auspices of Club 21 who has set up the eponymous pop-up—dubbed Mudance—not only on our shores, but in Chengdu and Bangkok, concurrently. As early or late (it really depends) as eleven yesterday morning, The Shopping Gallery at the former Hilton Hotel, now Voco Orchard, was busy, not with shoppers, but with construction crew setting up the opening of Team Wang Design (the shop was still merchandise-free) and, unsurprisingly, numerous female fans reserving a spot to catch their idol (this was an invitation-only event). Two hours before the party was due to start, there was a dispiriting crowd, restrained by mills barriers just to the left of the main door to the lobby of the hotel. The side entrance to The Shopping Gallery was shut too. The girls were visibly excited, presumably expecting the star they had been waiting for to arrive by car and alight at that very spot. This was happening as it rained. If the reception the fans gave Mr Wang at Changi airport yesterday was any indication, this really was not surprising.

Outside Voco Hotel, fervid fans waiting patiently despite the rain

But unexpected was the wait that invited guests had to endure. The invitation to the event stated 6.30pm—presumably the time it would the start. Jackson Wang had arrived some fifteen minutes earlier to a screaming welcome. He was escorted to a room in the hotel, where he went to “freshen up”, as the chatter at the lobby of the hotel went. Guests were held around the escalator to the second floor, where the proceedings would unfold. An hour had past, but most of the attendees were still waiting in the increasingly unbearable heat. Nathan Hartono in a salmon-coloured, sweat-soaked tee, would later share on Instagram a snap of him and Mr Wang, with the comment, “…I am clearly sTrUgGliN 🥵🥵🥵”. But still-waiting Fiona Xie, togged in Team Wang Design, appeared to be getting impatient. Jean Yip, the beauty mogul, and her family were seen heading for the exit, telling someone, “we’re leaving. Bye.” Those with more clout could make a phone call while aggressively pushing their way through the crowd and be ushered up the escalator, immediately. Word started to go around to explain the delay: Mr Wang had accepted a media interview. Ms Universe 2016 Cheryl Chou, chatting with someone, was cheerily indifferent to the crowd’s waning patience.

Sixty five minutes later, the escalator was ready to transport the guests one floor up. Wrist bands issued earlier had to be shown for entry. At the top of the escalator, a large crowd had already formed. A fellow escalator rider was heard wondering angrily: “We were waiting for so long, but actually so many people already here?!” Inside, the pop-up, Mediacorp stars and influencers had first dib of the offerings, including the man of the hour himself. Dressed simply in a black T-shirt (with sleeves folded up) and black pants (not jeans), he was obliging everyone who approached him with selfies and polite chatter, but remained inscrutable behind vaguely cat-eyed shades, which he kept on all night. When he left the store to address the crowd outside, grown women near the door were hyperventilating: “Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!” The people who should be there—the screaming fans—were not. They continued to wait in collective high for their idol to exit the hotel. Somewhere above them, he was dancing enjoyably, fenced by more-delighted, also-bopping lasses.

Jackson Wang addressing the crowd outside the Team Wang Designpop-up at Voco

Jackson Wang was born in Hong Kong before he moved to Seoul to be part of the group Got7, a name that would work very well on our island. As fans know by now, Mr Wang was spotted while playing basketball in school by JYP Entertainment (Stray Kids!) agents who managed to persuade the school goer to join an audition for the company’s global search for talents. Among 2,000 participants, he came up top. Although around this time he was offered a Standford University scholarship for fencing (he was very much a sportsman, following the footsteps of his fencer father and gymnast mother), he turned it down. Instead he answered the calling to do music. He accepted the JYPE offer and moved to Seoul in 2011. Ater two years of notoriously tough K-pop training, including a made-for-television competition which pitched trainees of JYPE against YG Entertainment (Blackpink!), Mr Wang was made member of Got7, debuting with the single Girls Girls Girls in 2014. The rest is, as is often the case with K-popstars, has been the unstoppable rise of Jackson Wang.

Last year, it was widely reported that Got7, JYP Entertainment’s “most successful boy group”, has “terminated” their contract with the company. This came amid fan dismay that JYPE had allegedly not done enough for their boy groups, with Got7 singled out (their career had curiously been dominated by EPs rather than full-length albums, for example), leading to the thread on Reddit, ”JYP STOP SABOTAGING GOT7”. Fans were distraught that their fave septet would be no more. But, The Korea Times clarified in an editorial just three months ago that without JYPE, “this was not the end of GOT7―instead, it was a new beginning”; the group released a self-tiled EP. Even when recording new material with his band mates, Jackson Wang was forging ahead with his own carrier, concentrating on his homeland market, China. He founded Team Wang in 2017 as, first, a record label. The 28-year-old is considered to be quadrilingual—“fluent”, many say, in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean, so the plan was to establish him as an international star. His first single under Team Wang was 2019’s all-English Papillon. A year later, he released a duet with soon-to-begin-his-world-tour JJ Lin (林俊杰), the R&B-ish Should’ve Let Go.

The one print of the collection—tiger tails hidden in the profusion of peonies—that seems to draw shoppers

Team Wang Design was birthed in pandemic-high 2020, reportedly after three years of gestation. HBX, the e-store of the streetwear news site Hypebeast, describes the label, which it carries: “Wang’s vision is to align his brand with his wardrobe”. But the rapper-turned-designer is known to be partial to Fendi (although he has been associated with Armani and Adidas). He is, according to Vogue, “a Fendi muse”, and so enamoured he is with the Roman label that he even rapped about it in the track Fendiman from 2018, and urged his listeners with the plea, “call me Fendiman“. That possibly lead him to sign, a year later, with the brand as their China ambassador. Although his own label was not released until two years, he did rap in the same song, “Team Wang, label what I made”, preempting that the clothes would be on par with Fendi’s. The first collection and the core line that reflects the brand’s DNA, Cookies—The Original, comprises what are almost synonymous with streetwear: T-shirts, hoodies, blousons, trackpants, and hoodies, and all in black. The images for the launch are admittedly arresting, and are evocative of brands with European roots.

Team Wang Design, in many ways, treads the path already paved and trodden by HK-star-conceived brands such as Edison Chen’s Clot or Shawn Yu’s Madness. Celebrity multi-hyphenates are really crowding the pop/design sphere, and it would take more than references to Chinese culture, motifs and whatnot (a direction also adopted by Clot), to stand apart from the rest, or the West. The latest collection of Team Wang Design is part of another line called Sparkles. Like Cookies, the pieces would be considered staples that Mr Wang’s fans would not find challenging to accept. The brand says on their website that “pastel pink, flowers, and this season’s iconic floral design” are for “creating the perfect midsummer party”. Mudance, a play on the name of the Chinese flower mudan (牡丹花) or peony, is about enjoying oneself; is about play. Mr Wang told Vogue Thailand last month, when he was in Bangkok to shore up support for the Bangkok leg of the pop-up, “It’s summertime and summer is fun, and it’s crazy. Everybody jump (sic), and everybody needs to dance. So that’s why this collection we call it Mudance.” If the word would not excite lexicographers, the print may move graphic designers. He explained further: “It is a mixture of, of course, the mudan flower and the year of the tiger.”

The queue outside the Team Wang Design pop-up this morning

This morning, along the sidewalk between Voco Hotel and Wheelock Place, many youngsters were carrying the familiar Club 21 paper bag. Emerging from the side entrance of the renamed hotel, two teenaged girls in oversized tees and invisible shorts were each with the same carrier. We asked them if they had just visited the Team Wang Design pop-up. They froze with shyness. We told them we just wanted to know if it was any good. “Yes,” they chorused and giggled. “We came last night, but they won’t let us in. No invitation. So we try again today, lah.” Was it packed? “There is a queue,” they replied in unison, again. “The store opens at 10.30, but we were here at nine.” Your bags are full. Did you buy a lot? “Yah,” and they moved off with a gurgle of giggles

The pop-up is in an actual shop lot. Outside, two gold, metal trees (palms?) rose out of an irregular sand pit, set on a plywood floor in the colour of, well, peony. (The sand suggested the seaside and, therefore, beach wear. According to Mr Wang, it “is something I’ve always wanted to do; I’ve always wanted to do a beach pants [sic] for guys and then, a bikini for girls”.) Inside, the massive space, with just two racks of clothes, looked like it was half-dipped in pink cream. The light emerging from it cast a pale patina the shade of strawberry milkshake over the beach set-up. A queue that continued to lengthen had formed on the perimeter of the sand pit. There were mainly girls in the line. One of them was heard exclaiming, “I love this pink”, concurring with Jackson Wang, who said in the Vogue Thailand interview, “I chose pink because—honestly, personally—I’m a big fan of pink… And I just wanted to do it… I’ve always had a feeling for pink.”

Team Wang Design pop-up store is at Voco Orchard until 31 August 2022. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Close Look: Marni X Uniqlo

A collaboration of colours and prints that Uniqlo would not normally put out on their own

It is possibly Uniqlo’s most anticipated collab since the return of +J two years ago. Marni—known for their charmingly naïve prints, off-beat colours, and the unexpected pairing of either of the two—had applied their sense of the peculiar and the playful to Uniqlo’s staples, such as their packable parkas, utility jackets, and open-collar shirts. The result is a happy hippie-fication with 21st-century hands that few other fast fashion labels, if any, would produce, and with such commendable quality. While +J was minimalism that was almost severe (not at all a negative), Marni X Uniqlo is quite the opposite: they are a mirthful mash-up of the spontaneous, sportif, and spirited.

We had expected the turn out at today’s launch of the collab to be big, but when we arrived slightly past noon at the Orchard Central flagship, there was no line to be seen or empty spaces between stanchions and ropes (these, too, were missing). We could go in as we pleased. Some pieces for both men and women were displayed at the entrance. Those familiar with the launches of Uniqlo’s special partnerships, walked straight to level two, where at the space next to the escalator landing on the right, the output of hyped pairings is usually sited. A young couple was drawn to the T-shirts placed on the circular display unit at the entrance. The guy picked up a red/white striped T-shirt with bolder contrasting red/khaki lines at the back. His female companion slapped it back to the pile, telling the puzzled fellow, “it’s too gay.”

At the dedicated space upstairs, the crowd made comfortable shopping a tad difficult. The enthusiasm was palpable as shoppers picked the items by the basketful or discarded the unwanted anywhere the clothes can be stuffed or dumped (and you thought Marni appreciators are better shoppers). Some items were sold out, we were told: the floral wide-fit pants visibly so (in both colours, and online too). Popular sizes of items such as the shorts were also gone. Uniqlo has, this time, made some of the pieces of the collab available in outlets other than the big stores (where the full collection is sold). It’s possible that what was no more at Orchard Central could be in abundance elsewhere (such as 51@AMK?). Unsurprisingly, the least popular item, we gathered, was the oversized ‘half coat’. Other than being a Blocktech item (read: heat trap), it was oddly available as a woman’s item, when it could easily be unisex, as the shirts and tees were.

While the collection was, at first glance, agreeable, closer inspection revealed some technical choices that Marni made that, to us, were not what might be considered commensurable to popular taste. The T-shirts came with oddly wide crew necks (and a little too skinny) that, when exposed to the tumble drying of the washing machine, may widen further. Shorts, although elasticised (and came with draw cords) at the waist had no belt loops (but the longs got them). The women’s open-collar and long-sleeved shirts came in a rather heavy 100% polyester while the men’s are in 100% cotton (which are, of course, available to women too, in sizes up to XS).

However, what to us were less-than-ideal choices may not be so for other shoppers. The opposite is true too: We thought the flattering balloon-shaped skirt with its clever patterning to keep the volume was really swell, but many women we saw who picked it up would return them to the rack just as quickly. One of them told her companion, “too heavy” and the other added, “too dressy.” Not far, a mother, accompanied by her teenaged daughter, picked up an oversized shirt with all-over flowers. “Cantik (beautiful)?” The older woman was seeking approval. “Too big, mom. You can hide two chickens in it.”

Marni X Uniqlo is now available at Uniqlo stores and online. There is a limit on purchases. According to Uniqlo, only “1 quantity per item per person” is allowed. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Balenciaga Embraces Pride

With a capsule that’s gender-neutral, of course

It is Pride month, so, like last year, Balenciaga is offering a capsule to entice members of the LGBTQIA community and their friends. However, if you are hoping to score a pink balaclava, you would be disappointed. The follow-up to 2021’s “Gay” is “Anybody Is Queer”, a proclamation that is as vague as it could be provocative. The clothes are typically Balenciaga-street, and expensive (S$180 for a pair of socks!), with your fair share of tees (oversized), hoodies (baggy), and jeans (a bit ’80s, a bit ’90s) for however you identify yourself—or do not, or whichever event you will be attending: March or picnic. And being Balenciaga, whose designer Demna Gvasalia is openly gay, these are not necessarily separates that have a particularly queer vibe, if you don’t style them that way.

One denim look (top) will no doubt delight cis-gender, clothes-optional Julia Fox, assuming she would not consider it too modest (just drop the jeans?!). The denim is washed until it’s a hint of uneven baby blue. The trucker jacket is overly-large, with a collar that would fit someone at least three times the wearer’s size. The pair of jeans is mom/dad in shape, and comes with pointy booties attached to the seemingly straight legs. Worn with the white undies, the sum is decidedly anti-fashion fashion, but with a clearly flex—to use a term familiar in the gay community—advantage. You can look either way in such a get-up. Or not look any way at all.

The capsule has been lauded in the media as one that is right for this pride season. It is not immediately clear how exactly this will bridge the sexuality divide still pervasive in our society, near and far. It could be said that the clothes do not overtly pander to sartorial stereotypes of the LGBTQIA community (except maybe the fitted and cropped tank top [above]), but it may not negate the belief, misguided or not, that queer folks place a premium on image, as well as indiscriminately adopting trends. One of the things Mr Gvasalia (or his team) did to play down the gender binary is to re-imagine one of the most common gender symbols—those that are mostly found on signages denoting or pointing to public toilets used separately by primarily the two sexes. Balenciaga’s redraw shows a couple of indeterminate gender holding hands, each looking like a conflation of the two figures we are familiar with: one bifurcated from the waist down, the other skirted.

For the launch, Balenciaga has deleted the past post of its Instagram account, leaving only seven images from the Anybody is Queer campaign, lensed by Patrick Weldé, the French stylist-cum-photographer, a creative synthesis that is rather uncommon in fashion. Kudos to the casting, some queer activists told us: there is no type. Anyone can be queer. Everyone can be someone’s 菜 (cai) or dish. There is no singular way to be gay: The models look like they could have come from any neighbourhood, even if they are better dressed than the boy or girl, or boy/girl next door you know. Fashion can be this gender-blind, sexuality-immaterial. Happy Pride Month.

Anybody is Queer, or the Pride 22 capsule, is available at Balenciaga and online. Photo: Balenciaga and demnagram/Instagram

But Not Today

Design Orchard is “re-launched” after it closed last month for renovation. Is the store “elevated”, as they promised. Is it rejuvenated? Is it, finally, sensational, almost two years after TaFF took over its operations?

The day after its re-opening on 20 May, Design Orchard was considerably quiet. Two or three courting couples were browsing, but no purchase was made, as it appeared to us during our reasonably long visit. Two Caucasian women were happily looking at what could be resort wear. One had wanted to try something, but it seemed the dress she picked was not available in her size. They, too, left—without buying anything. A day earlier, the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF)-operated Design Orchard opened to brand owners and friends of the store after a month of “transforming to a fresh new look”. It was a roaringly festive affair, with lion dancers in red and white 狮子 (shizi) costumes prancing their way through the re-configured space—most obvious, the runway display that directly faced the entrance was now removed. It was rather surprising that, for a retailer that had proudly touted its offering of top local fashion, the re-opening welcomes shoppers with a Wellness Festival, which, according to them, was staged in conjunction with the inaugural Wellness Festival Singapore, “an initiative by Singapore Tourism Board (STB)”, the statutory board that “owns” the Design Orchard project, which is jointly supported by two other government agencies, Enterprise Singapore (ESG) and Jurong Town Corporation (JTC).

Two and half weeks after that rousing re-opening, a by-invite-only “official relaunch” party was organised last night to introduce Design Orchard’s stable of brands, some new, some not, as well as “a lot of enhancements” given to the three-year-old, 9,000-square-foot store (touted as a “retail showcase”), according to TaFF CEO Semun Ho. Contrary to what the invitation tantalised, a runway-less fashion show—forty minutes late—took place on the central aisle of the made-over space. About thirty designers and labels participated in the presentation, all with varying degrees of calibre, originality, relevance, attention to finish, and design savvy. The show may have been in a refreshed space, but the clothes seemed the “same-old, same-old”, as a few attendees shared, disappointed by the staleness. One industry veteran said to us, “The renovation, at most, was superficial. More important—which wasn’t done enough—was that they should have used this opportunity to completely overhaul their labels”.

Designer Carol Chen (right) with two models in her “couture” gowns

The “highlight” of the show, someone was heard saying, was TaFF’s star designer Carol Chen, with her newly established “Couture” label. She sent out two of the ten looks that were presented in Paris three months ago, during—but not part of—Paris Fashion Week. The first was a green, long-sleeved, belted, polyester-mesh column. On the bodice was an embroidered encrustation that appeared to have been something molten, flowed from the right shoulder to cover the breasts, and then solidified. That was followed by her finale gown (also the last to appear in Paris), an atrocity of pleated polyester organza, bunched at the shoulder to create a towering protrusion on each side, with the left that refused to stay upright. The tented skirt was an amusing disarray of swirls that one attendee described as “an explosion”. Someone followed with, “Where did she get her fabrics from? Arab Street?” Before the show commenced, chatter emerged between the clinks of champagne flutes that, initially, only one of Ms Chen’s gown was picked for the show. Dismayed, she allegedly went straight to the top to know why a mere gown was selected and why she was not closing the show (the organiser had, apparently wanted her to open). She had her way.

It has been said that we were harsh on Carol Chen Couture’s Paris debut. It was the label’s first time showing in the city, we were duly reminded. A baby first step. Re-reading the post now, we realised we should have said more. We wanted Ms Chen’s show in the French capital to be good, to do our nation proud, to justify her lofty standing in TaFF. But, at the same time, we did not want to lie. When we listen to a vocal performance, for example, we want to be drawn into the singing, without being too concerned with the technical failings (there shouldn’t be any). Whether from fry to falsetto (assuming a he is behind the mike), the marvelous octave leaps, we want to be able to sail into the story telling. Similarly, when we read, say, Jane Austen (a name that just came to us), we want to be absorbed into her narrative. There is a discernible intelligence in her work that we, the readers, feel, and this can be attributed to, among many things, the unmistakable skill of her writing. Perusing her novels, we do not need to be disturbed and distracted by problems of syntax or construct. We cannot, regrettably, say the same of Ms Chen when we acquainted ourselves with her designs: the lack of technical finesse was as confounding as the crude white running stitch she used in one pink couture confection to hold part of a bodice to the inner garment. “An artist’s principal task,” wrote Truman Capote in A Voice from the Cloud, “(is to) tame and shape the raw creative vision.”

The in-store fashion show to mark the “re-launch” of Design Orchard

To be sure, Ms Chen, basking in her post-Paris pride (in the presence of her “mentor”, Vogue Singapore publisher Bettina von Schlippe and her ardent supporter, fellow American Paige Parker; both were dressed by Ms Chen), should not have to bear the brunt of essentially an inflated show to evince what Design Orchard lacks: Design. Carol Chen Couture was not the only label that set the conversation going about the paucity of imaginative, high-calibre, laudable, well-executed designs in this city-state. Much of what was presented in the show was saved by clever styling—it rescued the presentation from tanking into complete blah. As it’s usually said in the image-making business, “styling to hide”. What, indeed, was the styling concealing? If you broke down the looks, there was really nothing much to see—the proverbial all show but no substance. Even veteran designer Thomas Wee’s relaxed elegance was lost in the convivial busyness. No woman—or man—should need to go to such lengths to look fashionable because there was no fashion to begin with. Spirited can be meaningless, just as jovial can be mere façade. We have to admit that we expected too much, thinking, this time, we could see design, but if design manifested, it was thin and, mostly, unfelt.

And what was Design Orchard projecting? It was hard to tell from the show clothes. Was it streetwear? Resort wear? Or, sartorial rojak? What struck us was the odd plethora of ethnic styles. It seemed like we were watching a show that was part Night Bazaar of Chiangmai, part Love Anchor of Canggu, Bali. Two weeks earlier, we did notice in the store that there was an increase in clothes made of folk fabrics, such as batik, ikat, and the tie-dyed. These were in addition to the already-plentiful resort-wear-seeming clothes (including one “luxury resort fashion brand”) that have taken a firm grip in the merchandising of the store. When we asked around with the hope of finding the answer to why the prominence of these clothes, a repeated reply was, “ask Tina”. When TaFF took over the running of Design Orchard from the ill-fated Naiise in 2020, one of the first hires was Tina Tan, the fashion doyenne behind the Link Group, and the sole owner of the multi-label store Link Boutique, the fashion label Alldressedup (precursor to the independent In Good Company), and the home-furnishing/lifestyle shop Living the Link (all three are now defunct), as well as the ad-hoc, travelling showroom Privato. Ms Tan, as we understand it, is the consultant curator, and she has been instrumental in bringing the inchoate mass of brands into the store. According to staffers, there are presently “more than 100 fashion labels, with 30 that are new to Design Orchard”. As TaFF’s Semun Ho concurred, when she spoke to the guests last night: “What can we do without Tina?”

Design Thomas Wee (third from left) with his models

It is not clear if Ms Tan’s strategy is to turn her retail charge into the next Island Shop (once owned by Tangs before it was sold to Decks, the retailer/manufacturer that resurrected M)phosis—one of the eight brands the company now holds), or to bring in as many labels as she could to improve the reportedly weak gross profit of the selling floor. These days in retail, there is scant regard for the relationship between quantity and quality. Earlier, during Naiise’s stewardship and the TaFF years preceding the renovation, Design Orchard had a strong gift-shop vibe. Even their fashion accessories, such as scarves and handbags, would strike a chord with tourists needing obligatory souvenirs to bring home. For a rather lengthy period of time, they sold a staggering range of merchandise that included kitchenware, rempah pastes, teas and such that were connected to fashion only by their proximity to the clothes in the store. They were looking rather like the annual Boutique Fairs (only with better looking interiors and fixtures), with some items so cringe-worthy that we feared someone might start a page Terok SG Souvenirs on Facebook! After the renovation, Design Orchard seems to have scaled down the number of brands that target the mari-memasak market or those individuals decorating to WFH. Yet, for some reason we have not determined, the store is still unable to entirely shake off its souvenir-centric leaning.

In a VisitSingapore video shared online last February, Design Orchard’s general manager Julynn Tay said that the store was conceived to “allow both locals and tourists to come to discover a range of Singaporean talents”. That positioning has not changed, but the target still seems to be tourists. Clearly addressing the shopping needs of foreigners vacationing here is important to the merchandise mix of the store. It is hard not to see this as meeting the expectations laid out for Ms Tay and her bosses by STB, just as it’s reasonable to assume that the tourism board wishes to have a tourist-friendly retail product they could promote overseas—as ESG did, for example, in Shanghai in 2018, with 12 Singaporean brands (that included Love, Bonito and Yacht 21), before the pandemic struck. But, a city must, foremost, be adored by its own people before it could be one loved by tourists. If Design Orchard could first appeal to shoppers here, it is conceivable they’d score even better with overseas visitors. So few of us have adopted batik fashion as a wardrobe staple. Yet, the store stocks a strangely inordinate selection of baju batik. Does it not comport with the suspicion that Design Orchard is aiming for the tourist dollar and those still seeking the exotic far east? In her opening address last night, Ms Ho admitted that “it is difficult” working with government agencies. Is Design Orchard’s barely discernible makeover and unaffected merchandising hinting at a possible strain?

A new men’s corner is introduced at Design Orchard

Much of the refurbished interior of the store appeared unchanged to us. According to Ms Ho, the “redecoration” is meant to be “meaningful” to the brand owners and the customers. In achieving that, they have been “conscious of the sustainability” aspect, “reusing a lot of the fixtures and (the) furniture” If that’s sustainability, that’s naive. A guest was heard saying, “that means they have no budget to really renovate.” It appeared to us that it was largely an exercise in moving things around. To be certain that we were not mistaken, we asked a member of the staff to tell us what was changed. “The cashier is moved to the back,” she gladly told us. Pointing to the left side of the store (along Cairnhill Road), she added, “the fitting room is moved to the back of the cashier.” In addition, we noticed that there’s now a new men’s zone. Apparently, a common refrain among male shoppers was: “We like to support local, but there’s nothing for us here”. To be certain, Design Orchard did have men’s from the beginning (Depression and Q Menswear were early supporters), but their products did not, as we were informed, move. We have said before that the entire store is suitably configured for shopping. In the past, the mixed floor layout may have been a tad messy, but it is now neater and better zoned. Still, the merchandise placement seems rather curious. When you enter the store and turn to the right (as is the common navigational instinct), the first rack on the prime location that you’d encounter in this Orchard Road Singaporean fashion flagship were hung with plain tank tops!

In the end, it is not just the attractiveness of the store that would set Design Orchard forward in their quest to be “where local brands flourish” (note the avoidance of ‘design’ in the phrasing). For anything to thrive, it must advance in an environment conducive to collective and nurturing growth. As a “retail showcase”, Design Orchard has to offer showcase retail too. Even with a celebratory relaunch, there was a disconcerting lack of attention to detail in the visual merchandising, for example. From the opening in late May to yesterday’s bash, many garments have remained unpressed, including one shirt (the whole collection was messy) by Silvia Teh that has remained stubbornly creased from the day it first enjoyed an upfront position in the store. Design Orchard not only has to espouse quality of design, it has to cradle quality of vision—which is still not immediately clear. And, consistency of message. One of the suggestions offered in response to Carol Chen’s admirable standing among TaFFers was that she speaks with an (American) accent—one thought to be delectable, admirable, even superior. If so, the presence of a brand such as wetteeshirt (of the Prata Kosing and Don’t Say Bojio fame) would appear at odds with Ms Chen’s atas vibe. Or, is that considered, inclusive, and vice versa? TaFF has been indomitable, a trouper, but did they do better than their predecessor, Naiise? It did appear so. Were we then in commendable, first-rate design territory? Not quite the day yet.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Visited: Gucci X Adidas Pop-Up

The latest luxury brand and sportswear collab is strictly for die-hards

By Lester Fang

It’s groovy, but is it for me? Regardless, I wanted to see for myself what the Gucci X Adidas hype is about. There was a daunting queue when I arrived at Design Orchard, where the pop-up popped out in part of the complex’s top-storey incubator space that overlooks the rooftop park. Some 25 individuals were standing between a railing and the stanchions and ropes that were erected outside the recently renovated Design Orchard’s “retail showcase”, where pillars urge you to “Shop SG Brands”. In the 30 minutes that I had spent waiting, the few shoppers heading for Design Orchard wondered if they had to queue to get in, even when it was dead quiet inside. One Gucci X Adidas staffer of three in attendance had to direct them to “just enter”. One of them approached me and asked, “do you have a Gucci profile?” Do I need one to enter? “If you buy later, you can collect points,” she tried to convince me. It’s okay, I don’t need them.

A Filipino family of four was in front of me; the kids—two below-fives—were getting restless, monkeying from railing to rope. The parents were looking at the father’s phone to decide what they shall be buying. Behind me, a mainland Chinese teen seemed impatient. Suddenly he leapt over the rope and dashed to the counter that sat next to the staircase at the side of the building that would lead us shoppers upstairs. I could not hear what he said. He returned, and spoked to me directly. He told me in Mandarin that he had to rush off to a class, and wondered if I could buy something for him when I get to enter the shop. I was very surprised by his request and did not how to react. I asked him what he desired and he told me it was a pair of sneakers. He asked me to pay for it first, and he’ll transfer the money to me. Scam alert! Would he not want to try the kicks first? He said he already did, this morning! I told him I derive no pleasure in helping others, 助人不乐, (it’s the heat!). The guy ran away.

I was the only one to leave the line when it was my turn to ascend to heaven. The whole stairway there, where “the experience begins”, another staffer told me, was covered with the Gucci X Adidas logos; the walls too. As the rooftop garden came into view, it was clear why the brands-in-collaboration needed this place. The Gucci X Adidas pop-up store is not erected at either the atrium of ION Orchard, as was the 100th Anniversary capsule, nor the Paragon (Gucci has a store at both malls). Rather, it is sited at Design Orchard, about 1 kilometre away from their two-level flagship at Paragon. Up here, where you can see our beloved Orchard Road, Gucci has set up a veritable temple complex to their partnership with Adidas. There was a pavilion of sorts to my right, saturated with the two brands’ logos that were conflated for this exercise. On the terrace, where on a weekend night, courting couples come to moon-bathe, huge cushions were scattered around, as if in preparation of some mid-summer soiree.

To justify the dazzling dollars they’re charging you for the merchandise, there are, apart from the queue, the climb to the pop-up (work up an appetite?), the spacious store, and the attendant surroundings of retro excess, SAs to accompany you as you explore the well-appointed space. As it looked to me, no more than six shoppers were permitted inside, which was roughly the size of a HDB three-room flat. When I stepped in, it was, as expected, more Gucci than Adidas. But no one, I keep getting told, goes there to partake in the interior loveliness. They’re there for the clothes. But when I asked the SA assigned to me if there were sizes left, rather than enquiring which item I was interested in, she told me most were sold out. Earlier, in the line, I was already warned by the girl who wanted to know if I had a Gucci profile that “not many products would be replenished”.

I am not a star/celebrity/influencer, such as Yung Raja, who had first dib of the merchandise. I should be grateful for whatever crumbs I could find. This is the ultimate high-fashion-meets-streetwear collab, or so people have been trying to convince me, however ill-favored (flavoured?) the clothes appeared to me. After its debut at Milan Fashion Week not long ago, the capsule is so hyped that even the Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga release seemed lost in some shadow play of who among the Kering brands could put out a cooler collaboration. Perhaps I was coming in from the blistering heat, but what I saw was making me sweat. Everything I touched was oddly thick, and I am not referring to those oversized track tops. The helpful SA was trying to interest me in some of the items socially-distanced on the rack. She showed me a knit top (why was it so scratchy other than thick?) and then pointed to a short-sleeved button-down Oxford shirt (why was this a heat trap, too?). I did not want to deprive her of her sales commission, but there was nothing—zilch—I would like to buy. I told her that the Gucci X Adidas uniform she was wearing looked good. Would she get to keep it? “We don’t know yet”. Good luck.

Gucci X Adidas Pop-Up store is opened daily till 27 June at Design Orchard. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Coming: & Other Stories

So it’s true: COS’s sister brand will be here. At the store’s neighbouring unit in ION Orchard by the year’s end

Fans of labels under the H&M Group that is not, well, H&M, would be thrilled. The one with the longest name, & Other Stories—sister brand to COS, and the yet-to-be-here Monki and Weekday—will indeed open on our island. The first store will, in fact, be COS’s immediate neighbour on level three of ION Orchard. So the rumours circulating since January is true. Back then, no one was able to say for certain where the store would be situated. Hoarding at the unit clearly confirms its arrival, and at that very space. Curious about its opening, we went next door to ask when & Other Stories would welcome shoppers. The first person we met answered with a “what?”, suggesting to us she knew not of the new neighbour she will “soon”—as the notice next door informed us—have.

A more helpful reply came via a second, cheerier sales associate. She eagerly told us that & Other Stories will “open at the end of the year”. Really? “Yes,” she said with certainty, “some time in Q4, but I do not know exactly when.” Does the renovation and fit out take that long? She added, unexpectedly: “Actually, we will be closed too. We will also undergo a renovation. This whole store.” We were, in fact, not really surprised. COS, opened in 2013, will want to look as spanking as the newest retail entrant, more so when the latter is kin. But will the simulateous renovation of two retail units affect the opening of the other?

Launched in March 2013 in Europe, & Other Stories is thought to be aesthetically skewed to appeal to the “cool girl”. Or, we suppose, those self-proclaimed fashion junkies on TikTok. But more noted (and appealing?) is the brand’s price point: a comfortable, hence tempting, somewhere between H&M and COS. Our first visit to & Other Stories was in Paris, at the Rue St Honoré establishment, just across from the charming little French accessories store Goossen. Our first impression, we recall, was that it reminded us of the American chain Athropologie. Atmospherically, it was not as severe as COS and it was not as low-brow/low-cost as H&M. Merchandise-wise, we thought it was more fun than the two. Housed in a hippy-ish space with an inner courtyard of artfully neglected greenery, & Other Stories is the kind of store you will uncover “finds”. It is not known if our first store here would be similarly positioned. We will find out. In December. Probably.

Watch this space for more information on the opening of & Other Stories. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Two Dollars No More

At Daiso, there will no longer be one flat price, come May. Oh, GST not included, too

In Japan presently, Daiso is celebrating its 50th anniversary. We are not aware of any major observance (read: sale) over there, but they do have some anniversary-specific “limited” releases—largely products for the home—that are mostly priced at 100 yen (or about S$1.08, before the Japanese sales tax). Here, news have emerged that Daiso will very soon no longer offer their products at a single fixed price of S$2. Or absorb GST. On Instagram two days ago, the Japanese retailer announced that “with effect 1 May 2022, there will be a price change”. In the second of the two-image post, a colourful list of the new 15-tier (!) pricing was shared. The cheapest item (plus GST) will be $2.14 and the dearest, a staggering $25.47, much to the dismay—even shock—of fans and long-time customers. No one we spoke to about the impending price hike has paid more than double digits for a single item at Daiso, whether here or in Japan.

Some observers think that the announcement of the new pricing is too sudden, and just a week before the new prices will be tagged in the 27 Daiso stores across our island, gives consumers insufficient time to digest the sizable increase. Some retail managers we spoke to said that it is not possible for Daiso to continue to sell at that low price after 18 years here, in the wake of increases in business and material costs. About ten days ago, after news emerged that Daiso would be charging GST from 1 May and with reports showing images on notices of that announcement on Daiso stores, we were looking out for those notices, but did not find any. Now we know why: they took them down as it was not going to be a price hike due to the charging of GST alone. In the same IG post, Daiso wrote: “We thank you for your understanding and continued support”. The latter has not panned out yet, but understanding might be easier if Daiso had explained the reason behind the coming price hike, but they did not. We could only guess: on-going pandemic, long-drawn war, logistic woes, forex fluctuation, and, that dreaded phenomenon, historic inflation.

…understanding might be easier if Daiso had explained the reason behind the coming price hike, but they did not

According to a “Message” on a Japanese microsite created to mark Daiso’s momentous anniversary, the “One Price” is key to Daiso’s branding and merchandising. “The One Price makes it possible to buy more. The One Price allows you to give it a try. The One Price encourages casual purchases that lead to changes in everyday life. The One Price has infinite power to enrich our lives. For these 50 years, our thoughts have never changed.” Until now, it would seem. One price will soon be a distant memory, even when, in Japan, they have pledged that “Daiso will bring out a more exciting shopping experience, life, and society with the power of the One Price.”

Although Daiso in its homeland is proud to be 50 years old, it was not founded exactly five decades ago. In 1972, Hirotake Yano opened Yano Shoten, described as a “street vending shop dealing with 100 yen products”, according to their corporate literature. It was five years later that Daiso-sangyo (or the Daiso we recognise today) was born. According to Mr Yano, “Since our founding as the pioneer of 100 yen shops, we have continued to evolve and take on new challenges. One of those challenges was to abandon our original business model of ‘everything for 100 yen,’ and start developing and selling products for 200 yen, 1,000 yen, and so on.” That abandoning—in 2004—seems to contradict their confident anniversary message. A check with our friends in Japan confirmed that some products now cost more than ¥100. It would really be a matter of time before the business here follow suit. It is also possible that Daiso’s new tiered pricing here will bring it in line with their Threepy stores, and the soon-to-open Standard Products. To better reflect a changed business model? Bargain hunters, take note.

Photo: Chin Boh Kay

More Japanese Homeware To Come

Daiso has announced that they will be opening the Standard Products concept store here

Daiso’s Standard Products in Shibuya, Tokyo

Just as we predicted! Hot on the heels of the opening of Japan’s Nitori at The Heeren, compatriot retailer Daiso has shared that the company will be opening their barely-a-year-old concept store, Standard Products, here in Jurong Point, soon. First unveiled in Tokyo’s Shibuya last May, Standard Products is what Tokyoites has described as “Muji-like”, but priced to be “slightly” easier on the pocket. To be more accurate, the new Daiso store is dedicated primarily to homeware, rather than general goods that the parent chain store offers (or, Muji—a veritable department store!). If they keep to the Japanese shop’s aesthetic for Standard Product’s debut here, expect a one-step-up stylishness that might draw those who find Daiso itself too messy to navigate.

It would appear that Daiso is intending to make their presence on our island felt, intensely. They have already introduced their Threepy chain (not really discernibly different from Daiso itself) to add to the Daiso stores found in almost every corner of our city except the off-shore islands. And now, on a yet-to-be-disclosed date, Standard Products, which, like merchandise at Threepy, is not based on a single price: $2. In fact, Daiso would very soon not be associated with SG’s lowest denominator on our dollar notes. From 1 May, the retailer would be charging GST, which means, each item will soon cost S$2.14 (when the GST is 7%. Some say that the new selling price is such an inauspicious number!). It is not yet known if shoppers will, too, be charged the goods and services tax for purchases made at Threepy or, before long, at Standard Products. The extra, we’re certain, won’t deter the hordes that will no doubt turn up.

Watch this space for more information on the opening of Standard Products. File photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

Recommended: For Him, For Her, For Them

More clothing brands are going gender-neutral, but most are really just saying a woman can buy a man’s shirt, even when many already have. Question is, are guys ready to shop in the woman’s department?

At Uniqlo, a tag offering men more options

By Raiment Young

Last year. What do we remember of it other than the arrival of Omicron? Or, the return of physical fashion shows? Or, the collaborations between luxury brands? One of the style issues trending into 2021 was the visible advent of non-binary styles. Men, especially, we were counselled, should be able to adopt traditionally-feminine fashion if they choose to. Gender-neutral and gender-inclusive brands were talked about alongside those that chose the sustainable and were aware of garment manufacture’s impact on the environment (other than using cottons from non-controversial regions). Leading the adoption of clothes that do not shout out their traditional masculinity are pop stars, such as Harry Styles and Troye Sivan. To them, wearing a dress is okay. Even lexicography is seeing a re-definition of dress by not ascribing it to gender. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the noun form of ‘dress’ as “a piece of clothing that is made in one piece and hangs down to cover the body as far as the legs, sometimes reaching to below the knees, or to the ankles”. That’s it.

At Uniqlo’s global flagship store during the festive season, two guys in until-recently-MIA office attire were looking at a long, loose, lapel-less knitted coat right in front of me. One of them, in a fitted and darted shirt, was holding up the hung garment to give it a proper look, as if to understand it better, rather than to consider buying it. The other then said, somewhat incredulously, “men can wear, meh?” This disbelief seemed to be a reaction to a little sign, clipped to the chest of the coat to draw attention. It read, in full caps, “RECOMMENDED FOR MEN TOO!”—the exclamation not just to denote vehement enthusiasm, but also to seemingly say “believe you me”. The guys looked at the soft and drapey outerwear from top to hem. There was a moment of silence. Then, the one still holding the hanger asked—in comfortable Hokkien—disbelievingly, “汝知嗎 (li zai bo, do you know)?” As Uniqlo intended, now both do.

Women’s clothes outrightly recommended for men is really a recent occurrence. I was only seeing the guidance with some regularity last year. Sure, some guys are now wearing what would be indisputably designed for women, including accessories such as pearls, but these individuals are not traipsing the town in numbers large enough to be considered normality. Even with the seeming popularity of skirts for men—now also championed by Louis Vuitton, I doubt that for many (most?) guys, shopping would not still be a gendered experience. The fact that male shoppers needed to be told that specific styles merchandised for the women’s department are suitable for them indicate that they still draw the line between his and hers, bifurcated and not. Uniqlo, mostly seen as a traditional, even family-oriented, brand, is, admirably, taking the lead, suggesting that gender-neutral is going mainstream. But, are guys ready for stores that disrupt gender norms, even mildly?

Seen on a Urban Revivo hanger in the men’s department

Whether retail is welcoming more non-binary customers or not, women have never needed prompting to shop men’s clothing for themselves. They have, for a long time, not been constricted by gender confines. And that can be said to go back as far as Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking of 1966. One buyer-friend told me that he is seeing more women purchasing menswear—especially tops—as “many now prefer larger and looser cuts that they do not find in the women’s department“. The oversized T-shirt, adopted so that the wearer looks like she is pants-less, has been visible for many years now. That is just one example. Increasingly, oversized shirts and denim truckers are preferred over those cut specifically for women. At the Nike store in Jewel on Boxing Day, I saw a trio of girls—dressed like paddlers after a training session—choosing a fleece hoodie from the Jordan men’s collection. The one purchasing said, with palpable glee, “good, they have my size.“

Such satisfaction is not uncommon. It was, therefore, to my surprise when I saw, in the men’s department of Urban Revivo recently, a wood hanger which accommodated a washed denim happy coat, proudly tagged “RECOMMENDED FOR WOMEN TOO”. I was not sure if it was really a statement of the garment’s gender-neutrality or that the masculine-not style isn’t incorrectly situated. The similarly-worded tag has been deployed at Uniqlo’s men’s department too, even when many women already shop there. While such recommendations are laudable, it does, to me, arouse the question: are we only taking baby steps towards gender-fluid fashion retail? Despite the growing social awareness of non-binary inclusion, we are still led to believe that, as Asians, we are conservative by default. And as long as retailers still stick to the binary departmentalising of their stores—and their merchandise, non-binary clothing, by design or not, is still uncommon.

One of the truly few retailers that appear to be positively gender-inclusive is Muji Labo, a brand that especially appeals to those for whom binary classification (that includes “recommended for”) is a turn-off when deciding what to buy and what to wear. According to Muji, the Labo line “aims to get rid of the unnecessary ‘fashion waste’, riding on the principle of unisexuality, producing basic wear that overrides age, sex and body size, demonstrating the versatility of Muji’s garments at every occasion.” Describing their clothes by the somewhat retro-term “unisex” (circa mid-’60s), Muji is adopting the more moderate and less activism-tinged approach to retailing clothes that are suitable for any gender (in the current climate, ‘them’?”). But gender, however neutral, is not such a simple and straightforward construct. Clothing, in whatever shape and form, does not inherently relate to gender. What I see as truly groundbreaking would be when Uniqlo tags an Ines de La Fressange dress with “RECOMMENDED FOR MEN TOO!”

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Up, Up, And Away

Chanel is increasing the prices of their handbags. Again. They know they can, and the very many who continue to buy are encouraging, rather than deterring the hike

For many women, the dearer Chanel bags are, the more desirable owning one is. It has to be, or it’s hard to explain the bags’ puzzlingly massive appeal. The price increases are not attributed to inflationary pressures, but are, according to a spokesperson, cited by Bloomberg recently, “in response to unspecified exchange-rate fluctuations, changes in production costs and to ensure its handbags cost roughly the same around the world”. This is not the first time, nor the second, in the past two years that Chanel has upped its prices for their bags. As stated in the Bloomberg piece, prices for the classic styles have been raised by “almost two-thirds since the end of 2019”. That, to us, is staggering. But our—and kindred folks’—reaction to the price hike matters not to Chanel who seems to only want to target those for whom prices matter not. Their latest price increase is a staggering fourth in these past two years. That averages a rise of twice a year.

One marcom executive told us, “This is so ridiculous. Pricing a Chanel bag closer to an Hermès does not make it an Hermès!” But for many women, especially the young, a Chanel bag is the most covetable, and, as a gift, is considered a measurement of the depth of the love shown by the romantic partner. One twentysomething we know, reacting to the news of Chanel jacking up the prices of their bags, said to us, “It’ll not change anything for me. I will still buy. And I want no other bag. And I don’t expect my boyfriend to buy anything but Chanel for me.” Conversely, a “former lover” texted us to say, “25 years or so ago, a Classic (one standard size) with lambskin and lined in burgundy leather sold for S$3,500. That was princely. But now!!!🙀” Many observers consider Chanel’s pricing move a way to keep their bags exclusive. Even after so many are appearing in the secondhand, not to mention bootleg, market? Or, has price, more than the bag itself, become the real confidence booster?

Chanel does not make better leather bags than, say, Delvaux, the world’s oldest luxury leather goods maker. But somehow the very mention of Chanel sends eyes quite lit up. To us, Chanel bags can look frumpy, but even women dressed in Balenciaga-ish oversized togs would carry the recognisable bag, not because they are especially on-trend, but because the double-C lock (never seen in the original that Coco Chanel designed) is the ultimate status symbol. You almost never witness a woman carry her Chanel 2.55 or whatever Flap Bag there are (let’s not get into the taxonomy) with the outside facing inward, against her body—the logo totally blocked. That Chanel did not start (or have a long history) in leather goods, as Hermès primarily did, is no disincentive to the women (and men) so desirous of a Chanel bag. Coco Chanel created her first bag for practical need, rather than materialistic demand: so that, with the shoulder strap, women can keep their hands free while carrying one. These days, women want more than their hands free. And they don’t mind paying for whatever else is associated with carrying a Chanel bag. And the bag maker knows. Only too well.

Photo: Zhao Xiangji