Balenciaga Ads: “Wrong Artistic Choice”

Demna Gvasalia finally reacts and apologises

In the past, European luxury houses could not get their advertising right for Asia. Now they can’t do it well for their own audience. For Balenciaga, the misstep struck twice. And the reactions to them have been by no means mild. Fans of Kim Kardashian were quick to point out how she, a Balenciaga fan and model (or the better-sounding “brand ambassador”), had been slow to say something. She eventually did, claiming she had been “re-evaluating” her relationship with the house. Five days after one of the problematic ads ‘Balenciaga Gift Shop’ was launched (16 November) and the disapproval (sometimes rabid) that followed, Balenciaga posted on Instagram, “We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused…” In the mean time, country singer Jason Aldean’s wife Brittany Aldean was one of the first celebrities to show her unmistakable disapproval: she shared a post on IG showing her taking out the garbage in clear plastic bags. In them were Balenciaga merchandise. The comment read, “It’s trash day @balenciaga.” No one could be certain if she really discarded those items or if it was just a social-media stunt. The post was quickly deleted. Two days ago, Mrs Aldean shared another photo of herself in a leather jacket with the message: “A little fringe and Dolce never hurt nobody”.

And now Demna Gvasalia, like other designers before him, has apologised. On IG, he wrote under the header “Personal Message”: “I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take my responsibility. It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them.” This came more than two weeks after the backlash unfurled. Still, it is a welcome move as no one in the industry that we spoke to believed that Balenciaga was not aware of “unapproved items” used, as stated in an earlier apology, or that no one in the company knew what was disseminated. And that they should be so aggrieved by the sum fallout that they initiated a USD25-million lawsuit against the companies that produced the advertisements for another campaign (Spring 2023 collection) containing those “unsettling documents”.

After Mr Gvasalia’s post, Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit apologised too, calling what happened in the past weeks “our mistakes” and sharing a list of corporate actions—“with the objective to learn from our mistakes”—that the company has instituted, including reorganising “our image department to ensure full alignment with our corporate guidelines”. Mr Charbit also revealed that Balenciaga “has decided not to pursue litigation”. No reason was given to the rescinding. Provocation is, of course, part of Balenciaga’s present-day appeal. But things could go unnecessarily far. Now, there is even the hashtag #CANCELBALENCIAGA (on TikTok, more than 120 million views have been clocked). Mr Gvasalia also said in his personal message, “As much as I would sometimes like to provoke a thought through my work, I would NEVER have an intention to do that with such an awful subject as child abuse that I condemn.” Another day in the world of fashion. And the route to redemption.

Photo: Zhao Xiangji

No Kidding: S&M Teddy

Has Balenciaga crossed the line with their holiday ads that feature children holding bears in “bondage gear”?

It is not clear why Balenciaga, the brand that dropped Kanye West, chose to be controversial in their holiday advertising campaign. In one series, called Balenciaga Gift Shop, children were photographed holding bags in the shape of bears. Usually, the choice of handheld would be deemed cute, but these were not Care Bears, nor those akin to Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bear, also dubbed Preppy Bear. Balenciaga’s were kitted in what many has described as “S&M bondage gear”. There are even those going as far as calling the end result “depraved” and “virtual child porn”. Any advertising that involve the underaged is always a tricky affair, so it is not clear why the children were placed amid merchandise for adults and those only adults could afford to buy. Balenciaga has, of course, pushed the boundary of taste during much of Demna Gvasalia’s tenure, but this time, could they have thrusted themselves just that much too far?

Following the public outcry, Balenciaga withdrew all the unseemly ads, saying in a statement on Instagram: “We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused. Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.” In one photo, a child stood before a quartet of wine glasses, among other things associated with grownups. Kids and the things arranged orderly in front of them are reportedly a take on photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s Toy Stories, in which children from all over the world are photographed with their play things. In an earlier press release, Balenciaga described the images as “exploration of what people collect and receive as gifts”. Yet, in the apology post, it stressed: “We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our Spring 23 campaign photo shoot.” They must have seen the images before issuing the PR kit. It is hard to imagine that no one in Balenciaga sent out those item for the shoot, or knew what was loaned.

Indeed, how did the “unapproved items” appear in an ad that Balenciaga commissioned? Mr Galimberti was quick to respond on IG: “I am not in a position to comment [on] Balenciaga’s choices, but I must stress that I was not entitled in whatsoever manner to neither chose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same. As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit (sic) the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style.” One fashion photographer here told us that Mr Galimberti is not wrong. “We don’t decide what to shoot. Clients do, even the props. Sometimes, the clients work through a stylist, who will then bring the clothes and accessories to the shoot. We won’t know what’s approved, what’s not. Or, even, who the models might be.”

Soon after the S&M bear rebuke, those on the lookout for missteps of luxury brands spotted one more oversight, in another Balenciaga ad—this time for the house’s Hourglass bag, bearing the Adidas Three Stripes. In the image (above), put together during the shoot for the collab’s campaign, the S$4,790 bag was placed atop strewn documents. Perhaps to come across as officious (the campaign, in fact, was shot in an office). One of the sheets is purportedly a page off the document from a Supreme Court decision that prohibits the distribution of pornography involving children. What was the set stylist thinking of? Whatever it was, Netizens could not help but wonder if Balenciaga thought that two controversies are better than one.

“We apologise for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign,” Balenciaga posted on Instagram. “We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved (again?) items for our spring 23 campaign photoshoot.” The legal action, as it turned out, was to file a lawsuit against production company North Six, Inc. and its agent, Nicholas Des Jardins, who was reported to have designed the set for the shoots. And Balenciaga said it will seek at least US$25 million in damages for what they called “false association” between Balenciaga and the “repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision.”

Meanwhile, ardent friend of the house Kim Kardashian, who is also their couture model and who always has first dibs of their key looks, has remained curiously silent. Even her fans were wondering why she had not taken a stand, considering that her kids could be the target audience of the teddy ads. Then on Sunday, she made an announcement, claiming that she has been “re-evaluating” her relationship with Balenciaga. She explained why she did not say something sooner: “I wanted an opportunity to speak to their team to understand for myself how this could have happened” even when she was “shaken by the disturbing images”. Has she understood and was she satisfied? Balenciaga had already found themselves in a predicament with Ms Kardashian’s ex-husband and his shocking anti-Semitic rants. They quickly disassociated themselves with him. And now, those disquieting ads. Not quite the festive edit, not at all.

Photos: Balenciaga

Closed But Not Over

Raf Simons has announced the shuttering of his eponymous label, but his work is not going to disappear any time soon. He isn’t retiring. There is still his not-small part at Prada

Twenty seven is too young an age to die. But Raf Simons is seeing that the label that bears his name is killed in its 27th year. Better to depart youthful? Mr Simons has just announced that the beloved and influential brand he founded in 1995 showed its last collection—spring/summer 2023 last October in London—was his final. The fashion world is in shock. So many influential artists and artistes have passed on at that age, sufficient in numbers that there is a 27 Club—it came to existence after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. The Club is, of course, not a real one and not necessarily glorious either. Many in the hall of fame died from the excesses of just that—fame. But no one joins it since they would have been dead, but its notional existence shows that many noted creatives departed from this world at that age, leaving behind a veritable legacy. Most are musicians. Apart from Mr Cobain, there is Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and, closer to the present, Amy Winehouse. In art, there is Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work is especially popular among clothing and footwear brands. But in luxury fashion, designers have longer lives. No one that we can remember died at 27, nor did their corresponding label (Jil Sander did [first] leave her brand in its 27th year, but it was not closed, and she did return to it in 2003, only to leave again a year later). Could Raf Simons the label be the first?

In Mr Simons’s announcement on Instagram, he offered no reason for the closure of his brand, which, as can be imagined, led to speculations. Was it the damned economy, with a recession looming? Was the label also the victim of the havoc COVID caused? We’ll add to those popular two. Was he missing an able sidekick after Pieter Mulier joined Alaia? Was he under too much stress to connect with the Metaverse—he hasn’t—to keep his brand relevant? Was Raf Simons too much of a cult label to enjoy the same success of, say, Ader Error? Or Ambush? It is hard to assert with certainty. Mr Simons does have a strong following, especially among those who have tracked his work from the start (including us!). But not going the logo-heavy route and keeping the cut and construction of his clothing generally simple may have not drawn new customers or win converts rooted in the excess of meretricious brands. The fashion marketplace has changed, and continues to, with staggering speed. Not wanting to stay put is not necessarily a bad thing. It certainly was not when he quit Dior and, later, Calvin Klein. But what about the collaborations, such as the still-desirable pairing with Fred Perry? That could remain to provide those who might be seized with nostalgia a chance to buy merchandise that would still have desirable links to the past.

And there is always Prada. After joining the Italian brand in 2020 to co-design the men’s and women’s collections with Miuccia Prada, Mr Simons seemed to have found his groove. He is poised to stay. The 109-year-old brand is enjoying renewed interest after a lull period. In the five years leading to 2018, the brand posted declining annual sales. Its performance was so dismal that rumours abound at that time that the company may be forced to sell to LVMH or Kering. But the tide turned, and The Washington Post wrote recently that the brand’s “creeping back into popular consciousness”. Part of it being noticed again is the current trend for things ’90s. Conversely, Raf Simons, also essentially a ’90s brand, chooses to bow out rather than take advantage of the zeitgeist. It is not clear what part in the rejuvenated Prada lies Mr Simons’s input, but each season since his first in September 2020, Prada has been steeped in ideas and innovation. Has Mr Simons proven his worth and is now a serious contender to succeed Ms Prada? Is this possibility so questionless that he is confident enough to wind up his own label? Mr Simons, it is reported, has an open-ended contract with Prada, just as Karl Lagerfeld had with Chanel. Miuccia Prada is 73 (he is 54); she could be pondering retirement. Hard to imagine someone else a worthier successor than Raf Simons.

Photo: Jim Sim

A Dubious Fit

One MediaCorp actress wore a loose corset-top and social media buzzed like crazy

Carrie Wong in a leather Fendi corset. Photo: carriewst/Instagram

It is easy to say an actress is badly-dressed. The thing is, she may not even be aware of it. There are actresses who wear whatever is presented to them, without considering how they might appear to those the stars are outfitted to dazzle. Carrie Wong (黄思恬) could have been similarly unaware, or inattentive, or just indifferent. Last Wednesday, she wore a brown Fendi leather corset—likely loan to her—for the opening of the brand’s newly refurbished store in Takashimaya Shopping Centre. Photographs of her were shared on her WhatsApp page, and many of her followers noticed that she was not able to fill the two parts of the outfit usually described as “cups”. The critical Netizens were not wrong, but some, admittedly, have been cruel in their description of hers not runneth over. The reactions did bring to mind the just-as-harsh comments by the many who were not impressed by influencer Chrysan Lee’s choice of a scanty Shein top. Time and again, we see the less well-endowed are inclined to not be aware that they are.

Some Netizens think Carrie Wong had only herself to blame: Even if Fendi gave the outfit to her, she could have said no to that attire, they insisted. Stars attending these brand events are expected to wear something from that brand. You do not show up at a Fendi store opening wearing Dior (even if they are both from the same LVMH stable); you appear as Fendi’s model, not as an individual with your own taste or trace of discernment. It is possible that Ms Wong did not have a chance to take a pick from the rack made available to attendees from MediaCorp, or was the last to choose. It is also possible that a mirror was not available to her. Still, she might have discovered something amiss if she looked down at her corset top, which 8 Days curiously called “edgy” (they are especially fond of that word—a convenient euphemism). Surely she must have seen the deflated parts. Or, were the dimples on the bust what gave the top the edginess only 8 Days saw?

We suspect fit didn’t matter to Ms Wong, or smooth contours. She is not as “flat” as many commentators considered her to be, but the top really did not fit, let alone flatter her. Leather corsets, when worn, are expected to be as tought as rugby balls. Perhaps she was drawn to it because it afforded her freedom of movement. Sleeves could be impediment to motion or gesticulation. With this corset-top, she was able to assume a certain posture, even if was not tight enough to position her rigidly upright or trussed up. The irony in this is that a corset is a form-fitting garment—it is designed to encase the body snugly (even the bodice is not a close fit on her). With a corset, as the saying in the halcyon days of corsetry went, “a lady does not stoop”. Perhaps Ms Wong had no idea. In an age of the anti-fit, as seen in Gucci, or the oversized, as seen in Balenciaga, it is possible that Ms Wong, like so many of her contemporaries, is clueless about what exactly is a good fit. Or, a good fill.

“Unauthorised”: Vogue Cover

Drake and Savage 21 pulled an editorial stunt the magazine and its publisher Condé Nast did not appreciate

Was it a clever joke? Maybe it was, until Condé Nast sued! Drake and Savage 21 must have thought creating the cover (above) to promote their joint album Her Loss is ingenious or hilarious, or both. They’ve even used the actual Vogue masthead, with both rappers—amateurishly shot—in front of it, as the magazine often places their cover models. There are cover blurbs too, with the main line that read “‘You have to be political’. 21 Savage is not holding back”, which sounds like something analogous to what Kanye West is prone to saying these days. Drake shared the photo of the mock mag on Twitter, saying, “Me and my brother on newsstands tomorrow!! Thanks @voguemagazine and Anna Wintour for the love and support on this historic moment.”

The magazine and its publisher showed no love nor saw the ingenuity and the hilarity of the social media stunt. According to press reports, they filed a USD4 million lawsuit against the duo. According to those who have seen the court papers, Conde Nast issued a cease and desist order in 31 October, and insisted that Drake and his social media team “unauthorized use of the Vogue trademark by removing the Instagram post, ceasing any distribution of this ‘magazine,’ and issuing a public statement clarifying that this was not an actual cover of Vogue”.

But why Vogue, rather than, say, XXL or Vibe, both would make more sense since it was an album promo, or even Ebony, if they must pick a woman’s title? With Vogue now featuring more Black cover models than ever (Michaela Coel appears on the November cover and Serena Williams was on it just two issues ago), it is perhaps understandable why Black artistes crave to appear on its cover. Kanye West, Drake’s one-time ‘beefing’ (12 years’ worth, reportedly) pal, was already cover boy (April 2014). Vogue is now Black artistes’ target title. The “fashion bible” is the magazine to aspire to appear in. A cover photo on Vogue means more than the appearance on any other professional mags, combined. Despite its thinning page count, it is still the periodical that announces you have arrived. But is the increase Black representation token shift or genuine change? Or is the change so slow that Drake had to create his own Vogue cover?

Photo: Eric Skelton/Twitter

National Costume Naught

Does this Mister International Singapore contestant’s near nakedness prove that the emperor’s new clothes equal our “national costume”? Or, the other obsession, “national dress”?

Mr International Sean Nicholas Sutiono in our “National Costume”. Photo: officialmisterinternatinoal/Instagram

No costume is the costume! You can’t say that is not genius. By now, you’d have seen this picture. The male beauty competition Mister International has shared it on social media, and Netizens have decried the clothing of choice as “nothing”, not the touted “national costume”. This is such an apt look to announce that we are still searching—even in vain—for one. Bare chest (and muscles) can take the place of a set of clothing. And we are in line with trends in fashion. This year’s winner to represent our nation at the finals in Manila this Sunday is Sean Nicholas Sutiono, an accounts associate and The Straits Times’s ‘Hot Bods’ honoree last October. Mr Sutiono also shared this photo on Instagram, adding the comment: “If you’d understand, it was a statement I had to make and the only thing I had.” Many people were confused—did he mistake the swimwear round for the national costume segment? That would make a statement! And what was he referring to by saying that that was the only thing he had? Did he mean the Singaporean flag?

If Mister International can pass that off as national costume, then Mr Sutiono is often wearing one on his IG page. Responding to the sharp comments on their IG post of Mr Sutiono in the brief-as-boxers shorts posing as if he has just won a medal at some global games, Mister International wrote, “Sean’s National Costume is in the works”. So close to the competition day and not completed? Does it not sound like last year’s Miss Universe Bernadette Belle Wu Ong with her last-minute national costume? But at least she had someone in Manila to whip something up for her. Mr Sutiono, as it appears, had to assemble one for himself. Do pageant organisers not learn from each other? Mister International then explained why the costume was still in the works on the day of the photo shoot: “Due to the unfortunate tragic passing of our Singaporean owned National Director (sic) – the late Alan Sim. This was fitting at the time.” Fitting! Someone dies and the man strips? Our national costume is now apropos salute to guys who run shirtless on Holland Road outside the Botanic Gardens on any given day.

Sean’s National Costume is in the works”

Mister International

The passing of Singaporean Alan Sim was announced by Mister International on 16 October. The cause of death is not known. Mr Sim, 50, founded Mister International Organization (MIO) in 2006. A 23-year male beauty contest veteran, he considered himself “a great fan of the Miss Universe Pageants” and counted Miss Columbia 1986, Patricia Lopez Ruiz, a favourite. With his unmistakable, tattooed, arched eyebrows, Mr Sim was himself also a frequent contestant of the pageant circuit—most of the competitions regular guys won’t know if they are not pageant fanatics: Mister Young Singapore and Mister Young International. His passing has not deterred MIO from carrying on with the staging of their latest edition—the 14th—“as a tribute to our founder”, the company announced on IG. It is not known when Mr Sim became ill and why he was singularly responsible for Mr Sutiono’s costume. Or, why, given the urgency of the matter, something could not be found or stitched up for the SG rep to wear, more than a week after Mr Sim’s demise was publicly made known.

At the 2019 Mister International, also held in the Philippines, Singaporean rep Famy Ashary wore a pale green baju Melayu that his mother would likely find too tight for Hari Raya, but it was a baju—an outfit, modest to boot, although, to be sure, as with Miss Universe, national costumes can be and often are scanty affairs. They are, however, not quite like the afterthought that the unfortunate Mr Sutiono, also last year’s Mr World participant (he’s an experienced pageant boy!), had to pull off in what Mister International had described as “National Costume portrait”. How is Singapore really depicted? Or the Singaporean male? Lazy oafs? One New York-based Singaporean designer wondered why, till today, we cannot get this right. He told SOTD: “Enough. It’s so ridiculous. Or, when designers try to mesh cultures together to create a national dress.”

Mr Sutiono’s no-clothes national costume, in fact, appeared just a few days after the newly-named Singapore Fashion Council (SFC, the former TaFF or Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore) sent out a guide to attendees of the upcoming Singapore Stories 2022 presentation with suggestions of what they could wear to go with the dress code of the evening, Singapore Glamour: Black Tie or National Dress. SFC helpfully informed that black tie is “semi-formal attire convention” while national dress is an “alternative to black tie and entails formal attire from diverse cultures”. National dress and national costume are often used interchangeably. If Sean Nicholas Sutiono’s pageant-worthy national costume of shorts and boots can make the cut, male guests gracing Singapore Stories 2022 can take inspiration from him. As SFC also suggested, ”feel free to bring your own interpretation”. How about free of clothes?

Is Adidas Dragging Their Yeezy-Shod Feet?

There could be too much at stake to drop the partnership with Kanye West. And the rapper knows it, and brags

It has been more than two weeks since Adidas announced that they “have taken the decision to place the partnership under review”. But nothing seems to have come out of that. Not the decisiveness that Adidas fans were expecting, definitely not the resolve of Balenciaga—last week, the Kering-owned brand released a statement to the media, saying that “Balenciaga has no longer any relationship nor any plans for future projects related to this artist”. There is nothing ambiguous about that statement. And they did not have to explain why. By now, it is very clear why it’s to any brand’s interest to distance themselves from collaborators who make controversial statements, especially anti-Semitic ones, and simultaneously insisting that they are right.

In new video clips from the pulled-out Drinks Champs podcast now shared on social media, Kanye West said—with startling confidence: “The thing about me and Adidas is like, I could literally say anti-Semitic shit, and they can’t drop me.” And he repeated himself with glee, “I can say anti-Semitic things and Adidas can’t drop me. Now what?” Yes, now what, Adidas? Or is Mr West implying that he can’t be cancelled by the brand that has made his Yeezy sneakers one of the best-selling in the world? The Washington Post reported that “Yeezy generates an estimated US$2 billion a year, close to 10 percent of the company’s annual revenue”. Adidas themselves declared that “the Adidas Yeezy partnership is one of the most successful collaborations in our industry’s history.” Is Yeezy too hot to touch?

“The thing about me and Adidas is like, I could literally say anti-Semitic shit, and they can’t drop me.”

Kanye West

It is likely that despite the objectionable words that repeatedly and stridently come out of Mr West’s mouth across all media, he is too important a name to pull away from for some consumer brands that need his fame to reach out to his ever-willing-to-spend fans. While JP Morgan and the booking agency Creative Arts Agency have also announced the disassociation with Mr West, Adidas, has made a meek comment about merely “reviewing” their professional arrangement with him, even when he had derided the company’s CEO. Mr West appears impervious to cancel culture, and Adidas’s slow reaction to his anti-Semitic arrogance corroborates with the increasing belief that we tolerate bad behaviour by popular public figures, and their outbursts, no matter how extreme, will quickly not be. For every person who disapproves the hurtful words of Mr West, there are just as many who support him.

Just look at the latest video shared on YouTube by The Hollywood Fix. When asked what he thought of Balenciaga dropping him, Mr West said, “I ain’t lose no money. They never paid me nothing… The day when I was taken off the Balenciaga site, that was one of the most freeing days.” And then he was asked if he thinks Adidas is next. ”We’re going through legal right now, so anything can happen,” he replied. But it was not what he said that is disturbing. It’s the reaction of the crowd surrounding him. Many were supportive. You can hear them saying “we are behind you”, “they can’t cancel you”, “god is on your side, man”, “he is the master controller”, “you are going to be the catalyst that brings us forward”, “can we get some Yeezys?”, “Kanye, will you sign my shirt for me here?”, “have a good one, Kanye”.

On Twitter, someone reacting to the welcomed news that Mr West was ”DROPPED by his longtime talent agency”, wrote, ”I don’t understand the obsession with getting someone cancelled. Some of you treat it like it’s a job.” Not everyone is ready for a punitive response, however vile Mr West’s utterances are. Or, willing to see a brand for the company it keeps. Adidas could be watching and convincing themselves to ”let’s wait and see”.

Update (25 October 2022, 17:00): According to a Bloomberg report, Adidas “plans to end its partnership with Kanye West following a rash of offensive behavior from the rapper and designer that turned a once-thriving shoe brand into a lightning rod for criticism”. The Adidas announcement will be made soon. Stay tuned.

Illustration: Just So

Yeezy Come, Yeezy Go

Balenciaga is fleeing from Kanye West

We thought we have given enough juice to the rambling disturbance known as Kanye West. Frankly, we are quite bored with his BS (ostensible mental condition aside) and his desperate need to be taken seriously in fashion, and the destructive path he has created in order to secure some recognition. And the people he will hurt—even the dead—to do all that. We have enough of how every little thing could disquiet him, how everyone else has done him wrong, how he cannot be blamed, tamed, and managed. Some people say that we cannot deny that he has talent. So, we won’t: His is to overstate his own.

Disastrously for him, his talent has turned the brand Mr West deeply admires away from him. By now, the news is raging like bush fire, but it still merits sharing. Balenciaga, whose designer Mr West deems the greatest and who was instrumental in the early conception of the Yeezy clothing line, has announced that they want nothing to do with the raving rapper. According to WWD, Kering has issued a statement (after the media wondered why the parent company has remained audibly mum?) to announce their position: “Balenciaga has no longer any relationship nor any plans for future projects related to this artist”. The New York Times reported last month that Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga would go no further than what was completed.

Balenciaga has no longer any relationship nor any plans for future projects related to this artist”

Kering

This dramatic end, or what Mr West might call being cancelled, is perhaps not surprising after it was reported last week that Balenciaga has edited the video of their spring/summer 2023 PFW presentation shared online in which Mr West opened the show, tromping through the muddiest runway Paris ever saw by trimming his part off. The brand has also removed images on their social media showing Mr West in the said show as model, even on the widely-viewed Vogue Runway. And then on the Yeezy Gap website, you no longer find the “Engineered by Balenciaga” selling catchphrase spelled out at any point or corner. Balenciaga is getting serious about the break, even if, at first, surreptitiously.

The brand distancing themselves from Kanye West, however, is no indication that Demna Gvasalia needs to do the same. Mr West and Mr Gvasalia are thought to be “very close”. Their “bromance” is well documented. Last Week, The New York Times, citing “one insider”, reported that the Donda artiste “has been known to refer to himself as Demna’s straight husband”. Both men wanted to be called by their mononym at about the same time. After Mr West opened the Balenciaga show last month, Mr Gvasalia attended the YZY SZN 9 presentation in Paris. The Georgian designer told Vanity Fair last year following his first couture outing for Balenciaga, “There are very few people that I know, especially of that caliber, who really understand what I do.” The relationship between those two, although not entirely clear beyond the professional, is probably harder to untangle.

Update (22 October 2022, 15:00):

Anna Wintour And Vogue’s Turn

Looks like the world’s most powerful editor and her just-as-mighty magazine are taking a stand too: away from Kanye West. According to the New York Post’s Page Six, a Vogue spokesperson told the gossip site “exclusively” that Anna Wintour and her almost-synonymous title do not “intend to work with Kanye West again after his anti-Semitic rants and support for the White Lives Matter cause”. A “source” quoted by Page Six said, “Anna has had enough. She has made it very clear inside Vogue that Kanye is no longer part of the inner circle.” As of now, Vogue online has removed the review of the YZY SZN 9 show. A search on the website turned up the message: “Oops. The page you’re looking for cannot be found”. Writer Luke Leitch’s feature on Mr West seems to have been extirpated too. Ms Wintour has yet to state her position with regards to Mr West’s controversial comments and rants. She was last seen with John Galliano and Demna Gvasalia at the YZY SZN 9 show, but had reportedly left early. It is not known if she was in touch with Mr West after that.

Illustration: Just So, based on Line characters

Disgruntled Once More

Kanye West is peeved again. And, he has attacked another business partner, anew. Unrequited love?

Nike must be so thankful that their pairing with Kanye West ended when it did. They must be reading with such relief the news of Mr West’s online berating of his current footwear production partner Adidas. The rap star asserted that the German company has been designing Yeezy products without his involvement. On Instagram two days ago, Mr West boomed: “”The fact (Adidas) felt they could color my shoes and name them without my approval is really wild. I really care about building something that changes the world and something I can leave to my kids. They tried to buy me out for 1 billion dollars. My royalties next year are 500 million dollars alone.”

A buyout! Has it really come to this? Was Mr West surprised that Adidas, producing Yeezy since 2013, is considering ending their partnership? That they had enough of his egomania? The Sunday denunciation was, of course, not his first levelled at the manufacturer of his Yeezys. In fact, since last Friday, his fingers have been hard at work, generating posts that suggested Adidas had done him great wrong, to the point that he threatened to “legally finish with you”, directing that at the brand’s top brass, in particular the senior vice-president Daniel Cherry III (who has not offered a public response).

…his fingers have been hard at work, generating posts that suggested Adidas had done him great wrong, to the point that he threatened to “legally finish with you”

To make things more complicated, the executive board of JP Morgan Chase was also dragged into the one-sided quarrel, with the angry rapper uploading screen shots of the bankers. JP Morgan Chase assisted Adidas in finding a buyer for Reebok in 2021. And on Monday, Mr West posted: “I need a shoe company like how Jamie Salter bought Reebok”. Mr Salter is the CEO of Authentic Brands Group (ABG), the company that acquired Reebok from Adidas. It is curious that ABG was mentioned. Was Mr West hoping Reebok would be the next Yeezy collaborator?

His palpable rage, of course, goes further back—to June, when he accused Adidas of copying his Yeezy slides after the former teased the release of their Adilette 22. And then came “Yeezy Day” in August—some pseudo-important occasion that Mr West called “made up” and claimed he did not agree to, nor the Yeezy sneakers that Adidas was allegedly going to drop. It is not clear why he did not take his displeasure or misgivings directly to Adidas instead of publicly declaiming, “I have no chill. It’s going to cost you billions to keep me, It’s going to cost you billions to let me go, Adidas.“

This is, of course, not surprising. Even Gap was attacked. A week ago, as he had a go at Adidas, he concurrently accused the other half of Yeezy Gap of conducting a meeting without him. He added that they had copied his designs (the ones “Engineered by Balenciaga”). Can a pattern of behaviour be discerned? Not hard. For Mr West, lines are not drawn, not demarcated. Professional and private lives have no borders. Everyone is fair game. Even people close to him—or once were—were not spared. He attacked his ex-wife on more than one occasion (who strangely did not seem too upset by it) and her (now) ex-boyfriend with not a vestige of regret. Does he care how he may appear to his children?

But it was Adidas that he seems to spurn most. In his latest IG fume-post, he even clarified that “billions” mean “2” if Adidas wants to free him from his obligations to them, and that includes the alleged “stealing” of his intellectual property. This and others were no blank rants, even, if in many cases, he would delete them. They have been effectual among his friends, with Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs just announcing on IG that, in support for his mate, he was “done wearing Adidas” after a Ye-like blast: “’Since the era of Run-DMC, @Adidas has always used Hip Hop to build its brand and make billions off of our culture. BUT WE ARE MORE THAN JUST CONSUMERS NOW, WE’RE THE OWNERS. @KanyeWest and YEEZY are the reason Adidas is relevant to culture. WE KNOW OUR VALUE!”

Anger begets anger. And love for the Yeezy brand?

Illustrations: Just So

Another Scammer, Another Thai Girl

And she has fled from Thailand purportedly to Malaysia, like someone familiar. Who is this nasty Nutty?

In her social media posts, she looks rather natty, but she goes by Nutty. Like most Thais, her nickname—rather unfortunate, this one—identifies her. She is an influencer and she is on the run for alleged scams involving a mind-boggling two billion baht (or about S$77 million). That is even more than what our island’s infamous fraudster-duo cheated and then escaped—a whopping S$45 million more. Thai media reports do not indicate that her passport was impounded. The current speculation in Thailand is that she (and allegedly her mother) has escaped to Malaysia, as Thai fugitives are inclined to, and vice versa. At the border (assuming she entered legally), the immigration officers would have been able to read the name Natthamon Kongchak (นัทธมณ คงจักร์) on her passport, aged 29 (there are reports that state 27, even 30). Some news outlets spell her popular name as Natty, but on social media, she uses Nutty (her YouTube channel is called Nutty’s Dairy and a K-pop EP she released in 2014 was titled The Power of Nutty). It is probably a play on the first syllable of her first name Natthanon, pronounce naht. But, as it turns out, she has more than one name (more on that later).

Thai media has speculated that Ms Kongchak is acquainted with Siriwipa Pansuk, the other half of the married swindlers who were arrested on 11 August in Johor Bahru after hiding there for 37 days. According to Phaisal Ruangrit, a lawyer representing some 30 of Ms Kongchak’s victims, the two women were in cahoots—one dealing with luxury bags and the other in “investments”, as Shin Min Daily News reported yesterday. Today, Thailand’s Criminal Court issued a warrant for her arrest, concurrently asserting that her case is linked to Ms Pansuk and her husband Pi Jiapeng. How so, it did not elaborate. The Nation shared yesterday that, according to Mr Ruangrit, she has “defrauded over 6,000 victims”. Shin Min Daily News spoke to one Singaporean duped by Pi Jiapeng/Siriwipa Pansuk, a Mr Tan: He fears that if Ms Pansuk and Ms Kongchak were scheming together, he is unlikely going to see his money returned, as it would have been channeled to the latter.

Ms Kongchak, in her last video post on IG, explaining her actions and charges levelled at her. Screen shot: nutty.suchataa/Instagram

Ms Kongchak’s massive scams involved no luxury watches or handbags (although she did flaunt them). According to Thai reports, and the many complaints against her, she ran a “Forex Ponzi scheme” about five months ago. On social media, especially YouTube, she made herself out to be a successful “Forex trader” and encouraged her followers to invest with her as she acted as conduit to their new wealth. The lawyer Mr Ruangrit told Thai media that “the YouTuber had used her popularity to lure victims with the promise of high returns in a short time.” One of them purportedly deposited a boggling 18 million baht (about S$688,646) straight into Ms Kongchak’s account. In fact, she often coaxed potential investors to transfer the money directly to her personal a/c. And, curiously, they did. As social media chatter went, she had promised 25% returns for a three-month “contract”, 30% for six, and 35% for 12, with the agreement that payouts would be made monthly. In April, things didn’t seem right when she failed to meet her obligations, with some of her payees saying that they had not received anything for their investments. The online rumble grew increasingly palpable.

On 25 May, Ms Kongchak posted a simple video on IG—where she identifies as “trader, singer, dancer, YouTuber, CEO”—to explain her predicament, even cleverly including hashtags, such as #นัตตี้โกงเทรดพันล้าน (or #nutty cheated billions in trading) so that her post could be seen as a negation. There is even #ถ้าคนจะหนีหนีไปแล้ว (or #if people are going to flee), as if to allay the victims’ fears. Speaking in a somewhat girlish voice, she said she made a “big mistake” and had lost all the money, claiming that the error was in “trading with just one broker.” She admitted that everything was her own doing; she was “sorry for causing trouble to many people and making them disappointed in her.” Hoping to shift the anger towards her to sympathy, she added: “There has not been a day that was not stressful. There is no day I do not stop thinking of getting a refund.” But she was certain she would pay the investors back. In a separate post before the video, she wrote that she “will find the funds to return (the money) in every possible way”. Although many Netizens did not consider what she uttered assuring, that post curiously attracted 6,169 likes.

And then she was heard no more.

In happier times (2022), Nutty is like most influencers: She cannot resist a sexy pose. Photo: nutty.suchataa/Instagram

Natthamon Kongchak was born in the northern city of Chiang Mai, in 1993—the year the popular Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden (originally named Mae Sa Botanic Garden) opened in the district of Mae Rim, central Chiang Mai. By most accounts, she spent her childhood in the calm city, attending the co-ed Phraharuthai School, also known as the Sacred Heart College, a 90-year-old catholic institution that, a Chiang Mai native tells us, is “very popular”. Phraharuthai School is a fairly large building, which, from the inside, looks like a composite of village residences. When the students played in the school yard, they would have seen a familiar sight: The Sacred Heart Cathedral, with its distinctive red-brick façade, which in December conducts the city’s grandest annual Christmas mass. Less than two hundred metres away, is the maenam ping (or Ping River), one of the two main tributaries of the Chao Phraya River that flows into Bangkok. Interestingly, her alleged partner in crime, Siriwipa Pansuk, too, went to a Catholic school, in Nonthaburi.

But unlike Ms Pansuk, Ms Kongchak seems to have had a rather privileged childhood. While she had not said much about her younger days or her grades in Phraharuthai School, she did reveal in 2014, during appearances on talk shows (sometimes with her mother), that hers was a coddled life of luxury (she, like China’s last emperor Puyi, did not even have to put on her own shoes!) made possible because of her family‘s considerable wealth. As she regaled, her mother owned a karaoke bar and business was extremely good, with a monthly income of 2 million baht (about S$76,668). At one point, the family (there was no mention of other children) owned 14 cars, and their home had a staff of 22 maids/nannies. Why a small family like hers would require that many automobiles or domestic helpers, she did not say. Although she was pampered, she wanted her mother to spend more time with her. She asked the businesswoman not to go into the bar and let the employees run it. Apparently, this was not a good move, and the business tanked: the mother became a “bankrupt”. It is at this juncture that her back story turned Netflix-worthy dramatic. Thais were riveted to her story as “real life is better than drama”.

Nutty on the talk show At Ten in 2014. Screen shot: 2020 Entertainment/YouTube

Natthamon Kongchak enthusiastically revealed the story of her sensational early life in July 2014 on the Channel 3 evening talk show At Ten (ตีสิบ or tee sip). With financial ruin, the mother decided she could no longer stay in Chiang Mai. Before departing, she divorced her husband as she was too “ai“ (shy) to remain with him, given her economic disadvantage. Not bothered by being a single mother, she took her daughter to Hat Yai, a city in the southern province of Songkla, bordering Malaysia. The divorcée did not say why a bankrupt with a young child needed to flee her hometown for a place some 1,650 kilometres away (24 hours or so by car). In Hat Yai, the older woman met a guy who operates a win-motorsai (or motorcycle taxi). He would take them around Hat Yai (whether he was paid, we do not know). As the mother was looking for work, he suggested to her to consider the other side of the border in the south. When she decided to leave to try her luck, she left her daughter with this man, whom the just-pubescent Nutty called “gaopor”, or “godfather”.

The mother found work in Malaysia as a masseuse. In which city or town, or even state exactly, it has not been established. Soon, her daughter joined her (what happened to the godfather is not known either). According to some reports, she offered foot massage by going door to door with the little girl by her side. Ms Kongchak was then 13 years old (a photo she shared on IG of her at a younger age showed a little girl that probably could not escape the description cute). That would have been in 2006. Nothing is said about her education at this time. In the beginning, they had no place to stay, and would sleep at the homes of customers who took pity on them (others “donated” bicycles—there were two, apparently). A Malaysian man her mother did not identify, but did describe as wealthy (some media reports say a “billionaire”), who owned schools (“universities”, apparently) and other businesses in the country, wanted to marry her child, even when the 48-year-old man reportedly had “several wives”. In agreeing to the marriage, the mother would be paid an undisclosed sum of money. Additionally, he was willing not to touch the girl until she came of age, which, according to the mother, was two years later. Strangely, the single parent did not find the man and his proposal creepy, and agreed to the marriage.

Pre-fugitive days: Mother and daughter in 2018. Photo: nutty.suchataa/Instagram

As no pre-arranged sexual restraint could really be met by those seeking juvenile brides, the man, as Ms Kongchak recalled, “harassed” her. It could be assumed that, by now, the child-wife was living with the fellow. The girl went to her mother to report what her husband (it is hard to use that word here) attempted, but the woman would not believe her. The girl fell into “depression” and apparently “fainted” many times. The mother admitted on camera, between sobs, that it was hard on her daughter, who also teared when interviewed, as the young one did not know what was going on. She then decided to annul the marriage, and had to engage an imam to speak to the man and to act as facilitator. She revealed that she had to pay the man back the money she was earlier given, even when he reneged on his promise. As she had only the equivalent of two million baht (or S$76,673), she was unwilling to gave him all of it; she handed him half of that. She did not explain what she did with the initial sum. It is not known if the man agreed to the amount. After the unfortunate marriage ended, they “escaped” once more, this time to Pattaya.

Again, it is not known why mother and daughter had to flee what would have been home by then (it is not known how many years they were in Malaysia). If there really was a need to, why did they go to Pattaya, the seaside town on the opposite side of the isthmus of Kra, across the Gulf of Thailand, in the east? If they needed to be near the sea, why did they not choose the island of Phuket instead, just 200 kilometres north-west of the northern most Malaysian state of Perlis? The answer may never be made known. Back in Thailand, mother and daughter seemed to have enjoyed a more stable existence. Ms Kongchak claimed she worked as a waitress at this time. In 2014, despite a seeming gap in her education when she was living a married life in Malaysia, she was accepted at and graduated (curiously, she did not share any graduation photos on social media) from the College of Communication Arts at Rangsit University, a private institution in Pathum Thani on the border shared with the north of Bangkok. The province has a considerably high concentration of schools of higher education and Rangsit University, according to EduRank, is ranked no. 1 in the whole of Pathum Thani, where Ms Kongchak’s legal address is registered.

Nutty in school uniform, appearing on a talk show. Screen shot: TikTok

And then the Internet and social media caught up, and Ms Kongchak began fashioning herself as a “web idol”. She was noted for her dancing and for doing covers of Korean pop songs, as seen on social media. She joined Instagram in Dec 2013, and her first post was a twin photo of her in a car. There was no accompanying comment. A month later, she was sharing videos of her confident singing—the first, an English song, no less: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. More videos emerged, mostly showing her performing, usually dancing. There was no mention of how she learned to dance so engagingly. Of the 2,301 posts she shared (her account presently shows 310K followers), interestingly only 34 showed food. Like the many who derive an income through IG, she peddled anything, from health supplements to cosmetics (she was a long-time face of local brand Costina) to shoes. It is not known if goods were sold to her fans, who are called “Nutters”. In less than ten months after her IG debut and many dance videos later, she would appear in the talk show At Ten, revealing her colourful past.

She seemed very pleased with the broadcast, having urged followers to tune in days earlier. On IG, she thanked the host, the crew, friends and supporters, and wrote: “I have sat down for interviews and told stories about my life. It’s fun and it’s an honour.” Overnight, she became the “talk of the town”. But a year later, in a post of her mother kissing her, Ms Kongchak shared a lengthy message, in which she wrote, “I don’t have to be afraid of anything. The truth is the truth. Please believe in your child… How many stories in life have we been through? Only our hearts know.” And she went on to say: “Good people don’t fall into water, don’t fall into fire, don’t burn… The child will not allow anyone to do anything, mother, especially over something for which we are not wrong.” Netizens were beginning to speculate if it was her inability to handle her fame. She added, “What’s the story that makes it look bad? If it’s true, Nut (she frequently refers to herself in the abbreviated name) doesn’t care about the image at all. Nut is pure-hearted and ready to face every problem. And you don’t have to organise a press conference, to let it go on TV or something because Nut doesn’t want to be famous in this kind of thing.” What that thing was, she did not say. She concluded with: “If the fact that happens may affect anyone, I apologize here. Nut had to come out and defend herself. Protect mae (mother) Nut in various matters that are being talked about. Because when you protect yourself, you hurt Nut, you destroy her career, destroy all the future that Nut has created for herself.”

On a TV show, Nutty took out huge wads of money to show the audience that with them, she was going to buy her mother a car. Screen shot: TikTok

This could be seen as a regular mother-daughter squabble. But, few believed that was the case. It is likely that, for all the love she showed towards her mother on social media (and she did—a tad excessively), theirs was (and likely still is) a complicated relationship. Many netizens, upon learning of her marriage at 13, and that her mother received money for the “immoral” arrangement, was quick to say that the woman had practically “sold” her daughter. Money and the need to show off cash in the hand seemed to characterise their love for each other. In her third post on IG after she joined the social media at the end of 2013, Ms Kongchak shared a photograph of her presenting to her mother a hamper of bottled bird’s nest and a ‘fan’ of 14 pieces of 1,000 baht notes. Similarity, in 2016, during Songkran (the Thai New Year), she showered her mother with gifts and 1,000 baht notes, fan out so that the viewer could count all 10 pieces of them. Last August, after achieving success as a Forex trader, a TV program—shared on Nutty’s Diary—showed her being interviewed in her car. She unzipped a rather large blue bag, took out a Manila envelope and whipped out thick wads of cash (still bound as if just handed over by a bank teller), informing viewers that with all that money, she was going to buy her mother a surprise gift: A three-million-baht car!

Mae Nut was a constant presence in Ms Kongchak’s life, even when the daughter had to be overseas—in, for example, Seoul. Interestingly, Natthamon Kongchak and Siriwipa Pansuk have something in common: Korea. Ms Pansuk’s scamming career is said to have been seeded in the Korean capital. Ms Kongchak was there to pave a more legit professional path, and, in fact, had arrived three years earlier, in 2014. It is, therefore, unlikely that they ever met there. According to Thai media, Ms Kongchak claimed that her online popularity caught the attention of an “older” fan (gender not specified), who was dating a Korean girl, whose friend, as it turned out, owned a record label. Somehow, he saw “a clip” of Ms Kongchak singing and was convinced she deserved an audition. Things unfolded very quickly thereafter: A contract was signed with a company called Dream Cinema and she debuted in Korea, not as part of a girl group, but, amazingly, as a solo artiste. In October 2014, she went to the city of Incheon, where the airport is located, as one of two Thai guest-artistes to perform at The K-Festival Concert, reportedly organised to foster friendship with Thailand. She shared the stage with the singer/actor Jirayu ‘James’ Tangsrisuk (2019’s Krong Karm or Cage of Karma, shown on Channel U last year). Recorded music ensued, but none made a major impact on the charts.

Dancing days: Nutty not only danced, she taught as well as, with her own dance school. Screen shot: nutty.suchataa/Instagram

Her singing career did not take off as she had hoped. Reports of disputes with her music labels emerged, and Ms Kongchak reportedly terminated her contract. That some kind of agreement cannot be reached in Korea surprised many. Some also wondered why Thai music companies would not sign her up, with a few suggesting that she should perhaps go to Malaysia, where she has a sizeable fan base. Ms Kongchak, in fact, speaks surprisingly fluent Malay (which may suggest that she did go to school in Malaysia when she was there). In one YouTube post, she sang the Malay song Tak Tahu Malu (Shameless) by the Sabahan brother-duo Atmosfera (Atmosphere), including the speed-up chorus that could have been a tongue-twister for a non-bahasa Melayu speaker. It is tempting to assume she lip-synched, but she did release a Malay single Take You Home two years back, in which she even rapped in Malay. In a Q&A with her Malay fans that she shared online, she spoke Malay fluently, revealing, when asked what she likes to eat, that she loves “nasi lemak dengan kicap (with soy sauce, instead of sambal?)”. To endear herself to her Malay fans, she went a dramatic step further: In one make-up tutorial, she showed the end result wearing a tudung!

Back home in Thailand after her Korean stint, she was not quite crestfallen or defeated, determined to strengthen her online popularity, which still remained high. It was at this time that she began legal name changes that would amount to two in total (this excludes her nickname which remained as Nutty). She was, thus, also known as Leeah (spelled with an extra ‘e’) Kongchak and Suchataa (with an extra ‘a’) Kongsupachak (she was, therefore, called Nutty Suchataa sometimes, and also the moniker used on IG). Why these other names were necessary is not known as she still referred to herself as “Nut”, just as Nutters did. Similarly, her K-pop-style dancing and singing continued as before. Even her coquettish posts, which dates back to her university days (such as a photo of her, all made-up like a doll, in a tight school shirt, that went with the message, “Sweet dreams”) were still very present. Some of her photos started to show more skin, which could be a move to push herself beyond being a “cute” singer/dancer. A profile on her in a local magazine even titled the piece “Naughty Pretty”. Little did the editor know how prescient that was.

As she grew older, her dance moves became sexier, so was her dressing. Screen shot: nutty.suchataa/Instagram

Without a music or acting contract, she started looking at other income streams, and dance, she thought, was a sure way to make money. In 2018, she opened a dance school Diva Studio in Bangkok, but that was badly affected when the COVID pandemic struck. She wrote on IG in August last year: “My studio had to be closed. I could not teach dancing. Savings are running out. Many people’s stomachs are waiting for me”. In the same post, she shared that she had received a gift that was a course in “money management” and that she had enrolled, and had been on it for six months. And she let on that she had “studied stock trading before” but had ”just come to trade”. In no time, she was earning massive amounts of money, bragging to her followers that she could easily “make 300,000 baht (or about S$11,448) in 10 minutes”. COVID-era followers were duly impressed. Her mother was a firm supporter of her daughter’s new, quick money-making enterprise, even showing her daughter in action in IG posts, which led to the suspicion that the older woman played a part in the ruse, and had to abscond too.

According to Thai news site Sanook, Ms Kongchak’s daring scams were exposed by victims in April, when many of them reported they had not seen any returns on their paid-up investments. It is reminiscent of the alleged crimes of the now-caught and awaiting-trial Pi Jiapeng and Siriwipa Pansuk. A Thai Facebook page with the fitting handle Drama Addict shared that they received news of Ms Kongchak fleeing to Malaysia—again, sounding similar, although in the latter’s case, from the north of the Malay Peninsular. Thai authorities do not think that is the case, as exit records do not show her departure. That alone may not proof anything as Ms Pansuk had crossed the Causeway with almost not trace of her daring passage. If Ms Pansuk were not caught, would she and Ms Kongchak meet, assuming they knew each other, as alleged by Thailand’s Criminal Court. Ms Kongchak speaks Malay, and is familiar with the land; she would be a good accomplice to hide in Malaysia and lay low. And there is all the nasi lemak dengan kicap she could eat. A two million baht (about S$76,353) reward was recently put up for information on her whereabouts. Whether in Malaysia or Thailand, online or off, that is good money. Natthamon Kongchak—or whatever name she answers to now—could be wishing the Sacred Heart Cathedral of her childhood is nearby.

Note: It is hard to establish events chronologically as Natthamon Kongchak rarely referred to dates

Illustration (top): Just So

This Be The Look

Another fashion week in Malaysia, another sartorial controversy

Barely three weeks after the chest-baring controversy at Kedah Fashion Week (KFW)* that led to nation-wide disapproval and apology from the organiser, Malaysia is seeing another contentious fashion choice that riled up the watchful, not-necessarily-fashion-consuming public, this time in the capital. At the closing day of Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week (KLFW) 2022 last Sunday, the city’s “king of viral fashion” Tan Kel Wen (陳楷文) attended the show of his own label Behati at the Pavilion Kuala Lumpur mall in a self-designed, oversized, ankle-length, quilted happi coat (it was 31°C that afternoon in KL) over a pair of folded-down-at-the-waist, knotted-in-front-like-a-sampin shorts. The 26-year-old l, who has no qualms in casting himself as a model in his brand’s communication material, was shirtless under the outer, but it was not specifically this show of some skin that irked Malaysian Netizens. It was his choice of headwear: A black songkok—traditional, flat-top (atap leper) headgear worn by Malay males throughout the Malay/Indonesian archipelago, Brunei, and the south of the Philippines and Thailand.

Many Netizens took offence to his pairing of the headwear with his “half-naked” self, as one put it, when commenting on the photo he posted on Instagram. Others thought it disrespectful that he would bare part of his chest and limps while donning the brimless, close-fitting-at-the-sides hat that is commonly associated with going to the mosque. In another photo, also shared on IG, Mr Tan took to the stage at the end of his afternoon show with his muse, the beauty entrepreneur/“online personality”/singer of cheesy pop Dato’ Seri Vida (aka Hasmiza binti Othman), wearing another black songkok, now with a pin of his brand’s logo—a stylised image of a man in an oversized baju melayu (traditional Malay dress) striking a pose on bended knees—fastened to the right. To bask in the post-show glory, he donned a massively oversized shirt (with padded shoulders and the outline of the augmentation visible) and a plain black tie, and a waist-high short-sarong-as-mini-skirt.

Designer Kel Wen and Internet star Dato’ Seri Vida on the runway at KLFW 2022

In a lengthy IG post to defend himself against the antagonists, who are referred to as “commenters”—although he is prone to calling them “haters”—and “to educate” them, Mr Tan considers the songkok “a formal cultural headgear, not entirely a religious headgear that’s only worn for Islamic prayers”, adding that “in Malaysia it gets more complicated when different races wear the headgear for different purposes.” He did not say what the purposes were or that his wearing of the songkok was, therefore, to simplify things. Mr Tan, who prides himself as an ardent researcher, with a voracious appetite for his homeland culture, also pointed out to the provenance of the songkok. He claimed that the “Songkok doesn’t originate from the Malay community… Malays do not (sic) wear Songkok in Melaka Sultane (sic)” and “the first Songkok traces back to Ottoman Fez”. It is not known why he thinks the connection is that linear. He does not state the sources behind his assertion.

The fez itself does not have a straightforward history. According to author on Moorish culture Cozmo El, in his book The Secret of the Fez, the hat, which the Arabs call tarboosh, is claimed by some to have originated in ancient Greece, with some even pointing to the Balkans. Similarly, the songkok has a rather obscure beginning. No historian of Malay culture has yet drawn a direct link between the songkok and the “Ottoman fez”. There are similarities between the two, but it is hard to see why a largely tribal community would look to an empire with a capital some nine thousand kilometres away for aesthetic ideas. The popular thought is that the songkok arrived in Malaysia in the 13th century (Mr Tan prefers a later date: “19th century”)—when Islam was spreading in Southeast Asia—by way of India, where the fez-like headwear was improved with the addition of paper between the sides to make it tougher and more rigid. And it is not difficult to see the songkok’s popularity rising alongside the ascent of Islam. That the songkok is considered to be distinctly Malay is also due to the craftsmen of the early years, who refined the shape of the hat into the oval (as opposed to the round of the fez) that is recognisable today.

Behati’s latest collection based on Peranakan dress

Mr Tan is not wrong to say that non-Malays wear the songkok too. In several black and white photographs dated June 1963, shared by the National Archives of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was seen wearing one when he conducted a walkabout in Ulu Pandan (now part of the Holland -Bukit Timah GRC). On that day, he was attired in a white, short-sleeved, open-neck shirt and loose, dark trousers. There were other occasions as well (on one, he wore a songkok with the word “Malaysia” across its front), and each time, Mr Lee was suitably dressed. While it is not compulsory for Muslim men to wear the songkok, many do, especially with the baju melayu, even the batik shirt. Western fashion can be considered, provided, as one songkok-wearing Muslim friend told us, it is “tasteful or worn tastefully”.

In the age of TikTok, taste is subjective. As he kept to his penchant for viral results and adverse criticisms (in one TV interview, he said, “my work is known to get [sic] viral, to get negative comments”), Mr Tan may have not considered that the songkok has not quite achieved the sebarang (anything-will-do) status of social media, and that many Malays do regard the wearing of one with considerable rectitude. Defiantly, he wrote on IG, insisting on his sense of propriety: “I did not wear Songkok with a sexy underwear or reveal any sensitive parts of my body that shows nudity. Showing my knees like most malay (sic) men out there is a common fashion today.” Curiously, he compares the exposure of nearly half of both of his legs with “a Hijabi who wears the Tudung with their (sic) neck out (sic)“. (Are there such short tudungs?). The race card came in the conclusion: “I’m not Muslim, but wearing a Songkok signifies that I accept and learn the religion in my own personal lifestyle. If you can’t accept, it only means that you’re racist and that’s the real problem here.”

A groom’s outfit for the Behati ‘Peranakan’ collection

Mr Tan did not, however, draw flak for just his personal attire alone. The clothes he presented for Behati on the runway at KLFW attracted unfavourable criticism too. Based on “mixed race, mixed culture, mixed tradition”, the Peranakan-themed collection had all the fervour of a graduate show and the appeal of a cultural village gift shop. Mr Tan’s adoration for his nation’s plural culture is palpable, but he does not consider a judicious use of the myriad things, big and small, that he adores to keep the end result from being laughing matter. Or, worse, the proverbial rojak. There is something naive about his love for the cross-cultural. His critics were not just unimpressed with the baju-panjangs-as-duster-coats, kebaya blouses teamed with cargo joggers, or the 结婚绣球花 (jiehun xiuqiuhua)—wedding ribbon ball—strapped to a white suit worn under a sheer baju panjang festooned with tassels, but for the four model-dancers who performed and strutted their stuff in fake kebaya tops (two were very cropped!) and triangular fabrics tied to the waist like a pareo and exposing considerable rump. Any bibik would say the clothes (and their wearers) are tak senonoh (indecent). Behati fans applauded the social media-worthy liberties taken, but others were appalled, with one IG user going as far as to describe the seeming impropriety as “rape the tradition”.

An alumnus of Raffles Design College in KL, Tan Kel Wen graduated with a diploma in fashion design and then cut his teeth as assistant designer with compatriot Lee Khoon Hooi (李坤辉). Until five years ago, he was working with the veteran. Mr Lee told South China Morning Post last February: “I’ve always been influenced by different cultures because Malaysia has a multinational community.” Sounds familiar? The style of his eponymous label has unfailingly been described as “feminine” or “romantic”, with no discernible visual defiance that would come to define his young protégé, who must have been so influenced by his former employer that he reprised Mr Lee’s use of tassels as repeated motif from 2019 for his current Peranakan collection. Some ten years ago, when he was putting out flounced dresses and one-shoulder numbers, Mr Lee Khoon Hooi was considered Malaysia’s Alber Elbaz.

Behati’s culture-show-as-fashion-show at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur

Mr Tan founded Behati in 2018 as a label—self-touted to be “modern traditionalist”—that brings together the aesthetic traditions of Malaysia, seen through a lens focused on streetwear, while amping up the brand’s ethno-social appeal. He calls it “blending urban and heritage”. Recently, he told L’Officiel Malaysia, “As people say, nothing is original anymore but there’s always something new, and mixing cultures is a way to create.” Born in the historic state of Melaka, he, in fact, grew up, further south, in the coastal town of Muar, Johor. He attended Sekolah Tinggi Muar (High School Muar), housed in a building—erected in 1914—that is not far from the sea, and was a member of the school’s choir. His love for music has never waned and he claimed to have been writing music since he was 15 years old. His mother is a retired school teacher who taught English and music in a Malay school. He shared on IG that “growing up, I always wanted to write like her, sing like her”. Although he moved to KL to further his studies and to pursue a career in fashion, he has not put aside music, and continues to perform under the “stage name” Khai, the first of his two-word Chinese moniker. He has even released a Malay language dance single and an accompanying music video—under Khai + Haus of RN—Demam Cinta (Love Sick).

By his own account, he has “been wearing traditional clothes for Raya since (he) was younger”, keeping his love of Malaysian multi-culturalism, and indeed nationalism, on his sleeve, constantly; not even shying away from naming the previous collection “kampung”—almost another country in the antarabangsa (international) capital of Kuala Lumpur. According to the KL-based news site World of Buzz, Mr Tan revealed that “Behati is a word of African origin, which means ‘blessed’”. And, a female pronoun, such as the name of Namibian model Behati Prinsloo, wife of Adam Levine. It seems rather odd that, being unabashedly proud of his Malaysian identity, he would use an African name for a brand. Mr Tan told the podcast Borak Sini Habis Sini (Chat Here, End Here) that he thinks that behati sounds a little like the Malay word for blessing, berkati. For his latest runway show, no African or Malay text was used—the back drop was an expansive sheet of red, with the Chinese pronunciation of his brand name, 百哈迪 (bai ha di) written in massive calligraphic strokes. Whether this amounts to creative schizophrenia or is just a happy campuran (mix), it is perhaps too early to say, but Behati is exactly the gratuitous pastiche that social media feeds on. Despite its hybridised image, the brand is considered an “Internet sensation”.

Aina Abdul in Behati going to the Behati show

In 2019, one particular garment Mr Tan created evoked both delight and derision: The “oversized baju Melayu”. The press preferred the euphemism “mixed reaction”. This was no re-designing of the men’s two-piece (formerly known by the once gender-neutral term baju kurung, which now only refers to the version for women), comprising a tunic-like baju (top) and loose seluar (trousers), but a re-proportioning of the garments in a similar vein to the exaggerated sizing of early Vetements (now VTMNTS. Behati subsequent tailored suits would, for most, recall Balenciaga’s). Most Malays did not wish for their beloved baju to be so radically up-sized—”this was no French fries at McDonald’s”, one retired Malaysian model told us. Believed to have originated from the court of the Malacca Sultanate (as early as the 1400s), the baju Melayu is already loose-fitting, with virtually no change to the silhouette since its introduction. In a move that supporters consider “ingenious”, Mr Tan made his baju so large that some had such huge armholes that entire tops were, horizontally, almost an oblong, from end to end, when the arms are stretched out. For the images shared on social media, Mr Tan had his models pose like the stylised figures of Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming’s (朱銘) Tai Chi bronzes. The silhouettes, including that of the logo, were so similar, it’s tempting to say he could have been inspired by the artist’s work. He described the images as “avant-garde”.

Behati and Mr Tan’s online reputations were further enhanced in the past two years when stars and celebrities came to the designer for special commissions. Two most noted are the aforementioned muse Dato’ Seri Vida, who, at the Behati show, modeled a colourful dress that could be seen as a tent made of scraps of 云肩 (yun jian) or cloud collar. And a tagine on her head. “Culturally-mixed fashion”, as Mr Tan described the design on IG, or Gen-Z oriental camp? And, looking even more absurd, Aina Abdul. Also dressed by Behati, the Johor-born songstress (who shared on IG: “I loveeeee how this look turned out 🖤 Major love!”) was entrapped in what could be a mass of deflated, balled-up fabric. As she moved, she looked like a cartoon likeness of a black cloud. Only her face and her hands were shown. In fact, she did not appear to be wearing a dress; she seemed upholstered. Perhaps, in Kuala Lumpur, as one IG user commented, paraphrasing what Tan Kel Wen said on a Jack and Jill Potato Chip TV commercial, “ini(lah) baru fashion show.”

*Not to be confused with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur

Photos: kel_wen and behati.my/Instagram

No In Kedah

A woman who attended Kedah Fashion Week riled up much of Malaysia when she did not cover up—adequately

Even a blazer was not enough—not when you wear it on its own. At the recent Kedah Fashion Week (KFW), held in the capital Alor Setar (between 2003 and 2009, it was Alor Star), an attendee was seen and photographed in an ill-fitting suit, with a blazer that was half Bottega-green and half gingham check of black and white. That would usually not have anyone’s knickers in a knot, except that the person wore only her own skin and some strands of beads under what looks like a double-breasted jacket. Unsurprisingly, photographs of her ended up on social media and went angrily viral within hours. Her sartorial choice was apparently so outrageous—even during a fashion week—and offensive that Malaysian daily The New Straits Times posted on Twitter, following the online uproar, that “stern action will be taken against the organisers”—not, curiously, the supposed miscreant.

Kedah Fashion Week is reported to be put together by and staged at Aman Central, a six-year-old, six-storey shopping centre in the city that is the largest in this state, northwest of Malaysia. We have never heard of KFW and had asked our Malaysian contributors and friends about the now-trending event, but all of them were, as one said, ”just as clueless”. Aman Central mall is developed by Malaysia’s Belleview group, also the company behind the popular residential/commercial project, All Seasons Place, across the South Channel of the Straits of Malacca, in Penang. The organiser said that it has staged this fashion week since 2016 to allow “tenants to showcase their latest collection”, but why one is necessary here for the whole of Kedah when the mall’s most recognisable clothing labels are not Malaysian or fashion-centric—Giordano, Guess, H&M. Levi’s, and Uniqlo, is a puzzler.

According to the event invite shared online, KFW had a dress code: “STYLO”, which some invitees could have taken to mean to berpakaian mencolok mata (or dress eye-catchingly). The woman might have merely showed up as stated. First identified as a “model” and then a poser, and finally clarified by the press to be a mak nyah (transgender woman), she has, up to now, remained silent on her choice of attire. Aman Central posted a statement on Instagram to quell the growing speculations. It wrote that “the viral photo of (the) guest… dressed inappropriately… did not reflect the image we’re seeking to promote. We wish to clarify that management did advise all guests to wear properly (sic), however the challenges were unsurmountable (sic).” Forcing attendees to a fashion show to wear undergarments could indeed be an insurmountable task, even obstacle. But, as some would say, releklah, fesyen aja—relax, it’s only fashion.

Photo: Instagram