Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo: Nine Notables

These may not be names we get to see and buy here, but follow them we sure can

If the Japanese can organise the Tokyo Olympics in the middle of a raging pandemic, while the capital was (and still is) in a state of emergency, it would not be unreasonable to assume that they could put together a Tokyo Fashion Week (TFW). And they did. But the annual event no longer goes by that name. The old TFW had been struggling to stay on its feet, until Rakuten came along as official title sponsor in August 2019. The Japanese “e-commerce giant” Rakuten pulled out of Singapore in 2016, just after two years of operations here, and retrenching staff on the fifth day of the Lunar New Year—one ill-advised HR move that startled the industry. Known as “the Amazon of Japan”, it lost the accolade that year (website closures also included Indonesia and Malaysia, and in Europe) to, yes, Amazon. Rakuten Group’s business has become varied since, and now includes telecommunications. Still, its e-commerce connection is not severed, and, with the company’s motto “Shopping is Entertainment”, remains a huge part of Japan’s online shopping culture and hive.

To bring more heft to mere sponsorship, Rakuten also created the sibling “by R” project to “support the fashion shows” of Japanese designers (both new and established), “with the goal of broadening the horizons of talented young designers in Japan and showcasing the country’s designer fashion to the world”, according to a company statement. It does not say what the criteria of selection are. Only two are picked. Recipient of the support at the inaugural “by R” shows last year were Undercover and Beautiful People, both labels benefitted from “planning assistance and event management for the fashion shows”, as well as the “stream(ing) of videos of both shows on the Rakuten Fashion online fashion shopping website for free, with the goal of helping to further raise awareness of the brands”. This season, two awareness-not-quite-required names were selected for Rakuten to “power”: White Mountaineering and Kolor.

White Mountaineering in a garden

Kolor in a subway train

Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo this year, which began on 30 August and ended last Saturday, surprised many industry watchers as it did not take place in the more traditional month of October. The orgainisers moved it to be even ahead of New York Fashion Week, which begins tomorrow. Two weeks before the shows started, The Japan Times called the new dates the “shock of the month” and reported that media and buyers were “caught off guard”. Some observers thought that the new dates were to better accommodate those brands that offer menswear, usually shown earlier than women’s. It is, however, unclear how this will affect international buyers’ timetable (are they still travelling?), but with the sudden rescheduling, the Tokyo shows seem to target the domestic market, which has always been sizeable, and continues to be encouraging. According to a Reuters report, published on the first day of the shows, “Japan’s retail sales rose for a fifth straight month in July (a rise of 2.45% from the same month a year earlier), beating expectations”. That was clearly off to a good start.

Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo’s 48 brands offer a varied mix of IRL shows (with or without audience) and video-films, some more compelling than others. For many designers, a physical presentation is still the more desirable option, even when not all could present to an audience. As Yosio Kubo said through a video presentation, “There was a tendency that digital announcements were enough due to the corona, but there are still many things that cannot be done. After all, I think that the physical fashion show will continue. You can see it from various angles and smell it. I feel it and realize the importance of the parts that cannot be covered digitally. That is why I think that the fashion show will not end even though it is an old system.” Digital-only fashion weeks may be seeing the last of their heydays.

All of the following brands featured are not, as far as we are aware, available here. We have been following them in our annual visit to Tokyo, which unfortunately had to come to a halt in 2020, but this does not mean that we cannot continue to enjoy their creative output. We hope you’d take pleasure in them too.

De_Caffeine Homme

The Bunka Fashion College-educated, Seoul-based designer Avizmo Jo is a proponent of “New Normcore”, based on the big-in-Japan fashion movement Neo-Dadism—essentially the meeting of what is considered art and the minutiae of everyday life. The designer’s post-graduation label De_Caffeine Homme, conceived in 2018, offers “trendy style(s) that you can enjoy freely in your life, like decaffeinated coffee”, according to their communication material. It is not entirely certain if Avizmo Jo is a real name since it does not sound Korean (some members of the Japanese media refer to the moniker as a brand, even framing it with inverted commas), but his designs marry the realness of what men increasingly want—nothing too formal or business-y—with details that are often surprising, such as this season’s multiple collars/collarless treatment on a single shirt. Almost-traditional tailoring is strong with masculine silhouettes that are relaxed by not exaggerated.

Hare

Hare is part of the Tokyo-based fashion retail company Adastria’s stable of more than 25 mid-priced-to-affordable brands, such as Rage Blue, Lowrys Farm (that exited Singapore in 2015 just after three years here), and Niko and… (currently wildly popular). Regular visitors to Tokyo would be familiar with Adastria brands although they may not know which company is behind them. Hare is one such label, often seen in teen hotspots such as Lumine Est in Shinjuku. Established in 2003, the label, categorised as a “mode brand” in Japan, is put together by a team of in-house designers who translates the key trends of the season into looks that straddle fashion-school-graduation excesses and high-street salability. This season, oversized shapes dominate, with a welcome dose of technical fabrics and rich prints. The layering suggests a far more sophisticated leaning than what the brand is noted for in stores.

Hyke

Hyke was launched during the 2013 autumn/winter season, but designers Hideaki Yoshihara and Yukiko Ode—married to each other—have worked together since 1998. Their eight-year-old label is very much followed in their homeland, where could be consider the Luke and Lucie Meier of Japan. Winners of the 35th Mainichi Fashion Grand Prix in 2017, the designing duo is known for their strong tailoring with feminine touches. For spring/summer 2022, their strength in pattern making and modern fabrication are again evident. Menswear styles are tempered with puff-sleeved dresses, sometimes paired with unlikely accessories such as a helmet bag. Just as striking are the strong but simple tops, teamed with waist-gathered skirts that are cut from shinny, technical fabrics. A collection that truly stands out for its grown-up, intelligent attitude.

F/CE

Although the brand has a clothing line, F/CE is popularly known for their bags, including serious camping backpacks that could rival The North Face. And, their cool retail space in Shibuya called Root General Store. Founded in 2010 by Satoshi Yamane (with Asami Yamane designing the womenswear), F/CE is a go-to RTW label among those in the know. Mr Yamane has quite an impressive CV: a former designer at Men’s Bigi and, later, sales and marketing manager for Crocs Japan before moving up to become the shoe brand’s chief designer. Like quite a few of his fellow Tokyo creatives, Mr Satoshi is also a musician, playing the bass guitar with his post-rock band, cheekily named Toe (there are three studio albums to boot). Perhaps, it is this background in commercial footwear and indie, guitar-based music that Mr Yamane is able to lace F/CE with a considerable dose of edgy cool: utilitarian styles paired with outdoor wear and holiday garb, and the brand’s wearable and desirable bags.

Irenisa

Yohji Yamamoto alums Yu Kobayashi and Yuji Abe used to be the revered 77-year-old designer’s pattern maker and product development specialist respectively. Launched during the autumn/winter 2020 season, Irenisa is a menswear label that does not quite look back at the co-founders’ fashion pedigree. Instead, both men have forged forward with an aesthetic that they called “chic with sarcasm”. It is not certain that the sarcasm is immediately discernible, but Irenisa do not shy away from the elegant, and the the seemingly basic. Upon closer examination, one sees the three-dimensionality of the cuts and how they allow the comfortably-fitted separates to envelope the body without excess and without confining it. A jacket looks like a jacket, a shirt looks like a shirt—no needless deviation.

Rainmaker

In Tokyo, Rainmaker is unusual in that it is based in Kyoto, the cultural and historical heart of Japan. Although one does not associate the city with fashion, it is considered a textile hub, especially for kimono silks (the best are still hand-woven and hand-dyed). It is in this artisanal environment that Rainmaker was conceived in 2013 by Kohichi Watanabe and Ryutaro Kishi. The duo’s aesthetic for both the men’s and women’s lines have always been heavy on crafting that tends to characterise those brands not operating out of Tokyo. From traditional fabrics to dyeing techniques to the relaxed silhouettes, there is something refreshingly retro-urban about Rainmaker’s looks. This season, blue in all its glorious subtle shadings—indigo naturally not to be omitted—determines the collection’s Japanese-ness, if it can be so described. Set apart, the clothes will not stump the adventurous pattern maker, but when worn, these pieces feel like the best pieces of a mature wardrobe.

Sartograph

One of the newest labels of the season, Sartograph was launched only last year, yet designer Shinsuke Nakano’s collection is so confidently put together that the clothes feel like the work of much more seasoned hands. A Central Saint Martins graduate, who benefited from winning Alexander McQueen’s Sarabande Scholarship, Mr Nakano completed his PhD at CSM. Sartograph, although only into its second season, offers no lack of technical finesse. Mr Nakano has been described as a minimalist designer, but it isn’t the minimalism of say, the ’90s. Within the discipline of the traditional tailoring, utilitarian workwear details—sometimes in the form of wearable accessories—are incorporated, almost like graphic design. The result is unmistakably contemporary, without traipsing into the much trampled grounds of streetwear.

Sise

Seishin Matsui’s Sise is a Tokyo Fashion Week regular. Conceived in 2010, Sise came into prominence after securing a place as a finalist at the 2015 Woolmark Prize. The line is often described by Japanese media as “minimalistic”, but, increasingly, Mr Matsui explores more complex cuts and styling that are reminiscent of the ’90s Japanese avant-garde, seen, perhaps, through European lenses. Colours are mostly kept muted to better reveal the subtlest of details and silhouettes—still body-respecting that they avoid leaning on exaggeration. Although Sise offers menswear, it is the women’s collection that is presented at Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo, and like the other stronger looks shown this season, Sise’s sits comfortably on the side of androgyny without jumbling too much the male/female sartorial divide.

Yoshio Kubo

Yoshio Kubo showed his modestly-staged IRL collection in his office/atelier in Nakameguro, Tokyo’s hotbed of edgy labels, marking a welcome return to the Tokyo calendar after showing in Milan and Paris for the past five years. Among the names in this list here, Yoshio Kubo is possibly the most internationally-recognised. In Asia, the line was sold in Bangkok and Hong Kong, and here at Club 21. Although Nr Kubo’s clothes are not considered so subtle as to escape the curious mind, he does hope to encourage consumers to “think about the design and details of clothes again”, presumably as opposed to the thoughtless consumption of fast fashion. A graduate of Philadelphia University’s school of Textile & Science and a former assistant with American couture designer Robert Dane of The Danes for four years, Mr Kubo’s work is not separated from impeccable refinement, even when the final looks—as in this season’s curved lines within relaxed tailoring—tend to place him among the leading Japanese avant-gardists.

Photos and screen grabs: Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo/respective designers. Collage: Just So

Two Of A Kind: The Floor-Length Padded Coat

Who wore it better?

Balenciaga isn’t quite the first to design it. But perhaps that does not matter as much as who wore it first. Andre Leon Talley, the connoisseur of the caftan, loves a large, floor-length coat too. Back in 2015, Mr Talley posted on Instagram a selfie and an OOTD that featured a long, ripe-red Norma Kamali puffer that is popularly known as the “sleeping bag coat” (Ms Kamali reportedly conceived it in the mid-’70s). He added the puffery “Luxe! Total Luxe” to the comments too. Apart from that, he would post photos of the coat another six more times—on IG alone. The tubular covering seemed to be his go-to outerwear for that season. He was photographed in front of his White Plains house wearing the said coat and, urghs, UGGs as the face of the American-own, born-in-Australia footwear brand. That photo was used countless times, other than for marketing communication purposes, even as illustration to articles that reported on his real-estate woes of early this year. And he appeared in the same glorious redness in the 2017 biographical movie, The Gospel According to Andre. The colour of chilli seems to be his favourite for outers in recent years: preceding the Kamali coat was an equally scarlet, just as omnipresent Tom Ford “kimono”.

Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, of course, loves to base his designs on what certain characters might wear, oftentimes also the supposed underbelly of society, as well as the regular blokes—accountants and athletes, even galactic folks. His red padded coat for the debut couture collection could very likely be for statuesque rappers to wear on stage (Jay-Z?) or whoever might appreciate the extra volume that such a well-girthed coat affords. It is not likely Mr Gvasalia had ALT in mind when the coat was on the drafting table, but surely he wasn’t only looking at the archive? Was it a coincidence that they picked a Black model to wear it? Truth be told, when it appeared silently during the livestream earlier, we did think of the unforgettable Vogue ex-staffer. Surely, the portable-bedding-as-outerwear he adores needs replacing by now, or next fall? Could Balenciaga then be his new Norma Kamali or Tom Ford? That’d be tres luxe, no?

Photos: (left) Balenciaga and (right) andreltalley/Instagram

Two Of A Kind: Full Head Covering

Hide, hide, hide

Richard Quinn Vs Louis Vuitton

Since his full fashion presentation for autumn/winter 2018, Richard Quinn has obscured his models’ entire heads. Never mind that the Queen of England was seated in the front row (she was there to present him with the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design) and the models looked like they might mug the unsuspecting attendees. At first, Mr Quinn covered his models heads and faces by cleverly tying a scarf over every inch above the shoulder—rather Cristo for head—and then graduating to full-on custom balaclavas that often matched gloves and leggings. It is his, for a lack of a better word, signature—one look and you know it’s Richard Quinn. But these days, one man’s signature is another man’s hack! Or the beginning of the buzzy discourse on who’s copying who. Or amen-breaking!

For Louis Vuitton’s spring/summer 2022, Virgil Abloh, too, covered the head of a few of his models. The balaclavas are there as well, but it is the total head covering and the matching gloves that very much raised our eyebrows. Mr Abloh’s presentations for both LV and his own line Off-White have always been watchable for what would be riffed. He has no qualms of being so very clearly inspired, so aroused by the ideas of others. It is very much a part of the hip-hop culture that he grew up in, where sampling and re-sampling across genres among artistes are the norm and widely practised. Why waste a good beat or bass?

Just as one can’t claim ownership to blond hair, so one can go from brunette to flaxen or similar, it is perhaps tempting to say that the head totally enclosed in a scarf belong to no one particular créateur, and, therefore, can be adopted by anyone. But it is disconcerting that Mr Abloh’s shrouded head appeared only recently, long after Mr Quinn made it very much his aesthetic guise, even if he may say his was inspired by the men (面, the protective head guard worn kendo competitors). Or, is Virgil Abloh merely adopting what Pablo Picasso is widely thought to have said and Steve Jobs had delightfully quoted, that “good artists borrow, great artists steal”?

Photos: (left) Richard Quinn and (Right) Louis Vuitton

Two (Plus One) Of A Kind: Is The Swan Dress Really A Thing?

It has been twenty years since Björk wore the much-ridiculed swan dress to the 2001 Academy Awards. Now, Dior is offering one too. An anniversary homage?

From left: Björk at the 73rd Academy Awards, Valentino 2014 spring couture, Dior cruise 2020

Did Maria Grazia Chiuri think we have forgotten? Or did she think we remember? Either way, is it time to revisit an old idea? Ms Chiuri is a designer with commercial instincts, so it is hard to fathom the need of a swan gown in the Dior cruise 2022 collection or the fascination with the cygnus. Many of us, of course, totally recall Björk at the 73rd Academy Awards in the cocktail number that looked like a white swan had taken the Icelandic singer as a mate and somehow attached itself to her. She clearly was not attending the ceremony as Odette the swan princess. Thirteen years later, Valentino showed a swan number for their spring 2014 couture collection, which convinced commentators and the fashion media that the house was paying homage to Björk and her unusual choice for the red carpet.

When Dior announced in April that their cruise show would be staged in Greece and will “showcase local artisans”, we knew there would be goddess dresses or interpretations of the peplos, and, sure enough, there are, even when Ms Chiuri said she wanted to avoid clichés. But what we did not expect was the swan dress, already no longer considered fascinating or a dressmaking feat. In fact, repetitive is that white gown, with a tiered floor-length skirt and what seems to be the neck and head (or beak?) of a swan that Valentino showed seven years ago (then, the head was fashioned to hug the back). But now, it seems to resemble more closely the Travis Banton dress Marlene Dietrich wore to a costume party in 1935, as the Spartan queen Leda. It is not immediately clear if there are any dots to connect swans to Greece. Even if there are, the association is as obvious as rainwater in a (swan?) lake.

At the time of Valentino’s couture swan dress, Maria Grazia Chiuri was a designer at the house, together with the present creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli (both were jointly appointed after predecessor Alessandra Facchinetti left in 2008). The Dior cruise swan gown cannot resist the speculation that Ms Chiuri could be stating irrevocably that the waterfowl form was her idea to start with. In 2014, the publicity and accolade had to be shared, but not this time. Now, she enjoys the spotlight as the sole styliste, and is giving herself the opportunity to reclaim past glory. Or, to flow with the achingly trending, is this a Gucci-Balenciaga-style hacking?

When Björk wore her swan dress, designed by London-based, North Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski, she did not merely appear in the outfit. As she told the media later, “I was very aware when I went to the Awards that it would probably be my first and last time. So I thought my input should really be about fertility, and I thought I’d bring some eggs.” And she sure did—six of them, all ostrich eggs, presumably large enough not to be missed by the paparazzi’s cameras. She even pretended to lay the eggs, there and then on the red carpet. Like Kate Middleton, Björk is not opposed to repeating her clothes. In fact, the swan dress seen at the Academy Awards (she was voted for best Original Song for Dancer in the Dark) made its fourth appearance. It was first featured on the cover of the 2001 album Vespertine, and then it joined the Vespertine Tour, followed by an appearance at the 2000 Cannes Festival, before finally hitting the red carpet outside the Shrine Auditorium in LA. Looking back, Björk was ahead of her time.

Photos: (from left) Wire Image, Indigital Images, Dior

Blame The Weather

Shorts and slippers aren’t sloppy,” says self-professed “slipper-wearing environmentalist” Ho Xiang Tian. Is that a hurray?

By Raiment Young

Yesterday, in a long-form commentary for CNA, the 25-year-old environmentalist Ho Xiang Tian (何翔天) wrote, “most people complain about Singapore’s erratic weather—it’s hot and humid, or storming (sic) and wet—but no one ever seems to complain about the dress code that amplifies discomfort in Singapore’s weather.” How fascinating it is that an environmental advocate would “talk about how we dress in sunny Singapore”. Mr Ho is the co-founder of LepakInSG, a three-person initiative that offers “a one-stop calendar listing environmental events and activities in Singapore”, as stated in its blog page. By his own admission in the CNA piece, he’s a “slipper-wearing environmentalist”, just as, I suppose, Gandhi was a dhoti-wearing anti-colonial nationalist. Mr Ho’s slippers are, presumably, the mark of identification with the problems of our impoverished Earth, just as the Mahatma’s loincloth was worn to identify with the poor. At rallies, Mr Ho introduces himself—with considerable delight—as “the person who wears slippers and shorts everywhere I go”.

In placing slippers first in that order, it seems to me that Mr Ho is aligning himself with the chin chai (casual, not fastidious, or as one pleases) attitude that is associated with the open footwear. On his Instagram, which he says he doesn’t use, the intro reads, “I wear slippers everywhere”. In doing so, it is possible that he, who only uses Telegram, is giving his LepakInSG movement concordant grassroots leaning. Lepak, as many of us know, is basically loafing around in Malay, and mostly associated with youths. But a more acceptable definition would be to ‘hang out’ or even ‘chill out’, but clearly not doing anything. Singlish.net considers it “a form of enjoyment that is carefree and stress-free”. Foreigners who think we are overworked and mentally pressured might be surprised that, as Mr Ho and his friends posit, we do lepak in SG. The word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary too, where it also means “loiter aimlessly or idly; relax”. LepakInSG, therefore, projects an easy and informal image of the causes it champions. You can do something for the environment by being and looking laid-back. 

In his CNA commentary that reads as charmingly as a secondary school composition, Mr Ho positions himself as an outsider. He looks at the office worker from where he can observe inclement weather: outdoor. He observes that “long-sleeved shirts, pants, shoes, suits and heels are mainstays in the CBD, fitting the narrative of Singapore as a serious and slick financial centre of the world.” (LepakInSg, therefore, the antithesis of that?) Office wear—even a fading category of clothing—to him is serious and associated with the business of making and managing money. He continues quite grimly, “this fragile narrative, however, is challenged when a roaring thunderstorm or an unbearable heat wave happens, revealing disgruntled office workers who have gotten soaked in a sudden downpour during their lunch break. Or soaked from sweat just heading to and from a meeting.” I was lost in the comic absurdity and tragedy of that observation. It was even more amusing to think that Mr Ho might have imagined that the staff of the many banks in Raffles Place go to work in shorts and slippers.

Ho Xiang Tian refers to how professionals and office workers in the CBD like to conform to a “dress code” (he repeated it six times!). That they are attired to a set of rules ascribed to circumstances, occasions, and purpose is rather risible when so many travellers to our island (in the halcyon days of travel) note that we often look “super casual” or, as first-time Chinese visitors would say, “超休闲” (chaoxiuxian). This dress code is so unsuited to the vagaries of our equatorial weather that Mr Ho is unable to develop a social, sartorial, and sympathetic relationship with it. “I can’t relate,” he continues to convince readers, “as I go about almost everywhere in slippers and shorts. My renown for that is second only to my reputation as an environmental advocate.” Some of you may chuckle, but Mr Ho clearly takes his image seriously, and is exacting about his skin-baring footwear and bottoms. Casual, as it appears, is crucial.

But Mr Ho does not distinguish between anyhow casual and smart casual. Shorts and slippers aren’t sloppy, indeed. The garment and the footwear themselves are not sloppy; often, the wearers are. Casual is so much the opposite of dressed-up that clothes can be spared from ironing, just as slippers can be freed from cleaning. Nor does he point out the difference between the shorts and slippers for a trip to the neighbourhood bubble tea stall, for an afternoon at the Rail Corridor, or for taking a date to “a great street” Orchard Road. But he isn’t alone. Many, like him, do not acknowledge that shorts and slippers can be neatly unstudied and personably unpretentious, just as they can be comfortable, easy-to-wear, and not draw attention to themselves.

Mr Ho’s attitude towards dress seems to me a reflection of the attitude of a sizeable group of his generation, including many undergrads who consider shorts and slippers truly the best options for campus life. In a 2017 ST article on the extremely casual attire that students adopt in universities, the consensus was that clothes and footwear were picked for practical reasons—“convenience and comfort”. One student from NUS was quoted saying, “our climate is very hot, and sometimes classrooms can be very far apart, so students dress in more comfortable attire such as shorts and slippers.” Mr Ho’s description of what “disgruntled office workers” go through—seemingly on a regular basis—echoes this thought. Many, he is telling us, are a hot mess in our equatorial heat. All the growing technologies that yield moisture-wicking fabrics (Uniqlo’s Airism, for example, among many) and those that are anti-bacterial and odour-free, quick-dry and wrinkle-resistant; the myriad ways of cutting clothes to maximise air flow; as well as ventilation-possible details such as meshed insets and strategically-placed eyelets have somehow escaped the shorts-and-slippers brigade.

I have no objection to slippers, if they are neat and clean, on which feet that are also neat and clean sit. But the reality is that slippers are given the treatment that commensurate with their lowest ranking among footwear. As they tend to be relatively inexpensive, few treat them as they would Yeezys—or the expensively similar. Ardent adopters tend to have somewhat disconnected relationships with their slippers, which are often seen kept apart from their feet. Just observe in any MRT car. And when wearers are seated in a café too; they have the habit of completely distancing the feet from slippers by bringing the legs up close to the waist, or, in some cases, the knees to the chest. People have the tendency to drag their feet in slippers, making the choice of footwear audible to others. The habit possibly explains why the Chinese call slippers tuoxie (拖鞋) or ‘dragging shoes’. Taking the cue from the Chinese, the Peranakans use the identical phrase kasut seret (rather than the Malay kasut capal, the traditional thonged slippers thought to have originated in India [modern versions are known by the English loanword selipar]). Kasut seret originally refers to the Nonya’s beaded kasut manek, but also points to slippers in the post-colonial years.

The need to drag one’s feet when shod in the kasut manek is understandable. These mule-like slip-ons offered no grip to the feet of the wearer. In addition, women wore their kasut manek with long and narrow sarongs, which made steady strides tricky. But today’s young who are outfitted in shorts and slippers—usually thonged, such as the Havaianas—have significantly less restrictions. Yet, it seems that no matter how light or unrestrictive the wearers’ slippers are, many still drag their feet or shuffle. In this instance, the article worn and action taken are, more often than not, sloppy. Mr Ho asks, “What’s wrong with dressing down when no disrespect is meant?” The optics may not appear disrespectful (even that is uncertain since he admits he receives “several emails from event organisers explicitly stating their dress code, to prevent me from sticking out like a sore thumb”), but we can’t be sure that the sound isn’t. It is possible that Mr Ho, who is also a volunteer guide for the Naked Hermit Crabs (a nature-loving group that offers free guided walks along our threatened shores), simply does not see sloppiness. Or, hear it.

Admittedly, Ho Xiang Tian is no fashion commentator. He makes some rather strange (heat-induced?) observations: “we must be the only tropical country where people wear cardigans all day.” Are cardigans the new national obsession the way slippers are? He also notes that “working from home has also made athleisure the mainstay of Big Tech staff around the world, mainstream office wear”. Athleisure may have made office wear even more casual in certain fields, but it hasn’t mainstreamed what many of us don to work. According to a recent report in Sourcing Journal, denim jeans are expected to make a “strong return” as “consumers re-enter the work world and resume their school and social lives, they’ll undoubtedly be looking for something new that’s still comfortable yet gives them the confidence to greet their colleagues, classmates and friends again.” Rather than attribute our consistent poor turn out to lack of interest or flair, fecklessness, or peer pressure, many people blame it on the weather. As they always do.

Illustrations: Just So

Who’s That Goddess?

The Winged Victory of Samothrace has such high-low appeal

Left: Louis Vuitton show that ended with the last model in front of the statue. Screen grab: Louis Vuitton. Right: The image on a Uniqlo T-shirt. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

When the final model of last month’s Louis Vuitton show came to the end of the runway (set in the Louvre Museum), she came face to face with one of the biggest treasures of the musée: the Winged Victory of Samothrace. She paused and looked at the imposing figure as if in silent worship. What stood before her was the Hellenistic sculpture of Nike—the Greek goddess, not the sneaker brand. Nearly 11,000 kilometres to the east of Paris, the image of the same headless and armless deity was seen on the front of a black, S$19.90 Uniqlo crew-neck T-shirt. The illustration, in a patina of pastels, is conceived by the British graphic designer Peter Saville, in conjunction with the Louvre. It also includes the location of the statue and two letters and four numerals that form the inventory number. Back in Paris, you can buy a good 18-cm reproduction of the goddess that’s patinated by hand for €119. An immeasurable distance away, at the online portal Lazada, you, too, can obtain a similar figurine, cast in resin, for S$35.74. The Winged Victory (the shorter name), it seems, is almost everywhere.

Discovered in 1863 on the Greek island of Samothrace, in the northern Aegean sea, this sculptured likeness of Nike (circa 200 B.C.) is considered one of the finest in the world for its realistic depiction of a body in motion as well as its attractive female proportions. Ironically, the sculptor is unknown. By most accounts, Nike is a winged goddess who flies around as the bestower of victory to those who win wars, as well as peaceful competition, such as athletic games. Although not shown in the statue, she is known to carry laurel wreaths to hand out to, naturally, victors, and bestowing on them the rewards that come with winning. Other than her ability to take to flight, she is also reputed to be a fast runner (the connection to that shoe company again!) and a talented charioteer (which makes her standing atop the prow of a boat in the Louvre rather odd), so good, in fact, she commanded Zeus’s cavalry as the chief charioteer.

Despite her abundant talents, Nike did not seem attractive to possible suitors

No goddess of repute wasn’t connected to Zeus, the god of gods, the all-father, whose throne was in Olympus and whose personal logo is the thunder bolt. Nike was born to the Titan Pallas and the nymph Styx. In the ten-year Titanomachy, a war of egos that saw the Olympians battle the Titans, Styx sided with Zeus and was the first to dash to his aid. She presented him with Nike and her siblings to serve as allies. So pleased was Zeus with this unconditional readiness that he allowed them to use Mount Olympus as their permanent residence. Nike was allowed to remain by his side and receive his eternal protection. Despite her abundant talents, Nike did not seem attractive to possible suitors (she remained unmarried). In fact, there is no mention of her looks unlike, say, Aphrodite, who, although a warrior goddess, was celebrated for her beauty, among many other attributes. Stephen Fry in Mythos, described her as “a face far more beautiful than creation has yet seen or will ever see again”. Nike did not enjoy such a tribute to her physical attributes, although the ancients did describe her as “trim-ankled”.

In the Winged Victory, the goddess is often admired for the draped dress on her forward-thrusting body, both captured with remarkable mastery. This version of Nike wears a chiton, a unisex garment of either linen or wool. Given the lightness in the depiction, linen is likely the fabric represented there. The chiton was mostly rectangular, and held in place and gathered at the shoulders by either stitches or pins. Since its length for women was usually longer than the wearer, the chiton was worn with a belt so that when the top part was pulled up to fall over the cinched waist, like a blouse, the length could be shortened. On the Winged Victory, an additional belt is secured under the bust to further secure the dress. The fabric, possibly because of the wind, gathered between the legs to expose unscandalously the left hip and leg. Around the waist, another garment could be discerned: a himation or a cloak, draped around the right hip and swept open, with a swathe of it caught in the wind behind. Unlike mortals of today, the gods of yore clearly didn’t need a stylist to work their fashion.

New Year But Clothes Not New

This Lunar New Year, it’s not wearing what we’ve worn before; it’s not bothering at all

By Emma Ng

“新年不穿新衣,” I heard a young, Hayley Woo (胡佳嬑)-looking woman telling her friend that she won’t be wearing anything new this Chinese New Year. Not really a surprising affirmation since, for many of us, it’s a new year unlike any we’ve known thus far. According to what I’ve heard from retail professionals, people aren’t purchasing as much clothes as before. Many aren’t buying at all. This year, with the number of visitors to each household limited, some have opted out of bainian (拜年 or pay a new year call) altogether. Not in the mood, I repeatedly hear people say, as if disinclined to meeting a suitor. If visiting one’s relatives is given a miss, why bother with new clothes at all? The wearing of everything new is really for the purpose of showing to those who are particular about such things. Are new clothes even relevant when so many have opted out of the social obligations expected of the new year festivities, a term that now sounds disproportionately convivial?

Still, I am curious to see what those who happily or reluctantly chose to go bainian would wear, or if a CNY trend could be discerned, as in past, old-normal years. I looked out of the window of my flat into the car park below to see what visitors, emerging from neutral-coloured vehicles, wore, and was (initially) surprised that many were really casually dressed, as if going to the nearby food court for a meal. Or, to walk the Pomeranian. This didn’t appear like a New Year’s Day, just any day. I looked at the visitors (and I knew they were because at least one person in the groups was carrying the small, gaily-designed paper bag in which mandarin oranges were held)—it was disconcerting to know that they were going to be offering and receiving hongbaos in such a sloppy manner of dress. I saw T-shirts after T-shirts, many un-ironed, on both the young and the old. Hongbao giving or accepting is a time-honoured tradition, and with all such festive habits, one does not discharge one’s duties or obligations looking sartorially slack. I was brought up to believe that when you dress smartly, you not only accord yourself respect, but also those you are extending new year wishes to.

For the rest of chuyi (初一, the first day of the new year), whenever I looked down at the car park, which was expectedly teeming, I saw visitors dressed similarly. At first I did not make out the common factor, until one of my nephews came with my cousins to visit. At the door, the usual auspicious new year greetings somehow escaped me. What caught me was the striking outfit on my niece: ratty shorts, above which was an oversized T-shirt that had spent too much time in the washing machine. On her feet was a pair of slippers—slides, to be more specific—that had clearly benefited from the more recent footwear-maintenance advice, “the more beaten-up, the better”. Was this some CNY cool I knew not of? I thought initially that this was my niece’s way of protesting against following her parents to our flat. When it was my time to visit relatives, I saw for myself that the shorts and T-shirt combo was truly the choice of this new year.

The look was deliberately assembled to make her look pant-less

They’re everywhere, and on everyone. The second I encountered was just minutes after leaving my flat. It was in the lift. When the door opened, I detected the smell of some shampoo. Inside, the unnaturally sweet scent could clearly be traced to a twentysomething woman, who pulled up her mask-as-neck-brace over her nose only when she saw me. She was in a black over-sized T-shirt that was chosen to end just above her knee. The look was deliberately assembled to make her look pant-less. On her shoulders was a black Chanel 19 bag; on her feet, slides with pong-pongs. As I walked towards the MRT station, it quickly became clear to me that what I saw just moments earlier was truly the CNY style of this year. There were more oversized tees that I could count. And since what was worn from the waist down couldn’t be seen, I could only conclude that many wanted whoever they visited to think they deserved a larger hongpao this year because they couldn’t afford bottoms, possibly not even underpants.

The platform of the train station was abuzz with an energy that felt like that emanating from the throng waiting to enter a tourist attraction. There were families with young-adult children, who were attired as described above, which did not seem to bother the parents. I had, at first, thought that it was mostly women who dressed this casually. Inside the train, seated opposite me was a young chap. He was in a white Stussy T-shirt, a pair of striped red/maroon shorts that looked like boxers, and black Nike slides. It could be said he was only out for an errant. But no, the tell-tale sign of that fancy paper bag for mandarin oranges told me with some certainty that he had gone or was going to bainian. It appears clearer this year, when WFH persists, that there’s no longer a difference between what one dons in one’s own living room and what is worn in a very public space of an MRT car, even during CNY celebrations. For the rest of my journey, I continue to see the same pairing of tees and shorts and slides. There were no variations. Colours were almost always black or anything dark. They were as auspicious as packs of beans in a kitchen cupboard.

To set themselves apart, many women—therefore, not quite individually—carried a luxury bag. The one I kept seeing was the Louis Vuitton Monogram Multi Pochette Accessoires, a triumvirate of a bag that would almost always be teamed with an oversized tee, as if its relative smallness could be counterpoint to the massiveness of the typically long, baggy top. The LV comprises three parts: the main pouchette, a mini, and a coin purse that dangles from a catch, affixed to the wide strap. This was often carried with a swagger that, in another era, would be considered actsy, but presently was hipster-attractive, fashionista-affirmative, or boyfriend bait. But that monogrammed bag alone, did not save the overall look from blandness and the near-generic. Everyday is not New Year’s day. What name do I give to this festive letdown? CNY fashion 2021’s lull year?

Illustration: Just So

Loewe Thy Neighbour

One is in Spain and the other in Japan, but that has not stopped them from being next-door chums

Japanese anime—and manga—are on a happy roll in fashionland. And Loewe is on top, collaborating with one of the most recognisable and cutest cartoon characters to emerge from Japan: Studio Ghibli’s Totoro, the egg-shaped mori no nushi (master of the forest) in the 1988 Hayao Miyazaki-directed film My Neighbour Totoro. That designer JW Anderson should be inspired by this animated character and the other adorable creatures in the film is not surprising. Mr Anderson said in a media release, “There is a natural longing for heartwarming feelings right now. When I think of a movie that affords me that kind of solace, speaking just as directly to a child as it does to an adult, that movie is My Neighbor Totoro.”

And he isn’t the only one thinking. So many shoppers have Totoro and company on their minds that well-aware Loewe had to conduct an online raffle for an opportunity to attend the pre-launch at Casa Loewe in ION Orchard yesterday in order to purchase the limited pieces available. This was announced on 27 December, last year, via Instagram: “Enter the draw for the chance to access the collection in store or on loewe.com 24h before the global launch on 8 January.” Or—the message was clear—there would be no “access”, just, perhaps, a peek from the store window.

One Studio Ghibli fan who spoke to SOTD said that he had to try twice before he succeeded in securing a place. An e-mail with the subject “Congratulations!” was sent to him at 1:04:19am (!) on the morning of the 6th, a day before the preview, to announce that he had “won a place on the guest list to attend the exclusive LOEWE x My Neighbor Totoro pre-launch, giving (him) first access to the collection.” The time allotted was 6.30pm. Entry could be gained with a provided QR code, and only a “plus one” was allowed. He was also told that all registrants, whether a winner or not, would be allowed to collect a single gift, companion excluded.

It is understandable why this particular luxury collaboration is appealing and so in demand. Anyone who’ve been to the Mamma Aiuto shop at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, in the west of Tokyo, or the Donguri Kyowakoku chain stores (exclusive Studio Ghibli merchandise retailer) throughout the city would have witness the horde inside, and they’re mostly foreigners. Among fashionistas, too, there are rabid fans. Loewe is in the know of this, but rather than pick any character from the Studio Ghibli films (surely not No-Face from Spirited Away!), Mr Anderson has chosen My Neighbor Totoro, and populated the clothes, bags, and accessories with not only Totoro itself, but other cute creatures such as Chu-Totoro, Chibi-Totoro and the clearly irresistible pom-pom-looking dust bunnies (or soot spirits) known as Makkuro-Kurosuke. It’s a quartet assembled to get fans with deep pockets to go quite wild.

Japanese cartoon characters have had a long and fruitful relationship with fashion. Think Hello Kitty. Even Balenciaga couldn’t resist (in 2019, there were also man-bags in the shape of HK’s head!). But characters from anime aligned with designer names are a fairly recent occurrence. One of the earliest to collaborate with an anime series that we can remember was Yohji Yamamoto’s streetwear imprint Ground Y’s pairing with Ghost in the Shell, in early 2018. So successful that was for the sub-label that there was a second collab a year later, followed by one with One Piece in August, 2019. The Ground Y collections were available only in Japan and enjoyed very limited world-wide exposure. Then came Longchamp X Pokémon last October and Coach X Michael B Jordan adapting Naruto for the American brand. Shortly after Loewe’s announcement of their teaming up with My Neighbour Totoro, Gucci disclosed that they would produced a capsule with Doraemon.

Anime, as with cartoons in general, don’t age. Even if they have faded in popularity, they will find new legions of fans. My Neighbour Totoro is 33 years old, yet there is life in its characters for a fashion iteration. In a 2019 annual report by The Associations of Japanese Animations, the global market size for anime and attendant merchandise was estimated to “exceeded 2 trillion yen (or S$25.5 billion)”. Anime’s extraordinary lure is attributed to the films’ ability to evoke emotions with their well-crafted storylines, provide shared experiences, and bring about a sense of nostalgia among mature fans. Mr Anderson not only picked one of the most beloved anime films of all time, his application of the characters and scenes both tug at heartstrings and appeal to those with a deep sense of what is artistic application.

The design team at Loewe did not plonk the titular Totoro on the front of T-shirts. Rather, there was considerable thought on the placement of the drawings and scenes so that the tees, for example, look elevated. Much appreciated are the subtle details, such as embroidery on the green patch on top of Totoro’s head, a flat pom-pom of the soot spirit in place of the ‘O’, and the characters appearing on the leather goods using the house marquetry technique intarsia. We were especially drawn to one oversized unisex mohair and wool sweater that sports a tree design in the front. There’s a three-dimensionality to the knit work of tactile jacquard in contrasting yarns that brought the enchanted forest to anime liveliness, and all the while keeping to Loewe’s predilection for craft, as steered by Mr Anderson.

The Studio Ghibli fan who spoke to us appeared in front of Casa Loewe at 6.25 yesterday evening. At that time, there was a queue of six people (equal number of men and women). Two directly in front of him did not have a QR code to show, and was told that, while they could browse, they were unable to purchase the Loewe X My Neighbour Totoro pieces specifically. When it was time for our Studio Ghibli fan to enter the store, he was assigned a sales staff to accompany him. There was by then very few merchandise from the capsule, placed in the front portion of the Casa, to view. In fact, the first thing that struck him was how little there was to choose from. When asked about the low quantity, the crew explained that when the first batch of preview attendees came at about 5pm, most of the merchandise were snapped up. When interest was shown for a mini ‘Heel’ pouch (S$690), with one dust bunny on the flap cover, he was told that was the last one, so where the five or so T-shirts, S$550 a piece, the second cheapest item in the 58-piece, largely unisex collection.

It was hard for our Studio Ghibli fan to accept that there were so few items to see and to choose from. He was convinced that Loewe did not avail the entire collection here, to which the staff politely denied. When the staff was asked if at least 80 percent of the products were snapped up, she said yes. The impressive sell-through, even before the actual launch date, was not only due to compelling designs and the likely over-enthusiastic response of the VVIP customers (who probably enjoyed a preview before the preview), but also to one of the biggest marketing effort we’ve seen in a collaboration. Over at Wisma Atria, next door, an ad was flashing on the Orchard Road-facing video screen all of yesterday (and probably earlier) and on the extended lightbox that runs alongside the underground conduit between ION Orchard and the Wisma Atria side of the Orchard MRT station, Gary Sorrenti-lensed photos were drawing the attention of commuters and pedestrians. And there were the free sticker set—four pieces held in a neat little holder distributed to the raffle winners.

Concurrently, at Gucci, some 30 steps away from Casa Loewe, the buzz in the line at the entrance was the collaboration with Doraemon. Gucci, under Alessandro Michele, love things Japanese, so much so that its ‘Grip’ watch, released in that country last June, came with the brand’s name written on the face in big, bold katakana characters. Doraemon was really an unsurprising choice. This evening, the “already launched”—as one staffer said—Doraemon collab was only “taking orders with a deposit”. Were there pieces that could be seen? “No, we don’t have stocks,” she continued, whipping out a smartphone to show shoppers the range on the screen. “Once you pay the deposit, we will notify you when your order arrives and we’ll send to you (sic). Before Chinese New Year.” How much deposit was required per order? “Full payment.” That’s not a deposit; that’s a purchase! “Yes,” she smiled, satisfactorily.

Loewe X My Neighbour Totoro is available at Casa Loewe, ION Orchard. Good luck! Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Pussycat, Yes!

Animals have inspired designers for as long as fashion has looked to the zoic kingdom for ideas. One creature stands out: the cat. No less than four of what are worn or used in fashion today are named after them

After watching the Dior pre-fall 2021 show recently, we got hooked to the remade and remixed Deee-Lite dance hit What is Love? from the 1990 album World Clique. This new track also has snatches of the feline-themed, vinyl-only single Pussycat Meow from the second album Infinity Within. It was the purring and the “pussycat… no!” cries of the band’s lead singer Lady Miss Kier that did it for us. For most of the rest of that week (and the week after), we allowed that groove to get into our heart. Two tracks on loop, however, became monotonous after a while. So we looked into our CD collection (yes, for some, they still exist and are played!), and found one of our favourites: Takkyu Ishno’s highly danceable 2017 song Kitten Heel. This whole afternoon, we had three tracks on loop, pumping through our Sonos One, allowing the bass to course through our willing body.

The dancing—and Lady Miss Kier purring and then rap-calling “here, kitty, kitty, kitty” and then tease-pleading “kiss me, you fool!”—also got us thinking of the influence of domestic cats (yes, those you keep as pets) in fashion. No, there won’t be references to Karl Lagerfeld’s too-famous Choupette. Or, the countless cat videos on YouTube and TickTok. Or, cute cat-faced accessories to wear around the neck. And not a clowder of cats on a T-shirt either. Rather, we’re looking at something more subtle—those articles of fashion inspired by parts of cats or the whole animal, or just suggestive of those things we associate with felines. And, like the cats themselves, these fashion items seem to have many, many lives! Here, we name four. If you know others, do tell.

Cat Glasses

Photo: Celine/24s

Cat glasses, or rather sunglasses with frames that supposedly mimic cat eyes, are not really inspired by the-cuddly-creature-that-meows. According to fashion lore and the documentary Altina, based on the life of the multi-hyphenate Altina Schinasi (1907—1999), they were inspired by Venetian masks. In fact, the first cat glasses, introduced in the ’30s, were known by the more mysterious and glamourous descriptor, Harlequin. At that time the designs of glasses for women were hardly fashionable, and reflected what Dorothy Parker famously said, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” originally a two-line poem News Item.

But, that didn’t deter Ms Schinasi. She related in the documentary: “I thought, well, something better can be done than just these awful glasses that look like the time of Benjamin Franklin. Then I thought, what would be good on a face and I thought of a mask, a Harlequin mask.” By the ’50s, when the glasses really took off—worn by movie stars such as Audrey Hepburn and, unmistakably, Marilyn Monroe (especially as Pola in How to Marry a Millionaire), they became mostly known as cat-eye glasses (now, just cat glasses) due to the shape of the frame, with the outer tips pointing upwards and alluringly, feline-like.

Catsuits

Photo: Warner Bros

Long before there was Michele Pfeiffer as Catwoman (in 1992’s Batman Returns), there was one Black Wild Cat, our mothers told us. This was Connie Chan (陈宝珠) in the titular role of 女贼黑夜猫 (Black Wild Cat), in the 1960s Hong Kong film that saw Ms Chan as a sort-of female Robin Hood, masked in a flat-top half-balaclava that was, presumably, like a cat’s head. To augment her feline mysteriousness, she leaves messages by throwing darts on walls on which her masked identity is reveal by, well, a Harlequin mask (see a recurring theme?). Ms Chan was so successful in playing these mysterious do-gooders operating under the cover of darkness that other characters emerged: The Black Rose (黑玫瑰) and The Black Killer (女杀手). And with each role she wore something black and close-fitting—not quite the catsuits we know today, but enough for her to move with the stealth and style of cats.

It wasn’t until Michele Pfeiffer’s campy interpretation of Catwoman (aka Selina Kyle) did we come to associate the catsuit with those that totally outline the body and in gleaming latex (a silicon-based top coat was used to effect the shine). Sure, Halle Berry’s titular turn in Catwoman (2004), too, saw her in a catsuit, but they appeared to be a part of it—the bikini dominatrix top didn’t cover enough, at least not the torso. Interestingly, Ms Berry’s Catwoman wore a full head mask that looks uncannily like what Connie Chan wore as Black Wild Cat! In fact, the catsuit was very much at first a costume, often linked to the Catwoman character, first introduced in 1940 as simply The Cat. The term catsuit didn’t come into popular usage until after 1955. Its origin is unclear although it wouldn’t be immoderate to assume that, once suited up, the slinkiness immediately accords the wearer a cat-like grace.

Pussy Bows

Photo: Saint Laurent

The pussy bow comes from something more extraneous: it’s not in anyway part of a cat. Or look like anything that might be akin to cats. According to media speculation—Vogue among them—the pussy bow probably got its name from a time in the late 19th century, when cat owners would tie a bow around the neck of their feline pets to prettify them before the arrival of guests. In French couture houses, they go by a less animal-linked description: lavallière (also the noun for a pendant, centred on a necklace, and hangs pendulously). Some fashion historians trace the pussy bow to the cravat, although the connection is hard to discern. Most of the pussy bows we now see can be linked to the versions first introduced by Chanel, and later, Yves Saint Laurent (paired with the Le Smoking). And in the past ten years, the popularity of the pussy bow has not waned, and (still) well loved by designers such as Hedi Slimane and Alessandro Michele.

However fancy it is tied, the pussy bow is essentially a strip of fabric, with the middle portion, lengthwise, stitched to the neckline of the blouse, leaving the rest hanging, and to be knotted. For many women, the pussy bows were very much a ’70s thing. A decade on, “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher made it her thing, and claimed the pussy bow softens her public appearance. A mere feminine flourish it, therefore, is not. Cut to 2016, Melania Trump wore her Gucci crepe de chine pussy bow defiantly (triumphantly, too?) against her husband’s self-confessed predilection for grabbing the female genitalia. Pussy bows today have long shed their dowdy Gibson Girl image. Just see how Anthony Vaccarello styled them for Saint Laurent (above). As in the past, there is power in them bows.

Kitten Heels

Photo: Prada

Interestingly, these heels weren’t originally worn by women, but by men—at least in Versailles, France. To be sure, the kitten heels that we now know is not quite the same as those the guys wore, in particular by Louis XIV of France and his courtiers. Those in the 17th century were a lot clunkier, at least where the heels were concerned, not the pin that they are in present times. According to common belief, the smallish Sun King chose heeled shoes to give him extra height (he was, reportedly, only five foot, four inches—or about 162cm—tall). This new-found stature caught on with the other royals too, but did not impress the monarch. He banned them outside his court, effectively denying himself as the footwear trend setter.

The kitten heels today can, perhaps, be more accurately traced to the 1950s. Many people associate them with Audrey Hepburn or more specifically her in Billy Wilder’s 1954 movie Sabrina, with (some of) the costumes by Hubert de Givenchy. Like the cat glasses, the kitten heels have come to represent the ’50s and a certain elegance that need not require a statuesque carriage. Another name linked to the kitten heel at this time is Roger Vivier, who was, conversely, more prolific with the stiletto, but in the ’50s, Mr Vivier created a more tapered and stout heel for “girls”, so that they can get used to the elevation and grow into higher shoes. In fact, in the US, kitten heels were also known as “training heels”, since they were bought for the (very) young high-heel novice who had yet able to handle the forbidding stiletto. For some, so well trained they were in kitten heels that they never truly graduated to the taller kin. Kitty, as it turns out, truly has a long, comfortable life.

Illustration: Just So

Does The North Face Really Need Gucci?

The pairing that needn’t be

By Ray Zhang

Collaborations might still be the way forward, especially in these pandemic-stricken times. But is the Gucci X The North Face (TNF) pairing the stunning collaboration to end the stunned year? Gucci may need to expand its product categories, but I do not see TNF needing to align itself with more designer names. Are they planning to be the next Moncler? These are difficult times for fashion brands, so I won’t hazard a guess. But it seems odd to me that TNF thinks that by associating itself with Gucci, it shall improve its standing among fashion folk. To me, TNF has already been on the right path, doing what they do, pairing with whoever they have hitherto partnered with, but perhaps they didn’t think they’re doing enough. Or perhaps, all their previous collabs have not been sufficiently retro-cool? And that the Gucci tribe is too large—and influential—to ignore?

Have I missed something? Perhaps. Western media has stressed how Gucci and TNF can bring out the best of their respective brands. All I could see is Gucci bringing the best of Gucci. At least visually and chromatically. The collab appears to me a little lopsided. Even if I can see The North Face half-logo (or hybrid logo) and recognize some of the puffers, the collection is still more Gucci than The North Face. I can understand that there are those whose wardrobes are now so Gucci-fied that they would seriously need cold-climate wear, or climbing gear, or alpine togs that bear semblance to the Gucci aesthetics of topsy-turvy aberration, to survive the winter. But will only a Gucci puffer coat do, even if it’s, as the now-out ads, shot in the alps, suggest, warm enough for shorts (a black model even wore a white bikini)? You see, Gucci really wants to go everywhere—into the woods, and up the mountains.

Like every designer doing sneakers to remain on the street-wear roadway, I think Gucci’s Alessandro Michele just wants to try his hand at “Gorpcore”, to borrow a term from The Cut, so as to be able to say, he, too, has jumped onto the outdoor-performance-wear bandwagon. “Gorp” is the acronym for “good ol’ raisins and peanuts,” also known in the US as the “trail mix” (or, in Australia, scroggin), which hikers pack to bring along with them as a lightweight and healthy, protein-packed snack. (Here, they often appear in abundance, rather inexplicably, during Chinese New Year!) The operative words are “trail” and “hike”, and neither sounds particularly urban, or date nights at the movies. Perhaps that’s the point. Like athletic wear, people don’t adopt a particular category of clothing so as to wear them for participating in the activity the category suggests.

That trend report in The Cut appeared in 2017. But as far back as 2013 (if my memory serves me right), I have already observed in Tokyo the emergence of what the Americans called Gorpcore, for which the Japanese, masters of looks and creators of tribes, had no real name. Until, a group of girls—as it’s often the case—became regular and noticeable enough in their get-up, as they traipse into the woods, to be collectively known as yama gyaru (or “mountain girls”). I am not sure if these lasses wore their outdoor wear as a fashion statement or for practical reasons as they embrace shinrin-yoku forest therapy, but for certain, I know the Tokyo boys have been adopting hiking clothes and turning them into fashionable urban wear at least a decade before the Americans enthusiastically wear puffers and hiking boots with their Calvin Klein whatever.

The popularity of outdoor performance wear among Tokyoites went back much earlier, and it has something to do with The North Face’s trajectory in the Land of the Rising Sun. In 1978, at the height of TNF’s popularity among climbers and alpinist in the US, the Japanese conglomerate Goldwin, considered the “most important” among producers of technical outerwear, signed a deal with the former to exclusively distribute TNF in the country that would gain the status of the world’s third largest economy. TNF’s subsequent growth in sales and stature in Japan alone is nothing short of staggering. I won’t go into the figures, but one could be worth noting: In Tokyo, on a stretch less than a kilometre, along Meiji-Dori, off Harajuku (towards Shibuya), there is not one, but four TNF stores. These are The North Face (two of them), The North Face Alter, as well as my personal favourite The North Face Standard (all four floors!). This isn’t counting Goldwin’s own store and Arc’teryx on the same street, and TNF Kids, Columbia, and Helly Hansen just behind. And just a little further back, Chums. (There’s also Patagonia, but the store is over at Ura-Harajuku.) Or, the numerous other multi-brand stores that also carry outdoor wear, such as the Japanese version of Kelty. In case you don’t sense the scale, it is massive. This is like Gorpcore’s gravitational centre.

Goldwin’s massive standing is not only among consumers of TNF; it is with Japanese designers as well. One of them deserves singling out: Eiichiro Homma, a veteran designer at Goldwin for a long time. In 2003, the company decided to back probably their most outstanding employee with his own line, also one that has technical performance wear as its core. Nanamica was born, and in no time, The North Face Purple label. Now, these are not to be confused with TNF itself. Mr Homma himself has clarified that TNF Purple Label (the brand is so linked to him that sometimes the label also reads The North Face made possible by Nanamica) is to “adapt for city wear without compromising the core values of the original,” as he told Hypebeast back in the year the Purple Label was born. Despite all the charming quirks and unusual details that Mr Homma has given to both the Purple Label and his own Nanamica, there is, to me, innovation, and, more importantly, an authenticity about the two names under his charge than Gucci could never emulate.

There is also real difference between going to, say, the Tokyo mountaineering/outdoor gear retailer L Breath (or our own Outdoor Life) and buying the real deal and making them look fashionable and going to Gucci, and buying what’s designed to be fashion and wearing them wholesale, head to toe. Once in Tokyo, at Oshman’s—less of a fashion-potential treasure trove than L Breath, I saw a young chap in a Patagonia parka, Danton shirt, Levi’s, Timberland boots, Mystery Ranch tote, and all manner of danglies from Chums that, as I recall now, look like he could have been in the new Gucci campaign, minus the Guccis, and look better. Another time, in Sapporo, at Montbell’s Akarenga Terrace store, I caught sight of a guy with a buzz cut, who was so distinctively kitted—Visvim patchwork yukata coat, a rust-coloured quilted cape (there was a blizzard outside), and a United by Blue roll-top backpack—that he could have just stepped out of some stylish monastery in the Himalayas. These guys could use non-fashion items as fashion items, and that, to me, speaks so much more than wanting to look like one of Gucci goofy models.

The North Face seemed to have been rather judicious when it comes to who they collaborate with. Prior to Gucci, it was with Maison Margiela’s MM6, the street-inflected diffusion. The collection, interestingly, did not look weird. Build primarily on the house’s circle pattern, they have as much TNF’s DNA, and they look like you might actually be able to hike in them, not just frolic on flatlands. I like that both brands seem to share equally billing in the end products. Before MM6, there was Supreme, which requires no description. I don’t see why Supreme needed another collaboration, but I understand why TNF would agree to it. This was, to me, one of the lamest pairings ever. Even without Supreme, MM6 and, certainly, Gucci, TNF could hold nicely on its own with just the Japanese iterations, led so convincingly by Nanamica and The North Face Purple Label. Japan’s TNF, I suppose, is really perched on a different peak.

Sure, I can see that Mr Michele and his team has re-proportioned some of TNP’s classic outers, such as reshaping and shortening the sleeves of the women’s jackets. In addition, the breadth of the collection could mean that they’re not putting out some negligible capsule you’ll forget next week. This was conceived to sell, and in larger numbers than the typical collaboration. But that does not mean that stocks for individual items will be plentiful when they launch in January in the coming year. And the ’70s vibe is unmistakable too, in case you have not had enough of their romanticised version: Woodstock in the winter, if the cold is conducive to concerts. And there are backpacks, hats, beanies, and, of course, hiking boots, smacked with a massive logo. And just in case there is anyone seriously thinking of really wearing these clothes to go up the mountain or go down by the rapids, there is a tent too, even a sleeping bag. But will all these really tempt those who have not already adopted Gorpcore? Or, understand it? Will they seduce fashionistas to later consider a TNF not in collaboration mode?

Truth be told, I do subscribe to the Gorpcore aesthetics. But I can’t see myself buying the meaningless Gucci attempt. When in Tokyo, I visit, without fail, The North Face Standard in Harajuku, Nanamica in Daikanyama, And Wander in Marunouchi, White Mountaineering and the sensational Snow Peak flagship in Aoyama. But it isn’t always the high-end that I call on. There’s always the nine-storey L-Breath store in Shinjuku, where I end up buying more bags and such than I will ever need, mountain-bound or not, and, in contrast, a tiny shop smacked in the Tokyu Hands building in Shibuya, Function Junction, where hippies might stop by if they were heading for the hills (they have the most interesting range of carabiners). For all my cold-weather wear, I have always been able to rely on Nanamica and White Mountaineering, while resisting the soft spot I have for the terribly expensive The North Face collaboration with Junya Watanabe. As you can tell, it is in Japan—cities and mountaintops—that I get my Gorpcore wet dreams.

Photos: The North Face/Gucci

Two Of A Kind: Pleated Are The Bags

With her new customisable pleated bags, Gin Lee won’t be the first nor the last to be inspired by the pioneering work of Issey Miyake

Pleats plenty: (left) Ginlee Make Bag. Photo: Ginlee Studio. (Right) Issey Miyake Crystal Rock Pleats Bag. Photo Issey Miyake Me

Some elements or details in fashion design are so connected to a particular designer that it’s almost impossible to disassociate one with the other. And vice versa. Take pleats, for example: one inevitably thinks of Issey Miyake. Sure, there is also the Spanish couturier Mariano Fortuny, but the works of both are not only decades apart, their outputs are worlds apart. Mr Miyake’s pleats, now attributed to the Issey Miyake Studio, are primarily effected as a finished garment, rather than product made from a pleated fabric. Through the years, Mr Miyake has introduced many innovations (and new technologies) in pleating, including curvilinear and bias pleating, as well as advances in micro-pleating, also known as plissé. And he does not only pleat clothes, he creates permanent folds on accessories and bags, too.

One of the fashion names here that appears to be taking a similar route is Gin Lee. The Singaporean, who overseas the creative output of the company, Ginlee Studio—co-founded with her Israeli husband Tamir Niv in 2011—didn’t incorporate pleats into her early output. In recent years, however, pleated garments seem to be the mainstay of her collections. There are the usual tented dresses, shell tops, and pajama-style pants that have become typical of pleated clothes, and now, in addition, bags. Just totes for the present, these were launched last month as part of a new sub-label called Ginlee Make, available at the brand’s flagship store in the refurbished Great World City.

The immediate reaction to these bags when seeing them for the first time could be best summed up by what two women at the store one weekend said, “so Pleats Please!” But that response has not only been evident with these bags. Similar comments were heard of her dresses, sold at Design Orchard. But the seeming similarity to the work of Issey Miyake was also apparent in the name of her new sub-label. Back in 1998, the year the A-POC (A Piece of Cloth) line was launched in Tokyo, Mr Miyake staged an exhibition at the Jean Nouvel-designed Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris titled, Issey Miyake: Making Things. Uncanny? Or, coincidence?

How long must a recognisable design, fabric treatment, retail concept, or branding exercise remain or circulate in the market before mimicking them can be accepted and not considered a copy?

The Ginlee Make bags are the manifestation of the in-store service Make In Shop, a retail concept that offers “last-mile production” of those items that can be finished before watchful shoppers. As Ms Lee told the press last month, “When a customer places their order for a pleated bag, we’ll proceed to make it for her there. They can see it being made and customise their own version of it.” In Tokyo last year, at the world’s largest Homme Plissé Issey Miyake store in Aoyama, the brand availed its pleating process for customers to witness. Three times a week, over a relatively short time of an hour in the afternoon, engineers (they are specialists indeed) from the company’s Internal Pleats Laboratory show how the clothes are made: a massive machine swallows a sewn T-shirt, for example, cut 1.5 times the completed size, and in ten minutes, reveals the pleated garment. This, too, is last-mile production. How long must a recognisable design, fabric treatment, retail concept, or branding exercise remain or circulate in the market before mimicking them can be accepted and not considered a copy?

Sure, on the same note, we could also say, for instance, that Mary McFadden mimicked Mr Fortuny, but if you examined her pleats closely, the effect, as one Singaporean designer told us, “is more liquid”, and her silhouettes more boxy. Technologies in garment manufacture do become widely adopted, and the onus is upon the adopters to output designs that are distinctly theirs. Issey Miyake certainly did not invent pleating (and he wouldn’t claim he did), but what he undeniably introduced was a whole new way of working with—and on—the pleats. And there is tremendous conceptual heft and mathematical calculations involved. Much of the output require origami-like folds, as well as ingenious geometry. More importantly, to fans, he was the first to introduce the pleats that we now mostly associate with his brand, especially Pleats Please Issey Miyake, the line introduced in 1993, after the exhibition of the same name at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990.

That Issey Miyake’s pleats would inspire Singaporean designers isn’t surprising. Pleating services here go as far back as the ’80s. Back then, there were primarily two major players: Mong Seng Pleats Garment, founded in 1974, and Owen Trading Company, launched in 1980. Between the two, Owen Trading was, as one designer told us, “at the top of its game”. The popularity of pleats rose in the mid-’80s, after Issey Miyake debuted a sub-brand Permanente in 1985, featuring the early forms of his distinctive creases and folds that culminated as the capsule Pleats in 1988. By the time Pleats Please was launched five years later, capturing the imagination of the world, many local designers were experimenting with pleats too, and many were doing so through the services of Owen Trading, owned and operated by three Tan brothers. One of them, Paul Tan, was the go-to guy for anything that can be pleated, even a scrap of fabric that can be turned into a small scarf.

Gin Lee at work in her Great World City store. Photo: Ginlee Studio

But towards the early ’00s, when pleated garments and accessories, and Pleats Please knock-offs were easily found, first in the fashion wholesale centres in China and, later, online, pleating was a dwindling business. In 2011, Owen Trading was sold to a young Raffles College of Higher Education fashion graduate Chiang Xiaojun, who renamed the company Bewarp Design Studio. With full access to pleating machines, Ms Chiang created Pleatation, the label totally dedicated to pleats, and a moniker—similar to Ginlee Make—unabashed of its alluding to Issey Miyake, in particular, Pleats Please and the older Plantation, introduced in 1981, and now part of the Issey Miyake subsidiary A-net, which produces brands such as ZUCCa and mercibeaucoup. The quality offered by the old Owen Trading, which counted some of our design luminaries, such as Thomas Wee, Frederick Lee, and the late Tan Yoong as customers, evaporated, according to some who have used the services of the renamed pleater. “She couldn’t keep up,” one of them told us, “she does only basic pleating. Nothing fancy.” Despite the skepticism, Ms Chiang opened two standalones for Pleatation: The Compleat Store, which, like Ginlee Studio, sold pleated totes. Both The Compleat Stores have closed. Even their website’s e-commerce component is now free of merchandise and activity. On the SGP Business website, the status of Bewarp Design Studio is marked “cancellation in progress.”

The sale of Owen Trading Company, after three decades of existence, to a then unknown individual, who is unable to protect it from total closure, perhaps serves as a cautionary tale. It is not quite clear why many brand owners choose pleating as the main design feature of their products. Is pleating an easy way to create a fashion line? Does it provide a differentiating factor to the clothes—or bags? Or, allow products categories that are more cost-efficient to produce (Pleats Please, being mainly made of a specially-produced polyester, is still less expensive than the main line)? If pleated garments and accessories offered low barriers to entry, why did Pleatation not take off? Some designers who had worked with Paul Tan in the past thought that he could have been retained by Bewarp Design Studio as a technical advisor. No one now knows what was the nature of the transaction. Mr Tan was last seen driving an SBS Transit bus.

It is possible that Gin Lee’s foray into pleated clothing and bags is the result of reduced competition. Based on the Make Bag alone, it isn’t difficult to see where her inspiration comes from. In a 2017 Financial Times interview, Issey Miyake, who is no longer actively involved in the designs of his numerous lines, said of his pleats: “It is my gift, my legacy, and if other designers look to Pleats Please for inspiration, I feel honoured and happy—it is a great compliment.” Whether that is Japanese niceness or diplomacy, or just resignation to the truth that he is widely copied, we may never know. But, as written on one decal we once saw in an atelier, “You can copy all you want, you’ll always be one step behind.”

The Tassel’s Moment

One 2021 trend for guys is the use of tassels. Yes, the pendant ornaments. You ready to dangle one?

One of the danglies shown at the recent pre-fall 2021 Dior show is not some Kid Cudi-esque necklace or chain. Rather, it is a tassel—the pendant ornament (we’ve never heard it referred to as accessory or jewellery) that is essentially a column of quite tightly packed strings (referred to as a ‘skirt’) topped with a fancy knot or cap. Dior’s (left), fastened to what could be a belt (or waist bag?), has the girth of Chinese ink brush and the length of a man’s forearm. This particularly thick one is gradated, as if the yellow of monks robes is dipped into a vat of purple cabbage. It is fancy, for sure, and, an IG-worthy exaggeration. They are nothing like those leather tassels sometimes affixed to the vamp of loafers. From our perspective, Dior’s seems to glean from the world of Chinese wuxia, or perhaps scholars.

For those with less progressive leaning, we are, admittedly, putting a more masculine spin here. Since the Dior tassels look Chinese (or Oriental, definitely not those on English academic caps—Oxford or Cambridge, take your pick), we’ll look at China, where Kim Jones engaged local embroiderers to create the two-thousand-year-old seed embroidery (繨子绣 or dazixiu) for the Dior collection. Whether this was to expressly cater to a Chinese market or Mr Jones expressing his love for Eastern craft and exotica, it is hard to say.

Anyway, tassels were once used ornamentally on swords (剑 or jian). Broadly speaking, the sword tassel (剑繐 or jian sui) appeared at the end of the hilt of what was known as the scholar’s sword (文剑 or wen jian), used mainly for self defence and dancing, rather than at war, or to project an elegant image—possibly the same motivation as Pharrell Williams in pearls. The tassel was less evident on the martial sword (武剑 or wu jian), which was used on the battlefield. Historically, the tassel mostly hung from the scholar’s sword. If a sword was designated for offensive use, it unlikely came with a tassel, since it would get in the way of a duel. However, the swordsman blessed with cunning might use a long, deceptively limp tassel to target his opponent’s eyes!

But the Chinese tassel did not only hang on the hilt of the sword, it dangled from the waists of men too. These were known as waist accessories (腰佩 or yaopei)—the Dior belt above certainly qualifies as one. In ancient times, both men and women wore carved jade pieces from which hung a tassel (but never as thick as the Dior version). These were known as jinbu (禁步) or ‘forbidden steps’, which, in the case of women, may make sense, since the jinbu was used to hold down the skirt (including the men’s) and possibly preventing the wearer from striding. How this eventually became a check on female deportment isn’t clear. The men did not, however, appear to need to be held back (guys today who wear extra-long canvas belts left dangling from the box buckle could be mimicking the wearing of a jinbu). Apart from the jinbu, both men and women also wore the xiangnang (香囊) or a fragrance pouch. Made of silk and embroidered, they were often attached to a tassel. The xiangnang was usually stuffed with cotton and aromatics, and were used as personal perfume, air-freshener, and even to ward off evil spirits.

A few days after the Dior show, Nike announced the release of the Air Jordan 1 for Chinese New Year 2021 (no drop date was revealed). This basketball shoe—that Dior (again?!) made massive in June—sports one of the style’s most popular colour combo: ‘university red’ (and just as hongbao bright) and black. That the upper would partly come with a brocade fabric sporting oxen is hardly surprising, but that the shoe comes with a tassel is quite unexpected. The cord, red, is fasten along the collar of the sneaker, like a choker, and the tassel, gold, hangs to the side, near the eyestay, like an earring. This tassel, unlike Dior’s is really quite small. Its short fringe body is topped with what looks like a Chinese button knot. Pendant to a necklace. A neat way of wearing an anklet without actually wearing one?

Photos: Dior and Nike respectively. Collage: Just So