When Céline Paid Homage to Joan Didion

Orbituary | The American writer was, at age 80, a style icon, thanks to Phoebe Philo

Joan Didion as model for a Céline advertisement in 2015. Photo: Céline

In reports bursting all over the Net like opened Christmas presents, we learned that Joan Didion, the high priestess of American “New Journalism” and literature, and a former Vogue writer, has died. Her publisher Knopf said in a statement that the cause of death was Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that often sees sufferers shaking or walking with difficulty. Ms Didion passed away at aged 87 (as did Coco Chanel), in her home in Manhattan, New York. It is not known how long the disease ailed her. Regular readers of her work would know that Ms Didion had a nervous breakdown in the summer of 1968, as she recounted in The White Album. Consultation with a psychiatrist revealed that she was ill with vertigo and nausea, and multiple sclerosis. She was also suffering from migraine—so frequently and so badly that she was inclined to write about it. “Three, four, sometimes five times a month,” she described in the 1968 essay In Bed (also published in The White Album), “I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache, insensible to the world around me.”

But the world did make sense of her. Or, many women of the ’60s and ’70s did. Unafraid to express what was in her mind, Joan Didion spoke for her peers—hippies, liberals, English majors, especially would-be writers. She was born in 1934 in Sacramento, described as “the dowdiest of California cities”. Yet, Ms Didion herself said, “It kills me when people talk about California hedonism. Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Her forebears came to Sacramento in the mid-1900s, and their pioneer experiences affected her growing up, which informed her debut novel Run, River, about the coming apart of the marriage and family of a Sacramento couple whose great-grandparents were pioneers. Ms Didion would, in the book of essays, Where I was From, censure her first novel as the work of someone “homesick”, and considered it spun with false nostalgia, creating an idealised picture of life in rural California that she would say did not exist.

According to her, she did not dream of a profession in writing. “I wrote stories from the time I was a little girl,” she told The Paris Review in 1978, “but I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t realize then that it’s the same impulse. It’s make-believe. It’s performance. The only difference being that a writer can do it all alone.” But write she did. In her final year in the University of California, Berkley, where she read English, Ms Didion participated in a writing contest, ‘Prix de Paris’. It was sponsored by Vogue. She came in first, and was offered the position as a research assistant at the magazine, then edited by Jessica Davis. She moved to New York to take up the job. In the beginning, she wrote mostly captions (then, not the one lines they are today), but she would eventually have her pieces published in the magazine (it was during her time at Vogue that Run, River was written).

Joan Didion in her signature black top. Photo: Everett/Shutterstock

Much of the dates are quite muddled now. But reports suggested that she was with Vogue from 1956 to 1963. Ms Didion, apart from writing the caption, also had duties that “involved going to photographers’ studios and watching women being photographed”, as she recounted in Esquire in 1989. We can’t be certain if she had worked under the inimitable Diana Vreeland, but if Ms Vreeland joined only in 1962 and was made editor-in-chief a year later, it is possible they were at least colleagues, if not superior and subordinate. Ms Didion did not cover the fashion beat, but she did, as we understand it, contribute—sometimes, without byline—to the column People are Talking About, and she profiled stars, such as Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand (who did not appear on the cover of Vogue until 1966), and even reported on the death of Marilyn Monroe, whom Ms Didion described as “a profoundly moving young woman.”

She eventually left Vogue. Some reports suggested that she was “fired” for panning the 1965 screen musical The Sound of Music, which she described as “more embarrassing than most, if only because of its suggestion that history need not happen to people… just whistle a happy tune, and leave the Anschluss behind.” (If true, she was not the only one whose review cost her her job—Pauline Kael of McCall’s too was dismissed at the time for calling the film “the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”.) One good thing came out of New York: Joan Didion met Time staffer John Gregory Dunne (younger brother of author Dominick Dunne), whom she married, at age 28, a year after she left Vogue, and in whom she found a sparing partner in writing. The couple moved to Los Angeles and would stay for more than two decades, during which, they adopted a baby girl, their only child.

In LA, the Dunnes would come to be known as “Hollywood insiders”. Not surprising since Ms Didion’s brother-in-law Dominick Dunne was a Hollywood type, having started his career in television in New York and was later brought to Tinseltown by Humphrey Bogart to work on TV productions there. The younger Dunne socialised with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor (and would draw on his Tinseltown experiences for his later novels). The brothers collaborated on the 1971 romantic drama The Panic in Needle Park. Ms Didion and her husband wrote the screenplay and Dominick Dunne produced the film which had Al Pacino in his first leading role. The writing duo (and director Frank Pierson) also wrote the 1976 remake of A Star is Born that starred Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

Joan Didion pictured on the cover of her book of essays. Cover photograph Hencry Clarke/Conde Nast via Getty Image. Photo: Jim Sim

While Hollywood appeared to suit them and their adopted kid, the movie town in Ms Didion’s writing was rather mercilessly dissected. In We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, she wrote: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” She told Vogue UK in 1993 that “Los Angeles presents a real culture shock when you’ve never lived there. The first couple of years you feel this little shift in the way you think about things. The place doesn’t mean anything. Los Angeles strips away the possibility of sentiment. It’s flat. It absorbs all the light. It doesn’t give you a story.” As she wrote in A Trip to Xanadu, published in the collection of essays Let Me Tell You What I Mean, “Make a place available to the eyes, and in certain ways it is no longer available to the imagination.” She was even more scathing when it came to the film industry and, in particular, film criticism, calling the latter—which she had previously done—in her 1973 essay Hollywood: Having Fun, “vaporous occupation”.

Apart from her style of writing, she was also noted for her style of dress. The Guardian, in what could be a fan-motivated homage, recently called her “a luminary of California cool”. It is doubtful that Ms Didion would describe herself that way or relate to that praise. And she would likely attribute her getting the job at Vogue to her writing, not her dress sense. It should be stated that the 5-foot-tall (about 1.5 metres) Ms Didion was an attractive young woman and it was possible that her appointment at Vogue had something to do with her looks. The magazine had a reputation of hiring mostly attractive lasses. But she must have had sartorial verve for her editors then to send her to watch women being photographed by—to name one—Robert Mapplethorpe. In fact, in one such session, an unidentified subject was so displeased with what she saw in the Polaroids that Ms Didion had to offer her what she had on. As she recalled for Esquire, “I lent the subject my own dress, and worked the rest of the sitting wrapped in my raincoat.” That had to be an agreeable outfit.

The dresses that she seemed to like were often long and loose. And sometimes, typical of the hippie era, floral-printed. She would wear them with flip flops, reflecting, perhaps, the Californian predilection for the unapologetically casual, as exemplified in the cover photo of her on Terry Newman’s 2017 book Legendary Authors and the Clothes they Wore. She had on a long-sleeved tee-dress; barely covering her thonged footwear. Her hair was slightly dishevelled; her left hand was holding what looked like a purse, and the forearm was folded across her waist; her right hand was on her left thigh, a cigarette barely noticeable between her thumb and index finger. These could possibly be one of the looks that inspired Phoebe Philo, who—during her time with Céline in 2015—had chosen Ms Didion, then 80, as the face of a Céline campaign. The New York Times would call the casting “prophetic”: Not long after, Saint Laurent, under Hedi Slimane’s watch, released their own ad with a geriatric beauty, the singer Joni Mitchell.

Joan Didion (right) with daughter Quintana Roo Dunne in a Gap ad from 1989. Photo: Gap

Céline’s image of Ms Didion was photographed by Juergen Teller. It showed her, from a somewhat top view, in a black dress that could have been from her own wardrobe. She wore a pair of oversized sunglasses that recalled what she used to wear in the ’60s/’70s and that obscured much of the top half of her face; the blackness of the shades contrasted with the paleness of her skin and underscored her thinning greyish hair. She also wore a necklace with an ember/copper-coloured pendant. Miss Didion told NYT that she “did not have any clue” to the chattering interests—online and off—with regards to her striking Céline appearance. Not everyone was that impressed. In her column ‘Ask Hadley’ for The Guardian, Hadley Freeman wrote, “It’s depressing to see your idol used to sell expensive clothes.” In fact, it is not known if Ms Didion herself wore expensive clothes, however iconic her looks were. Recently, The Cut opined, “Clearly, she had great taste and a point of view. But was it that special?”

In fact, the Céline modeling assignment was not Ms Didion’s first. Back in 1989, she was photographed by Annie Leibowitz for Gap’s ‘Individuals of Style’ campaign. She appeared with her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne (who died in 2005, just two months after her father John Gregory Dunne passed away). Both women were in USD19.50 black turtlenecks, with the mother sporting a barely visible chain. At the bottom of the image, the copy read: “Original. It’s how you twist the fundamental into something new.” That “Original” styling of Ms Didion would be reprised—not “twisted”—26 years later in the Céline ad. Many of her fans associate the writer with black turtleneck (or the mock sibling) tops, and she in them had transcended time. Even with grey hair, the look spoke of no zeitgeist. It was not that special.

“Style is character,” Joan Didion said in the1978 interview with The Paris Review. Although she was referring to writing, she could have been alluding to her own sartorial choices. Many women relate to Ms Didion’s famed itemised packing list, as described in The White Album. “This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily,” she wrote. “The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture.” Or, between Gap and Céline, either side of fashion.

Baste The Pork, Baste The Dress

Culinary refinement meets fashion fineness at what could be considered the first-ever gourmet and sartorial tribute to an ancient Chinese literary master

待他自熟莫催他,火候足时他自美*

《猪肉颂》苏轼

In the brief history of SOTD, this is a first: beginning a post with a Chinese verse. And not about some flowing robe, but about pork, specifically the best way to cook the humble meat!* Food of present times, like fashion, has been characterised by processes that are best described as fast. Speed may be of the essence, but slow is now trending. Accelerated is not elevated, swift is not swish. This thumbs-down of the quickly-made has brought two different artistic disciplines together, even if they are not directly connected. This week, Yan’s Dining Fine Shanghai Cuisine (嬿青私房菜) and veteran designer Thomas Wee (黄华) collaborate to spotlight the cultural legacy of Song dynasty poet Su Shi (苏轼), better known by his pen name Su Dongpo (苏东坡). Yes, the celebrated scholar who was credited for creating the classic dish of braised dongpo pork (东坡肉).

The meeting of cuisine associated with—and inspired by—Su Shi and fashion conceived by a designer known for his masterful riffs of traditional forms is the unusual highlight of this Dongpo Banquet (东坡宴), described as an opportunity to “partake in poetry and wine at the prime of our life (诗酒趁年华)”. It is, in fact, epicurean/literary appreciation that also includes the calligraphy of Grace Chen Liang (陈亮) and the Peranakan-style jewellery (the connection to Song literary high unclear) of Foundation Jewellers. The event was conceived by Chinese-media-veteran-turned-restaurateur Wang Yanqing (王嬿青) to mark the 920th anniversary of the passing of Su Shi (1036-1101), a giant among the literati of ancient China and a celebrated gastronome who was also a gifted cook. While it seems odd that fashion could be served alongside slow-cooked pork belly in the salute of a polymath not noted for sartorial flair, the pairing is surprisingly evocative and tantalising.

The star dish donpo rou (bottom left) in the presence of outfits by Thomas Wee

Not many of us here are that familiar with the poetry of Su Shi or the pork of Su Dongpo. Thomas Wee admitted that until his collaboration with Wang Yanqing, his knowledge of the Song multi-hyphenate was limited. “I know about Su Dongpo from Cantonese opera,” he revealed, “from the portrayal by Leung Sing Poh (梁醒波, a born-in-Singapore, Hong Kong actor popular in the ’60s/’70s). Whether the real person was fat or slim, I didn’t know”. Yet, he could not pass up the collaborative opportunity, especially to interpret Song aesthetic in a modish way. “Tang dynasty is, to me, the most beautiful period, but it’s overdone,” he said. “Song dynasty, I can explore.” He went through many visual materials until the art director of Muse (the official magazine of Dongpo Banquet) Chua Kwee Peng shared with him an image of indeterminate origin: a tea-stain-hued depiction of a boatman and a standing lass crossing a lake. It was an Eureka moment.

Song-era clothing, also referred to as hanfu (汉服), did not deviate dramatically from the prosperous Tang that preceded it. Mr Wee’s designs kept to the flowy lines of the period’s silhouettes, generally slim (瘦, shou), delicate (细, xi), and long (长, chang), and in the form of jackets (袄, ao) robes (袍, pao), skirts (裙, qun). There is a simplicity of shape that could be seen as contemporary, as well as the play with the oversized in some of the bat-wing tops (which could be mistaken as Qing!), each carefully avoiding over-ornamentation, yet their Chineseness unmistakable in the round collar (圆领, yuanling) and, in one gilet, the cross collar (交领, jiaoling). There are two sets of men’s styles too, with one loosely based on the lanshan (襴衫), a tunic-like outerwear that Su Dongpo would have worn, both as a scholar and a government official. Mr Wee’s take typifies his cross-dynasty styles that characterise his Chinois-accented menswear for the last decade or so.

Thomas Wee eager to explore the Song dynasty

But, if the entire capsule of about 20-odd pieces (only four were displayed) looked somewhat familiar, it is because Mr Wee has been on this aesthetic track for some time now. His approach to Chinese style has always been in his loose cuts, and how he pivots away from the conventional—even traditional—to reflect his particular flair with the technical minutiae of dress-making. As Mr Wee has said before, his design process and pattern planning happen synchronously, and one is never independent of the other. No matter how innovative his technical draughts are, the end garments are always recognisable as clothing to be worn. With thoughtful details and twists that set them apart, yet within unambiguous femininity, many women find his clothes immediately appealing. Among one of the more distinctive pieces this time is an asymmetric one-shoulder top with a bias-cut flounce that underscores the diagonal neckline in the front and back. There is a notch at the top where the shoulder is. The panel could be let down at that end to allow the wider top to drape over the shoulder. Or, folded up to create a pointed, architectural sail above the shoulder to flank the face. As they would say in Japan, one top, two ways.

What, to us, did not work was the seemingly obligatory inclusion of Grace Chen’s calligraphy. The cursive writing appeared on two garments: on the skirt of a tunic and on one extra-long fluted sleeve. Ms Chen, the first to come onboard on this project, initially named ‘Po’ject 苏, is a masterful calligrapher of bold, assertive, and confident strokes that Wang Yanqing described as “masculine”. But it does not appear that her ink compositions were conceived to be applied within the very specific shapes of Mr Wee’s garments: she did not have fashion in mind. They looked to have decamped unceremoniously from paper to cloth, and unable to escape the kitsch that are easily found in any gift shop in the first-tier cities of China. But Mr Wee begged to differ, explaining that he had, in fact, picked the calligraphy himself, after asking Ms Chen to read what she had written to him and explain their meaning. It was at this point that the designer made known to us that he does not read or write Mandarin, although he speaks it proficiently. “I don’t read and write putonghua (普通话),” he said. “In a 10-word sentence, I can recognise only three”. Startled, we asked what second language he studied in school. “Malay” was his rapid reply.

Calligraphic text on sleeve

The souvenir store vibe was most pronounced in the communication material produced by the editorial team of Muse. While it is true that many creatives here, even in the Chinese media, are more expressive in the visual language of the West, it is dismal and discouraging to see interpretations of Chinese aesthetic in fashion styled so derivatively and obviously, in classic show-and-tell manner. Are the clothing designs so subtle that the models need to carry Chinese string instruments, the erhu (二胡) and the pipa (琵琶), to augment the clothes’ inspirational references? But this was homage to Su Shi, not Gao Ming (高明)—this was not a revival of the Tale of the Pipa (琵琶记)! Or, is this to reminisce about defunct Chinese emporiums? To exoticise the fashion in case we can’t discern the cultural heft? Or, for the image creators, to be culturally pious? These photos stood in sharp contrast to the food of the Dongpo Banquet, in the plating, as well as the paring of ingredients: low-key. Unexpected were the plump oysters in Shaoxing wine on thick slices of goose liver. All the food stood out on their own visually, sans superfluous, tacky props.

Su Shi, who Sotheby’s called “the Chinese Renaissance man”, probably never considered, even in his most inspired moment, that in the future, fashion would salute his influence on culinary traditions. His was a life spent to a large extent in exile—banished, rather than sentenced to death, for upsetting the ruling and political class, who accused him of treason against the emperor. Despite his early scholarly life and those spent in civil service, Mr Su did not enjoy the wealth or material comforts that others of his professional standing might have had. Luxury, in life and in clothing, escaped him, but poverty did not. Historians acknowledge that he didn’t lead a good life, but despite the hardship, he was a serious optimist, as reflected in his impressive body of written works, namely shi (诗) and ci (词) or lyric poems, many of which depicted his own vivid experiences of a simple life.

The small exhibit at Yan’s Dining Fine Shanghai Cuisine

Modest life choices characterised Su Shi’s times and travels. The famous dish (among 66 or so that is associated with him) that still bears his name is made of humble pork, a meat that in the Song dynasty, was not considered with much regard. As Wang Yanqing regaled, Mr Su learned to cook pork in Huizhou (惠州), Guangdong Province (广东省). At that time, the meat was cheap, so he could experiment with it till he made what he truly liked. The long-cooked pork that he was famous for was, according to lore, the result of oversight: he forgot what he was cooking as he was playing chess with a friend. Later in Hangzhou, after the completion of the Su Causeway (苏堤, sudi) that he oversaw, grateful town folks gave him pork in appreciation of his effort in the public work. He asked: “why do you gift me with pork?” It is not certain what answer he received from his supporters, but he decided to make his favourite braised pork to share with the people. Delighted with the dish, the satiated recipients decided to name it dongpo rou.

Using gastronomy to shine a light on the backstory of the old masters is the main aim of the fine-dining adventure of Wang Yanqing, also a passionate literary impresario. With a background in journalism (the former host of Channel 8’s Good Morning, Hello [早安你好] and Date with Yanqing [嬿青有约]), she is a compelling storyteller, who seems to relate to the travails of Su Shi and who deeply appreciates his poetic output, even correcting us when we said the number is 2,300. She was swift: more than 3,000 works have survived. Su Shi believed that, like the cooking of dongpo rou, haste is not the cook’s best friend. Patience is pivotal. The clothing design of Thomas Wee, produced in a small, home-based sampling facility, shares similar preference for the unhurried and attention to detail. If one pseudonym and delicacy can cross generations and near-millennia to inspire, perhaps our maestro of fashion could one day be just as influential too.

*Be patient; rush it not. With adequate fire and time, beautiful it shall be—Ode to Pork, Su Shi

Dongpo Banquet is at Yan’s Dining Fine Shanghai Cuisine, from 2 to 5 December 2021. Photos: Chin Boh Kay. Illustrations: Just So

Love: From A To Z, And Back Again

In a fashion celebration that believes love begets love, does it matter who’s good who’s not; who got it right, who didn’t?

There is no semblance of mass manufacture at the AZ Factory memorial/homage to its founder Alber Elbaz. The guest designers and brands that participated in Love Brings Love showed one-offs, which are likely produced in a couture atelier or RTW sampling room. And no one invited to show swapped. They each did their own thing, many with “codes” of what Mr Elbaz’s aesthetic legacy is. Or, offered something that hints so subtly that it is gone the minute the models walk past in the smoke-filled arena. Although it was initially reported that AZ Factory had asked 44 of the world’s most known names to participate, the show-day figure turns out to be 45—the final is the design team of AZ Factory; they produced 28 looks that are truly evocative of Mr Elbaz’s body of work.

Love Brings Love has been described as the “grand Finale” of Paris Fashion Week. Within a single show, the designers from all over the world “put rivalry aside and came together on the runway, paying tribute to their late peer”, as W magazine describes it. Quite a few of them are seated in the front row, observing what their rivals-not-for-a-day are presenting, smiles throwing off the scent as to what they might truly be thinking. Do they, like us, wonder if some of the designs are on-theme? Or are themes not meant to be followed, just as it is at the Met Gala? Are themes in themselves outmoded since the thematic approach to design is hardly ever seen these days? Do those watching in front of their digital devices care about themes, even if it is to honour one designer with a clear vision and an unapologetically romantic aesthetic?

Clockwise from top left: Alaia by Peter Mueller, Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton, Balenciaga by Demna Gvasalia, Dries Van Noten, Comme des Garçons by Rei Kawakubo, Bottega Veneta by Daniel Lee

Clockwise from top left: Gucci by Alessandro Michele, Jean Paul Gaultier, Raf Simons, Thom Browne, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello, Sacai by Chitose Abe

Clockwise from top left: Valentino by Pierpaolo Piccioli, Versace by Donatella Versace, Vetements by Guram Gvasalia, AZ Factory design team, Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler, Viktor & Rolf by Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren

If it’s more and more come dress as you like even when there’s a dress code, it’s also design as you please no matter how distinctive the designer you’re honouring was, or how acclaimed. The heart shape is very much Alber Elbaz’s signature, and so, unsurprisingly, it is picked, appearing as crotch piece, bra cups (or are those pasties?), and edging of a coat, like a halo. A particular pink too is a colour associated with Mr Elbaz. So it appears twelve times, from sumptuous gowns to the shortest dress, and everything between. Flounces are unexpectedly less considered, so is the one-shoulder. Rather, Mr Elbaz’s personal style is explored, even caricatured. His favourite oversized floppy bowtie appears a few times, even in the form of the one Minnie Mouse wears on her head. So too his recognisable gait. Amber Valletta, emerging in a baggy coat, even walked like him and took the customary bow at the end of the show as the designer did, body cocked to the left, and smile totally discernible.

One question does emerge as the show continues. Will these clothes be available to buy? Will they be stocked through the AZ Factory website? Nothing, as far as we know, is mentioned about the sale of these pieces. It was reported that before Alber Elbaz passed away in April, he had thought of creating a traveling show, based on the théâtre de la mode, a mobile exhibition featuring French couture on mini dolls that was conceived to promote the industry during the difficult period after World War II. Love Brings Love is based on this, only minus the miniature mannequins. If the show does travel, can we be hopeful that it’ll make its way to our shores in the near future?

Screen grab (top) AZ Factory. Photos: gorunway.com

Kenzo Tribute Tees

Some wearable mementoes to remember him by before he is completely forgotten

Do people even remember that Kenzo Takada was a real person? Many Gen-Z consumers that we have spoken to recently did not realise that Balenciaga is the moniker of an actual human being (there were those who struggled to recall the first name)! Ditto for Saint Laurent—few remember Yves, let alone how to pronounce it. None could describe how either designer looked like. When we asked who among designers no longer around that they might recognised, all said Karl Lagerfeld. Not surprising: up till now, two and half years after his death, brand Karl has not stopped producing images and dolls, such as the K/Ikonic collectible, in the likeness of the man. Even without these playthings, who’d forget the Kaiser when his silhouette is part of his logo?

Eleven months after Kenzo Takada passed away due to complications from COVID-19 and just a week after the announcement that Nigo will take the helm as artistic director of Kenzo, the Paris-based house has announced that a capsule Kenzo Takada Tribute Collection will be launched this week in Japan via the e-commerce platform Zozovilla (part of Zozotown) that is dedicated to luxury brands. This release could be an attempt to enshrine the legacy of Kenzo Takada by personifying, even just graphically, the man himself on something as mundane as a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, and a hoodie. In death, Kenzo Takada becomes a streetwear icon?

This trio of tops (in different colours), reportedly part of the autumn/winter 2021 collection—a reinterpretation of archival pieces, put together by an in-house team—sport a lined silhouette of the designer with his longish hair and what appears to be spectacles, taking up sizeable real estate on the chest. His recognisable signature is placed under the left jawline. The sum is part kawaii, part hippie. According to Japanese media, the T-shirt will be sold for ¥22,000 (approximately S$269), the sweatshirt for ¥39,600 (S$485), and the hoodie for ¥53,900 (S$660). Not too wallet-straining if remembering someone you admire by wearing his likeness close to your heart truly matters.

The Kenzo Takada Tribute Collection launches in Japan on 25 September. It is not yet known if it will be available in the Kenzo stores here.

Update (13 October 2021, 3pm): the collection is now available at Kenzo stores. Photos: Kenzo

Kenzo Passes

Obituary | The founder of his namesake label succumbed to this year’s most dreaded disease

One death from COVID-19 that was widely reported last night did not emerge from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Maryland, Washington D.C., but from the American Hospital of Paris in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a commune in the West of the French capital. According to numerous news agencies, Kenzo Takada passed away due to complications from COVID-19, making him possibly the first renowned fashion name to die of this coronavirus infection. The founder-designer of the eponymous label—now owned by LVMH—was 81, and succumbed to his illness just five days after the spring/summer 2021 showing by the label’s current designer Felipe Oliveira Baptista.

With a style considered by many to be a “free-spirited aesthetic”, Mr Takada was what we today would call a trending sensation. In the ’70s, he, alongside Yves Saint Laurent, proved that ready-to-wear could be creatively conceived as the next (big) thing to haute couture and its attendant system. For four years he worked as a free-lance styliste—as Karl Lagerfeld did—after getting to Paris in 1964, the year of Japan’s first Olympics in Tokyo. Members of the media hitherto like to say how he arrived in the port of Marseilles by boat (as if it was more exotic. Mr Lagerfeld surely did not arrive in Paris via sea route!). Although commercial air travel had been available for 50 years, it was still expensive at that time to travel by air. Mr Takada himself recalled that back then in Japan, it was easier to get a passport than a plane ticket. The boat imagery would not fade. According to some reports, one Parisian astrologer told Kenzo in 1969, “You are going to be world famous and rich… rich enough to travel around the world in a huge boat!”

He was born about 50 kilometres to the east of Kobe, in a rather isolated town of Himeji, known for the stately, 674-year-old Himeji Castle (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which remained intact despite heavy bombing during World War II by the United States’ XXI Bomber Command. Mr Takada’s family operated an inn (some reports say teahouse) when he was a boy, growing up in a household of seven children. To satisfy his parents’ wishes, Mr Takada, at 18, attended the University of Kobe, where he studied literature, but found the subject unsatisfying. He dropped out and moved to Tokyo to attend the famed Bungka Fashion College, where he was one of the first batch of male students (another was Mitsuhiro Matsuda). In 1960, he won the prestigious Soen Prize and the rest was fate prepping his impending renown.

Mr Takada’s designs were not what Parisians familiar with couture were used to: youthful, loose-fitting, light, fun, and a mish-mash of ethnic influences

Mr Takada’s early professional days in Paris was as a freelancer. His first sketches were sold to Louis Feraud, whose wife Gigi reportedly bought five of them at US$1 a piece. In April 1970, just five years after stepping on Parisian soil (on which he had initially thought of staying for just six months), Mr Takada debuted a collection in his first boutique—called Jungle Jap—in Galerie Vivienne, a covered passageway/arcade first built in 1823. That collection, by most accounts, was considered a success. There were mini-kimonos in floral prints, knitted shorts, playful scarves, and even aprons in conflicting colours. It was all rather a happy clash—pieces of fabrics, mostly cotton, found in Paris and pieces bought in Tokyo (he returned home before the first show), pulled together with folksy embroidery. Everything could be mixed and matched. Mr Takada’s designs were not what Parisians familiar with couture were used to: youthful, loose-fitting, light, fun, and a mish-mash of ethnic influences, not always from Japan. The French—and soon global—press loved this cherry blossom-dappled blast from the East.

Kenzo Takada’s popularity, especially in his adopted city of Paris, was amazing for a newcomer and a non-European. At that time, he was the only Asian designer working in Paris. Unlike the other Japanese after him, Mr Takada arrived in the French capital as an unknown: In Tokyo, he was only an anonymous “company designer”, as such a job was known then (the one company often cited was Sanai, a now-defunct chain store). His compatriots who came later—Issey Miyake (1973), Hanae Mori (1977), Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (both 1981) were, more or less, established designers back home (Ms Mori started in the ’50s). It could have helped that the set-up of his first boutique in the space that was then described as a “dump” was the anti-thesis of a couture atelier, augmenting the exotic factor of his origin story. He spruced up the place himself, painting the walls with tropical leaves and flowers, as homage to Henri Rousseau’s Snake Charmer. Upstairs his friends sat behind sewing machines to sew. The clothes flew off the racks.

There was a social component too. Back in the ’70s, Mr Takada was very much a part of the Paris beau monde, and hung out in the same club that Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld did: Le Sept—the Paris version of the New York discotheque Studio 54 (but Le Sept opened earlier, in 1968). It was a heady mix of thumping music, total glamour, and free-flow of alcohol. According to Loulou de la Falaise, Mr Saint Laurent’s veritable muse and a friend too of Mr Takada, in all the partying, “Kenzo and Yves were the ones who paid, the ones who could foot the bill.” This could be indication that Mr Takada was already sufficiently well-known and financially successful in the early ’70s (with a reported revenue that amounted to US$10 million by 1977). According to Ms de La Falaise, “Kenzo was the first competition Yves had in years. They greatly admired each other. Kenzo really invented the laid-back look; his stuff was not so proper.” In 1976, Jungle Jap gave way to Kenzo and a spanking new flagship in the more upmarket Place des Victoires.

In the ’80s, winds of change could be felt in Paris, but this time, without the whiff of cherry blossoms. The duo anarchists of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (via Comme des Garçons) had arrived in Paris, with deconstructed looks that suggested “Hiromshima’s revenge”. Everyone in Paris was talking about them. Mr Takada, too, joined the conversation. “(They) were a big shock to the system,” he later recalled to the media. “But I understood their construction of the garment. What really threw me were (Thierry) Mugler and (Claude) Montana, and then Azzedine (Alaia). For me, someone like Montana was the polar opposite of what I was doing. Fashion had changed completely.” Not only was the wind from Japan blowing, the dizzying mood from within Paris was rising: Mugler with a vampy space cadet look, Montana and his suited fierceness (and upturned collars), and Alaia with his concentration on the body.

The pressure was on. Rumours emerged that Kenzo the label was not doing well and the designer was under tremendous stress to churn out clothes that had to capture the rage of the moment. By the mid-’80s, while the company was growing, the turnover declined. “I had to follow trends and I was not happy,” Mr Takada had said. It seemed Kenzo had stalled on a creative plateau. The unhappiness permeated the brand and it lost the energy with which it seduced the world in the ’70s. In 1993, Mr Takada sold his brand to LVMH for a reported US$80 million, and continued designing till his retirement in 1999, which coincided with Kenzo’s 30th anniversary. After he left the fashion house he built, he turned to painting and costume design; he also dabbled in home furnishings through Gokan Kobo, the lifestyle brand he conceived in 2004 and interior design through the firm he co-owned, K3, formed early this year.

In the past decade, Mr Takada was a rather frequent visitor to Singapore under the auspices of the now-quiet, mission-unclear Asian Couture Federation (ACF), spearheaded by the also now-muted Frank Cintamani. In one of his last sojourns here—in 2014, when he attended the 1st anniversary gala celebration of the ACF as its Honorary President, Mr Takada told SOTD that he was “happy to be an observer of fashion.” He added cheerfully, “I don’t have to do it to enjoy it.” When asked if he could contribute to a couture (by name mostly) federation when he had not been a couturier, he seemed amused, and said cheerfully, with diplomacy intact, “I am just supporting them. There are many talents in Asia.” For many that night, Kenzo Takada was the elder statesman of Asia’s still fledgling fashion world. In Paris yesterday, mayor Anne Hidalgo posted on Twitter that the city was “today mourning one of its sons.”

Photo: Zhao Xiangji. Sketches: Kenzo

Before Yohji, There Was Another Yamamoto

Orbituary | The master of using bold kabuki graphics on his clothes, Kansai Yamamoto, has died

 

Kansai YamamotoKansai Yamamoto with signature “shout” expression. Photo: source

One of Japan’s less-known fashion exports has died. According to Japanese media this morning, Kansai Yamamoto succumbed to leukemia and passed away last Tuesday. He was 76.

After thirty years of fashion and costume design, and not doing much of the former in his later years, Mr Yamamoto was brought back to the spotlight in 2017, when he collaborated with Nicolas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton’s 2018 cruise collection. At that time, Mr Ghesquière told Dazed that Mr Yamamoto “was the first Japanese designer to show in Paris (1975)*, so I thought it was really interesting to celebrate that and ask him to design a few things for the show.” There were no reports then that the 73-year-old was ill. His contribution to some of the LV pieces, including the accessories, brought back memories for those who remember Mr Yamamoto’s signature looks of the late ’70s and much of the ’80s, which eschewed the eras’ hippie predictability and the subsequent ‘power’ aesthetics. His work was theatrical and, at the same time, projected an attitude that we today would call street.

Although not always credited, Kansai Yamamoto influenced many designers through the decades, from Jean Paul Gaultier who, for spring/summer 2013, re-interpreted the one-shoulder, one-sleeve, one-leg knit union suit that Mr Yamamoto designed for David Bowie’s 1973 Aladdin Sane Tour to Alessandro Michele, who created similar, large graphics (including their placements) that bore uncanny resemblances to the Japanese designer’s. Much of the oversized shapes we have been seeing this past seasons, and the use of immense illustrations placed in the rear or over shoulder of the garment, as seen at Raf Simons, for instance, can be attributed to what Mr Yamamoto produced for his Paris shows in the ’80s.

Kansai Yamamoto outer

The striking yakusha-e graphic applied on contemporary geometrics, typical of Kansai Yamamoto. Photo: source

Designers were not the only ones who could not erase the indelible impressions left on them by his work. When hairdresser-to-the-stars David Gan wore and posted pieces from the Valentino X Undercover collaboration from last fall on social media, and expressed his love for them, not many of his followers were aware that his preference for strong and conspicuous graphics can be traced to the early days of Passion, when he had a near-obsession for Kansai Yamamoto, alongside his fashion designer pal Francis Cheong. That Mr Gan is, in recent years, partial to Dries Van Noten’s ‘Marilyn’ shirts and jackets, and the London label Qasimi’s oversized denim shirt with the sew-on patch of ‘Kabuki Kiss’ by the American artist Mel Odom indicates that he has never quite pulled himself away from those dramatic images that are larger than he, the wearer.

In the eighties, when Japanese fashion was the rage on our shores, what Mr Gan and Mr Cheong wore stood out because Mr Yamamoto’s designs were not predominantly black, the preferred non-colour of the Tokyo designers showing in Paris then. As one fashion writer told us, “You could spot any one of them a mile away because of their exuberant Kansai jackets.” Of the couple or so retailers at that time that carried Japanese labels, Scene One (at the Meridien Shopping Centre) gave Mr Yamamoto’s kabuki-inspired clothes considerable attention. The shop was opened by the Malaysian (former) designer, Christopher Choo, who was himself a fan of Kansai Yamamoto, as well as the equally attention-grabbing designs of Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier, which were all stocked in his store.

Bold was often associated with what Mr Yamamoto did in his early years. But many of his followers saw more than just the upsized graphics and the dizzying colours. One major fan told SOTD, “Others will say the joie de vivre of his early ’80s Paris catwalks, or the exoticism. For me, it’s the opulence, the beading, the riot of colours, the embroidery, the use of metallics—for 3 to 4 years, it was entirely ME!” Yet, much of what is known of Mr Yamamoto’s work is his collaboration with David Bowie following his debut in London in 1971. According to the designer’s own telling, he did not know the singer then. His stylist Yasuko Hayashi, who was working for the rock star as well, had lent the singer some clothes from Mr Yamamoto’s debut London collection. He liked them enough to wear them for a performance in New York’s Radio City Hall. The rest, as convention would have us say, is history,

With Sayoko and capeThe vivid colours: (Left) Kansai Yamamoto at a 1982 fitting with his favourite model Sayoko. Photo: Kyodo/Dpa. (Right): A 1971 cape appliqued with images of kabuki characters and those of mask kites. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Despite showing in Paris from 1975 until the early ’90s, it seems Mr Yamamoto would only remain in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, rather than fashion. Or, be known as creator of costume, rather than clothes. While his work for Mr Bowie launched him to a wider international audience, his ready-to-wear shown in Paris was to be slowly overshadowed by the unusual, un-Parisian collections and shows of first, Issey Miyake and then, the two behind what was called the “Japanese invasion”, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. While his compatriots tapped into their cultural heritage to set themselves apart from the French, Kansai Yamamoto made it his forte. His designs that were loved drew from Japanese theatre, in particular, the kabuki. He was gleefully using images of old yakusha-e, woodblock-printing of famous actors of the day, known in the West as “actor prints”. These, he juxtaposed with delineations seen on mask kites and then employed them against modern patterns in the spirit of his favourite Momoyama period of Japanese art, which is thought to be dynamic and opulent. Fittingly, the results were electric.

Kansai Yamamoto was born in Yokohama in 1944, a year before the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The eldest son of a tailor, he lived a good part of his formative years in a children’s home after his parents divorced. He studied civil engineering, and even English, but gave both up for dressmaking. Mr Yamamoto was largely self-taught although he did apprentice at Junko Koshino (one of three designing Koshino sisters) and Hisashi Hosono, a designer of lady-like clothes. In 1967, he was awarded the prestigious Soen prize (that launched many designers, including Kenzo Takada) at the equally reputable Bunka Fashion College. Four years later, still-swinging London beckoned, and he moved to the English capital, staging his first runway presentation there in 1971. Harpers and Queen describe it as “The Show of the Year….a spectacular coup de theatre.” He would continue to show in the city until 1975, when he debuted in Paris, possibly after hearing of the success of Mr Takada’s Jungle Jap, a store in Galerie Vivienne. Two years later, Mr Yamamoto opened his eponymous boutique. In the autumn/winter season of 1992, he presented his last collection.

It is hard to say when Kansai Yamamoto fell out of favour with the trendy set—hairdressers and fashion designers too. By the time he presented his swan song, his designs had lost their theatricality, perhaps as reaction to the preference for more practical clothes in the ’90s. The inventiveness and the playfulness of his early years seemed to have waned. In retrospect, his work in the ’70s was prelude to everything the fans liked about him. To them, his output of this period was modern in a way Issey Miyake’s designers would prove to be enduring. He didn’t go all out with the kabuki stuff; he showed mastery of cut, shape, and proportion too, which reflected the Japanese ideal of not restricting the body. Yet, for all the inventiveness he clearly offered and the subsequent influence that reached others, Kansai Yamamoto, in death, would be, as The Guardian’s headline showed, remembered as the “designer and David Bowie collaborator”.

*Kenzo Takada showed his label Jungle Jap in his small boutique in 1971 and Issey Miyake presented his first pret-a-porter collection in 1973. It appears that Mr Ghesquière was mistaken about Kansai Yamamoto Paris debut

Reprise: Listening To Another ‘Home’

A nation in song earlier this evening, but some of us aren’t moved. Do we have to be?

 

TH Home album

By Raiment Young

It has been a grey day, but the evening is not a natural progression of the day-time gloominess into sedative twilight. The night looks agreeable, with a discernible petrichor of earthy familiarity and an increasing darkness, dappled with leftover blue that struggles to express. Still, there is a sureness that seems to agree with what American school teacher Jeb Dickerson observed, “A setting sun still whispers a promise for tomorrow”.

If this night has a social media account, I’d sent it a Friend Request. But this night, with a digital life or not, has many others to connect with than to address my pointless entreaty. Sing Together Singapore was just broadcast, a roughly six-minute crepuscular chorus, led by Dick Lee and digitally patched to encourage citizens to sing the pop-track-turn-national-song Home in the quiet of night. Communicating via social media in song has gained traction during this pandemic, affirming, once again, that not only is our life increasingly connected, it is so by means of entertainment, or what is entertaining. More and more, the unconnected and unentertained self is too lonely a dwelling.

I’m replacing Dick Lee with Terry Hall, supplanting one Home by another, a 22-year-old song by a 26-year-old album. Terry Hall’s Home accompanied me through the early years of my professional life. Formerly of the Coventry band The Specials, Mr Hall was the indie-pop act with a jaunty vibe and a jangly sound that, post-Brit-synth-pop, I found greatly appealing. Looking back, I hear a sparkling optimism that seems right for today.

DL & co

Before I could past track three, Dick Lee Peng Boon (李迪文) appeared on my TV screen as sprightly as he usually is, attired as if ready to be subject of a Warhol portrait. When he spoke, “Hello, Singapore…”, I kept waiting for it to end with “weather report brought to you by Mitsubishi Electric”. As he was looking rather closely into what I assumed to be a webcam, he loomed a little larger than what I normally would find comfortable. Even newscasters don’t fill the viewable space to this extent (maybe BBC’s Rico Hizon). Or, was it because I was not sure having a hi-def familiar stranger in my living room, close-up-as-backdrop, singing Home the umpteenth time could be deemed conducive to my stay-home well-being.

I like to think it’s Home fatigue, but I’m not alluding to cabin fever. You know what they say about too much of a good thing. Frankly, I’m sick of it. For some reason, the song has never struck me in a way it has others, or the nation. I like the original Kit Chan (陈洁仪) version of 1997/98 in that it was then not sung with nationalistic fervour to rally a people. Ms Chan has one of those warm voices that is beguiling, especially in lower registers. No one who sang Home after her has come close to the intimacy and tenderness that she imbued the song with. Not even Dick Lee himself, now leading the eight-person sing-a-long, not as a choir master but as the leader of cheer leading, and that was what Sing Together Singapore essentially was.

Home will have its place it the history of national songs, but will it leave a legacy in the pop domain? As a pop tune, it ticks the boxes for simplicity of lyrics, structure, and melody. This is as karaoke-friendly as any Canto-pop hit. Yet it has the anthemic mark of songs that can be sung nationally by a sizeable mass, with a manageable tessitura to match. But as with many chart-toppers, Home has outlived its freshness—its sentimentality is beginning to feel tiresome, and its repeated broadcast, especially the singing with comely comradeliness, is on the verge of annoying. I’m not even sure that the broadcast of Sing Together Singapore is providential. How has the exercise made us forget that much of our island is still pestiferous? Of is it, as one media outlet posed, “empty distraction from meaningful action”?

DL

Seeing only a handful of waving torches outside my window, I think of what I would really like to hear. It’s odd that when it comes to songs that can move a nation, we consider only those by the self-styled Son of SG Dick Lee. At the time he was a prolific songwriter, someone else too was managing quite an impressive musical output, the far more percipient Liang Wenfu (梁文福). And one particular song—easy to sing too—I now desire to hear again in these bleak days is the up-lifting Catch the Sunrise with Me (陪我看日出) from 2005, sung by the now mostly forgotten Joi Chua (蔡淳佳). Mr Liang was the lyricist for this track, and the hard-warming narrative that speaks of a better tomorrow—sun after the rain—seems more befitting of the present climate than the reminder of self and nation in Home: “The rain has fallen, walk carefully, I shall remember these words/However hard the wind blows, good blessings will not be carried away with it/After the rain, there would be a way for us to see the sunrise as in the year past (雨下了走好路这句话我记住/风再大吹不走祝福/雨过了就有路像那年看日出).

Admittedly, this (literal) translation captures not the nuances, imagery, and positivity that Mr Liang intended. And not many may consider xinyao heavy with schoolyard innocence—however evocative of our home—not Home enough to sing on a national level. If Dick Lee’s contribution to our city’s catalogue of patriotism-stirring songs must be sung, could it not benefit from some rearrangement, if not reimagining? I am thinking of the rousing rendition of Foo Fighters’ Times Like These, initiated by BBC Radio 1’s Stay Home Live Lounge, featuring Chris Martin, Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, and others. Or the 100-year-old fundraiser Captain Tom Moore’s duet with Michael Ball, singing The Weeknd’s You’ll Never Walk Alone, backed by the staff of Britain’s National Health Services (NHS). The latter, this week, charted at number one. These are not only inspiring, they sing of what Jeb Dickerson wrote with palpable hope (and I reiterate), “a promise for tomorrow”.

I am (still) playing Terry Hall’s Home—on loop, something I have not done since my Spotify subscription of many moons ago. Produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds (also on my playlist), Home is Mr Hall’s debut album. I was very much drawn to his lyrics, as much as I was a few years earlier, to Stephen Duffy’s for their art-school vim, tinged with Euro-centric swish. On the opening track, Forever J, Mr Hall croons, “Like Isabelle Adjani/She glides by upon a bank of violets…” It is, hopefully, understandable why, for this evening, as a form of escape from the unsettling reality outside, I’m giving “the river which bring us life” and one that “always flows” a decided miss.

Update (26 April 2020, 3.30): if you need a new take on Home, listen to Mr Brown’s deliciously funny version. Now, he should be leading the sing-a-long

Photo: Jim Sim. Screen grabs: YouTube

Passing Of A Giant

Obituary | Regardless of what we at SOTD think of Karl Lagerfeld, he really was the last of his kind

 

KL 2018.jpg

Karl Lagerfeld standing on the set of Chanel’s spring/summer 2019 collection last October. Photo: Getty Images

Karl Lagerfeld has left the world and that of fashion. Born in 1933* in pre-war Hamburg, Germany, he died today in post-Web Paris, France—reportedly from the same disease that took the life of Steve Jobs: pancreatic cancer. He has said that he did not really need to be employed but, by most account, he worked at Chanel till his last breath. He was also proud of his perennial contracts with not only Chanel, but Fendi too. As he reiterated to Kendall Jenner in a Harper’s Bazaar joint interview in 2016, “Everybody… hopes I retire so they can get the jobs. But my contracts with Fendi and Chanel are lifelong.”

And he really worked all his life, and most times, at two jobs, or more. He once said, “I am kind of a fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm. I am never satisfied.” Despite the evident wealth and the numerous homes around the world (he collects them as he did books and furniture, and, some say, friends), Mr Lagerfeld is, by definition, a salary man. Although he most likely would shoot back at such a description, he did say, rather imperturbably, in a 2018 Netflix special on him, “I’m just working-class—working with class.” 

Some reports estimated his net worth to be USD250 million (up till last year). The accumulation of wealth and tony residences must have begun, even if unconsciously, when he arrived in Paris in 1950, aged 17 (according to him, but some accounts claim 14 and earlier arrival). But he wasn’t a struggling pre-employment drifter. He told Bazaar, “I got very nice pocket money, and it was perfect.” In 1954, he won the first prize in the coat category at the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition (presently known as the International Woolmark Prize). That opened doors for him, but the ensuing years were not exactly what he had envisioned.

Winners of IWS design awards 1954

Winners of the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition in 1954. From left: Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, and (far right) Colette Bracchi. Photo: Keystone Eyedea Headpress

(Interestingly, there were two other winners that year: one Colette Bracchi that no one then remembered, nor now, and one Yves Saint Laurent that is so unforgettable the name is still a cash cow for current owner, the Kering Group. Mr Saint Laurent, in fact, won two prizes, a first and a third for dresses, then deemed more prestigious than honours for coats. Mr Saint Laurent’s double win and his subsequent employment at Christian Dior were rumoured to be the source of rivalry and some discord between the two male winners who were, at that time, believed to be friends.)

The prize money, reportedly generous, probably meant nothing to the 21-year-old Lagerfeld. When he entered the world of haute couture, no one knew who he was and where he came from exactly. But they knew he was rich and work was optional because, as was said, that’s what he told them. The budding designer did come from a well-to-do family. His father was said to be an “industrialist” whose business was condensed milk. Or, as was the chatter of the day, chocolate and even ball-bearings, shifting as the tale hawking got more vivid! But truth revealed that Lagerfeld senior worked for one American Milk Products Corporation that sold condensed milk, marketed in Germany as Glücksklee. Family wealth, however, did not make Mr Lagerfeld a professional sloth. In fact, he was, even then, known to be “prolific”—as he still was, up to his death. He was not only quick in sketching, he was also speedy in the execution of design. Traits that served him well in both haute couture and prêt-à-porter at Chanel.

A year after his win, Mr Lagerfeld joined one of the judges of the competition, Pierre Balmain (the others were Hubert de Givenchy and Jacques Fath), to assist him. He would, years later, say “I was not born to be an assistant.” In 1959, he left for Jean Patou, where he designed as Roland Karl ten couture collections during his time there. According to friendly accounts, he was not particularly pleased with his employment at both houses. There were no raves in the same manner as that, many years later, he received continuously at Chanel. It seemed he became rather disillusioned with haute couture. By the early ’60s, he decamped haute couture for ready-to-wear, initially not only a poor cousin to the highest form of fashion, but an impoverished one. Women of taste and means did not buy off-the-rack.

Karl Lagerfeld at Patou

Karl Lagerfeld with a model in one of his designs for the house of Patou. Photo: Regina Relang/source

Karl Lagerfeld’s tenure with brands on the other end of haute couture at first seemed the opposite of Yves Saint Laurent’s dramatic ascend at Christian Dior. For the work he did, which included those for the ballet shoe company Repetto and the supermarket chain Monoprix, Mr Lagerfeld was known as a styliste, not a couturier. This was during a time when being a styliste meant freelancing (mostly) for brands not one’s own and unshackled by the need to reinvent the wheel. But this did not deter him, and his friends at that time later recalled that he enjoyed his job, so much so that he would eventually take up more than one, at a time. Some people said that he knew, after leaving the big maisons, that the future of fashion is in ready-to-wear. Even though not quite a visionary (or a fortune teller, as he was inclined to say), he was not wrong.

In the early to mid-’60s, a small little brand was gaining popularity among women for its chic yet somewhat bohemian-looking clothes—anything added to chic was the antithesis of couture. Chloé was also unusual in that it was a label not named after a designer. In 1964, the year Andre Courrèges introduced the “space look” and, across the English Channel in London, Mary Quant scored big with the mini skirt, Karl Lagerfeld secured an appointment with Gaby Aghion, the charismatic and experienced Egyptian owner of Chloé. He was hoping she’d hire him. She did, but not full-time. The partnership turned out to be highly successful for both Ms Aghion and Mr Lagerfeld and a long one, although not lifelong.

Little known was his pre-Chloé work for Tiziani, a couture house based in Rome that was founded by a wealthy Texan, Evan Richards. It was reported that both men conceived the collection together and threw a lavish launch party in 1963, featuring Catherine the Great’s jewels borrowed from Harry Winston. Apparently, Elisabeth Taylor was a huge fan. Understandably so, and her patronage reflected the designer’s penchant for the glitzy. The early Tiziani sketches that Mr Lagerfeld did reportedly fetched up to USD3,500 a piece in an auction in 2014. He continued to design for Tiziani until 1969. This was only the beginning of his relationship with Italian brands.

Young Karl

The young Karl Lagerfeld, never known to be camera-shy, with his always-present sketch pad. Photo: Jean-Philippe Charbonnier/source

By 1965, Paris warmed to the idea of prêt-à-porter. Apart from the stylistes, a new clutch of designers, called créateurs, emerged—among them Dorothée Bis and Sonia Rykiel, the favourite of Mr Lagerfeld’s mother. His steadily successful turn with Chloé strengthened his resolve to stick with ready-to-wear. In fact, he made quite a success of his freelance work. He added to the growing roster designs for Charles Jourdan, Ballantyne, Mario Valentino, and Krizia. Mr Lagerfeld did not concerned himself with borders, geographical or professional (in 2004, he went even lower market by designing for H&M, which he later considered “embarrassing” as “H&M let so many people down” due to the low stock levels). A year after his collaboration with Chloé, he started on the first of his “lifelong” arrangements: with Fendi.

Karl Lagerfield has such an innate sense of the au courant that success followed almost every collaboration that he did. This was augmented in the ’70s after meeting two other Americans in Paris in 1969 that would very much awaken in him the flair for what would be needed to be cool. They were the illustrator Antonio Lopez (the subject of the James Crump documentary from last year, Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion and Disco) and his ex-boyfriend, the art director Juan Ramos. In Mr Lopez, the German designer found his soulmate, as he admired the former’s distinctive and striking drawings. The Puerto Rican-American duo showed Mr Lagerfeld what Paris fashion wasn’t: fun-filled, disco-soundtracked, and street-influenced.

To be sure, the Chloé designer had always been aware of what went on outside the confines of the design studios or his apartments. Gaby Aghion once said, “When he came back with me in the car, if he saw students, Karl would  take the students’ ideas and transform them into something beautiful. He had an undeniable art of transposing their vision into fashion.” He wasn’t a designer in the mold of Andre Courrèges or Pierre Cardin (or Thierry Mugler in the ’80s, or John Galliano in the ’90s, or Raf Simons in the ’00s); he was always a commercial designer. And was known for it. Francine Crescent, editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue at that time, said, “Karl always made collections that sold well; his collections were always impeccable and extremely commercial. Not in a bad way.” In later years, another Vogue editor-in-chief, the just-as-commercial Anna Wintour, concurred by wearing mostly Chanel for her professional attire and on the red carpet.

Karl Lagerfeld iconography

No known designer in his old age shares the same pop fervor Karl Lagerfeld enjoys. His cartoon self even appeared on smartphone covers. Photos: source

It was the keen sense for the saleable, tempered by his love for haute couture—that he turned away from, but not rejected—and the attendant crafts that endeared him well to brands. The Wertheimer family must have had watched Mr Lagerfeld in the wings as he made money for others before hiring him in 1983 to remake Chanel. He was, according to Alain Wertheimer, the brand’s CEO, given carte blanch from day one to design as he pleased for Chanel. Unlike Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme, Saint Laurent, and now Celine, Mr Lagerfeld did not impose his own aesthetical obsessions on Chanel. But just like Mr Slimane, he was immensely commercial, as much as he had always been. As Tyler McCall, deputy editor of Fashionista noted to the Daily Beast, “Those shows were sort of sneakily commercial. If you broke them down, there were still all these basics that a Chanel customer would really want.”

There is, as we know, usually two sides to a dress. Much as Karl Lagerfeld was a proponent of beauty and the enhancement of Chanel’s house codes, he, too, was susceptible to the banal and the excesses that appeal to the nouveau. “For every classic Chanel handbag or fanciful riff on the little black dress inciting lust in the hearts of style-savvy women,” wrote Robin Givhan for Newsweek in 2012, “there have been equally mortifying examples of pandering and buffoonery: a tweed jacket transformed into a circus costume, menswear that would make a drag queen flinch, handbags that reek of self-conscious status climbing.”

Status is the operative word. In the 1980s, Mr Lagerfeld’s re-imagined 2.55 bag, dubbed Chanel Classic (or 11.12), included a double C logo on the twist-lock clasp that was never there when Coco Chanel herself designed it. He later admitted that “what I do Coco would have hated.” Vulgar came to the minds of the purists at that time, but in line with the logomania of that era, the bag took off and spawned many others, flashier than the Classic. Those handbags found legions of queue-willing fans, in men too—Pharrell Williams and G Dragon, just to name two (they’d never, of course, need to get in line). In 2017, vintage bag website Baghunter claimed in their research that in the six years prior, the value of Chanel handbags have jumped a staggering 70 percent, making Chanel a better investment than condos. Status, clearly and quickly, allowed Chanel to make a reported USD4 billion a year.

 

Karl Lagerfeld 1984
Publicity photo of the launch of Karl Lagerfeld in 1984. Photo: Karl Lagerfeld

Designing for others (an average of 14 collections annually in the past years) seemed to suit Mr Lagerfeld—and his bank account—so well that, unlike Yves Saint Laurent, he deferred starting his own label until 1984. Launched with fanfare, but met with lukewarm reception, Karl Lagerfeld the label was, according to the designer, meant to play up “intellectual sexiness”. For sure, Mr Lagerfeld was an intellectual (served by a voracious appetite for books and reading), but it is arguable if his designs were intellectual, the way Martin Margiela’s was. His own line hitherto defied a strong DNA or codes similar to Chanel’s that future designers continuing his eponymous label could bank on. It was, at best, anything goes, a monochromatic expression of ego, more so in latter years when his flat profile became a recurrent logo, as did his cartoon caricature and, subsequently, his pet cat Choupette (both have come this far south-east as Thailand). Simultaneously, he was irreverent. Remember “Karl Who”?

That Karl Lagerfeld understood branding and iconography and used both well and extensively is stating the obvious. No designer, especially in his old age, has been able to market himself as successfully and completely as Mr Lagerfeld, with the cartoon of self infinitely useful on T-shirts and as figurines to be sold as dolls (e.g., the Martell-produced Karl Barbie doll, which was priced at USD200, sold out within an hour at launch in 2014). Which other octogenarian was thus worshipped? Or seemingly adored, even by shallow post-teens such as Kendall Jenner and Kaia Gerber?

In modern fashion, Karl Lagerfeld’s work, being, and lore have culturally far-reaching effects. Even after his death, it is likely that brand Lagerfeld will go on. “I don’t want to be real in other people’s lives,” he once said, “I want to be an apparition.” Some entities do linger. Open not the closet door.

*A note on dates: Like Diana Vreeland, Karl Lagerfeld was fluid with his personal history. He himself often gave conflicting dates on his birth and such. On his website, it is stated that his year of birth was 1938. What is provided here is based on information available in the public domain

Update (19 February 2019, 10pm): According to WWD, Chanel’s studio director Virginie Viard, who has taken the catwalk bow alongside Mr Lagerfeld before and his place, will take over as the Creative Director

A Colourful Life

Obituary | Few hairstylists working on our island, indeed anywhere, could count Lee Radziwill and Christie Brinkley as clients. Fewer still had worked on their hair in the celebrities’ residence. Shunji Matsuo was one

 

Publicity shot of Shunji Matsuo in 2016. Photo: 色影师

Yesterday morning, it was revealed by staff of Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio that the Japanese hairstylist/founder of the eponymous salon, has passed away in his hometown of Kobe. Mr Matsuo died of cancer; he was 67.

Considered one of our city’s most successful hairdressers, Mr Matsuo owns (or co-owns) 10 salons in Singapore. The number does not include branches in Kuala Lumpur and Yangon, which had prompted The Business Times to call him “a veritable salon mogul”. The 18-year permanent resident had become one of the biggest players in the business, beating even David Gan, arguably the most famous celebrity hairstylist here, by the sheer number of salons under his name.

Yet, Mr Matsuo did not share Mr Gan’s staggering client roster of famous local and regional names. He did, however, enjoy many moments working with some of the most noted personalities in international fashion, especially in New York City, where he started in 1974. Among the many names associated with the New York beau monde of the ’70s and ’80s, one stood out for Mr Matsuo: Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy. Mr Matsuo liked to regale willing listeners with this particular story. He was at Ms Radziwill’s apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue one day, working on her hair, when he accidentally spilled water on the floor. Mortified by his own clumsiness, he immediately asked for “a dirty towel” to mop up the mess. She replied, and he often retold this with relish, “We do not have dirty towels!”

Shunji Matsuo styleShunji Matsuo’s 2008 version of the layered cut, styled with a gentle beehive. Photo: Rui Liang/Lightspade Studio, Styling: Vik Lim, Makeup: Yuan Sng

Shunji Matsuo’s reminiscences of the early days of his career were often spiked with comedic incidences and name-dropping, all the while full of the wonder of a small-town boy made good in a big city. He claimed that at the start, he did not know who the people he had attended to were, such as model Karen Graham, model/actress Lauren Hutton, and Victoria Newhouse, the wife of Condé Nast Publication’s Si Newhouse. But, interestingly, when it came to Polly Mellon, he knew who she was, enough at least to be disappointed that she did not invite him to do a shoot with her for Vogue. He would later recount that “although she told me, ‘you’re a genius’, she had never asked me to work for her”, unaware that the affectations of New Yorkers shouldn’t be taken seriously. However, Mr Matsuo’s scant knowledge of the society which he served was brief for he soon knew he was onto bigger things when he assisted in a shoot lensed by Richard Avedon.

Like many successful Asian hairdressers, including the Segamat-born David Gan, Mr Matsuo rose from humble beginnings. Born in Kobe to a restaurateur father and housewife mother, he was not academically inclined, nor, by his own admission, “a lover of sports or anything”. At age fifteen, shortly after his father died of liver failure, he chanced upon an article in a woman’s monthly Joeseishin that featured a Japanese man who was known to the local media as “Widow Kennedy’s Hairdresser”. Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, even in mourning, had always looked immaculately groomed and her Oleg Cassini for hair was a petite New Yorker from Tokyo named Suga Yusuke.

Known simply as Suga, Mrs Kennedy’s go-to hairdresser probably inspired many young Japanese eager to leave their country for the much-admired USA. Born in a Japanese colony close to Beijing, Suga and his family moved back to Japan after his father died in a car accident when he was 10 months old. The Yusukes finally settled in Tokyo, where Suga later studied and worked. Unmotivated in the capital and in love with everything American (“I loved chocolate kisses and Bazooka bubblegum,” he told the press), Suga moved to New York and quickly found employment with hairdresser-to-the-stars Mr Kenneth. Through hard work, determination, and no small measure of luck, he soon became the widowed Mrs Kennedy’s hairdresser.

Suga & ShunjiSuga and Shunji Matsuo in New York in the mid-’70s. Photo: Shunji Matsuo

Mr Matsuo was completely taken with Suga’s success story and was so inspired by it that he made up his mind instantly to be a hairdresser—the decision no longer requiring the blessing of a paternal figure. That article, an eight-page spread, was so central to his resolve that he had it laminated for posterity. A former journalist who had seen the preserved, yellowed black-and-white tear-sheets told SOTD that “Shunji was quite obsessed with that magazine profile of his idol. He was a rather sentimental person, and he won’t forget that editorial piece because it really changed his life.”

In 1968, he left Kobe for Tokyo and enrolled for a hairdressing course in Yamano Beauty School, unsurprisingly Suga’s alma mater. Three years later, Suga visited Tokyo to scout for new talents to staff his first salon in Manhattan. Mr Matsuo, who had by then graduated and returned to Kobe, was beyond ecstatic when he read about it in a magazine, and, without hesitation, applied for the selection and left immediately for Tokyo.

Although he was picked after a surprisingly simple selection process, nothing came out of it. Suga had left the city. Undeterred, Mr Matsuo made his way to Los Angeles in 1973, first, to receive an American license at the US branch of Yamano Beauty School so that he could work, and second, to somehow reconnect with his idol. He called Suga, who had not forgotten the young man, and immediately invited him to New York to work. In 1974, his Big Apple adventure began.

Two years after he relocated to New York, Shunji Matsuo was to witness Suga enjoying his most intoxicating professional high. The place was Innsbruck, Austria in 1976, and figure skater Dorothy Hamill’s double axels and stupendous spins had won her Olympic gold. But the audience that day witnessed more than just sporting excellence; they saw a short, lively hairdo dubbed the “wedge” and fell in love with it. The “wedge” would forever be synonymous with Suga, opening more doors for him than he had ever hoped to open.

A tear sheet of the Christian Dior ad featuring Kelly LeBrock

Mr Matsuo began to reap Suga’s success, assisting the latter on both commercial and editorial shoots. One of these was with Richard Avedon, who was just commissioned by a very young and new Gianni Versace to helm the campaign for his first boutique in the US. Gianni Versace was the breakout star of 1981, but Mr Matsuo wasn’t aware of that, and recalled that he “had to work very fast because there were so many models”. In fact, during this period, Mr Matsuo did the hair of some of the best models of the time: Iman, Kelly LeBrock, Janice Dickinson, and Pat Cleveland. But all this while, he had only been an assistant to Suga.

Things changed in 1983. Suga had to go to Tokyo to discuss a business partnership with haute couture designer Hanae Mori. According to Mr Matsuo, he was not aware of what that was about. He was only a little upset that the boss had not asked him to go along. As it turned out, Suga was in talks with Ms Mori’s son Kei to set up Studio V, a chain of salon cum boutiques. During Suga’s absence, Shunji Matsuo was asked to attend a Richard Avedon shoot on his own and the client was Christian Dior. That became the turning point for Suga’s young assistant.

“Although he never said if both of them really got on (they had a professional relationship rather than a social one), he was full of respect for the guy,” the former journalist told SOTD, “but in the end, he did not want to walk in Suga’s shadow.” In 1984, Shunji Matsuo decided to part ways with his mentor/idol Suga Yusuke. After he left, he did not immediately set up his own salon. Instead, he chose to freelance, a professional arrangement not uncommon among hairdressers then (and even now). He soon met Christiaan Houtenbos, a Dutchman working the New York fashion circuit and was known as the “Master of Short”.

Shunji Matsuo with Andre Leon Talley. Photo: Shunji Matsuo

It is not hard to see why Mr Matsuo found himself drawn to Christiaan, as he was called. Like Suga, Christiaan preferred short, ‘sassy’ hair, and was behind some of the most iconic looks of the ’80s, such as Debbie Harry’s messy locks and Grace Jones’s flat top (later so strikingly paired with a Giorgio Armani jacket for the Jean Paul Goude-designed cover of her album Nightclubbing). In 1986, Christiaan invited Mr Matsuo to Paris to assist the former in his work during Paris Fashion Week. The designer show that the Japanese found himself doing was that of a compatriot’s: Comme des Garçons.

Through Christiaan, Mr Matsuo found himself working more on fashion shows, such as those by Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, who became a mentor of sorts; and socialising with up-and-coming editorial stars, such as the stylist Paul Cavaco (who mostly teamed up with Bruce Weber) and the fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley (then with Interview). In 1986, Mr Matsuo accepted a print job, which turned out to be a high point of his career since going solo. Shot in Big Sur, California, the photograph of model Kirsten was selected for the cover of the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar, his first American title. Covers beget covers, and he was soon commissioned to work on more Bazaar covers, as well as those of New York and Interview.

All through the latter half of the ’80s, one photographer was a constant in Mr Matsuo’s attempts to align himself with fashion bigwigs of the time and to score editorial features: Gilles Bensimon. Credited for assisting in the launch of American Elle in 1981, Mr Bensimon—what 21st Century New Yorkers call a ‘modelizer’—married Elle Macpherson after his first divorce. Mr Matsuo met model Christie Brinkley in a shoot lensed by Mr Bensimon, and the model and hairdresser, by Mr Matsuo’s account, hit it off. Soon he was asked to visit the residence Ms Brinkley shared with then husband Billy Joel to do her hair. These were happy times, as he recounted, but things took a turn when he made an unwise request. Mr Matsuo had asked the model’s agent if it was alright that in accepting no charge for his services, he could announce that he was Christie Brinkley’s hairdresser. He got his answer when she did not called him back again.

A lover of wigs, Shunji Matsuo posed with his creations before a show in 2016. Photo: 色影师

It was never really discussed if, despite his high-profile clients of the ’80s, Shunji Mastuo was a truly talented hairstylist. People do choose hairstylists the way they choose bartenders: based on the inclination to listen. Fashion folks here who have worked with him consider him a good “shoot stylist”, but no one could recall if he, like Suga and Christiaan, had created anything memorable with cuts. From the bob to balayage, he has done them all, often under the guise of “Japanese techniques”. No one, however, could confirm if they were. To be sure, he is a competent hairdresser, but nobody would say for certain that he was extraordinary. His work in recent years, as one of them noted, was about dreaming up all sorts of effects on hair using hair (sometimes with hair pieces), the effect much like flower arrangement or ikebana.

Mr Matsuo’s love of hair pieces, usually coloured like kueh lapis kukus, came about at the time he had some hair designs photographed for the biographical book, Mane Man, which he was preparing in 2007. He wanted to create some rather over-the-top looks, but was limited by the length and thickness of the hair of the models he had booked. Someone suggested that he could cut hair from wigs, colour them, and attached them onto the models’ head in any fashion he wished. The idea fired his imagination, and he would from then on work with lengths of coloured hair that could be piled like Lego bricks. Unhindered (unhinged, some would say), he laid heaps of them on heads with gusto.

It is not clear if this penchant for the dramatic was a belated expression of what to him was real creativity, or if he was compensating for what he was not able to do in the salon. It is also plausible that this was to show that he had come into his own, no longer eclipsed by Suga or anyone else to whom he was a mere assistant. The creative outburst was less about leaving behind an artistic legacy than simply doing what he wanted to do without being told that he could not. He once said, “In America, I always had a boss or a partner. In Asia, I am my own boss, and I could do anything my own way.”

IMG-20171009-WA0027.jpgShunji Matsuo working on a model during a hair show. Photo: 色影师

As the ’90s unfolded, Mr Matsuo may have realised that he was not going to leave a mark on New York fashion the way others before him did. America had taught him to survive the fashion system there, and to play the publicity games and manoeuvre the social circuit to stay afloat, but it had not fostered the innovation that would elevate him to the iconic status of those he had admired. As a former stylist remarked to SOTD, “During those days, being an Asian in America wasn’t easy. There was only room for one Suga.”

In 1990, Suga—the reason Mr Matsuo went to America—passed away, and the news deeply affected his one-time assistant. Mr Matsuo realised that an era had passed and he sensed that a new chapter of his life had to be written. After opening two moderately successful salons—37.57 on 57th street and Salon Ziba, a precursor to today’s Korean ‘quick cuts’—Shunji Matsuo decided, in the mid-’90s, to leave New York City.

His next port of call was Jakarta. Odd as his choice might have been, he was certain that the Indonesian capital was where he would rebirth the glory he had experienced in New York. Tokyo would have been a logical choice, but he would be, as he told friends, “just a Japanese working among Japanese.” He felt Jakarta would be where he could stand out and be outstanding. Sadly for him, just a year after his salons opened (he moved from one location to another), Indonesia experienced the worse political turmoil of its modern history. The capital city was descending into chaos, an inevitability that resulted from the resignation of President Suharto, whose regime was not able to escape the contagion effect of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997. Mr Matsuo had to leave—“escape” was how he put it.

He arrived in Singapore in 1998, part of a hastily put together plan to flee a city in disorder that he had thought to call home. After a month holed up in the YMCA on Stamford Road and unable (or unwilling?) to do anything (“I was depressed,” he had admitted), he decided to return to Kobe upon the urging of his family. Two weeks later, he was back in Jakarta, then on the road to recovery, but things were not going to be the same. He then decided to rebuild his professional life in Singapore. It was here that he finally found success and recognition, and, more significantly, a salon that bears his very own name. In 1999, Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio opened in Wellington Building, right in the beating heart of Orchard Road.

In 2010, after Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio vacated Wellington Building, where the first salon was opened, it relocated to Takashimaya Shopping Centre. Photo: Zhao XIangji

But Singapore was not to be his next New York. The market was too small and the celebrities that he had hoped to charm were ensnared by others such as the ebullient and ambitious David Gan. Moreover, most of his target customers had not heard of him. His spanking new salon at Wellington Building was no Passion, a sweeping anchor at Palais Renaissance. Mr Matsuo understood the need for publicity and he was determined to be the celebrity hairstylist he had come to consider himself to be. Accept for the executives of hair product brands, he knew very few people here. His best bet was to seek a conduit, and he found it in Jennifer Dunbar, a PR old hat who was not a fashion industry staple, but was able to get her client into magazines, such as the now defunct NTUC Lifestyle. Mr Matsuo was disappointed that he was not doing the high-profile jobs that he desired, but he did not let on. He was grateful for the opportunities, and he soldiered on, as he had before.

A breakthrough of sorts presented itself in 2008 when Mr Matsuo did the hair of the models of Thomas Wee’s comeback show during Singapore Fashion Week of that year. “I think he is good,” Mr Wee had said, “With his many years of experience and with old-school training, he is not your average ‘Orchard Road Salon’ hairstylist. I like to think that he has a lot of energy to be creative.” Bitten by the local fashion show bug, Shunji Matsuo would position his salon as a major sponsor for many of our city’s catwalk presentations.

But his love of fashion shows was not restricted to what went on backstage or the mayhem among the models. He liked it upfront, on the runway, in full view of an audience. A keen participant in hair shows, he would organise his company’s annual dinner and dance as a hair show too, with competing teams creating outlandish styles that encouraged boisterous cheers. He would invite industry folks to serve as judges. It was fun and it was serious, and it reflected his belief that the hair-styling business is glamourous.

Shunji Matsuo Makeover Magic Kobe in Apr 2016Shunji Matsuo with his ‘models’ before the Makeover Magic in Kobe last year. Photo: Shunji Mastuo

In 2013, a new idea for a show emerged. It would put not only his hair designs on stage, but also the creator in the limelight. Following his fixation with hair pieces, Mr Matsuo came to know a wig maker who wove pieces out of real hair. So impressed by these wigs was he that he decided that he would do a hair show by styling the wigs on those who needed them most: cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Makeover Magic was thus born and the first show was staged in Kobe. It would become an annual event (in Singapore too), and it would be extended to elderly ladies who wanted a chance to look simply extraordinary. Modern business practices would have called this corporate social responsibility, but Mr Matsuo did not describe it as such.

Makeover Magic was well received in Japan, bringing accolades to its Japanese creator, who, prior to this, did not think he had made it in his home country. But skeptics found what Mr Matsuo did to be too over-the-top to be a makeover in the conventional sense. He was not working with wigs alone; he added those hair pieces he had come to love. Some attendees thought the old ladies looked victimised—a ridiculous remodeling that was the vain indulgence of one man than the true enjoyment of the duped. In Singapore, some called it “搞笑行动” (gao xiao xing dong) or comedy routine, or, to steal an Italian Vogue cover blurb, “makeover madness”, but conceded that for many of the participants, it was the fun rather than the fantasy that was magical. Mr Matsuo was unfazed by his critics, and he believed in his mission of making people happy, even for the brief moment they were playing dressed-up, more so after being diagnosed with the dreaded disease cancer.

An admirer of Lee Kuan Yew (and other dogmatic personalities such as his favourite author, the “god of business consulting” Yukio Funai), Mr Matsuo considered Singapore very much his home. It was only in the last two years that he started going back to Japan frequently, partly to stage Makeover Magic, partly to seek treatment for his debilitating illness. Against the odds, and against an industry dominated by an influential few, he was able to produce Shunji Matsuo 2.0. Although he did not create anything akin to the “wedge” of his first employer in America, nor left a legacy that would be invaluable to the annals of Singapore fashion, Shunji Matsuo will always be remembered as the one who came and conjured.

Close Look: Ines De La Fressange Designs Men’s Wear

The embodiment of Parisian chic Ines de la Fressange, together with Uniqlo, is trying to grab the sartorial attention of guys. Are you thrilled?

Ines X Uniqlo AW 2017

By Ray Zhang

There’s always the first time, as the saying goes, but was it as good for her as it was not for me? Ines de la Fressange’s debut men’s pieces for Uniqlo did not get my pulse racing the way the Undercover and (first) Lemaire collaborations did. To make matters less appealing, Uniqlo has to include pieces from their house line into the merchandise mix as the Ines de la Fressange collection was not large enough to fill the space dedicated to its somewhat quiet launch. If there is an essence—Parisian-ness, for example—to be discerned, it is, sadly diluted.

This is Ines de la Fressange’s 8th collection with the Japanese fast fashion giant. To be fair, she’s become quite an old hand at it. The woman’s wear is a confident mélange of the familiar and the ‘elevated’. It is nice to see that she’s not stuck to those tiny floral prints that seemed to suggest far, far from Paris (Alsatian wine country?) and have offered, instead, rather charming prints of small double blooms spaced apart on polka-dots. Nothing terribly sérieuse, you see. Oh, and those shirt-dresses; they make Diane Von Furstenberg’s look positively inspired by thrift-stores and ready to go back there.

Ines X Uniqlo Mens 1

But the men’s! Ines de la Fressange, were you picking up the clothes for your man’s wardrobe? I sense that Ms de la Fressange is like some women: they would look impossibly chic—they have to, but they prefer their male companions to be just about right—conventional, not too branché. How else do you explain the pattern of Fair Isle knitting on sweaters for men while the women get far more modern colour blocking? Or, with the same fabric, the men get a plain shirt and the women a Western shirt?

With Uniqlo’s collaborative efforts, people seek out pieces that are a little different from what the brand normally does. I know I do. The involvement of another entity seems futile if the output does not visibly distance itself from the exceedingly plentiful already seen on the same floor. Do we need yet another black or navy blazer? Do we need yet another check flannel shirt? Do we need yet another slim-fit Chinos (when less than 100 metres away, there’s a roomy, single-pleat-front pair that’s a tad more outre)? I know I don’t.

Ines X Uniqlo Mens 2Clockwise from top left: wool blend blazer, S$149.90; striped cotton shirt, S$49.90; check flannel shirt, S$49.90; cashmere sweater, S$149.90

Lest, I am mistaken, I do take into consideration that with Uniqlo, collaborators have to respect their successful concept of LifeWear, which means clothes have to be user-friendly—fashion, I assume, being secondary. Perhaps Uniqlo thinks that enough of us buy into proper nouns associated with glamour and that alone may be sufficient. Ines de la Fressange’s name may move fashion for women, but it may not do the same for men. Or maybe there are really those who are easily seduced by the Euro-association and its attendant romance, such as ST’s former music reviewer and current director of the Singapore Writers Festival Yeow Kai Chai, who was seen going through the pieces like an eager beaver.

Maybe I am just nostalgic for the good old days of +J. Conceptually, that pairing was the strongest ever for Uniqlo, and successful enough for a greatest-hits drop after the collab ended. There was the discernible LifeWear sensibility, plus Jil Sander’s masterful and subtle twist on things, which years later still communicates a certain sophistication not since repeated. And, dare I add, usable dash.

Ines de la Fressange X Uniqlo AW 2017 collection is available at Uniqlo, Orchard Central. Photos: Uniqlo

Shanghai Tang Lost Its Founding Sifu

Shanghai Tang flagship in Raffles City. Photo: Gallery Gombak

By Raiment Young

Two days ago, it was reported in the British press, followed quickly by the world’s mass media, that David Tang—actually, Sir David Tang—has died. Many people, I think, reacted to the news with regret, but some with relief, and others resentfulness. Mr Tang may not mean much to us here, but in England and Hong Kong, where he split his time, he was quite an eyebrow-raising, nothing-can’t-be-said figure, or “obstreperous”, as the British wit Stephen Fry described his friend, who once proclaimed in mutual admiration that “there’s no greater ‘Emperor’ of Twitter than Stephen Fry.”

An impenitent bon vivant, Mr Tang was born into wealth in 1954, but, according to him, wasn’t entitled to the fortune of the family, considered by those who know of such things to be Hong Kong’s most philanthropic. As he recalled in the Financial Times, a paper in which he had a regular column as “resident agony uncle” (in 2016, the articles were compiled into a book, Rules for Modern Life), “my grandfather was very rich in colonial Hong Kong, [but] he did not like my grandmother, his first concubine, nor her only son, my father. All of us were cast out of the family home and left to fend for ourselves on a very modest income that my grandfather reluctantly provided.”

Still, he was able to go to England to study even when, according to reports, he spoke no English in the beginning. He did well in boarding school and eventually studied philosophy at King’s College and graduated with honours, followed by law at Cambridge, where he received a master’s degree. For a year after tertiary education, he taught English literature and philosophy at Peking University, where he was supposedly paid 600 yuan a month!

David TangA dapper David Tang. Photo: AP

Academia was, however, not really his calling. Cuban cigar-smoking Mr Tang became known, first as the man behind the expensive and private China Club, and then, in 1994, as the unlikely fashion hero behind the emporium revival, Shanghai Tang—a store and “luxury” label that salute Chinese design aesthetic (particularly Shanghainese) with a nod to the modern, predating the Hermès-backed Shang Xia. Both these businesses would quickly thrust Mr Tang onto the international stage, and he would soon make friends and party with fashion luminaries such as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.

Without prior fashion cred, Mr Tang’s success, for many industry watchers, was startling —and maddening. In the mid-Nineties, Hong Kong designers such as Benny Yeung, Lulu Cheng, and William Tang barely made a dent in the international fashion scene. Yet, Shanghai Tang’s coquettish cheongsams (in the 2000 Wong Kar Wai film, In the Mood for Love, Maggie Cheung wore stunning versions designed by William Chang and made by the store’s master tailors) and relaxed kungfu jackets with fluorescent-bright lining were drawing attention even more than the glamourous output of established Hong Kong names Walter Ma (husband of the renown retailer Joyce Ma) and designer-to-the-Canto-stars Eddie Lau.

Shanghai Tang was the first store in the Fragrant Harbour that was unabashed about inspiration drawn from Chinese culture and production centred in China (at one time, its label was printed with the tag “Made by Chinese”). It debuted on the first storey of Central district’s Pedder Building, then known for its factory outlets in the upper floors. I remember one particular Label Plus that had Prada and Valentino, among other brands, as well as clinics of GPs as incongruent neighbours. Despite the somewhat down-market tenants, Shanghai Tang, with its (almost) gaudy window displays, is a synergistic match with Pedder Building, the last surviving pre-World War II edifice on Pedder Street, where luxury shoe emporium On Pedder got its name.

Shanghai Tang @ Pedder BuildingOriginal Shanghai Tang store in Pedder Building. Photo: Jing Daily

My first visit to the original Shanghai Tang store was in 1998, less than a year after Hong Kong’s news-generating return to China. Walking in, I was surprised by how ‘pop’ it looked despite its Art-Deco-on-the-Bund elegance, and by the predominantly Caucasian and foreign shoppers. Hongkongers in the mid-Nineties were very much like the mainland Chinese of today. Oriental styles, no matter how modernised, held very little appeal to them. With the Landmark across the street offering the best of French and Italian labels, Shanghai Tang’s style de Chine was, at best, kitschy. It projected very little snob appeal to those who needed and used imported fashion as a symbol of advanced economic and social standing.

I remember buying a pair of cuff-links that were two workable miniature quartz clocks, with Chinese numerals on the dials, which, in hindsight, the white clientele must have found exotic. Apart from the cuff-links, I saw nothing terribly enticing to buy. Truth be told, much of the merchandise were so immodest in their Chinese-ness that even the frog buttons on simple office shirts would appear contrived back home, where Giorgio Armani was the epitome of modern chic. If TVB series were to be believed, changshans and cheongsams were worn on festive occasions in Hong Kong, but over here, I knew that anything that hinted at traditional Chinese dress would only elicit unwelcome comments.

I revisited Shanghai Tang about a year later. It was curiosity rather than desire that dragged me there. This time, it was in New York. The store was situated on Madison Avenue, one stretch of the city that was home to American names such as Calvin Klein, and, possibly to its disadvantage, across from Barney’s. By now, the day-glo zeal of the brand’s colour preference has reached a level only pre-schoolers won’t get a headache from it. And China’s pre-revolution glam sat incongruously with its Cultural Revolution kitsch. I was not sure what Shanghai Tang was bringing to New Yorkers other than a bit of colour Mao’s China did not enjoy. Or, maybe, Mandarin-collared polo shirt! It was, to me, one big, multi-storey, 12,500-square-foot, (reportedly) USD$2.7-million-a-year joke.

The interior of Raffles City’s Shanghai Tang, where the colour lime green is never too far from the corner of the eye. Photo: Gallery Gombak

Not parked on the Hermes side of the retail continuum, Shanghai Tang did not quite score with the Americans. Nineteen months after it opened, David Tang’s beloved emporium was shuttered. Unless you lived in the Upper East Side, I doubt many New Yorkers today remember Shanghai Tang’s sojourn in their city. In Hong Kong, people still remember the Shanghai Tang of the mid-Nineties, to the point that the gaudiness of the past still informs many what the brand is about today, even when it has moved to a more contemporary spin on Chinese designs (the lime green is, sadly, still around). To Mr Tang’s credit, changshans and Mao jackets with fluorescent-coloured lining became much copied. They were even available at Yu Hua Chinese Emporium in Chinatown.

David Tang, by his own admission, ran Shanghai Tang for seven years. It is not quite clear if he designed during those years. The brand continued to maintain its presence in Hong Kong and the mainland. At one point, there were 32 Shanghai Tang stores in the world, including Singapore, Bangkok, and Tokyo. Today, most of it is in China, and the only store in the US is in Miami, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I do not think the fashion consuming public took Shanghai Tang seriously, nor, for that matter, the fashion establishment. In 1998, Swiss luxury group Richemont (Cartier, Montblanc, Alfred Dunhill, and others) took a controlling stake in Shanghai Tang, and acquired full ownership in 2008. In June this year, the store was let go to Alessandro Bastagli—mostly described as an “Italian fashion entrepreneur“—and Hong Kong-based private equity fund Cassia Investments.

It isn’t clear yet where the new owners intend to take Shanghai Tang and onto what level (still “affordable luxury”, as the founder himself once described his brand?). I think David Tang wanted to create something more snobby—his China Club certainly was—but Shanghai Tang was too modern-clever and irreverent for it to really go higher than what Mr Tang aspired to. He told Financial Times in a video interview (interesting that they would feature one of their own columnists): “It’s important to be elitist in a way because when you have elitism, the bottom bits can come up.”

Google Doodle Salutes Eiko Ishioka

Google Doodle 12 Jul 2017

Movie fans, especially film costume aficionados, would know Eiko Ishioka. Therefore, if you use Google Search today, you may recognise the five illustrations that appear on Google Doodles: Ms Ishioka’s costumes from 2006’s The Fall, a film so fantastical, outlandish, and unlike any out there that Roger Ebert calls it “a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists”. In fact, it is in the genre of fantasy films that Ms Ishioka made her mark.

Ms Ishioka passed away in 2012. Today would have been her 79th birthday. And Google—a salute to them—decided to honour one of film’s most creative costume designers. If The Fall is unfamiliar to you, consider Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula of 1992. It scored Ms Ishioka an Oscar for best costume. We remember quite vividly the outlandish ruff worn by the coquettish Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) and how it stood beautifully even in the midst of an exorcism.

This is not the first time Google Doodles pays tribute to fashion figures. Back in 2013, there was also homage to another film costume name: Edith Head. Last December, there was animation to celebrate the work and invention of Charles Macintosh, whose namesake outerwear is synonymous with rainwear. Since its introduction in 1998, Google Doodles has celebrated the works of giants of design such as Sir Norman Parkinson and Zaha Hadid.

Eiko IshiokaEiko Ishioka. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

The choice of Eiko Ishioka proves that Google does not hide from less conventional fashion figures or those not immediately identifiable by the average Google user. Ms Ishioka did not share Colleen Atwood’s fame and vast body of work; she did not, in fact, have her start in films. She was trained as a graphic designer, began with Shiseido, and later made her mark in the advertising scene in Tokyo, where, for those old enough to remember, her work for the retailer Parco caught the admiration of her peers. In one of Parco’s television commercials, Ms Ishioka art-directed a chiselled-face Faye Dunaway to do nothing other than crack, peel, and eat an egg!

Her Oscar win led to other film projects. Apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Fall, there’s also Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (her first film in 1985) and those by her partner-in-crime Tarsem Singh: The Cell, Immortal and Mirror Mirror (not just The Fall). She also designed for the stage, garnering two Tony nominations in 1988 for M Butterfly. Proving that the art director in her never left, she won, a year earlier, a Grammy for the Miles Davis album Tutu.

While her creative output was varied, including the monochrome and minimalist music video for Bjorg’s Cocoon which showed almost no clothes (a break from costume design, or, as Tarsem Singh told WWD, “Eiko had only two gears: full-out or no gear at all”?), it was her costume work for strange worlds that continue to capture the adoration of fans. These included Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai and the massive stage wear of Grace Jones’s 2009 Hurricane tour that only the singer can pull off.

Many of Ms Ishioka’s fans note that she made a success for herself in an industry dominated by men. But we think it is more remarkable that she had left such a legacy in show business that was, and still is, the domain of the West. Eiko Ishioka, you are missed.