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. 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.

Weird, It Eventually Is No Longer

People who understand and love Comme des Garçons talk about the “transformative power of the clothing”. On the eve of the Met’s latest spring exhibition The Art of the In-Between, SOTD looks at how CdG, in particular, its designer Rei Kawakubo, has transformed our perception of what can or cannot be clothes and how the unconventional becomes conventional

Rei KawakuboRei Kawakubo (centre) in Paris. Collage: Just So

Rei Kawakubo (centre) in Paris. Collage: Just So
People break rules all the time, but few are serial rule breakers. To smash established notions of anything, for some, leads to emancipation. In fashion, liberation from the past era’s, century’s, decade’s, previous generation’s, yesteryear’s idea of what is wearable, can-face-the-day clothes has been effected for as long as garments are made and worn. From Paul Poiret to Coco Chanel to Yves Saint Laurent to Mary Quant to Helmut Lang to Raf Simons to Demna Gvasalia to so many more, fashion codes have been rewritten, and clothing has, in many ways, become the freeing of oneself from the constraints of the markedly contemporaneous.

Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo is a serial rule breaker. Some designers challenge the zeitgeist long enough to see the desired changes and then revolutionise no more. Ms Kawakubo constantly contorts our view of what can be considered suitable to the body and what can be construed as clothes. As she told WWD in 2012, “The more people that are afraid when they see new creation, the happier I am.” If this fashion outsider’s success—culminating in the Met spring exhibition opening on 4 May in New York City—is any indication, Ms Kawakubo may be rather less happy these days.

Perhaps she is. “It’s a Met show for Comme des Garçons, not a Comme des Garçons show at the Met,” she told the media recently, in the few, possibly reluctant, interviews she granted to market the exhibition. And they detected or deduced that she likely had to compromise, something possibly unheard of in the modus operandi of Rei Kawakubo.

The Met 2017 exhibition catalogueThe Met spring exhibition catalogue by curator Andrew Bolton. Collage: Just So

But it wasn’t this way in the beginning. From the start, Ms Kawakubo was really the ready radical, a petite Oriental woman who dared to go to Paris in 1981 to show in the same city as then-newsmakers Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana. But hers wasn’t like the powerfully feminine clothes of her French counterparts; hers were new creations that she likes people to be afraid of, and they were, so much so that the media of that time described what she did disparagingly as “Hiroshima chic”.

She was not the least fazed, and has stuck to showing in Paris till today. Despite the coldness of her designs—mostly in black—people warmed up to them. By the mid-Eighties, CdG, though still odd, funereal, and boyfriend-repelling, appealed to the taste of women for whom ‘power dressing’ encouraged aversion. These were largely those who worked in creative fields, individuals not compelled to dress in the way corporate environments demanded.

Holes in pullovers, tops and shirts with puckered armholes, skirts with unfinished—meaning un-sewn—hemlines that did not accentuate the hips, dresses that could have led a double life as a sack for potatoes, these were novel to a new generation of consumers of designer labels not yet weaned on the elegance of the day. Torn and rough and imperfect, as opposed to refined and smooth and perfect, were visual cues to communicate the message that women were now dressing for themselves rather than for the opposite sex. Visually and obviously feminine styles took a back seat.

CDG Mode et PhotoPoster of the Comme des Garçons photo exhibition in Paris in 1986. Photo: Jim Sim

The growing success of CdG indicated to other designers—established, emerging and those waiting in the wings—that desirable designs need not follow the footsteps of French couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent, who, in fact, preceded Ms Kawakubo as the first living designer to be honoured by the Met with a solo exhibition in 1983. Ms Kawakubo was in her third year showing in Paris at that time, and probably did not imagine that, 34 years later, she would share Mr Saint Laurent’s good fortune and be selected by the Met to display 150 pieces, as many as the latter, of her designs for public viewing.

Even Marc Jacobs, who does not deny that he’s inspired by CdG, has worn CdG to the Met Gala—a lace tunic shirt to the 2012 Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. Mr Jacob’s coping of CdG not only makes the label a designer’s label, it also elevated the brands visibility. By now, Comme des Garçons, although not an instantly recognisable name as Louis Vuitton, has become what rivals would call successful. Ms Kawakubo is still considered by her peers to be an iconoclast, but the label that she started in 1969 has gone somewhat mainstream too, with pop stars such as Lady Gaga wearing CdG to the delight rather than bafflement of her fans, and with fast fashion imitating their house codes of mixed fabrics/patterns, asymmetric hemlines, and strange proportions.

CdG was not conceived for the masses. It’s disavowing of conventions set it apart, pulling those who are not seduced by the ordinary to the brand. Yet, it has become a bit of a victim of its uncommon success. To be sure, CdG is, in the end, a business, and the company has to survive, and they did so rather well with commercial “non-fashion” items such as those of the popular Play line. Because Ms Kawakubo makes clothes unlike her contemporaries or creates looks ahead of them, her clothes seem to defy time—they don’t date. Vintage CdG is still so in demand (just look at Tokyo’s Rag Tag) that even the company reprises their past pieces in the ‘Evergreen’ collection.

Stalwart supporters of CdG will continue to embrace Ms Kawakubo’s what-will-she-think-of-next designs. For the uninformed, CdG clothes may not look “designer”, but as John Walters once said, “Only you know you spent money when you wear Rei’s creations.”

Ethereal Designs, Ephemeral Life

Obituary | Tan Yoong, one of Singapore’s most illustrious and creative designers passed away three weeks ago. It is irrefutably our nation’s loss. There will never be another like him

tan-yoong-pic-1A ten-year-old, multi-layered silk tulle dress from 2007 that was a further exploration of one of Tan Yoong’s favourites themes: the cattleya orchid. Just last year, he described this as his “all-time favourite design”. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Tan Yoong is known to be an extremely private person, sometimes solitary. Even in death: he died alone, away from Klieg and kin, in a manner not unlike the passing of John Keats. Comparing his demise to an English romantic poet’s is deliberate for Tan Yoong’s legacy is one of poetry with fabric. His designs bore the Keatsian hallmark: “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”.

If a thing of beauty is that rare combination of shape, form, and colour that pleases our aesthetic sensibilities, then Tan Yoong’s designs were irrefutably a composition of immeasurable beauty and more. SOTD rarely ascribe beauty to the work of Singaporean designers, but in the case of Tan Yoong, there is no description more apt, more telling, and more laudatory.

Since 1996 until the closing of his couture house in 2015, Mr Tan offered mainly beauty to brides. Yet, his ethereal sumptuousness was also appreciated by those not considered his target audience, both men and women. His designs for so many were “the stuff of dreams”, as one customer so ardently put it. Mr Tan once told a former journalist—when asked why he had chosen to concentrate on bridal wear— that “every woman wants to look beautiful, like a bride. So for me, a bride has to look even better than that.” He often said—whether out of humility or candor, it wasn’t certain—that he did “not cater to beauty and those with money. Women come to me because my gowns make women more confident and, therefore, more beautiful.”

tan-yoong-bridalDespite his obvious flair in fashion design, Tan Yoong was mostly known for his bridal couture and women swoon at the sight of his signature gossamer layers, swirls and twirls. Photo (originally for an ad), courtesy of Lightspade Studio and the House of Tan Yoong

Every woman can look beautiful if she thinks she is. How the mind can be seduced into this thought is often the result of what is worn. More than just an attractive outfit, a dress can also offer elements of fantasy, among them, the illusion of looking like a princess-bride. Fantasy is a powerful agent in the elevation of self-esteem. Mr Tan knew that, and he spun fantasy in spades. A fashion-designer-turn-educator said of Tan Yoong’s designs, “It’s the fantasy that I’ll remember him for.”

The fantasy is best exemplified in his drawings. A gifted illustrator, Mr Tan drew with a deft hand, expounding Western glamour with distinctive Eastern strokes—their sweeps and linearity akin to Chinese calligraphy. He drew from a young age and, prior to enrolling in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1967, made fashion drawings that were inspired by models such as Twiggy and the German sensation Veruschka. His girls were outfitted by clothes born of his imagination, which, by his own admission in later years, were attributed to the influence of Dior, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Mr Tan’s unique fashion illustration style was honed in the post-design competition years (the last was also his most remembered: the Her World Young Designers Contest in 1978), when his eponymous label was taking definite shape. Aware of the artistic value of his drawings, and their accurate representation of his uncommon style, he used them—framed like art—in his Lucky Plaza shop window, in place of mannequins. This predated even Stilla’s use of illustrations to sell a line.

So captivating were his illustrations that magazines such as Her World (the first to commission him as an illustrator in the ’70s) and Female, both usually proponents of fashion photography, would happily publish Tan Yoong’s illustrations of his own clothes whenever he preferred the use of drawings to photos. They were never met with resistance from any editor or art director.

bridal-dress-detailTan Yoong’s couture dresses were about handcrafted details such as this feathered bodice designed to look like a bouquet of flowers. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

One former editor recalls, “Back then, I was only familiar with the work of Rene Gruau and Antonio Lopez, but when I saw Tan Yoong’s drawings, I was completely bowled over. He depicted his women in groups just as Gianni Versace did through his photographs lensed by Richard Avedon. As a student, I would go to his Lucky Plaza shop just to see those framed drawings in the window, hoping that he had put out a new one. But he did not change them often enough. Still, those drawings were totally entrancing.” Indeed, for many a young person struggling to pursue what was then an uncommon career in the rag trade, Mr Tan’s illustrations were catharsis by fashion.

While the drawings of his formative years tended to be delineations of his favourite European models in the looks of the day, those that came later, during his heyday, were distinctive for their watercolour washes or coloured-pencil shadings over inked lines that gave form to sumptuous shapes. And there were those unmistakable eyes: multiple skinny strokes that seemed to suggest Cyclops’s visor, but it is doubtful Mr Tan intended for his women to be containing massive optic blast force. Rather, those eyes—obscured, thus mysterious—were complementary to the strikingly bald heads, sometimes punctuated with a clutch of flowers, that he favoured for a period.

It is thus not inaccurate to say that for Mr Tan, the foundation of his designs and attendant work was those drawings. Many of his signature styles first emerged from pen and paper. So sure was he of his drawings and so much faith had he in them that often times even photographic output was based on illustrations (interestingly, he never used a bald model). Most of his studio shoots were based on a prepared sketch or full-colour illustrations. Those who worked with him knew of his exacting demands. The creative director period of his life (specifically his time at Batey Ads in the mid-’70s), the story boards—they did not ever leave him.

tan-yoong-illustration-heartTan Yoong was as much admired as an illustrator as a designer. Illustration, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

tan-yoong-illustrations His illustrations captured the imaginations of scores of aspiring designers and students. Clockwise from top left: a sketch during his teenage years, Veruschka-inspired drawing from the late ’60s, poster illustration of the mid-’90s, the Her World Young Designers award winning collection, illustrations for the Cattleya collection,  and definitive Tan Yoong illustration of the late ’80s.  Illustrations, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Photographer Joyce Choo, a constant collaborator in the ’90s, vividly remembers the shoot for the Seashell collection. “This was way before Photoshop, and back then, we shot on film,” she says. “Each composition could comprise up to three layers. I had to shoot all of them individually and then assembled them as seen in the illustration that he first showed during the brief.”

It can be said that spontaneity was not Mr Tan’s modus operandi. His style was a studied glamour—precise, deliberate, and appreciated by women that were, according to him, “sophisticated and chic”. The ingénue seemed less interesting or inspiring to him, unlike, say, to Hubert de Givenchy. This is reflected in his choice of models. One of Tan Yoong’s favourites in the ’80s was Susan Ang, a petite individual with features that were unmistakably Oriental. Ms Ang was no lass in the cusp of womanhood. She looked grown, worldly, and clearly able to carry designed garments that were not your every-day threads.

From the start, Mr Tan considered what he did to be couture (even when he did not specifically referred to his work as ‘haute’), and it was couture in the French (or European) tradition, not the glue-gun-and-feathers variety. As he is not known to open up his atelier to anyone except his staff, no one had had the opportunity to see how he worked. Ex-staffers recount that the designer was very hands-on and that he positioned every bead, every slip of lace, every wisp of appliqué on the dress-in-progress himself. As with the photographs of his collections, surface embellishments on the garment much corresponded to the sketch made before the commencement of the drafting of the item of clothing. Although not trained at storied couture houses, his insistence on finishing much of his designs by hand stood shoulder to shoulder with the practices of the maisons of Paris.

tan-yoong-risis-orchid-seriesFor his collaboration with Risis Orchids in the mid-’90s, Tan Yoong conceived a series of photographs that looked very much like his illustrations. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

tan-yoong-seashells-collectionThe Seashell collection of the ’90s shot by Joyce Choo featured Photoshop-style layers before digital imaging was the norm in fashion photography. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Undoubtedly, his design aesthetic—at least in his formative years—was influenced by couture greats: Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent. Yet, his style was as disconnected to mode Française as he is to China, or wherever his Eastern flourishes could be traced to, outside his homeland. Although he did not see the need to maintain an “Eastern identity” in his designs, Mr Tan never negated his Eastern roots. His structured forms confined to a Western norm, but the details and the surface treatment of his designs bore an identifiable Oriental sensibility. And the reverse is true: on his famed cheongsams, the embellishments were conversely European.

Despite his own Western image and outlook, and the Western lands he visited so ardently in his retirement travels, Mr Tan was, at heart, an aesthete whose thinking was very Chinese. To those he knew well, the bilingual designer mostly spoke to them in what could have been his most comfortable language: Mandarin. He would also use dialects such as Cantonese to chat and joke with fellow designers.

Mr Tan’s primary school years were spent in an institution associated with Chinese schools (although they were no longer popular in the late ’50s and were phased out in the ’70s): Mi Tuo Primary, now Mee Toh School and a Government-Aided School since 1957. He continued his secondary schooling in the Catholic environment of Maris Stella High, and furthered his education at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, an education centre that was set up in 1938 in the tradition of Chinese art academies. Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (the abbreviation NAFA was not officially used when Mr Tan enrolled in 1967; the school was mostly known by its Chinese name 南洋艺术学院) was a part of the art movement, Nanyang Style. One of Singapore’s most celebrated artists associated with the movement and also linked to the school was the Chinese-fluent Liu Kang.

Tan Yoong revealed very little of his fine arts training, his time in school, his relationship with classmates and his lecturers. It isn’t known how he reconciled his love for Western fashion with the education in a school so synonymous with the Nanyang Style. But the exposure to did-Singapore-proud artists must have bolstered the believe in his own talent and the willingness to salute other local artists such as Eng Tow, whose fabric and paper art inspired a memorable collection Mr Tan created in 1990. The product of fine art can be a result of a long, labour-intensive process. Mr Tan did not see fashion differently. He approached it as a painter would his canvas: using mostly hands, regardless of the medium. But fashion, to the trained artist, is not art. To a designer, it can be just as revered; it can be couture.

tan-yoong-pic-3One of Tan Yoong’s favourite models in the ’80s, Susan Ang, in a top that typified his play with sheerness and opacity. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

If one were to read Mr Tan’s designs the way the Chinese du hua (读画 or read a painting), one can discern a lyrical serenity, particularly in his early years (less so in the bridal designs, but that could be just a bridal thing—commerce being all-important), or, to put it more in line with the perspective of Chinese paintings, quiet poetry. Many of Mr Tan’s peers looked at his Eastern leanings with admiration since the expressions in his designs were original. Yet, sometimes, with disregard, for some thought he overly romanticised Chinese motifs and symbolism. Was a Westernized Tan Yoong making Oriental references similar to the Shanghainese of the 1920s copying modern occidental society and was tagged with what was then a derogatory term: haipai ((海派 or ‘Shanghai Style’)?

That thinking may be reductive just as the considering of Tan Yoong only as a bridal designer is reductive. Mr Tan passionately loved fashion and he did not let his lack of formal training in fashion design diminish his ability to traipse familiar and uncharted territory. Yet, one senses he tried harder and was more expressive than anyone else because he did not attend classes for fashion or cut his teeth in a fashion house. Designer Thomas Wee remembered Tan Yoong pointing out to him during one of the ASEAN Designer Shows in the ’90s that, among the regional designers presenting that evening, the two of them did not go to fashion school. He considered that “sao kar” (羞家, a now uncommonly used Cantonese expression that’s roughly the equivalent of the Mandarin diulian or 丢脸, or to lose face).

This rare revelation of professional inadequacy hinted at an insecurity that few knew or sensed. But it does explain why no one (except his staff) had really seen Mr Tan at work. A former magazine and commercial stylist explained, “Tan Yoong was a perfectionist and he never considered what he did good enough. Therefore, he wouldn’t show you how he did what he did.” One surprising act seemed to concur with this line of thinking. About a year before he closed his business in 2015, Mr Tan instructed his staff to destroy all the clothes in his archive and whatever was not sold. According to one ex-staffer, they were instructed to “cut everything up”and discard. Tan Yoong did not want to leave any trace of perfection or imperfection.

tan-yoong-pic-6Another signature design from the early ’80s: appliqué of sheer longitudinal stripes to mimic leaves and petals. Tan Yoong was the first designer here to use baby-lock stitching in place of hem as part of the decorative effect. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

Said the stylist, “I am not the least surprised that he had destroyed everything. Tan Yoong was very secretive about his techniques. Maybe he knew they were not standard techniques, and authenticity was very important to him.” Mr Tan’s evolution as a designer was never a journey to an end point; it was always a work in progress. Even the clothes he used to send for shoots were unfinished dreams. It was known among stylists and photographers that quite a few of those clothes were only completed in the front. Mr Tan often attended shoots with cloths and decorative fabrics such as his hand-cut cut-outs and laces that were used at a sudden moment to stitch onto the garment being shot. Every petal, every stripe, every curlicue was applied as if he was doing a collage on paper.

This going-by-gut-instinct approach to design is, in fact, rather couture in spirit, yet Tan Yoong was not necessary sure his was the right way. Thomas Wee recalled, “He used to come by my shop and would slowly push the front door open, peer in and sheepishly say to me, ‘来偷师’ (here to steal a master’s craft). He would examine my clothes very closely.” Mr Tan may not have started as the tailoring master that Mr Wee has always been, but he did progress to the point when his clothes exhibited a master’s hand with silhouettes. And his customers knew they could trust his cuts.

Yet, this was not quite enough to bolster his self-confidence. He kept his work day within his atelier and rarely talked about his design process, particularly to journalists, who he had an uneasy relationship with. He did not particularly trusted them to report accurately what he thought, led alone interpret his work, nor understand what he did. This is ironic considering that it was through press accolades and the ardent support of editors such as Her World’s Betty Khoo that Tan Yoong acquired much of his early successes.

tan-yoong-pic-7One of Tan Yoong’s last innovations (in 2014): multi-layer coloured silk tulle for what he called “water-colour effect”. He was adamant no one thought them to be “hand-painted”. Photo, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

One particular article turned him away from the media even more resolutely. In February of 2008, former journalist Michelle Tay of the The Straits Times (ST) opined in the Life column The Monday Interview, that Mr Tan “could in fact be mistaken for your friendly neighbourhood uncle.” A close friend of Mr Tan said that the designer had called to say he “was unhappy” with that description. “Why must she put it that way,” he had said. And he was not over-reacting. Would anyone have described Tan Swee Hian as an ‘uncle’, however avuncular he may look?

To Mr Tan, just as it was to Jane Austen when she wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously.” No one who knew him would consider Mr Tan someone interested in dressing like a designer (or trendily, or flashily) even when he was partial to turning out impeccably, mostly in variations of beige, and some form of head wear. Mr Tan took pride in everything he did, including how he appeared in public, even when pushing his mother in a wheelchair—before she passed away—when they went for walks in Orchard Road.

Following his death, the lack of curiosity about Tan Yoong’s craft continued to characterise media reports. More eager to give an account of the cause and time of death than to mourn the passing of an indisputably great talent, ST’s first article by Melissa Heng approached his demise with the same snooping flair as those reporting a suspicious fatality in an HDB heartland. Her follow-up a week later had “fashion insiders remember the couture pioneer for his visionary designs and skillful craftsmanship”, never mind that it is doubtful young-ish designers such as Priscilla Ong Shunmugam and Mae Pang could “remember” Tan Yoong at the height of his career. Ms Heng herself had nothing insightful to offer. She availed a set of photos to her interviewees and asked them to “comment”. While she labeled some of the dresses “couture” (in fact, they all are), she had asked if they “would have been difficult to make.”

tan-yoong-pic-8A cocktail dress of multi-layered coloured silk tulle at Tan Yoong’s last catwalk presentation in 2008. Photos, courtesy of the House of Tan Yoong

It is hardly surprising that in his last years, Mr Tan had chosen to lead a quiet, almost reclusive life, completely away from media glare, uninvolved in the ignorance that spawns insipidity in today’s old and new media (his one social-media indulgence was an Instagram account that he maintained, where images of past work and current travels were posted). From the start, his designs seemed to suggest retreat from a regular world, recoiling from its woes and its increasing banality. Hence, the prevalent “fantasy”.

Some observers think that Tan Yoong did not, in the twilight of his eponymous label, really caught up with the celebrity-led redefinition of elegance—his was too old-fashioned, they say. Under and above his many, many ways with silk tulle, Tan Yoong had at all times strictly adhered to the pursuit of the ultimate expression of the most beautiful and the most creative. For the likes of Ms Heng, Ms Shunmugam, and Ms Pang, this is possibly quite beyond their ken.

The United Nations put it aptly when it said in a statement in response to Tan Yoong being selected to represent Singapore in the inaugural World Fashion Awards in the World Fashion Week (now defunct) in Hollywood back in 2008, “He is an active force in the growth and beauty of his own country’s fashion industry.”