Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
The next Met fashion exhibition has been themed. ‘Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty’ might just be Anna Wintour’s personal tribute to her “brilliant friend”
Chanel has been Anna Wintour’s go-to label for the Met Gala. From top left, in 2010, in 2017, in 2018, and in 2019. Photos: Getty Images
In the biography Karl Lagerfeld: A Life in Fashion, Anna Wintour stated that the ‘Kaiser’ “often said that when he died, he wanted to disappear”. She quickly added, “Well, that cannot happen”. With the next spring exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Center (AWCC, formerly the Costume Institute), the Vogue editor will keep to her word. Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty is the next theme of the Met’sannualshow and opening-night fete. Although it sounds like the exhibition spin-off of the book, it would be, as it was in the past years, the work of Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the AWCC and its fashion exhibitions, and the life partner of the designer Thom Browne. Mr Bolton told the media at the press conference to announce next year’s theme, “I’m not sure Karl would approve of the exhibition”, echoing Ms Wintour’s own sentiment. In all likelihood, the monographic show was initiated pushed through by the woman whose name precedes the Costume Center.
It is no secret that Anna Wintour is Karl Lagerfeld’s ardent supporter in not only what the designer did for brands such as Chanel and Fendi, but also in her continual wearing to the Met Gala the Chanel haute couture gowns that Mr Lagerfeld designed, sometimes just for her. Both of them were thought to be close. In a tribute, titled ‘My Brilliant Friend’, published in Vogue in 2019, after Mr Lagerfeld’s death, Ms Wintour wrote: “We were often in touch” and “the hours I spent with him at the (dinner) table make me feel luckier than any stroke of fortune I’ve had at my editing desk”. Both did not see each other frequently, but they had “a standing dinner date in Paris on the first Sunday of every Fashion Week”. Despite the suggestion of deep friendship, Ms Wintour did not reveal why “it’s doubly painful to have lost him”, as she wrote, except that “he never fell out of love with his work or with the world, and his death marks the end of the era of craftspeople who could do it all”. What did their relationship really mean to her?
It is hard to know if she was that close to Mr Lagerfeld. In a sort of postscript to his book Karl: No Regrets, the author/artist Patrick Hourcade, who knew the designer well since 1976, drew up a list titled ‘Fellow Travelers’. Anna Wintour is not under the subhead ‘The Closest’ (another Anna is—Piagi); her name does not appear beneath ‘In the Realm of Fashion’ (a familiar one, Ines de la Fressange, does). She is there in the final lineup ‘A Few Journalists’; her famous moniker at the end of the page, after Andre Leon Talley. It is not clear how Ms Wintour met the Chanel designer. Mr Talley, who knew Mr Lagerfeld and had met him much earlier than the Vogue supremo, in 1975, suggested that it was he who facilitated the acquaintanceship between the designer and the editor, even claiming in his second autobiography The Chiffon Trenches that his “role at Vogue was no doubt secured by my relationship with Karl Lagerfeld.” He was emphatic about their bond: “His importance in my life and career is without parallel.” Ms Wintour was never that forthcoming or sentimental.
Mr Talley even revealed that the Chanel dresses that she wore for her wedding to Dr David Shaffer—a psychiatrist—in 1984 was not acquired through her special friendship with Mr Lagerfeld then or connections with the couture house, but “through Joan Juliet Buck (the former editor of Vogue Paris, as it was known then) to gain access to the dresses”. Anna Wintour has loved Chanel from her early years in journalism, especially when she finally joined Condé Nast. Mr Talley shared that “she purchased her Chanel at Bergdorf Goodman”. But she would soon have an arrangement with Chanel when she became chummier with Mr Lagerfeld. In the 2005 biography of the EIC, Front Row, author Jerry Openheimer wrote that Ms Wintour was (likely between the mid to late ’80s) “wearing nothing but elegant, very discreet Chanel as her Condé Nast work uniform.”
He then went on to describe what was dubbed ‘The Chanel Affair’ (also the title of the chapter), quoting Cristina Zilkha, the wife of Michael Zilkha, a business partner in the New York music company ZE Records that represented US New Wave groups such as Kid Creole & the Coconuts. Mrs Zilkha, who did not think Ms Wintour liked her, recounted: “Michael said to me, ‘You know, you’ve never had a Chanel suit, so I told Anna that when she sees Lagerfeld to get you something… because she gets fifty percent off.” When the parcel arrived, “it was half a suit of a really nasty pale yellow with a puce undertone—a Mr-Livingston-I-presume double-breasted safari jacket with thick, huge gold metal buttons, each of which had a huge CC. It was vulgarity one couldn’t believe and something Anna would not have been caught dead in”.
Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. Photo: Glamour
For herself, Ms Wintour was always immaculately fitted in the brand with the double Cs. At the Met Gala opening parties, Ms Wintour has almost always been in Chanel. There were, of course, regular attendees who wore the French brand, but none so routinely as Ms Wintour. In her Vogue tribute to Karl Lagerfeld, she readily admitted that his designs “expressed who I was and what I hoped to be”. Yet, in the recent video editorial Vogue’s 73 Questions, she commented that her style is “safe, verging on extremely boring”. Did she mean now, as opposed to then? How amaranthine the Chanel style is is reflected in her choosing of the brand. According to Amy Odell in Anna: The Biography, the editor “often wore Chanel couture” and when she attended the shows, it “was always opportunity for her to shop”. Ms Wintour admits to the frequency in which she picks Chanel : “I’ve worn Karl’s beautiful clothes during the most important, emotional moments of my life: at my wedding, at my children’s weddings, when I received a damehood from the queen, at Franca Sozzani’s memorial service”.
Karl Lagerfeld appeared to appreciate the friendship and was very generous to her (as he was to others he held in considerable esteem, until no more). Glamour reported that in 2015 after the British Fashion Award, when Ms Wintour presented Karl Lagerfeld the trophy for Outstanding Achievement, the honoree gave the presenter a gift—a tennis court built on his Biarritz compound, described as a “ploy to get her over as a houseguest”. A thrilled Miss Wintour said, “Karl was trying to give me somewhere I could feel at home, where I could be myself. This was the first and surely the last time anyone has constructed sporting turf in my honor.” The next fashion exhibition at the Met would be her opportunity to construct something in his honour, even when Andrew Bolton had asserted, “Karl never tired of telling me that fashion did not belong in a museum.” But the exhibition would not be devoted to just his work for Chanel since, in 2005, the Costume Institute had staged a Chanel exhibition that went by the brand’s mononym and featured Mr Lagerfeld’s work. It almost did not open, as he had initially withdrawn support for it.
Next year’s Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty would not be the first exhibition at the Met dedicated to a single designer. In 1983, the year Mr Lagerfeld joined Chanel, the Costume Institute opened the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition, organised by the late Diana Vreeland. It was touted as “the first retrospective of a living couturier’s work”. Before her loyalty to Chanel, Ms Wintour wore a lot of YSLs. In Front Row, a friend recalled her cupboard in the Upper East Side apartment where she was staying: “I opened her closet and it was extraordinary—there was one Saint Laurent suit from ready-to-wear after another that she’d bought from Paris, all perfectly hung with the shoes above them.” No one needs to open Anna Wintour’s closet today to be able to visualise the row of Chanel clothes in there. What would, perhaps, be more fascinating is to know how many of them would be on load or donated to the Costume Institute to make the Karl Lagerfeld exhibition her line of beauty, too.
In two cities, it’s fashionable to frolic in the muck
Mud in Paris versus mud in Singapore. Photos (left): Balenciaga and (right): TikTok
Whose mud is better; whose is muddier? And whose can really muck up? Balenciaga has shown at the recent Paris Fashion Week that, when it comes to fashion show grounds, bog is better than pile. For their spring/summer 2013 presentation, held at the Parc des Expositions, the French couture house created a runway that was not carpeted, but muddied. Yes, earth of the very wet kind. We, too, had our own runway last weekend, during the comeback F1 Night Race, at the parc de City Hall, aka the Padang. It was near-identical, the mud, but we did not have to create the guck. It was there all along, compacted soil waiting for a downpour and excited F1 attendees to whip it up into a deliciously sticky and slimy mess.
According to The New York Times, 275 cubic metres of mud was dumped onto the Balenciaga show venue. But this was no ordinary mud; this was black dirt “harvested from a French peat bog”. Definitely more atas than the common earth on our historic Padang, all 43,000 sqm of it. And Balenciaga had the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra dump and “arrange” the guck there. The only artist we had was good ’ol Mother Nature and her showers. And to make sure their sodden runway smelled right, Balenciaga had a scent specially concocted—dubbed by NYT as “eau de peat”. It was sprayed into the air of the site. Seriously. A perfume to intensify the fragrance of wet soil. Very high-end, indeed. All we had was Mother N’s own bau—geosmin and, consequently, petrichor—and they didn’t have to be spritzed to odorise the Padang.
Balenciaga is known to show their collections outside Paris, even in unlikely places such as the New York Stock Exchange. They are, therefore, not opposed to decamping to foreign soil. If they had asked, we’re sure the Singapore Tourism Board would be happy to arrange for them to have a field day at the Padang, and allow their expensive sneakers and silk gowns trudge through our free and foul mud. According to the show notes, the Balenciaga Paris set was a “metaphor for digging for truth and being down to earth”. We do not for certain if they can do that here, but we are quite sure that the Lion City is as good a venue as the City of Lights to muddy a fashion show.
Adidas’s design for Algeria is intensely disliked in Morocco
The Moroccans have filed a complain against Adidas for cultural appropriation. According to Morocco World News, the Kingdom’s Ministry of Youth, Culture and Communication has asked the president of the Morocco Lawyers’ Club to raise the issue with the German brand. What’s the score? Algeria’s football team’s new jerseys designed by Adidas have posed a problem. Seen on social media, the tops sport a colour-saturated pattern that, to the Moroccans, are similar to their zellige, geometric tilework of hand-cut mosaic pieces that are made from a clay found in Morocco. Adidas said that the pattern they picked is, in fact, inspired by those seen in the El Mechouar Palace in the heart of the city of Tlemcen, Algeria.
Moroccan Netizens were quick to couner that the El Mechouar Palace was renovated in 2010, “employing Moroccan calligraphy, plaster art, mosaic, and art,” Morocco World News reported. Arousing further disapproval was a video that went viral, purported to show a director who supervised the renovation of the Palace acknowledging the help of the Moroccans, even using materials from their land. The Algerians have not yet commented on the controversy.
According to the BBC, the letter sent to Adidas’s chief executive Kasper Rorsted stated that there was, in the new design for Algeria, “an attempt to steal a form of Moroccan cultural heritage and use it outside its context”. Additionally, Algeria’s 2022-2023 season kit for the footballers “contributes to the loss and distortion of the identity and history of these (zellige) cultural elements”. Zellige (also spelled zellij) tiles in Morocco is very much a part of its ancient architecture, as well as the modern. In fact, these tiles are used in Algeria too, although their tilework and patterns might defer. Such disapproval and disputes are not uncommon in regions with shared history. It sure brings to mind one nasi-lemak squabble of fairly recent time.
Just two days after Riccardo Tisci presented his solemn Burberry show, the British brand announced that Daniel Lee would be joining the 166-year-old company. This rapidly confirms the rumours circulating then that it would be Mr Tisci’s last show. Daniel Lee’s name was repeatedly mentioned as the likely replacer. Such gossip rarely is mere chatter, not when journalists were sharing the speculation via Twitter and newspapers were reporting on the possibility of new employ with such fervour. Burberry had earlier refused to comment on what they consider to be speculative talk. Mr Lee now takes over as the brand’s chief creative officer, a position Mr Tisci held close to five years.
According to eager media reports, the new guy will take his post on 3 Oct (next Monday), which means his predecessor will have to clear out of his office this week. The appointment must have been confirmed at least a month ago, or around the time WWD broke the news of the possible new hire, quoting “industry sources”. Burberry CEO Jonathan Akeroyd who picked Mr Lee, said via a statement, “Daniel is an exceptional talent with a unique understanding of today’s luxury consumer and a strong record of commercial success, and his appointment reinforces the ambitions we have for Burberry.” That sounds similar to what the former CEO Marco Gobbetti, who hired Mr Tisci, said of the latter in 2018: “He is one of the most talented designers of our time. His designs have an elegance that is contemporary and his skill in blending streetwear with high fashion is highly relevant to today’s luxury consumer. Riccardo’s creative vision will reinforce the ambitions we have for Burberry.”
There is no mention of why Riccardo Tisci decided to leave (no euphemistic reasons such as pursuing other interests). Was he asked to? It is not known either if Mr Tisci chose not to renew his contract, which expires next year, or if he decided to leave now, rather than finish what could be his final season. Mr Gobbetti and Mr Tisci are both Italians. They were colleagues at Givenchy, where the former was its chief executive. The designer—then relatively unknown—was hired in 2005 to join the French house. It is possible that the new CEO at Burberry wishes to work with someone of his own choosing, rather than inherit a name much associated with the previous top guy. The international press is also of the view that Mr Tisci’s hyper-modern, street-savvy, definitely sexy style, while appealing to younger customers (really? What about middle-aged politicians?), kept their long-time fans, particular those deemed unadventurous, away. Or, was it because Mr Tisci’s unduly expressive designs were just not luring shoppers into Burberry stores?
Looking at what he had achieved, Daniel Lee had a more measured approach at Bottega Veneta that balanced appreciable shapes with sensuality. However, his tenure—just three years—did not provide enough of the salient for us to make out a definitive, bankable style, although, to be certain, his bags, including standouts the Pouch and the Cassette, were refreshingly huggable in the wake of more structured luxury ones that followed the ‘It’-bag years. But, was influencer excitement around the brand sufficient? Mr Lee was born in Bradford, a wealthy city in West Yorkshire, England, where, interestingly, Burberry trenchcoats are manufactured. Before his breakout appointment at BV, he was a “protégé” at Céline, with a résumé that included stints at Balenciaga, Maison Margiela, and Donna Karan. It is often said that he “revived” BV, as if he had plucked it from the clutches of doom. Now, back on home turf, is he expected to bring about another such restoration to Burberry’s lost cool and pull? Let’s see. It’d be fascinating.
Is Burberry pondering if Riccardo Tisciis stillthe right fit to take the brand soaring?
Riccardo Tisci with pal Kanye West after the Burberry spring/summer 2023 show in London. Screen shot: No Content/YouTube
Since the beginning of the month, there was chatter that the 166-year-old Burberry was looking to replace Riccardo Tisci, the Italian designer at the helm of the house since 2018. When August came to an end, Women’s Wear Daily reported that “Burberry is evaluating its options, and looking for a potential successor to (its) chief creative officer”. Mr Tisci’s contract expires early next year, so it is not premature for Burberry to go ahunting. But why was there not an excited announcement that Mr Tisci would be asked to stay on? Or was it he who did not wish to extend his contract? Despite the WWD story that quoted “industry sources” aware of the label’s executive search, Burberry said it would not respond to speculations.
When Riccardo Tisci was installed at Burberry in 2018, while the UK was messily moving towards Brexit, many observers and commentators were surprised by the appointment. Mr Tisci is not British; he is Italian. It was a time when national pride was palpable and placing a foreigner (one from an EU member state!) at a quintessentially British brand was not particularly ideal, especially after predecessor, the proud local lad Christopher Bailey, had reigned at the house (even serving as CEO) for 17 years (for Mr Tisci, it would be five when his contract ends next year). The Guardian described Mr Bailey as “the most successful British designer of his generation“. And now an Italian, formerly from a French house was taking over? But there was a non-Brit designer at Burberry earlier—an American-born Italian, Roberto Menichetti, from 1998 to 2001. There was never eye brows raised when Brits designed European brands, from John Galliano at Dior and now Margiela to Phoebe Philo at (old) Céline to JW Anderson at Loewe. They brought the brands they worked for critical and massive success.
Riccardo Tisci’s first Burberry show. Screen shot: Burberry/YouTube
Riccardo Tisci was thought to be able to bring a certain romance tempered by a punk sensibility (would the Rottweiler T-shirt for Givenchy influence his new work?) and his Catholic upbringing to Burberry. His first task was to introduce the freshly-minted TB logo (based on the initials of founder Thomas Burberry, and designed by Peter Saville), the brand’s first new symbol in 20 years. That was followed by the TB monogram (also designed by Mr Saville). Mr Tisci’s first collection for spring/summer 2019 was a staggering 134 looks on the runway. Why that many? Mr Tisci was quoted saying after the show that he was designing for “the mother and the daughter, the father and the son”. The plethora gave weak aesthetical clues as to where the designer was taking TB. Evening wear, not really associated with the brand, became a category to promote. By his second spring/summer collection (2020), the looks were modestly trimmed to 101, yet the collection could not scale the height of focus—still conceived to offer something for everyone. But were enough people blown over?
In the last two seasons or so, Riccardo Tisci has recalibrated his approach to interpreting Britishness by adding, rather than subtracting, and by going more outré. But somehow he was not able to effect the cool—London or elsewhere—that Christopher Bailey had so charming conveyed with ease. Now, the talk is that the person to undo Mr Tisci’s over-design or predilection for putting out too-large collections is the Brit-gone-overseas (to Bottega Veneta until he left last November) Daniel Lee. Apparently, Burberry was recently “talking” to Mr Lee, who, was, according to some accounts, asked to leave BV (but Kering, the brand’s owner, said it was a joint decision). Mr Lee’s departure came in the wake of complains by staff members of unreasonable and disturbing behaviour. How this will affect the outcome of the talks is not clear. Perhaps working with his countrymen is a different condition altogether.
Update (28 September 2022, 15:25): It’s confirmed. Riccardo Tisci is out. Daniel Lee goes to Burberry.
After Kanye West announced the end of the Yeezy Gap partnership, the three-letter brand has announced the elimination of jobs as margins shrivel
Gap has been stricken with one bad news after another, all in less than three months. In July, reports emerged that the Indian-born Canadian CEO Sonia Syngal was dismissed after a mere two-year tenure, with Bloomberg describing the move as somewhat unceremonious: She was “fired after failing to rescue struggling retailer”. The Gap has not announced a replacement. Then last week, the announcement that “Gap and Kanye West are Ending their Partnership” was made by The Wall Street Journal. Few people were surprised by that news. And now The Gap has said that they would be laying off staff—up to 500 corporate jobs—in offices in San Francisco, New York, and in Asia. Was Mr West’s bowing out timely for The Gap?
It has been speculated that the once-loved San Francisco brand was not terribly thrilled with what Ms Syngal had done, including signing up Mr West to bring about Yeezy Gap, and that what she put in place was taking too long to see real results. Ms Syngal was previously with The Gap’s sister brand Old Navy, having arrived at Gap Inc in 2004 with no background in fashion (before that, she was with Sun Microsystems and Ford Motor Co.). Yet she was considered to be instrumental during the family-centric Old Navy’s admirable height of success, escalating the brand’s revenue to more than double The Gap’s. But just because she was able to realise the potential of one sibling did not indicate that she could bring to fruition the aspirations of another.
For a while, The Gap as a fashion player has been languishing. The world has basically moved on and on, and without The Gap’s washed chinos and straight-legged jeans, and, most definitely, their logo-ed tees. Did the 53-year-old clothier ever consider that their all-American fashion, often described as “laid-back style”, has lost considerable appeal, especially since Donald Trump took office in 2017 and the US is a different place. But critics say that The Gap’s lost its punch even earlier, in 2004, a year before Uniqlo, who does American laid-back better then the Americans themselves, opened their first store in New Jersey. That year, when a chap Mark Zuckerberg launched The Facebook (later shortened to Facebook), The Gap scored Tommy Hilfiger alum Pina Ferlisi to tweak the retailers offerings so that things could look up again after two years of decline. Few remember The Gap from that period and later, and the brand continued to fizzle.
When they had Mr West onboard in 2020, it was thought that The Gap finally took a close look at their merchandise, and realised that a major refresh was desperately needed, and Mr West was their guy even when his own Yeezy clothing line was not the epitome of brand success. So convinced they were that they signed a 10-year deal with him to birth Yeezy Gap. But the first year was not all rosy for the new brand. News emerged that back of house, things were messy. Mr West’s pal Demna Gvasalia was called in to help and very quickly Yeezy Gap was “Engineered by Balenciaga”. Despite the added edge, it is not clear if the collab is making pots for The Gap. But one thing is obvious: many shoppers did not like buying merchandise out of bulk bags. Rapidly, Mr West revealed that he wanted out and had his lawyers make it happen, claiming The Gap did not open Yeezy Gap stores as they agreed to. According to Forbes, “Gap president Mark Breitbart immediately shot off an email to all Gap Inc. employees suggesting it was a mutual decision”. Still, it appears that Kanye West had The Gap in his grasp. We’re not near a cliffhanger yet.
Or, when the contents of the Vogue Closet fell onto a street in New York
Serena Williams opening Vogue World with an uninspired stroll
On the Vogue website, there was a black-and-white digital clock that had been ticking for days, counting down to an event that the brand/magazine did not describe in detail, possibly so that curiousity about it could be kept burning. Even Anna Wintour was mum about Vogue World: New York, as it is called, only hinting in the recently shared video 73 More Questions with Anna Wintour that it would involve lots of clothes, so much, in fact, that it required the “Vogue army” to organised them. Not even the venue was disclosed (was it even an IRL event?). It did eventually happen last night (New York time) on a street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, a now-“glamourous” hipster neighbourhood (its name gives you an idea of what it was before) that is sandwiched between Chelsea to its north and the West Village in the south. Much of the streets here are paved with cobblestones made of Belgian blocks. That Vogue would stage an event down here on streets that could be high heels’ enemy, rather than at some place glitzier and carpeted is perhaps indication that the magazine is making itself—and the brand—a lot more accessible.
It described Vogue World as a “first-of-a-kind event” and a “global” one. Although staged in New York, it was live-streamed to the rest of us nowhere near that part of the city. The show was also a celebration of the magazine’s 130th year. On account of that, it had to be big and boisterous. (And no one more so than Kanye West, who arrivedlate enough that, while walking to his seat, he was mistaken as a model.) The show was prefaced—somewhat inexplicably—by a group of runners exercising their legs in the dim light, some with what appeared to be flags flapping behind them, like capes. Then it opened with Vogue’s September-issue cover girl Serena Williams in Balenciaga cape and dress, who looked like she was not quite thrilled to be on the runway, sauntering while a voiceover of her saying how she wants to be remembered could be heard over the apt soundtrack of Arthur Russell’s This is How We Walk on the Moon.
‘Sports couture’ at Vogue World
Brooklyn Beckham and his wife Nicola Peltz enjoying themselves on the runway
Although Vogue World took place during New York Fashion Week, it was not quite a fashion show like the rest that were staged in the city at this time. This was a Chingay approach to fashion presentations. The carnival mood was unmistakable, with street-style performances between each fashion segment to pump up the revelry (the cultural part was there, too, when a trio of sari-clad girls came out to do their Bollywood number). The clothes, purported to show the trends of autumn/winter 2022, were not based on collections. They were single looks from many designers (name them and they were there), but you might not know or remember the styles unless you have an encyclopedic memory of what were mostly shown back in February and March. Who wore what was not identified for the benefit of viewers. Although Vogue had sussed out the supposed trends (there were five main ones, as vogue.com reported later), you can‘t help but feel that they were rather forced (gowns and boots!). And somewhat haphazardly grouped, rather luan (乱 or messy). Perhaps Lil Nas X’s performance (that began with the singer seated next to Ms Wintour) to wrap up the runway extravaganza was designed to play down that shortcoming.
Vogue World was not just a show. As it turned out, what the models and stars wore could be purchased, reviving the old see-now-buy-now model that brands introduced with enthusiasm some years back, but is now largely forgotten. You could go to the Vogue website and find the links to the items that caught your attention and shop away. If you need to try before buying, an AR element, conceived by Snapchat, allows you to virtually put on the clothes no matter where you are. Like its print form, this is to push purchases for their advertisers. Is vogue.com then also sort of an e-store, and did we see additional revenue streams for the multi-platform title? Is the site now into live-stream selling, minus an ebullient host? According to Vogue’s creative editorial director Mark Guiducci, the show is a reflection of “all the ways in which fashion is changing. It comes at a moment when designers have become multi-disciplinary creators, innovating how we engage with fashion—even virtually.”
Shalom Harlow, one of the many ‘supers’ in the final segment of the show
Lil Nas X starting his performance while seated next to a delighted Anna Wintour
Vogue World could be seen as a big-budget, celebrity-endorsed, brand-building exercise. It reminded us of the eponymous Fashion’s Night Out (also launched in New York), the just-as-flashy, get-people-shopping-again initiative that was launched on 10 September 2009, twelve months after the doomed Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. The year 2009 also saw Barrack Obama sworn in as the United State’s first Black president and the perpetuation of the financial crisis and recession that hit two years earlier, in late 2007. Fashion’s Night Out was Vogue’s contribution to improving the grim retail climate then. It eventually spun off into international editions in different hub cities. Could Vogue World—presently linked to New York—too have other editions in cities where Vogue operates. There was, for example, a Fashion’s Night Out in Tokyo in 2008. In 2013, Fashion’s Night out in New York ended it’s increasingly disfavoured run. But in Tokyo, the event continued until 2020, but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, took place as Fashion’s Night In—an online affair.
It is hard to say how Vogue World will pan out. The show might be enjoyable to those who were there to see it, but to some (perhaps more?) of us watching on our devices, it teetered discomfortingly close to blah. This was Vogue at its inclusive best. The community-arousing performance, with its strong street culture, would have won the approval of the late Virgil Abloh. But what else could we glean from it? Former British Vogue’s fashion director Lucinda Chambers, after she was “fired” by the then in-coming editorial head Edward Enninful in 2017, now considered the most powerful Condé Nast editor after Anna Wintour, told Vestoj in a revealing interview that “we don’t need any more bags, shirts or shoes. So we cajole, bully or encourage people into continue buying. I know glossy magazines are meant to be aspirational, but why not be both useful and aspirational?” And why not magazines’ promotional events too? This may be a Vogue World, but is it a new, better world?
Corruption and scams are not professional choices of the pretty girls who did not go very far with their education. There are also of those who specialises in the lawof their land
Two days ago, an incarcerated woman in one of Indonesia’s most followed criminal cases was released from the notoriously crowded Tangerang penitentiary, near the capital Jakarta. Just one year ago, a fire broke out in the 50-year-old prison complex, killing 41 inmates. According to news reports, 122 stayed in the worst hit block, built for 40. Yesterday, one of the country’s most famous convicts was released from the jailhouse that survived the inferno. But Pinangki Sirna Malasari did not walk out quite a free woman; she was placed on parole. The conditional release before the end of her 10-year sentence imposed last year and then curiously reduced to four, however, angered many Indonesians who saw this revised ruling favouring the rich. And, ironically, someone who knows the law deeply well. Ms Malasari was a state prosecutor; she was convicted for taking a bribe from a wanted man who had absconded.
Ms Malasari’s walking away from jail attracted attention to the judge’s reasons for her early release: the guilty’s gender. As the Indonesian newspaper and magazine Tempo reported, “the panel of judges at the appellate level considered that the 10-year prison sentence was too heavy for Pinangki. The judges also assessed that Pinangki was a mother of a 4-year-old who deserved to be given the opportunity to raise her child.” That this could be considered in court brought to mind the argument of the recently sentenced Rosmah Mansor (also ten years, for the moment) who, hoping for leniency, told the judge at her sentencing that she was a “woman taking over a man’s role in the house” (her husband Najib Razak was in jail). Motherly and spousal obligations, it now appears, can be factored in pleas and appeals. Last month, on the day Indonesians celebrated Hari Kemerdekaan (Independence day), Ms Malasari received remission of a three-month sentence cut, which allowed her to walk through the prison gates yesterday.
Pinangki Sirna Malasari in beauty influencer mode. Photo: Facebook
Pinangki Sirna Malasari, 41, once headed the ‘Sub-Section of Monitoring and Evaluation II’ at the Planning Bureau of the Deputy Attorney General for the Development of the Attorney General’s Office in Jakarta. Fame came to her relatively early, as she was considered “the youngest high-ranking officials of the Attorney General’s Office”, where she was employed since 2015. In her LinkedIn profile, she touted herself as an “experienced attorney and lecturer with a demonstrated history of working in the law enforcement industry. Skilled in criminal law, arbitration, legal document preparation, contract law, legal writing, and corporate law. Strong education, with a Doctor of Law from Padjadjaran University”, an institution located in Bandung, West Java. Despite the impressive education and a seemingly sterling career, the “beautiful prosecutor”, as the local media described her, was not able to resist the very rapacious lust, also known as greed.
In 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Indonesia hard, Jakarta’s anti-corruption court found Ms Malasari guilty of accepting a first payment of US$500,000 in a bribe that reportedly amounted to US$1 million from Djoko Tjandra (aka Joko Soegiarto Tjandra or Chan Kok Hin [曾国辉]), an immensely wealthy and influential businessman on the run for 11 years from a jail sentence of two years for corruption. Mr Tjandra famously fled Indonesia to Papua New Guinea just a day before the supreme court was to present its verdict. Somehow, he was able to receive a passport (according to rumours, there was more than one) in the small Oceanian country. With travel documents in hand, he moved to Malaysia and hid in sprawling Kuala Lumpur, where he later met Ms Malasari and offered her a get-richer opportunity. The money was to buy her assistance in securing an acquittal from the Indonesian supreme court. But she would not be the only one caught in Mr Tjandra’s grand scheme: There were other agents of the law too, including a police inspector by the name of Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, unbelievable but true. The wealthy fugitive was desperate to return home and to do so as a guiltless man.
Pinangki Sirna Malasari when she was a state prosecutor. Photo: Istimewa
With the money in her grasp, the prosecutor was said to be able to indulge her consumptive self, splurging on a sports utility vehicle, the BMW X5; cosmetic surgery (not her first) in the US; and, while she was there, fancy accommodation, reportedly in Trump Tower. Even before this, Ms Malasari was known for her “luxury lifestyle” although she was subsisting on a civil service salary. As The Jakarta Post noted of her financial moves after receiving the bribe, “the total sum of her suspicious transactions (including those with banks and money changers) grossly exceeded the combined monthly salaries of Rp 29 million (about S$2.728) that Pinangki and her police officer husband earned”. Her spouse (of her second marriage) Napitupulu Yogi Yusuf revealed during her trial that she led a ”glamourous life” long before they met.
Looking at her social media posts and photos of her in society magazines, one would not have guessed that Ms Malasari was “working in the law enforcement industry”, as she wrote in LinkedIn. With an attractive visage repeatedly fine-tuned by cosmetic procedures, she often projected herself with the élan of a beauty influencer. Indonesians would recognise her hair cascading past her shoulders, her big bright eyes beaming from under carefully-shaped brows and above pronounced cheeks that peaked aloft a chin so pointy Xia Xue would gleefully approve. The value of the bribe must, therefore, have been truly appealing as it would come in handy when Ms Malasari considered her next facial refinement. This is no speculation. In court, her sister claimed that she accompanied her sibling to the US for “nose surgery” and to “check her breast”. And there was a total of three visits. In one Instagram post, Ms Malasari shared a selfie, shot in a spacious apartment with the view of Central Park behind her.
Relaxing in Central Park, New York. Photo: Instagram
Pinangki Sirna Malasari was born in 1981 in Yogyakarta, a bustling city in the south-central Java that is the only one in Indonesia still ruled by a monarchy (it is still considered a sultanate). Scant information emerged about her family, her childhood, or her youth. In court during her trial, she said she was raised in the city of her birth. What her formative years were like, she did not say, but that was a period, as she described, of “very simple family life”, which could be taken to mean that the household was not financially blessed. She claimed that “at that time, (she) couldn’t even afford college”. But universities (three of them) she did attend—opportunities made repeatedly possible by “the kindness and generosity” of a much older man—the first of two Djokos in her life—Djoko Budiarjo (now deceased), also a prosecutor at that time. The account of her backstory, however, appeared to have been simplified.
According to a 2020 report by the Indonesian news site Grid, Mr Budiarjo met her when he was the prosecutor for a case that involved a pubescent Ms Malasari “caught with drugs” in high school. What came out of that is not known. It is believed that throughout her years in university, he “financed her”. Mr Budiarjo’s nephew Vanda Kusumaningrum told the YouTube news channel Hersubeno Point that “at that time, after college, while in Bogor (a Javanese city 416 kilometres from Yogyakarta), she lived at my uncle’s house”. She continued to reside with him, from whom she would continue to receive financial support for her education, first at Ibn Khaldun University Bogor and then, for her masters degree in business law at University of Indonesia, considered one of the most prestigious tertiary institutions in the country. As Mr Kusumaningrum elaborated, after her second degree, “she asked my uncle to marry her”. But there was a problem: Mr Budiarjo was married.
Ms Malasari conservatively dressed in court. Photo: Dos Antara
She eventually marry him despite a stunning 41 years age difference between them. It is not known if she had the approval of her parents. According to his nephew, Mr Budiarjo left his wife to accede to the younger woman’s request. “In the end, my uncle had to divorce my aunt,” Mr Kusumaningrum said. After tying the knot in 2007, Ms Malasari did not choose domestic life. She wanted to further her studies. Her husband’s family believed that the marriage allowed her to continue her higher education. They came to that suspicion because, according to Mr Kusumaningrum, “during her marriage, Pinangki never took care of her husband, even when he was sick”. The old man apparently had “two prostrate surgeries”. It is not known if he eventually died from illness of the prostrate.
However, Ms Malasari narrated quite a blander story. In court, she said—avoiding insights into her married life—that she was encouraged by her husband to study and, later, to apply for a post in the attorney’s office. She was accepted, and in 2007 was appointed as prosecutor. A year later, she continued with doctoral education in Padjadjaran University in West Java. Apart from her official duties at the attorney’s office, Ms Malasari lectured at various universities. After Mr Budiarjo married her, he retired from his job as a prosecutor, while his wife’s career blossomed. Whether on official duty or as a lecturer, Ms Malasari was noted for her looks. Her nephew-in-law suggested that because of her attractiveness, she often drew male attention, and he claimed that “she seemed to like meeting other men”.
Pinangki Sirna Malasari (second from right) on the day of her release from prison. Photo: VOI
Throughout her trial, Ms Malasari adopted severely conservative attire, complete with the jilbab (here, we know it as the hijab) and, to the surprise and curiosity of those entranced by her case, gloves—in black, no less. This concealment contrasted dramatically with what she wore before her appearances in court. In Indonesia, female head-covering is entirely optional; it is not obligatory. Although Ms Malasari is not known to wear overtly sexy clothes, she isn’t opposed to revealing her neck, her arms, and definitely her hands. Her decision to conceal parts of the body a Muslim woman must not show prompted Netizens to decry that she was merely “gaining sympathy”. It was such an issue that the attorney general declared that those who are not usually seen in “religious clothing” but appear in court looking pious would be “barred”. Ms Malasari’s piety was indeed questioned when, she left the prison yesterday without even a scarf. Her head and wiry hair were totally uncovered. Some observers of the case, however, said that the public was more interested in her clothing than her corrupt ways.
But, perhaps, more than what she wore in court and did not outside is the shocking, yet not—for many Indonesians—surprising reduction of Pinangki Sirna Malasari’s jail term, which an op-ed in The Jakarta Post called “discount”. Their advice to would-be convicts charged with graft: “Do not run away after your conviction. Just serve it, and then you should learn from the experiences of other corruption convicts on how to get freedom much earlier than you should”. Could this case foretell the outcome of Rosmah Mansor’s jail term, also 10 years? As her husband seeks royal pardon, would she choose the same option? As the “First Lady of Malaysia”, she is likely better blessed with privileges than a mere state prosecutor. And she’ll want to enjoy them.
Kanye West is peeved again. And, he has attacked another business partner, anew. Unrequited love?
Nike must be so thankful that their pairing with Kanye West ended when it did. They must be reading with such relief the news of Mr West’s online berating of his current footwear production partner Adidas. The rap star asserted that the German company has been designing Yeezy products without his involvement. On Instagram two days ago, Mr West boomed: “”The fact (Adidas) felt they could color my shoes and name them without my approval is really wild. I really care about building something that changes the world and something I can leave to my kids. They tried to buy me out for 1 billion dollars. My royalties next year are 500 million dollars alone.”
A buyout! Has it really come to this? Was Mr West surprised that Adidas, producing Yeezy since 2013, is considering ending their partnership? That they had enough of his egomania? The Sunday denunciation was, of course, not his first levelled at the manufacturer of his Yeezys. In fact, since last Friday, his fingers have been hard at work, generating posts that suggested Adidas had done him great wrong, to the point that he threatened to “legally finish with you”, directing that at the brand’s top brass, in particular the senior vice-president Daniel Cherry III (who has not offered a public response).
To make things more complicated, the executive board of JP Morgan Chase was also dragged into the one-sided quarrel, with the angry rapper uploading screen shots of the bankers. JP Morgan Chase assisted Adidas in finding a buyer for Reebok in 2021. And on Monday, Mr West posted: “I need a shoe company like how Jamie Salter bought Reebok”. Mr Salter is the CEO of Authentic Brands Group (ABG), the company that acquired Reebok from Adidas. It is curious that ABG was mentioned. Was Mr West hoping Reebok would be the next Yeezy collaborator?
His palpable rage, of course, goes further back—to June, when he accused Adidas of copying his Yeezy slides after the former teased the release of their Adilette 22. And then came “Yeezy Day” in August—some pseudo-important occasion that Mr West called “made up” and claimed he did not agree to, nor the Yeezy sneakers that Adidas was allegedly going to drop. It is not clear why he did not take his displeasure or misgivings directly to Adidas instead of publicly declaiming, “I have no chill. It’s going to cost you billions to keep me, It’s going to cost you billions to let me go, Adidas.“
This is, of course, not surprising. Even Gap was attacked. A week ago, as he had a go at Adidas, he concurrently accused the other half of Yeezy Gap of conducting a meeting without him. He added that they had copied his designs (the ones “Engineered by Balenciaga”). Can a pattern of behaviour be discerned? Not hard. For Mr West, lines are not drawn, not demarcated. Professional and private lives have no borders. Everyone is fair game. Even people close to him—or once were—were not spared. He attacked his ex-wife on more than one occasion (who strangely did not seem too upset by it) and her (now) ex-boyfriend with not a vestige of regret. Does he care how he may appear to his children?
But it was Adidas that he seems to spurn most. In his latest IG fume-post, he even clarified that “billions” mean “2” if Adidas wants to free him from his obligations to them, and that includes the alleged “stealing” of his intellectual property. This and others were no blank rants, even, if in many cases, he would delete them. They have been effectual among his friends, with Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs just announcing on IG that, in support for his mate, he was “done wearing Adidas” after a Ye-like blast: “’Since the era of Run-DMC, @Adidas has always used Hip Hop to build its brand and make billions off of our culture. BUT WE ARE MORE THAN JUST CONSUMERS NOW, WE’RE THE OWNERS. @KanyeWest and YEEZY are the reason Adidas is relevant to culture. WE KNOW OUR VALUE!”
And she has fled from Thailand purportedly to Malaysia, like someone familiar. Who is this nasty Nutty?
In her social media posts, she looks rather natty, but she goes by Nutty. Like most Thais, her nickname—rather unfortunate, this one—identifies her. She is an influencer and she is on the run for alleged scams involving a mind-boggling two billion baht (or about S$77 million). That is even more than what our island’s infamous fraudster-duo cheated and then escaped—a whopping S$45 million more. Thai media reports do not indicate that her passport was impounded. The current speculation in Thailand is that she (and allegedly her mother) has escaped to Malaysia, as Thai fugitives are inclined to, and vice versa. At the border (assuming she entered legally), the immigration officers would have been able to read the name Natthamon Kongchak (นัทธมณ คงจักร์) on her passport, aged 29 (there are reports that state 27, even 30). Some news outlets spell her popular name as Natty, but on social media, she uses Nutty (her YouTube channel is called Nutty’s Dairy and a K-pop EP she released in 2014 was titled The Power of Nutty). It is probably a play on the first syllable of her first name Natthanon, pronounce naht. But, as it turns out, she has more than one name (more on that later).
Thai media has speculated that Ms Kongchak is acquainted with Siriwipa Pansuk, the other half of the married swindlers who were arrested on 11 August in Johor Bahru after hiding there for 37 days. According to Phaisal Ruangrit, a lawyer representing some 30 of Ms Kongchak’s victims, the two women were in cahoots—one dealing with luxury bags and the other in “investments”, as Shin Min Daily News reported yesterday. Today, Thailand’s Criminal Court issued a warrant for her arrest, concurrently asserting that her case is linked to Ms Pansuk and her husband Pi Jiapeng. How so, it did not elaborate. The Nation shared yesterday that, according to Mr Ruangrit, she has “defrauded over 6,000 victims”. Shin Min Daily News spoke to one Singaporean duped by Pi Jiapeng/Siriwipa Pansuk, a Mr Tan: He fears that if Ms Pansuk and Ms Kongchak were scheming together, he is unlikely going to see his money returned, as it would have been channeled to the latter.
Ms Kongchak, in her last video post on IG, explaining her actions and charges levelled at her. Screen shot: nutty.suchataa/Instagram
Ms Kongchak’s massive scams involved no luxury watches or handbags (although she did flaunt them). According to Thai reports, and the many complaints against her, she ran a “Forex Ponzi scheme” about five months ago. On social media, especially YouTube, she made herself out to be a successful “Forex trader” and encouraged her followers to invest with her as she acted as conduit to their new wealth. The lawyer Mr Ruangrit told Thai media that “the YouTuber had used her popularity to lure victims with the promise of high returns in a short time.” One of them purportedly deposited a boggling 18 million baht (about S$688,646) straight into Ms Kongchak’s account. In fact, she often coaxed potential investors to transfer the money directly to her personal a/c. And, curiously, they did. As social media chatter went, she had promised 25% returns for a three-month “contract”, 30% for six, and 35% for 12, with the agreement that payouts would be made monthly. In April, things didn’t seem right when she failed to meet her obligations, with some of her payees saying that they had not received anything for their investments. The online rumble grew increasingly palpable.
On 25 May, Ms Kongchak posted a simple video on IG—where she identifies as “trader, singer, dancer, YouTuber, CEO”—to explain her predicament, even cleverly including hashtags, such as #นัตตี้โกงเทรดพันล้าน (or #nutty cheated billions in trading) so that her post could be seen as a negation. There is even #ถ้าคนจะหนีหนีไปแล้ว (or #if people are going to flee), as if to allay the victims’ fears. Speaking in a somewhat girlish voice, she said she made a “big mistake” and had lost all the money, claiming that the error was in “trading with just one broker.” She admitted that everything was her own doing; she was “sorry for causing trouble to many people and making them disappointed in her.” Hoping to shift the anger towards her to sympathy, she added: “There has not been a day that was not stressful. There is no day I do not stop thinking of getting a refund.” But she was certain she would pay the investors back. In a separate post before the video, she wrote that she “will find the funds to return (the money) in every possible way”. Although many Netizens did not consider what she uttered assuring, that post curiously attracted 6,169 likes.
And then she was heard no more.
In happier times (2022), Nutty is like most influencers: She cannot resist a sexy pose. Photo:nutty.suchataa/Instagram
Natthamon Kongchak was born in the northern city of Chiang Mai, in 1993—the year the popular Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden (originally named Mae Sa Botanic Garden) opened in the district of Mae Rim, central Chiang Mai. By most accounts, she spent her childhood in the calm city, attending the co-ed Phraharuthai School, also known as the Sacred Heart College, a 90-year-old catholic institution that, a Chiang Mai native tells us, is “very popular”. Phraharuthai School is a fairly large building, which, from the inside, looks like a composite of village residences. When the students played in the school yard, they would have seen a familiar sight: The Sacred Heart Cathedral, with its distinctive red-brick façade, which in December conducts the city’s grandest annual Christmas mass. Less than two hundred metres away, is the maenam ping (or Ping River), one of the two main tributaries of the Chao Phraya River that flows into Bangkok. Interestingly, her alleged partner in crime, Siriwipa Pansuk, too, went to a Catholic school, in Nonthaburi.
But unlike Ms Pansuk, Ms Kongchak seems to have had a rather privileged childhood. While she had not said much about her younger days or her grades in Phraharuthai School, she did reveal in 2014, during appearances on talk shows (sometimes with her mother), that hers was a coddled life of luxury (she, like China’s last emperor Puyi, did not even have to put on her own shoes!) made possible because of her family‘s considerable wealth. As she regaled, her mother owned a karaoke bar and business was extremely good, with a monthly income of 2 million baht (about S$76,668). At one point, the family (there was no mention of other children) owned 14 cars, and their home had a staff of 22 maids/nannies. Why a small family like hers would require that many automobiles or domestic helpers, she did not say. Although she was pampered, she wanted her mother to spend more time with her. She asked the businesswoman not to go into the bar and let the employees run it. Apparently, this was not a good move, and the business tanked: the mother became a “bankrupt”. It is at this juncture that her back story turned Netflix-worthy dramatic. Thais were riveted to her story as “real life is better than drama”.
Nutty on the talk show At Ten in 2014. Screen shot: 2020 Entertainment/YouTube
Natthamon Kongchak enthusiastically revealed the story of her sensational early life in July 2014 on the Channel 3 evening talk show At Ten (ตีสิบ or tee sip). With financial ruin, the mother decided she could no longer stay in Chiang Mai. Before departing, she divorced her husband as she was too “ai“ (shy) to remain with him, given her economic disadvantage. Not bothered by being a single mother, she took her daughter to Hat Yai, a city in the southern province of Songkla, bordering Malaysia. The divorcée did not say why a bankrupt with a young child needed to flee her hometown for a place some 1,650 kilometres away (24 hours or so by car). In Hat Yai, the older woman met a guy who operates a win-motorsai (or motorcycle taxi). He would take them around Hat Yai (whether he was paid, we do not know). As the mother was looking for work, he suggested to her to consider the other side of the border in the south. When she decided to leave to try her luck, she left her daughter with this man, whom the just-pubescent Nutty called “gaopor”, or “godfather”.
The mother found work in Malaysia as a masseuse. In which city or town, or even state exactly, it has not been established. Soon, her daughter joined her (what happened to the godfather is not known either). According to some reports, she offered foot massage by going door to door with the little girl by her side. Ms Kongchak was then 13 years old (a photo she shared on IG of her at a younger age showed a little girl that probably could not escape the description cute). That would have been in 2006. Nothing is said about her education at this time. In the beginning, they had no place to stay, and would sleep at the homes of customers who took pity on them (others “donated” bicycles—there were two, apparently). A Malaysian man her mother did not identify, but did describe as wealthy (some media reports say a “billionaire”), who owned schools (“universities”, apparently) and other businesses in the country, wanted to marry her child, even when the 48-year-old man reportedly had “several wives”. In agreeing to the marriage, the mother would be paid an undisclosed sum of money. Additionally, he was willing not to touch the girl until she came of age, which, according to the mother, was two years later. Strangely, the single parent did not find the man and his proposal creepy, and agreed to the marriage.
Pre-fugitive days:Mother and daughter in 2018. Photo: nutty.suchataa/Instagram
As no pre-arranged sexual restraint could really be met by those seeking juvenile brides, the man, as Ms Kongchak recalled, “harassed” her. It could be assumed that, by now, the child-wife was living with the fellow. The girl went to her mother to report what her husband (it is hard to use that word here) attempted, but the woman would not believe her. The girl fell into “depression” and apparently “fainted” many times. The mother admitted on camera, between sobs, that it was hard on her daughter, who also teared when interviewed, as the young one did not know what was going on. She then decided to annul the marriage, and had to engage an imam to speak to the man and to act as facilitator. She revealed that she had to pay the man back the money she was earlier given, even when he reneged on his promise. As she had only the equivalent of two million baht (or S$76,673), she was unwilling to gave him all of it; she handed him half of that. She did not explain what she did with the initial sum. It is not known if the man agreed to the amount. After the unfortunate marriage ended, they “escaped” once more, this time to Pattaya.
Again, it is not known why mother and daughter had to flee what would have been home by then (it is not known how many years they were in Malaysia). If there really was a need to, why did they go to Pattaya, the seaside town on the opposite side of the isthmus of Kra, across the Gulf of Thailand, in the east? If they needed to be near the sea, why did they not choose the island of Phuket instead, just 200 kilometres north-west of the northern most Malaysian state of Perlis? The answer may never be made known. Back in Thailand, mother and daughter seemed to have enjoyed a more stable existence. Ms Kongchak claimed she worked as a waitress at this time. In 2014, despite a seeming gap in her education when she was living a married life in Malaysia, she was accepted at and graduated (curiously, she did not share any graduation photos on social media) from the College of Communication Arts at Rangsit University, a private institution in Pathum Thani on the border shared with the north of Bangkok. The province has a considerably high concentration of schools of higher education and Rangsit University, according to EduRank, is ranked no. 1 in the whole of Pathum Thani, where Ms Kongchak’s legal address is registered.
Nutty in school uniform, appearing on a talk show. Screen shot: TikTok
And then the Internet and social media caught up, and Ms Kongchak began fashioning herself as a “web idol”. She was noted for her dancing and for doing covers of Korean pop songs, as seen on social media. She joined Instagram in Dec 2013, and her first post was a twin photo of her in a car. There was no accompanying comment. A month later, she was sharing videos of her confident singing—the first, an English song, no less: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. More videos emerged, mostly showing her performing, usually dancing. There was no mention of how she learned to dance so engagingly. Of the 2,301 posts she shared (her account presently shows 310K followers), interestingly only 34 showed food. Like the many who derive an income through IG, she peddled anything, from health supplements to cosmetics (she was a long-time face of local brand Costina) to shoes. It is not known if goods were sold to her fans, who are called “Nutters”. In less than ten months after her IG debut and many dance videos later, she would appear in the talk show At Ten, revealing her colourful past.
She seemed very pleased with the broadcast, having urged followers to tune in days earlier. On IG, she thanked the host, the crew, friends and supporters, and wrote: “I have sat down for interviews and told stories about my life. It’s fun and it’s an honour.” Overnight, she became the “talk of the town”. But a year later, in a post of her mother kissing her, Ms Kongchak shared a lengthy message, in which she wrote, “I don’t have to be afraid of anything. The truth is the truth. Please believe in your child… How many stories in life have we been through? Only our hearts know.” And she went on to say: “Good people don’t fall into water, don’t fall into fire, don’t burn… The child will not allow anyone to do anything, mother, especially over something for which we are not wrong.” Netizens were beginning to speculate if it was her inability to handle her fame. She added, “What’s the story that makes it look bad? If it’s true, Nut (she frequently refers to herself in the abbreviated name) doesn’t care about the image at all. Nut is pure-hearted and ready to face every problem. And you don’t have to organise a press conference, to let it go on TV or something because Nut doesn’t want to be famous in this kind of thing.” What that thing was, she did not say. She concluded with: “If the fact that happens may affect anyone, I apologize here. Nut had to come out and defend herself. Protect mae (mother) Nut in various matters that are being talked about. Because when you protect yourself, you hurt Nut, you destroy her career, destroy all the future that Nut has created for herself.”
On a TV show, Nutty took out huge wads of money to show the audience that with them, she was going to buy her mother a car. Screen shot: TikTok
This could be seen as a regular mother-daughter squabble. But, few believed that was the case. It is likely that, for all the love she showed towards her mother on social media (and she did—a tad excessively), theirs was (and likely still is) a complicated relationship. Many netizens, upon learning of her marriage at 13, and that her mother received money for the “immoral” arrangement, was quick to say that the woman had practically “sold” her daughter. Money and the need to show off cash in the hand seemed to characterise their love for each other. In her third post on IG after she joined the social media at the end of 2013, Ms Kongchak shared a photograph of her presenting to her mother a hamper of bottled bird’s nest and a ‘fan’ of 14 pieces of 1,000 baht notes. Similarity, in 2016, during Songkran (the Thai New Year), she showered her mother with gifts and 1,000 baht notes, fan out so that the viewer could count all 10 pieces of them. Last August, after achieving success as a Forex trader, a TV program—shared on Nutty’s Diary—showed her being interviewed in her car. She unzipped a rather large blue bag, took out a Manila envelope and whipped out thick wads of cash (still bound as if just handed over by a bank teller), informing viewers that with all that money, she was going to buy her mother a surprise gift: A three-million-baht car!
Mae Nut was a constant presence in Ms Kongchak’s life, even when the daughter had to be overseas—in, for example, Seoul. Interestingly, Natthamon Kongchak and Siriwipa Pansuk have something in common: Korea. Ms Pansuk’s scamming career is said to have been seeded in the Korean capital. Ms Kongchak was there to pave a more legit professional path, and, in fact, had arrived three years earlier, in 2014. It is, therefore, unlikely that they ever met there. According to Thai media, Ms Kongchak claimed that her online popularity caught the attention of an “older” fan (gender not specified), who was dating a Korean girl, whose friend, as it turned out, owned a record label. Somehow, he saw “a clip” of Ms Kongchak singing and was convinced she deserved an audition. Things unfolded very quickly thereafter: A contract was signed with a company called Dream Cinema and she debuted in Korea, not as part of a girl group, but, amazingly, as a solo artiste. In October 2014, she went to the city of Incheon, where the airport is located, as one of two Thai guest-artistes to perform at The K-Festival Concert, reportedly organised to foster friendship with Thailand. She shared the stage with the singer/actor Jirayu ‘James’ Tangsrisuk (2019’s Krong Karm or Cage of Karma, shown on Channel U last year). Recorded music ensued, but none made a major impact on the charts.
Dancing days: Nutty not only danced, she taught as well as, with her own dance school. Screen shot: nutty.suchataa/Instagram
Her singing career did not take off as she had hoped. Reports of disputes with her music labels emerged, and Ms Kongchak reportedly terminated her contract. That some kind of agreement cannot be reached in Korea surprised many. Some also wondered why Thai music companies would not sign her up, with a few suggesting that she should perhaps go to Malaysia, where she has a sizeable fan base. Ms Kongchak, in fact, speaks surprisingly fluent Malay (which may suggest that she did go to school in Malaysia when she was there). In one YouTube post, she sang the Malay song Tak Tahu Malu (Shameless) by the Sabahan brother-duo Atmosfera (Atmosphere), including the speed-up chorus that could have been a tongue-twister for a non-bahasa Melayu speaker. It is tempting to assume she lip-synched, but she did release a Malay single Take You Home two years back, in which she even rapped in Malay. In a Q&A with her Malay fans that she shared online, she spoke Malay fluently, revealing, when asked what she likes to eat, that she loves “nasi lemak dengan kicap (with soy sauce, instead of sambal?)”. To endear herself to her Malay fans, she went a dramatic step further: In one make-up tutorial, she showed the end result wearing a tudung!
Back home in Thailand after her Korean stint, she was not quite crestfallen or defeated, determined to strengthen her online popularity, which still remained high. It was at this time that she began legal name changes that would amount to two in total (this excludes her nickname which remained as Nutty). She was, thus, also known as Leeah (spelled with an extra ‘e’) Kongchak and Suchataa (with an extra ‘a’) Kongsupachak (she was, therefore, called Nutty Suchataa sometimes, and also the moniker used on IG). Why these other names were necessary is not known as she still referred to herself as “Nut”, just as Nutters did. Similarly, her K-pop-style dancing and singing continued as before. Even her coquettish posts, which dates back to her university days (such as a photo of her, all made-up like a doll, in a tight school shirt, that went with the message, “Sweet dreams”) were still very present. Some of her photos started to show more skin, which could be a move to push herself beyond being a “cute” singer/dancer. A profile on her in a local magazine even titled the piece “Naughty Pretty”. Little did the editor know how prescient that was.
As she grew older, her dance moves became sexier, so was her dressing.Screen shot: nutty.suchataa/Instagram
Without a music or acting contract, she started looking at other income streams, and dance, she thought, was a sure way to make money. In 2018, she opened a dance school Diva Studio in Bangkok, but that was badly affected when the COVID pandemic struck. She wrote on IG in August last year: “My studio had to be closed. I could not teach dancing. Savings are running out. Many people’s stomachs are waiting for me”. In the same post, she shared that she had received a gift that was a course in “money management” and that she had enrolled, and had been on it for six months. And she let on that she had “studied stock trading before” but had ”just come to trade”. In no time, she was earning massive amounts of money, bragging to her followers that she could easily “make 300,000 baht (or about S$11,448) in 10 minutes”. COVID-era followers were duly impressed. Her mother was a firm supporter of her daughter’s new, quick money-making enterprise, even showing her daughter in action in IG posts, which led to the suspicion that the older woman played a part in the ruse, and had to abscond too.
According to Thai news site Sanook, Ms Kongchak’s daring scams were exposed by victims in April, when many of them reported they had not seen any returns on their paid-up investments. It is reminiscent of the alleged crimes of the now-caught and awaiting-trial Pi Jiapeng and Siriwipa Pansuk. A Thai Facebook page with the fitting handle Drama Addict shared that they received news of Ms Kongchak fleeing to Malaysia—again, sounding similar, although in the latter’s case, from the north of the Malay Peninsular. Thai authorities do not think that is the case, as exit records do not show her departure. That alone may not proof anything as Ms Pansuk had crossed the Causeway with almost not trace of her daring passage. If Ms Pansuk were not caught, would she and Ms Kongchak meet, assuming they knew each other, as alleged by Thailand’s Criminal Court. Ms Kongchak speaks Malay, and is familiar with the land; she would be a good accomplice to hide in Malaysia and lay low. And there is all the nasi lemak dengan kicap she could eat. A two million baht (about S$76,353) reward was recently put up for information on her whereabouts. Whether in Malaysia or Thailand, online or off, that is good money. Natthamon Kongchak—or whatever name she answers to now—could be wishing the Sacred Heart Cathedral of her childhood is nearby.
Note: It is hard to establish events chronologically as Natthamon Kongchak rarely referred to dates
Another fashion week in Malaysia, another sartorial controversy
Barely three weeks after the chest-baring controversy at Kedah Fashion Week (KFW)* that led to nation-wide disapproval and apology from the organiser, Malaysia is seeing another contentious fashion choice that riled up the watchful, not-necessarily-fashion-consuming public, this time in the capital. At the closing day of Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week (KLFW) 2022 last Sunday, the city’s “king of viral fashion” Tan Kel Wen (陳楷文) attended the show of his own label Behati at the Pavilion Kuala Lumpur mall in a self-designed, oversized, ankle-length, quilted happi coat (it was 31°C that afternoon in KL) over a pair of folded-down-at-the-waist, knotted-in-front-like-a-sampin shorts. The 26-year-old l, who has no qualms in casting himself as a model in his brand’s communication material, was shirtless under the outer, but it was not specifically this show of some skin that irked Malaysian Netizens. It was his choice of headwear: A black songkok—traditional, flat-top (atap leper) headgear worn by Malay males throughout the Malay/Indonesian archipelago, Brunei, and the south of the Philippines and Thailand.
Many Netizens took offence to his pairing of the headwear with his “half-naked” self, as one put it, when commenting on the photo he posted on Instagram. Others thought it disrespectful that he would bare part of his chest and limps while donning the brimless, close-fitting-at-the-sides hat that is commonly associated with going to the mosque. In another photo, also shared on IG, Mr Tan took to the stage at the end of his afternoon show with his muse, the beauty entrepreneur/“online personality”/singer of cheesy pop Dato’ Seri Vida (aka Hasmiza binti Othman), wearing another black songkok, now with a pin of his brand’s logo—a stylised image of a man in an oversized baju melayu (traditional Malay dress) striking a pose on bended knees—fastened to the right. To bask in the post-show glory, he donned a massively oversized shirt (with padded shoulders and the outline of the augmentation visible) and a plain black tie, and a waist-high short-sarong-as-mini-skirt.
Designer Kel Wen and Internet star Dato’ Seri Vida on the runway at KLFW 2022
In a lengthy IG post to defend himself against the antagonists, who are referred to as “commenters”—although he is prone to calling them “haters”—and “to educate” them, Mr Tan considers the songkok “a formal cultural headgear, not entirely a religious headgear that’s only worn for Islamic prayers”, adding that “in Malaysia it gets more complicated when different races wear the headgear for different purposes.” He did not say what the purposes were or that his wearing of the songkok was, therefore, to simplify things. Mr Tan, who prides himself as an ardent researcher, with a voracious appetite for his homeland culture, also pointed out to the provenance of the songkok. He claimed that the “Songkok doesn’t originate from the Malay community… Malays do not (sic) wear Songkok in Melaka Sultane (sic)” and “the first Songkok traces back to Ottoman Fez”. It is not known why he thinks the connection is that linear. He does not state the sources behind his assertion.
The fez itself does not have a straightforward history. According to author on Moorish culture Cozmo El, in his book The Secret of the Fez, the hat, which the Arabs call tarboosh, is claimed by some to have originated in ancient Greece, with some even pointing to the Balkans. Similarly, the songkok has a rather obscure beginning. No historian of Malay culture has yet drawn a direct link between the songkok and the “Ottoman fez”. There are similarities between the two, but it is hard to see why a largely tribal community would look to an empire with a capital some nine thousand kilometres away for aesthetic ideas. The popular thought is that the songkok arrived in Malaysia in the 13th century (Mr Tan prefers a later date: “19th century”)—when Islam was spreading in Southeast Asia—by way of India, where the fez-like headwear was improved with the addition of paper between the sides to make it tougher and more rigid. And it is not difficult to see the songkok’s popularity rising alongside the ascent of Islam. That the songkok is considered to be distinctly Malay is also due to the craftsmen of the early years, who refined the shape of the hat into the oval (as opposed to the round of the fez) that is recognisable today.
Behati’s latest collection based on Peranakan dress
Mr Tan is not wrong to say that non-Malays wear the songkok too. In several black and white photographs dated June 1963, shared by the National Archives of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was seen wearing one when he conducted a walkabout in Ulu Pandan (now part of the Holland -Bukit Timah GRC). On that day, he was attired in a white, short-sleeved, open-neck shirt and loose, dark trousers. There were other occasions as well (on one, he wore a songkok with the word “Malaysia” across its front), and each time, Mr Lee was suitably dressed. While it is not compulsory for Muslim men to wear the songkok, many do, especially with the baju melayu, even the batik shirt. Western fashion can be considered, provided, as one songkok-wearing Muslim friend told us, it is “tasteful or worn tastefully”.
In the age of TikTok, taste is subjective. As he kept to his penchant for viral results and adverse criticisms (in one TV interview, he said, “my work is known to get [sic] viral, to get negative comments”), Mr Tan may have not considered that the songkok has not quite achieved the sebarang (anything-will-do) status of social media, and that many Malays do regard the wearing of one with considerable rectitude. Defiantly, he wrote on IG, insisting on his sense of propriety: “I did not wear Songkok with a sexy underwear or reveal any sensitive parts of my body that shows nudity. Showing my knees like most malay (sic) men out there is a common fashion today.” Curiously, he compares the exposure of nearly half of both of his legs with “a Hijabi who wears the Tudung with their (sic) neck out (sic)“. (Are there such short tudungs?). The race card came in the conclusion: “I’m not Muslim, but wearing a Songkok signifies that I accept and learn the religion in my own personal lifestyle. If you can’t accept, it only means that you’re racist and that’s the real problem here.”
A groom’s outfit for the Behati ‘Peranakan’ collection
Mr Tan did not, however, draw flak for just his personal attire alone. The clothes he presented for Behati on the runway at KLFW attracted unfavourable criticism too. Based on “mixed race, mixed culture, mixed tradition”, the Peranakan-themed collection had all the fervour of a graduate show and the appeal of a cultural village gift shop. Mr Tan’s adoration for his nation’s plural culture is palpable, but he does not consider a judicious use of the myriad things, big and small, that he adores to keep the end result from being laughing matter. Or, worse, the proverbial rojak. There is something naive about his love for the cross-cultural. His critics were not just unimpressed with the baju-panjangs-as-duster-coats, kebaya blouses teamed with cargo joggers, or the 结婚绣球花 (jiehun xiuqiuhua)—wedding ribbon ball—strapped to a white suit worn under a sheer baju panjang festooned with tassels, but for the four model-dancers who performed and strutted their stuff in fake kebaya tops (two were very cropped!) and triangular fabrics tied to the waist like a pareo and exposing considerable rump. Any bibik would say the clothes (and their wearers) are tak senonoh (indecent). Behati fans applauded the social media-worthy liberties taken, but others were appalled, with one IG user going as far as to describe the seeming impropriety as “rape the tradition”.
An alumnus of Raffles Design College in KL, Tan Kel Wen graduated with a diploma in fashion design and then cut his teeth as assistant designer with compatriot Lee Khoon Hooi (李坤辉). Until five years ago, he was working with the veteran. Mr Lee told South China Morning Post last February: “I’ve always been influenced by different cultures because Malaysia has a multinational community.” Sounds familiar? The style of his eponymous label has unfailingly been described as “feminine” or “romantic”, with no discernible visual defiance that would come to define his young protégé, who must have been so influenced by his former employer that he reprised Mr Lee’s use of tassels as repeated motif from 2019 for his current Peranakan collection. Some ten years ago, when he was putting out flounced dresses and one-shoulder numbers, Mr Lee Khoon Hooi was considered Malaysia’s Alber Elbaz.
Behati’s culture-show-as-fashion-show at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur
Mr Tan founded Behati in 2018 as a label—self-touted to be “modern traditionalist”—that brings together the aesthetic traditions of Malaysia, seen through a lens focused on streetwear, while amping up the brand’s ethno-social appeal. He calls it “blending urban and heritage”. Recently, he told L’Officiel Malaysia, “As people say, nothing is original anymore but there’s always something new, and mixing cultures is a way to create.” Born in the historic state of Melaka, he, in fact, grew up, further south, in the coastal town of Muar, Johor. He attended Sekolah Tinggi Muar (High School Muar), housed in a building—erected in 1914—that is not far from the sea, and was a member of the school’s choir. His love for music has never waned and he claimed to have been writing music since he was 15 years old. His mother is a retired school teacher who taught English and music in a Malay school. He shared on IG that “growing up, I always wanted to write like her, sing like her”. Although he moved to KL to further his studies and to pursue a career in fashion, he has not put aside music, and continues to perform under the “stage name” Khai, the first of his two-word Chinese moniker. He has even released a Malay language dance single and an accompanying music video—under Khai + Haus of RN—Demam Cinta (Love Sick).
By his own account, he has “been wearing traditional clothes for Raya since (he) was younger”, keeping his love of Malaysian multi-culturalism, and indeed nationalism, on his sleeve, constantly; not even shying away from naming the previous collection “kampung”—almost another country in the antarabangsa (international) capital of Kuala Lumpur. According to the KL-based news site World of Buzz, Mr Tan revealed that “Behati is a word of African origin, which means ‘blessed’”. And, a female pronoun, such as the name of Namibian model Behati Prinsloo, wife of Adam Levine. It seems rather odd that, being unabashedly proud of his Malaysian identity, he would use an African name for a brand. Mr Tan told the podcast Borak Sini Habis Sini (Chat Here, End Here) that he thinks that behati sounds a little like the Malay word for blessing, berkati. For his latest runway show, no African or Malay text was used—the back drop was an expansive sheet of red, with the Chinese pronunciation of his brand name, 百哈迪 (bai ha di) written in massive calligraphic strokes. Whether this amounts to creative schizophrenia or is just a happy campuran (mix), it is perhaps too early to say, but Behati is exactly the gratuitous pastiche that social media feeds on. Despite its hybridised image, the brand is considered an “Internet sensation”.
Aina Abdul in Behati going to the Behati show
In 2019, one particular garment Mr Tan created evoked both delight and derision: The “oversized baju Melayu”. The press preferred the euphemism “mixed reaction”. This was no re-designing of the men’s two-piece (formerly known by the once gender-neutral term baju kurung, which now only refers to the version for women), comprising a tunic-like baju (top) and loose seluar (trousers), but a re-proportioning of the garments in a similar vein to the exaggerated sizing of early Vetements (now VTMNTS. Behati subsequent tailored suits would, for most, recall Balenciaga’s). Most Malays did not wish for their beloved baju to be so radically up-sized—”this was no French fries at McDonald’s”, one retired Malaysian model told us. Believed to have originated from the court of the Malacca Sultanate (as early as the 1400s), the baju Melayu is already loose-fitting, with virtually no change to the silhouette since its introduction. In a move that supporters consider “ingenious”, Mr Tan made his baju so large that some had such huge armholes that entire tops were, horizontally, almost an oblong, from end to end, when the arms are stretched out. For the images shared on social media, Mr Tan had his models pose like the stylised figures of Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming’s (朱銘) Tai Chi bronzes. The silhouettes, including that of the logo, were so similar, it’s tempting to say he could have been inspired by the artist’s work. He described the images as “avant-garde”.
Behati and Mr Tan’s online reputations were further enhanced in the past two years when stars and celebrities came to the designer for special commissions. Two most noted are the aforementioned muse Dato’ Seri Vida, who, at the Behati show, modeled a colourful dress that could be seen as a tent made of scraps of 云肩 (yun jian) or cloud collar. And a tagine on her head. “Culturally-mixed fashion”, as Mr Tan described the design on IG, or Gen-Z oriental camp? And, looking even more absurd, Aina Abdul. Also dressed by Behati, the Johor-born songstress (who shared on IG: “I loveeeee how this look turned out 🖤 Major love!”) was entrapped in what could be a mass of deflated, balled-up fabric. As she moved, she looked like a cartoon likeness of a black cloud. Only her face and her hands were shown. In fact, she did not appear to be wearing a dress; she seemed upholstered. Perhaps, in Kuala Lumpur, as one IG user commented, paraphrasing what Tan Kel Wen said on a Jack and Jill Potato Chip TV commercial, “ini(lah) baru fashion show.”
*Not to be confused with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur
Chinese Netizens think Dior is guilty of cultural appropriation once more
Painterly parallel: (left) print on a Dior dress and (right) a Chinese painting by Lu Ji. Photos: Dior and collection.sina.cn respectively
Before the first accusation has died down, before an official statement is released in response to the denunciation, out comes another. Dior is not well placed in China this summer. It could be 流年不利 (liunian buli) or that the year has been inauspicious for Dior. Or, it could be that Chinese consumers have been paying the brand with 眼不转睛 (yanbu zhuanjing) or strict attention. After the controversy of the horse-face skirt, the maison is again criticised by Chinese Netizens for cultural and artistic appropriation. As with the previous drama, which saw Chinese students protest in front of the Dior store in Paris, the brand has not responded. They could be hoping that the furore would eventually die down.
Last week, the first complaint emerged on Weibo, when one Netizen sharing a side-by-side photo of a Dior varsity jacket and a traditional Chinese 花鸟画 (huaniaohua) or flower-and-bird painting, with the garment sporting similar blooms and winged vertebrates, even colours. Others started posting photos of a dress and a trench coat with prints that owe their similarity to Chinese paintings that are evocative of those of 10th century (or later) China. It doesn’t help that the choice of the “beige” fabrics is not dissimilar to (now-aged) Chinese paper or silk on which those paintings were executed.
Full view of the Dior shirt-dress with the Jardin d’Hiver motif. Photo: Dior
The Weibo users who disapprove the Dior motif possibly took offence at the brand describing the “Dior Jardin d’Hiver (winter garden)” as its “signature motif”. On the website, Dior states that the print is “a poetic and exotic representation of Mr Dior’s wall tapestries”. We do not know what the founder of the maison exactly had on his wall, or whether the provenance is Chinese. It is possible that what Mr Dior owned was a work in the style of Chinoiserie (also referred in Chinese as 中国风 [zhongguofeng]), a French word that refers to European interpretation—and also imitation—of Chinese (or Oriental) art, especially decorative art. Of course, something that was installed in a residence does not necessarily become a “signature motif” and with its similarity to Chinese artistic tradition, is not hard to understand that it might be thought of as a “copy”. Similarly, Dior considering its horse-face skirt lookalike a “hallmark silhouette” is provocative when, to the Chinese, it cannot be.
But Jardin d’Hiver as motif and inspiration go as far back as the Marc Bohan years. And the print looks quite different on the Book tote and silk scarves. When we studied the version that appeared on the SGD5,200, beige, cotton gabardine shirt-dress, it was, to us, evocative of paintings by the Ming dynasty painter Lu Ji (呂紀), such as the striking piece titled 秋鷺芙蓉 (qiulu furong or autumn heron and hibiscus). It is probable that Dior will remain mum on this new controversy too since it is, as some observers noted, unlikely that the brand will be affected by a few (and possibly not Dior costumers) who seem determined to “find fault”. But this could be seen as the result of consumers being culturally self-aware, and Dior might serve its image better if it can say that it did not just plonk a motif on a dress to lift it from being a nothing-to-look-at without considering how one of the largest markets for luxury goods would react.