‘In America’, The Europeans—And A Horse—Won

You’d think that with New York Fashion Week just concluded, attendees would have so much to choose from to meet the dress code that, on the invite, read, “American Independence”. But on the steps of the Met Gala, who really cared? Why choose American when they could have European?

Two extremes: Kim Kardashian (top) in Balenciaga. Photo: Getty Images. And Billie Elilish in Oscar de la Renta. Photo: Shutterstock

By Emma Ng

The Met Gala is where, for one time in a year—even a pandemic year, you can look ridiculous and everyone will call it fashion. I sometimes wonder if Anna Wintour organises the event and encourages everyone attending to “dress up” so that she could have a good and hearty laugh later. There is something juvenile about the idea of the Met Gala—it’s, to me, fashion folks’ prom night. Fashion is, of course, not important as long as you’re the belle of the ball, or whatever you call Saweetie’s I-don’t-have-enough-fabric-for-a-saree look. In fact, I do think that it is under Ms Wintour’s watch (since 1999!) that the Met Gala is the circus of the ridiculous that it is today. In fact, if you Google Met Gala and ‘ridiculous’, you’ll get at least six links in just one page (‘outrageous’ is in there too). The ridiculousness, sometimes teetering dangerously close to tackiness, is augmented by the chair’s and co-chairs’ outfits—often so bland and proper, they seem calculated to make everyone else look like they didn’t get the memo.

Queen bee Ms Wintour and her four worker-bee co-chairs—all more than half her age younger—were in clothes, not quite the costume that has come to characterise the Met Gala. The “most powerful woman” in fashion was in a predictably pretty, tiered, floral Oscar de la Renta dress (was she attending a wedding at a country club?). Amanda Gorman was in a short, studded Vera Wang bustier-thingy, with a sheer overlay; Timothée Chalamet in a satin Haider Ackermann tuxedo jacket, and Billie Eilish in a cotton candy of an Oscar de la Renta gown, probably her first-ever floor-sweeping dress and of this volume (a truly sharp contrast to the black and baggy tunic-and-skirt combo by Takahiromiyashita The Soloist that she wore at the VMA a day ago). Only Naomi Osaka looked the Met Gala newbie and fashion victim in a combo by Louis Vuitton that supposedly celebrated her heritage. I was expecting all of them to lead (or set the standard) by example, but I did not see the American-ness in anything they wore, least so Ms Osaka, with the un-American obi belt, deliberately tied askew.

Anna Wintour in Oscar de la Renta. Photo: Getty Images

Perhaps, I took the theme and the dress code too seriously and literally. But why would I not. What was the point of a theme and dress code if not to abide by? Could the attendant exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Center and other parts of the Met, then, be a very chin chai affair too? Would Andrew Bolton gasak buta with A Lexicon of American Fashion? The American attendees looked to me devoid of wit and irony (okay, the latter not so trendy anymore) in the choices they made that were supposed to honour the American heritage of fashion (let’s just say, for now, there is. Jeans are, to many Americans and non-Americans alike, a very real and iconic American fashion item). But, of course, country themes are tricky when the brands that can afford a (USD) six-figure table—or two—are mostly from out-of-country—European, specifically French and Italian. Common knowledge, at least in the US, would remind us that the stars and celebs do not buy tickets; they are invited by brands (and approved by Ms Wintour). Invitees, therefore, will be required to be outfitted by the brand doing the inviting.

Yet, according to Vogue’s own pre-event reporting, “the theme for this year’s Met gala is a celebration of American Fashion.” E Online earnestly called it “a deep dive into American ingenuity.” Yes, the livestream was quite early in the morning, but I was wide awake watching it. What celebration, what ingenuity? Although there was the discernible presence of Thom Browne and, to a lesser degree, Prabal Gurung (his deplorable excuse of a dress for Diane Kruger made me want to strike him out), I thought the Europeans won the night, in particular Iris Van Herpen, Valentino (even Ms Wintour’s daughter Bee Carrozzini, expecting her second child, was dressed by the house), and Balenciaga. And, as Vanessa Friedman pointed out via Twitter, Cartier.

But, perhaps, it was Balenciaga who may have enjoyed the last laugh and a clear win when Kim Kardashian appeared incognito, completely swaddled in a black fabric, a look attributed to Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, and believed to be conceived with Ms Kardashian’s (estranged, is it not?) husband Kanye West, who was also there on the Met Gala steps, in all-black, the kuroko (stagehands in traditional Japanese theatre) to the missus—the leading lady—(he was seen assisting her and adjusting her dress). Rihanna, the last to arrive, wore Balenciaga too, but it was the two Ks who stole the show with their black nothingness. Was Balenciaga mocking the excesses of American red carpet looks? Some Netizens think the couple were mourning the death of American fashion. I think they were merely acknowledging that it does not exist.

The Co-Chairs

Clockwise from top: Billie Eilish, Naomi Osaka, Amanda Gorman, and Timothée Chalamet. Photos: Getty Images

Her fans are not wrong. Billie Eilish, in her Met Gala debut, “killed it”. She did not come ready to be filmed for TikTok, but, with her old-Hollywood styling (Marilyn Monroe is really rather close), she could be filmed for a major movie role. She truly played a—and her—part. Would she be invited back again? I’m not sure if that would be in the affirmative if the question is posed to Amanda Gorman and Naomi Osaka. Ms Gorman might be disappointed that few saw the poetry in her Prom Store dress and Ms Osaka might be similarly let down to learn that her fussy outfit and the amateur kabuki makeup were no victories for her. Timothée Chalamet bravely tackled more than one brand for his total look. Apart from the satin Haider Ackermann tuxedo jacket, he wore a Rick Owens turtleneck under that, and unidentified sweatpants. On his feet were Converse Chuck Taylors. There were even some 1920s Cartier brooches pinned to the sweats. Okay, that’s a bit much. No pin should ever go so near there!

The Show-Stopper

Lil Nas X in three different costumes. Photos: Film Magic, Wire Image, Film Magic

Someone had to do it. Why leave it to only Rihanna when just as willing was Lil Nas X, the fashion sponge who’d wear anything, and would come wearing everything. Lil Nas X is not one to shy away from an outfit that looks like a haberdashery fell on it. At his Met Gala-as-VMA appearance, he was inspired by Met Galas past. Either that or he forgot that Lady Gaga already did multiple costume changes back in 2019 (she revealed four, while he showed three), that the exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination (2018) is over, ditto for Manus ex Machina (2016). The only look that the Met has not quite paid tribute to is Michael Jackson as Catwoman. So Lil Nas X, with the help of Atelier Versace, did the most fashionable thing: at the end of the strip-down, he wore a derriere-enhancing, exotically-patterned catsuit.

The Actresses

Clockwise from top left, Kristen Stewart, Yara Shahidi, Sienna Miller, Lupita Nyong’o, Hailee Steinfeld, Indya Moore. Photos: Getty Images

For Kristen Stewart, it’s all in a days work, in Chanel. It is not a bad look if she was going shopping at Bloomingdale’s. Or lunch nearby. Actresses are not pop-stars—no day is the Grammy’s. So safe is the best dress. When an actress turns to the present-day Dior, safe is what she seeks, and safe was what Yara Shahidi got. And secure in the body-skimming Gucci was Sienna MIller, in a colour so safe, it’s called nude. Or, match-the-carpet! Conversely, Carey Mulligan braved a bright-pink Valentino, but looked just as safe, if not safer. Some actresses try. Lupita Nyong’o opted for denim and some bling by Versace and appeared rather like Wakanda royalty, not American. More challenging was Hailee Steinfeld’s Iris Van Herpen mini-dress with wispy leaf shapes, arranged artfully, revealing almost nothing, even if it came this close to a nude dress. Indya Moore, in Saint Laurent, clearly wore shorts (with a velvet bow as waistband), but it’s hard to be certain if she had anything else under that coat.

The Models

Clockwise from top left, Kaia Gerber, Cara Delevingne, and Kendall Jenner, Imaan Hammam, Gigi Hadid, Winnie Harlow,. Photos: Getty Images

Models, like actresses, are drawn to safe. They are supposed to be better at fashion since fashion is basically their job, but safe is chicer than sorry. Kaia Gerber, in Oscar de la Renta, looked like she prefers the taste of girls who won’t (can’t?) grow up. Cara Delevingne, in Dior, seemed like she was on her way to fencing class, but changed her mind. As for the red text—“Peg the Patriarch”—on the vest, there’s no doubt it’s a political message. If you were hoping for her to throw some light on what “peg” means, she said to an interviewer that people should look it up “because I’m not going to explain it, right now”. If an explanation is needed right now, pegging is, simply put, a sex act in which a cis woman plays the role of the opposite sex in a heterosexual union. Okay, that’s far enough! Kendall Jenner did not look like she the pegging sort. She wore a nude dress by Givenchy that, to me, flashed 2015, the year both Beyonce and Kim Kardashian wore see-through gowns to this very same event. Not to be outdone was the Dutch model Imaan Hammam in vintage Atelier Versace. And similarly see-all were also on Zoe Kravitz in Saint Laurent and Irina Shayk in Moschino. Gigi Hadid did safe too—old-Hollywood safe—in Prada. Vogue.com reported that she “offered a modern take on Audrey Hepburn”. I saw not. It was more like a modern take on Julia Roberts. Which brings us to Winnie Harlow in Iris Van Herpen. Even when I still do not see America, what’s there not to like?

The Singers

Clockwise from top left: Olivia Rodrigo, Teyanna Taylor (photo: Shutterstock), Jennifer Lopez, Megan thee Stallion, Rosé (photo: Wire Image), Jennifer Hudson. Photos: Getty Images

Super-young pop star Olivia Rodrigo wore a Saint Laurent lace catsuit with a wide marabou fichu, looking every bit the teen that she is, testing the dangerous waters of sexiness. Ms Rodrigo does not have a powerful breakout look as Billie Eilish did, so this was far enough for an 18-year-old newbie to show her granny knickers. Going the other extreme was Teyana Taylor, who wore so little in the Prabal Gurung that I hesitate to call the held-together-with-cords clothing. Surely there’s a difference between dress up and dress not? Surely the Met Gala deserved more cloth than rope, more dress than train? Even Jennifer Lopez, the one-half of born-again Bennifer, had to show cleavage and thigh, which I remember to be her very thing. But getting Ralph Lauren to do sexy is like asking Bob Mackie to do preppy. Surprisingly, Megan thee Stallion chose sweet, but Coach gave her part shrink-wrapped strawberry cheesecake, part dalgona froth. Blackpink’s Rosé, escorted by Anthony Vaccarello, was one of the few Asians in attendance, which was unexpected, given that this is the year of Shang Chi. In Saint Laurent, Rosé looked the ingenue I never thought she could be. By contrast, Jennifer Hudson picked a custom AZ Factory gown and a massive matching coat only for them to be underwhelmed by her bigger, bubbly personality. At some point on the stairs, Ms Hudson removed the coat to pose. Unfortunately for her, somewhere in the crowd, Isabelle Huppert, in Balenciaga, was in a similar fish-tail dress.

The One-Names

Rihanna, Grimes, Lorde, Maluma, Saweetie, Rosalía, Photos: Getty Images

Rihanna was the last to arrive, as expected, but there was no equivalent of an omelette to be seen. In fact, she was cocooned in Balenciaga couture of rather intense black. While the shape of cloak is beguiling, Rihanna needed heavier clothes for her to conquer those cumbersome stairs (that omelette coat was 25kg!). Grimes chose Iris van Herpen; she looked less a couture wearer than a cosplay newbie. Lorde had an unusual look. Her gaping Bode two-piece (interest-arousing also because designer Emily Bode is a menswear designer), with the floral appliques, was fetching, but why the headwear? Spanish pop star Rosalía’s Rick Owens heavily-fringed shawl wrapped more fetchingly than some dresses. Case in point: Saweetie. In Christian Cowan, she really showed how she punished her misbehaving boobs, and saw, I believe, many did. The Colombian singer Maluma wore a red leather Versace trucker jacket that was studded and fringed. There were matching pants and shoes too. Okay, no rhinestone cowboy here, but definitely a strutting Beng gaucho.

The Athletes

There has not been this many athletes at the Met Gala. Maybe it’s the Olympic year and athletes are making the news. But many sports people are not necessarily fashion folks. Sure, Lewis Hamilton bought a table and invited designers of colour, but they did not make the scene (Mr Hamilton curiously wore a sheath of café curtain on his right leg). It would take Serena Williams in a Gucci cape of ombre feathers to trail the spotlight on athletes, reminding us that, like her rapper sisters, sports stars enjoy OTT clothes too, especially those not made of plain fabric. As with Ms Williams, Simone Biles (fellow gymnast Nia Dennis attended too, outfitted in blue bodysuit to do cartwheels!) enjoyed relief work on the surface of her bustier-gown, which she wore over a floral (were they sparkly snowflakes?) bodysuit. The silver embroidery of the former reportedly weighed 40kg. The design team at Area X Athleta that put the outfit together might have forgotten that Ms Biles is a gymnast, not a weightlifter.

The Guys

Guys on the red carpet are usually no news, but on the cream carpet of the Met Gala, the guys are a braver breed. Surprisingly, the more unusual look didn’t come from a celebrity, but a techie, specifically Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, who wore a Bode suit with diamond-shaped pieces stitched to the bodice and arm. Others who abandoned the tuxedo, I’m not sure, did so for better choices. Poor A$AP Rocky—Rihanna was looking all couture-serious, but he appeared to have been dragged out of grandma’s bed. I think only Rihanna knew why he saw it fit to turn up at the Met Gala in a blanket made by ERL, the abbreviation of the name of the LA designer Eli Russell Linnetz, collaborator to Lady Gaga and Kanye West, who, by the way, was there, and equally blacked-out as his (former yet?) wife. Aussie, Troye Sivan, in choosing a slinky dress that Kim K might have worn 20 years ago (with cut-outs on each side of the waist!), continued to push the non-binary agenda on the red carpet—okay, cream. But the most begging-to-be-understood look went to Dan Levy, in Loewe. I don’t know why, but the getup, with puff/balloon sleeves and a map of the world in the shape of two men kissing (powerful message, no doubt), made me see a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I don’t know why, but I did.

The Designers

Clockwise from left, Donatella Versace, Vera Wang, Tory Burch, Virgil Abloh, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Tom Ford. Photos: Getty Images

Designers often take the bow at the end of runway shows in very nondescript, practical work clothes. But I think deep down inside they want to dress up. Some designer dress others better than they can dress themselves. I mean, look at Vera Wang. Did she spend too much hours making the bloomers that she had time only for a curtain as the rest of the outfit? Donatella Versace, on the other hand, dresses others as she would dress herself: not at all subtly. Tory Burch wore an interesting dress, but she looked too eager to please. The guys might score a tad better. Tom Ford couldn’t break away from black tie (it’s also safer), playing the suave charmer he has cultivated himself to be. Kerby Jean-Raymond, in a red Pyer Moss suit held in place with a matching hybrid vest-harness, was beaming with designer-to-watch energy. I’m just surprised he didn’t come in a peanut butter jar. Wouldn’t that be American? Meanwhile, Virgil Abloh, presumably in Louis Vuitton, came as the Easter bunny, lost in a party he shouldn’t have crashed.

The Others

Clockwise from top lfet, Whoopie Goldberg, Iman, Erykah Badu, Kim Petras, Debbie Harry (photo: AP), Ella Elmhoff. Photos: Getty Images

Whoopie Goldberg does not really wear dresses, so when she does, the world takes notice. Her yurt of a gown by the esteemed house of Valentino was, to be sure, not the same tent that Carey Mulligan wore, both flanking Pierpaolo Piccioli when they arrived. While Ms Mulligan was predictably saluting pretty, fashion iconoclast Erykah Badu took a different route: she abandoned her famous towering turbans in favour of a top hat and a lace face-screen that, together with the tuxedo skirt-suit and quilted cape, was designed by Thom Browne, seemingly the most worn American designer name of the evening. Ella Elmhoff, famous for being Kamala Harris’s stepdaughter, wore Stella McCartney to prove that the WFH look, even if more amped up, was still relevant, however glamorous the occasion, no matter how many women still preferred trains for evening wear. The biggest outfit of the night went to Iman. The former model wore a massive hooped cage that was the result of the collaborative effort of Dolce & Gabbana and the young, Central Saint Martin alum Harris Reed. With the just-as-large hat, she looked like some African fertility goddess. Rock star (still!) Debby Harry also wore a hooped cage (by Zac Posen), visible under a crinoline made of panels of fabric that, together with the deconstructed denim jacket, represented the colours of the American flag.

Perhaps nobody does America better than a foreigner. German singer Kim Petras (now based in LA) certainly expressed herself. In a wearable—aka piñata—by the sustainable brand Collina Strada, Ms Petras seemed connected to her animal spirit. The dress came complete with a face of a horse (could it be a donkey?) with eyes strategically covering the breast, pannier for the animal’s body, and hair styled as a long pony tail to represent the beast’s tail. Frankly, I could not tell where the head began and the tail ended. Or, was this the night’s best visual lexicon of American fashion and designers—heads or tails, they’re just horsing around?

Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo: Nine Notables

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

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

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

White Mountaineering in a garden

Kolor in a subway train

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

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

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

De_Caffeine Homme

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

Hare

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

Hyke

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

F/CE

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

Irenisa

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

Rainmaker

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

Sartograph

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

Sise

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

Yoshio Kubo

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

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

Seungri Is Sentenced

The former member of Big Bang is found guilty by a military court for multiple crimes, including “prostitution mediation”

Once thought to be headed for immense success for his accessible pop music as a soloist, Seungri will be heading towards jail. In what has been described by Korean media as “sex and gambling scandal” that has riveted the nation, the verdict of the court case—he was tried in military court as he enlisted for compulsory military service in March last year after being indicted in January—was thought to be a foregone conclusion. K-pop industry watchers and the media did not think he was able to extricate himself from the explosive allegations. Earlier today, Seungri was sentenced to three years in jail (it is not known if he would be sent to a military lock-up) “on multiple charges, including prostitution mediation and overseas gambling”, according to the Yonhap News Agency. Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term for the star. He was handed down a total of nine charges, which included “the operation of an unlicensed adult entertainment establishment and embezzlement”. Seungri denied the charges. With his arrest in 2019 and the accompanying allegations, the K-pop industry was sent into a reverberant state of shock.

Seungri, whose name in his passport reads Lee Seung-hyun, was called for questioning when Burning Sun, a high-end nightclub in Gangnam that was reported to be co-owned by him, was under investigation: Initially over the alleged assault of a male guest, but soon blew up to include criminal activities that was staggeringly wide-ranging, from prostitution (as well as the trafficking of the underaged) to the mistreatment of South Korean women (the use of ‘date drugs’) to spy-cams to drug trafficking to tax evasion, even police corruption (some law enforcers allegedly colluded with the club owners). It was considered one of the biggest probes of the entertainment industry at that time, and impacted individuals—the famous and the less so—across Seoul. When he decided to quit the entertainment business following charges of “sex bribery”, Seungri admitted on Instagram that he had caused “societal disturbance”.

One of the far-reaching allegations against Seungri was that he “procured” prostitutes for VIP individuals, identified as “investors” for his nightclub and attendant businesses. These men were believed to be from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and other countries. Curiously, even our little red dot was implicated when Seungri brought up a name, “Kimmy”, during a March 2019 interview with Chosun Ilbo, the oldest newspaper in South Korea. In a widely shared translation, Seungri was quoted saying, “In the Club Arena (another nocturnal venue linked to the star) case, it’s regarding a woman from Singapore called Kimmy. She’s the daughter of a famous soccer club owner. I’ve received a lot of help from her, so I just wanted to look out for her.” Looking out, according to Seungri, was arranging for a “female travel companion to shop with her while she was in Seoul”. The Straits Times, following the Chosun Ilbo interview, wrote: “While he did not identify who she was, speculation swirled that he was referring to socialite Kim Lim, whose billionaire father Peter Lim has a controlling stake in Spanish side Valencia.”

The talk that emerged bordered on the shocking and unseemly. Ms Lim, not a stranger to Seungri (there were social media posts of them together), was quick to act, posting on Instagram stories, three successive pages that refuted any suggestion that she was involved in the burgeoning scandal, 4,669 kilometres away. She insisted that she was at Club Arena with Singaporean friends, saying “we partied by ourselves and left after”. She was emphatic: “I’m not involved in any way whatsoever” and concluded with the warning: “Any media outlets which persist in reporting so will be hearing from my legal counsel”. Ms Lim’s outrage is understandable. Why would she, a seasoned shopper, need local shopping companion when she had company from home with her? And why should aspersions be cast on what was essentially a night out with friends?

Many Seungri fans were unable to accept the guilty verdict. On Twitter today, some of them claimed that there was “no evidence” to the purported wrongdoings, while others thought the allegations were “made up”. That Seungri could be embroiled in seedy sex crimes is still beyond the grasp of his followers. He is, among the Big Bang quartet (now a trio), the most relatable—despite his reportedly lavish lifestyle, he is not aloof; he is friendly; he is masculine; he does not dress weirdly; and he “does not come across as someone who would even have a beer with a pimp, let alone do the pimping”, as one disappointed SG fan said to us. Unfortunately, K-pop idols, like all pop idols, as the increasingly prevalent reminder goes, are humans too.

Illustration: Just So

Tokyo Olympics: That Mask

Nike’s version for Team USA is clearly a winner

The American Olympics team did not make quite the mark at the Opening Ceremony, fashion-wise, so much so that there were calls in their home country for long-time Olympics fashion provider Ralph Lauren to be replaced by a fresher name/brand. But the mask the athletes wore when the Games proceeded definitely did. Created by Nike (it’s become unimaginable for Team USA to wear any other sports brand), the mask—called Venturer—is eye-catching, whether the wearer is on the sporting grounds or on the podium receiving their awards. That’s the most noticeable part of their all-white get-up, more than the sneakers they wear or, in the case of the winners, more than their medals! Even without the Swoosh. Facewear trumps footwear.

The white mask is certainly a form of wear these days. And Nike, aware that American athletes at the winners’ podium will get their well-deserved close-ups, fitted them with a mask that is a statement piece, distinguished by the unusually pleated front that could have come from the Miyake Design Studio. Comparison has been made to the mask Batman’s nemesis Bane wears, with one Netizen actually saying “TeamUSA face masks are creeping me out”, but they do not look to us as sinister as the super-villian’s. According to Nike, the geometric ridges are supposed to “evoke the folds of Japanese origami”. But they resemble more closely to hand-folded fabric pleats of takumi artisans, such as those by Kyoto-ite Yuko Shimizu of YS Planning Co, part of the famed pleating machine manufacturer Sankyo. Perhaps Americans are less aware of pleating as an art form?

Swimming star Caeleb Dressel wears the Nike Venturer. Photo: Getty Images

Through a media release, Nike states that the “pleated design allows for optimal air flow and air volume within the lightweight, mesh mask”. Nothing about safety or its ability to block out pathogens is mentioned. Nike did say that the Venturer is “not medical-grade”, like most cloth masks. That means it should not be treated like an N95. Because of its comfort and breathability, the mask is designed for sporting activities or working out. The mask is suitable for prolonged wear and activities that might be described as “intense”. It comes with a chin rest and a nose cushion (apart from the surface relief, the reason why the mask juts out, but, thankfully, not beak-like?), and adjustable straps for a better fit. The mask is reportedly washable, hence reusable. In sum, Nike has certainly considered the Venturer’s aesthetic value and pull.

Unsurprisingly, the mask is available to buy at Nike’s online store, but for a tear-inducing US$60 each. That will give you the mask itself (available in sizes XS to XL and only in black, it seems) and a carry case. Despite its creepiness to some, the Venturer is, at present, out of stock. Are people snapping them up as an Olympics memento? At the Nike website (including the Japanese), the page on which the mask is supposed to be available simply reads, sans photos: “the product you are looking for is no longer available”. Read: sold out.

The Nike Venturer mask is not available on the nike.com.sg site. Product photo: Nike

Tokyo Olympics: The Winner-Knitter

While watching other athletes in action, Great Britain’s Tom Daley kept busy by knitting. 👍🏼

Would any Olympian bring along knitting needles and yarn to the Games? And actually sit in the stand to knit? Diver Tom Daley would. And did. Photos making social-media rounds last weekend showed the diving gold medalist seated, hands together, with an incomplete purple-pink sheath of knitted yarn. Mr Daley did not only draw the world’s applause (perhaps, except Russia’s!) for the gold medal that he won in the men’s synchronized 10-meter platform event alongside diving partner Matty Lee, but also for his dexterity with the knit-stitch, seen so clearly. The action was attention-grabbing as the project-in-action, with a loose yarn draped across his right thigh (presumably ending in a ball in a bag placed on the ground), contrasts rather dramatically with the athlete’s attire of singlet and shorts, which projected something more physical than needlecraft. And more so if you consider the setting: the world’s biggest and grandest sporting meet.

Mr Daley was not the first guy seen at the Olympics going way beyond the first slipknot. Back in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, Finland’s snowboarding coach Antti Kroskinsen was filmed knitting while compatriot snowboarder Roope Tonteri was preparing to start a competition. Mr Kroskinsen was working with black yarn, and this blended with the black of his winter coat, but the action was unmistakable: he was turning loose yarn into stitches. This time in Japan’s capital, Mr Daley’s craft work seemed at odds with the scorching temperature experienced in the city, with participants calling this “Tokyo summer the worst in the history of the Olympics”, as reported by CNN. Still, Mr Daley knitted coolly away—the heat did not seem to bother him. In fact, he is such an ardent knitter that he has his own Instagram page, madewithlovebytomdaley in which many of his pieces are shown, including a little case, sporting the British flag on one side and the Japanese on the other, shaped to house his gold medal.

Not only was Tom Daley’s knitting skills (learned during last year’s lockdown in the UK)—and design flair—on display, his generosity was too. Yahoo News reported that he also knitted an orange/pink cardigan for Malaysian diver Cheong Jun Hoong (張俊虹, silver medalist in Rio 2016), whom he called “dear friend”. Mr Daley’s participation in Tokyo 2020 as a publicly-out gay athlete is seen as standing up for the LGBTQ communities around the world, as well as showing how inclusive the Games of the XXXII Olympiad is. In addition to that, he, too, demonstrated visibly that knitting is not just a “feminine interest” and that athletics and craft do mingle.

Photo: Getty Images

The Truth To Beat

If one performs poorly at the Olympics, can we only say “he did his best”? And if one thinks otherwise, is it “negative and hurtful”?

By Ray Zhang

Losing is not winning. It just isn’t, no matter how we frame it. I read with amusement the reactions to Olympic gold hopeful Joseph Schooling’s disappointing failure at the pool in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre yesterday—the insistence that he did his best. And with dismay, those by trolls, who not only thought otherwise, but also predicted his fate when Mr Schooling was not the flag bearer at the opening ceremony of the Games. I do not condone nastiness (invectives are themselves defeatist), whether following a win or failure, or, as it is popular these days, a pull-out, but I am inclined to call a defeat exactly that. Our swimming superstar did not only fail to qualify for the semi-finals, he came in last in the heat. If he had been placed within the top three, or, okay, five, he might have done his best, but many of us saw what happened in the pool at 6.15 (plus) yesterday evening: Mr Schooling was the final swimmer to touch the wall at the end of the pool with both hands. We could not un-see that. Sorry, to me, that result was coming in at the bottom. How else could you put it?

Like many people, including our sports journalists, I did not think he was going to bring back another gold. Was I being “negative”? Similarly, I did not think he would go as far as to take to the pool a second time after the heat. Was that “hurtful”? No, I did not look down on Mr Schooling, but I did take in his performance since that victory at the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. Most strikingly, how he appeared at the 2019 SEA Games: find your own substitute for the F-word (no ___-shaming intended here). The truth is, even having lost some of that weight gained, Mr Schooling did not look to be in top shape, compared to his fellow competitors (when they stand in a row as they did, it was hard not to compare or notice). But physical shape alone isn’t a determiner of swimming excellence. The burning desire to want to stay on top is. By his own admission, the 26-year-old “did not want to get into the pool and just wanted to have fun”, as he told The Sunday Times back in February last year. And timing too. In Tokyo, our swimming pride clocked in three seconds short of his Olympic record of 50.39s, while Caeleb Dressel would go on to win the 100m butterfly final at 49.45s that, to global news headlines, “…shatters world record”. Mr Schooling did his best? As I remember it, his best was on 12 August 2016 in Rio 2016.

To be certain, there are many variables to consider during a competition and the lead-up to it. Negatives could conspire on the very day of the meet against any participant. But uninspiring performance at the Olympics (or even local competitions) should not just be padded by euphemistic deflections. A positive spin is just that: a spin. It is not an encouragement. Telling someone that he has done his best even when he may not have (only he knows), could be limiting his potential. He has to be told to do better. If at Tokyo 2020, what Joseph Schooling did was his best, would that not spell the end of his swimming career? At any competition, there are winners and there are those who are not, just as there are those who have succeeded and those who have failed. To learn from a failure, I’m afraid we must first be willing to call it that.

Updated (31 July 2021, 13:00) to show the winner of the swimming men’s 100m butterfly final

Illustration: Just So

Tokyo Olympics: That Gown

There was only one couture moment at the Olympics Opening Ceremony. And it belonged to Tomo Koizumi

This was not the Superbowl half-time show. In fact, the Olympics opening ceremony has never had the equivalent of Madonna performing, at the 2012 Superbowl, on a Roman Empire-themed stage in custom Givenchy. But it came close. When singer/songwriter/producer Misia appeared on the bare stage to sing the Japanese national anthem kimigayo (君が代) during a predictably low-key opening ceremony, fashion folks all around the world could see the fashion moment—specifically couture moment. Ms Misia was not outfitted by a French house, but by compatriot designer and relative newcomer Tomo Koizumi. Even without sets or other dramatically-dressed guest stars, the sombre performance had the visual aplomb of what performers wear on Japan’s annual NHK kohaku uta gassen (紅白歌合戦 or the Red and White Song Battle) in which the costume is as crucial as the singing when deciding which team (red or white) wins.

Mr Koizumi is known for his dexterity with organza and the resultant fluffy effects when assembled. This time he created a white gown for Misia, who does not shy away from more advanced aesthetics, with recycled organza that was then spray-painted with different candy colours to yield a striking ombré effect. The silhouette is, conversely, rather conservative, possibly to better suit a different, less-celebratory Olympiad. It was not clear how the singer got onto the stage with that massive bottom half, but the skirt truly stood out—for some of us, with the same allure as a carefully syrup-drenched ice kacang! Although Misia’s performance was respectfully reposed, the visual sum was beautiful counterpoint to the almost jokey costumes that the other performers wore, including the greeters and placard-carrying crew in anime-inspired clothes that could have come from a draft storyboard of the opening ceremony. Mr Koizumi, fresh from the well-received collaboration with Sacai, has put Japanese fashion in good stead before a pandemic-weary world.

Screen grab: Mediacorp/YouTube

Tokyo Olympics: The Men Wore Skirts

At the Opening Ceremony, did the finest male athletes of the world show the rest of the blokes watching on TV or their smart devices that skirts do not choose the gender of the wearer?

Tonga’s flag bearers Malia Paseka and Pita Taufatofua in national costume, together with their skirted team mates. Photo: Getty Images

Tokyo 2020 in 2021 is strange enough; the Olympics opening ceremony unveiled in a quiet Tokyo Olympic Stadium without spectators (the few who there could not really be seen) is downright eerie. To make matters worse (is that an appropriate word?), the Parade of the Nations segment of an already watered-down Opening Ceremony—with its tradition-meets-contemporary, Harajuku-meets-Sensoji (understandably not-quite) mass display—was just that much yawn-inducing. And weird. Who were these participants waving to, many so enthusiastically? And what (or who) were they filming with their phones? Were they really that happy to walk (or dance) into the US$1.5 billion stadium (designed by Kengo Kuma, not Zaha Hadid, as originally planned) with unmistakably quiet, empty seats, some 68,000 of them? And why were some of the Parade of Nations participants allowed to go mask-less during what was feared to be a “super spreader event”? Were we too observant?

For an Olympics Opening Ceremony this low-key, attention naturally turned to the participants/athletes, or what they wore as part of their national costumes, or, for many, uniforms during the Parade. Sure, this is no Miss Universe pageant (although the Cook Islands did put their female flag bearer, the swimmer Kirsten Andrea Fisher-Marsters (in a floor-sweeping, fish-tailed gown that, according to local media, was valued at NZD1,500 or SGD1,422), but there were countries that still aimed to impress. But many of them probably knew this was not going to be a ramped-up Rio 2016, given the situation, and, up till four days before the grand event would open, the Tokyo organising committee’s chief Toshiro Muto announcement that the city did not rule out even an 11th-hour cancellation of the global sporting showpiece if more athletes tested positive for the virus. Could this be why many nations were not dress to impress? Even the delegates of China, outfitted by a team from the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, looked astonishingly bland, especially when their own sports megabrand Li-Ning is making waves in the fashion-sphere.

Vanuatu’s flag bearer Rillio Rii in coloured grass skirt. Screen grab: Mediacorp

Reportedly, thirteen countries sent only two athletes to the Games. The smallness of those contingent meant we did not register and remember what they wore, but for many other nations, their athletes came dressed with layered festive cheer. It is amazing that Tokyo’s summer heat did not seem to bother them. They didn’t look bothered to us. That evening, our Google Assistant told us that it was 27 degrees Celsius in Tokyo, but, we guessed that it probably felt like 30℃ and above. The Japanese capital is known for its unbearable summer temperatures and humidity (yes, worse than our July/August highs). Many journalists, too, had earlier wondered how the athletes would deal with the punishing heat. Yet, some participants, such as those from Puerto Rico wore three-piece suits! In fact, the blazer—now appropriately referred to as the ‘sport coat’—was an extremely popular garment, never mind the setting: a stadium. Two nations did stand out for their distinctly different outers: Costa Rica chose the safari jacket, interestingly in navy and belted too, designed by compatriot menswear tailor Fabrizzio Berrocal, while Columbia picked the very Japanese yukata, with prints of “national flora”, produced by the 34-year-old local bag and accessories brand Totto.

Some nations were just a lot more practical than others, attested by the omnipresence of shorts, especially bermudas, which where worn by the small contingent from, where else, Bermuda. In pink, no less. The Australians were in shorts too, so were the Austrians, and at least another two dozen countries. Our own team SG did not turn up in the national dress of T-shirts, shorts, and slippers. Predictably, they wore blazers in hongbao-worthy red and what appeared to be chinos of khaki from the darkest end of that colour family (described more appetisingly by our media as “latte”), designed by uniform maker Esther Tay. Doing away with the full National Day look was, perhaps, deliberate, as the Singapore National Olympic Council probably didn’t what the team to appear similarly dressed as those from other contingents, such as China or Monaco. Did our athletes look good? Did they stand out? Were they in any best-dressed list? Best left unanswered.

Flag bearers of Tuvalu, Karalo Hepoiteloto Maibuca and Matie Stanley in grass skirts. Photo: Getty Images

Although the turn-out for the Parade of the Nations of the Opening Ceremony was a mixed bag—some dressed as athletes, others as flight attendants, bank clerks, nurses, even like our Safe Distancing Ambassadors!—memorable were the many men who appeared in non-bifurcated bottoms. In fact, what was spectacular were the skirts sported on the male athletes and officials, worn unselfconsciously. Most outstanding was Tongan star Pita Faufatofua’s (taekwando/rowing) traditional Tongan dress of a tupenu (a kin of what we recognise as the sarong) and taʻovala (a mat made of plant fibre that is typically wrapped around the waist)—a combo worn on formal and semi-formal occasions. On his upper body, he wore only body oil (coconut, we were told). Not to be outdone were his team mates, dressed in skirt-like tupenus of dark grey and topped by shorter, fringe-, zig-zag- and scallop-hemmed taʻovalas in the colour of straw. Although the Tongans were a small team, they made a striking sight.

As it turned out, it was quite the competition of the shirtless and the skirted. This was Mr Faufatofua’s third scene-stealing appearance at the Olympics. But, this year, he was not without serious sartorial match. Vanuatu’s Rillio Rii (rowing) was just as shirtless and just as gleamingly oiled. He wore a traditional, multi-coloured, striped, ankle-length grass-skirt (rather than the famous namba or penis sheath of the tribes people of the island), and he looked a lot more dashing than some of his trouser-wearing fellow athletes. Another grass-skirt wearer (but not entirely topless) was Tuvalu’s Karalo Hepoiteloto Maibuca (athletics), who wore a titi (skirt) on top of which the more decorative, paneled te titi tao was laid upon. His fellow flag bearer Matie Stanley (athletics) wore a similar titi, showing the world that skirts really recognise no gender. Surprisingly, there were few sarongs worn. The team from American Samoa, therefore, set themselves apart with black, knee-length versions paired with what were the handsomest holiday shirts of the night. And those, for whom the sarong is acceptable attire, chose something far more skirt-like. Team Malaysia’s traditional kain samping (a short sarong) in untraditional graphic print, conceived by the Design and Art Faculty of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, was worn (or looked) very much like a cheer leader’s skirt although the National Sports Council of Malaysia insisted that it is kain samping.

Fiji’s flag bearers Taichi Vakasama and Rusila Nagasau in long dresses. Screen grab: Mediacorp

Team Burundi’s Belly-Cresus Ganira in traditional gown-like garb. Photo: Getty Images

Apart from the thwabs of the Middle Easterners or the boubous (long tunics) of the Africans (including Liberia’s Telfar Clements-designed, calf-length-and-below sports jerseys), there were those men’s styles that were rather dress-like. Fijian flag bearer Taichi Vakasama (swimming) wore a traditional column dress with fringing, all made from a local reed called kuta. From Burundi, Belly-Cresus Ganira (swimming) and his fellow male athletes wore a decidedly modern-looking, chocolate-brown-with-white-polka-dot, floor-length pagne, a wraparound garment (or, possibly, the more formal imgega), topped with a short cape, placed fetchingly askew. We thought Mr Ganira looked rather dapper in his traditional dress. These athletes stood out not only because of the perceived feminine style of dress they adopted or that they were willing to go against global athletic wear conventions (not regional or local), but because of the surprising freedom with their choice of clothes in the traditional power structure of the athletic world, as well as its attendant institutional and cultural bias. This is no less pronounced even if, among this Olympics’ three core concepts, there is the yet-to-date call of “accepting one another”.

And these men’s choice of clothes also showed that there was no need for a famous designer to design garments that would capture the imagination of the world watching from digital devices across the globe. Team USA was outfitted by Ralph Lauren (since 2008!) and the contingent, bursting with spurious preppiness (striped T-shirt, navy blazer, denim jeans) showed why American fashion is in unceasing decline. These clothes were communicating New England summer, circa 1985! But perhaps, more annoying was the oversized, kiasu Polo logo on the left pocket of the blazer—brand recognition or a reminder that Polo the sport is largely played and enjoyed by wealthy white individuals? Or, that the game was not included in the Olympics since 1936? If some Olympians could adopt fashion in non-gender-binary terms, perhaps many more could also not seek security behind the sport coat, especially those marked by a white man riding a horse, holding up a mallet—all in total white. Could this also be what author David Goldblatt—quoting the “godfather” of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin—referred to as the “display of manly virtue”?

Will Hedi Slimane Be Jealous?

BOF just revealed that Phoebe Philo will have her own eponymous, backed by LVMH. Some designers are just luckier than others

Following the most hyped-up haute couture season in recent memory, the news now trending is Phoebe Filo’s return to fashion. According to Business of Fashion in a report earlier today, Ms Filo will launch her own label with some backing from LVMH, who has “taken a minority stake in the new venture”. The English designer was reported to have said, “I have had a very constructive and creative working relationship with LVMH for many years. So, it is a natural progression for us to reconnect on this new project.” This would only be LVMH’s second new label they’ve backed after Rihanna’s Fenty, which was “paused” in February. But Ms Philo’s own brand is expected to do much better. And she is a trained designer, with an unerring eye for the splendidly spare yet immense cool. And her ability and allure were proven too. Her reboot of Céline* in the early ’00s gave LVMH an extremely profitable label in its stable of high-profile luxury brands, improving the brand’s annual profits from €200 million to €700 million, according to analysts at that time.

We do not yet know when the new collection will be launched or if the name-sake brand will be shown in Paris or in London, where Ms Philo had led Céline with full creative control of the French house, and where she will reportedly continue to be based. Her return to fashion is thought to be unsurprising, only that it has taken this long. Ms Philo was mostly away from the limelight as she enjoyed a three-year hiatus from designing while her protégé at Céline, Daniel Lee, went on to re-awake Bottega Veneta. During this time, she was rumoured to be up for the creative directorship of Chanel, even Alaïa. Nothing came out of those speculations. Although quiet throughout the three years’ absence, she was reported to have already built the Phoebe Philo Studio in London.

It was while studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design that she met Stella McCartney. After graduating in 1996, she joined Ms McCartney as design assistant when her friend succeeded Karl Lagerfeld as creative director of Chloé. In 2001, Ms McCartney launched her own label in a joint venture with the then Gucci Group (now part of Kering). Ms Philo was not asked to go along. Ralph Toledano, then Chloé’s CEO, reportedly played on the rift and installed her as Chloé’s new CD. She was then only 24, but she was able to prove the massive promotion worthy, and continued to augment the brand’s cool-French-girl aesthetic. She left Chloé in 2006 to look after her young children. It was at Céline, where she joined two years later, that her star truly shone, turning the LVMH-owned label into the conglomerate’s coolest, seriously desired by women who enjoy fashion, not trends; designs, not looks. When she left Céline in 2018, supporters were encouraging Ms Philo to start her own label.

That is now happening for her. Not, unfortunately, for other designers linked to Celine, but unable to enjoy the same fate. No one knows if Ms Philo will revive the feminine simplicity that endeared her to so many of her followers. Or the equivalent of those capacious coats that predates the ones currently the rage everywhere, or those roomy, high-waisted slacks with the legs that distends and swirls at the feet, or the Boston tote (way ahead of Dior’s significantly simpler Book), or the Birkenstocks with the fur-backed straps, but there is a strong feeling that, with her own house to better give shape to her ideas, Phoebe Philo’s taste would still captivate, and her return would be the one to watch, and eagerly embraced.

*To keep to the Phoebe Philo-era Celine, we have chose to spell the brand in the old way: Céline. Photo: #phoebefiloarchive/instagram

No Press

Naomi Osaka has refused to meet members of the media at the French Open despite contractual obligations. Can she do the same to Louis Vuitton as the latter’s brand ambassador?

Naomi Osaka with Nicolas Ghesquière, January 2021

Japan’s biggest tennis star has spoken: she won’t speak. The news that rocked the tennis world these past few days was that Naomi Osaka has cancelled her requisite meeting with the press, citing “mental health” issues. She was insistent on sitting the press conferences out even when she was contractually obligated to fulfil her duties. As a consequence, she was fined US$15,000 by the tournament organisers. (According to Forbes, she earned US$37 million in 2019.) They also threatened to expulse her. A four-time major champion at only 23 and presently the world number two, Ms Osaka reacted to that possibility of being shut out by choosing to leave the competition midway. This would be the first time a major star, as AP notes, “walked away from a major tournament without a visible injury”. In a statement posted on Twitter, the tennis player wrote, “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.” She added, “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly.”

Ms Osaka stepped out of Roland Garros to step into the spotlight that had nothing to with winning a game. That she has chosen to adopt Megan Markle’s approach of revealing her struggle with mental health issues is not surprising now that mental health has taken centre court and is what stresses famous persons or why they wouldn’t do what they do not wish to. We, too, are not trivialising mental health issues, their realness, and their prevalence, but it is apparently becoming easier to allow mental health to speak for one’s woes. Last March, in a CBS interview hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Ms Markle famously talked about suffering from depression and having suicidal thoughts while pregnant. It was a revelation. Ms Osaka’s speak-out was too. The rallying behind her “power move”, as The New York Times called it, came as quickly as it did for Ms Markle. The Guardian reported that “Japanese athletes and sponsors voice support for” her. Serena Williams, who was defeated by Ms Osaka in the controversial 2018 US Open championship, in which the former broke into what appeared to be a tantrum that cost her a point, said, “I feel for Naomi.”

We are not trivialising mental health issues, their realness and their prevalence, but it is becoming easier to allow mental health to speak for one’s woes

Will her action have far-reaching effects, even outside sports? Naomi Osaka is not only a star in the tennis world, she is also a star in the fashion world. In January, she accepted the brand ambassadorial role at Louis Vuitton. Ms Osaka appeared in LV’s spring/summer 2021 campaign photos, lensed by Nicolas Ghesquière. Some reports described Ms Osaka in those images as “perfectly incarnating the Louis Vuitton woman”. What if it was far from perfection? We do not know what is in the contract between LV and Naomi Osaka, but, as a brand ambassador, surely she has to deal with journalists too. Will she be tempted to do to LV what she did to the French Open? Or perhaps there is less impact on her mental health when she answers questions about dresses and her other love apart from tennis, fashion? And it isn’t just LV that she’s a face of. Ms Osaka is also in partnership with Nike, Comme des Garçons, Shiseido and, others, and has recently appeared as a model for Levi’s. She was also appointed co-chair of this year’s Met Gala. Will she turn down all attendant press interviews arranged for her?

Sure, being placed in the middle of a press conference is not the same as being in the centre of a tennis court, even if the pressures affecting mental health can exist on both. Curiously, no one asked if Ms Osaka’s desire to avoid the press was because she found post-match media sessions to be plain tedious. The press pack can be predatory and a player who had not performed may not be in a state of mind to take the tough questioning. Successful athletes—like successful artistes—facing the media is, for better or worse, a part of their job, but increasingly, those in the limelight do not need the press to speak to their fans or the simply curious; they have social media. So, they opt out. Or, use their platform to divert the spotlight to pet woke causes. In lauding her bravery shown at Roland Garros, we may have forgotten that Naomi Osaka is just 23 years old. She is also a member of Gen Z. And like those before her, the Millennials, she has been weaned on the believe that she can do whatever she wants, or not do. No one can tell her otherwise, not even the powers of the French Open. Or dutifully working sports journalists.

Photo: Louis Vuitton/Instagram

All For The Home

Daiso’s new store in Tokyo is completely dedicated to furnishings and kitchenware

Cheap and cheerful Daiso is already where one goes to find inexpensive stuff for the home. But now, the retailer of 100-yen anything (or S$2 here, as you know) has opened one in Tokyo, where only home ware is available. Yes, no nail polish or boxer shorts, but, interesting, there are wristwatches! And not everything is sold at the standard price of 100 yen; new prices are between 330 and 770 yen. The new Daiso store is called by another name, too: Standard Products, presumably to stand out from the (generally) one-price older sibling. And also to set itself apart from the original store, but not nearly enough for it to be different from more established compatriot brands, particularly Muji and, to a degree, Nitori. In fact, so much better looking is the new store—and higher the prices—that Tokyoites happily call it “upmarket Diaso”.

Opened in March and situated inside Mark City in Shibuya, just a hop from the Shibuya Bus Station, Standard Products will inevitably draw comparison with Muji and such (some even likened it to Ikea!). For starters, it’s much better looking than the average Daiso store (if you’ve been to those not in big cities, you’ll remember them to be quite humble). There is also the more staggering variety of products, and better storage/displays (attractively stacked!), even with a veritable semblance of visual merchandising. There is also a neatness not usually evident in Diaso. But that, for some, may take the fun out of shopping in Standard Products: it’s too posh and orderly. And it does not have quite the you-don’t-know-what-useful-stuff-you-may-find madness. If Standard Products makes you miss Diaso, the later is, in fact, just round the corner, and with the unmistakable hot-pink shop front and the crazy jumble inside too.

When approaching Standard Products, Daiso regulars might think they have stumbled upon a home emporium in the hipster neighbourhood of Daikanyama. The main store front is top to bottom aluminium-framed glass panels, on which the name is emblazoned in massive, black sans-serif font. There is no window display. The interior is for all to see. Merchandise immediately greet you at your first step. Inside, you will take a while to get used to the orderly space and wrap your head around the fact that this is a Diaso offshoot. As you explore the surprisingly wide aisles, you’ll find yourself wondering if you are, in fact, in a Muji store (like we said). Even the industrial-space-meets-modern-barn of some corners are unmistakably Muji. And the wares? You need to be a hermit just descended from Mount Fuji not to see the similarities and the matching minimalist aesthetics.

Stuff for the kitchen or dining takes up at least half of the reported 1,300 products available. There are more bowls, plates, mugs, and glassware than you’ll ever need, but truth be told, most of them are truly appealing, especially if you are susceptible to neutral-coloured ceramics and stoneware in simple shapes that can show off their equally stylish content. There is also a surprisingly large selection of acacia wood accessories such as caddies, platters, and pot holders, all handsomely fashioned. What seems to be missing are appliances. Still, the selection of merchandise is so extensive and the products so appealingly designed that it is hard, we think, even for the not house-proud to successfully resist.

Although retail in Japan is going through hard times due to the still-raging pandemic, retailers there have not given up or stopped innovating. Daiso going specifically into home ware with Standard Products makes sense. As WFH is still prevalent and the preferred work-place arrangement, consumers are opening up their wallets or Google Pay to shop for items that can spruce their domestic interiors, rather than those that will fill an already over-stuffed wardrobe. Instead of going by way of the even less expensive route (can they go lower than 100 yen?), the Hiroshima-based company has chosen a retail concept that is a winning combination of friendly prices and accessible designs, both in a setting that reflects the growing sophistication of the pandemic-era homeowner. But this isn’t the first time Diaso has adopted the more-than-100-yen merchandising approach. There is the Threeppy chain (which, according to the parent company, is a conflation of “300 yen and happy”) that was introduced in Japan in 2018. A year later, the first of six Threepy shops (they are nearly always smaller than Diaso) outside Japan opened here at Funan Mall. Will we also see a Standard products store here in 2022?

Despite the unmistakable home theme of Standard Products, the merchandising team also took pleasure in defining what home is or where it could be. As we well know, as long as there is access to the Internet, home (and the home office) could be anywhere, even in the mountains. Well aware of this, Standard Products has also a section for camping kits, complete with a tent, set up to give context to its attendant products, such as thermoses, water bottles, and even mess tins! Standard is clearly not quite the defining quality of the store, fun is.

Photos: Jiro Shiratori

Prada Outdoor: Tale Of Two Cities

Could Prada Outdoor be the world’s most compelling post-lockdown fashion? In Hong Kong and Singapore, Prada shows—rather seductively—what going out to open spaces to have fun could really look like. But why is one atrium exhibition more compelling than the other?

Outdoor indoor: Prada’s spectacular pop-up in Hong Kong’s IFC Mall

Our version in ION Orchard: considerably smaller and, curiously, dimmer

Fun. Do we still remember that? Enjoyment. When did that last strike? Mirth. Hasn’t that been missing for a long while? Well, we were already beginning to re-acquaint ourselves with what going out to play would be like, until the latest COVID-19 safety measures—a return to Phase 2, now also known as “heightened alert”—kicked in last Sunday. Many of us, of course, can’t wait to fully return to a post-lockdown, post-socially-distanced, post-movement-controlled world. Shopping, for example, is still muted here, but elsewhere, retailers are out to seriously entice. In Hong Kong, for instance, the locals are offered a glimpse of how alluring going out for a spot of fun can be, even only through the lens of Prada. The eye-catching mini-exhibition is concurrently available here too, but it is dismally smaller, and no shopper seems to bother with it.

This pop-up store/exhibition at IFC Mall in Central opened last Thursday to launch the brand’s across-season collection Prada Outdoor. In full visualisation of the theme, a massive diorama of a beach-side scene is brought indoor in the usually less outdoorsy IFC Mall. Awash with sky-meets-sea blue, the set-up clearly hints at fun and relaxing times by the waves. Awning-striped beach umbrellas and chairs hint at seaside fun that’s more Amalfi Coast than the East Coat, more Biarritz than Pulau Ubin. There is even a rather mid-Century-looking lifeguard tower, on which a mannequin in a Breton top sits. A blue pop-up canopy is put together to welcome whoever wants relaxation under the shelter. A polyhedron tent—blue too—is erected as well, in which a mise en scene of ‘glampers’ relaxing in a surprisingly utilitarian space (but no less suitably equipped) could be viewed—and envied.

A view from second floor of IFC Mall: going to the beach for the day or to camp overnight is more appealing than ever—going by Prada’s life-size diorama

Seen from level two of Ion Orchard, the SG set-up is oddly ill-lit and says precious little of the purpose

On Monday, three days ago, our own pop-up Outdoor opened in ION Orchard, in a small, rather low-lit corner of the mall’s fragmented concourse. Its diminutive set-up is in sharp contrast to Prada’s breadth of covering nature’s bounty. The beach umbrellas are there, the tent too, as well as the lifeguard tower, on which a mannequin (dressed in a logo-ed French terry sweat top) also sits. Missing is the pop-up canopy. All the shelters are placed on a relatively flat platform, unlike those in the HK display, which mimics the undulating dunes seen on some beaches. It is also dimly lit, as if it’s the beach at dusk, but no campfire was roaring. The Outdoor set styling at ION Orchard seems to be toned and scaled down to cater to an audience that wouldn’t be bowled over by anything not quite contemporaneous to real life here. Even the tent has a sole occupant, rather than more to suggest, or welcome, social times. Does this go with the oft-expressed belief that we’re too small for anything major or massive? Or, could this be Prada SG’s cheeky, glammed-up kampung version that we can relate to?

The seaside scene is only one part of Prada Outdoor’s trifecta of “nature in its myriad forms”. Dubbed “special project”, Outdoor comprises the Garden, the Coast, and the Mountain in their idealised articulations. These static displays are, according to the brand, “dedicated to the emotions conveyed by different settings”. Occupiable and enjoyable that they already are, every scene too comes with “a selection of original products recalling each particular environment.” In Hong Kong, despite the large size of the IFC Mall atrium, Prada has only what appears to be the Coast set up, but if you look closely, the canopy wouldn’t be out of place even in the most modest of gardens and the tent would be happy anywhere along a mountain trail. Is the outdoor this inviting or have we been holed up at home for too long?

It is doubtful anyone would be this stylish and so well kitted when enjoying nature and the outdoors, but Prada shows us we can dream

The SG proposal: Dressed for a night by a camp fire?

Prada’s embrace of the outdoors is possibly to pave the way for a return to the old normal of going out to enjoy oneself with a few friends. It also proposes that we should be in the open, rather than indoors or within closed quarters. As The Straits Times reported four days ago, “recent clusters have shown that the new Covid-19 variants are more infectious, with transmission more likely to take place in indoor settings where people do not wear masks”. Prada not only provides the clothes, but also the context in which to wear them. In addition, when viewed from above, the nicely outfitted, in-character, mask-less (presumably vaccinated!) models that dot the space are socially distanced. There is clearly no over-crowding. Retailers can, indeed, lead by example.

Prada Outdoor is, of course, also riding on the bandwagon of ‘gorpcore’, so gleefully adopted by Gucci and The North Face last December. The Mountain component corresponds to the rising popularity of outdoor brands such as Patagonia and Japan’s Snow Peak, Nanamica, and the rebranded Goldwin. Prada has always made outerwear that can stand the test of the harshest elements, but what makes it more appealing this time is the inclusion of the gear not typically seen in the stores. Sure, they have offered water bottles and thermoses before, but now they include camping kit such as mess tins and lunch bowls (made in collaboration with English brand Black & Blum) and reusable cutlery (even chopsticks!), stylishly sheathed in a logo-ed pouch. There are also accessories that are ready for any climb: paracord survival bracelets, with enamel Prada triangle as charm, of course!

The clothes alone are not quite enough. Complete the look with Prada’s camping kit

The Prada buying office here seems to know that we are not going to be seduced by camp-ready lunchboxes. In their place, huggable terrycloth handbags

This multi-product approach is also consistent with luxury brands going totally lifestyle. In fact, a Prada store is increasingly a department store—the Tokyo flagship in Aoyama, for example, is, without doubt, one. Prada Outdoor is not only category-breaking for a luxury brand, but also indication that they can sell almost anything. Apart from clothing, accessories, and wearables, there are also play things such as inflatable pool floats and rings, and even a hammock! What makes extra Prada Outdoor appealing is how wearable and usable every item is. There is also something delectably familiar about what is in stock: the tropical prints (and, yes, the bananas too); bold, colourful stripes; the loose, boxy shapes; the goofy footwear (fluffy slides) and the elegant (river sandals with Japan-esque knotted thongs), volleyball bags, and for men, the eve-popular camp shirts with bold graphics, only now multi-print and even bolder.

Hong Kong, like us, isn’t out of the pandemic woods, yet retailers there are not resistant to creating enhanced shopping experiences that are impressive not by content alone, but scale too. And it is experiential: Prada Outdoor in Hong Kong is open to walk-ins. The pop-up is not cordoned off. Shoppers are free to saunter in, examine the displays up-close and even touch what interests them. The sale staff happily tells you she is contactable whenever you need something, even after leaving the display area. She later sends you a message to thank you for stopping by. Here, the already small set-up is entirely surrounded by stanchion and velvet rope (Phase 2!). An attendant (accompanied by a security guard) is around to introduce the collection to you and to answer questions, and, no, you can’t walk into the exhibition area, not that anyone seems to want to. If there is anything you need, you would just be directed to the nearby Prada store. End of contact. Charming.

Prada Outdoor pop-up exhibition is on at ION Orchard from 17 May to 2 June. Prada encourages all shoppers to call ahead to secure a spot if a store visit is necessary. Photos: K S Yeung (HK) and Chin Boh Kay (SG)