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)

Miss Universe Singapore: The Pinoy Connection

We are so starved of gowns for local beauty queens that this year, our Miss Universe had to outsource the creation of the national costume to pageant country, the Philippines

Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Wu Ong really flew Singapore’s flag high six hours ago, in Donald Trump’s post-presidency hometown Florida. The beauty contest is staged in Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, some 80 kilometres south of Mr Trump’s home and members-only resort Mar-a-Lago Club. Exactly two weeks back, when Ms Ong posted a video on Instagram, showing her proudly catwalking in Changi Airport—before departing for the US—with an SG flag floating above her head, no one had thought that she would actually wrap herself in a semblance of one on the pageant stage. Even when not clued in, no one could mistake where the inspiration for the floor-sweeping cape came from. According to the voice-over when Ms Ong was strutting her stuff during the National Costume segment, “the red represents equality for all (they were careful to omit the official description of red standing for the now-not-quite-woke ‘universal brotherhood and equality of man’) and the white symbolises everlasting virtue (skipping the unattainable ‘purity’).”

The bi-coloured piece, however, didn’t quite catch the fans’ and the pageant world’s attention as much as what was paint-written on it: “Stop Asian Hate”. This graffiti-like-text-meets-floating-rear-wrap-as-national-dress did not only express national identity, but more so the woke thoughts and convictions of the wearer. That an Asian participating in a beauty contest featuring women from different lands needed to use the platform to call attention to the ending of hostilities towards other Asians showed how political voice increasingly makes the costumes louder. As Ms Ong posted on Instagram, “What is this platform for if I can’t use it to send a strong message of resistance against prejudice and violence?” She also told Yahoo News, the pageant now “focuses more on advocacy, you as an individual, and how strong you are as a candidate through your past stories and heuristics (that should be the next ‘umbrage’!)” Or, was she just adulting?

Advocacy on our tiny island is, as we know, not really the stuff that move people, let alone mountains. No beauty queen that we can remember ever upgraded a pet cause into a cause célèbre. It is possible that because no one was willing to be co-participant in Ms Ong’s sloganeering, she had to take it to the Philippines. According to Ms Ong’s IG post, the dress was designed by her and executed by the still-in-school Filipino designer Arwin Meriales, with the oversized text painted by the cat-loving artist Paulo Espinosa. As Ms Ong wrote on IG this morning, “I reached out to Filipino designer Arwin Meriales to create a design of my own and he executed!” The reaction to that was unsurprising: how was it that the Singaporean organisers didn’t see this as potential affront to Singaporean design and attendant community? One stylist didn’t hold back when he told us, “designers here have all died.”

That Ms Ong would choose a designer from the Philippines to execute her costume is not at all surprising. She was born there. At age ten, she and her ethnic Chinese parents emigrated to our island-state. Ms Ong reportedly speaks fluent Tagalog, and still feels connected to her place of birth. To prep for Miss Universe, she went to Manila to be trained (yes, they are well-known for their “beauty boot camps”), which could explain her OTT catwalk style. Spotlighting the American-initiated plea #stopasianhate seemed to have wowed many viewers and her IG followers, bland as her actual message was. How magnificent—how maganda—seemed to be the common cheer. But whether Ms Ong as sartorial flag bearer was in itself a triumph, no one we spoke to was willing to say. Fashion folks preferred to keep mum as any criticism would be seen as directed at “not one, but two nations”, a designer told us.

We always remind ourselves that we can’t see Miss Universe gowns through the eyes of fashion. These are creations for a universe, a good way from ours. The costumes—rightly termed—are just that, but for those nations without their own traditional dress, it was often a challenge to dream one up. We have always had laughable results trying to push a Singapore dress out, and worse when we think rojak makes good baju. But even by our own grim standards for this entertaining segment of Miss Universe, the latest, oddly-sleeved outerwear is, at best, for memes. Hard it was for us to ignore how clumsily constructed the puffed sleeves were. They looked deflated, and with the gathered armhole (that appeared to be achieved with elastic bands), seemed exempt from the extra step of toile prototyping. Or how the painted text could be seen on the underside of the floaty panels—lining would have diminished the unsightliness. Ms Ong revealed on IG that the cape took two days to complete. It showed.

Arwin Meriales describes himself on his website as a “fast rising designer”, which says to us he is a relative newbie. The 21-year-old from Quezon City agreed to making the outfit for Ms Ong (it isn’t known if they are friends) despite the tight dateline (and studies in design school) because, as he posted on Facebook, it was more than a national costume that he was going to make, he would also be putting out a “STATEMENT” and “PROTEST” (yes, in caps) to halt the hatred of Asians. “Who wouldn’t want,” he asked, “to be a part of such cause?” It can be assumed that Ms Ong, who studied accounting, is an accidental designer (it isn’t known why she had to source her own pageant outfits) and Mr Meriales provided the technical support. It is easy to pin the flaccid results to the lack of time, but a maestro would be able to know what can or cannot be performed. Fellow Southeast Asian, Miss Philippines Rabiya Mateo wore a striking gown by a compatriot designer, the late Rocky Gathercole (who died in March before the outfit could be completed). The gown had near-vertical, (also) bi-coloured wings. Whatever needed to stand, stood, and stood out. If Bernadette Belle Wu Ong really required a cape to do her thing in Florida, she might have been better advised to approach Frederick Lee. No stranger to pageants, Mr Lee could have designed for her a dramatic cape, as he had produced in the past, and made it truly distend—and soar. And, as typical of the NatCos competition, camp enough.

Photos: #missuniversesg/Instagram

The Met Looks At Its Front Yard

“American fashion” takes centrestage at this year’s Met Gala. Really

“Irony is over, oxymoron is next,” one marketing consultant said, when he heard the news. This year’s Met Gala and the attendant exhibition, to be held in September rather than the usual May (last year’s was cancelled), will be in salute of American fashion, according to Vogue. “Homegrown fashion”, as the organisers describe it, could possibly straighten the crumple post-Trump America is still wearing. This year’s event will be a two-parter (second to open in May 2022), and possibly larger than other previous ones. Could this be self-validation after a lame New York Fashion Week in February, amid a gloomy climate for American brands across all price points? Or is this a challenge to the believe that in the US, formulaic dressing and uniform-as-style can be replaced by fine examples of superlative design?

American fashion, two ends of the market and between, seems unable to capture our imagination for the past five years. Or even more. Storied names as Calvin Klein and mass appeal labels as Gap are fading in power, diminishing in influence, and declining in reach. More than ever America’s own needs an affirming boost. The mother telling her child, you are the best. In addition, the Met’s Costume Institute needs to WFA—work from America, now that borders are still not fully opened to facilitate any homage to designers of distant lands. Outside the US, its global standing, as a 13-nation Pew Research Center survey from last year illustrated, has “plummeted”—“majorities have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. in nearly every country surveyed”. Now is the time to look homeward and champion America.

Who truly represents American fashion? Tom Ford? Alexander Wang? Gosh, Kanye West, the “fashion mogul”? And pal Virgil Abloh? Or flag bearers Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors? Or, the retired Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Todd Oldham, Izaac Mizrahi? Or, to be inclusive, Carolina Herrara, Vera Wang, Phillip Lim, the Olsen twins, Lazaro Hernandez (the other half of Proenza Schouler), Dapper Dan, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Telfar Clemens? Or, to salute the pop world, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Selena Gomez, Sean Combs, Pharrell Williams? Or, to acknowledge the immigrants, Oleg Cassini, Rudi Gernreich, Fernando Sánchez, Adrienne Vittadini, Ronaldus Shamask, Naeem Khan? Or, to include the dead, Claire McCardell, Lilly Pulitzer, Bonnie Cashin, Mary McFadden, Anne Klein, Halston, Zoran, James Galanos, Perry Ellis, Oscar de la Renta, L’Wren Scott? Or, to take note of the Americans abroad, Mainbocher, Vicky Tiel, Patrick Kelly, Yoon Ahn, Daniel Roseberry? Or, to mark the (now) less-known, Stephen Burrows, Geoffrey B Small, Reed Krakoff, Rhuigi Villaseñor? Or, to rave about the he-who-can-be-anyone, Marc Jacobs?

You get the picture.

Illustration: Just So

Who’s That Goddess?

The Winged Victory of Samothrace has such high-low appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscars Producers: Casual Clothes “Are Really Not” Allowed

A reminder to nominees and attendees, in case anyone turns up in sweats

Oscar at the Oscars. Too casual? Illustration: Xiu Xian

By Mao Shan Wang

You know times have changed when the producers of this year’s Oscars presentation need to send nominees and attendees a letter to remind them to dress to the nines. As reported in the press around the globe, the letter stated that the organisers aimed “for a fusion of inspirational and aspirational, which in actual words means formal is totally cool if you want to go there, but casual is really not.” Wah, Hollywood stars have to be reminded to dress up even when there is clearly an occasion to. Is that like being told to get vaccinated? Or has the pandemic made even the Academy Awards show so unappealing that there might be those tempted to attend the glitzy presentation in their home clothes or without the services of a stylist? Or, as the epitome of luxury bagginess?

It’s hilarious to think about Oscars dress code. The award ceremony is represented by a bald man so in love with extreme casual, he has chosen to remain and appear as if the whole of Hollywood should be a nudist colony, but for the people attending the event to be flanked by him and, for a lucky few, to hold his cold, hard, naked body, they have to be served a reminder to ensure that their attire for the evening can be described as—er, what’s the opposite of casual? There is yet more reason to keep France’s petite mains gainfully employed, in particular during lockdown.

If the world’s fashion media is to be believed, we have been living and working, for the past year, in sweats—the clothes, not the perspiration, although anyone who lives on the equator knows that one tends to lead to the other. It is unthinkable that even for one of the world’s most glamorous event in Los Angeles, attendees are not inclined to make an appointment with their designer friends or their regular tailor, both I do not have, but if invited, would. Do Oscars producers really think the stars would pull out any old rag from their wardrobe? Or do I think too well of those with an awardable movie career?

If the likes of Carey Mulligan and Frances McDormand, both this year’s nominees for Best Actress, need to be made aware to dress in their glittery finest, where does that leave Mediacorp actors attending the Star Awards next month? Or has Mediacorp, in their excitement, already issued their demand? Both thoughts make me quiver.

Millennials Made Gucci

At the Grammy Awards, Billie Eilish and Harry Styles surprised no one when they turned up in full Gucci, illustrating, again, boys and girls their age group love the flashy Italian brand

Billie Eilish and Harry Styles in unmistakable Gucci outfits. Photos: Getty Images

The head-to-toe look is the to way dress among many of today’s young pop stars. And dedication to a single brand is the ideal. The easiest way to be camera-ready, we suppose. Just look at two of the biggest entertainers at the recent Grammys: Billie Eilish and the dress wearer Harry Styles. They were both outfitted by Gucci, down to, in the case of Ms Eilish, the bucket hat, face mask, and fingerless gloves, and, in the case of Mr Styles, the Mae West-worthy feather boa. It was as if they had turned over the entire exercise of dressing to a fashion house. Their own wardrobes non-existent, or redundant. Of course, most stars don’t look at their existing armoire anymore. They go with what fashion houses present to them, and if the final look is missing something—anything, there’s always the atelier’s sewers to custom-make. If they can sew a dress, they can sew a face mask. It’s all—as you can see (or maybe not)—very orchestrated.

This sounds very much like how they managed movie stars during the heydays of Hollywood. Only now, the current stars aren’t told how they are to be styled, or how to behave, or who to be seen with that is deemed suitable. The more anti-whatever they look, the better. And even more preferable, be linked to a brand (or a few). Bring your own take to how the sponsor wants you to look, it says to us. Billie Eilish certainly has. Until she dons Gucci the way she has been, no one thought the brand once associated with extreme sexiness under Tom Ford’s watch could be so bo chap baggy. She is not, as far as we’re aware, Gucci’s brand ambassador, unlike Harry Styles. She has more aesthetic room to navigate. Mr Styles is a Gucci model, appearing in their ads and video presentations; he is expected to embrace the brand wholesale, with a tad of pop-star insouciance.

…the pair helps Gucci appear as a label that’s “celebrity-approved”

Expectedly, their followers too. It is debatable if Mr Styles and Ms Eilish are leading the pack or wearing what others of their generation are wearing. Interestingly, if you combine, as we had, the first and second parts of their family names respectively, you would get “Stylish”. That’s enough to automatically grant them the upper hand as leaders than followers. To the many young fans who are enamoured with Gucci and can only feel confident—or validated—when they wear the label on their backs (or on their chest), the pair helps Gucci appear as a label that’s “celebrity-approved”, a marketing advantage and a sure crowd-puller. Together with their fans and followers, the Stylish stars have made Gucci the bubbling brand of the millennials, a group the Financial Times identified in 2018 as “the world’s most powerful consumers.”

Although Gucci reported a drop in global sales during their earnings report in February, they have, in fact, enjoyed startling growth for years and had been the growth accelerator of parent company Kering. Annual revenues reported in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, was an impressive 10 billion euros. Their success has been linked to how appealing Gucci is to millennial consumers, under 35. Technology that resonates with this savvy group (as well as teaming up with digital games such as Zepeto) is part of their multi-prong strategy. The products, across categories, are calibrated to offer millennials born-again retro looks that are new to them, as well as the chances to experience what they could not ever have: past goofiness transmuted as present geekiness. The whole visual context of Gucci is companionably banal. To better suit the phenomenon and practice—sharing, and to fabulously costume colourful online life.