The debut Culture Cartel, held at the F1 Pit Building over the weekend, banked on the rising wave of street style to offer a “curated” mix of sneakers, fashion, toys, art, and tattoos. Was it an inviting jumble?
A Bearbrick welcome at the first Culture Cartel
By Ray Zhang
A curious thing happened as I arrived at the F1 Pit Building for the first edition of Culture Cartel, which I was told was the largest gathering of its kind, possibly in Asia, if not the world, for street style and kindred obsessions. But the people I met—both attendees and participants—before I could take in the displays and stalls, told me that I had to try the mee rebus.
Now, I didn’t know there would be food stalls. Nothing wrong with that. We are a nation of hungry citizens. But I had something else in my mind, such as the Adidas Consortium 4D which I had come to see after I was told, via Messenger earlier in the day, that it costs S$600, and would be available, unsurprisingly, though a raffle. That people were more excited about a Malay noodle dish suggested to me, prematurely perhaps, that Culture Cartel may turn out to be a little—how shall I say it?—lacking?
Bringing a different retail experience to those of us unimpressed with the way malls and, equally guilty, stores on our island have filled their spaces has always been what I encourage and support. When Culture Cartel was brought to my attention, it sparked the hope in me that such an event would encourage those with leasable space, even non-traditional such as a car park, to be more creative and imaginative in their use. I admit that as I write this, I am thinking of the now-closed pop-up The Park.Ing in Tokyo.
Adidas launched their Adidas Consortium 4D sneaker for S$600 with a raffle draw
The name is perhaps a deliberate oxymoron. Culture Cartel: who’d want to or can own the cartel to culture, unless it’s to do with narcotics? Or oil? Culture belongs to the people, not a cartel. But perhaps it’s excellence in the arts—sorry, street style—that the organisers want to become the international syndicate of. Admittedly, a cartel sometimes has a reprehensible, hence appealing, aspect to it. Even a ring of grandeur. Yet, in a physical space that is the F1 Pit Building, it is the “culture” that the event had to live up to, even when it is no longer prefixed ‘sub’ as it once was.
The problem, for a lack of a better word, with the F1 Pit Building is its long, linear expanse. Retail-centric events such as the Club 21 Bazaar and the Boutique Fairs, which held their ‘Gifting Edition’ last month in the same location, seem unable to grapple with the generous space. Like the capacity of Pasir Panjang Power Station that the organisers of Sole (Street) Superior had committed themselves to in October, the F1 Pit Building, spread over two floors, was too large to fill.
One participant told me, before I could walk past the entrance, that he felt there wasn’t enough “quality exhibitors” and that the space “looked a bit spare”. That Culture Cartel had to include food sellers when major malls are within ten minutes by foot from the F1 Pit Building perhaps confirmed my earlier suspicion. But not being packed to the rafters with merchandise may have been a good thing. There was comfortable room to move in when viewing or shopping. In a fair like this, jostling that isn’t the proverbial necessary evil is definitely welcome.
Design your own Air Force 1, co-organised by Limited Edition and Nike
In fact, the orderliness of the set-up was rather impressive and was counter to the perceived notion that anything street is characterised by a disordered condition. There was no grand welcome. Just walk in, after paying the S$20 entry charge, and its all there. Culture Cartel was organised under four broad categories: fashion, art, toys, and tattoos (which left food—a culture in its own right—an afterthought, I suspect). While street culture means many things to many people, one does not immediately equate with another. And since all categories at Culture Cartel had equal billing, no particular one stood out, although to fans of body art, the tattoo zone was the most impressive.
Street culture for the most part is an interconnected culture of cultures (and subcultures); a confluence, a clutter. Culture Cartel did not negate that. But for a linked culture to have some value proposition, some things have to enjoy a shout out. There were sneakers, but nothing really beckoned; there were clothing, but most languished; there were toys, but most belonged to someone else, there were art pieces, but they did not reach out; there were skate displays, but nothing major unless you were a groupie wanting to catch a glimpse of SBTG’s Mark Ong with some fancy footwork; there were the tattoos, of course, buy you’d have to be a true fan to have the patience to receive or watch the elaborate work being meticulously done on skin. What was memorable? I now struggle to remember.
You can’t tell from the loose assemblage of participants and brands that it was a result of a selection process that the organisers called curation. All four categories were overseen by a quartet of individuals reputed to be at the top of their field. Yet, I sensed that some of the participants were really just space fillers, offering not quite the stuff that aroused the senses or left an impression I could seriously call deep.
T-shirts, such as those from Robinsons’s kitschy zahuodian, unsurprisingly, dominated the fashion offering
There was Mandeep Chopra, overlord of our sneaker-sphere, whose family owns what one Culture Cartel contractor described as “a massive business”—Limited Edition and its kindred stores. He was in charge of sneakers and fashion (although in clothing Mr Chopra has not proved his mettle). Graffiti/comic/street artist Jahan Loh (former graphic designer with The Straits Times) took charge of the art pieces that littered the interior of the F1 Pit Building. Mr Loh is considered to have star quality for his collaboration with Edison Chen and friendship with Jay Chou. Jackson Aw of the renown toy/cartoon design studio Mighty Jaxx put in place the figurines that tempted but were not for sale since most, as I was educated, were part of his own personal collection. And tattoo master Augustine Nezumi of Singapore Electric (formerly Givemelovetattoo) assembled what I was told was the best gathering of tattoo artist on the island, not including ink stars such as Osaka-based Nissaco and the Amsterdam-based Gakkin.
By the thought of it, these merry men should have been able put together a fair of immense pull. I am not saying it did not draw a healthy crowd, but I was not certain that those who attended were terribly impressed, had opened their minds, or their wallets. In that respect, this was rather like the Boutique Fairs: Despite its name, it was not really about fashion, and the truly fashionable would not have been swayed by it. Culture Cartel’s heart is in the street, but aficionados may find it lacked soul.
According to Jeremy Tan, founder of Axis Group—one third of the organisers behind Culture Cartel, the event was “powered” by Mercedes Benz, which is not a name one associates with street culture. Fashion and art, yes, but not quite anything to do with sneakers and the like. But the world of fashion is changing. If the LVMH group recognises street culture’s global influence and reach, it is unsurprising that Daimler AG too want in on the action. The ‘Mercedes is Iconic’ campaign has, in fact, aligned itself with A$AP Rocky. But I am not sure parking some cars in the venue will augment the status of Culture Cartel as one that truly matters for street fashion and art, and the attendant culture. Understandably, an event of this scale requires financial muscle and Mercedes Benz could provide the bulk. Mr Tan was, however, unwilling to divulge how much the car company injected into his pet project, only that it was “less than what fashion week got”.
Tattooing was probably the main draw as there were as many willing to receive as there were to watch
I do not pretend to be an expert on tattoo art, but on a whole, I could see that the exhibitors and tattoo artists had something going that spoke of their art and community. Perhaps it was the strength of their set-up and the willingness of customers to have their bodies (often whole backs or entire arms) worked on in full public view. Often times, inking is a private affair, unless you choose to do it in a stall at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Perhaps the strength of their presence was augmented by the appearance of the two masters Nissaco and Gakkin, both adding an air of celebrity to the zone.
Another message came to me via Messager prior to my visit; it alerted me to the only Singapore “designer” participating in the exhibition. Amos Ananda Yeo, trading under his first and middle name, had boasted in an IG post of his interview with the Mic, which awaken my curiosity about what the self-styled street wear proponent might show at Culture Cartel. Mr Yeo’s rise in the business has been, by many accounts, rapid, as he made inroads into China, where he has a production base in the IT hub of Shenzhen.
In the Mic article, Mr Yeo asserted that Singaporean fashion has “a lack of distinct local identity.” He claimed that “it was always inspiration arriving from overseas that influenced local fashion.” As I went through two racks of his clothes, I realised that, perhaps, Mr Yeo was referring to himself. Known to be heavily ‘influenced’ at one time by Craig Green, he has, as it appeared to me, moved on to Raf Simons and Gosha Rubchinskiy. I have to concede that Mr Yeo is rather versatile. And adaptive. There was considerable buzz at his store, perhaps bearing out his increasing celebrity.
Another Limited Edition space, the first-ever collab between Nike and Carhatt
If you needed a pasar malam, Culture Cartel provided one in the form of the Marketplace, a short, narrow, table-flanking strip on which unknown jewellery brands such as Day by They (the fledgling business of two friends Kit Ang and Junie Lim) sold alongside established names such as the bag brand Gnomes and Bows whose affable createur Quanda Ong was at hand to explain the finer features of his literature-motivated leather pieces. This was probably the busiest part of the exhibition, a mix of street style and not, with buying and selling that were visible and encouraging.
Talking about jewellery, what I found interesting was the ring collection, Fragm_nt.of, by one-part owner of the eyewear company Mystic Vintage, Alvin Tan—also one of the players behind the multi-disciplinary art and design collective Phunk Studio. Mr Tan’s rings showed a weakness for exquisitely formed metalwork with artisanal attention to details that could have time-travelled from the era of the Byzantine Empire. The leap from eyewear to rings must have been massive, but as Mr Tan said, “I have always liked jewellery. It took a while, but I think we are doing okay.”
Culture Cartel’s own Merch Store, I thought, stood many rungs above some of the vendors. In two troughs, secondhand T-shirts (laundered, I was assured) can be picked for customisation. I thought that whoever was in charge of this store has a good eye as the selection of vintage tees constituted what would be considered coolly-cute. But even better was that, with each purchase (S$60 a pop), you could have the top customised whichever way you like using the iron-on graphics available for free. You can therefore do your own Doublet-like over-print on top of the existing pictures of the T-shirts, which, I thought beat those brands with a penchant for pedestrian graphics depicting tired, old Singapura.
Acrylic painting, ‘Porcelain Boy’, by Singaporean artist Andre Tan, known for his visual commentary on fashion and pop art
Some of the ‘highlights’, unfortunately, did not quite move me. I had thought that the Limited EDT (LE) collaboration with Asics Tiger was lame because the pants immediately made me think of late-Nineties G-Star Raw. Even the graphics on the tops had the familiarity of the Dutch brand’s collaboration with Marc Newson. And the quietness of the dedicated space suggested to me that, despite the fancy and striking fit-out, visitors were not impressed, or swayed or engaged by work/military styles presented in a vertical-garden setting.
I don’t pretend to be mad about sneakers, unlike SOTD contributor Naike Mi, but from what I saw, this wasn’t a true, insider destination for sneakerheads, although those who went may have been delighted to see the Carhartt WIP X Nike collaboration on the Air Max 85—admittedly a handsome shoe. Elsewhere, the Air Force 1 customisation looked to have veered on the side of juvenile. And the Air Jordan XI display was, well, just that one shoe. LE’s presence was not by any means small, but they did not impart their spaces with the same energy they gave to their LE Convenience store at Sole (Street) Superior.
As with Sole (Street) Superior, Culture Cartel showed that, at present, street culture is the preoccupation of male youths. Or, what the ancient Greeks called kuoros. Axis Group’s Jeremy Tan happily admitted that he’s a street-style junkie, who “grew up with a BMX” and once had a shop in Queensway Shopping Centre, where LE laid their roots, called Tinted. “I dreamed about doing this for three years,” he enthused, the satisfaction so clear in his eyes. “I have an advantage because of the support from friends. You need people to support your cause, without friends you cannot succeed.”
Or feed! Yes, there was the mee rebus. I did not forget. Cooked and operated by Yunos & Family, a business founded in Ang Mo Kio since 1979, it was simply delicious.
Photos: Chin Boh Kay