Is Digital Better?

Although concerted, it is hard to say that Haute Couture Fashion Week is a compelling online event


HCFW Jul 2020From top left: Alexis Mabille, Naomi Campbell, Azzaro, Guo Pei, Julien Fornié, Iris van Herpen, Margiela (centre)

Naomi Campbell opened Haute Couture Fashion Week (HCFW) from her home, somewhere. Wearing an un-couture black T-shirt with a message “Phenomenally Black”, she showed a political side not many have seen. She urged for change in the fashion business and to draw attention to the lack of representation in fashion. As she said, “the time has come to collectively call the fashion world to task regarding inequality in our work spaces and in our industry.” We did not expect a fashion week to open on such a sombre note, but these are, for many, gloomy days.

Yet, the just-concluded autumn/winter haute couture season chose not to reflect the gloom. Fantasy is still at the crux of couture, the style and attitude of indie pop stars too. Chanel’s Virginie Viard had her mind on the halcyon days of disco, saying in the video-show notes that she was inspired by those times when she went with predecessor Karl Lagerfeld to Les Bains Douches and Le Palace in Paris, both popular discotheques of the ’80s. Was she saying that she was missing the sybaritic night life now that nightclubs are not (yet) opened?

Of the 34 designers listed in the official calendar (strangely, Balmain is not named), none presented an entire collection, although some showed enough to provide an idea of what the season’s looks might be about. Guo Pei, in a video shot in Beijing, provided eleven from a collection called Savannah. Unsurprisingly, images of animals appeared as realistically as possible. The “sustainable couture” brand Aelis showed 15 looks in a weird and wonderful video that featured extraordinary dresses, some modelled by men.

For some brands, it was an opportunity for image building or enhancing. Iris Van Herpen, in a beautiful short film titled Transmotion, showed only one white dress. A single piece too was offered by the Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz who made a dress entirely with grosgrain ribbons. Margiela, too, showed one outfit, but you could not make out what it was in the barely-anything-to-discern colour-negative video posted, which could have been shot via a temperature scanner.

The Hedi Slimane domain of alt-music seems to be preferred by couturiers… unconventional vocals and strange beats, not necessarily the design seemed to drive the message of modernity


If one was not few enough, Valentino’s presentation takes the cake: The house showed none! Unless a fabric floating can be considered a dress. In fact, it was less a presentation than an invitation—soundtracked by FKA Twigs—to a later event in Rome involving the photographer Knick Night. It was the same with Elie Saab—the house showed their bejewelling and embroidery processes, spliced with scenes of nature that probably inspired the work, but there was no dress.

Songstresses shared the limelight with some of the dresses. There was the French singer Yseult, singing on a floating catwalk at Balmain. At Azzaro, Olivier Theysken’s first couture collection for the house was revealed in what could be a music video, featuring the Belgian musician Sylvie Kreusch. From the five outfits, it is hard to say if this could be the big comeback that has so far alluded him. The Hedi Slimane domain of alt-music seems to be preferred by couturiers. From Mandy Takes a Gun at Christophe Josse to Acid at Chanel, unconventional vocals and strange beats seemed to drive the message of modernity. There was, however, one without music: Adeline André’s soundless slideshow.

Humour and wit are almost entirely missing, except at Viktor & Rolf. Shot against a doorway of an empty room, the video was voiced by the musician Mika, who described the nine-piece capsule as “three wardrobes for three mindsets in these extraordinary times of change.” Of one sweeping, full-length coat, he said, “social-distancing never felt so sweet in this white faux-leather manteau.” The first and only video to bring on a smile.

Given that masks are accessories du jour and many, many more jours to come, only two designers showed them: Rahul Mishra—festooned with butterflies— and Viktor & Rolf, noting that the face mask has “won global acclaim as the smartest new accessory of the season”. There were face shields too. At Xuan, Vietnamese designer Thu Nguyen made them out of flowers; they totally obscured the face, while at Aganovich, entire heads were more completely covered than they would be with a balaclava!

Many couture houses claim they have ways to connect with their clients directly, to inform them of their latest collections. This digital HCFW, therefore, isn’t necessarily for those who have this special relationship. Touted as an event that gives everyone a front row view, it tallies with the notion that fashion is entertainment. But the video presentations are uneven, with some lost in their own artsiness. Sure, couture has always had its share of affected creativity, but how this can lift spirits and convince viewers that couture is good and necessary and to be supported, even if only voyeuristically, we really don’t know.

Screen grabs: respective brands/Youtube

Balmain: Be Buoyant

Olivier Rousteing takes a short cruise down the Seine


Balmain haute couture Jul 2020 P1

Typical of Olivier Rousteing, Balmain’s haute couture presentation was a rousing affair. His love of models is well known, so no sketches or tailor dummies for him. Rather, real, in-the-flesh boys and girls, and good-looking dancers, prancing on a barge that cruises down the Seine, passing some of the 4th arrondissement’s famous landmarks. The models walk the length of the barge, with Mr Rousteing among them, adjusting the gowns to flow nicely, all the better for the photographers to capture the couture above the currents. French high fashion has probably never seen such lively riparian entertainment.

While many designers, this season, have resigned to the fact that a fashion show as we know it is not, for now, possible (Alexis Mabille created a boxed-up runway, as if hoarding off potential spectators), Mr Rousteing took to the heart of Paris and set up, in the open, an eye-catching floating runway (the action spilled onto the riverbank too, with dancers stirring up a carnival mood). Relevance in check, he had the whole presentation streamed on TikTok, which unfortunately did not fare too well, as the broadcast was choppy and stopped abruptly. It isn’t clear why a Balmain fashion show should sit alongside the typical content of the video equivalent of Instagram—jokey, unscripted, and rather mindless.

Balmain haute couture Jul 2020 P2

Dancers, dressed like the designer, first appear on the barge, doing some vigorous moves. There is also the French pop singer Yseult imperturbably augmenting the soundtrack that suffers from poor acoustics. The models emerge onto a mirrored runway that reflects the blue, blue sky, and stand on their respective platforms. Then, they are immobile. Although, as a tableau, this would be the closest to a traditional catwalk, there is a sense that it is unnatural for the models. They seem bothered by the wind in their hair. Are they afraid, too, that they might fall into the Seine, even if this isn’t an America’s Next Top Model ‘challenge’? They look like fish out of the river.

As for the clothes, it is the Balmain that Mr Rousteing has created for the house since 2011. Some of the more colourful gowns hint at the good years he spent at Roberto Cavalli. There is one ruffled number that would be perfect for singing alone at the Grand Palais, sans audience! Others, such as those familiar, overwrought, body-con mini-dresses, reflect the vision of a club kid bringing his sense of glamour to couture, now embraced by reality TV stars and wealthy socialites alike. Mr Rousteing has found a formula, and, given the restrictive situation before the show, it is probably best to stick to what he knows best. And have fun at the same time—he certainly looks like he has.

Screen grabs: (top) Balmain/TikTok, (bottom) Paris Videostars/Youtube

This Is Not About Taste


Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain has, by and large, been a little difficult to stomach. This season, it doesn’t get that far before we feel something unpleasant coming out of our throat. The problem could be because we’re not a Kardashian, or one of Mr Rousteing’s 4.3 million IG followers. We just don’t have the constitution that’s strong enough.

You’d think that with so many fans, Mr Rousteing would have had fashioned Balmain into an inspirational and aspirational brand. But if you Google “Balmain is ”, the result may surprise you. Google’s recommendation in the completion of that sentence is as follows: “…owned by”, “…tacky”, “…expensive”, and “…overpriced”. He who oversees the branding of Balmain should be quite concerned.

In the October 2015 review of the Balmain spring/summer 2016 collection for The Washington Post, Robin Givhan wrote that “The French fashion house is always ostentatious and sometimes vulgar.” She also rightly noted that “Those aren’t clothes on the runway, they’re a social media moment.” On his love for ’70s silhouette and ’80s hues, she said, “Other designers mine those decades, but Rousteing does so in a manner that capitalizes on the era’s middle-brow, mass culture.”

If that collection—a hint at what he was to do in his collaboration with H&M (that later proved to be wildly successful)—did not win Ms Givhan’s heart and praise, we’re curious to know what she thinks of Mr Rousteing’s latest. Has the “middle” shifted? Or is tacky still pronounced?


It’s become impossible to talk about Balmain without sounding like we really saw the dregs of Paris Fashion Week. Balmain at the present state reminds us that just because it’s French does not mean it’s fetching. While we maintain that French elegance—indeed, elegance anywhere today—isn’t what it was before (and it shouldn’t be since fashion evolves), Balmain’s brazen and meretricious ways with form and decoration are not pushing French forward the way Jacquemus’s controlled and gentle teasing of proportions is. Balmain’s predecessor Christophe Decarnin may have set in motion the excesses now associated with the house, but it is Mr Rousteing who is driving past the speed limit.

How else does one explain the craziness that went into one outfit? Even the humble T-shirt was given an upgrade, like so many gadgets crucial to our digital lives, with the addition of washing machine-unfriendly chains, beading, sequins and so much more. Mr Rousteing was telling us that piling on is the way forward—the complex and intricate pastiche of animal print and hide, eye-popping jacquards, the never-enough appliqués, the where-to-begin embroideries, the by-now-clichéd metallic studs, and those everywhere fringing. There’s so much fringing (even belts are fringed)—they came in beaded strains, metal chains, leather cords as well—that even curtains in a brothel pale in comparison. Could this be Mr Rousteing showing off what the atelier can really do—his own métiers d’art?


We really wanted to see the art in all of it. But, with some of the jackets, for example, we saw Lucky Plaza, where budget-conscious mamasans go to be outfitted for an evening at the yezonghui (夜总会) or the nightclub. And there were the colours: variations of browns, including what some members of the media optimistically call caramel—shades many store buyers tell us women just won’t look at. Read: can’t sell. The thing is, collectively, everything looked like they’ve spent too much time in mud and sun. Sure, we understand it has to do with the tribal vibe that Mr Rousteing was communicating and you’re not wrong for thinking of Africa, but this was the Serengeti by way of Calabasas!

That Mr Rousteing is creating Calabasas chic in Paris is understandable: you know where his biggest fans come from. Sometimes we feel bad for Mr Rousteing. He’s put so much effort into the outfits (these are not simple cut and sew) and they still turn out wanting. All that excess and still deficient. What’s missing? Maybe it’s that modern rarity called class.


Super-Models Revisited

Claudia, Cindy & NaomiBalmain’s spring/summer 2016 campaign shot by Steven Klein featuring three of the supermodels of the Nineties: Claudia, Cindy and Naomi. Photo: Balmain

Olivier Rousteing was no more than 5 years old when super-models Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell (together with Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Tajtana Patitz) collectively became the superstars that models preceding them never turned out to be. Mr Rousteing couldn’t have been aware of these women’s status in fashion any more than being enthralled with the games that he played as a pre-schooler. Yet, now, he’s paying homage to them as if somehow they were an influential part in his early life and on his journey to becoming one of today’s most watched (and socially followed) designers. For the Balmain spring/summer 2016, he has united a trio of the original ’90s super-models to front the season’s advertising campaign. Is this innocent idol worship or another calculated round of celebrities to add to an already giddy pile of famous names?

The black and white photograph, first shared by Mr Rousteing via his Instagram page, is, perhaps, more than a passing nod to the women who partly shaped a generation; it is possibly a reference to the iconic, also monochromatic, photo that many believe launched the careers of these models and ratified the phenomenon that prefixed a rather prosaic job description with the word ‘super’ (despite the glamour it suggested, there is a rather comic ring to the name, more so if you consider Janice Dickenson’s claim to have coined the word). That photo, shot by Peter Lindbergh in New York in 1989, featured (a very young and raw) Naomi, (the older and more polished) Linda, Tajtana, Christy, and Cindy—yes, all were known by their first name, just like Madonna or lasses in Indonesia—in a surprisingly un-haughty pose and in rather unexciting clothes (jeans!) with, gasp, barely-there makeup. It would be a shot that fashion editors would later say typified Mr Lindbergh’s work: the models were handpicked by the man, they wore little makeup, and the clothes were often not over-the-top. Still, it made it to the cover of British Vogue in January 1990.

Peter Lindbergh for VogueThe Peter Lindbergh-lensed photo that became the cover of British Vogue in January 1990. Photo: Vogue

That Vogue cover not only seriously launched the careers of those on it; it opened doors to pop stardom for them. It was reported that as soon as George Michael saw that issue of the Condé Nast publication (then helmed by Liz Tiberis before her move to American Harper’s Bazaar in 1992), it was an instant casting call for his music video Freedom. In 1991, the super-model’s status was sealed when these women strutted in Gianni Versace’s March couture show—their starring roles in the Freedom video projected behind them. Mr Lindbergh, in the same year, directed Models: The Film. As the narrator in the black-and-white movie said, “The super-models are to millions of teenage-girls what rock stars are to teenage-boys: an adolescent fantasy comes true. The super-models are the princesses of modern-day fairy tale: the daughters of factory workers and broken homes have gone straight to the bank.”

And banking on their past aura and mystery is what the young designers of today are doing with models of yore, specifically the late ’80s, when “a pack of women emerged, whom the industry has since dubbed the supermodels, who enlivened fashion though personality and verve and helped attract the eyes of the world,” as Nigel Barker informedly wrote in his book, Models of Influence: 50 Women who Reset the Course of Fashion. Is the resurgence—“dream come true” for Mr Rousteing—a moment of nostalgia or a reflection of the boredom with today’s bland models with equally trite lives? As Grace Jones, herself a model in the ’70s before she took to singing and acting, said, “Models are there to look like mannequins, not like real people.”

Christy for Galliano SS 2016

Christy Turlington, shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, for John Galliano, now designed by Bill Gaytten. Photo: John Galliano

Perhaps it is the reflection of the times. While Rousteing’s chosen trio glammed things up with those hard-to-fathomed-how-desirable-they-can-be clothes, other old-timers are playing the reality card. Christy Turlington, shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, looks disconcertingly un-glamorous in John Galliano’s spring/summer 2016 campaign. Not to be outdone in the let’s-not-over-do-it stakes are Nadja Auermann, Stella Tennant, Eva Herzigova, and Yasmin Le Bon in Giorgio Armani’s “New Normal” (Normcore reborn?), Peter Lindbergh-lensed advertising series, all looking as if they’ve worn their school uniform for a high-school reunion.

The super-models of yesteryear are no more, just as our own posse of top girls—Ethel Fong, Hanis, Pat Kraal, Nora Ariffin—are but a distant memory, if at all enjoying any recall, for most Singaporeans. Many of today’s models, no matter how palpable their endeavour, still remain at arm’s length to the polish of the girls of those early years. Current faves Kendal Jenner and Gigi Hadid (the Hadids!) often look like school girls playing grownups, with no emotional connection to the viewer. Sure, every decade and every generation have their own aesthetic preferences, but has glamour, like fashion, become too ‘street’ and ‘real’ to be glamorous?

GA SS 2016 CampaignEva Herzigova, Stella Tennant, Yasmin Le Bon, and Nadja Auermann for Giorgio Armani, spring/summer 2016

“Models are glamourous because that’s what we do,” Cindy Crawford had once said. However, with Instagram, we often get to come up front with the not-so-glamourous aspect of a model’s life. The mystique is no more when professional and personal lives are one, when a private moment is public enjoyment, when online folly is all-round jolly. The “verve” Mr Barker mentioned is there, but it is more a spirit of desperation, aided by widely-exposed digital platforms, than a vigour of deserving success.

“I don’t just bring my body to work; I don’t just consider myself just a hanger for the clothes,” said Ms Crawford. If only Kendal and co concur.

Scuffle To Get These?

H&M X BalmainNo, we’re not kidding. You can’t see our incredulous smile, but, like yours, it’s there. Fracas for fashion: there are really those who do forgo grace for a gown! According to the Guardian, “Scuffles broke out on Regent Street in London as impatient shoppers jostled to get into H&M for the launch of a collection by the designer label Balmain.” If that’s not bad enough, consider The Racked’s headline: “Terrifying Footage of Shoppers Laying Waste to a Store.” Out of context, this could have been Kabul, Afghanistan!

H&M’s latest collaboration was launched worldwide on 5 October. The response, as described, was, according to the brand’s spokespeople in major cities, “unprecedented”. What’s astonishing is that it’s only Balmain, Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain. Mr Rousteing, by most standards, is a newcomer—a baby among older giants of the industry. It’s understandable if it’s, say, Alaïa, but it is not. Sure, Mr Rousteing, all of 29 (he was installed at Balmain at 25), connects to his generation, but are these really alluring clothes, born of vast experience and refined taste? Whatever they are, he’s put them out there in H&M and all hell broke loose. On Instagram, with the fine-tuning of filters, they are the glamorous glad rags that make IG the unfathomable repository of questionable sartorial choices.


Screen grab of Mrs Christopher Lee doing a Kendall Jenner for her IG followers 

Fann Wong—not exactly Mr Rousteing’s peer, was eager to post her made-for-the-masses Balmain on her IG account in the early part of the day of the launch, possibly to beat everyone to it. She wore the green sequinned dress, looking pleased, as if she has just won a best actress award. It could, of course, be backstage at a getai performance. It is doubtful if she queued for the dress (and goodness knows how many others availed to her—likely the results of her stylist Martin Wong’s good connections), but it is certain everyone wants a piece of the action. Some just don’t have to be that active.

While scuffles were not reported in the queues here, people were anxious to show their afraid-to-lose side. As early as 4pm on Tuesday, SOTD spotted a line at H&M’s Orchard Building flagship on Grange Road (many looked ready to call a store front home for the next couple of days). According to The Straits Times, people, in fact, started queuing at 7pm on Monday, and by the morning of the launch day, more than 500 people got in line. Although the waiting shoppers were not rowdy, their willingness to camp out on concrete pavement does constitute extreme behaviour. Where, if parents or spouse had asked, would they have said they had spent those nights?  It is ironic that in order to get your hands on a couple of “glamorous dresses” you had to yield to something as unglamorous as sleeping on a public walkway.


Shoppers queuing overnight outside the Orchard Building store to grab a piece of affordable Balmain. Photo: A.B. Tan

At the Orchard Building store the clothes were sold out in four hours, possibly less. An hour after it opened at 8am, while some of you were sauntering into the office, most of the items were reported by shoppers, who managed to get into the store, to be gone. Before noon, only a couple of zip-back tube tops in black and white were left. Any merchandiser will say that’s effectively a 100 percent sell-through. Who in fashion today can boast of such a success?

Elsewhere in the region, frenzy, too, rather than scrum was reported. In Kuala Lumpur, our source told us that people queued over 50 hours outside the H&M outlet at Lot 10. And merchandise vanished in as little as five hours, with many people claiming they were unable to get several of the pieces they wanted. Over in Bangkok, our correspondence told us that there was no overnight queue as H&M is inside Paragon mall (given the city’s sensitivities over security, after-hours sleepover inside shopping centres is not permitted), and the store had issued coloured bracelets earlier to regulate the crowd on the actual day. Before noon, all the racks were empty save one with a few tube tops, just as in Singapore. The sell-out rate in Bangkok is surprising because just across the street in Siam Square, similarly “opulent, glamorous, sexy”—as described by H&M’s Ann-Sofie Johansson—numbers can be had for a song. For the most ardent (and patient) fans, however, you’ll have to look at Seoul. According to local reports, the die-hards started queuing a week ago!

The empty racks in less than 4 hours at H&M, Paragon, Bangkok. Photo: Jagkrit Suwanmethanon

How much of this madness is media-induced? For so many writers and bloggers, H&M X Balmain is the fashion event of the year. Adidas X Kanye West step aside. The Telegraph told its readers to “Prepare to fall in love with Olivier Rousteing”. At, they swooned: “all as chic and distinctively Balmain as the collections Rousteing shows on the runway season after season.”A report in Huffington Post on 15 October to announce the approaching launch was prefaced with 30 emojis depicting hands-up jubilation. Yes, 30. Go figure!

Are these garments really so covetable? Do shoppers truly think these are beautiful clothes or are they merely buying into the hype that these are “affordable” designer duds? Who knew Balmain is this big? Despite the sequins, has Balmain really added some stardust to H&M? One product development specialist we know told us, “ugly sells, tacky sells”. He is not exaggerating. Mr Rousteing’s Balmain may have elevated trashy ostentation with the house’s atelier, but with H&M, you can’t seriously bring up what’s never positioned high in the first place. Much of H&M X Balmain is the kind of showy excess once associated with street walkers and bar girls who aimed for maximum flash with minimum cash. That’s ironic because even hookers don’t dress like this anymore.

Denim Shirts: All Over Again

Rihana in denim shirtScreen grab of Rihanna in the video FourFiveSeconds

We’ve been noticing, especially these past two years, a resurgence of oversized denim shirts—including their chambray cousins—worn as if they’re the newest things in chemise design. The trend has been enthusiastically adopted by Rihanna, who paired hers with denim jeans and skirts. It’s now even more pronounced, with Riri wearing a belted oversized denim shirt in her latest music video, FourFiveSeconds, in which she shares screen space with Paul McCartney and Kanye West. Directed by fashion photography darlings, the Dutch duo Inez and Vinoodh, the video brings to our mind Janet Jackson’s 1990 single, Love Will Never Do (Without You), directed by Herb Ritts.

(Mr Ritts seriously got into directing music videos because of Madonna. He had shot the cover of her True Blue album in 1986, and was later asked to direct the video for Cherish. Mr Ritts apparently said to the Queen of Pop, “But I’m a still photographer”, to which she replied, “Well, you have a few weeks to learn”.)

Since we’re in recall mode, let’s stay for awhile. Rihanna apparently wore an old Sean Jean (picked from Mr West’s wardrobe) in FourFiveSeconds. She may have made the denim shirt—vintage too—a part of her mostly trashy style, but back in the early 80s, it was Sade who wore denim shirts without looking like she was trying too hard to impress (or, in current parlance, score likes). Sade had something that was innate: she wore body-con dresses without a self-conscious need to seduce; she mostly wore one accessory—hoop earrings—to forge a signature look, and she wore bolero tops even before Madonna’s current obsession with them. The Nigerian-British singer truly had that elusive ease of style, one that played well to her laid-back sensuality.

Sade in denim shirtSade doing denim on denim back in 1980. Photo: David Montgomery/Getty Images

Sade, who turned 56 last month, was no stranger to fashion, being an alumnus of London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. Before embarking on her singing career, she was trying to be a menswear designer, which, perhaps, explains her sometimes androgynous getup. Fashion, always looking back, hasn’t forgotten her. In Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring/summer 2013 homage to 1980s pop stars, Sade was not absent (Joan Smalls, in a fitted black lace dress, played her). In the same season, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing declared that Sade and her penchant for men’s blazer were clear influences. Similarly, our admiration is No Ordinary Love.

To Rihanna, we say, good try.