Two Of Kind: Sculptural Shoulders

A dress shoulder protruding from the bodily shoulder has been a kind of signature of the Indian designer Gaurav Gupta… until now

GG vs CC: Which came first? (Left) Chrishell Stause in Gaurav Gupta. Photo: Chrishell Stause/Twitter. (Right) Model in a Carol Chen Couture dress. Photo: Chin Boh Kay for SOTD

During a recent broadcast of the season 5 reunion of the American reality TV series Selling Sunset, cast member and fashion queen of the show Chrishell Stause turned up for her chat with host Tan France in a stunner of a dress. The chilli-red, one-shoulder, one-slit, floor-length goddess silhouette in pleated organza has a distinctive shoulder. It does not sit on the top of the body, but protrudes to eye-level in an arc that looked like one side of a bow. The gown is by the Delhi-based Indian couturier and Central Saint Martin alum, Gaurav Gupta, known for his sumptuous lehengas (the full-length skirts that Indian women wear on formal and ceremonial occasions, as did Carrie Bradshaw), saris, and—just as exquisitely—gowns that are as popular among Indian women as those from abroad.

Two days ago, at the newly renovated Design Orchard, a long dress with a similar shoulder treatment was shown. But rather than a single alary projection, the number came with two. The fabric used was also pleated organza, but unlike Mr Gupta’s truly sculptural design, these extended shoulders were not build on a bodice. Rather, it was the bodice itself: two oblongs bunched at the shoulder where the protuberances opened like arched springs, and creating a matronly bustiness at the chest. The gown is by the Singapore-based American couturier, Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (San Francisco) alum and Singapore’s brightest design star Carol Chen, a recent practitioner of the craft of high fashion, whose confections are adored by her socialite friends.

Close up of the sculptured shoulder of Gaurav Gupta. Photo: Gaurav Gupta

Mr Gupta sometimes calls his sculptural shapes “mathematical forms”. It is no exaggeration, even if the constructions are, as considerable calculations are required to effect such a precise extension that shifts the natural line of the shoulders so dramatically. His designs have been described by women as “romantic” although Mr Gupta has referred to them as “abstract”. His clothes are so breathtakingly suitable for red-carpet events that they have been worn by international celebrities such as Megan Thee Stallion at the Academy Awards this past March and, at the recent Cannes Film Festival, Indian actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, the Italian actress Catrinel Marlon, Indonesian actress Raline Shah, and the American actress Liza Koshy, not to mention Cardi B in the music video No Love.

Ms Chen has described her debut couture collection as “one of the most incredible experiences of my life“. Apart from her muse and her mentor, it is not known who has worn Carol Chen Couture. It is impossible to trace a direct line to the provenance of her ideas for her dresses or from which pool of inspiration she draws. The collection, of which two looks made the runway at Design Orchard, is called Florescence (the state of an object in bloom) and is supposed to be “inspired by Gardens by the Bay”. Yet, it is hard not to chart her aesthetical choices—the shoulders, especially—to India. Ms Chen, a former beauty queen, is no doubt partial to gowns. And it is understandable she would be entranced by the designs of an experienced couture master. In the end, CC or GG, we’re sure you can see the art from the not for yourself.

But Not Today

Design Orchard is “re-launched” after it closed last month for renovation. Is the store “elevated”, as they promised. Is it rejuvenated? Is it, finally, sensational, almost two years after TaFF took over its operations?

The day after its re-opening on 20 May, Design Orchard was considerably quiet. Two or three courting couples were browsing, but no purchase was made, as it appeared to us during our reasonably long visit. Two Caucasian women were happily looking at what could be resort wear. One had wanted to try something, but it seemed the dress she picked was not available in her size. They, too, left—without buying anything. A day earlier, the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF)-operated Design Orchard opened to brand owners and friends of the store after a month of “transforming to a fresh new look”. It was a roaringly festive affair, with lion dancers in red and white 狮子 (shizi) costumes prancing their way through the re-configured space—most obvious, the runway display that directly faced the entrance was now removed. It was rather surprising that, for a retailer that had proudly touted its offering of top local fashion, the re-opening welcomes shoppers with a Wellness Festival, which, according to them, was staged in conjunction with the inaugural Wellness Festival Singapore, “an initiative by Singapore Tourism Board (STB)”, the statutory board that “owns” the Design Orchard project, which is jointly supported by two other government agencies, Enterprise Singapore (ESG) and Jurong Town Corporation (JTC).

Two and half weeks after that rousing re-opening, a by-invite-only “official relaunch” party was organised last night to introduce Design Orchard’s stable of brands, some new, some not, as well as “a lot of enhancements” given to the three-year-old, 9,000-square-foot store (touted as a “retail showcase”), according to TaFF CEO Semun Ho. Contrary to what the invitation tantalised, a runway-less fashion show—forty minutes late—took place on the central aisle of the made-over space. About thirty designers and labels participated in the presentation, all with varying degrees of calibre, originality, relevance, attention to finish, and design savvy. The show may have been in a refreshed space, but the clothes seemed the “same-old, same-old”, as a few attendees shared, disappointed by the staleness. One industry veteran said to us, “The renovation, at most, was superficial. More important—which wasn’t done enough—was that they should have used this opportunity to completely overhaul their labels”.

Designer Carol Chen (right) with two models in her “couture” gowns

The “highlight” of the show, someone was heard saying, was TaFF’s star designer Carol Chen, with her newly established “Couture” label. She sent out two of the ten looks that were presented in Paris three months ago, during—but not part of—Paris Fashion Week. The first was a green, long-sleeved, belted, polyester-mesh column. On the bodice was an embroidered encrustation that appeared to have been something molten, flowed from the right shoulder to cover the breasts, and then solidified. That was followed by her finale gown (also the last to appear in Paris), an atrocity of pleated polyester organza, bunched at the shoulder to create a towering protrusion on each side, with the left that refused to stay upright. The tented skirt was an amusing disarray of swirls that one attendee described as “an explosion”. Someone followed with, “Where did she get her fabrics from? Arab Street?” Before the show commenced, chatter emerged between the clinks of champagne flutes that, initially, only one of Ms Chen’s gown was picked for the show. Dismayed, she allegedly went straight to the top to know why a mere gown was selected and why she was not closing the show (the organiser had, apparently wanted her to open). She had her way.

It has been said that we were harsh on Carol Chen Couture’s Paris debut. It was the label’s first time showing in the city, we were duly reminded. A baby first step. Re-reading the post now, we realised we should have said more. We wanted Ms Chen’s show in the French capital to be good, to do our nation proud, to justify her lofty standing in TaFF. But, at the same time, we did not want to lie. When we listen to a vocal performance, for example, we want to be drawn into the singing, without being too concerned with the technical failings (there shouldn’t be any). Whether from fry to falsetto (assuming a he is behind the mike), the marvelous octave leaps, we want to be able to sail into the story telling. Similarly, when we read, say, Jane Austen (a name that just came to us), we want to be absorbed into her narrative. There is a discernible intelligence in her work that we, the readers, feel, and this can be attributed to, among many things, the unmistakable skill of her writing. Perusing her novels, we do not need to be disturbed and distracted by problems of syntax or construct. We cannot, regrettably, say the same of Ms Chen when we acquainted ourselves with her designs: the lack of technical finesse was as confounding as the crude white running stitch she used in one pink couture confection to hold part of a bodice to the inner garment. “An artist’s principal task,” wrote Truman Capote in A Voice from the Cloud, “(is to) tame and shape the raw creative vision.”

The in-store fashion show to mark the “re-launch” of Design Orchard

To be sure, Ms Chen, basking in her post-Paris pride (in the presence of her “mentor”, Vogue Singapore publisher Bettina von Schlippe and her ardent supporter, fellow American Paige Parker; both were dressed by Ms Chen), should not have to bear the brunt of essentially an inflated show to evince what Design Orchard lacks: Design. Carol Chen Couture was not the only label that set the conversation going about the paucity of imaginative, high-calibre, laudable, well-executed designs in this city-state. Much of what was presented in the show was saved by clever styling—it rescued the presentation from tanking into complete blah. As it’s usually said in the image-making business, “styling to hide”. What, indeed, was the styling concealing? If you broke down the looks, there was really nothing much to see—the proverbial all show but no substance. Even veteran designer Thomas Wee’s relaxed elegance was lost in the convivial busyness. No woman—or man—should need to go to such lengths to look fashionable because there was no fashion to begin with. Spirited can be meaningless, just as jovial can be mere façade. We have to admit that we expected too much, thinking, this time, we could see design, but if design manifested, it was thin and, mostly, unfelt.

And what was Design Orchard projecting? It was hard to tell from the show clothes. Was it streetwear? Resort wear? Or, sartorial rojak? What struck us was the odd plethora of ethnic styles. It seemed like we were watching a show that was part Night Bazaar of Chiangmai, part Love Anchor of Canggu, Bali. Two weeks earlier, we did notice in the store that there was an increase in clothes made of folk fabrics, such as batik, ikat, and the tie-dyed. These were in addition to the already-plentiful resort-wear-seeming clothes (including one “luxury resort fashion brand”) that have taken a firm grip in the merchandising of the store. When we asked around with the hope of finding the answer to why the prominence of these clothes, a repeated reply was, “ask Tina”. When TaFF took over the running of Design Orchard from the ill-fated Naiise in 2020, one of the first hires was Tina Tan, the fashion doyenne behind the Link Group, and the sole owner of the multi-label store Link Boutique, the fashion label Alldressedup (precursor to the independent In Good Company), and the home-furnishing/lifestyle shop Living the Link (all three are now defunct), as well as the ad-hoc, travelling showroom Privato. Ms Tan, as we understand it, is the consultant curator, and she has been instrumental in bringing the inchoate mass of brands into the store. According to staffers, there are presently “more than 100 fashion labels, with 30 that are new to Design Orchard”. As TaFF’s Semun Ho concurred, when she spoke to the guests last night: “What can we do without Tina?”

Design Thomas Wee (third from left) with his models

It is not clear if Ms Tan’s strategy is to turn her retail charge into the next Island Shop (once owned by Tangs before it was sold to Decks, the retailer/manufacturer that resurrected M)phosis—one of the eight brands the company now holds), or to bring in as many labels as she could to improve the reportedly weak gross profit of the selling floor. These days in retail, there is scant regard for the relationship between quantity and quality. Earlier, during Naiise’s stewardship and the TaFF years preceding the renovation, Design Orchard had a strong gift-shop vibe. Even their fashion accessories, such as scarves and handbags, would strike a chord with tourists needing obligatory souvenirs to bring home. For a rather lengthy period of time, they sold a staggering range of merchandise that included kitchenware, rempah pastes, teas and such that were connected to fashion only by their proximity to the clothes in the store. They were looking rather like the annual Boutique Fairs (only with better looking interiors and fixtures), with some items so cringe-worthy that we feared someone might start a page Terok SG Souvenirs on Facebook! After the renovation, Design Orchard seems to have scaled down the number of brands that target the mari-memasak market or those individuals decorating to WFH. Yet, for some reason we have not determined, the store is still unable to entirely shake off its souvenir-centric leaning.

In a VisitSingapore video shared online last February, Design Orchard’s general manager Julynn Tay said that the store was conceived to “allow both locals and tourists to come to discover a range of Singaporean talents”. That positioning has not changed, but the target still seems to be tourists. Clearly addressing the shopping needs of foreigners vacationing here is important to the merchandise mix of the store. It is hard not to see this as meeting the expectations laid out for Ms Tay and her bosses by STB, just as it’s reasonable to assume that the tourism board wishes to have a tourist-friendly retail product they could promote overseas—as ESG did, for example, in Shanghai in 2018, with 12 Singaporean brands (that included Love, Bonito and Yacht 21), before the pandemic struck. But, a city must, foremost, be adored by its own people before it could be one loved by tourists. If Design Orchard could first appeal to shoppers here, it is conceivable they’d score even better with overseas visitors. So few of us have adopted batik fashion as a wardrobe staple. Yet, the store stocks a strangely inordinate selection of baju batik. Does it not comport with the suspicion that Design Orchard is aiming for the tourist dollar and those still seeking the exotic far east? In her opening address last night, Ms Ho admitted that “it is difficult” working with government agencies. Is Design Orchard’s barely discernible makeover and unaffected merchandising hinting at a possible strain?

A new men’s corner is introduced at Design Orchard

Much of the refurbished interior of the store appeared unchanged to us. According to Ms Ho, the “redecoration” is meant to be “meaningful” to the brand owners and the customers. In achieving that, they have been “conscious of the sustainability” aspect, “reusing a lot of the fixtures and (the) furniture” If that’s sustainability, that’s naive. A guest was heard saying, “that means they have no budget to really renovate.” It appeared to us that it was largely an exercise in moving things around. To be certain that we were not mistaken, we asked a member of the staff to tell us what was changed. “The cashier is moved to the back,” she gladly told us. Pointing to the left side of the store (along Cairnhill Road), she added, “the fitting room is moved to the back of the cashier.” In addition, we noticed that there’s now a new men’s zone. Apparently, a common refrain among male shoppers was: “We like to support local, but there’s nothing for us here”. To be certain, Design Orchard did have men’s from the beginning (Depression and Q Menswear were early supporters), but their products did not, as we were informed, move. We have said before that the entire store is suitably configured for shopping. In the past, the mixed floor layout may have been a tad messy, but it is now neater and better zoned. Still, the merchandise placement seems rather curious. When you enter the store and turn to the right (as is the common navigational instinct), the first rack on the prime location that you’d encounter in this Orchard Road Singaporean fashion flagship were hung with plain tank tops!

In the end, it is not just the attractiveness of the store that would set Design Orchard forward in their quest to be “where local brands flourish” (note the avoidance of ‘design’ in the phrasing). For anything to thrive, it must advance in an environment conducive to collective and nurturing growth. As a “retail showcase”, Design Orchard has to offer showcase retail too. Even with a celebratory relaunch, there was a disconcerting lack of attention to detail in the visual merchandising, for example. From the opening in late May to yesterday’s bash, many garments have remained unpressed, including one shirt (the whole collection was messy) by Silvia Teh that has remained stubbornly creased from the day it first enjoyed an upfront position in the store. Design Orchard not only has to espouse quality of design, it has to cradle quality of vision—which is still not immediately clear. And, consistency of message. One of the suggestions offered in response to Carol Chen’s admirable standing among TaFFers was that she speaks with an (American) accent—one thought to be delectable, admirable, even superior. If so, the presence of a brand such as wetteeshirt (of the Prata Kosing and Don’t Say Bojio fame) would appear at odds with Ms Chen’s atas vibe. Or, is that considered, inclusive, and vice versa? TaFF has been indomitable, a trouper, but did they do better than their predecessor, Naiise? It did appear so. Were we then in commendable, first-rate design territory? Not quite the day yet.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

In Paris, Finally

Two years after she was named the winner of the inaugural Singapore Stories competition, Carol Chen showed a small collection in Paris last March. She said, it was “40 years in the making”. A worthwhile wait? And for whom?

Carol Chen (right) with a model on the runway in Paris

There is a stark difference between “show(ing) during Paris Fashion Week” and presenting a collection as part of the PFW calendar, set by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM), or, as it is popularly referred to in English, the French Fashion Federation. Carol Chen (陈慧敏), the Taiwanese-American whose eponymous label is referred to as a “Singaporean brand”, was careful to describe her debut in Paris as the former. Last March, a month before our COVID restrictions were lifted, Ms Chen participated in a fashion show in the French capital that was part of her prize, promised to her by organiser of Singapore Stories 2000 , the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF), that included a “retail collaboration with (the store) SocietyA”, as well as “one of the winning looks displayed in the contemporary gallery at Asian Civilisations Museum alongside renowned designers in #SGFashionNow”, and cash. In an Instagram entry before the presentation in The Westin Paris, she wrote that the “show is for Singapore, the country that made this opportunity possible and inspired me to design again”.

While that dedication might arouse pride among those waiting here for the next Andrew Gn to emerge, it was a tad misleading with regards to who organised the multi-label show or if TaFF was actively involved. Although Ms Chen and her segment were “sponsored” (or “supported”; she used the words interchangeably) by TaFF (the Federation had initially made clear—“airfare and accommodation not included”), she was in Paris as “Singapore’s representative for FD Paris fashion show during Paris Fashion Week 2021 (the presentation was postponed to this year due to the pandemic)”, as stated in the TaFF website. But what is the cryptic “FD” event that TaFF mentioned? After the competition, it became clear that FD is Fashion Division, a Jakarta-based organisation that is “the first International Fashion Career Center, redefining Fashion Learning by adapting French education system”, their website tells us. FD also organizes fashion shows (primarily) in Paris to coincide with PFW for designers of the region since 2019.

Carol Chen was the only Singapore-based brand at the FD fashion show, which primarily featured Indonesia labels selected and presented by Gerakan Ekonomi Kreatif Nasional (GEKRAFS) or National Creative Economy Movement of the archipelago to our south. It is not clear what the relationship is between GEKRAFS and TaFF, if any, or why there was a need to ride along with the Indonesians (including, curiously, the graduates of Bina Nusantara University, a private institution in greater Jakarta, as well as those from Lasalle and Ciputra, Surabaya). How the participation of Ms Chen, an American representing our nation, jibbed with GEKRAFS’s mission is not quite clear either. Further diminishing the SG presence, Ms Chen, who identifies as “hustler, designer, adventurer”, chose to work with Malaysian stylist Cho Wee Chee and New York jewellery designer Zameer Kassam (also the creator of her engagement ring). As it was at its inception, Singapore Stories were now told abroad through others, too. Could these be the individuals that Senior Minister of State Sim Ann, in describing the forces behind Singapore Stories, called “people who all care about the advancement of Singapore fashion”? The more caring non-natives?

After her win in 2020, Carol Chen told Vogue Singapore, whose publisher Bettina von Schlippe is often identified as Ms Chen’s “mentor”, in an editorial that she would launch her “first full collection during the most iconic week in fashion“. However full it was, only 10 looks were shown in Paris—one of them incomplete, or, as it appeared, missing a top. The model’s arms were sheathed to the biceps in opera gloves, but her body from the waist up was totally bare (save two strands of sparkly necklaces), so much so that she had to cup her breast during her entire saunter on the runway. The arms with the gloves that matched the waistband of the embroidered full skirt could be a substitute for a top (or bralet?). That is a presumption. But, Ms Chen could have forgotten to bring that garment since a bare torso was not a recurring theme. One other top (gowns dominated the show)—a wide band-as-boob-cover that strapped the arms to the body—had an unfortunate identity crisis: was it a bandage that failed as a bandeau?

The modestly-numbered autumn/winter 2022 collection, titled Florescence, was purportedly inspired by Gardens by the Bay, although it was hard to tell. In Ms Chen’s own words, it “depicts a futuristic world in bloom and the hope of a brighter future as the country (SG, of course) emerges from the pandemic to blossom again” (it is not immoderate to think that Ms Chen’s popularity at TaFF is attributed to her ability to gush with such propagandist gems). By “futuristic”, it could be assumed that she was referring to the metallic fabrics used, rather than any cutting-edge representation of clothing that might provide the viewer with a glimpse into the hereafter. The bi-coastal designer (the US is still home, and to which she also dedicated the show. It is, she wrote on IG, “the country that made [her] believe anything is possible”) is partial to visual tangles that correspond with Americans’ love for bigness. Colorado-born Ms Chen grew up in Texas, and spent time in Mississippi, too. All three southern states are not exactly known as fashion states. But, Ms Chen was certain to carry the US flag in Paris, offering what could be considered American-style prom fluff—gowns that tend to inch the viewer closer to cringe.

By “futuristic”, it could be assumed that she was referring to the metallic fabrics used, rather than any cutting-edge representation of clothing that might provide the viewer with a glimpse into the hereafter

Ms Chen seemed to design with the aim of resigning the fate of her gowns to her store Covetella (“Singapore designer dress rentals”), which is, as stated on their website, “currently closed”—it is, in fact, shuttered in November 2020. If the show pieces did not generate buyer interest, she could easily put them out to renters, with or without a shop. According to a 2020 Business Times report, our island’s clothing rental/subscription business amounts to some “US$3.9 million (or about SGD5.3 million) a year”, and growing. Ms Chen is known to supplement her Covetella stocks with her own designs. In 2017, she told Forbes that “Covetella gives you the true ‘Cinderella’ experience”, presumably with the fairy godmother (Billy Porter’s Fab G?) rather than a generator of cinders. The name she chose is a conflation of covet, to have inordinate desire, and Ella, generally a woman’s name and also, perhaps intentionally, the English moniker of the latter-day telling of The Glass Slipper folk tale.

It is not imprecise to say that her own label similarly provides the fairy-godmother-spun, off-to-the-prince’s-ball fantasy: Gowns to twirl in, and attract the attention of whoever, if not the targeted suitor. A former beauty queen (‘Miss Scholastic Achievement’ at the Miss Asian American 2004 and Miss Chinatown USA in 2005, and Miss San Francisco in 2006), the 40-year-old is partial to pageant pomp—and frippery. As she often recounts to the media, it was during a trip back to Texas to visit her parents that her mother alerted the daughter to the stash of gowns (nearly 100, it has been said) that were kept: Mrs Chen wanted to get rid of them. Rather than discard her beloved dresses or relegate them to, say, Thrift Town in Austin, the fashion entrepreneur brought them back to gown-starved Singapore and Covetella was born. “A knack for the evening wear business”, as she proclaimed, no doubt aided the birth.

Although her winning the top prize of Singapore Stories may have suggested that Ms Chen was a design novice, she was, at that time, a born-again designer. In the mid-2000s, after graduating from Barnard College (Columbia University) in psychology and economics, she decided to realise a “childhood dream (she) had forgotten”: To be a fashion designer. So rather than embark on a summer business program at Stanford, where she was accepted, she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco (it is not known what she studied). She worked in fashion after leaving school, but found—somewhat belatedly—that the couture that she loved “isn’t very scalable”.

She then decided to start her own line: C.C. Couture, which, at its height in 2007, was, as she regaled BT in 2020, retailed through 300 doors. But that soon met with an end when the 2008/2009 economic downturn struck, a neat confluence of the bursting of the US housing bubble and the global financial crisis. (Interestingly, she did not abandoned the label. The alliterative name is now spelled out: Carol Chen Couture). C.C. Couture, as our friends in the US tell us, can still be found in discount stores. The economic gloom did not deter her. Keen to remain in the clothing industry, she went into partnership with a family friend from Texas to produce cheerleading uniforms in China. A former cheerleader herself, the business seemed sensible to go into, but the Texan soon found out that life in Donguan (东莞, an industrial city in Central Guangdong), where the factory was based and where she lived, was not one without its “challenges”.

She worked in fashion after leaving school, but found—somewhat belatedly—that the couture that she loved “isn’t very scalable”

There is a discernible linearity in Ms Chen’s professional fashion adventure, from pre-college to the present. Pageant and cheerleading fashions are for show, worn before an audience. They have to be conspicuous, if not ostentatious. She does not play down these qualities in her couture, possibly drawing from her own experience as a wearer (and collector) of such gowns. One of a kind is the best descriptor, and the kind, if not in the pageant context, falls between The Star Awards (红星大奖) and the bridal packages that can be found on Tanjong Pagar Road. Her finale gown (above) in Paris, with the puffed and elevated shoulders that were evocative of Viktor & Rolf’s recent haute couture, and swirls of fabrics sweeping the ground, has been described as “amazing”, a superlative frequently uttered in beauty contests, many a time euphemistically.

Ms Chen wrote on Instagram before her presentation, “To show at any of the Big Four Fashion Weeks would already be incredible, but to debut at (sic) Paris is something I never could have imagined.” Few of her 28.9K followers on IG would notice the possible implication of that statement. Ambiguity aside (and therein, possibly lies the problem), those unfamiliar with PFW proper may think that organisers Fashion Division was participating in the FHCM event. FD’s Paris office had to issue a memo (also shared on IG) that they were “*allowed* (asterisks included) to organise events during Paris Fashion Week, including mentioning it. (They) can’t, however, mention that (they) are part of the official schedule, but rather OFF (in full caps) schedule.” Whether that was a blow to the show’s prestige, or the participants’ pride, it is hard to conclude. It is understandable that Carol Chen was elated that her clothes enjoyed the rarefied air of Paris during PFW. The question that is more pertinent: Would she return? With Covetella now shuttered, perhaps. Or would she, like others before her, be a one-season pony?

Photos: carolchenofficial/instagram

Visited: Two Fashion Exhibitions

Both are small and thematically rather similar, but both are vastly different too, as one discovers the past in some detail, while the other looks at the present with a cursory glance

Foreground, an Andrew Gn gown at #SGFASHIONNOW

Republican-era and late-Qing clothing at Modern Women of the Republic

By Raiment Young

Fashion exhibitions don’t come by often enough. So when two are happening at the same time (till mid-December, and staged only eight kilometers or so apart), it seems like a bonus for those of us desiring to see superlative designs up close. These are not just exhibits of any fashion; these are, as the titles enthusiastically inform me, about our fashion—those that show what our women wore and what they wear through times of significant societal shifts. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore (一袭华裳) at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and #SGFASHIONNOW at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) explore clothing that, between the eras they each highlight, show aesthetic differences, separated by some 130 odd years. Yet, it is the fashion of yore that seems to speak more eloquently and with far more refinement than those of today. Nonetheless, it is the latter that attempts to articulate what it is that defines Singaporean design now.

When I visit a fashion exhibition in a museum, rather than, say, at an atrium of a shopping mall, I always expect it to provide strikingly well-designed and well-made fashion—not just clothes—and, above all, insight into what stitches these creations together, other than just the thematic thread. If I could be entertained too, that would be a bonus. Fashion in such a setting increasingly caters to visitors that are more exposed to popular visual culture than fashion as an artistic phenomenon. These days, even the most esoteric of sartorial subjects need to be presented with a popular spin. ACM’s approach to modern fashion in #SGFASHIONNOW is especially so, and, as a result, lacks emotional power for an exhibition that is supposed to arouse national pride. What’s even more apparent is the inadequate learning opportunity—to explain how the aesthetics, gleaned from Asian costumes, have been adopted today and why the results deserve a place in a museum exhibition. As Valerie Steele of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology wrote in the Fashion Theory (issue: Exhibitionism), an academic journal, “there is no reason why exhibitions cannot be both beautiful and intelligent, entertaining and educational.”

I am, of course, not deluding myself that these are the blockbuster fashion exhibitions in the same scale and breadth as those associated with overseas national museums, such as the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Perhaps due to limitations, mainly spatial, material, and budgetary, our latest two exhibitions are euphemistically described as “intimate affairs”. The flashier #SGFASHIONNOW has only eight dresses (and one headgear) to cover a scope that is far too wide and complex than the curators would have visitors believe, while Modern Women of the Republic packed over 90 costumes (specifically 13 outfits, including one bathing suit), artifacts and photographs (and a truly informing period fashion show) in a room considerably smaller in width and height than the space for #SGFASHIONNOW. From a museological perspective, the attempt on ACM’s part to show dresses with their historical place or artistic value is feeble. I’m not arguing if fashion is—or not—considered a true form of art; I would like to see if what we have, in terms of fashion as cultural treasures, deserving of museum space. Are these clothes, however well displayed, exhibition worthy?

#SGFASHIONNOW

The entranceway to #SGFASHIONNOW at the Contemporary Gallery of the ACM

It is heartening that one of the most respected museums in the region believes there is modern Singaporean fashion. The Asian Civilisations Museum’s #SGFASHIONNOW (yes, hashtagged and in all caps) exhibition is the “first display of contemporary Singapore fashion, exploring creative practice in Singapore in the context of Asia’s cultural heritage”, according to the exhibition’s publicity material. As it is staged in the ACM, the Asian component is crucial. Despite its trendy (with the hope that it’ll be trending?) name, targeted at the digitally-savvy who know what hashtags indicate, the exhibition looks at far more analogue approaches to dressmaking (except possibly one outfit with 3D-printed ornamentation). Perhaps this may allay the fear that the time-honoured will be superseded by the “now”—the past shrugged off by the present, dress history disregarded by contemporary fashion.

To be sure, #SGFASHIONNOW is not about constructing fashion heritage. Yet, it is the past that the participating designers looked at, though not necessarily a specific time or clothing no longer worn, but to what CNA’s Jill Neubronner described as “twists on Asian arts and culture”, but mostly Chinese. According to the event’s publicity material, “the exhibition was conceived in collaboration with LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion and the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF).” This is “ACM’s first tripartite partnership within Singapore’s fashion ecosystem” and, as Ms Neubronner noted, “the first time the museum handed over the central task of curating the exhibition to five students.” Perhaps the “firsts” explain why the result is somewhat abecedarian, and that my expectations, while not unreasonable for an exhibition staged at the ACM, were set foolishly high.

It is a curatorial challenge to put what fashion we have now in the spotlight. It is more difficult for students not advantaged by the breadth of knowledge of the industry here—past and present—to stage an exhibition with the potential in scope that is ultimately hard to realise. As it turns out, #SGFASHIONNOW is a “competition”, wrote student-curator Felicia Toh in Men’s Folio, to sell “curatorial ideas for #SGFASHIONNOW.” Five female students from the Lasalle’s BA(Hons) Fashion Media and Industries programme made the cut. According to Ms Toh, the exhibition brief was framed “to encourage new ways of thinking about Singapore fashion today, especially in the larger context of Asian fashion.” Designers selected—a total of eight—must “either practice in Singapore or are Singaporeans based abroad.” The students were only required to come up with four names (the rest were, as Ms Toh wrote, “pre-selected” by ACM), and they chose the relatively unknown Baëlf Studio and Studio HHFZ, Indian fashion label from the ’50s Stylemart, and the Crazy Rich Asian red-carpet sensation Time Taken to Make a Dress (TTMD). ACM picked, probably with input from TaFF, Singaporean-in-Paris Andrew Gn; TaFF darling, American-in-Singapore Carol Chen; true-blue Singaporean cheongsam maker Goh Lai Chan, and Malaysian-in-Singapore Ong Shunmugam. Collectively, they allowed ACM director Kennie Ting to realise his ”dream (of featuring) Singaporean fashion designers in the context of Asia and the World,” as expressed in the accompanying (unexpectedly laggy) e-book.

From left: Carol Chen, Studio HHFZ, and Ong Shunmugam

In his introduction to #SGFASHIONNOW, Mr Ting wrote that the exhibition “is the first that follows ACM’s 2020 repositioning as Singapore’s National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art. The repositioning allows us to champion #InnovationInTradition, and to extend the timeline of our curatorial focus to the contemporary day.” Clothing is commonly associated with decorative arts, hence ACM’s enthusiastic embrace of fashion, not necessarily design. Across the world, museums’ affinity for fashion is growing remarkably (this year alone, despite the on-going pandemic, there are at least 18 fashion exhibitions around the globe tagged “unmissable”). With #SGFASHIONNOW, ACM seems to focus on decoration than design, although both are just as important in applied arts. Boning that position, Felicia Toh’s schoolmate and co-curator Celestine Wong said in the CNA report, “What better way to showcase Singapore’s identity (than) through the lens of fashion and craftsmanship?” It is not certain if this angle was wholly the students’ or partially ACM’s, but it is a compelling one.

What is this “Singapore identity through fashion” that Ms Wong and others harped on? I had thought, prior to visiting the exhibition, that this “identity” would be an evaluation by dress through the application of design. But it is not. Despite having stayed at the exhibition for over an hour a few days after it opened on 25 June, I could not say what puzzled and disheartened me, in equal measure, until I read (and heard) those magic words: “craft”, “crafting”, and “craftsmanship”. In the article for Men’s Folio, Ms Toh wrote, “When we think about fashion and what defines our local identity in multicultural Singapore, the first line of thought is whether we have a national attire or a particular look that represents the country. In search of an answer, my team turned our attention to a tangible aspect of fashion—the craft of making clothes.” In his foreword to the e-publication, the president of Lasalle offered that, “the winning proposition is a fascinating exploration of Singapore’s fashion identity through the lenses of craftsmanship and heritage, both tangible and intangible.”

Indeed, craft, from the Old English word cræft, appears repeatedly. Yet, design is the main theme of the exhibition. Interestingly, nothing in the exhibition notes satisfactorily defines craft. In the curatorial statement, “modes of craftsmanship” is described as “running the gamut from tailoring and embroidery to laser-cutting and 3D printing”— also a line used by Ms Toh in the Men’s Folio article. After spending time with the exhibits, it appeared to me that surface embellishments are what the student-curators mean by “craft“. Of the eight outfits shown, only one is without decoration, not even trims, not even a single pankou (盘扣 or knotted buttons)—a girlish riff on the cheongsam by Hu Ruixian of Studio HHFZ. Andrew Gn is surprisingly the most minimalist of them all, offering not his usual embroidered flourishes, but an unadorned caped bodice with ultra-long fringing. The most embellished outfit is offered by the design duo Jamela Law and Lionel Wong of Baëlf Studio, who use 3D printed fractals that look like terra-cotta bits to recreate, on a clear TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane, as used in shower curtains) dress, the symbolic images of Jing opera (京剧 or Beijing opera) costumes (did I also sense Schiaparelli X Dali’s ‘Skeleton’ dress from 1938, especially in the back?). Decoration, it seemed to me, is the draw here.

From left, Goh Lai Chan, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Stylemart, and Baëlf Design

Craft, at its most elemental, is skill. But not just any ability that is the result of watching TikTok videos past midnight. Craft is earned skill. You say, for example, the craft of the carpenter or, closer to fashion, the craft of an embroiderer. But that does not mean that these craftspeople are designers. Many skilled practitioners of the crafts of fashion, from pattern makers to plumassiers, are not. The processes and systems of fashion are, of course, dependent on these skills. As Mr Gn said in an accompanying video shown on site, “you need great craftsmen”. With technological advances in the making of clothes and attendant decorating techniques (as seen in the Baëlf Studio exhibit), a one-size-fits-all definition of “craft” is limiting. Yet, to me, “craft” invariably calls up history, tradition, handwork (now debatable since machines have won over the hearts—and hands—of many practitioners), and, without doubt, a high standard of quality. Nick Offerman, the co-host of the NBC show Making It, considers “craft” as “the skill developed, applied, and made manifest through practice and discipline in the fabrication of a work of art.” He was speaking as a wood worker, but he could have been expatiating for fashion designers.

In the curatorial statement of the e-book, we are told that “Hu Ruixian at Studio HHFZ and Carol Chen push the envelope to craft thoughtful pieces.” Even with considerable effort, I failed to see the crafting (nor the thoughtfulness) of the submitted work, just as I struggled with the answers to the ‘whys’ of the designs (but the exhibition is not about that). Despite what I assumed to be the two designers’ bespoke operation, there were glaring irregularities when it came to achieving some semblance of craftsmanship. The addition of Ms Hu’s qipao seemed like an afterthought. It could be because of the size of the mannequin (which is a deplorable excuse, given the museum setting), but hers is the most ill-fitted outfit. Many details that should have been exemplary crafting were curiously absent. It was puzzling to see how large the armholes are, how puckered the seams run, how the base of the collar can’t rest flatly on the neckline and along the shoulder, and how the pocket bags of her extended side pockets threatens to emerge to consume the top edge. Could this be a new way of crafting?

When I looked at Carol Chen’s “Empress Jumpsuit” (an obvious and inexplicable two-piece), I was, similarly, unable to see the craft in the work. The token-Asian metal zardozi embroidery that caused so much puckering on the fabric aside, what stared shamelessly at me was the shockingly ill-fitted trousers. From the front, the waist won’t sit properly. The is no smooth waist or edge, and the crotch point takes after the shape of the pudendum. From the rear, problems with the crotch length and depth, and the hip line yield odd vertical drapes and a V-fold at the crotch. (As with the Studio HHFZ qipao, it is possible that the pants was not made for the mannequin, but it is puzzling that ACM, with the intention of strengthening its fashion division, would not have the resource to get the rightly-sized dummy for the exhibits.) I’ll give the flat-chested top a miss. In all, there is barely engineering of form, forget about manipulation of fabrics. Ms Chen, of course, has the freedom to “craft” as she pleases, but, to me, a museum deserves higher qualitative standards. I am not saying I did not appreciate the emotions or, possibly, the stresses that go into the making of Ms Chen’s two-piece. Perhaps I did not understand what she was attempting to do, but because there was such a lack of the very thing the exhibition was promoting—craft—that irritation took the place of intrigue.

Five (only four shown here) out of eight outfits sport the round qipao collar. None was perfection. Clockwise from top left: Ong Shunmugam, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Studio HHFZ, Laichan

Another way with crafting? Or, at best, dressmaking loosely tethered to craft? There would be those for whom this is merely a matter of semantics and that I am nit-picking, but the distinction is important. Why? I do not think visitors to a fashion exhibition wish to see—for (another) example—tailor’s chalk marks or, in the case of Baëlf Studio’s adorned plastic outer, ink (or pencil?) lines still evident in the seams. Or, are we to believe that such an oversight can bear the true weight of craft? It is understandable that many of our designers are not availed the skilled individuals to provide the artisanal aspects of dressmaking, or those with the eyes to ensure and maintain the refinement associated with supreme tailoring and needlecraft. We do not have a network of specialist tradespeople and craftsmen, who make up the proverbial fashion ecosystem. In his video message recorded in Paris, Andrew Gn explained why he chose to be based in the City of Lights, “You need great craftsmen,” who provide the “savoir faire—the know-how of all the ateliers and all the workshops in France.” Conversely, many designers here have to depend on their own not-necessarily-well-informed judgment on what is skilled execution. And this may fail, or vary, since what is considered skill is, as in the case of beauty, in the sight of the beholder.

Mr Gn’s submission (also a donation) of a strikingly plain, white, silk crepe gown is perhaps a master stroke. Admittedly, the modest dress was, at first glance, a tad disappointing. It isn’t unreasonable for anyone to want to come to see Mr Gn’s beautiful, often custom-designed fabrics and his delicate handwork (I know I did), but this exhibit is one of the least typical, selected from his spring/summer 2012 collection Let there be Light. Yet it is through this stark design of a gown with a fringed, waist-length-in-the-front-and hip-length-in-the-rear cape over the shoulder, purportedly based on the Manila shawl (a square-folded-into-a-triangle covering derived from the Filipino pañuelo), but could easily be a Chinese xiao pijian (小披肩 or capelet), that we see the exemplar of symmetry, precise tailoring, and first-rate finishing. Without doubt, simplicity allowed me to take in the fineness of the work or the “craft”—mostly elusive at #SGFASHIONNOW. I did wonder if perhaps the exhibits’ high-profile, headlining representation is more important that actual craftsmanship. Two are clearly picked for their exposure on the red carpet, rather than their craft: Ong Shunmugam’s derivative caped qipao, worn by designer Priscilla Shunmugam’s pal Paige Parker at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 (when the latter attended as executive producer of Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice) and the unstirred bandung neo-qipao that Crazy Rich Asian cast member Constance Lau donned at the film’s Hollywood premier in 2018.

When clothes are placed in a museum, they must hold up to scrutiny. They are worn on mannequins, I believed, to be studied and, in turn, admired. #SGFASHIONNOW offers little that are technically challenging or decoratively spectacular, or uncompromisingly well-made. Before we can begin to understand or interpret the clothes, to wigwag between the extravagant and the not, we have to be first convinced that they are crafted with great élan. And then we can begin to ask ourselves where we stand today as a nation from the standpoint of dress. I reminded myself that this exhibition is partly the work of students. I then wondered what they really took away from this in terms of techniques and workmanship—craft? And how has #SGFASHIONNOW added to the discourse about good designs that show our island as a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity—those that can truly gin up excitement? The eight exhibitions are positioned in the gallery with no scenography, each framed within vitrines with four sides (only one glassed). They looked to me like glorified store windows, which is ironic since window-shopping is increasingly so other-era an activity in our COVID-impacted world. But perhaps that’s intentional: the showcase as spotlight. Still, you can’t level up what won’t be next-level. Even with the risk of getting this bent of shape, I won’t deny that I was dismayed that this is what ACM and its collaborators see as national pride.

Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore

Entrance to the Modern Women of the Republic exhibition

Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is a sumptuous tribute to an era of swift societal and sartorial change, witnessed in the late 19th century, through the time when we were a British colony or, as the National Museum of Singapore prefers to put it, a “Crown Colony”. The exhibition opened last month at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, also known as Wanqing Garden (晚晴园). It was renamed by the Teochew rubber magnate and revolutionist Teo Eng Hock (张永福, Zhang Yongfu), when he bought it in 1905. Modern Women of the Republic sets Chinese national and diasporic fashion styles in a colonial-era villa with considerable vigour. It was in this pleasant intimacy and contextualised space that I happily spent more than an hour, one weekday afternoon, looking at the clothes women wore that were beginning to be described as “modern”.

Wanqing Garden was built in 1902, the same year the YMCA here was established, and forty four years after one little Spicer & Robinson opened at Commercial Square (today’s Raffles Place). Inside the first-storey main gallery of the nearly 120-year-old mansion, the exhibition was, interestingly, also set up as a department store, Wanqing Co. Ltd (晚晴百货公司), with a suitably retro store front and posters flanking it. In that sense, Modern Women of the Republic’s standing would not be disadvantaged from being compared to store windows, and those complete with visual merchandising, as we know it today that truly captures the viewers’ attention. Unlike #SGFASHIONNOW, this exhibition looks at everyday clothes. Or, those that were custom-made to be worn—possibly for special occasions, possibly not; but unlikely for the red carpet (except, perhaps, one showstopping gown by Goh Lai Chan, the showstopping gown-maker). More than 90 artefacts and accompanying archival photos (including 14 outfits, almost double that of #SGFASHIONNOW) were assembled to tell how modernisation necessarily meant shedding clothes of considerable bulk—hence obscuring the body—for those that are form-enhancing.

Without dramatic scenography, but the very grandness and elegance of the villa, the exhibition creates a walk-back-in-time experience, made more emersive through the well-considered range of mediums, from actual clothes to dainty footwear to kindred accessories to vintage photographs. To be sure, I have seen more compelling and striking exhibitions of similar theme in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but Modern Women of the Republic’s partially local context makes it more meaningful. It covers the periods between the late 1800s to the 1970s (with the exception of that showstopping gown—a very present-day creation), telling the stories of modern-fashion adopters and their influence, such as Teo Eng Hock’s daughter Teo Soon Kim (张舜琴) who was Singapore’s first female barrister (and Hong Kong’s when she moved there later) and a proud adopter of the cheongsam (Romanisation of the Cantonese 長衫 (or long shirt) as everyday dress despite her clearly Western education (she graduated in the UK).

A trio of cheongsams from the ’50s and ’60s, two worn with jackets

The oldest outfits in Modern Women of the Republic are from the late Qing period—those that are precursors to what we can identify as today’s qipao (旗袍 or Manchu robe). In the first, entrance-facing showcase that welcomed visitors, a winter jacket lined with rabbit fur and an embroidered ao (袄) blouse-jacket (the mianao [棉袄 or padded cotton jacket] is still worn today) decorated with fertility symbols and motifs reflect a grander and possibly more decadent age when compared to a Republic-era blouse-and-skirt ensemble hung next to them. The latter would have ushered the arrival of Western dress and casual clothes: simplicity of line and print (as opposed to embroidery)—here, it is Art Deco in style. Although the blouse has narrower waist and sleeves, they embody the looser silhouettes of the 1920s, which, in Europe, who have been the beginning of the modern fashion era as well, spearheaded by designers such as Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and, most notably, Gabrielle Chanel. It was a joy to me to be able to examine these clothes up-close, to see that collars that stood, stood; the seams that are flat, stayed flat, as well as the exquisiteness of the embroideries. Craft here was indeed well and alive.

In the exhibition, I was especially fascinated by a small-screen,1929 film footage of a fashion show in Shanghai, the only video offering among 90-plus objects on display. The simple outdoor presentation was staged in what appeared to be a well-manicured courtyard, featuring Chinese models who emerged from an arched entrance in the rear onto what was a very short catwalk (compared to what we often see today). The women appeared unlike what novelist Eileen Chang (张爱玲) described in her 1943 non-fiction, Chinese Life and Fashions—“the ideal Chinese female, petite and slender, with sloping shoulders and a hollow chest, made herself pleasantly unobtrusive, one of the most desirable qualities in a woman”. These feminine ideals, ironically, had to be concealed under layers of clothes during the Qing rule. The models in the video had unyoked themselves from the restrictions of that time, but not feminine grace; their deportment and confidence heralded a new socio-cultural era.

I was held rapt by the young host of the show, introducing the different looks, presumably the rage of the time, in English! She did not say in great detail what the making of the garments entailed or provide commentary on the genesis of the styles, but it was apparent to me that the clothing was targeted at women (possibly foreigners too) who were trend-aware or who were ready and had the means to adopt these clearly fashionable looks. These are variations of the qipao and what is known as “civilised new attire” (文明新装), prevalent during the early 20th century. Following the May Fourth Movement (五四运动) of 1919, the anti-imperialist and political shifts that were considered momentous for China at that time, students (mainly young women) began wearing what was considered simpler, and garments that were usually in plain weaves, and were visually clear departures from those of the ancien régime. The “civilised new attire” was so popular that even older women adopted it, looking, amusingly, like schoolgirls.

‘Cantonese style’ cheongsam from the early Republican period

The difference between the past and the present is best exemplified by how the clothes are displayed. For the Qing jacket and the ao, horizontal rods are passed through the arms and hung, offering the same effect when similarly stretched out on a Qing garment rack, so that the unmistakable T-shape of the tops—the prevalent silhouette of imperial fashion then—is discernible. Exhibited this way, the immense amount of silk used and the full embroidery can be taken in and admired. I estimated that the Qing tops require at least 4.5 metres of fabric (assuming it is 0.9-metres in width or 36-inches), while the qipao that came after the 1950s would require no more than half of that. The change in fashion era that came with the fall of Imperial China is further contrasted by having the shapelier and lighter (and even shorter) qipaos (or blouses and skirts) worn on mannequins. Women by then were more than ready to don single-layer garments that were cut closer to the body and were shorter, too. The qipao, by now, had nearly obliterated the memory of the “civilised new attire”.

Modern Women of the Republic spans eighty-odd years. With just fourteen outfits, it is not possible that the changes accompanying each decade can be represented by at least one dress. In place of the gaps, the curators have availed photographs and other printed materials to offer an impression of the corresponding styles. Descriptions unfortunately tend to be brief, providing a scant picture of the stories and the crafts behind the exhibited garments. I would have liked to know (even if I could not see), for example, what the layers worn under the Qing ao were that made women look bulky, thus “suppressing their individuality and restricting their freedom”, as noted in an accompanying publication of the exhibition, which is, oddly and regrettably, just as skimpy. Or, the style of embroidery that are on some of the pieces, even when they look rather Cantonese (粤绣 or yuexiu) to me. Perhaps I was expecting scholarship when the curators had something more prosaic in mind. Or accessible?

What really sticks out in Modern Women of the Republic is the inclusion of cheongsam master Goh Lai Chan’s very 21st century gown. Yes, that showstopper. Its lonely appearance in a glass cabinet, placed in a corner, stood incongruously with the clearly less glamorous exhibits across from it. Mr Goh’s chilli-red piece is a qipao fashioned as a floor-sweeping doupeng (斗篷) or cloak, a Western-style garment believed to be introduced to China during the Qing dynasty. As a reinterpretation, he added a qipao collar to it, shortened the front hem to the knee and into an inverted V, on which surprisingly crude embroidered flowers are appliquéd over and weighted down by two short tassels: the sum serving as a headdress-like bouquet, under which a pleated skirt cascades to the floor. But what was annoyingly glaring to me was how shockingly messy the sleeves are set (creating unsightly puckering along the armholes) and how the shoulder refuses to rest flatly. As I glanced further down, two impertinent lines smiled at me: bust-darts that are warped and end in the front with two cheery dimples! Mr Goh’s gown should be lauded for being on-theme, but, sadly, it also reflects what #SGFASHIONNOW desperately tries to illustrates: “craft”, or the sheer lack of it.

#SGFASHIONNOW is on at the Asian Civilisation Museum till 19 December 2021. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is on at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall till 12 December 2021. Photos: Zhao Xiangji