Another Yuletide, Another Atrocious Advent Calendar

Lovers of this seasonal buy must know that the advent calendar is no fukubukuro

It’s hard to comprehend the intense desire for advent calendars put out by luxury brands. They are expensive and offer little by way of real, full-size, tangible products, yet they seem to draw considerable desire until the acquirer discovers that what she has purchased holds very little that can be considered evident value. You’d think that after last year’s Chanel advent calendar controversy (stickers were offered!), consumers would make more circumspect choices when spending on seasonal items. Apparently not, as more are lured by the over-the-top packaging of these frankly useless barely-one-month calendars. And then to find out way before the last day that every item that helps countdown the days till the 24th are not as great as they were thought to be. Regret comes earlier than Christmas.

The latest brand to be called out for offering products that are disappointing is Dior. American TikToker Jackie Aina has been unboxing Dior’s USD3,500 La Collection Privée Trunk of Dreams calendar with “24 Dior surprises”. (The one in the above photo is a different advent calendar, available here for S$845). And the brand meant it, the surprising part. Ms Aina, even with enthusiasm intact, said, on the 12th day of opening the drawers of the calendar, “so far it is what is is” and “it ain’t that great”. On the 16th day (she opened more than one drawer each time), the soap she found was “very underwhelming” (earlier, there was even a coaster!). It didn’t seem that Ms Aina was enjoying the “marvelous, miniature universe”, that Dior calls the sum of items in the calendar. The reactions to Ms Aina’s post are, as imaginable, far from restrained.

Unless you are an influencer who received the advent calendars as a gift from the brand, there is the very real possibility that you would not feel you have got your money’s worth. Many Western consumers of these fancy but feeble boxes-as-calendars have probably not encountered the Japanese fukubukuro, a New Year tradition of grab bags filled with items that, in total, are usually higher in value than the whole package that is paid for. Like the advent calendar, buyers of the fukubukuro do not know what is inside. In China, these bags are known as fudai (福袋), and the practice is similar to that in Japan, with content mostly worth more than what is charged for the stuffed bag. But in the marketing stratagem of luxury brands, perceived—rather than substantive—value is good enough. The advent calendar is perhaps just a metaphor: Ha, we got you!

Photo: Dior

Tomb Paraders

Dior’s fall—pre-fall?—2023 presentation was a theatrical affair at the Great Pyramids of Giza

Dior staged their latest men’s show at an Egyptian necropolis—on the Giza Plateau, home of the three 4th-dynasty pyramids. The four-sided structure appeared in the background, their outlines illuminated by lights. Dior proudly declared that this was their first presentation in Egypt. But the Italian label Stefano Ricci beat them to it when they staged their autumn/winter 2022 collection at Luxor’s better-lit Temple of Hatshepsut, this past October, making that Egypt’s first fashion show on their arid land. Neither was Dior’s the first presentation in a desert. Back in July, Saint Laurent staged its Spring/Summer 2023 event on the Agafay desert, outside of Marrakech, with just a single man-made structure, a massive monolithic ring, for the set. And in December 2020, a womenswear spring/summer 2021 runway on a dune, somewhere in the Sahara. If not for the pyramids in the background, Dior’s show could have been on any sandy acreage.

“My interest in ancient Egypt is about the stars and the sky,” Kim Jones said about the choice of Egypt as show venue. “It’s that fascination with the ancient world and the parallels with what we look at today; what we inherited from them and what we are still learning from the past.” There is no mention of sand or sand dunes, or this famous part, west of the capital Cairo. “In both the collection and the show there is an idea of ‘guided by the stars’ and what that can entail in many ways.” The pyramids were incidental; just theatrical scenery. And as there were no mention of the land, Lawrence of Arabia (although the film referred to Syria) did not appear, except those floaty capes or headwear that are not the keffiyeh. Mr Jones likely wanted to avoid the obvious. The universe, including Dior’s, is expanding.

In fact, there is, as far as we could discern, nothing that could be linked to Egypt, not that the collection—titled Celestial— needed to be. The soundtrack of a relentless techno thump already indicated the negation of North Africa or Bedouin exotica. This is modern fashion for urbanites much further away, with concrete rather than sand underfoot. There was a street vibe, a paring down of the formality that Mr Jones had initially reintroduce to his Dior Men. These were separates, almost travelcore, for the more adventurous fashion consumers, those keen on pairing the sportif with the elegant and a touch of the camp; these were not for the likes of Zahi Hawass of his younger self. Mr Jones put aside for now literary references (not even T.E. Lawrence?) for the exploration of what’s up there. Does it not sound like now-out-of-the-picture Alessandro Michele’s Gucci Cosmogenie?

There were, of course, the prints of the universe, in colours most of us came to be aware of through the cinema. They were on pullovers, leggings, windbreakers, and other outers that happily flap in the cooperative wind. Unexpected this season were the sheer gauzy pieces that, in some, included a few very bee-keeper-looking face/head protectors. Talking about those, there were also helmets with glass face shields. No driver/rider/vehicular needs were evident. In preparation for a stand storm? And what about those openwork (featuring the Dior motif Cannage) breastplates? For the modern charioteer? This season, Mr Jones finally explored skirts for men—sort of. There were many pleated halves, worn like you would an apron, but to the side. If they were full skirts (and, especially, paired with those sporty tops), might they have reminded us of what were shown at Louis Vuitton before? Could Kim Jones be positioning himself as the next Virgil Abloh?

Screen shot (top) and photos: Dior

Dance Back To The Past

This season Maria Grazia Chiuri brings up her country of birth again, and reconnects with an Italian woman in history for Dior

It has been a while since Dior had dancers get in the way of the models’ display of Maria Grazia Chiuri’s fussy, re-imagined Dior. The last was shown two years ago, during the Resort 2021 collection, staged in Puglia, Italy, where ten local dancers performed as a throbbing mass while the models walked on as if they were no obstacle. This time, Dior engaged a Dutch dance troupe formed by the siblings Imre and Marne van Opstal, dubbed “the hottest new dance choreographers in Netherlands”. The dancers, in nude-coloured costumes of tank tops painted with torsos, paired with plain underpants, executed a primal, writhing routine that could be seen as carnal. In the latest issue of Purple, the sister Imre van Opstal told the magazine, “We like to speak about the human body”. So does Ms Chiuri, who, through her love of sheerness, communicates her idea of body image, however the ideal body is framed for her culturally.

This season, with her woman-for-woman Dior, Ms Chiuri looks at the reputedly diabolical Renaissance proto-feminist Catherine (also Caterina) de’ Médici (of the powerful Florentine banking family). Like her, Catherine de’ Médici is an Italian transplanted to France, only in the latter’s case, by marriage—to King Henry II, a union few in court were thrilled with as the Médicis were of merchant class, not royalty. As Queen of France, she—not known for her beauty (she has been described as “homely”)—was patron of the arts and a fashion consumer, who, being “plump”, made corsets quite the fashion, as well as heels to make her look taller. When she left for France at age 14, she reportedly brought along a large retinue, including dressmakers, jewellers, and perfumers. While she was the embodiment of the dress politics of the time, it is arguable if she was a major contributor to French fashion the way Marie Antoinette later was (or her husband’s mistress Diane de Poitiers), unless the scented gloves she introduced in court is counted. The Sovereign was better known as a manipulative, even vicious regent (her three sons were consecutive rulers), who was hated by the Protestants for her supposed role in France’s religious civil wars of that era, in which many were assassinated. She was, to put it mildly, the political force behind the reigns of her sons. When she died in 1589, France mourned her with the same outpouring for a slaughtered hen.

It is understandable why Catherine de’ Médici would appeal to another Italian woman who designs for a company named after a Frenchman. According to the show notes, “women know how to explore magical territories since they have a privileged connection with nature and its vital force”. Thus blessed, Ms Chiuri establishes the link to the past, but however modern her attempts, the results bordered on the costume-y made current by today’s midriff-baring must. The corset is brought back, but not with the constriction of those that tightened Catherine de’ Médici’s waist. Ms Chiuri made them loose so that you can wear them like you would a singlet (oh, that, too, appears) with the shape of a stomacher curve at the bottom end (and what’s more modern than wearing them with elasticised-waist pants?), giving you the chance to boast a flair for sartorial historicism. And perhaps find kinship with the unconventional sisters of the past?

And then there are the mini hooped skirts (we already hear many say cute) in the shape of table food covers, showing off how exquisite Dior is with lace, also a Catherine de’ Médici fave. Clearly Ms Chiuri does not reference the past the way her predecessor John Galliano did. It appears that she went to the cutting table without humour or a vestige of wit. Still, rather funny are those flimsy skirts with hooped uppers that made them look like lanterns, or bird cage covers, or worse, mosquito netting over a baby’s cot. Pretty skirts means there are dirndl versions (in floral patchwork!), cheerleader skirts with smocking across the stomach, and those to be worn over shorts like capes for bottoms. To enhance the overall femininity, there are lacings for sides of bodices as well as neckline, or down the length of skirts; lace borders as seen on négligée: gathered trims like those on the edges of French maids’ aprons: and more open-work fabrics to delight your dry-cleaner. Oh, there’s also that much lauded print of the map of Paris., so you’ll know Maria Grazia Chiuri is putting Paris on the map.

Will It Be 迪奥 Only In China?

The supposed ban on the use of English names by Chinese artistes and celebrities, could mean that Dior may have to give up using the 4-letter word in place of Han characters. And other foreign brands too?

Could this be how a Dior store in China would look in the future? Photo illustration: Just So

Much to the disappointment of Chinese stars who like using a Western name in addition to their Chinese moniker, there is now a rumour that non-Han names would not be allowed in China. According to one Chinese screenwriter Wang Hailin (汪海林), who shared the news on Weibo, the Chinese National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) had “requested” that local stars not use “foreign names” or any that ”sounds foreign” to identify themselves in—probably—public or during public performances. He gave an example: Shanghai-Hong Kong model/actress “Yang Ying (杨颖) can no longer use Angelababy”. It is not known if her name can be uttered in private or if her family and friends can call her by what most fans know her by. Nor did Mr Wang say why NRTA made that unusual—and likely, unpopular—request.

We know Chinese artistes and celebrities like to use non-Han appellations, even if it is one not shown on their identity card. Or, especially when not. It isn’t understood why a Western name would pose a problem in China or why the authorities would think so, or how the use by stars would diminish anything, whether personally, professionally, or socially. Does the prohibition include those English names that sound like given Chinese names (or Cantonese, as it is the case in Hong Kong), such as Eason that precedes Chan Yick Shun (陈奕迅) or Hacken that comes before Lee Hak Ken (李克勤)? The use of a moniker associated with the West is, for a long time, not uncommon. In fact, the more uncommon the name the better. Whether drawing from fruit and vegetable (rather popular), the animal kingdom (the choice among the Chinese themselves, although mostly in the past), or the gaming world (a Gen-Z love), unusual determines the choice.

Presently, the prohibition (or discouragement) is not confirmed. Yet, Chinese influencer-turned-actress Lamu Yangzi (辣目洋子) announced on Weibo that she would revert to her original name Li Jiaqi (李嘉琦) henceforth, even when her self-chosen moniker does not sound especially English or Western. But if Chinese authorities are allegedly asking private individuals not to use whatever version of Western proper nouns they have adopted, would they, we wonder, request the same of Western brands? Would we soon see 爱马仕 (aimashi or Hermès, not to be confused with 赫耳墨斯 [heer mosi], the name of the Greek god), 巴伦夏卡 (balun xiaka or Balenciaga), 圣罗兰 (shengluolan or Saint Laurent), 宝缇嘉 (baotijia or Bottega [Veneta]), 古琦 (guqi or Gucci) or 迪奥 (di ao or Dior)? In the case of Dior, the maison was one of the earliest to encourage the use of Chinese characters on their products when they ran the ABCDior personalisation service for the Book tote in 2020. The two-word 迪奥 appearing appearing above store entrances may, therefore, now even look cool.

In China, most lovers of luxury brands use the respective Western names (pronounced with varying degrees of accuracy, but that is the same here, too) rather than those in hanzi (汉字). Most foreign brands, if not all, register their Chinese names as trademark. They are often displayed, although somewhat discreetly, on store-front windows. It is not known if shoppers there seek brands out by their Chinese moniker since it is likely that most would recognise English alphabets even if they are not always able to read them. Purists and branding professionals do think that brand awareness—and to a large extent, their appeal—is tethered to their foreign moniker. Even the Hermès-backed Shang Xia (上下) has yet to enjoy the same cachet as its French endorser. Semantically, the Chinese language is different to the Western names that desire a Sino-form, and indelicate naming, there are those who argue, may dilute brand value. Some of these Chinese names may sound odd too, even silly. And when uttered, they could phonetically be unlike how they’re pronounced in their native language. But, in some cases, the Chinese names may help with, for example, the silent ‘s’ in French. The Chinese characters of Louis Vuitton 路易威登 (luyi weideng) could, perhaps, allow some to simply say the first name as loowee.

Protest At Dior

In Paris, Chinese students, wearing hanfu, want Dior not to claim a skirt as the maison’s “hallmark silhouette”

Chinese students in hanfu protesting outside the Dior Champs-Élysées store. Photo: 小红书

In February 2018, Dior showed the autumn/winter collection inspired by the student demonstrations that shook Paris in 1968—the models walked through a show space lined with wallpaper, as well as those for floor, of catchy slogans and ripped protest posters. Little did they know that four years later, they would witness a real protest right on their very doorsteps. About two weeks ago, consumers in China were deeply unhappy that Dior had described a “mid-length pleated skirt” that the brand sold online as a “hallmark Dior silhouette”. They considered the said skirt to be too similar to the Chinese’s own ma mian qun ((马面裙) or horse-face skirt and considered Dior’s a “plagiarised” product. The unhappiness rumbled through Chinese social media, but Dior probably did not expect that Chinese students furthering their education in Paris and elsewhere would take it further: To the street—the famed Avenue des Champs-Élysées, no less—in front of Dior’s flagship/headquarters.

Last Saturday, when they were not attending class, about 80 to 100 students (as well as those not studying in France) dressed in hanfu (汉服) fineness—traditional Han Chinese dress (but not necessarily historically accurate)—protested on one of the busiest and known avenues in the French capital. The student organisers, according The Observer, had expected about 20 to turn up, but the support was more encouraging than they had anticipated. According to them, even the locals were supportive of their action. Reportedly, a Frenchman who had previously participated in hanfu-promoting activities and and had worn a ma mian qun himself “understood what the students were doing”. One of the three organisers, surnamed Liu (刘), who apparently flew to France from China to see if Dior is still selling the offensive skirt in their stores in Paris, told the media: “Cultural reference (文化借鉴, wenhua jianken) we support—we are willing to share good things—but cultural appropriation (文化挪用, wenhua nayong) is absolutely not allowed.”

Protesters showing a ma mian qun. Photo: 小红书

The protesters held up cardboards and notices that read “Dior plagie la conception” (Dior plagiarises design), “stop appropriation culturelle (stop cultural appropriation)”, “C’est la tenue traditionnel Chinoise (this is traditional Chinese clothing)”. They chanted non-agressively: “Please stop cultural appropriation and respect Chinese culture”. The rather mild demonstration was livestreamed on Weibo and Wechat, according to Chinese media reports, and attracted more than 500,000 views. Online, Chinese outrage was also directed at how Dior, for the opening of its new store in Seoul and where the brand’s fall 2022 collection was stage to coincide with the event, acknowledged Korean influence in their work, sharing on Instagram that the store “fuses French and Korean culture, incorporating important and innovative digital dimensions”. Dior, those who oppose the brands action say, did not take into consideration the Chinese influence in their creative output, but would give a nod to the Korean’s. In the brand’s show notes of that season, it was stated that the collection, including the skirt, was inspired by school uniforms, hence—it could be assumed—the choice of Ewha Womans University as the show venue.

Some outside China consider the students’ action to be weakly-sighted cultural pride. And that there are other bigger issues to consider. One smaller group positioned themselves opposite the Chinese protestors with their own signs that read “les driots del’homme comptent (human rights matter)” and “裙子 〉人权 (skirts greater than human rights)”, likely referring to the still-problematic issues with the Uyghurs and the Xinjiang region in which they live, where the West believes crimes against humanity is committed by the Chinese government. It is tempting to see that perceived cultural appropriation can be used to divert the scary realness of human rights violation. A Chinese counter-protester was quoted by the press: “these people have the right and freedom to march, but they are discussing whether a skirt is plagiarized, rather than discussing June 4th, the Uyghurs, etc.” Ms Liu’s stand was that plagiarism and cultural appropriation cannot be ignored. She said, “Today, if you—an influential international brand—appropriate our culture, and we do not speak up, then in the future, no one would know that this, in fact, belongs to traditional Chinese culture.” As with most things now debated online, other counter-arguments have emerged. Some in France are now joking that the Chinese are finally aware that plagiarism is not good—the realisation, they say, is “a big improvement”.

Update (26 July 2022, 9am): The Dior “mid-length pleated skirt” is still available on their SG website

Additional reporting: Rachel Zhou

“Luxury Cheats” On The Run

A Singaporean man and his Thai-born wife, who are wanted by the police here after failing to deliver luxury goods they bought on behalf of customers, have turned international criminals, now that an Interpol warrant is issued against them too

They are believed to have left our island. A Dior-loving married couple, wanted for failing to deliver S$32 million worth of paid-up luxury goods that they allegedly bought on behalf of individuals, has fled, although both of them were earlier involved in police investigations. Their passports, according to CNA, were impounded last month. Shin Min Daily News (新明日报) ran a cover story earlier today with the couple’s full-face photo. In previous reports, their eyes were pixelated. The Straits Times (online edition) has also identified both of them as Pi Jiapeng (皮佳鹏) and Siriwipa Pansuk in response to the authorities who have “revealed their identities”. The Singapore Police Force wrote on its website: “The Police are appealing for information from the public on their whereabouts.” But even before this, a few of those who believed they were ruthlessly cheated had posted photos of the couple on social media and pleaded to be notified if anyone saw both or either of them.

As it has been circulating for more than a week, Mr Pi and Ms Pansuk had scammed a staggering amount of people (including, it is believed, Thais), who thought the couple was able to purchase luxury goods for them at attractive, lower-than-retail prices. Unlike, say, MDada (the live-streaming company of Addy Lee, Michelle Chia and Pornsak), the couple’s methods were not made public or immediately clear. The police received “at least 180” reports against the two of them. Many claimed that advanced payments for Rolex and Patek Philippe watches and high-end bags such as Chanel and Hermès were made, but no goods were delivered. When they tried contacting the couple, they could not reach them. A Telegram group was set up, comprising about 200 members, who shared similar stories of paying and not getting. Following the police reports filed and revelations on social media, Mr Pi was arrested last month and was released on bail. It is not clear if Ms Siriwipa was arrested, but media reports said she was “assisting” in the investigations. And then, as they were to their customers, they were “uncontactable”. According to CNA, a 40-year-old Malaysian man allegedly hid the fraudsters in a lorry in assisting their escape on 4 July across the Causeway. He was arrested and charged. It is believed that the absconders are now in Thailand.

Mr Pi was arrested… and Ms Pansuk was “assisting” with investigations. And then, as they were to their customers, they were “uncontactable”

Twenty-six-year-old Pi Jiapeng, as Shin Min Daily News reported, is a former 鞋店仔 (xiedianzai) or shoe shop chap. According to information posted on the Interpol website, he was born in Fujian, China. An only son from a single-parent family, he met his “wealthy” Thai wife through an unidentified dating app. It is not determined if they met here or in Thailand. He is known to those he allegedly scammed as ’Kevin’, while she is referred to as ‘Ann’. The Chinese paper cited those who are familiar with Mr Pi’s situation, saying that he became “富贵 (fugui or rich)” after knowing Siriwipa Pansuk, a (now) 27-year-old, originally from Roi-Et, Issan, but has a registered address in Nonthaburi, a municipality that is so close to Bangkok that it is regarded a suburb of the Thai capital. On social media, a repeated comment on her posts (discontinued) had been suai (สวยยย) or beautiful. It is possible that it was this chiobu (Hokkien for a female that’s especially attractive or hot) image that drew the geeky-looking Mr Pi to her.

That and, as speculated, her supposed wealth. It was reported that Ms Pansuk had gifted him with a sports car, (it isn’t clear if this was before or after they were married). No one knows the source of the woman’s riches or are aware of her propensity to offer expensive gifts, but some suggested that her mode of operation was evocative of Anna Delvey (real name: Anna Sorokin), the Russian-born German con artist and fraudster who became the subject of a recent Netflix series, Inventing Anna. Mr Pi’s new-found prosperity came so suddenly that he was described to have 飞黄腾达 (fei huang teng da or shot up meteorically). The couple is believed to have last lived in a house with a pool on Holland Road. A photograph of the forsaken residence shared online showed two sports cars parked in the porch.

Pi Jiapeng and Siriwipa Pansuk, Photo: Facebook

Coming into sudden wealth apparently raised no red flags among the people who knew the couple or did business with them. Nor, the two’s supposedly unceasing supply of some of the most expensive watches and coveted handbags in the market. A few of the victims who spoke to Shin Min Daily News claimed to have spent tens—even hundreds—of thousands of dollars through the couple’s social media operations. One of them, who contacted the duo through Instagram, paid—in full—SGD$700,000 for seven luxury timepieces. It is not clear why he was willing to spend that amount and yet chose not to get the corresponding service and assurance at an authorised retail store, other than that “the price they offered was about 10 per cent lower than the market price”. Another victim, a recent graduate, paid SGD40,000 for “branded bags”, with the intention of reselling them for a profit—a common practice. That pecuniary gain was never seen—the goods at no time arrived.

It was reported that the Pis started their buying-for-others activity on Carousell and IG. A year ago, there was a “shop” in Tanjong Pagar (for collection only, apparently), now reported to have shuttered. They told their victims that they travelled often, and, in the case of watches, to Switzerland, where the prices are, the pair assured their targets, cheaper. In police reports, two local companies that they started were implicated: Tradenation and Tradeluxury. Tradenation, according to its IG description, is a “Singapore-registered company (now suspended)” that deals in “AUTHENTIC (in caps) luxury timepiece (sic)” while Tradeluxury is a “one stop (sic) place to shop your favourite bags”. Despite the online negativity now, Tradenation and Tradeluxury did receive favourable reviews on Telegram, although it is not possible to confirm if they are genuine.

Coming into sudden wealth apparently raised no red flags among the people who knew the couple or did business with them

When the news of their possible crimes and daring escape broke in Thailand, chatter began to emerge on Thai social media that Ms Pansuk had previously gotten herself into similar hot soup in South Korea, where, before she met Mr Pi, she supposedly dated a Gangnam bar owner. Photos shared by her in late 2017 and early 2018 did show that she was in Seoul for a while, even offering to show visitors around the city because, as she wrote, “I’m also very free”. During that time, despite a seemingly comfortable life, she allegedly “tricked Thais into investing in a fake company (what it deals with is not known)”, even leading them to believe she had studied in the UK (according to her own social media profile, she attended the 75-year-old Catholic school Pramaesakolsongkroh [that goes by the regrettable abbreviation PMS!] in Nonthaburi, an institution that does not offer tertiary education). Someone who seems to know her wrote in Thai on Facebook, “Are you dead yet? Give me back my money.” It was beginning to emerge that Ms Pansuk was a likely serial cheat.

In the one photograph of the couple widely circulated online and used by the press before the pair’s names were revealed, bespectacled Pi Jiapeng was seen in possibly a Thai holiday resort, wearing a black-and-white jumper with what appears to be all-over Dior ‘Oblique’ monogram. He was shod in a pair of black Gucci Princetown Horsebit mules. His wife, who stood partly behind him, as if knowing her place, wore a black Chanel belt and carried a grey Lady Dior bag. They seemed the much-in-love and much-in-business husband and wife, living the life that their customers could relate to or may have even envied: Materially blessed. The better to not arouse suspicious transactions and to ensnare more bargain hunters into their well-baited trap. A considerable con job.

Update (11 August, 6.30pm): The Straits Times just reported that both Pi Jiapeng and his wife Siriwipa Pansuk were caught in Johor Baru and were brought back to Singapore to face charges tomorrow

Illustration: Just So

What Is A Horse-Face Skirt?

In China, this Dior skirt is considered to be one, and not many are delighted that the French house called the silhouette its “hallmark”

Dior mid-length pleated skirt. Photo: Dior

In hanfu (汉服) or traditional Han Chinese dress, there is a skirt with two pleated sides and a flat front (and rear) panel known as ma mian qun (马面裙) or horse-face skirt. Worn since the Song dynasty (宋朝, 10th century) through the Qing dynasty (清朝, 1644—1911), even the Republic era, the skirt is characterised by side panels that are pleated (褶 or zhe), and the front and back that are not. This season, Dior offers a similar “mid-length pleated skirt”, as it is called. Nothing terribly wrong with that accept that the French house describes it on their website as “a hallmark Dior silhouette”. It was this description that ticked Chinese Netizens off this past week when they saw the skirt online (it is now removed from the Dior Chinese website). So similar it was to what the Chinese know as ma mian qun that many spoke up in disapproval, even the online Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. “The so-called Dior silhouette is very similar to the Chinese horse-face skirt,” it opined somewhat angrily. “When many details are the same, why is it shamelessly called a ‘new design’ and ‘hallmark Dior silhouette’?”

It is not known if the Dior skirt was indeed based on the ma mian qun or just inspired by it. Or, in fact, a take on Sacai’s own interpretation. Maria Grazia Chiuri has rather been into pleated skirts recently, churning out many versions of them for the house’s autumn/winter 2022 season. Some of the skirts are schoolgirlishly short, some are hipster-style asymmetric. Regardless, they are very much a part of Ms Chiuri’s re-imagining of what constitutes modern prettiness and what might be a badge of present-day feminism. On their website, the “mid-length pleated skirt” is recommended to go with a T-shirt that reads on the chest “Femininity, the trap”. Dior was apparently contacted by local Chinese media for comment regarding the former’s ma mian qun lookalike, but has yet offered a statement.

A Chinese full-length ma mian qun or horse-face skirt. Photo: 百科

The horse-face skirt, also known as the horse-face pleated skirt (马面褶裙 ma mian zhe qun) is not named after any equine face. If there is anything related to horses, it is in the openings of the four-panel (四裙门 si qun men), apron-like skirt in the front and the rear that facilitate the mounting and dismounting of horses (or, as one report suggests, donkeys), making riding easier. Its popularity through the many years could, therefore, be attributed to its functionality. The reference to horse faces could be due to the flatness of the front panel (usually unadorned too) of the skirt, which the Chinese called ma mian (马面) or horse face. The first use of the phrase is believed to be in the publication History of the Ming Palace (明宫史) by the Ming Dynasty eunuch Liu Ruoyu (刘若愚), although horse-face skirts date back to the Song.

With the rise in the popularity of hanfu in China and an increasing suspicion of Western brands (after so many created communication materials that purportedly put Chinese people in unflattering light. This would be Dior’s second misstep in China after last year’s photo that “smeared Asian women”) taking advantage of their culture, it is not surprising that Chinese consumers are becoming a tad sensitive when it comes to how their culture is represented or, worse, “appropriated”. The similarity of Dior’s skirt to ma mian qun is probably coincidental, rather than a deliberate attempt at seizing a silhouette for themselves. But we do live in sensitive times, and brands would serve themselves better by refraining from potentially problematic expressions such as “hallmark”. Dior would want to listen to public opinion and not wish the Chinese to think that the maison, in not acknowledging its skirt’s resemblance to one of the Chinese’s own, is—keeping to bodily parts—胸无点墨 (siong wu dian mo) or chest without a dot of ink (literally). In other words, culturally bereft.

Is Dior So Small-Minded?

In an unexpected move, Dior is seeking compensation from Valentino for apparently obstructing the business of their boutique in Rome, where in the vicinity, Valentino staged their latest couture show

Dior pop-up store at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands in April this year. File photo: Chin Boh Kay for SOTD

According to a WWD report shared online a short while ago, Dior has asked Valentino for compensation because of supposed disruption to the operation of their Rome store on Via Condotti, directly opposite the monumental Spanish Steps on which the recent, much-lauded Valentino couture show was staged. WWD reported to have seen the letter that the retail manager of Christian Dior Italia sent to Valentino, asking for €100,000 (approximately SGD142,000) to be paid in 15 days, possibly as recognition of loss of sales. Even when the store front was packed with attendees of the Valentino show, there were apparently no customers inside. According to Dior, they had not been able to “operate from the early hours of the afternoon”—last Friday.

It is not known if the entire Piazza di Spagna on which the famed stairway ends was cordoned off to the public or if Via Condotti was shut too. Or how difficult it was for customers to get to the Dior store as a result of the well-attended presentation, which saw stars such as Anne Hathaway, Ariana DeBose, Florence Pugh, and Kate Hudson show up in their couture finery. Did none of them pop in at Dior, even to just browse? Reportedly, Dior, as well as other retailers in the area, were sent a letter by Valentino that “guaranteed regular foot traffic to the stores”, but the seller of the Book tote stated that the flow of shoppers was “not reflected in any way”.

The Valentino autumn/winter 2022 couture show on the Spanish Steps in Rome. The models would be facing the Dior store to their left as they descended. Screen grab: valentino.com

Many luxury brands, Dior included, have been taking their shows to venues not necessarily ideal for a runway, but would provide the appreciatively spectacular background to a collection as sensational as the couture (interestingly and, perhaps, ironically, Dior’s is designed by a former employee of Valentino). Although, at the Valentino show, models had to make their way nervously down the 138 steps in their tall heels, the elegance of the clothes on the stairway was quite a sight to behold. Did the executives at Dior not see the show from within their store and enjoyed it? Or were they seething with such deep displeasure at being overshadowed by a competitor’s event (and more alluring collection?!) that they wanted some reimbursement to feel better?

Dior’s revenue, according to reports in 2020, has surged so much that it is on track to catch up with Chanel. Morgan Stanley analysts estimated that in 2019, the brand’s sales of both fashion and beauty divisions have jumped by 24 percent, which amounted to €6.6 billion (or about SGD9.3 billion; Dior does not reveal their sales figures). And the number is still growing. It is, therefore, rather curious that they cannot afford a sales recess of €100,000, which, in all likelihood, is small, compared to the losses incurred during the national lockdown in the wake of Italy’s staggering COVID-19 infection in March 2020. It is possible that Dior was not the only brand with weak sales on the day of the Valentino couture showing. Will there be a domino effect or Dior’s demand encouraging others, such as Moncler, who is opposite them on Via Condotti, also facing the Spanish Steps, to follow suit? Would Dior have asked for any money if the show was staged by one of the brands under parent company LVMH, such as Fendi?

“A Better Tomorrow”. Or, Duller?

Dior’s couture this season hopes for an improved future. For the house or the world, it is not quite clear

Despite collections after collections for both the prêt-àporter and haute couture that resist ‘spectacular’ and ‘groundbreaking’—forget ‘radical’—as descriptors, Maria Grazia Chiuri has been able to drive Dior to €18bn-revenue territory for the first quarter of this year, according to media reports, a not unimpressive 29% increase, compared to the same period last year. Do they need “to reimagined a better tomorrow”, the aim of the autumn/winter 2022 couture collection, according to Ms Chiuri to The Guardian? Dior sales across categories apparently have defied any (premature?) suspicion that the unceasing pandemic and the ongoing war in North-East Europe will dampen the brand’s outlook. This is in large part due to Ms Chiuri’s persistent push for the pragmatic, pleasantly prettified. She does not go where she fears to tread. Her clothes are well-loved because they are relatable. Women do not take to Dior with trepidation. So Ms Chiuri continually churns with confidence and delight the same delicate dresses, tempered with slogan tees and anoraks, and steadied with sensible hats and shoes.

The couture collections, too, are treated with similar aesthetical approachability, to the point that you cannot easily tell them apart from those of the pret. As we have noted before, Dior is increasingly moving away from the specialness that can inspire, among a range of emotions, awe. This isn’t naysaying. No extreme reactions are necessary to Ms Chiuri for as long as she is able to achieve the pleasantly humdrum with the obligatory see-through to mimic sexiness. Her couture presentations may have been walking theses of feminism and its attendant pride, as well as support for artists and artisans that can be aligned with Dior, but they are not designs that could provide look-back that would remind us, in the future, of revolutionary times or zeal, as The New Look still evokes. After the first prairie dress of this autumn/winter season appeared, we were ready to turn off the livestream when we received a WhatsApp message from a friend of SOTD. It said, “I don’t think Christian Dior himself had ever been to a prairie or even know what it is. Extremely sickening.”

Ms Chiuri may not have entirely abandoned the Dior house codes (she has pivoted the waist to its natural position, for example), but there has been no indication that she has forged new ones either. Or, perhaps she has: Dior is not associated with the alpine fave, dirndl skirts, or anything Cottagecore, but it now it is. She is happy to sashay in her own plodding rhythm, comforted by what we see as ennui that won’t change. Her designs are circumscribed by silhouettes that amount to five, or thereabouts, fashioned in fabrics that inevitably include the sheer. You know what will be shown; you can guess it. Predictability has never been capped. Yes, you can argue that there are those many, many stitches by the petite-mains and the details the eyes cannot see (especially not on a livestream). You can say there are those wonderful surface treatments—embroidery (on tartan: Charmed!) and floral motifs with an intricacy that screech couture or the folksy smocking on the bodice with the decorative stitches, or the frog fastening on vaguely Mao jackets. But take away all that? Are we going to be reminded of the hundreds of hours needed to make those clothes, again?

This season, Maria Grazia Chiuri pays tribute to another female creative, the Ukrainian artist Olesia Trofymenko, who is tasked to design the set. At Ms Trofymenko’s suggestion, the tree of life is used as a motif. Clichéd as the image might be, Ms Chiuri admitted to liking the symbolism a lot, with the house saying that “these traditional symmetrical structures symbolise femininity, the idea of continuity and a bright future”. The use of Ms Trofymenko’s work could appear to be a token gesture to support the war and resistance in Ukraine, but whether nominal visual value is applied or a true symbol of womanhood not expressed clearly enough already, we cannot really tell. Obvious is the return to looks that are more than retro, to a time of the pioneer women of the mid-19th century. Some of the frocks recall those of Valentino, where Ms Chiuri was a co-designer (alongside Pierpaolo Piccioli) and had loved rather medieval styles, such as the kirtle. Others, including a kirtle-looking spaghetti-strapped dress over a chemise, might look very much in place in the wardrobe of Maria Rainer of The Sound of Music. “I go to the hills when my heart is lonely,” Julie Andrews as Maria sang in the 1965 film, “I know I will hear what I’ve heard before. My heart will be blessed with the sound of music. And I’ll sing once more.” Dior’s Maria does, too.

Screen shot (top): Dior/YouTube. Photos: Dior

Not Your Garden Variety?

Is Dior producing something blooming fine or are there just more gimmicks than usual?

Down the garden path, Dior leaves last season’s city sidewalk. The trail could be a winding one. The back story to Kim Jones’s Dior spring/summer 2023 is just as sinuous. In a nutshell, the Bloomsbury set (again) and gardens (but no cacti). The long trek, a self-absorbed fascination—hence connection—between Christian Dior and Duncan Grant, the British painter who was, seemingly, partial to male nudes, and was a costume designer, too. Part of the Bloomsbury group (which included Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster) that Mr Jones is enamoured with, Mr Grant operated, since 1916, out of Charleston, a farmhouse in Sussex, south of England, not far from where the Dior designer keeps a country home and garden. But more significantly, at least to Mr Jones, is that both Mr Grant and Monsieur Dior shared the same day of birth, 21 January.

Alright, we are meandering. The point is the garden: two, in fact: that of Charleston and Mr Dior’s childhood home Les Rhumbs, in Granville, Normandy, Northwest France. In case we can’t imagine the blooms-filled, bucolic setting(s), a fake, prettified one is created for the presentation, including a 3-D backdrop of Les Rhumbs (and a photo wall of the English Channel behind it), ass well as Charleston on the opposite end. In his (translated) autobiography Dior by Dior, the creator of The New Look wrote: “Our house at Granville, like all Anglo-Norman buildings at the end of last century, was perfectly hideous. All the same I look back on it with tenderness as well as amazement. In a certain sense, my whole way of life was influenced by its architecture and environment.”

Mr Jones looks back with tenderness and amazement, too. But in casting his mind to the past, he endears himself to Duncan Grant, a man thought to be a fashion, social, and sexual rule-breaker of his time (this was in the early 1900s), as much as gardens of yore. But, as one reviewer in the Kirkus Review of art historian Frances Spalding’s Duncan Grant: A Biography opined, the “minor English painter and decorative artist… his mild artistic abilities will always be overshadowed by whom he knew and whom he slept with”. They also held the believe that “unquestionably, Grant was a decent copyist and a reasonable colorist with a good sense of line and form, but his style tended to ebb and flow with whatever was in vogue at the time, so that it is hard to pin down anything in his work as definitively ‘Duncan Grant’”. Sometimes, that thought comes to us, too: What is definitively Kim Jones?

In this collection, outdoorsy looks that some commentators call “cottagecore” are thought to be Mr Jones’s cabbage patch. There are, therefore, plenty of shorts—double shorts, in fact; or running shorts-looking pairs on top of fitted ones that could be for cycling. These are teamed with embroidered fleece jackets, their technical kin (in sort of a camo print), sweaters (including sleeveless ones) bearing the artworks of Duncan Grant that Mr Jones reportedly owns. His usual tailoring is there, too: jackets have softer shoulders, waists cut close to the body, and peaked lapels worn upturned, creating graphic interest for the neck. But something else is not seen before—blousy tops. Mr Jones has largely avoided the semblance of skirts (even his shorts are not that wide) or dresses for men. So two tops are fascinating. One is like an asymmetric, half-woven-half-netting take on a scrub; sleeveless, but one shoulder is extended, the other side, double strapped. The other, a long-sleeved top with a square-necked double yoke-flap (with brooch to hold both pieces in place). Feminine touches, no doubt. Enough? Kim Jones never promised anyone a rose garden.

Screen shot (top): Dior/YouTube. Photos: Dior

Spain Saturated

Maria Grazia Chiuri makes sure that the Dior cruise collection, presented in Seville this time, is unmistakably Spanish

It is off to Spain for Dior’s cruise 2023 collection this season. In Sevilla, Maria Grazia Chiuri presented her desirably wearable clothes at the Plaza de España (or Spain Square), a half-circle complex of mixed styles that was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 (mainly offices of government agencies are housed there now). The sweeping building sits in a massive garden, the Parque de María Luisa and it is in this vast expanse of space, with the Plaza as backdrop, that the Dior presentation took place. For most of the show (to be certain, we—like most of you—saw the livestream), the clothes were lost in the (no doubt breathtaking) expanse of the setting. Also threatening to overshadow the models looking remarkably listless (the runway just too long?) is the energetic dance performance—flamenco that ethnographers and dance anthropologists believe to have started here in Seville as bodily expression of the impoverished and the marginalized. But Dior’s expensive show gives no hint to that little detail of the history of the Andalusian capital.

The Dior cruise collections have mostly been a cultural promotion of sorts or as a “way to tell stories”, CEO Pietro Beccari told Vogue in 2020. From Calabasas (2018) Marrakech (2020) to Puglia (2021) to Greece (2022), the destinations were as far away as the clothes were localised. These city/town/village-themed collections also allowed Ms Chiuri to work with provincial artisans, infusing her designs with the exotic and the cultural so that they’d be artistic and edifying. Oftentimes, the pieces are the “real deal” of how much local knowledge and craftsmanship have been worked into them. In sum, they capture the sartorial spirit and tradition of the land. That, however, does not necessarily preclude the lamentably clichéd.

In Seville now, the clothes (and the very Zorro Cordovan hats!) so radiate those fashion finds from holidays in Spain that they border on the costume-y. Pandemic-era The Barber of Seville? A Roman designer working in Paris referencing Andalusian motifs is likely cultural appreciation, rather than appropriation. Indeed, can white people adopting the fashion of other white people, but of different culture be considered an act of appropriation? There is a greater cause in all this: Ms Chiuri is providing employment for scores of the local artisans and others putting the show together. We must not knock this. Jack Neo recently said of his second Ah Girls Go Army film, “Don’t scold us again… we created 400 job opportunities by doing these films.” Economic benefit in inflationary times trumps artistic merit.

These are clothes that would no doubt elicit the response, “so preeety”. Nothing wrong with that. As fashion gets inexplicably vulgar and meretricious, what Dior is offering could be welcome antidote. Ms Chiuri, whose middle name also means “beauty of form and movement”, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, has always approached design with a more classical eye. Her Dior has predictable forms that prefer not to deviate from the founder’s vision, allowing movement for women to be at their feminine best, from demure to coquettish. So, this season, the modest lengths to maintain primness or the frilly off-shoulders (and bodily tiers) that facilitate flirtation. All the better to project the power of the matriarch (or that of the late flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya, who, danced “energetically” in pants and was—ironically for the Dior inspiration—not a mother): As Ms Chiuri told Suzy Menkes, “All the Mediterranean areas, especially in the South, are matriarchal families, where the women is the centre. These women are super strong. Sometimes too much”.

But excessive may not necessarily be an undesirable trait to Ms Chiuri. Faced with the plethora of Andalusian decoration on fabric, she does not shy away from them. Or, the so-called Spanish lace (much of the lace used in Spain for, say, mantillas—even, reportedly, ecclesiastical lace—were imported from France, in particular Chantilly, where Dior staged its 2019 cruise show). The clothes are accorded surface treatments as if they are destined for an Almerían or gypsy wedding. So lacy, frilly, ruffled, and tiered many of the looks are that it is hard to imagine them for a cruise, or any resort. Traditional Spanish fashion can, of course, be flamboyant—bright colours and eye-catching patterns are typical of Andalusian dress, also referred to as “flamenco”. But Ms Chiuri avoids that path to an extent. Still, it is hard to ignore the fanciness of the fringed-shawls-as-outers (mantoncillos?) Or the toreador jackets and pantalones, even when they are tempered with the inclusion of denim and varsity jackets. Maria Grazia Chiuri is clearly not thinking of the matriarch (and the inhabitants) of La Casa de Bernarda Alba.

Screen shot (top): Dior/YouTube. Photos: Dior

A Showy Amble

Walking on the path Gucci paved, Dior is showing its gaudy side.

The Dior Men’s spring—also known as resort or cruise, in case there’s any confusion—2023 season started rather straightforwardly enough. Like those of other luxury brands, Dior’s inter-season show is staged away from home, in Los Angeles, specifically the neighbourhood of Venice, in what is known as its “heart”— Winward Avenue, a flashy and touristy thoroughfare that cuts right to the famed Venice Beach Boardwalk. This could easily be the equivalent of Bangkok’s Khao San Road, if not visually, definitely in spirit. The runway, not flanked by buildings of architectural value or set against the Pacific Ocean (the Dior show is the second LVMH-owned brand to show in California this season after Louis Vuitton), is done up as if for a beach bash (complete with surging waves!). The clothes correspond to the waterfront party vibe, but with considerably more bling than one might be comfortable wearing to a littoral event with no guarantee that the sand won’t somehow get into shoes and clothes. Then we remember, this is California. The Californication of Dior.

It is open to view that Kim Jones is pandering to a Californian crowd with his California Couture, as the season is themed. Like other designers of European brands, such as Hedi Slimane, Mr Jones seems to have a thing for America (another collection for Dior was staged in Florida: Fall 2020), and this time, the clothes seems targeted at California’s most recognisable metonym for entertainment: Hollywood. And, of course, music. It is, therefore, easy to connect the styling to what stars operating out of this city would wear to go out to dine at high-profile restaurants, on date nights with equally famous other-halves, jam in a recording studio, attend movie premiers and music awards presentations, and, of course, to buy milk. This being the West Coast, the looks have to project unambiguously Californian Casual and Cool, if not exactly Couture. If Californian fashion has not been convincingly defined, what is California Couture, other than plain puffery? Or, perhaps the show is best described by the opening track: My Bloody Valentine’s Only Shallow?

By Mr Jones’s definition, French urban polish will look out of place in California. So the surf and the skate must come rolling in. There has to be commercial American staples, such as hoodies, pullovers, and hang-loose shirts, but being a tribute to Venice Beach’s “seedy glamour”, as described by Mr Jones to the press, all are given a meretricious makeover, in a manner we are already familiar with at Gucci: Their spring/summer 2022 show also in California—on Hollywood Boulevard—still so fresh in our mind. The blatant retro-ness may not be cresting at Dior, but the push-femininity-as-far-as-you-could ostentation is there: pearl-studded fisherman sweaters, jumpers woven with sparkly metallic yarns, mixed-media appliqued cardigans, newsprint tees, satin trousers, those with the cannage-quilting of Lady Dior bags, furry shorts, those with sequined hems, all teamed with the, frankly irritating, laces-untied sneakers. Dior is in California!

What we found starring at us, too, is Dior seemingly mocking itself. Could this be the label doing its own bootleg clothes. Before the counterfeiters strike? It is hard to say this of possibly one of the most-loved menswear lines in the luxury sphere: Some pieces are evocative of what one might find on Taobao. One really stood out for us: a long-sleeved cycling top with a triple chevron underscoring the four-letter brand name depicted in a font layout/placement we are desperately trying not to call cheesy. This season, part of the collection (those hoodies and puffers, for sure) was “guest-designed” by Eli Russell Linnetz of ERL, the much feted brand, especially among hip-hop circles. Mr Linnetz, a Venice Beach native, moves glowingly in the orbit of Kanye West; he directed Mr West’s Famous (yes, the one with recognisable stars in bed, naked) and Fade (yes, the one with Teyana Taylor dancing alone in the gym, quite naked) music videos, and dipped his hands in the now-untalked-of Yeezy line. In 2018, Dover Street Market came acalling. The rest is history, and, now, Dior. California is not dreaming.

Screen shot (top) and photos: Dior