Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
Despite what’s going on around us right now, Silvia Fendi does not believe in an abstemious life. Her latest collection for autumn/winter 2021 continues to pile on the luxe and is not short of ideas, proving that her strength is in menswear
“Hello,” goes the matronly voice above the not-yet-loud electronic beat, “it’s Silvia calling. I just wanted to tell you about humanity, colour… about what is normal today, about light… and darkness…” That’s how the Fendi show started. These days, the creative heads behind luxury houses want to speak to you directly. Silvia Venturini Fendi does so through the soundtrack by Not Waving, the London-based Italian “musical artist” Alessio Natalizia, for the live-streamed men’s show. She does not sing. Instead, she speaks as if through a phone, or Zoom without the video turned on. It is reminiscent of Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1989 dance single How To Do That, in that he too didn’t sing, but Mr Gaultier sounded like he was having fun, rather than encourage a discourse on what matters now. Ms Fendi’s wanting to tell you about “what is normal today” could be prelude to what her Fendi men’s might look like.
But only, it isn’t really. This is not some elevated athleisure or loungewear 2.0 frippery; this is whatever you wish to call it, with extra doses of the deluxe. Not quite the fashion of WTF, unless you live in a country estate in, say, Buckinghamshire, England, the look that reflects a still-precarious time. We can’t place exactly where these clothes might be worn to or where they might feel right, but we are drawn to them, if only because they look like we might be able to snuggle in them or turn one of the quilted coats into pillow or blanket. These are not exactly clothes for a lockdown (or for retiring, socially); they look like they would want to be worn somewhere. And clothes have such appeal if they are destined to be seen outside, in the world, no matter how awful or lamentable it is. What’s normal for Ms Fendi, as it turns out, is not quite so.
Such as shorts in winter. Although quilted, they might be insufficient for, say, Sapporo. Or too much for Hong Kong, where winters rarely warrant quilted garments. So they will be a fashion item, distanced from the practical obsessions of a now-different world. The head-to-toe knits too (we like the overalls with the turtleneck sweater), which could be for a log cabin apres ski (who really wears sweater-knit slacks outdoors?). Or, for that matter, the quilted dressing gowns? The dandy vibe is not lost, although it’d be eye-opening if there are, at this time, or nine months later, men who’d want to express their predilection for clued-in elegance by adopting such symbols of deep refinement and eccentric aristocracy. But it is the unlikely, by way of the practicable or visual, that we find this collection compelling.
The first look sums it all up. Two quilted coats together is unusual enough, but it is the cable-knit sweater worn underneath that draws our interest: it has a collar (if you can call it that), seemingly made from two joined sleeves. The styling allows these two ends to just hang down the chest, but we suspect that, for the more fashion forward, they could be tied into a pussy bow! Ms Fendi, as head of menswear, kidswear, and accessories, has, in these past years, made Fendi men a considerable force. Her women’s line, after Karl Lagerfeld’s death, banked too much on Roma retro, and did not quite excite, which may explain Kim Jones’s taking over in the upcoming season. Whether extreme or conspicuous luxe for menswear shall stake its place in a pandemic-ravaged world remains to be seen, but Silvia Fendi has positioned the now-LVMH-owned brand well, and with wit to boot.
Or is this just an in-transition, passing-the-baton collection?
Fendi without Karl Lagerfeld has not been the same. For 54 years, Mr Lagerfeld gave Fendi the fashion DNA it did not quite have, imagining a Roman style through his German eyes, but with a firmly French touch. Mr Lagerfeld started with the Fendi sisters and, later, Silvia Venturini Fendi, the grand-daughter of the fashion house’s founder. Throughout, Mr Lagerfeld has forged a Fendi that’s, at first, known for their youthful, almost avant-garde way with fur, and in the last years before the designer’s demise, noted for a smart prettiness characterised by lightness, as seen in some of the best fabrications the house had ever shown. Mr Lagerfeld seemed surer then ever what he wanted Fendi to be.
Three days before the Fendi autumn/winter 2019/20 show, Mr Lagerfeld passed. Silvia Fendi took the customary bow at the end of the show, suggesting that from then, we thought, she’d be setting the design directions for the house. But the subsequent collections did not quite build on the foundation that her predecessor had strengthened. They were essentially store-friendly clothes. Ms Fendi took her family’s brand on an even more commercial route than the one Mr Lagerfeld—himself a commercial designer—embarked, one that, to us, was a stroll through Via del Corso, the Rome shopping stretch for high-street brands and what’s considered Roman.
This season—supposedly Ms Fendi’s last before she hands the creative reign to Kim Jones—is Fendi in pensive mood. According to media reports, the collection was based on photographs that Ms Fendi took from her bedroom window during the lockdown months in Italy. Shadows of gloomy windows and silhouettes of trees and foliage that rose beyond were projected onto white drapes, as if a scene in a horror film, set in an attic, with the floating curtains and an unknown entity creating the mood. It was strange that, as one of the first IRL shows of the Milan season with an actual audience (however not-packed), the Fendi presentation was this subdued, nearly cheerless. And the clothes mostly reflected this stay-at-home-and-look-at-the-window melancholia.
To further underscore the domestic (and, we’re told, “familial”) setting in which the clothes could look right, Ms Fendi talked of bed linens that inspired some comforter-looking outerwear (for spring/summer?). She said that they reminded her of Karl Lagerfeld, who collected sheets, and is known to travel with his own (possibility including quilt covers?). Interestingly, window drapes has a link to the man too. He once regaled the press by saying, “My mother said: ‘I’m going to have to take you to the upholsterer. Your nostrils are too big—they need curtains.’”
We’ere not sure if Mr Lagerfeld wanted to be remembered for bedsheets and window curtains, but Fendi did consider them. Regardless of what will happen next spring and summer, it would probably still have to do with what many have discovered during lockdowns and social distancing: comfort dressing, or how we’re supposedly attired at home. This could possibly be Fendi’s least dressed-up collection since dressing up is not presently quite on our minds. Sure, there is the lace skirt for lunch with the BFFs, the body-con dress for dates, the jumpsuit for running errands. And, oh, pantsuits for, presumably, work. But it isn’t easy to place them in the present or why Fendi thought that, in six months’ time, when the workforce may be entirely back to the office, women would want a three-piece suit.
To be sure, the clothes will be considered desirable since they don’t require unpacking to understand. With the references to soft furnishings of home, they could easily be a wardrobe that can be worn just outside the wardrobe. Or, on a trip to the supermarket. Ensuring that fashion touches were not altogether eliminated, there were the sheerness (some printed with the afternoon shadows you might catch on window drapes), the appliques to lift otherwise plain fabrics to a higher level, or those seen-before pencil-like lines outlining coats and dresses. But is the sum adequate to give Fendi the edgines (or buzziness) that other brands under the parent company LVMH are able to project? Silvia Venturini Fendi is probably aware of her limitations. Kim Jones is just the name to headline her family’s 95-year-old brand.
Fendi’s Karl Lagerfeld replacement is, like the late designer, already gainfully employed at the point of hire
The breaking news earlier today was the appointment of Kim Jones at Fendi. Mr Jones will not be leaving his post at Dior Men. He will be holding two positions: his current duties at Dior and as Fendi’s “artistic director of haute couture, ready-to-wear, and fur collections for women”, as described in a media release. This arrangement is not unlike that of his predecessor Karl Lagerfeld, who, among many other projects, including his own line, designed for Chanel and Fendi. Mr Jones’s dual role won’t be a professional challenge for him since back in his early years at Louis Vuitton, he was also designing for Dunhill and, if we remember correctly, his eponymous line.
But, does Kim Jones need two jobs at present? This was the first thing that struck us. Or, is LVMH—in wealth-protection mode—not hiring from outside of the company? Many good designers—both from the old guard and new breed—are unemployed. With the pandemic not satisfactorily mitigated, unemployment among fashion designers would likely remain significant. Could Mr Jones and LVMH not have given others a chance when design positions are dwindling? Could Mr Jones not have recommended someone to Fendi as he did to LV, resulting in the appointment of Virgil Abloh? Or, is Fendi a real catch?
As posted on Mr Jones’s Instagram eight hours ago, “working across two such prestigious house is a true honour as a designer and to be able to join the house of Fendi as well as continuing my work at Dior Men’s is a huge privilege.”
The privilege is, of course, easy. Fendi, founded in 1925, was partially acquired by LVMH in 1999, with Prada being the other partner. After Prada sold their shares to LVMH in 2002, the latter is now the majority owner of Fendi. It’s not surprising that Fendi would look to other LVMH subsidiaries (Tiffany’s now unlikely to join the stable) to find the brand’s next artistic director. And if so, the target is obvious.
Hedi Slimane at Celine has the carte blanch to do as he pleases. It is unlikely he’d want to take on another brand, one that is still watched by a matriarch. Kris Van Assche at Berluti isn’t a commercial wunderkind that Mr Jones is to be able to keep Fendi’s sale performance glowing. Matthew Williams at Givenchy was just appointed and has not proved his mettle. Felipe Oliveira Baptista at Kenzo is too new to test, so is Guillaume Henry at Patou. Maria Grazia Chiuri? Nah. Rihanna? Nah. Marc Jacobs? He’s across the pond. Or, Nicholas Ghesquiere at LV Women? He’s not a right fit. As for Jonathan Anderson at Loewe, he is too right for the Spanish house for Fendi to touch.
For too long Fendi has been steered by Mr Lagerfeld. Now, they clearly want what Mr Jones is able to give to Dior Men. As Fendi CEO Serge Brunschwig, shared on IG, “Kim will bring his contemporary one of a kind point of view into the world of Fendi”. Hyped sneakers, to start with?
Just as we were learning that the SG authorities will limit the gathering outside of school and work to 10 people, and that entertainment spots are to close, we were brought to the attention of luxury retail’s first victim of the COVID-19 pandemic
This notice was brought to our attention this afternoon. The communique was signed by Toshin Development Singapore’s general manager Shuichi Hidaka. It informed tenants of the 27-year-old Takashimaya Shopping Centre that a case of COVID-19 was confirmed and “that an employee at one of the stores at Level 1 had contracted the virus”.
Although the tenant was not identified in the mail, news had spread among the mall’s retail personnel after lunch that a female staffer at Fendi (situated on level 1) had tested positive for COVID-19 today. SOTD has not been able to independently established the veracity of this mail or what’s been shared on social media, but readers who had visited Takashimaya Shopping Centre earlier, told us that Fendi, refurbished just three years ago, was closed, the area around it was cordoned off, and a large cleaning crew was “hard at work”.
A discreet, surprisingly weak-resolution notice in a small font size next to the closed main door of Fendi. No mention of an infected staff. Photo: Gwen Goh
Toshin Development Singapore, the Japanese-owned company that manages the spaces outside Takashimaya Department Store—from basement 2 to level 4—on which the 130-plus specialty and luxury boutiques are spread, assured tenants that the building’s Emergency Response Team “was immediately activated to disinfect all affected common areas in Takashimaya Shopping Centre and Ngee Ann City (NAC).”
While that is reassuring and an appreciable rapid response, it has not stopped alarmists from quickly telling the public: “Pls do not meet any of their staff for now till they have completed their 14 days quarantine (sic).” Or, worse, “Try to Avoid NAC, just in case.” Luxury/fashion retail is now a veritable ghost town. Persistent scare-mongering isn’t going to help.
Update (22.30): Fendi has issued a statement to confirm that an employee has tested positive, and the six colleagues in the store will be on a 14-day isolation. The Takashimaya Shopping Centre store will be closed until 26 March 2020
Is Silvia Venturini Fendi now tracking her own path? Or did she learn well from a former part-time employee?
Fendi. The moment they tried moving the focus away from the founding business of fur (for obvious reasons), the Roman house has placed significant emphasis and resources on its ready-to-wear unit, which is today 43 years old. While the late Karl Lagerfeld has been credited with modernising Fendi’s fur designs, not many—even members of the press—seriously note (or remember) that it was Mr Lagerfeld who launched the furrier’s RTW in 1997. And steered its direction till his death last year. Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld were synonymous. Although Mr Lagerfeld did credit third-gen Fendi, Silvia Venturini (she of the Baguette bag fame), as co-creator of the RTW, the designs had been in the aesthetical signature and whim of the German designer.
It has been a year since Mr Lagerfeld passed on rather suddenly. There was no known succession plan at Fendi. His design partner at the house since the mid-’90s decided that she could go on. Alone. Ms Fendi largely kept to Mr Lagerfeld’s codes for the house in her first solo RTW outing last season. A theme (something “solar”, if we remember correctly) running through the collection, however, saw Ms Fendi dancing dangerously on the grounds of parody. In addition, it was too post-Lagerfeld, a wobbly stance between homage and breaking free, which led to some observers fearing that Fendi would be like Chanel: lost. Perhaps it was take-over jitters. However, Ms Fendi now seems to have found her footing. Or, able to express herself without the “captain”. And the collection she presents for next fall is surprising, and a joy to view.
Ms Fendi has learnt well from her former collaborator: don’t let a good idea fade into the surfeit of the mediocre. This season, there are those statement sleeves, based on the idea of what could be a baguette shape (that bread again!), pulled down and away from the edge of the shoulder. Sticklers of conventionally-set sleeves may find Fendi’s elongated puffs ungainly, but we do consider them a welcome study of volume for a part of the body usually preferred when slender. What’s amazing is how, with manipulating the size and proportion, it is then applied on a wide variety of garments: coats, blazers, dresses, cardigans, blouses (sheer, as well), even rompers!
Ms Fendi’s known love of cinema is also captured, saluting how and what it was before in the movie world, on screen and off screen. That the clothes are imbued with bygone romance than cliched cinematic glamour make them more than facsimiles of period trends. A couple of beautiful dresses with seemingly thrown-on scarves (but are, in fact, part of the outfits), forming an X across the upper bodice fall in with the gracefulness and elegance of those designed by Hollywood costumer Adrian. Others could have been gleaned from Italian movies—vintage-y prints; contrast collars; slim, calf-length skirts—are in sync with the Italians’ love, this season, of lady-like dressed-up given just the right touch of the kooky. And la dolce Roma.
There is some aesthetic/visual contradiction too. Ms Fendi showed double-breasted suit-jackets and their leather cousins with boning that suggests corsets. Nothing wrong in emphasizing the waist, until two plus-sized models later appeared, with one of them in the similar suggestion of a constricted middle. Not to make an issue of it, but the incongruity is noticeable, and the different effect of the horizontal boning on the skinny and not are just as evident. It is not clear what the intention is other than to join the increasingly audible chorus demanding inclusivity. Would Fendi welcome diverse body types beyond this season’s token two?
Splendid coats, striking dresses, sapid skirts, and between them elements that come together to spell stand out—Silvia Venturini Fendi is on to a good (re)start. And a re-positioning for the now LVMH-owned brand beyond furs and accessories. In addition to the legacy of Karl Lagerfeld, Ms Fendi, too, has the input of two British fashion forces, the stylist Charlotte Stockdale (also one-half of the label Chaos), as well as Mr Lagerfeld’s right-hand consultant at Chanel, Amanda Harlech. Could this be the new power trio to re-energise Milan Fashion Week? Let’s see.
One of the oddest pairings this season is Fendi and Porter
The Fendi X Porter Baguette (top) and Peekaboo (below). Photos: Fendi
There have been calls in recent years for less collaborations, but not many brands heed the recommendation. Two names, preferably poles apart, coming together for one purpose—hyped-up merchandise—don’t always yield desirable results. Examples are too numerous to warrant space here for honourable mention. Yet, so numerous and persistent have collaborations become that over-collaboration is more real than results with value and usefulness. Some brands exist on product collaboration, rather than product development. Collab fatigue has been reported, but that’s hardly a deterrent. Have we not heard enough of Supreme with this or that, yielding meaningless non-clothing products—shovel, just to name one? To paraphrase Andy Warhol, perhaps, fashion (not just art) is what you can get away with.
One of the most don’t-know-what-to-make-of-this collaborations this season is that of Fendi and Porter. By strange, we don’t mean weird, but as likely as Gucci teaming up with Goop—it could happen, but really shouldn’t. Fendi, which CNN calls “one of Italy’s most powerful and storied luxury fashion houses”, are already bag makers with their own bag-making unit, but this could be onward march for them to go more street, in tandem with many Italians brands play catch-up. It is, however, not the same for Porter, already an established and respectable name in Japan for bags that don’t count the hard attache case as chum.
It is possible that to the young, I’ll-buy-anything Fendi fan, the pairing does not really matter. Fendi could have collaborated with Anello (that would be irony making a comeback!), and they would rush to pre-order, which, in the case of Fendi X Porter, was available more than a month earlier, thus ensuring that the limited-edition bag shall be sold out when they eventually hit the store, unbeknown to the casual shopper.
In the Porter Omotaesando, Tokyo store, an installation dedicated to the products from its collab with Fendi. Photo: Porter
In Tokyo, those who do not personally receive phone calls from their regular salesperson for pre-orders are a lot luckier than us, as Porter has set up what they call an “installation” at the brand’s Omotaesando store, showing the styles in all colours and sizes. When we arrived at Fendi at ION Orchard this morning, a very late two days after the bags became available, we were met by a sales girl who happily declared that the bags were “all sold out, except these two”, showing us the black Baguette and and gray Peekaboo with a capaciousness clearly created for men (later told to us by a Chanel collector that they are known as XLs), both still in their protective plastic bags, which were eventually removed for our inspection.
The bags have a familiar hand feel as they’re made of Porter’s signature nylon used in their popular Tanker series. And like the Tanker bags, the insides of these two come in contrast-coloured lining of orange, purportedly known as Indian Orange. The Peekaboo, less appealing to us, look like a work bag that won’t really be carried for work. More interesting was the Baguette. The original was introduced in 1997 and its extreme popularity lasted into the early 2000. The latest version we were holding is designed for men—a direction Dior took with its Saddle Bag. But guys do not have the tendency to carry bags under their upper arm, which was how creator of the Baguette, Silvia Venturini Fendi, saw women using the bag as if securing roti perancis (hence its name). The XL Baguette, with XL logo-clasp, now comes with the masculine addition of straps on its sides so that it can be used as a bum-bag!
It isn’t yet certain if this pair of “iconic” Fendi bags given the Porter treatment will enhance the Japanese brand’s already strong international standing, but it may shine a light on Fendi’s increasingly visible target of the younger—a lot younger—customer. Yet, the remake of once popular bags is not quite the same as pairing with a brand to take advantage of its unique design voice: this does not match Marni’s and Missoni’s collaboration with Porter, both with resultant products that had a certain edge and quirk that enchanted. We left Fendi no longer thinking of the bags we came to see. Rather, we’re wondering who we could call to help us score the Kolor X Porter bags, presently available only in Japan. Even if they only appeared in our dreams, we’d be happy.
Did Karl Lagefeld know that this would be his last collection for Fendi?
For someone who only looks to the future, probably not (“what is important is what I will do, not what I have done in the past”, he tended to say). Yet there is a sense that he gave all he had for this Fendi collection with the view that there might not be another. This is arguably one of the best collections he had conceived for the Roman house, where he had served as its ready-to-wear design head for 54 years—“the longest collaboration in fashion”, he had declared. The tailoring is sharp, the quirkiness unmistakable. This is fashion for those who cares more about stylish clothes that house codes.
Being a Karl Lagerfeld-designed collection, however, some things won’t be absent: the high, conspicuous Edwardian collars; straight but not overly emphatic shoulders; no-nonsense shirts, proper but not uninteresting skirts. Yet, there is not anything what might today be called ‘iconic’. They come together with other elements to form ensembles that are appealingly current—not cloyingly feminine, not unnecessarily street, no extremes. Despite the collection’s youthful vibe,you do not sense it is designed by an octogenarian trying to do young.
Between the two brands Mr Lagerfeld designed for those many decades, we have always preferred Fendi, the Roman label once run by five sisters (the cheekily wicked say six!) and is now part of the LVMH stable of luxury names. Mr Lagefeld joined Fendi—the other brand after Chanel that offered him a “lifelong” contract—in 1963. In luxury fashion, this is an anomaly: a freelancer working for one brand for over 50 years. During his time there, he not only revolutionise Fendi as furriers, he created their ready-to-wear from scratch.
In Fendi, it is possible that Mr Lagerfeld found the freedom to really express. From the beginning, he had no interest in leaving a legacy or creating what other brands call DNA. In the years designing for other brands, he was happy to create what he thought was au courant. While lightness was always associated with Karl Lagerfeld (even the Fendi furs, at some point, were light, including those designed to be worn in summer), there was not a discernible Karl Lagerfeld look. Aesthetically unshackled, he would create a Fendi not burdened by a past. Fendi could be whatever the trend of the moment is. Perhaps this “flexibility” endeared him to other brands. When Chanel had him on board in 1983, they were probably certain they would not be getting a variation of Fendi. But if Karl Lagerfeld didn’t have a distinct style and Fendi does not have the history that Chanel does, it would appear that Fendi has no look either.
While Fendi as a brand has succumbed to the street wear craze, it has remained largely true to its Italian elegance, offering stylish clothes with just the right touch of off. They are not Marni, of course, but in the hands of Karl Lagerfeld, they have kept to a femininity that is not frothy, but ethereal (compounded by incredible fabrics they are able to develop), all the while tempered by Mr Lagerfeld’s not exactly soft tailoring. There is none of the intellectual heft of Prada, nor the culturally-derived goofiness of Gucci, but compelling nonetheless.
For us, this collection leaves behind a good memory, a neat end to an era. We like the the surprise of the sash tied at the rear of shirts, coats, even dresses, like a forgotten belt; the mix of sheer or skin-visible with the solid (but not heavy); and, especially, a sense of the sublime without trying to be too clever about it. Fendi, as it appears, has a solid foundation.
Karl Lagerfeld has left the world and that of fashion. Born in 1933* in pre-war Hamburg, Germany, he died today in post-Web Paris, France—reportedly from the same disease that took the life of Steve Jobs: pancreatic cancer. He has said that he did not really need to be employed but, by most account, he worked at Chanel till his last breath. He was also proud of his perennial contracts with not only Chanel, but Fendi too. As he reiterated to Kendall Jenner in a Harper’s Bazaar joint interview in 2016, “Everybody… hopes I retire so they can get the jobs. But my contracts with Fendi and Chanel are lifelong.”
And he really worked all his life, and most times, at two jobs, or more. He once said, “I am kind of a fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm. I am never satisfied.” Despite the evident wealth and the numerous homes around the world (he collects them as he did books and furniture, and, some say, friends), Mr Lagerfeld is, by definition, a salary man. Although he most likely would shoot back at such a description, he did say, rather imperturbably, in a 2018 Netflix special on him, “I’m just working-class—working with class.”
Some reports estimated his net worth to be USD250 million (up till last year). The accumulation of wealth and tony residences must have begun, even if unconsciously, when he arrived in Paris in 1950, aged 17 (according to him, but some accounts claim 14 and earlier arrival). But he wasn’t a struggling pre-employment drifter. He told Bazaar, “I got very nice pocket money, and it was perfect.” In 1954, he won the first prize in the coat category at the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition (presently known as the International Woolmark Prize). That opened doors for him, but the ensuing years were not exactly what he had envisioned.
Winners of the International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition in 1954. From left: Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, and (far right) Colette Bracchi. Photo: Keystone Eyedea Headpress
(Interestingly, there were two other winners that year: one Colette Bracchi that no one then remembered, nor now, and one Yves Saint Laurent that is so unforgettable the name is still a cash cow for current owner, the Kering Group. Mr Saint Laurent, in fact, won two prizes, a first and a third for dresses, then deemed more prestigious than honours for coats. Mr Saint Laurent’s double win and his subsequent employment at Christian Dior were rumoured to be the source of rivalry and some discord between the two male winners who were, at that time, believed to be friends.)
The prize money, reportedly generous, probably meant nothing to the 21-year-old Lagerfeld. When he entered the world of haute couture, no one knew who he was and where he came from exactly. But they knew he was rich and work was optional because, as was said, that’s what he told them. The budding designer did come from a well-to-do family. His father was said to be an “industrialist” whose business was condensed milk. Or, as was the chatter of the day, chocolate and even ball-bearings, shifting as the tale hawking got more vivid! But truth revealed that Lagerfeld senior worked for one American Milk Products Corporation that sold condensed milk, marketed in Germany as Glücksklee. Family wealth, however, did not make Mr Lagerfeld a professional sloth. In fact, he was, even then, known to be “prolific”—as he still was, up to his death. He was not only quick in sketching, he was also speedy in the execution of design. Traits that served him well in both haute couture and prêt-à-porter at Chanel.
A year after his win, Mr Lagerfeld joined one of the judges of the competition, Pierre Balmain (the others were Hubert de Givenchy and Jacques Fath), to assist him. He would, years later, say “I was not born to be an assistant.” In 1959, he left for Jean Patou, where he designed as Roland Karl ten couture collections during his time there. According to friendly accounts, he was not particularly pleased with his employment at both houses. There were no raves in the same manner as that, many years later, he received continuously at Chanel. It seemed he became rather disillusioned with haute couture. By the early ’60s, he decamped haute couture for ready-to-wear, initially not only a poor cousin to the highest form of fashion, but an impoverished one. Women of taste and means did not buy off-the-rack.
Karl Lagerfeld with a model in one of his designs for the house of Patou. Photo: Regina Relang/source
Karl Lagerfeld’s tenure with brands on the other end of haute couture at first seemed the opposite of Yves Saint Laurent’s dramatic ascend at Christian Dior. For the work he did, which included those for the ballet shoe company Repetto and the supermarket chain Monoprix, Mr Lagerfeld was known as a styliste, not a couturier. This was during a time when being a styliste meant freelancing (mostly) for brands not one’s own and unshackled by the need to reinvent the wheel. But this did not deter him, and his friends at that time later recalled that he enjoyed his job, so much so that he would eventually take up more than one, at a time. Some people said that he knew, after leaving the big maisons, that the future of fashion is in ready-to-wear. Even though not quite a visionary (or a fortune teller, as he was inclined to say), he was not wrong.
In the early to mid-’60s, a small little brand was gaining popularity among women for its chic yet somewhat bohemian-looking clothes—anything added to chic was the antithesis of couture. Chloé was also unusual in that it was a label not named after a designer. In 1964, the year Andre Courrèges introduced the “space look” and, across the English Channel in London, Mary Quant scored big with the mini skirt, Karl Lagerfeld secured an appointment with Gaby Aghion, the charismatic and experienced Egyptian owner of Chloé. He was hoping she’d hire him. She did, but not full-time. The partnership turned out to be highly successful for both Ms Aghion and Mr Lagerfeld and a long one, although not lifelong.
Little known was his pre-Chloé work for Tiziani, a couture house based in Rome that was founded by a wealthy Texan, Evan Richards. It was reported that both men conceived the collection together and threw a lavish launch party in 1963, featuring Catherine the Great’s jewels borrowed from Harry Winston. Apparently, Elisabeth Taylor was a huge fan. Understandably so, and her patronage reflected the designer’s penchant for the glitzy. The early Tiziani sketches that Mr Lagerfeld did reportedly fetched up to USD3,500 a piece in an auction in 2014. He continued to design for Tiziani until 1969. This was only the beginning of his relationship with Italian brands.
The young Karl Lagerfeld, never known to be camera-shy, with his always-present sketch pad. Photo: Jean-Philippe Charbonnier/source
By 1965, Paris warmed to the idea of prêt-à-porter. Apart from the stylistes, a new clutch of designers, called créateurs, emerged—among them Dorothée Bis and Sonia Rykiel, the favourite of Mr Lagerfeld’s mother. His steadily successful turn with Chloé strengthened his resolve to stick with ready-to-wear. In fact, he made quite a success of his freelance work. He added to the growing roster designs for Charles Jourdan, Ballantyne, Mario Valentino, and Krizia. Mr Lagerfeld did not concerned himself with borders, geographical or professional (in 2004, he went even lower market by designing for H&M, which he later considered “embarrassing” as “H&M let so many people down” due to the low stock levels). A year after his collaboration with Chloé, he started on the first of his “lifelong” arrangements: with Fendi.
Karl Lagerfield has such an innate sense of the au courant that success followed almost every collaboration that he did. This was augmented in the ’70s after meeting two other Americans in Paris in 1969 that would very much awaken in him the flair for what would be needed to be cool. They were the illustrator Antonio Lopez (the subject of the James Crump documentary from last year, Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion and Disco) and his ex-boyfriend, the art director Juan Ramos. In Mr Lopez, the German designer found his soulmate, as he admired the former’s distinctive and striking drawings. The Puerto Rican-American duo showed Mr Lagerfeld what Paris fashion wasn’t: fun-filled, disco-soundtracked, and street-influenced.
To be sure, the Chloé designer had always been aware of what went on outside the confines of the design studios or his apartments. Gaby Aghion once said, “When he came back with me in the car, if he saw students, Karl would take the students’ ideas and transform them into something beautiful. He had an undeniable art of transposing their vision into fashion.” He wasn’t a designer in the mold of Andre Courrèges or Pierre Cardin (or Thierry Mugler in the ’80s, or John Galliano in the ’90s, or Raf Simons in the ’00s); he was always a commercial designer. And was known for it. Francine Crescent, editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue at that time, said, “Karl always made collections that sold well; his collections were always impeccable and extremely commercial. Not in a bad way.” In later years, another Vogue editor-in-chief, the just-as-commercial Anna Wintour, concurred by wearing mostly Chanel for her professional attire and on the red carpet.
No known designer in his old age shares the same pop fervor Karl Lagerfeld enjoys. His cartoon self even appeared on smartphone covers. Photos: source
It was the keen sense for the saleable, tempered by his love for haute couture—that he turned away from, but not rejected—and the attendant crafts that endeared him well to brands. The Wertheimer family must have had watched Mr Lagerfeld in the wings as he made money for others before hiring him in 1983 to remake Chanel. He was, according to Alain Wertheimer, the brand’s CEO, given carte blanch from day one to design as he pleased for Chanel. Unlike Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme, Saint Laurent, and now Celine, Mr Lagerfeld did not impose his own aesthetical obsessions on Chanel. But just like Mr Slimane, he was immensely commercial, as much as he had always been. As Tyler McCall, deputy editor of Fashionista noted to the Daily Beast, “Those shows were sort of sneakily commercial. If you broke them down, there were still all these basics that a Chanel customer would really want.”
There is, as we know, usually two sides to a dress. Much as Karl Lagerfeld was a proponent of beauty and the enhancement of Chanel’s house codes, he, too, was susceptible to the banal and the excesses that appeal to the nouveau. “For every classic Chanel handbag or fanciful riff on the little black dress inciting lust in the hearts of style-savvy women,” wrote Robin Givhan for Newsweek in 2012, “there have been equally mortifying examples of pandering and buffoonery: a tweed jacket transformed into a circus costume, menswear that would make a drag queen flinch, handbags that reek of self-conscious status climbing.”
Status is the operative word. In the 1980s, Mr Lagerfeld’s re-imagined 2.55 bag, dubbed Chanel Classic (or 11.12), included a double C logo on the twist-lock clasp that was never there when Coco Chanel herself designed it. He later admitted that “what I do Coco would have hated.” Vulgar came to the minds of the purists at that time, but in line with the logomania of that era, the bag took off and spawned many others, flashier than the Classic. Those handbags found legions of queue-willing fans, in men too—Pharrell Williams and G Dragon, just to name two (they’d never, of course, need to get in line). In 2017, vintage bag website Baghunter claimed in their research that in the six years prior, the value of Chanel handbags have jumped a staggering 70 percent, making Chanel a better investment than condos. Status, clearly and quickly, allowed Chanel to make a reported USD4 billion a year.
Designing for others (an average of 14 collections annually in the past years) seemed to suit Mr Lagerfeld—and his bank account—so well that, unlike Yves Saint Laurent, he deferred starting his own label until 1984. Launched with fanfare, but met with lukewarm reception, Karl Lagerfeld the label was, according to the designer, meant to play up “intellectual sexiness”. For sure, Mr Lagerfeld was an intellectual (served by a voracious appetite for books and reading), but it is arguable if his designs were intellectual, the way Martin Margiela’s was. His own line hitherto defied a strong DNA or codes similar to Chanel’s that future designers continuing his eponymous label could bank on. It was, at best, anything goes, a monochromatic expression of ego, more so in latter years when his flat profile became a recurrent logo, as did his cartoon caricature and, subsequently, his pet cat Choupette (both have come this far south-east as Thailand). Simultaneously, he was irreverent. Remember “Karl Who”?
That Karl Lagerfeld understood branding and iconography and used both well and extensively is stating the obvious. No designer, especially in his old age, has been able to market himself as successfully and completely as Mr Lagerfeld, with the cartoon of self infinitely useful on T-shirts and as figurines to be sold as dolls (e.g., the Martell-produced Karl Barbie doll, which was priced at USD200, sold out within an hour at launch in 2014). Which other octogenarian was thus worshipped? Or seemingly adored, even by shallow post-teens such as Kendall Jenner and Kaia Gerber?
In modern fashion, Karl Lagerfeld’s work, being, and lore have culturally far-reaching effects. Even after his death, it is likely that brand Lagerfeld will go on. “I don’t want to be real in other people’s lives,” he once said, “I want to be an apparition.” Some entities do linger. Open not the closet door.
*A note on dates: Like Diana Vreeland, Karl Lagerfeld was fluid with his personal history. He himself often gave conflicting dates on his birth and such. On his website, it is stated that his year of birth was 1938. What is provided here is based on information available in the public domain
Update (19 February 2019, 10pm): According to WWD, Chanel’s studio director Virginie Viard, who has taken the catwalk bow alongside Mr Lagerfeld before and his place, will take over as the Creative Director
The buffoon Balenciaga has made of us, one year after the launch of the TripleS
The shoe that started it all: the Balenciaga Triple S
By Raiment Young
I see it so often on Instagram that it is, in all honesty, starting to wear me down. Some observers think that the Balenciaga Triple S is cresting. A year after it was launched, it should be, but it isn’t. The shoe that started the craze for what would become dad—and then ugly—shoes, is still too big, too visible and too attention-grabbing, and a teller of how trendy you are, and how you are able—and willing—to spend four figures on sneakers.
I didn’t realise what an impact this one shoe style has had on people’s sneaker choices until a friend of mine rejected a suggestion I offered when he finally succumbed to dad shoes by saying that my humbly-priced pick “wasn’t chunky enough” (did he also mean inadequately ugly? To be fair, he still bought it in the end). Not long after, at the Fila store in ION Orchard, a skinny girly flatly rejected her boyfriend’s selection of the Disruptor II, telling him flatly “my friends’ Balenciagas are more bigger (sic)”. Looks like Balenciaga has set the standard for big, ugly shoes just as Kim Kardashian has for ample, round posteriors.
More pairs of the Triple S, including the Half & Half (middle), this season, as seen at Dover Street Market Singapore
I am not certain where this will lead to. Backlash is certainly not yet in sight. You’d think that by now, the second autumn/winter season after it was launched, the popularity of the Triple S would have waned, or mocked. But Balenciaga has released new colour ways for this time of the year, and people are still buying them, indicating that the market is yet to be satiated. But one silhouette may not be enough (even when there was the Half & Half colour iteration in June). To make sure you get your fill of horrifically chunky sneakers, the brand that Demna Gvasalia has made bigger added the even more bombastic Track to tempt. Or, fool.
I am not sure if the chunky sneaker rose in tandem with the general ballooning of fashion silhouettes seen some years back, but I do suspect that it is has everything to do with fashion’s near-obsession with going to the dumps to look for scraps that can be used to cook up a storm that can cater to a feeding frenzy. Sneaker designs have traditionally veered towards the sleek (aerodynamic?). Sure, Nike has had success with relatively hunky silhouettes (excluding basketball shoes) such as the Air Max 90 and the Air Huarache, but Balenciaga’s not-destined-for-court-or-track sneakers are deliberately designed to make anything Common Projects offers look anorexic.
The follow-up to the Triple S, the Track
The deformed chunkiness of these shoes have led them to be described as ugly. But ugly, by then, has lost much of its original meaning, and is suffering from an identity crisis. I remember once ugly was not desirable; it was not nice to look at; it was disagreeable to our sense of what beautiful was. Then I see ugly is ugly no more. It is not aesthetically- or optically-challenged. Ugly is declared so ugly that it is no longer so. Fans negate ugly’s former ugliness so that it can be embraced as wearable loveliness. Ugly has not gone astray; it’s simply gone, just as there is, today, no more ugly past, ugly behaviour, ugly choices.
Or ugly shoes. Fashionable folks took to kicks of what should have been unsightly looks as if the wearers’ feet, too, have transmogrified in tandem with the transformation of ugly. Women no longer want to have dainty feet (or the “incredibly narrow”, as we’re told, pair of Fantastic Beasts’ Porpentina Goldstein); they want to look clumpy at ground level. I once heard a diminutive girl in Gucci asking for a Rhyton, described by one e-tailer as “satisfyingly chunky”, in one size larger than her usual so that the sneakers will “look heaving”. When told that she may trip if she ran in them, she said disdainfully, “I never run.”
Gucci Rhyton, another ugly shoe that stays stubbornly popular
Ugly sneakers now constitute such a legit category that shoppers refer to them unhesitatingly as such: I often hear even non-sneakerhead men and women say, “I need to get myself ugly shoes.” But ugly, as I recall, did not visit sneakers first; it went to heels—Alexander McQueen’s “Armadillo” boots come to mind. Surprisingly, ugly/clunky heels didn’t take off, perhaps because they did not look comfortable or sturdy. Sneakers, however, did. As the ugliness rest on the foundation of thick, fortified-looking mid-soles, it give the impression of robust built. Teetering versus grounded: it’s not a tough choice.
As with clothing, adopters of ugly sneakers take their pick with no consideration to suitability or proportion in relation to, say, limbs, specifically ankles. These catamaran-as-shoes often hold up mast-like ankles, making the wearer look like they are unable to manage the sneaker’s mass. In Starbucks one Saturday, I saw a woman, who looked like an Oriental Olive Oyl, seated with her legs crossed, the foot in the air was partially relieved of her Chloé Sonnie sneakers, exposing the heel of rather dilapidated socks. Of course, ugly is now inadequate and inappropriate to describe what I saw. What should I call it then? Pretty? In the hope that pretty will one day become so pretty that it is, well, ugly?
If current shoe trends are any indication, ugly alone may not be quite enough.
Decorations: Now, we need to adorn our kicks
Love or reject? Gucci Flashtrek made more pronounced with dazzling embellishment
Ugly by itself, as expected, is not going to be adequate when you need striking sneakers. In the good old days (before 2017?), when we wanted something different for our kicks, we changed the laces. At most, to the laces we added cute snaps and latches. Later, those with the means (and the right service addresses), will have them customised. But now, sneakers come with their own jewellery! From Giuseppe Zanotti’s sneaker with studded straps that look like bracelets to Nike’s collaboration with Comme des Garçons that sees a chain bearing the CDG logotype strapped across the Shox’s upper (spring/summer 2019), shoe jewellery appears to be the next, er, big thing.
Leading the charge this season is Gucci. Their Flashtrek, already a flashy shoe, now comes in colour-blocked versions strapped with jewel-topped harnesses. Based possibly on S&M accessories but designed to project glamour rather than kink, the latest embellishment proves that sneakers are the most opened to any kind of influence, even from the wardrobe of a burlesque performer. Christmas, like before, arrives early this year.
Branding: Now we need to identify sneakers by its label
Fendi Logo Mania sneakers featuring a Fila-logo-like initial letter
The Swoosh or trefoil (or three stripes) must have been considered so discreet these days that brands, even non-designer ones, are stretching logotypes across any visible surface of the sneaker’s (possibly already fancy) upper. Even Nike, not usually a shouter, has emblazoned its four-letter name across the sides of the Air Max Plus TN as if text is better at crying out than symbols. Of course, if Nike can be so shameless, why can’t those with a billion-dollar brand name to boast and bluster? Over-branding is, in fact, so commonplace and such a virtue that Nike sees it fit in calling its latest Air Max Plus with an additional Swoosh by the side ‘Overbranding’. Or, is this self-mocking?
To me, it started with the Gucci Rhyton, both the word and word/logo versions. Those four letters are so alluring that the once mighty double G is now literally halved by its full name’s magnetic appeal. Not to be outdone, Fendi, working with the Instagram-published artist Hey (resounding exclamation?!) Reilly, produced a logotype with the initial ‘F’ similar to Italian sports label Fila’s logo. This spawned a capsule collection, that includes both sneakers and handbags, called Logo Mania. Obvious, just like ugly, is having the best time of its life. And both, I suspect, are having the last laugh.