Two of A Kind: Nude Slashes

When actresses trust their designers—and stylists—too much

Elie Saab Vs Francis Cheong. Photos: Elie Saab and Mediacorp respectively

It happened again and, interestingly, with the same sought-after dressmaker. For the 2017 Star Awards (红星大奖), Pan Ling Ling (潘玲玲) wore a flounced gown by renowned designer Francis Cheong that looked like one by couturier Zuhair Murad. This year, best actress winner Huang Biren (黄碧仁) was also outfitted in a Francis Cheong dress. And on the red carpet outside MBS and on stage inside, the floor-length piece, too, looked rather familiar. It did not take us more than five minutes to recall that what Ms Huang wore last night bore an astonishing resemblance to a gown seen in the Elie Saab autumn/winter couture collection of 2021 called Buds of Hope. A quick check on FF Channel’s YouTube account (while the Star Awards was on our television) confirmed what we suspected. The dress seen on the broadcast of the nation’s sole TV acting awards did indeed look disconcertingly similar to what Mr Saab presented for a show that did not travel to Paris that year due to the pandemic. It was not the most spectacular outfit in that collection and we almost forgot about it, until yesterday evening.

But that sleek dress that Mr Saab put out two years ago did leave an impression because it was one of three aesthetically similar gowns that were unlike the rest of the 63 looks for that just-emerging-from-lockdown season, or what could be considered the Beirut-based house’s signature. Mr Saab incorporated rather extreme sexiness into the trio by way of wide slashes incorporated diagonally across the finely-contoured bodices and the trumpet skirts. As a result, it showed considerable skin. And the bands held strikingly and securely to the bodies, clinging to and covering where they needed to, even when the models strutted somewhat purposefully. The gown that resembled what Ms Huang had on could be described as a bandage dress of sort, but it did not constrict the body in any way. It was, admittedly, a show-stopper that could swish beautifully on a red carpet while maintain the wearer’s modesty, which is not, as we have seen, a requisite these days.

Huang Biren, admittedly, did not look bad in that dress; she probably was not aware that what she had on first appeared elsewhere. On Facebook, Francis Cheong, who now mainly resides in Johor Bahru, congratulated Ms Huang for winning (it was her fiftth best actress Star Award in her 35-year career), and “wearing my 2023 spring couture (sic)”. It is not known if Ms Huang picked Mr Cheong as the designer of her 晚礼服 (wanlifu or evening attire). It is possible that the partnership was facilitated by Annie Chua (蔡宜君), the “principal image stylist” at Mediacorp and the Star Awards’ key fashion figure, as the designer did thank Ms Chua for “the collaboration”. Nor, do we know who among the them picked the Elie Saab piece for inspiration. There’s no missing Mr Cheong’s cleverness this year. He created not a total facsimile; he changed the sole sleeve to the left and used skin-coloured fabrics—nothing nude—to create the slashes so that Ms Huang bared little. And there was not a trace of embellishment! Going to local dressmakers to tailor a cheaper version of couture gowns is not an unknown practice. Many attendees of gala events here love such costumiers. But unlike, say, the Icon Ball, which is primarily a closed-door affair, Star Awards is broadcast to the world through Mediacorp’s YouTube page. And some things do stand out. Lookalikes, especially.

Update (11 April 2023, 17:30): Two hours ago, Annie Chua shared on Instagram her support for Huang Biren with a set of seven photos and a comment: “Thank you for the 💯 trust ❣️You totally slayed it both on & off stage! ❣️”. Replying, Ms Huang wrote: “Thank you very much for helping! Two consecutive years by you and won! You are superb!❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️”. Two hours later, with another set of six images of different people, which included one that saw Ms Huang carrying her trophy, Ms Chua added, “Making 💚Memories 💚 & Be 💚The Best 💚Version of Yourself 💚”. Amazing

Update (11 April 2023, 23:00): Francis Cheong has removed the congratulatory message and the photograph of Huang Biren wearing his “spring 2023 couture” (dress) from his Facebook page

Two Of A Kind: Flounce To Trounce

Pan Ling Ling in Francis Cheong & Zuhair Murad CoutureLeft: Pan Ling Ling in Francis Cheong. Photo Facebook/ Pan Ling Ling. Right: Zuhair Murad Couture SS 2017. Photo: Zuhair Murad

Whatever is said about imitation and flattery, it is not always flattering for the wearer of the look-a-like.

Pan Ling Ling must have been elated with the Life declaration that she was one of the best-dressed actresses at Sunday night’s Star Awards (红星大奖). But would knowing that her gown, designed by Francis Cheong, looked too much like a Zuhair Murad diminish the elation for the Star Awards 2011 Best Supporting Actress?

Mr Murad showed his in January this year in Paris during Couture Week spring/summer 2017. An asymmetric gown for gala nights, its resemblance to the one Ms Pan wore made the accolade bestowed on her rather interesting. Should wearing a less-than-original design qualify the wearer for the best-dressed honour? Or can her likely ignorance and a big smile be her saving grace?

The version in red that appeared on Channel 8 (like most of you, we saw the presentation from the comfort of home) was familiar perhaps also because it’s typical of those you would see in gown conventions such as the Icon Ball (also known as fenghua wanyan or 风华晚宴): never too ang (red), never too flouncy, never too sexy.

Mr Murad makes statement gowns to be worn on red carpets or under chandeliers. His latest couture collection, named ‘Fires Waltz’, seems to be conceived with very specific customers in mind: debutantes, prom queens, beauty queens, and ball regulars. Mostly bearers of standard evening glamour, these women, like Pan Ling Ling, easily succumb to swishy gowns that can’t help looking dated or from another era, another stage. Mr Murad, in fact, admitted to that the silhouette of the collection was inspired by Dynasty—that ’80s TV homage to glamour and excess.

Thrilled by what Life proclaimed, Mr Cheong thanked The Straits Times early today in his Facebook page “for voting my pre fall (sic) 2017 Couture vermillion Duchess Satin gown that Pan Ling Ling wore as one of the Best Dressed List (sic)…” What was curious about the post was the accompanying photograph, which was a shot of a part of the Life article. The adjoining picture of fellow best-dressed pick Jesseca Liu was deliberately defaced, to the point that she was obliterated. Amusingly, Ms Liu was wearing Zuhair Murad. The discomfort of seeing one’s creation appearing next to the real deal must have warranted the blotting out!

Francis Cheong's post on FBScreen grab of Francis Cheong’s Facebook post

Life’s Alyssa Woo first called Ms Pan’s dress a “column gown”. We have no idea how the shapely form could be mistaken as that of a pillar’s. She later described it in the photo caption as a “gown with exaggerated ruffles”, which sounded like she was referring to the traje de flamenca. But there’s nothing about Mr Cheong’s design that is evocative of the costumes of Andalusian dance. The “ruffles” look to us to be a flounce, one that fell like the ends of valances of stage curtains, so different from the much softer and petal-like folds of Mr Murad’s design.

In the online edition of Elle Singapore, Ms Pan was described as “a vision”. The theophany escaped us, but, as with Ms Liu and Julie Tan (in a strangely bridal number with also a left-side flounce by Jessicacindy Hartono), Ms Pan’s conventional glamour was perhaps a lovely picture, even when the photographs that circulated online, including those of other Star Awards attendees, were mostly shot against bare walls that look like the corridor between the changing rooms and the MES Theatre at Mediacorp.

One make-up artist did not mince words: “All should be in the worst-dressed list.”