Two Of A Kind: Pleated Are The Bags

With her new customisable pleated bags, Gin Lee won’t be the first nor the last to be inspired by the pioneering work of Issey Miyake

Pleats plenty: (left) Ginlee Make Bag. Photo: Ginlee Studio. (Right) Issey Miyake Crystal Rock Pleats Bag. Photo Issey Miyake Me

Some elements or details in fashion design are so connected to a particular designer that it’s almost impossible to disassociate one with the other. And vice versa. Take pleats, for example: one inevitably thinks of Issey Miyake. Sure, there is also the Spanish couturier Mariano Fortuny, but the works of both are not only decades apart, their outputs are worlds apart. Mr Miyake’s pleats, now attributed to the Issey Miyake Studio, are primarily effected as a finished garment, rather than product made from a pleated fabric. Through the years, Mr Miyake has introduced many innovations (and new technologies) in pleating, including curvilinear and bias pleating, as well as advances in micro-pleating, also known as plissé. And he does not only pleat clothes, he creates permanent folds on accessories and bags, too.

One of the fashion names here that appears to be taking a similar route is Gin Lee. The Singaporean, who overseas the creative output of the company, Ginlee Studio—co-founded with her Israeli husband Tamir Niv in 2011—didn’t incorporate pleats into her early output. In recent years, however, pleated garments seem to be the mainstay of her collections. There are the usual tented dresses, shell tops, and pajama-style pants that have become typical of pleated clothes, and now, in addition, bags. Just totes for the present, these were launched last month as part of a new sub-label called Ginlee Make, available at the brand’s flagship store in the refurbished Great World City.

The immediate reaction to these bags when seeing them for the first time could be best summed up by what two women at the store one weekend said, “so Pleats Please!” But that response has not only been evident with these bags. Similar comments were heard of her dresses, sold at Design Orchard. But the seeming similarity to the work of Issey Miyake was also apparent in the name of her new sub-label. Back in 1998, the year the A-POC (A Piece of Cloth) line was launched in Tokyo, Mr Miyake staged an exhibition at the Jean Nouvel-designed Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris titled, Issey Miyake: Making Things. Uncanny? Or, coincidence?

How long must a recognisable design, fabric treatment, retail concept, or branding exercise remain or circulate in the market before mimicking them can be accepted and not considered a copy?

The Ginlee Make bags are the manifestation of the in-store service Make In Shop, a retail concept that offers “last-mile production” of those items that can be finished before watchful shoppers. As Ms Lee told the press last month, “When a customer places their order for a pleated bag, we’ll proceed to make it for her there. They can see it being made and customise their own version of it.” In Tokyo last year, at the world’s largest Homme Plissé Issey Miyake store in Aoyama, the brand availed its pleating process for customers to witness. Three times a week, over a relatively short time of an hour in the afternoon, engineers (they are specialists indeed) from the company’s Internal Pleats Laboratory show how the clothes are made: a massive machine swallows a sewn T-shirt, for example, cut 1.5 times the completed size, and in ten minutes, reveals the pleated garment. This, too, is last-mile production. How long must a recognisable design, fabric treatment, retail concept, or branding exercise remain or circulate in the market before mimicking them can be accepted and not considered a copy?

Sure, on the same note, we could also say, for instance, that Mary McFadden mimicked Mr Fortuny, but if you examined her pleats closely, the effect, as one Singaporean designer told us, “is more liquid”, and her silhouettes more boxy. Technologies in garment manufacture do become widely adopted, and the onus is upon the adopters to output designs that are distinctly theirs. Issey Miyake certainly did not invent pleating (and he wouldn’t claim he did), but what he undeniably introduced was a whole new way of working with—and on—the pleats. And there is tremendous conceptual heft and mathematical calculations involved. Much of the output require origami-like folds, as well as ingenious geometry. More importantly, to fans, he was the first to introduce the pleats that we now mostly associate with his brand, especially Pleats Please Issey Miyake, the line introduced in 1993, after the exhibition of the same name at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990.

That Issey Miyake’s pleats would inspire Singaporean designers isn’t surprising. Pleating services here go as far back as the ’80s. Back then, there were primarily two major players: Mong Seng Pleats Garment, founded in 1974, and Owen Trading Company, launched in 1980. Between the two, Owen Trading was, as one designer told us, “at the top of its game”. The popularity of pleats rose in the mid-’80s, after Issey Miyake debuted a sub-brand Permanente in 1985, featuring the early forms of his distinctive creases and folds that culminated as the capsule Pleats in 1988. By the time Pleats Please was launched five years later, capturing the imagination of the world, many local designers were experimenting with pleats too, and many were doing so through the services of Owen Trading, owned and operated by three Tan brothers. One of them, Paul Tan, was the go-to guy for anything that can be pleated, even a scrap of fabric that can be turned into a small scarf.

Gin Lee at work in her Great World City store. Photo: Ginlee Studio

But towards the early ’00s, when pleated garments and accessories, and Pleats Please knock-offs were easily found, first in the fashion wholesale centres in China and, later, online, pleating was a dwindling business. In 2011, Owen Trading was sold to a young Raffles College of Higher Education fashion graduate Chiang Xiaojun, who renamed the company Bewarp Design Studio. With full access to pleating machines, Ms Chiang created Pleatation, the label totally dedicated to pleats, and a moniker—similar to Ginlee Make—unabashed of its alluding to Issey Miyake, in particular, Pleats Please and the older Plantation, introduced in 1981, and now part of the Issey Miyake subsidiary A-net, which produces brands such as ZUCCa and mercibeaucoup. The quality offered by the old Owen Trading, which counted some of our design luminaries, such as Thomas Wee, Frederick Lee, and the late Tan Yoong as customers, evaporated, according to some who have used the services of the renamed pleater. “She couldn’t keep up,” one of them told us, “she does only basic pleating. Nothing fancy.” Despite the skepticism, Ms Chiang opened two standalones for Pleatation: The Compleat Store, which, like Ginlee Studio, sold pleated totes. Both The Compleat Stores have closed. Even their website’s e-commerce component is now free of merchandise and activity. On the SGP Business website, the status of Bewarp Design Studio is marked “cancellation in progress.”

The sale of Owen Trading Company, after three decades of existence, to a then unknown individual, who is unable to protect it from total closure, perhaps serves as a cautionary tale. It is not quite clear why many brand owners choose pleating as the main design feature of their products. Is pleating an easy way to create a fashion line? Does it provide a differentiating factor to the clothes—or bags? Or, allow products categories that are more cost-efficient to produce (Pleats Please, being mainly made of a specially-produced polyester, is still less expensive than the main line)? If pleated garments and accessories offered low barriers to entry, why did Pleatation not take off? Some designers who had worked with Paul Tan in the past thought that he could have been retained by Bewarp Design Studio as a technical advisor. No one now knows what was the nature of the transaction. Mr Tan was last seen driving an SBS Transit bus.

It is possible that Gin Lee’s foray into pleated clothing and bags is the result of reduced competition. Based on the Make Bag alone, it isn’t difficult to see where her inspiration comes from. In a 2017 Financial Times interview, Issey Miyake, who is no longer actively involved in the designs of his numerous lines, said of his pleats: “It is my gift, my legacy, and if other designers look to Pleats Please for inspiration, I feel honoured and happy—it is a great compliment.” Whether that is Japanese niceness or diplomacy, or just resignation to the truth that he is widely copied, we may never know. But, as written on one decal we once saw in an atelier, “You can copy all you want, you’ll always be one step behind.”

The Gin Cocktail

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It’s not unreasonable to expect a little more from the collection of Singapore Fashion Award (SFA) 2016’s Emerging Designer of the Year, Gin Lee. At the same time, it is also reasonable that we will soon enough discover that it isn’t a breeze to live up to the accolade so eagerly bestowed on a not-quite newbie.

The latter is unfortunately true. And it happened on Thursday evening when GinLee Studio, Ms Lee’s label, showed its spring/summer 2018 collection on the first day of Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW). Anticipation evaporated the minute a strange dancer appeared on the catwalk, making some indeterminate gestures and sashayed off. What did it mean? It seemed that the feeble hand movements and the nothing of a sleeveless tented dress that she wore were foretaste of things to come.

And came it did: the blandness of just about everything. Ms Lee’s work has never been really design-driven, that much we concede. Put it another way, she does not design with the deep desire to be original, surprising, and certainly not inspiring. These clothes looked everyday—those that you go to Fairprice in, have an early lunch with a BFF, and thereafter, pick the kids from school. They’re low-key to a fault.

Don’t get us wrong. There’s a place for such clothes, just not on a national runway, staged to show the city’s best. Even if SGFW does not dream big, participants should. It is possible that Ms Lee’s label is built on humble ambition and that it is perfectly alright if the clothes, even at a long glance, could be mistaken as merchandise of The Editor’s Market, although, to be fair, the make of GinLee Studio apparel are many notches better. The thing that is often overlooked in the pursuit of commercial viability is that there really is a surfeit of clothes missing the necessity of being.

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Even more, Ms Lee, 39, seemed to be playing a woman who designs to reflect her current station in life. This is a peek into the humdrum. This is a hodgepodge for the perfunctory purpose of wearing, not the more pleasurable act of expressing. Her designs have been described as “timeless”, but in the constant quick-change that characterises fashion today, “timeless” is quite often the euphemism for boring.

There was something terribly forlorn about the presentation too. The models appeared deeply unhappy wearing almost no makeup and those joyless clothes, never mind that some of them looked like they’ve just been to the market for flowers, usually a sign of good tidings. Could it be that the models did not feel particularly attractive in the outfits, bags of blooms aside?

The silhouettes, too, were hardly that that suggest joie de vivre. Longish, languid, and loose, they were more akin to house coats (or lounge wear, as merchandisers call them) for rainy days than something spiffy for the swagger of urban life. The collection seemed guided by the proper than the progressive, by symmetry than spontaneity. A shirt-and-skirt combo looked like an outfit chosen by a relief teacher who abides by the school’s handbook to educators on how to dress appropriately for the work they do. But is this fashion?

So “the basics that belong to every wardrobe”, as one online report describes the six-year-old GinLee Studio, went on and on and on until the monotony was interrupted by a hint of ‘design’. One style of pants stood out for its anything-but-arresting detail: a slit, splayed out like a wishbone, on the centre-back of each leg! Was this cold shoulder for calves? An indiscriminate slit on a skirt is bad enough; on pants, they look positively ill-placed. And why the clumsy length, so extended that they make the wearer’s walk so ungainly?

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An obligatory go at sexiness turned out a sheer, round-neck blouse with a sort of peplum for the bust as appendage of modesty, but had the unintended effect of emphasising a too-short over-bust measurement. A feeble attempt at the use of print saw a shadow of a palm leaf applied over the right shoulder of a tunic-dress and as faded pile-up on a skirt, with results neither striking nor unexpected, and could have been the kindred motif of a pareo in a Club Med gift shop.

The colour palette, too, added to the ho-hum outcome of the collection. Ms Lee, is not known for her keen colour sense, preferring to work with neutrals that seem to reflect the ancient walls of Jerusalem, where she is based, after relocating to the city with her husband in 2010. But even in Yerushalayim, the old stones tell a more spirited chromatic story. It would have downplayed her lack of daring if she had cleaved to black and white and anything between, rather than inject incongruous shots of earthiness: the colour of pumpkin pie filling and, under that palm leaf, dried thyme.

We were expectant for this Emerging Designer of the Year, but, in the end, expectation was waylaid by disappointment right there on the catwalk. As we shuffled out, someone was heard saying that Ms Lee had work very hard to meet expectations. So did the girl promoting the LG Styler upstairs. Hard work is, of course, appreciated, but unfortunately, is only one part of the equation that makes a collection artistically sophisticated, hence alluring. Flair is more valued, but, more than talent, it tends to be elusive. This night, it was.

Singapore Fashion Week is on at the National Gallery from 26 to 28 October. Photos: Zhao Xiangji