“Truth To Power”: They Suffered, Severely

With the second package of the six-part docu-series now streaming, it is clear that the Sussexes want sympathy more than understanding. From the comfort of their Montecito hideaway. The end

Six episodes of who did what to them is, frankly, too much even if they expose alleged royal misdeeds. In total, Harry and Meghan is a 6-hour-plus series full of discontentment and fault-finding. The three episodes that make the second half of the docu-series have the enthusiasm of revenge-themed K-dramas, but without the latter’s suspenseful pacing. You wait for the hit-back at the British royal family and you get it. Meghan Markle even said that she was not merely “thrown to the wolves”—she “was being fed to the wolves.” The proverbial kid gloves are off. The Queen is dead. So she and all on her side no longer need to stick to discretion. She may have wanted to escape England for a quiet life, but there is not any kind of hush the minute she left, especially not when she returned to the free-speech familiarity of California. In the private jet, after their escape from Vancouver Island, Canada, on what Prince Harry calls the “freedom flight”, Ms Markle tells her son, Archie, “we’re about to go to where mommy’s from”. Whoever said she had planned to call the UK home?

In this part of the world, this kind of talk or reveal is largely contemptible. However disgraceful a family is, no one from within shames their own kin. The Chinese has an oft-heard expression 家丑不可外扬 (jia chou but ke wai yang) or family scandal is not to be publicised, and that we must never 大义灭亲 (da yi mie qin) or place righteousness before family. In fact, many of us in Asia grew up with the belief that problems within the family—and there always are—need to be solved or resolved internally. If outsiders are told of domestic shame, the family in dispute will be ridiculed or laughed at. As SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang told us, “my nother would say sia suay (泻衰 or Hokkien for shamefully embarrassing)”. There is another Chinese saying, 隐恶扬善 (yin e yang shan) or extol a person’s (or family’s) virtue, but conceal his faults. That to Westerners might sound like sweeping familial failings and flaws under the carpet, but to the Chinese, it isn’t so. If you speak ill of your family, there is a good chance that others will despise you and laugh at your family. They won’t look up to you for exposing your family’s shortcomings. On the contrary, they will look down on you even more. Is this not what’s happening to the Sussexes?

According to recent news reports, the Netflix special Harry and Meghan enjoyed the most viewing time than any other documentary on the streaming service that week the show came on. And the figures are not unimpressive. Reuters stated that it “recorded 81.55 million viewing hours after its debut” the Thursday before last. Some “28 million household watched at least part of the series”. And in the UK, it was the most-watched series that week. (The final global numbers are yet to be tallied.) That the docu-series is this well-viewed is not surprising. Last year’s Oprah Winfrey interview of the Sussexes, as AP reported, drew about 50 million viewers worldwide. But are people watching H&M because they desire new or additional information to feel sorry for the prince and his wife, both, while desperately desiring privacy, are sharing—and dissing—more than what those wanting freedom or immunity from undue intrusion would reveal. And should they (or their supporters) be surprised that the reactions to the show the titular characters co-produced have been mostly unfavorable, even harsh?

We tried to be sympathetic, to see their side of the story, to appreciate that their first official residence in Kensington Palace grounds, Nottingham Cottage, was “so small” (how tiny could it be, as tight-spaced as a HDB flat? Or is that the best insider gossip they could offer?). But watching the show is no walk in a royal park, especially when what they do as catharsis is contradictory to what they claim they abhor. As much as they do not like their photos used by the media, they have no qualms of sharing more of their own (such as the one of M in despair amid unfinished packing) in the series. Harry and Meghan opens with the two’s own self-taped video footages from back in 2020—the first hint that they likely never really intended to keep their private life from public enjoyment, or derision. The more desperate the rehabilitation of their image is, the more irritating their case becomes. While M decries those who do not know her write about her, she has no objections to pouring her heart out to strangers, such as the billionaire American actor/producer Tyler Perry (Gone Girl, 2014), whom, by her own admission, she “has never met before”. Could it be because he is a fellow celebrity, lives in California, and wealthy to boot?

It was Mr Tyler (top right) who reached out to her and after some time, she called him while she was in Canada. “Finally—after years at that point—first time we ever spoke,” she says. “And I was just a wreck; I was just crying and crying, like sometimes, it’s easier to just open up to someone who knows nothing at all.” Amazingly, he who knew next to naught, was willing to offer the Sussexes abode in the Beverly Hills property that he lived in, reported to worth USD18 million. H&M “hadn’t seen the house, just video of it”, Mr Tyler points out. Yet, with a baby in tow, the Sussexes were willing to move in. H admits that “we only saw you filming from a gate up to your door, and seeing the big fountain there and we were like, that’ll do.” When Mr Tyler asks, “what if I had horrible taste and had big round beds, striper poles and everything?” Shouldn’t the question be, what if the man turned out to be another Harvey Weinstein?! H is unfazed: “it wouldn’t have mattered. We were desperate to find somewhere, desperate to be somewhere… to settle.” Desperate, as it were, to be housed by a stranger, with a fountain (shown in the show!) as epitome of good taste.

Desperation is, of course, central to their message. It is also easy to sense that M is desperately in need of people appearing to care about her, so much so that just three words would suffice: ”Are you okay?” In a 2021 New York Times opinion piece, she wrote that when those three words are uttered, “the path to healing begins”. She recounted, as she does in the series, an interview with the ITV reporter Tom Brady—who is said to be a friend of the couple and had attended their wedding—during a tour in South Africa: he had asked the simple “are you okay?” She was grateful that he put that question to her. “Thank you for asking,” she had said. “Because not many people have asked if I’m okay.” We sensed self-pity or the reluctance to be on a “rigorous tour” and be away from what was then home, shortly after she gave birth to Archie. She added, “it’s a very real thing to go through behind the scenes.” And is it because of her race again—as her American audience likely believes—that people weren’t asking if she was alright? Or, is she practicing what she believes in: that “most people need to find someone to blame, to try to like reconcile how you’re feeling”.

Once again, in all the interviews that are not the “never-before-seen personal archive (as per Netflix)”, M appears in that white blouse or grey sweater again, suggesting that the six-parter is based on just two interview sessions. In her attempt to underscore her pain, she probably thought it best to look worthy of pity. Stylists are not required for that. This is, of course, not a story of how her fashion sense influenced the world. She may, according to her husband, be like the late Princess Diana, but the actress-turned-podcaster is no fashion natural. After avoiding colour for most of her sojourn in England, she decided that she will show the world what sartorial strength she had, prior to leaving. How about an Emilia Wickstead dress the colour of Kermit the Frog, given a jewelled gloss? “Until that last week in the UK, I rarely wore colour,” M says. “And I never want to upstage or ruffle any feathers, so I just try to blend in, but I wore a lot of colour that week. Just felt like, well let’s just look like a rainbow.” Any discerning fashion consumer would say that that could never be a good look.

In episode four (or the first of the second release), former Givenchy designer Clare Waight Keller speaks about the surprisingly underwhelming wedding dress she was tasked to come up with for Ms Markle’s 2018 wedding. She says, “it has to be flawless; it has to be perfect”. But, as we noted before, it was not flawless, nor perfect. The fit was lacking—the bodice was roomy enough to conceal a chicken, as nonyas of the past would say of a loose kebaya. American writer Dana Thomas was quick to Tweet after the series was streamed, “The dress didn’t fit MM, and, as you can see in pix, the sleeve seams pucker—absolutely unforgivable for a couture house. One buys couture because it IS flawless.” Perhaps, to Meghan Markle—not a couture customer prior—that didn’t matter because she was to marry a prince. She probably didn’t care about the poor fit, just the wealthy groom. Even back then, during the morning of her wedding, when she felt “calm” and had wanted a “cresohn” (croissant), she could be hoping to hear not the two words, I do, but three: Are you okay?

Rating: 0.5 out of 5.

Harry and Meghan is streaming now on Netflix. Screen shots: Harry and Meghan/Netflix

Bobitecture Of Shoes

It’s hard to deny the influence of Yeezys

Givenchy TK-360+

They could pass off as something made of bread dough. That’s what came to mind when we saw the Givenchy TK-360+ sneakers up close. A leavened lump. An irregular loaf. A curvilinear paste. With scored pattern on top, no less. They look comfortable, but we are not sure we’re comfortable with how they look. Ugly footwear is, for sure, still a thing. With new footwear technology and design approaches, ugliness can be enhanced, rather than diminished. Sure, luxury brands are re-defining sleek, but they are also (still) augmenting unseemliness, especially in the form of the clunky. And, far-out. Yet, these shoes do not necessarily invite replusion. Unlike It bags, It shoes have to be somewhat odious, at least at the first encounter. But warming up to them does not take time. Aesthetically, they need to be, for the present, staggeringly anti-trim. Sneakers unlike clothes, cannot be worn oversized, so designers exaggerate the form and disfigure the already clumpy soles to allow the kicks to appear to house distended feet. The TK-360+ is keeping with this new tradition.

Givenchy isn’t the first to offer blobs for feet. That honour could go to the doomed Adidas Yeezy collaboration. Kanye West’s ideas for sneakers never truly made the feet look especially sleek and aerodynamic. Sure, Yeezy 350, which were almost synonymous with the Yeezy footwear line, was not quite clunky, but the Yeezy 500 from 2018 was, so too the 570. Other new styles that came later got progressively bulkier: the 700 V1, V2, and V3, the 700 QNTM (even the “OG”), and without doubt, the post-350 of the 380, culminating in the outright alien Foam Runner. The TK-360+ in its first version (released in May, with a style number minus the +) did bring to mind Adidas Yeezy Knit Runner from September last year, way before things turned awry for the partnership. The Adidas Yeezy and the Givenchy are all-knit slip-ons, with details in the mid-sole: one with a horizontal slit, the other a vertical groove. The Knit Runner was considered Mr West’s most “avant-garde” silhouette. Givenchy’s Matthew M Williams described the TK-360+ as his “dream shoe”. But, for some of us, not quite sweet.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Givenchy TK360+ sneakers, SGD1,450, are available in stores. Photo: Jim Sim

Which Way To Better?

With Carine Roitfeld in the game, is Givenchy scoring a win?

So Givenchy is getting reinforcement. After a few seasons (since spring/summer 2021, to be precise) of unconvincing output, Matthew Williams has enlisted the help of Carine Roitfeld, the ex-French Vogue editor, present EIC of CR Fashion Book, one-time accomplice of Tom Ford’s “heroin chic” for Gucci, and now, former stylist at Max Mara (as the rumour circulating in 2010 went, she borrowed a Balenciaga sample and loaned it to the Italian brand she consults for, which led to Balenciaga reportedly banning her). Ms Roitfeld is also the arbiter of ‘French chic’, an American obsession, known over there as ‘French girl style’. So her input is invaluable in assisting Mr Williams get the Givenchy look—which has been elusive, and more so under his watch—right. This is le chic Français for a brand that has lost its way, but all roads lead to America, do they not?

If you have been following Ms Roitfeld’s much-covered career (including her collab with Uniqlo), you might know she is partial to a lean, sexy-in-spades silhouette, build around a suit jacket (not too fitted, not to oversized) and slim skirt (preferably black), and finished with stilettos to give her vertical advantage. With Givenchy, she gives hints of what is identified as her style, yet concurrently submits to Mr William’s insistence on a street aspect to the collection, but now decidedly more svelte, and with midriffs still exposed. Ms Roitfeld’s love of lingerie (with its racy connotation) is there too, but now they are bra tops paired with unsightly, ripped, cut-off-at-knee, multi-pocketed biker jeans (l’élégance means there is a version in tweed). And papery slip dresses with raw edges that look like they won’t survive even the first wash.

Supposing, as many did, that Givenchy suffered from an identity crisis before, it still appears unresolved. There is a conscious tempering of Mr Williams’s initial streetwear-gone-luxe with sleeker dresses, and Ms Roitfeld’s well-loved slim skirts. But does Mr Williams really need the visual stimulus that Ms Roitfeld presumably could provide? And did Los Angeles native really benefit from it when he seems to be still tied to LA? Some pieces are puzzling and the antithesis of ‘French girl style’, such as the frightening oversized denim trucker and cargo shorts (they are cargo jeans too). Even Bella Hadid can’t save the denim bra-top and the dirty-looking jean-skirt. Some are sad clichés, such as the boucle skirt-suit or jacket with, gasp, bleached denim cargo jeans and the Chanel-esque round-neck jacket and straight-cut jeans. Others are just duds—military-style cropped hoodie and distressed fatigues or the PT singlet and khaki skirt.

Mr Williams seems to draw inspiration from the red light districts of LA too. There are cropped tops with a broad, flounced border (one comes with a limp ruff!), slip-dresses with half-assed half-drape along the neckline and one-shoulder gowns to show off the bland brassiere on the uncovered side. There is, surprisingly, a visible lack of the hardware that Mr Williams is known for, except the odd buckle that appears on bra cups and a strange two-buckle belt that goes on the waist of a ruched ebony dress. For someone who loves black, there is a curious green in a colour story that is generally muted. It led us to wonder if it’s the same shade at Fendi last month, even if a tad toned down in intensity? Seriously, is the maddening mash-up just Matthew Williams playing irrepressible DJ?

Screen shot (top): Givenchy/YouTube. Photos: gorunway.com

A Different Givenchy

But is Matthew Williams’s remake better?

Understandable it is that Matthew Williams took the reigns of Givenchy during tough times. But Mr Williams, is not the only designer dealing with difficult conditions, as we have been repeatedly reading. If there’s anything that could be more advantageous to him is that he’s working for an LVMH brand, with better resources than others not operating under such a massive luxury group. Yet, Mr Williams’s debut for Givenchy isn’t quite the attention-grabber that it was when John Galliano or Alexander McQueen or even Clare Waight Keller debuted with the house. Or has installations of not-quite-proven designers at major luxury brands really lost their spark and pull?

Givenchy has, for some time, lost the cool (is that even relevant now?) that Riccardo Tisci—presently at Burberry—brought to the label during his tenure (2005–2017). His successor Ms Waight Keller, despite some compelling output, did not quite restore the buzz Mr Tisci generated. We’re not sure if short-time royal Meghan Markle—and occasional Givenchy customer—brought something to the brand or took away from it. She’s now a considerable distance from the heart of French couture, in Santa Barbara, California, 160-odd miles away from Los Angeles, where Mr Williams is from (actually, he’s originally from Evanston, Illinois). Mr Williams is the first American designer to head Givenchy, and a part of the close circle of LA creatives that orbit around California’s leading design lights, Virgil Abloh and Kanye West, many with the ambition to design for European houses.

Before the showing of Mr Williams’s designs, it would not have been unreasonable to think that Givenchy might take in this collective American design aesthetic (also reflected in the art and DJing quartet Been Trill — made up of Mr Abloh, Heron Preston, Justin Saunders, and Mr Williams). The work would generally spring from street wear and would be Instagram-worthy, and it did, which informed everything in the collection, from the suits to the accessories. And befittingly, Givenchy now appears to reach out to the fashionistas of Calabasas, Kardashian land. It is getting back its K-clan.

The collection started with suits—somewhat interesting sleeve treatment and a semi-rigidity of line that was reminiscent of early Armani. And then it moved into the territory that would delight beauty moguls and the star models who can’t wait to shed catwalk clothes for those that will prompt the media to say how they “stun”: long halter tops with a hooker vibe and knotted at the waist so that the rest of the fabric falls to the floor between the legs (reminding us of the displays in the fabric shops of People’s Park), sheer tops to reveal bandeau-as-bra inside, and apron-dresses with all the hardware that would make a technician think of his unkept worktop. Avant-garde (in the euphemistic sense) came in the form of what might be a giant, upside-down container for French fries worn as a top.

And there’s the eveningwear: akin to what pop-starlets might wear to the Met Gala so as to secure a spot on the worst-dressed list: slinky numbers with massive cutout in the rear ( and if that wasn’t enough, the elbows as well) to better reveal waist-high thongs, as well as unimaginative diaphanous dresses to make a statement about panty choices. Street thinking and VMA red carpet reigned. Who cares about what Meghan Markle wishes to wear? All these clearly appeared as Givenchy for the hip-hop/rock crowd, for Mr Williams’s buddies and their wives, and for their coterie of luxury fashion-wearing friends for whom fashion has to look this naff. Is this what Matthew Williams meant when he said, on the Givenchy website, that “it’s about the humanity in luxury?”

Photos: Givenchy

Why Can’t Western Brands Get Asia Right?

Versace, Coach, Givenchy, and Swarovski recently had to apologise for their missteps in Asia, joining an already shamed Dolce & Gabbana in a growing list of brands with a deplorable sense of cultural—and geographical—awareness


Versace T-shirt 2019The Versace T-shirt that riled mainland Chinese Netizens. Photo: Weibo

By Raiment Young

Many years ago, at a media event that I attended in Monte Carlo, I came face to face with the now-out-of-favour, former Vogue editor-at-large, companion to Diana Vreeland in her final years, André Leon Talley. Mr Talley was not a caftan-wearing man at the time, as he became, up till the 2017 release of The World According to André. Still, he was imposing in a dark suit, speaking in that loud, clear, and urgent voice of his, sounding exactly the way he sounded, years later, while observing—and commenting on—the stars at the Academy Awards for a TV audience. When I came before him that night on my way to the patio of the palatial grounds on which the soiree took place to enjoy the cooler outdoors, he looked down at me, smiled, and gleefully offered, “konbanwa”. I returned the greeting by saying, “Good evening, Mr Talley”.

If this was the present, and it happened not to me, but someone else—say, a ‘woke’ person, now one to be, offence could have been immediately taken. A scolding might have ensued or an online rebuke quickly posted. But this was then. I was used to Caucasians mistaking me for every nationality or race in this part of the world except Laotian. Or, Dayak. The Japanese, powerful consumers like the Chinese are today, were frequently travelling to Europe. I understood that it was easy to mistake me for someone from, say, Tokyo or Toyota since it was likely that the Asians many Europeans and Americans encountered then were nihonjins, just as many today are zhongguoren.

In my early travels to the US, Americans would frequently ask, upon learning that I am from Singapore, “are you from China?” So often was this question posed that it soon dawned on me that this was going to be a tiring cliché for as long as I was in a place where not that many people owned a passport. It was said to me then that most Americans, whether in the heartlands or hub cities, consider Asia as one homogeneous place. How they came to that conclusion I had no clue. Few knew Samarkan from Samarinda. If they heard of Singapore, even if in their mind we weren’t a sovereign state, we were lucky.

There are Chinese in Singapore, which is not in China?


“There are Chinese in Singapore, which is not in China?” Sometimes, I became lazy and just said, smilingly, “Yes, I am from China, 你这个笨蛋 (you fool) or bodoh (stupid)”, depending on my mood. This was, of course, way before Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un here last year and, as a consequence, shone a brighter spotlight on our island. (Interestingly, even then, the US State Department was mistaken: they made Singapore part of Malaysia.) This was also way before people heard of such expressions as cultural racism or racial profiling. But I think, back then, we were a lot less sensitive to the cluelessness (carelessness?) of others and we did not, even after repeated encounters, take the insensitivity seriously or personally; we were not easily riled up; we were less emotionally fragile, and we were more forgiving. And we had better things to do, such as see the country that we had come to see.

You’d imagine things would have changed now that the Internet is connecting the world. And Google has answers, frequently than not. But, more than a decade after my encounter with Mr Talley under a midnight-blue sky in Monte Carlo, there are Westerners and, indeed, Western brands that still can’t get Asia right. They can’t see the vastness of the continent and, hence, its plurality. Now that even once-less-visited countries such as Vietnam is on the verge of over-tourism, it is surprising and, frankly annoying, that there are those Westerners who think Hong Kong is a country. Does the city’s contingent at the Olympic Games mislead those outside Asia to think that the SAR is a sovereign state not connected to the mainland?

The recent case of Versace and Coach producing similar T-shirts with near identical blunders bolster the believe that Western brands are still not looking at Asia closely and carefully enough. There are those who think that no matter what they produce, however tone deaf or fact blind, we Asians will snap them up as if they’re another cup of boba milk tea. But I do wonder: is it mere oversight to not know China’s hard-lined stance on its sovereignty and territorial rights? A provocation to garner maximum online reaction and, hence, to project newsy appeal? Or, is it sheer, inexcusable ignorance?

Coach tee 2019.jpgThe Coach T-shirt that, too, angered mainland Chinese Netizens. Photo: Weibo

I had thought that the Dolce & Gabbana faux pas less than a year ago was bad enough—so bad, in fact, that other brands would start to become mindful of what they will say, communicate, or project. But one brand’s mistake is not necessarily another’s learning curve or awakening. While many brand owners acknowledge that Asia is an important market, if not the most important (China alone accounts for a third of the world’s luxury sales), they would not tread cautiously. Or, preemptively. Popularity, as movie/pop stars could tell you, may inure you to apathy, but that’s never good enough a reason to believe you won’t traipse a cultural minefield.

It appears that just because a brand has found favour among a sizeable number of spending consumers in Asia, it can step away from cultural, territorial, or political sensitivity. It is ironic that while brands are hiring ‘diversity chiefs’ to make sure they don’t exclude the non-Caucasian in product development and communication, none thought to appoint someone with the knowledge or interest in knowing that, for example, Taiwan is not, and likely never will be, a country.

It has become more apparent to many that admirable creativity in the atelier does not necessarily commensurate with awareness in marketing. It is often said that brands should decentralise their marketing, but few do. Away from Asia, some of the brands have become  intellectually lazy and incurious. And willing to only state the obvious to underscore the brand’s global reach. In the case of the above T-shirts, I think it is superfluous to juxtapose—in the show-off list—the city in which the brand is available with the corresponding country to which the former belongs. It is strange that any marketeer would imagine that those who buy Versace or Coach need to be informed that Paris is in France. How many people would equate the City of Light with Lamar County, Texas?

Steady Steps Up

While older houses such as Chanel and Dior are blurring the lines between haute couture and pret-a-porter, Givenchy under Clare Waight Keller is moving its couture in ways that can be considered to be fine form


Givenchy Couture Fall 2019 M1

The Givenchy couture collection under Clare Waight Keller grabbed few by the collar when it debuted in the spring of 2018, unlike John Galliano’s in 1996 and Alexander McQueen’s a year after that (even when five weeks later he would call it “crap”). Ms Keller’s was mostly described as “confident” or “modern”, with one report claiming that she “nails how women want to dress in 2018”—prompting some to read that as “having a common touch”. Or, not of dramatic gestures. That, perhaps, explained her appeal to the future Duchess of Sussex.

Slightly more than a year later, in her fourth couture season, Ms Waight Keller has transmuted, if not into a far-out rule breaker, at least borderline radical (or, as the collection is called, Noblesse Radicale). The creations delight because they show that the créateur is willing to assert more than just confidence, but also creativity, which we began to notice in the spring show in January. The lightness, the quirkiness, the exaggeration—we had hoped that they were the foretaste of things to come. With head-spinning speed now expected of fashion at every price point, waiting is not a modern love, but this wait, as it turns out, is worth it.

Givenchy Couture Fall 2019 G1.jpgGivenchy Couture Fall 2019 G2

The spring couture numbered 42 looks. A season later, it’s 48. Although small in comparison to Chanel’s 70, six more is still a significant jump, considering that these clothes typically take 100 to 400 hours or more to complete. The increase in looks could be declaration of Ms Waight Keller’s belief in her ability to enrapture by expounding not only Hubert de Givenchy’s still remembered tailoring and romantic flourishes, but also by pushing her own vision of what is contemporary without traipsing into what-women-want territory, and finally taking advantage of what she once called “the freedom that couture offers”. In so doing, she was able to go big on shapes, and play with the extras that make couture requisitely special.

So many earlier shows failed to impress with the opening look, but Givenchy’s first draws us in with the stark simplicity of the skirt suit: those rounded shoulders and just-as-convex shoulders, under which micro-hound’s tooth fade away into plain white in a sort of pattern gradation. The bottom half of the jacket shows unwoven yarns that lead to fringing at the centre front. The treatment is repeated in the skirt, with the sum effect that’s also textural gradation. And it is Ms Waight Keller’s keen eye for textures—mostly soft and, hence, caressable sumptuousness—that is the cornerstone of this collection.

Givenchy Couture Fall 2019 G3Givenchy Couture Fall 2019 G4

On other looks, more textures draw the eye. Ms Waight Keller gathered fabrics, scrunched, layered, and on them she draws on the maison’s petite mains to apply even more exquisite touches, and always judiciously so: lace, beads, and feathers. Of the last, one particular treatment entrances us. The plumes—in white—peaked from under a bell-shaped skirt, drawn at the waist, with its multi-cords allowed to hang past the hem. Could the almost-humble skirt have been worn over a feathered crinoline the way some Arab women are known to cover their couture gowns with their abaya?

All the flou and frou, however do not overwhelm Ms Waight Keller’s flair for tailoring (she did, after all, design men’s suits at Ralph Lauren) and while the tailleur isn’t quite the stuff to make us quiver, Ms Waight Keller does introduce a vestige of surprise, such as the Two Face of a blazer or the skirt suit that would make a certain born-again Bar suit look decidedly fussy. We were discussing with one of our readers, and wondering if couture has taken a different turn now that two of the oldest houses are designed by women. “Givenchy is designed by a woman too,” came the quick rejoinder. “Why is Clare Waight Keller not like the others?” Because, for now, she’s just better?

Photos: (top) Givenchy and (runway) gorunway.com

A Lull There Was

Positively a lull. Has ready-to-wear taken the excitement and excess away from haute couture?


Chanel couture AW 2018 pic 1Screen grab of Chanel haute couture autumn/winter 2018

All the talk (bluster?) about streetwear pervading ready-to-wear and impinging on popular imagination seems to be taking its toll on high fashion. The recent couture season that ended a few days ago was perhaps one of the dullest in recent memory, as if designers were taking a defeatist stand against what are unavoidable aesthetical changes sweeping through luxury brands. The usually rousing presentations of Chanel, for example, gave way to an uninspiring, drab-as-pavement-stone show, set on a recreated promenade with the bustle of a cemetery.

For most part of fashion today, marketing and the resultant hype have taken over design. Haute couture, once distant from the brouhaha that characterises ready-to-wear, is now 4G, but on which frequency does it connect, it isn’t clear. Nor is it evident that it’s as connected as other product categories brands are now expected to percolate. It appears to be in re-evaluation mode, with designers going back to what their respective houses are known for, not trying to narrow down to what is modern. It is in the past, when it was an exquisite time for couture, that createurs of the present can find something glorious to bring back or to reminisce or to parody.

Despite Valentino Garavani’s tearful reaction to Pierpaolo Piccioli’s superb collection for the house that the former founded, this couture season had not been one that was particularly moving. Presentation-wise, pret-a-porter has already stolen the show for years; it has taken the leadership role (does haute couture still sell perfume?), with cruise as its commercial director. In terms of design, commercial consideration is a prime concern, so is millennial appeal. Even the young not financially endowed enough to buy need to be adequately thrilled so that their wealthy contemporaries would bite.

Yet, haute couture has lost its ability to stir us deeply, a kindling not palpable since the heydays of the art in the ’40s and ’50s, and, maybe, Yves Saint Laurent—a collection or two—in the ’70s or Christian Lacroix in the ’80s or John Galliano’s Dior in the ’90s. In fact, not until Raf Simons’s debut at Dior in the fall of 2012 did we hold our breath when the clothes came out, model by model, look by look, airy sumptuousness by airy sumptuousness. And we have not since. Gone are the times when “clothes were devastating. One fainted. One simply blew up and died,” as Diana Vreeland said of Balenciaga.

Don’t get us wrong. Haute couture isn’t down-graded in any way, craft-wise. The clothes are still the epitome of the best in handwork and hand-guided dressmaking. But is it in high fashion’s favour that only upon close examination do we get to see its magic? Has it become a mere crucible in which the metiers can be put on their mettle? Or has designers become tired (or old) battling the reality of casual dress everywhere in the world to want couture to be more about dreams? Unremarkable—no matter the fabric, the beading, the embroidery—will just be conspicuously ordinary.


Chanel couture AW 2018Photos: Chanel

The house decided to set the show on one of the most recognisable boulevards in Paris, not as a nod to streetwear, but as proscenium to a collection that would otherwise lack both context and vitality. Karl Lagerfeld has so successfully lend commercial clout to Chanel couture that it is increasingly harder to tell it apart from the ready-to-wear or even the cruise if you don’t, for instance, unzip the slit on the sleeve—a recurrent idea this season—up to the elbow to see how exquisite the inside is.

While Mr Largerfeld is wont to repeat an idea that he likes, the zipped sleeves appeared so frequently that what was unexpected quickly became tedious. Perhaps such a detail is necessary for otherwise quite a few outfits would be rather standard Chanel skirt suits of characteristic tweed. And there were so many of them suits, in the not-so-arresting colour of concrete. When dresses did appear, they looked like they belonged to a doll’s wardrobe, until Ant Man came along with his blue Pym Discs.


Dior couture AW 2018Photos: Dior

Dior’s pale hues and kindred nudes have been said to give the collection a “sombre vibe”. It’s surprising no one said that the colours threaded on the edge of dull. Or, on the conventional silhouettes that Maria Grazia Chiuri had preferred, as cheerful as sampling room toile. These colours may have been alright if the designs on which they were tethered to weren’t so impassive, so unimaginative, so ordinary. The nearly one-silhouette collection is generous to the many customers for whom embroidered silk tulle nipped-in at the natural waist is the epitome of moneyed femininity.

As with Chanel, the visual divide between Dior couture and its pret-a-porter is seam-narrow. Ms Chiuri has steered Dior in the direction of consumption and political reality, and what she, as a woman, thinks the majority of womankind wants to wear. Hence, there won’t be the second coming of the New Look. The selling point would be its familiarity, not only of the Dior of yore, but also of the present. Vive le classique?

Dolce & Gabbana

Dolce & Gabbana alta moda AW 2018Photos: indigital.tv

Although not on the Paris calendar, Dolce & Gabbana’s flashy Lake Como presentation—part of the Italian couture offering, Alta Moda—was very much tribute to the haute of dressmaking. Or, was it to show that they could surpass Gucci? If not in goofiness, at least in over-the-top camp? In case we do not already know that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana could out-shine, out-bead, out-glitter, out-embroider, out-lace, out-appliqué everyone, the duo piled everything into their couture, minus the kitchen sink.

To some (or many, considering there are loads of their supporters), only such visually thrusting fashion is fashion. If fashion is of the moment, these clothes are the now that seizes you. Who needs mileage? Not today’s see-now-buy-now customers. Seeing now and buying now could also mean forgetting by tomorrow. Which, perhaps, explains why Dolce & Gabbana’s clothes don’t differ that much between collections, couture or not. More is more. No one needs to remember the seasons past when there will always be more more. Rather, it’s about the ostentation that can delight at that very moment. For that you don’t really need a description.


Givenchy couture AW 2018Photos: Givenchy

Claire Waight-Keller is on a high as people have not forgotten her design for the Duchess of Sussex’s wedding. She has not only done English monarchy proud, she has done all of England proud, and, in doing so, shone the light on the couture might of a house once associated with royalty, both of the ones based on thrones and those based in Hollywood.

These are clothes, one assumes, that duchesses and their ilk would wear. And between them some gowns actresses, inspired by duchesses, would pick for a red-carpet night. On that note, Ms Waight-Keller knows who she’s targeting. She has looked hard at the Givenchy archives, just as Maria Grazia Chiuri had at Dior, and hoped that among her audience and customers there may be an IG-gen Audrey Hepburn, never mind the latter’s kind of elegance on a inimitable gamine frame does not exist anymore. These were precisely-cut, moderate clothes for an imprecise and immoderate world.

Guo Pei

Guo Pei couture AW 2018Photos: indigital.tv

Even after setting up an atelier in Paris, Guo Pei has always seen fashion through her own Chinese, post-Mao, pre-market economy lens, offering couture that has, up till now, been a Beijing fantasist’s idea of what Western dress is about. Surprisingly, her latest collection was less fairy tale than usual, and, in fact, showed a maturity and—dare we say—sophistication that we never thought possible from her studio, named Rose.

This time, Ms Guo’s collection projected the “beauty of strength” of architecture by way of Gothic churches. It appeared, perhaps, a month and a half too late for the Med Gala. Still, the working of architectural forms and details into her designs was far more controlled than anything she had done before. If the reading was too literal—cupola equaled skirt, for example, this is because she has yet aligned herself with the difficult art of subtlety. The clothes, although still stiff and probably not too comfortable to wear, were at least not inverted hulls of ships.

Jean Paul Gaultier

JPG Couture AW 2018Photos: Jean Paul Gaultier

Freed from the need to do two pret-a-porter collections a year, Jean Paul Gaultier would, one might guess, have quite a lot of time in his hands to dream up a stupendous couture collection. He did not. Some said this was classic Gaultier: reworking traditional tallieur—this time, the le smoking—and not, as usual, discounting the camp. The thing is, 28 years after the advent of the conical bra that Madonna adopted faster than she did the children of Melawi, is Jean Paul Gaultier still the enfant terrible of French fashion?

To be sure, Mr Gaultier appeared to be still having fun. These clothes would probably appeal to those nostalgic for the days when he was not following the beat of other houses, when he wanted to “modernise” haute couture, when his clothes cheekily challenged gender conventions. However, are there still any rules in the book to break? Now, when nothing in fashion shocks anymore and there are those such as Nicki Minaj who dispenses with the brassiere altogether, Jean Paul Gaultier’s glammed-up camp looked somewhat unrelated to the present. In fact, Mr Gaultier no longer needs to show us his jabbing at conventional tack and taste, or How to do That, to steal the title of the dance single (“house couture”, featuring a young Naomi Campbell and a pair of pirouetting scissors!) that he released in 1988. We’re not suggesting he pares down, but he could do with some reining in. The time is right.

Maison Margiela

Maison Margiela Artisanal AW 2018Photos: Maison Margiela

John Galliano’s Artisanal collection for Maison Margiela forced the eyes to look—front and back, top and bottom. The eyes has to travel! From Martin Margiela to Mr Galliano now, Artisanal—launched in 2006 and blessed by the Chambre Syndicale de la haute Couture—has remained a challenge to the visual understanding of what is wearable on a body, or attachable (iPhones clamped to wrists and ankles?). And that makes it compelling. Mr Galliano’s vision this season perhaps owed more to Comme des Garçons—the bonding, the missing/hidden armholes, the body-misshaping wraps—than the maison’s predecessor/founder, but it continued to test perceptions in haute couture of what can be constructed, by hand no less.

“At least there was effort,” said a follower of SOTD in response to a “quiet” couture season. That is without doubt. Yet, sometimes one wonders if there was too much effort, to the point that this collection was almost a parody of Mr Galliano’s uncommon creativity, bordering on the absurd or the alien (Na’vi people, perhaps?). These were complex creations and there was much to unpack. No vanilla shifts for Mr Galliano, nothing so undeviating. While other designers sought to project outward from the body, he opted for ligature: he Christo-ed the body. The tulle binding was, in fact, previewed at Mr Galliano’s first men’s Artisanal collection a month earlier, but it was more constricted in the women’s version, as if restriction is a new covetable aesthetic, the way the wasp waist—shown in the men’s Artisanal—once was. Trust John Galliano.


Valentino Couture AW 2018Photos: Valentino

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino couture begged to be seen again. And you did because, frankly, it was too sumptuous to take it all in in one WiFi-dependent viewing. Mr Piccioli explored the myriad possibilities couture offers as if he had stumbled into an atelier for the first time. He is, of course, not new to the support of the skilled hands and he has charmed before, but the exuberance of the collection felt like this was a maiden effort, a prodigious showing, a tour de force. For a moment, you thought haute couture has always been this wonderful.

This was affirmation of the mysterious enchantment a designer is able to offer when he stokes his imagination with the skills available to him, and magnify the sum of the parts. And such high degree of pleasure: Those ruffles! Those flounces! Those bows! Those tiers! Those shapes! Those poufs! Those prints! Those patterns! Those colours! Those embroideries! Those feathers! How they held you spellbound! In a reality/data-driven world, it was nice to see dreams come vividly alive.

Viktor & Rolf

Viktor & Rolf Couture AW 2018Photos: Viktor & Rolf

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren celebrated their 25th year with a collection that revisited what they have done before—the complex, the astounding, and the beautiful. This time, they seemed to say that they can do them even more complex, more astounding, and more beautiful. White was the predominant colour, a clean palette with which to better imprint their boundless imagination and make a pitch for couture’s special place in the fashion universe. And Mr Horsting and Mr Snoeren did not hold back. By this, we do not mean an injudicious use of the crafting arsenal available to them. Rather, both brought to the fore a very persuasive, not manic, display of wearable art—a theme that they explored in the autumn/winter 2015 season, tempered by a unique, high-brow, alluring elegance.

In that year, Viktor and Rolf, like Jean Paul Gaultier ten months earlier, ceased the operation of their pret-a-porter. Their dedication to haute couture is clear to see in the collections they produce: always above the ordinary, with ornamentation that reflect deft hands and keen eyes. Both Mr Horsting and Snoeren are not shy, for example, of ruffles and bows: they applied them with a fervour not even Marie Antoinette’s dressmakers can match. Few designers of today handle these flourishes as nimbly and imaginatively as these two. With them, the craft of couture is celebrated. No applause would be too loud.

The Difference Between Simple And Plain Is A Fine Line

The wedding dress 1

So, the wedding of the year is over. The media gush has ebbed. The attention has now shifted to Prince Harry’s cousin, the Instagram-hot Arthur Chatto, 19-year-old nephew of Queen Elizabeth. But people’s fascination with the ex-commoner/actress-now-duchess has not ceased; they note enthusiastically how she’s presently receiving a “six-month crash course on how to be royal”. Shouldn’t that have come earlier so that her choice of wedding dress could have been more “royal” too?

Contrary to popular speculation, she opted for simple—a monolith of white. As it turned out, it may not be the most memorable British royal wedding dress, but it would be remembered, if only because one Meghan Markle wore it. In fact, to us who saw the dress on television and in countless media outlets, it was a little anti-climatic, more so when the Duchess of Cambridge’s Alexander McQueen gown from seven years ago is still fresh in our mind. Still, the press raved about it: with many headlines announcing how Ms Markle, the new Duchess of Sussex, “stuns” with the Givenchy dress.

Enthusiastic social-media speak aside; the raves mostly pitched the dress as a symbol of modernity, a sign that Ms Markle will do things her way since its very simplicity is not quite the embodiment of royal bridal-dress tradition. And that gown, they opined, was very much in keeping with the wearer’s “elegant” style although, we noted, Ms Markle’s first wedding dress (worn when she married Trevor Engleson six months after the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s grand ceremony) was not exactly the byword of elegance, but in America, home of the prom dress, there is a different sense of what is elegant. Los Angeles glam transplanted to a Jamaican beach, perhaps?

What Ms Markle wore to St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle last month was without doubt an upgrade of that dress she donned to the seaside of Ocho Rios in 2011. People do progress after a period of close to a decade, alongside taste, in dress and mate. Still, the similarities can’t be ignored. Ms Markle clearly has a thing for exposed shoulders: both dresses reveal the top of her trunk and her neck. For her second nuptials, she sported a bateau neckline that underscored her shoulders and face. The shoulder baring was, of course, in keeping with what continues to trend on IG: cold-shoulder and off-shoulder tops. Both wedding dresses were also not form-fitting: the former (designer unknown) held at the waist with a bejeweled belt recalled Chelsea Clinton’s Vera Wang gown worn a year earlier, while the latest seen across the Atlantic, waisted more naturally, wasn’t cinched by a belt.

The wedding dress 2

Some of her fans—journalists included—praise the Givenchy dress, designed by Englishwoman Claire Waight Keller, for not being snug at the bodice. It is rather odd for a couture gown to escape an immaculate fit. A woman designing for a woman knows women needs to breathe? We certainly don’t mean tight, but it couldn’t be said that this dress was perfectly contoured to Ms Markle’s upper body. With each camera close-up, the undulations beside the bust and beneath repeatedly caught the eye. Even the sleeves seemed missing a neat fit: in many of the photographs seen online, a dimple punctuated exactly at the armpit, on both sides. It is, to say the least, unattractive. Versace-clad ‘angel’ Katy Perry flew towards the truth when she recommended, “one more fitting”.

Joining the fray was British-based New Zealand designer Emilia Wickstead, who claimed that Ms Markle’s dress looked “identical” to the one the former had designed, named Helene. Allegedly looking alike aside, Ms Wickstead echoed the other half of the online chorus that believed the dress suffered from a good fit. “If you choose a simple design, the fit should be perfect,” she told the press unswervingly. “Her wedding dress was quite loose.” Gasp, went the collective response: loose, as we know, is not quite synonymous with wedding dresses, unless the poor bride has to conceal/obscure a baby bump.

Together with lack of a good fit, another similarity to what was worn on the beach that day in Ocho Rios is how off-the-peg the dress looked. It is understandable that Ms Markle desired to introduce modernity to a nuptial staged in a 14th century chapel, but simple that can be confused with plain is perhaps quite contrary to the ceremonial aspect expected of such highly anticipated grandeur. It could have been any woman’s bridal gown; it could have been cousin Chin Choo’s wedding at the Carlton Hotel.

We would be misguided to think that this is not Meghan Markle’s princess-bride moment. She may have brought “change” to the house of Windsor, but a royal wedding isn’t quite the stage for designer dull. She was walking down the aisle of a high-medieval gothic royal peculiar, not a minimal, modernist construction such as Portugal’s Capela de Santa Ana. This was no time to do a Bella Swan wedding. Even teenage-angst–afflicted Amelia ‘Mia’ Thermopolis of the fictional Genovia succumbed to regal finery— incidentally also a gown with a similar bateau neckline.

Could it be that Ms Markle and Ms Waight Keller thought the ultra-long veil (longer than the train of the dress) will make up for the lack of dramatic impact? Choose a modern dress; keep the veil traditional, never mind the embroidery that edged it was so subtle that its thematic significance (flowers of the Commonwealth countries) had to be explained by the media. A bridal veil may no longer symbolize what it did in the 17th Century (or even earlier), but today, it still does—even only superficially—mean that when the veil is lifted, the groom can go into matrimonial and procreative bond with his spouse. Is this obligatory for a second-time bride or is this even more relevant post-#metoo?

Perhaps we did not quite manage our expectations. But what had we expected? Should we have expected? Ms Markle may have chosen Givenchy, but she is no Audrey Hepburn. She may be the second American divorcée to marry into the British royal family, but she is no Wallis Simpson. The Duchess of Sussex (a rural county in the south east of England, where one noted attraction is the beach-side town of Brighton) may be of humble lineage, but she is no Kate Middleton, whose poise and posture have endeared herself to the public.

There’s something to be said about the carriage and bearing of Ms Markle, especially when she stands next to Prince Harry. Some royal watchers think her body language is consistent with her profession as an actor: it’s a performance. The way she cocks her head like an aspara and the way she looks at her prince like a Disney character: they look so feigned that there is a sense that she’s masking guile and secrets. The simplicity of the wedding dress perhaps similarly deflects the complexity of the person wearing it. Just don’t call it the Meghan Markle effect.

Photos: Getty Images. Illustration: Givenchy

A Key Ring With No Pocket To Call Home


Givenchy key ringCould this be something from a time capsule? In this day of card access, pass code or biometric entry, a large key ring this huge could be mistaken as a hoop earring. Givenchy, under Ricardo Tisci’s watch (and egged on by his celebrity fans), is not known for discreet, barely noticeable designs. This circle of polished silver is no exception. Since it comes with its own key, there’s no mistaking what the oversized ring is for. With a diameter of about 11 centimetres, the keys to the lockers of an entire military battalion can be threaded through it. Still, as much as it can hold, the function assigned to it may not be anything more than a decorative one.

It is, therefore, not surprising that in the Givenchy boutique, (it really first appeared this way on the catwalk) the key ring is paired to a lanyard and worn as a sporty necklace, not unlike the way a track coach puts on his stopwatch or whistle. However, against the brand’s dark, romantic, sometimes mysterious clothes, it looks like a prop from the 1940s film Rebecca, brought forward to fit snugly into an Instagram square.

Givenchy silver key ring, SGD650, is available at Givenchy, Paragon. Photo: Givenchy

Is Luxury T-Shirt An Oxymoron?

imageThis T-shirt by Saint Laurent costs S$1,250. Or S$32 more than the RRP of the cheapest iPhone 6S Plus. Or S$8 less than an air ticket to London (as advertised by Cathay Pacific in today’s The Straits Times). Don’t get us wrong. This is a nice expensive tee, even when left on the hanger and relieved of its boutique surroundings, it could be mistaken as merchandise of the Salvation Army Family Thrift Store. It feels good to the touch, not unlike those at Givenchy (priced at a not-too-distant S$1050 for the all-over print ‘Cockfight’ tee). In fact, they could have come from the womb of the same manufacturer-mother. Recurring on souvenir jackets, bags and espadrilles, the print of the Saint Laurent T-shirt has aesthetic and chromatic similarities with those in tourist shops of Oahu. Hedi Slimane sure has an expatriate’s eye for American West Coast kitsch.

It is hard to consider a T-shirt as an investment buy, but the pricing of these designer versions encourages one to see them as such. The irony of it all is that, unlike a suit, a tee is a garment destined for the rough and tumble of an active life, as well as that of a washing machine. Out of 23 people randomly polled by SOTD recently, only two use a laundry net when laundering an expensive tee in a front or top loader. None wash by hand. None “dry flat”, as recommended by many brands. Only one irons. How does a S$1,250 tee survive urban abuse and the lack of TLC?

There are those who buy rather than wash (since cheap tees are aplenty): true, but it is hard to believe that there are individuals who wouldn’t take serious care of their four-figure single purchase. Perhaps they know that the high-priced T-shirt is, in terms of real cost, not different from anything they will find in a fast fashion store. As such, tees can be treated equally. While the chasm between a T-shirt’s production cost (whether from a factory in a Bangladeshi ghetto or Tuscan town) and retail price is not a deep, dark industry-only secret, shoppers are not terribly concerned when they succumb to the seductive call of designer duds.

The cheerful Saint Laurent tee indicates that it is made in Italy. A T-shirt may be made in Italy, but is it made by Italians, using Italian cloth? As the BBC reported in 2013, many factories in Italy are now owned and manned by mainland Chinese. Just in the town of Prato (not far from Florence), around 4,000 factories are Chinese-owned, prompting a local observer to suggest that “there are now more Chinese garment manufacturers than there are Italian textile producers.” In fact, in Prato, it was reported that more than 30% of textile employed is from China. Does the percentage include cotton jersey, the fabric used to make most tees?

It is also, therefore, hard to consider the T-shirt a luxury garment as cotton jersey, however fine, is not a fancy knit. Jersey is so named because it was in Jersey, part of the Channel islands sandwiched between England and France, that the fabric (in wool) was first made in medieval times. While there are luxury silk and wool jerseys, there is, arguably, no luxury cotton jersey, just as there is no luxury denim. The pricing of T-shirts at luxury level is a fairly recent practice since designer brands, at the beginning of the advent of prêt-a-porter, had no real need for plainly basic garments to boost the bottom line. The promotion of the T-shirt as desirable designer wear really coincided with Calvin Klein elevating underwear to dizzying new heights in the ’80s, and later pushed forth by luxury conglomerates creating ever-expanding “entry-level” merchandise, a strategy possibly borrowed from the mobile phone industry.

Brand owners would like us to believe that pricing these days is a complex exercise, especially when managing a brand is costly too. There is also material costs, they’ll add. Cotton, a natural product, is subjected to price fluctuations also experienced by other agricultural goods. If the price of cotton continues to soar as it did in the past five years, the price of cotton jersey T-shirts will only escalate. There’s no turning back now, however humble the T-shirt’s beginnings, not even if you turn your back to Saint Laurent’s coconut-trees-in-the-sunset tee.

Photo: Saint Laurent

Manhattan Transfer: Givenchy Courts The Americans In Their Own Court

Givenchy SS 2015 NYFW

The dramatic setting of the Givenchy’s Spring/Summer 2016 show at Pier 21, New York

The New York Times hailed him as “King of Fashion Week”. In the world of American fashion, where haute couture is conspicuously missing, Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci is perhaps the real royal in the city. For the first time, Givenchy would be on leave from Paris, showing its prêt-a-porter collection for Spring/Summer 2016 instead in a metropolis where women going topless on the streets won’t pose a legal problem. New York Fashion Week (NYFW) fans and the countless who wanted to but couldn’t attend were eager to tout the Givenchy show two Fridays ago as grand, possibly on par with the impending visit of Pope Francis. Americans know their royalty, religious or secular.

No American designer has been bestowed such kingly accolade, not even two of their acknowledged couturiers, Mainbocher and Ralph Rucci. Mr Tisci’s present eminence is due, in no small part, to his relationship with American customers and supporters—two of the most visible, the double Ks, Kanye and Kim, whose current maternity wardrobe is blessed by potential godfather, Riccardo Tisci. It was, therefore, to be expected that his NYFW debut at Pier 26, off Manhattan’s West Side Highway, was to be front-rowed by a Hollywood-meets-hip-hop crowd—when “glitzy” described the guest list, you’d know what kind of attendance the show enjoyed. It was, therefore, predictable—bordering on the banal—when the 41-year-old Italian was dubbed by the NY press as “a bona fide celebrity designer”.

Audrey Hepburn and Kim KardashianLeft: Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy. Photo: Paramount Pictures. Right, Kim Kardashian in Givenchy. Photo: hawtcelebs.com

Complimentary or not, many consider the original “celebrity designer” to be the founder of the house himself—Hubert de Givenchy. A master at spinning elegant clothes, Givenchy had an enviably long, wardrobe-supplying association with the actress Audrey Hepburn, from a year after the house’s founding in 1952 to 1993, when she died of colon cancer. His relationship with Hepburn was so close that he called her his “sister” and she considered him her “best friend”. They first met in 1953 when she, then 24, was in pre-production for the 1954 movie Sabrina. According to Hollywood lore (or legend, depending on who you ask), the fated and feted meeting came about when director Billy Wilder decided, as he was reported to have said, to act on Hepburn’s suggestion of having a real French designer supply “Paris originals” for the movie.

This being Hollywood, disgruntlement was to be expected. The official wardrobe supervisor was Edith Head, the legendary, star-in-her-own-right costume diva who had earlier conceived Hepburn’s outfits for Roman Holiday. With the actress bent on going to Paris, she was left with providing only three insignificant outfits for Sabrina. Head’s loss was Hepburn’s gain. After that first meeting at the Givenchy atelier, Hepburn became, as life imitated art, the film’s Sabrina Fairchild—a raw diamond polished. Monsieur Givenchy would continue to supply Hepburn’s next seven film roles, culminating in Holly Golightly wearing the iconic little black dress in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If payback was destined, the score was settled when, ironically, Edith Head won the 1955 Oscar for Best Costume Design for her work on Sabrina, not Givenchy.

Ina Claire and ChanelIna Claire and Coco Chanel, 1931. Photo: Corbis

French couturiers’ relationships with movie stars were not unique to Givenchy. Two decades earlier, in 1931, Coco Chanel was invited by Samuel Goldwyn to design costumes for films put out by his production company United Studios. Despite what was seen at that time as a couture coup, the collaboration was short-lived. Chanel was involved in only three films—Palmy DaysTonight or Never, and The Greeks Had a Word for Them—and all were such unpleasant experiences for her (including tension with the pregnant Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never) that she had only one option: depart Hollywood. So willing to let her go was the studio that Goldwyn did not advise her against it. She would later describe Hollywood as a “capital of bad taste”.

Whatever the taste of Hollywood, the stars have always had a taste for French fashion, and French houses play to their whims. No matter how the stars may represent each label, it all boils down to what Christian Dior called in the late Forties “goddess of our age—Publicity”. And he, too, acknowledged that “the name America is synonymous with publicity.” Dior knew it then, so does Ricardo Tisci now. (Dior, too designed for Hollywood films, including Indiscretion of an American Wife, Man About Town, and, with Marlene Dietrich, Stage Fright.) In fact, Mr Tisci is keeping to the publicity tradition of Givenchy more so than sticking to the house codes in his designs. For French labels, no French celebrity, no French actress—not even Juliette Binoche, Marrion Cotillard, or Audrey Tautou—could bring the kind of publicity the likes of Jennifer Lawrence could and does, even, perhaps especially, when falling on the steps during an Academy Awards presentation. Hollywood stars are walking and stumbling, constantly generating, publicity machines. No one, however, did as much for a fashion brand as Audrey Hepburn. According to her biographer Alexander Walker in Audrey: Her Real Story, she “never received money for the way she promoted the house of Givenchy”.

The Tischi clanRiccardo Tischi with Kim Kardasian in the latest issue of Sorbet and, in the August issue of Vogue Japan, with Kanye West and fave models, including Kendall Jenner

While it is hyperbolic to say Kim Kardashian is a modern-day Audrey Hepburn, Mrs West, too, did her bit or, as Jessica Simpson would have said, “a lot of bit”. It is not clear if she stands to gain financially (apart from custom-made clothes she could have received without paying for them), but she has no qualms declaring her preference for Givenchy and her love for its creative director. As she told CNN Style, “Riccardo is the first designer that took a chance on me. I’m so grateful that he saw a vision and was willing to dress me.” So BFF was the relationship that she did not hesitate to appear on the cover of the fall issue of Sorbet—incidentally called The BFF Issue, holding on to Mr Tisci like a chum she never had. The affection is understandable: Givenchy was the first label to put her on its front row at a time when most cognoscenti shunned her. She was only a reality-television star and in her show, Keeping with the Kardashians, she did little than screamed at her siblings. To Mr Tisci, however, reality-television star is still a star, and she could one day be bigger.

Today, on Instagram alone, Kim Kardiashian has 47.3 million followers, a big that’s close to the population of Ukraine. Even Time considered her massive and listed her as one of this year’s 100 most influential people. In a world driven by digital content and the front row being very much a part of it, Ms Kardashian’s every move remains as compelling as the 2003 sex tape involving her and then boyfriend Ray J, leaked in 2007. It is not surprising that there are so many willing to clutch the skirt of—to paraphrase Christian Dior—the goddess of publicity. No one is certain if Ms Kardashian moves products, but, following her style rehabilitation in the wake of her marriage to Kanye West, she helps draw attention to the barely-there clothes that she loves to wears. Pre-Givenchy, in a reveal to CNN, she said, “I thought I had the best style… I look back at outfits, and I’m, like, mortified.”

Kimye @ GivenchyKimye at Givenchy’s Spring/Summer 2014 presentation in Paris. Photo: WENN/ aceshowbiz

She credits her husband for her transformation. “I really think that my relationship with my husband Kanye really changed everything.” It may not be easy to imagine Kanye West as Professor Henry Higgins, but the rap-artiste-turned-fashion-designer has been hard-selling his wife even when they were just dating. In that infamous cover story for Vogue (April 2014), he said, “Kim is like a fantasy, period. She’s like a dream girl and I think a dream girl should live in a dream world.” That dream world is mostly dreamed up by Kanye and Kim. Combined, the couple is a perpetually powered vehicle for hype—Givenchy’s publicity machine like no other. They are a part of the intimate coterie of stars that Mr Tisci banks on to push his strikingly ornate dresses, from the catwalk to the red carpet.

Some observers blame designers’ obsession with celebrity on magazine covers’ fixation with stars. Anna Wintour, to many, is culpable. Until she took over American Vogue in 1998, the magazine’s covers featured mostly models, some not at all household names. In the 1990s, Ms Wintour featured a few starlets here and there, but by 2000, big-name stars were fronting Vogue. No matter who she picks, however, each must abide by her standards. Oprah Winfrey, for example, was reportedly told to lose weight before she would be allowed to grace Vogue’s October 1998 cover. By presenting what she sees as perfection, Anna Wintour asserts tremendous power over what constitutes impeccable style. It is, however, unknown if what she promotes actually moves on the selling floor. But, it is no secret that she has a soft spot for French labels (particularly Chanel), and has championed Parisian designers within her pages. Kim Kardashian wore a Lanvin wedding dress on that cover of Vogue.

Carmel Snow and Anna WintourCarmel Snow, second from left, at Christian Dior’s presentation, Paris, 1940s. Anna Wintour, right, at Givenchy’s show, New York, 2015

The editors (of American fashion magazine) who love French couture, in fact, go back to the Forties. Two of the most noted were Bettina Ballard of Vogue and Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar. Among the two, Snow would go down the annals of fashion history as the astute editor who exclaimed, at Christian Dior’s debut collection (originally called Corolle), “It’s such a new look”. And the silhouette of a nipped-in waist and generously full skirt would, in the end, go by an American’s exclamation rather than its French moniker. Snow, who adored Paris, was known to be ardently loyal to haute couture; her devotion matched by Ballard’s determination to let American editorials rave, and, consequently, promote it. American Vogue in the Forties wasn’t what it is today. Then, the Paris office chose for New York what fashions were to be published. Ballard decided that she would put herself in charge of the two annual editions given over to the collections. This might have appeared to be turning her nose at the French, but what Ballard did was, in fact, a reflection of America’s rising clout as consumer of expensive European clothes. Ballard, probably unaware then, set a precedent that was to be followed later by the legendary Diana Vreeland.

Perhaps, as a result of these women’s contribution to popular magazines, Americans are predisposed to adoring French fashion. Kim Kardashian, too, can be seen as carrying on with a tradition, picking up where Audrey Hepburn stopped. Her role, however, is less an arbiter of style than a mannequin of clothes, especially since she mostly allows her husband and designers such as Riccardo Tisci to decide what she wears. Ms Kardashian’s rise and omnipresence coincided with the arrogation of the front row by celebrities and stars not remotely connected to fashion. A fashion show is now as much a celebrity show. It is reported that 20 percent of photographers in the pit at the end of the runway are interested only in the seats right in front of the catwalk. This figure does not include the horde of the star-struck with smart phones and action cams.

Givenchy SS 2015 Pic 1

Givenchy Spring/Summer 2016 show opened by Italian model Mariacarla Boscono

Under such a glare, it is unsurprising Riccardo Tisci would want to participate in NYFW, considered to be the most circus-like of all fashion weeks. No matter the tableau, this was no Robert Doisneau’s portrait of a city. Yet, however manic, whatever the spectacle, America has always played a pivotal role in the consumption and spread of European fashion, a part that goes back to the post-war years of the Fifties. It is an important market for European luxury brands that predated Asia’s voracious appetite of the Eighties and Nineties. In fashion, there’s no such thing as sovereign style. There may be what is perceived to be a French aesthetic, just as there is an Italian one or English, but fashion goes to where it is most in demand. Americans, too, play a part in the diminishing elitism of fashion. These days, the demand isn’t just at retail level; it’s at celebrity level, and social-media level (which is the most significant leveler of all, removing the class divide that once defined fashion). Nowhere is the multi-platform demand more evident than in America. One of the earliest to realise this is Hedi Slimane, who, upon accepting the appointment as Saint Laurent’s new design head in 2012, moved the atelier to Los Angeles, not the most obvious choice, but clearly where the multi-platform action is.

Furthermore, designers these days are both couturiers and vendeuses. They design and they sell, often by highly visible association with the highly visible. Few marketing programs work as well as the designer promoting his collection next to a wearer with star billing, completely outfitted in his clothes. For the celebrities and stars, all they have to do is show up and take their seat. That’s hardly saturated with effort. If the designer shows for the first time in that city, that’s even better. Ricardo Tisci’s pre- and post-show appearances and television interviews amounted to thousands of dollars worth of air time (CNN Style has a five-part video special on him!). Even NYFW heavyweights such as Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang can’t top that.

Does Givenchy showing in New York mean the importance or influence of Paris is waning? We seriously doubt it.

No Back Story Required

Madonna at Grammy 2015Oh Madonna, we so wish you didn’t show your bum at the Grammy’s. Yes, last year was the year of the booty, but that was last year! Leave the rear exposure to your friend Niki Minaj. Or the exhibitionist, Kim Kardashian West. Sure, you’ve done it all before. Still, it was heartbreaking to see that you needed some kind of a harness to hold everything up so as to be as pert as those girls. We know it’s not a wardrobe malfunction—that made it worse! While, admirably, a tease, for you, could be conceived with a mere flick of the back of a skirt rather than a swing on a burlesque pole, we would have preferred that your dress did the all the work. We like your Givenchy toreador-wear-as-body-suit, but we like your Super Bowl 2012 costume, the Givenchy Spartan-gear-as-disco-dress more. The Spanish bull-fighter costume aesthetic: you’ve flirted with that before. We remember the Take a Bow music video even when, in it, you were mostly clad in John Galliano. It was your screen lover, real-life matador Emilio Muñoz, who was dressed dazzlingly. Still, we love the old-world elegance you projected. You were at your sartorial best, pre-Evita. Yes, you should have let your dress do all the work as you had before. You were, after all, on a red carpet. And you are better than so many of them, such as Lady Gaga, who, inexplicably, was channelling Donatella Versace.

It is true that some people wish to age disgracefully, but we hope you are not one of them. As we write this, we’re listening to Nothing Fails. Maybe you’re right: “(you’ve) climbed the tree of life/And that’s why, no longer scared if (you) fall.” Or go bare-bottom.