Is Digital Better?

Although concerted, it is hard to say that Haute Couture Fashion Week is a compelling online event


HCFW Jul 2020From top left: Alexis Mabille, Naomi Campbell, Azzaro, Guo Pei, Julien Fornié, Iris van Herpen, Margiela (centre)

Naomi Campbell opened Haute Couture Fashion Week (HCFW) from her home, somewhere. Wearing an un-couture black T-shirt with a message “Phenomenally Black”, she showed a political side not many have seen. She urged for change in the fashion business and to draw attention to the lack of representation in fashion. As she said, “the time has come to collectively call the fashion world to task regarding inequality in our work spaces and in our industry.” We did not expect a fashion week to open on such a sombre note, but these are, for many, gloomy days.

Yet, the just-concluded autumn/winter haute couture season chose not to reflect the gloom. Fantasy is still at the crux of couture, the style and attitude of indie pop stars too. Chanel’s Virginie Viard had her mind on the halcyon days of disco, saying in the video-show notes that she was inspired by those times when she went with predecessor Karl Lagerfeld to Les Bains Douches and Le Palace in Paris, both popular discotheques of the ’80s. Was she saying that she was missing the sybaritic night life now that nightclubs are not (yet) opened?

Of the 34 designers listed in the official calendar (strangely, Balmain is not named), none presented an entire collection, although some showed enough to provide an idea of what the season’s looks might be about. Guo Pei, in a video shot in Beijing, provided eleven from a collection called Savannah. Unsurprisingly, images of animals appeared as realistically as possible. The “sustainable couture” brand Aelis showed 15 looks in a weird and wonderful video that featured extraordinary dresses, some modelled by men.

For some brands, it was an opportunity for image building or enhancing. Iris Van Herpen, in a beautiful short film titled Transmotion, showed only one white dress. A single piece too was offered by the Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz who made a dress entirely with grosgrain ribbons. Margiela, too, showed one outfit, but you could not make out what it was in the barely-anything-to-discern colour-negative video posted, which could have been shot via a temperature scanner.

The Hedi Slimane domain of alt-music seems to be preferred by couturiers… unconventional vocals and strange beats, not necessarily the design seemed to drive the message of modernity


If one was not few enough, Valentino’s presentation takes the cake: The house showed none! Unless a fabric floating can be considered a dress. In fact, it was less a presentation than an invitation—soundtracked by FKA Twigs—to a later event in Rome involving the photographer Knick Night. It was the same with Elie Saab—the house showed their bejewelling and embroidery processes, spliced with scenes of nature that probably inspired the work, but there was no dress.

Songstresses shared the limelight with some of the dresses. There was the French singer Yseult, singing on a floating catwalk at Balmain. At Azzaro, Olivier Theysken’s first couture collection for the house was revealed in what could be a music video, featuring the Belgian musician Sylvie Kreusch. From the five outfits, it is hard to say if this could be the big comeback that has so far alluded him. The Hedi Slimane domain of alt-music seems to be preferred by couturiers. From Mandy Takes a Gun at Christophe Josse to Acid at Chanel, unconventional vocals and strange beats seemed to drive the message of modernity. There was, however, one without music: Adeline André’s soundless slideshow.

Humour and wit are almost entirely missing, except at Viktor & Rolf. Shot against a doorway of an empty room, the video was voiced by the musician Mika, who described the nine-piece capsule as “three wardrobes for three mindsets in these extraordinary times of change.” Of one sweeping, full-length coat, he said, “social-distancing never felt so sweet in this white faux-leather manteau.” The first and only video to bring on a smile.

Given that masks are accessories du jour and many, many more jours to come, only two designers showed them: Rahul Mishra—festooned with butterflies— and Viktor & Rolf, noting that the face mask has “won global acclaim as the smartest new accessory of the season”. There were face shields too. At Xuan, Vietnamese designer Thu Nguyen made them out of flowers; they totally obscured the face, while at Aganovich, entire heads were more completely covered than they would be with a balaclava!

Many couture houses claim they have ways to connect with their clients directly, to inform them of their latest collections. This digital HCFW, therefore, isn’t necessarily for those who have this special relationship. Touted as an event that gives everyone a front row view, it tallies with the notion that fashion is entertainment. But the video presentations are uneven, with some lost in their own artsiness. Sure, couture has always had its share of affected creativity, but how this can lift spirits and convince viewers that couture is good and necessary and to be supported, even if only voyeuristically, we really don’t know.

Screen grabs: respective brands/Youtube

Fashion Week: Digital We Were

Did the Singapore-inaugurated Digital Fashion Week really see the future of fashion shows?


TW @ DFW 2012Thomas Wee’s presentation at the first Digital Fashion Week, Singapore

Back in October 2012, a small, wannabe of a fashion week was staged on the grounds of the Ritz Carlton. The venue was not the hotel ballroom, but a tented space, known as the Millenia Pavilion, that sat in the sloped, verdant corner bounded by Temasek and Raffles Avenues. Inside, you would not have guessed that this was set-up for fashion shows, but Digital Fashion Week (DFW) very much was. Earlier that month, in the French capital, Chanel presented what was becoming characteristic of their Paris Fashion Week staging: expensive and monumental. That spring/summer 2013 season at the Grand Palais, the models emerged from behind two tilted solar-cell panels—that looked like a split teeppee—onto an also solar-panel-laid runway that was lined with two rows of impressively sized wind turbines that had its propeller-like rotors in hypnotic motion. In comparison, the debut DFW was a fashion-school graduation show with what was said to be pittance for a budget.

At that time, there was already Audi Fashion Festival (AFF)—in its third year—and the one-year-old umbrella event known as Fidé Fashion Weeks—now in hiatus from travelling mode, which comprised three presentations: Men’s Fashion Week, Women’s Fashion Week, and Haute Couture Week. Fashion show fans were delighted as the Fidé trifecta gave our island what came to be described by the media as “a complete fashion season”. DFW’s entry was curiosity-arousing. Conceived by the marketing agency DFW Creative, they stood apart by being digital-centric, and so on-theme they were that the events of the earlier years saw extremely restricted number of guests at the show venue as they wanted to emphasise the digital broadcast, encouraging views on devices. Regardless, many thought that with the shows live-streamed, more fashion show junkies would be able to view the presentations, unlike AFF and the Fidé events, both positioned to be far more high-brow. DFW’s co-creator/founder Charina Widjaja, also the co-founder of DFW Creative, told the press that “the digital platform enables us to transcend geographical boundaries. It also allows our designers and sponsors to enjoy increased exposure to consumers from all over the world.”

DFW was touted as a “first, fully-digital, live-streamed fashion event”. They claimed, at that time, to be “the only 360 offline and online marketing platform focusing on digital strategies to globalize independent designers”. Its inaugural production was headlined by one of Singapore’s most known veteran designers Thomas Wee and China’s rising star Guo Pei (this was pre-Rihanna-in-that-omelette-dress). Both designers had to contend with a catwalk circumscribed by white plywood boards and lit with such harsh floods that many among the limited attendees thought the shows were “washed-out”. Guest model Andrej Pejic (reported to be doing just one show—Guo Pei’s—that entire season due to other fashion events’ “unappealing pay”) and VIP guest Patricia Fields seemed unfazed by the staging conditions. The shows’ creative director Keyis Ng (the other founder of DFW and DFW Creative) told the inquisitive that the set-up had to be so because of videographic requirements. Yet, at the end of DFW’s shaky debut, one marketing head at a retail conglomerate told us that “some day, fashion shows will not only be virtual to reach anyone who cares about them, but also out of necessity”.

Guo Pei @ DFW 2012Guo Pei debuted in Singapore at Digital Fashion Week

Despite its precarious start and sometimes patchy broadcasts due to buffer problems, Digital Fashion Week was indeed rather prescient. A year before DFW, Keyis Ng had started the now-defunct membership-driven, a B2C site with a live-streaming service that members could use to watch fashion shows. Mr Ng, who had briefly worked with veteran show choreographer/producer Dick Lee at the ad agency the also-singer formed with Japanese firm Chuo Senko in 2008 (it’s now, or last known, as Dick Lee Concepts), also described this digital-native business as the “Eyes of Fashion in Asia for the rest of the world”. Often mentioning how digital savvy his generation was, he was convinced that going online would be the way forward, at least for a fashion-resource-starved island such as ours. As Charina Widjaja said to Senatus in 2013, it was to “bring in the latest in live-streaming technology as a game changer”.

The game has certainly changed. After Paris Fashion Week in March this year, many cities were locked down in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Shanghai’s own had to go fully digital later that month. It was reported to be “the world’s first fashion-week event to livestream its entire roster of runway shows”. DFW would be happy to dispute that. To be sure, at their 2012 debut, the broadcast and live streaming of fashion shows had already gained traction although many heritage luxury brands wouldn’t be enticed. Fashion and its kindred runway presentations had a slow start in embracing digital technology. In 1998, the Austrian designer Helmut Lang—then still creating his eponymous line—availed his autumn/winter show online. But it was Alexander McQueen, 11 years later, who was the first designer to live stream a fashion show—the stunning Plato’s Atlantis, reportedly garnered 3.5 million views on YouTube.

Mr McQueen never followed that with another. That collection—spring/summer 2010—was his last. But he did pave the way for many others who quickly followed with their own live streams. By 2013, New York Fashion Week, ardent adopter of live streaming, reported that two-third of its shows were live streamed. YouTube, for both brands and viewers, have been the go-to platform to watch fashion show videos, be they live-streamed or archived. Fast forward to the present, Instagram, too, is tapping both demand and need. Last month, the Facebook-own photo-sharing site released a complete guide on how to host a digital fashion show on its popular platform, as well as how to post backstage photos and tap into the reach of influencers. The case for using Instagram to broadcast fashion shows is compelling. According to a study published by French trend forecaster Heuritech, there has been a whopping 70% increase in traffic at Instagram since lockdowns were introduced throughout the world.

CYC @ DFW 2015CYC The Custom Shop designed by David Wang at the last Digital Fashion Week

Four years after its debut at the Ritz Carlton, Digital Fashion Week lost steam. Following its last show in 2015, staged at the historic Capitol Theatre, DFW was merged with Singapore Fashion Week (SFW). According to a report in The Straits Times in 2016, DFW was “acquired” by Mercury Marketing & Communications, whose owner Tjin Lee—the brainchild of Singapore Fashion Festival, precursor of SFW—declined to reveal the price paid for DFW. Charina Widjaja said that both events complement each other. Yet, the two-as-one SFW, despite DFW’s digital strength, did not make a significant impact on the digital fashion show sphere—barely locally, and not a blip regionally, even less globally. A year later, Ms Lee called it quits on SFW, saying that “the current model is not sustainable… It’s a question of cost.” Still, that was no deterrent as she was supposed to have been considering something “bigger than we are.” She told ST, “there is room for a bigger, more collaborative fashion week that engages and works with and supports the neighbouring fashion weeks as well.” It was believed that by “bigger” and “neighbouring”, Ms Lee meant Asia. That never happened.

Digital Fashion Week was initially conceived to showcase Singaporean “independent designers” to the world, but it soon included Bangkok (2014) and Jakarta (2017) off-shoots. The debut Bangkok show was tethered to Bangkok International Fashion Week, staged at Siam Paragon, while the Jakarta event, a home-coming for Ms Widjaja, was its own “full-fledged” show, with an attendant pop-up store in the event venue, Plaza Indonesia. In the year DFW Jakarta was inaugurated, Ms Widjaya created Rising Fashion, a retail pop-up in the capital’s Galeries Lafayette department store and, a year later, transplanted to our island in Paragon Shopping Centre. In both cities, Rising Fashion marked 50 years of bilateral relations between Indonesia and Singapore. The last of DFW event listed in “upcoming events” on its website was posted as a vague “pop-up in Paris” in December 2018.

At the start of DFW, shown annually, the idea of an all-digital fashion week was met with some skepticism, especially when physical attendance to such events was still preferred. The energy and glamour, typically high points of fashion shows, including the much-noted and important front row(s), were thought to be missing. Later DFWs in bigger venues, such as the National Design Centre and Capitol Theatre, provided for a larger on-site audience. Despite its online emphasis, viewership—up till now—has not reflected figures that DFW can sing about. Even big names of its first season were not the pull one expects. Thomas Wee’s show garnered 3,800 views. Guo Pei’s, after her Met Gala exposure, presently scored 79,000. In an admittedly inequitable comparison, that Chanel show with the wind turbines has to date enjoyed 979, 000 views. Next week, London Fashion Week: Men will be live-streamed on LFW’s website as a non-gender-specific event, designed to appeal to both trade buyers, as well as the members of the public. Some elements of see-now-buy-now, once thought to be crucial and the way forward, will be incorporated. LFW will be the first of the big four fashion weeks to go fully digital. No one knows how this will pan out. Meanwhile, some of us here, perhaps, take delight with the thought that we’re the first to do it that way.

Photos: Sophia Lim and Jim Sim

Watched: Yellow Is Forbidden

In last Sunday’s closing film of the Design Film Festival 2019, Yellow is Forbidden, the designer Guo Pei is shown—at work and at play—as complete contrast to her couturière self. But it is left to the viewer to decide if she would really leave a legacy in Asia that we can be proud of or just scoff at years later


Guo Pei June 2019 SGGuo Pei during a talk at TAFF, Design Orchard, in June. Photo: Jim Sim

It is easier to doubt Guo Pei’s (郭培) talent than her sincerity. Or her willingness to be unmasked, whether in the presence of a film crew or an audience. In Yellow Is Forbidden, a film that’s less about the disallowed than what is allowable in the design of clothes, Ms Guo reveals all the different aspects of being a working couturière, as well as, cliched as it might be, a mother, a daughter, and a wife. Documentary film-maker Pietra Brettkelly (A Flickering Truth, a narrative about Afghan cinephiles excavating and preserving the films of the nation’s past) created a surprisingly intimate portrait of Ms Guo, who allowed cameras beyond her atelier, into her home, as well as her parents’. In Ms Guo, the New Zealander found not only a willing subject, but a gregarious one—a world-famous woman unafraid to tear up before the camera. Or reveal her softer side, a lover and collector of teddy bears—400 to date.

At 52, Guo Pei has the effervescence of a 25-year-old. She sounds girlish, with an enthusiastic lilt most of the time, so much so that she would not be out of place among the many schoolgirls that gather in Starbucks to do whatever they do there. And sometimes, with her Taiwanese husband Jack Tsao (曹宝杰) in the picture, she sounded almost coquettish. But that teasing sweetness and the tendency to call people baobei (darling) do give way to a more aggressive voice, such as that used when she was not able to come to the right price, in the right amount of time with the rural embroiderers she was engaging. For a moment, the way she argued, the way she sat, the way she held herself, she appeared to us, even when her stance is understandable since she was dealing with out-of-city folks, as one of those irate China women at an airport—any airport, about to go ballistic on an airline staff.

Many people who have met Guo Pei like to speak of how amiable she is. The constant refrain and common first impression “she’s really nice” perhaps beget a just-as-agreeable reaction to her work as a fashion designer, and an eloquent one. But it is possible that her niceness could be a disarming front, engaged to discourage one from disparaging her or from looking at her work too critically. And she is mindful of how others view her, saying in the film (and off-camera, such as during the talk that she gave in June when invited by the Textile and Fashion Federation) that she does not want to be seen as a designer who caters only to celebrities. Or that she, when ask of what her work will be bring to China, is definitely “a designer, not a nation”.

Guo Pei @ Paris ExhibitionGuo Pei at the opening of the Paris exhibition. Film still: Madman Films

Yellow is Forbidden, made possible through the crowd-funding site Boosted, brings the audience surprisingly close to the sometimes close-to-tacky oppulence that Guo Pei sells and the people important to her. In fact, it’s surprising that the Tsao family is not forbidden to the film-maker’s cameras and husband Jack, also her business partner, takes up not insignificant screen time, by her side—at home, in the office, in the car. It’s also a peek into the world of her customer base in China, comprising what appeared to us the new rich (and reported elsewhere to be from the upper political, media, and social echelons of the country)—the many matrons may not be different from the women Ms Guo tried to court here through a couple of private shows that she hosted when she was in town in June to open the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) exhibition, dedicated to her, Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture. She urged her guests/customers not to don the qipao (旗袍 or cheongsam) when going to the West, urging them, instead, to consider her designs which are clearly Western garb characterised by Eastern details. The women were enraptured, as if she was deliverying a sermon.

Guo Pei, a non-English-speaking createur in a non-Chinese speaking world of the West, must have appeared impressive and admirable and a doyenne to her audience in China, so much so that this woman, the product of an earlier, just-after-the-Cultural-Revolution zhongguo and a graduate of Beijing Second Light Industry School (1986), can be allowed to shape their sartorial taste because, unlike them, she had made a deep impression among the laowai (老外 or foreigners), through Rihanna no less, and interfaced with the West and, through her visits to museums, explored close-up the couture gowns of Jeanne Lanvin, for example, and has become far more knowledgeable than the average knowledgeable fashion-consuming woman.

Westerners, including the milliner Philip Treacy, may be enamoured with the works of Guo Pei because of the detectable (delectable?) ‘Chinese-ness’, but many in Asia, including those in Ms Guo’s motherland, find her taste unable to give wholly to the refined. Her output may be so, but the sum for some of us escapes the discernment that characterised the work of, say, Charles James, whose designs Ms Guo’s favourite model Carmen Dell’Orefice has said the Chinese designer equals. We will never know what Mr James would have thought of that comparison, but Guo Pei has never truly left the fantasyland she ensconced herself to as a little girl and possibly lived through, even at Beijing Second Light Industry School, where, she admitted in the film, she did not even know what shizhuang (时装 or fashion) was. It isn’t clear she now does.

Yellow Queen P2The Yellow Queen, aka omelette cape/dress, that set Guo Pei on the path to Paris, here seen at the ACM. Photo: Jim Sim

Unencumbered by what defined (or defines) fashion, Ms Guo, we feel, designs from the memory of imagined places and people or from the mental notes she takes from museum visits. These, embellished with the palace tales and fashion her laolao (姥姥 or maternal grandmother) used to regale her with, constitutes the foundational aesthetics from which she launches her over-the-top designs—the Western silhouette is there, but the exaggerated forms that the possible lack of exposure afforded her, underscores what may be excess bereft of finesse. Despite not knowing what shishang was, she defined it not by any clear terms, and as such, was neither able defy it, which left much of her work in a sort of couture limbo.

Geographical placing may give the clothes a certain Gallic air (or the romantic notion of it), but what we have seen so far is nothing like what the French does, nor do the clothes bear Chinese aesthetical distinction, whether past or present. They may have emotional heft since so much is invested in them, but they lack soul, like stage costumes waiting to be given life by whoever is cast to wear them. The film does not go into what makes her desire to create clothes that weigh as much as the wearer (so heavy, in fact, that they are against French laws pertaining to how much workers can haul each time—35kg versus her 50kg gowns!), or if such surfeit of material, not just fabric, is a reflection of the past or the present, or the future. Or, just a self-assuring practice of more-is-better.

“I’m the slowest designer in the world,” Ms Guo, professes, but we are not certain if that is declared with regret or pride or a bit of both. As there is no real discussion of what saturates her work (nor does she truly explain), we may never know why the lack of speed is an asset or why superfluity of details and embellishments in a dress are pluses when they circumvent productivity or demand the prolonged dedication of those involved. Or why any outfit with the total weight of an adult North Pacific giant octopus, necessitating unrushed putting on, may make the outfit more appealing. Are long, impossible-to-imagined hours—50,000 man hours, a figure she cited more than once—on a single dress the only hallmark of couture? That, and embroidery and beading?

Guo Pei & familyGuo Pei and her parents. Film still: Madman Films

Guo Pei has positioned her work as yishu (艺术 or art) and, as such, it is possible this standing deters one from questioning the artist. It’s got to a point that many observers convinced themselves that if her designs are good enough for a star such as Rihanna, and can be the subject of museum exhibitions around the world, she must be good. The thing is, the converse is not necessarily true either: it would be grossly untrue and unkind to say she’s bad. So where does that leave Guo Pei? Or, is it not quite percipient to evaluate the work of someone who exists—creatively—outside the circle that we are familiar with? And therein lies the problem in deciding where her work can be best positioned within a conservative hierarchy of things: she does not fit in.

And the films doesn’t suggest she does. Instead, it shows her with her weaknesses and wonderment, foibles and fears, tantrums and tears. That she’s just as good a salesperson reminds us that Guo Pei runs a very tight ship, so tight, in fact, she does not have a sourcing manager or agent to assist her. Instead, she does most of the (leg) work herself (accompanied by her husband), such as buying her own fabrics at what could be the B2B marketplace Première Vision, where she, unsure of the visuals she wanted to apply on her fabrics, prodded her husband to ask the supplier if angels are areligious! There’s not only her lack of inter-faith knowledge, but also the blank on the meaning of spiritual beings in any religion or culture. Would it not be dicey to use a subject one has scant knowledge of?

When it comes to Guo Pei, how much is head, how much is heart, and how much is gumption? It is not entirely clear, nor is it shown. Ms Brettkelly allows Ms Guo to do most of the talking, which gave the film a platform on which only the designer’s views matter. Sure, there were cursory remarks and encouragements from others, but it would complete the picture if viewers could understand what her clothes—also designed for public consumption, not just for her own love—meant to others and why to them the designs are stunning and stirring. It could have been informative, even broadening, to know how officials of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, French governing body for couture that admitted her as a guest member, viewed Ms Guo or why followers such as Frank Cintamani (a glimpse of him was caught), the now-laying-low president of the just-as-quiet Asian Couture Federation (the organisation established a “base” in Beijing last year), are so ardent in their pursuit, or what those rapt customers during the trunk shows truly think of her designs and how the clothes could fit into their existing wardrobes.

Magnificent gold Guo Pei.jpgMagnificent Gold, one of the most featured dresses in the film, here seen at the ACM exhibition. Photo: Jim Sim

What Guo Pei is able to achieve is not endeavour of a single woman. So much of the details in her clothes, as one could see to one’s heart’s content at the ACM exhibition or, earlier, to one’s amusement at her show during Fidé Fashion Weeks in 2013, is not the result of her own craftsmanship alone, but the combined effort, push, and resolution of an incredible atelier—Rose Studio. Virtually no one in her team is given a voice to express what it is like to do the kind of work they do (except that it is hard work) or how gratifying it is, if it is at all. Of if they are.embarrassed to be associated with dresses that possibly beg as much ridicule as admiration. It has been pointed out by Western observers that what Guo Pei has done, by way of engineering the clothes and the ornamentation applied on them, few others in Paris can achieve. China doubtlessly has a long history of craftsmanship. And Ms Guo has no qualms in using them all, in one garment. It would, therefore, be compelling to see the actual toil behind the production and what it is like to be so deep in such hard handiwork.

Of the Yellow Queen, that cape/dress Rihanna wore to the Met Gala in 2015, Ms Guo said, “the weight of the dress and the height of the heels represent responsibility. I believe that the more responsibility a woman takes on in her life, the greater she becomes”. Greatness is not just the assuming of responsibilities, but also the people under which the responsibilities include their employment and welfare. There were snaps of the staff at work and a quartet manoeuvering a stairway with a massive gown to get it to some place, but these hardly revealed the labour involved in creating clothes with the theatricality that befits a show venue such as the Conciergerie, a former prison where Marie Antoinette spent her time before execution. Guo Pei is only the second designer after Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen to present a collection in the gloomy place (after her first choice, the L’église de la Madeleine unsurprisingly turned her down).

To be fair, she did show herself sharing her achievements with her family. She was comfortable for cameras to capture her daughters, with one of them so emotionally affected at the end of the first couture presentation in Paris that she broke into tears (followed by mother comforting her child before the former stepped out on the runway to acknowledge the applauding support). Surprising and heartwarming was a visit to her parents’, where she regaled the viewer with recalls of her relationship with her maternal grandmother and the tales the old lady told her. The nicest touch of the film came in the end: Ms Guo’s mother, a former school teacher, sang a song of tribute to mothers and daughters. This served as soundtrack to the end credits. For a moment, we forgot we were watching a fashion film. Zhang Yimou would have approved.

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:

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:

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 Old Comes Here As New

For Singapore Fashion Week’s opening show at the National Gallery, Guo Pei brought over what she showed in Paris two seasons back


As guest designer of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, China’s  Guo Pei has been enjoying Parisian exposure for two seasons now. Yet, for the debut of the re-branded Singapore Fashion Festival—Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW)—this evening at the National Gallery, Ms Guo showed the older of the two: what she unveiled for the first time during Paris Couture Week in January this year: the spring/summer 2016 collection, now called the “Courtyard” collection.

Is it probable that, perhaps, Ms Guo does not take SGFW seriously? After all, this is not Paris, where the designer had set up an atelier last year to better impress the world. In fact, her label—as seen on her website—now reads ‘Guo Pei Paris’. Despite past attempts at establishing our island as a couture point of sale, it is possible that there are those who do not consider us a source of sizeable business. It is, therefore, tempting to surmise that Ms Guo was showing for the sake of showing, if not to humour the organisers of SFW.

Despite a collection not on the scale of the famed omelette dress or the mind-boggling 1002 Nights collection, Guo Pei’s work is not easy to appreciate or view as relevant. For those conditioned by the aesthetics of couture as it is known—essentially French and centred in Paris, Ms Guo’s predilection for princess gowns is barely palatable, let alone awe-rousing (the crowns were especially tawdry). These are, no doubt, special-occasion wear, but you can’t be certain if she’s designing a prom dress or a bridal kua, or the two rolled in one. The show was visibly Guo Pei’s very own Princess Diaries.


To be sure, fantasy has always been part of Ms Guo’s repertoire. From 1002 Nights to Samasara to Legend of the Dragon, her designs mirror a flight of the imagination that is manifestly an Oriental vision of a regal Western world. Although what she showed at the Supreme Court Terrace of the National Gallery was not as dramatic and ethnic as her past presentations here, such as the Chinese Bride collection for Digital Fashion Week (now merged with SGFW) in 2013, Ms Guo clothes are still removed from the stylishness that is consistent with what women want today.

Certainly, the clothes are exquisitely embroidered, beaded, laced, appliquéd and fringed—surface treatments that have become known as “her DNA”. It is well to want to embellish, but to adorn without a judicious eye can be what the Chinese are inclined to call mei pin (没品) or lacking in taste. Ms Guo repeatedly claims to be inspired by ancient Chinese designs and crafts. That she feels passionately for decorative techniques of her country’s past is understandable, even admirable, but zeal that traipses into kitsch and costume is dangerous territory. Should Ms Guo be reminded that she’s not designing for a period TV series brought forward a few hundred years? This is not costume for Empresses in the Palace (also known as The Legend of Zhen Huan or 后宫·甄嬛传) updated for the 21st century!

The visual excess presents another problem: it is hard to see design finesse in areas such as cut and tailoring when there is so much adornment going on. Ornamentation, trimming, and gilding are only a part of couture. What goes beneath matters too. In fact, one never reads of Ms Guo’s work in terms of tailoring and draping. But, as we have noted before, Ms Guo may have some understanding of engineering since her heavy clothes would require a framework to sit on the body. Unfortunately, therein lies what’s disturbing. For many of the dresses, the body is merely a hanger, even for a professional model. In the second look of the collection, for instance, a bib-front dress looked like it had an embroidered tongue just plonked on the chest. Which came first—the heavily embellished panel or the dress? Or was the latter an afterthought?


It is not unreasonable to assume that Ms Guo’s atelier comprises mainly the flou, an assumption that could be consistent with the dressmaking she had learnt at Beijing Second Light Industry School, where she graduated ten years after the Cultural Revolution ended. In her couture, she shows very little tailoring and no stiffness and form associated with suiting—perhaps as recoil from the surfeit of Mao suits she saw and experienced during her formative years. In this “Courtyard” collection, Ms Guo offered three pairs of pants—all cut pyjamas style (or like auntie slacks) and none with the sharpness and snug of, say, Armani’s.

Strangely missing is the reference to “courtyard”. The Supreme Court Terrace is, of course, no courtyard. It is a new fourth-floor space designed around the rotunda that once sat atop the Supreme Court. Unlike her Paris show, which was made to look like a Chinese courtyard, albeit one that could have been transplanted from a restaurant on Beijing’s Guijie in Dongzhimen, the National Gallery show gave no hint of what was described by the media as inspiration derived from imperial ladies walking in a Chinese courtyard.

In fact, if there were any allusion, it was in the pacing of the show: soporific, compounded by music that’s on the side of monotonous. If the gowns in the end were meant to be the crescendo of the evening, it was really the confectionery at a wedding that nobody wants to eat. Whether the presentation was about ladies walking in a courtyard, Ms Guoi’s destination seemed less the wardrobe of customers than storied museums, such as the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris that staged her first solo exhibition in the city in July 2015. Art and fashion: whether the twain shall meet, Guo Pei won’t stop trying.

Singapore Fashion Week 2016 is staged at the National Gallery from 26 to 30 Oct. Photos: SOTD

The Phoenix Does Not Soar

Guo Pei G1

If Chinese designers are ready to take the French fashion world by storm, it isn’t Guo Pei. Although she captured the imagination of global fashion with that yellow coat last year, paraded on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was mostly derision that got her worldwide exposure. That, as well as Rihanna’s IG account.

Still, you can’t say that is not commendable when the massive coat was only worn in the time the singer was gliding and posing on the red carpet. Once inside, she changed into Stella McCartney for dinner, Maison Margiela by John Galliano for her performance, and Maison Margiela again when she hosted the after-party. That hors d’oeuvre (or was it breakfast?) of a Guo Pei coat served one purpose: to make an entrance. It could not do more, such as allowing the wearer to sit and have a meal, or do what she needed to in the course of the night.

Despite its brief appearance (which is far much shorter than anything an actress wears to the Academy Awards), the coat shot Guo Pei into the stratosphere. Prior to that, a fortunate few in Singapore saw it during the Asian Couture segment of the now defunct Fidé Fashion Weeks (2013). No one could have guessed that an outerwear that looked like floor covering from the chambers of the empresses of imperial China would one day make it to the steps of USA’s most renowned museum.

Guo Pei G2

From Beijing, the world became Guo Pei’s oyster. Shortly after that exposure on American soil—that included two gowns in the exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass, which Rihanna attended in the yellow show-stopper—Paris came a-calling. At the end of last year, she was asked by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, together with Iris Van Herpen and Yacine Aouadi, to show as “invited members” at the couture week for spring/summer 2016. Last week, Ms Guo returned with her second couture collection in Paris. Both appearances make her only the second Chinese woman after Yin Yiqing (who is currently an official member) and the third Asian after Japan’s Hanae Mori to participate in the couture calendar in the French capital.

Her first showing six months ago could be considered sussing out what might work in the home city of haute couture or what might stand out in the company of the masters. The second did not seem to suggest that she has absorbed anything from the earlier experience, but a continuation at playing up, even more strongly, her own idealised world of high fashion—mainly informed by a culture still enamoured with post-Mao era’s idea of what was Western fashion, which was essentially of another age. Ms Pei began her career two decades ago, before China consumed fashion the way it does now. Her company Rose Studio (the name itself harks back to a past when femininity could be neatly represented by a hua or flower, but would now be considered tu or unsophisticated) emerged at a time when Western fashion was beyond the reach of most, even their ken.

China has changed, but the output of Rose Studio has not represented this transformation. Among discerning fashion consumers in her native Beijing, Ms Guo’s designs are considered egregious to what is truly desired and worn. The young, rather than consider her the Chinese equivalent of, say, Vivienne Westwood (who, too, is often inspired by her own nation’s past), deem her out of touch. Although she claims to make real clothes, Ms Guo caters mainly to wives of the political and business elite, encouraging the talk that her work has more to do with wealth than taste.

Guo Pei G3

At her Paris debut in January, Ms Guo told the Chinese media that she “wanted everyone to feel the depths of her emotions” (“我要大家能感受到我那些深处的情感”). Sure, that’s in keeping with what Paul Cezanne said: “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” Hers were, however, not clothes borne out in emotions, but fantasy. For autumn winter 2016, she showed dresses and gowns for Barbie playing Disney princess (there was a ball gown Belle will surely want to wear to dance with the Beast), outfits that common folks might equate with what a consort of a head of state would wear (first lady Peng Liyuan’s designer of choice, interestingly, is Chinese label Exception de Mixmind’s Ma Ke), a Chinese-aesthetic-affirming bedazzled dragon, and a bizarre pouf skirt that looked like a collapsed curtain. If a Chanel woman is a French archetype of unattainable chic, the Guo Pei woman is an Oriental example of avoidable clichés.

Before Paris, Ms Guo’s so-called couture collections—wholeheartedly lauded and endorsed by the Fidé Fashion Weeks-linked Asian Couture Federation—presented a hyperbolic view of what Chinese interpretation of Western fashion could be: sentient of showiness piled on with gaudy applied arts. Now, she’s toned down the exaggeration, in both silhouette and embellishment, showing what she, perhaps, thought a Westerner may wish to (or able to) wear. The target customers are now less likely to attend official dinners in banquet rooms of head-spinning red lacquer and blinding chandeliers. Even if they do, they would still need a dress that has more usefulness than an entrance maker.

It may not be the case, but let’s postulate: Guo Pei—a self-proclaimed patriot—participated in Couture Week to bolster China’s attempt at peddling and pushing its soft power across the world. Although not a global brand, Guo Pei has ambassadorial clout. The Met exhibition gave her that. Her gowns—many bearing a long back that reflects her strange obsession with trains—sweeping through the Bourse du Commerce may not reinforce the image of Chinese fashion, but they could increase China’s cultural footprint overseas. Could this be duwai xuanchuan (external propaganda), just more glamourous? Take too lightly, perhaps we shouldn’t, a phoenix with a mission.


Grand China Dolls


If mothers know best, then what they’ve been saying merits heeding: never compare apples to pears. Similarly, the work of Chinese designer Guo Pei cannot be weighed against, say, French couture or any collection shown during Fashion Week for what she did went beyond even the most exquisite dressmaking. Ms Guo is more than a fashion designer; she’s also a latent architect and engineer. It is nearly impossible to view her work in mere dressmaking terms as every one of her creations (and they are!) is a calculated mélange of embroidery, beading, gilding, mosaic work, weaving, pleating, origami and a staggering amount of Chinese craft, not to mention carpet making.

For so much to be worked into an outfit, she has to perceive the body in architectural terms, and for some of the garments to stand— literally, she needs to possess engineering finesse. Ms Guo’s clothes sometimes defy gravity, if not logic. They are part garment making, part set construction. The second last designer to show at the Asian couture segment of Fashion Week this evening, she sent out an asymmetric fluted cone enclosing the waist, a dress of fans swirling madly around the body, and a pannier so huge and rigid it could have been borrowed from the shipbuilding industry: an upturned hull.

The collection was called “1002 Night”, and should not to be confused with Paul Poiret’s costume party “1002nd Night” of 1911. If you were expecting homage to Scheherazade, the Persian Queen, there was no direct connection to the anthology Arabian Nights, yet it did show that Ms Guo likes telling stories: the more outrageous the better. This is even more astounding if you realise that the designer is a woman gentle of disposition and diminutive of physique.

GP G1But hers is not a quiescent mind, as she digs into her own culture and the fairy tales of other lands for ideas, re-imagining iconic styles as hyperbolic creations worthy of a place in the hall of fame of the Disneyland of fashion. That she is a fantasist like Mr Poiret is not an overstatement. Sure, most designers fantasize, but Ms Guo’s flights of the imagination could come alive with the aid of a team of 300 workers headquartered in her atelier Rose Studio, two hours away by car from Beijing. Her clothes, oftentimes weighing 50 kilos (as heavy as the models!), typically require four to six people to assist the wearer, a situation not always easy to arrange even by the most well-staffed show producers, yet they accommodate her even when, like at last year’s Fashion Week, she insisted on using her own sets because she gives them a good show, a blockbuster of a show.

It is clear that she designs her clothes to be staged, but they will be equally compelling on a YouTube video since they are such displays—quite a few are veritable human floats! While some of what she showed at last year’s Fashion Week could be considered wearable couture—blouses were blouses, pants were pants, none of what she presented this year seemed fit even for the red carpet. It was the awe factor that mattered, and the confections that thrilled, recalling costumes worn by Japanese singers during the annual kōhaku (also known as the Red and White Song Festival), or, in Ms Guo’s world, chunjie lianhuan wanhui, the CCTV New Year’s Gala, a variety show that attracts more than 700 million viewers, which makes them the world’s largest audience for an entertainment program.

GP JacketTherefore, designing clothes to stand out and be remembered is understandable. This evening, after a two-hour delay, the first outfit that appeared seemed like a ceremonial gear for the royal family of Naboo, home of Padmé Amidala and Jar Jar Binks: a union-suit worn under a bolero with sleeves consisting of embroidered conical cylinders that also spanned the back, which together looked like the giant whistles of a pipe organ. After that opening number, the clothes got progressively unbelievable and increasingly indescribable even when some of the reference points were obvious. As you sat awestruck, you could not decide where to start looking. Ms Guo’s approach to design is 360 degrees: the front was as dazzling as the back—no side was left to afterthought.

The acres of silk used were mind-boggling, so were the amount of beads or sequins, and the length of thread that went into the embroidery. Nothing was of modest scale, even the footwear. The platform shoes were so towering, they challenged even the most sure-footed models, causing all of them to walk with a deliberately measured gait (resulting in a show that ran one-hour long!). Some of these were footwear that had a clear Chinese characteristic: the heel, unlike in the West, was positioned in the middle of the sole, a feature associated with the Qing dynasty (which also gave China the qipao). And as 17th Century Manchurian women (with bound feet) would tell you, walking in them requires the balancing ability of stilt walkers.

GP G2In the end, when, for example, trains of dresses and a pair of sleeves were really thick-pile carpets, one question begged to be asked: is this fashion? If fashion is a prevailing style of dress, then Guo Pei’s designs may not qualify since they do not run parallel to what is prevalent as so little of what she does is in response to current demand and preference. Yet fashion is a manifestation of the times, or, in Ms Guo’s case, the times in China. In this respect, she has achieved in creating fashion in a society that has only come to fashion as we know it in the last twenty years or so. China, while still importing a sizeable amount of what her citizens wish to wear, is now increasingly seeking home-grown talents to meet domestic demand even when fashionable appearance is not yet (and may not be) a specific feature of national character. Ms Guo could be using her out-of-this-world designs to draw interest to her more approachable products since she could not only be designing for staging, However, even when what she showed can be worn does not mean they are wearable. That they made a good show does not mean they are desirable. That they are amusing does not mean they’re alluring. Yet Ms Guo’s efforts should not be mistaken as frivolity for there is palpable passion and discernible skill in her output.

A visual tour de force with the lavishness of European court gowns and the intricacies of Chinese applied and decorative arts, Ms Guo’s seams make the scene. There’s nothing dark or subversive in her work; they mostly tell of memories, magic and moments that, together, represent unbridled indulgence, an excess that, in the context of her homeland, equals a fashionableness that begets admiration. As Ms Guo told Vogue China last year, “When a work of design brings its own emotions, culture, and story, it will then have value, as well as be better able to gain approval and respect”.

Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now through 19 October