Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
Ismail Sabri and Lawrence Wong in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Lawrence Wong/Facebook
The pair of shoes on Ismail Sabri that had Netizens talking. Photo: Lawrence Wong/Facebook
Malaysia’s prime minister Ismail Sabri is known for his willingness to embrace fashion or make bold sartorial choices, even when meeting the rakyat (the people). Last June, there was the online hoo-ha about his flashy Burberry shirt. This time, the interest in his attire lay further south: His kasut (shoes). In a photograph shared on Facebook yesterday by deputy prime minister Lawrence Wong, who was in Kuala Lumpur on an official visit and had met the Malaysian PM, Mr Sabri was in a pair of sleek, leather slip-ons that look like the Hermès Paris Loafer. The shoes do not appear unattractive or visually at odds with his rather slender trousers. Nor is the gleaming hardware—a bold-font ‘H’—on the strap (also known as the ‘saddle’) atop the loafer an eyesore. What might have amused Netizens is the price: If it was really Hermès, it would have cost Mr Sabri a cool S$1,700 (or RM5,432). But, that is still cheaper than S$2,190 Burberry shirt.
In the symmetrically-composed photograph, Mr Wong was seated across from Mr Sabri. Both bespectacled men wore a dark suit, white shirt, and printed tie. They looked like your regular politician until you turn your eyes towards the floor or the base of the club armchair. Mr Sabri’s pointed shoes did set him apart. He didn’t just slip into anything sensible; he picked his footwear. What Mr Wong wore was harder to make out, but they seem like shoes from comfort-leaning—even orthopaedic—brands such as Ecco and Rockport. Between the two men’s black pairs, his clearly would not draw compliments nor, for that matter, deprecation. They’re just shoes. Lawrence Wong could be out-shod, but that does not mean outshone.
Sentenced to 10 years’ jail for corruption, the ex-Malaysian PM’s wife and her luxury load would be separated for a considerable while. Could this be a good ’ol cautionary tale?
All the expensive brands were found in that police raid and haul of 2018, among them Birkins and Bijans. On that fateful day, Rosmah binti Mansor was confirmed to be a handbag junkie, much to the derision of Malaysians celebrating her husband’s election defeat of that year. But in court yesterday for the sentencing of the corruption charges filed against her four years ago, she was not seen with anything resembling a handbag, not even one akin to Jacquemus’s diminutive Le Chiquito. Not a peek. Still, she appeared and conducted herself as if she was still the wife of a sitting prime minister. In fact, according to The Straits Times, she called herself a former “First Lady of Malaysia” (it was not the first) when she touted her achievements in court after the verdict was read to her. And as First Ladies do, she waved to the crowd when she left the court komplex and entered her waiting car.
She was dressed eye-catchingly in a pisang-coloured baju kurung, dotted with micro-embroidery and printed with flowers on the lower half of the sleeves, which like the neckline, was beaded with dainty bungas on the edges. This two-piece—RM500, as she once said hers cost?—would be considered locally as “Datin-style”, far removed from the revisionist spirit of Behati. She draped a similarly coloured scarf over her head, the combed-back hair, not bouffant as before, framing her bumpy dahi. An equally yellow face mask obscured her recognisable face, even from just the glabella up. She was surrounded, as before when she was “First Lady of Malaysia”, by her usual aides and members of her security detail as she entered the court building and when she left. Despite the bustle, Malaysian Netizens were able to notice that on her wrist, she wore a Cartier Ballon Bleu watch in what could be rose gold and with diamonds set on the bezel, which, according to one Instagram post, costs RM216,075 (about S$67,114). Was this, as online chatter went, not among the 401 timepieces that were seized by the police from the headline-grabbing raid on the former prime minister’s residences?
Not long after her husband Najib Abdul Razak unexpectedly lost his seat as the PM in 2018 and was suspected of misappropriating about US$4.5 billion worth of funds from the insolvent 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), police stormed the homes of the high-profile couple in the wee hours and emerged with cartons—280 of them in total (including those that looked like orange-coloured Hermès boxes for bags)—of assorted possessions that were filmed by the press. The reports that quickly emerged staggered an entire nation. Most people knew that Rosmah Mansor led a life of luxury, but not one this luxurious. The final inventory of the seizure revealed 1,400 necklaces, 567 handbags, 423 watches, 2,200 rings, 1,600 brooches and, curiously, 14 tiaras (this is not a comprehensive list), estimated then to be worth between US$223 million and US$275 million. The police were gobsmacked, calling the material haul the “biggest in Malaysian history” that required 16 days for the entire value to be determined.
Widely shared photo of Rosmah Mansor in court, revealing her expensive watch. Photo: AFP
Rosmah Mansor allowed herself access to that much stuff because she considered it “embarrassing for Malaysians when other countries tease the prime minister’s wife for being shabby”, according to her eponymous 2013 “biography”, co-written by journalists Siti Rohayah Attan and Noraini Abd Razak, and no doubt designed as a coffee table book. No one could really accuse Ms Mansor’s attire as ever worn or slovenly. In the book, she repeatedly described how, as a teenager, she was constantly fashionable when going out with her clique, the “Giddy gang”. Even as a young woman working in the former Bank Pertanian (now the Islamic bank Agrobank), she was seen as “a fashion-conscious career woman”, as described in past profiles of her. When she became the wife of the PM, she found it additionally imperative to look better, and saw no wrong in her shopping—however lavish—and desire to appear stylish. But as a very public figure who was supposed to serve the rakyat (if not, keep a low profile), her spending aroused criticisms, even scorn. In the book, she was defiant: “I have bought some jewellery and dresses with my own money. What is wrong with that?”
Sure, that may be acceptable, but status and the constant reminder of her own were all part of what was important to her too and what many find irksome. She did not just buy any jewellery, any dress—they were those that augmented her position: She sought out the truly exorbitant. If that was insufficient, she often reminded her audience that she was the “wife of the prime minister”. She was especially partial to the title “First Lady of Malaysia”. She used it at home (there was, according to CNA, even a “First Lady of Malaysia unit”, set up in the PM’s department, to deal with her affairs) and abroad, often sending aides ahead of her visits to stores to announce the impending arrival of the “First Lady of Malaysia”. It is not hard to see how easily impressed people were (if they were not put off)—not many, especially foreigners, know Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and does not have a president as head of state. Her bajus and trappings conferred her the status of a consort of sort and afforded her the image of eminence and prominence she wished to project. “As a woman and as the wife of a leader, I have to look presentable, neat, and take care of my appearance,” she declared in her biografi. But how she looked (even now) had not always been flatteringly described or shared.
There has been much speculation about her going under the knife (which she, predictably, denied), to the extent that Singaporean cosmetic doctor Siew Tuck Wah saw it necessary to post about it. In 2018, shortly after the power couple’s properties were raided, Dr Siew shared on his blog page of the same name, a rather long entry, titled “What Bad Plastic Surgery Caused Rosmah Mansor’s Distorted Face?” He did not mince his words, writing that she “has long been the poster girl of bad plastic surgery procedures amongst practicing doctors,” even calling her visage “the scary gargoyle we are familiar with”, before listing five “possibilities” that could have caused what he thought were botched jobs. This analysis came just a week after Ms Mansor’s estranged daughter (from the former’s first marriage) Azrene Ahmad posted on Facebook a lengthy and damning entry that painted a deeply unflattering picture of her mother (and, to a slightly lesser extent, her stepfather). From it, we learned that among “shamans and witch doctors, aesthetic doctors and the like” came to their home, affirming the open-secret suspicions that Ms Mansor had procedures done in her house. Dr Siew concluded in his post: “Rosmah’s face proves one thing—money cannot buy you good taste.”
The 2013 biography of Rosmah Mansor. Photo: Jalil Samad
Rosmah Mansor did not grow up incredibly rich, nor terribly poor. Her parents were school teachers in Kuala Pilah, a small valley town in the south of the state of Negri Sembilan, where she was born, in 1951. She went to the local school Kolej Tunku Kurshiah, an all-girls boarding school often described as “premier“. Although her own telling of her childhood could have been romanticised, she was rather forthright about her strict father, describing how he disciplined her when the young fashionista once daringly refused to get out of a dress he did not approve of: He flogged her with “a rubber hose”. Her mother did not come to the daughter’s consolation as she did not, according to Ms Mansor, dare to defy her husband. When things calmed, her mother told her, “I cannot take your side. If your father said you were in the wrong, I too have to say you were in the wrong. When you are bigger, you will value this.”
Grown-up and married Rosmah Mansor appeared to understand her mother’s explanation, if not to value it. In her book, she believes that “when the husband scolds the children, the wife should not defend the children… because the children will feel there is someone else to defend them and do more wrongs”. But, as it appeared, in her married life, she took only her own side. Her daughter Azrene Ahmad wrote on FB in 2018, “As I grew older, I saw the selfishness and greed of one above all else. I experienced firsthand emotional, physical and mental abuse at the hands of the one on the left. I witnessed firsthand the same abuse she caused onto the one on the right.” The photo that accompanied the post showed Rosmah Mansor and her husband: she was on the left. That she was the dominant partner in the relationship was also recently asserted in the high court’s 116-page judgment in which an audio recording that purportedly revealed a conversation between her and her husband was shared: “It is clear from the recording that the accused gave instructions to Najib on government affairs”, the judge was reported to have said. “She has control over him”, which is rather different from how her mother abided by her father.
Ms Mansor has other talents. In her biography, she described herself as a “naturally gifted accountant” (although she has a degree in anthropology and sociology and a Masters of Science in sociology and agriculture), which may explain her flair for managing money and spending it. In one Wall Street Journal report in 2016, the paper claimed that Ms Mansor racked up credit card bills of US$6 million between 2008 and 2015 on clothes, shoes, and jewellery “despite having no known source of income beyond her husband’s salary,” it wrote. “She is the only child of school teachers, hasn’t had a regular paying job in years and her husband, prime minister Najib Abdul Razak, is a longtime bureaucrat with an annual salary of US$100,000.”
Usually, she denies such profligate spending. In a trip to Sydney in 2012, she reportedly spent A$100,000 at the boutique of South African-born designer Carl Kapp (on hand to serve his rich customer, he was introduced to her as—you probably guessed it—“the First Lady of Malaysia”). When the news spread homewards of the extravagant purchases, the then PM and his wife refuted the allegations as “a wildly exaggerated story deliberately fabricated to affect people’s perception of their leaders”. The shopper herself was adamant, telling the press, “It’s all rubbish, wildly exaggerated, and not true” (in one live, by-election appearance in 2011, she told the audience, “Adakah muka ini muka penipu? Tak ada lah! [Do I look like a liar? I don’t!]). Even the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission was summoned to investigate the Sydney scandal. It is not clear what came out of that. The Associated Press reported that, in court, the judge was told that Ms Mansor had spent RM100,000 per month to hire spin doctors to avert criticisms of how lavishly she led her life.
A young Rosmah Mansor. Photo: My News Bistro
She had a kreatif side too. Before her shopping habits became public scrutiny, Ms Mansor was a recording artiste. She claimed in her book that she had cut an album—title unknown—and made “millions” out of it. Strangely, the Malaysian public knew almost nothing of the recording (possibly made in 2005/2006, when a compilation album Lagenda Cinta [Legends of Love], in which a track attributed to her, was released). Some reports claimed that the album was “bought by government ministers who were big fans of her singing talent.” In 2005, she sang a song Lara Jiwa (Sorrowful Souls) in a duet with a much younger, talent show winner of Akademi Fantasia 3, Asmawi Ani, to support the work of Kedah Natural Disaster Relief Association. Ms Mansor’s pop aspirations brings to mind Thailand’s Princess Ubolratana, who also loves to sing and had similarly performed with contestants of singing competitions. However, unlike the Princess, whose zeal for expressing herself in song remains effusive, Ms Mansor has retired her microphone.
But, not her audibility. When her sentence was read in court yesterday, Ms Mansor was said to have cried. Given the guilty of graft verdict (and the vehement denials prior), it is hard to imagine that anyone in Malaysia not part of her family and inner circle would express sympathy. Her tears are perhaps understandable when her husband was sentenced just days earlier to 12 years’ jail. CNA’s Kuala Lumpur correspondent Melissa Goh reported that the seventy-year-old “was in tears… choking”, but “one moment she’s in tears, seated in the dock, next, she turned around and smiled to her daughter (likely hers and Mr Razak’s—Nooryana Najwa)… it’s simply baffling.” Could her grief be that brief? But the rise of Ms Mansor, too, has, for the most part, tricky to understand. Given her dubious record with handling money, it is odd that she could be trusted with the government contract for which she was charged with accepting bribes—when her husband was still in power. She said in court: “Never ever have I thought I want to squander money (or buang duit, an act she had frequently said she was incapable of). Never ever have I ever touched a single sen (cent)!” Chronic self deception, in the end, leads to her truth, and only hers.
Reuters helped paint a more vivid picture of her in the well-attended courtroom: “I must admit that I’m very sad with what happened today,” she told the judge—tearfully again—after hearing the verdict. And she insisted rather laughably “nobody saw me taking the money, nobody saw me counting the money…. but if that’s the conclusion, I leave it to God.” Apart from the 10-year jail term for each of the three charges (which would be served concurrently, she still has other charges pending, including 17 for money laundering and tax evasion), Rosmah Mansor was given an impressive fine of RM970 million (about S$303 million), a figure believed to be “the largest in Malaysian legal history”. Her lawyer Jagjit Singh told the press that she has no means to pay. “Who can afford the fine of almost RM1 billion? You tell me, who can afford that money?” He added, perhaps to confirm the WSJ editorial of 2016, “my client doesn‘t have any source of income. Is this what we call justice?” A fine—even a lot lighter—is, of course, no Birkin.
With the latest re-imagining of the Birkin, Hermès shows that it need not take itself too seriously
It’s delightful to see thatHermès does not treat its signature Birkin bags too preciously—at least not to the point that they can’t be reimagined or delineated with artistic humour. On their official Instagram recently, Hermès posted images of their “iconic” bag dreamed up by the American artist/designer/publisher Ben Denzer, using vegetables and fruit—so distant from exotic skins Hermès is known for (the Nile crocodile hide that is the ‘Himalayan’ style, for example). Birkin acolytes (Jamie Chua?) may frown at this making of food porn out of their prized handbag grail(s), but the French house urged followers and viewers in their IG comment to “enjoy the detour as classic Hermès bags inspire art good enough to eat”.
Edible Birkin is surely a diversion. Who wouldn’t be drawn to food although, admittedly, not everyone is to vegetables and fruit, surely the lower end of the spectrum of coverings that can be imagined on what is often considered the most expensive bag in the world. To make the veggie versions even more intriguing, Mr Denzer did not use expensive greens (or even the heirloom variety); he didn’t succumb to the dearest, such as hop shoots, reportedly costing US$426 per pound (or 0.45kg). Rather he used market vegetables—shoots and cruciferous—and fruits (yes, the cucumber is one!). And there is considerable construction and engineering in his work. He didn’t merely plonk lemon slices or orange peel on illustrations and call them art!
To other heritage luxury brands (Chanel?), this exercise that could have been a Project Runway challenge might be considered downgrading, even desecration, but Hermès took it all rather lightly. It didn’t seem they commissioned Mr Denzer to make the bags, but it did appear that Hermès found the work charming and image-enhancing, enough for them to share it on IG, where the brand does post fun images not necessarily tied to their own already-rather-against-the-grain advertising. If we should not take fashion too seriously, neither should we with bags—they’re serious enough. Seriously expensive.
Hermès presented its men’s spring/summer 2021 in the lobby of a building during what appeared to be an image-making session
Hermès just live-streamed (2pm, Paris time) its spring/summer 2021 show. An on-location mise-en-scène that Hermes called “a live performance imagined with the artistic collaboration of Cyril Teste”, the French playwright and theatre (sometimes, film) director who is known for “filmic performances”. For the maker of the Birkin, this appears to be a behind-the-scene look at an Hermès photo shoot, which didn’t appear to be a fancy affair. The shoot itself looked like it was organised for a lookbook, rather than an ad campaign.
Designer Véronique Nichanian appeared in the film together with the director and his large crew. Social distancing was not evident. Ms Nichanian was dressing the models, appearing to be just making herself useful enough and to clap at the end when the filming wrapped up. The director made sure he was seen directing, his voice directorially loud, speaking in French, perhaps to ensure that the audience would know that they are working in France despite the un-Gallic setting, which is the atrium of a modern glass-and-steel building—it could be anyone of them in our CBD.
Hermès, like most brands of the Paris Fashion Week (PFW) calendar, is unable to stage a traditional runway show. This is their runway substitute, broadcasted surprisingly earlier than the schedule of 9—13 July, as stated by the regulatory body Fédération de la Haute Couture at de la Mode. Hermès is even earlier than Couture Week. It is possible that Hermès is no longer subscribing to the traditional schedule although four days earlier isn’t exactly dodging it either. In many aspects, this is not the usual Hermès presentation; this is filmic. In that respect, a good thing, as details on clothes such as the contrast white of the underside of a lapel can be revealed.
Given what the London Fashion Week shows turned out to be, this is significantly better, and may augur well for PFW. To be sure, it is unlikely that digital formats would replace a full runway show (even minus ridiculous sets). Watching a live stream of an actual fashion show was always considered to be a poor substitute. Watching a film of a brand’s idea of story-telling now seems to be that way too. A film like this by Hermès is really a teaser—tasting portion, rather whole meals; not even Beyond Burger when abstaining from meat. When the film ended, the inevitable question would be: Is that it?
Véronique Nichanian with Cyril Teste
We didn’t see a lot of clothes. There were 17 models, which presumably equalled 17 looks (18, according to Ms Nichanian’s message to the press)—just about a third of what Hermès showed in January for autumn/winter 2020. The models seemed bored, as they tend to be in a situation like that, waiting to be summoned to do whatever it was they had to do. One even asked to go to, perhaps, the toilet (he pointed to a place upstairs). Two were taking selfies. Another was listening to music via massive headphones, and as the camera moved closer, the soundtrack crossed over to reveal what the guy was hearing. The sample was too brief to allow us to know what it was, or to Shazam it.
There was a brief attempt at capturing what could be catwalking. Models ambled across the atrium, their rhythm broken by cameramen and equipment, so large in scale, you’d think they were filming a Palais Garnier opening night. This live performance ran for seven-plus minutes, the time it takes to wash our hair, and just three minutes or so shorter than an average Hermès runway show. Perhaps telling the story of the season is no longer crucial as fashion weeks go digital. A glimpse, as online moments go, is long enough. And the clothes? There’s always the pause button.
News that former Hermès staff have been making and selling knock-off Birkins and others are sending shivers through (expensive) bag-carrying society ladies
“So the rumours are true.” This has been a common refrain since it was reported, two days ago, that ten former Hermès staff are on trial in a French court for putting fake bags bearing the name of their former employer out in the market. According to The Guardian, a “forgery network manufactured bags between 2013 and 2014 for a profit of more than €2m”. This shocker is, unsurprisingly, the talk of the town. Many women who buy and hoard Birkins and kindred bags are alarmed (or relieved) to know that investigators in an unrelated case had bugged the apartment of “a man suspected of selling handbags stolen in France to customers in Asia”. It was through him that they uncovered the covert operation of the ex-employees of Hermès
The reaction to the news of purloined purses sold to Asian customers was swift. Who were these customers? Text messages exchanged expressed shock, dismay, and suspicion—who among them have been carrying the output of this inside job without knowing? Was the Birkin in the loot?
Many women stressed the importance of buying only from the Hermès store. Some were quick to confirm the hunch that some Hermès bags sold at secondhand dealers could be fake. Or that such places are where one could “get rid” of bootleg bags, noting that one “authentic Hermès purveyor” had “made S$49.8 mil sales in 2019 from pre-loved Hermès bags”, according to one media story.
That, based on our conservative calculation, could amount to over 3,300 bags. The Birkin, the most coveted and among the dearest of bags, is known for its limited quantity, available at authorised retailer, namely their own stores. We are no customer of the positional goods of Hermès, as such we cannot say for certain, but according to reports, a walk-in customer at an eponymous boutique is unlikely able to secure the Birkin. Joining the legendary wait list is required. The waiting time for the bag upon ordering can, reportedly, be up to six years. There is apparently a limit to how many a customer can buy, even as a top spender—said to be two a year.
If indeed the Birkin is as limited as they are thought to be, why are they so numerous in secondhand shops?
Old riddles are re-surfacing. If indeed the Birkin is as limited as they are thought to be, why are they so numerous in secondhand shops? Are there really that many sold? (Hermès doesn’t release figures on specific bags, but according to media speculation, more than one million Birkins are in circulation in 2019.) How is it, for example, that one known ardent collector of Birkin with a swanky walk-in wardrobe to house them all could buy that many?
Current tai-tai tattle includes the poser: were some of those no-longer-loved bags that she had re-sold in much earlier years obtained from dubious sources, commonly referred to as “third party”? Apparently this woman of immense means denied there was any question of authenticity regarding her Hermès bags. Whether she still disposes of her bags isn’t certain, but she herself probably owns more of them bags than any re-seller on our island.
It is, of course, difficult to swallow the possibility of buying what was once loved that turns out to be a counterfeit. One woman was more optimistic. “I have bought Birkins from re-sellers before. They told me they were authentic and I believed them. Anyway, if these bags were made by ex-staff, they know the quality. The bags are fake only by name.”
It’s there in the window. A beast of a bag. That grin! Those teeth! The eyes! The zip puller of a nose! You want to grab it by the stout handles and go, but, sadly, you can’t.
Hermès’s Bolide weekender with the shark’s face on one side, first seen on the runway of the men’s autumn/winter 2016 collection, sits merrily smiling at you in the window of their Takashimaya store. Inside, however, a wet blanket is waiting to receive you.
You ask the salesperson to show you the bag and he says, “Sorry, that bag is not for sale.”
Er, it’s a window prop?
“Actually, it is for sale. But we are not selling it in Singapore,” came the eager reply.
Where in the world is it for sale?
“Er, I am not sure.”
Can we order one?
“Sorry, we don’t take orders.”
Not even for what price?
“It’s about S$17,500.”
Finally, a serious competitor to Fendi’s Peekaboo bags with those reptilian eyes, but it can’t be had! Is A Bathing Ape’s sweat top with a shark-face hoodie a satisfying substitute? No, we don’t think so, too.
Triple its original size, the new Hermès flagship store has everything a rabid fan would want, except the Birkin
Yes, the cash cow of Hermès was conspicuously absent. This, it should be said, isn’t totally accurate since we have not included those on the arms of the many who attended the grand opening of the new Hermès flagship. Last Thursday evening was clearly for the go-go social set, and the Birkin, like its owners, can’t really be absent. Inside the vertically expanded store, you’d think it’s the best time to ensnare those not yet satiated, but somewhere in France, artisans are meeting orders not necessarily destined for this store. Since many women already have a Birkin, not seeing one this evening isn’t a tragedy. There’s always the saddlery.
It is amazing that Hermès has stayed put in this part of Orchard Road—specifically Liat Towers—for 30 years. There are no competitor brands in the vicinity. The store is flanked by Zara on its left, and, across the street, a jewellery store, House of Hung, that encloses the right end of the 42-year-old Far East Shopping Centre like a photo corner. Sure, Hermès has a new neighbour Audemars Piguet on Angullia Park, but both are separated by a passageway that leads to the lift foyer of Liat Towers.
Try as we did, it was hard for us to remember any notable former tenants of Liat Towers except Chico’s and Charlie’s, Singapore’s first Mexican restaurant that operated on the 5th floor from 1979 to 2001. Oh, there was Galeries Lafayette, then back to our republic for a second time before exiting for good in 1996. Its space is now occupied by Starbucks and the café/bar Overeasy, and Zara. Luxury was not really part of Liat Tower’s DNA.
And there’s this area’s susceptibility to the deluge of the monsoon season. A heavy and protracted downpour on the morning of 16 June 2010 saw the lower-than-ground-level first floor of Liat Towers inundated. Hermès was not spared. When photos of the store partially submerged in brown rain water appeared on social media, a joke went viral: rush to Liat Towers and stand in the torrent to seize any Hermès bag that floats out!
It was on this flood-prone floor that we began our exploration of the new Hermès. The men’s department is on this first level, as well as the watch, jewellery and perfume. Here is clearly merchandise that will survive Mother Nature’s no-warning inundation. We asked one of the sales staff if she and her colleagues worry about another flooding, and she said happily and confidently, “We’ve had people improve the drainage around the store.” Lucky she; too bad for the potential monsoon opportunists.
Although it is spread over four floors, the store has only three for the retailing of merchandise. The no-sale zone on the top-most level, called Aloft at Hermès, is set aside as gallery space, one of five around the world run by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès. That a floor with rent obligations can be allowed to generate no profit must reflect its very healthy bottom line even when the corporate line is to support the visual arts. For the opening, Singaporean multi-disciplinary artiste Dawn Ng—whose work, the odd bunny-popping photograph series Walter, was acquired by the Singapore Art Museum—set up a sort of pastel-smoke-and-mirror installation titled How to Disappear into a Rainbow. Silly us: when we stumbled into it, we thought it was the VM prop room.
One floor down, the space is dedicated to home ware and furniture and everything you may need for horse riding. Velvet Brown could really live here. Impressed by a tall tripod shelving unit, we stroked its very caressable legs only to be told by a security staffer, “don’t touch.” “Oh?” “Today is the opening, you cannot touch; tomorrow open you can touch.” “Oh!”
On level two, women’s wear and accessories take pride of place. Here, discerned by the smell of leather rather than perfume, is where, we assume, Hermès exceeds its monthly sales per square foot. The leather accessories naturally drew the guests’ attention more, we thought (and saw), than the ready-to-wear. It’s a space designed for shopping as well as relaxing—those inviting one-arm arm chairs, positioned to afford a street view, so ideal for a tête-à- tête, if you don’t mind conducting such discourse in public and amid such tasteful clothes.
A passerby stopped outside the window along Angullia Park to look at the interior action. She appeared interested in the party atmosphere and lifted her arms, palms upwards, as if to ask what’s going on. We pointed to the clothes and tried—charade-style—to communicate to her that the women were shopping. Could she, perhaps, see that, in fact, no one seemed really interested in the garments hung on the racks? Hermès makes beautiful clothes, and superbly crafted too, yet they are a smidgen too safe, too predictable, too for-the-social-pages-of-Icon. France’s most luxurious brand has perfected refinement to the point where its own good taste seems to be the dictate of a set of analytics or sales reports rather than the impulse of Gaelic joie de vivre or spontaneous creation.
In order to appreciate the Hermès store with actual retail buzz, we came back the next day, when touching was henceforth permitted. Unsurprisingly, it was crowded. Despite the harsh daylight streaming in through the glass windows, the store was aglow with light that bulb sellers would call warm, a tone-setter that lent the fragrant surroundings a peculiarly autumn smoulder. A woman with an admirable bouffant was heard saying it was “homey”. CEO Axel Dumas, a sixth generation member of the Hermès family, would be delighted to overhear the remark. In his message to the media, he said, “It is with great enthusiasm that we open our doors to you, our Singaporean friends and treasured customers, to share our newly extended home.”
“Home” may, however, be a little underwhelming for a flagship that has more in common with a department store than a boutique. While it may be intimidating to some, Singapore’s largest Hermès is a browse-able retail space that is hospitable even if only because it’s too crowded for the staff to notice that you’re only looking around. If you can un-crown its halo of exclusivity, Hermès is possibly a Robinsons (minus a bed and bedding department) with better fixtures and lighting. As Hermès visibly augments its presence, has the surfeit of luxury inevitably dulled us to what in the past was quite special? If Hermès hopes to enchant for another 30 years, let’s hope not.
The new Hermès flagship store is at Liat Towers, corner of Orchard Road and Angullia Park. Photos: Galerie Gombak
Apple has just announced new products, but, as usual, there are few gadgets that one can truly be excited about. Apple’s not-so-big reveal in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in downtown San Francisco yesterday (US west coast time), may thrill the die-hards, but for the rest of us, life goes on, unchanged. Apple has not produced anything earth-shattering for so long that the hopeful have long parked their money elsewhere for excitement. Kanye West would be running for president of the United States of America, and Apple would be releasing iPhone 9, and the device still wouldn’t teleport you to the moon.
Yet, we’d like to sieve through the offerings to see what could make it to the fashion hall of fame… or the lame. We found it not quite at the top of the pile—the iPad Pro took the spot. The new Apple Watch Hermès that was announced didn’t quite cause the heart to skip a bit. Since the launch of the Apple Watch, the company has been courting the high fashion fraternity for staff, ideas, and support. Suzy Menkes excitedly IG-ed the watch moments after its reveal; she even wondered if it is “born from the meeting of Jony Ive and Axel Dumas at our Conde Nast Luxury Conference in Florence in April”, an event Ms Menkes hosted. While it is not surprising that Apple would collaborate with Hermès (actually, we had thought it would pick Coach!), it does not negate the fact that they’re a latecomer to high-profile pairings.
The first thing that impressed us was how similar the watch is to Hermès’s own Cape Cod series. The strap is clearly Hermès, especially in that leather, in that colour, with that top stitch. It is vaguely equestrian, too. Like watches offered by Hermès, it comes with straps in versions that you can twirl round the wrist or snap on as a wide band around it: the Single Tour, Double Tour, and the Cuff, all telling of what the style of straps they are. Wearables score better with consumers if they have the style cred of an elegant, luxurious fashion accessory. Or, in the case of the Double Tour, a distinguished provenance traced to one of Hermès’s earliest designers, Martin Margiela. Apple is not in the dark about that.
The target market, too, is clear: whichever that causes the unrelenting spike in Birkin sales. It is, thus, not unimaginable that Apple envisions attendees of Birkin auctions sporting the Apple Watch Hermès on their dainty wrists. Win the acceptance of the rich, and the rest will follow.
But does a strap really transform the desirability of this smartwatch? At its core, the Apple Watch, even with a luxury strap, hasn’t changed. You could use a new face with the Hermès logo on it, but that doesn’t modify the heart of the timepiece, which still only pairs with an iPhone. The Watch OS2 is announced to be released next week. If you care about such things, chances are, straps are immaterial.
Apple Watch Hermès with silver face is expected to hit stores in Oct. The straps are not sold individually. Prices start from USD1,100 for the Single Tour. Photos: Apple
One of Hermès most expensive bags, the crocodile Birkin, now risks being un-christened as Birkin. Photo: Hermès
The Birkin, like the celebrities who carry it, is not impervious to scandal. Just last week, singer-actress Jane Birkin, whose name has allowed Hermès to produce the world’s most famous bag and, according to Forbes, become a USD40-billion luxury business, made a very public request: un-name the crocodile version of the namesake bag. Is this similar to un-friending on social media, and just as easy?
Apparently, the 68-year-old chanteuse-as-muse was “alerted” to how crocs were slaughtered to make Hermès bags, and she wasn’t terribly thrilled. It seems that her call to “de-baptise the Birkin croco” came after the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) published a video on how these animals are handled on the slaughter table. These not-to-be-Birkins, however, would only remain nameless until “better practices in line with international norms can be put in place”, as spelled out in Ms Birkin’s statement.
The Jane Birkin request (note: this isn’t a demand) has caused a media frenzy, encouraging even serious news outlets such as Forbes and The New York Times to weigh in on the controversy. The old discord about the haves and have-nots, ethics and aesthetics, conspicuous consumption and discreet displays, resurfaced. The Birkin, even in not-so-glowing media glare, generates attention.
Closer to home, a scandal associated with the Birkin went viral not too long ago. Across the causeway, Rosmah Mansor, the high-profile and polarising wife of the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, was photographed carrying a Birkin that uncannily resembled one sold in June by the auction house Christie’s. According to the Wall Street Journal, that fuchsia crocodile Birkin with diamonds on its white-gold hardware was picked up by an anonymous buyer in Hong Kong for HKD1.72 million (or about SGD 306,000). The winning bid turned out to be the most expensive second-hand Birkin ever sold.
Social media went wild with reports that Mdm Mansor was the undisclosed purchaser. There were the usual denials; even an aide came forward to refute the accusation. The Prime Minister’s wife carrying a luxury bag is, perhaps, no big deal, but this glaring display of big-ticket consumption came at a time when the Malaysian PM was (and still is) embroiled in a financial scandal related to millions of dollars allegedly deposited into his personal bank account. All this bubbling amid the falling of the Malaysian ringgit against the USD and SGD adds to social-media posts already rife with disdain for certain members of the ruling party. The Birkin instantly became a stark reminder of economic divides and a symbol of the privilege class.
On our very own shores, the Birkin, too, is linked to scandal, scorn and spite. On top of the usual reports of society women carrying their Birkins to gala dinners (a no-no for those in the know since the Birkin is a day bag and must never be seen with an evening gown) and those whose collections of Birkins are housed in glass cabinets (put on view even at home smacks of showing off), there was the display of cold, hard cash stored in a capacious crocodile Birkin, so injudiciously posted on Instagram last year by David Gan. Mr Gan, hairdresser to the stars, has never been known to be a discreet consumer, but the cash, contained for all to see, has raised the bar. Flasks of bird’s nest he’s known to prepare for celebrity clients such as Zhang Zhiyi pale by comparison.
Despite the contempt expressed through social media for his lack of discretion, Mr Gan was not at all ruffled. He was quick to point out that the bag and its pecuniary content—“only $40,000”, as he told The New Paper—belonged to his employer Yuan Yuan, a wealthy, rotund individual reported to be in the “property business”. Of their initial meeting at his salon in Palais Renaissance, where she was introduced by the St Regis hotel to have her hair done, Mr Gan said in a 2009 blog entry, “She paid me so much that I could buy 2 Birkin bags.”
Jane Birkin with her namesake bag. Photo: The Telegraph
The Birkin’s appeal does not lie in how gorgeous it looks. Sure, it’s a handsome bag, but it’s simple and not attention-grabbing. It’s evocative of a time when no bag needs to be ‘It’ to be beautiful and useful. It is a functional receptacle. Yet, first time carriers of the Birkin are surprised by how heavy the bag is, and the strength required in its haulage lies almost entirely in the whole arm. The average weight of a 35cm (a popular size) Birkin in the more commonly used Togo leather is 4.5kg or the equivalent of the mass of a watermelon. Women will complain about carrying home the grocery bag, but they happily carry a laden Birkin!
What’s in a name then? How the Birkin came about is the stuff of legend and corporate spin. By Jane Birkin’s own account, the story is humbler. Still, the crux of the story is rather romantic and myth-worthy. Through the kind intervention of fate, she met a man on a business-class flight (as luck would have it, she was upgraded), and as she was piling her stuff into the overhead bin, the contents of her bag spilled out. The man said to her that she should have bags with pockets. And she replied, “The day Hermès make one with pockets I will have that.” As it turned out, that man was Jean-Louis Dumas, the chief executive of Hermès. And he rejoined, “But I am Hermès and I will put pockets in for you.”
Mr Dumas was a man of his word. When the bag with pockets was made, Ms Birkin went to the Hermès atelier to purchase it. As we see it now, it was an article that could be the world’s first collaboration. Mr Dumas suggested that he accepted no money from her if she would allow her surname to be used in the christening of the bag. We know the reaction to that. Hermès has, however, always underscored that the company annually donates (around £30,000, as reported by the British press) to Ms Birkin’s preferred charities as a form of royalty for the use of the Birkin name.
It really would be interesting to consider the name choice here. Hermès picked Birkin instead of Jane. Would a Jane bag have the same ring or distinction as a Birkin bag? Clearly not. Jane is rather common and often associated with ‘plain’, never mind its link to one of English literature’s best-known writers. Birkin, on the other hand, is exceptional. It’s English, which, to a French company, must have been exotic, and it has impressive lineage. It can be traced to a county in West Yorkshire, as well as to the Birkin Baronetcy, attributed to a businessman Thomas Isaac Birkin, who was in the manufacture of lace, a cloth associated in its early use with royalty and the clergy.
A grand name for a grand bag. But are the owners just as grand, considering the Kardashians? Or Jamie Chua?