Ikea Is Pro-Vinyl

The furniture retailer has announced that they will soon offer, gasp, a turntable

By Low Teck Mee

Is there anything for the home that Ikea will not offer? I have bought bookshelves, chairs, and kitchen ware from Ikea, but never electronic devices. And certainly nothing close to audio equipment, such as a turntable, although, to be sure, I was tempted by their speakers. The furniture giant announced a week ago that their first turntable will be available in fall this year. I am unable to confirm if it will be sold on our shores then. One of their speakers I did consider is the Symfonisk “picture frame with Wi-Fi speaker”, launched a year ago, but it was not released here until recently. I, therefore, fear that I won’t get to audition the turntable till next December.

The vinyl player is part of the new Obegränsad collection that includes a table (for “music production at home”, with stands that can accommodate speakers at ear level!) and a chair (that “represents the perfect balance of form and function”). Has Ikea come into some data that shows people spending more time at home listening to and recording music on, say Spotify and Soundtrap respectively? The turntable is, interestingly, co-designed with the electronic dance music biggie Swedish House Mafia, which is unlike the Symfonisk speaker series, conceived in collaboration with the American audio products manufacturer Sonos. I would have expected Ikea to produce their first turntable with, say, Audio-Technica (based on their affordable AT-LP60XBT-BK, perhaps?), but they went with musicians, not that that’s a bad thing. Just not sure how that would turn out, sound wise. Hopefully, rhythmic and expressive.

No specs have been released by Ikea with regards to the turntable, other than it “has a sleek, minimal style, and works with the ENEBY speaker (their earlier Bluetooth audio boxes that are recognisable by their squareness)”. I think one of the possible appeals of the Obegränsad turntable is the price; it is likely affordable. In terms of looks (as seen in the official photographs), I fear it might be a bit too chunky for my taste, after using my first and only turntable, the slender (and very capable) Planar 1 from the British maker Rega Research, for so many years. Perhaps, the Ikea model would look more fetching on their Kallax shelves? I am just guessing.

Watch this space for more information—and price—on the Obegränsad turntable. Product photo: Ikea

Tiger Beat: Happy Family

The lanterns for this year’s Chinese New Year light-up in Chinatown is about the alpha male and his family. Endearing, even when it reminds us of some scary beasts in a ’70s theme park along Pasir Panjang Road

When the Chinese-style lanterns in the shape of tigers (虎) were lit this evening, a throng had gathered outside Chinatown Point to take photographs of them. In real life, tigers are the largest living cat species known. On the road divider between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road, the tigers appeared to be live-sized. They struck an imposing figure. Most of the spectators across the intersection were pointing the camera on their smartphone at the subject; some were more seriously equipped—with DSLRs and tripods. The silent tigers were a clear draw, like those in a zoo. However, a woman, not snapping, was heard saying, “一点都不可爱 (yi dian dou bu ke ai, not cute at all).”

Unlike in Japan, we have never placed a premium on cuteness. We do not have or enjoy a culture of kawaii—where in the land of Pokémon, is itself a pop culture phenomenon. Through the years, the light-ups in Chinatown have banked mostly on a conventional Chinese aesthetic that borders on the run-of-the-mill. It has not been an interpretive depiction that conveys a sense of the adorable. Better be zhun (准, accurate) than cute. In their seriousness to be culturally on-the-dot (although not specifically appealing to any elite currency), the organisers of the Chinatown light-ups have frequently drawn criticism for their aesthetic faux pas, such as the manly and pregnant moon goddesses during the Mid-Autumn Festivals.

Before the LED lights did their controlled magic, the tigers looked— from a distance—grey, stony, and somewhat menacing, even when the adult beasts were standing on clouds and the brood frolicking with a gold coin and an ingot. In the light of an overcast day, the trigonal set-up was rather evocative of those hellish dioramas in Haw Par Villa (虎豹別墅, aka Tiger Balm Gardens) of the ’70s, then a major local attraction (without the influence of a pandemic) and now considered a cultural heritage. As dusk approached, the shadowy creatures looked the antithesis of an approaching festive season.

There are five tigers in the main display. We wondered if the quintet is to show the size of a family that is now encouraged in view of our shrinking population. Or, to match the number of people allowed in social interactions or to dine out. Could it also be to denote the five elements in Chinese philosophy: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Come 1 February, we will be welcoming the year of the water tiger (and so that you are not mistaken, blue ripples underscore the scenes of posing and prancing tigers along Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road). As soft as that sounds, the tiger of the Chinese Zodiac is a symbol of strength and confidence. The water tiger is not a tamed beast; it is believed to possess a self-esteem that is considered strong. Perhaps, that is why the organisers of the Chinatown light-up have avoided cute?

But soft is the pull elsewhere in Chinatown. Away from the light-up, inside the shopping streets, large quantities of bulaohu (布老虎 or stuffed cloth tiger) are available in many gift shops and those offering CNY decorations in staggering bulk. These made-in-China toys bear a cute countenance, compared to those now populating the main street outside People’s Park Complex. The bulaohu is a traditional folk handicraft that has been made and used in China since ancient times. Aesthetically, these seen in Chinatown may look different from those of the past, but its feline form is unmistakable, and is deliberately simplified to trot out its facial adorableness, and that grin!

The tiger, placed third in the Chinese Zodiac, was both worshipped and feared in ancient China. Known as bai shou zhi wang (百兽之王, king of beasts), it was also considered to be efficient in warding off the three domestic disasters of more rural times: fire, burglars, and evil spirits. But in the pandemic era of an urban world, the fierceness and courageousness of the tiger are somewhat played down. From tiger buns at Ikea to T-shirts emblazoned with “Gucci Tiger”, the king of beasts is not quite kingly, and is taking on a decidedly less ferocious role. Do they even roar anymore?

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

It’s Their Turn

In recent years, fashion has looked to Ikea for ideas. One very expensive Balenciaga bag, for example (among others). With the Efterträda line, launched today, Ikea is fighting back. Sort of

If car makers can sell fashion collections, why not furniture makers? Ikea has just launched the Efterträda line, showing the world that it can do for T-shirts what it has done for its Billy bookcases. At the launch this morning, it was a relatively quiet affair. Nothing remotely close to last Friday’s throng outside Orchard Gateway was seen. Or during the launch of the Virgil Abloh collaboration last year. But there was a queue (short), or a line that was set up only for those buying the 8-piece Efterträda line. But it was learned that customers were allowed into the stores (both at Alexandra and Tampines) because by ten, “the line was quite long,” according to one traffic warden (the store opens at 11).

At the Tampines store, there was a dedicated line for those desiring to buy the Efterträda, but you would not know that, as it was not marked out or clearly sign-posted. A staff was stationed at the entry to the line, shouting “Efterträda?” to whoever she thought might be interested. This person was key. If you missed her, you would have joined the wrong line, and you would not be given a sticker bearing the crucial queue number with which to gain admission. In the line, someone comes to you with a mounted poster to say that each customer is allowed to “buy two items each” from the seven items shown on the poster. These were two water bottles, two towels, one hoodie, and one T-shirt. The tote, we were told, was sold out. Someone wondered aloud, “so soon?”

The woman explained that the first customers snapped up all the bags. Really? “We had only twenty bags,” she offered. You could see on their faces: “Are you kidding?” It seems odd that Ikea, a mass retailer, with probably one of the best supply chains of any business, would not be able to secure something as basic as a cotton canvas tote. When we expressed that thought, the woman spoke somewhat defensively, “It’s a global supply issue.” While it is true that global supply chains for soft merchandise—in particular those dealing with cotton*—is in a state of flux, it is puzzling that, with the buying power of Ikea and a retail programme (and costs) that would have been locked in at least six months ago, the store had such a small amount of the one-style bag to sell. “Well, obviously I can’t convince you,” the woman shut us up and walked away.

As it turned out, once you leave this queue, there were another two more to join: one, a holding area a floor before the showroom and the other, just in front of the designated space for Efterträda. Only five people were allowed to be in these two lines at a time. Similarly in the Efterträda corner, only five shoppers could browse and choose. Before you enter, you would have to surrender the sticker with the number “so that you would not get in again.” As they were basically three items (different colours of the same thing were not counted), except the miniature Frakta bags, it was not hard to finish picking (at least visually) in a glance. For most shoppers, they already knew what they wanted. Most grabbed and went. The space itself was no larger than a bedroom of a HDB flat, and was furnished, unsurprisingly, with Ikea furniture on which no one sat to try.

There was really not that much to buy. For fashion fans, there was only the T-shirt and the hoodie. During the time we were here (and around the space), we noted that most people picked the tee. We did also notice something odd. The crew necks of the T-shirts differ in the width of the rib. For both small and medium, they were the same, but the large, at about 5/8 of an inch wide, is visibly narrower. We brought this to the attention of the staff. At first she could not see the difference. When we put the L and the M side by side, she said it was “because the L is larger”. We were quite surprised by the response, but at the same time, we did not think the Ikea staff, trained to sell furniture, would understand the complexities or inadequacies of quality control.

Announced in July, the Efterträda capsule was made available first in Tokyo on 30 November, at its city-centre store (another first) in Harajuku. We were told by a staffer that the collection “did very well in Japan.” And then she added, “ but not in China.” This isn’t the first time Ikea is selling clothing. Back in 2017, there was a capsule (also) of T-shirts in the multi-product Stunsig Limited Collection. The tees were conceived in collaboration with print artists from Europe and the US. We were impressed by the quality and even more so with the price: S$8.90 (and no limit to the number that can be purchased), which is cheaper than the S$12.90 charged for the Efterträda version. It suddenly dawned on us as to why the T-shirts were not tempting. They look like uniforms. Scanning the space and the people who staffed it, we saw that we were not wrong. A brand such as Balenciaga can use visual codes of Ikea in their fashion and they could pass it off as ironic. Ikea doing Ikea is not.

*We understand that cotton is a tricky material to acquire now. With the Xinjiang situation, most European and American brands are now looking to Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam for their supplies. It is also true that prices of cotton are on the rise. It is possible that Ikea, not primarily a fashion producer, would have some problems getting their hands on sufficient cotton for their totes. We are, of course, speculating.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Tokyo Is Back!

Apart from the return to business, new stores are opening. Can we look to the Japanese capital for inspiration?

 

Uniqlo HarajukuThe new Uniqlo store in Harajuku, Tokyo

After Tokyo announced the state of emergency imposed on the city to be lifted on 25 May, six days before it was due to expire, news began to emerge that a raft of new stores would be opening in June. The revelation was not met with shock, not a whimper of surprise. Japanese retail is an evolving, ever-changing behemoth. While COVID-19 has impacted both business viability and the appetites of consumers for shopping, as seen everywhere else in the world, it has not dampen the spirit in Tokyo for keeping retail going, and with verve.

Here, we’re mostly exposed to gloom and doom. It is widely reported that the global economy is expected to shrink by 3% on average this year. Our economy, as reported by CNA last month, is expected to contract by 4% to 7%. According to Singstat, retail sales fell 13.3% year-on-year in March, which was the sharpest fall in two decades. The Business Times wrote that apparel and footwear saw the steepest drop of 41.6% in the same month, compared to last year. These figures are those before the Circuit Breaker measures were introduced. They are, therefore, expected to be bleaker.

Official Japanese numbers are not especially encouraging either. Retail sales, as reported by the Japan Times recently, have fallen 12.3% in May from a year earlier, with apparel retail hit especially hard. Japan Department Stores Association figures showed apparel sales in department stores to be ¥97,548 million for April, compared to ¥243,870 million in the same month last year. That’s a decline of more than half. Yet, in Tokyo, retailers, do not appear to succumb to such dismal prediction. They are actively participating in the on-going rejuvenation of shopping belts, such as Harajuku and Shibuya.

To be sure, many of the stores that opened in the past month were planned much earlier to coincide with the now-postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, which was projected to yield nation-wide retail sales of ¥4 trillion, now probably not to be realised. Undeterred by the double whammy of the rescheduled Games and the COVID-19 pandemic, some retailers are forging ahead with not just opening new stores, but also creating novel shopping experiences for a market that is already far more compelling and innovative than most. Harajuku, a district in the Shibuya ward, with a youth fashion history younger than Shinjuku’s, appears to be leading the recovery as some of big boys of retail open new, crowd-drawing stores.

Uniqlo Harajuku Style HintUniqlo’s first physical Style Hint corner in its new Harajuku store. Photo: Uniqlo Japan

Uniqlo leads the pack with not one, but two new stores opened, just eight kilometres apart (also new in neighbouring Yokohama is so mega a store that it is called Uniqlo Park). There is Uniqlo Harajuku situated in the new mall With Harajuku that faces Yoyogi Park, across from the equally new Harajuku Station. Then Uniqlo Ginza, a refurbished and larger “Global Flagship” in the swanky shopping belt of the same name. Despite skeptics saying that Uniqlo is over-stretching itself during an unending pandemic that has subdued consumer spending, Tadashi Yanai, the founder and president of Fast Retailing, parent company of Uniqlo, told the media during the opening of Uniqlo Harajuku that “the coronavirus has accelerated change, but this store is to be a part of the recovery.”

Such positive and upbeat sentiments are reflected in the 2,000-square-metre Harajuku store itself: a hub of happy vibes. While habitués of Uniqlo would recognise the typically neat interior and layout, they will spot one new stand-out concept. Housed in a separate boutique-like space in the basement of the two-level store is Style Hint. One visitor last weekend described it as “a bit experimental”. Perception aside, Style Hint is tech-centric to better serve its digital-savvy customers. Inside, the highlight is a wood cabin-like wall of 240 touch screens that feature influencers and customers all fashionably togged in Uniqlo pieces. The pictures are reminiscent of those in the now-no-more local magazine Fruits. If any of the photos catches your fancy, you may touch any part of the outfit, and corresponding information will pop up to guide viewers to where the clothes are available, in-store or online. Also new to Uniqlo Harajuku (and any Uniqlo, for that matter) is a flower shop(!) that offers bunches of blooms (ten varieties, according to a staffer) for sale.

The new Global Flagship store in Ginza is not the biggest as the accolade still belongs to its older, similarly titled sister—the world largest, in fact—on Ginza’s main drag. This must-stop for tourists is oddly sandwiched between the swanky Ginza 6 mall in front and the edgy Dover Street Market Ginza in the rear. The new store, located in Marronnier Gate Ginza 2 (of three buildings) in the Yurakucho area, just 500 metres away (or 10 minutes by foot) from the sibling, sits amid less pricey names such as Loft, Tokyu Hands and Muji, whose first hotel is practically round the corner. Spread across 4,500 square metres of space across four flours of the building designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, this Uniqlo features the first LifeWear Square, a sleek space with exposed skeleton of the interior that brings to our mind Nike Town.

20-06-27-17-34-07-781_decoNext to Uniqlo is Ikea’s first compact store

Not to be outdone, Ikea—increasingly inching into the fashion sphere—has also opened its first “city-centre store” two weeks ago, in Harajuku. As a matter of fact, they have Uniqlo for an immediate neighbour. In the past, Tokyoites who wanted to get their Ikea fix would head to Tachikawa in the west of the city, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo Station. Out here, the Swedish company’s first store opened as recently as 2014 (it arrived on our shores in 1978). That Ikea has opened in “cool” Harajuku (ironically losing its DNA as more mass-market brands have set up shop here, including Daiso) has many living in the heart of the city quite thrilled, even if the store offers mostly small Yamanote-Line-friendly home ware—more Färgrik mug than Klippan sofa.

While Ikea’s retail director Jaap Doornbos told The Straits Times last month that Ikea at Jem (slated to open next year), similarly a “smaller concept—within a shopping centre—will be the first of its kind in the region”, Japan beat us to it. In fact, it is possible that Ikea Harujuku is a foretaste of what the upcoming Ikea Jem would look like. The 2,500-square-metre “compact” store, as the Japanese media called it, is, like Uniqlo, unmistakable in its image. Just imagine its Market Hall shrunken and given a steroidal boost, and a visible shop front. Once inside, the merchandise arranged to greet shoppers is reminiscent of Ikea’s closest competitor, Nitori, with a nine-storey store less than a kilometre away, in the Shinjuku neighbourthood.

People come to Ikea to be inspired by their “room” set-ups, and here they mirror the average Japanese homes—small. But unlike those of Muji’s home department, the merchandise here do not seem to be specifically designed for Japanese living spaces and quirks. However, Swedish lagom seems to work fine with Nippon wabi-sabi, such as the yet-to-launch-here Symfonisk speaker-lamp and desk lamp. People come to Ikea for the food too. Unfortunately, their famous meatballs are not available at the Swedish Café. Instead the main comprises tunnbröd, Swedish flatbread sandwiches with assorted fillings. There is, unsurprisingly, a Swedish Food Market—with familiar combini-style fittings— that is called, what else, Swedish Combini. Even cup noodles with the Ikea branding is available (they are labelled as “plant ramen”). A shopper, out with his wife for the first time since the state of emergency was lifted, smilingly told us that, Ikea Harajuku “is a good date place.”

20-06-27-23-58-10-755_decoBustling, as always, at the Harajuku intersection of Meiji Dori and Omotesando

Harajuku—kawaii central—seems to be where the action is taking shape (nearby Shibuya too, but that’s for another post). Apart from Uniqlo and Ikea, beauty giant Shiseido has opened a new “digital store” called Beauty Square (also at With Harajuku) that is reminiscent of their retail concept from the ’90s known as the Cosmetic Garden (situated at a basement unit of a donjukai apartment at the adjacent Omotesando that is now replaced by the shopping centre Omotesando Hills), where customers can visit to discover things, but now with a digital, also app-driven component. Another Japanese brand that has opened a new store in Harajuku is Snow Peak, which is, to us, a more advanced—design wise—The North Face (except the only-in-Japan The North Face Standard). For hipsters who camp! The new store, dubbed Land Station, has a more urban vibe—industrial rather than outdoor.

It cannot be certain that much of the buzz is to meet pent-up demand, but Tokyo, with 14 million inhabitants, has always been the hotbed of hype-prone retail activity. Not only are the Japanese brands getting into the scramble, foreign names are, too. Kith, the New York-based sneaker retailer, now with their own clothing line—including a Vogue collab, has announced that they will open their first overseas store in Shibuya next week, in the recently unveiled Miyashita Park, a 67-year-old public area with a playground that was once a conduit of sorts between Harajuku and Shibuya, now turned into a shopping complex. It is hard to say how Kith’s entry into Tokyo will pan out, given the presence of local sneaker retailers such as Atmos and Mita Sneakers, but Kith will no doubt add excitement to the mix.

Last Saturday, the crowd on Meiji Dori, a thoroughfare that cuts through Harajuku and the swanky Omotesando, is as large as it typically was before COVID-19. From new malls to the indie shops of Aoyama further south, people succumbed to retail therapy with palpable joy and corresponding reward. If retail performance can be gauged, even superficially, by the number of people with shopping bags, then this particular weekend, a month after the state of emergency was lifted, could be indication that, for Tokyo, retail isn’t doomed. Two weeks after our own Circuit Breakers measures were eased into Phase 2 and retail businesses resumed, things are not looking as jaunty.

It is often said that comparing us to Tokyo is pointless. The common conclusion is that we are not even near Hong Kong. Nationally, the Japanese enjoy shopping and are not fashion-averse. And they have made many retail businesses buoyant through their collective interest and curiosity, and consumption. Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku alone reportedly sees retail sales amount to about ¥720 million per day. While, in general, Japanese fashion retail volume has registered deficits since 2011, it has not put a damper on the spirit of creating good, usable, attractive products and selling them in spaces that can rightfully claim to be experiential. Japanese retailers are often thought to be more intrepid and innovative than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Perhaps, here on our island, retailers can abandon predictable, and try plucky and leading-edge too.

Photos: Jiro Shiratori

They Fell For The Hype

With Ikea, Virgil Abloh shows that, for now, he can do no wrong. Outside one of the furniture behemoth’s stores this morning, his young, unquestioning fans support that

 

Ikea X Virgil Abloh

By Ray Zhang

“Virgil Abloh can put any shit anywhere, and there will be a queue to get it,” I heard one disgruntled (or maybe satisfied) guy tell his friend on board the free shuttle bus that takes shoppers from Tampines Central to the triumvirate of Giant, Ikea, and Courts, and back. Usually, on a Thursday (or most weekday) morning, old folks pack this bus to head to Giant for whatever specials the hypermart offers two days before the weekend, but this morning, the free transport was filled with an inordinate number of youngsters, mostly males. On the journey there, it was all expectant chirpiness, but on the way back, disappointment and displeasure pervaded the inadequately cool air of the bus.

When I got to Ikea slightly before noon, the queue has subsided. Many people—mostly adolescents—were milling around. Most were empty handed. Only few were carrying Ikea’s recognisable Frakta bag. From what I gathered, even before stepping into the store, the pieces from Ikea X Virgil Abloh’s MARKERAD collaboration were mostly, if not all, gone. Someone was heard saying “no point going in”. A standee was erected to indicate what was sold out. It appeared that much of the unnecessarily limited-edition collection were, including the brown “sculpture” bags (never mind that irony is really quite vapid now). That afternoon, when I looked at Carousell, some of the pieces where up for sale, with ridiculous prices that I do not care to repeat in order not to encourage what is essentially the work of scalpers.

A security guard told me that the queue had formed last night, “around 6 plus”, which means the shoppers spent the night outside the store—probably a first for Ikea, but an annual occurrence at H&M (check out what will happen on the night of the 6th, when collab addicts will line up for H&M X Giambattista Valli, officially launched the day after). From pictures posted on social media, it seemed that the “millennial homeowners” that Ikea and Virgil Abloh wish to appeal to are male, Off-White loving individuals with a penchant for back-lit Mona Lisa poster that doubles as a USB charger.

I can imagine Virgil Abloh fans queuing for sneakers and T-shirts, but I didn’t realise they’d do the same for chairs and glass cabinets and clocks and bedsheets that are neither accent pieces nor makeover accessories. Or were they merely repeating what yuppies (okay, too retro!) of the ’90s did when they wore Versace and used the brand’s plates and teacups, and sat among its scatter cushions? Today, these are hypebeasts happy to wear their expensive kicks on a shaggy green rug that says “wet grass”—quotation marks included (Mr Abloh and his fan base have a thing for superfluous punctuation)—for a ‘shoefie’, and to give a mass retailer such as Ikea an excuse to produce inexcusably limited wares. I suppose the thrill is in the moment, and, as accurately stated on that clock, because it’s “temporary”.

Photo: Ikea

 

Le Sac Plastique Fantastique

After last year’s Fraktar bag hack, is the nondescript and omnipresent plastic supermarket bag the next big thing?

Actually plastic bagStylish, extra-large and extra-thick plastic bag offered by Actually @ Orchard Gateway

By Ray Zhang

Ten years ago, a dear friend of mine gave me a birthday gift that came bundled in a pink plastic bag, typically used by vegetable sellers—yes, the wet market staple. To be sure, he wasn’t a fashion forward type although he worked in fashion his whole life. And he definitely did not have a crystal ball to see a decade into the future, when anti-fashion fashion has taken root in fashion, and spawned fashionable bags with a provenance that can be traced to sellers of fresh comestible.

That the lowly plastic market (and supermarket) carrier can now have fashion cred may be attributed to our predilection for choosing low to yield high. Does the T-shirt not come to mind? Let’s, for convenience, put the blame on Demna Gvasalia, that provocateur-in-chief at the house of Balenciaga. He had picked common bags—for example, those usually associated with mainland Chinese moving vast quantities of city goods back to their rural homes during festive seasons such as the Lunar New Year—to make them into high-end, covetable carriers. It culminated in the re-make of Ikea’s Fraktar tote—in leather, of course—that could be seen as Mr Gvasalia doing a DHL for the equally humble shopping bag.

Muji shopping bagMuji’s nylon shopping bag can be folded flat and fitted into an attached slip case that comes with a loop at the top in case you’d want to add a carabiner to it

But that wasn’t the last of the common bags that Mr Gvasalia has given a luxury spin. Last month, his Balenciaga launched the “supermarket shopper”, an undisguised shopping bag not normally associated with fashion once steeped in the tradition of couture. The thing is, it isn’t yet clear if a leather “supermarket shopper” will have the same impact on popular fashion the way Celine’s leather shopper did back in 2009 (which predates Balenciaga’s own leather ‘Shopping Tote’ by eight years).

Brands are following Balenciaga’s lead. But rather than leather, plastic is presently king. Phoebe Philo, as a parting shot perhaps, created plastic supermarket bags to be sold as merch rather than for you take your in-store purchases home in one. Just a month ago, Raf Simons, too, got into the act, and released a see-through version (called, what else, RS Shopping Bag!) with Voo Store, one of Berlin’s most progressive multi-label fashion retailers. Mr Simons’s version is clearly pitched as a collectible, not to be used when you next go shopping and you want to play eco-warrior. The plastic supermarket bag has achieved It bag status, which, admittedly, now sounds rather quaint.

MMM cotton shopping bagThe nondescript store bags given to shoppers at what was once Maison Martin Margiela. Their version is not tubular, with stitched hems on both sides of the folded gusset

The nondescript store bags given to shoppers at what was once Maison Martin Margiela. Their version is not tubular, with stitched hems on both sides of the folded gusset
Like many fixations of fashion designers, this one isn’t terribly new. For the longest time, Maison Martin Margiela, pre-John Galliano, packed your purchases into supermarket-style shopping bags in white cotton that was akin to calico. (A leather, for-sale version was also released under the sub-line MM6.) I can’t tell you convincingly enough (now that such bags are a fashion item) how surprised I was many, many moons ago when I was presented with that bag after buying an MMM leather jacket at its Rue de Richelieu store in Paris. Surely they could do better, I had thought. But there was something decidedly appealing about the idea of a luxury item housed in a non-luxury bag that I found myself traipsing the City of Lights for the rest of the day in this plain and un-labelled sac with some satisfaction that I can’t quite describe now. A wink-wink moment perhaps. Was this how Mr Gvasalia had felt when he thought of the shopping bag for Balenciaga? Or was he being nostalgic of his days at the influential house?

The supermarket shopping bag—not as article of fashion—has a rather long history. According to popular telling, the grocery bag that we know so well was invented by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin in the early 1960s. What Mr Thulin had in mind was a one-piece bad that can be formed by folding, welding and die-cutting a flat tubular plastic. This he did for Celloplast, a Swedish company known for producing cellulose film and for processing plastics. Celloplast was quick to patent the making of the plastic shopping bag and the rest, I think you’d agree, really requires no detailed recounting.

Bag in TokyoShoppers in Tokyo are often seen with shopping bags attached to a carabiner that’s hooked to a belt loop. Here, a velvety plastic bag from retailer Bayflow that’s printed with a message: “Respect nature, respect fashion. Stay healthy and simple, comfortable and beautiful.”

Oversized shopping bags—carried over the shoulder like a tote—are often spotted in Bangkok where shoppers carry them to house large purchases

While the bag of our current interest has been mostly associated with the wet market and the supermarket, versions in more durable nylon and with attractive prints started to appear when retailers discourage shoppers from using the plastic versions as they are not biodegradable and will add to the woes of inadequate landfills. Some cities such as Hong Kong and Taipei started charging customers when a plastic bag is required for their purchase. With demand for bring-your-own-bags rising, many bag manufacturers started producing reusable, washable, and long-lasting nylon shopping bags that can be folded neatly into a little package no bigger than a wallet.

In Japan, Tokyo especially, not only are these attractive bags available in supermarkets, they are sold in stores such as Muji and Uniqlo and trendy shops such as Beams and Urban Research. The basic shape is the same no matter where you find them, but there’s where the similarity ends. Patterns are almost always the eye-catching part, but, for me, it is how the Japanese carry them that I find so fascinating. Many guys have them secured to their waist with a carabiner. Some would tie them to their bag straps in a way that can only be described as fetching. Once, in Tomorrowland, the multi-label store, I saw a woman with a black nylon shopping bag. Nothing terribly interesting in that except that she had one handle looped over the other, which was slipped on to her wrist. There was something terribly artful in the bag-and-wrist composition. It reminded me of the Japanese azuma bukuro, a traditional cloth bag that—at least in Japan—is anything but ordinary.

Aland bagsThe myriad colours and patterns cheerfully offered at Seoul retailer Åland, as seen in their Bangkok flagship store

Today, fancier shops call them “marché (which is really French for market) bags”. At Muji, their version is labelled as “tote bag”, which adds to the mild confusion. The thing is, these fancy takes on the supermarket bag are not likely going to be seen in the likes of Fairprice. But where would you carry them to, then? Except at Ikea, home of the Fraktar, few retailers in Singapore discourage you from expecting a store-issued shopping bag, for free. In fact, at many supermarkets, shoppers are known to ask for more than they require. When will this habit be shaken off? When will the use of our own unique shopping bags be a common sight?

Or perhaps the structured, hardware-festooned bag of unambiguous designer standing is over. Who even remembers the Baguette now? Isn’t 1997 a long time ago? This is the era of Vetements, the time of looking at seemingly commonplace, unremarkable things to make them objects of desire. This is, after all, the age of the sweatshirt made good.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay and Jagkrit Suwanmethanon

Now, Fashion For The Blue Bag

Have you ever thought of going to Ikea for clothes? Those who love to visit the big blue box on dates can now buy matching tees or totes

Stunsig ‘Manga Eye’ by P Demirdag/V Renate

Ikea has been enjoying a lot of support from fashion folks lately. With its instantly recognisable Frakta bag a trend and meme, plus a reported re-design by Off White’s Virgin Abloh, it’s poised to take on fashion the way it has has with thin-stemmed wine glasses, making them affordable to the masses and party organizers fearful of drunken mayhem.

Its latest effort in the form of Stunsig is what the furniture giant calls “new artistic prints that are more fun, more unique, and more daring”, which really sounds like what many fashion houses are aiming for these days. Since Ikea does not have a conventional atelier, it offers Stunsig as a collaborative effort. Onboard are print designers such as Steven Harrington (US), Malcom Stuart (US), Frédérique Vernillet (France), Tilde Bay (Denmark), and others.

Stunsig’s dedicated space in the store

Despite the motley mix of participants, the result is rather consistent in its madcap prints—zaniness that would not be out of place in the kid’s department, usually situated at the end of the Ikea maze of a mega-store, near the Restaurant & Café. Instead, Stunsig has its own vaguely Cath Kidston-ish space upfront: a display area, in fact, so cartoon-like (sort of Kaw meets Manga) that it inevitably draws attention. But, when we visited, the offering of soft furnishings as well as tableware and stationery drew less interest than the fashion items. One shopper was heard asking, “Since when did Ikea sell clothes?” According to a staffer, since Valentine’s Day, when they released “very successful T-shirts”.

The thing is, even when Ikea is not primarily a seller of clothing, the store is visited for its textiles (a huge department, we should add) that appeal to the dressmaker as much as the homemaker. Women who sew, or those who have a good tailor, are known to have made all sorts of items from the fabrics it sells, from garments to bags to washing machine covers. These days, we call such enterprising ways “life hacks”.

Stunsig ‘Branch’ by M Grundström & A Gustavsson

For those less inclined to tackle a Singer, there’s Stunsig. We’re not terribly impressed with the home ware (or the totes), so we’ll talk about the clothes—basically just T-shirts. These made-in-China, 100% cotton tops are not designed with an athletic fit that are preferred by so many tee wearers. Instead, they are of a roomy cut with just a tad of boxiness that makes them veer on the side of the fashionable. Because of their wallet-friendly price (a revelation even to the cashier), the construction is not a tubular knit. But you won’t notice that. You will, instead, be surprised to know that it is made of rather fine-gauge cotton. Read: comfortable.

As we on this island like to say, and with increasing frequency, they’re “cheap and good.”

Stunsig T-shirts (‘Manga Eye’ and ‘Branch’, as pictured, among others), SGD8.90, are available at Ikea stores. Photos: Jim Sim