The Met Looks At Its Front Yard

“American fashion” takes centrestage at this year’s Met Gala. Really

“Irony is over, oxymoron is next,” one marketing consultant said, when he heard the news. This year’s Met Gala and the attendant exhibition, to be held in September rather than the usual May (last year’s was cancelled), will be in salute of American fashion, according to Vogue. “Homegrown fashion”, as the organisers describe it, could possibly straighten the crumple post-Trump America is still wearing. This year’s event will be a two-parter (second to open in May 2022), and possibly larger than other previous ones. Could this be self-validation after a lame New York Fashion Week in February, amid a gloomy climate for American brands across all price points? Or is this a challenge to the believe that in the US, formulaic dressing and uniform-as-style can be replaced by fine examples of superlative design?

American fashion, two ends of the market and between, seems unable to capture our imagination for the past five years. Or even more. Storied names as Calvin Klein and mass appeal labels as Gap are fading in power, diminishing in influence, and declining in reach. More than ever America’s own needs an affirming boost. The mother telling her child, you are the best. In addition, the Met’s Costume Institute needs to WFA—work from America, now that borders are still not fully opened to facilitate any homage to designers of distant lands. Outside the US, its global standing, as a 13-nation Pew Research Center survey from last year illustrated, has “plummeted”—“majorities have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. in nearly every country surveyed”. Now is the time to look homeward and champion America.

Who truly represents American fashion? Tom Ford? Alexander Wang? Gosh, Kanye West, the “fashion mogul”? And pal Virgil Abloh? Or flag bearers Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors? Or, the retired Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Todd Oldham, Izaac Mizrahi? Or, to be inclusive, Carolina Herrara, Vera Wang, Phillip Lim, the Olsen twins, Lazaro Hernandez (the other half of Proenza Schouler), Dapper Dan, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Telfar Clemens? Or, to salute the pop world, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Selena Gomez, Sean Combs, Pharrell Williams? Or, to acknowledge the immigrants, Oleg Cassini, Rudi Gernreich, Fernando Sánchez, Adrienne Vittadini, Ronaldus Shamask, Naeem Khan? Or, to include the dead, Claire McCardell, Lilly Pulitzer, Bonnie Cashin, Mary McFadden, Anne Klein, Halston, Zoran, James Galanos, Perry Ellis, Oscar de la Renta, L’Wren Scott? Or, to take note of the Americans abroad, Mainbocher, Vicky Tiel, Patrick Kelly, Yoon Ahn, Daniel Roseberry? Or, to mark the (now) less-known, Stephen Burrows, Geoffrey B Small, Reed Krakoff, Rhuigi Villaseñor? Or, to rave about the he-who-can-be-anyone, Marc Jacobs?

You get the picture.

Illustration: Just So

This Is Not Camp!

Mere excess is not. Pure prettiness certainly isn’t. At this year’s Met Gala, guests did one or the other, with many quite clearly mistaking cliché for camp, flimsy for fantastic, Barbie for Barbarella 

 

Gisele @ MG 2019Pretty in pink pleats: Gisele (in Dior) probably thought she was attending a high school prom without Carrie White attending

The Met Gala itself has always been camp. Sure, the event may have increasingly lost a sense of irony and a dollop of wit, but the idea of a bunch of fashion’s who’s who—and who’s not—rubbing sequinned shoulders in a celebration of clothes is quintessentially camp. Last year’s ode to Catholicism influencing fashion design was, in fact, prelude to this year’s semi-intellectual theme, Camp: Notes on Fashion. Already lame last first Monday of May, this time, camp, as it turns out, is so wide by definition that no one is able to really put a finger on it the way they could parody a pontiff or re-imagine a rose window.

When it is time to really camp it up, most of the attendees really chickened out. Without doubt, they piled on whatever they could, but more is not more camp. Many articles leading up to this year’s Met Gala were published, pointing out to camp’s inherent excesses (not to be confused with exuberance), as if those obliged to follow the gala’s dress code would not understand what they signed up for. Perhaps the most enlightening—and delightful—came from an unlikely source: dictionary.com. It succinctly explained that “Being camp is more than just being over the top”. And it added that camp is “something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of it being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial and extravagant, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental.” In a word, er, name: Kumar!

Camp @ Dic dot comThis year, dictionary.com saw it fit to explain to the attendees of the 2019 Met Gala what camp isn’t

Indeed our funnyman Kumar should have been invited to the Met Gala. We can imagine him rocking a sari next to Aquaria with more aplomb that Michael Urie in the epicene Christian Siriano number, which is more a joke than a treatise on camp. Half-drag, already popular in Thailand for many years, is only now catching on at the Met Gala, but with half-baked cleverness. Interestingly, while the male guests were willing to try female forms of dress, none of the woman took the Marlene Dietrich route/look—a style that has variously been described as camp.

The thing is, camp is insufficient if it’s only outward form. For camp to be convincing, you’d need to be campy, which is an attitude, not appearance. Madonna (unfortunately, absent this year) is the personification of camp because she is downright campy, or, as is often said of her, a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. Her recent Billboard Music Awards performance and the latest music video, Medellin, in which she romped in bed in a cloud of a blue dress by Erdem, was unadulterated camp!

What is truly preferred at the Met Gala is prettiness—a beauty entrenched in girlhood. A less-attractive woman looking pretty is camp, a pretty woman looking prettier is not. Maria Callas was camp, Jackie Kennedy not. A Tony Duquette dress, if he ever made one, would be camp, an Edith Head not. Ostrich feathers are camp, marabou, since they left the showgirl, not. Many—especially actresses—adopt looks that are, to be sure, high drama, but they are hardly, indeed, far from camp.

Feathers are not camp!

Feather @ MG 2019Birds of a feather flock together. Clockwise from top left: Anna Wintour (in Chanel), Taylor Hill (in Ralph Lauren), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (in Oscar de la Renta), Kylie Jenner (in Versace), Kendal Jenner (in Versace), Naomi Campbell (in Valentino Couture)

When feathers, especially marabou, have become commonplace, so much so that they form the walls along the stairway of the pink carpet (that is quite camp until you realise the entire exhibition area is in the same shade) of the event, you know it has lost its status in camp-dom. Anyway, who wants to look like or match a wall?

And to that, may we also say pink is not camp!

Tiered ruffles are not camp!

Tiered ruffles @ MG 2019Not-the-top tier: Emma Roberts (in Giambattista Valli), Kerry Washington (in Tory Burch), Ella Balinska (in Tory Burch), Julianne Moore (in Valentino Couture), Joan Collins (in Valentino Couture), Penelope Cruz (in Chanel)

If you need to wear a wedding cake as a dress, then wear one. Layers of tulle or lamé that appear to require Mammy’s dexterous hands to put on is perhaps best left to those who want an Ashley Wilkes, but, in the end, got Rhett Butler.

A light source is not camp!

Katy Perry @ MG 2019Katy Perry (in Moschino) not quite the bright spark of the Med Gala

The line between wacky and ridiculous is often a shared one. Katy Perry has worn some outrageous dresses to the Med Gala, but this one is quite literally the chandelier up there in the ballroom. It seems, Ms Perry has a dream: to get a part next to Lumiere in the next live-action Beauty and the Beast by crashing into a lighting shop in Balestier Road.

A nightgown is not camp!

Gwyneth Paltrow @ MG 2019Gwyneth Paltrow (in Chloe) is about to go to bed in the likes of Longbourn House

It is not clear where in the book of camp does it say that “artificial extravagance” is dressing like you are about to take the test to determine if you are a princess by sleeping on top of a pile of mattresses under which a tiny pea is buried at the lowest layer. You, Ms Goop, are not Carol Burnett in Once Upon a Mattress!

Laziness is not camp!

Karlie Kloss @ MG 2019 Salah at the gala: poor Karlie Kloss (in Gucci X Dapper Dan) went to the wrong party

Sometimes you simply can’t be bothered. Costume requires time and effort. Karlie Kloss knows that, so she turns up looking like she did not want to do any heavy lifting except with those deflated lanterns she used, sadly, as sleeves. Lackadaisical, yes; camp, no. Twitter, take over.

Looking like Barbie is not camp!

Deepika Padukone @ MG 2019Deepika Padukone (in Zac Posen): you can take the girl away from the doll, but you can’t take the doll out of the girl

Barbie has her camp moments, but not when she’s dressed in her princess/pageant best. Deepika Padukone, a recent serial Met Gala attendee, channels the Barbie that makes it to Toys R Us, not the shelves of the collectors’ cupboard.

Trying to outdo Rihanna is not camp!

Cardi B @ MG 2019Cardi B (in Thom Brown) is 

That train is shaped like Rihanna’s omelette from 2015, only Cardi B’s look like an oversized bathroom mat that doubles as a quilt used in a love hotel. Sometimes what stands between two stars getting ahead in the fashion firmament is simply something called taste.

Macabre is not camp!

Jared Leno @ MG 2019Jared Leto (in, what else, Gucci) must have thought camp to be the damned

Did Jared Leto nick something from his own likeness at Madame Tussaud’s before going to the Met Gala? Does he feel that a red velvet gown and crystal body jewellery that would do any Indian bride proud are not enough? Is a body-less double “self-consciously extravagant”? Do tell us.

Photos: Getty Images/Vogue

Watched: Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker and The First Monday In May

Last week, two fashion films were screened at the Capitol Theatre as part of A Design Film Festival Singapore 2016. Both were as different as blouse and skirt even if they were, ultimately, about creative clothes

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By Mao Shan Wang

It is to be expected that at screenings of films about fashion, there would be more fashion students than industry folks. It is no different when Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker was shown recently. That is, of course, a good thing since it is often said that the young are learning from fast channels and what’s shared such as on social media than from long-form communications such as books and film. However, at the end of the screening, I wondered if the students were more daunted than motivated.

Part biography, part philosophical musing, Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is a documentary that will crush the dreams of design students. Not long into the film, Mr Yamamoto extols the virtues of working and gaining experience, rather than fame. “After graduation from art school,” he said, “you cannot be creative. No, no, it’s impossible.” This is, of course, not a new refrain. Similar to what he told Business of Fashion’s Imran Amedin in May this year, “When I speak with young designers, I tell them, ‘Shut your computer, don’t look at the computer… if you really want to see real beauty, you have to go there by walking. Go there and touch it and smell it. Don’t use the computer. Otherwise, you won’t get real emotion.”

I am not sure if watching Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is an emotional experience for my fellow film goers, many of whom could not tear away from their smartphone—the handheld computer—during the screening, but it was for me. “Creation is life’s work; creation is how you spend your life,” says Mr Yamamoto in his characteristically slow and deep voice—not unlike a monk’s. “You cannot divide life and creation; it’s impossible.”

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Yohji Yamamoto examining the movement of a skirt during a fitting

Such is his certainty: the indivisibility of not just life and creation, but of conviction and craft, hand and fabric, eye and form. It’s like how some people can’t split love and marriage. In the film, you repeatedly see Mr Yamamoto squat during fittings to study his designs, especially of skirts and pants. A lesser designer might consider that an ungainly stance, but not Mr Yamamoto. The fitting sessions, in fact, truly shows the designer’s skill and mettle. It is here, where he is sometimes half-hidden behind a standing mirror, sometimes hunkered down as the fit models walk past, that I see a createur truly concerned with the 360-degree view and fall of clothes. His designs, from every angle, have to be perfect.

Perfection, I have often been told by design lecturers, is something students today do no pursue. The young are only keen on following fashion, to produce some semblance of fashion, not the epitome of it. Mr Yamamoto once said, in the 2011 documentary This Is My Dream, “I’m not interested in fashion generally; I’m interested in how to cut the clothing—dressmaking, clothing-making.” With computer-aided designs embraced by both designers and manufacturers, the rigours and the creativity behind dressmaking may be lost… forever. It is, therefore, heartfelt to see a designer working in the traditional sense of ‘designing’.

So much of what is shown at work is away from the digital realm, or at least the film does not dwell on the dependence on software and the like. This deep passion for craft enthralls if only because it seems so removed from our present world. Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker isn’t a fashion film in the vein of those that seek to glorify the visual excesses of over-the-top designers. The close-ups of Mr Yamamoto working tug at your heartstrings.  To paraphrase Tom Ford, who said in the 2015 documentary series Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind, “you can feel rather than think.”

the-first-monday-in-may-pic-1

From left, Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton, and ex Mrs Murdoch, Wendy Deng

In contrast, The First Monday In May is about the dazzle and the glamour of New York’s major fashion spring event, the Met Ball. At the same time, it spotlights the one woman who pulls the two together—Anna Wintour. At the start of the film, she’s shown, in Chanel couture, with her back to the camera—drawing attention to her very creased elbow—before turning around in slow-mo like a movie star at a movie opening. Is the by-now over-exposed American Vogue’s honcho still so fascinating that she merits a film camera trailing her?

Sure, there’s a lot of the behind-the-scene toil, but even that seems glamorous. I am not sure if this documentary is really about the Met Gala (specifically last year’s China: Through the Looking Glass that shows Chinese culture’s influence on Western fashion), one night hailed by Andre Leon Tally as “the Super Bowl of social fashion events” or the glorification of an editor who has, like Diana Vreeland in the 1970s, positioned herself as the sole instigator of fashion as museum spectacle. Ms Wintour has not only made hers a notch more memorable (and deserving of a documentary); she has made them climb onto the category ‘blockbuster’.

the-first-monday-in-may-pic-2Andrew Bolton making last-minute adjustments to an Alexander McQueen dress before the start of the show

The film may have benefitted from the gravitas of Andrew Bolton, the Thom Browne-clad head curator of the Metropolitan of Art’s Costume Institute, but it still can’t escape from being fluff. Is it surprising, for instance, that Ms Wintour and her crew would have had a frustrating time confirming the guest list or seating those invited? Is it enlightening that an event of this scale would have experienced technical and logistical hiccups? Is it eye-opening to know that Rihanna would have cost a fortune if you wanted her to attend and sing? Who’s not aware: the audience or one of Ms Wintour’s bimbo-minions who said, “We can’t lose her, right? We just didn’t realise how expensive”?

What’s revealing, though, is that Ms Wintour is less attuned to the world outside fashion than we think. When she made a fuss about shifting a column to accommodate the tables she wanted and commented that “it’s only a column”, she had to be corrected by a museum staffer: “It’s a Tiffany column.” Is toughness an impenetrable façade to conceal the indolence of the mind? The First Monday In May is as much a celebration of clothes as getting as many glamourous, veneered people in one room to lend credence to the otherwise under-rated art of dressmaking. However strong the glamour factor, it isn’t moving.

Photo (top): Jim Sim. Film stills courtesy of respective film makers and producers, as well as A Design Film Festival