Guys And Pearls

…no longer like chalk and cheese

When Pharrell Williams wore pearls and not just a strand, but, as Coco Chanel preferred, “ropes and ropes” of them, many guys here thought him to be an advanced specimen of American culture. Mr Williams, a known heterosexual fashionista and a regular Chanel jacket wearer too, has not taken the Harry Styles route and worn a dress, but his penchant for jewellery is far more ardent than an average woman’s. Lest this becomes a binary gender issue, we should point out that the wearing of multi-strands of necklaces is not unique to Mr Williams. Mr Styles wears them too. It was prevalent among male hip-hop stars, going back to the ’70s, when rap was born, when Kurtis Blow, considered the first commercially successful rapper to have a record deal with a major label, wore strands of gold chains on the cover of his 1980 debut eponymous album. Since then, almost all hip-hop stars, from LL Cool J to Notorious B.I.G to Jay Z, have put multiple necklaces on their necks. But strands of pearls were slow to catch on.

And when they did, we didn’t think it’d be this fast. Here, social media posts of society chaps wearing a strand of pearls at various gatherings in the past few months were not signal enough of an impending trend since they are fashion types (“guru” for one of them, we were corrected), forward enough to not suggest anything extraordinary. But on one blistering day, on a barely-cool west-bound MRT train of the East-West line, we spotted a young fellow—not particularly spiffy—with a strand of white pearls set against the black crew-neck T-shirt he was wearing. The neatness of the row of pearls was broken by the colour-matched white cable of his earphones. He was not attired to augment the inherent elegance of the pearls. If not for the pearls, you wouldn’t give him a look. Two weeks later, a similar get-up was seen on a chap on an escalator in Bugis+. The pearls were, again, at odds with the fellow’s oversized Palace tee and Carhartt bum bag. But he seemed unconcerned with the jewellery and the skate aesthetic being as compatible as meat in a vegetarian meal.

Perhaps that’s the whole point of pearls these days: to not fit in. Surely they can be styled to bear street cred, just as much as they can be part of any guy’s tailored best. Just look at the pearl collection of Comme des Garçons, conceived with the 128-year-old Japanese house of Mikimoto (above) since last season. It could be discerned that Rei Kawakubo has introduced something punk and subversive into otherwise very conventional strands of pearls. CDG does not indicate which gender the jewellery is targeted at, but in the joint marketing campaigns by the two brands, male models wore the pearls, with one fellow sporting a double-strand over a tie and under a suit jacket with peaked lapels. The aesthetic base is still elegant, but the saltwater akoya pearls seemed to turn away from the conventional, like wildly patterned socks under pin-striped trouser legs. CDG, as we know, doesn’t really do anything vanilla. With a ‘classic’ material such as pearls, they’d want to introduce a counterpoint to the poshness. So there are the sterling silver hardware, such as chains (which are rather Virgil Abloh, even Yoon Ahn, and have been similarly employed at Maison Margiela), studs, and safety pins, all used as decorative trims, like in CDG’s RTW, but presently looking less fierce than they had been.

The circular pearl strand we have been seeing guys now wear could, therefore, be influenced by CDG. They are not long strands as in Pharrell Williams’s Chanel nor are they those made more masculine with black Tahitian pearls. These small off-white spheres circle the neck in a rather delicate fashion, like ruffs, but not quite twee as the latter. It’s been hard to design and market pearls to men. In 2002, Australian Olympic swimming star Ian Thorpe collaborated with compatriot brand Autore to create a high-profile line of neck and wrist wear featuring South Sea pearls—mostly just one bead apiece—for both men and women. Single pearl worn like a pendant might perhaps have been more acceptable back then, when David Beckham was known to be partial to one, or when Pierce Brosnan wore a solo bead on the cover of Italian Vanity Fair in 2005. It isn’t certain how Mr Thorpe’s pearls panned out, but some observers thought the line was premature. Few people now remember Mr Thorpe’s association with pearl jewellery. The line was eventually discontinued a few years later. Even the Olympian would not have guessed that men will graduated from one pearl to a whole strand.

Photo: (top) Zhao Xiangji and (product) Comme des Garçons

Pearl Ardour

Xiong Dailin @ MikimotoChinese model-turn-actress Xiong Dailin, garlanded with pearls worth S$355,000, at the launch of Mikimoto X Hello Kitty

You wake up one day and the world’s most famous cat isn’t a cat anymore. Do you still love the non-feline? Loving an indeterminate can be hard. That’s why the world was shocked by the LA Times report just last month that the cat is a British girl (with an Americanism for a name!). A representative for its creator would later attempt to clarify: “We never said she was a human.” But they have never said she wasn’t! Should we even assume she’s a she? And then we learned that she’s a “personification of a cat”! A mere personification. How lovable is that?

Suffering from an identity crisis or not, truth is, Hello Kitty will not be less loved. Many brands know that; the high-end ones too. Hence the unrelenting fixation with putting the mouthless cat onto countless products, from biscuits to bracelets. Hello Kitty sells. McDonald’s knows it, so does Mikimoto. That’s why, as part of the first anniversary of their store in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, they introduced the Mikimoto X Hello Kitty collection that was launched in Japan early this year. Pop culture and haute joaillerie may not make the most synergistic pairing, but these days, to get your brand out there to those populating Twitter-sphere and its surrounding universe, you have to hit at what’s relevant. And what is still relevant, for so many customers of today, is Hello Kitty, never mind the cat hasn’t said a word since its birth in 1974.

Hello Kitty & Hello KittyHello Kitty’s distinctive face and her always present bow are outlined and fashioned into a S$1,140 silver bangle with an akoya pearl embedded in the centre of the bow

The absence of Hello Kitty’s mouth speaks louder about its desire to talk than its lack of a voice. If a name can be taken literally, surely Hello—used primarily to express greeting—is utterance even only in written form. Hello usually denotes friendliness (a warm hello is common, not a cold one), and is used to attract attention (a call out). Hello Kitty projects a friendly image and, attached to different products, calls for attention, even more so in her different guises. The fiasco surrounding the mad rush for McDonald’s release of “Singing Bone” Kitty in June, part of the Fairy Tale series the restaurant was selling to make fast food disturbingly extra appealing, attests to the cat’s ability for generating irrational interest in itself.

Hello Kitty isn’t the pinnacle of design, yet it has the power to attract and fascinate. The missing mouth has been attributed to a minimalist design option, but the products associated with it are rarely themselves minimalist. Yet, in its simplest form, Hello Kitty is an unfussy delineation of a “personification”, as uncomplicated as it is expressionless, like a stick drawing. There are other cuter creatures in the Japanese pantheon of kawaii immortals, but Hello Kitty sits at the very apex, unsmiling, reportedly netting USD7 billion a year, not bad for a 40-year-old.

Mikimoto X Hello Kitty neck wearClockwise from left: 18k white gold necklace of akoya pearls, rubies, white diamonds, yellow diamonds, pink sapphires, and onyx, S$355,000; 18k white gold choker of akoya pearls, rubies, white diamonds, yellow diamonds, and onyx, S$202,000; 18k white gold pendant with diamonds and south sea pearl, S$12,600

As blank as Hello Kitty’s countenance is the pearl, a gem born of molluscs. Unlike a diamond, which is mostly sold faceted to articulate its brilliance and worth, the pearl is usually left uncut so as not to spoil its natural sheen. Pearl and the maybe cat would, therefore, seem to go well together. The cute factor of the beribboned one, however, is at odds with pearl’s undiminished reputation as ladylike. What ties the two together is the conservatism that they represent: both never associated with the wild, the crazy, or the immoral. The two are pearls of the Orient! This is augmented by Mikomoto’s designs—hyper-femininity spread across very traditional products categories for hair, ear, neck, and wrist. These are points often considered sensual, and should ideally be prettified.

The heydays of pearls were in the Twenties and the Fifties, and their history meandered differently, thanks firstly to Gabrielle Chanel. Indeed Coco should be credited for treating pearls less preciously than they were regarded. In the 1920s, she would team her rope of natural pearls—gifted to her by a Russian exile, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov (one of the few Romanovs to not have been slain by the Bolsheviks), whose pearls were part of what little heirloom he had left—with strands of costume jewellery, and wear them with casual clothes. This seemingly flippant mix would become her trademark, and pearls (and more pearls, worn not neatly) had the company of fun until the 1950s.

Mikimoto X Hello Kitty hair clipThe only item in the collection that can be considered cute just as Hello Kitty is thought to be adorable is this S$147,000 hair clip of 18k white gold, akoya pearls, rubies, diamonds, yellow diamonds, and onyx

In the decade that saw the rise of rock & roll, fashion was shaped by Christian Dior’s New Look silhouette that first emerged in 1947. It continued to influence women’s dress-shape choices throughout much of the Fifties. Pearls, worn shorter and closer to the neck than Coco Chanel did in the Twenties, gained popularity as they went extremely well with the stiffly neat and ladylike aesthetic of those years. By the time Audrey Hepburn, playing a call girl called Holly Golightly, wore that five-strand pearl necklace over that Givenchy dress in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, pearls had sealed their destiny as the gem to authenticate a woman’s decorous, genteel, and elegant repute. It would also come to be connected with sweater sets and what one wore to church or in the White House.

Its association with feminine prim and proper has never really waned. It wasn’t until John Galliano’s spring 2007 couture show for Christian Dior that pearls had a chance at fashionable stylishness. Mr Galliano’s collection—inspired, as he said, “by Pinkerton’s affair with Cio-Cio San”—wasn’t heavy on pearls, but in a wedding dress-like gown at the end of the show, model Jacquetta Wheeler had on her neck a 20-strand pearl creation that ran the gamut of pearl necklace lengths, from collar to matinee, something the English Princess, Mary of Teck, might have worn in the early 1900s before being Queen Consort to King George V. Mr Galliano’s Madam Butterfly reference and his use of pearls were noteworthy, as Japan was and still is very much the centre for cultured or akoya pearls.

Mikimoto X Hello KittyThe communication design of  Mikimoto X Hello Kitty collection that was launched last Wednesday

And no Japanese name is more synonymous with cultured pearls than Mikimoto. Although, in China, cultured pearls were produced as early as 400 AD, it’s the Japanese who perfected the production (there’s even a Mikomoto Pearl Island—the birthplace of what the company calls “cultured pearls aquaculture”) and perpetuated pearls and their lustre. Japanese pearls have both history and romance to heighten their allure, including stories of those brave ama divers—dubbed “pearl diving mermaids of Japan”, so beautifully immortalised by photographer Iwase Yoshiyuki in his documentation of the fading traditions of coastal Japan.

Back at the anniversary celebration at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, 33-year-old star Xiong Dailin, more noted for being Aaron Kwok’s (ex-) girlfriend than an actress of note, wore the most dramatic piece from the Mikimoto X Hello Kitty collection—a 12-strand necklace with just a hint of Hello Kitty’s visage on the right, discernible by the ruby ribbon, diamond nose, and onyx eyes (no idea why the whiskers were omitted). Predictably, Ms Xiong was conservatively attired, pairing the jewellery with a black dress that has sleeves of lace, relegating, even if inadvertently, pearls back to their disposition of the past. That left much of the charming to Hello Kitty. You see, Hello Kitty will enthral, even if she is no pearl of wisdom.

Mikimoto X Hello Kitty collection is available at the Mikimoto boutique, level 1, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands