Before Yohji, There Was Another Yamamoto

Orbituary | The master of using bold kabuki graphics on his clothes, Kansai Yamamoto, has died

 

Kansai YamamotoKansai Yamamoto with signature “shout” expression. Photo: source

One of Japan’s less-known fashion exports has died. According to Japanese media this morning, Kansai Yamamoto succumbed to leukemia and passed away last Tuesday. He was 76.

After thirty years of fashion and costume design, and not doing much of the former in his later years, Mr Yamamoto was brought back to the spotlight in 2017, when he collaborated with Nicolas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton’s 2018 cruise collection. At that time, Mr Ghesquière told Dazed that Mr Yamamoto “was the first Japanese designer to show in Paris (1975)*, so I thought it was really interesting to celebrate that and ask him to design a few things for the show.” There were no reports then that the 73-year-old was ill. His contribution to some of the LV pieces, including the accessories, brought back memories for those who remember Mr Yamamoto’s signature looks of the late ’70s and much of the ’80s, which eschewed the eras’ hippie predictability and the subsequent ‘power’ aesthetics. His work was theatrical and, at the same time, projected an attitude that we today would call street.

Although not always credited, Kansai Yamamoto influenced many designers through the decades, from Jean Paul Gaultier who, for spring/summer 2013, re-interpreted the one-shoulder, one-sleeve, one-leg knit union suit that Mr Yamamoto designed for David Bowie’s 1973 Aladdin Sane Tour to Alessandro Michele, who created similar, large graphics (including their placements) that bore uncanny resemblances to the Japanese designer’s. Much of the oversized shapes we have been seeing this past seasons, and the use of immense illustrations placed in the rear or over shoulder of the garment, as seen at Raf Simons, for instance, can be attributed to what Mr Yamamoto produced for his Paris shows in the ’80s.

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The striking yakusha-e graphic applied on contemporary geometrics, typical of Kansai Yamamoto. Photo: source

Designers were not the only ones who could not erase the indelible impressions left on them by his work. When hairdresser-to-the-stars David Gan wore and posted pieces from the Valentino X Undercover collaboration from last fall on social media, and expressed his love for them, not many of his followers were aware that his preference for strong and conspicuous graphics can be traced to the early days of Passion, when he had a near-obsession for Kansai Yamamoto, alongside his fashion designer pal Francis Cheong. That Mr Gan is, in recent years, partial to Dries Van Noten’s ‘Marilyn’ shirts and jackets, and the London label Qasimi’s oversized denim shirt with the sew-on patch of ‘Kabuki Kiss’ by the American artist Mel Odom indicates that he has never quite pulled himself away from those dramatic images that are larger than he, the wearer.

In the eighties, when Japanese fashion was the rage on our shores, what Mr Gan and Mr Cheong wore stood out because Mr Yamamoto’s designs were not predominantly black, the preferred non-colour of the Tokyo designers showing in Paris then. As one fashion writer told us, “You could spot any one of them a mile away because of their exuberant Kansai jackets.” Of the couple or so retailers at that time that carried Japanese labels, Scene One (at the Meridien Shopping Centre) gave Mr Yamamoto’s kabuki-inspired clothes considerable attention. The shop was opened by the Malaysian (former) designer, Christopher Choo, who was himself a fan of Kansai Yamamoto, as well as the equally attention-grabbing designs of Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier, which were all stocked in his store.

Bold was often associated with what Mr Yamamoto did in his early years. But many of his followers saw more than just the upsized graphics and the dizzying colours. One major fan told SOTD, “Others will say the joie de vivre of his early ’80s Paris catwalks, or the exoticism. For me, it’s the opulence, the beading, the riot of colours, the embroidery, the use of metallics—for 3 to 4 years, it was entirely ME!” Yet, much of what is known of Mr Yamamoto’s work is his collaboration with David Bowie following his debut in London in 1971. According to the designer’s own telling, he did not know the singer then. His stylist Yasuko Hayashi, who was working for the rock star as well, had lent the singer some clothes from Mr Yamamoto’s debut London collection. He liked them enough to wear them for a performance in New York’s Radio City Hall. The rest, as convention would have us say, is history,

With Sayoko and capeThe vivid colours: (Left) Kansai Yamamoto at a 1982 fitting with his favourite model Sayoko. Photo: Kyodo/Dpa. (Right): A 1971 cape appliqued with images of kabuki characters and those of mask kites. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Despite showing in Paris from 1975 until the early ’90s, it seems Mr Yamamoto would only remain in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, rather than fashion. Or, be known as creator of costume, rather than clothes. While his work for Mr Bowie launched him to a wider international audience, his ready-to-wear shown in Paris was to be slowly overshadowed by the unusual, un-Parisian collections and shows of first, Issey Miyake and then, the two behind what was called the “Japanese invasion”, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. While his compatriots tapped into their cultural heritage to set themselves apart from the French, Kansai Yamamoto made it his forte. His designs that were loved drew from Japanese theatre, in particular, the kabuki. He was gleefully using images of old yakusha-e, woodblock-printing of famous actors of the day, known in the West as “actor prints”. These, he juxtaposed with delineations seen on mask kites and then employed them against modern patterns in the spirit of his favourite Momoyama period of Japanese art, which is thought to be dynamic and opulent. Fittingly, the results were electric.

Kansai Yamamoto was born in Yokohama in 1944, a year before the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The eldest son of a tailor, he lived a good part of his formative years in a children’s home after his parents divorced. He studied civil engineering, and even English, but gave both up for dressmaking. Mr Yamamoto was largely self-taught although he did apprentice at Junko Koshino (one of three designing Koshino sisters) and Hisashi Hosono, a designer of lady-like clothes. In 1967, he was awarded the prestigious Soen prize (that launched many designers, including Kenzo Takada) at the equally reputable Bunka Fashion College. Four years later, still-swinging London beckoned, and he moved to the English capital, staging his first runway presentation there in 1971. Harpers and Queen describe it as “The Show of the Year….a spectacular coup de theatre.” He would continue to show in the city until 1975, when he debuted in Paris, possibly after hearing of the success of Mr Takada’s Jungle Jap, a store in Galerie Vivienne. Two years later, Mr Yamamoto opened his eponymous boutique. In the autumn/winter season of 1992, he presented his last collection.

It is hard to say when Kansai Yamamoto fell out of favour with the trendy set—hairdressers and fashion designers too. By the time he presented his swan song, his designs had lost their theatricality, perhaps as reaction to the preference for more practical clothes in the ’90s. The inventiveness and the playfulness of his early years seemed to have waned. In retrospect, his work in the ’70s was prelude to everything the fans liked about him. To them, his output of this period was modern in a way Issey Miyake’s designers would prove to be enduring. He didn’t go all out with the kabuki stuff; he showed mastery of cut, shape, and proportion too, which reflected the Japanese ideal of not restricting the body. Yet, for all the inventiveness he clearly offered and the subsequent influence that reached others, Kansai Yamamoto, in death, would be, as The Guardian’s headline showed, remembered as the “designer and David Bowie collaborator”.

*Kenzo Takada showed his label Jungle Jap in his small boutique in 1971 and Issey Miyake presented his first pret-a-porter collection in 1973. It appears that Mr Ghesquière was mistaken about Kansai Yamamoto Paris debut

A Disappointing Close

Louis Vuitton could always be counted on to end the four-city fashion season with a bang. So why the cacophonous whimper?

 

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We watch the Louis Vuitton live stream once, and then again when it becomes available to view as a post. We are not sure what to make of it. This is a lull season for them, we conclude. Louis Vuitton, closing PFW and marking the end of the four-city rush that makes fashion weeks (in view of the unceasing COVID-19 outbreak, none has cancelled or gone online only), has always been a restorer of our faith in the creativity of fashion when increasingly what’s creative is being redefined or ignored. But what we have thought might be able to reverse the built-up dismay is no longer so. Not this season.

Nicholas Ghesquiere has always been an enthusiastic stirrer of the big fashion pot made increasingly vapid by those who add nothingness into it. Although his debut at Vuitton was not the stuff of fashion legend, he has put his distinctive stamp on the house in these past years: wearable separates that are melanges of fabrics, textures, prints, patterns, all in a delightfully varied mingle of the compulsory past and the fantastic future. But this season, while the blending is still there, they don’t coalesce into anything cracking, certainly not, as before, sublime. Is Mr Ghesquiere saving his better ideas for later by pausing to create a greatest hits, like how it was when sitcoms used to look back at the “best moments” between seasons or when writers were on leave?

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To be sure, he’s still up there breathing the rarefied air of luxury fashion—a stratosphere he brought along from his previous tenure at Balenciaga. Mr Ghesquiere is a technically sound designer, far more than many of this peers, even within the LVMH group, and, without doubt, more so than his colleague designing the men’s collection. He understands that no matter what you do to a garment and after what you do it, it must still look like something destined for the body. An ardent proponent of the odd pairing, he works with mostly traditional forms and relatively conventional silhouettes and yet within them he is able to create additional components that render the end result unexpected and, oftentimes, novel. We’ve seen him meld contradictory elements, those that are not meant to match, into breathtaking wholes.

Mr Ghesquiere is still able to do all that, but somehow, in presently messy and complicated times, which LV admits to in a pre-show video posted online, the collection is weighted by its own excesses and, especially, excess of cleverness. While other designers have nothing to pull out from their bag of ideas, Mr Ghesquiere seems to saturate his designs with more. A ton of ideas, however, isn’t necessarily any measure of brilliance. Maybe it’s the mood of the times and the mood we’re in—here in Southeast Asia, much of the collection look to us over-designed; even overwrought. And, worse, repetitive. The smorgasbord isn’t appealing when you’re not hungry. Or, when much of the Paris season has made you lost your appetite.

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The collection, according to LV’s PR material is called Anachronism, which may well describe the designer himself. He admits to the media: “I still breathe the past”. Mr Ghesquiere’s anachronistic approach to design, with a weakness for the ’70s and a pull from as far back as the era of the Sun King to a future indeterminate, has seen him excite with more hedonic rewards than all the retro-bent American designers combined. But he should have stopped at last season’s Belle Époque. All this mixing is headache-inducing. Do we need so many eras, so many points of reference in one garment?

Take the inordinately busy outerwear, a result of his predilection for mixing fabrics and patterns: they now seem a tad too Sacai for comfort. As you go on, White Mountaineering comes to mind. Louis Vuitton in a Japanese state of mind? Then those dresses, in particular the sheer baby doll with the four-tier hem (the bouncy tiered skirt is an LV highlight this season). This is worn over a (typically Nicholas Ghesquiere) panelled top and similarly sheer pants. Someone is taking his cue from a fellow LVMH brand.

One curiosity to note. For the past few seasons (we have not been able to trace back far enough), we noticed looks that appear to be for guys. This has been evident even when Kim Jones was still taking care of the sibling homme collection. Two years ago, we asked a staffer at the Louis Vuitton flagship here if Mr Ghesquiere makes a capsule for men. “No,” the affable woman told us, “but men like to buy our womenswear.” Which begs the question, are the boiler suits and motocross pants to attract potential male customers or, as 21st century wokeness demands, for the manly women who have never bought a dress in their life? Wouldn’t Virgil Abloh have taken care of them? Or are we being too binary? Complicated times, no doubt.

Photos: Isidore Montag/gorunway.com

Nicolas Ghesquière Takes A Stand

Kudos to he who holds a view that risks getting him on the wrong path with those who writes his pay check

 

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Those who follow Nicolas Ghesquière on IG—to date, 827,000 of you—would have seen this. Mere days after his bosses Bernard Arnault and Michael Burke made a show of LV’s investment in Alvarado, Texas, some 65 kilometres south of Fort Worth, birthplace of Kelly Clarkson, with a pleased-as-Punch Donald Trump, Mr Ghesquière posted on IG the cover of the single of American singer Evelyn Thomas’s 1984 dance hit, High Energy, followed by an unambiguous message—“Standing against any political action. I am a fashion designer refusing this association #trumpisajoke #homophobia”.

This contrasts sharply with what Mr Arnault, LVMH chief’s executive, told members of the media that day: “I am not here to judge his (Donald Trump’s) types of policies. I have no political role; I am a business person.” That is not an affirmation of no political view, which, perhaps, prompted Mr Ghesquière to express one. We are not sure how tolerant French corporations are to opposing thoughts of their employees, but this, from the standpoint of those of us who grew up professionally in a conservative corporate environment, may elicit a strong reaction from the boss that could lead to dismissal. Or, are we being dramatic?

Mr Ghesquière could be riding on a popularity high and may wish to use his platform to say something that other designers won’t. He received a standing ovation during the recent spring/summer 2020 show for Paris Fashion Week and was featured on the cover of T magazine last week, in which he was quoted saying “I was never trained as a businessman and I will never want to be one.” Sure, one does not have to see eye-to-eye with one’s boss, but could all these seemingly contradictory messages be construed as a sign of defiance? Or, does fashion need such opposition of thought for it to encourage creativity?

Mr Ghesquière, who has been Louis Vuitton’s artistic director for women’s wear for six years, has done much to set the brand apart from what is ailing luxury fashion, not just in Paris, but much across the fashion capitals of the world, taking strides in his own distinctive view and speaking in his own singular voice. Just as his bosses Bernard Arnault and Michael Burke have the liberty to do business in Trumpland, he, too, has the right to share his thoughts. Nicolas Ghesquière should be appreciated and applauded.

Who Is Evelyn Thomas?

Mr Ghesquière posted on IG a cover of the single of the 1984 dance hit by Evelyn Thomas, High Energy, which, if we remember correctly was mixed by Victor Flores, an American techno DJ of the ’80s, whose work included remixes for mainstream acts such as Wang Chung (Dance Hall Days) and Joe Cocker (You Can Leave Your Hat On). Mr Flores’s various mixes of High Energy (actually, we prefer the Almighty 12″ Definitive Mix from 2009 for its more stomping—almost Dead Or Alive—rather than the typical pulsating beat) became huge that year (and several later), a big, anthemic chart-topper that was especially popular in the gay scene, which may explain why Mr Ghesquière chose it to accompany the hashtag #homophobia and to underscore Donald Trump’s perceived homophobic leaning.

Ms Thomas, now 66, was already a recording artiste, singing jazz and gospel, when High Energy scored. The track was co-produced by the British/Irish duo of Ian Levine and Fiachra Trench, and it was, in fact, their second collaboration with Ms Thomas after a first single Weak Spot failed to scale the charts. Ms Thomas was credited for creating the dance genre Hi-NRG, the staple of gay clubs in the mid-’80s, but ‘high energy’ was already gaining traction when DJs, declaring disco dead, used the term to describe dance music that played faster than the typical dance track prior to that. Ms Thomas was just singing the right song at the right time.

High Energy opens with a cheesy melodic synth intro that would typify disco tracks of this time and be a clarion call to disco-goers to rush to the dance floor to kick into dance. But this rousing musical device was already heard, a year earlier, in So Many Men, So Little Time, also a Levine/Trench production and another huge club hit and, understandably, also a gay anthem, sung by Miquel Brown, Amii Stewart’s step-sister, and Sinitta’s mom(!). In fact, the frightening catchiness of these songs would eventually transpose from gay clubs to the more mass discotheques that, at the risk of sounding elitist, the bengs and lians patronised with delirious regularity. Regardless, Mr Ghesquière has put a tune in our heads and we can’t get it out!

Photo: Instagram/Nicolas Ghesquière

Modern Men Pose Among Flowers

These are not thorns among the roses; they are poses with the posies

 

Men among flowersNicolas Ghesquière (left) on the cover of the latest issue of T magazine and a fashion spread (right) in a September issue of The Guardian

By Ray Zhang

I first notice this a couple of years ago in Hangzhou’s Xihu (西湖 or West lake). Beneath the low cherry blossom trees during that spring day, the men—among themselves or with their female companion(s)—would pose with the flowers, often pulling down a branch, or two, of the clustered blooms to frame their fair or weather-beaten faces for photographs. There was something incongruent about the scene, which, against the conventional beauty of the lake and the yemen (爷们 or menfolk, but really means machismo) attitudes, seemed atypical. Some might even say aberrant.

I would not have guessed that what I saw was a foretaste of things to come. Cut to the present, when the woke do not concern themselves with gender that is binary, flowers and men in a photographic composition are no longer a curiosity. Nicolas Ghesquière appearing among blooms on the cover of the latest edition of T magazine (top left) and a September fashion report in The Guardian (top right) attest to this cultural shift. Men among flowers may even be more acceptable than those in skirts.

Popular culture is strangely limiting in its apportioning of what genders need, or can be aligned with. Frankly, I do not know when flowers are considered feminine (or feminising) although I have some impression that men have always not minded just a spot of flowers—the boutonniere a vivid example. Yet, there still seems to be an undercurrent of a boys-do-not-play-with-Barbie moment when it comes to guys seen with flowers. Even when I hold a bunch of pussy willows (very un-floral blooms) on my way home in the MRT train after the CNY fair in Chinatown (yes, an annual ritual), I will always get people looking at me as if I am clutching something as flashy as peonies. Encouragingly, cultural expectations, like fashion trends, do change. And men might now be more excepting of being associated with bouquets that go beyond just the giving of them.

I also remember, apart from what I saw in Hangzhou, a 2018 BBC Travel report on the “flower men” of the Asir province in southern Arabian Peninsula. Male members of the Qathan tribe wear a crown that comprises flowers, herbs, and grasses as part of their traditional costumes and these can be as pretty, but no less masculine, as a Christian Tortu centerpiece, yet it is not known that they are a threat to their masculinity. Tribal culture far more unbias than our modern mores?

Many things once considered threatening to masculinity are, of course, becoming exoteric and public consumption is on an all-time high. But I do wonder if this trend in photographing males among flowers has anything to do with the Beyoncé/Tyler Mitchell-for-Vogue effect. Are guys taking the cue from Queen Bey? Or have we finally allowed the blooms of bigotry to wither and fade?

Photos: (left) Pieter Hugo/T magazine; (right) David Newby/The Guardian

LV’s Trip Fantastic

Nicolas Ghesquière makes Louis Vuitton a worthy closing journey for Paris Fashion Week

 

LV SS 2020 P1

Since the time he was spotlighted at Balenciaga, Nicolas Ghesquière’s designs have the pleasing ability to make us wonder. How does he do it? Why does he do it? How does he come to such an idea? What’s behind his thinking? At Louis Vuitton, he conceives such compelling collections that those questions continue to happily enter our minds. A welcome occupation, musings that won’t come to those queuing to get into an LV store. And that’s okay.

As the media reported it, the inspiration this season is La Belle Époque (beautiful age, a time in Paris when the arts flourished). But it is one that gleefully clashes with the ’70s—no Sarah Bernhardt, no Lina Cavalieri, no La Belle Otero, perhaps Cléo de Mérode reincarnated as Catherine Deneuve, or, more likely, Anita Pallenberg (her “evil glamour” a deal maker!). Even his take on the Gibson Girl is more Katniss Everdeen than Dolly Gallagher Levi. The thing is Mr Ghesquière is not inclined to be so era-specific. He is especially deft at referring without actually pointing to references. Sure, there’s often the nod to the ’70s, as with this season, but it tends not to hum the same tune as others obsessed with that time do, such as Tom Ford or Marc Jacobs.

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If associations with La Belle Époque are obvious, it is mostly in the prints, which seems like Jacques Gruber meets Kasia Charko (the illustrator of Biba’s ads and poster), handled with the delicacy of Antonio Daum’s crystal work and then put through the filters of MeituPic, and, occasionally, camo-fied. In fact, we can’t seem to get enough of the prints, intrigued by their composition, amused by how, in sum, they are less Art Nouveau than Flower Power. When they take the shape of clothes, there is a judicious balance of graphic interest and enhancement of the structure of the garments, which, regrettably, has been missing in brands that market prints as crux to their design.

Many commentators regard Mr Ghesquière as a futurist, but to us, he is more a fantasist with a flair for costuming a fashionable pantomime. The styling, for example, counters the general practice of what is considered tasteful. Wearing the collar outside the neckline of a sweater always felt to us too geekish, or, outside a blazer, like a pimp. Yet, collars, conspicuous and boldly shaped, are placed out of the neckline of the outers. How Mr Ghesquière also plays with curves within certain parameters: the pronounced but arched shoulders and the circular collar and rounded lapels can come together like an interplay of petals, is fascinating and a study of how a tad more is not necessarily superfluous.

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And the colours! They are not quite a riot—somewhat muted, in fact, but they are rich, negating the believe that only black is chic. In fact, black is not central to the collection, no one colour is. Against a video projection of blue sky and the transgender singer Sophie singing (and emoting), the palette projects a happy—slightly off-beat, if you consider the pronounced red and shape of the models’ lips—vibe that is not inconsistent with what the flower generation tried to nurture and communicate through their choice of ethnic-leaning clothes. Sure, LV is not quite that trippy, but in spirit, it’s as anti-conformist and anti-repressive, and beams with embraceable energy.

It is heartening to see that, while Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear is taking a trajectory of no aesthetic certainty, its women’s RTW is marching on extremely nicely under Nicolas Ghesquière. And as other brands under the LVMH umbrella continue with predictable hum (not, to us, buzz) and the usual codes, LV reverberates with much more directional and off-centre aplomb that continues to make the ride jaunty. Mr Ghesquière may need to look back to lurch forward, but some of us are eager to go along. As Joni Mitchell sang in 1970’s The Circle Game, “We can’t return we can only look/Behind from where we came/And go round and round and round/In the circle game”.

Photos: vogue.com/Alessandro Lucioni/gorunway.com

Dress Watch: Sweatshirt Dress On Steroids

LV Sweatshirt dress

Louis Vuitton calls it a sweatshirt dress, but it is nothing like what Norma Kamali popularised back in the Nineties. First seen in the autumn/winter 2018 show back in February, this is the epitome of the tussle of complexity and simplicity that modern fashion finds itself in, without a mess as a result. It captures in one outfit two themes that Nicolas Ghesquiere is fond of exploring: retro-futurism and sportiness

This dress has been in the LV window for weeks now, and each time we passed it, we can’t help but stand before it to examine it. The overall simplicity is beguiling. The rounded shoulders enhance the slightly generous volume—still a trend—without making the dress appear too oversized, yet it seems to give the upper bodice a little brawn that suggest power without the need to resort to exaggerated shoulder pads.

At first glance, we thought it has raglan sleeves, but it does not. The extra white panel brought down from the shoulder to the mid-upper arm is in fact a part of the patchwork of the upper bodice and arm, comprising twelve pieces on the front alone! The mixed fabrics, including a barely discernible strip of LV logo on the right arm and floral devoré across the shoulder, give the overall mix an artsy vibe.

Contrast that to the solid colour of the body of the dress and you get a composition that represents the essence of sporty chic, if that’s not an oxymoron to you. Perhaps, more importantly, it is thoughtful design that does not resort to visual trickery and excess commonly associated with performance at the circus than stylish dress away from the spotlight.

Louis Vuitton sweatshirt dress, SGD2,910, is available at LV stores. Photo: Louis Vuitton

Bold In The Climate Of The Banal

In the fashion of the present, you can either be palatable or a punchline. Nicolas Ghesquière chose neither

 

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You often see long queues outside Louis Vuitton stores, even when, looking in, it is far from busy as Fairprice on PG Day. It isn’t hard to guess what most people line up to buy: not the clothes, if you aren’t sure. But, increasingly, the clothes are the reason some of us are willing to get in line with the bag/wallet/sneaker/trinket hunters for a chance, if not to cop, at least to view the apparel, which deserves to be appreciated up-close. Nicolas Ghesquière has more and more offered on the runway garments of such compelling qualities that Louis Vuitton is one of the few fashion labels today that inveigles fashion aesthetes to walk into a store for a closer look.

The brand’s final show of Paris Fashion Week will again encourage some—perhaps many—of us to join the queue: those blousons ruched at the shoulders, those jackets with peaked lapels that were fashioned to look like deconstructed star of David (especially the khaki version with white lapels), those pleated and billowy sleeves, those vaguely space-age-y tops with re-enforced dropped shoulders, those sort-of cocoon coats with coloured shapes, and even those cargo pants (a reiteration of those from his Balenciaga days?). Only through actual contact would we then be able to discern the unusual details, extras, and seam placements that have come to characterise Mr Ghesquière’s work for LV. That, for us, is the real deal: up-close, at which point the clothes offer the chance to enthrall.

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It is this “another level” aspect, through a very specific lens, that reflects a design muscularity Mr Ghesquière’s predecessor never had despite his later physical brawn. And the reason why so many are disappointed that the distinctive world Phoebe Philo created for Céline (as spelled during her day) has met its end time. Even a view at an LV store window is good enough for some because there is always adequate to astound even the most seasoned fashion follower. Film fans seeing a costume exhibition of their favourite movie experience similar pleasure and tingle.

Mr Ghesquière’s designs, in the past four seasons or so, have a powerful and irresistible effect. No particular aspect is central to his themes and ideas. Instead, he works with multiple visual and technical components simultaneously. This season, it was (again) the unusual, vaguely ’80s shapes, the way he cut his pieces to fall away from the body and yet not hang loose or sack-like, his love for layering that saw the overlays and mash-ups of prints come together in happy discordance, the feminine-but-not-overtly sense of prettiness (dresses not pre-soaked with sex), and a canny understanding that a woman’s wardrobe is not necessarily only spelled out for the roles she plays in her life. A blouson, for example, despite its outdoorsy vibe, can have feminine shape, touch, and flourishes that allow it to be worn to a performance of Bach in a grand national concert hall. Or, in the corridors of business. Without, we should add, sacrificing youthful lilt.

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To be sure, Mr Ghesquière has not always been this successful or sure-footed. We won’t resist the temptation to point out certain silk boxer shorts worn with bejewelled frock coats—a flippant marriage of historicism and Kardashian-esque IG-style show-all. But when he goes beyond the convenience of superficial styling, as he did currently, he is able to place design at the heart of his work. And the designs are what the discerning have come to see, designs that—this season—continue to straddle artsy and sci-fi, sporty and girlish, old-fashioned and newfangled; designs that juxtapose neckline with neckline, sleeves with armholes, long with short.

A little curious to us were the duo or trio (or was it a quartet?) of men’s wear that appeared. In this time of genderless-as-euphemism-for-gender-bending, we weren’t sure if we saw what we saw, or if it was guys’ clothes available for gals or gals’ clothes worn by guys. If Mr Ghesquière is given the men’s collection to do (and we know he can as evidenced by his past output for Balenciaga), what would Virgil Abloh be doing in the studio? Those jackets, with the tweaked peaked lapels, had the strength of creative crafting that Mr Abloh has yet to express. And, if he at Celine can do a co-ed collection, why not Nicolas Ghesquière? We can be hopeful, can’t we?

Photos: (top) Louis Vuitton, live stream/ (runway) indigital.tv

Weather The Winter With Wonderful

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After last season’s boxer-shorts-as-interesting-piece-of-fashion, it lifts the spirit to see that Nicolas Ghesquière does not need to resort to such cheap styling tricks for Louis Vuitton’s autumn/winter 2018 collection. In fact, it is nice to witness Mr Ghesquière going back to what he does best: design. Pure delight are the details that draw the eyes, stir desires, and, as important, engage the mind. This, to us, is the Nicolas Ghesquière that made us love Balenciaga under his watch. Some memories don’t fade. This time, watching the LV show online was like drinking iced coffee after sucking on a mint drop.

Mr Ghesquière’s best collection for LV yet? We think so. He has dug deep into his love for old military uniforms and sporty shapes (but now paired with elegant other halves), a beguiling sense of contrast, the unexpected mix of garments, and a welcome love for creating panels/pieces and joining them to parts of the bodice normally not considered for application. More exquisitely, he made the clothes totally and acceptably wearable.

Extreme wearability has been the main thrust of many fashion houses in recent years. By this, we don’t mean that unwearability had dominated prior. Rather, wearability that edged closer to the banal and almost nothingness has taken centre stage, and many brands have taken that as cue for their products to be desired, to be successful. Now that that approach has slowly failed to grip, designers are choosing to go meretricious, as evidenced by the chronic loudness among many of the Italians.

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Louis Vuitton AW 2018 G2

Mr Ghesquière had come rather dangerously close to just-retail-ready when he took over LV from Marc Jacobs in 2013. His debut collection for the house in the following year (as well as those subsequently), while a clear departure from Mr Jacob’s tired over-design and a thrill to many fashion editors, did little to draw LV to us. Perhaps he was adrift with the winds of change at that time, when looking un-designed was aesthetic du jour. It did not have the clutch of the little extras, the sprinkling of quirkiness, and the dash of defiance that characterised his work before LV. It seems to have taken some time (from the start at LV, he wasn’t a young man in a hurry), but Mr Ghesquière has found his place in the house that, until 1998, did not boast a fashion line.

This season, there is so much to love, just as there is much to hold us rapt. For us, it has the definite kick that brings to mind the Balenciaga of autumn/winter 2007, which Mr Ghesquière had described as “a big mix—a street mix.” It was a collection that imbued Balenciaga with all the constituents of cool. A decade down the road, his work for LV has that similar jumble, only now it does not project the insouciance of girls dressed for school, or a date after class; it collates the sleekness and the confidence of the assuredly fashionable of yore with the swagger that has a whiff of today’s street style, one that is less linked to Lafayette Street, NYC, and more to Avenue Montaigne, Paris.

We’re particularly drawn to the shoulder treatment of many of the tops and blouses—those horizontal panels across the collarbone, shaped like a capelet over the shoulders, but appear to us, to be inspired by the shoulder panels of the gaktis tunics of the Sámi men of Lapland. There is, of course, nothing literal about Mr Ghesquière’s take (if it is so) since there is clearly a sportif treatment to his panels, particularly the extra, contrasting diagonal bands in some of the blouses that contrast the natural curve of the armscye, and, in particular, on one top that looked like an extra-long epaulettes rising from mid-upper arms. The graphic elements are not indistinct, and they highlight the skills of the LV pattern-makers, as much as the wealth of technical ideas dreamed up by Mr Ghesquière.

Louis Vuitton AW 2018 G3

Louis Vuitton AW 2018 G4

Sold too we were to the corsets (that could pass off as a waist-shaper from a fitness supply shop), appearing when they are least expected—as base on which the tiered ruffles of a halter-neck top shimmer somewhat incongruously, or the asymmetric overflow of fabric of the garment beneath; the textiles and prints that don’t appear to match (a clash that, conversely captivate rather than confuse; the angles, seams, and drapes that juxtapose happily; and the irrepressible desirability of the collage-like sum effect. Looking at the ensembles, you’re not merely seeing a dress or a blouse: you’re gazing at clothing of hardly ever seen complexity.

Mr Ghesquière has sometimes been called an avant-garde designer. In light of what is happening elsewhere in French fashion, perhaps he is. But avant-garde as we once knew it, pitched to Japanese or Belgian deconstructionism, has left the popular consciousness, so much so that we don’t really see unorthodoxy and experimentation in clothes anymore; we see ‘looks’. But Mr Ghesquière has not really abandoned the spirit of the avant-garde. Rather, he has stayed closed to it, applying his unconventional ideas within identifiable forms and graceful silhouettes that do not attempt to distort the shape of the body. The clothes, for instance, veer not towards the ultra skinny or the outsized, except for the dresses which, we suspect, are made somewhat big and baggy to goose interest among those weaned on the apparent size-disregard of Vetements.

You sense that with these clothes, the wearer belongs to a certain élan, one not kept afloat from the bubble-up effects that have put pressure on much of today’s fashion houses. To be sure, Louis Vuitton has always been a commercial brand. Nicolas Ghesquière makes it less so.

Photos: (top) FF Channel/Youtube, (catwalk) indigital.tv

Up In The Mountains

The cruise 2018 collection of Louis Vuitton was shown amid the splendour of Japan’s Shiga Mountains, but this was no highland fling

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Louis Vuitton shang shan (上山 or went up the mountain) for its latest cruise collection—on the red pine-forested yama in Japan’s Shinga Prefecture, not far from the once-capital Kyoto. Many mountains in Asia—China, Korea, Japan—are sacred. Going up a mountain is usually associated with retreating to seek spiritual well-being. In ancient China, men roam the mountains in search of immortality and to purify the spirit. In Japan, Shinto shrines dot mountains to honour kami, the divine force of nature perched high.

LV’s staging of a fashion show in one of the most beautiful verdant peaks of Japan—at the stunning I.M. Pei-designed Miho Museum, next to a temple dedicated to the messianic sect of Shinji Shumeikai—is consistent with designer Nicolas Ghesquière’s love of uncommon architecture in exotic locales. It is no coincidence that adherents of Shumei, as the religion is mostly known, believe in the pursuit of beauty through art and celebration of nature, and the erecting of splendid buildings in secluded places to restore the balance that Earth has lost.

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This is the first time a fashion show is held on this spiritual ground. It isn’t clear if the expense—likely staggering—will bring the cruise collection to new heights, but as a standalone season, the cruise is becoming more and more important, so much so that Prada has joined the fray with its first cruise show (Miuccia Prada was reluctant to call it that) after a 5-year hiatus, staged in Milan last week.

Prada sent out a Prada collection—almost standard issue, you don’t sense that these are clothes for travel, not a whiff of holiday. This was not a wow one had hoped from a come-back event. Louis Vuitton, on the other hand, offered clothes that seem much more interesting, to the point that it is more impactful than its recent fall/winter 2017 collection. This is Mr Ghesquière in his element. It brought to mind his fall 2007 collection for Balenciaga that had so impressed us. We can’t say for certain why. Maybe it’s the layering, the patterns, the mix-and-match, the youthfulness, and the joie de vivre. Ten years on, Mr Ghesquière still enthralls.

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This collection is not, by any means, a hush as in the quiet of the mountain. In fact, it edges towards loud—not a ripple in the leaves, but crackle and pop on the ground. Showing in Japan, it is to be expected that Mr Ghesquière would be inspired by Nippon art and culture. But this isn’t an obvious dalliance with anime; this was, in part, collaboration with the master of print and patterns Kansai Yamamoto. Mr Yamamoto was a towering fashion figure in Tokyo in the ’70s and ’80s, with an international reputation hemmed by his designs of costumes for David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust.

Both designers do not revisit those outlandish threads of the British singer nor any of the bombastic embroidery that was seen on Mr Yamamoto’s past designs (hairdresser to MediaCorp stars David Gan was a fervent collector in the ’80s, so is Mr Ghesquière today). In fact, there is nothing retro in their take on traditional mask on sequined dresses and kabuki-esque eyes on handbags: these would just as easily float across the Cote d’Azur or Nusa Dua as any of LV’s Twist. This collaboration does show that the spirit of past designs can be revived without the need for evident homage or, worse, mindless ostentation.

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What the Cruise 2018 has going in its favour is the welcome ease of every outfit and a good dollop of street. Sure, this is one of Mr Ghesquière’s most visually busy collections for LV, but you don’t sense that even when you wear the look wholesale, you would appear decidedly foolish, or as parody of some TV sitcom, say, of the ’70s, the way it is with some OTT labels of today. Expectedly, Mr Ghesquière, like many designers of his generation, was inspired by the ’70s—this time, Stray Cat Rock, a five-part, go-go-era Japanese film that starred the major femme fatale Kaji Meiko (Japan’s Chan Po-Chu?) as a kick-ass heroine (her titular role in Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood reportedly inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill). Her cool style—including wide-brim hats that she wore in Stray Cat Rock—and nonchalant chic are obviously identifiable to Mr Ghesquière. This is definitely not the Japan of Cio-Cio-San.

We are drawn to the layering that yearned colour-blocking , the landscape prints and brocades (in some pieces, they were pants paired with punk-ish tops), comic patterns that could have been coloured wood-block prints, vest that seemed informed by Samurai armour (we now fondly recall Issey Miyake’s “rattan body” of 1982), the off-beat pairings (such as evening dresses worn with T-shirts and leggings), the oddly proportioned blazers (oversized, rounded shoulders, and nipped-in waists!). As we saw, some stray cats do rock.

Photos: Louis Vuitton

The Quiet Master

Film | In a new untitled documentary, the fashion insider’s designer Azzedine Alaïa is revealed, but only just

Azzedine AlaiaAzzedine Alaïa at his drafting table. Photo: Joe McKenna/Consulate Film

There are designers and there are designers, but none so unconcerned with the drama of the fashion world and its pursuit of excess as Azzedine Alaïa. His refusal to genuflect to the fashion system, whether in Paris or elsewhere, sticking to his own world in his atelier in the Marais, a historic part of the capital in the 4th and 5th arrondissement, makes him as much a mystery as a marvel.

In this new, 26-minute, black and white short made by the Scottish stylist Joe McKenna, considered one of the most respected in the business, who once published his own now-very-collectible and hard-to-find, two-issue (1992 and 1998) magazine called Joe’s, Mr Alaïa is put in the spotlight, but it is friends, models, journalists who are doing the shining. Filmed over a few years in the designer’s atelier during Mr McKenna’s free time, the film feels like an extended trailer than a major oeuvre, snap shot than biography.

Yet, it’s a pleasurable film, if only because there is no moving picture material out there on Mr Alaïa. Any reveal is better than none. Much has been said of the designer’s skill—how he drafts and cuts his own patterns, how, at one time, he even sewed the dresses himself—and why those who wear his designs become life-long fans, but very little is offered about the processes behind those undeniably beautiful clothes, or about the thinking of a quietly defiant man. In this respect, we still know very little of Mr Alaïa’s motivation and inspiration.

Azzedine Alaïa Couture 2011Two of the outfits from the couture 2011 show that appeared in the film. Photos: Azzedine Alaïa

Although the lens trails its subject, the camera does not capture Mr Alaïa saying anything to it. Instead, designer Nicholas Ghesquiere (the only male interviewee), stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele (who styled Anna Wintour’s first US Vogue cover in 1988 that saw a Christian Lacroix couture top paired with jeans), the ex-stylist, ex-fashion editor (British Tatler and Vogue), and now architect Sophie Hicks, still-practising stylists Grace Coddington and Katie Grand, journalists Cathy Horyn, Vanessa Friedman, and Suzy Menkes, and models Naomi Campbell (who calls Mr Alaïa “papa”) and Veronica Webb do the talking.

These are people who doubtlessly and ardently admire him and are intensely protective. Ms Campbell even revealed that Mr Alaïa took her in after she lost her possessions during a sojourn in Paris in 1989, and that he still avails a room in his residence to her. Although we’re told that Mr Alaïa “has a temper”, like many passionate artists, we’re not shown an instance other than his throwing a hanger at an assistant, when he lost composure to rage. Or, if fury or self-control has influenced his designs. Through these intimates, we are seduced into believing Mr Alaïa has no shortcoming.

This is a film strictly for followers of Mr Alaïa’s work—a celebration of the female form and an extolment of sexiness with none of the perverse expression seen in fashion today. It is also for fashion culture buffs who may be thrilled to see some rare footages of old Azzedine Alaïa shows (“another echelon” for Cathy Horyn)  in which supermodels of the ’90s gravitated (somewhere in there is also the now-reclusive Grace Jones). It sometimes feels like a knowing nod among friends for more friends rather than a vivid disclosure for the uninitiated, of the man and his creative output. And a substantiation of the already known fact that very much of Azzedine Alaïa’s designs start at the drafting table—a mark of a true couturier.