Must Fashion Use Religious Iconography To Be Cool?

Or is it, as usual, a lapse in the simple process called thought?

First it was Rihanna and now it’s Supreme. The skate brand that apparently can do no wrong has taken upon themselves to use the image of one of Thailand’s most revered monks on the back a camouflaged shirt, described in their website as ‘Blessings Ripstop Shirt’ (above). The icon is of the monk Luang Pho Khun Parisutthon, a well-loved figure, who died in 2015, aged 91. According to media reports, Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism, as well as Wat Ban Rai, the famed Nakhon Ratchasima temple with an elephant-head facade, in which the revered monk was based, asserted that Supreme made no contact with either regarding the use of the image, as well as the sacred text around it. Supreme, as it appeared, made no attempt to be respectful.

It isn’t clear how the use of clearly religious figures and scripts enhances Supreme’s design potency. Their designers—too indolent to research or understand—probably found the effect of the visuals exotic. But for the many in Thailand and outside, who hold the late monk in deep reverence, what Supreme has done is akin to sacrilege. Luang Pho Khun Parisutthon, even in death, is deeply venerated and is almost synonymous with Wat Ban Rai, where there is a museum dedicated to his life and teachings. While his image has been used for charitable purposes, for example, it is unthinkable in Thailand to employ it, even stylised, in such a commercial manner, in particular against a camouflage background, one associated with war. Luang Pho Khun Parisutthon is not Che Guevara.

Is nothing off-limits? Apparently not.

Just days earlier, Rihanna caused an uproar among the Hindu communities of the world when she posted on her Instagram page a photo (so inappropriate, we wouldn’t run it here) of herself totally topless, except for a folded left arm, placed to offer a modicum of modesty, and a host of jewellery to provide fashion interest, among them a pendant of the Hindu god Lord Ganesha. This sat provocatively on her belly button, under a length of tattoo that underscores her breasts. The photo appeared barely a week after reports of Rihanna jointly “pausing” her Fenty fashion line with LVMH. To generate more publicity? It seems that because the torso tattoo is of the Egyptian god Isis (inked, as reported, to honour the singer-in-haitus’s grandmother), Riri thought it was okay to go with Lord Ganesha, totally ignoring the fact that for the 1.2 billion Hindus in the world, he is highly venerable. Or has veneration and respect totally lost their meaning?

Apparently yes.

Photo: supremenewyork.com

F For Fenty Fashion?

LVMH is not continuing with Rihanna’s clothing line. Are you surprised? Is Fenty a flop?

The higher-ups at LVMH were hoping she’d be the Virgil Abloh of womenswear. But Rihanna’s Fenty, two years since its debut in 2019, is now in a mutually-agreed arrangement to halt the design, manufacture, and retail of the born-in-hype fashion line. The news that have emerged these past two days have mostly stated that LVMH and Rihanna have “paused” the Fenty line. The New York Times reported that both are “taking a break”. A hiatus may not lead to resumption. All have been careful not to use the four-letter F-word: Fail. As many wise sages have said, “there’s nothing wrong in failure”, but Rihanna, one of the biggest stars of her generation, has not known failure. According to an LVMH statement quoted in the press, the conglomerate and singer will “put on hold the RTW activity, based in Europe, pending better conditions.”

Does “better conditions” mean when COVID-19 is over or better controlled? Or, is it referring to improved economic conditions, post-pandemic? Or, do they mean when Rihanna becomes a better designer? For now, we can only hazard a guess. Talk and speculation suggest that Fenty has not been doing as well as the brand owners thought they would. Fenty launched to much much fanfare, but was there consensus that it was a ground-shifting (breaking is asking too much!) collection that would rewrite the aesthetical direction of womenswear or move the mountains of luxury retail? Was it just another singer/celebrity line, riding on hype than design? Did Rihanna’s “megawatt style” translate to a megawatt luxury line?

Fenty is conceived with one pop star’s idea of fashion, independent of retail reality and creative innovation

The fashion critic Suzy Menkes, on Instagram, quoted Rihanna to have said, “I’m a curvy girl” and “If I can’t wear it myself, it’s not going to work”. It appears that Badgirlriri has fashioned Fenty too much after herself for the line to be able to realise its potential, even if fancied. These are clothes imagined, rather than designed, for a woman leading a very particular life and adopting a very particular style. Rihanna gets away with wearing practically anything. No one has called her out for even questionable looks. Fenty is conceived with one pop star’s idea of fashion, independent of retail reality and creative innovation. It may look “stunning” on Rihanna, but on those who want to emulate her style, it’d look, at best, wannabe. She told Ms Menkes, “I am very much a red carpet girl and I am going to design something for that.” She did not say how that will fit into LVMH’s family of highly commercial brands, or how that will make the world’s largest luxury-brand conglomerate even bigger or the chairman Bernard Arnault, already the richest man in France, even wealthier.

The business minds at Fenty priced the collection to qualify it as a luxury line (minus the other family members’ inherently marketable French quality), but one that did not sit shoulder to shoulder with LVMH’s star brand Dior. ‘Traditionally’, pop/movie stars’ fashion brands are priced to appeal to whatever is opposite of high-end. Think Ivy Park. Or, Jessica Simpson. But Fenty is, for many, expensive (e.g., USD940 for a denim jacket). To be sure, Rihanna is aware of her line’s high prices and had expressed concern that they might not appeal to her budget-conscious fans, used to the far more accessible Fenty Beauty. If, however, the designs were worth paying for, there could be encouraging take up, though no market share. As it turned out, LVMH could not bank on two firsts of Fenty—the first woman to conceive an LVMH brand and the first woman of colour to lead her own house with the company. In the end, taste, voice, and originality matter. And, whether LVMH or Rihanna is aware, flair too.

Illustration by Just So

Horn Of Fenty

With backing from LVMH on a fashion line, Rihanna is now an all-singing, all-dancing, all-beautifying, all-designing one-woman super brand. But are the clothes nice? It may depend on whether you are a Riri fan or not

 

By Mao Shan Wang

Let me be upfront: I am not a rabid fan of Rihanna—okay, not a fan at all. I don’t listen to her music (except when it’s played on the radio; even then, I pay attention not); I don’t buy her Puma shoes; and I am not impressed by her cosmetics, never mind if there are 40 “inclusive” shades of foundation (at launch).

Like countless young women who desire to be a fashion designer because they like clothes, shopping, and to dress up, Rihanna seems, to me, to be answering to gratifiable vanity than vocational calling. As we know, fashion these days is doable as long as you want to and have the means or connections, not if you really have the skill or flair.

I grew up understanding that fashion designers design. They don’t sing. Jean Paul Gaultier, who despite a single from 1989, How To Do That, won’t go so far as to call himself a singer. But, conversely, many who sing—or employed as musicians or DJs—are not quite contented with expressing themselves vocally or musically, and are boldly crossing over so as to be able to establish themselves as fashion designers.
Fenty 052019 G1

To be sure, there are singers who are/were successful designers. Victoria Beckham comes to mind, and, reluctantly, Gwen Stefani, but these women put out fully-merchandised lines there are more than an extension of their armoire and their penchant for a certain look. Or, fashion that’s less the wardobe ‘edit’ of a fashionable individual such as Kate Moss for Topshop. I have, of course, not forgotten Beyonce, but you probably have. Remember Ivy Park? Maybe you do. House of Deréon? Guess not! And somewhere in there, the Haus of Gaga, which is really another story.

Maybe Rihanna is different, maybe she has what it takes—if not necessarily in the realm of actual clothes-making, at least in churning the hype. To be fair, she has experience, as many people call the pre-LVMH, Puma-backed/produced Fenty (not to mention the even earlier, 2013 collab with British fast fashion label River Island). Could Rihanna have been just parking herself there until a luxury conglomerate comes a-calling? Despite clever (or campy) collection themes such as Marie Antoinette at the Gym, Fenty 1.0 was not exactly high fashion. But, I could be wrong about that. It’s hard to be certain about such things these days. Whatever Serena Williams wears on court, the media is wont to call it a “high-fashion statement”.

Through Fenty, Rihanna augments the fashion-as-amour posturing by using a not-quite-soft silhouette and tough-wearing fabrics, such as canvas and barely-washed (or perhaps not at all) Japanese denim. She does not say how comfortable these fabrics are in increasingly high summer temps or scorching heat that is much of the world with no seasonal variations, such as Southeast Asia. The first hype-driven ‘release’ (her preferred term than ‘drop’), comprises the kind of clothes that wearers can “stun” in, “rock” a look, and appear “fierce”. Or, as Badgalriri described to the media, “badass and daring”.

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And there’s the tailoring, which recalls pal Virgil Abloh’s suits for Louis Vuitton, kind of a post-streetwear take on the zoot suit—a little oversized, with conspicuous lapels, in colours that are, surprisingly, sweet. Indeed, are they not on the same page? Rihanna makes her Fenty blazers more feminine by taking them in at the waist, so as to give the nipped-in effect that would otherwise not be apparent on wide-girthed women, a group every ‘inclusive’ fashion label now cannot ignore.

There is a discernible path here. When hip-hop-pop-stars-turn-designers (or streetwear-designers-do-luxury), tailoring seems to be the way to show that they have arrived at a certain level in fashion. To have mastered the suit is perhaps the equivalent of attaining an MBA, which, many graduates know—and schools promote—“means a worldwide recognition of your credentials”. Rihanna needed to move Fenty out of the sportif and athleisure sphere that the brand found itself in under the auspices of Puma. Tailored garments, with all its technical complexities, is a veritable upgrade for both label and the woman behind it, and a testimonial of her abilities for a global audience.

That Rihanna appeared at the Paris launch of Fenty in a white suit top (sans the bottom) with sort of boning that emphasises the waist is authentication of her style, one no longer glorifying a super-svelte body, and her long-brewing wish to be taken seriously as a designer. It is inconsequential that the silhouette—top heavy, sort of an inverted tear drop—is not quite new as brands, from Ambush to A Land, have long stocked them.

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Fashion is, of course, no longer about mileage. Who thinks about what they will wear a month from now? It’s about the moment, the vibe of the hour, the feeling of the day. See now, want now! Fenty is that time, the creator’s emotional state, the ardour her fans will not dampen. These are not exactly designs to rewrite anything; they are clothes that are familiar, something already seen and shall be seen (a week later, Alexander Wang showed interestingly similar jackets), pieces that presently seemed to me destined for discount retailers such as New York’s Century 21.

Although the media and Rihanna’s fans think this is a big deal for fashion, I am not sure what it all would really mean. It seems odd to me that those who can really design, such as Phoebe Philo, isn’t pursued and given their own label. Instead, we gravitate towards those with a pop life, a deep sense of self-worth and an ever-expanding IG account, those who have never sat at a drafting table before, those who have never ever dreamt of being a designer’s designer. According to WWD, LVMH has availed key employees from Louis Vuitton and Celine to work with Rihanna and her team, among them Fenty’s style director, Jahleel Weaver, who has been Rihanna’s partner-in-crime on previous projects. Of course Fenty will be well staffed. Who’s expecting Rihanna to even sketch?

Rihanna, while reportedly the first black woman to launch a fashion collection in Paris (for sure under LVMH), isn’t the first African-American to do so. I reminder one other. In the early 1980s, the late Patrick Kelly, a friend of the model Pat Cleveland, moved to Paris from New York City to establish his eponymous label, and was subsequently admitted into the prestigious Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, never mind if many only remember him for buttons and bows. Mr Kelly, unlike Rihanna, could at least sew, a requisite no longer crucial as long as you can sell anything, and in doing so, move mountains and the titans… of luxury.

The Fenty online store launches today at fenty.com. Photos: Fenty

Two Of A Kind: Pencil Lines Above The Eyes

Rihanna’s thin lines as brows are so rarely seen these days that even the major dailies are talking about them. But elsewhere, another woman too had her brows considerably narrowed and raised… rather earlier

 

Rihanna Vs CarinaLeft: Rihanna. Photo: British Vogue, Right: Carina Lau. Photo: Huayi Brothers

Rihanna sure knows how to make the news. It’s not good enough that she lands herself on the cover of British Vogue—September issue no less, she has to make a statement with her eyebrows. Or, those ridges exposed by the fine-line arcs above, and made more pronounced by makeup known as highlights. The thin curves of brow—drawings rather than actual hair—are slightly more refined than the markings plastic surgeons make before facial reconstruction surgery. You need to have some pluck to be so plucked, but when it comes to fashion, we know Rihanna has always been plucky.

By contrast, on another continent, Carina Lau’s thin eyebrows are a tad more brow-like if only because hers are a hair-width thicker (or was it because of the unsteady hand of the makeup artist?). Playing a power-threatened Empress Wu in Tsui Hark’s third Detective Dee film, The four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王), Ms Lau goes through anger fits, augmented by considerable camp, only to raise the already high, penciled lines even higher. In fact, predating—in more ways than one—Rihanna, Ms Lau was also cast as China’s only female emperor in the earlier Rise of the Sea Dragon (狄仁杰之神都龙王), and similarly with those fearful, elevated eyebrows. If God is a Woman, as Ariana Grande sings, would she have skinny eyebrows too?

In any case, these ultra-slender eyebrows are really not new. For those old enough, they will remember, if not their mother, or an aunt or two, certainly Angelica Houston and Faye Dunaway in the ’60s/70s, two actresses who knew how to work their brows to say don’t mess with me or come over here. Back then, their brows did not seem to lack denseness. In fact, the thin lines were considered feminine. If you are older still, there were the tweezer-dependent Clara Bows and Greta Garbo, but who’s looking that far back these days? After the bushiness of those on Brook Shields, which came very much face-to-face through the covers of American Vogue in the ’80s, women could not return to eyebrow width that’s equivalent to an actual strand of hair, to the point that tattooing is now a common permanent solution for those who are not able to be defined above the eye.

Girls of Colleen coloured pencilsPhotos: Macoto Takahashi/Colleen Pencil Company

If you look at the Rihanna cover closely—and it tempts examination, there’s something almost comic about the cosmetic composition. The eyebrows are so thin and arced (and sit so high up towards the hairline) that they seem to be a take on those typical of the characters of Japanese illustrator Makoto (sometimes spelled Macoto) Takahashi. Mr Takahashi’s dreamy portraits are likely unfamiliar to the Adobe Illustrator Draw set, but for those who had used Colleen coloured pencils in their school days, these damsels with perfectly circular eyes and those penciled brows would be an evocative amble down memory lane.

Colleen coloured pencils are no longer distinctively presented as before and the cases do not bear those illustrations synonymous with the Colleen Pencil Company when it was a Japanese business. Some time in the ’80s, the manufacturer went bust. In 1989, Colleen re-established itself as a Thai enterprise based just outside Bangkok. Even if Mr Takahashi’s illustrations were to be revived (these days, more likely to appear are cuter characters such as those of Little Twin Stars), it is doubtful any Millennial will decamp the thick-brow stronghold fronted by Clara Delevingne.

The thing about ultra-thin brows is that significant tweezing is required and near, if not complete, bareness is to be expected. For many woman, plucking a large swath of eyebrow is tantamount to cutting long hair short: it’s unthinkable or difficult to stomach, and can drive some to tears. Rihanna may be considered today’s eyebrow trendsetter, but she may not wield much influence if thin-line eyebrows do not draw adopters in numbers large enough to be considered a trend. The proclamations of Vogue, as we know, have considerably less impact on modern lives these days. It is indeed doubtful if thin can really be in again.

What? The Cold Hip Is Next?

Tom Ford spring/summer 2018

The cold shoulder, still a stubborn trend, seems to be moving southwards. And it could be cold hips, going by the looks of two high-profile, no-stranger-to-provocation collections.

First Tom Ford and then Rihanna for her full-fledged Fenty by Puma were proposing that you wear your trousers low enough and your inner wear high enough to show hips. It’s the new sweet spot that looks set to provide fast fashion retailers with a cold shoulder replacement.

Both brands showed leotards cut so high at the leg that when worn with low-slung pants revealed substantial skin of what gym instructors will know as gluteus medius. Is this the new erogenous zone, the triangular patch to show the skinny side of the panty, just as the cold shoulder is inevitably a window for the stray bra strap?

Fenty by Puma spring/summer 2018

The one-piece top has been pointed out by many in the media as the French-cut swimwear. The French actually do have a name for it: maillot (de bain). It is doubtful Mr Ford intended his for the beach or pool since they are styled to look destined for a bar (pool bar?) or anywhere such attire might be appreciated. But we may not really know as beach wear often appears in the city centre.

The hip for specific exposure is only a matter of time. It’s as if some designers are putting thumb and index finger of one hand to the corresponding two of the other and through the opening, scanning the body to see what other areas should be marked out next for fabric subtraction and eye-catching display.

The cold knee has had a long exposure, so too, staying on the limb, the cold heel—again (thanks to mules, especially Gucci’s fur-trimmed Princeton “slipper”). The cold breast has been in the spotlight, but the take-up rate appears to be a bit slow. The cold buttocks have had had their time in the sun, not to mention what’s between them cheeks (at one time underscored by the thong). What part of the body next can be framed for attention? We don’t know, we’re not Tom Ford.

Photo: indigital.tv

Denim Shirts: All Over Again

Rihana in denim shirtScreen grab of Rihanna in the video FourFiveSeconds

We’ve been noticing, especially these past two years, a resurgence of oversized denim shirts—including their chambray cousins—worn as if they’re the newest things in chemise design. The trend has been enthusiastically adopted by Rihanna, who paired hers with denim jeans and skirts. It’s now even more pronounced, with Riri wearing a belted oversized denim shirt in her latest music video, FourFiveSeconds, in which she shares screen space with Paul McCartney and Kanye West. Directed by fashion photography darlings, the Dutch duo Inez and Vinoodh, the video brings to our mind Janet Jackson’s 1990 single, Love Will Never Do (Without You), directed by Herb Ritts.

(Mr Ritts seriously got into directing music videos because of Madonna. He had shot the cover of her True Blue album in 1986, and was later asked to direct the video for Cherish. Mr Ritts apparently said to the Queen of Pop, “But I’m a still photographer”, to which she replied, “Well, you have a few weeks to learn”.)

Since we’re in recall mode, let’s stay for awhile. Rihanna apparently wore an old Sean Jean (picked from Mr West’s wardrobe) in FourFiveSeconds. She may have made the denim shirt—vintage too—a part of her mostly trashy style, but back in the early 80s, it was Sade who wore denim shirts without looking like she was trying too hard to impress (or, in current parlance, score likes). Sade had something that was innate: she wore body-con dresses without a self-conscious need to seduce; she mostly wore one accessory—hoop earrings—to forge a signature look, and she wore bolero tops even before Madonna’s current obsession with them. The Nigerian-British singer truly had that elusive ease of style, one that played well to her laid-back sensuality.

Sade in denim shirtSade doing denim on denim back in 1980. Photo: David Montgomery/Getty Images

Sade, who turned 56 last month, was no stranger to fashion, being an alumnus of London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. Before embarking on her singing career, she was trying to be a menswear designer, which, perhaps, explains her sometimes androgynous getup. Fashion, always looking back, hasn’t forgotten her. In Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring/summer 2013 homage to 1980s pop stars, Sade was not absent (Joan Smalls, in a fitted black lace dress, played her). In the same season, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing declared that Sade and her penchant for men’s blazer were clear influences. Similarly, our admiration is No Ordinary Love.

To Rihanna, we say, good try.

Something Borrowed From A Rude Boy?

Rihanna in Raf Simons for F1

I don’t think the authorities imposed a dress restriction on Rihanna, yet she of the denim-shorts-ripped-into-thongs fame was dressed rather conservatively at the Padang Stage last night, where she sang to mark the end of this year’s F1 races. As expected, throughout the thumping performance, she tease-danced, tease-jumped, and tease-twerked—Patpong-inspired movements facilitated by a roomy top that The Straits Times’ Eddino Abdul Hadi called “a shapeless, pop art-inspired dress.”

Unknown to him, Rihanna was wearing a Raf Simons tee from the SS 2014 collection (pop stars get to wear the upcoming season earlier than anyone else).  A men’s T-shirt on a woman of 1.73m (even though considered rather tall) would look like a dress, but a T-shirt is not a shapeless garment since it is technically based on the letter ‘T’, hence its name. Rihanna’s costumer did, however, try to feminise the garment so that it could reveal the knee-length fishnet stockings the singer wore: the side seams were split apart up to the hip. And that was all the ripping we got from her in buttoned-up Singapore.

Photos: The Straits Times; style.come