Recommended: For Him, For Her, For Them

More clothing brands are going gender-neutral, but most are really just saying a woman can buy a man’s shirt, even when many already have. Question is, are guys ready to shop in the woman’s department?

At Uniqlo, a tag offering men more options

By Raiment Young

Last year. What do we remember of it other than the arrival of Omicron? Or, the return of physical fashion shows? Or, the collaborations between luxury brands? One of the style issues trending into 2021 was the visible advent of non-binary styles. Men, especially, we were counselled, should be able to adopt traditionally-feminine fashion if they choose to. Gender-neutral and gender-inclusive brands were talked about alongside those that chose the sustainable and were aware of garment manufacture’s impact on the environment (other than using cottons from non-controversial regions). Leading the adoption of clothes that do not shout out their traditional masculinity are pop stars, such as Harry Styles and Troye Sivan. To them, wearing a dress is okay. Even lexicography is seeing a re-definition of dress by not ascribing it to gender. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the noun form of ‘dress’ as “a piece of clothing that is made in one piece and hangs down to cover the body as far as the legs, sometimes reaching to below the knees, or to the ankles”. That’s it.

At Uniqlo’s global flagship store during the festive season, two guys in until-recently-MIA office attire were looking at a long, loose, lapel-less knitted coat right in front of me. One of them, in a fitted and darted shirt, was holding up the hung garment to give it a proper look, as if to understand it better, rather than to consider buying it. The other then said, somewhat incredulously, “men can wear, meh?” This disbelief seemed to be a reaction to a little sign, clipped to the chest of the coat to draw attention. It read, in full caps, “RECOMMENDED FOR MEN TOO!”—the exclamation not just to denote vehement enthusiasm, but also to seemingly say “believe you me”. The guys looked at the soft and drapey outerwear from top to hem. There was a moment of silence. Then, the one still holding the hanger asked—in comfortable Hokkien—disbelievingly, “汝知嗎 (li zai bo, do you know)?” As Uniqlo intended, now both do.

Women’s clothes outrightly recommended for men is really a recent occurrence. I was only seeing the guidance with some regularity last year. Sure, some guys are now wearing what would be indisputably designed for women, including accessories such as pearls, but these individuals are not traipsing the town in numbers large enough to be considered normality. Even with the seeming popularity of skirts for men—now also championed by Louis Vuitton, I doubt that for many (most?) guys, shopping would not still be a gendered experience. The fact that male shoppers needed to be told that specific styles merchandised for the women’s department are suitable for them indicate that they still draw the line between his and hers, bifurcated and not. Uniqlo, mostly seen as a traditional, even family-oriented, brand, is, admirably, taking the lead, suggesting that gender-neutral is going mainstream. But, are guys ready for stores that disrupt gender norms, even mildly?

Seen on a Urban Revivo hanger in the men’s department

Whether retail is welcoming more non-binary customers or not, women have never needed prompting to shop men’s clothing for themselves. They have, for a long time, not been constricted by gender confines. And that can be said to go back as far as Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking of 1966. One buyer-friend told me that he is seeing more women purchasing menswear—especially tops—as “many now prefer larger and looser cuts that they do not find in the women’s department“. The oversized T-shirt, adopted so that the wearer looks like she is pants-less, has been visible for many years now. That is just one example. Increasingly, oversized shirts and denim truckers are preferred over those cut specifically for women. At the Nike store in Jewel on Boxing Day, I saw a trio of girls—dressed like paddlers after a training session—choosing a fleece hoodie from the Jordan men’s collection. The one purchasing said, with palpable glee, “good, they have my size.“

Such satisfaction is not uncommon. It was, therefore, to my surprise when I saw, in the men’s department of Urban Revivo recently, a wood hanger which accommodated a washed denim happy coat, proudly tagged “RECOMMENDED FOR WOMEN TOO”. I was not sure if it was really a statement of the garment’s gender-neutrality or that the masculine-not style isn’t incorrectly situated. The similarly-worded tag has been deployed at Uniqlo’s men’s department too, even when many women already shop there. While such recommendations are laudable, it does, to me, arouse the question: are we only taking baby steps towards gender-fluid fashion retail? Despite the growing social awareness of non-binary inclusion, we are still led to believe that, as Asians, we are conservative by default. And as long as retailers still stick to the binary departmentalising of their stores—and their merchandise, non-binary clothing, by design or not, is still uncommon.

One of the truly few retailers that appear to be positively gender-inclusive is Muji Labo, a brand that especially appeals to those for whom binary classification (that includes “recommended for”) is a turn-off when deciding what to buy and what to wear. According to Muji, the Labo line “aims to get rid of the unnecessary ‘fashion waste’, riding on the principle of unisexuality, producing basic wear that overrides age, sex and body size, demonstrating the versatility of Muji’s garments at every occasion.” Describing their clothes by the somewhat retro-term “unisex” (circa mid-’60s), Muji is adopting the more moderate and less activism-tinged approach to retailing clothes that are suitable for any gender (in the current climate, ‘them’?”). But gender, however neutral, is not such a simple and straightforward construct. Clothing, in whatever shape and form, does not inherently relate to gender. What I see as truly groundbreaking would be when Uniqlo tags an Ines de La Fressange dress with “RECOMMENDED FOR MEN TOO!”

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

The Digital Shift: Livestream Retailing

Brands selling through platforms such as Facebook Live are on the rise, but must each session be such a by-the-way and pasar affair?

Uniqlo on Facebook Live on 11.11, with hosts Fauzi Aziz (left), Felicia Poh (right), and model (centre). Screen grab Uniqlo/Facebook

As shoppers are spending more time online and staying away from physical stores, more brands are bringing the store to the shoppers via social media. Digital consumerism is truly becoming the heart of civic life. Livestream retail, while not a new way of selling, is fast gaining traction on our island. This primarily involves a host or more—brand owner(s), staff, or their friends—introducing or recommending products in a live video through platforms such as Facebook or Instagram, presently the two most popular. The shows are often productions with budgets so low, they’re probably zero, shot in a corner of an office or a store, even a warehouse with what, in many cases, appears to be a smartphone. As they are streamed live, editing is virtually absent and what you see is what you get. And, what you often do see and get are not exactly examples of polished videography or even compelling selling, nor funny jokes. In the age of TikTok videos, we are constantly told, no one cares about finish or finesse.

These endeavours are not the moving of mountains, but perhaps they should be, given live commerce’s increasing importance as a sales channel. Most of the selling via livestreams that we have viewed in the interest of this post are not even an uphill hike; they are no better than the majority of the crappy posts seen on TikTok, which is now so influential in its visual aesthetics that even television commercials are mimicking them. One TVC producer told us, “these days, anyone with a smartphone can be the host and the director. Who bothers with script and pre-pro?” Which explains why many retail livestreams appear to be conducted extempore, with hosts often asking each other what to do or show next, or struggling to describe what they are wearing or have in their hands. Is this really the appeal: as if you have just met the sales persons in Zoom, and they are—lucky you—willing to do a lame song and dance just to sell you a dress.

One of the latest brands to join the preferred platform, Facebook Live, to sell their wares is Uniqlo. Two nights ago, they streamed a 24-minute session to “celebrate” 11.11, but it bore little celebratory oopmh. The show was video-recorded on a selling floor of their Global Flagship Store at Orchard Central, but looked like it could have been at any of their smaller suburban outlets. The host, Felicia Poh, “who handles public relations” appears, but it was after a palpable one-and-half minute wait before we could be acquainted with her yoo-hoo exuberance. She was then joined by Fauzi Aziz, marketing lead of The Smart Local, who gushed about how much he loves the brand. Both were so bubbly, they practically frothed. But nothing they announced was especially new or appealing, despite the promise of sharing “a lot of exciting stuff”, not even the news that the +J collection, already trending, will launch next week. What worked in their favour was that they did not have to go off-screen to change into what they wanted to sell. Rather, they had the best-looking members of the Uniqlo staff to model the looks, which, admittedly, were well styled, even when a binder clip could be seen clasped to the ribbed hem of a sweatshirt one of them wore, to tighten it over his waist. This model was put in an uncomfortable position when he was subject of ill-considered humour. Mr Aziz had said about the outfit: “I saw him from afar and I was like saying, ‘I could work this.’” Before he was able to complete what he wanted to say, his co-host outed him with “like your new crush“!

The indefatigable three of Mdada: (from letf) Pornsak Prajakwit, Addy Lee, and Michele Chia. Screen grab: Mdada/Facebook

Not all brands have the advantage of attractive-looking staffers to strut during a livestream or to excite the hosts. So for most, the girl/boy-next-door presenters, usually a pair, slip in and out of outfits between inane banter, and not always with the finesse of professional models or hosts who know what to do before a camera. But these livestreams are not television broadcasts. Anything goes, and it usually does. Typically, the videos appear and nothing really happens until minutes later. It is not clear why they can’t start at the scheduled time. As with most livestreams, the hosts would move about, pretending they are not videoed yet. And when the show does begin, peppy is often the way to start. The best example of this is Mdada (达达开播), the e-commerce company of former TV comperes Michele Chia and Pornsak Prajakwit, and hairstylist Addy Lee that generated S$15 million in “unaudited revenue”, according to The Straits Times. Mdada’s success is largely based on grassroots vibes and the rawness of hold-the-smartphone-in-front productions, from which viewers are pulled into their loud and goofy, but artless charm.

Started in September last year, Mdada illustrates that selling online the way they do is best conducted as if a bunch of friends got together for some boisterous fun. Gentility and grace are not part of the company. Typically, the hosts kick off with mindless banter so that you would get used to their raucous presence. A necessity as each livestream can go on for hours, up to a staggering twelve, according to the trio. This is sustained via what Mr Lee, also the CEO of Mdada and the godfather of Quan Yifeng’s daughter Eleanor Lee, described to the media as “engaging hosts” (he is one of them—about seven, including Shane Pow), delivering “engaging product demos, exclusive deals, and limited-time auction”. To engage, they seem to, crucially, grate: each of them need only be themselves, Bengness and Lianness to the hilt, with a body of words—Mandarin (primarily), English, and Hokkien—in a din that could be used to lelong anything from massages to Moschino. And the livestreams must also contain, what Mr Prajakwit told CNBC, “info-taintment”. It is not known if their audience—close to 35,000 followers on FB—are truly informed or entertained, or both, while the peddlers often perform in the presence of a sloppy pile.

Nor are we told of the demographics of their shoppers. It could be companionable to watch the Mdada hosts go about their business of silly-talk selling, but it is amazing that one does not feel the effects of the tight space in which the sales are conducted and, especially, when the hairdresser’s face frequently fills the screen. Who, we wonder, are inspired or aroused to shop when they see, for example, Mr Lee and his co-host hold up crumpled Prada paper bags in a dim hotel room, as seen on a recent teaser of their livestream from Italy? It is also not known if the selling that takes place on the opposite side of sophistication (merchandise in a mess before them, for example) is endorsed by the brands they so enthusiastically hawk. Mdada (or MLux, as the platform for selling luxury goods is called) certainly provides an experience contrary to what a shopper is likely to meet in an actual designer boutique (their livestreams from Italy appeared to be conducted in stores of an outlet mall). The days of experiential purchases are over? A former fashion buyer told us, “It is possible that most of the shoppers on Mdada are intimidated by the thought of walking into a luxury store. Buying on livestreams is less daunting and less likely to cause anxiety.”

Two is the company: Fayth Live. Screen grab: Fayth/Facebook

It is understandable that there are those who would not have the confidence to enter a Prada store, but would anyone be too anxious to walk into, say, Fayth, the SG brand with an unmistakable blogshop aesthetic? Founded by Ryan Ng and Janis Gan in 2012, Fayth’s physical shops are happy friendships between pastel shades and accessible prettiness. Still, their livestreams on FB can be a draw. In their last, posted in July, hosts Sarah and Yvonne attracted 284 viewers to their 42-minute show. Nothing really happened and the selling did not attempt to whip things up. As they bantered and giggled, and giggled, someone unseen (presumably the videographer) would ask them questions that viewers had presumably posted. The bespectacled duo tried their best to answer, as well as to offer personal opinions. They would move nearer the camera to show the details on their outfits (a particular favourite is the “concealed zip”—“can’t really see, that’s why it’s called concealed zip”) or bring a dress on a hanger closer to fill the screen so that those watching them would know “there’s also elastic band inside” or what shade ivory is: “so it’s a bit like creamy colour”.

As the one-take production did not benefit from the input of a sound engineer, their giggly voices tended to echo through the relatively empty and surprisingly neat space. Sarah had the habit of dragging her feet, so the cluck-cluck of her short block-heels would interject her selling, even when she went off-screen or as she came back on. This continued even when she was in a pair of slides and, later, sneakers (since Fayth does not sell footwear, it is possible the hosts wore their own. The effort looked like an afterthought). Everything they tried was perfect: not too long, not too short; and all the dresses kept to one silhouette: tented. The girls changed and showed off the clothes with palpable delight, sometimes shaking their bodies, as if to prove that what they wore were truly hanging loosely. And if that was not enough, they encouraged each other to twirl. In fact, any dress that was not form-fitting was described with one word—“flowy”.

In most of the livestreams we have watched, the lack of fashion literacy is startling. You’d think that individuals hosting shows to sell clothes would know at least the basic terms relating to what they would be putting out for sale, but that is frequently not the case. For Uniqlo, Felicia Poh described a notch (similar to a fishtail parka’s) at the hem of the centre-back of the dress she wore as a “flap”, while Fauzi Aziz, who told the viewers he was “decked out” in +J, went rather blank over a grossgrain tape that covered the rear seam of the yoke of a sweatshirt, referring to it as a “thick woven fabric on the back detail”. To Mdada’s Addy Lee, who hawks with the resonance of a Hungry Ghost Festival auctioneer, every pair of footwear was a xie (鞋) or shoe, whether sneakers or Wallabees, and every bag a baobao (包包) until it became enough to kaishi baobao (开始包包) or “start bags” when the selling commenced. Sarah from Fayth was more informative, so much so that she pointed to you that a dress was made of “polyester material”, in case you’d think polyester is a vegetable or that the dress came with “inner lining” so that you’ll not mistake it for outer lining. And to help you further, a skirt over built-in shorts was called a “skort”, even when it’s not shorts pretending to be a skirt. And just as delightful, the invisible bearer of viewers’ questions asked earnestly, “what is the material of this fabric?”

In Good Company Live offers the company of five hosts (three seen here). Screen grabs: In Good Company/Facebook

The need to use relatable rojak language is understandable. As one marketing head said to us with a hint of regret in his voice, “we are not exactly sophisticated consumers.” It’s not just our irrational love of “actually”, “never” or “got”, used indiscriminately, but the disregard of words conveying information crucial to the appreciation of what we consume, in this case, fashion. That these hosts would inaccurately describe the clothes and the details that set the pieces apart from the competitor’s (there are, after all, so many tiered sundresses out there) or employ strange expressions with conviction is really rather curious communication. Their ebullience concealed nothing. When more retailers—even mass labels such as Uniqlo—are providing the right terminology on hang tags and sign holders on racks, it is regrettable that there are brands, even the really respected ones, that are not bothered by hosts of their livestreams using peculiar or made-up words.

What took us by surprise was In Good Company’s sales session, livestreamed from their Jewel store just four days ago. In a forty-one-minute broadcast, triteness was really the main show. Hosted by four women and a guy, Suwen, Maggi, Azrin, Jean, and Ning, it was as much a mutual admiration club as it was a selling opportunity. Less than three minutes into the livestream, Suwen described a cowl neck as a “boat neck… that’s not your normal (as it turned out, her favourite expression) boat neck neckline”. It was not difficult to see where they were taking the viewers. “It has very interesting sleeves,” she progressed to talk about a top with multiple diagonal panels, but did not explain why they were interesting, only that they were “slightly different”. Her hosting partner Ning would not be outdone. Of a pullover, he informed the viewers that “it’s made up of three different fabric pieces… stitched together”, possibly out of fear that potential shoppers might think that the panels were glued together. The two loved to suggest that tops could be worn “both tucked out or tucked in”. It would be more helpful if either of them showed the audience how he or she would “tuck out”. We like to believe that both meant untucked! But, “tuck out” was a clear favourite.

It is understandable if they struggled to talk fashion, but they strived to talk clothes too. They were not able to provide sufficient occasions or places the separates could be worn to, so they kept repeating how the ensembles could be “worn on a plane”, happily oblivious that travelling is still somewhat limited, even when Vaccinated Travel Lanes have been introduced between our island and some nations. But what truly made the broadcast for us was when Suwen called a romper a “shorter-length jumpsuit” and Ning specified seersucker as “corrugated cotton” (puckered cotton, yes, but corrugated?), possibly thinking of zinc roofs! To be certain, we do not expect these part-time hosts to be fluent in the language of fashion or textiles. Even a professional such as DJ Rosalyn Lee struggled while she presented on IG, the live preview of the autumn/winter 2020 collection of Comme des Garçons. Still, it was really surprising and disappointing that In Good Company’s marketing department did not provide the hosts with the knowledge necessary to make their presentation credible. And, in turn, more watchable.

Close Look: Uniqlo X White Mountaineering

Can an outer-only capsule arouse shoppers’ appetite, especially when many are not likely to be travelling?

Under normal circumstances and weather, many of us do not buy outerwear. Sure, hoodies or windbreaker for the cinema and lecture theatres are still flying off the shelves, but a padded coat is unlikely to arouse our urge to aquire protection against the cold for our bodies. Layering to keep warm is unlikely on anyone’s mind right now, not when even night-time temperatures these days are around 30 degrees celsius. So when we checked out Uniqlo’s latest tie-up with compatriot brand White Mountaineering, we were disappointed that there was nothing we could justifiably buy (who is spending indescrimately these days?). Sure, we already knew it would be for-winter collection, but we couldn’t help being let down.

The ten-piece capsule for men, women, and kids comprises mostly of outers, designed clearly for weather conditions nowhere near ours. Even the pullovers are in fleece, which for a freezing movie hall is still too warm. At the launch of the collection last Thursday, it was not as busy as it was for other such debuts. We saw a few self-declared White Mountaineering fans (we asked!), but many walked away without buying. One young fellow told us, disappointment thick in his voice, “Although the prices are not really high, it still doesn’t make sense for me to buy something I won’t be wearing any time soon”.

Uniqlo, we suspect, hopes that some of us in this part of the world would buy the pieces to keep. But winter wear takes up space and another coat to be stored is additional capacity, assuming we have, used up. Still, if you need to pick one standout buy, we’d say go for the WPJ Fleece Oversized Jacket. Unfortunately, this is for guys only. At a quick look, it could pass off as a varsity jacket. But look closely, the combination of fleece body and a poly-sherpa (fleece) panel on the bodice, with two rows of piping that are parallel to the zipper closure and frames the neckline, creates a fetching twofer effect.

What could against WM’s favour is the availability of other lines within the Uniqlo store, namely the Christophe Lemaire-led U sub-brand and the return of +J (possibly the last collection), both with more fetching coats and such, but more importantly, with items that can be worn here, such as shirts and blouses. And those ubiquitous U oversized tees. That is not even counting the women’s lines with Theory and Ines de la Fressange. If you really want something truly wearable and, perhaps more importantly, with unabashed WM branding, just hop next door and consider their second collaboration with Fila.

What is also puzzling, in terms of timing, perhaps, is that the White Mountaineering pairing with Uniqlo appears at the same time as Fast Retailing’s other brand GU’s more compelling romance—with the hot label Undercover. This tie-up’s first offerings were launched in March for the spring/summer season and were quickly sold out wherever there is a GU store. Perhaps, here, the consolation is that GU is not available. That is clearly one competitor less.

White Mountaineering X Uniqlo is available in Uniqlo Global Flagship Store, Orchard Central. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Strictly For Winter

Images of the Uniqlo X White Mountaineering are released. There is nothing we can buy to wear on our gloriously sunny island

Just as we suspected, the collaboration that we have been looking forward to will give us very little reason to buy. And just as designer Yosuke Aizawa of White Mountaineering earlier revealed about his collab with Uniqlo, it’s really about outerwear, and just that. In fact, it’s a surprisingly small capsule—tiny. Just two items for women, four for men, and three for kids. Every piece is designed to protect from the wearer from the cold, i.e. winter, not cinema hall air-conditioning. The one jacket, for example, a parka, (available for women, men, and kids) is padded with “absorbent bio-warming” material. The thought of it in this mid-September heat is enough to make people sweat. There are six pockets on the jacket and two of them serve as hand warmers. Unless you work in an ice plant or even the meatpacking department of Cold Storage, you very probably wouldn’t need the jacket here.

It is surprising that Uniqlo did not consider expanding the product offerings. Or, to include tops such as shirts and T-shirts (we do not consider fleece pullovers the equivalent). This is more so considering that the brand has a huge presence in Southeast Asia, where, for the most part, winter clothing is not required. Although White Mountaineering is the go-to brand in Japan for outerwear or, in the case with Uniqlo, those “created with a common language (easy to understand?)”, Mr Aizawa does design compelling items that are not outers. Sure, Uniqlo produces all the U tees, as well as the UT tops that will feed the world’s appetite for those items of clothing, but if they had allowed White Mountaineering to express their own ideas of what, to them, are truly basic, the result might be irresistible and crowd-pullers too.

Rather, we can only look at the items that do not have a real place in our daily wardrobe. Fleece and down, for most people here, are those kept aside in unemployed language until the time arrives for their use: travel! And there is usually inadequate reasons to buy more. It is therefore curious that Uniqlo bothers to avail the collab here when their own winter outerwear would suffice for the few people who’d be travelling. Perhaps representation is necessary for Uniqlo’s merchandising, but as one sportswear buyer told us, “It’d really be a bummer not to be able to buy so that we can wear the items soon. It is doubtful that many people will be holidaying soon enough or that 95% of Singaporeans will travel abroad for leisure (2013 and 2014)”. It appears that, for those whose resistance is low, buy now, wear much later would be the order. That sole jacket we mentioned is S$149.90 for women, S$199.90 for men, and S$99.90 for kids. It may be good to invest in, considering that a similar piece from White Mountaineering would set you back ¥60,500 or approximately S$742.

Although the nine-piece collection (different colours for all styles) look rather similar to some of Uniqlo’s own winter wear, it is in the unexpected details that set them apart (even when only the wearer knows), such as the vertical pocket opening along the placket of the men’s oversized quilted down jacket. As Yosuke Aizawa said in a promotional interview, “Sport and outdoor details can be used effectively in our daily life, such as going to a park or taking a walk. These are not just cool as a fashion, but also by combining various elements of functionality for movements, outdoor details, texture and heat retention effect, I presume I was able to feed back the technology and knowledge that I had gained through outdoor wear into Uniqlo.” Let’s see if resistance would be futile.

Uniqlo X White Mountaineering will launch in mid-October. Exact date not revealed. Photos: Uniqlo

Mountain High

Uniqlo X White Mountaineering could be the most exciting collab for both Japanese brands this year

White Mountaineering (WM) has just announced on social media that they will be collaborating with compatriot brand Uniqlo for an autumn/winter 2021 capsule. Fans of Japanese ‘Gorpcore’ would be thrilled (to us, it was in the Land of the Rising Sun that it all began). For us here at SOTD, this would probably be the most exciting Uniqlo collaboration since Undercover in 2012, six years after WM was born. These days, more and more fashion consumers appreciate outdoor styles that can be copped for a trendy and distinctive expression of self. WM’s designer and founder Yosuke Aizawa—a Junya Watanabe alum—will be the first to tell you that his clothes are not entirely suitable for serious mountain climbing. But his love for the outdoors and sports that brings one to higher altitudes is overwhelming, so much so that he saw the possibility of melding the functional and the utilitarian with the fashionable. And he did not see incorrectly. White Mountaineering predated the Gorpcore trend by more than a decade, way before Gucci’s pairing with The North Face.

Nothing very much is revealed (not even a photo) about the collab yet. Nor, date of release. But White Mountaineering did post on Instagram: “Announcing a new collaboration for Fall/Winter 2021. Outerwear created as a common language for everyone—LifeWear simplicity and White Mountaineering style.” To note is the deliberate mention of “outerwear”. Given that the collection is for the fall season and WM is known for their covetable parkas and such, it could be pieces we are unlikely to buy, especially when travel to colder climes this year seems unlikely. If WM’s own autumn/winter collection (or their collaborative output, such as last year’s pairing with Fila) is any indication, expect practical styling with silhouettes that are decidedly contemporary and cool. And yes, utility pockets, unusually placed too. You may not need these clothes this year (or here), but you can always purchase a couple to keep, especially when they would be priced at a fraction of what you’d have to pay for, if considering WM’s main line. Watch this space for more details.

Update (7 October 2021, 11:15): the Uniqlo X White Mountaineering collaboration will be available at Uniqlo’s Orchard Central Global Flagship store on 15 October

Photo illustration: Just So

Will These KAWS Another Mad Rush?

Uniqlo has announced another KAWS collaboration even when the last was supposed to be the final

The Uniqlo UT X KAWS collaboration was supposed to have ended two years ago, but it’ll soon be bouncing back. Looks like the crashing of Uniqlo store shutters will happen all over again as the young (mostly) rush and trip over themselves to get a piece of the merchandise for either personal consumption or—very likely—to resell online for a ridiculously inflated price. The craze for anything KAWS has not died down since its association with Dior at the start of Kim Jones’s stewardship of the brand’s menswear. KAWS—aka Brian Donnelly— isn’t just known for his own caricatured characters such as the beloved loner Companion, but also cartoon characters such as those from Sesame Street, as seen in another Uniqlo collab. There is no denying the cross-market lure of KAWS, especially in the form of illustrations on fashion items.

We understand that the latest Uniqlo X Kaws pieces will be available only in Japan for the moment. This will be released two weeks from now to commemorate the first major KAWS exhibition in Tokyo (at the capital’s Mori Arts Center Gallery), titled KAWS Tokyo First. The T-shirt (three styles) and tote bag (one) collection, featuring Companion, will be made available as exhibition merchandise at the show venue first, followed by a country-wide Uniqlo store release later. There is no news yet from Uniqlo’s local office if the commemorative merchandise will be available here. Reach out to a kind friend in Tokyo!

Uniqlo X Kaws will be available in Japan from 20 July. Product photos: Uniqlo

Who’s That Goddess?

The Winged Victory of Samothrace has such high-low appeal

Left: Louis Vuitton show that ended with the last model in front of the statue. Screen grab: Louis Vuitton. Right: The image on a Uniqlo T-shirt. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

When the final model of last month’s Louis Vuitton show came to the end of the runway (set in the Louvre Museum), she came face to face with one of the biggest treasures of the musée: the Winged Victory of Samothrace. She paused and looked at the imposing figure as if in silent worship. What stood before her was the Hellenistic sculpture of Nike—the Greek goddess, not the sneaker brand. Nearly 11,000 kilometres to the east of Paris, the image of the same headless and armless deity was seen on the front of a black, S$19.90 Uniqlo crew-neck T-shirt. The illustration, in a patina of pastels, is conceived by the British graphic designer Peter Saville, in conjunction with the Louvre. It also includes the location of the statue and two letters and four numerals that form the inventory number. Back in Paris, you can buy a good 18-cm reproduction of the goddess that’s patinated by hand for €119. An immeasurable distance away, at the online portal Lazada, you, too, can obtain a similar figurine, cast in resin, for S$35.74. The Winged Victory (the shorter name), it seems, is almost everywhere.

Discovered in 1863 on the Greek island of Samothrace, in the northern Aegean sea, this sculptured likeness of Nike (circa 200 B.C.) is considered one of the finest in the world for its realistic depiction of a body in motion as well as its attractive female proportions. Ironically, the sculptor is unknown. By most accounts, Nike is a winged goddess who flies around as the bestower of victory to those who win wars, as well as peaceful competition, such as athletic games. Although not shown in the statue, she is known to carry laurel wreaths to hand out to, naturally, victors, and bestowing on them the rewards that come with winning. Other than her ability to take to flight, she is also reputed to be a fast runner (the connection to that shoe company again!) and a talented charioteer (which makes her standing atop the prow of a boat in the Louvre rather odd), so good, in fact, she commanded Zeus’s cavalry as the chief charioteer.

Despite her abundant talents, Nike did not seem attractive to possible suitors

No goddess of repute wasn’t connected to Zeus, the god of gods, the all-father, whose throne was in Olympus and whose personal logo is the thunder bolt. Nike was born to the Titan Pallas and the nymph Styx. In the ten-year Titanomachy, a war of egos that saw the Olympians battle the Titans, Styx sided with Zeus and was the first to dash to his aid. She presented him with Nike and her siblings to serve as allies. So pleased was Zeus with this unconditional readiness that he allowed them to use Mount Olympus as their permanent residence. Nike was allowed to remain by his side and receive his eternal protection. Despite her abundant talents, Nike did not seem attractive to possible suitors (she remained unmarried). In fact, there is no mention of her looks unlike, say, Aphrodite, who, although a warrior goddess, was celebrated for her beauty, among many other attributes. Stephen Fry in Mythos, described her as “a face far more beautiful than creation has yet seen or will ever see again”. Nike did not enjoy such a tribute to her physical attributes, although the ancients did describe her as “trim-ankled”.

In the Winged Victory, the goddess is often admired for the draped dress on her forward-thrusting body, both captured with remarkable mastery. This version of Nike wears a chiton, a unisex garment of either linen or wool. Given the lightness in the depiction, linen is likely the fabric represented there. The chiton was mostly rectangular, and held in place and gathered at the shoulders by either stitches or pins. Since its length for women was usually longer than the wearer, the chiton was worn with a belt so that when the top part was pulled up to fall over the cinched waist, like a blouse, the length could be shortened. On the Winged Victory, an additional belt is secured under the bust to further secure the dress. The fabric, possibly because of the wind, gathered between the legs to expose unscandalously the left hip and leg. Around the waist, another garment could be discerned: a himation or a cloak, draped around the right hip and swept open, with a swathe of it caught in the wind behind. Unlike mortals of today, the gods of yore clearly didn’t need a stylist to work their fashion.

Theory At Uniqlo

The American brand, Uniqlo’s sibling, appears with its own little space in the Japanese fast fashion’s new global flagship in Ginza, Japan

Uniqlo in Tokyo is offering the more upmarket label Theory, its sibling brand under parent company Fast Retailing, alongside its LifeWear offerings, at its Yurakucho/Ginza store, which reopened last June after a refurbishment (and expansion), reimagined by the Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron. Theory in the bright spanking space in Marronnier Gate 2 building is a surprising addition to a store initially dubbed Uniqlo Tokyo, which, according to a company media release, was “created as the new global flagship store to embody the LifeWear ideal.” It isn’t surprising that Theory, with its clean lines and generally neutral palette, fits the bill and the retail environment. The collection could have been, upon a cursory glance, Uniqlo U, the sub-brand presently steered by Christophe Lemaire in Paris.

Launched last October, Theory at Uniqlo takes up about 60-odd square metres on the first and second floors. Unless you seek it out, there is a good chance you might actually miss the relatively small collection. With the branding built into the industrial-looking fixtures that go well with the exposed beams of the four-level store’s central concourse, the corner is somewhat discreet, and is overwhelmed by Uniqlo’s own larger and more colourful offering. It could be assumed that Uniqlo is hopping to underscore its versatility, that their LifeWear, however basic, could be easily and stylishly teamed with other more ‘elevated’ styles, especially those under their family of brands, which includes the French label Comptoir des Cotonniers, also available here. But one thing does stand out: the price difference. Theory is many rungs up the price hierarchy. One Theory hoodie was going for JPY23,000 (approximately SGD294), while Uniqlo’s could be had for JPY2,900 (approximately SGD37).

It is inaccurate to think that just because one shops in Uniqlo, one only wants to buy cheap merchandise

Fast Retailing’s pulling together two of its brands on the different side of the price scale is, from a retail perspective, a refreshing arrangement. It is inaccurate—even parochial—to think that just because one shops in Uniqlo, one only wants to buy inexpensive merchandise. A discerning eye, as Uniqlo possesses, is not trained on price alone. Perhaps this will work only in Japan. No news from Uniqlo SG yet if Theory will be introduced here. We know, of course, that our shoppers have a tendentious habit of seeking the cheap. Since its arrival on our shores in 2009, its visitors mostly associate the brand with low-priced fashion than fast fashion, often overlooking its design value. In a statement prior to the launch of Theory (and Comptoir des Cotonniers) at Uniqlo Tokyo, Fast Retailing stated that the step towards a multi-label store “allows customers to handle and purchase items with the same high quality and comfort of Uniqlo [and] offer customers the opportunity to freely coordinate items from the three brands”. This obvious plus, we suspect, would have weak acceptance on our island.

Theory was born in New York in 1999 when former Anne Klein CEO Andrew Rosen teamed up with the Israeli designer Elie Tahari to create a line that was widely known then to cater specifically to professional women. The clothes associated with Theory were—at least initially—pants: in particular stretch pants, but cut and styled in a dressier way. That one item become the driving success of the brand. In 2003, both Mr Rosen and Mr Tahari sold Theory to its Japanese licensee Link International (before becoming Link Theory Holdings or LTH) just after compatriot company Fast Retailing acquired an “equity stake” in Link. Two years later, the American arm of LTH bought Helmut Lang from the Prada Group. In 2009, LTH was fully owned by Fast Retailing (after which, they acquired the jeans label J Brand in 2012). Under the new ownership, Theory enjoyed reasonable success. Between 2010 and 2014, it was designed by the “Prince of Goth” Olivier Theyskens. Mr Rosen even allowed the designer his own imprint, Theyskens’ Theory (at first a test capsule Theory by Olivier Theyskens). While the global profile of Theory at this time was raised, it was reported that the sale figures that Mr Rosen had craved for never materialised.

Theory and Uniqlo’s relationship on the selling floor goes back to 2016, when a collaboration between the two yielded a men’s admittedly conservative capsule collection. It was marketed with a catchy phrase: “Japanese Engineering, New York Style”, perhaps reminding shoppers of the brand’s Big Apple origins. This collab came back again last year. It is not clear how successful this co-branding is, but the repeat season and, now, a Theory corner in a Uniqlo flagship are indications that Fast Retailing has big plans—and high hopes—for a name that is, for many, an unshakeable reminder of the 2000s, when, way before the (fortunately ending) tumultuous Trump era, American labels had some appeal, if not cachet.

Photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

Is Black Better?

Once, Black Friday was invariably described as the sale of the year. In the wake of the pandemic, it now seems to be beckoning from the shadows

How quickly we arrive at a once-a-year Friday inauspiciously called ‘black’. It would be amusing to go into how the Friday after the US Thanksgiving holiday turned into this shade of raven, but it has such a convoluted origins story and multiple retellings that reading them won’t leave you with enough time for this essentially one-day sale. If sales make the world go round, Black Friday purportedly puts you on a dizzy spin. Bargains, we’re told, are to be had in so many stores that missing out won’t only encourage fear, it’d strike terror.

Black Friday predates the colour-neutral 9/9, 10/10, and 11/11. Unlike these Internet-native sale events, Black Friday started largely in a physical space. In the good old days, people in America, after giving thanks, would rush to their favourite store to buy outrageously marked-down goods. Dispensing with manners (Ps and Qs? Forget them!) and, some say, civility, they would be the first to get into the store, elbow their way to the bargains, and, simultaneously, break jaws and noses (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but scuffles did break out). These days, anything likely to break is the Internet.

Standees and window stickers beckon at many stores in case you didn’t already know that Black Friday has arrived

With the pandemic, we assume the response to Black Friday in person would be tamer this year. How wrong we were. The minute we emerged from Orchard MRT station, we knew we would be surging into a swarm. And we did. So packed it was in the narrow passage that’s the conduit between ION Orchard and the underpass to Tangs that both MRT staff and social distancing ambassadors were needed to direct the heedless crowd. No one seemed concerned with the tight traffic. You’d think that 2020 is the year of new social habits, but you’d be mistaken. This was dazzlingly pre-new normal.

Entering malls these days are preceded with the usual SafeEntry scans and temperature checks, but at the ION Orchard entrance outside the MRT station entry/exit, it was a journey to the centre of the earth. You are basically going round the same oblong area four times before you can enter the mall proper. The first thing that caught our eye once we were free from the snaking chain is the line to our right at Sephora (the longest sighted here), which basically stretched the entire shop front of the cosmetic retailer. In ION Orchard, it appeared that the action was subterranean. The bustle was alive below level one. Above that, it was barely a weekend hum. Oddly, it was ghostly quiet outside Louis Vuitton and Dior.

The entrance to the latest expansion of the Uniqlo ION store

The real draw, as it turned out, was the opening of Uniqlo ION, the final of a triumvirate of large stores that make up Uniqlo Town, all situated on Orchard Road. But, while the store entrances were flanked with sprays of balloons, suggesting some kind of celebratory mood, there was no line waiting to get in. Uniqlo ION now includes one floor of the old Topshop, with the rear of the space connected to the right side of the existing store’s women’s department. In total, it doesn’t appear to be as large as their Global Flagship in Orchard Central, but those who miss shopping in Tokyo, would find the latest Uniqlo somewhat familiar (especially the new UT section) and, truth be told, comforting. We asked a sales guy if there was any Black Friday sale. He replied happily, “No, but we have many many opening specials,” and proceeded to show us the good buys, underscoring how attractive the prices were.

Across the street at Tangs, before you could join the staggering queue, you’d be met at the entrance with a huge poster announcing, in bold type, that they “are temporarily closed”. The reason? “Maximum Occupancy Limit Reached”. That did not stop people from joining the lengthening line. A staff at the door explained that inside, “it’s full” even when it was clear from what could be seen through the massive glass doors that it was not. Full, like so many other descriptions in fashion and retail, in the wake of the pandemic, needs re-definition. Yet, few were willing to give the queue a miss. Or, appearing to succumb to the misery of waiting. We have never seen Tangs enjoying such a fervid reception. A young man wondered very loudly to his just-as-puzzled female companion, as they emerge from the underpass in front of the store, “Huh, don’t tell me Tangs oso closing down!”

Tangs had to make an unexpected announcement in the late afternoon

Lines like these are surprising as we thought people would prefer to get online than get in line. It showed us that despite the still-real threat that is COVID-19, bargain hunters are ever willing to brave the undaunted crowd to go to where the low prices supposedly were. Tangs was rather the exception among department stores. The response to Metro’s exhortation-as-temptation—“Why settle for less when you can have the best?”—was just as hyper-enthusiastic, but the line was less crazy. Many were seduced by the “up to 90% off” (“for the best”?) attention grabber. Unlike at Tangs, capacity limits did not seemed to be the concern of Metro’s operations team.

In contrast, it was rather quiet at Isetan Scotts, despite the refurbishment that was revealed not too long ago. Drawing capacity crowd were the two coffee spots on the first floor, now not mostly cosmetics counters. At Takashimaya, it was, at best, borderline busy, and it was comfortable to navigate. The crowd control seemed effective here as there were, in effect, multiple points of entry and exit. Diagonally across the street, the queue returned at Robinsons after a lull, as it was announced that the store would be conducting their last Black Friday sale (Robinsons is, in fact, the first department store to embrace Black Friday in a big way). But with discounts of up to only 70%, their price slash paled next to Metro’s. Inside, it was clear that the store was in the throes of permanent closure. Still, prices were not, as one shopper told us, “temptingly low.”

Foreground: the orderly crowd getting into Takashimaya Department Store

Meanwhile, five kilometres away from Orchard Road, in a quiet, verdant area that was once a military installation, Dover Street Market Singapore was having its own Black Friday event, only it wasn’t so dark. Touted as Fluro Rebellion, it is “a two-part series of limited edition, iconic products created by friends and collaborators of DSM as a colourful counter-action to Black Friday.” The store has an on-going end-of-season sale, and Fluro Rebellion, part one, was clearly—and chromatically—not part of it. In fact nothing in Fluro Rebellion was marked down, yet it was able to draw an impressive turn out, proving that in retail, competing on price alone is not necessarily the only way to generate sales. We have never seen a line at the cashier at DSMS, but there was one this un-Black Friday. By late evening, most of the merchandise, including all the Stussy items, were sold out, as confirmed by one of the sales staff. Despite an affinity to the colour black, DSMS certainly does not need to depend on it to draw shoppers.

These days, going to a store sounds terribly old-fashioned, even unnecessary. Yet, Black Friday was able to lure the crowd. This despite coming late, after the serial online sale of 9/9, 10/10, 11/11, linked to shopping platforms such as Shopee and Lazada, both heavily advertised on old media, the television. It’s surprising, therefore, that sale fatigue has not set in. Can anyone grow weary of sales? You might be okey-dokey in September, but would you be still raring to go in November? We don’t know. As it has always been, the things we really wanted did not go on sale. Nor were they marked down sufficiently to be tempting, or to constitute what the pros at such matters call “good value”. Black Friday, we were told, is better for big-ticket items. Is S$1,000 for a plain but warped Balenciaga shirt not big enough a ticket? As life ebbs away, often rather furtively, we’ll soon forget that Balenciaga shirt. Or, maybe we should wait for Cyber Monday?

Photos: Zhao Xiangji. Illustration: Just So

Will This Be The First?

Crowd control measures are already in place outside the Uniqlo Global Flagship at Orchard Central for the launch of the Uniqlo +J collection tomorrow morning. It looks set to be Uniqlo’s most successful launch after their collaboration with Kaws last year

It seems that the madness is about to begin. At Uniqlo’s three-storey Orchard Central (OC) store early this evening, separate-from-the-usual-queue stanchions were set up to control what’s anticipated to be a large turn out for tomorrow’s launch of the much-hyped +J collection, conceived with Jil Sander, the designer, not the brand. At six this evening, no one was stationed in the designated area, split into two holding zones in the main concourse/walkway of the mall. Yet. Staff members, all in discreet black that Ms Sander would approve, were seen arranging the set up and putting up signs to better guide shoppers. It was still all calm, the usual OC Thursday evening.

This could be unprecedented in the history of Uniqlo collaborations. Despite pairings with heavy-weight designers such as Ms Sander, JW Anderson (ongoing), and Jun Takahashi of Undercover (2012), lines rarely form outside the stores as those seen outside H&M for their collabs with, say, Balmain (2015) or Giambattista Valli (2019). When asked what size crowd they’re expecting tomorrow, one staffer told us, “huge”. We wondered if there would be a line tonight, and she said, “possible”. Does the OC operations managers allow overnight queueing, given present pandemic restrictions? “As of now,” she continued, “yes.” Would those already in line be told to go home if they change their mind? “They can queue outside.”

Two mannequins in +J tease in the front of Uniqlo

The +J launch here, as well as in Malaysia, was postponed by a week due to shipping delays (both Malaysia and Singapore share the same warehouse facility in the Peninsular, hence both are affected) as a result of the pandemic situation in various ports where the merchandise were due to depart. The reaction to the comeback +J line is believed to be overwhelming, considering its success in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo last Friday, with one unverified video circulating online, purportedly showing a mad crush in an unidentified Japanese store. One Uniqlo fan we spoke to said she will be kiasu and head out to the store at six in the morning. “I’ll bring breakfast along,” she beamed.

We were curious to know if there would be enough clothes for these fans. The staffer we spoke to earlier quipped, “No, that’s why it’s limited edition!” As it turns out, the pieces are so limited that shoppers are allowed to buy only “five SKUs (stock-keeping unit, representing one style) each.” That effectively means five different styles per person. No more. And that also indicates that the one total covers both men’s and women’s line. A wife, therefore, won’t be able to pick five for herself and five for her husband. She would only have that precious five to allot. The mad rush, it seems, would be inevitable.

Update: (19 November 2020, 22.30) Uniqlo at Orchard Central has closed for thirty minutes. No queue was seen outside the store. Inside, it appears that staff are setting up for the big reveal tomorrow.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Return With A Bang

While we wait for the comeback Uniqlo +J collection to hit the brand’s Global Flagship store next Friday, Hongkongers made a manic rush at the launch in the city today

Friday the thirteenth may be deemed an unlucky day in Western superstition, but here in Asia, it is quite auspicious, especially for Uniglo launching their comeback collaboration with the German designer Jil Sander, who no longer designs her eponymous label. At its Causeway Bay outlet in Lee Theatre Plaza on Hong Kong island, dubbed the “1st worldwide flagship store”, long queues were seen leading to the cashier early this evening. One happy shopper told SOTD she would have come in the morning if she could get away from work. She said, in Cantonese, that she was waiting for the launch since hearing about it on social media last month because the clothes “又平又靚 (yao paeng yao laeng, or cheap and attractive” and “好有設計感” (ho yao chit gai gam, or with design sense).

It is not surprising that this would be the reception to the +J collection in Hong Kong. We won’t know how it will fare here until next Friday when it will be revealed. Uniqlo has created what is possibly one of its most popular and successful collaborations, spanning some five seasons, from 2009 to 2011. Then there was the “greatest hits” collection of 2014, which allowed those who missed the earlier releases the fashion equivalent of back issues. Many thought that was the last chance of owning something that Ms Sander actually had a hand in designing, until it was announced, more than two months ago, that the collaboration would be brought back with a brand new collection. Now that WFH is very much a part of our lives, +J’s intelligently conceived, elevated classics are expected to score big. The GQ columnist Justin Myers posted on Twitter, “Looking forward to seeing everyone in their Uniqlo +J turtlenecks on their Zoom call screenshots.”

It is doubtful Zoom users here would make such an effort. Still, good design and good value do appeal. And it is not unreasonable that Uniqlo would be expecting enthusiastic response at Orchard Central next week, although it may not generate the same crowd as buzzy collabs at, say, H&M. Although collaborators and designers such as JW Anderson and Christophe Lemaire, who oversees the Uniqlo U line, have made classic designs with subtly tweaked details the mainstay of their collections for the brand, precision and nuance have not really caught on here. One Singaporean designer said to us, when we asked him what’s the lure of +J, “Honestly, I think not many people would understand the appeal of Jil Sander. Most won’t even know of her, let alone her style. Her designs are so understated that even if she executed an unusual pocket, most consumers can’t see how unusual.”

Which, seems to support the oft-said belief that Hongkongers are more sophisticated than us. The +J sell-through here would, therefore, tell. Back in the still-packed Causeway Bay Uniqlo store, the +J merchandise looked to be running low. One product development specialist who was there to consider a puffer jacket said, “I do like the women’s duffle coat. The outerwear is very now in terms of the details and silhouette. The knits, however, felt, to me, like she was repeating her styles from the past.” Revivals are not necessarily a minus for +J. Ms Sander has, more than other collaborating designers before and after her, created pieces for Uniqlo that can test the passing of time. One content development manager told us, “The first bubble coat I ever bought was from +J. I wanted to know if I would like it. And the price was sharp. That was more than ten years ago. I still use it now when I travel. And happily. It doesn’t date.”

Photos: K S Yeung for SOTD. Illustration: Just So

Manic Mask Day

Uniqlo masks are here, and shoppers are rushing for them, just like those in Japan did

By the rather late opening hour of eleven, extremely long queues had formed outside many Uniqlo stores here. Shoppers had lined up for the brand’s AIRism masks, launched today and met with the same enthusiasm as a KAWS T-shirt drop. Over at the first Uniqlo store to open on our island at Tampines One in 2009, the buzz was that the queue had formed as early as nine, but one of the centre’s security guards said that people came as early as eight (one staffer later confirmed that to be true). Three minutes past eleven, the line outside was more than twice the length of the entire facade of the store. Even bubble tea stall Chi Cha San Chien, three floors down, wasn’t enjoying such a long line.

When we asked a middle-aged woman, laden with grocery, how she came to know about this particular mask, she replied with a frown, “It’s all over the news.” When we wondered if she thought they’d be better than what she has been wearing so far, she rejoined as if she was asked a stupid question: “Must be, lah. If not why so many people queue?” But she decided not to wait when a shopper emerging from the store—happy that she had secured the masks—told us she was in line “for at least 45 minutes”. Was it worth the wait? “Aiya, can lah. Not very long, what.”

A staffer told us that they had, in fact, anticipated that the response would be this good. Yet, it was not certain why there seemed to be some confusion as to what the procedures were apart from the queuing, which became a tad disorderly outside the designated area, where there were no marking to tell people where to stand. Two uniformed, social distancing enforcement officers had to tell many to keep their one-metre distance. A staff member went through every single person to make sure they had scanned the QR code for SafeEntry although they were yet in the store. Another made sure those too preoccupied with themselves were not an obstacle to others coming down an escalator. And another, with a tray in hand (on which samples of the mask were available for viewing, not trying), handed out little, crudely-printed-and-cut “purchase tickets” (she had to handle inquiry too, which meant she missed some waiting in line). Quite a hive to go through just to purchase a mask.

The number of packs a shopper is permitted to buy is restricted. It was clearly advantageous that a decision be made prior to visiting the store. The masks can be had in packs of three for S$14.90. They are available in black or white (no mix!), and in three sizes: S, M, and L. You are allowed to pick only one colour in one size (if you have selected a black in small, you can have a white in small, not two of the same colour for one size), which means a customer may buy up to six packs of masks per visit. Once sold, the masks cannot be exchanged or returned. Interestingly, no member of the staff was seen in the AIRism mask.

The queue moved fairly quickly as the line was dedicated for mask-buying only. Other customers not purchasing the mask may use a separate entryway. Despite this, most customers told us that they were in line for close to an hour. We were informed by one of the crew members that all the points of sales were opened and all were processing mask purchases with only one point catering to regular customers. But one shopper later told us that when she got to the counter, the reverse was true: only one out of four cashiers was serving mask buyers, while the rest attended to other shoppers. How many packs did she buy? “Only one,” she whispered. “If good, tomorrow I buy some more.”

As it turned out, the masks were sort of limited. According to a staffer, they would be available for three days only. Each store is supplied with a fixed quantity per day. About a thousands packs are limited to each store, with the larger outlets allotted more. “We won’t be restocking for today once what we have for now are sold,” she informed us. Upon hearing this, a woman immediately called someone and told the person on the other end of the line in Mandarin, “Eh, once finish, no more, leh. You want, better come now.”

At first encounter, the mask, as noted by first-time users in Japan, looks rather like underclothing (pouch of men’s thong?!). But they are not as thick as originally described. According to Japanese media reports last week, Uniqlo had “redesigned” the AIRism mask “following customer complains”. At its first launch, many Japanese had thought the masks too thick for warm-weather use, and that they were not as breathable. The new version, still three plies of the AIRism Cupro fabric (here, essentially 90% nylon and 10% spandex) for the front and rear, is now made of a mesh-weave, rendering the full mask lighter and definitely more breathable. It appears that they have made some adjustment to the fit, too. The mask is not as snug as it was previously reportedly to be. In fact, some women tried on the mask after the purchase, and thought the M size too large for them. And as there is no wire sewn into the bridge, the area around the nose tends to gape. The mask seems to cover a large area of the face too, with the base stretching along the entire jawline, possibly a con rather than a pro for those concerned about “maskne”.

Although many people consider the Uniqlo AIRism mask a ‘fashion’ mask, the actual product is far more basic and utilitarian, totally apart from ‘designer’ masks now appearing like mushrooms after the rain. There is no branding, no fancy stitching or interesting seaming, and definitely no attractive, contrast-coloured, adjustable ear cords. They don’t even look as attractive as those sold by home sewers who use cottons for quilting for their masks. Yet, from the enthusiastic response, it is clear that Uniqlo’s have captured the interest of mask wearers, even if many others are beginning to be lulled into a false sense of security and have become slack in the wearing of masks, thinking that the low community transmission numbers today are a good reason for masks to become chin support.

We managed to get our hands on a pack of the mask, so we thought we’d put one to test. The mask feels really comfortable in the hand, and the tactile superiority on the face is unmistakable. It definitely isn’t snug, and is comfortable to breathe in. And, more importantly, it did not heat up even outdoors. We took it for a ten-minute walk under the noon-day sun (the outer layer comes with SPF 50 protection) and, to our surprise, it was not a heat trap for the mouth area. One SOTD reader even told us that her glasses did not fog up. Next, we spent two hours in a room with the air-conditioning deliberately turned off (only an electric fan was on), typing this post, and we did not feel a desperate need to yank it off.

Earlier, outside Uniqlo when it opened its doors, a man had asked one of the social distancing enforcement officers what the queue was about. When he was told that the people were in line to buy masks, he wanted to know if the masks are better than those “they sell outside”. “These masks are cooler,” the helpful young chap said. The man persisted: “But are they better?” The target of the questioning coolly replied “Yah! Uniqlo, mah.”

Update (24 Aug 2020, 15:30): The queue outside the Uniqlo Tampines One store is no more. A member of the staff informed us that the masks are still available. Inside, there is a queue for regular purchases, but none for masks.

Update (24 August 2020, 20:30): A poster announcing the availability of the AIRism mask is now plastered with a “Sold Out Today” label. A few people ask the person regulating entry into the store if there would be more masks available and are told to “come back tomorrow.” They are not informed that the masks are available for three days only.

Some observers are surprised that the Uniqlo AIRism masks did not sell out a lot sooner. There is suggestion that many consumers have had their fill of masks and many are hoping that face coverings would no longer be required. As such, they do not see the need to buy more. In addition, many do no require any more black or white masks since the free ones issued to citizens and PRs prior were in black and, later, white. Uniqlo AIRism masks would be available in grey in Japan next month. The store’s staff is unable to tell us if that colour would arrive here in the future. In fact, no one knows if the masks would be available again after the 26th of August.

Update (26 August 2020, 18.15): At Uniqlo’s Orchard Central Global Flagship Store, the AIRism masks are still available at racks placed in the second and third floors. It does not look like they will sell out by this evening. A cashier told us they will continue to sell the masks tomorrow, until stocks run out.

Note: Uniqlo is careful to state on the packaging that their “masks do not completely prevent infection (infiltration)”. Use judiciously

Uniqlo AIRism masks, SGD14.90 per pack of three, are available at all Uniqlo stores from today until 26 Aug (Wed). Photos: Chin Boh Kay