Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
A magazine is allegedly tardy when it comes to the payment of their freelancers. Instagram comes to the rescue
With some organisations, scandals can come annually. Last year, before their first issue was published, Vogue Singapore (SG) was exposed for a little discreditable action: the editorial team flouted social distancing rules when returning to work in the office, following the lifting of the Circuit Breaker some 13 months back. This year, Vogue SG’s name was dipped into the gutter again when one 17-part post in Instagram Stories appeared, and was shared among folks of the fashion-media community. Airtomyearth, attributed to stylist and creative director Jamie-Maree Shipton, earlier today revealed that the Conde Nast magazine allegedly has not paid her for services already rendered. “VOGUESINGAPORE really out here not paying people!! (all red font)” went the opening header. This appeared to be directed at the management than the editorial team. In the sixth slide, Ms Shipton addressed her audience directly via video: “Okay, guess what? I am getting paid tomorrow, guys”, suggesting payment due to her far earlier would not be settled until the day after today, finally. There might also have been some altercation prior as she said, “It really should not have to fight (sic) if it’s that easy for you to pay me.”
Melbourne-born, London-based Jamie-Maree Shipton is known to be vocal about the industry that she works in, and is not afraid to tell it like it is. Did Vogue SG find the wrong feathers to ruffle? Airtomyearth has a not unimpressive 65,100 followers on Instagram, many are fashion folks or fellow stylists. Based on what Ms Shipton posts on IG, it is hard to define what is characteristic of her styling. Some might call it rojak, made more jumbled by what could be Barbie’s cast-offs and more alluring by contrived edginess, but it is unlikely any one would say she does not have a point of view or a clear voice. The latter she used with directness to draw attention to Vogue SG’s supposed professional shortcomings. But the self-professed Balenciaga junkie, who has styled for titles such as i-D and Vogue Italia, and the luxury department store in London, Selfridges, did not entirely slam our comeback Vogue. In fact, she offered a kindly tone: “in the end, they should do better; they really should just be doing better. Communicating clearly—it costs you nothing.”
It seems that Vogue SG’s not “doing better” was their inability to pay within the common 30 days from the date of invoice. According to Ms Shipton, the magazine’s payment terms are “60 days after publishing”, as opposed to “the industry standard of 30”. She did not, however, reveal the number of days from the date of invoice to the day when the title is published, which may mean that freelancers could have waited far longer to be paid since completion of their respective job. This extended two-month period is purportedly “to give more time and avoid lateness”. She struggled to define what the publisher meant by “lateness”. Ms Shipton added, as if to play down her dismay and to be reasonable, “let’s not do that; let’s just be accountable that if, okay, you don’t have money, say it upfront. Imagine what it feels like to be an individual struggling the same as you face as a company.” With pandemic-year businesses going all out to stay afloat, it would not surprise anyone to learn that the publisher of Vogue SG, Indochine Media Ventures (IMV), are operating on shaky financial grounds.
Vogue SG’s first anniversary issue will likely hit the newsstand at the end of this month. A year ago, the title launched a bi-monthly issue. They are still out once every two months, which strokes the chatter that IMV has not made money—or enough—to make Vogue SG a monthly. It is unsurprising that despite a reportedly lean budget, the magazine has yet to break even (some observers say that, given the present unfavourable business conditions for magazines, it’d take more than a year, if breaking even is possible for new titles). The publisher of Vogue SG is Bettina von Schlippe, the wife of IMV’s president, Michael von Schlippe. Ms von Schlippe has been generally quiet about her plans for the magazine. She has not commented publicly on its financial health. But one media veteran told us, “Buro 24/7 wasn’t exactly successful under her watch, yet they still installed her at Vogue.” It is not known if Ms Schlippe is aware of the payment issues now being shared on IG.
Jamie-Maree Shipton’s post not only drew attention to the payment problems she encountered, it also opened the proverbial can of worms. Other Vogue SG freelancers started sharing their stories of non- or late payment (including out-of-pocket expenses), and no replies to e-mails, which prompted Ms Shipton to write, after tagging VogueSG, the editor, and the fashion director, “I see a pattern of mistreatment and non-payment” (the post was later removed). She even offered to help those in similar predicament as she is, telling “everyone who has DM-ed (her) about Vogue (SG? We were still on the same thread)” that if they have not received a reply from the magazine, “I’ll help you.” She added, addressing the magazine, “communicate clearly. It costs you nothing. If you’re going to have to struggle paying, just communicate it. It is better than having a whole lot of people feel like shit and taken advantage of because of actions directly related to you.”
But perhaps what was startling and a revelation was Ms Shipton saying, “also the people who work at Vogue DM-ing me, that it’s just as bad when you work there, I feel for you; I really do.” Was she referring to Vogue SG? Could this be implying that there is unhappiness within the organisation? Has internal strife been revealed to an outsider? Ms Shipton’s post was primarily about late payment. Is it possible that the staffers at Vogue SG, too, were not paid on time? She was, however, reassuring, striking a rather conciliatory note in conclusion, “But you know what? We’re going to make a change; we’re going to make a change.” How she and those affected would do that, she did not say.
Note: SOTD is unable to independently verify Jamie-Maree Shipton’s claims
Update (4 Aug 2021, 01:45): the said post in Instagram Stories has been deleted
Update (8 August 2021, 09:00): It was brought to our attention that Indochine Media Ventures has been renamed as Media Publishares. As of now, the URL ivm.com.sg continues to host Media Publishares. According to their website, “Media Publishares has over 10 years’ experience in digital communication, luxury print publishing, and events across Southeast Asia.” The first editorial mention of Media Publishares that we came across was in a Vogue Business article—published on 3 August—about NFT marketplaces. It identifies Media Publishares as the “parent company” of Vogue Singapore. Public records show that the company was incorporated in June last year. Hitherto, there is no official statement for the reason of the name change
Update: (8 September 2021, 02:30): Media Publishares now has its own URL mediapublishares.sg. Curiously, under the ‘Portfolio’ tab, only three titles are listed: Buro, Esquire, and Robb Report. There is no mention of Vogue Sg
…cover to cover. Is it any good? Do we finally get our own voice?Or, is the magazine still shaped by angmo hands?
One of the three Vogue SG covers
It isn’t known if there is ever an edition of Vogue, among the now 27, raised from the dead. We dug, but we didn’t find any. So Vogue Singapore is the first. It is also uncertain if there was ever such a short-lived edition of Vogue. When our very first issue—with Joan Chen on the cover, photographed, expectedly, by Russell Wong—appeared in September 1994, no one suspected, although many feared, it would close—just twenty nine months later. We looked into that too: no Vogue anywhere in the world has ever died as a two-and-half-year-old.
In that sense, we are unique. It is here that international magazines have a second chance at life. Some may remember that Elle SG, born in 1993 and killed off in 2018, too, was resurrected—in 2019. But Vogue SG took a longer time to be raised from the dead: 23 years. That’s about a third of the age of Singapore’s oldest and best-selling women’s magazine Her World (60 this year). In these two decades plus, we saw the rise of digital media and the decline of print, and everything between that benefitted from the over-prized tag influencer. Vogue SG’s “Issue One—autumn/winter 2020—” arrives at not just a time that’s drastically changed by a still-raging pandemic (not, to us, “post-”), but also when magazines are increasingly unable to deliver to a reading public that expects stronger content, and more, not less.
Since this is the second time Vogue SG is trying to make it here, we don’t feel we need to check mercy at the front door. Talking about front, the launch issue comes with three covers that editor-in-chief Norman Tan grandly calls “triptych”, a pretentious reference to fine art for a title that has yet to prove itself, fashion-wise, let alone a treatise on art. On Instagram, Mr Tan touts the covers as “collectible”. One cover for a debut issue can’t be cherished enough for posterity or profit through eBay later? The EIC explains in his Editor’s Letter: the three are “to make a clear statement about what Vogue Singapore stands for—beauty, innovation, intelligence, sophistication, diversity, inclusion—as personified by three women hailing from different parts of Asia.”
Three is better than one? One the covers, (from left) Diya Prabhakar, Ju Xiaowen, and Nana Komatsu
That sounds like a strategic placement—to go beyond the dot. Singaporean women are not diverse enough; their ethnic plurality, and cultural, inadequate. Vogue SG needs to cast its net further afield. In fact, According to the privately held Condé Nast’s own media statement, “Vogue Singapore aims to establish itself as the region’s go-to fashion resource… with intelligent and impactful content that celebrates Vogue’s new audience in Southeast Asia”. Mr Tan wrote, in the preface to a special, boxed edition distributed to select recipients, promising this elite bunch that they “will experience what Vogue Singapore stands for—thought-provoking stories re-imagined with digital innovation with the people and culture of Southeast Asia firmly in the spotlight.”
Going by the three covers, it seems the title is even greedier: it aims to target the whole of Asia, not just SEA. That got us wondering—would people in Vietnam, for example, read a magazine identified by the city in which it is produced? What about China or Japan (where two of the cover girls are from)? If any of the non-English-speaking countries needed an English-language Vogue, would they not read the British or American (or even Australian) version? We reached out to our friends in the region for a smidgen of insight. An art director in Bangkok flatly said “no” to us. “We do read our Thai edition,” she added. One marketing head from Shanghai told us, “Because of my job, I read as many foreign Vogues as I can, but,” she added delightfully in Mandarin, “我们有自己的看啊!” (we have our own to read). Similarly, a manager from a tech company in Tokyo said, when asked, “I do read the Japanese Vogue, although my diet consists mostly of local magazines.”
In fashion publications, we do judge them by their covers. That’s why we remember Anna Wintour’s debut Vogue cover in November 1988, with that Christian Lacroix cross (now favoured by Chanel) or the late Liz Tilberis’s debut for Harper’s Bazaar, four years later, in September 1992, featuring Linda Evangelista, as if catching the third ‘A’, dislodged from the masthead. Ours needed to be launched with a bang, and that means triple the effect, and, hence, the power, the response, the influence? Mr Tan told South China Morning Post that “it’s been tough” and “super difficult”, and understandably so, given the Circuit Breaker restrictions during a time when the editorial department was visibly and delightfully working in full gear, but despite the difficulties, the magazine did not see it appropriate—even prudent—to launch with just one cover.
Back issues? Vogue SG strikes with three
More Vogue SG covers prove one thing: there are no Singaporean fashion photographers! All three are shot by foreigners: Singaporean model Diya Prabhakar’s cover was lensed by Canadian Bryan Huynh. Chinese model Ju Xiaowen was shot by New York-based New Zealander Gregory Harris and Japanese actress/model Nana Komatsu by Tokyo-based Chinese Fish Zhang. These days fashion photography is so subjective that it is hard to say which among the three is the best (or the worst), but something can be noted about the need for graphic intervention rather than letting the photographs work alone. All three cover girls are set within an oval, as if to create a counterpoint to otherwise unremarkable photographs. In the case of Ms Prabhakar, she is surrounded by indistinct digital flowers that seem to enhance the coldness of her lifeless expression.
While we can finally call this our own Vogue, the magazine isn’t, in fact, entirely shaped by local hands. Two countries pop up when joining the dots: Australia and Russia. Whether by chance or design, Vogue SG can’t de-link itself from Australia. Editorial heads of both Vogue SGs, past and present, was and is connected to Down Under: first, Nancy Pilcher (Vogue Australia, 1989—1997. Ms Pilcher is, in fact, an American, and, since leaving Condé Nast in 2013, has returned to the United States) and now, Norman Tan, from the coastal city of Melbourne. It is rather ironic that despite critics attributing the first Vogue SG’s failure to its Aussie signature, its come-back is helmed by one who hails from the country from which their Vogue could not thrust ours to greater glory.
Augmenting the foreign-seeming setup is the British art director Henry Thomas Lloyd, who has worked for Love, Pop, and Another, and who fashions our Vogue as if it’s one more alt title. There is also publisher Bettina von Schlippe, a German PR/media executive who once worked for Condé Nast Russia, and was formerly the publisher of Buro, the digital title by Vogue SG licensee Indochine Media Ventures (IMV). She is also the CEO and founder of R.S.V.P Agency, touted on their website as “a fashion & lifestyle marketing communications agency with 16 years of experience in Russia”. Ms von Schlippe is married to Michael Von Schlippe, the president of IMV, the ten-year-old publishing house, founded and based here on our island, with offices also established in Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, and with connections to Condé Nast Russia too, as he had also previously worked there. Ms von Schlippe as the publisher of Vogue SG, in spite of her experience, prompted critics to suggest that nepotism was at play. It is indeed not often that one sees a husband’s name atop a wife’s under the cross-head ‘Management’.
With a marketing budget, Vogue SG made sure it stood out at Kinokuniya
That EIC Norman Tan, ex-editor of IMV title Esquire SG, and a few members of his team are former IMV employees added to the 自己人顾自己人 (zi ji ren gu zi ji ren or “own people caring for own people”) perception—not, in fact, uncommon in the publishing world. Still, this led to some industry watchers wondering if Vogue SG would have the touch of Buro, Robb Report (another IMV brand), and even Esquire SG. For certain, the anticipated magazine is not a Vogue that die-hards would find compelling, breathtaking, and immersive enough to want to rush out to buy a copy, even just to hold. As Mr Tan was involved in or contributed to IMV titles, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he brought along with him a scintilla of his editorial past. But Vogue, despite its evolutionary changes, is still, foremost, a fashion title.
And it is the fashion in Vogue SG—and how it’s presented—that we find hard to connect. Or appreciate. There is a reason that Vogue goes by the unofficial description “fashion bible”. Nothing in the pages of the SG edition scratches the surface of fashion at its most creative, expressive, and refined, let alone plunges biblical depths. Even Ms Prabhakar’s Balenciaga cover dress is ineffectual, as if it was an afterthought, plonked on her—nothing else fits, this would do. She does not look like she likes wearing it or knows what to with it; she looks the novice that she is (more so alongside the spreads featuring Ju Xiaowen and Nana Komatsu). Mr Balenciaga himself once said, “A woman has no need to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my dresses. The dress will do all that for her.” Not this one.
Part reality, part virtuality (spot the QR codes that link you to online content), Vogue SG tries to straddle two sides of the digital divide, but balancing acts, as even gymnasts will say, are not easy to put up. One misstep and you’ll be split the wrong way. The magazine seems so concerned with its cyber-self (another story altogether)—“We love the transportive power of a well thought-out fashion story played out in print, but to add a new dimension to the experience, we’ve engaged the power of digital multimedia,” as Mr Tan wrote in his Editor’s Letter (an odd word choice that, conversely, suggests eras past)—that it feels like a by-product of its online preoccupation. The fantasies or “fashion stories” present a feckless telling, as if everything happens on cyber-streets than real ones. And to enhance its connection to the digital sphere, CGI is applied, as in the jejune spread featuring Ms Prabhakar or the incomprehensible and indistinct digital orchid that tells you the magazine tries—and too hard—to be ahead of the humdrum rest.
We weren’t sure if we are on a page from Vogue SG or Vogue Patterns
Cover girl Diya Prabhakar looks the modeling novice that she is throughout the spread that featured her
It is not easy to make one’s way through the pages of Vogue SG to the last. Visual irregularities were inexplicably set up to throw you off-course. Odd blank spaces (even when space is an element of design, these still look odd), the narrowest bottom margin, page designs that look like they are from another (lesser?) title—they make one pause and wonder. Need they really do that? One SOTD follower WeChatted us, “less than five minutes flipping the magazine and I am confused. It DOES NOT LOOK LIKE VOGUE (caps, all hers)!” She isnot wrong. We were surprised by how random and free-form the magazine appears visually. What is certain and annoying is the palpable need to look cool and edgy, and at the forefront (of whatever)—those qualities that are made ineffable by the shifting nature of fashion. When one tries to make the unfashionable fashionable, there’s a good chance you might be stuck in the former.
Experienced magazine folks might feel that perhaps the editors did away with the discipline of rigorous page planning. There is a sense that, in order to yield a not-unimpressive 266 pages, many of them had to serve as mere fillers. Content pages, for example, stretched to five (the first, with two columns, does not read from left to right. For all the talk of “innovation”, these extra pages are still an old-fashioned provision of additional right-hand pages for single-page ads). There are also generous two-page intros to sections, pull quotes floating in half-a-page of emptiness, and an essay by Amanda Lee Koe extended over ten when two would be enough—just three examples of injudicious use of space. This stretch-and-stretch approach to filling pages with meaningful content that they probably could not, makes for extremely tiring reading. Not to mention, a total waste of paper.
Perhaps the most irritating, “as you digest this fashion book—artfully crafted with our own Vogue Singapore font inspired by Sanskrit found on the Singapore Stone (a 13th century—possibly earlier—artifact)”, is this very font itself. You first see it on the cover. And it’s not at once easy to read. Hieroglyphs are easier to decipher. Our art director friend from Bangkok said to us, “Don’t you think it’s very Love?” We had to point her to the magazine’s art director. The font is also applied as a drop cap (always hard to read. Why stump the reader right from the start of articles?), to fill spaces, and as background graphic on which photographs are placed. Giving the font a historical reference does not lend it typographical heft. The squiggles, appearing like litter (you’d want to scratch them off!), are perhaps a deliberate contrast to the other oddities: font colour similar to the page, type size of running heads way smaller than the page numbers, both appearing in the same page and, in some cases, page numbers in the same point size as headlines. At this point, we can think of no other expression than the Hokkien geh kiang—roughly, excess of cleverness.
Graphic design book or fashion magazine?
The printer’s fault?
Although Vogue SG, version 1, did not last long, we were, in fact, the first-ever Vogue published in Asia back in 1994, the year we had to pay GST for the first time. Then came Korea in August 1996, Taiwan in October 1996, Japan in September 1999, China in September 2005, India in October 2007, Thailand in February 2013, and Hong Kong in March 2019. And Vogue SG again, in September 2020. We’re now the 8th Asian Vogue. When Vogue Thailand’s first issue hit the newsstand in 2013, it was sold out “within days”, according to The Nation. How our Vogue will fare is hard to say, given the precariousness of the present and the uncertainty of the future. The hope is that Vogue SG won’t suffer a second death.
But its prospect looks a tad dim. Some industry watchers wonder if it augurs well for the magazine to launch with a bimonthly issue (and apparently for the next issue too). It goes by the season: autumn/winter (does that mean that, in essence, there will only be two issues a year?). As far as we are aware, this is the first Vogue edition to debut in such a manner. Two issues of Vogue SG, presumably, for the rest of the year to support an editorial team that has been in place since at least April (if not earlier), when the EIC was announced, is daunting to consider. This led to the conclusion that the editorial team of IMV’s Buro had to be sacrificed to keep Vogue SG afloat.
Carrie Bradshaw had said, not frivolously, “Sometimes, I would buy Vogue instead of dinner.” It is hard to imagine anyone doing that here. We love our char kuay teow too much. The truth is, many of us are buying fewer magazines, even if we might still be reading them. Vogue SG arrives amid the very real declining habit of purchasing and then perusing fashion titles. There would have to be very compelling reasons to reverse that. Given its unspectacular debut, it would require the motivation of rabid fans (do they still exist?) to see the magazine snapped up at newsstands. Unlike Malcom McClaren, however, we simply couldn’t go Deep in Vogue.
The comeback publication has been sharing what its upcoming launch issue might look like. Too soon to make something of them?
A divisive image of one of the models that appeared on Vogue SG’s video posts. Screen grab: Vogue Singapore/Facebook
Couple of months before the launch of Vogue Singapore on the 23rd of this month, images of what the magazine’s visual aesthetic might be like has been shared by the born-again title on social media. Observers and the deeply curious are puzzled by what they have seen. So far, few comments have accompanied these editorially-produced images, but away from social media, the chatter borders on dismay and incredulity. To be sure, beauty and artistic taste are subjective, and are being redefined as we write this. But, it is not surprising that there are those who hold Vogue, regardless of where it is published, to a loftier standard.
The images in question are those featuring the Hong Kong-born, London-based Tibetan model/electronic music artiste Tsunaina (not to be confused with Tsunade of the Naruto manga and anime series). Reportedly discovered by the British makeup maestro Pat McGrath, Tsunaina Limbu (she goes by her first name) has made strides in the modelling world since last year. Those in the position to influence Ms Limbu’s career consider her beauty “unconventional”. In Asia, that term is mostly used euphemistically, as her stand-out features are not usually considered “model-standard”: her nose bridge too wide and high; her lips too thick and pouty. It doesn’t help that, as it is often said, she looks like she’s from the movie Avatar’s Na’vi tribe.
Video still of Tsunainain Robert Wun, styled by Xander Ang, and directed by Ryan Chappell and Marc Pritchard. Screen grab: Vogue Singapore/Facebook
Regardless, her looks have earned her a place in many beauty ratings, such as Elle’s “New Wave Beauty” from last year. Ms Limbu is not alien to international titles, having appeared in W magazine, Vogue Germany, and on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Kazakhstan. Fashion stylists and makeup artists we spoke to did not consider her features unattractive, but did say she won’t be easy to style or shoot, and that she needs to work with those who “can bring out the best of her”, as one stylist said. But with this particular pictorial (and video) post, social media followers seem to think that Vogue SG has not quite done a Vogue—“see the bad makeup and bad lighting”. Or, style her to assimilate into the magazine’s more sophisticated positioning. We just hope this would not turn out to be a Vogue SG’s Mulan moment.
It may be too soon to consider this as what Vogue SG is forging for the Singaporean edition of the fashion bible. Some observers wonder if a Singaporean girl would be featured on the cover of the debut issue. Or, if Singaporean-ness would be a mere token expression. In July, a leaked video showed some Singaporean models (and those considered “former”) strutting at a photo shoot, attributed to the magazine. One of the women is Celia Teh, a Vogue SG cover girl back in the November 1994 issue, and who is married to the fashion photographer Mark Law. Her inclusion for nostalgic reason? The video was probably shot by an attendee or member of the crew, using a smartphone; it showed the women walking and posing against a white, unadorned studio space.
Fahimah Thalib, reportedly the first Muslim model to be asked to appear on Vogue SG. Screen grab: Vogue Singapore/ Facebook
On Facebook, Vogue SG stated that “a core pillar of Vogue Singapore is to shine a spotlight on Asian talents, and to provide them with a platform to showcase their creativity.” This is possibly a reminder that the talent pool in our city is small, with few swimming in it. The magazine has, therefore, decided to cast the net wider so that the world’s largest continent can be a deep resource, never mind that, including the soon-to-be launched SG edition, there would be eight Vogues. And none has trained “a spotlight on Asian talents”, leaving a gap for dot-sized Singapore to fill?
It is possible that Vogue SG, in scouring the plural societies of Asia for talents, is trying to strike an inclusive tone, the way the British edition has, so vividly. In one of the videos Vogue SG shared on Facebook (shot in Gardens by the Bay—was One Orchard Store inspired by this footage?), the hijab-wearing Singaporean model Fahimah Thalib is featured in full, modesty-fashion splendour. Ms Thalib told Berita Harian that she was initially worried about what the magazine might want her to show, but was pleased that the end result “menjaga imej kesopanan wanita Muslimah (cared about the image of politeness of Muslim women).” Vogue SG has offered us a foretaste of their editorial wokefulness.
Man in bloom: Vogue SG’s editor-in-chief illustrating his love for orchids. Screen grab: musingmutley/Instagram
But it has not been all cultural cognisance. On both Instagram and Facebook, Vogue SG offers an unstimulating mix of inane fashion commentary, artists’ contributions to the “Vogue in Bloom” theme, birthday wishes to celebrities, and designer quotations to encourage (a pandemic is still raging) whoever needs encouragement, and staying with the perfunctory declaration that Vogue SG will keep “you updated with the biggest movements in fashion, beauty and wellness, celebrity, culture, art and more.”
Additionally, in tandem with the fun and irreverence that now often pervade both fashion’s and fashion magazines’ digital representations, Vogue SG has also delivered TikTok-ready content on its IG account. One of them is an interactive component—a 3-D filter that allows users to place metallic-looking, indistinct orchids, dubbed the Vanda Vogue (better as Vanda Vague?), anywhere on the face. One of the earliest to test this out was Vogue SG’s editor-in-chief Norman Tan, who gleefully hammed it up for an IG Stories post (above) on his Musingmutley account, telling viewers that he was “serving some serious face.” From this, it’s hard to tell if, as the title’s editorial head, Mr Tan would be able to augment the fashion standing and authority of the magazine. As one fashion editor said to us, “I think Anna would sit this one out.”
For a rather long while, editors of fashion magazines are not expected to toil silently, unseen behind the scenes. They are now mostly adopting the modus operandi of influencers, and, for some, acquiring the following that befits opinion leaders who are considered key
Musingmutley’s last post, dated 30 March, showing Norman Tan in sea-side holiday splendour. Photo: musingmutley/Instagram
The recent controversial posts of Vogue Singapore’s editor-in-chief Norman Tan has trained the spotlight on high-profile editors and their glamourous digital presence. Mr Tan, who also identifies as Musingmutley, assembles a carefully curated Insta-self-promotion as a peek into his enchanting material life and world travels rather than enervating editorial work that others might consider hard. His braggy photographs show a world that many people might find aspirational: in the latest fashion, keenly styled, in locations that, minus the subject, could be sold as postcards at hotel lobby gift shops. In that respect, Mr Tan has perched himself alongside the countless influencers followed by those with a predilection for composed and enhanced fabulousness.
Three of those four photos, featuring him and his staff, of which two showed off their recent booty of Apple gifts on IG Stories, were talking points among members of the press corp last week, leading to a report in The New Paper today. Despite the unfavourable optics, some thought the posts—already deleted—were a shrewd move as it concurrently raised the visibility of the yet-to-publish Vogue SG. However, it isn’t certain if Mr Tan could capitalise on his 14,900 followers to draw readers to Vogue SG (or had, before this, to Esquire SG), but he has used social media well to augment his style cred and to appeal to those who reads by looking at tiles of people and their adventures. An ardent Instagrammer since December 2011 (his first post was a photo of lavender fields), with 2,211 posts to date, he has been able to highlight his editorial hand as well as his love for djellabas and hats, many hats—trilbies, fedoras, Pananamas, and boaters.
Like many influencers, Mr Tan is not opposed to posting videos of himself shirtless. One recently circulating—captioned “What did you learn? Tropical sun is no joke”—showed him, bare-chested, in what could be a shower room, saying to viewers, “Guys, look at how burnt I am. I went for a run during lunch, and now I am a freakin’ lobster.” Those who know him say that he is proud of his toned body, enough, in fact, to write a fitness article for sibling publication Buro, titled “How to look good naked and other fitness goals”, and set himself up as model for the photo-illustration. This is admirable multi-hyphenate flair that many influencer adore, but few are blessed with. Yet, some do wonder: among the 27 Vogue EICs throughout the world, including Anna Wintour, how many would go topless before a smartphone camera?
Kennieboy’s last travel photo, dated 30 March, showing Kenneth Goh in sea-side holiday splendour. Photo: kennieboy/Instagram
Norman Tan is considered one of Singapore’s most social-media active magazine editors with compelling content on IG. The other is Kenneth Goh (aka Kennieboy), EIC of Harper’s Bazaar SG. Like his counterpart at Vogue SG, Mr Goh is known for what he has on his head. In his case, a mop of hair that is frequently styled like an inverted bowl. In one video that was posted last January, shortly before Chinese New Year, Mr Goh took his mother to Goh Lai Chan’s boutique in Paragon Shopping Centre to shop. Mother and son have uncannily identical hairstyles. It is not unreasonable to assume that Mr Goh puts tremendous effort into how he looks in the 1,848 posts he has put out so far; his extraordinary fashion matched only by his intense chumminess.
He has taken to IG Live and video posts like the proverbial fish to water. In almost all his interviews (including and especially those on his Bazaar TV show Café a la Mode), he approaches his subjects, from Asia’s Next Top Model judge/photographer Yu Tsai (who is, technically, Mr Goh’s colleague since both were on ANTM) to Nga Nguyen (one of the first two Vietnamese socialite-sisters to have contracted COVID-19 from Europe and brought it back home), with palpable pleasure, so heightened the I’m-so-happy-to-see-yous, and so energetic the exchanges that transpired, the high degree of enjoyment might just seep through your Samsung Galaxy screen.
Unlike Norman Tan, Kenneth Goh does not seem partial to posting Edwin Hung-style topless photos of himself. But both do have a weakness for travel shots, with many depicting impossibly beautiful backdrops. Mr Goh even has a hashtag #kennieboytravels to enchant his 33,700 followers. What stands out is their compositional similarity. In front of a body of water with an infinity edge, for example. If the subjects are swopped, we’d be none the wiser as to who was where, when. In fact, if we transpose their bodies with any other KOL pix, the photos would be a droplet in the azure sea of influencer brilliance.
Her World’s Ng Yi Lian (left) and Female’s Noelle Loh (right). Photos: Yilianng/Instagram and Noelle.loh/Instagram respectively
In contrast, women EICs’ social-media entries tend to be less about self, even when they do not use handles other than their actual names. The Instagram pages of the EICs of Singapore’ top two women’s magazine Her World and Female, Ng Yi Lian and Noelle Loh respectively, tend to mostly tout the content of the publications they edit. There are, of course, photos of them out and about, but these infrequently punctuate (certainly the case with Ms Loh) the plethora of work-related travels, poses with designers, fashion shoots, their magazine covers and pages, and the odd stand on social activism. No mother of either is featured. Ms Ng, who’s also behind Yi Lian Ng Floral Atelier, appears to be the least of a clotheshorse among those reviewed for this post, perhaps reflecting Her World’s style-for-working women stance and selling point. Ms Loh, even with a spunky style that’s photogenic, infrequently relies on her clothes to make her IG pages quiver with modishness, yet, standing next to Kim Jones in river sandals in one photo, one senses that she transmits more fashion vibe than her IG tiles let on.
Among the most followable of the female EICs is Pin (品) magazine’s Grace Lee. Served a stay home notice in early March after returning from Milan and Paris fashion weeks, she spent part of her days in quarantine by blogging about it with considerable wit and humour, as well as posting photos of herself adopting fashion that was sometimes xiao-yuan (校园 or school yard) prim, sometimes housewife proud. Ms Lee appears rather frequently (at least for a Singaporean editor) on street style blogs since her previous tenure—also as EIC—at Nuyou (女友). Her IG posts comprise obligatory work- and fashion-related photos, as well as those of herself unbashfully goofing around or seriously checking proofs in the office, but they belie, according to friends, her not much known discomfort with the need to be so social-media-active.
EIC of Pin Grace Lee working from home. Photo: jiajinggrace/Instagram
It isn’t certain if these days an EIC’s personal social media account is part of the requirements related to their appointment and frequent updates showing a splendid life part of the job scope. If not, is an EIC obligated to maintain an active social media account? Is there pressure to post? Although there could be potential for conflict of interest, it seems many publishers now consider social-media savvy as skill that can go hand-in-hand with editorial finesse, both in glorious balance. If magazine readerships are less able to attract readers, as we’re repeatedly told, are editors now required to engage readers through their social media posts? According to a 2019 report by American creative agency We Are Social (with offices worldwide, including Singapore), “45% of the world’s population are now social media users: a whopping 3.5 billion people”. It also found that “86% of Singaporeans (are) now online, 76% active on social media and mobile subscriptions – amongst the world’s highest”. It is understandable why editors need to use their social media pages, in influencer fashion, to reach other social media users.
But how influential are our EICs? What they put on their magazine pages may be read as fact (admittedly increasingly redefined), but what they have on social media are not necessarily a reflection of reality. Are their posts then merely feeding social media users’ voyeuristic bent? Virtual images and real-world selves are, of course, not one and the same, and oftentimes, there is a lag between them. It isn’t known how many of the EICs’ followers prefer magazine content or social media posts. Norman Tan and Kenneth Goh have reached “micro influencer” status (thought to be between 10,000 and 200, 000 followers, which pales to the 179 million of billionaire-no-more Kylie Jenner’s IG page). With 33,700 followers, Mr Goh is currently at the top. The three women fall outside this marketable circle. Among the women, Ng Yi Lian has the highest number, with 9,783 followers, followed by Grace Lee with 2,085, and Noelle Loh with 1,975. But perhaps, as Mr Tan has shown, following is only one part of reach. Individually or collectively, do they have sufficient pull? Are hashtags more alluring than headlines?
Looking at that post again, an irony begins to appear. Back in 2016, four Vogue editors—Sally Singer, Sarah Mower, Nicole Phelps, and Alessandra Codinha—wrote a not-well received criticism of fashion bloggers, then beginning to appear in visible numbers at fashion shows and events, so much so that some members of the press consider them “irritating”. In their censure, the women did not mince words: “Note to bloggers who change head-to-toe, paid-to-wear outfits every hour: Please stop. Find another business. You are heralding the death of style.” Four years later, it’s difficult to tell the difference between editors and bloggers/influencers. That death hasn’t struck.
Note: all IG numbers quoted reflect what are indicated on 8 June 2020, 08:30
A few hours ago, a welcome admission to a “lapse in judgment” was posted on the IG page of musingmutley, aka Norman Tan, editor-in-chief of the soon-to-launch Vogue Singapore. SOTD understands from feedback that Mr Tan’s incautious sharing of photographs of Vogue SG staff at work without, it appears, observing social distancing has been “going the rounds”. It is not certain if Mr Tan had his ears to the subsequent ringing chatter, but the promptness of his response suggests he must have at least read Kien Lee’s Facebook post* and wanted to set the record straight.
However, some who have read the five-page message on his Instagram Stories thought that, while perspicuous, it does not sound like an apology. Titled “Social Distancing”, it explains what happened on the day Mr Tan and his staff were in their office: “It was such a joy to see the members of the team in person after months of only seeing them through a screen.” But he gave his word that they kept within what the authorities had set out. “We adopted and implemented the safeguards stipulated by the government,” he wrote reassuringly.
One writer with a local magazine, who is still working from home, told us, “but this wasn’t what we saw. What we did see in those photographs were a group of people gathering without the 1-metre distancing.” Another, who has also stuck to WFH, said, “as members of the media, we should know the importance and consequence of optics. What’s seen cannot be unseen.” Most of us understand that offices can re-open. However, telecommuting is recommended as the main mode of work. Many members of the media, as far as we are aware, are still editing, writing, and designing from home. Some said it’s unfair that there are magazine staff working full-strength in the office while most, if not all, are doing so at home. One editor we spoke to was emphatic, “If you can work from home, you should.”
This seems to suggest that he is apologetic for the reactions to his photographic posts, not his own actions
It has been noted that Mr Tan wrote in the third page, “I recognise this was a lapse in judgment and I apologise for the concern this might have caused.” This seems to suggest that he is apologetic for the reactions to his photographic posts, not his own actions. A digital editor, also WFH, did not mince words: “There is no apology, not for his flippant action. Seriously, are you so seized with ‘joy’ to see your staff again, so much so that you want to take photos of the moment and post them for the world to see?” Including one photograph captioned, “It’s Christmas in the IMV office!” The editor added, “with that exclamation mark of delight.”
One point of contention is the apparent gloating of the work team’s “All stocked up with @apple MacBooks, Apple Watches and iPhone 11 Pros”, products assumed to be the result of a “barter” with Apple (which may explain the necessity of tagging the brand in the photo), a not-uncommon practice of acquiring what’s needed in exchange for ad space or social media mentions. Industry veterans we spoke to concur that, given the present time, when jobs are lost and retail spending is considerably reduced, the photographic show-off errs on the side of questionable taste. A now-disappeared IG page Diet Bazaar—purported to be the media industry’s version of Influencer Glassdoor—wrote, “seeing them do this, when they could have chosen to be a little sensitive to what is happening right now does leave a sour taste in your mouth.”
Mr Tan, a prolific IG user, should understand what photographs captured for social media can tell or effect. And readers do hold Vogue to a higher, if not the highest, standard. We know we do. While it is clear that people now live their personal and professional lives digitally, the musingmutley posts are easily seen as imprudent. Some measure of restrain, therefore, would be considered empathetic, even when the pandemic is seemingly mitigated. One PR manager, who frequently deals with the press, was, conversely, impressed by Mr Tan’s position. “No direct apology is one thing, it’s very clever of him to turn this into a rallying call for the industry.” The publishing industry, like the fashion industry, is going through difficult times. While unthinking actions should be called out, there are other more exigent matters to consider too. The old saying, “let bygones be bygones”, is now particularly alluring. We look forward to The September Issue of Vogue SG.
*Presently removed (5 June, 11:30). And then it’s there again (15:55)! We stopped tracking (18:00).
Members of the staff were apparently going through some hours in the office as what looks like full-strength crew
It isn’t certain if the Vogue SG office is cleared by the authorities to resume work without safe distancing measures in place. But recently posted Facebook photos that look like screen shots of Instagram Stories seem to suggest that measures implemented since the start of the Circuit Breaker two months ago are not applicable to the Vogue team. They were shown to be in the office, savouring what may be considered close proximity. Just two days earlier, to the relief of many, the lockdown was eased. Regardless, if working in the office is a must or demonstrably necessary, “those in the same shift or team must be at least 1m apart and wear a mask at all times,” as reported in The Straits Times.
A total of four, people-filled photos were posted, with three attributed to musingmutley, a known handle of Vogue SG’s appointed-in-April Aussie editor-in-chief Norman Tan, who once wrote in Buro (where he was once also its EIC) about millennials, noting their “idealism hampered by impatience”. These photos were shared last night, at 10.34, by Kien Lee, the main man behind Senatus, on his personal Facebook page. Together with the photos, Mr Lee wrote, “I understand my peers will find it tough on their personal careers to call this out personally so I’ll do it cos nobody can fire me. #VogueSG did not follow social distancing guidelines when they were so happy receiving Apple Store Singapore gifts of Macbooks, iPhones and iWatches.”
Two wefies appeared to be shot by Mr Tan, until recently the editor of Esquire SG, during what he described as a “tour” of the office, said to be in Syed Awi Road, where parent company Indochine Media Ventures (IMV) is sited. To be sure, one of the captions expressed the photographer’s concern: “First day back in the office and I feel you guys are too close.” Awareness sans action is, as one office manager we spoke to said, “paying lip service. Even Anna is working from home!”
Vogue SG, is published under license agreement with IMV, also publisher of Esquire SG, Buro, and Robb Report. The first issue is expected to “launch in Autumn” this year, which is taken to mean September. In a statement issued to the media in January, Condé Nast stated that “Vogue Singapore rejoins the market at a time when Singapore’s local fashion design and talent are rising in the country and across the entire region.” This was before COVID-19 became a pandemic.
“Rejoins” was correctly put. It would be Vogue SG’s second attempt at capturing a slice of the magazine pie here. Its first early issue, curiously managed and edited by Vogue Australia, appeared in September 1994. Just three years later, after 29 issues, what was considered a fashion bible quietly wrapped up. The comeback of Vogue—our own, not the “Singaporean version of Vogue Australia”, as it was once called—understandably would have excited the staff to want to return to the swim of things—perhaps not this eagerly.
Updates (4 June 2020, 10:05): As of this morning, the public FB posts are no longer available to view. (4 June 2020, 15:20): The post is made public again. (5 June 2020, 09:40): Removed again.
Update: (8 June 2020, 09:10). The New Paper reported on the controversial post today and cited an MOM advisory, which said: “Employers must ensure that employees do not socialise or congregate in groups at the workplace, including during meals or breaks. Where physical interaction cannot be avoided precautions should be taken to ensure clear physical spacing of at least one metre between persons at all times.”