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
Under a new editor-in-chief, the local version of the American title stakes not quite everything, preferring a strong soulless digital touch
In Desmond Lim’s first Editor’s Page for Vogue SG, the EIC wrote, “I have co-designed a series of the three covers entirely created by artificial intelligence.” One senses a certain pride—and satisfaction—in that declaration (and the reduction of employable human models?). EICs, who are former fashion stylists who continue to style (or co-create) covers, are not new (British Vogue’s Edward Enninful and, before she left French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld, just to name two). Mr Lim, however, could be the first to put an AI-generated image on the venerated covers of Vogue. He has been behind the covers of past issues of the SG edition, and his desire to continue is not surprising. But what boggles the mind is the choice of the model, “Faye”, who could pass off as the bride of Yondu (Guardians of the Galaxy). The question on so many lips when the photos of the latest covers—there are three of them—were circulated: “Put out with Anna’s blessings?” One veteran fashion editor was bemused, “Seems like Vogue SG works independently. Or has gone rogue.”
It is not known what information or data was provided to spawn the alien with an Asian face (and her other exotic sisters). AI imaging tools are, of course, getting more sophisticated than what our eyes can discern as natural. However hard Mr Lim tries to convince readers that this is “guided closely by the words tradition and future”, the effect offered neither. This is essentially ‘deepfake’—synthetic media, matter of the metaverse, or what The Guardian called “the 21st century’s answer to Photoshopping”. It is not real, nor the tradition it purports to underscore. Even the names of the “avatars” (there are nine of them) are “fictional”, the magazine makes known. Correspondingly, the fashion isn’t real too, except one Ferragamo dress and one Prada top, even then, we know they are simulated. Deepfakes have a dark side too. They are largely associated with pornography. There is even a “network of deepfake bots” on Telegram that, according to a 2020 report by security firm Sensity, create, when requested, naked images of women. If not sexually explicit stuff, there are last week’s AI-created photos of a Donald Trump violently arrested or the now-gone-viral pictures of the Pope in a puffer! Even with the employment of specious species on the Vogue SG cover, we are told that the issue is about “roots” (we’re glad there is no more pretentious fonts such as the inaugural comeback issue’s ‘triptych’). Is that imaginary too?
We have been asked, “why the creepy blue make-up?” We wish we could say that it has anthropological links (out of the three cover outfits, two are blue!). This is not Mr Lim’s first cover with Na’vi skin. Last year’s May/June issue was graced by a pair of very blue (the theme of the month) hands. And if blue make-up is not applied, then there would be a patina of blue, as seen in the issue of the following month, when Cardi B was the cover girl. Or, as in this issue, blue eyes and blue dress of the other computer-generated South Asian-looking lass “Aadhya”. Mr Lim tells us that he “notice(s) a huge shift in the way the current generation is embracing culture and heritage.” How the young are accepting them, he does not say. But with his covers , does he suppose his readers do not interact with the substantive when it comes to what clothes are really saying about the world we live in? Or, has fashion become so immaterial for magazines now that so much can be gleaned from social media? Perhaps these days, as one designer pointed out, what Mr Lim refers to as the “current generation” no longer asks, “Can I see myself in it? Is it relevant?” Another designer asked, “Do they care?”
We concede that magazines serve different functions these days. Readers are not looking to periodicals for the same gratification they enjoyed before the great digital takeover. Gone are the days of the glossies. Heritage titles—such as Vogue—have mostly banked on their names than compelling content to propel themselves forward. The digital version is more important than a physical copy. And the better print appears to be shaped by digital hands, the more glorious. Vogue SG has always been proud of how they are so tethered to the digital world. Mr Lim proudly informs us of their future-tech initiative From Blockchain to Love Chain on Spatial.io., as well as how he’s “looking forward to engaging the Vogue Singapore community further through the Vogue Club Membership—which bridges lifestyle, fashion, Web 3,0 and technology”. In tandem with our nation’s determined Smart Nation push, harnessing technology in all aspects of our lives to make them better?
The three covers of this month’s Vogue SG available at Kinokuniya
One senses that as long as the masthead reads Vogue, the EICs can do whatever they desire and readers will still come forth to grab an issue. But a magazine isn’t just the masthead and what/who is positioned beneath it. As a read (and not just at the hairdressers’), the refreshed Vogue SG (with the curious double-registration nameplate), seems to us, a tad more local than it was under the watch of its previous EIC. While it is still leans obviously on its Asian positioning, it now accommodates more stories that we can call ours, or at least native. While some of the usual suspects are featured, ‘The Collectors’, for example, showed that there are serious, astute fashion consumers on our island even if you rarely see them on, say, Orchard Road. While the story is skimpy on the minutiae of collecting, it does put at least three faces to the fashion bought and worn, when brands would normally not divulge who their big spenders are. It is also noteworthy that interjected in the pages are the relatable and enjoyable essays by Roland Barthes-quoting Paralympian Toh Wei Soong and the kaku-in-speech writer Azrin Tan. By contrast, the fashion spreads—some 52 pages— are totally forgettable.
Last October, Vogue SGran into licensing trouble. The Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) stated that the Singaporean edition of the global fashion title “had breached the content guidelines for local lifestyle magazines”. After initially revoking their license to operate, MCI gave Vogue SG six months to continue upon publisher Media Publishares’s reapplication. That the magazine could put out a March issue (although late), may mean that they were given the chance to endure. Vogue SG will live, for now. In fact, the magazine seems determined to avoid the previous breaches, egregious or not. Much of its content now could be deemed safe, devoid of alternative lifestyles (that got them into trouble) even when they advocate the “altiverse”, with the corresponding images to augment its alt-positioning. Did The One, Gabriel Yulaw, not say that the universes of the multiverse are “irrational, sloppy”? Vogue SG has leapt outside the circumscription of the frankly-quaint fashion magazine, and what it projects has minimal for the readers’ selves (what would Patsy Stone say?!). When it headlines with “a spectacular cover story that, needless to say, is ridiculously cool”, it sets itself, quite honestly, for heated ridicule.
Which one is not from this planet, not just this continent?
The covers of the March issues of all the Vogues in Asia. From top row, left: China, Hong Kong, India; Japan, Korea, Philippines; Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. Cover photos: Vogue of respective countries
Unique has often been used as convenient euphemism for ugly. But as we have repeatedly pointed out, ugly by definition has changed. What is ugly is not ugly. Similarly, what is unique may be different, but not necessarily exceptional. Existing as the sole example of, say, magazine-cover uniqueness may not be exemplar of creative distinction or courage, candour. In being unlike any other, there is the risk of being bound to conceit—nothing is better than the creator’s singular thinking since his thoughts, ideas, creative process are not like others’, contemporaneous or not. This kind of output can indeed be alienating. The lastest cover of Vogue SG, to us, is.
Photographs are key in the design of a magazine cover. Magazines, being image-driven, depend on good, communicative, aspirational photographs from cover to cover, especially fashion publications. Magazine covers have always been a reflection of the times, the mirror that reflects the aesthetical common, but presented with a point of view; an opinion, as Richard Avedon would have said. A magazine cover also tells the reader what to expect when the pages within are given a chance of perusal. Or to offer a fashion/trend pronouncement. It is usually conceived to draw the curiosity of the like-minded or those with similar taste. Despite the myriad ways of creating images that compel, the imperative is still to appeal to human emotions and desires.
Stefan Sagmeister, a designer who is no stranger to strange magazine covers, said in 2015 at a media event in Melbourne, “a lot of [modernist] designs now make no sense whatsoever… they’re unbelievably stupid and deeply, deeply inhuman.” That could perhaps describe the Vogue SG’s born-again cover (although Mr Sagmeister was referring to architecture, his thoughts are applicable to magazine cover design). When we compared that cover (and the masthead) to the other eight Asian editions of Vogue of this month, the stark difference is obvious and unsettling, so is it’s alien-ness (look at the oddly small, ghostly hands!). The absence of a fashion message aside, there is a clear lack of approachability. The cover is AI-generated, we know. Creativity sans emotional connection. It, therefore, begs the question, “Who on earth is this magazine for?”
Even with a new editor-in-chief, the ‘fashion bible’ continues its love affair with blue skinfortheircovers. Are they publishing in Pandora?
There is something about blue that editors-in-chief of Vogue SG love. And the ardour must be expressed on the top page of the magazine. For his debut issue, Desmond ‘Monkiepoo’ Lim, who shared the image on Instagram, put an alien on the cover. The humanoid being, named Faye, has not embraced earthly aesthetic conventions although she is ready to partake in one temporal joy: food. She has on make-up that Neytiri on the moon Pandora would call cultural appropriation. Jake Scully would be so peeved, he’d return to earth, thinking the Resources Development Administration was up to something here and that the Na’vi race—indigenous to Pandora—would, again, be under attack so that the RDA could subjugate the moon-dwellers. The blue face is somehow here on our island, at least one of them is. She is among us. And Vogue SG is happy to put her on their cover. The first creature from outer space to grace the magazine in its longer-than-a-century-old history—and among all 27 editions.
A fashion stylist asked us if this is STB’s doing, an early cover to promote next year’s Chingay parade. Why have we not thought of that? The main blurb reads “roots”. Could this be a look at a time when we were costumed. Or, is this tracing back to a genesis that we know not of? Were we a people dressed like the Sakaarans on the trash planet created by the un-aged Grandmaster? According to Marvel, Sakaar “is the collection point for all lost and unloved things”. Is Vogue SG positioning themselves as this assemblage spot? We looked at all the Asian Vogue covers this month—nine of them (we love Vogue Korea’s and Hong Kong’s). None had a model hued blue. We stand out! Are the other Asian EICs laughing at us? Or are they full of admiration, just as they might be with our city-state for being one of the richest countries in the world. This, however, isn’t the title’s first blue-skin cover. On the issue of last May/June, a woman with blue hands and nails partially covered her face. It looked like she was taking a break from working her hands in a vat of indigo dye all day. The fashion message missing then is still lost now.
Someone said to us that Vogue SG is reaching out to a new generation. And which might that be? Cerulean children? The latest cover does tell us that the issue is themed “fashion meets AI revolution”. The image is created by the intelligence that is artificial and cold. Vogue SG has been pro-technology and likes illustrating how digital means can be employed to manipulate the images it uses to communicate to the weary, the blasé, and the aloof, and to induce them to buy a copy of the magazine. In tandem with the rise of ChatGPT, the title and its EIC are, perhaps, showing the world that it is truly ahead of the digital curve. But, if there is one thing this cover proves, AI is yet to be better than human touch. Curiously, rather than make a boast of the talents we have here, Mr Lim chooses to work with a Mumbai-based AI artist. Perhaps this ties with his desire to “return to our ‘Roots’ and rediscover who we truly are as South East Asians” (India is not part of SEA), as he declared on IG. And discover we tried, but it has been futile. Besides, what are the chalk-green biscuits on the table? Are they part of our “roots”, too?
Yesterday afternoon, despite the heavy rain, we made a trip to Kinokuniya to get a copy of the magazine. We thought it deserved a quick perusal. Not a copy was seen on the rack. Instead, piles of the last issue, “Renewal”, were there, waiting to be removed and replaced. We returned to the bookstore again this afternoon, and once more, the cover of non-indigenous Faye’s blue visage couldn’t be seen (nor the other two that are part of a triumvirate of covers for this month). We asked a staff if the store was expecting a delivery. She told us she’d check. When she returned, she was extremely apologetic: “the only copy we have is this,” she pointed to the crumpled, stale issue. Do you know when the magazine will arrive? “Oh, I won’t know. We are not notified beforehand.” It is late for a March/April issue, isn’t it? “Yes, it is,” she replied sympathetically. “They are always like that.”
Update (5 March 2023): Vogue SG is still not available on the newsstands, five days after EIC Desmond Lim shared the photo of the cover on IG
And for the first time, the position goes to a Singaporean
Vogue SG’s new editor-in-chief Desmond ‘Monkiepoo’ Lim. Photo: monkiepoo/Instagram
The Singaporean edition of Vogue has just announced its new editor-in-chief, three months after it was reported that their publishing licence was revoked and then reissued, but valid for six months. It was then also said that the previous EIC Norman Tan resigned from his position to take up a new job in the Big Apple. Mr Tan wrote his farewell message in the November/December issue, comparing his tenure to baking. In a media release, Vogue SG said that Desmond ‘Monkiepoo’ Lim will be the magazine’s new editorial head. The appointment must have come as a 大红包 (big hongbao) for the magazine’s former fashion director. Mr Lim’s first issue would be in March. That indicates that the magazine’s publishing licence has been extended beyond the six months that was offered to them after an appeal was made. Mr Lim, as one former magazine editor told us, “has his job cut out for him.”
According to Mr Lim’s latest Instagram post, it took him “2.5 months and 5 rounds of interviews” before the job was his. As with his predecessor’s appointment, Media Publishares looked from within to hire the magazine’s next EIC. Some media observers believe this is a cheaper way since it is likely that existing senior staff would eagerly accept the coveted job with minimal or no adjustments to the salary. Until the current announcement, Mr Lim held the position of fashion director at Vogue SG, after leaving, in 2020, Singapore Tatler, where he held the same position for six years. He is Vogue SG’s first Singaporean for the top editorial post. Former EICs were connected to Australia: In the magazine’s first run (1994—1997), Nancy Pilcher was the editorial head. An American, she ran Vogue Australia (and the SG edition concurrently). When the magazine returned to our shores 23 years later, the EIC role was offered to Norman Tan, originally from Melbourne, who was the social media-crazy EIC of Esquire SG. But Desmond Lim is not entirely disconnected from Down Under. He went to school there, graduating with a BA from the University of South Australia.
It is not immediately apparent what Mr Lim will bring to Vogue SG. Will he continue in the footsteps of the one who came before him? Could those shoes be too large to fill? Or, will he speak directly to the readers here with a more authentic voice? Mr Lim is known to be comfortable with his native self, as sure of his love for bubor cha cha as his adoration of his late ah ma (paternal grandmother) to whom he was the endearing “ah boy” (once, he even did an Iris Apfel on her, and styled her in Prada). Vogue SG struggled to evoke affection before. Or, a discernible Singaporean-ness. It would serve the title well to rouse feelings and excitement that reflect the uniqueness of the name framed in the ‘O’ of the masthead. In the media release, Mr Lim shared that he will “continue to explore the integral connection between fashion, culture, and technology.” Continue, he said.
A PR consultant asked us what we thought of the appointment, “if he makes the cut”. It is hard to say. Going from a fashion director to an EIC is a big leap. Mr Lim, to us, has always been more of a visual person than textual. Putting together a whole magazine, with numerous constituent parts, isn’t the same as styling a fashion spread or creating the content for a social media account. Mr Lim started his career as a graphic designer and his visual language, fashion-wise, is based on gratuitous edginess, rather than clear communication through clothes. The curious May/June 2022 cover of the model covering her hands painted blue may have found kinship in Mystique, but for us, it was hard to ascertain what it really meant, and why it would be a draw or inspiration. But these days, as editors are less the gatekeepers of the fashion industry, Desmond Lim may need more than edginess to be persuasive and compelling.
The title published its final issue last month. We read it
The Esquire SG swansong: December 2022, with Bollywood star Panveer Singh on the cover
Nineteen days before Christmas, Esquire SG announced on Facebook: “Welcome to the last issue…”, but that we-shall-be-no-more announcement was barely discernible in the page, A Letter from the Editor of the physical magazine that we finally picked up. The EIC, Rahat Kapur, barely mentioned that the title will wrap for good with the said issue. She wrote that she has “never been great at goodbyes”. That, it appears, is the farewell message. Curiously, she did not say outright that Esquire SG will cease publishing or that licensee Media Publishares will not have the brand under its stable of international names, such as Vogue SG. She expressed heartache at having to “bid adieu to something that has truly mattered to [her], well after its time has concluded”. She did not call that something by name. And when she had to say that the magazine will come to a close, she wrote of the “final issue for 2022”, not the final. Even when she informed the cover subject, Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh, that he would be the magazine’s “first Bollywood celebrity on the cover”, she did not say (she would have known by then) that it would be the last.
It could be discerned that she was not willing to let go. Understandable when ten months was all you had on the job. Ms Kapur came onboard in February last year. She said she “gasped in disbelief when [she] found out [she’d] be taking over the helm of this esteemed publication”. Two paragraphs down, she still won’t call the title she regarded so highly by what everyone else called it. Perhaps she thought that readers were already aware of Esquire SG’s impending closure. Since former EIC Norman Tan decamped to Vogue SG in 2020, speculation was rife about the fate of Esquire SG. Would the Hearst Magazine Media magazine be left languishing in the shadow of the more glamorous Condé Nast title? When Ms Kapur was appointed the EIC, cynics wondered how long she would get to edit the magazine. They got their answer.
One can’t be faulted for wondering if local editions of international titles just don’t stand a chance to last on this island. To be sure, the media business has been tough and rough, made less tenable by unceasingly dwindling readership. With Esquire SG’s closure, only two men’s magazines here—Men’s Folio and August Men, both local titles—are left. The heat of competition is turned down for the pair of survivors. But competition is not the only challenge magazines, whether online or print, faces. There are two other Cs: consumption, which has largely changed, and, for print in particular, cost, which, like almost everything else, has skyrocketed. And there is the third C—content. With so many snazzy “content creators”, magazines have it tough speaking a voice that could pull in readers.
Ms Kapur’s Esquire SG is a predictable blend of lifestyle/culture snippets, catalogue-style pages, fashion spreads, trend reports (strangely, often all credited to the fashion editor Gordon Ng), luxury watch features, and celebrity interviews. Add to those, fan-girl vim. For her swansong, Ms Kapur “jets to Mumbai”, she informed her readers, to interview “Bollywood’s ‘It’ leading man today”, Ranveer Singh. Yet, she wrote “I hate Bollywood”. And explained, repeating her aversion, “I hate Bollywood for enveloping me in the likes of icons such as Shah Ruk Khan, who to this day, remains the one person I’d donate a kidney to”, even when she confessed that she detests the India film industry “for making [her] feel like dream men could exist in the realms of reality, and with one dance number, they could end up becoming the greatest and most passionate loves of our lives”. And then just a paragraph later, “I wanted to go where we’ve never been before: to Bollywood—and just like that, it happened.”
It is not certain who among the Esquire readers would love the gushing and fawning, and heating up—she wrote, with relish, “much repositioning of my legs and 20 sips of my water later, in enters Ranveer” (seriously! It was even used in a pull-quote). What would past contributors of Esquire (US), such as Norman Mailer, had he been alive, say? Or, perhaps, therein lies the charm? Or, the fast track to the magazine’s exit? Interestingly, there is practically no editorial that could “encourage hetero readers to ogle”, one former editor of a men’s magazine noted (the feature of K-pop girl group (G)I-dle is, at best, placid). Or, stories on health and wellness, even grooming. There is much crammed into the pages, but the content is far from compelling, or better than others found on the dizzy, content-laden web.
Esquire SG debuted in our city on September 2012. At that time, it came under the stewardship of Kuala Lumpur-based Mongoose Publishing (once behind Time Out SG). Five years ago, the license was granted to Media Publishares, then operating as Indochine Media Ventures, and synonymous with Buro SG and Robb Report SG. Vogue SG was added to the trio of titles in 2020. With Rahat Kapur saying that the current edition is the “final issue for 2022”, some media professionals were wondering if Esquire SG, like Vogue SG might return. Industry watchers speculated that Media Publishares are now consolidating their resources to keep Vogue SG afloat after it was issued a six-months permit to publish by the Ministry of Communication and Information (after initially revoking it) because the magazine “had breached the content guidelines for local lifestyle magazines”. There are reports, too, that Ms Kapur has been reassigned to another role within the media firm. Would she, we wonder, be the second former-Esquire SG EIC to take up the much coveted editorial position to keep our born-again Vogue going? Like in the old days, sometimes, you have to kill a child to keep another alive.
Vogue SG’s editor-in-chief confirms he’s leaving the magazine with a “final Editor’s Letter”
The rumours are true. Norman Tan, the Aussie editor-in-chief of Vogue SG is leaving the magazine. On Instagram four days ago, Mr Tan shared a photograph of “the last issue” of the title he has edited for the past two years, as well as the ‘Editor’s Letter’ he has penned to say goodbye. It is not a maudlin farewell note. In fact, it sounded rather cheery. And quite sweet, as he probably intended it to be, using cake as a fluffy metaphor: When he was young, he wrote, “the fashion industry seemed like a fantastical tiered chiffon cake, piled high with frosted cream and painted in bright pastel hues”. This is clearly not the pandan variety that many of us are familiar with—the unadorned, flavourful green kek. Till the end, Mr Tan continues to pitch himself as the well-dressed foreigner-made-good-here. And, 11 years after his arrival on our island, “not only is cake in the menu”, he was “allowed into the kitchen”. The Chinese saying 入得了厨房出得了厅堂 (referring to women who, when skilled in the kitchen, can do anything outside of it) comes to mind! And, as editor, “concoct(s) recipes for fashion stories… selecting the best ingredients to realise the most delectable creations”.
He continued—pâtisserie (still) in the picture: “It’s easy to see the finished meringue of a magical story and forget the long hours it took to beat those stiff peaks into action.” We now know with certainty that Mr Tan is no baker, just as some observers consider him to be no editor of fashion. Egg whites for meringues usually require between five to ten minutes of beating (Yotam Ottolenghi prefers the latter) to reach the desired stiffness. Never “long hours”. Even a home baker knows one can really take it too far. Over-beating—usually more than 15 minutes—can do serious damage to the meringue. In fact, working the balloon whisk over the egg whites for too long can cause a decrease in volume in the meringue, and the mixture collapses and may even look curdled. The structure of the egg whites is compromised and liquid will seep out. Not quite the “stiff peaks” Mr Tan was aiming to achieve.
According to our trusty Larousse Gastronomique, the meringue was the creation of a Swiss pâtissier called Gasparini, and the light, candy-like pastry (back then, it was meringue ordinaire, not the coloured and flavoured bites they are now) was a favourite of Marie Antoinette, who adored it so much that she apparently submitted herself to manual labour and made them with her own delicate hands in the kitchen of the Trianon. It is interesting that Mr Tan used the doomed queen’s favourite sweetmeat as figure of speech to describe his professional output. Was he saying that the editorial contents—or “delectable creations”—that he took “long hours… to beat” are, in the end, merely airy confections? Just as pavlova—the meringue-based dessert of his homeland—is, even when it could be, as he would say, “piled high” with fruit. Airiness aside, could the textual and visual stories he ran in the magazine be the editorial equivalent of empty calories?
Industry chatter says Norman Tan’s leaving Vogue SG is related to a particular trouble at the magazine (we are unable to independently verify this). Last month, the Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) revoked the title’s license to publish and then granted them six months after Vogue SG appealed. According to MCI, the magazine “had breached the content guidelines for local lifestyle magazines on four occasions within the past two years, for nudity and content that promoted non-traditional families”. All of this happened under Mr Tan’s watch. Four days after he shared on IG that he would be leaving the periodical, he posted a slide show of “two years of Vogue SG covers”. Not a single one struck us as striking. Were we “too harsh”, as a magazine veteran wondered when we said we were not impressed? For his swan-song cover, Mr Tan featured Rina Sawayama, the Japanese-British singer-songwriter, dressed in an “animal-free YSL coat” and a pair of towering heels. (This isn’t the first cover featuring shaggy fur this year. On the August/September issue, Cardi B wore a similar.) Is the magazine really communicating with the readers here? How does a woman relate to another, cloaked like a street walker on Rue Saint Denis in winter? And why that Slime green for the festive season? And, does it all amount to “glory”, as the sole cover blurb states? Or were we not able to see that it was all confectionary fluff?
The latest issue of Vogue SG, out just today, with Jackson Wang on the cover. Photo: Jim Sim
Is Vogue SG not destined to enjoy longevity here? Or a glorious life? Will the comeback publication meet with the same fate as its former self? These questions followed media reports (even in Malaysia) that the validity of its license to publish has been halved—from its current one-year permit—after the publishing of a quartet of editorials deemed unsuitable for Singaporean consumption. According to The Straits Times this morning, the Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) stated that the Singaporean edition of the global fashion title “had breached the content guidelines for local lifestyle magazines on four occasions within the past two years, for nudity and content that promoted non-traditional families”, despite what ST called “a stern warning”. MCI also disclosed that the license of Vogue SG was, in fact, revoked with effect yesterday, but the magazine—finally a monthly this October (they were, since the launch, a bi-monthly)—reapplied and was granted the six months. Publisher of Vogue SG Media Publishares (former Indochine Media Ventures or IMV), has not responded to the media reports.
Before the news of this breach emerged, the word buzzing about last night in media circles was that Vogue SG’s editor-in-chief Norman Tan has resigned from his position. He would be, we heard, heading for the Big Apple to join Apple (we were not able to independently verify this, but he was in New York last month for NYFW and he could have taken time off to do something else?). As the news of the magazine’s recurrent infraction began to be quickly shared, we were sent, together with links to the news stories, the burning question: “Could this be one of the reasons Norman Tan decided to leave?”, with others adding, “coupled with the fact that he knows the title is not doing well?” A media old-timer also chimed in: “It is going to be hard for them to get brand support if they really have just six months left to operate.” When Mr Tan was appointed as the EIC in 2020, Vogue SG’s socialite-publisher Bettina von Schlippe told the media that his “rich expertise in journalism and publishing makes us confident that he will present a new and exciting vision for the title, while upholding the values of the brand.” She made no mention of upholding the values of the nation and its people.
Norman Tan, right, with Condé Nast’s global chief content officer Anna Wintour. Photo: musingmutley/Instagram
Norman Tan’s appointment at Vogue SG was, at that time, a surprise to some in the publishing industry. Mr Tan, a former lawyer, was editing two IMV titles prior, Buro and Esquire SG. He had not, until Vogue SG, directed the content of a woman’s magazine and yet he secured the post in what many (still) consider a “fashion bible”. Some observers thought he was handed the job because IMV wanted to choose from within, rather than hire someone more experienced and, inevitably, expensive (this was when COVID-19 would soon become a pandemic, affecting many editorial budgets) from outside. Moreover, Mr Tan is an eager and prolific social media user, a position that stood him in great stead, as magazine editors were expected to have conspicuous and well-followed online profiles. And he did create a Vogue SG that seemed to appeal to those who are digitally aware, who live their lives digitally, too. Last September, the magazine offered a pair of covers that were available as NSTs and this month, a virtual lounge Club Vogue—the Metaverse from the start, in fact, a recurring theme.
But has it been one Vogue that we could proudly call our own? Was there an identifiable—and relatable—identity? No one expected Vogue SG to look like the more-than-six-decades-old Her World. Mr Tan seemed to prefer a visually more edgy magazine—high on style, paltry on substance—for the market, with covers that have often been experimental (blue hands on face?) or over-styled, and unconventionally lit, sporting almost no blurb. In the ‘Editor’s Letter’ of the latest issue, he quoted Ms Wintour deferentially: “Vogue is always looking forward”. To lean that way, he picked “icons” and “mavericks” and, as MCI noted, near-nakedness and the “non-traditional” (could one of the stories MCI found objectionable be ‘Four LGBTQIA+ Advocates Share their Experiences Growing Up in Singapore’?). A former magazine journalist said to us, “it seems he’s creating a magazine for his friends, for his followers, but how much of the market do they make up?” On Instagram, Mr Tan has 27.5K followers. Is that large enough? One gripe we keep hearing is that the visually-focused magazine seems to be shaped by “angmo hands”. The EIC is, in fact, a Chinese-Australian from Melbourne, and the president of Media Publishares is the publishing veteran Michael Von Schlippe, the husband of Bettina Von Schlippe.
October issue of Vogue SG with two different covers on the rack in Kinokuniya. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
Mr Tan is inclined to Vogue-speak, calling his editorial charge in this October issue “a barometer for what’s round the corner”, just as Condé Nast has been labelling Vogue a “cultural barometer for a global audience”. It is possible that Mr Tan took “global audience” very seriously so that he could go beyond the shores of this sadly too-small island market. Condé Nast announced last August that this year’s “September issue of Vogue is centered around the idea of ‘new Beginnings’—an initiative that brings together all 27 editions of Vogue (ours is the 27th) as a powerful and emotive mark of unity (shared editorials are part of their cost-cutting measures) and message of hope for Vogue’s global community, looking ahead to a post-pandemic world.” How much of the Vogue SG identity, if it were ever established, was sacrificed for this “unity”? A marketing consultant told us, “When I read Vogue Thailand, I feel they are communicating with Thais, but when I read Vogue SG, I don’t sense that they are talking to me.” Is it erroneous then to ask if Vogue SG is an influential fashion and lifestyle magazine? Who really reads Vogue?
At Kinokuniya this morning, the latest (local) mouthpiece of the “global fashion authority”, as Condé Nast describes its most famous title, had just arrived. With most other publishing houses, an October issue out in the middle of the month is considered late—very late. The current month of Vogue SG comes with two covers: one with Jackson Wang (王嘉尔) and the other, CL (aka Lee Chae-rin), with, strangely, no accompanying story while Mr Wang is given one page to talk about his new album Magic Man. The magazines had just been placed on the five-tier rack when we visited the store; they were yet to be flipped, all in a pristine state. A massive carton of the said title, still unboxed, sat in the middle of the aisle. A staff came by and we asked, pointing to the magazine: “does our Vogue sell well?” She happily replied in the affirmative. Really? “Yes, we expect this issue to sell out,” she enthused. Really? ”Yes, because of the two stars on the cover.” As a Facebook post on the Jackson Wang Malaysia Fan Club page considered, “这次的杂志不买来收藏真的对不起自己 (if this issue of the magazine is not bought for collecting, we’ll do ourselves a great wrong)”. What about the other issues, we wondered. “Oh,” she hesitated, then said, ”not so.” We turned the final question to ourselves: Six months later, will we be writing the obituary of Vogue SG?
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. The ditorial head 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).