It Pays To Belong

Louis Vuitton’s spring/summer 2019 was a triumph for Virgil Abloh. Would it the same for the future of men’s wear? Or were we witnessing one big brand trying to fit in?

 

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The emotional hug between Virgil Abloh and Kanye West at the end of the former’s debut for Louis Vuitton was rather telling. Both men, it was reported, were crying. Tears of joy, no doubt, and also of pride, and, veritably, achievement. This was a moment of brotherhood for Mr Abloh and Mr West and the rest of their gang. This was a moment of acclaim for hip-hop. This was a moment of visibility for Black America. This was a moment of victorious Barrack Obama, all over again.

That the show opened with a parade of Wakanda-worthy black men (at least 16 of them passed by before a non-black emerged) is perhaps indication that Mr Abloh has pledged blackness as mainstream—the rainbow runway a sidebar to the story of diversity. This isn’t playing the race card as much as verifying that black culture is here to stay. This is the year of Kendrick Lamar, and Wendy Williams singing his praises with gusto. This is not even Off-White’s glory; this is Virgil Abloh’s, and his alone. And no one now can steer the course with purpose and buzz than Mr Abloh, not even his pal, the Yeezy himself.

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Louis Vuitton’s positioning as a popular global brand means it no longer needs to celebrate its French-ness, or fashion the way the French had for decades, selling haute couture and, later, pret-a-porter to the world. Given how homogeneous clothing designs have become, it now needs to pitch itself in a market place that is awash with a sameness that Marc Almond laments in Monoculture, singing “why don’t I just give up/And submit to the great God of Bland?”

The thing is, fashion houses need no design directors to churn out what store buyers call “better basics”. Mr Abloh told the Financial Times that he wants to make “the most beautiful normcore clothes, but as luxurious as possible.” Anyone can do that, and many have—think the Olsen twins for the flavour-lite The Row. Furthermore, such clothing are already being produced through collaborations. It is, therefore, understandable when one observer commented to SOTD early this morning in total dismay, “This is what Adidas would do if Adidas did RTW.” Such as the immensely stylish, now-defunct SLVR line, once designed by Dirk Schoenberger?

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Is this even about the clothes? Not really. Presently, no one can provide better optics than a member of American hip-hop royalty heading a French house. Such an appointment was Kanye West’s dream, but that did not come true for him. Still, he is able to now live vicariously through Mr Abloh, his long-time collaborator. The front-row display of emotion was, thus, to be expected: This was as much Mr West’s victory, more so when the hip-hop community’s foray into fashion design was very much shunned in the beginning. Mr West himself was snubbed, in Paris no less, where he showed two disastrous collections in 2011 and 2012. Could this be pay back time?

That was then, this is now. If you ever doubted hip-hop’s cultural impact on the fashion of our time, this collection may sent disbelief to some dark corner of your armoire. It is not certain if this is how Jaden Smith and his inner-city peers would like to dress, but it does evoke what’s pervading today: the grown-up styles of black youths who have graduated from fashion that glorifies the thrift-store. This is not about old Adidas football jerseys teamed with D&G when it existed. Nor, off-duty NBA stars. This is black culture celebrating one of their own. This is papa hoodie in procreation mode. This is post-post-Sean Jean; this is post-Hood By Air; this is when the ’hood is gentrified.

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What does the urban black man of means, such as Virgil Abloh and his cohorts and those who look to hip-hop stars for fashion inspiration and guidance, like to wear? If LV is an indication, perhaps sheer, oversized T-shirts? Or, printed/coloured, baggy trousers? Or, shorts that look like bloomers? Or, holsters as one-sided vests? Or, sweaters featuring gay icons Dorothy and friends down the yellow brick road?

Ultimately is this still about street style? It’s hard to say. Fashion is long gone about design. It is about looks pulled together from various articles of clothing not necessarily connected to one another. Street style is, of course, such an amalgamation. But Mr Abloh isn’t delivering street the way OAMC’s Luke Meier (one-time co-designer at Supreme) does. He is, instead, offering what McDonald’s calls “upsized”: you get more meat, but at the core, it’s still the same flavourless mince.

If fashion is about a designer’s voice, what was Mr ABloh saying that wasn’t already said at Off-White? That should be the question. In a couple of the appliquéd badges that appeared on the clothes, a message was delivered: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”. Was Virgil Abloh referring to himself? If he was, it was a genius pitch because you most certainly will, rather than not.

Photos: (first) Getty Images, (second) Louis Vuitton live stream, (others) Indigital.tv

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Ganryu Fumito Strides Back

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He returned just as quietly as he departed. Ganryu Fumito’s come-back to the men’s fashion week season is bereft of bang, but the discreet debut under his full name at the Pitti Immagine Uomo a few days back was anything but muted. The inspiration for his show, as reported, was water, and while this collection may not make waves, it certainly would send ripples down the right direction. First-hand reports so far barely contained the excited reactions.

The welcome return is understandable. Mr Fumito is considered a rare breed among those designers who are adept at melting the finest of sportswear, streetwear, and work wear, a Haroumi Hosono of fashion, if you will. His departure from his previous employer Comme des Garçons last year was not officially announced until a Canadian e-tailer broke the news online. The reveal was met with disappointment by fans, including many of us at SOTD, who had not expected such a pull-out, considering how respected Mr Fumito is. His back-to-the-fold of immensely captivating men’s wear labels is particularly significant in view of the many new appointees at major brands that will debut this month.

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That the collection premiered at the Pitti Immagine Uomo is significant. The Florentine fair is known to launch the careers of designers who take a different, more audacious sartorial path, such as Thom Browne and Kolor’s Junichi Abe. Mr Fumito’s collection is bound to capture the attention of the world’s stockists and media. And it should. Not short of his usual inventiveness, the clothes are, however, relieved of any CDG imprint—none of the patchwork, none of the patterns, none of the surface extras associated with CDG made their appearance. Instead, Mr Fumito turned to what could be religious garb to show that he’s starting from a conscientiously clean sheet. The first look, a hooded robe, in all its monastic starkness, led us to think of Benedictine monks. But the robe, in neoprene, had a more sportif quality that was more post-game than ecclesiastical, more Gary Numan (Berserker?) than Gregorian chant.

This is not to say Mr Fumito has turned to the strictly pared-down or even rejected the secular. In fact, it appeared that he has not turned his gaze away from the street—not Paris, more Tokyo, not Gosha Rubchinskiy’s Muscovite skate headiness, more Y3’s soft, alt-sport kei. Evidently, he is not too high-minded to allow basic T-shirts to take to the catwalk—not those with crazy appendages. If you look closely, you’d spot familiar articles of clothing too, those pieces that are the staples of streetwear and those outers (yes, hoodies for the ’hood) that accompany you to the cinema. An elevation of a certain Life Wear? These are clothes not necessarily for the conventional office, but certainly for those who share start-up spaces or those who occupy professional environments not dictated by the shirt and smart trousers.

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There’s no denying that the presentation relied heavily on styling tricks: extra clothing strapped on the body as one would with a backpack or messenger bag, layering that seemed unrelated to weather conditions, and outdoorsy mixes that were evocative of perhaps a decidedly urban The North Face (a domain of Nanamica’s Eiichiro Homma). And therein lies the charm and the assurance that Mr Fumito, like his one-time design head Junya Watanabe, does not have to rely on the far-out to make a strong statement. Indeed, take the ensembles apart and you have those clothes that won’t be step siblings in your wardrobe.

Mr Fumito also proved that street style can have a voice that need not be traced to a particular store on New York’s Lafayette Street or the din that is blaring from America’s hip-hop community whose fashion stars are enjoying worldwide attention, or lured to popular Parisian houses. Street style, in fact, need not be the souped-up treatment of what has been considered street since the ’80s, since Fame. It need not have to have a US worldview; it could be better, infinitely better.

Photo: (top) Pitti Immagine Uomo, (others) vogue.com

That Suit And That Suit

They’re heads-of-state; they don’t have to dress like you and I. They can look worse

 

By Ray Zhang

As you know, even if you’re not a suit wearer, there are suits and there are suits. You probably also noted that none were more unremarkable and unfashionable than those worn by the key players of the Singapore Summit just two days ago.

At one of the most important meetings of modern times and one that, at least on the surface, was “historic”, as Channel NewsAsia repeatedly and annoyingly reminded us, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump faced-off in what I saw were decidedly old-world clothes. Sure, this was not the IHT Luxury Conference, but neither was it the getting together of village elders. Yet one sensedI didthat although optics did matter, clothing did not. The handshake was what cameras zoomed into and what the media was effusive about.

Despite the 21st Century setting (in contrast, Capella, the hotel in which the meeting was conducted, is housed in a 19th Century building), the two men reminded me of the time, in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter signed diplomatic agreements between China and the US. Like Mr Deng at the White House that day, Mr Kim—41 years younger—wore a dark Mao suit. His partner in the making of history Mr Trump wore a business suit not unlike what Mr Carter wore when the latter jointly signed those agreement papers with his Chinese counterpart. Thirty-nine years later, when new mass production and a renewed interest in bespoke both meant better-made clothes, the leaders of one of the last few communist states and the world’s most powerful democracy adopted fashion that spoke of another era.

I am not sure how we should read this or even attempt to read it. Should fashion, like the church, be separated from the state? Despite judgmental attitudes towards how we view each other in terms of dress, many of us still do not consider sartorial savvy an important part of a politician’s appeal. In fact, I believe many of us still view a nattily dressed MP with suspicion—can the people’s representative spend enough time on policy when he/she takes time to shop, to pick clothes, to groom? Perhaps dubious dress choices make finer politics. Perhaps a dated suit shows a more modern mind or conservative incline. Perhaps a dreadfully long necktie indicates the length in which a president makes strides to better his country and promote world peace. What do I know?

Photo: AP/Susan Walsh, Pool

Midnight Cowboys

Saint Laurent’s men’s wear under Anthony Vaccarello was presented in New York. Is this another of the brand’s attempt at Americanisation?

 

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When bands in the European continent want to make it big, they record or launch albums in the good ’ol US of A. The Brits, in particular, consider North America the platform for global domination. From the Beatles to Depeche Mode to One Direction, bands see Uncle Sam as the father of immense riches or the repository of accessible pop. In the Trumpian world, could this be America, “the piggy bank that everybody is robbing”?

Fashion designers, like band members, see the allure of the United States too. Anthony Vaccarello is one of them. His spring/summer 2019 men’s wear collection for the house was shown, not in Paris but in the Big Apple, a city that provided, as he told the media, “the idea of New York, the idea of the icons of New York in the ’70s”. If that immediately sounds like a cliché, it is. The Americans have been robbing the accesses of the disco era for a very long time, so much so that many of them can’t forgo the lurid glam headquartered in the nightclub Studio 54. But the French, such as Yves Saint Laurent himself, want to show the Americans how to do it better. Hedi Slimane, Mr Vaccarello’s predecessor, was also seduced by the US. He even showed in—of all places—LA! Even in the West Coast, you can’t say “icons of New York in the ’70s” wasn’t on his mind.

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Since Mr Slimane’s remake of Saint Laurent for men, the clothes have been part lost hippy, part rock star, part flashy pimp. Mr Vaccarello has not dramatically change the aesthetic, but has added to the equation part urban cowboy. At the New York show, he styled a sort of downtown dandy, a nocturnal peacock (in a beaded paisley blazer!) that occupies his time mostly hanging out with band mates (still the Pete Doherty vibe?), in the most underground of clubs, under the cover of darkness or the hypnosis of the strobe. It was not easy to see how the clothes would fit any activity of daylight hours, unless your line of work involves, say, entertainment. The outfits were mostly dark in shade, glittery in effects, and slim in silhouette.

In fact, the silhouette has not changed much. Since Mr Slimane exported hipster lean to Saint Laurent from Dior Homme, his successor has not deviated from the look. In fact, skinniness has remained central—a skinniness that has, by now, made oversized and baggy positively more interesting. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with slim-fit, but for those who have moved on to something less of a cling wrap, what Mr Vaccarello is proposing seems a little, well, narrow, or restrictive. The body of today  deserves a variety of proportions.

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Within the overall slimness of the silhouette, he added Western touches that few men of horse and lasso would consider authentic. Then there were those unbuttoned-halfway shirts underneath leather jackets, punctuated by a neckerchief—throwback to the ’70s that appeared lame against the signature excesses at Gucci. In addition, those sheer sequinned shirts and sleeveless tops that would have more in common with men of a certain age unable to pull away from the past than the young living in the present. Noteworthy too were the surprisingly large number of jeans, more permutations than even Diesel would churn out per season. And what was the body glitter of the finale about? A nod to the month of Pride?

Look closely and the collection persuaded one to think that it is isn’t terribly inventive by design. Similar to Mr Slimane’s initially divisive approach, Mr Vaccarello had created looks using rather basic clothes in nightclub-worthy fabrics to effect his vision of what he thinks the Americans would like: styles of the ’70s, considered the breakout decade for American designers. The thing is, this may be the most exciting men’s wear season in a long while. Eyes and social media accounts will be trained on the debuts of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, Kim Jones at Dior Homme, Hedi Slimane at Celine’s very first season for men, Jacquemus’s own, and Riccardo Tisci at Burberry. By the looks of it, Anthony Vaccarello probably did not aim to be the first among peers.

Photos: Saint Laurent

Not-So-Hush Revival

Hush Puppies Bernard

By Shu Xie

If you walk into a Hush Puppies store these days, you’d be forgiven if you thought you have stepped into a shop your father/mother (or grandfather/grandmother, depending) visits. It was the same feeling I had when I went to the Bangkok department store Pata in Pinklao, on the western side of the Chao Praya river. Named after King Mongkut’s brother, Pinklao is a fast-changing alternative to downtown Bangkok. But Pata (it once housed a roof-top zoo!) is where time stood still. Exactly which decade, I could not tell. The place and products were evocative of those times you are probably too young to know—distant.

Truth be told, it is indeed at Hush Puppies that I visit when I need to buy my father shoes, usually during the lead-up to Chinese New Year. You see, my dad wears a very specific sandal and it can be found in Hush Puppies. This is not to paint Hush Puppies with an unflattering stroke. The American brand makes comfortable and lasting shoes, and considering that the footwear of choice among hipsters today are those that are, at best, off-beat, they could be erring on the right side of fashion.

In case you’re still in doubt, Hush Puppies will convince you with the just-released series of shoes based on the ‘Bernard’ silhouette, a handsome one that can be traced to some of the looks that defined the brand in its early days in the ’50s. Called the Decades Limited Edition Collection, this six-style release is issued in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of Hush Puppies. No prizes for guessing that each look “represents the fashion and pop culture of the era from the 1950s to the 2000s”, as the brand’s media release states.

These are clearly shoes conceived to draw attention to those feet shod in them. Accept for the black Oxford version that represent the ’50s, the rest sport visual volume that would be appreciated for their fortissimo—not at all, I see, contrary to the preference of the #OOTD brigade. The colours, too, are deliberately eye-catching and have more in common with sneakers of today than the smart shoes of the past. Hush Puppies have ushered itself into the era of the shoe-fie, even if a little belatedly.

This is, however, not the first time the brand has aligned itself with contemporary aesthetics. As I remember, back in 1994, American men’s wear designer John Bartlett gave Hush Puppies a brightly-coloured makeover when he showed vibrant suede ‘Duke’ slip-ons for his Forrest Gump collection to the delight of fashion editors and early adopters. In no time, others such as Anna Sui and Joel Fitzpatrick similarly featured those shoes, and Hush Puppies became a fashion phenomenon, saving the brand from a reported phase-out by parent company Wolverine.

Hush Puppies’s sudden popularity was remarkable perhaps because collaborations were uncommon in those days. The shoes, in fact, likely did better than initiator-designer John Bartlett’s own collection. Over here, I remember the shoes did not come in large quantities nor in all the available colours, and it was a big deal if you could score a pair. I am sure for the Decades Collection, Hush Puppies would not go small, even when it’s cleverly marketed as limited editions. The ‘Bernard’ shoes will no doubt stand out in the store as the ‘Duke’ once did. As they say, every dog—hushed or not—has its day.

The Hush Puppies ‘Decades’ collection, from SGD258, is available at Hush Puppies, Great World City, Tampines Mall, and The Clementi Mall. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Lending Leaders Style

Some Malaysians dream of better-dressed leaders. One of them visualises them

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Is it so bad to wish that some of our ministers and their spouses are better turned out in public, especially when representing the nation overseas? We wish, for example, that those Singaporeans who go to the White House be better-attired, but this kind of flair would appear to be a tall order. And, to make matters a tad complicated, spiffiness is not considered a political asset, and no one has yet offered a solution to the tendency for eye-raising frumpishness.

Over in Malaysia, an artist has dreamed up alternative looks for the country’s newly elected leaders in what was seen as the biggest election upset last month for the ruling party in the nation’s history. Malaysian politicians are not known to be sharp dressers, but that did not deter some to dare to hope. In a series posted on Instagram called “Minhipsters”, Malaysian artist/illustrator Aizat Paharodzi dreamed of the bridging of the political/generational divide by imagining what the current political champs would look like if they adopted something contemporary, or something with street cred.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for example, was given a makeover that befits a middle-aged man, not a nonagenarian. Mr Paharodzi (or AP, as he is also known) dressed the good doctor in a palm-print Hawaiian shirt and a pair of slim-fit trousers cropped fashionably at the ankle—a sum of hipster heft that could have come under the auspices of Malaysian label Seed. He also added a pair of red Vans, as if in disapproval of the MYR11.99 Bata slides the “humble Tun” favours that had been trending agreeably among his ardent supporters.

AP illustrations.jpgClockwise from top left: Wan Aziza, Muhyiddin Yassin, Lim Guan Eng, and Mat Sabu

Mr Pahadrodzi’s drawings are, perhaps, a little derivative, but to be fair, he had declared that his work is inspired by Israeli illustrator Amit Shimoni. Unlike Mr Shimoni’s unabashed, in-your-face kitsch, Mr Pahadrodzi has played down flashiness and exaggeration while still catering to popular taste (that Supreme T-shirt on Mat Sabu!). His delineations are approachable and comprehensible, and project a genial disposition, all rather preferred political traits. While his choice of clothes for his subjects are not in the same league as Hong Kong illustrator John Woo’s depiction of Star Wars characters in designer threads (Ja Ja Binks, for example, in Maison Martin Margiela!), they may relate to a rakyat for whom better clothes are really just those that are neat and smart, and the occasional Adidas NMD.

Although our two lands are just divided by a causeway, our neighbour in the north seems a lot more progressive and expressive politically than we are. Sure, Netizens here have been vocal about how poorly some of our political players dress, but often times they are just trolling. For those not concerned with outward appearances, well-dressed is thought unseemly. To be certain, we’re not hoping for a Christine Lagarde or a Justin Trudeau in parliament so that their clothes can be trending, but we do hope some of our leaders can hold up sartorially, just as they do intellectually.

Many of us take pride in what our ministers have done for this tiny nation. That we can play host to the Trump-Kim summit this week attests to the clout, geostrategic smarts, and organisational flair of our top brass. Yet, we seem unwilling to see a stylish political class. Wishing for better dressed politicians seems to be the most unlikely desire we can harbour for our governmental make-up, or the least condoned. But optics matter, and when the West—Americans in particular—still think Singapore is part of China or, funnily, Malaysia, perhaps the way we dress in the company of those who will mistake our provenance should be a priority, not an afterthought.

Illustrations: Aizat Paharodzi

A Needless Resurrection

Why bring a brand back from the dead if in rebirth it looks spiritless?

 

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M)phosis is back. As in soap operas and sitcoms, the fashion dead can be undead, but that does not mean they can reappear full of life, with exactness of purpose. M)phosis was no more, but in its return is a lot less; it has lost its soul.

Two days ago, the new M)phosis opened at the just-refurbished mall Century Square, a 23-year-old shopping complex in Tampines operated by AsiaMalls. Its return-to-market in a suburban centre may indicate the brand’s present reluctance for a more Orchard Road-worthy positioning. This would possibly not raise eyebrows as the current owner, although relatively seasoned garment producer and distributor, is not known as a purveyor of trendy products.

Decks Pte Ltd, a self-proclaimed “apparel supplier to department stores”, bought the 21-year-old M)phosis trademark when it expired last year. The company is known in the trade for its production of Universal Studios Singapore merchandise, and has, as it appears, set M)phosis alongside other apparel, rather than fashion brands, such as the beach-centred Surfers Paradise and the little known men’s wear label Royal Knights of Scotland, aesthetically akin to Beverly Hills Polo Club, of which Decks is the distributor.

It is not exactly clear what Decks plans to do with M)phosis although its managing director Kelvyn Chee did tell The Straits Times last month that “with our resources and experience in handling brands, we think we can make it better than in the past.” Given the labels in the Decks stable, “handling” is unsurprising and is probably how M)phosis will be managed. This would run counter to the M)phosis legacy of sleek designs even when its founding designer Colin Koh had, possibly in a moment of humility, claimed he’s “not really a designer”.

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When it closed in 2013, M)phosis had established an image that was far more ahead of what blogshop-born stores today project, and honed such a striking—and sexy—look to the end that many fans and industry types remember it till today. It was likely this unchanging aesthetic in the sea change overwhelming fashion of the past five years that had hasten the demise of the brand. M)phosis, with more than 30 stores in total at one time (including those in the region), could not weather the retail storm inevitably heading its way.

As widely reported, the closure of M)phosis shocked the industry. The official reason offered by the brand’s co-founder/director Hensley Teh was that of problem with cash flow. Mr Teh described it as “severe”, so much so that the closing of M)phosis was inevitable even when he was torn at losing it. One man’s loss, as it turns out, is another’s gain.

Cash flow may have eventually felled M)phosis, but in the reading of the tea leaves even years earlier, many observers thought the brand had not inoculated itself against changing consumer tastes, the influence of street style, and the impact of e-commerce. While M)phosis continued to retail well-made clothes, it remained faithful to aesthetic consistency at the expense of newness, offering the same clingy styles in polyester jersey that the brand was known for, but had, by the mid-2000s, not captured the imagination of its customers.

Mr Chee of Decks seemed unfazed by the failure of M)phosis when he told ST that “it used to be one of the most successful brands and they (still) have a following here as well as overseas”. Could there be a following when there is nothing to follow? The new M)phosis, however, seems to target a rather different customer, one who is weaned on fast fashion, or the likes of Love, Bonito, and one who is partial to the lower end of the price scale. It is also keen to capture the attention of online shoppers, launching the brand’s first e-shop that proudly announces, “The M is back”.

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Back to what? On the ground, the physical outlet is a far cry from what M)phosis stood for: a certain modernity in the shop’s spatial use and a hint of ’70s sportif in the merchandise’s styling despite its sexy leaning. Today’s M)phosis, other than the recognisable logotype (including the unusual bracket after the M), is quite a different product and store. From its interior design, lighting, fixtures, stocks, and visual merchandising, it would appear that Decks desires to position the brand to be compatible with housing estate malls, where fashion retailing pales in comparison to the selling of food. This is rather a curious strategy when you consider that even bulk-produced labels such as Iora is going decidedly sharp and clearly contemporary (check out their Wisma Atria store).

What, perhaps, would be a disappointment for those who are hoping for hark-back to the past is the brand’s rather obvious disassociation with what has gone before. According to Mr Chee, “about 60 percent of” the old M)phosis styles would be retained. But at the quiet opening of the shop, the 60 percent was barely discernible. Did the 40 percent of the reborn M)phosis take over instead? What is M)phosis now emphasising? Or has it become voiceless?

The merchandise is, at best, mundane: the usual (but by-now tiresome) cold-shoulder tops and pussy-bow blouses. Or, what one fashion stylist called, not inaccurately, “office-ladies flair”. To be sure, there is some feeble attempt at edgy, but the result is unpersuasive, just perfunctary, with one prominently displayed, bi-coloured, pleated skirt looking like it could have come from the floor of the Sacai studio.

This is not the first brand that Decks tried to bring back, if not from the dead, certainly from the brink. In 2014, it acquired Island Shop, the ‘resort’ label that Tangs conceived in the ’90s as a line that could differentiate itself from the rest of the store’s labels that targeted careerists. But Island Shop’s relaxed style in shapes that did not necessarily flatter the body became a money-losing dud when younger-looking, hipper brands took over more prominent spots in the department store. New owner Decks, keeping to its predilection for beach-y styles, did not re-imagine Island Shop. They left it marooned.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

RIP, Kate Spade

We’ll always remember Kate Spade as former MP Tin Pei Ling’s favourite handbag designer

 

Kate SpadeKate Spade in her New York Studio in Photo: George Chinsee/Penske Media/Rex

By Mao Shan Wang

When the news broke that Kate Spade died, I was in bed. At that moment, slightly after midnight, the information was sketchy: I read that there was the suspicion of suicide, and a note, apparently for her daughter. Subsequent news feeds pointed to the urgent tributes from celebrities, fellow designers, and fans. At times like these, an angel, it seemed, had ascended to heaven. I am not doubting Ms Spade’s goodness or negating her legacy, but there, under my crumpled comforter, all I could think of was Tin Pei Ling.

I think you know what I mean. Or, I would be alone. Sometimes, people leave such an unexpected and lasting impression with what they covet that you remember them for their indulgences more than what they stood up to do or represented. One material item is enough to undo the investment spent on keeping a humble front. Or, stunt a promising trajectory.

Before the GE of 2011, no one had heard of Tin Pei Leng, but the MP-to-be had her Joanna Dong moment. She, however, presented herself to the public and aroused the masses, not with a song, but with the oversized box that housed, presumably, the bag of her dreams. Rather than encourage her constituents or public at large to see her as one of them, with a desire for luxury handbag, she had inadvertently prodded the trolls to lash out: “Too young”, “Acting Cute”, “Showing off”, “No substance” (all gleaned from The New Paper headline).

Tin Pei LingThe picture that defined an election. Photo: Tin Pei Ling/Facebook

Ms Tin was not in an enviable position. On one hand, she irritated the common man and woman with her conspicuous display: pretty possessions have no part in politics (Indranee Raja an exception since she designs shoes with what The Straits Times called “Singaporean kick”). On the other hand, Ms Tin gained no support from snobby fashionistas who pooh-poohed her bag choice as not fashion enough, Kate Spade being a no-no ‘masstige’ brand. If only someone had advised Ms Tin that some thingsboxes that house them includedare best left for private enjoyment, unless it was a Birkin, but then look where that landed Rosmah Mansor!

Her haters overlooked one thing: Ms Tin really did not know; she was too busy seeking political office to be aware of the questionable taste of posing with a box that was not shy of its brand’s fame, and so large it obscured the body, but was no firewall against would-be criticism. Facebook beckoned, and it should be understandable that she succumbed to the seduction of show and tell, smile and pose. This was a digital “keepsake”, as she told Yahoo News. Look at all the keepsakes influencers have left to our increasing indifference even before 2011. What’s another?

Kate Spade is an easy-to-like brand for every woman, especially those with an active FB account, or those with political dreams. After her death, many called it “touching people’s hearts”. The thing is, in the projection of humbleness and meekness, the Kate Spade brand of cheerfulness is perhaps a tad too obvious, too ready to drive a ribboned stake into what is considered sellable grassroots humdrum, even when their bags can be middle-of-the-road. Tin Pei Ling did not anticipate the slap-slap reaction from the sharing of her ignorance, and we remember. I know I do.

The Rad Of Dad Shoes

They are way cooler if your father won’t cop them

 

At this very juncture of sneaker cool, it’s not the technology that counts, not the thickness of mid-soles that matters, not the outrageousness of the design of the upper that entices. These days, the overall package has to have an unsightliness that is so anti-fashion that it is fashion and a vibe that is so off-beat that it can be traced to paternal tastelessness. Father may not be cool enough, but you, standing on what is supposed to be his domain but unclaimed, is the height of high style.

Are we finally free of Stan Smith’s over-long grip?!

In the sneaker-sphere of fashionista-as-geek, “dad trainers” share the same aesthetic motivation as orthopedic sandals, such as slides: designers tap into the vapid and the downright banal to yield something odd, slightly incomprehensible so that some styles can go beyond the ken of the average consumer. Father of today’s dad trainers is irrefutably Demna Gvasalia. He is the major proponent of dubious-taste-as-ultimate-taste and last year, through his designs for Balenciaga has introduced the Triple S sneaker, the patriarch of shoes bearing dad’s lack of taste.

The thing about dads is that they like coming together. Their sneakers too. Following Balenciaga’s pursuit of papa gauche, Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquiere launched the Archlight, an exaggerated take on the sneakers your father no longer would touch. And then before you can say lao ba, every brand wants their own clunky, ungainly version. So prevalent they are now that even Dazed has this year’s models “ranked”!

But not everyone is willing to pay the astronomical prices that come tagged to the likes of the Triple S—over S$1,000. So sports brands play their willing part. One of them introducing the dad trainer that isn’t a collab is Puma. Taking a break from their hip-hop outing, Rihanna’s Fenty enabler discreetly launched the RS-O ‘Play’, a chunk of a shoe that would not be out-hunked by its earlier-to-market competitors.

To augment its dad standing, the RS-0 series is inspired by retro gaming and the leather-and-mesh ‘Play’ has coloured inserts in the mid-sole that purport to mimic old-fashioned buttons on hand-held device controls. Sonic the Hedgehog (a collab is reportedly in the works) fans would appreciate the geeky reference.

The trainer looks comfortable and it is. It would not deter dad from wearing it with black socks, but you know better. It has a surprisingly prominent tongue and while it does not stick out like the Archlight, you can live with it. What’s particularly appealing, perhaps, is that the RS-O appears to prefer no gender. Don’t fathers like it better when their girl appreciates dad’s taste, however questionable?

Puma RS-0 ‘Play’ sneakers, SGD199, are available at Puma Select, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Collaboration Junkie: Karl Goes East

Karl Lagerfeld has been spreading his name through the industry-wide practice of collaboration. Partnerships aside, is he the millennial Pierre Cardin?

 

KL4J Pic 1.jpgWindow of a Jaspal store in Bangkok

He was the earliest to meet mass-market fashion, not half-way, but down there, at reach-all-corners level. In 2004, Karl Lagerfeld paired with H&M to initiate what would become the Swedish label’s calling card for fashion cred and unheard of sell-through of 100% in less than four hours. Although he had later said that he would not work with H&M again, criticising the fast fashion brand for “snobbery created by anti-snobbery”, as reported in Stern, Mr Lagerfeld, without doubt, kick-started the compulsion among designers to let everyone have a piece of the fashion cake.

The result of the debut pairing with Mr Lagerfeld was so startlingly successful that H&M started the annual designer collaboration that would include heavyweights such as Maison Martin Margiela, inconsequentials such as Isabel Marant, and forgettables such as Anna Dello Russo. Mr Lagerfeld did it when collaborations were not yet image boosters to designer brands, nor crucial to their marketing plan and, indeed, business model and he is still doing it, contrary to the convention that retirement should really have been on the cards for octogenarians.

The Karl Lagerfeld name was recently linked to a brand in Thailand, possibly Southeast Asia’s most vibrant, fashion-centric city. Last month, Mr Lagerfeld (he turns 85 in September)—and also his faithful pet cat Choupette (aged seven)—collaborated with Bangkok-based high-street label Jaspal for a collection that appears to target the very young, which means it banks on the cute, as well as the show-off predilection of social-media types. It isn’t clear if Mr Lagerfeld has ever visited Bangkok or are acquainted with the cool cats of the city, but such proximity details are possibly inconsequential as the collaborative output has convinced Bangkok fashionistas to call the collab with gusto, “Parisian chic”. Does that include Karl Lagerfeld driving a tuk tuk, as seen in the animated video promo?

KL4J Pic 2Karl Lagerfeld for Jaspal at the Jaspal flagship store, Siam Center

The enthusiastic response is understandable. It is the flutter of pride. No brand in Asia has collaborated with Mr Lagerfeld except Japan’s Shu Uemura (and that wasn’t a dalliance with clothing). And the thrill was not restricted to Bangkok. A few days after its 4th May launch, some styles were spotted on Carousell. Jaspal, at 46, is one of Bangkok’s oldest fashion brands. Founded by a Sikh immigrant from India, Jaspal Singh, in 1947, the company was first in the textile trade (primarily home linen) before establishing Jaspal in 1972 as a fashion line sold in its own store. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, Jaspal was the go-to brand for European-style men’s and women’s wear in the aesthetic of Giorgio Armani or the like that staked their success on Italian tailoring. So convincing was Jaspal’s cut and styling that talk of the trade at that time was that the Singhs—it was by then a large family business—had bought European originals to learn from the latter. And when the learning was done, sold the samples in the stores.

Jaspal’s accomplishment, even now, is rather unusual for Bangkok. In the city of fashion labels largely conceived and run by native Thais such as the just-as-popular Greyhound, Jaspal’s Punjabi name could have disadvantaged the brand as a by-product of Phahurat Textile Market—in the west of downtown Bangkok that is known for its Indian (or kaek, as the locals perhaps somewhat derogatorily call them) fabric traders and sellers. Rather than succumb to ethnic stereotypes, the Singh family has, together with their other trend-driven, price-sharp labels, including the up-market Jaspal Home, grown a business that, to fans, could be Thailand’s very own burgeoning Inditex.

This could point to how well Jaspal has cultivated their image. They have always played up their profile even when in latter years the quality and designs of their clothes don’t break any ground, the same on which dominant imported competitors such as Topshop and H&M compete. If image is everything, Jaspal has it pat. For about ten years, they have hired some of the world’s biggest names in modelling to headline their advertising campaigns: to name a few, Claudia Schiffer, Gisele Bundchen, Jessica Stam, and, more recently, Kylie Jenner (for the sister brand CPS). These names were happily used in the copy, which impressed much of the impressionable local shoppers: Jaspal has such clout.

KL4J Pic 3

A Karl Lagerfeld for Jaspal lightbox in Saladaeng BTS station, Bangkok

Most people thought Jaspal has deep pockets when it comes to advertising and branding budget. However, no one thought that that figure would be quite the largesse to tempt Karl Lagerfeld, who is known to abhor talking about money and considers the discussion of it vulgar, into collaborating with a brand that, in the wake of edgier domestic labels, is considered middle-of-the-road. What was unimaginable has become a full-window, pride-of-the-city reality. Jaspal baited the Kaiser.

Close to 85, and with a sizeable legacy that’s as grand as his book collection (not counting those he sells in his Paris bookshop 7L), Mr Lagerfeld should not have to be too concerned with getting his personal brand into public consciousness. It’s hard to imagine those who are into fashion not taking cognisance of his name. By now, Mr Lagerfeld should have already enjoyed a blockbuster retrospective in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, considering his long design career. Yves Saint Laurent, Mr Lagerfeld’s contemporary and arguably rival, and the first living designer to be honoured by the Met was only 47 when Diana Vreeland, assisted by André Leon Talley (now the subject of the documentary The Gospel according to André), staged the eponymous show in 1983. Last year, more than three decades later, the honour went to Comme des Garçon’s intensely private Rei Kawakubo. But Chanel’s designer, at the helm for 35 years and not afraid of being placed in the spotlight, is still allowing his name and silhouette icon/logo to be used as other labels’ branding playmate.

Despite the vast output, Mr Lagerfeld has yet to arouse the intellectual interest of museum curators. It isn’t because his work has not been varied enough, or noted enough, or successful enough. From his early designs for Chloe to his collaboration with H&M, from Fendi furs to Hogan shoes, from Diet Coke to Faber-Castell coloured pencils, from Orrefors glassware to Tokidoki toys, from costume design to fashion show concept, from photographs to films, from couture to pet care, Mr Lagerfeld seems to have dabbled in them all, with the only exceptions of Tesla cars and NASA spacecrafts. Prolific as he is, is it possible that too varied can sometimes be a tad too vacuous? What is Mr Lagerfeld projecting: man or machine, Jack or Watson?

KL & C

Choupette and her master Karl Lagerfeld

The unceasing collaborations may not be entirely Mr Lagerfeld’s doing. Although the man himself has said, following the announcement in 2011 that he would be creating a capsule for Macy’s (America’s own Metro Department Store?), “I love occasional co-branding”, much of the less haute pairings could be the work of an overzealous business development head. The Karl Lagerfeld brand was, in fact, sold to Tommy Hilfiger in 2005. A year later, the UK private equity investment group Apax acquired Tommy Hilfiger, and had set the path to building Karl Lagerfeld as a global brand, reportedly at the “accessible luxury” level. To better compete with Tory Burch?

Mr Lagerfeld’s ongoing reach across product categories reminds us of Pierre Cardin’s expansionist business of the ’70s and ’80s through licensing that regrettably included the stuff fashion cognoscenti turn their noses at: luggage and cookware. To make matters worse, Mr Cardin’s beloved Maxims restaurant, too, took the same beaten path. The only thing he didn’t do was involve a pet. By the time he desired to sell his company in 2004 at age 82, the “father of all modern branding and licensing” has come to a position not often seen in fashion: what marketers call the “devaluation of a name”. These days, if Pierre Cardin is cool, it’s only because it’s kitsch.

To be fair, Karl Lagerfeld has not raced to the end point where his collaborations have trumped his couture. The association with the masses and the fervent dip into the ‘pop’ obsessions of humdrum lives bear out the belief of many, such as Vogue editors, who have declared Mr Lagerfeld the “unparalleled interpreter of the mood of the moment”. But perhaps it was the man himself who said it best. In his 2005 book The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, the designer explained why he took out the ‘t’ in his original German surname Lagerfeldt: it sounded “more commercial”. Perhaps therein lies the viable ‘genius’ of King Karl.

Photos: Korn Tairoop