(2017) Winter Style 2: The Knit Outer

cavalier-cape-cardigan

When picking out an outer for winter, we often think of a heavy coat. One of the most overlooked articles of clothing is the knit outer wear. And one of our favourites is this poncho-like ‘Spider’ cardigan by the Singapore-born label Cavalier.

We first spotted this last year at Kapok when they were a Cavalier stockist, and are surprised to see that it is still available online. Cavalier, now available worldwide from Australia to Russia, is marketed as a line of kids clothing, but they size up so that adults can wear some of their styles, which, surprised us by their playful, child-like shapes that are not the least kiddy. This cardigan, intriguingly called ‘Spider’, falls Jedi-like (how timely!) over the shoulders, which the brand describes as “urban nomadic drapery”.

Cavalier was launched by designer Angela Chong and her husband/business partner Perry Lam in 2014. Both were heavyweights in the advertising business, but had chosen to leave the industry to “design for a brave and brazen freedom of expression.” This means clothes, even—or especially—for children, that defy the convention that they have to be made with a specific set of rules.

Cavalier Macaw Flight Top

Ms Chong’s approach has hitherto mostly been about play: the slubby ‘Macaw’ flight top (above), for example, is a French terry pullover made good-humoured by ‘wings’ of multi-layered-and-coloured tulle. The almost-2-D graphic approach is reminiscent of a child’s colouring book. Similarly, another version with the more boyish name of Condor has the wings formed with scallop-edged panels of grey tones, arranged for an ombré effect.

As for the Spider cardigan, the roominess and the flattering drape are totally in keeping with the penchant for tented shapes and subtle Orientalism that really wouldn’t be out of place on the set of Dr Strange. The texture and the monochrome of the cotton/wool/acrylic knit, too, are in keeping with a certain grown-up aesthetic that wouldn’t deny the wearer audience with the Ancient One.

It is perhaps odd that while the pre-spring 2018 collections are dropping in stores around the city, we’re recommending something from last year. The thing about winter wear is that an overtly trendy garment may mean you would not return to it the next time weather for layering beckons.

Cavalier is available at Threadbare and Squirrel. The ‘Spider’ cardigan, now SGD73.88 (original price: SGD147.77) and the ‘Macaw’ and ‘Condor’ flight tops, both SGD116.30, are available at cavaliervault.com. Product photos: Cavalier. Collages: Just So

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There’s Always An Occasion For Pink Kicks

Pink sneaks

By Shu Xie

Pantone may have announced that the colour of 2018 is “Ultra Violet”, or what the colour matching company calls “a dramatically provocative and thoughtful purple shade”, but, as I see it, many brands and their followers are not quite ready to walk away from Millennial Pink, even if its sweet reign is nearly over. So prevalent is pink that even Pedder on Scotts is offering an unmistakably pink ‘Wink’ lollipop for every purchase during this festive seaaon. Die-hards are no doubt delighted that pink is both wearable and ingestible.

Truth be told, despite its alleged popularity, I am not even sure what exact shade of pink Millennial Pink is, and describing it as Tumblr Pink, as the media have, is not quite the same as particularising a green as bile. But, I figured it isn’t the shiest of blushes not the boldest of fuchsias—it’s probably somewhere in between, such as the pink of these two, clearly sweet, sneakers (pictured above) from Superga and Common Projects.

And it’s probably this sweetness that draws women of all ages to them. Inexplicably, all-pink sneakers—midsoles not spared—remind me of all-white shoes in school compounds and nurses’ stations: they’re the stuff and symbols of institutions; the monotone a badge of uniformity. Pink, this Millennial version, despite its Tumblr association (and Pinterest-readiness) is neither intense silence nor insufferable din, and has the call of bracing but not rousing morning breeze.

Superga’s all-over pink 2750, despite its on-trend colour and a “luxe” leather upper, has not quite shed its school-girlish patina nor its schoolyard destiny. Common Project Achilles Low, on the other hand, projects a more grown-up veneer, with its clean cut and caressable cowhide totally un-cute. Like I said, there’s a pink sneaker for every woman, young or old, young-old or old-young.

Superga 2750 Leather Nude, SGD169.90, is available at Superga stores. Common Projects Original Achilles Low, SGD615 is available at Kapok. Photos: Superga and Common Projects respectively

(2017) Winter Style 1: Couture Shape For The Cold

The brrrr-weather travel season is upon us. Here, our annual pick of what we truly like…

 

Rick Owens coat

The puffer jacket is such a popular item these days—thanks to brands from each end of the price scale, Vetements and Uniqlo, and all those between—that the first thing many women pack into their suitcase is an insulated jacket  from the likes of The North Face. But a padded outer need not look like one destined for Mount Everest or the farthest reaches of Greenland. It can look like a stylish coat ready for an après-ski party or a night at the theatre.

This thigh-length coat by Rick Owens is one of those rare pieces that easily encourages love at first sight. The major pull here, for us, is how un-sportif it looks. There’s a clear nod to the ’60s—the round collar and the rounded shoulders, but there’s also an embrace of Orientalism: the wide cuffs of the sleeves that are reminiscent of those of the hanfu, and the origami folds that make the lower-half of the bracelet sleeves look like panniers for wrists!

What makes this coat even more interesting and decidedly modern is the use of the two fabrics. There’s the matte of the wool-blend gabardine of the upper body and the semi-shine of the nylon shell of the lower half. Together, they’re finishes that could mimic dusk and night, giving this coat a dressy edge, all the more welcome in the present era of perpetual casual dress. To be sure, this is part of Rick Owen’s pre-fall 2017 collection, which means it isn’t that new. But for winter, we tend to buy investment pieces, and this is one coat that is ready for the cold, for many winters to come.

Rick Owens wool-blend gabardine and nylon coat, SGD2,760, is available at Club 21. Photo: Farfetch. Collage: Just So

Let The Support Win

Two weeks ago, Textile and Fashion Federation Singapore presented the annual Singapore Fashion Awards. Despite news preceding the event that speculated on the Awards’ uncertain future, as well as the unexpected downgrade of the presentation to a “tea gala”, many attendees and industry stalwarts concurred: the show must go on

 

SFA 2017 P1The SFA presentation at the W Hotel, Sentosa Cove

It is heartening that Singapore Fashion Awards (SFA) isn’t leaving the stage. Two months before the sophomore presentation of the come-back SFA, rumours were afloat that organiser Textile and Fashion Federation (TAFF) Singapore may put SFA on a hiatus next year. Among designers and brand owners, this was disappointing news, especially when it was earlier reported that Singapore Fashion Week will likely be no more in 2018—one platform less, not that there are numerous to begin with, on which to trump home-grown fashion.

The initial talk was that TAFF was facing budgetary constraints in staging an increasingly expensive SFA. That this year’s event had to be put in the less glamorous, working-hour time slot of tea (inexplicably termed “gala”) in a place that’s far from the maddening crowd—the W Hotel in the hard-to-get-to Sentosa Cove—was suggestion that TAFF had too tight a purse string to pay for the venue and catering expense, and had to depend on whichever establishment willing to be the sponsor, putting them in a beggars-can’t-be-choosers position.

The sustainability of budding-again SFA was also called to question as the selection committee had a hard time coming up with names in the fashion categories that were not the usual suspects, or last year’s nominees, or winners. The names that were eventually shortlisted were so unexceptional that some of the judges felt this year’s SFA would be severely uninspired. It was heard that at the last minute, two labels were brought to the table and had delighted the judges so much that things started to look up. Nuboaix and Ametsubi were suggested for the Designer of the Year (Fashion) and Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion) categories respectively to the surprise of many as the co-designers of both labels were unknowns. The two nominations, too, surprised the respective designers as none of them had considered themselves to be part of a fashion circle framed by individuals of cultivated visibility.

SFA 2017 P2The always in-control Yasminne Cheng holding the show together

It is now said that SFA will be presented next year and, thereafter, many more years to come. This was encouraging and uplifting news to not only the fashion community, but also to those who think design awards are instrumental in the raising of industry-wide standards and the visibility of the work Singaporean fashion designers do. The limit in budget is understandable and may be improved by better fund-raising programs or by welcoming a title sponsor. The lack of credible names, unfortunately, is very real, and may not necessarily improve in the years to come.

Should TAFF then field those already nominated before, or have been awarded already? There seems to be the thought that each year, SFA should witness a new set of names and labels. The reality is that, despite new entrants in fashion retail yearly, there is still a very small pool of designers that TAFF can turn to. Except for the Emerging Designer category, which, by definition, is to honour the new, all other categories do not have to shy away from those previously considered for the SFA. As one marketing consultant said after the presentation, “Does Meryl Streep not qualify for the following year’s Academy Awards if she is nominated for the current year?”

SFA 2017 P3Designers Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon of Ametsubi holding a pose with their Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion) award

Fashion needs a certain cycle, as it needs selling seasons. It also requires something that practitioners can look forward to. That TAFF was willing to resurrect the once thought to be forever departed Singapore Fashion Awards points to the Federation’s understanding of the value of an annual salute to those who have put their very creative best into their work. Fashion folks like the proverbial pat on the back regardless of how independent, how strong, how unaffected by the opinions of others they are. And nothing is more assuring than accolades from one’s peers and recognition from industry notables. A fashion award such as SFA may prompt designers to work harder, to embrace innovation more fervently, and to adopt originality more passionately. They may aim higher too, since winning once does not mean win no more.

The Singapore Fashion Awards should, therefore, be prized as support, as much as encouragement to designers steering their brand in an industry characteristically faced with unabated challenges. Many designers, even after passing the industry-standard five-year mark that makes them no longer ‘emerging’, continue to manage their brands like fledgling businesses, with profitability a constant inconstancy, so much so that some of them have to supplement their brand’s income by taking on an extra job, often—the heart-wrenching truth—employment that has nothing to do with the perceived allure of fashion. SFA recognition may, thus, make the hardships easier to bear, allowing designers to continue to struggle, as artists do, for their craft, rather than the glamour.

Support for young, up-coming designers is especially important. There is a general lament that our island nation is utterly lacking in talents that can be nutured to fly the Singapore flag. It is also a reality that many budding designers, however gifted and prolific, are not able to propel themselves to a bigger audience without a more established organisation such as TAFF to act as some kind of launch pad. Private sector and government initiatives, thus, often allow greenhorns to see and learn more, and may expose them to markets not previously thought reachable. Case in point: This past Thursday, Singapore saw for the first time ‘Finland’s Fashion Frontier’, a fashion show featuring five of Helsinki’s best fashion design graduates that was organised by Helsinki New, a private enterprise that pairs Finnish designers and brands with the international marketplace, in collaboration with Aalto University and Helsinki Marketing, a company backed by the city itself. Sure, we’d probably not see these designers’ work for a while to come, but the satisfaction from witnessing talents in action from the Nordic land is immeasurable. It is not improbable that some day we may wear some of these names on our back.

SFA 2017 P4State Property’s Lin Ruiyin and Afzal Imran with their Emerging Designer of the Year (Accessories) award

But our young designers can only dream of support that has such far-reaching consequence. Sure, TAFF has, for many brands, acted as link to overseas markets though consultations and trade missions abroad, even if the trips have not enjoyed the visibility of those co-organised with the then Trade Development Board in the ’80s, of which those particular excursions that launched the careers of “The Magnificent Seven”—among them Tan Yoong, Thomas Wee, and Bobby Chng—are still talked about today. But can the Federation alone offer consequential reach with their woefully inadequate resources without members of the media, for one, helping to bolster the small efforts put together to give those designers a leg up?

Shortly after the SFA presentation, The Straits Times ran a report of the event on their online edition that curiously omitted the names of the co-winners of the Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion). An update published a few hours later did not correct the irregularity; neither the follow-up the next day—save a mention in the caption that accompanied the main picture—or the version that appeared in the print edition two days later. It was not, curiously, an omission particular to ST. Other online reports, including those by the members of the Chinese media, published similar exclusion. This collective blank-out (in some cases, one-half of the duo was mentioned) prompted the whisper of conspiracy theories, including one that suggested that TAFF had wanted to play down the fact that the winning brand Ametsubi’s design studio is based in Japan, never mind that they’re a Singapore-registered company and label.

Carolyn KanCarolyn Kan of Carrie K won big this year, with three awards: Best Collaboration of the Year, Champion for Creatives and Designers, and Bespoke 

This was an odd development. It is not likely that TAFF would sanction such a reporting anomaly. Surely they would have ascertained all selected brands’ country of origin. As one creative director rightly pointed out, “In this connected world, where many of us do business from all corners of the globe, does it matter where the design studio is based? A designer can design in the middle of the Indian Ocean if he or she, or they wanted to.” Or, could the non-acknowledgement be the result of appeasing disgruntled nominees claiming unfair competition, as some attendees had later inferred? Even to that, it is possible that TAFF had anticipated such an unseemly expression of displeasure and planned a course of action to deal with it.

It is, therefore, possible, after a process of elimination, that the names of the winners of the Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion)—Elizabeth Soon and Keita Ebihara—were excluded because these are monikers that do not arouse the interest of the respective editors, or will not ring even the lightest bell among the titles’ readers. If the suppositions are true, then some members of the media may be well served to be reminded that the biggest winner of this year’s SFA, Carolyn Kan, was a fashion nobody when she started Carrie K, even when she had made a name for herself in the advertising industry. The same can be said of the winner of Designer of the Year (Fashion), Dzojchen’s Chelsea Scott-Blackhall, who, by her admission, has been spending a lot of time in New York, presumably to design, and Vietnam, where she had acquired a factory to produce her collection. To not talk about those with a dream and the talent to make it big, even if that will happen in the distant future, is to deny them the hope with which many project their prospects.

Marilyn TanMarilyn Tan receiving the Designer of the Year (Accessories) award from Carolyn Kan

In tandem with the honours that they bestow, Singapore Fashion Awards should be produced to be worthy of Event of the Year. A “tea gala” in the resort hotel W on Sentosa is hardly the premise of something that would grab the attention of the industry or imbue the Awards with the prestige that would make a momentous difference to the honorees. While this year’s presentation enjoyed a significant improvement from last year’s, which was staged in the ill-suited space of the Supreme Court Terrace of the National Gallery, it could have been better appreciated and, indeed, attended if it had been held at a more accessible location. Nobody, it can be certain, expects the equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall, where the British version of the SFA, The Fashion Awards, also a sophomore outing, was held this past Monday. Nobody is going to pretend that the choice of the W, no doubt a lovely hotel, is an artistic decision.

In fact, SFA does not have to be a splashy event in a plush setting. As an industry occasion, it can be a little more intimate, with the atmosphere of a family gathering that generates a sense of belonging for all. It could, for instance, be staged at the main atrium of the National Design Centre, a fitting location for an event that celebrates design. The best fashion often takes inspiration from previously unthought-of places, and tells stories yet narrated. TAFF may put SFA in better standing by trekking that path.

Chelsea Scott BlackhallChelsea Scott-Blackhall receiving the Designer of the Year (Fashion) Award from guest-of-honour, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and Ministry of Trade and Industry, Sim Ann

If more boxes are to be ticked, it should also include calling out those nominees and winners who have opted to give SFA a noticeable miss. Support for the fashion industry does not come from only those watching or cheering from the sides or below the stage. It ought to also come from those who have the talent and the good fortune to be nominated. Even if you are not the winner, it is always an appreciable act of grace to be present to applaud those who walk away with a trophy. The high number of no-shows of those whose names were announced and flashed on screen, therefore, left a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste at the end of the presentation, not because of the indifference suggested by those individuals’ absence, but because of their plain rudeness.

Among the winners of the Marketing Awards—Most Popular Brands and Best Marketing, only Trixie Khong of By Invite Only and Rebecca Ting of Beyond the Vines attended and went on stage to collect their trophy. No one from Love, Bonito was present; no one from Benjamin Barker showed up to collect the Best Marketing award. It was a now-show, too, for Contributor Awards winners—the Fashion Hairstylist of the Year, Fashion Make-Up (Artist) of the Year, Fashion Photographer of the Year. Jeremy Tan, who won Fashion Stylist of the Year, had at least sent a friend to collect the trophy on his behalf.

For as long as you’re a nominee, attendance is expected. To not be able to meet that expectation would be akin to letting your brand skip a fashion season. Buyers may overlook the professional mis-step, but consumers may think your playing hooky is ignoring the fact that they’re watching you. Bye for now may not beget hello tomorrow.

Singapore Fashion Award 2017: Full List of Winners

Emerging Designer of The Year (Fashion): Elizabeth Soon and Keita Ebihara for Ametsubi

Emerging Designer of the Year (Accessories): Lin Ruiyin and Afzal Imram of State Property

Top Three Most Popular Brands: Love, Bonito; By Invite Only; Beyond the Vines

Best Marketing: Benjamin Barker

Best Collaboration of the Year: Carrie K X Disney

Honorary Award: Tan Yoong

Bespoke Award: Carolyn Kan of Carrie K

Fashion Hairstylist of the Year: Marc Teng

Fashion Make-Up (Artist) of the Year: Elain Lim

Fashion Photographer of the Year: Stefan Khoo

Fashion Stylist of the Year: Jeremy Tan

Designer of the Year (Accessories): Marilyn Tan of Marilyn Tan Jewellery

Designer of the Year (Fashion): Chelsea Scott-Blackhall of Dzojchen

Photos: Chin Boh Kay and Zhao Xiangji

Fashion From Her Makeup Bag

Veteran makeup artist Pat McGrath has gone from painting faces to designing clothes. Does a flair for pretty pigments mean a talent with paper patterns?

Pat McGrath Labs AW 2017

By Mao Shan Wang

I know there are many people in the creative field who turn to fashion design to express themselves and to make money, but I have yet heard of a makeup artist who takes that route. Sure, there are those who try their hand at retailing clothes, such as Yuan Sng, celebrity makeup artist and one of the partners behind the charming pop-up for K-pop fashion, StyleLoft 3. But a makeup-artist-turn-designer is as rare as permanent lipstick.

Pat McGrath, I presume, likes the appeal of this rarity. In the fashion world, she’s a brilliant, creative, sort-after makeup artist, but she’s not the only one. Her fashion venture may, thus, place her in the firmament of the uncommon. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about her debut ‘Apparel 001’ collection, launched on the multi-channel platform known as Pat McGrath Labs—according to her website, “a playground… to introduce divinely disruptive discoveries”. And how many labs does she have or need? Even Nikelab has only one!

I suppose there could be two: one for makeup and one for apparel. Ms McGrath has already achieved “cult status”—as the media describe it—with her own makeup line, launched in 2015. But her fashion collection does not look like it is going to disrupt the business the way her cosmetics supposedly had. At launch, her first item, Gold 001 Pigment, impressed both pro and novice users alike. An intensely-hued dust that would be more the stuff of Halloween than even the CFDA Awards nights, Gold 001 Pigment can be used for the eye or for sprinkling moon dust on the face and casting starlight on body, or, when blended with an attendant Mehron Mixing Liquid (Mehron is the go-to stage makeup brand favoured by companies such as Cique du Soliel), can give eyes, lips, and nose (according to the Pat McGrath video demo) the gold of gold leaf, so realistic that only when standing next to a Thai Buddha statue will the wearer look like she has applied, well, makeup.

Pat McGrath

In comparison, the 8-piece ‘Apparel 001’ is somewhat underwhelming. However her people may wish to spin it, this is plainly atheleisure in the vein of Alexander Wang’s dalliances with Adidas. Or, the articles of clothing any skate fan desirous of his own fashion line would put out: T-shirts, hoodie, and bomber jacket. So much for variety, or even new category of clothing. The text running down the sleeves of the long-sleeved T-shirts, even with some in Japanese fonts, offers little to ponder over. Neither is there a colour range to talk about since everything, save one white tee, is in black. Seriously, these could be tops supplied by Fruits of the Loom, supported by a good metallic embossing facility.

Sure, the main motif of a golden eye, described to be Egyptian, and could pass of as a wing with an eye, is striking, in the way the logo of Red Wing Shoes is. If marketed well, Ms McGrath’s dramatic eye-logo, already proven to be more than one-dimensional as she has demonstrated its applicability on real peepers, could be the next totally desirable seven-letters-in-a-red-rectangle Supreme trade mark. But to get there, Ms McGrath has to work on the merchandise—for now, appearing unisex. What I see is this: they’re either fashion-y merchandise from the gift shop of a Cairo Museum, or concert merch of a performance (Ms McGrath no doubt excels) that Kanye West is simply better at. Either way, there’s no place, as yet, in my wardrobe for ‘Apparel 001’. And, to be sure, I am no Pat McGrath groupie.

Pat McGrath Labs ‘Apparel 001’ launches in Dover Street Market New York this Thursday. A spontaneous check with a staff member of the DSM here turned up “What’s that? We don’t know”. Admittedly, I should not have asked. The choice of DSM as launch pad is interesting: products sold here are often indication that they’re endorsed by arguably one of the most successful brick and mortar retailers in the world, and may reach a better audience that matters. For those who must cop the line (prices from USD60), click Pat McGrath’s website, and, as printed on the clothing, “Use Without Caution”.

Photos: Pat McGrath Labs

Knit For The Chuck

Nike’s Flyknit uppers debuted with the Flyknit Racer in 2012. Five years down the road, not only has the knit-tech appeared on many Nike styles, it’s now also graced the Converse kick that the young can’t seem to get enough of: the Chuck Taylor All Star

 

Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars Flyknit

By Shu Xie

It’s really a matter of time. Besides, a good thing should be shared, right? That, I believe, was what Nike was doing when it availed the Flyknit upper to its sibling brand Converse. First released in April this year in the high-cut version of the Chuck Taylor All Star (in six colours, no less!), the newest iteration is a veritably sleek pair of kicks than can go further than after-school use.

Seriously, when I finally saw these shoes, I was not thinking of pinafores, or white socks, but a pair of Calvin Klein pants that are sharply shaped by Raf Simons. I’d wear these Flyknit-topped Chucks in place of those Western-style boots proposed by the house that Mr Simons now heads. In all honesty, Converse sneakers are not exactly my go-to footwear, as they look too much like plimsolls, those cotton canvas lace-ups that remind me of the always-soiled pair a secondary school classmate of mine used to wear. I do, however, like this handsome Converse in the knit that has brought Nike legions of followers and imitators.

If you look back at the past five years of the Flyknit’s high-profile existence, the Swoosh masters of new materials have been so successful with applying the Flyknit, that, unless you follow the fabric’s journey as closely as those who trail Kendal Jenner’s every move, you may not be aware that many of Nike’s classic silhouettes, from Air Force 1 to Kobe 9, come in versions with this knit upper. To me, not every one of those shoes work. Some of Nike’s popular styles, such as the Airmax 90, become bereft of the sneaker’s original bulk when fashioned with the Flyknit. Some sneakers should not lose weight.

Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars Flyknit side view

In the case of the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star—conceived in 1917, the shoe pairs beautifully with the Flyknit since they have always been rather aerodynamic in shape. And the Chuck—not a hunk, even when it is originally a baseball shoe—has frequently appeared in fabrics other than cotton canvas. And most, like the Flyknit, take nothing away from the slender silhouette, which attracts those who prefer their sneakers to be canoes rather than catamarans.

To make sure that no one doubts the origin of Flyknit, Nike has, in major kiasu fashion, dubbed this as the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star X Nike Flyknit Low Top. Not sure if the co-branding is necessary since we already know Converse is a division of Nike. Apart from the Flyknit, something else that can be traced to Nike technology is also used: the unmistakable Lunarlon cushioning—here, it is comes in the form of removable in-soles. Both come together to yield a very light Chuck Taylor All Star.

Adding to these two to make the Chuck look less its original form is the Flyknit toe cap which takes the place of the Chuck’s usual rubber version. It’s fused with TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane that interestingly renders the toe cap a darker shade) for a tougher front so that your toes can live to tell that you’ve kicked someone in the butt.

Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Flyknit Low Cut, SGD159.90, is available at Converse standalone stores. Photo: Converse

Ahhh, But Does It Bite?

CDG Teeh and Tongue wallet P1

We know Comme des Garçons has a unique take when it comes to their wallets. But a sense of the cheeky? That’s not quite expected, but there it was—the Teeth and Tongue staring back at us, like ready-to-devour jaws, minus the cavities.

It is double thumbs up to the design team of the CDG small leather goods unit to visually pun on the ‘teeth’ of the zipper—a fastening very much associated with their wallets. As you’ll agree, we sure need more imagination in fashion. Hitherto, CDG has mainly toyed with the surface of their wallets, not quite the insides, which have remained mainly plain, even unlined. Now, there is an orifice to not only peer into, but also to guzzle your money with, assuming a wallet is something you still use in the creeping popularity of Apple Pay.

CDG Teeh and Tongue wallet P2The double-teeth wallet comes in two styles (one of them in two sizes). They’re made of cowhide, and lined with cowhide. The surface is in black, with the inside in red, pink, and white. Uncommon is the contrast zipper—red with gold teeth, a colour finish that could possibly be a nod to a certain hip-hop tribe. Pry open this set of gold teeth, and you’ll see another row: perfect pearly whites baring at you. Interestingly, the tongue does not stick out (is it even there?), but the tonsil does look like it’ll warble!

Comme des Garçons wallets—one among the staggering 17 lines of the company—was reportedly formed in 1980, the year before the brand debuted in Paris. Considered CDG’s best “starter points”, the wallet line comprises six basic styles, with what is commonly known as “half-zip” (the zip goes only two sides of the oblong-shaped wallet) considered the most popular among both men and women. While the CDG wallets do look quite different from the offerings of mainstream purveyors of leather goods, the Teeth and Tongue also illustrates that beneath the severe, inscrutable surface of the brand lies a softer heart—not quite Anya Hindmarch, but just as fun.

Comme des Garçons ‘Teeth and Tongue’ wallets, from SGD320, are available at Dover Street Market, Dempsey Road. Photos: Dover Street Market

The (Still) Sweet And Gentle Side Of Japanese Fashion

If you think that Japanese fashion is the global sway of Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto, then the newly opened Lumine will offer you the side of nihon no fasshon that is the antithesis of edgy

 

Lumine P1

By Mao Shan Wang

Collectively, Japanese designers have been so effective at marketing themselves as avant-gardists that many consumers sometimes forget that the Japanese have a softer, more saccharine, and clearly conventional side. Two days ago, Japanese mall operator Lumine opened its first overseas retail space at Clark Quay Central, showcasing Japanese fashion that Nanase Aikawa would love, despite her rock-chic leaning: clothes that, when worn, will get army boys go weak in the knees.

Lest I am mistaken, I am not saying Lumine’s offerings here are not up to scratch or plain conservative. They cater to women—and there are many of them—who do not, by any means, want anything other than to enhance their femininity, and in obvious ways. Girl—or little girl—power is well and alive. Even post-modegyaru, these clothes have not entirely shed their ‘cool’-meets-‘cute’ appeal. Truth is, there are really Japanese styles that celebrate this aesthetic, and they are awash with a sweetness that, for those not planning to form a girl band, may be a tad too lovable. Or, syrup-drenched, like ice-kacang.

In other words, if you are inclined to think that this may be a more commercial version of Dover Street Market, think something else—maybe the romance flick Narratage’s city-centre/suburban conventionality or you’ll get your knickers in a knot. My visit when Lumine in Clark Quay Central opened two days ago was met with a mix of mild disappointment and weak surprise. It is approachable a store as, say Iora (in any mall), but, to be fair, it has better visual merchandising, and warm and helpful service that, at least for now (the presence of their Japanese minders?), do kind of remind me of my Tokyo Lumine experiences.

Lumine P4

It is indeed a pleasant shopping space although, by the standard of Lumine in Tokyo’s Shinjuku alone, is disappointingly small. Covering a humble 10,000 square feet of the former Naiise space, it is stamp-sized, as opposed to Lumine’s Shinjuku presence, comprising five glittering shopping centres that are laid out around the world’s busiest mass transit station. And the best part is, there’s a Lumine for every shopper, from the teen bargain hunters who flock to Lumine Est (once known as My City) to mature women (as identified by the mall) of the swanky, barely two-year-old NEWoMAN, situated between Shinjuku station and Takashimaya department store.

That Lumine’s various incarnations sprout like bamboo shoots around train stations, especially in Shinjuku, is very much linked to its ownership. Lumine belongs to JR East, a train operator that’s part of the Japan Railways (JR) Group, the company that has put Japan on the world high-speed transportation map with their Shinkansen bullet trains. The various Lumine malls, or ekibiru (station building) that front Shinjuku station give the otherwise mass-of-steel, 10-platform, 20-track station not only a more palatable façade, but also generate incredible hustle and bustle, as commuters do spend time (and money) in these vertical shopping hubs. While the various Lumines aren’t where you’d go for Japanese labels that show in Paris, they do offer a staggering variety of home-grown brands through multi-label retailers such as United Arrows, Tomorrowland, and Urban Research.

While those familiar with the Lumine name could not quite grasp the Singapore store’s location choice, those who have become tired of Orchard Road’s predictable selection of brands and the shopping belt’s general sameness are quite pleased to visit, for a change, a mall not known for its fashion tenants. Sitting on top of the ground level of Giordano, L’zzie, BYSI, and Island Shop, Lumine does appear a cut above, never mind it isn’t an ekibiru, and the nearest MRT station, Clark Quay, is 250 metres away, below Hong Lim Park.

Lumine P3

I bumped into my friend May, a HR professional, whose first words to me were, “How? Disappointing, hor?” She was hoping to see more from the label and ‘select shop’ (as they are known in Japan) Tomorrowland, her favourite, and where she would shop without fail when in Tokyo, especially the Marunouchi store and the one in Lumine 1. “I am hoping to see Edition (a Tomorroland brand),” I said, “but it isn’t here, Still, it is a good start.” But she seems a little skeptical, saying, “I don’t think many people care about Japanese labels anymore. Look at Lowry Farm.” She was referring to the Japanese chain store that, at its peak, had eight outlets here. It shuttered in 2015, just three years after it opened, with the desire to offer shoppers youth-oriented Japanese styles that would not strain the wallet. The problem was, we didn’t look enough.

Shortly after we parted, a mother was heard telling her grown-up son, “都是女孩子的,没有男孩子的” (“All for girls; nothing for boys”). The poor chap looked like he was going to cry. Seriously! It is rather odd that the Lumine here has decided to omit men’s wear. Perhaps the space is just too small to cater to guys as well. I did see many leaving the store somewhat disappointed. Those who came with their girlfriends/wives/sisters and did not want to hang around racks of lacy prettiness chose to browse in the eyewear corner of Japanese chain Zoff, whose Lumine Est shop in Shinjuku is always swarmed with boys (and girls) in need of prescription glasses that can be had in less than 30 minutes. Yes, much like what are offered at first-to-market Owndays. Shortly past noon, Zoff was busy, and the low staff numbers barely able to cope. Unsurprisingly, it was filled with mostly male customers.

The other corner where you’ll find a disproportionate number of guys is at the Lumine Café, a surprisingly gender-neutral space that serves coffee, tea, and other beverages, and highly Instagrammable towering parfait-like desserts. I saw many chaps, who were likely office staff of Lumine, conducting meetings. Quite a few looked like they were abandoned by their still-shopping companions. The place felt like tea time at one of the coffee places in Raffles Place. The near full-capacity was surprising as Lumine Café does not serve food such as pastries, sandwiches, or salads.

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The retail concept of Lumine is not entirely new to our island. In the mid-’80s, at a time before Japanese fashion and pop music were overtaken by everything with a prefix K, shoppers here were hungry for clothing and kin from the Land of the Rising Sun. I remember the initial tenant mix of Liang Court, opened in 1983, which had positioned itself as a Japanese-centric mall, with Diamaru as anchor tenant. It was an orange—colour, not shape—building and I was not able to see what the chromatic choice had to do with Japan.

On the other half of the mall opposite the department store, below what was then Hotel New Otani, shops not divided by walls were selling Japanese merchandise that, at that time, where eye-opening rarities. Muji and Kinokuniya both debuted here. But it was the new conflux of Japanese stores that had fashionistas of the day flock to the not-quite-conveniently-situated mall.

On the second floor, I remember that there was an open-concept emporium called Marusho, which sold, apart from the girlish clothes that looked like they were transplanted from ’80s TV/movie/music star Momoe Yamaguchi’s wardrobe, some rather cute/crazy accessories/trinklets and pretty-as-confectionery bags. The merchandise here, while different from what shoppers had seen and gotten used to at the most popular mall of the time, Plaza Singapura (also anchored by a Japanese department store: Yaohan), wasn’t anything like the unusual offerings of the Japanese-labels-only Banzai, happily attracting followers in Lucky Plaza, which was a lot swankier than it is today.

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I don’t remember having bought anything at Marusho, but some guys I was hanging out with then were regularly improving the bottomline of the adjacent men’s space Mitsumine. My relationship (it was more of that than with those fellows!) with Marusho was clearly that between shop and window shopper, as their merchandise was too pricey for me, even when, occasionally, that had an irresistible pull.

Elsewhere in the mall (it could be on other floors, I can’t quite recall now), there were retailers selling frilly, floral, even more girlish clothes. There was a Tokyo Style, although neither Tokyo nor style comes back to me now, and a Tanako Accent Palour with demure clothes that was probably dessert for Japanese expat wives who convened at the many Japanese restaurants in Liang Court for lunch, but wasn’t able to tackle the end-of-meal sweets although they wanted to, which wasn’t a craving that retail therapy can’t satiate.

Marusho and co’s success paved the way for other Japanese emporiums, such as Meitetsu, which, in 1984, opened its flagship store in Delfi Orchard, in the same building the first entirely-dedicated-to-Singaporean-designers, Hemispheres, wowed young fashionistas. I do recall that the Nagoya-based Meitetsu was known as a “working women’s store”, which meant clothes—lots of white shirts or beige blouses with lace or crochet Peter Pan collars—that the customers picked to feminise otherwise overtly mannish corporate attire. In 1989, Meitetsu closed for renovations and when it re-opened, half of its original space was sub-leased to international brands such as Christian Dior, Mila Schon and Escada. Before the end of the ’80s, the interest in Japanese fashion had waned.

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Back to Lumine. I looked at every rack and was not able to see anything that wished to look back at me. Sensing that perhaps I may prefer something different, a cheerful sales staff directed me to the front of the store that faces the concourse of the mall. In this area, quite apart from the rest of the space, and zoned as Lumine Lab, distinguished by its bright blue accents and yellow (!) mannequins, customers may acquaint themselves with some of Tokyo’s design-forward pop-culture brands. Two women in front of me were going through the racks enthusiastically. One of them told the other, “The pieces here are more fashion.”

Lumine Lab is reportedly a “testing ground for experimental brands”. But at launch, there were gyaru staples, such as Emoda (mode gyaru’s motherlode of a brand), Mercuryduo (popular enough that in 2014 Sony collaborated with them to release a premium, limited-edition, and very pink PlayStation Vita), and Murua (another classic gyaru name), all interestingly not-new product lines of the Japanese mass manufacturer Mark Styler, whose many labels are now making major inroads into China, possibly to keep mode gyaru alive. The names may perhaps be unfamiliar to post-post-Noughties consumers here, more enamoured with K-fashion, but if you are into the mindless miscellany that is Exhibit, then perhaps you have found your playground.

To me, the really nice touches thoughout Lumine, including the café, were the clear glass vases in which assorted fresh flowers were bunched to evoke an air of insouciant femininity. Perhaps that was all the prettiness and sweetness needed. Lumine thought of spring even when it’s approaching winter in Japan.

Lumine is at level 2, Clark Quay Central. Photos: Galerie Gombak

East Meets East: Confluence Of Uncommon Creativity

 At the Singapore Fashion Award (SFA) this afternoon, virtual unknowns Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon won Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion) for their label Ametsubi. In a rare moment for SFA, the future looks bright

 

Keita and Elisabeth Nov 2017Designing newcomers: Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon. Photo: Jim Sim

Newlyweds Japanese Keita Ebihara and Singaporean Elizabeth Soon have been busy since returning, a few days ago, from Japan, where their label Ametsubi is based, to attend the Singapore Fashion Awards presentation. It is a family trip of sort, too, as Mr Ebihara’s parents are visiting the Singaporean in-laws in our city-state for the first time. So packed have their days been, Mr Ebihara admitted, two days ago, they have not done anything that could later be remembered as honeymoon moments. Heady from a marriage that was registered barely two weeks ago, on 11/11, ironically Singles Day in China (and some retailers in the rest of Asia), Ms Soon was happily showing us a photo of their Japanese marriage certificate—mostly filled out in kanji and katakana—on her iPhone.

Her husband was amused that she was still unable to get over the possession of the marriage cert and teased her about it. Undeterred, she said, Ariel-like, “It’s our first time; it’s my first time. Maybe, the Japanese wedding system is very common for you.” And added, “You are used to it,” quite unaware of what she might possibly have implied. Mr Ebihara smiled at her; his attention not quite ready to be diverted to the conversation at the table.

The Ebiharas’ good humour, easy laughter, and teasing nature belie the intellectual heft that imperceptibly characterised their Ametsubi collections. In sharing with us their design and product development processes—which took up one evening(!), they gave a deep impression of being designers who are not only interested in the exterior and visual effects of clothes, but equally in fashion as applied arts. Even in explaining how the name Ametsubi came about, they spared no effort to impress upon us with the haiku-eque significance of the name, rather than the semantics.

Ametsubi SS 2018 P1Key visual from the Ametsubi spring/summer 2018 campaign

“Ametsubi is a Japanese word,” Mr Ebihara explained. “It comes from the word ame, which means raindrops.” Ms Soon, taking a pen out to elaborate on paper, continued as she wrote, “The original word is ame-tsu-bu—that is water droplets. We took these characters (pointing the tip of the pen to the first two) and changed the bu to bi.” But that wasn’t all of it: “We met in Italy,” Ms Soon carried on, “and we are one (1) male and one (1) female, we chose [the Roman numeral from the] Latin alphabet ‘i’.”

There is more! “I am Japanese and she’s Singaporean, right?” Mr Ebihara rejoined. “In Japan, I hate rain, especially rainy season. Every day is wet and humid, and it is very uncomfortable. Normally, Japanese hate rain. But she, Singaporean lady, said to me, ‘I love rain’, because after the rain it is cool. Later we were talking about fashion, and how fashion is related to the environment. So when we discussed this, we thought this could be a reference point: I hate rain, she loves rain.”

All that for a name!

Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon delivering their acceptance speech at SFA. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

It is interesting that at this year’s SFA, there’s a couple in each of the two fashion designer categories: Yong Siyuan and Jessica Lee of Nuboaix and Keita Ehibara and Eilzabeth Soon of Ametsubi. In many ways, the story of both pairs are similar, which illustrates a fact without alternative: that young designers face the same problems and hurdles, regardless of where they are based, who they are selling to. Undeniably, the Ametsubi duo has a leg up, as Japan has a lively fashion scene and an ecosystem that designers can tap into.

This afternoon, after receiving the trophy for the Emerging Designer of the Year, both designers were too moved with the honour to be able to articulate their feelings. Ms Soon could only say, when she stepped off the stage, that she wanted to cry. For many fashion observers, the win was hardly surprising. One of the judges Tina Tan enthused: “Their things are truly beautiful.” The other contenders, in fact, were up against two talents who are technically on another plane. Mr Ebihara and Ms Soon has shown that looking beyond the obvious augments flair to make fashion more engaging, more unique, totally desirable.

Fellow nominee Amos Yeo of AmosAnanda is a favourite among young TV stars. His clothes capture the spirit of a certain UK men’s wear designer-of-the-day, and cater to those who only care about the surface and not what’s beneath. And Rebecca Ting of Beyond the Vines has carved a distinguishable aesthetic of supreme gentleness, but she has yet shown that she’s adept at manipulating shapes and infusing her designs with details that can excite the eye.

Ametsubi DA graduation collection 2015

The 2013 graduation collection of Ametsubi’s Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon. Photos: Domus Academy

Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon met in Milan in 2013, when they were MA students at the prestigious Domus Academy (DA), ranked by BOF last year as the 19th best global graduate school for fashion. As Ms Soon recalled, “the first day of school was my birthday” and Mr Ebihara was there, mistaking her to be a Japanese lass, but spoke to her in what, by his admission, was then halting English. One renowned Singaporean who went to DA to complete his post-grad studies is the Paris-based designer Andrew Gn, after he graduated from Central Saint Martins. As DA programs are based on the idea of “learning by designing” and students busy themselves in “workshops”, the grouping and intermingling allowed Mr Ebihara and Ms Soon to interface frequently enough that pairing up as co-designers was an attractive idea.

Prior to their academic life together in Milan, Ms Soon, who was born in Canada and moved back to Singapore when she was six, was a student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Fashion Studies, where she graduated with a BA (Hons) in fashion design in 2012. In the same year, her graduation collection zipped to the UK to represent Singapore at the London Graduate Fashion Week, and was met with rave reviews in the English media, which noted her designs’ “powerful visual impact”.

Mr Ebihara, who was born in Tokyo, had gone to Sugino Gakuen, one of the top-10 fashion schools in the city to study fashion design; he graduated in 2009. Although he had “learned more about techniques: Japanese sewing and draughting”, he wanted to know “more about the product.” Terra Italiano was his greener grass on the other side.

While still in school, Mr Ebihara was selected to work for the Milan-based British designer Neil Barrett, and continued for four months after graduation in 2013. It was an experience that he admitted he did not enjoy. With his wife giggling in the background, he said, “to be honest, I found it to be very boring. Because their style is… how should I say? It was something I did not like too much.” While her husband-to-be was designing for a fashion house he did not take pleasure in, Ms Soon was picked to join someone she admired, the Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen, but she opted out of that opportunity. With her husband mock-chastising her, “you should have gone”, Ms Soon explained: “I had a housing obligation then. I signed a rental contract for a year, and I could not back out of that.” Mr Ebihara repeated himself, and she concurred, “I should have, but I was paying 700 Euros a month for that apartment. I couldn’t just go. And I was scared. I was 22, and I was spending too much money in Italy. I can’t go to Amsterdam and pay rent there and continue to pay rent in Milan. I was just scared of any monetary risk.” When asked if she’s a pragmatist, she pointed to her husband and said he is more “realistic”. Who is the dreamer then? Both laughed.

Ametsubi SS 2018 lookbookAmetsubi spring/summer 2018 look book. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

About a year after they left Domus Academy, Mr Ebihara and Ms Soon decided to firm up the plans for Ametsubi, and in September of 2014, the couple registered the company here. Before that, Ms Soon made a trip to Japan and contemplated living in the land of cherry blossoms. It could also be where the Ametsubi design studio would be based. A  couple of months later, everything the couple had in Milan was shipped eastwards, but it was not to Tokyo, where their friends had thought they would take up residency, but to Mr Ebihara’s family home in the prefecture of Ibaraki, known for plum trees.

Ibaraki-ken is 150 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, edged along the pacific coast. It would take about two hours by train to arrive at the heart of the capital city in the south. The decision to situate the Ametsubi office here is primarily to avoid Tokyo’s exorbitant rentals, no doubt a forbidding cost to a new fashion business. In Ibaraki-ken, the young Ebiharas were given a small house, “that sat on my grandfather’s land,” Keita Ebihara shared. His wife had earlier told us—with discernible pride—that he had taken upon himself to fit-out the design studio, and that included “building our own draughting table. And a cage for my pet hedgehog!” The studio consists of their living quarters too, which both happily said is upstairs.

Would a business card without a Tokyo address diminish the prestige of the brand? “We don’t think so,” Ms Soon said, “but being based away from Japan’s fashion centre has its negatives and positives. The positives: we’re undisturbed. Our creation is very pure, in that sense. We are not influenced by the [urban] environment, or ‘Tokyo Street’ [a trend]. We do not make Tokyo collection—there is a movement in Tokyo recently for young designers that is known locally as Tokyo colley, which is quite street, well ‘Tokyo Street’—there’s no other way to describe it.” This isn’t the mad-cap street style once seen in Harajuku’s Takeshita-dori or the less manic, Americanised get-ups of those who hang out in the so-called ura-Harajuku (backstreets). With Instagram eating into most young people’s lives, street displays—once a Sunday joy—are no longer necessary and are, in fact, oddly old-fashioned. ‘Tokyo Street’ is unmistakably post-kawaii, too; it’s a milder incarnation of its former self, its previous madness.

“The negatives,” Ms Soon continued, “means we have to travel a lot as we have to have our meetings in Tokyo and other towns, no one is going to come to us.” Mr Ebihara added, “We have to communicate with the patterner and fabric suppliers.” “And we can’t stay out too late, or it would be hard for us to go back. Our meeting usually starts early. If it’s at 8.30 in the morning, we have to leave by 5 or 5.30.” The social aspects of the business cannot be disregarded and not being in the heart of the action is a negative too. Ms Soon said, “It just means we have to try harder to be spoken about.”

Ametsubi SS 2018 G1Images from the Ametsubi spring/summer 2017 look book. Photos: Ametsubi

Talking about a brand with something to talk about is a starting point that’s easy to initiate. Between the evolution of a spark of interest and the full social media onslaught, however, few will get to know the developmental grind the Ebiharas have to go through to see a collection to fruition. Despite the outward simplicity of the clothes, much thought is given to every shape, every line, every seam, every detail, every fabric. Textiles are of a particular interest to the couple. Although their brand is still in its early years, they have started developing their own fabrics. Ms Soon was pleased to show us a sheer, salt-washed, water-resistant, polyester taffeta that they have co-developed with a mill and was even more delighted when she presented a lightweight poly-blend jacquard of repeated patterns of a somewhat pixilated motif mapped on a grit that they have designed, describing how it all came about and animatedly explaining the workings of a weaving loom fitted with a paper, patterning mechanism.

The passion became even more palpable as she went on to explain the origins of another motif that appeared in another jacquard, this time designed specifically to use as lining for their coats, jackets, and outerwear. “We wanted to do something that is like the old lining the British tailors used in suit jackets,” she explained, “but we did not want to use a medallion pattern, or a paisley.” As they are wont to explore unlikely sources, the Ebiharas started looking at something rather removed from fashion: cymatics. This is, simply put, the excitation of modes (a pattern of motion) in, say, water when a drop hits its surface. The water droplet image is not lost in its association with the name Ametsubi. But, more than that, Ms Soon, a self-confessed geek (“I love data and numbers”), was specific enough to say that the particular nodal pattern they have picked is based on the A-tone vibration of 220/230 gigahertz. This is mind-blowing stuff. And she wanted this water reference to be worn close to the body, hence the lining, “which touches the skin”, presumably to help the wearer feel, if not stay, cool. But how did this came about? “He just gave me some key words,” she continued, “such as ‘frequency’ and ‘harmony’ and ‘symbolism’; words like these,” tailing off with a giggle.  Yes, the mind boggles.

While all the thinking, research, and long hours of developmental work are not immediately identified in their designs, as equally lengthy time spent on embroidery does, Ametsubi is steep in detailed, but un-showy crafting that has a tradition that goes back to early Helmut Lang and Raf Simons. Ms Soon said, “When we’re asked to describe our clothes, we call them ‘high daily’.” The elevated positioning of their wearable designs adds up, as much has gone into making clothes that suits various body shapes. The Ebiharas took out a shirt—always a key item—from their spring/summer 2017 season to illustrate: It is designed without a yoke, with a back panel placed in such a way that a bias effect falls over the shoulder, allowing it to accommodate shoulders of any broadness and thickness. The same idea is applied to a jacket, only now, seams are manipulated to better accommodate the arm, and extra-long facing is added to the ends of the sleeve so that you can fold the sleeve up as a turn-back cuff to better accommodate different arm lengths of customers.  Even when they’re working in the relative remoteness of Ibaraki-ken, they’re sights are set on the very real world further afield.

We started following Ametsubi in 2015 when they showed during the inaugural Fashion Graduate Italia, a presentation of the best graduate collections from all the fashion schools in Italy, much like London Graduate Fashion Week that Ms Soon had participated in, three years earlier. Although there were only five looks, they impressed us with a sophisticated simplicity that was clearly built on far more complex ideas, unlike anything their fellow graduates were doing. At that time, Ms Soon was quoted saying, “We wanted to do something that could merge our cultures together, and merge our experiences in Milan. We focused on the details, as well as the shapes.” Although that may not satisfy those who need more by way of backstory or front-side flourish, we could see that Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon were onto something a lot more tangible, a lot more unconnected with what was buzzy at that time. Which, inexplicably, reminds us of Mama Cass singing, “You gotta make your own kind of music; sing your own special song; make your own kind of music, even if nobody else sings along.”

Photos (except where indicated): Ametsubi

Two Kites And The Sky

Rare is the men’s wear label that offers a point of view at the point of its inception. Rarer still is the men’s wear label designed by a couple, who, despite the feeble market, creates clothes men actually want to wear. Nuboaix is that atypical men’s wear label, strong of voice and poised to soar

Jessica Lee & Yong Siyuan of NuboaixDesigning couple: Jessica Lee and Yong Siyuan of Nuboaix. Photo: Nuboaix

At tomorrow’s Singapore Fashion Awards (SFA), the nominees of Designer of the Year Danelle Woo of Aijek, Chelsea Scott-Blackhall of Dzojchen, and Yong Siyuan and Jessica Lee of Nuboaix are vying for the recognition with traits, skills, and flair that vary immensely on the scale.

Ms Woo’s Aijek, while a commercial hit, is far from design-driven; it speaks less of the designer’s gift than a market keen on the non-challenging; i.e. ultra-feminine styles that are often described as “effortless” to a superlative degree. An “everyday woman”, as Ms Woo describes herself to the media, she has conceived Aijek to “create something that was a middle ground”. Intermediate positions do not often win awards.

Ms Blackhall’s co-ed brand Dzojchen (pronounced, as advised, “doh-jen”) has the sleekness of a fashion-aware easy-to-wear line, with the male-leaning aesthetic of the women’s collection seemingly built on Freudian ideas. Working in Ms Blackhall’s favour is how the compliment ‘cool’ is often associated with her, how the social aspect of her life is just as cool, and how numerous the cool girls, such as fellow ex-model and ardent supporter Rebecca Tan, she hangs out with are. Chelsea Scott-Blackhall, by cool alone, has many rooting for her to win the Designer of the Year. And she is likely to.

Nuboaix is a lot quieter as a brand, significantly quieter, so much so that one veteran designer was miffed that he had not heard of them prior to the nomination. “Designers must know how to market themselves,” he had exhorted. “You can’t just sit by yourself in the studio and not connect with the outside world.” The designers of Nuboaix were unknown to the judges of SFA, too, until their names were offered when the pre-judging had, again, arrived at the edge of a small and shallow pool of talents. If a fashion brand’s award-worthiness is invariably linked to its designer’s social standing, then Yong Siyuan and Jessica Lee would be less accepted of what they have wrought since they are virtually unheard of.

Nuboaix AW2017 jacket 1A signature Nuboaix blouson with a cross-chest flap

Why should unknowns be awarded? Because these two not social-by-nature or social-for-reach unknowns have dedicated their lives to their craft, and spent many hours in their Northstar@Ang Mo Kio studio, patterning, perfecting, cutting, fitting, and sewing. Yes, sewing. From the brand’s first season until the current, every piece in the collections—15 seasons so far—has been stitched by both Yong Siyuan and Jessica Lee, partners in business and in life. And every trim affixed by the two. Their studio, no bigger than the master bedroom of a HDB flat, doubles as production facility. Nothing is farmed out. In addition, and more importantly, because both designers have a clear, distinct, original voice.

Few designers think about DNA, let alone a signature than can immediately identify their brand. Mr Yong and Ms Lee do, and their approach is so un-tethered to palpable signals in men’s wear—especially the current obsession with volume, as well as streetwear—that their designs are oftentimes headwinds pushing against the currents of what is considered fashionably masculine. For sure, they do not design for those who populate the Singapore Exchange, yet it would be imprecise to say that they design for those who prefer a strictly casual mode of dress, such as that unconsciously adopted by photographers’ assistants. These are clothes for guys who care about how they look, be it at work or at play, and how judiciously employed details in garments can set them apart. And smartly too.

And it is in the details that fans of the brand are raving about. A Web content developer, who has been buying NBX for more than a year, said that “the clothes are unlike anything seen even in more edgy men’s wear collections such as those at L’Amoire. I like the pieces joined to form shapes on the garment—they look like configurations on a computer chip!” The Nuboaix signatures are, in fact, more than their much admired insets in which assorted geometric parts (sometimes including a functional pocket), often arranged diagonally, convene rather happily. As Ms Lee, “in charge of all communications”, elaborated to SOTD: “Our double rivets affixed on the left of the neck, as seen on our knitwear, serve as one of our signatures. Another would be our cut-and-sew details worked on our T-shirts in the form of a simple single, left-chest pocket. Not forgetting the cross-chest flap, on our bomber jackets, which has become a staple since S/S 2017. Our designs are discernibly NBX and we like it that way. One will not mistake our brand for another, or vice versa.”

What they can achieve is more remarkable considering the oft-cited resource scarcity designers here face. “To name a few,” Ms Lee shared, “fabric selection is severely limited; zippers are very standard, with no variations on teeth size/color/material, etc. Good sewers are scarce too. There isn’t existing textile technology either, which means there is a limit to how much we can achieve. We simply do not have access to a more sophisticated manufacturing industry.” Which explain why they keep almost all the work in-house even when the breadth and depth are tough to sustain. “Every day is hard work and not one process is a bed of roses. But this is the price to pay in order to maintain the quality of our products. The whole process, from conception to sewing to fitting, is too important to outsource.”

Nuboaix AW2017 pulloverA Nuboaix pullover with signature bib-front composite of geometric shapes

Nuboaix was conceived in 2008—“the seed was planted” then—and incorporated as a company a year later. Both Ms Lee and Mr Yong had met as students in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Fashion Studies and graduated with a diploma in fashion design in 2004. Mr Yong would later return to the school to complete a BA degree in fashion marketing, a joint program with the UK’s Northumbria University. The name Nuboaix—vaguely Japanese or evocative of the world of Star Wars, which would not be inconsistent with their love of anime and science fiction—intrigues the uninitiated enough to think that it is a foreign brand. Ms Lee, somewhat self-deprecatingly, said, “Apologies as there is nothing exciting here.” When pressed further, she let on: “It’s just a made-up word from the name of a pet. Still, it’s a name that has come to resonate with the way we are steering the brand—with a more futuristic and forward feel.” The name sets the tone for the collections, and, as she noted, “the clothes remain subtle, almost clinical.”

According to Ms Lee, co-designing a collection was not initially on the cards. “Definitely not. LOL at that time. We were both very different in terms of design elements, direction, and thought process. Our idiosyncrasies define us both to be almost opposites, but, of course, along the way we learned to compromise and complement each other when working together.” The eventual harmony of the ying and the yang meant that, apart from being able to collaborate, both of them could arrive at a design consensus without disastrous skirmishes, and this is reflected in their output: a pleasing synergy that does not betray their gender differences.

The first NBX collection came together in 2010, at a time when start-ups in Singapore were slowly beginning to show signs of a possible boom. It was a women’s wear collection for the spring/summer 2011 season called Walküre, alluding to the valkyrie, or females figures of Norse mythology, who decide who can live, or die in battle, so dramatically retold in the Richard Wagner opera Die Walküre. Correspondingly, the designs eschewed obvious prettiness and clichéd delicateness for an aesthetic that could be Amazonian in a parallel universe. A highlight of the debut was the convertibility of some of the pieces, such as a pair of below-the-knee pants that could intriguingly be transformed into a mini-dress—the waistband morphs into a halter neck! The unusual tailoring with technically-challenging details that are now evident in the men’s wear took shape at that time, and, together with subsequent collections—including Macht (another German word, this time meaning ‘might’), seen at the now-defunct Audi Fashion Festival 2010’s trade event Blueprint and their contributions to Kimono Kollab­ in 2015—appealed to so many men’s wear buyers that suggestions started coming in that the two should consider a men’s line as well.

The Nuboaix corner at Robinsons The Hereen’s men’s floor

The transition to men’s wear came rather swiftly. Buoyed by encouragement from industry folks and precipitated by the competitive nature of the women’s wear market and what they thought were “a tad too forward” for the time, Nuboaix switched to men’s clothing in 2015, and quickly drew attention with their masterful patterning, especially for outerwear. That year, at a Paris trade fair, buyers from Robinsons visited their stand and was impressed enough by what they saw that Nuboaix was immediately offered space in the department store. Impressively, the brand’s merchandise was, from the start, sited among imported labels, and presently, Nuboaix has Andrea Pompilio and Marc Jacobs as immediate neighbours. If that does not adequately say something about the brand’s standing or quality or perceived value, perhaps pilferage does. According to an internal source, a Nuboaix piece was once shoplifted and the perpetrator, emboldened by the initial success, returned for a second attempt only to be caught red handed!

The immediate attraction of Nuboaix at one look is understandable. As one product development manager told SOTD, “Their things always look polished. Even with Marc Jacobs beside them, they don’t look like a shadow of the former. In fact, the clothes look expensive; they make Mark Jacobs look cheap.” From a design standpoint, “the concept is strong. Technically, it’s not easy to do what they do. Just look at how many pieces go into making just one top. And the final product is a balanced composition that has hanger appeal.” More importantly, regardless of the multiple cut-and-sew parts within the garment, which to the die-hard minimalists are superfluous, what emerges is something that any man can identify as clothes, not gimmickry with cloth.

In this respect, there’s something old-school in their approach. Although they continually experiment with new ideas and techniques; reconstructing and modernizing—uncommon for designers of their relative youth, they still kept to certain design approaches and details, and everything in their output is interrelated. As fashion has lost much of this sense of continuity, what Nuboaix has maintained harks back to older times, and is, ironically, refreshing. While this could result in formulaic designs, the proverbial complacency trap can be circumvented if Mr Yong and Ms Lee constantly reinvent themselves, or re-conceptualise the aesthetics of their brand.

With an SFA nomination and stockists in the US, Japan, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the two designers feel a sense of achievement, if not success. But Ms Lee’s reaction was more subdued. “We’re very humbled to be even nominated, so we’re not letting ourselves get ahead thinking about the results. It’s enough being recognized for the efforts, through these many years, put in to pursue a dream, a passion and to build a career in fashion.” She added, “Because we transited from women’s to men’s, we’ve kinda seen both worlds. Our understanding of the two probably sets us apart from the other designers. Again, looking at the NBX DNA that we’ve created, it’s uniquely ours. That’s our success.”

We noted that she had not once not used the pronoun ‘we’. Ms Lee and Mr Yong are engaged to be married. “People say one can never work with one’s partner. Sure, we have our moments, but after so many years being together and knowing each other inside out, we feel it boils down to splitting the work and apportioning to who’s better at what. It’ll take time to get there though.” And cheekily she added, “One mountain can’t have two tigers, right?”

Photos (except where indicated): Zhao Xiangji