Why Depression Is Still Depressing

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“…I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes” –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

For its first full-collection catwalk show at Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Depression continued with what it has always advocated: clothes that work best in the shadows. There was no negating the brand’s proclivity to dark attire, deathly makeup, and brooding attitude. The show attracted a huge fan base—many of them suitably garbed in dreary swathes of black, overwhelming the small show venue with their gloomy presence. For that, Depression rewarded them with a presentation that had the requisites for All Tomorrow’s Parties, as sung by the Velvet Underground: “A blackened shroud/A hand-me-down gown/Of Rags and silks, a costume/Fit for one who sits and cries/For all tomorrow’s parties”.

To be sure, Depression has never looked so arresting. The collection was well-focused; it had energy and it still rebuked what people consider fashionable. There was the chilling aloofness of the models, whose faces looked battered, a style first seen in George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. There was the monotonous soundtrack that seemed to drone on forever. There was the video, projected on the back wall of the catwalk, of a relentlessly beating black heart, wishing evil upon the rapt audience. The clothes appeared, for once, better made, even when they suggested disarray and impairment. There were pieces for women—a second since the Blueprint show earlier this year—that was as sinister looking as the men’s. The old truism about the dark is true: you cannot dispel darkness with darkness.

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Whether Depression duo, Andrew Loh and Kenny Lim, are practitioners of—to borrow from Harry Porter—the “dark arts”, we may never know. But from the clothes they showed, they seem to inhabit a shadowy dystopian world. This is not the dystopia of Veronica Roth’s Divergent. This is much darker: a funereal outpost where psychopomps rule and people are perpetual mourners. It is, perhaps, no coincidence then that the Depression show took place on the Day of the Dead (or Dia de Muertos, a Mexican holiday dedicated to the remembrance of the deceased). This occasion may be foreign to us, but for some, it’s their Hungry Ghost Festival.

One question kept popping up during the 13-minute show: why did these clothes look the same as those from past seasons? The problem, as it soon appeared to us, was the colour choice. Black, while versatile and good at pulling disparate elements together, is not the easy-to-work-with colour that less deft designers imagine it to be. On inferior fabrics, black looks, well, inferior. You can use all the black in the world that you want, but if they’re not expressed in the best textiles so that black can articulate its mysteriousness and allure, it’ll look like the soot of chimneys rather than the ink of artists. Depression did not avail to their design studio fabrics that could allow black to be held in high esteem. On the catwalk, they look common and cheap, compounded by the scary plethora of synthetics, including Depression favourites such as polyester netting. They may wish to symbolically use black to project sartorial (and possibly social) rebellion, but on lesser fabrics, their light-absorbing shade looks corporeal and mundane, not aggressive and powerful.

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Still, black is necessary to strengthen Depression’s cult standing (and to mask the label’s technical deficiencies). Someone in the audience was heard calling the collection “street Goth”. But Goth (not to be confused with the Germanic tribe, the Goths), whether born on the street or not, is a subculture that has strict codes of imagery and cultural tastes. A skinny lad kitted in black shirt and black low-crotch pants (topped with a black felt wide-brim hat)—what one of the attendees wore, for example—was no Goth. A poseur, yes; Goth, no. A practising Goth, even an androgynous one, would not succumb to Depression’s blousy tops; backless shirts with floppy bibs; see-through pants of polyester netting; flaccid tunics slit to the thigh; and cropped numbers that looked like they were inspired by a bat’s carcass. What’s most puzzling (and unacceptable to a Goth, surely) is the strange, inauspicious-looking headwear that looked like a nun’s habit deconstructed by someone from the Ku Klux Klan, to be worn at a Chinese funeral somewhere in Tainan, Taipei!

In the end, perhaps it wasn’t about design or tailoring or fit. What Mr Loh and Mr Lim went for was a look, as with so many designers these days. As long as they could send out the Grim Reaper—a (Goth) rock opera version, it really didn’t matter if the clothes were not the epitome of brilliant design. What Depression did was the continual selling of an expression that, by now, should have evolved, but has not. How long do you want to stay depressed? Eight years after the label was started, the guys were still talking about those days when they “hit a low point in their lives”. They could have created a high out of the low, but they did not. There could have injected some irony into their designs, but they did not. They could have brought a sliver of joy into the long-drawn misery, but they did not. The clothes were not “street luxe”, to quote another enthusiastic description from the audience; they still look like they were made for department stores or corner shops in malls under cineplexes. Or was that just the look?

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Two Chinese characters appeared with persistent regularity: 心魔 or xinmo (literally, evil in the heart). It was a curious, ominous word choice. The noun+noun compound comprises of the character for heart and for evil (or magic, which in the case of Depression is improbable, unless it’s black magic!) They first appeared on socks (some worn with one character on each side, and, strangely, the character for heart did not show on the left foot), then on clothes. Bold (font) and in your face they were, but the characters, we suspected, were more for effect—not even graphic interest—than to communicate the designers’ understanding of them. Xinmo is the title of a 2009 Hong Kong movie (At the End of Daybreak, in English), but it is unlikely Depression would draw ideas from this film since it is a mushy love story. Xinmo is also the name of the Chinese edition of the video game The Evil Within (known in Japan as Psycho Break), published by Tango Gameworks, a company founded by Shinji Mikami, the creator of The Resident Evil series. It is possible that Depression’s Mr Loh and Mr Lim are avid gamers, but it is doubtful that the collection was inspired by this survival-horror game, since its protagonist, Sebastian Castellanos, looks like he’s dressed by the Italian mafia.

This was all very confusing because the Depression theme for what was shown was supposed to be, by most accounts—their own too, based on “fear”. Evil in the heart could be fearful, but that sounds too much like a B-grade scare romp to instil fear. So what is it that would arouse the dread of impending peril or malevolence? Perhaps, Depression did not know. Together with the DFW programme booklet was a black A5-sized card printed as a survey form with the question, “What are your demons?” It looked like Depression’s fear mongering came to nought.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim

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