(When) Simple Is Sublime

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Joseph, according to the Bible, had a “coat of many colours”. In the 20th Century, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Web upgraded the garment to an “amazing technicolour dreamcoat” In the case of Joseph, the London fashion retailer, their coats are a lot more subdued. In merchandising parlance, they’re “muted”. When loud—not necessarily voluble—still speaks volumes in the world of fashion, hushed tones do stand out.

Just as quiet was the entry of Joseph into Singapore’s fashion retail scene in October. It surprised some observers who thought the brand was going to give our island a miss—it opened in Bangkok and Manila first. But came it did, even at a time when not many people associate aesthetic perfection with discreet elegance. Joseph is one of those rare breed of labels that has not succumbed to the extreme changes in fashion. It’s presence in Singapore is very much welcomed. At the Capitol Piazza store’s official opening yesterday, a fashion stylist known for his not-so-conventional style said approvingly, “This is one of the most beautiful labels to open recently.”

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At first sight, Joseph appears to be one of those neutral-hued, discerningly stocked, and simply laid out boutiques that are so tasteful all round that they border on the unapproachable. Far from being standoffish, the store, in fact, allures with its deliberate insouciance and clothes that are devoid of excess. These are designs that salute form and function with a confident nod. While it may seem like dwelling on the previous decade to note and praise the clean lines, Joseph’s stripped-down-to-the-essential elegance is significance rather than anomaly in a culture that admires those who dare to express themselves, via dress, flashily, even overbearingly. It’s a sophisticated minimalism that predated COS, now gaining traction among the fashion-literate.

The name Joseph comes from an actual person: Joseph Ettedgui, a man so far-sighted that his vision still lives today. Mr Ettedgui died of pancreatic cancer aged 74 in 2010. In an obituary, The Guardian called him a “fashion legend” who “understood that fashion and lifestyle were interchangeable”. As it turned out, Mr Ettedgui was an accidental clothier. Trained as a hairdresser, he started selling clothes in the late 60s by displaying in the window of his King Road premises, Salon 33, a few sweaters designed by his chum, the Paris-based Japanese designer Kenzo Takada. By the 70s, Mr Takada had become the toast of Paris after opening his first boutique in the mid-19th Century Galerie Vivienne in 1970 called, with hippie verve, Jungle Jap. Two years later, in London, Joseph the standalone fashion store opened.

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Although not a native Londoner (Mr Ettedgui was born in Casablanca, Morocco), he was very much a part of London’s fashion retail aristocracy that includes Brown’s Joan Burstein. Like Mrs B, as she is known in the trade, Mr Ettedgui was able to single out talents that would later prove to be commercially successful. In his shops he stocked John Galliano, Margaret Howell, and Katherine Hamnett, just to name three of the very British names he favoured. But selling the designs of others weren’t entirely enough for the entrepreneur and budding designer. In the 1980s, Joseph Tricot, a knitwear collection was introduced, and by the mid-90s, Joseph retails its own fully-merchandised ready-to-wear line. So desirable were its own-name goods, that Singapore women were known to go to London to buy their “incredibly-cut pants”, as one fan enthused.

Although Mr Ettedgui had an eye for more forward-looking designs and was eager to promote them, his own aesthetic was far more subdued. Joseph’s multi-label stores may house the likes of Alexader McQueen, but the eponymous label is never unsettlingly off-kilter. Even today, the brand has not forsaken the supplementary role it plays to modern attire: “An entire wardrobe can’t be made up of only designer clothes”, as Mr Ettedgui once said. Joseph was sold in 2005, and is now own by its Japanese licensee Onward Kashiyama, yet there was never an attempt to rewrite its DNA. At the Capitol Piazza store, superbly designed and made shirts, pants, and knitwear—for both men and women—that the Joseph emporia has come to be known for are all there, in updated shapes and volumes that no doubt will complement any wardrobe. These are clearly clothes that will outlive many of the others in any closet.

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The question is, do consumers care about the longevity of clothes like they once did? Do they even want their clothes to last over many seasons when it’s so easy to just go purchase something new? Why do they want clothes to hang indefinitely in a wardrobe when something inexpensive somewhere is waiting to be bought? According to Joseph’s Paris-based creative director for women’s wear Louis Trotter, “The JOSEPH woman is defined by her attitude and style. She wants well-designed clothes that work with her lifestyle; that she can wear every day. She wants clothes that are unfussy, with a sense of ease. She has confidence on her own style and is intelligent in her decision making.”

We’re not certain if this is the Singapore woman, but we’re sure that even inured to outré styles, there will be those who want to come home to what may be considered comfort clothes, just as they would like to seek solace in comfort food. Sometimes, even if not every day, straightforward pieces that you put on and do not think about thereafter are what you need in a world of frantic shifts in trends. The understated, as Joseph knows, should’t be underrated.

Joseph is at level 1, Capitol Piazza. Photos: Jim Sim

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