Sometimes, designers are like cooks. Cooking is not about originality. It can be done using common ingredients, and methods no different from those already employed among cooks. Simply put, a shared knowledge base. A cook is as good as the delicious food he produces. Goodness of quality is affirmed as long as his cooking is tasty. The food does not have to be original. Original dishes are rare since so much of what we eat is mostly passed down or reproduced from what have always been enjoyed, such as the omelette.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Frederick Lee has chosen to walk the paths of cooks since he is known to be a good one. At this year’s Vietnam Fashion Week, where he has been showing annually since 2014 under the auspices and promotion of the Asian Couture Federation, Mr Lee took the whisk already wielded by Guo Pei and whipped up an omelette of a train. To be sure, his is more a squishy popiah skin (a bar was fitted in the middle to keep it stretched out) compared to Ms Pei’s ponderous jian bing (煎饼 or Chinese pancake). Yet, there’s no denying that there’s visual parallel. You may use different pans, omelettes are still omelettes.
What made the dress and the train stood out even more during the catwalk presentation in Hanoi on 6 November is that the collection was called ‘Red’. Indeed, the entire show comprises of gowns of scarlet, until the final piece: an interjection in a vivid golden yellow. This was clearly meant to be a show-stopper (even if those that preceded were unqualified show-stoppers too), and you can’t help but marvel at the similarity it bore to the cape-dress Rihanna made astonishingly famous. Frederick Lee is not really celebrated as a beacon of originality, but must he really be such a fan of the obvious? Or was he designing in favour of a hashtag?
The gown, in fact, seemed to exist for the sole purpose of carrying the omelette-train, which contrasted so dramatically in its visual semi-splendour to the plain and oddly sportif bodice that, in order to give the upper body sufficient punch, an oversized and over-blinked body jewellery (as stole?) was necessary to keep the balance, or to screen what did not overwhelm underneath. This does not take into consideration the overwrought headdress. You sense Mr Lee telling himself: “If she can do it, so can I” rather than “Anything she can do, I can do better”.
Since Mr Lee started showing abroad, we’ve missed him a lot. Ever the consummate showman and master of the meretricious, he does not disappoint, leading overseas audiences to believe that, in Singapore, we have a huge bevy of women with the occasion and inclination to wear his brand of couture. Mr Lee likes referencing cultures, especially those that easily lend themselves to campy delineations. He’s done African (somewhere in Africa) and ornithic (particularly birds of prey as well as display) and now, in Hanoi, he’s interpreting Chinese, however risible the attempt may be.
If originality is dead, authenticity is one step from banging on death’s door. Guo Pei mining deep into her native traditions to reprise the crafts that she likes is understandable, even laudable. Singaporean designers taking for themselves a Chinese culture that is so far removed from their own is tantamount to appropriation or parody, and can pivot on the pretentious. Omelettes may be omelettes wherever you cook them, but they don’t necessarily taste the same.
Photos: Vietnam International Fashion Week