Muji’s Mighty Magic

The Muji flagship opened in Plaza Singapura last Friday, occupying the 1,896-sq-m expanse that was vacated by the doomed John Little’s last year. Is the Japanese specialty store set to take the place of traditional department stores, such as Tangs and Metro, which have become increasingly lacklustre?

Muji PS pic 1Muji’s new flagship store at Plaza Singaura

Muji is many things to many people. To some, it is a fashion store. To others, it’s a beauty bar, and, many still, a furniture seller. There are also those who consider it a mini-market. If you visit its new flagship store, it’s manifestly all of the above and more, so much so that it, despite its comparative smallness, easily surpasses the offering of any department store in Singapore today.

This is Muji you’ve not seen before. Not even the ION Orchard store, already considered sterling by so many of its fans, is as expansive, wide-ranging, or atmospheric. This is Muji built on some performance-enhancing magic bullet. It is stocked to the rafters to entice, to arouse, and, ultimately, to encourage spending.

That Muji is able to do all this with merchandise that, for some, is just too bashful in design is testament to the brand’s skill at pulling deceptively simple things into a rather grand whole. There’s a sense of authenticity—an unabashed Japaneseness—and an unwavering minimalist aesthetic that has kept them in good stead indeed. No matter how wide their product offering, they’ve kept to their DNA of uncomplicated, and indeed straightforward, designs that are augmented by their welcome usefulness.

Muji PS pic 2Muji Labo: a more forward collection that pays particular attention to fabric and cutMuji PS pic 3There’s athletic wear now, presumably to take advantage of the athleisure trendMuji PS pic 4A new jeans section that is so extensive it easily rivals Uniqlo’s

The new store is reported to be the largest flagship in Southeast Asia. Designed by Super Potato, the Japanese ID firm of Takashi Sugimoto, who is noted for his impressive list of hip stores and restaurants designs such as the Grand Hyatt’s Mezza9 and Straits Kitchen, this is a Muji conceived for discovery, zoned to bring you from one corner to another, not quite knowing what to expect. Those “Mujirers”, as they’re known, who are compelled to visit every Muji store in the cities they operate in will see the similarity with the Shanghai flagship in Huaihai Lu (淮海路) than, say, the Tokyo store in Shinjuku—one neo-rustic, the other white-steel-modern.

This is not a one-look-and-see-all approach to store layout, which, in many ways, had been Muji’s preferred floor-plan treatment until the arrival of Muji Yurakucho (Tokyo) store, a multi-floor behemoth that strikes awe with its warehouse-like space in which pockets of visual merchandising delightfulness are erected. The Plaza Singapura store is, perhaps, a lot more atmospheric (the differentiated lighting, for example, is a lot warmer than their other outlets here, and really recalls the Muji Chengdu flagship) and visually more engaging, with much of the store’s merchandise employed in its imaginative, tactile decor.

The focus is clearly on customer engagement, which accounts for the new areas in the store such as Found Muji in which items sourced from around the world is picked for their shared aesthetic values with the brand, and “re-tailored” to sit suitably alongside other Muji products. This includes an exhibition area, Open Muji, done pasar malam-style to show that regardless of provenance, good and functional design is border-less when it comes to usefulness and beauty.

Found MujiOne of the new concepts seen in Singapore for the first time is Found Muji, a collection of wares selected from different parts of the world

Found Muji pic 2Open Muji showing the various products from all over the world that inspire Muji designsIdeeIdée shows off a more ‘designed’ aspect of MujiMuji wall hangingIdée is stocked with unexpected items such as this wall hanging by Los Angeles ceramic artist Heather Levine

This belief is also exemplified in Idée, a line of merchandise described by Muji as “based on the theme of ‘Life is about everyday’”. But there’s nothing really “everyday” about these products since a knowing customer would immediately see the everyday-ness as ‘elevated’. Idée started as collaboration with emerging designers for furniture a few years back, but soon grew to cover table ware, textile, and decorative accessories that include art and even wall hangings. This, to us, is one of the most alluring parts of the new store.

In fact, furniture and furnishings now make up nearly half the store’s offerings. This may pose some competition to Ikea, although, admittedly, Muji’s prices are not as wallet-friendly and can, in fact, match those of stores such as Conde House in Millenia Walk. And as with Ikea, the new store offers interior decorating service, as well as custom-order for rugs and such. Customisation is, in fact, a crowd charmer, with shoppers drawn to the customised embroidery service available to those who purchased clothing in the store.

The thing about Muji is that no matter how wide the product categories or varied its in-store services, there’s an aesthetic oneness that does not arouse the senses for the sake of getting your buying urges in a knot. It makes one sometimes ponder, and, many a time, enjoy. For naysayers, Muji makes very plain and basic products. This plainness and elementariness do indeed make their success all the more beguiling. Is it saying that our appreciation of good design is finally seeing some semblance of sophistication?

MUJI furniture and furnishingAn impressive selection of furniture and furnishing is available in the new Muji Muji furniture and furnishings 2Bedding, always a strong product category, is now even more alluringMuji food 1Food remains a strong offering and now even more strikingly presented

It is ironic that Muji has occupied the space where John Little’s has failed. Since 2013, Singapore’s oldest department store has been relegated to the annals of our island’s retail history as a forgettable relic. Despite its heritage (174 years in business), John Little’s simply could not keep up with the changes that equate modern retailing. Muji opened in Singapore in 1995, four years after its first overseas store in Hong Kong. Its debut in Liang Court proved a little too premature as local shoppers didn’t quite understand the brand’s striking, chic minimalism and found the “plain things” (now dubbed by the press as “commercial zen”) too expensive. It exited Singapore after the Asian financial crisis of 1997 (also known as the tom yum goong crisis as it started in Thailand) and returned in 2003 in then Seiyu department store (now BHG) to a staggeringly warm welcome. From that point there’s no stopping Muji, which now numbers 13 stores island-wide.

Muji, an abbreviation of the full name Mujirushi Ryohin, or “no brand, good quality” in Japanese, is now a staggering enlargement of the 40 products it started with in 1980, when parent company Seiyu created the private brand for their eponymous supermarkets as a way to lure shoppers tightening their purse strings during the economic downswing of that era. According to media reports, Muji presently retails more than 7,000 products, covering nearly every aspect of the urban lifestyle, with many of them having won awards in the category of design.

Some industry observers state that Muji is able to do what they do because they create everything under their own brand. Department stores, especially those here (Japanese ones too), have long forsaken the model of producing house brands that can be differentiated from those of competitors’. Instead, much of the space in department stores these days is leasable space, which inevitably means stores are no longer ‘curating’ their offerings the way they used to. Department stores are landlords the way mall operators are. Additionally, according to London-based BMI Research in a report last year, department store’s declining popularity, “can be attributed to an outdated approach to demands of local consumers”. That Muji’s customers are forming long queues at the cashiers’ even five days after the opening high perhaps indicates that the brand knows how to appeal to shoppers. This, even without industry admission, is likely the envy of trad stores such as Tangs and Metro.

Muji flagship store is on level one, Plaza Singapura. Photos: Galerie Gombak

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This Power Pairing (Updated)

Streetwear biggie Supreme and Japanese designer powerhouse Comme des Garçons collaborate and the world goes mad

 

Supreme X CDG shirt

By Ray Zhang

Frankly, I don’t quite get Supreme. Perhaps it’s because I am more of a Palace guy. But it’s Supreme we’re talking about, so let’s stick to the label that always makes me think of a particular Motown girl group. Let me admit: I am a bit of an authenticity snob. I like streetwear labels to stay close to the street, and I don’t mean Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Yes, I am referring to Supreme dipping into the high fashion pond fed by the head water Louis Vuitton.

What was once skater kids’ go-to label, Supreme is now, to me, a lackey of luxury. LV is going to sell loads of that bag, the Supreme box-logo alive as a Speedy or could that be the Keepall—entirely bleeding red and screaming. But does that make Supreme more desirable? Unless, of course, they’re not so pleasing to begin with. Still, it’s Louis Vuitton as partner, which means the goods end up on rich kids with no taste than on cool kids with edge. While GQ gleefully calls it “a collaboration of dreams”, for real fashion folks, this sort of high-low partnership is somewhat—and sadly—déclassé.

Supreme X CDG shirt tees

My first (and belated) encounter with Supreme was in Tokyo last summer in its Shibuya store, situated in the hipster neighbourhood of Jinnan. It was a disappointment so huge I was totally consumed by it. Perhaps it was because Supreme was my last stop in the area that is home to some of the most exciting retail concepts in the whole of Asia, such as the indescribable WARE-mo-KOU and the always intriguing Beams. I was quite intoxicated with seeing so many things I do not get to see here—to the point that a glimpse of plain tees with some mindless graphic on the chest was like being smothered with chloroform.

Supreme is in a side street with nothing but its own silent company. The façade is a concrete sea with the familiar red logo afloat like a life buoy in the ocean. It was close to sun down when I arrived and the coveted logo was illuminated by two lamps above it in such a way that the light formed a heart-shaped halo around it. The exterior hints at a minimalist interior and, true enough, it was a space as plain as a warehouse, save a blue, Sphinx-like creature prostrated right in the middle of the shop. The clothes were on racks that were lined up against the walls. I flipped through the mainly T-shirts and thought how much nicer Stussy in Daikanyama was. The Supreme store was empty except for a Thai couple who was buying the 3-in-1 pack of Supreme/Hanes Tagless Tee.

Supreme X CDG shirt suit

So what does it mean when Supreme now pairs with Comme des Garçons, the label that, in less than a month, will be saluted at the Met Gala, the prelude to this year’s spring exhibition Art of In-Between? Okay, I am conflicted with this one. I am tempted to say that Comme des Garçons deserves more. The label does not need to validate itself with this alignment. No one will go to the Metropolitan Museum to see the streetwear adjunct of Japan’s leading designer brand. To be sure, this is not the main CDG line at work. It’s the sub-brand Comme des Garçons Shirt, which, in part, sometimes has a whiff of street sensibility. Still, CDG will not be less desirable if it does not adopt something so blatant as sharing Supreme’s name. After all, it’s has Gosha Rubchinskiy in its stable of brands.

But, I know better. This is really a commercial venture, as much to elevate the CDG brand as making Dover Street Market, where the collab will be available, an attractive emporium for another group of wealthy consumers with pretensions to skate style. Supreme and CDG have been partners since 2012, when both came together to produce a capsule for the opening of DSM in Ginza. It was, by most accounts, a wildly successful output, with Supreme fans going quite frenzied trying to hunt down the limited pieces out there. Every Supreme X Comme des Garçons Shirt release since then has been a baffling, queue-forming global phenomenon—Supreme’s hometown New York City the centre of the madness.

Supreme X CDG shirt shirt

I am, of course, inclined to sit this one out. Supreme is a brand I have been reading about and seeing on social media for years, but somehow it’s always not on my radar. Yet, I am curious, because I want more for CDG. So, I visited DSMS’s E-Shop last night at about eight. The site was not accessible, with the error message “This page isn’t working (or HTTP Error 503)” appearing repeatedly enough to see me get quite vexed. Finally at about ten, I had access, but nothing was for sale yet. Then the same error message again. Okay, according to an earlier blurb on DSMS’s main page, the Supreme X Comme des Garçons Shirt 2017 release will be available in Singapore on 15 April, which is tomorrow. I was early, I admit; I just wanted a sneak peek.

Although we don’t get to buy, images of the collection are available to arouse temptation. There are the destined-to-be-sold-out T-shirts with a newish logo reportedly inspired by the Comme des Garçons Shirt 2010 spring/summer campaign featuring the distorted images of conceptual artist Stephen J Shanabrook, hoodies with said logo, a trio of rayon shirts with repeated patterns, some suits, a fish-tail parka, a Nike Air Force 1 Low, and some wallets—clearly for die-hards. So who’s copping?

Supreme X Comme des Garçons Shirt is available at Dover Street Market Singapore E-Shop from tomorrow. Photo: Supreme X Comme des Garçons Shirt

Update (16 April 2017, 9.30am): Comme des Garçons Shirt X Supreme is taken off the listing on the DSMS E-Shop. SOTD checked the site at one minute past midnight on 15 April, but was unable to find anything from the collaboration on sale. Six hours later, it remains the same. One last check on the launch date at 10.30pm saw the situation unchanged. More than 24 hours later, it seems that the line is no longer available for sale in the E-Shop

Not Quite Café Society

Coco Cafe

We knew this was going to happen: that Chanel would open an F&B outlet to tempt the tam chiak among their customers. The supermarket set for the fall/winter 2014 show in Paris was prelude enough (and how many people tried to swipe the products on the shelves?!). And now, we get to see and experience a Coco Café in our island. Nope, Chanel has not lost the plot. They still make expensive clothes, bags, shoes, jewellery, watches, perfume, face lotions, make-up, and, occasionally, USD5,000 headphones. For nine days, they’re just serving coffee—and cakes—to sell cosmetics.

Before you get too excited, this is not Paul, or anything that will remind you of Café Flores or Les Deux Magots, or those cafés in the Quartier Latin that capture the charm of Paris. This is essentially the Visual Arts Centre in Dhoby Ghaut Green, above the MRT station, that’s transformed into a Chanel pop-up, or more accurately, “café-themed beauty pop-up”. In Asia, Coco Café first appeared in Tokyo last month, in a swankier address than Singapore’s: Omotaesando.

Coco Cafe 2

In fact, retailers are surprised that Chanel has chosen this spot for its pop-up. You know what they say about “lower Orchard Road”. That Chanel is willing to be Plaza Singapura’s neighbour is both unanticipated and contrary to the belief that this area is too close to the education sprawl of Bras Basah and Bendemeer to be beneficial to luxury branding. On the bright side, this could bode well for this part of Orchard. If this stretch is good enough for Chanel, it could be good enough for retailers with less marketing muscle.

And marketers are amused by a café that does not actually sell coffee or attendant comestibles. Yes, they’re serving, just not selling. What they do sell is Chanel’s newest lip product Rouge Coco Gloss. Well, that’s the star. Others include those from the skincare line Hydra Beauty, as well as make-up and fragrances, a happy mix that will no doubt allow you to partake in Chanel’s intoxicating luxury in case you can’t really bear to stress your credit card to acquire their bags such as the just-launched Gabrielle.

Coco Cafe 3

Inside, nothing will remind you of Rue Cambon. Coco Café (two Cs that pairs with Chanel’s interlocking ones) is a pop interpretation of a beauty store disguised as eatery that looks more Harajuku than Dhoby Ghaut. The watchful, oversized café logo, fashioned out of neon lights, could be something dreamed up by Hello Kitty. In other words, the café’s cute rather than hip.

Did Coco Chanel ever imagine her name lit up for a café? We doubt she did, but she would not have pictured either that the brand she built would one day have to seduce Millennials into spending with coffee and cake on the house.

Coco Café opens today till 16th April 2017, from 11am to 8pm. You need to register to visit the café. Unfortunately, all slots are taken. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

On The Biggest Date Night Of The Year, Fashion Did Not Step Out

Yes, it is the fourteenth day of February, but who asked fashion to be their Valentine?  By the looks of it, no one

on-valentines-dayBy Mao Shan Wang

On Valentine’s Day, fashion, like so many singles, stayed at home—ignored and, possibly, forgotten. Special occasion wear—if it still exists—has been relegated to some corner of the wardrobe, untouched and unloved. You’d think that on the day that celebrates love, fashion might be courted with as much fervour as this day is celebrated with so much ardour. That thinking is, of course, as intact as a pair of shredded denim cut-offs.

I would have been ensconced at home too if not for the urge to see what the trend among courting couples this year was. The girls, I had thought, would surely have something in mind to make them look good for their guy—more than good, possibly. Or did I have an outmoded idea of what it means to celebrate, or dress for, Valentine’s Day?

I decided to take my observation to 313@Orchard and Orchard Central, that continuous expanse of mall and the mass market that has a strange pull for the young and those on dates. The journey there, in fact, was a prelude to what I was going to see. Sales of roses, as a single stalk or as a bouquet, seemed to enjoy better business than clothes, if the number of peddlers (persistent as tissue sellers) on every street and corner is any indication.

On the MRT train, the casualness of every commuter’s attire was no different from that of Saturday afternoon rides. Seated in front of me, intertwined like a macramé knot, was a couple barely outside the border of teenage years. The girl sat in a manner that made it easy for her boyfriend to go all limbs over her, which meant that her body was aslant—hips jutting out into her neighbour’s space. This bodily intrusion was made more apparent by what the girl wore from the waist down: thigh-hugging micro-shorts that had a roughly two-inch zip on the side seam. Unsurprisingly, it was unzipped. Also unsurprisingly, her underwear was out to catch some air. Why, I wondered, isn’t seduction by Y-fronts a male practice?

What struck me most was the number of couples in shorts. Has this become a dating norm or is this just unique to our island? Sure, we’re known for our extremely casual sense of dress. And there’s always the punishing weather to blame, but isn’t there even a day in a calendar year that encourages one going out with a romantic partner to put in a modicum of effort?

As I stepped onto the escalator to reach the ground level of 313, I soon came eye-to-butt with a couple in shorts that fit only one description: ratty. The guy was in a pair of very crushed ‘berms’ that looked like it had spent most of its life in an urn used to salt vegetables. His girl was in a pair that could have been his sleepwear, cut so brief he would not have remembered it as his long pyjama bottom. Now, this is not a couple going downstairs from their flat to run an errand. I am sure of that because the girl was holding dearly a stalk of rose held rigid in a clear tubular plastic case, like a dozen or more girls did throughout the two malls.

This severely low in diversity quickly discouraged me from spending more time establishing the existence of fashionable couples. I thought I should go for dinner before it became impossible to find a table. At the upper, upper floors of Orchard Central, queues outside eateries were already too long to manage without affecting your patience, appetite or sanity, or all three. That’s the thing about dining on Valentine’s Day: if you’re not a couple, don’t! Even if you’re a couple, don’t!!! In any case, I was hungry; I was not going to give up without trying. I did not dress un-casually for nothing.

Luck came to me in the form of an empty (but not cleared) table, set on the corridor, no doubt to increase the seating capacity of the restaurant in times of a romance boom. A good table, I thought, since I could afford a view of the coming and going along the passageway. As soon as I placed my order, I was seized with pain-inducing regret. A queue started to form, snaking past my table as rapidly as Snake. It was not an unmoving line, and this was what bred annoyance: the queueing diners saw no reason to distance themselves from my table, and there I was in a posterior-privy position. Again.

One by one they passed by my face, a slideshow of shorts and thighs, of scantiness and unsightliness. A Valentine’s Day dinner date now really resembles supper at the most popular 24-hour nasi lemak stall. Just get in line. Nobody cares if you wear your sleep clothes; nobody notices, not, even sadly, your significant other. As people keep saying, love is blind. Totally.

Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Giving In To The New Surrender

surrender-entrance

With a new location, a store need not keep to its old self. Surrender has taken that approach. If you think that you can still experience one of Singapore’s best regarded men’s wear store the way it was, it may be best to just hold on to your memories.

Flanked by Off-White on one side and Christian Dada on the other, the latest version of Surrender, previously known as #SRD268, is part of a retail triumvirate that dominates the first floor of 268 Orchard Road, the building whose market positioning is unknown. It also seems to have absorbed the street-style vibe of its immediate neighbours. “This isn’t the Surrender we remember,” a couple concurred as they browse quietly in the store on a Friday afternoon. Or could it be due to a loss of familiarity?

That, in itself, is not necessarily a negative, but the success of the over-two-decades-old Surrender, although fairly low-key, is based on a loyal fan base. The new space, designed by the Singapore collective Asylum, could either distance or entice. About a month after it opened, without fanfare, we’re still not sure where we stand.

surrender-entrance-2

To be certain, this Orchard Road store is not unattractive, but it is no doubt strikingly different from its previous form. The first thing that hits you is the lack of warmth. Here, unlike in Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade, the space is based on the black-and-white-wall, concrete-floor variety, which clearly contrasts the former’s wood/carpet/cabinetry amalgamation.

The layout isn’t so straightforward either. A circular central area, within which appears to be a sort of event space, is demarcated by curved, not-level walls—the spot, while effectively creates an otherwise non-existent zone, distracts shoppers from noticing its regular shop confines. Lower-case-N-shaped, railing-style metal racks line the perimeter and curved walls, hinting at an industrial bent, but could be there to lend the space the presently important street cred.

surrender-interiorsurrender-interior-2

On these racks, the clothes—now including some women’s wear—at a quick glance also seem divided from the former mix, which was heavy on Japanese labels. No doubt, the best-selling Neighbourhood and some compatriot names are there (a reduced total), but they seem overshadowed by new European and American brands that appear to bank on edginess than substance to stand out. There’s also a Goth undercurrent that, to the store’s followers, is not a part of the aesthetic of the past. Could this be the consequence of merging the original Surrender and Salon by Surrender (formerly at MBS)?

It is tempting to assume that Surrender’s parent company D’League is taking a different path. The opening of both their Off-White and Christian Dada stores in the same location hinted at Surrender’s meandering off their former track. We just did not see it sooner. But the change is not all that surprising when savvy retailers are expected to react to shifts in the marketplace. If the traffic at Off-White is any indication, the streetwear-and athleisure-heavy merchandising of Surrender is a logical progression for the business.

surrender-interior-3Surrender interior 4.jpg

What, perhaps, is more alluring is the new sneaker space. Here, you’ll find sneakerhead faves such as Visvim and limited-issue Nikes and every rich kid’s preferred footwear Buscemi. They’re all arranged neatly on rows and rows of shelves, rather than mostly on the floor at its former location. This part is a separate cocoon of a space and, despite its fluorescent-white light, feels the comfiest and most inviting.

Surrender, the way we see it, isn’t an update; it’s a reincarnation.

The new Surrenderstore  is at 268 Orchard Road. Photos: Galerie Gombak

A Foretaste Of Things To Comme

dsms-online-storeBefore Dover Street Market (DSM) Singapore opens next year (some time after Chinese New Year, a source tells us), we get to see and buy some of the merchandise that it will carry via their E-Shop. The online shopping site of DSMS—not, as many have assumed, DSMSG—launched this week to no fanfare, which is not unusual when it comes to projects under Comme des Garçons’s watch.

It is exciting, of course, that DSM is going to be here soon, after London, Ginza (Tokyo), and New York, and that there’s even a homepage (below) that pertains to the Singapore store. But if you hope to score the Vetements X Reebok Pump Supreme DSM Special Grey sneakers (available exclusively in the DSM L, G, and NY sites), then you shall be disappointed. In fact, the hungry you will not be able to buy a lot of stuff… not yet.

dsms-landing-pageWhat are available are the tops from the Play line (no Holiday Emoji), the Play Converse shoes, and a range of Comme des Garçons wallets, nothing more. These are non-seasonal items, and are part of what the other sister sites sell all year round. In fact, the only brand listed in the ‘Items’ column on the left of the page, where there is usually a far longer listing, is Comme des Garçons. For fans, that may just be enough to whet the appetite.

Although the DSMS E-Shop looks like the others, it seems, for now, like a test site to us. If you want to know about delivery and shipping charges, for instance, it requests that you “ask the DSM E-Shop” (via e-mail). We did not ask, but at check-out, it is indicated that standard shipping (1—3 days) costs S$15, while same-day shipping is S$30.

After less than five minutes of browsing, you’re inclined to visit other fully-stocked DSM E-Shops. The spring 2017 opening of DSMS, as the website reveals, is just too far away.

Craft, Heart And Soul

cpcm-1CPCM in Tokyo, touted as the city’s first “craft and culture shop”

By Raiment Young

There’s a general lament that fashion retail is so boring in Singapore that it is, in fact, quite dead. When I ask friends to go shopping, the response invariably would be downbeat. Why? “So sian” is the top refrain. “All the same” takes second spot, followed by “What’s there to buy?” Are we as consumers really jaded by the offerings here or have retailers willingly placed an equal sign between them and the achingly dull?

I sometimes wonder if it really just boils down to our business owners’ lackadaisical approach to retail. I say this because the retail slowdown is not unique to Singapore. In Tokyo, the scene is clearly not rosier than ours. Bloomberg reported in June this year that Japan’s second quarter sales were “flat” and that “consumers aren’t loosening their purse strings.” Sounds familiar? Yet, if you walk down any one of the city’s major shopping thoroughfares, you’d think that people are spending and the shops have not given up on wooing.

Case in point: CPCM or Craft and Permaculture Country Mall. The 10,000 square foot behemoth of a space took me my surprise when I encountered it two months back, during what the locals told me was once of the hottest summer seasons the city has experienced. This isn’t so much a “mall” as a store on steroids. It’s huge, for sure, but it has conceptual heft—a point of view that clearly, deftly, and vividly says to consumers: “We are introducing a new shopping experience that everything you see in the store is for sale,” as they have expressed to the Japanese media.

CPCM 2.jpgThe wooden signage on the shop front of CPCM, reflecting the store’s country and craft theme

Dubbed a “craft and culture” store, CPCM is conceived by Takashi Kumagai, a photographer, a stylist, an art director, and a fashion impresario—essentially a multi-hyphenate who, together with the likes of Hiroshi Fujiwara, has paid much thought to how retail, as an experience, can be energised. And it is through efforts of these forward, risk-taking individuals that the retail landscape in Tokyo has not given in to the defeatist belief that the selling of fashion is presently a bleak business, a position so many store and mall owners in Singapore seem to adopt with resignation.

To be honest, I nearly missed CPCM as I walked down Meiji Dori, on the Jingumae side (considered to be part of Shibuya), in search of the Japan-only North Face Standard store. The heat was getting to me, and the smell of coffee-in-the-brew lured me into CPCM, where on the left side of the entrance, a coffee bar wuth the unlikely name of Garden House Crafts was set up. Once inside, I thought I was in a trading-post-as-Hawaiian-gift-shop, put together by some textile designer who has lived too long in John Wayne’s Wild West.

It was such a jumble inside that I wasn’t sure at first what I was confronting. Yet, there was a visual appeal that soon became apparent once the ripples calmed: craft and folk was clearly a main theme. It was also unmistakably Japanese, or an insouciant muddle that only the Japanese could pull off. Apart from their own CPCM label, there were other indie names that, in some cases, happily melded the forward and the country with hippy edge. For some reason, I thought immediately of Tangs’s failed label Island Shop—this is what Island Shop should have been, but could never be: a joyful melange of yesteryear details such as fagoting and smocking and easy-to-wear shapes such as tunics and pyjama-pants. Why, even the label has a joyous name: Happy!

cpcm-3In CPCM, a part of the store is apportioned to the American brand KTH

CPCM is not, despite its native vibe, solely a showcase of Japanese labels. Like most “curated” spaces in Tokyo, American labels are included and they sit seamlessly with their Japanese equivalent. Two names stand out. One is Simon Miller, with their Old West and Navajo sensibility, but interpreted in such a way that it won’t stick out in the coolest corner of the world. Designed by the duo Daniel Corrigan and Chelsea Hansford, the line, with its tough-wearing fabrics, offer softness that seemed to be squeezed from a hard place.

The other is RTH, an LA-based (surprised I was) line developed with details and techniques and fabrics that pays homage to the past. Conceived by René Holguin (whose hometown El Paso probably influenced the brand’s DNA), RTH’s design direction is so obviously special and unique that for its current season, they’re able to entice the equally inimitable Erykah Badu to front its campaign.

This was my third day in Tokyo, and what I saw in CPCM brought lucidity to my earlier sensing that something refreshing, if not entirely new, was afoot. A couple of hours before, I had visited Ships and Journal Standard in Harajuku, and both shops were interspersed with clearly craft-like styles—a bit Japanese rural (45 RPM comes to mind) and a bit 19th century Californian gold rush (Ralph Lauren’s now defunct Double RL?), with 1950s Ivy League-preppy thrown in for good measure. I was not sure if what I saw constituted a retail/design trend. Then I stumbled into CPCM.

shirt-and-teeLeft: Clip-spot cotton used in a RTH shirt. Right: Bandana print on a Rage Blue T-shirt

It was not just the trims and decorative elements that I had observed in these shops. There were also the fabrics: one of them, clip-spot cottons that I had not seen for a very, very long time. When I brought this up with a Singaporean product development and textile specialist based in Hong Kong, he said to me that such tactile fabrics “are the current trend, especially the clip jacquard.” Why then do we not see them on our shore? A buyer with a department store later filled in: “Here, we do not think of fabrics in terms of texture, only print.”

If that is the case, why then are we not seeing this print that is prevalent enough in Tokyo to constitute a trend: that of the bandana? The actual neckwear does not appear as a trendy item, but the square in which the paisley pattern appears in swirls or as repeated dots is adapted on many garments. The bandana print seemed to be the print of the moment, appearing on tops as well as bottoms. What surprised me was a T-shirt at the mass-market label Rage Blue, which, at its Jinnan store, is far from mass-looking. That T-shirt is, in fact, a cotton Fruit of the Loom crew-neck on which a bandana print is silk-screened across the chest, over the breast pocket, using actual Japanese indigo dye, aizome (which, because of its tendency to fade, requires the T-shirt to come with an extra, care hang tag.)

It looked to me that Tokyo’s fixation with craft was less to do with the arts and crafts movement that emerged in Japan in the 1920s, and more to do with the re-adopting of simple forms on which folk styles of decoration could be applied. This was possibly an extension of their designers’ near-obsession with work wear and classic styles of old America or a deliberate contrast to the avant-garde (still strong in Japan), or a romantic remonstration against the machine-made/dominant world of athleisure fashion.

visvim-gyreVisvim flagship store with its solid-wood cupboards and fixtures. Photo: Visvim

good-design-shop-cdgGood Design Shop and Comme des Garçons in Gyre Omotesando

I found it all very alluring. It reminded me of things from long ago, of life not defined by things digital, of circumstances that had soul. It was a return to simplicity, but not simplicity devoid of sophistication. These clothes were not minimal in styling, yet they were not bombastic in expression. It recalled Sunday best, dressing up for dates, and the extra but not outrageous bits that encourage the response, “that’s beautiful.”

A store that has a sense of craft about it is, however, not a new idea. One of the earliest brands to speak the language of craft was Visvim. At its handsome and solid flagship (timber aplenty) in Gyre Omotesando, a small, MVRDV-designed shopping centre on one of Tokyo’s swankiest streets, Visvim has showed successfully designer Hiroki Nakamura’s modern interpretation of craft and old-clothing style, such as the yukata, which is reiterated as the highly coveted ‘Lhamo’ shirt. Visvim, despite its failure in Singapore (closed about a year after it opened in 2012), Visvim is highly sort-after by stars such as John Mayer, dubbed “the Visvim king” by Complex.

Craft-centric as well is Comme des Garçons’s Good Design Shop, also in Gyre Omotesando. This is a veritable zahuo dian (provision shop), as SOTD’s editor likes to call it. Opened in 2011, Good Design Shop is as oddball as its neighbour Maison Margiela is asylum-like. Co-curated with Kenmei Nagaoka, whose own D&Department Project is a home ware store that combines craft, retro-styling and modernist leaning with infectious charm, Good Design Shop broadens CDG’s own predilection for the quirky. What you get are pieces of furniture and home accessories that would not be out of place in a HDB flat, circa 1972, and CDG’s fashion that are not shy of trims that seemed to be picked from the hill-tribe costumes of the Guianas.

super-tml-market-newomanSuper TML Market is anything but a supermarket. Photo: Super TML Market

Among the newly opened retail enterprises in central Tokyo, another enchanting space is the new concept store by Tomorrowland inside the spanking complex opposite Shinjuku Station, NEWoMan, opened in April this year. Odd name notwithstanding (but not un-Japanese), NEWoMan is unlike what for many are already Shinjuku’s ultra-sensory malls: Lumine 1 and 2. The latest addition (interestingly, also conceived by Lumine, and targeted at those in their thirties and forties) to the neighbourhood encourages tenants to offer what isn’t yet seen in the vicinity. And the result is a store such as Tomorrowland’s intriguing Super TML Market.

Curatorial finesse characterises Super TML Market. Jumble, too. Like the parent store, the Super TML Market is not only a showcase of their own goods but those selected locally as well as from abroad. What I found utterly beguiling is a capsule of women’s wear that gives fairly basic clothes—such as a white shirt—a delirious spin. It was as if a child was entrusted the garment and allowed to run amok in a haberdashery! The result: trims and decorative bits that are given pride of place on garments with seemingly no consideration to symmetry or orderliness.

The need for innovation and newness in times of dreary retail performance is now more urgent when shoppers are happily ensconced at home and buying via the smartphone. I am not sure if online shopping can be considered enjoyable, but it is, for so many, certainly addictive. Japanese brick-and-mortar stores are not unaware of the competition; they are willing to take on the competition by staying awake to what can be churned out to capture the attention of the curious. Clearly, Japanese retailers are more conscious than their Singaporean counterparts that when you snooze, you lose.

Photos (except where indicated): Jiro Shiratori

Ready-To-Wear Is Now Ready-To-Buy

Are you rushing out to shop?

gigi-x-tommy-hilfiger-windowGigi Hadid X Tommy Hilfiger video screen and window display at the Raffles City store

Like many of you, we saw the live stream of the Burberry show on its website yesterday. This time the staging was called The September Show rather than Spring/Summer 2017 as it would otherwise have been known, and it was a platform for both men’s and women’s wear, devised to encourage and meet the urge to spend. The video was 24.35-minutes long although the length of the actual catwalk presentation was 19 minutes. So fast moving was the video that it was hard to see every style in detail or remember what pieces beckoned. We remember that the first impression that struck us was that this could have been a Gucci show.

The clothes were, perhaps, more compelling now that it is possible to buy them after we saw them—a pro-consumer move that was proposed by Christopher Bailey (who relinquished his CEO position to concentrate on creative direction) in February this year. Despite the initial enthusiasm behind the idea, nobody could say for sure how this approach—so uncharacteristic of the catwalk-to-consumer path and time frame of the past—will work out for both retailers and shoppers.

For the purpose of experiencing what the brand thinks will be a thrill of getting something as soon as it appears on the runway, we identified a Burberry cavalry jacket as a potential buy and decided to see if it shall appear in the store soon after to seduce us into wielding a credit card.

burberry-sep-2016A rack of Burberry clothes from The September Show sat discreetly away from the main selling floor of the MBS store

First stop this afternoon was the Burberry store in Ion Orchard. When we walked in, there were surprisingly more customers than service staff. Despite the filled racks, we could not identify anything from The September Show. When a salesperson was available, we asked her about what we came to see and she was quick to say that the collection was already in the store, but the viewing is by appointment only. She offered to take our name to give us a time slot. We declined and she then said that we could come tomorrow to join a “special event” organized for Pin and Prestige readers. Or, “if there’s a style that you really want, we can help you order online.”

When even that failed to entice us, she patiently went on to say that the collection will then be moved to the Burberry store at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (MBS), and make a final appearance back at Ion Orchard before it is dispatched, after 2 Oct, to neighbouring cities. This seems to be a trunk show, we thought. She added, “Singapore is very privileged to be the first country in Southeast Asia to see the collection.” According to her, the clothes will then be sent to Bangkok and Seoul. Is it a full collection? Will we see it again? To both questions, she wasn’t sure.

We tried our luck at MBS. The staff here was more sympathetic and happily showed us to a quiet recess of the store—a private lounge—where a low rack of clothes sat as if in a corner of a warehouse. We immediately identified a pink sweater, but the cavalry jacket we wanted wasn’t there; the cape-coat cousin was. Not willing to let down a pair of keen walk-ins, she suggested that we return on the 23rd for “a special event at the ice skating rink. There will be a screening of the show, and you can buy the clothes afterwards.”

tom-ford-at-mbsAt Tom Ford, one single rack, barely filled, of the collection shown at New York Fashion Week

Since we were in MBS, we decided to pop over to Tom Ford, who, too, is adopting the “see now, buy now” model. The staff here was utterly delighted that we had asked for the “New York Fashion Week collection” (we did not know what to call it). She showed us the rack at the rear of the store. There were exactly ten pieces of just five styles. Sensing our disappointment with the smallness of what was in stock, she said, “there will be more stuff coming in on the 30th, but I am not sure if they’re from the runway show.”

We asked if the men’s collection arrived too. She led us to the adjacent section and pointed to a velvet, mirco-dotted, two-button blazer worn on a mannequin. “For men, we only have this one.” It was a near whisper, with regret breathing clear. When did the clothes arrive? “The New York show was on the 8th,” she pointed out helpfully, “we put out the clothes on the 9th. Of course, the clothes arrived in Singapore before that, but Mr Tom Ford won’t allow us to display earlier.”

Mr Tom Ford’s grip was clearly felt this far. He told Derek Blasberg in CNN Style early this month that he would be doing “something new: you will be able to buy the clothes as they come down the runway.” That’s, of course, not the case for us here since there is a 24-hour time difference between Madison Avenue and MBS, but next-day availability is probably speedy enough for those who buy into Mr Ford’s “grown up” elegance dripping with ’70s glamour. Interestingly, Thom Browne also referenced the ’70s, but that’s like a different planet.

tom-ford-mens-jacketFor men, the Tom Ford store at MBS had only one jacket

Still on planet MBS, by then heady with the smell of over-consumption, we decided to traipse over to Ralph Lauren. Mr Lauren had announced during his show, via a note left on the invitees’ seats, that he was “offering every look, every accessory, every handmade detail immediately in my flagship stores around the world and online.” The Singapore flagship’s window on B1 was homage to the quiet colour beige. Inside, it was as hushed: not a word was heard, not a sound. We approached two sales staff and asked, as we did at Tom Ford, for the “New York Fashion Week collection”. Both women looked at us quizzically. The collection that was shown last week outside the RL Madison Avenue store? One of them said, unsmiling, that “there won’t be any new collection as our store will be closing.”

We had not expected our on-the-ground research to be met with such dismal news. Business must have been so bleak that even Ralph Lauren could not wait for their own potentially game-changing and profit-turning “see now, buy now” approach test-run in its own store. Has simultaneous showing and selling met a premature death in Singapore before the idea can be conclusively said to be a success or letdown?

The purpose of “show now, buy now” is to tap the excitement from seeing a presentation, whether on site or online. Sell while it’s trending could be today’s version of the now infrequently used strike while the iron is hot. Fashion and trends are no longer embargoed till clothes reach stores or circumscribed by the catwalk on which they appear, once to a small coterie of people who care about such things. Let loose from the moment the first model appears on the runway, fashion now is a multi-channel, multi-platform, multi-celeb phenomenon that seems to arouse desires than dampen wants.

gigi-x-tommy-hilfiger-displayGigi Hadid X Tommy Hilfiger store display at Raffles City

The “everywhereness”—to borrow from author Laurence Scott’s description of the digital world—of fashion prior to retail has not enrich sellers and shoppers. A rethink of the flow from concept to consumer is, for many brand owners and their CFOs, as vital as cost control. As Tom Ford put it to CNN, “When you can buy something online and have it delivered the same day to your house in lots of key cities like you can now, it seems odd that you would look at clothes online and they would be everywhere, but you can’t have them for five months.”

Wait was definitely not something fans and followers of the model Gigi Hadid had to do.  Her collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger was available during the New York Fashion Week presentation via touch screens set up on site, a one-time fun fair at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. On our island, the clothes were available the day after the show. We wanted to see for ourselves how talented Ms Hadid is, so we went to the Tommy Hilfiger store in Raffles City (the collection is also available at Ion Orchard and Vivo City—an impressive three points of sale).

“See now, buy now” was a serious and highly visible proposition here. The store was fronted by an island display full of the results of the collaboration (more than anything we saw at the other brands), the window was dressed with two cardboard cut-outs of the model fully garbed in the nautical-themed clothes bearing her name, and, on their left, a video screen was alive with flashing stills of Ms Hadid in poses that won’t give K-pop princesses a run for their money.

A sales staff did not hesitate to point out to us that two items were already sold out: a cap and a thigh-length, double-breasted, wool-blend cape-coat. “What does the coat look like,” we asked, and she whipped out an iPad to show us a product photo. “How many pieces were sold,” we ventured further, genuinely curious. With delight and will to convince, she said, “One.”

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

When There Are No Cars, The Clothes Come Out

park-ing-ginza-pic-1

In what was a car park, two floors beneath ground level of the Sony Building in Ginza, a mini fashion emporium has opened. The subterranean space is unadorned, which is rather at odds with the mostly swishy stores above ground. This is one of Tokyo’s swankiest shopping districts. Is this why Hiroshi Fujiwara’s new retail concept is placed under the glitz?

In The Park.Ing Ginza, a two-level store, Mr Fujiwara is perhaps bringing street wear back to the street, or, in this case, underground concrete parking lot. This is Tokyo retail quite unlike others. In spirit and in the product mix, it brings to mind Dover Street Market Ginza, just three blocks away, but the similarity ends there. Park.Ing, by contrast, is closer to the term ‘market’, which is then similar to Comme des Garçons’s Good Design Shop (in Omotesando), a veritable general store much like a chap huay tiam (杂货店).

park-ing-ginza-pic-2Movable industrial fixtures for The Park.Ing Ginza

Mr Fujiwara has given the space a jumble that is jaunty. That is to be expected since his approach, to many street style watchers (even those in his native Japan), is more with it than his former personal assistant and pal Nigo’s, now ensconced at Uniqlo (but still with the benefit of his own retail outlet, Store by Nigo in Laforet, Harajuku). Park.Ing is a showcase of Mr Fujiwara’s curatorial flare. You don’t only find Park.Ing-branded products; you’ll also find those that seem to share the retailer’s sense of sensible street wear that can be sensational.

In this regard, fans see Park.Ing as the next chapter of the POOL aoyama, Mr Fujiwara’s previous concept store, which closed shortly before the former opened in March this year. The POOL aoyama was a veritable headquarters of Japanese cool. Its collaborators—from Undercover to Uniform Experiment—speak as much about the founder’s eye as the clout he enjoys. The ‘Pool’ T-shirts—clearly cooler than an obvious ‘Cool’ and a clever jibe—was one of the most coveted garments during the store’s reign, and they still are.

park-ing-walkman-sweat-topPark.Ing’s Sony Walkman tribute in a form of a sweat top

For Park.Ing, Mr Fujiwara continues to work with people who shared his vision for Pool (is the initial P in both names deliberate?). He has kept the original creative team and continues to collaborate with Kiyonaga Hirofumi, the man behind SOPH and Uniform Experiment. In the already potent mix is Daisuke Gemma, the creative director at one of the hottest Japanese labels today, Sacai. This really means a steaming brew of products only the Japanese can bring together with such conviction and panache.

And there are the inevitable T-shirts, which remain deliciously anti-cool and borderline cultish. What is really interesting to us is his take on corporate/consumer-name branding, a trend started by Uniqlo and validated as haute by Vetements. In conjunction with Sony’s 70th anniversary (and the building’s 50th), Mr Fujiwara has created a couple of short-sleeved sweatshirts bearing the logo, right in the centre, of Sony’s nearly forgotten product range Walkman—in its original font to boot. There’s also another version featuring DAT, Sony’s much snubbed Digital Audio Tape (SOTD tech contributor Low Teck Mee was thrilled beyond words at the sight of them!). These may be lost on the Tidal generation, but for many there is something alluringly retro and snobbishly other-gen about them.

the-park-ing-ginza-paper-bagThe white paper is as plain as a grocery bag

Therein is the appeal of Park.Ing. The store is stocked with street wear, but they aren’t predictably cute as A Bathing Ape, hardcore (and expensive) as Mastermind Japan, repetitive as Neighborhood, art-core as OriginalFake, or work wear-centred as Freak Store. Mr Fujiwara, 52, approaches fashion retail like the DJ that he is: sampling from only the most captivating sources. We can’t say for sure, but perhaps age has grounded him to output the practical without sacrificing wit and fun. It is really street wear for older customers (especially those who have shed their bond with business attire). And mostly with the important hint of exclusivity.

Mr Fujiwara is indeed the one to play pied piper to the matured crowd (more so since Ginza is no Shibuya). Once a Harajuku habitué who had worked in World’s End, the London store opened by his idols Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McClaren, he later embraced hip-hop and was considered the first to introduce rap music from the US to Japan, even teaching fellow DJs the turntablist technique of ‘scratching’. Fashion came later, in 1990, in the form of his own label Goodenough, thought to be the country’s first street wear label and a key player in the burgeoning street scene centred in Ura Harajuku, or the “back of Harajuku”.

park-ing-hang-tangThe Park.Ing Ginza hang tag in the form of a car park ticket

T-shirts have always been a consistent part of his output since Goodenough (a couple were reprised for Park.Ing), and his aesthetic sense can be traced to Stüssy. Mr Fujiwara was a member of the International Stüssy Tribe—in fact, the group’s first Japanese member. The influence of his early days never really left him, and he has been able to take the visual cues of surf (as opposed to skate) culture and throw in dashes of hip-hop, pop, and whatever is capturing the imagination of cool-cat urbanites to generate approachable products that speak of the mood on the street.

Hiroshi Fujiwara is also very much connected to Fragment Design, a one-stop, multi-discipline studio he started in 2003 that does not really produce anything other than put out judicious collaborations. That runs the gamut from Louis Vuitton to Off-White to Nike to Levis (the Japan-only Fenom line): projects that strengthen his standing as street style’s Zeus, who also happens to play the guitar and sing.

The Park.Ing Ginza proves, just as the POOL aoyama before it did, that with the right mix, in an unexpected location, and awash with attitude, retail can be viable and, as they call it in Pokémon Go, a lure.

The Park.Ing Ginza is at Sony Building, B3F, 5-3-1 Ginza, Chuo-Ku, Tokyo. Photos Jiro Shiratori

Out Of The Game

This past week, two companies that were established ten years apart and had defined the era in which they began, were sold. Donna Karan was let go by LVMH and picked up by G-III Apparel Group and Yahoo was snapped up by Verizon. Both sales brought to an end a time when American fashion and Internet search were defined by the two respectively. Fashion and tech, more than ever before, wait for no man… or womanDonna Karan body and Yahoo homepage

Donna Karan ‘body’ of 1980s and Yahoo’s homepage circa 1990s

She was up there with the big boys Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, but the brand that Donna Karan founded is presently in a limbo. Not that the other guys are doing any better. Calvin Klein is, as of now, still without a designer, and Ralph Lauren, well, when was the last time you bought their polo shirts or ties? After she stepped down as designer of her own label last year, the brassiere-averse Ms Karan said in the New York Times that “I would love to work more with them, but Vuitton has given me the cold shoulder.”

Whether the snobbish French truly ignored the one-time Queen of Seventh Avenue, we may never know, but if she did not sense the stopping of her main line and its subsequent sale coming, then her ears were likely trained on the wrong listening post. How did it come to this—when a designer that John Fairchild puzzlingly called in 1989 “America’s Chanel” ended up being paid no notice? Has she not pondered?

The French critic and semiotician Roland Barthes said, when comparing Chanel to Courrèges, “the unchanging ‘chic’ of Chanel tells us that the woman has already lived (and has known how to); the obstinate ‘brand-newness’ of Courrèges that she is going to live.” As with the Courrèges woman, the Donna Karan woman was going to live, at least at the start. By the time LVMH acquired the brand in 2001, she would likely have already lived. Yet somehow, a life lived wasn’t joire de vivre. Is the LVMH snub then affirmation that the French have always considered their American fashion counterparts less than equal?

It may be inviting censure to say that Donna Karan’s fate was predictable, but for some of us, the brand’s decline coincided with the moment LVMH bought it, five years after its splashy debut in the New York Stock Exchange in 1996. Taking the company public, according to Ms Karan’s memoir My Journey, was something she had resisted. An IPO, she thought, wasn’t a natural solution to the cash flow problems the company was then experiencing. While shares increased 25% on the first day of trading, the rise, down the road, did not lead to a soar.

Donna Karan 7 easy pieces collection

One of the looks of the Seven Easy Pieces collection in 1985. Photo: AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis

When LVMH purchased the company, Donna Karan International’s performance wasn’t what an investor might call sterling. According to Ms Karan, she tried delaying the signing of the contract when she was warned by her psychic that Mercury was in retrograde (or going backwards in the sky). The acquisition, to some, was indeed an odd one. Ms Karan’s new-age leanings aside, why would a Euro-centric French company be interested in an American brand so unlike anything they had already own in their stable? What’s in it for them other than just a business move?

No one was so deluded as to believe that Donna Karan International was going to up the power quotient of an already powerful conglomerate. In fact, fashion companies going public wasn’t commonplace and Donna Karan’s weak position on the NYSE cast a rather discouraging gloom over American designer fashion at the time (although Ralph Lauren did go public a year later in 1997). Concurrently, Ms Karan’s clothes had lost much of the Seven-Easy-Pieces aha moment of the early years.

Donna Karen New York was one of the earliest labels to cater to the needs—both practical and sartorial—of professional women. In fact, Ms Karan was so associated with clothing for the careerist that she seemed unable to win over new fans when, in later years, her designs appeared less boardroom-ready and more progressive. But career wear (now, that’s a term we have not heard for a long time) did give way to styles that were very different from what Donna Karen stood for in the mid-Eighties, a time when many remember her for those Seven Easy Pieces.

The thing is, if you try to uncover the septet behind the Seven Easy Pieces collection that debuted for fall 1985, such as Googling the description, you won’t be able to find any specific seven. What it was in essence was a collection built around a core garment—the leotard-inspired bodysuit or, simply, the ‘body’, that had snap-button closure under the crotch. When it was initially available in the first Donna Karan boutique at Isetan Orchard in the late ’80s, then buyer of the brand (and division merchandising manage of Isetan) Eric Lee called it a “foundation garment”. Women loved the body, we were told, as it held in place what would otherwise have been a top that was prone to shifting and untucking. Other clothing can be teamed with the body (in Singapore, it was the star piece often worn without an outer), and it soon evolved from a swimwear-looking one-piece to a hybrid conceived with a pullover or a shirt, all the while the bottom half remained snug and secure as a panty. The body, not as underwear, was truly unseen before.

Donna Karan bodysuit

Donna Karan’s bodysuit that was shown in her debut collection in 1985. Photo: Thomas Innaccone 

The Seven Easy Pieces were not specifically identified, and they changed with each new collection. Even the Donna Karan website is vague, describing them as “a modern system… where a handful of interchangeable items work together to create an entire wardrobe that goes from day to evening, weekday to weekend, season to season.” But fans and impressed members of the media could see that they invariably included shirts, sweaters, jackets, skirts, and pants. Looking back now, the Seven Easy Pieces seem ho-hum, but at that time, they were a heaven-sent. According to Ms Karan’s account to the press, “So many women find assembling the right clothes bewildering… They’ve discovered fast ways to put food on the table, but they do not know how to get their wardrobes together easily.”

For these clueless women, Ms Karan created a way of dressing that was akin to a uniform, only more customisable. Seven Easy Pieces allayed women’s fear that fashion had to be complicated to be seen as fashion. It was a novel idea, and could have, perhaps, embryoed at Anne Klein, from where Ms Karan received her professional training, and where she tenured for 11 years, during which she took over as designer (together with school mate Louis Dell’Ollio) when the namesake founder died in 1974, aged 50, from breast cancer. In fact, the early years of Donna Karan New York sometimes seemed like Anne Klein 2.0—souped-up sportswear-as-work-wear. It wasn’t really seeing double as both lines were backed by Tomio Taki of Takihyo Co, a Nagoya-based textile company that was instrumental in the rise of Donna Karan after Anne Klein’s death.

The body soon lost its shine just as dressing for success in strictly practical clothing—although inspired by men’s wardrobe but designed as a counterpoint to it—lost its appeal. Donna Karan’s sense of career-smart luxe, while still championed by the likes of BFF Barbara Streisand and US presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton, was at odds with an increasing preference for unapologetically feminine—even girlish—styles. Ms Karan, who exemplified (and still does) her own idea of what stood for professional elegance, continue to produce clothes that women soon did not really care about. The New York scene was changing rapidly too, lead by Marc Jacobs, and later Alexander Wang—both their shows always so headline-grabbing that Donna Karan’s were deemed skippable. Keeping apace did not seem terribly exigent for the Queen.

DKNY 1989Donna Karan and models posing in Time Square in 1989 to promote DKNY. Photo: Condé Nast Archive/Corbis

To be fair, Donna Karan did make clothes that women desired. Apart from the body, there was the sarong skirt (to add softness to a skirt suit) and the cold-shoulder top/dress (to add sexiness to the after-office outfit. According to Ms Karan, the shoulder is one part of the body that does not grow fat). She created a desirable luxury with re-imagined American sportswear basics that would, years later, be seen in brands such as The Row. She has also put New York on the map when the city wasn’t really considered on par with Paris or Milan. It isn’t certain how French and Italian women reacted to her clothes, but here, women found her designs as appealing as those from Europe, and especially suitable for the new-found success in the workplace.

In trying to reach even more women, Donna Karan created one of the earliest bridge- (or diffusion) lines—DKNY, a collection that arguably paved the way for today’s ubiquitous fast fashion. DKNY, with abbreviation for a name and a modified Helvetica font (both deemed at the start unattractive but would later proved to be game-changing), was inspired by the designer’s daughter Gaby, and, thus, aimed at the younger crowd. It wasn’t Ms Karan’s first lower-priced line since she was instrumental in the creation of Anne Klein II, believed to be America’s first bridge-line.

Although DKNY was meant to be the more accessible of the two major collections of the brand (which eventually saw other spin-offs under DKNY, including jeans wear and even home ware), it was DKNY that was maintaining its popularity with its more forward-looking designs. So not yet relieved of its full potential that when LVMH decided to halt one of the collections, it was the main line Donna Karan that was shown the stop sign. DKNY was given the kiss of life in 2015 not by a prince, but two princes of fashion—non-white to boot, Public School’s Maxwell Osborne and Chow Dao Yi, both recipients of the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year award in June 2013, and later in October, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund’s top prize.

Donna Karan AW 2015Donna Karan’s last collection: autumn/winter 2015. Photos: Yannis Vlamos/Indigitalimages.com

The installation of the Public School designers at DKNY was, presumably, to give back relevance to the brand. By the early Noughties, DKNY has lost much of its bearing that could be traced to the street culture of the city in which it was born. While street style is still very much alive and has even influenced the French fashion establishment, including the time-honoured haute couture, it isn’t the same as it was when DKNY was established. These days, street wear is very much hybridised—a crossbreed of influences that come from vintage sports clothes, hip-hop styles, and skate wear, and amplified by a showy presence on social media. DKNY, despite a more with-it communiqué, simply won’t stand out.

Relevance is an elusive quality and is perhaps even more crucial to the survival of a brand than even creativity. It is acknowledged that LVMH had not been able to turn around a Donna Karan that was once the uniform of successful business women—perplexing when you consider that this is a category of consumers that has swelled in numbers through the years. Perhaps, more pertinently, LVMH was not able to restore relevance to a brand that had not moved to the changing rhythms of the times. The situation was complicated by the decline in the status that American fashion once enjoyed, especially among the middle class, and made worse by the lost of appeal of even mass labels such as Gap, American Apparel, and Abercrombie and Fitch.

It’s not farfetched to say Donna Karan’s fate mirrors Yahoo’s. Although they are admittedly dissimilar businesses, they were both struggling against a shopper/user base that had grown to be vastly different from when they started. Consumers have indeed become a lot savvier. In addition, there were no viral products to propel both brands forward or bring fans to them. Yahoo used to be the search engine of choice by most, but when Google came along, they were not able to match the latter’s simplicity of interface and ease of use, and in time, could not keep up with the ascent of social media and, perhaps even more significantly, the rapid adoption of mobile devices.

A successful past is no promise of relevance in the present. Donna Karan and Yahoo simply succumbed to the notion that all good things must come to an end.