Met Gala 2017: A Cop Out

Rihana Met GalaRihanna bursting with Comme des Garçons fabric petals. Photo: Neilson Bernard/ Getty Images

By Mao Shan Wang

I knew it was going to turn out like this: disappointing. The Met Gala, despite its standing as the “Super Bowl of fashion”, is really a chance for attendees to relive their teen-year prom night, not to honour a designer, living or dead. They turn out to outdo each other—a conference of gowns. Glamour reigned and glamourous is a gown.

I did not think there would be enough women woman enough to don Comme des Garçons, and true enough, few bothered with the theme The Art of the In-Between. There were no in-betweens, only princess-like dresses or lackluster counterparts. This year’s Met Gala, as in the year of Punk: Chaos to Couture, saw a parade that was not in tribute mode. It was a classic red carpet (which turned out to be white and blue) affair, and the bedecked guests walked down the passageway or climbed the stairs in something that stunned, something that elicited the response “how gorgeous.”

That, of course, is antithesis to the whole Comme des Garçons aesthetic or design thinking. Ms Kawakubo, the subject of this exhibition, once said, “For something to be beautiful it doesn’t have to be pretty.” Try telling that to the homecoming queen Anna Wintour. She wore Chanel and she only does pretty! Sure, I can’t imagine “the most powerful woman in fashion” in Comme des Garçons, but if she, also the chairwoman of the Met Gala, wasn’t going to observe the theme, who needed to? Just look, as the invitees always have on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, glamour-stricken.

Tracee Ellis Ross Met Gala 2017Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of Diana Ross, in Comme des Garçons. Photo: Benjamin Norman/The New York Times

And that is perhaps the inherent limitation of the Met Gala. I say do away with the red carpet, and maybe—just maybe—the women will not sense something amiss if they do not feel fabric hugging their hips or cloth swirling around their feet. Or, the drag of a train behind them—the ultimate red-carpet inconvenience. In fact, there were many trains this year, more than the globular blooms and stark bandages associated with Comme des Garçons that one had hoped to see.

I suppose women think they should reprise Rihanna’s ponderous Guo Pei omelette to gain social media stardom. How else do you explain the massive sweep of Priyanka Chopra’s Ralph Lauren trench coat with a personality disorder?

Hollywood actresses, being Hollywood actresses, will always approach the red carpet the way they always have, even if they’re on a different coast: sexy or pretty, never mind if they look insipid (Jessica Chastain and Diane Kruger, both in Prada), predictable (Halle Berry in Versace), va-va-voom (Blake Lively in Versace), fairy-like (Elle Fanning in Miu Miu), and confused (Priyanka Chopra in Ralph Lauren). The choice of dress added to a sartorial resume that will, I suppose, help them score an invitation to the next Oscars.

Pharrell Williams and Helen Lasichanh Met Gala 2017Pharrell Williams and Helen Lasichanh, both in Comme des Garçons. Photo: Getty Images

Did anyone wear Comme des Garçons on the red carpet? I woke up at seven this morning to watch Vogue’s 360° livestream on Facebook, hoping to witness true homage. It was such a yawn that I counted, as I usually do, the dried cranberries in my muesli to stay awake. In the end, I spotted six (there could be more, but I did not see them). Of a reported 600 guests invited, that only six were photographed wearing the brand they had come to honour seemed to me a little sad and pathetic.

Ms Kawakubo had earlier indicated that she may not attend. I hope she did not. To see what I saw could be very depressing for her. In fact, I can imagine the reaction of the Japanese watching this in Tokyo (or anywhere throughout the country). They must have felt let down. What do these gown wearers know about one of their nation’s most revered designers? Why were they there to celebrate her work?

As expected, Rihanna stood out again, even when she looked like she was wearing a project her grandmother did not get to finish. Her pick was a dress from the fall 2016 collection which Ms Kawakubo was reported to have been “imagining punks of the 18th century” when conceptualising it. Rihanna is, of course, a very 21st-century woman with very digital-age taste. Whether she too was imagining an imagined sub-culture—or nor, she baffled me with the shoes: those red strappy heels. Comme des Garçons is heels-averse. A pair of sneakers from her Puma/Fenty line would have been a better fit, but that would not be ideal or glamourous enough for scaling the steps of the grand old Met.

Anna Cleveland Met Gala 2017Anna Cleveland looking fresh in Comme des Garçons. Photo: W magazineMichele Lamy Met Gala 2017Michele Lamy in Comme des Garçons arrived with her husband designer Rick Owens. Photo: Associated Press 

Surprisingly, Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of Diana Ross, turned up in Comme des Garçons, and she looked rather good in the dress that I think is from the 1996 ‘Flowering Clothes’ collection. I thought Anna Cleveland, another daughter of a famous name—the model Pat Cleveland, looked fresh in her beribboned ensemble, showing rather convincingly that Comme des Garçons can be wearable.

A big letdown was big-time fan Pharrell Williams, who, although attired in Comme des Garçons Homme Plus (save the jeans), looked way too casual, as if he was on his way to a recording studio. If he could wear Chanel’s women’s clothes, why could he not have put on a Comme des Garçons women’s number? That would have been ‘In-Between’. His wife, the model/designer Helen Lasichanh, was more in keeping with the spirit of the event. She wore a sort of union suit that seemed to have restricted hers arms to within the garment—constraint that is very Comme des Garçons of recent years.

To me, the most authentic was Michele Lamy, wife of the designer Rick Owens. She wore a panelled dress with a rather bulbous hemline (in the middle, something that looks testicular!) that could be from the very red spring/summer collection of 2015, and appeared every bit the part of the dark master’s spouse. Ms Lamy, in fact, looked like she wore something assembled at the last minute, in the limo, on the way to the party. And therein lies the appeal: she didn’t look too precious. Here was one unafraid woman, unshackled by the imposition of the unnecessarily ceremonial red carpet. 

These were indeed some of the brave, even if they constituted, to the embarrassment of the Met Gala and its organising committee, only a handful.


Watched: Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker and The First Monday In May

Last week, two fashion films were screened at the Capitol Theatre as part of A Design Film Festival Singapore 2016. Both were as different as blouse and skirt even if they were, ultimately, about creative clothes


By Mao Shan Wang

It is to be expected that at screenings of films about fashion, there would be more fashion students than industry folks. It is no different when Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker was shown recently. That is, of course, a good thing since it is often said that the young are learning from fast channels and what’s shared such as on social media than from long-form communications such as books and film. However, at the end of the screening, I wondered if the students were more daunted than motivated.

Part biography, part philosophical musing, Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is a documentary that will crush the dreams of design students. Not long into the film, Mr Yamamoto extols the virtues of working and gaining experience, rather than fame. “After graduation from art school,” he said, “you cannot be creative. No, no, it’s impossible.” This is, of course, not a new refrain. Similar to what he told Business of Fashion’s Imran Amedin in May this year, “When I speak with young designers, I tell them, ‘Shut your computer, don’t look at the computer… if you really want to see real beauty, you have to go there by walking. Go there and touch it and smell it. Don’t use the computer. Otherwise, you won’t get real emotion.”

I am not sure if watching Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is an emotional experience for my fellow film goers, many of whom could not tear away from their smartphone—the handheld computer—during the screening, but it was for me. “Creation is life’s work; creation is how you spend your life,” says Mr Yamamoto in his characteristically slow and deep voice—not unlike a monk’s. “You cannot divide life and creation; it’s impossible.”


Yohji Yamamoto examining the movement of a skirt during a fitting

Such is his certainty: the indivisibility of not just life and creation, but of conviction and craft, hand and fabric, eye and form. It’s like how some people can’t split love and marriage. In the film, you repeatedly see Mr Yamamoto squat during fittings to study his designs, especially of skirts and pants. A lesser designer might consider that an ungainly stance, but not Mr Yamamoto. The fitting sessions, in fact, truly shows the designer’s skill and mettle. It is here, where he is sometimes half-hidden behind a standing mirror, sometimes hunkered down as the fit models walk past, that I see a createur truly concerned with the 360-degree view and fall of clothes. His designs, from every angle, have to be perfect.

Perfection, I have often been told by design lecturers, is something students today do no pursue. The young are only keen on following fashion, to produce some semblance of fashion, not the epitome of it. Mr Yamamoto once said, in the 2011 documentary This Is My Dream, “I’m not interested in fashion generally; I’m interested in how to cut the clothing—dressmaking, clothing-making.” With computer-aided designs embraced by both designers and manufacturers, the rigours and the creativity behind dressmaking may be lost… forever. It is, therefore, heartfelt to see a designer working in the traditional sense of ‘designing’.

So much of what is shown at work is away from the digital realm, or at least the film does not dwell on the dependence on software and the like. This deep passion for craft enthralls if only because it seems so removed from our present world. Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker isn’t a fashion film in the vein of those that seek to glorify the visual excesses of over-the-top designers. The close-ups of Mr Yamamoto working tug at your heartstrings.  To paraphrase Tom Ford, who said in the 2015 documentary series Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind, “you can feel rather than think.”


From left, Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton, and ex Mrs Murdoch, Wendy Deng

In contrast, The First Monday In May is about the dazzle and the glamour of New York’s major fashion spring event, the Met Ball. At the same time, it spotlights the one woman who pulls the two together—Anna Wintour. At the start of the film, she’s shown, in Chanel couture, with her back to the camera—drawing attention to her very creased elbow—before turning around in slow-mo like a movie star at a movie opening. Is the by-now over-exposed American Vogue’s honcho still so fascinating that she merits a film camera trailing her?

Sure, there’s a lot of the behind-the-scene toil, but even that seems glamorous. I am not sure if this documentary is really about the Met Gala (specifically last year’s China: Through the Looking Glass that shows Chinese culture’s influence on Western fashion), one night hailed by Andre Leon Tally as “the Super Bowl of social fashion events” or the glorification of an editor who has, like Diana Vreeland in the 1970s, positioned herself as the sole instigator of fashion as museum spectacle. Ms Wintour has not only made hers a notch more memorable (and deserving of a documentary); she has made them climb onto the category ‘blockbuster’.

the-first-monday-in-may-pic-2Andrew Bolton making last-minute adjustments to an Alexander McQueen dress before the start of the show

The film may have benefitted from the gravitas of Andrew Bolton, the Thom Browne-clad head curator of the Metropolitan of Art’s Costume Institute, but it still can’t escape from being fluff. Is it surprising, for instance, that Ms Wintour and her crew would have had a frustrating time confirming the guest list or seating those invited? Is it enlightening that an event of this scale would have experienced technical and logistical hiccups? Is it eye-opening to know that Rihanna would have cost a fortune if you wanted her to attend and sing? Who’s not aware: the audience or one of Ms Wintour’s bimbo-minions who said, “We can’t lose her, right? We just didn’t realise how expensive”?

What’s revealing, though, is that Ms Wintour is less attuned to the world outside fashion than we think. When she made a fuss about shifting a column to accommodate the tables she wanted and commented that “it’s only a column”, she had to be corrected by a museum staffer: “It’s a Tiffany column.” Is toughness an impenetrable façade to conceal the indolence of the mind? The First Monday In May is as much a celebration of clothes as getting as many glamourous, veneered people in one room to lend credence to the otherwise under-rated art of dressmaking. However strong the glamour factor, it isn’t moving.

Photo (top): Jim Sim. Film stills courtesy of respective film makers and producers, as well as A Design Film Festival

Stylish Anniversary Narrative


It’s not often a sneaker’s anniversary is celebrated with such style. New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc’s pop-up exhibition salutes their 580 model in its 20th year so strikingly that it will be a visual treat to those who can pry themselves away from the screens of their digital devices to be moved by the mutli-media display. Installed at its former retail store in the hotch-potch centre *Scape, the New Balance exhibition expresses the story of a shoe more experientially than a virtual room could.

The Japanese aesthetic is unmistakable. Opaque, all-white vinyl adhesive screens the store’s front doors, partially obscuring the gallery/retail space within. In the tradition of special-edition launches designed for those in the know, New Balance’s tribute shop is high design paired with what is essentially destined for the street. It could have been a transplant plucked straight out of Shinjuku. See-through casing, suspended amid a sea of white 580s that sticks out alluringly at you, house the star shoes. This is unquestionably sneakerporn.

imageDSC_0586EFor an athletic shoe, twenty years of existence can be considered longevity. The New Balance 580 did not, however, have a terribly auspicious start. Its genisis can be traced to the American-made 585, a running shoe that did not gain much traction when it was launched in the mid-Nineties. When it became the 580, it would take the Japanese’s spin for it to eventually take the sneaker world by storm.

In 1996, Mita Sneakers, the Japanese retailer almost every athletic brand wants to collaborate with, tweaked the original to give it, dare we say, a bolder silhouette while augmenting its retro vibe. Together with the now-defunct Japanese street wear label HECTIC, they started a trend in what Mita Sneakers’ creative director Shigeyuki Kunii, who is here for the launch event, calls “Japan-modified products”.

image imageTop and bottom: Mita Sneakers X New Balance MRT580

The New Balance 580 sneaker may not enjoy the attention that its sibling shoes numbered 9++ receive, but through the years since its introduction, each collaborative release has been much sort after, especially those with Mita Sneakers, which amounts to more than 40 to date. The 580’s distinctive midsole with diagonal, moulded heel has not changed significantly despite the proliferation of fancier, all-manner-of-material-infused versions from competitor brands. It’s this classic leaning that has kept the 580 enduring and a firm favourite among sneaker aficionados.

For the 20th anniversary issue, New Balance has once again tapped the flair of Mita Sneakers. The unsurprisingly limited edition of the MRT580—out of 96 pairs made available to the Asia-Pacific region, only 24 are assigned to Singapore—is distinguished by a tri-colour combo of navy, white, and red, which seems rather more flag-like than the unusual chromatic pairings sneakerheads usually seek. Still, for collectors, this is no doubt worth queueing for.

The New Balance 580 20th Anniversary Pop-Up Gallery is open till 17 July at level 2, *Scape. The Mita Sneakers X New Balance MRT580, SGD229, is available from this Saturday. Photos: Galerie Gombak

Wide Angle, Narrow Vision

In March last year, the SG50-themed exhibition Fifty Years of Singapore Design opened to scant fanfare. After a year, the “permanent” exhibition still languishes without a crowd on the second floor of the National Design Centre


50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 1

Our second visit to Fifty Years of Singapore Design took place on a Friday afternoon. It was deathly quiet, the stillness not unlike that in a forgotten ancestral shrine. Only the faint murmur from the always busy Tanuki Raw, the café situated at Kapok, the National Design Centre’s (NDC) only retail outlet not connected to anything it exhibits, could be heard. As with our first visit last year, we contemplated and completed the display in a flash.

For an exhibition that chronicles 50 years of design, it is surprisingly undersized. During our first visit a few days after its official opening, we had allotted about an hour to take in all of Fifty Years of Singapore Design, but we finished it in twelve minutes. Fifty years of nationhood may not seem like a very long time, but five decades of design evolution is. Yet, this exhibition painted our island-republic’s business with design in one short, skinny brush stroke. Five decades, it seems, deserve only a feeble précis.

The smallness of the exhibition is magnified by the space in which it is installed: on the second-floor gallery of the NDC that’s about the size of a 4-room HDB flat, possibly less. In the opening month, Fifty Years of Singapore Design sat above what appeared to be the key event of the Centre: New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio. Staged in the building’s re-purposed indoor courtyard, the exhibits of the Heatherwick Studio (best remembered for their design of the London Olympics Cauldron in the summer of 2012) drew attention with their suitably impressive models, although regrettably crammed in a fairly tight space. In contrast, upstairs, tucked away from the main hub of the Centre, Fifty Years of Singapore Design looks like a transplant from an atrium exhibition at the National Library, just across the street.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 2From left, the designs of Thomas Wee, Tan Yoong, and Benny Ong

Even in NDC’s sleek SCDA Architects-designed interior (headed by one of the recipients of the inaugural President Design Award, Chan Soo Khian), there is a community-centre (now called club) vibe to the exhibition. You would have thought the People’s Association commissioned the exhibition rather than DesignSingapore Council (DSC). It is likely that the aim is to reach out to as many people as possible, including those not design-savvy, rather than to a growing public interest in and consumption of design. Hence a non-alienating, visually-tame, all-can-understand approach was adopted to downplay the potentially high-brow status design may project. The flat, some parts dim, lighting and a distinct lack of atmosphere, and playroom cubes that were used as compositional elements, therefore, suited the original use of the space: the most community-focused of spaces: the classroom. It, too, was like walking into a set of RTS—Radio and Television Singapore, circa 1975, and Ahmad Daud was about to sing.

Design, however, deserves a more engaging and visually stimulating platform, even when not installed in an actual museum. The NDC is, of course, not a museum. It is not bound by the traditional goal of museums to collect, record, research, and then display what they have amassed for public enjoyment and education. It offers exhibition spaces just as the National Library avails its atrium as exhibition space. So, we venture to suggest that the onus is on DSC. It is really not immoderate to expect the Council to demand a more inspired approach to installation and to ask the curators—(curiously from the French architecture/design firm WY-TO) for more rigorous selection to spotlight Singapore’s design history.

It is, of course, tempting to say that design in Singapore, despite five decades of growth and discovery, has not reached a level of excitement that deserves a grand display. It has been said that Singapore design deserves what it gets: boring begets boring. However, we tend to agree with Irene Etzkorn, co-author of Simplicity: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity: “There is no such thing as a boring project. There are only boring executions.”

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 3From left, the qipao of Gary Lau/Kang’s Boutique and the shirt of Dick Lee

Since this is a fashion site, we shall not comment on the other disciplines of design except fashion, specifically clothing design. And that, sadly, is the biggest let down of the exhibition. With boutiques now designed to place products for maximum attention in spatial terms–museum-like almost, it is surprising that 50 Years of Singapore Design is so diametrically opposite even the simplest retail design seen in mass labels such as Bershka, only a stone’s throw away at Bugis+. The NDC is situated among design schools, yet the exhibition, too, isn’t able to scale higher than those of graduate shows.

As clothing is best appreciated when worn, it is mostly exhibited on mannequins. It is no different here, but we did come to the conclusion that the mannequins used for the exhibition are either donated by a supplier or picked up from a few clothing shops that have been served bankruptcy notice. Headless dummies of different stock, some with ill-fitted caps at the top of the neck, mean the clothes do not fit properly. Each designer submitted one outfit, and since none are based on one-size specification, the mannequins have to fit the clothes, not the other way round. This hampers the viewer’s ability to truly appreciate a garment’s cut and fit since, in a couple of cases, the bust darts, for example, are off-point. In addition, some of the clothes look like they are not granted a requisite meeting with an electric iron.

What Charles Eames once said came to mind: “The details are not the details. They make the design.” We really should state that we were not expecting ICOM (International Council of Museums) standards for handling valuable dress in a museum (or the Costume Committee’s Guideline for Costume). However, unless the clothes are accorded the respect they deserve, and the acknowledgment that there are talents behind these designs, the exhibition is no different from those retail events staged in “event halls” of department stores put together to clear stocks. No one expects OCBC’s very publicly displayed Henry Moore sculpture—the bronze Large Reclining Figure—to be poorly installed, and for the same reason, no one expects 50 Years of Singapore Design exhibits—clothes no less—to be less than perfectly set up.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 4From left, dresses by Hansen and Raoul

Sadly, they are not. Mannequins too large or too small for the clothes aside, the handling of the garments could benefit from nimbler and abler hands. Even if the exhibition is not about scale or ambition, surely there could be some vestige of quality in the execution. It is disturbing—and the designers are partly to blame—to see the history of Singaporean fashion reflected in clothes that are displayed in a manner that could not hold up to close scrutiny. Whether a dress that requires pearl-head pins to stay up or another with a bodice that won’t remain flat after buttoning, they’re all there to our horror.

The choice of clothes on show, too, throws up questions on the curatorial decisions made. It is understandable that putting together an exhaustive list of fashion designers who have impacted how we dressed as a nation is near impossible. Given the historical breadth, 50 Years of Singapore Design should, instead, establish the link between clothing forms and the general psyche of the time(s) and illustrate how fashion has played out in the building of our nation, how it reflects our aspirations or moral dispositions. We did not see this connection in the clothes and designers selected. The final nine (why not ten?) given a mannequin to hold a signature look seem to reflect desperation to get anyone willing to participate than true scholarship.

What’s perhaps even more difficult is finding those clothes that truly represent the decades that the exhibition depicts. Nothing from the ’60s is represented (Roland Chow received a cursory mention). The ’70s is reflected in a single uniform: the Singapore Girl’s Pierre Balmain-designed kebaya, suggesting, perhaps, that it was time of work as we pursued economic wealth, even if an air stewardess’s dress is so far removed from the reality of a citizenry with a much more mundane life pursuit. The golden age of Singaporean fashion design—the ’80s—is represented by Thomas Wee, Tan Yoong, Benny Ong, and Dick Lee. The rest of them are only mentioned in the descriptive texts that accompany the exhibits. Of “The Magnificent Seven” cited—the septet that not only created ripples in the local scene, but also brought Singaporean designs to Paris, only Mr Wee’s and Mr Tan’s clothes are shown.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 5From left, the designs of Depression and the stage costume of Frederick Lee

To the uninitiated, this decade may not look like it produced some of our best fashion design talents, or that many of them have laid the foundation for what we see today. It was as much an issue of aesthetics as the substantive. Thomas Wee’s yellow and black skirt suit is supposed to be from the designer’s most successful line: Mixables. The curators, unaware that Mr Wee no longer designs such styles and unable to find clothes from that period, had the designer re-produce something for the exhibition. The result is clearly not anything akin to what Mixables was about. The shoulder of the jacket, for example, is very telling: Mr Wee has shaped and proportioned it in the aesthetic of today. What we saw isn’t an iconic garment of an era, but the uniform (again) of an off-duty cosmetic salesgirl.

Benny Ong, considered the Singapore boy made good in London (on that note, Andrew Gn, who succeeded in Paris, is curiously omitted), is summarised by a strange, low-waist dress with notched fichu-collar of velvet and a sort of calvary bodice of shantung silk, and in a black and orange pairing that recalls Halloween. It was hard for us to reconcile this frumpy ensemble with London, and even harder with Princess Diana, who once wore Mr Ong’s conservative designs before she embraced Gianni Versace’s and the like. Dick Lee, the multi-hyphenate, jolted our memory that he was once a fashion designer. His dress-avatar is a cutesy men’s shirt that is in the happy colours of Stephen Burrows and had more than a whiff of teen spirit. The close-up allows one to examine Mr Lee’s not-perfected tailoring skills, made worse by a mannequin with a neck too thick for the shirt’s collar.

Of the group, Tan Yoong’s dress stood out. Here is without doubt the work of a master, whose ability to translate something as potentially clichéd as petals into sumptuousness of pure visual pleasure is, hitherto, rare and unmatched on our island. Inspired by the cattleya orchid, and based on the iconic William Travilla-designed dress that Marilyn Monroe wore, standing astride a subway grating that blew the dress up in the Billy Wilder film The Seven Year Itch, Mr Tan’s version should go down the history of Singapore design as a classic. Lest we’re mistaken, this is no copy; this is completely the designer’s take, and it boasts the technical finesse—those baby-lock stitches on the hem to stiffen the gauzy silk petals-as-skirt’s edge so that, when tacked at discreet points, the skirt appears to be caressed by the wind—that corroborates his standing as one of our best and most accomplished designers.

50 Yrs of SG Design Pic 6What’s amiss? Clockwise from top left: the collar of Dick Lee’s shirt collar is too small to fit the mannequin’s neck; strange tape and marking, and poor finish below the add-on collar of Depression’s shirt; the crumpled, bunched-up bust line of Benny Ong’s dress; and the exposed velcro and fastenings of Frederick Lee’s “dress”

Except for Tan Yoong’s cocktail dress, most of the other designers are represented by clothes that seem to suggest that local women’s clothes went no further than the humdrum, or that they dressed as an act of instinct, not adornment, with none of the exhibits reflecting the different tempos of the passing eras, the disparity of rising and shifting urban life. It is as if nothing has changed. Indeed, the exhibition, like so many of the SG50 events, is just a show or a product of what has been called a “catwalk economy”; it is not particularly reflective or critical, and is not a platform for debate to establish those Singaporean designers who have truly contributed to our contemporary culture.

Singapore’s fashion history is not long enough to leave behind a legacy. It is also too short to reflect the social strata of fashion. Even society women, conventionally the adopter of the latest dress designs, were not visible enough, until recently (thanks to social media), to set trends or influence what women wear. None are cited as exemplary bearer of Singaporean fashion. Television and pop stars are similarly passed over since there are not that many of them or, perhaps, because they have no real influence on our lifestyle and fashion choice. Scanning the displays of the different decades, it is hard to determine if these are indeed fashionable clothing of the day, and if they speak of the zeitgeist of the respective eras. It is even harder, tried as we did, to see any ‘design’, the principal theme of the exhibition. In the end, they are just clothes.

A puzzling inclusion is Frederick Lee’s costume for Wild Rice’s staging of Stella Kon’s play Emily of Emerald Hill in which Ivan Heng wore the designer’s glammed-up and far-from-bibik-looking frock. In an accompanying description, Mr Heng was shown in a sleeved dress, quite unlike the one on display. Upon closer inspection, the strapless dress is unable to sit properly over the bust. It is too small and, in fact, requires the aid of flat and pearl-head pins to stay up on the mannequin. From the side view, the short front and long back of the outfit suggest that, perhaps this is a skirt worn as a pretend-dress! If art imitates life, then may be this costume illustrates that Singaporean fashion design is still in want of a good fit.

Fifty Years of Singapore Design is on at the National Design Centre till March 2017. Admission is free. Photos: Jim Sim

When Louis Vuitton Flaunts

 The first two of the Louis Vuitton consumer exhibitions, simply known as ‘Series’, overlooked our little red dot. Now, Series 3: Past, Present, Future is here, and it’ll ensnare you into the brand’s world of heady luxury. If you’re hooked on the drug of their hype, this one’s for youLV Series 3 Pic 1

Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition for autumn/winter 2015 is the epitome of consumer goods posit as art. There’s a good chance you won’t sense it, caught, as you may, in a very persuasive narrative of the brand’s genesis, and what is deemed “iconic”: primarily the trunk, a sizeable suitcase secured by latches. These days, if any of us were to travel with such a capacious case/coffer, we’ll likely be mistaken for moving treasure, or loot! The trunk, however, remains a mascot of sort for the company, and it is this rectangular box of incredible girth and depth that welcomes you to the world of Louis Vuitton.

Everything about the exhibition, described by LV as a “sensorial journey”, is sleek. Even the short ride through the booking for (free) tickets (presumably for crowd control) is smooth and easy-to-navigate. You can do it via the LV website or event booking portal, where you’ll be offered e-tickets for either ‘entrance only’ or ‘guided tour’. When you arrive at the exhibition—in an obscure corner of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands called Crystal Pavilion South, you’ll be greeted by someone at the entrance way, who will show you to the counter where you register. Here, the staff will whip out an iPad and input your name, which appears on the screen instantaneously. Once you’re confirmed, you’ll be given brochures and told to enjoy the exhibition. From here, you’ll be directed into the exhibition proper. What’s amazing is that although we opted for ‘entrance only’ access, we were greeted at every entrance to every gallery (and even at lift and stair landings) and given personal explanation to every exhibit.

LV Series 3 Pic 2

What happened to Series 1 and 2, you may wonder. They went to cities northwards of us. Series 1 for autumn/winter 2014 wooed the urbanites of Shanghai and Tokyo in September last year, while Series 2 for spring/summer 2015 enthralled fans in Los Angeles, Beijing, Seoul, and Rome early this year. Series 3 debuted in London in September, and it now makes a sojourn here. We did not attend the London exhibition, but going by press accounts of it, Singapore’s version, in comparison, seems smaller. London’s Series 3 spanned 13 rooms, ours takes up no more than 9 (including a café). Have they down-scaled it for Southeast Asia’s only stop? No one at the exhibition could say.

Make no mistake, regardless of size, this is a grand exhibition, but, to be sure, it is not in the same breadth and depth as, say, those staged by The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or anything curated by Harold Koda or Akiko Fukai (of The Kyoto Costume Institute). In fact, Series 3 is not curated by a non-LV/LVMH professional. This is an inside job, which prompts one to ask: is this just a fancy way to sell a brand? That question is pertinent when you consider what Swedish ethnologist Orvar Löfgren called the “catwalk economy”—when runway antics influenced the corporate world. While some may consider Series 3 to be crossing the line of conceit, there’s no negating that Louis Vuitton is large enough, old enough, and far-sighted enough to write its own story and tell all of us about it. And relate it does, catwalk experience et al, with aplomb and visual splendour too.

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The first room, ‘Abstract Title’, where the exhibition begins, is dominated by an LED LV logo the size of giant lotus leaves. According to WWD, creative director Nicholas Ghesquière found it in the archives, and was instantly drawn to it. The beaming attendant was eager to tell us that this was originally the seal of the man himself, Louis Vuitton, and it’s now updated to appeal to a modern audience. All the same, it was just an LV logo to us. Sensing that we were not impressed by the nugget of information, he showed us to the next room.

From a dark space barely lit by an LV logo in red, you’re suddenly in ‘Master Mind’, a room that is walled on all four sides by video screens. The images move quickly and somewhat blindingly, showing models strutting (as if moving along the perimeter of the room), or flashing with collages of LV product images. In the middle, a gigantic white trunk takes its pride of place, the cover suspended above it to reveal what seems like a holographic image of an LV bag levitated. If you look ‘inside’ the trunk, another video screen reveals what are supposed to be Mr Ghesquière’s inspirations. The trunk is so huge that it is doubtful Monsieur Vuitton ever made anything this large for the travelling needs of his customers. If you’re all alone in the room, the solitary trunk is more funereal than surreal.

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Exhibition designer, Es Devlin, the OBE-awarded British stage designer who conceptualised the London 2012 Olympic closing ceremony, and who has been behind Mr Ghesquière’s last three runway shows, clearly relished marrying the old and the familiar to the futuristic. Series 3 has been described as an “immersive” experience. While it’s true that you’re almost completely surrounded by images and objects, and in juxtapositions not quite expected, it’s also true that you’re not quite wrapped up in the lore that is Louis Vuitton. The exhibition is designed to awe, but all the visuals are just that, and you’re only a watching bystander.

The most compelling room to us is ‘Artists Hands’, one floor up. Surrounded, again, by moving video graphics on the walls, five tables are placed in a straight line, one in front of the other. On each table are videos of different artisans at work. The visitor is encouraged to sit at the table (you will be told that that’s the best way to experience the room). Seated, and looking down, you will have the perspective of the artist at work—you become that person, and his hands seem like an extension of your own. It is an effective way to remind consumers that much of Louis Vuitton’s leather goods are made by real hands, not robotic ones.

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Once you’re aroused by the artisanal aspect of the brand, it’s time to move to something that will release dopamine and serotonin: the fashion show. Designer fashion is so synonymous with catwalk presentations that it is inevitable that one will be seen here. In this room, it’s called ‘Infinite Show’. As a staffer explained (after asking if we’ve ever been to “a real fashion show”), “this is designed to give you the feeling that you’re watching a real LV show.” We’re not sure if the realness is discernible. Sure, the double-sided vertical video screens are tall enough to project the models with their real-life height, but this is not a 3-D experience—you do not sense the models walking in front of you.

The room is oddly cold, as in a foyer of a civic building, and after a while, the video screens become repetitive in their flashing, static isolation. It is dark, too, which contradicts the actual presentation in the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris—all bathed in light. The attendant asked us to sit down on the stepped platforms to watch the show. It felt anomalous to be seated, almost to floor level, amid what is essentially a video installation. Did we relive the excitement and wonder that is a Louis Vuitton fashion show? Did we feel like we’re under the oft-cited geodesic dome, built for LV’s catwalk performances? Frankly, no and no. If Tony Stark needed a virtual fashion event in his Mansion to amuse Pepper Potts, this could be it.

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While we’re told that Series 3 showcases Mr Ghesquière’s “creative process and influences” (the entire series, probably), it is also likely that a good part of it is to move merchandise. If not so, why would the next room, ‘Accessories Gallery’, be placed in the path to fashion enlightenment? We thought we had stumbled into a visual merchandising class, or an outsized window display. The most desired LV accessories—displayed on mannequins, all in the likeness of Dutch model Marte Mei van Haaster (Mr Ghesquière’s “muse”, we were informed)—stood out in the whiteness of the room. What’s amazing is, no one stopped us from touching the objects, or taking photographs of them.

In fact, the exhibition is designed to be shared, and photography—which is likely to be selfies for most attendees—is actually encouraged. One of the guides had asked us if we would like to be photographed. This is clearly unlike what goes on in a classic, high-brow exhibition space. Some giggly visitors had themselves shot, draped over a seated Marte Mei van Haaster mannequin, hands all over her school-uniform white body. So in-line with the zeitgeist is the exhibition that it has, unsurprisingly, a hashtag: #lvseries3, which, at the time of this writing, scored 23,415 IG posts (Mediacorp artiste Rebecca Lim’s post alone garnered 8,838 likes). Across all rooms, the guides—not quite docents—are young, chirpy, and eager to expound the values and meaning of Louis Vuitton in fashion as well as popular culture, never mind if they sounded like students who have memorised text to impress their lecturer.

If this is not to enhance brand equity, then LV is in a very generous mood: eager to spend on a temporary exhibition that is designed so that visitors will “be able to feel it”, as CEO Michael Burke was quoted to have said. This is perhaps what chief executive Bernard Arnault meant when he told the media—in 2013 following the announcement that LVMH intended to slow down worldwide expansion—that the company planned to offer customers a more personal relationship.

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The most engaging room to us is the ‘Walk In Wardrobe’. You don’t really saunter into a wardrobe as much as confront a see-through closet. Here, the clothes—pieces from the autumn/winter 2015 collection (some already seen in the store in the same building)—are hung behind clear glass boxes (or trunks, to continue with the LV visual motif) that are juxtaposed to form a large cupboard that Jamie Chua would no doubt approve. We spent the most time here, examining the fascinating details that Mr Ghesquière has incorporated into his designs: many depend less on design acumen than technology and machinery available to the house.

Since this is really about the artisans and their skills, the exhibition wouldn’t be complete without a couple of them engaged in a serious, full-on demonstration, or tell ‘A Tale Of Craftsmanship’. At the reception, we were told not to miss this part of the exhibition, and to ask questions if we had any. We did: we wanted to know what will happen to the bags they were making. We asked if they would be sent to the store to be sold. One of the craftswomen, a forty-something, bespectacled blonde, said in a mixture of English and French, “Non, ce ne sont pas parfaits (No, these are not perfect).” She picked up a piece of canvas on which she was working on and showed us the imperfection: it was warped. She then took a rivet and asked us to have a look at it. We were free to examine anything on the worktop, she said.

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This is the last room of the exhibition, and it is a fitting reminder that at the heart of Louis Vuitton, lies the craftsmanship. But this isn’t the end of the journey. Further ahead, you’ll come to a café. Food to put a period to your visit: Louis Vuitton wants Singaporeans to remember this exhibition! Even if you plan to depart famished and parched, you will not leave empty-handed. Behind the café is a wall of stickers. You’re free to take them: a wall-full to choose from. Is there a restricted number, we wondered. Someone in front of us scored a handful. Question answered. Before we could decide which one we wanted, a gentle voice belonging to an extremely young-looking boy asked if we would like stickers of our initials. He showed us the other side of the wall. There were more! We picked out the letters S, O, T, and D—in the same font as the LV custom monogram service for, say, the Speedy bag. A member of the staff handed the stickers to us, together with a rolled-up poster of the event, and said, “Hope you’ve enjoyed the exhibition.”

Truth be told, we weren’t sure. Perhaps we had expected more, but more is a little too much when Series 3 spanned only the entire season of autumn/winter 2015. While it largely stays true to “celebrating the past, projecting the future”, as Mr Ghesquière told Vogue UK, the exhibition (in retrospect, installation is more apt) would have been more substantial, hence satisfying, if it is not confined to the breadth of one season. Mr Ghesquière has designed for Louis Vuitton since 2013. Sure, it’s not long enough for a retrospective, but it is of adequate length to reveal the minutiae of his craft, no doubt honed at the house of Balenciaga. Yet, Series 3 mostly skims, rather than swoops into the heart of where and how he began. Perhaps the best way to gain more from the exhibition is to view all three of the Series. No serious Harry Potter fan delves into the adventures of the boy wizard from book three—The Prisoner of Azkaban.

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The fashion exhibition as a strategic focus for luxury brands to play up their valuable heritage and boundless creativity has proven to be effective and is likely to continue. In Singapore these past two months, Louis Vuitton Series 3 is not the only exhibition offering free access to creative sanctums. Happening concurrently, and nearby too, is Hermès Leather Forever at the Artscience Museum. The maker of the Birkin bag had previously staged the Gift of Time at the disused Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in 2012. Last year, also at the Artscience Museum, there was Chanel’s The Little Black Jacket, a photographic display of the house’s most iconic item of clothing: less about the garment than the celebrities that endorse it.

The single-brand self-promotion-as-exhibition, although a fairly recent craze, takes its cue from as far back as 1983, from the debut of Diana Vreeland as curator, who orchestrated the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At that time, the exhibition was criticised for glorifying a living designer. In addition, it was thought to benefit the commercial interest of the house, which was becoming a shadow of its success in the Seventies. Ms Vreeland was known to favour and adore and wear the work of YSL, compounding the disdain. The perceived ties to business rather than creativity, too, irked locals when Cartier staged in Beijing’s Palace Museum (home of national treasures, not showcase for commercial merchandise, went the collective grouse) in 2009 Cartier Treasures: King of Jewelers, Jewelers to Kings. This was somewhat ironic considering that the Chinese then were en route to becoming the world’s largest consumers of luxury goods.

LV Series 3 publicity poster

One rather odd omission in Series 3 is the model Fernanda Ly and her unmistakable pink hair. Ms Ly, an Australian-Chinese, co-fronts the exhibition’s communication materials. Her face, with kohled eyes looking pensively at you, is splashed across the Bayfront MRT station leading into The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, as well as at vantage points in the mall. After opening the Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2016 show in March, Ms Lye’s cognoscibility is considerably increased. In a city where her Asian beauty could mean something to many people, her lack of presence in Series 3 is puzzling. Perhaps it is an oversight on the part of the marketing arm of Louis Vuitton, perhaps not. A token representation is sometimes inclusive enough.

Louis Vuitton Series 3 is on at the Crystal Pavilion South, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands till 23 December. Photos: Jim Sim. Poster: Louis Vuitton