It has been a in-a-blink 2017 and a newsworthy one, as we have been relating to you here in SOTD. Thank you for your encouraging support, especially for the long-form posts that we prefer here. From all of us at SOTD, have a blessed year ahead.
It has been a in-a-blink 2017 and a newsworthy one, as we have been relating to you here in SOTD. Thank you for your encouraging support, especially for the long-form posts that we prefer here. From all of us at SOTD, have a blessed year ahead.
The Singapore Dress: how quaint, how retro, how 1990!
Last night, the ghost of Singapore fashion past appeared in full cross-cultural regalia at the opening show of Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW). Cheongsam maker Goh Lai Chan staged his first major catwalk presentation at the National Gallery for his 26-year-old label Laichan with a six-outfit opener “The Singapore Dress: Inspired by Identity, Re-Imagined”.
That’s something we’ve not heard for a long while. Since 2002, in fact, when the offspring of The Singapore Dress (TSD), the Ms Joaquim fashion label eventually folded. Those old enough may remember The Singapore Dress, first unveiled in 1990 after the idea was mooted by then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong a year earlier. But for many, this success-undetermined attempt at creating a “national dress” was as dead as the proverbial door nail. For the rest, it did not occur, unless you count the lame National Day collection by Ying the Label, presently so adored by the young political set.
Mr Goh’s revival of TSD awoken memories of a very past era. Was his present foray to make up for what he had not done at that time, to bring back what he did not partake? Or, as the first Singaporean designer to open a Mercury-organised fashion week, a rush of national pride? Unlike the first time, Mr Goh’s TSD2.0 did not employ the orchid as central motif—characteristic of the earlier very vanda version. To be sure, there were flowers—in the form of print and embroidery—but they were evocative of China and India, not good ol’ Singapura.
So what did Mr Goh “re-imagined”? A rojak of baju, kurta, and shan that had more in common with outfitting Miss Singapore than smartening a new demographic for whom casual contemporary fashion is more appealing. Lest we’re mistaken, these are pretty clothes; they’re just a smidgen too ethnic-pretty, which risks their limited use to National Day functions and the occasional state dinner, when semblance of costume can be worn with pride.
It is fascinating that some of our designers are still fixated with ethnic dress, following the inconclusive experiment that was TSD, or are certain that the aesthetics of different cultural styles can come convincingly together as a cohesive whole. That has yet to be seen. Sure, multiculturalism is now transnational, but have we created anything cogent that we want to wear beyond weddings, the month of August, and various New Years, or to charm the already culturally varied world?
More often than not, the optics of the amalgamations are despairing since the obvious are put together in even more obvious ways. Pairing the sulam with pearl studs is, at best, token, not elevated. Throwing an oversized Indian-style scarf over a samfu top is afterthought, not design process. Even Dries Van Noten, whose influence is not disguised here, has moved away from the mad clash of cultures and textures that formed the basis of his design DNA. Mr Goh did try, however, to temper all that by bringing East to West so as to have a stab at the modern and, dare we say, street-savvy.
For his main collection, called Wonderluxe, he amped up the European and American message, but remained committed to Asian blare. One plain denim jacket, for example, was teamed with a 19th/20th Century, Chinese, tasseled yún jiān (云肩) or cloud collar (which, for the Chinese, was more a shoulder covering than actual collar, lĭng or 领, and dates back to the Later Han Dynasty of the 1st Century A.D.). A second yún jiān had an additional marabou-topped denim layer, as if the fabric of jeans can instantly modernise dated styling. Perhaps, the meeting of the old and the new appeared “cute”, as someone in the audience exclaimed audibly, but is plonking what is usually seen in wayang costume (or the ruff of Elizabethan dress) on a plain neckline really design? Or decoration? Or indolence?
Mr Goh is known for his service to tai-tai clients who go to him for mainly special-occasion dresses. In that way, he’s not different from Heng Nam Nam, the other go-to designer that ball habitués flock to. Although the media has frequently described Mr Goh’s work as “couture creations”, it is not known, or heard, that the designer himself has referred to his own output as couture. He prefers the term “bespoke”, made-to-order being a business model that allows designers to skip churning for the retail rack and show off their craft and express what is perceived as “elegant”.
Goh Lai Chan’s fashion foundation was laid in the early ’80s, and last night, it showed. Self-taught, he came into the industry’s radar in 1981 when he was a finalist of the Her World Young Designers’ Contest, then a seminary of future fashion stars. It produced one of our most illustrious names in the annals of Singapore fashion, Tan Yoong, when he won the inaugural competition in 1978. Mr Goh’s entry that year was awarded a consolation price, alongside other entrants such as Island Shop’s former designer Sylvia Lian, one-time fashion photographer Gary Sng, and the current social editor of Prestige, Lionnel Lim.
Mr Goh’s predilection for glamour—so rapidly underscored by an online report of The Straits Times barely an hour after his show—is consistent with that of his peers, such as Francis Cheong and the now-retired Allan Chai, both also competitors in the same contest thirty-six years ago, with each winning the first and second runner-up places respectively (the winner was Steve Kiang, a newbie designer and former boyfriend of Singapore’s earliest supermodel Ethel Fong).
Head-turning glamour was, however, not associated with Mr Goh at the time he was picked for consolatory honour. His first foray into his own label was in 1982, a year after the Her World Young Designers’ Award exposure, when he set up The Dress Shop with his sister Sue Ann Goh at Liang Court, then known as an outpost for Japanese brands (Muji and Takashimaya opened their first store there), but, in truth, was dominated by the tame offerings of Daimaru department store.
The Dress Shop was a rather quiet affair and it offered what could now be described as attire for the working girl and her social life. After designing quietly for close to a decade behind a brand that was essentially bread-and-butter in its offering, Mr Goh decided to start a label bearing his name. In 1991, Laichan was opened at the once-prestigious Raffles Hotel Arcade (now closed for refurbishment). Two years later, The Dress Shop shuttered when Mr Goh’s sister decided to leave the business. Liang Court was, by then, no longer riding high on its Japanese image and early promise of differentiated shopping experience. In 2003, after twenty years as Laing Court’s anchor tenant, Daimaru closed.
The opening at Raffles Hotel Arcade was, therefore, well timed. Laichan did not immediately launch itself as a cheongam and eveningwear brand. At various points during its 26-year tenure, the boutique appeared to stock rather frumpy, if not ordinary, clothes. However, due to the boutique’s location and the shoppers that it attracted, it was an organic development that the Chinese dress associated with Shanghai in the ’30s and glittery evening finery would soon become the label’s major offering and a Goh Lai Chan specialty. Given that the Chan in Mr Goh’s name is the Chinese character 灿 (càn), which means brilliant or resplendent, it is perhaps fitting that the glamorous gowns he espoused would become core to his business.
“My taste is classic,” Mr Goh told Today in 2010. “For my designs, I like a certain kind of style… It’s always something that’s updated, but not so outrageously fashionable that after 10 years, you’d look back and feel embarrassed about it.” It would be interesting to talk about Wonderluxe in 10 years’ time, but for now, the classic is punctuated with the outrageous-enough: two caged garments, one capelet that ended at the bust high point, not, oddly, below the bust line and a cropped jacket that had more than a whiff of what La Perla had done.
But classics, in the hotel-ballroom ball sense, dominated the runway collection. Mr Goh did not, in this respect, disappoint his customers and fans, including some TV stars and members of the theatre community. There was the swish and the ravishing, and all the lace you may want in a lifetime. Despite the intermittent outrageous touches and ungainly shapes of the outers, the gowns seemed to have been designed with the next society gala in mind. The “certain kind of style” was certain—Mr Goh took only tentative steps to show he could leap beyond those ready-to-wear, one-size-fits-all cheongsams.
In some ways, Goh Lai Chan is disadvantaged by his reputation as a cheongsam designer, one who, to his credit, has transformed a traditionally made-to-measure garment into one that can be manufactured en masse and hung on racks after racks. His cheongsams are unmistakable for their loose fit (the media refrain “figure-flattering cheongsams” is misleading); oftentimes strong, solid colours; and a closely-spaced row of reportedly jade beads-as-buttons, from the centre of the neck to the right hip. The buttons, more decorative than functional (although there are loops for closure, they don’t actually work), are a signature, but whether they could be uncomfortable when the wearer needs to let her arm hang by the side of her body (or, as a show-goer cheekily remarked, “enemy of the armpit”), no woman has shed light on the matter.
A little disconcerting was the appearance of those very same beads/buttons on the catwalk. Why did “bespoke” fashion share the same buttons as off-the-rack cheongsams? Or are we nit-picking? Truth is, the popularity of the cheongsams with the skewed row of buttons cannot be overstated, however uniform they look, if the many women wearing them last night, from senior minister of state Sim Ann to SPH Magazines group editor Caroline Ngui, were any indication. In all fairness, Mr Goh’s cheongsams can look eye-catching, and he has a better understanding of the finer points of cheongsam-making than Priscilla Shunmugam, although, by his own proud admission, he is “untrained”.
Perhaps then, it is the oversight of technical details than the over-attention to surface embellishment that threatened to undermine the brand’s Wonderluxe projection. Amid the profusion of three-dimensional appliqués on corded lace, sequined curlicues, and floral embroidery, few would have noticed some technical slip-ups: darts that end with dimples, collars that gape at the neck, and, unexpectedly, the cigarette pants with loose and creased crotch!
In August this year, Laichan relocated to The Paragon (following a brief pop-up appearance at Raffles City) after a 26-year tenancy at the Raffles Hotel Arcade. The new boutique, while utilitarian, is a vast improvement over its first, which in the latter years was showing signs of age and insufficient housekeeping. Now with an Orchard Road store, Goh Lai Chan is presently only the second Singaporean couture/bespoke designer after Francis Cheong with presence on our island’s renowned shopping stretch—perhaps reason enough to open Singapore Fashion Week.
Singapore Fashion Week is on at the National Gallery from 26 to 28 October. Laichan is at level 3, The Paragon. Photos: Zhao Xiangji
Like many of you, we were initially rather perplexed by what Demna Gvasalia did at Balenciaga. Admittedly, it took us a while to get used to his idea of what Diana Vreeland referred to as “devastating”. “One fainted. One simply blew up and died,” she said of her favourite designer’s work. We’ve since died other deaths. Mr Gvasalia not only resuscitated Balenciaga, he brought us from the brink… of what, it is hard to say other than something associated with excess. He opened us up to possibilities, such as oddness, plainness, or the fit of garments—they don’t have to cling; they can fall away from the body. And they can look good.
He has made us realise that we do like fashion that is not easy, that makes us think, that makes us wonder how it’s all going to sit into the general scheme of things or fit with the rest of our wardrobe. Perhaps, by now, we’re used to his less-than-ordinary proportions and the jab at femininity, with results that baffle the opposite sex. Mr Gvasalia understands irony and subtlety and the non-so-subtle (such as logos) and how all can come together with as much lure as Facebook feeds, dissonant as they may be. And some of us are—eventually—sold.
The first look, so appealingly worn by Stella Tenant, immediately drew us into its un-Balenciaga androgyny. But there is something else at work here: something lowbrow. The striped shirt is ordinary-looking (buttoned-down!); it’s unadorned and it looks large enough to belong to a guy at home or work (the accounts department?). And the skirt—what our mothers used to call the “tight skirt”—is as unassuming as they come. We won’t be surprised if a school teacher or a HR manager lays claim to it. For added interest, a charm belt fastened with a key chain is hung low across the waist. “Re-purposed office wear”, they call it, and we thought office wear, as a product category, has all but disappeared.
The shirts may have the appeal of Van Heusens, but those with prints of international banknotes could have been from Japan’s Don Quijote general store! If one charm can be attributed to Mr Gvasalia, it is in the unpredictable high-low stir that keeps many a fashion editor fascinated and craving. His modus operandi seems to suggest a deliberate avoidance of the Balenciaga archives; he gives the impression that he procures solely from the karang guni, or the French equivalent of the rag-and-bone man. Maddening and, at the same time, delightful is this mixed bag, this disparate sources of influence: you never can know where he’ll glean from next. Even when he tackles the crass and the kitsch (and he does), the method in his calculated madness (invariably considered “cool”) makes us reconsider the elegance we were brought up with—chuck it out of the window.
To date, this is Mr Gvasalia’s most elegant collection for Balenciaga, and a wearable one to boot. Elegance as sum effect may be meaningless to Millennials, but before we scoff at it as dated grace and style or fixation, we should consider the point that effortless ingenuity will eventually take the place of vulgar overkill. Sure, the Balenciaga of today can no longer be the “very soul of discretion”, as writer and chief curator of fashion and textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratfs in Paris, Pamela Golbin, said, but it can still be looked to as arbiter of style with strength. Balenciaga today has captured the shape of things now, and possibly, to come.
On the surface, Mr Gvasalia may have disregarded the traditional Balenciaga shapes, but he has not abandoned shapes. Not one bit. Sure, these are not forms associated with the couture of yore, but they are those that ring as alluringly as a cocoon coat, only now they fall with an insouciance that is in step with a preference for the relaxed and the less studied.
Despite the redefined shapes and the refreshing oddness, we sense a jolt of déjà vu: the newsprint pattern, which, although used differently, reminds us of John Galliano’s Dior and those coats that look like another is layered on top of each, a visual extra that has been seen at Comme des Garçons on more than one occasion. We are, however, not dismissing them as facsimiles. On the other hand, they make anew what’s been successfully birthed in much the same way his own Vetements breathed new life to trashy labels such Juicy Couture.
The fear-not-of-the-banal at Vetements is certainly brought along to Balenciaga. Just as you think that the haute bearing of the brand will be untarnished, out comes platform shoes by the crassest of crass footwear: Crocs. Its appearance towards the end of the show seems to give the collection the exclamation mark it does not need, but is fun to have—a ‘screamer’, as the exclamation mark is also known in the printing world. No one could imagine a campy Balenciaga, but no one expected it to be this delightfully twisted. We now wonder what it would be like if Demna Gvasalia takes over the house of Chanel. Now, that would be fun to witness.
Now that Michael Kors has a “Southeast Asian flagship” on our shores, we’re told that he’s an important player in the fashion retail scene here—important enough that he has a local hybrid orchid named after him. So we thought we should have a look at his catwalk presentation—something we don’t do. The last time we took occasional notice of what Mr Kors did was during his 6-year tenure at Céline, the 72-year-old French house that dressed Rene Russo for her role as the stylish Catherine Banning in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, a film, at that time, considered to be “a fashion orgy”.
Presently, Michael Kors is, of course, not only a fashion designer, he’s also a multi-brand business owner, having just added Jimmy Choo to his bulking-up company, that, according to Forbes, has a market cap of USD20 billion. The label, however, isn’t roaring like it used to, with planned closure of stores in the US, up to 125 of them by the end of this year, according to Fortune.
Still, Mr Kors is a buzz-maker during New York Fashion Week, and we suspect it’s to do with the front row than the catwalk. The show opened with Carolyn Murphy in a tie-dye sweatshirt-dress, something so shockingly underwhelming that knowing it’s made of cashmere won’t save it from blandness. Even Ms Murphy couldn’t make it look less Kuta and more Capri. Is that really fashion? Or is that the hailed wearable ease that has firmly placed the brand in the “casual luxury” category?
To show you how informal and laid-back things can be, Mr Kors offered a light-as-a-sea-breeze collection that’s heavy on the suggestion of “somewhere on the beach”, as pal and fan Anna Wintour told vogue.com. That means styling a white shirt with same-tone lei! Or, offering prints that are tropical fronds, such as those you see on the sand and don’t bother picking up. There are more dresses for a romantic seaside dinner than we bothered to count and the obligatory flip-flops that are best left to the likes of Havaianas.
We wondered, therefore, if the collection would have been more appropriate for the Cruise season. But for the brand’s core customers, it probably does not matter. Despite the collection’s usual lack of fashion elements that can put it on par with, say, Céline—Mr Kor’s former employer, the luxury basics, as fans prefer to call the merchandise, that he churns out are the wardrobe fillers that can satisfy those willing to pay for a pricier but just-as-accessible Banana Republic.
Michael Kors dresses a very specific woman: she’s successful; visibly feminine; not girlish; married (or wants to be); glad to always talk about her beau or husband; considers strolling on beaches most romantic; spends a small fortune on aromatherapy candles for her home and office (where she wants her dress to just about stand out); and declares she loves fashion, but, really adores Lululemon more. If this, to you, sounds like Blake Lively or, gasp, Sumiko Tan, you’re not off the mark.
Screen grab and photos: YouTube and indigital.tv
It’s a collaboration that spawned one of the biggest logos we have ever seen, with an unusually large amount of text. There are a total of nine words, 14 syllables, and 43 letters! And both brands seem like a match that has to be made: their logotype is in still-a-fave Helvetica!
It is, of course, a mouthful to say. There’s a reason WeAretheSuperlativeConspiracy—just just five words but chock-full of 24 letters—is known as WESC, making the one-time lengthy Fruit of the Loom, with a now-modest line-up of 14 letters, a breeze to say. But The North Face Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons Man isn’t, thankfully, quite a tongue-twister even when boasting three languages. That is unless you have a dreadful relationship with French pronunciation.
In fact, the coming together of the two brands (since we’re counting, three, if you consider CDG in there as a separate entity) is missing the typical X, as in the upcoming Erdem X H&M (designer Erdem Moralıoğlu’s full name may, indeed, be the tongue-twister here), which means Junya Watanabe’s collaborative work for autumn/winter 2017 would otherwise have 44 letters. But who’s counting? Okay, we are.
On the other extreme is Sacai, a brand that, interestingly, also collaborated with The North Face for the autumn/winter 2017 collection. But the logo is so succinct that you may miss the Japanese name. Comprising just four words and a grand total of 17 letters, The North Face Sacai is almost minimalistic. Similar to Junya Watanabe’s, it is absent an X. Perhaps it’s a Japanese quirk. Whether long or short, are we getting more or less with the respective brands?
With these Japanese burando, especially these whose designers are alumni of the school of Comme des Garçons (Sacai’s Chitose Abe was, in fact, a member of Junyta Watanabe’s pattern-making team before she struck out on her own), you are not likely to get less. Sacai’s collection dubbed “Cut Up”, does not spare any design their distinctive slicing and splicing, which means less is not part of their DNA. In addition, their collaboration is available for women as well.
In the end, a label with many words may look intriguing and, hence, alluring, but it really isn’t a matter of which. We say, why have one when you can have both?
It isn’t certain if Junya Watanabe and Sacai stockist Club 21 will bring the two brand’s collaboration with The North Face. We suspect the soon-to-open Dover Street Market Singapore will carry both capsules. Watch this space for updates. Images: the respective brands
Similar silhouettes at Lanvin (left) and Dior (right). What gives?
Fashion these days is fashion with a capital F. But sometimes, it’s boring with a capital B. Paris Fashion Week is increasingly the embodiment of such extremes. The F is, of course, sometimes B, with the B more and more because of E, the capital initial of excess.
Despite all the high-drama, high-octane, here’s-all-the-sex-you-need-in-a-dress ubiquity, inclement weather et al, some brands are traipsing the now frequently trodden path of the excruciatingly dull. Fashion watchers and armchair analysts attribute it to the need (order from above?) to sell. But on the catwalk, where many of us look to for inspiration and direction, do we need to see clothes conceived to bear the weight of commerce?
In the not-so-distant past, we looked to French houses for leadership and for ideas to lift our wardrobes above the humdrum. With the offerings of fast fashion now legit style currency, labels with history steep in couture need to go above the fray, or, to borrow from business parlance, build higher barriers to entry. Just this morning, a design student was overheard saying, “Nah, Dior has nothing for me to copy.” Fashion plagiarism is a problem and a practice that must be discouraged and frown upon, but if imitation is flattery, what does it mean when no one wants to copy you?
Two of the most storied of French names seem to be in a position that may amount to that dilemma: Lanvin and Dior. Bouchra Jarrar and Maria Grazia Chiuri, the respective design directors of both houses, have taken the position of not challenging the status quo, our aesthetic sensibility, and their own selves. Instead, they have both adopted the I-am-a-woman-who-knows-what-women-want stance, churning out clothes that, quite frankly, made us yawn.
There is nothing special about these clothes. The thing is, you do not go to Lanvin or Dior for the mundane, or pieces to duplicate your wardrobe. Perhaps buying habits these days are different, but surely, within all those fine exemplars of wearability, some garments can stimulate our appetites with distinction, if not originality?
Lanvin autumn/winter 2017
The shoes of Alber Elbaz are, no doubt, hard to fill. So, perhaps, Bouchra Jarrar did not attempt to try. Why bother if they will never fit? Slip into those shoes, therefore, she did not. Instead, she took her own mincing steps to create a Lanvin that dares not dream… big.
A first outing for a major brand may be considered easing into the job. But a second season should give us an idea of what is definitively shaping up. So far, it is clear Ms Jarrar isn’t the equivalent of, say, Nicolas Ghesquiere when he took over from Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. Still, we’re hoping to see something that’s a lot more concrete. Instead, we were served with loads of predictably feminine silk chiffon (what’s with the identical opening and closing dresses?), unsurprising satin-and-lace pairings, that sweetie-poo pink, the various necklines of what we call jiaobeijiu (交杯酒 or the lock of the forearms between lovers or newly-weds as they exchange a cup or glass of wine to drink) knot, unspectacular pants and more unspectacular pants, all in a mix that would surely entice hardcore Jamie Chuas.
Jeanne Lanvin was, of course, no Gabrielle Chanel or Elsa Schiaparelli; she had neither the youthful ease of one nor the witticism and humour of the other. Mme Lanvin had ultra-feminine tastes, best exemplified in her preference for the fitted bodice from under which long, full skirts sumptuously bloomed—the robes de style. Ms Jarrar seems to have a weakness for the same silhouette, only now her full skirts were sheer, and the shorts-like panties asked to be looked at. All this could be seen as a 2017 update. But how does one place or understand the lacklustre lace shirt styled with an insipid skinny black ribbon that Sasha Pivovarova wore? Mme Lanvin may have made a mark with understated elegance, but she sure did not design characterless clothes.
Dior autumn/winter 2017
A name such as Dior is always associated with something new, even when we’re not alluding to The New Look (the American description of Monsieur Dior’s debut, the Corolle). Sure, it can be argued that during Marc Bohan’s tenure (1960—1989), newness was not exactly the star of the shows, but it can be said that novelty and innovation were evident with successors such as Gianfranco Ferre, John Galliano, Raf Simons, as well as those for men’s wear, Hedi Slimane and Kris Van Assche, and for fine jewellery, Victoire de Castellane. Even Yves Saint Laurent, who succeeded Christian Dior in 1957 after the latter’s death, dared to be different with the Beat Look of 1960. So what’s new with Maria Grazia Chiuri?
The autumn/winter 2017 collection was not Valentino 2.0, but it was a rather literal take on three qualities always associated with the house of Dior: “romanticism, feminism, and modernity”, also the three qualities she augmented at her previous house of employment. There will always be women for whom these characteristics are essential in their wardrobe, but, at some point—which, for us, is now—boredom would set in. Correct us if we’re wrong, but we sense that Ms Chiuri was communicating a rather political message: now that I am the first woman to design Dior, let me show you how a woman dresses.
So, she offered separates inspired by men’s work wear—denim dungarees and boiler suits! And shirts—very vanilla, slim fit tops—that went with both pants and skirts (pleated, gathered, and ruched for plain is the bane of fashion today). Between embroidered chiffon and velvet, a woman needs to show her tougher side. And when she needs to reveal gentleness, there are always corseted bodices and their see-through cousins, cold shoulders, and tiered skirts to rely on. And to be certain she’s not off the sportswear/hoodie-the-basis track, she is served a relaxed version of the bar suit with a hood! If Kanye West were to design Dior, that would be a touch of genius, but this was Ms We Should All Be Feminist!
To be fair, Ms Chiuri is a lot more surefooted with her second Dior show. The choice of black and darker shades of blue, as well as the pairing of navy and black hinted ever so gently at an attempt at a concept, albeit just chromatic, and, even when collectively, the colours are akin to what Japanese retailers such as Journal Standard have been employing in at least one part of their seasonal collections (let’s not talk about how those inky hues were made popular by the Japanese invaders of Paris in the early ’80s).
But beyond that, what can we say that won’t sound like we’re negative? One thing was glaring to us. Many of the silk chiffon and tulle skirts were worn with solid-colour underpants that look like shorts. Sounds familiar? Indeed, if you were to change Ms Chiuri’s colour palate with that of Ms Jarra’s, the design directors could easily trade positions. Dior for Lanvin, Lanvin for Dior. How about that? Soul sisters unite!
Black styled fashionably in a corner dedicated to ebony clothes at Siam Discovery
Almost all mannequins in store windows of Bangkok are dressed in black. Not any shade of black, just deep, light-absorbing black. And the windows in which they stand are just as bleak. From the bazaar-like Mahboonkhrong Centre, next to the National Stadium, to the swanky EmQuartier, all the way down Sukhumvit Soi 35, fiberglass, plastic, and wood articulated dolls have joined Bangkokians in grieving the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on 13 October. The store fronts are decidedly solemn even when clothing retailers do not downplay their observance of current fashion. No window tries to outdo the other. In times of grief, black is the great leveler and quieter.
At Siam Center, where window displays sometimes cross into installation art, black stills the usually lively store windows. Designer Chalermkian ‘Pop’ Khatikasemlert’s wildly colourful and decorative Wonder Anatomie is fronted only by a row of mannequins in black attire, all lacking the usual bodices festooned with brightly-hued, dollhouse-like, 3-D appliqués. Less than 300 metres to the right, Sirichai ‘Jom’ Daharanont’s Theatre—no alien to histrionics—is seen with windows featuring clothes uncharacteristically black, even when they’re not short of eye-popping lace and embellishment (and ruff!). Elsewhere on level three of this complex, where many Thais designers call home, colourful clothes continue to be on the racks, but are placed away from direct sight.
The pretty pastels of Senada has given way to mournful blackTheatre’s dramatic clothes are not less so even in black
Even the carnival-atmosphere of Flynow, possibly Siam Center’s largest tenant, is looking more convention of the black widows than Mardi Gras. Designer Somchai Songwattana’s print-heavy collection, that seem to single-handedly support the synthetic fabric mills of Thailand, has shied away from ostentation although he is unable to tone down the over-the-top store design or restrain the brand’s visual merchandising, known for the use of the heads of oversized fantasy creatures in place of the mannequins’.
Other designer stores keeping within bounds are the habitually sweet and sassy brands such as Kloset, Senada and Milin, all so atypically inky in their storefronts that you would have thought that their respective design studios had misplaced their Pentone charts. However, amid the funereal windows, one stands out: Tube Gallery. Design duo Phisit Jongnarangsin and Saksit Pisalasupongs, who conceived the costumes for this year’s National Day Parade, has allowed the window of their only Bangkok store to boast vivid colours. The Chinese New Year-ready red, fuchsia, and orange that they have chosen are rather like homage to Thai silk than a revered monarch.
Some stores, such as Workshop, left their tailor dummies undressed
That even the girly brands have succumbed to the call for a patina of black in the capital-city is testament to the profound respect in the Thai royal family. The Thais are dead serious about mourning the King. As one local guide—in heat-trapping, head-to-toe black—was heard telling a group of Chinese tourists, “our King is our father.” For many, in fact, their grief is more visible than palpable, and they wear it on their chest. Black attire alone, for those subjects who are especially loyal, is not adequate. Many Thais in Bangkok also wear a black looped awareness ribbon pinned to the left side of the chest or the left sleeve. The ribbon has become such a vital part of their mourning garb that some brands are offering specially designed luxury pieces for sale, such as those seen in Siam Discovery.
Apart from the black ribbons, Bangkokians would wear a pin in the cursive shape of the Thai numeral 9 (๙), a digit closely associated with the deceased King, the longest reigning in the world at the time of his death. Bhumibol Adulyadej is formally known as King Rama IX, the ninth ruler of the House of Chakri, the current ruling dynasty of the country since 1782, the year that the Rattanakosin Era began, and when the city of Bangkok was founded. In addition, the number 9 is part of Thai royal and religious heritage (nine monks are usually present in Buddhist ceremonies) and is considered auspicious.
For those willing to splurge, black ribbons in leather is the ultimate symbol of mourning the KingThe Thai numeral 9 (left) and the black ribbon are worn as part of the mourning garb
Symbolism and colours have always been part of Thai dress even in times of a living monarch. There is, in fact, a colour ascribed to the different days of the week, and Thais not required to be in formal dress at work often choose the colour of the day (#COTD!) with accordance to the one considered auspicious for the given days of the week. Colours, too, are used to do political battle. We’re aware of the Red Shirt protest of 2010, a colour coded struggle that also saw the rise of those in yellow, considered to be royalists. Colour may have divided a nation, but now it seems to have brought the country together, a monochrome unity that seemed to impressed foreigners.
For those planning to visit Bangkok or any part of Thailand, the year-end festivities typically celebrated with conspicuous fervour in Bangkok will be soften given the current state of national mourning. According to media reports, bereavement may have ended on 14 November, also the day of the loy krathong festival (civil servants are expected to mourn and, therefore, wear black for a year), the military government has still requested that festivities nationwide should be organised in a “low-key” manner, something perhaps inconsistent with the Thai way of having a sanook time. Throughout the city, especially downtown Bangkok, the discreet approach to Christmas and the New Year is noticeable for its absence of the street and building light-up.
Seen in Siam Paragon, a courting couple on a date wearing all-black(6 Dec 2016) The façade of Siam Paragon and its surroundings are completely unadorned for the Christmas Season, traditionally the busiest time of the year for retailers
It’s been a week since the new King is officially installed on 1 December. Siam Paragon, the “Most Instagrammed Location” of 2013, is completely bare, safe for the black-and-white swags that adorn the top of entrances. This is one of the most decorated buildings in Bangkok during the Yuletide season, yet now, with only three weeks to go before Christmas, the exterior of the building is unseasonably naked. On the wall facing the Siam BTS station, a massive black banner in portrait orientation pays tribute to the late King, in place of what would have been advertising in typical over-the-top style of the Paragon.
About 500 metres away, at CentralWorld, workers are only beginning to assemble two of what appear to be Christmas trees. This is where most of Bangkok descends to participate in the uproarious New Year’s Eve countdown. The entire public plaza in front of the complex is vacant—free of what would have been leftover of the beer garden season (popular in Bangkok as folks take advantage of the cooler December weather to have a lager outdoors). A gaggle of school girls walked past the tree-assembling men. One of them said without emotion, “how sad and lonely they look”.
Additional reporting: Malika Phongpaichit. Photos: Polpat Surapat
Kendall Jenner on Vogue, shot by Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott. Photo: SOTD
Kendall Jenner is on the cover of The September Issue of American Vogue. On social media, there’s a collective growl of disapproval, one massive spit at fashion’s most in-demand model. Why the dismay and disgust?
As with the April 2014 cover featuring Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, many readers of the magazine—and non-readers alike—are disappointed with Vogue’s latest cover choice. The present consternation is misplaced if you consider that since that fateful April of two years ago, what is fashion bible to many has succumbed to its editor’s common touch, which has reared its head like an exposed seam for quite a while now. It is really a matter of time before Ms Kendall appears under the recognisable masthead; it’s as inevitable as her brother-in-law’s rants and boasts on Twitter.
Looking at the issue that we finally picked up last week, we weren’t taken by surprise. It is as we had expected her to be. Ms Kendall appears like she usually does on print: bored, or, at best, bland. Sure, as a model, her gracing of the Vogue cover is a sort of a return to form for the magazine. But Kendall Jenner is no Linda Evangelista (so, Vogue, please do not compare!), who scored two September covers, one in 1993, at the height of her career, and another in 2001, during a period when actresses rather than models dominated Vogue covers. Or any other models that had the privilege of making it to past September issues. Kendall Jenner, in whichever pose, is only Kendall Jenner, just as wood—whether pine, ash, or birch—is only wood.
Kendall Jenner on the cover of the October issue of Vogue, shot by Luigi & Lango
Ms Jenner is not unattractive; she has an inexplicable magnetism that at the moment entrances the fashion world and those who follow it, so much so that she is able to score another Vogue cover after appearing on the biggest issue of the year (800 pages, this time, and weighing 1.4kg) with the Japanese edition. A cover (or two) gained is not a definitive that she is cover material, not when she has that expression: is she trying to control a bad case of flatulence? The reality is that Vogue no longer holds on to the glamour of cover girls such as Brook Shields, Kim Alexis, Kelley Emberg, and Nastassja Kinski—all with faces that had something to say.
A post-teen of the digital age in the footsteps of every other Instagrammer, she definitely is. A fashion mannequin in the league of Christy Turlington, Karen Elson, or Racquel Zimmermann, she’s nowhere near. In fact, Ms Jenner has not brought her game up another level, not a notch. Vogue says she reminds them of Ms Evangelista, but Ms Jenner has not offered anything resembling one of the former’s best covers, the September issue of Harper’s Bazaar of 1992, the first of a remade magazine under the editorship of a newly installed Liz Tilberis, who titled her pièce de résistance ‘Enter the Era of Elegance’.
As social media becomes a legitimate platform to launch careers in fashion, and Ms Jenner is one of its biggest stars, Vogue, like many designers, is using her like a talisman. Mango’s vice president Daniel López told WWD in defence of the brand’s casting choice for the spring/summer 2016 campaign, “As a celebrity she has huge repercussions in the market and among her followers.”
Can you tell the difference? Left: for Mango. Right: for CPS Chaps. Photos: respective brands
However, Calvin Klein has publicly disapproved the use of Ms Jenner in the brand’s underwear advertisements when he said, during a talk at Savannah College of Art and Design with ex-CFDA president Fern Mallis, “Now, models are paid for how many followers they have. They’re booked not because they represent the essence of the designer, which is what I tried to do—they’re booked because of how many followers they have online.” Interestingly, neither brand has declared that Ms Jenner representing their products translates into notable sales.
Clearly, whether her social-media popularity directly influences her success remains a moot point. But there’s also the other aspect to consider: her lack of an innate, definable quality that makes her truly special. If Kendal Jenner has fashioned her model-self via Instagram, then the social media can be a mirror into which we can see the girl behind the posts. The more we observe it, the more we make out an aesthetic and behavioural make-up similar to a special breed called Lian, or as some Singaporeans now call her and her friends—including BFF Gigi Hadid, angmo Lian.
The term Ah Lian (阿莲) has been used in such a pejorative way for so long, that, in our dismissive manner, we do not notice women, who can be described as such, rise—stealthily storming the mass media. The Internet has levelled the playing field for everyone and the Lians, too, have taken advantage of the even ground to make their presence noticeable. In addition, fashion has lost its elitist status, reaching and touching everyone, and allowing the Lians’ cultural currency to climb. Fashion—in full gawk-at-me mode—has always been part of the Lian identity and so commonplace has the Lian aesthetic become that many people no longer discern Lian-ness. Familiarity does not lead to contempt.
Kendall Jenner fronting the CPS Chaps spring/summer 2016 campaign that was out early this year. Photo: CPS Chaps
Is she pulling herself up towards Kim Kardashian territory? Photo: Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott/Kendall Jenner Instagram
The thing is, the Lian today is not, contrary to her standing of the past, of low education, lacking in intellect, shallow, material-minded, and a speaker of only Mandarin or Chinese dialects. As our society becomes more affluent, the Lians, too, have become upwardly mobile and English-speaking. So socially elevated is the Lian these days that you will see her as shopper at Saint Laurent, as pop singer on stage, as influencer on social media, even as student in NUS. Lian-ness is not just an outward appearance, it’s a total package. Increasingly, it reflects the socio-economic shifts of our city, to the extent that it no longer necessarily means lack of intellect or education. It’s a personal attribute with wider application. Modelling, one of them.
As a matter of fact, the Lians are not unique to our dot in this part of the world. In Asia, there is Malaysia’s lala mui (啦啦妹), Thailand’s skoy (สก๊อย) and, to some extent, Japan’s gyaru (ギャル). (Interestingly, in Hong Kong, where looking good is part of societal obsession, there is no known noun that’s the equivalent of Lian except for the Cantonese adjective 娘, which is pronounced—in street slang—as ‘learn’ rather than the traditional ‘leung’.) In the UK, there is the Essex Girl. And in the US, specifically in California, there is the Valley Girl (one who is from San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles).
Although Kendal Jenner has not been out-and-out described as a Valley Girl (even Vogue avoids it), she is in fact from the Valley, having grown up in Hidden Hills (not quite out of sight, a housing estate known in the US as a “gated community”), just next to the city Calabasas, where Ms Jenner’s half-sisters Khloe, Kim and Kourtney own a boutique called Dash. Those who watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians would be acquainted with the Valley talk, antics and aesthetics of the self-absorbed Kardashian/Jenner household.
From boy Beng to man Beng: Justin Bieber in his own perfume ad and a Calvin Kein Underwear ad. Photos: (right) Terry Richardson/Fiermenich and (left) Harley Weir and Tyrone Lebon/Calvin Klein Underwear
Before the Lians became known as Ah Lians, we called them Ah Huay (花, Hokkien for flower), which seemed less derogatory since women likened to a bloom was—and still is—rather complimentary. This was in the ’80s, but at the turn of the next decade, somehow Lian came into the picture. While some did use the name Lian Huay (莲花 or lotus flower), Lian by itself eventually won over. The male equivalent Ah Beng (阿明 or wise) similarly was once known as Ah Seng (阿成 or accomplished). However, Beng Seng never quite cut it since the two words together in Hokkien sounds like star or celebrity (明星)!
Just as the Lians are making waves in social media and in the fashion industry, the Bengs, too, are gaining a foothold in the pop, fashion, and sports world. Leading the pack of angmo Bengs is Justin Bieber, newly-crowned model for Calvin Klein Underwear. Mr Beiber’s dabbling in fashion goes back to the ‘One Less Lonely Girl’ range of nail polish that he launched, barely 18, in 2011, followed by his first perfume, the Beng/Lian-affirming ‘Somebody’. His Beng-ness, however, seemed underplayed when, conversely, Calvin Klein approves his casting in the brand’s underwear campaign (because the ex-designer “likes” the singer), clearly preferring Bengs over Lians.
Mr Bieber is only second to the most powerful American Beng-at-large, Donald Trump, whose way of life and dubious style has come to embody Beng-hood since he came into public prominence in the ’80s. It’s not clear how Macy’s had come to the desire of selling (they no longer do) Trump-branded shirts, which really look no different from those you may find in C K Department Store in Chinatown. Mr Trump’s Bengness is, of course, not limited to the fashion he sells and what he wears and his choice of part-time profession—like Kendal Jenner, a reality-TV star; it is even more pronounced in his viewpoints. You’d think that as a Beng grows older, he’ll leave behind what is considered immoderate or offensive. Mr Trump does not—proof that Beng-titude afflicts not only youths.
The Kardashian sisters at the opening of the Miami Beach branch of Dash. Photo: Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images
Lest it’s mistaken, we’re not having a go at this group of unique individuals. This is a way to understand what’s happening in and who’s dominating the fashion world. Social media has undeniably changed much of the realm of fashion, now a universe visibly peopled by undisguised Bengs such as Olivier Rousteing and Alexander Wang, and Ms Jenner’s fellow Lians du jour Gigi Hadid and her sister Bella and much of the Victoria’s Secret show girls, as well as the Lians-made-good Rachel Zoe and Victoria Beckham… just to name a few. Making much ado about their flashy personal style is a Beng and Lian trait and, egged on my admirers—Kendall Jenner has no less than 64 million on IG alone, becomes the bombast that empowers.
Yet, Ms Jenner, whether posing for Mango or with her sisters, is without surfeit of style or excess of imagination. Perhaps this does not matter. Her fame alone is stylish enough, and spurs the imagination adequately. At 20 years old, what she has achieved is the dream of even women twice her age. Her success, although aided by fame, is purported to be self-achieved, and not propelled by even a tinge of nepotism. As almost-Beng Riccardo Tisci told Vogue about a casting session, “Kendall came completely separate. I promise you.”
If a fashion magazine cover is meant to capture the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, or whatever is firing the desires of the critical mass at a given moment, then Vogue has not faltered in putting Kendall Jenner on the cover. We should be alert to the complicity in putting her there.
The 15th District at Isetan Orchard, L2 Wisma Atria
Retail is dead, goes the common lament. Long-term, single-brand, and one-category—such shops are shying away from malls as if to prove the point. In their places, the multi-label, many-product pop-up stores are, well, really popping up. Rather than offering just one category of merchandise, these present-day zahuo dian—or provision shops—with short-term leases bring together miscellany that can be conveniently grouped as “lifestyle”. Whose life and whose style, the target is indistinct, but the product mix is invariably varied, as if to capture the desires of all and sundry.
Are we seeing retailers re-imagining their selling spaces? Not quite. General-merchandise retailing, temporarily installed in spaces between leases, so far, has been gift-shop-meets-mini-emporium, or Monoyono-merges-with-Yue Hwa. You sense you’ve seen them before and you probably have. Only now, they’re situated in bigger retail lots and their pop-up model creates a sense of urgency: check them out when you see them or you’ll miss them forever.
The thing is, so many of the present group of pop-up store operators are serial short-term retailers. Fail to notice them in one location, and you will likely encounter them in another. Exclusivity (even if only perceived) from the here-today-gone-tomorrow business approach is not quite there. Some of them are travelling road shows, taking up empty shops whenever and wherever they become available to them. Some are online stores first before going offline and consequently retaining both formats. All, by accounts of mall owners, keep their otherwise quiet corridors buzzy.
W.E. X Togetherly at Isetan Orchard, L1 Wisma Atria
For those jaded by old-school retailing, perhaps a pop-up store is enticing. If, however, you’re a serious and frequent shopper, the persistent sameness of these retail ventures may prove to be anything but alluring. Just this past two months and in just one location, two pop-up retail concepts have appeared. Both are different in size, but they are linked by a commonality that is already seen in past and present pop-ups of like-minded operators.
In Isetan Orchard, closed as a department store last year, W.E. X Togetherly takes up the entire first floor, while, one level up, The 15th District occupies what is a newly marked out shop unit. Isetan owns the five floors on this end of Wisma Atria and manages the space independent of YTL Starhill Global Property Management, the landlord of the rest of the complex. The Japanese company, we have learned, does not charge rental for the temporary use of its idle units. Percentage of sales is collected instead. The two pop-up formats help Isetan keep its temporarily unfilled spaces engaged so that they would appear operationally active.
W.E. X Togetherly is touted as “Singapore’s largest pop-up store”. A collaborative venture that debuted in April, the set-up is by pop-up operator Workshop Element (an enterprise founded in 2012 by fashion designer Alfie Leong) and craft market organiser Togetherly (whose roving nature of their business has seen them pop up in assorted venues, from Singapore Flyer to Orchard Central). With W.E.’s fashion contacts and Togetherly’s list of artisans, the massive space is populated by sellers of disparate offerings.
The disparate stalls at W.E. X Togetherly at Isetan Orchard
A generous space, however, requires curatorial flair to yield appeal. W.E. X Togetherly, perhaps overwhelmed by the need to fill what was previously a one-floor expanse of a department store, succumbed to an approach consistent with leasing of a market or open-park exposition. A lack of stringent selection process meant that the breadth of merchandise, while commendable, lacked distinction, newness, and, in some cases, quality.
Perched above the largest is a modestly-sized pop-up newbie The 15th District. Started last year by “godfather of Singapore fashion” Daniel Boey as an e-magazine, The 15th District was conceived to appeal to “real folks who wish to know how to look good in clothes”. In time, the site became “jam-packed with lots of everything-you-wanted-to-know-but-was-afraid-to-ask type fashion and lifestyle questions, and tons of hacks to make your life a lot simpler and stylish.”
The brick-and-mortar representation of The 15th District isn’t quite “jam-packed” but in the laid-back spaciousness, it communicates in a style that’s akin to what it promotes on its website. Here, the setting, enhanced by repro vintage furniture placed for sale by Lorgan’s The Retro Store (also, interestingly, seller of bottled cold-brew coffee), gives the merchandise—a mix of food stuff, candles, skincare and grooming products, and (oddly) children’s clothes—the chance to be slowly viewed and appreciated. This is a hipster hub minus, regrettably, the hipsters.
The retro-quirky set-up of The 15th Disrrict
Given the retail climate, it is hardly surprising that short term is the duration du jour. The pop-up’s temporariness is increasingly no different from a permanent shop that opens and closes less than a year later. Informal—and sometimes drifter—retailers consider the brief tenure a “good chance to test products and customer reaction”. Flash retailing, industry observers propose, give fledgling businesses the flexibility to locate their products in different spots since they are not tied down to long leases. Like those behind tech start-ups and flash-mob marketing, pop-up operators tend to be young risk-takers who are not resistant to try anything new, even if the new is not really novel or exceptional.
The pop-up stores that are seen these days are not quite what they were in the early years when they first appeared in the Noughties. They came to be called “pop ups” because they mostly appeared unannounced, in unsuspecting places for a relatively brief period of time. One of the pioneers of this new but not lauded retail format was the “guerrilla stores” conceived by Comme des Garçons in 2004. The idea was to situate a “season-less” store somewhere that’s clearly not an obvious choice, preferably a location that retains its original architecture and use. According to a media release by the company at that time, “The location will be chosen according to its atmosphere, historical connection, geographical situation away from established commercial areas or some other interesting feature.” More importantly, the guerrilla stores must close in a year.
The first guerrilla store opened in Berlin in a former bookstore. In Singapore, they have appeared in a shop house in Chinatown as well as in a classroom of the former Methodist Girls’ School in Mount Sophia, both co-operated by Theseus Chan of the multi-disciplinary design firm WERKS. It is not certain how well the stores performed or if consumers even understood what they were really about, but the fact that this little island of ours could afford more than of them (there were three in total) may be indication that Singaporeans were receptive to retail that does not run like one in a CapitaLand Mall Asia shopping centre.
One of the earliest pop-up stores, the now-defunct First Storey at Tiong Bahru
The pop-up stores now come in spaces where you’ll already find retail outlets. In some strange instances, even a sale in a department store’s event space is called a pop-up. For sure, these temporary set-ups presently come in different shapes and sizes, as well as locations. For many landlords, the pop-up is now a legitimate retail format.
Locally-operated pop-up stores that we now see in large numbers are a fairly recent phenomenon. One of the earliest to crack the market was First Storey, a men’s outfitter that, true to the original spirit of the pop-up, really just popped up in Tiong Bahru in September of 2012 (and remained there for only six months). Conceived by the duo behind the now-discontinued bag label Carryall James, Eric Lee and Young Kong Shin, First Storey was unique in that it was the first to bring together local men’s wear label during a time when men’s wear, while a growing business, wasn’t the first choice of budding fashion retailers.
It was one of the earliest stockists of Singaporean labels: 13 at the start that included Mr Howard (by Taiwan-born, Singapore-based designer Tsai Ming Hung), Fabrix (a bag line by entrepreneur/craftsman Colin Chen), Coupé-Cousu (by designing duo Alex Yeo and Xie Shanqian, alumni of the inaugural Fashion Incubator Project by TAFF, SPRING Singapore, and Parco Singapore), and, surprisingly, shirt maker Crocodile that was road-testing a capsule of “more forward” designs (which, as it turned out, was a lame attempt at transcending its dad-shirt status). Spread over “rooms”, First Storey assembled a diverse group of mostly design-savvy labels without putting to the test the limits of the familiar.
So successful and appealing was what the First Storey team had done that when former Crocodile employees took up employment with the merchandising team of Metro, they did not conceal where their inspiration came from in setting up certain corners of Metro’s new outlet that opened in 2014 in Centrepoint. It didn’t square with conventional thinking that a small, indie retailer could have such influence over one of Singapore’s oldest department stores.
The latest Naiise store at L1, Suntec City
Modelling a business on the success of others’ is, of course, not an unexpected or uncommon approach. Retailers in Singapore are rather like F&B operators. Declare croissants with salted egg yolk custard filling popular and you can start counting how many bakeries quickly follow suit. Now that cheese tarts are the rage (see the queue at Bake Cheese Tarts, Ion Orchard: it’s so long that a separate holding area some 200m away had to be set up to contain the crowd), pastry shops are scrambling to hawk theirs.
Industry experts cite low barrier to entry as a reason why pop-up stores of miscellaneous goods now appear with such regularity. Not only are retailers aping the concepts of others, mall operators are getting into the game too. Suntec City’s last-to-open North Wing—following a three-year, S$410-million centre-wide renovation—is now the latest to offer pop-up stores after it failed to lure big names that they had initially hoped to attract.
In the main concourse of the North Wing, out of 14 units in the circular layout, eight appear to be pop-up shops, with sales/clearance outlets dominating the mix. It isn’t clear how such temporary leasing arrangement—here, essentially creating a cluster of short-term tenants—will impact the mall further down the road. Or perhaps, with a dismal occupancy rate, Suntec City is taking on this model as a stop-gap measure to keep its retail units filled and a dead zone alive.
The Megafash pop-up store at L1, Suntec City
How does Suntec City, managed by a retail REIT (Suntec REIT), then distinguish itself from other less-central malls such as 112 Katong, another shopping centre where pop-up operators now gravitate towards? It does not, since it has not put its own spin on the gathering of such short-term sellers or work with these tenants to create something that has the potential to spur repeat shopper visits.
Between Towers 1 and 2, where Suntec City’s North Wing is situated, a pair of stores offers somewhat similar product categories: lifestyle and fashion goods, all displayed with a jumble sale vibe. These are the “permanent” Naiise and the pop-up Megafash, and they’re practically neighbours. Both, interestingly, are e-taliers-turn-offline-operators. As a salesperson at Megafash in Suntec City enlightened, “For our products, you need to touch and feel them, and you can’t do that on screen.”
It is ironic that while we’re led to believe brick-and-mortar retailing is facing relentless competition from e-commerce, it is online stores going offline that appear to save physical shops from redundancy. However, what are these outlets stocking in terms of tactile quality that requires product-to-person contact in order to encourage what has been elusive purchases?
The cutesy bric-a-brac in Megafash at Suntec City
One of the four vendors offering terrariums at W.E. X Togetherly
Despite the ostensible variety on stock, the current crop of multi-label pop-up stores share similar product offerings. A formula appears to be in application. There are clothing of local genesis, craft-based accessories, eyewear, tote bags, new-age-y skincare lines, homemade foodstuff, pretty stationery, cutesy bric-a-brac, and—whether by default or demand, it isn’t clear—terrariums. In W.E. X Togetherly alone, four stalls sell plants in glass containers, enclosed and open, as well as small potted or air plants.
The lack of distinguishing features and adequately dissimilar merchandise easily leads visitors to describe many of these pop-up stores—even in different locations—as typical. Eyewear brand Visual Mass and walking stick label The Cane Collective, for examples, are available at both W.E. X Togetherly and Megafash. The lack of compelling visual displays, too, seem a common thread as most pop-up stores allow the participating brands to set up their respective stalls (mostly just a table) the way the latter see fit or attractive. Some stores don’t appear to have staff arrange their merchandise at all. It is not likely shoppers are expecting Barney’s New York, but no one, it’s reasonable to say, hope to encounter pasar malam on concrete instead of tar.
To be sure, the range can be rather staggering, running the gamut from the ho-hum (Singlish slogan T-shirts) to the kitschy (curry puff cushions) to the rather bizarre (nasi lemak-flavoured tea!). And you’ll learn too, that there could be a massive market for arts-and-craft jewellery. After a while, it’s hard to see the difference between them and *Scape Marketplace, the open-air bazaar that has been home to young entrepreneurs hawking “design”.
Champion of local designers and brands, Workshop Element at L3, 313@Somerset
Local design is, in fact, the main sell. Many tout their spaces as outlets for Singaporean talents and crafts people. Early champions of local labels include First Storey and serial pop-up merchant Workshop Element. At Megafash in 112 Katong, a store-front poster urges visitors to root for “indie fighters”. The epithet reads, “Join us in our movement to support local makers.” This is characteristic of pop-up stores, even those abroad (where localised assortment usually constitute up to 50% of the mix), but here, in the malls, our pop-up retailers offer local products of uneven quality.
The pool of local brands, although larger than it’s ever been, is not deep with those that have creativity and quality, and the savvy of polished branding. Despite years of promoting local fashion, Workshop Element has not been able to suss out those that can even simply be described as good. They’ve installed themselves in different malls, yet each time, they have gone without merchandising control and are stocked with the same motley group of labels that seem to have little elsewhere to go.
Still, it is laudable that there are those such as Workshop Element’s Alfie Leong who is unwavering in his belief in own-turf talents and has continued to offer a retail platform for local designers. Another entrepreneur who is gung-ho about the home-grown is Dennis Tay of Naiise. A self-confessed Apple fan boy, Mr Tay believes design “can better your everyday life”, as he told New Union. “I think we also wanted to go offline because we do want to change the retail experience.”
Naiise at L1, 112 Katong
Naiise at L2, Clark Quay Central
One of the most visible of the new-gen multi-label stores, Naiise (pronounced “nice”, not “nayse”) presently does not consider itself a pop-up store although it looks like one, and has, until last year, been one (actually two). Founded in 2013 as an online business, Naiise, as one staffer at its Suntec City store enthusiastically elucidated, has, since 2014, gone “permanent”. The to-stay brick-and-mortar set up must have worked for Naiise as it was reported that the company posted revenues of S$2.5million last year, with a present total of six physical stores across our island.
Its latest in Suntec City’s North Wing, opened two weeks ago, takes over the former Mporium, also a multi-label, many-product store that lasted about six months after its opening at the end of October last year. Given its duration, Mporium was, technically, a pop-up store although they did not claim to be one. Industry observers thought that, with their weak merchandising, it was destined to be. It is noticeable that Naiise invested little in the fit-out of its new store: Mporium’s fixtures are retained and used, even its shop front is not changed (nor its colour)—just inexpensive black signage plastered above to announce the arrival of the new operator.
Perhaps this explains the quick success of Naiise. Keeping the start-up cost low by taking over failed retail stores too was the approach seen in the Clark Quay Central store, a 6,500-square-feet spread that was once the Singapore outpost of the Hong Kong design store G.O.D. Naiise, it seems, believes in big spaces; its stores are generally large. The flagship at The Cathay is 8,500 square feet or the size of three tennis courts.
Space Invasion White at L2, 112 Katong
Naiise’s storming of malls, perhaps, suggests that the rise of those so-called “online natives” may not have such a profound impact on retailers offering a mixed bag of goods that is better appreciated by physically looking through it. Its numerous stores may have, in fact, created an environment where more online business are encouraged to go offline, such as Space Invasion White, a name that could be suggestive of its objective.
Not quite an assault, Space Invasion White has two pop-up stores—one in Orchard Gateway, the other in 112 Katong, where Naiise, too, has very visible presence. Founded in 2013, also the year Naiise started, Space Invasion White’s offline avatar has the “aim to be a representative of local street wear fashion”. In the end, that alone, perhaps, isn’t quite enough as its merchandise mirrors the stock assortment of other pop-up stores: vintage-y fashion, colourful patterned socks, charm-like accessories, adorable stationery, kitschy enamel ware, and more canvas satchels to activate the jelak reflex.
Sulian Tan-Wijaya, once a Singapore Tourism Board director in charge of “tourism shopping” and the Singapore Fashion Festival, and now an executive director at Savills Singapore, told The Straits Times in March this year that pop-up stores “add diversity to the mall mix with their eclectic offerings and generate shopper traffic”.
More, unfortunately, does not mean diversity. Eclectic is often the euphemism for mish-mash. It is heartening to see retail spaces occupied, but those who fill them with stuff need the elusive quality called flair.
Photos: Galerie Gombak
In the still of the night, your insomniac grandmother has done the unthinkable: inspired by Christo, she wrapped your precious Smeg refrigerator with her favourite scarf. Now your fridge looks like a proud gypsy posing next to the Poggenpohl kitchen cabinet!
Any granny that does that probably risks getting committed to an institution. It’s, therefore, rather unexpected that Dolce & Gabbana has commissioned these flamboyant refrigerators by Smeg. Since they’re chilled with a designer name, these are not affordable ice boxes, as grandma used to call them, but for the S$45,860 (or USD34,000, the price tag according to GQ) leftover from buying the Amels ‘La Familia’ superyacht at the Singapore Yacht Show, it could be money well spent.
Decadence has always been in close proximity to the work of Dolce & Gabbana. Their colourful, and increasingly so, graphics reflect their sense of exotica Siciliano, a bombast that is very much in sync with the current craze for the unapologetically garish. And what better way for the duo to make a mark at Milan’s annual furniture fair Salone del Mobile than getting a few Sicilian artists to paint a hundred single-door fridges to stand out in a sea of usually quiet elegance.
The kitchen is brobably the last place untouched by painterly pictures usually associated with silk scarves. These refrigerators are a natural follow-up to Versace’s florid bedsheets and cushion covers that have characterised the latter’s interior products. No doubt, the Italians do like to paint paintable surfaces. Just look at their frescoes.