Close Look: Depression’s ‘Berlin Collection’

Depression AW 2017 Pic 1

Six months after the Depression boys—as Kenny Lim and Andrew Loh are affectionately known—sent out their autumn/winter 2017 collection during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Berlin early this year, about a dozen pieces or so from that showing were launched at the designing duo’s multi-label store Sects Shops in Orchard Central last evening. This, as with Depression-related events, is a fan club greet-and-meet, with a token fashion show thrown in, not quite the gathering of the pugilist world (武林大会) that is part of the brand’s neo-Eastern image.

It is admirable that Depression, now in its 11th year, is able to capture the interest and purchasing power of its fan base despite what is willed to be unchanging aesthetic—heavy on darkness and bleakness, but light on cleverness and technical finesse. Called Vol 2: Dragon Vs Tiger, the collection may boast less T-shirts now than blousy tops, but the clothes have not (and probably will never) shed their Goth leaning. Depression is one of very few Singaporean labels that have stayed tenaciously true to its brand DNA: visual cheerlessness. And for that, we’d say the Depression boys have been triumphant.

Depression show at Sects Shop

By now, it is, perhaps, pointless to talk about Depression being unable to escape its propensity for the depressing. They are not going to go jolly suddenly, not at all. Surely in all the gloom, there is a bright spark. Amid the ‘wrongs’, they must have done something right—right enough to come this far. Lest you think we’re going to have a go at them, we are, in fact, going to look at the brand in a way that, as a cheery attendee at the launch party said, “could encourage the boys.”

So encourage we shall. Let’s egg them on to seek therapy in order for them to get out of their decade-long despair. And point to them the maxim “the power to change one’s life lies entirely within oneself”, as stated in their online ‘About Us’. Darkness, you see, does not have to be eternal, just as black as a colour need not project misery, or the macabre. Even if you are, as a Turkish saying goes, “keeping each other’s company on the way to hell”, do stop and smell the roses. But not black ones.

Depression shirt

We’ll cheer them on for the visual tact built on Chinese expressions that are evocative of the literary and cinematic genre of wuxia (武侠 or martial arts) and the brand’s apparent appeal to the wuling (武林 or the pugilists’ circle): a small sect of fashion warriors who dress like the Depression boys. This season, their use of the saying 十面埋伏, (shi mian mai fu or ambush from ten sides) is played up prominently—it takes up the entire bodice of one shirt, for example. But there is no surprise attack, visually. This is not the chromatic splendour of the Zhang Yimou film of the same name (known as House of Flying Daggers in English); this is Depression’s usual hack (such as 2014’s 心魔 or evil in the heart)—patently manga, no subtlety or subtitle.

They also need encouragement in the use of more fetching typography. Chinese fonts need not only be in bold face to be effective. They need not appear as if they’re being employed for the movie poster of some cheap Chinese zombie flick. Perhaps the B-grade quality is deliberate or salutary, since Andrew Low is the graphic designer of the two, both having started out in advertising. Still, the people around need not be visually waylaid by the wearer of 十面埋伏. But the font choice is not only problematic for the Chinese text. Depression would like you to believe that what you have bought is “made from a mad dark place” and that proclamation is embroidered noticeably on parts of the garments. Sure, we’re not expecting the embroidery of François Lesage, but must they look like something done in a baseball cap shop in Queensway Shopping Centre?

Depression did, in fact, show some rather eye-catching embroidery other than their usual hard-edge, bad-ass decorative treatment. In keeping with their Dragon Vs Tiger theme, they’ve included a monochrome pair of the heavenly and earthly beasts, each in the shape of a paisley. The keen eye would see that their use is a little belated, considering that the souvenir jacket, on which such embroidery are commonly found, is passé, and a little too Gucci to be relevant or even interesting to their wushu (武术 or martial arts) garb sensibility. And the placement of the motifs—symmetrical and opposite the other, with no animalistic tension—is completely devoid of surprise or edge.

Depression hemThe hem of a Depression top

We, too, like to encourage them to get a quality control head and a product development manager, assuming they have not hired any, or can’t do either jobs themselves. We have repeatedly expressed our dismay with the make of Depression garments, the finishing, and the choice of fabrics. It is disheartening to still see, after these many years of their existence, uneven hems that refuse to sit flat, seams that pucker (and those that bunch up under the arm), and fabrics that are mostly associated with low-cost garments. It challenges comprehension that pullovers fashioned out of a knit fabric with loopback underside (generally comfortable even if the fibre is synthetic) should require thick-ply polyester lining, and only on one side—either front or back, resulting in a lopsidedness that yields saggy hems.

These problems are compounded by the presence of other clothes from Korea and the US that are sold alongside Depression in the Sects Shop. Next to the imports, Depression looks decidedly slapdash. Beneath the distraction of the exaggerated shapes, Oriental embroidery, and Chinese text, the clothes still show their shaky foundation. Perhaps the other Chinese character used this season is instructive: 忍 (ren, or endure). In view of Depression’s design progress, we really have to bear with the slowness.  Haste, in this instance, cannot be encouraged.

Sects Shop is at level 4, Orchard Central. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

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

Gosh, I Wish

DFW 2014 P1Audience getting seated before a show

By Raiment Young

Perhaps it’s a little early to make Yuletide wishes, but if you look carefully enough, it’s really looking a lot like Christmas. So, I’m wishing.

I wish I could like the just-concluded Digital Fashion Week more. I don’t regard it with disapproval or aversion; I just wish it was put (or pulled?) together with flair. It’s not quite comprehensible that three years after the project started, DFW 2014 was still as raw as the first. Opening-show reception mayhem and confusion, guests queuing too long for entry, shows starting hours later than the advertised schedules, the lacklustre staging and the uninspired productions amid gossips of designers unhappy with the hair and makeup teams (The Body Shop for a major fashion event?!) as well as the gaggle of not-the-best models (reportedly, organiser DFW Creative was only willing to pay the lowest rate, much to the chagrin of the modeling agencies), and rumours that main sponsor, the British Council, was keeping a close watch to determine if they will continue to support DFW next year—unfortunately shared the limelight.

DFW’s participation in Bangkok International Fashion Week (BIFW) a few days later only served to amplify what the former lacks: the panache and élan to stage something that was streamed to the world. The Bangkok designers and show choreographers, by contrast, offered their audience runway performances that were enthralling and spectacular, and videogenic to boot (Fly Now’s closing show, despite the shockingly derivative designs, was extravagantly staged!). It spoke volumes that the “Singapore Collective” show on 8 November (part of a DFW exchange program; the Thais designers earlier showed in Singapore too) was not the full-house event Singaporean attendees had hoped it to be. I wish I could have cheered majulah throughout the show; I wish members of the audience were bowled over by what they saw; I wish our designers were able to feel that they had outshone the Thais. I wish.

DFW SG 2014 P5Designers receiving the customary bouquets at the end of their catwalk show

I wish I could rave about our young designers more. I don’t regard them with contempt or disapproval. I just wish they know what it really means to take to the catwalk at the end of a fashion presentation. When you go out bowing and receiving flowers and basking in the applause, you want more than to show a face and a gait that can be identified with your brand; you want to be regarded as a ‘designer’, a title loaded with expectations. Yet, often than not, you are unable to hold up the high standards that come with such a recognition. You are given the runway; you have to deliver. A fashion show isn’t a platform for you to show your narcissistic self. Hubris has to match output: you have to present what is truly worthy of a catwalk show; you have to present clothes of technical finesse and artistic quality. Even if the audience do not demand it, you have to demand it! I wish this isn’t stating the obvious; I wish this does not require mentioning. I wish.

I wish I could like Max Tan’s designs more. I don’t regard Mr Tan’s clothes with shame or scorn. It was disappointing that Singapore’s favourite designing son did not put out a collection that befitted his designer standing. It was enticing fodder for Instagram, no doubt, but it was far from fashion that could garner esteem or respect. It has to be said that, for someone with puny mastery of tailoring to do those absurdly clumsy coats, tremendous courage and nerve were displayed. There was evidence of magnanimity too: Mr Tan shared the stage with his protégé duo, Jac and Zhiying of YouYou, but I wish he didn’t have to share those bootees with the girls too. Both collections did not draw from one aesthetic vision, why then should their models sport identical footwear? I wish Mr Tan had thought of that. I wish.

DFW 2014 P2The bloggers or “influencers”—as DFW called them—were front-row fixtures

I wish I could appreciate Mash Up more; I wish the clothes didn’t look so messed up! I don’t regard Mash-Up with derision, just doubt. Primarily a T-shirt label, Mash Up offered scant answers to why their clothes deserved to be on a catwalk. Like so many young designers of their ilk, the Mash Up trio of Daniela Monasterios-Tan, Nathaniel Ng, and Shaf Amis’aabudin primarily assembled rectangular pieces of cloth as clothes: the T-shirt school of design. They barely worked with darts (since those loose shapes did not require structure and the body-con dresses were made of stretch fabric), they did not concern themselves with armholes (since those drop shoulders did not require well-fit arms), and, not counting two biker-jacket-wannabes, they did not use collars (as that would require some real shirt-making skill). Their strength, it was often pointed out to me, is in their madcap graphics, but I wish they had tried harder. Their Pocahontas-meets-The-Little-Match-Girl aesthetic was completely at odds with a recurrent portrait—plastered over the bodice—that was Cubist in spirit and Gauguin in pose. Mashed up indeed! If the Mash-Up show was meant to buff its street cred up, it did not. I wish it had. I wish.

I wish I could like Pauline Ning more, but it was hard. I don’t regard Pauline Ning with dismay, just discomfort. An earlier review on this blog has already expressed disapprobation of what the brand showed. Still, it bears repeating that a fashion show deserves better-made clothes and the audience deserves more respect. Pauline Ning isn’t a sideline business; it is designer Pauline Lim’s day job. Yet, she was not inclined to impress, as designers are wont to. The impact she made was with the poor finishing of her clothes, which may be palatable to fast fashion consumers, but not to those who must have better. I wish Pauline Ning will find a competent sampling team soon. I am assuming, of course, that she has a sampling room from which her show pieces were produced. I wish her clothes will one day not look like castoffs from an H&M factory. I wish.

DFW 2014 P3Show favours occupied the seats before guests took over

I wish I could like Depression more. I don’t regard Depression with gloominess or repugnance. It’s just that their presentation was deathly cold, so they needed something to heat the runway, but it didn’t emerge, not in the form or wit, not in the shape of sexiness. The sinister-looking clothes, styled to extend their Dark Nature theme of autumn/winter 2014, were, at best, gimmicky. And all the ideas of “fear” swirling around were just a promotional hook, not a design statement. I couldn’t grasp the persistent (or was it leftover?) pseudo-cultish patina, just as I couldn’t perceive Depression in dressier mode. Was it just a spoof of their unchanging aesthetic? Designers Kenny Lim and Andrew Loh like to project themselves with the bravado of what seems to me The Crow in an unholy union with Death of The Sandman, but it is far from organic, far from convincing. In the end, there was no shock—let’s not even mention awe.

The thing is, there isn’t real counterculture anymore, at least not in sterile Singapore, and certainly not when the underbelly of society is mostly a romantic reminder of our more colourful past, not when tattoos are now mainstream adornment and no longer arouse suspicion in national service (when once permanent inking of the body—any part—warranted a strip inspection). Perhaps it is due to our sanitised world, socially and stylistically, that Depression is able to find validation. Authentic or not, theirs is a cult label that can birth a Sects Shop! This is not quite a depressive spiraling in darkness. This is a blackness that stands out because of a generally pristine environment. Against a conventional idea of sophistication and beauty and order, the Depression outfits at DFW looked suitably drab yet imposing. I understand what they were trying to do. I wish it wasn’t all show and tell. I wish it had design panache; I wish it had technique; I wish it had heart. I wish.

CR P1Christiano Burani Spring/summer 2015

I wish the foreign designers—Italian and British—invited to participate in DFW as credence to “European Exchange” had a nice time in Singapore. I wish they didn’t think Singaporean designers strange; I wish they didn’t consider it bizarre that, given the heat of that week—typically 32°C even in the late afternoon/early evening—our designers were sending out clothes for spring/summer 2015 in neoprene and kindred fabrics, and in unrelenting black. How odd, they must have thought, that anyone working in this temperature would want to churn out garments that, even at a glance, appeared like wearable ovens. How peculiar it must have been to them that our designers could be so oblivious to our punishing weather. I wish they did not believe the common remark: that Singapore has two seasons—hot and air-conditioned. I wish.

I wish more of the fashion-buying (not clothes-consuming) public saw Christiano Burani’s light-as-East-Coast-Park-breeze collection. Mr Burani’s clothes were moderately girly, with a touch of sporty, but mostly with a sense of ease that so few designers can muster. You would not think they were a challenge to wear or to match with your excising wardrobe; you would not think they were only for special occasions. Yet, these clothes were rather special, in the use of the light-weight fabrics, in the interpretation of gingham checks, and in the cheerfulness that would take the humdrum out of any mundane life. Practical and stylish, as it were, could be BFFs. I wish Mr Burani could show more. I wish he had a positive influence on the local participants of DFW. I wish.

FG P1Fyodor Golan’s spring/summer 2015 collection

I wish, too, that more of the fashion-buying public—especially those with a fondness for the fancy—saw Fyodor Golan’s high-octane collection. If the Butter Factory was still around, Fyodor Golan would have held their after-show party there. These were highly visual clothes that would connect to club kids and career clubbers such as Butter Factory founders Ritz Lim and Bobby Luo, both presently proprietors of Superspace, a Mash Up stockist, and the kind of shop Fyodor Golan frocks could reside in, happily and contentedly. The London-based designing duo of Fyodor Podgorny and Golan Frydman wedded sportswear to design-school quirkiness, uniting practical shapes with wacky flourishes, such as the cropped jacket that looked country-club proper in front and hippy-shaggy from the back!  I wish our young designers saw the show and learned something from the collection. I wish they realised that a little fun and a little zing in a collection need not look foolish and juvenile. I wish.

I wish DFW will return next year. I wish it will be with a better line-up of participants. I wish there will be concession that content is crucial. I wish the event will, by then, show a coming of age, an elevation of standards. I wish it will be staged for on-site audience viewing as much as YouTube consumption, acknowledging that, either way, it communicates with equal speed, and before it ends, the ideas presented quickly becomes common currency, aided by those flamboyant “influencers” in daily attendance. I wish the presentations could be what The Guardian’s fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley once said of Dries Van Noten’s: “occasions of grandeur and emotion”, to which he replied, “I put my soul into the shows”. I wish.

I’m still wishing. But the night has turned to day.

Why Depression Is Still Depressing

DPS G1

“…I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes” –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

For its first full-collection catwalk show at Digital Fashion Week (DFW), Depression continued with what it has always advocated: clothes that work best in the shadows. There was no negating the brand’s proclivity to dark attire, deathly makeup, and brooding attitude. The show attracted a huge fan base—many of them suitably garbed in dreary swathes of black, overwhelming the small show venue with their gloomy presence. For that, Depression rewarded them with a presentation that had the requisites for All Tomorrow’s Parties, as sung by the Velvet Underground: “A blackened shroud/A hand-me-down gown/Of Rags and silks, a costume/Fit for one who sits and cries/For all tomorrow’s parties”.

To be sure, Depression has never looked so arresting. The collection was well-focused; it had energy and it still rebuked what people consider fashionable. There was the chilling aloofness of the models, whose faces looked battered, a style first seen in George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. There was the monotonous soundtrack that seemed to drone on forever. There was the video, projected on the back wall of the catwalk, of a relentlessly beating black heart, wishing evil upon the rapt audience. The clothes appeared, for once, better made, even when they suggested disarray and impairment. There were pieces for women—a second since the Blueprint show earlier this year—that was as sinister looking as the men’s. The old truism about the dark is true: you cannot dispel darkness with darkness.

DPS G2

Whether Depression duo, Andrew Loh and Kenny Lim, are practitioners of—to borrow from Harry Porter—the “dark arts”, we may never know. But from the clothes they showed, they seem to inhabit a shadowy dystopian world. This is not the dystopia of Veronica Roth’s Divergent. This is much darker: a funereal outpost where psychopomps rule and people are perpetual mourners. It is, perhaps, no coincidence then that the Depression show took place on the Day of the Dead (or Dia de Muertos, a Mexican holiday dedicated to the remembrance of the deceased). This occasion may be foreign to us, but for some, it’s their Hungry Ghost Festival.

One question kept popping up during the 13-minute show: why did these clothes look the same as those from past seasons? The problem, as it soon appeared to us, was the colour choice. Black, while versatile and good at pulling disparate elements together, is not the easy-to-work-with colour that less deft designers imagine it to be. On inferior fabrics, black looks, well, inferior. You can use all the black in the world that you want, but if they’re not expressed in the best textiles so that black can articulate its mysteriousness and allure, it’ll look like the soot of chimneys rather than the ink of artists. Depression did not avail to their design studio fabrics that could allow black to be held in high esteem. On the catwalk, they look common and cheap, compounded by the scary plethora of synthetics, including Depression favourites such as polyester netting. They may wish to symbolically use black to project sartorial (and possibly social) rebellion, but on lesser fabrics, their light-absorbing shade looks corporeal and mundane, not aggressive and powerful.

DPS G3

Still, black is necessary to strengthen Depression’s cult standing (and to mask the label’s technical deficiencies). Someone in the audience was heard calling the collection “street Goth”. But Goth (not to be confused with the Germanic tribe, the Goths), whether born on the street or not, is a subculture that has strict codes of imagery and cultural tastes. A skinny lad kitted in black shirt and black low-crotch pants (topped with a black felt wide-brim hat)—what one of the attendees wore, for example—was no Goth. A poseur, yes; Goth, no. A practising Goth, even an androgynous one, would not succumb to Depression’s blousy tops; backless shirts with floppy bibs; see-through pants of polyester netting; flaccid tunics slit to the thigh; and cropped numbers that looked like they were inspired by a bat’s carcass. What’s most puzzling (and unacceptable to a Goth, surely) is the strange, inauspicious-looking headwear that looked like a nun’s habit deconstructed by someone from the Ku Klux Klan, to be worn at a Chinese funeral somewhere in Tainan, Taipei!

In the end, perhaps it wasn’t about design or tailoring or fit. What Mr Loh and Mr Lim went for was a look, as with so many designers these days. As long as they could send out the Grim Reaper—a (Goth) rock opera version, it really didn’t matter if the clothes were not the epitome of brilliant design. What Depression did was the continual selling of an expression that, by now, should have evolved, but has not. How long do you want to stay depressed? Eight years after the label was started, the guys were still talking about those days when they “hit a low point in their lives”. They could have created a high out of the low, but they did not. There could have injected some irony into their designs, but they did not. They could have brought a sliver of joy into the long-drawn misery, but they did not. The clothes were not “street luxe”, to quote another enthusiastic description from the audience; they still look like they were made for department stores or corner shops in malls under cineplexes. Or was that just the look?

DPS G4

Two Chinese characters appeared with persistent regularity: 心魔 or xinmo (literally, evil in the heart). It was a curious, ominous word choice. The noun+noun compound comprises of the character for heart and for evil (or magic, which in the case of Depression is improbable, unless it’s black magic!) They first appeared on socks (some worn with one character on each side, and, strangely, the character for heart did not show on the left foot), then on clothes. Bold (font) and in your face they were, but the characters, we suspected, were more for effect—not even graphic interest—than to communicate the designers’ understanding of them. Xinmo is the title of a 2009 Hong Kong movie (At the End of Daybreak, in English), but it is unlikely Depression would draw ideas from this film since it is a mushy love story. Xinmo is also the name of the Chinese edition of the video game The Evil Within (known in Japan as Psycho Break), published by Tango Gameworks, a company founded by Shinji Mikami, the creator of The Resident Evil series. It is possible that Depression’s Mr Loh and Mr Lim are avid gamers, but it is doubtful that the collection was inspired by this survival-horror game, since its protagonist, Sebastian Castellanos, looks like he’s dressed by the Italian mafia.

This was all very confusing because the Depression theme for what was shown was supposed to be, by most accounts—their own too, based on “fear”. Evil in the heart could be fearful, but that sounds too much like a B-grade scare romp to instil fear. So what is it that would arouse the dread of impending peril or malevolence? Perhaps, Depression did not know. Together with the DFW programme booklet was a black A5-sized card printed as a survey form with the question, “What are your demons?” It looked like Depression’s fear mongering came to nought.

Digital Fashion Week Singapore 2014 runs from 31 Oct to 3 Nov at the National Design Centre. Photos: Jim Sim

Close Look: Depression Is Depressing

Depression

Do people want to make ugly clothes? Or do some of them just want to make clothes ugly? I departed depressed from the Depression corner in Workshop Elements at Westgate Mall this afternoon, saddened by these conflicting thoughts.

Beautiful clothes bring about joy; they elate the viewer and the wearer. The innate sophistication of Yves Saint Laurent, for instance. Or the shapely forms of Azzedine Alaia, the kooky modernity of Muccia Prada, the moving historicism of Alexander McQueen. Or the technical superiority of set-in sleeves, the attractiveness of straight-hanging seams and flat hems, the tactile satisfaction of the best fabrics.

I wonder—often enough—how the young designers of today can do without these pleasures. Or in a vernacular they can understand: the artful drapes of Rick Owens, the conflicted classic/cutesy aesthetic of Christopher Kane. Or the unapologetic brashness of Supreme, the urban-tribal allure of Dope Chef. Or the irony-heavy assaults of Banksy. Or the proper drop of a drop crotch!

What have all these been replaced with?

Depression Men's

At Depression, the answer is dismal. Try as you may, overlooking these is hard: graphic blouses with clumsy interplay of shapes, tops that are little more than two joined rectangular pieces, jackets with terribly fastened horizontal panels, shirts with poorly fashioned collars, plackets that do not sit smoothly, hems of armhole that warp, inconsistent stitches and those that are criss-cross traffic on the underside, men’s jackets with the button placement for women’s. I wondered—amazed by what were allowed on the racks—if the brand’s owners care about what they make and sell.

Or perhaps the clumsiness is deliberate, the warping intentional, the low-grade assemblage on purpose. It was hard to tell. Fashion has now allowed mediocrity to thrive sans hindrance to the point that the flawed and the lacking could be used as positives to mask the inadequate and conceal the unskilled. Some people called it a change in what is aesthetically acceptable. “It’s modern!” “It’s cutting-edge!” “It’s trending!” But so many of the Depression garments are finished to defy even good enough that you wonder if can’t-be-bothered switched place with well-executed.

Depresssion Grp 1bIn fact, the slapdash manufacture of the clothes leads you to think that the line is put together by a ragtag team. There are, however, designers behind Depression. Two, in fact: Kenny Lim and Andrew Loh. So, you’d want to uncover the design merit, but it’s hard to find. The influence of Japanese designers is so unmistakable that it is possibly due to their good luck that the referencing is not pointed out. Last season’s blouse on a blouse or tee on a tee—already conceived by Comme des Garcons. The scattered dangling tapes stitched on the bodice so that they can be tied at any point across the front panel to create a changeable relief for the surface—once explored by Issey Miyake. The circle pocket with a zip (and cord for the puller) in the middle—still in use by the label Visvim. There is the resistance of temptation in not going on.

Mr Lim and Mr Loh told online Surface SEA in 2011, “We’ve never had any formal training in fashion design, and that allows us to create from a very raw and honest place.” By raw, it could be assumed that they meant opposite of refined and honest, an uninformed approach to dressmaking. Could this provide the explanation to the atrocities I saw? They, too, said, “We’ve never intended to be different, and never tried to differentiate ourselves from other labels.” Quality (interestingly never pointed out when describing Depression in the media) in fashion traditionally varies. When you position yourself on the lower end of the quality scale, you have—even if inadvertently—set yourself apart.

Depression @ COLater, over at the main store in Cineleisure Orchard (above), Depression did not look more heartening. I thought that since the clothes were shown in its own brand environment, they could open me up to why the garments look the way they do. Traced to the mother ship, they appeared as “raw” as they did in another outpost. A corner shop of painted concrete with scaffolding on which the garments hung, the boutique befits the commonly held belief that Depression is a “cult brand”. The clothes—mostly black and white—inhabit a room that is crudely industrial, lacking in seductive VM, and unevenly illuminated. Why is it that an indie label—another tag oft-ascribed to them—must look like a struggling brand in order to win street cred and designer standing? Mr Lim has described Depression as “avant-garde”, even when he has stated that he does not go for differentiation. Avant-garde, interestingly, is often a euphemism for something that cannot be satisfactorily defined; it has the same effect as calling a hodgepodge interior “eclectic”!

The truth is, anyone can start a label these days. And many do. The route from concept to consumer is no longer like the one of yore. You can jump right in at any point between the two posts. You can dispense with pattern-makers and sample sewers and quality controllers. And many do. If your line offers something to see and the pieces are sharply priced, you’re in business. Just ask Love, Bonito. Depression was started 18 years ago, so it is not new, yet, from its early beginnings at Far East Plaza till the present, the aesthetic and the quality have not really changed. When you approach garment-making the only way you know, you’ll keep at it with the tenacity of a predator holding on to its prey. And many do.

Depresssion Grp 2Perhaps it is not entirely fair to single Depression out. Numerous local labels offer themselves in similar ways. Depression and the like, in the end, really go for looks rather than design, aiming for sum of parts with cursory regard for what really forms the total. The big picture without the small bits. Attention-to-detail deficit in order! After all, on Instagram (or your brand’s homepage), you can’t see unsuitable underlining, twisted in-seams, unintended puckering, sad-looking buttonholes, and such oversights that keep the mediocre apart from the good, the good from the great.

As I left the store, a twentysomething customer walked in. He wore an orange, racer-back singlet under a black pullover made of netting. This duo of tops was teamed with salmon-pink shorts printed to mimic the skin of some unknown campy snake. Not completely covering his feet were laced-up gladiator straps atop platforms that were at least 4 inches high. The aggregate of these parts: look at me. In an instance, I understood Depression.