Saturday, October 29, 2016

Pavi Rafaela, National Gallery, Singapore Fashion Week

Singapore is one of the world centers of trade and commerce. Situated just below Malaysia and north of the Riau Islands of Indonesia, it is in a strategic position to serve as a kind of middleman for transactions between neighboring states, which is, in essence, what Singapore has been since Sir Stamford Raffles founded it as a hub of the East India Company in 1819. "Hub" feels like the right term for Singapore. It is a small city state, housed on a single island, with a diverse population. It is not rich in resources, doesn't have the land to grow its own food. It is not a manufacturing base, nor does it exploit its subterranean depths for minerals and metals. No, it is a hub. Stuff moves through here. Money circulates and congeals here. And skyscrapers rise from the red earth here.

Walking through the shopping Mecca of Singapore's Orchard Road — where multi-storied malls house international brands from H&M to Off White — you see all sorts of white backpackers in sweat-stained shirts and loose-fitting cotton pants, seeking out air-conditioned sanctuaries for their weary feet. They arrive in Singapore like refugees, having braved the more hectic, and far less affluent countries of Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. And they head straight to the very temples of commerce they used to shun in their home countries. It is a moment of weakness for them. They know it, and they feel bad about it. They came to SE Asia on some sort of vague spiritual quest, hoping to experience ways of life that had long since passed out of existence in their respective countries. But they do it anyway, and I don't blame them. I do it too. In Singapore, you can eat western food that actually tastes like western food (if that's your thing). You can walk for hours indoors. You can pretend your not in a tropical country just above the Equator. Or, you can do meander through dense, outdoor arcades, where open-walled stores sell every variety of goods and foods you can imagine, the scent of durian and stir-fry permeating the air.  

So with all this said, I was fascinated to find out what Singapore Fashion Week would be like. In the days before coming, the picture possibilities at Jakarta Fashion Week were beginning to dry up. Many of the biggest fashion bloggers had already come to Singapore. Some, like Anastasia Siantar and Olivia Lazuardy had come as brand ambassadors for Swarovski. Others had just come for the spectacle. And it was a spectacle, though you'd have to be inside the venue to know it. As in Jakarta, there was no sidewalk circus at SFW, no street style photographers to speak of. There weren't even any billboards or signs announcing the event, just a couple of window displays outside the entrance to the shows. The venue itself, the National Gallery of Singapore, was stunning, with stone columns and a backdrop of the Singapore skyline. But to get shots there, you'd have to convince the dressed-to-the-nines guests to walk over there with you. Most were just dropped off by their cars or taxis right by the entrance. They went straight inside. Their eyes were focused on the door. The only people I could manage to stop for photos were those who meandered over to the more picturesque locations at the National Gallery to do photo shoots for their own blogs and Instagram galleries. Such was the case with Pavi Rafaela. She was the only person I even asked for a photo.     
As for the shows, well, I went to two of them, one for the homegrown fashion hero Ong Shunmugam, and another for the Singaporean heiress/socialite Arissa Cheo. They cost $92 each. Some of the shows are open to the paying public. Some are invite only. And as you can imagine, the paid shows are more opportunities for dressing up for a night on the town than they are serious business events for the local fashion industry. Sponsors Stella Artois and Absolute Elyx provided "free" drinks, and we sipped them on the balcony while waiting for the shows to start. I liked Ong Shunmugam's collection well-enough. It plays with the tropes of Asian femininity while instilling them with a modern silhouette. Arissa Cheo's, however, seemed like a vanity project to me, higher-end Forever 21 crop tops and cut-offs, pink starter jackets with cutesy slogans like "Hold my Heart" etched across them. In truth, Singapore has nothing on Jakarta, fashion-wise. Jakarta has way more designers, even some, like Peggy Hartanto, with international name recognition, while Singapore imports their biggest names for the events. This year it partnered with the CFDA to bring over Naeem Khan and Self-Portrait. Plus, Indonesia has a long artisan and craft tradition that reveals itself in the intricate batik, ikat, and lace that find their way into local collections. Singapore less so. This isn't, as I said before, a place that emphasizes making stuff. 

The whole experience wasn't fun exactly, but it was interesting, and I'm glad I did it. It provided a sort of a peak into the lives of Singapore's aristocracy. And it gave me a sense of what it means at the ground-level for a place like Singapore to try to shoulder its way into the global fashion market. I will go out again this afternoon to attempt more street style photos (don't hold your breath in anticipation for them, though! I might not get any). But I am done, thankfully, with shows for this season. After seeing eight in Jakarta and two here, I've done all the pre-show waiting room, iPhone-checking I care to do this year. 

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