Show Report

Show Report: Asian Couture Week 2013

by Sue-Wen Quek on 29 January 2014

Sue-Wen Quek reports on the changes afoot in the Asian couture scene and discusses the fashion on show at Singapore Couture Week.

Sue-Wen Quek reports on the changes afoot in the Asian couture scene and discusses the fashion on show at Singapore Couture Week.

Still from Asian Couture Week 2013, Marie Schuller

The mood that filled the air at this year’s Singapore Couture Week, held in late October 2013, was a strange one. After dedicating last year’s event to the French - where seven Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture members flew in with their president for a lavish event to promote the tradition in the east -the Singapore team Fidé Fashion, run by Dr. Frank Cintamani, has cut the umbilical cord to establish its own association.

Was it a bit too much, too fast? Dr. Cintamani is usually one for grand gestures and this year was no different. The week’s mainstay was the launch of Asian Couture Federation (ACF), a non-profit organisation modeled on the 145-year-old French institution, and led by the businessman, who earlier this year received a knighthood from the French government for his contribution to haute couture. ACF currently brings together seven different countries – which speak seven different languages – for one objective: to put an end to the belief that fashion coming out of Asia is subordinate. It aims to promote and nurture regional talent, while cultivating an ‘attractive landscape’ in the hope that they will stay in their birthplace instead of relocating to more creatively fertile environments. Western designers too can find themselves with support, should they wish to use Asia as their base.

The jury includes Kenzo Takada as vice-president, and figures from other recognisable institutions, such as Dr Satoshi Onuma, ex-president of Japan’s Bunka Fashion College (Junya Wantanabe and Yohji Yamamoto are amongst its alumni) and Kullawit Laosuksri, editor-in-chief of Vogue Thailand, all of whom are strategic appointments by Dr. Cintamani.

‘We want to inspire and lead a whole new generation of designers into changing their mindset of where they need to be,’ Dr. Cintamani says. ‘[ACF is] only the first measure to stop this huge exodus of talent that’s being exported overseas, just because we’re not sorted out enough to contain the talent that is here.’

Like the Chambre Syndicale, there are members and guest members selected by the jury; currently, Guo Pei (China), Sebastian Gunawan (Indonesia), Yumi Katsura (Japan), Lie Sang Bong (Korea), Junko Koshino (Japan), Michael Cinco (Philippines) and Frederick Lee (Singapore) claim the highest title of Asian Couturier Extraordinaire, mainly for their years of experience in the business (at least 20) and their commercial viability. Invited members consist of Yoshiki Hishinuma (Japan), Keita Maruyama (Japan) and Vatit Itthi (Thailand). The idea is that these members and jury will inspire the younger generation, by providing mentorship and practical experience.

Presentations by the members, and a handful of French couturiers such as Alexis Mabille and Stephane Rolland who choose to still come to promote their brands, continue to be a social affair with evening schedules and hours of waiting time in between. Champagne and macaroons were served (a more local delicacy would have been a nice touch), alluding to a luxury that has been lost in the hamster wheel that is the show season in Europe and America - but exasperating for those who just want to get on with it. It was even more frustrating when the shows, by couture standards, paled in production value or were not particularly moving.

‘I still have yet to understand why [the ACF members], all prominent designers in their own right, have not been able to go beyond the scope of their own countries. The Korean designer Song Zio for example – he’s in Paris and New York and yet why am I not hearing more about him in the global market? These are the questions we need to address and fix,’ Dr. Cintamani says.

So naturally, the question of taste came up a lot – is the reason why these designers weren’t breaking the global market because of that, not the lack of an association to promote their names? And yet who is to say what’s dubious if they are commercially successful and providing for a market hungry for fashion? Fundamentally, Dr. Cintamani urges it is all a matter of marketing, to ‘re-educate everyone so they understand that it’s all right and very cool to support and consume Asian.’

The kind of marketing he might be grateful for is a timely release of the novel Crazy Rich Asians by Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan, who semi-fictionalises his first-hand experience with the ‘rarefied world’ of people with generational wealth. ‘From Madison Avenue to Old Bond Street, the jet-setting Asian shopper has become ubiquitous, and I think there's been a great deal of curiosity about who these people really are,’ says Kwan, whose book, which shows a side of Asia that is more intimate and nuanced, is to be released in a film produced by Hollywood’s Color Force, the production company behind The Hunger Games.

Kwan shares with us insight to the peculiar Asian behaviour and taste, which he says typically inclines towards ‘the importance of status and how one’s lifestyle reflects or boosts that’. ‘There are two extremes to [their behaviour]: the hideously rich who choose to live like complete paupers, almost to the detriment of their own health and comfort, and others living these imperial lifestyles with armies of servants, multiple homes and private jets,’ he observes. ‘But the one thing they all have in common is a high level of connoisseurship.’

Generations of artisanal skills to textile design in places like Indonesia or Thailand have stagnated because they lack the stimulating environment that designers and artists bring to places they inhabit. A handful of western companies that come and go is not enough.

Given this state of evolution it is pertinent that taste, according to Dr. Cintamani, is not regulated. ‘It needs to be very uncontrived and natural in its development and the designers need to design for the market that they are in,’ he adds.

It is all too easy – and unproductive – to condemn the efforts from Singapore. In reality, the need for such an initiative is indeed gaping and requires someone with such bravado to put it in action. Generations of artisanal skills to textile design in places like Indonesia or Thailand have stagnated because they lack the stimulating environment that designers and artists bring to places they inhabit. A handful of western companies that come and go is not enough. And then there is the abundance of wealth circulating the region looking for places to park.

What’s also happening is a lack of deep understanding or appreciation of the Asian culture – from its own people. At its best, ACF will help to change this perception. Dr. Satoshi Onuma, who lends his experience in education, says looking inwards is necessary for the Asian fashion identity to become original. ‘In the last century, people saw the need to go to the west to learn about fashion, and therefore western globalisation happened. An association like this will help create a system where you can stay and learn about your own country and culture,’ he says.

Kenzo Takada believes that Asian creations are already at the same technical stage as those from Europe, and what they need to do is start building on its history – documentation that ACF can help facilitate.

Chinese designer Guo Pei, who put on the week’s showstopper, says the efforts are great not just for Asian designers but also for its people. ‘In China we have a saying; we plant a tree not for ourselves but for our future generation. Couture [and ACF] is a responsibility, and I want to contribute as much as I can for the future of the industry,’ says Guo, who will leave her legacy behind as China’s first modern couture designer. Her presentation, which featured looks from a collection made three years ago (‘I don’t do seasons, I do a show when the feeling is right,’ she says), took each model roughly 15 minutes to walk down the runway – as if her feet were bound – but there was a lot to take in. Of course against the effortless French elegance we are familiar with, the theatrical display may come across to some as gaudy – but her vision was daring and imaginative, and revealing of the country’s ambition to make an impression.

Having launched his series of fashion weeks three years ago, Cintamani has tirelessly put into place a fashion structure for all of Asia, in attempt to turn the region around and establish it as a place not just for absorbing goods but also for producing creative fashion. There’s great promise, but its success falls upon the faith of the various institutions, creative individuals and visionaries, including the high-powered industry people who gathered at the International Herald Tribune’s annual luxury conference to discuss the potential of South East Asia, held in Singapore just last month. On top of that, the power of the unpredictable social media means there is no way of knowing what the future holds.

In retrospect, Asia’s focus on luxury symbolises the opposite of a ‘fast fashion’ attitude, an important theme for the world today with fashion contributing to the worrying amount of waste, cheap labour and poor working conditions. To be a real advocator of this, ACF and its subsidiaries should aim to set a high creative standard that is challenging and original – beyond just pretty gowns. The tight whip and rein needs to be loosened to not impede on creativity. Their good business sense should be a blessing not a hindrance. Do we really need more fashion today? Probably not – but if successful, competition from Asia as a creative and financial power might just shake up the sameness seen in Western design; then, it’s a win-win situation.



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