Kurokawa and Humans As Walking Bags of Contradictions


December 1, 2016

by Gracia Ventus


Some days ago I almost died on the road. Twice. A bus sped through the pedestrian crossing, and a bike raced past the red light. But that's Shanghai for you and it's something that I've learnt to accept and navigate around. The city is rowdy, obnoxious, raw and vibrant. But there's no better place for a person to learn to survive in the 21st century metropolis than right in the middle of this beautiful chaos.

Despite the intense feelings I have for this city, sometimes I have to escape to a serene place where I can hear my own thoughts, preferably with a dose of fresh air and comfortable amenities. Some place where I feel okay with being disconnected from the online world because I'm far too distracted by nature. Which is why I found myself back in Kurokawa - a small hot spring village up in the mountains of Kyushu.

Yohji Yamamoto

Wearing vintage poncho; Issey Miyake blouse; Yohji Yamamoto trousers; Ann Demeulemeester boots


I saw a shiba inu right outside the first ryokan I stayed in – Ryokan Wakaba. She belonged to the owner of the place. Such a friendly little critter she was, basking in my attention as I scratched her head. Between the both of us I wondered who was happier being up here. I know I’ve missed this place tremendously.

kurokawa-1

It was good to be back.


Dinner was a quiet affair – a full course Kaiseki, each dish artfully arranged in its intricate pottery bowls and plates. I was ushered into my own little private dining room, which was a pleasant arrangement not necessarily found in other ryokans. There was a low table in the middle and I sat on the floor. I began with the first course – a grape-flavoured aperitif. As I worked my way through the deliberately tiny portions, I picked out a slice of red marbled raw meat sprinkled with spring onions, and dipped it into a sweet and salty soy sauce next to the bowl.

You know, Rei Kawakubo used to hire models of colour. When I watched her 80s runway shows, there were powerful black women strutting down the runway. The ones walking for her today are young white girls - each one with make up that made them unrecognisable from the last – as if they have become blank canvases for Rei to display her artwork on. In the age of social enlightenment across cultures (the good) intermingled with a competition for moral superiority (the bad), it seems like she’s going out of her way to remove herself from the discourse of identity politics.

I chewed the meat gingerly to savour its taste. Mmmm this is pretty soft for beef, and tastier too. I compared it to the other set of raw meat which I knew for sure was beef that I had to grill. How odd, they have slightly different marbling. I glanced at the menu for clues. Recognising a few Kanji words on it, I realised that I had just eaten raw horse sashimi, which happened to be a Mount Aso delicacy. To say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable surprise was an understatement.

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I found myself on my laptop after dinner trying to pen down my thoughts. There was no better place to be doing some reading and writing, sitting on the tatami floor as the sounds of the river became my soundtrack for the night.


I stepped gingerly into the hot water after washing myself. There was no one else in this indoor bath. That’s always been the appeal of Kurokawa to me, never having to share a bath with more than 2-3 people at any one time. Too often I found myself alone, just the way I like it.

I scooted over to the far side of the bath, opening the window to let in some fresh air and watch the outside world stand still as I let steaming water warm me up. There was a bridge not too far away with a few people coming and going. The night view was serene with barely any light.

Is it a form of American Imperialism and arrogance when people point out cultural appropriation in fashion outside of the country? After all, non-Western societies did not share the same troubled relationship nor historical contexts as white people with other racial groups, even if Asia does grapple with its own respective versions of racism irrelevant to their arguments. Why are American liberals so eager to play the same blame game on the rest of the world where the contexts are vastly different? Why are non-Americans expected to conform to American sensitivities while many American liberals remain myopic to the histories and cultures outside of the West? I have seen smug Asian-Americans on their moral high ground telling Asians how to feel, how to behave. Your culture is being exploited, you must feel indignant and stomp your feet. I believe that every person has a right to feel offended as much as the right to not feel offended. To command one to feel otherwise comes across as another form of oppression.

I walked back to my room, ready to tuck myself into the futon bed that has been laid out for me earlier when I was having my dinner. It’s the little details like this that make lodgings in traditional ryokans so memorable.

Yohji Yamamoto

I left Ryokan Wakaba after breakfast to have a bit of a stroll before checking in to a different one nearby called Ryokan Shinmeikan, but was distracted by a small café just a short walk away. I sat down with a steaming mug of black coffee, which I've only learnt to enjoy only recently, on a bench right outside the shop accompanied by a book that I was finishing. It was a William Gibson – a rather inappropriate choice considering the rustic, peaceful village setting. The one place I felt comfortable not being connected to cyberspace.

I’m addicted to my phone. It has to be with me at all times or I feel incomplete. It doesn’t matter if I couldn’t access the Internet. I’ve poured so much of my life, my memories, and my work into it that it’s become an extension of myself. Without it I feel like I’ve lost the use my thumbs.

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I left the café to continue my walk. The roar of the river and the majestic evergreen trees guarded the peace and tranquility that permeated the village. Up in this mountain, Mother Nature commands respect from her visitors.

Masculinity, for all its fixation on power and dominance, is actually very much like its physical symbolism the testicles, i.e. fragile and must be protected at all cost. Every time masculinity faces a threat, whether it’s from words written by women, gender-bending clothes, laws that protect women and minorities misconstrued as infringement on men’s rights, angry males would retaliate in anger and violence, never mind that most of those issues are irrelevant to them personally. If anything the phrase ‘grow some balls’ would mean an increased surface area for exposure to pain and accidents. Sometimes humans don’t make much sense.


After my stroll, I went for lunch in this Japanese curry place that looked like a cross between a log cabin and a speakeasy. Rows upon rows of copper mugs were arranged on the shelves alongside dainty teacups. Their specialty was the horse meat curry, but I chose my annual dish that was black pork curry. As small as the village of Kurokawa was, it did not have a shortage of delicious food choices. From sashimi to udon, even desserts such as glutinous rice balls in sesame paste accompanied by the most delicious homemade pickled radish, there was nothing disappointing high up these mountains.

We humans are either too lazy, tired or distracted to fully engage in the pursuit of knowledge that would equip us with the tools to make the best decisions in our lives. The very act of earning sustenance leaves us physically and mentally drained, and we alleviate that fatigue by consuming material and experiential goods to distract ourselves, some of which are good, many of which are detrimental to our wellbeing. We are incapable of seeing the long-term implications of our actions, so we make decisions that do not maximise our welfare. Couple that with the irrationality of our emotions that rule our decision-making processes, it’s no wonder we are constantly doing a waltz with self-sabotage. This leaves us to depend on Leviathans to guide our lives. Whether we want to or not, we have learnt to trust that they would do what is best for us. These Leviathans used to be governments. Yet trusting them to do the right thing has not always yielded the most fruitful of outcomes, because governments consist of people who are prone to irrationality. As big governments become less trustworthy, corporations step in to fill up that growing need for a moral compass. They become the ones who guide our way of thinking, preferences, behaviour and patterns of consumption. We don’t trust them any more than we do most governments, but we have quietly resigned our privacy rights and self-control to them without putting up much of a fight.


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Another short morning run, followed by half an hour of hot soak in the outdoor area. At half past seven in early winter morning, no one seemed to share my enthusiasm for an open-air bath, hence I found myself alone again, thankfully. This particular bath was what pulled me back to this ryokan. Beautiful roof covered a shallow stone pool, surrounded by sturdy bamboo trees. In the midst of the cold breeze I had never felt warmer than this, physically and mentally.

To be free of life’s troubles and the reality of human condition, even for an hour, is a luxury that I truly cherish. In the grander scheme of things, we don’t know how our act of consumption, no matter how well-meaning and selective, will benefit humanity on the whole. But we like nice things and pleasant experiences. I know I do. It feels good to be able to support smaller companies and individuals that continue to put forth their different ideas in an increasingly corporatised world. I say this with my fullest awareness as someone who wears Craig Green with Adidas, while using Instagram and Facebook to communicate with people from all over the world.

Yohji Yamamoto

After my last breakfast in Kurokawa, I walked down to the bank of the creek, hoping to read a few more pages before I had to board the bus back to Fukuoka airport. This time it was a Murakami. The sky was slightly overcast. There seemed to be more tourists than yesterday. I kept glancing up at the looming evergreen trees that surrounded this area, knowing that I would miss this place as soon as I left. I hope to be back for another pilgrimage next year.


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Yohji Yamamoto, Kublai Khan, and Fukuoka


November 8, 2016

by Gracia Ventus


Yohji Yamamoto Suit

In a few hours, America would wake up to the end of a highly controversial election, as well as the shattering of either the glass ceiling or the dumb ceiling. Meanwhile it's late in the afternoon in Shanghai. The temperature had dropped ten degrees within a single day. The skies are grey, the air damp.


When one speaks of Japan, one hardly talks about the southern island that is Kyushu, nor its biggest city Fukuoka. In the transitional weather between summer and autumn, rain fell constantly with no sun in sight. Yet it doesn't detract from the understated beauty of the city. Nestled between grey square buildings reminiscent of Japanese drama of the nineties lie well-pruned greeneries, large temple grounds and shrines. I don't want to be overly gushing as one might expect when writing about this country, which is why I had been reading Murakami prior to writing. Trust him to paint a sombre picture of a country I see with my rose-tinted tourist glasses.

Nature in FukuokaNature in Fukuoka

Nature in Fukuoka


Nine centuries ago, Kublai Khan the greedy Mongol barbarian - sitting on the throne of Chinese empire - was eyeing Japan. In the beginning, he behaved like that persistent guy from Tinder who sends nice messages but really just views women as a form of conquest, i.e. dispatching emissaries with letters across the sea bearing the request that Japan gives up its sovereignty to China. "...Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms."

Mind you the latter just wanted to handle Japan's foreign affairs; they were kind enough to not meddle internally. Needless to say, the Japanese wasn't too keen on being under the thumb of the ruthless Mongols. As to be expected with any stubborn dudebro, Khan didn't understand the word no. More letters were sent, occasionally with an army as part of the arm-flexing exercise. In one of the later episodes, the Japanese shogunate finally lost their patience so they went full Spartan and killed the Mongolian emissaries. This enraged Kublai Khan (what a delightful name to pronounce) who then proceeded to send his troops over to invade Kyushu. Several times, in fact. Though Khan had a much bigger army, his attempts were - fortunately for Japan - constantly thwarted by bad weather.

It was this typhoon that came to be called the Kamikaze (Divine Wind), and was the origin of the term Kamikaze used to indicate suicide attacks by military aviators of the Empire of Japan against Allied naval vessels during World War II.


Yohji Yamamoto Suit

Yohji Yamamoto Suit

Though smaller than Tokyo, Fukuoka boasts its own Comme des Garçons store, away from the central area but right across an eatery that serves delicious udon and soba. These noodles come in bowls much larger than my head, submerged in a generous portion of warm light broth. One couldn't have asked for a better meal in the chilly weather. In the evening I ducked into a ramen shop for a bowl of traditional Hakata ramen - known for its rich, pork-bone based soup - that cost me half of what I'd have paid in Shanghai. French food connoisseurs wouldn't be too happy to learn that I had turned a main dish into my appetiser, because half an hour later I found myself going to the seafood diner next door favoured by the locals. The sashimi was so fresh that it wouldn't be preposterous to assume the fish was alive just twelve hours ago. It was also the first time I truly enjoyed raw octopus, which on previous occasions had tasted no better than rubber bands dipped in gasoline.

One does not go to Fukuoka to experience the hustle and bustle of large Japanese cities. This place is a respite from the crowds and clichés of Tokyo, an exemplary glimpse of a quiet, orderly city life in Japan. You're surrounded by subtle details that make Japanese cities so liveable, like extreme cleanliness despite the lack of public trash bins, tree-lined roads, angular black suburban homes, civility and politeness, and high standard of food quality wherever one goes. Even the worst places serve decent food.

This city is like Comme Comme, with all the silhouettes of the mainline Comme but none of the drama.

Fukuoka Temple

Yohji Yamamoto Suit

Wearing: Yohji Yamamoto suit; Alexander Wang shirt; Ann Demeulemeester boots


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Life in Shanghai, Thus Far


October 19, 2016

by Gracia Ventus


Issey Miyake HaaT

Some days ago I was wearing black billowy clothes - this Issey Miyake Haat coat over a floor-length black linen dress - that would look appropriate while flying on a broomstick. It's too bad such magic doesn't exist so I took a short neon orange bike instead at a cost of US$0.20 a ride, thanks to a thriving bike-sharing system in Shanghai. Though the bikes are clunky and hardly considered efficient, they do get one across short distances rather well. So there I was, cycling along absent-mindedly when I spotted the traffic police stopping an unsuspecting rider on an electric bike. That was when I realised I am on a no bike road. In a split second I took the decision to make a very ungraceful U-turn to escape the dreaded fine. As I cursed and panted to avoid getting caught, the incongruence between my clumsy exertions and elegant clothes were hilarious to say the least.

It's been ten months since I first moved to Shanghai. Despite being ethnically Chinese and knowing how to speak the language to a certain extent, immersing oneself in this city has not been a walk in the park. Implicit rules are more important than explicit ones, so one needs to learn how to navigate through them like the locals do. Every small victory achieved here feels like big accomplishments elsewhere, such as negotiating on the amount of my traffic fine (yes I was caught once!), or negotiating, reading and signing rent contract in Chinese; this after looking at more than ten flats which gave me a glimpse into how Shanghainese shape their homes. It's been a steep learning curve with a long way to go, but there's no better place to grow than in a foreign land outside of one's comfort zone.

Issey Miyake HaaT
Wearing: Issey Miyake Haat coat; random shirt dress; can't remember the trousers; Jil Sander shoes


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The Dysfunctionality of Fashion


October 14, 2016

by Gracia Ventus


Junya Watanabe Parka

Junya Watanabe N-3B parka and sweater; Comme des Garçons trousers

I spend a lot of time waiting at airports. It used to bother me but now I've come to accept it as a part of my life. I have learned to enjoy the sights and sounds of humanity passing by, strangers from wonderful foreign lands on their way to other foreign lands; observing how us humans, despite all our flaws, are able to put aside our differences to work together. We have invented airplanes, hangars, motor vehicles, and majestic architecture while making sure that a million and one things operate smoothly so we can defy gravity to traverse through the skies. Watching the plane I'm supposed to board taxiing into the hangar gives me a slight sense of joy. Oh it's here on time! Oh no it's late, ah well that's normal. When one flies frequently in and out of China, an hour of delay is miraculous. Two is almost normal. Once I was even stuck on the tarmac in Hong Kong for three hours, waiting for the plane to be given clearance to fly into Shanghai. Not having a choice but to wait allows me to focus on writing, which seems to be how most of my essays are churned out these days. However, there are times when waiting and letting things take its due course still make me feel anxious because they represent things that fall outside of my control.

We know that change is the few constants in life, but we have difficulty accepting the kind of change in life that is not in line with our expectations. This is especially true in fashion, where people always want change at the quickest possible pace. To let time pass aimlessly is to let dollars and cents slip out of our fingertips. Dare I say that this is how our beloved capitalist system has shaped our mindset.

Comme des Garçons Ribbons

Comme des Garçons Crushed vest, ribbon trousers and sneakers

Fashion strives to innovate at the quickest possible speed, buckling under the pressures of the commercial system in the age of social media. As the pursuit of money dominates the power dynamics between commercialism and creativity, the relationship between them begins to turn toxic. Money is the angry guy who has no patience for the undulating course of creativity; it ignores the fact that as with all artistic endeavours, there's bound to be ups and downs. It manipulates and abuses creativity for its own benefit because creativity is at its mercy, ie. We can’t make clothes when we don’t have money. In reality, money is desperately dependent on creativity in order to continue existing.

As the tolerance for this dysfunctionality grows, this toxic relationship becomes the new normal. Hence why we feel it’s perfectly okay to have six seasons a year, or that Zara is producing new (unoriginal) designs at such a fast pace. When money rules the game, commercialism takes the driving seat. This toxic codependency between money and creativity has resulted in the game of revolving door in which designers are booted out or voluntarily quit every other season, and this door is spinning ever quicker. Designers are not given any room to breathe or make mistakes lest sales figure falls. The circus of who’s in and who’s out becomes the must-watch spectacle, and brands are using it as a way to gain eyeballs instead of empowering design teams and fixing problems from within. Every corporate fashion house hopes to snag a Philo or a Slimane, but more often than not it becomes the tragedy that is Justin O’Shea and Brioni.

How do we even begin to slow down? We have been conditioned to expect new ideas every six months from fashion brands in order for them to stay relevant. Considering the exponential increase in fashion labels out there, our limited attention span will never be able to process everything that is presented. It is no wonder that there are many fresh ideas from young labels that go unnoticed. They do not have the marketing resources to build the right brand image that will cater to the right audience every single season.

Imagine a scenario where brands can choose to showcase their work whenever they feel the need to. Designers would have more time to refine their ideas and recuperate. And as consumers we can focus our attention and engage with individual brands on a deeper level. It’s a system that is similar to another commercially driven industry like music. If musicians are allowed to dictate their own schedules, wouldn’t it be possible for fashion to do the same? Designers should be given the right to take part in or skip shows whenever necessary. Some have chosen to do so, but this is more of an exception than the norm.

There are certainly potential downsides to be considered when overhauling a broken system. While independent designers can choose to dictate their own schedules, creative directors are still under the thumbs of their corporate overlords. The idea of skipping a season would be seen as a dent in their yearly revenue, and no shareholders would be happy to hear that. And if an independent designer is only able to produce a collection annually, would that be an economically sustainable strategy? All of these concerns highlight the modern corporatisation of fashion and the influence of money over creativity. One way to get around this problem is to release an entire year’s collection one small batch at a time, which would help to keep the designer in the spotlight a few times a year. Much like how a musician releases music videos several times a year to keep album sales going.

Let’s not forget the proverbial elephant the fashion industry is still unable to address. The main driving force of fashion’s ever-increasing pace is to counter Zara’s knockoff effects. As soon as an idea has been copied and circulated a thousand times on the interwebs, it becomes dated, forcing designers to come up with the next new thing. For corporate houses, this becomes a fight for revenue. For independent designers, it’s a fight for survival. The solution that I can think of is to amp up the See Now Buy Now concept. Designers and manufacturers would have to work hand in hand so only collections that can be produced within a week or two would be shown. It requires innovative production strategies and value chain management that can rival that of Toyota’s. The current situation is such that, instead of making technology work in our favour, we have abused it in a way that works against us, speeding up the pace of change that we can no longer cope with. If creativity were to assert itself in this game, garment manufacturing would be one of the areas to apply itself in. We are still sewing t-shirts the same way since its invention - by manually-operated sewing machine. While I’m not advocating for the complete automation of all areas production, such as hand embroideries or lace making, we can learn to be less dependent on conventional materials and methods.

Yohji Yamamoto Y's For Men

Y's for Men jacket; Yohji Yamamoto trousers; Comme des Garçons shoes

I am aware that these ideas are no more refined than the first sketch on a napkin. So many pitfalls, yet so much to gain. How broken does the system needs to be before everyone considers counter-intuitive ideas? We've gone so far down the rabbit hole that we are unable to imagine what a healthy relationship between profit and artistry would look like.

When I was lamenting the time wasted waiting for flights, my attitude led to unproductive behaviour stemming from agitation and impatience. But when I began to accept it, I learned to appreciate that space in time that allows me to slow down and observe, to read and write. In a similar way, slowing down the pace of fashion requires an adjustment in our entitled attitude. We as creators and consumers should push aside the pursuit of immense profit to make way for long-term economic and environmental sustainability. Most importantly, we need to advocate for an equilibrium in which designers are incentivised to do their best work while allowing consumers to engage with their creations in a meaningful capacity.


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The Myth of Fashion As Self-Expression


September 8, 2016

by Gracia Ventus


Issey Miyake Bergdorf Goodman Ombre Coat

When I was younger I used to think that displaying one's tastes externally was cool, despite knowing that deep down inside I risked being uncool by wanting to be cool. However the compulsion was strong. I wore my Tool shirt with much pride, paired with the skinniest of jeans and the most hardcore of Harley Davidson boots. Ideally they should destroy someone's naked toes if I step on them. While my outlook remained the same, my interest gradually switched to fashion. I made sure people know of my hobby, which in itself is probably not a bad thing because every human craves for validation. But I was also secretly judging people for being unadventurous with their clothing choices. Instead of letting people be who they want to be, or wear whatever pleases them, I'd instinctively be tut-tutting their choice of clothing silently (she's wearing t-shirt and shorts with her birkin?!). I was an awful, despicable snob.

I was reminded of my old self because recently someone I spoke to complained of a girl who chided his preference for J. Crew. Her exact word was 'GROSS', before going off on a rant about how clothing is a way to express one's personality. To choose nondescript clothing labels to wear was a sign of a lack of it.

Her words echo this popular notion that fashion is a form a self-expression, that it is a genuine way of showcasing our inner self. I say it's utter nonsense.

Dress is an important dimension in the articulation of personal identity but not in the sense of voluntarism, whereby one's choice of dress is freely-willed, expressive and creative. On the contrary, this 'personal identity' is managed through dress in rather boring ways because societal pressures encourage us to stay within the bounds of what is defined as a 'normal' body and 'appropriate' dress. Too much attention has been given to self-expression and individuality, while ignoring the implicit constraints that we face every day (Enwistle, 2001, available here and here). In fact, we often make sartorial decisions based on practicality, whom to impress, whom not to offend, which fashion tribe to align to, what our heroes are wearing, and how we want the world to perceive us. There's also budgetary, class and social constraints that we have to adhere to. If fashion was truly a form of carefree self-expression, many of us would choose to be naked, and men would not feel insecure about their fragile masculinity when confronted with feminine clothing. The external pressure to dress a certain way is most evident in the realm of fashion blogging and street style, whereby the need to be recognised or conform to certain aesthetics (Southern prep anyone? Or the cool kids of Vetements?) often trumps other hidden desires. Even yours truly still falls prey to that. I know I love the clothes that I wear, but I'm also aware of the external influences of the zeitgeist, which is why my favourite shoes currently are my Rafdidas.

There are several reasons for one to feel the need to express their identity and these mainly revolve around issues of social status, economic class, gender, sexual orientation, age, race, ethnicity, religious condition, recreation and individualism. With the creative use of fashion, individuals are able to either confirm or subvert several of these facets about their identities, consequently transmitting culturally coded, visual messages about themselves. This personal identity that is often tied into fashion is a created self that has to be crafted through social interactions. While one can argue that we internalise these influences to make them a part of our existence, there are still plenty of other external forces that play a strong role in our decision-making processes, as mentioned above.

So why then are we so hung up on the idea that fashion is an authentic form of self-expression and personal identity? It's a romantic idea that is as clichéd and unhealthy as the line 'You complete me.'. Do we really believe that Justin Beiber is a big fan of Metallica when he wore their t-shirts? Should we care? Why do many of the most creative people in the world choose to wear black t-shirts all the time?

At the end of the day, we have to stop swallowing this myth because it turns us into judgmental creatures. It shouldn't matter whether a person dresses normal, lavish, outrageous, subtle, boring, so long as they're appropriate within the context of the situation (again, bowing down to external forces). We do our darndest to not judge a book by its cover, and we should do the same for fellow human beings.

Issey Miyake Bergdorf Goodman Ombre CoatIssey Miyake Bergdorf Goodman Ombre Coat

Issey Miyake Bergdorf Goodman Ombre Coat


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Is New Necessarily Better?


August 22, 2016

by Gracia Ventus


Celine-ribbon-dress-1Celine-ribbon-dress-2
Wearing: Céline dress; Issey Miyake dress; Jil Sander shoes

Are the days of Céline over? We don't seem to be excited over Pheobe Philo anymore. I remembered the days when Fashion was obsessed with stark Minimalism. All white everything! Absence of details! Desaturation! The uniform of the day was a big camel coat with Adidas stan smiths. I too, was swayed by Philo's magic. I loved her play with proportions and juxtapositions of mismatched colours. Fast forward to today, the new hot name is Demna. Love him or hate him, his influence is rather visible on the streets of Paris to Beijing. Bold graphic prints, oversized jackets, strong emphasis on reworked utilitarian and vintage clothing. I may not be a fan of Vetements anymore, but his first season of Balenciaga is something I'm looking forward to seeing in person.

At the end of the day, I'm reminded that no matter how obsessed we are about something, we will never stick to it forever. Something else is bound to capture our attention, regardless of whether the new is better than the old.


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