Observing Shanghai – A Year Later

May 8, 2017

by Gracia Ventus


Outside of central Shanghai lies a small water town called Qibao. A Chinese water town is typically marked with a canal flanked by buildings in the style of traditional architecture, complete with arched stone bridges. Though Qibao is not as impressive as Suzhou and Hangzhou's historic water towns, it presents a change of scenery from Shanghai's typical urban environments.

Vandalize Bomber Jacket Undercover | The Rosenrot - For The Love of Avant-Garde Fashion

Vandalize Bomber Jacket Undercover
Vandalize Bomber Jacket UndercoverWearing: Vandalize bomber jacket; Alexander Wang x H&M bra; Ann Demeulemeester trousers and boots

It is generally not advisable to visit touristy areas during a long weekend as one will be neck-to-neck with a million other domestic tourists. However I decided to take a Sunday off for the sake of keeping my sanity, so I took a chance and cycled for an hour all the way to Qibao, which gave me a chance to see more of Shanghai's suburbs.



Just as I had expected, the narrow alleys of Qibao were packed with visitors, but surprise surprise, the traditional tea houses were much emptier. I managed to find a table overlooking the canal. From my vantage point I could see the opposite buildings, one of them with a set of staircase that leads to the water. People came and went - someone even decided to take a leak in the middle of the steps. It reminded me of the time I looked out of my second-storey window to see an elderly man peeing by a tree, his jewels out in their full and frontal glory. It was not a sight I would wish upon my enemies.


Despite accelerated advancements in modernity and technological innovations - China's e-commerce ecosystem is vastly more futuristic than any I've come across in developed regions - it is still mired in income inequality. A large part of the population struggles to make ends meet even in a city as prosperous as Shanghai. Through my conversations with taxi drivers, I found out how gruelling their work hours are. Some choose to work as much as fourteen hours a day, others work every other day for a full 24 hours each time. Couriers and food delivery boys work six to seven days a week, each day over twelve hours, rain or shine. Old grandmothers collect styrofoam boxes and cardboards, piling them high over their heads on rickety old motorised cart-bike hybrid. Fruit and vegetable sellers peddle produce on wooden carts. They have to be constantly on the move or they might get fined by wardens. At night, after finishing their day jobs, younger couples would park their pushcarts at the side of the road, selling noodles that they fry on the spot while keeping an eye out for the police.

For many people in China, being poor becomes a driving force to find work in the unlikeliest places. For the younger generation eager to eke out their place in the world, it forces them to be crafty entrepreneurs, even if it means illegally selling barbecued skewers at the side of the road.


With that said, there is a downside to this can-do attitude and misplaced optimism rooted in the belief in meritocracy. It fosters a dog-eat-dog community that ironically would not gain their revered Mao's approval. A combination of the need to protect oneself and the pride of having made it in the world leaves one with little room to be kind to those who have fallen through the cracks. Many urban youths who have silver-spoon upbringing - and their parents who have forgotten what it was like to be poor - do not have empathy for the struggles of the working class, which manifests in the form of ugly, abusive tantrums directed at service providers.


I sipped on my steaming cup of tea. The pungent aroma of smelly tofu permeated the air. A cleaner on a wooden motorised raft drifted down the canal to pick up rubbish that have been carelessly thrown about. For a while it distracted me from William Gibson's Count Zero. It's a difficult read, if I can be quite honest.


Why I Was Not Disappointed by The Met Gala

May 6, 2017

by Gracia Ventus


The key to avoiding disappointments is to not have expectations.

Which is why the Met Gala's lack of appreciation for Comme des Garçons hardly bothered me. It is to be expected that most of the celebrated attendees would ignore the theme, especially one so conceptual and focused. We have to see the Met Gala for what it is - a circus of sponsorships, fundraising, and ultimately, money.


I love the Harry Potter book series. I've read all seven books, some of them twice. When the first movie came out, I was incredibly excited. Unfortunately I found myself leaving the cinema feeling less than thrilled with it. The movie felt like a poor summary of the book despite the beautiful visuals. I gave the second installment a chance, and by the third I was tired of being disappointed. From then on I decided to skip the rest of the franchise, opting to catch glimpses of them on various corners of the internet.


This is how I feel about the Met Gala. Despite being given broader themes to experiment with in the past few years, invited celebrities did not bother to stick to them. Given that this year's theme is very specific, the blatant disregard was even more glaring. Fortunately I also didn't bother to invest my expectations in it.


To understand why the VIPs were treating this event as another run-of-the-mill red carpet party, we need to look into the history of the Met Gala.

First and foremost, the Met Gala is the single biggest fundraiser event for the Costume Institute - the only wing of the Met which has to finance its own exhibits and activities. When it began hosting these dinners in mid 20th Century, the invitees were mostly the elites of New York. In the 70s, Diana Vreeland - one of fashion's most celebrated icons and thinkers - took over the leadership of Costume Insitute, bringing the quality of the exhibits to new heights. Anna Wintour took over the position in the 90s, shifting the focus from the exhibits to the star-studded annual dinner party, much like what she has done for her own Vogue.


Every year, only 600-700 people are allowed to attend this party. If you have plenty of spare cash, a seat at the table would cost you $30,000. However, being able to fork out the money doesn't guarantee a name on the guest list. Not only is there a queue, Anna Wintour has the final say on the list of attendees. She is thus solely responsible for the abhorrent and irrelevant herd of celebrities whose contribution to fashion, design and culture is none other than perpetuating the objectification of women and the fixation of youth in the form of Hadids and Jenners.

If you're wondering why many of the attendees were wearing the same brands, that's because these brands have bought tables - costing as much as $275,000 - and invited their chosen personas to their seats. If one accepts this invitation, one must wear the brand's clothes. The non-negotiable contract forces the celebrities to double as walking billboards. This is why, ladies and gentlemen, you should not have expected anyone famous to wear Comme des Garçons. Instead, what we saw was a throng of prom kings and queens dressed up for a fancy shampoo commercial.

The Met Gala in its entirety has been transformed into a glitzy marketing exercise for the Costume Institute, as well as Anna Wintour's Vogue. Comme des Garçons is simply the sideshow - something which Rei Kawakubo and Adrian Joffe were well aware of. It is a celebrity-driven media circus whose sole purpose is to attract wealth and eyeballs by pandering to the lowest common denominator. The unfortunate consequence is that the celebrated guests consisted mostly of sensationalist individuals who cared more about the camera than the exhibits or goals of the Costume Institute.





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Undercover’s Mysterious Partner

April 17, 2017

by Gracia Ventus

Vandalize Bomber Jacket

Wearing: Vandalize jacket; Comme des Garçons curved seam trousers; Adidas Tubular Dooms

I've only started fully appreciating Undercover when its designer Jun Takahashi released the Borremans collection in Fall/Winter 2015. It is a label that I've personally found to be more popular amongst the boys despite the fact that he's been producing adventurous yet polished womenswear in the last few years, no less impressive than Sacai and Marni. Diehard UC fanboys can be found throughout various corners of the Internet, sporting Joy Division prints, hand-printed bombers and embroidered moto jackets. What's unknown to many is that Undercover was not founded by Takahashi alone. He once had a partner, and his name was Hironori Ichinose.

Ichinose and Takahashi met each other while they were studying in the world-renowned Bunka Fashion College, which boasts famous alumni such as Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe and Tsumori Chisato. Takahashi went on to open his first store with Nigo - the founder of A Bathing Ape - in Harajuku in early 90s, but it is unknown whether Ichinose was still a partner in the business by then. The latter subsequently founded his own line called Vandalize, though very little information can be found about it on Google since its website is no longer in operations. What is certain is that throughout the years, both UC and Vandalize had done joint collaborations. Vandalize reprinted UC's early t-shirts, while they both worked together to reproduce an MA-1 bomber that was a key garment from Vandalize.

Undercover x Vandalize

Unlike the collaboration, the original Vandalize bomber is neither hooded nor fleece-lined. However the central components remain the same - chiefly the reversible cargo vest fastened to the body with hidden velcro. The jacket is fitted with two sets of zippers so that it can be closed with the vest in or outside. And these zippers are hefty yet smooth. It's a garment dripping with utilitarian intention, except perhaps the giant metal Vs attached on the sleeves - small aesthetic details that I can appreciate.

For more examples of the collaboration, here's a Grailed listing for one of the jackets, an image I stole from Superfuture, and a listing sold by a Japanese store ten years ago.

Vandalize Bomber Jacket

Nakano Broadway

Nakano, September 2016

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Long Live Issey Miyake

April 16, 2017

by Gracia Ventus

"I was always interested in making clothing that is worn by people in the real world." - Issey Miyake.

The appeal of Issey Miyake goes beyond aesthetics and his adventures in fabric technology, extending to his focus on creating egalitarian garments and steadfast humility despite being one of the most influential designers in modern fashion history. Set against the chaos of a typical old Shanghainese neighbourhood, I made a set of editorials to celebrate the vibrance of Issey Miyake's enduring pleated works. All featured Issey Miyake garments are available here.

Issey Miyake Pleats Please
"From the beginning I thought about working with the body in movement, the space between the body and clothes. I wanted the clothes to move when people moved. The clothes are also for people to dance or laugh."

Issey Miyake Pleats Please

"We can also cut by heat - heat punch. And we also can cut by cold - extreme cold. When you cut with heat, it makes a mark. With cold, no mark. It depends on the fabric."

Issey Miyake Pleats Please

"Well, what I'm doing is really clothing. I'm not doing sculpture."


Anonymity of A Trench Coat

April 14, 2017

by Gracia Ventus

Issey Miyake Vintage Trench Coat

When I grow up I want to be a Rembrandt painting

Ah the classic trench coat. A ubiquitous garment with a rich history we now take for granted.

Issey Miyake Vintage Trench Coat

It was the start of the First World War and the British Army had a major fashion problem. Modern long-range weapons were invented recently which replaced close-range muskets and cannons. Previously, soldiers wore bright colours so commanders could identify their troops, think Napoleon jackets in vivid navy blue. This way they would also avoid being stabbed by their fellow soldiers who might have mistaken them for the other team. With the invention of long-range weapons, soldiers dug trenches and stayed in them most of the time. Once in a while they would go over to shoot a few enemies, then back to the trenches if needed. Bright colours made way for khaki and dust that allowed soldiers to blend into their environments. However, the squalid trench conditions - often wet and brimming with human waste and dead people not too far away - became the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and diseases which seeped into the lice-infested woollen great coats that the soldiers wore. The visiting officers found this to be very problematic as the coats impeded mobility, especially in wet conditions. In came the trench coat, inspired by the Macintosh but refurbished by Aquascutum and Burberry with waterproof fabric - the gore-tex of the day. To this day no historians have come to a proper conclusion with regards to the sole inventor. What was known for certain was that the typical waterproof cotton gabardine we now use in trench coats was developed by Burberry - a name now solely associated with the garment.

The officers soon adopted the waterproof double-breasted coat as a uniform staple. Every component of the jacket was dripping with practicality, from the deep pockets to the shoulder straps that allowed officers to show off their ranks. Even the small cape at the back - a feature I'm particularly fond off - has the purpose of letting water slough off the coat. Because it was shorter and lighter than great coats, they were well suited to deal with the difficulties of newly-modernised warfare that often required spending days in dirty trenches - hence why it became known as the trench coat. But ah, a foot soldier was not allowed the privilege to wear one of these garments. Instead they still had to make do with lice-infested great coats that soaked up water like a sponge. Trench coats were only reserved for officers, who incidentally also consisted of the upper classes of the English society. Until the day they realised that they too became easy targets for snipers who could identify them by their coats. Long story short, officers were gradually picked from the lower classes who now had no choice but to kit themselves in fancy gears like their upper class counterparts. Stores up and down the high streets of London pandered to these newly-minted military leaders by offering the sought after trench coat. It wasn't long before civilians of all genders adopted the coat for themselves. Some did it to connect with their loved ones at the front, for many others it was fashionable to wear sombre, masculine clothing that reflected the harsh realities of war.

Issey Miyake Vintage Trench Coat

Wearing: Issey Miyake trench coat; Comme des Garçons trousers; Ann Demeulemeester belt; Margiela boots

The popularity of trench coats didn't die out with the end of the world wars. Thanks to its prevalence in Hollywood movies such as Casablanca, The Big Sleep and Blade Runner, it was cemented as a signifier of men about town and femme fatales. They have places to be and dangerous business to take care of. Over the years, its ubiquity provided a cloak of anonymity that sinks into the humdrum, the primary characteristic that gives the coat a permanent spot in Japanese sararimen wardrobes next to their dark suits. The collectivist nature of the Japanese workforce does not value the colourful crayon amidst a pack of monochromatic box. Much like the signifier of masculinity that is the suit, the coat shifted from a mark of world-weary, knowing personnels to meek docility in the face of giant bureaucracy.

Perhaps its also this anonymity that makes the trench coat a flasher's favourite mode of concealment.

Issey Miyake Vintage Trench Coat

"Friday night on Ninsei. He passed yakitori stands and massage parlors, a franchised coffee shop called Beautiful Girl, the electronic thunder of an arcade. He stepped out of the way to let a dark-suited sarariman by, spotting the Mitsubishi-Genentech logo tattooed across the back of the man's right hand. Was it authentic?" - Neuromancer, by William Gibson.



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Unmasking The Bullshit of Empowerment in Consumerism – Part 3

April 3, 2017

by Gracia Ventus


In her short non-fiction book ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf lamented that women had always been poor. And being poor was not a conducive condition to be creative. Hence they never had the opportunity to create meaningful literary work. When one does not sup well, one does not do well. When one does not sleep well, one does not think well. And that was the reality for most women until recent history.

Many of us in the 21st century no longer had to endure the appalling living conditions experienced by Victorian working class. We are given opportunities we take for granted such as basic education, legal protection, human rights and liberty (or at least the illusion of it), as well as access to life’s necessities.

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


To Consume is Human

We need food, clothes, education, skills and technology – software and hardware - in order to partake in the capitalist system of the 21st century, with the hopes that we can earn a proper living that will at the very least put us in a comfortable place to pursue the elusive goal of self-actualisation. Some might even argue that owning a mobile phone and access to the Internet is now more important than having a roof over one’s head.

Aside from meeting the basic needs of existence, there are other facets of consumption that are potentially enriching and empowering. In light of the horrendous plight that Victorian women had to endure, these facets of consumption have been significant in giving women opportunities to improve their lives, such as education, technology and access to the vast wealth of knowledge available on the internet, affordable healthcare, exercising legal rights to pursue freedom from physical and emotional harm (ie, divorce), and exercising one’s rights to choose when to be married and utilising contraceptives. I would even argue that being able to go to the gym is empowering for women, now that sharing the same space with men is no longer frowned upon. For many women, the act of attaining education and access to information has emancipated them from a restrictive life that was previously highly dependent on men. To paraphrase Bill Nye, in order to change the world, we need to educate women worldwide. Most women no longer feel the need to define themselves solely as walking human ovens; we are free to seek employment that feels meaningful to our individual selves – though still within some implicit social and economic boundaries – or create one without the need to seek permission from our male counterparts.


The Birth of Consumerist Culture

One can safely conclude that the act of consumption is neither inherently good nor bad. Yet today it has received a bad reputation, because consumption has evolved into a culture of consumerism – defined by sociologist Colin Campbell as a social condition in which consumption becomes the purpose of people’s existence. Consumerism is a modern phenomenon that occurred just a few centuries ago. When wages started to rise for the working class of Europe in the industrial era, people began to purchase small luxuries, like extra pairs of underwear or a mirror – what we consider everyday necessities now – then it snowballed into rugs, carved furniture, wigs – things that only the upper class could afford just a hundred years prior. The more they spent, the more businesses grew, the higher the employment rate, expanding Europe’s monetary prosperity exponentially. And thus began the consumer revolution – running the capitalist world as we know it. Today, we have things like brunch, botox, and bricks from Supreme.

While consuming is not inherently detrimental to our well-being – having things can expand our welfare after all – it has become the primary moral compass of our lives that is sinking ever deeper to the lowest common denominator in order to garner the highest amount of external validation. We seek happiness and fulfillment through the very act of consuming; it becomes the basis of our identity and sense of self, often a therapy to life’s ills and a means of overcompensation for self-inadequacy. If we seek to compensate for life’s woes by consuming inspirational objects of the higher order that prize intelligence, rewarding social life and meaningful labour more frequently than inane, dull things (which can be necessary but should be limited really), then I say, what’s wrong with consumerism? However, these are the useless nonsense which is glorified today.

Polish sociologist Zygmant Bauman put forth the argument that consumerism now shapes the entire social system in which we exist through our consumptions habits. These habits define the way we view ourselves, how we affiliate with others, and how we are valued as a person, by others and ourselves. A recent BBC podcast highlighted that older women are going under the knife and opting for botox in order to look good on social media. We are so transparent that Facebook algorithms can guess our age range, educational background, political affiliations, and possibly how dissatisfied we are at work. In other words, we define our sense of identity through the things we consume.

With the permanent existence of social media, the culture of consumerism has squarely implanted itself in our lives. Like it or not we are now subconsciously consuming beyond utilitarian and/or aesthetics purposes. In most instances, the brands we pick to the lifestyle we have chosen are the façade we want to project on instagram in order to cover up our deep insecurities and anxieties. It’s a self-serving decision to separate ourselves from the haves and have-nots, and to identify with the social tribes we want to belong to.

Can Feminism Align Itself with Consumerist Culture?

Consider the complexity of these scenarios. At any given time, somewhere in Shanghai, tens of thousands of Chinese factory workers who migrated from poor villages hunch over their work stations for over twelve hours a day in order to make iPhones, many of them used by lawyers who fight for the rights of women and children. Every summer, the children of Uzbekistan are forced to pick cotton during school holidays by their government who is supposed to protect and foster their wellbeing. It’s more than likely that this cotton, picked under slave labour conditions, would make its way to one of Lululemon’s numerous sub-contracted manufacturer (Lululemon does not practice vertical integration) that produces gym clothes for many women who would wear them to a de-stressing yoga class or a liberating pole-dancing session.

The act of consumption becomes problematic when it involves the exchange of money. In the 21st century capitalist society, some people inevitably have more money than others; this money is earned through the exploitation of a large group of people somewhere really, really, really far down the food chain. What began as a liberating economic system for the masses during the industrial revolution quickly became a self-perpetuating formula for wealth inequality.

And then there’s femvertising - a growing trend in which marketers, usually large corporations, bid for women’s money and attention by creating advertising messages specifically portraying the emancipation of women from social restrictions. These ads target women who are upwardly mobile, affluent and highly educated. Empowerment became something for women to buy. Many of these companies simply pay lip service through their taglines and positive visuals, but their products still perpetuate gender norms and beauty stereotypes. They also gloss over the reality that their products are not necessarily ethically-made, and often contributes to environmental degradation. Aside from correlating empowerment to a person’s buying power, underlying these femvertisements is the message that women – now with disposable wealth and emancipated from explicit patriarchy – has every right to take advantage of their individualistic freedom to varying degrees of selfishness, i.e. it’s my life I can consume whatever I want. Think of Kim Kardashian and her faux-empowering justification of her nude selfie. ““I am empowered by my body,” she wrote. “I am empowered by my sexuality.” Yes let’s continue glorifying women for their bodies, Kim, and not for our brains or our abilities in shattering the glass ceiling. With one photo and one sentence, empowerment has been trivialised - robbed from women who made extreme sacrifices by selling their bodies to feed their family - in order to to pad up a useless instagram account.

The culture of consumerism paints a bleak picture of the path humanity has taken; from self-absorbed social media usage to a rampant consumption of material goods. It is thus very tempting to say that the culture of consumerism and feminism are mutually exclusive because the former fosters inequality and individualistic selfishness devoid of empathy for the common good. And yet because of consumerism, the very same overworked factory proletarians are now able to send money back to their families back in their hometown so they no longer starve. They can afford to send their children to universities with the hopes that they can have a better future. In the last thirty years, an estimated 500-600 million Chinese have hoisted themselves out of poverty through the act of state-controlled capitalism and consumption, an unprecedented scale that no other country has ever carried out within a single generation. There are still many poor people in the country, but they are less poor than the previous generation.

While there is no black and white answer to the question, it is evident that the consumption of technology and education has been empowering for women young and old, every person rich and poor. Poverty will not be eradicated any time soon, but access to technology has given the impoverished opportunities to lift themselves out of dire situations. Mobile phones, now as cheap as they come (thanks to overworked Chinese), provided their fellow countrymen with access to Internet to find jobs, seek out friends, access (censored) information, and buy goods that will make them marginally happier. When they move up the social ladder, someone even poorer will take up the vacuum they have left behind. It is simply the reality of our capitalist society today. It’s not the healthiest of situations, but the globalised world has not been able to offer a better solution because we have sunk so far down in this toxicity that it’s far too difficult to imagine a different scenario.


A Compromise

Let’s face it, we are constantly bombarded with advertising messages that promise empowerment – most of them superficial. But it’s also foolish to dismiss them outright just because it’s de rigueur to be outraged at everything. The most empowering form of consumption is the kind that brings about opportunities to individuals and communities. Women of the 21st century have plenty to be grateful for, thanks to the feminists of the Victorian era who fought for our right to education and voting, even if our work is far from over. We also need to recognise that what is empowering on the surface to a certain group of individuals is not necessarily beneficial to large swaths of communities in the long run.

Consumption doesn’t necessarily have to be carried out on the back of frivolous, unhealthy products. We can vote with our wallet but we also need to be mindful that no matter how ethical we try to be, the economic system we are in will not eradicate the division of wealth. We are invariably standing on someone else’s shoulders so we can have our necessities and luxuries in life. Keeping that in mind, we should pass on the compassion to others with the hopes that the downtrodden would eventually lift themselves out of poverty, a dollar at a time. We can also support industries that generate profits from helping consumers and producers fulfill deeper needs of our lives – think pursuit of knowledge, science and technology, artistic endeavours, meaningful designs, empathetic social connections and awareness of our flaws while fostering relationships with others. While I do think that there is no such thing as truly ethical consumption under capitalism, until we can actually find a practical and sustainable economic system of production and consumption, the least we can do is to develop a new culture of consumerism.

Wearing vintage French army coat and trousers; Alexander Wang x H&M top; Ann Demeulemeester trousers and boots. Special thanks to Israel Sundseth for this series of photographs taken in Tokyo

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