Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Morality of Health

There was much of outpouring of grief regarding Robin Williams' suicide; there was also much (needed) talk about how people with depression are stigmatized, and how suicide is not a failure but the very tragic outcome of a serious illness. I am glad this conversation is happening, but I cringe every time when someone says "They would never say that about someone who died of cancer", because they would and they DO. We live in the society that has made health a moral obligation, and illness a moral failure (which makes death downright embarrassing, and this is I guess why we cart off our dead in night to funeral homes).

We frame talk of disease in terms of fighting a war. We talk about the power of positive thinking. We assign blame. (Oh, you have diabetes? Are you overweight? Oh, you have colon cancer? Were you eating enough fiber? etc etc.) It is bad: if you or someone you love have been diagnosed with a serious illness, most everyone you know will share a personal anecdote about their cousin/friend/friend's cousin who was diagnosed with (some unspecified) cancer and was given six months to live (always six months for some reason), but who prayed/thought positive thoughts/ate macrobiotic diet and was "cured", and then all doctors were amazed and called it a miracle. The story never changes -- even wording is the same. It's the all-penetrating meme that masquerades as a concerned friend offering hope but in reality it is simply another manifestation of the virulent idea that you are responsible for your own health, and if you die of cancer, it is because you were not positive-thinking hard enough.

It comes I think from what David Ehrenfeld called "the arrogance of humanism": the persistent belief that humans are in control of their minds, bodies, environment, and therefore we can fix things when they go wrong. Combine it with the libertarian love of "personal responsibility" and boostrapping, so much promoted by the wealthy and other dominant groups. They want everyone to be self-reliant, so that the governments do not have to support the poor and the sick. Poverty and ill-health are a lot alike in some regards: everyone would like the poor and the sick to just go away, or at least have the decency and admit it's their own fault. Meanwhile, of course neither illness nor poverty are ever the fault of the afflicted persons. And of course they overlap a lot. It is amazing how convinced we become by this rhetoric.

You can see that in many facets of weight-loss campaigning, the implication being that it is not about aesthetic preferences of the society (it is) but because of concern about fat people's health (it isn't). And it is common knowledge that doctors routinely discriminate against overweight patients (especially women), assigning every illness to their being overweight, and recommending weight-loss as panacea. Those who die from complications of bariatric surgeries are treated as (ultimate irony) obesity-related deaths. And the death of a fat person is a double failure: failure to control flesh and failure to effectively battle illness. No matter what happens to an overweight person will be their fault, and they will be chastised by concern-trolling strangers for every trespass, no matter how small -- eating in public or having the gall to have high blood pressure.

So here we are, when every person diagnosed with cancer is "fighting bravely" and often "losing the battle with cancer". Every newly diagnosed will be gently questioned about their life choices to ascertain what was the cause of their illness (and if they were simply too poor to move away from a toxic dump near their birthplace, well that's just too bad). Because people are reluctant to embrace the fact that misfortune -- health-related or financial -- is often random, and might strike anyone at any time. no matter how many servings of vegetables they eat per day. Depression and other mental illness is no different: it is stigmatized, just like most other chronic illnesses, and it is attributed to something the person who has it had done wrong. Admitting the randomness would mean realizing that it could strike us, regardless of how many things we do to guard against it. And this fear, I think, is the ultimate cause of the failure of empathy and humanity that manifests every time someone calls Robin Williams a coward. Death is never a failure, but it is always sad.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Moscow Shopping

I have recently came back from Moscow, where I did a bit of shopping for clothes -- not something I usually do while there, because the prices generally tend to be a bit high, and I usually get jewelry or souvenirs. However, this time around I happened to stumble upon a couple of store that carry designers (Russian as well as Scandinavian) not readily available in the US, at the prices I can live with. And oh! I visited Razu.Mikhina showroom (I wrote about her designs previously here.) Not to mention, I got to meet Daria herself, which was a thrill all of itself.

Daria's showroom is located in the Vinzavod -- a center for contemporary art in downtown Moscow, filled with art galleries and indie stores, and shops for art supplies and little cafes.

The place has a really great energy, and Razu Mikhina showroom fits right in. Here are some pictures of the showroom as well as the workroom upstairs, which houses fabrics and samples of seasons past:

 (Who has two thumbs, comes to the showroom full of the most colorful clothes ever, and buys the white shirt above? This guy!)


I very much enjoyed the visit, and besides above-mentioned white shirt, I also scored one of Daria's gorgeous crepe-de-chine dresses. Here it is in action on a recent vacation:

Elsewhere in downtown Moscow, I found two stores I haven't been previously aware of. One is Nomer 8 (Number 8), a lovely basement space in the very heart of downtown Moscow, near Chistye Prudy. Like many worthwhile places, it is hidden in one of many spacious yards, so you have to look for it:

Here it is!

Inside, there are racks and racks of clothes by a variety of Russian designers, most of whom are small, independent, or just starting out -- no Sergeenko or Gazinskaya here, and thankfully the prices are quite reasonable. 

Some pieces by Casa Della Luna (the fish stripe shirt and the sweatshirt below), Podolyan (I think), and Primerova:

 Of course I bought the sweatshirt. I also picked up a couple of pieces by Olga Primerova, who is probably my personal favorite discovery on this trip. Her designs are remarkable in that they combine somewhat old-fashioned romanticism (of the sort you would find in some of Sergeenko's designs) with modern practicality:

Consider this light-weight cotton blouse, made unique by organza trim along the stand-up collar. This long voluminous skirt (cotton) has pockets, and is just a perfect piece for pretty much any season:

(I got this one in black and white check, and it's amazing!)

Seriously, if you are ever in Moscow and want to check out some of the less known local designers, Nomer 8 is the place. Not to mention, it has a lovely ambiance, helpful sales staff, and a nice jewelry selection.

Finally, I wanted to mention Traffik -- located walking distance from Nomer 8, in case you're planning a big shopping excursion and want to see some of the loveliest ponds and boulevards of Moscow. 

It's a beautifully designed and well-curated two-storied space that carries men's and women's clothes by a number of smaller, non-obvious brands, mostly European. I was pleased to stumble upon a few Rodebjer pieces on sale. I do love Rodebjer aesthetic, but always balk at the full prices (and shipping costs), mostly because while the cuts are very nice, their fabrics tend toward synthetic. So I was thrilled to nab a pair of their fluid, drapey pants.

So here we are! These are the places I will be visiting every time I'm in Moscow. And if you are ever there and are a fashion addict, these are highly recommended. And if you are not and just want to pick up a few souvenirs, fun art objects or hand-made wallets, go to Vinzavod and spend an afternoon. And stop by OchevidnoeNeverojatnoe. Promise you won't regret it!

Saturday, March 22, 2014


(Kate Wendelborn, designer of Protagonist)

Last week, I was fortunate enough to visit The Apartment once again -- this time to preview the second Protagonist collection. I waxed poetic about this new label before; I will likely continue to do so for years to come, because it pretty much has everything I look for in clothes: timeless, simple silhouettes with interesting details; luxury fabrics; fluid, skimming cuts; and philosophy based on simplicity and paring down. I am intensely curious to see how the designer, Kate Wendelborn, will evolve the idea of simplicity. As is, the shapes, cut in thankfully substantial, dense fabrics (even the silk crepe feels dense rather than flimsy, with a distinct albeit subtle sheen) with a fairly basic (although by no means simplistic) silhouette are pretty near perfect. The tanks accommodate bra straps and the seams are angled; the backs are longer than fronts; the detailing, be it the narrow swath of fabric of a deconstructed turtleneck, or a double layered fabric, or a smocked cropped hemline, or eccentrically long cuffs (reminiscent of sleevelets of Dickensenian clerks) are not only aesthetically pleasing but also enhancing the drape of the fabric. Moreover, these details also seem to be well on their way to becoming the brand's signatures. So the clothes are not only gorgeous but also functional.

 (Clothes on the racks in The Apartment's dreamy closet)

The attention to detail always pleases me: for example, I noticed that the closures, that used to be invisible hooks in the first collection, are now buttons, and that the cuts are slightly roomier. Of course I tried on a few things, so here are some hazy dressing room selfies:

I was especially pleased to chat a bit with the designer herself; Kate Wendelborn won me over by the unabashed joy with which she talked about her collection. It is clear that she designs the sort of clothes she likes to wear (which, to me, is a huge reason for preferring female designers -- they actually give thought to comfort and wearabilty, although apparently in some circles it is seen as a detriment). She looked stunning in all white Protagonist ensemble, favoring a minimal and clean achromatic look (and I was thrilled to hear that she is going to expand into making pants.) She talked about her plans for the future (knitwear! Prints for people who don't wear prints! So exciting!) and her approach to sourcing quality fabrics, and this conversation got me thinking again: Protagonist's clothes are undoubtedly luxe, and yet quite down to earth, which seems to be not unusual lately (cf this article on Celine and sartorial invisibility.)

It seems to be a definite trend in current fashion that luxury is simplicity: with fast fashion retailers mimicking whatever walks down the runways in a matter of weeks, the trends are becoming irrelevant. Quality is manifesting in the simple cuts manufactured in good textiles, and this is something I've seen lately with smaller designers. While the large fashion houses often seem to increase their profit margins by employing cheap labor, outsourcing manufacturing, and choosing synthetic fabrics (I will be dead in the cold cold ground before I pay a three-figure sum for anything in poly), it is the smaller independent houses that take time to source high quality textiles. In case of Protagonist, the weight and the drape are divine, and not something that could ever be mistaken for Zara. 

I will probably have more to say on all of these things -- the undervalued women designers and the difference in invisibility between Celine and Normcore, and on quality of textiles becoming the main signifier of luxury as opposed to visible embellishments of the eighties. For now though, I just want to scroll through the lookbook for Protagonist's second season, and dream about their fall collection. because there is always something new to look forward to, especially in fashion.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Links a la Mode - Independent Fashion Bloggers

Honored to be included with this week's Independent Fashion Bloggers roundup! A few great posts here, and of course I appreciate my little blog being included again.



This week in fashion has been bittersweet. First we lost a very talented woman, L'Wren Scott. Then the end of a particularly brutal Winter, Spring has officially begun. It's the changing of the guard, endings and beginnings, reminding us that nothing is forever. We have several links that challenge both old ideas (racism, sexism, both) and how to bring in the new (setting our Spring budget, getting to the gym, improving our diets) and even a nicely written post sympathizing with Fashion Blogger's significant others -- they have it so hard putting up with us!

Links à la Mode: March 20th

SPONSOR: East Dane Seea, Jed Marne, Michael Michael Kors, Ferragamo Sandals, YSL, SH Athletics, Ben Minkoff, Faherty, Venroy, Jimmy Choo

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Women's History and Diversity in Fashion

Besides March being the women's history month, this is also the time the fashion industry seems to reflect on its own lack of diversity -- even Anna Wintour's letter in March Vogue was dedicated to lamenting the harrowing whiteness of fashion. It seems especially interesting since fashion industry, traditionally dominated by women and gay men, has often found itself in the fringes in terms of respectability. And yet it remained perfectly content to exclude people of color, apart from occasional breathless infatuation with, say, Lupita Nyong'o, bordering on fetishistic. But I digress.

Diversity is one of those concepts that is fairly easy to pay lip service to, and it is also easy to complain about lack of diversity on runways etc. I am however a strong believer that while "voting with your wallet" might not always be the best strategy, directly supporting women- and especially women of color-owned businesses is a realistic way of effecting change. To that effect, here's a quick roundup of fashion designers who deserve our support.

1) H+OKO -- I heard about this new company recently, and fell in love with their edgy and yet work-appropriate minimalism.

How gorgeous is this top? While it's slightly reminiscent of Jil Sander, Nigerian-American Cin Oko and Korean-born Kay Ha are bringing their own sensibility and aesthetic to their first collection. The clothes are gorgeous, well-constructed, and appropriate to a variety of situation -- 9 am to 5 am, as the creators call it. They are currently running a Kickstarter, and I hope it gets funded. And this is a great, direct way to actually have an effect on increasing diversity in the fashion industry, not to mention, domestically-produced (they are based in NYC) clothing.

2) Another New York brand I wrote about before is Mandarin & General, which continues to produce lovely clothes inspired by traditional Chinese garb, by Taiwanese-born Peggy Tan. This is a line created by a cultural insider, and as such represents true authenticity as opposed to appropriative "inspiration".
It is also gorgeous, and the pieces, while beautiful by themselves, can be combined into unexpected proportions and interesting play on textures:

3) Finally, our perennial favorite -- Van Hongo, by the Japanese-born Izumi Hongo. You can find the review od her 2013 collections here, as well as links to reviews of all previous seasons., Her newest season, SS 2014 demonstrates her continued commitment to increasingly simple silhouettes and attention to textiles:

This collection is called The Layered Garden, and the layered looks and the pastel colors do evoke an image of a watercolor, with slightly blurred outlines and the colors ever so gently diluted. I appreciate how with every collection there are always references to what came  before (crossover tops, slouchy trousers) but also always something new, and how it seems to be progressing toward cleaner and simpler shapes. I really have been enjoying very basic yet interesting shapes lately, and this collection really hit a sweet spot. Her online shop has a great selection of knits, and those are amazing -- layered and complex, and truly unusual in their texture and technique.

So here you have it. For those of us who are interested in a plurality of viewpoints represented in fashion, it's a great time to step up and support independent designers. 

Monday, March 03, 2014

Ethnic Fashion, Cultural Insiders, and Razu Mikhina

I have written quite a bit on othering that occurs via fashion, including the notion of "ethnic" clothing being an extension of a culturally distinct group (also please see the Threadbared post that summarizes many of these points cogently). But I also think that the less appreciated side-effect of that is the fact that "ethnic" clothing has been explicitly excluded from fashion.

I the fashion world, "ethnic" or "national" clothing has been allocated its own weird niche: in the hierarchy from couture to pret-a-porter to mass market to high street, everyone recognizes each of these rungs as a part of the same system, which explicitly excludes clothing that is timeless, national in character, locally produced and worn, and uninfluenced by the fashion shows and magazines. The only way this clothing is allowed to enter the mainstream is by being appropriated -- be it "tribal" and "ethnic" prints that are swarming the runways, be they "locally sourced" textiles environmentally responsible fashion companies are shilling, or be it a scarf some personal style blogger picked at "this quaint market in Turkey" and styled with her required assortment of Isabel Marant and Zara. That is, ethnic clothing as it exists is antithetical to the very notion of fashion, and this rigid divide serves to exclude certain people from participation in fashion industry.

Now, an act of self-appropriation -- when, say, Duro Olowu makes a successful fashion career largely drawing on his Nigerian roots (and all the power to him!) -- seems to be the only way for a cultural insider to participate in mainstream fashion without abandoning clothing bound to its cultural context. Because outside appropriation is by definition shallow, cursory, and tone-deaf. The visually distinct groups are defined by the crude "tribal" caricatures, with little thought given to their unique characteristics, so we end up with monstrosities like "African prints" and "Asian influences".

On the other hand, Russian culture is an interesting case of being fascinating to the West and thus commonly appropriated, and yet the ethnicity tied to the culture lacking distinct visual characteristics. It is because of that, I think, the Western admirers of Russian culture rarely go for the folk component of the current culture -- such as traditional crafts and patterns -- and instead focus their attention on the mish-mash of the historical and imagined ethnic, much like Yves Saint-Laurent's 1976-77 Russian collection and Ralph Lauren's 1993. Both combine nods to the 19th century Russian empire and peasant dress:

This is the type of appropriation that renders any discussion of authenticity moot: much like is the case in literature, any criticism of inaccuracy is usually met with "well, it's only inspired by Russia!" defense. The trouble with it, of course, is that people perpetrating the appropriative acts and those defending them are the dominant cultural voices, who are unable to distinguish between a real culture and its imitation. Thus, we largely live in the world where many cultures are represented not by themselves, but by the dominant voices trying to articulate what those cultures ought to be like. And while the original ethnic dress remain firmly outside of fashion mainstream (much like folklore remains outside of the Western literary tradition), the cultural insiders making their voice heard within the mainstream become terribly important: without them, it's all just a distorted mirror held up by outsiders, who keep congratulating themselves on being inclusive and worldly.

For Russian fashion, such cultural insiders are rare. While there are many talented designers hailing from Russia, many of whom are even known in the West, most of them are a part of the fashion mainstream without relying much on their cultural background (which is by no means a criticism), and if they do draw on Russian history (most notably, Ulyana Segeenko), they do so via the elevated historical references to the height of the Russian Empire rather than more humble folk craft.

Now then. All this brings me to the one designer I wanted to talk about!  Daria Razumikhina of Razu Mikhina -- a designer who actually incorporates a lot of traditional techniques, such as appliques, embroidery, and soutache (we all know how I feel about soutache, right?) At the same time, this is the collection that is firmly connected to the present of its source culture (Razu Mikhina store is located in Moscow, and the lace she uses is made in Vologda, a famous center of traditional crafts), reasonably priced, especially compared to mostly four-figure designer duds, and imminently wearable.

 This coat, which I own, is not only gorgeous in its own right, it is also timeless. The design is quite simple, just like most of her shapes:

But the detailing is what makes it. While traditional, it is also artistic and unique, and often not too serious. Also, everything is domestically manufactured.

The clothes move well, and are plain fun to wear:

And this, to me, what ultimately ethnic and cultural influences in fashion should be: referential of the source culture yet interpreted through the designer's unique point of view, done by the cultural insider, and modern. Once such fashion becomes established, perhaps our view of the role of clothing will expand enough to allow for ethnic clothing, unfiltered through one person't perspective and dominant narrative, to be included in the conversation. One can dream.

Saturday, March 01, 2014


In a surprising twist of fashion fate, I recently got invited to a trunkshow in New York -- moreover, it was a Delpozo trunkshow, hosted by Moda Operandi at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute on Park Avenue. Since I am a fan of 1) Delpozo; 2) Moda Operandi; 3) Spain (especially Catalonia), I went, and Genevieve kindly agreed to accompany me. It was great!

Here's the thing about Delpozo: this is their latest RTW collection, Fall/Winter 2014 (which, incidentally, is what we got to see in person and close up during this trunkshow.) You can see why people are really excited about Delpozo's revival, and why their new designer, Josep Font, is deserving of every single nice thing that is being said about him. I love the combination of sculptural shapes with delicate detailing, and the color palette that combines the refined beige with poppy mustards and inky blues, classic black and marled grays with icy blue pastels, the very strong silhouettes of the coats with chiffon evening wear. This collection has everything: tailoring and draping, delicacy and strength, and in its forms it is somewhat reminiscent (albeit not referential) of another Spanish designer -- Cristobal Balenciaga. It might seem an obvious comparison, based on nationality, but I would argue that some of it is due to shared cultural touchstones: both have created outerwear reminiscent of traditional matador jackets. Moreover,  Font's background in architecture gives him the grounding and the skill to create proportions and shapes not bound by the usual expectations of figure flattery -- something Balenciaga has eschewed, relying instead on strong shoulder and sculptural volume.

At the trunkshow, I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Mr. Font, who was very sweet and unassuming and let me take his picture! So that was my fangirl moment of the day. Later, of course, I learned that I really should focus the camera while looking through my glasses, not above them.

Another lesson learned: if invited to a fashion thing, arriving early is a good strategy -- with few people, there are good opportunities to take pictures of racks and racks of clothing, nice wall paintings, as well as models wearing gorgeous outfits.

(Josep Font with the model)

(Can you tell how much I love this capelet? Yeah, this much.)

And final lesson: if I am ever to host a swanky event, invest in a great looking venue and some faux leopards.

All in all, another great outing. And I got to wear my new favorite coat by Daria Razumikhina! With a VanHongo skirt, because OF COURSE.