Youths in Balaclava
Known for its decades-long economic success, and more recently, the hit film “Crazy Rich Asians,” Singapore is a big luxury spending powerhouse. But rarely does a fashion brand from the tropical city-state make it to Paris Fashion Week.
This season, Youths in Balaclava, a brand launched by a group of young adults, will be showcasing its spring 2020 collection from Sept. 29 to Oct. 3 in a showroom at 6 Place Vendôme under the auspices of Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons International and chief executive officer of Dover Street Market. The brand features Gen-Z-friendly prices on T-shirts, hoodies and badges starting at $10.
Taufyq Iskandar, creative director of the brand and leader of the collective, who is serving national duty as a firefighter, will be going to the fashion capital for the first time during his service break.
“I am a first-responder and rescuer. If there is a traffic accident, a fire call, or a suicide call, we are the ones to attend to the case,” he explained. Since 1967, all male Singaporean citizens are required by law to do a period of compulsory service in the uniformed services.
Iskandar started the brand five years ago with five of his close friends, without any professional training, at the age of 17. “When we were in high school, we couldn’t find what we wanted in shops. So I gathered some of my friends from my high school, and slowly we formed a team, and then got my brother into the team as well, and that’s how it all began,” he said. The brand now employs 13 people.
“We were all working part-time jobs trying to save up for this whole thing. I didn’t even go to any design schools. I just learned a few design skills from YouTube understanding how the fabric works. I was also working at a retail store back then. I was observing how the customers were and what kind of fabric they used, and then I picked up the technical stuff, like operations and logistics,” Iskandar added.
Asked about the brand name, Iskandar put a positive spin on the balaclava, often equated with antiestablishment sentiments, or violence. But not always.
In 2012, Pussy Riot performed a song in Moscow’s Red Square, titled “Putin Zassal,” wearing balaclavas. Although the band was arrested for alleged hooliganism, they somehow made the headwear fashionable.
“I just like that whole entity of a masked look,” Iskandar explained. “If you pull the negative aspect out of it and put in the positive aspect of it, it’s just like they’re doing something great, something big, whilst their identity is anonymous. And that whole anonymity was inspired by Margiela and how he chose to be anonymous.”
On heading to Paris and facing the international fashion crowd, Iskandar feels really nervous. “We never thought we would end up there. Most of us don’t even have any background in design or art school. Out of all the kids here in Singapore, we made it out,” he said.
“We are a very small brand. No one knows us and you can ask anyone from a European country on where Singapore is on the map and they’ll probably point at China. But face it: We are a country with four different races living together with harmony and peace. The brand also portrays the country that we are, how we are living together and working together disregarding the colors of our skin.” Born to an Indonesian mother and a Singaporean father, Iskandar identifies himself as a Malay-Indonesian.
The compulsory service informs the fashions. “The kind of clothes we are doing are inspired by the clothes that we wear in our national service, how they are practical and how they are essentially helping us in our everyday operations,” Iskander said.
The brand’s studio is based in Tanjong Pagar, a historic district located within the central business district in Singapore. The collective stood out among the office workers. “Then I thought, why not create something that will blend in together with the crowd yet stand out?” he said.
“Essentially this whole collection is based on the changes that we are facing in our own life experiences to the things that we are in, and the location that we are always around in. Us and some others only started our national service a couple of months ago. Some of us ended up in the military, I ended up as a firefighter, another as a police officer. These kind of things are very Singaporean, it’s key for every man. It is a turning point for boys to turn into men,” Iskandar summarized.
Youths in Balaclava was just a little experiment until it was discovered by Joffe after Dover Street was opened in Singapore in partnership with Christina Ong’s Club 21. Iskandar was assisting with the store’s opening and his unique style caught the attention of Ryan O’Toole, a photographer who was supposed to take photos of the Dover Street Market Singapore opening.
“He really liked our style and started taking photos of us. The whole project suddenly shifted to us. When Ryan presented the photos to Adrian, he liked our style and Ryan introduced us to him. Everything happened during those two days and here we are in DSM,” Iskander said.
Yong Yang Hoon, merchandiser at Dover Street Market Singapore, said: “In a society where fashion remains largely synonymous with the luxury houses that line busy shopping streets — mainstream is celebrated; local designers frowned upon — YIB represents the voice of a young generation asking to be heard. They are far from being fashion designers, yet continue sticking to what they believe in — not going against social norms for the sake of being rebels — and their Paris debut may just be the start of something extraordinary.”
Iskandar, initially inspired by musicians such as David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger, later got into brands like Comme des Garçons and Undercover.
“They are my heroes,” he said. “Asia is not really presented in the fashion industry, but these brands are the ones that represent us. They represent how we have a different mind-set. That is something that I’m very proud of. Being an Asian is very different than being a Westerner. And that’s why I got even more inspired to do it. They paved the way for us and we should do the same.
“In Singapore, it’s really mundane. No one supports the creative industry. And if we would ever approach a government body to have some financial support for the creation of a collection, we would be turned down. We want to prove that from a nobody you could be a somebody and from a nobody, you could do whatever you want,” Iskander said.
Like Honey F–king Dijon, Youths in Balaclava comes under a new umbrella company named Dover Street Market Paris. Wholly owned by Comme des Garçons, it will do things like nurture original products, then take care of brand development, production and distribution.
Patricia Gucci knows a thing or two about handbags. As a child, she would visit the luxury brand’s stores with her father, Aldo Gucci, who transformed the family business into a global phenomenon. “I was always surrounded by this incredible smell of luxury leather,” she recalled. “It molded a lot of my standards.”
It comes as little surprise, then, that Patricia Gucci is unhappy with the state of airplane luggage. She hopes to elevate the category with the launch of Aviteur, her own line of luxury carry-ons, at Paris Fashion Week. The name was inspired by the Latin word for “bird” and is also a nod to her three daughters: Alexandra, Victoria and Isabella.
“Looking at travel, which unfortunately also has become much less elegant, I thought there was definitely a void for myself,” she said. “I felt it was very generic. The standard is that very practical look, and then there’s the logo brands, that have not really evolved, as far as I’m concerned, with something that’s even more beautiful, which they could easily have done.”
Gucci, who lives in Switzerland, embarked on the project 18 months ago and set about creating a handmade case, made of the highest-quality materials, with her manufacturing partner in Varese, in northern Italy. “I reinvented everything in the carry-on that can be reinvented. There was nothing that is the same on the market,” she said.
The result is a luxurious object made of transparent polycarbonate covered in Italian calf leather, with smooth panels alternating with a woven Paglia di Vienna caning motif. The silent wheels are cased in brushed aluminum, but Gucci’s favorite part is the handle: a clear polycarbonate slab, which she compared to a “ray of light” giving the trolley a futuristic touch.
“Most carry-ons, you want to just unpack and put them in a cupboard and get rid of them. You don’t want them sticking around your house because they’re not particularly attractive-looking. This particular bag, in my opinion, is not something that you want to immediately store away, because it, in itself, on a design level, is quite elegant and beautiful,” she said.
The carry-on, available in black, beige and gray, costs $5,000, placing it at the very top end of the market. It will bow on Sept. 26 at Thomas Erber’s Cabinet des Curiosités concept store at Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, which will offer an exclusive black version with black aluminum hardware.
The line will launch on Moda Operandi in October, in addition to Aviteur’s own web site this fall. Gucci hopes to work with just a dozen top retailers worldwide in the first season. “We want it to be a very exclusive product,” she explained. Going forward, she plans to expand the range of colors and to add matching weekender bags.
The 55-year-old, who detailed her complex family history in her 2016 autobiography, “In the Name of Gucci,” felt she had to tell her story before launching a venture of her own.
“If I had tried doing this maybe 25 years ago, I don’t think I would have had the discipline and even the maturity and the focus that I have right now,” she said. “I’m ready for it in every way. I really, really feel my father is around me.”
When Sophie Turner celebrated her second wedding with Joe Jonas this summer, Louis Vuitton wasn’t the only brand that enjoyed a blast of media exposure. Over the three-day event, guest Priyanka Chopra wore two dresses by Honayda, a Saudi Arabian label that is fast becoming a celebrity favorite.
Honayda Serafi, who founded the label in 2017, said the effect was immediate. “Just seeing Priyanka wearing one of my outfits made my day and I think it has a great effect on the brand,” she said, adding that she’s snowed under with requests from celebrities and their stylists. “I’m trying to find a way to make them all happy.”
Indeed, it’s been a busy few months for the Jeddah-based designer. In August, she was featured in Forbes Middle East’s list of 60 prominent “Women Behind Middle Eastern Brands,” alongside Huda Kattan, Reem Acra, Ingie Chalhoub and Noor Fares.
Having previously shown her clothes in private venues such as art galleries in Saudi Arabia, Serafi believes the time has come to test the water in Paris. Her collection can be seen by appointment from Sept. 26 to 30 at the Westin hotel near Place Vendôme.
Her designs are inspired by strong female figures ranging from fictional characters like the Queen of Sheba to the Bedouin laborers she would see during childhood trips to the countryside. The latter inspired her spring collection, featuring long tops over wide pants, with ethnic embroidery modernized with Plexiglas petals.
“I used to see them working by themselves on their dresses and do these beautiful embroideries,” she recalled. “They were shepherds as well, hand-in-hand with men. It was just a normal, beautiful life.”
That proved a compelling sight for a young girl who always questioned the restrictions placed on women. “I always longed for equality,” she explained. “Now you have #MeToo. I believe that women in general have to fight to live just a normal life, not to be suppressed by any rules.”
Born into a prominent family with strong links to the art world, Serafi read fine art at university and later studied fashion at Parsons Paris. She went to work for her family business, Al Salehat Holding, placing brands within the group’s retail properties. But her road to independence was bumpy.
“It wasn’t easy for me to start my own business. They wanted me to be a housewife,” said Serafi, who has three children from her first marriage and is stepmother to another four. “I had to take on so many roles, I had to prove that this is not going to affect my life as a mother and as a wife, and here I am.”
The designer has continued to push boundaries. Previous collections have featured a print of her mother’s face, something of a taboo in a country where women are veiled, and she created a capsule collection last year to celebrate the lifting of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving.
Serafi plans to launch online sales worldwide at the end of September, to be followed by her first flagship in Jeddah next year. With only 11 points of sale at present, she expects the brand to log revenues of 10 million Saudi Arabia riyals, or nearly $2.7 million, by early 2020 compared with 3 million riyals, or about $800,000, in 2018.
As the sole owner of her brand, she’s aware that the difficult part is just beginning. “Sometimes success makes my life difficult. Now all eyes are on the brand and watching, it’s very hard. It’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be — actually, it’s more difficult and it’s more challenging. I like challenges, so I’m up to it,” she said.