Saturday, August 23, 2014

summer in the city

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via the sartorialist 

This photo was my summer inspiration before I took off for my holiday earlier this month. I'm back and a slave to work once again but I am still thinking of this image when I get dressed on weekends. It's a wonderful look that is city appropriate, yet at the same time effortlessly evoking thoughts of blue skies, wind in my hair, bare limbs warmed by the sun.

(Also, that hair. Too bad I'm allergic to hair covering my forehead.)

Happy weekend to all!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

sit. feast on your life

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"The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”

- Love After Love, by Derek Walcott

This month, I turned 30.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

what fits

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My body has informed me in a million ways that yes, I am getting older, and there are a few things it can no longer tolerate. One of them is shoes that are even a little bit uncomfortable. I now require shoes that:

- Have reasonably thick/cushioned soles
- Have leather uppers/soles/interiors that do not rub my feet
- Have vamps that are high enough such that I do not need to grip with my toes in any way
- Are wide enough for my broad feet

Above is every single pair of shoes I own except my running shoes and my flip flops. Some I don't really wear, like the Sam Edelman low-heeled Trinas which I just cannot get into, and the leopard print loafers which I love but they pinch so badly. The kitten heels are my go-to for weddings and and other dressy occasions.

Some are on last legs - the Chucks are so filthy and worn out that I really should replace them, but I just can't let go yet. Ditto for the striped Keds - they have a hole in them but I figure they have another six months of of life in them. The white high-tops from Gram have gotten pretty thin in the sole as well but they don't make them like that any more and I haven't found a replacement. I bought a pair from Pointer in 2012 but they met an unfortunate end at a dog adoption fair (it rained, they got soaked, and splattered with mud and dirt, the canvas dried in a weird way and the glued bits came apart, clearly not made for toughing out).

This is a good shoe count for me - enough variety to keep me interested and enough in rotation to keep any one pair from wearing out too fast. I didn't replace my ballet flats when my last pair died but strangely, I don't miss them, even though they were a staple for years - compared to the sturdier shoes I have moved on to, they're not nearly as comfortable.

I still want a pair of flat ankle boots and indeed a pair is on its way to me now - I bought them online and it makes me nervous, I hope they fit. I may buy another pair of casual flat sandals when the right pair comes along - there are some days where the gold ones just don't hit the spot.

I won't throw away the Chucks even when I get a new pair - they have at least seven years of memories in them and they've travelled to really far-flung places with me. Same goes for the Gram ones. I have a pair of peeling Onizuka Tigers I feel that way about too. Sneakers almost always come with my on holidays and work trips and it's so much harder to let them go.

What's your shoe game?

Friday, June 13, 2014

knuckle down

"In the same way that some people are born with extra-bendy thumbs, there are people who are born with the will to work. As Amoruso explains in #GIRLBOSS, one theme of her wobbly adolescence was an urgent desire to be an employee somewhere, working at something, for some amount of money. Topics like friends, boys, and family get a few sentences each in the book, while a string of menial adolescent jobs gets a whole chapter. That section, “Shitty Jobs Saved My Life,” is where Amoruso itemizes her industriousness: There were stints at a hydroponic-plant store, a dry cleaner, an orthopedic-shoe store, a restaurant, a Borders, a factory-outlet mall, a landscaping outfit, and, before that, babysitting gigs and a paper route."

- The Cut profile of Nasty Gal Founder Sophia Amoruso

One thing I love about the fashion is that it is full of great stories about hardworking women with good ideas. You can read the rest of the profile here. Reading it, I was also reminded of this Business of Fashion profile of Kate Lanphear, where she said:

“I ended up living in a hostel, sharing a room with seven guys in bunk beds,” she said. “I was the only girl in the room. I would clean the disgusting hostel through the night. My roommates taught me how to hustle pool. You would drink beer for free and buy a loaf of bread and peanut butter and eat that for a whole week.

“I’m glad I did it. I don’t think I could go through it again. But it was an amazing time. I would go to work for a magazine during the day and then work through the night so they would let me live in the hostel.”

I work with a lot of young staff at the moment, and it can be pretty frustrating when people believe some tasks are beneath them and they don't pull their weight to deliver something up to mark. And they believe that just by vocalising their disagreement with something, they're entitled to reject the task. It astonishes them that they have to do something they dislike. This is bullshit (unless of course we are talking about fighting sexual harassment and other forms of exploitation, committing a crime, etc). Very often, when you're working for someone else, you accept some of the shit that comes with doing something you love. You have your days of fist-pumping awesomeness, but you also have days where you're doing what you're told, earning your keep. Is it out of fashion, to believe that every now and then you have to pay your dues in life?

As someone who logged years of humbling work while studying - waitressing, tutoring, working as a retail sales assistant, giving out flyers, even assembling furniture for a showroom - I often think lots of people can benefit from such experiences, provided they're willing to learn from them. You learn to knuckle down and take instruction, fight back your ego and be a team player. Working for a living makes you appreciate opportunities. Some people never have to go through this to become a better person. But most people, I think, need a jolt every now and then to remember that the world doesn't owe them anything.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

wonderful world



Sailing and diving around Komodo, Flores, Rinca and other islands that dot the Komodo National Park is one of those experiences I will never be able to convey in words. It was a trip that vibrated with life, pulsing with the joy of the living, breathing world, and you feel at once so small and yet part of something bigger at the same time.

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The landscape was a surprise; having travelled only to parts of Indonesia covered by dense, tropical jungle, I wasn't expecting the rugged volcanic mountains, the dramatic cliffs, scrubby hills covered with yellow, tufty-looking grass, ringed by white-sandy beaches and clear turquoise waters that darken to sapphire as we move away from land.

The bright blue sky turns pink, purple and orange as the sun sets; nights are strewn with stars and and the moon glows white. Flying foxes stream out of a nearby mangrove by the thousands at dusk; wild boars trot out at dawn to sip at a stream. A family of wild Komodo dragons bask in the late afternoon on the beach, scrabbling eagerly to their feet when we approach.

Under water, a burst of life. Silvery giant trevallys school and strike at prey with astonishing speed, reef sharks circle with grace, while mantas soar with a flick of their fins, stunning you with their size (easily 4 metres across) and charming you with their playful intelligence. Get caught in the wrong kind of current and you find yourself clinging onto rocks for dear life, the water seemingly trying to peel your fingers off. Get caught in the right kind of current and you take off on an exhilarating flight, past a dazzling array of coral and jewel-coloured fish, the kind of thing you saw on BBC's "Blue Planet" and can't believe you're seeing for yourself. When the sun sets, a kooky array of crabs scuttle out, adorned with shells, sponges and corals to presumably to blend in with the seascape, tiny shrimp look at you with glowing eyes, luminous squid the size of your fist bob around, eyeballing you and glowing furiously. A lone Spanish Dancer (essentially, a pretty sea slug) twirls in mid-water, sinuous, dramatic, voluptuous. You're in outer space, sort of.

Life on a boat - you take your meals, you dive, you sprawl in the shade to read and fall asleep as the boat rocks. No shoes for a week. When the boat plows through the open sea, a pod of dolphins may race you, their sleek grey bodies streaking through the surface. A turtle may come up for some sun, nodding at you before it dives down again.

The world is never still, but you feel so at peace.

I took more videos than photos underwater, so here's a short one I made of the mantas.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

shopping for blues

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I love jeans. I've gone about this before so I won't repeat myself. I felt like I had to do this post, after a shopping expedition with my younger sister for jeans.

I don't believe in a "go-to" label/shop/style for jeans - what suits one person may not suit someone else. There's nothing to do except to try whatever you come across that appeals to you, and hopefully get lucky early. For example, my friends look great in Levis, but new or vintage, I've never found a pair I liked on me.

Jeans have become such an gold mine for retailers, to the point where spending US$200 on a pair of jeans doesn't raise as many eyebrows as you might imagine. A whole cult has also sprung up around denim, especially for men's jeans - the best mills are in Japan/Turkey/whatever; raw denim is superior; chain stitches versus loop. My favourite bit of denim bullshit has to be those Proportion of Blu jeans that claim to be cut according to the "golden ratio". Hokay. (Read this for a debunk of the golden mean.)

A lot of fancy jeans out there aren't worth the hype. At one shop in Singapore, I watched my sister try jeans from MiH, Rag and Bone, J Brand, and some of these "jeans" are 50% modal. How is that a jean? They may have a great cut but in terms of quality, it's little better than whatever you find in Topshop.

How did we get here? My first pair of skinny jeans were from Mango, a cheap buy when I was experimenting with the style. They're 98% cotton, 2% stretch, and have the thickness of canvas. They're 8 years old and awesome. I have another pair from H&M, 7 years old, thinner than the Mango ones, but also a mere 2% stretch and feel nice and substantial.

Today, I don't think you can find skinny jeans like that at both stores. It's a downer, to be awash in all this spandex masquerading as denim, with none of the grain and heft that makes denim special.

I haven't bought jeans since 2008, but if I were to shop for jeans today, I would skip most of the premium brands - J Brand, Current/Elliot, AG, MiH. They're fit great - buy them if that is your main concern. But I don't think the fabrics on par with the prices and you can find cheap versions of them in High Street stories if you care to search. And these premium brands aren't always manufactured in conditions better than your mass market brands.

I feel like for women, there's a lot of rubbish out there, designed to be fashionable but unappealing if you're more about how the material feels. One brand that still ticks all the boxes for me - ethical manufacturing, high quality denim, good price - is Nudie. That said, Nudies fit me well but they also look terrible on many people (they are unisex), because of the limited range of cuts.

I've never tried Raleigh Denim but they seem to have a reasonably sensible approach towards what can sometimes border on pretentious. One version of their women's raw denim (so rare!) has a small percentage of stretch, which is very logical if you want to sell skinny jeans in the stiffest material possible.

I don't much personal experience with other brands, so please do share your favourites.
 
When shopping, keep in mind...

Don’t be a brand snob – Sure, skip the brands/manufacturers that go against your personal principles (poor labour practices, offensive marketing) but keep an open mind otherwise. My impression of True Religion is pretty trashy but my sister has an all-black pair with no logos or contrast stitching or garish hardware that she found for a great price in an outlet mall. It fits great, it's made in the US, and the denim quality is pretty decent – substantial to the touch but washed to a comfortable softness.

Since no single brand fits every body type, sometimes you have to ignore the superficially objectionable things to find the perfect pair. Almost all my jeans are Diesel (mostly purchased over 7, 8 years ago) and I don't think I'm the typical Diesel customer. But there is quality to be found amid all that aggressive distressing.

Fabric, fabric, fabric - I loath jeans with too much stretch; they look and feel like leggings.  But a bit of stretch is godsend for comfort's sake. As a guide, 2% is plenty stretchy. But I have also seen 98% cotton jeans that feel like leggings, so clearly the quality of the cotton matters too.

If you want to go into fine details, ask about the weight of the jeans - usually given in ounces. The heavier jeans the more substantial the fabric, and the less likely they fall into the category of "legging-jean monstrosity". Most women's jeans should be about 11 to 14 ounces. I've seen 23-ounce jeans, but they seem incredibly unnecessary unless you plan do some really manual work.

Sizing and fit - The rule of thumb is that you buy the smallest possible size you can fit in, because denim stretches. Sanforised (pre-shrunk) raw denim shouldn't shrink much. On the other hand, like all denim, they will stretch. Extremely distressed jeans stretch more quickly because the fibres have been weakened by the process. Jeans that have a bit of stretch hold their shape and size a bit better.

Although there's a lot of talk about sizing down, almost all my jeans are a size 30 and I've only sized down once, to a 29. For the most part, they have kept their shape and not stretched to a ridiculous degree (by one size or more). A few pairs have bagged slightly at the bum and knees but it's nothing unsightly, and that sort of stretching can't be helped. 

When I try on jeans, I always walk around, sit down, and do a deep squat (in the fitting room). If the jeans are tight but still allow me to do these things without feeling like I'm about to give myself DVT, they're a good bet.

For raw denim, I don't find I have to size down, but I would never buy them too skinny or tight - raw denim by nature just isn't meant to stretch and buying them super tight doesn't make sense to me - it wears them out faster.

Workmanship - Waistbands are something I zoom in one - the best jeans have sturdy, lined waistbands and they're the foundation of good fit - they should never gap and never ride down when worn.

Stitching should look sturdy, especially in the outer and inseams. The seams should run smoothly in line that follows the curve of your leg and shouldn't twist when you put them on.

A word denim retailers like to bandy around is "selvedge". Selvedge simply means the ends of the fabric has been finished with tape to prevent unravelling (see here for visual comparison). Only one pair of my jeans has a selvedge finish - my raw denim Nudies - and while they certainly look nicer, it's not like my other jeans have started unravelling, so I've yet to see the difference made evident.

Also, as explained in the Rawr Denim post I linked above, selvedge is quite a trendy word and it's trickled down to mass market labels, and it doesn't always indicate quality.

There's always the tailor - Boyfriend jeans are easy enough to find now, but in the past I would buy skinny or straight jeans a size too big and alter them for the perfect slouchy skinny fit. I did that a pair of Sevens I found for 80% off and a pair of Diesels. If you have a tailor you trust to work denim well, little tweaks can mean perfection.

And when I finally realised bootcuts weren't my thing, I decided to alter one pair into a tapered/straight cut. They are 9 years old and in regular rotation and fit better than anything I can buy off the rack. Don't let old jeans go to waste, especially if they're good quality, like vintage Levis.

Wash and care

Denim enthusiasts will tell you to wash your jeans as infrequently as possible. This is rather overdoing it, I think, even though yes, I do wear my jeans for months before washing them. This is because you want to give it time to mould to your shape, and get comfortable. Also, for distressed denim, where the fibres are already weak, frequent washing - once a week, every week - means jeans lose their shape faster.

But on the flip side,washing once a year is a little extreme, especially for raw denim. All that dirt and grime building up isn't good for a stiff fabric like that and you risk wearing it out sooner too.

In the end, you just have to look at how your jeans look or feel after washing (not not washing) and go with your gut, and avoid extremes. Also, if they start to smell...

I wash all my jeans in a washing machine. There are very elaborate care instructions out there, especially for raw denim, but denim is a rugged fabric, and I think there's something wrong if it needs that much fuss. Generally, I'd say:
  • Use cold water, and avoid the dryer. Heat is damaging to the fabric and the rinse.
  • If you want to slow down fading, use a mild detergent, and wash inside-out. Whatever you use for delicate fabrics should work.
  • Use the "delicates" mode on the machine. Actually I use this mode a lot for all my good clothing because it doesn't spin much - hence less abrasion of the fabric and less stretching. But your clothes come out wetter.


I'm not sure how useful this post is - I seemed to have raged on about what I hate but offered little by way of solutions. But I suppose beginning with a process of elimination isn't a bad place to start?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

the power of small

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Persephone Books, London 

Travelling alone makes me aware of time, space, limits. You can do more with less, in less. But you can also become overwhelmed more easily – no companion to break the long hours, figure out directions, conquer a menu.

On this trip, small felt made me feel more comfortable – and I was looking for comfortable. I wanted to recharge. Small was good.

Some of the “small” things on my trip I appreciated, in no particular order:

The Escher Museum in The Hague
It was a lovely interlude between work commitments. Like many good small museums, it was a concise introduction to Escher’s works and his mark on the art world. I left feeling like I learned something. In contrast, when I went to the British Museum in London to see its new exhibition on Vikings, I left feeling drained. The exhibit itself was great but I felt overwhelmed by the temptation of other shows on offer: something on Baselitz, a new section on Chinese jade, the feeling that I should check out the sections I hadn’t seen before.

Restaurants with small menus
When you dine alone you don’t want to feel like there are these amazing things on the menu that you won’t get to try because you don’t have four stomachs. So I enjoying going to places that specialised – burger places with perhaps 4, 5 options to choose from; cafes offering simple breakfasts meant to let you start the day without thinking too much.

Small boutiques/shops
My favourite shopping experiences of the whole trip were at Margaret Howell, Carven and Vanessa Bruno, because they reminded me that it can be a pleasure shopping a designer’s vision of a collection, rather than an edited selection at a department store or a multi-brand boutique or an online store. You see more of a singular vision. You notice the less showy items that hasn’t been seen everywhere. I also love seeing the shop staff wear the label’s clothes – you see how things really work on a person, in motion. At Margaret Howell, this was really cool because the staff wear her clothes so well, and it isn’t easy to pull off some of those silhouettes.

And there was Persephone Books, which publishes out-of-print books by mostly women writers. The selection is a small, which allows you to go through every title on the shelf. How often can you accomplish that in any book store?

(And Lamb Conduit Street is a really nice street to walk through.)

Gardens
I enjoyed having a park near my hotel to run in - as opposed to dodging pedestrians on the street - but for a bit of greenery and a short walk to stretch my legs, gardens - often found in squares - are perfect in scale. Russell Square is a nice respite from the British Museum, and I came across a couple of nice ones in Mayfair - one near Mount Street, which really feels like a private garden, and Grosvenor Square.

A small hotel room
Perhaps for a longer stay I would appreciate a bigger room but for two nights, the Ampersand's tiniest room was perfect. It was a small room with a generously-sized bed from heaven and a spacious bathroom - I like small rooms but hate small bathrooms. There's no desk, no armchair, and only a sliver of wardrobe space but it feels cozy when you're just after 8 to 10 hours of sleep + lying in with a book - yes I was that lazy. And there is something comfortable about having everything within sight and reach.

Special thanks to:
Marlene, for the company and showing me to some of the delights of Marylebone, like this and this 
Hannah-Rose, for her awesome list of recommendations on what to eat, see, do in London (like Persephone Books) - I didn't have time to check out everything but wished I did! 
Amanda and Dead Fleurette for weighing on accommodation options