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30/12/2014

Muslim women are fashionable under their burkas

The Countess of Wessex has spoken out in support of Muslim women who express their fashion sense while wearing traditional clothes like the burka.

The countess told Harper's Bazaar magazine women from the Islamic world could be stylish and modest at the same time.

In an interview by the women's fashion magazine ahead of her 50th birthday on January 20, the countess said that under a burka there was probably a woman wearing "something really quite fashionable".

Her comments followed an event she hosted at Windsor Castle where she met representatives from the organisation Islamic Fashion Festival.

She said: "It's very evident that Muslim women can be fashionable while also retaining their modesty... And it's a great way of bringing people together, and saying, 'Look, this is what we're really like'.

The Countess Of Wessex during a visit to Bahrain in 2001

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"And what people forget is that underneath the burka and everything else, there is somebody who is probably wearing something really quite fashionable."

In September the countess, in her role as a global ambassador for the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award Foundation, held a dinner at Windsor Castle where she met Islamic Fashion Festival representatives and a number of designers showcased their clothes.

During the interview the countess revealed that she has followed the Queen's lead when it comes to her public life as a member of the royal family.

The countess has learnt from her mother-in-law to keep on working, no matter how tired she is, and to do things in a more "elegant" way rather than "bounce" into a room.

Sophie also praised the Queen for her ability to make everyone she talks to feel they have had a meaningful conversation.

A photoshoot accompanies the interview and the Countess is seen posing at various locations including her family home Bagshot Park.

The full interview with Sophie will appear in the next issue of Harper's Bazaar, published on Friday.

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25/12/2014

Fashion fast forward

DESPITE THE POLITICAL upheavals that saw much of Bangkok temporarily shut down by protesters early in the year, Thailand's fashion industry continued to flourish in 2014. High-end brands appeared totally unconcerned about the unrest, going ahead with plans to open flagship stores in the city's upmarket malls with such regularity that events were occasionally put on hold for a couple of days so as not to clash with another opening.

And there's still plenty of room for the industry to grow, not least because 2015 will see the market welcome a potential 600 million extra shoppers as the Asean Economic Community comes into effect. The Mall Group has announced plans to deal with the expected influx of consumers with several stores scheduled to open in the new year.

In terms of Thai fashion, one of the biggest new items to hit the headlines in 2014 was the acquisition of Greyhound, a leading fashion and cafe brand, for Bt1.85 billion by Sub Sri Thai.

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Since founding the brand 34 years ago, Bhanu Inkawat, who has stayed on as creative director, has maintained that Greyhound's success is down to "style" in fashion, living and eating. He not only values creative minds but also understands that brand development needs strong roots to uphold its branches. The company currently operates 15 Greyhound-franchised outlets in Asia, both fashion concerns and cafes, including five in Hong Kong and one each in Shanghai and Beijing plus a concept store in South Korea. It plans to have 25 overseas outlets within the next three to five years and its success is the inspiration for many newer brands.

Bhanu stresses that the fashion industry must find ways to stand on its own two feet rather than rely on government support.

"Support from the government is very on and off," he says. "Even if you are a very gifted designer like Alexander Wang, you cannot stand alone. There must be someone to back you up in term of marketing, material suppliers, distribution, in fact everything apart from design. Look at South Korea. Their government helps export not just entertainment field but the overall K-Pop culture. That's expanded into fashion. This is the real challenge that Thai designers have to face and to overcome. The whole lifestyle segment is growing."

Polpat Asavaprapa, president of Bangkok Fashion Society and designer of Asava fashion brand, says he believes Thailand's creative economy is now very strong. "The past years have seen rapid growth in Thai fashion thanks to other lifestyle segments such as retail stores, which are growing in parallel. We are also meeting the challenges of competing with midrange international brands," he says.

However, he echoes Bhanu's views that Thai fashion is not as influential as it could be despite the strong designs and large customer bases in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

"We need the government to improve our image and show that we are no longer a based manufacturing-based country. And while Thai fashion has improved significantly, we must not be overconfident," says Polpat.

"Our member designers nowadays work with a global perspective in producing collections based on fashion seasons—spring-summer, autumn-winter, cruise collections and so on. We have the standard look book, the right press releases. And the BFS is the platform for young designers to work more systematically.

"At Asava, we are on par with DKNY, H&M and Zara but to compete with them, we have to follow international norms on seasons as well as other aspects. The only problem of the creative economy is that as a designer, I have to compromise on design so that my clothes are commercial. But in the end, you want your stuff to sell. You want to do something that you love but you have to make sure that you have customers. You have to find the balance. This is the challenge."

Many Thai designers have sought to promote the country's silk culture by moving away from looks typically viewed as "unfashionable" when using Thai silk fabric.

In their latest project, "Weaving Dialogue", the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture and Srinakharinwirot University's Centre of Academic Services, have revolutionised silk fashion by calling on renowned designers, Platt Pladhi from Realistic Situation, T-ra Chantasawasdee from T-ra, and Wisharawish Akarasantisook from Wisharawish, to give it a new look.

The end result was a showcase of 120 beautiful silk creations in a uniquely contemporary style.

"We want silk to be part of our everyday life and serve as daywear rather than just for evening events or special occasions like weddings," says Platt.

His designs are adapted from motifs made by native hand-woven silk and combined with such geometric elements as polka dots, lines, stripes, triangles, and squares. The silk is interlaced with other fabric creating a more casual yet eye-catching design.

T-ra says that many young designers are afraid to use silk in their collections. "They think it is expensive and out of date. I firmly believe they should do more research and go through the process of producing silk fabric and creating different structures and patterns," he says.

T-ra's designs play with a colourful palette, flower brocade and birds motifs and use a draping technique to create gorgeous dresses, pleated skirts, smoked blouses, and trousers.

Wisharawish combines mudmee silk and natural tie-dyed silk with flared skirts. He also uses layering techniques with transparent materials to form interesting patterns.

For its part, the international luxury market seemed little affected by either political instability or thinner wallets. While some stores saw a drop in shoppers in the first half of the year, others were hardly affected.

Luxury retail mall Central Embassy went ahead with its scheduled opening and now boasts such high-end tenants as Maison Martin Margiela, Ralph Lauren, Jil Sander, Givenchy, Michael Kors, CH Carolina Herrera, Christian Louboutin, Isabel Marant, Kurt Geiger, Roberto Cavalli, Saint Laurent, La Martina and Pomellato.

Sopavadee Bejarajati, division manager of Club 21 Thailand, says that nowadays the company represents about 30 brands and recently added to the firm's cachet by launching new flagship stores for Calvin Kline Collection, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Proenza Schouler as well as two new brands, Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani. Four more brands are coming next year, she says.

"Brand principals see Thailand as a huge potential market in Asia and the time is ripe for expansion. The lifestyle of young affluent consumers has changed. They are well educated and well informed about fashion. They are eager to spend on cars, food, and lifestyle products," she says.

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23/12/2014

WORLD A Beard For All Seasons

On the way to the barber last week it occurred to me that nearly every man I’d passed in the last five minutes was wearing a beard. A gallery-full: an Archbishop Rowan Williams, a WG Grace, a Laughing Cavalier, a Rolf Harris, and a ZZ Top (or was that Osama bin Laden?). Among them, of course, were half a dozen Olly Murses (the look known as ‘styled stubble’).

When eventually I saw a clean-shaven man, he looked odd – naked, not quite complete. And cold.This wasn’t in some east London fashion-victim hub, but in the middle-class town of Lewes, Sussex. Beards are everywhere. Here and across the Western world they are more popular than at any time since the mid-1970s. Sales of shaving equipment have fallen in both the US and Europe for the first time in modern history; in March Procter & Gamble, who own Gillette, reported sales of their best-selling disposable razors to be down 10%. There is an upside. At the little barber shop where I stopped to get my beard (a bit Ben Affleck in Argo, I’m told) trimmed, the proprietor tells me that the facial hair boom had put his turnover up 30%. “Brilliant business.

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And there’s the accessories!” he says, waving at a shelf of beard oils, moustache waxes and special combs.Fashion journalists and style-watchers declared last spring that the hipster beard trend had peaked. A killer blow was the appearance of a greyish bloom, not unlike the mould you get on organic bread, over the chops of Goldman Sachs chief executive, Lloyd C Blankfein, spoiling the lingering notion that facial hair was a trademark of the liberal anti-establishment. Then, in April, an Australian university produced research showing that women shown pictures of bearded and clean-shaven men were opting for the latter.

Consistently, two-thirds of women say they strongly prefer clean-shaven men.But the beard craze has persisted – proof, perhaps, that some men do things to their faces just to please themselves. On Wall Street, according to a story in The New York Times last month, growing numbers of world-class CEOs now have beards (the paper’s analysis of the rise of “scruffy capitalism” stated that, with the lack of a radical ideology to succeed communism, Karl Marx-inspired whiskers “no longer code as threat”).

The shift is significant. While beard fashions have come and gone, it’s not since before the First World War (and the invention of the safety razor) that the ruling classes have commonly sported them. They certainly did not in 1967 – even a proper posh rebel like Lord Lucan only had a moustache. Beards are now all over Hollywood – none worse than Brad Pitt’s subway busker tuft – and decorate many of this winter’s sports stars. Lloyd Blankfein is probably rather less to blame than Tim Howard, who has inspired beards on both sides of the Atlantic. He is the American-born Everton FC goalkeeper, who made the world sit up with his heroic work for team USA during the 2014 World Cup. Howard’s big, black, minimal-moustache beard would not look out of place in Amish Pennsylvania or on a jihadi.

Despite the design, Howard was so popular this summer that Wikipedia’s US Government page was hacked to replace a beardless secretary of defence (Chuck Hagel) with Howard.How, I wondered, does a long-term beard-wearer like Keith Flett, trade unionist and founder of the Beard Liberation Front (BLF), react to the beard craze? Flett has worn a Marxish beard since he first could grow one, more than 40 years ago. As mouthpiece of the BLF it is his job to defend proper, committed beardies. 2014 must have been horrible for him, I thought: has he felt a bit like kilted Scotsmen did, when skirt hems rose and the lassies started showing their knees? “Well, I’m in Cardiff today, and there’s no hipster beards at all. It’s not like the Jolly Butchers in Hackney, where it looks like it’s a rule that you have to have one.” Flett thinks the beard craze will pass. A purist, he does not oil, comb or plait his beard, and would not consider going ‘asymmetric’ either.

“I just keep it washed and trimmed, though the BLF has recommended dipping your beard in Imperial Stout.” Later this month the BLF will announce its annual Beard of the Year awards. The shortlist includes rock star Robert Plant, government minister Stephen Crabb, cricketer Moeen Ali and the Eurovision star Conchita Wurst, the first drag queen to make the BLF shortlist. No hipsters or stubble-style on the list – “a beard has to have been worn consistently throughout the year” – and stubble has to be at least as long as Clint Eastwood’s in his spaghetti western phase.So, whither the beard in 2015? Hollywood style consultant Andrew Weitz tells me that he thought the era of huge beards on young men had passed. “You just don’t see them on the street that much any more, and the era of Clooney, Pitt and Gyllenhaal wearing them are over, unless it’s for a part.” But he thinks many men will keep going with sensible ones, as he will. “I’ve got used to not shaving, women think it’s sexy and I’m through with beard rash.”Might the fashion beard undergo one last wild flourish and then disappear? My barber in Lewes said that while most people just want the lip, neck and cheek trim, he is now being asked to persuade moustache tips into full 360-degree curls, shave swoops and flashes into the cheek area and even carve out a moustache on left lip, with the beard on right chin and jowl. The asymmetric beard was a catwalk thing this autumn – with some remarkable on-the-bias cuts that made men look like Queen Victoria’s favourite ghillie in a gale.I asked a distinguished fashion editor about the rise of the asymmetric beard. She said that, as a look, “it just shouts ‘wanker’ even louder than do most male facial stupidities”. There is, of course, a lot of female jealousy around beards. Having borrowed just about every great male fashion innovation – like trousers – they are naturally annoyed that something has come along that can’t be ripped-off. But the technology is there, for any women who’d like to go bearded. Last year, 4,500 facial hair transplants (taking hair from the back of the scalp, and placing it on the face) were performed in the UK, according to the International Society of Hair Restoration. That was up 15% and, it claims, makes beard-jobs three times more popular than nose-jobs. No women had had the surgery done. Most of the men said it was to be “more macho”.Is that what it’s about? I asked several men – all 2014 beard-growers – at an Edinburgh Christmas party the other day: why the beard? Most of them said it was to cover up jowls or an unsatisfactory chin. Some said they’d like to take it off but their families wouldn’t let them. But a significant number said they felt better without a beard. “Wiser, more grown-up,” one said, twirling the tips of his glossy moustache.

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