Story Time: The Python Skin Bag

Let me tell you a story…


Most of us like stories. Personally, I love them, they give people, places and posessions context; they dig a little deeper, open up new worlds and give you a chance to learn and experience the richness that makes up the intricately interwoven tapestry that is our lives. Some people are enraptured by history, others love movies, all of these essentially encompass stories, be they fictional or not. This story takes us from Lagos, to London, onto Rajasthan in India, a quick pitstop at Warwick university (love you alma mater) and then to Kuala Lumpur, not necessarily in that order and with a few return trips in between. The everyday stories I enjoy encountering are often heard and told through objects. This isn’t a story about materialism, in fact the object itself is immaterial, it merely acts as a portal to the opening chapter that hooks you in.

This story takes us from Lagos, to London, onto Rajasthan in India, a quick pitstop at Warwick university (love you alma mater) and then to Kuala Lumpur, not necessarily in that order and with a few return trips in between.

This tale concerns a python skin bag. Said bag, amongst a few others from the same collection, had been gifted to my late-mother by her sister back in the 70s. My mum had used one of these bags till the bitter end (like mother, like daughter) as evidenced by the much-loved, battered beauty I found in her wardrobe one day (this hoarding behaviour is unfortunately a Chong family trait, sigh).

Myself, many decades later, discovered this collection and immediately fell in love with its timelessness, its versatility, its oblique quality, the mere fact that many of these bags were in pristine condition after close to 40 years spoke to that. I love that in the same way that my mum had worn and loved and woven that battered bag into her life, I was now giving them a new lease of life, incorporating them into my everyday, carting around my essentials, giving them a tale or many to tell.

This bag has come everywhere with me: from my first internship with a legendary shoe couturier who educated me on their value and was hilariously shocked at my 17-year old self nonchalantly swinging it around on the tube,  to more places a python skin bag should probably never go (namely my university student club, the opposite of sophistication, eek)!

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Bedtime at the wedding in India on the last night of celebrations. Each night we would come home to a beautiful present from our hosts, the cutest!

In the midst of this small little bag traversing continents and clubs it began to accumlate stories and start conversations that wove people together within the fabric of life’s ebb and flow. I was in India for a wedding and travelling with one of my best friends when our guide took us to an incredible pashmina shop containing every colour, texture and style imaginable.

The owner knew his stuff and taught us about the craft and composition of an authentic, well made pashmina, which of course, the fashion-geek in me was absolutely loving. Suddenly he noticed the little python skin bag I was carrying and conversation turned to its origins and craftsmanship. Having found mutual bonding ground (namely our obsesssion for fabric, materials etc.) we started having a real conversation which went beyond small talk. It was amazing to be able to bond with this lovely Kashmiri guy, sipping chai tea in the Northern region of India. He opened up to us about the long distance relationship he was in with his fiancé who was still living in Kashmir which then led us to speak about all the apps anyone with a smartphone in a long distance relationship knows all too well! It was so funny to find intimate talking points with someone who had relatable experiences from a completely different walk of life (I was also in an LDR at the time). The bag had bridged the conversation, one of many it had started over the course of our adventures together.

Every colour, texture and style imaginable…

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The colours of our hotel wardrobe in Udaipur: borrowed, pre-loved, scoured from a vintage store rail and kindly donated by dear friends and family.

Fast forward to one summer later and a full circle incident occurred when I was in Malaysia with some of my family. It was back in Kuala Lumpur eating mangosteens around my auntie’s kitchen table when the bag was finally seen again by its gifter. This was the same aunt who had bought the bags for my mum back in the 70s, and they originated from Lagos, Nigeria where she and her family were living and working at the time. She laughed as she recognised the bag which had literally crossed continents and decades to reach that moment resting on her kitchen table and I guess could only have imagined the path it must have taken to get there. Its prescence opened up conversations about life in Lagos, my cousin’s childhood as they then moved to Hong Kong and their eventual settling back in Kuala Lumpur. Who would have known that so much history, love, movement and family intricacies could be contained within this small, crossbody bag? All these stories provoked by that one object, crafted with care and attention.

Through a nostalgic lens, that coat you love, the bracelet you inherited from your grandmother, the shoes you wore on your 21st birthday are not just objects, they contain life. To get a little philosophical (literally) Heidegger wrote about the ‘fourfold’ and how objects can often contain mini worlds and microcosmic universes as when you use something manmade you imbue it with life. The perfect balance of dwelling within the fourfold which refers to the earth, the sky (the beyond or the future), mortals and the divinities is found by being aware of all four; in other words the past and present, the future, our humanity and finally the divine, whatever that may mean to you. Treasuring craft, provoking memory and encompassing both the living and eternal is what that python skin bag did (and may continue to do if I pass it onto my unborn daughter)!

If this story was to have a moral, which it doesn’t need to have, it would be to invest wisely. In this day and age, not many items that we buy would be able to tell a story four decades later and beyond. So maybe this story is in some ways about anti-materialism, slow fashion (as opposed to fast) and how something can only tell a story if it was made to last and withstand the passage of time. Heirloom items and generational dressing inherently require excellent quality. More on this in chapter two…

Bisous for now,

Jenn x

 

 

P.S: I am not an advocate for the use of exotic skins in fashion, however my brief philosophy with vintage fur/skins is that if they’re not being used in the modern day then any suffering was entirely futile. 

Genesis

 

Aik Bee textiles, 69 Arab Street
Silk shopping in Spore
Haji Lane, Singapore
This store on Haji Lane gets me… 😉

To blog or not to blog? That is the modern Shakespeare’s dilemma. Fashion blogging is a pretty oversaturated market these days. Many people who follow fashion are aware of that, however the ‘style with substance’ concept is about more than images and more to do with collusion of the aesthetic with the soulful. I remember reading up on Garance Doré’s street-style capturing origins, one of the most highly-respected and brilliant street photographers out there, along with her long-standing creative partner The Satorialist’s Scott Schuman. She spoke of how she was capturing various stylish people outside fashion week shows, from what I remember there was one particular girl in Russia who she wanted to capture and therefore asked her what was in her beautiful Céline bag: “Oh, nothing” she replied. The cavernous expanse of well-crafted leather was useless and merely a prop. This anecdote resonated with me and clearly Garance also as she shared in an interview on how she needs to feel a human connection with her subject in order to capture them in all their authentic glory. This is what is behind ‘style with substance’, it’s about the people who wear their bags to death and are not worn by that peacock-feather creation which is wonderful if it empowers you but not if it has power over you. I love people’s stories, and it can be that the objects we carry and love and live in and within are visual, textural and visceral signs of those moments. Purchasing a stunning Céline bag just for show at the shows is to be honest, rather sad and a comment on so many things. High fashion, fashion as art is not about the image, but rather the layers of motivation and inspiration behind the image. It is the same as any other artistic form. If it is diluted and corrupted and soulless it is so obvious. Fashion is political. It has the ability to be divisive, subversive and intrusive. Many will remember that fabulously acted scene by Meryl Streep when she pulls up Anne Hathaway’s character on her deriding of fashion as irrelevant. Lo and behold! Fashion is a huge global economic force whether we like it or not. It also holds psychological, social and political weight. It is important to be aware of it rather than ignoring the powerful undercurrent which it possesses.

Fabric district in Singapore, Arab Street
Fabric heaven in Singapore’s fabric Mecca, Arab Street

It is almost too easy to side-line the industry as superficial and without real value. However there is danger in dismissing it too quickly as frivolous, meaningless and vacuous. It is certainly the most commodified art form in terms of its commercial appeal to various markets which belies its surface perception. The industry’s image needs to be re-examined. Within the tiny collection of islands that make up the UK the fashion industry is the second biggest employer. Touching upon huge issues and topics such as ‘fast-fashion’, the cult of the disposable that neoliberalism can encourage and the result of this too often being sweatshops shall be covered in later posts. All that’s opaque is that the impact, reach and influence of fashion extends far beyond just an image. Heidegger, the philosopher, spoke on how science and technology are not intrinsically bad but that it is the intent behind a machine that warrants it to be destructive or creative. When something becomes mechanic it is easy to contaminate the original purpose. Similarly the intent behind a piece of haute couture, the pure elixir from which the entire industry extends is expressed as art and becomes less pure the further away from the source it runs. Design is so much more than a product or an object but about disciplined technicality, generational craftsmanship, quality and inspiration. Designing is the root of the industry and the axis on which it all spins. Image is not the pursuit but the aftershock.

Chanel 60s archives
Tweed throwback

Let’s go back to the beginning, the Genesis if you will. For me, wandering through an art supplies shop with every shade of oil, acrylic and brushes in all widths and hair types evokes the same rush as when I chill in a fabric store (easy high), the feel of a gauze, tulle or silk and the potential in the many hues of oil paint are so exciting to me in their raw potential.  Pre-fall, Resort and Cruise collections on top of Autumn/Winter, S/S are the prerogative of the fashion greats with established investors and something to say. The fashion calendar blurs at light speed. Yet to be honest it’s all about that braided tweed cuff fabricated in the middle of the French countryside by Madame Pouzieux, a woman who was the only living person to know the design and loom-work technique that her and Gabrielle (being Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel) worked on to trim the iconic suit jacket. Some may fall for the gloss, the glamour and everything associated with it, but really the reason it is iconic is because of the craftsmanship behind it, the graft and the intricacy. Haute couture is ethanol. Magazines, blogging and editorial are at best champagne and come after; high-street edits and high-end ready-to-wear all come after.

 

Just a thought for the day…

Behind the Seams: Chanel Tweed today

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