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Down and out in Central: Is shabby chic?

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Why do the rich wear rags? Dedicated follower of fashion Peter Sherwood gets into a spot of bother finding out.

I’m not known to grumble endlessly, preferring to vent any accumulated exasperation and residual irritation by kicking the dog. But let me tell you, I’ve been hoodwinked, fooled, deluded, hornswoggled and generally taken for a ride. There I was in the swish Mandarin Oriental exchanging pleasantries with concierge Giovanni, an Italian of my acquaintance almost from the time when he stood, bemused, on a vacant waterfront site while they constructed the hotel around him. We go back a bit.

In the lobby were a bevy of female tourists, mostly 30-somethings, and a few of a riper vintage trying earnestly to blend in. What confused me in this luxurious venue was their abject poverty. What were they doing here? Were they upscale beggars? How did they gain entry to a sophisticated hostelry that prides itself on an unspoken dress code of smart casual and high fashion?

Questionable fashion statement

Most of these ladies wore what were clearly jeans bought at Oxfam, many of them ripped to shreds, great gaping holes in the  knees and one with a slice ripped out of the rear showing a piece of miniscule underwear, clearly designed to reduce the cost of the fabric. I could tell they were struggling financially by the cheap-looking oversize bags they carried; inferior versions of Gucci and Prada made in a China factory that likely churns out real ones too – if indeed there are real ones.

It was only later I heard this was a fashion statement, but meanwhile I felt so troubled that I stepped forward and offered one particularly pathetic creature in rags a HK$50 note. Well, she hauled off and slapped me, while letting forth a stream of pejoratives the likes of which I had not heard since an unfortunate confrontation with a Tourette’s sufferer on the promenade in San Sebastian in 1983. (I believe that outpouring of bruising invective was in Basque, but I have no way of knowing.)

I retreated, stunned by the onslaught, while my Florentine friend began waving his arms, gesticulating wildly and generally being Italian in a chaotic demonstration of sympathy for me and for women shamed by penury. Naturally upset and bewildered, I wandered off to the Four Seasons to calm my nerves with a small brandy, not imagining for a moment that I would be assailed by yet more impoverished women, a few looking more down-and-out than the Mandarin’s penniless. Here, the jeans sported were nothing more than remnants, slashed in a razor-wielding frenzy, hacked, gashed, chopped and peppered by a 12-gauge shotgun blast.

It is disturbing to think that some people are so needy they can’t afford a new pair of jeans from Gap. Or is haute couture driven largely by shepherds?

Later I discovered the ruse: Today’s fashionistas demand their garments horrendously massacred and sold at alarming prices. The unadulterated product is considered quaintly démodé. Maybe I’ll buy some new shirts, mutilate, crush, crumple and rip them to bits, then parade past Giovanni like George Clooney. Either I’ll start an avant-garde movement, or be led quietly to the door.


Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 18 years. The former head of an international public relations firm, Peter is the author of 15 books and he has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.

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