Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Close encounters of the KL kind

rose smith backstage at carl kapp's SS1112 show, sydney, may 2011
Publicists would disagree, but any journalist worth their salt will tell you the best stories never come straight off a press release. Occasionally that’s where they start, however. And so it was at 2.44pm on January 16th, when I received an email from Sydney-based fashion PR firm Little Hero headed “Malaysia’s First Lady covets Carl Kapp”, alerting me to what they were claiming would in anybody’s terms constitute an unusually large single, personal order of a designer brand - 61 items. Many designers wouldn't have 61 pieces in a single collection. The alleged client was Rosmah Mansor, the wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. I called Little Hero back within minutes. The story had been passed over by the fashion editors of two Australian newspapers, said Little Hero staffer Holly Beer, who immediately followed up with a second email, with yet more tantalising details. The second of two appointments had taken place in the PM’s hotel on New Year's Eve – as it emerged, The Star Sydney Casino’s new venue The Darling, the penthouse no less – with the PM himself present. After taking Rosmah's measurements and near six figure order, Kapp was due to be flown by the client to KL for a second round of fittings, said Beer. "It was unbelievably surreal" Kapp told me later that day. Indeed. No mention was made of Kapp being dispatched to KL in a Learjet but by this stage nothing would have surprised me. UPDATE 02/02/12: PM Najib has now gone on the record on Twitter about the Carl Kapp story. In response to a question about frockwriter's post, he described it as: "a wildly exaggerated story deliberately fabricated to affect people's perception of their leaders". UPDATE 06/05/13: As we mentioned in a recent interview with the ABC's Radio National, according to sources close to Kapp, he was paid upfront for the order - in cash.  

najib razak and rosmah mansor meet QEII, london, july 2011/getty via daylife
This wasn't the wife of a Russian oil tycoon, but a politician, in fact Malaysia's most high profile politician. The very same politician who had spent the better part of 2011 embroiled in controversy with his Australian counterpart over ‘The Malaysian Solution’, a controversial plan to swap asylum seekers. The Australian High Court declared it illegal in August, due to the fact that Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The safety of the asylum seekers could not be guaranteed in Malaysia it was argued. 

Of course, the fashion business is prone to hubris. But I had no reason to doubt Beer and Kapp. I have dealt with Little Hero's director Rae Begley for at least five years and have always found her to be a straight-shooter. Nevertheless, I checked with the Malaysian High Commission in Canberra. I spoke to an "Ayshah" - that was the only name given - who confirmed Najib was in the country at the time, on holiday. I explained that I was calling to check the bona fides of some information about Rosmah Mansor buying some designer clothing in Sydney and Ayshah said she would look into it and get back to me. She never called back.

Although there were two eyewitnesses to the second appointment at the hotel (Kapp and his brand manager Yoko Sugiura), I checked that The Darling penthouse was open for business on New Year's Eve, in case of any confusion. Also, its price list. The penthouse was not officially open, as it turned out, but it was definitely operational on New Year's Eve the hotel reported. And I calculated a potential estimate of the dollar size of the Carl Kapp order, based on Kapp's price list. According to retail sources, it was realistic.

Having never previously heard of Rosmah Mansor and her gravity-defying bouffant do, moreover, I did a little research. With a laundry list of previous stories in Malaysia dedicated to her alleged extravagant spending, it took a nanosecond to realise what a can of worms - or rather, V05 - this was.

With limos, penthouses, more cash being splashed around than The Bellagio's high rollers room and – incredulously – no non disclosure agreement, I couldn’t believe my luck. As I pushed the publish button on frockwriter’s January 17 post “Carl Kapp’s couture capers in KL”, I noted on Twitter, 'You couldn’t make this s*** up'. By the end of last week that’s exactly what I was accused of doing.

Here is a statement released to the Malaysian media on Wednesday 25th January from Kapp via Little Hero, on the latter's letterheard. In it, Kapp recants
all of the information that was previously released to me by Little Hero in a bid to drum up publicity for its client and his own statements made in two separate interviews with both myself and The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Andrew Hornery, who picked the story up for his 'Private Sydney' column on Saturday 21st January (which he followed up with a second story on Saturday 28th January).

In a nutshell, Kapp now claims that Rosmah Mansor came to his store not to make a large personal order of clothes for herself, but in some kind of philanthropic capacity as patron of the Islamic Fashion Festival (IFF). Any spending was spread evenly across the various members of her entourage, which included the head of the IFF. Who happens to be a man. Kapp - who only makes womenswear - is now saying that he is definitely not being flown to KL next month at Rosmah Mansor's expense for a second round of fittings or any other nebulous purpose connected to the alleged purchase of his clothes by any number of visiting dignitaries. Adding, words to the effect, that he is in and out of Malaysia so many times throughout the year on business, KL is practically his second home. And finally, Kapp implies that he has absolutely no idea how the highly sensitive information about this distinguished visit got out. 

And the official story keeps on changing.

Yesterday IFF head Raja Rezza Shah poked his nose into the brouhaha, telling independent Malaysian news website Malaysiakini that in fact the garments purchased were intended as stock for his London boutique. "Yes, these are stock for my shop in London, which will be a platform for designers of different religions and races from around the world" he said.

As predicted, the Malaysian media has had a field day with this story.

Coverage has fallen into two camps: the mainstream media, which is largely controlled by the Malaysian government and kept in check via a renewable licensing system (which has led to Malaysia's dismal world #124 ranking on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index - three spots down from Zimbabwe).

And then there is Malaysia's independent new media arena, which includes large sites such as Malaysiakini, founded and edited by Steven Gan.

Malaysiakini (among many others) has closely followed this story since it first hit The Sydney Morning Herald (and claims that a blogger linked to Najib's UMNO party engineered last week's smear campaign against Hornery).

A quick check of the online archives of Malaysian MSM sites such as The Star and The Sun, suggests that the latter only picked the story up to hose it down. Cases in point, the headlines: "Rosmah: Aussie report on shopping spree all rubbish", "Rosmah denies RM325,000 shopping spree" and "Purchases made by Rosmah's entourage says Aussie designer".

Although Malaysia's new media players appear to be able to get their stories up largely unfettered by the shackles of their supine MSM counterparts, criticising the government is not without risk

While some of the wild allegations against Rosmah Mansor are definitely no laughing matter, frockwriter did get a chuckle out of not only the comments on Malaysiakini's report on Raja Rezza Shah's claims, but also this cartoon by Malaysiakini's infamous, unrepentant cartoonist Zunar which was published yesterday. Having already had several books banned by the Malaysian government, Zunar was arrested and briefly jailed in September 2010 under the Sedition Act over his new tome Cartoon-O-Phobia, in which Rosmah Mansor features prominently (here are a few examples). Zunar has since launched a civil suit against the government and police claiming wrongful arrest.

rosmah mansor via balik pulau

But let's just go back to Kapp's new claims - and the events of January 16th.  

1/ “The party of Datin Sri Rosmah came to our store in a sizeable group, and during their visit, members of her party, including friends and the Chairman and organiser of Islamic Fashion Festival (IFF) separately made various purchases”.

Little Hero did indeed mention that Rosmah Mansor arrived with a group of people – one of them calling in advance, reported Holly Beer, to ask about the availability of limo parking. Beer referred to them as “staff”. In our interview, Kapp referred to a group of six people. Duly noted by frockwriter. A similar number was present at The Darling penthouse the following evening, said Kapp, adding that he believed some of the women present may have been family members. At no stage in any of the communications with me – three separate emails from Little Hero and a 15-minute phone interview with Kapp - did either Little Hero or Kapp state that any purchases or orders were made by anyone other than Rosmah Mansor. In fact both Little Hero and Kapp explicitly said that the orders were for Rosmah Mansor. Rosmah is not one of Kapp’s standard sizes, he told me. Kapp added that he makes to a size 14 off the rack, but to 18-20 in made to measure - which accounts for 50percent of his business, he said. Additionally, all of the garments for Rosmah were in need of special customisations such as extended hemlines or long sleeves, with at least one dress due to be converted into a coat. Kapp said he took the client's measurements, so as to be able to tailor the garments to her needs. He told me on the record, “It started out at the shop, but there was so much that she wanted, so I suggested that I prepare a presentation.... She followed me into the studio and started pointing at fabrics”.

According to Kapp, the order was processed at The Darling the following day, after the full presentation to Rosmah. Kapp took Sugiura along with the express purpose of looking after the paperwork. “She had to handle the order” he said. Kapp added that he was paid upfront for the order.

Prior to Kapp's January 25 press statement, neither Beer nor Kapp had made any mention whatsoever of the Islamic Fashion Festival, its organiser or his London boutiqe. 

Was Raja Rezza Shah even there? Apparently so. Below is a screen cap of a December 30 Tweet from Raja Rezza, a Malaysian actor-turned-model, celebrity wedding planner and museum advisor - and the nephew of Sultan Ismail Petra of Kelantan. It's a photograph taken with Kapp, apparently in the latter's boutique, together with the caption: “Checking out future IFF designer, Sydney’s Carl Kapp. Very interesting cuts”. 

Going by his tourist shots posted to Twitter in around Sydney, Raja Rezza appears to have been in the country from at least December 25. Incidentally, on January 1st, he also posted a photo of the Sydney Harbour New Year's Eve fireworks (below), from a vantage point that looks very much like the verandah of The Darling penthouse:

2/ "The article also stated that I alluded to being 'flown to Malaysia next month' solely for the benefit of the Prime Minister’s wife. This is also inaccurate. Visits to various parts of Asia, including Malaysia, for thepurposes of channel marketing for our merchandise and sourcing of materials for future products are a regular part of my work calendar and ordinary course of business".

If the information that Kapp was due to be flown to KL by Rosmah Mansor is “inaccurate”, then why did he green light an email from his publicist on February 16th telling frockwriter that “she is flying him to Kaula [sic] Lumpur mid-February for a second round of fittings”? And why, later that day did he confirm this information with me, adding in fact how surprised he was to be heading to Malaysia, a country in which, Kapp gave us the distinct impression, he had never previously set foot? Kapp told me, “She asked me to come to KL for fittings. I said 'If you take care of the travel arrangements, sure'.....I can’t believe I’m actually flying over there next month for an hour and a half fitting. And then flying back out again the next day”.

3/ “It is our view that the article has unfairly given the impression that the Carl Kapp establishment is indiscreet and is willing to divulge personal and private information about our clients. This is manifestly untrue”.

Herewith two emails that I received from Little Hero's email address on January 16th. This information was not off the record and there was no privacy disclaimer. I do not make a habit of publishing anyone’s emails, but am willing to make an exception in this case as I feel there is a genuine effort here to mislead the public. 

Here is the first email received, datestamp January 16th at 14.44:

“Hi Patty,
I hope you are well.
Some news for you:
I thought you may be interested in one of Carl's latest fans, Malaysia's First Lady, Rosmah Mansor. Carl received a phone call from her staff while she was shopping in Pitt St asking if there was parking in Paddington for a limousine. They came straight over where Carl had a private appointment with Mrs. Mansor, going over styles, colour and fabrics. Carl then prepared a presentation for her on New Year's Eve at the hotel Mrs. Mansor was staying out, and she chose every one of the 30 colours Carl presented. In total Mrs. Mansor ordered 61 pieces. Carl also was introduced to PM Najib Razak. All pieces she chose are to be made from Carl's signature stretch silk, and to be made bespoke after taking her measurements. 
A few of the styles she ordered included the Emilia skirt and long sleeve blouse below.
I would also be happy to offer you an AW12 style to run with the story, look book is attached.
Interesting, no?!
Here is the second email, received at 16.47 on the same day. The hyperlink to The Darling penthouse was included by Beer:
“Hi Patty,
I just spoke to Carl for some further information:
He visited Rosmah, and her PM husband on New Year's Eve at The Darling's Penthouse Suite in the Casino ( for the fitting and presentation. The pieces are for her everyday occasions, which are many. She meets some incredibly influential people, including most recently Michelle Obama so Carl is thrilled that she is such a fan. He said she was incredibly lovely, and she is flying him to Kaula Lumpar mid-February for a second round of fittings. The pieces need to be completed in a month from the second fitting. All pieces had to be altered to be with a long sleeve, with no bare ankles or wrists. 
She is already asking for more pieces in addition to the 61 ordered, which is a mix of AW12 and SS11.
In addition to this, Carl has had a great season, his sales are extraordinarily 80% up post his debut Fashion Week show last year. His made-to-measure has definitely made him a favourite go-to and is his greatest point of difference - particularly against the onslaught of online stores.
Attached are the lookbook imagery, the following have already been published on Pages Digital.
Let me know of anything else you need,

carl kapp and amanda ware (R) backstage at kapp's SS112 show, sydney, may 2011
4/ “I wish to clarify that in my statement on this distinguished client’s visit, never did I make any specific reference to the amount spent at my Paddington store”. 

Did frockwriter report that Kapp made specific reference to the dollar size of the order? No. 

But Kapp and his PR outfit volunteered, on the record – unsolicited - the unit size of the order. Sixty-one pieces. And apparently didn't think anyone would do the math.

Not only did Little Hero approach at least three journalists with the story that Rosmah Mansor had ordered 61 made-to-measure pieces from Kapp for her personal use, almost immediately after the original encounter, around the 1st or 2nd of January, Kapp himself went public with the information on Facebook to hundreds of his Facebook friends and fans – a post and comments that were sighted at the time by frockwriter, but which have since been deleted.

I write about fashion from a business perspective for a variety of publications, including US fashion trade paper WWD. I am frequently required to include industry-sourced information and sales estimates in stories. On January 16th I asked Little Hero for Kapp’s off-the-rack price range. In a third email that day, they informed me: AUD 295 for a silk T-shirt, AUD 330 for a “boob tube”, with short dresses starting at AUD 795 and reaching AUD 1100, AUD 2420 and AUD 2970 for the longer styles. Overlooking for a moment the obvious facts that Rosmah Mansor did not order any short dresses, short-sleeved T-shirts or strapless boob tubes and that the entire order was made-to-measure, if the order was indeed 61 units, as claimed by Little Hero and Kapp, the absolute cheapest it could possibly have been was AUD 17,995 (295 x 61). And the absolute priciest: AUD 181,170 (2970 x 61). Average it out and you don't get much change out of AUD 100,000 - which is what I reported the order "could be approaching".

If you wanted to be discreet, why mention the size of the order? That was bound to attract scrutiny. And even with no NDA, why go public about a large order made by the wife of a prominent politician, without first checking that there was no problem with releasing the information? This was, presumably, a very important client to Kapp.

Rosmah Mansor isn't the first politician's wife to come under scrutiny for her fashion choices. But if you were Najib and you had an election looming; you were already taking a lot of heat over your wife's spending, which has become so legendary it has inspired a Malaysian phone app - and there was a previous incident in Australia just two months beforehand, when you had to deny reports that your wife and daughter may have spent AUD 210,000 on fashion and jewellery during CHOGM - wouldn't you at least try to keep a low profile?

rae begley and murray bevan, FINZ panel, auckland, november 6 2011

On Friday, when I alerted Rae Begley that I was tempted to go public with her emails, this was her response (again, via email).

Begley told me: "On release of the first pitch to Frockwriter, Little Hero was not privy to the information that there was a group of people with Rosmah".

She added: "Following your receipt of Little Hero's 1st press release, we understand on January 24th Carl disclosed the information about the attendance of a group of people in a telephone conversation with you. As Carl had already confirmed this information with you, we understood the article had been an unfair impression of Carl’s communications, hence the release of Carl’s Media Statement”.

We can appreciate that Begley may be out of her depth dealing with the Malaysian political establishment and that perhaps her memory is by now a little fuzzy.

But we do feel the need to remind Begley that we only had one phone conversation with Carl Kapp, on January 16th. In that interview, Kapp merely elaborated on the information that Beer had already mentioned.

Our story was published on January 17th. If Begley or Kapp had any concerns about the information in the story, it's curious that neither sought an immediate clarification. They did not.

On the contrary, Kapp sent me an SMS at 18.35 that day saying "Thanks for the brilliant write-up!”.

It's even more curious that if there was any problem with the story, that Kapp would seek to draw further attention to it by putting a “Like” on the post on frockwriter’s Facebook page and then also linking to it on his own Facebook page (also since deleted).

That same afternoon, when the SMH’s Andrew Hornery expressed an interest in the story for his Private Sydney column, I asked Kapp would he like me to give Hornery his cell phone number. He said yes.

Presented with yet another opportunity to set the record straight and correct any information that may have concerned him in frockwriter's account of his encounter with Rosmah Mansor, Kapp failed to correct anything, repeating the information verbatim to Hornery in a second interview.


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