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Pooja Nansi was appointed festival director for the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) in 2019. During her tenure, Nansi bolstered the outreach to a diverse demographic, which included young people and individuals with special needs. She has enriched the multilingual aspect of the SWF with literary groups dedicated to various mother tongues. When the pandemic hit, Nansi brought the festival to the digital space.

With 2023 being the final year for Nansi as festival director, we conducted an exit interview of sorts about her time at SWF, guilty pleasures and the challenges of parenthood.

(Note: This interview took place last year. Nansi was recently awarded the Knights of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture to celebrate their "significant impact on cultural cooperation" between Singapore and France.)

ESQUIRE SINGAPORE: Was five years always on the plan for you?

POOJA NANSI: I think the typical tenure is four years but with the pandemic and because the festival moved from being housed within National Arts Council to the Art House Limited, I was asked to stay on, just to help stabilise things. That’s why five years. It’s much longer than I expected.

ESQ: What do you feel you have accomplished during your tenure?

PN: I mean, we can only do what we can do with the time that we have. There’s always more to do, right? I had two big goals I needed to see fulfilled because I knew this tenure was always limited. I wanted to increase the space to include a variety of participants and audiences. And to draw in young people who never came to the festival before. So I definitely think we have achieved that to the best of our capacity. If you ask me, there’s always more that can be done. But I am proud of what we’ve achieved in five years.

ESQ: What was the pandemic like for you?

PN: Can we not talk about the pandemic years? [laughs]

ESQ: Was anyone even in the mood for a lit fest?

PN: It was weird because there was very little time to be reflective, right? In the early days of the pandemic, we all thought that this was happening somewhere else. No one imagined that the whole world would shut down. Sometime in April, the decision was made to go digital. And I remembered the team and I going like, we have no idea what that means. A festival is a gathering of people, right? It’s a physical gathering of bodies. So, at the time, we were thrown in the deep end and there was a steep learning curve to overcome.

Whether everyone was in the mood is a good question. But I think it was sorely needed. Props to the Arts Council for realising that because people needed to hold on to something right and writers and thinkers of our time are what people would return to when things get difficult. People needed to connect with other people and the festival provided a space for that. It turned out to be quite a necessary space.

ESQ: Esquire used to work with Yong Shu Hoong and he’s the next director for SWF. Were you involved in the selection process?

PN: I’m not actually involved in the appointment so I can’t speak to that. That’s all done by Arts House Limited and the National Arts Council.

ESQ: Any advice for him?

PN: I’ve known Shu Hoong for a long time because we are both poets in the scene. And, of course, I’ve been to many of his SUBtext sessions as a young poet, he’s always been very generous to me. I don’t believe in giving advice. I think Shu Hoong is more than equipped to take this on and he’s going to give it his own stamp. So it’s not so much advice but I hope he enjoys his time as much as I did.

ESQ: So what will you do now?

PN: I’ve been working on my PhD, which had been on hold for a long time owing to the pandemic. And I had a baby two weeks before the festival during the pandemic. So that was an... interesting year... working everything out. I’m taking a bit of a break from that. So my immediate goal is to focus on the PhD and complete it.

And I would like to return to my writing. I really missed that and then going back to some level of teaching creative writing. I wanna spend time with my daughter and learn to perfect making my mother’s dal. Y’know, things that I haven’t had time to do before.

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ESQ: Does having a kid change you as a person; as a writer? I have a child and now, at the movies, I can't bear to watch scenes of children getting hurt.

PN: Yeah, it's a biological thing.

ESQ: Yeah. Because we're hotwired now to protect our young, right?

PN: How old is your child?

ESQ: Four in two months.

PN: My daughter just turned three. So, how has she impacted me? Thanks for asking that. People always ask how being your mother made it more difficult, which carries a lot of presumptions. I'll be really honest, I had a lot of anxiety when I found out that I was pregnant. I was really concerned about how having a child would affect my ability and my freedom to work as a writer and a thinker. But I can honestly say it's just expanded me as a human being beyond my wildest imagining. The clichés are true. Being a parent is the hardest and best job in the world. Your capacity to love expands, your empathy swells. You've become invested in a world that your kid is gonna grow up in.

ESQ: Do you think that has something to do with your openness to provide a space for a younger crowd?

PN: I conceptualised the youth fringe in 2019 before I had my daughter. I think that comes from just being a teacher at heart. I used to teach full-time for 10 years in MOE. I've worked with teenagers for my whole working life; I love working with young people because they're going to take over the world.

ESQ: Do you feel that the younger crowd aren't given the credit they deserve?

PN: The "younger generation"... that's a huge demographic. Some people have far more resources than others. It's not a monolith of young people that we're talking about. Some young people go to certain kinds of schools or come from certain kinds of families and backgrounds and have a lot of access and exposure to the arts. And then there's an entire demographic that, people seem to think, does not need exposure to the arts. That has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Literature teaches you how to know things. It teaches you how to learn. And I feel that we all deserve to have those tools regardless of where we come from. The art scene is potentially, one of the most democratic spaces we can offer a young person, if we come at it correctly and with the right intentionality.

ESQ: Like the Youth Fringe segment for the Singapore Writer's Fest.

PN: It wasn’t about, oh, let’s have a programme for young people. Very early on, I was very clear with my programming team that we cannot presume what young people want. That happens a lot in schools, where we prescribe to young people what they should be reading, what they should want. But what I wanted to know from young people is, what do you want to see in a literary space? Why aren’t you coming and what would make you attend?

We did a bunch of focus groups where we went into schools and asked young people about what they are reading, what is exciting to you? We collected all those data points and gathered youth curators who suggested programmes for us. The trick with that was to trust them, even though the programmes seemed outlandish.

ESQ: What seemed outlandish at the time?

PN: Wattpad. A lot of us were like, what on earth is Wattpad? But that’s what young people are writing and reading on. Even though we didn’t have any idea what it was, we had to trust that this was what young people were excited about. It was kind of magical because they came in droves. Yesterday, I was at an event and we had to turn people away. I was really upset but the book signing was packed. A stampede of young kids ran down with their little origami hearts to give to the author. I see things like this so it’s absolutely untrue that young people are not excited or that they’re apathetic. It’s just that half of the time, we don’t listen and we don’t meet them at where they are. And by that, I mean the average 14-year-old today won’t pick up Great Expectations. They’re engaging in the digital book space, like Booktalk, BookTube... it’s changing the literary landscape for the better.

ESQ: I heard there was a complaint about the inclusion of AI.

PN: Oh yes. For the Opening Debate. [Editor’s note: The festival kickstarts with an Opening Debate with topics that are tongue-in-cheek. This year’s topic was, “This House Believes AI is the Better Writer”.]

ESQ: I understand that the debate is meant to be facetious but people took it the wrong way.

PN: I dunno if it’s taken the “wrong way”. I think those views are valid. But if I’m understanding you correctly, it was a kind of outrage about the fact that a literary festival would feature ChatGPT, right? Someone wrote that AI is unethical because it mines other people’s labour without compensation. That it’s exploitative and unethical. How can a literary scene for writers give space to ChatGPT?

So we responded that the entire premise of the debate and the concern of the debate is precisely that. And we always believe in letting writers have the last word. So we wanted to let writers speak on it. And the plot twist of the debate was that ChatGPT was operated by a writer. If people had come to the debate, they would have realised that the debate was really funny, really clever and actually really poignant.

To me, AI is inevitable. It’s going to be a part of our future. There is anxiety but I think it was a beautiful thing for us as a community of writers and readers to sit with that anxiety and it was comforting to hear writers say, how can we learn to coexist and still use this technology to make our lives better rather than be controlled by it? That was the entire ensuing conversation.

ESQ: I always look at it as a good jumping point for discussion. Instead of just-

PN: Shutting it down.

ESQ: Precisely. We can talk about it. Maybe set up parameters for the use of AI.

PN: How are we going to collectively as a species navigate issues if we don't allow ourselves to talk about it? Maybe I'm growing old. I think social media is important but I do find a lot of the conversations very oversimplified and binary. Like there's only one right thing to say and a few buzzwords that you need to use and if you don't see it exactly like that, then you're wrong. I think that's damaging. That's why a space like a lit fest is precious because it's one of the few spaces where we can listen to each other talk. I mean, how many spaces do we have that allow that?

ESQ: Speaker's Corner?

PN: Yeah suuure. I'm a fan of talking about it no matter how difficult it is. There's no point in shutting it down.

ESQ: What is your guilty pleasure?

PN: I have none any more because I’ve embraced all my trashy loves. They turned me into who I am today. But... when I was a kid, I used to read Sweet Valley High. Now when I look at it, it’s terrible. Francine Pascal created the series but now it’s produced by a team of ghostwriters. It was so formulaic and bad but I was hooked on it. In retrospect, it taught me so much.

I’ve also watched so much trash reality TV. I just finished the latest season of Selling Sunset. I’m very fascinated by the dynamics of that show and its weird feminism. I could write an entire essay for you about that.

ESQ: Is it your PhD?

PN: PhD is not about Selling Sunset, unfortunately. Yeah.

ESQ: What about music? What’s your guilty pleasure?

PN: Oh, this is a hard one to admit but I still listen to Kanye.

ESQ: Old Kanye?

PN: I listen to a lot of old Kanye because I miss the old Kanye. It troubles me. I didn’t get off the Kanye train for a long time. Even when a lot of people dropped off, I was still kinda hoping that Kanye would say something that would redeem himself, but yeah. It’s really hard to justify it but I believe in listening, reading and watching things in the context. So, I listen to old Kanye and I don’t feel guilty. I feel conflicted about who he’s become and what he’s saying, but old Kanye’s music came from such a pure place actually, like some of those songs are so pure, that sometimes I’d cry listening to “Hey Momma”... they pull at my heartstrings because you can hear his hope, naivety and his emotions.

I can’t listen to Justin Timberlake the same way any more either. Like after all of the things that have come out, you know. It’s really hard to listen to him in the same way as before.

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ESQ: Does your daughter know what you do?

PN: She’s very recently figured it out. I told her that, oh, mama runs a festival and she came to the festival this weekend and really enjoyed it. I left her with Denise from Closet Full of Books for about 40 minutes. She reads every book that she comes across. Sometimes when I tell people that my daughter loves books, they’re like, oh, of course she’s your kid but I’ve never met a kid who doesn’t like books. Because children are born curious, right? If you present them with something and you let them explore, that love for it will grow.

ESQ: Can she read?

PN: My daughter loves being read to. Every night is a battle about how many books we're going to read before she sleeps. It's a bit of a negotiation because I have energy for two and then she'll come into the room with four books. If we go to a bookstore and she picks something, I will let her buy it. Even if it has too many words. Maybe she won't understand it but I'll let her buy it because she'll get into it.

ESQ: Do you control what she consumes?

PN: I think, there’s a difference between gently nudging her towards new things and saying no. It’s different for every child and every parent but for me—and I know this is going to be a controversial statement—I’d rather she engages with difficult things with my knowledge. So that we can have that conversation.

I’m not saying it’s easy; it’s really difficult, especially when explaining big concepts to kids. But I’d rather we try and grapple with the issue together. A good example is when she was missing her grandparents one weekend and—she has big feelings—burst into tears. I tried to compromise with her, it’s ok. You know, you are going to see your grandfather and grandma tomorrow. And then she asked me, do you miss your grandmother? It took me aback. I said, yeah, I missed her a lot. And she said, oh, but it’s ok mama because you can see her tomorrow.

That was the moment when I had to make a choice, right? Because the easy answer is to dismiss her and think she won’t know any better. But I said, I can’t see my grandmother tomorrow because she is gone. She’s gone up to the sky to be with God, you know? And my daughter looked terrified but I assured her that it’s not scary. I may miss my grandmother but she’s always in my heart.

ESQ: I had several deaths in the family this year and my kid was asking questions about it. Like you, I came to a crossroads about talking to him about death and dying. I told him that Grandma died and now she's in a better place and I thought that he understood. Then, a few months later, he started saying that he hoped I'd die.

PN: But he's hoping that you'll get to a better place.

ESQ: Yeah. It sounds flippant but, weirdly, it came from a good place. You'd want to protect them from all that.

PN: I did not come to this interview thinking that I was gonna cry with you, but yeah.

ESQ: I'm still not sure if talking about death is too early for him. I do want him to be emotionally secure if either of his parents dies.

PN: There is no correct way to parent. We do the best that we can. And it's not the exact quote but I go back to Philip Larkin-

ESQ: "This Be The Verse".

PN: Yeah, we're gonna do it. But we try our best not to.

ESQ: Speaking about death, can we talk about Adrian Tan? He sadly passed and this is the first year you’re doing the debate without him.

PN: For the festival’s Opening Debate, yes. It’s really one of those things that hit me harder than I thought. The reason for that is that I’ve never seen Adrian without a smile on his face. He has always been so kind, so supportive, so generous with his time and his energy.

Ever since I took over the festival and when I doubt myself for a decision that I’ve made, Adrian would be like, if people are a bit pissed off, you’re doing it right. And, this is kind of morbid but, he added, don’t worry, Pooja. No one’s gonna die. That’s Adrian. He never takes anything too seriously.

ESQ: Did you know about his illness?

PN: I knew he had been ill for a while but in true Adrian fashion, he never called attention to it. He never made anything about himself. I might get the timeline wrong but I think as early as February or March, when we had an online meeting, I saw him and I didn’t think he looked too well. But I wasn’t expecting that he would go so soon. That was hard.

We talked about how we wanted to celebrate him at the festival... and I intentionally used the word “celebrate” and not “memorialise him” or “eulogise him”; that’s just not in the spirit of who Adrian was. He always enlivened the party. We didn’t want to do a moment of silence because Adrian would have hated that. So, we decided to dedicate the debate to his memory.

ESQ: Given what you know, if you were asked to return to lead the Singapore Writers Fest’s programme, would you?

PN: Not immediately, I would like a little time away from it. I haven’t had time to reflect on what we’ve achieved and where it’s moved to. Some distance is important for reflection, right? But if I have the chance to work with these people again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. It’s been a privilege of a lifetime to work with these people.

ESQ: Are we good? Is there anything else you want to talk about?

PN: No man. We already talked about kids and death and Kanye. I think we’re good. 

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Photography: Shawn Paul Tan
Styling: Asri Jasman
Photography Assistant: Xie Feng Mao
Hair and Makeup: Nicole Ang at THE SUBURBS STUDIO using DUNGÜD and DIOR BEAUTY

Dress, SIMONE ROCHA via DOVER STREET MARKET SINGAPORE. Gloves, stylist’s own

No one batted an eye when the shoot date with comedian Atsuko Okatsuka was scheduled on April the first. Perhaps, we were too absorbed in making the appointment happen; maybe we never considered the possibility of Okatsuka not showing up. Looking back, the signs were there for a probable no-show: the slow back-and-forth via e-mail with Okatsuka’s management; a last-minute confirmation on the location and timing.

Ten minutes past the scheduled 1pm and a text saying that they weren’t able to find the studio, felt like a lead-up to someone jumping out from the closet, screaming “sike”. But Okatsuka and her husband, Ryan Harper Gray did show up. Of course, they did. Can the story happen in any other way?


After touring her next special, Full Grown, in America, Okatsuka embarked on an international tour that would take her from London through Southeast Asia before ending in Australia.

For her stop in Singapore, she only found out that she was performing at a cinema when she hit Asia. “I thought Cineleisure was a cute name for a theatre,” she reasoned. But venue withstanding, her opening night here went off without a hitch. After the opener had warmed up the crowd, Okatsuka came bounding out and leant into not knowing that she was performing in a movie theatre. Then, seeing the spotlight trained on her, she immediately mimed being an escaped convict being caught in a searchlight. The room broke into laughter and for the next hour, she had the audience eating out of her hand.

It’s the same effect even when it’s at an intimate setting like an interview. She is amiable, a cut-up. When she laughs, it reminds one of a Sesame Street puppet—somewhere between a felted growl and a chuckle.

“The men in our lives have either died or left,” Okatsuka says, describing her upbringing as “matriarchal”. Mostly raised by her grandma, who also pull double-duty looking after Okatsuka’s schizophrenic mother; Okatsuka’s family didn’t fit the mould like the others. “My dad divorced my mom; my grandma, mom and I were undocumented; my mom has a mental illness. Whenever I watch other Asian comics joke about how their parents want them to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer... I can’t relate because that was not my family.”

Her mom’s schizophrenia was not diagnosed at the time so Okatsuka assumed that this was just another one of her mood swings. She would create a fuss or throw a plate or anything within reach. After an episode, Okatsuka would notice a frailty whenever her mother calmed down. “I felt bad for her. I’d see her shaking her head like she was shaking out the negative voices. I’d talk to her and still treat her like my mom.”

Whenever her mom starts to “act up”, Okatsuka would play the clown to diffuse the situation. She’d bust a move or pretend a stick was a magic wand that can ward off evil. Her mother would laugh at her antics; the voices in her head fading into echoes.

In a way, her mother was Okatsuka’s first audience.

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“I have to be a cheerleader for her,” Okatsuka adds. “I have to put on a song and urge her to dance. Mom, repeat after me: I am worth it. I am strong. There’s a darkness happening but I’ve to be cheery for her. I know it’s a crazy scene—someone is losing their mind and someone is tap-dancing in front of them. But that’s the only way I know how to handle the situation and it is with some light.”


The pandemic kept Okatsuka and her husband indoors, masked and responsible; all in an effort to protect her mother and grandmother living with them. While it was a period of “general sadness”, it’d prove to be the occasion that would shape Okatsuka into the comedian that she is today.

There were two critical points: one, she started to be introspective and write about topics that were hard to talk about before like her mother’s schizophrenia. It became an eye-opening entry into a different side of the comedian.

She had created Normalise Everything, a stand-up show that consisted of comedians who have parents with mental illness. The hour-and-a-half show was livestreamed and the money raised was donated to Painted Brain, a mental health organisation.

The second point is her social media game. Other than her stand-up bits, her TikTok has videos of her dancing, most of them either with her grandmother or with Gray. The innate silliness of her videos was a balm during COVID. In one of her dance uploads, she accidentally created the #DropChallenge, where Beyoncé’s bass-heavy “Yoncé” plays in the background, Okatsuka halts in the middle of her activity in Little Tokyo and drops, twerk-style as slowly as possible before rising again. All these happen with her grandmother in tow. That video had one million likes and her fanbase exploded.

One of these fans was Mike Birbiglia, a veteran comic, who asked her to open for him on his tour. During the tour, Okatsuka related to Birbiglia about an intruder being breaking into her house three times in a day and wondered how she could incorporate it into a special that she was working on. Bowled over by the story, Birbiglia worked with her on her special that would eventually become The Intruder.

The Intruder was Okatsuka’s first HBO special and she was also the second Asian-American woman to have a stand-up special with the streaming giant. The first? That honour goes to Margaret Cho, who, in a roundabout manner, inspired Okatsuka to pursue comedy when her friend passed her a DVD of Margaret Cho: Notorious CHO during a sermon in church.

Okatsuka had never seen stand-up before. At the time, she was an immigrant sharing a space with her mother and grandmother in her uncle’s garage. She kept her head down, only exposed to the things that her “immediate family [were] into”. Cho’s special blew the doors open into a larger world. Not only was a woman, who looked like Okatsuka, cracking wise, but there was a confidence that spoke to her. In a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, Okatsuka says, “I often wonder what it must feel like for her, knowing who she is since she was born. It took me probably 10 years to figure out my voice.”


You've read the stories about how her parents met on a Japanese dating show. Or how when she was eight, her grandmother kidnapped her from her father and stowed her away to America. Or how her grandfather died at the hands of the Kuomintang during the White Terror in Taiwan. These and many other incredible instances are peppered into Okatsuka’s life. They would be wellsprings of material for her comedy but before the age of 19; before the recommendation from the community college film professor whom she was dating to try stand-up, these chapters amounted to just another day in her life. Because of her immigrant status, Okatsuka just wanted to blend in and not make waves.

Growing up in America, she wanted to change her name but said that she wasn’t “creative enough” to come up with anything new. She had gone by “Stacey” for a little bit. “And then that song by The Ting Tings came out,” Okatsuka said, “That was a fun wake-up call. They call me Stacey. They call me Her. That’s not my name. That’s not my name. And I was like, yeah, why am I trying to be white? That’s not my name.”

She had struggled with fitting in all her life. When she lived in Japan, she had to deal with the lack of warmth from the locals because of her foreign status. Whenever her mother had her schizophrenic episodes, Okatsuka had to push aside her own needs to tend to her.

“When I was four and under, I had the bowl cut,” Okatsuka said. “And I was trying all sort of ways to fit in. Maybe adopt a long hairstyle, like Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie. Maybe being blonde is the way to go.

“But when I finally found my voice in comedy, I wanted the bowl haircut that I had when I was a kid. When I was young, I didn’t feel like I could completely be myself. But now I can. This is a second chance at being my childlike self again.”

She finds it important to hold on to the spirit of playfulness. “Because as you grow older, you have to deal with paperwork and rules; more doctor visits... technical things that are very serious. I want to continue embracing that childlike joy.”

The bright colours, the haircut, the comedy—all these and more are Okatsuka’s better sequel to her childhood. “Part two is gonna be better than the sad, dramatic childhood.”


The moment the industry is ready for someone like her, everything else had to happen before that.

“In America and everywhere in the world, honestly, representation in the media has not always caught up to the number of people who actually want to do a certain art or have been working at it,” Okatsuka explains. “For example, in America, when I first started, there was Margaret Cho and then Ali Wong. We didn’t have many people before us, who did it and who were embraced by Hollywood, who were embraced internationally. Of course, you don’t have the self-confidence to think, oh, I could do it too.

It was 2018: Ali Wong’s second special came out and Fresh Off the Boat was already a TV show. More Asian-American representation was rife in the landscape. Okatsuka had been doing stand-up for a while; her comedy got better and she started to see more people turning up to her sets. “That was when I thought that I didn’t have to walk dogs any more or teach film at a community college. I could quit those and focus on stand-up comedy.” She doesn’t do accents in her act. “I’m not good at them, I feel you can tell a story without doing them and I don’t want to be taken the wrong way. Especially with Western audiences, they might laugh for the wrong reasons and not listen to the story, setup or punchline. They are just laughing because there’s an accent. See, Asian accents are choppy and silly-sounding. That’s why it’s funny. That’s so... old school now. That was the old way of laughing that I don’t think is funny any more.”

When asked about her first impression of her husband, she says “Oh, I’ve always wanted a sister, you know. We’ve started to dress alike; we joke similarly, and we laugh about a lot of things, it’s like I’ve found a sister that I’m also attracted to. So, that’s special.”

It’s a joke, of course. Ryan Harper Gray is more than that. He helps her with her skits, her production, her schedule. He’s her Guy Friday with added spousal benefits. They met through a mutual friend’s shoot and just fell hard for each other. In one of her bits in The Intruder, Okatsuka describes the moment she found out that Gray had a schizophrenic mother. “And I was like, Oh my God. My mom too. And we had the craziest sex ever.”

But even in the comfort of each other, there are still some things that are verboten. “Being a comedian is hard but it’s harder for their loved ones,” Okatsuka says. “Because we talked about everything so what’s safe to talk about on stage? There was one time I talked about him having stomach issues, like diarrhoea stuff and after the show, a fan saw Ryan and screamed, Hey, that’s the diarrhoea guy. Ryan says, oh, no, that’s gonna stick. Can we not tell that joke any more? I said, of course. I don’t want you to be known as that ‘diarrhoea guy’.”

(And to Gray who is probably reading this—a sigh already forming in his throat—apologies for retreading this incident up again.)


Jacket, SIMONE ROCHA via DOVER STREET MARKET SINGAPORE. Dress, ALAÏA via DOVER STREET MARKET SINGAPORE. Gloves and tights, stylist’s own. Mules, TOD’S.

At the point of the interview, back in April, Okatsuka wagers that her special, Full Grown is about 75 per cent finalised. “There’s a lot more jokes that I think I can write for it and some I might replace.”

She says that her discipline in comedy is the only adult thing about her. According to Gray, she’d write almost every day.

“I’m not organised but whenever I have time during the day I’ll write. Or at the very least, I’ll be thinking about jokes. If something made someone laugh, I’ll remember it or I’ll write it down on my phone.” She’ll deconstruct the joke later—why was that conversation funny? Why did that person laugh when she said that? How can I expand on it? Okatsuka can be such a nerd about it”.

The first joke that she ever told was at a comedy class that she found online. “Oh, you could tell jokes at an open mic but those clubs are usually open at 10pm to midnight. It was’t very safe for women at that timing.”

The premise of her first joke is about how her name is Japanese and she worked in a Japanese restaurant and she drives a Toyota. “It’s about why everything I do is Japanese-related. It was literally a stupid sentence that just stated facts.”

She’s easily recgonisable but she is also trapped by it, especially her hairstyle. Because Okatsuka acts as well, it’s tricky for her to audition given her appearance. “I can be myself in my stand-up but fitting into other people’s role is a balance that I’m still trying to figure out.”

The easiest way out of this is if someone created a role where the character already looks like her. Or the other option, that she briefly mentioned, is if she created a role for herself. That might be a possibility as she’s talking to TV networks about creating a show based on her life.


Coat and bralet, COMMES DES GARÇONS via DOVER STREET MARKET SINGAPORE

She's a people pleaser by nature. After the initial show in Singapore was sold out, those who couldn’t get tickets were asking if she would add more shows. She acquiesced and created four more shows. Gray says that every time Okatsuka performs, it drains her.

So imagine, during her tenure in Singapore: five performances held over three days. That takes a toll on a person. “This is probably the last time we do something like this,” Okatsuka says.

But still, people are clamouring for more shows from her. She’ll return to tour Asia again and she’ll swing by Singapore to perform on 22 and 23 July. This time it’ll be at a proper theatre in the Esplanade and, of course, both nights will be sold out.

Okatsuka alludes to a lack of mystique to her. “I think I’ve done whatever I could do to show you who I am. Everyone is caught up, I think,” she says. “I’ve pretty much shared so much of my life that everyone has seen it all.”

These days, she uploads once or twice a month. She’s trying not to overload her feed with too much information but, if the likes and sold-out shows are any indication, people are still interested in what she has to say. When it comes to her anecdotes, her premises often start as tragedies: The intruder in the home; a pandemic that saw no sign of abating; a mother with mental illness; a sham marriage. Without punchlines, the set-ups are just... tragic.

And perhaps, that is Okatsuka’s magic. That she can find an avenue away from the expected grief and unhappy endings. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And then, you wonder if lemonade is just lemon piss and so you do a spit-take because that is a funny reaction.

In today’s climate, choosing to be happy is such an audacious act. And with Atsuko Okatsuka leading the charge on this, we will gladly follow.

Photography: Shawn Paul Tan
Styling: Asri Jasman
Hair: Sha Shamsi using OUAI via SEPHORA
Make-up: Kenneth Chia using SISLEY
Photography Assistant: Xie Feng Mao
Styling Assistant: Chua Xin Xuan

Jacket, BED J.W. FORD. Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams necklace in yellow gold with diamonds, Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams ring in yellow gold with diamonds, and Tiffany Lock bangle in yellow gold with diamonds, TIFFANY & CO.

ESQUIRE: When I think about your collaboration with Tiffany & Co., the first thing that comes to mind is the heart-shaped sunglasses that Alexandre Arnault posted on Instagram. You revealed those sunglasses last June saying, “You would know that I’m engaged to Tiffany. This is just the start of the many things we’ll be doing together.”

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: Those sunglasses are special. Generally, jewellery and accessories are must-have items in my style. That’s why I really enjoyed the process of working on that project. Thanks to the love those sunglasses got, we were more excited to release Tiffany’s new Titan collection. I’m close friends with Alexandre Arnault. So, getting the opportunity to create the Titan collection with Tiffany was an honour, and I’m thankful for it. 

ESQ: What did you want to express with the designs at Tiffany, and was there anyone or any incident that inspired that?

PW: I’m very inspired by water. The design of this collection and the name “Titan” were inspired by Poseidon, who is the king of Atlantis (a fictional city under the sea) and the ruler of the sea. “Atlantis” is also the name of an area in Virginia Beach where I grew up. Also, titanium was named after “Titan”, and you can call it “titan” for short. It is also a name that emphasises our use of black titanium, which we used in this collection to physically embody the beauty of the colour black. 

ESQ: I think it was a great idea to pair yellow gold with black titanium, and it felt fresh to me. 

PW: [The reason for that was] because it is different from tradition, and something unheard of. We wanted to make something beautiful yet different at the same time with this collection.

Polo shirt and shorts, DIOR MEN. Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams necklace in titanium and yellow gold with diamonds, TIFFANY & CO.. Sneakers, LOUIS VUITTON. Socks, stylist's own

ESQ: You’ve even mentioned that “jewellery is the punctuation mark of a person”.

PW: Jewellery makes a person. We even remember a person by their jewellery. I can never forget the ring that Slick Rick wore a long time ago. I remember trying to look for the same ring he wore. 

ESQ: There was a dinner party hosted in New York to mark the launch of Tiffany’s Titan collection. Please tell us more details about that party.

PW: I was really happy that my friends and family came and supported me. That was the first time I saw other people wearing pieces from this collection. I was able to give life to this collection while working very closely with Tiffany’s in-house design team, and it’s such an honour to lead Tiffany into a new generation. It was at the New York flagship store (which looks down into Central Park). Launching the collection there made it feel like everyone came back and got together in their hometown.

ESQ: There was a Tiffany Wonder party in Tokyo recently. 

PW: Firstly, I love Tokyo. It’s one of the cities I love, and the food is amazing. It was great to be able to celebrate 187 years of Tiffany in Tokyo.

ESQ: How would you describe the style of this collection in one word? And tell us why.

PW: People. That’s because everything I create is for the people. It doesn’t matter what your gender, race, ethnic group, or anything else are. I hope people of different classes can wear this collection.

ESQ: I recently checked out your collection “Son of a Pharaoh” which you put up for auction on the auction site JOOPITER, which was launched a few years ago. Everything was great, but the BBC Varsity Jacket was especially interesting. It was an item that expressed a politically correct message in a very cool way.

PW: I really love that jacket. Women are our future. I think it’s important to use one’s art or platform to spread love and talk about injustices. Ultimately, it’s because we are all people. I’ll also be launching a very interesting auction on JOOPITER this coming autumn during Frieze Seoul. I don’t want to say much about it now, but I’ll be revealing more details soon, so look out for it. 

ESQ: You’ve been active for over 30 years. How have you been able to stay on the front lines of trends for such a long time?

PW: That’s an interesting point. It’s because I’ve never put in much effort into trying to stay afloat of the trends. I just do what I think is right. I’m also lucky to have worked with interesting people from designers to artists, musicians, and all sorts of other geniuses. I’m learning from them every day.

Jacket, shirt, shorts and sneakers, LOUIS VUITTON. Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams necklace in yellow gold, TIFFANY &CO.

ESQ: I’m curious as to how you would differentiate something good from something bad.

PW: We can never know what is good, or what people can relate to. You just have to feel that it’s right. Whenever I’m creating something original, or whenever I’m pushing myself to do something that nobody else has done before, that’s when I create "something good". Nobody might like what I created, but we have to be prepared for that!

ESQ: Have you ever thought about how you make that distinction? For example, when I asked you earlier “What is good?”, you could either prioritise your personal preference when doing music or fashion, or you could consider the preference of the consumer. 

PW: I try to look through the consumer’s point of view as much as I can, because I’m also a consumer. I think about how I can make it practical, or how the final piece can improve my life or help me live a better life. That’s the criteria I use when making decisions. 

Jacket and shirt, LOUIS VUITTON. Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams necklace in yellow gold, TIFFANY & CO.

ESQ: What do you ultimately consider to be “good”?

PW: “Good” is such an interesting word. Why do we not say “great”? But at the same time, there isn’t a singular definition of “good”. Something might be “good” but might not change your life. Or “good” could be just a feeling. But if you don’t have true passion or sincerity, or if you’re trying hard to get “something good” without knowing why you’re doing it, then that attempt will fail. What sets you apart from others is what makes you special.

ESQ: What does creativity mean to a creative director?

PW: I have three roles. The first is to be a student, the second is to share the code, and most importantly, the third is to help others. Every season, we have to start from the beginning and expand the codes, which are the elegant tailoring, comfort, resortwear vibe, the basics, and of course the dandy. At the head of it, my role is to give energy (to the people I’m working with). But if I’m not able to create something charming, none of these have any meaning. I speak through my vision and through the amazing talents at our Maison.

ESQ: In a previous interview with Vogue, you described a creative director as a “love movement” and someone who “commands 2,500 soldiers”. I know that The Love Movement is also your favourite album by A Tribe Called Quest, but to be honest, I don’t understand that figure of speech.

PW: “Love Movement” or “LVers” for short was inspired by the slogan of my hometown Virginia, which goes “Virginia is for Lovers”. The work that our team at the Maison and I do is one part of the strong “LVers” community that we created, and at the same time it’s for the community. The reason I likened it to commanding solders, is because I lead 55 departments and 2,500 skilled artisans at our Maison. It means that my role in this place is to lead and direct. Our work has to be in harmony, and my role is to make sure everyone moves as one. And the basis of all our work is love.

Jacket and trousers, BED J.W. FORD. Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams necklace in yellow gold and diamonds, Tiffany Lock bangle in yellow gold with diamonds, Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams ring in yellow gold with diamonds, and Tiffany Lock ring in yellow gold, TIFFANY & CO.

ESQ: How did the slogan “Virginia is for Lovers” come about?

PW: I think it started from an ad or a billboard inviting people to come to Virginia for their honeymoon. But the slogan is true. There are all types of love in Virginia. It’s full of communities and families everywhere. 

ESQ: Hearing that reminds me of the Princess Anne High School Varsity Jacket that you put up for auction. It’s clear that it’s an important piece that explains your identity.

PW: Princess Anne High School is the name of the high school I went to in Virginia Beach! I really love that place, and it’s a place that has a lot of good memories. Coming from Virginia is very important to me and to who I am now. Whenever I have the chance to show that Virginia holds a special place in my heart either by representing or mentioning the place, I’ll take it. Creating the Princess Anne High School jacket was a tribute to my hometown.

Cardigan and shorts, DIOR MEN. Tiffany Lock bangle in yellow gold with diamonds, Tiffany Lock ring in white gold with diamonds, Tiffany Lock ring in yellow gold, and Tiffany Lock ring in yellow gold with diamonds, TIFFANY & CO.

ESQ: For someone who has only lived in Korea, it’s hard to picture Virginia as clearly as I can picture New York or LA. What kind of place is it?

PW: It’s a really cool place, and it’s my pride. People might underrate us, but you cannot find the history or the culture we have in Virginia state anywhere else! I love being close to the water and get a lot of inspiration from water. Being close to the water helps me feel safe. 

ESQ: You really love Virginia. What about making Pharrell’s Virginia, just like Donald Glover’s Atlanta series?

PW: That’s an interesting thought. But I’m not sure if Virginians would want a show created about them. If you want to watch a cool programme about Virginia or want to hear about the lives of people in Virginia, there is a documentary series called Voices of Fire about Virginia’s choir group with the same name. It’s amazing how much talent they have. The choir is led by my uncle Bishop Ezekiel Williams, who is an inspiration to many people, and you can catch it on Netflix. 

ESQ: As someone who loves honky-tonk, the Louis Vuitton Autumn/Winter 2024 show was very impressive. I’m curious about the reason why you interpreted Western American outfits in the collection. 

PW: I wanted to reference my personal journey from my hometown of Virginia to Paris. I also wanted to tell the story of Western America, which is also the origin of workwear. Workwear evolved from denim which the first cowboys wore. I wanted to tell the story about this inherent history and express the origin and evolution. The story is told as is in the code of this collection. I’m very proud of that collection. From the buckles to the engravings, we didn’t miss a single detail. Simply put, we elevated every element you can think of up a notch.

Suit, bag and shoes, LOUIS VUITTON. Tank top, stylist's own. Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams necklace in yellow gold with diamonds, Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams necklace in yellow gold, and Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams ring in yellow gold with diamonds, TIFFANY & CO.

ESQ: Will you consider interpreting American kung fu culture from the '70s and '80s in future works? I think it would suit you well.

PW: Kung fu and martial arts in general are very interesting. It’s a sport that requires a lot of strength, agility and patience. It’s almost like dancing. This sport is a type of art. It’s something I could consider!

ESQ: What do you think is your greatest asset right now?

PW: I will forever be a student. I love learning from others, and I get inspired by others every day.

ESQ: It’s interesting that you said “student”. What kind of student are you?

PW: I’m a student who observes well and asks a lot of questions. I want to know what happened here and there. I’m curious about how something I’m seeing is being made and why it’s made. We need to keep having curiosity. It’s the best way to learn about ourselves and the world around us.

ESQ: Is there a personal treasure that you’ll never put up for auction no matter what?

PW: There are so many! You mentioned the Tiffany heart-shaped sunglasses at the beginning of this interview. I will never put that up for auction, because it marked the beginning of my beautiful relationship with Tiffany.

Jacket, LOUIS VUITTON. Tank top, stylist's own. Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams necklace in yellow gold with diamonds, and Tiffany Titan by Pharrell Williams necklace in yellow gold, TIFFANY & CO.

Photography: Hyea W. Kang
Fashion Editor: Yun Wonghee
Styling: Matthew Henson
Grooming: Johnny “Cake” Castellanos at H.Q.E
Tailor: Alice Chastel Mazin
Production: Bae Woori
Art Designer: Kim Daesup
Styling Assistant: Marine Gabaut

Translation: Astrid Ja’afarino
Animation: Joan Tai

Happy 90th to Giorgio Armani.
(GERMAN LARKIN)

Giorgio Armani, the man, is a living legend. Speak the name to anyone at all, even one who is completely out of the fashion loop, and it’s highly unlikely that they’ve not heard of him. After all, the Armani name is now associated with luxury products that run the gamut from suiting to underwear, from home furnishings to hotels, to chocolates and cosmetics even. It is a veritable Italian empire that has extended far beyond the confines of fashion, making it a truly remarkable success story.

This story began just shy of five decades ago, when Armani founded his eponymous brand in 1975 at the age of 41, after years of designing for other Italian brands. He tells us that he’s not one to “really suffer regret” about starting the business relatively late. “I’m very happy with how things have turned out,” he says.

It has been good indeed. In 2014, the Giorgio Armani Group acquired the entirety of the Armani Exchange brand after a multi-year partnership with COMO Holdings’ husband-and-wife duo Ong Beng Seng and Christina Ong that began in 1994. The Giorgio Armani Group now owns almost every facet of its business, while engaged in license partnerships for its beauty and eyewear divisions. It’s a feat to be relished. Rumours were abound throughout the decades of various companies wanting to own a stake in the Giorgio Armani empire, yet Armani held steadfast in maintaining full control at the helm.

At Emporio Armani’s Autumn/Winter 2024 menswear show in Milan, Armani took his bow in front of the set’s lighthouse, a spotlight illuminating him. He flashed the same charismatic smile he’s been giving at the end of every show for decades, except that now, he’s on the cusp of turning 90 (on 11 July, by the way). It’s quite a sight to behold, that in the darkness of the show space, Armani’s presence felt like it filled the entire room—that’s how you know you’re looking at a legend.

ESQUIRE: What is an average work day for you?

GIORGIO ARMANI: That is hard to say as every day is different. My days are full, very full, but I like them like that. I follow a strict routine that affords me the time and space to work in a concentrated way, and this is what makes me happy.

ESQ: With fashion having gone through various changes and challenges in the past decades, what keeps you inspired even after so long?

GA: I rarely lose my inspiration. Though when it does happen, I resort to my pillars, starting with my tried and true, and by doing, again and again, new inspirations begin to arise. My first and greatest inspiration comes from the world and from observing people. I have always accompanied social changes, providing an elegant response to real needs. That is what I continue to aspire to.

ESQ: You had no formal fashion education before starting your own brand. And now, we do see such creative directors at the helm of big-named fashion brands. Do you think a formal fashion education is not requisite to be a good fashion creative?

GA: For me the creative process is instinctive. I know what I am aiming for, and I know what I like and when I have achieved it. I also know when it is not right and how to correct it. I am not sure that talent and creativity have anything to do with formal training, but I am certainly not averse to people getting formally trained. Picasso, after all, was formally trained, and he used this as the springboard for his extraordinary innovations.

ESQ: Are there young designers out there who have captured your attention?

GA: There are some I am curious about, but I would not wish to single anyone out.

ESQ: In a recent interview with Business of Fashion, you mentioned, “I don’t feel I can rule anything out” when it comes to the future of the business, including an acquisition or an IPO. Do you think about the future or are you one to take things as they come?

GA: I am involving, in my plans for the future of the company, a team that can steer the ship. Because my approach has been so determinedly consistent and clear, it is not hard to see how we can maintain the right course. A foundation has been established, and I have very capable heirs and close collaborators who will lead Giorgio Armani into the future and ensure that what I have created lives on; that the Group is kept stable over time and consistently adheres to the principles that are particularly important to me and that have always inspired my work as a designer and an entrepreneur.

ESQ: Italian fashion brands, more so than others, are more interested in keeping their businesses privately owned. Why do you think that is so?

GA: Our culture in Italy is of a fashion industry that is full of family businesses—often with the founders or family members still actively involved. This makes it difficult to see how a group might be formed, as the instinctive position of a family business is to preserve its independence.

ESQ: The Armani brand—across the many different lines—has a consistently elegant persona. What does elegance mean to you?

GA: For me, elegance is a disposition of the spirit that is reflected outwardly, something profound that is echoed in a manner of dressing, but also in the choice of an object. It is a way of being—an innate gift that has a great deal to do with an ability to combine items of clothing and colours as well as to choose shapes in order to give life to one’s own style, a signature character and look which leaves an understated yet lasting impression.

ESQ: Is there a particular male muse in mind when you’re designing menswear?

GA: My father, who was always well-dressed in tailoring from that time.

ESQ: Navy blue is essentially an Armani colour. What drew you to navy blue as a colour of choice for yourself as well as now a signature of Armani?

GA: Navy blue is my go-to colour and daily uniform: a deep, vibrant colour that I find calming and that I have always loved. Blue is a great alternative to black, with all the neutrality of that hue, but with an added element in that it is a colour. It matches my personality—pragmatic and reserved—and focuses other people’s attention on my actions and words.

Richard Gere in "American Gigolo" was Armani's first instance of creating an outfit for film.
Just one of many looks for Leonardo DiCaprio's turn in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street".
In drama series "Blossoms Shanghai", Hu Ge was dressed in a number of Armani tailoring.

ESQ: Are you sentimental about the past?

GA: I am not a nostalgic person. Nostalgia leads you to dwell on the past, and from the point of view of a designer, it can be very dangerous: you forget to move on, to develop, to explore. That is why I am resolutely focused on the present and the future. I do value the past, as the present is always built on the lessons of the past. And I have fond memories of my life and my work, my friends, travels and achievements. But I prefer to focus on what I will do today and tomorrow. I live in the moment, and the moment to come.

ESQ: If you were to look back on your fashion career, is there a moment that stands out to you?

GA: Undoubtedly the first positive feedback when I was starting out; that was the moment I realised that I had made a solid contribution to liberating men and women from rigidity in the way they dress by offering clothes with simple, natural elegance, and achieving my vision. And then the various awards that were confirmation that my job was always going in the right direction. Dressing Richard Gere for American Gigolo opened up a world for me to work with cinema and allowed me to reach beyond Italy... as well as gave me notoriety, which culminated with the cover of Time magazine in 1982—these are moments I will never forget.

ESQ: You’re still going strong. Is retirement something that you’ve considered?

GA: I don’t think I will ever stop working because dressing people is my life’s great passion. I feel that I have so much still to do and I am genuinely as excited about getting to my studio every day as I was when I first started out all those years ago. In some sense, more so, as today there are fewer worries about whether I will be able to pay the bills.

Like his instantly recognisable designs, Giorgio Armani’s navy blue uniform is truly iconic.
(GIORGIO ARMANI)

ESQ: With your wealth of experience and knowledge, what’s one wisdom you’d like to impart?

GA: One life lesson that I have learnt is that for success, hard work is essential: talent is real, but I don’t believe that on its own it is enough to guarantee success. Work hard and possibly harder, believe in your ideas, work a bit harder, and you’ll get to the top. And even if you don’t get to the top, there is nothing to worry; being true to oneself is the best reward. Be yourself. Follow your passion. Stick to your beliefs. Dare to dream.

ESQ: At the end of it all, what would you like your legacy to be?

GA: The legacy I’d like to leave is one of integrity and commitment, of respect and attention to reality.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

LAUREL GOLIO

When Victor Montalvo’s shoulders hit the floor, they glide. He’s a whirlpool, spinning round and round, pulling you closer with every impossible rotation. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the floor—not Victor—was revolving. He pivots from his back to standing on his head to a full 360 degree spin on the palm of his left hand.

This is the world-champion breaker’s signature move: the Super Montalvo. It’s cheeky, cocky, and a downright nuclear weapon that has made Montalvo the face of breaking (or breakdancing—the sport has enjoyed a rebrand since you originally watched You Got Served). In August, the 30-year-old will represent Team USA at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

“I honestly don’t have rivals,” Montalvo tells me in a video interview a few months before he takes the global stage. And there’s not a hint of ego in his voice. The man hardly blinks, and his head is perpetually tilted ever so slightly to the side, sizing me up as if I were his next opponent. Pity the poor schmucks who have to face him in the Olympics.

Montalvo has earned his unmitigated confidence. In his career, he’s won every major international breaking competition in the world. He is the reigning gold medallist at the World Games, a two-time champion of Red Bull BC One, and the most recent winner of the WDSF World Breaking Championship. Quite simply, he broke breaking.

After a while, though, even winning felt repetitive. Montalvo lost the love of the sport . . . but that didn’t last long. “I already did everything I wanted to do in my breaking career,” he says. “I just got bored of it. It felt like a never-ending cycle. Same events each year, every year. Like, man, I want something new.”

When Montalvo heard that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had added breaking to the slate, his passion was instantly reinvigorated. Another mountain to climb. Another nation to conquer. He remembers thinking, Perfect. That’s another goal I can achieve. His chances of taking home the gold medal are extremely good.

David “Kid David” Schreibman, a breaking legend and Red Bull commentator, recently told Rolling Stone, “[There’s not] another competitive breaker who is as consistent and has the full package.” Montalvo blends the Tasmanian Devil’s unhinged energy with Allen Iverson’s creativity. But for all of his aplomb, a win in Paris would mean more than just another hearty chuckle from his throne. He’s fighting for the survival of the sport itself.

Breaking is a little different today from what it was in its ’80s heyday. B-boys no longer crowd the street corners of the Bronx, where the sport originated. In the early aughts, Red Bull provided an upgrade by organising a competition among eight elite crews, who were fighting for a $4,000 grand prize. That paved the way for the global BC One event that Montalvo has won twice. Now the energy-drink company sponsors him.

Modern contests feature one-on-one battles on a dance floor—with each breaker taking roughly one-minute turns, trying to outperform their opponent. As in rhythmic gymnastics and figure skating, judges score their performances and announce a winner. In Paris, Montalvo will compete against 15 other international B-boys, all likely just as revved up as him. “It’s new, evolved, refreshed, and refined. I just can’t wait to showcase it at the Olympics,” Montalvo says of his sport. “They thought it was stuck in the ’80s. Hopefully we’ll change that.”

Montalvo first found breaking-world success in 2011, conquering a Red Bull cypher event in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was just 17 years old. LAUREL GOLIO

At the 2024 Olympics, breaking will be featured alongside surfing, sport climbing, and skateboarding—four events that IOC president Thomas Bach hopes will bring in Gen Z viewers. Still, breaking is only a guest in Paris. It won’t appear in the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles—the IOC made the decision before Montalvo could showcase his talents this summer. But if anyone can capitalise on this opportunity to convince the IOC to bring breaking to the 2032 Brisbane Olympics, Montalvo believes it’s him. Serving as an ambassador for his sport is a calling. “This is something that I never would’ve thought I would be, but I have to,” he says.

Breaking is in Montalvo’s DNA. In the ’80s, his father and uncle, Victor and Hector Bermudez, were big-time B-boys. The Bermudez twins helped popularise the dance trend throughout Mexico, performing across the country before giving it up and moving to the United States. Back then, you couldn’t make much money in the breaking world.

For Montalvo, it’s a whole new ball game. When he was just six years old, his father pointed at the screen as the family watched the breaking film Beat Street and said, “Look, I used to do this back in the day.” Montalvo burst out laughing. Bermudez wasn’t joking; he put on a hoodie and started “busting out head spins and windmills,” Montalvo recalls. “We thought, Wow, this is amazing.

As the story goes, Montalvo and his cousin, who goes by Static, joined a crew in Kissimmee, Florida, at a time when breakdancing was big in the state. “I would sneak out of my house to go to different events around Florida, sometimes out of state, and [my father] would let me get away with that because I was doing something positive,” Montalvo remembers. “My dad was always on the sidelines. He supported me 100 percent. He tells me all the time, ‘I’m living my dreams through you.’ ”

The Olympics is an event in which tradition meets innovation, and according to Montalvo, that’s exactly what sets him apart from the competition. “I love keeping the tradition of breaking alive,” he says. “Your body is the instrument, and you’re bringing that instrument out.” He adds, “I love seeing people’s faces after they watch me dance. Like, God, this is so incredible.

Speaking to Montalvo, you can tell that standing still is a burden. It’s easier for him to spin—to point his feet to the sky, stopping only to taunt his opponents with picture-perfect freezes. At the moment, he’s all smiles. More often, he’s smirking. “I understand the formula now,” Montalvo says of the road ahead. “Beat the system.”

Photographs By Laurel Golio


VICTOR MONTALVO’S FAVORITE BREAKING MOVIES

Three classics of the genre to watch before the sport’s Olympic throw-down.

Style Wars (1983)

PBS

Style Wars is a graffiti documentary, but it’s really dope because it talks about the culture of breaking and just hip-hop in general.”

The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy (2002)

IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT

The Freshest Kids is a documentary about the origins of breaking and what it means to be a breaker. Hopefully, after the Olympics, they’ll have a little breaking documentary. We need a new one for this day and age.”

Wild Style (1983)

WILD STYLE PRODUCTION

That’s a movie,” Montalvo says about the hip-hop film starring the famous Rock Steady Crew. “Watch that one.”

Originally published on Esquire US

In the age of AI, it can feel as if this technology’s march into our lives is inevitable. From taking our jobs to writing our poetry, AI is suddenly everywhere we don’t want it to be.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just ask Madhumita Murgia, the AI editor at The Financial Times and the author of the barn-burning new book Code Dependent: Living in the Shadow of AI. Unlike most reporting about AI, which focuses on Silicon Valley power players or the technology itself, Murgia trains her lens on ordinary people encountering AI in their daily lives.

This “global precariat” of working people is often irrevocably harmed by these dust-ups; as Murgia writes, the implementation and governance of algorithms has become “a human rights issue.” She tells Esquire, “Whether it was health care, criminal justice, or government services, again and again you could see the harms perpetrated on mostly marginalised groups, because that’s how the AI supply chain is built.”

Murgia takes readers around the globe in a series of immersive reported vignettes, each one trained on AI’s damaging effects on the self, from “your livelihood” to “your freedom.” In Amsterdam, she highlights a predictive policing program that stigmatises children as likely criminals; in Kenya, she spotlights data workers lifted out of brutal poverty but still vulnerable to corporate exploitation; in Pittsburgh, she interviews UberEats couriers fighting back against the black-box algorithms that cheat them out of already meagre wages.

Yet there are also bright spots, particularly a chapter set in rural Indian villages, where under-resourced doctors use AI-assisted apps as diagnostic aids in their fight against tuberculosis. Despite the prevalent sense of impending doom, there’s still time to reconfigure our relationship to this technology, Murgia insists. “This is how we should all see AI,” she tells Esquire, “as a way to preserve the world we know and believe in what we bring to it, but then use it to augment us.”

Murgia spoke with Esquire by Zoom from her home in London about data labour, the future of technology regulation, and how to keep AI from reading bedtime stories to our children.


ESQUIRE: What is data colonialism, and how do we see it manifest through the lens of AI?

MADHUMITA MURGIA: Two academics, Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias, came up with this term to draw parallels between modern colonialism and older forms of colonialism, like the British colonisation of India and other parts of the world. The resource extraction during that period harmed the lives of those who were colonised, much like how corporations today, particularly tech companies, are performing a similar kind of resource extraction. In this case, rather than oil or cotton, the resource is data.

In reporting this book, I saw how big Silicon Valley firms go to various parts of the world I visited, like India, Argentina, Kenya, and Bulgaria, and use the people there as data points to build systems that become trillion-dollar companies. But the people never see the full benefits of those AI systems to which they’ve given their data. Whether it was health care, criminal justice, or government services, again and again you could see the harms perpetrated on mostly marginalised groups, because that’s how the AI supply chain is built.

You write that data workers “are as precarious as factory workers; their labour is largely ghost work and they remain an undervalued bedrock of the AI industry.” What would it take to make their labour more apparent, and what would change if the reality of how AI works was more widely understood?

For me, the first surprise was how invisible these workers really are. When I talk to people, they’re shocked to learn that there are factories of real humans who tag data. Most assume that AI teaches itself somehow. So even just increasing understanding of their existence means that people start thinking, There’s somebody on the other end of this. Beyond that, the way the AI supply chain is set up, we only see the engineers building the final product. We think of them as the creators of the technology, so automatically, all the value is placed there.

Of course, these are brilliant computer scientists, so you can see why they’re paid millions of dollars for their work. But because the workers on the other end of the supply chain are so invisible, we underplay what they’re worth, and that shows up in the wages. Yes, these are workers in developing countries, and this is a standard outsourcing model. But when you look at the huge disparity in their living wage of $2.50 an hour going into the technology inside a Tesla car, and then you see what a Tesla car costs or what Elon Musk is worth or what that company is making, the disparity is huge. There’s just no way these workers benefit from being a part of this business.

If you hear technologists talking about it, they say we all get brought along for the ride—that productivity rises, bottom lines rise, money is flushed into our economy, and all of our lives get better. But what we’re seeing in practise is those who are most in need of these jobs are not seeing the huge upside that AI companies are starting to see, and so we’re failing them in that promise. We have to decide as a society: What is fair pay for somebody who’s part of this pipeline? What labour rights should they have? These workers don’t really have a voice. They’re so precarious economically. And so we need to have an active discussion. If there are going to be more AI systems, there’s going to be more data labour, so now is the time for us to figure out how they can see the upside of this revolution we’re all shouting from the rooftops about.

One of our readers asks: What are your thoughts on publishers like The New York Times suing OpenAI for copyright infringement? Do you think theyll succeed in protecting journalists from seeing their work scraped and/or plagiarised?

This hits hard for me, because I’m both the person reporting on it and the person that it impacts. We’ve seen how previous waves of technological growth, particularly the social media wave, have undermined the press and the publishing industry. There’s been a huge disintermediation of the news through social media platforms and tech platforms; these are now the pipes through which people get information, and we rely on them to do it for us. We’ve come to a similar inflection point where you can see how these companies can scrape the data we’ve all created and generate something that looks a lot like what we do with far less labor, time, and expertise.

It could easily undermine what creative people spend their lives doing. So I think it’s really important that the most respected and venerable institutions take a stand for why human creativity matters. Ultimately, I don’t know what the consequences will be. Maybe it’s a financial deal where we’re compensated for what we’ve produced, rather than it being scraped for free. There are a range of solutions. But for me, it’s important that those who have a voice stand up for creative people in a world where it's easy to automate these tasks to the standard of “good enough.”

Another reader asks: What AI regulations do you foresee governments enacting? Will ethical considerations be addressed primarily through legislation, or will they rely on nonlegal frameworks like ethical codes?

Especially over the last five years, there have been dozens and dozens of codes of conduct, all self-regulating. It’s exactly like what we saw with social media. There has been no Internet regulation, so companies come up with their own terms of service and codes of conduct. I think this time around, with the AI shift, there’s a lot more awareness and participation from regulators and governments.

There’s no way around it; there will be regulation because regulation is required. Even the companies agree with this, because you can’t define what’s ethical when you’re a corporation, particularly a profit-driven corporation. If these things are going to impact people’s health, people’s jobs, people’s mortgages, and whether somebody ends up in jail or gets bail, you need regulation involved. We’ll need lines drawn in the sand, and that will come via the law.

In the book, you note how governments have become dependent on these private tech companies for certain services. What would it look like to change course there, and if we don’t, where does that road lead?

It goes back to that question of colonialism. I spoke to Cori Crider, who used to be a lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners and is now fighting algorithms. She sees them as equally consequential, which is really interesting. She told me about reading a book about the East India Company and the Anglo Iranian Oil Corporation, which played a role in the Iranian coup in the ’70s, and how companies become state-like and the state becomes reliant on them. Now, decades later, the infrastructure of how government runs is all done on cloud services.

There are four or five major cloud providers, so when you want to roll out something quickly at scale, you need these infrastructure companies. It’s amazing that we don’t have the expertise or even the infrastructure owned publicly; these are all privately owned. It’s not new, right? You do have procurement from the private sector, but it’s so much more deeply embedded when it comes to cloud services and AI, because there are so few players who have the knowledge and the expertise that governments don’t. In many cases, these companies are richer and have more users than many countries. The balance of who has the power is really shifting.

When you say there are so few players, do you see any sort of antitrust agitation here?

In the U.S., the FTC is looking at this from an antitrust perspective. They’re exploring this exact question: “If you can’t build AI services without having a cloud infrastructure, then are you in an unfair position of power? If you’re not Microsoft, Google, Amazon, or a handful of others, and you need them to build algorithms, is that fair? Should they be allowed to invest and acquire these companies and sequester that?” That’s an open question here in the UK as well. The CMA, which is our antitrust body, is investigating the relationships between Microsoft, OpenAI, and startups like Mistral, which have received investment from Microsoft.

I think there will be an explosion of innovation, because that’s what Silicon Valley does best. What you’re seeing is a lot of people building on top of these structures and platforms, so there will be more businesses and more competition in that layer. But it’s unclear to me how you would ever compete on building a foundational model like a GPT-4 or a Gemini without the huge investment access to infrastructure and data that these three or four companies have. So I think there will be innovation, but I’m not sure it will be at that layer.

In the final chapter of the book, you turn to science fiction as a lens on this issue. In this moment where the ability to make a living as an artist is threatened by this technology, I thought it was inspired to turn to a great artist like Ted Chiang. How can sci-fi and speculative fiction help us understand this moment?

You know, it’s funny, because I started writing this book well before ChatGPT came out. In fact, I submitted my manuscript two months after ChatGPT came out. When it did come out, I was trying to understand, “What do I want to say about this now that will still ring true in a year from now when this book comes out?” For me, sci-fi felt like the most tangible way to actually explore that question when everything else seemed to be changing. Science fiction has always been a way for us to imagine these futures, to explore ideas, and to take those ideas through to a conclusion that others fear to see.

I love Ted Chiang’s work, so I sat down to ask him about this. Loads of technologists in Silicon Valley will tell you they were inspired by sci-fi stories to build some of the things that we writers see as dystopian, but technologists interpret them as something really cool. We may think they’re missing the point of the stories, but for them, it’s a different perspective. They see it through this optimistic lens, which is something you need to be an entrepreneur and build stuff like the metaverse.

Sci-fi can both inspire and scare, but I think more than anything, we are now suffering from a lack of imagination about what technology could do in shaping humans and our relationships. That’s because most of what we’re hearing is coming from tech companies. They’re putting the products in our hands, so theirs are the visions that we receive and that we are being shaped by. That’s fine; that’s one perspective. But there are so many other perspectives I want to hear, whether that’s educators or public servants or prosecutors. AI has entered those areas already, but I want to hear their visions of what they think it could do in their world. We’re very limited on those perspectives at the moment, so that’s where science fiction comes in. It expands our imagination of the possibilities of this thing, both the good and the bad, and figuring out what we want out of it.

I loved what Chiang had to say about how this technology exposes “how much bullshit we are required to generate and deal with in our daily lives.” When I think about AI, I often think that these companies have gotten it backwards. As a viral tweet so aptly put it: “I want AI to do my laundry and dishes so I can do my art and writing, not for AI to do my art and writing so I can do my laundry and dishes.” That’s a common sentiment—a lot of us would like to see AI take over the bullshit in our lives, but instead it’s threatening our joys. How have we gotten to this point where the push is for AI to do what we love and what makes us human instead of what wed actually like to outsource?

I think about this all the time. When it started off, automation was just supposed to help us do the difficult things that we couldn’t. Way back at the beginning of factory automation, the idea was “We’ll make your job safer, and you can spend more time on the things that you love.” Even with generative AI, it was supposed to be about productivity and email writing. But we’ve slid into this world where it’s undermining the things that, as you say, make us human. The things that make our lives worth living and our jobs worth doing. It’s something I try to push back on; when I hear this assumption that AI is good, I have to ask, “But why? What should it be used for?” Why aren’t we talking about AI doing our taxes—something that we struggle with and don’t want to spend our time doing?

This is why we need other voices and other imaginings. I don’t want AI to tell bedtime stories to my children. I don’t want AI to read all audiobooks, because I love to hear my favourite author read her own memoir. I think that’s why that became a meme and spoke to so many people. We’ve all been gaslighted into believing that AI should be used to write poetry. It’s part of a shift we’ll all experience together from saying, “It’s amazing how we’ve invented something that can write and make music” to “Okay, but what do we actually need it for?” Let’s not accept its march into these spaces where we don’t want it. That’s what my book is about: about having a voice and finding a way to be heard.

I’m reminded of the chapter about a doctor using AI as a diagnostic aid. It could never replace her, but it’s a great example of how this technology can support a talented professional.

She’s such a good personification of how we can preserve the best of our humanity but be open to how AI might help us with what we care about; in her case, that’s her patients. But crucially, her patients want to see her. That’s why I write about her previous job, where people were dying and she didn’t have the equipment to help them. She had to accept that there were limitations to what she could do as a doctor, but she could perform the human side of medicine, which people need and appreciate. This is how we should all see AI: as a way to preserve the world we know and believe in what we bring to it, but then use it to augment us. She was an amazing voice to help me understand that.

With the daily torrent of frightening news about the looming threat of AI, it’s easy to feel hopeless. What gives you hope?

I structured my book to start with the individual and end with wider society. Along the way, I discovered amazing examples of people coming together to fight back, to question, to break down the opacity in automation and AI systems. That’s what gives me hope: that we are all still engaging with this, that we’re bringing to it our humanness, our empathy, our rage. That we’re able to collectivise and find a way through it. The strikes in Hollywood were a bright spot, and there’s been so much change in the unionisation of gig workers across the world, from Africa to Latin America to Asia. It gives me hope that we can find a path and we’re not just going to sleepwalk into this. Even though I write about the concentration of power and influence that these companies have, I think there’s so much power in human collectivism and what we can achieve.

Also, I believe that the technology can do good, particularly in health care and science; that’s an area where we can really break through the barriers of what we can do as people and find out more about the world. But we need to use it for that and not to replace us in doing what we love. My ultimate hopefulness is that humans will figure out a way through this somehow. I’ve seen examples of that and brought those stories to light in my book. They do exist, and we can do this.

Originally published on Esquire US

At least once every year, a debut short-story collection comes along and gets under my skin. Last year, it was Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare, by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, and the year before that, it was Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma. All these months later, despite reading thousands of pages since, I can still remember plot details from individual stories in those books.

In 2024, that collection is Beautiful Days, by Zach Williams—a subtle and speculative barn-burner that fans of Stephen King and Ling Ma will devour. Like the short fiction of Brian Evenson, the stories in Beautiful Days are about the horrors of encountering something completely unknowable in the course of everyday life, whether it’s the mind-warping experience of parenthood or the echo-chamber effect of the Internet and social media.

It opens with “Trial Run,” in which a Manhattan office drone is trapped in a skyscraper during a snowstorm that may or may not be real, with two coworkers who may or may not mean him harm. In “Neighbors,” which went viral in The New Yorker earlier this year, a San Francisco man tries to perform a wellness check on his next-door neighbor, only to stumble upon a scene he can’t rationally explain.

In “Wood Sorrel House,” new parents find themselves in an Edenic setting to raise their child but can’t remember how they got there. These stories wade into uncanny waters gradually, but others—like “Return to Crashaw,” featuring tourists who visit mysterious megaliths in the desert—embrace their pulp inspirations from line one.

Despite Stephen King’s You Like It Darker sitting on top of the New York Times bestseller list right now, some people in the American publishing industry see short stories as an endangered species—or at least as a genre that’s becoming harder and harder to sell. “I was writing for myself,” Williams tells Esquire. “I wasn’t thinking about the marketability of what I was writing. I was just thinking of what I could write best—and what I could finish.”

Williams grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, earned his MFA at NYU, and now teaches fiction writing at Stanford University. Over Zoom last month, we spoke about writing short stories in an industry built to sell novels, getting fired from a Hollywood job for reading books under his desk, and why you might be reading more short stories than you realize. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


ESQUIRE: When did reading and writing first come into your life?

ZACH WILLIAMS: Video games were big for me in that regard. Myst and Riven were so immersive that I read the [spin-off] novels. Tim Schafer [game director of Grim Fandango] was also a really important writer for me. But I loved going to the library as a kid and reading Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—and all those Time Life supernatural mystery books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster.

When I tried writing short stories in my early twenties, I think I just fundamentally didn’t have anything to write about, so when I graduated college, I moved out to L.A. and got an internship at Beacon Pictures. I got fired because all the interns showed up at this party one night where we weren’t supposed to be. After that, I worked as an assistant to the post-production coordinator on this Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony movie called El Cantante, and then I was the fifth assistant in Jerry Bruckheimer’s office during the Pirates of the Caribbean shoot—until I got fired for reading books under my desk when there wasn’t anything to do.

I got the sense that I wasn’t in the right place, so I taught middle and high school for twelve years. It was a lot like Mr. Holland’s Opus, where it was supposed to be this brief interlude while I figured out how to be a writer, but I did it for a long time and could only write in fits and starts. Once I got married and we had our first son, I finally felt like I’d been around long enough to write stories with a sense of urgency.

What drew you to short stories as opposed to novels?

In middle school, the only book I would ever reread was The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. The idea of a novel-in-stories was really fascinating to me. A lot of my undergraduate creative-writing classes were focused on short stories just by virtue of the workshop format. For me, short stories have this very direct relationship with the subconscious. One idea that’s really exciting for a writer is usually enough to get a short story off the ground. Even the stories in this collection that I worked on for years, they all originated with one spark. I wrote two stories in [Beautiful Days], “Red Light” and “Neighbors,” right after these nights of terrible insomnia, where I was just lying in bed for hours and the ideas just erupted from my subconscious. They didn’t need to become sprawling projects.

Publishing a short story in The New Yorker is a holy grail for a lot of writers. What was that like for you?

It was a wild experience to have that be my first time in print. At NYU’s [MFA program], they have this agent meet-and-greet at the end of the year, and mine was virtual because of the pandemic. I wound up having a call with Claudia [Ballard at William Morris Endeavor], and she asked to see one of my stories after I gave her my elevator pitch for the collection. I sent her “Wood Sorrel House,” and she said right away, “I want to send this story to The New Yorker.” I signed with Claudia that summer, and then the editorial process at The New Yorker was unbelievable. Working with Deborah [Treisman] and her fact checkers and copy editors was a real education. They found all of these things in the story that I had lost the ability to see myself.

It must be hard to fact-check a story like “Wood Sorrel House,” which is set in another reality.

My favorite thing that came out of fact-checking “Wood Sorrel House”—I still think about it with such gratitude—is that outside the cottage in that story, there’s one of those turtle-shaped sandboxes. We have so much overlap in our background; is that a familiar thing from your childhood, too?

Yes, we had one in our backyard.

Perfect. So I had written that it was made by Playskool because that’s what I remembered, but no, they were made by Little Tikes. The fact checker discovered this, and I was so thrilled to get that correction.

Which story in this collection was the hardest to write and revise?

“Lucca Castle” was really difficult, and the other two that come to mind are “Ghost Image” and “Return to Crashaw.” I didn’t know what I was doing. I started things without knowing how long they were going to be. Every single story was a learning process for me. There is very little in this book that I did on purpose, because I was trying to write intuitively.

Why open the collection with “Trial Run” and close with “Return to Crashaw”?

There were times when I would try to think of this book like an album. I thought about how the stories sounded together in a musical way. “Return to Crashaw” just felt like an ending in the sound of the sentences and the language—and the way that there’s music on that last page. There’s also a sort of warmth to that story for me, whereas “Trial Run” is the total opposite. It’s dark and scary and claustrophobic and paranoid. I’ve always had “Trial Run” up front because there’s something about walking into that building in the snowstorm that felt like the start of something, in the same way that the music at the end of “Return to Crashaw” felt like an ending to me.

How can the short story make a case for itself in 2024? Big Five publishers have disinvested in short stories as a genre, and it seems like readers prefer novels.

So many of the best books I’ve read recently have been short-story collections or novels-in-stories. Jamil Jan Kochai’s collection from 2022, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, has one of the all-time great short stories about video games in it. There’s also Out There, by Kate Folk; Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma; After the Sun, by Jonas Eika. Jonathan Escoffery’s book If I Survive You is fascinating to me, because it’s somewhere between a collection of linked stories and a novel. Cuddy, by Benjamin Myers, is told in four sections over the span of many centuries, around the building of this cathedral where St. Cuthbert’s body is buried. Other huge books for me in this regard are Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan.

My point is that some of the most exciting work I’ve seen in recent years comes from people who are working in shorter forms to different ends. A lot of them are technically short-story collections, but they don’t really make aesthetic sense without one another. My sense of these books is that the stories were written very intentionally to be part of one work, and I think that makes so much sense in our present moment. I could say something banal about attention spans, but it’s more than that. There’s something about the form of short stories and life on the Internet, scrolling and clicking, and the basic hypertextual experience of navigating the Internet. A book can contain many different worlds, too, without staying too long in one place.

It’s a vital time for the form. It’s equipped to do something that the big novel can’t, and there are a lot of writers doing really good work. But I’m not that smart about the necessities of the marketplace. I don’t know enough about how publishing works.

I think you’ve hit on something really interesting about the marketplace, though, which is that publishers are sometimes packaging (or maybe even disguising) short-story collections as novels-in-stories—and marketing long short stories as short novels!—in the hope that they’ll sell more copies.

I hadn’t quite connected those dots, but yeah, you’re right. There are a lot of books people are reading that contain these other forms.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is often celebrated as the greatest novel of the century so far, but it’s essentially a collection of very long linked stories.

That’s true. I just read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories for the first time a few years ago. The stories are all really different, but there’s this one repeating character who’s a dark and powerful figure. To me, there’s something really special and unique about the ability of a book that contains disparate things to link them in a way that strikes more than one note. When I was writing this book, I wanted to be aggressive about the variety of ideas that appeared in it. I wanted to just throw ideas out recklessly rather than take one thing and use it as the basis for a longer project just because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. I wanted it to be a little riotous. A lot of my favorite collections of stories—or as you said, novels that contain a lot of little worlds—are doing that.

Why call this collection Beautiful Days?

The title comes from the story “Wood Sorrel House,” where the last line is “There will be beautiful days.” I had a different experience writing the book than people do reading it, because when I look at that story again, I feel like there’s a lot of prettiness in that story—the pastoral aspect of it with the lake and the forest and the mountains, and then also the bond between parent and child. There’s a lot of darkness in that story, but there’s some beauty in it, too.

I knew that I was writing a book with a lot of darkness in it, and one that was cynical in places. I started writing the stories when I was living in New York, so maybe there’s some of that big-city claustrophobia or paranoia, especially in “Trial Run.” I also think some of it comes from life on the Internet and being constantly glued to our devices, where my phone feels like a portal to a darker reality.

But all of these characters are trying to figure something out. They feel like they desperately need answers to big questions and they can’t get them, but they’re going to try—and in the trying, I think there’s a lot of hopefulness and redemption. These impenetrable mysteries are how the basic conditions of life feel to me. That’s what speculative fiction can do: help you set your sights more clearly on questions that are concrete in your life.

Originally published on Esquire US

Shirt and trousers, PRADA. Trinity necklace in white, yellow and rose golds with diamonds, Trinity ring in white, yellow and rose golds with diamonds, and Santos de Cartier watch, 47.5mm steel case with steel bracelet, CARTIER

No one could ever recreate what Gay Talese did for Frank Sinatra in 1966. They are and were respectively two great powerhouses in their own calibre, and nothing will come close to the written legacy presenting a fresh angle of not only the figure himself, but the culture he was embedded in.

Anyway, the premise here isn’t nearly the same. Lucien Laviscount isn’t unwilling to be interviewed, he merely seems really pressed for time. He doesn’t have a cold either. He just has a broken rib, though he didn’t quite specify how. It has been a crazy couple of days.

Friends, family, and associates were not involved in crafting this piece either. The only third-party accounts available are sifted from prior interviews with him. One particularly memorable (shoutout Fashion Magazine) for effusing such enthralment by his looks and charms that it’s borderline comedic.

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The story often begins as a child model for David Beckham’s clothing line at Marks and Spencer, where the former athlete casually comments that the boy should try his hand at acting. It’s that demeanour that got Laviscount scouted for the campaign in the first place.

Laviscount rose to prominence in his teens through a couple of British dramas, strangely all taking namesake from locations—Waterloo Road, Grange Hill, Coronation Street. For international audiences, he plays Earl Grey (kudos to the writers) in Scream Queens and more notably, Alfie in Emily in Paris.

There’s his upcoming rom-com This Time Next Year and we would go on but this isn’t an IMDB page. Though it will be a pity to leave out that music video he did. Not appearances as a man-turned-werewolf in a Calvin Harris release, or a centaur-turned-man in Shakira’s recent hit; which if combined would probably make the rarest bingo card. No, it’d be fronting his own music in the most random 2012 club banger (for those interested, it’s “Dance with You” featuring Mann).

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He has since come far. Now, the rumour mill churns of his Bond candidacy. The 32-year-old English actor takes this call from London, despite coming off a shoot in LA and his posts showing him last in Miami. After the call, that very evening, he’ll jet off to Cannes for the film festival.

He does wish, fully acknowledging it’s not something he should say, that people would work on the weekends. Perhaps then, Mondays wouldn’t be so swamped. He is possibly the poster child for “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life”. It’s not a mantra he recites, but it does surface as a running theme in previous coverages.

He actually just flew in from Antigua, where his professional bodybuilder father is from, and where he has been based since the pandemic days. So really, it’s about managing four days of his life at a time. Anything after will be too much to cope with, but of course, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Once again reinforces the grateful-to-be-here vibe.

Laviscount is insistent that he takes nothing for granted. He’s really happy for everything that has happened in his life and grows with it. Besides relaying how he’s learning and getting a better perspective of what the world for him looks like and who he is now, he encloses another almost boilerplate statement about how you won’t be able to live where you want to if you live in the past.

Surprisingly, motivational one-liners and all, the actor doesn’t quite deem himself an optimist. Even though he strikes as the type to believe in the best of everyone, and resonates with uplifting shows like Acapulco; a tale of overcoming odds and achieving dreams. Even though in a similar vein, when most consider audition processes daunting, he finds excitement in bringing what he has to the table and putting his unique spin on a part that was never written for him.

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Underdog trope aside, the notion of optimism was never an option to Laviscount. In his books, it would only mean the reality of the situation is not recognised. His feet are very much planted on the ground. Great things do happen... with hard work and conviction. In other words—in his words—you can’t be a real optimist unless you are a realist at heart.

If anything, he would brand himself as a realist, but ultimately he rejects being labelled. Like many thespians, he hates being pigeonholed. Which is why the actor wouldn’t want to be solely defined by his occupation. His penchant for creating—whether writing, acting, having a fashion brand, fostering an incredible space for people to learn, whatever form that takes—is something that will always be part of him.

He attributes his unquenchable thirst for exploration to the energy he has. Busy savouring a moment where he is confident in his abilities but on the other side of that same coin, advocating the pursuit of ambitions outside of one’s career.

At the minute, it’s interior design and architecture. It fills his Explore feed on Instagram. The interest probably stems from the aspect of building something visual yet tangible that can live beyond him. He then draws opposing observations between the art world and the industry he inhabits. How in the former, nothing is ever truly finished and there’s freedom to curate individual moulds. Whereas the latter may be equally subjective to audiences, but its course and result are commonly dictated by the opinion of one.

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It would be like storytelling; where the storyteller gets to decide how the story is told. Where the reader’s perception is very much shaped by the hands of the writer. Would the license wielded by the author to weave an entirely verbatim-free narrative paint a balanced picture of fact and poetry?

In a delicious twist of irony, storytelling is one key concept Laviscount’s soul is drawn to. For a man who abstains from labels, it’s the sole identity that stays on his social media bio. In separate capitalised words, no less: Story Teller.

According to him, the tales don’t exist unless they are told. The massive appreciation he has for stories extends to people who are just as passionate about telling them. Capturing intrinsic moments of people’s lives and delving deep into their being are nothing short of magic and beauty.

In his yarn, Laviscount is on a continuous journey to discover what the best version of him will be. Navigating life and its many expectations, seeing through the good and the bad, acquiring a variety of experiences and influences with sheer wonder and wide-eyed amazement.

These could be politically correct answers. Or they could be genuine worldviews. Spoken sentences might be rephrased with a keen awareness that responses will be retold. Or they might purely be a reflex to remain neutral. As Laviscount maintains a consistent core, void of career cynicism and characteristically driven, the approach to be guided by inspiration and gratitude is how he aims to take on and run with whatever comes his way.

Or at least, that is how this story goes.

Jersey, PALACE. Denim overshirt and denim jeans, JW ANDERSON via SELFRIDGES. Trinity necklace in white, yellow and rose golds with diamonds, Trinity bracelet in white, yellow and rose golds, Trinity ring in white, yellow and rose golds, and Santos de Cartier watch, 47.5mm steel case with steel bracelet, CARTIER.
Coat, tank and trousers, DOLCE&GABBANA. Trinity necklace in white, yellow and rose golds with diamonds, Trinity ring in white, yellow and rose golds with diamonds and Santos-Dumont watch, 31.5mm yellow gold case with leather strap, CARTIER

Photography: Philip Sinden
Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Styling: Tanja Martin
Hair: Fluffy the Original Barber
Makeup: Charlotte Hayley Mcritchie Trujillo
Producer: Guoran Yu at APEX COMMUNICATIONS
Executive Producer: Even Yu at APEX COMMUNICATIONS
On-Set Producer (UK): Kate Zhu
Production Assistant: Kingvarit Vongchanphen
Photography Assistant: Jon Conway
Styling Assistant: Ania Egan
Retouching: Yang Liu

Fifty years ago, Stephen King published Carrie, a slim volume about a bullied teenager and the violent revenge she exacts on her high school classmates. Seventy-six books later, King is arguably the most famous writer in America. Through bloodcurdling novels like It, Pet Sematary, and The Shining, the author has carved out his place as the undisputed master of horror fiction. With more than 350 million copies sold and many of his books adapted for the screen (sometimes multiple times over), King’s dark imagination is a dominant force in American culture. Now seventy-six years old, he still writes at a brisk clip from his home in Bangor, Maine. His latest, You Like It Darker, is out now.


Fame is a pain in the ass. The older you get, the more of a pain in the ass it is. But you have to realise that it comes with the territory. It’s just part of what you do.

There’s this old Spanish saying: “God says, ‘Take what you want and pay for it.’  ” That’s the case with being famous.

I knew a lot when I was seventeen. But since then, it’s been a constant process of attrition.

You can’t think of writing as an adult pursuit or anything that’s important. That’s a good way to turn into a gasbag and start to think that you’re really fucking important. You’re not. You just do your work.

I have to work every day because I have to keep it fresh. If you take a few days off, it all starts to look kind of tacky—like an old campaign poster that’s running in the rain.

It doesn’t always work. I’ve got stories that just ram up against a brick wall. They’re in my right desk drawer. I don’t look in there.

If it’s a good review, it can be dismissed. If it’s a bad review, well, then that’s something you obsess over a little bit.

The important thing about failing is that it should always be a learning experience.

When I have a good idea, I just know. It’s like if you have a bunch of cut-glass goblets set up and you’re hitting them with a spoon. Clunk, clunk, clunk. And then one goes ding.

In every marriage, after the shine is off, then you get down to the serious work of building a relationship.

You can’t let the sun go down on your anger. These all sound like fucking platitudes. They become platitudes for a reason.

Be there for your kids. Say yes. Say yes as much as you can.

What would I tell my twenty-year-old self? Stay away from dope and stay away from booze. Because you have a tendency to go too far.

I’ve been in recovery a day at a time for a long time now. All I know is what works for me: staying out of the wine aisle in Publix.

They say that you don’t go to a whorehouse to listen to the piano player, and if you hang around the barbershop, sooner or later you’re going to get your hair cut. So I try to stay away from temptation.

I like to use my imagination. I like to go for walks. I dig the world in general.

Ten per cent of my tweets are political because every now and then, I just get so irritated about something. It doesn’t change anybody’s mind, but it’s good to be able to say it. In the meetings that I go to, we say, “You have to claim your chair.” Sometimes I feel like, yeah, I have to claim my chair.

There’s this saying that if you’re not a liberal in your teens, you don’t have a heart, and if you’re still a liberal in your twenties and thirties, you don’t have a brain.

I think that, actually, if you’re a liberal in your teens, you probably don’t have a brain. And if you’re not a liberal by the time you’re in your thirties and forties, you don’t have a heart.

If you ask what I learned from my accident, it would be: Number one, stay on the sidewalk. I was walking in the country, and the guy came over the hill and hit me.

Other than that, you learn about pain. But it doesn’t do any good, because you forget. The body has a way of forgetting the trauma. I suffered a lot, and the writing helped me because it took me away. That’s probably a healthy thing. You don’t want to live your life in a defensive crouch.

I can cook fish a thousand different ways, but I’m also one hell of a breakfast cook. I make a great cheese omelet.

I’d like to be known as somebody who died merry—who did his work as best as he could and was decent to other people.

I think what people will say is “This is the scary guy—the guy who wrote the horror novels.” But I’d like to be known as somebody who was just a decent human being.

Originally published on Esquire US

Brent Hill as King George

When it first staged in 2015, Hamilton was a portal into the interesting lives of America's found fathers. It was novel in its casting and musical infusion of hip-hop. Those outside of America, who were unable to catch it on Broadway or at the West End, were able to satiate their yen for the Tony Award-winning musical on the Disney+ streaming portal.

Now the touring production of Hamilton made its way to our shores. We follow the titular Alexander Hamilton (played by Jason Arrow) and his rise into the founding of America. We talk to Arrow, DeAundre Woods—who plays Aaron Burr, the "damn fool who shot" Hamilton—and Brent Hill, who plays the delightfully camp King George about Hamilton, their roles and the challenges of touring.

ESQUIRE: Given the popularity of Hamilton, how did you make the character your own?

JASON ARROW: At first, I did want to make the character fresh and put a slight spin on what was seen before by Lin but it did take a while for the team to come around to it [laughs]. Of course, it was my first professional leading role so I understand that trust needs to be built over time before drastic steps can be taken but I now feel like Hamilton is very much a sculptured version of what I originally wished for the part.

DEAUNDRE WOODS: This is a great question! As artists, we live and breathe to create. So of course, the first answer that comes to my head is "yes, I’ve made it my own as well as added some new insight". However, after being in this show for so long, I believe it is the material that has added new insight. 

These characters, this story, the music, the ideas, the wisdom, empathy... they have changed us. It’s given us a sense of our place and purpose here in society as well as insight into the future. There’s something about revisiting the past and planning for the future that creates so much hope for many around the world when seeing this show. I hope what we give on stage is a representation of who we are as a people at our core and what we can be someday if we do it together. 

Essentially, I wanted to add a lightness to the character within the first 15 to 20 minutes of the show to win the crowd over. This, of course, bleeds into the rest of the show as well. I reasoned that on Broadway, American patriotism carries Alexander a long way, in terms of, garnering audience support. In shows where, to most audiences, there isn’t a clear antagonist/protagonist arc, it’s essential to show all spectrums of humanity so that the audience can decide. That patriotic card does nothing for Alexander internationally so you have to approach it differently, but we got to that version eventually, which I’m happy about!

BRENT HILL: I’m just interested in playing the task of the role—which in this instance is playing a jilted lover who wants his betrothed to come back. [He needs to do this] without exposing any of his vulnerability or giving away [any] power, and the failure of that approach. With regards to portrayal, the strongest link for me at the moment is the satirising of egoically performative political rulers—subtly (or not so), perhaps of the orange variety.

ESQ: Were there any challenges when you were developing your characters?

JA: Trying to realise what this man looked and felt like when he existed in the 1800s. It’s so much easier creating someone who’s never existed because there’s no historical blueprint to go off. Whereas, with a show like Hamilton, there’s a tonne of literature to disprove your artistic choices! 

So, research is important but also going off the historical version of the story paints is important as well. You can use [the past] as a basis but at a certain point, the show guides the narrative so you have to flow with that, not against it, regardless of history.

While of course, not getting too bogged down in the history at the same time. We can read and understand but [those who were alive back then aren't here today] so we can’t talk with absolute certainty about how [Alexender] was or acted. We just have to make him as human and as relatable as possible. If we do that well enough then it will feel authentic and that’s what truly matters.

DW: I’ve been fortunate enough to play several characters in the show when I started as a standby. Each comes with its own asks and challenges; specifically, Burr, who was physically challenging. The idea of being still, yet engaged is so interesting to me. It seems as though you’re just “waiting for it” when in reality this action is strategic. It’s brilliant and I love his arc. Before I booked Hamilton, Aaron Burr was my dream role. I’m so thankful to be playing the part today! 

BH: Singing the same song melodically three individual times—which has a clever thematic point for our King George. He never quite changed his tune—and not mix up the lyrics in each appearance. A few holistic hieroglyphic memory approaches certainly help. (Also being able to sing full-tilt switch with thick-set heavy jewels on your head is more challenging than you might think!)

ESQ: Did you watch past shows of Hamilton's original staging or read the book that it's based on by Ron Chernow?

DW: Here and there, yes! I haven’t watched the Disney+ version in a while, but I’ve caught a few clips scrolling on YouTube and am still blown away by the work that was done to create this phenomenon. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants!

BH: Watched the filmed theatrical version when it came out—was very moved. We were fortunate enough to meet Ron earlier this year; his knowledge on all things A. Hamilton is insurmountable.

DW: I have indeed read the Chernow which is absolutely brilliant (still can’t believe [Lin-Manuel Miranda] had hip-hop running through his head when reading that). And I’ve also read [Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg] that is quite fascinating. [Aaron Burr] should have his own musical! 

JA: I watched Disney+ and read the Chernow biography, but mostly I studied how early life shapes humans. That’s what I got lost in—the psychology of what would happen to someone who, essentially, was left to their own devices at such a young age. That drastically shapes their identity and persona.

For example: Alexander had no family growing up and had to work very early on, which can create a dependency on that job for security in later life. It stands to reason that he had a terrible love life later and is dependent on his one constant: work and career.

ESQ: Are there any concerns when you are touring Hamilton

DW: They are far and wide. First, there is the upkeep of your mind and body. Staying in shape vocally and physically goes a long way when having to do eight shows a week! There’s also the sacrifice of time spent with your family and friends. It takes a lot of discipline to be consistent in this industry, but at the end of the day, it’s so rewarding! And we’re making a lot of dreams come true which is worth all the challenges that come with it.

JA: Acclimatising to new environments. The slightest difference in temperature, humidity, air quality and time zone can really affect your ability to perform in a show. It does seem like it’s easy but there is a lot of daily work that goes into putting on a show. We have a team that does it all to get us to where we need to be which helps us as we travel.

BH: Space affects performance. Humidity is a challenge, not just for body temperature regulation for three hours, but also for the voice to be able to produce a clear tone. We’ve all gotten exceedingly expert at landing in a place and finding the most nourishing options to enable the workload.

JA: Humidifiers, misters, dehumidifiers, to name a few, whatever we need to help us they do as much as they can to cater for which we are extremely grateful for!

ESQ: What do you want the audience to take away from Hamilton?

DW: We enjoy and welcome feedback from the crowd! Politeness has its place at the dinner table but when you're watching the show, leave all your manners at the door. Come to have a party, a celebration of the magic that is theatre and art. 

BH: We can only go as far as audience energy will allow. 

JA: As much as the show is known to be about American politics and its foundations, that's only used as a vehicle in the show. The heart of the story has a very human centre and is focused on themes and issues that we all face in life. It shows us that even these bold historical figures we tend to remember with such grandeur had some pretty blinding shortcomings and struggled to achieve their goals and desires.

The struggles of love, life and family are hugely present in Alexander’s character arc, you just have to pull on those threads to watch it unravel. See why this man, although hugely successful, did fail himself and his family at times.

Hamilton is showing at Sands Theatre until 9 June, 2024

Singapore Watch Fair co-founder Nelson Lee
(LUXUO)

In recent years, Singapore has become well-established as one of the world’s top export markets for watches, boasting some of the world’s most engaged enthusiasts and collectors. As interest in horology continues to blossom here, it is inevitable that tastes develop beyond superficial interest in the usual top manufacturers. It is only natural that an appetite for vintage timepieces and independent watchmakers is burgeoning. In recognition of the increasingly diverse tastes in Singapore, Ali Nael and Nelson Lee began the Singapore Watch Fair (SWF), with the goal of helping establish Singapore as a regional hub for watchmaking and collecting. Since founding the Fair in 2017, it has grown, mirroring the island’s growth as a watch export market: from initially being the watch component of the luxury festival Jeweluxe to becoming a standalone event, supported by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Resorts World Sentosa (RWS).

(LUXUO)

This year’s event, taking place at Resorts World Sentosa from 2-6 October, is set to build on the success of last year’s, with both STB and RWS continuing their support. Focus-wise, SWF will also continue to heavily feature independent watchmakers, whilst featuring more appearances from top manufactures, amongst other displays of watchmaking savoir-faire. Watches will remain the central attractions but this show is not just for collectors; there will be something for everyone as SWF demonstrates how and why beautiful watches are central to Singapore’s cultural landscape.

(LUXUO)

In our recent chat with festival director Nelson, he reflected on the story of SWF thus far, and the new experiences attendees can expect to look forward to at this year’s edition.

Does the world need another watch fair?

Nelson Lee: Yes – especially one that is able to bridge the geographical distance between Switzerland and the region – not just in terms of bringing watchmaking expertise to Singapore, but also being able to gather regional interest in one place. There have been stellar examples of such events in the past, but there hasn’t really been one that is consistently held on an annual basis.

(LUXUO)

Moreover, given how Singapore has cemented itself as a top export market for Swiss watches, there definitely is local demand for such events to be held in Singapore, which last year’s SWF proved. So, it wouldn’t be so much that the world needs another watch fair, but more that the region needs an annual watch fair in Asia to look forward to each year – one that caters to local interests, and that is able to form a point of convergence for the best of horology and devoted aficionados in the region.

A key focus of the SWF is that we’re always looking towards the future – this underlines our commitment to showcasing a variety of independent watchmakers every year, which stems from our belief that these independents represent the future of watchmaking, for instance, Krayon and L’Epee 1839…

(LUXUO)

Why has it taken so long for there to be a standalone watch fair in Singapore?

Nelson Lee: To begin with, I believe it’s only in the past five or so years that widespread interest in independent watchmakers and vintage collecting has begun to solidify and take off. As with the rest of the world, the value and appeal of watches only really entered the mainstream consciousness during the COVID period of socio-economic volatility. In the years since, tastes have only developed and diversified to include appreciation for the fine work of independent watchmakers. The SWF has always mainly focused on independent watchmakers and vintage collecting – areas where we felt demand was concrete, and a platform on which we could showcase how far watchmaking has come, and how it could develop, through the juxtaposition of timeless vintage pieces with the finest craftsmanship and avant-garde innovation that contemporary watchmaking has to offer.

In terms of practicality, it was only in 2023 that we were able to secure the support of a second key partner, Resorts World Sentosa. Even then (and the support of STB since 2017), despite the fact that we are more motivated by passion than by profit, the cost factor is not something that can be easily ignored.

How is the SWF improving upon the success of last year’s event?

Nelson Lee: In 2022 and 2023, the panel discussions spotlighting women who collect watches – conducted by TickTock Belles’ Stephanie Soh and Deborah Wong, amongst others – proved to be very popular. We see this as a reflection of change within the collectors’ demographic – where women are now keener to create a space for themselves in what is a traditionally male-dominated sphere, so we’re definitely retaining that and bringing more engaging perspectives from our female collectors.

Besides the various watch panels and plenary sessions, we’re also looking to ramp up the interactivity of the event: through new, on-site, immersive audio-visual driven launches and dinners, as well as a new interactive activity driven by watch expert Carson Chan, perhaps better known on social media by his IG handle @watchprofessor.

In terms of a more hands-on experience, there will also be a strap-making workshop conducted by master craftsmen, which we hope will highlight the innovation and intricate craftsmanship of an oft-underrated aspect of watchmaking.

We are also looking to bring in two more established international watch manufacturers, to add a different dimension to the craftsmanship and innovation expertise that the independent watchmakers will bring.

For more on the 2024 edition of Singapore Watch Fair, click here.

Originally published on LUXUO

Victor Sanz, creative director at TUMI.
(TUMI)

ESQUIRE: We’re told the spring 2024 collection is inspired by Singapore. Can you tell us more about that and why Singapore in particular?

VICTOR SANZ: Every season, the design team and I sit down and we look for a destination to become our muse. We’re always looking at things that have a cultural relevance—we saw that Singapore was one of the first places to open their doors to the world again. We started focusing into Singapore and realised that everything that’s happening here is in line with what we’re doing as a brand. The idea of balancing heritage with modernity; embracing technology but not abandoning where your roots are; of balancing this world of architecture and progression, but also supporting the environment and nature.

We then started to really dive deep from a cultural standpoint: How are the people living here? What are they doing? How are they doing this? We were inspired by places like Sentosa where we kept seeing these beautiful images of the sunsets. Then the shutters in the market streets with these bright colours of contrast, and they felt very spring to us. We also looked at buildings like the Art Science Museum where it’s a very modern building, but feels very natural and very organic at the same time. So from there, we started building our colour palette and the collections like Asra, where you can see this idea of a soft structure, which continues on to even within the Alpha Bravo series.

ESQ: What are some of the newer innovations you have devised for the collection that you’re proud of?

VS: We continue to bring new innovations every season. There’s a continuous partnership with McLaren and we were able to introduce a new chapter with the Extreme collection where we did these welded waterproof bags. Obviously, Asra, our women’s collection, and of course the 19 Degree series, which was born as a travel collection, but we were figuring out how do we continue to expand this 19 Degree design language into day-to-day uses? This 19 Degree Aluminum minaudière that I carry has a really simple detail. I can just rotate this element and I can put a shoulder strap on there. It becomes now that same archetype of 19 Degree but in a crossbody. And we’ve done a backpack as well. You’re going to continue to see these types of products evolve. We’re kind of pushing in all these directions and always looking at things from the lens of technology and luxury, and always ensuring that we’re bringing something new to our core customer but also bringing in that new customer as well.

ESQ: TUMI is also known for its Alpha Bravo series but there seems to be a more conscious decision to move away from just luggage and into a more lifestyle space, with a golf collection as well as Asra. Is this something that we can expect more from the brand?

VS: Absolutely. I mean, I would say we’re not moving away from the travel side. What we’re doing is we’re continuing to enhance our portfolio. Our biggest muse is the customer. We look at the lifestyle that they’re living. How are they evolving? What does their day-to-day look like? What does it look like when they’re at work? What does work look like for them? What happens post-work? And the more we begin to evolve the world we’re in, we’re bringing products that are enhancing their lives. That’s why you’re seeing things like the golf collection. We see our customers being increasingly engaged in golf and how it’s a new way for them to connect with their friends and peers. It’s a great opportunity for us to bring the very best of what we do at TUMI to a type of collection like that. Additionally, we’re doing fragrances now—we have seven fragrances in the line—eyewear, the crossbodies, women’s products, engaging in the world of sport… It’s really about evolving the brand for our customers.

ESQ: You talk about the customers’ lifestyles when designing for these lifestyle-specific items. Is the design approach slightly different from the travel series, or is it the same?

VS: When we started looking at products that may be more geared towards lifestyle—or what we call the more fashion-forward type products—one aspect where we’ve evolved as a brand, I think at times, is that aesthetics weren’t viewed as a feature. We’ve changed that thinking where aesthetics are a feature. If you feel good or confident about what you’re wearing, you perform better. With a collection like Asra, the thought process was how do we create something that’s very easy and that doesn’t look like it’s burdened with all this extra functionality, but the functionality is there? Similar to even this 19 Degree minaudière. It’s a very simple crossbody, but on the inside, it has a removable leather pouch that magnetises to the back so that when I need to pay for something, I open up the minaudière and I have my money and cards ready to go. Maybe in the past, we’ve had the mentality of always leading with function. Now, the beauty is part of the function.

ESQ: I’m curious to know, because when you talk about the minaudière and having that extra element inside, how many prototypes do you go through before you’re done with editing?

VS: It can depend. I wish I could say we do it once and it’s great. But it can be anywhere from three to upwards of 10, depending on how complex the functionality is. For example with the 19 Degree Aluminum backpack, we spent a lot of time making sure that when you push in the leather monogram patch that the front pocket would pop out. We also spent a lot of iterations where we’re opening up the backpack so that it stays perfectly balanced when opened. Typically, we like to do about at least three prototypes because the other part is test-wearing. And we test-wear everything. A lot of times when I’m travelling, I’m travelling with prototypes because if something’s going to fail, I’d rather it fail while I’m using it so I can fix it.

ESQ: I remember from our previous interaction in Hong Kong in 2019, where you explained how the handle of a TUMI luggage is shaped like a strawberry for better ergonomics.

VS: You remember? This one! (points to the telescopic handle of a luggage nearby)

ESQ: Yeah. It’s one of the things that, if it weren’t pointed out to me, I wouldn’t have necessarily realised it. Have you come across customers who have pointed out nuances like that in your designs?

VS: It’s a really interesting thing. People don’t notice good design because it just works. That’s the goal. It sounds a bit ironic, right? You spend so much time, energy and thought into it, and when a customer uses it, it just becomes kind of back-of-mind. But when something is poorly designed, that’s when you really, really take notice. That’s why we spend so much time really analysing the details—testing, feeling and going through these motions where they just need to feel and work so right that you don’t even notice them. From a design and creative perspective, it makes me quite happy when people say that something feels or works right. But, hey, very good memory. I’m very impressed.

ESQ: It’s definitely a takeaway that has stuck. Now, on to collaborations. The way TUMI approaches collaborations is perhaps quite different from its contemporaries. With TUMI, there seems to be a preference to collaborate with more lifestyle-driven partners and artists as opposed to say, a fashion brand or streetwear. Why is that?

VS: TUMI has always been looking at a wide breadth of people to collaborate with. We’ve collaborated with fashion houses like Missoni, athletes, jewellery designers, artists etc.. For us, it’s always been about people that are very true to who we are as a brand. But also we’re looking beyond into that future customer, right? I’m going to collaborate with people that are multifaceted, that people can relate to and understand. There’s a future-forward thinking for the brand as well. So this is why we’re always kind of looking at it through our own lens. There was a time when everyone was collaborating and you didn’t know what the hell was happening—every week was another collaboration and everyone just got very caught up in this hype. For us, we’ve always held true to what we feel is authentic to us. How do we connect with them? And then how do we support them on their mission? It’s never really been about wanting to collaborate for hype sake.

ESQ: And now we have brand ambassadors being announced every week. You mentioned how the customer is the driving force behind designing at TUMI. But when it comes to brand ambassadors, do they also influence you as well? Or are they more of like a manifestation of the TUMI customer?

VS: When we started getting into brand ambassadors, we were looking for people who embody the truth of the brand. When we started with Lando Norris, not only is he a fantastic F1 driver, but he’s also this hungry, young athlete who’s starting his own businesses and establishing himself. The same thing with Son Heung-min—an amazing, established Asian athlete within a European team, which is also quite international and it poses its own challenges. It was this amazing storyline that connects with us. As we were starting our journey within this new women’s category with Asra, we thought about having an ambassador who embodies not only who we are about but also this new customer. Mun Kayoung is an amazing person to begin with and she’s so humble. We’re saying that we want that type of aesthetic and that type of strength to come through to our products.

It’s always a challenge to find that perfect connection, but so far, we’ve been quite lucky to have people that love the brand. When we start having conversations with them, it’s very, very authentic. They travel with the brand and that always makes it very, very easy to kind of make everything happen.

ESQ: It seems very organic.

VS: Absolutely. You’d be surprised how many times we sit down, and they’re like, “Oh yeah. I’ve been travelling with TUMI for 12 years, 10 years...”

Sanz has been at TUMI now for more than 20 years.
(TUMI)

ESQ: This is a bit of a throwback to 2019. When asked what were some of the best things about being a creative director at TUMI, you said, “It’s amazing to dream an idea and have it come to fruition.” Has anything changed since then?

VS: Yes. It’s still amazing to be able to dream something and bring it to fruition, but I think what’s changed is that the dreams now are becoming ever more vivid. It almost feels like there’s an endless sense of possibility. In 2019, I would never have imagined I’d be sitting here showing you this 19 Degree Aluminum minaudière and backpack. To be able to see the brand and customer base continue to grow but also being able to still push the brand in different directions, that’s been fantastic.

ESQ: You’ve been at TUMI now for more than 20 years, which is insane to think about.

VS: You’re telling me!

ESQ: I just want to know, what keeps you inspired?

VS: Every day I walk in, I have an amazing team. We have people on that team who I’ve worked with for the past 20 years as well as people into their first year, and every day, we are constantly pushing ourselves. I was up at 1:30am this morning on a call with the team in New York working on a project for the future. We’re talking about the smallest of details, but with the intensity of it being the next biggest collection. And that’s what really kind of continues to feed this creative energy. We want to make a difference with the elements that we put in. And I get to work on just some of the most interesting products. I’m very humbled and blessed to have had 20 years. I mean, just like that, it’s been 20 years. And you and I have been on a journey now for exactly five years. Who would have thought?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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