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Are Malaysian Designers Finally Ready to Wear?

All eyes are on the local RTW scene, with designers Tengku Syahmi, Silas Liew and more pushing to the fore

By Emma Chong Johnston | Published: 22 Jan 2014

RTW Malaysia
Photo: (L-R) Ezzati Amira, Jonathan Liang and Tengku Syahmi

The world is getting smaller. Globalisation may be merrily marching on, but people are increasingly looking to cottage industries, locally produced artisanal work and supporting people from their town. On the pages of The Sartorialist, you’ll see Gucci-clad men, but they’ll be lounging nonchalantly alongside gentlemen wearing suits sewn by local heritage tailors. There’ll be dark-eyed Spanish beauties wandering around in espadrilles made down the road and London It-girls dressed head to toe in graduate designers.

But this sentiment has been slow to catch on in Malaysia. You only have to look to the prevalence of Topshop and Zara in the shopping malls, and the marked lack of accessible, fashion-forward Malaysian ready to wear available on the high street.

Why has it been so difficult to buy Malaysian designed and produced clothes that you can actually wear on a day-to-day basis? Malaysia’s proudest fashion export, Jimmy Choo, has always been out of the price range of the average Malaysian and is now owned by someone else entirely. There are ‘Malaysian’ high street stores that source flimsy, trendy chiffon pieces in Thailand and flog them for four times the price in Pavilion. But to find clothes that are through and through Malaysian – not by some token reference to batik, but in terms of design and production – has always been difficult. You can find festive wear, evening gowns, beautifully bespoke wedding dresses but little that you can wear on a day-to-day basis and be proud that you’re wearing Malaysian.

But the times, they are a-changing. In 2010, in an e-commerce market saturated by blogshops hawking mass-produced vintage-style dresses, Fashion Valet was launched. The brainchild of Fadzarudin Shah Anuar and Vivy Yusof (the hugely popular lifestyle and fashion blogger), the site was a revelation – dedicated to local and regional designers. No cheap filler, just handpicked designers and brands that were endorsed by Vivy herself on her blog – never underestimate the branding power of an #ootd. There were design interface faults perhaps, and the odd miss among the hits, but the customer service was stellar, the clothes good, and the tone never condescending or hackneyed. These were Malaysian clothes that you could buy and wear. It wasn’t just a retail exercise in patriotism.

Four years later and they’ve won a substantial grant on Make the Pitch, expanded, marketed, and spread their reach and now carry more than 200 designer labels from Malaysia and the region.

Then, riding on the e-commerce wave, Zappos clone Zalora launched. And sites big and small started popping up all over the internet – SHOP LARK’s colourful clutches and wallets. Ezzati Amira’s considered, tailored daywear. Yadotsa. KLutched. Perte. There were pockets of Malaysian design all over the internet, making full use of the world wide web’s limitless space and affordable overheads to showcase their work to the world.

And then 2013 happened, a big, bright year for Malaysian fashion. In June came the inaugural Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week (KLFW), produced by long-time fashion show organisers Andrewsmodels. All other Malaysian fashion shows hitherto – MODA, STYLO, MIFW – had been weeks of flamboyance and spectacle, showing theatrical gowns, avant-garde creations and pieces created only for the runway. In comparison, KLFW had only the novelty of being Malaysia’s first RTW show, but the excitement was palpable and the response immediately positive.

‘After being in the business for so long, producing shows for other fashion organisations, I understand exactly how everything works,’ said the eponymous Andrew Tan of Andrewsmodels. ‘I was just a producer but I understood how disorganised organisers could be. So when MIFA 2012 didn’t happen, a lot of designers turned to me and asked: Where do we go from here? I decided to take up the challenge and set the industry right.’

It may seem like a melodramatic statement, but it was true. Andrew and his team created something no one had done before. It was a practical, commercial venture that supported the fashion industry and bolstered its economy in ways its photo-friendly predecessors hadn’t. This was the first cohesive show in which you could view collections (43 of them) of locally designed clothes that you could then go and buy and wear. Literally – there was a concurrent KLFW pop-up show in which many of the young designers were selling their clothes.

‘You know, there were tourists at the pop-up store who happened to be buyers or owned stores overseas and were very interested and made connections with some of our designers. This is exactly what we want,’ says Andrew.

Back online, Off the Rack Asia launched at the same time – a small, curated online store selling a handful of handpicked local designers, many of whom showed at KLFW. CEO and co-founder Lim Hui Ru’s focus is the same – to support local and regional designers and bring their work to the foreground. ‘I think a lot of the designers are very happy that there are people taking the initiative to support the industry, and actively promoting and building up the industry with them,’ says Hui Ru.

If her focus is the same, so are the problems: education, and public perception. ‘We spend a lot of money on building the brand, and educating people on the quality of our designers and brands. A lot of our marketing spend goes to advertising how good the quality is, and how fashion-forward the pieces are, how they’re worth what you pay for.’ In the course of just eight months, Hui Ru has made discoveries about the Malaysian online buying public that would surprise you. ‘The more fashion-forward stuff moves faster than the basics,’ she says. ‘People are willing to spend up to RM300; that seems to be the magic ceiling.’ And orders are coming in from Australia, the US and Indonesia. People are looking at Malaysian design.

Don’t mourn the days of Malaysian bespoke fashion – they aren’t over. But more and more young designers and young consumers are looking to RTW as the future of fashion. Designer Tengku Syahmi of Tsyahmi debuted his first RTW collection at KLFW and is now stocking it on Off the Rack and Fashion Valet – a model example of the new generation of designers. ‘I’ve gone with RTW rather than traditional custom evening/wedding/traditional wear because I grew up knowing that there is no RTW in our country,’ he explains. ‘I knew I wanted to make RTW happen in Malaysia.’ As do we all.


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