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Sunday November 1, 2009

Bernard Chandran, unmasked

After making his name at home, the couturier literally had to start afresh in London.

DATUK Bernard Chandran seems implausibly grounded for someone from the superficial world of fashion. Then again, the 41-year-old has been in the business for over 15 years.

French-trained Bernard revolutionised the traditional kebaya and kurung, turning them into modern and fashionable outfits for Malaysian women.

Although he has a team of 50 comprising assistants, sample makers, graphic artists, and beading and embroidery experts, he still does his own sketches and creates his own fabric designs.

Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Bernard obtained a Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts from the Paris American Academy. In 1991, he became the first non-European to win the coveted Silk, Cut Young Designers Award and the Open European Contest for Look of the Year 2000. The prize was a menswear course at the L’Union Des Chambers Syndicales Parisiennes in Paris.

In 1993, he returned home and launched his own line of clothing, under the label Bernard Chandran.

Bernard Chandran greeting the crowd after his recent Spring/Summer 2010 show. – IAN GILLETT

In 2004, the designer opened his first store in Knightsbridge, London. On hindsight, he realises it was “a stupid thing to do” because “I was doing what people wanted me to do and not what I really wanted,” Bernard said in Chelsea, Britain, in September, after presenting his Spring/Summer 2010 (SS10) show at the London Fashion Week (LFW).

When asked if he had sold the business, he replied: “It didn’t work for me so I closed it.”

He then got an agent and started strategising his plans. In 2005, he launched his first Autumn/Winter 2006 Ready-To-Wear collection at the LFW.

Getting into LFW was no easy task, Bernard recalled. He had to submit 30 pieces of his work to a panel, besides showing that he knew about marketing costs, distribution, production, warehousing, and meeting the demands of the buyers from all over the world.

But the platform served him well because his creations caught the eye of celebrities like British singer Estelle and American artist Lady Gaga.

Early February, Estelle wore one of his outfits to the 51st Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, and another during her duet with Kanye West.

Bernard had only four days to get both outfits ready and couriered to Estelle, and he wasn’t sure that she would wear them until he saw the awards telecast live.

“It was a proud moment for my family and me when we saw her step out in my designs,” he recalls.

Then, at the Brit Awards 2009, also in February, Gaga, was seen in a shocking pink mini pointy hip dress, from Bernard’s Spring/Summer 2009 collection.

“The LFW allowed me to experiment and pushed me to do my best work. It propelled me to stay focused,” he said.

“What I love about being in London is that the people are honest with their constructive feedback, which is something Asians generally tend to avoid, to appear polite. That is how I learnt to be a better designer and entrepreneur.”

He is thankful for support from various quarters in London.

“I forked out my own money to hold my first show at LFW. Because I was considered a new talent, the Vauxhall Fashion Scout (Britain’s largest catwalk and presentation event, which identifies emerging designers) subsidised half my rental cost. Modelling agencies in London support young designers by charging a lower fee for their models, which helps tremendously.”

He felt that for Malaysian designers to move forward, the government or bodies involved in the fashion industry should support what they want to do and find ways to make it happen for them instead of telling them what to do.

“While it is a positive move to promote the use of local materials, there is a time, place and market for that. Our government keeps asking us to use batik and songket in our designs. How is a designer going to compete on an international level if he is obliged to follow the call, especially if the materials don’t fit the design?”

Bernard pointed out that Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto are so hip and well-regarded, but they don’t come up with kimonos every season!

Bernard finds it amusing that in Malaysia, he is known as the designer of traditional Malay garments for high society, but in London, he is billed as an “up-and-coming” designer!

“I have to work 10 times as hard as the British designers. But I am encouraged to do what I want and it makes me happy,” he says. “People think that it is a glamorous profession but it’s a tough business.” He then slipped into fluent Cantonese and regaled me with tales of unsettled bills, dubious clients and people from outside the fashion industry advising him on his designs.

Models presenting Bernard’s collection at the London Fashion Week recently. – ZUNG / thephotoz.com

With all the ups and downs he has encountered, he is grateful to his wife, ex-model Mary Lourdes, for standing by him all the years. When he was studying in Paris, Mary used to get modelling jobs to sustain them.

Today, they are the proud parents of four boys and a girl, aged between seven and 15.

He flicked open his Blackberry and proudly shared candid shots of his brood. While Bernard knows that he can give his kids whatever they want, he is firm about not spoiling them. That means no branded clothes or flippant purchases, so they would learn the value of money.

Faith is another thing he wants his children to be grounded in. When he is home, Bernard, who is a Hindu, starts his mornings by offering puja (prayers), together with the family. It’s a daily discipline that he wants his children to embrace, so they will grow up with a strong set of values and a sense of duty.

In fact, before every show he makes it a point to chant a mantra seeking divine blessings.

Going by the crowd at his SS10 show, he is a blessed couturier.

Bernard will present his SS10 collection at the M-IFA Gala night of the Malaysia-International Fashion Week (M-IFW), on Nov 7, at the Centre Court of Pavilion in Kuala Lumpur.

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