These days, Penangites are closely scrutinising their wardrobes.
MALAYSIA’S most prominent fashion icon Zang Toi, who is no stranger to the island, feels that Penangites are now more fashion-conscious and aware of what goes on in the international runways.
The New York-based designer who was in town for the Peranakan Penang-themed George Town Festival 2011 red-carpet gala at the Eastern and Oriental (E&O) Hotel, noticed that the women made a real effort to dress beautifully.
Zang, together with his fellow couture luminary Yeohlee Teng headlined the event’s fashion show which saw his muse (the supermodel Ling Tan) take to the runway.
The fashion event of the year, well, for Penang at least, saw RM100mil worth of jewels from Mouawad’s Royal Collection on show. It is no small feat as Mouawad lists Jennifer Lopez, Kylie Minogue and Heidi Klum among its clients.
“From my observations during the show and after meeting the fashionable crowd at the launch of Zang Toi Fine Jewelry by Amee Philips last November, I believe Penangites are now more fashion-conscious. It was such a fashionable crowd – the ladies were fashionably dressed,” says Zang.
Having literally grown up in the local fashion scene, Penang couturier Richard Rivalee has some keen observations to share.
In the 1960s, Penangites were very fashionable, Rivalee says. “People didn’t buy cheap, off-the-rack outfits – everything was tailor-made to fit. Then, boutiques selling China-made dresses mushroomed and people stopped going to tailors and designers because it was just cheaper and easier to browse around for one-size-fits-all dresses.
“Since last year, I’ve noticed more events being organised and people started paying attention to trends and cuts that fit and complement them again,” he adds.
Rivalee’s younger clients are able to tell him what they’d like to “hide” and which body part they want to flaunt – they watch E! (Astro channel) and know what goes on in Hollywood and the European runways.
He says such awareness is good for the local fashion industry because it shows that Penangites understand quality and style.
“It’s true that my younger clients in their 20s and 30s are more willing to spend to look good these days, especially on wedding dresses and for functions.
“Even those who have already signed up for wedding packages will splurge on additional dinner dresses because they want to look special. Like their KL counterparts, Penangites these days wouldn’t be caught dead in the same dress as someone else at dinner parties,” Rivalee says.
Even at shopping malls, the younger generation is better colour-coordinated, especially the women. “They dress much better and are willing to spend,” he says.
Ch’ng Huck Theng, founder of CHT Network which organises the annual CHT Awards and Ball in KL and Penang to honour outstanding individuals or organisations which have contributed to society, points out that his fellow Penangites are not far behind their cosmopolitan KL counterparts in their dressing.
“It’s definitely not a case of Penangites not wanting to dress up, having bad fashion sense or are sloppy dressers.
“The fault lies with the local event organisers because they aren’t specific and clear about the theme and dress code, unlike in KL where functions are held every other week. People here worry when you tell them black tie because they know that somehow, there will be those who will come in a batik shirt and the organisers will just allow everyone in. They don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb.
“In KL, when the organiser says dress up, they mean it and those who don’t follow the dress code won’t be invited again for future functions,” he explains.
Ch’ng says most of the big luxury brands are available in Penang.
“As there are fewer opportunities for Penangites to dress to the nines here, they probably put in more effort and possibly even dress better than their KL counterparts at grand functions.”
Award-winning fashion designer Melinda Looi says it’s not just Penangites who are dressing better and are more fashion-conscious these days.
“More and more people have been abroad for work or further studies, so they’ve learnt how to present themselves better. They are more aware of fashion and more conscious of how they look.
“With so many international brands coming to Malaysia and opening stores everywhere, people are more aware of trends.”
She also says shoppers are more willing to spend on the many affordable brands available now.
Looi says she has never come across a Penangite who was not well-dressed.
“All my friends from Penang are always very fashionable and artistic. Most of them are painters, artists and designers.”
Looi, who was ahead of the fashion scene here, opened a MELL counter in Parkson Grand departmental store in Gurney Plaza back in 2006. The counter has since closed down.
“It was tough logistically. We couldn’t sustain the brand in Penang. People didn’t understand organic clothing, so it was too slow for us,” says Looi.
These days, she gets requests from Penangites for couture tailor-made outfits.
Tino Soon and Allan Chan, the duo behind popular local fashion labels Salabianca, Philosophy Men and Graffi Tee, brought their brand of fashion flair up north in 2001 and haven’t looked back since.
Salabianca opened in Gurney Plaza 11 years ago, way before Penangites started to pay attention to their wardrobe.
“We brought Philosophy Men over but the men’s label had to close down. There simply weren’t enough customers to support our forward, edgy and fun men’s label!”
Chan feels that Penangites are only willing to spend when they are not in Penang because they don’t have their friends or family members to hold them back.
“Penangites have to change their mentality – be an individual. Dressing well is all about quality and style, not cheap quality, trendy mass-produced so-called brands.
“There isn’t really a fashion scene to speak of here at the moment; the city needs an oasis of style where people dress for concerts, balls, night clubs, beach parties and even rock concerts,” Chan opines.
That said, Looi sees plenty of opportunities for budding designers in the burgeoning fashion scene here.
“A graduate can be a designer, stylist, costume designer, fashion coordinator, buyer, merchandiser, fashion journalist or editor – the list goes on.”