Revival of the gentlemen

The spirit of mod brings back an era when good manners and proper behaviour took precedence over everything else.

IT is not easy to define the mod look but there are clear definitions as to what mod is not.

“Mods are not into rock, hip hop or black metal, and we don’t like torn jeans,” says Azmeer Idrus, 35, a team building trainer.

The apt description comes from Mohammad Azwan Shah, better known as Wak Doyok. The co-founder of clothing line The Garment simplifies it by offering an antithesis: “The opposite of grunge would be mod.”

“Where grungers are messy, mods are prim,” adds Wak Doyok, 33. “We don’t wear T-shirts unless they are collared. Being a mod means not having a hair out of place and you’ve got to have that slightly aloof attitude,” says Wak Doyok, who was one of the nominees for Esquire magazine’s Best Dressed Real Man.

The spirit of mod brings back the nostalgia of an era when good manners and proper behaviour took precedence over everything else.

A mod gathering featuring the Selangor Lambretta Club. / Photo by Grace Chen
Strutting their stuff: A mod gathering featuring the Selangor Lambretta Club.

“I call it the golden era of fashion because the clean lines bring out the best of a person’s character. These were the kinds of clothes you wore if you wanted to look smart and leave a good impression. In Malay, we say it is ‘not hurtful to the eyes’,” says Wak Doyok.

In his opinion, actors Tan Sri Jins Shamsuddin and Sarimah were the local epitomes of mod. The former for his clean-shaven look and sharp suits, the latter for her elegance and heavily kohl-lined eyes.

Mod influence in Malaysia is believed to have originated from young adults who had returned from Britain after following their parents who may have pursued academic degrees or embassy postings. While trying to assimilate themselves into local culture, their style of dressing left an impression on peers.

Among the stories of mod initiations, the most dramatic belongs to Wak Doyok who reveals what sealed his conviction to remain a mod.

Sometime in 1996, he formed a scooter club with three friends. One of them, whom Wak Doyok will only refer to as Alem, met with a fatal accident in 1998.

“When he arrived at the hospital, the police only found three phone numbers on him – all belonging to the members of our scooter club. We were the ones who had to inform his parents,” he says.

When Wak Doyok arrived at the hospital, word had leaked out that Alem was dying. The impact from the accident had ruptured his heart. As the trio were popular figures in Bukit Bintang, a crowd of skinheads, punks and mods had converged at the hospital.

“For once, the hospital grounds resembled the scene of a musician’s gig,” recalls Wak Doyok, then 18. “Alem said to me, ‘In my absence, I want you to continue with the mod movement.’ I took this as his last will to me and gave him my word.”

There are three elements to the making of a mod, offers Wak Doyok and Azmeer.

First of all, there’s the music. Think The Beatles, The Who and jazz greats such as Ella Fitzegerald. According to Azmeer, the rave scene is accredited to the mod movement and the latest offspring to have come out of this is the techno mod, who listens to artistes such as Chemical Brothers.

A promotional shot for The Garment./ Photo by Muhammad Uzair (Pls remove the word 'The Garment')
A promotional shoot for The Garment. 

Then, there’s the scooter and it must be either a Lambretta or a Vespa – no compromises.

Mods are known to go to great lengths to obtain their rides so that they can modify them and show them off at scooter conventions.

Wak Doyok recalls his first Lambretta L13, a 1965 model, while exploring Kuala Kangsar in 1999. He had found the L13 in a decrepit state, buried up to its handle bars in red earth. It took just RM130 to relieve the relic from its owner, after which Wak Doyok spent a whole day unearthing the scooter.

“There was even a rat’s nest in the engine compartment!” he recalls.

The backbreaking job of freeing the scooter was followed by the arduous task of pushing it to a nearby workshop where Wak Doyok took the engine apart and serviced the carburettor himself. Lo and behold! The LI3 came to life for the first time after 40 years.

Thirdly, it’s the fashion.

The goal was to achieve a classy vintage look. Iconic brands that fit specifications were Ben Sherman, Arnold Palmer, Arrow, Playboy and Penguin, considered as the Pradas and Guccis of the 60s.

For men, shirts had to be slim fit with button-down collars. Suits are to be cut in the Italian style using a three-button-down system with the top button in the same line as the pocket. Suit hems should fall just at the hip line with double vents, one on either side. Interestingly, paisley shirts are also embraced, a remnant of the psychedelic era. In chilly weather, long army coats covered the wearers so they’d look sharp indoors.

Trousers have to be slim cut with drainpipe legs and preferably crinkle-resistant. The only jeans label a mod should allow into his wardrobe is the Levi’s 501s, no other. Footwear of choice are usually loafers embellished with tassels or styled like bowling shoes.

For “modettes” (in reference to females), the essential must-haves are white knee-length boots to match short A-line dresses with geometric designs. The hairstyle to sport is the “Chelsea Cut”, a short but feathery look with long sides and also the wedge bob created by late British hairdresser Vidal Sassoon. And always, heavy eyeliner.

Husaini Ibrahim, office boy by day, who glams it up with a tailor-made double-breated suit after work. / Photo by Grace Chen
Husaini Ibrahim, office boy by day, who glams it up with a tailor-made double-breasted suit after work.

It would be interesting to take a look at, not where a mod shops, but how.

“The Britons have Carnaby Street. In Malaysia, we have the bundle shops in Chow Kit,” smiles Wak Doyok.

For the uninitiated, they should know that there are two kinds of mod.

One sector belongs to the moneyed who can afford to shop overseas and at bona fide boutiques.

Another is from the working class such as the bellboys, office despatchers and supermarket cashiers. Wak Doyok and Azmeer come from the second category. The former used to work as technical assistant at BMW’s old plant in Shah Alam, before working as a public phone technical supervisor whereby he drove a van.

Azmeer started life as a mechanic. “The driving force of mod is in the working class. These are the people who are considered ‘nobodies’ during the day, who become ‘somebodies’ when they step out after work. All because they can carry their own style confidently and have differentiated themselves from the norm,” explains Wak Doyok.

It is this second aspect that has lent an interesting aspect to the shopping style. When the fashion movement saw a local revival during the early 90s, many of the brands which epitomised the spirit of the look were not available for retail. And so, the mods headed to the second-hand shops.

“During the 90s, it was easy to find clothes in the bundle shops because people were still unaware of the vintage clothing market. This worked in our favour because many of us were still schooling. You could get a Ben Sherman shirt for as low as RM5, or a full suit for RM20! Can you imagine?” reveals Azmeer.

Looking the part is often a journey of self-discovery.

Nicholas Mak, voted by Cleo readers as this year’s Most Eligible Bachelor – and one of the models in the promotion shoot for The Garment – is an example.

A photographer by profession, the 25-year-old has matured into suits after a period as a rocker. He developed a liking for mod during a two-month holiday in London in 2010.

“For the first time, I wore a suit and discovered the art of layering. My signature look was a long olive green coat and leather gloves,” says Mak who had saved up a sum of RM10,000 for his trip by modelling for television commercials and print ads.

After two months of observing the scene, he built his wardrobe by raiding department stores like Selfridges, Harrods, H&M and the boutiques in Kingston. To date, Mak’s collection has grown to the space of three double sliding-cabinets, split in two locations – one at his father’s house in Puchong, Selangor and his bachelor’s pad in Jalan Kuchai Lama, Kuala Lumpur.

Wak Doyok gives an insight into the “wardrobe investment” required for that “well-dressed English gentleman’s look”.

“In 2003, I was spending RM500 every month on clothes. My paycheck then was only RM1,800, but I’d buy a pair of Classic Clarks for RM600. A month later, I’d spend another RM300 on a Topman shirt. The Ben Sherman shirts I have now cost me RM350 a piece. Of course, my mother was livid! To get out of trouble, I’d tell her I got it from the bundle shop, or would keep it aside and not wear it until much later,” laughs Wak Doyok, a bachelor.

But the rule is to always know what you’re looking for.

“From as early as 19, I knew what being fashionable was about. I got my suits tailored and was particular about my shoes matching my belts. I guess it’s in my blood as my father, whom I think looks like Chow Yun-Fat, is also very fashionable. He’d wear things like blue Tod’s loafers,” says Mak.

The mod influence has naturally rubbed off on the local fashion scene – but with a more colourful twist. Think green skinny trousers, chili red suits with polka dot bow ties and double-breasted jackets in purple and pink checks.

The man behind this riot of colour is none other than fashion designer Fairuz Ramdan, who is also a committee member of the Bumiputera Designer’s Association (BDA).

Making use of mod elements landed Fairuz an order from Parkson after a successful showing at the Mercedes Benz Stylo Fashion Week this March.

“I came in at the right time when the concept of the smartly-dressed gentleman was making headway locally. This was when big brands like H&M and Uniqlo were coming in with cutting-edge men’s fashion,” says Fairuz.

The eldest son of four siblings, Fairuz spent half his childhood in Scotland where his late father pursued his academic research.

“Most of my clients are not into mod but are people who want to look good,” says Fairuz.

But having cut his teeth as a vendor selling vintage clothing, he has met die-hard mod followers who didn’t just see the movement as a trend.

“To them, being mod was how you lived,” concludes Fairuz.

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Lifestyle , menswear , fashion , mod