Bernard Chandran, Rizalman Ibrahim and Melinda Looi are influential names in the Malaysian fashion industry, having been in it for over 20 years. It’s not just about fashion, though – the three have gone further, expanding it into a business that has stood the test of time.
In fact, you could probably consider them as a benchmark on how design, creativity and vision – coupled with a strong business sense and a little luck – leads to longevity in the local fashion industry.
It seems like everyone thinks they can be a designer nowadays, but how many are equipped for the actual business of fashion?
For Bernard Chandran, 48, fashion has always been about creating something unique. The designer, who is of Chindian parentage, says that his aim is to push boundaries.
“My designs are feminine but quirky. If you take a closer look, you’ll find that my dresses are not just dresses. Somehow, they’ll have something different. I design for the kind of girl who is vibrant but totally feminine.”
Bernard has 25 years of experience under his belt. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the Paris American Academy and L’Union Des Chambers Syndicales Parisiennes. He is proud of his country. That is the reason why he returned here before founding his own label. He thinks that his designs represent Malaysia, which is the key to his success.
“To an international audience, my clothes may be from the ‘Far East’. But they’re Malaysian. Malaysian Indian or Malaysian Chinese. We’re different, we’re unique,” he explains.
Bernard is known for being able to make the old new again. His creations adhere to trends, yet maintain well-recognised sillhouttes. “I don’t find it difficult to balance between traditional and modern elements at all. I think a designer’s culture and background will always find a way to shine through.”
On growing up in Malaysia, Bernard says that it was not easy. His own father was initially reluctant in allowing him to study design. He also recalls being teased by his friends for loving fashion.
“If you notice, there’s a new confidence in how people regard the trade. There are definitely many more parents allowing their children to go into fashion design now.”
Bernard has showed regularly at the London and Paris fashion weeks. He has even opened a boutique in the heart of London. “You have to understand that fashion is a business where you sell. It is a business you need to make money. Designing is an art. But the products have to be wearable art.”
Rizalman Ibrahim, 44, claims that interior design is actually his first passion. He applied to study the subject at Universiti Teknologi Mara but instead got a place for a course in art and design.
“Instead of playing with spaces, I had to then learn how to design for the human body. It was still about textures, colours and forms, but in a different medium,” he says.
Rizalman has come a long way since then. He is now recognised for having a penchant for the dramatic, with his creations seen on high profile actresses, recording artistes and models.
Rizalman’s aesthetic is all about making things luxe: “I took kebayas and kurungs to a whole different level. Not just as something for ‘makciks’ but something that is quite relevant, current and trendy.
He admits that it was difficult starting out. Designers did not have the internet back then. Access to information like trends were limited, and he had to wait for international magazines to arrive in the country to catch up on fashion news.
“There are still challenges now. Young designers who are just starting out will have to contend with global brands making its way into the country. It was a more niche industry in the past, but we had a bigger slice of the cake.”
On Malaysian fashion going global, Rizalman says identity is key. “The Malay culture for instance, is not that well discovered by the world yet. Sarees or cheongsams are well known, but do other countries recognise our baju kurung?”
You must have a strong cultural reference. Having that can actually make for a strong statement. The fashion people around the world are, after all, looking for freshness and newness.”
Fashion was not Melinda Looi’s first choice too. She was more interested in art. She says that her parents were the ones who persuaded her to take up fashion.
“This was when I discovered the ‘art’ of couture. I could still pursue my dreams of being an artist, with the only difference being that fabric is my canvas, and I am using needles, thread and scissors, instead of a paintbrush!”
Today, Looi’s designs regularly make an appearance on runways, with her clothes celebrated for being edgy. She designs both ready-to-wear and couture. There is also Emel, her label that adheres to a socially conscious fashion initiative.
“The journey was not an easy one and it was filled with hard work. It was quite normal for me to work two or three days a week till the wee hours of two or three in the morning, or not get any sleep at all during very busy periods, like fashion weeks,” states 43-year-old Looi.
“Asian designers get much more attention internationally than ever before, but there are more local and especially international brands now aiming at the Asian customers, which puts a lot of pressure on Asian brands.”
Looi studied at the La Salle Institute of Design in Kuala Lumpur before winning the Malaysia Young Designer Award in 1995. The prize was a scholarship to study fashion in Canada.
“I’ve always had some kind of a local reference when it comes to my designs. Our Malaysian traditions are a treasure trove of inspiration just waiting to be reinterpreted for today’s women.”
Looi adds that the local fashion industry has changed. It currently has more resources in the form of government support, plus it is attracting more international attention.
“I think I was very lucky in the way my business took off. It was difficult at first, but what kept me going was all the support I got from my clients, friends and the media, plus my staff.”