It’s not easy being a fashion designer. Anyone can call themselves one, but few can continue staying relevant and remain in the industry. Melinda Looi hardly needs any introduction. The 46-year-old is one of Malaysia’s most popular designers and has been in the trade for close to two decades – and is still going strong.
Looi’s eclectic and avant-garde designs are indeed well loved. They have been seen on runways around the world, attracting a clientele that includes celebrities and socialites.
As a fashion designer, she offers both ready-to-wear and couture garments. Her list of lines is quite an impressive one – from high-end couture to fashionable ready-to-wear and everyday basics. She is however, not content with just that and is now interested in branching out.
In an interview recently, she reveals that she has moved into interior design. She also notes that her focus these days is on the Malaysian market, as this is where it began for her.
“There’s lot of things going on for me at the moment,” Looi states. “I’m not just a mother of four. On the business side, things are growing. I’m actually expanding to include a larger team.”
Being a fashion designer was not Looi’s first career choice. She was actually more interested in art. Her parents were the ones who persuaded her to take up fashion instead.
She then discovered the “art” of couture. Now, she is still pursuing her dream of being an artist, with the only difference being that fabric is her canvas, and she uses needles, thread and scissors, instead of a paintbrush.
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 from the La Salle School Of Fashion in Montreal, Canada.
In 1998, she returned to Malaysia and worked for her parents’ business for a year before venturing out on her own. Thereon, she garnered attention for her unique designs that pushed the boundaries of fashion.
Looi nevertheless, attributes her success to the people working closely with her. Her husband Dirk Luebbert, for example, is the CEO of her company. He manages the operations and running of the different businesses.
“I’m blessed in that aspect. It’s definitely all about having good people – or rather, good friends – around me who can really help, who would want to grow together,” she points out.
Looi is not one to micromanage, as well. Emel, her modestwear brand that adheres to a socially conscious fashion initiative, is now operating more independently with its own creative team.
She isn’t just about her own brands either, she was also recently appointed as the president of the Malaysian Official Designers Association (Moda). In this role, she is looking to further spur the country’s fashion industry by helping out young designers.
“The Malaysia Young Designer Award that I won in the past was actually through MODA. I want to bring back that competition, as well as other exciting activities that can help local designers,” she says.
“We have a huge pool of designers in Malaysia. But the market is very small. The buying power here is not very strong. So I think this is a major issue for the young people entering the industry.”
Looi does not want to reveal too much about what she’s going to do as it’s still in the planning stages, but it will be interesting to see what she has in store for the local fashion industry.
On diversifying, she explains that it can help fashion businesses grow. Tackling e-commerce, for instance, is one way to really capitalise on the changing retail landscape. Emel for instance, can be found online at emel.my and stocked by major fashion retailers like zalora.my.
Looi is also involved in various other projects. She has designed costumes for theatre productions like Shadow In The Sun, a 2017 local play that revolves around the drama between royal cousins and also rivals, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. In 2015 she presented a 3D-printed collection of clothes and accessories in New York.
Recently, she partnered the Malaysian Gymnastics Federation to design and launch their new official uniform and sports kits for the gymnasts. Nine of Malaysia’s top gymnasts donned the new uniform for the first time at the Rhythmic Gymnastics Junior World Championships, which commenced in Moscow on July 19.
Last year, Looi was one of the Malaysian designers chosen to present her designs at the Fine Arts Museums Of San Francisco’s “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibition.
“When I started my couture business, I was flown all over the world by my clients.
“I visited the Middle Eastern countries a lot. It was at that time that I began to get acquainted with Muslimah fashion,” she relates. Looi has in fact been an active participant for years at the Islamic Fashion Festival in Malaysia and abroad.
“I think being a designer, we should always be flexible. We should not just do the things we are comfortable with. So if you ask me, can I design a cheongsam? Yes, anytime. Can I design an abayah? Yes, of course.”
Yet, Looi has always remained true to her aesthetic. Her designs, what ever they may be, always have a touch of edginess to them. Take this as the signature Melinda Looi touch.
“I think my customers like the details that I put into each garment. They offer a bit of the edgy and young feel, but they are not over the top. What sells are clothes that are wearable,” she explains.
Her advice for staying relevant? Always make sure your designs are timeless. By doing this, the clothes you sell will not go out of fashion every time a specific trend fades away.
“I don’t like designing trendy stuff that a person will no longer be able to wear after a few months or a year.
“Always design things that can be worn for different occasions and in many ways.”