Malaysian designer sews couture... for dolls

  • Arts
  • Monday, 02 Sep 2019

Collectors are willing to pay premium prices to dress up their dolls, says Liang, who comes up with about five looks a month, each featuring 40 creations. — Photos: Shantommo

The attention to detail on the vibrant yellow pantsuit is impressive. Made from shantung silk, there’s not a single thread out of place, nor hem out of line. It certainly looks like an outfit you would see on high fashion runways.

Except that no living person can wear this well-constructed ensemble – it’s only meant for 12-inch dolls.

Doll haute couture brand Shantommo’s founder Ryan Liang is the man behind the exquisite sartorial creation. Since 2013, the 31-year-old has been creating beautiful clothes for collectible fashion figurines from Integrity Toys and selling them online.

The journey of the Pahang native as a designer for dolls began with the power of play when he was a kid. “I started playing with dolls when I was about five or six. I would dress them up and what not. But of course, you do get a lot of side stares. It’s not really common for boys to play with dolls,” he says.

A disheartened Liang stopped playing with them after getting mean comments from people. He only returned to the hobby as a young adult. In fact, the reason the former graphic designer started selling clothes for dolls was so he could make some money to expand his personal collection of figurines.

The materials that Liang uses in his designs include brocade, chiffon, leather and metallic fabric. Photo: Shantommo

Pretty passion

What started as a side business soon turned into a full-fledged career. Today, Liang has made quite a name for himself among doll collectors. Instagram photos of the dolls he styles with his clothes often rake in hundreds of likes. And a check on the brand’s website reveals that most of his creations are sold out.

The materials he works with include brocade, chiffon, leather and metallic fabric. Apart from outfits, he also does accessories. But designing miniature clothes is not without its own set of challenges.

“You have to consider the thickness of the fabric and the pattern scale. If the pattern is too big, it won’t look good on the doll,” he explains.

Some of the high fashion clothings created by Liang. Photo: Shantommo

Liang – who counts Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford as his inspirations – has a specific aesthetic he likes to see on the female form. High on that list is female empowerment.

Ryan Liang makes a living designing clothes and accessories for dolls. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

“Empowerment, to me, means you’re free, strong and able to stand your ground. It’s about making a point about your character and how you want to portray yourself to the world,” he says.

Diversity is also something that Liang wants to promote. He makes it a point to style and feature dolls of colour. At the same time, doing so allows him to expand his styling horizons.

“There are different aspects to consider when you are dressing dark or tanned skin dolls,” Liang says, noting that he takes into consideration colour hues that match respective skin tones.

Although he doesn’t have any formal training in fashion, Liang grew up in an environment where patterns and trends were quite prevalent in the house. “My mother is a tailor, so sewing and designing has always been a part of my life. It was quite natural for me to move on to what I’m doing now,” he shares.

If anything, Liang’s current vocation has managed to strengthen the bond between him and his mum. “My mother has always been supportive of what I do. I think a part of her feels proud too because in a way, I’m carrying on her legacy as a tailor. It’s something that we share together,” he says.

Niche crowd

Liang comes up with about five looks every month. For each look, he only creates 40 pieces. Although he calls it a “lucrative business”, Liang admits the prospects for growth are pretty grim in Malaysia.

“Out of 100 orders, only about two are from Malaysia. The biggest market for me is the US, followed by Europe,” Liang explains, adding that most of his clients are Caucasian men in their 30s and 40s.

Liang comes up with about five looks every month. For each look, he creates only 40 pieces. Photo: Shantommo

According to him, the doll collecting scene in the country is also not very exciting. It doesn’t help that conventional toys are no longer in vogue among the younger generation.

“Even commercial dolls like Barbie are beginning to lose their customers. The trend now is online games that you play on your phone,” he says.

But that niche demand helps to keep business afloat. Collectors are willing to pay premium prices to dress their dolls, says Liang, who charges between US$60 (RM253) and US$200 (RM842) for the clothes. Accessories are sold at about US$20 (RM82) per item.

A conundrum that Liang is facing is the dwindling local textile industry. “At first, it was easy to source for fabric here. But I notice that the textile industry in the country is closing down, and it’s becoming harder to source for materials here these days,” he says, adding that he has turned to the US and South Korea to purchase fabric.

Liang’s observation is warranted. The textile business in Malaysia, described by some experts as a sunset industry, lost its lustre decades ago following fierce competition from countries like China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

“There are also fewer people now who can produce the kind of quality sewing that the older generation of tailors is capable of. They might be good at sketches, but find pattern-making and sewing a challenge,” he says.

Besides designing stylish clothes for dolls, Liang also creates accessories such as bags and shoes. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

Making connections

It hasn’t been all doom and gloom, however. Shantommo’s strong social media presence has certainly helped with the brand’s growth, which happened organically through Instagram.

“Social media has opened many doors for me,” Liang says. More than just commercial benefits, it has also enabled him to reach out to other doll enthusiasts.

“I’ve actually built some great friendships too. When customers receive the outfits they order, they would dress up their dolls and then tag me in their posts. It’s fun seeing how they mix and match my designs with other clothes in their collection,” says Liang, who also participates in doll collectors conventions held abroad which allow him to connect with similar designers.

Moving forward, one does wonder if Liang would ever design clothes for humans. “I thought about it, but no. It’s because my mindset will always go to how I can scale things down,” he says, with a laugh.

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