Shaleen Cheah is 'unapologetically fierce' when pursuing her goals

Today, Shaleen Cheah is known as a designer but Cheah has worn many hats in her lifetime – athlete, actress, banker, model, pageant contestant, she’s done it all.

In conjunction with International Women's Day, Life Inspired spoke to three women from different walks of life on their lifestyles and careers, and what it means to them to feel empowered, how they empower others around them, and how they feel they make a difference.

Shaleen Cheah, designer

The youngest of three, Cheah knew from an early age that she wanted to go places.

“I was very ambitious, ” says the 42-year-old mother of three. “You know, I had big dreams. I knew I wanted to do something amazing, something big.”

Today, she is known as a designer but Cheah has worn many hats in her lifetime – athlete, actress, banker, model, pageant contestant, she’s done it all.

As a teenager she was scouted at a sporting event and got selected to the Bukit Jalil Sports School on a full scholarship.

A national runner for the 400m sprint, she also landed modelling and acting jobs, even starring in two movies and emerging as first runner-up in the Miss Malaysia World pageant in 2000.

Upon graduating in business studies, she went on to do commercial banking and moved to London where she and her husband, Matthew Kanesh Nathan, 43, started a family.

From there, they moved to Dubai where they raised their three kids, Reo, Keara and Anya (now 12,10 and 8 years old) for 10 years.

It was in Dubai where Cheah began her foray into the fashion world.

“It all started with a jumpsuit. You know how you can never really find a jumpsuit that fits just right in stores?” says Shaleen. “So I started making clothes for myself, going back to, my mum being a tailor, I've always known how to sew and I started sewing again

“And people would just come up to me and ask me where my outfits were from and I started making clothes for people. But my big break came when I won the Dubai World Cup best dressed competition, wearing one of my creations.”

This launched her career as a designer, and she has never looked back. After building her business up from scratch in Dubai, the time came for Cheah and her family to move back to Malaysia.

Eighteen months after starting over in Kuala Lumpur, which involved getting her kids settled before anything else, the Shaleen Cheah label is seeing a lot of traction.

She has also been appointed as the deputy for global markets at the Malaysia Official Designers Association (MODA).

“It’s been a whirlwind since we returned back to Malaysia. It’s good to have come home after being away for the past 14 years but we are finally settled now and it’s full speed ahead! Bringing my fashion brand to KL has been exciting. There are upcoming collaborations and showcases throughout the year which I’m looking forward to. I’m eager to watch my brand grow and become a permanent figure in the Malaysian fashion scene.”

What inspires you, and how do you keep yourself motivated and passionate about your career?

I’m inspired by the people and places I travel to. I’m always sourcing fabrics whilst I’m on holiday! I’m fully aware of where my fabrics are from and the stories they weave. Each of my designs has a story to tell and I’m passionate about being the storyteller. My clients appreciate that they are not just purchasing a piece of garment rather they are a part of a beautiful cycle.

What aspects of the job do you find most rewarding, and what do you find most challenging?

Rewarding: The many women I have come to know and have become friends with. They inspire me with their stories and I in return learn so much through their experiences. In a way, doing what I do is therapeutic for me.

Challenging: Running a growing business whilst still wanting to be a hands on mum. It’s challenging when there are deadlines to meet especially if it eats into the weekends which is usually family time. As hectic as it can be, I’m always there for my three kids. They will always be my priority.

How do you relax? Also where are some of your favourite places to travel and why?

Doing sports relaxes me! I’m always up for a challenge! Last year I learned to ski, the year before, snow board. I’ve sky jumped, wake boarded and surfed. You won’t find me sunbathing quietly in a cabana when on holiday. I love seeking adventures when I travel.

Where are you at your happiest?

I’m happiest when I’m travelling with my family. My husband is an awesome holiday planner and my little ones are troopers! One of my favourite moments in life was when we tracked the ancient Mayan mountains to get to Machu Pichu in Peru. My youngest was five then! Every year we plan an epic family adventure holiday because we believe that these experiences are priceless. We are pushed and challenged outside of our comfort zone and together, we are stronger as a unit.

What is your personal style?

Mostly feminine, fun, flirty. Although I do love experimenting with different styles. Fashion is a form of expression and it should be fun! We women are so complex, why limit ourselves to one particular style?

On a personal note, what are the values and principles that matter to you in raising your family?

(from left) Hannah Lo, Datin Elaine Daly and Shaleen Cheah.(from left) Hannah Lo, Datin Elaine Daly and Shaleen Cheah.

I believe that when your core unit is strong, you are able to navigate life’s challenges with confidence and ease thus as parents, Matthew and I have instilled in Reo, Keara and Anya the importance of being there in support of one another. To be present, have fun and give a 110% in anything you do.

What do you think has been an important step forward for women in recent years?

Women empowerment should not be seen as an add on to development, rather it is the core of development for rising nations. There has been a lot of progress in recent years and globally we are seeing a rise of independent, confident, successful women ready to take on the world. There are so many inspiring astute female mentors to look up to these days!

How do you actively, in your daily life, challenge stereotypes, fight biases and celebrate women’s achievements?

I’m unapologetically fierce in the pursuit of my goals. Life is too short to be concerned with stereotypes. I never limit myself to what my aspirations are. You don’t have to dress a certain way just because you’re a mum, you do not need to behave a certain way just because you’re at a certain age. Push your boundaries and set yourself life goals because YOU want them not because society deems it to be.

In your line of work, how do you feel you inspire and empower the women around you?

Part of why I love my job so much is the ability to give someone that little extra confidence needed. No matter how amazing you look, without confidence nothing feels right. And so I’m in a position to encourage them to feel good about themselves and it makes a world of difference!

I also like challenging my clients to take little steps out of their comfort zone and try new styles and designs. I have a client who was adamant that she wouldn’t look good in florals and hates pink. Turns out, she now loves florals and wears pink all the time!

Photographer’s assistant: Ares Chan
Hair and makeup: Anita Tang and Yunn G from A Cut Above

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