Trading on tradition

By Zieman

Fashion designer Salikin Sidek is regarded as the King of traditional Malaysian couture. The mere mention of his name implies exquisitely designed traditional clothes that are a symbol of luxury and class.

All his creations carry that exclusive, signature Salikin Sidek’s look, which include expertly cut, tailored baju kurung, kebaya and baju Kedah (for men and women). Over the years, his creations have evolved and now feature fashionable new lines.

It is no surprise that Salikin is hailed as one of the first Malaysian designers to bring Malaysian ethnic fashion to the world. He has introduced his collections far and wide and was featured on CNN’s fashion programme. His work is also a feature in numerous local and international design showcases.

“I always feel I have a duty to revitalise traditional clothes before it becomes a dying art. I have been very passionate about traditional clothing since I was 12.

“I pursued my dream because I feel I can contribute something to the fashion industry,” said the Johor-born fashion designer who was listed among the crème de la crème of Malaysian high-end luxury Malay wedding designers by a local magazine.

With the coming Hari Raya, it is no surprise that his expertise in traditional clothing is very much sought after. His customers generally seek his advice about what attire would best suit them.

“I have a mixed range of customers, from working middle-class to the wealthy. Their priorities are different and I try my best to accommodate them,” said the veteran designer who studied fashion technology in a local university.

Cultivating a well-known brand like “Salikin Sidek” on the shelves and rails at his two boutiques in Ampang Park, Kuala Lumpur and SACC Mall, Shah Alam is the realisation of a long-held dream for Salikin.

“Opening a boutique is a childhood dream for me. I never dared to share this with my mother because she was not encouraging. I had to shelve my ideas until much later in my life,” said Salikin, who started his range of classic Malay clothing and slowly added shoes, shawls, accessories, bags and baju Melayu for men over the years.

Many are drawn to his designs because it captures the couture of the Malay, Chinese, Indian traditional and contemporary wear.

He cleverly weaves traditional silhouettes with modern, elegant designs. His talent has earned him several design awards for his traditional and contemporary Malaysian wear, which has resulted in a growing number of fans around the world.

“I am grateful for all the accolades, but winning these awards have somewhat pressured me to come up with more quality and exclusive designs. It is not easy to live up to expectations,” said Salikin, who has been in the fashion industry for the last 25 years.

The small-framed designer took fashion seriously; right after his SPM results, he enrolled in a six-month menswear tailoring course at a youth centre in Johor Baru.

Besides menswear Salikin also designs clothes for women. This is an example of his take on baju kurong Pahang which has bell sleeves.
Besides menswear Salikin also designs clothes for women. This is an example of his take on baju kurong Pahang which has bell sleeves.

“I became more inspired after I saw a handicapped student sewing a beautiful dress. That caught my attention and I was determined to succeed,” said Salikin, who later took up a fashion design course at the Mara Skills Institute for two years.

Since he was from a poor family, Salikin knew he had to work harder.

In 1982, he came to Kuala Lumpur and worked at a boutique and was later offered to be a designer before relocating to Brunei to start his business in 1985.

“That was a valuable experience because I was able to make clothes for the royal family of Brunei,” said Salikin, who opened his first boutique in Subang in 1988 and was commissioned to design costumes for movies, theatres and local dramas.

By 2004, Salikin had already introduced his full women’s collection and was slowly developing his empire, which later expanded to include songket, weaved plaids, menswear, accessories, shawls and shoes.

His creation of baju kurung Pahang or baju kurung Riau Pahang whipped up a frenzy as the fashionable outfits featured flaired, bell-styled sleeves and loose, flattering skirts with sequins. His baju Kedah are stylishly created with a longer cutting style and a flap at the neck.

He is also famous for updating the look of the baju kurung teluk belanga and baju kurung cekak musang.

The teluk belanga style has no collar and the neckline is stitched in the tulang belut (eel’s spines or bones) style, which originated from Teluk Belanga, formerly the capital of Johor.

Baju kurung cekak musang have standing collars with holes for five buttons including two buttons for the collar.

Salikin’s immense knowledge and expertise about traditional attire is put to other uses as he also lectures on the subject at local universities and colleges. He has also been invited as a guest speaker at many overseas conventions.

“I am inspired by all traditional Malaysian ethnic couture of whatever form. I love to inject new ideas into traditional clothing to make it more appealing and attractive for today’s generation,” said the 50-year-old designer.

He is also considered an authority on kain songket and kain tenun, another subject that is close to his heart.

“Crafting the traditional kain tenun and songket is a long and tedious process. I like to choose the right thread or yarn so that by the end of the weaving process, I get a soft and smooth kain tenun.

“While the gold or silver threaded songket is unique, I always design mine to be different. Each sarong is weaved with 1,000 threads. These days, people prefer light, pastel shades and not so heavily designed songket,” said Salikin, who designs the batik motifs and gets the supply from Abas & Sal Batik in Sentul.

Many of his peers and regular customers are amazed by how forward-thinking Salikin is when it comes to his creations.

“I like to create something unique, a blend between traditional and contemporary without sacrificing the elements of tradition. It is not easy to get the younger generation to wear traditional clothing. I feel proud when my design comes across with a distinctive style because that is a “Salikin Sidek’ identity,” said the father of four children.

Besides being the authority on traditional clothing, Salikin has authored two best-selling books — Busana Pengantin Melayu Tradisional 2012 and Variasi Busana Tradisional, that have been reprinted three times and still remain in demand.

“The books are aimed for young designers who want to start a career in fashion design.

I felt compelled to write these books because there were no reference books of such nature. I am proud that I am able to share my knowledge on sketching, sewing, fabric-cutting and the right techniques of design with detailed graphics.

“A lot of research went into them because it took me years to verify certain facts. With the amount of detail I put into the books, you could regard them as reference books or encyclopaedia.

“I am in the midst of writing my third book, which should be out by end of this year,” he said.

Salikin, who also lectures on fashion at local universities, has currently set up his own fashion school, Sali Etc in Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur for school leavers and those interested to pursue a career in fashion.

“I conduct workshops, training and fashion courses for small groups of 15. I believe in giving hands-on training to these aspiring students,” said Salikin, who is inspired by the beauty of nature and art.

These days, Salikin gets satisfaction from watching his customers wearing his creations the “right’’ way.

“You must wear your traditional clothing the right way and with pride. I expect men to wear baju Melayu complete with sampin, a songkok and capal (sandals). You leave one of these out, it does not look appealing.

“Similarly, a woman wearing baju kurung and kebaya will look more attractive with the right accessories like the kerongsang and butang baju melayu (buttons) for the collar,” he added.

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