Tending to the roots

HER steady fingers deftly weave a threaded needle on the collar of a green cotton baju Melayu.

The thread is wound in a braid underneath the cloth, but the outer stitchings now resemble an eel’s spine or “tulang belut”.

The tailor, fondly known as Kak Pah, is the only one skilled enough to carry out the unique tulang belut stitching, at least under the Omar Ali brand, the country’s leading Malay traditional wear company.

The skill showcased by Kak Pah is only part of the intricacy of the baju Melayu, the beauty of which, many say, lies in the design’s simplicity.

After hundreds of years, the essence of baju Melayu design remains true to its roots as it evolves to improve its practicality, fashion, fittings and comfort to fit our changing lifestyle.

At the forefront of preserving the baju Melayu’s heritage today is the Omar Ali company which is working towards carrying the legacy of its titular founder.

A decorated past

The bespoke Malay traditional wear business, which began in 1935, is currently run by Omar Ali’s daughter, Azizah Omar who says her father had learned tailoring from a Japanese seamstress in the Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman area before World War II.

“My father hailed from Padang, Sumatra. He came here (to Malaya) in the early 1920s. He found an apprenticeship with a Japanese seamstress who specialised in making ballroom gowns.

“He was her boutique assistant. But when the Japanese army came to invade Malaya, she left and handed over the business to my father. He then relocated the business at the Malay Bazaar.

“And that was when my father started the business (the Omar Ali brand),” says Azizah, who is now the company’s managing director.

As demands for ballroom gowns dwindled following the war, Omar decided to focus on something closer to his heart; the traditional wear of baju Melayu.

“My father is adept at tailoring various types of wear, for both men and women, including suits. He is a pioneer in the business. There were not many tailors at that time (let alone established ones).”

In 1972, he moved his shop to Wisma Yakin on Jalan Masjid India in the Kuala Lumpur city centre.

Azizah says that since it was uncommon for the baju Melayu to be available readily, he took his time to ensure the quality and comfort of each of his products.

“(From the first day Omar opened his first shop) he prioritised quality and the cutting made. The customers often praised his cuts. Even if they had ordered (another baju Melayu) with a different tailor, they often came back to him.”

But what made Omar Ali a household name in the industry was the Tunku Collar baju Melayu, made for the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.

“It was his (Tunku Abdul Rahman’s) wife who came to my father’s shop. Tunku Abdul Rahman had wanted his baju Melayu’s collar to resemble a cheongsam’s.

“My father then redesigned the typical five-buttoned (cekak musang) style to a three-buttoned collar, with a standing cheongsam-like collar. And until today, it is known as the Tunku Collar.”

Omar passed away in 1979.

Preserving the wear

According to historians, the baju Melayu goes back to the 15th century.


Today, Azizah says there are various styles of baju Melayu.

“Over the years, the fashion of baju Melayu changed. Now we have some with modern cuts (slimmer look), those with pesak (gussets), various collars for three to five-buttoned style, and the round neck tulang belut with a single button loop.

“The modern one usually incorporates a zipped pocket slit at the sides.”

Azizah points out that centuries ago, the baju Melayu was typically oversized even with the incorporation of gussets.

“Perhaps it was for comfort and breathability at that time. Today, the design has been modernised. Many of the designs no longer have the gussets, with most people opting for the slim-fit look.”

However, traditional designs are making a comeback.

“We have received many orders with the pesak and striped fabric. A classic look.”

The baju future

Now, the company’s flagship boutique is located in the affluent area of Bukit Tunku, which is tended by one of Omar’s grandsons, Sulaiman Idris.

The boutique is also known for its collaboration with the famed Italian luxury brand Loro Piana, which produces premium wool fabric.

Sulaiman, 28, who is also Omar Ali’s executive director, seeks to elevate the modern design of the baju Melayu through the use of various fabrics and stylings.

“(One) shouldn’t play around (the design) too much. When it comes to design, the only thing you can go further with is the pockets. You can opt for poket tebuk (single-welt pocket) or without pockets at all. You do not have to change the overall style of the baju Melayu.

Over the years, there have been attempts to modernise the baju Melayu through controversial concepts, including sheer fabrics and skin-tight fittings that induce cringe among onlookers.

Such designs are typically frowned upon by industry captains, who see themselves as custodians of the traditional wear.

“I disagree with that (outrageous designs), as it reflects the heritage of the baju Melayu.”

The only way to modernise the baju Melayu, is through the use of fabrics.

“That is what we have done here. (For example) we also use wool to create a baju Melayu. Some may be surprised by the use of wool. They will assume that it is not feasible due to the hot weather.

“But actually, there are wools made for summer. And wool is a light fabric. So when it is hot, the fabric expands.”

One of the bespoke looks Sulaiman is featuring for the modern baju Melayu, apart from the use of classic Terengganu songket samping or its Bruneian counterpart of geometric motifs, is pocket squares.

“As we do tailor suits here at Omar Ali, we try to incorporate the same bespoke styling for our baju Melayu. Hence, the pocket squares. A gentleman’s look.

“However, when I look at old pictures of my grandfather with Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn, they too, sport the pocket squares for their baju Melayu.”

This story was first published in the Sunday Star on March 31.

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baju melayu , omar ali , heritage


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