Malaysia's Hottest Designers
From Plato to pet fish, the inspirations behind today's hottest Malaysian clothing lines swim deep. MARK LEAN spotlights a few covetable designers whose substance shines through their style.
Published on Mar 9, 2016
IN THE PAST FEW YEARS, Malaysia's fashion scene has taken a dramatic about-turn. A new generation of designers has jettisoned the wedding gowns, the cheongsams and the chintz in favor of their own evolving fashion narratives that are equal parts elegant and eclectic. Here, five designers you'll be hearing more of in the years to come.
Joe Chia's minimalist aesthetic is quickly making him a name to watch in the international fashion scene. Besides Kuala Lumpur, his clothes are stocked in Milan, London, Florence, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Los Angeles, New York and Shanghai. Chia's utilitarian take on fashion is a commentary on recent world events influenced by street style. So expect structured hooded tops, cropped jackets and sportswear-type pants that veer on the right side of casual. Chia says that his designs for men and women are imbued with his personal experiences: "the things we see and learn, including world happenings." Reflecting recent headlines, his Spring/Summer 2016 menswear collection grapples with weighty issues like terrorism and military control. Chia says that though he's inspired by military elements, the creative spirit behind his clothes denotes freedom. "It's the realization that violence doesn't solve issues," he says, "and that changes start with us." joechia.com.
A hooded top by Joe Chia. Courtesy of Joe Chia.
If Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg had a Malaysian love child, she would be fashion designer Alia Bastamam. In the five years since the Kuala Lumpur native launched her gilt-to-the-max eponymous label and the more street-inspired diffusion line Alia B., she has been working towards designs that complement a woman's sense of style, rather than overpower it. That said, Bastamam, who studied fashion locally at the Raffles College of Higher Education, is known for show-stopping, figure-hugging outfits that require larger-than-life personalities to do them justice. She says that her recent collections have been unrestrained exercises in glamour, composed of "rich fabrication, sequins, fine lace and hand-sewn embellishments" that easily would equip any society girl to take over the red carpet. But for her recent collection—a composite of form-accentuating lemon-yellow dresses, and flowing cream and white shifts—Bastamam is planning to pare down the ostentation and amp up the lightness and the playfulness that informed her first resort collection, back in 2011. "I want to bring back comfort for my clients," she says, "because that's why I entered this industry in the first place: to design and create pieces that I would want to wear myself." aliabastamam.com.
Alia Bastamam. Courtesy of Alia Bastamam.
Kuala Lumpur-based designer Tengku Syahmi is a little bit obsessed with his pet fish. The Siamese fighting fish, also known as betta fish, have splashed their way into his heart—and recent collection. "I love to see duels between two fighting fishes; when they get agitated, their fins flare out and it is a beautiful sight," says Syahmi. "The fins remind me of pleats!" Syahmi's women's label, Tsyahmi, is essentially a fashion think tank: the designer toys with and reimagines everyday elements, from tie-dye prints inspired by Jackson Pollock to fish fins to create exquisitely proportioned outfits. Syahmi, who won the Most Promising Designer Award at the Malaysian International Fashion Week in 2009, is flexing his creative muscles with the Betta collection, made up of poly stretch A-line palazzo-cut pants in monochromatic shades reflecting the structural themes of the fish, obi-inspired overcoats, and slip tops with statement sashes that accentuate one's back, all of which look stylishly on-point both by the pool or at a classy lunch. tsyahmi.com.
Tsyahmi's Betta collection. Courtesy of Tengku Syahmi.
In the world of designer Chan Man Chien, fashion is literally a canvas upon which she etches her seasonal artistic musings. Chan says her clothes are a synthesis of her family background—both her aunt and uncle are celebrated in the fine-art world—and her somewhat unconventional creative processes. Chan mines inspirations from diverse sources like Plato and Chinese calligraphy. "We should question the meaning behind every aspect that we've been fed," she says, "to seek truth, and to identify manipulative intentions." So it's scant surprise that her early 2016 collection dives headfirst into concepts like projected realities and mind manipulation: heavy ideas, no doubt, but through Chan's lens, these notions are not only palatable, but wearable. The outfits, made from Chan's current favorite material—honeycomb-weave silk, a type of silk that retains form and structure easily—are sure to turn heads. Her use of fabrics, prints and textures encompasses inventive techniques like matching sheer silks with brusque rubber-paint strokes, and culminate in creations that are thought-provoking showstoppers. manchien.com.
Artist and clothing designer Chan Man Chien. Courtesy of Man Chien.
Pearly Wong's designs are androgynous and arresting. A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, she set up her own label back in 2012 when she released a capsule collection of oversized, unisex, minimalist pieces with a measure of Japanese avant garde to the delight of fashion non-conformists. In the intervening years, her striking creations have taken on personalities of their own, and now are sold in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and at pop-up store Q206 in Berlin. During her Spring/Summer 2016 collection shown at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Berlin, Wong launched a sequence of utilitarian outfits in her signature black and white depicting her fascination with science fiction, coupled with a play on textures and jarring prints. pearlywong.co.