THE WORLD OF fashion is a vast wonderland sustained by passion, creativity and a wish to transcend normalcy. Fashion is best defined as apparel worn at a particular point in time by a group of people influenced by prejudices of style, individual taste and cultural evolution. Over the years, the world has seen the use of basic human necessities turn into an art form. Fashion capitals like London, Paris and New York are home to some of the largest fashion luxury houses such as Burberry, Dior and Michael Kors. The innovation, creativity and trend predictions of these industry giants have a significant influence on major high street brands like H&M and independent designers around the world.
Although the survival rate in the fashion industry can be brutal, with up to 60% of new ventures shutting down within four years, entry into the industry is relatively easy.1 Malaysia is no stranger on this stage, with legends like Jimmy Choo and rising stars like Motoguo who became the first Malaysian designer to be shortlisted for the LVMH Prize in 2016.2
Kang modelling Prison Break from her debut collection. Photo: Kang Pei Shern.
It is not unusual for many of these fashion labels to have come from humble beginnings. “There wasn’t really any inkling that I would end up where I am. It was more like a venture that became something very rewarding,” says Kang Pei Shern, founder of betterthanblouses, a homegrown fashion brand that specialises in creating versatile and light-weight batik blouses for every occasion. A former doctor, Kang took up sewing while on a career break in 2017; and with the help of her mother-in-law, started making blouses after coming across a stash of old batik sarongs during a bout of Marie Kondo-inspired downsizing.
“One fabric could make more than one blouse and I wasn’t going to wear ten blouses of the same design so that was when I started selling them at pop-up markets in Penang,” says Kang. Following positive reception of her blouses, Kang launched an online website for her brand and a brick-and-mortar store along Lebuh Carnarvon was set up last December. Barely a month after the website launch, betterthanblouses had sold nearly half of its entire debut collection. “I think it’s because batik is so well-received by everyone,” says Kang. “But I’m not niching myself to just batik. I want to be able to bring to the table a print-on-print concept in a more minimal and contemporary way.” In the future, Kang plans to work with her husband Thomas Powell, a freelance artist in Penang, to create prints unique to her brand.
The Swagger Salon
Shen shares that opening The Swagger Salon flagship store in Penang makes it more exclusive as unlike KL, it isn't just around the corner.
“I used to design my own shirts and caps,” says Koh Yung Shen, the founder of The Swagger Salon, famously known for its Lansi collection. “I would buy blank trucker caps and scribble the word Lansi on it. Then it occurred to me two years later that it would work as a clothing brand.” Founded in 2009, The Swagger Salon is now one of Malaysia’s leading streetwear brands, a fashion style that is gradually gaining nationwide prominence. “It’s a very attitude-driven brand designed around the theme of being confidently proud of who you are,” explains the designer-founder who prefers to go by Shen.
T-shirts form the brand’s staple and are meant to be statement pieces, he says. “Coming from a designer’s point of view, I could design a very beautiful graphic of something and it still wouldn’t sell as well as a T-shirt that says ‘I write cheques bigger than your ego’. My brand, Pestle & Mortar and Tarik Jeans – we were lucky enough to start at a time when a lot of local clothing brands were just emerging and support could be garnered for locally-designed apparel.” The Swagger Salon opened its flagship store on Jalan Gurdwara in 2014, with a back entrance leading straight into the heart of Hin Bus Depot.
PAYAHUI Mmmarien Don't Forget To Fly Collection Look 17. Photo: Pa Ya Hui.
In her minimalistic studio along Jalan Kampung Malabar, designer Pa Ya Hui is hard at work creating items for her eponymous label which was recently selected to be showcased at the upcoming Paris Fashion Week 2020. “My brand is inspired by women with unique characters,” says Pa, citing Chinese actress and singer Faye Wong as her first fashion inspiration. “She is quite the character!” Many of Pa’s designs do not conform to stereotypical feminine aesthetics, but instead act as visual representations of emotional states and character types. “I find lines, forms and structures very interesting; and I try to merge them with women’s bodies in a way that represents their character.”
Her most recent PAYAHUI collection Mmmarien Don’t Forget to Fly was inspired by Russian painter El Lissitzky, and was showcased at numerous fashion shows including Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur 2018 and Chongqing International Fashion Week 2018. To reach a wider commercial market, Pa recently launched the sub-brand Truth No Shame No Guilt that sells capsule collections for daily wear. Pa agrees that to be selected to showcase at Paris Fashion Week is a huge honour, “but actually getting to Paris entails a sizeable financial burden. It’s very expensive for us as an indie group and it’s very hard to find sponsorship, especially in Penang,” she laments.
Challenges being in Penang
Penang-based fashion brands often find themselves struggling in many ways. For one, this writer has personally found that consumers in Penang seem a lot less expressive with their fashion choices compared to our fellow KLites, for example. Curious for their opinions, I ask the three designers why that is so.
“I think it’s because a lot of people leave their hometowns to go to KL and they don’t have to come back home to their parents wearing something unacceptable,” Kang laughs, adding she has noticed that those of her designs which leave the midriff exposed sell better in KL than in Penang. “Maybe Penangites are a little bit more conservative?” she suggests. But perhaps, it may also be that fashion choices are rather limited in the small Penang market. Shen explains, “The size of Penang’s market could be causing brands to play it safe, and to avoid unsold surpluses, thus limiting the range of fashion styles that Penangites are exposed to. And because KL is the ‘place to be’ for Malaysian millennials, they naturally become the target group for a lot of businesses like mine.”
“People here don’t really appreciate aesthetics,” observes Pa, adding that though art and design are “present” in Penang, they appear to act more as novelties instead of an essential aspect of life and culture. This, she says, is evidenced by how our school curriculum places little emphasis on in-depth knowledge in art and design. “Sure, you learn how to draw things, but art is about the relationship between time and human history.” The lacklustre fashion scene in Penang is an equally deep-rooted issue which she admits not having a definitive answer to. “Maybe it’s because Penang is so small,” offers Shen. “Everyone knows everyone here as opposed to being in a big city where you’re meeting all these new people and nobody knows who you are or who you were.”
In response to how we might improve the situation in Penang, Pa suggests the solution may well lie in our education system, and in instilling a new level of understanding and appreciation for art in all its forms. She illustrates how desperately this needs to be done by pointing out that Penang no longer has an obvious culture. “The Baba Nyonya aesthetic perhaps comes close, but is quickly losing relevance among the young. If I were to design a collection based on Penang, I don’t even know where to start. The aesthetics of Penang are so obscure now. We have the potential to change, but in order to change, we need a lot of new blood, a lot of new energy and new leaders in art and design to push the field just a little bit further,” she says.
The A-Z of the Fashion Industry
At the elementary level, the fashion industry starts with designers who typically work with a team to sketch designs, draw patterns and produce samples provided by textile manufacturers.3 From there, assembly of the final collection is more often than not outsourced to manufacturers. Meanwhile, sales and marketing strategies for the new collection are worked out; this process involves multiple players including many creative actors such as advertising agencies, models, make-up artists, photographers, and event planners. Finally, the finished products end up in the hands of consumers through various retail channels from mass merchandisers to branded flagship stores.4
Rahula Loh is a psychology graduate from Upper Iowa University who picked up sewing after writing this article.