Although a young country, Malaysia continues to be ranked highly as one of Southeast Asia’s top tourist destinations. With a strong local culture, one-of-a-kind cuisine and a melting pot of religions and ethnicities pulled from around the world, this small peninsula has demonstrated time and time again that it is a global player; but what about its fashion scene?

Rich with Muslim influence and unique in its Malay heritage, Malaysian fashion has a lot to say about where it came from – and where it’s going. From the capital of Kuala Lumpur to the runways of New York City, several Malaysian-born designers have been breaking international news lately, including Han Chong and his label Self-Portrait presenting their Fall/Winter 2016 collection at New York Fashion Week and designer Moto Guo being shortlisted as a contender for the annual LVMH Prize.

From a local market to an emerging fashion capital, Malaysia has been capturing our attention for a while now. In the past we have interviewed designers Jonathan Liang and Tengku Syahmi, but now we’re reaching out to the curators of local taste themselves – the editors – to share a glimpse into this emerging market from the editor’s eye.

With an entirely unique blend of cultures and influences, Malaysia has a fresh vibe when it comes to its emerging fashion scene. Who better to ask about this growing fashion destination than magazine editors Haida Yusof, Ian Loh, Ira Roslan and Emma Chong Johnston?

Pearly Wong _ CAF

Haida Yusof
Fashion Stylist at Harper’s Bazaar MalaysiaEditor at

How would you describe the Malaysian fashion scene?
It’s in a repressive creative state, but slowly breaking out of that shell thanks to designers like Han Chong of Self-Portrait, Moto Guo and Pearly Wong. More young designers have embraced international aesthetics and are embedding it in their designs and codes of creativity. Veteran designers mostly stayed put to accommodate to the demands of the dominating, mostly Malay target market.

In what ways is it different than other fashion capitals?
We have lots of constraints and we, culturally, are groomed to be quite timid in expressing opinions and new ideas. However, we have loads of untapped resources and inspiration that has yet to be utilized by designers; from our rich multiverse of cultural heritage down to the immense scope of environmental factors and its colorful attributes.

Where do you see Malaysian fashion headed in the future?
I feel that if we do not change our archaic mindset, the creative pool in this country will remain stagnant – with many proceeding to move abroad to get their ideas heard and realized. Fashion needs to be placed on a pedestal among the high-flying ranks of other profit-making industries with government bodies and other funding entities stepping in to help build that repertoire.

How would you describe the Malaysian customer? What is he or she looking for in a designer?
Malaysia accounts for about 60% of Malays in it 27 million-population; the dominant market demands for clothes that are more constructed towards conservatism ideals; as majority are Muslims. Modest wear is thriving in Malaysia, with celebrities even resorting to market their transition to a hijab with numerous selling collaterals and publicity deals inked under these pretenses.

Ian Loh
Style Editor at Esquire Malaysia

From your experience, how would you describe the Malaysian fashion scene?
Womenswear is growing steadily, but the menswear scene is definitely booming. Veteran designers such as Bernard Chandran, Sonny San and Rizalman have all decided to venture into menswear this year. It speaks volumes, especially coming from these designers.

In what ways is it different than other fashion capitals?
Just like Malaysia itself, our fashion scene is as diversified as it is exciting. For example, you have Chinese designers referencing traditional Malay costumes or using Indian fabrics in their collections.

Why do you think Malaysia is a great place to be a designer?
Cost! The production cost is relatively cheap compared to major fashion cities. And our proximity to other Asian countries is another plus point.

How would you describe your role as an editor in the Malaysian “fashionscape”?
I don’t think that I have a specific role to play, but our fashion industry has a very tight-knit relationship and a strong support system. As cliché as it sounds, it is like a big family. Everyone, whether they’re fashion designers, editors, PRs or really anyone in this industry, encourages one another, and the vibe is always positive.

Ira Roslan
Fashion Editor at Cleo Malaysia

How would you describe the Malaysian fashion scene?
It’s definitely on the rise, especially with designers appearing in international trade shows and emerging regionally as well. I think the Malaysian fashion scene is growing into its own. There’s a strong support of locally-designed brands, separated into a niche urban market and the mass market – either way we’re seeing growth.

In what ways is it different than other fashion capitals?
I think it has more of a varied audience here. Going back to what I mentioned before, there’s an urban market that is as equally strong as the mass market. We’re a Muslim country with diverse ethnicities, and I think that presents quite a challenge with designers who want to be relevant to both.

Where do you see Malaysian fashion headed in the future?
We’re emerging into other markets and it’s great. Mimpikita has opened shop in London, while Justin Chew and Joe Chia are hitting Hong Kong and trade shows in Milan. It’s exciting to think where we’ll be in the next five years!

Why do you think Malaysia is a great place to be a designer?

Are there any programs set up to promote local designers?
myCreative Ventures has a program called Fashion Pitch, who are loaning up to 2 million in Malaysian Ringgit to the best business pitch by a fashion designer.

Emma Chong Johnston
Managing Editor at ELLE Malaysia

How would you describe the Malaysian fashion scene?
It is still very young, but exciting. It’s only within the last few years that consumers have really started appreciating and supporting (with their wallets) young, local designers. I think the overall bias is still towards international designers and brands but we’re getting there: The rise of local and regional e-commerce platforms has really helped to improve the accessibility of Malaysian brands.

Which local designers stand out as leaders in the current market?
Alia Bastamam, Ezzati Amira, Cassey Gan, Nelissa Hilman, Jonathan Liang and Silas Liew – to name a few.

In what ways is it different than other fashion capitals?
The fashion scene is a lot smaller, and until recently it has been dominated by older brands, both international and local. Until Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week began in 2013, there wasn’t one cohesive platform for Malaysian designers to show their work. There also isn’t the sheer volume of voices that there is in other cities, but that is beginning to grow.

Where do you see Malaysian fashion headed in the future?
I’d like to see Malaysian labels become more widely available, both across the country (they’re now very concentrated in Kuala Lumpur) and around the region. In neighboring countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, there’s a great amount of pride in wearing local designs; I think we’re headed in that direction too, but we’re not there quite yet. I think the success of Malaysian designers overseas, like Jonathan Liang and Han Chong, demonstrates that we definitely have the talent; we just need the infrastructure to support it.

Originally published by Creative Artists Foundation on March 17, 2016.

Photo: Pearly Wong S/S 2016 at Berlin Fashion Week, photographed by Xun Phil.

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