When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it. – Paulo Coelho
Malaysian fashion designer Bernard Chandran believes that by focusing on whatever one is passionate about and pouring in all the effort one could muster, everything will somehow fall into place.
“Keep on dreaming and it will come true. When you put effort into it, people can feel that burning desire. Be innocent about it, be genuine about it everything will flow naturally,” he said.
That has been his approach to life. He dreamt big and pursued his dreams with gusto. At 16, he saw the picture of a beautiful model in a newspaper and declared: “I’m going to marry her!”. He got to meet her two years later “and I’ve never let her go since”, he shared.
When he left to Paris to further his studies in fashion, he dreamt that when he returned, the royalties will be wearing his clothes. “Today, they’ve been my clients for 18 years.” His list of celebrated clients include not just the royal families in the region, but also celebrities and artistes in the international entertainment industry, including Tori Amos, Estelle and Lady Gaga.
It had not always been easy sailing, but Chandran took it all in stride.
When he came back home in the early 1990s, despite the booming economy, Malaysia was not ready for fine luxury clothes. He was making beautiful clothes but they were not selling. He suffered for two years. He perceived then that there will always be demand for traditional wear and decided to revolutionise the traditional wear.
“I put lace on baju kurung – no one did then – and silk,” he said, adding that in this season’s Petang Raya collection, he even added matching boomer jackets to his baju Melayu! In fact, some models were sporting baseball caps with baju kurungs made of linen, “which were crumpled, but still looked trendy”.
“Whenever I do a presentation, some people think I’m mad. Even now, they’re not used to it. I always tell my clients: ‘I’m here to create something you don’t understand, but you’ll understand in two years’ time’,” he said.
And then there was the failure in running a store in London. “Some people say I sold the business; they’re just being polite. I closed it. In business, either you make it, or you don’t. That time, I didn’t make it,” he said, adding that closing the store and starting anew was “the best decision I’ve made”.
He then employed a team of Britons and brought them to KL to meet his team to enable them to understand his culture and background. That same season Bernard Chandran participated in its first London Fashion Week.
Getting a slot in London Fashion Week was very hard at the beginning, so Chandran started with a very small show. Attendance was weak for the first few seasons. “I never gave up. I put up a very good show each season because I enjoyed it and I had a very good team,” he said.
Though an accomplished international designer today, Chandran maintains there is no room for complacency. “It’s like racing in Formula One. You can’t stop or the other cars will overtake you. I continuously drive myself; I have to be open to criticisms.”
While Malaysia has no lack of creative minds, very few Malaysian fashion designers are established internationally. There are many reasons, the chief of which is perhaps complacency.
Chandran noted that it is much harder for Asian designers because of the lack of passion here among the support team compared with those in Europe. “They want to clock out at 5pm. In Europe, people go home at 3am to prepare for Fashion Week; they even sleep on the couch. This is passion.”
There is a general reluctance to get out of one’s comfort zone. “Most of us think that you just need to go to Europe, do one or two fashion shows or one exhibition or trade show and you can make a million dollars in orders or be instantly famous worldwide. This is not the case. Names like Prada took three generations. We have to start somewhere, and be consistent.”
Getting funding is a challenge. Private equity funds typically do not understand fashion and its long gestation; they would rather invest in other ventures, such as restaurants. Fashion education is also lacking in Malaysia. Europeans, meanwhile, are very supportive of their creative industries. “In Europe, big brands are investing in young designers, putting in the infrastructure to support them so that they can comfortably create,” he said.
What is Chandran’s advice for aspiring fashion designers eyeing the international scene?
“First, you must have a dream where and how far you want to go. If possible, have a mood board about your women, your style. You must have visual focus. Automatically, you’ll know when something is not right. Listen to your heart, rework and rework. Fortune and fame will come naturally.”
“Just presenting in London or Paris does not make one an international designer. There are so many designers not making money. This has nothing to do with ego. Fashion designing is one thing; bottomline is important too!”
“If you have a good product, find a good agent that represents your particular style don’t waste time with the jacks-of-all-trades. You must know yourself, what you sell and your price.”
“Always put yourself back to square one, especially when you’re in a creative team. Constantly reinvent yourselves. Otherwise, you might think yourself too good and you’re stuck. I’ve been in the business for 25 years and I still learn something every season.”
Creating conversations around Malaysians who have successfully gone global is brought to you by the Economic Transformation Programme.