The hand reaching for the swish deep-green jacket with embroidered lapel in the display window of Figure was not as youthful as one might expect.
“He was an older gentleman. I couldn’t believe it, but I guess it is true — Malaysian men are ready for this,” says Datuk Seri Bernard Chandran of his new ready-to-wear and bespoke menswear boutique.
Figure occupies a corner lot within Fahrenheit 88 shopping centre in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur. Chandran’s eponymous atelier is located on the same premises, a paradise of feminine sartorial fantasies. The new venture, while decidedly masculine, suggests a similar appreciation of colour, texture and sense of adventure.
“I had always imagined opening a store for men since a percentage of our designs every year caters to this segment. However, the team working on the clothes was our womenswear designers. I wanted an atelier dedicated entirely to men, from the tailoring to the customer experience,” continues the couturier.
The opportunity arose when T C Wong confided that his tailoring enterprise, Fashion Figure, was for sale. Since its establishment in Bukit Bintang in 1976, it had gained a reputation for the precise cut of its classic suits. Chandran used to marvel at the meticulous craftsmanship displayed in its windows, even approaching the owner to discuss the possibility of collaborations but the tailors were not as daring as he would have liked.
“They were used to doing the same thing year after year,” he says. “I thought that if I owned the business someday, I could turn their game around. Then Mr Wong mentioned that his son was not interested in the business and he was looking to sell. I took over the entire team. They work alongside the tailoring unit of atelier Bernard Chandran. It’s a marriage – our womenswear designers are excellent at embellishment and embroidery, and they assist with these in the men’s collections. I wanted to push the boundaries of Figure [he retained the original name as a tribute to its legacy] because, I tell you, men are ready for this, for print, for colour, for embellishment.”
Just a few months into the business and his prediction seems to have been proven accurate. Men of all demographics are entering the boutique, enticed by the striking designs and reassured by the friendly and expert service. Chandran foresaw that novices would be intimidated by the sheer range of choices before them and prioritised staff education in this respect.
“You know what I realised? Many men don’t dare walk into a store and try on five or 10 or more jackets to understand fit, silhouette, what suits them,” he says. “Few stores offer genuine guidance or honest feedback. They let you put on any jacket and someone says nice, nice, nice because they are trained to sell, sell, sell. But that’s not how it works. I want everyone to be comfortable here and know we will work closely with them to find something flattering. The interior of the store is very contemporary; it inspires confidence that everything here is done tastefully, masculine yet modern.”
Uniformity is to be abhorred, he continues, likening it to government office or bank dress codes from decades ago. Fashion should look and feel good, be explored and celebrated, designed for and catering to the individual. The jackets have full real lining and finishing, while the white shirts are embroidered with white motifs such as feathers. The clothes juxtapose textures that are rarely seen together, and use a little more colour and embellishment than customers might be used to. But whether the style is sporty or vintage, the overall aesthetic is classic.
“We don’t want to scare the men, you know. We don’t want them to see the name Bernard Chandran and think it’s going to be flamboyant and loud. These are classic clothes with a twist. Many men wouldn’t believe they could pull off a big lapel, a shorter hem or a slightly nipped-in waist. Our bowties are made of organza. When customers hear that, they immediately think feminine, but these are raw-cut and give the impression of wit and sex appeal. I just want them to give these a try, to experiment. We will gradually introduce bolder ideas as our customers grow alongside us, but for now, those looking to spice things up can engage our bespoke service to inject personality into their wardrobe.”
The wide range available on the racks hints at a broad palette of inspiration. “When I design womenswear, I think of my wife and the various stages of life she has gone through, or muses like Cate Blanchett. They don’t have to be conventionally beautiful, but their spirits are beautiful. For men, I think about what I would like to wear and then tone it down for a general audience. That realness comes from a mix of inspirations, from Ewan McGregor to local celebrities or clients. I’d look at a design and wonder how to tweak it according to a specific muse. And because we design for real people, a variety of proportions are considered, such as accommodating bigger waistlines or tummies.”
While full suits and accessories are available, the focus in these early days is on the perfect jacket. Collections consist of Figure Fashion for trendy designs, Vintage for original retro cuts and styles, Sports, Classic and Tradition. Satin hooks by the labels in the inner collar of the jackets are colour-coded to identify each collection for easy reference.
Chandran rattles off information with the ease of a veteran and the enthusiasm of an intern. It is this charming blend of expertise and passion that spurs him to constantly explore new horizons. After all, his foray into fashion at home was sparked by that same fire: Almost three decades ago, an Australian friend passing through Malaysia commented that the local women all dressed alike, wearing different prints, perhaps, but in similar outfits.
“I took that comment personally and was slightly offended. I returned from Paris, where I was studying fashion, in 1994 and started working on my first baju kurung collection. I used six or eight metres of fabric on kebayas to create skirts that swept the floor. People thought I was crazy but within just a few years, our customers’ tastes evolved and became bolder,” he says.
“I also launched the annual Petang Raya fashion show in 2006 after years of showing only at Fashion Weeks in Europe only to realise there was nothing local for Hari Raya, a season in which everyone looks forward to new clothes. We design dedicated collections for the event every year, and had a lot of fun introducing more volume, kebayas with pants, men pairing their samping, trousers and songkok with T-shirts. If you want people to appreciate culture in fashion, you need to contemporarise it.”
That same pragmatic reasoning resonates through much of his business and fashion philosophies, from pricing to styling. At Figure, for instance, suits start at RM2,500 and jackets with significant embroidery cost below RM10,000 to allow a wider audience to appreciate them. Thanks to the bespoke option, the total on the bill can rise astronomically, depending on how extravagant one feels. While quality and customisation come at a price, Chandran understands the economics of a wardrobe and is frank about practicality.
“Nobody wants to spend money on an outfit and wear it just a few times before it goes out of style,” he says. “The approach we adopted in womenswear and our Petang Raya collections also applies here: Take an outfit, break it down and restyle it to maximise the purchase. Or if it’s a single item, find ways to mix and match. Say, you bought a dinner suit. Pair the jacket with a nice T-shirt, jeans and good shoes. Rock that jacket — you paid, say, RM3,000 for it; don’t just wear it once a year. Rinse and repeat in different ways. If you invested in a pair of satin pants, wear it with a leather jacket for a youthful look for a cocktail event. If you get enough wear out of your clothes, you won’t feel bad about replacing them with more stylish or suitable choices down the road.”
While his clientele typically comprises the well-heeled, his aspirational brands do draw in curious passers-by. Chandran acknowledges they can be intimidated by the swanky interiors and price tags, and insists the staff treat everyone who walks in equally. An enthusiast today could be a customer tomorrow simply because his first encounter with the brand was a pleasant one, he says.
“Figure is quite unlike any menswear boutique out there at the moment, which is why it attracts attention. But believe me, in five years, this will be common. There is a need for everyone in the business to push boundaries and update their output. I want them to,” he affirms. “When we started Petang Raya, we ran it alone for six or seven years before others joined us. Now we have over 20 participating designers. This is good because it propels the market, galvanises big brands and independent labels alike to try new things. Some businesses work with the same suppliers on the same designs for years because they think it is too ma fan [troublesome in Cantonese] to innovate or collaborate. It’s easy for me now, with all our talent under the same roof, but you have to start by wanting to get out of the comfort zone. That drive is part of our DNA. Change keeps me youthful, keeps the industry alive. Figure isn’t a threat; it’s healthy competition.”
Business decisions aside, at the end of the day, it is still the thrill of fashion that makes him stay the course. “I like to look good; it makes me feel good, and vice versa. When you’re about to get married, you invest so much time and effort into looking your best for this one-time affair. And it feels wonderful, you know? Why can’t you have that wedding-day feeling every day? I wake up and host my own coronation every single morning. I say coronation because I put on jewellery, a nice outfit, good shoes. I make an occasion out of it. When I feel good and look good, I’m preparing to have a good day.”
This article first appeared on April 20, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.