Kanoe provides bright, tropical garments perfectly suited to Malaysian weather

Its name is derived from Kan’s name as well as the word “canoe”.

Kan has been able to realise her dream of helping people through the production process (Photo: Patrick Goh/The Edge)

Noelle Kan’s passion for fashion led to her earning a degree in fashion design from Sydney, Australia, followed by a Masters in Fashion as Art from Italy. But after completing her education, she was unsure of what to focus on next, faced with an internal conflict between her love for fashion and her need to help people. “For a while, I thought that fashion was so superficial. I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this? I should do more with my life and help people in need’,” she says.
Kan decided to do missionary work, teaching children in the Philippines. After two years, she had to return to Malaysia for health reasons. In need of guidance, she attended a church event and sought advice from a pastor. “I told him that I studied fashion and had won some competitions, and after that, I taught and did missionary work. I said maybe I want to work with the church. But he said, ‘No, you’ve buried your talent too deep. It’s time for you to use it.’ So, in a way, it awakened something in me, like perhaps it was time for me to actually use whatever skills and natural talents I have.”
As she was looking for a job in fashion houses, she received another sign — at a talk by another pastor — that cemented her decision. “His topic for the day was that fashion was not vanity — it is glory. In a way, that completely changed my perspective. Flowers are glorious and in that same way, creation is glorious. Fashion can be used to reflect glory and beauty, so it’s not vanity,” says Kan.


Kanoe is a tropical label that uses natural fibres (Photo: Kanoe)

Her fashion label Kanoe was born in October 2016. Its name is derived from Kan’s name as well as the word “canoe”. “A canoe is like a little boat used for travelling and that’s me — a small person who likes to travel,” she explains.

It took her about six months to launch her first collection, which was created using fabrics she already had. “I had some nice striped linen fabrics that I bought before going to the Philippines. I contacted people who could sew, had a small collection done and then launched it,” she says. She does all the pattern making and sewing of the samples herself.

Kanoe is a tropical label that uses natural fibres. “I’m inspired by colour, culture and celebration, so everything is a bit more vibrant. I also like handmade details, like hand embroidery and handicrafts of old, but bring them into a modern context,” says Kan. She makes her new designs in small batches and only produces more if there is demand. This way, she is able to cater for her customers’ tastes and prevent wastage. She began by selling on Facebook while working on her website, but sales started to pick up only after she sold her products on consignment at resorts and boutiques such as Naiise Kuala Lumpur and ChinaHouse Penang.

More importantly, Kan has been able to realise her dream of helping people through the production process. “I work with refugees. Recently, a community that helps Afghan refugees contacted me and now I work with them. They know how to sew, so while they are here, the training centre teaches them and helps them to make a living.”

She has an assistant and a main tailor but outsour­ces most of the sewing to organisations such as the aforesaid group to help people earn a living.

Although Kan initially felt lost and unsure about her future, with Kanoe, she has managed to combine her passion for helping people with her natural talent in fashion. “I realise now that it’s a journey and you have to start somewhere. Like they say, you have to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down,” she says.

In future, Kan plans to release more vibrant designs and may have an open house for potential customers to come together, eat and try on her new designs.

This article first appeared on Sept 2, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.

Follow us on Instagram