The world of the runway and design atelier, illuminated by bright Klieg lights and glossy media coverage, has lost none of its desire or charm. But in a society that has irrevocably changed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Options speaks to five leading Malaysian designers to find out how things have, likewise, changed — for the work they do as well as the lives they lead.
Hafizi Radzi Woo + Izree Kai Haffiz
Creative director + brand strategic & managing director, Fiziwoo
The Fiziwoo label needs no introduction among style-savvy Malaysians. Established in 2009 by Hafizi Radzi Woo, who was joined two years later by Izree Kai Haffiz, the label has since grown from a two-man show into a fashion atelier to be reckoned with, comprising three main lines — Fiziwoo Artisanal, Fiziwoo Ready-To-Wear (RTW) and the diffusion line, Woofiziwoo.
Celebrated for their cutting-edge strategy and embellished approach to fashion, they are set to open a new bricks-and-mortar store, specialising in RTW, anytime now in KL East Mall, Kuala Lumpur. Speaking about the mad frenzy to adapt to the new normal brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, both heave a long, drawn-out sigh before Kai replies: “We had to change things so quickly and work hard and fast to produce things we had never done before.”
These “things” included fabric face masks, athleisure pieces like jogger pants, T-shirts and tie-dye hoodies, as well as hand-sanitising sprays, all marketed under the Woo Power label. “We went the opposite end of what Fiziwoo is normally known for, which is occasion wear,” laughs Kai, “but we had to adapt quickly, a move crucial for survival. We are happy now though to see events slowly returning to the scene and people wanting to spend on beautiful clothes that make them feel special once more.”
Though their DNA lies very much in bespoke designs that combine a touch of the regal with fine detailing and luxurious fabrics like Moroccan crepe silk and heavy organza, the designers, who are favoured by Malaysian high society for their ability to dress them like goddesses, say their personal look couldn’t be further from the gowns they create. “Comfort is key,” they chorus.
Both practically live in shorts, although Fizi prefers topping it with an oversized tee, and Kai, a sweater. “After living in lockdown, we decided to start getting active — at last! We began spinning in a bid to feel less lethargic as we both gained so much weight,” confesses Kai, who admitted to following all the culinary trends online, such as whipping up Dalgona coffees and even perfecting his chicken curry recipe, which is a firm favourite of Fizi’s.
One major change they have noticed in consumer behaviour, however, is that customers want designs that are simpler now, with emphasis on comfort as well as better value for money. “It makes sense, of course,” says Fizi. It is a shift the brand acknowledges, by directing much of its focus now to RTW. “Our goal is to have RTW contribute 80% to total revenue in due course,” says Kai.
Whatever the market dictates, no one can deny the immense pleasure derived from owning a flattering Fiziwoo creation. Is there one item they would recommend as an investment piece? A classic baju kurung, they answer without hesitation. “It is a staple all Malaysian women should have,” Kai insists. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a fancy one you can wear to a wedding or one that you wear to work. It is evergreen and so very Malaysian, kan?”
Datin Azila Caramella
Managing director, Caramel Fashion Scarves
Fashion has always been Datin Azila Caramella’s forte, long before she established Caramel Fashion Scarves in 2018, whose online success was followed by the opening of a standalone boutique at MyTown Shopping Centre in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, in 2019. Combining both style and savviness, the Universiti Teknologi Mara fashion graduate, a familiar face on the local social circuit, has always found joy in clothing and beautiful things. “Due to Covid-19, I’ve been sticking to easy comfortable, sporty looks. But now that things are picking up and events are slowly making a comeback, I am enjoying dressing up once again — but my way, of course.” ‘Her way’ would invariably mean a blazer, her preferred look when out and about for work, and always, always accented with a chic scarf.
“I consider scarves an essential accessory,” says Azila, who chose to temper her white-hot embellished Balmain jacket for the photo shoot with a soft floral scarf of her own design. “Scarves complete any look and transcend cultures and gender ... even men wear scarves. You can wear it around the neck, as a headscarf, tied around your bag or even around the waist. How you choose to style it is completely up to you. Also, for the executive, it offers the perfect finishing touch. It can keep you warm in a cold office or brighten up any meeting while adding a splash of colour.”
This love of the écharpe has led to the successful establishment of her business, the aforementioned Caramel Fashion Scarves, but Azila, ever enterprising, recently teamed up with local fashion doyenne Datuk Seri Dr Farah Khan of the Melium Group, to launch a limited edition of affordable scarves under the Caramel x FK Farah Khan label, targeted at the modern, modest woman and just in time for Hari Raya.
“I consider Farah an old friend and it has been a pleasure working with her on this,” Azila says. “This new range is for everybody. All the scarves are made using a lovely blend of silk-satin and are inspired by six beautiful gardens around the world, including Tuileries, named for the Jardins de Tuileries in Paris; La Mamounia and Majorelle for two stunning gardens in Marrakech, Morocco; and Katsura,” she says, the last referring to the celebrated Katsura Rikyu in Kyoto, one of the finest examples of Japanese architecture and garden design. “I last visited Morocco in 2018, having travelled there as part of a longer cruise holiday,” she sighs. “Now, due to the pandemic, the idea of being able to travel is still a faraway dream. So what do I do? I just put on one of these scarves and transport myself to these beautiful places by way of the collection,” she laughs.
Creative director, Khoon Hooi
You cannot claim to be a Malaysian fashionista if the name Khoon Hooi is unfamiliar to you. Ever since the diminutive but hugely talented designer established his eponymous label in 1999, a mere two years after bagging the top prize at the Asia Young Designer Awards in Japan, women, first in Malaysia and now across the world, have been treated to his unique interpretation of a luxurious yet quintessentially feminine style that revolves around the finest materials, voluminous silhouettes and arresting details.
Even Hollywood has fallen hard for Khoon Hooi’s flair, with actresses such as Zooey Deschanel, Camila Morrone and Ginnifer Goodwin wearing iconic gowns like the Constanza, Catalina and Fabiana to various pre-Covid red carpet events. Songbird Katy Perry famously made a splash in an off-the-shoulder yellow taffeta Mara long-column dress with a dramatic big bow and holographic crystal studs while on her 2019 Jingle Ball tour.
“The world has since changed,” the boyish-looking Khoon Hooi muses somewhat wistfully. “For a designer like me, one of the most affected areas is the purchase of fabric and materials. We can’t see or touch it, and everything has to be done by video calls, so it is hard to judge.” With gorgeous taffeta, dreamy tulle, ostrich feather trimmings, macramé lace and metallic floral brocade all par for the course for the designer, one can imagine his dilemma and frustration when wanting to conjure up couture creations. “Not that there have been many events to wear them too, either,” he says sardonically.
Never one to host or attend a pity party, he has instead thrown himself into adapting with the times. With his talent and great eye, it didn’t take long for him to launch the Khoon Hooi Lifestyle Collection. It offers a full array of beautiful, practical and, most importantly in these uncertain times, affordable items, which range from accessories made using upcycled fabrics (yoga bag, bucket hat, tote bag and fabric face mask) to basic unisex T-shirts made from quality mercerised cotton.
“I specialise in occasion wear but the pandemic has forced me to create things I would normally wear myself on a day-to-day basis,” grins the designer, who practically lives in white tee and black pants combos.
“The pandemic has definitely sucked all the fun out of living,” he goes on, “but I like to see that there is both a negative and positive aspect to the situation. For the first time, we have all had time to pause and reflect ... not merely chasing collection after collection. Certainly, I had to switch to a whole new way of thinking but it does have its merits. But even as we have all had to adapt, I am pleased to say that events — and wedding celebrations — are slowly, slowly making a comeback, which I am grateful for as I can then design what I really love to design once more.”
A statement with which all the society brides and swans out there would wholeheartedly concur, we are sure.
Datuk Seri Dr Farah Khan
President, Melium Group + creative director, Farah Khan
Datuk Seri Dr Farah Khan might be Singapore-born but, after decades of helming luxury retail company The Melium Group out of Malaysia’s capital and establishing her namesake fashion label (all beads, sequins and slinky Southeast Asian sensibilities, perfect in a black-tie environ or while sipping sundowners at Amankila, thank you very much), she deserves her (unchallenged) title as Kuala Lumpur’s first lady of fashion.
Melium celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2019, having weathered the ups and downs of economic cycles and a few recessions, but it is not a stretch to say the next decade could be its most challenging yet.
Covid-19 showed no sympathy for the retail sector but the indomitable Farah takes it all in her stride. “At the height of the pandemic, when we were all working from home, I practically lived in loungewear and athleisure,” she confesses. “My preferred WFH look has always been simple T-shirts paired with comfy, yet stylish, Alo Yoga sweats or Pucci silk-jersey trousers. Comfort was what we all needed then. But now that the MCO is over, I have returned to warrior mode! I am now all about Edward Achour, Givenchy and Max Mara jackets, blouses and suits. It’s my armour — it helps me drive the business and get on with things.”
Steering businesses from here on inevitably means harnessing the power of technology to reach consumers who may not wish to venture out as much anymore. “The most important thing in life is the ability to adapt; literally pivot in this case,” she stresses. “We have changed the way we run the business operationally, the way we deal with partners, principals and so on. On the digital front, we launched our e-commerce platform for our outlet business — meliumdesigneroutlet.com — and we are in the process of working on the ShopMelium.com platform that will service our downtown retail operations.”
When we met, Farah was in the middle of seeing to a million things: greeting her A-list clientele who descended in force upon M Pavilion to snap up ex-Ralph Lauren protégé and Cerruti & Cerruti and Tocca design director Samantha Sung’s dresses, all the while playing hostess to key designers who were present to support her pre-Ramadan in-boutique celebration and talk “the business of fashion” with a bevy of editors.
Dressed in a romantic white blouse, sharp black pants adorned with a few flounces for added drama and Roger Vivier, it’s clear, from her “armour”, that she intends to continue doing battle: to win over more fans to Melium’s unique approach to style and shopping, to maintain its position as one of the country’s top retailers no matter how tough the landscape, and to triumph over fashion apathy (or indeed aversion).
Farah has made it effortless, though. Her labels run the gamut, from affordable sweaters under the FK by Farah Khan label which bear jaunty messages like “Create Good Karma” and “No Standing, Only Dancing”, to iconic Gomminos by Tod’s and men’s polo shirts by Hackett London, assuring even the most finicky customer variety in all areas, from price to brand to design style. She does concede, however, that people may have adopted a more cautious stance post-pandemic. Never fazed, she dispenses this bit of advice: “If budget is an issue, simply invest thoughtfully in pieces that will go far in your wardrobe like a beautifully tailored jacket and a classic leather bag.” Classy, as always? There was never any doubt.
This article first appeared on Apr 19, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.