Sandakan-born Brian Khoo shines with his whimsy-meets-glamour designs

The designer specialises in red carpet looks and made-to-order gowns.

The 33-year-old Khoo takes inspiration from the dernier cri of course (Photo: SooPhye)

There’s no denying the thrill derived from dressing up for a big-ticket occasion. After what seemed like an eternity encased in athleisure and ensconced at home, the jubilation at being allowed to shake one’s tail feather is a privilege not to be taken lightly anymore. Spending almost three years without primping or preening is alien for most of us, to say the least. Now that the tattered tees and jogger pants have been relegated once again to where they belong (in the pyjama zone of the cupboard), allow yourself to finally indulge in a spot of escapism and fantasy as cotton and flannel — finally — give way to organza and feathers.

The post-pandemic era — the new Roaring 20s, some call it — has propelled occasion wear back to the forefront of style. Also, as fashion continues to polarise, what with the high street and e-commerce giants becoming more mass market than ever, and the price of couture continuing to skyrocket, a new microcosm of designers who offer value and the undeniable appeal of made-to-order are stepping in to serve as a bridge between the two worlds.


Khoo specialises in wedding gowns (Photo: Brian Khoo)

Demi-couture is broadly defined as expertly crafted clothes that are made to order using fine, but not exorbitant, materials and workmanship. Even greater growth is predicted as the market increasingly veers towards slower fashion, a more conscious approach to individual style and dressing, and making a bolder personal statement through clothes.

In Malaysia, one of the go-to names is undeniably Brian Khoo. The Sandakan-born designer, 33, takes inspiration from the dernier cri of course, but also infuses each creation with his signature sense of dramatic whimsy. Malaysians would remember two of his most statement-making gowns, both as different as can be, but attention-arresting always. The first was the national costume he created for Miss Malaysia/Universe 2017 Samantha Katie James, a quirky “Nasi Lemak” creation that took over 400 hours to make and featured ivory silk (depicting the coconut rice), red crystals for the sambal and replete with banana leaf “wings”. Less wacky and infinitely more beautiful according to traditional evening wear codes was a bold orange corseted gown commissioned by entrepreneur and local style icon Marion Caunter, who wore it to Tatler Ball 2019. “These two are definitely my most memorable creations so far,” Khoo agrees.


The "Nasi Lemak" dress that took over 400 hours to make (Photo: Miss Malaysia/Universe 2017)

The Brian Khoo woman is someone strong and empowered. “She is her own boss,” he says, adding that it was his mother who inspired his creative journey. “Credit must go to her for getting me interested in fashion. As a child, I remember watching mum dress up, buy fabric to make clothes for us both … It was she who taught me sewing from the age of six. So it surprised her when she found out I displayed the same keenness to sew, design and create.”

The young Khoo soon discovered children can be cruel, though. He was bullied in college for daring to display an interest — and ambition — in fashion. “My classmates saw me as different and, therefore, an easy target to pick on. But I persevered and continued to embrace fashion. I expressed myself — my thoughts, vision and opinions — through what I wore. Also,” he adds philosophically, “things happen for a reason and I suppose it got me to where I am now.”

Full of resolve, Khoo chased his dreams by furthering his studies in Australia, graduating with a diploma in fashion from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “I was then torn between wanting to go to [the fashion capitals of] London, New York and Paris but, luckily, my RMIT lecturer persuaded me to choose Paris as he saw that I had the potential for couture.”

The City of Light proved more than welcoming. After Khoo graduated from Esmod France, he was gung-ho about starting his label yet sensible enough to know that firsthand experience was imperative. Having scored a few coveted internships, including at Christian Dior Couture (“It was an incredible experience working in the ateliers, seeing the clothes come to life and then watching the supermodels wear them on the runway,” he enthuses), he then set his sights on the Middle Kingdom, where he worked as a designer for a Chinese label before finally returning home to establish Brian Khoo in 2016.

Citing Thierry Mugler as his inspiration, Khoo says, “He had the freedom to create, express his emotions and tell stories through his collections, visuals and photography. Mugler’s creations spoke for themselves … they need not be described. He empowered women and made them feel strong and seductive throughout the 1980s. That is what I admired most about him.”


The bold orange corseted gown commissioned by entrepreneur and local style icon Marion Caunter (Photo: Brian Khoo)

Khoo has the ability to combine a sense of playfulness with drama through clothing.He modestly pins it down to his innate sense of curiosity. “My team and I love nothing more than being able to explore and work with different materials, although we have a deep love for crepe and satin due to the shine and the way they drape, which allows us to create new silhouettes. My current obsession, though, is jersey! It’s so pliable that it can be draped and gathered easily, but also has an amazing ability to hug the body, accentuating the female form in an incredible way.”

Future plans for the talented young man include setting up his ready-to-wear label, which he hopes to officially launch early next year. “It will be for both men and women, with some unisex pieces also. I would have loved to dress the late Princess Diana but, right now, my muses, my ideal women, always retain the same qualities: they are strong, independent and empowered … women like Beyoncé and Rihanna. Even as a child, I always dreamt of, one day, being able to dress Hollywood stars for the Oscars. It is still something I am slowly working towards.”

For others dreaming of a career in fashion, Khoo — who wants to establish his own fashion academy one day — has some advice to dispense: “Be prepared for a lot of hard work and you need dedication and patience. Be clear about what you want to achieve, understand your target audience and aim for it. There will also be a lot of ups and downs. Learn from mistakes in order to better yourself. Personally, I still have a lot more to learn and there is a lot more I want to achieve. If there is one thing life has taught me, it is that you will never be satisfied. I don’t think you can ever say you’ve ‘made it’. Every achievement just makes you want to do more and be better!”

Strong, independent and empowered indeed.

This article first appeared on Apr 10, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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