After several years of designing for fashion brands, Kel Wen decided it was time to launch his own label. “I’ve always wanted to start out on my own, ever since college. But I feel that work experience is very important so that you know more about industry, and that’s how I learnt what works in Malaysia,” he says.
Wen, 24, began his business in April 2018, and while the focus was on his artistic brooches, he also had a fair few customers for his made-to-measure Baju Melayu for women.
Then, in March last year, a photo of Wen’s design of what he calls “baju oversize” went viral on Facebook, and the response was quite mixed. “There were people who were against it. The netizens who attacked the design are the ones who made it go viral. It was a lot of negative publicity, but I don’t take it as a bad thing because there are also people, especially in KL, who are okay with the design and who, in fact, support it,” he says. Not only was Wen receiving positive feedback from people all over the world, his designs also made it to a local news channel, where the presenter asked strangers what they thought.
“After it went viral, I realised there was a lot of potential in the market for traditional wear ... It proved to me how traditional wear is still so impactful in our society,” he adds. Wen’s fashion house, Behati (which means “blessed” in Malay), shifted its focus to building a ready-to-wear collection that embodied the brand’s aesthetic. “I’ve always been taught to be inspired by things outside of Malaysia. You know, be inspired by French stories and history. But when I study the costume history of Malaysia especially, it’s actually very interesting and there’s a lot of richness,” he explains.
Behati’s clothes are contemporary designs inspired by Malaysian heritage, and its first ready-to-wear collection was launched for Raya last year, featuring modern, oversized looks. Wen even showcased a new range of designs titled Behati Beach on the runway of KL Fashion Week, which also became an internet sensation. More recently, he launched Baju Cina 2020, and aims to also do a collection for Diwali this year. “Even for Chinese clothes, we wear it only for special ceremonies; it’s a very costume thing. My goal is to have people wear it as fashion,” he says.
Currently, Wen is a one-man show, designing his collection in his home-based studio and outsourcing the production. While he has had a few interns, he hopes to work with people who are on the same wavelength; he is actively looking for someone to focus on his marketing and sales.
In view of the coronavirus pandemic, the size of Behati’s recently launched Raya 2020 collection had to be reduced. “I was supposed to have 93 looks for men and women, and have an event to celebrate 2020. This was a big year, especially as it is a year after I went viral. I wanted to show more of what I mean by contemporary traditional wear. I decided to postpone it to next year … Behati usually uses quite stiff material, but this new collection is very easy and luxurious because of the fabric. There are styles that are tailored fit and also oversized. It is basically a very carefree collection that is unisex as well,” Wen explains.
Although Behati’s new collection had to be reduced by 60%, Wen has been insistent on lending a helping hand during this tumultuous time. Behati now sells face masks and all profits go to Covid-19 charities. Wen also launched Sehati Behati, a donation drive that aims to keep the spirit of Raya alive. The public is encouraged to donate preloved Raya clothes, which will be given to local orphanages and the homeless. In turn, they will receive a discount of RM25 on Behati’s Raya 2020 collection. Customers may also buy new clothes for the cause from Behati’s website at a 50% discount.
Behati’s fashion aims to promote the beauty of local traditional garments while giving them a hint of something new. “We should all be grateful to be blessed with art and culture that has been passed down. That is my definition of ‘Behati’... Behati’s core is traditional wear, Malaysian heritage that surrounds us and which I didn’t notice while I was growing up and studying fashion,” Tan says.
This article first appeared on May 11, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.