Options:Leading Malaysian fashion designers share how they adapted to the new normal

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.

Khoon Hooi
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.

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