This story was first published in Prestige Malaysia June 2019 issue
It is always not what I wanted,” said Khoon Hooi with a laugh in response to a query directed at him regarding the first item he had sketched for the collection which he would showcase at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur. His above-board responsecame on the third day of the four-day-long fashion week, as we took a seat on bar stools at the darkened backstage area. Models, make-up artists and hairstylists strutted hurriedly past us, visibly thrilled by the prospect of another evening of runway shows scheduled to begin in another hour or so. His own runway show was widely anticipated and aptly arranged to coincide with the gala night in the final evening.It wouldn’t just be scrutinised by the inquisitive eyes of a usual front row fraught with fashion critics and style mavens seated upright and hundreds of camera lenses – some streaming live on Instagram – but also the fact that it was to be held during the gala.
For the showcase, he enlisted the fall/ winter 2019 collection, which previously had debuted during the Paris Fashion Week in early March. “I call this collection Renaissance – inspired by the paintings, colours and drapes from that era,” Khoon Hooi beamed, adding that fall/winter is typically heavier than spring/summer, hence in terms of fabrics, colours and silhouettes, Renaissance would be a good fit.
Nonetheless, he was quick to emphasise that garments from the collection weren’t a faithful re-creation of the philosophically distinctive period in Europe that shaped art and culture, but that he had distilled the nuances littered throughout creations from that period into a body of wearables that is stylistically contemporary and definitively Khoon Hooi, from aesthetics to craftsmanship.
“Colours were the main thing, because when I first saw the Renaissance paintings, it was the colours,” Khoon Hooi revealed the elements that kindled the inspiration behind the collection. Furthermore, he also studied the way the fabrics were draped on people – draping being one of his leitmotifs. However, there wasn’t one particular painting, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous yet hackneyed Mona Lisa or Paolo Veronese’s festive The Wedding Feast at Cana depicting a biblical wedding, that served as a footing for this collection. Instead, bedazzled by their collective liveliness and realism, he “took 10 to 15 paintings and joined them together”, whose motifs spanned angelic figures, warring states and nudity.
The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur marked the second edition in which the luxury carmaker organised its own fashion week in the capital, but Mercedes-Benz’s participation in fashion events dates back over 20 years. The two decades is also something in common shared by Khoon Hooi since establishing his own label in 1999.
“When I first started, the collection wasn’t so mature. I didn’t really understand what the market needed compared to what I know today,” he said earnestly of the “huge difference” between then and now. His professional development as a designer, he recounted, was a “day-to-day” process, through each collection he released. By way of exploration, gradually he deciphered manually what was suitable for current trends, what women were looking for. It is a process that has since been made easier with the advent of social media, along which comes the first-hand information being disseminated straight from the catwalk within minutes, as Khoon Hooi pointed out. “Especially with Malaysia, we aren’t the fashion city, so we always want to have references – not to copy but to serve as references.”
When asked what would be his advice to today’s young designers, his reply was “keep creating, keep being creative, design more, travel more”.
In these 20 years, what were some of the biggest changes you have seen?
I can see there are more and more young
designers coming up. That is a very healthy, positive development. I have always believed there is a need for Malaysian designs and everyone is so excited about the fashion industry. The local consumers are more accepting of local designers and our creations. That bodes well for the future.
If you were given an opportunity to design your own dream car, how would it look?
For me, it is always a two-seater because I will always be me. I feel a two-seater is more elegant, sporty. Due to our climate, definitely it will come with a roof. For upholstery, leather is the best because it is easier to take care of and comfortable. When you are seated, it feels luxurious.