Renowned for clean cut fabrics and finishing, Malaysian-based brand Khoon Hooi is fast becoming a global go-to for new elegance. We spoke to Creative Director Lee Khoon Hooi, to find out what inspires him and how being an Asian-based designer influences both business and design.
TL: You launched the brand in 1999, how did you know it was evening wear you wanted to focus on?
KH: Over the years, out of all categories we explored, this was by far the best performing category for the business, our mid/floor length gowns continuously remained hero looks each season. Occasion wear is still quite a niche market, but we are sticking to what we know best – fashion forward, elegant looks at a great price-point.
Who or what is a source of inspiration to you?
My grandmother is my earliest influence and inspiration. I would watch with fascination as she cut the cloth for her Kebayas (a traditional maxi dress).
Your designs are instantly recognisable. How have you grown the brand so successfully through word-of- mouth and with such minimal marketing?
I really believe in customer relationships – keeping in touch and understanding their needs. To this day I still meet most if not all clients for our made to measure service and handle most fittings personally.
Was it always a dream to launch your own line and how did you know it was the right time?
I knew two things. Firstly, I wanted to work for myself and secondly, I believe that if you are passionate about something, you just have to try… otherwise you will never succeed.
Who were the first people to support you in the early days from the retailers to magazines and how was their support key?
ISETAN OF JAPAN offered me a retail space and the opportunity to create my own label in 1999. The current Editor-In-Chief of Pin Prestige Singapore/Malaysia, Grace JiaJing was a huge supporter of my work. Not to mention, my long- time stockists from Kuwait – Designer Lounge’s duo Bader/Lulwah has been purchasing wholesale since 2007.
Did you have a mentor in business and if so, what knowledge did they impart?
I never had a mentor but learned through trial and error, through experience.
Which Khoon Hooi gown has been the most successful to date across all markets?
Since introducing our in-season demi couture lines, we have found the response extremely encouraging. It allows for us to push the boundaries a little more.
As an Asian-based brand, how important is it for you to be globally recognised and how to you achieve this?
It is extremely important for us to always be reaching for a global audience and the best way to ensure that is to see and be seen. I am one of very few Asian brands to market during PFW and have been doing so since 2010, prior to this we showed at NYFW. Given that our key audience have a slightly more skewed agenda for dressing, its vital that we are able to meet the reps for international stockists face-to-face. We are also trying different approaches; as of October 2019, we partnered with Spring Global for awards season in LA and we have a London-based representative looking after PR and Sales.
How has the digital world help to build the success of your brand?
Well joining Instagram has been such a game changer for us in terms of with engaging potential customers and stockists on a global level. Viewers can approach us and the grid acts as our virtual showroom! We also found that direct customer orders via email are increasing, it made sense to launch our own E-Shop as of April 2019.
Since you launched the company, what to date has been the most challenging aspect you’ve had to overcome and how did you achieve that?
Production will always be a challenge. As a skilled tailors and seamstress tend to be a generation older and it is fast becoming a dying yet coveted skill. This being said we really want to change mindsets and have started partnering up with local design schools. We have regular interns to whom we offer training in business management, design and technical skills and to whom we have offered several permanent roles post-graduation.
With all the elements it takes to build a brand, what have you found is the secret to finding the ever-elusive lifestyle balance and do you ever disconnect?
I try to make sure to have a significant holiday abroad at least 3 times a year and I love to visit new locations each time. I get most inspired during holidays. This year it was Japan, Morocco, Turkey, Bangkok and Melbourne.
What do your first 30 mins look like in the morning/ do you have any rituals which set your day and the last 30 mins before bed?
The first thing I have to do in the morning is have a large glass of water to detox. And before I go to bed I like to read in my pyjamas.
What do you feel is real luxury to today’s global woman?
Self-love and self-care!
Do you notice a difference in buying habits and tastes across the globe and do you have global clients in unusual locations?
We notice a huge difference within the Middle East itself. In Dubai and Doha, they have a preference for Demi Couture. In Riyadh and Jeddah where it’s a little more conservative, they will opt for slightly longer hemlines. In Kuwait and Bahrain, we fin dour clients love to experiment with different silhouettes. We also have a wonderful client in mainland China who only orders her entire wardrobe of bespoke pieces in purple!
Which pieces are in your shopping bag on THE LIST?
The Desmond and Dempsey Byron-print matching pyjamas are delightful.