My fashion heroes

I WAS born into a family of tailors and over the years, I have learnt a lot from my mum, friends and customers. Till today, I continue to learn new things about fashion from various people I look up to and admire.

When I was a young girl, I literally lived at my mother’s shop on weekends and during the school holidays, I worked at the production house and served customers at the front desk.

My dad bought his first fabric-pleating machine and all his children were trained personally by him to use it, standing for over 10 hours at a time by this contraption. We were the first and remain the only factory today that provides pleating services in Malaysia.

Customers kept streaming into our shop, bringing with them their fabrics. Our customers ranged from tailors to designers and even their assistants, many of whom have become famous designers themselves.

Gillian Hung, better known as “Mama G” and who is also the president of MODA (Malaysia Official Designers’ Association), has often reminded me of our first meeting over two decades ago.

I was still wearing a school uniform, working behind my father’s machine, and I would rush to make sure her fabrics were finished first.

How time flies! About nine years after our first encounter, she was a judge at a Young Designers Competition organised by MODA in which I participated. Since then, she has guided me in various competitions.

My first thought when I saw her was: “Wow, I love her hair!”

To date, she still rocks the most adventurous hairdos.

Aside from her bold hairstyle choices, she is also the most loyal and responsible person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting in the industry. Whether it is work, the association, her family or friends – you can always count on her.

Next on my list of idols has to be Sonny San or, as I call him, “Dai Ko” (meaning big brother) – the man behind Eclipse.

He has never been stingy with advice, and is always there to share and give, no matter the circumstances. I have learnt quite a lot from him, especially about trade fairs.

He has also taught me that sharing is important in the industry. In my eyes, he is the best example of a successful and highly- respected designer.

Next is Victor Goh, who is probably the most talented stylist in town, at least to me.

He is the one person I trust explicitly when it comes to styling shoots. I needn’t say anything to him as he has an uncanny ability to bring out the best in every collection. He might not be the easiest person to work with, but he definitely knows what he is doing, and that is the most important thing for me in a stylist.

The same can be said of Lois Lee, one of the best hairstylists I have worked with.

Just like Victor, you will never be disappointed with Lois’ work. He is able to work magic using his scissors and fingers to create fantastic hairstyles for my models.

I often wonder what I’d do without him; I can’t even get my own curly hair right! He has been curling my hair forever, and the curls last for a very long time. It’s even been said (jokingly, of course) that he can’t be a good businessman as his perms always last such a long time!

I think Malaysia has many talented couturiers. I used to know Richard Ong, a respected fashion designer in the 1980s whose white hair inspired the name “Bak Tao Lo”. His work is similar to John Galliano’s Asia-inspired collection.

Another very talented man is Alvin Tang, who used to run his business in Sungei Wang Plaza, Kuala Lumpur.

I once visited him to send him his pleated fabrics, and discovered many embroiderers and beading masters deep in concentration at his boutique. Being able to watch them was an amazing experience; I could have stood there forever … and most of them were men!

I met Andrew Gan at MODA when I became a member in 1995 after winning the MODA Young Designer Award.

I went to his boutique in Concorde Hotel, KL, which was bursting with breathtaking designs. It made me wish that I could own a gorgeous boutique like that one day.

One of his staff members, Wee Chee (now a well-known stylist in Malaysia), told me that they had spent three months beading a wedding dress and it still wasn’t completed. What painstaking commitment!

From that day onwards, I aspired to be as patient as they were and to keep such skills alive.

There are just too many people I would love to talk about; perhaps one day I will dedicate a fashion museum in their honour.

My museum will house works from fashion designers to hairstylists, make-up artists, designers of shoes and bags, backstage managers and fashion event organisers … basically, everyone involved in fashion!

Hopefully, it will inspire aspiring designers by exposing them to the best of the best in Malaysian fashion.

As this is the month of Independence, I would like to salute all our amazing Malaysians and wish everyone, and Malaysia itself, a very happy Merdeka.

Mel’s Place is a fortnightly column by Melinda Looi for The Star newspaper.

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