How to run a fashion business, according to young Malaysian designers

How to run a fashion business, according to young Malaysian designers

Fashion 101

Text: Kelly Lim

Image: Azura Lovisa
Image: The L/R Label
Image: Instagram

Do you have what it takes to start your own fashion brand?

If you're looking to get your stiletto-clad foot in the door of fashion, what better way than to glean firsthand knowledge from the current generation of young, emerging designers?

Navigating the current fashion landscape is no easy feat due to the winds of change brought about by technological innovation and the need for sustainability, let alone the impact of the ongoing pandemic. We reached out to three Malaysian designers of different backgrounds and at different stages of their careers to share their journey, insights and realities of working in the industry, and what it takes to run a fashion business in 2021 (and beyond).

Azura Lovisa

Of Malay, Peranakan Chinese and Swedish heritage, the Umeå-born designer, artist and writer lived in Stockholm and Miami before moving to London to study Womenswear at Central Saint Martins, later gaining industry experience at Balenciaga and Peter Pilotto.

Azura's London-based eponymous slow fashion label focuses on mindful craftsmanship, using natural, handwoven textiles sourced directly from weavers and initiatives supporting craft centres in Southeast and South Asia to craft a narrative for the contemporary context. Fusing Southeast Asian aesthetic traditions with a Scandinavian design approach, her work explores hybridity and transcultural flows through fashion.

BURO: What sparked your decision to start your own brand and how did it happen?

Azura: "While studying at Central Saint Martins, I experienced a lack of nuanced exposure to cultures and aesthetics outside of the classical European canon that avoided exoticisation and superficiality. I felt an urgent need for richer narratives that attested to the fluidity and depth of aesthetic heritage from other parts of the world, and so in my graduate collection, I explored contemporary Orientalism and postcolonial identity, drawing inspiration from my own family archive of photos and garments from 1950’s-60’s Malaysia on the eve of independence from Britain. I was fascinated by the convergence of traditional Malaysian folk dress with the influence of European tailoring and style, which gave rise to hybrid fashions echoed across other former colonies around the world––surprising and original adaptations and evolutions born out of oppression and resistance.

"After graduating, I felt compelled to create a brand with hybridity at its core, simultaneously the lens and the condition being examined. Starting my own label seemed like the only way I could fully commit to an approach to design which focused on intentionally decentering dominant Western images and ideologies, and instead holding space specifically for the postcolonial and the exciting new forms and possibilities that occur at those junctions and seams of culture. I wanted to explore multicultural heritage as the starting point for a reevaluation of what fashion history and thus fashion futures could be."

"After graduating, I felt compelled to create a brand with hybridity at its core, simultaneously the lens and the condition being examined."

"It honestly happened little by little as I had no idea what I was doing and didn’t have much funding at the start, so I did everything on a very small scale and managed to put a small collection out once a year. I didn’t have a breakthrough moment or anything like that. I couldn’t afford PR or production so I was doing everything myself and focusing on trying to build up the brand little by little. Years later, it feels like, although I took my time, I have managed to create a distinct world with a visual language and density that is actually real, no longer just a vision."

BURO: Why did you decide to be based in London, and what's it like working there?

Azura: "I came to London to study at Central Saint Martins. After I graduated, I briefly relocated to New York City and then back to Miami, before realising I wasn’t quite done with London. It is so multicultural and has an energy all its own––a creative force unique to London. I finally felt like I was carving out a space for myself where I could create and exist, which was something that only came with time. It’s hard to explain but after a while, being here made sense. What’s happening in art, design, and music in London is truly special, and working here can be really exciting but by no means easy; the highs are high and the lows are low."

BURO: How important is an education in fashion for someone looking to get their start in the industry?

Azura: "I went the traditional school route, but I think it depends what part of the industry you’re trying to get into. I have seen many incredible creatives build their careers based on hard work, fresh ideas, and courage. In many ways, perhaps education gets in the way of things; it can make you feel like there’s a way things have to be done, with institutionalised behaviours and structures you are expected to follow, when often it’s those that don’t see these obstacles that rise to the top.

"That said, I think if you want to be a designer, an education in technique and fashion history is very useful. Many people forget that fashion design is a craft, and while it’s easy enough to draw a sketch and hand it off to a seamstress, understanding the construction techniques and attention to detail necessary to materialise ideas makes a deeply felt difference in the final outcome. But a formal education is not accessible to everyone, and in the end, it’s the desire to learn and grow that will open doors, not just which university you got your education."

BURO: Your past work experiences include Balenciaga and Peter Pilotto. What’s the most valuable thing that you’ve learned from working for these brands?

Azura: "Those were invaluable experiences for me as they demonstrated two very different design philosophies and ways of structuring and running a brand. They were on opposite sides of the spectrum: Balenciaga is a legendary Parisian design house, while the other is representative of the energy of London’s fashion scene. I think the biggest lesson was that the DNA of a brand must be consistent all the way through, from how the company is structured and what the work culture feels like, to how the brand nurtures close relationships with its clients, down to how ideas are explored and developed and finally communicated. Both Balenciaga and Peter Pilotto felt like themselves in every aspect and were reflected in every detail, and I’ve tried to stay true to that as I build my own brand."

BURO: What were your biggest challenges starting out?

Azura: "Like most small brands, funding and visibility are probably the biggest challenges. It was several long years of struggling to get press coverage, and that tends to be very discouraging in an industry where being seen makes all the difference. It was often difficult to find the willpower to keep going, but I’m glad I didn’t give up and I’m very fortunate that my family and friends always supported me. I have always stayed true to a very particular vision and brand philosophy that I sometimes feared was alienating potential clients and press. However, the political climate and general awareness about decolonisation and Eurocentricity have shifted a lot in just a few short years, to a point where I now feel that audiences are much more receptive to these conversations I’ve been trying to have through my work."

BURO: What role do you think social media plays in fashion today?

Azura: "While social media has had a positive impact on fashion in the sense that it has opened up the world, the unfortunate side effect is that fashion has lost some of what made it so interesting and reflective of the complexity of humanity as it has become ever more homogenised. It feels like there are less localised, culturally specific anomalies and subcultures because we see everything, all the time––there isn’t as much shade where unusual, surprising things can grow. I think social media has become too much, and among many other issues, it runs the risk of draining fashion of vitality and meaning."

BURO: Are there any parts of the fashion system and industry that you think does not make sense for young designers? Is there anything that you’d like to change?

Azura: "The fashion system as it currently exists is not very sustainable, and it is not reflective of the changing needs and circumstances of young people and the problems we face. The fashion industry at large often looks away from points of tension and denies its own complicity and entangled history with class, race, imperialism, violence, and power. I think younger generations must explore the potentials and problems of fashion as a cultural phenomenon. It's a system of cultural production and affirmation in a way that reveals the interconnected nature of fashion as a record of humanity, infinitely entangled in intersecting systems including but not limited to imperialism and globalisation, capitalism, the environment, ritual and spirituality, tradition vs. modernity, and the writing of history itself."

BURO: In your opinion, what are the fundamental values for a brand to have in this day and age?

Azura: "We need to approach sustainability in ways that consider the human and socio-political aspects and approach it from an anti-colonial perspective. If we are going to continue to source materials or labour from abroad, we need to shift towards ways of making that respect the traditions in tune to specific local environments that work from the inside to decrease reliance on foreign imports and toxic systems that deplete resources, throw ecologies into imbalance, and dislocate people from their land. The interconnectivity of communities and culture with the land is an integral part of regenerative and holistic care for the environment and I hope that brands and young designers see the urgency in realising this truth."

BURO: What advice do you have for someone out there looking to start their own business?

Azura: "Collaborate and build horizontally, not just vertically––worry less about climbing and more about forming bonds with peers; nurture a community that you can rise up together in. You will support each other as you grow. Make sure you know what your message and mission are, and make sure you believe them. Because you will spend a lot of time trying to exist in a world that could easily forget you or not see you at all, and persisting long enough that your brand takes root and grows requires unwavering conviction in your purpose."

Anisah Farid 

Kedah-born, Brighton-raised Anisah Farid cut her teeth at the London College of Fashion and through multiple work experiences with some of the industry's greatest including Julien Macdonald, Mary Katrantzou, Richard Quinn and Marc Jacobs. Though returning to Malaysia was not originally part of her plan, the designer made the most of her situation and found a place in the local industry as the Product Lead and Designer behind the ready-to-wear collections of dUCK, the local fashion, beauty and lifestyle brand founded by entrepreneur and influencer Vivy Yusof.

BURO: How did you get to where you are today?

Anisah: "Because I didn't come from an arts-stream background, I never took anything for granted during my degree in fashion. I really put in the work to make sure that I not only honed my techniques and skills in fashion, but also understood it deep enough so that I can innovate upon it. You can’t break the rules without knowing the rules inside out. These efforts were noticeable in many of my internships and I ended up working on a lot of shows because my skills were dependable. I gave my fullest at every single thing. Even if it's sewing just a button, I made sure it's the best damn button I’ve ever sewn! I started there once. Next thing I knew, I was sewing beads on Lizzo’s Met Gala Dress."

"You can't break the rules without knowing the rules inside out." 

"Aside from that, I was really good at blocking the negative noise. The journey to where I am today was not at all a harmonious one. Be fearless in the face of rejection. Have a strong ability to overcome self-doubt in an instant to rise up again and fully believe that every failure is part of a bigger picture. I can't get to C without going through A and B. 'A' might look like my tutor saying this is the ugliest thing he’s ever seen and 'B' might be someone saying I’ll never make it to New York––true story. I just never gave up and accepted that the more you push your potential, the more difficulties you face."

BURO: Why did you decide to return to Malaysia to pursue your fashion career?

Anisah: "To be honest, I had other plans but I was forced to let go of my dreams due to Covid-19 (for now, at least, as we never know what the future might bring!). However, even if not for that, I knew I would return to Malaysia at some point because the true purpose of me pursuing fashion was to return and contribute all my knowledge and skills to the people here. Giving back to Malaysia in hopes that the next generation can go even further than I could is actually the thing that gives all of my work meaning. My version of success today is making a difference in other people’s lives.

"To also mention, I am a person who can’t sit still and is quite driven––my body is tuned to the New York clock so I do love a good challenge and would never turn down an opportunity to learn something new. I love making the most of my time, which is even better when it’s something I’m passionate about. If I am set for something bigger, while holding onto sincere intentions in the work I do, I believe it will all fall into place when the time comes."

BURO: How important is an education in fashion for someone looking to get their start in the industry?

Anisah: "Aside from the excitement, glam, energy and creativity the fashion industry has to offer, it is also an intense, extremely competitive and saturated industry. It can make or break you. I personally believe it’s important to have some sort of education, whether formal or informal (apprenticeship), but how you learn doesn't really matter. A formal training does, however, put you one foot through the door and open up avenues of opportunity."

BURO: Your past work experiences span Marc Jacobs and Richard Quinn to Mary Katrantzou. What’s the most valuable thing that you’ve learned from working for each designer?

Anisah: "What I learnt from Richard Quinn and Mary Katrantzou was to not aim to be so polished and embrace a sense of freedom. They both allowed creative mistakes to happen and celebrated them rather than pushing for perfection. Accept that some of the greatest ideas come at the last minute and trust them. Quinn was the first designer whom I’ve worked with that trusted my creative instinct. On my first day, he noticed that I had good garment construction skills and asked me to do whatever I fancied with pleated fabrics. I draped dresses, pants, tops, and the next thing I knew, it was walking down the runway in front of the Queen of England."

"...the next thing I knew, it was walking down the runway in front of the Queen of England."

"Being around Marc Jacobs and his design team; the experience is hard to put to words and I learnt so much! Marc had a specific way of working, he was very visual and we had to make every idea visually available on a board somewhere. He would let an idea roam freely, exploring different possibilities. At the very end, he would then thread all the creative ideas and tie everything together. One thing Marc taught me was to know your history of fashion, subcultures, the evolution of style and iconic fashion influence. It will serve the purpose of either as a form of inspiration or to learn what not to do. This will act as your fashion compass."

BURO: What role do you think social media plays in fashion today?

Anisah: "In many ways, social media has democratised fashion. We celebrate more people of colour, different shapes and sizes, unique voices and made it more inclusive. Fashion exists for ALL of us to self-express, there's no one-size-fits-all approach. On the business side, social media has given brands an outlet to reach consumers on a much personal level and it has allowed a person to really feel like you are part of a community, which is really important if you’re looking to build a successful brand today."

BURO: Are there any parts of the fashion system and industry that you think does not make sense for young designers? 

Anisah: "I speak with the intention to build a better industry and learning from my personal experiences. I think the leaders of the field must play an important role to nurture and offer opportunities to leaders of tomorrow: the young designers, journalists, artists, stylists, etc. We need the industry to grow and to do that. We must shift the mindset that it's not about if we let more designers in, we’re taking a smaller piece of the pie. Rather, it's about the pie getting even bigger for all of us to be included. I would also wish for the industry to further encourage newcomers and welcome new ways of working to have more collaborations and diverse conversations. I do see this improving over the years, so I'm hoping for a culture shift in the near future."

BURO: In your opinion, what are the fundamental values for a brand to have in this day and age?

Anisah: "What I currently practise is to always keep close to the brand DNA but leave some room of freedom for you to explore. Make sure you offer a voice that is genuine and consistent, whether it’s something global like saving the environment or something specific like designing clothes that fit every body shape."

BURO: What advice do you have for someone out there looking to start their own business?

Anisah: "Keep reminding yourself why you are starting. The further you progress, it can be difficult to remember the 'why'. When you forget that, work becomes less motivating and you can become stagnant in reaching whatever goals you initially had starting out. When describing your work or product to people, try setting up the problem you were trying to solve, and then describe how your design solution solves that problem. The best design work is not only compelling visually and emotionally, but actually solves a business/design objective.

"Lastly, reach out. Get to know people in the industry who are already doing things. Try not to see other people as competition, but rather as a part of a community that we want to grow together. It’s all shine theory. If I shine, you shine and there’s so much room for all of us to grow and succeed at the same time."

Manisha Rose 

The youngest of the bunch and newest to the scene, Manisha Rose launched her sustainability-focused, unisex brand L/R earlier this year with no formal education nor experience in fashion design. Upon graduating from high school, the model-turned-designer took two years off to intern and model before deciding to venture into creating her own clothing line, bridging consumer transparency with brand ethics to deliver sophisticated staples that will fold seamlessly into "forever wardrobes".

BURO: What sparked your decision to start your own brand and how did it happen?

Manisha: "Ever since I was little, I always knew what I wanted to do: design and sing, so starting my own brand felt like a no-brainer. In 2018, my best friend at the time and I decided to work on my initial idea of L/R together as a joint venture. After over a year, we both decided it was best for me to take over. From then on, I put all of my hard work and passion into making sure I was able to create a brand that stood for the same values I do. Incorporating sustainability, ethical values, diversity and representation have always been extremely important."

BURO: What has it been like starting your own business right here in Malaysia?

Manisha: "It’s been inspiring, challenging and exciting all at once. L/R is a brand that stands for love and acceptance, regardless of your background. Before launching, I was slightly wary of how people would react to how open and progressive we are as a brand but I'm happy to say that our values have been appreciated. In terms of business, it’s more competitive now that there are so many up-and-coming brands with competitive selling points. Despite all of this, each brand is unique to its own. As long as you’ve got an amazing vision and find something that sets you apart, I believe it’ll eventually pay off."

BURO: In your opinion, how important is an education in fashion for someone looking to get their start in the industry?

Manisha: "I would say it isn’t completely necessary. I started off L/R with no experience as I did not attend college or further my studies. Fashion is based on so much of your own creativity, and in most cases, it doesn’t need to be taught. However, it can get pretty challenging when it comes to building your own brand and learning the business side of things. In this case, education would help but you can also learn so much from interacting with other people who are more educated than you on a certain topic. All in all, education is important but there’s nothing like getting out into the real world if you have the opportunity."

BURO: What sort of past work experiences have you had in the industry or outside of it? What’s the most valuable thing that you’ve learned from those experiences?

Manisha: "I used to do modelling in the past and I enjoyed that for a while. Apart from that, I did an internship at a local makeup brand as well. Because I already loved fashion, I was very excited to be around it in any shape or form. Modelling taught me so much about the industry, from how photoshoots work to self-confidence. It exposed me to so many different kinds of individuals. The most valuable thing I learned would be how to treat the people you’re working with. Treat those you interact with equally, humbly and kindly. One should almost never expect someone to work for free and always set a comfortable working atmosphere. As a business owner myself, I take these values very seriously and hope to be a brand that people enjoy working with."

BURO: What were your biggest challenges starting out?

Manisha: "L/R is still very new so we’re still figuring everything out as we go but I would say piecing everything together. So you have your designs—now what? Initially, I didn't know what I had to do with what I had. Finding out each next step felt like navigating my way through a new place without a map. Unexpected but you read signs along the way, take a few wrong turns and eventually, you get there. It was challenging to find a factory, choose fabrics, and make adjustments all on my own. I had to teach myself to be savvy with a lot of things like drawing, measuring, fitting and calculating. Owning a brand holds a lot of uncertainty, so you have to be ready for almost anything."

"Owning a brand holds a lot of uncertainty, so you have to be ready for almost anything."

BURO: What role do you think social media plays in fashion today?

Manisha: "Social media plays such a huge role in influencing trends and fashion consumption. With the rise of TikTok and a heavy emphasis on "aesthetics", overconsumption is more apparent within younger generations due to the constant changes which impact their styles. This is also good behaviour as sustainable and ethical fashion have been on the rise. Personally, I stopped shopping from most fashion companies due to what I learnt from social media and my own research. Depending on what kind of media you consume, you can either learn to be more mindful or fall victim to marketing that promotes buying trendy pieces that won’t last long."

BURO: Are there any parts of the fashion system and industry that you think does not make sense for young designers? Is there anything that you’d like to change?

Manisha: "I feel that it does not make sense for young designers to be overlooked or perceived as untrustworthy. It is important that we celebrate the young generation of new designers by supporting their visions. Making real changes like positive body image, uplifting messaging and incorporating sustainability. The industry has a lot to learn from them. I hope that by shining light on those who stand for the right causes and are making an impact in fashion, it pushes more people to take them seriously."

BURO: What are the fundamental values for a brand to have in the 21st century?

Manisha: "Definitely authenticity and ethicality. Having a brand that empowers and represents everyone is important as people are growing to embrace their real selves. It is also no longer necessary to be contributing to the production of clothing in sweatshops or unethical conditions. Rather than solely concentrating on profit gains and trends, it is just as, if not more, important that the individuals making our clothes are protected. I also think slow fashion is the way to go. Although it is important to have clothes that are affordable as we all know ethical fashion undeniably costs more, I would like to change consumer habits for those who can afford to spend a little more. Hopefully, more people will see the importance of buying key quality pieces."

BURO: What advice do you have for someone out there looking to start their own business?

Manisha: "Have a game plan but trust the process. It’s important that you’re sure about what you want. Start off with a vision board and put in the hard work from there. Do your research, ask like-minded individuals for advice if you’re able to or even attend seminars. It’s important that throughout all of this, you remain accepting of whatever’s to come your way. It’ll be a lot of ups and downs, some things won't go exactly as planned but trust that it’s all working out in your favour. Remember, change of plans and rejection is just redirection. You’ve got this!"

Read more fashion insiders stories here