International Women’s Day: Fashion designer Alia Bastamam on what it means to be a feminist
As one of the leading fashion designers in Malaysia, Alia Bastamam needs no introduction—her work and achievements so far speak for herself. 10 years ago, she started off with only bespoke and bridal designs before introducing her eponymous ready-to-wear line and in 2015, a diffusion label that offers more accessible RTW pieces, Alia B.. With timelessness in mind, scroll through the archives of her work and you'll notice the classic femininity the looks exude. But even though the versatility of designs is apparent, one thing's for sure: Alia creates pieces that she would want to wear herself. In conjunction with International Women's Day, the designer gave us more insight into being a female in the world of fashion designing, and what she hopes to see in the future.
What does International Women's Day mean to you?
I'm a feminist, not a radical. So I believe in equality between sexes, races, social standing and sexual orientation. To me, International Women's Day is a celebration of female equality—we should all lift our heads up, feel confident and be kind. Empowerment isn't tyranny and we're not out to kill off the male species, so spread love, be proud of our femininity and support each other as sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.
Who is your biggest female influence when it comes to fashion?
Diane Von Furstenberg and her empire have always made my eyes sparkle. A female designer with her own name on her own brand, and with that much perseverance in a male-dominated industry is something all designers should look up to. And as a plus, through the decades and finite trends, she has always kept to her taste and design aesthetic—that has always inspired me to always stick to my gut and design beliefs.
What do you think is the biggest issue women face today, in fashion, and in the workforce in general?
There are always talks about industries being male-dominated. Yes, it's true, but times are definitely changing and male-dominance is becoming an irrelevant issue. Women are holding improved influence in all areas—and this is very evident in the fashion industry. Our local fashion industry, I daresay is female-dominated and that's pretty amazing. From designers such as Ezzati Amira and Nurita Harith, entrepreneurs like Ung Yiu Lin and Vivy Yusof, it's so inspiring to see them doing what they love and handling their commitments gracefully.
Maria Grazia Chiuri and Clare Waight Keller are both the first woman to lead Dior and Givenchy in 69 and 66 years respectively. What are your thoughts about that?
Now it's about what we want—what women want. Comfort is key, and sexy is sophisticated. Not that we were never fans of Riccardo Tisci or Raf Simons, but it's so refreshing to see international collections for women by women.
Feminism has been one of the hottest topics in fashion in recent years. Do you consider yourself a feminist, and how do you translate that into your work?
Like I've said, I'm a feminist but not a radical and things do get very radical sometimes, no? I began my career making clothes I would want to wear myself, and that formula has resonated well with my clients and customers. Having an innate understanding of what women want to wear is how my feminism translates into my work.
Who is the Alia Bastamam woman?
She has a calmness within her and it shows on the outside, whether she is in a dreamy dress or a powerful pant look. She's got a slight air of masculinity, she isn't shy with her sexuality and sometimes she has her head in the clouds and that's okay.
How has your work evolved since you began your own label?
We began with the four of us—Shamin, Jimmy, Shah, and myself—and now our office and atelier have quadrupled. There are more division and more focus on the different sections such as design, marketing, operations and such. With that, I've found time to grasp on the business side of my label—managing my design and atelier teams, realising the growing market's demands and understanding my competitors among other things. There may be moments when I'm completely overwhelmed by the growth of this business since nine years ago, but I try to take things in stride and it's definitely more organised with a strong team with me.
What three skills do you think are essential to be a great leader?
Communication, understanding and assertiveness.
What advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career as a fashion designer?
Have a supportive team along with you, and not behind you. Don't be so hard on yourself and take time to breathe and listen to your heart.
What are some of your wishes for the future of fashion?
I want to see female designers, especially local female designers, take a bolder step in design. Don't be passive, don't make clothes from all your years of referencing collections made by male designers-not all women want to look like a corseted princess out of a fairytale. I hate to say it, but in fashion, you need some guts to make a mark and be remembered. Express what you feel and don't keep it inside—translate your thoughts and that will be something uniquely yours.