Friday, July 12, 2019

Tone down, take risks, support local designers, says couturier Bon Zainal

Fashion designer calls for local support for industry as well as an entrepreneurial spirit


THEY bask in the limelight, they shine, they are hailed by the media at runway shows. But what happens to our fashion designers when the spotlights are turned off and the cameras stop flashing? Are they actually pumping out clothes for end users?

The Malaysian Reserve sat down with acclaimed fashion designer, Bon Zainal Harun, who shared a few prevalent concerns in the industry outside the glitzy fashion shows.

“(On) the front end, which is designing and putting things on the runway, we are doing very well. But on the other hand, our designers lack entrepreneurship skills and the desire to invest in becoming their own businesspersons,” he said.

Too High on Glamour

Bon commended local fashion designers for their steady stream of creativity; however, they are hyper-fixated on the fame and glamour.

“I mean, that’s fine and all, because that is what fashion designing is all about, but in order to sell, you’ll need to be willing to pay tax for your own business,” he said, adding that an amount of RM3,000 that can be used to set up a Sdn Bhd company is small compared to the bigger picture of what a fashion designer can be.

“You (might) buy an iPhone with no hesitation with RM3,000, but if you just set up a Sdn Bhd company with that amount, you can receive grants and further funding from the government as well to expand to the overseas market,” he said.

He was blunt in noting that some designers lacked communication skills in English, which hamper their ability to widen their horizons.

“Fashion goes around the world, and the market is definitely much bigger overseas than here,” he said.

Local Production Not Ready

After bringing local fashion to international runways, however, further problems stand in the way, especially in the production process.

Bon said while the international market is ready for local fashion that incorporates its unique kain (textile) patterns like songket and batik, there is a lack of power to mass produce the designs.

“Parisians go crazy for our textiles, but unfortunately, we have quite (a) setback.

“A songket maker might need six months to complete a mass order. Additionally, raw materials are often outsourced, increasing costs,” he said.

When it comes to bulk purchases, some textile producers wind up purchasing from countries that can mass produce at lower prices like India or Pakistan.

“While it does reduce costs, we need to check back on our ecosystem. We call it Malaysian batik, but the raw materials are from China,” he said.

To support the heritage of local textiles, Bon opined that funds needed to be pumped in for factories because textile makers are mostly the elderly who handcraft their products, hindering mass production.

“It is seen as something that isn’t lucrative enough to be taken advantage of now, it is something that I think the government is turning a blind eye on.

“We need to innovate this industry so it will not die out,” he said.

‘Alah, local lah’

Bon brought up the issue of local consumers’ lack of support of local products sharply.

He said while international markets are hungry for more from our fashion industry, Malaysians look down on it.

“Malaysians often go ‘alah, local lah’ at our own products.

“In order to get us out there and bring us up, you have to support local fashion faces,” he said.

He expressed that although the local industry has great designs, consumers are often fixated on luxury international brands.

“On Instagram, I see youngsters posting about brands like Fendy, among others. Why don’t local brands ever get as much exposure?” he said.

He added that local designers are sought after during award seasons, but when it comes to purchasing, people would rather buy international products.

“People are more willing to purchase (from) Louis Vuitton, but when it comes to events and sponsorships, they look for us locals,” he said.

Fast Fashion

Although there are issues abound for the local industry, Bon is confident that it will always be present.

“Issues or not, and even with concerns, people will always wear clothes. People will not suddenly decide to get naked for a day,” he said.

He noted that, like everything else today, the advent of social media has changed the fashion scene tremendously. He reminisced how back in the early 90s, pictures from his runway shows came out much later, sometimes after a few months.

“Nowadays, it doesn’t take long. In fact, you immediately have pictures of your show circulating around and words go around fast, too. Fashion shows used to involve a smaller number of people,” he said.

He stressed that while fashion is a cycle, and people will always somehow return to older designs and incorporate some modernism to it, the most dynamic factor is how quickly one gets it out.

“Because of social media, showcases for new trends and designs would have to be made immediately, while previously you can take months to prepare for showcases,” he said.

However, the focus is always practicality.

“Fashion is fun, but if you want to have fun, you need funds,” he said.

Started from The Bottom, Now We’re Here

Bon remembered that when he was set to leave for Los Angeles to further his studies in fashion in 1985, some relatives questioned his talent and whether it would net him earnings.

“Back then, all my cousins pursued oil and gas engineering, but nowadays they look at me with respect. I’m proud of it. I have a nice television, nice house, nice car, and it feels good.

“I remembered how some aunts, who were lecturers, asked me: ‘Fashion? You can be successful with that?’.

“Nowadays, it’s ‘Bon this’ and ‘Bon that’,” he said.

In 1987, Bon obtained a degree and diploma in Fashion Merchandising from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Los Angeles, California. Prior to that, he graduated from the Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur.

Born in Bukit Besi, Terengganu, the menswear couturier dabbled in fashion when he was a young boy. It was reported that his late grandmother was a tailor, and he began modifying and designing football team kits in school.

He said the difference between designing clothes for men and women is that men’s fashion is centred around ego, while for women, it would be emotion.

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