It’s the second day of 2018, and I find myself in Celest Thoi’s home, eating from a bag of salted egg yolk fish skins, ironically, talking about New Year’s resolutions. The society bridal designer had arrived from Singapore a couple of days ahead of schedule as her bride was having an “SOS situation”—she was getting married in two weeks but found herself inches smaller than her dress. “Does this happen a lot? Are bridal diets really that effective?” I ask; Celest laughs, “Yes, it is! From the sketching to the last fitting, the process of getting a bridal gown can take around two to three months. Brides-to-be are the best dieters, and the dresses really suffer for it.”
As a bridal couturier, Celest naturally has to be a romantic herself. She sees the act of marriage as a journey into the unknown, similar to her experience of moving back to Kuala Lumpur. Before meeting her husband, James Tee, Celest had envisioned a city-girl life in Melbourne; starting her sunny morning with the farm-to-fork Abacus Bar & Kitchen in South Yarra, walking down Flinders Lane, the ex-fashion, now-hipster hub, and hunting down the best produce at the bustling Prahran market to make her famous shepherd’s pie. “A fun night out begins with ‘experience dining’ at Attica Restaurant with Chef Ben Shewry, where each engaging and playful course highlights a native Australian ingredient. After that, it’s walking down the opium-den-inspired Golden Monkey, hidden away in Hardware Lane, adorned with ’80s Chinese vintage posters and old-school wicker lanterns,” she says, recalling her most nostalgic moments.
Her life then took a 180-degree turn when James proposed, and Celest found herself swapping her metropolitan lifestyle in Melbourne to settle down in Auckland instead. Extreme sports and outdoor activities were not to her taste, and soon the slower pace of life caught up with her. A career in fashion design had been brewing in her mind, and there was no better moment to take a courageous leap: she was going to start a new life in a new place. Fresh from her wedding, the new bride started taking night classes on fashion design and flower arrangement, determined in her quest of creating the dress for blushing brides. “Back then, I had a hard time finding a suitable design that flattered my petite frame. I just wanted to make dresses that people would say yes to!” she laughs.
Constructing feminine and sophisticated dresses for the modern, strong female on the daily, Celest’s craftsmanship is inspired by her favourite fashion houses such as Saint Laurent, Dior, and Valentino. “I love how Saint Laurent has toughened up the look of a feminine woman with chic, avant-garde designs, whereas in haute couture, the gowns from Dior and Valentino are just breathtaking, elegant, and ethereal.” Here, in Malaysia, Celest tries to offer more crucial elements of the haute couture process in her bespoke bridal services. “Getting the right fit for your bridal gown is most important to us, which is why I am looking to introduce the process of calico fitting, where a mock-up of the dress is made to ensure a perfect fit,” she describes.
It comes as no surprise that Celest has dressed some of Malaysia’s most prominent names, from Deborah Henry to Debbie Goh, to Deanna Yusoff and Tong Bing Yu. When Celest is not putting her finishing touches on the next happy bride’s wedding gown, she is sourcing for new fabrics, discovering unfamiliar techniques, and playing around with new ideas. Fabric districts in cities such as Seoul and Tokyo are her playground. “An idea can stem from a piece of fine art, a new material, or even a momentary glimpse of light and shadow. This sounds crazy, but when I touch unique pieces, they invoke a feeling that will, possibly, inspire the next big idea!” she muses. For example, the Celest Thoi x Sarakichi collection creatively used the traditional dyeing technique from an Edo Komon kimono fabric maker in Tokyo. “In kimono making, everything becomes a process,” she details. “The many steps in achieving a stunning piece of even-coloured kimono dates back to 150 years. Besides the silhouette, these details are imperative in bringing character to a gown, which I hope to make use of in my future collections.”
Celest’s attention to detail does not stop once she kicks off her heels and gets into mummy mode. Nestled in the lush grounds of Bukit Segar, Cheras, she has injected contemporary accents to complement the oriental theme of her home. In the living room, red-and-white patterned curtains are set against wooden panelling, while a bamboo lamp hovers over the grey sofa with black Chinese motifs made of rosewood. To glam it up, she has chosen a large carpet with a single pastel peony print.
As we weave our way through her spacious four-storey home, we pass by a majestic marble spiral staircase that looks like a proper workout on its own. Sensing our reservations, Celest makes a dash for the elevator and jokes, “I’ll see you up there!” Two long floors later, we find ourselves at her bedroom, where she spends most of her time sipping on chamomile tea, reading, and sketching. Here, she has chosen a modern black-and-white aesthetic. The walls are lined with monochrome stripes, adorned with past campaign shots and wedding photos. Next to her bed is a life-sized trunk filled with little trinkets, sky-high heels, panama hats of every style, and minimalist accessories. In her walk-in wardrobe hangs a modern white crystal chandelier that is sure to dazzle any guest. “This is my favourite part of the house as it reflects my personality. I like to envision everything in black and white, before adding a dash of colour to jazz it up,” she says.
When Celest is not playing fairy godmother to brides out there, she can be seen dressed casually in a loose shirtdress or boyfriend jeans with sneakers, baking with her two daughters, walking their golden retriever, Teddy, or painting on the green lawn outside her home. Today, a runaway bride in a cascading lace gown, as well as a series of little peonies, make up her white canvas. “My mom battled with cancer a couple of years back, so I am reminded to be faithful even with the smallest things,” she says. “Just like what Mother Teresa said, ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”