Rich silks laden with embroidery, tulle dresses meticulously sewn with sequins and beaded embellishment, and transformative looks steeped in showcasing the wearer’s intrinsic strength. In the thick of the pandemic in 2020, Melinda Looi banded together with other local designers to create face masks that sent a message. Dubbed #UnityMasks, they were made by Malaysians for Malaysians.
When Malaysia was hit by massive floods at the end of last year, Looi – the president of the Malaysian Official Designers Association (MODA) – made strides to appeal for aid to help flood victims. When the designer isn’t doing humanitarian work, she creates a world of escapism with her other-worldly, visceral pieces.
From teaming up with Disney to create a couture ensemble inspired by Disney heroines to most recently unveiling Aina Abdul’s dress made from hair (approximately 150 synthetic wigs) which made rounds on social media. BAZAAR speaks to the designer about her impeccable work, her inspirations, and her unreserved thoughts on the local fashion industry as we lead up to this year’s Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week.
Sculptured, bespoke gowns with other-worldly, imaginative designs – what inspires you and your creations?
Melinda Looi (ML): To be honest, anything and everything! Our surroundings, people, a movie (especially period films), an art piece, or even food too! I used to dream about my designs and being on stage with the collection and the making (of it) and I would wake up and draw them out. I think in recent years I have just been too caught up with many things in life and my inspirational dreams don’t happen as much… but it is coming!
Your bold and modern work inherently empowers the wearer, an unspoken language of strength – what is the message you aim to send through your clothes?
ML: We are all individuals that carry an identity and uniqueness. Same for clothes – each garment has its own voice and story. One must have confidence in themselves. Once you have it, you will be wearing the clothes and not the other way round. I think I am not only a designer but an artist. I treat every single design as my own art creation and make art using textile materials. People who love my creations are people who love art and crafts. We are collectors of our own art.
How does Malaysian culture factor into the Melinda Looi design aesthetic?
ML: I am just too proud and grateful to be born and raised Malaysian, inspiration is everywhere around us. It is wasted if we don’t use them. The blending of all into one makes for a good recipe and flavour. We have beautiful cultures and crafts so we must use them and try to create our own signatures.
What are you most excited about when preparing and showcasing your next collection?
ML: I am busy preparing for my own Melinda Looi Couture show in October, hence I will have to miss out on KL Fashion Week. However, I do wish Andrew Tan the very best and thank him for letting MODA be a part of his 10th anniversary.
Where do you see the future of Malaysian fashion heading?
ML: We have a lot of talented designers and I believe we can all work hand in hand to bring Malaysia into a better future of fashion. We need not promote Malaysia as a ‘duty-free’ country but promote Malaysian products and market ourselves with Malaysian-unique brands. See how Korea does it? We must learn from them. Even though I don’t quite watch Korean dramas, I can see how their products – from beauty to fashion – are booming like crazy through their promotion and marketing via the entertainment industry. Why can’t we do the same?
With numerous influencers creating their own start-up brands or “labels” do you think this detracts from the local fashion market?
ML: I think everyone has the freedom to create any products. I am proud to see these key opinion leaders (KOLs) doing so well and learning how to do so from each other. Treat them as a lesson and tell yourself you must also do your best to be better; have a dream and go for it! We are living in a very different world now. If you are unique and have unique products to offer everyone, do it and be who you are!
What needs to evolve in terms of creating a more dynamic fashion industry for Malaysia?
ML: We need government attention for this! We need their help to promote and market us as one of the important industries to grow! Fashion is not just about clothing anymore. It is a whole package of lifestyles. It is an element in everything we do, eat, act, and breathe in. I wish to do more to contribute back… and I will do my very best to do so.
How does Melinda Looi aim to change the local fashion landscape?
ML: I have always been doing my best to promote Malaysian products if I get a chance to showcase them abroad. I won’t say I can change the local fashion landscape, but if everyone is helping each other to do so, we can be stronger and change together. That’s why our tagline is “Malaysia Boleh” kan?