For a writer like me who loves to seek for inspirations outside of my two-dimensional world of words and sentences, fashion is a fascinating creature whose graphic presence constantly piques my curiosity. So I get excited, what with the evident boom of the local fashion scene.
A trawl through the local fashion publications proves to me a huge leap of faith as far as visionary clothes are concerned. Never before has the Malaysian fashion industry achieved such height with editorials and the styling of clothes, all of which are easily conceptualized thanks to the gradual influx of beautiful clothes made with love by modern designing talents such as Fairuz Ramdan, Ezzati Amira, Joe Chia and the likes.
And come Fashion Week, and the ambition of these modern designers is even more palpable. The clothes are all increasingly forward, visually compelling and breathtaking with each passing season in the fashion timeline.
The only thing that never fails to successfully kick my interest to the curb is the lack of actual Malaysians hired to help present and demonstrate these creations.
These days, be them in editorial spreads or runway shows, Caucasian models from other countries over the world seem to be the in-demand instrument with which designers showcase their clothes. Their increasing presence – made possible and evident by agencies such as Andrews Models – are seemingly ushering Malaysian models of various native backgrounds out of the spotlight.
Before I incur my chances of being lashed out at for this argument, allow me to say that I have nothing against these white, non-Malaysian models. They’re always welcomed to participate in our local fashion industry and add their own depth to it. What I am riled by is the fact that the Malaysian models are not as equally privileged to grace the media platforms and the runways with their presence.
A glimpse into fashion spreads in local magazines, even high-profile ones written in native Malay such as Glam, show that the aesthetics of models with white ethnicity are preferred when stylizing or curating a fashion theme and the series of clothes it consequently dictates.
The look books and fashion shows of many designers whose expertise range from seasonal attires to bridal wear are characterized to life by Caucasian figures. Even clothing lines aimed to cater to hijab wearers are many times presented by white female models.
It is hard to specifically name names or point certain events to which this “mode of presentation” is preferred, because the truth is, hope isn’t entirely gone for burgeoning Malaysian models such as Deanna Ibrahim, Tuti Noor, Sheena Liam and Rita Suraya to fill in the shoes of national supermodels the likes of Tengku Azura, Nasha Aziz and Irene Santiago. Occasionally, we would see them walking some KLFW shows and star in campaigns of niche, street wear brands. But that is as far as their exclusive ventures in fashion would go.
Besides the limited and much recycled options that these scarce Generation-Y models represent, I don’t see any incoming of more native talents that can inspire us to appreciate fashion in the first place. If the industry isn’t entirely dominated by this undying thirst for Caucasians, it’s also conquered by our country’s obsession with the Eurasian aesthetics – the closest we can ever be to having our nativity represented.
In our attempts to achieve international recognition for what we Malaysians would represent in fashion, we have forgotten the reason why we want it in the first place – to increase external awareness towards the people we are, and what our aesthetics, choices and artistic beliefs are as Malaysians.
The purpose of a model is to demonstrate how unique clothes are cultured in relation to the core interests and spatial perceptions of a targeted demography. If the aesthetics of the coat-hangers hired for the demonstration are nothing like what the melting pot in Malaysia looks like, then how are the people at the receiving end of the our fashion industry ever going to understand and relate to the wearable art created by their fellow countrymen?
This issue is not only Malaysia-bound. According to Daily Life’s Ruby Hamad, the international fashion industry still largely favors the aesthetics of white models over non-whites, as exemplified by the abundance of “whiteness” and exoticness of “other colors” on the runway during Fashion Weeks around the world. It’s not hard to comprehend how rampant it is in the media overall, too, as Vogue – arguably fashion’s voice of reason – has only featured 14 people of color on its cover during its entire 118-year-old existence.
Since the Malaysian fashion industry is working hard to obtain the acknowledgement of big-leaguers in the international fashion industry and follow their footsteps, it’s really not that hard to see where our belief in whiteness as the default standard stems from.
So as much as I love fashion and would love to learn more about it, I am always disheartened halfway through my journeys. Because when exposed to this preference of aesthetics in the media, the only question that forms in my mind as a reader is: are our biologically determined appearances as Malaysians not good enough for fashion?
We may have made a noticeable presence at the recent World Fashion Week in Paris, and it may have been our proudest moment in that we would pat ourselves in the back over and over in reverie. But until we admit that this issue is indeed a tabooed problem, we can’t proceed to find solutions and have the floor opened to more opportunities for and appreciation from our own people.
And as long as we’re afraid to admit this issue exists, we should all be ashamed for having had the audacity to pride our fashion industry as “Malaysian” in DNA.