Khoon Hooi is no stranger to the fashion scene. The celebrated couturier began cultivating his first memories of fashion as a young kid, citing his grandmother as one of his greatest inspirations. The fashion stalwart has dedicated over two decades of his life to building his eponymous label and is still thirsting for more. As the fashion designer embraces the life post-pandemic, he continues to believe that loving what he does is the fuel he needs to be the greater force in fashion.
Khoon Hooi has a perpetual love for fashion. It is the bedrock of his lifetime career and his eponymous brand, which he has established for 20 years. A graduate of the Malaysian Institute of Art in 1993, Khoon Hooi has never stopped building his name in the fashion industry both locally and globally. He has captured multiple awards since he started and has been recognised as one of the most successful Malaysian fashion designers.
As a fashion designer and couturier, Khoon Hooi has accomplished so much in the last two decades. He has had amazing showcases, dressed almost every personality and celebrity in town, launched his first jewellery collection with Zcova in 2018, and even had his designed featured on Yuna’s first Vogue Singapore cover this year. His designs have been spotted on the red carpet of the 2020 Golden Globes, brought to life by actresses Karen Pittman and Ginnifer Goodwin.
He is also no stranger to Paris Fashion Week and various international trade shows — which explains his passion for travel. “I’ve missed travelling so much,” Khoon Hooi addresses. “For me, the best memory of my career is to meet a lot of industry people all over the world who are passionate about fashion. We share a common language and I enjoy every moment of getting to know them.”
In fact, meeting people is one way for Khoon Hooi to be inspired. He cites that everything around him — every person, every little thing, every colour and every moment — inspires the 49-year-old fashion designer. “When fashion is part of your life, it’s not a question anymore. It becomes air and water for me. Anything I see, touch, smell and breath becomes inspiration to me,” he adds.
Caring for People
Nespresso’s “Made with Care” campaign champions people first. Caring for farmers and the environment they live in becomes the catalyst for positive change which in turn results in high-quality coffee. This ethos is embedded through Nespresso’s value chain that is designed to ensure the finest quality while improving the livelihoods of farmers and protecting the environment, apparent in its commitment to reviving endangered coffees and communities with the Reviving Origins program. The sense of care is instilled in every detail behind Nespresso’s commitment to make every cup of Nespresso coffee carbon neutral by 2022.
In the same people-centric sensibilities, Khoon Hooi echoes: “Care to me is about how to make people feel good and beautiful. When someone feels confident and beaming with pride when wearing my designs, that makes me happy. When my clients are happy, those around them and everywhere they go will be looming with positive energy — and that is what I want to achieve through my designs.”
Designing with heart, Khoon Hooi highlights that his work is a two-way emotional journey. It is not just about the physical product but how to reach out emotionally as a way to communicate with every individual. Just like cultivating coffee beans, it is in the unseen nuances that make up the unparalleled quality in every cup of Nespresso coffee.
“Some of you must be wondering — how do I inject care into my designs? It is a very subjective component but the touch of care comes in the little details. The fit, the embellishments, the concept behind each design and most importantly, comfort,” the couturier explains.
Khoon Hooi points straight to understanding who he is designing for. While bringing creativity to the drawing board is important, realising the value of balancing his aesthetics with the needs of others is equally crucial.
“You need to be attentive and listen through the sharing and exchanging of ideas between you and your client — that’s when you start to design with heart. Customers will come to you with that they are looking for, and as a designer, I try to accommodate and listen to their every need,” he underlines. “That’s why my clients end up as my friends, and some have been following me for 20 years since the day I started.”
It is the shared passion for the people and the community that both Nespresso and the fashion designer have in common — in this case, the clientele that Khoon Hooi is designing for. A people-centric notion, the elements of detail, care, understanding and refinement brings forth the value of the experience that consumers enjoy today — whether it is a couture dress or a cup of coffee.
Playing his Part
When Malaysians were battling the effects of Covid-19 last year, Khoon Hooi played his part to help sew Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the front-liners. He recalls clips on social media showing nurses staying back after working hours to sew their own PPEs to wear the next day. He instantly knew it was a calling and he called everyone in his team to do something. “Everyone was more than happy to help,” he quips.
“We had nothing to refer to, just rolls of raw materials. We researched online, find out how to patent these protective gears, and my team and I made changes to make the PPEs more user-friendly and sensible to the front-liners,” he shares.
From cutting and sewing, to sanitising, folding and packing these PPEs, the Perak native admits that it was tremendous work. “It was tiring. But at that time, it was also one of the most crucial times when front-liners were in the thick of the pandemic. Even when we have 20 or 30 PPEs ready, the hospital would take it.”
In that frenzy, Khoon Hooi reveals that he just wants to put himself out there to help without expecting how his effort would become a rippling effect across the local fashion scene and fellow Malaysians. He adds: “It became rather compelling to see everyone lending a hand and do their part to contribute to the front-liners — big or small.”
“It’s good and bad. At least, I am able to stop and pause for a while to ponder what I have been doing for the past two decades because I honestly never stopped. The lockdown also helped me realise what I have overlooked all these while,” he recalls.
“There’s a time when everything stopped and for me, I was thinking what do I do?”
During the lockdown, he found piles and tonnes of leftover fabrics when production stopped (some already out of season). So he worked with his team and discuss what can be done to improvise the business especially when there were no events happening — bearing in mind that Khoon Hooi as a brand is known for its occasion wear.
“We have the manpower and machinery, and fabrics. So, we came out with our range of lifestyle products,” he talks us through the pouches and totes that were launched.
“And with all the upcycling and recycling, Deborah Henry came to us with an idea to collaborate with Fugeelah to help with the refugee school. So we did the collaboration and the response was overwhelming. This year, we will be working on the same campaign again in time for the festive season,” Khoon Hooi shares.
What he appreciates about the collaboration is the direction that it heads to — giving back to the society. Whatever they have, they produce and make something good out of it. He and his team have been experimenting and working on new designs to continue the efforts of upcycling and managing cut-off fabrics, but still maintaining a touch of his DNA.
Staying True to Himself
“For me, you can’t stop how fashion moves — it’s so fast. It’s all about trends and these trends change as we blink. Everyone has their ways and ideas but just remember to stay true to yourself and do your part,” he continues.
As to being who he is today, he gives all the credits to his team who has been with him through thick and thin.
“My team has been with me for so many years and I feel I have the responsibility to take care their livelihood and wellbeing, on top of trying to keep the business going despite the pandemic. They have their commitments too, and I need to ensure that they matter,” Khoon Hooi addresses his team of seamstresses, drafters and cutters who has been the backbone in his work.
Khoon Hooi adds that being a fashion designer today is totally day and night as compared to when he started. Everything is accessible and convenient. And it is easy to be consumed by fame and the power of social media.
“I feel like all these ‘so called’ names are given by people but I don’t feel like I’m any of them. I think I still have a lot to learn as I improve my craft as a fashion designer — always keep moving. I wouldn’t say that I’m humble because of that, but I believe in a society, you don’t live alone. You need friends, the community and each other. You work in a team and always see the glass half full because there are still things to be done. That’s when we are able to continuously learn something new from everyone, everyday,” Khoon Hooi confides.
Similarly at Nespresso, great results don’t happen overnight and it takes a tremendous amount of time, effort, dedication and care to achieve something. Much like the brand’s involvement in global recycling and sustainable coffee sourcing as well as its commitment to be completely carbon neutral by end of 2022, Nespresso’s sustainability journey has never strayed from where it started.
“Like Nespresso’s big sustainability commitment, the first step is simply loving what you do. When you love something and are committed to it, you can see the difference. There are no secrets to life. For me, it is about knowing how much I love fashion and how much passion I have for what I do. That’s the way to continue — love supersedes everything,” he concludes.
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Interview & Creative Direction MARTIN TEO | Photography MICKY WONG NEW STORYBOARDS | Grooming ERANTHE LOO | Styling NIGEL LEE