Dream Weavers: 8 Of Asia's Best Bespoke Fashion Designers
Barney Cheng with Laetitia Yu
Barney Cheng realised early he wanted to pursue his interest in fashion and occasional wear. “As a young boy, I would see my mother feel better when she dressed up; there was a sense of happiness and joy that wasn’t usually there.” He thrives on seeing how fashion can influence someone’s mood. “It just lifts them up. I want to make women feel beautiful.”
Cheng opened his business over two decades ago and has become the go-to designer for many of the city’s elite. His showroom in the heart of Central attracts an extensive clientele from right around the region. Cheng has also dressed the likes of Michelle Yeoh, Isabelle Huppert and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark on important red-carpet occasions.
From beaded gowns and embroidered qipaos to tailored skirt suits, Cheng can do it all. “I’m drawn to shiny things—sequins, crystals, beads, diamonds.” So it was a logical extension when he introduced fine jewellery to his offerings. “We help clients source jewellery or help them reset their existing pieces for a special event,” he says.
Cheng chose longtime friend and god-sister Laetitia Yu as his partner for our shoot, with her posing in a creation he made specially for her. “Barney and I met in Toronto when we were in high school. Our mothers were good friends,” Yu recalls. “He’s so talented, and the best results often come when you give him carte blanche.”
Find out more at barneycheng.com
Polpat Asavaprapha with Suquan Bulakul
Polpat Asavaprapha, founder and creative director of leading Thai fashion house Asava, doesn’t hesitate when asked to name his favourite muse—actress Suquan Bulakul, the former Nation TV news anchor and current ambassador for Japanese skincare label SK-II.
“When I think about the representation of my brand I immediately think of Suquan,” he says confidently. “She’s smart, charming and beautiful—truly a woman of the 21st century. I admire her innate elegance. She has natural grace and poise and that makes her a treasure to design for.”
Polpat and 46-year-old Suquan, who is married to Farm Chokchai agribusiness magnate Choak Bulakul, have known each other for a long time. “We have become very close over the years and I know her tastes well. Working together is always laid-back and fun, and I just know my clothes will look great on her,” says the graduate of New York’s Parsons School of Design.
Polpat cut his teeth in fashion in New York, where he worked for Marc Jacobs, Giorgio Armani and Max Mara before returning to Thailand to launch his own business in 2008.
Today, Polpat’s business has grown to include five lines—his couture label, Asava, a more youthful sister line called ASV by Asava, Asava White for bridal, Uniform by Sava, which produces stylish uniforms for the likes of Bangkok Airways, Unilever and SO Sofitel hotels, and his latest venture, MOO, a menswear collection.
Find out more at asavagroup.com
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Uma Wang with Lin Yintong at Esee Model Management
Since Uma Wang started her independent career in 2009, she has become known for her experimental approach to garment creation and fabric sourcing. She was steeped in fashion early as her mother was a tailor. The young Uma would come up with her own ideas for her.
“I would tell her I don’t like loose sleeves and I want it to be tighter, also I want bell-bottoms.” In middle school, Uma knew how to make and match classmates’ costumes, first drawing up her ideas on paper. She eventually studied at fashion school in the 1990s.
Uma’s designs are inspired by her travels and include such divergent subjects as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, ballet and Morocco. She specialises in ready-to-wear though loves creating haute couture, and is a pioneer in experimenting with different fabrics. The fabric comes before the design in her creative process. “I don’t want to stick to the look of the clothes at the beginning. I would rather find a good canvas before using my paint,” she explains.
Uma was the costume designer for director Jiang Wen’s 2018 film Hidden Man, and one of the stars, Zhou Yun, dazzled the audience at the premiere in a haute couture gown by Uma. Fans of Kay Tse will see 15 costumes made by Uma in October when the Cantopop diva performs at the Hong Kong Coliseum.
Uma enjoys the intimacy of creating haute couture for a client. “For ready-to wear, I don’t know who buys the clothes, but if you make it for a specific woman or image, I understand them better. Your brain will be emotionally connected when designing for a real person.”
Find out more at umawang.com
Cary Santiago with Audrey Zubiri
“I remember playing with my mother’s sewing machine as early as five years old,” Cary Santiago says. “She was a dressmaker and we had a small dress shop at home.” By his teenage years, Santiago was a working student designing clothes in Cebu. Nowadays, his label is one of the most sought-after in town.
“My clothes are distinctively Cary,” he says. “People can instantly recognise one of my creations. I popularised the use of the laser-cutting technique in my country, and I am also known for fabric manipulation.”
Santiago’s love of experimenting with new ways of creating dresses and sculptural gowns has earned him a place at some of the city’s most lavish events, as well as a fanbase that extends from Manila to Hollywood (his creations have been worn by Beyoncé).
Santiago met his muse, Audrey Zubiri, at one of his shows in Manila when she headed backstage to congratulate him on the show. “We hit it off instantly. She has a lovely personality,” Santiago says of Zubiri. “And she also looks good in anything I put her in, as she exudes such grace and class.”
Find out more at instagram.com/carysantiago
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Apu Jan with Annie Chen
Apu Jan, a graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, founded his eponymous fashion label in 2013 and has biannual shows at London Fashion Week. Jan often fuses complex themes such as fantasy and literature in his knitwear-heavy collections while juxtaposing traditional and oriental elements with a contemporary twist.
Jan’s bespoke creations are often spotted at some of Taipei’s most prestigious red-carpet occasions, including the Golden Horse and Golden Melody awards ceremonies. Over the years, the designer has also lent his creative vision to a variety of other industries; he has created in-flight loungewear for Eva Air and costumes for the dancers of the Cloud Gate Dance Company, a leading contemporary dance theatre in the region.
Here, Jan is photographed with his friend Annie Chen, a model and actress. He says Chen, who made a guest appearance at his spring/summer 2017 show, perfectly embodies the spirt of his label. Chen credits Jan as being incredibly thoughtful and talented. “When you wear his outfits you can feel the softness and warmth, just like his personality,” she says. “When the day comes, I want him to design my wedding gown.
Find out more at apujan.com
Letitia Phay and Jade Swee with Carmen Ow
Carmen Ow’s face lights up the moment she realises she can still fit perfectly into one of her evening gowns from five years ago. The black cross-neck halter tulle dress in question is the very first piece the effervescent 30-year-old had commissioned from Singapore label Time Taken to Make a Dress.
“I had been scouring the internet for a local bespoke tailor to create the dress I had in mind for the Singapore Tatler Ball in 2014. Then I came across pictures of Time Taken to Make a Dress’s creations, which I instantly felt fitted my style,” says Ow.
Since then, Ow, who is a director at the boutique property development company Clydesbuilt Group, has forged a strong relationship with Jade Swee and Letitia Phay, the talented design duo behind the nine-year-old made-to-order label.
For the designers, the creative process starts with getting to know their clients on a deep level. “We do this because we want to create designs that tell a story,” explains Swee. “We also want to translate what we understand about our client’s personality and their brief to us into our designs.” Swee, who is formally trained in fashion design, grew up sewing and beading, thanks to her grandmothers, both tailors.
The entire journey from start to finish takes anywhere from three to six months, with multiple fittings in between.
Find out more at timetakentomakeadress.com
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Sebastian Gunawan with Rosalindynata Gunawan-Bakrie
“First of all, you have to know that Sebastian Gunawan is not only me,” the designer says at our shoot. “My wife, Cristina Panarese, and I are a duo in business too.” The couple met in Milan when attending the same school and worked at several labels before starting their own line under Gunawan’s name in 1992. Since then, the label has gown to include four brands across ready-to-wear and bespoke. Panarese’s focus is on the ready-to-wear lines, while Gunawan devotes more of his time to the business of bespoke.
“When I was young, I didn’t know what fashion meant; I was just interested in watching people dress and do their make-up,” Gunawan says. But by high school he was working with a seamstress and designing costumes for events and birthday parties.
Today, Gunawan is recognised as the Best Couture House in Indonesia by the Asian Couture Federation, and has built a loyal clientele around the region. Dramatic silhouettes, exquisite embroidery and larger-than-life proportions—these are just a few of the traits of the duo’s creations.
“We always come out with something feminine,” Gunawan says. “We try to make our clothes not just elegant but fun”—which is why he selected his niece, Rosalindynata Gunawan-Bakrie (Ling, for short), to be photographed with him.
She personifies his playful yet chic sensibility. “Ling has an allure and she likes to experiment with her looks,” Gunawan says. “Even though she’s petite, she’s able to pull off a lot of things because she has that charm. She can look good in any attire, be it classic, avant garde, casual or sporty.”
Find out more at sebastiangunawan.com
Bernard Chandran with Mary Lourdes-Chandran
If Bernard Chandran, Malaysia’s “King of Fashion,” were to put a message on a billboard about fashion, it would read, “Get used to it.” “Fashion trends come and go, but styling is how you adapt to the changes and make it your own,” says the designer, who has dressed royalty, top socialites and celebrities such as Lady Gaga and the Sultanah of Brunei.
It was Chandran who first fused Parisian haute couture elements with traditional Malaysian wear, such as the baju kurung, the Chinese cheongsam and the Indian sari. “I wanted to champion the idea that traditional wear can be couture,” he says.
You can always expect the unexpected with his creations, as Chandran is passionate about pushing boundaries. “I’m always eager to experiment and I will advise my client to do the same. I can be designing a sari but I’ll experiment with Chantilly lace or vintage fabric, a different zip or a unique technique of stitching or embellishing.”
The designer’s ultimate muse is his wife, former supermodel Mary Lourdes-Chandran, with whom he has five children. “She is confident in her skin—she knows what to flaunt and what to hide,” he says. For her part, Lourdes-Chandran trusts her husband completely.
She admits that while she has sometimes felt uncertain about a new style he is incorporating into his creations for her, he has always made the right call. “I’ve learnt that all I need to do is take time to digest what he has created for me— even if the look isn’t my usual style,” she says. “As he says, fashion is all about learning how to get used to change.”
Find out more at bernardchandran.com
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- Words Justine Lee, Naphalai Areesorn, Karen Wang, Monique Madsen, Camille Chang, Chong Seow Wei, Edith Emeralda, Lily Ong
- Photography Affa Chan, Tom Hoops, Erik Ho, Patrick Diokno, Tommy Chen, Joel Lim, Agus Santoso Yang, Khairul Imran
- Hair Chawakij Suphanphong, Sharon Xu, Joshua @ Flux, Zoel Tee, Richard Theo
- Make-Up Ekarine Wongaganit, Sharon Xu, Yi Ju Hou, Zoel Tee, Richard Theo
- Location Designers' studios