Creating Fashion Out Of Imperfection UCSI Fashion Design Student Win’s AirAsia Designer Search.

Creating fashion out of imperfection UCSI fashion design student win’s AirAsia designer search.

KUALA LUMPUR: Lee Bao En uses ugliness as her inspiration. To be more accurate, she takes what is conventionally considered to be imperfect – ugly – and turns it into clothing designs that fascinate and are, beautiful. 

Her designs impressed fashion heavyweights like Khoon Hooi and Jovian Mandagie. Together with the other judges, they selected her as the Grand Prize winner of the AirAsia Runway Ready Designer Search 2015. 

A final-year student of UCSI University’s (UCSI) BA (Hons) Fashion Design with Marketing, Bao En’s collection focused on the architectural heritage of Southeast Asian countries. Cambodia’s 12th century Angkor Wat played an important influence in the three designs she created for the competition. 

Paying homage to the stone carvings on its walls – one of the temple’s claim to fame – Bao En’s designs are heavily textured. Her ingenious use of a mix of materials such as the sack-like hessian, airy linen and crochet lace gave depth to her designs. 

She even created her own fabric using the nuno-felting technique to mimic the old tree roots that are synonymous with the ancient temple. The technique was created in 1992 and bonds loose fibres such as wool, to a sheer fabric. 

A tedious technique, Bao En had to rub the loose fabric into the base. She then had to roll the fabric several hundred times to ensure the fabric binds before throwing it on a surface repeatedly for the signature puckered look of nuno felting. Her efforts paid off – the nuno felting material on the shoulders of her first two designs and draped across the last one made her clothes stand out. 

Many notable designers produce collections embedded with social and political messages. Alexander McQueen did it in his 2011 VOSS show that is noted as one of his best. He placed an enormous glass box at the centre of an unlit stage. For an hour, the audience were forced to stare at their own reflections as they listened to the unnerving sound of a heartbeat as the background music. 

He subverted the whole runway experience – instead of models being the object of the gaze, the audience stared at themselves. 

A quiet girl, Bao En is nonetheless aware and passionate about social causes. When her last model walked down the runway, the audience fell silent. The model had her hands tied and face covered. 

According to the budding designer, this is her statement against female oppression. The tied hands symbolises women who are prevented from doing many things and taking action for themselves. By covering her model’s face – Bao En drew attention to the problem of oppressed women not having an identity of their own. 

Her designs edged out more than 350 other budding designers and she walked away with return flights to Tokyo, 60,000 BIG Points, and one unit of Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Laptop. 

She also won a guaranteed spot to showcase a full collection for KL Fashion Week RTW 2016 and a one-year apprenticeship with the established designer, Jovian Mandagie. 

As a final year student at UCSI’s De Institute of Creative Arts and Design, Bao En is appreciative of how far the university has helped her come. 

“I am lucky – my lecturers are very experienced in the industry and helped me approach problems positively and solve them,” she said with a smile. 

She expressed her thanks in particular to lecturers Lucas Lim, Abdul Rashid bin Hamid and Haniza Binti Johari. 

Bao En also feels that the University’s Praxis® approach and Co-Op Placement gave her an advantage in the industry. The former advocates closing the gap between academia and industry – this sees students receiving support to join competitions like the AirAsia Runway Ready Designer Search 2015. 

The Co-Op Placement sees students interning for two months at the end of each semester. UCSI has the largest Co-Op network, with more than 2,500 industry partners. For her first Co-Op Placement, Bao En interned with Malaysian design veteran Beatrice Looi. 

A far-sighted person, she chose to also spend an internship period with a supply company to learn the business aspect of the fashion world. This is in line with the marketing component of her programme that she feels is a critical factor to achieve her dream of owning her own label. 

“The marketing aspect of my degree helps me plan the business aspect of my future brand,” she said. 

She added that having marketing knowledge also provides her a wider range of career choices, whether in the design industry or not. 

Fresh off her big win, does she have any advice for students who are interested to pursue fashion design at UCSI? 

She smiled. 

“It is not easy to be a designer, you need to invest a lot – your time, your energy and even money.” 

But if a person is determined enough, she adds, there is always an avenue to showcase his or her designs. 

After all, her own designs are not conventional. But she pointed out that her favourite labels – Japanese Comme des Garçons and Malaysian-based Moto Guo are highly successful. The former grosses about US$180mil annually while the latter is fast gaining fame. 

“You just need to chase your dream, no matter what stands in the way.” 

Clearly, Lee Bao En’s dream of becoming a world-class fashion designer is not far from reality.