Malaysia’s King of Fashion
The story of Datuk Seri Bernard Chandran goes back to a boy of mixed parentage with a dream. While his parents urged him to take up accounting, Chandran soon realised that his passion lay elsewhere – in fashion designing. With the consent and support from his parents, the young boy followed his calling and paved his own path to the tremendous success he is today. We sit down with Malaysia’s King of Fashion in his latest menswear outlet, Figure, to find out about his travels and plans for Valentine’s Day.
YOU ARE AN AVID TRAVELLER. WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE PLACES TO TRAVEL TO?
It might be a biased answer, but I would have to say, Paris. I love Paris — I studied there and hence, have a soft spot for Paris. Paris is not just about fashion; it’s a refined city where people take pride in their offerings, and that’s what attracts me about the city. Paris is beautiful, current and its people put a lot of thought into everything they do.
PARIS IS A MECCA FOR FASHION DESIGNERS. WHAT INSPIRES YOU ABOUT THE CITY OF LIGHTS?
The city itself inspires me — its exhibitions, museums, etc. today, I have a good eye for interior design and fashion because of the city. I’m grateful.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ARE THE MOST SURREAL PLACES TO VISIT?
Paris (laughter ensues). Don’t get me wrong, I love Africa too — it’s a supernatural place. During our visit there, with my family, we were fortunate to have breakfast with the lions (just like Out of Africa), witness the sunrise on a hot air balloon followed by a champagne breakfast with the Masai. It was an amazing experience. Prior to that, we went to Capadoccia, Turkey also for a hot air balloon ride, albeit relatively commercial. We were surrounded by hundreds of hot air balloons at the same time. It was the most magical and surreal moments for my family and me.
We practise hierarchy in my family — I always believe that everyone should know their place, just as in a company — so this is something I practise in my household. My family and I are like a tribe; there are seven of us altogether. We get together and always discuss about our ups and downs in terms of school, work, etc — it’s something I believe in and practise since they are younger, so nothing gets swept under the rug. The method is similarly applied for our holidays. The majority in favour decides the holiday and even the restaurants we go to. This way, it’s fair and everyone gets a chance to go to the places they enjoy. It’s very orderly we have a system where we plan ahead, even up to who queues at the immigration first, or who sits with whom on the aircraft and who stands beside whom for pictures. I think it’s a good system; the holidays are better and everyone’s happy.
YOU COME FROM A FAMILY OF MIXED PARENTAGE. HOW DO YOU TRANSLATE THE CULTURE THAT YOU GREW UP WITH TO YOUR CHILDREN?
I think it started with my father. He never stopped my mother from practising her religious beliefs in any way. So, she had statues of her deity as well as joss sticks while my father had his own Hindu altar. We celebrated both Chinese New Year and Deepavali — this was how we grew up. Now that I’m married with my own family, I stand by my father’s teachings. My wife is a Catholic who is free to celebrate and practise her beliefs. As a family, we look forward to all these celebrations and the beautiful outfits we can wear, whis is amazing. I teach my children to practise and understand all cultures and religions. We have been to a mosque and an Orthodox church despite my wife being a Catholic. That’s why they wear whatever religious amulets they want.
WHAT IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET LIST?
I have a long bucket list. My wife always tells me that we should travel more and eat more. Travelling and experiencing different cultures have really opened my eyes to the world. I want to know about different countries so yes, my bucket list is long and I wouldn’t even know where to start.
YOU ARE A FASHIONABLE PERSON AND TRAVELLER. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MUST-HAVE ITEMS WHEN WANDERLUSTING?
I’m not a light-weight traveller, let me tell you. I must have my earphones with my audio guide, my two phones, definitely a sketchbook, beautiful well-made sling bag or backpack, trendy shoes that can pair with any outfits and something I constantly get in trouble for at the airport, my jewellry.
YOU MENTIONED SKETCHING. WHAT MUSIC, MOVIE, BOOK OR MAGAZINE GETS YOU READY TO SKETCH OR BRAINSTORM?
I think I get inspired very easily. Yoga has helped me a lot. It has really calmed me down and made me look inwards which helps the process. Music is my trigger and so is audio books now. I used to avoid reading, but now, thanks to technology, I listen to audiobooks. My resolution for 2020 is nothing much, I would love to finish 30 books this year as last year I read 15. Audio books, for me, is like a friend telling me a story. This has helped me focus when people talk because with audio books, you have to focus on each word read out. Anything I read, listen to or watch can charge me.
Tremendously. When I was younger, I never liked long-haul flights but now, I have come to enjoy them. As I mentioned, in my sling bag or backpack, there’s always a sketch book. So when my wife and children or my assistant, Fairoz sends me off, I start drawing, almost like a destressing method and it comes naturally. Many things during travelling inspire me, such as from different airports to the ambience. When I visited Qatar some years ago, close to Chinese New Year, I was surprised to find thousands of the ‘lucky cats’ moving their arm sin coordination at the airport. It was amazing to me that an Islamic country embraces another culture. Another instance, also in the Middle East, I saw displays of Christmas trees. I found it very inspiring.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS WITH YOUR WIFE THIS VALENTINE’S DAY?
It will be our 30th year wedding anniversary this Valentine’s. It’s our legal wedding date. We received our parents’ blessings and got wed at the registrar’s office. We will definitely be doing something special but I’m not sure exactly what yet. I’m waiting to be inspired. For example, in the year 2000, I got my wife a very special pearl necklace from a friend’s farm in Australia. I actually bought quite a number of high- quality, amazing pearls with a thought of keeping them for my grandchildren. Funny enough, on New Year’s day, I was inspired to give those pearls to my wife and children with an ang pao each. It just came naturally. So for Valentine’s Day, I don’t know yet, let’s keep it a secret.
HOW DID YOU MEET YOUR WIFE?
I first saw my wife, then a model, as a cover for the fashion section. I found her very beautiful and told my friend about it. I remember my friend telling me that she was taller than me and wouldn’t go for a young 16-year-old like me. I met her when I was 18, at a Model of the Year competition. She overheard me talking in Tamil to a male model and immediately came over to me and we connected. Within a month, we sparked and she became my girlfriend even though I had no job and career at the time. After a year, we got engaged and the year after, we got married and were off to Paris. Don’t be afraid to dream — dreaming is free. I dreamt about being with her, and it came true. I dreamt about designing for royalty, and it also came true.
TELL US ABOUT THE NEW MEN’S STORE IN FAHRENHEIT 88.
I opened a boutique for womenswear in December 1993, in now, Fahrenheit 88. Figure first opened on July 15, 1976 when I collaborated with a tailor. I eventually made an offer to buy the store but the tailor rejected, saying he wanted his son to learn the craft. But two years ago, the same tailor approached me and asked if I was interested in buying the space. The time was right and I felt we needed a change. Prior to this, I opened a fashion fabric store spanning the entire second floor of now Picollo Hotel. I had private rooms to meet on each occasion and had a space for collaboration on fashion shows, etc. After three years, the owner wanted the space back, which was rather disappointing but that was a blessing in disguise because it created an opportunity for me to buy my own space, Bernard Chandran. Figure (latest menswear store at Fahrenheit 88) is a contemporary menswear store, with the aesthetics I love.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL STYLE?
I would say, regal. I find myself versatile and like a chameleon it’s like muscle memory for me, to dress fashionably. A king and queen probably wear their crown or tiaras and jewellery only during their coronation or special events. But I feel like everyday is my coronation day, hence the jewellery and fashion everyday. I really enjoy fashion. People think that I take awhile to be put together but in fact, I just throw a few things together and I know that it works. I have my own sense of style.
WHO ARE YOUR HEROES?
My hero is my wife. She is amazing. I’m so grateful for her. We went home quite late after the opening of Figure and we were so hungry. She made me a sandwich but when I saw her eating her Maggi mee, I wanted to eat it instead. She gave me her whole bowl of Maggi even though she was hungry herself. She has always been there for me. She really loves me and understands me. I always tell people that I’ve done something good in life to deserve her.
FINALLY, WHAT ARE YOUR ASPIRATIONS FOR YOUR CAREER, FAMILY AND PERSONAL GROWTH?
I think most importantly, to be happy. Like I said, I have been practising Yoga for three years now and it has changed me physically and mentally. I can’t explain what it does for you until you have tried it for yourself. Yoga has taught me to slow my pace, and allows me to think and observe first. My relationships have become amazing. For the new year, like I said, I want to finish 30 books, spend more time with my family and make sure my team is happy working with me. Career-wise, I’ll be focusing more on Figure, the menswear store and Bernard Chandran, of course.
WORDS BY HIRANMAYII AWLI MOHANAN
PHOTOGRAPHER: BARATHAN AMUTHAN @ FRAMESBYBARATHANAMUTHAN
WARDROBE: BERNARD CHANDRAN
VENUE: FIGURE @ FAHRENHEIT88