Cover Story
A Craftsman’s Legacy
Evanna Ramly 
Datuk Bernard Chandran is bringing new inspiration to classic designs.

Mention tutus and most people would think of ballet dancers in tulle and silken slippers, gracefully pirouetting across a stage en pointe. But most people are not Datuk Bernard Chandran.

For his Spring/Summer 2018 collection, the Malaysian designer is bringing tutu back and putting his own spin on the classic garment. Loved by fashionistas ever since Sarah Jessica Parker famously crossed the streets of New York in a fluffy white confection for the opening credits of Sex and the City, the tutu has now been given that retro-meets-luxury finish so synonymous with Bernard’s style.

“I’ve always been inspired by the 1980s era, which was also my teenage years. I love the music, the fashion and the bright colours. The tutus were quite a distinctive style back then. Hence, I’ve decided to use it as an inspiration in this season’s collection.”

He reveals that the style fondly captured his imagination while growing up. “I love that it has the playful, ethereal feel yet is voluminous in form.”

While the romance and sophistication remain, the ethereal shapes have been reworked to keep it up to date. Playing with form and fabrics, the reimagined silhouette lends the illusion of an easy shift dress. At the same time, a hidden corset sculpts feminine curves beautifully.

Of course, you will want to keep it casual and this is where the tutu’s new friends come in. Match it with box-pleated skinny trousers or shorts as well as shoulder shirts, blouses and jackets for a fresh look. We also like the pairing of boxy shorts with lace-appliqued duster coats.

As is his signature, expect plenty of embellishments – glittering sequins and shimmering crystals adorn the geometrical shapes and cutwork petals, adding welcome pops of colour and a sense of playfulness. Materials comprise an eclectic mix of crisp cotton, naughty can-can netting and supple leather trimmed with layers of lace and tassel for a luxurious touch.

Far from the muted shades of ballet past and present, Bernard’s palette ranges from white, black and grey to bright red, pink and yellow by way of 1980s pop chic. Clearly, the vibrant collection is not for the faint of heart and the designer finds it difficult to choose a favourite piece.

“It would be like asking me which is my favourite child! Each of the looks in my collection is different, unique and special in its own way.”

Why is now the best time for the return of the tutu? “Why not?” he smiles. “Arguably, the tutus first came into existence in the 1800s. It’s a real classic by now and it’s a great deal to revive a classic style.”

When asked what the biggest challenge during the creative process, Bernard says each collection is a learning process and an exciting discovery to experiment with different materials and textures.

“I want to retain the playfulness associated with the tutus but I want to keep them edgy,” he explains. “Hence, I gave the tutus a different design form and paired them with an interplay of fabrics and pops of colours.”

That said, he has always loved designing and creating. “From coming up with the inspiration, doing the research and getting the mood board ready to finally putting the design on paper and the entire realisation of the designs, the feeling is just surreal, season after season.”


Global fame

Seasonal collections aside, the designer is also making waves at notable international events such as the recent Commonwealth Fashion Exchange 2018 for which he presented a design that referenced traditional Malay elements renowned for their intricate beauty.

Always mindful of his roots, he understands the importance of tradition and the influence of culture on design. Staying true to the craftsmanship of his brand’s DNA, he introduced a newly mastered geometrical version of the magnificent cutwork, kerawang.

The floor-length coat bridges rich elements from cultures ancient to modern. The silhouette boasts a structured bustier, treated with modern and edgy oriental embellishments by the designer himself.

Fine songket (Malay brocade) was used as the base material, deepening his connection to the harmonious multi-cultural diversity of his beloved home. Strong hues of royal blue and lush green perfected the bold design.

“I’ve worked with songket before in my past collections,” he recalls, adding that he specifically chose the fabric as it is a traditional Malaysian textile. “The brocade that is usually hand-woven in silk or cotton and intricately patterned with gold or silver threads is favoured by royalty. I decided to give it an unconventional striped motif and modernised it further by using Lurex thread for an overall shimmering effect.”

The perfect fusion of luxury fashion and updated tradition are his exquisite kerawang-inspired embellishments. “Again, to represent the Malaysian culture but incorporated with the contemporary leather material in Baroque-style design enveloping the bottom part of the skirt,” he notes.

Meeting the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton at the exchange was an honour for the Selangor-born designer. “She understood how I incorporated traditional elements in the fabrics and embellishments, and translated them for contemporary times,” he says.

“As I said before, I take every experience as a learning curve. I’m inspired along with the whole process of putting the design together, combining two distinct cultures of both the oriental and Malay, which largely influenced my childhood, and bringing them to the contemporary. How enriching it is to have materials and cultural icons, and give them new eminence in fashion that speaks of a universal modern language.”

He hopes to inspire young people to embrace and be proud of their own culture. “Traditions may be deemed mundane or dull to some but they can be given a new lease, a new perspective and evoke a nouveau sense of modernity and independence of style that is of international standard.”

Does he think that Malaysian design is stronger than ever in the global fashion scene? “Malaysia is my home and I’m honoured to represent my country at this prestigious platform. I like that the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange allows us to express our cultures and traditional heritage with fashion.

“We may not be as strong as Europe and the US but being able to participate and represent my country, I hope it gives Malaysia a stronger presence in the fashion industry globally.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 276.