In the last decade and a half or so, we’ve seen the rise of the double F word – Fast Fashion, that is. Truthfully, I got sucked into it all. I felt a thrill seeing the big red ‘SALE’ sign in Topshop, Zara and the like, rifling through the racks and feeling high exiting the stores with bags after bags of purchases I don’t need. Still, I’d frequently lament, “I don’t have anything to wear!” while sitting in front of a closet that’s filled to the brim with clothing (gasp again!).

Shopping window display with SALE sign
Photography: Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash

When I had more spending power as a young adult, it was a case of quantity over quality. However, when I became a mum to identical twins in 2015, it was like a dam had been lifted in my memory bank. Growing up, my family was sustainable although we didn’t know it then. Simply put, it was out of pure necessity. Buying things only when needed, sharing outfits with my sisters, hand-me-downs, mending and altering clothes – these were all part and parcel of my childhood.

When I first started working as a young adult, I remember a love for charity and thrift shops, and and being able to travel, I’d haul back my finds from rummaging through these treasure troves in Japan, Australia and several European cities. From a young age, I’d spin my own take on these finds and since then, my style journey has been nothing but a fun evolution!

I’ve learned so many nuances in the last three years, especially now that everything is intersectional. Sustainability has always had its place in our society and many traditional cultures worldwide. Way before the advent of fancy branded Zero Waste stores, we had wet markets and pasar malams, to state an example. Our ancestors were the OG traditional sustainability heroes, purchasing thoughtfully in all areas of their lives, while mending and proper laundering was second nature to honour the clothing they owned. There was no throwaway culture like we have today. Everyone wore their heritage with pride and it was even a way of highlighting where they came from.

I grow prouder of my roots everyday and choose to embody my ancestors’ thoughtfulness because I have the privilege of doing so. Nowadays, I try to be mindful with every purchase that I make and ask myself, “Do I need this or do I want it?“, “How often will I use this?”, “What’s the cost per wear?”, “What are the supply chains and who made this?”, “Is it troublesome to launder?” – you get it. Thankfully, there’s a growing number of consumers and makers who ask the same questions and in the past few years, it has expanded into a plethora of local findings.

Scrabble tiles with message
Photography: Edward Howell/Unsplash

Today, I’m done with quantity because it clutters my mind. Instead, I seek quality, ingenuity and to support my small local makers because if we don’t, it’d be such a shame as we have so much here to reveal and be proud of in our own land. Here are my picks of local brands that walk the talk:

1. FERN

For luxury resort wear, Fern is becoming a firm favourite amongst Malaysians. I wish I had one of those pieces made with traditional hand-painted batik processes on silk – how lush!

Fern Chua, the winner of Fashion Pitch 2013 by MyCreative Ventures in Malaysia, started her eponymous label in 2015 and has shown 12 collections drawn by nature thus far. Working with in-house artisans in her atelier, as well as supporting local block-printing makers and craftsmen, Fern is set on celebrating the batik tradition and pushing its boundaries in a contemporary way by not only using the canting (a traditional pen-like tool) to create designs on fabric with hot wax but also brushes, sponges, drops for hot wax application and colourways that differ from traditional batik. In addition to her own collection, Fern also curates an Artisanal Collective from makers in Southeast Asia and Australia.

A look at the brand’s 'Safari' Series I and II (aka CNY ’21 Capsule) showcases bold patterns and prints that are surprisingly wearable for a chic lazy weekend at home with a quick pop out to the shops or a long-overdue lavish retreat (keeping to cuti-cuti Malaysia cos pandemic!). I’ve got major love for the two-way ‘Haka’ Blouse and the cowl-neck ‘Bondi’ Dress from the ‘Safari’ Series. In the second drop, the ‘Hua’ Midi Skirt gets extra points for being modelled as a tube dress (as seen above) and skirt – and boy, do I live for a multitasker garment!

Fern has just released its Raya 2021 collection, the ‘Orchid’ Series, and you can peep online for shapes and tones paying homage to this beloved flowering plant. Sizes range from XS to XL and size charts with measurements are available online. Free-size pieces fit up to a size L and custom sizing is also available – just drop them a line on their website or visit their Bangsar Village II boutique (UGF 17A) to satiate your sartorial cravings.

2. INKAA

Like a magpie to shiny objects, I clicked through an ad that popped up on my Instagram many moons ago, simply because it’s batik! I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Inkaa’s a proper social enterprise that was founded in 2018 by Muizz Aziz and his Belgian business partner, Ludovic Vankerkoven. Its Instagram bio makes it clear that the brand is here to empower. Who, you ask? The local batik and handwoven Mengkuang artisans, UN-registered refugees from Myanmar and people with disabilities – aka the people who make the items you see on Inkaa’s social media and website. I own the brand’s batik face masks for my children and I, and they’re the ones we reach for most often as they’re so pretty and insanely comfortable! If, like me, you like to know where and #WhoMadeMyClothes, Inkaa has full transparency on the subject. Click the ‘Meet The Makers’ tab on their website to find out more.

Although the brand started outselling cotton T-shirts with a batik pocket, it now boasts an array of batik face masks, backpacks, key fobs, passport covers, pouches, Mengkuang sling bags, totes, clutches, laptop covers, notebook covers, mats and cotton silk hand-painted batik scarves. Sizes for Inkaa’s unisex batik pocket T-shirts go up to 2XL and a size guide is available online. There’s also an option to customise the batik pocket on your T-shirt.

3. NIJI CROCHET

My introduction to Niji Crochet was by way of Maryam Bayam’s Instagram stories where she shared a post with a crocheted bucket hat made up of sunburst granny squares and I was instantly smitten! I’m a little old lady inside who loves rose-scented things, cats and all things crochet. My absolute favourite crochet design is, you guessed it, the granny square!

Lily Chong started crocheting in 2017 and it quickly turned into a hobby for her. Lily’s daughter, Nicole Cara, immediately saw that her mum had a real flair for the yarn and encouraged Lily to start sharing her pieces with the world. After a few months, Nicole managed to win Lily over and in April 2020, Niji Crochet was born. Peeping in on their Instagram account, your eyes will be pleasantly surprised by a myriad of exquisitely-coloured crochet crop tops, rompers, co-ords, hats and even foldable shopping bags to encourage a burgeoning BYO (Bring Your Own) culture. Niji Crochet also ran a small collection in collaboration with Sangon Co, a Bornean jewellery line, where cultured Borneo pearls united with their crochet tops to present pieces fit to be heirlooms.

Niji Crochet also supports young local artists by including stickers by the artists in their packaging which they have taken care to revise to now utilise linen drawstring bags and removing their previous polaroid branding card. They hope that exposing these artists to their customer base will help to bring more awareness to the talent we have all around us. Truly a sustainable pursuit, where items are only made to order or as one-offs, there’s no back stock hanging about and the best part: your item can be made to your specific measurements! There’s a waiting period for each order but you know what they say: good things come to those who wait and I’m all about that #SlowLife.

4. REVIVE VINTAGE STORE

So you want to get into sustainable fashion and stand out in something unique simultaneously? Here’s where Revive Vintage Store fills the niche with on-trend street style for womxn. I came across Revive on – you guessed it – Instagram and was floored by their creativity!

Revive was born in July 2020 when friends Anne Lim and Claudia Tan noticed that there weren’t many places reworking and breathing new life into vintage clothing. They may be babies on the scene, however, their designs are anything but. Having studied fashion at Bournemouth, England, Anne imparts her knowledge in the intricacies of tailoring to Claudia before working together to design their collections.

With collections like ‘Clueless’, ‘Mean Girls’, ‘Soft Girl Reinvented’, ‘The Upper East Side’ and ‘Varsity’ to name a few, Revive clearly pulls influence from pop culture. Anne and Claudia showcase their mad skills at upcycling and customising vintage sportswear and clothing into striking crop tops, co-ords and skirts. Their ‘Tea Room’ collection, which is a part of their Reinvented line, features qipao tops with ultramodern peek-a-boo cut-outs, heart-shaped bodices and a cropped hemline. Their incredible stitchery and attention to detail takes centrestage in their ‘Overlock’ collection and corsets. Live out your innermost Bridgerton or Cottagecore fantasies in the ‘Rosie’ Faux Corset Top or take a streetwear spin in the ‘Alex’ Hard Boned Corset Top and ‘Queen of Hearts’ Boned Corset Top with beadings, all from the Reinvented line. I can see the latter two being paired with comfy track bottoms and fresh kicks – a sure-fire way to stand out!

Revive truly is a breath of fresh air and will appeal to all, especially a younger and more flamboyant demographic who’s getting more involved with the intersections of sustainability. The website is a breeze to use with sizes listed clearly (currently up to UK14) with Curated, Reworked and Reinvented vintage choices. The best part? Revive ships worldwide.

5. THE SISTERHOOD STUDIOS

A favourite Instagram find of mine is The Sisterhood Studios by the three Gomes sisters – Samantha, Sandra and Sarah. They remind me of my two sisters who live in Singapore and the good times we have whenever we get together and hey, you’ve got to love a creative family enterprise!

The Sisterhood Studios started with hand-embroidered reusable fabric masks and now there’s a pretty extensive range of handmade beaded and embroidered jewellery, upcycled patchwork and batik apparel, baguette bags (still gutted I missed out on scoring one!), bucket hats, reloved knitwear zhooshed up with hand-embroidered flora and fauna or hand felting as well as preloved silk and satin loungewear, and there’s a range of sizes and measurements provided to ease your online shopping.

I don't own anything from them yet, but they’re definitely on my list for when I need something cute and upcycled with a local flair. They’re a friendly bunch and through personal conversations, I’m assured that they’re committed to sustainability. They offer a pick-up option which saves on postage and carbon footprint, and a “hold postage” option with one postage fee if you want to get multiple orders shipped in one go. If you’re interested in their beautiful needlework face masks, you need to have the fastest fingers cos believe me when I say that they sell like hot cakes!

Text: Nurun Nissak
Featured image: Fern

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