24 Minutes with Tengku Syahmi
Keeping it real
Recognised for his simplistic and unfussy aesthestic while staying true to his roots, Tengku Syahmi has been a rising talent in the fashion industry. His label Tsyahmi is evidently an extension of what he believes clothes (and even fashion) should essentially be: timeless and sophisticated. Buro 24/7 finds out what inspired him to be in this industry and his most memorable moment of his career:
Do you think that the assumption that fashion startups need a lot of capital to be successful is true?
"Yes and no. It depends on what you want to create for your business and how you want to put it out there, from your brand and company. It is somewhat true that everything revolves around money anyway, especially in business and fashion. Production is not cheap so people look at other alternatives in China, and it's not that bad actually. People have this notion that everything made in China is bad, but it isn't and they're actually really good at producing samples of quality and consistency."
"You just need to find a good production agent. I'm lucky because my production agent is my ex-lecturer in Raffles KL and he's very particular about quality and such. I'm still learning a lot from him even though he isn't my lecturer anymore. It's always a learning process."
So how did you start find yourself in this? Was fashion always something you wanted to do when you were young?
"Luckily for me, yes. I always loved drawing and I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was 12 years old. What introduced me to fashion was surprisingly Oprah Winfrey. I was hanging out with my mum at home, watching The Oprah Winfrey Show, and she was interviewing designer Esteban Cortázar. He was 17 when he first showed his collection at New York Fashion Week. When I saw his sketches and drawings, I was interested because I thought, "Hey I can do that too." It gave me a different perspective of what fashion is and how your ideas translate from your drawings to something tangible in real life. Ever since then, I was buying magazines and learning as much as I could. I never looked back."
Then you decided to go to fashion school?
"I went to Raffles KL after I graduated high school. I wanted to go to Paris, of course, but there are pros and cons to that. If you are able and lucky enough to get out, just do it, because the experience is priceless. And in New York or Paris, it's the real deal. But in Asia, we learn more about technical skills on design: drafting, constructing the garment, draping, sewing etc. In Europe or USA, it's more on how you conceptualise your ideas into your sketches. It isn't all about teaching the technical skills, so you end up outsourcing. But even if we learn enough skills here in Asia, we don't learn much about concepts and ideas. So it's really based on your standing and what you want to do. In Malaysia, we're heavily influenced by all the glamorous red carpet looks, which is a tiny percentage of what fashion comprises. For me, fashion is 1 percent glamorous and 99 percent hard work and long hours."
What happened after design school?
"I was in Raffles from 2008-2009, and Jonathan Liang, who was my classmate at that time, and I got selected by our lecturer to participate in MIFA (Malaysian International Fashion Alliance). It was a fun experience. We tried it out, and lucky for us, they doubled up the prize winnings and gave it to me and John to share the title in 2009. There was only supposed to be one winner but they gave it to both of us, as they thought both of us deserved it, which was really sweet."
"It was our first time being exposed to the media and shoots. We were competing with students from Limkokwing and KDU, and we made a lot of friends with people behind the scenes. So until now, my principle in this industry is to be as accessible as possible according to what your background is like and who you are, as the fashion industry can be superficial. It's important because at the end of the day, as a business owner and creative director, you have to know how to communicate not just with your products, but with people. You are your brand."
You want to cater your clothes to people who will actually wear it and not just say they look nice but can't wear it.
"Our tagline is to design clothes to last, which is really just sophistication at its simplest form. It's very clean and people say it's minimal, even if I don't think I'm minimal (laughs)."
Are you already starting to design and conceptualise for this year's KL Fashion Week?
"We just received the invitation a few weeks ago to participate in this year's KL Fashion Week and we are definitely doing it. Right now we're brainstorming for ideas as we're actually in the midst of working on another collection that we want to release before Fashion Week."
"Right now, Raya is a seasonal collection specifically for the market here. So we're gonna be selling that in May. In between that, we will be producing a pre-collection (the white shirt collection) either by early or end of March."
Can you tell us more about this white shirt collection?
"I love my white shirts, since these are almost like my uniform. I like to play with designs, cuts, and details. I initially wanted it to be menswear due to the cutting of these shirts, but it is also for women as I feel they look good in a men's shirt anyway. It's just how you carry yourself or style it. I feel like it's possible to educate the market as I feel that is lacking here since the market here is more trend-driven and sadly, a season late. This collection will have ten designs in different silhouettes and materials."
"At the end of the day, as a business owner and creative director, you have to know how to communicate not just with your products, but with people. You are your brand."
Have you thought about going global? Would you start out in Southeast Asia and move out from there?
"Yes, we're trying to check out Blueprint in Singapore and other places in Paris. My dream place is New York, as it always has been. But realistically thinking, I need to be really ready with both myself and the brand before being able to give that a shot. It's a big risk and investment. For international buyers, it's all about consistency and if you're lucky, they'll place an order for a first timer. They'll take note of you and study you just to make sure your work is consistent before they place an order. And that's just the start of it."
Who is someone you'd love to dress?
"I really like Julia Roberts and Tilda Swinton. I love Tilda's androgynous look. She's chic, tall, and has really good vibes."
Do you think it's essential, for you, for there to be known faces in the industry when you're pushing out clothes?
"In the market here which is very trend-driven, that is one of the factors that should be considered. It helps to get people to know about your brand, but it also is a great pride to dress a well-known figure. I think open-mindedness is required for this sort of business. Be aware of your intentions."
What is your most memorable fashion moment throughout your career?
"Probably getting the funding that jumpstarted the business after my first pitch. I felt that my pitch was successful and they believed our idea as we were asking for a big chunk of money. I was quite proud of both myself and the team."
Would you ever stray from your brand's DNA and do something a little different?
"I would love to, definitely. For my business partner and I, our brand is a design playground for us as we like to collaborate with other local designers and feed off of each other's market, or even create something new to the market. Other than that, we also like to market ourselves differently all the time. We like to do videos since it's easily relatable to people."
Do you have a muse?
"For me, when I create collections, I always have in mind a personality of who the girl is. And this girl could be a lot of references to other personalities that I like. I think she's very much like Caroline de Maigret. She's very effortless, and a rock 'n' roll chick. She smokes, drinks, likes to bike. A rebel but at the same time, she's not a show-off. She's just being herself. It's how a person carries themselves and that's what I feed on."