Inside the Atelier: Fern
Think of batik and chances are the traditional geometric and floral patterns on indigo and brown fabrics will come to mind, but in recent years, many designers aim to change that by radiating a trendier appeal with their designs. With her tagline "The New Batik", Fern Chua, in particular, is making waves in the industry. I remember first discovering Fern at a Riuh bazaar two years back, where her contemporary yet minimalist batik pieces caught my attention. Fast forward to now, the brand has opened its first flagship store in Bangsar, and if you've yet to check it out, you should. To get to know more about the brand, we paid a visit to Fern's workshop in Rawang, where we had a behind-the-scenes look at the batik-making process, and I even got to experience making my first batik piece.
The brand has been around since 2013, how did it come about?
It actually happened accidentally. About 10 years ago now I met a car accident, where I had two tendons and median nerve cut on my left wrist, and that really impacted my hand movement for six months. During that period of time I really thought about what I wanted to do, so I decided to pick up sewing to rehabilitate my hand movement. One thing led to another, from there I actually bought some batik materials from Central Market and I fell in love with it. I made it into a sundress and I thought to myself "Hey there's something more interesting than what it seems to be", and I decided to move on to that path. So that really gave me the whole inspiration to learn more about batik. Few years later, I stumbled across this brand called Ruzz Gahara. They create all these beautiful batik textiles, and I fell in love with their work. We actually did a collaboration and tried to sell it in Singapore, and also in KL, and the response was great. Not long after, I enrolled myself in a competition called Fashion Pitch by My Creative Ventures, and I won the competition. So that's how the ball got rolling from there.
What's the one big difference between your batik and the traditional batik?
Batik has evolved into something more freeform. It's great, but unfortunately it has always been very floral-ish and traditional in a sense that the colour combination is usually quite loud, so of course, it's very hard for people to be receptive towards the idea of batik. I've always thought about what I can evolve it to, and how can I use my inspiration to develop patterns and colours that we actually use for the collection.
How's the process of making one of your batik pieces like? Does it differ from the traditional batik?
I always tell the story of my travels or things I come across through every collection, so I would snap a lot of pictures of the nature, the landscape, or something that catches my eye, and I would share these pictures with my team. From there, we would brainstorm the colour combinations, fashion trends, and things that people tend to like. I'm known to be the rebel when it comes to batik-making, I don't submit myself into doing canting work. I usually use all sorts of tools, down to sponges and brushes—anything I can translate the wax onto the fabric.
Can you tell us more about your latest collections?
The Coral series is a little different from the previous collections that I've done. I brought my team to Perhentian Island, and we went diving with GoPro cameras, snapping pictures of the corals everywhere we went. It's so fun because in terms of developing patterns and colours, it's always best to refer it to nature and not just Pinterest. During the trip, I also realised that the corals are dying, and it's really heartbreaking. So when we released the collection during Raya, we also gave back to the Perhentian Marine research project. We wanted to educate our customers that this problem is real, and we need to do something to preserve our nature.
As for the upcoming Fern collection, it holds dearly because my name is Fern (laughs). When we were planning the launch for our flagship store, I knew that I'd like to dedicate a collection to my dad who's a big fan of nature, and who named me after fern. Unfortunately, he has passed away. It has always been emotional for me whenever I talk about him, but only recently I realised that my love for nature was because of my dad. So when I develop patterns, it's actually based on all these elements he has taught me, and I want to dedicate the collection to him.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges you face, not only as a batik brand but as a fashion brand to thrive in Malaysia?
The thing with the batik industry is that it's getting more saturated in terms of florals and abstract prints overused, but it only comes down to the core—how do you be different, how do you be unique. For me, it's about creating your own patterns, down to the colour combinations. To see what technique actually works, and to be able to do something different than what another batik-maker is doing.
Can you tell us more about your flagship store in Bangsar Village II?
A flagship store has always been a dream of mine; I am very grateful that the dream is now a reality. Fern's flagship store is designed to be very welcoming and comfortable for our customers, we want to offer them a physical space where they can browse our collection, try the pieces as well as customise them. One main highlight of the store is our lounge area. Here, customers are able to have a one-on-one consultation with our staff to fully customise a piece of their own. I believe for a brand like mine, it is important to have customers really experience our pieces in a physical space as opposed to just looking at images online. With the Fern Batik + Artisanal Collective Flagship Store, we are also able to bring in other designs from local and international artisans. These accessories really complement my pieces, and I'm also always looking for ways to try to help out other artisans' brands.
What's your proudest achievement so far?
After winning the Fashion Pitch back in 2013 and starting my label, it's honestly very overwhelming to be where I am today. I have received such great support and positive feedback from loyal customers as well as prominent people in the batik industry. I am truly thankful for all of this, it is great to see that all my hard work and efforts all these years has paid off. Opening this flagship store is, to date, my highest achievement. And all of this is possible because of the support I have.
What's next for the brand?
We are looking to launch a few more collections in the coming months, so watch out for it! One of which will be the Fern series.
Below, the final product (which I'm very proud of!):
Fern is located at UGF-17A, Upper Ground Floor, Bangsar Village II, No. 2, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur.