Malaysian Designers on Body Image in Fashion Industry

Fashion designers Cassey Gan, Celest Thoi, and Alia Bastamam speak exclusively to UNRESERVED following the “60kg” backlash.
Friday 20 April 2018
Ashley Graham was the first plus-size model to walk for Michael Kors. Screenshot: YouTube

It’s 2018. What consititutes ideal beauty is no longer skin-and-bone perfection. Beauty now comes in all shapes, sizes and colours, and it has sparked constructive conversations about body image all around the world.

But what’s an international movement if someone hadn’t missed the memo?

Malaysian fashion critic Zaihani Mohd Zain, also known as Kak Zai, recently faced backlash for suggesting that people over 60kg shouldn’t attend fashion shows as their thighs would spill over onto the seats next to them. She has since issued an apology, saying that her gripe was with manspreading, and that it wasn’t her intention to body-shame anyone.

By then, the hashtag #pehamelimpah (thighs spilling over) had taken over social media platforms, with people, especially women, posting photos of themselves and sharing their two cents about body image.

UNRESERVED spoke to Malaysian womenswear designers Celest Thoi, Cassey Gan and Alia Bastamam about body image.

“Discrimination should never have a place in society, fashion or any industry at all, for that matter,” said Gan, who said she was shocked when she first read Kak Zai’s comment. “We are all unique. We are who we are because we make certain choices in life that make us who we are! I think we should have the freedom to express ourselves and just be comfortable in our own skin.”

Malaysian designers Tom Abang Saufi and Calvin Thoo were some of the first to respond to the debacle. Thoo wrote on Facebook: “What right does one have to criticise plus-size people and [tell] them not to attend fashion shows?” Tom Abang Saufi posted a collage of front row celebrities and “heavyweights,” writing that no one in the photos seemed to have a problem sitting next to a plus-size person.

“I am totally against belittling others,” Thoi said. “Everyone is beautiful in their own way. The fashion industry has many divas, but seeing fellow designers speaking up here in Malaysia, it’s heart-warming to know this [body shaming] mentality is no longer accepted.”

It’s true, the global fashion scene is quickly shifting its mentality to accepting plus-size models and models of colour – not as an exception, but as regulars in campaigns and runway shows. Ashley Graham (pictured above) was the first plus-size model to walk for Michael Kors in February 2017, even though the American designer once said that it would be logistically impossible for him to include women above size 12 in his shows.

“It’s an encouraging sign,” Gan added. “We do need to see more brands embrace this to educate and change the public’s perception of the beauty norm.”

In Malaysia, the movement is taking a little longer to settle in, according to designer Alia Bastamam.

“We see international magazine covers and runways embracing the full figure, racial diversity, sexual identity, the list goes on,” Bastamam said. “But in Malaysia, not so much… yet. And I hope our fashion industry will challenge the common perception of beauty. Yes, it is happening, slowly but surely.”

Thoi, Gan, and Bastamam don’t just talk the talk – their labels take body diversity into consideration, as much as possible. Gan’s signature designs often feature loose silhouettes and clever panelling, and Thoi specialises in bespoke dresses, designed to suit a wide range of sizes. For Bastamam, promoting diversity is what drives her career.

“The reason why I came into this industry in the first place is to design clothes that I would want to wear myself,” she said. “I’m no sample size, so I know what to make and I cater to curvy women.”

Related: “I’m Sorry,” Says Fashion Critic Zaihani Mohd Zain