When Datuk Bernard Chandran talks about fashion, his latest collection or his family, he speaks with such zeal, it is undeniable that one overruling emotion that pervades everything he does is passion. Sitting on a Philippe Starck Lucite chair in the inner sanctum of his boutique in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Bernard is as photogenic as any of the models he sends down his runway.
He’s garbed in a V-neck T-shirt, skinny black jeans and white Rick Owens sneakers while a women’s Maison Margiela tailcoat completes his outfit of the day. His wrists are accessorised with beads, bangles and a faux gold and diamond watch which is actually made from sequins and embroidered fabric.
“This is my warrior look; it makes me feel strong and spiritual and I look young too,” enthuses Petaling Jaya-born Bernard, 48.
His wavy hair is pulled back in a bun and he has at least a day’s worth of stubble. He looks rugged and au courant and despite it being a studied look, it’s one which only a fashion maestro like Bernard can pull off with insouciance.
At the time of the interview, Bernard is in the midst of preparing for the 10th anniversary of his Petang Raya presentation; it took place on May 12 in the the spanking new St. Regis Kuala Lumpur. Graced by royalty, the show was a glittering affair with the beau monde of Malaysian society in attendance. Surrounded by bales of neatly stacked fabrics, Bernard appears energised and his ebullience is infectious.
“After 10 years doing the Petang Raya Collection, I now know what I’m good at and what my strengths as a designer are,” he says of his evolution as a couturier. “I excel in doing super luxe and there’s a clientele for this. I felt a sense of freedom and was totally liberated.”
But free from what? “From rules and convention. When I designed this collection, I wasn’t bound by what it should or shouldn’t be like or what people might think.
“I did it according to my mood. When I drew it, I took it there. I didn’t hesitate; I was clear.”
Sounds like he’s come into his own. According to Bernard, he was completely hands-on and consumed while designing this Petang Raya collection and he even forwent his daily gym workouts and CrossFit classes just to focus on designing this collection.
And don’t mention his critics because with his new-found confidence, Bernard might just tell them where to go.
“In the past, some people who haven’t even seen my show but heard about it from someone else who attended would say: ‘What’s wrong with his styling and his hair? Why did he put boots together with a baju raya on his models? And what’s with the belt on a baju kurung?’” Bernard says in mock exasperation. “But look now they are doing what I did five years ago!”
Having started the trend of the belted baju kurung, Bernard himself has had 25 years’ experience as a designer under his own belt. He studied fashion designing in Paris where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Paris American Academy and Pattern Making at L’Union Des Chambers Syndicales Parisiennes.
So how does he feel about his life and career at this point in time? “It’s kind of like a beginning of knowing exactly what fashion is,” he says unapologetically. “Because I’m more self-assured, I now speak my mind. We really must appreciate our own culture and heritage. As Asians, we tend to look up to European fashion and culture and yes, they are good at many things but our own culture is amazing too. They just might need to learn from us.”
He certainly doesn’t mince his words and now that he’s onto a topic close to his heart, he’s on a roll.
“We have our own aesthetics. I was brought up to see luxury differently. We have things tailor-made to our specifications. We go to a tailor and pay him RM50 and ask him to put a pleat here or a dart there and that is luxury. You don’t get that in Europe. Please utilise that!”
I’m unable to get a question in edgewise and his answer has morphed into a soliloquy. “Everyone is now saying they are buying this and that label online but that is just keeping up with the Joneses. Do you want to purchase clothes online like all these cattle or do you want to go to that little lady with her sewing machine and tell her you want a round-neck with a pleat at the back and walk out the door with an outfit that only you have?”
He breaks out in a laugh when he surmises that herd mentality is endemic among the fashionably insecure. “The most important is to be honest with yourself and have the right intention. It’s okay to make mistakes, I have made lots of mistakes in my business but you correct it and then slowly you will be refined and dignified.”
When Bernard presented his women’s Spring/Summer collection in Paris last September, he used his eldest son, Terimunite, 22, in his runway show where the designer showcased a few outfits from his menswear line. It’s not the first time he has designed menswear but it’s the first time he’s shown it in Paris which he intermingled with his women’s collection.
“My men’s collection is actually a translation from my women’s line. I change the cut to fit a man’s silhouette but the feeling, inspiration, colours and sporty look is the same for both my men’s and women’s collection.”
And was there any reason he decided to use his son as a model? “My children have always been interested about fashion and they know a lot about the history of fashion. They appreciate well-made and good quality clothes.” (Besides Terimunite, Bernard and his wife, former model Mary Lourdes, are parents to Trunan, 20, Tanzanite, 18, Tanestrran, 15 and Thanya Kumari, 14.)
Bringing Terimunite to Paris and exposing him to the wonders and chaos of fashion week must have made an indelible mark. That heady first dose of glamour has inspired Chandran Junior to study the business of fashion and he wants to be part of the industry.
“He went to castings with the other models and was backstage during the shows and saw how hard his father works!”
Bernard also proudly talks about Tanestrran, whom he describes as an artist. He sketched a woman’s portrait which was incorporated into Bernard’s collection last year.
Talent may be God given and creativity divinely inspired but in Bernard’s case, it’s also transmitted from generation to generation.