A rebel at heart. That probably best describes Joe Chia, a 32-year-old designer who has made a name for Malaysia on the international fashion scene. His eponymous label is celebrated for its uniqueness and unwavering minimalist aesthetic.
The urban and edgy ready-to-wear pieces that he creates have adhered to one simple belief – you don’t have to overdesign to stand out. The man does not follow fashion trends either, and this has paid off.
Chia has presented his collections in various cities in the past. His runway shows travel the world, from Singapore, Jakarta and Manila to Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, Milan, Shanghai and Moscow, among many others.
That said, his latest collection (or “chapter”, as he prefers calls it) is about returning to where he began. In this, he draws from Malaysia as the major inspiration. Batik for example, makes an appearance.
“What we wanted to do is to fuse modernity and tradition together. We included batik prints, as well as actual sarong fabric into the designs. It is a way of presenting traditional fashion in a more contemporary way,” Chia explains.
Described as “rebellious, brutalist and minimal”, the collection is seen to also include deconstructed patterns and pleating details. Materials used are mainly natural fibres – linen, 100% cotton and wool.
In a bid to further promote Malaysia, each design sold will include a small postcard showing an image of Kelantan’s Pantai Cahaya Bulan. This is sort of a tribute to Chia’s home state. He hails from the town of Kok Lanas.
Chia acquired an interest in fashion and clothing at a young age. Back then he didn’t know anything about fashion and his first encounter with making clothes was altering the stuff he got from flea markets.
A graduate of the Raffles Design Institute, Malaysia, he launched his ready-to-wear line two years after entering the “real world”. It was in 2012 that the Joe Chia label was born – and it has taken off successfully ever since then.
Chia has caught the eye of many big brands. He has worked with Shu Uemura, Honda, Chivas, Sony, Reebok and G-Shock. In 2013, he designed a range of limited edition graphic T-shirts for Uniqlo.
In 2014, he was named “Asia’s Most Influential Designer” at Malaysia Fashion Week. He was chosen at that time by heads of fashion festivals and associations, international fashion media, trade buyers, and other prominent figures in the industry.
“We have an upcoming project with Fundamental from Japan, which celebrates craftsmanship. The label is known for its denim designs, as well as extensive use of traditional Japanese patchwork,” Chia reveals.
“I would say the purpose of the collaboration is to tell a story of how garments are made. It also shines a spotlight on the beauty of borrowed fabrics. The layering of old materials by patching can really create something beautiful.”
While the Joe Chia label is often categorised as menswear, the designer himself sees it otherwise. To him, his designs are meant for everyone. The pared-down silhouettes can be styled in any way, making them perfect for women too.
He points to co-founder Melissa Deng, who is now also his wife. She is often seen dressed in his designs. As a couple, they have frequently been spotted together at fashion weeks wearing the clothes they made – the perfect picture of urban minimalism.
“I have always been stronger at being at the back end of the label and the company, and it’s still the same for today,” says Deng, 28, who also holds the responsibility as the operations director of the Joe Chia label.
“We are a very small company and a tight team. Being at the forefront, it depends on the situation and when it requires me to. This goes to the both of us. You learn to juggle between both positions eventually.”
On the challenges of being a designer, Chia notes that the industry is moving extremely fast. Technology is taking over the manufacturing process.
“You can actually print clothes these days. With a machine, I can produce a garment in, like, four minutes just by feeding in yarn. So you now have so many possibilities of making clothes, which has changed the tailoring trade,” he says.
Deng adds that, locally, the creative scene is growing. In recent years, there have been much more events that provide platforms for local talents – not only in fashion, but music and art too.
“I think it has definitely become an up-and-coming industry to look out for, and it is also very exciting to see how it will develop, especially when we move into the coming years,” she says.