Fashion designer Man Chien casts a spell with her fairytale-inspired designs

Composed and collected, Man Chien exudes a calm confidence found only in experienced artisans — Pictures by Choo Choy May
Composed and collected, Man Chien exudes a calm confidence found only in experienced artisans — Pictures by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, March 1 — In the magical world of fashion designer Man Chien, once upon a time, there lived a boy and a girl. They made plans to meet in the forest at the magical Elder Tree. To preserve the life of the girl, the boy kept the girl in a butter cookie tin. When he arrived at the destination, he opened the lid and out flew fireflies. The lights danced around him — she’s by his side but no longer in her previous form.

For her Spring/Summer 2015 collection titled Preserved, designer and storyteller Man Chien weaves radiant fireflies, nightfall and butter cookies in her creations using materials like crayon, wax and ramie fibre.

Man Chien’s androgynous Wax Doodle Men’s Tailored Jacket is made of washed canvas. Method: Hand-drawn fireflies and doodles using wax dye (left). Man Chien’s Wax Doodle Summer Dress is made of pure cotton. Method: Hand-drawn butter cookies and doodles with wax dye (right)
Man Chien’s androgynous Wax Doodle Men’s Tailored Jacket is made of washed canvas. Method: Hand-drawn fireflies and doodles using wax dye (left). Man Chien’s Wax Doodle Summer Dress is made of pure cotton. Method: Hand-drawn butter cookies and doodles with wax dye (right)

Key looks from her collection include a unisex blazer with yellow fireflies drawn on a blue background with crayon. Man Chien uses a type of treatment to ensure that the colour stays vibrant even after washing. A twist to the evening gown is a white maxi dress adorned with butter cookie and firefly motifs. The two pieces represent the two main protagonists in the fairy tale.

The Neoprene Cocoon Dress is the only neoprene design in the collection. Method: Hand-moulded butter cookie with resin (left). This hand-moulded butter cookie is inspired by a real cookie! (right)
The Neoprene Cocoon Dress is the only neoprene design in the collection. Method: Hand-moulded butter cookie with resin (left). This hand-moulded butter cookie is inspired by a real cookie! (right)

Also in the collection are tops and bottoms, all handcrafted by the deft yet detailed fingers of Man Chien. Her workshop in the sleepy town of Seremban is filled with fabrics, storyboards, doodles and paintings.

You also find woodwork and prototypes of her accessories line, like Charpente frame and paper handbags hung neatly beside rows of sample designs.

As a fashion designer with a sharp eye for details, Man Chien also has an accessory line with woodwork and treated paper
As a fashion designer with a sharp eye for details, Man Chien also has an accessory line with woodwork and treated paper

“I’ve been testing out the Charpente line for a year and I found that the paper becomes leathery over time because of how I processed it. In fact, the wooden frame is more prone to scratches than the paper,” said Man Chien who loves using natural materials in her work.

Under the Preserved line, there are two noteworthy pieces that are minimalist yet stunning in their own way. A black evening gown with sheer shimmering fireflies and a golden butter cookie shaped brooch would definitely make you the belle of the ball. For something more versatile, the one and only neoprene dress in the collection, is a dark blue shift dress with a black butter cookie shaped brooch.

In this collection, she is introducing more synthetic fabric to add colour to her work.

Previously, she was working under another label that uses eco-friendly fibres. Usually, she prefers using white coloured fabric like linen and cotton in her work. Now, she uses a mix of natural as well as synthetic fabrics to target a broader market of customers.

Born and raised in Seremban to a family with an artistic background, Man Chien graduated from the Raffles Design College in Kuala Lumpur. Her first passion is fine arts while fashion design is an extension of her love. Through her work, you can see that her inspirations come from travelling around the world. In her early teens, she was fascinated with Gothic Lolita fashion as well as the fashion scene in Harajuku, Tokyo.

After working in Malaysia upon graduation, she went to Singapore to pursue her career. Her collection can be found at Singapore’s Shop The Mag (www.shopthemag.com), a retail site that features independent designers from Asia. She returned to Malaysia after a few years.

What makes Man Chien stand out from the crowd is her storytelling through art
What makes Man Chien stand out from the crowd is her storytelling through art

“All of my designs are handmade by me and sometimes I hardly sleep because I’m busy sketching, sewing or doing woodwork for my line. Malaysians are not willing to pay much for independent local designers and that’s why I prefer to sell my collections overseas. I am however, working with someone to create a more affordable range for Malaysians,” said Man Chien who has close to a decade of experience after completing her studies.

The accomplished fashion designer won “The Most Promising Designer of the Year” award in 2011, and “Next Generation Fashion” award the following year. Both the awards were given out during the Malaysia International Fashion Week. Despite her achievements, Man Chien is down-to-earth and friendly when you meet her. She often travels to Kuala Lumpur to do her day-to-day tasks as a fashion designer. For her more commercial pieces, she prefers to outsource it to a team.

When asked why she moved back to her hometown, Man Chien said that she wanted to be with her family and Seremban is a nice, relaxing place, which allows her to focus on her work. When needed, she would visit Hong Kong and Japan to source for fabrics but she is mostly stationed in Malaysia. Singapore is a place she often visits as her collection is sold there.

Her Spring/Summer 2015 collection consists of one-off bespoke pieces with unique method of treatments
Her Spring/Summer 2015 collection consists of one-off bespoke pieces with unique method of treatments

“Being online is a good thing because sometimes I buy materials online. You can also shop for my collection in Singapore but you have to pay in Singapore dollars! People there are willing to spend. I had one customer who wanted me to custom-make a wedding dress. The original one comes in white with a black painting but for her registration of marriage ceremony, I designed a lilac one according to her size,” said Man Chien.

Usually, a lot of fashion designers in Malaysia struggle to survive due to the high costs of manufacturing. Most of the time, the fashion designers themselves sew their collection one by one because of quality control. When you factor in the type of material, the treatment and fine details that goes into each piece, you may end up making a loss, if it is sold at a fast fashion price.

To avoid this, most Malaysian fashion designers prefer to sell at other countries where there is a higher purchasing power. Some lucky fashion designers get a devoted following locally but it is usually expatriates who are willing to pay a higher price. Man Chien knows that to succeed as a fashion designer in Malaysia, this means, she has to make high quality pieces, which is targeted to those who appreciate her creativity behind the design.

Visit www.manchien.com to shop her collection.

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