Malaysian designer Syomirizwa Gupta uses his multi-cultural heritage to remind us that we are all connected, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup
SYOMIRIZWA Gupta’s presentation last year in August at the Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week Ready-to-Wear was a breath of fresh air. Amidst other designers showing mostly minimalist outfits in plain fabric and muted colours, or dresses in stock silhouettes with elaborate embellishment, Syomirizwa reconstructed traditional Indian dresses and gave a contemporary spin to colourful batik prints.
“My mum is Indonesian and my dad is Indian,” says brand founder Syomir Izwa Sen-Gupta. “My multi-racial background has always been part of my design DNA but this is the first time I’m using my story for a collection.
“I had done pieces inspired by Yoko Ono and Frida Kahlo, and the Baba Nyonya and Melayu Peranakan in Penang. So I thought, why not do something about me?” adds the 41-year-old Kuala Lumpur native.
The Holiday 2018 collection has just hit the market and is available at the Syomirizwa Gupta boutique in Bangsar and fashion portal Zalora. It can also be found in shops in London, Singapore and Brunei.
The remade sarees and lenghas, as well as pelikat pant suits and batik dresses, are from Syomir’s childhood memories, of his relatives visiting from Rawa, Indonesia and Kolkata in India wearing their kebayas, sarees, kurtas and batik sarongs.
“Both sides of my family are big on dressing up. My dad’s side with their jewellery and my mum’s side with their outfits. They really looked after their appearance. It was so much fun seeing them get ready, doing their hair and picking their earrings. I grew up with a lot of that,” he says.
MUM’S THE WORD
Syomir also grew up watching Disney cartoons and old Hollywood musicals. He used to draw Snow White and Cinderella, copying the original designs and then becoming bored and changing the sleeves and whatnot.
His mum took notice, and suggested that instead of a cartoon animator, he might want to become a fashion designer. “What’s that?” the 11-year-old Syomir asked his mum.
“A fashion designer is someone who creates something beautiful for women that make them feel good. You see the big ball gowns from The King and I, those are all the work of fashion and costume designers,” she answered.
“I was surprised that there was such a thing,” says Syomir. “I was familiar with tailors but not designers, and I was amazed that I could do this for a living. I have never looked back. When I was in Form 4, I enrolled in a vocational school in Home Science and after SPM, I went to study fashion.”
In college, he made cocktail dresses for party-going friends and, after graduation, worked at a men’s apparel company for two years. Syomir learnt many useful things there, including how to design using Adobe Illustrator, but the job just wasn’t for him.
“It was so hard because there were so many limitations,” he says. “You have to find creative ways to manipulate a T-shirt or bermuda shorts. I mean, how do you make a polo shirt interesting?
“But that’s how you start paying attention to detail. I’m good with hidden details because of my two years working there.”
BRIDES AND SINGERS
Syomir left the company and began working full-time on his dressmaking business from college. He worked with an old colleague (who had also resigned), going back and forth between his boutique in Keramat and the sewing workshop in Sri Petaling.
“Nowadays you have WhatsApp and you can take pictures and draw arrows and things. Those days, how do you explain that you want this button to go a little bit to the right but also to the left, without actually meeting? I don’t drive, so I used to take the LRT and that’s how it was for nine years,” he says.
Syomir doesn’t have to commute much these days. His boutique in a house in Lorong Maarof, Bangsar serves as a store, a client consultation space and workshop. Garments from his main line as well as his bridalwear are produced in-house (“literally, in this house,” he says) while others are made in China.
Meanwhile, he credits his current accomplishments to two things — bridalwear and Yuna.
“When my party-going friends started to settle down, they asked me to design their engagement outfits, then it was the nikah and wedding reception outfits. I started getting known in the local bridal blogging scene as someone who does modern Malay bridalwear.”
His bridal designs sit somewhere between the over-the-top intricacies of Rizalman but more contemporary than Radzuan Radziwill. He doesn’t do chiffon or heavy embroidery, but the silhouette is classic Malay bridalwear.
He started working with Yuna in 2010. The singer-songwriter was looking to break from her casual, Converse-wearing style to more adventurous pieces. Syomir dressed her in heels and hooded jumpsuits for the Shout Awards, Anugerah Juara Lagu and various high-profile performances.
“For several years, I designed all the outfits for Yuna’s shows. She sang in Anugerah Juara Lagu and at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas wearing my designs. After that, she switched to Hatta Dolmat for her performance outfits.
“No, we didn’t have a falling out,” he says with a laugh. “But I became busy as I had other things I wanted to pursue, so I wasn’t that available to dress her.”
PAST TO FUTURE
One of the things Syomir was pursuing at the time was a ready-to-wear line. The Syomirizwa Gupta show at the first KLFW in 2015 featured models in headscarves and diaphanous dresses. He used mostly white, yellow, silver and blue in conventionally modern designs.
His signature traditional but contemporary style evolved over time. He designs kurtas as a tunic dress — it works as a conservative top when worn with trousers or a sexy, high slit dress when belted sans pants.
For his Raya 2018 collection for Zalora, Syomir found inspiration in Noor Aishah Mohammad Salim, the first First Lady of Singapore. He was taken by her grace and elegance while occupying the official role, resulting in a collection of 1960s-cut baju kurung and kebaya.
“She is a Burmese-Chinese girl adopted by a Javanese mum and Eurasian man who converted to Islam in Penang. She married a journalist from Perak who co-founded the Utusan Melayu newspaper, and moved to Singapore.
“Her husband, Yusof Ishak, was the Yang di Pertuan Negeri of Singapore when it was part of Malaya and then he became the first president of Singapore.”
Syomir sees Noor Aishah, now 85, as a symbol of regional interconnectedness. There was a time when borders were more fluid, and people weren’t so testy and defensive about what piece of heritage belonged to which country, because it was shared amongst all.
“The Nusantara spirit is about celebrating the differences and also the things we have in common,” he says. “People ask why I use Indonesian batik, that’s because she wears Javanese batik. I also use lace and brocade. That’s not exactly Malaysian either but that’s never been an issue.”
Like his Holiday 2018 collection, Syomir collaborated with Singaporean stage performer and batik collector Oniatta Effendi. Together, they picked pieces of handdrawn batik and reworked the patterns as digital reproductions.
Syomir adds that he dislikes the Arab-style abaya or ballgown dresses for Hari Raya. He’s keen to remind people of their history and heritage, through the clothes they wear as well as the stories behind them.
“There’s a particular beauty and subtle sensuality to baju kurung and kebaya. People have not seen this sort of thing in a long time. I want people to wear the collection and feel like they’ve been hugged by their mother or grandmother.”
“Fashion might be a superficial platform,” he adds “But it’s still a platform and I’m using it to remind people of what is important in life.”