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Q&A: Carven Ong on versatility as an essential tool in creative design

Known for his breathtaking couture pieces, Malaysian fashion designer Carven Ong tackles the theme of ‘Old Malaysia’ for the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur 2021, with a fun twist.

When one thinks of Carven Ong, they think of wedding gowns, or chic evening dresses. It’s the brand that he has built himself on, starting from his debut collection back in 1991 at MODA Wanita Fashion Show to his self-named label, ‘Carven Ong Couture’, specialising in exclusive custom-made bridal and evening gowns.

With over thirty years as a renowned designer in the local fashion industry under his belt, Ong’s continuous dedication has turned his passion and hobby into a lifetime career. But Ong always seeks to try new things, and that include exploring new styles as well as working on various platforms.

In 2017, Ong had the opportunity to work with Hollywood’s premier costume designer, Mary E. Vogt, to produce couture pieces for the big hit film, Crazy Rich Asians. Ong designed and custom-made the iconic waterproof wedding gown and the sequined jumpsuit worn by the character Araminta Lee.

“It was the first time I’ve collaborated with a movie. It was a very challenging experience,” Ong says of his time working with Vogt on Crazy Rich Asians, “but altogether it was very fun. I would definitely love to venture into that again.”

Ong laments the slow season and stagnancy of the fashion industry that has been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, but expresses that it has given him the opportunity to explore beyond the style that he’s always been known for, and to experiment with new designs.

Carven Ong and his models, at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur 2021.

At the recent Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur, Ong puts forth thirty-three new pieces that centre around the theme of ‘Old Malaysia’, with various callbacks to motifs that are reminiscent of fashion styles from the 1960s to 1980s. Bright and bold colours take to the stage, accented by patterns of the past that somehow just feel Malaysian while also evocative of a foreign concept.

Just before we got to see the show up close at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week KL, we sit down with Carven Ong to talk about his inspiration behind the collection for the show, as he shares his experience working on Crazy Rich Asians.

What would you say that you’re bringing differently for the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur 2021?

The collection that I’m presenting at the show will be for my Spring/Summer collection next year. And I think people will find my latest collection quite interesting, as I’ve never done anything like it before. A lot of people assume that I would be doing an evening gown or bridal gown collection for the show, and that’s exactly why I decided to make this collection different from my couture label.

Mercedes-Benz actually invited us designers to do this show back in June last year, but it was pushed back because of the pandemic. And so, I felt that if I were to present the collection I had planned for last year, it would be pretty old-fashioned by now. So, after they announced that the show would be put on for this year, I had about one month to work on a whole new collection. I decided to make it an ‘easy’ one—simple, bright and happy.

Tell us the inspiration behind this collection.

Since we’re unable to travel, I felt that it was best to stick to my roots and so I chose to design around a Malaysian theme, “Old Malaysia”. The inspiration for my collection is purely Malaysian—while also being international. I think the cultures of our country are very rich and amazing, with outfits from the Malay culture, Indian and Chinese, and mixing them all together while still keeping an international air about it. That was the idea.

So, would you say that it’s like a fusion between different cultures?

Yes, exactly. It’s a very simple idea, but what I wanted to do was make it interesting. The theme is called “Old Malaysia” because it’s taken from a song by a Japanese singer back in 1963. I love the song, and I took my ideas from it. That same song will be played during the show, too! (laughs)

I also use a lot of colourful outfits in this collection, because I feel that it’s been such a long period of the pandemic and everyone is feeling down, so it’s nice to have a celebration of fun before we close the year. I played with all kinds of colours and fused them with Malaysian motifs like wayang kulit and henna, which are also printed onto the outfits. I’d say that the combination of colours I chose is interesting and striking, at the same time very unexpected.

While you’re drawing on the theme of “Old Malaysia” for the collection, would you say that this is your way of modernising it as well?

That’s correct. I thought to myself: it’s a show, so why not make it more fun? Especially since we have to compromise, due to the SOP restrictions. Our models must have their masks on, so I took that opportunity to incorporate it into the outfits as well—turn them into accessories, instead of something that’s covering their faces. I designed the masks into different shapes, like the Petronas Twin Towers, to make it more fun.

What is your opinion on the current fashion trends, and of retro fashion coming back in style?

Older fashion trends will always make a comeback. I see it a lot in everything, especially shoes. I’ve noticed that platform shoes are coming back in style, and those were very popular back in the 1970s. But now everyone’s wearing it! (laughs) I also like to put this concept into my pieces, so you’ll notice that the shoes during the show are very tall, and in vibrant colours. What I love about platform shoes is that they match with almost anything—jumpsuits, short skirts, dresses. It adds a really fun layer to the whole look.

On the topic of fashion comebacks, what is your definition of ‘timeless’ in terms of fashion?

I think that completely depends on the design. For me, I’d relate it to elegance. Timeless fashion is something that’s also elegant.

You’ve accomplished so much in your time within the fashion industry, from your ‘Carven Ong Couture’ label and ready-to-wear brand, to working with Vogt on Crazy Rich Asians. What have you not accomplished yet that you want to?

I’m very proud of my involvement in Crazy Rich Asians. Because of my gown design in the film, I’ve had clients from all over, including New York. It’s really surprising and surreal to me that I’ve had a celebrity fly down to Malaysia to see me, asking me to design her wedding dress. It’s really an honour. She has also invited me to dress her up for the Met Gala in 2022. When I asked her why she chose me to be her designer, she said she was inspired by my designs in Crazy Rich Asians. And now, every time she goes to an event, she’ll call me up and I’ll design her outfits, since I already have her measurements.

Tell us more about your experience working on Crazy Rich Asians. What was your inspiration for that iconic wedding dress in the film?

When I was first contacted to join the project, I had no idea that it was going to be such a huge thing. I thought it was just someone looking to loan some dresses, or seeking sponsorship. They told me that I was selected to design the main dress—the outfit for the wedding scene.

They wanted it to look very exclusive and expensive. I worked closely with Mary E. Vogt on it. Vogt also did the costume design for movies like Catwoman previously, and she’s a big fan of jumpsuits. So, I said, “Why don’t we do a jumpsuit for the wedding? It’s never been done before!” (laughs) She agreed, and so we went ahead with it.

The iconic wedding dress featured in the film ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. (Image credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

 

The whole thing took about three weeks to complete. The schedule was very, very tight, but somehow I managed to complete everything. And I was also asked to design quite a few outfits for the film—I created a total of nine, including the outfits that the characters wore to the beach. They wanted me to design outfits for the other actors, too, but I just couldn’t because of the tight schedule. If I’d had more time, then maybe I could have done more. But overall, it was a very good experience for me.

For you personally, what are the most important facets of the fashion industry?

I think, as of now, exposure and getting out there. We’ve had a really slow one or two years doing not much of anything. I’m hoping that it’ll pick up again soon, and our fashion industry will have more opportunities to build up our very talented designers that we have in Malaysia. That’s why shows like the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and KL Fashion Week are important, because they’re platforms for young local designers for us to get the chance to be exposed and present their work. So, hopefully we’ll be able to pick up again, and also that the government will extend their support toward Malaysian designers.

I feel that within Malaysian culture — even when I did the designs for Miss Universe — I’ve learned that we actually have so many ideas we want to express. In Asian countries especially, our culture is so rich and amazing. We’re very lucky to have multicultural communities, and because of that we have so much to work with. Hopefully, with that, people will start to see that fashion is actually very interesting, and that it’s a form of art on its own.

Puteri Yasmin Suraya
Brand and Partnerships Writer
As a literature buff, Yasmin has a deep love for fiction and poetry. When she’s not writing or café-hopping, she enjoys binge-watching period romances, (badly) belting out show tunes, and curating Spotify playlists to match her mood for the week.
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