Another fashion week in Malaysia, another sartorial controversy
Barely three weeks after the chest-baring controversy at Kedah Fashion Week (KFW)* that led to nation-wide disapproval and apology from the organiser, Malaysia is seeing another contentious fashion choice that riled up the watchful, not-necessarily-fashion-consuming public, this time in the capital. At the closing day of Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week (KLFW) 2022 last Sunday, the city’s “king of viral fashion” Tan Kel Wen (陳楷文) attended the show of his own label Behati at the Pavilion Kuala Lumpur mall in a self-designed, oversized, ankle-length, quilted happi coat (it was 31°C that afternoon in KL) over a pair of folded-down-at-the-waist, knotted-in-front-like-a-sampin shorts. The 26-year-old l, who has no qualms in casting himself as a model in his brand’s communication material, was shirtless under the outer, but it was not specifically this show of some skin that irked Malaysian Netizens. It was his choice of headwear: A black songkok—traditional, flat-top (atap leper) headgear worn by Malay males throughout the Malay/Indonesian archipelago, Brunei, and the south of the Philippines and Thailand.
Many Netizens took offence to his pairing of the headwear with his “half-naked” self, as one put it, when commenting on the photo he posted on Instagram. Others thought it disrespectful that he would bare part of his chest and limps while donning the brimless, close-fitting-at-the-sides hat that is commonly associated with going to the mosque. In another photo, also shared on IG, Mr Tan took to the stage at the end of his afternoon show with his muse, the beauty entrepreneur/“online personality”/singer of cheesy pop Dato’ Seri Vida (aka Hasmiza binti Othman), wearing another black songkok, now with a pin of his brand’s logo—a stylised image of a man in an oversized baju melayu (traditional Malay dress) striking a pose on bended knees—fastened to the right. To bask in the post-show glory, he donned a massively oversized shirt (with padded shoulders and the outline of the augmentation visible) and a plain black tie, and a waist-high short-sarong-as-mini-skirt.
Designer Kel Wen and Internet star Dato’ Seri Vida on the runway at KLFW 2022
In a lengthy IG post to defend himself against the antagonists, who are referred to as “commenters”—although he is prone to calling them “haters”—and “to educate” them, Mr Tan considers the songkok “a formal cultural headgear, not entirely a religious headgear that’s only worn for Islamic prayers”, adding that “in Malaysia it gets more complicated when different races wear the headgear for different purposes.” He did not say what the purposes were or that his wearing of the songkok was, therefore, to simplify things. Mr Tan, who prides himself as an ardent researcher, with a voracious appetite for his homeland culture, also pointed out to the provenance of the songkok. He claimed that the “Songkok doesn’t originate from the Malay community… Malays do not (sic) wear Songkok in Melaka Sultane (sic)” and “the first Songkok traces back to Ottoman Fez”. It is not known why he thinks the connection is that linear. He does not state the sources behind his assertion.
The fez itself does not have a straightforward history. According to author on Moorish culture Cozmo El, in his book The Secret of the Fez, the hat, which the Arabs call tarboosh, is claimed by some to have originated in ancient Greece, with some even pointing to the Balkans. Similarly, the songkok has a rather obscure beginning. No historian of Malay culture has yet drawn a direct link between the songkok and the “Ottoman fez”. There are similarities between the two, but it is hard to see why a largely tribal community would look to an empire with a capital some nine thousand kilometres away for aesthetic ideas. The popular thought is that the songkok arrived in Malaysia in the 13th century (Mr Tan prefers a later date: “19th century”)—when Islam was spreading in Southeast Asia—by way of India, where the fez-like headwear was improved with the addition of paper between the sides to make it tougher and more rigid. And it is not difficult to see the songkok’s popularity rising alongside the ascent of Islam. That the songkok is considered to be distinctly Malay is also due to the craftsmen of the early years, who refined the shape of the hat into the oval (as opposed to the round of the fez) that is recognisable today.
Behati’s latest collection based on Peranakan dress
Mr Tan is not wrong to say that non-Malays wear the songkok too. In several black and white photographs dated June 1963, shared by the National Archives of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was seen wearing one when he conducted a walkabout in Ulu Pandan (now part of the Holland -Bukit Timah GRC). On that day, he was attired in a white, short-sleeved, open-neck shirt and loose, dark trousers. There were other occasions as well (on one, he wore a songkok with the word “Malaysia” across its front), and each time, Mr Lee was suitably dressed. While it is not compulsory for Muslim men to wear the songkok, many do, especially with the baju melayu, even the batik shirt. Western fashion can be considered, provided, as one songkok-wearing Muslim friend told us, it is “tasteful or worn tastefully”.
In the age of TikTok, taste is subjective. As he kept to his penchant for viral results and adverse criticisms (in one TV interview, he said, “my work is known to get [sic] viral, to get negative comments”), Mr Tan may have not considered that the songkok has not quite achieved the sebarang (anything-will-do) status of social media, and that many Malays do regard the wearing of one with considerable rectitude. Defiantly, he wrote on IG, insisting on his sense of propriety: “I did not wear Songkok with a sexy underwear or reveal any sensitive parts of my body that shows nudity. Showing my knees like most malay (sic) men out there is a common fashion today.” Curiously, he compares the exposure of nearly half of both of his legs with “a Hijabi who wears the Tudung with their (sic) neck out (sic)“. (Are there such short tudungs?). The race card came in the conclusion: “I’m not Muslim, but wearing a Songkok signifies that I accept and learn the religion in my own personal lifestyle. If you can’t accept, it only means that you’re racist and that’s the real problem here.”
A groom’s outfit for the Behati ‘Peranakan’ collection
Mr Tan did not, however, draw flak for just his personal attire alone. The clothes he presented for Behati on the runway at KLFW attracted unfavourable criticism too. Based on “mixed race, mixed culture, mixed tradition”, the Peranakan-themed collection had all the fervour of a graduate show and the appeal of a cultural village gift shop. Mr Tan’s adoration for his nation’s plural culture is palpable, but he does not consider a judicious use of the myriad things, big and small, that he adores to keep the end result from being laughing matter. Or, worse, the proverbial rojak. There is something naive about his love for the cross-cultural. His critics were not just unimpressed with the baju-panjangs-as-duster-coats, kebaya blouses teamed with cargo joggers, or the 结婚绣球花 (jiehun xiuqiuhua)—wedding ribbon ball—strapped to a white suit worn under a sheer baju panjang festooned with tassels, but for the four model-dancers who performed and strutted their stuff in fake kebaya tops (two were very cropped!) and triangular fabrics tied to the waist like a pareo and exposing considerable rump. Any bibik would say the clothes (and their wearers) are tak senonoh (indecent). Behati fans applauded the social media-worthy liberties taken, but others were appalled, with one IG user going as far as to describe the seeming impropriety as “rape the tradition”.
An alumnus of Raffles Design College in KL, Tan Kel Wen graduated with a diploma in fashion design and then cut his teeth as assistant designer with compatriot Lee Khoon Hooi (李坤辉). Until five years ago, he was working with the veteran. Mr Lee told South China Morning Post last February: “I’ve always been influenced by different cultures because Malaysia has a multinational community.” Sounds familiar? The style of his eponymous label has unfailingly been described as “feminine” or “romantic”, with no discernible visual defiance that would come to define his young protégé, who must have been so influenced by his former employer that he reprised Mr Lee’s use of tassels as repeated motif from 2019 for his current Peranakan collection. Some ten years ago, when he was putting out flounced dresses and one-shoulder numbers, Mr Lee Khoon Hooi was considered Malaysia’s Alber Elbaz.
Behati’s culture-show-as-fashion-show at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur
Mr Tan founded Behati in 2018 as a label—self-touted to be “modern traditionalist”—that brings together the aesthetic traditions of Malaysia, seen through a lens focused on streetwear, while amping up the brand’s ethno-social appeal. He calls it “blending urban and heritage”. Recently, he told L’Officiel Malaysia, “As people say, nothing is original anymore but there’s always something new, and mixing cultures is a way to create.” Born in the historic state of Melaka, he, in fact, grew up, further south, in the coastal town of Muar, Johor. He attended Sekolah Tinggi Muar (High School Muar), housed in a building—erected in 1914—that is not far from the sea, and was a member of the school’s choir. His love for music has never waned and he claimed to have been writing music since he was 15 years old. His mother is a retired school teacher who taught English and music in a Malay school. He shared on IG that “growing up, I always wanted to write like her, sing like her”. Although he moved to KL to further his studies and to pursue a career in fashion, he has not put aside music, and continues to perform under the “stage name” Khai, the first of his two-word Chinese moniker. He has even released a Malay language dance single and an accompanying music video—under Khai + Haus of RN—Demam Cinta (Love Sick).
By his own account, he has “been wearing traditional clothes for Raya since (he) was younger”, keeping his love of Malaysian multi-culturalism, and indeed nationalism, on his sleeve, constantly; not even shying away from naming the previous collection “kampung”—almost another country in the antarabangsa (international) capital of Kuala Lumpur. According to the KL-based news site World of Buzz, Mr Tan revealed that “Behati is a word of African origin, which means ‘blessed’”. And, a female pronoun, such as the name of Namibian model Behati Prinsloo, wife of Adam Levine. It seems rather odd that, being unabashedly proud of his Malaysian identity, he would use an African name for a brand. Mr Tan told the podcast Borak Sini Habis Sini (Chat Here, End Here) that he thinks that behati sounds a little like the Malay word for blessing, berkati. For his latest runway show, no African or Malay text was used—the back drop was an expansive sheet of red, with the Chinese pronunciation of his brand name, 百哈迪 (bai ha di) written in massive calligraphic strokes. Whether this amounts to creative schizophrenia or is just a happy campuran (mix), it is perhaps too early to say, but Behati is exactly the gratuitous pastiche that social media feeds on. Despite its hybridised image, the brand is considered an “Internet sensation”.
Aina Abdul in Behati going to the Behati show
In 2019, one particular garment Mr Tan created evoked both delight and derision: The “oversized baju Melayu”. The press preferred the euphemism “mixed reaction”. This was no re-designing of the men’s two-piece (formerly known by the once gender-neutral term baju kurung, which now only refers to the version for women), comprising a tunic-like baju (top) and loose seluar (trousers), but a re-proportioning of the garments in a similar vein to the exaggerated sizing of early Vetements (now VTMNTS. Behati subsequent tailored suits would, for most, recall Balenciaga’s). Most Malays did not wish for their beloved baju to be so radically up-sized—”this was no French fries at McDonald’s”, one retired Malaysian model told us. Believed to have originated from the court of the Malacca Sultanate (as early as the 1400s), the baju Melayu is already loose-fitting, with virtually no change to the silhouette since its introduction. In a move that supporters consider “ingenious”, Mr Tan made his baju so large that some had such huge armholes that entire tops were, horizontally, almost an oblong, from end to end, when the arms are stretched out. For the images shared on social media, Mr Tan had his models pose like the stylised figures of Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming’s (朱銘) Tai Chi bronzes. The silhouettes, including that of the logo, were so similar, it’s tempting to say he could have been inspired by the artist’s work. He described the images as “avant-garde”.
Behati and Mr Tan’s online reputations were further enhanced in the past two years when stars and celebrities came to the designer for special commissions. Two most noted are the aforementioned muse Dato’ Seri Vida, who, at the Behati show, modeled a colourful dress that could be seen as a tent made of scraps of 云肩 (yun jian) or cloud collar. And a tagine on her head. “Culturally-mixed fashion”, as Mr Tan described the design on IG, or Gen-Z oriental camp? And, looking even more absurd, Aina Abdul. Also dressed by Behati, the Johor-born songstress (who shared on IG: “I loveeeee how this look turned out 🖤 Major love!”) was entrapped in what could be a mass of deflated, balled-up fabric. As she moved, she looked like a cartoon likeness of a black cloud. Only her face and her hands were shown. In fact, she did not appear to be wearing a dress; she seemed upholstered. Perhaps, in Kuala Lumpur, as one IG user commented, paraphrasing what Tan Kel Wen said on a Jack and Jill Potato Chip TV commercial, “ini(lah) baru fashion show.”
*Not to be confused with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur
Photos: kel_wen and behati.my/Instagram