A dress in Behati’s seasonal koleksi Raya is inspired by the food served when celebrants of Eid go mengunjung. Maaf zahir dan batin*
By Awang Sulung
Betul tak sangka. I really did not think Behati designs could be this kreatif. The Kuala Lumpur-based brand, founded and designed by Tan Kel Wen, recently launched their seasonal collection of “busana melayu (Malay fashion)” for Hari Raya, bursting with more tradisi than the fasting month of Ramadan. Apart from their oversized baju melayu and baju kurong, which brought them early attention that fledgling brands need but infrequently gain, there is one outer—the brand calls it a “cape”—that is so bonkers that major Behati fan Dato Seri Vida might actually say tidak to it. It is the dress made of ketupats (Malay rice dumplings), frequently served at Hari Raya feasts, or a version of them, so gaudy that the hanging ornaments at Wisma Geylang Serai at this time of the year look somewhat skimpy. I have no idea why anyone would want such an outfit to go mengunjung (visiting) during Eid al-Fitr; I doubt even the satay man desires his wife to dress like this. I see national costume for Miss Universe. Or, a Pizza Hut ad.
Sure, the baju, fastened in the rear, is probably not inspired by the ketupats wrapped in daun kelapa (coconut leaf) ready to be immersed into boiling water to cook although they are bunched in similar fashion and in sufficient quantity to feed a kampung. For Hari Raya, Malay families hang the familiar rhomboid cases woven from polypropylene ribbons rather than coconut leaves in their homes as festive ornaments. Behati’s dress looked like they had been part of someone holiday decoration, but as the ketupats—as colourful as bunga manggar (sprays of shredded or ripped paper on a pole erected at the entrance of the venue of a wedding ceremony)—were somewhat lembik (limp), even flattened, they appeared to be ketupat kosong (empty). Still, it did not deter Mr Tan from calling it by the alliterative and irony-free ketupat kutior (couture). And fittingly, there’s even a “rumah Behati”, or Maison Behati. In a video shared on social media, Mr Tan was seen wearing the outfit and shimmying to show how tremulous the ketupats could be. And if you do not know what a ketupat is, Mr Tan, in a Wikipedia-like post, offered a serious explanation, showing the thorough research he did to give credibility to his kutior. The ketupat, we are informed, is “made using the traditional Anyaman technique (an artisanal weaving style mostly associated with basketry)” although they do not appear to differ from those you might find at a Ramadan bazaar, and secured “on a studded Songket (Malay brocade) cape”. What it is studded with, he did not state.
Jetty cool: Behati’s take on the baju kurong for their Raya fashion this year
Tan Kel Wen, who calls himself a “pahlawan (warrior) realness”, is no stranger to kontroversi fesyen, for which he is willing to combat to defend his stand. Whether wearing a songkok (a Malay cap) to fashion events, or a tikar (floor mat) as a stole, he has a predilection for “breaking the norms in traditional costumes of Malaysia”, also the Behati brand mission. And he seems to enjoy pushing the limits of traditional Malay dress, as well as how far he could go with making kitsch, even when it’s plain tawdry, comical and commercial. Mr Tan proudly wears his Malaysian-ness on his lengan baju (sleeves). The baju kurong for both men and women in Malaysia have remained largely unchanged through the decades. Mr Tan, through Behati, boldly reworked the volume of the already loose garments without drastically altering their silhouettes. To that, the designer has remained true to the dress culture that he publicly adores and embraces. “Realness” is his DIY approach to dressmaking and his love for contextualising everything he does in a setting that leaves little to the imagination that his clothes are imbibed with the spirit and estetik of both the bandar (urban) and the kampong.
This season, Behati’s koleksi Raya is titled “Pelangi” (or rainbow in Malay). Whether there is a socio-political dimension to that I cannot say with certainty. But it is less polemical than last year’s kontroversi magnet, the Muah Muah Raya music video, featuring Dato Seri Vida and directed by Mr Tan, who also designed the costumes. As usual, the Pelangi pieces do not play down their city/kampung fervour/contrast. Or, boost the vibe that could be considered sophisticated. Mr Tan seems to delight in Behati’s provincial positioning, ethnic enthusiasm aside. The look book and the “fashion runway film” for the holiday collection—directed, modeled, performed, and narrated by Mr Tan—were partly shot on a jalan between two stretches of unidentified sawah padi (paddy field) and partly captured outside Kuala Lumpur’s swanky Pavilion shopping centre. Subtlety is not Mr Tan’s strong suit. Conspicuous is his inclination. As he told the podcast The Woke Up Show last December, “Malaysian fashion is impactful.” So impak is his objektif and fashion the medium. Tan Kel Wen has once declared in an interview: “I don‘t just sell clothes; I sell the idea of culture.” You can indeed have your ketupat and eat, er, wear it too.
*an expression used during Hari Raya Puasa that means ‘forgive [me] inwardly and outwardly’