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Dresses Fit for Royalty: The Contemporary Malay Wedding Exhibit by Bernard Chandran

Whether you’re looking for wedding gown inspirations or just discovering hidden jewels in Malaysia by taking the roads less travelled – head on to Pekan, Pahang for the Contemporary Malay Wedding Exhibit by Bernard Chandran at the Sultan Abu Bakar Museum!

An exciting new exhibition curated by the internationally acclaimed fashion designer, Bernard Chandran explores the designer’s unique and contemporary interpretations of traditional wedding attire, through a discerning selection of his own past and present designs as well as related film footage, archive photography and text.

Housed in the picturesque Sultan Abu Bakar Museum, in Pekan (the Royal town of Pahang state), the exhibition features some of Chandran’s most iconic bridal outfits created throughout his award-winning career; the centrepiece to the exhibition is an array of original designs which he created specifically for the Royal Family of Brunei during the past two decades, along with other celebrities and international entertainment industries in a multi-media setting which converges historical context with contemporary meaning.

Yang Teramat Mulia Paduka Seri Pengiran Anak Puteri Hajah Majeedah Nuurul Bulqiah, daughter of Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei. 2007, Her Official Wedding Dress

These remarkable creations are valued to be €50,000 to €150,000 each (approx. RM206,000 to RM619,000), and are absolutely breathtaking pieces that have been loaned exclusively with great generosity of spirit by members of the Royal Family’s own personal archives.

Considering the remarkable dresses fit for royalty, bespoke mannequins were commissioned and made in Paris, to perfectly fit each of Chandran’s designs and showcase his work to breath-taking effect.

We recently had a chance to meet with the man himself to find out a little bit more about his exhibition at the Sultan Abu Bakar Museum.

Standing amidst a wall of fascinating archived Malaysian wedding photographs from the 1950s up to present day at the exhibit, Chandran finds them to be able to evocatively depict the changing nature of bridal styles throughout the generations

On his fascination with museums

BC: I fell in love with the museums in Paris 20 years ago as a student, and it just connected; I knew that this is what I wanted do and from there, I started wanting to understand my country even more – the culture, the way I grew up.

So, the first thing I did when I came back to Malaysia was to go to Muzium Negara to look for how and what our collections were like. I feel it’s a privilege for me to grow up in a multiracial country such as Malaysia, because it’s what makes me the way I am today.

It’s all in the details: Piala Seri Endon 2002, Kebaya Kebaya Collection. Modern Kebaya with lace and songket

Upon my return, I was looking for information on the baju kedah, cheongsam – I just wanted to know more of the origins, but I couldn’t find enough information. So that’s when I told myself, “From this day onwards, I will archive everything and label them.”

The importance of archiving

BC: Now, I have three guys who constantly do that, everyday. I even archive myself; what I wear daily, all my works, even my children – everything! My dad never took a good picture of me (growing up) and I was a bit upset over that! But I’ve been archiving pictures of my children from the day they were born; everywhere we go we take a picture and we put those pictures on a hard disk, select a few to print out, put it in an album, label them with the dates – and it’s archived for the boys to look at whenever they want.

It’s because I have such a system that people I work with know when they look into my eyes and the way I speak passionately that I don’t see museums as an object – because I love museums. (I construct) my lifestyle like a one; inside my house, at work – I run it like a museum, there’s a system.

I have a team with me that works with me, and everything is archived, everything is coded. At home I’m always updating everything; for example, how the table is set in my home – people might think it looks (like a showroom), but to me – I’m just making it right.

It takes many people to make a gown, so keep it as a jewel. It’s not about today – we’re talking about 50 years from now, you’ll take it out and say, “Bernard made this gown in that period of time, and it’s so beautiful still.”

Dayangku Ratna Siti Nooraishah. 2012, Ambil-ambilan (first outfit) Design: Short modern Kurung in royal blue Jong Sarat

My entire team is involved in the making of a garment, so I always ask them, “How do you feel?” after it’s done, because it’s a team effort. Just because I’m the creator, doesn’t mean I make it alone. There’s the person who cuts the fabric, the person who beads it, the person who irons it. So like today, they look at it hanging in the museum and say, “My God, did we make this?” It drives us to push ourselves and make even better creations.

The challenges of designing Contemporary Malay Wedding Dresses

BC: The most challenging part of designing a wedding dress is that the bride must know what she wants! If she knows what she wants, I can come up with something in 2 seconds!

Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Anak Hajah Huda Bahaaul Bulqiah, 2006.Design: Modern Kurung with ‘Chinese operatic’ sleeves, with wide neckline in turquoise flower crystals patchwork and tassel tube beads. Skirt, two layers, embroidered with sequins and crystals

Each designer has his own character and style, but the client must first discover who she is as a person, and that’s why brides should visit museums to get more confidence in discovering what she likes. Some people like sculptures, some people like music, artifacts, old silver collections – so there’s a lot of museums and if you can identify what you like, it makes our life (the designer) easy. Otherwise, she’ll just have to tell us, “Do magic!”

So it’s only difficult to design when a client doesn’t know what she wants and if that’s the case, I will do a mood board for her to help the process.

On choosing a favourite creation

BC: It changes, they’re all my ‘children’. They have different characters. Sometimes I forget about a certain outfit; like today, I took out one of my outifts from the 1996 archives. Crystals were so expensive back then and I remember telling my staff to calculate the amount of stones to be put on this kebaya.

Bernard with his 1st Rias Collection from 1996, the Long Kebaya in beige Lurex lace (also the ‘Oldest’ woman in the collection), that still holds some sentimental value to the designer

Today, ‘she’ just appeared out there majestically looking at me; she’s the oldest ‘woman’ standing out there and I thought,  “We were so calculative with you” in comparison to another dress that (I designed later on) in which we put as many stones as we wanted on because my lifestyle changed, things changed but she (the original kebaya) is still special now.

Inspiring local talent

BC: We have the best here, but Malaysians have to start supporting local; and the most important thing I always say, is to set (local designers) free and let them be who they want to be, so that over time they will discover themselves.

When I first designed my baju kebaya using 6 metres in 1994, people used to think I was crazy and rebellious  – but after 1998, everybody was doing the same thing, with big sleeves, etc. So, I want to inspire the (smaller) tailors to find their own style as well. If they do it well, we all look good.  My style is still my style and no one can take that away from me but if others take that inspiration and run with it, we all look good and everyone out there will be looking at us (Malaysia).

Petang Raya 2008/2009. Design: Modern Kurung with large volume sleeves that comes with inner netting and three huge darts Skirt, four layers, plain, to show the modern age of the bride

It’s the same with museums; I really enjoy museums but it doesn’t always have to be The Louvre or the Guggenheim; sometimes the smaller museums are equally as amazing. Lately one of my favourites is the Queen Sirikit Museum in the Grand Palace of Thailand. To see the Queen’s collections from the 1950s designed by Pierre Balmain for 25 years was absolutely amazing, and all of that inspired me to do something similar here.

Why Pekan?

BC: I’ve seen many couples in this town that come to this museum on the weekends to take wedding pictures and just have an amazing time here. So I told Farid (Pahang Museum curator-director Ahmad Farid Abdul Jalal) that we had to do something. Museums are about connecting, communicating with the community and so the community (of Pekan) needs to be involved, but how do we do that?

We realised that they (the Pekanites) have their own style of wedding, so I said to him, “Since you looked for the best, I’ll give you the best”.

Following the wedding theme, I decided that since I’ve done many gowns for the Royal Family of Brunei that it would be a good reason to exhibit and showcase traditional royal wedding outfits here;  because despite all the protocol and restrictions required as members of Royalty, they still keep up-to-date with the latest styles and techniques to update traditional outfits whilst still looking chic.

The Sultan Abu Bakar Museum had the security system in place, it’s clean, it’s convenient for the community, and we thought of things that would make the facility comfortable for Malaysians. We have programs lined up until 2016 to makes sure it’s easy to plan to come here. When you have the right system, then only will overseas investors be interested to sell or loan their exhibitions to us.

Besides that, the infrastructure (that we have in Malaysia) is amazing, and to me a 2-3 hour journey by car seems so short these days! Who knows, maybe we’ll get a fast train to Pekan in the future but in order to get there, we need to have the attractions to draw in the crowds first. So that’s why we’re in Pekan, we’ll make it interesting; It’s like a jewel, and you will get something when you come here. Now that we have the best in Pekan, let’s make an effort to come here, non?

The Contemporary Malay Wedding: from June 27th, 2013, until February 27th, 2014. The exhibition is open on Tuesdays to Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9.00am to 5.00pm; Fridays from 9.00am to 12.00pm and 2.00pm to 5.00 and close on Mondays. For more information, kindly contact tel: +609 422 1371, +609 422 1459. 

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