Thursday February 14, 2013
Eric Choong hasn't lost his power to dazzle
By LOUISA LIM
A homegrown couturier continues to add awards to his long list of accolades.
FOR most couturiers, winning two regional awards within the span of one week is a clear indication that they’ve hit the big time. Perhaps they can now strut around with a smug grin on their faces.
Eric Choong, however, is different; the 49-year-old’s feet are firmly planted on the hallowed ground of couture.
It’s Monday morning and we’re in the middle of a photo shoot in Choong’s boutique. Located in the shopping enclave of Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, it is a veritable treasure trove of exotic furniture and floor-sweeping gowns that appeal to girly-girls.
The carpet muffles the sound of feverish footsteps as Choong zips back and forth in between takes, styling each shot with a robust self-assurance and fussing over model-cum-actress Karena Teo’s tresses and dress like a proud father on his daughter’s graduation day. Not just content with being a fashion designer, he slides into multiple roles – creative director, publicist and motivational speaker – with as much ease as a chameleon changing colour.
When it’s his turn to be in the picture, he plants himself in Teo’s shadow.
“I have no make-up on,” he moans. “Maybe this pose will work.” Choong inches his head forward so the light catches only part of his expression.
Strangely enough, the end result is oddly compelling, much like Choong’s personality. The man might be pointlessly self-conscious, but there are numerous good qualities about him that stand out the longer you know him.
For one, he has a keen sense of artistic intuition, and it translates into whatever he does. More importantly however, he has worked very hard to bring his eponymous label to its current status – not surprising for someone who openly admires Karl Lagerfeld for his interminable “energy” and “enthusiasm”.
“I’d like to have Lagerfeld’s energy. I feel there’s so much to do and so little time,” he says. “I think that’s my biggest fear, not having enough time to accomplish everything I want.”
It is this sort of unwavering passion that landed Choong “Asia’s Most Influential Fashion Designer” award at the inaugural Asia Fashion Awards in Anhui, China, last December, and the “Designer of the Year” award at the Harbin International Fashion Week 2012 approximately seven days later.
Both events were well-attended by fashion luminaries from both Asia and Europe, sealing his overseas reputation as a talented and wily designer.
“I was surprised, but, truth be told, I also felt like I deserved it,” he confesses. “It’s not my first time representing Malaysian fashion in China; I’ve done it since 2002 and it feels great to be finally acknowledged for my work after 10 years.”
While Choong is no stranger to awards – the first one he ever won was “Best Costume Designer” for local Chinese flick The 3rd Generation at the 19th Malaysian Film Festival in 2006 – winning two consecutive awards in a fashion industry as ruthless as China’s is the biggest achievement in his career to date.
The designer – who has marched to his own beat since he ventured into the industry 25 years ago – admits it takes a great deal of compromise to earn a spot on the podium.
“As a newcomer, I was stubborn. I considered myself an artist and didn’t really care if my designs sold or not. I thought that as long as I stayed true to my artistic vision, I’d do fine,” he recalls. “But this isn’t the way the industry works. At the end of the day, it’s still a business. You have to learn how to strike a balance between what you want and what the public wants in order to survive in the long run.”
This newer and more wholesome approach to fashion is evident in his work: conventional enough to be worn by the masses yet idiosyncratic enough to be instantly recognisable, the latest collection of frocks that made it to the Chinese runway is a juxtaposition of colours, shapes and textures.
Swirls of fabric – an Eric Choong signature motif – lend some Elsa Schiaparelli-inspired drama to floor-sweeping chiffon gowns, while contrasting colours and voluminous proportions turn regular one-shoulder frocks into playful works of art.
Most accessible in its red carpet appeal, however, is the belted dress with splashes of gold sequins that adhere to the traditional lines of couture. Meanwhile, the qipao-inspired black-with-a-slash-of-white dress that neatly skims Teo’s willowy frame may be one of his most subdued creations yet, but it’s no less striking.
The real Choong is somewhat like his dresses – he’s a walking contradiction, and can be narcissistic and self-effacing, modest and flamboyant at the same time. A book about his life has been published, but he brushes off questions about a possible Eric Choong movie with a laugh.
“My life isn’t so exciting,” he says. “But if it is to be made into a movie, I’d want Tony Leung to play me.”
Choong, who cites Audrey Hepburn as his muse because she is the perfect embodiment of the well-dressed woman, says a woman is at her most glamorous when she’s all dressed up and confident.
On the other hand, Choong himself is a T-shirt and shorts kind of guy. “I’m actually very simple. I like to stay at home and read when I’m free, and travel too,” he says.
Apart from his unassuming character, he also conducts himself with the type of shrewd restraint that comes with years of accumulated wisdom. He’s in a phase of his life where nothing – not even the occasional bad business and badmouthing – can really faze him.
“Everything changes and yet nothing changes,” muses Choong. “That’s a Buddhist philosophy that means the world doesn’t really change. Only you can, internally. I don’t get as upset or as depressed anymore.”
Although it is no big secret that the fashion industry is a fickle one, full of wanton drama, it was only seven years ago that Choong learnt how to deal with it.
“It got to a point where I felt like quitting,” he says. “But my mum sat me down and really talked to me. And then I also met Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, the founder and spiritual guide of the Kechara House Buddhist Association, who inspired me to take a different approach, by transforming my own mind.”
And what a beautiful mind it is.
For more information on the designer, visit ericchoong.com.
Photos: Raymond Ooi
Model: Karena Teo from Diva Artistes
Make-up: Diva Production
Hair: Centro Hair Salon