Bernard Chandran: Dreams & Reality, 34 years in 16 rooms
By Danial bin Fuad


Bernard Chandran is a household name in the Malaysian fashion industry with a career that can be traced back to the late 80s. To celebrate his 34th year in the industry, he presents a retrospective exhibition showcasing various designs throughout his fashion journey. Fashion exhibitions are scarce here in Malaysia; overseas, they have become increasingly popular.

Dubbed the ‘King of Fashion’, Chandran has exhibited his designs abroad at the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange held by the Duchess of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace and the Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibition in San Francisco. Dreams & Reality is the fourth exhibition of his career, in which Chandran’s various designs are exhibited in 16 titled rooms at Farenheit88.

For the room ‘In A Cinch’, Chandran displays several corset designs inspired by Bollywood’s peak in popularity during the early 2000s. Elements of Bollywood show in the selection of vibrant colours, such as the red corset with floral motifs. Chandran adds an interesting twist to the traditional Italian corsets by implementing Asian elements such as the Malay belt as a neck accessory, or Indian style ankle bells adorning the bottom part of the corset. Another interesting room is the ‘Cheongsamku’, where he displays a piece inspired by the ‘Kebayaku’, an installation that was done for the RuMa hotel where 3D golden butterflies embellish a Kebaya.

Dresses Worn by Lady Gaga

A father of five, family is important to Chandran and this can be seen on his Instagram feed, which almost overflows with photos of his family. As a tribute to his only daughter Thanyakumari, he has created two dresses. According to Malaysian Tatler’s Karmun Ng, the dress was given to Thanyakumari during her coming-of-age ceremony in 2016, just before she left to New York to further her studies. To commemorate Chandran’s Chinese culture, he decorated the dress with multiple Chinese astrological beasts such as the dragon to symbolise his wife, the monkey for him, the horse for Thanyakumari and the tiger, rat and dog to symbolise his other children.

Affected by a friend’s comment that in Malaysia “everyone dresses the same”, Chandran created his Petang Raya line in 2006. In this line, Chandran modernises traditional Malay costumes such as the Baju Melayu, Baju Kurung and Kebaya. Various additions such as a bomber jacket on top of the Baju Kurung and a beaded cropped jacket paired with a Kebaya were added to the traditional costumes, giving it a more contemporary and glamorous appeal.

Family Affairs
Print a Porter

Prints play an important role throughout his collections, and Chandran once stated that "every season, I like to have my own prints." Chandran’s prints show common Malaysian motifs, taking inspiration from things such as ikan kembung, durian and mangosteens. He even has prints of the iconic Tunku Abdul Rahman in the iconic ‘merdeka pose’, which were used for his 2019/2020 Petang Raya collection.

Aside from designing for local celebrities, Chandran has also created designs for multiple A-list Hollywood celebrities. The Popstar room is a tribute to some of his most notable designs worn by stars such as Tori Amos, Estelle, Lady Gaga and Paloma Faith.

Perhaps the most important room in the exhibition is the ‘Nostalgie’ room, where various trinkets, collections of cassettes, posters and newspaper clippings are displayed. This is a place for people to see how Chandran’s fashion career began, even including iconic pieces such as his first cash register, the first dresses he designed and the first pieces of jewellery he ever created.

With Dreams & Reality, Chandran shows that fashion can also be exhibited and treated as fine art, as it keeps track of how people dressed themselves at various points in time. It is an important anthropological record and other iconic fashion houses, recognising this, have developed their own museums to commemorate fashion design over the ages. Some examples are the Armani / Silos Museum, Musée Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior Museum and Garden, to name a few. Perhaps Dreams & Reality will encourage other local designers to also co-host exhibitions with museums and galleries, highlighting the journey of Malaysian fashion on the international stage.

Dreams & Reality was exhibited at 2-41 Farenheit88 from December 7, 2020 to January 15, 2021.

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Danial Fuad is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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