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Borneo and beyond

IN THE mere three years since establishing his namesake label, fashion designer Keith Sim has already expanded from a home office and online store to a full-fledged brick-and-mortar retail space equipped with a design studio and office.

Sim spent his formative years in his home state of Sarawak, absorbing the rich and diverse local cultures and traditions that Borneo has to offer.

Later, he moved to Perth, Australia to complete high school and to pursue his dream of becoming a fashion designer under the tutelage of Australian designers and tailors at the North Metropolitan TAFE.

Upon returning to Malaysia, he has developed a unique artistic instinct mixed with his Malaysian-Chinese heritage into his own brand, with the subtle but distinct essence of his very own cultural background.

“I want the people to understand that KEITHSIM is not just a boutique, but an experience,” he once revealed.

Following his previous Borneo-inspired collection DYNASTY, which he presented at the Borneo Fashion Week 2019 where he was named Designer of the Year, Sim continues to make waves in the local fashion scene but decided to adopt a slow fashion approach starting with his latest collection SELFLOVE.

What inspires you and how do you keep your intuition fresh?

“I really enjoy travelling, it allows me to keep my mind and ideas fresh and new. I also enjoy meeting new people, acquiring new experiences, and learning new cultures to gradually expand my thinking and to sharpen my creativity for a more refined touch in my designs.”

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In a largely experiential world, how does emotion inform your work?

“I started the brand with the idea of empowering people through fashion. We produce pieces that would evoke confidence and self-assurance while challenging gender norms so that everyone would be able to wear and connect with their true self, rather than what is expected of them.

“Each collection summarises a different set of emotions I am feeling at that given moment. One collection is all about happiness and joy, the very next one could be filled with sadness and sorrow, and the following about love, passion and fire. I’d like my collections to tell a story and to fulfil a purpose – all to express the innate feelings within us.”

What were your references for the brand’s latest collection, ​SELFLOVE?

“There was a moment in my life when I had trouble finding confidence within myself, and it began to hit me that I wasn’t the only one with such a predicament. Therefore, I wanted to remind people and myself in the process that they need not seek for validation to be accepted nor care for others’ shrewd judgements.

“Confidence really comes from a place of making peace within self-image, finding self-respect, and achieving self-love. With that in mind, I’ve created designs to encapsulate and accommodate all these feelings in various styles to fit the various body shapes and sizes.”

You’ve recently adopted a conscious and slow fashion approach. How did you come to this decision?

“As I was doing the initial sketches for the SELFLOVE collection sometime at the end of 2019, I had an idea of adopting the slow fashion movement to focus more on the quality and longevity of the garments. It’s not incidental to the current global climate, but I do believe that promoting sustainably and ethically produced clothing will be of great importance now more than ever.

“We aim to achieve​ an overall higher quality garment, at the same time, it benefits the environment through a sustainable sourcing and producing process. With our in-house production comprising an incredible team of local seamstresses and tailors, we’ve found smarter ways and techniques to reduce waste and reutilise deadstock fabrics as much as possible.

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“To uphold the utmost quality, however, it does affect the final value of the clothes. We prefer not to commit to lower prices at the cost of poor textile quality, poor labour conditions and unfair wages.”

In the beginning, you’ve worked to position KEITHSIM from within the Bornean cultural context, but have recently pivoted away from it. What has changed?

“After relocating to Australia and having travelled to different countries, I felt restricted to always associate the brand with Borneo.

“No doubt, my upbringing and experiences have influenced the brand, and together, our roots stemmed from Kuching; it’s where we were born, where we create and produce, but like a tree, we want our branches to reach as far as they can go.

“The more I learn, the better I’m able to offer a wider variety of styles to the multi-ethnic people of Malaysia and the world, rather than only focusing on one specific ethnic group.

“Hence, this time around, I’ve taken a globalised approach. There is an overwhelming source of inspirations from all around and I would rather not limit myself to repeatedly derive [inspiration] from the Bornean arts and traditions.”

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