JING OOI, the face behind the fashion house Maison de Poupée, has spent his lifetime appreciating the feminine form through the dresses that he fashions from silk, chiffon and satin. “But it is beyond just a fancy job,” he says when we sat down for his first interview in years. “The sentiment is not explicitly conveyed, but people here see very little value in what creatives actually do.”
Jing is a product of the prestigious Central Saint Martins; it counts as alumni fashion powerhouses such as John Galliano, the late Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, who was a course mate of Jing’s in 1997.
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At 25, Jing returned to Penang after an 11-year sojourn in Europe. For a year, he headed the fashion department at Equator College where he met and mentored Han Chong, the designer of the luxury label Self-Portrait, now based in London.
“In this part of the world, fashion remains relegated, pinned in place by pre-conceived notions that art is ‘easy’ or that it is only for the ‘lazy’. It’s true that anyone these days can be a fashion designer, and it can be especially easy if you’re lazy. But to be serious in your mastery of fashion designing, the journey is difficult. Everyone has taste, it’s just a matter of if it is tasteful or tasteless,” says Jing with a smile.
He established Maison de Poupée a year after his return, and has in his team a designer, milliner, leading pattern cutter and cutter, embroiderer and seamstresses. “They are locals but trained all over. My seamstresses are of a certain age, with at least 30 years of sewing experience to their name. Some silk materials are very difficult to handle; this is why we need very skilled seamstresses.”
Each month, Jing dreams up five to 10 new designs. “I’ll discuss with my leading cutter the materials I want to use for them. Then a toile, what we call a mock-up, is created and fitted to a model for further readjustments. Finally, they go into production to be made in different sizes.
“So you see? Fashion is not just about art; it is a serious business too.” And it is a business that he continues to reinvest in. Pre-pandemic, Jing travelled the globe in search of vintage dresses and cheongsam that he brought back to Penang to be studied. “We will unseam them to learn how they were made many years and sometimes, even a century ago; and to draw inspiration from.”
He gestures to one of his designs, a pale yellow dress the colour of lemon. “You see that? The design is simple, a straightforward 1920s-esque handkerchief dress; but the time, money and effort it took to make that trip to Paris for the purchase of the dress that would eventually inspire the creation of this handkerchief dress; and later, to open it up and research the fabric used and how it was sewn together… these things are often overlooked by many.”
Jing is a great admirer of Art Deco, known for its distinctive geometrical lines. In fact, many of the vintage dresses he owns are from that particular epoch. “We do quite a bit of dress restoration here as well,” he reveals.
“Just before the pandemic, I acquired a beaded, black chiffon dress that was ruined by a little hole. We had no choice but to replace its entire back panel. A lot of work had to be done, from identifying the exact material and shade of colour to tracking them down through our supplier. Where beads are involved, things tend to get trickier. We have to scour for them on dresses of the same period. Some of these pieces have taken us close to 10 years to fully restore by hand.”
For a fashion designer of his calibre, Jing is also notoriously low-key. “I don’t like to be seen,” he shrugs by way of explanation. He prefers instead to let his creations do the talking, albeit the old-fashioned way, through word-of-mouth.
The majority of Jing’s clients are from outside Penang. “We have a small number from Ipoh and Melaka, a slightly bigger one in KL and an even bigger base in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Europe and more recently, China – this was less than four months before Covid-19 became a pandemic, so we had to shut down that market indefinitely.”
Even so, the pandemic has also managed to relax Jing’s scepticism of social media.
“I’ve never enjoyed the marketing side of fashion, but business very obviously suffered last year. Our sales went down, but we’ve been lucky to have built a loyal following for over 20 years. When Maison de Poupée first started, we specialised in wedding and evening dresses, before going into daywear, qipao and cocktail dresses. Their creations are what is seeing us through in this pandemic.”
Regina Hoo is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.