Fast fashion has seen the masses dress in almost similar styles, but one company continues to maintain its unique mark, writes Syida Lizta Amirul Ihsan
FIVE young women are sitting around a rectangular table, sewing colourful beads painstakingly, one by one on brown-coloured linen tunics.
They are engrossed in their work, calculating the number of beads to correspond to the patterns on a sample. Beading is a laborious process. Stand and watch them for a minute and one gets an idea of how long it takes adorn a blouse or a skirt.
Local label salabianca has always been big on embellishments since it started in 1995 but the trade is facing imminent extinction and the company has problems getting people to bead.
The five women at its Ampang office are from Vietnam and they were trained to bead upon their arrival here. Brand co-founder Allan Chan says young Malaysians are simply not interested.
“They would rather become waitresses because they say they can make more money. It’s all about short-term gain and they fail to realise that this is a skill that they can hone,” he says.
“It is hard to find people to bead these days. It’s time-consuming and is taxing on the eyes. And you play with different materials like sequins, beads, stones and laser-cut flowers.”
It takes 10-14 days for a garment to be beaded, he says. Because most women who have beading skills are older, with families and children, salabianca hires them (mostly housewives) on a project basis. Some 50 women in the Ampang neighbourhood currently bead for the brand.
“We send the samples with the beads (the different types, all calculated and packed in plastic bags) so they can work from home. They can supplement income, and we can get the clothes done. It’s a win-win situation,”
That beading, embroidery and sewing no longer interest young women is obvious.
The rise of fast fashion where clothes are produced in massive quantities in factories, plays a role in the demise of these crafts.
“When we started in 1995, we knew a woman in Banting who could bead. She still works for us, from home. Her husband picks up the clothes and sends them back once they are completed,” says Chan.
But he is hard-pressed to find new workers. “The art is really dying. Even our seamstresses are getting older and we don’t have younger ones,” he says.
While the trade is seen as “unglamorous” here, beading and embroidery is perceived as an exclusive art in the West, especially Europe. The haute couture industry depends on them to produce exquisite clothes.
So rare is this trade that Chanel, years ago, bought over different companies specialising in embroidery and beading, feather work, hat and a shoemaker to ensure a supply of these craftsmen.
These companies are allowed to work for other labels, a sign that there are not enough craftsmen to serve the high fashion industry.
Chan can only hope that local seamstresses, embroiderers and beaders are accorded the same respect. “It is a skill learned. You can buy a blouse or a skirt but to get a garment hand-beaded, with a vast combination of beads is not easy,”
Foreign fast-fashion labels mostly use beads that are already sewn together in strips or fabrics that have already been beaded. Unfortunately, customers don’t realise this, and think all bead work are the same.
Delivery also cannot move as fast for salabianca since beading is a slow process. From making a sample to getting the stocks in the stores, the process can take as long as six months.
“I think in the end, we only have ourselves to blame when traditional crafts die. We want things cheap and fast,” says Chan.
But the company is not backing down. Instead of paring down its beads and moving like fast fashion lines, it is sticking to its guns to produce what it calls complete garments — clothes that are beaded front and back.
“I cannot accept it when they only bead the front. The back cannot be bare. That’s ugly,” he says.
I ask if he will reduce the beadwork and focus on plain clothes. Chan says “no”.
“We would like to be different. There is no thought, intelligence and challenge if everyone looks and thinks the same way,” he says.
Protecting beaded treasures
While the beads used are treated before sewing so that the colours won’t run on the fabric, dry-cleaning chemicals may damage them. Chan offers some tips:
• When you can, hand-wash instead of dry-clean
• Tell the cleaner to turn the garment inside-out before dry-cleaning
• Don’t send garments for dry-cleaning often. To eliminate the smell of worn clothes, steam them in the bathroom by running hot water. Let the clothes soak in the steam and then air the clothes in the sun