Edgy yet sophisticated, modest yet sexy—balancing these style attributes is a difficult task for most designers. When catering to an audience that’s fashionable but respectful of traditions, it’s a whole different challenge. Yet it’s finding how to combine these almost contradictory elements that defines designer Alia Bastamam’s eponymous fashion label. Based in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, this young designer is fast becoming one of the most notable names on the South Asian fashion scene.
Her label, now in its fifth year, evolved quickly from its humble beginnings as a bedroom startup. Bastamam had been designing and making dresses and handbags for her friends since high school, experimenting and making a little money on the side. But at fashion school, two friends convinced her to quit her job and start a business with them. Together they launched the first collection and created the label.
“We began with our own savings and borrowed some money from our parents. We hired only one seamstress, and did everything else ourselves,” she recalls with a smile. “Every designer has their story. I think I’m very lucky to have had friends who really believed in me and my work. Personally I’m a total pessimist, so I don’t think I would have started my own label without them.”
Sitting across from 31-year-old Bastamam at her studio in a leafy residential suburb, it’s difficult to imagine the less assertive version of herself that she describes from before she launched the label. She cites her mother as an important influence on her sense of style, and mentions that her grandmother’s wardrobe has inspired different pieces in her previous collections. “My mom was quite fashionable when I was growing up,” she says. “We weren’t wealthy, but she would get a huge Vogue pattern book every year, and I used to trace the figures because they looked like Barbie dolls.”
Her passion seems to be paying off in creative ways. Clothing trends in majority-Muslim Malaysia tend to be a lot less revealing than those in Western countries, but Bastamam is firm in her belief that the designs don’t have to be boring. For her, designing for Muslim women is much the same as designing for non-Muslim women; it all comes down to recognizing and appreciating an individual woman’s style. “I have many clients who wear the hijab and it’s always very interesting to see how they inject my designs into their wardrobe,” she says. “I always allocate certain looks or pieces that I know will be suitable and then style them to be more modest. The fit is usually loose and the neckline is more covered. Fabric choice is important as you don’t want it to be transparent or revealing. [These kinds of designs are] a learning process for me as well.”
The demand for modest Islamic fashion in Malaysia is already established, and a new world of style booms in the country at different points in the Muslim calendar each year. “The ‘hijabista’ woman wants to be fashionable and trendy but in a modest way. I think that’s something I would love to explore more when designing the upcoming collections,” Bastamam tells me. “Our Eid collection did very well last year. Some designs were sold out in an instant. So we’re planning an even bigger collection this year that will hopefully do as well.”
The global fashion industry’s exploitation and negative portrayal of women dates back decades. I wonder: is it difficult to be a woman in the fashion industry in Malaysia? “There definitely is sexism, especially from some of the older designers. But there are also a lot of powerful and successful women empowering each other,” she explains. “I’m very much a feminist. I believe all women should be empowered and I think we are making progress. When I’m designing clothes and dressing women, I see it as a way of contributing to that empowerment.”
She’s refreshingly candid about her beginnings. Like many young creatives across the world, her parents were a little unsure about their daughter launching a career in fashion—especially because Bastamam was studying for an architecture degree at the time. It didn’t take long for her to realize she’d made a mistake. “I got good grades, but I didn’t feel like it was something I really wanted to do,” she explains. “After a year [studying architecture], I knew I had to go to fashion school instead.”
The decision has more than worked out. Profiled by ELLE magazine and hand-picked to collaborate with Volkswagen last year, Bastamam is enjoying her time in the spotlight. She believes that style is a means of expression, and as a result, she infuses everything she designs with a bold flavor, offering up a little of her personal style in each piece.
Where does she find the inspiration? “Sometimes it’s just a photo, sometimes it’s music. Every time I’m trying to design a collection, I always come back to my emotions,” she says. “I think I’m very in touch with my own emotions. The inspiration for my latest collection was the first collection we ever made, which was based on my own personal wardrobe.”
Bastamam’s latest range, a spring/summer collection named Sanguine, looks back at the roots of the designer’s style and the very beginnings of the label. Simple, pared-back pieces in gentle pastel colors offer an elegant, bold, and feminine look that’s innovative yet sparing. “I showcased my 16th collection, Sanguine, at the last Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week. This show was really close to my heart because it’s all about returning to the lightness that inspired me to start this label,” she explains.
“Fresh and hopeful,” she says. “That’s what I want this collection to be. I want to bring back the ease and comfort [of the clothes] for my clients, because that’s why I came into this industry in the first place: to design and create pieces that I would want to wear myself.”