As the last days of summer dwindle and the cosy aura of fall settles in, major cities around the world start gearing up for a different kind of season — the fashion season. Our own capital is no different. Towards the end of August, Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week (KLFW) kicked off with the Malaysian Official Designers’ Association showcase at Sofitel Kuala Lumpur, which featured eight talents selected by KLFW founder Andrew Tan.
Presenting 12 looks each, this year’s line-up consisted of stalwarts from the local fashion realm known for their sharp artistic eye. Walking through the crowd of fashion aficionados and attendees after the first half of the event, there was one name on everyone’s lips: Peter Lum, who unveiled his Off Beat collection.
A staunch presence in the local fashion industry, Lum has experienced the many corners of the dog-eat-dog world over the years, from merchandising and personal relations to styling and designing. His eponymous label, Styled by Peter Lum, shines a spotlight on the contemporary woman and the effortless style that epitomises this archetype. However, the last couple of years have been relatively quiet for the designer — a noticeable contrast to the adoring response garnered at the show.
Weeks later, the euphoria from the occasion has yet to fade. Sitting down with Options, Lum’s eyes lit up when he was invited to offer insights on the collection and his artistic process. However, as the designer spoke, a more profound story unfolded, one that went beyond the surface-level glitz and glamour, unveiling a sense of creativity and love for the art of dressmaking that prevailed through one of the harshest periods in recent history.
The tale begins where many current ones do — with the Covid-19 pandemic. As a series of nationwide quarantines were enforced, independent businesses were crippled by a halt in customer activity and a crashing economy. Creative establishments operating mainly on a commission basis suffered the most, and unfortunately, Lum’s brand was no exception.
Plunged into sudden uncertainty, never knowing when the next order would come, he was overwhelmed with feelings of “hopelessness and helplessness”. A true creative, consistently having a task to tackle was integral to his way of life. “I’m the sort of person who likes to work and stays busy,” he says. “I can gladly spend a day doing nothing, but by the third or fourth day, I need something to do.”
As time went by, like most who went through the lockdowns cooped up at home without the solace of their usual outdoor activities and routines, Lum began to feel the crushing weight of the situation as the world drew to a standstill. Deprived of work opportunities and grappling with financial difficulties on top of caring for family, he gradually slipped into a melancholic state.
Despite his usual stoic and collected demeanour, there came a point where he too needed a shoulder to lean on. What shocked him most was while usual sources of emotional support drifted away, unexpected friends came forth to console him in these dark times. “Many of the people I thought would be there for me when I needed it turned a deaf ear and distanced themselves, but there were others around me who believed in me, who were not willing to let me go,” he says.
Life finally took a turn for the better this year as the world sprung back into full swing, and an unforeseen call came ringing. “When Andrew Tan called me this year asking if I would join this year’s line-up of designers, I thought ‘Who am I to say no if someone gives me such an opportunity?’” he mentions. Pushed by fellow artisans and a desire to turn a fresh page, Lum took this chance to believe in his capabilities and talent and rekindle his zest for fashion.
As suggested by the title, the looks from the Off Beat collection symbolise how life since the pandemic has forever shifted, ushering in a new normal that will never be quite the same as it was before. “Our lives have been turned inside out,” he says. “It’s like we were tossed into a washing machine, churned around and shaken. Nothing is exactly as it was before. Everything has a bit of a tilt now.”
And this is shown, literally, in the asymmetrical cuts and hems on several of the collection’s pieces. To match the skewed and quirky appearance of the dresses, Lum used oversized bows and obi sashes. Funky, shoulder-scraping tassel earrings and avant-garde statement bracelets made by local artist Zack Atelier added an eccentric touch.
The most heart-warming aspect, however, are the sentiments of hope that inspired him throughout the designing process. From zesty lemon yellow to flamboyant fuchsia, the vivid hues he chose stood out among the countless clothes seen that night, especially in the current age of minimalism and neutral tones. “Life has been quite gloomy the past few years. That’s why I went with a lot of bright colours,” he states.
For Lum, the collection marks a new lease of life, both for him and his label.“The journey from then to now was not the smoothest, but hopefully the worst is over and I’ll be granted with more opportunities and strength to move forward. The light at the end of the tunnel used to be so far out of reach, and now I’m so close to it. That night [at the show], I was totally blown away.”
When asked for words of encouragement he would like to give others who have experienced similar tribulations, he does not have much to say other than what brought him to this point in time that, though perhaps easier said than done, holds much truth in its simplicity. “Hold on. You are not alone,” he urges. “And if you need help, it’s out there.”
While Lum is not certain about how he can offer help to those in need, the attendance of a certain group of women at the KLFW show — cancer survivors from Pink Unity, an non-governmental organisation under the National Cancer Society of Malaysia, and with whom he has maintained a close relationship with since styling them for a makeover photoshoot — speaks of the designer’s desire to uplift souls through his creations and his unwavering thoughtfulness that permeates his work and personal connections.
There is a scientific term called ‘enclothed cognition’ where fashion, besides keeping us clothed, also works to make us feel good about ourselves. Sounds just like what Lum is hoping to achieve with his designs.
This article appeared on Sept 18, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.