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November 8, 2010

Drawn to life in Paris

By WONG LI ZA 
wongliza@thestar.com.my

Although Paris is home, a freelance designer harbours hopes of establishing his own label for teenagers in Asia.

PACKING his bags for Paris at the age of 20 came as a shock to Saw Hooi Keng’s family. After all, it was almost halfway around the world and he had yet to complete his studies.

However, Saw knew what he wanted to do and that was to be a fashion designer.

French flair: ‘My style of design is very French chic but fun and playful, with more of a fantasy side to it rather than classic’, says Taiping-born Saw Hooi Keng.

Born and bred in Taiping, Perak, Saw studied at St George’s Institution until Form Five. He then went to Taylor’s College in Selangor for his A-levels but quit mid-way.

“I knew I only wanted to draw and become a fashion designer,” recalled Saw, 51, who was back in Malaysia to visit his family recently.

Heading to France’s famous fashion hub to pursue his dream was thus inevitable.

Once in Paris, Saw enrolled in ESMOD, an international fashion design school, for a two-year course. However, after a year, the principal suggested that he could gain more headway by learning on the job and got him a position as assistant designer at a styling office in Paris.

Saw spent five years there before moving on to become an assistant to a Japanese designer of a ladies’ wear label based in Paris.

Three years later, he became assistant designer with an upmarket lingerie label, Chantal Thomass, staying a year until 1990 when the company faced financial problems.

Saw was then forced to freelance as a designer, something he has continued to do until today.

He works mostly with styling offices, for whom he creates trend books. (Styling offices do market research and group together ideas and trends according to themes, markets and concepts in the form of trend books, which they then sell to manufacturers.)

Saw also has clients in Hong Kong who are in the teenage lingerie market. In addition, he has been illustrating for the horoscope section ofElle magazine Singapore for the past three years. A year ago, Saw also designed a range of T-shirts for the Elle fashion label (Asia market).

Recently, Saw designed three tops for French label Jennyfer in its Summer Collection 2010.

“The designs started as a sketch meant for a cocktail collection but my clients loved it so much they decided to print them on T-shirts instead,” said Saw.

To date, Saw’s biggest project has been with Bla Bla Bra, a Hong Kong teenage lingerie label, for which he designed an entire collection of bras and briefs two years ago. This year, he also designed a pyjama collection for the same label.

Saw hopes to build more contacts with people in the Hong Kong fashion industry.

“Hong Kong stars are very trendy, very interested in new trends and more ready to try out new designs.”

Saw’s latest clients include Hermes in Paris, for which he illustrated different ways of wearing Hermes scarves. These illustrations appeared on special playing cards.

He will also be designing a scarf for Hermes’ Winter Collection 2011.

Nevertheless, Saw’s focus is on teenage casual wear.

“I prefer the teenage market because there are more possibilities for change and new ideas. Teenagers are always looking for new things so there is more room to play around in terms of designs,” he said.

“My biggest challenge as a designer is to satisfy and know exactly what my clients want. Designing is quite easy. Once you have the ideas you can start creating but you have to find the right person to accept your idea.

“These days, it’s all about marketing myself and my designs. If I do not do that, even with a great collection, I will not go anywhere.”

Saw’s long-term goal is to start his very own label in Asia offering intimate wear for teens.

“My passion is in designing lingerie. My label will be very colourful, with lots of graphics to put my customers in a fun and happy mood.

“My style of design is very French chic but fun and playful, with more of a fantasy side to it rather than classic,” he added.

Away from work, Saw watches and listens to Hong Kong-based movies, music and concerts. Even though in future he intends to set up his own label in Asia, he has no intention of returning to live in the region, although he visits Malaysia every two years.

“It’s great living in Paris. I never feel bored and there’s inspiration everywhere. I just have to walk out of my apartment,” he said.

Fact File

Name: Saw Hooi Keng

Age: 51

Hometown: Taiping, Perak

Education: St George’s Institution, Taiping, Perak; Taylor’s College, Selangor; ESMOD, Paris, France.

Occupation: Freelance fashion designer and illustrator

Current Base: Paris, France

Years Abroad: 31

Email: saw.keng@wanadoo.fr