From humble beginnings in his hometown of Penang, to the bustling bosom of Kuala Lumpur, Dato’ Rizalman Ibrahim has come a long way, with a total of five companies under his moniker, dabbling in bridal design, couture design, interior design, as well as bespoke and ready-to-wear designs.
This year, the renowned fashion designer celebrates his 25th Silver Jubilee year milestone in the industry, by kicking things off with a bang – a television series on Life Inspired. An original production by the television channel that promotes inspirational living for the cosmopolitan trend seekers, Rizalman premiered to the Asian public back in May, and will reach its climatic finale next week, with one last hurrah on the preparation that went on for a celebratory fashion show meant for hundreds of attendees.
In between juggling work in his five companies, not to mention spending time with his two sons, Umar Nail and Aali Nail, we managed to steal Dato’ Rizalman away form his busy schedule one weekday morning in his boutique-cum-home, snuggled in the cosy constructions of KL’s Golden Triangle, before the hullabaloo of the day begins for him.
How did the idea of putting together a television show come about with Life Inspired?
We have been playing on this idea on our own for the past five years. We have been doing bits of shooting ourselves here and there, enough to put together a proper pilot episode to propose to TV channels and stations. When we approached Life Inspired, which has been around for eight years, we didn’t think that they would buy into such an idea. We thought that what we have to offer might not be at par with the regional standards of the channel. When we finally gathered up the courage and guts to show the idea to them, they were game for the idea; the people at LiTV turned out to be regular followers of my comings and goings on the social media. LiTV has always been importing contents from overseas; they never had their own original series productions. Well, perhaps there were special one-off shows with a combination of local personalities, but to have an original production reality show added to our resumes, it is quite an achievement for LiTV and ourselves as well.
How was the experience like putting together this show?
It was quite an intense experience. Truth be told, by the second episode, I was having “buyer’s remorse” in signing off with this show! Usually, I prefer to work in a very private and quiet space where I do most of my thinking, and on most days, I would just show up to work with my sweat pants on and my hair in disarray. However, since we started shooting Rizalman, I have a battalion of TV crew shadowing my every move as I go about with my work in real life. Not only do I have deadlines to meet, and risk disrupting the creative flow from time to time for reshoots, I have to try and be a little bit more presentable – putting on more decent clothes and maybe run a comb through my hair. It was rather burdensome, but at the end of the day, it’s all for the greater good. It’s the crew’s job to provide well-produced and polished contents for the show, and for my part, it’s all about cooperation in helping them with what they need.
Where do you draw the line for some things that are too personal, even for such an intimate television show?
During post-production, we did go through meticulous reviews and editing, if only to filter out the unnecessary bits and cap off with something of finesse. I have been a fan of LiTV since their inception, and I believe that I share the same perspective as the production team, as they do with their viewers; they are intelligent and visionary people, who want to be inspired in their own lives when watching the programs on LiTV. Different people may have different interpretations of what they take away from the show; that’s their business, and it’s not my place to judge. Personally, I believe that you can go far by having a certain set of personalities and characteristics. You have to be firm, self-disciplined, and hardworking. Every morning, when you look into the mirror, you have to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve, and you have to go out and make it work.
What do you hope the viewers of Rizalman can take away from the show at the end of the day?
To inspire others is key for the show. I suppose, that’s part of the reason why we chose a TV channel called Life Inspired. I know that I have been an inspiration to a lot of people around me: the next generation of designers, the people I work with, and even my family. So, I hope with this show, the ripple will spread wider to a bigger audience with LiTV’s regional target audience. It has nothing to do with showing off the material world I live in, like how many other reality shows are doing – a chance to show off their decadent life as a way to “inspire” people to go after that kind of lifestyle. These reality shows, they don’t show the “how” of achieving such a life, when it is the most important element to a successful life. The “how” element is what Rizalman is all about. I want the viewers to know that if Rizalman can do it – even though he doesn’t have extra brains or five clones of himself to run his companies – there is a possibility that they can do it too.
How did you come into the role of being a father so effortlessly, to not one, but two adopted sons?
I’m the youngest in a family of seven children, and whenever my siblings used to leave my nieces and nephews under my late mother’s care, inadvertently, I too took on the job of the nanny to help my mother out. Back then, maid services were not really affordable for my family, so I learned to take care of babies and toddlers in the house since I was young. When I made the decision to adopt Umar Nail and Aali Nail – who are 15 and five, respectively – I have learned all that I could from my nieces and nephews, and fatherhood just came rather naturally for me.
I believe that parenthood is something that everyone should experience in his/her life, because it balances out an otherwise stressful life at work. To be able to come home from a busy day and have these tiny creatures running up to you to welcome you home with hugs, to hear them calling you baba and telling you they love you, and to have little moments like them falling asleep beside you in bed and showering them with good night kisses on their foreheads… They are like a form of stress relief for me, and they bring some sense of sanity back into my life when the going gets tough.
Growing up, Umar and Aali have been sharing the limelight with you. Do you see them following your footsteps to become someone as notable in the fashion industry as their father?
I believe that every person is brought into this world with their own purpose in life. Even when I was a kid, my father didn’t make me go down paths he thought would be best for me; he allowed me to grow in my own time and pace, and discover for myself what I want my future to be like. Because of that, I get to wake up every morning wanting to go to work because I enjoy every minute that I spend in the office. Till today, years later, I still feel this sense of ease in life. That’s what I want for my children. I want them to know that they have the freedom to achieve whatever they want to in life. I believe that they will feel more comfortable and be more of themselves knowing that whatever they do, they have my support.
How did you tackle the rather sensitive subject of adoption with your children?
Honesty is the best policy for me with Umar and Aali. I decided a long time ago that I will tell them everything from the start, not only that I have nothing to hide from them, but also for them to understand what adoption is all about as well. Besides that, I have made a short film, Pulang, for them last year, which was based on the story of us coming together as a family. They played the two children featured in the film, with a father who has been hiding the fact that they were adopted, before deciding to bring them to meet their biological parents.
However, you still do have to take heart of their sensitive nature as kids, especially when they see their friends in school with “normal” families – with a mother and a father. You have to sit them down, and explain to them why some children end up differently and aren’t in the “normal” family template. Personally, I feel that religion is the only element in life that can put things in perspective, and make sense of the many things in life, and I choose to educate them in that aspect. I believe that it’s all God’s engineering, and although He doesn’t provide some things in life for some people, He does make up by providing other things in life. God may not have given them a “normal” family, but they have so much more to be grateful for that they don’t need to mull over the things they don’t have.
One of the consistencies in fashion is change – whether it is the absorption of smaller labels to bigger fashion houses, the passing of the baton from one artistic director to another, or something as simple as the stylistic changes of a collection from spring to winter.
How do you keep yourself and the brand relevant through such a revolutionising industry?
It’s good to know that after 25 years, there are still people going after what the Rizalman label has to offer. For me, it is merely a sign telling me that I have to work even harder. I may have reached the 25-year milestone, but at the same time, it also means that the benchmark is much higher from here on out. That’s why we have collaborative projects coming in consecutively; new people are coming in, eager to work with me for special collaborations, whereas the older collaborators are sticking around wanting to do more collections with the label. Granted, these projects do add up to my already overflowing list of things to do, but despite the potential jadedness and definite tiredness of thriving in the industry, we have to continue to push past the limits, so that we can continue to stand firm and strong in this cut throat industry for another 25 years.
What would you say is the common misstep small scale designer labels fall into easily?
If you still own your fashion label, enjoy every moment of it, because you still have the full say; designers from smaller labels that have been absorbed by bigger fashion houses rarely have the luxury to call the shots without going through the bureaucracy. However, be careful not to get caught up in the glamourous fashion shows bigger fashion labels churn out every season, which have bigger spending budget for such events. I have seen many designers who have been seduced by the majesty and incredulity of things, and they end up zeroing out their pockets to produce something at par with these foreign labels without considering things from the business perspective. In the end, there is next to none capital left to run the company, and they’re forced to disappear from the scene after the second season, either on an indefinite hiatus, or completely.
How have you been celebrating your 25 years milestone this year?
This is our fifth year collaborating with Zalora Malaysia for a ready-to-wear Raya collection, and in light of the 25th anniversary, we did things a little differently. We created a ready-to-wear couture collection that is a kind of portrayal of my 25 years in the fashion industry. It may have been a little more expensive than what we usually offer to the masses on Zalora, but at the same time, it’s a little bit more couture, with a little bit more embellishments. I’m grateful that the collection sold like hot cakes, very much like the other collaboration we did with Sometime by Asian Designers; the mini Ri bags were sold out within an hour!
Will we be expecting a 25th Silver Jubilee Year couture collection from Rizalman?
I’d very much love to do a special couture line to celebrate this milestone; for the past two nights, I have been talking to my staff and co-designers about it. You know, like a proper epilogue of the year’s celebrations at the end of the year. Couture is my first ever love, and I have enjoyed the excitement in putting together the full scale fashion shows for the couture collections in the last three years. Unfortunately, my biggest enemy now is time. We have already gone on to work on our 2018 collection for Zalora Malaysia, and on top of that, there are bridal wear commissions to work on, and designs for houses to complete… If it does happen, it would be a defining moment for me with my family and friends, my clients and followers. In fact, I already have ideas cooking in my head on how to stage the show! Alas, we just have to see if time is on my side to make it happen or not.
Where do you see Rizalman 25 years from now?
I started when I was very young, and I will be turning 50 in another three years. You could say that most of my life, it has always been about work. I rarely went out for movies or just lepak with my friends of the same age. I don’t want to be robbed of my days to come in life, just like my career once did to my younger self. There was one point in my life when I did feel tired of what I’m doing; we went back to the basics, and focused solely on made-to-orders, so that I had the time to concentrate more on who I am as a person and as a designer. However, without even realising it, we ended up expanding even further than before! From a single-storey store, we became a three-storey store. From one building, we ended up taking up four more buildings around us. That being said though, it’s not that I don’t enjoy every second of my life, and I’m not content with what I have achieved thus far; I already have more than anyone could ask for in a lifetime. Also, perhaps it’s God’s willing that I am where I’m supposed to be right now, running at such a pace and at such a scale. So, while I still have the time, and a say on how my life will turn out, I hope to go small once again, and return to the simplicity of my first love, which is couture designing. You know, like what Valentino Garavani did. After his label went big in the ‘60s, he sold off his shares and decided to retire in 2008, so that he can live a quieter life with his dogs. That is what I hope for myself: work hard for the next few years, so that I can have a comfortable life in the future, and enough to support my children. Not to mention, go on holidays and spend time with them – just, you know, enjoy life in general.
Catch the season finale of ‘Rizalman’ on Li HD (Astro Channel 728) next Tuesday, 18 July at 10PM