Berlin-based Malaysian fashion designer Pearly Wong returns to Malaysia to take up her ambassadorship as a Friend of the Brand in Southeast Asia for Corum. Seizing the opportunity, she kicks start Sze Women of Hope, a non-profit initiative under her fashion label to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) livelihood projects in Malaysia, during a special Corum-presented fashion show, featuring apparel and accessories made ethically by refugee women.
What is the motivation behind the founding of Sze Women of Hope, a non-profit initiative under your eponymous fashion label?
I have an innate passion for learning about environmental issues, climate change and sustainable living. I took on a sustainable entrepreneurship programme after I finished my studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and a lot what I’ve learned I have brought forward to every component in my life, be it my lifestyle or work ethics. The Pearly Wong label has always been about sustainability: to operate our business with a consciousness towards the environment and the current political issues, as well as to contribute to social causes. We have been using a lot of techniques to prolong the lifespans of our fashion items, and to prevent textile waste that goes to the landfill in the long run. One of our more notable projects is the organic bamboo textile series for Isetan Suria KLCC a couple of years ago.
That being said, the foundation of Sze Women of Hope – “Sze” is my middle name – is to strengthen the label’s CSR initiative towards society. For years now, we have been going around orphanages in Cheras to teach children on upcycle textile waste. Work aside, I’m also conducting regular arts and craft classes, as well as about recycling from textile waste, on Saturdays to Mon refugee children. To me, fashion designing and social work are two of my life’s passions, and to be able to do them both simultaneously, it’s what makes me want to wake up every morning. As tough as it can be sometimes to be a “sustainable” business, it’s one of the values we stand for that we take pride in.
How does Sze Women of Hope contribute to UNHCR’s attempt in helping the refugees in Malaysia?
We work closely with the livelihood department of UNHCR team in Malaysia, whose mission is to provide the refugees a livelihood programme with learning skills that can go on to give them a self-sustaining income. While we were exploring ideas on a marginalised community to work with, we discovered that the refugees in Malaysia, especially the women possess various handiwork skills. Most of these women are housewives who are not encouraged to work, due to the traditional gender roles females play in their countries. So, these women taught themselves to sew clothes, to patch up holes, and to do hand-stitched embroidery. This is where Sze Women of Hope comes in: we use our expertise in fashion design, and the handicraft workmanship needed to assist them in enhancing their skills further, and to promote their work to the mass market via Sze Women of Hope, which in turn, provides them a sustainable income with fair trade wages. UNHCR’s role is to help us facilitate this working relationship with the refugees, and we are currently working with four different groups of communities at the moment: the Chin women, the Mon children, the Afghan women and the Pakistani women.
Tell us a bit more about the Sze Women of Hope collection, and how it is different from the preceding Pearly Wong collections?
Sze Women of Hope is tailored to the Malaysian market. We’re talking about colourful wearable clothing that is climate friendly and affordable. It is in some regards contrasting with the Pearly Wong label, as the main collections go by seasons; clothing for the Fall/Winter seasons would not be appropriate for the Malaysian weather. Also, the label’s signature design is more avant-garde, something that is not accepted readily in Malaysia – at least not yet, which is why the main collections are only sold overseas at the moment. That being said though, I think both collections complement each other at the same time. They make up for each other. Sze Women of Hope will have their own run of collections, but I hope to focus more on making non-clothing items for Sze, because I am very intrigued about handmade artisanal products that have a heritage possession, and in preserving the touch of human values to a product. All groups of refugees I am currently working with have their individual artisanal skills from their village or country, and I want to work with them to develop that.
How do you think being a Friend of the Brand in Southeast Asia for Corum has helped you with this initiative, which you may not be able to achieve otherwise?
I am very privileged to be chosen as Friend of Corum for Southeast Asia. Corum has helped me bring more awareness to my cause in highlighting the plight of the communities at risk in Malaysia. I am glad that Corum is also on board with an initiative that gives back to the community; the Pearly Wong label has recently presented the Sze Women of Hope collection with Corum, and without them, as well as the media, guests, and friends, the cause would not have prevailed as it does today. I firmly believe that corporate social responsibility is an essential part of businesses today. The future of business evolves around doing our work, while at the same time, being concerned of protecting our people and earth in what we do.
What does it takes for someone to become a Friend of the Brand in Southeast Asia for Corum, and what are the responsibilities the ambassadorship entails?
Corum is always looking for someone who gels with the aesthetics of their watches, someone who is confident in wearing the brand, and making the audience feel confident and a sense of belonging to Corum. In my case with the Bubble watch, I want people to feel like they can own the world with Corum – the sky is endless, and so are the possibilities.
Are there any other humanitarian concerns that you feel strongly about, which you hope you can help out in either personally, or through your career in fashion designing?
We are still working closely with UNHCR, and we will assist them on a project on their women empowerment programme from this month onwards for five months. I think globalisation has wiped out all handmade artisan products at a time when the world is running on fast consumerism. I want to be able to pay fair-trade wages for the production of good quality products with heritage values, and at the same time, relive slow fashion and “re-promote” them to the world. Hopefully, this goal can be achieved, and my label and my designs can be reflected on helping women refugees in Malaysia through Sze Women of Hope.
Photos by Fahme Mohd