After more than 15 years in the fashion industry, Alvin Fernandez has perfected the art of turning “a raw material into something precious,” like the ancestors of mediaeval chemistry the eponymous industry has done so. During the recent Starhill Gallery Fashion Week, we met the alchemist of Perth-based haute couture label Ae’lkemi to speak to him about his mastery.
Like the final outcome of alchemy, Alvin Fernandez was not born into a life for the fashion industry; in fact, he was meant to get into Marine Biology after high school.
“It was more of a fall back plan, to be honest,” Alvin reminisces. “I didn’t know what to do when I was rejected, but it was my high school art teacher who encouraged me to submit my portfolio to the WA School of Art and Design. I was accepted into the disciplinary in the top 5 percent of the lot at the time.”
However, coming from an Asian family with part-Singaporean heritage, Alvin knew that the decision to get into an art school would not bode well with his parents; they had wanted him to get into a business school, or at least something that is more commercially viable. So he did not tell them about enrolling into his classes until he was six months into the discipline.
“They were not happy when they found out, of course,” Alvin laughs. “But once I could prove to them that this is something that I could do, and be good at doing, they grew supportive of it.”
The Singapore-born-Perth-raised designer wasted no time in proving to his parents that he could actually make fashion work for him. Shortly after he graduated from college, and a quick stint working in a designer label, Alvin decided it’s time to do his own way. He set up a small atelier in his hometown in Claremont, Perth, which would later grow into a full-blown flagship store covering a good spectrum of ready-to-wears, made-to-measures, couture gowns and bridal gowns.
“I have always been quite ambitious, and I’m the kind of person who would go out and chase the things I want, be sort of proactive in what I want to do,” Alvin says. “Even if things don’t work out, you just take it as a learning curve. You let it stick in your head for a few days, then get over it, and start again.”
“It’s a bit of a cliché,” he adds with a smile. “But I try to be more proactive and constructive, rather than sitting in a corner and sulking about it.”
During the Starhill Gallery Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2017, which took place from 12 to 15 April, Alvin Fernandez gave us a taste on what we have been missing in our lives. Ae’lkemi opened the four-day fashion event with a plethora of couture and ready-to-wear pieces, flown straight from the Beijing Fashion Week, which was but 10 days prior from the Kuala Lumpur event.
The trans-seasonal collection features gowns that carry both subtle handmade finishes, as well as extravagant embroidery and feather works, upon dresses with an array of cuts and silhouettes that are suitable for all kinds of occasions. Some of the key pieces include the sculptured gown of velvet squared neckline and flared Italian Jersey skirt detail with the sculptured mesh skirt, and the brazen plunge dress with a side split and firebird prints, alongside the use of sequins, lace, silk, chiffon, crepe and silk satin.
Besides that, the bespoke pieces were also on display at the Ae’lkemi Signature Store pop-up on the Adorn Floor in Starhill Gallery until May 10, where the public were able to drop by and have a close encounter with the intricate works that Alvin has been lauded for.
Ae’lkemi takes after the phonetic orthography of the word ‘alchemy’, and the connotation of mediaeval chemistry in turning metal into gold or silver is one that plays well with what Alvin is trying to achieve with his couture label.
“The DNA of the brand has always been to focus on the feminine form; it’s all about the cut and fit, and the proportion of the garments that are fitting for a woman’s body, and augmenting the curves in an elegant, old-school way,” Alvin describes, whose works are reincarnated renditions of original couture designers like Charles James from the 1900s, renowned for his sculpted ball gowns and spiral zipped dresses of luxurious fabric materials and exact bespoke standards.
“It’s the art of manipulating the fabric to mould into a person’s body without being obvious,” Alvin explains.
The award-winning First Couturier in America enjoyed immense fame when he was commissioned to design Baba Beaton’s wedding gown in 1934, which he took the creative venture with a then modern interpretation of a raised neckline with and orange blossom choker, and a divided train. The iconic wedding gown is now on display in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, alongside his 1938 creation of a white satin quilted jacket, which critics believed to be the pioneer to the likes of anoraks and fur jackets.
James’ succession in haute couture seen in Ae’lkemi has brought Alvin and his team around the world, showcasing his collections at notable fashion weeks in New York, Paris and London, places where the designer has picked up inspirations for his designs.
“It could be something as simple as a photo frame when you visit a museum, or a pillar seen at one of the tourist attractions,” Alvin says. “It gives you a bit more of the alphabets in your dictionary of what you can do. It opens your eyes to how things are done, and can be done.”
Asides from that, Alvin draws inspirations from the music he listens to. A broad range of classical music to heavy rock can have him working late in his atelier for days on end that his mother would get concerned about his workaholic nature, and quips him to head home for a change.
“I’m quite sensitive to music. If it’s a piece of music that I like, I can see designs forming in my head, and before long, an entire range will come together. If I can’t see it in my head, I won’t sketch it out. I’m a bit OCD like that,” Alvin laughs.
And much like every person out there in the creative field, Alvin is nocturnal: the best ideas come at night, when there is no one around, and the phone is not ringing off the hook. That being said though, it is still a hit and miss; he can design a range of dresses in two hours, but sometimes, he could be staring down at the board five hours in and nothing is coming out. Whilst his couture gowns may seem effortless and to some, easy in design, Alvin assures us that it is not as easy as it looks.
“I’m a designer who does things by feel and touch. It all depends on the mood,” he says. “Every time I try to force something out, they come out looking really terrible, and I just end up scraping it and starting again.”
Other than trying to catch Lady Muse whenever she decides to come around, the designer has to put up with his “phases”, or as his team would joke about, his “split personalities”. Which is to say that some days, plain and simple designs with not much detailing will end up on the drawing board, while on others, he has to stop himself consciously when something intense and full of details come up, and pull back on the design a little.
“We can never go wrong with black, but at the same time, my favourite colour is like, fuchsia pink! See the split personalities there?” He laughs heartily.
For a city like Perth, known to be the quieter of the lot, compared to the more happening Sydney and Melbourne, who would have thought that there would be an event every weekend, to keep Alvin and his team booked pretty much throughout the year?
The thriving lifestyle in Perth has worked to Ae’lkemi’s strengths, and the brand has serviced a list of clients heading to corporate balls and charity balls taking place up to three times in a weekend. So much so that the team is up to their necks with appointments and fittings for couture gowns and made-to-measures!
“We used to dress the governor’s wife, Tonya McCusker, and she was one of the best clients,” Alvin says. “Like most of our clients, she would come in at the beginning of the year, show us her whole schedule of events throughout the year, tells us to do whatever we have to do to, and only ring her when it’s time to come in for the fittings.”
Ae’lkemi’s clientele includes notable Australian celebrities such as radio personality Sam Frost, Miss Universe Australia 2010 Jesinta Franklin, and weather journalist Magdalena Roze, to more world renowned stars like Mel B of the ‘90s Spice Girls fame, and Sydney-based singer/songwriter Delta Goodrem, who was donned in a bright crimson Ae’lkemi gown on her 2012 Christmas album.
Melbourne-based celebrity, Dannii Minogue, pop singer Kylie Minogue’s sister and current judge on the British BBC show, Let It Shine, is Ae’lkemi’s keenest returning supporter. She has patronised Alvin and his team for the last three years, especially when she hits the red carpet for Australia’s TV Week Logie Awards, or The Logies.
“It’s the best thing when clients give you full creative freedom, and trust you in what you do for them,” Alvin comments. “But above all, it’s nice to work with people who are friendly, and who are not a nightmare to work with just because of their celebrity status. We treat our clients all the same, and we don’t really care who you are at the end of the day.”
The Elixir of Life
Alvin has been recognised as Perth’s Most Innovative Designer at the 2013 WA Fashion Awards, and more recently in 2014, he has been inducted into Singaporean philanthropist Dr Frank Cintamani, Chevalier’s Asian Couture Federation (ACF), Asia’s first organisation to recognise, support and promote Asian couturiers who have exhibited the most esteemed artistry in fashion design.
From here on out, there is no other way to go for Ae’lkemi but upwards, and in this case, a more prominent voice internationally. Alvin looks forward to doing more couture salon trunk shows in different cities, after the positive responses he has received at the fashion weeks overseas, and perhaps, a permanent boutique in Starhill Gallery after his pop-up stint over the fashion week.
“You’ll never know!” Alvin quips excitedly. “I prefer to take things as it comes. At this point, it’s all about growing sustainably, and doing things a little bit cleverer, rather than rushing into everything.”
“That and perhaps the chance to dress Beyoncé,” he adds with a laugh. “She’s on the top of my list, along with the likes of Cate Blanchett. She’s of such elegance, and she makes everything looks so effortless!”
With such big dreams, paired with his ambitious nature, you could say that it’s not a bad thing considering, for someone who once felt a bit stumped not getting into Marine Biology 16 years ago.
“Yes, this all was basically my back up plan,” he grins. “But a pretty good one, if I do say so myself.”