Carven Ong on versatility as an essential tool in creative design


Known for his breathtaking couture pieces, Malaysian fashion designer Carven Ong tackles the ‘Old Malaysia’ theme for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur 2021, with a fun twist.

When we think of Carven Ong, we think of wedding dresses, or chic evening dresses. This is the brand on which he was built, from his first collection in 1991 at the MODA Wanita fashion show to his eponymous brand, “Carven Ong Couture”, specializing in Exclusive bespoke wedding and evening dresses.

With over thirty years as a renowned designer in the local fashion industry under his belt, Ong’s continued dedication has turned his passion and hobby into a lifelong career. But Ong is always looking to try new things, including exploring new styles and working across various platforms.

In 2017, Ong had the opportunity to work with Hollywood’s premier costume designer, Mary E. Vogt, to produce couture pieces for the big blockbuster movie, crazy rich asians. Ong designed and custom made the iconic waterproof wedding dress and sequined jumpsuit worn by character Araminta Lee.

“It was the first time that I had collaborated with a film. It was a very difficult experience, ”said Ong of his time working with Vogt on crazy rich asians, “But overall it was a lot of fun. I would really like to venture there again.

Ong laments the slow season and stagnation of the fashion industry brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but expresses that it has given him the opportunity to explore beyond the style he has always been known for, and experiment with new designs.

Carven Ong and his models, at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur 2021.

During the recent Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Kuala Lumpur, Ong offers thirty-three new pieces centered on the theme of ‘Old Malaysia’, with various motif callbacks reminiscent of fashion styles from the 1960s to the 1980s. Vivid and bold colors enter the scene, accented by motifs from the past that somehow or other to feel Malaysian while evoking a foreign concept.

Just before seeing the runway up close at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week KL, we sit down with Carven Ong to talk about his inspiration behind the runway collection, as he shares his experience working on crazy rich asians.

How about you bring it differently for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur 2021?

The collection I am presenting at the show will be for my spring / summer collection next year. And I think people will find my latest collection quite interesting, because I’ve never done anything like this before. A lot of people think that I would do a collection of evening dresses or bridal gowns for the show, and that’s exactly why I decided to make this collection different from my couture brand.

Mercedes-Benz actually invited us designers to do this show in June of last year, but it was pushed back due to the pandemic. And so, I felt that if I had to present the collection that I had planned for last year, it would be pretty old fashioned now. So after they announced the show would be put on for this year, I had about a month to work on a brand new collection. I decided to make it “easy”: simple, bright and happy.

Tell us about the inspiration behind this collection.

Since we can’t travel, I thought it was best to stay true to my roots so I chose to design around a Malaysian theme, “Old Malaysia”. The inspiration for my collection is purely Malaysian, while being international. I think the cultures of our country are very rich and amazing, with outfits from Malaysian, Indian and Chinese culture, and mixing them all together while keeping an international air about it. It was the idea.

So, would you say it’s like a fusion of different cultures?

Yes exactly. It’s a very simple idea, but what I wanted to do was make it interesting. The theme is called “Old Malaysia” because it is taken from a song by a Japanese singer in 1963. I love this song and I took my ideas from it. This same song will also be played during the show! (Laughs)

I also use a lot of colorful outfits in this collection as I think the pandemic has been so long and everyone is feeling down so it’s nice to celebrate the fun before we close the year. I played with all kinds of colors and merged them with Malaysian patterns like wayang kulit and henna, which are also printed on the outfits. I would say that the color combination I chose is interesting and striking, at the same time very unexpected.

As you draw on the “Old Malaysia” theme for the collection, would you say this is your way of modernizing it too?

It’s correct. I thought to myself: this is a show, so why not make it more fun? Especially since we have to compromise, due to the SOP restrictions. Our models have to have their masks on, so I took the opportunity to incorporate that into the outfits as well – turning them into accessories, instead of something that covers their face. I designed the masks in different shapes like the Petronas Twin Towers to make it more fun.

What is your take on current fashion trends, and retro fashion that is making a comeback?

Old fashion trends will always make a comeback. I see it a lot in everything, especially in the shoes. I noticed that platform shoes are making a comeback, and they were very popular in the 1970s. But now everyone is wearing them! (Laughs) I also like to put this concept in my pieces, so you will notice that the shoes during the parade are very tall and in bright colors. What I love about platform shoes is that they go with just about anything: jumpsuits, short skirts, dresses. It adds a really fun layer to the whole look.

When it comes to fashion comebacks, what is your definition of “timeless” in terms of fashion?

I think it completely depends on the design. For me, I would relate it to elegance. Timeless fashion is also something elegant.

You’ve accomplished so much in your career in the fashion industry, from your “Carven Ong Couture” and ready-to-wear brand, to your collaboration with Vogt on Crazy Rich Asians. What you haven’t accomplished yet that you want?

I am very proud of my involvement in crazy rich asians. Due to the design of my dress in the movie, I have had clients from all over including New York. It’s really surprising and surreal for me to have asked a celebrity to come to Malaysia to see me, asking me to design her wedding dress. It is truly an honor. She also invited me to dress her for the Met Gala in 2022. When I asked her why she chose me to be her designer, she said that she was inspired by my designs in crazy rich asians. And now, every time she goes to an event, she calls me and I draw her outfits, since I already have her measurements.

Tell us about your experience working at Crazy Rich Asians. What was your inspiration for this iconic wedding dress from the film?

When I was first contacted to join the project, I had no idea this was going to be such a huge thing. I thought it was just someone looking to lend dresses or look for sponsorship. They told me that I had been chosen to design the main dress, the outfit for the wedding scene.

They wanted it to look very exclusive and expensive. I worked there closely with Mary E. Vogt. Vogt has also done costume design for films like cat woman before, and she’s a huge fan of jumpsuits. So I said, “Why don’t we make a combination for the wedding?” This has never been done before! (Laughs) She agreed, so we continued.

The iconic wedding dress from the movie “Crazy Rich Asians”. (Image credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

The whole thing lasted about three weeks. The schedule was very, very tight, but somehow I managed to finish it all. And I was also asked to design quite a few outfits for the movie – I created nine in total, including the outfits the characters wore at the beach. They wanted me to create outfits for the other actors as well, but I just couldn’t due to the tight schedule. If I had had more time, maybe I could have done more. But overall it was a great experience for me.

For you personally, what are the most important facets of the fashion industry?

I think, from now on, the exhibition and go out there. We had a very slow year or two of not doing much. Hope it picks up soon and our fashion industry has more opportunities to develop our very talented designers that we have in Malaysia. This is why shows like Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and KL Fashion Week are important, because they are platforms for young local designers that allow us to have the chance to be exposed and showcase their work. So, I hope we can resume, and also that the government will extend its support to Malaysian designers.

I feel like within Malaysian culture – even when I did the designs for Miss Universe – I learned that we actually have so many ideas that we want to express. In Asian countries especially, our culture is so rich and amazing. We are very fortunate to have multicultural communities, and because of that we have so much to work with. Hopefully with this people will start to see that fashion is actually very interesting and is an art form in its own right.

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