Dr. June Ngo Siok Kheng, 41, Deputy Dean (Postgraduate and Research), Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) &
Director, Textile Design and Production, Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah (YTNZ)
Dr June Ngo is instrumental in pioneering the transformation of songket, as we know it, into a contemporary handmade textile for broader usage. From a stiff, unwieldy fabric limited to ceremonial use, songket has now been innovated into soft, flowing and drape-able pieces which are extremely versatile yet retain their lustrous and luxurious appearance.
The new songket has attracted international accolades, including a second prize at last year’s prestigious ASEAN Silk Fabric and Design Competition in Thailand. “This is a significant achievement,” she shares proudly, “because it places our artisans at par with those in countries with very established weaving traditions such as Thailand, India and Cambodia.” At the first Malaysian Royal Weaves Exhibition in London in June 2011, Sarawakian weaver Ramlah Kipli and Dr Ngo had the opportunity to introduce the craft to a wider audience by giving a series of talks and demonstrations.
These encouraging developments are only possible because of her technical brilliance, robust research – and formidable people skills. When she sought the master songket weavers in the East Coast for help, they initially thought she was “out of her mind” to attempt what nobody else had succeeded at, Dr Ngo recalls ruefully.
But as she continued to spend time understanding their techniques and problems, slowly, the old weavers warmed up to her patience and sincerity.
“It was immensely satisfying when I saw the prototype taking shape.”
Soon after the completion of her PhD, she joined Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah (YTNZ). The Foundation - which aims to improve the lives of artisans by ensuring the sustainability of heritage crafts like songket - supported her work by providing funds to support songket weavers, textile designers, marketing, PR, equipment and research, culminating in the breakthrough songket now sold under the brand Royal Terengganu Songket (RTS) – and which has changed the face of the songket cottage industry.
In addition to her role in ensuring the sustainability of the songket legacy, Dr June will be likely be remembered for empowering the young by providing an economic lifeline through traditional crafts. The foundation’s production centres in Kuching and Kuala Terengganu, which employ young women on a full time basis with a fixed salary plus EPF and Socso, are not only providing a sustainable approach to ensure the perpetuity of a heritage, but imparting young underprivileged women with marketable skills.
“With knowledge empowerment, they have a better chance to be financially independent and break free from their economic disadvantage,” says Dr June.
“I wish not only to give many more weavers the opportunity to make a career in their beloved craft but also to inspire many more to value and cherish our cultural heritage so that they will play a more important role in preserving and uplifting the standard of songket weaving.”
Amee Philips, 52, Jeweler
With a good eye on quality gemstones and an inventive approach to design, Amee has carved a solid niche in the jewellery business.
Philips’ signature V-Clip, which took six years to be patented, was her breakthrough. A special clip which allows individual pieces to be securely added on to other pieces of jewellery - hence multiplying their uses - it won the coveted Malaysian Good Design Award in 2006.
Such versatility, she said, heralded “the turning point in jewellery” as “it empowers women to design things the way they want it, every day.”
Amee’s foray into the jewellery line began while scouting for gemstones for her mother during her stint as an interpreter interpreter in Frankfurt. Interest piqued, she delved further by researching books about gemstones and marketing. On her return to Malaysia in 1993, she became a full-time gemstone wholesaler on Pitt Street, Penang.
“I learnt how to identify good gemstones from the bosses of jewellery shops,” she recalls.
Diversifying to retail jewellery to withstand the 1997 economic crisis, she quickly gained a following with her innovative designs – despite not knowing how to draw, though she could “arrange the stones and tell the goldsmith what I want.”
“Whatever jewellery I wore, people would buy them from me,” she said, adding that this gave her the confidence to try her hand at jewellery design.
“My motto is simple: nothing is impossible.”
While the name Amee Phillips – the brand and the designer – is already a familiar name in Malaysia, her star is expected to ascend higher with her recent coup: She collaborated with fashion darling Zang Toi on his new line of accessories, and her first store in Europe is slated to open soon.
Her workaholism is well-known. Her husband, Drew, is reported to have said, “Back in the old house, we used to have a desk in our bedroom where Amee would work at night. When I wake up, she would still be arranging stones and sketching designs.”
The secret to her success? Backed by a team of 15 craftsmen, she is not one who sits on her laurels and is ever ready to raise the bar. Recently, she unveiled Nyonya fusion jewellery, which modernizes Nyonya jewellery while faithfully retaining its old-world charm. She also does makeovers for old jewellery.
Amee says, “A good piece of jewellery is almost like an art piece by Picasso. It’s not about the cost of material. It’s about the intricacy and artistic value of the creation.”
TENGKU CHANELA JAMIDAH IBRAHIM, 28, We Are Ultra Founder
Motivated to lead an environmentally-friendly lifestyle after the birth of her daughter, Tengku Chanela Jamidah Ibrahim partnered with good friend Anita Hawkins to set up The Ultra Ultra, a blog on sustainability.
While searching for the best products for her daughter, she noticed a gap of sustainable and attractive products locally despite the growing green movement worldwide. A chance meeting with two up and coming Malaysian fashion designers Jonathan Liang and Tengku Syahmi prompted her to expand the blog into a collective called We Are Ultra in 2009.
Made from eco-friendly materials such as pineapple fibers, wood pulp and salmon skin and recycled polyester, their repertoire is chic and wearable -
think draped jackets with artsy cut-outs or waisted shorts with sharp bottom cuts - while being kind to the environment, drawing glowing reviews such as “a breath of fresh air in a region where sustainability and contemporary design rarely mix.
While the price points of sustainable fashion are still high, she believes that it can go mainstream. “Making a concerted and conscious effort to start promoting the use and acceptance of these materials will create a trickle-down effect of lowering down production costs.”
More than a clothing line, a product, or a brand, We Are Ultra aims to collaborate with designers, companies and organisations to create meaningful products, experiences and workshops from a sustainable point of view.
“I want to show that living green can be incorporated into our daily lives, while at the same time bring something fresh and innovative to the scene,” she says.
One way to encourage everyone to consider the impact of our lifestyle on the planet is by building on emotional connection and active participation of the masses. So in addition to their blog, they maintain active accounts on Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. They communicate regularly with supporters and maintain full transparency about their sustainable practices.
This open community approach obviously works: they recently raised nearly $10,000 on crowd-sourcing platform Kickstarter to fund their trip to Tranoi during Paris Fashion Week.
Ultra’s meteoric success convinces her that it is possible to stay true to your passions. “You can succeed without succumbing to society or others’ interpretation of what something should be.”
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