How this Malaysian Designer Bootstrapped her Way to the New York Fashion Week and Beyond
By the age of seven, Jasmine Chong had a fair idea what her true calling was. Surrounded by a sea of bright fabrics and a kaleidoscope of buttons, beads and trim, she grew up in the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur watching her designer mother sit in front of a 1970s Singer sewing machine and turn sketches and fabrics into beautiful dresses for her and customers.
“I instantly fell in love with and never quite walked away from (designing clothes),” says Chong from New York, the city where she and her luxury ready-to-wear womenswear brand, Jasmine Chong, is based.
It’s been an especially tiring month for Chong; she had her third successful show at the recently concluded New York Fashion Week and then flew to Malaysia to celebrate her father’s 70th birthday.
Chong is close to her family. She credits her parents and siblings for helping her establish the eponymous line in October 2015, four years after arriving in the Big Apple. Before launching the brand, she apprenticed under notable designers like Ann Taylor, Thakoon, Anna Sui and Tory Burch.
Creating a name for herself in a foreign city wasn’t easy, Chong insists. We spoke to her about the challenges she faced while establishing the brand, which ships globally, and why she loves fashion so much. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about your journey from Malaysia to New York.
I spent the majority of my childhood in Kuala Lumpur, sketching. I filled up many exercise books with sketches of girls in different outfits. I went to high school at an all-girls school in Melbourne, Toorak College, where I was active in the creative arts—writing, singing. I think one of the first things I made for myself was a costume for Sebastian from The Little Mermaid.
I then attended the University of Virginia for a year before transferring to the School Of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I majored in fashion design. It was always clear to me that New York was where I wanted to be—so I apprenticed and worked in the industry under labels such as Anna Sui, Marchesa, and Halston, and enrolled in Parsons’ fashion business programme. Upon graduating, the label was launched.
What role did your mother play in shaping your interest in fashion?
My mother had her own label at a time, and she would take me to fabric and haberdashery stores and encourage me to choose fabrics. I remember this happening as early as 7 years old. I loved these trips; they were magical. I realize now that seeing sketches and fabric evolve into wearable, beautiful garments was the first time I was exposed to the design process, which I fell in love with.
What’s the aesthetic of the Jasmine Chong label?
The label embraces quiet luxury. The woman I design for is drawn to the fluidity and romance of the pieces; she has an affinity for beautiful yet subtle details. She knows precisely what she wants from the world. She is soft, yet also strong.
How did you start the label? Did you have any investors?
I had been working on a collection for a while, so when I graduated from Parsons with my second fashion degree, I focused on developing the label and debut of the collection. With my sister Jacintha as partner, we launched the collection at New York Fashion Week in 2016. I’ve been fortunate to have had family support and to have come this far by bootstrapping our way through the past few years.
Did you face any challenges while setting up your brand?
It’s been such a steep learning curve. Designers are trained to execute a collection from concept to finished garment—but it was clear from early on that design is just a tiny slice of operating a fashion business. When it’s your own label, you must have at least a working understanding of everything else— logistics, event production, accounting, social media.
As a foreign young female entrepreneur, it’s doubly hard. A lesson I learned early on is that there are people who will attempt to bully/intimidate you, or even rip you off, purely because you’re a young woman. This is why it’s imperative to defend your boundaries and surround yourself with people who share your values and support you.
While my family is based in Asia, we’re incredibly close-knit so I’m always bouncing off ideas or seeking advice. My brother Jason is one of my most trusted advisors. In many ways, this label is a family business.
Being a fashion entrepreneur is certainly a challenge in this competitive environment. Your thoughts?
One of my loyal clients once told me that she loves that the label is “luxury you can eat in.” I love that… food is important! She wore the Botanist dress to a wedding and could eat, dance, move as she pleased while still feeling exquisite. I can’t tell you how much I love that my clients feel that way. I’m completely uninterested in fashion that cages or constricts a woman. A number of the signature pieces we carry are size-fluid, allowing for fluctuations and changes in a woman’s body. One of the most fulfilling things I keep hearing is that my clients can tell when a designer respects and celebrates women, and that my clothes make them feel beautiful and strong.
In one of the fashion shows, you featured women who were not, as society sees them, skinny.
I wanted to put on a show that I could be proud of and fully stand behind. I wear a size 12, and I’ve grown up with strong, beautiful women who wear a range of sizes—I want the label to reflect the women I love and adore in my life.
At our final fitting before the show as we were finalizing the line-up, we had such a hard time deciding between putting the same black dress on a size 0 or a size 12 model, because the one-size dress looked so good on both the size 0 and size 12 models. We ended up showing the look on our size 12 model. It has become increasingly important to me to celebrate diversity instead of bend to someone else’s perception of beauty.