Back in 2007, Koh Yung Shen – known simply as Shen to his friends – was a 20-year-old graphic design postgrad and aspiring rapper from George Town, Malaysia. One Saturday in July, he was due to play a gig in Penang, a rock-hip hop crossover called Happy Saturday. A keen graffiti artist, ahead of the show, he tagged a blank trucker cap with a single word: “lansi” – which means “cocky” or “proud” in local dialect. Though he didn’t know it at the time, he’d just created the first of what would become one of the most recognisable streetwear accessories in Malaysia. Shen founded Lansi, the brand, in 2009 and, initially at least, its caps were sold solely on Facebook.
“The idea of opening an online streetwear store was really a result of not being able to land a stockist for Lansi,” he explains. “At the time, local streetwear brands weren’t ‘cool’ yet; I guess no one wanted to stock some unknown brand from Malaysia when, back then, everyone was into international brands like Supreme, Stüssy.” Thanks, in part, to Shen and co-founders Jason Ooi and Lee Yan Jian, that would change. In 2010, the trio founded The Swagger Salon, a site dedicated to local and international streetwear brands; its bricks-and-mortar outlet opened in George Town in 2014 and, alongside the likes of Major Drop, Frenzyhoodx and Super Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, is considered one of the go-to streetwear stores in Malaysia.
“The idea was never just to push Lansi stuff,” he says. “All along we wanted to create a platform for local brands, so they wouldn’t face the same barriers we did.”
It was good timing. Malaysia was about to see a serious boom in home-grown streetwear labels; almost one a year would open since standard-setter Pestle & Mortar was established in 2010: Nerdunit followed in 2011, then Against Lab (2012), SuperCrew (2013), Stoned & Co (2015), OBSCR and idle/idō, both 2016 – and that’s by no means an exhaustive list. Sure, other South East Asian countries like Thailand and Indonesia have seen similar upticks. Even so, few other scenes in the region seem as finely tuned as Malaysia’s; many of the brands in neighbouring markets are yet to see success overseas; and few appear to enjoy such hardcore support from its local “hype-beasts” (a now over-used term used to describe avid streetwear collectors).
And that, reckons Hugh Koh, co-founder of Pestle & Mortar, has been the game-changer. The mainstreaming of streetwear has been a global trend (paralleled by the emergence of hip hop in pop culture, he says), but the widespread respect and acceptance from Malaysia and South East Asia’s subcultures have been the bedrock of success for its home-grown streetwear scene, Koh says.
“I think these days the younger generation are less inclined to look towards the West for clothing inspiration,” he says. It also underscores the whole ethos of streetwear: standing out in a pretty saturated market dominated by big US labels. This reality is played out in the figures, too. Sales at Major Drop, one of Kuala Lumpur’s best-known stores, lean heavily towards regional brands: in 2019, it sold around 22,000 items of Asian streetwear versus only 3,765 of Western labels.
“A big part of our success over the past decade is, I think, that people look for stuff that represents them, something people can relate to. So, even from the beginning, we wanted to create a brand that speaks to South East Asian culture. Everything, from the words we use, to how we name our collections, it’s all relatable to people in this part of the world. That’s our tagline: Pride of South East Asia. Our whole thing is about putting the region on the fashion map.”
And, while sales are solid at home, some brands are also now finding success overseas. Why? Well, again, streetwear has long been about finding niche, unknown brands that no one else has heard of, says Koh.
“So, if some kid from the US or UK finds some tiny brand from South Korea, Thailand or Malaysia, it adds to the allure, because you know no one else has got it.” That whole ethos, he adds, as well as the inexpensive cost of marketing on social media, has given small brands from small markets some serious leverage in once very-hard- to-crack fashion markets. For idle/idō, online sales are driven by demand from the US, which accounts for 50 per cent of its online sales. Nerdunit now has stores in Tokyo, London and, by the end of this year, Los Angeles.
That’s not to say it’s all hype or one-upman-ship. Aesthetics and quality are a big part of it, too. Or so says Jeremy Tan, co-founder of Culture Cartel, an annual streetwear convention in Singapore that platforms small labels from South East Asia. He sees Malaysia’s entry into the global fashion ecosystem as part of Asia’s broader rise in creative industries such as music, design and fashion.
“If you think about the rise of Asian designers in the international fashion scene several years ago, like Alexander Wang or Jason Wu, the same is happening to Asian streetwear. The whole global street culture industry is looking for differ- ent points of view. And that demand is being met here. The world is now paying attention to what Asia has to say.”
The brands to know…
Koh Yung Shen, Jason Ooi and Lee Yan Jan.
Founded in 2009, Lansi (meaning “cocky” or “arrogant” in Cantonese dialect), is one of Malaysia’s first and most recognised streetwear brands, known for its switchback caps, signature T-shirts and provocative campaigns. All three founders set up streetwear e-store The Swagger Salon in 2010, which opened as a bricks-and-mortar boutique in 2014 in George Town, Penang, and stocks the founders’ two other labels, NSFW (Nice Shirt for Work) and Taikor. Shen also runs late-night hang-out-bar Backdoor Bodega.
“In an industry where trends come and go, the key to longevity is support from the many subcultures around streetwear – like sneaker, skate, dance or hip-hop culture,” says Shen. “The Malaysian brands that have made it big are the ones that have successfully made that connection.”
ZZ Liu and Gavin Liu.
A relative newcomer founded in 2016, slowly building a solid following for its functional, Japanese-inspired collections. These centre less on big branding and more on modern, design- driven silhouettes that stand outside the standard, printed-T and logo-capped streetwear continuum. Collections tend to be small and precise; its most recent collection, Pit-Stop (pictured), includes a simple orange tee, a black, button-down shirt and cropped-leg technical pants. In February, the brand released a collection alongside Indonesian label ORBITgear (available online).
“I think we’ve got a long way to go before Kuala Lumpur is up there with fashion capitals like Seoul or Tokyo, but the talent and passion is there,” says co-founder ZZ Liu.
With its own flagship store just outside downtown KL and stockists countrywide (as well as Singapore and Taiwan), 2013-founded Supercrew is currently Malaysia’s “it” streetwear label. It was one of the only brands to mount a runway collection at KL Fashion Week 2019, made up of edgy ensembles that showed it could do way more than big-branded basics. Recurring themes focus on self- realisation, power and authority, as with recent SS20 collection, Officer.
“I’ve always felt that people are looking for more positivity and confidence in their lives,” says Josh Soo. “Supercrew was my way of inspiring that.”
Bryan Lim and Ethan Curzon.
Another fast-rising up-and-comer founded in Kuala Lumpur in 2016, OBSCR has produced collections inspired by sportswear silhouettes, drawing on influences from athletics to yoga to create functional, gym- or-street-wearable athleisure with a colour- muted, made-in-Malaysia edge. Still, more recent collections have taken a different tack, drawing on music subcultures, such as most recent drop, Techno Waves, or OBSCR Resort 2019 (pictured).
“It wasn’t always the case; it used to be all about international brands. But now I think Made in Malaysia has become a real badge of pride,” says co-founder, Bryan Lim.
Pestle & Mortar
Hugh Koh, and brothers Arnold & Arthur Loh.
Founded in 2010, this self-styled “storytelling streetwear brand” deeply rooted in South East Asian culture is now easily one of the most prolific and successful labels in Malaysia. A dab hand at straightforward branded caps and tees (latest drop, Prime: Cut & Sew Range, includes a navy-yellow plaid printed overshirt and desert-camo work jacket), the brandis known for its unconventional collaborations: one of its biggest capsule collections was released alongside fast-food chain KFC (pictured); the most recent is with heritage pewter company Royal Selangor; and it has also released a collection with UAE barber shop, Akin.
“There used to be this perception that nothing local could be as good as the stuff coming in from the US,” says CEO Hugh Koh. “So pretty much everything we do is about putting Malaysia on the fashion map.”