From couture to book

2 May 2009 - 8:50am Comments Off

At 45, Choong's finally in full bloom.

Story and photos by Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal, The New Sunday Times Magazine

Award-winning fashion designer Eric Choong has picked up the pen to inspire all with his tale in the fashion world, writes INTAN MAIZURA AHMAD KAMAL.

DESIGNER Eric Choong, known for his delightful east-meets-west creations and gorgeous bridal couture, is adding another feather to his already illustrious cap.

The youthful 45-year-old with the infectious giggles, has turned his sights to writing. To be launched next week, his maiden effort, Eric Choong, In Full Bloom, is an undertaking that chronicles his journey from childhood to the present, the challenges he’s faced, the highs, the lows, and what it’s really like to be in such a competitive industry.

All proceeds from books sold on that daywill be donated to Kechara Soup Kitchen, a community action group that helps feed the homeless and urban poor in KL.

Choong was recently South East Asia’s sole representative at the Sydney Bridal Fashion Week with his bridal and evening wear collection.

His eyes sparkle under his stylish black-rimmed glasses as he confides that he’s always wanted to write about his fashion journey. “I know 25 years may not seem like very long but for a designer, that’s already the first half of his career gone. I’d toyed with the idea for five years. I wanted to do a book that’s not only about my journey but one that could offer an insight into the fashion circle and, at the same time, inspire other young designers out there,” he says.

The book, written in Mandarin, took him almost two years to complete, from conceptualisation to the eventual writing. Choong, who has five labels under him — Eric Choong Bride, Eric Choong Couture, Eric Choong Homme, Eric Choong Ready-to-Wear and Eric Choong Flowers (to complement Eric Choong Bride) — will eventually have the book translated into English to reach a wider audience.

Gorgeous evening dresses from his couture collection.

So what’s your story then?

He smiles. Plumping up the cushions on the sofa and making himself comfortable, the jovial Aquarian recalls how he’d always known that his career would be in fashion.

At the age of seven, the young Choong loved to paint. At 13, he had honed his art to sketching designs. “I remember the women teachers would always ask me to sketch them a design and they would then take my sketches to their tailors!”

Eyes twinkling, he continues: “My mum was a hairstylist and she had her own salon. She had all these fashion books for customers to read and I would leaf through them excitedly, looking at beautiful designs from Hong Kong and Japan. They really inspired me. My mum inspired me too as she was very fashionable, with her mini skirts and bare-back dresses!”

It was his mum, his hero, who encouraged him to pursue his passion, much to the consternation of his more conservative and traditional electronic contractor father.

Recalls Choong: “Dad used to say to me that this was no vocation for a man and I wouldn’t be able to go far with it. So I vowed to prove him wrong.”

In 1987, Ipoh-born Choong left for Hong Kong to study at the Hong Kong Institute of Fashion Design. Upon his return to KL in 1990, he conceived the Eric Choong Haute Couture label and set up his own atelier.

Flower encrusted with crystals is the feature of this gown.

The early days, he recalls, were rife with challenges. “I was still learning and allowed things to get to me. I was just too sensitive. At one time, 15 years ago, to be precise, my business went downhill. I started with 15 workers but ended up with only one. I never told my family about it until, one day, the stress got to me and I just collapsed. Then I began to question why I was even in this line.”

Pursing his lips at the recollection, Choong, who cites Audrey Hepburn as his ultimate fashion icon, continues: “Again, mum came to the rescue. I remember telling her that I wanted to go back to Ipoh, open a coffee shop and sell noodles! I just couldn’t get over how bitchy the world could be…”

She wouldn’t hear of it. “She made me take three days to think things through,” remembers Choong. “Mum knew just how much it meant to me. She reminded me of my vow to my father. I realised then I had to keep fighting for my dream.”

In 1998, Choong, whose inspirations come from his travels and Nature, was chosen to represent Malaysia at the Asia Pacific Young Designers’ show in Hong Kong. It was to be the big break he needed and doors began to swing open as he captivated the international media with his collection.

Smiling, Choong admits he’s managed to conquer his demons and found contentment. A devout Tibetan Buddhist, he’d set aside some time every year, to escape from the fashion-world frenzy and recharge. Last year, he went on a spiritual journey to Nepal with members of his Buddhist centre to discover his inner self. “I’ve learned to appreciate what I have, even my enemies, as I realise just how much they too have contributed to my growth.”

The fact that he’s already half way into his design journey no longer fazes him. “I have friends who ask me whether I fear age catching up with me and all these young designers coming up. But you know what? I don’t, because at 45, I feel re-born. I feel that I’m doing some of my best work now, and am getting better and better!”

Eric Choong, In Full Bloom, priced at RM59.90, will be on sale at MPH and Kinokuniya bookstores.

Click here to download a copy of The New Sunday Times article.

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