Malaysians chide Dutch designer for “crusade” to preserve local heritage and wanting to “see Malays dressing beautifully again”

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — A Dutch designer recently ignited the anger of many Malaysians after saying that she is “on a crusade” to preserve local heritage and “wants to see Malays dressing beautifully again”.

In an interview with South China Morning Post (SCMP), 51-year-old Lisette Scheers briefly narrated her life journey as someone with a ‘third culture’ upbringing who has lived in several cities in Asia — namely Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong. She also received her education at the International School of Kuala Lumpur.

Scheers said she was shocked to see the “commercialisation” of Malaysian culture –from “old sarongs to intan jewellery” — upon her return, which is a stark contrast to her experience growing up in the country in the 1970s.

“Everything was about making a quick buck, there was no pride, no quality,” she said, which led her to start her own brand, Nala Designs, in 2008.

Stating that she designs “everything by hand” and obsesses “over materials”, Scheers said: “I can’t bear the flammable cheap polyester I see everywhere in Malaysia”.

She said that through her endeavour, she hopes “to educate people to start respecting what they have: to create a beauty and quality trend in Malaysia again; to say it is not all about plundering this country and capitalising on whatever you can take”.

“My dream is to see the baju kurung return, to see Malays dressing beautifully again. I want people here to feel proud of their heritage. Growing up this country was full of beautiful fabrics and colour. I’m on a crusade to make sure that doesn’t disappear,” said Scheers.

Baju kurung, roughly translated as “enclosed dress”, is a traditional Malay garment typically worn by women in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand.

While baju kurung may encompass the relevant traditional attire for both men and women, as seen in Singapore, the male attire is referred to as baju Melayu in present-day Malaysia.

One netizen on Twitter pointed out the irony of Scheers’ remarks on the trade of baju kurung and other forms of local cultural heritage, saying that her brand is “in fact, part of the gentrification and commercialisation of Malaysia”.

As of 5.50pm on Monday (18 January), no listings of baju kurung could be found on the Nala Designs website.

Listings for cheongsam, however, are available on the website, with each piece going to an upward of RM400 (S$131.70).

Another netizen rebutted Scheers’ comments, saying that baju kurung “has never left and Malaysians wear baju kurung everywhere”, from schools to work to weddings and other formal celebrations.

One netizen quipped that they too would go on a ‘crusade’ to revive “the traditional clothing of the Dutch people”.

Many netizens also criticised Nala Designs for making products from an orientalist viewpoint — often referring to white Westerners’ interpretations of Asian cultures.

Another netizen pointed out how the brand’s patterns do not come close to Malay motifs and patterns, reminding them instead of Japanese motifs at a glance.

The writer of the article, Thomas Bird, received backlash as well.

His article was painted as “tone-deaf” by one netizen, particularly given that Bird did not interview local designers and makers, or “those who work tirelessly to support traditional makers in poorer states like Terengganu”.

Nala Designs has since apologised for the “misunderstanding” and giving a “wrong impression” about the brand.

In an Instagram post on Saturday, Scheers said that she has always considered Malaysia as her home.

“Malaysia to me, is a source of inspiration and what makes it special are its people and I’m learning everyday,” she said.

However, the statement stoked greater anger among many commenters, who viewed the apology as insincere and as one that failed to address the problematic aspects of Scheers’ remarks in the SCMP interview.

At the time of writing, the post on Nala Designs’ Instagram has garnered 1,966 comments, with many continuing to demand accountability for the offending statements made in the interview.

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