New designers are often eager for their star turn, to see their names on a label and boutique as soon as possible. Bernard Foong has taken a long, circuitous, almost Zen-like route to opening his eponymous boutique today at Ala Moana Center.
Opportunities just seemed to appear as he went with the flow, content to work and learn while being lucky enough to leave to others the stresses of the business of fashion.
"In the beginning, I went to work for Liberty of London and thought that was a good idea. I wanted to get a feeling of how the industry works, and I came to realize it’s really not about a single designer, but about teamwork," said the designer, who’s been commuting from his home on Maui to oversee work on the new boutique.
"The designer is really a figurehead, like the queen of England. Behind her are all the cabinet ministers, the people who actually run the government."
All this has contributed to the humble, low-key demeanor of a man whose confidence stems from having nothing more to prove and who continues working out of the sheer thrill of creating.
His boutique carries four of his collections reflecting his love for designing lingerie and bridal wear. White is a collection of ready-to-wear bridal/special occasion dresses priced from about $450 to $600; Foxy Cute cocktail dresses will range from $150 to $250; Bernard Foong Couture is his label for made-to-order wedding gowns that start at $3,000; and SexZ Things are embellished bustiers running about $150 to $250.
The latter line can be worn as inner or outerwear and dressed up or down with other favorite wardrobe pieces in keeping with the trend of mixing designers and blending high and low fashion.
"To me, there’s no line between lingerie and outerwear," Foong said. "The overall look is more important to me. The way I see it, a lot of people mix designer clothes with mass products. It’s so individualized now, and it’s how you put it together that defines your style, whether you’re mixing Gucci with H&M, very expensive stuff with less expensive stuff."
FOONG HAS no illusions about the industry or his place in it. While his couture gowns might be considered individual works of art, he says they should not be put on a pedestal.
"At the Paris couture shows, most of the stuff is for show and is not very wearable. In this sense, some fashion can be fine art and should be displayed in a museum. But I believe most fashion is an applicable art that people should be able to wear on the street.
"As creative as a designer can be, without the business sense you fail. You can create something nice to look at, but if no one is wearing your stuff on the street, to me, it’s a failure."
Foong is in the unique position of having grown up in Malaysia, trained in Europe, and worked in Hong Kong and the Midwest before moving to Maui to open Fire Dragon Bistro Orient & Design Shop in 2005.
Versed in Asian, European and American styles, he’s able to switch gears from one market to the next and plans to launch his brand in Japan next year.
The Malaysia-born designer learned to sew at his aunt’s feet, starting by picking up pins that fell on the floor and learning to match color swatches for the quilts she made.
He presented his first fashion show at age 16, at the urging of girls in his Dale Carnegie public-speaking class. They thought it would be a good idea to make the fashion show a highlight of their graduation ceremony.
"That was very exciting and I was very flamboyant at the time, wearing all this weird stuff," Foong said.
His father didn’t care for the idea of his becoming a designer — all his brothers are lawyers — but after he won a scholarship "he had no choice but to agree."
Foong earned his master’s of design degree at the Royal College of Art & Design in London and upon graduation found work at Selfridges, Harrods and Liberty of London, where he was the in-house bridal designer.
An offer to teach brought him to Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where he spent six years as a professor of marketing. During his stay, he also did freelance design work for numerous companies, creating a range of casual and swim wear, lingerie, furs, men’s wear, bridal and evening fashion, as well as accessories.
While working for Keys Far East Hong Kong as chief lingerie designer and traveling extensively to the United States, he was recruited as an associate fashion design/illustration professor by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and lectured at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design for a couple of years.
He then went to work for Parkson Grand, a Malaysia-based department store chain, where he designed casual wear under the label Natural Life by Bernard Foong.
Pursuit of a master’s degree in theater costuming brought him to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, then Maui.
These days, his aim is to make a name for himself in China. His corporation is based in Guangzhou.
"I see China as a very good market, especially Shanghai. I love Shanghai," he said. "Everything there is moving so fast. It’s like the Industrial Revolution in the Western world at the turn of the century, and it’s going on there right now. Anything you want, you can get done there. Anything to do with designing, printing, manufacturing, they can do it."
He has the same sense of excitement when talking about his next lingerie collection, Diva Bitch, set to launch in L.A. in October.
"It’s a sexy bustier line that’s totally different from what’s available now," he said. "I’m injecting more masculine things into it."
The line will incorporate leather, fur and feathers, and, just as SexZ Things can be mixed with other wardrobe pieces to create a look, the look with Diva Bitch can range from tough to sexy, in line with women’s growing power and accomplishment.
"Women don’t have to prove themselves anymore. They no longer want to be dominated by men," Foong said.