To put it simply, Bon Zainal Harun is a Terengganu-born-Kuala Lumpur-based fashion figure with one global ambition. The current Vice President of Bumiputra Designer Association (BDA) and a member of Malaysia Official Designer Association (MODA), Bon is widely recognised for almost singlehandedly reintroducing the sharply-dressed gentlemen culture back into our fashion scene since he created his label in 1995.
That being said, much of his fame has been due to his unique positioning as a brand. “As a fashion designer, I’m not compelled to stay within my own industry. I make it a point to acquire as much general knowledge and information as possible in order to create meaningful conversations with people whom I meet,” Bon explains, highlighting that fashion is the one industry which allows him to meet people from all walks of life. “The conversation is the sole connection between you and the other person which can directly affect how others remember you by.” Regardless, this is just one of his many rules for success.
How do you build rapport in the world of bespoke?
Time and patience are crucial if you plan to develop a good relationship with your clients especially when they are new to bespoke services: more time is required to translate what they have in mind. And as a fashion designer, I have to use my sixth sense to cater to their needs. It’s like a trial and error process. It works both ways and comes with experience; like a business partnership honestly. For example, one of my oldest customer used to harshly criticize me for any mistakes. Instead of feeling depressed and sorry for myself, I persevered and did what I had to do then to handle the situation professionally. Now, I can proudly say she is now one of my good friends. However, I do see some of my colleagues who would argue with their clients, calling them fussy and all. Obviously, as a customer, you have a certain demand towards your purchase, particularly when it involves spending a lot of money. It’s only fair. And technical ability aside, many customers do appreciate and acknowledge the effort I put into understanding them personally. It’s all about here (pointing to his jacket pocket), the heart. Having known me for almost a quarter of a century, they trust my judgement entirely and this is the reason why they always come back.
Fashion is fun but in order to have fun, you need to have funds.
You have frequently teamed up with MATRADE on several occasions. Where do you see Malaysia in the next 5 years?
Many are unaware of this fact but Malaysia’s factory output is pretty strong and thanks to the increasing demand from abroad, the country’s exports growth is predicted to remain robust for the next few years. And I know this is true because my factory has been receiving an increasing order from countries like Australia and Italy. Frankly speaking, many people have no idea that some of the most luxurious products they spend money on are made in Malaysia. The best example is Audemars Piguet’s crocodile-skin strap which is locally produced by a Malaysian company based in Langkawi. Other brands that sources from us also include Puma, Ferrari and Ducati. So, you see, we do have top notch quality produce, the only problem is the number of local supporters in the purchasing market. Like me, I absolutely love Tarik Jeans. In fact, I’m wearing one right now. Another popular one is Cheese Denim.
Apart from buying local products, what other parts can we play to solve this matter?
For one, local fashion shoppers, KOLs and influencers should take the time to revaluate their purpose in life: Who and why are they influencing? I see a majority of them are just for themselves. It’s never about others. Advertising themselves in social media dressed in various foreign brands I’m sure half of them can’t even pronounce correctly. Where is the pride in that? But the worst is them criticising our local designers. Look, just because you have millions or billions of followers in Instagram and what not, doesn’t mean you can just show up out of nowhere and rain on our parade. We’re all Malaysians; why would you do such a thing? Fashion has never been about the branding. And if you’re talking about style, you either have it or don’t. Just because you’re wearing Dior doesn’t instantly make you the most stylish person alive.
Any new projects or collaborations you’re working on?
For one, I’m currently working with MATRADE to host an exclusive menswear fashion show during next year’s Malaysia Fashion Week (MFW). We aim to enhance the menswear business through this platform and it’s a logic decision too. With an oversupply of womenswear fashion show and designers in the industry, it’s time for the men to have the limelight now. Business-wise, my next mission is to grow the Bon Zainal brand regionally and globally. We’re looking at major towns across the country as we speak. But ultimately, I hope to penetrate the U.S. market by next year. Ambitious yes, but definitely doable. For now, we’re looking at some really exciting locations at Miami and Los Angeles but I can’t reveal much yet. You’ll just have to be patience (laughs). Although, there is one thing I’d like to add. We’re going digital and in conjunction with MFW 2017, bonzainal.com will be going live on 19 December. So, that’s something to look forward to! However, on a serious note, there are still aplenty to polish and improve before we go to the next level. Nevertheless, we’re optimistic.
It’s not healthy to do everything yourself. The key is to find a right balance.
But would you have preferred the brand to go digital earlier?
Hmmm… yes and no. Fashion is strongly influenced by our daily lifestyle and trends. Thus, it is only obvious that fashion should go digital. However, in my case, the timing didn’t fit the opportunities I had back then. Foremost, this boutique was only established last year during my 50th birthday. To own a shop with your name on it is no light matter. Thankfully, I have a strong supportive team by my side. Oh, I have to highlight that as a designer, you should never work alone. The job is already taxing enough on its own so it’s not healthy to do everything yourself. The key is to find a right balance. On my side, my partner is a close friend of mine who works in the finance field. This means I’ve more time to focus on marketing while he takes care of the financial part of the company. Even then, it’s still hard for me to let go? But I know I have to do if I want to move forward.
Mix around and don’t discriminate people you don’t know
Any other key advices for aspiring fashion enthusiasts before they start their own venture?
The biggest and most frequent problem I see is the lack entrepreneurship skills. I definitely view fashion as an entrepreneurial venture rather than a creative endeavour. Take for example Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week. For a 3 – 5 minutes runway show, it would cost RM10,000 to RM15,000 to execute. And this is excluding the backstage helpers, models and what not. What frustrates me the most is their short-sightedness. What is next after the runway show? What is your focused sales and marketing strategy for this event? Ask any and only a handful can answer you. If it was my show, I would make sure that at least half of my collection is sold off before the pieces even goes up the runway. To see your creations up on stage is nothing but a moment of glory. Harsh as it may sound but you’re running a business. And business is about cash flow. How else are you going to sustain your brand and creative passion? Fashion is fun but in order to have fun, you need to have funds. Another difficult issue is the attitude. So much pride, ego and self-centeredness goes into convincing themselves that they don’t need help. Even if some of them do come up for advice, they won’t listen or take it seriously. And the most confusing part is when they fail, they somehow decide that they are better off facing problems and insecurities alone (sighs). To those who are struggling now, do not be afraid to ask for help. Nobody can reach your hands if you don’t extend them first.
And what advice would you have given your 20-year-old self?
Stay in America! (laughs) Actually, many have asked me why I came back to Malaysia. Naturally, as a Malaysian, I would want to go back to my home country and help it to grow. But jokes aside, I would tell my younger self to just do whatever he is doing because whatever decisions made then, has led me to where I am today.
I see myself as a competition and I aim to improve and better myself in my next project.
The way to success is…
To never stop learning. Seriously. The older you are, the more you will need to constantly improve yourself to keep up with all the technology and happenings around you. For me, I keep myself up to date by doing heavy research on new textile or rising talents in the industry. As a matter of fact, anything and everything. Fashion is a very competitive industry and you have to work double time to excel in it. It’s also important to continuously compete with yourself. I see myself as a competition and I aim to improve and better myself in my next project. This is how I learn from my past mistakes. Following is to always be humble. I’m a very particular person when it comes to this. When someone speaks to you, have the courtesy to reply back. Mix around and don’t discriminate people you don’t know; step out of your own circle and get to know people from other industries. Just because you’re in the fashion industry doesn’t mean you are better than anyone else. As a businessman, everyone is a potential client. This is why I carry my business cards wherever I go and I’ll pass them to whoever I meet. It’s a bit old fashion but it’s something that works.
Lastly, share with us a personal fact that not many people know of but should.
Well, I do have one peculiar practise that many of my friends and family find it unusual. You know how you have to test drive a car before deciding to make the purchase? Well, somewhat similar; I like to go to my boutique whenever I can and try on my creations. And this includes sleepless nights that keep me awake. I’ll take that opportunity to drive to my shop in the middle of the night and try on a suit or two. There, I’ll be looking at myself in the mirror, studying my creation and understanding its expression – how it makes me feel or look as a wearer. I mean, I don’t see it as a habit but most people don’t get it. Yet, this is me. This is who I am. I believe once you apprehend the reason why you love a certain item, you can talk about it to the end of days. This is passion projected in its most sincere form. I’m happy with what I’m doing and love what I’m doing. There is nothing more I can ask for.