The Patung Project: How Fashion, Heritage, and Toys Collide

Small in size with a mighty purpose. Find out how several 11.5 inches dolls donning traditional clothing can showcase our culture and heritage.

If you could describe Malaysia in a single word, what would it be?

To me, Malaysia is the epitome of diversity, rich in its own unique cultural heritage

With the influences of various cultures and traditions from its neighbouring countries, Malaysia is a multicultural country mainly influenced by the Malays, Orang Asli, as well as the Chinese and South Indian immigrants who migrated to the land decades ago. However, as we face the inevitable globalisation and modernisation, we’re constantly debating on how we risk losing the heritage that makes us so unique. But do the two always have to be mutually exclusive from each other? 

In efforts to preserve this rich and diverse culture and heritage, The Design School @ Taylor’s collaborated with Mattel to showcase this through fashion on one of the biggest platforms in today's fashion world — Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week (KLFW). With the collaboration with Mattel, not only does it allow Malaysia’s art and culture to be further embraced and developed but also shares its richness to others

Maria Sandra Wijaya, Programme Director for the Bachelor of Fashion Design Technology at Taylor’s University expresses, “People usually experience a country’s art and culture through their travels, research, or even the media they consume. In terms of fashion, globalisation helps to connect lifestyle and design into one which further promotes the art and culture in the country itself.”

The Unique Design of Malaysian Arts and Culture

Whether it’s in the Batik, Tekat embroidery, Nyonya beadings, or even Henna, one thing’s for certain, we’re rich in our vibrant handicrafts and distinctive designs. The use of various tools by skilled craftsmen are clearly reflected in these works. Each and every design has their own tale to tell and the reasons behind are much larger than the works themselves. 

Going beyond designs on clothings, weaving has also been one of the major elements of Malaysian arts and culture. The highly durable and resistant material is used to make rocking chairs, tables, baskets, bags, and other household items.

However, the art is dwindling due to change in preferences and taste caused mainly by the Western influence.

The Patung Project: How Fashion, Heritage, and Toys Collide

To promote and showcase these different elements while celebrating the richness of Malaysia’s culture and heritage, the students at the Taylor’s Fashion Design Technology programme, together with artisan experts in the different Malaysian designs and industry mentors, produced three garments for the Barbie dolls that were exhibited at the KLFW 2021. A step that truly showcases this collaboration as a stepping stone to bring uniqueness and knowledge to a global stage.

Looking inwards, projects like these aren't just to bring awareness to others. Rather, it brings attention to even the locals! “Even our students, who come from different states in Malaysia, aren’t aware of the local crafts there. For many, it’s their first time to better understand the process of how embroidery is done,” Maria shares. 

With projects like the Patung Project, young designers are introduced to these art in a light, fun, and most importantly, participative manner which gives them an avenue to set the direction on how culture can be appreciated through fashion.

Is Marriage Between Fashion and Commercialisation the Answer for Wider Recognition?

The clothing patterns along with the fashion trends and taste in Malaysia have evolved greatly over the years. While these customary attires were, once upon a time, seen in a lot of everyday garments, these intricate designs and heritage are now typically reserved for special occasions, like religious events, wedding events, etc, all with a touch of modern, more globalised, fashionBut is this enough to sustain the richness of the culture?

To me, the Malaysia of old is too modest for growth and global recognition in the fashion world, lacking a huge element of ambition to change or catch up with trends — an important thing to have in order to secure a reputable place of fame. And what better way than for young and rising designers to rise to this challenge!

The Patung Project: How Fashion, Heritage, and Toys Collide

Nur Hasyimah, a first-year student from the Bachelor of Fashion Design Technology who was also involved in the Patung Project, shares her thoughts on how young designers can preserve the culture of a country through fashion. “The most effective way is by implementing traditional art and craft into contemporary clothing because modern clothing design is an appropriate methodology for both the national and global fashion world.”

Recognising this change, young fashion designers nowadays are putting their strong foot forward towards changing this concept. With decent aesthetics and newer fashion ideas, they're on a mission to create a strong base in their homeland which is a really essential and great initiative to thrive and gain international recognition.

Some may argue that cashing in and commercialising products to reach out to the general public dilutes culture and heritage — to the point that it could be labelled as cultural appropriation. But are we mistakenly blurring the lines between that and cultural appreciation while holding ourselves back from creating more awareness, knowledge, and understanding to others?

Technology: Sewing Culture and Fashion Together

“But as new technology emerges, traditional methods would probably sit in the backburner!”

Ever thought of the question above? While it did introduce the emergence of fast fashion, used correctly and appropriately, technology could actually help spread the awareness of art and culture more than we can ever imagine.

While more traditional ways of creating and manufacturing a design requires tedious work, technology is able to speed up this process. “Using the available technology, things that’d usually take a week can be cut down to 70% of the original time. By saving and having extra time, students are able to spend more time to innovate, research what’s being used, and ensure that we manage to embrace traditional elements,” Maria adds.

Though there may still be ongoing debate on which way is better — to include or exclude technology to retain the traditional way, we’ve to allow the younger generation of designers to pave the way of what fashion would be in the future.

The Patung Project: How Fashion, Heritage, and Toys Collide

The truth is simple, as we move forward with the times, we’d need to adapt and be creative as well.

It may be using something that we all know and love, like a Barbie doll or collaboration with international artists, to successfully educate, celebrate, and grow our culture at a global scale. Contextualised, the collaboration between Mattel and The Design School at Taylor’s doesn’t just educate the world on these cultures and heritage as well as puts Malaysia on the map, it allows the younger generation to relate better.

Nur Hasyimah explains, “As a Gen-Z, I think it's about the way you represent the culture that would make people appreciate it. When you introduce the younger generation to any traditional things, it has to be translated into something that's relevant in today's culture. That's why for my collection, I was inspired by alternative genres, such as punk, because it's something younger audiences love and relate to. Similarly when they see the Barbie dolls, it's not just about the old traditions but a concept that’s a lot more exciting and relatable.”

The power of fashion and commercialisation is huge and, if implemented right, the impact would increase leaps and bounds. Coupled with modern technology and tools that could help fast forward progress, long lost traditions which were hidden could be revived with a whole new meaning.

The question now is, are we ready and willing to accept its undeniable power and use it to our advantage?

Sakib Rahman is currently pursuing a Foundation Degree in Business (FIB) at Taylor's College. He is also one of the members of the TLMUN Club, a Probate EXCO Member of Wine n Dine Club, as well as part of the Taylor's Futsal Club.