Passion for fashion

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WHILE most children were dreaming about becoming movie and football stars, Tan Jeaw Nyee was already sketching, designing and making clothes “for fun”. Little girls were playing with their dolls, but Jeaw Nyee was already creating full-fledged outfits for hers — from dresses to hats, shoes and purses.

She was fortunate enough to be born into a family of artists — she started to be apprentice to relatives from the age of seven. They were her first teachers and critics who supported her all the way. She had the steadfast backing of her parents, who always believed in her talent. Never was she told to “get a real job” or to study law, finance, medicine, accounting and other “A-list” subjects.

Fast forward several decades and Jeaw Nyee today is a seasoned traveller, having studied in Indiana and California, lived in Borneo and taught fashion design, observational drawing, painting, and wardrobe designing for television and film in Bangkok. Her resume is nothing short of impressive, including designing costumes for Universal Studios’ Scorpion King 3 blockbuster. She has worked on 19 productions of which 17 are theatrical shows.

Jeaw Nyee decided to pursue her studies further by obtaining a masters of fine arts in theatre design in California. This helped her refine her skills in designing, while giving her an in-depth education on the history of fashion design.

However, the road to success was not always a bed of roses. Jeaw Nyee said it was a challenge to break into the film and theatre scene.

“You need to build a network of friends and colleagues who keep you informed about upcoming productions. After getting my masters, I designed for small plays in Los Angeles. My advisers at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) also kept me informed about potential projects. So, it’s very much a ‘who-you-know’ [business],” she said.

There were also challenges in looking for the right materials for her designs, and dealing with tight deadlines and last-minute changes. She persevered by focusing on the job and “getting on with it”.

“The great thing about working on set is forming ties with colleagues. Plus, there are many funny characters who work in this industry so there’s a lot of joking around. And I enjoyed seeing my creations come to life as they are worn,” she said.

Although the rise of social media has prompted many of her colleagues to start marketing themselves via platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and websites showcasing their portfolios, Jeaw Nyee said she was a person who cherished her privacy.

Her goal is to never stop honing her skills by working on interesting projects with creative people. She is brimming with ideas on what to do next — maybe starting a fashion line of her own, or working on design projects that could lead to freelance work.

Jeaw Nyee also harbours a desire to pass on her knowledge to aspiring fashion designers. This is why she uprooted herself to live in Bangkok for the past several years to teach fashion design as she dabbled with fashion in the Thai scene.

Jeaw Nyee is currently conducting a costume design workshop at The Actors Studio in the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) in Sentul. The course will run until Nov 29. It will provide an overview on the historical and cultural factors behind the costume designs of the various periods, give the fashion trends influencing costume designs for plays, as well as encourage students to push their creative and technical boundaries.

A peek at some of Jeaw Nyee’s designs. Photos by Tan Jeaw Nyee

The Costume Design Workshop with Jeaw Nyee is a three-hour class on Oct 18, Nov 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29 from 2pm to 5pm. The course fee is RM550 (there is also a one-time registration fee of RM50). More information can be obtained from You can also send an email to [email protected]. Klpac is at Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan, Kuala Lumpur.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 14, 2014.