It was at a young age that Kel Wen, 28, became interested in fashion. Born in Melaka, Malaysia, his social circle was diverse and multiracial. His conservative Chinese background did not stop him from making friends with the local Malays in his neighbourhood, from which his love and appreciation for Muslim culture grew. “I remembered wanting to express my appreciation for their practices through wearing the Baju Melayu to visit my friends, but I couldn’t find one that fit me well and that spoke to me.” That sparked a deep dive into researching its meaning and significance, eventually leading to Wen designing his interpretation of the storied garment as a teenager.
This snowballed into Wen’s decision to pursue a degree in fashion. In 2018, the Raffles Kuala Lumpur alumnus launched Behati. A Malay word that loosely translates to ‘having heart’ or ‘blessing’, the brand’s name encapsulates Wen’s passion to design with integrity and to always remain true to his designs.
“I aim to design clothes that youths would want to wear regardless of the occasion.”
Wen attributes his success thus far to the unceasing support of his family. “My dad is a self-made entrepreneur, I always look up to what he does. My family has been the best motivation behind starting my own brand.”
As for the brand’s design language, it is evident that innovation is front of mind. Traditional styles are injected with new fabrics and textiles, resulting in an evolution of shapes and silhouettes that fit the current style zeitgeist. Wen elaborates further: “Baju Melayu and sarees are two of the most iconic examples of traditional wear that are still worn today in Malaysia, but mostly for festive reasons. I aim to design clothes that youths would want to wear regardless of the occasion.” He notes that the target demographic for his designs tend to be people of the Instagram age. “Our demographic surrounds millennials and Gen Zs, more specifically informed individuals who want to make a statement. Our audience comes from all races and cultures, and it has formed a tight-knit community united through a shared love for clothes.”
Showing recently at Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week, Behati’s latest collection—titled Pahlawan—once again sees cultural influences that permeate the runway looks, albeit in a more refined manner. A mini dress in snow white has leather strips that are tightly weaved together in a criss-cross pattern that references the Javanese rice cake known as Ketupat. Other designs include Baju Melayus in jet black, as well as reimagined cheongsams featuring a cropped body and elongated sleeves. On the models’ feet were the brand’s collaboration with Nike, a custom Air Force 1 designed exclusively for the show. Wen shares his gratitude: “Usually I only work with Terompah (wooden clogs) for footwear. This is the first time we are releasing a sneaker. I wanted a younger overarching concept and felt the Air Force 1 was perfect for our latest collection.”
“The theme ‘Voices’ to me represents change, playing a vital role in shifting the traditional perspective among minority communities.”
One of the star pieces this season is the Tengkolok, traditionally a Malay headpiece worn during religious ceremonies. Wen experimented with the initial design, which involved meticulous folding. He explains: “I looked back at earlier times when sarongs and sarees were worn, and studied the art of draping. It is one of the fundamental design blocks in traditional wear, and I inject freshness by mixing in more intricate techniques such as Anyaman webbing.”
Once he had constructed a solid base, the same methods were applied to the pleating and detailing of many of the other looks. Add several tropes from trendy Y2K aesthetics and finishings with futuristic ideals, and the Pahlawan collection was birthed.
The brand is also known for dressing Malaysian celebrities, from actress Rozita Che Wan’s viral ‘cabbage’ dress to singer Aina Abdul’s wardrobe in her music videos. Wen remains humble, however, choosing to enjoy the process (and even humour) behind creating these noteworthy moments as a way to spark the conversation on pushing boundaries within fashion.
Starting his brand has not been all sunshine and rainbows, Wen notes. In the beginning, he had struggled to find his market, spending countless late nights ideating on brand identity and a key product. “I was laser focused on pioneering my own creative lane, as I think standing out from the beginning is the quickest way to emerge in a niche market.” Today, the challenges have shifted to mass production and expansion as Wen is particular on the new talents he hires to join the team. “Most graduates today only want to design, but are not ready to get down to the actual nitty-gritty of cutting and sewing.” Furthermore, the small market and low wages challenges the sustainability of working in the industry for long.
“I envision the brand hopefully be the poster child for Malaysian fashion.”
Regarding Vogue Singapore’s October theme, Wen sees the current fashion landscape as a pivotal moment in the years to come.“‘Voices’ to me represents change, playing a vital role in shifting the current perspective and stigma among minority communities.”He highlights that in order for Southeast Asian brands to be as influential as those in the western world, authenticity through heartfelt design is key.
With an increase in stockists and more retail stores opening around the country, the future looks bright for Behati. Wen is looking to build a loyal customer base as a natural next step, reiterating that conquering the local market is necessary prior to expanding overseas. “I envision the brand to be at the top of every fashion tourist’s must-visit list, and hopefully cement ourselves as the poster child for Malaysian fashion.” And by the looks of it, he just might be on the right track.