I Am Her: Fern Chua On Finding New Beginnings Through Tradition

Breaking expectations with batik

Our “I Am Her” series features the female movers and shakers of the industry to learn how femininity and power coincide beautifully and seamlessly together.

Out with the old and in with the new, right? Not really. For Fern Chua, embracing old traditions with new innovations led to a remarkable discovery. After surviving a car accident that resulted in some life-altering changes both personally and professionally, the fashion creative director found a new start through an unsuspecting old art form: batik

Her fascination with this craft led to the birth of her namesake fashion label, FERN, which infuses contemporary methods with this ancient art form to create what's now dubbed as "The New Batik" in Malaysia. Ahead, her story of finding new beginnings through heritage and how Fern's brand mission in changing the landscape of this old artistry paths its future in fashion. 

Fern Chua, founder and creative director of FERNFern Chua, founder and creative director of FERN

Fill in the blank: I am a designer, a survivor, and a ___________.


How did your accident lead you to a career in batik fashion? 

"I started my career in the communications industry. When I had the car accident, my life in a sense was changed completely — it became a blessing in disguise, I would say. I sustained an injury on my left hand. Through intensive physiotherapy for six months, I was able to regain back 60 per cent of my hand movement control.

At that time, I thought about what I really wanted to pursue in life. It was then that I decided to pick up sewing as a means to further rehabilitate my hand movement. I stumbled across some batik fabrics at the central market one day and immediately fell in love with it. I decided to put my sewing skills to the test and made myself a dress. It was at that moment when I realised how beautiful batik can be."

Are there other aspects or styles of batik and batik fashion people should know about?

"When it comes to batik, it is important to know that it actually pertains to the technique, not the motif. The idea of what makes batik, well, batik, is the wax resistance hand-dye technique. It is also important that people know that authentic batik is handcrafted and not digitally printed. With that in mind, print motifs can vary and you can be as creative as you want when designing them."

FERN Flagship StoreFERN's flagship store located at Bangsar Village II

What’s your favourite part of the design process?

"I like telling stories so each FERN collection is inspired by my travel experiences, as well as things I see and feel.

Because of the nature of batik, it is always a surprise as to how each collection turns out, from the conceptualisation of the motifs to the final outcome on fabric. The entire process plays an important role in making each piece unique and different from one another. That's why I find it difficult to choose my favourite stage in creating these pieces."

If you were to relate your personality with a specific batik technique or pattern, what would it be?

"I am sort of known as the 'rebel' in the batik industry because I do not confine myself to a certain technique — as opposed to how it is traditionally. I like the idea of thinking out of the box and being unexpected compared to the norm. This makes my motifs different from traditional batik prints. I also create them using non-traditional tools."

What are the values that you learned from studying batik fashion that you think people should also learn to incorporate in their daily lives? 

"To me, it comes down to one word: patience. Each piece takes time to be created since it's handcrafted. It takes a lot of thought and hard work. It really shows that good things take time."

Some pieces displayed in FERN's flagship storeSome pieces displayed in FERN's flagship store

You are the definition of looking good while doing what you do. How do you remain empowered?

"No one is perfect and we all have our ups and downs. I believe we just have to pick the right battles and fight for positivity, whether it be in how we constantly look or feel."

Name 5 Clozette essentials that help you power through your daily schedule. 

"First is my FERN multiway scarf. This is our signature scarf that's super versatile for any occasion. I love wearing basics so it provides a nice pop of colour to any look.

Next is argan oil. I always carry a small bottle of this wherever I go. It helps with my dry skin and is versatile to be used on my face, hair, and body. Third, my Lululemon gym attire that's perfect for working out.

Fourth, lipstick. I'm using one from Dior at the moment, which has become my current staple. It feels good on my lips, very moisturising, and the shade is not overpowering, making it easy to wear from day-to-night. Lastly, my Apple watch. I'm always on the go and it is great for tracking my movements."

FERN Sakura and Moroccan collection batik fashionLeft: A piece from FERN's previous Sakura collection; Right: One of the latest pieces from the label's Moroccan collection

Where do you see batik fashion going?

"With FERN designs, each of our pieces is handmade and made-to-order. It is important for our customers to be able to have a piece that is unique and one-of-a-kind. Our pieces are also customisable — customers can choose their own motifs, colours, and silhouette.

Through this, we believe that people will and are starting to understand batik better beyond just being a form of traditional wear. I believe that it will continue to play an important role in our heritage and tradition preservation but will also transform and be better appreciated as a form of wearable art. Plus, the future of fashion is moving slowly into being sustainable and bespoke, which batik fits right into."

Last but not least, what’s next for Fern Chua and FERN?

"I would like the brand to have an even stronger presence locally so we are expanding our range of products to suit more individuals. We, as a label, also hope to bring the brand forward into the international fashion arena in the long run."

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Looking for more inspiring stories? Check out the rest of our I Am Her series

Comments, questions or feedback? Email us at [email protected].

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