By Aisha Hassan on August 8, 2023
We first met Shaleen Cheah at a Dia Guild event in September 2022 — she was gorgeous, warm, engaging, and impeccably dressed. In the months that followed, we visited her atelier and discovered what an incredibly talented designer she was. First there were the lush fabrics, like cotton from Japan or silk from India, and then there were the silhouettes, which looked amazing on the racks and somehow even better on the body. But above all, Shaleen’s passion and expertise set her apart.
This is a woman who can tell you the provenance of a textile and why a seam is placed just so, or how her experience as an athlete, finance professional, or the daughter of a tailor, informs her work now. Shaleen’s verve is imbued with a dedication to slow fashion and a commitment to being both a brilliant businesswoman and a present mother of three. It’s no wonder that when Dia’s community met Shaleen during our collaboration at the Else Hotel this year, she and her pieces were an instant hit.
We are proud to debut Shaleen Cheah on Dia’s online platform beginning with the bestselling Alyssa Jumpsuit in exclusive shades of Olive Green and Blush Pink. Here is a peek into the designer’s world, in her own words — enjoy.
What is one of your earliest memories of fashion?
Growing up, I discovered a knack for customizing my shoes and clothes. Being a skinny kid meant finding the perfect fit was a challenge, but I saw it as an opportunity to get creative. Patiently, I would alter my clothes until they hugged my frame just right, and my shoes became a canvas for my ideas, decorated with fabric ink through trial and error. Even back then, I had this love for unique, one-of-a-kind pieces crafted with love. It's a feeling that has stayed with me to this day. Each piece I wear is not only a reflection of my journey but also a celebration of the colourful soul that resides within me.
Your mother was a tailor. Describe how watching her impacted you.
In my earliest memories, I recall my mother working diligently on her Singer sewing machine, creating traditional outfits with passion and love. The rhythmic whirring of the machine filled the air, forming a comforting melody that accompanied our afternoons together. I would sit on the floor beside her, using scrap fabrics to craft my own little creations, feeling a sense of joy and contentment as time flew by. Those precious moments allowed me to witness the magic of turning leftover fabrics into something beautiful and meaningful.
Little did I know that these simple yet profound experiences would lay the foundation for my future. Today, as a fashion designer, I owe my love for creativity and the art of crafting exquisite garments to those cherished afternoons. Her dedication to her craft and the boundless possibilities she showed me have become the driving force behind my journey in the world of fashion.
Why is slow fashion important to you?
Slow fashion is important to me because it resonates deeply with my values and beliefs. By choosing slow fashion, I know I am actively contributing to reducing my carbon footprint and minimizing waste, which aligns perfectly with my commitment to a greener planet. Slow fashion is not just a trend for me; it's a lifestyle choice that aligns with my principles and makes me feel empowered to be a more responsible producer and consumer.
How did being an athlete shape who you are?
I was selected as one of the pioneering 40 athletes to spearhead a newly established national youth athletic training program. Leaving home at 15 was a challenging decision, but my eagerness to set myself up for success overshadowed any doubts. Throughout my athletic career, I competed on both national and international stages, driven by my passion for sports and the thrill of a good challenge.
Unfortunately an injury forced me to retire from the field, but the competitive spirit, hard work, and discipline I gained from sports have stayed with me. These qualities have been the driving force behind my pursuits in other areas of life. The structured training and unwavering commitment taught me the value of perseverance, pushing me to surpass my limits in all endeavours.
You built a career in corporate finance before pivoting to fashion. What lessons from that industry still serve you now?
My transition from corporate finance to the fashion industry has been a journey enriched with valuable lessons that continue to serve me well today. One of the most significant takeaways from my time in finance is the importance of meticulous attention to detail and data-driven decision-making. In the world of fashion, where trends and tastes are constantly evolving, having a firm grasp on market analytics and consumer behaviour empowers me to make informed and strategic choices. My finance background also instilled in me a strong sense of financial discipline, allowing me to navigate budgeting and resource allocation with prudence and foresight.
Tell us about the Alyssa Jumpsuit.
With the contemporary woman in mind, one who ceaselessly pursues her dreams and aspirations, donning multiple roles and striving for greatness, I envisioned the Alyssa Jumpsuit. Its design aims to accentuate her empowering essence and exquisite style. The custom fabric exudes a softness that grants an ethereal grace to every step, while its robust structure ensures it retains its impeccable shape all through the day. The contrasting Olive Green and Blush Pink have also been meticulously chosen to complement the natural radiance of any skin tone, presenting exclusive shades that were specially created for the distinguished Dia Guild.
More than just a fashion piece, this jumpsuit embodies a wanderer's delight, effortlessly transitioning from day to night.
Who do you work with to make your apparel?
I lead a dynamic in-house production team of five, and despite our size, we are a force to be reckoned with. I remain deeply involved in every step of the process, especially relishing the art of pattern making and adding those final touches — it's where my passion truly lies. Our fabrics are carefully sourced from all around the globe, ensuring the utmost quality, and each garment we create is a labor of love, meticulously handcrafted with dedication right here in Malaysia.
Can you tell us about some of your favorite textiles?
Being an avid traveller, I constantly search for unique fabrics that have a captivating tale to tell. Japanese cotton, renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship and superior quality, never fails to impress me. On the other hand, Italian silk enthrals me with its luxurious softness and an array of vibrant colours to choose from. However, my all-time favourites remain the custom embroidered silk chiffons from Jaipur in India, crafted lovingly by a single community that has passed down their skills through generations. Understanding its heritage and journey enriches both my style and identity as a designer, infusing my creations with a unique depth and character.
What are your tips for juggling parenthood with running a business?
My children are my world. Every decision I make and everything I do revolves around them and is done with their best interests at heart. When they were little, I had the wonderful opportunity to stay at home with them, and those early years of motherhood were an absolute delight. As time went on, I had to strike a balance between my family and my professional pursuits. Both aspects of my life hold equal importance, and I've learned to manage my priorities effectively, ensuring I don't waste time on trivial matters. By being a dedicated businesswoman during the day and returning home promptly by 5 pm to welcome my children after school, I ensure that I am fully present and engaged as their loving mama! When we're together, they have my undivided attention, knowing they can rely on me for anything they need.
Having the support of my wonderful partner has been instrumental in making sure I make the right decisions while keeping my long-term goals in clear focus. With their encouragement, I am able to navigate the challenges of balancing work and family life, always striving to be the best mother and businesswoman I can be. My family and my business are my two main passions in life, and I'm grateful for the love and fulfilment they bring me each day.
What legacy do you want to leave behind?
My legacy is centred around empowering and inspiring the people in my life. I firmly believe that life is full of opportunities, and I encourage others not to settle for comfort but to strive for greatness and explore various interests. It is my hope that my children will learn from my example and adopt this mindset, fearlessly pursuing their dreams and aspirations. By empowering those around me and leaving a positive mark on the world, I hope to create a lasting and meaningful impact that extends far beyond my lifetime.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.