Behati Founder Kel Wen is Not Afraid of Being Cancelled

“Change is part of the evolution of culture.”
Photography Carlos Khu

Having only created his label for five years, Kel Wen, founder of local fashion brand Behati, has gone through multiple controversies surrounding his brand, including one with him as a person of Chinese ethnicity designing traditional Malay wear. “That was actually my fear—I did think about it before. It was the reason why I chose to not come out during my first show for Behati. Now, they say I’m here to steal culture, that I’m doing this for the money. Honestly, if I was doing it just for the money, I wouldn’t do this. I’d just stick to traditional pieces, the ones that they [the haters] would buy.”

“I wanted to prove to them that it is possible for a culture to grow.” During his fashion school years, the Muar-born designer was always told to look to the West as a reference for designs. “I don’t feel that’s true. We are equal. In fact, our culture is even richer and that is our power. We are not noticing our strengths because people can be close-minded about tradition and culture. They think that to preserve culture is to maintain it in the exact same way, but culture won’t exist without change.” 

For him, fashion is not just about clothes. “That is the life of fashion. To have conversations about it. If it’s just about creating clothes, then I can simply be a tailor. We see a lot of young customers who have never owned a traditional garment in their life, and they let us know it’s their first cultural piece. That makes me proud; that makes me do what I do. If I can make the baju melayu cropped and make another hundred people wear it, why not? What’s wrong with that?”

A recent controversy saw a picture of the designer wearing a self-designed, oversized quilted coat paired with shorts, and a black songkok, which is a traditional, flat-top headgear worn by Muslim Malay men. It also looked as though he wasn’t wearing any pants underneath the samping, which led to netizens calling him disrespectful. “There is a fine line. I personally don’t feel it’s inappropriate because I’m not mocking any culture. For me, I was going for a “pantless” look, which is currently in style. If you don’t understand fashion, you won’t understand the look.” 

He also wonders how much these haters actually contribute to showcasing their culture to others. “It looks different and they just cannot accept change.” He’s adamant that his clothes are not for people who don’t understand them. “If my design is not for you, then it is not for you.”

Is he not afraid of the brand being “cancelled”? “No, I’m not. I believe that if I don’t have bad intentions, it won’t happen,” he declares. He won’t attempt to keep his designs safe, either. “If I did, I would be playing victim, and that means I have been defeated. I feel like no one should control my art. My art should be pure. I’m not doing it on purpose to stir things up—I have my reasons behind my creations. I believe the people who are open-minded enough will see it. Cancel culture is for my haters only. They may cancel me, but I will cancel them.”

When asked how he has approached his designs differently for the band from when he first started and now he says, “I definitely understand the Malaysian fashion market more. Before, I was the type of designer who would design what I want. Now, I can see that the brand is not just about me. I do have people telling me that they love my brand but they can’t find anything for themselves. I’ve learned from this feedback and the goal now is to expand the market by catering to different body sizes, skin tones, and more.”

“I’m not the kind of creative that doesn’t care about the business side,” he continues. “I have to be balanced. I want to do creative things, but I also want things to sell. I am thankful for the loyal supporters that allow me to do what I want to do. And my family, my dad who’s always giving me good business advice. He keeps me grounded.” 

Conversations and controversies may come and go, but how far should tradition be pushed, and how much can Malaysians see culture in clothing in a different way? That’s a fine line we’ll continue to seek.