Thread Talk with Shaofen On Sustainable Fashion and Gender-Fluid Designs

"Being “sustainable” is a given, and the foundation to all things. A goal to develop the system should be implemented rather than just giving it an umbrella term and calling it a day."

Thread Talk is a series venturing into a designer’s inner workings and thoughts. Today, we have Shaofen Seah, founding designer of her eponymous label, making a name for herself as a sustainable and timeless fashion designer.

Timeless and versatile, SHAOFEN is a gender-fluid fashion label that was launched in late 2019. The mastermind behind her eponymous fashion label, Shaofen is a London College of Fashion-trained designer who creates garments that highlight wearability without compromising on style.  

In the exclusive preview of her recent collaboration with Nelissa Hilman, Shaofen showcased a collection with garments reworked from Nelissa Hilman’s first ready-to-wear collection. At a time when micro trends dominated the fashion industry, Shaofen’s take on sustainability and functionality has, without a doubt, become the antidote to the trend churn. Read on as the designer sheds some light on her journey as a fashion designer and being sustainable in fashion design.

Has fashion always been something you wanted to pursue?

I was always interested in fashion but I never imagined it as a career even as I was studying. It came very naturally of wanting to have something of my own, thus I started my namesake label.

I understand that you try to steer away from trends—so where do you usually draw your inspiration from?

Observations from everyday subjects and day-to-day activities draw my attention. Sometimes, people-watching too, as I observe what they wear or how they may style clothes differently.

Most of your pieces are functional; was that important for you and was it intentional?

Honestly, I think functionality is embedded in my designs unconsciously because the first question to designing is often, “Would you wear it?” If I can’t put the piece on anyone, it beats the entire purpose of designing and creating.

“Sustainable” is a term that is rather overused now and has garnered mixed reactions these days. What is your take on being and managing a sustainable brand?

Being “sustainable” is a given, and the foundation of all things. A goal to develop the system should be implemented rather than just giving it an umbrella term and calling it a day. It will be difficult for the textile and fashion industry to ever be entirely sustainable because of the inevitable amount of waste. The only form of prevention lies in operations and production by reflecting quantity to demand. SHAOFEN utilizes a “cut-made-trim” system for all our products made in-house so every part of the process is within control.

Gender fluidity is a prominent element in your work, yet we can see traces of feminine sensuality in them. Can you tell us a bit more about this, and what is gender fluidity to you?

I think for me, it lies in the appeal both sexes find in my clothing. They’re able to wear the clothes comfortably regardless of gender or product. I want to put myself in another person’s shoes and wonder, why can’t I wear this particular piece? To be able to identify the “problem” gives potential possibilities to explore further from there.

Personally, what is your favourite piece or collection among all your creations?

I like my graduation collection as a student best. I still look back at it and feel proud as it doesn’t feel outdated despite how long ago it may have been. Through this collection, I convinced myself to push boundaries and try different things, which made me the designer I am today.

Shaofen and Nelissa Hilman

How did the collaboration with Nelissa Hilman come about?

It all started in an art gallery where I met Kat (a member of Nelissa Hilman’s team) through a mutual friend who’s works for Nelissa Hilmann’s. We met up very quickly within the week and the rest came into place very naturally without much resistance.

What are the challenges you encounter when working with deadstock?

Deadstock means there’s a maximum and minimum. When it comes to material, we need to make sure it doesn’t exceed the allowed amount. Hence, it drags out the thought process by a lot, as we often have to improvise on the spot.

Can you share the experience of being an emerging fashion designer in Malaysia? What do you like and what do you think can be improved?

The state of the industry in Malaysia is almost like a blank canvas at times. This gives a variety of opportunities for an emerging brand. There are a lot of decent contemporary brands surfacing, so I do wish we had more platforms to support small enterprises.

Any future projects we can look forward to?

SHAOFEN will be releasing its first-ever festive capsule over the New Year. It will be something new for the brand to look forward to. It will be available online on the 1st of January 2024 and there will also be a pop-up planned for the same month. It will be an exciting start to the year that people can keep their eyes out for.