Rebel With A Cause: Zaihani Mohd Zain on Being A Fashion Ristaker And Cancel Culture

Meet the local fashion risk-takers championing freedom of self-expression, standing in the vanguard of the IDGAF war.
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ZAIHANI MOHD ZAIN, as interviewed by The Founder of JCPR and Legal Consultant at KSH Advocates & Solicitors, JIMAN CASABLANCAS

Prominent stylist slash fashion critic and front-row staple Zaihani Mohd Zain, lovingly referred to as Kak Zai, may have a polarising effect on the masses but those in the industry know better than to turn their noses up at her input. The eccentric Kelantan-born, after all, has helped make some of your favourite names in fashion what they are today—long before #pehamelimpah became a thing and eclipsed her many contributions. Whether you love or loathe her, one thing is for sure: her ageless style persists and continues to inspire. Zaihani reconnected with industry peer and close friend Jiman Casablancas over curry puffs and coffee and talked about her unique sense of style, the evolution of stylists, and, well, cancel culture.

JIMAN CASABLANCAS (JC): Were you always like this since the very beginning?
ZAIHANI (Z): I have always been analytical. It’s a result of years of being exposed to fashion. When I see people wearing something clashing or something, I get all worked up and I ask myself, why is it not nice?

JC: You have been a fashion stylist and a critic since the Nineties. You have seen it all. Where do you see the evolution of stylists as a career will take us?
Z: I think it will go on but it will diminish in its importance because designers are moving towards real fashion now. Robert Wun’s pieces, for example, are very contrived and you can’t style those. You have to wear them as they are, as the whole piece.

JC: While we’re at it, what is a fashion risk taker to you?
Z: Fashion is about taking risks. Every time you present a collection, you are taking risks because you do not know how the public is going to respond to it. But as a designer, you must take risks. Otherwise, you’ll be redundant.

JC: Even when you’re doing minimalism!
Z: Let me tell you something. It’s harder to do minimalism. Any design process must start with a subject matter. But the thing about minimalism is you start with the subject matter and then you begin to eliminate it. That is the tough part.

JC: Let’s take it back home. Are we taking enough risks here in Malaysia?
Z: I think designers here are still afraid to take risks. The runway is your best platform to experiment, to challenge yourself. You have to bring it out of your system. If you try to contain it, it will affect your ability to produce ideas.

JC: Sometimes, when you go to our fashion shows, it seems like the audience takes more risks than the designers.
Z: They take more risks but not necessarily good ones! (laughs) That’s what happens when they try to compete with what’s on the runway. You should not compete. You should go as yourself—as classy and as chic as you can be.

JC: Let’s talk about issues affecting the fashion industry that are unrelated to fashion. Inclusivity, for instance.
Z: I was asked this question way back and I asked back: Do you see Chanel, Dior, or Versace having a plus size line? No. So, who are we fooling here? I think the market is not as big for these “real people”, the odd-sized people. The hijab market is bigger than the plus-sized market.

JC: Is it just a matter of pleasing the people?
Z: Even so, how can you give medals to the losers? That is so wrong. It’s not about discrimination. Not everybody can be an artist, likewise models. Why are we so apologetic that we must include (everyone)? This year’s New York Fashion Week saw a marked absence of plus-size models. What does that mean? And I don’t like that it is seen as encouraging an unhealthy lifestyle.

JC: At the same time, it’s an issue that seems to be affecting only the female models. We have yet to see plus-sized male models and still, we don’t make any noise. But we have to be careful now because we need to talk about cancel culture, and you have a personal experience of being cancelled!
Z: I mean, the whole thing was misconstrued. Everyone was attacking me for body shaming or whatever when I was actually concerned that he invaded my space. But then again, why were you so hurt if you’re happy with your body? The guy who “exposed” me has slimmed down since. Why? Didn’t you feel beautiful before? It just means that you’re not walking the talk!

JC: For me, we should be able to say what we want as long as we don’t go on the offensive so much.
Z: I don’t mean to discriminate. I was upset because the guy squeezed into my seat. He was manspreading! But I didn’t know the term then and my friend enlightened me about it after. It’s even banned on public transportation in Europe!

JC: Let’s just know our place and try not to cancel everything. But when it gets really bad, then we have to do something about it.
Z: If you notice, I never execrate designers publicly. It means that I don’t have that wicked heart and it was not my intention to defame or body-shame anyone.


This article was first published in the print edition of Grazia Malaysia September 2023.