I’ll start off straight. I didn’t actually know what KANOE was until a friend of told me to check it out, as it could be aligned with my interests. Curious, I did a bit of digging, and to my pleasant surprise I found a vibrant clothing line at a relatively affordable price. I immediately decided to call her and fix a slot for an interview.
Noelle’s a really bubbly person, and once we had settled down in her home/studio after navigating the maze that was her apartment complex, she offered us drinks and snacks whilst cleaning up the place a little. It intrigued me a bit to know that she was a very successful designer, but didn’t really start out that way as she began her journey into making a career for herself.
“In the beginning because right after college, I really wanted to do fashion, or so I told my dad. That was really the only thing that stood out for me. I remember that I didn’t want to do anything else and my dad was like “No you can’t do this.” You know……typical Asian parents (Laughs), and I was devastated. But after that I decided to do what they wanted me to do which was like pharmacy or something like that. My other option was to do humanitarian work. So I went to university to do my Bachelors in Art and Science but I was still really into fashion. My dad saw how persistent I was about it, so he left me to it. Only now they’re really supportive, especially because when I was in Sydney, Australia, I won competitions in my second year, and got a scholarship to Italy, so they really saw my potential in it,” Noelle says as she reminisced on the difficult start of KANOE.
KANOE is a tropical clothing line, aimed at doing things sustainably, unlike most mass market fashion houses nowadays, but its conception was a difficult one. For Noelle, starting out was a bit difficult, as she had her hands in many different types of careers. From teaching kids in a high school in the Philippines, to doing humanitarian work elsewhere, fashion was some ways always behind her options. It wasn’t until a pastor came and spoke to her about using her gifts and talents that she realised her strengths. “He was like, “Ey, Noelle you’ve buried your talents too deep, and I think it’s time for you to use it.” So that also awakened something in me, like hey you know? Maybe he’s right. There were signs too that lead me to do fashion, starting from my grandparents’ living room, and here we are now! I’m really glad I followed my instincts and just did it.”
Most of KANOE’s lines are very much influenced by tropical thematics; and Southeast Asian culture plays a dominant part in her designs, as seen in her batik wears, and more recently, the Tropical Fiesta Collection, but her foundation isn’t really from here. It was in Sydney, where she took her first steps in the fashion world. “The thing about being in Sydney was that the people there dressed very basic, and this is a good thing, because it helped me nail down the building blocks on how to add upon it and turn it into something more stylish, more luxurious. Getting the fundamentals down was really important. Only when I continued my studies in Italy was I exposed to secondary parts. The Italians are more passionate, and are very much culturally driven, and just know how to turn a simple piece of clothing into something much more posh, and that was a major influence in KANOE and how I bring the designs to life.”
Rather curious, we asked as to how Eastern influences are brought into her work when she mostly studied in a primarily Western derived culture. “This is true, I have no doubts about it!” she chuckles, “But I feel like in Malaysia, the opportunities here are more varied. It’s different in the sense that there are more types of dressing; the Muslimah way of clothing, for example and that creates more segments of the market.”
“Most of my influences and inspirations were from travelling. When you experience different things or see different details here and there, you just collect the parts, mix and match, and then I design my own from those. I’ve been playing a lot with fabric that has cultural references to it, something like striped linen from Italy and block printing from India. I try to include it in as much as I can.”
Looking at the collection, it’s apparent in the details. Cutting of the seams are a modern affair, whereas patterns and Noelle’s choice of Baba Nyonya pastel palette contrasts in timeline to the times of old.
“I also take inspiration from children’s clothing,” She chimed in. “Do you do children’s clothes as well?” Our Social Media Manager, Jasmine, asks in mild confusion and interest. “Oh no no, just the inspirations! I only make clothes for adults…hahahha.”
There is however a certain sense of responsibility that Noelle felt after having done a fair amount of charity work during her days of studying. “Mass production doesn’t speak to me, and as much as I would like to grow as a brand, I don’t think I’ll ever go there. I’ll definitely stick to being friendly to the environment and having elevate poverty in some sense. I’d love to focus my work in that area and help improve that sector in any way that I can.”
“Do you design clothes for the people or design them based on what you want to design?” I asked Noelle. A curious look followed with a reply. “I design them based on what I see myself and the others wearing, something different, something that isn’t already out there.” Thinking about it, there is some truth to her statement. There are little brands that front traditional designs with modern touches, much less with environmental consciousness in mind.
It only makes sense that the materials are sourced from local suppliers to uphold KANOE’s vision of sustainable wares. “I usually get my materials from local suppliers if they have what I’m looking for. They also have manufacturers from India who work with women and do fair trading fabric. Some of them have contacted me, so I’ll definitely be looking into that. I’m open to different collaborations, and the more sources, the better!”
However, there are certain additional weights and considerations that she has to take given the scale of her production. “I’ve always tried to make my clothes as free size as possible, so I won’t have to make many different sizes, so it’s one size fits all! I think that’s also one of the main criterias that I put into when I design something.”
Noelle does most of her work at home, and it’s almost a one woman operation, other than the occasional assistant and a full-time tailor. It’s easy to be swamped with work, and she acknowledges that. “I just try not to think about work! I mean, sometimes it’s not easy because I get so many emails late at night and I have to check it. But it’s important to say “Stop, this time” and just relax. And also once a week I make sure to take a sabbatical, otherwise I’d die from the burn out…hahahaha.”
Noelle pretty much carries out most of the operation by herself. While her assistant helps out with the stock take and preparations for sending out to markets, Noelle settles the photoshoots, scouting and setting up shop in bazaars, as well as manages her instagram page. “I do have a sales rep to help out with approaching bazaars, but that’s also quite a sporadic thing. I mostly try to focus on my designing and conceptualisation of new themes and collections,” she adds.
KANOE has since seen an increase in sales after one year of business. “Three of my first batch of collections are already gone!,” She says with elation. “One of the more popular ones were the batik collection. I make it as I go, so basically what I do is that I’ll make a few tops, then if I see that people like it, I’d make more of it. So it kind of flows with the demand.”
So what’s next for the brand? Noelle really hasn’t had anything major planned out, but is targeted towards gaining an audience in the Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week as a stepping stone. “I’d also like to work with batik designers, from the east coast, not so much fashion brands. But this will take a lot of time, because the designs and plans have to be prepared beforehand.”
“There is also a fabric producer from India who contacted me, so I’ll be meeting him soon. I’d like to see what sort of fabrics they have. Could be interesting!”
It’s obvious that KANOE has come a long way, from humble beginnings to being one of the brands to front environmental sustainability here in Malaysia. “You never try, you’ll never know. Go for it when you know deep inside that it is time. There is never a perfect moment, but you will know when you know. Also don’t be afraid to wait, I had to go through a journey before Kanoe’s identity had strength . So don’t be afraid to take time to know yourself, what you love, what you are passionate about and explore your giftings and talents as well as allow life to bring you through a journey to strengthen different areas of yourself and character. And when it is time, jump of and build your wings! Even the largest tree starts from a seed, so don’t despise small beginnings, nurture and water the seed, embrace the seasons and watch it grow and bear fruits in due season!”
I think that’s something we can take out and implement in our daily lives.
For more of Kanoe, click here.