It was by coincidence that I had a chance to work with Keng Saw on a project not long ago. Saw, a prolific Malaysia-born fashion illustrator and designer in his own right, has been living and thriving in Paris for the past 30 years. His talent has garnered him various high profile clients and collaborations, including Hermès and Elle France. His life journey is nothing short of impressive and inspiring.
I sat down with Saw recently to talk about his early life in Malaysia, the beginning of his career in Paris and what it takes to be a great fashion illustrator.
Hello, Saw. Tell us a little about yourself.
Hello! I’m Keng Saw. I’m a fashion illustrator and designer. I was based in Paris for the past 30 years, and I’ve just moved back to Malaysia a few years ago.
30 years in Paris! When exactly did you move back to Malaysia? And, why?
It was in November 2011. I decided to move back to Malaysia because I wanted to get closer to the booming Asian market. I wanted to explore more opportunities in Asia. And I also wanted to stay closer to my family.
Where are you from originally?
I was born and raised in Taiping, Perak.
Today, you’re a very experienced and prolific fashion illustrator. How did it all started? Have you always been an artistic child or was it something that runs in the family?
Well, not really. I was born in the 60s, during the old Malaya era. My late father was an immigrant from China, and he was a manager at a rubber plantation. My mom was just a housewife. No sibling in the family was doing anything related to Art and Fashion. However, my mom has always been a very creative person. She sewed and made things. She’s very hands-on. I guess that’s where my talent for art and drawing came from.
When did you realize drawing and illustration was your calling?
To be honest, I wasn’t good at studying when I was a kid. But I knew I was good at drawing, and it’s the only thing I enjoy doing too. I spent my high school years at St. George’s Institution before I was sent to Taylor’s college. After 1 year at Taylor’s, I decided to take the plunge and persuade my passion in fashion illustration. So I went to ESMOD Paris. It was in 1979.
You’re just 20 and you headed for Paris alone. And you could barely speak French, right?
Yes, I couldn’t speak French at all. I was taking the 2-year course in Fashion, and soon I realized I was more into the conceptual and styling aspect of fashion design than the technical, clothing-making side. At the same time, my illustration has gotten very good and by chance, the principal and owner of ESMOD at that time, Ms Annette Goldstein, saw my illustration, and she liked it. She then became almost like a mentor to me.
Having the school’s principal mentoring you personally speaks volumes about your talent.
After spending one year at ESMOD, Ms Goldstein thought my skill was ready for professional works and so she secured me a job at a styling office. It’s Promostyl, the international style and trend office based in Paris. My job was to analyze, forecast, illustrate and document ideas and fashion trends into look book. It’s my first job, and it lasted for 10 years! I’m still working with them today, but on freelance consulting basis.
10 years! That’s a really long time. But what happened after that? Why did you leave?
10 years is a really long period, and that’s why I thought I wanted to try something new. I wanted to work with a designer. So I went to work with Japanese fashion designer based in Paris, Junko Shimada. I really admired her works, and I worked as her assistant and designer for the next 3 years. After that, I joined Chantal Thomass as designer for 1 year, before I finally left to start freelancing. I’ve been working as freelance consultant and illustrator for other styling offices (e.g. StyleSight UK, which is now WGSN) and fashion magazines (e.g. Elle France) since then. It’s almost 20 years now.
30 years of working experience and counting – talk about career longevity! I know you also have an on-going collaboration with Hermès on a collection of scarf. How did it happen?
In 2010, Hermès launched a new campaign called “J’aime mon Carré” (“I Love My Scarf”) to celebrate their iconic scarves. In conjunction with the campaign, Hermès collaborated with artists from around the world to create a special collection of scarves. The team at Hermès has seen my work before, and I was really happy when they decided to contact me to do the collaboration. The campaign then became an annual campaign, and so every year, I’ll design a scarf for Hermès. They’re available on their official website and in Hermès stores worldwide. Working with Hermès is a very important milestone in my career.
How’s your creative process like?
My clients always gave me creative freedom when it comes to concepts and ideas. Normally, after I’ve received the project brief from client, I’ll do research online, or I’ll go to book stores, for example, Kinokuniya, to look for magazines and books. I’m inspired by artworks.
What and who inspired your artistic style the most?
I have a few: I love Picasso, one of the most influential artists in the world. I love Yves Saint Laurent, François Truffaut the film director. I also love Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel and Inès de La Fressange. Inès is the only one (of my icons) who’s still alive. I actually met her once in Paris.
Who are your favourite designers? What brands do you normally wear?
Who’s on your playlist at the moment?
I practically listen to anything. I listen to whatever that’s playing on the radio. For example, Canto-pop. I don’t understand Mandarin/Cantonese, but I just love to have some background noise when I work. Adele is really hot now, too.
Do you have any advice for someone who’s interested to become a fashion illustrator?
If you want to become a fashion illustrator, you need to have a passion for your work. You need to have a real passion for Art and Fashion in order to survive. You must be willing to make lots of sacrifices in life, because doing research works and perfecting your drawing skills takes a lot of time and energy. Practice makes perfect. In the end of the day, you have to love what you do. I’m happy because I’m doing what I love!