Cover Story
Class Act
Evanna Ramly 
Pearly Wong
Amid the afternoon noise of busy Pudu, small children in a classroom sit quietly as their colourful handiwork from a previous session is distributed. Everyone looks excited and eager to learn. Their teacher for the day is none other than Pearly Wong, creative director of her eponymous label. She holds up a particularly vibrant masterpiece, praising the creativity behind its myriad hues.

The young residents of this shophouse turned boarding school are all the children of refugees from Myanmar’s Mon ethnic group. Seeking sanctuary from discrimination back home, their parents have since found work across the country. Their new jobs range from industrial to agricultural and generally involve difficult, dangerous and dirty tasks. Separated, the families only reconnect once every couple of months.

However, the vibe here is one of hope. Evidenced by the sparkle in their eyes, the children clearly adore their mentor. “On Saturdays, she teaches them drawing and painting. She’s good at managing the students and they love her,” opines Nai Thy Wonna, principal of the school under the Mon Refuge Organisation.

As a Friend of Corum, Wong gets the support of the Swiss manufacture for her upcoming fundraising fashion show

According to Wonna, Malaysia does not recognise refugees and their stay here is only temporary. As such, he believes it is important for the children to learn as much as they can while they are here. “The refugees are largely uneducated and we need to change this if they are to have any hope of a bright future.”

Here, the students are taught English and Mathematics as well as arts and crafts, boosted with regular weekends at the library. Wong is one of a handful of volunteer teachers, too modest a number for the association’s 31,000 members.

Among them is 23-year-old Niang Win, who was unable to secure employment back home despite his education due to the ethnic bias. More pressing was the fact that his mother and father were not safe back in their village. “The soldiers took our land,” he recalls, an unmistakable quiver in his voice. “I was safer in the city but our village was a target so we had to leave.”

Today, his father works in construction and his mother cooks for the school where they reside. Having joined the staff, he has realised his childhood ambition to be a teacher. “It has always been a passion of mine,” he smiles. “My dream is to travel abroad, particularly to the US, and change misperceptions about refugees.”

Stylish support

Based in Berlin, Wong returned to Malaysia this year to embark on a new phase of her label’s CSR programmes. “For years, we have worked with orphanages and old folks’ homes, providing recycled textile waste for use in arts and crafts classes,” she says, adding that it normally takes about six months to compile enough leftover material.

Since graduating from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology – where she also earned an advanced certificate in sustainable entrepreneurship – in 2012, Wong has garnered international acclaim. Representing her home nation in fashion weeks from Germany to New Zealand, she has won multiple prizes including the Fashion Pitch award in Malaysia in 2014.

“After five years in the industry, I wanted to take things to the next level in terms of giving back,” she continues. “So I contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has numerous livelihood projects with refugees in Malaysia, to see how I could help.”

UNHCR directed her towards the Myanmar refugee community, many of whom were forced to flee due to religious conflict. “They have dedicated women’s centres here that sell handmade soaps and bags,” she explains. “I’ve also been working with the Pakistani women refugees now living in Batu Caves. They make clothes for my brand, as did the incredibly hardworking women from Afghanistan.”

There is also a group of Middle Eastern women whom she plans to collaborate with in future. “They are very talented and excel at making dazzling beads and jewellery. I have yet to venture into that category but hopefully I will soon.”

Make it right

Incidentally, all apparel under the Pearly Wong label is ethically produced in Malaysia. “We do not use any China-sourced labour and also source locally for our fabrics. I want to push Pearly Wong towards being a more sustainable label that is known for its commitment to the environment and community.”

Her brand continues to play a significant role in her humanitarian efforts. “For the children, we teach arts and crafts using recycled fabrics and leftover strings from our studio. We don’t want to throw them away so we make items like scrap books,” says Wong. “We train the women in pattern-making, after which they will make our clothes. We pay them a fair wage per hour; we’re also trying to come up with a collection of bags.”

Wong hopes to eventually provide a better future for the children who would otherwise end up in menial, low-paying jobs such as washing dishes when they grow up. Given the right training, she believes, fashion can offer more potential for them to work their way up.

Wong finds immense fulfillment working with children of refugees

Working very closely with UNHCR sees the designer communicating with the agency almost every day, especially now that she has an upcoming show to raise funds. “Together with our sponsor, Corum Watches Malaysia, I will be holding a fashion show in August.”

Wong was recently announced as a Friend of Corum in Southeast Asia. The partnership is fitting as Wong’s appreciation of fine craftsmanship is in line with the Swiss luxury watch manufacture’s values. “I’m truly honoured to be associated with this iconic brand as I love its enigmatic energy and artistry.”

Chris Wan, general manager of Corum Watches Malaysia, describes Wong as an exceptional individual. “She showcases artistic flair and ability to come up with equally abstract and striking designs and skilfully immortalise them on paper.”

This, of course, includes the earlier mentioned fundraising repertoire. To be available for online purchase on her label’s website, profits from all the clothes on show that night will go towards UNHCR’s education, training and livelihood projects. “We hope to empower refugees as we work towards a more sustainable way as a brand. It’s a win-win situation,” she enthuses.

According to Wong, UNHCR continues to distribute monthly donations in spite of a recent drop in funds. However, the agency still needs more people to offer jobs and training. “I’m by nature passionate about humanitarian efforts,” she shrugs. “And I get to design and give back so it’s the perfect job for me.”

What more can the public do to help? “Support more brands that advocate sustainable practices,” Wong urges. “As opposed to mass fashion, consider niche independent labels that are always giving back, especially home-grown names that also use local fabrics. We’re constantly trying to preserve the environment because at the end of the day, everything comes full circle.”

She maintains that it all starts with greater education. “Read up more on the issues and find new ways to engage. Be deeply involved in UNHCR’s projects and support the beautiful products handmade by refugees.”

A better world

Wong is also committed to her own non-profit organisation called Sze Women of Hope. “This initiative is part of my label’s CSR programme. We give vocational training in marketing skills and livelihood projects through sewing and pattern-making classes to refugee communities in Kuala Lumpur with the help of UNHCR.”

“I believe that in every profession, we have to give back. That’s why I’ve always been passionate about recycling and fair trade. Given the chance, I would go back in time to the start of Pearly Wong and establish the brand as a sustainable label but that would have been very difficult in terms of manufacturing. It takes time to have every single thread certified organic but this is definitely a step in the right direction and I hope my fans will support me in this.”

It is clear she finds charity especially gratifying. “For me, it feels great. Every day I get to live my dream of designing while giving back,” she smiles. “I could not ask for more; it’s very fulfilling.”

Right now, her focus is on weaving social enterprise into fashion, incorporating Sze Women of Hope’s products into Pearly Wong’s collections and bringing the organisation to an international level. “As more people outside of Malaysia buy, we can provide more jobs for the community. That’s my long-term plan.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 244.