From small town girl to one of the leading fashion designers in the community, Sanmugaselvi Rajagopal has seen it all. Her fashion line, Desiglam, is a testament to that. This fashion designer has elevated the Malaysian fashion scene, with her eclectic Indowestern pieces and vivid colours.
The Varnam team catches up with Sanmugaselvi to talk about her sojourn in Malaysian fashion, the trends she keeps up with and the ever evolving world of slow fashion.
Hailing from humble beginnings, Sanmugaselvi could only dream of clothes at one point of her life. “I was born in Teluk Intan, but I grew up in Cameron Highlands. Food and education were our only priorities,”
New clothes were a luxury that Sanmugaselvi’s family couldn’t always afford. “We used to get new clothes only during Deepavali, if it was a good financial year for the family,” she says. “It usually wasn’t,”
So she took the clothes she had and began modifying them. “I would remove sleeves from one outfit and attach it to another,” Sanmugaselvi’s passion for colours and patterns also kept her going. “I would go into a garden and stare at the different shades of flowers. I still do this today!”
But it wasn’t always happy. “My two siblings and I watched as our mother slogged on the farms. It felt like slavery,” she reminisces. That was the time that Sanmugaselvi decided that she would work for herself, no matter what.
“I moved to Kuala Lumpur with a big dream, moving to KL was huge in the 90s, you see,” And so she worked towards that dream, but something wasn’t right. “While I was working in KPMG, it dawned on me that as an employee, I’m just sitting here, giving my all to the company for their vision. But to the company, I am just a chair,” Like many of us, she found herself pouring all her energy into her company’s growth and vision .
Like many of us, she found herself pouring all her energy into her company’s growth and vision .
On the home front, Sanmugaselvi had gotten very comfortable. “Being married with two kids, I knew I was getting very comfortable. I needed to make myself uncomfortable,” she says. “I didn’t discuss it with anyone I just decided to resign. My boss asked me how I planned to support myself. That’s not your problem, I told him,”
I needed to make myself uncomfortable
“I then started my own business. It was a boutique and beauty parlour,” Sanmugaselvi always kept a lookout on potential business opportunities. “What else can I do, I would constantly ask myself. What new things can I introduce?”
As she traversed each challenge the world of self employment had to offer, Sanmugaselvi educated herself. She kept making herself uncomfortable. “I did it every day, and I still do it now. When you do something you like, it’s nice, but when you do things you don’t like, when you challenge yourself, it takes you to a whole new level,”
“I often reflect at the end of my day and ask myself, what did I do differently today?” She does this, she says, because her only competitor is herself.
As her business grew, people began noticing what she wore, “They saw my sarees and started asking if they can buy it. I knew then that I have an eye for attractive patterns,”
“At the time, I would go to India buy sarees and other articles and bring them back here to be sold. I thought to myself, why not do this on my own? I could add a creative twist to suit our local palate,”
Sanmugaselvi then did the unthinkable. “I sold my business and told my children and husband, Prakash, lets leave this comfort zone. I chose New York, so I can learn the ropes of fashion design. My family and I moved there. This was an incredible experience where we all learnt a lot.
“It was a huge risk. But I thought to myself, if I don’t make that decision today, I won’t grow,” She took that leap of faith and it paid off.
It was a huge risk. But if I don’t make that decision today, I won’t grow
When she finally returned to Malaysia, Sanmugaselvi created her fashion line, Desiglam. “Creating my new brand, I organised a fashion show with my new collection, En Barathi, where the fabric is Barathi themed,”
“Ultimately, I want to there to be ownership for my work. This is mine. That’s something I have felt from a very young age,” Her vision was realised with every new line that Desiglam produced.
Sanmugaselvi’s designs showcase Indian elements using international fabric, so there is a global fashion influence with every piece. “Every morning, I watch one or two fashion shows to understand the structure of the current trends,” This, coupled with her fascination with colours, patterns and creating something new is what yields her elegant pieces.
“Some people say that my clothes are too high fashion. I’m not bothered. I am someone who makes clothes to be noticed. I want people to wear my clothes to high tea, a meeting, or even a dinner. If you’re wearing a dhoti pants, just throw on a blazer!”
Fashion designer or tailor?
“Malaysian Indians think that fashion designers hailing from India are superior. But when we talk about Malaysian fashion designers, they think we are tailors!” she says, exasperated. “No matter how we explain it to them, they ask, “Oh, so did you sew it?” which is completely ridiculous,”
The intricate process of how do they create an outfit, how to recognize which fabric suits which, that is something that eludes most people from our community, she says. “If you don’t understand, you’re not my buyer and you’re not going to demotivate me. I’ve come to accept that,”
What is a fashion designer?
Sanmugaselvi tells us that a fashion designer is someone who recognises the current trends and designs clothes based on the fabric most suited to it. “After the designing is done, my assistant fashion designer and I will plan how to execute the attire based on a variety of criteria, ranging from the fall of the fabric to the festive season,”
This is followed by a few more designs on the same fabric. “There is a lot of discussion about the fabrics and design. We will then analyse how many metres are we doing and if it will look good on various body types,”
Only after all of this comes the prototype, Sanmugaselvi says. “We will make one piece and try it out on a person, before making changes such as the collar and sleeve length. Only once the prototype is approved will the piece go in for production,”
That is no walk in the park either, she says. “The pattern has to be symmetrical and we need plan the amount of fabric used,”
Desiglam operates our of Amcorp Mall, Petaling Jaya now. “When people come to the shop, they don’t ask what fabric it is. They just want to know how much it is. They don’t know, and probably don’t care what dye is being used” Sanmugaselvi says. “If a cheap dye is used, with every wash, these molecules will be released into the water and into the sea creatures that we eventually consume,”
“People only care about how much it is,” she says. “For some reason, we have trained ourselves to think cheaper is better,”
She is, of course, referring to fast fashion, where inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers. Fast fashion has polluted the earth, Sanmugaselvi says. “In the name of producing cheap fast fashion, sub standard products are manufactured in large quantities,”
“Initially, it was hard to price myself at RM 399. But the figure is anything but arbitrary. It is RM 399 because I know it is iron free, doesn’t wrinkle and is eco-friendly. It was difficult, but I told my husband that I’m not going relent and sell things from India, because there will still be a point of comparison. I want my products to be incomparable, as Desiglam is,”
The onus is on us, as consumers, to stop the fast fashion fad
The onus is on us, as consumers, to stop the fast fashion fad, she says, “When you spend a bit more to buy eco-friendly clothes, we will have the power. This will help the earth and keep the fashion industry thriving,”
Fashion in Malaysia
To the young Malaysians interested in the fashion line, especially designing, Sanmugaselvi has this to say, “Don’t give up, this industry is growing, so give yourself time. There is always a platform for you here. It’s just how much you believe in it and how hard you are willing to work for it,”
As for the Malaysian fashion industry, she says “If everyone takes a minute to understand what am they wearing, they can save this industry and we can make the space for more eco-friendly fashion lines. This is a big dream, I know, but trust me, dreams do come true!”
If you would like to join the Desiglam team as a stockist or to sell their pieces, contact Sanmugaselvi at
Keep up with Desiglam’s latest pieces here.
All images are courtesy of Sanmugaselvi Rajagopal.