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How Did Leslie Variyan Become A Successful Malaysian Designer?

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Passion can encourage a person to go beyond expectations, surpass even their own imagination, and achieve greatness. The Petaling Jaya-born designer behind Variante is living proof of this, and tells Vatsala Devi the story of his journey from sales assistant to fashion star.

Looking comfortably chic in a black t-shirt and jeans, with a measuring tape draped over his shoulder, Leslie Variyan looked every inch the designer he is. “The easy way out” was the mantra Leslie followed, with school and education taking a back seat in the early days. “I felt I wasn’t learning what I wanted to learn. The syllabus catered more towards the academically inclined students, while other students like me whose interests lie in the creative fields had very little options to work with. You could also chalk it down to my impatience in wanting to learn everything and quickly too,” he said sheepishly.

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Initially, Leslie decided that he wanted to pursue law – an ambition that was short-lived as after just one day in class, he dropped the idea. “At that time, the American series ‘L.A. Law’ was famous and I was very inspired by that show,” he said. “I enrolled in a programme, and on the first day we were given a course introduction and outline, and that is when I chickened out!” he added with a guffaw. Law dreams over, Leslie then decided he wanted to become a fashion designer and enrolled in a two-year fashion designing course. “After a year into the course, I realised I wasn’t learning what I thought I should be learning, and the idea of sitting through another year wasn’t exactly appealing, so the flighty nature in me took off, quite literally, and I quit to become a flight attendant. Unfortunately, I passed the initial interview stage but never made it to the final stage,” he added.

While deciding what to do next, his neighbour suggested he work at the department store Isetan, so at the age of 21 he joined the retailer, starting out as a sales assistant, and, climbing his way up the ladder, leaving fourteen years later as a merchandising manager. After that, it was his passion for fashion that steered him through the challenges that came with building a successful name and brand for himself.

“My exposure to fashion began at an early age and is largely due to my mother. She has impeccable taste in fashion, so it goes without saying that she ensured her children dressed well, too. My mum would custom-make her dresses and I used to go with her to the tailor,” he said. “Back then, women would buy fabrics and head to the tailor, where there would be pattern books on designs and styles. I was eight years old, and even then, there was something that attracted me to the colours and designs.” Leslie realised he had a natural flair for putting together colours and styles in winning combinations and that he could make people look good in them. Though his interest in fashion bloomed as result of working in Isetan, Leslie didn’t actively move towards his dream until a trip to Italy all but sealed his decision to become a fashion designer. On one of his trips, Leslie said he got the idea to set up a shop selling shirts. “I came across an Italian fashion house that was selling shirts for women and I thought ‘why not?’ I had all the necessary tools to set up my shirt shop, so I decided to establish my shop in one of the shopping malls downtown. Little did I realise the key to success doesn’t rely on the product squarely, and is also dependent on location,” he recalled.

“Having a product only works when you are in a strategic location, so when I opened at this particular mall, which wasn’t doing well at that time, it was tough. For over a year, I didn’t sell much. So with not much to lose, I replicated this idea I had seen in a magazine and told my staff to bead a shirt. That beaded shirt was bought by a customer, who then requested for it to be made longer. That act of customising the shirt translated into VARIANTE as you know it today,” explained Leslie, who has showcased his collections in Abu Dhabi and Monaco.

VARIANTE, which means options in Italian, first opened its doors in 2007 as a within-department shop and seven years later, it has grown to three boutiques, eight within-department shops, and three lines, namely VARIANTE, the ready-to-wear collection; VARIANTE by Leslie Variyan, the made-to-measure line; and VARIANTE Men. With the obvious exception of the latter line, VARIANTE is a fashion label that caters to all women, whether they are slim or curvaceous, celebrities or a regular working mom.

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When asked how he turned his fledgling shirt shop into the success story it is today, Leslie said that fear was his greatest motivator. “Of course there was a lot of hard work involved, but I would say fear pushed me to not give up even when times were tough. It was either sink or swim, and when you have so much love for something you truly believe in, sinking wasn’t an option for me. I had to make sure I succeeded,” he said.

Leslie admitted that his parents have played a pivotal role in his success story. “Looking back at all the decisions I’ve made, I don’t think all this would have been possible if I didn’t have my parents’ support. Even though they didn’t initially support the idea of me becoming a fashion designer, they always allowed me to make decisions for myself and encouraged me to excel. They taught me many strong values, and I think I’ve been very blessed with a close-knit family.” Seeking inspiration through his travels, and having visited most of the fashion capitals around the globe, Leslie revealed that Italy is his favourite place for inspiration from locals who ooze style, while New York is a favourite for shopping. All work and no play makes Jack (or in this case Leslie) a dull boy, and when not at one of his shops, Leslie enjoys singing, hiking on the weekends and loves to cook and entertain guests. “I love cooking and I find it therapeutic. Running a business can be very stressful and the mind is never still, but with cooking, you have to be completely focused on the task at hand and the process involved in putting a dish together. It demands my complete attention and it calms me down,” he explained.

The innovative designer assures that there is still much more to achieve, and with plans for more stores to open in East and West Malaysia, as well as ideas to take VARIANTE international, this is clearly just the beginning. “I want to keep growing the brand and diversify into different platforms and industries. To me, the key to staying successful is to constantly be in competition with myself. While I appreciate and welcome other competitors, I feel there is ultimately no one else who can spur you on to achieve greatness but yourself.”

Source: Senses of Malaysia March/April 2014

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