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Published on: Sunday, January 31, 2010

Self-taught fashion designer aims high
By: Mary Chin

AS a secondary school student, Rahmahjan Sulaiman Khan, 41, (now a Datin) had aspired to open a boutique. One day, she was caught sketching dress fashion in class, instead of doing her school work.

"The teacher was very garang (fierce) and asked, 'Rahmahjan, what are you doing?'" she couldn't help recalling.

Born in Sandakan, the second child of a former Kudat police officer, the late Sulaiman Khan, used to tell herself this: "When I grow up and have made enough money, I would like to start a boutique to beautify all the women."

It was only in recent years that Rahmahjan, also a make-up artist, started to immerse herself seriously into fashion designing.

"Fashion is not just for slender people. Fashion is for anybody who has the fashion sense," she said.

Her adolescent dream came true when she set up her own couture house called RJ Couture at rented premises at 1Borneo Hypermall in August 2008.

In Sabah, local fashion designers and fashion labels are a rarity.

RJ Collection is just one of only two or three labels so to speak.

Among her exclusively designed, stylish and elegant creations are RJ evening gown, RJ cocktail dress, RJ modern baju kurung and RJ kebaya.

She also has her version of the contemporary ladies kaftan, that is, a full-length or ankle-length garment with elbow-length or long sleeves.

While she specialises in designing fashionable clothes and handcrafted beadwork, she has engaged local girls to sew the garments and help out with beadwork and sequin work. "The problem is that they don't work for longÉthis is the general complaint of employers about local workers."

Asked on her chic designs, Rahmahjan said she drew inspiration through experience and from her observations during her visits to couture houses in the city of Milan, Italy.

The self-taught fashion designer has so far invested about RM100,000 just on beads, sequins and crystal-like accessories made in Italy, Korea, Indonesia and Singapore.

"Our beadwork caters to varied tastes. It is either executed manually onto the attire itself or handcrafted on lace first before being sewn onto the dress as an applique design."

Rahmahjan also deals in textiles, mainly chiffon, cotton polyester fabric and crepe silk, also imported from Italy and Korea.

"I have closed a two-year sewing deal with a Korean tailor, Miss Lee.

I design the cocktail dresses, evening wear and pants while she does the cutting and sewing.

The type of fabric to be used is also chosen by me," she said, adding it is much cheaper than getting it done in Singapore.

Rahmahjan is increasingly known in the world of fashion ever since her RJ Couture was featured in Glam, an international fashion magazine published in Kuala Lumpur.

Given the limited Sabah market, Rahmahjan is about to make her foray into the international scene.

Milan's renowned fashion designer Garcia, who also owns a garments factory, has invited her to feature her RJ Couture at a fashion show in Milan next month.

"He has asked me to bring along 30 pieces - 10 evening gowns, 10 cocktail dresses, five baju kurung and five kebaya."

Her favourite and long-term fashion model is none other than Miss Malaysia/World 2007 Deborah Henry, one of Malaysia's top models.

"I am comfortable with Deborah. I am taking her to Milan," said Rahmahjan.

Awed by iconic handbags of the Gucci, Chanel and Alviero Martino brands, Rahmahjan is exploring the possibility of designing high quality leather handbags and shoes of the RJ brand next year.

"I will design them but they will be made in Florence (known as the art capital of Italy)."

Politically, she is also active being Tenom Wanita Umno Chief and the movement has in fact served as a platform for social welfare work in aid of poor families, disabled persons, hospital patients and women in need in the district.

Despite her success, Rahmahjan is saddened that certain quarters were trying to run her down probably due to professional jealousy.

She did not elaborate. "I have my ups and downs too," she admitted.

However, she said some non-political women leaders have been very supportive by giving her the opportunity to parade RJ Creations in fashion shows. One such event dubbed Fashion Extravaganza was held during the month-long State-level Women's Day celebration organised by the Sabah Women's Advisory Council (MPWS) last year at Magellan Sutera Hotel.

Meanwhile, she has expressed her intention to work with women non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in raising funds for target groups.

"Having gone through difficulties myself, I know how hard it is for needy families to make ends meet," she said.

In her twenties, she was offered a business study course in London after her SPM but she was hardly there for a week when she got news from the family that her mother had passed away.

"At that time, my father was suffering from a stroke. He died less than a year later." The untimely loss of her parents thwarted her plans of further studies. "Take care of your siblings first" were their last words to Rahmahjan.

To fulfil their wishes, she settled for a job at a travel agency in the State capital to support her siblings' education.

"Life was a struggle then. I had to borrow money to put my three younger sisters through school."

To supplement her income, she even took up odd jobs at one stage, including selling garments from her home base. "I had to work round the clock and had no time for myself because I was also in the long-distance learning programme with UiTM."

One of them, Zubaidah, the fourth child, now assists her as Boutique Manager.