Man at His Best

What I've Learned: Sonny San

On a clean diet, the craft of sewing and celebrating Eclipse' 20th anniversary.

BY shermian lim | Mar 31, 2016 | Culture

Tommi Chu

Sonny San, managing director of Eclipse, 54.

The familiarity thing is very important because it brings the customer closer to what we do. People want to buy a certain look. When they come back and they don’t find that look, they will leave.

I like things that are sterile. Men are like that. When we buy something, we just want the basics. At my age, I don’t wear more than three colours. I’m very boring.

There was a cobbler and a taxidermy business right in front of the house that I grew up in. A lot of people sent their dogs and fowl there to be frozen for life. It was very dark, but I think I liked the smell of formaldehyde, which is why I spent hours there. I found the processes of cobbling and taxidermy to be really intriguing and really curious to watch the craftsmen. They always welcomed me because I was a child.

Indonesia is one market I’ve been eyeing for awhile, but we haven’t found the right partner. It takes a day for people to commute from one place to another—you could be in a traffic jam for four or five hours. So when you enter the market there, you have to open a few stores at the same time. People generally don’t travel to shop; they stick around their own neighbourhood.

It’s difficult to keep a clean diet, but so far so good. I only eat fruit in the morning. I’m a Capricorn, so when I do things, I won’t falter. If I binge, I only binge on a Friday. That diet works—it’s kept me in the same shape and weight for the past 10 years.

My choice of drink is single malt. When I was younger, it was tequila.

The twenty-somethings, they want to achieve everything fast. They think there’s a fast track to everything. There isn’t. I slogged for 10 years. It’s not easy to get to where we are now, or to even maintain a business, period.

I actually studied economics. Designing is something I dabbled in when I was in school. Friends said I could paint and draw very well. I was restless, and they told me, “Why don’t you submit some entries for a batik and clothing design competition?” So I did. I based my design on pineapples, because I realised that there’s nothing in the batik industry that represents the tropics. You don’t have fruit, you don’t have people smiling in batik, you just have those patterns—it was depressing. My design was very optimistic, and we did a print for a garment, and it won.

If you stop wanting to learn, you’ll just fade away.

Women don’t always want to be labelled a XXXL. That’s why Eclipse doesn’t use sizes like small, medium or large, or numbers like 8, 10 and 12. Instead, we use the “i” and “ii”, it sounds better.

The printed fabrics [in Eclipse clothing] are from Japan. Anything Japanese, you are assured of the best quality.

Sweden? It’s not an easy country. It’s treacherous and expensive. The prices are ridiculous.

It’s not the destination that makes a place; it’s the people. I was smitten with Hanoi because the people there are so friendly. I felt like I was part of the landscape, not a sore thumb.

Girls don’t like cockroaches. I don’t know why.

Ride sharing apps are so convenient. But more and more people are becoming drivers. Even a lot of my friends who were retrenched from MAS are drivers now. Are there enough customers to go around?

Fashion is a very interesting vocation. Every day, it evolves. There’s never a day that I’ve come to work that I stop learning, even at this age. Suppliers always bring new things that could be applied to the fabrics. I’m still learning techniques, new applications.

One of the more exciting technological advancements is 3D printing. It’s really good for making accessories. Before I transform the metal into an accessory, I can see the shape of the necklace, or the belt that we’re making.

I went to China with a partner, but it didn’t work out, because they wanted me to sell the patent of a design to them so they could manufacture it in China. I will never do that. We still control the entire production in Malaysia, and I’m proud to say that I’m employing locals and Bangladeshis to sew our clothes.

To get people to learn the craft of sewing is tough. A lot of people that we hired from 20 years ago have retired. Most young people don’t want to learn, even though it pays quite well. Not many are keen to learn the craft of dressmaking.

Life is not about likes on social media. Life is about real experiences. A lot of people get lost on social media. They think they can get famous.

I do help the company’s social media sometimes when I can. If you are complacent, you’ll be left far behind. You have to learn what makes the new generation tick. But personally, social media is mainly a montage of what I’ve been doing throughout the years.

You can say bad things about the country and the people governing it, but behind it all, it’s still a very good country to live in.

This year is Eclipse’s 20th anniversary. We’re a homegrown brand, and we’re fortunate to have the following that we have.

First published in Esquire Malaysia, March 2016.