In this edition of SEAtizens, we are featuring Mr. Jayakumar “JK” Vanialingam, the Malaysian designer who founded the “Autism Rules Fashion” initiative for children with autism to express themselves through their art.
Fashion is a form of self-expression – something that allows you to make a statement just from the clothes that you wear. And when your statement is backing an advocacy that you passionately believe in, your clothes become a way for others to see, understand and accept the message you are trying to convey. For Mr. Jayakumar Vanialingam – better known as JK – fashion has become a platform to showcase the talents of children with autism to the world.
JK’s passion for fashion started at a young age with the influence of his mother who used to read fashion magazines regularly. At a time when the general public had no access to the internet and only limited channels on TV, JK used to read his mother’s magazines for fun and accompanied her to the tailor. Eventually, he started forming his own opinions on fashion and giving his mother input on how to style her clothing.
“My dream was to become a fashion designer, but during those times it was not a ‘standard’ career choice. People wanted you to be an engineer or a doctor,” JK shared with SEA Wave. Despite his interest in fashion, JK agreed with his family’s advice to seek a “standard” career, since it would be the more practical way to earn a living. He designed and styled his own clothes in his personal time while pursuing a career in other industries.
Eventually, JK joined a Malaysian airline and experienced going to other countries where he learned about other cultures. This was where his dream of design was revived because of the diversity of styles that he saw, especially the beautiful fabrics from Dubai. After leaving the airline industry, JK became a wedding planner where his penchant for design was applied to floral arrangements, venue setups, and more. And with that career shift, his customers began asking him for design-related advice, especially on what the brides should wear.
JK was slowly reintroduced into the world of fashion and design with his new role as a wedding planner, and in 2018, the opportunity of a lifetime arrived. JK’s friend invited him to participate in the Borneo Fashion Week, where his works immediately received acclaim. He designed a collection following the event’s theme “Borneo to the World,” which he was recognized with the Most Promising Designer Award.
Wanting to give back to the community, JK combined his passion for fashion and humanitarian advocacy and immediately contacted his friend, Thila Laxshman – founder of the PERSAMA-2gether4autism non-profit organization and staunch advocate for children with autism. JK was previously a volunteer for the organization and lent his wedding planning office as a venue for their events.
From there, an idea was formed. JK, through his newly-founded company JK Signature, collaborated with children in the organization and created opportunities for them to show their talents to the world. Knowing how children within the autism spectrum participated in different types of therapy, JK thought about how art therapy could channel their creativity in a productive way that could secure opportunities for them in the future. With this, the first “Autism Rules Fashion” show was created.
Children with autism participated in the initiative by creating wonderful works of art, which were translated by JK Signature into beautiful pieces for a fashion collection and fashion show. And with many volunteers supporting the cause, they were able to make the show a success, with the earnings going back to the families of the children who designed their artworks.
JK states that aside from introducing these children to a possible future in art and fashion, this initiative also works with the parents to give them hope and to pave a way for their child to be self-sustaining in the future. “Parents really push their children and with support, they really bloom. They want the children to earn a salary so they can survive.” JK shares.
When asked about his goals for the initiative, JK says he hopes it raises awareness about autism and shows the world what children with special needs are capable of. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money – even a small amount can help a child. All these children are studying, not just sitting at home. They all go to school – some of them are pushing very hard for their degrees. To see a child with special needs pursue a degree, it’s amazing. The only thing we can do is to help them in one way or another.” he shared. “Individuals with autism and special needs should be given a chance to show their talents.”
Since the establishment of the initiative in 2018, “Autism Rules Fashion” has held annual fashion shows for the cause, with proceeds going back to the artists and their families. And with the many years he spent learning and growing before finally revisiting his love for fashion, JK shared a message for aspiring fashion designers: “Learn and try. If you never try, you’ll never learn.”
“I am very fortunate because I joined a lot of design groups and organizations that supported me. People still ask me ‘Why are you doing this?’ but I can’t answer it because it’s what’s in my heart,” shared JK.
Aside from “Autism Rules Fashion,” JK Signature has an exciting new line coming out in 2024 so stay tuned. To support the cause and to learn more about JK Signature and Autism Rules Fashion, visit their website or JK’s Instagram page.
For more Southeast Asian stories and pop culture trends, visit seawavemag.com.
SEA Wave magazine’s SEAtizens initiative is a series of inspiring stories of people in Southeast Asia who champion the human spirit by demonstrating courage, ingenuity, generosity, and selflessness.