LSA100: Rocketeer Ronald Chew rises to the occasion no matter the challenge

LSA100 Rocketeer Ronald Chew
LSA100 Rocketeer Ronald Chew

Meet Ronald Chew — the trailblazing figure behind notables brands such as NERDUNIT, Water The Plant, Park-In, and Billionaire Records.

If you told me nine years ago that I’d meet the founder of NERDUNIT, I’d stop you in your tracks. Shh. Guess dreams do come true to those who wait. A sky full of stars, a young boy’s spirit filled with patience.

Well, fast forward almost a decade later, Ronn has finally met Ronald Chew — the all-inspiring and trailblazing person and entrepreneur behind one of Malaysia’s most prominent streetwear brands. When the label was launched in 2013, it quickly took the fashion scene by storm — introducing a whole new style aesthetic to Malaysians.

You’ll find college students (including myself) donning clothes from NERDunit; a showcase of the newest and trendiest then. Many fruitful, busy, and successful years later, not only has Ronald grown the brand but has also moulded into an impressive person himself.

He has extended his growth globally, making a mark in music, F&B, and more. There’s really no stopping for Ronald. So, for the personality to grace us with this precious time, is a blessing indeed. Walking on set with an oversized black tee and sweats combo, Ronald’s powerful presence is immediately felt.

But behind the towering figure is a gentle soul. Soft spoken but assertive, Ronald makes it a point to greet everyone on set of the LSA100 cover shoot. Probably the tallest person in the studio and the only male among the cover stars, it’s almost impossible not to spot him regardless of where you are. Unless you have your eyes closed, of course.

Before he puts on his selected outfit for the shoot — an enigmatic dark purple blazer and trousers set with a classic black turtleneck tee (all Zegna), I had the time and opportunity to speak to Ronald about his successes and future ambitions. With a cup of iced Americano in one hand and his smartphone on the other, he begins.

Honestly, what more can one ask for?

Ronald Chew for LSA100
Ronald Chew in Zegna

Listening is key to being a good leader

As the founder and brain behind numerous successful brands, calling Ronald busy would be an utter understatement. Always on work mode (even during his down time), the entrepreneur finds joy and satisfaction being on a constant drive. Unless he’s spending time at home with his family and children or travelling the world, Ronald can always be seen running his empire. And it doesn’t have to be from his office either.

“Although it might seem like I’m consumed by work all the time, it really isn’t like that. I’m a firm believer of having a work-life balance. Once that’s a thing, you’ll genuinely enjoy work because it wouldn’t even feel like work in the first place,” he says.

The cover star expresses that it’s just an extension of who he is — as a business owner, a father, a person, and a leader.

Being at the forefront of multiple businesses might seem like an arduous and macabre task for many, but not for Ronald. In fact, he takes pride in rising to the challenges of being a leader. An important role, he says, that not only comes naturally but also keeps him on his on toes all the time.

“I feel it in my bones that I was born to be a leader. Especially in a group of friends or colleagues, you just instinctively become the chosen one to lead and guide. It just happens,” he confides. Ringing true as true can be, it reminds me of when Ronald naturally leads me to this little corner for our conversation.

For the impresario, being the commander also means he has a network of people looking at him for inspiration and motivation. He’s the catalyst that keeps the engine running, after all. And because of that, he finds it necessary to keep level-headed at all times; staying composed and collected while ensuring another smooth day at the drawing board. This includes being all ears, and with an open heart.

“Leaders should always listen to those around them. As a leader myself, I make sure to hear from my team, be it opinions or feedback. All voices are important so you have to take and consider all inputs. Only then should you form decision,” he affirms, breaking out in a prideful smile as he takes a sip of his coffee.

Running such a large empire means having to manage multiple projects at one time. It’s truly every single-tasker’s nightmare. Every project, whether it’s in fashion or beyond, comes with its respective problems and issues.

“It’s crucial to listen to others because your idea might not be the best fit for that specific problem or project,” adds Ronald. At this point, he surrenders himself to the creative director who has seemingly decided to give him a sleek look.

When it’s all said and done, the ultimate satisfaction comes when the team sees something come to life. Still in awe after all these years, Ronald says that he’s still — and always — elated because a lot of sweat and tears go into everything he and his team do.

“Whether it’s an apparel or a store, seeing the end result after weeks or months of planning and working on a project gives me the ultimate satisfaction,” he expresses. I nod in starstruck-filled agreement.

And… back to the ‘sleek’ look, Ronald takes a while getting used to this rather ‘new-ish’ style — one that he hardly carries. He laughs coyly, pressing on his temples as his silvery grey hair gets combed back. “I trust you guys, and I know you know what you’re doing. Go for it!” he strikes, handing it over to us with full confidence.

LSA100 Rocketeer Ronald Chew
Established 10 years ago, NERDUNIT has matured alongside Ronald himself (Photo by @ron_nerdunit)

On how NERDUNIT has changed throughout the years

When NERDUNIT was established in 2013, it was in response to the lack of streetwear options here in Malaysia. Led by designer and founder Ronald, the brand embarked on a journey to forge a new landscape — fusing together art, culture, and design.

Along with a team of visionary in-house creatives, NERDUNIT (acronym for No One Ever Really Dies) has produced incredible collection after incredible collection since.

Close to a decade later, the brand is easily recognised as one of the pioneers of streetwear fashion culture in Malaysia, if not the pioneer. It’s signature triple arrow logo can be identified right off the bat and its brand aesthetics are now synonymous with top quality contemporary streetwear style.

In addition to having stores in countries like Japan and the United States, NERDUNIT has also collaborated with a myriad of notable brands. They include New Era, Stable Pigeon, Fxxking Rabbits (#FR2), and Be@rbrick. Under Ronald’s crafty navigation, the label has paved the way for the formation of more streetwear brands in the country — as well as partnerships with other international names.

However, just like the founder himself, even NERDUNIT itself has undergone changes with each passing year. As Ronald says: “I see the brand changing as I grow older as well. As I age, my interests have changed too so that’s reflected in NERDUNIT too”. He understands that the brand’s gradual maturation is natural.

Fashion is ever-changing and adapting to the demands of the zeitgeist is crucial. Take NERDUNIT’s latest Blanks collection for example. Minimally-designed, this collection would not have been presented during the early days of the brand when military patterns and heavy graphics (possibly inspired by Ronald’s admiration for contemporary artists Kaws and Futura) were staples.

“In the past, I wouldn’t have released a collection like this because you can buy them anywhere. However, times have changed and when designed with a specific cut, these pieces can be worn every day,” conveys Ronald.

Looking back in retrospect, our wants and needs then could be very different now — with so many possible factors at play.

Hitherto, for Ronald and NERDUNIT, it sure seems like there’s only onward and upward from here. Not only did the brand survive the dreadful years of the pandemic, it rose from the “debris” stronger than ever. Most recently, NERDUNIT collaborated with Chivas on limited edition jerseys in conjunction with the whisky maker’s ‘I Rise, We Rise’ campaign.

LSA100 Rocketeer Ronald Chew
Water The Plant is a full time collaboration with Smiley (Photo by @ron_nerdunit)

From budding ideas to launching Water The Plant and Billionaire Records

Far from being described as a one trick pony, Ronald is a man of many faces. The multifaceted businessperson’s portfolio of brands now comprises of companies covering F&B (Park-In), music, and fashion. If you think that’s all, he’s also about to launch a club slated to launch in June 2023.

When pushed for more details, Ronald smirks and says: “I can’t disclose anything else but I can definitely reveal that the club will be in Kuala Lumpur”. Hey, at least we know that now!

A foray into the club scene might leave some curious as to why but for Ronald, it’s a natural progression. Together with DJ Goldfish, they founded Billionaire Records. Dubbed a music collective (think 88rising), Billionaire Records aims to develop sustainable legacies for its artists. Currently signed names include the likes of Joleen, Tchuno, Tracia, Yung Flexx, Hades, Suhsi, and Nitrozeus.

“Billionaire Records is a platform created to nurture Malaysian creatives in the music industry. We create a space for DJs, rappers, and musicians, with a mix of genres and languages,” discloses Ronald. He continues: “We launched it during Something In The Park Festival and our goal is to start a record label in which we can express our creativity through the medium of music”.

Never one to stay idle and be complacent, Ronald (and his team) constantly look for new ways to grind and progress. Billionaire Records and the successful Something In The Park Festival are two brilliant examples of that. In fact, Ronald himself pinpoints pulling off the latter — held at Park-In Subang (which he owns under Rising Group) — as his biggest achievement of 2022.

Another showcase of the entrepreneur’s grit and tenacity is WATER THE PLANT. It’s a full time collaboration with UK-based brand SMILEY. Planning for the bright and colourful follow-up to NERDUNIT during the pandemic and has since spawned a physical store in Mid Valley, Kuala Lumpur. In addition, the team will be opening a WATER THE PLANT store in Los Angeles as well as join the next Tokyo Fashion Week.

“We named it WATER THE PLANT because we believe every idea is a seed that needs to be watered to grow. It’s a self-love, self-growth kind of brand,” he states. The label currently offers everything from oversized hoodies and t-shirts to varsity jackets and sweatpants.

Ronald Chew is one super occupied juggernaut — and there’s no denying that. However, when the dust finally settles, the cover star hopes to be remembered as someone who has made an impact in the local and international fashion scenes.

“It has been a crazy journey and I hope to keep this going for as long as I can,” he expresses.

A mere 30-minute conversation with Ronald gives me a crystal clear window as to why so many look up to him as a role model and inspiration. And that, everyone, is what happened when Ronn met Ronald.

Some say never meet your hero. Well, that’s not the case this time.

LSA100 Rocketeer Ronald Chew
LSA100 Rocketeer Ronald Chew

LSA100: 100 Malaysians, 100 Milestones

Lifestyle Asia KL introduces LSA 100, an annual list that recognises Malaysia’s most influential names and celebrates their talents, contributions, successes and milestones. As the bellwether of style, travel, design, entertainment, business, sports, and more, these 100 Malaysians represent the next generation of go-getters who are paving the way for sharing their know-hows with the world through the power of digital media. LSA100 comprises five categories namely The Rule Breakers, The Joy Sparkers, The Dreamcatchers, The Rocketeers and The Explorers. Find out more about LSA100 Class of 2022, HERE

editor & creative direction MARTIN TEO | interview RONN TAN | assisted by PUTERI YASMIN SURAYA | production MICKY WONG / NEW STORYBOARDS PHOTOGRAPHY | makeup KF BONG | hair ERANTHE LOO | stylist RONN TAN | wardrobe ZEGNA

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