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In the shopping galleries of The Gardens, a posh complex in Kuala Lumpur's fashionable Mid City Valley, young women model Muslim chic: Pastel, rhinestone- and sequin-dotted head scarves and flesh-concealing long-sleeved tunics and tights. Alongside them are young women in revealing, close-to-sheer bustiers and strategically ripped and otherwise sexily distressed designer hot pants.

The marble- and bamboo-clad halls include a number of stores for Malaysian designers. From seventies-style nighties by Villiam Ooi to Donna Chew's jauntily striped corduroy vests, there is a dazzling range of influences - a touch of Vivienne Westwood here, a dash of Comme des Garçons there - none of which has much to do with modesty or propriety.

In this predominantly Muslim country, fashion is never just fashion. Islam dictates that Muslim women's heads, shoulders, arms and legs be covered, while women of other religions are allowed to dress as they please. These restrictions lead to creative responses from designers, and a continuing tension between fashion and spirituality.

That tension will be on display this week during Kuala Lumpur's fifth annual Malaysia International Fashion Week, which will draw designers from 23 countries. The models will sport everything from tradition-influenced looks featuring gold- and silver-shot Malay fabrics to garments so scissor-shorn they are literally, as well as figuratively, cutting-edge.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's forward-looking capital, is also its showcase for successful multiculturalism. A thoroughly modern, consciously Western-style metropolis, complete with monorail and signature skyscrapers, KL proudly claims its postcolonial status.

It demonstrates what strides Malaysia has made. Barely 50 years old, the country has achieved a prosperity and stability envied by many of its Asian neighbours - though with some restrictions on political and cultural freedoms.

A stroll through the city's luxurious shopping galleries, teeming monster malls and tucked-away indie boutiques shows not only the diversity of Malaysia's peoples but also their creativity in turning strictures into style.

Designer Jimmy Lim, 30, whose line is featured at this year's Fashion Week, sees Malaysia as "a great modern country where everyone embraces the freedom to dress the way they desire."

Originally from New Zealand, Lim describes his clothing as "high casual street wear ... all about play [and]the wearer's freedom of choice." His playful "unisex-based" creations have little to do with Muslim propriety. Bare shoulders, clingy short dresses and a black, white and grey palette speak more of international street and club wear. His customers range from affluent, young working women to ardent clubsters ravenous for the very newest thing.

A more experienced fashion hand than Lim, Tom Abang Saufi, the doyenne of the

Kuala Lumpur fashion scene, has been designing in KL

and London since the 1970s. She is critical of her younger counterparts' lack of local references: "Our younger designers don't get inspired by local culture," she says. "They lack a connection to the past."

Saufi, whose influences range from the former headhunting tribes of Malaysian Borneo to the London punk scene of the 1970s, is keenly aware of the needs of her Muslim clientele. A Muslim herself, she says that when she designs for official functions, such as state occasions and weddings, "legs must always be covered, and long sleeves. I see [Islamic fashion dictates]not as a limitation but a challenge."

Her "official" clothing is form-fitting and beautifully draped, using thin-to-diaphanous fabrics - the ultimate effect is sneakily, slinkily erotic.

Canadian shoppers will find Kuala Lumpur full of fashion treasures, with prices ranging from stratospheric right down to very low (the Canadian dollar is still strong here).

At Key Ng's second-floor boutique at The Gardens, office attire, smart casual and party wear exhibit a flair for rich colour and simple lines. His aqua V-neck sweaters and silver-belted form-fitting trenches for men would be at home at Holt Renfrew, and his short crinoline-inspired skirts and cropped short-sleeved jackets, all white, are frisky and fresh, while a stained-glass motif mini-dress is a heady mix of jewel tones - violet, ruby, topaz.

The place for KL fashion that is neither pricey nor conservative is Bangsar Baru, a shopping and entertainment district adjacent to The Gardens.

Once an upscale residential area, Bangsar is more like a village surrounded by a megapolis. Its curving streets and low-rise stucco buildings have been artfully converted into rows of high-design boutiques, trendy restaurants and no-frills hawkers' courts and café-terrasses for long, sultry afternoons of people-watching.

Young expatriates and mainly non-Muslim Malaysians flock here to drink and dine, and watch boutiques rise and fall at a moment's notice as they struggle to keep ahead of the game.

Bangsar fashion is an intoxicating mixture of international and local, whether hand-stitched and atelier-labelled or up-to-the-minute imported designs. Take the area's Bombshell Boutique, a haphazard little place that proudly proclaims, "We love angry chicks with strong opinions ... those rock chicks who roar." The shop customizes clothing and accessories, mixing and matching old and new stock. Call it streetwear luxe.

At Tres Chic Boutique (store motto: "I dress to kill") chili red, spaghetti-strapped, off-the-shoulder evening numbers are too hot to touch, channelling retro movie-star glamour with the torrid, peppery tropics. A more demure burgundy layered dress, chiffon over silk with a wide ruched waist and one bare shoulder induces a slower burn.

Nearby, Little.Black.Book prides itself on "fresh, stylish and affordable clothes," with simple white dresses boldly printed with black-and-white retro movie-star headshots or a single enormous flower. The store features limited-quantity designs, updated weekly and "not for girls who want to be like anyone else but for girls everyone else wants to be like." Revealing kimono chiffon tops are printed over with a vertiginous range of patterns and colours, from Rousseau-like leaves and flowers to geometric pop-art patterns.

Perhaps most intriguing of the Bangsar boutiques is People's ... Egg, a tiny but chock-full shop offering beautiful bags of all shapes, styles, colours and textures, a simple black linen blazer for a song and an ever-popular Value Buy section with glittering piles of brooches, bracelets and other accessories.

For a real taste of Islam-

inflected Malaysian style,

designer and theatre and film costumer Salikin Sidek creates metallic-threaded and semi-precious-stone-encrusted diaphanous tunics for women, and bold Malay oversize plaid shirts and sarongs for men. Malaysian royalty shops here, but also fashion-conscious young Malaysians interested in Sidek's contemporary interpretations of traditional garments.

The work of such young KL designers may be international and even avant-garde, but it's also a gorgeous mash-up of startling colour, sparkle, bold pattern and intricate detailing, as diverse and dazzling as Malaysia itself.

Fashion veteran Saufi says the common thread is a particularly KL attitude: "[Fashion]should be subversive, but in a polite way so you don't offend people," she says. "You don't have to shout. Beauty with modesty - get it?"

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Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific (1-800-268-6868; http://www.cathaypacific.ca) has daily flights from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal via Hong Kong. Getting Around

Taxis are a bargain in Kuala Lumpur; an average ride in the central city is $3 to $5. Taxis to and from the airport are more closely regulated, and cost $30 to $40.

Where to Stay Carcosa Seri Negara Hotel

Taman Tasik Perdama; 60 (3) 2282-1888; http://www.carcosa.com.my. This colonial residence has 13 suites. $370 to $1,200.

Hotel Maya

138 Jalan Ampang; 60 (3) 2711-8866; http://www.hotelmaya.com.my. A "boutique urban resort" with 100 studios at $240 and 107 suites from $340 to $780.

WHAT TO DO

Malaysian International Fashion Week

Visit http://www.m-ifw.com.

WHERE TO SHOP The Gardens

Mid Valley City, Lingkaran Syed Putra; 60 (3) 2297-0288; http://www.midvalleygardens.com.

Key Ng

The Gardens; 60 (3) 2282-4939; http://www.keyng.com.my. Suits to $800; women's dresses to $750.

Jimmy Lim

60 (3) 2178-4922; http://www.jimmylim.com. From $54 for a T-shirt to $540 for an evening dress.

Tom Abang Saufi

3rd floor, 12 Jalan Dang

Wangi; 60 (3) 2694-1034;

http://www.tomsaufi.com. From

$85 for a simple wrap to $3,700 for a formal gown.

Tres Chic Boutique

10A Jalan Telawi 5, Bangsar Baru; 60 (3) 2282-5202; www.treschic

.com.my. Tops from $25 to $30, dresses $70 to $200.

Little.Black.Book

Ground floor, Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar Baru; 60 (3) 2287-7731; http://www.little.black.book.myblogspot.com. Cotton dresses from $17.

Bombshell Boutique Salon

9-2 Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar

Baru; 60 (1) 2280-0484; www.myspace.com/showpink-showpink. Tees from $15.

People's ... Egg

32 Jalan Telawi 5, Bangsar Baru; 60 (3) 2283-1084. Most bags and clothing under $70.

Salikin Sidek

Ampang Park Shopping Complex; 60 (3) 2166-4706; http://www.salikinsidek.com.my. Up to $2,000 for

traditional evening wear.

Melinda Looi

279 Jalan Maarof, Bangsar

Baru; 60 (3) 2093 2279;

http://www.melindalooi.com.my.