Melissa Leong in the Gary Bigeni dress called Leong

Photo: Instagram/fooderati

Melissa Leong having a dress named after her is a bigger deal than you may think

"Growing up with a surname that people regularly misspelled and mispronounced, it fills my heart with joy to see it out there and celebrated."

In the world of fashion, it’s not uncommon for high-profile designers to name collections or items of clothing after well-known people. But in Melissa Leong’s case, having a new dress from Gary Bigeni called the ‘Leong’ is particularly special as an Asian Australian woman. 

Taking to her Instagram account recently, the MasterChef: Dessert Masters judge explained that Australian designer Bigeni had named a second frock after her. 

“Back in my first season of MasterChef, I wore one of @garybigeni's epic pieces, and it immediately sold out. That dress became known as the Melissa dress,” she wrote. 

“That's not a flex as much as it is a meaningful difference to small Australian businesses like his: this was always the goal with choosing predominantly Aussie brands while working on the show,” she continued.

Leong then explained that Bigeni has named a new blue and black hand painted silk dress after her, using her surname to identify the floor-length frock. 

She wrote, “as if that wasn't enough, he has just created this stunning (and wildly flattering) hand painted silk dress. Her name? THE LEONG!” 

Singaporean-Chinese Leong grew up in Australia after her parents migrated from Singapore in the 1970s, and like many other children of immigrants, has faced various racial microaggressions over the years. So often women of colour are omitted from the narrative, and when they are included, are made to feel like the other. 

“Growing up with a surname that people regularly misspelled and mispronounced, it fills my heart with joy to see it out there and celebrated,” she wrote in this social media post. “Our names, our identities mean the world to us, and in a moment when we feel seen, the gratitude is palpable.” 

Having your surname butchered time and time again is exhausting – just ask me. Vrajlal has never been easy for those outside of the Indian community to pronounce. Is the V or J silent? Does the first syllable rhyme with Taj as in Taj Mahal, or is it more like the sound of Madge? Vraj-arl, Raj-rahl and wait for it, Vragina. You’d forgive me for going by Leeshie V for a few years during university in order to make other people’s lives easier. 

It often baffles me that names like Stefanovic and Berejiklian have so easily become part of our vernacular, seamlessly rolling off our tongues and perfectly spelt in every headline.

These days, I usually send a voice note to radio or TV producers before a media appearance, sharing the correct pronunciation of my surname. While making that extra effort can feel exhausting at times, I remind myself of a conversation I had with my parents recently. My surname, Vrajlal, is my late grandfather’s first name. We weren’t close, and I’m not sure if he ever truly understood what I did for work. But I told my parents that I can only hope he’d be proud that his name – and now our family name – is said beautifully on national TV and airwaves. What's a big deal to my family and I may never cross the mind of the Joneses. But it counts, and that's why Leong's post about the Leong dress struck a particular chord with me.

While we all have a name and it’s ordinary in that sense, the beauty of a surname is the utter connection it can hold to our cultural heritage and sense of identity and belonging. When it is celebrated – whether that’s on the label of a dress or a small caption on a TV segment – that in itself speaks volumes. We are being seen and heard for who we are. Finally, we belong.