Creative Entrepreneurs Marching To Their Own Beat
Photography by Kah Mun/Myth Studio; grooming by Asaki Yok
The rise of digital technology in recent years has sparked an explosion of talent, enterprise and express avenues to reach a wider audience. While many are more focused on discovering the most effective use of the online technology, chasing the next biggest digital trend or platform, and reaching their audience and goals the soonest possible, there remain a few who are less fazed by the rush and more passionate about pursuing a specialty in their own skin, at their own pace; creating something with their own two hands and sharing the fruit of their labour with a smaller audience of likeminded individuals, all the while embracing the digital revolution as it comes. Amidst the present youth in Malaysia who are putting in that personal, human touch and proud to call it “Made in Malaysia” or “Home-made”, here are five in the business of style and grooming, namely Dr. Ahmad Syahid Mohd Fadzil of Masa Horlogerie; barber and creator of the pomade Mentega, Kevin Cottie Tan; fashion entrepreneurs Bryan Lim and Ethan Curzon of Obscr; and couturier to watch Brian Khoo. In the following pages, the five individuals talk about the philosophy behind their enterprises and doing it on your own.
DR. AHMAD SYAHID MOHD FADZIL
The love for watchmaking has been with Dr. Syah since he was seven, who, back then, would open up his dad’s watches and attempt to repair them. While his peers were happily sporting the latest G-Shock and Swatch, the curious child was into learning about Swiss mechanical watchmaking and reading up on the Rolex precision. Today, a medical professional in Cardiology, Dr. Syah is founder to his very own Swiss-made watch brand, Masa Horlogerie, following years of juggling both his medical studies and work, as well as watchmaking apprenticeship under a mentor. The business is a collaboration between him and a longtime Malaysian friend who, along with his family, runs a watchmaking facility in Switzerland, and has since participated in the 2016 KL Fashion Week opening gala and Starhill Gallery’s A Journey Through Time. What makes the collection a highly personal and exclusive one, though, is that Dr. Syah has deliberately kept production to very limited pieces, and prefers to engage his customers in a more direct, one-to-one interaction through Instagram and meeting them in person. Despite being Swiss-made, Dr. Syah is determined to showcase the brand’s Malaysian origins through innovative yet tasteful use of cultural and heritage features including songket and traditional motifs.
How are you using new media to your advantage?
We’re particularly active on Instagram because it’s a borderless community where you can reach anyone on it and pique the audience’s curiosity in the absence of a retail store. There are those who are suspicious of our authenticity, but I normally consider myself an antithesis. Social media used to be a taboo for luxury brands, but by the time I started Masa Horlogerie, it has become the standard channel of information and Instagram has been particularly suitable for my business. It engages the viewers at a level much higher than other channels. It’s about the lifestyle and feel it creates when someone is using the product.
It's amazing to see elements of the Malaysian identity in your brand and products. Tell us about this innovative move.
Our unique style is our use of cultural and traditional elements like our songket on the strap and a rendition of our country’s coat of arms in our logo, as well as the Indian Kolam, etc. We are a melting pot of cultures who can merge and be very unique. It’s my way of sharing the Malaysian heritage with the world and injecting our story into a very traditional European industry.
One would never have guessed that you’re both a watchmaker and a doctor.
I’ve noticed two ways of going about business in this digital age – the first are the ones who have the money and just go for it; the other, they really learn about the business and the craft, going for courses and talks. Masa Horlogerie is both of that – we capitalise on what we have with our knowledge and passion, especially when consumers are becoming more savvy. They know how to spot and appreciate knowledge and passion, and personal touches, and not just the brand.
BRYAN LIM & ETHAN CURZON
Despite coming from very different backgrounds—Ethan, a DJ with a degree in PR and one-half of the popular duo BATE; Bryan, a fine-art photographer - the two, who first met through mutual friends during college time, was brought together in a meeting of two minds by their shared interest in fashion. Together, they launched Obscr, a sports-inspired menswear label that combines Ethan’s taste in street style, Bryan’s fondness for the sporting arena, and both of the twosome’s propensity for the cool and the edgy. With the belief in mind that design is by nature sophisticated, and inspired by the ambiguous, curious, mixed-breed aesthetic of their designs, the duo settled on the name “Obscr” (an abbreviation of “Obscure”) for their label. Introduced in late 2015, Obscr is slated to make its presence felt in Japan in the form of a pop-up store in Harajuku, Japan this March, along with a special collaboration with a Japanese football fashion brand.
Obscr's sports-inspired style and edgy, unvarnished look and feel are both a breath of fresh air to the local fashion industry and an unconventional choice amongst Malaysians. Has it been exciting/challenging to break into the market here?
E: That’s actually what we face; we have friends telling us that we should be using professional models, etc, but to us, we just like having average people in our look books and campaigns, friends of ours, some who have never even been on a shoot in their lives prior to us.
B: We try to stay authentic to what we believe in. We use people who are not necessarily from the industry. Anyone can wear our brand.
E: We look for people who actually like the brand and wear the clothes on their own initiative.
Tell us about the creative dynamic of this partnership?
B: We come up with the theme together. The brand is essentially sports-inspired ready-to-wear, infused with other elements.
E: For example, the jacket I was wearing (pictured in photo), the idea behind is military-football. Football is obviously the biggest sport in the world. And military adds a touch of utility ruggedness. Yet, both are created with body movement and function in mind. So we actually Googled what people were wearing to play football during Word War time.
B: As much as everyone in fashion is adhering to trends, we on the other hand want to focus more on the research, revisit the past and find out what people were wearing, and when we see something that we like, we give it our own interpretation for today’s use.
Do your individual backgrounds in music and photography play a role in your designs?
E: Fashion and music work hand in hand. In the DJ world today, fashion is very prominent. Clubbers these days look at what DJs are wearing on stage. As a DJ performing, I get to see what my audience is wearing and take note of new styles.
B: Fashion came to me more like a form of expression of personal taste, identifying the things that I like and piecing them together with something else and turning it into something different, something of your own. It’s very fulfilling to create something from scratch as opposed to a template. I was brought up to believe that we should be creators. If you want to do something on your own, you might as well go all the way, the whole nine yards. Trained in fine-art photography, I shoot our own look books and campaigns, in a style that I hope will inspire curiosity. When you do something conceptual, you get people to start thinking and talking about the photo.
KEVIN COTTIE TAN
THE OVEN CUTTERY
Originally a journalist at The Star, Kevin Cottie Tan runs a barbershop these days and sells pomades hand-made by none other than the man himself under the label Mentega. The creation of Mentega was spurred on by his frequent use of pomade and the high prices charged by mainstream brands for a limited amount. On average, he would finish a jar in three to four weeks. Since discovering the recipe to making his own, Kevin has stopped purchasing hair products from another and started selling his own brand of soft, buttery pomade, hand-made with love and almost double the amount of the average quantity. Meanwhile, Kevin’s barbershop The Oven Cuttery at Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya, which also doubles up as his pomade workshop, allows him to apply a complete experience of men’s grooming on a multitude of customers, experiment on different hair types and, in turn, gain first-hand feedback and a closer relationship with his customers.
What was your research and development process like, and where do you intend to go from here?
It was tough back then. I remember formulating late into the early morning of 5am to 6am. Then I had to go back to cutting hair at 10am. The near future is really to just grow the product line for men. In addition to hair products, I’ll be releasing facial hair products in the coming months. The whole point of starting my own place, The Oven, is to be able to make my products and cut hair at the same time, so it’s like offering fresh-out-of-the-oven products and services. I would like to keep everything handmade. Real people making real products.
How does the digital platform complement what you do?
I spent a few days creating my own website, and then realised that I can run the business from A to Z online. My booking is done online for haircuts, so I don’t even need a receptionist. All my e-commerce for the product is automated by my website. Fridays are usually when I make my products. I spend the rest of the days cutting hair.
There’s a very local feel to Mentega. Please elaborate on its origin and concept.
I wanted to produce products that contain a larger quantity so that people can use it for a longer time. That’s the value I’m giving my customers. One day, on a plane, reading the in-flight magazine, I came across the brand Bottega Veneta, which to me sounded a lot like “mentega”, and when I put two and two together, I was like, ok, I think I got what I want to call it. Even though it’s a Malay word, it’s not hard for people or foreigners to pronounce. The concept behind The Oven is that after every haircut, you’ll get a hot towel and massage, a system which I created to help customers relax. It’s like what people say - the human touch. A massage can really give people a lot of relief and therapy, and they feel your energy. So that’s really important to me, to provide handmade products and services, channeling the good vibes.
Graduated in Australia and interned in Dior, Paris, Brian has only been back in Malaysia for less than two years following a six-month stint in China and already the industry is touting him as amongst the new generation of top designers to watch. His designs blend feminine elegance and classic styles with provocative and dramatic concepts, and, at times, an element of surprise. Despite the positive response to his work, the up-and-coming designer maintains a humble attitude and insists that he needs more time and space to hone his skills, find his style and build a solid foundation before going out with an official bang or participate in a major fashion week. On his journey thus far, Brian said, “An important thing that I’ve learned so far is, don’t take shortcuts, learn from mistakes and change for the better. I wasn’t thinking too much when I realized that China wasn’t for me and made the decision to move back to KL. Upon returning, I decided to just get myself going again and, together with my assistant, we launched over 30 looks for my first collection. I just didn’t expect the feedback from the industry to be so positive. So my motto - just follow your guts and do it."
What was the most valuable lesson you gained from your time at Christian Dior Couture Paris?
Meeting the staff at the atelier where all the designs and garments are produced was the most inspiring experience. That’s where all the magic happens. You may be a good designer, but if you don’t have a strong team, no matter how great your concepts are, the clothes just won’t come out looking as good. I really got to see how they work together, think as a team and communicate with one another, in what is in fact a very long process from initial sketching to embellishment.
What inspires you and who is your intended audience?
My clothes are designed for strong, independent, open-minded women, who dare to be different and explore a new interest/style, unfazed by what people say. Music inspires me; the beat, rhythm and melody often set the mood for me, and trigger images, colours, characters and narratives in my head. For one of my collections, I was inspired by Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman, where she used her natural sensuality to unstoppable effect, capturing the attention of any man she desired.
What made you return to KL and where do you plan to go from here?
I have felt better since I came back. My family’s here. You want to start somewhere you feel safe, comfortable and at ease, where you can focus on finding yourself and fostering your skills and creativity. Going forward, I plan to expand into a wedding collection, a Raya collection, and perhaps even menswear, in which I lack the skills now, but am learning as I go along.