As a young schoolboy, Ryan Lee was always losing his pencil case. This happened so often that eventually his mother decided that enough was enough, and as punishment for his carelessness, he wouldn’t get a replacement case.
Instead of feeling defeated, the then 14-year-old boy decided to sew his own pencil case from scratch.
He then made more pencil cases and eventually moved on to making bags, wallets and card holders. Now 17, he is making and selling leather belts and handbags, and is looking to adding footwear, menswear and women’s wear to his collection soon.
“It really started out as a hobby but unfortunately, it’s an expensive one. In order to sustain it, I had to start selling my products so that I could make enough money to invest in the next project,” says Lee.
“My parents taught me how to do budgeting and costing, and figure out the business aspect of this hobby.”
Lee estimates that his parents had forked out about RM10,000 over the years to help him get to where he is today. Although the equipment is not cheap, Lee says that the bulk of the cost goes to purchasing the leather to make the products.
Initially, Lee bought the leather pieces from a store in SS2 in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, but later decided that it was time to explore other options elsewhere.
“Mother and I went to Taiwan to scout for leather. We did buy some from there, but I think I’m going to start buying the material online from now on. It would be more convenient, and cheaper too, I believe,” says Lee.
Although stitching came easily to Lee, he still pored over the Internet, watching hours of tutorials that helped him sew pieces of leather.
“It’s not easy to stitch leather. You have to find the right grooves, and make the material bend in certain ways. I have poked a needle into my nailbed so many times that there’s a ridge there,” says Lee, showing off his “battle scar”.
As he is still a student, Lee says that he can only focus on his projects during the weekends when he spends up to five hours working away. During school holidays, he can be found holed up at his work station in his home in Shah Alam from morning till night.
Lee goes by the handle @RyanLeeMode on Instagram and gets his school friends to pose with his products.
His friends and their parents are some of his earlier clients.
Lee works based on the orders that he gets, and since he handstitches everything, it can be a long and tedious process to complete just one product.
Lee acknowledges the high price tag on his products (some items even fetch up to RM1,500), but he says it is due to the price of the leather, and sometimes also based on the difficulty of making the custom product.
He is inspired by designer handbags although Lee says that he makes sure to give the products his own touch, to avoid copyright infringements.
Lee credits the late Kate Spade as his inspiration, stating that she’s a self-made bona fide fashion designer whom he aspires to be like in the future.
“She started from the bottom and created an empire. That’s what I want to do as well,” says Lee, who plans to undertake fashion studies in France after he finishes his secondary schooling.
“I’ve been taking French classes to prepare for my studies there. It’s not confirmed that I am going to France, but I would love to see that dream come true,” he said.