From small stalls at pop-up markets, entrepreneurs grow big business. This is the case for three popular Malaysian brands – So.lek Cosmetics, Pestle & Mortar Clothing and Kapten Batik.
Each has shown that hard work can take you far in the fashion and beauty industry. The founders have put in the hours selling their products at weekend markets, and are reaping the fruits of their labour. They started small too, with funding from personal savings or a little help from family.
We talk to them about their experience and find out how their humble beginnings at pop-up markets have led to retail success.
Banking On Batik
For friends Farhan Omar and Mohamad Ekram Faiz, starting their own batik label was really a leap of faith. They did not have any fashion background at all, being engineers.
Somehow, the two made it work. With zero experience, they built up their business (which started in 2017) to where it is now. Kapten Batik can now be found in Robinsons, Sogo and Isetan, plus its own standalone flagship store in Publika Shopping Gallery.
The secret? Probably their start at pop-up markets and bazaars in the Klang Valley. It allowed them to grow their brand slowly but surely, and at a pace they were comfortable with.
“We learned step by step to be who we are today. All the different bazaars were great, as they provided a place where we could get to know other homegrown brands and exchange ideas,” Farhan points out.
As it is, the challenge for them was the lack of time and resources. They overcame this by really giving the business their full focus. No longer engineers, they are working full time on Kapten Batik.
“Dedication and hard work in building up the brand is the key to our success,” Farhan states. “Don’t take anything for granted. We have put 110% of our time and energy into the brand.”
Mohamad Ekram says that their very first stall was at TREC KL in September last year. From there, they have diligently promoted their batik shirts to people of all ages.
“From one pop-up to another, we worked really hard to explain to people about our label. I would say we have never missed an opportunity to open a stall whenever it is possible.
“I think pop-up markets are great. The younger generation are drawn to these as they are willing to spend more to support the local brand that can be found at such markets.”
This year marks the ninth year for Pestle & Mortar Clothing. The fashion label is very much a favourite among Malaysian youths. It is also seen as the go-to for local streetwear enthusiasts.
Pestle & Mortar Clothing currently has its own stores (under the name of Major Drop) and can be found in various other independent boutiques, as well as in Robinsons department stores and online.
Yet, according to co-founder Hugh Koh, it all started with just friends and family putting up stalls at weekend markets. It was not easy for the team, but they simply rolled with the punches.
“I still remember a time at Urbanscapes 2011, when it was still at Padang Astaka (in Petaling Jaya), we had to load all our stock onto trolleys and wheel them onto the field where our tent was,” Koh relates.
“So you can imagine when it rains, the field turns to mud and the trolleys don’t really work. Safe to say, we got very good at carrying heavy loads while walking through muddy fields!”
Koh does not forget all the help he has gotten in the past though. He also looks back at those memories very fondly, and now thinks of the challenging episodes as more of an adventure.
“Getting friends to be a part of the sales team was also always fun. Did you know that Henry Golding use to be a part of it all? He was actually a really good salesman,” Koh states.
“In 2010, people used to come with several boxes and bags for a pop-up setup. We however, rolled in with a three tonne lorry of stock and fixtures. We even added the element of music and also different activations into the mix.”
Success aside, Pestle & Mortar is still running stalls at weekend markets. Koh says that it allows them to talk to their customers face-to-face, as well as connect with the “scene”.
“We always jump at the chance to do pop-ups at events like Riuh and Artbox. Whenever we do such activations it gives us a way to reconnect with the people who have supported and will continue to support us all these years.”
It is not just fashion labels that have found their footing at weekend markets and bazaars. Local beauty brands have also managed to jump start their business by selling at pop-ups.
Enter So.lek Cosmetics. Founded by siblings Dahlia Nadirah and Luqman Hakim Juhari, the brand draws from the experience of going on-ground to successfully sell their makeup products.
“The first ever pop-up market that we joined was Pesta Buku four years ago and we learned so much from it. The experience of starting from pop up markets were amazing as we got to know our audience really well,” Dahlia explains.
“What I remembered most was meeting this lady who was quite ‘scary’ at first. She was asking us about our products and ingredients. Being newbies, we were both sweating and stuttering crazily.”
“To gain trust from our customers. I think that’s the most important lesson we learned,” notes Luqman. “It really helps having a presence at these pop-up markets so that we can explain and let them try our products.”
“We think being honest about our products is the take-home message. We have never claimed anything that we are not, especially when it comes to our products being halal certified.”
About 80% of So.lek Cosmetics products are halal certified. The rest are still waiting for the certification.
Dahlia was inspired to venture in this industry when she went to local pharmacies in New York City in 2015 and saw how affordable cosmetics sold there were.
She then roped in her brother to help her out. As a new brand, So.lek Cosmetics aims to give its customers confidence and to also enhance the users’ beauty.
The name So.lek was inspired by two things – alat solek (which means make-up in English) and the words “So? Relax!” – a phrase is often used by the siblings when teasing each other in friendly banter.
As for the logo, it was inspired by the traditional bottle of eye-liner (or “celak”) that was used by their late grandmother. Growing up, the two often watched her putting on makeup.
So.lek Cosmetics can now be found stocked on various online websites, as well as in physical boutiques and stores. Despite that, Dahlia and Luqman are continuing on the pop-up market route.
“We haven’t forget where we started off. We even remember our first ever customer and we still have the first RM100 note that we received from her!” states Luqman.
“The younger generation is the ‘Instagram generation’ and a lot of these Instagram brands would usually participate at these markets. This is also where people can go to try, explore and feel the products they love,” says Dahlia.
Pop-up stalls, back-breaking work to man them as they are, remains the best and cheaper way for brands like So.lek Cosmetics to get their name out and capture a different market from physical stores.
The goal for So.lek Cosmetics is now to conquer the global market. Continuously pushing their brand’s visibility at pop-up markets and on Instagram is one thing, but they are also hoping to go global.
“A big challenge was to gain trust from our customers that local made products are as good as other international brands. Also, we have to stand out. Thus, we decided to go with having the brand filled with 100% Malaysian DNA,” Luqman states.
“It’s not just made in Malaysia but every product, logo even the name is derived from the things that made us proud of being Malaysian. And it has worked very well for us.”