A few years ago, graphic designer Koh Yung Shern, 25, got tired of looking around for hip-hop streetwear. Everything was either low in quality, or high in price.

So what is a creative, enterprising young hip-hop fan to do in such a situation? Easy. You design (and wear) your own streetwear.

Koh started out by designing his own trucker caps, buying plain caps and putting his own artwork on them.

Soon enough, Koh’s business sense kicked in. In 2010, he decided to design and sell his own range of fitted caps, and that’s when local streetwear brand Lansi was born.

“Lansi means arrogance in Chinese, but I prefer to see it as confidence, and hip-hop style is all about looking confident,” explained Koh.

The brand quickly became popular among fans of hip-hop style, expanding into a full range of clothing, including T-shirts, jackets and accessories which were all sold online.

But Lansi is far from the only local streetwear brand finding success in the Klang Valley. Brands like Pestle & Mortar, White Rabbit, The Deciders, Hom Hom and Showroom have all followed a similar model as Lansi, and are all starting to make Malaysian-made streetwear fashionable.


How do they do it?

Pestle & Mortar started out very much the same way as Lansi, with four friends – Hugh Koh, 27; Arnold Loh, 27; Arthur Loh, 24; and Mark Koh, 31 – deciding to design and produce the clothes they wished they could buy.

They came up with the designs themselves, sent them to manufacturers overseas (where the cost is lower) and sold their products online; just like all the other popular streetwear brands.

“As students back then, the only option we had was either to buy something really expensive, or to get fake stuff. It was price vs. quality,” said Arnold. “So we thought, why not just make the clothes ourselves, and make a business out of it at the same time?”

In just a year and a half, Pestle & Mortar were doing well enough to set up their own physical store in Subang Jaya, Selangor. Even then, Hugh says for a local independent streetwear brand, online is still the way to go.

“When you’re selling online, you’re actually reaching more people,” said Hugh. “Everyone’s on social media. That’s where we do our marketing.

“Thanks to social media, we receive orders from all over the country. We get a lot of orders from Penang and surprisingly, Terengganu and Perlis. We’ve even had orders from Australia!”


Why streetwear?


The term streetwear came about in the 80s, mainly to describe the clothes people wore for “street games” like skateboarding, BMX and surfing. Now the term is widely used to describe urban youth fashion.

But why are local streetwear brands proving so popular with young Malaysians right now, considering all the international brands we have in our malls?

For Hugh, it’s a shift in mindset that’s helping independent businesses like Pestle & Mortar.

“People are more open to buying local products now. The quality and design offered by local clothing labels are very good, and probably of the same standard as international brands,” he said.

Ady Azrul, founder of The Deciders, concurs.

“Two years ago, if you gave people a choice to buy a local product or an imported product, they’d probably go for the latter, because of the mindset that it is better,” said Ady. “When they hear the word ‘local’, they get put off right away.

“But it is different now, people are starting to believe more in local products, both in terms of quality and design. And it is because we really give them the best.”

The “#Lokalah” hashtag, used to express support for Malaysian-made products (particularly independent businesses like streetwear labels), even trended on Twitter once, according to Arnold.

Another reason why local streetwear brands are so hot right now, according to Hugh, is exclusivity. Pestle & Mortar used to print only around 60 to 100 pieces of each design. These days, the most they’ll do is still 200 to 300 – and even then everything usually gets snapped up.

“What makes street wear different from other global brands is that we target a niche market, so you’ll hardly see anyone walking down the street wearing the same thing,” he said. “There’s an exclusive element to it.”

Darren Chew, 33, co-founder of Showroom, a pioneer streetwear store in Malaysia, emphasises that streetwear is about more than just cool designs.

“Streetwear is all about the attitude. It looks cool, but it also has quality in both material and design. And on top of that, it is limited!” said Chew, who also runs other streetwear stores such as Heavy Weight, Hundred%, and Stussy KL in Kuala Lumpur.


Giving the best

Starting a local streetwear brand isn’t as easy as it sounds.

“We had to do a lot of research throughout the process,” said Ady. “We had to study fabrics, materials, fashion design, business management and a lot of other stuff.”

Regular travelling is also part of the job for streetwear label owners.

“We go overseas a lot to be in touch with our manufacturers and to learn from them,” said Ady, who just two months ago opened his first physical store together with another streetwear label, Hom Hom, founded by skateboarder Noor Haizan, 29.

White Rabbit founder Benjamin Teoh, who runs his label while working full-time as a marketer, says the business can get very stressful and tiring.

“Handling the entire operation – and the creative process – can get really crazy, because I’m doing it all on my own. It’s just me,” he said. “I do everything from designing and printing to taking orders and delivery. And I also have to constantly communicate with my manufacturers.

“But at the end of the day, it’s still my passion, so I love doing it.”

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