A Creative Leap

16 May 2016

From art to fashion retail, these Malaysian entrepreneurs took a mid-career leap to pursue their passion.

MyCreative Ventures was set up with the aim of investing in creative Malaysian businesses, from art to fashion, music, design and publishing. For many of the investees, starting a business is a long-term dream – but often, their dream is very different from their day job.

This was certainly the case for Scarlette Lee, founder of Core Design Gallery in Subang Jaya. Scarlette had a successful career as a pharmacist. “But the corporate ladder lost meaning,” she says. Six years ago, she decided to start her own art gallery.

Scarlette had always nurtured an interest in art. As well as painting herself, she had started curating exhibitions while still working full time.

In 2014, Scarlette and her husband Tan Chun Hooi received a loan from MyCreative Ventures and set up Core Design Gallery in their own house. Eventually, Core expanded the gallery across two residential units, and they moved out to their own place.

At first, Scarlette expanded her knowledge of Malaysian art with online research and her own acquaintances. “I had zero knowledge of the art market. But I believed in the younger talents,” she says. With years of persistence, she gained a strong understanding and network.

Today, Core represents leading contemporary artists such as Ali Nurazmal Yusoff, Husin Hourmain and Shafarin Ghani. The gallery holds exhibitions every two to three months.

When she started out, Scarlette felt that the Malaysian art scene did not have enough support for artists. For each exhibition, Core Design Gallery started to produce detailed, hardcover exhibition books. “I wanted to take [the art scene] to the next level,” says Scarlette, who believes this documentation is essential.

“When you work with a talent, you want to develop them, push them. We wouldn’t want to just work with an artist to sell their work – we want to provide a structure, a full career progression.”

In 2013, Scarlette set up Great Malaysian Contemporary Art (GMCA), a booth at the Art Expo Malaysia. The reaction was very positive, she says, showing the strength of local artists from painting to installation and sculpture.  

Scarlette is set on continuing to support Malaysian artists. “If we haven’t built a base here, people will not understand overseas,” she says. “Let the international people come to us. If they can fly to Art Basel and so on, why can’t they come here? The onus is on us. It’s up to many people. People like us, like you, like myCreative Ventures.”

Natasha Navin is another myCreative investee who started her business after a mid career shift. Natasha is the founder of Kooshboo, an eco-conscious brand of children’s clothing. The whimsical outfits in vibrant prints and colours are made with 100% cotton fabrics, and are produced in Malaysia.

Natasha trained in architecture and worked with a leading firm in Malaysia, but left her full time job after having kids. She moved to France for a year, where her husband was studying for an MBA. On her return to KL, she started freelancing.

“At the back of my mind, I wanted to do something on my own and I loved fashion. I found a gap in the market for kids’ clothing. My sister and I said, we’ve been talking about it for years, let’s just do it!”

With some help from her architecture training and her sister Natalia’s legal background, as well as her husband’s business background, Natasha started to research their own business concept. In France, she had been struck by premium children’s brands such as Bonpoint.

“In Australia and Europe, there are so many smaller, homegrown brands, using good quality fabric such as 100% cotton. I wanted to do something like that, but with a more exotic appeal,” says Natasha.

The sisters remember growing up with beautiful clothing made by their grandmother, and this also inspired them. Natasha started by learning about sewing and textiles through an intensive four-month course at Cottage Patch. All in all, she spent two years doing research.

In 2014, Kooshboo entered the MyCreative Ventures Fashion Pitch and was selected as one of the winners. The following year, she applied for Alliance Bank’s SME Innovation Challenge programme, and Kooshboo was shortlisted to the top 20.

Kooshboo started out as a small vendor, with stalls at local bazaars. “But we didn’t want it to be a cottage industry,” says Natasha, who strategised ways to scale up the business. Today, Kooshboo clothes are stocked in boutiques in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the department store chain Robinsons, and various online stores.

The word “Kooshboo” comes from the Hindi word for “fragrance”. Natasha, who is half Indian, was inspired by the fabrics and patterns of India when designing the collection. Every year, Kooshboo releases three seasonal ranges, but all are made for tropical weather.

“Kooshboo is East meets West. We’ve got little girls’ dresses in a classic Western silhouette, but with more vibrant prints. It’s designed to be everyday wear that’s also marketable internationally,” she says. More recently, Kooshboo has also designed a line using batik fabric hand-painted in Malaysia.

Natasha is now in talks with more distributors, and plans to take the brand to more countries. “It’s a very competitive industry,” she says, of children’s fashion. “So you need a strong concept. But more people are starting to support local brands.”

Her advice for those who want to start a business in fashion? “Do lots of Research and Development. People are surprised it took me two years, but it’s not as easy as it looks!”

Are you interested in applying for a loan with myCreative Ventures? Find out more here.

By Ling Low


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