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Wearing Malaysia on Their Sleeve
We speak to Pestle & Mortar about their vision for their brand and what it means for them to grow a Malaysian business.
The two sets of brothers Arnold and Arthur Loh; Hugh and Mark Koh, and Eddie Samad would’ve never gussed that their venture into selling T-shirts at the arts and music festival Urbanscapes 2010 would lead to growing a business that includes a clothing brand, a multi-brand retail store (Major Drop), a magazine (DECK) and a café and boutique called League of Captains in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
As for their flagship brand, Pestle & Mortar – it’s everywhere. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere in the Klang Valley without seeing someone decked out in what has become an icon: the Kuala Lumpur reverse T-shirt. Their demographic is young working Malaysians and college students – urban, well informed and well travelled, they love sourcing for local products and sharing their view and love of Malaysia with the world.
Creative Director Hugh Koh, reflecting on their success at Urbanscapes 2010, says, “That’s when I realised that choosing designs that were representative of Malaysia, such as the Lorong Haji Taib signboard, the reverse Kuala Lumpur script, the ais krim potong, and a sunny side up egg topping off the oft-eaten Malaysian favourite Maggi goreng was the right direction for us.” Other intrinsically Malaysian elements soon emblazoned their T-shirts, like mangosteens, rambutans and the Penang bridge.
So seemingly simple, but these designs have a permanent emotional connection for Malaysians who buy Pestle & Mortar’s clothing. Indeed, soon after, wearing Malaysian made goods became de riguer, with other local brands like Lansi, Rare Clothing, and Obliq, to name a few, appearing on the streets of KL. The rise of these locally made apparel brands have in fact heralded a time, where Malaysian made is the new cool. It is selling a lifestyle through clothing, that becomes representative to a collective identity, as uniquely Malaysian, something almost unheard of just a decade ago.
The question of “Why a clothing brand?” still remains, however. Hugh says that the driving force of starting a clothing brand remained rooted in their experiences growing up around sub-cultures in Kuala Lumpur. Arthur chimes in to say, that he too was inspired by the clothing of his heroes in Metallica, Guns and Roses as well as Led Zeppelin. For Eddie Samad, a self-professed sneaker freak, he names hip hop legends like Beastie Boys and Run DMC for his clothing inspirations. All of these influences are apparent in the brands that feature at Major Drop, their retail store which showcases international brands of note such as Staple, ICNY, Bellroy and The Hundreds.
Eddie and Hugh agree that T-shirts have become a form of cultural communication about who we are and where we come from. “The Lorong Haji Taib T-shirt for example, is absolutely Malaysian in that most adolescent Malaysians would have heard of its notoriety at some point, and gone to visit,” he laughs. The designs are reflective of the personality of Pestle & Mortar’s founders too. They are interestingly without a hint of irony, which in an age of casual indifference and the perpetual grumblings of hipsters taking over, is refreshing. Its offerings strike a certain balance between embracing one’s origins, but with a quirky twist. Leggings printed with dim sum morsels are a good example.
The Pestle & Mortar guys claim traveling has opened their eyes to many new experiences and a fresh way of seeing the world. “We are really fortunate to be able to travel, and through these journeys we’ve seen how different aspects of how clothing communicates the identity of certain locations and countries,” says Hugh.
“I don't think we can really define Malaysia, for example. Or Malaysian values for that matter. I often wonder if there is even such a thing,” Eddie surmises. Arthur and Eddie agree. “For us, our brand tries to transcend just that. Not really in a box. Malaysian made, to me, means made with pride,” says Arthur. He goes on to mention that even after five years in he business, it still gives him butterflies when he sees people wearing Pestle & Mortar. “I ended up talking to these four guys on a flight, who were all decked out in our T-shirts. It was a surreal moment, but I enjoy that. I love talking about the brand, and telling our story.” Arthur chimes in saying with the brand’s growth in the past years, they’ve seen the brand beguile their most loyal of customers into becoming permanent Pestle & Mortar staff. Passion and dedication seem to flow between them when they speak about the brand story. Hugh discloses he loves the work they do so much, he’s even tattooed the brand on his thigh.
With 45 staff nationwide, four physical stores, and four counters, there is some level of anxiety that motivates them. “It’s not really easy to sit down and rest, because we now have this Pestle & Mortar family, and mouths to feed! We have to work harder, but yet keep designing for ourselves and staying true to the origins of the brand,” says Hugh. The challenges thus far are always to cater to the changing trends and styles in Malaysia, the region and internationally, without losing brand identity.
“A recent trip to Las Vegas for the acclaimed industry trade show, AGENDA was inspiring. It really opened my eyes to how far we can take Pestle & Mortar, and the myriad ways in which the brand can grow. For me it’s become that we don’t want to aspire to be American brands, but rather for there to be a day where these brands aspire to be Malaysian,” says a passionate Hugh. And this is a distinct possibility. With 140 styles produced a year, and over 400 since they started five years ago, and 100,000 pieces of clothing since they started, Pestle & Mortar appears to be a homegrown brand to be reckoned with.
Branching out into other projects, the group discusses DECK, the magazine they’ve started, to profile other people in the industries they appeal to such as the arts, music and sports. Mark explains that they’ve also looked into giving back to the community with their own social and community initiatives, such as becoming the garment sponsor for AWAM’s (All Women’s Action Society, a Malaysian NGO committed to ending violence against women) white ribbon campaign for three years running and donations from sales going to World Vision, a humanitarian aid organisation.
Future plans include listing Pestle & Mortar, and looking into more conscious methods of garment production, but plans are undefined. “I won’t get into that right now, but we do have more plans for these efforts in the coming years,” says Hugh.
“Ultimately, we want to show the world what Malaysia is capable of,” is a line in a descriptive text on the Pestle & Mortar website. With the good reputation the group has garnered in such a short time, for a homegrown product that creates an emotional resonance and loyalty with its customers both local and international, we’d say Pestle & Mortar has done just that.
By: Michelle Gunaselan
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