An architect’s passion for crafting leather carriers and accessories turns into a fulltime business venture.
AS a child, Ngoo Sze Jie loved to make handicraft. She learnt sewing from her mother and started making accessories from scraps of fabric, for fun.
When she was studying at a university, the hobby continued and progressed to bigger items such as bags, made using canvas and fabric, as well as a few dresses. It even became a part-time business during her semester breaks and she sold these items through her blog in 2010.
After she graduated (with an architectural degree), Ngoo worked for a year in an architect's firm before deciding it was not what she wanted to do. What she wanted was to create bags and accessories and make it a full-time business.
“Initially, I was handling my business while working full-time. But after one year, I realised being an architect was not what I wanted to do anymore. I took up architecture because it sounded interesting. But it is demanding and I could not do what I had dreamt of doing because there were too many constraints. So I decided to fully concentrate on my business. I like to work with my hands and feel the happiness and the satisfaction when I create my own products.”
Though previously her products were of canvas, Ngoo decided to add another element to make them more unique. She wanted to create bags and accessories that combined canvas and leather.
To ensure she had the right skills, Ngoo went to Bangkok, Thailand for an intensive six-day course on working with leather in 2014. She learnt to cut, hand sew, stitch and burnish leather. A year later, she went for another intensive course on machine sewing leather
“I wanted to learn about leather because I believe there is a niche market for products that combine canvas and leather. And there is a difference between hand and machine sewing.
“Because most of the products available here are either fully canvas or fully leather, the combination of canvas and leather makes my brand unique and different and that is my strength. I decided on that combination to make my products look classy.”
In 2014, Ngoo set-up her brand Fourjei selling handcrafted genuine leather and canvas bags as well as lifestyle accessories. Her first products under the brand were sling bags — made with a combination of leather and canvas. It took her one week to design the prototype and one month to complete between 20 and 30 bags, priced at RM115. She also came out with pouches, leather key chains and pen holders.
Knowing that she had to expand her customer base, she took part in a bazaar at the Rantai Art Festival in Lanai Matic, Jalan Ampang. It was the first step towards introducing her products to people who were not be familiar with Fourjei. Since then, she has joined various weekend bazaars in Kuala Lumpur.
“It is a different experience from selling my products online. The online customers are repeat customers and they know my products really well. At bazaars, I get new customers and it also gives me the opportunity to interact with them and get their feedback. Customer feedback is important so I know what they want.
“Last year I made sling bags with handles for laptops but a lot of people thought it was a backpack. I realised that people wanted backpacks for laptops, not sling bags. I had to change the design to follow the demand.”
Fourjei’s products — which are limited editions — include canvas tote bags with leather straps, canvas pouches, leather clip wallets, tassel hooks, leather passport holders, half moon leather bags, soft leather tote bags and triangle leather bags among others.
She also makes leather card holders, clutch bags, canvas messenger bags with leather straps and canvas document bags with leather straps and buckles. The leather is sourced from the United States, United Kingdom, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The brand’s design concept is based on the belief that minimalist products offer high functionality and diversity in terms of usage and go well with smart casual attire and outdoor use.
Ngoo says her inspirations comes from everywhere — from customer feedback and her travels. It can also happen when she looks at the materials and visualises the end product. This, she says, stimulates her creative process.
She describes her brand as simple, minimal, practical and functional. She believes in making sure that the designs are relevant to current trends but at the same time, don't compromise on the brand’s identity.
“I do refer to trends but I don’t follow them totally because I don’t want to become a mainstream designer. I follow a trend just by referring to the style because as a business person, you need to cater for market demand.
“But I don’t believe in fast fashion, where everything is mass-produced, and everything has to go by trend.
“I prefer slow fashion, letting the design process come naturally. I normally produce two series of feature bags a year with more sophisticated designs. Sometimes it is not about creating new products but upgrading and improvising on current designs.”
The price for the canvas tote bags range from RM95 to RM185, leather tote bags from RM390 to RM1,500 and accessories from RM30 to RM185. The popular products are the canvas medium and mini tote bags with straps made of vegetable-tanned leather.
Also popular is the leather tote bag and the Dokument Bag with a genuine leather base and straps that are adjustable. In a month, she comes out with one feature bag — such as the canvas tote, as well as leather accessories.
Ngoo says her prices are based on three things: materials, labour hours and design. The more difficult and time-consuming a product, the higher the price.
“People do ask why my products are expensive. I tell them that they are hand-made items and one-of-a-kind. For example, you won’t find the leather clutch anywhere in the world. It is exclusive and unique to Fourjei.”
“In addition, every product is made from high quality materials. I also monitor the quality of workmanship at every step of production. Before I launch a new product, I do a final check on the strap, stitches, joints and buckle to make sure it's perfect.”
For the time being, Ngoo works from home — her working space is a small area in her kitchen. While she has no plans to set-up a stall or outlet, she is thinking of finding a shophouse to expand her working area and to display her products.
Although she works from home, Ngoo says the production hours are strictly from 10am to 6pm.
After that, she does administrative work — answering emails and sorting the financial aspects. As her work involves hand stitching, she does not want to put in more hours because when she is tired, it affects the quality of her products.
In addition to creating her own products, Ngoo also accepts custom-made orders and to date she has done more than 20 such products. Mainly leather messenger bags, leather totes and sling bags.
“It is always interesting and exciting to create exclusive products for my customers. To see the combination of ideas come alive when the products are completed gives me a sense of achievement.”
As a small and home-based business, Ngoo says she has to ensure her products continue to change in terms of design and style so that the brand stands out. This is because in Malaysia, the handmade industry is not as big as that in the United States or Europe.
“In those countries, their handmade industry is very huge as people appreciate the products because there is value to a handmade item. In Malaysia, people still think handmade items are not worth spending money on. That is one of the biggest challenges for me ... telling people that the price reflects my products which are of high quality.
“That is also the reason I need to up my game. I believe if I keep challenging myself to come out with new and complex products, I will bring the brand to a new level.”