In a rare interview granted by the publicity shy Miss Pat Liew, the founder of BritishIndia, we found her looking fresh and energetic at 8pm in the evening at her designer office cum warehouse which houses 300 over staff. Pat who is in her sixties, looks and certainly have the energy of a woman ten years younger. A usual day for her ends at 8pm and it is not unusual for her to be pottering on the sales floor on any one of her numerous stores in the country and also in Jakarta and Singapore. So, the next time you are shopping inside a BritishIndia shop don’t be surprised if an elegant lady starts making some very useful suggestions on your choices as she is often known to do. Her brand, BritishIndia is currently embroiled in a legal battle with a major mall in Kuala Lumpur. Loyal fans and friends have been brimming with indignation at the injustice served to a Malaysian brand that has been a stalwart of Malaysian scene. Well known blogs of even outspoken politicians have criticised the mall for what was seen as unfair termination of contract. Miss Pat Liew as she is commonly addressed is candid on her stand.
BritishIndia recently became the recipient of the Asia Council of Fashion Designers’ ( ACFD ) inaugural “Fashion Brand of the Year” award recently at one of Malaysian high society’s most anticipated annual fashion events, the Mercedes Benz STYLO Fashion Grand Prix Gala 2015. The award was presented in recognition of the international Asian brand’s outstanding achievements and contributions to the Asian fashion industry.
There is much to be learnt from a lady who not only started an internationally known brand but also someone who in her earlier days as Merchandising and Fashion Director at Metrojaya was probably responsible in setting the standard of Malaysian fashion then and the standard as we know it today. We snared an email interview and also some insights into her newly opened Ngee Ann store that glows in indigo blue against the marble whites that has been the hallmark of BritishIndia stores.
1) How did you start a brand like BritishIndia?
It was a turning point in my life. At the age 43, walking away from a well-loved job of 15 years as Merchandising and Fashion Director, there was no other choice but to make a come-back, on my own terms, but also on my own. My determination to make a fresh start was born from the outrage of the insensitivity and callousness of my employers toward my staff and myself. In an odd way, the outrage energised me.
My five early BritishIndia staff started work with me immediately, dressed in t-shirts and shorts, in a makeshift office which was a house still in the process of being completed, mortgaged to provide funds for this dream. The work was unending, a continuous series of setting goals and meeting deadlines. With my wonderful team and a crazy architect, we accomplished the impossible. We opened EIGHT outlets in FOUR months, across Malaysia and Singapore. It was absolutely doing whatever needed to be done, including painting stores late into the night.
To start they say is easy but to sustain a brand successfully for so long (twenty years) is no mean feat, what do you think was the secret of your success and if you could, could you please share with us?
Developing a brand from ground zero takes more than just time. It takes tremendous commitment to nurture its growth. It is a long journey in forming its culture and building a tradition.
I like working with people who have passion and commitment. To know better, one needs to struggle deeper – that’s what passion and commitment is about. This is a very emotional business. I love what I do, and I’m as excited about this today as when I was 40 years ago.
With over 300 staff to oversee, designing six different collections, five times a year, I find it both sometimes impossibly hectic but absolutely exhilarating. All has to be done on schedule, to the highest standard, and to the finest detail. The fashion industry sets a punishing pace but the field holds no more surprises for me. I’m always prepared. Anything can happen during production and we have to act almost instantly as the fashion industry waits for no one. It’s a challenge that we face all the time.
Turning a vision into reality needs serious commitment but crucially, you need to have undivided support from those around you and they were all there for me: my husband, with his unquestioning belief, and a whole array of friends kept me focused on my journey, in particular, I have the deepest gratitude to the late Yasmin Ahmad who produced the first BritishIndia advertisements which went on to win a clutch of industry awards. All these incredible, wonderful people, too many to name, kept me going. Their belief in me was both energising and uplifting. It sustained me.
What are some key challenges of retail brand building in Malaysia and Asia, do you think?
The biggest challenge has been to identify and attract a sufficient number of creatively talented people of the calibre needed to develop and grow the brand we have today. From humble beginnings with only a handful of people we have finally managed, after 20 years, to build an impressive pool of talented people dedicated to taking the company to the next level. The first 15 years in this development, however, was very challenging indeed.
Also, a lot of young people are always in a hurry. In this line, you need the time and patience to hone your skills and to work with an experienced mentor who can help and guide you. Talent alone is not enough. A lot of talented people fail because they don’t understand the business.
Being a stalwart of the Malaysian retail scene, what are some major changes that you have seen in recent years?
I can think of a few major changes. First, there has been a large number of foreign brands coming into the country. Second, there has been a shift from traditional retail to online sales being offered by both local and foreign brands. Third, startup businesses are now quite common with the help of social media platforms like Instagram and Etsy.
These businesses come and go but it is the staying power that’s important. Everyone has to come from somewhere, but they need to have the resilience and commitment to keep going. I think these are good developments that enriches the industry and the people who are in it.
There has not been that many iconic brands of your longstanding in Malaysia, why is that, do you think?
I have been doing this all my life. Building a brand is from ground zero and is a long, long journey. Its takes tremendous commitment to nurture its growth forming its culture and building a tradition. We have to keep motivating and regenerating ourselves to be the best. We spent hundreds of thousands of
dollars to keep ourselves updated – both in terms of product development and store image.BritishIndia has always been a lifestyle brand that caters to a certain category in the market, whilst there have been forays into home and yoga retreat clothes.
6. Will there be changes in the target market like a younger age group for instance. What are some future plans if you would share with us?
just b is BritishIndia’s little sister which targets a younger age group. Today, there are five just b stores across the Klang Valley.
We also have a brand new project – The White Elephant which I like to refer to as retail charity. The project was kickstarted by us donating our old but all new, never worn samples and all proceeds go to the needy. I would like to contribute to as many charities as possible, as they are all worthwhile causes which need funds. However, as resources are still limited, I am trying to stay focused on a fully equipped physiotherapy room for the mentally disabled and physically handicapped to make our contribution sustainable in the long term.
BritishIndia is currently taking a lawsuit against a well known mall in KL, but what is your general opinion of the current retail market scene in Malaysia and also the number of malls that are cropping up? Has the recent event changed your perspective and passion for retail?
I think the shopping mall scene in KL is oversaturated. The population is not big enough to warrant the number but more importantly, there are not enough good malls with focused planning on target audiences and differentiating themselves. On the positive side, I see it as an incubator for locals to start up their businesses.
The recent event has not changed my perspective and passion for retail. In fact, it has made me more determined. It is not about my rights, but about what is right. I believe that businesses have a duty to make a stand against any injustice and violation of rights. We are scrupulously careful that we conduct ourselves in the most fair, reasonable and ethical way. My natural instinct when we meet with any gross unfairness, is to defend and protect. BritishIndia being seen as a business that upholds a culture of fairness and fair-play is very important to me. We do not bully, but we also will not be brow-beaten.
What is your personal opinion on the Malaysian brand development and what could be more, better or different do you think?
Speaking from my own experience, it is tough to build a brand from ground zero in Malaysia because, as a small country, the market is small. To truly grow, the business needs to export. And to be able to do that, you really have to put in the quality and standard to be able to compete at a global / international arena.
There is tremendous advantage that countries and their businesses can derive by creating apositive brand image. In Asia, which is traditionally known for low-cost and low quality image, it can benefit and change that perception by creating strong country brand which in turn give a ‘halo’ effect to the country.
Our government and Prime Minister has taken initiative to educate and encourage Malaysia companies to build successful brands. The policies are there but like most policies, its a function of translation and proper implementation. Sometimes you have instances where the left hand is not doing what the right hand wants.
What would be your advice to aspiring brand owners that are cropping up like mushrooms?
To the younger generation who are thinking of starting their own businesses – be humble and have an open mind. Don’t be afraid to work, even starting at the lowest level. In short, you need to have lots of energy and resilience, and commit fully to what you are doing.
And to those who think they have a particular flair or talent for the designing business, a reminder – talent is important, and you can even become a star overnight, winning an award for example, but it rarely sustains for the longer term. Learning the craft of designing and understanding the way of business takes time, and you must also find someone who’s willing to guide you.
What books are by your bedside at the moment?
Health, well-being and spiritual books.
You look incredibly youthful, what’s your secret?
I play doctor to myself, my loved ones, and even my staff. Sometimes I get ignored but it doesn’t stop me! I don’t smoke or drink; I eat healthily, exercise and try to keep a good balance.
I like cooking and experimenting with health foods and entertaining my friends with intimate dinners at home. Cooking is my way of de-stressing and keeping me happy at home. I prefer doing this to going out and partying.