emmagem.com recently caught up with Suryani Senja Alias, the founder and creative director of luxury lifestyle brand, Senijari . Senijari, which combines European design and style with Malaysian was launched in March 2013 to preserve ancient heritage craft through modern design and contemporary use in bags and jewellery. The aim of the social enterprise is to design and market traditional crafts with superior quality and a unique modern twist so as to ensure their sustainability, viability and visibility in today’s world.
Senijari hopes to enable women in businesses by ensuring fair business practises with the traditional craftswomen and artisans which Senijari commissions to provide sustainable income to rural artisans that will then ensure the preservation and viability of their craft. Suryani Senja Alias is also board member of Think City (www.thinkcity.com.my), a company which promotes urban rejuvenation and is responsible for creating and managing a public grants program to promote George Town, Penang as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here is the full email interview, which Suryani shares her entrepreneurial journey with us.
- Please give us some background of yourself and your business, Seni Jari . Please tell us how you got started and what motivated you to begin your entrepreneurial journey.
I am a lawyer by training, however I have been interested in art, culture and heritage from school. In fact, my first choices of subjects to study would have been literature, philosophy, politics and art history if I had done my undergraduate studies outside of Malaysia. I have travelled and lived in Europe, Asia and North America and I was impressed and inspired with what certain countries have done with their cultural heritage through great designs, craftsmanship, packaging and branding like in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Hong Kong, France, Italy, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam. Brands like Jim Thompson, Shanghai Tang, Fab India, Barefoot, Artisans D’Angkor became live business models for me. When I became a trustee on the board of Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah, I started getting more involved with working with textile designers, fashion designers and artisans. After my term ended, I decided that it was time to leave the corporate world and set up my own venture so I that I can have total freedom to carry out the many ideas that have been incubating in my head for the longest time.
- How big is your team currently? How do you source for the product?
My core team is about 4 persons, but all are still not full time except for me! My jewellery, bag and textile designers and workshop staff are still outsourced. I hope that will change gradually and Senijari will be one integrated whole. I am working on having a full time team with partners. Hopefully this year (fingers crossed).
- How involved are you in the creative process?
I am involved from scratch except where the jewellery range is concerned; the jewellery designer is more directly involved and I oversee. That is going to change going forward with our new jewellery collection as I want to tighten up the Senijari “look” and branding. As for the shawls, bags, homeware, I work very closely with the designers and ultimately decide motifs, style, composition, overall look and feel, colours for the collections. The designers are involved in quality control, structure, technical details. We decide on materials together.
- What are some of the challenges when you first started and how did you overcome it?
When I first started, the major challenges were looking for the right suppliers like packaging suppliers and to determine how the brand should look and feel, but after a few recommendations plus a lot of trial and error, we have managed to overcome some initial challenges. These are continuing issues though in the retail business.
- Now that you have been in business for the last three and a half years, have things changed?
Over the last three and a half years, I have realized that social media, marketing and Public Relations need considerable investments and manpower. Things have changed in the sense that there are a lot of local brands out there described as social enterprises and have local content. There is more competition, and so we need to adapt and evolve quickly. There are also copycats! A lot of social media based Malaysian brands sell very cheap products to a mass market, and so it is challenging for higher end local brands to sell in the same small market. But I have also realized that one thing that has not changed is that people still love the personal touch when buying Senijari, and people still think it is unique and associate it with quality and exclusiveness, so that is positive.
- What are the core products under the Seni Jari brand?
Songket and leather combination purses/clutches; silk handwoven Songket shawls; jewellery with Songket fabric; a selection of home products made of handwoven songket including pillows, placemats, runners and artwork.
- And what are the future plans for the brand?
We are exploring a men’s collection with ikat and introduction of new artisanal textiles for my core products, and a new collection of home products. I am also going to start a more personal, unique jewellery line for Senijari with interesting materials. Finally, I am in the midst of setting up a new showroom where Senijari will hold a series of lifestyle, art and cultural events. Watch this space…
- How do you currently market your brand? What are some tried and tested (successful and unsuccessful) techniques that you have done that you would like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Right now, Senijari is marketed, predominantly through private events, pop up stores, Instagram and Facebook. I think it is worthwhile to outsource social media campaigns to professionals and to be consistent with it to strengthen your brand over time. Pop up stores are great as you can get new clients, but you have to be selective and know which type and location suit your brand, or it can be a waste of resource and time but pop up stores at the right location for your brand can get you valuable facetime with clients and potential clients but it can be expensive! So I have found that it is more advisable to be selective, and get the right partners for pop up stores to share the costs and human resources especially sales staff. But private events work best for Senijari. Personally, I prefer this also as it is pleasant for both me and my clients- I get to know clients better, and they can get to know Senijari brand better, you get to control your brand positioning and it is more conducive for sales.
- What books do you have by your bedside currently?
“Disturbing the Peace” by Vaclav Havel; “A Cultural History of the Ottomans” by Suraiya Faroqhi; “The Art of Startup Fundraising” by Alenjandro Cremades.
- What is your motto that you would with entrepreneurs out there…
Be fearless and persevere. But don’t be afraid to ask for help! Failure is a teacher.