This interview was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), July 2016, Volume 11, Issue 2.
It is tough to be in the fashion industry in Singapore. The lack of clientele, contributed in part by a small domestic market and the absence of a locally-based fashion and apparel manufacturing sector, led to a dearth of home-grown fashion labels.
Because of the lack of demand, local designers are unable to manufacture their products in large quantities, leading to upward pressure on the prices of their designs. It paves the way for international labels like Uniqlo, H&M and Topshop to gain an edge in terms of pricing, despite local ones being on a par regarding design and quality.
The outlook for the retail sector is not exactly rosy. Manpower crunch and high rentals have forced fashion retailers to turn to new ways of doing business, i.e., pop-up stores and e-commerce. Even then, these avenues are fraught with intense competition. The internet offers a low barrier to market entry. However, contrary to the economic fundamentals of pricing, there is no indication that prices have declined, although some blogshops are reportedly selling their items at “cutthroat” prices.
However, there are some positive outcomes in the midst of this ‘brutal environment’. The social media is enabling fashion retailers to get noticed more quickly and easily. Some have capitalised effectively on it.
Ms Azrina Tahar is one of them. Being in the market of clothing label for Muslim women is a daunting challenge but the founder of Sufyaa had a plan. She invested heavily in social media and at a time when Facebook was becoming widely used. The followers she garnered from there in 2011 set her firmly on the path to being a fashion designer.
Challenges in the Malay/Muslim market
The Karyawan team spoke to her about the challenges of being in the Malay/Muslim market, her business strategies and her values.
Q: The fashion retail industry was going through a turbulent period when you started in 2011. What prompted you to give it a shot?
A: I was going through a life-changing moment and the difficulty I experienced in buying modest fashion wear for myself led me to believe that there was a market niche. Further probing confirmed my belief that there were unfulfilled needs in the modest fashion market. I found my ‘target audience’ here.
Q: So you managed to find a market niche. But there were a lot of challenges in starting the business and sustaining it. Can you describe a few of the toughest ones?
A: As is the case with most start-ups, finance was the first major hurdle. To keep start-up costs low and to ensure sustainability, I started my own fashion label (now known as Sufyaa), bypassed suppliers and went straight to manufacturers instead.
Q: You were new, had no track record and yet you approached manufacturers. What was your experience?
A: I was turned down by five manufacturers. I didn’t have enough money and couldn’t meet the minimum order quantity to get them to begin production. It took me months before I found a small manufacturer which would accommodate my budget and my small order. This factory was in Guangzhou, China.
Q: Were you already familiar with China at that time? What about the language barrier?
A: My husband was based in China at that time and I was already flying there occasionally to buy stuff. He was the one who first told me that one can get almost anything in China at a fraction of the price elsewhere and encouraged me to go there. But it wasn’t straightforward. To get the necessary information on manufacturers, I had to do my research and keep a sharp eye for details. In my previous 12-year career as a draughtswoman, I learnt basic Mandarin as I needed to communicate with staff at construction sites. It helped me as well.
The Beginning of Sufyaa
Q: You mentioned that your previous job was as a draughtswoman. When you were doing all these – finding a market niche, visiting China and talking to manufacturers – were you still employed?
A: I was still working when I started Sufyaa. I believe in the maxim: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Q: So when exactly did you make that career switch?
A: When I was more assured of the demand for my products and the (inventory) turnover rate was rising quite rapidly, I became increasingly convinced that I could devote my attention to the business full-time
Q: I understand that the social media played a big part in helping you to launch your business. Can you enlighten us, please?
A: Yes, I was using social media myself and I knew that one could reach out an even larger market with it. It gives you mobility as well because you can be at any part of the world and still communicate with your target groups. And the number of social media users was increasing over time, which means reaching out to an increasing number of prospective customers. I got my first customers through the social media and, within a relatively short period of time, Sufyaa had garnered a decent following. I was also fortunate because, at the time I registered my e-commerce website, Sufyaa was one of the first few Malay/Muslim brands. Zalora weren’t around then so there weren’t that many choices for customers.
Q: Moving on, you now have been in the industry for five years now as a fashion entrepreneur. Consumer behaviour changes over time. How do you adapt to it? Can you share a few examples?
A: As Sufyaa progressed, I opened a retail store in addition to my online business and, in 2013, I opened another one. But the following year, I had to close one of them when I realised that the pool of ready buyers was not large enough. There were also other problems. The Malaysian ringgit depreciated significantly, making it even cheaper to buy products from Malaysia. And, in Malaysia, celebrities were used to promote modest fashion wear. An increasing number of them had made lifestyle changes and began donning modest outfits, even in their everyday life. So they became ambassadors of such designs. Given these developments, within the space of two years, I had to make constant changes and I felt it would be best to divert my entire business back online.
I have also invested in full time staff, bringing a manager and a young team to run the business. The Sufyaa brand is already established, but sustaining it requires monitoring market situation and constantly adapting to the changes, something I feel I cannot do alone.
Q: How do you keep generating ideas to make your products relevant to customers?
I do my research, especially when travelling. I study the trends in the countries I visit and have organised expositions in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and London to gauge the response to our designs. There are a sizeable modest fashion customer bases in these cities. We don’t always make the correct interpretations about our clients’ tastes but we learn and adapt.
Support from the national institutions
Q: When you first started your business, did you get support from the Malay/Muslim business fraternity or institutions, for example, in terms of mentoring?
A: When I first started, finding someone in the Malay/Muslim community who could lend support was tough. I was trying to promote my fashion label and needed people to believe in it. I heard from friends, including those overseas, that it was easier for them to get support from members of or institutions in their own community. I went knocking on doors of organisations in our community but to no avail.
I nevertheless believed in my vision and soldiered on. When I applied for an overseas grant with IE Singapore to go to London, a liaison officer got in touch with me and rendered various kinds of support in terms expanding our networks and going regional and global. IE Singapore is committed to bringing us to the next level, keeping regular contact with me to find out how I am doing. Recently, it organised a talk involving a group of Malaysian businesspeople and invited me to network with them. I deeply appreciate it.
So, although I was focusing on the modest fashion wear market targeting Muslims, I am glad to get support from national institutions. SPRING Singapore, for instance, has taken a proactive step in making it known to us that they are there to lend us support whenever we need them – even before we approach them.
I think there is room for Malay/Muslim organisations to play a bigger role in providing support to our entrepreneurs.
Mr Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research arm of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP).
Photo Credit: Ms Azrina Tahar