In anticipation of the forthcoming H-Artistry that’s to take place at MIECC on Saturday 8 October ‘16, JUICE spoke with a pair of collaborators who are tapped for a special project for the event. Pestle and Mortar Clothing’s co-founder and creative director Hugh Koh is to create the ambiance of a designated room while PS150’s co-founder and head bartender Angel Ng is in charge of creating a cocktail, of course. Here, we learn more about the two creative entrepreneurs’ respective careers and businesses as well as the process of working with each other for H-Artistry.
Hugh Koh of Pestle and Mortar Clothing
From T-Shirts to a Lifestyle
It is an undisputed fact that Pestle and Mortar Clothing is one of the most well-known and established streetwear brands in the country. It started with those still-perennial pocket tees, and now it has expanded exponentially to streetwear store Major Drop, a café at The Row called League of Captains, and even a lifestyle publication by the name of The Deck. The business has survived for six years now, and it continually grows in spite of the inevitable challenges of being in a fickle business where the game of relevance is king. One of the ways they’ve sustained brand recognition is by getting big names such as Skrillex and Steve Aoki to don their merchandise – international marketing and promotion sorted. JUICE speaks with co-founder and creative director of the brand, Hugh, on striving to be the best in the region as well as breaking through internationally, and establishing a brand that you can incorporate into your day-to-day life.
What has been the biggest triumph and challenge for you personally since starting Pestle & Mortar Clothing?
Staying relevant. In this current day and age, styles and trends are changing overnight; conventional brands are suffering because of this. In our company, we highly believe in a saying, “Adapt or die!” As a creative director, it’s my job to ensure the brand still sticks to the original DNA and yet continues to innovate and create – this is extremely challenging.
As creative director and co-founder, what are some of the issues you’ve strived to improve in the business over the years?
Customers are everything to us. Without them, these six years would not be possible. Building loyalty is difficult especially in today’s world. People are always looking for the best deals. We’ve been very lucky to have a handful of loyal supporters. Pestle & Mortar Clothing is more than apparels, it is a lifestyle. We communicate this message to our customers through all our channels and will continue to improve and do so.
Did you always have the ambition to make PMC one of most recognisable names in Malaysia and in the SEA region?
Most definitely! Our tagline is “Pride of Southeast Asia”, being one of the pioneers in this region, we aim to gain recognition from the rest of the world and put SEA on the map. We also aim to be a prime example to others. Pestle & Mortar Clothing is derived from an idea of having fun and creating something that all Malaysians can call their own. We want people to take that leap and make it happen!
We noticed that PMC has participated in a number of international expos and such in the past. Is the international market the next frontier for the business?
Being called an international brand means having presence around the world. America, to us, has always been the hub for streetwear and therefore it has always been on the list. This, of course, has been challenging but over the past year, we’ve managed to open a few accounts in that region, so we are far from giving up.
A number of big international names have been spotted with PMC apparel such as Skrillex and Steve Aoki. The marketing intention is clear but is it a difficult process to get the clothing to these celebrities?
A lot of these opportunities are because of luck and also by knowing people. In today’s world, it boils down to contacts, contacts, contacts! The industry’s fairly small and therefore someone you know probably knows another someone who knows a celebrity. It’s really a hit and miss thing.
Other than PMC, there’s Major Drop, The Deck, and League of Captains under Pencil Produce. Why did you want to venture into creating a lifestyle publication and a café?
One of our end goals is to become SEA’s largest street culture company. We’re always looking for opportunities that sit in line with the business we run, take example, our café. I personally used to spend a lot of time hanging out and working in cafés. I have always loved my coffee and therefore when the opportunity arose, we seized it. By owning this space, it also enabled us to build communities around things we all love. We tend to dwell onto things that fit within our lifestyle.
You’ve been paired up with Angel Ng to collaborate for H-Artistry. We understand you’ll be overseeing the interior design of a room. Can you explain the details of what can be expected of the room during the event?
As a designer, I always believe every design should have a story to tell. I approached this project with the story of being a very proud Asian/Malaysian, and wanting to tell people a story about my homeland. Being in fashion, we use apparel as our communication medium and you can expect to see a sea of t-shirts. Design is also a two-way process, so part of the installation will also allow people to contribute to it.
How was the experience of collaborating with a bartender on this project?
Angel is very cool! I’ve always admired her as a bartender. It helps that she shares the same sentiment of drawing inspiration from her surroundings. A lot of her drinks, and even her bar, have a lot of Asian influences, which made our ideas clicked immediately. Very much like me, she is also extremely passionate about the work she does. It is not every day you can collaborate with talent from a completely different field and therefore I am extremely fortunate.
How much of an input did you have when it came to Angel’s cocktails? Did you guys work together to ensure there was a level of cohesion between the cocktail and the interior design of the designated room?
Most definitely. Even though each of us mostly focussed in our designated areas, however we still spent time together sharing our ideas and gathering each other’s thoughts on how we could improve. It is always important to get an outsider’s opinion as they are able to provide you with a completely new perspective on things.
Angel Ng of PS150
Era-specific Cocktails in Chinatown
Behind one of the hottest hidden bars in KL, PS150, is co-founder and head bartender Angel Ng. She has been in the bar and beverage industry since her college days in Singapore and ventured back into the bartending gig professionally in 2012. Since then, Angel has amassed multiple world-class championships and started using her extensive knowledge to manage bars, providing consultation services as well as bar training. The deficit in cocktail education here propelled her to establish the first cocktail bar in Chinatown where it serves a rotating menu of era-specific cocktails with a twist of Asian ingredients. JUICE speaks with Angel about the true meaning of a speakeasy, what makes a contemporary cocktail, and alcohol as a way to will the inner child in a person.
Where did you get the idea to base PS150’s cocktail menu with five distinct eras of cocktail history from?
One of my favourite subjects on bar and beverage is anthropology and history of alcohol consumption. Naturally, one of the topics is the eras after 1850s when bartenders started publishing their recipe books. It’s really interesting to see how the human palate has evolved and what ingredients were the norms at the time compared to now. This was a great way to introduce and educate consumers that there is no such thing as a perfect cocktail – one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
Did the idea of opening the bar in Petaling Street come before or after your idea to create era-specific cocktails?
The idea came after obtaining the shop lot in Petaling Street. You don’t get to choose what concept you want till you find the space. The building itself is the story. You work within what the area has to offer. This is one of the theories my partners and I strongly agreed on. One can have a decision of what type of establishment it is going to be, whether it is a wine bar, café, dive bar or craft beer bar, but the final concept can only be done after paying rental deposit.
There are some distinct characteristics for each era cocktail. But obviously, we’re still living in the contemporary era and you’re probably still experimenting with contemporary flavours. What are some of the basic elements people can look out for in a contemporary cocktail though?
Contemporary is also known as Classic-Revival. Bartenders are reviving forgotten classics and adding their own character into it, which is what we do in PS150. Homemade syrups, puree, infusions are known in contemporary-era along with molecular cocktails too. Contemporary means experimenting with products that one would never expect. Pushing the boundaries using vegetables, roots, cooking spices, and even cigar smoke! As you put it perfectly, we are experimenting.
You’ve stressed that PS150 isn’t a speakeasy, even though it’s hidden behind a toyshop. As the distinction clearly holds a significance, could you explain the reasoning behind it?
Speakeasy started because booze was illegal, which means the bars are usually quiet, loud noise is discourage, only by word of mouth and there is no way you can view into the bar. We have broken all rules on speakeasy. Our signboard is actually at the toyshop, which is a big no-no if one should call themselves speakeasy. Secondly, our address, inclusive of the unit number, is on social media, website, and publications. Let’s not forget that the café above Merchant’s Lane is able to view the courtyard of PS150. Fourthly, we take reservations, which no decent speakeasies should do. If one really wants to put a label on us aside from cocktail bar, hidden bar is fine.
Also, regarding the toyshop at the entrance, why the choice of a toyshop? Is it correlated with your interests in fun, childlike activities?
Yes, it is actually! Due to society expectations, humans are pressure to “grow up.” However after a few tipples, you can notice the guests will gradually shed away their “adult” expectations. It is actually amazing what booze can do to one person – it feels exactly like going back in time when one doesn’t care if they do something silly. Some even drink just to be silly… to feel what it is like then, and thus the toy store.
How much research and development do you do in order to change the cocktail menu every three months?
It takes about from a couple of days to a maximum week to design a cocktail menu. However, this also includes taking down new recipes as you go, which makes the selection easier after months of collection. Every bar is different; we mainly do classic twist with additional Asian ingredients and era-inspired originals, which is the foundation of cocktails. Plus, the menu is a collaboration of all PS150 crew, including the cocktail servers! Know your basics, learn the classics.
Having worked in both Singaporean and local B&B industry, what’s the difference between the two industries that you like and dislike?
Back in Singapore, I bartended till mid-‘00s and cocktails then wasn’t big. The mentality of B&B industry might have change since as this industry is constantly evolving. There is no particular like or dislike but rather embracing the culture and work ethics, finding the best solutions, and balanced it well.
You’ve been paired up with Hugh Koh for a collaboration for H-Artistry. How was the experience of collaborating with a founder of a well-known local streetwear label?
Yea, it is pretty cool. Hugh is a down-to-earth dude and really polite.
Could you share details on the cocktail that you have created specially for the event?
It has to be simple with classic traditional flavours that are complex yet refreshing. Influenced by two of my favourite dark spirits classics, Sazarac and Old Fashioned, VSOTea is a vintage-inspired hybrid that has Chenpi-infused Hennessy VSOP, palm sugar syrup, Angostura bitters, dry orange bitters, and absinthe mist over crushed ice. This combination surprisingly has strong flavours of Chinese herbal tea, thus the name.
How closely did you work with Hugh? Did you guys work together to ensure there was a level of cohesion between the cocktail and the interior design of the designated room?
Actually, it was really easy working with Hugh. We have a lot of things in common when it comes to the pride of a Southeast Asian even though both of us were educated in a Western society. We understood what is needed to be done to improve the society we live in by creating colours in our own industry. As both of us briefed each other on the ideas, we realised that [the contrast of] his minimalistic contemporary visuals and my heavy traditional flavours blended well with the SEA theme.
H-Artistry ’16 will be held on Saturday 8 October ’16 at MIECC, with performances by Tinashe, Crizzly, Hyuna, and Mad August. More information here.
The other pair of collaborators for the event are light artist Jun Ong and mixologist Andrew Tan of HYDE.