Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest things that are hidden right under our noses. That idea could be applied to Malaysian youth’s somewhat newfound interest, not in brands like Stussy or Alife but in homegrown streetwear – the more Malaysian, the better. Surprising, but true.
If Bersih 2.0 (and 3.0) taught us anything, it’s that Malaysians are finally starting to give a shit about their country, and the cool kids needed a new way to show their love for all things local and clichés like our national bungaraya or the Jalur Gemilang will not cut it. And thus, there came a whole new outlet to show off your newfound national pride. Local established brand Pestle & Mortar remarked “It’s awesome. Once upon a time nobody bought anything that was made in Malaysia. Malaysians used to market their brands to look like it was foreign in order to actually sell something but today the more “Malaysian” your product is, the more it piques interest.” No truer words have been spoken, as proved by the immense popularity of Pestle & Mortar’s photo tees that feature everyday Malaysian subjects such as Maggi Goreng and ice-cream potong. Even just a year ago, we wouldn’t have ever thought that the hokkien word “lansi” (for arrogance in Hokkien) would become the premise of a successful business.
So how hard can it be? What does it take to be one of the brands like Pestle & Mortar who are in the forefront of this new Malaysia Boleh spirit? We’ve seen Pestle & Mortar grow from strength to strength ever since their debut at Urbanscapes in 2010, selling their trademark photo and pocket tees that would become the core of the brand. The following year together with their core line, Pestle & Mortar launched a new line of graphic tees and introduced their first collaboration with good friend and DJ, HypeEmBeats. The brand has since worked with They Will Kill Us All, fashion website StyleKandi as well as Lapsap and just this year, with photography studio Reddbullets in the works. Is Pestle & Mortar really as hardworking as they look? JUICE sat down with Pestle & Mortar “family” to learn a thing or two about the business and the brand’s future plans. Did we hear “technical wear”?
So who are the people behind Pestle & Mortar clothing? Please introduce yourselves!
Pestle & Mortar really is a family in every sense, 4 partners, 2 sets of brothers, 1 idea; Arthur & Arnold Loh and Hugh & Mark Koh. All of us are from different backgrounds and that helps us specialize in different aspects of the business: Arthur, the hobbyist photographer and a freelance copywriter, handles Operations and Production and deals mainly with the execution of most things. Arnold, who heads the PR and Publicity department for Pestle & Mortar, comes from a film and television background but now works as a radio announcer. Hugh comes from an Architecture background and is our Creative Head, while Mark, our Finance Head, understandably comes from the Finance field, makes sure we don’t spend the money we don’t have and that nobody abuses company funds.
How many people are there in the Pestle & Mortar family now?
Pestle & Mortar started out as a 3-man team with Arthur, Arnold and Hugh. When the company was but a toddler, the 3 of us would handle everything ourselves, but as it grew, we realized we lacked a basic business skill needed to run the company smoothly. We needed Mark, from a finance background to aid us in our constant battle with monthly accounts and financial control. The newest addition to our family would be Syafiq Sumardi, our toiling machine of a graphic designer that has been with us for the past four months churning out designs like Hong Kong makes movies.
You’ve known each other since high school. Does this make it easier run a company?
Hugh and Arnold have been friends for more than 10 years now and Arthur is Arnold’s brother so we’ve known each other pretty much our entire lives. Most people say, “Never go into business with friends” and I can completely see where they’re coming from. However, we all know each other so well that it actually helps a whole lot! We’re not afraid to be straight up with one another and I guess that’s important when running any business. You want to able to lay it all out on the table. It’s awesome! We get up in each other’s faces all the time and then go for coffee later.
Were your parents supportive when you told them that you wanted to start Pestle & Mortar?
They didn’t say much but thankfully they weren’t against it. They always encouraged us to try new things because like the old saying goes, “One who makes no mistakes, makes nothing at all”. We were lucky they didn’t make us become accountants like every other Chinese person in the world.
Were there any obstacles when Pestle & Mortar initially started?
Of course not having much money to start with always is an issue. We worked with whatever we could raise, which to be honest, wasn’t much and I guess we just kept at it and believed in it. With perseverance, hard work, starvation and many lost weekends it eventually started to slowly pay off. Everyone had different mindsets on the route we wanted Pestle & Mortar to be on but after many arguments and tensioned relationships we came to an agreement. That was an important turning point for us, our make-it or break-it point which made us closer as friends and just a tad easier to work with. It was very important that we were all moving in the same direction, or we would’ve crashed into each other and burned the brand in the process.
Did any of you anticipate that Pestle & Mortar would be where it is today?
To be completely honest, no. But then again, each one of us may have had a different vision. Arnold personally saw it as something fun and more of a hobby during the early stages but as the brand grew, he saw somewhat of a constant progression and stopped to think, “Hey, this is working out well. It’s pretty awesome”. Hugh always knew that with hard work and perseverance we could take this to new heights! Of course it helped that we had a good run at the start to boost our confidence. We’re definitely very happy to have come this far even though we still have a long way to go.