A homegrown denim brand aims to go big. But how will its ‘anti-marketing’ help in gaining prominence?
AFIQ Iskandar speaks pretty good Hokkien. For this, the 27-year-old CEO of Nusantara Denim credits his Chinese godfather and childhood days in Seberang Prai, Penang, where he lived with his marine engineer father and human resource director mother.
But Afiq is not here to dwell on his linguistic skills. He is here to talk about being a denim head.
“My earliest influences came from Bandung, Indonesia, where my parents went on holidays to visit their friends. In addition to the cultural attractions, the place is famous for its jeans factories. Mixing with their friends’ children during my college years, brought me close to these manufacturers. It wasn’t hard because the industry had ingrained itself into the community. Everybody was either related or had close connections with a jeans maker. I learnt all about denim there,” recalls Afiq.
The Bandung experience left deep impressions. He met aficionados who kept their jeans in refrigerator freezers and wore them the whole year without washing for the sole purpose of achieving that faded look. They even had spray solutions to counter bacterial build-up!
When the inspired teen returned, he headed for Pertama Complex, Kuala Lumpur, a nesting place for tailors who specialised in making jeans.
There, he experimented with cuts from skinny to straight leg, shades that went from deep indigo to light faded blues, hidden rivets (which creates a wear pattern around the pockets in vintage wear) and chained stitching, which requires the use of a specific machine, namely the Union Specials, whereby the needle’s drive strength is engineered to work on denim.
“I’ve always liked the idea of personalised jeans and denim pride was about having a pair that was different from my classmates,” says Afiq, who studied interface design at Malaysia Multimedia University.
Describing it as a “guy” thing, the sole fixation for a denim head is to achieve lasting sustainability.
“For this reason, construction becomes a major point. We want to know what has gone into the making. Were the rivets driven in by machines or put in by hand? It makes a difference because hand-driven rivets last longer. What got me started on this path was a friend who had a pair of Jack Purcell shoes. After 10 years, it was still intact. This is what I want in my clothes. They must be made to last,” explains Afiq.
A Bandung stint for Afiq may take up to a week where manufacturers may suggest the inclusion of songket material to be used as pockets to where the best denim can be found.
Currently, Afiq’s fixation is with Japan where he sources his selvedge.
“It speaks volumes for a jeans label when they can request for selvedge. It’s like a promotion. With this kind of material, you only go to the top notch factories, the kind who hand fixes rivets for you,” says Afiq.
Afiq’s first foray into the clothing line was in 2008 when he came up with his own T-shirt label ATTE during his college years. This was during the teething years when a new movement of labels like Pop Malaya, Kurasaraksaksa, The Super Sunday and Defy entered the fashion landscape.
Unlike established giants like Padini, BUM Equipment or Soda Garments, these were largely student initiatives, spurred on by street culture and graffiti. The identities of these brands carried similar traits, unmistakably Malaysian by name but carried universal appeal.
Samples of this genre sees taglines like “Who’s Your Mamak?” emblazoned on American baseball jackets and T-shirts shouting out brand names like “Lansi”.
As part of a band that called themselves “Oh! Cinta Ku”, Afiq’s first customers were musicians. Gradually, it grew to include die-hard fans.
The first issue of ‘Tarik’ jeans, with the logo of a mamak preparing teh tarik was released around this time and numbered only 14 pieces, costing RM200 each.
Today, each release easily numbers 200 pairs, priced between RM150 and RM600 (for the selvedge versions, in which the white ended edges of the denim can be seen in folded up trouser legs). Fans of the label include artistes such as Altimet, Hujan, Azlan and The Typewriters, Amy Search and Jiman Casablancas, a well-known name in fashion public relations.
Last year, revenue for Tarik jeans was reportedly RM100,000. This was before the inception of the Nusantara Denim store in Subang Jaya, Selangor.
Afiq is used to self-distributing his jeans to streetwear retailers, at times reaching as far as Sabah and Sarawak, and Terengganu with zero budget for advertising.
“I am into ‘anti-marketing’,” smiles Afiq who is clearly relishing the connotation of the phrase.
Introducing the Tarik label has always taken a subtle note where word of mouth is preferred to billboards.
“When it comes to streetwear, the approach is very ‘underground’. We go viral by having it mentioned in a ‘by the way’ manner where it pops up in conversations or is seen being worn by a musician during a gig or in a music video which will inadvertently end up on YouTube.
“If there is an important performance, then you’ll see the performers wearing Tarik jeans. This is how we are positioning ourselves,” says Afiq.
Does he look forward to the day when production and sales rates for Tarik will number into the hundreds of thousands?
“One step at a time. I want this to be a journey. For now, it is not about sales but craftsmanship. It will be good if we can create a demand for Tarik jeans within the South-East Asian region,” says Afiq.
The goal is to grow up with the customers. He reminds that his is not a mass production label but for the true denim connoisseur, the type who would not hesitate to blow a thousand ringgit for a pair of rare limited edition.