SUSMA Murali believes that every woman looks beautiful in a well-designed outfit.
The founder of Sonali Product (M) Sdn Bhd, she feels her passion for fashion design is driven by an ambition to create a “Malaysian Bollywood” fashion trend in the country.
“I feel proud when my customers come back to me and say I had created a new look for them, thus boosting their self-confidence,” said the 38-year-old mother of three, adding that her designs fitted all sizes.
Susma's interest in fashion design was sparked when she was only three years old. She loved to dress up to make herself as pretty as a Barbie doll. “I came from an average family so my parents could not afford to buy me Barbie dolls. My hobby was to design many outfits for my paper Barbie doll,” she said with a smile.
Susma also acted as fashion consultant to her cousins and designed their outfits when she was a teenager.
“My cousins adored my one-of-its-kind designs and they believed I could make them look as gorgeous as Bollywood stars,” she added.
Despite her ardour for fashion design, Susma decided to pursue a business administration degree at Universiti Malaya.
“Although I feel strongly about fashion, I do not think it is something you can learn out of a text book. A business degree is more helpful in terms of my ambition to run a business,” she said.
She completed her studies in 1992 and worked part-time at her brother's company, which was involved in manufacturing wallpaper and cupboards.
“I could not get a job when I graduated. I had applied for more than 500 jobs but could not find one I was interested in. So, I helped my brother manage his business to widen my contacts, while seeking other business opportunities,” said Susma.
In 1994, she got married and left for the US with her husband who wanted to pursue his masters degree. A year later, she returned to Malaysia.
“It was difficult to get a job as a married woman. Employers tend to feel that I may not be able to commit myself at my job. So, I decided to try setting up my own range of designer wear under the Sonali brand.”
Sonali was set up in 1995 with RM100,000 in capital from her brother and her own savings.
There were obstacles but Susma strived and revelled in the freedom of being her own boss.
“I started my first 700-sq ft boutique in Jalan Sentul and stayed there until 1997. When business expanded, I acquired a six-storey building at the same location. This houses a warehouse, showroom and the management office,” Susma said.
In 1997, she found a joint-venture business partner in Bombay, India, to manufacture Sonali designer wear catering to the Malaysian market.
“I invested a few million ringgit to source fabrics and gemstones for a range of designer wear for the Malaysian market. Although these designs are inspired by Bollywood fashion trends, they are not exact replicas. They have been tweaked to suit the local market,” she said, adding that her range received overwhelming response.
“I have customers choosing me as their personal fashion designer and they are not willing to tell others where they buy their outfits from. This gives me a wonderful feeling of exclusivity, “said Susma.
However, two incidents caused great damage to her business in 2000 and 2005.
“The flood in 2000 at Jalan Sentul damaged millions of ringgit worth of stocks and I had to shift everything to another location overnight. It was a nightmare but I was lucky my warehouse was not affected and I could still sustain my business,” Susma said, adding that she moved to Sri Damansara.
“What happened next was beyond my imagination. My boutique, along with the factories nearby, caught fire last year and this time around, I lost practically everything.” Although Susma had to start again from scratch, sheer willpower stood her in good stead as her family and employees rallied around in support.
The Sonali boutique is now located at a 40,000-sq ft wholly-owned building at Brickfields, and Susma has even added a range of men's and children's wear.
“I am proud of my achievements and my determination has led me to a good future. I hope that I can expand Sonali globally so that everyone will get a chance to know my brand better,” she stressed.
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