ALMOST 20 years ago, advertising legend Yasmin Ahmad stringed up the catchy phrase “Presenting British India. An era of racism, oppression, injustice and nice outfits” for an award-winning advertising campaign to launch British India, the homegrown colonial era-inspired fashion icon.
But little did she know at that point in time, her good friend Pat Liew, the founder of BTC Clothier Sdn Bhd that owns the British India label, was set on a blazing path to grow the brand into a household icon of sorts in the local fashion industry.
Despite coming down with a severe cold, Liew found the time recently to share her thoughts with StarBizWeek at the company’s sprawling 80,000 sq ft open faced brick design studio and warehouse.
“Over the last 20 years, we have been very quiet, but the real work is always behind the scenes and it’s not just about rah-rah here and there. Creating a brand is easy, but building it up and sustaining it is not,” she says while scrutinising the quality of some linen samples with her touch at the lofty zen-like headquarters of British India.
This was exceptionally true for Liew who had dedicated her whole life to the retail industry with her lengthy stint at Metrojaya, by far the most popular departmental store in the early 1990s where she was the anchor behind brands like East India Company and Cape Cod. Talking about the stretch of materials to the thread count of fabric is just daily speech for her.
But in a sudden turn of events, Liew found herself at a crossroad after the company was taken over by a new management, which made her question her life goals. That was when she made the momentous decision to be her own boss and start a clothing line, holding true to her passion and love for the charms of the colonial British Raj era that was filled with extravagance, colour and a large dose of romanticism.
For Liew, British India is not high fashion, but still stands tall among the top brands around the world after it carved out its niche to be effortlessly chic with its detailed embroidery on fabulous fabrics and cuts.
Armed with just a patchwork of inspiration and a kitchen turned office/workshop at home, British India quickly turned into a fashion label within months with four outlets in Malaysia and another four in Singapore in the mid-1990s.
Setting up a presence in Singapore was a strategic move that has paid off for British India, where Liew said was a testbed for the fashion label to go international.
“Singapore is the gateway to the international scene. If I could survive in Singapore, the brand would be ready for a global presence. In fact, a lot of our discerning customers are expatriates who knew about our brand through word of mouth, and who quickly fell in love with our clothing collections,” she says.
Fast forward 20 years later, the fashion label has 40 outlets in the region including 19 in Malaysia and Singapore that are managed in-house by the company, and franchise outlets handled by Thailand’s departmental store giant Central Group and Philippines’ Cinderella group.
“People don’t realise that we actually have built a strong solid company. When we don’t talk about ourselves, it doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. We are not small now, but on the other hand, we are not large like public listed companies,” she says.
With British India still being a private company, Liew stopped short of revealing the company financial details.
However, just to size the company up, Liew says the fashion label rakes in more than a hundred million in revenue every year.
“Business has been good, and despite all the challenges, we have been prudent enough to survive through recession after recession, and also save up to nurture our staff and to grow the company through more research,” she says.
Next week, the brand is going to launch its flagship store in Penang, with a huge display fronting Gurney Drive, the busiest road in the island city.
Despite the success, Liew says the fashion house had its fair share of ups and downs, including in 2009 when Suria KLCC directed it to change its business focus from fashion to home decor and relocate to a less desirable location.
“It was a demand which just did not make any business sense. But this is now water-under-the-bridge, and although negotiations were lengthy, the matter was settled amicably and we were able to stay put in our prime location and continue as a fashion house, as we still do today.
“It’s not just about having prime space for international brands, but also to showcase Made in Malaysia. I am Malaysian,” she says.
She says the fresh focus now for the brand is to move up the value chain, in tandem with the Prime Minister’s call to elevate homegrown Malaysian premium brands internationally.
“Seeing our PM and First Lady as well as members of the royal family shopping at our local malls, buying home-grown labels like ours, is most encouraging and supportive, just like when Michelle Obama wears American designers and buys J Crew for herself and her family,” she says.
Beyond the borders
While Liew is often the face of British India, it is also important not to forget the man behind the brand, SH Yong, Liew’s husband who has been involved in the nitty-gritty details of the operation, and a constant personality in this love affair that has turned British India into an international brand.
Looking forward into 2014 and beyond, Liew is still raring for more with the interest in growing the brand further, not discounting the possibility of bringing in suitable partners.
“What we really want is a partner who can execute some of the areas that we feel we need help in and definitely a good synergy with the company,” she says.
She says the fashion label has been approached by investors and also private equity firms to expand the company, but according to her, when you grow big, it is always just down to the numbers.
“We want to grow not just for the sake of growing. We could have sold out a long time ago, but we did not. We are not really interested into making this a public company, but to make this a great company. I’m not saying that it’s wrong (to become listed), but it’s not me. What we have here is something quite exciting to me, and I would not want to lose this,” she says.
Assisted by her niece Rhoda Yap who is the chief executive officer of BTC Clothier, Liew says the company has invested “an arm and a leg” into the SAP business information system to manage its supply chain better, while it is managing production from China and India, and also sourcing of materials worldwide.
“Expanding our presence is definitely a need. In fact, we might consolidate some of our stores to expand overseas. I think we have reached a stage where it’s not just about the number of stores but the content of the stores. We are striving to improve our flagship stores,” she says.
She also mentions the possibility of launching the brand in fashion destinations like London in Europe where there are a lot of shoppers shopping for apparels that they bring back to their warmer climate countries.
“Right now we want to focus on markets that we can grow, and we are looking at Internet shopping as well. These are the little priorities that we have, and we are going steady with this. We have our options, and our priority is not to overload our people for the wrong reasons,” she says.
All these are on top of the huge designing studio which she describes can be chaotic at times, cooking up a storm within her little teacup with her team of designers to strive for the best and not settle for less.
For Liew, it is just another day on her throne as the maharani of her brand.