IT IS that time of year again, when people assemble their Hari Raya best so they can balik kampung in style. But what is a sharp baju Melayu if not topped off with an equally new songkok?
For songkok makers, this is a make-or-break time. Like how retailers prepare the whole year leading up to that one special sales period, these traditional craftsmen spend the bulk of their year stockpiling to meet the spike in demand every Raya holiday.
“It is very seasonal, you work for 10 months and sell for two; during Ramadan leading up to Hari Raya. We make 50% to 60% of our sales in this period,” says Husein Salleh, the founder of songkok maker Paling Atas Enterprise in Malacca.
Second-generation songkok maker Mohd Asri Ratham concurs, saying that due to the slow speed of production for small scale songkok makers that still use hand-sewing methods, it takes literally months to make enough for that small window.
“Our workshop has four workers on an assembly line and they produce about 50 to 60 pieces a day,” says Mohd Asri, adding that he sells around 3,000 units during Ramadan.
He says that he used to teach his workers the whole process of making a songkok, but stopped after several fully trained workers took their skills elsewhere.
“Since songkok sales are so seasonal, I rojak (mix up) the store’s offerings with pilgrimage apparel,” explains Mohd Asri. His shop, Patimah & Anak-Anak Sdn Bhd, on Jalan Masjid India in Kuala Lumpur, also sells kain sarong, sampin and even prayer mats.
His songkok sells for between RM15 and RM105, depending on the materials used, and upwards of RM30 for labour should the client provide the materials for a custom-made songkok.
Mohd Asri says he is very accommodating with songkok customisation, the only rule of thumb being nothing so tall that it would fall off your head!
The humble store which opened in 1960 has moved location only once and has been based in Wisma Yakin near Masjid Jamek, Kuala Lumpur for the last 40 years.
Its long history has helped make it a household name with clientele ranging from members of parliament to the Johor sultan’s palace staff.
“(Deputy Prime Minister) Muhyiddin Yassin bought his songkok here, a few weeks ago. Former prime minister (Abdullah Ahmad) Badawi also used to come in person, though most politicians just send their personal assistants,” says Mohd Asri, adding with a laugh that former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad used to have his wife pick up his songkok.
Despite the high-profile walk-in customers, Patimah’s primary business is wholesaling to other small boutiques.
The 44-year-old notes that part of being the practitioner of a fading craft means ample opportunity to sell to other retailers who have abandoned production yet still sell the traditional headgear.
It was this line of thinking that got Paling Atas’ Husein involved with the industry.
“After the 1998 recession, I wanted to start my own business, one that less and less people were entering. Making songkok seemed ideal as even then it was viewed as a ‘dying craft’,” he reveals.
In 2001, Husein — then already in his 40s — entered the business despite having no idea how to even make a songkok.
He learnt the basics of sewing and apprenticed with other songkok makers to learn the trade, then started experimenting with making his own songkok based on what he had learnt.
His advice to new players in an industry is to “buat bodoh, tiada orang nak tolong yang berlagak” (play dumb, no one wants to help an arrogant person).
To differentiate himself from the competition, the Malacca-based craftsman makes higher quality songkok by doing away with the usual practice of using old-newspaper or fabric as padding for his songkok.
Instead, he uses a thicker inner lining that gives it the same stiffness and makes the songkok lighter and slimmer than its stuffed counterparts.
When asked why he chose the name Paling Atas — which colloquially means “top of the line” — he answered tongue-in-cheek that it was simply because songkok being headgear meant it was the the highest thing on a person, literally Paling Atas (topmost).
Unlike Mohd Asri, Husein still handles the songkok-making personally, with the help of his wife Norhayati Saleh, 48, and occasionally their three children when they are back from university.
During peak production periods, they hire part-time workers. The advantage of working with his children, Husein finds, is the feedback they give on how to make songkok more contemporary.
“Traditionally, songkok are made using black or blue velvet. However, I have started experimenting with other fabrics such as corduroy and it seems to be more popular with the youths,” said Husein.
The enterprising 52-year-old also had the foresight to start selling his songkok online nearly a decade ago. After registering his business in 2005, he followed it up with a website a year later. However, it took him three years to build traction for his brand and online presence.
Now, 20% of his sales comes via the Internet, 20% through retail sales via partner boutiques, while the bulk is still sold at trade shows and promotions like the annual Raya fair at Kompleks Kraftangan in Kuala Lumpur.
Mohd Asri’s son Arif Aqsa, 19, recently started selling his father’s merchandise online through Facebook, which has gathered 800 likes in under two months. More importantly, it has translated into sales for both songkok and other traditional apparel.
Arif Aqsa said, just like Patimah’s brick-and-mortar store, the online site offered custom orders, except customers would be asked to mail in their request and measure their own heads.
“It is quite simple; just a measuring tape and some instruction where to place it and you will have a perfect fit,” says Arif Aqsa.
The online store also plays an important role in the family’s target of reaching a wider retail market beyond the KL region.
An old-hat at online songkok sales, Husein says, while most buyers are still in Malaysia, he has a small following in Singapore and once even had an order from France.
Jumping on the bandwagon is Oh My Songkok (OMS) founder Mohd Fuad Khalid, 29, who partnered with songkok maker Mohd Azhar Md Noh, 39, to provide an online avenue to sell his songkok.
An online marketer more familiar with selling computers than traditional apparel, Mohd Fuad said he had to research quite a bit before finding the right partner.
Being a Penangite himself, Mohd Fuad was happy to work with the Kedah-based craftsman. He also based his selection on the fact that Mohd Azhar had been making songkok since 1993.
His research paid off. Within a month, he was flooded with enquiries nationwide — from Johor, Perak, Kelantan, Selangor, Kedah, even Sabah and Sarawak. Unlike Paling Atas and Patimah, he only handles the online sales while production is handled by Mohd Azhar’s workshop.
Mohd Fuad says that 40% of the revenue goes to him while the remainder goes to the craftsman.
Between such entrepreneuring individuals, one would be hard pressed to say the songkok industry is dying. Rather, it seems to be taking on a new appearance, like a person dressed up for Hari Raya.