What comes in all colours of the rainbow and has taken first place as the most dynamic item in Malaysian fashion?
The answer would be none other than the headscarf or hijab.
“The Aidilfitri season will see no less than 200,000 pieces of headscarves being sold by wholesalers in Jalan Masjid India alone,” forecasts Farooq Khan of Alfaro, a wholesale entity for Muslimah wear.
Farooq, 35, a Pakistani who started off as a textile trader in Malaysia 12 years ago before launching his own fashion line, said this was but a piffling figure considering the 100 wholesalers wheeling and dealing in headscarves and coverings in the area.
Tuan Muhd. Fadil Tuan Ismail, 40, owner of Alya Sarah, a hijab manufacturing, retail and wholesale entity, flips out his calculator to give us a bigger picture.
Alya Sarah has branches spread out in Kuala Terengganu, Dungun, Jitra, Kuala Kerai, Kubang Kerian, USJ Subang Jaya, Shah Alam and their latest, a boutique in Johor’s UDA Business Center. Yearly sales touch RM3mil.
“Suppose we look at a figure of two million hijab wearers from the female Muslim population who are in the medium-income bracket. Supposing they buy one piece per week at a rate of between RM30 and RM70, you would be looking at a potential market worth of RM50mil in just one week,” said Fadil.
Offering a dissected view of the hijab market is Bernard Yee, operations manager of Cosmic Silk who jumped into textile trading six years ago.
“The vibrancy of hijab fashion picked up in Malaysia four years ago. It was believed to have caught on in Indonesia a year earlier, thanks to the existence of a fashion institute that had exclusively devoted a syllabus to the making of hijabs.
“Henceforth, came a slew of new designs that resulted in Indonesia becoming the catalyst for hijab fashion in South-East Asia,” said Yee, who decided to devote a section of the store to hijabs around the same time.
Some have accounted the boom to have begun in 2007 after the completion of i-City in Shah Alam where Islamic lifestyle stores such as Jakel and Munawwarah were located.
The nucleus of hijab style has been inadvertently traced back to its raw material-fabric.
Lycra and chiffon are popular choices. For Aidilfitri 2014, Cosmic Silk has reported the consumption of one million metres for hijab making alone.
About 1.1m is approximated for each piece. Explaining how coverings have become very affordable over the years with starting prices of RM10 a piece, Yee said it was all thanks to these synthetics with prices at RM6 to RM7 per metre.
“It does not take much to start, RM10,000 will get you between 900 and 1,500 pieces depending on the type of material preferred. This is enough to fill up an 8 x 10ft of space with enough designs to catch a customer’s eye,” observed Farooq.
The wholesaler further assures it as a self-selling item because of its high consumer turnover — a headscarf has to be changed frequently.
However, Yee cautioned on the need to be wary of trends.
“There is no formula to what will sell. In terms of fabric, you know there is always a cycle.
“Cottons, for example, will always be evergreen but there will also go through a cycle. Suddenly, people will go for satin, for example, and we would have to keep the cotton inventory aside.
“Then, we come to the styles and design. Keeping up with this was enough to warrant us to employ full-time designers in house. This is because you need an expert eye to decide how to combine elements such as lace and sequins, for example.
“Saying so, a style can sell by the millions when it catches the public’s eye but then in hijab fashion, trends come and go very quickly. What is popular now may be passe in the next three months,” said Yee.
As a result, prices of intricately beaded pieces imported from Vietnam, for example, can drop from RM65 to RM29.90. If cost for each piece is RM27, it will be hard to recover profit if one has overstocked.
But the onus, added Yee, was on them to have faith for fashion is a cycle. Patience always has a solution in mind.
“It is not feasible to over-analyse. Just be content in one surety – it is an easily sellable item. You can control the market but it will be hard.
“I am not talking about competing with the other hijab brands. The main challenge is about being creative. When you open a shop, it is not about who is there but what the shop has to offer,” said Fadil.
Of late, he has noticed a phenomenon stemming from a high end brand, which he is eager to share.
“Fareeda is one brand that can command its customers to queue up in front of its store overnight. I hear they are not cheap. If I am not mistaken, the owner is also the designer and manufacturer who, from time to time, releases limited editions where shoppers are not allowed to buy more than two pieces at one time.
Fans of Fareeda have been known to have purchased her scarves for RM100 and later find buyers willing to pay four times the amount in online sales,” said Fadil.
As described in his own words, Fadil began with selling the ‘instant tudung’. No pins. No tying. Just slip it on and you’re ready to go.
The RM500,000 capital partly came from his earlier years as an open market trader and partly from his business partners — about 10 of them at current count.
Unlike the simple scarf, ensuring consumer convenience requires stick quality control.
“A tudung must appear balanced when a wearer slips it over her head. One big ‘no no’ is to have air pockets by the side. If this happens, the piece will have to be unassembled and reconstructed,” said Fadil.
At present, Alya Sara’s unofficial designer is Fadil’s wife, Wan Hasmi Wan Senik, a secondary school teacher. Her job is to go on buying trips with him to Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The label maintains its quality and competitive edge by running its own manufacturing arm with 20 workers in USJ, Subang Jaya.
The factory whirred to life in 2004 with a capital of RM300,000 making baju Melayu under the Sri Tanjung brand before switching to sewing hijabs in 2009.
This was because the baju Melayu tailor, an Indonesian from Semarang, decided he wanted to go home. Deciding he could not let the man go, Fadil offered to start up a workshop for him in his hometown, freeing the space for 10,000 pieces of head coverings to be churned out monthly in the USJ factory.
“We have up to a 100 templates to produce up to 10 designs a year. As my wife is the company’s design inspiration, our philosophy for comfort and elegance. Fabrics have to feel cool against the skin. We have up to 30 suppliers, so that allows us to experiment with combinations like lace and lycra or chiffon with crepe,” said Fadil.
Future prospects continue to look bright for Fadil and his other compatriots.
“When I look at the growth of the hijab market today, it connects me to the fact that the social economic status of women, the main drivers of the market, have improved very much.
“As they have had the benefit of higher education, they are able to get better jobs, which empowers them with better spending power,” he observes.