Not just a T-shirt

KL-based streetwear brand Pestle & Mortar aspires to sell a lifestyle that all city-goers can identify with.

THE origins of streetwear brand, Pestle & Mortar is one that is as varied as it comes. As the name suggests (the mortar and pestle being a tool used to crush and grind substances), the label is based on a mix of ideas with its three founders coming from diverse backgrounds.

Nevertheless, Hugh Koh, together with Arnold and Arthur Loh, have been able to make it work. With each of them bringing something different to the table, the brand has flourished and is now more identifiable among urbanites in the Klang Valley.

Hugh, 27, was once an architect, while 27-year-old Arnold (who is now a radio announcer for and his younger brother, Arthur, 24, have a background in mass communications and photography respectively. Despite none of them having any prior experience in the fashion industry, the Kuala Lumpur-born trio went ahead with starting their own streewear brand; it was something they’ve always talked about while growing up.

“It was an idea that we had since we were in high school. We’ve talked about it, but in those instances, we had neither the time nor the money to actually pull it off,” says Hugh about the brand’s founding. “It was only in 2010 – when Arnold was done with his studies and I was already working for three years – that we brought it up again amongst the three of us, and decided then that it’s now or never for it to happen.

“We came up with the name for the brand while we were having a brainstorm session at a local mamak stall. While other names were being thrown about, suddenly we thought, ‘Why not Pestle & Mortar?’ It would be a good metaphor of our different backgrounds, as well as the mix of ideas which it will be based on,” relates Arnold.

The Pestle & Mortar brand started out with each of them contributing RM1,000 for the business. With that money, they produced a collection of T-shirts in eight different designs and sold them at a creative arts festival in KL. The response was overwhelming and they managed to sell off all the T-shirts on that day. It was a feat which they admit, surprised even themselves.

“We paid a lot of attention to how we packaged our products for that first sale at Urbanscapes 2010. For that day, we sold the T-shirts in flat boxes highlighting our brand’s logo, a polaroid photograph. Made of cardboard and with a square cutout to display the T-shirt inside, it was reminiscent of a polaroid photograph frame. It was designed to be something different which we felt would draw attention,” says Arnold.

Also noteworthy is that the Pestle & Mortar T-shirts are wholly produced by the team here. Each T-shirt is locally made where the team sources out the cloth and subsequently have it cut, printed and sewn. This means that their products are made specifically for customers in the country, whereby the sizing is tailored to suit the Asian build.

The Pestle & Mortar brand initially started with photo print and pocket T-shirts. The former depicted nostalgic photographs that gave meaning to what it was like to grow up in the Klang Valley while the latter are designs defined by a front shirt pocket to each piece. From images of aiskrim potong and telur mata (egg done sunny-side up) on the T-shirts, and batik designs on the pockets, the brand’s pieces are as Malaysian as they come. The more recent designs even have raglans that resemble the T-shirts Malaysians once wore for school sports, and graphics symbolic to those living here.

“The idea behind our brand is to keep it as Malaysian as possible,” comments Hugh. “When we designed our latest graphic T-shirts, we took concepts that were immediately identifiable to Malaysians and made them our own. There is this T-shirt with a picture of a Pestle & Mortar can in front that I’m sure everyone will recognise. Why? Because it’s a throwback to the Ayam Brand sardines can. Now, which Malaysian growing up here has not eaten or seen Ayam Brand sardines?”

Growth and evolution

With every collection released over the years, Pestle & Mortar adds something new which their customers can look out for. A recent addition is a range of caps, and the team is now working on jackets, as well as shirts for the future. The brand’s team has expanded too, and now includes a total of five people working on the designs and everyday running of the business.

“We’ve also decided to work on our women’s line. Although we already have women’s T-shirts in the past and in current collections, we want to offer more than just the regular crop tops or baby Ts for women. We are currently in touch with a designer from Australia for this. She has recently moved to Malaysia and together we’re looking at pieces like dresses and jumpsuits,” says Arnold.

Other aspects of the business expansion are apparent too. From the team having to ply their trade at fashion bazaars and arts festivals initially, they now have a full-fledged online site that visitors can place orders from and even a showroom of sorts in their office.

This is in addition to other various ways which their products are sold, like different online and physical stockists. The brand is always looking for ways to expand; its first standalone store was opened recently in Subang Jaya, Selangor.

When asked about their success and what it takes to pull off something like this, Arnold replies, “You can’t overlook the fact that money is important. You can’t do anything without having the cash. Secondly, it’s to have a good network of people that will support you. Without those people – namely our friends – who have given us their support since the very beginning, I don’t think we would be where we are now.”

In this context, Pestle & Mortar has collaborated extensively with different personalities and brands around town. The team comes up with a unique design to fit each occasion, of which is then sold in limited edition runs.

Collaborations such as DJs HypeEmBeats and LapSap parties in the past, and a social awareness campaign with photography studio Reddbullets, among others, are planned with brand exposure and marketing in mind.

Pestle & Mortar has even used personalities (such as KL’s DJ Duo B.A.T.E) in their campaign visuals to help push the brand’s name. Television personality and actor Henry Golding is one such celebrity who is frequently seen wearing their designs.

“Henry Golding has always been a good friend of ours. He’s currently listed on our website as part of the Pestle & Mortar family. I wouldn’t call it a sponsorship but with these personalities whom we call our brand’s family, we do hook them up with free stuff from Pestle & Mortar,” explains Arnold.

Defining a lifestyle

Pestle & Mortar, however, is not intentionally meant to be seen as so much a subculture brand in the city. While its designs are adored by people who share the same interest – recreational activity, clothing brand and music wise – the team states that they’re just designing stuff that they themselves would buy and wear.

Hugh says, “When we started off, we asked ourselves who our target market was. We decided that our clientele would be people like us. The clothes that we design, we make sure that we like them. We may design them to be sold but when we look at each of our product, we make sure that these are things that we like.”

“How would we describe these people that are like us? They don’t have to necessarily be of the same age group as we are ... (but) people who like the same things. For example, the same music, fashion style and everyday activities,” Arnold explains. “To give a better picture, we were very into the whole Blink 182 culture when we were growing up. You could also say we were influenced by the whole Californian bike, surf and skate culture as well. It is these elements that we intend to bring here and inject a more Malaysian flair to it, through our brand.”

Having said that, the founders of Pestle & Mortar say that they don’t wholly see themselves as owners of a street brand. While it is now observed to be popular among those that are into street culture, Arnold says that they prefer to be termed otherwise: “We are inspired by streetwear because that’s what we like, but at the end of the day, we see ourselves as so much more. Pestle & Mortar, in essence, is more of a lifestyle brand – where our designs tap into what our lifestyle really means to us, and among those who share our interests.”

> Prices for Pestle & Mortar designs range from RM50 to RM80. Their collections can viewed online at or at their showroom located at Wanaka Bungalow, Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur. For more information, contact

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