Even though Raja Akif Raja Muhammad Ariff, 28, graduated with a degree in architecture, he wasn’t too keen on the idea of working as an architect – creating blueprints, concept drawings or renderings.
Instead, the Universiti Malaya graduate decided to pursue his passion and become a leather crafter. This was back in 2017.
“I come from a family of crafters. My dad loves carpentry, leather crafting, and painting. Growing up in Pasir Gudang, Johor, Dad and I spent hours crafting things for our home like wood cabinets; we also did origami and stone sculpting. My mother loves sewing, and my older sister runs a crafting business in Johor,” he says.
“After my graduation, I wanted to become a product designer, and focus on crafting. With some financial aid from my varsity professor and my parents, I bought a laser cutting machine and started a small business producing woodcraft items like trophies and plaques.
“Then, I decided to try my hand at leather crafting. I started by making leather card holders and slowly explored new product designs for wallets and handbags,” says Raja Akif.
What started as a hobby gradually transformed into a full-fledged business called Kotak Ilham.
He now runs his humble business in Taman OUG Parklane in Jalan Puchong, Kuala Lumpur with four staff.
“I’ve always been drawn to the tactile nature of materials. Leather, in particular, offers a unique canvas for my creativity,” says Raja Akif, who makes about 50 handbags a month.
While Malaysia may not be known for leather goods, there is an increasing interest and appreciation for locally-made leather products that are unique and also more affordable. Artisans like Raja Akif are feeding the demand for homegrown products.
“Most of my customers are from Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. They come across my products on my Instagram. My target audience is those who value genuine and affordable leather products,” he explains.
He now has over 100 leather product designs under his label, including book covers, handbags, duffel bags and travel bags.
His products, crafted from full-grain leather, range in price from RM50 to RM1,000.
“Generally, Malaysians like crossbody bags, mini bucket bags and phone pouches.
“The bucket handbag is trending now, as more women seem to like the ‘relaxed’ bag look,” shares the father of one, who learned how to craft leather products from watching videos on social media.
Raja Akif says that his architectural knowledge and training do come to good use in the design and construction of his products.
“My designs are inspired by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who employs the concept of minimalism. I turn to digital software for fabrication, where our designs are digitised into computer-aided design files so we can reprint them. We use Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator to generate personalised logos,” says Raja Akif, the youngest of two siblings.
He uses vegetable-tanned leather (where leather is dyed using natural products like olive leaves, coffee bean shells and oak bark) and chrome-tanned leather (dyed using chemicals, acids and salts).
It can take between a day to a week to create a bag, depending on the level of complexity.
“First, the leather is chosen based on thickness and durability. Then, the design is printed on the leather. Next, the hide is manually cut and then handstitched. The last step is sanding and bevelling, which helps to smoothen the edges of our leather products.
While he is keenly aware that Kotak Ilham is a young brand, he is happy with their following so far.
“We try to constantly come up with new designs that follow fashion trends. We also focus on documenting how our products are made and share them on our social media platforms.
“This helps to build our brand. My plan is for Kotak Ilham to serve as a hub where crafters can come and create products. I want it to be a one-stop centre for craft exclusive merchandise.”