'I broke down': Malaysian designer Nelissa Hilman's pivot from shoes to clothes


Learning how to put together a ready-to-wear collection was a learning curve for Nelissa Hilman. Photo: Syazwan Asyraf

In August 2022, the local fashion scene was abuzz with the return of Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week, after a prolonged hiatus due to Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

Many brands returned to the runway in all their glamorous glory, but all fashion enthusiasts’ eyes turned to an exciting debut by a much-loved homegrown label.

The founder of the Nelissa Hilman footwear label, who established her namesake brand in 2012, showcased her first ready-to-wear collection, featuring bags made in collaboration with Dab Cafe KL, as well as jewellery crafted with Wasis Studio.

Nelissa Hilman debuted her first ready-to-wear collection at the recent Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week. Photo: Syed FaeezNelissa Hilman debuted her first ready-to-wear collection at the recent Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week. Photo: Syed FaeezRead more: Style Watch: Malaysian fashion stylist Andrea Kee is a specialist in looks

Debuting her first clothing line and coming together with her friends in the industry to celebrate the grand return of runway shows was a special time for Nelissa, who shares that she reached breaking point emotionally and mentally during the height of the pandemic.

With everyone stuck at home, no one needed shoes, and Nelissa’s business was hit hard, and she found herself contemplating closing the business.

“I even asked around among friends, whether they knew anyone who would buy me out,” says Nelissa.

“It just wasn’t fun anymore, the joy was not there. There were payments, repayments, the rental rate, it caused me a lot of anxiety, and I broke down.”

Factories were closing, they started losing their suppliers, and production became a challenge.

However, with major adjustments to the way the business operates, tight cash flow management and a loan from MyCreative, Nelissa managed to keep her business going while retaining all her staff.

A learning curve

Mentally and emotionally, Nelissa began feeling better when restrictions were eased and she was able to see friends and travel a little.

She then began toying with the idea of designing clothing.

“It was more of me wanting to learn something new,” says Nelissa. “We found a supplier early this year and wanted to target the Raya festivities but we couldn’t do it in time.

Knowing that she needed help, she called Malaysian designer Jonathan Liang, with whom she had collaborated with several times over the years.

“I knew I didn’t want to make so many mistakes, so I called him and said I want a collection, this is my vision and I need help,” she recalls.

“He sat down, looked at all the fabrics and taught me all about putting together a collection.”

Along the way, she learned the ins and outs of the clothing business, making new discoveries.

“One of the surprising things was textile. I thought I knew what textiles I wanted but when they were in front of me, they looked exactly the same. How do you know which one to go with in terms of stretchiness and other things?

“I learned that the turnaround time for clothing is much less than shoes. It takes about 30 days to produce clothes and 30 days to ship it in, as for shoes, it’s anything between four to six months, so it’s much slower.”

“I was thinking, wow, I could order like three rounds of baju and one collection of shoes would arrive, but I still love shoes, that’s my first love.”

A collection with a balance

Nelissa’s first ready-to-wear collection, she says with a laugh, is catered to herself.

The homegrown favourite shoe brand was hit hard by the pandemic. Photo: Nelissa HilmanThe homegrown favourite shoe brand was hit hard by the pandemic. Photo: Nelissa Hilman“The direction of the collection is pretty much workwear, there’s too many casual options in the market and people are going back to the office, and they want to look smart,” she says.

“You want to be pragmatic, but with a creative flair. I can wear a white shirt, but I want to make it a little more interesting.”

The clothes in the collection are a balance between items that are as useful as they are exciting; that are familiar, but not forgettable; that are chic, but chill.

“The items that spark our interest have a just-right tension between familiar and not, between what we know we love and what we never knew we needed. We all have different tastes, but the underlying impulse is the same: to express ourselves through what we wear and find what makes us feel alive, inspired, and empowered.”

She says this is the general “feel” of the collection.

There was also a jewellery collection called Seed(Pods), that complemented Nelissa’s RTW show, where she collaborated with Wasis Studio, founded by Sakinah Hassan.

Nelissa expressed her interest in visiting Sakinah’s studio to have a look at the jewellery designer’s work, where the idea of a collaboration was mooted.

During a discussion on materials that Sakinah uses, Nellisa brought up the idea to craft something out of her first outpost signage.

Soon after, work began on the copper sign and the collection, which represents the process of renewal and growth, was born.

With a successful RTW debut and jewellery collaboration to her name, Nelissa isn’t planning anything concrete just yet, but is looking forward to continuing on her journey in the industry.

Read more: Malaysia's Vivy Yusof included in global fashion list alongside Giorgio Armani

After two years of disruptions, she says she is now in a better place, mentally and emotionally.

“I’ve learned to be at peace with uncertainty,” she says. “I used to be stressed, ‘When are the shoes coming in, I need them this week,’ and so on, but I know that some things are out of my control.”

Another lesson she learned was to know when to ask for help, which she does.

“I always felt like I can do everything on my own, but I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it,” she says.

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