There is a Chinese proverb that says, “With a great teacher comes an accomplished student”.
Kuala Lumpur-based Taiwanese bag designer Illiza Ho is a good example of this.
Under the tutelage of renowned designer Datuk Jimmy Choo, Ho has fused together years of learning, observation, comprehension, research and applied work to develop her eponymous handbag label.
She made her debut at KL Fashion Week with her first Spring/Summer collection taking the runway on Nov 15 last year.
Three collections later, she officially established her e-shopping site at www.illizaho.com.
Ho had worked for four years in Taiwan before she furthered her studies in London.
An industrial design graduate, Ho has working experience designing wooden toys, footwear and timepieces.
“Working with watches drove my passion for fashion accessories. That’s when I decided to enroll into the London College of Fashion to learn accessories design — bags in particular,” Ho says.
While studying in London, her friend who was doing an internship with Choo introduced Ho to him, and her career trajectory became clear.
Ho subsequently came to Kuala Lumpur in December 2010 and settled here.
“When I met her and saw all her sketches and bags, the first thing I asked was who made them. She told me she designed, cut patterns and made everything from scratch,” recalls Choo.
“Some people don’t know certain processes such as designing, crafting, and finishing the end-product. Illiza has all the skills entirely.”
The novelty of Ho’s designs appealed to Choo, as did her dedication.
“She is very intelligent; her designs are always unusual. She does ample research on her work,” notes Choo, adding that there is always a background story to every collection Ho develops.
Throughout the mentorship, Ho followed Choo in his globetrotting travel for work, learning as she went while opening up to new horizons.
“I had no real fashion experience prior to arriving in Kuala Lumpur. But I was privileged to learn the entire process of making bags. I visited factories and received guidance from my mentor for my designs,” says Ho.
“But perhaps he (Choo) taught me more about life than about designing. Each designer has his or her own character, and he said that the path to success starts from having a cultured personality,” continues Ho.
She thinks that she still has much to learn from her mentor.
Two years later, Choo decided it was time for Ho to venture into her own label and business.
The move proved to be challenging for Ho.
“I’m a designer first, business is not my forte. There are many things I had to learn to take note of.
“For instance, I have to consider my prices and my target segment. Whenever I develop my collection, I’ll discuss with the marketing team to gauge marketability,” explains Ho.
“More often than not, I had to fine-tune my pieces before it can go commercial without compromising my idea,” she says, adding that her bags had to be special but still be accesible in terms of price.
On top of commercial concerns, Ho admits that creativity can be restricted by other considerations.
“Ideas exist all the time, but you don’t necessarily get one when you want one. I may take up to a month to do research and come up with materials for an entire collection,” she says.
“Sometimes, I might sketch something and find that it is not feasible, or do a mock-up only to find that I don’t like it. Then I will have to redevelop the whole idea,” she said, adding that the repetitive trial and error process is a daily grind.
However, Ho said that because of the unorthodox nature of her designs, she could unlock very different things while experimenting with her mock-ups.
“It is possible the end product will become different from what I set out for in my sketches, and there’s a beauty in that. There are things that you just cannot pencil in,” she says.
During trips abroad, Ho commits to find the best resources to make her ideas a reality.
“I’ve purchased materials all over the world. It could be from anywhere as long as they are suitable,” she says.
While her ideas and sample creations are born in Malaysia, the manufacturing and marketing processes take place in Taiwan.
“For shipping purposes, Taiwan is a pretty strategic location.
“As I’m also not particularly familiar with the production steps here in Malaysia, I choose to coordinate most of the processes with my family as they are helping me from Taiwan,” explains Ho.
She emphasises that her business will be run on a pre-order basis for now.
“I have 12 items for my latest Spring/Summer 2015 collection, but I couldn’t possibly have them all mass-produced. I’d pick a few that I think will be popular and produce about 20 of each,” explains Ho.
Even then, Ho said production can hit snags.
“It is hard to even get manufacturers to agree to produce just 20 bags. There is also the trouble with getting my bags made the exact way I want them to be.
“The production line could affect the way my bags turn out,” shesays.
Ho’s creations are mainly leather pieces that focus on having multifunctional qualities.
“It is the label’s concept. Every piece is malleable in some way so that it has more styles or uses than one. Each piece is also accompanied by my signature ‘stripe’ feature, a geometric trait,” remarks Ho.
She says she is exploring other materials to make her bags with in the future.
The Illiza Ho bags are priced from RM1,000.
While her website only went live early this month, Ho says she has already received enquiries and orders.
“My creations are mainly targeted to women between the ages 25 to 45, but they have also gained attention from men too.
“This kindles my interest to tap into the unisex market. I will give this serious thought at least after two more seasons,” Ho says.
Ho said that she would soon launch a bespoke service through her website, catering to custom orders.
In the meantime, Ho said she does not deny the possibility of exploring footwear in the future, following in the footsteps of her mentor, Choo.
“I did make the shoes worn by the models for my three runway shows, but they weren’t meant to be sold,” she says.
Ho says that it is not the time for her to set up a physical boutique yet.
“It is part of my plan, but the time is not now. There will be many expenses involved and I am not too adventurous just yet.
“Furthermore, having an online shop allows international access to my creations,” says Ho.
“Besides, what I really need to do now is to properly establish strong brand presence, and that itself is not an easy task,” she adds.