Sometimes, it is hard to find the right accessories to suit your personal style. Even the most coveted, on-trend luxury items may not flatter you. This was what Christy Foh realised when she treated herself to a Louis Vuitton bag — although it was highly fashionable, it did not speak to her sense of self.
The stay-at-home mum, who has a background in fashion design, says, “The branded bags that were available in Malaysia at the time did not suit my style while the ones in Thailand were so expensive. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I make it myself?’” Her previous experience working in a fashion factory as a cutter, as well as in marketing for a label, gave her a good foundation to kick-start Christy Studio in 2008.
While searching for inspiration, Foh came across a Damas-style bag — a simple, square crossbody bag with a leather handle. Won over by it, she began creating bags with a similar design, adding her own variations such as pockets or playing with the sizes. “I found that in Malaysia, there were two kinds of bags — high-end ones from luxury brands and the mass produced kind. What I was looking for were bags for daily use that sported simple designs and muted colours,” she says.
Christy Studio’s bags — from totes and crossbodies to messengers and backpacks — have easy-to-match colours and textures. “We only use three kinds of materials — canvas, leather and denim. I like to mix them together. Everyone likes leather, and I chose canvas because it’s very natural and eco-friendly. Denim doesn’t sell as well, so I use it less but I like the feel of it,” Foh explains.
When she first started, online businesses were less common than they are now, so she decided to sell her products through Etsy, a global online marketplace. While she was quite familiar with the offline world, her experience with e-commerce was limited. “My first buyer was from California. I was so happy but I didn’t know if the price was suitable, how much postage would cost or how PayPal worked. I just wanted to ship out the order. I actually sold my first bag at a loss, but it didn’t matter to me because I was happy to be able to sell it,” she says. Her first sale boosted her confidence and pushed her to carry on.
Since then, Christy Studio has thrived, attracting customers from around the world and launching a website in 2018. The brand’s unique style, coupled with the flawless quality of its products, has led to a strong following. “I have customers who have used my bags for over 10 years and only now are they seeing wear and tear. They have contacted me for the same design, and because they are so loyal and I still keep my templates, I willingly make it for them. They are so happy that they order three bags at a time,” says Foh.
She has managed to garner loyalty from not just her customers but also her staff members — many of whom have been with her since 2013. She gives those who sew for her — mostly single mothers or people without transport — the freedom to work from home. The Christy Studio team is small, making it easier to manage orders.
“Now, I’ve started to employ school-leavers for the marketing side of my business. I tell them that if they want to understand what it means to be a business that makes handmade products, to come to my home office and make at least one keychain or a small pouch. I tell them, ‘You shouldn’t only do marketing; you need to learn how things are made and see what this business is really about’.”
Foh does not plan to go the factory route as she believes the fact that her bags are handmade is what gives Christy Studio its edge.
Having run her business for so long, she encountered a new challenge last year — boredom. After years of creating bags, she became uninspired and unmotivated. In the hope of reigniting her passion, she scoured feedback from her customers. “Previously, I had sourced my canvas from Hong Kong, China and a few local suppliers. The canvas is of good quality but the trend now is for waterproof materials. My search led me to Japan where I found a really good quality canvas that is waterproof. I became excited again.”
Revitalised, Foh has welcomed 2020 with a new approach. The water-resistant canvas from Fuji Kinume has allowed her to incorporate a refreshed take on Christy Studio bags. “You have to find ways to love your job. Prior to this, selling our bags had been very easy — we didn’t need to do anything new for the photos or marketing. Now, the new material means a change in photos and the lifestyle angle. We also have to market the products differently. I’m excited, so my passion has come back.”
This article first appeared on July 20, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.