People who have been in business long enough will tell you that mixing work with friendship is a recipe for disaster. And yet, as divisive as the topic may be, there have been many testimonies vouching for the successful chemistry friends can bring to the table. Case in point: Bungalow18 in Damansara Heights, KL.
It is founded by Francisca Turner and Gaya Subramaniam, who have been firm friends since meeting at the age of 12 when they were students at Sayfol International School in KL. The two kept in touch even as they moved on to the next phases of their lives; Turner chose to work in publishing and Gaya, public relations. Divergent career paths aside, there were also geographical barriers between them as Gaya then relocated to Singapore, where she lived and worked for the next 17 years.
Despite this, they have always been on each other’s radar screen, keeping up with personal and professional growth and milestones. “We’ve always been friends, and our kids are too. I’m proud to say I’m godmother to Franki’s oldest daughter. Then, we kind of ended up growing together on the business side of things too,” says Gaya.
Eventually, their entrepreneurial journey began organically in 2015 when Turner set up Frankitas, a local accessory brand selling woven bags as well as home decor items, while Gaya founded Just Gaya’s and became a distributor of Malaysian brands — Frankitas’ products included — in Singapore before expanding to sell her own colourful earrings.
“We have done eight years of trial [as retailer and distributor] and have had no issues. We work very well together. We complement each other and possess very different strengths,” says Turner.
“Our work ethic is exactly the same and we don’t take things to heart,” Gaya observes. “We know what our business personalities are and the shared vision of what we’re trying to achieve, professionally and personally. The care and love we’ve had for one another over the last three decades is the foundation. We do try to avoid seeing each other on Sundays though,” she laughs.
The period they spent as retailer and distributor, not to mention their years of friendship, gave them enough reason and faith to level up. Together with another partner, Turner and Gaya established Bungalow18 by Frankitas at Jalan Damansara Permai, Damansara Heights, in July last year.
“[This part of] Damansara Heights has always been quiet. Selfishly, we picked it as it is very close to our children’s school. We are parents first before entrepreneurs. Our No 1 priority is our kids and we want to make sure we are close by. Should anything happen in school, the teachers call us — something that we get all the time — and we are nearby,” says Turner.
Although both are Petaling Jaya girls, another factor that worked in the favour of Damansara Heights was architecture. “We love PJ, but this house kind of spoke to us,” says Gaya. Turner agrees, “When we saw and entered the house, there was a ‘feeling’. It’s not so much about the aesthetics or what you put inside but the feeling you create. And this place had that initial feeling of nostalgia.”
Nestled between modern residences and other lavish homes in the upscale suburb, Bungalow18 combines a traditional structure with colonial architecture — qualities that instantly attracted Turner and Gaya when they visited the place. Located a stone’s throw from the Semantan MRT Station, its bright pink gate also makes it stand out.
“We like the retro architecture. We are not into modern buildings, mainly because they just feel cold and sterile. We are the opposite of that. We are old souls. We want to recreate that old-school feeling with this place,” says Turner. “It is sort of embracing heritage in many ways, whether it’s from our brands’ side or from the look and feel we’ve built with Bungalow18,” Gaya adds.
The house’s original structure has not been changed, but cosmetic upgrades (namely, a thorough paint job) were necessary to liven up the atmosphere and make it comfortable to spend time in. Turner, who inherited a love of nature, gardening and farming from her mother, helped to landscape the lawn. “The garden was barren, so I planted every single tree you see there. My mother and I used to grow fruit and vegetables such as tapioca, sweet potatoes, peanuts and yam. I would love to create that here. I just haven’t had the time,” she says.
STRONG ON SUSTAINABILITY
Strong advocates of sustainability, Turner and Gaya hope to have their own vegetable garden in the backyard. They have already planted bunga kantan, serai, daun salam and a lemon tree, among others. These crops are used in the food and beverage offerings served at Bungalow18’s weekly pop-up café, which operates on a by-reservation-only basis from 9am to 3pm every Friday.
“We mix lemongrass leaves harvested from our backyard with the charcoal used to grill satay for the aroma. The ‘charcoal’ is actually coconut shells because it is more sustainable. A lot of the time, people just eat the coconut and everything else goes to waste. We want to be able to champion the zero-waste concept,” says Turner.
The café started operating two months ago and everything served is prepared by Turner herself and her Aunt Titin, with a distinctive Indonesian streak running through the menu — a nod to their heritage. Patrons can dine in at the restful property or call to takeaway regional treats such as Soto Bogor, satay, karedok and gado-gado.
Turner and Gaya maintain the by-reservation basis because they are mindful of food wastage. “We don’t want to go all out. We want to start small and build from there because that allows us to understand our diners’ demographic as well as the quantity we should prepare for,” says Gaya.
The F&B pillar is extended to private events for which clients can book Bungalow18 and use the patio, garden and pergola area for special occasions. Recently, an intimate Chinese wedding, attended by only 25 family members and close friends, was held at the venue. “We can now add event planning and organising to our repertoire as Bungalow18 has become a private space for people, be it children or adults, to gather and celebrate,” says Turner. Preparations for food and decorations are mainly done in-house, but they are also open to third-party collaborations.
BY WOMEN FOR WOMEN
Bungalow18 was initiated for many reasons, one of which was to provide a safe space for women from all walks of life. “Growing up, Gaya and I always dreamt about creating a clubhouse for women, where we could gather in one place and be 100% our authentic selves. We could laugh, scream, be crazy and cry if we needed to. We wanted to create a platform for different communities of women. We’ve always wanted that since we were teenagers and in our twenties. We were very idealistic back then,” says Turner.
Their childhood dream was accelerated because of Covid-19, with the partners laying out a variety of experiences to complement the boutique, including fitness classes, wellness therapies and F&B and private events. Bungalow18 also welcomes small businesses and local brands to consign their products with them. To date, they stock more than 30 brands, either owned by Malaysians or designed and produced locally.
“We’re always searching for things that are unique, non-conventional and made by hand, macam seni jari. These brands have a very strong DNA in terms of tradition, culture and heritage in their offerings. They are socially responsible and they treat staff well and pay them fair wages. Those are the qualities we search for beyond the cosmetics of the products. These factors are important to us because fast fashion is continuing to grow and we are the opposite of that. We are a conscious business and we look for other conscious brands that share the same values,” says Turner. “We want to create a platform for businesses that may not have a physical presence elsewhere or have just started their enterprise,” adds Gaya.
Brands that can be found under Bungalow18’s roof include Fugeelah, led by women dedicated to thoughtful sourcing, fair wages and give-back initiatives; Favory Home, which sells different kinds of wooden homeware such as trays and baskets; and Word of Mouth Clothing, which champions vacation-friendly outfits.
Customers around the world will soon be able to shop for these multi-label products as an e-commerce platform is in the works. Hopeful and ambitious, the partners want to reach a far bigger audience. “We have expatriates coming here to buy gifts because they know they can get things that are authentically local. We are also working with DDEC (Malaysia Design Development Centre), which is partnering Malaysia Airports to set up boutiques at aviation hubs across Malaysia such as the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Langkawi, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak. The first to launch is in Langkawi this month, so you’ll be able to see our offerings there soon.
“We want to collaborate with government agencies that can help promote Malaysia as a destination, and also home-grown brands and SMEs as we try to build up the economy again. We need Malaysians to buy and support the local economy. Everything that is done — I’m not just talking about Bungalow18 — has ripple effects, even though they’re tiny, on the overall economy, livelihoods, branding and the positioning of the country,” says Turner.
SETTING UP DURING COVID-19
Setting up Bungalow18 during the pandemic undeniably posed a huge risk. Initially, the opening had to be delayed due to the lockdowns, resulting in the loss of potential sales for months. However, the friends believe they benefited from the established clientele who are the followers of their eponymous brands — Frankitas and Just Gaya’s.
Turner concurs, saying, “Frankitas has been around for more than nine years and we have built a fantastic and loyal customer base in that period. So, Bungalow18 gives us the opportunity to further engage with them. The customers who come here don’t just walk in and leave within 10 minutes. We sit, chat and get to know each other. If they’re looking for something specific, we have over 30 brands to choose from and we love to share these amazing businesses with them. It’s the reason we needed this comfortable seating area in the middle of the boutique — so everyone can put their feet up and talk and talk.”
When the pandemic hit, both Turner and Gaya noticed everyone around the world was going through some form of grief and people were battling with not just physical health, but also mental and emotional problems. “We lost our livelihoods. We lost this physical connection that we need as humans. So, we wanted to create a space where we could connect, be human and use all of our senses again. That’s the core of Bungalow18,” says Turner.
Their plan to include fitness classes, manicure and pedicure services and workshops has proved to be successful as they realise the public is hungry and actively searching for shared experiences. Fitness activities are carried out most weekday mornings and a fitness marathon runs monthly on the last Saturday of every month for those who cannot make it to the classes. Different types of workouts including Zumba, Bollywood dance, strength, Barre, HIIT, yin yoga and meditation are led by two main trainers.
“We are getting a lot more reach beyond the existing Frankitas customers because of these other business pillars we have introduced. Such activities complement the retail experience and vice versa. People can shop and get their nails done at the same time,” says Turner.
VISION + GROWTH
Workshops — organised once a month or every two months — on mental awareness and building a brand are among the subjects they want to focus on. “Mental health workshops allow us to support and learn from one another. On the other hand, we also want to help the SME community — with Franki’s background in branding and marketing, my background in public relations, and other women from different fields coming to share their knowledge. We had been single entrepreneurs until a year ago, when we came together and collaborated,” Gaya points out. “So, we know how hard it is to do everything from A to Z, whether it’s marketing, product design or logistics, it’s a lonely journey. We want to be able to share that knowledge.”
It might warm hearts to know that the essence of Bungalow18 is a reimagination of Turner and Gaya’s shared childhood spent mainly at the latter’s house where they were constantly surrounded by love and warmth. “A lot of it was inspired by my childhood home in PJ. It was a very similar bungalow. The door was always open. My mum welcomed our friends and there were times when it felt like everybody lived with us,” Gaya recalls.
“The idea of the physical house itself did come from Gaya’s childhood home,” Turner confirms. “We wanted to recreate the feelings we got from that place, which is safety, security, warmth and being non-judgmental for not just women, but also children. We have mums who come here to shop while the kids run around in the garden. They play hide and seek or kick a ball around. It’s a big space but, most importantly, it’s safe.”
On the name Bungalow18, the partners say they chose it as it symbolised the most important element in getting through the hardships imposed by the pandemic — home. “It was as simple as that,” says Gaya. “Home represents so much of what we need. Bungalow18 has become that, a hidden treasure in the heart of KL, where people can enjoy and be themselves. So, come over, discover it and let it be your home away from home.”
This article first appeared on Sept 5, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.