Jillian Tan has consistently dreamt of running her own business. “I have always wanted to do a business related to design. I wanted to go to design school, but my mom didn’t allow me to, so I just kept trying to find a way,” she says. Even when interning at various jobs, she would approach designers with ideas, but was often turned down. It was while she was working at Pavilion KL in the client servicing side of the branding team that she found someone like-minded.
Graphic designer Christina Tan was looking to do something different. “As a designer, working either in-house or for an agency, it’s always very restrictive in terms of freedom and creativity. There’s not much room to explore, to do things that are totally different, or bring something else to the table. It is always what the boss wants and what the client wants,” she says. Jillian’s proposal to start a business was met with open arms.
As Jillian’s family owned a printing press, the friends began brainstorming projects related to paper goods and stationery. Toying with the idea of greeting cards and stickers, the two chanced upon an opportunity that set their business in motion: A mutual friend asked them to make her wedding invitation. And, just like that, Kami Design was born. “We were really attracted to Japanese design, and the whole concept of Japanese design is functional. It’s also aesthetically pleasing. ‘Kami’, in Japanese, means ‘paper’. It also means ‘us’ in Malay; so, as Malaysians, we thought that the name was really relevant,” explains Christina.
Kami Design’s products are handmade entirely in Jillian’s family factory, with embellishments and quality control done by Christina and Jillian. There was a lot of on-the-job learning that the friends had to do early on. “I knew the different materials and how the printing process works, but I didn’t know how to run a business. We pretty much learnt along the way. A lot of it was talking to people, getting opinions and advice,” says Jillian. Still, Kami Design quickly gained clients through word of mouth. “It’s like a chain. So, you have this person getting married and they send out our invites to their guests. Then, the guests will start asking about it — like ‘Hey, this is so different, where did you get it from?’ — and find out about us,” says Christina.
While Jillian is the brand strategist, Christina is the designer. “The challenge was definitely deciding whether we should quit our full-time jobs for this venture. At the time, we didn’t have enough clients to sustain [our livelihood], so we really had to think about it,” says Jillian. The advantage of starting this business when they did, in 2016, was that there was no other company that focused solely on wedding stationery, so the friends decided to take the plunge. Jillian quit her job in July 2017. “I was at that point where I felt like my full-time job wasn’t rewarding enough. So, I felt like why don’t I quit first and I will go and look for clients,” she explains. Christina quit her other job in 2018, when Kami Design began receiving an overwhelming number of clients. Keeping up with the sudden volume was also a challenge. “We started getting real feedback from the clients, saying how satisfied and happy they were with their invites. That felt really rewarding,” Christina says.
What makes Kami Design’s invites unique is that they are completely custom-made, while also including out-of-the-box design cues to set it apart. “I am inspired by fashion and interior design. There are a lot of colour palettes involved, different elements and shapes that just come together. Usually, when we work with a client, they will have their own wedding planner and set decor, so they will share with us their mood board. We take that and our own creativity and play around with it. I try to balance between delivering what the client wants and what we think would be nice,” explains Christina. One standout design includes a pop-up card made for a couple that was having the wedding in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. One side had the skyline of KL while the other had the skyline of Hong Kong.
Each year, Kami Design has a new goal. Last year’s aim was to be more environmentally conscious. “We started introducing handmade paper, which is basically the odds and ends on paper remade into a new sheet. It has a different texture and rough edges. We also tried to sway people away from plastic and acrylic invites,” says Jillian. The friends have also been working on personalised gifts for their clients, such as bridesmaid’s boxes and agate coasters with hand-painted inscriptions.
This year’s goal is to venture into e-commerce. Kami Design will launch its new website in the middle of the year, and it will include more affordable paperless cards and invites. It will also feature options for other celebrations such as birthdays and parties. “We want to highlight that tangible invites are really important. I know that a lot of people are going towards e-invites, which is fine, but I feel receiving and giving a tangible invite is a lot more sincere, especially for a once-in-a-lifetime event,” says Christina.
This article first appeared on Feb 24, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.