As with all good stories, this one began with a book. Chong Fei Giap was Audrey Chew’s tutor while she was studying for a degree in illustration. After graduating, she approached Chong with the idea of starting a business together. They set up Running Snail Studio in 2012 and created illustrations for corporate clients and even worked on animation projects. Their strong Malaysian identity and unique sense of nostalgia drew companies such as AmBank Group, Montblanc and Qatar Airways to their studio.
In 2015, the duo decided to put together a 96-page art book titled Loka Made, in which they compiled a series of illustrations, including those they had done for clients. Fuelled by her entrepreneurial spirit, Chew thought about making their art more accessible to customers. “Not many people collect art books, so how would they know about our art and ideas? So, I said to Fei Giap, ‘Why don’t we turn it into merchandise?’ I personally collect postcards, a lot of postcards. So, I said ‘Why don’t we make things like postcards?’”
And so, by turning their book title into a brand of its own, Loka Made was born. They started with a postcard series and their products eventually included stickers, magnets, keychains, bookmarks and pop-up cards. Now, creative director Chong and Chew, who focuses on marketing, have a team of eight to help cope with orders.
But getting to their current level of popularity and success was an uphill climb. Unfamiliar with the world of retail, Chew initially took their products to stores in Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Penang in the hope of finding potential stockists. They also sold items via Facebook, but sales were slow. “Actually at the time, the income was not very stable for Loka Made, so we concentrated on corporate illustrations to support us,” she says.
By word of mouth, their uniquely Malaysian art was getting noticed and they went on to do a book launch at Kinokuniya. “I was quite surprised because I thought they just wanted to sell our book and maybe a few postcards. But the department head gave us a window to display our products and then let us have a book signing session too. It was our very first book launch and signing session. The turnout was also quite surprising.”
Then, the brand was approached by hotels to stock their locally inspired paper goods in souvenir shops.
Loka Made collaborated with a café in Johor Baru for an exhibition that included both interactive and 3D elements. The café also created a Loka Made-inspired drink — a cendol espresso. “The overall idea behind Loka Made is not just to sell merchandise because we want people to feel something when they see this artwork. They spend time with it and maybe think about their own childhood memories,” says Chew.
The aesthetic that shapes a lot of Loka Made’s illustrations today began with Chong’s drawing of his great-grandfather’s sundry shop in Seremban (now run by his parents). That nostalgic feel and distinctively Malaysian image inspired their range of postcards and pop-up cards that feature roadside mamak stalls, neighbourhood kopitiams, kampung houses and fishing villages, among others. Loka Made’s art always tells a story. “Fei Giap’s parents would tell him a lot of stories, especially about history. He really likes history, like when we travel overseas and visit a museum, he will tell us the stories and becomes our personal tour guide. With our products, people are not just buying art, they are getting something that tells a story,” says Chew.
While the partners were skilled at creating art according to their clients’ brief, they had to shift gears with Loka Made to create designs from their imagination that would sell, which was not easy. Because they strove for perfection, they ran into a few problems with the printers. “It was not easy to print our products because we were very particular. A few printers actually rejected us. They said, ‘You are very leceh (troublesome) because you want everything so accurate — colour accurate and cutting also accurate.’ Which I suppose is fair,” Chew laughs.
It took time to find printers willing to work on the minute details. Chew shows me their 360° 3D Greeting Card: Malaysia In The Glimpse Of Eye. She says, “This is actually our second print. We improved it. The first batch was die cut, which means there was a white border and we could not cut out the details. We weren’t satisfied, but luckily we found a supplier that could laser cut the details and do it nicely.”
The Movement Control Order caused a substantial drop in sales for Loka Made as most of the revenue came from tourists. But putting a positive spin on the situation, the team created its own character, which is something it has wanted to do for years. Tapir Man is now the adorable mascot of Loka Made.
Loka Made has a few collaborations coming up. Fans can look forward to seeing Tapir Man featured in a project with Wall’s ice cream and a Maggi Merdeka campaign. And for the Mid-Autumn Festival, look out for special edition John Walker & Sons XR 21 bottles with Loka Made illustrations.
In the light of the recent troubles and to cater more for the local market, Loka Made has released the #RideMyWave illustration, which depicts a ship filled with Malaysians and local elements taking on the choppy seas together. Available on notebooks, T-shirts, folders, bags and Touch ‘n Go cards, among others, this image represents our resilience in the face of difficulties, especially when we stand united. Chew says she hopes Loka Made can continue to create uniquely Malaysian items that we can share and be proud of.
This article first appeared on Sept 7, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.