The idea for Real.m, or Real Material, first began when Najmia Zulkarnain brought home a Turkish towel. Her sisters, Naadira and Atiyya, also fell in love with the versatile product, so they started thinking about creating a business. “It was strange, falling in love with a towel, but it’s more about the experience that came with it. As an avid traveller, I can use it for anything, so I thought, why not bring it to Malaysia? It’s such a practical product and it does more than just one function,” says Najmia.
“You don’t really see functional and pretty items around. I thought we could fill that gap, making it chic and stylish with added value,” says Atiyya. Today, Real.m sells in-house designed travel towels, blankets, throws and bamboo wears — including kaftans, ponchos and kimonos — with a particular lifestyle in mind. “More than just selling products, we’re trying to sell a lifestyle — that whole easy, fuss-free lifestyle that deals with natural materials,” adds Naadira.
Diving headfirst into the world of Turkish cotton made the vision clearer for Real.m. “A lot of the cotton comes from the city of Denizli in Turkey, where they don’t allow any pesticides on their farms. I also learnt about how these fabrics have been hand-loomed for over 500 years, mainly by women and essentially made into towels … but they have many more functions,” adds Najmia. The cotton from the region is known for its high absorbency but the sisters felt that they should not be limited to just towels.
Staying true to their tagline, “Entering the realm of real material”, having good-quality products comes hand in hand with being environmentally conscious. Real.m’s eco-friendly stance also came from extensive research. “When we found out about the damage that pesticides are doing not just to the environment and the soil but also the water, we decided to try our best — even though it is not always economical — to deal with farmers who use a sustainable process,” explains Najmia.
The three sisters have lived disparate lives. Naadira was an architect and is now a full-time mum while Atiyya used to work in social media but is now also a full-time mum. Najmia, who has a background in interior design and furniture design, went on to curate arts festivals globally. She is the main driver of the business, handling business development, operations and designing, while Atiyya oversees marketing and digital content and Naadira focuses on finance and accounts. They also engage freelancers to help with certain tasks. Without a business background or mentors in their family to rely on, the trio had to undergo a lot of on-the-job learning.
Initially, the sisters encountered a few teething problems. They had set out to catch the interest of 20-something avid travellers who were active on social media but found that their premium products were more suitable for an older clientele. As these customers are less tech-savvy, the sisters’ intention of doing a purely online business went out the window. After trying out bazaars and pop-ups, Real.m found more permanent spaces in Bangsar Shopping Centre and Bangsar Village. “We can’t be a bazaar brand because it’s not sustainable, so this year, we moved into retail,” says Atiyya.
“I think we questioned ourselves everyday whether it’s really possible to be 100% sustainable if you’re starting out because the investment is quite costly,” says Najmia.
Despite their worries, the ladies pushed forward with their green agenda. “When you hear from people who really support us and believe in our cause and are willing to work with us, that really raises our spirits and keeps us going,” adds Naadira.
Real.m donates RM1 from each sale to Tropical Rainforest Conservation & Research Centre. It uses biodegradable packaging in lieu of plastic bags and encourages customers to return the packaging to be reused. It is also working towards getting an organic certification for its products.
This article first appeared on Nov 5, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.