Soong Xin-Ee grew up with batik dresses made to measure every Chinese New Year, thanks to three seamstress aunts who delighted in sewing clothes for the big extended family in Klang, Selangor. This tradition nurtured her appreciation of customised outfits and how versatile batik can be.
In 2018, Soong, together with three cousins, decided to take her aunts’ decades-old home tailoring business online. The leap into digital rests on the sturdy shoulders of the trio, older sisters of Soong’s mother Wong Soo Fhoong, who took it upon herself to source fabrics for Gérson Batik.
Wong Soo Ha, 60, continues to wield the scissors while Soo Ling, 58, and Soo Mee, 57, do the tailoring. “We get our batik from different locations in Malaysia. My mum, who has an eye for fabrics, handpicks all the pieces we use. Fabric designs keep changing and we meet with our suppliers every three weeks,” says Soong.
Indonesian batik has the same patterns, usually big flowers, for the whole sarung, whereas 30% of the corak on Malaysian batik differ from that on the rest of the fabric, she explains. “Cutting the cloth right brings out the best of the pattern.”
Since the 1990s, Soo Ha has employed her artful skills to dress the Wong clan — there are 15 siblings in the family, not counting spouses and offspring. She is the go-to person for custom-made dresses and bridal outfits. Today, she and her niece are the designers for Gérson.
“I love how she comes up with amazing designs. When she looks at a customer’s measurements, she can picture what will look good on her. Often, she makes suggestions so the client can look great,” adds Soong, who also manages business operations and is the face of the brand, modelling its latest selections with a couple of friends on its website.
“I want to marry traditional elements with modern designs to stay in trend and appeal to the younger generation. My goal is to reach out to those who really like batik and tell them — have your own identity. It’s affordable.”
She targets those aged between 21 and 35 with one-of-a-kind outfits and ready-made tops for women; batik shirts, neckties and pocket squares for men; matching family sets with dresses and shirts for children; and batik dog bandanas — if you want to pamper your pets.
Batik tops, a wardrobe staple that starts from RM108 (sleeveless) at Gérson, remain the favourite choice of buyers. Customised dresses (from RM228) are popular too, with women asking for lengths they are comfortable with, and details such as ribbons, buttons and trims to make their outfit special.
Customers want something unique: quality fabrics in good colours, whether cotton or polyester, tailored in designs that suit them. Those who love the look and feel of batik may buy three or four pieces of each fabric in different colours, she notes.
Gérson also caters for plus-size clients who say they cannot find anything outside. “We have gone up to sizes 16 and 18.”
Modernising batik designs and tailoring them to individual requests is the way to reach young customers who have purchasing power, reckons Soong, who works full time with an e-commerce platform. This year, she introduced batik work wear which, paired with blazers, are ideal for the office, and batik sari blouses for Deepavali.
Orders for Chinese New Year opened in mid-October and within a month, she had reached their maximum capacity of 400 items. Although surprised, she is keeping to that number to maintain the quality of the brand’s workmanship and design.
Family ties are strong threads in Gérson. Just as her aunts turned to each other for support, Soong credits her cousins, who live in Singapore, South Korea and Norway, for helping with the online business.
Her decision to go digital stems in part from her wanting to supplement Soo Ha’s household income. “My aunt stopped sewing for five years after her husband died to focus on taking care of their daughter, now 12.
“I convinced the three of them to come back because I want them to use their skill sets and also do something online. The extended family still lives under the same roof in Klang. That’s why I’m able to grow this little business.
“Our relationship has gotten better from working together. My aunts are still passionate about cutting and sewing. They are happy when they look at our products and joyful with the feedback from customers.”
Soong hopes to set up a physical store next year and engage more sewers, and collaborate with a cafe in Kuala Lumpur. Her pieces are presently available at two Wellings pharmacy branches in Penang.
Gérson Batik is named after a tailoring store the Wong sisters visited while on holiday in Germany in the late 1980s. “The trip is an indelible memory for them and they are super proud of our unique name,” Soong says. If her plans take off, the brand could be uppermost in the minds of those charmed by the beauty of batik.
This article first appeared on Dec 21, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.