I like shopping, I love buying clothes and dressing up,” says Johnson Tan, the founder of Tracey, a local handbag company.
Tan has been in the business since he was a teenager. “After I finished high school, I had a part-time job in a company that sold handbags. Later on, I realised I had become quite attuned to anything related to this accessory. I was able to catch the types of handbags suitable for different women, what brands they carried and even down to the pricing. Then I asked myself, ‘Eh, could this be my passion?’”
After six years with the company, he wanted to express his interest on his own terms, besides finding a more stable livelihood. Setting up his own business allowed him to do that. “I was getting a salary that was not enough to cover my expenses. For the sake of my future and my passion for handbags, I started Tracey in 2008.”
Since its inception, Tracey has gone through major rebranding twice, first in 2015, then August last year. The recent exercise came about after he realised that online shopping was the way forward, especially during the pandemic. Besides strengthening its online presence, the brand intends to make its products more functional.
“We noticed that fashion bags were everywhere, but some of them were not convenient to use. I think fashion and convenience should come together. So we created our first compartment bag, the Urban Lady, which has 16 pockets in total,” Tan says.
The idea to create a bag with multiple sections was inspired by his wife Lee Ai Ping — who is also the HR cum finance manager of Tracey — as she always found it hard to find things in her bags.
“She is an organised person, but because of the way some handbags are designed — which is not practical and only meant to look fashionable — it was hard for her to find small things like lipsticks or cards. When we went shopping, we always had issues with parking tickets and had to search for them. I thought a bag with compartments could solve that problem,” Tan explains.
Tracey has had its products manufactured by a company in China for more than a decade. As the signature bag taken a lot of time and effort to create and market, Tan plans to keep ordering the staple item at a production run of 400 pieces as long as there is demand.
A proudly Malaysian brand, he wants more locals to recognise the country has great companies that produce high-quality fashion products.
Tan has made it his mission to attract customers through his creations. Thus, he fashioned his latest collection, Suvi, with traditional elements such as synthetic rattan. He had noticed that his friends favoured brands from overseas. “Some of them looked for companies in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan to buy handbags from and I wonder why they did not purchase local brands. I spoke to my designers and told them we should incorporate the anyaman (weave) element into our creations so they can speak to the Malaysian market.”
Tracey’s products are created using vegan leather. “Besides the fact that it is environmentally friendly, it is a lot cheaper than other materials with the same finish,” Tan notes.
Although the cost of materials has increased a great deal, Tan always reminds his team to stick to quality no matter what. “There are different thickness to the fabric, 0.8mm, 1.0mm and 1.2mm. We use the thickest as it is more durable. Our customers are also happy with the quality of our products.”
Patrons from neighbouring countries such as Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan are able to purchase Tracey’s handbags on Zalora. The products can also be found on shelves of local department stores such as Parkson in Pavilion KL and 1 Utama Shopping Centre in Petaling Jaya, as well as Imago KK Times Square Shopping Mall in Kota Kinabalu and Plaza Merdeka in Kuching.
During the first three years, the company faced significant revenue losses. “Capital was one of our challenges. We also lacked experience in management. We did not know how to manage the company properly. We only knew how to buy, design and sell bags, but administrative work and accounting were not something we had good knowledge in. It was definitely a learning experience,” Tan admits.
Meanwhile, during the pandemic, Tracey’s sales increased by 35% thanks to measures it had taken to boost demand offline and offline. “For offline, we gave out free gifts with every purchase. Online, we started selling on Shopee and Lazada about five years ago. We had a lot of followers already, so we used that to our advantage by managing the prices of our products. We just had to make sure the cash flow was running smoothly.”
Tracey has received feedback and requests from customers who want more colour options and a slightly bigger size for the Urban Lady to fit a 15in laptop — it currently fits a 13in laptop. “Some requested for a backpack with the same concept as well. We are considering their recommendations and will incorporate the features in our upcoming collections,” says Tan.
This article first appeared on May 2, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.