From a young age, N Devi Sarla had developed interest in fashion. Coming from a traditional family, however, she had a tough time convincing her parents to let her pursue the arts.
“They wanted [me to be] a doctor or an engineer. Luckily for me, my brother and sister had already fulfilled those kinds of professions. They believed fashion was not something worth going for. So I took up graphic design, which has elements of science. That’s how I got to do fashion design as well,” says the founder of Sarlaz Fashion.
While working as a graphic designer, Sarla studied fashion design at the International Fashion Training Centre. But it was not until many years later that she put her knowledge into practice. She created a ready-to-wear collection on a part-time basis and held a photoshoot for the clothing line in Arizona.
A mishap that occurred just hours before the shoot became the catalyst for the establishment of the jewellery brand in 2015. Sarla burnt one of the outfits while ironing it and ended up creating an accessory to hide the damage while letting it be the focus of the outfit.
“I made a piece of jewellery and during the shoot, a lot of people spotted it on the model. One person bought it on the spot. It got me thinking that, more than the outfit, accessories have the ability to enhance somebody’s look. From then on, I focused on creating more jewellery designs.”
Every single project is designed and manufactured by Sarla at her home studio.
“[I create] based on collections, but we do accept custom orders. We have themes inspired by animals, florals and plants. Each of these creations tells a story. When customers come to my showroom, they like to ask questions about the meaning behind a design and I always have the pleasure of sharing the stories with them.”
After years of experience, Sarla is able to create a design in 24 hours. Previously, she would spend a week on each piece.
In 2020, Sarlaz submitted its portfolio to the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade) and was selected as one of 10 companies to attend Pure London, the UK’s largest fashion trade show, in the fashion capital. At the event, the brand attracted the attention of British fashion and textile designer Zandra Rhodes, who had designed clothes for Princess Diana and rock stars Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan.
“Zandra was invited to give a speech at the event and when she was visiting the pavilion, she stopped by our booth, tried on one of our creations and bought it. She said she liked the vibrant colours and bold designs of our pieces. Getting such recognition from an iconic figure in the fashion industry was one of our important milestones.”
Pure London opened doors for the brand as it was invited to display its jewellery in Covent Garden and collaborate with entrepreneurs in London. Following this breakthrough, Sarla decided to move to the UK and manage the business there. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit, forcing her to cancel her plans and reinvent the business in Malaysia instead.
Against all odds, Sarlaz opened a showroom at Mahsa Avenue in Kuala Lumpur last December. However, the launch of the store did not happen without a few setbacks. “We had a social media campaign to inform customers about the opening. But not long after that, there was a massive flood in the Klang Valley. We were badly affected by this because people were not able to shop at our store,” Sarla explains.
She found social media helped increase sales as consumers pivoted to online shopping during the lockdowns. “We utilise Instagram and Facebook to create content about the products instead of using the hard-sell approach. Customers are more interested to learn about the brand that way and sooner or later, conversion from browsing to purchasing is bound to happen.”
Her dream of working with Western fashion brands motivates her to work on polishing her portfolio. Among other things, she makes sure that she uses eco-friendly materials for her creations.
“The pandemic has changed the direction of the fashion industry, the second major contributor to pollution and waste, as corporations are more aware of its impact on the environment. If we want to collaborate with brands from abroad, we have to adopt the slow and ethical fashion model. Our jewellery is made using clay and some of them are mixed with fabrics. We also do not support [using animal-derived materials] in fashion, so there’s no fur or leather in our creations,” explains the nature lover.
Her bold and vibrant designs are inspired by flora and fauna. “People connect with nature, and colours can easily affect one’s mood,” she points out.
Sarla prioritises authenticity and this can be seen from her unique collections as well as the name of the brand. Sarlaz is her name, with the “z” added. She explains that it represents her interpretation of the letter, which she says is rarely used for branding.
Sarla currently runs the business with her brother VinayagaMoorthy and they plan to expand their team soon.
This article first appeared on Apr 11, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.