When buying leather goods, many of us are won over by “genuine leather” labels or assume that only high-end luxury brands are worth buying, but that does not necessarily guarantee long-lasting quality. Zi Xian and Joyce Aw Yen Rong hope that they can educate Malaysian consumers about quality leather via their leather goods brand Tyde.
“Leather is actually one of the strongest materials. If you are using standard quality leather, the natural fibre is so strong that it will last a lifetime. Do not get tricked by commercial terms such as ‘genuine leather’. Some brands use bonded leather, which are scrap, leftover bits that are compressed and made into a new leather piece with a thick coating. After a short time, you will notice that the leather starts to crack and peel,” Xian tells Options.
When Xian and Aw met, neither had the intention of starting a business. “I used to be a mural artist, and Joyce worked for an events company. Her company was looking for new ideas and she decided to contact me after seeing the art on my Instagram — I had murals, paintings and pen illustrations, as well as some leather crafts,” he says. The two became instant friends and, later, decided to attend numerous craft workshops together.
Trying out everything from woodworking to ceramics, they found that they were drawn to leather. The friends decided to make this art form their “serious hobby” by honing their skills further and learning more. About half a year later, they thought it was time to make this a business venture, so they began doing research. “Three years ago, there wasn’t much material on leather crafting in Malaysia. We actually spent a lot of time researching online and watching YouTube videos,” says Xian.
The two quit their full-time jobs and registered their company, Tyde, in May 2017. Soon after, they began renting a studio space to work. What’s interesting about the business is how flexible and adaptable it has been. Initially, they sold products through their website and stocked a few consignment stores as well. “We were getting more and more bespoke orders and most of the time, we needed to talk to the customers face to face or online. The products in the consignment stores were not selling, so we pulled them out,” Xian explains. Tyde evolved to focus more on customisable items to suit customers’ needs, and now 70% to 80% of their income is from bespoke orders. They produce a wide range of quality leather goods, from bags, wallets and pouches to watch straps and belts.
Subsequently, many customers enquired about classes, so Tyde began workshops. “We decided to come up with a syllabus that offered lessons on basic crafting, intermediate level classes and private classes. Students can choose what they want to craft from the website, or if they desire to craft a specific product, we can plan it for them,” Xian says.
Early on, the partners faced the challenge of convincing Malaysians that quality handmade items cost more. “Handcraft is supposed to be more expensive than a mass-produced product. So, the challenge is to educate the customer, to show them why handcraft is more expensive but also more personal compared with mass production. We can actually do much better work with our hands instead of with machines,” says Xian.
Although business has been steadily improving and more customers are receptive to their quality products, the two friends saw that there was more to learn. Last year, for a few months, Aw and Xian travelled to China to learn from leather suppliers, visit tanneries and attend a course to further their skills. “We learnt about reinforcement, because if you want to do fine leather crafting like the luxury brands, then the leather itself is just 20% to 30% of it. The most important thing is knowing how to control the reinforcement material within the bag — to form the bag, shape it and make it look unique yet lasting,” Xian explains.
Putting their newfound knowledge into practice, Aw and Xian expanded their business from bespoke leather goods and workshops to include corporate services such as gifts and live personalisations. Since then, they have been hiring part-time employees to help complete orders or attend events. This year’s calendar was filled with corporate events, and Tyde was even set to open its first bricks-and-mortar store in Taman Suria, but Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown put a stop to these plans.
To keep the business going while everyone was stuck at home, the friends decided to implement an idea that had been sitting at the back of their minds. “A long time ago, we wanted to start DIY kits because students might not be able to come all the way to our studio or they don’t want expensive and long duration workshops. Maybe they just want to experience making a small craft with a name personalisation for their loved one or for themselves. The Movement Control Order actually forced us to finally start this,” Xian says. The DIY kits are still available on Tyde’s website, allowing customers to craft their own key organiser, pen holder, card holder and more in the comfort of their home.
Aw and Xian hope to be able to open their ground-floor store soon so they can have the space to display their goods and run more workshops, including classes for children or corporate events. “We are trying to educate people on good-quality leather items while keeping the handcrafting tradition alive.”
This article first appeared on Aug 17, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.