Local Patterns Conquer the World with Batik Boutique
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
The art of decorating fabrics, using wax and dye, has been practised in Malaysia for centuries and is an inherent part of Malaysian identity. Yet, few batik artists remain who have mastered the complex process needed to design and create this unique pattern.
One who saw true value in keeping this tradition alive is the founder of Batik Boutique Amy Blair. When Amy founded the company, she was convinced that - if utilised effectively - these unique handicraft skills can not only be kept alive but also utilised as a driver for social good particularly in low-income local communities in Malaysia.
“One of the reasons why batik making is declining in the younger generation is because they don't see their parents being successful with it.”, she told me when we met. Batik Boutique is trying to change that by turning the company into a globally recognised brand that empowers families in need and instils pride in local artisans as they see their work being appreciated all around the world.”
Inspired by her story, I sat down with Amy to find out more about an aspiring company that is in the business of making gifts for good.
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What inspired you to start this business?
My background is in tourism and cross-cultural communication. When I came to Malaysia, I found it difficult to find hand-crafted products from Malaysia that I could use as souvenirs for my work and to bring back for my friends and family back home in the United States.
This got me thinking. How great would that be if someone would actually make gifts that are unique to this part of the world. That simple thought flourished into an impactful business idea a few years later when my husband and I moved from Penang to Kuala Lumpur where I met a few women from the low-income housing areas.
Together we brainstormed about what we could make that supports them and their families and that is uniquely Malaysian. After trying a few things like baking, we finally landed on sewing because some of them already had some basic skills that we could build on.
In terms of material we soon landed on batik, even though I did not know anything about it at that time. I had to learn everything from the ground up which makes every little achievement feel even more special now.
Can you share what makes Batik Boutique so unique?
Batik Boutique is a very unique company. Not only are we a gift for good brand which gives a portion of what we earn back to the community, we also believe in treating our employees fairly by ensuring that they receive fair wages and supporting them in their personal development.
We do that by letting our artisans set their own wages and working hours. As a result of this, we can proudly say that our employees are getting paid an average of 40% higher than the industry rate.
We also allow mothers who are balancing work and family with limited or no support, to set their own working hours. Currently, there is no other batik company in Malaysia that is doing that. We also provide specific skills trainings which allows our seamstress not only to learn new life skills but also grow their family’s income.
We only use 100% Malaysian handmade textiles.
In terms of the material that we use, we can proudly say that we only use 100% handmade Malaysian batik for our products.
What are some of the milestones that you have already achieved since you founded Batik Boutique in 2009?
We have come a long way since we started our company and achieved many of our goals, including but not limited to:
Consistency: One of the things that we needed to achieve as our business grew was consistency. When we first started off making our products, the women we worked with were sewing from their homes, which often led to inconsistencies in the quality.
One of the things we did to guarantee a consistent quality is to open our very own sewing center, where the women would come to work. We made sure that the center is close to the women’s home to avoid any additional costs of transportation for them.
From Wholesale to Retail: As we became more known on social media and people started looking for our actual store in the city. That is when we realised that we had to open a physical boutique.
The word ‘boutique’ was in our name after all. So, we opened one shop here in Kuala Lumpur and another one in Johor.
Impacting Lives: Another aspect that I am tremendously proud of is the impact that we have on the communities that we work with and that includes sewers and batik artists. Many women, who are working for us in our production center are now finally able to send their children to school, purchase a motorbike or even a small car.
Collaborations: Probably the highlight of my career so far was our collaboration with Kimberly Clark. Together with them, we designed a collection for sanitary pads in 2019. To see our batik motives being transferred to everyday life products gave us a great sense of achievement and the confidence that batik could be for the world.
Going-Global: We want Batik Boutique to become the number one batik brand globally and I believe we are on a good track. Aside from Malaysia, we are already selling our products to other markets including the United States.
Keeping a Tradition Alive: We partner with family run batik businesses all across Malaysia to customize our own hand-printed textiles on 100% fibers. This way, village artisans are able to conserve the batik industry, that was slowly fading away because the younger generation of Malaysians struggles to see how they can earn a living with making batik.
Knowing that our batik artists are able to sustain their families with this gives us a great sense of achievement.
One of our batik artists in Kelantan for example, is the 3rd generation in his family to make handprinted batik. When we started working with him, he was very shy and only comfortable with small orders.
After a while, we finally ask him to make a large batch for a big order from the US. He was scared and thought he would not be able to deliver in time. We helped him to strategise and make his production process more efficient.
With our help, he not only finished ahead of schedule, he also became a more confident person and gained a lot of respect in his community as he was able to provide employment for others.
When we give him a large order now, it is not a problem for him anymore. On the contrary, he has even become a little cheeky and asks me “That’s it?”.
How did you manage to find all these batik artists?
It was a long process. These businesses are very low profile. I went to craft shows, contacted ministries and did some trips to areas where someone knew about someone who was making batik.
You position yourself as a gift for good company. What exactly is your mission?
Batik Boutique's vision is to empower artisans in Malaysia and instil a sense of pride in them as they are making unique fashion items and gifts that are being sold and appreciated all around the world.
Unfortunately, many of the artisans that we work with are not shown much appreciation. So, whenever we are being featured in a magazine for example or receive a big compliment, I make it a point and show it to them.
How did the pandemic impact your business and what did you do to turn this into an opportunity?
The pandemic threw us back into a start-up mode. We were trying to figure out how to keep our business afloat and adapt to the new reality. My greatest concern was for the women who are working for us and who are dependent on their income as sewers to sustain their families.
Many of our corporate orders were cancelled because they were related to events that were not happening anymore. We also had no new orders for corporate gifts coming in.
This forced us to find other sources of income. After getting the approval from the government and finding some corporate sponsors, we started making face masks and PPE gear.
We had so much to do that we were able to expand the number of sewing groups that we work with. We became part of the solution.
For the rest of the year, we will focus on pushing our brand and invest in enhancing our marketing strategy in order to achieve our goal of becoming the number one batik brand in the world.
Can you tell me one inspiring story of one of your employees whose life you managed to change for the better?
We have one employee whose story I find particularly remarkable. When she started working with us, she was rather slow and inconsistent. It took us some time to train her. After a while her quality of work started to improve and with the help of our quarterly review meetings, she managed to get better and better.
During one of these review meetings, she told me what an impact her job has on her little daughter’s life. She told me that her daughter wanted to be like her mum because she saw her being successful with what she did. The mum was so happy hearing that from her little girl that she bought her a little toy sewing machine to practice her skills.
Being able to spend money on a toy was a big thing for her and a real sign of empowerment.