Saturday, March 22, 2008

I Want My Pop! - An article by Junk Magazine

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I Want My Pop!

It’s a wonder how a chat between two friends can result in one of the most successful independent brands in Malaysia. It was in late 2005, friends Zul and Ijam were sitting down, talking about how they were fed up with their jobs, and wanted to do something different. Since both were interested in design, they decided to start a T-Shirt label, Pop Malaya, which is one of Malaysia’s pioneer independent T-Shirt brands,

Mention the word ‘pop’ and images of popular culture comes to mind. That’s the gist of what Pop Malaya is all about, merging old Malaysian images with up-to-date, kitsch designs. Wanting to localise their brand, Zul and Ijam decided to have a Malaysian name instead of a foreign sounding one. Zul says, “The name of the brand was Ijam’s idea. We were brainstorming and watched this M. Nasir film, Kembara Seniman Jalanan. It was a movie about Malaysian pop culture in the 80’s and we took inspiration from it. In it, M. Nasir portrayed a hippie wearing a headband and all that, and we thought, ‘Hey, there are hippies in Malaysia.’ So we decided to play with the carefree attitude that Malaysians have and created a label out of it.”

Pop Malaya’s designs takes familiar, traditional Malaysian images and injects some pop in it for a local appeal. So, you’d get the instantly recognizable image of theatre veteran P. Ramlee with a colorful background, T-Shirts with sardine cans ala Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans, and designs that draw inspiration from the Malaysian national flower, the bunga raya (hibiscus). “These designs are old school retro, yet represents pop art as well,” Zul says.

It’s not unusual to see these T-Shirts don the bodies of KL-ites on a day out, but it was Pop Malaya’s very first design that got the brand noticed, and it is a design that still gets noticed today. The image of a girl’s face sits on a corner of the tee, with the words, “pop Malaya” in Jawi across it; is instantly recognizable as a Pop Malaya tee. This design was a hit when it made its debut in gigs and bazaars around KL, and also in a quaint little boutique in the Klang Valley called Wondermilk. It spoke for the brand’s zeal to take the traditional and make it more up-to-date and relevant in today’s society.

It also helped that Pop Malaya was creative in its marketing methods. The label roped in Malaysian band Free Love as its ambassador .“All I did was ask Mohd Jayzuan (of Free Love) if the band was willing to wear our T-Shirts when they are on stage to help us promote it, and he said ok. Since then, I’ve given shirts to bands Elisabelle Tears, Sgt, Weener’s Arms and KLPHQ.” And it worked. Bands wearing these shirts got everyone talking, and people started taking notice of the brand. Interestingly, Pop Malaya has also sparked off new indie brands like EVOL (brainchild of Free Love).

These days, word-of-mouth has helped Pop Malaya reach out to markets outside of Kuala Lumpur. Pop Malaya T-Shirts are now available in Johor, Jitra, and Kota Bahru.The story of how it all started captures the DIY spirit of the brand. “We had customers from outside of KL coming to buy our T-Shirts in bulk to re-sell it. And we thought, why not just make them agents so that they’ll get a commission?” Pop Malaya’s T-Shirts are affordable at RM30 each if they are purchased directly at gigs and bazaars.

Today, the brand has expanded to include another six partners: GG, Arif, Adam, War, Hasa and Fesal. While Pop Malaya is actively coming up with new, funky designs to keep up with market demands (new designs are created to coincide with Pop Malaya‘s participation in new fashion + gig events), it wants to rely on its core designs to make a further impact to the market. “We feel that our core designs are strong enough to speak for themselves and are eye catching.” Zul says.

With Pop Malaya on steady ground, plans for its sister brand, Pop Rina, came to birth a year after Pop Malaya lifted off. Three people - Ell, Keri and Olen - are responsible for the girl’s clothing line which comprises of pretty tops and dresses. Of the origins of the brand name, Ell says, “The word ‘pop’ stuck because we wanted Pop Rina to be associated with Pop Malaya, As for Rina, it is a vintage name, and it’s universal. No matter what heritage you are, people recognise it as a girl’s name.”

Like Pop Malaya, Pop Rina infuses traditional Malaysian elements into modern designs. Taking inspiration from fashion from the 70’s, the tops and dresses have simple, clean lines with bursts of bright colours. Dresses have batik prints on them, and tops have minor details carefully hand sewn unto them. Each piece design usually starts off with fabric shopping where the designers will pick out interesting fabrics and thoughts on what they can do with it, before the actual sketching begins. An average of one collection which comprises 3 to 4 designs makes it way to the market every two months. Prices are also reasonable, with clothes priced at RM25 - RM40, while special, limited edition apparels are priced from RM50 onwards.

Noneof the people behind Pop Rina has any prior experience in designing. For Ell, an interest in graphic design very much sealed her designation as one of Pop Rina’s creators. “I also have an interest in garments, since my grandmother and mother were tailors. My grandma was the fashion designer in my kampung. So I got my flair from them, and started sewing baju kurungs for my sister’s Barbie dolls when I was a kid,” Ell laughs.

For now, both brands are looking to gain more exposure in wider markets and possibly overseas. Plans to open up a retail store are in line, and right now, both labels are just concentrating on getting their capital for the store to happen.

Pop Malaya and Pop Rina have also recently have their clothes featured in an independent film directed by Razaisyam Rashid, titled Konsekuensi. Besides that, both brands, along with 16 other local brands have formed Angkatan Baju Malaya, a T-Shirt collective that will tour the country with gig performances and fashion booths starting 5 April in Kuala Lumpur. The Angkatan Baju Malaya tour will take them to Johor Bahru, Jitra, Ipoh and Terengganu. While the collective is currently looking for sponsorship to subsidise the tour, all of the brands are willing to go DIY, pool together and contribute to the tour, if that’s what they must do to make the tour happen.

Both brands have come a long way to establish themselves as one of Malaysia’s more successful independent brands. Ell exclaims, “We’re all doing this is a part-time hobby. I can’t wait for the day when we can consider our current jobs as our part time jobs!” She and the rest might not have to wait that long. With their creativity, vision and hard work, it won’t be surprising that they become a brand that Malaysia can be proud of.

Pop Malaya is available at Dolls Store, Super Sunday, Push & Skate and Deft at The Summit. Visit

Pop Rina is available at Super Sunday and OSixNine in Subang Jaya. Visit

For more info about the Angkatan Baju Malaya Tour, visit

Words Jolyn Photo Shermen

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