“I have Japanese friends here, and they don’t know how to tie an obi”, she lamented on the cultural signal loss, which is perhaps an all too familiar struggle everywhere – the clash between modernity and heritage. “I find it especially rewarding when Japanese customers buy this, because I was a little bit worried (as I was cutting up their heritage), but I was relieved.”
This is the story of Moniko and its well-travelled founder, Clare Smith. The premise is simple: take old things and make them new. In this case, the “old things” are vintage kimono and obi (sashes) remade into purses, wristlets and clutches.
A British expatriate, Clare found herself working in Malaysia in 2004, as a packaging design specialist for a tobacco company. Her job had her set up and train a design development team for the Asian market, and it was then that she fell in love in Asia. Her kimono collection started during her short stay in Korea (as Japan was relatively close), but only mostly keeping them for display and collection purposes.
After her stay in Korea, she returned to Malaysia with a few business ideas, all revolving around the idea of recycling and repurposing old materials. She then looked at her kimono collection, and decided to do something with them. “It wasn’t a conscious decision, it was just…I thought I’d make something out of the fabric I had,” she said. Seemingly inheriting the natural talent of her parents – a seamstress and a carpenter – Clare got started, and the rest is history.
“Malaysia is a great place to start a business,” Clare said, citing its ease of access to the marketplace as well as the diverse culture making for a good testing ground for Moniko. Her background in branding has helped her build Moniko, but her current challenge is finding people to help with production. Now, she has five Cambodian employees, and travels to Cambodia often to check on progress as well as give them new cut material. Material-wise, a kimono in good condition can make fifteen items, while an obi can make five.
It’s a story
Clare isn’t content with providing customers with just a product with Moniko – she’s also telling a story. Each Moniko product has a set of small cards that detail the year the kimono was made, person who gave it new life (in this case, one of her Cambodian employees, who survived a landmine), and the accompanying details. Storytelling and continuity, in fact, is the brand’s philosophy – a journey of a Moniko product from its original maker, to the wearer of the kimono, to the person who remakes it, to the current customer, who carries on the tale. Clare is also leveraging on technology to help tell each product’s story via the use of unique “Moni Kodes” that can be entered into Moniko’s website. “This is quite time-consuming, but it’s worth it because it helps tell the story,” she remarked.
Moniko’s approach to marketing, as Clare put it, differs from the usual loud social media blasts with an explicit call to action. Instead, she opts for a subtler approach. “You have to suggest things, or talk about the product or the person who makes it… it’s more teaching people about the fabric and history, not overtly telling people to buy.
“Moniko is not an aspirational brand, it’s an inspirational brand that connects with people,” she added. Clare sees women like Michelle Obama and Queen Rania of Jordan – strong, elegant advocates – embodying what Moniko stands for.
Now reaching its fifth year in business, she is no stranger to mistakes and challenges, especially in sourcing for materials and manpower. Her words for those keen to start their own business? “Patience is the biggest thing that I have had to learn. Things take a lot longer than you think they are going to. Also, cashflow. It can make you fail. It’s something I should have thought about.”
Tread into her office, and you will see beautiful kimono hanging on display, waiting to be cut and reshaped as ladies’ accessories, as well as completed Moniko products. Left alone, these kimono might never see the light of day, ever. Perhaps it’s time to dig out some old goods and breathe some new life unto them – who knows? It might be the best decision you’ll ever make. ◆
Moniko is available at various countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philipines, Thailand and of course, Malaysia. Click here for the full list of stockists.