Celebrating our shoemaking heritage: how Nelissa Hilman does sustainability differentlyRead Now
If you were born after the 1980’s and asked about Malaysians and shoemaking, you would be forgiven to think that we don’t have either the talent or industry. You’d be easily mistaken to think that Dato’ Jimmy Choo, our biggest Penangite export to fashion, was an exceptionally rare example of a tale of hard work, persistence, and determination.
4681 words; 20 mins reading time
But the reality is, he is only one of many – one of many great shoe entrepreneurs that emerged from the industries that served our British empire prior to independence, that has come to define the grit, enthusiasm, and creativity of our rakyat today.
The Malaysian Footwear Industry
Malaysia has a long and rich history of footwear manufacturing, going back about 100 years ago. This makes sense, because earlier in the twentieth century the cultivation of rubber-yielding trees became commercially attractive as a raw material for new industries in the West. Indeed, by 1921 the rubber acreage in Malaysia (mostly in the Peninsula) had reached 935,000 hectares (about 1.34 million acres) or some 55 percent of the total in South and Southeast Asia while output stood at 50 percent of world production.
Rubber was Malaysia’s main export product, a position that held until 1980. You can’t comprehend the story of Malaysian footwear manufacturing without acknowledging Malaysia’s natural rubber industry. Try buying a shoe and not notice all sorts of soles made from rubber!
In its early years, a significant number of the footwear industry players comprised of small- and medium-sized businesses, operating from homes and utilising largely labour-intensive methods, and some of these shoemakers still survive to this day. Back in the day, hand-made shoes would adorn the feet of royalty, high society, and prince and princesses of Malaysia.
Over the 1980’s under the tutelage of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed the industry (and Malaysia’s economy, as a whole) flourished and saw a proliferation of supporting cottage industries supplying various parts, components and footwear-related accessories for the industry. The Malaysian footwear industry produces a wide variety of footwear ranging from safety and industrial footwear to sports shoes and high fashion footwear. Some of the everyday shoes that Malaysians wear and love include locally-manufactured brands Larrie, Princess, Carlo Rino, Nose, Bill Keith, Vincci, Dr. Cardin, and most recently, Nottingheels.
According to the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (MIDA) there are currently about 1,000 footwear manufacturers, employing a workforce of some 30,000. They are mainly located in the states of Perak, Selangor and Johor. The annual production capacity is estimated at 70 million pairs (2009 figures). The “footwear capital” of Malaysia is actually situated in Seri Kembangan, a suburb 50 kilometres away from the heart of the capital city, Kuala Lumpur.
Nowadays, Malaysia’s footwear exports is valued at RM652.7 million (2017 figures), with a large portion of the industry’s revenue deriving from the original equipment manufacturing (OEM) business, or making mass-produced shoes under an international licence, for example, for Puma, Adidas, Hush Puppies, and Scholl.
Malaysian shoes are synonymous with quality, style and value for money. Since the 1990’s however, China has taken over as the biggest shoe producer, with approximately 9.5 billion pairs of shoes exported in 2019. With its lower labour and production costs, Malaysia can’t compete on price for OEM mass manufacturing.
Exports of Malaysian-produced footwear has dwindled over the last decade, with Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade) calling on the local footwear industry to innovate and produce locally-made premium shoes in order to stay relevant. Matrade’s director of Lifestyle, Life Sciences and Medical Devices Abu Bakar Yusof said in 2018, “Local footwear designers should emulate Christy Ng and Nelissa Hilman in producing premium products to help catapult the country’s footwear industry into the global market”, referring to finished products higher up in the value chain will be most competitive.
While the department-store brands shoes we’re all accustomed to might still have orders from local and overseas buyers albeit an overall decline due to the current worldwide pandemic, those small (mostly home-based) artisans that came from the descendants of the original shoemakers from the last century don’t get a mention in the national agenda.
On a Mission to Revive Our Heritage
Part 1: The beginning
Nelissa, a chemical engineer by profession, decided to take a break from the corporate sector a bit more than ten years now. What started as an exploration of creativity became a passion that was too strong to not pursue. After “ended up using up pretty much all my savings” to study at Polimoda (in Italy) on a shoemaking course, she thoroughly enjoyed making shoes and exploring its many aspects. She interned with a local shoemaker for a year, and in 2012, despite the Malaysian Footwear Manufacturers Association cautioning “the shoe industry is very tough”, her label was born.
She found out a lot of shoemaking entrepreneurs and businesses had already moved to China back then, and it would make sense to do so due to cost and accessibility. She laments, “What's left are the smaller artisans. And here we are, 10 years later, the numbers went from 3000 to probably about 1000. So we're losing talent, so to speak. It saddens me because when we first started, I only wanted to work with locals.”
Having appreciating the art of shoemaking and learning of its Malaysian story, she wanted to take on the challenge. “I do like China. I do like the spirit of things in China. But then, the heart wasn't there, I needed to be here and see things and talk to the shoemakers and things like that. So that was how we started!”
Part 2: The middle
Nelissa realised very early into the business that, “It wasn't so simple. There are a lot of steps (pardon the pun!). Once a design gets to a shoe factory, they basically assemble all of your parts. I had to learn how to manage the heel, the insole, the outsole, a lot of components that I didn't realise I needed to put together! And then you have different sizes. And each size requires different sets of materials. At one point, it became a bit too much for me.” Her process engineering experience helped, but in the end, she knew she had to relegate control, in a sense. She creatively designs her shoes, but she lets the shoe factory decide how it’s done, because “…they have existed for 20, 30 years, and they have their own suppliers, and they have their own supply chain. So we rely a lot on them”.
She started selling her shoes online, and it wasn’t long until her first brick-and-mortar shop opened in Bangsar Village 2. Once she mastered the end-to-end shoemaking practice and the day-to-day of managing small batches, she began to dive deeper into the production process. You could say that Nelissa had it in her a curiosity – more than most – to understand how things actually come together: “My last corporate position was in fact in green technology, very much focusing on how do we transform plantation waste into energy, things like bio ethanol from algae. I was exposed to renewables when I was working, but I had a really good lecturer on sustainability on environment at university.”
It was fitting that she took that curiosity outside of the immediate confines of the shoemakers’ facilities and workshops. “Starting from last year, we've been a bit cleverer, or should you say, strict, in terms of supplier management. We would like to know more. We would ask, can you share with us your outsole supplier? Who supplies your materials? Can you provide the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for us so we're able to see all of the components of the shoes?” It was clear to her no one probably had asked these questions before her. She followed the curious trail as much as she could. “It’s not easy”, she says. “A lot of them are small players and they keep records manually, they don’t really use the computer… most of them don't even speak Malay or English and they only converse in Chinese.” But she keeps at it. “Once we get more information, we try to update our information on the website. So, we’re trying.”
Having gone through the line of enquiry, it became immediately apparent there was a divide between what was said and was true.
“Because you are not able to travel, and we rely only on that data alone, there's no way to confirm or to audit if the documentation submitted is, you know, 100% accurate. So that’s my issue.”
I reflected how it's not uncommon for a brand owner to struggle to have transparency in their supply chain. Especially, for small to medium businesses.
She continues to tell me about the information she’s gathered so far. “We have raw materials, for example, for our outsoles. We have a whole supplier base in Klang (Malaysia), which is Kossan – it’s a public listed company. I think they have incorporated recycled rubber in their outsole product… that comprises 10%. Our box manufacturer has always been from a local supplier in Balakong (in the state of Selangor, Malaysia). I never understood why people will order boxes from China, maybe it’s to do with cost, but because we're so small, it doesn't make sense to have a 20-foot truck to come in just to deliver boxes to us. My supplier says Malaysian shoe boxes are typically made out of 50% of postconsumer materials.”
Part 3: The realisation
Nelissa revealed how her experience of figuring things out might be different from what someone would go through now. Finding shoemakers that matched her requirements was a test of perseverence. “I think it’s a lot easier now, we have AliBaba and the like. Back then when I first started, I had a meeting with the (Malaysian Footwear Manufacturers) Association and it was you know, ‘Okay, come and meet me, we'll talk more.’ Then there’s door knocking, then you’ll meet different suppliers, show them my samples, ask them, ‘Can you do this?’ You’ll easily meet ten different suppliers to figure out who you could work with. This took about a year.“
Once she extended her range, then came the realisation that she was on the right track, in terms of her bigger vision of keeping this craft relevant. “I could only rely on a couple of suppliers, even though I’d love to keep these shoemakers in business. But they couldn't cope with the orders! They couldn't innovate because they're really all these uncles, you know, in their 40s and 50s. And they don't have children to continue that work. I think the industry in general doesn't seem very sexy as a whole. You don't work in the office.” She knew she had to keep making shoes.
The bigger, more luxury brands could probably make it look sexy, but there’s a reason behind this. Even though they will take a while to track their whole supply chain, they hold a bit more power, so they should have no excuse. As Nelissa commented, “Luxury brands would have a whole unit or department looking into this, right?”
Part 4: The selling
Understanding how things are made have a lot to do with consumer action nowadays, too. Her customers appreciate her sharing this information. She believes there's an inherent value when you make something, and people forget that that multiple hands have touched it, crafted it, made sure they are soft, supple, look great for the wearer, made with love. There's so much effort put into putting something together, creating a product.
She wants the spotlight to come back to our traditions. To celebrate our heritage, decades of knowledge and craft. On the local shoe designers, she says, “We've come a long way. 10 years ago, they were not many of us. There was Christy Ng, and there was a lot of bespoke. We came in because we wanted to offer something different, and obviously, I wanted to exercise my creativity! Back then, bigger brands were conquering the market, you have your Nine West, Bonia.”
Her competitive edge opened up because of Direct-to-Consumer capabilities. “Social media got really big, and it became easier to push your product to the market. I was very much product-focused at the time, but to be honest, the visual, the branding, I didn’t know what NH would look like.”
Social media does not discriminate. It’s anyone’s game. In terms of the playing field, she did encounter challenges in the beginning. “You have those traders who are resellers. That's not so nice, they simply would copy someone else’s design, and then sell it at a lower price. So that's not fun.” She needed to make sure her brand differentiation was obvious. Of course, her brand is very recognisable now, but she did have to navigate the direct-to-consumer avenue fairly quick.
She loves seeing new brands coming out more. “I can definitely say the playing field in Malaysia is getting a bit more exciting. Compared to 10 years ago, consumers are slowly trying to support local. You go to Bangsar Village or any of the Jalan Telawis... there's a lot of local brands. And then you have your Pasar Seloka, you see more brands! The amount of creativity… nourishes the skillset in this space.”
Nelissa thinks there are more local brands on the rise and it's going to continue to do so. She’s still learning how to market her product in this space, and will continue to support anyone trying to break into local shoemaking.
Part 5: The price of a locally-made shoe
Nelissa has seen a shift in thinking of what ‘Made in Malaysia’ can be. “Malaysians are engaged I think… there is a niche, the more educated, fashionable consumers are a bit more exposed and they are able to afford more responsible fashion, on the other hand, there are the others who want to support, but they can’t afford us yet, so they will look at your brand later in the future, you know, work towards it. That's how I started as well, I didn’t know what a local brand is or was about... I only knew them as bridal or couture. During my corporate years, there were a lot of Panini, Marks and Spencer for work, there wasn’t too much choice. You go in, you go out, you buy the same things, you know, year after year. But now there's a lot more options, more exciting things.”
She thinks visibility on all fronts will help local entrepreneurs. “A lot of brands exist on social media, but then there are a lot more going on outside of social media too. Having a physical presence helps the non-social media consumer to engage with the brand. The more offline presence exists, the more local brands can educate the consumer. The bazaars, even consignment and departmental store, these are great places to start engaging in conversations on responsible textiles and keep our heritage and industry alive.”
She is constantly challenged by preconceived notions of the value embedded in her products, however. She says, “There are two types of consumers: the ones who want to support local, and the ones who want to support local but cannot because they think our products are expensive. They would ask, your products are made in Malaysia, so how are they so expensive?”
And her answer? “Just because you’re locally made, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are automatically cheap! Your suppliers need to be fairly paid as well. That's the key, because without them, Nelissa Hilman wouldn’t exist. And then you have your expenses, your marketing... and we don’t mark-up our products a lot. For direct-to-consumer there’s a general guideline of what the mark-up should be. There's a lot of spending that people don’t see: ads, the team, and the creativity! We create quality products! Also, we’re here. If your shoes become rosak, you can just come back to us if you need, and we can help with the repairing. Otherwise, we will recommend you to go to a cobbler that can help fix your shoes.”
She goes on to say, “Shoes are not like clothes… shoes can hurt you. We wouldn't claim that our shoes work for everybody. But I’m here to try to make it work for you, the best that I can.”
She emphasises, “I’m not about selling and forgetting about my customers.”
Indeed, this author thinks that people forget how things are made, and they forget the value of creativity. Designing something, coming up with the ideas and putting them all together and getting people to make it happen – that's time, money, and labour. We continue to talk about original design. Nelissa adds, “A lot of things that are made really cheaply out there are really just off the shelf designs and you just order them in different colours and mass produce them, that’s it. Workmanship actually costs money.”
Part 6: Continuous improvement
I ask Nelissa what’s next on the horizon. “The thing is, with shoes, there's a certain lifespan. Because there's a lot of material that goes into its making, especially glue, these are chemicals, they degrade. And depending on how they’re made, the stitching, for example. I constantly ask myself, how do I extend the lifespan of a shoe? It could be five years max before it gets thrown out, or the style doesn't suit you anymore? I'm still trying to figure things out.”
Nelissa recently partnered with Kloth Lifestyle in an initiative called ‘Future Steps.’ “Due to the current economic state of affairs because of the pandemic, we didn’t think it was right push for people to buy shoes. So next best thing is, we have this program with Kloth to take people’s old shoes to keep them away from landfill. They have access to a local factory that can repurpose the shoes (which would normally be destined for landfill!) and have an end-of-life solution. We’ve had this program for a while, but it was always in the background. We thought Kloth has struck a chord with the recycling community in Malaysia so we would like to promote their ethos of keeping fabrics out of landfill.”
Indeed, footwear has been at the forefront of innovation in fashion. Things like 3D design and materials technology had infiltrated this industry for a long time. Shoes are utilitarian in nature, and also worn to enhance performance – think athletes, avid runners, and the like. It’s important to recognise that shoes do have their own lifespan, and there is a lot of friction and wear and tear compared to anything else we wear. Nelissa says, “Yes, shoes do take a lot of your weight, and when you’re walking or running shoes can hurt, so, it pays to pay (rightly) for the right shoe!”
Of course, she’d like to see better performing shoes that’s also fashionable and more responsibly-produced.
She understands the bigger brands have a lot of R&D to spend, and they are more than capable to test new technology. They can afford to purchase licences or collaborate with emerging materials and so forth. “We have been following a lot of material and technology news, and we've reached out to a few players. There are legal aspects to developing materials technology, especially IP (intellectual property), in terms of sharing knowledge about that product. I think there's a lot of opportunities, but for Malaysia, the biggest question is where are the funds going to come from, and who is going to support us, or the industry. Also, who's going to take the lead? I’ve enquired about leather alternatives, for example, woven cactus leather. They're not cheap! There’s the price of the material, and then there’s the taxes! So, for us, what makes sense both for the customer and for the business? It’s an exciting space to explore, but also needs to make commercial sense.”
Technology can definitely propel us, but there's commercialisation and normalisation of technology. We actually need to put a price on materials that are made more sustainably or more responsibly on par with the everyday materials, and to make that happen, governments and businesses need to incentivise this more, so as to accelerate their production. We need to fast-track the uptake of alternative feedstocks, because that will then open up the opportunity for even smaller players. Not just big players, but smaller players, like NH.
Part 7: The hope
I ask Nelissa where she think footwear manufacturing in Malaysia can go from here.
“Well, to start, shoemaking has been around in Malaysia for over a century actually. As an industry we were doing really well, in the 80s and 90s, we were exporting shoes to Europe. And then China came, and that totally changed the operating environment.”
She thinks the Malaysian Footwear Manufacturers Association is well aware of the challenges the industry is facing. “We have the Development Centre that has been training aspiring shoe makers. That has helped, I think, to generate some interest. It’s just that… the existing suppliers do rely on big orders. Currently, a lot of our Malaysian brands have stocks in the department stores. Unfortunately, due to the prolonged lockdown, I think they have no money, no income coming in. When there are no sales, there are no orders, and it's really hard to maintain, or to have the local ‘sifu’ around. I think a recent Association report is saying that if this continues, more than 50% of our manufacturers will close down. These are not big manufacturers. These can be like a family-owned business, very small businesses. I’ve even seen a one-man show making shoes. I'm not sure what the subsidies are given for families or manufacturers. I do understand that a lot of digitalisation grants have been given out to traders and to companies, for selling, but there is probably not enough focus given to make us ‘seen’”.
It's difficult to imagine the enduring commitment our local shoemakers have carried on over the years. Nelissa says, “The thing about shoemakers is… you need a very long time to develop a certain skill, for example, even lasting a shoe may take someone five to seven years to become really good at. Stretching, for example… requires specialisation and it takes years to acquire. So if we lose this talent now, it will be really hard for the industry to replenish our skillsets and to compete. Perhaps we can still have a local industry but if you want to compete internationally, there's a bit more investment required, and who is going to champion this? I do know that I want the industry to be around in the next century or so. But I also want technological advancements to come in, whether it be material or new machineries, or new techniques that artisans can adapt to, which makes us an interesting place to make shoes and export high degree quality of shoes. Shoes you can sell in Italy or Portugal.”
She adds, “I do want the industry to flourish back to where we were in the 80s and 90s. I want the industry to be sexier!” She loathes that some Malaysians are designing shoes or bags abroad, but she understands it because it's probably more efficient to do things that way.
She talks about the younger generation continuing on our beadwork, weaving, woodwork, and hand-printing. “We've been losing our songket makers, our artisanal craftsmen, and so on. I was using the library before the lockdowns, doing my research. I was trying to find out who are our batik makers, our sulaman experts? Who have we got left? Our wau makers, one left? Perahu makers? Probably a handful. So, what are we doing? How do we keep this community alive? These are our country's assets, right?”
One could say that our obsession with manufacturing technological products, driven by a deliberate government policy in the 1980s (remember Mahathir’s Wawasan 2020?) to digitise the economy did have a direct effect on our tailors and shoemakers. (Malaysia’s biggest export now is electrical and electronics products, at 36% of all exports). This policy action was, as we have seen today, been at the expense of slow, artisanal culture.
As we wrapped up our conversation on Nelissa’s hopes for the future, she gushes about something she’s been brewing. “I’d like to design a programme where we can harness new talent. It’s all on paper, for now. But it’s been in the back of my mind for a while. We’ll see.”
The dedication of this woman is unwavering. Sustainability in Nelissa’s world means we fight to move our craft into the next generation, and the ones after that. Let’s bring out our best foot forward, then!
Details on the Future Steps shoe take-back program can be found on Nelissa Hilman’s website. Head on over to our Instagram at @fashinfidelity to take part in our #MyConsciousCloset challenge with NH, a slow fashion challenge aimed at getting to know our closet (and shoes!) so we can love and care for them better.
Join us in our Slow Fashion movement with the hashtags #ConscientiousFashionista and #wardrobetruths on Instagram, and follow us at @fashinfidelity.
Tags: #nelissahilman #malaysia #shoemaking #shoemaker #artisanal #craft #heritage #manufacturing #whomademyshoes #conscientiousfashionista #fastfashion #slowfashion #wardrobetruths #fashioneducation #fashion #fashinfidelity
 Drabble, John. H, University of Sydney, Australia, Economic History of Malaysia, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/economic-history-of-malaysia/ (last accessed 19 Sep 2021)
 Author unknown, “MALAYSIA: OVERVIEW OF MALAYSIAN FOOTWEAR MARKET”, Istituto nazionale per il commercio estero Italia/ Italian National Institute of Foreign Trade,
https://docplayer.net/21571318-Overview-of-malaysian-footwear-market.html (last accessed 19 September 2021)
Adding substance to the Conscious Fashion chatter.