Najla Shoes draws on the heritage of Sarawak fabrics, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup

SEVERAL years ago, Najla Sarbini, 37, ran a bridal shop in Kota Damansara, Selangor, offering make-up and wedding garments for sale and rent. While wedding dresses follow trends and fall out of favour pretty quickly, she realised that wedding shoes remain in circulation for much longer.

The wedding dress trade is also very competitive, hence her decision to focus on footwear. But a difficult pregnancy left her unable to look after the business and she had little choice but to close it down.

A year after her baby was born, she was ready to begin again. Only this time, she will focus on women’s everyday footwear.

Sarawakian shoe designer Najla Sarbini turns Pua Kumbu into style statement. NSTP/AZIAH AZMEE

“Najla Shoes started in 2015 with 20 pairs of shoes,” says Najla from Sarawak. “It was a trial run and the shoes were made in Indonesia on the advice of a friend. I put the collection up for sale online and I had many enquiries on sizes and colours so I knew that this could work.”

There have been seven collections since then. The recent ones are labelled Najla Sarbinie, in tribute to her father who died early last year.

The shoes are stocked in several shops in Kuching and Brunei, while customers elsewhere are served via Facebook and Instagram. Longtime customers are welcome to drop by her home in Kuala Lumpur where she keeps her stock.

She occasionally participates in pop-up events, and plans to sign a one-month lease for a small store at a new complex at Bukit Bintang for the Hari Raya shopping season.

PRODUCTION

With the exception of her first collection, all of Najla’s shoes are made locally. But she didn’t come from a shoemaking background nor did she study shoemaking formally, so it took some time for the her plan to become reality.

“I searched online for shoe manufacturers here. I called and knocked on their doors and some wouldn’t even let me in!” she remembers. “They didn’t know who I was and probably thought I was trespassing.

“Then I went to Ipoh and scouted all the different shoemakers there. It took awhile to convince them but finally one factory agreed to manufacture my shoes. Nowadays, the shoes are made at a facility in Cheras.”

Things became easier once the shoemaking fraternity knew who she was and that she meant business. But production remains a challenge. She recently found out that while a factory may agree to make her shoes, there’s no guarantee on when it will complete the order.

“My order of 500 to 600 pairs is considered small compared to other local shoe designers. But we all use the same manufacturer. So when their orders come in, mine would get pushed to the back of the queue because bigger jobs and bigger names get priority.

“That was what happened to me so I’m left without a new collection to release for Hari Raya. Fortunately, I still have the collection that I made for Alta Moda Sarawak in March. The Raya collection will still get released, but later in the year,” she says, adding that she’s looking at different production options.

Traditional pua kumbu patterns work well on stylish shoes. NSTP/AZIAH AZMEE

“Young people aren’t keen on them. But the fabric itself is very stylish so I put it on wedges and ankle boots, and it works. It’s not just people from Sarawak who admire them but also fashion fans from the peninsular.”

The pua kumbu fabric comes from a shop in Kuching, made using modern manufacturing methods. It’s not the traditional woven fabric by tribal craftspeople that use natural dyes - that will be too expensive for her ready-to-wear shoes - but it has the same look and feel.

“If you know pua kumbu, you can tell an Orang Ulu design from an Iban design. But I’m still not very familiar with it. Coming from Sarawak, we took it for granted. I plan to make shoes using Sarawak songket, so there’s a lot for me to learn with regards to our heritage fabric,” says Najla.

Najla aims to make shoes that are stylish and comfortable. (Instagram/NajlaShoes)

BORNEO BRED

After four years, Najla’s market is still mostly in East Malaysia. A native of Sarawak, it’s only natural that she wants to serve the people there. She’s also more familiar with the setup and often participates in fashion events in Borneo.

At the recent Alta Moda Sarawak in Kuching, Najla won the award for Outstanding Fashion Entrepreneur. This opened the door to a meeting with the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation, which suggested a link up with a Sarawak songket maker for a collection.

She hopes the collaboration can be released in October for Malaysia Fashion Week, but in the meantime, Najla is looking forward to Borneo Fashion Week in Sabah in August.

“It started two years ago in Sarawak as a platform for fashion designers in Borneo, so it can be anyone from Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei or even Kalimantan in Indonesia. For small brands especially, it’s a great way to learn about runway shows and fashion presentations before we join events elsewhere.”

At the moment, Najla Shoes is essentially a one-woman show. In between school runs for her two kids, Najla goes for meetings, answers online enquiries, designs her shoes, visits the manufacturer and ships deliveries to customers.

“I have ambitions to open my own shoe factory,” she says. “I also want to collaborate with designers, expand my collection and build my brand. At the same time, I know my pace is quite slow because I’m handling everything myself but as long as things are moving and improving, I’m happy.”

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