Syazleen Sies is often seen with a splash of batik- and today is no exception. Although she’s wearing a plain white shirt, she is crowned with a nude shawl and of course, a Batik-printed bustier made by none other, but herself.

The reason for this peculiar dress code? It lies within the brand identity of Hornbill Time & Wear, a fashion brand that Syazleen Sies started together with her partner Shawn Yip. It is said that a Hornbill’s wing beat can be heard from a mile away, and like Hornbill Time & Wear, you should be able to recognize their timepieces from a mile away with their unique Batik printed timepieces and accessories.

Syazleen Sies and partner Shawn Yip saw the lack of appreciation towards Malaysian arts and craft in the industry, specifically for Batik. Inspired by neighboring countries and how they’ve been able to put their local culture and traditional wear on an international level, Syazleen and Shawn decided to start. 

Batik is very synonymous with local festivities, formal wear and a dress code for royal events. However Syazleen and Shawn felt the need to preserve Malaysian culture and make them more accessible to the masses by not being seen as a fashion piece of a certain status symbol and of formality. Syazleen thinks that appreciation could only come with familiarity, and by using timepieces and accessories as a medium to wear Batik, it is able to reintroduce this centuries-old tradition of Nusantara fabric to be worn in everyday life and become a part of their style.

Q: How did Hornbill Time & Wear first started?

“It all started with a boy in college with a love of watches who saw his mum’s kain batik in her room and thought, ‘Hey that would be cool, a batik watch’. My partner sat with this idea quite a while before he met me and we started talking about how there’s not much batik centric fashion wear besides Baju Kurung and Baju Melayu. Our cultures and arts has always been overlooked by the media or always being portrayed as this “thing of the past” and the youth are forgetting it, when in reality it’s the contrary, a lot of people in our generation are starting to own their culture and loving every bits of it, so we saw that issue and we just dived head first, and Hornbill was born.”

It is undeniable that Malaysia is rich with heritage and culture, but as a Malay and Chinese descent, both Syazleen and Shawn felt most connected to the batik mainly due to their upbringing and memories of their mother donning their Kain Batik when they were younger. When the idea came through, they knew they wanted to ‘reinvent batik’ as the main priority of their business. 

Syazleen strongly believes that Batik shouldn’t just be a type of fabric you put on for special occasions, but instead could be used in various different ways. While there are many innovative ways to wear the batik right now, the duo are just as excited to explore the many ways of wearing batik and expressing their individuality even further, with culture and heritage. 

When talking about her journey in starting this business, she mentioned it has been a very challenging one. Most would think starting a business is difficult, but in reality, maintaining a business to keep running is the most difficult part of it. You have to constantly adapt to new changes all the time. And from a marketing standpoint, it has definitely been competitive especially with the new norm and small businesses shifting towards online and instagram as their main approach to their businesses. 

“ In order to survive, and especially in this pandemic that we are in and how small businesses are slowly turning into digital marketing, and to be competing within the same platform is rather difficult. It’s a never ending process, but to be honest one of the hardest things we had to go through is actually educating our brand to the public. Even Though there are many who understand why we do what we do, there are still quite a number of customers who don’t understand our price point or how expensive creating a brand is in the first place. But I guess it really comes down to how one is able to appreciate a craft or not, and to be in this niche market has its challenges. At the end of it, it’s all worth it with the support that we get from our customers.”

Due to the restrictions on businesses, Covid-19 has definitely had a huge impact on small business in an unexpected way they could ever have imagined and Hornbill Time & Wear is no exception. 

One of the major things that we do to operate our business is we used to have pop ups in artisanal bazaars. Having everyone’s support within the community is definitely one to miss about. As much as we want to be able to connect with our customers physically and educate them with our  brand and stories, ever since Covid-19 hit and bazaars are no longer happening, we didn’t want to encourage people to go out and shop. Though we have our products available in stores like APOM A-day and Destination Good, because we’re not out there ourselves to promote and educate people regarding our brand face to face, sales have been slow. But the support is still there and we’re more than grateful for it”

To survive in this pandemic, they started experimenting new things. Syazleen recently learnt how to sew and that’s how they start making our own mask and bucket hats. We do have a few projects pending. Due to the nature of how people shop nowadays, few of our projects had to be stalled, we have to keep on making things in smaller quantities so that we are not overwhelmed with stocks, and that is why now we have more options to release more products in a shorter amount of time.

Q: How do you see your brand as part of a lifestyle and tourism essentials

I think our customers who wear Hornbill are indirectly ambassadors of the Malaysian culture or arts and craft. Wearing a Hornbill fashion piece is almost a form of appreciation towards batik. As a consumer herself, she has had her fair share in Malaysian products being unreliable, and she hopes that customers who buys their pieces are able to see that Malaysian products are as quality as international brands

Do you see fashion comes hand in hand with travelling?

I would like to think so, we are very lucky to say that a huge percentage of our customers are foreigners and it’s an amazing feeling to know that someone from somewhere could be travelling and saw our products and end up loving it and bringing it back home to tell stories about how amazing Malaysia and our product is. 

Afterall, as Syazleen puts it, When people buy a piece from Hornbill, they buy for its quality and the story behind it. It’s like buying a piece of wearable art. When you buy Hornbill, you bring a piece of Malaysia home

Follow their Instagram: @Hornbilltimeandwear

Article by Nazrul Kamsol, Mulazine