Join us as we chat with AMY BLAIR, FOUNDER & CEO OF THE BATIK BOUTIQUE, and find out the inspiring origin story behind the brand
Businesses can be born from the smallest spark of an idea, a conversation between friends can make way for a golden opportunity, which could very well metamorphosize into a success story – and an uplifting one at that.
Such was the beginning of The Batik Boutique, a social enterprise that not only provides high quality gifts and fashion accessories made with traditional Malaysian means, but also serves to give back to the community by providing women from rural, poverty-stricken families with fair, sustainable income and marketable skills.
Winner of the MaGIC Amplify Award for Social Enterprises, Batik Boutique currently has over 150 seamstresses in its employ with self-set wages and work hours, and in 2015 it established a community sewing centre to eliminate issues with transport and childcare.
We speak to Amy Blair, founder and CEO of The Batik Boutique, to learn more about this truly inspiring business model and the American’s passion for Malaysian batik.
Hi Amy. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? What you were involved in prior to setting up The Batik Boutique?
Amy Blair (AB): I was born on Christmas day in the American state of Texas. I have a bachelor of Arts in Communication and a minor in Tourism Management from Texas A&M University. After graduation, I worked in several non-profit organisations in their culture exchange programmes before moving to Malaysia to work with resorts and hotels in the areas of customer service and guest experience.
I now have three children, all born in Malaysia, and this is where we call home for the past 12 years.
I was living with my husband (we were newlyweds) in Penang, and it was during my travels throughout Southeast Asia that I discovered artisan-made products and textiles. I loved the rich heritage and colours of Malaysian batik, but found it difficult to find quality-produced, locally-made gifts and souvenirs.
What is The Batik Boutique’s story of origin? What sparked the idea?
AB: The idea first sparked when I discovered the beautiful fabric of batik and the complexity of the artisan process. I thought someone should do something to help provide design and market access for artisans living in remote villages.
Then, after my husband (and our baby at the time) moved to KL, I met a group of women living in the PPR (low-income) housing area near my house. I was struck with how similar we were as mothers and women, yet how different the opportunities we had been given in life. And as we developed friendships and I began to study Bahasa Malaysia, I began to have a strong desire to help them in some small way. That’s when I discovered a few of them had sewing machines in their flats and basic skills, and well, the rest is history!
Since setting up The Batik Boutique, what have been (or still are) some of the biggest challenges?
AB: The biggest challenges for any enterprise are the growing pains of scaling up. Our business is an inclusive business in which our beneficiaries are important parts of the supply chain. We have created a model in which as the business scales, the impact for communities scales with it. This of course requires new customers, larger contracts, support from government and corporates, and a strong core team. Finding the right people to grow with us, be it artisans, seamstresses, marketing, admin or retail staff, remain a big challenge as it takes a lot of grit and hard work to scale a start-up, even more a social enterprise.
According to the website, The Batik Boutique currently employs 150 seamstresses. Are any training courses or similar programmes provided for newcomers? Please elaborate.
AB: We have partnered with over 150 artisans in our work and projects; just to clarify, we do not keep 150 employs full-time. The depth of impact differs based on how much relationship, economic opportunity, and programmes each person desires. I learnt in our early days not to put too many programmes in place as a big part of community empowerment is to have it led from the inside out.
We have several programmes our seamstresses have access to such as English classes, health exams, support for their children, etc. We even provide small grants to various batik artists from the profits of our business to help them scale their family-run businesses too. We also offer free sewing courses to women living in the flats near our sewing centre. In 2018, we trained 35 women in sewing skills.
My favourite and most helpful programme we offer is financial literacy workshops. We partner with a local NGO to provide a 12-week course for any of our seamstresses. This has proven critical in their economic empowerment. For example, most women do not have their own bank account when they start working with us. I’m proud to say that today all the women who work with us full-time have opened their own bank accounts.
Did you ever imagine that The Batik Boutique would develop into what it is today?
AB: I always knew Malaysian batik and artisan-made products had strong potential, especially in the tourism industry, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine Batik Boutique would be what it is today. We have worked with big brands such as Starbucks and Grab, and we most recently redesigned sanitary pads under the Kotex brand that launched nationwide.
We have two boutiques – one in Kuala Lumpur and one in The Westin, Desaru in Johor. Our products have been sold on-board Malaysia Airlines, and we’ve sold thousands of Malaysian-made gifts and products to international brands and customers. Not to mention we are proud to see the women working with us purchasing their first vehicles, sending their kids to school... growing their skills and opportunities.
What do you think is the greatest selling point that Batik Boutique has over other independent fashion enterprises?
AB: Two points – first, we are highlighting the national heritage of batik in good quality and contemporary styles; second, we are doing it all for a good cause to benefit the people of Malaysia. Our story and our products speak for themselves.
What do you think is the biggest impact that Batik Boutique has made socially?
AB: Socially, Batik Boutique has provided dignity and worth to women who society has told otherwise. I will forever be proud of the progress I see in each woman we partner with make for herself. And, we are pushing the batik industry forward. Some of our artisans are in their third generation of batik and are afraid it is a dying industry until they start working with us. One in particular said our orders are the largest his business has ever received in three generations. This is what will sustain batik.
What are your future plans for Batik Boutique?
AB: The future is unlimited for Batik Boutique. It’s hard to believe our company is only five years old, and I look forward to opening more outlets, partnering with more corporate brands to highlight batik, and empowering more artisans.
What are some of your favourite holiday destinations?
AB: I love to travel and have visited over 25 countries. However, my current life stage of mom of three keeps me redefining holiday and travel plans, keeping us a bit more local and always looking for a beach. I love Langkawi for the beaches and seafood, and our favourite weekend getaway as a family is to Tanjong Jara Resort by YTL. It’s the perfect blend of beach, kampung and luxury, and driveable from KL.
Penang is forever in my heart as it was our home for two years. The food is unbeatable.
We recently visited Perth and Western Australia with my in-laws and loved the weather in autumn and driving. It reminded me of my upbringing in Texas, minus the kangaroos!
* Images courtesy of Amy Blair, The Batik Boutique