Enterprise
New lease of life by Leather Biz
Behonce Beh 
Lee (left) and Mui Pin foresee a huge demand for leather goods restoration services
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IT warms most hearts to see treasured leather goods restored back to their prime.

Through restoration, handbags that have been through years of abuse are given a new lease of life to weather many more years of use.

Leather Biz Care and Restoration has been repairing and restoring leather goods for the past decade.

The business was founded by the husband-and-wife team of the late Clifford Tan and Lee Siew Mei.

Prior to Leather Biz, Tan was a project consultant for the construction of hotels and spent several years working in Indonesia.

Restoration for leather goods extends beyond minor repairs and colouring of the leather. It is a lengthy process which could include changing the lining of the handbag to replating its hardware.

“This is a customer-centric business as we need to help them understand what can or cannot be done for the item. We strive to achieve at least 70% improvement over the existing issue at hand,” explains Lee.

The late Tan worked on restoring a 100-year-old piece of luggage

Long treatment time

Most jobs take between six and eight weeks to complete, depending on the severity of the issue.

Each item goes through an average of 10 processes and steps; hence the long lead time as it takes time for the treatment to dry.

Looking back, the duo chanced upon the business in the mid-2000s when Tan noticed bottles of leather paint were untouched at an acquaintance’s car detailing workshop.

The idea to restore leather goods came about as he found multiple uses for those bottles of paint.

His first project was restoring a friend’s battered Chanel handbag which “turned out better than it was before”.

Thanks to word of mouth,  business soon grew and it has been over a decade since the couple started their venture from a workshop in Kuala Lumpur.

On average, it is able to process and restore between 150 and 200 items a month, with over 70% of the items consisting of handbags. The other items are generally shoes, wallets, briefcases and belts.

 

Global demand

According to the consulting firm Bain and Company’s Worldwide Luxury Market Monitor, the global personal luxury goods market is expected to be worth €259 bil (RM1.43 tril) this year.

The report adds that personal luxury goods sales grew 4% in the first three months of this year from the same period last year due to strong sales in accessories, jewellery and beauty products in China.

That said, leather goods restoration remains a fairly niche market as there are not many players, says Lee.

Luxury brands such as Italian label Fendi only offer polishing services to those who purchase their Selleria bespoke range and would recommend customers who purchased their seasonal runway items to send their goods for servicing to leather restorers.

Meanwhile, French luxury label Hermes offers repair and refurbishment services to its customers. However, such services could take as long as six months as items are sent back to France to be worked on.

“Thank God, there has not been a day when we did not have any bags to do,” Lee says.

The demand for Leather Biz’s services usually spikes two months before a festive period and also at year-end. 

“There will typically be a surge in handbags sent over before Hari Raya or Chinese New Year while we see more jackets and boots coming in to be refreshed before the winter holidays,” says Lee’s daughter Tan Mui Pin.

Mui Pin joined the family business in 2015 following a nine-year stint in corporate communications.

The sluggish economy did not have much impact on their business over the years, says Lee as the company is on track to achieve a 20% sales growth this year.

“Of late, we do see customers bringing in items that hold sentimental value for restoration. They include a luggage that was passed down from one generation to another, a handbag purchased with the client’s husband’s first pay cheque and a mallet for a gong,” Mui Pin says.

Surprisingly, Leather Biz did not invest in any advertising or promotional activities since its inception but managed to achieve good growth.

“The only thing we have spent to promote the business was the printing of name cards and a small signage only after five years in the business,” recalls Lee.

 

Role of social media

Word of mouth remains its strongest advocate with social media playing a more important role in recent years.

“Social media for us is to educate customers on leather and how to care for their items. They may not walk in today but we have somehow planted in them the idea to come to us when they have a need for leather restoration in the future,” explains Mui Pin.

Today, the mother-anddaughter team manages the business with the help of their team of skilled craftsmen.

Lee says she is hands-on in all aspects of the business, while Mui Pin is expected to immerse herself further into the production aspects of Leather Biz.

Asked how the company will move forward, Lee says Tan’s philosophy remains the biggest source of inspiration and direction.

“He [the late Tan] would often say, look to God for direction, focus on doing good work and remember that the customers are the most valued part of this business,” she recalls. 

Working on leather goods

LEATHER goods restoration is a craft and its process could not be structured to the likes of a manufacturing line.

Leather Biz Care and Restoration co-founder Lee Siew Mei says her trade is labour-intensive and detailed.

“It takes a long time to train people to achieve that level of skill. Also, our team is one that is patient in nature as you must be able to work and focus in silence for long hours.”

Patience is key when restoring handbags

All of their work stations are positioned close to the window to ensure sufficient natural lighting.

“During gloomy weather, it can be tough to colour leather goods as different lighting could affect the shade of the colour,” she explains.

Lee has seen her fair share of handbag horrors as they recently worked on a Chanel handbag that was bitten by termites.

“We had to change the lining of the bag and fill up about 19 holes on the outside of the bag that was eaten away by termites.”

She adds caring for leather goods in our tropical climate can be tough due to the humidity.

“It is best to store leather goods in a cool, dry room; preferably one that has air-conditioning for some six to eight hours a day to keep moisture at bay,” she says.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 254.