Kartini Illias

Ever since I was in Standard 1 when asked, “What is your ambition?”. My reply was always the same, “Businesswoman”. Of course, at that time I was not aware what sort of business I was going to delve into. After attaining my Diploma in Business Studies, I managed to secure a job in a Finance company despite stiff competition from 20 male students.

I was not pleased with a diploma.  So after 2 years I applied to several universities in the U.S and finally decided on Seattle University. It was also a tumultuous time in my life, as I was going through a divorce. Thankfully my parents and in- law was supportive of me furthering my studies. So, in 1983, I embarked for the first time on an international flight with my son to Seattle. I chose Seattle because it was near the sea, hence, the weather was not too severe and had the lowest Malaysian student population. You can only learn from a society if you hang out with them. Hence, Christmas was spent at my son’s teacher’s house for dinner. It is also when you are away from prying eyes that you find the courage to try new things. I took Fine Art, Ceramics and Modern Dancing. You are among strangers in the class and you are not afraid that you would make a fool of yourself. You become absolutely free when you have no fear. To my surprise I excelled in the subjects I took. My latent artistic abilities were released.

I crashed through school taking the maximum number of subjects allowed each semester and never went on Summer holidays as I attended Summer school. I wanted to finish as fast as I could as I wanted to return to Malaysia in time for my son to start school and for him to not be too Americanised. I came back home in 1985, after achieving my Bachelor Degree in Finance and a Masters in Business Administration. At that time the hottest companies were Promet Bhd and Petronas Bhd. I managed to get a job in both but I found Petronas and the department I was in too slow paced so I opted for Promet Berhad. I was Personal Assistant to the Executive Chairman and each time he had an overseas visitor he would request for me to get a batik gift. It so happens the best batik store to me, was just across the road from my office. I would strut across to the boutique which was in the Equatorial Hotel to purchase some pieces. The shop called Kutangkraf was manned by 3 ladies Aishah, Winnie and Kam Heon. One day Aishah asked me if I wanted to see her brother’s works. Though, a little skeptical I agreed anyway. Her brother was En. Wan Nong Ahmad the foremost batik artist in Malaysia and it was he who founded the hand drawn technique used in Malaysia today.

I was struck by his paintings that were detailed and precise coupled with exclusive colour combinations. He had a stint in Japan, hence, he acquired their disciplined work ethics and precision. Soon I was buying more of his works for myself since they were so exquisite. After a while I would buy all of his works as they were limited in number and too beautiful to ignore.

I used to carry along the batik in my car and more often than not when I visited friends they would enquire about the batik. I would take them out and show and sell. I was doing that for awhile which made me realised that there was a growing demand for high end batik. Hence, my full foray into the batik business in 1990, joined by Aishah, Winnie and Kam Heon. En Wan Nong and Cik Aishah have since passed away but I will be forever grateful to them. I left a secure job in corporate world and threw myself into batik and have not turned back ever since.

My passion for batik continues to smoulder even after over two decades. I started with high end batik fabric and finally expanded into batik ready-to-wear. As we move towards progress, we find we have less time to sit and mull over designs or colour matching with a tailor. Hence to simplify matters for the buyer I have chosen to provide garments that are wearable and dignified that you can carry from work to a formal function by merely adding some accessories.

My personal motto is SIMPLICITY hence designs are simple, simple to wear no fuss and simply smart. I keep my personal and my business life simple too. My commitment to batik is to continue making it relevant even a hundred years in the future.

God willing.