A Niche Market Success

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Dato’ Tuan Hasnah Tuan Yusoff

In the 1990s when the number of pilgrims going to Mecca was increasing, there arose a new niche market for suitable quality attire that was comfortable yet stylish. The existing utilitarian ones in the industry served the basic needs but did not adequately satisfy the middle and upper class customers who are more discerning. Realising the business potential in the industry, dynamic entrepreneur Dato’ Tuan Hasnah Tuan Yusoff struck while the iron was hot and has not looked back since. The Sri Munawwarah Design brand which she established in 1992 continues to enthuse the market with innovative designs symbolising quality Muslim apparel not only within Malaysia but also within London and the e-commerce marketplace. During a recent interview session with Top 10 of Malaysia, the iconic entrepreneur talks about her background and the business that she nurtured into a success story.

Dato Tuan Hasnah Tuan Yusoff, already in her sixties, epitomises the essence of the modern Malaysian business woman, synergising the cultural traditions of a past era with the motivations of the current market place. Having grown up in a family with strong business ties, as both parents were deeply involved in business for a living, Tuan Hasnah has inherited an astute business DNA and exposure that has shaped her involvement in business undertakings. A steady elegance and charm exuding inner resilience, pragmatism and equanimity is an apt description of Tuan Hasnah.

Hailing from Kota Bharu and second in a family of eight siblings, her dreams for a better life started from young. “I have dreams, I was always dreaming of achieving success and I continue to dream to this day,” says the dynamic entrepreneur. Those visionary dreams have been realised through an immutable sense of strength imbued with a creative flair. There exists a perpetual innate spirit in Tuan Hasnah to challenge herself to aim for the highest peaks with the persistent belief that nothing is impossible in life if the intention and passion is sufficiently strong. The visionary believes that life would ultimately be meaningful if one had tried to make the effort for the greatest failure in life is the failure to try.

It was this determination that saw Tuan Hasnah moving to Kuala Lumpur after completing her secondary studies as her yearnings for financial independence were strong. “I did not want to depend on my parents as I felt it was my turn to take care of them. My mother was still involved in business and was supporting my family as my father was not well then,” recalls Tuan Hasnah. While working in the government sector, she continued to pursue her interest in designing and making clothes. She was still single then but subsequently married a diplomat. Tuan Hasnah’s creative flair lies mainly in the creation of designs for children and women clothing. Her daughter, Haslinah Mohd Ali, who was also present during the interview session, says, “As far as I can remember, my mother had been sewing clothes for me right into my teenage years. There were occasions when I needed new clothes for evening functions and Mom would come to my rescue. She would purchase the materials in the morning and get the clothes ready for me by evening.”

Tuan Hasnah’s husband’s diplomatic posting to Wellington, New Zealand provided the perfect opportunity for her to upgrade her professional qualifications and skills in retail clothes designing. The dream of starting a business came to realisation with the setting up of Sri Munawwarah Design in 1992. The word ‘Munawwarah’ possesses a special personal significance that reflects the radiance and illumination the business creates by serving Muslim communities. The brand and business, considered to be more than a commercial enterprise is a personal entrepreneurial project entrenched with emotional attachments. Tuan Hasnah’s family has helped organically shaped and expanded the business, especially its value proposition designs.

The Munawwarah brand articulates a subtle style and quality that has connected well with a large loyal, repeat-customer base. “My designs have gained recognition even amongst Malaysian royalties,” reveals Tuan Hasnah with a sense of pride. The materials for her apparels are mainly sourced from natural fabrics with lycra being a brand speciality. “Munawwarah designs are classical with contrasting hues of primary colours and textures that blend together to give chic sophistication,” she explains.

The business model which has been sustained from day one is based on the concept of stringent financial management. As loan facilities were scarce during the time when the business was set up, Tuan Hasnah’s utilised personal savings for her business. This management aspect of the business has been perpetuated on the basis of strict financial discipline with Tuan Hasnah having the final say in all financial matters. She emphasises on self-independence, a quality that is not only reflected in all areas of the business but also in her personal investments.

Tuan Hasnah’s foray into the commercial market began with Tabung Haji in 1992 when she successfully clinched a project for 500 pieces of ready-wear for pilgrims. However, the project had to be completed within two weeks and realising that this was a make-or-break moment for her business, Tuan Hasnah wasted no time in rolling up her sleeves and got down to work with the 300 rolls of fabric that she purchased for the project. The finished products were well received and that was a great stepping stone for Tuan Hasnah to move on to further expansion and growth in line with the burgeoning Muslim apparel industry.

From a business that Tuan Hasnah had started in her home, Sri Munawwarah Design has expanded to seven shops nestled within Taman Tun Dr Ismail and its surroundings in Kuala Lumpur. The suburbia, profiled as an affluent upper-middle class with a large Muslim community, provides a substantial consumer base for Tuan Hasnah. Her product portfolio ranges from women, children and men’s wear to Haj and Ummrah apparels and accessories. The close proximity of the shops has positioned them as a one-stop shopping centre. The demand for Muslim lifestyle apparel also comes from the expatriate community seeking appropriate formal wear for official functions and suitable casual clothes for relaxation.

“I have a great passion for designing clothes,” says Tuan Hasnah of the overriding factor that has engulfed all aspects of her life. She has a desire to immediately bring new ideas to life – ideas that keep coming regardless of time or place. One of her favourite pastimes is gauging the latest popular fashion trends through people-watching, especially so when she is in London. The ideas are then adapted for the Muslim fashion sense either in classical or short term seasonal styles.

Tuan Hasnah views the company’s business ventures into the London market as a good stepping stone to other foreign locations in the near future. Designs from Sri Munawwarah have already gained a distinctive reputation on the catwalks of London Fashion Week for Malaysian Muslim design capabilities.

Tuan Hasnah’s two children, daughter Haslinah Mohd Ali and son Hazmi Mohd Ali are both involved in the running of Sri Munawwarah Design. Haslinah and Hazmi, professionals in their respective fields of law and architecture, believe that their involvement in the business is a higher calling as compared to being in their respective fields of specialisation. The business is a personification of the family with members managing the support services. Tuan Hasnah is the CEO and designer with Haslinah overseeing operations and marketing while the management of the brand name is undertaken by Hazmi. A nephew, Shamsul Rizal Ghazalli takes care of the logistics for the company. A closely-knitted familial collaborative and supportive relationship has shaped the organic growth of the company. The inextricable relationship between Sri Munawarrah Design and the family is profoundly obvious from design creation to the final display on racks and fashion shows.

The company has initiated a production setup at a cottage industry level in Pahang in its bid to encourage local resource participation. The current staff of 35, who have been selected based on their motivations for working in the clothing industry, are frequently provided with the opportunity for training in clothes design and production. The management style is people-centric with all staff considered as part of the family. The building of skills and capabilities from ground zero is a challenge which Tuan Hasnah effusively enjoys, as recounted from her experiences in training staff with no knowledge of the clothing industry. This has made possible the transformation of dishwashers and cooks to clothes designers.

When asked about work-life balance, the contented smile from Tuan Hasnah gives away the fact that Sri Munawwarah Design provides a good balance. “Although the business invariably requires constant attention all the time, I make time for hobbies such as painting and the occasional overseas sojourn with the whole family, London and New Zealand being favourites,” she says.

Dato Tuan Hasnah’s dreams for success have taken her through quite a number of paradigm shifts from her Kelantanese roots to the urban retail scene of the big city. Her perseverance and true grit has been instrumental in putting her on the path to success, albeit not a bed of roses. The energetic and enthusiastic Tuan Hasnah says that she is still on the go looking for new ideas and innovative designs that will complement her vibrant outlook in life. Giving back to society and serving the community meaningfully while expanding the business has been a winning factor that continues to bringing the brand and the family of Sri Munawwarah Design to new frontiers of prosperity.