Monday, October 19, 2009

The fashion trade’s best kept secret

Anything and everything that has to do with fashion can be found at an enclave in Jalan Kenanga, better known ‘Ho Ching Yuen’. The only catch is you have to buy in bulk to get the best prices!

WHO could have guessed that the largest wholesale fashion hub of the nation is tucked between the Sri Selangor flats in Jalan San Peng and the fire station in Jalan Hang Tuah in Kuala Lumpur? With close to 400 shops selling fashion merchandise and paraphernalia – adult and children’s garments, mannequins, hangers, wigs, shoes, bags, costume jewellery, belts and sexy lingerie – anyone who trades in the business or wants to set up store is likely to find what he needs here.

The Jalan Kenanga area – better known as “Ho Ching Yuen” – is a well kept secret because only those who are in the trade and purchase in bulk have access to the shops here.

Datuk Ang Say Tee had come to Jalan Kenanga from Pontian in 1988 and had seen its potential to be a fashion wholesale city.

This place is strictly a wholesale concern. So while the price tag on an item may wow you at RM15, remember that you’d have to purchase at least a three to a dozen pieces of the same design in different colours and sizes.

Understandably, this may prove challenging for shoppers in general, but friends and families have been known to shop in a group to take advantage of the bulk sale price.

On the bright side, there are often bargain racks displayed outside the shops. These items, which are actually remnants of a tail-end stock, are sold on per piece basis but buyers beware: there is a “no trying and no return” policy.

“The ‘wholesale only’ policy is to protect our market. It would not augur well with the retailers if we, too, start selling on a per piece basis as we would be competing with them directly,” says Datuk Ang Say Tee, 52, executive chairman of the Sin Ang Lee Group and president of Malaysia Garments Wholesale Merchants Association.

Because the wholesalers here cater mainly for retailers selling clothes and other fashion items that are on the mid to lower end of the price range, Ho Ching Yuen is perceived as an area for cheap fashion. Jimmy Chan, 40, secretary of the same association, says that if a buyer wants quality goods, he must be willing to pay the price.

He says that 20% of the shops at Jalan Kenanga, like Ashley in Lorong Meranti, do cater to a higher end market and there are also wholesalers like Emono with in-house designers on their payroll who come up with new collections every season.

All shades: Latest fashion offerings in every style and and colour at the fashion hub.

“Anything can be of good quality provided the buyer is willing to invest in better quality materials and workmanship.We have buyers from Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand coming to Jalan Kenanga. Buyers from these regions already have wholesale suppliers who were established long before we were. Do you think they would come here if our goods are inferior?” says Jimmy.

Where prices are concerned, be assured that they are friendly on the wallet here.

At U-Bees Collection, for example, a dress will only cost about RM33; blouses, RM24; and T-shirts, not more than RM20.

Some places will even let their stocks go for as low as RM15. For menswear, Emono, which produces its own exclusive designs, sells long-sleeved poly-cotton shirts at about RM30 and denim and lycra trousers for between RM30 and RM40.

For shoes, a place called E-Collection offers a reasonably nice pair for RM20 to RM40. Leather boots are at least RM60 per pair.

The wholesale code dictates that one has to buy at least three pieces of a single design and if there are different colours, no fewer than six pieces. For shoes, one has to buy all the sizes (from size 35 to 40). With leather shoes, one has to buy no fewer than four pairs. With menswear, expect to negotiate for no fewer than eight pieces of shirts and 12 pairs of trousers.

The Top, which has been in business for 18 years, stocks racks, hangers and mannequins for boutiques. Prices range from as low as RM7 to as high as RM1,000 and the rule of thumb is the lighter the mannequin is, the heftier the price tag. Hangers are sold on a per dozen basis, with the cheapest being no more than 35sen.

The wholesale prices allow for a mark up margin by the retailers for 30% to 50%. Should the wholesalers sell their goods to customers at a cheaper price, it would kill the retail business. This, in turn, would have a negative impact on the business in the area.

Term of sales include cash and credit card. For extended credit terms, a retailer needs to have been in business for at least one year with a wholesaler to be able to qualify.

Shoes galore: You have to buy all the sizes for each design.

“The extension of credit is a very delicate matter. I remember a time when I was very insistent in dealing only in cash during the economic crisis in the 80s. This was what kept me afloat then,” says Ang.

“But sometimes, it also depends on the individual. When I first started and was buying stock in Indonesia, one supplier actually asked to look at my face when I asked the company for credit terms. He agreed after having a good look at me,” he adds with a chuckle. But despite the fast rule on wholesale dealings, some shopkeepers are “flexible”.

Yap Kuan Fak, 51, a sales assistant who has been working in the area for 23 years, attributes this to the intense competition in the business. “In the 90s, business was good; when China started its ‘open door’ policy, there was brisk trade because the wholesalers could bypass the middlemen and deal directly with the factories. “The downside came when others wanted a share of the pie. Hence, from about 100 shops, we now have 400; you can figure out how intense the competition is,” he adds.

Chan is confident that Jalan Kenanga will one day become an international fashion hub. Not bad for a place which was once a vegetable farm and “named after” Ho Ching, a farmer here.

“Of course, business habits will have to change so that we can advance. In future, wholesalers will have to educate themselves on changing fashion trends, establish their own identities with their own signature designs and come up with better marketing strategies to remain competitive. To merely stock up without thinking of the evolving tastes of the consumer will not take us very far,” he says.

Ang adds that the fashion industry is one business that will never die “because it is typical of human nature to want to look good”.

“In the end, it is worthwhile to remember that for a business to thrive, it depends on the person who runs it,” says Ang, who has branched into property development.

Buyer Suhaida Haron, 32, a boutique owner in Sunway Pyramid, is happy with what Ho Ching Yuen has to offer.

“It would be very time-consuming if I had to fly to Thailand all the time,” says Suhaida who usually spends the whole day here when she is on a buying spree.

And yes, buyers are known to walk from shop to shop in search of the best pieces and the best prices with lunch breaks in between.

Being a thriving business district, there are plenty of coffee shops and hawker stalls selling all sorts of delectable chow in the area. Of note is the coffee shop on Jalan Kenanga that serves wan tan noodles, fried kuay teow and economy rice.

As a business enclave, Ho Ching Yuen is also set for an upheaval of sorts as its tenants eagerly await the completion of Kenanga Wholesale City, a RM880mil, 22-storey complex off Jalan Loke Yew which is scheduled to be fully operational by 2011.

Currently, the wholesalers have an average transaction of about RM2bil annually, of which 30% are from exports and 70% from the local market. Many harbour hopes that their business transactions will double within a year once this new complex becomes a destination for international buyers.

Quick Shopping Guide to Jalan Kenanga

Teeny bopper: I Fashion, 2, Lot 2.03, Lorong Merbau, 03-9221 3568.

Menswear: Emono, 17-1, Lorong Meranti 2, 03-9221 3880.

Goth and Cosplay: Get On Clothing, 1-G-7, MGW Fashion Square, Lorong Meranti, 03-9222 1894.

Sexy lingerie: U-Bees Collection, 18, Jalan Kenanga, 03-9222 6818.

Casual wear: The One, 5G, Lorong Merbau.

Baju kurung: Sin Ang Lee, Ground Floor, MGW Fashion Square, Lorong Meranti, 03-9223 2339.

Children’s wear: Tahtah, 4, Lorong Meranti 2, 03-9221 9482.

Wigs: Anmani Wigs, 27B, Jalan Merlimau, 03-9223 9088.

Shoes: E-Collection, 15, Lorong Merbau, 03-9222 8480.

Bags: One O One, 12, Lorong Merbau, 03-9222 3322.

Mannequins and hangers: At The Top, 26, Lorong Meranti 2, 03-9222 1628.

How it all began

HOW did Jalan Kenanga’s Ho Ching Yuen become such an enclave for the fashion trade? The credit should probably go to the man who had the vision to gather the forces in one area.

Datuk Ang Say Tee, 52, executive chairman of the Sin Ang Lee Group and president of Malaysia Garments Wholesale Merchants Association, takes us back to 1984.

“I had the idea of turning Jalan Kenanga into a fashion wholesale centre after visiting South Korea, Taiwan, China and Thailand. In each country, there is an area for the fashion wholesalers to congregate so that it would be easy for buyers to come to them. I thought then: ‘Why not do the same thing for Malaysia?’” recalls Ang.

The cheap rental and ample parking were plus points in attracting investors, but, to Ang’s dismay, he discovered that the area was notorious for gangster activity. “No one wanted to come. One, because they didn’t think my idea would work; and two, because they feared for their safety,” chuckles Ang.

It was not hard for Ang to solve the first problem, as he was able to convince the other players that it would be in their best interests to gather in a strategic location to attract buyers. The other issue proved a lot more difficult because the area was under the control of not one, but several triads (kongsi gelap).

Lee Fook, 77, a retired carpenter who grew up in the area, provides an insight into Ang’s dilemma. “The gangsters fought over territorial rights and were a violent parang-wielding lot. I have a friend whose brother was slashed to death,” he says.

Chan Weng Tuck, 51, a wholesaler who came to do business in Jalan Kenanga in 1984, recalls how Ang finally confronted the triad members. He says Ang did not fight fire with fire. He resorted to negotiation.

“There were protection fees to be paid and the sum and terms would depend on the area. Some wanted to be paid annually, some were happy to receive a lump sum.

“There was a code of honour among the triad members and they kept to their word in ensuring that the businesses were able to operate without hassle,” Chan says.

As the years went by, gangster activity and protection fees gradually waned and now the place is much safer today, says Yap Kuan Fak, 51, a sales assistant who has been working in the area for 23 years.

“Age caught up with them so they had to stop fighting. The younger generation realised that they would be on the losing end if they continued the old ways. Also, there is a better system of law enforcement now compared to then,” he says.

Published in The Star, Sunday 23 August 2009

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