Tote bags are my go-to when heading out for a quick errand or spending the day out at the mall, cafe, or a friend’s house. More often than not, these bags tend to have a minimalist design on them or a logo from a brand that had gifted the bag for marketing reasons.
With designed tote bags being a norm to me, I was surprised to come across a local Instagram business called NO DESIGNER HERE. It sells tote bags with—you guessed it—no designs.
What interested me further was how its founder has found the business good enough to be doing it for almost 8 years. Who was behind it?
Selling plain totes is just more sustainable
Other than just painting or creating art on regular canvases to sell, some artists have found that creating designs on blank items with practical use like clothes or shoes can be a more lucrative business.
Amirah Azhari was one designer who’d paint custom designs onto tote bags to sell to students in her university back in 2013. She’d source the fabric bags from a local supplier in bulk, and took orders from her customers who requested for custom art.
Business started to look promising, and Amirah became serious about the venture with hopes to continue it full time. But creating custom tote bags took time, and did not gain enough returns for a stable income. So, she decided to sell the plain tote bags for others to paint on their own designs.
“That’s where the name ‘NO DESIGNER HERE’ comes from. There is no designer here in my business, you have to be your own designer and paint your own tote bag,” Amirah explained to Vulcan Post.
But sourcing the supply wasn’t easy
Amirah is adamant about producing the perfect tote bags for her customers, be it the bag’s A4 or A3 sizes or the length of its handles. Other sellers she found often sold bags with short handles that make it difficult for tall or plus-sized customers to put on.
Despite wanting to sew each bag herself for quality control, labour was intensive and she struggled to meet demand. Eventually, she decided to outsource the production for her bags.
However, hunting for reputable suppliers came as another challenge. Sourcing a manufacturer for plain canvas tote bags was rare and costly, she said. And although research could be done online, samples were required to ensure they met Amirah’s product standards.
Amirah explained, “Samples are very expensive too. One sample for a plain tote bag can cost up to RM200 just to ship to Malaysia. And I need to have samples from different factories to compare them, so these can cost a lot.”
Keeping it conservative
Still a student at the time, Amirah kept her budget low and started NO DESIGNER HERE with a capital of RM100, which also translated to 30 pieces of tote bags. She’d also remain conservative when it came to restocking her supplies of 500-1,000 pieces each time.
With her family as support, they’d often loan her money to fund NO DESIGNER HERE. Amirah also shared that she had to borrow her sister’s credit card to pay suppliers, as online banking in 2014 wasn’t as swift as we know it to be today.
A few years into the business, Amirah became more independent and would take business loans from various bank programmes.
She also got into a free entrepreneur class handled by the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs, which then introduced her to the Kajang prison.
Prisoners there were assigned to sew 2 types of NO DESIGNER HERE’s plain tote bags and pencil cases from 2017 until 2021. The business would supply the materials while the prisoners stitched them into finished products.
“Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, they had to stop accepting orders to make way for producing PPE for local hospitals,” Amirah said. As the founder continues to look for a local tailor to produce the bags, NO DESIGNER HERE currently sources its products from a manufacturer in China.
A canvas with practical use
Though Amirah’s business started out with students as her main customers, NO DESIGNER HERE now supplies its tote bags to printing shops, small businesses, artists, and hobbyists. The brand has even fulfilled orders for 4Fingers.
Individual customers would buy the plain bags to hand paint their own designs while others have used them for embroidery work, a recent trend during the MCO.
NO DESIGNER HERE’s plain tote bags are sold between RM7-RM9.80 per bag, but prices can go much lower when purchased in bulk. On average, Amirah reported that the business is bringing in a revenue of RM10k per month.
In the long term, Amirah is hoping for her business to sell other cotton canvas products beyond bags. This year, she’s already supplied cotton canvas fabrics to customers looking to sew their own bags and accessories with the material.
“I am also in the process of rebranding my business, maybe changing my business name for a start,” Amirah added.
We’ve written about a lot of businesses and startups with innovative solutions, services, or products that target specific industries, so NO DESIGNER HERE stood out with its simple, “unsexy” product that appeals to the general public.
Being a small business, it doesn’t seem like Amirah is aiming to become the supplier for plain tote bags, which makes sense as it’s a business with seemingly very low barriers to entry. Her advantage is her use of social media for the brand, allowing her to build awareness and reach amongst her target market.
Thus far, it’s a strategy that’s working, and she’s built enough of a follower base (14K on Instagram) to experiment with and expand her product line in a way that’s still aligned with her branding.
- You can learn more about NO DESIGNER HERE here.
- You can read about other Malaysian startups we’ve covered here.
Featured Image Credit: Amirah Azhari, founder of NO DESIGNER HERE