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His 3-year project of designing a bag for his wife is now a M’sian brand making 20K bags/mo

Since the MCO, my default bag of choice has been tote bags, just because they’re able to fit all my necessities and some light groceries on errand runs.

But when it comes to getting my keys out, my hand has to take a deep dive into the mess, rummaging through miscellaneous items before finally striking gold. I personally don’t mind this bit of clutter, but it isn’t for everyone.

Johnson Tan fits into the latter category. He’s the designer and founder of a local handbag brand equipped with plenty of compartments called Tracey, born out of his frustration when looking for keys in his wife’s bag.

Compartmentalising the mess

Originally named The Urban Lady (after their first commercialised bag design) upon launching in 2015, the company was later rebranded as Tracey in early 2021.

If you’re on my same train of thought, you’re likely wondering if Tracey was named after Johnson’s wife, and the answer is no. Tracey is a portmanteau of the words trendy and fancy, while his wife is named Aiping.

“Aiping is not a messy person, in fact, she’s very organised in every way,” Johnson told Vulcan Post. “But her bag is not as organised as she is and she spends a lot of time looking for car park tickets, phone, keys, etc.” 

Growing frustrated with his experience of trying the same one day, he finally decided things had to change. Since he’d been in the fashion industry for 19 years already, it wasn’t too big of a leap for Johnson to begin designing handbags too.

Johnson’s sketches of his design process / Image Credit: Tracey Star

He started by sketching out his ideas, adding pockets everywhere he could in a bag. Using grocery bags, he cut out fabric and stitched them together, improving the prototype every weekend by adding on new ideas and taking away impractical elements. 

It was quite a struggle at the beginning for Johnson, not knowing what Aiping carried in her bag day-to-day. “Fortunately, my wife has given honest feedback on the prototype to help improve the bag so it can fit her lifestyle better,” added Johnson.

In all, it took him 3 years to come up with the bag which Aiping loved.

Shop Tracey’s bags on VP Label at an exclusive price now:

Her friends then wanted one too

What started out as trying to add simple touches to create impact in Aiping’s life through a bag, has now become a local brand producing up to 20,000 bags a month.

A glimpse into The Urban Lady’s compartment bag / Image Credit: Tracey Star

Johnson shared that he didn’t intend to sell the bag in the beginning. Not until one day when a friend asked if she could have one too. That’s when the couple realised that their bag could help other women who faced the same problem as Aiping. 

By getting their friends to test out the bag, they were able to receive more feedback from 100 women in their social circle. Now more confident in this venture, Johnson began looking for suppliers who could fit his budget.

Once he found the right one, production began, and the rest is history.

“We understand when it comes to bags, women usually would have more than one bag in their wardrobe. Not because they love to collect them, but because they carry different types of bags on different occasions, as different bags serve different functions.”

“Hence, for all the bags that we are putting out there, we try our very best to make sure they hit these criteria: easy to organise items, fashionable, and beyond expectations,” Johnson described.

Trendy yet affordable

On top of selling its bags online, Tracey can also be found on retail shelves at large departmental stores like Parkson.

Affordable, of good quality, and proudly Malaysian made / Image Credit: Tracey Star

Made with polyurethane (PU) leather, all Tracey bags come with multiple compartments in them to organise small and large items. Priced between RM29 and RM179, in addition to handbags, its website also offers clutches, backpacks, bucket bags, and cross-body bags.

The reason Johnson chose to make his products with PU leather is due to its cost-effectiveness. “What’s better is this is cruelty-free leather. In our perception, using premium quality PU leather can make the bag look expensive and durable in terms of time,” Johnson said.

However, PU leather isn’t as durable as real leather, nor does it degrade in landfills, which makes them quite unsustainable as a material. Sharing my thoughts with Johnson, he explained that the brand is conducting R&D to invent new materials that can replace PU leather. 

This is in hopes of lowering their carbon footprint throughout the process. “To change ordinary ways of doing things is hard, we are working towards it one step at a time. Our 5-year plan will also be setting up our own green factory in Malaysia,” Johnson added.

Addressing a big market

Overall, Johnson reported that Tracey’s growth has been steady, even over the pandemic.

“Continuous increase in demand over the last 2 years has proven that we are actually good at what we are doing—solving problems and providing value,” he said.

Tracey’s bag designs have the advantage of being attractive to the mass market, and with the different types of designs available, he’s aiming to target a customer segment of women between 18 to 35.

An X-ray mockup of The Urban Lady’s functions compared to an ordinary bag / Image Credit: Tracey Star

Currently, Tracey mainly ships within Malaysia, but Johnson’s ambition is to bring his Malaysian made products to the global stage one day.

His aforementioned 5-year plan to set up a green factory for Tracey will play a role in that, as well as create more job opportunities for locals. But in the meantime, he and his team plan to first set up a physical boutique store of their own by 2022.

Shop Tracey’s bags on VP Label at an exclusive price now:

  • Learn more about Tracey here.
  • Read other stories about Malaysian startups we’ve featured here.

Featured Image Credit: Aiping and Johnson, founder of Tracey

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)

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