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They’ve proven M’sians will pay RM160+ for shirts made of bamboo, if it’ll save the earth

In recent years, support of the sustainable fashion movement has taken off. Amongst my social circles, thrift stores are the preferred shopping destination when it comes to finding new attire for an event or a wardrobe revamp. 

On the other end, brands are also opting to produce fabric out of eco-friendlier materials such as Tencel or lyocell, which are made from plant fibres. 

Realising the sustainable benefits of bamboo as a raw material for textile, Ariff Faisal went into entrepreneurship and founded his clothing brand, Kualesa.

Searching for a purpose

Kualesa is a full-time gig for Ariff who left his former profession in engineering and consulting. Having spent time in both fields, he shared with Vulcan Post that the job didn’t provide him with a sense of meaning and purpose.

His tipping point was spurred on by WFH, when Ariff believes many like him began internally reflecting on what they really wanted to do in life.

Recalling the dead coral reefs he saw while snorkelling in Indonesia some years back, he then knew that one of the boxes to check to find his purpose was in something eco-conscious. 

Turning to Google, he learnt about bamboo fabrics and the benefits they posed, such as being cooling, breathable, and comfortable to wear. After feeling the fabric for himself, he was wholly convinced about doing something with the idea.

“I’ve always dreamt of building a brand from scratch and that challenge really excited me,” Ariff shared. “Being inspired by some global conscious D2C (direct-to-customer) brands which all started from somewhere but are profitable businesses today, I knew that the business model could work.” 

But why bamboo?

Named after kuat and selesa, ​​meaning strong and comfortable in Malay, Kualesa is meant to describe the attributes of the brand’s shirts.

Bamboo was chosen as the fabric’s main material for a few reasons. For one, it has rapid regeneration abilities, where certain species can grow up to 20cm per day. As a result, 35% more oxygen is produced, and 5 times more carbon dioxide is absorbed when compared to other tree equivalents, according to Ariff.

Furthermore, the manufacturing process of bamboo textile can be more environmentally friendly as opposed to cotton and synthetics.

The shirts can be worn while exercising or during sports / Image Credit: Kualesa

“We use bamboo lyocell, [where] 99% of solvents and water are reclaimed and recycled through the process, greatly reducing water usage, and [it] means unwanted chemicals [won’t] end up in the environment,” Ariff explained.

On the consumer’s end, bamboo as a textile has its own positive qualities, such as being soft to the touch, hypoallergenic, crease resistant, and temperature regulating. This is because the fabric is made up of natural fibres which are breathable and can keep its wearer cool, making them suitable for warm and humid countries.

From plant to cloth

These shirts are designed by Kualesa’s Head of Production and Design, Niki, who has a background in Textile Design for Fashion from the London College of Fashion, where she specialised in print. 

The process of turning bamboo into clothing starts with first harvesting and pulverising (grinding) the bamboo plant into pulp before it’s dissolved with a solvent to produce a viscous liquid. It is then pushed through spinnerets from which lyocell fibres are produced. 

After being washed and dried, the fibres are spun into yarn and passed through a mill to produce a fabric. 

A flow chart on the manufacturing process / Image Credit: Kualesa

One of the main challenges faced by Ariff was in building relationships with manufacturers who were able to accept his starting quantities and took environmental impact seriously. This was made even harder as R&D was taking place at the heart of the pandemic.

“We started sampling back in November 2020, so it took a whole 10 months for us to be satisfied with releasing our products to market,” Ariff said.

Eventually, Kualesa’s team overcame the search for the right eco-conscious manufacturer by doubling down on the screening process to ensure that the manufacturer had the right certifications.

Starting by collecting pre-orders in July 2021, Kulesa was officially launched in August 2021.

The high cost of sustainability

With the alarming threat of global warming, buying sustainable alternatives sounds like a no-brainer to most of us. However, adoption can come at a high price.

Costing between RM163 and RM231, Kualesa’s product range consists of round-neck T-shirts, semi-formal collared polo shirts, and its range of batik shirts. Fast fashion products that retail similar looks, albeit with materials like synthetics and cotton, can come at a fraction of the price, so it’s understandable why most would be hesitant to switch.

When I brought this up to Ariff, he agreed that fast fashion brands can in fact offer cheaper price points. “[But] they promote very fast usage from a quantity perspective and don’t necessarily promote quality and long-lasting garments,” he argued.

He elaborated that the fast fashion industry uses plenty of cheaper-to-make synthetic textiles like polyester which take 200 years to decompose, ending up in landfills. When machine washed, these fabrics also push damaging microplastics into the oceans. 

Thus, Kualesa is taking the approach of promoting non-synthetic high quality garments that customers can feel comfortable in and will want to wear frequently. 

Ariff and his team/ Image Credit: Kualesa

“Instead of buying an RM30 T-shirt that you might wear maybe 3 times, get turned off by the fit and design, then put it in the bin, we would rather you buy something you love at a higher quality and wear it 100 or 200 times over,” Ariff justified.

But it appears that Kualesa is pricing its products a little higher than another brand I found that also uses bamboo textiles called JBS on Zalora. It sells shirts in 2-pack bundles between the prices of RM197 and RM209 (sans discounts). Although, it states on the product’s details that fabric is made up of mixed materials, with 65% of it being bamboo viscose, while 35% of it is cotton.

Kualesa’s products, on the other hand, is made up of 95% bamboo lyocell, which points to a higher concentration of plant fibres, justifying its costlier price point.

Another reality Kualesa’s team has to deal with is the fact that economies of scale are harder to come by when producing such uncommon material like bamboo lyocell. “Conscious materials simply cost more to work with, so in some ways, we have to price accordingly,” Ariff elaborated. 

Kualesa featuring its products at a pop-up event / Image Credit: Kualesa

Ultimately, Kualesa needs to become a sustainable business from a longevity standpoint to create real impact, and it isn’t able to do so by pricing its products too low. 

While traction might be slower at first, ultimately, those who find value in eco-conscious products would be willing to make a purchase. Later once it scales, there’s potential for Kualesa to become more affordable and thus accessible to different groups of people.

Though unable to disclose sales figures of the business, Ariff could share that Kualesa has experienced a 140% month-over-month growth.

Already shipping to Malaysia, Singapore, and across 6 major ASEAN countries, he’s setting his eyes on the global market. 

With an aim to release new product collections every few months while expanding to cater to more customer segments, he hopes to make a name for Kualesa in being one of the largest D2C brands in the region.

  • Learn more about Kualesa here.
  • Read about other sustainable Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Ariff Faisal, founder and CEO of Kualesa

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(UEN 201431998C.)

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