Covid-19 survival: How a Peranakan designer turned things around and learned to be an entrepreneur

Kenny is a fifth generation Baba who designs and hand sews Nyonya kebaya and beaded shoes under his Kenny Loh Couture line. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
Kenny is a fifth generation Baba who designs and hand sews Nyonya kebaya and beaded shoes under his Kenny Loh Couture line. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

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GEORGE TOWN, March 28 — The Covid-19 pandemic left a trail of economic destruction in its wake and Baba Nyonya designer Kenny Loh was not spared.

Loh had just opened his first shop on China Street in George Town on March 15 last year when three days later, the first movement control order (MCO) was implemented. 

He had to close shop and due to the prolonged lockdown, the shop never reopened and three months later, he relocated to another shophouse on Kimberley Street.

There was hardly any business at the new shop as it was located within the Heritage Zone — a popular tourism area — that saw very few visitors due to the pandemic. 

“I had almost zero income for a year due to Covid-19 and I have been relying on my savings mostly,” he said.

He closed the Kimberley Street shop and early this year reopened on Jalan Servis which is outside of the Heritage Zone. 

“I wanted a bigger shop with a large event space, a garden and rooms for my workroom and store. I fell in love with this shophouse the moment I came to check it out,” he said.

The Nyonya House at Jalan Servis opened in January 2021. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
The Nyonya House at Jalan Servis opened in January 2021. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

He said the new space has a large room on the first floor where he can conduct workshops and a backyard with an open space upstairs for a rooftop garden. 

“There is also space for me to set up an office so it’s perfect for my needs,” he said.

Although there was hardly any business for almost a year, Loh used the time to plan new product designs and set up his own website. 

Loh, who is a fifth-generation Baba, designs and hand sews Nyonya kebaya and beaded shoes under his Kenny Loh Couture line. 

He also has a range of Baba Nyonya inspired souvenir items such as keychains, fridge magnets, postcards and bags. 

Previously, Loh only had a small counter at Jen Hotel that he set up in 2017 and he often participated in fashion and kebaya events and the George Town Festival. 

Diversifying 

With plenty of free time, Loh worked on kebaya embroidery designs, planned a new couture line, took a course on entrepreneurship and set up his own website, Kennylohcouture.com, which went “live” in January this year.

Loh also started a YouTube channel showcasing his grandmother’s traditional recipes.

He said he managed to gain quite a number of subscribers on his YouTube channel so it provided him with some income.  

“I was a nutritionist, I have no idea about running a business or managing it so I used the time to enroll in a creative and innovative entrepreneur programme with Penang Art District,” he said.

Rising phoenixes on a kebaya by Kenny Loh. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
Rising phoenixes on a kebaya by Kenny Loh. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

This year, he started putting up some of his premium embroidered kebaya and beaded shoes for sale but he admitted that many of his hand-sewn items could not be sold online due to size issues.

Kebayas are meant to fit just nicely so it is hard to sell online as sometimes measurements are not as accurate as when they try it here at the shop,” he said.

Each of his kebaya is unique, there were no duplicates in the designs as each piece is hand sewn with a different design by Loh. 

“Every piece is different and I have started trying out new designs for the shoes, where instead of only producing beaded ones, I am also making embroidered shoes using the kebaya designs,” he said.

Loh’s range of kebayas and shoes are Baba Nyonya themed designs, usually of flowers, gold fishes, peacocks, roosters and his most recent is rising phoenixes. 

Future plans

Various types of hand-sewn Nyonya shoes by Kenny on display for sale. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
Various types of hand-sewn Nyonya shoes by Kenny on display for sale. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

He is now working on a new collection as part of his fashion pitch for a grant application to MyCreative Venture.

“I am designing a new collection called ‘Past, Now and Future’ and I hope I get that grant to start this collection,” he said.

The new collection will feature the different species of Malaysian butterflies to represent how local businesses can undergo a transformation during trying times.

“The caterpillar goes through a major transformation and comes out as a butterfly and I want to use butterflies as a symbol of how we too can go through a major transformation and come out better versions of ourselves,” he said.

The new collection will feature embroidery of butterflies and Malaysian flora on baju panjang, kebaya and a combination of embroidered and beaded shoes. 

Small nursery selling Nyonya herbs, bonsai and rare orchid species. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
Small nursery selling Nyonya herbs, bonsai and rare orchid species. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

Now that his new shop space has a garden and a rooftop garden, Loh is also planning to start a small nursery selling bonsai, rare orchid species and Nyonya herbs.

“I love gardening and I am starting out small and hope to be able to grow more plants and sell to some of my clients who also love gardening,” he said.

He has already set up a Facebook page — Little Courtyard — where he features the plants he is currently cultivating. 

Loh hopes that soon the country’s and state borders will reopen for visitors so that he can start organising workshops and talks. 

“I plan to organise small experiential workshops like embroidery and beading projects for small items such as key chains for souvenirs,” he said.

He also plans to organise talks about the Baba Nyonya lifestyle and make the space above his shop available for small private events.

Kenny Loh is planning to come up with a line of kebaya for rent. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE
Kenny Loh is planning to come up with a line of kebaya for rent. — Picture by Steven Ooi KE

Finally, Loh is planning to come up with a line of kebayas for rent so that those who do not wish to purchase them can still wear a kebaya to events.

“I will have a range of kebayas for people to rent to wear to events and even for weddings,” he said.

He can also customise the kebaya for weddings and let the bride rent it at half the price of the kebaya for those who do not wish to keep it. 

The Nyonya House by Kenny Loh is located at 34, Jalan Servis in George Town. He can be contacted on his Facebook page via https://www.facebook.com/penang.nyonya.culture/

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