#BuroAList: Street talk with Hugh Koh and Ethan Curzon
In our last instalment of #BuroAList, we picked the brains of two heavyweights in the local streetwear scene, Hugh Koh of Pestle & Mortar Clothing and Ethan Curzon of OBSCR on all things street—from pushing boundaries in design while keeping it commercially successful, to taking on trends that they'd never imagine pulling off.
One-third of the original founders of local streetwear and lifestyle label Pestle & Mortar Clothing, Hugh is also the creative director behind the brand's commercially successful collections. Armed with a background in architecture (he previously worked in firms in Malaysia and Australia) and keen entrepreneurial instincts, Hugh also has a string of other ventures that he dabbles in, including multi-label retail and e-commerce store Major Drop along with cafe and retail boutique League of Captains. An occasional guest speaker at various events (including tertiary education institutions and charitable events), Hugh is also a traveller and cycling enthusiast.
Apart from traipsing across the globe for music gigs with his fellow DJ partner at B.A.T.E, Ethan Curzon has been widening his horizons as of late, taking on a new territory that he hasn't explored previously. Spurred by an interest in sportswear-inspired apparel that can look equally as good for everyday wear, Ethan kickstarted his streetwear label OBSCR with longtime friend Bryan Lim. Despite the brand's infancy, OBSCR recently debuted at the Isetan The Japan store here in Lot 10, Kuala Lumpur.
In the interview below, we asked both entrepreneurs on the growth of the local streetwear scene along with some of the challenges they've faced in starting a lifestyle label here in Malaysia. Don't forget to catch the second half of the video to find out which current street style trend they'd cop or drop (hint: bum bags are definitely their thing.)
Please share with us a brief introduction of your background.
HK: I am one of the co-founders of Pestle & Mortar Clothing, a Malaysian lifestyle and streetwear label that was founded in 2010. We do everything from T-shirts to accessories, except for footwear.
EC: I am the co-founder of OBSCR [pronounced as "obscure"], and we've been running it for about close to two years now. We design sports-inspired garments that are built for active people who like sports but still wanna look good off-pitch.
You both come from a non fashion-based background—how does that impact you when it comes to creating a fashion brand in Malaysia?
HK: My background is in architecture, but what I find is that certain elements can be translated across [the industry], such as hard work and dedication. Architecture is all about that, with deadlines, presentations and more. But you definitely have to have a strong work ethic and to always keep an open mind. That's where inspiration comes from, even when you're doing random things. Always be exposed to different things around you to drive the creative process.
EC: I did public relations, so I had to deal with a lot of people when I was working at a PR company. You get to see all kinds of fashion and meet different people, all while picking up different things and concepts wherever you are. That's how our brand became and was born—all from different, little concepts.
What kind of major lessons have you learned from starting out a streetwear label in Malaysia?
HK: Yeah, what Ethan said. Challenging, but extremely fun. Malaysia has a lot of opportunity as well—right now it's the best time. Back in 2010, whenever we hear of a local brand, we'd be more apprehensive (or not so receptive). It's more different now with Malaysian pride and the growth of the Asian streetwear scene in the market. The Internet exposes people to different influences too, and they know what they want—it is both good and bad, I guess.
EC: Yes, like what Hugh said, it is a whole different market. What's trending in the USA can only take off here two years later, and despite trying to go on with the times, there's always the worry that the market isn't keen on it just yet. I think this is a frequent topic in marketing meetings: How to market your brand and be relevant here and also abroad.
How do you toe the line between pushing boundaries in design and remaining commercially successful?
EC: I think you just gotta do it sometimes. If pushing boundaries is what you want to do, go for it. You gotta try your best and market it well too. There are times where you need to take 10 steps back to get two steps forward, but that's just how it is.
HK: For us, we're fortunate to have a decent-sized design team and many of them come from different walks of life. I'm a little more conservative (style-wise), compared to some of the guys who are working with us. But that's what Pestle & Mortar is—a blend of the different ideas, coming together. And it's not just us in the design team who are inputting ideas, but also the members in our other teams, whether they're in accounting, management or finance.
EC: For us [OBSCR], we're just a two-person team, and that can be difficult at times too. If we both have the same interests, it's hard to get out of that bubble and we might not grow creatively from there. We still try to get out there, so we travel a lot and meet more people in different industries.
What are your thoughts on collaborations between streetwear labels and luxury brands? Is this the future of the scene now?
EC: I think it's a good thing, only because it gives people like us [from new streetwear labels] hope that we can also be part of that scene. And it's a good combination sometimes because it is putting together creativity from two different worlds, both of which have varying styles.
HK: From a business angle, I think it's great especially when we are looking for investors. So many streetwear labels are doing crazy things and earning millions along the way, and that gives us a drive as well because you definitely can't grow without financial backing. It sets a precedence to say that "If they can do it, we can do it too!"
EC: If brands can sell a water bottle or even a brick ... that's pretty much smart marketing. It gives us the avenue to explore more outside of just designing apparel.
HK: Yeah, it could be food, camping gear or anything else. And at the end of the day, streetwear is all about daily life and how it interacts with individuals.
The art of fusion is something that's synonymous with the streetwear scene these days, such as merging sportswear with fine tailoring. Do you think you do that with your individual labels?
EC: Yeah, definitely. A lot of people think that wearing sportswear off the pitch isn't cool or fashionable, but we're trying to show them that they can still look cool when you wear jerseys outside of the field.
HK: For us, when we approach designing a collection, it's always hitting on different things. We want to be the go-to brand when you go out to the mamak, a date, or a meeting—but maybe not a meeting that requires business suits!
Ethan Curzon wears the Hublot Spirit of Big Bang Black Magic and Hugh Koh wears the Hublot Big Bang Unico Italia Independent Green Camo.
Watch all the episodes of Buro A-List here.
Photography: Gerald Goh / Metal Bees
Videography: Octopost Studio
Styling: Cai Mei Khoo, Joan Kong
Hair: Juno Ko
Makeup: Ling Chong
Art Direction: Chong Yi Suen
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