“We want to make clothes that are evergreen, providing comfort in fashion without hurting the environment,” says Aida, the founder and magic-maker behind Malaysia’s growing sustainable fashion brand, TOTOMI. Driven by her passion for the environment and her knack for fashion, this mom of three from Subang Jaya quit her job as an aircraft engineer and created her first collection from the ground up in just 3 months!
TOTOMI is Malaysia’s up-and-coming sustainable fashion brand that makes everyday wear functional, comfortable and chic. With muted tones and simple silhouettes, each collection is carefully designed and made of 100% natural fibres that are perfect for our hot and humid weather.
As TOTOMI turns 3 in August, we spoke to Aida about how she pivoted her business in a pandemic whilst nurturing 3 kids at home and what’s in store for TOTOMI next.
We’re so intrigued by your background in aircraft engineering. Tell us more about how you got started and what was the turning point?
I was working as an aircraft engineer for AirAsia X for a number of years, and being somebody who loves travelling, it was the ultimate dream to be able to travel for work every 2 weeks. I like to say that I’ve been in aviation all my life! At the time, I was the only female engineer amongst my colleagues and it was very liberating in every way. So, you must be wondering why I decided to quit, right?
Well in 2017, I had my second child and my eldest was turning 5. At the time, I was still travelling every other week and my kids were with my parents most of the time. I think it came to one of those moments where I started to ask myself if I was really going to miss watching my children grow up? And so, I decided to put my feet down quite happily and do this for this family.
So, how did TOTOMI come about?
Funny story! I didn’t have a plan when I quit my job. It was Raya season and I realised a lot of my Raya clothes didn’t fit me very well as I have quite long limbs. So, I went out on a limb to make my own linen baju raya and to my surprise, I got a lot of compliments for it!
And so, I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe this is what I should do?”
Once I set my mind to it, I knew there was no turning back. Within 3 months, I created my first ever collection - sourced my own fabric, designed garments, created labels, packaged my products and went to bazaars. It was a steep learning curve for me in the beginning as I didn’t have a background in fashion, but Alhamdulilah, all the hard work paid off and it all worked out.
We are all curious, what is the story behind the name, TOTOMI?
I just thought the name was cute! I actually named my favourite cat Totomi and then, when I was working as an aircraft engineer, there were two Aida’s at work and so to differentiate between us two, my colleagues started calling me Totomi instead. And the rest is history! I am Totomi.
Your designs are also quite reflective of the Japanese minimalistic style. What is your source of inspiration and creative process?
Yes, I do get a lot of inspiration from the Japanese minimalistic style; designs that are both comfortable and functional at the same time. It’s definitely something true to what I believe clothing should be. Our designs are always to serve a purpose. We always keep in mind that, “We sell comfort, style is just a bonus we throw in,”. At the end of the day, we strive to create something that’s evergreen, something that transcends time.
TOTOMI is a huge advocate for sustainable living and slow fashion. There is always a strong empowering message that you bring forth with every collection. Why is sustainability important for you?
My mom has been a huge inspiration. We grew up with her always saying, “You wear something until you cannot wear it anymore!” and we always had to justify why we needed a new shirt or why we needed that specific pair of purple corduroy trousers because black ones are more versatile. My father was an environmental manager, so growing up it has been ingrained in me to always think about the environment, that whatever I own or buy has to last me the next ten years. So, when I started TOTOMI, we made sure we sourced sustainably. This included how factories handle fabric waste, how cotton and linen are being sourced from the forests and the list goes on! Ultimately, I believe this is how fashion should be, it shouldn’t have to leave bad impacts on the world.
We have seen some ups and downs in the fashion industry in the past year. Big B&M conglomerates are downsizing but online fast fashion is thriving like the likes of Zalora, SHEIN etc, are Malaysians ready for sustainable fashion?
I think sustainability is definitely not top of mind in Malaysians, although I do think that we’re slowly getting there. The younger generation are more aware of the environment and how important sustainable choices can impact the world we live in. As a business, it has been a challenging (and expensive!) journey to uphold sustainability in fashion. Everything is more expensive and everyone wants cheap clothing, right? And to be honest, It’s almost impossible in Malaysia to be 100% sustainable, especially in a pandemic. But we try to make TOTOMI as sustainable as possible in many areas, not just the fabric factories that we use but also how we package our products and the habits that we practice as a team.
With MCO and the countless back and forth of SOPs, how has the pandemic impacted your business and what did you learn from the past year?
It has been very difficult as most of our sales came from bazaars, and most of our customers prefer to touch and feel our clothing before making a purchase. So, once the lockdown happened we had to pivot our business online and pick up the ropes of social media really quickly. And being somebody who’s not a huge fan of social media, I had to learn how to strategize and execute campaigns at home!
It really taught us to come out of our comfort zone (selling at bazaars) and to learn new skills like how to do home shoots, how to edit videos for social media and making visuals that convert. Sometimes I feel like I’m too old for this! But jokes aside, we try our best to adapt and be agile as a business.
TOTOMI is turning 3 this August, and we’re so excited for the new collection! Tell us what we can expect from this collection?
I can’t believe it has been 3 years, it just makes me really happy and grateful for everybody who has been a part of TOTOMI’s journey.
We are launching a capsule collection called The Ru-Ma Collection, inspired by the joy of small things we often take for granted especially during these challenging and stressful times. The Ru-Ma Collection is a capsule collection of effortless everyday wear that is designed specifically to be versatile and so comfy that you can wear it out or at home.
Officially kickstarting the collection with our Totomi Kids as a mark of another milestone reached on our 3rd birthday this August. We hope this collection and campaign resonates with the love and joy at home especially during these unprecedented times.
Where do you see TOTOMI in 5 years?
To be honest, it’s quite hard to see what’s even gonna happen next week! *laughs* But one thing is for sure, we are expanding slowly and steadily. The dream is to expand TOTOMI to beyond apparel, like stationeries and home linen products.
But for now, we will be focusing on giving back and paying it forward to those who are in need. We all have a role to play in this pandemic and for us, we will continue to be spreading the word on sustainability in fashion and the environment and reaching out to charities that do great work for the needy especially in this time of need. Selling clothes would just be a bonus!
Where to find TOTOMI: