Born in 1988 Georgetown, Malaysia and having graduated with a degree in IT, Terance Chen first workedas a technical support with Dellin the military and government sector before moving on to Motorola as a radio engineer, assisting the SEA team for security measurement under government, military and private sector.Music has been a huge influence in the development of his artistry. He started from classic hip-hop bands like beastie boys and would soon discover their earlier punk music, which then led to an obsession with post-punk, gothic bands and more recently, avant-garde experimental noise. His music taste informed his artistic worldview, thus paving the eventual path towards forming his very own leather brand.
In 2014, Chen started a pop-up store inside a friend’s cafe, providing restoration and polishing services for leather shoes. A few months after that, he quit his corporate job and started working part-time at the cafe whilst continuing his pop-up. He soon found himself in a difficult position financially, which propelled the beginning of his leather craft label with a starting capital of 500 Malaysian Ringgit. He bought his first piece of hide along with a few essential tools and was ready to start work. In April 2015, the first product was made. It was a leather belt made of natural vegetable-tanned leather that was paired with a classic solid brass buckle. The product, with its use of leather and metal, showed influences from the Americana style and the denimhead culture. His first customers were amongst people and friends within the cafe community. To grow the brand further, he also started making small leather accessories.
As a bespoke leather brand, it is important to first prioritize and understand the client’s needs. Based on the first discussion, an initial sketch would be drawn and a few leather choices would be given according to the budget and subject matter. When the design is finalized, Chen would commence work right away. The brand enforces a full payment policy as soon as they receive a go for the project. Most of the time, the costs of the projects are at 65%-75% depending on how appealing they are to the brand as a whole. As cringing as it might sound, Utile is built around and fueled by passion. As of this year, the brand is hoping to initiate at least a 225% mark up on every single product as compare to the industry standards of around 400-1500%. For the general consumer, the relatively low mark-up is very reasonable but it is definitely not the same case from a maker’s point of view.
To this day, what continues to drive the brand is the sense of fulfillment. It is apleasure and of great satisfaction to realizea customer’s fantasy on having anything made with leather. For Chen, one of the happiest thing is to have that capacity to introduce and influence others with the things he likes and to be able to pass down the right knowledge and information to educate a larger audience about traditional leather crafting. What he finds truly heartening is when clients showed off their leather goods to their friends and introduce them to his brand. Five years on, Chen believes that he had done a good job in introducing the culture and to whoeverhe had met during this journey.
One of the biggest challenges for Utile as a leather craft brand is pricing. Growing up in Penang, Malaysia, Thailand is a just a few hours away. It was too common to have visitors coming back from Thailand, bringing back souvenirs like keychain or diary covers made from leather with their initials on them, which would cost a mere 15 - 30 Malaysian Ringgit. As a result, most people, having compared their products with what they had always been familiar with, Utile’s pricing seemed rather exorbitant. Yet, there is no shame in saying this, you get what you pay for.
The brand sources raw materials from different tanneries across the globe and had chosen to work with designer leathers whose quality is not only outstanding, but more importantly now than ever, are sourced and produced professionally whilst upholding strict ethical measures. Such materials tend to be a lot stronger than lower budget tanneries and is the main contributing factor to the relatively high price tag. The real challenge now is to price the products within a range that is fair to customers and sustainable to the business.
Utile is 6 years old now. With one more craftsman partner now, Chen hopes to expand production to a global scale once the team have mastered the skills and techniques expected of them. The long term goal would be to make Utile an iconic Malaysian brand while maintaining the high standards that the brands always strive for. Just imagine, a world where high quality leather craft is the norm, where even affordable ones will be made of high quality designer leather combine with some top notch craftmanship. For Utile to become the norm of leather craft, in his own words, ‘it gives me the chill’.