When you are young, it is a very common occurrence to be asked the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?". The usual answer, especially in this part of the world, is either a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. Well that's not the case with Josh Lee, a Penang-born fragrance designer who has held this ambition close to his heart since a very young age.
Maybe one of the first here in Malaysia? At the shop, we were introduced to Josh's Malaysian Heritage Collection, which consists of 3 perfumes named "Georgetown", "Oud" and "Nyonya". You can just tell by the names that this collection is inspired by certain attributes here in Malaysia.
Georgetown refers to Josh's hometown, Oud is an ode to the Malaysian rainforests and Nyonya is inspired by the Peranakan culture. The heady citrusy and woody smells of the perfumes with its unique distinct and colourful packaging definitely stood out amongst the other products on display that day.
Soon after we were invited to witness the official unveiling of the new perfume "Nyonya" by Josh Lee, which is Josh's latest fragrance at M.A.D! Restaurant. in Kuala Lumpur.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term "Nyonya", Nyonya is word for a "lady" who belongs to a group of Malaysians who are a mixture of Straits Chinese and Malay/Indonesian descent. The event was also graced by Dr. Lee Su Kim, an award-winning author and Founding President of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of KL/Selangor and Mr Jean-Pierre Galland, the Counsellor for Co-operation and Cultural Affairs, the Embassy of France.
I met up with Josh a few days later at LOKA in Nu Sentral mall, one of the many retail outlets where Josh Lee fragrances are sold. I had a tete-a-tete with him to find out more about his background and vision.
Batik&Bubbles (B&B): Tell us a little about your background and how it led you to launch Josh Lee fragrances?
Josh: I have always been interested in scents from a young age. My family are in the business of selling cake ingredients and I remember the various aromas in the shop, when my father would mix and blend the ingredients. I think my sense of smell was awoken during this time. I also have memories of being at school in my alma mater St Xavier's, which was located close to the sea. Even then, I remember the salty sweet smells emanating from the sea.
After completing my secondary education, I went on to study Chemistry at UPM (University Putra Malaysia) and one of my final projects was learning how to extract and distill essential oils from herbs such as basil. As there were no fragrance or perfumery courses locally, I then went on to study in Versailles, France where i took a Master in European Fragrance and Cosmetics. 90% of the course is conducted in English and the rest is in French. Luckily, I had already mastered French at the Alliance Francaise language school in KL, so I was well prepared!
After completing my studies, instead of staying back in Europe, I returned to Malaysia as I felt there was plenty of opportunities in Asia as compared to Europe where things are a lot more competitive.
I have always wanted to do something for my hometown, Penang, and perfume seemed a very fitting way to celebrate the heritage and culture of this amazing city. All the famous cities have perfumes named after them. You have YSL Paris and Burberry London, so I thought, why not Georgetown, Penang for my first fragrance?
B&B: How long does it take to launch a new perfume - from the initial idea to getting them into the store?
Josh: It takes about a year. From the conceptualization stage where you create a solid foundation for the perfume. For example, when I created the Nyonya perfume which has a strong cultural identity, I spent a lot of time doing research on the Nyonya culture. I noted that they themselves use a lot of peonies and roses, and that at weddings they also use jasmine. I also included a musky smell in the fragrance which is predominant in bedak (powder) that is widely used by the Nyonya.
Next we focus on putting all these ingredients together. I have a small lab in Penang where I put together all my formulas for the perfume. Then we test the perfume to check that the perfume doesn't not separate and also check the colour by doing a temperature test. We also check the shelf life of the perfume by running all these tests.
Finally, we go into production in Europe. This stage lasts 3-4 months. We then get quality certification by IFRA (The International Fragrance Association) and the HALAL certification by JAKIM Malaysia. The end product is then filled and packaged here in Malaysia.
B&B: Who is your target market?
Josh: As we are a Malaysian product, we find tourists are our main consumers as they like to take something home with them from Malaysia. We also have a lot of local customers who buy the perfumes for their own personal use or as a gift for friends or business counterparts.
B&B: What made you decide to make a HALAL-certified perfume?
Josh: We are a Malaysian brand and we wanted to make sure that this product is available to all Malaysians. Muslims can safely use this perfume as it does not need to be washed off before prayers. Having the halal certification also allows us to get additional safety and hygienic measures for the perfume. As we always wanted Tourism Malaysia to endorse our brand, it was important for us to take the proper steps in ensuring this. Our customers can be rest assured that the perfumes are safely prepared using the utmost hygienic methods available.
B&B: What kind of woman do you envision wearing the Nyonya fragrance?
Josh: She is a modern woman who is educated and strong. She is strong on the outside but has a whimsical and feminine streak about her. This is represented by the overall floral, woody and musky overtones of the perfume.
B&B: What are your most favourite and least favourite parts of the job?
Josh: My favourite part of the job is to see the final product. Designing the perfume bottle and box is ultimately pretty satisfying. It gives me so much pleasure to see the final product on the shelf. My least favourite part is the public relations side of the product. I find doing the promotional work rather tedious (he smiles).
B&B: Are there any other plans to expand into other areas besides perfume?
Josh: Aside from producing more perfumes, we are also thinking about producing body lotions and shower gels. As we presently don't have our own shop which is a bit hard for us as we need a lot of space to showcase large selections and quantities.
We mainly sell our perfumes in perfume or gift shops, therefore it is a bit hard to sell other toiletries as people don't generally go and buy toiletries in these kinds of places. I am considering going into home fragrances and candles too.
B&B: Any words of wisdom for entrepreneurs who wish to start their own business?
Josh: My feeling is that a lot of young people rush into starting their own business once they have graduated from college. I myself spent 10 years working before I ventured into starting my own brand and company. I think it is better to work and gain some experience first before diving in. Try and establish contacts and build your customer base first. I can see this happening a lot in Penang where there are a lot of youngsters opening a cafe and then within a year the cafe closes down. As the saying goes "You need different keys to open different doors", so don't rush and take your time to build your experience before you start to venture on your own!
Thanks again Josh for sharing with us your story! Readers stay tuned to our facebook and instagram page for a chance to win some Josh Lee fragrances!
Josh Lee fragrances can be found online at: www.joshleefragrances.com and at selected hotels, airport duty free, shopping malls and tourist attractions in Penang, Langkawi, Kuala Lumpur, Sarawak and Sabah.
Kuala Lumpur: Kuala Lumpur International Airport KLIA 1 (Karyaneka), Kompleks Kraf at Jalan Conlay (Karyaneka), Just Parfum shop (Pavilion, One Utama, Sunway Pyramid), The Perfume Shop (Midvalley, Central Market, Sunway Putra Mall), Kita Kita, Loka (Nu Sentral Mall).
Penang: Penang International Airport (Dimensi Duty Free, Colours & Fragrances Duty Free), Prangin Mall and Queensbay Mall (Glow Colours & Fragrances Shop), Tropical Spice Garden, E&O Hotel (The Bombay Shop), Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa, Golden Sands Resort, Bayview Beach Hotel, Noordin Mews Hotel, Hotel Penaga, Shop Howard, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Pinang Peranakan Mansion, Areca Books at The Star Pitt Street, Nona Bali Restaurant, Gerak Budaya shop.
Langkawi: Langkawi Jetty Point (Colours & Fragrances Duty Free), Kaya Palazzo, De Zone, Danna Hotel, Datai Hotel and The Andaman Hotel.
Kuching, Sarawak: Viva City Mall (Panache Fragrances)
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah: Megalong Complex (BJ Scent Garden)
To find out more visit www.joshleefragrances.com.