makchic sits down with local shoe designer, Nelissa Hilman, to find out the good places her (many pairs of!) good shoes have taken her to – as she shares her inspiring journey from chemical engineer to creative mumpreneur and the ethos behind her chic, socially conscious label.
As a chemical engineer involved in processes in Sime Darby, young Nelissa was always intrigued and drawn to the research and development departments, because “it was so much more fun to figure things out”. With her curious spirit and desire to explore new things, Nelissa dabbled into creative pursuits, including making baju kurungs (it wasn’t her cup of tea!).
Somewhere along in 2011, she stumbled upon a newspaper article stating that Jimmy Choo was going to start a school. “I was curious about how shoes were made, I’ve not seen [this process before],” explained Nelissa, reiterating her interest by explaining that she kept newspaper cuttings of all the shoe events in Malaysia. The Jimmy Choo school never kicked off, and Nelissa took matters into her own hands.
A new venture
She came across an online notice outlining an upcoming shoe course in Florence, Italy, and jumped at the opportunity. “It was a short course, I would spend 4 to 5 months there. [I thought to myself] if I didn’t enjoy it, I could come back to work,” Nelissa recalled. But she did enjoy it- she fell in love with the art of shoe making. The ambitious engineer then interned at a shoe factory for a year when she got back because “she didn’t want to waste time”, and things kicked off from there (with a lot of groundwork and perseverance).
Committed to making a difference
No corners are cut in Nelissa’s hunt for trusted suppliers with the right fit. She personally visits local factories to verify their authenticity and to ensure that the suppliers are truly providing good jobs and decent working conditions. Nelissa shares, “We visit the factories, we know the families. The mother, the father- it becomes a close-knit thing.” She continues, “I want to actually see with my own eyes if it’s authentic. Is the chopped certificate legit? I need to know.”
Nelissa’s shoes are thus all handcrafted locally, with every piece designed with the contemporary women’s needs in mind. Expert craftsmanship blends classic designs and distinctive youthfulness, with every collection responsibly and sustainably produced in small batches.
When asked about the reason for taking this conscious approach back in 2012, when it certainly wasn’t a trending business model, Nelissa nods in understanding, affirming the authenticity of the brand’s culture. “It certainly wasn’t the so-called cool thing to do then. It’s more like I am that person, so I support this outlook through my brand.”
Juggling a new role as a mumpreneur
When Nelissa became pregnant with her first child, she struggled with the classic “I can do it all” mum thoughts. “Sleep deprivation affected lots of business decisions along the way. I didn’t know it was postpartum depression, but looking back it probably was. I was just pushing through.”
Deciding to finally ask for help and support was certainly a practical decision on Nelissa’s part. “I had my second kid, I asked for help and surrendered. We were lucky [we managed to] get a helper three weeks before the lockdown. She’s part of the family now,” Nelissa happily shares.
Spending time together
As a busy mum managing her own label, Nelissa appreciates her weekends with kids and tries her best to take more days off during the school holidays. “I know they will grow up so fast and I will miss them. Sometimes, I will bring them to work, since they find it fun to go to the office.” But, of course, not much work can get done with the little kiddos around!
During the weekdays, she tries to be home by 6.30pm to prepare dinner for the family. Like many of us mums, she’s also had her fair share of having to experiment with recipes to entice her picky eaters and has finally settled on a weekly rotation of kid-approved favourites (for now). Plus, as a creative mum, she enjoys crafty projects with her kids and getting them to express themselves through the arts.
Being a mother has also changed how Nelissa manages her business. She balances her time as a working mum and being present with her kids through delegation. “I’m lucky that I started the label at a time when I had more time. I was single then, so I could focus on the building part. Once that was okay, I could somewhat let go and delegate. It’s like how I delegate things to my helper, I give her full trust.” Nelissa admitted that delegating was hard initially, but having a good, trustable team that delivers has made it easier.
Riding the pandemic storm
The retail landscape took a hard hit during the pandemic, and so did Nelissa Hilman (both the label and the designer herself). “It was tough. Mentally, I cracked,” says Nelissa, as she candidly discusses her challenges through this trying period.
“The first year was okay, people were optimistic. But then the second year came, and we were hit by the disruption in the supply chain. We wanted to order shoes from the factories, and there were delays everywhere.”
For Nelissa, ensuring her staff were paid was the most important factor, and she made sure this took priority. Despite considerations of pulling the plug, she managed to sustain her business through the pandemic, with rental instalment plan negotiations, SOCSO grants and digital grants.
Mental health and inner work
“I’ve never understood [the importance of] mental health until the pandemic,” reflects Nelissa. “I had way more stress hormones than happy hormones for so many years, and struggled with feeling guilty about enjoying the finer things in life, like going out with friends.” Nelissa turned to a range of consultants to support her mental health– heeding advice from a psychiatrist, a tarot reader, healer, life coach and acupuncturist.
What they suggested was that Nelissa should be spending and enjoying more time with her family and loved ones (guilt-free). It’s like killing two birds with one stone, and “we like efficiency,” Nelissa says with a laugh. The self-care and improved mental state will have trickling effects into all parts of her life. “When I felt at my lowest, my business was in fact at its lowest. When I’m at my best, my business is at its best.”
Exciting days ahead
Nelissa Hilman turns 10 this year (the label, of course!), and Nelissa Hilman the creator gives us a sneak peek into what’s coming up – on both a personal and professional front.
Nelissa Hilman, the Label: Womenswear and Jewellery
Mamas who are looking for high-quality apparel to feel both confident and comfortable in will be happy to know that the brand will be launching their very own range of womenswear! Nelissa will also be collaborating with Kina Hassan of WASIS Studio in creating a jewellery collection. True to their roots, these jewellery pieces would be repurposed and up-cycled from an old copper signage that was previously used at Nelissa’s store before her rebranding early this year.
Nelissa Hilman, the Creator: On short and long-term dreams
Passionate about the shoe industry and concerned with the dwindling numbers of such factories around Malaysia, Nelissa is looking to produce a short documentary about shoemakers in Malaysia to celebrate and document the community of makers that have been around for almost a century. “Just the other day, I found out another one of our leather shoe factories was closing down. To me, it felt like a break up- like this is the end,” Nelissa laments. “So, the next day I went to the factory, and the factory [really] was cleaned out.”
Her long-term dream? To have an academy of shoemakers. Nelissa envisions the academy to be a delicate blend of old and new. “Part of me wants to maintain the traditional art of making shoes, and a part of me wants to explore newness. So it can be traditional, but it will be combined with something new.”
Advice for mumpreneurs (to-be)
Nelissa ends our coffee chat with a word of advice for mums, saying “If you have the passion for it, go for it. A lot of time, it’s just grit. You would have challenges thrown at you all the time- it up to you whether you want to move on or quit. Either way, it’s neither wrong or right. At the end of the day- it’s your personal decision, at that point in time.”
[The contents of this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.]
If you would like to support our local shoemaking industry and community, do check out Nelissa Hilman’s online store, or visit her physical store at Bangsar Village. It’s makchic approved- the timeless, chic and super comfortable shoes are sure to make running after your kids a little bit easier (and a lot more stylish)!
Elaine is a mummy of two who moved from the financial world to become an early childhood educator. She loves travelling, books and her cup of tea to unwind after a long day of diapers, school runs and pretend play.