If you have ever looked for comfortable festive clothes for children that have a cool and contemporary feel, chances are you would have checked out the POKOKS brand. The best thing about their designs is that they not only fit festive occasions, but are functional and fun enough to be worn all year round. This is because their founder and main designer, Jessica Kim, has put a lot of thought into how they are made – something that stood out to makchic contributor, Li-Hsian Choo, during the course of her chat with Jessica to kick off makchic’s Mumpreneur series.
The woman behind POKOKS
Jessica believes that children’s clothes should suit their needs – being tailored to the things that children do, and bringing out their cute childlike qualities, not making them look like mini adults. While her clothes have always conveyed a very Malaysian feel with their pretty prints inspired by local items and icons, it might surprise some readers to learn that Jessica is not originally from our shores.
Jessica has lived in Malaysia since 2009 with her Malaysian husband and now, her three children. She is a native of Shanghai, China where she first met her spouse when he was there on a working stint. Today, they run POKOKS together.
Her lovely daughters – Yashgin (12), Yano (9) and Yasmin (7) – were the first muses for her creative designs. Her first clothes were the little baju kurungs made for their school Hari Raya celebrations. The mums at school saw these and had pestered her to make them for their kids. In those early days, Jessica even signed up for kurung sewing classes in nearby kampungs, to learn about traditional kurung patterns and how to cut them.
The life of a mumpreneur
Jessica admits it is not easy being a mumpreneur, managing a growing label and household with three active children simultaneously. She struggles to keep her energy levels up, find the stamina to work through her 14-hour days and practice self-care. Like many other families, they lost their domestic helper when her contract ended during the first Movement Control Order (MCO) two years ago, and could not replace her due to the restrictions on the entry of foreign labour. She remembers those painful early days with 5am starts, waking up to prepare her children’s breakfast and school lunches (they prefer home-cooked food).
Later, her practical husband, who believed that their children could learn from the experience and do more, took over the child management duties. She shares candidly how he would give them instructions while still in bed, telling them to let him know once everything was done in the morning. So, her eldest child had to eventually step up to help her younger siblings.
A family affair
Now, Yashgin has taken over the main chores, like laundry. She sets the washing machine the night before, so that the laundry is done by 6am daily and put in the dryer before she leaves for school. Her job is to fold all the laundry after she gets back. The younger two oversee putting these back. Yashgin also prepares their school lunches the night before, refrigerating them for easy takeaway the next day. The children sort out their main meals (they can cook simple things like fried rice), and load up the dishwasher, an appliance purchased during the pandemic, nightly. A teacher Jessica hired to supervise the children’s homework and piano practice also picks them up from school.
These days, both parents, who sometimes end their working day around 10pm during peak periods, no longer need to scold the children nor feel stressed as they merely check if the chores are done – and they usually are. The pandemic has helped their children learn how to plan their tasks and time, learning important living skills.
Learning about fashion in China
Jessica is a Fashion Design graduate from Donghua University in Shanghai that is well-known for this major. She later completed a Masters’ degree where she studied how customers make purchasing decisions, branding, marketing, and fashion history. This gave her deeper insights into the business side of fashion compared to the more creative “fine art” focus of her basic degree. It made her realise that not everything a fashion designer desires is workable in practice.
Jessica also received a lot of valuable hands-on training from her subsequent internship at Carrefour’s hypermarket chain in China, where she helped them to develop their first in-house fashion label for the local market. Her work involved everything from the design of the brand logo, right up to the product sales displays and training of the sales assistants. Even this iron lady admits that it was very tough working in the competitive Chinese market, as her workday would only start at 10.30pm, after the store closed daily.
Her final Masters thesis, which talked about her experience starting up the hypermarket’s private label for the mass market, made Jessica realise how her work could influence the way mass audiences in China saw and wore fashion. As style in China was still largely old-fashioned (and sourced mainly from night or street markets), Jessica had to look beyond the usual price point considerations, and into quality, colour and current fashion trends.
To spearhead something new in a traditional industry, you needed to be willing to go against the tide.
Forging a bridge
Today, this rich experience puts her in a good position to drive her own brand that she started to in 2016 to cater for Ramadan demand. As a person who straddles two countries, she is well-placed to act as a bridge between her suppliers in China and her customers here in Malaysia. She had to help suppliers understand why the dresses and skirts in Malaysia are so long and loose and require raw fabric with longer basic width; different from those in the Chinese market where short and smaller cuts are popular especially for seasons like summer.
So, in the beginning, before POKOKS developed their own customised fabrics, there was a lot of added cost and material wastage after cutting. She admits that it has been very interesting solving manufacturing issues that sometimes arise due mainly to cultural considerations in each country.
Jessica began to study clothes sizing in greater detail. Cutting and sizing for children is particularly tricky as you cannot always use age, weight, height, or regional sizing as clear references, given that all children are different (and are now taller than children of the past). POKOKS is always improving and innovating in this area, and its size measurements have now stabilised after many years of constant calibration.
Comfort and easy movement have always been Jessica’s main considerations. Hence, choice and composition of material used is also important. She is conscious of how festive clothes should look smart in precious family photographs, so understands the importance of using crumple-free material. At the start, they used heavier fabrics to give more structure. This year, POKOKS’ fabric innovations have led to them introducing “linen sejuk” (cooling linen), a special blend of linen and cotton that falls nicely. They also have 100% cotton that requires easy care.
POKOKS’ prints are inspired by things Jessica sees around her, particularly cultural artefacts, motifs, and carvings as well as nature. Her digitally hand-drawn patterns can be best described as a contemporary take on traditional batik designs. The recent collection for Hari Raya Aidilfitri 2022 has gorgeous motifs based on local birds, flowers, and fruit like jambu air.
She credits her husband with great colour sense as she usually consults with him on the palette. He is also a multimedia and programming whiz who helped to design their POKOKS website. Their promotional photographs are also conceptualised, styled, and done in-house, so are infused with their own character.
“Growing” POKOKS and ZARAKS
POKOKS was chosen as the brand name, as they thought a children’s clothes brand should reflect something “natural” that “grows”. POKOKS brought a new kind of matching system to family-style festive dressing when they first introduced their #sedondontogether offerings. Their second brand, ZARAKS, was developed in 2020 in response to demand by parents for adult clothing that matches that of their kids.
This past Hari Raya Aidilfitri, POKOKS and ZARAKS featured 10 collections including Kita Menang (conveying how we’re still here and winners despite the challenging Covid situation), Rasa Damai (the feeling a peaceful afternoon, featuring the “bulan” motif reminiscent of a mosque dome), Daun, Seniman (minimalist abstract style print), Tanam (a unique purple collection celebrating the miracle of a seed’s growth, plus local flora and fauna), Glow (a new luxurious range for women), Dulu Kita (remembering the old days amidst retro settings) and Narik (like an invisible thread or heartstring that pulls you back home).
There are also the Baby Baju Melayu and Baby Kurung staples that POKOKS pioneered in the market, consisting of one-piece rompers, with a mini kain samping or kurung skirt.
Hari Raya Haji offerings
The upcoming Light Collection for Hari Raya Haji is simple, sustainable, and made with fabric suitable for our weather. It is poetically presented: “Light me up like the Matahari for the day; Making my troubles go away; Shine me with your Bulan glowing bright; Illuminating my dark gloomy night; Spreading my wings flying in the sky; Reaching where my worries untie.”
Whilst POKOKS may face new competition in the market time and again, we believe that the thoughtfulness, care, and attention to detail that Jessica Kim and her team bring to the brand, as well as their commitment to the brand’s overall vision of creating clothes that are comfortable, versatile, and trendy, will always ensure it has a large legion of fans.
By Li-Hsian Choo
Li-Hsian left a career in corporate communications to become a full-time mum to twins. She is learning new things daily as she tries to balance the romance of motherhood with the messy realities of her latest role. She is also currently the co-facilitator of the Art Discovery Tours for Kids and coordinator of children’s programmes at the ILHAM Gallery in KL.