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A story of inspiration featuring Nelissa Hilman!

Hey everyone! Miriam here :)

Today i’d like to share a story about one of my first collaborations - the super talented Nelissa Hilman! As some of you may know, I had a whole different life prior to becoming a full time artist. I was working as a Marketing and Business Developer, helping brands tell their story, promoting their products, doing social media, managing partnerships and so on and so forth- you get the pic! I worked mostly with fashion, home goods and lifestyle brands as I have always gravitated towards these businesses (little did I know i’d have my own one down the road)

What you may not know is, back when I was a Marketing Manager for a jewelry brand (now defunct) I managed a collaboration partnership with Nelissa Hilman. It was for a small social media campaign of our products and Nelissa’s shoes. The brand I was working for, and Nelissa herself, were both pretty new in the industry (us being the newer ones), and at the time, we both didn’t have physical stores.

Through that project, I got to meet with Nelissa, we became acquaintances and she told me her back story. She told me she quit her corporate comfy job and moved to Italy to study shoe design. I was blown away by her story. At the time, shoe design especially, was something people didn’t really think about doing. There weren’t even big shoe designers in Malaysia (I mean, there’ still not many local shoe designers when you think of it) Looking back, her story resonated so much with me because I was already feeling disillusioned with the “corporate” life myself. Even though my work isn’t as “corporate” as corporate goes, I would still have to look at excel sheets, create decks and slides for presentations and meetings, write reports and do data analysis - every single day. I was always on the edge of the creative world - one foot in, one foot out. Looking in, working alongside designers and artists, briefing them on what to do - but never venturing out to do it myself. I’ve always known that I am a creative at heart, but at the time, the situation didn’t permit me to leave "corporate" yet. It was just unheard at the time for someone to leave their job and “do art”. I was also worried looking at my creative friends who were struggling at the time trying to find jobs. The internet and social media was not like how it was now. It’s definitely way easier to work as a freelancer now. I also didn’t know what i’d do if I would quit. I was already doing commission portraits and art on the side - but that was just a hobby, I didn’t take it seriously even though I had a steady amount of projects through my side hustle. I wasn’t even sure if that was what I wanted to do if I quit. I was on the fence and undecided about a lot of things. So when I heard Nelissa’s story of just quitting her job to pursue shoe design, I was so inspired. I admired her courage and it planted the seed in my head that “it’s possible!” and what you need is COURAGE (and funds).

I made a mental note to “find what sparks joy” in the realms of art and creativity. I needed to find MY thing that would make me quit my job and pursue it. This took a couple of years, and I wasn’t rushing - I was just living my life and on the look out for the “signs”. The “sign” came when I was working for a luxury furniture and Interiors company, Janine. Janine sold beautiful textiles and furniture by cult European and British designers and brands.

As a child, I would go to Janine with my mom and admire all the beautiful things in the shop. I grew up going to Janine and loving all the fabric and designs. So, when they posted a job ad, I straight away applied and got the job. My new position was “E-commerce Manager". Janine was ready to explore the online world, and needed someone to help them make the transition from brick and mortar to online shop. I stepped in to fill that role. First off, I had to be well versed with all their products, the brands that they carry and their back story in order to sell and promote their products - I started pouring through all their websites and brand pamphlets and guides. I had to be familiar with all the products as well so I spent a lot of time going through, touching, learning about the materials. By doing that, I learnt that so many of the designers of the brands we carried - all went to the same university. University of the Arts London, Chelsea College of Arts. I was familiar with University of Arts London, also known as UAL, as I had attended a summer exchange program at London College of Fashion back when I was doing my degree. But I didn’t know much about their sister college. And so began my journey of learning about the school and what they did. Instantly, I was hooked. I knew I needed to apply to that school and enrol in the Textiles course. It was like a calling for me. It was perfect - Textiles allowed me to learn about fabric, and dabble in the realm of interior and fashion (which I was already doing) but also allowed me to do art, be an artist, draw and paint. It was “THE SIGN”. I didn’t know any textile designers or artists in Malaysia at the time - but it didn’t matter. I understood Nelissa’s drive to do it because now I was driven to do it too - even without a backup plan. Good thing was, I have been preparing for years to leave the country and study abroad. I had some funds saved, and I had prepared my CV since the moment I graduated my degree back then to be “scholarship ready” So it was now GO time. I applied to the school, got accepted. I applied for a scholarship, got accepted - and off I went to study Textiles at Chelsea College of Arts.

It was one of the best experiences of my life! It really opened my eyes on what is possible. I learned so much from the tutors and the other students. The entire experience really levelled up my thinking and skills when it came to art. I realized a lot of things about myself as an artist that I would have never known if I didn't have tutors guiding me along my journey. A lot of what it means to be an artist is about having a story to tell, something to talk about and express through whichever medium they choose to express.

I was well versed with the technical parts of making art, how to paint, how to draw - but in Art school, I learned the what to draw and why? (which is a whole journey in itself) Art school taught me how to find my voice, and how to come up with original ideas. Once I got back to Malaysia, I was inspired and energized. I launched Project MIRRO, and started working full time as an artist. Nelissa and I kept in touch and voila! I did my first collab with the brand. I designed artwork for the shoe insoles and Raya packets. It was my first “big”, “solo” collab and I appreciate Nelissa’s support in helping me get my name out there - and trusting me!

So I guess it’s no surprise that I am so excited to have Nelissa featured in this blog. I really hope her story inspires your journey as it did mine!

Love, Miriam —

Q&A with Nelissa Hilman

Tell us briefly about your journey starting the brand? Why womens shoes?

None of my family members (from both sides) were involved in the shoemaking or fashion industry and for me to venture into this is something surprising as well. I have never thought of being in the creative industry. Karma, possibly. Well let’s see. Honestly, I was curious about how shoes were made. I was exposed to Project Runway and dreamt of studying in fashion schools. Prior to this, I’ve signed up for sewing classes (for baju kurung) and I was taught to sew by my mom and we’ve made huge quilts together. We’d go to Jalan TAR and look for nice material for baju raya. She had a faithful seamstress and looking back, this is a luxury. I love shoes and noticed there was a gap in the market. I noticed that the working and casual shoes category were different but same-same. I understand the economics of this and just wanted to provide interesting, comfortable shoes which were locally well-made.

How did you leave your previous career to start off your brand? What was the turning point?

I was a scholar of Yayasan Sime Darby and upon graduation I worked for the company for almost five years. As a chemical engineering graduate, I was sent to an oil palm refinery in Johor - and quickly spent a lot of time at the R&D department as they were experimenting with different things each day - from chocolates to cooking oil. I miss being in the city (KL) and I asked to be back and this time around I was part of the special task for the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) developing the socioeconomic masterplan (looking at education and human capital), getting the bill passed and working towards the launch event in 2007. Shortly after the event, I was offered a position in strategy and business development and tasked to look into opportunities in renewable energy from palm oil. I love all things science and technology. I had a quarter life crisis (at 25) and deep inside I have always wanted to explore something creative - and working in corporate provided the stability and time to save (money and be self sufficient) before embarking on to Florence, Italy to study shoemaking in 2011. I was 28.

How did you juggle to do all this on top of having children? Give us some examples on how you manage your time. 

Past two years (due to the pandemic) I now have a trusted small team and I am truly thankful for this. I would not have been able to manage/balance work and personal life without them. Once everyone leaves the office, there will not be any work related messages (except for KLFW maybe). Spending an hour a day for myself, I call the “ golden hour” for journaling, reading, running, yoga or enjoying breakfast on my own. Spending time with like-minded friends is super important. We talked about anything and everything but work, okay sometimes work. Postpartum depression got to me after my first born. I was determined to manage and do it all - I got burnt out pretty quickly and lost my sense of self in the process, I guess. With my second born, we were lucky enough to have a stay-home helper so that was a needed relief. I love cooking but dislike cleaning.

Adapting to changing trends is a constant challenge - what has this taught you?

To slow down and not chase the rainbow (trend) and enjoy the moment you’re in. Keep asking why this/that trends exist and how can I adapt or remix to feel for me. Also a reminder to explore and create much like an artist - to stay true to yourself and be honest in the creation and thanking my inner child in the process - for me, this is happiness.

What are your biggest struggles as an entrepreneur and how do you manage it?

Money and cash flow aren’t my biggest flex, so is marketing. As an introvert, I am comfortable managing behind-the-scenes. Learning to plan and track sales and expenditure and reviewing the figures from time to time. Post-pandemic, supply chain suffers which impacts retail prices. Two (out of 3) of our shoe factories have decided to close down. Sadly, we won’t be able to produce leather shoes for the time being.

What keeps you going, especially on low mental health days?

Counting blessings and gratitude. My family. A reminder to slow down and spend time to reconnect with self.

Advice to budding creative entrepreneurs? 

There are so many resources available out there - so my advice is to keep learning about anything and everything that might interest you. Ask for help - though this may require a masterclass. Sleep well, eat well, live well.

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