She Quit a Multinational Corporate Job to sell Southeast Asian Design to the World

Ruth Pestana was born in Malaysia but had a cosmopolitan upbringing. She moved to Australia as a child where she spent most of her formative years, before making the journey to Singapore for her first job, then to the UK for her MBA at London Business School.

Her career took her to New York where she spent several years in communications and marketing roles before taking a leap of faith and moving back to Southeast Asia, accepting a role at global branding consultancy, Interbrand.

Ruth had traveled the world and worked with some of the best and brightest. While she maintained a global outlook, she was acutely aware of the rich culture and heritage of Southeast Asia, her home region.

She felt that this was a story that the world needed to know too.

“There are many beautiful aspects to the cultures in Southeast Asia and of the craftsmanship in Southeast Asia that have been undiscovered by the world beyond Asia. A lot of people, when they think of luxury goods from Asia, they think of Japan or, more recently, China. But they don't really realize that Southeast Asia is very rich in history and heritage as well,” explains Ruth.

Ruth felt she could marry her experience in marketing and communications with her understanding of Southeast Asian heritage and culture to build a global luxury brand. So when her husband David proposed launching their own brand, she loved the idea. And that’s how Forbidden Hill got off the ground.

Products inspired by local culture

Work on Forbidden Hill started as a side business for both Ruth and her husband. They continued their day jobs, but would strategize on the products and design in their free time. 

“We explored different aspects of Southeast Asian culture, different aspects of Southeast Asian craftsmanship. Our first line of products was a range of lacquerware, designed by us but brought to life by masters in Vietnamese lacquerware in Vietnam itself,” outlines Ruth, painstakingly explaining how they’ve been keen to involve the local community and have all their products made in Southeast Asia.

“Our next line of products was jewelry. Again, we designed all of the jewelry here, but then we work with different jewelers across the region, Thailand and Laos, to bring them to life.” 

“All of our creations are inspired by a different aspect of Southeast Asia — from Vietnamese lanterns to the Indonesian Garuda, the Malaysian Hibiscus, or the Cirebon cloud batik motif, which is quite an iconic motif from the Island of Cirebon in Java.”

Some, like the Utama collection, trace their roots to Singapore, Ruth’s adopted country. Utama was released to mark Singapore’s bicentennial celebrations, inspired by the legend of the lion that the first founder of Singapore saw when he landed on the beaches of Singapore.

As you scroll through the Forbidden Hill store, you come across a breathtaking display of artisanal products like tea trays and ring boxes, as well as fashion accessories like cufflinks, earrings, and bangles. 

The attention to detail is one of the most striking features and Ruth affirms that it took the team a while to get to where they are now.

“It took us a long time to perfect product development,” she notes. “The idea for the company came around in May 2016, but the first sale didn’t take place until Q1 2018. All of our products are designed from scratch by us and it took a year and a half of product development to actually have the products ready.”

In a nod to the intricate creative processes behind the development of each product, Ruth explains how the silk bangles came to life.

“The unique thing about our silk bangles is that you can customize them to match your outfit. You can open up the bangle frame and change the silk slides inside, which come in dozens of colours in pure Thai silk.”

“Each of the [bangle] collections have a different story behind them; one was inspired by the Purple Forbidden City in Huế, Vietnam, which was an old city where the emperors once lived but was ruined in the war.”

“The Iskandar is inspired by Malaysian architecture and we've named it after Iskandar Shah who is the founder of Malacca in Malaysia. And the Lotus is inspired by the Lotus plant, which you see everywhere in Southeast Asia, on the ponds and in the lakes.”

Selling to a global clientele with Shopify

Forbidden Hill’s ecommerce store powered by Shopify hit online shelves at the end of Q2 2018 with Ruth waxing lyrical about how the platform has helped her supercharge visibility.

“[Shopify] has helped us to ramp up quickly in terms of online sales. It provides a superior turnkey solution, which allowed us to get up to speed. We liked the different themes and how customizable the whole experience is. We are very happy with how quickly we got up and running on Shopify as we could manage everything in-house without relying on a full-time developer.”

This ability to be flexible, nimble, and create powerful web experiences has assisted Ruth and her team reach their target clientele of “cosmopolitan locals” and “tourists and expats”. 

The products aren’t cheap — a pair of cufflinks can set you back US$150 — but the pricing fits the target audience of well-travelled, middle to upper-income shoppers.

“We put a lot of care into our products, in terms of the whole brand experience [...] unboxing your jewelry or lacquerware is very special.”

“If you want to buy any piece of lacquerware in the Vietnamese markets, you can find cheap products. But our collections are custom designed, each of the products has a story behind it, and the collection has a very modern feel to it, even though it's based on heritage. People who buy our products have this appreciation for design and they're happy to pay for something of higher quality.”

Ruth reveals that they’ve deployed a hybrid multichannel strategy to help boost brand visibility and sales as much as possible. She understands tourists to Singapore won’t purchase online straight off the bat, so there must be another way to cater to them.

Forbidden Hill stocks some of its products at iconic Singaporean shopping landmarks such as Design Orchard on Orchard Road as well as Naiise Iconic. They’re also present in hotel boutiques across Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

The offline presence has helped with brand awareness as many people, especially tourists, see the products on store shelves and purchase later through the website. 

“Eventually we would like to [operate our own stores], it would be lovely to have that full circle of the brand experience so that people can buy online or they can come into the store and experience and touch the products in store,” says Ruth.

The couple’s own global foundations and ambitious mindset mean they are not content with conquering Singapore alone. While there’s certainly opportunity in Singapore, the immediate target is the rest of Southeast Asia followed by the more affluent markets in North Asia and Western countries.

“Both Malaysia and Indonesia have relatively well-defined groups of affluent populations, similar to those in Singapore. They might have worked or studied overseas and have an appreciation for nice design but find it hard to come across products that appeal to their taste.”

“After those markets will be Hong Kong, Japan and China as we’ve seen strong interest in Southeast Asian design from visitors from those countries. Beyond that in another year or two, we will be looking at Europe and the US, so moving slowly out.”

There have been encouraging signs.. Forbidden Hill completed its first full year of operations in 2019, with brisk sales to mark the Christmas and Chinese New Year shopping season. That prompted both Ruth and her husband to quit their jobs and concentrate on their venture on a full-time basis.

What’s in a name

I assume that the name Forbidden Hill comes from the forbidden city of Vietnam — the inspiration behind some of its early products.

But Ruth corrects me and explains that Forbidden Hill actually comes from Singapore, with the hill called Fort Canning today.

In the 1300s, Singapore was first discovered by a man called Sang Nila Utama. He and his successors, the first five generations of Kings in Singapore, lived on this hill. At that time the hill was called Bukit Larangan — Malay for Forbidden Hill. Only royalty was allowed to go there. 

“That was the start of Singapore’s cosmopolitan nature. It was a prosperous trading port, with people coming from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Middle East, China, and some from further afield at a time when links with Europe weren’t well-established.”

“We liked that name because that represents a little what we're doing today, of the multicultural signature that we have in our products today, which takes a bit from different parts of Southeast Asia and brings them together in a unique and modern form.”

The detailed craftsmanship is another factor — Singapore’s first kings would commission jewelry and other precious objects for their royal households. The name Forbidden Hill was chosen to encapsulate all these principles. 

Looking ahead to the future

The global luxury goods market accounted for over US$300 billion in sales in 2019 with Asian consumers powering the majority of market growth, so it’s clear that Forbidden Hill has plenty of space to grow into. Another encouraging trend is the penchant to buy high-ticket items online, with this channel now accounting for 12 percent of all sales.

Some of Forbidden Hill’s marketing strategies are on hold at the moment given the current global uncertainty, but Ruth explains that all the pieces are in place for a return to the positive growth momentum.

“We’re still very young, but we feel confident that we’re going in the right direction. We have multiple offline retail points in place and our online strategy is getting ramped up. While there’s a long way to go, the difference between Christmas 2018 and Christmas 2019 was a big difference. And that was a very positive sign for us and an indicator to keep moving forward.”

Ruth left a good corporate job to explore the unchartered waters of entrepreneurship, so what advice does she have for those looking to make a similar move?

First off, she advises others to buckle in for the long haul and to expect the unexpected. Everything takes longer than what you had originally forecasted, especially if you’re trying to make and market something totally new.

“Our first product took 18 months before we were happy to sell it. We thought it might take six but it took 18 months. That was a learning curve. Everything takes a long time.”

Next up is the issue of bandwidth. When you’re first starting out, you rely on a small team and might be self-funding the business. Without outside investment you have to be extremely frugal and try to stretch each dollar as much as possible. 

“Hence, things take a little bit longer to do than we would like. Everything from developing new products, through to opening up new retail relationships, through to creating more campaigns. And I think that our biggest challenge is having enough time to do everything we know we need to do.”

But Ruth doesn’t want people to get disheartened by these challenges. Entrepreneurship is challenging, yet rewarding at the same time. 

“Test out your idea. Give it a little bit of time, where it might be a stretch, and you're maybe burning candles at both ends to make sure that the idea has traction. But then when you're getting those early signs that the idea has traction, go all in and put everything into it because it's the only way you're going to move it to the next level,” she exclaims.