Aspiring to do good well, socially motivated lifestyle brand from Singapore – MATTER – present fashion with a larger social purpose. In 2009, founders Renyung Ho and Yvonne Suner set out on a worldwide path of discovery uncovering heritage prints with simple yet compelling stories, which they then share through their archive of beautiful printed wearables. This all came to a head in the shape of MATTER: a socially conscious lifestyle brand inspired by the type of travel they loved. Story driven, community based, built on direct relationships and a commitment to respecting provenance.
At the crux of MATTER is the desire to inspire consumers to value provenance, to ask of the where and why something is made and to champion alternative production models for textile artisans to expand their economic freedom.
MATTER does not subscribe to the norms of fast fashion, forsaking trends for enduring ‘seasonless’ styles made with limited edition heritage fabric. Their first collection was a series of fun, functional pants made from artisan printed and loomed fabric. Made for freedom of movement and occasion, and designed to empower, these pants are perfect metaphors for their creators’ philosophy towards life at large. We speak to Ren of MATTER, to find out what fuels this bright spark in the Singapore fashion scene.
We work in an old conservation shophouse with stripped back brick walls and timber beams. We don’t use air-con really, preferring the natural ventilation from the airwells. It’s an open plan desk, unless it’s a brainstorming day which is when we move into another room to throw paper and post-its around.
Post-its. Music. Coffee. Open desk space. A sofa. Rugs for bare feet. Inspiration mags and books. Lately, also a diffuser.
A TYPICAL DAY
I like to use my calendar as a to-do and priority list and spend about 15 min at the start and end of each day working out the kinks in the week, and when I should be doing what. I work with a lot of different people and my calendar shows me at a glance where I need to follow up.
I use mornings to do stuff that requires strategic thinking, planning or content creation. In the afternoon it’s about 3 hours of Skype calls, usually with production managers Anjali and Sonica in Delhi, and with my co-founder Yvonne who is currently in Laos. We go over new product development, sampling programs, production process, artisan partner sourcing and next deliveries. Then it’s an update meeting with sales and marketing team Jo and Hanna on marketing campaigns coming up and new distribution partners we’re approaching, and I touch base with content creation members like Abi, our designer, or Adeline, who creates our short films. The evening is all catch up on emails.
THE GLOBAL TEAM
You know that phrase, to go fast, go alone; to go far, go together – I’ve found that the best way to work in teams, especially when starting something, is to find out what someone’s mission for their life is at that moment, and find a way to have that furthered by what the company does. We’re called MATTER because it’s about going back to the basics that connect us, and the team and founding family that has gathered around the mission all start with a basic alignment in terms of those values. Everyone I’ve worked with before and now on this journey has been a result of serendipitous meetings and deliberate collaboration. Also, having the flexibility to work around different timelines and commitments. I think having the same common base values and mission is the ultimate foundation.
We work in a new world form of being a network organisation – this means we’re not all in the same place, and work relationships are not always full-time. It’s a great way for also keeping overheads flexible as you’re starting out, and being able to work with top talent in the short term. I really believe this is the future of work, because eventually many of us in the creative economy are going to juggle multiple work roles.
THE BRAND PHILOSOPHY
Slow style – Seasonless Classics: By default, given the principles and seasonality of our artisan production, we cannot partake in the world of fast fashion. We work our model around that, building a business that takes into account this inherent slowness, with seasonless styles and seasonal fabrics, adhering to timeless principles of style rather than runway trends. Styles are tested by time, and are phased out or brought back accordingly.
THE DESIGN PROCESS
Slow Production – Quality over Quantity: We knew that we would never be a fashion label, nor had the desire to be, and so we focus on making the best product possible, not the most. We make small changes to each style in our stable of core products based on continual customer feedback – a top stitch here, a revision of an inch there, because we know we can always be better. Pants Parties and continual feedback from our Fieldtesters and passionate customers keep our ear on the ground for how to improve; we know we’ve got miles to go until we sleep.
Slow Design – Intentionality in Process: The design to product cycle is 6 months in each of our products. The longer design process comes from our inherent design principle of provenance – all prints hail from an existing heritage motif tied to a place and time, with a cultural story of its own. Our work is to retell and translate that story in a way that resonates still with a modern audience. Working collaboratively with artisans where the final print is a result from their feedback and design input also extends the sampling process. Incorporating natural time cycles of printing and weaving of the artisans means having a longer buffer period to take into account serendipities of weather, festivities, and harvest cycles.
COLLABORATING WITH ARTISANS
Finding the right artisan partner who is willing to experiment as well as educate us is essential. Not everyone wants to explore the boundaries of design and craft and try out new materials and processes.
The whole process is an iterative one between the designer and artisan to achieve the perfect balance; it’s never a one-way street. Using an example to illustrate, our Mobi print is inspired by the traditional mobiyara trio motif of a cotton bol bursting open at a time of harvest, and has its origins in the Meghval community, a peace-loving tribe traditionally engaged in the handloom weaving of cotton. We spent time finding out the stories behind the prints, and weaving that inspiration into our pattern. We took the essential repeat motif and combined it in such a way that still felt organic, and also suggested growth and expansion. I love that it looks like this great complex pattern but is actually made of very clean, geometric lines. Somewhat like an analogy for Nature itself.
Depending on the complexity of a woodblock, it can take from 4 days up to 3 weeks to carve. The artisans use a hard wood locally called Sheesham, also known as Indian Rosewood. It needs to be a fairly robust and dense wood to withstand the constant pressure of printing, and can also take detailed and intricate carvings well. Its usually dipped in oil to increase its lifespan, which lasts up 3 generations, well over 100 years.
When we took our Mobi print to the master block carver, he had to change the design to be a true repeat – proof that you can’t just design on a digital screen. The resulting block took about 10 days to create. It was the biggest they had ever carved or used, and we had to experiment with using different layers in the printing tray to get the right consistency and achieve the same fine lines throughout. This was also because we use tussar silk for our pants, which the blockprinters had never printed on before.
We start with finding out what is the best base material for the artisan craft at hand, and then test it out by dying and printing the material to see how that changes its handfeel and drape. We then test that out on certain styles making prototypes that we ‘fieldtest’ on our own to see how they feel on the road.
Each of our supply chain partners are chosen based on a set of criteria emphasizing product integrity, community integration, and good business practice. Each of those four categories have another 5 to 8 criteria within them which we score accordingly when we do our partner reviews, which are done by myself and our field manager, Anjali, who has been working with artisans for over 10 years and is an expert consultant with Craft Council India as well.
At the same time, I think personal visits and gut feel are a must to really make a decision. Afterall, a business is a sum of all the relationships you choose to develop whether its with your production partners, suppliers, customers, and team. We personally visit each partner to establish a long term relationship, which is founded upon many cups of chai together. We currently work with both fair trade factories, artisan cooperatives, and family-owned businesses.
INSPIRATION FOR THE CURRENT RANGE
#buildingblocks – a combination of beloved classics in new combos and colours. It’s our own love letter to the philosophy of Slow. The idea that less is sometimes more, that consideration and intentionality in every step of the process has intangible ramifications to all involved, and that adhering to natural seasons and a holistic view on production is simply, more human.