Dreamer and doer – these two commonly contradictory terms can similarly be used to describe Renyung Ho of MATTER. Together with co-founder Yvonne Suñer, the pair has fostered a global community of textile artisans, designers and creative collaborators under the banner of socially motivated fashion business: MATTER.
MATTER’s mission is easy to get behind. The brand works across cultures, connecting designers with rural artisans to adapt heritage techniques and prints into sexy, modern-day iterations. Or what is now famously pegged as #pantstoseetheworldin. By sharing the untold stories and cultural origins of numerous fading textile traditions, MATTER inspires consumers to take interest in the provenance and longevity of the garments we wear.
As Ren puts it, “Creating beauty and meaning and connection in a small way, celebrating unseen value, and changing the status quo bit by bit” – these small wins really add up in our longing for a more thoughtful, considered life. We talk to Ren about the defining moments in her journey thus far and the vision she has for MATTER.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Singapore and was very lucky to have parents who exposed us very much to travel and inculcated the values of curiosity, compassion and respect to different cultures. At the age of 18, I decided to take time off and travelled, volunteered and worked multiple jobs in various places – it opened my eyes up to how much beauty and also need there was around us, and prompted me to study sociology and economic development – to ask why and why not.
My entrepreneurial life before Matter was in a coworking space called Kennel., started with two other friends and partners. We wanted to create a collaborative community for creative entrepreneurs, to facilitate the social capital for a risk taking, experimental and cross disciplinary working culture. That business is now closed, but I learnt so much from it and wouldn’t have been able to start Matter without those lessons and experiences.
What does socially conscious fashion mean to you?
Fashion that is more about clothing and less about trends or status; a perspective that takes into account the entire process of how a piece of clothing or accessory is made, by whom, and how and why.
Tell us about your ‘lightbulb’ moment. What prompted you to start your own fashion/lifestyle label?
Whenever and wherever I’ve travelled, I’ve always loved going to textile markets and seeing the local fabrics. There’s so much local culture and history in that. I can’t see anywhere else – besides maybe architecture – where you can see a culture of a place reflected so much as in textiles and the woven or printed motifs in them.
I met Yvonne in Mexico in 2009 and over the years nurtured the idea of starting something that reflected the type of travel we loved – story driven, community based, built on direct relationships and a commitment to respecting provenance. We didn’t start out to build a fashion business, but over time, with the principles of wanting to combine positive impact with a beautiful, meaningful product, the idea for Matter took shape. I don’t think there was a lightbulb moment, more a coming together of purpose and timing. Matter started in 2014, 5 years after we first started talking about it!
What were the challenges?
Managing production quality from overseas has been a lot more challenging than I expected. Coming from Singapore, working in India teaches you about letting go of the results and learning that something that’s different from what you initially planned is better – or, how can you make it better, learning to work with different kinds of people, understanding that flexibility is the key to success, or being able to see available resources in every type of scenario. Turning things to my advantage is something I’ve learnt how to do more of now.
What’s been the biggest lesson so far?
There’s been so many! I’ll give three. On the business front, that a good idea is not enough – you have to believe and know that you are the best person to execute that idea. Second, in terms of getting things done, its all about prioiritising and having a Plan B, C and D. Lastly, and this has been my personal mantra for a long time, that wherever you go, go with all your heart. It’s a quote from Confucius that reminds me to be present in the journey and not always only looking ahead to the elusive destination of ‘success’.
Tell us about a life-changing experience you’ve had since starting this journey? Or do you have a favourite travel story to share?
Fluk Fluk Run, which was the catalyst for getting Matter started. My fiance and I, embarked on an adventure fundraising roadtrip down the western coast of India. We drove 3000km over 2 weeks on a three wheeler auto-rickshaw, and raised funds for 4 charities in India dealing with basic needs (water, education, play, nature). I fell in love with the country, met some key people I work with now, and was inspired as to how something small can really go a long way.
Matter collaborates with a global network of artisans, co-ops and organisations to create heritage-inspired fashion for the modern nomad. What value do you see in such collaborations?
What a great one liner to describe us. Collaborations are key because we need more designers to work with the artisan industry to make it accessible and desirable, more artisans who are willing to innovate and update their techniques to appeal to different markets, and more customers and partners who value the process behind a product and will support that by choosing it. The heart of every collaboration is respect for the inherent value that the other brings to the table because of their different perspective, and trust in a common purpose. Once the baseline of that common mission is established, the possibilities are endless.
How would you describe the Matter tribe and its place within the Matter narrative?
It’s amazing how far and wide the Matter tribe now is… One customer recently wrote in and told us she spotted another Matter tribe member wearing #pantstoseetheworldin in a local organic farmers market in Guatemala! Its place within the Matter narrative is that no matter the differences that separate us, there is a red thread that connects all of us; we are all made of the same matter, on the same journey. Everyone in the Matter tribe believes in this common humanity.
Could you describe your creative process?
One of our core creative principles is in looking to the past to look forward and celebrating the diversity we already have. And so we work more with interpretive design rather than originating anything. All our inspiration comes from an existing design, whether it is a certain pants style or print motif. In terms of the print design, we invest a lot of time into learning the cultural histories and symbolic stories behind the prints. This wasn’t an easy task as much of this is being lost – to start with we visited over 10 blockprinting workshops in Rajasthan and found one person who still knew those origins well. Our designers then reinterpret the motif by playing with size, colour, outlines and white space to bring out the essence of its story. From there on, its an iterative process between the designer and artisan to achieve the final perfect balance. I find we are constantly learning about how to design for an artisan skill, whether its blockprinting, ikat, handloom or jamdani. Every product is a collaborative, experiential production process with its own story and history.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I find inspiration everywhere – a book, conversations with a stranger, in a museum, a tree, the changing light on a wall, a world map… I’m always noticing things and connecting them in my mind.
What’s your motivation?
What motivates me every day is seeing the team passionate and excited to work together on a common mission, hearing great feedback from our customers that they love our products and what we do, being able to work with our artisan partners and know we are bringing them benefit. Creating beauty and meaning and connection in a small way, celebrating unseen value, and changing the status quo bit by bit remind me why I started.
What would you like to see change in the industry in the next 10 years?
The first thing is transparency, and the second would be longevity. Transparency in terms of companies being honest and upfront about their processes and materials; I truly believe that when people are given all the information about a product and can choose between them, all else being equal, they will make the better choice. In terms of longevity, it means moving away from a trend-based, short term, wear-it-thrice-and-throw mind set and instead focus on investing in items that mean something and that one will keep and treasure for a long time.
What are you working on now and what are you looking forward to in the near future?
The big dream is for MATTER to be a global community of designers and artisans, where we are able to connect urban designers to rural artisans and create that bridge of mutual learning. Designers would work within MATTER’s core philosophy and parameters, and use our supply chain network to design various print editions and products. We would then become a platform to showcase and retail the results of these collaborations. The infrastructure for this is being laid now as we start out as a single brand and a single product, but in 5 years we will see the fruit of that in the form of this dream.
In the near future we are also planning to expand into other product lines in the future like men’s pants, bags, and other travel essentials. Pants will stay our main focus because we believe in doing one thing very well, and our vision was never to become a general fashion label. In terms of fabrics, block printing is a universal technique that started in China and spread to India, Egypt, Japan, Indonesia and many other areas of the world, so there is much to play with in this area. Nonetheless, we’re already starting to work with Ikat, another globally practiced fabric technique, and we’re planning to expand our artisan network to work with more communities and heritage techniques in the region.
Ultimately, I hope that MATTER will help make textile artisanship sustainable, desirable and relevant in our modern, digital age, and that through our stories, people will place more value in the older, slower way of doing things.
What do you like to do in your downtime?
Yoga, long walks, read, although these days I really feel like I just need more sleep.
Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
From my mother – there will always be more work. Know when enough is enough.
What is one question you wished people asked you more often?
What brings you joy?
What are you grateful for in life?
Everything. There is something to be grateful for in every moment.