When it comes to wardrobes, our latest That Girl is an eco-friendly fashion warrior who has sustainable threads sussed! As the founder of socially motivated business MATTER, Renyung Ho (a.k.a. Ren) is deeply passionate about creating products that tells a story. Even the story of how Ren supports and champions alternative production models for rural textile artisans is a touching example of her sustainable spirit – a trait that we should all recognise and commend. The stunning outcome of this dedication are quirky and wearable modern day pants that’s not difficult to fall fast in love with. We sat down with the talented #girlboss in her studio to talk about her inspiration, prints, and everything that matters.
Hi Ren! Can you tell us more about yourself and what you do.
Hello, and thank you for having me! I operate in the area between social business, community, storytelling and artisanship – I’ve always loved connecting the dots and disparate ideas and concepts, as well as creating platforms of opportunity. I’m also a lover of stories and culture, and growing up in Asia with its wealth of cultures and being able to backpack in these places gave me a real taste for our cultural treasures as well as the stark differences we experience.
My work has always been about using business as a vehicle for social good, and right now cultural heritage and practices are my focus in my work with MATTER. Basically, we endeavour to put stories back into clothing. I source out textile artisans who have amazing stories and expertise to share, and work to create travel wear that expresses that in a relevant and viable way.
MATTER is all about valuing provenance. Can you tell us where this passion for asking where and why something is made comes from?
Perhaps it was the way I was brought up, where we were given a freedom to make our choices as long as we could defend them. We have a very strong family culture of cultivating opinions and beliefs and of questioning the status quo. Another part of it is also being an avid traveller in the sense of wanting to discover a place and the inherent curiosity that comes with it. I’ve always loved Proust’s quote that “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” and consciously seek to employ that in my daily life. I also strongly believe that the world would be a vastly better place if we consciously evaluated the impact of our choices as well as knew the background behind what we decide to buy and invest in.
All your prints have roots in Indian culture. Can you tell us more about your fascination with these prints and the reason behind supporting artisans in India?
Actually my fascination is with all cultural symbols and motifs that you find in textiles, architecture, and illustrations. They come from an era when so many every day practices were invested in meaning and significance, and that’s a far cry from how we live today. I think making meaning in the everyday is an art – what tea cup you use, which pen you decide to write with, the paper you write a letter on, the clothing you decide to wear – these small decisions if we have the luxury of time to think about them, can make a vast impact on our quality of life.
I started out in India because of a cross country road trip I took driving a tuk tuk from North to South with my fiancé. To cut a long story short, it was a domino effect of meeting the right people to work with and also having an experience that kickstarted me to take a leap and start MATTER. India has an incredible infrastructure of artisan organisations and communication both in English and digitally makes it quite easy to work in. The bigger dream is to build a network of artisans across Asia, and we’re already exploring that with batik in Indonesia, handloom silk in Laos and embroidery in the Philippines.
Tell us more about your latest collection, Ikat, Silk Cities. What was the inspiration behind the collection?
The first edition was in Block Printing because of its worldwide application – the story of a craft and how its interpreted and used in various local contexts is very interesting and revealing about the things humanity values. That’s the essence behind the brand – going back to the basics of what connects us.
Ikat is also a globally dispersed craft and so it was natural for us to start working with it and exploring its history. Because I’ve always been passionate about the intersections of old and new, modern and traditional, local and foreign, delving into the history of the Silk Road and the prints and motifs you find on it was a natural next step. The Silk Road was one of the greatest cultural crossroads of all time. Hence the edition name Silk Cities, because each print is inspired by a key city along the Road.
What’s your personal favourite medium of creating prints?
A3 tracing paper, a pencil and black water paint.
What are some of the obstacles to creating products that are artisanal?
Standardisation, and timeliness. This is because artisanal fabric changes depending on the particular artisan working with it as well as environmental instability like weather changes and electricity cuts in rural areas. For example, printing in the monsoon season is especially tricky because the colours oxidise different depending on the humidity. I love the differences and inherent imperfection, but there’s a fine line between beautiful imperfection and unacceptable quality variations in an order of quantity. It’s actually quite hard to make things exactly the same each time around because the conditions are always changing, kind of like a parable for life!
Do you think that ethics and sustainability are just a trend for the fashion industry?
No. I strongly believe that it is not a trend but a reflection of a deep rooted need for something of more substance, to return to well made clothing rather than fast fashion. It’s also a natural trajectory once consumers become more affluent and educated. The revolution started with food and now it’s begun with that second basic good, clothing.
Ethics and sustainability are a mainstay for the fashion industry just as corporate responsibility is for any other large company. They are responding to the educated consumer who demands transparency and integrity. Whether or not social, purpose driven businesses and ethical fashion will stay niche or mainstream is a different question though, but it’s definitely a niche right now that’s here to stay.
What role can/should designers and consumers take to keep the artisanal trade alive?
Ah, can and should are so different..! I will answer to can, because I don’t believe in touting doing good because of the moral imperative and guilt tripping but rather because of the celebration of the good. I think that’s a more sustainable way of mainstreaming artisan trade. Designers can become more involved in the entire process of artisanship such that they design for a certain craft, it’s roots, history and techniques, instead of purely focusing on the end result. In this way they can become the interpretive bridge between their knowledge of what the communities they are plugged into wants and the value that artisans can provide.
There’s an increasing shift to that mindset I believe that we see in the growth of Experience Design as an industry and Slow Design as a movement. As for consumers, I think it’s just about being more interested and placing more value in where, how and why something is made, and know that their choice of a product is a vote in supporting certain value supply chains over others. I do believe though that given the choice and transparent information, if all other things like price, quality and convenience are equal, people will gravitate towards the better choice.
What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
That’s actually been a journey in itself, which I describe in this post about building a value-based business. Sustainability is so multifaceted that I’ve had to develop my own criteria for what works. For example, working with generational artisans embedded in their local communities and focusing on natural materials. For me, sustainable fashion is about placing consideration on the entire value chain of the product and being intentional and aware about the impact that is created from production to consumption such that the net benefit to all stakeholders is more than the costs. Usually it’s the calculation of that is where it becomes murky waters, but starting the conversation and thought process is an important first step.
What have you learnt throughout these years since starting MATTER?
We’ll be one year old in May which seems so young, but it feels like such a journey so far! Starting anything is a personal discovery as the multitude of choices you have to make in starting a business is a direct expression of your values. Personally I’ve definitely learnt that its vital to be flexible, and adapt to the circumstances you’re in to make the best out of it; to listen to people you trust and also your gut instinct; and lastly that collaboration is far more valuable than competition.
Are there any companies that you’d like to collaborate with?
So many! Given our obsession with motifs and symbolism, definitely Patternity which is an innovative organisation solely dedicated to the study of patterns and their meaning in our lives. I would be over the moon for that. Second, probably Apolis, which is a company founded in 2004 that I have looked up to since the beginning of starting MATTER. They work with artisans to create thoughtful menswear. There is so much to learn from them.
What are some qualities you think a Sassy Girl should embody?
I see the Sassy Girl as someone who marches to the beat of her own drum, who is passionate and driven but at the same time knows how to take a chill pill and enjoy the smaller moments in life. She is creative whatever industry she is in and is able to rally people to whatever cause she is behind. And of course she is stylish without caring for trends, and can mix diverse pieces to create a style that tells her own unique story.
Who’s provided you the most inspiration throughout your journey as you build MATTER?
It comes down to one word – people. The customers who write in and tell me where they’ve worn their pants and how much they love them; the artisans who are excited about a new print we have created together and about printing on silk, a material they have never printed on before; team members who’ve grown and flourished with the company; artists and designers who reach out to us to collaborate and are moved by the artisan process – all their continual feedback gives me a sense that more than building a brand, we are building a community of people who care about heritage, who care about cultural stories and artisan practice.
Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs and other fellow #girlbosses in training?
Trust yourself. Don’t give up on something before its due, and have a core set of mentors and peer collaborators. Focus on your vision, and rather than being set on just achieving that vision, focus on how you can rally people around you to help build towards it together and make that vision theirs as well.
What can we expect from MATTER in the near future?
One very exciting project is a collaborative one with four designers from Asia who designed a print from the heritage of their country. We’ve always wanted to become a collaborative brand and platform to work with different designers and this is definitely the beginning of that.
Wow, thanks Renyung! You’re a real inspiration to all us Sassy Girls! Special thanks to the vivacious Shamsydar Ani Photography for the beautiful images of Renyung!