INTERVIEW WITH REN, CO-FOUNDER OF MATTER

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a post on my new-favourite brand, MATTER.

As a refresher, let me share again their darling introduction:

We’re a Singapore-based, socially motivated label focused on travel wear for the modern, globetrotting woman. Centered on affordable luxury, thoughtful design, and provenance, MATTER is about connecting artisans with designers and heritage with modern design to create travel wear with rich, cultural stories to tell.

I am lucky to have since gotten the opportunity to follow up with an interview with Ren, the co-founder of MATTER. Ren and co-founder Yvonne created Matter after a trip to Mexico in 2009. (Hmmm, there seems to be a common theme of life-changing travels prompting the start of amazing ethical businesses with social impact; if you remember my interview with Qinnie, founder of Oz Fair Trade, you might recall that she started her business following a trip to South East Asia in 2012 – one of several reasons why I think travel is so important! Read some of Ren’s reasons, below).

Ren is inspirational, intelligent, business-savvy, articulate and understands the values of connections. So many of Ren’s answers resonate strongly with me, from her sentiments that profit and purpose are not mutually exclusive to her perception that the provenance movement is spilling over from the food to fashion industries. Let’s just say, it’s no wonder that MATTER has truly incredibly philosophy and branding and I want to clothe myself in garments that MATTER, 24/7.

Ren_at home_Bhalka


Firstly, I love the name of the label you co-founded. What’s behind the name Matter?

Well there’s a long story and a short story…. So I’ll start with the long one. I met my co-founder Yvonne in Mexico and we had a habit of calling each other MA – which stands for major amiga, or good friend in Spanish. So we were looking for different words that ended or started with the word MA. In the course of that we found the word MATTER, and it felt perfect.

MATTER is about returning to the basics of what connects us all globally, what unites us as humans; our stories, crafts and values. The message is to find out the where and why something is made – we will make better choices when we know those stories, for ourselves and the world. Its the stuff that connects all of us, it represents going back to the basics in terms of material, and is also an inside pun for us about doing something that matters. Additionally, we knew we wanted a brand name that could be encompassing because of our future plans to work with different designers, and wanted a name that could serve as a platform for those collaborations rather than stand out too much on its own.


Tell us your story: where did your journey with Matter begin?

For those of us lucky enough to be able to choose our work, I think that the businesses we create are an extension of our inner values and desires – it’s a way to project our vision of the world and how we want it to be, for ourselves and others. This is true for an idealistic social entrepreneur as well as seasoned investment bankers I find.

In that sense my journey with MATTER probably started way beyond me even knowing what MATTER even was, as I always had a love for textiles, the stories behind the symbols and motifs, and the cultural traditions embedded in its practice. I also have aways loved photography for its documentary, and in a sense maybe I have always loved capturing the past.

Historically speaking, MATTER started as an idea with a friend (and MATTER co-founder), Yvonne Suner, while we were both working in Mexico a few years ago. We had multiple conversations about merging our love for travel and creating positive impact in the communities we discovered, and would often seek out unique textiles in places we visited. The colours, stories and significance behind the patterns always inspired us, as well as meeting the women who created these fabrics.

The catalyst came last year when I, together with my husband (then fiance, embarked on a adventure fundraising roadtrip down the western coast of India. We drove 3,000km over 2 weeks in on a three wheeler autorickshaw, and raised funds for 4 charities in India dealing with basic needs (water, education, play, nature). If you’ve ever been to Rajasthan, you’ll understand when I say there is no other more colourful and beautiful place on earth. Through a series of serendipitous meetings and introductions as well as knocking on several doors, I found myself learning the technique of blockprinting, one of our oldest means of communication and full of symbolic heritage prints. I also met the founder of an amazing social enterprise called Rangsutra, which is a cooperative of over 1,000 rural artisans in northern India. In a nutshell – 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.


Was that your first experience with the concept of fair trade?

My final year thesis in university was on Social entrepreneurship – I spent 6 months shadowing and interviewing 6 social entrepreneurs in the UK where I was studying at the time, and it struck me that profit and purpose were not mutually exclusive but could and should work hand in hand, and that trade could sometimes do better than aid. This was about 6 years ago now, and being exposed to that landscape was key to how I operate now.


Why do you think seeing the world is important?

It is a privilege to be able to see the world, and sometimes you don’t need to travel in order to see what the world has to offer. Sometimes the greatest lessons I have learnt are very close to home.

At the same time, travel is a way to take us out of our context and develop a greater mutual respect and appreciation for the differences between us, which also unite us in our common humanity. I think travel reminds us that everything we do should be in consideration of a wider balance. It’s a good way for us to stay grounded and develop perspective on the ultimate relativity of any situation.


Where do you see MATTER in five years?

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 in 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, possibly starting with the Philippines and Indonesia.

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 see in the future for ethical fashion more broadly?

I do think there’s a bright future for ethical fashion. Buying is an extremely personal process – it has gone beyond utility to represent who we are as individuals and what we value. There is a lot more support now for companies who are transparent, honest, and who stand for something larger than what they sell. Business has the power to change the world and that cycle of change starts with the consumer. The power of the consumer is undisputed, and every single act of consumption has a ripple effect. I think the provenance movement – knowing where your product comes from, has had the biggest effect on the food industry, and this is spilling over into the fashion arena.


What have you learned since starting MATTER?

The challenges have been personal to the experience. Not coming from a fashion background, I had to learn about production processes and the steps and complexities that went into making.

For instance, I was once in a blockprinting workshop in a small village called Bagru in India, working with a fifth generation printer who was also instrumental in documenting the process for Bagru to obtain the Geographical Indication (GI) for Blockprinting. (GI is what Champagne has for sparkling wine, for example). We went through the process of natural dying, where minerals and plants are ground down to make fabric dyes. One of the key things I took away was how much variation the final product could have – the final colour and tone of the fabric depends on several factors such as the precise pressure of the blockprinter’s hand each time he repeats a pattern, the weather that day, how much wind, sun and humidity there is, and also the density and purity of the dye he is using. You never really know what you’re going to get until it’s done, and I thought that was a beautiful metaphor for life, and quite an antidote for the kind of digital work we are used to in a city like Singapore.

We prioritize product excellence so quality control has been an issue. Managing production quality from overseas has been a lot more challenging than I expected because communication is often not immediate.

Another thing I’ve learnt is to design from the bottom up – designing together with the artisans and understanding what they see as practical or challenging has helped shape our design process. Also, staying flexible within plans is a key skill I’ve had to develop, not especially easy when you’ve got a certain vision of how you want things to turn out! Otherwise, it’s also about staying open and positive – sometimes there will be things that turn out better because it didn’t go to plan, and being able to take those opportunities and see them as opportunities rather than obstacles makes all the difference.

Lastly, the one thing I’ve really grappled with is decision fatigue – having to constantly manage different aspects of the business has taken a toll on my ability to make sound decisions efficiently. But I have the privilege of a great support network, which has been key to getting MATTER off the ground.


Finish this sentence. The world needs more ______________.

RESPECT.


Thank you so much, Ren, for this little insight into your incredible values and the motivations behind starting MATTER.

Are you keen to support a company that is, to use Ren’s words,  transparent, honest, and stands for something larger than what they sell? I strongly encourage you to check out MATTER!

Yours Fairly,

Ashlee

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