One of the fondest memories from our childhood is witnessing clothes take shape from a piece of fabric. Mom would sometimes bring us along to our late Grandma's fabric sourcing escapades where we'd walk into these textile shops and gaze at the rows of fabric bolts amid the incoherent transactional chatter. Days later, we'd be following Mom a few blocks down from our house to visit a home-based seamstress who would greet us with her warm smile and totter to her work room that could barely fit the four of us. She'd scribble Chinese characters on her notebook while conversing with Mom in Bahasa Pasar* and we'd be at the back, our eyes darting around. Clothing parts laid out on the table next to her heavy duty sewing machine, a dress ready to be worn hung on the window grill and more bags of completed orders by the door. *pidgin Malay spoken with a non-native speaker
The next time we were in that room again, we were trying on outfits made from the fabric Mom bought about a month ago. Though those outfits don't reflect our personal styles today, they were our nineties kitsch that served us for years. When we grew a little taller, there was fabric allowance for us to undo the hem and lengthen. Mom also made a point to have the waistband elastic instead of just fastening with a hook-and-eye closure, seemingly minutiae but purposeful. We didn't grow up with a silver-spoon but an ideal that if we spend more on something that's being made with care and time, these possessions will be with us for as long as want them to. We won't have to constantly replace them instead, we'd think about the time we sourced for the fabric, the seamstress cutting and sewing it up, her skilled hands working their magic in that confined room. A connection so rare in the 21st century where the value of our possessions is largely based on the price tags and how they're being marketed to us. Where higher prices don't necessarily equate higher quality and at the other end of the spectrum, the plummet of prices induce the mindset that we can buy more with less.
As the conversation from the previous essay continues on Instagram, we asked if "reading the label for more information" or "looking at the price" is the first thing one does when purchasing off-the-rack. Response streamed in with 75% saying that they look at the price while others sent us direct messages explaining their varied purchase habits, navigating the conversation towards the need to put cost, value and price into perspective. Believe us when we say that talking about this is agonising, be it privately or openly as an invited speaker because anything money-related seems to trigger negative connotations. Many prefer to let it remain shrouded in mystery and accept its subjective nature but we dived into the arena by being the designers, artisans, and retailers of our work to develop better insight.
Let's look at the Classic Tote.
Design and Craftsmanship Value
Design is a method of problem solving. We ask questions, identify problems, and research. Why do straps cut into our shoulders, what should the strap length be for the tote to rest comfortably under the arms, how can we make the tote durable without using heavy weight fabric, how can we make the tote transcend time, trends, place and lifestyle?
At the same time, we had to think about the construction. What should the measurements be to minimise fabric wastage, how does the body, straps and pockets fit into a metre of fabric, what are all the pre-construction steps that needs to be done? Making one piece well is manageable but how do we ensure consistency in quality throughout all the pieces?
These unseen work are the values we want to deliver through our products and are part of our operating cost. Simply put, without our design approach, we won't be making products the same way. Damien Newman clearly illustrates the design process with The Design Squiggle:
Cost to produce: SGD39Material Cost: SGD14
Italian linen for body, lining, straps, pocket
Labour Cost: SGD25
Gross Profit Margin: SGD59
Net Profit (Reinvested)
Cost to produce = quality materials, precision craftsmanship by people you know by name
Priced at SGD98 with a 2.5 markup, our Classic Tote is a big leap for those who are used to buying a SGD10 - 20 tote that will pill and fall apart within months of constant use. We're all aware how products get cheaper due to economies of scale (the greater the quantity produced, the lower the fixed cost per unit) and how the fast fashion industry takes full advantage of this to offer affordable yet disposable products. A model based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption, doing whatever it takes to keep costs low even if it means having an ambiguous supply chain. Many participate in the rise of cheaper clothing because it seems like these corporations are doing us a favour because luxury brands with astronomical markups have us conditioned to perceive every product that's priced beyond our level of affordability is "earning more profit than they should".
Gross Profit Margin = "I value your work, please continue to operate"
Traditional retail markup is between 6-8 times and this is where the value lies. For high-end brands it could be brand prestige. For brands like Grana and Everlane, they use the same factories as high-end brands but cut out middlemen so they can mark up their prices only 2-3 times and pass the savings onto the customer. For Blockshop Textiles who work directly with artisan communities, the value lies in injecting their artistic direction to a traditional craft and how this contributes to improving skills and lives of the community. For us, it's in the appreciation of our design and production approach behind the products that will serve for years, the human connection between us, the people who make and the people that fulfil the product's purpose, in the hope that our products stir emotions and memories just like how our 90's wardrobe did.
Disengagement from a product's value paired with price disparity result in this behaviour of regarding products as commodities like oil and sugar that are interchangeable, where differentiation only exists due to its natural state and those of the same quality are priced the same in the market. Back in our early days, a man asked us why we were making products that "can be bought at a much lower price". We could choose to be offended and work towards making products that have better association with "luxury" and "designer goods" or we assign value in our work and make it accessible to educate. Obviously, we chose the latter.
The people behind the products must make conscientious decisions about pricing but the onus rests on customers to understand the costs and value of every purchase. You and you alone can choose to know more then align the price tag with what you believe and want to participate in. Join in the conversation by following us on Instagram and subscribe to an all-new dedicated mailing list where we'll share more reading materials and inspiring stories from others.
The ripple effect of our work is only possible through inclusivity. We have no interest in making affordable luxury or lowering prices by manufacturing in abundance, we tell Raga's story to those who are listening.