Over the years we received countless messages asking about our products but the emails surged while we were distant from social media last year: why do the products seem perpetually sold out, why weren't we producing new collections, since we're wholly involved in the making process with materials at our disposal, why can't we produce more of the past designs?
As customers grow rapidly in numbers, our mission to use our design approach as a tool for change became more profound. It started from advocating work made by hand to reconnect customers' perceived value with factors that assembly lines diminish - creativity, skill and beauty that can only be achieved when made with care and time. Giving a glimpse of our process through Fabric Printing Basics supplemented that pursuit but it also made us realise how making by hand may not necessarily be better for the society or the environment. We witnessed people washing unused inks down the sink instead of scrapping them back to the bottle, letting the water run throughout the entire span of cleaning their tools and designing prints that would lead to even more wastage of resources.
The very careless acts that mass-production and fast fashion are notorious for, they just do it in a bigger scale but that doesn't mean doing it lesser makes one far different from them. A prevalent mindset that "there's more where that came from" and only "big corporations are to be blamed" for climate change, depletion of natural resources and pollution without realising that one act done collectively as a community or a nation could easily create a noticeable impact. When we launched our Kimono in 2015 designed to be seasonless, worn in varied ways in the day through the night and constructed without an inch of fabric wastage, it was a sum of all the things we care about particularly textile waste due to fast fashion and mindless consumption. Most took the true intention lightly, only raved about its aesthetics and practicality until an episode on Trash Trail revealed that our small nation (population of 5.6 million) contribute 1 tonne of textile waste every 5 minutes and incinerate 92% of them, far more than countries like Japan (127 million) and UK (65.6 million). We had friends and customers telling us about the episode that aired in February 2017, two years since the Kimono's launch.
We thought our sustainable practices were self-evident but teaching thousands of people from all walks of life made it clear that highlighting these practices is as important as adopting them. Sustainability goes beyond being handmade and transparency of materials used, it's in the how. How are we, as the creators of the products, using resources efficiently and how are you, as the customer at the receiving end, continue its effects? It then came to the point when we noticed a handful of our products being resold at platforms like Carousell for reasons like "bought on impulse and didn't find much use" or "used only once" that we decided it was time we stop making and take an even closer look into our customers' consumption behaviour.
What did we miss?
We want to start 2018 by sharing what we've been working towards yet struggle to talk openly about:
How can we play an active role in influencing responsible consumption through our work?
This puts us in a vulnerable place but we know our mission won't move forward by our efforts alone. Working directly with clients who were once only familiar with cheaper, faster methods provided us firsthand experience of how our design approach challenges perspectives, leading to a final product that evoke appreciation for the creative process and consciousness of one's environmental impact. We realised that the only reason we could better influence our direct clients is that we give grounds for every detail of our process in relation to their desired results. We showed why we work in a certain way, why we distribute our efforts in specific areas and the adverse effects of doing otherwise. We weren't marketing to them, we were educating and we were simply not doing enough for our products. Most of these projects extend to months of going back and forth so for us to broach it here, only means an extensive train of thoughts lies ahead. If you're in this with us, let's get right into it.
Identity in the process
Insisting on being the hands and minds behind the inception of ideas all the way through to the printing and making is our way to maintain creative autonomy and integrity. Many artists and designers choose to outsource a big part of their process because they want to focus on what's important to them and it could vary from refining only one skill to wanting to produce more styles, creating more product range, having more projects under their name, all of which we're in no position to dispute. For us, by doing so, we're responsible for every aspect of how the product take shape.
Perhaps having a close relationship with the creative process became inherently important to us because we grew up watching our Mom wake up in the wee hours of every morning to make a thousand curry puffs from scratch, by hand, all on her own. We eventually picked up some of her skills and at a young age learnt that it may be a simple snack but it's not as simple to make, especially to achieve her quality.
Since the day we put up one-of-a-kind's at our Etsy store to the day we were producing 25 pieces per design in the studio, we stick to our guns despite being offered external manufacturing investment and having other brands using our work as samples for reproduction. Being involved in the process embeds our personalities and values in our products and like how Mom made her curry puffs truly hers, a part of us is very much alive in our products.
- Hayao Miyazaki
Whenever someone creates something with all their heart, then that creation is given a soul.
Finding harmony in limitations
Designing for screenprinting is not as straightforward as sending a drawing to a printer. We have to think in layers, positive and negative forms, ink deposition and varied scales. The limitations of the technique challenges our design process, especially when working based on our clients' project briefs but the same limitations also impel ideas that we wouldn't have thought of if our colour palette and execution hadn't been as restricted.
Every screenprinter has his/her own unique take of the technique but it's common to find screenprinted work being visually striking and garish with influences from Andy Warhol who popularised it as an art form in the 1960s. We wanted our designs to echo the softness of our fingers rubbing against the fabric, charcoal against paper when we draw and the tranquility of a product taking shape from cutting to printing to curing and sewing. It's an organic process that represents our state of mind in a particular time, we don't work like other operations that produce hundreds of artwork and are quick to make them available for sale. We don't design products for 2019 in 2018. Sometimes we could draw a print today and have it finalised in a week, other times we'd look back at old drawings from a year ago and work on them instead. Again, we have nothing against other modes of business. We have full respect for those that display a discerning artistic quality, produced for mass consumption but take pride in being transparent about their processes, providing their team an inspiring working condition and celebrating their roots such as Rifle Paper Co and Cotton + Steel. It's just not how we work.
The unobtrusive quality of our work is deliberate so that they can be subjects that initiate conversations on the how, who and why instead of being purely decorative. And in order for the story of their making to continue on with each use, it's indispensable that we make our products transcend time and place.
Using the best materials we could lay our hands on and precise, construction techniques is the way we know how to produce quality work so cutting corners and having cost as the deciding tool didn't make any sense to us. Some disparage our choice to obtain our linens from local textile merchants instead of direct sources in Italy and Japan, disregarding the ecological footprint of travelling over and back or shipping huge amounts of fabric purchased at wholesale just for one small business. We've work closely with the same merchants since our early days and these family-owned businesses specialise in beautifully made linen that are deemed "too costly" and "plain" to their walk-in customers so they get tucked away while the digitally printed and decorative fabric take the limelight. We like to think that we give these linen a chance of a new life where they're well appreciated and treated with attention and care at our studio.
These carefully selected linen come in limited bolts which drives us to keep our work ever-evolving. While every piece is rare and special as a result of this, merely going through a standard visual quality check before handing the product over to the customer wasn't enough for us. In a time when products in the market have built-in expiration date to ensure continuous purchase within a few short months, we wanted to be sure that our products can handle wear and tear for years to come.
When Hani meticulously reinforce every product using traditional construction methods and elegant features like welt pockets on the Classic Tote, it takes more time as oppose to using quicker methods like serging the seams but all these fine details are at the forefront of our approach to make you recalibrate your perceived value. We interchange the same small set of clothes, carry our Classic Tote everywhere we go and put on the same sneakers every day for years before we reluctantly get a replacement so we genuinely believe in buying quality, durable products and buying less of them.
We hope we've established that our purpose here is not to be your alternative online shopping destination, but to be a reference the next time you're making a purchase.
Are your values aligned with who you're buying from?
Over the next few weeks, we'll be reintroducing our designs right from the days we were printing on our bedroom floor and talk about the success and failures through all the different manner of putting our work out there (markets, wholesale, retail, online retail) as a self-funded studio, measuring against their impact on our customers' perceived value and the environment. It will be through our Instagram and an all-new mailing list dedicated to this conversation. An open conversation about how creativity, skill and rarity fits into the pricing model of an artist's work and how we seek alignment of intentions and values with customers in a time there's a "discursive confusion that arises from a simultaneous existence of multiple, continuously changing and partly clashing discourses of sustainable consumption" as described by Annu Markkula and Johanna Moisander in their paper entitled: Discursive Confusion over Sustainable Consumption: A Discursive Perspective on the Perplexity of Marketplace Knowledge.
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.