In one of my family’s old photo albums, there’s a picture of me at five years old standing in the middle of a pottery workshop. I was watching an old man working away at the wheel. My parents still have some of the dishes that they purchased from him on their visit. Whenever I see them at home, I’m always taken back to the vivid memories of watching him painstakingly moulding the clay by hand.
Back then, many of the products we owned carried sentimental value. My mum, in particular, kept many of her dresses for years and for each one she still can tell the story about where and why she bought it; in which country and shop.
This nostalgic vision contrasts harshly with the retail landscape today. Fast fashion chains churn out racks of generic clothing in vast, flood-lit spaces. What's more, consumers like you and I have become programmed to expect cheap prices and most of the time, don’t think twice about where and under what conditions they were manufactured.
Back when I was a student, I remember I stumbled across a big sale on at Primark. In store, I saw a member of staff sweep up hangers off the floor with an enormous scissor broom. I suddenly felt so overwhelmed by the utilitarian approach to the clothes that were on sale, as if they had no value.
So I left, and have never gone back. Piles of hangers and poorly made clothes, thrown in disarray over metal racks are my memories of that store. I knew from that point that I believed in a meaningful shopping experience, and buying from brands that respect the design, material and their production.
A couple of years back, I was looking for a new creative challenge after cutting my teeth in the production side of the fashion industry in Hong Kong. On a trip to Cambodia, I discovered a country run by charities. Most were producing fashion accessories. All the handbags, zip-ups and totes had similar designs, made from the same materials with varying degrees of design quality.
My initial goal was to connect with the non-profits I connected with and offer my design consulting services. However, little did I know that this was the beginning of a much more meaningful journey with a broader mission. Rather than serving my own creative purpose, my creativity was intended for meaningful connections.
The result of my visit was a new business venture, crafting jewellery from bombshell brass leftover from the Cambodian war with local artisans. My journey with them is establishing an ever-expanding quilt of stories that matter.
They matter to me because they are part of my story.
They matter to my supply partners because we grow together.
They matter to my customers because it gives them, and our products, a sense of meaning that resonates with their values.
My suppliers and manufacturers have made a profound impact on the direction of my business and life outlook. Nurturing these connections — as socially conscious and sustainable businesses should do — has increased the value across the supply chain for all involved. In the end, everyone benefits.
Learn to Listen
So how do you go about building relationships with suppliers? Just like making any relationship, listening opens doors.
A design venture is not just about the design, the brand message, or neatly composed Instagram photos. Life can be messy, and at the heart of it all, people generally want the same things in life. Those who make our products have worries, families, hopes, and dreams, just like us. Their stories just tend to get lost in the overwhelm of products in our end of the world.
In Cambodia, I started to spend time with a single mum and daughter, Thearith and Meimei, who were living in an HIV ghetto in Phnom Penh. They had a sewing machine, and Meimei spoke English well. I had them make pouches for my new jewellery products that I was having made in the area.
When they told me about a young girl living on the street who wanted to live with them, but they could not afford another mouth to feed, a story unfolded that provided the opportunity for all of us to embrace someone new as a family.
Leaving a Legacy
It has been three years since I first had Thearith and Meimei produce my jewellery pouches. Today, all of us, including three marginalised teens, live under the same roof in a shared three-story house. I rent a room upstairs for my jewellery business, Emi & Eve, to accommodate our warehouse and office, and downstairs is their workroom. Meimei is now our country coordinator. What’s more, she and her mom have gathered the other women still living in the HIV ghetto under an official cooperative, so that they can take part in fairs and take orders from abroad.
This tale is just one of the various story threads that have become interwoven into the production line and heart of my business. My initial goal of helping charitable organisations with design consulting became a reality after all, but in a much more meaningful way than I had expected.
It's these relationships, if you choose to invest time in them, that will make all the difference in your business and it's evolving story.
- by Cassandra Postema
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