Renyung Ho: In trousers that matter
Fabrics, Focus and Fluk-Fluks
By Carolyn Oei, 25 June 2015
Cover photo: Marc Nair
In 2009, Renyung Ho and Yvonne Suñer decided to start a business making trousers; meaningful trousers. Rather complicated processes are necessary if one is to make meaningful trousers, and we’re secretly quite glad that Ren (as she is known) chose to take her trousers seriously. MATTER, as Yvonne and Ren named the business when it started in 2014, produces trousers that incorporate hand-weaving, intricate block printing and heritage designs. Mackerel spoke with Ren at her office-shophouse in Singapore and were given insight into the soul of MATTER.
Mackerel: Are your trousers really made for every body shape? Overheard at a past “pants party” (one of MATTER’s marketing events): “These things are made only for skinny girls.”
Ren: It’s challenging for any retailer to say that all designs suit all body types. But, I can say that my trousers aren’t just made for tall skinny people.
Mackerel: And Ren is right; several of the designs suit enough body types to make them non-discriminatory trousers. She reckons that the Sideswept Dhoti, because it’s a wrap with softer lines, might be the universal trousers.
To support her point, Ren highlights a section on the Matter website that features people of all shapes and sizes, including men, in a variety of MATTER trousers. In addition to assuring those of us who aren’t lithe ballerinas, lean marathoners or skinny fat people (naturally thin people who don’t know what diet and exercise mean and who secretly have fatty livers and lousy lung capacity), this particular section acts as a clever profile platform for the fieldtesters.
From a design perspective, the fieldtests do help her to cull designs that don’t work and have to be taken out of the collection. And Ren is quick to add, “MATTER is not a fashion label. Our creations must last several seasons if not years.”
Mackerel: Who designs the trousers?
Ren: I’m not a designer, but I have a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t. Moreover, I want MATTER to be a collaborative platform. It isn’t a design aesthetic. To date, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to collaborate, on a frequent basis, on prints rather than styles. There’s more versatility with prints.
Mackerel: An upcoming project happens to be one that involves four designers – one each from India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore – who will design a motif inspired by their country’s heritage and history. The project is called “Then And There” and could happen by the end of 2015.
Photos: Marc Nair
Mackerel: What is the MATTER ethos?
Ren: Process. We’re going back to basics. We ask the question, ‘What connects us?’ And it’s craft; doing things with our hands. It is an innate human activity that is experiencing a revival globally. And even here in Singapore, there’s been a resurgence of craft: bookbinding, jewellery and terrarium-making and several others. Practicing a craft entrenches us in a community. And, sadly, we see those communities around the world disappearing because many artisans are moving out to work in other industries. They’re being phased out of business. I’m not a preservationist. My goal is quite simply to try to make craft making sustainable in our modern economy. For this to happen and for Matter to build a business model around it, (1) consumers have to value the process intrinsically; (2) designers who want to design for craft must be involved.
Photos: Marc Nair
Mackerel: Why and how did you decide to work with artisan communities in Rajasthan?
Ren: There was a catalyst. In 2013, my then fiancé and I took on a charity challenge to drive a tuk-tuk from Jaisalmer to Kochin. It was our “Fluk Fluk Run” (flying tuk-tuk = fluk fluk) and we covered 2,962 kilometres in 14 days. It was a challenge to make or break any relationship. He is now my husband! We raised funds for four charities: Wildlife Trust India, Toybank, Barefoot College and Frank Water.
Mackerel: Tuk-tuk shenanigans aside, which gave Ren important insight to life in India, the country also proved for Ren to be the most ideal because English is a key language of business, it has fairly comprehensive digital connections and it offers a semblance of organisation as far as the artisanal sectors are concerned. It’s always more reassuring to work with people who understand the value of invoices.
“Plus, I tried contacting vendors and suppliers in Sri Lanka and Vietnam and got no replies.”
Mackerel: You‘ve recently celebrated MATTER’s one-year anniversary. How has the business fared so far?
Ren: If I thought too much about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, it would stress me out. Numbers and profits aside, the team has grown from one (Yvonne and me) to 10, four of whom are full-timers. And so have the number of collaborations as well as number of days of artisan employment generated.
I’ve also grown and evolved, of course. When I started MATTER with Yvonne, I wanted the trousers to be made by artisans belonging to women’s groups only. We initially worked with a women’s group in Rajasthan and it wasn’t a success because it wasn’t their specialisation. It’s hard to be a purist, so I’ve had to review my own rules. Now, at least one handcraft in every product is my requirement.
Mackerel: Why is it important to MATTER to be a socially motivated business? Is MATTER Renyung Ho and vice versa? How much of the brand is you?
Ren: If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to begin to achieve anything else. I may not be a social enterprise but our purpose is beyond profit. As for the brand being me, it is tied to my values, but it is made up of all the people who are in it. For now, I am someone who can be identified as the face of the brand.
Photos: Marc Nair
Mackerel: True to our purpose of travel, we took a pair of The Easy Dhoti + Cave 17 to Taiwan. Much to our delight, we found them a comfortable companion, even for the un-skinny; for lounging, cycling and navigating stepping-stones.
Photo: Marc Nair