Arts, Culture & Lifestyle

Meet the masterminds of sustainable fashion and lifestyle Malaysian brands

From Earth Heir to Biji Biji, we talk to the masterminds behind Malaysian sustainable fashion and lifestyle brands.
Reading time 10 minutes

This month of April, we want to pull your focus to get acquainted with the local sustainable fashion and lifestyle Malaysian brands whose creations promise to make you feel as good as they look.

From Earth Heir who works with over 100 craftspeople sourced through women’s cooperatives, indigenous tribes and refugee groups to Biji Biji who upcycles materials collected into renewed fashion collections and products, here are four amazing masterminds behind these brands.

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EARTH HEIR (@earthheir)

A social enterprise that champions underprivileged and underrepresented local artisans, Earth Heir has been working with over 100 craftspeople from all over the country. Here, those from women’s cooperatives, indigenous tribes and refugee groups are given the opportunity to earn a living and at the same time put Malaysia’s cherished traditions and heritage on the map. Founder Sasibai Kimis shares the story behind the brand.

 

How it all started…

When I spent two months in Cambodia in 2011 doing social work, I came across some local weavers and artisans and I noticed that they weren’t making much money because the middlemen whom they were working with ended up getting a big chunk of the profit. I felt that something was needed to be done about that.

 

Working with foreign and homegrown artisans…

When we won the British Council Social Enterprise Award in 2015, they pointed out that we didn’t have any Malaysia-made products. That’s when I started travelling and meeting our local communities. I also slowly realised that there was a gap in the market for these artisanal, handmade products.

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Earth Heir

On meeting the principles of World Fair Trade Organisation…

We’ve visited the artisans and seen where they work and where they live; we know what their conditions are like. We made suggestions that if the environment isn’t conducive and if they refuse to listen and continue to put other people in danger, we’d stop working with them. But so far that hasn’t happened.

 

How the business model benefits the artisans…

There isn’t a hard and fast rule about this but for our jewellery products, we had to do a study on the amount of time it takes for the artisans to make the product. We timed the process and pay them an hourly rate. Right now we pay about 30 to 40 percent more than the minimum wage and there’s also noquota to be met.

 

The brand aesthetic and design direction…

This is something that we’re still trying to figure out and refine. But one key thing that I know is that the product has to be ethically made and it has to be design-led. The design has to be contemporary and yet respectful of the skills and the heritage of the artisans.

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REAL.M (@real.material)

Real.m came into fruition during Najmia, Naadira and Atiyya Zulkarnain’s countless travels to Turkey. There the sister trio learned about traditional artistry especially the Hammam Towel and handloom craft. They then delved into cotton production and the traditional ways of making it resonated with their ethical principles to respect nature. In promoting sustainably sourced fibre for home and clothing, this sets the foundation of Real.m and what it stands for today.

 

Sustainability at Real.m…

We produce in small batches so we barely ever have dead or excess stocks. When we design clothing, we minimise stock variants by designing one size, free for all. Our natural fibres are sustainably sourced. We work with non-GMO cotton, which means we support zero pesticide in farms, bamboo—a renewable source—and plant-based colour dyes.

 

The work process...

We focus heavily on our supply chain first. We ask ourselves: what is the material composite; where is it from; how is it made? What are the pros and cons of purchasing and using the material? Next, we look at quality. Design is important to us, but before aesthetics, there’s got to be quality. From here if costing is right, we look at ways to reduce waste when designing, right down to the packaging.

 

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The challenges, then and now…

Aside from the funding, we are constantly asked why organic cotton or natural products are expensive. This reflects the current consumer disconnect with the supply chain. Many don’t question who made their clothes; how these people are paid; how the clothes are made; or where their production costs actually come from. So there’s still a lot of room for conversation, which is why Real.m is part of the Fashion Revolution Malaysia team.

 

Creating Unplug…

Unplug is a conscious select store that caters to the need for a more viable commercial space that can represent small, local-grown conscious brands like Real.m. It houses over 35 brands with categories ranging from home to apparel, skincare and daily essentials. Each brand champions one or two aspects of sustainability, whether it is contributing to a positive social or environmental impact.

 

What’s next…

We are expanding our collaboration to curate amazing sustainable gift sets this year

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BIJI BIJI (@bijibijiethicalfashion)

Discarded items that are bound for the landfills are given a new lease of life at Biji Biji—a subsidiary company of Biji Biji Initiative. Riding the wave of the zero-waste movement, the label upcycles materials collected from a range of industries into fashionable and functional pieces made to last a lifetime. We talk to chief executive officer Ambika Sangaran and assistant manager of communications Gwen Voon to learn more about what they do at Biji Biji.

 

How it all started…

Ambika (A): It started as an ideology to do something with sustainability, waste materials, open source principles and financial transparency. Our founders were just driving around town picking up throwaway wood and later turning them into bookshelves and other things. At some point, we received orders to create banner bags and that’s when Biji Biji started.

 

The materials they use…

Gwen (G): We get faulty seat belt webbing from the local seat belt manufacturers and deadstock vintage kimono from Japanese textile manufacturer Nakakoma Orimono. There are also the tarpaulin banners we receive from advertising corporations as well as needle punch carpets from the Malaysian Association Of Convention & Exhibition Organisers & Suppliers.

 

Working with underprivileged communities…

A: We partner with lots of non-profit organisations that work with underprivileged communities. We give them proper training and we engage community partners in production. Essentially this is also part of our ethical fashion pledge. All the tailors we’re working with have to be paid fair wages and they have to operate in a safe working environment.

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Challenges in working with waste materials…

G: The way we approach it is the opposite of the traditional way of making clothing or accessories. Instead of creating the design and then thinking about the fabrics to go with it, we’re going in opposite direction, as we don’t have the luxury of choosing patterns or sizes. We have to design around the materials.

 

Venturing into ready-to-wear…

A: We previously launched our Nakakoma Orimono collection and last year, we worked with fashion designer Tengku Syahmi but they’re all one-off pieces. We don’t intend to mass-produce clothing items. We did it to create awareness and to show that we can make something special out of sustainable materials

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MUNI (@munimalism)

It wasn’t the environment that concerned Munir Osman when he established Muni three years ago. The interior designer went on a work trip to Ubud, Bali, where he discovered rich Indonesian textiles painted in natural dyes. He proceeded to Jogjakarta to learn more about the subject and founded the brand that now specialises in colouring textiles using botanical dyes, specifically those derived from tropical plants.

 

Changing of the career trajectory…

Growing up, I have always loved things that are a bit quirky and the bohemian style that resonated with my values. I fell in love with natural dyes from an aesthetic point of view. Of course, the fact that they’re environmental-friendly is certainly a bonus.

 

Differences between natural and industrial dyes…

Other than the obvious downside of industrial dyes, the main difference between the two is the colour. Natural dyes are more sensitive to light and they’re reactive to chemicals such as strong detergents. So, you have to be very careful when you’re handwashing them. I personally love them because of these “imperfections” that require extra measures to take care of.

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Sourcing the dyes…

I have a supplier who sources them both locally and internationally. My indigo dye, for example, is from Rajasthan. The dyes come in different forms; some in paste and powder like my indigo dye, and others in their raw form like the dried daun ketapang (Indian almond leaves).

 

The making process…

I can’t reveal everything! (Laughs) But there are three important steps. The first is to prepare the fabrics where we use mineral salt that will allow them to absorb the pigments better. The second step is to extract the colour itself, which is a separate process, and the last one is the dyeing process that would take multiple dips—the more dips you do, the darker the colour you’d get.

 

Experimenting on new plants or shades…

At the moment, I’m focusing on indigo. The whole working process is way different from other colours. But I’d be willing to try something new if I came across any plant material that I think is suitable for the brand. To me, the forms, textures, shapes and emotions you evoke through the pieces are more important than the colour itself.

Photography: Raymond Pung

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