From H&M’s Conscious Collection comprising pieces made from recycled materials to Prada’s Re-Nylon line consisting of upcycled nylon fashioned into garments and accessories, the fashion industry is no doubt committed to finding solutions to produce fashion more sustainably.
Sustainability can mean a few things: From economically sustaining itself as a brand to creating fashion in a manner that doesn’t negatively impact the environment. It can also mean sustaining craftspeople and their livelihoods. Case in point: Chanel with its Métiers d’Art collections. The luxury brand is committed to preserve the expertise and craftsmanship that it began buying since 1984.
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In Singapore, there is a for-profit social enterprise that is also working towards that goal. Founded in 2019 by Chanel Go, Germaine Lye and Mitchell Zachariah, Our Barehands aims to create sustainable and fashionable products while supporting indigent artisanal communities across the globe. The brand not only collaborates with craftspeople to produce clothes and accessories, it is also committed to sustaining the crafts for future generations through upskilling workshops and more.
Ahead, the founders talk about sustainability in fashion, their upskilling programme, collaborations and more.
Tell us what made you start Our Barehands?
Germaine: In 2018, the three of us were performing an After Action Review of a sustainable coffee business project that we were working on in Myanmar. While chatting, we talked about how we could better help the local farming community by also partnering with natives to fulfil their career goals. We then realised that a sustainable business can have a positive ripple effect on its communities, and decided to extend the business model we used in these agricultural sectors to the crafts region as well.
Mitchell: We started Our Barehands because we were convinced that there is a way to partner with these communities to build the necessary competencies, and connect them to viable economic opportunities. This way, these artisans will not be seen through a lens of sympathy; instead people will recognise the beauty and dignity that their craftsmanship truly deserves.
How does sustainability factor in your business? And what are your unique strengths?
Chanel: Sustainability is a concept that means different things to different people, and we are all still learning and understanding more about it every day—both as individuals and business owners. For us, sustainable fashion is a journey of being increasingly mindful of the impact our fashion choices have on stakeholders beyond ourselves; the well-being of the people behind our products as well as the environment matter too. The more we educate ourselves on fashion’s impact on communities and the environment, the more we take them into considerations during our decision-making process.
Germaine: Our mission is to forge long-lasting partnerships with artisanal communities so that they’ll have a more sustainable livelihood, and thrive with their families. In the process of doing so, we also try to be as eco-conscious as possible. For example: We avoid overproduction by implementing a made-to-order approach; use natural or organic materials in the manufacturing process; as well as strive towards a more circular business model by upcycling leftover materials to prevent wastage.
Chanel: One of our key unique strengths is our collaborations. While we strive towards building strong and sustainable communities, we are also committed to joining hands with other like-minded individuals and organisations to do more good together.
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Tell us about your Made-To-Order approach.
Germaine: The artisans that we partner with all have varying levels of production capabilities, and we work according to what they are able to manage. It’s a balancing act between our artisans’ output levels and the market’s growing needs.
Chanel: This is why we decided to introduce a Made-To-Order (MTO) approach for the Refugee Sewing Community in Malaysia. In fact, all of our linen apparels are on a MTO basis that takes anywhere from four to seven weeks to reach our customers. We also offer complimentary size customisations for optimal fit. This way, we only produce what the customer needs. So far the response has been great; our customers appreciate our efforts in curbing overproduction which generally generates a lot of waste. Our artisans also don’t have to mindlessly overproduce pieces that may eventually end up in landfills.
Your Made-To-Order model was created in part as a solution to reduce landfill waste. Do you have any plans to accept used pieces from your customers to repurpose them?
Chanel: That’s actually a great idea. So far we have been looking to incorporate more dead stock fabric and recyclable materials into our production processes.
Germaine: Yes, it’ll be quite a dream to see this come to fruition one day. It’ll definitely fulfil our hope of building a more circular economy that involves our customers as well. Hopefully, we can think of a way to do this post-pandemic and perhaps not just take in apparels but other products like our slides leather too.
What is your creative process like?
Germaine: The creative process is very fluid, and it mostly depends on the growth stage of our artisans and the market-readiness of their designs. For artisans who are new to this process and the international market, we help them with the design process informed by consumer insights.
Chanel: For example: We work with The Khoyla Sisters who use traditional beading and weaving techniques to create their products. We use our business and consumer insights to help design pieces that combine the best of their crafts with what the consumers want.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Germaine: We currently work with 10 artisanal communities across eight countries. Due to the travel restrictions brought about by the pandemic, we’ve been unable to travel to them. Thankfully, we were already digitally connected to our artisans prior to this. We just have to take the extra effort of using more visual cues with the help of detailed decks, pictures and a lot of Google translate because of the language barrier.
Tell us more about the special materials and techniques unique to the artisans used in creating the collections.
Chanel: Two great examples of that would be Master Blockprinters Bhuj in India as well as the Resin Cousins in Gianyar, Indonesia.
Block printing is an age-old tradition that can be traced back to 2500 BC – 1500 BC. From cutting wood blocks for printing and preserving it to chiselling motifs onto it and the actual printing, every part of the process is painstakingly done by hand. The whole process can take up to 21 stages, which is very time consuming and labour-intensive. Another interesting fact about the block printing community in Bhuj is that it only uses natural dyes such as turmeric, rust iron and Arabic gum to stain the fabrics.
Elsewhere, the artisans in Gianyar use food ingredients like rice, turmeric and chilli in jewellery-making. The Indonesian spices they use are enclosed in resin make beautiful jewellery.
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Tell us more about your artisan upskilling programme.
Mitchell: Our artisans’ skill levels vary across different communities—from basic to advanced. Oftentimes, these artisans may possess basic or even zero craft skills, and have no access to opportunities for formal training. Our upskilling programme seeks out artisans who would like to learn or improve upon their artistry. We then connect them to like-minded collaborators to train them in a craft that they are interested in. Presently, the skills that our upskilling programme prioritises are mainly craft-related. We have plans to provide our artisans with training for other business skills that could complement their craft and aid them in their journey towards becoming business owners and entrepreneurs.
What advice do you have for consumers looking to be more sustainable?
Chanel: We all start somewhere. I think that a good first step towards being more sustainable is educating yourself on it. Instead of relying on information that’s already out there, find out what it means for you personally, and let it fuel your efforts.
In what ways can Singapore-based consumers collaborate with you, and how can they go about it?
Chanel: At this stage, we are really open to explore any ideas that our customers have. We have had some customers reach out to us to connect their own artisanal contacts for us to partner with. I believe many of our customers are also experts in their own careers—be it design, visual arts, finance, just to name a few. These could be very helpful in either providing that external expertise to our artisan communities or even upskilling them in it. We also welcome anyone who would like to raise awareness about the work we’re doing. Together, we can co-create meaningful experiences or campaigns together.
What do you hope to accomplish with Our Barehands in the near Future?
Germaine: We definitely hope to see at least 50 percent of our artisan communities be confident in their ability to financially provide for themselves and their families through working with Our Barehands. In other words, we hope that Our Barehands will be their main source of income—or multiplier—in order for them to gain a sustainable livelihood.
Chanel: We hope to see more people coming alongside us in the journey of building strong and sustainable communities. We started Our Barehands as a collaborative platform because we believe that everyone has something in their hands to contribute to our mission. It can be a skill, a resource, a connection, or anything at all; no one is too small to be a part of it.
Mitchell: Through Our Barehands, we hope to expand the idea of what it means to help these communities, and what a social enterprise is capable of doing—especially in terms of offering good, well-designed, competitive products that the market truly wants.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.