Su By Hand
Designing for luxury labels across Asia and Europe for more than a decade has given founder Supei Ho a heightened sensitivity to the amount of waste generated by the fashion industry. Desiring to create well-crafted pieces that “evoke an emotive connection to our clothing” to counter such rampant more-for-less culture, she started her slow fashion label Su By Hand two years ago, injecting much love and labour into each design.
Take “Fragments Make One Whole”, a series of breezy separates crafted from dead-stock silk sporting self-designed prints marbled on by hand. For all their simple silhouettes, their patterns are lined with delicate embroidery done by couture-trained embroiderer Studio Eyral and take 10 hours to complete. Sold on her website (subyhand.com), the most labour-intensive pieces are made to order only.
Other collections include pieces coloured with natural materials such as pomegranate and avocado – all hand-dyed by Ho – or made with fabric sourced from Living Blue, a dyeing atelier in Bangladesh that also supplies to global luxury houses. “The beauty of natural dye is that the colours are ‘alive’ and very vibrant,” says Ho. That they’re akin to art should also make them keepers.
A finalist in the Textile and Fashion Federation’s tent-pole competition this year, Ho puts it best: “They’re clothes that remain in your wardrobe for years simply because of their beauty and your emotional attachment to them.”
How would you define slow fashion?
“Slow fashion is very much about the process. For me, it is mindfulness and sustainability translated to the entire process from sourcing, designing and producing to marketing. Authenticity and transparency are very important to Su by Hand. We are not trying to be another fashion brand because there are enough brands around. But there aren’t many brands, at least not in Singapore or Asia, that incorporate artisanal techniques, whether it’s in the detailing or the treatment/dyeing of fabrics. Fashion as we know it now lacks soul! Look at vintage clothing with the amount of thought given to minute details and you will know what I mean.”
Could you walk us through the process of natural dyeing?
“It’s a very organic, intuitive process. First you need to mordant (a substance used to set dyes) the fabrics (mordants ensure that the colours will adhere; they can also interact with and change the colours). Then depending on the dye used, you need to know how to extract them, usually by boiling, sometimes by pounding/soaking in water overnight prior to boiling. Mordanting the fabrics ensure a good colour fastness, then you need to wash after dyeing. The beauty of natural dye is that the colours are ‘alive’ quite literally, and very vibrant. They are not flat like chemical dyes. Of course the colours may fade a little after awhile, but because I use mainly light colours in my collections, I haven’t really had that problem so far. This problem of bleeding, discolouration etc will affect mainly deeper, darker tones.”
A lot of people still see sustainable clothes as expensive or premium. Are there any misconceptions you’d like to address?
“Firstly, I think our price sensitivity to clothing, especially in Singapore, does not easily allow for a sustainable mindset that is also geared towards quality. It’s ok not to spend a lot on clothes and I seldom buy clothes myself. But when I do, I pay premium prices and subscribe to the less but better mindset. I’d rather pay more for premium fabrication (natural fibres like cotton or silk) than I would on polyester. In SG, many brands thrive on selling styles that look good but don’t feel good. Comfort is very important for Su by Hand. There is no real beauty if you look good but can’t feel good in a cheap, non-breathable polyester! But that doesn’t mean all polyester is bad. Polyester is easy to handle, machine washable etc. But there are different types of polyesters, and there are good substitutes in regenerated cellulosic fabrics like Tencel, modal etc.”
We seem to be seeing a desire to have things that are made with more care and time in recent years. More independent labels that pride themselves on their hand-made products and workmanship are popping up – what are your thoughts on this?
“Yes it does seem to be a good time for handmade goods. However, the market (in Singapore) is small and things have always been very trend-led here. So I do wonder if the appreciation is deep and sustainable in the long term. Consumers here are also very price-sensitive. I think premium slow-fashion brands need to look beyond Singapore to gain real traction. My vision for Su by Hand has never been just a local one; we are small, but in the current climate of things, (there is a newfound appreciation) for small and conscientiously crafted things.”
Objects Of Mass Distraction (OOMD)
While natural and found materials such as driftwood form the cornerstone for this year-old label, there is also a sense of playfulness that characterises it. It starts with its peculiar name. Says founder Charlene Kuah: “I liked the idea of an innocent object alluding to something of magnitude (Weapons of Mass Destruction) — that an object belonging in the preserve of grannies and hobbyists can be powerful too.”
Likewise it’s hard to categorise OOMD. It’s not a fashion label though there are what Kuah terms “wearables” – accessories such as necklaces and brooches made with found seashells or stones. (All found materials are properly cleaned before construction begins, points out Kuah, a freelance copywriter with a background in fashion communications.)
Then there are also artful “objects” such as rocks collected from the Sicilian city of Trapani that are reportedly remnants from the Paleozoic Era and spray-painted silver. Regardless of their provenance, they take on a new unearthly aura in Kuah’s hands and can be used as paperweights or even ikebana vases with no two pieces the same.
You see, all of Kuah’s works are governed by the natural materials that she finds, inverting the classic design mantra that form follows function. It would explain why her brand – and designs – are season- less and not one bit influenced by trends.
“Nature and being in nature are vital to me, for many reasons,” she says. “The sensorial world it offers, the beauty of its forms, the freedom to be and the humility it can teach.” Naturally, the only way to make a purchase is via Instagram – DM @objects_of_mass_ distraction; custom orders welcome.
What prompted you to start this label?
“The impulse has always been expression and beauty—at least what I consider beautiful or pleasing. I knew I wanted to do something with the name and for a few years, toyed with several ideas, revolving around objects and beauty. But it was only last year, when I left my full time job, that I started tinkering with the stuff I had collected, spray painting shells and creating miniature sculptures. I knew I had no excuse to procrastinate anymore.”
A key part of OOMD’s appeal seems to lie in using found natural objects. What is the appeal behind the latter for you?
“Yes, indeed. It started with collecting stones and shells when I travel and soon, I realised I amassed quite a bit. I like that no two pieces are similar and that there’s always an element of surprise as to what I will find. I relish that sense of exploration and adventure. More importantly, I think nature and being in nature are vital to me, for many reasons—the sensorial world it offers, the beauty of its forms, the freedom to be, and the humility it can teach.”
Scrolling through some of the older posts on the OOMD account, I realised this account has been around for awhile now. Why the decision to finally launch it as an official project?
“I always knew I wanted to express myself visually, mostly with forms and tactile surfaces, and have been using the account to experiment with what I can do. It was, and still is, a work in progress and a medium for experimentation. So when I left my full time job, I started doing more and even took a short contemporary jewellery design course in Florence, Italy. After my last freelance gig ended, I decided to consolidate the works and launch it officially, with a website.”
I found it interesting that you mentioned in one of your posts that your MO inverts the common saying of “form follows function”. Could you elaborate more on that?
“As the starting point is always the materials I find, what I do with them is informed by their distinct qualities. For instance, certain shells can be made into necklaces while slightly larger stones can be appropriated as miniature vases or paperweights. Therefore, the possibilities as to what can be created are endless, as nature presents us with endless forms.”
Thoughts on the growing number of independent labels that focus on craft and handiwork?
“I think this appreciation for things invested with thought, time and care has been around for a while now as people are more enabled to discern, decide, and choose, with the information and knowledge at hand, what is of importance and value to them. The general sensibilities are definitely aligned but while these (artisanal) brands pride themselves on craftsmanship, perfecting a certain colour of dye or crafting a wooden spoon, OOMD is less about craft and more about play—gathering and tinkering—if that makes sense.”
This article first appeared in the July 2020 Perennial Edition of FEMALE.