Pants To See The World In: Ren Ho, Founder of Matter Prints

Written by Kassia Binkowski, Contributing Editor to The Good Trade

Meet Renyung Ho of Matter Prints

With a dream to bring textile artisanship mainstream, Renyung Ho founded Matter Prints, a socially motivated lifestyle brand focused on travel ware. Matter Prints relies heavily on artisan knowledge and local input to influence their beautiful designs, creating a collaborative approach that acknowledges the expertise of the artisan community. We recently interviewed Ren about her work with Matter. 

You have built a beautiful line of clothing and accessories that not only inspire high fashion but also reflect admirable ethical standards and timeless cultural traditions. That’s no small feat. What was the inspiration behind Matter?

Thank you for the encouraging words! It’s always amazing to speak to like minded people who value what we do and align with our mission, and it’s wonderful how many of us there are. Our mission is threefold: to encourage consumers to value provenance, foster designer-artisan collaborations, and expand opportunities for rural textile artisans. We think that the beautiful cultural stories and meaning in fabric has a place of relevance in our every day. That’s why we’re called MATTER. It’s about going back to the basics that connect us - stories, craft and values.

Honestly, I’m inspired by so many things – I truly believe that there is something to learn from everyone and inspiration in the every day. We just have to learn how to open our eyes to it. Travel of course is the biggest inspiration, because that’s when we drop our usual contexts and start to appreciate and respect both the difference and similarity that unite us across cultures.

With a background in sociology and a keen interest in cultural diversity, how did you choose fashion as the field in which you wanted to make an impact?

My thesis in university was on social entrepreneurship, so in that sense I have always been motivated to create impact through good business. In terms of industry, I don’t actually consider us to be in the fashion industry, but in the area of textiles. If you ask me what our primary product is, it really is the fabric in which our artisans display their expertise; that is where the stories lie. I truly believe that the cultural history of many nations lies in their textile heritage, and it’s a fascinating study to see how artisan techniques differ and converge across space and time. We work with techniques that are globally dispersed, and I’d love to be able to showcase that diversity one day. For example, blockprinting is prevalent not only in India but also China, Indonesia, and Africa. Ikat is practiced in India, Japan, Indonesia, and even Guatemala!

That said, clothing is such a personal expression of identity that it also made sense to speak to consumers through this product. I think there is a revolution in people caring about where their things come from. It started mostly with food, but that desire for transparency and provenance is also starting in clothing – its something that directly expresses and communicates who you are, and it is so intimate.

Your team is comprised of talented individuals from around the world. You’ve collaborated with a designer in Amsterdam, a pattern maker in Hong Kong, a supply chain specialist in New Delhi, just to name a few, while you yourself are based in Singapore. Tell us more about your model of remote collaboration. How has it both benefited and challenged your growing business?

To be honest, that model of remote collaboration starts on a bedrock foundation of mutual respect, aligned values and vision, open expectations and communication, and is propped up by clear parameters of responsibilities. Add in Dropbox, Skype, Whatsapp and DHL, and there you go!

Its benefited the business by being able to work with people not on the basis of where you are but more, why you’re doing what you do. That’s a powerful catalyst for any working relationship. It also means that a diversity of opinions are always on the table, which makes for a better end product. In terms of challenge – well, face to face is almost always better, especially with regards to design. It always helps to have met someone first and spent time with them before collaborating remotely. Our best collaborations have always started that way.

With boutique fashion labels popping up all over the world - many of which tout responsible or ethical business practices - what makes Matter’s products distinct? What qualities have you chosen to stake your brand’s reputation on and how have customers responded?

To be honest, I am always humbled by the work that others do and haven’t spent much time thinking about what makes our products different. We’ve focused just on doing and creating what we love and believe in, and telling those stories faithfully. Not so much on what makes us different. Most of the time we’re looking up to all the other people doing awesome things too!

I guess the thing that makes us stand out is the fact that we started out making only one product, which was pants, and the seasonless model we pursue. The styles remain the same while the fabrics change over the seasons, which is unique in the world of fashion. In terms of qualities, it’s always been product first in the sense that our primary priority is to deliver the best possible product to our customer. I feel that the product has to speak for itself in terms of quality, design and value, and that the social impact is a bonus on top of it. I don’t think that impact alone is enough to ask someone to buy a product. Values we stand for are transparency in provenance, respect for cultural heritage, and design thoughtfulness. Customers have responded incredibly well in terms of referring their friends and telling others about it, as well as across cultures – we’ve shipped to more than 31 countries now.

Matter has publicly committed itself to leveraging high quality design for social and environmental impact in the world. Tell us more about the impact your customers have when they purchase a Matter product?

I like the way you phrase that! We measure our impact right now in a few metrics – the primary one is the number of artisan days of employment created through our business. Every time someone purchases a Matter product they’re enabling the sustainability of a supply chain that incorporates artisan communities in a hybrid model of urban-rural production. A secondary metric is culture – ultimately we want to change consumer culture and inspire the importance of provenance. We believe that where something is made, and why, matters. When someone buys a Matter piece and talks about it to a friend, feels special when they wear it and shares the story with a stranger, that’s impact too. Those relationships matter.

The fashion industry has historically been defined by human rights abuses and environmental degradation. How have you balanced ethical production, high quality design, and competitive pricing?

It definitely has not been easy, and I can see how tempting it is to simply take a design, send it to three factories and choose the one that comes back with the lowest cost and the best quality. In terms of balance, there is a huge amount of personal investment in visiting production partners on site and developing relationships. There is nothing like walking through someone’s workshop and getting a feel for the place in terms of how they treat their workers and the ethics of their practice.

Building any small business - much less one that maintains such high standards of impact and works across international borders - is not an easy road. What are some of the challenges you have faced in building Matter and how have you overcome them?

Wow, the challenges have been quite a few but the most important thing that’s helped me is maintaining a growth mindset and a supportive community. The growth mindset helps because every time you meet a challenge that you think will cripple you, you see it not in terms of failure but in terms of learning and capacity building. Having no background in design, fashion or production was immensely hard in meeting roadblocks in delivery timelines and quality control. That was overcome by seeing not what we didn’t have but what we did, and using that to our best advantage. Our unique production model arose from that, where we do not produce seasonal styles and new styles but only new fabrics. This allows us to focus on fabric innovation and quality in the final product. The supportive community is also fundamental – people who are in your corner to tell you to celebrate the small milestones, who believe in what you’re doing, and who just give you a kick to start going again when you need it.

The Matter brand reflects a deep commitment to storytelling - from the traditional techniques you employ to the marketing strategies you engage. Can you tell us a story about one of your products, where the idea came from, the technique used to produce it, and its impact in the marketplace?

I love telling the story of the Leharia print because it was truly a collaborative one. One of our best sellers is the Classic Wideleg in Leharia Charcoal – we’ve produced it in 3 batches and 2 colours now and do not intend to stop! We were in Jaipur with our artisan partner Khushiram sampling designs for the next edition, and we were standing around the blockprinting table each handling this large graphic block of lines. Each of us took the block in turns and experimented with varying placement on the blank canvas in front of us, until there was finally an aha moment when we all knew that that was the print we wanted. It was a combination of combining a traditional motif in new ways in a collaborative, modern manner.

The final product is a modern interpretation of a traditional zig zag print called Leharia which translates to waves. It’s a print usually worn in the monsoon season, and women would wear it on pink saris. The traditional saying goes that if you dance in the rain and the colour comes off on your skin, you’d be loved forever.

Since 2014 you have combined creativity with fashion to build an international business. What is next for the Matter brand? Where do you want to go from here?

The idea came about when Yvonne and I met in 2009 but the business started last year. In this sense I feel we are still making baby steps. I think we’ve made strides in articulating our mission in our products and messaging, and the next step is simply to do more of what has worked for us and to focus on that. We do plan to release more types of products beyond pants to see the world in, and also expand our artisan partner base beyond India. Stay tuned ; )

Kassia Binkowski is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade and the Founder of One Thousand Design. She grew up in Madison, WI and traveled her way around the world to Boulder, CO which she now calls home. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Kassia supports innovative organizations from Colorado to Kathmandu tell their stories of social change through writing, photography, and design. Kassia is an eternal optimist and forever a backroad wanderer.