As 72 Smalldive enters its 3rd year of design and lifestyle business,Szetiong Soh, founder of 72 Smalldive, talks to Vitrine about good design,grateful customers and why sales is not the most important thing.
William Phuan is the Director of Arts Development at The Arts House, a multidisciplinary arts centre in Singapore. He also writes and curates film programmes.
ViTRINE: What is your design ethos? Why do you choose to work with artisans?
ST: I endeavor to take up each subject matter/design project in a holistic manner. By that I mean I would take extra care to look for better and sustainable alternatives for the production, sales, and distribution process. When I say better and sustainable, I am not just saying that we should all go green. I am looking at it from a business and social perspective. My decision to have the products made by artisans may carry romantic or nostalgic connotations. However, by engaging these artisans we are in fact giving them the opportunity to sustain their trade. Hopefully, their knowledge and skills may then be passed down to the next generation.
V: Does the concept or design come first?
ST: Concept or design first? There’s no answer really. If you notice in our design initiatives, there is a recurring theme of asymmetry and doing with less, while emphasizing craftsmanship. I would still like to expound on these “themes” and take them as far as I can.
V: What do you mean by a sustainable process?
ST: My material suppliers are all within the vicinity of where I live in Milan, the Naviglio quartier. This area in the past was an amalgam of artisan workshops, cottage industries and residences. Of course, I could easily obtain these materials from a supplier in China at a lower price, but at what cost? The cost is more than just the carbon footprint. If my suppliers shut down their businesses, we run the risk of losing the quality and the intrinsic character of this quartier that I live in. Already many urban planners have committed the error of edging out workshops and cottage industries from the cities. In addition, many have followed the footsteps of development happening in Dubai, where the demand for iconic buildings supersedes social-economic concerns. They do not realise that, in the case of Dubai, they are developing a “new land” void of cultural and historical contexts.
From a product perspective, we hope that our consumers will become more aware of the provenance, culture and aspiration behind each item they purchase. They would hopefully become more discerning customers in the process.
V:As a globe-trotting citizen of the world, how do you think it has contributed to your design ethos?
ST: I am only one of the many designers doing what we enjoy. Having visited many places though, I am of course more open to different aesthetics. I hope my exposure to diverse cultures helps me to rethink how my designs may be an inspiration for us to be more inclusive of foreign cultures.
V: What kind of aesthetic need do you see 72 Smalldive fulfill?
ST: As human beings, we are prone to the desire of having beautiful things around us. Every ancient civilization had its own “culture of aesthetics:” It may be in the form of music, art, sculpture, literature or garment. In our modern world, we are no different. Material consumption is then a mean for us to acquire beautiful things. I attempt to fulfill that need of the modern day consumer. Depending on the individual, my product may be a necessity or a luxury. What I attempt to do as a supplier is to make the product aesthetically appealing and somewhat purposeful, and if possible, fuss-free and fun. Of course along the way, I hope to inculcate a discerning attitude among my clients towards material consumption.
V: You have sought out many artisans to work with. What do you look at when you decide on collaboration?
ST: First and foremost, I look for skills and the quality of their work. In addition, I prefer to work with positive people with a “can-do” attitude, people who are realistic and have an eye on the end result, as well as adaptable to change. Keeping in mind that this will be a rather long-term relationship, I also like artisans who have a healthy relationship with money.
V: How has your approach to design and business evolved since setting up the label in 2006?
ST: It is still too short a time to observe any “evolution” per se. 72 Smalldive is self-funded and an independent label. Because of our independent nature and lack of negotiating power in this vast and competitive market, we have to tread very cautiously. Some of the artisans whom we have been collaborating with are beginning to understand and appreciate our work ethos and objectives. They are also beginning to believe that they may benefit from it in the long run. Likewise with our stockists and buyers, they are starting to understand the true value of our endeavor. I think we have found some right partners in our business. It is very important to have this community of partners, be it suppliers or clients, who understand and support our ethos. From the design aspect, we are still doing what we have been doing: The recurring theme of eliminating excess and establishing new aesthetics with asymmetrical forms. The only difference you see between the past collection and the current one is that our approach has become more assured and relaxed. It is easier to envision carrying or wearing our accessories on a day-to-day basis.
V: What are the biggest challenges you face in this economic downturn? How have you recalibrated your strategy?
ST: The biggest challenge for us is to stay focused and to continue upholding our design and business ethos. We are now shifting market focus to Northern Europe and Japan, where consumers are familiar with products made by artisans.
V: As an entrepreneur, what is the best advice you have been given?
ST: Don’t let sales be the only focal point on which business decisions are made.
V: What trends excite you most now?
ST: There is growing population of consumers who believe in sustainable consumption. By that I do not only refer to concerns with ecological impact, but also the political and “true cost” dimensions of sustainability. My Korean friend told me about an ongoing trend in South Korea where individual households re-use their cooking oil to make soaps (so are some restaurants in California). Also, recently there was quite an outrage in Europe when it was found out the internet spying software used by Iran to monitor her citizens was provided by Siemens. There are a lot more other illustrations to indicate that discerning and concerned consumers do exist. Many years ago, the subject of organic farming was regarded as a concern of only the affluent. There were many debates over the nutritive value of foods farmed organically versus those farmed in a conventional method. Nowadays, many consumers understand that there are other benefits than just the nutritive value of the crop. Small-scale farms that could not compete with co-op farms are able to sustain their livelihood by turning to this niche. This helped revive agriculture in many developed countries, where farming had been made redundant by competitive producers from developing nations. Furthermore, there is the advantage of carbon footprint reduction. We are now just starting to see the benefit of organic farming – one aspect of sustainable consumption. I believe that in time to come, that same awareness will extend to all consumer goods.
V: How are you working with your stockists to tackle the downturn?
ST: Since last year, we have offered our stockists the option of stocking our products on a consignment basis. In selected stores where the retail market is not conducive for independent labels, we are helping the retailers by reducing the prices of our products. Furthermore, we always highlight to the press the stockist that is located in the region of the press’ interest. There is also no need for stockists to lodge a minimum order quantity for our products. Last but not least, we have included a new style page in our quarterly newsletter ViTRINE. The purpose of the style page is to enable our stockists to see how our products can complement the other labels they carry in their store.
V: You have customers from all over the world. What is the most surprising thing about them?
ST: Many of our customers have not let us down. They are able to appreciate the nuances in our design. They do not treat our product as if it is another commodity on the shelf. The most surprising thing was that we have had many customers, as well as stores, who wrote to tell us how excited they were by the beauty of our products. All this feedback was often profusely punctuated with “thank you”s. We are truly touched by their sincerity.
V: You are collaborating with Gift and Take, a social enterprise in Singapore that sells handcrafted products by the underprivileged. How did that come about?
ST: Handcrafted products from charity organizations are often than not viewed as mediocre and “irrelevant” from a commercial retail perspective. As a result, there is a tendency that such products are purchased out of a charitable gesture and they are often restricted to being sold in art and craft flea markets or souvenir stores. Gift & Take’s soul mission is to assist the underprivileged to gain work competence and social confidence. 72 Smalldive is a strong proponent of artisans’ craftsmanship. We are aware of the acute lack of a workforce with manual skills in Singapore. This is where we identified an opportunity for collaboration. We hope that the collaboration will help the participants gain new knowledge and skills, and also be able to make products that are potentially more “relevant” to the commercial retail sector. We hope that the collaboration will re-enable people to appreciate the “economic value” of manual skills in diverse areas of work.
V: What is your project with Gift and Take about?
ST: In the first project, we have the participation of abused maids and women living in a Catholic shelter home. They will make a line of fabric shoppers that are inspired by an art movement chosen by 72 Smalldive. The art movement in study for the first project is Abstract Art. 72 Smalldive will provide these women reading materials about the art movement, while the bag designs will be based on some identifiable elements of Abstract Art. We hope that as we continue to do this, the women may gain another level of competence from which they can initiate creative projects themselves.
V: Any plans to have similar collaboration in other countries?
ST: Gift & Take has a network of shelter homes in Southeast Asia. We hope to have the participation of the others living in these shelter homes for our future projects.
V: What can we expect next from 72 Smalldive?
ST: We will be expanding our product range in our online store and customers will be able to have the items customised. Part of the proceeds from the sales will be donated to a children’s charity, Keep a Child Alive. In addition, our newsletter ViTRINE will be available in Japanese from this issue onwards.