When we think of ethical or sustainable fashion brands in Singapore, only a selected few would pop up in our minds. The fashion landscape of Singapore is scarcely dotted with young but rising brands who are redefining how we consume fashion: an added mindfulness of where and how our clothing is made, and subverting the fast fashion industry that often exploits sweatshop workers and pollute the environment.
Founded in 2015, Artisan & Fox is a online marketplace that focuses on helping artisans in developing regions get their crafts noticed in the global e-commerce market. Every jewellery and accessory piece from their online store is handcrafted by skilled artisans from Nepal to Kenya, and you can definitely see their extraordinary craftsmanship shine through in the quality of the products. We have been blessed with an opportunity to sit down with Founders Jaron and Laura, who were so patient to answer our burning questions for the inspiring team:
Hi Jaron and Laura! What inspired you guys to start Artisan & Fox?
J: Actually, Artisan & Fox started before I met Laura. In 2015, I was studying in the UK when a big earthquake struck Nepal and there were a lot of deaths. During that time, I met this senior at school who had an NGO in Nepal and needed help in fundraising, so I flew out to Nepal to help out. It was there where I met a lot of Nepalese artisans who still make silver, wood, and other good quality crafts. It was a very thriving craftsmanship area, but a lot of them were struggling because they could not find a market. They usually sell to the tourists, but after the earthquake there were almost no tourists. They really needed to access global consumers, so I bought a bunch of their silver rings and built my own small online store. The silver rings sold out really fast, and that’s when I realised there are people who really like the story behind what they buy, and simultaneously, there are a lot of craftsmen in developing regions that can gain a lot from global e-commerce.
L: So basically we are taking the model that Jaron experienced and accessing how many countries that same approach can apply to. In a lot of countries, artisans are just selling from the road and dependent on the flow of tourists that come. If that flow isn’t continuous, the artisans’ livelihood become affected. The artisan craftsmanship sector is the second largest rural employment sector, and these artisans make things that have been passed down from generations with deep cultural techniques, which we hope to preserve.
What a great story! How did you come to know your partner artisans then?
L: There are two ways. The first way is through partner with an NGO or an established artisan group. For example, the Guatemalan weavers that we worked with are already part of a cooperative where they come together and weave together.
J: The Guatemalan weavers have a central headquarter where there is a really old head weaver, and they have small families in the surrounding small villages, so when they get older they get to choose who receives the orders for weaving.
L: In other cases, we have to travel to the place and see what types of crafts populate the region, and who are the people who are still crafting. Craftsmanship in a lot of developing regions, such as Vietnam, has been reduced to a sideline job, so ageing artisans are trying to find someone to pass down their crafting knowledge. In the village we went to in Vietnam, the young people have been leaving for the city to find low-wage factory jobs. This can be seen as a good thing because the young people envision the potential money they can make in the city, yet if we fast-forward to a few years later, it can lead to overpopulation in the city and urban poverty. A lot of what Artisan & Fox does, on the sidelines, is also bringing more business to craftsmen and thus encouraging and incentivizing them to keep doing what they are doing, and hopefully pass on their knowledge to their family members.
The styling tastes between overseas artisans and Singapore or International customers can be very different. How do you reconcile the differences?
J: I think it boils down to the little changes and suggestions we can give the artisans, so that their products can still appeal to a wider market. For example, the colours on our SOLOLA shawl in mint stitch are much more muted than the usual vibrant Guatemalan colours. It may be harder to get international customers to like the vibrant and loud colours that Guatemalan weavers usually use.
L: We always try to experiment and probe the artisans to think outside the box. Like, prompting the artisans to keep the same pattern, but make them in different colours. We try to get them accustomed to certain production protocols e.g. standard colour schemes, which are things they need to do anyway to get more international customers.
J: Sometimes happy accidents happen! For example, we placed an order with the Guatemalan weavers for green scarves, but they came out blue due to miscommunication. The colours are really nice anyway! But we have to place another order for the green ones because our customers have already preordered the green ones.
That is definitely a happy blunder to remember. How do you communicate with artisans from cultural backgrounds so different from yours?
L: We have amazing translators come with us, but when you first encounter somebody, building trust is really important. Often, the artisans’ workshops are in their homes, which makes it a very personal experience. You are a foreigner walking in, and this person has no idea who you are, and all of the sudden you are proposing this grand idea of how many products you want them to make. It takes them some time to really give us that trust that is needed. In Vietnam, we had to do shots of vodka with one of the artisans because he insisted that we talk only after sharing a bottle!
J: The other important thing about building that relationship is that we need to really establish that important framework first before we leave, since we can’t contact them easily. We help them to source for ways to ship the products over, ways to transfer the money to them, etc. For example, we had to pay a coordinator to pass the earnings to the artisans living on an island off the coast of Hội An, since they do not have bank accounts. Over time, we can slowly nudge them to open bank accounts so that payment transfer becomes quicker.
L: What we need to look at every time is the situation the artisan is living in, and in the long term is it feasible for us to work with them and if yes, what are the points we need to be addressing, such as bank account opening, shipment, etc. Addressing these things will help us empower them to even eventually reach out to other organizations for other customers. The end game is not so that we own that artisan’s production, but that we leverage their abilities for them to eventually be able to sell to anyone else.
J: We also split our profits with the artisans at 50/50, because we realized that a lot of the human rights issues arise when manufacturers see the amount they pay as a cost. When you see something as a cost, you would just try to drag it down as low as possible, and try to skimp on working conditions and safety. However, when you tell the artisans, “I make as much as you make”, the incentive is for both of us to make more at the same time.
What do you think are the challenges eco-fashion businesses face when starting out in Singapore?
J: I think it’s quite challenging for eco-fashion businesses in Singapore. Generally, Singaporeans go for fashionable things with recognizable brands, even if the quality is compromised. In a lot of other countries that we operate in, people crave for a product because they know its good quality and the exact name of the person who makes it. For example, this Afghani silver coin ring is very special because the centerpiece is a coin from the 18th century. We worked with a refugee artisan there and she had to look around everywhere to find the coin. One of our customers waited over a month for a custom-sized piece. When she finally got hold of the ring, she loved it so much. The excitement really adds value to the experience. Customers who have this sort of mindfulness really enjoy the shopping experience because what they wear corresponds with their personal values.
L: Definitely. I am the country coordinator for Fashion Revolution Singapore (a movement that promotes transparency and sustainability in the textile and apparel industry) and I think that consumer awareness has not really happened in Singapore. The conversation is just starting. All of the brands that are a part of Fashion Revolution Singapore, including Artisan & Fox, are kind of like pioneers in Singapore for what’s to come in the next 5 years. This is especially so when Southeast Asia is the prime place for fast fashion production and the world has been turning to Southeast Asia’s garment sector for issues concerning human rights and environmental pollution. Can Singapore be a pioneer in changing that narrative? That is what we would really like to see.
So, what is the next exciting thing for Artisan & Fox?
J: We are looking into expanding the team, as well as expanding global presence with more artisans.
L: Product development is also one of the big things we are working on. We are still in the young phase, and what we have done this year still consists of a lot of experimentation and seeing what works and what doesn’t. We are also looking deeper into the sustainability of our products. Our products from Kenya are made from up-cycled brass, which are melted from things containing old brass and reused. Can we add another aspect or value to the sustainability our artisans are already integrating into their products? That is what we are going to dive deeper into.
Want to know more about Artisan & Fox’s products and stories? Check their official website here.