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Woonhung Explains Sustainability in Craft

by SAND Magazine

February 06, 2017

In this issue, Yvonne Chia (Founder of jewellery brand, WoonHung) talks about her experience in advocating slow fashion. Her designs are completed with renewable materials such as coconut shell and white wood, along with the expertise of the local craftspeople in Cebu, Philippines. She also gives us the low-down of what goes behind working with traditional craft makers, her values and ongoing practice against settling for negative consumerism. 

 What propelled your decision to focus on sustainability?
Until I created the natural range for WoonHung, I hadn’t done a sustainable material business because I wanted to have the right people working with me. I used to work on 14k gold costume jewellery with underprivileged ladies in Singapore. Some were single mothers while others were caught in one form of crisis or another. During the process, I encouraged them to start their own businesses but they lacked the capacity to upgrade and become independent.
Due to various reasons, I had to close the workshop later. That really affected me.

Later, the natural range for WoonHung came about. The makers in Cebu are really skilled. The chief makers create and design their own jewellery out of materials such as wood and coconut shell. However, not all of them have the same progressive sense of aesthetic as they were very used to the traditional look of things. They may not have access to all kinds of inspiration materials either. I started handing them references to experiment with.

How did you eventually achieve the balance in your vision? 
There were definitely lots of back and forth discussions going on. I only travel once to twice a year to Cebu so we mainly communicate via e-mail. In that sense, technology is a wonderful thing. Whenever I’m there, I look for new resources to work with. With these raw materials, we are talking about huge chunks of wood in varying shapes and sizes. Their excess to these resources allows them to produce a variety of styles. The criterion was that I had to meet the minimum order.

Model: Ant, Dress: Zhai, Necklace: WoonHung

A combination of a contemporary vision with traditional ways of making. Could share with us more about your experience with the makers?
Indeed. I work with three makers and they are so different from one another. Even though their way of perceiving style may be a little reserved in some ways, some of them are still pushing boundaries. At times, I get new directions from them as well. 

You know the new 20s? The 40 year olds who are ageless. They travel to see the world and are much younger in their approaches in life. One of my makers does exactly that and she works hard. In fact, she had to go through many hardships and those were what made her the forward thinking woman she is today.
I also know a 60 year old craft maker. Even though she doesn't travel as much, she's extremely talented and has immense knowledge about various materials. I have tremendous respect for their knowledge, talent and dedication.

That being said, not all is pretty in partnerships like that. There are times when the makers under
stand my vision perfectly but the outcome just varies. Sometimes we may not see eye to eye and rightly so. Every maker has his or her own creative style. The design process is slow and tedious. But it is important to be thorough, with both sides being on the same page and working conscientiously together. It’s just like working with any other designer in the contemporary society.

How do you see yourself keeping up with this in the long run? 
That is the tricky part. I do hope to work with them for as long as possible. Today, systems are moving very fast—administration, operations and creation. Yet most of them are still stuck in the non-technological system. It can be very frustrating at times.

It is also risky because the commitment is unpredictable. We cannot anticipate when they can no longer sustain themselves. Or natural disasters like bad weather condition affecting the supply of wood and production lead-time, since their production methods are still traditionally based. 
Logically speaking, whenever there’s the slightest hint that they might close down, I should back off. The cessation of their survival jeopardises my flow. But I'm not doing that. I believe I'm working on something good and there is a future for sustainable handmade designs.

More of WoonHung on print
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