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Written and interviewed by Marianne Reyes
Fashion is getting more and more conscious. Gone are the days where it is deemed superficial. In today’s world, fashion has got a new image – and it is being conscious about the environment and the society. With all the eco-friendly collections of international designers (hello Stella McCartney!), and sustainable projects that allow fashion to merge with societal concerns (such as Donatella Versace’s Versace One Foundation that helps victims of natural disasters), fashion has gained its new reputation as an integral part of the community that cares and molds organizations and individuals into becoming causal partners of the whole society.
Fast forward to today’s local scene, Singapore has been creating projects that will sustain these needs of the society as well. One of the female entrepreneurs with the same goal as that of McCartney and Versace is Anisa Johnny, a Fashion Marketing lecturer in Raffles College of Higher Education and one of the co-founders of Singapore start-up Design Up Asia.
Being passionate in fashion and being involved with social entrepreneurship – Johnny, along with two other Singaporeans – saw the opportunity of creating a business that not only produces beautiful things, but also contributes to the society; hence, the birth of Design Up Asia.
Labeled as “Fashion with a purpose”, Design Up Asia is the product of an idea to help marginalized women in Singapore become employed while still being able to look after their children. It came about through the Arthur Guinness Fund in partnership with Newton Circus. The brand offers jewellery collections that are hand-made by these women.
Here, Johnny talks about the practices of the trade, what keeps her motivated and her hairdresser being the one thing she can’t live without.
Marianne Reyes (MR): Fashion and social entrepreneurship is getting popular recently but it sounds a bit contradicting. What made you think of pursuing it?
Anisa Johnny (AJ): Having worked in the industry for so long and run my own fashion business, I’ve seen the factories where many fast fashion products are made. No matter how much concern brands show, from inspecting factories to writing policy to protect workers, once your back is turned, all sorts of things go on. Outsourcing is a perfect example. You may inspect the factory you work with but when a big order comes in, factories often outsource elsewhere to meet your deadlines – most brands are none the wiser. Lots of people need work including those factory workers but as a designer you really want to influence the supply chain and get a little closer to it. Before, factories and the industrial revolution artisans made products at home with a few people and their families. Textile industry, leather goods and many other industries for that matter where made at home or in an atelier – fancy word for workshop. Today, the best quality products can be made by one solitary artisan. Mass production makes sense economically to get the most products to the most people at the cheapest price however, the tide is turning and some people are beginning to understand the failings of this system. They want to know where products are from, who made it. Not just about faceless businesses, endless products with bar codes but the story behind each product. Fashion is cycle we often use the past to reinvent the future. Fashion and community good are inextricably linked. We just went away from it for the last 100 years.
MR: I understand that Design Up Asia is meant to help the marginalized women in Singapore earn a living while still being able to look after their children. There might be a huge volume of women who would want to be a part of this project. How do you select the women who create the jewelry pieces? What are your criteria, if there are any?
AJ: There is a selection process based on need, jewellery making dexterity and level of individual interest. The need means we aim to work with women who are the soul bread winner for whatever reason; they are usually referred to us by Social Services and have children under the age of 18 who are dependent on them. However all of them share a passion for jewellery making. Some who have just discovered the skill. This is the most fulfilling part of the business.
MR: Fashion and social entrepreneurship is an interesting and a challenging trade. What challenges did you face?
AJ: We face the same challenges as every business, driving awareness and sales, making sure all the money we spend is put to good use. With a Social Enterprise there is an added layer of trying to benefit society and making sure we act with integrity.
MR: What is one thing you wish you would have known before starting Design Up Asia?
AJ: How much time it would take and how many people would be unforgiving whilst others would be compassionate and generous with volunteering their time and skills
MR: Where do you see Design Up Asia three years from now? Where is the brand heading?
AJ: We hope to have diversified our distribution – be stocked off-line in local and international shops and have more awareness amongst Singapore’s Fashionistas! We hope to have trained 3 times the number of women and provide them with a good wage.
MR: What would you have done differently? Or is there anything you would have done differently?
AJ: So far so good there is not one thing that sticks in my mind except perhaps get a template website before launching into an own developed site. Always takes much longer than you think. Also do much more original market research.
MR: Social entrepreneurship involves making a change. What 3 tips can you give to someone wanting to make the change?
AJ: Look for which problem you have the unique skills to solve. It’s probably something that’s really irritates you and is on your mind every now and again as a niggling doubt. Fast Fashion irritates me although it is bringing affordable fashion to the masses the fact that you have to replace everything in 6 months just seems a waste of the individual’s time and the worlds resources
MR: In addition to Design Up Asia, you’re also a full-time Fashion Marketing lecturer in Raffles College. How do you find time for both?
AJ: If I’m honest Fashion Lecturing takes up most of my time. It’s my main focus however the two works nicely together because teaching is also investing in peoples future and of course when I teach theory I have real life current examples not just based on case studies. I also use some skills learnt in teaching when I train the ladies that work with us. Personally it is sacrifice it means I can’t be as sociable as I would like. You lose friends who end up thinking you are always busy because you are too cool for school and not genuinely working! Partners have to be very understanding and supportive need I say more.
MR: Describe your typical day.
AJ: I‘m either lecturing or preparing lectures, marking, consulting with students or reading marketing magazines and fashion blogs for the latest marketing news between 9am to 6pm but usually much later. I have dinner at home or out with a colleague then settle down to answering emails. I will often skype or whatsapp my other colleagues who co-founded the business. They are freelancers so they pick up on the day stuff and I give my input in the evening. Not very exciting unfortunately.
MR: What do you love most about what you do?
AJ: No two days are the same. I like that my work is people based and I’m constantly learning about myself and about fashion and business – both fast moving industries.
MR: What are the 5 words that best describe you?
AJ: Creative, Communicative, Inquisitive, Helper, Loyal but difficult (I couldn’t narrow down to 5)
MR: What are your 3 best tips for getting stuff done?
MR: What drives you?
AJ: Passion for people & my community, the creative process and learning something new
MR: What is one thing you can’t live without?
AJ: Water or Oxygen if I’m to be literal. Brands I admire is another matter there is a long list but no there is nothing I can’t live without except maybe my hairdresser
MR: Best advice you ever received?
AJ: The Serenity prayer (see below)
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
MR: What best advice you will give to someone who is thinking of heading to fashion and social entrepreneurship?
AJ: Go for it but first do your research. Talk to other social enterprises, talk to people who are interested or volunteer in SE they are a wealth of information. Do a lot of market research. Then do some more market research.
Photo cover credit: danielavladimirova
Guest post by Marianne Reyes: When she’s not busy catching up on the latest fashion trends and writing press articles, Marianne is catching up with friends and updating her social media accounts. That’s right; she’s either talking or writing. Marianne is currently the PR Account Manager of Singapore-based public relations consultancy firm Fulford PR. She’s also the writer behind the fashion blog The PR Girl Closet. Fashion, music, Instagram and writing are some of her obsessions. Check her out on Linkedin / Twitter.