The fashion industry is often criticised for its practices and processes. The focus on fast fashion and the emphasis on low prices leads to a negative impact on the community and the environment.
But that’s not the full story. More and more, consumers are becoming aware about sustainability, and becoming more invested in the environment. There is a growing community of people who are curious about the source and provenance of products, and the stories behind the producers.
These things matter.
Somebody has to break the cycle, and it may well be MATTER.
MATTER produces beautiful, fashionable outfits with distinctive prints and designs that have been featured in top publications like Vogue and HuffPo. But it’s about more than sustainable fashion, or a sustainable business; it’s about the #MATTERtribe.
You are part of the MATTER tribe if you are a customer, or if you are a producer. You become part of the tribe if you’ve interacted with their stunning visual content on their journal or on their social media. From the start, MATTER has focused on growing and serving the community, through sharing and telling their story or building fair, sustainable business relationships for all.
More than just a fashion label, MATTER seeks to impact real change - by bringing designers closer to artisans, by bring customers closer to the process of production, and by bringing sustainability to rural textile communities.
I spoke to Renyung Ho, cofounder and Managing Director of MATTER, to tell the story.
The Story of MATTER
What was the provenance; where did the story of MATTER start?
The thing that really brought us [Renyung and cofounder Yvonne Suner] together was a common love for textiles and the stories that came with them and learning about the process of how they were created. We were big believers in championing for social businesses driven by purpose, especially in the area of rural enterprise and women’s causes.
The Matter TEAM; Renyung (second from left) and cofounder Yvonne (rightmost)
And had either of you had retail or fashion experience before?
Neither of us really had any retail or fashion experience, we just loved to travel and explore new places. I was previously an entrepreneur with a creative co-working space and Yvonne was working in the travel industry in hospitality.
I think this lack of experience actually worked in our favor because we brought a new perspective to the table and created a different kind of business model to the traditional fashion startup.
What inspired or provoked the idea of starting the MATTER business?
One of the problems around craft was turning it into a sustainable business, the standard industry approach is to preserve all of its processes and steps. However, we took quite an interpretive approach - where we looked across the process and asked ourselves - what is the human part of it, and what part can we mechanize, improve, and innovate on.
Working with multiple designers for collaborations also helped to change the perception of the craft sector and its products for us. This was an existing market problem where we found that consumers were not willing to pay the premium that the process required simply because of a lack of education and the incorrect assumption that craft produces an inferior product.
On the customer side, there was definitely a growing segment of businesses that targeted niche groups and they were known for a singular product. Because of the low operating costs and targeted marketing that e-commerce allows, this enabled us to focus in one area: namely pants. There's definitely a gap in the market for bottoms that were multi-functional and yet comfortable and bold.
Now, we've branched out into other categories of apparel and to textiles in general. The qualities that differentiate our products besides the beautiful story of their provenance and the sustainability drive is their flexibility, functionality, and quality. More people are looking to live with less and so having a flexible wardrobe is a key niche area that is growing.
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Building the Business
How did the business start (online)?
The business started in my living room and Shopify was our first go to the platform because of its ease of use, even for the non-technical founder like myself.
Shopify also provided a lot of case studies online of similar brands that helped to give ideas on how we could best get started.
Offline, we worked a lot with aligned retail partners in various pop-ups as well as marketing collaborations with other similar brands.
What are some of the apps or tools that helped build MATTER?
Showcase is an app that has allowed us to connect Instagram’s visually driven strategy with our online store (of course, this was before Instagram Shop). Without this app, our social strategy would have been very awareness focus and did not lead back to our main website.
ReferralCandy has also been a great app that helped us manifest our community building intentions with the rest of the tribe.
How does hosting your business on Shopify compare to hosting on marketplaces like Qoo10 or Shopee?
When you host your business on Shopify you have your own storefront, can control the customer brand experience which is becoming more and more important rather than on marketplaces where there is no ownership over the customer that walks through your door and how they get there. Loyalty is an increasingly important value to cultivate and so having your own storefront and understanding your customer behavior through that is essential.
Struggles and successes
Tell us about some of the big milestones along your journey
The first customer that was a stranger was definitely a huge milestone for me and then the first repeat customer that came back was another one. We value customer relationships a huge amount because building community is one of our key strategic pillars.
My first employee joining and then leaving a few years later was also a big milestone; learning what it was like to grow and develop someone and then be both sad and proud at the departure. Because at the end of the day, building a business is very much about the people that you spend that time with building it.
I think breaking even in the first six months was a big win because I told myself I gave six months in order to know if this crazy idea was viable. Having that validation and being in the black after six months was affirming.
We were also picked up by a popular US website called Cool Hunter in the first three months, which made me realize that this product had a lot of legs and potential beyond the regional market we are in.
How did it feel to reach these milestones?
Starting a business is always about going up and down, and riding the waves of wins and losses. It felt amazing to reach the win but I find myself always looking to think about what is the next win, and what's also important sometimes is to celebrate the failures and lessons learned from the journey as well.
Was there a moment where it looked like the business may fail?
Definitely. The first production run that came in had major QC [quality control] problems that I definitely had not anticipated and by then, I already had orders that were waiting to be shipped. At that point in time, I was pretty much convinced that I had no idea how to run a production-oriented apparel business and felt like I was a complete newbie in an unknown area. Luckily, customers were understanding and I managed to do enough damage control such that the majority of them did come back!
As an entrepreneur and also the leader of the team, what were some of the more difficult moments?
To be honest, there are so many low moments, but being an entrepreneur and a leader means being able to ride out those moments and not show it to the team. We all have insecurity and doubts that what we are doing is enough and always putting up an optimistic and hopeful front to the team can sometimes be lonely.
We are a business with a purpose and that means that ethical trades and sustainable processes are important to us. Sometimes, it can be disillusioning to think about how far we, as a business and the industry at large, has to go in terms of reaching an ideal benchmark. But one can live life in optimism or pessimism, and I refuse to become yet another cynical person that the world does not need.
What helped you overcome the struggles?
Taking some distance from a problem always helps to reduce its impact. Delaying decisions until I have more information, or until they need to be made is quite a good hack, which is a good piece of advice that someone gave me.
The people in the MATTER community has always given me hope and helps focus us on why we do what we do.
This includes all customers that return so many times, who are incredibly passionate not only about our product but about the journey that the product takes to get to them and the people involved in it. The artisans that we work with who we've developed long-term relationships with and stayed in their homes. And lastly, partners collaborators and designers who share with us that working within the MATTER community has changed their view on the world and what sustainable value means.
The MATTER Tribe
Tell us about the #MATTERtribe. What makes them different from fans of other eCommerce brands?
The #MATTERtribe is built up strongly upon the values of our brand: honesty with brand and tribe, as well as transparency. We're always upfront about our shortcomings and that in turn also encourages our community to send us more feedback to help us grow. When the communication between the two group increase, everyone bonds stronger.
We've also found that many individuals within our community have strong passions in the things that we do, which leads to unexpected brand collaborations! We've met people that eventually designed garments or prints for us, created a new collection, or ended up joining the team.
What does the tribe mean to you?
The tribe is always a place of reflection for us, it helps us understand if we're designing the right products and sharing the appropriate information. With the growth of technology, feedback and bilateral communication have become so much easier, especially social media - so we've used that a lot to learn more about what our community wants.
What is one tip or idea or lesson you can pass on to future entrepreneurs?
How you spend your time and how you master your mind is the foundation of everything. Spend your time wisely and invest in testing out different ways of working that work best for you. It's always important to have very clear ideas of what success and failure means in concrete metrics when you first start out, otherwise, you'll be constantly swayed and easily forget the intention you started off with.
Key Takeaways for Creators and Entrepreneurs
In setting out to serve communities -- rural textile producers, designers and storytellers, sustainability-conscious customers -- the MATTER team have built a close-knit, supportive tribe.
The tribe share more than just photos; they share common values, and a dream of real impact and industry change. And the community’s association with MATTER lasts beyond a transaction, with collaborators, volunteers, and contribution.
Members of the MATTER tribe truly treasure their #pantstoseetheworldin, and will be telling stories of their prints and travels for a long, long time.
-Written by Darren Foong