Stripes on a shirt, florals on a dress or skulls on a scarf — we might take these prints on our clothes for granted, but the whole process behind it is something to marvel at. Fabric has long been a canvas for humans to produce symbols and patterns which capture meaning and tell stories. In the world of print textiles, the big names that come to mind are Jonathan Saunders and Morris & Co., but now Singapore has an authority of its own.

Yvonne and Ren
Yvonne and Ren, the masterminds behind Matter.

For Renyung Ho, designing prints is about having a clear provenance and drawing a connection to the source of each artisanal product. Better known as Ren, the Singaporean entrepreneur’s grand idea stemmed from an encounter with co-founder Yvonne Suner on the beaches of Mexico. “She’s from the Canary Islands in Spain, so we always joke that she’s from a small island in Europe and I’m from a small island in Asia,” laughs Ren. Despite holding rather different world views, they discovered a shared love of textiles, of human stories and of travel — and hit it off from there.

Partly due to the business practicalities of producing a simple, scalable and repetitive model, and a desire to create an alternative to jeans and leggings as travelwear, the duo decided to focus on block printed pants. They explored the cultural and historical significance of traditional block prints, and learned the basics of textile artisanship. Three years on, Matter has ventured into jumpsuits, tops and scarves, and employs various techniques like ikat (woven strands of tie and dye yarn), chambray (hand loomed textured weave) and jamdani (hand woven fine muslin).

Block Printing
A single block print is repeated in outline, size and detail on the fabric.

With every design and every piece of clothing, Matter sets out to instill in consumers a connection to the story and people behind it all. For example, “Our jamdani scarves take 120 days,” Ren explains. “They pass through 20 to 30 different hands before the final product.” This is something consumers, who increasingly seek to appreciate and understand their products, have embraced, beyond what Ren initially expected. On Matter’s online store, which offers free international shipping, customers get to see a map of where each step of weaving and stitching takes place. The product is then delivered with a card that tells the story of the print.

Read on for Ren’s thoughts on travelling, significant moments of personal growth, and the challenges of promoting sustainability in fashion.

Cotton is harvested and made into yarn, before being spun and put on a loom, then woven into fabric and stitched.

My last trip was… a ten day drive across Namibia, South Africa and Botswana in a camper van. We had campfires every night, we had hyenas trying to get food from us, we got stuck in sand. I loved the adventure, the closeness to a different and exotic kind of nature, and the sense of history from the sand dunes, Sossusvlei, which are three million years old. It was an incredible experience.

Something that really hit me while travelling was… the realisation that life is unfair, that your circumstance and where you are born is the largest determinant of your life’s unfolding fortune.

It’s changed my approach… in talking to people. It’s definitely not about pity, it’s about creating a platform for mutual learning and respect, rather than assuming that everyone should follow the same path of development and ambition. Everyone has their own world perspective, life view, struggles, hopes and aspirations.

Sunday Overalls
Matter tests its relaxed fit pants across different climates and environments.

My version of success… is a combination of what I love, what I’m good at and what positive impact I can make in my lifetime. Every decision and opportunity I take is guided by that. 

A defining moment in my life… was failing at a venture to start a crowdfunding platform for creatives in Asia, called Ideasian. I learnt then that passion and purpose clearly aren’t enough. You have to be the best person in your unique circumstances, resources, skills and talents to execute the idea you’ve conceived to even have a shot.

My guiding philosophy is… “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.” Confucius. This means always being able to answer the question of why you’ve chosen a certain path, because that anchors your actions in the big picture of what you want to achieve with any decision.

Making Hands
Each product is created through a painstaking process by artisans who have honed their craft for years.

The biggest challenge in promoting sustainability is… explaining why it costs more to make choices that are better for everyone, earth included. We have to trace back the supply chain from a single product in a way that’s easy for people to understand and visualise.

My mentors are… Grace, who used to be in the fashion industry but is an expert in digital marketing and change management. In the beginning, especially, she gave me a lot of help on how marketing works in the fashion industry and change management in an organisation. Ellen is based in New York, and she has 20 years of experience in gaining market access for artisans. So I speak to her about creating the business around artisan production.

Charlotte Liu
HK Editorial Assistant