Women of Style & Substance: Wai Ling McGeever

Feature image: Taken in Dubai, 2008

She Who Made Me

If my journey could teach you anything…

When I first had inspiration for this series profiling everyday women who embody and walk in their own rhythm, with their own style and who own the substance that makes them who they are, I always knew that my mother was top of the list. This is a little tribute to her and therefore I felt nervous and delayed putting it out as I wanted to get it right and say all that I wanted to share.

She who made me was a hell of woman. She passed away 8 years ago, her anniversary being New Year’s Day, and to be quite honest, writing so openly about something and someone so close to my heart is not at all comfortable for me. However I strongly know that we can learn and aid each other in our journeys, and though I in no means claim any monopoly or expertise on grief, I do hope that my firsthand experience can help anyone who may be going through something of similar gravity. I am very much someone who believes in pushing myself out of my comfort zone, which has resulted in some hilarious, crazy decisions and pursuits (one being moving to Singapore and all the struggles and joy that came with that) and I live in the ‘why not? ‘ mode of being rather than the why.

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She Who Made Me: LOVE this photo, I've carried it around with me, framed, through different apartments, seasons and countries over the last eight years. If I can take you with me for a moment beyond the veil, I want to share the thousand words that this picture doesn't speak in the hopes that it will bring comfort and healing to those who need it. Whenever I see this moment captured, my spirit is simultaneously lifted and broken. My mum and me, taken on the last evening of our last holiday together in Dubai, 2008: One of the big things that this picture doesn't say is that at this point, my mum had undergone several gruelling rounds of chemo in an attempt to prolong her life. Dubai is a HOT country, and we were experiencing it in all its 50 degree mid-August glory, even for me as a healthy teenager, it was hard-going. How much more for my mother? I can't even imagine. She never complained, not once. The small thing this picture doesn't say is that we painted her nails together on the plane journey there, perhaps to the chagrin of other passengers, in a moment of celebration as she wanted to stop biting her nails as part of her bucket list. Love the resolve. A hilarious thing this picture doesn't say is that when we went on a very intense, sand dune jeep ride through the desert, one of us couldn't handle the motion and ended up being rather sick. Nope, it wasn't my mum but, as always (a running joke in our family) my dear father whose stomach cannot handle the smallest dip in a rollercoaster 😂 all this to say this woman's strength remained unparalleled even in these most deeply excavating physical and emotional moments, she never let us see her fear. In fact, in all purity, her greatest regret and sadness in her end days came from knowing she would not get to see us grow up. Here's a tribute to my mum (link in bio) the OG, who was always top of my list when the idea for "Women of Style & Substance" came about. I hope you enjoy the read and more importantly, can find hope and joy within the words if you are in need of it ♥️♥️♥️ always in love http://goo.gl/C1g0Qx @styleishsubstance #WomenOfStyleAndSubstance #8

A post shared by Jennifer 詠嫻 McGeever (@j_wenghan) on

 

This year one of my personal resolutions is to live more authentically and be more open in my vulnerabilities, as scary as that is for someone who is by nature extremely private about the things that I really care about. In this day and age, it is difficult to keep things sacred, however, the past few months I have felt convicted to share a little about this amazing woman, her life and some of the many, many lessons she taught me, which are still ongoing in my day-to-day. In The Sisterhood’ book (which I know I talk about a LOT, but it’s one of those books which has really evolved my thinking) Bobbie speaks about having friends and people in your life that cause you to push yourself beyond your personal containment lines; I am grateful to have such friends, and most grateful to my Wonderful Counsellor, who prompts and nudges me from within regarding my convictions. I was pondering why in particular I felt so prompted at this 8 year mark to share a little, and then I funnily realised that in Chinese culture, the number 8 is THE number! It is the number of good fortune, prosperity and carries a whole host of wonderful (and superstitious) attributes. Anyway at this moment, it seems an auspicious and ordained time to share:

She who made me, made me in every sense of the word. She was extremely vital, and she birthed myself and my three brothers (it is crazy to think about that sometimes, that each of our lives came through a living, breathing woman). That is something I particularly struggled with in the earlier days of grief, being able to remember and recall my mum as her healthy, strong self, rather than the destruction and physical deterioration of the entire body that cancer brings about. It took me many years to be able to envisage my mum separate from her illness, and I do still dream about her in her latter states of being even now.

A little background about this wonderful woman: she was born and grew up in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia in the mid 50s to Chinese parents. The Chinese population in Malaysia is vast, however historically there are a lot of racial and civil disputes in the country, and therefore her parents enabled her to move to the UK (Malaysia was a Commonwealth country) when she was still a teenager to live with her older siblings who were in tertiary education here at the time. It was extremely unsafe for Chinese people living in Malaysia at that point, and as the youngest of eight siblings, her parents thought it best to keep her away from the rioting and killings that were taking place. From what my mum told me, being a young Chinese girl in London, with a “strange” name and little knowledge of English norms in the 60s, was not the one. Racial bullying was prevalent and London wasn’t as diverse as it is now. She was an immigrant in every sense of the word, and that shaped her and our experiences growing up. She adopted a more British-sounding name for her teen and young adult years in London, Rowena, though hilariously I have never met someone called Rowena over my lifetime as of yet! I am glad that by the time myself and my brothers were in the picture, she walked in her given name and the glorious juxtaposition of that alongside a very Irish surname.

Mum as captured by dad in Egypt

She met my father when they were both working in the London Stock Exchange and she told me that she had known him for a while before they ever went out on their first date. She recalled that one of the reasons he stuck in her mind was that he often wore a – in her words – “really annoying” skinny, red belt which drove her a bit mad (my mum was quite the fashionista back in the day) and therefore made a lasting impression on her before they even spoke. They dated for approximately five years and travelled the world during that time, choosing to get married later than most couples of their generation. My dad has told me that she gave him, a London-born and bred boy, a thorough cultural education in all things Chinese, starting with his first ever dim sum in Chinatown on one of their first dates.

I was very much raised by a Chinese tiger mother, with every stereotype that that may embody. We are first generation kids, and she expected nothing short of the best from us (though this is something recently I have been learning to be kinder to myself about, but that’s a whole other story in itself). She forged me, tempered me to have steely resolve and rebuked me no end. One of the things I didn’t think about until recent years is that though I am the only girl amongst three brothers, I was never treated any differently when it came to what was expected of me in life and never made to feel less than. To be honest, I think most of the time they were so used to raising boys, that I was treated as very much “one of the boys”.

She made our moral fibre, our cultural framework, she ensured our standards were high and informed our opinions. She was very much involved in our formation not only physically, but emotionally, intellectually, culturally and spiritually. One thing in particular I have learnt since her passing is that grief can be crippling but it can also be propelling. What has kept me afloat in times of overwhelming pain is the knowledge that for myself and my brothers to give, bring and do anything but our best in every endeavour and encounter we have on this earth would be a severe detriment to her. And that most importantly her legacy is embodied in us. She taught us perseverance, embodied strength and she never indulged us. In short, she never stood for our bulls*&t!

There were most definitely arguments, tears and many a teenage and toddler tantrum. But it does all fade to insignificance when you realise what was significant, I pray that we learn to value those eternal things more than the ephemeral that we so often laud: “what is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). Can we please pause on that for a second? Bar a plastic bag, almost everything on this earth begins to quickly decay without maintenance. I remember when I travelled to Madagascar, seeing the dilapidated buildings gone to ruin and a remnant of the French colonisation and having a stark realisation that even once magnificent, supposedly glorious things all fade to ruin on the scale of eternity and without maintenance in the passage of our time on this earth.

She was formidable in the truest sense of the word, most of my friends who met her would testify that she was not someone to be messed with, and may have personally witnessed her wrath on a few occasions lol! I  inherited her fire, slightly diluted, and we both share a fiercely stubborn streak, so as you can imagine, our relationship was at times ablaze, but always full of love. As I’ve grown up, I realise that in many ways we are very similar, hence why we sometimes clashed magnificently, as my brothers will gladly testify. It is good to remember and talk about those you’ve lost with people who knew them as intimately as you. It keeps their memory alive and prevents you from over-sentimentalising someone, forgetting the bad times, which to be honest are just as important, formative and occasionally hilarious as the good times. None of us are perfect, but it is our imperfections that make us 3D, human and relatable.

What I’ve learnt about death is that the clichés are so true, we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out; her physical body is long gone but her presence is still very real. Maybe it sounds strange but I still literally, not figuratively, feel the palpable force of her love surrounding and buoying me at all times. Her love is so, so great. One tangible thing I remember is that she would always come and check on us sleeping in our rooms, way into our teenage years. Occasionally I would wake up to find her fussing over my PJs and I remember asking her why she always checked on us in the night. She told me that she couldn’t sleep well herself without knowing that all her babies were okay, I thought to myself how beautiful and poignant that was. That love unseen, that devotion, it actually surpasses and outlives your physical body.

I had a great conversation with my dear friend Saskia via Skype last year, and I remember she spoke directly to my soul. She basically said to me that for me as a woman, I am getting to know my mother even after her passing on a peer-to-peer level, as I live out many of the same rites of passage, beauties and struggles that come with being a female in this world. In many ways I had felt that over the years but had never heard it verbalised back to me before, and speaking with one of my mum’s close friends in Malaysia and her sisters over the last eight years has given colour and added depth to her life, having some knowledge of the years which we didn’t share has been a crucial part of me coming to terms with her passing. For many, getting to know your parents on a really human level only really begins in your late teens into adulthood, and for my mum and me those years were only just beginning when she was diagnosed. Having conversations with those who knew her growing up in a childhood, teen years and young adulthood has formed a unique kind of therapy for me as I get to know her more personally, through the eyes of others and can empathise and relate to their tales of heartbreak, friendship and the overarching theme of love that threaded through her life. Generational reality is something I’ve become very aware of, and in many ways we abide in our parents, and they in us. “David asked God for a permanent place for worship. But Solomon built it” (Acts 7:47). To me this passage speaks volumes about how our parents lives are sown in living sacrifice and we reap the fruit of them. This verse comes from the New Testament, and yet talks about the intertwined lives of the Old Testament that were still informing the present hundreds of years later, King David was Solomon’s father and his prayers were literally being built into reality by his son. The hope and promise in that astounds me.

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I will never pretend that the heartbreak doesn’t still exist, as quite honestly when you lose the person whose very blood runs through your veins (can we pause and think on that crazy reality for a second please?!), colouration inks your eyes and melanin in your skin deepens every time you catch the sun, you quickly realise that they are inherently within you. There are occasional surreal moments when I think on it too long, and the realisation still floors me, that I will never again see her in this life. Yet how beautiful is the knowledge that we can create and allow to be bestowed “a crown of beauty instead of ashes” (Isaiah 61:3) and that our lives are beyond ourselves. One perfect analogy for me is that of the Japanese philosophy of Kintsugi, where when pottery is broken, they join it again by soldering gold in the cracks. They see the cracks as part of the history of the object rather than something to be disguised, gilding it with gold rather than concealing it or seeing it as unworthy of repair. How beautiful are those who place gold in the cracks of brokenness?

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One reality I want to briefly touch upon is that in grief you mourn for the future memories as well as those you have. Incredible author PP Wong, who also happens to be the first ever British Chinese novelist to be published in the UK (shocking as it was in 2014!) wrote it so aptly in her (highly recommended) book “The Life of a Banana”:

“Then, I think of the future memories that should have been. Memories that I will never have. Things that should have happened but didn’t.

Mama explaining to me about my first period, Mama looking proud at my graduation, Mama smiling at my wedding, Mama crying and holding my first child.”

– The Life of A Banana, by PP Wong

For me, that last line kills me a little, my mum would always joke fondly about how she couldn’t wait to meet her grandkids and spoil them, she had such a heart for children, hence why my mad parents decided to have four of us (!) and I knew how much joy that would bring her and how much I now mourn her presence and wisdom for potential unborn children, nieces and nephews. We need to mourn those future things as well as the past in order to start to reap beauty from the ashes, I share this with you all not to depress but to elevate. To comfort anyone who may be in mourning but to also gently encourage those who are in a season of rejoicing. Please darling readers, I urge you to see past the cliché and genuinely live in your present happiness whilst not forgetting the eternal fruit. Don’t live half-heartedly, if you love and value someone, say it and more importantly show it. Life is extremely short, in fact, I realised recently that by next year, I’ll have lived half my mother’s lifetime. It’s a sobering realisation as it puts things in perspective. Her presence still informs me so deeply in her absence. I think especially as so-called “young people” my generation can undervalue those around them, and there is a false sense of us feeling immortal. Let’s place proper value on life both present and eternal, treasure those around you, put your phone down and talk to your best friend/significant other across the dinner table. Tell that person that’s been on your mind how you feel, pick up the phone and call that relative. Seriously now, let’s not think about what we lack but invest and take the time to treasure what we have. Our time on this earth is finite and temporal things are not guaranteed, yet it is possible to live in the tension between the right here, right now and being aware of the magnitude of history, generation and eternity that we operate within. 2017 for me will be a year of living more authentically than ever before. I’m quite happy to be known as someone who loved too much even if at times, it’s not reciprocated, but not content to be known as one who didn’t give wholeheartedly. Love outlasts us all, sows seeds for the next generation and on the scale of eternity, is the only thing that actually markedly makes a positive difference.

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In living memory of my mother, I invite those who wish to donate to the incredible place which housed her and us in the last days of her life here. A place filled with so much warmth, generosity and joy despite the sadness of all that takes place there. I’m forever indebted to the incredible staff and volunteers of the North London Hopsice, your smiles and humour brought light to our darkest days.

Always in love,

Jenn

x

Negative Spaces, Magic Shapes

26th December 2016

I was just sitting and being this morning.

For me that involves praying (talking and listening to God), drinking in all that’s around me and remembering to be consciously grateful. The skies today in London are gloriously clear. The light and the air are ringing in clarity and freshness.

I felt prompted to share something I wrote a while back, perhaps in 2015, that I came across in a Word doc more recently. I hope it blesses you today and going forward.

As a point of reference for those who may not know, the ‘negative spaces’ I refer to below are an artistic term. They signify the background spaces (as opposed to the subject/foreground) in a traditional method of painting; I was taught to mark out the negative spaces in a composition before painting anything else in greater detail. They are as important as the main subject, as the work and use of colour in those negative spaces can make the difference between a study and a full-blown masterpiece. Beautifully and aptly, those shapes are called “magic shapes” in artistic terminology. In the spirit of this beautiful day, I extend new hope, love and prayers to you all:

Let us live our lives in the negative spaces, let us feel and breathe in the magic that comes with the potential in the unknown. Before you reach that next milestone, that next full bodied line, exhale and inhale the in-between, the unknown, the unseen. Those character building, spiritually-refining moments which allow us to be who we are when the spotlight comes on. Don’t be afraid of the dark, step into it, step into a place of separation, walk on water, believe in the unknown. Live your faith – faith is after all believing that what is unseen and intangible is not only possible but has already been done, that it far exceeds our expectations and is not dependent or conditional on our verification of its eventual tangibility.  

 

Almost eight years ago, I experienced the most painful and poignant Christmas of my life so far. My mother was in a hospice, where cancer had spread to her brain and mentally she was no longer fully with us. She was, as we would soon discover, in the last week of her life. I share this extremely personal note as a means to say that hope is real. Love is real. Sometimes we may become tired and weary of hearing sentiments and reading positive #quotesoftheday on Instagram, I feel you. Words do have power, but they can also bear ritual.

When I think about my reality eight Christmases ago and my reality today, they are extremely different, but there is one constant. “The passage of time can heal” is something often said, but the passage of time can also destroy, allowing for decay and deterioration is a harsh reality that we must be equally aware of. Over the years since her death, close friends and acquaintances have sometimes said to me “you are so strong” which I guess is shared with a mixture of admiration and empathy. Really, I am so blessed.

I was so blessed to have my mother’s love, which is still so real even after her physical prescence is gone. Over the last eight years I have been beyond blessed with family, friends, the love of significant others, confidantes, kind strangers and more. Matthew 5:3-4 reads in The Message translation: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” Quite honestly, it doesn’t matter what your spiritual affiliation is, or even if you don’t have one, there is deep wisdom in those words. Where you turn and what you’re surrounded by when you’re at the end of your rope, in a place where there is a deep void in whatever capacity, will define you, it will make or break you.

I was having a conversation with a great friend the other night and she told me how a young mother who attends her classes had told her that in the midst of suffering post-natal depression, my friend’s smile had brought her hope and joy. That struck a chord with me, we really don’t know what that person sitting opposite us on the tube is going through, or even in this case, those within our direct sphere of influence. If we are attuned to those around us, a smile, a simple gesture of welcome and kindness, can be something they are grateful for that day. Please, extend that smile today with an added dimension of warmth, bear joy in your heart; you don’t know what the fruit of those small seeds will be. There is so much darkness out in our very neighbourhoods that we must be responsible for carrying light within us. It can outpour and overflow from you.

I’ll leave you with this today, said by the all-out amazing Bobbie Houston:

“May love be the last great act to shock the world”.

Love is intelligent, love is considered. Love is so much more than a feeling. Love is synonymous with respect. Love is an enactment. Love is tenacious. Love is a moment-by-moment choice. Love is in the doing as much as it is in the being.

Happy (almost) new year dear readers!

Jenn x

 

Feature image: Snapped in Monaco

Women of Style & Substance: Saskia Bewley

Feature image: Saskia, captured by yours truly on the iconic steps of the Palais des Festivals, home to the Cannes Film Festival

 

We first met back in the autumn of 2010 and our years of friendship since have been so rich in discovery.

A commonality in both our lives is that we are ethnically mixed and it has allowed us to share so many conversations about the beauty, frustration and issues of identity (many of which come from external sources) that are part of the territory in embodying the hilarious and ambiguous tick-box on the form marked”mixed other”. This has taken formal contexts e.g. being interviewed on mixed race identity as part of her Masters in Intercultural Communication for Business and the Professions (yes she’s a modest genius) and attempting to give insight into diversity within the fashion industry for her thesis based around Indian Vogue, to wine-fuelled heart-to-hearts on my bedroom floor.

 

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Plum foolin’ in Cannes

 

Saskia is insanely intelligent, stoically perceptive and profoundly gifted at providing the right word at the right time. She is one of those rare people who speaks directly to your soul (even across continents via Skype) and has delivered me moments of profundity and as she would say, great synchronicity (those connecting the dots, everything interconnects on so many levels ones). Over the years we have somehow developed an unspoken tradition of gifting each other with the words of great men and women in the form of poetry, books and the occasional handwritten quote. Our conversations and shared love of literature always leave me thinking in new ways, challenged and motivated to act accordingly. This interview was no exception!

 

SS: What did you last Google? 

SB: Hand in Hand for Syria’s Aleppo Emergency appeal: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/AleppoAppeal [Ed note: Please do donate to this worthy cause if you can, it is often difficult to know if you are investing your money in the right places or organisations, but you can rest assured that this appeal provides direct aid where it is needed].

 

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.

[…]

Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed.  They existed.
We can be.  Be and be
better.  For they existed.

~ Maya Angelou, ‘When Great Trees Fall’ (shared with me by Saskia)

 

SS: Name one app you love that we might not know about: 

SB: I recently downloaded Insight Timer – Guided Meditations. It’s great for timing meditation sessions and there are some really nice guided options as well. I am pretty hopeless at being mindful so this is good discipline for me. Also, it sounds ridiculous but I often hold my breath without realising it, especially when I’m concentrating on a task, so the app is helping me to be more conscious of my breathing. Overall I’m just trying to be more present. And also not pass out!

 

SS: What is your happy place?

SB: My grandmother’s kitchen. One of my earliest memories is being sat on the kitchen floor whilst my grandmother cooked. She would give me and my brother mini rolling pins and boards so we could “help” make chapatis. She never seemed to mind that ours were any shape but round! And she would always make sure she ate ours first. I suppose ultimately my happy place is wherever stomachs are full and hearts are fuller. [ I couldn’t agree more, Amen!]

 

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SS: What book are you currently reading or did you most recently finish? Would you recommend it?

SB: I recently finished ‘This is How You Lose Her’ by Junot Díaz. It’s a collection of interlinked short stories, predominantly centred around a recurring protagonist called Yunior. The prose is really raw. It’s really interesting as an insight into Dominican American culture, the immigrant story, masculinity and infidelity. In a way I found it quite alienating, and as a woman it left me feeling a little empty afterwards. I think that was kind of the beauty of reading it though. Not all stories are for you so to speak and these challenged me.

 

SS: Who embodies style with substance for you?

SB: Zadie Smith. I think she has an incredible mind. And she carries herself with a humility, authenticity and grace which I find really captivating.

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Author Zadie Smith

 

SS: What is one lesson that you’ve learnt this year?

SB: To pay attention to my mental and physical health – that compassion starts with the self. Something I think I’ve known intellectually for a while but am only just beginning to understand emotionally.

 

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Beauty in her natural habitat, surrounded by books in Paris’ Shakespeare and Company (a must-visit if you’re in the city!)

 

SS: Do you have a favourite podcast? 

SB: I’m a podcast noob! Sporadic listener at best. Very open to recommendations though! If my earphones are in I am usually listening to whichever musician I am currently obsessing over. [Ed note: we both agree Drake is a poet]
SS: The first thing I do when I wake up is:

SB: Check the news on my phone. A lot can happen while you’re sleeping! Particularly in 2016 it seems…It often puts me in a strange headspace but Im trying really hard to replace feelings of despair with hope and feelings of helplessness with purpose and action.

 

SS: What is your guilty pleasure?

SB: Playing the same song over and over until I’m sick to death of it! [Ed note: So glad this is not just me!]

 

SS: If you could travel the world in a day, what pitstops would make and why?

SB: There are a few places that are ancestral homes for me and a few loved ones who I don’t get to see as often as I would like, so I suppose I would go and find all the places and all the people that feel like home.

 

SS: Any final words of wisdom?

SB: I’m going to defer to the wisest of the wise on this one – Maya Angelou – “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.’


I can’t thank Saskia enough for sharing these words and tools of wisdom! Who cannot love a girl who enjoys a little too much wine and dancing as much as she does geeking out? A woman after my own heart, inspiring us to close out 2016 replacing “feelings of despair with hope and feelings of helplessness with purpose and action.” Yes!

 

Women of Style & Substance: Abiola Babarinde

Feature image: by Abolade Babarinde

 

I have many a celebrity girl crush, believe you me, however I equally have so many incredible women who are right beside me in the field, doing life with me, that I wholeheartedly celebrate every day. They champion and inspire me all the time, so I thought, why not celebrate the everyday women as well as the already celebrated? We start this little project/series with my right hand girl, Abiola Babarinde, her life, her spirit and her mind always inspire me, and honestly have since we first met when were 11 year old girls. There was just something about her, funnily enough, I vividly remember thinking before we had even spoken one word to each other “I want us to be friends” as I saw her across the room (romantic right? Side note: romance isn’t just for non-platonic relationships) from memory she was wearing a blue uniform and a preppy straw boater hat (maybe my mind embellished that last detail but I enjoy it).

Every friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born – Anaïs Nin

 

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As Bobbie Houston put it so beautifully in her book ‘The Sisterhood‘ (which as it should happen Abiola gifted to me): “I strongly believe that heaven aligns our lives with certain people to inspire and help us in our calling”. She is always sharing exciting, life-breathing and insightful things with me to help me on my journey, whether it be an apt beyond belief Bible verse, a book or her own words of wisdom; so I thought I’d share the love, open the table, and ask her to share them with all of you. Thankfully, she agreed! Here goes…

 

SS: What did you last Google?
AB: I last Googled ‘What is a markdown [tech term]?’ I’m trying to build up my tech skills as I spend a lot of time writing and playing around with my website. Although after reading a bit about them, I’ve decided to leave the technical stuff to the developers and techies to deal with!
SS: What’s one app you love that we might not know about?
AB: I recently downloaded Bear on my Macbook and iPhone. It’s an app where you can organise your notes and articles in a simple and beautiful way. I write a lot of articles and random thoughts, so I found that as my content increased Google Docs got a bit onerous. I’ve only been using Bear for a few days so don’t quote me, but so far so good!
SS: What is your happy place?
AB: Simply being by myself with a good book or great podcast. That can be anywhere: in bed or on the train usually. The only thing that beats that is when I’m writing at my laptop and I’m totally ‘in the zone’, where I know what I’m producing is going to have some sort of impact. [Editor’s note, her website is amazing! Please see details below]

 

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A rare, sweet moment 😋

SS: What book are you currently reading or did you most recently finish? Would you recommend it?
AB: I’ve just started reading ‘Early Retirement Extreme’ by Jacob Lund Fisher. While I don’t really plan on retiring because I’m passionate about my work, I’m always looking to improve the way that I handle my money. So far I’m loving it because it’s not just a ‘how to’ guide with ‘hacks’, it’s way more philosophical and explores how we can shift our foundational attitudes to value creation. My opinion may change once I finish the book, but right now I think that it’s just what the doctor ordered. In his introduction, Fisher describes it as the following: “This book isn’t a travel journal, nor is it a set of map directions; it’s a book that teaches you to become a navigator”. Who wants to mindlessly follow a list when you can create your own well-informed journey?
SS: Who embodies style with substance for you? 
AB: Right now, it’s definitely Tracee Ellis Ross – her style only gets better with every year that goes by. Also, through social media she is really owning her own story, encouraging people to own their differences and speaking about issues which may have previously been taboo for celebrities. Best of all, she does it all in her funny, gracious and slightly eccentric Tracee way. It’s brilliant because it feels really authentic.

 

 

 

SS: What is one lesson that you’ve learnt this year?
AB: I’ve learned that even if you’re not seeing any progress, stick to your vision. When you feel ‘stuck’, take a step back and think, how can I change my attitude and perspective about this? I like to think that if I’m still in a certain position, there must be something beneficial that the universe wants me to learn or experience.

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SS: Do you have a favourite podcast?
AB: Podcasts are my thing right now, and I am loving Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed (the writer of Wild) and Steve Almond. Their discussions typically revolve around the nature of our relationships with our significant others, friends, families, ourselves and our work. I’ve shared it with a number of friends and the amount of crazy, deep conversations that come up as a result are unmatched. Thank you Sugars!

 

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SS: The first thing I do when I wake up is…
AB: My emails – usually looking for the latest Word for Today. I’m still working on building that perfect morning ritual, but now that I think about it, for at least the last 6 years reading my Word for Today has been pretty consistent.

 

SS: What is your guilty pleasure?
AB: Sweet and salty popcorn. Our bond is deep. [Ed note: Yup, the struggle is SO real!]
SS: If you could travel the world in a day, what pitstops would make and why?
AB: I’d try and go to at least one remote or coastal island off of every continent. Just to see what life is like there.
SS: Any final words of wisdom?
AB: “It’s worth the wait”. Life can be really frustrating sometimes, and rarely happens on the timing that we expect, so reminding myself of this keeps me sane.

 


 

Well, I think you’ll all agree with me that Abiola embodies the definition of style with substance, so honoured that she agreed to be our inaugural interviewee. Her inquisitive mind, generous spirit and simply her being I am personally grateful for, merci beaucoup Boo.

For more of Abiola’s beautiful thoughts please visit her blog Abiola.me and follow her (and a few besties’) foodie adventures on Instagram @galstronomy

Be The Change

Feature image: By Sharime, taken at Bali’s Tegalalang rice terrace in Ubud.

 

When I started becoming more aware of the issues with the current fashion cycle and the humanitarian and environmental tragedies it encompasses, one of my biggest mistakes was being worried that there was very little I could do to make a change in such a global, systemic problem that is entrenched within the business models of some of the world’s largest apparel companies. It’s one thought that held me back from starting a discourse about this to begin with as without a solution, being aware without being able to take action is painfully paralysing. I thought (incorrectly) that there was not really a palpable solution to such a grossly mismanaged problem. What I’ve realised via the passage of time, research and self-education is that it’s about being creative and changing your posture towards the issues at hand.

 

To be honest this applies to everything we face in our lives, and funnily enough it has always been one of my life’s mantras: it’s not what you wear; it’s how you wear it. This saying has encouraged me through dark seasons and beautiful periods alike, we are all dealt difficulty at some stage and the impact it has on us is relative, but ultimately “the tempered steel of virtue” (Romans 5) is wrought in the pressure and we can reap “beauty from ashes” (Isaiah 61). Anyway, back-tracking from that side note (oops) these are the issues that immediately came to mind upon realising the depth and breadth of fast fashion-specific problems:

 

1. The vast majority of the world cannot exist on a wardrobe of Stella McCartney (an amazingly ethical, sustainable and desirable brand), Chanel and Monique Péan alone (again, an amazing designer who uses fossils and the like to make some of the most unique/eye-wateringly expensive jewellery you’ve ever seen), though trust me I wish I could.

2. High-low dressing is seen as ‘cool’; even the people who can afford to fill their wardrobe with labels purely from the luxe end of the market often choose to mix high-street or vintage with high-end as it’s better to be a little bit down-to-earth and accessible (I say this all very much tongue-in-cheek).

3. When I think of “ethical fashion” I won’t lie, I still think of hemp, hippies and something rather puritanical, it doesn’t really seem like a sexy concept. There is nothing inherently wrong with hemp or hippies at all, it’s just on a personal level and speaking from the point of view of someone who very much lives and breathes fashion as an art form and a consumer, I desire more and I desire variety.

4. What the fast-fashion market provides is convenience, ease, affordability and a lot of the time clothes that look pretty darn good (at least on Instagram) even if not when you touch and feel them up close.

 

Addressing all of the above, I totally get what a lot of you might be thinking; though I don’t speak for everyone, the majority of my friends—girls and guys alike—think about what they wear, are interested in fashion and are also intelligent, empathetic and incredibly talented and driven individuals. Personally, whenever I get dressed for various occasions in life my mood and motivation varies, there are times when I want to feel sexy, occasions I want to feel empowered and in charge, others when I’m very happy to blend into the background and I value comfort over creative statements, times I embrace the uber-feminine and others where you wanna feel a bit badass (just me?). We are multi-faceted, complicated and creative people and these are the very reasons why fashion is such a powerful force of things. It is one of the most commodified forms of art and expression, a curious mixture of commerce and creativity. This psychology and power is why the action plan to tackle the aforementioned issues needs to be two-fold, both psychological and practical shifts are required.

 

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The Psychological Shift

Psychologically, we need to realise that to be honest, we don’t need so many things. We need to learn to treasure what we have if we don’t already, and one practical way of doing that is investing in our clothes, accessories et. al more. This can be literally, by saving up and buying lesser quantity but higher quality items which will last longer and be more likely to incite more usage, more maintenance and a lesser sense of disposability. For me, imbuing my clothes with stories to tell (more on that later) encourages me to shop less and remix more. Ultimately, the goal is to buy less at a much slower pace.

 

Even the more ethical luxury fashion industry has an extremely westernised (literally all the Big Four fashion weeks being based in the Western Hemisphere) business cycle which has shifted gears to a more frenetic pace. As recently as five years ago, most luxe brands only had biannual shows according to the seasons (Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer) whereas now, Cruise/Resort/Pre-Fall collections have made the cycle a four-show-seasons-per-year extravaganza. The funny thing is that people’s tastes and buying habits are what has informed that cycle (as well as the time needed for production) wealthy customers often went to resorts and on cruises/yachts during the period after the shows and when the clothes actually hit the shop floor and so were buying more during those ‘in-between’ periods for their holidays. Additionally, after living in the season-less heat and humidity of Southeast Asia for the last few years I can confirm the hilarity of a global industry still operating on these extremely Euro-centric principals; there is huge business opportunity for year-round summer wardrobes in SE Asia and most equatorial countries. The reason I provide this mini fashion history lesson is to prove that consumer tastes shape the industry, as ultimately it is a business that operates on the basic principle of supply and demand. As much as it requires creativity and beauty as the source, the Creative Director and CEO of a brand have a symbiotic relationship, one doesn’t eat without the other. Luxury fashion also always informs fast fashion, if you look at any high street store’s stock you will see questionably similar designs to Gucci, Céine and so on, and as luxury fashion has sped up its pace to accommodate consumer desire, fast-fashion has followed suit and become ever faster. Due to its high turnover rate from factory to shop floor, much lower quality of materials and workmanship, fast-fashion companies can replicate designs faster than designer brands can produce them (creating a lot of intellectual property issues, but that’s another blog in itself) and therefore the constant desire for new is ever-perpetuated.

 

Notably, ‘The Business of Fashion’ recently reported that many high street brands are already predicting profit losses during a usually bolstering festive period as mid-range brands that combine sustainability alongside profits as bottom lines for their business are taking market share from them. 18-35 year olds are some of the biggest spenders within and the target consumer in the fast-fashion market, due to income range and being the most engaged with a lot of social-media driven trends. We are also some of the most savvy and inquisitive consumers, having more access to information than ever before, so essentially we drive retail trends, rather than allowing them to drive us. Let’s never underestimate the power of influence, both personal and collective.

 

 

The Practical Shifts

I’m going to break this down into four main sections as personal style is by definition not one-size-fits-all, so here are some of the steps towards creating and investing in a new way of being in vogue that will hopefully work for a variety of people and tastes:

1. Maintenance and TLC
2. Rewear, reuse, recycle
3. Vintage, pre-loved and designer thrifting
4. Brands to believe in

 

Maintenance

I love what my good friend and former work-wife (sob) Cheng Jee Yan has to say on the matter: “Don’t let a price tag determine the worth of your clothing. It’s more about how these pieces can work for you in the long run.” She inspired me by telling me about the TLC she showers on her clothes no matter the price tag by hand-washing them; always looking for the slightly more expensive raw materials even when buying from a fast-fashion retailer (cotton percentage, silk, wool etc. as opposed to acrylic, polyester and viscose) and taking things to the local seamstress or tailor when they get a snag or hole rather than chucking them in the bin, recycling or sending them onto a charity shop. Maintenance is really the key, if you treasure that high street jumper as much as your designer coat, it can last as long. Going to your local tailor or cobbler and getting your shoes soled before they get worn down (especially if they’re leather soles, they will not last on the mean streets of any city as beautiful as they may look) and that snag repaired will cost you minimally but maximise the life span of your pieces. I know it can seem like a pain, but to be honest, there are many cheaper pieces in my wardrobe that I wish I maintained before they were beyond repair. Finding a replica piece that I like as much as that much-loved one can be pretty hard, and will cost more than it would have done to repair it, plus I have made good friends with my local seamstress and cobbler, so there’s an added relationship bonus too.

 

Rewear, reuse, recycle

Firstly, let’s lay down some hard truths, buying mindlessly and thinking it’s okay as you can just pass it on to your local charity shop when you’re bored with it/don’t have enough room in your closet for all your new things is a lie we’ve all been fed a little too long. In the UK alone—which is but a speck on the world map—the equivalent of 29,000 worth of London buses of good, wearable clothing goes to landfill each year. This is because the amount we donate to charity shops cannot often be moved on the shop floor, and can also end up being shipped en masse to LEDCs (less-economically developed countries) and negatively impact their internal tailoring and manufacturing industries and economic infrastructure.

 

Whilst shopping in charity shops is great and something I do enjoy (you’ve got to find the good ones) it isn’t the golden solution to the bigger problem and that’s something we should be aware of when we’re shopping. Stop and think to yourself, will I wear this enough to justify me buying it? For more expensive items, cost-per-wear calculation is useful to consider and will help you to invest wisely in more versatile pieces.

 

I’m not entirely sure if this is just my family, but we pass things down and around between us. I am in possession of all manner of good quality pieces that have found their new home from Canada, Malaysia and round the corner with my brothers and I. I inherited a whole host of amazing coats, bags and clothes from my mum that are timeless and due to the circular nature of trends, now somehow fresh again. You can apply this principle of re-wearing and re-gifting amongst your friends if your family are potentially (in your opinion) sartorially challenged, or participate in reselling on eBay and other higher end resale sites such as Vestiaire Collective.

 

 

Vintage and pre-loved

For me, buying vintage clothing is something I advocate and is almost second nature. I fell in love at 15, when a much cooler than me friend brought me along with him to the now well-known haunts of Spitalfields, Brick Lane etc. Beyond Retro on Cheshire Street remains a firm favourite, I remember thinking I must go there after hearing that my teen girl crush Rachel Bilson (these were The O.C days, the best) frequented there when she was in London. Now they’ve developed a second branch on Great Marlborough Street (much smaller and not as great but more central) and an e-commerce store. The online boutique is great, as to be honest one my major qualms with vintage shopping is that it requires time investment. Though that can be the funnest part of it when you’re in the mood with time to spare, if you need to find a unique outfit ASAP trekking and rummaging is not a plausible solution. Believe me I have been there, when you just need an outfit for a special occasion and you don’t have time to extensively source, hence why I am super happy about the outcrop of online vintage stores that have become more accessible (eBay, ASOS Marketplace, Peekaboo Vintage also have some good finds). Uniqueness is one of my favourite things about vintage, as particularly for special occasions, I hate the thought of turning up wearing the same thing as someone else, it actually strikes a little fear into my gut as melodramatic as that may seem, so this possibility is MUCH lessened by buying something which was first seen 25 or more years ago. Funnily enough a lot of my most memorable and special outfits have been from vintage stores, my 18th and 25th birthday outfits respectively, and I love the idea of giving something a new lease of life and imbuing it with a story to tell. Plus, when it fits just right, you feel like it was meant to be and the piece found you (yeah, I’m a romantic like that).

 

Another big plus of my fave, Beyond Retro, is that they have started their own line making really cool velvet backpacks, denim dungarees and more using scrap material from items that weren’t in sellable condition in their original form. I’d much rather spend my money on something I know has been sustainably sourced (and is just as affordable) than the newly made high street version of the same thing.

 

I am fully aware of what some people may be thinking, as I’ve had conversations with a few friends about this, vintage or pre-loved/second-hand or whatever you would like to call it, is just such a turn-off for some. Being Chinese, I completely get that cultural concerns can exist, as the thought of wearing someone else’s clothes can be a big hell-no due to superstition and stigma: “who knows what kind of life they lived/how they died?” and so on and so forth, so it’s a personal choice to know and decide what you’re comfortable with.

 

Some people also wonder about hygiene, which I do get, there are some vintage markets where you wander in and you can smell the must which is instantly off-putting. There are some plausible solutions, the designer vintage and pre-loved markets are sizable and definitely offer a more comfortable shopping experience. Having spoken to one of the founders of such a space in Singapore, she told me everything is stringently cleaned and certified, and that actually one of her biggest donors often dropped off completely unworn items (crazy) like Vuitton bags, de la Renta dresses and more that she had been given but didn’t like (another life truly) so they were essentially brand new. There are also some great mid-range spaces in the pre-loved market. Globally there will be different options, but a few I know are listed below.

 

Paris: Vestiaire Collective is an excellent reselling and and buying site, kind of like a high class eBay, they ship all over. Paris is also famous for its Marché aux Puces (flea markets), if they’re good enough for Iris Apfel they’re good enough for us all! A great one for fashion is in the 18th arrondissement at the base of the Sacre-Coeur, Marché Saint Pierre.

Singapore: The physical store vintage concept is largely undeveloped (partially due to how young the city is) but New2U near Bugis MRT is a great charity shop initiative to give back whilst you shop (they donate proceeds to the Star Shelter and other women’s initiatives), other good online spaces are ‘The Fifth Collection’ and Style Tribute (currently some amazing Armani and Givenchy jackets) who ship worldwide.

 

 

London: Recent discoveries include William Vintage (this is super luxe though, we’re talking Chanel evening dresses), The Dresser just off Connaught Street (near Marble Arch) for second hand designer and mid-range (so good, check out their website here). Also, if you’re looking for higher end options and want to give back simultaneously, head to an affluent area e.g. Kensington High Street, Fulham Broadway or even Parson’s Green (I’ve spotted some amazing pieces near there en route to visit my grandad) and take a look inside their charity shops, you can find some amazing and luxe treasures at Oxfam, Barnados and Farah!

One final issue with shopping vintage can be sizing, not that I really go looking for vintage shoes, but the average shoe size they sell is UK4 and sometimes pieces can be on the smaller side. In this case it’s better to scour higher end shops which for some reason, tend to have a better range of sizing. Side note: I did once buy a pair of never-before-worn boots that I LOVE from a mid-range, pre-loved store in Paris that were exactly my size—it was a serendipitous moment—I’ve been trying to remember/Google the name of this great place but so far it has eluded me! I’ll update when I remember as there were a lot of seriously beautiful things in there.

 

Brands to believe in

Rather than naming and shaming brands to avoid, I’ve decided to focus on the positive brands that are built on the foundation of transparent supply chains, ethical working conditions and environmentally sustainable principles. I’ll leave the luxe and contemporary labels for another day, for now here are good mid-range brands to invest in:

 

 

Reformation: They have really cool, very on-trend pieces that have a celebrity following, if you like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Rihanna (on a more demure day) etc’s style, you’ll find something to shop here. I love the story of the founder, Yael Aflalo as well, she actually founded her first business and used a completely fast-fashion structure, outsourcing labour to factories in China. It was only when she went in person to visit the factories where her clothes were being made that she shuttered the brand and decided that there must be a better way to do business, that has manifested in the incredible Reformation. They even have a RefScale that tracks the impact each garment has on the environment in terms of water, carbon dioxide and fabric savings that can be reused. They currently have a pop-up store in London if you’re in town (the company is based in LA but ships internationally)! It’s really gorgeous and well worth a visit: 61 Monmouth Street in Covent Garden, open until the end of December 2016.

Shop and read more here.

 

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Everlane: For excellent, high quality basics in all colours see Everlane. They are transparent with their supply chain, profiling the companies they use all over the world to produce their clothes and challenging their customers to know their factories, know the costs that go into making and marketing clothes and to always ask why.

 

 

Zady: I love tailoring and pieces which are versatile for work and play, Zady provides this! They champion conscious consumerism and are part of the #30wears movement founded by Livia Firth, which challenges you to wear pieces of clothing that you buy and already own at least 30 times. Apparently the average piece of clothing bought these days is only worn 7 times (!) before being discarded or given away.

 

 

PeopleTree: It’s not the most cutting edge design wise, but PeopleTree is a stalwart British brand for ethical and sustainable pieces. They have really good quality knitwear and pretty handmade jewellery which is great for gifting. The founder, Safia Minney is one of the pioneers of the sustainable fashion movement and an all round inspirational woman.

 

 

Grana: I discovered this brand in Singapore, where they had just started shipping to at the time (the company was strategically founded in Hong Kong as they have one of the most accessible ports for shipping and fabric trade). They make really beautiful silk shirts, cashmere pieces and other essentials, really good for work wear! They’re super picky about fabric and quality but still manage to keep the prices affordable, a lot of the time, having an online-only business model is key for this, as brick-and-mortar retail space is what raises margins dramatically.

In weeks to come, I’ll be expanding into more specific verticals for ethical jewellery brands, shoe companies and maybe even a little gift guide. I would really love to hear of any other ethically-propelled, mid-range labels you know of though! So please do share any you know and love!

In great news, I discovered that after ‘The True Cost’ came out last year, so many were affected by Shima Aktar’s story that the director initiated an appeal to raise enough money to put her daughter through school. Beautifully, they managed to (otherwise I would have put the link to donate here) and now her daughter has a chance she may never have had without collective help. Proof once again that we can affect change, even if it may seem like a small drop in the ocean.

Recently I donated to ‘The Fashion Revolution’ which I mentioned in my last piece, it advocates for workers’ rights, greater supply chain transparency and for brands to tell consumers where and who made their clothes. They have just launched their first ever magazine of which the proceeds go back into their work, for more information and to purchase, see here.

Till next time,

Jenn x

Our Chosen Skin

Feature image: Bill Brandt photography, 1959

Something has been weighing heavy on my heart of late.

It’s been brewing for a few years now, though to honest, it shames me to say that it’s something I’ve only become more actively conscious about recently. However, it is most definitely a case of better late than never. Before I begin to elucidate, I want to frame this in reality, what I’m about to highlight is a grave humanitarian issue. The issue is within the framework of the fashion industry, or more specifically the garment-making industry. Yet please don’t be turned off or fooled into thinking this is only a problem “fashion folk” should be aware of and actively trying to change. Unfortunately, most of us who have purchasing power and agency in deciding what clothes we put on our back, whether it be in a physical store or in the comfort of our sweats whilst on our laptops, have bought into a dangerous facade that “fast fashion” companies in particular are taking advantage of.

 

Those of you with access to a Netflix subscription, I strongly urge you to watch ‘The True Cost’ which is a wide-spanning, docu-film about much of what this post touches upon. The issues are vast and encompass so many areas, communities and aspects of the supply chain, so in order to not depress and overwhelm you entirely, I am going to try and distill some the major issues into key points.

 

If we go back to basics, clothing is really—as Orsola de Castro so aptly puts it—“our chosen skin”. I love that phrase, as it highlights how incredibly intimate our relationship with the fabric we drape over our bodies really is. Let’s rewind to the 1960s, when in the US alone (which is one of the most vastly consumer-led nations in the world) 95% of clothes bought in the USA were also made in the USA. Fast forward to 2016 and whilst inflation continues to raise the retail price of clothing, the vast majority of production and manufacturing for high street brands has been more cheaply outsourced to countries such as Bangladesh and China where wages are not enough for local citizens to live on, working conditions are inhumane and the overall quality of clothing has decreased rapidly as a result of larger and larger orders being required within increasingly shorter deadlines. I only have to look at clothes from my mum’s wardrobe to realise the vast discrepancy between quality and price from the high street equivalent brands of her day (which are still in impeccable condition and were made locally) to my Zara turtleneck which began to unravel at the neckline within a few months of purchase. This is in no way a reflection of the countries in which these clothes are made in and of themselves – I know firsthand that workmanship in India and Indonesia can be as impeccable as leatherwork from the tanneries of Italy – the issue lies in the speed, vastly widened profit margins and interests of big businesses maligning production costs (synthetic materials are significantly cheaper than natural fibres), high volume of production and paying minimal regard to safety measures in the factories in which said clothes are being produced. The evidence and resources supporting these claims are so vast and alas this is not a thesis, but if you are interested in seeing my sources please see more at the end of this post.

 

What is the true cost of that T-shirt, even if it’s not cheap; where are those tremendous profit margins being reaped and what are they sowing?

One of the most shocking and sickening manifestations of the result of this toxic supply chain that many household names are unfortunately a part of was the disaster that occurred at the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh back in 2013. An 8-storey building housing garment factories collapsed, crushing and killing 1,130 people in all of 90 seconds. The most depressing aspect of this senseless tragedy is that the cracks in the building were obvious to all months prior, including the factory owners (38 of whom have been formally charged with murder) and yet no executive decision had been made to close the factory as the consensus was that they couldn’t afford to be out of business for the duration of repair work or whilst sourcing a new space to work. This pressure came from the executives placing mass orders for clothing at an increasingly breakneck speed from well known international conglomerates (Inditex owner of Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti etc., Primark, Benneton, J.C Penney to name but a few) and the threat that if the chosen factory doesn’t produce the work, they are dispensable and the brand will find a cheaper manufacturer, willing to do the work for less either in another country, or a direct internal competitor. As someone who works in the fashion industry, and knows full well the amount of excess and commercial viability the industry possesses, these realities are heartbreaking and the reasoning behind them unconvincing. There is a better way of doing business and I am optimistic that the majority of my friends and family would not feel comfortable purchasing clothing which has been made with literal blood, sweat and generational tears behind it. As much as I like scoring a bargain as much as the next person, the human cost behind that £20 dress more than justifies me not buying into such a toxic business model anymore.

 

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Image via Reformation: a mid-range and pretty chic clothing brand founded upon principles of environmental, ethical and aesthetic goodness

For some commercial perspective, the fashion industry is currently worth 3 trillion dollars globally. Marketing is a very powerful thing, especially in fashion where aesthetics are at the forefront of everything no matter the price point. It is fantasy in many ways but at no juncture should fantasy come at the cost of human dignity, life and basic rights. The entire industry thrives on fantasy and beauty from high street to haute couture yet the vast difference between the two ends of the spectrum is that one pays fair wages to employees in their ateliers and has a much more transparent supply chain (though the environmental cost is still an issue) whilst the other thrives on consumer ignorance, murky practices in countries where they treat workers as sub-human and relies upon each buyer to keep voting with their wallet to maintain these practices and uphold them as acceptable. Here are some facts to put things in perspective on a global scale and proving that this is far from an esoteric issue:

 

– 1 in 6 people in the world currently work within the fashion industry
– 85% of people working in the garment-making sector of the industry are women and a vast majority of them have experienced physical and verbal abuse when trying to lobby for fairer working conditions or form unions
– There are 36 million garment factory workers in the world
– The fashion industry is the most labour-dependent industry in the world, essentially, if these workers were not producing clothes en masse for us to buy in H&M, Topshop and so on, those employed in more developed countries would be out of jobs, the boardroom would be making a lot less and overall profits would slump
– Just behind the oil industry, fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world (this one floored me in particular)

 

We all have agency when it comes to our chosen skin. The vast majority of those reading this will actively choose and decide what we clothe our bodies in. This isn’t in any way a lecture, we are all to varying extents unaware and uneducated regarding these issues. There are arguments and sources which try to push forward the idea that ultimately these jobs within sweatshops are better than no jobs at all and that big companies are providing an economic boost to developing countries. These points have elements of truth, but the whole story is that a fairer, living standard wage can and should be given to employees of any company, no matter the economic climate of the country in question and that human rights should never be compromised. Said companies that are making humongous profit margins are squeezing pennies and cents from the wages and making health and safety compromises which negatively impact those in the most vulnerable position in the supply chain.

 

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Shima and her daughter Nadia on ‘The True Cost’

 

One story featured on ‘The True Cost’ which really affected me was that of a 23 year old Bangladeshi woman named Shima Aktar. The film came out in 2015, so at the time there was but a year between us in age which made her story particularly poignant for me, she was a mother who only got to see her daughter twice a year as she worked in one of Dhaka’s garment factories (an unsafe place to be with a child due to the crazy heat and chemicals inside and she also had no one to look after her child when she was working in the city). She made the difficult choice to leave her daughter with her family back in her home village for the majority of the year, only getting to see her when she can afford to. She spoke about how she hoped for a better life for her daughter, one where her blood was not used for the profit of others and where she would be able to be educated in order to break out of the life cycle of poverty which she was born into; she had been so dignified and eloquent throughout the entirety of the documentary but at this point her voice broke and she was crying for her daughter’s destiny. Unfortunately without being paid a decent living wage, saving enough to give her daughter what she needs for a better life is almost an impossibility. Her story was not an anomaly but a norm for the women who make up the majority of the garment-making workforce. As a human, as a woman, as a feminist—these realities deeply depress me.

 

We cannot justify pure economic gain at the expense of human life and being complicit in modern day slavery.

Another devastating account was that of a local doctor in Kanpur in north India where the demand for cheap leather production has polluted the river Ganges to a fatal extent. The chemicals used to make leather were not being disposed of properly (cleaning water can be expensive and the equipment needed to do so had not been invested in by the companies commissioning the production of the leather) so they were running into the river that the surrounding community uses for agricultural purposes, to bathe and even to drink from. The doctor noted that the amount of skin diseases and illnesses related to the polluted water had risen dramatically and that many people were using their savings on medicine to treat diseases that were a direct result of the pollution. The question to ask is at what cost do we buy things cheaply? Ultimately, human economy is linked to that of the earth, especially in an industry that relies on physical resources. The A21 campaign, an anti-human trafficking charity founded by the amazing Christine Caine fights against modern day slavery (which is more prevalent now than any other time in human history, a shocking fact in itself); the fast-fashion sector of the industry is also a purveyor of modern day slavery and it is up to us whether we participate in its growth or revolution.

 

Disconcertingly, sometimes governments of the countries where cheap apparel production is prevalent are involved with maintaining low wages for the factory workers as they are desperate for the business of MNCs. One incident in Cambodia involving a peaceful protest for a monthly living wage equivalent to $160 USD (a standard set by the Cambodian government themselves) resulted in authorities inflicting violent treatment on the protestors and the loss of five lives. The reason governments sometimes actively work against the interests of their own citizens is that the threat of MNCs moving their business elsewhere is breathing down their necks and therefore in the toss up between overall economic growth and the livelihoods of female labourers, capital wins out over humanity. This is not a criticism of aforementioned governments but more a reflection on taking note of what we are governed by; let’s all reflect a little bit more, know the alternatives and question our own motives before buying into a system and companies that do not uphold or work for the good of what we value.

 

Think twice, be more curious, be more conscious.

On a personal level, I have made a decision not to invest my money or lend support to companies that make profit off the back of cheap female labour. I will not pretend that it will be without challenge, but I equally cannot be a proud part of a global sisterhood and call myself a feminist without following through with my actions. I may now live in London, but Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and China are not geographically far from Malaysia and Singapore where I just spent the last few years of my life. We are all neighbours and it’s a realisation that these issues are not far removed or an impossibility to combat that fuels the battle for change. The problem is great and the field is vast, however I do believe that we can all be the change we hope for. I love what Livia Firth, founder of Eco-Age and The Green Carpet Challenge (and yes, wife of Colin Firth) has to say about the matter: that we must be the architecture of the change we dream about. Change in reality begins with a psychological shift, being motivated by guilt is nowhere near as powerful or productive as being motivated by awareness and the realisation that we are empowered to vote with our wallets. Fashion is an art form and involves creative work, it should not incite life-threatening labour or desensitise us to human life being lost in the course of a working day (a recent fatal fire in an Indian garment factory reiterates the reality that these tragedies are not unusual). We can all be involved in asking questions of the brands we have bought into and ultimately as consumers we are the fuel the industry needs to continue to flourish, the power is very much in our hands. Myself and some good girlfriends have been thinking about what it means to be found in our field of life, our sphere of influence recently, and it has made me mediate more deeply on what we as individuals are sowing into literally with the money we spend, and in turn who/which companies and at what cost are those inordinate profit margins being reaped? On that note, the next chapter shall be about the positive steps and alternative companies, business models and psychology of consumption that we can be invested in.

 

For now, I’ll leave you with resources and companies that inspire and educate me on a daily basis! Let’s think twice, be more conscious and stay curious about where we invest ourselves, our time and so on.

All love, always

Jenn xxx

 

I love the Instagram account @fash_rev for illuminating the human face behind the brands that make our clothes. They get followers to ask #WhoMadeMyClothes? To make companies be more accountable and spotlight the hands behind your wardrobe.

The Fashion Revolution’s white paper is key (though lengthy) for those interested in the mechanics and factual evidence behind this post: http://fashionrevolution.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/FashRev_Whitepaper_Dec2015_screen.pdf

The True Cost documentary site (available to watch on Netflix): http://truecostmovie.com/

“The True Cost” on Netflix
https://www.netflix.com/title/80045667?s=i

Reporting on the Rana Plaza disaster: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/apr/23/rana-plaza-factory-collapse-history-cities-50-buildings

Forbes piece highlighting the companies involved in the Rana Plaza case: https://goo.gl/ZOs1JS and follow-up on companies that donated compensation to the affected families: https://cleanclothes.org/safety/ranaplaza/who-needs-to-pay-up

South China Morning Post report on the state of garment factory wages: http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1970431/true-cost-your-cheap-clothes-slave-wages-bangladesh-factory

Reporting on the Cambodian factory workers strike: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/11/cambodian-garment-workers-rise-up-and-face-a-crackdown.html

Global fashion industry stats: https://fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics

Story Time: The Python Skin Bag

Let me tell you a story…


Most of us like stories. Personally, I love them, they give people, places and posessions context; they dig a little deeper, open up new worlds and give you a chance to learn and experience the richness that makes up the intricately interwoven tapestry that is our lives. Some people are enraptured by history, others love movies, all of these essentially encompass stories, be they fictional or not. This story takes us from Lagos, to London, onto Rajasthan in India, a quick pitstop at Warwick university (love you alma mater) and then to Kuala Lumpur, not necessarily in that order and with a few return trips in between. The everyday stories I enjoy encountering are often heard and told through objects. This isn’t a story about materialism, in fact the object itself is immaterial, it merely acts as a portal to the opening chapter that hooks you in.

This story takes us from Lagos, to London, onto Rajasthan in India, a quick pitstop at Warwick university (love you alma mater) and then to Kuala Lumpur, not necessarily in that order and with a few return trips in between.

This tale concerns a python skin bag. Said bag, amongst a few others from the same collection, had been gifted to my late-mother by her sister back in the 70s. My mum had used one of these bags till the bitter end (like mother, like daughter) as evidenced by the much-loved, battered beauty I found in her wardrobe one day (this hoarding behaviour is unfortunately a Chong family trait, sigh).

Myself, many decades later, discovered this collection and immediately fell in love with its timelessness, its versatility, its oblique quality, the mere fact that many of these bags were in pristine condition after close to 40 years spoke to that. I love that in the same way that my mum had worn and loved and woven that battered bag into her life, I was now giving them a new lease of life, incorporating them into my everyday, carting around my essentials, giving them a tale or many to tell.

This bag has come everywhere with me: from my first internship with a legendary shoe couturier who educated me on their value and was hilariously shocked at my 17-year old self nonchalantly swinging it around on the tube,  to more places a python skin bag should probably never go (namely my university student club, the opposite of sophistication, eek)!

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Bedtime at the wedding in India on the last night of celebrations. Each night we would come home to a beautiful present from our hosts, the cutest!

In the midst of this small little bag traversing continents and clubs it began to accumlate stories and start conversations that wove people together within the fabric of life’s ebb and flow. I was in India for a wedding and travelling with one of my best friends when our guide took us to an incredible pashmina shop containing every colour, texture and style imaginable.

The owner knew his stuff and taught us about the craft and composition of an authentic, well made pashmina, which of course, the fashion-geek in me was absolutely loving. Suddenly he noticed the little python skin bag I was carrying and conversation turned to its origins and craftsmanship. Having found mutual bonding ground (namely our obsesssion for fabric, materials etc.) we started having a real conversation which went beyond small talk. It was amazing to be able to bond with this lovely Kashmiri guy, sipping chai tea in the Northern region of India. He opened up to us about the long distance relationship he was in with his fiancé who was still living in Kashmir which then led us to speak about all the apps anyone with a smartphone in a long distance relationship knows all too well! It was so funny to find intimate talking points with someone who had relatable experiences from a completely different walk of life (I was also in an LDR at the time). The bag had bridged the conversation, one of many it had started over the course of our adventures together.

Every colour, texture and style imaginable…

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The colours of our hotel wardrobe in Udaipur: borrowed, pre-loved, scoured from a vintage store rail and kindly donated by dear friends and family.

Fast forward to one summer later and a full circle incident occurred when I was in Malaysia with some of my family. It was back in Kuala Lumpur eating mangosteens around my auntie’s kitchen table when the bag was finally seen again by its gifter. This was the same aunt who had bought the bags for my mum back in the 70s, and they originated from Lagos, Nigeria where she and her family were living and working at the time. She laughed as she recognised the bag which had literally crossed continents and decades to reach that moment resting on her kitchen table and I guess could only have imagined the path it must have taken to get there. Its prescence opened up conversations about life in Lagos, my cousin’s childhood as they then moved to Hong Kong and their eventual settling back in Kuala Lumpur. Who would have known that so much history, love, movement and family intricacies could be contained within this small, crossbody bag? All these stories provoked by that one object, crafted with care and attention.

Through a nostalgic lens, that coat you love, the bracelet you inherited from your grandmother, the shoes you wore on your 21st birthday are not just objects, they contain life. To get a little philosophical (literally) Heidegger wrote about the ‘fourfold’ and how objects can often contain mini worlds and microcosmic universes as when you use something manmade you imbue it with life. The perfect balance of dwelling within the fourfold which refers to the earth, the sky (the beyond or the future), mortals and the divinities is found by being aware of all four; in other words the past and present, the future, our humanity and finally the divine, whatever that may mean to you. Treasuring craft, provoking memory and encompassing both the living and eternal is what that python skin bag did (and may continue to do if I pass it onto my unborn daughter)!

If this story was to have a moral, which it doesn’t need to have, it would be to invest wisely. In this day and age, not many items that we buy would be able to tell a story four decades later and beyond. So maybe this story is in some ways about anti-materialism, slow fashion (as opposed to fast) and how something can only tell a story if it was made to last and withstand the passage of time. Heirloom items and generational dressing inherently require excellent quality. More on this in chapter two…

Bisous for now,

Jenn x

 

 

P.S: I am not an advocate for the use of exotic skins in fashion, however my brief philosophy with vintage fur/skins is that if they’re not being used in the modern day then any suffering was entirely futile.