Love handmade jewellery? Shop and do good at online store Boheme Style Nomads, a local jewellery brand and social enterprise that helps single mums in Singapore. We chat with the inspiring co-founder and senior fashion lecturer ANISA SIA JOHNNY to find out her story behind the business. Psst… Read till the end for an exclusive discount code!
Tell us about Boheme Style Nomads. How did it all start?
It’s an amazing story of serendipity. In the late 90s, I ran a fashion brand in the UK, launching off-schedule at London Fashion Week. My then co-founder and I were on a mission to change the perception of African wax cotton – we were one of the first to show it on a catwalk. We parted ways but I continued a new brand that was so successful I ended up producing merchandise for a huge international show (Africa Remix), did consulting for Topshop and supplied stores all around Europe.
By 2005, I was burnt out. I’d seen the effects of high-volume production in China and I knew something was wrong when I inspected my biggest order of 25,000 pieces. The chemical smell from the newly printed cotton garments shocked me and the look on the faces of those young girls, who must have pulled an all-night shift to complete the order, will stay with me forever.
Not long after, a friend invited me to a talk at the Ethical Fashion Forum, an organisation promoting sustainability in the fashion industry. I went along thinking I would meet a bunch of tree-huggers but my blood ran cold when a speaker mentioned that 150,000 people die from pesticide-related diseases annually, many of whom are cotton pickers from sub-Saharan Africa.
After doing more research, I could no longer ignore that my African-inspired brand was contributing to deaths around the world, including Africa. I folded the brand not long after and left the industry. At the back of my mind I thought that if I ever got back into fashion it would be to support communities, not harm them.
Fast forward to 2012, I’m in Singapore working as a Fashion Marketing and Management lecturer while volunteering with a social enterprise helping single mums. I saw an advertisement for a Hackathon run by The Arthur Guinness Fund from the UK looking to set up a social enterprise in Singapore. The task was to come up with an idea to help single mums in Singapore. So, together with five other individuals, we worked on a rough idea to train single mums to make jewellery, which is easy enough to do from home.
Amazingly, out of 11 groups that competed, we were awarded the prize money to start the social enterprise. Three of us went on to form the business and register as Design Up Asia (a funny name we came up with from the hackathon), and two co-founders remained. In 2017, we re-branded as Boheme Style Nomads. Since then, we’ve trained over 50 women!
What were some of the challenges you had to overcome?
As a social enterprise you have a committee to answer to and budgets are tight. Most of the women we work with are committed and efficient since they’ve been with us for a while. However, at the beginning, we occasionally had to deal with beneficiaries with a lot of social and emotional issues. That had resulted in problems, such as large orders not being fulfilled at the last minute. The women we work with now are reliable and extremely diligent. Over the years, we’ve found different ways to support them. For example, we’ve hosted jewellery parties to turn around a big order – because having a meet-up and a good chat is fun and makes the work easier.
We sometimes get asked to feature more of the women. While this can be great for marketing, we also understand the need to be sensitive. If a Family Services Centre (FSC) recommends someone to us, we do not draw attention to any issues of marginalisation. We try to minimise dragging them around on promotional junkets, both online and offline. It’s important to consider the social stigma about single mums in Singapore and think about how anyone would feel if their status was constantly referred to.
Who designs and makes the jewellery?
At the beginning, we had wonderful ladies volunteering their time to help with the designs. Now I oversee them. I make the first sample, and then train the mums we work with. These days, some of them are so adept that it’s a collaborative process where I suggest the inspiration for the collection and they make changes accordingly.
How is the brand sustainable and ethical in its production process?
We fulfil the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 1: to end poverty. We support women who find it hard to find work as single mums. These women receive 40 percent of the proceeds and we keep our margins low. All profits are then put back into the business. The two co-founders of the brand, Ms Kim Ong and myself, are volunteers; we’ve never paid ourselves.
We source most of our materials from overseas. So far, we’ve found that the best quality-to-price picks are gold-plated 14k to 24k findings with natural stones. We also use semi-precious stones like coral, jet, mother-of-pearl and fresh water pearls. We trial all the samples and most last for years. We have customers who still have pieces from 2012, which can’t be said of most fast fashion pieces that you throw
away after a year.
How often are new collections released?
Creating new collections is a challenge since we are a slow fashion brand and we don’t want to encourage consumers to “chase the new”. We also source many of our materials from Turkey, which take time to get to Singapore. At present, we launch two to three collections per year.
How can I help?
Firstly, support our single mums by buying! Many local brands like Boheme Style Nomads are suffering during this global pandemic, so every purchase helps.
We’re hoping to create meaningful work for more people and that means scaling up. You can volunteer your specific skills in your area of interest, such as design work, marketing, finance or even helping out at events.
We’ve seen how the community helps to incubate and birth great ideas. One of our single mums has set up her own jewellery stall, and another has trained to become a chef after gaining back her confidence. In the group we’re all equals with a task to perform. There’s no difference between volunteer, founder and single mum. If that resonates with you, please get in touch!
Use the code EXPATLIVINGSOCIAL to enjoy 20 percent off all jewellery!
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