Many of us think about where our food comes from and how it gets to our table. Food packaging lists the name of the farm or factory of origin and provides a detailed list of ingredients so that consumers can make informed purchases. But what about the clothes we wear? Ever stop to think about the origins of the fabric, the methods used to dye it or who stitched it together?
Know Who, Know How. It’s a simple but lofty mission for the owners of WHOW, a new line of ethically produced handmade textiles in Mandalay. They create beautiful scarves, cushion covers, and other items crafted in locally-owned workshops and made from locally grown cotton. These textiles have a story to tell and WHOW aims to share that story with the world.
For Nina Frambach and Daniel Astbury, the company’s founders, setting up WHOW was a chance to fulfill a longstanding goal. The two had lived in Africa and Asia, working on various projects while dreaming of ultimately setting up a social business. It was on a holiday to Myanmar where everything clicked into place. ‘We saw so much potential. Everywhere we looked, we saw traditional fabrics and the skill used to produce them. As well, the creativity amongst the locals was striking compared to what we experienced in other countries’, Nina remarked.
The couple relocated to Mandalay in 2017 and, shortly thereafter, met Kaw and Htet. The four became great friends and together embarked on the journey that eventually became WHOW. From the start, the goal was to shine the spotlight on local producers. Rather than creating propaganda aimed at selling products, they planned to use marketing as a force for good.
The early days of WHOW were spent forging relationships in the supply chain. They met with farmers to learn about different strains of organic cotton. They sat alongside weavers at their looms, discovering traditional techniques handed down from generation to generation. And they got their hands dirty- literally- at dying workshops, studying how natural elements could transform fabrics to rich hues.
‘In most cases, we came across our producers by chance, driving or cycling around and asking anyone with a loom or sewing machine where we could make our products and see if there was a connection’, Nina explains. Their patience paid off and WHOW soon had a team of passionate suppliers who were eager to share their trade and traditional techniques with those who appreciated it.
This shared desire to share the story of people and process has created a culture of collaboration at WHOW. The result of the mutual respect and desire to learn, Daniel says, gives more creativity to the production process: ‘Our designs are collaborations between us and our producers. The traditional weaving patterns are original designs, which we try to combine with some western influences.’
The product line debuted in November 2019 and features scarves, cushion covers and jackets as well as aprons and tote bags. All are handwoven from locally grown cotton, with a large percentage being organic, and naturally dyed with non-toxic materials. The reception and feedback have been positive, with both locals and foreign expats snapping up the first WHOW items.
To help spread the WHOW message, each product comes with a card explaining ‘who’ and ‘how’ behind the creation of the item. On the company’s website (www.whow.me) the stories are also beautifully chronicled, providing further insight into the production and the passionate people involved.
Getting the products out to market and having positive feedback has been a rewarding experience for the entire WHOW team. It has been a long process and, as with many new businesses, Nina and Daniel faced many hiccups and delays along the way. But they also had some strokes of luck, such as meeting Nyein, a university student who was hired as a translator for site visits. He quickly became a de facto spokesperson for WHOW, embracing the ethos of the company and using it to help build more in-depth relationships with suppliers.
This experience reinforced the couple’s belief that communication is key when doing social business. ‘The biggest lesson we learned thus far’, remarked Daniel,’ is do not try to rush production or communication, you will only end up with more work. Expect things to work differently yet simple. Having this outlook is beneficial not just for business, but also for personal growth.’
As the business grows, WHOW wants to ensure its suppliers also benefit. In addition to the fair wages and fair treatment practices, WHOW also reinvests 10% of sales into the production chain to ensure everyone involved benefits from the sale of products. The money is given with no strings attached because, as Daniel explains, ‘We believe empowerment is letting people decide for themselves what the causes are worth investing within the given context.’
So, what’s next for WHOW? New collaborations are in process and increasing production is the natural step forward but the founders are still placing quality over quantity. ‘WHOW is and should remain a creative social business where relationships are paramount’, Nina explains. ‘Of course, we want to grow and establish more connections with local businesses, but our aim is to ensure within this growth we stay true to our ethos.’
If you’d like to Know Who, Know How then check out www.whow.me.