When Style Meets Substance
The Importance of Provenance in Business
Length 30:45 minutes
Date Published 23rd September
Podcast: Why provenance matters
Length 30:45 minutes
Date Published 23rd September
Why does provenance matter? We meet entrepreneurs from the US to Serbia via Russia, Brazil and beyond to assess the importance of story-telling in buoying brands, and the value of understanding the origins of the products we surround ourselves with. The second in Monocle 24's series of podcasts for Unlimited – a new forum powered by UBS – that challenges the notions of wealth, ownership, luxury and legacy.
Where was it made? And who by?
The rampant rise of globalisation has made these questions both more difficult to answer and more pertinent than ever before. As supply chains have become increasingly convoluted and opaque, we as consumers have lost sight of the production process and become detached from the makers of the goods we consume.
All that is changing. The notion of provenance is gaining currency: what used to be a fringe concern is now more mainstream as we become more conscious consumers. As Steve New, an academic at the Saïd Business School in Oxford says, “To make sense of our lives, to be human beings in the 21st century, we need to understand more about the origins of the things we enjoy – it’s a crucial part of life.”
In this feature we visit three businesses – in Malaysia, Mexico and Ayrshire in Scotland – that are redefining the way in which products can be made. These ventures are placing greater emphasis on the notion of provenance and tapping into a customer base that is calling out for authenticity, a connection to makers and a narrative behind their purchases – and crucially, it’s a base willing to pay a premium if a brand or product meets these requirements.
This shouldn’t be seen as some kind of Luddites’ revolt against the advances of the modern globalised world. As we see in our Q&A with Jessi Baker, founder of Provenance, technology is leading the way when it comes to enabling the transparency of supply chains and the increased status given to provenance. The exciting truth that emerges is that a more connected and data-driven world can also be one that cares more about fair and high-quality production.
When long-time friends Farah Azizan and Adela Askandar founded Kuala Lumpur-based architecture practice Studio Bikin four years ago they distinguished themselves by focusing on provenance. “It’s context, essentially,” says Azizan. “When we design for architecture, regardless of style or trend, being site-specific is the most important thing.” So when the pair was confronted by a dearth of well-designed, contemporary “Made in Malaysia” furnishings for clients (and a glut of generic Scandinavian-style replicas), they felt compelled to try it themselves. What began as a hobby for Azizan soon became a serious part of the business. They refined her prototypes and used the pieces to furnish restaurants and cafés. “That gave birth to our first range of furniture,” says Azizan.
The same philosophy that underpins the architecture practice now applies to the Kedai Bikin furniture brand. Their designs rely upon materials that are familiar to all Malaysians: rattan and rubber. “These are things that we have always lived with,” says Azizan. “Rattan in particular is special to this part of Asia; it’s where it comes from.” The Mr Gould chair, perhaps the best example of their work, is a pared-back and contemporary lounge chair with a frame made from bent solid-steel bars and a seat of woven rattan.
One of the aims of Kedai Bikin’s work with indigenous materials is to support traditional Malaysian craftsmanship. The studio collaborates with a community of craftspeople, ranging from housewives in northern Kota Bahru who weave silk-cotton upholstery to a social-outreach programme on Malaysia’s island of Penang that produces quality loungers, tables and home accessories.
Some of these partnerships have taken time to develop. Azizan notes that Malaysia’s billion-dollar rattan-furniture industry is still dominated by a conservative generation reluctant to budge from old-fashion blueprints that have been handed down over the decades. She and Askandar had to persuade makers to believe in their dream of a global revival of rattan in contemporary furniture design.
One convert to the cause is 65-year-old rattan-weaver Chong Yon Yam. His four-man team takes days to complete the two types of weave – tofu and pulut – that are used for the studio’s Mr Gould and Merdeka chairs. “There are three parts to it,” says Chong. “One man makes the frame, two others the weaving and the fourth finishes with varnishing.” He uses natural rattan that is collected, washed and dried by the orang asli (indigenous people) of eastern-state Pahang.
It’s this kind of time-honoured skill that Kedai Bikin aims to preserve. From its showroom in Kuala Lumpur it’s also attempting to instil a sense of pride in Malaysians for the nation’s craftspeople, natural resources and design heritage. “We’re teaching Malaysians to appreciate and value local design and showing that we have a design presence to support here,” says Azizan.
Kedai Bikin’s use of materials and techniques rooted
in the region’s history demonstrates that the local and unique are often more meaningful than the imported and replicable. With a loyal following of buyers across Southeast Asia, from Thailand to Indonesia, the studio’s story proves how big the market is for contemporary products that preserve craft heritage.
“It can be a typical Scottish trait to be a bit too modest, have a bit too much humility and be a bit too silent,” says Ian Laird in a broad Scottish accent. It was this reticence that he and his team had to get over when they decided to establish cashmere brand Begg & Co in the town of Ayr, 50km south of Glasgow, back in 2012.
The brand’s umbrella company, Alex Begg, has been around for 150 years and established itself – at least among the clothing industry’s true cognoscenti – as one of the best producers of cashmere in the world. For years it operated on a business-to-business model, making scarves and throws designed for global luxury brands that would slap their label on the products before selling them via their own channels. “We saw there was an opening for a Scottish brand to do a contemporary take on traditional craftsmanship,” says Ann Ryley, head of sales and marketing.
In a commercial world where history sells and heritage is often fabricated to appeal to a particular clientele, Begg & Co has succeeded by avoiding marketing clichés. “I think consumers are fed up with people portraying a product in a particular way because it seems like a nice concept. What they want to see is authenticity,” says Laird. “We didn’t start with the marketing idea; we started with the fundamental truths about the business and then said, ‘OK, if that’s what we’ve got, who is a relevant audience?’”
That audience has pricked its ears. Begg & Co’s scarves and throws, designed and produced in Scotland, are available in major retailers around the world, from Isetan in Tokyo to Bergdorf Goodman in New York. The brand’s customers may not come from any one country or culture but what unites them is a desire for a high-quality product that has a rich narrative behind it. “Our customers are discerning, knowledgeable and interested,” says Laird. “They generally have a lot of choice in terms of what they buy so they want to understand who they’re buying from and the story behind it.”
Luckily Begg & Co has a powerful story to tell. Simply being a Scottish cashmere producer makes the brand a rare find. “There used to be many mills producing knitted and woven products here,” says Laird. “Over time things have changed and lots of them have disappeared.” Connecting to that Scottish heritage creates a powerful message. The colours used in the latest collection for instance are inspired by typical Scottish landscapes: fields of heather, moody hillsides and blustery beaches.
The story of Begg & Co says a lot about the importance of provenance in the fashion business today. As the market recognises the value of heritage and seeks to turn brands into “icons”, it’s becoming more difficult for truly historic brands to gain cut-through. However, Begg & Co’s commitment to creating quality products and letting marketing trail behind the fundamentals of the brand have paid dividends. It has found a niche that’s full of customers eager to find something unique. “They’re inspired by something different and original rather than something that’s bland and the same everywhere around the world,” says Laird.
Jessi Baker is the founder of social enterprise Provenance, which helps businesses become more transparent and makes their supply chains more traceable. Among other things, the organisation uses blockchain technology – the structure that underpins Bitcoin – to make supply-chain information available globally.
How does Provenance work?
We’re a software platform. Businesses can join and upload information about themselves, including both quantitative and qualitative data; they can share things such as environmental impact alongside photos inside their factories. Through the platform they can also verify certain aspects of their business and we create a digitally verified mark for them.
Who actually cares about where things are made – and is this subgroup growing?
I think it is going to be a key ingredient of empowering a future where businesses will no longer gain a competitive advantage from information asymmetry. But in fact it’s businesses that use transparency and share information about what they’re really doing behind closed doors that will rise. We’re banking on a future where transparency is your best marketing tool.
What will this ultimately mean for brands and manufacturers?
The reason we exist is to help good behaviour thrive and for it to become a competitive advantage. At the moment, unfortunately, price and brand perception are the key drivers in the marketplace. I hope it’s only a matter of time before the bad guys have nowhere to hide. The internet is swiftly helping to connect big business with brands that are consumer- facing and it’s becoming harder to hide behind a brand that is different from your big company name.
The home-decor boutique Onora Casa was set up by Maggie Galton, an art historian from New York who moved to Mexico City 23 years ago, and her designer partner María Eladia Hagerman. Located in the city’s well-heeled Polanco neighbourhood, it’s a treasure trove of beautiful handmade objects crafted by artisans from all over the country.
But Galton and Hagerman are more than shopkeepers: they are also designers for Onora. They collaborate with artisans from traditional communities across Mexico and work with them to create contemporary and functional items that appeal to chic metropolitan shoppers. Prior to working with a new community the pair carefully studies their working methods over several months, both as a sign of respect and to get an understanding of how their designs should look. They then adapt the local pieces, reinterpreting traditional patterns and shapes.
“These modifications are subtle in order to keep the identity intact,” says Galton. “It’s very important for us that people know the origin of each piece, be it huichol or xochitl.” Each product comes with a fact sheet to educate the buyer about which community the item was made in, as well as the techniques and materials that were used.
The success of Onora is a testament to several shifts in Mexican society that Galton, as a one-time outsider, has witnessed first-hand. “I arrived in Mexico at a time when only what was imported was considered luxurious,” she says. “People did not appreciate Mexican handmade crafts”.
Fortunately that is no longer the case. Both Mexican and international customers at Onora are part of a new generation that is becoming more critical when it comes to consumption. Galton describes their clients as socially conscious and curious individuals who are increasingly proud of their own heritage, wanting their house to reflect that. “This represents a growing desire to consume locally, resulting in a huge revaluation of Mexican culture.” Some of that value is returned to the communities that make the products. Galton and Hagerman forge longlasting relationships with the artisans they work with to make products that will last a lifetime. “They’re getting a constant income but we’re asking them for quality products and a certain formality that did not exist before,” says Galton.
Onora empowers Mexican communities by creating a sustainable platform for them to reach a new kind of consumer. Galton and Hagerman provide the link between these artisans and a discerning customer tired of imported luxury goods and hungry for authentic products that reflect their heritage. As Galton says, “It’s a win-win situation.”
One of the great achievements of globalisation is that it has made products from all over the world available all over the world. But what its most passionate advocates have often overlooked is what happens when the sight of an object that’s traversed the globe to arrive in our shops finally loses its sheen. This is happening today and it’s leading to a re-evaluation of the importance of provenance. In a world where buying a Kenyan flower is as easy in London as buying a Chinese-made jacket in Spain, it is the specific, the local and the seasonal that have become desirable. When we say that provenance is becoming a currency of its own, we mean that it is gaining in value among a certain set of people. But this movement isn’t restricted to affluent enclaves in western cities; as this feature illustrates, it is a global movement – albeit still a niche one for the time being.