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Living With the Seasons

By Guan Tan

 
Credit: Sharon de Lyster
 

Her Instagram feed is a visual indulgence. One moment she’s in Rangpur, Bangladesh, few days later in Miao Tribe, Guizhou, then Ikat, Siem Reap, the leather markets of Dharavi, Mumbai, and back in Thousand Islands, Hong Kong. 

Trained in fashion design, Sharon de Lyster started her career as a designer in Anteprima. She then moved on to WGSN as a trend-forecaster, studying the science behind fashion, “How society impacts production. How social, political, and economical changes have direct impact on fashion companies, and the products that goes to the retail floor. It’s a big picture.” de Lyster also spent time at the New York-based Fashion Institute of Technology studying fashion history and haute couture embellishment, and cultural studies in Beijing. 

Years of trend analysis had the 30 year-old realise that the entire industry is steadily slanted for a seismic shift. There is a silent undercurrent trickling towards responsible fashion. The floodgates might not yet break, but when it does, we’re headed for slower lifestyles, away from excessively irreverent consumption. 

“Trend forecasting is first understanding values of fashion – more about the people than trade. The trade is about beauty, and [culture], something that people can feel they belong to. But nowadays we jump around and never get attached to a look, and that is identity crisis [of society at-large] reflected in fashion,” de Lyster explains. 

The existing fashion system is experiencing a breakdown from intense speed at which it’s rolling, and “there has been a shift to handmade items globally. I personally support this trend. Narrative Made as a brand, moves away from seasonal drops – the old school, excessive way of making things. We should be responding to the market with what they need.” 

Credit: Sharon de Lyster
 

But there is a catch, for consumers are at the end of the fashion pyramid, and are not primed to accept changes taking place at the tip of the infrastructure just yet. “They are not going to understand the background of a textile making technique, nor why is it taking longer to make [a product], and education is something that Narrative Made is supporting,” the 30 year-old spoke of her motivations behind “narrative” in the name. 

Every season, de Lyster visits villages saturated with traditional textile techniques, be it weaving, dyeing, or embroidery. She does intense ethnographic research into their lives round the year – chief livelihood, customs, and the history behind ethnic dress. With subsequent trips, she observes quietly, their off-season practices – her highlight, the making of customary costumes. 

“The industry is moving faster, and faster. But we are missing out on Asian traditions, heritage and culture. When travelling, if you were to read into objects, you’ll see the context clearly. A particular textile will tell you if it was worn by the king.”

Credit: Sharon de LysterMiao Tribe in Guizhou, China.
Miao Tribe in Guizhou, China.

“As I travelled, I saw people still making these things. And I asked them about what they’re making, they said, “I’m making this for my daughter,” and you realised it’s life. Sometimes you see it in the books and museums, but it’s so real."

Guizhou, a mountainous province in China is populated by the largest minority tribe in China, the Miao people. “There is usually a lot of embroidery [in the province],” de Lyster realised that within the intricate stitches of hand embroidery, are a myriad of tales told. The painstaking, time-consuming handwork justifies the weight of history, “for there to be a handmade piece, there must first be reason, and value to push the maker to labour.”

“When you meet them, most of them dress like us on normal days, but there is a storage of traditional clothing in the villages. These traditions don’t give up easily.”

Credit: Sharon de LysterMiao ladies.
Miao ladies.

To these minority groups, agriculture is their main livelihood. They live with the seasons, in spring and summer they sow, plough, and harvest. The sun mounts, clouds clear, temperatures rise, and the earth labours with them. In autumn and winter, the winds blow, humidity rise, and rain falls, watering seedlings buried in soil, while the farmers wait on growth. 

“They work with around the seasons – when it’s rainy they can’t dry the fabrics, when it’s harvest season they busy with crops. And in between when there are times with not so much to do, the women will do craft and needlework, for family and community. They do this for half a year, and that is a lot of textiles produced.”

Working with the tribes, de Lyster pointed out that it’s imperative that she doesn’t ask them to drop their lives, and convert their traditions into a business. To support them, she instead first respect their existing lives, for the values and stories of Miao would be lost if they changed their ways. 

“Their lives are very [visibly] rich in the clothes,” she added. 

Credit: Sharon de LysterLady applies the Shibori stitch in Rangpur, Bangladesh.
Lady applies the Shibori stitch in Rangpur, Bangladesh.

In 2015, Sharon visited the city of Rangpur in northern Bangladesh. “The story behind it is not as ancient as compared to Miao,” but Sharon was there for their natural dye and hand-quilting techniques. Originating from their British colonialists, leaves are harvested from the local farm, first fermented into a paste, then sun dried, and powderised. Indigo dye vets are then made, and maintained by routinely adding powder, soda, and water to achieve a desired shade. 


"We help bigger brands identify Asian manufacturers, but are not coming from the usual factories," Sharon is referring to the deluge of garment factories in South Asia cities, exposed for human-trafficking, poor living conditions, and labour exploitation. "We push for fair trade, while sourcing, we're celebrating their craft."


These artisans – Sharon honours them with a befitting title – are not geared to manufacture on large scales. Garments produced are of varying levels of handiwork, most of them couture-like intricate and exquisite. 

Credit: Sharon de LysterRangpur, Bangladesh.
Rangpur, Bangladesh.
Credit: Sharon de LysterLady hand-quilting in Rangpur, Bangladesh.
Lady hand-quilting in Rangpur, Bangladesh.

When Narrative Made links businesses up to these villages, they often buy existing, ready-made products produced in the non-harvesting seasons. These buyers are primarily from Hong Kong, the United States, and United Kingdom.

Sharon is looking to launch an updated online platform with an interactive map in the second quarter this year, to better communicate narratives hidden behind the seams. 

 

Narrative Made is available here.