Interview Jirawat: The Founder of Chaksarn, a Sustainable Thai Brand by Style-Republik
1) How important water sedge is for villagers in Isaan?
When talking about Isaan villagers in Thailand and their culture, water sedge mat usually gets involve in almost every activity. It is considered as one of the compulsory furniture for every household. Isaan people eat on the floor instead of dining table. That means mat is used at least 3 times a day for breakfast lunch and dinner. Moreover, it is also used in temples and ceremony where people gather. Water sedge mat has therefore been part of Isaan people’s way of life for a long time.
2) It seems that as a childhood you were associated with the water sedge; could you share your memories of the traditional mat weaving villages?
The village that I grew up does not weave water sedge mat as hobby but they weave Thai silk instead. As far as I remember I saw my mom weave silk every year after farming season. I did help her on some of the processes from time to time. However, the near by villages do weave mat, that I get to see and learn since I was a kid. My best memories of mat that I have involves using it rather than making it. I remember well when I follow my parents to the temple and get to help them spread the long mat for people to sit on was a real fun thing back then. Even though I didn't practice weaving, I got to realize how difficult it is to weave one mat from the start.
3) How can you realize the potential of traditional mat weaving and what motivates you to put it into fashion?
Normally the mats that we use to sit on is just in plain and simple pattern which is what I was used to back then. One day I came across a mat in beautiful traditional Thai pattern that I haven’t seen before and I suddenly fell in love with it. I remember I bought those mats the first time I saw it but never used it. That’s because I felt bad to sit on that beautiful piece of art. I kept telling myself that this mat could be something else rather than just a mat to sit on. That’s where I started the idea of transforming it. And fashion item is something that first came to my mind. I chose to do handbag because it seems most doable.
4) What were the initial difficulties in establishing the brand? How have you solved those difficulties?
There are difficulties in every step of establishing my brand especially when I don’t have experience in building a brand. I would probably pick two main ones that I encounter and I find it very challenging.
Firstly it is how to come up with the bag design or pattern that the mat can do and at the same time it is the design that people like and buy. Mat from this particular type of sedge is quite hard and not very flexible, therefore it cannot bend into any shape or pattern that I want it to be. I have to learn its nature for quite some time to be able to know what I can do to have the look that I want. I need to learn how to weave mat from the beginning. I spent a week to prepare, dye and weave sedge into mat so that I know how it works. I remember I spent at least 4 months to be able to come up with the prototype of my first bag. I kept changing the design (more than 10 times) and every time I learned and took note of what could be done and could not until I got what worked and what I was satisfied with. Time and patience seemed to be what was needed the most on this process. So that’s the first difficulty.
Secondly it’s how to change the perception of my target market which is Thai people to like and buy my bags. You cannot build a business or brand if what you create cannot sell. Most Thai people still think that product from local Thai material is old stuff for old generation and so out of trend. It is difficult to change them to believe that it can be trendy, fashionable and worth the money they spend. I work hard on my design and I keep developing it to the point that people start to realize my message. Bags from natural hand woven water sedge can be beautiful and modern. Material does not matter, it’s the idea and design I put in it that change people’s mind.
5) Chaksarn also means weaving, does the brand name show out its responsibility to the local mat weaving industry?
It certainly does. When Thai people see the name “Chaksarn” they will know straight away that what they are buying is hand-woven. And when they see the product they will then know that it is the product of the local villages rather than industry. Just reading the brand name, its value is already in there.
6) Favorite and increasingly popular by young people, what do you think makes customers choose your products?
I believe that there are 2 main reasons for this. First is the design of the bag as I earlier mentioned. Every time I design a new bag I always keep in mind that younger people can carry without being shy. It needs to look cool, and outstanding. And I never stop developing my design. I also listen to my customers’ feedback and and suggestions then I use it on my new bags. Fortunately, what I have been doing works and I can see that I’ve got more and more younger people using my bags. Second, it’s the story behind each bag. I believe everyone knows what water sedge mat is but they might have forgotten of how hard it is to weave one mat. What I do is I show and explain to them of steps to get one bag made so they realize the bag in their hand has more value and story than they thought. Plus, money they spend on each bag goes back to the small people in the villages.
7) Have you ever attended design schools? And Chaksarn's designs were all inspired by you?
When I first started my brand I took a short leather bag making course in Bangkok to get myself familiar with the leather work. It’s just a one-week course. They didn’t teach design but introducing you in to the world of leather work material, and basic pattern. I developed my ideas of design from observing and looking at those online fashion channels. After one year of building my brand I went to Milan, Italy to take a one-month design course where I opened my eyes to the fashion world in the next level. I believe that learning never ends and fashion never stops, I probably need to study more and develop my skill whenever I have opportunities.
8) Can you share the production process of a Chaksarn's bag?
The production starts from sedge harvesting, then preparing it by cutting into thin pieces and drying it before dyeing and weaving into mat. The preparation process takes at least 1 week to get the sedge ready for weaving. Then it takes about 3-5 full days to weave one 2-meter long mat. Once the weaving is done we need to dry the mat for a few days to make sure it’s completely dry. After the mat is ready, we then marry it with leather following the pattern of our design.
9) What are your future plans (for Chaksarn)?
My future plan is to increase my production so that I can spread the work to more local people. At the moment my mat weavers are from only a few villages. I see that this business can bring income and happiness to my people, I therefore want to do more and get it even bigger. Once my production is big enough and my stock is stable I would love to expand my market to global. My aim is to get people to think of Chaksarn when they think of natural woven sedge bag or straw bag.
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