Creating for Tranquillity With SUKU Home
Australian-based SUKU Home specialises in leisurely ready-to-wear and tactile bedding for tranquil beings with an appreciation for craftsmanship and functionality. The brand is a little world dedicated to the wholesome vision of its Creative Director, Christine Lafian, its website and Melbourne store act as an open book of inspirations, friendships and moments of reflection. SUKU’s capsule collections are eagerly anticipated and take inspiration from historical villages of Indonesia, Christine’s home country, each item is ethically made in Bali using tactile, natural materials.
In this conversation we’ll find out about a childhood connection that led to the start of SUKU, transparency as a response to fast fashion and Christine’s dedication to nurturing the creativity of her factory staff.
Advance Copy: Hi Christine, it’s so nice to meet you! Could you fill us in on your journey before starting SUKU Home?
Christine Lafian: I was working for a big fashion brand here in Australia for about eight years, before starting my own company. It was a hands-on role with many different aspects, including the training and management of staff. It was an exciting time to be with this company because they started small and grew bigger, they had a family feel about it and I loved the overall vision. But at the same time, I’ve always felt that it’s not my journey to work for someone else, I’ve had a clear voice and direction that I wanted to follow. I’ve had offers to go and do other exciting things but I’ve always said no.
AC: It’s not easy to sacrifice your comfort zone and jump into the unknown, where does your clarity and determination come from?
Christine: I often have this type of conversation with my friends. I like safety, that’s great, but I’ve based my career on how I can picture myself in it, instead of how successful I am in terms of my profession. If I picture myself five years from now – how content will I be with my day? I think it comes with maturity, from things I’ve learnt in the past, but it’s always been about the quality of my life.
“I knew how hard it was for an independent label to survive.”
AC: What were the beginning steps of SUKU like, those early stages of transitioning and creating the brand?
Christine: I started the brand as a side project while still working full time. A lot of what I was doing before was about the external – the connection of the body with the outside – thinking about how to present oneself outwards and how others see you through styling people, thinking about how to sell a look and so on. Maybe mentally I was already thinking about doing something more inward-focused. So, I started looking for ideas. I knew that I felt really happy when my room was beautiful, investing in a nice table, couch or bedding, then I realised that this was also a part of how I present myself but it’s internal – people don’t see it, only I do.
The first three years of my SUKU Home journey was like a hobby, I did it in my spare time until it took off. When a retail space at No Order Market came up last minute, so I decided that it was my time to say goodbye to my job and jump in. Since then it’s grown even more; the more you put into something the more outcome you get.
AC: Considering your previous experience in fashion, were you not tempted to start with a line of ready to wear?
Christine: It’s funny because that’s a question that I get a lot – “Why bedding?” At the time H&M, Zara and a lot of other big brands had just arrived in Australia so I knew how hard it was for an independent label to survive. I figured out that if I wanted this project to be a hobby it wouldn’t be a fashion brand, it would have to be something less risky, I continued to think within this sphere and started with one bedding design. Then I made four more colours, shot a nice campaign and wrote a press release. I sent this to Oyster Magazine and they featured SUKU Home on their website. Following a positive reaction, I did more collections with the same strategy and checking how it worked each time. The brand was doing well, and even better after we introduced pyjamas and loungewear.
“Many people working for our factory can grow even bigger than what they are now.”
AC: It doesn’t seem like you abide by seasonal collections, how do you manage the release of new products and categories?
Christine: The good thing about having a physical store is that it gives me an opportunity to listen and connect with our customers. So, we know that we have to do something around summer and winter, to align with the change of the wardrobe, but we don’t do it at a set time and date like everyone else. We do two collections a year and try to do a small capsule once a year, which is focused on bedding, delivering as close as possible to when the seasons change.
AC: Could you tell us about the production side of the business and your ongoing connection to Bali?
Christine: There is a lady that I know in Indonesia, where I’m originally from, someone my dad always looked up to and I call Grandma. She owns an old factory and has asked me if I wanted to get on board and do something to help her. I wasn’t interested in the idea of helping until this one holiday, when I asked Grandma to take me on a tour of the factory, to introduce me to Batak artisans and tie dyers to show me how everything works. We went on this tour, I sat down to talk with everybody, they were so funny and kind, I think I fell in love in that first meeting!
AC: How has this relationship with the factory and the team developed since you’ve started working together?
Christine: In general, a lot of factories in the country, especially small ones, became less busy since much of the business moved to China or India. I saw how people lost their passion, doing boring things like uniforms for hotels or schools just to survive. They’ve now been on this journey with me for 6 years and I’m happy to say that 90% of the work they get is from SUKU. When I go to Indonesia, I can do workshops with the factory team, they are creative and have been doing their jobs for a long time, they also know the things that I like. I always ask them for their opinion and feedback on my work – they’ve become a valuable part of the design team, not just a factory who produce.
“There is a lot of emotional attachment to everyone at the factory in Bali.”
AC: What have you personally learnt by working with the factory in this collaborative way?
Christine: There is a lot of emotional attachment to everyone at the factory in Bali, which in a sense maybe you don’t need, but for me, there is a connection besides just a working one. Everything there is hands-on and small scale and there is a lot of micromanagement. For example, one of the employees called me to say that another colleague’s house collapsed due to heavy rain. You wouldn’t normally deal with such issues when working with a big factory and technically if you think of yourself as a client you don’t need to care, but because I don’t look at myself in that way but as a team with them, I had to care and help.
AC: It’s admirable of you to choose not to distance yourself from the factory, committing to having this personal relationship with everybody.
Christine: Thank you, I’ve also learnt that in production there is a lot of human error that you have to understand. For example, sometimes along the way somebody will accidentally cut a pattern wrong, things like this happen and everyone, including the designers, should deal with it humanely.
I think customers don’t understand the story behind items made by big corporations. It’s not like dealing with a printer – you send a file press print and it gets done. To prevent people from getting upset or angry you have to explain why certain things happen to everyone involved along the way.
“The way people think about your brand is shaped by communication and being transparent about internal processes.”
AC: Do you think your personal approach with SUKU Home makes customers appreciate the final products differently?
Christine: In a sense yes, it’s shaping how customers think. Our clients are so different compared to many other brands and we’re very transparent about the way things are run. For example, when pre-orders fail to arrive on time because it’s rained all day long in Bali, we’ll post about it on our Instagram and explain clearly why deliveries are late. Usually, in retail, a customer would order a dress and expect it tomorrow and if it’s not there they’ll call and complain. It can feel like their life depended on a dress! This happens because they don’t understand the whole process.
AC: Do you think transparency can help tackle unrealistic customer expectations created by high-street brands?
Christine: Exactly, it’s a way for customers to be part of the journey. With SUKU Home, when we explain exactly why something fails to happen when we said it would, customers are relaxed about it. The way people think about your brand is shaped by communication and being transparent about internal processes.
“We are not competing against each other – we are competing against the system.”
AC: You’ve chosen to challenge immediacy, instilling respect for the production process in your customers. Do you see fashion moving in a similar direction, promoting slower more transparent practices?
Christine: Other industries are making changes towards more sustainable, slower practices, there is a pattern and I do believe we can change things in fashion too. We are probably at the peak of speed right now and it will slow down soon. We need a platform to share solutions that independent brands are creating. At the end of the day, we are not competing against each other – we are competing against the system.
AC: Finally, how do you envision growing the brand in the future?
Christine: I’d like to shape SUKU Home’s quality aesthetic, so if someone thinks of the brand they stop and feel calm. Shaping the brand into that idea and creating a retail space where people can take their time to slow down wherever they are in the world.
In terms of production, many people working for our factory come from small villages in Bali and I know that they can grow even bigger than what they are now. For example, my pattern maker can be someone else, like a Creative Director looking after other pattern makers. I’d like to expand the factory with the same philosophy, still running things wholesomely and inspiring others. I’m a big believer in sharing stories and inspiring people, so hopefully that will happen.
AC: Thank you, Christine!