TIE-DYE – once synonymous with pasar malam (night market) wares, backpackers and schoolgirl projects – might not come to mind when one talks about artisanal techniques. But the print has been slowly creeping into high fashion, in the form of an ancient Japanese practice called shibori – which involves folding and twisting fabric before dipping it into natural indigo dye. Go-to designer for Parisian "It" girls Isabel Marant has revisited the technique over the years; while Stella McCartney has experimented with the method to create organic textures in collections past.
While she isn't backed by a multi-national company with marketing budgets the size of a small country's GDP, Leong Minyi wanted to delve into a craft that is imbued with tradition and creativity. The fashion design graduate from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts founded Mai Textile Studio after studying the art of traditional textile and crafts under an indigo dye master in Japan.
Her love for the craft inspired her to establish a studio in Singapore so that she could help keep this traditional craft alive and incorporate them into the modern culture. Creations at Mai Textile Studio are crafted from natural materials coupled with traditional techniques such as shibori and katazome (a Japanese method of dyeing fabrics similar to batik, using a resist paste applied through a stencil).
"There will always be consumers who would prefer ‘It' objects and logos, or an item made in a specific country of their preference," says Ms Leong. "However, I do see an improvement in consumers seeking handmade luxury items. But it is a slowly growing trend and a niche market in Singapore."
Conventional objects of luxury, coveted for their high-value materials such as precious animal skins, gemstones, or metals, are slowly being usurped by items that boast rare methods of construction. And rather than plot out a slew of products to fill seasonal collections, French brand Peau de Chagrin only rolls out luxury pieces upon forming relationships with relevant European artisans.
Visit their online store and you will only discover two product lines available – a namesake bag and a series of four silk scarves called the Carres Alchimiques ("alchemical scarves"). The brand was launched by Mesh Chhibber, a former communications director at John Galliano and Stella McCartney before starting his own public relations agency; and Sofie Cornillon, who was a contemporary dancer, choreographer and visual artist.
"I became disillusioned by how expensive accessories had become even though they were poorly made," says Mr Chhibber. "It seemed to me that many brands had sacrificed quality for volume and speed of manufacturing, so I decided to launch a limited-edition objects line made by European artisans – our objects are designed to become heirlooms. We decided to launch Peau de Chagrin together with Sofie designing and working directly with the craftsmen."
Independent brands and creators aren't the only ones shunning mass production for handmade products. French house Longchamp is also celebrating age-old techniques with the launch of a new collection of Paris Premier bags. The bag is made of top-notch French calfskin, treated according to the highest standards by one of the best tanneries in France. Turning this leather into a Paris Premier bag is a long process.
In the Longchamp workshops, the bag must pass through the skilled hands of many different artisans before it is completed. With millimetre-level accuracy, the artisans stitch, attach, and assemble the pieces to create the square tote lined with cashmere-soft leather.
"Longchamp Paris Premier involves multiple steps and specialised, carefully performed manual operations such as the polished and dyed edging," explains Jean Cassegrain, chief executive officer of Longchamp.
"Indeed, luxury has changed. Today, time is luxury. You need time to create and develop beautiful products, time to educate people on the savoir-faire, to learn the craft. On the other hand, a luxury product is also something that you will have great pleasure in using for a long time."
Historical brands that have long prided themselves on their handmade heritage are playing up their craftsmanship now more than ever. First launched in 2011, the Louis Vuitton Haute Maroquinerie was offered to clients to top off a woman's signature look with a bespoke bag.
The Made to Order (MTO) service allows clients to select from six shapes: Noe, Triangle, Lockit, Milaris, Neo Steamer and Capucines. The highly customisable service offers clients a unique bag by choosing among a wide range of supple leather, colour combinations and initials personalisation — all executed by hand in the brand's Asnieres workshop.
And one relatively younger brand that has been touting its "made-by-hand" status is Ethan K, a handbag label that produces fewer than 1,500 bags a year. It is run by fourth-generation "exotic skin artisan" Ethan Koh, founder of Ethan K and scion of the Heng Long tannery business here that was bought over by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton in a deal worth S$161 million in 2011.
"My great-grandfather first learnt the art of exotic skins from the British when Singapore was still a colony," explains Mr Koh.
"Mass production is the exact opposite of Ethan K's ethos. As a handbag collector myself, I can find the same bag in any store (or even airport) around the world. Those bags considered ‘luxury' or ‘exclusive' can be seen on the arms of so many fabulous women. However, I want my clients to have something totally unique."
The bag designer hosts clients in a "bespoke gallery" where they get to select everything from the colour of the skin to the thread used for the lining of the bag. Other pieces are also available at stockists such as London's Harrods or Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and Beverly Hills. Having worked with craftsmen in Singapore and Italy, Mr Koh will be launching an in-house workshop to produce his bags this year.
"Being handmade is important and the craft of shaping exotic leather into unique creations is something which I am trying to encourage through my in-house atelier," adds Mr Koh. "Exotic skins are like diamonds, so each bag has to be carefully moulded into the perfect creation. Being limited is something that is part of the DNA at Ethan K. You can never have the same exotic skin twice, just like you can never have an identical semi-precious stone."
And while handmade luxury is usually associated with out-of-reach price tags, a growing number of small makers are creating more accessible products. Designer-artist Way Tay decided to launch his own line of East-meets-West jewellery recently, with every piece designed and 90 per cent made by hand in his own studio.
Each Chinoiserie Blu piece is created in the design studio and workshop, which is fully equipped with traditional craftsmen's tools and equipment such as a mini jeweller's casting system and kiln for lost wax casting, air compressor, draw bench, drill press as well as a professional 3D printer for prototyping and casting.
"The pieces are made here. I feel that this is a tradition that may disappear over time as the craftsmen are getting on in age, which is why I am also learning to be one myself, to learn the skills, though it will take me some time to reach their level," says Mr Tay.
"Society has evolved so much that the term ‘luxury' has taken on a new meaning. It's no longer reserved for the rich and famous or something unattainable. People define luxury on their own terms. For Chinoiserie Blu, we aim to meet this category by offering quality jewellery with alluring and lasting designs at an affordable price – which is the new luxe."