WHO is joining in taking on the Gender Responsive Economic Actions for the Transformation (GREAT) Women Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Collection? That was the one question that spurred entry of Great Women into the Asean SME Showcase and Conference (ASSC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from May 25 to 28.
It was March 25 when close to 50 women gathered in Bangkok, raised their hands to declare their affirmation to take part in the Great Women Asean Collection. I knew-we all knew-this was going to be a steep undertaking. And, if we couldn’t do it, it was okay to say Not this time; perhaps, the next. Anyway, this was only the first assembly on the topic.
Among the variety of products and services presented, what was especially interesting to me were the traditional weaves from Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand. All were made of silk, all beautifully and intricately designed and all encased in rich history of centuries-old hand-weaving.
With the excitement also came qualms. Qualms about my ability to merge tradition with modern styling. Qualms about the simplicity of Philippine pineapple fiber or piNa showcasing against the intricacy of weaves from the lower Mekong countries. Qualms about completing a lounge wear and lingerie collection within the time frame allotted.
After the Bangkok meeting, I immediately regrouped with the other Filipina proponents-Jeannie Javelosa, mastermind behind the GREAT Women brand, artist and designer for home ware; and Zarah Juan, bag maker, founder and designer of Green Leaf Bags. We all work with textile and it came naturally to meet and plan together. With only a little over eight weeks to Kuala Lumpur, our brains and bodies went on hyper-drive.
For our initial collection to be truly Asean, it was necessary to bring into the mix materials from at least three Asean member-states. I was privileged to work with proactive women, who furnished us with beautiful hand-woven fabric from these Indochinese nations.
Myanmar: Burmese silk and cotton. The art of hand-weaving dates back through history. It is an honored tradition passed down from generation to generation. In fact the silk-cotton blend fabric we cut is woven by two girls on a traditional hand loom, from rural villages in central Myanmar. Yin Min Kyaw, who sponsored our material, is a single mother. She manages four retail stores and is a member of the Myanmar Women Entrepreneurs Association.
Cambodia: Silk. The 100-percent Khmer silk, in intricate hol or ikat (tie-dye) design, is hand-woven by underprivileged craftsmen and women in rural Cambodia. Seng Takakneary, founder of SentoSa Silk and President of the Cambodia Women Entrepreneurs Association, works directly with several communities with hopes of rebuilding sericulture and improving livelihoods, especially among women. The material we used in particular was produced by three communities: one to spin the thread, another to dye the thread and the other to weave the cloth. This explains why the silk is worth so much.
Thailand: Silk. Matmee is ikat (tie-dye) style and 100-percent Thai silk that has been delicately hand-woven for generations in silk farms northeast of Bangkok. Silk Avenue, which has been producing hand-woven silk and cotton for decades supplying to top establishments worldwide, is led by two intensely empowered women, who believe in giving back to the community that sustains their thriving business. Dr. Siribenja Khowadhana and Khun Kamolnate Kraitrakul are also leaders in the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Associations of Thailand (BPW Thailand).
Philippines: Cotton. Just when I had resigned to the textile industry in the Philippines being dead, I found a glimmer of hope discovering cotton farmed from Dumaguete, Negros Oriental. We incorporated knitted fabric made from hand-spun cotton yarn. The cotton is hand-picked, providing livelihood to local communities. Then we prewashed the material before stitching together.
Philippines: Pineapple cloth or piNa. Produced from fibers from the leaves of the Spanish Red Pineapple, piNa is a unique fabric hand-woven by artisans using traditional hand-loom weaving techniques dating back to the 15th century. Today, it is no longer used for only formal ternos or barongs. Who would have thought we could fuse piNa into sleepwear?
These are merely a handful of the awe-inspiring stories behind some of the Great Women products.
But beyond the products is the purpose. Great Women empowers women-owned businesses, however big or small, to grow-grow in number and grow in reach. We do this by providing female entrepreneurs access to capital, access to global markets and access to mentoring.
In a market where, according to Ernst and Young, even though women start businesses at double the rate of men, most female-owned business remain small enterprises that have yet to break the $1-million mark in terms of revenues. Great Women provides opportunities to scale up businesses that create products with a social impact.
With the development of the Great Women Asean Collection, we bear witness to the creation of products borne of authentic participation of Asean women. Women whose efforts, whether they realize this or not, improve the lives of people in their communities, primarily women and girls.