Established in 2019, Our Barehands is a Singaporean social enterprise with a noble vision. Founded by three millennials, Chanel Go, Germaine Lye and Mitchell Zachariah Hong, the social enterprise sets out to spotlight lesser-known and indigent artisanal communities around the world through innovative collaborations.
From made-to-order linen tops to linen dresses, woven bags by the Wayuu people to traditional beaded earrings from a beaded village, these innovative collaborations span across the realm of everyday apparels to fashionable accessories. Under its belt, Our Barehands has collaborated with several communities largely across Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Yogyakarta (Indonesia), Karnataka and Gujarat (India), Chiang Mai (Thailand) and Yangon (Myanmar), and other pockets around the world, such as Colombia and Venezuela (South America).
At its core, the social enterprise’s social mission is all about providing sustainable livelihood for the artisanal communities it has partnered with. “One of the pillars we stand for rather strongly is how we want to uncover the potential many of these artisanal communities have,” Chanel, 25, says. “Many of them have great skills and a good story to share.”
But to think Our Barehands’ philosophy ends at that is myopic and folly. Beyond celebrating and sharing the remarkable artistry behind each community, the Singaporean label is also committed to helping these artisans to take ownership of their own craft, ambition or dreams. They do so by encouraging the artisans to present newer creations or designs and, at times, the trio would link the artisans with other creatives in the field to collaborate. “We felt that they just needed more opportunities or connections so that they can flourish more,” Chanel adds.
One artisanal community partnered under the label resides in Gujarat, located at the western coastline state of India. There, Our Barehands partnered with the Khoyla sisters’ to proffer intricately beaded accessories for the global audience. The traditional craft has long been passed down through generations in the Khoyla family and each pair of beaded earrings takes up approximately four to six hours to be woven by hand.
“We work with artisans in a varied way across a whole spectrum,” Germaine, 31, says. “Sometimes, we provide some seed funding or even sewing machines to help them achieve a product that is market-ready.”
In the pre-pandemic days, the trio, who are good friends and have met more than a decade ago, would research, organise, and visit artisanal communities around the world. Working with the different artisans from different communities is nonetheless an eye-opening and enjoyable experience altogether. “You get to meet so many different people you don’t usually meet,” Chanel says. “It is also deeply inspiring to hear their stories and how they overcame whatever obstacles they had.”
Closer to home, Our Barehands has partnered with Mr JS, an Afghanistan refugee who is now based in Malaysia. When Malaysia’s Movement Control Orders were implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr JS’s livelihood was affected. The partnership with the Singaporean social enterprise comes exceptionally timely and together the two — Mr JS and Our Barehands — came together to create made-to-order linen apparels. Within six months, the collaboration gained popularity and took off. This gave Mr JS the chance to rope in five more tailors, all of whom are from the refugee community, to help with the production.
“I think it’s quite perspective changing too,” Germaine says, highlighting how having interacted with various artisans — including Mr JS, who is a displaced person — taught her to empathise and put herself in other people’s shoes.
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Our Barehands is built on the belief that “every pair of hands can make a difference, whether it’s in small or big ways”. It is not a business that is driven by sympathy or pity. In fact, the social enterprise’s model is far from that.
The trio understands the importance of their social mission — that is to ensure sustainable livelihood and enabling communities — and in turn creates products of value to consumers alike. Such a business model, according to Germaine, is what sets the Singaporean social enterprise apart. “I strongly believe that a business that constantly creates good value for its customers, will continue to see growth for the future,” Germaine says.
Put differently, Our Barehands is also about shedding light on stories that would underwise go untold, whether it is the everyday circumstances of displaced people around the world or showing appreciation to traditional crafts. And maybe that is what a social enterprise’s role is today: to tell the truth.
“What you see is the outcome of our artisans’ strengths. We journey with these artisans and strive for a sustainable livelihood that can enable them, all while creating quality products and satisfying the market’s demand,” Chanel concludes.
All images courtesy of Our Barehands.