Meet Sophie Garnier, Founder of Kalinko.
Why did you start Kalinko?
So that people who can’t get to Burma can buy the gorgeous things made there, and to work with as many Burmese makers as we can, plugging the gap between their average earnings and the income needed for an acceptable standard of living. It started with some bamboo stools right up in the north of Burma. We stumbled across them, loved them, bought four straight away, then fast forward six months and we had 50 stools in our flat ready to ship to the UK. The makers were about to give up making them as they struggle to find buyers, with most local people tending to buy cheap, factory-made imports from China instead, so our first priority was to give them an order they couldn’t refuse, because if people like them stop using their skills, the knowledge risks dying out completely. Four years on, and we have shipped lots of containers, thousands of products, and are now working with hundreds of skilled crafters from all over the country. We want to keep their industries alive, provide skilled work for talented people, and to fill homes around the world with objects that make a difference.
What does sustainability mean to you/the brand?
For us, sustainability is about giving our makers control over their futures. Our main motivation is to ensure that the craft families we work with are best placed, socially and economically, to prosper as the country develops. For us, this means growing Kalinko into a company large enough to support whole communities of suppliers, helping them to preserve their remarkable talents for generations to come and to build sustainable businesses for themselves.Of course we also think through our packaging very carefully, ship by ocean freight rather than air, and minimise excess in all parts of the business, but our main focus is on sustainable futures for our makers.
What inspires your homeware collections?
Burma! It’s such a vibrant, varied, beautiful country. It has 135 different ethnic groups, each with their own language, dress and culture. It has jungles, mountains and beaches. There are 2000 undiscovered, totally deserted islands off the south coast. The food is unlike any you’ve ever tasted. The history is wild and complicated, making for people with more stories to tell than a lifetime of teacups could hear. There are three distinct dramatic seasons and abundant home-grown materials which make wonderful homeware. You could make a new collection every month for 100 years and never, ever run out of inspiration.
Do you have anything exciting coming up?
So much! We’ve got a backlog of exciting launches which have been on hold since the military coup in February. We’re launching two brand new materials this year, and have reimagined old classics in new ways. We’ve also been working on some amazing collaborations which we’re desperate to shout about, but for now we’ll have to hold in the anticipation until we can get our hands on the products.
Who are the people behind your products (who makes them)?
They are small families of makers who have been practicing their craft for generations. Most of them live in remote rural villages, often near the source of whichever material they work with. For example, all of our rattan products are made in the Ayeyarwady region of southwest Burma, a region where the forests are thick with rattan palms, and where village after village turn the harvested tendrils into trays, lampshades and beautiful bowls. It’s what they do, it’s what they know, and as long as demand keeps up, they won’t be changing professions any time soon.
What's the best part of running your own brand?
Oh wow – so many things. You learn a thousand things every day. You get to be involved in every part of the business, from product development, to sales and marketing, to accounting to…choosing which coffee to have in the office. So you’re literally never bored. It’s incredibly satisfying seeing something grow from an idea to reality, particularly when you’re working somewhere where it’s really hard to get anything done. It’s also such a treat to work with such talented people, from the incredible crafters who make the products, to the girls who run the warehouse with the care that they run their own homes, and the digital guys who know the ins and outs of RFM analysis and CRO (things I previously assumed belonged in science labs or algebra textbooks). It’s basically really fun, and super rewarding.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Again… so many things. It’s no secret that running a small business in Burma requires one of Theseus’ golden threads. But you can’t buy those in the market. You have to head into the daily labyrinth with bare-handed persistence. There’s the constant frantic scramble for dollars; everything is paid for in cash, but they must be pristine, packet-fresh notes, from a post-2013 series. Anything else may as well be Monopoly money. You need a bank account with this bank for export, but that bank for mobile-money transfers. And a third for good measure. The monsoon causes issues for half of the year, every year; workshops get flooded, people get lethargic, ancient superstitions around what you can and can’t do during the rains put a halt on all sorts of things. It’s essentially an annual lockdown. The warehouse floods. The warehouse overheats. The warehouse has birds nesting and pooing in it. The warehouse landlord has cut the electricity cables so the dehumidifier may as well become a chickery. You get the idea.
What does jewellery mean to you?
It’s all sentimental. When you live so far from home, you constantly grasp for the little things that take you back there. I wear the same jewellery every day: a necklace with my home coordinates on it, a present from my sisters when I left for Burma 7 years ago; a bracelet with my sons’ dates of births and initials on it; another with 5 little knots, given to me by my closest friends on my wedding day; a ring my parents gave me on my 21st birthday. And of course my engagement ring and wedding ring. All my people, on my person at all times.
Silver or gold jewellery?
All gold. I find it warmer.
What's one important reminder you would give women around the world?
If you put your mind to something, and work really hard at it, you can probably do absolutely anything.