You often you meet people precisely when you are supposed to meet them. On this journey of ocean+main, I increasingly find myself "following bread crumbs." Like Hansel and Gretel, I'm not always sure where they will lead, but in early 2018, I decided to follow a really, really random bread crumb.
The idea of 'ocean+main international' had been quietly whispering for months but it seemed a bit out of scope. How could an international component fit into our brand ethos of domestic sourcing and domestic production? Then, the bread crumb. An out-of-the-blue email from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
"I am a designer of luxurious hand-painted batik fabrics in Kuala Lumpur. We found you on Instagram and love your work. We work with local artisans and 10% of our proceeds go toward rainforest restoration. Would love to hear from you if you would be interested in our fabrics." ~ Suria, Suria Artisan Batik
Intrigued, I asked Suria to send some samples and was amazed by the exquisite fabrics and sophisticated prints that arrived in the mail. What was more impressive was the beautiful story behind the fabrics.
Suria's designs are all made by hand 4 meters at a time
There are only 2 master block makers left in Malaysia and Suria's work supports them both
Proceeds from the sale of Suria's fabric goes to support the TRCRC, a local NGO dedicated to rainforest restorations and preservation through it's unique seed bank of endangered plant species
Sales of Suria's fabric go towards building a rainwater collection system so in the future, only reclaimed rainwater will be used in production
Beautiful fabric, a compelling story and a place I had never been? There was only one thing to do...buy a plane ticket. And, of course, pack some ocean+main for wear-testing on the road.
(Shameless plug: No trip is complete without the ocean+main Kimono Cardi worn here as a scarf)
Hotel Villa Samadhi Kuala Lumpur
With a rich history of trade, KL (as the locals call it) is a melting pot of cultures. Amazing Chinese Temples, Hindu shrines, and Buddhist alters provide a colorful backdrop to the lovely Muslim call to prayer that lilts through the city each day.
Throughout Malaysia, including in KL, there are government sponsored craft centers dedicated to teaching and preserving Malaysia's indigenous, traditional crafts. At the KL craft center, we met Abdul Rahman, or Pok Mud, as he is affectionately known. He and his wife, Azizah and their son Azizi are the artists responsible to printing and dying the ocean+main/Suria fabrics.
Batik is the art of painting or printing on fabric with wax. The wax resists dyeing and once the fabric is washed, the wax desolves leaving the design intact.
Pok Mud has been block printing batik fabrics since he was 18 and is considered such an expert he was moved to the KL craft center to teach and preserve his craft.
Suria's work supports Azizi Rahman, Azizah Rahman and Abdul Rahman and we are thrilled to showcase their beautiful work.
In KL we also learned about the TRCRC, a local NGO that supports rainforest initiatives and is leading the way in preservation and education about the delicate rainforest eco-system. A percentage of the proceeds of Suria Artisan Batik's sales go to the TRCRC and their special seed bank that collects and protects endangered plant species. We are so proud that ocean+main collaboration now supports this vital seed bank!
About an hour's drive from KL is the rainforest of Janda Baik where Suria has built a workshop outside her father's home. The workshop sits in a clearing with an astounding 180-degree view of the surrounding rainforest. The view is rivaled only by the sounds; the rustle of bamboo in the wind, the patter of gentle rain, and the hypnotic coo of wild gibbons in the rainforest canopy.
View from Suria's studio (photo courtesy of @suriaartisanbatik)
Suria's father, a former Malaysian diplomat stationed in the US, UK, Kuwait and others, (a fact we knew nothing about until we arrived in Malaysia!) graciously welcomed us into his home and generously shared his knowledge and deep love for Malaysia. It was like getting a privileged and private tour of Malaysian history and culture. Suria's mother practiced batik and championed the art Malaysian batik throughout their travels.
One of the 878 individual islands that make up the nation of Malaysia, Langkawi is a sparsely populated island near Malaysia's western border with Thailand. This beautiful island is just what we were looking for: few hotels, beautiful, private beaches and flourishing, abundant wildlife.
Days by the sea were followed by spectacular sunsets and midnight rainforest hikes filled with NatGeo-worthy flora and fauna like flying squirrels and flying lemurs. Definitely worth the trip.
We met up again with Suria and her family on Malaysia's eastern coast in Terengganu, the birth place of Malaysian batik. There, we ventured into the rainforest and met Haniza binti Hisham, or Nysa. Beautiful, charming Nysa, a former architect in Kuala Lumpur, ditched the big city and packed up her family for a simpler life in Terengganu.
While settling in, the rainforest began to speak to her and, like Suria, she started practicing batik in its original form. Feeling the old ways needed a new, modern sensibility, she put her artistic eye to work and started making beautiful, modern batik designs using traditional hand blocking and hand printing techniques. At her workshop outside her home, she is training a new generation of artisans in these traditional methods.
Sul and Shauqi, Nysa apprentices.
Also in Terengganu, we met Malaysia's most renowned block maker, Zachariah Ismail, or Pok Ya. Pok Ya has been hand making metal blocks for batik since he was 15. There have been countless books, documentaries and even calendars in Malaysia featuring his work.
Unfortunately, the government recently moved him from his seaside workshop to a small, cramped government apartment so they could develop his land. It was heartbreaking to see this true artist surrounded by cinder blocks not sea and sand. Pok Ya is only one of two master block makers left in Malaysia.
Both Suria's and Nysa's work support Pok Ya buying both his blocks and commissioning him to design unique blocks for their collections. A portion of the proceeds from our ocean+main collaboration with Suria Artisan Batik will help fund future collections and blocks from Pok Ya.
Remote, isolated, and far-flung, Tioman ticked all the boxes for us. With pristine, deserted beaches surrounded by rainforest, we couldn't have chosen a better place to end our Malaysian adventure than this South China Sea jewel.
Our hotel, Japamala, a rustic eco-hide-away, is barely visible from the shore. Great care was taken to build it's 16 luxurious bungalows’ as not a rock was moved or tree felled to build this beautiful resort. Bravo, Japamala.
When that email arrived in early 2018, I had no idea where that particular bread crumb would lead, but it took me on an exploration beyond my wildest expectations. To meet these beautiful people, to see this beautiful place, to find this beautiful fabric and to give ocean+main international an actual purposed direction, it feels like magic.