For most clothing brands, it begins with conducting a marketing research, creating designs, and finding the right manufacturer to make the garments. However, in the case of Bhukram, things played out a little differently.
Founded by former community historian Pilan “Maew” Thaisuang, the brand is inspired by the local wisdom of the villagers in her hometown of Phu Pan, Sakon Nakhon. Having seen how the local artisans are able to produce unique handicrafts, Maew wanted to create a brand that celebrates the art of cotton weaving in the community. Now in its eighth year, Bhukram is an established name in natural-dyed, hand-embroidered cotton.
The inspiration behind Bhukram
“It’s about finding the value in a community and discovering what natural resources and cultural heritage can be used to enrich the livelihoods of the people who live here. I wanted to promote the art of embroidery as well as the nature, environment and ways of life in these parts to the general public.”
Working with the community
As a community historian, Maew made it a point to work closely with the communities to learn about them as part of creating the Bhukram brand.
“It’s in my nature to work alongside the communities. As a brand, Bhukram is quite open so there’s a lot of self-learning involved. My goal is to promote the local way of life, nature, and environmental conservation. The local artisans are actively participating in various stages of the brand’s production process. They’re encouraged to come up with their own concepts and create their own designs while being eco-friendly.”
“Working with local villagers varies because each community is different. It’s a process in which I gradually learn about their potential as well as mine, and how well I can work with them.”
Bhukram is a learning process
“Bhukram is a learning process. Here, I learn about my surroundings, myself, and the personal development of my colleagues. Working with the communities is often challenging and complicated. It takes time to gain an understanding about a community. Since the villagers are included in a lot of processes, I have to be both firm and compromising about the way I run the brand. For example, I’m quite transparent when it comes to paying wages. Our weavers get paid according to the cost price, profit margin, and their own assessment of their quality of life. We work like we’re business partners, not as bosses and employees. When our artisans are able to design their own products, they’ll see the value and have an appreciation for what they’ve created. It’s all part of the learning process.”
“Thanks to the process of working with the communities, I’m able to help revive old crafts and add value to what would otherwise be regarded as of lesser value.”
Facebook as a community platform
“Facebook is a community platform on which we tell our stories and sell our products. The artisans can go in and see what kind of feedback their work is getting. If it’s positive, they’ll be proud of themselves and want to improve their skills. Although we didn’t really focus on the marketing side of things in the beginning, I found out that what we’ve already been doing is actually how you do marketing. The villagers want to see how many likes they get, so giving their work a ‘like’ really encourages them to keep going.”
“Most people tend to ‘like’ posts that feature beautiful products, but not so much when it comes to posts about the process behind them. ‘Likes’ really boost our artisans’ morale.”
‘A Letter from Ancestors’
According to Maew, Bhukram’s latest collection ‘A Letter from Ancestors’ was a project that took two years to complete. It was inspired by cave paintings found in the mountains of Phu Pan. Once the concept was established, she took a field trip there with the artisans to study the paintings and discussed the weaving technique that was right for the job.
Lessons learned from the communities
“I learned a lot from working with the communities. When making plans, I know that things will not go according to them 100%. The plans are there to guide us. Most of the time, it’s all about problem solving. There’s a lot of factors involved – it’s not like we hire the artisans on a job-by-job basis. What we do as a brand is reviving and restoring and I have to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Not everyone has the same goal as I do, though, because everyone is different. I choose them as I go.”
“The goal of Bhukram is to ultimately conserve the environment and the local ways of life. I know that it’s a huge goal and a rather abstract one at that, so I’m taking it step by step. As far as the community’s long-term environmental conservation goes, it hasn't quite reached 20% yet. I want to raise awareness about it because these related issues are not really a hot topic. We are complacent because, when a couple of trees or even a hundred of them are destroyed, we don’t immediately feel the environmental impact. It takes time to ingrain the change of mentality into the local residents and the people I work with. I believe, though, that change will come in the future. Phu Pan is one of a few stretches of forests in the upper east region. I want to first focus on that before raising awareness about other areas.”