Fashion Designer Pipatchara Kaeojinda Creates Handbags With A Purpose
Here’s how she does it.
Fast fashion has forever changed the clothing industry. Today’s businesses continue to go after the ever-growing profits while most consumers are still eager to indulge, generating an insatiable need for newness. In defiance of this frivolous, albeit profitable, approach, fashion designer Pipatchara Kaeojinda and her sister Jittrinee Kaeojinda resolved to run their small accessories business, PIPATCHARA, with a slower, more intentional process. From the very start, the duo set out to achieve a lofty goal: To create jobs in their native home of Thailand and maintain sustainable and responsible production in every component of their brand’s supply chain process — and, you know, make really cute bags.
PIPATCHARA’s brand story began in 2019, when Jittrinee visited a village in Northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. She was a volunteer for a non-profit that installed clean water tanks in several communities. (The region’s rural population faces discrimination and economic inequality by the wealthier urban elites.) On the trip, she was introduced to several educators (i.e. primary school teachers) who lived in the area and discovered that many of them turned to short-term weaving jobs as an additional source of income. At the time, the sisters were well into mapping out the exact manufacturing processes for their handbag brand. They had already determined that the label’s pièce de résistance would be macramé — a type of artwork technique where various cords and strings are knotted into textiles and patterns — and now they needed people to help them bring the vision to life.
As a handicraft, macramé is not dissimilar to weaving or knitting — so it felt natural for Jittrinee to ask if those educators would be interested in teaching the technique to PIPATCHARA’s future employees as a way to consistently supplement their salaries. (The teachers would get compensated for each completed piece of macramé.) Ultimately, the teachers said yes — and the rest, as they say, is history. The process of learning macramé didn’t present a challenge for the majority of the Thai villagers.
“Thai people are really good at all things handmade, so they generally know how to create this kind of thing by hand,” says Pipatchara over Zoom. To this day, the label’s macramé instructors don’t have an arts and crafts specialty and still teach subjects like Thai, English, Math, and the sciences.
At the outset, PIPATCHARA only had five employees who worked on the macramé detailing. Since then, the business has grown almost sixfold. The company now employs anywhere from 25 to 30 macramé artisans in several villages across the Mae Hong Son province. (The exact number of workers depends on the size of any given collection and the demand for the pieces.) “It’s been four years now [since we first launched our brand], and these villagers are still at the core of our business,” Pipatchara says. “They still make every piece that we sell by hand.”
Pipatchara and Jittrinee, who both currently reside in Thailand, continue to personally teach their employees how to craft PIPATCHARA’s signature macramé pattern, too. This face-to-face communication also serves another purpose: the technique has to remain a company secret as it is the proverbial “special sauce” to the label’s designs. Traditionally, macramé is a weaving technique that uses knots to create textiles and decorative elements like table runners and wall hangings. There are dozens of knotting patterns used in macramé, and the sisters experimented with them until they came up with a special one of their own.
“We think of it as an art piece — that’s why we have to choose a teacher that we believe has the potential and responsibility, and understands that this is a business,” Pipatchara says. “They can’t just teach [the technique] to anyone, so that other people can go and reproduce it on the market.”
Once finished, these macramé designs are added on the PIPATCHARA bags’ front sides or straps, as well as on the tops of their shoes. What’s more, they aren’t merely a decorative element but are also a reflection of the sisters’ shared love for the visual arts. The idea to use this handicraft as a signature design element emerged when Pipatchara came across one of the bigger macramé pieces Jittrinee made while studying the craft.
“I told her how inspiring it is for me, and how I really want to carry this [the macramé] with me every day,” she recalls. “So we [started] thinking about creating a brand that was based on this idea of using macramé as the [foundational] technique.”
Pipatchara and Jittrinee’s interest in handicrafts stemmed from early childhood, as their mother was an artist. Pipatchara received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in womenswear design from San Francisco’s Academy of Art University in 2013 and moved to Paris to study fashion for a year. While in school, she worked design jobs for industry legends Ralph Lauren, Givenchy, and Chloé. At this time, Jittrinee worked for the United Nations and, subsequently, other nonprofit organizations like the Issara Institute in Thailand. It was there that she learned about the importance of ethical and responsible business practices, as well as environmental sustainability, at all stages of production such as sourcing, manufacturing, and recruitment. This would later come in handy, as Jittrinee now oversees all of these processes at PIPATCHARA.
If at this point you now want to add a PIPATCHARA piece to your collection, that’s understandable. And if you’re not sure what piece to purchase, consider the macramé strap Sama Box bag — Pipatchara’s first-ever creation for the brand, which holds a special place in her heart.
“I feel like it’s not just a fashion bag, it’s an art piece that people [will appreciate for a long time],” Pipatchara says. If this option doesn’t pique your interest, not to worry — there are seven additional handbag styles you can choose from, all offered in a variety of sizes and colors. And purses aside, the brand has now expanded to other product categories like macramé-adorned sandals and wallets, plus several ready-to-wear options.
With product expansion, the two sisters are also keeping in mind their pact to build an environmentally-friendly business. When speaking about the brand’s sustainability ethos, Pipatchara cites several elements that she and her sister integrated into the supply chain to reduce PIPATCHARA’s environmental impact as much as possible. The leather, for instance, comes from a leather factory in Arzignano, a town in Italy’s Tuscany region, that has received the ISO (International Organization of Standardization) certificate for environmental responsibility. (Essentially, this means its water usage, waste disposal, level of air emissions, electricity consumption, and more met ISO’s standards for sustainability.) Additionally, the leather itself is a byproduct of the local meat industry and comes from cows that are being farmed for meat and/or milk, rather than for their skins alone.
“While working at Chloé and Givenchy, I would fly a lot to visit the suppliers and see their product in real life,” Pipatchara recalls. “And what I found is that their leather is so high-quality that I can use almost 100% of what they have. It translates to less waste, which is better for me and for the environment.”
The duo is also experimenting with cactus leather, which has been heralded as a more eco-friendly alternative to plastic-based vegan leather options, to craft their handbags and shoes. In addition, Pipatchara says that the brand is about to introduce a new range of handbags made entirely from recycled plastic materials such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene), PS (polystyrene), and PP (polypropylene) in the next couple of months. “You haven’t seen it anywhere in PIPATCHARA yet, so I’m excited for this next step forward in terms of sustainability,” she adds.
This admirable desire to create a lasting, positive impact on the planet and in Thailand’s communities, remains the driving force behind their business to this day.
“From the first day that we started our brand, we had this community [of villagers, teachers, and weavers,] that worked for us,” Pipatchara explains. “Every time I feel like I don’t have the motivation to run our business, I look at them and immediately feel like I know what I’m doing. I know this is going to work because it’s not just me and my sister, but it’s also them. We have no regrets about anything we have done over the past years.”
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