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Designer Stacey Syiem On Teaching Her 3 Daughters About India Through Mary Kom And Bollywood

  • IWB Post
  •  May 23, 2018

Fashion designer Stacey Pongener Syiem has been weaving a successful career in the UK with elan. She has been running three businesses – Little Hill People, Stacey Strahand, and Independent London Fashion Week in the countryside of West Yorkshire. Now a proud mother of three adorable daughters, Stacey once wished to be a boy.

Recalling her childhood in Meghalaya, Stacey told us, “Every birthday I would say to myself ‘if I was born a boy perhaps dad would have accepted me, loved me, and treated me better.’” Stacey was the youngest in her family and following the Matrilineal system (youngest daughter inherits all the ancestral property) in her region she would receive the largest share of the property which was against her father’s wish.

We learned more about Stacey’s childhood, journey, and how she has successfully been setting the right example for her daughters. Excerpts:

Why was your father against the matrilineal system?

He was and is still on a quest to introduce the Patrilineal system in Meghalaya. He wanted the lion’s share but because of the system it was given to his sister. This put the hatred for the system in him. And, so when I was born he was furious and didn’t want to have anything to do with me.

Hmm. But, did things become better with time?

Not really. I was three when he sent me away to live with relatives. I had to return to the family when my aunt relocated abroad and didn’t want to take me along because of financial reasons. At home, I then tried to act like a man and started doing heavy labour on the farm just to prove that I could be just as worthy as my brothers. In his eyes, women are weak, manipulative, and bred to become wives and mothers.

Which you proved wrong!

Yes, and I feel amazing! When I got tired of proving my right to be his heir, I swam out of the pond and ventured into the wilderness, excited and free, to do what I was destined to be. It’s an incredible feeling to know that the girls in my city now look up to me. I had promised my six-year-old self that someday I will do great things and the “being a girl” tag will not be able to stop me. I was determined and understood that if I have the brains and courage to achieve something in life, nothing can stop me.

Amen!

Give us a recap of your early memories of North-East India that sewed your fashion aesthetics.

I grew up reading magazines – Society and Femina mainly, which helped me a lot to recognize my passion. Along with the western culture, that was heavily influencing back then in my region, I was equally attached to the traditional aesthetics. And, it was probably because of the handloom culture which is passed from generation to generation in our culture. It was passed on to me from my grandmother (maternal). It’s beautiful, it tells a story, and I love to incorporate its aesthetics in western fashion.

Besides the magazines, what was your personal fashion school?

It was basically the magazines. My mother, my sisters, all of them had subscribed to a few which I used to read. I have also liked and inspired the designs of designers Ritu Beri and Rohit Bal.

According to you, Stacey, what is the biggest threat to fair trade? And, how do you, as a designer, support women artisans’ livelihood?

The fast-fashion and mass production are the biggest threats. They lead to exploitation of art and artisans.

I started with a collaboration with an NGO that provided livelihood programmes to women. And, now I buy directly from women weavers from Assam, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. I try to give a bulk order to them in every six months and I don’t haggle with them.

Stacey Syiem

Stacey’s youngest daughter Georgina who is wearing the Assam muga silk ead scraf from Little Hill People

Meanwhile, I could hear super cute background score from her 14-month-old daughter.

Tell us about the one artisan story that will stay forever with you and one life lesson that you have learnt from Tribal artisans.

There was a weaver who was married when she was just 14 to a man 20 years older to her. She had no idea about her husband’s mental condition – Schizophrenia. With time she also discovered him to be alcoholic and violent.

It was difficult for her to get divorced from him as she wasn’t educated and had two children to take care of. I helped her slowly by paying her house rent, ordered in bulk from her, and helped her to get work from foreign designers. With time, we took help from an NGO to file her divorce. It was ugly and did take few months but it was all worth it. She is happier now.

One life lesson that I have learned from Tribal artisans is to be proud of your heritage. Your culture, your tradition represents your ancestors. Embrace that with pride and dignity.

Speaking of which, the tagline of your brand “Little Hill People” is “My culture goes where I go.” Have there been moments where your identity has been challenged and you had to stand for it?

I think more than that people have had a problem to fathom the fact that I am from India. They often confuse me to be from Thailand or Korea.

In terms of fashion, there has been a challenge. Our eastern Tribal aesthetic is bold, we love dark colors but in the English market they like pastels and softer colors. To blend these two tastes has been a bit of challenge.

How do you discover and support local artisans, weavers, knitters, and spinners through Stacey Strahand?

It’s actually easy in England. There is a market which we call ‘artisan’ market, where we go from stall to stall, buy from them, and stay in contact with them for future collaborations.

I think we also need to emphasize the need of introducing weaving, handloom or knitting in the school curriculum. This should help in children staying in touch with their roots which they seem to be losing because of technology and mass production.

Stacey Syiem

At London Fashion Week in February 2018.
Photo Credits : Gokhan Goksoy, VR Agency

Give us a peek into the one treasured handloom in your wardrobe and tell us the story behind it.

It’s from my grandmother, who I am closest to. She had given me a wrap around or lungi, which now I have transformed into a handbag. I carry it almost everywhere and it’s like taking along my grandmother with me.

Stacey Syiem

Stacey and her cousins with their grandmother.

Please suggest ways to break fashion monotony with tribal accessories.

Wear a plain colored dress and accessorise it with a Tribal clutch or a necklace. You’ll look glamorous and you’ll slip into a great cocktail look.

Let’s talk about your three beautiful daughters. They are being raised away from their homeland, how do you keep them connected to their roots?

Stacey Syiem

Stacey with her daughters Anabelle, Naomi, and Georgina

I speak to them in our local language, take them to Indian restaurants every two weeks, give rotis in tiffins, sometimes watch Bollywood movies, and listen to Hindi songs.

By then the little munchkin had fallen asleep.

Who are the North-East Indian role models you would tell your daughters about?

Well, the youngest one is too young to understand this, but I do tell the other two about Mary Kom and Priyanka Chopra. Both of them have made our nation immensely proud and I love their movie Mary Kom.

My daughters go to Karate classes which I think is very important for their self-confidence and will help them to be strong.

Will you be our travel guide to the North-East handloom culture, please?

Well, if you’re looking for silk, I would highly recommend the Assam Eri silk which is made of silkworms which popularly is also known as the non-violent silk. Basically, in the process it allows worms to develop into an adult and use the open-ended part of cocoon for silk. The silk is generally used to make shawls and quilt as it is very soft and warm. It also has the natural gold sheen.

If you’re looking for cotton, head to Nagaland. There they use the natural technique to dye, which I absolutely love. The natural dyes are made using natural elements like wildflower, indigo, and turmeric.

What is your personal goal for the year 2018?

It is to spend more time with family. I have been working at erratic times and it has been insane! I want to make a balance between family and profession.

 This article was first published on March 13, 2018.

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