Denica Riadini-Flesch chats with Prestige about her vision, making an impact and how SukkhaCitta can transform the fashion industry.
For trained economist Denica Riadini-Flesch, it was never fashion, trends or profits that drove her. It was simply about the journey of building a fairer world and change it for the better. Her way? Empowering artisans in villages across Indonesia by providing intensive training in craft, design and business skills, before connecting them to a global market through her social enterprise, SukkhaCitta – a wordplay of suka cita which is Indonesian for “joy.” In a simple yet impactful way, Sukkha creates social impact by investing in the capacity building of rural craftswoman and ensuring that they earn a proper living wage. This is her story on how our choices can make an enormous impact on someone else’s life.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and life before SukkhaCitta?
My background is actually as a development economist. I worked a lot in the non-profit sector. I’ve always been a nerd who cares and I always wanted to contribute to Indonesia. My desire to have more meaning drove me to do my own research, travelling from village to village to learn about poverty. What I found was a reality so hidden from us living in cities: The exploitation of women and our planet that happens behind what we wear every day. I was heartbroken. It was the first time I directly witnessed how not everyone gets the same chance in life, especially as women. And this was the moment I realized I needed to build bridges, connecting these amazing women with access to education and fair work.
Where did you found this enormous passion for sustainability and the will for making a difference?
Meeting the ibus truly changed my life! The sad reality is that 98 percent of women who make our clothes can’t earn enough to care for their families. It made me realize how enormous the impact our choices can have in someone else’s life. But more than that, I saw first-hand the devastating impact of chemicals being used to make our clothes. Rivers turning the colour of the latest trend – and that’s the same river being used by children and what irrigates the crops we eat.
These conditions drove me to find a better way. What if we can create clothes that help women get out of poverty while healing our planet? But I knew I couldn’t do it alone. So, I decided to build a social enterprise, to invite you along to be part of the journey building a fairer world, where each purchase funds our work in the villages and changes the world for the better.
In what ways does SukkhaCitta help out these artisans and its communities?
Together with our ibus, we create beautiful clothes that are #MadeRight. This means that it provides a living wage, is made using sustainably-sourced materials, and sustains indigenous cultures. We call this the most meaningful clothes, where 56 percent of your purchase goes back to our villages and fund our craft schools.
SukkhaCitta started with only three women who were brave enough to believe in me. Today, our work providing access to education and living wages affects 1,432 lives in rural Indonesia. With the help of our community, we’ve funded four craft schools where young women can come and learn the skills to get their families out of poverty.
How do you choose the artisans for SukkhaCitta?
For us, it’s all about impact potential. We’re not looking for places to produce. So, typically, I would be doing the baseline surveys to assess the needs in the village and whether or not we can actually contribute to solve the issues faced by the people there. This is why social capital and building trust is so important in our work.
Why did you choose to create a fashion brand instead of focusing on other fields such as, say, agriculture?
Well actually, the two are hugely interlinked. We don’t think about it often, but your clothes start from the earth. Perhaps being someone from outside of the fashion industry allowed me to be more aware of this. Instead of focusing just on trends, we focus more on building one of the world’s first farm-to-closet supply chains. We work with farmers to switch away from conventional agriculture so we can grow plant dyes and fibres in a way that actually heals the planet.
What were the challenges you faced in the five years since SukkhaCitta was established?
Having no background whatsoever in running a lifestyle brand – or a business for that matter – I had to battle fear and self-doubt every step of the way. There was just me with a to-do-list that seemed to get longer every day. I learned then that it’s possible to have a full-blown mental roller coaster while one is rolling threads for silk scarves.
Every day, I wondered whether I’ve gone mad leaving my stable corporate job. I wondered if I could pull this off or if I was capable enough. But I couldn’t stop; not after what I’d seen. I grew up in the city. Things exist in shops. I never realized that behind something as simple as what we wear are women we’ll never meet. I just didn’t want my choices to hurt them anymore.
SukkhaCita has been recognized by SEED Awards for changing how clothes are grown. How will you seize this momentum for the brand?
By keep doing what we always do. We never really do something for the sake of marketing. We focus on the mission and always try to do the right thing, even when it’s not easy. But we’re honoured to be able to represent Indonesia on the global sustainability stage.
Do you have any plans to expand SukkhaCitta to other areas?
Definitely! We’re currently working on opening our platform to allow brands and designers to easily source #MadeRight supplies such as naturally-dyed fabric and materials. Now, more than ever, I find it imperative to find ways to collaborate so that we can transform the industry.
In the long-term, how do you see SukkhaCitta helping rural communities?
When you purchase a SukkhaCitta piece, the first thing you realize is that there are real lives impacted through your choice. The power of this idea is vast. You are not giving them aid; you are giving them a chance earn a wage that allows them to support their families.
The reason this is significant is that it allows these women to keep the one thing that is so often taken away from them: pride. When someone appreciates your work and you are able to make a living from it, your pride remains intact. Accepting charity means that you have to swallow your pride and accept because you have no other choice.
Offering people pride leads to empowerment; and empowerment leads to real change. There’s this sense of pride because ultimately empowerment – that wasn’t there before – makes them belief in themselves.
During our last field trip to our first village, I was surprised to see pieces of A4 paper on the wall. Apparently, the women were brainstorming how they can improve education of the children in their village through scholarships. I nearly broke into tears. I think this is the essence of empowerment: When they feel like they can change their own lives and are taking active steps to be agents of change in their own communities.
What is the behind for your determination?
For me, it’s about creating a legacy. It gives me meaning to know that everything I do builds a future that I want to live in – to leave the world a better place than when I found it.
“Offering people pride leads to empowerment; and empowerment leads to real change. There’s this sense of pride because ultimately empowerment – that wasn’t there before – makes them belief in themselves”
Tell us about the Rumah SukkhaCitta Foundation…
As a social enterprise, 100 percent of our profits are invested back into our village development programs. This includes finding more villages, funding our craft schools, and also our regenerative farms. We focus on investing in women, providing them with planet-friendly tools to thrive while reversing climate change.
And it’s working. In our villages and beyond, our ibus are becoming changemakers who lift up their communities. But we cannot do it alone. As of 2020, we decided to open the foundation for partners who believe in our mission and would like to amplify it together.
How can the average person contribute to your foundation?
We have a scholarship and land stewardship program you can donate to. You can either choose to be a monthly donor or contribute to a specific project. And of course, every SukkhaCitta purchase directly contributes to advance our mission.
Are there any upcoming projects from SukkhaCitta that you can share with us?
This August marks our five years of us changing lives together. This is a profound moment for me. What started as a longing for meaning turned into a global movement that has sparked so much change in ways I never even dreamt of.
The journey was not linear and it was definitely far from easy. Especially these past 18 months, there were moments when I just wanted to quit and hide. The ups and downs, the lingering uncertainty … sometimes I felt like I couldn’t breathe as more and more women came to us, looking for work. Yet no matter how hard it was, it taught me that we all have the power to be a source of hope and light.
“For me, it’s about creating a legacy. It gives me meaning to know that everything I do builds a future that I want to live in – to leave the world a better place than when I found it”
Are there any particular milestones or achievements you hope to tackle soon?
We’ll be launching our first 100 percent regenerative cotton collection near the end of the year, and it’s truly something I’m excited about.
Other than SukkhaCitta, what else are you passionate about?
I love travelling to remote areas of Indonesia. It makes me feel connected to nature and is one of the reasons why I feel it’s important to protect it.
Now that we’re few months away from 2022, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
Being kind. The pandemic is taking a toll on everyone. So, being kind whenever possible is my intention for this year.