It all began with a heartbreak, when Denica Flesch – founder of SukkhaCitta, a socially conscious clothing line comprising pieces handmade by women artisans in rural Indonesian villages – saw what was going on firsthand in these villages across Java, Kalimantan Bali and Flores. She saw individuals trapped in the endless poverty and learned about the handmade fashion industry’s dirty little secret: 98% of all women who make our clothes worldwide are paid so little that they do not earn enough to meet their basic needs.
“What I found was the reality so hidden for us living in cities: the exploitation of the women and our Earth that happens behind what we wear every day,” Denica shares.
Using only natural dyes with Indigo leaves and handwoven fabrics like raw cotton, tencel and sylk using Eucalyptus fibers, the brand promises to connect you and the Earth – and every hand in between. It also works with marginalized, often invisible craftswomen in villages, not factories, supporting the livelihoods of 1,282 lives and counting.
Grounded in the belief that our choices shouldn’t come at the cost of our environment and exploitation, the origins of the SukkhaCitta name is rooted in Sanskrit and it means happiness in Indonesian. The brand hopes to be the change it seeks in the world today – to do things right by the people who make our clothes, to do things right by our Planet and to do things right by ourselves.
In face of the Covid-19 pandemic this year, like many other businesses, SukkhaCitta is reeling from a staggering 80% decline in sales. The company is now using their resources to keep these artisans in work so that they are able to continue with their livelihoods. The brand is also making three-layered Hope masks made of leaf motifs. Like the new leaves drawn by these women, the opportunity to work gave them a new hope in these turbulent times.
We had the opportunity to talk to Denica on why she embarked on this journey to effect change, her challenges and fears and how she keeps on doing the work that she does. Denica is also part of the Forbes 30 under 30 list of changemakers who challenge the status quo and build businesses as a force for good.
1. What’s your story?
Having previously worked in the development field, I saw firsthand the challenges faced by last-mile communities in Indonesia. My desire to understand led me to travel and do my own research to see what’s keeping these individuals trapped in poverty.
In a country where education acts as a barrier for these last-mile communities to enter formal employment, craft offers a livelihood option to nearly 30 million people living under poverty. Yet, despite the rise of the creative industry, I was saddened to see the reality for these remarkable artisans. Often, what they receive does not reflect the value of their work, and an unjust equilibrium is perpetuated.
This led me to start SukkhaCitta, a social enterprise that pioneers transparency and change for artisans in villages across Indonesia. The name itself means happiness in Indonesian, which embodies the mission to bring back stories and pride to these remarkable craftswomen who have remained invisible for too long.
2. Why did you start SukkhaCitta?
When I was doing my research, I found that craft is a really complicated industry. Between us and the artisans exists a complex subcontracting layer of factories and middlemen—down to someone making that fabric in her home. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 60 percent of handcrafted pieces are made this way, by a woman who couldn’t leave her village because she has to take care of her children, a woman who has no say in what she earns from her work.
There’s currently a lot of discussion surrounding fast fashion and its impact on the workers, but most focus only on factory work. One thing that struck me was that majority of artisans actually work outside of the formal factory setting. Without any access, most of these women live in poverty. What makes it worse is that as an informal industry, no regulation exists to protect these women.
I think that was my ah-ha moment, to realize that there’s a broken link between us as customers and the way our clothes are made. It was then when I felt the need to build a bridge. A model that invites our customers to be part of the solution of some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems.
3. What is one challenge no one knows about when you first launched your business?
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 day after day. I learned then that it’s possible to have a full-blown mental roller coaster while one is rolling threads off silk scarves. Every day, I wondered whether I’d gone mad leaving my stable corporate job. I wondered if I could pull this off or if I was 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 didn’t want my choices to hurt them anymore.
4. Describe what SukkhaCitta stands for.
SukkhaCitta means happiness in Indonesian. We live in a world where the conventional world view is to accumulate more to be happy. That was my definition of success – until I felt like a hamster on a wheel. Always striving, never arriving. It was through my pursuit for meaning that I stumbled on these issues – never realizing just how disconnected we are with the humans behind some of the things we use every day. I thought the name embodies our mission to restore that connection in the pursuit of a more meaningful life.
5. Oftentimes being an entrepreneur requires mental fortitude to forge a new path and face uncertainties. What is your greatest fear, and how do you manage fear?
My greatest fear is that SukkhaCitta would fail and I would disappoint all these mothers who rely on us for their livelihoods. Over the years, I learnt that fear is just something that you have to live with. Instead of letting it stop you, just do what feels right to you. You’ll learn along the way. By pursuing what gives you meaning, you inspire your surroundings to find theirs. And somehow, it led me to a community that wants to leave the world better than when we found it – both in the villages and in the cities.
6. What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The freedom to build your own solution that works.
7. What is a health hack or wellness tip you personally subscribe to?
Yoga and meditation – without it I would be so lost!
8. What is one advice you would give to budding local women entrepreneurs today?
Believe in yourself. Especially as women, we face a lot of social stigma around our roles in the society. Remember that your dream matters, we need to set the line for ourselves for otherwise, no one else will.
Jolene lives for avo toasts, yoga and is a little more OCD than she cares to admit. She never fails to start her day with morning coffee and is very partial to flat whites. She is obsessed with interiors and homeware, and is currently taking her RYT 200h yoga teacher training course as an aspiring ashtangi.