An Interview with Ms. Lan MA, the Founder of Ta Xiang
No matter how rapidly this world changes, natural beauty and authentic art remain everlasting. Beyond all the industrial development and technology breakthroughs, the precious pieces created by artisan hands forever shine with exotic beauty and continually tell stories of another era.
From miniature painting techniques dated back to the 6th and 7th centuries to Cota silk weaving skills with 300 years of history, from gem bracelets, silk floss scarves to hand woven baskets and natural shell handbags… “Ta Xiang”, a lifestyle brand selling pure handmade products, is now bringing to China’s consumers a huge variety of unique pieces created by skillful artisans in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey. On one hand, traditional art has been revived, and on the other, the local poor female artisans gain economic independence and social identity.
The founder of Ta Xiang, Ms. Lan has had a very distinctive career path. After she got her Ph.D degree in Biochemistry from Boston, she worked in P&G, McKinsey and Dupont, mainly involved in brand marketing. Two years ago, however, she gave up her career and began a completely new chapter in her life. Together with several other women who share the same love of handmade arts, and also have rich traveling experience and cultural resources, Lan created Ta Xiang. SpaChina interviewed her. Let’s hear her talk about life, dreams, art, wellbeing and social responsibility.
Tell us about Ta Xiang. What are your main products and who are your customers?
Ta Xiang is a lifestyle brand. It brings imported, handmade, high quality and unique lifestyle products for personal and home use to China. Each piece is exquisitely designed and painstakingly made by overseas artisans using special techniques, taking days or even months. The name Ta Xiang means ‘Her Village’ and ‘Her Community’. The brand was started by women, the products are made by women artisans and they are for women and their families.
We are a few Chinese and foreign women who have lived, worked and travelled all over the world. From faraway countries, on roads less travelled, in remote countryside areas and villages, and in hard-to-find alleys, we found delightful handcrafted objects. They carry cultures, history and stories. They connect with our hearts, touch our souls and enable our individual expressions, different from any other person. Through Ta Xiang, we wish to connect women, from city to rural areas, from the privileged to the less privileged, from creator to consumer, from dedication to appreciation, all through a common bridge of appreciation of beauty, authenticity and the magic of the human hand.
Ta Xiang is now working with NGOs (Non-Government Organizations), Non-Profit Organizations and independent local designers to bring unique and beautiful handcrafted lifestyle products into China. Our customers are mainly educated and interested in arts and culture. Many of them are handicraft lovers. They purchase our products for personal use or as gifts because they find Ta Xiang products unique, of good quality and special. We currently mainly promote and sell products on We-shop (wei dian) and at selected designer/handicraft markets. We also collaborate with a few other brands.
One of the major goals of Ta Xiang is to help poor female artisans realize economic independence. Could you tell us more about this?
That’s true. Although Ta Xiang is a brand for profit, at the same time, it has non-profit characteristics and socia l responsibilities. We work with overseas NGOs to help provide livelihood for those women artisans who have a low economic background, yet they are very skilled and dedicated in their crafts. We also hope to help promote the handicraft techniques, many of which are close to disappearing these days.
In our spa world, we always emphasize the balance and unity of body and heart. In your opinion, what is the spiritual and social meaning of your present life and work?
Along my career path, I have always sought such an ideal job as this one: it matches my values and interests, and helps me improve myself. Working with Ta Xiang gives me a chance to fully display my potential capacity and enables me to achieve a balance among work, family life, children, friends and myself. This new job gives me much passion and satisfaction. Now I can focus on the things I love, do things in the manner I myself approve of and arrange my life according to my own will.
In the past, I was a perfectionist and too demanding of myself as well as of the people around me, which in fact gave me much pressure. Now I follow the Twenty-eight Law. I enjoy the process of getting better and better gradually. Now I understand more of how to enjoy the journey.
These are the things I am learning now: not wasting time thinking about or being entangled with meaningless things, not deliberately holding to the memory of the past, not worrying too much about the future; being more tolerant and calm, self-knowing and self-disciplined. If you want to achieve a balanced life, you need to know yourself, believe in yourself and spend more time with those whom you love and care for.
These are my discoveries and that is my understanding of the way to seek a balanced status of body and soul. Now with Ta Xiang, we have the chance to share beautiful products as well as the stories, cultures and histories behind the products with our customers. Likewise, our customers not only buy material things, but also join us in the appreciation of culture and art. Although we started not long ago, we have already attracted a group of loyal customers who appreciate our products and concepts.
Meanwhile, as I said, we also help women artisans who live in poor areas to achieve economic independence. We are very pleased with this.
To most people today, mass-produced products still dominate their daily lives. How do you see the development potential of pure handmade products?
I have always loved beautiful handmade things. During my corporate career of 20 years, I traveled all over the world and wherever I was, I searched for beautiful handicrafts. I found the most beautiful things in countries with rich hand-making traditions such as India, Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey. Even several centuries after the Industrial Revolution with so much assembly line-produced identical finished goods, people still like handicrafts. The variety and vibrancy of handicrafts, the story and legacy they carry of human life still attract people. People immediately feel a special affinity with handicrafts as they help them to assert their unique identities and place in this world. In a stitch, through a thread, craftsmen display their unique skills. Then, the silent material world is transformed into life and meaning. Ta Xiang firmly believes that handicrafts are an art filled with warmth and soul from the very beginning. I believe that in today’s fast-moving and large-scale production era, there is great value and need to let individual, unique and handmade things come into our lives. These things are not only for utility, they also enrich our daily lives and allow us to express ourselves as individuals.
What challenges have you met while operating such a handmade brand and how do you resolve them?
A purely handmade brand has its distinctiveness and thus brings many challenges. As our products mainly come from remote foreign lands where the economy is less developed yet traditional handicraft techniques are best reserved, it is sometimes hard to guarantee a stable and large-scale supple of goods. The production cycle is subject to the artisans’ time available, the supply of raw materials and climate change. Therefore, in the last year, we have worked hard on this problem. Now we have established stable cooperation with many artisans, non-profit organizations and individual designers to guarantee the supply of products.
Another challenge comes from the market. Unlike volume production by machines, it is inevitable to see handmade traces in our products. We have tried many methods including testing the quality of the materials, but we still cannot ensure that any two product items will be completely the same. For example, our cloth products are mostly dyed with organic natural dye, such as indigo blue. So when you wash it with water for the first time, the color may fall off a little. But all these are the characteristics of handmade products. They exactly show the authenticity and charm of them. Some customers haven’t fully recognized such beauty and cannot tolerate tiny flaws or nuance. But we find that more and more Chinese people are turning from big brand machine produced products to individual brands focused on handmade products. I believe the trend will keep developing and more people will fall in love with and choose handmade products which deliver warmth, culture and stories. I am very happy that we now have won many fans. Some customers have made purchases from our We-shop a dozen times already. And our return-purchase rate reaches 20%-25%.
What opinions or suggestions do you have on improving the physical and mental health of modern women?
Modern women often face much pressure from multiple aspects such as family, children and career. I think, to improve their mental and physical health, the first thing is to achieve a balance between work and personal life. We can do exercise and treatments to effectively keep our physical health and adjust our mentality to maintain mental health. Personally, I visit spas regularly. Every time after a spa treatment, all my tiredness melts away. Moreover, I have a more sober mind and a better mood. Concerning mental health, my suggestion is to leave more time to yourself so that you can know and love yourself better. Your best friend through life is no one else but yourself. Also, set a clear boundary between work and personal life. If it is beyond your ability, boldly say “no”. Our time and energy are limited, so we need to give them to the people and things we really care about. Surely, we meet annoyance and confusion now and then, but we need to try our best to avoid their influence and learn to be concerned with issues rather than individuals.
Spa also focuses on the wellbeing of women. Are you selling products at spas? If yes, how is the sales performance so far?
Yes. Ta Xiang and spas both target women customers. Likewise, as a lifestyle brand, our handmade products manifest a pursuit and passion toward quality life, just as do the spas. So we firmly believe that in the future, Ta Xiang will appear at more spas in China. At present, we have already entered Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake and are very pleased with the feedback from the spa and customers.