Style & Beauty

Fashion Designer Pearly Wong Lends a Helping Hand to Women Refugees

For International Women’s Day, we celebrate just a few of the many Malaysian women who are in careers of passion, rather than tradition. Here’s how Pearly Wong is giving back by educating refugees through her skill and experience as a designer.

Mar 06, 2018 | By Zoe Phoon

Pearly Wong, fashion designer and founder of Sze Women of Hope.

Pearly Wong is both a designer and the name of her independent fashion label.  More than that, Pearly Wong Sze Kwan (her full name) is also the founder of Sze Women of Hope (SWOH), a non-profit organisation that empowers women’s lives through vocational training, livelihood projects and education in Malaysia.

Her business has unique opportunities to give back to communities, to do social good, and has a social culture that lets employees know they are working for something that’s bigger than themselves, that it also cares for people and the environment.

Last year, Pearly Wong gave back through its partnership with leading Swiss watch brand CORUM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and presented Pearly Wong Sze Women of Hope Fashion Show in Kuala Lumpur. It showcased garments designed by Pearly Wong and accessories conscientiously sourced and produced, with the garments sewn and accessories handmade by refugee artisans at SWOH.

SWOH and UNHCR have teamed up to provide UNHCR-registered refugees a secure place that offers training courses and space for them to work on their projects to generate their own income.

The designer shares with LUXUO.MY that the key to running your own business is hard work: “There are going to be a lot of times when things don’t go your way. You can either let it get to you, or get back up and knock on more doors.”

Her definition of success is to operate a business with respect to the people and the environment, and every decision she makes is towards this goal. “Passion is the start of your career, then you need motivation, perseverance and a lot of hard work to succeed,” she says.

So, at the end of the day, does she feel ‘this is it’, having work/business satisfaction and a noble SWOH initiative? “A lot of times I do! But we still have so much work to do. Every day is a new challenge for SWOH. It takes a lot of hard work, determination and a lot of faith to run a social enterprise.”

More on the CSR initiative in this interview…

How did you decide that the cause championed by SWOH is a right fit?

Pearly Wong: SWOH and Pearly Wong are businesses that focus on artisanal crafts. Both enterprises value handmade, slow-fashion products made by artisans – one is clothing (PW) and the other is accessory (SWOH). Both businesses complement one another where the other is lacking.

Why did you start this CSR initiative?

PW: At Pearly Wong, we have been injecting small CSR projects into the business since we started in 2012. We have been conducting recycling classes at orphanages in Cheras, in the vicinity of our old office.

A lot of our CSR projects entail sustainability (recycling and upcycling) and vocational education (teaching the marginalised community women on handicrafts). Founding SWOH with some of my co-partners would be the right thing to do as we are ready to take our CSR commitment to the next level.

Do you think all local businesses ought to have CSR programmes?

PW: Yes, I think the trends in businesses are rapidly changing and evolving. One of the trends that never goes away is giving back to the community and the people.

When you give back to the community, a beautiful thing happens; you see people wanting, even more, to support your business because they appreciate your give-back effort and wish to be aligned with your cause.

How can CSR impact our society?

PW: A business must operate itself concerning the people, planet and to make profit sustainably. If every business has a small initiative or a CSR department for those who can afford it, it would make an impact on the world and increase the livelihood of our community and for the environment.

[For example,] I’ve worked with the CSR department of Uniqlo Malaysia for a project by UNHCR, and Uniqlo has been doing a fantastic job with upcycling leftover fabrics.

Assuming that every business operates this way, especially the garment industry, which is the second most polluting industry in the world, then our planetary boundaries relating to human-induced changes to the environment will be met.

Think of it this way … the human population is growing, and by the half of this century the human population is projected to rise to 100 billion, but our resources are finite. There’s an imbalance of how much resources we can take from this earth, which is finite. So it is crucial for every business to think about this urgency, and to operate itself by sustainable rules.

How do you feel about lending a helping hand to empowering women’s lives through vocational training, livelihood projects and education?

PW: It gives meaning to my work and benefits my label Pearly Wong at strengthening our CSR programme. So, in this regard, we have a healthy balance of operating our business with an active CSR initiative. Everyone working in Pearly Wong and SWOH believes in our cause, and we adopt a working culture surrounding it.

How are you financing and sustaining SWOH?

PW: Our group of partners from different backgrounds helped jumpstart SWOH, and we are currently sustaining it through sales of artisan products and donations from various organisations.

Is SWOH the only such CSR programme in Malaysia?

PW: There are a lot of businesses and social enterprises that are doing the good work around here. And if you look closely, there are a lot of great initiatives; some choose to assist the social community, some through environmental work and others through advocating equality for animals, etc. In regard to empowering women’s lives initiatives, I know many NGOs that help single mothers to get back on their feet (Bonda bonding) and Tanoti crafts is doing a great job helping the indigenous women to promote Malaysia’s artisanal crafts.

What are your aspirations, in both work and CSR, beyond SWOH?

PW: My aspiration is to be able to lift the lives of others through artisanal crafts, a passion of mine.

I wish for the women to achieve self-reliant skills and earn self-sustaining income. I also want to end gender-based violence in women, so giving them education and skills will be a good way to make them safe from the start.

How can women in need of a helping hand access SWOH, and how can the public help the SWOH cause?

PW: We currently open our hands to women in these categories – women refugees, indigenous people, and children from low-income families. We provide training and education to these three groups. They can reach out to us via our website and our volunteer will assist them to their needs.

The best way for the public to help is to go to the Sze Women of Hope website and buy the products made by the women. This can generate income for our women refugees to feed their families!

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