Jane Heng is a woman of many talents. Her 'day job', if it could be reduced to such a label, is to work for the United Nations travelling to developing countries to work with local artisans. There she helps to establish co-operatives utilising existing skills, enabling the makers to set up financially sustainable industries that will allow them to keep their craft alive.
For her own label, Jane travels to various provinces around Cambodia. There, she works with fair-trade workshops and makers to develop products that draw on her design background and the specialty skills of the locals. The resulting ceramics and jewellery range is then sold in select boutiques around the world.
During a brief trip to Europe earlier this year Jane collaborated with her friend and floral artist Nurdan Cetinkaya on an impromptu photoshoot exploring the Japanese art of Ikebana. Their images can be seen below along with our interview with Jane who tells us more about her work and inspiration - Ally
What did you do before launching Jane Heng Designs?
I studied fashion design at RMIT in Melbourne. I love the process of working in 2D then seeing it come to life in 3D, which is why I chose fashion. After graduating I moved to Sydney to intern with Akira Isogawa. There I fell in love with handmade, hand-woven textiles.
I then worked in various design and production roles in Australia before I took the leap and moved to Cambodia - something I had always wanted to do.
What was the motivation behind starting your own label?
Living and working in Cambodia was a big turning point for me. My parents taught me how to speak the Khmer language and it was a thrill to connect with the country of my heritage. I spent most of my days working with silk co-ops who were all doing amazing work to provide vocational training and support for vulnerable woman. It opened my eyes to the depth of talent and tradition in Khmer handicraft.
However most of the co-ops and workshops I worked with had the same problem. They all struggled to keep afloat because they didn't have enough work. So I saw this as an opportunity to start a label that would allow me to design and work closely with artisans and be part of sustaining their employment.
What is the process behind your products? How do you work with the makers?
I spend a lot of time getting to know the artisans. I ask about their families, their friends, how they learnt their craft. I also spend time finding out how the co-ops and workshops are run to make sure they are ethical and a good environment for all the artisans. Then, I learn about the craft techniques and usually design a product according to their skills. It's a long and lengthy process and can take up to a year to complete a finished product but there is a beauty in the slow process that I know my customers appreciate.
Who/what are you inspired by at the moment?
I went to see James Turrell, a retrospective, at the National Gallery of Australia back in March. I fell in love with the complexity, method, perspective, colour and minimalist presentation of Turrell's work. Hopefully I'll be able to view his ongoing crater work in person...it's on my bucket list. I'm also inspired by other young Australian designers that I'd like to collaborate with.
What does a typical day at work look like?
When I’m in Cambodia I typically wake up early because of the city and construction noise. Because it can get very hot here, the city wakes up very early to be able to start the day in the cool mornings before the heat becomes too much.
I try to start the day with yoga but usually I end up answering emails. After that my day is filled with zipping around town working with the artisans on new product, learning a new technique, chasing up orders and visiting new workshops.
Phnom Penh has a great food scene so it's always nice to end the day with a dinner date with friends.
Do you have any tips for aspiring designers? Anything you wish you had known at the start?
My business is still new and I'm still learning. I learn best from my mistakes! I'm thankful for all the work experience I gained before starting my business so I highly advise anyone thinking about starting a label to get as much experience as possible!
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I'm at my happiest when I'm in Cambodia working closely with the makers and so thrilled that I get to work with amazing retailers (such as Kinobi) who support the label's vision. I have to admit that I pulled out the happy dance when I was featured on Miss Moss blog and Frankie Magazine.
How do you like to spend your days off?
I rarely take a day off, I can't help it. If I can, I'll spend the day wandering through a gallery or museum. Or sit down with a good coffee and some quality magazines.
You can view our range of Jane Heng Designs here.
You can view more of Jane's work on her website