Portrait of a Girlboss: How Christine Lafian of SUKU is Telling Stories with Bed Sheets
Even with the most cursory of glances at Australian textile company SUKU, with its depictions of sun-drenched, cloud-soft bedding, you can pick up on a great deal about its founder, Christine Lafian: She’s a heavy-duty dreamer. Born and raised in Indonesia into a line of women who worked for themselves—her mother, and then her grandmother who worked as a dressmaker in Bali—Christine knew early on that the small, conservative town in which she was raised wasn’t where she was meant to stay: “You know what teenagers are like. There was too many rules. I just wanted to be free, and I knew there was something more out there,” she said.
And so at age 15, she set out for New Zealand (“I don’t know why New Zealand. Maybe because it felt like the farthest place I could go from where I was,” she said, laughing,) where she stayed for three years before enrolling at university in Australia. After graduating, Christine got a job with the clothing company Zimmermann, which was just getting its start at the time. As one of the ground-level employees at a company run by two sisters, Nicky and Simone Zimmermann, Christine got firsthand experience with all aspects of developing a brand that would go on to become massively popular for its ethereal, feminine aesthetic and would eventually take the leap across the Pacific to set up shop in the U.S.
But over the span of eight years, the drive to work for oneself that had manifested itself generations before took hold of Christine, too. Thus, SUKU was born, initially in the form of dreamy, playful bedding. And while it might seem logical to see SUKU’s aesthetic as a younger sister to Zimmermann—they share a sense of sweetness in the color palette, an unabashed girlishness in spirit—one of the defining pillars of SUKU is Christine’s return, both physical and sensory, to Indonesia. Drawing on memories of being raised in a town where you weren’t able to simply pop by a store and pick up a curtain, where you had to instead go to a person who specialized in making curtains and pick out fabric with them and discuss design, Christine wanted to evoke that sense of personal connection with the product, and to tell the story of the craftspeople behind the process.
SUKU has since dedicated itself to handcrafted, sustainable bedding and clothing that supports artisan communities throughout Indonesia, and the product has developed something of a cult following, garnering press in ELLE Decor and NYLON. We chatted with Christine further about the process of maintaining a sense of intimacy in your product while keeping an eye on the business side of things, how she gets motivated to extract herself from her incredible bedding each morning, and what’s in store next for SUKU.
You crafted SUKU in a way that it’s a really direct representation of who you are and where you came from, and everything feels so cohesive. Where does the inspiration for a new collection start, and how does that eventually translate into a final product?
I feel like being a creative person, there is always a need for me to find something to channel the various stages of my life. It's kind of like writing a book, but physically making it [into something], or like creating a painting. Every collection that I do, I always look back on a stage of my life and then make into a product. It's a really fun process, actually. For example, our first collection was called "Dream Baby Dream" and it's all primary colors. All the primary colors remind me of stages of my childhood, of being in Indonesia and the very vibrant, blue sky, the greens you see. I was really connecting that to stage of my life.
Every time I look back at that collection, it's interesting how this SUKU girl from collection one, up to collection four—it seems like they're growing up as well. We always talk about stories. There's a lot of human connection with the brand, so it all organically comes together.
A big part of that is your relationships with your producers and the artisans you work with. Why was that such an important part of the overall vision for you?
There is such a disconnect between the product and the consumer. At Zimmermann, every season we would have a product line and Nicky would talk about the story behind the product, and as someone who listened to that, that part really excited me.
I feel like that's what lacking at the moment with most products. You don't really know where it's from and you don't know who makes it, so when I started my own brand I was like, "No. I want to tell story behind it. There should be a story. People should know where it's made and I should know who makes it." I really think that’s why the brand is becoming big now. I think that it's so important that I know the people that I work with, the people in my studio. We've got a studio in Bali actually and it's just growing and growing, and I'm just really proud and happy about that.
So you’ve designed these products that are intended to make your bed so dreamy and comfy that you’ll never want to leave it. The whole aesthetic seems to be about making lounging and sleeping the most enticing, beautiful thing ever. How do you motivate yourself to get out of bed in the morning?!
[laughs]. I guess what really motivates me is that I know all these people are relying on me back on Indonesia. Obviously, working for myself and having a small brand, there are always huge challenges, and there were definitely periods in the early days where you're like, "Oh, you know what? This is not going to work. I'm not going to do this."
The good thing about knowing who you work with, and the good thing of having a really honest take about something, is that every time you want to stop, you think about those people who are connected to you. Like if I give up now, I've got 10 people in Indonesia who don't know how they're going to get dinner for their family.
You mentioned that you were still working full time to save money to start SUKU, and that was a huge challenge. What have been some of the other challenges of starting a brand?
I think finding the right people to work with you. For me, that was especially challenging because in Indonesia, the system is so different than in Australia. And being so far away from people in Indonesia and trying to work with them—it’s a different culture and pace.
Any advice you can pass on to girls looking to start their own brand in the textile or clothing industry?
I would say definitely learn the industry first; that’s a mistake a lot of people make Obviously, creativity is important, but we really need to learn the business side. We really need to learn the system and that will help you find the capital.
You recently made the move into pajamas and a couple dresses and jumpsuits. What’s next for SUKU?
I definitely want to make pajamas more of a significant thing aspect of the brand, and my next vision is to just to make more retail space. We recently opened our space and I like the idea of what we offer to our customer. I can create my own rules. We've got a couch, we've got tea. And people can come and sit down on the couch and talk about their day, and it’s a more zen sort of space. I just want to have more of that in all places. Just to remind people to stop and take a break and chill.