Cover Model Natalie Prabha wears Talee Studio, a Sabahan jewellery brand available on Dia Guild

Co-founders of the e-commerce platform championing artisanal craftsmanship, Aisha Hassan, Alia Farouk and Kylie Francis reflect on the success of their first international event

Launched in November 2020, Dia Guild is a modern-day solution to the travel restrictions preventing the world from discovering and appreciating beautiful artisanal items from Southeast Asia. It houses more than 20 brands from across six countries in the region, including Fern, Neil Felipp, Fugeelah, Pink Jambu and Talee Studio. In the last year, their specially curated catalogue of jewellery, ceramics, minaudières and other lifestyle products has quickly become a beloved shopping destination as well as a resource for discerning collectors to understand how people of the region are celebrating and modernising heritage craftsmanship. 

See also: Malaysian Designer Hatta Dolmat On His Record-Breaking Sustainable Fashion Collection

This month, Dia Guild presented a week-long exhibition 'A Luxury Craft Journey Across Southeast Asia' at London Craft Week as the only Southeast Asian brand among the 250 British and international creatives featured at the established festival. Held at Pan Pacific Hotel in the heart of London, the event showcased the best of the region's craft and welcomed notable guests including Raja Permaisuri Agong Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah and Malaysian ambassador to the UK, Zakri Jaafar. 

Tatler sits down with co-founders, Aisha Hassan, Alia Farouk and Kylie Francis to discuss how they made their first international exhibition out of their home bases of Kuala Lumpur and New York happen, and their experiences at the event. They also tease upcoming plans to further Dia Guild's mission to uplift artisanal craftsmanship in Southeast Asia. 

Tell us about the planning process behind 'A Luxury Craft Journey Across Southeast Asia'. 

Aisha Hassan (AH): It was one of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences we’ve had since launching as a business.

Event management is a whole industry in and of itself, so pulling off a weeklong exhibition—in a foreign country with such a tiny team—was daunting. It was inspiring to work with powerhouse brands like the Pan Pacific Hotels Group and London Craft Week, rewarding to solve a myriad of logistics and planning problems when they arose, and heartwarming to meet so many strangers who resonated with Dia Guild’s mission.

And above all, it was fun. From visualising the layout of each room to drafting display texts that told a meaningful story, it was a pleasure to build an exhibition we were genuinely passionate about.

See also: How To Start Your Own Malaysian Art Collection

How did it feel to be the only Southeast Asian brand participating in London Craft Week this year? 

AH: We're immensely proud to have been the only Southeast Asian brand participating in London Craft Week this year. Based on the Southeast Asian diaspora who came to support us and the international community who told us they were inspired, having discovered a platform that changed their perspective, we feel assured that Dia Guild is carving out a new and much-needed space on the global stage. It feels like an honour to represent our home region, and we take on that role with pride.

Why was it important for you to highlight Southeast Asian craft? 

Kylie Francis (KF): As proud supporters of local and regional brands, it was important for Aisha, Alia and I to start Dia Guild because we wanted to show the world the high level of craftsmanship and creativity that exists in the region, from batik and tenun in Indonesia and Malaysia to ornate brass-carving in the Philippines.

Southeast Asia has a long history of artisanship, and exquisite hand-painted and handwoven textiles were often traded as currency or given as gifts by royalty to foreign dignitaries—yet many people today associate Southeast Asia with having poor quality products. The rise of fast fashion, whose clothes are mass manufactured by factories in Southeast Asia, has unfortunately contributed to the negative perception of products in the region. We hope to reverse that stigma by curating a collection of incredible Southeast Asian brands and products for customers while building a bridge for them to reach the rest of the world.

Did many Malaysians come out in support? 

Alia Farouk (AF): We were happily surprised when so many from the Malaysian community came to support us, not only as attendees but also as participants and co-hosts for a number of mini-events that we organised each day throughout the week. From university students to British residents with Malaysian heritage, we were grateful to have been able to connect with each one of them.

It was especially heartwarming to speak to the Malaysians who haven’t had the chance to go home in the last few years, and to reminisce about all that we love about Malaysia. Of course, nothing brings Malaysians together like food, so we partnered with Makan Malaysia, which made delicious canapés like nasi lemak bites. 

See also: How To Style Batik For Every Occasion

The exhibition was also attended by royalty and dignitaries alike. What was it like meeting these high-profile guests?

AH: It was overwhelming but in a wonderful way. Her Majesty Queen Azizah and His Excellency Ambassador Zakri Jaafar were both so kind, and it felt surreal that they had not only chosen to attend an event by a new small business, but that they also offered so much praise.

It was humbling to realise that Dia Guild’s efforts were being recognised by the highest national office. His Excellency gave a moving opening speech to officially launch the exhibition. He articulated the importance of preserving heritage artisanship, and also congratulated us—three Malaysian friends with very big dreams—on achieving so much in less than a year. 

Her Majesty is also extremely knowledgeable about craft, so we were glad that she enjoyed seeing the tenun masterpieces by Cheminahsayang on display.

How did the crowd respond to the pieces on display? Was there a crowd favourite among them?

AF: They were in awe of the level of craftsmanship on display. Not only could they feel the quality of the pieces first-hand, but they could also experience our curation in a gallery-style setting that accentuated the beauty of our items. It was so lovely to see people discover Dia for the first time, and to really appreciate the stories behind each of our partner brands.

We had six different areas that showcased a different creator or craft, and people’s favourite areas varied. Different rooms resonated with different people, which further affirmed our belief that each of our partner brands has a distinct story to tell. 

See also: 3 Romantic Jewellery Collections by Local Designers

Did the exhibition spark any meaningful conversation about artisanship and Southeast Asian craft? 

AH: There were almost 400 people who came by our exhibition, and people most often commented on our curation and how learning each artisan’s story served to amplify the value of their craftsmanship. I moderated a fashion industry panel talk with Tanya Steven of AHNDE, Mark Francis of Heron's Ghyll and Ariff Faisal of Kualesa, where the audience was largely made of fashion students from London College of Fashion. 

There were meaningful discussions about how important it is to provide context, whether it’s cultural, craft-related, or personal, because it turns the shopping experience into one that isn’t purely transactional. Our attendees embraced that investing in well-crafted pieces could be an educational and intentional experience too. These conversations were uplifting because we realised firsthand that there truly is a global community willing to champion artisanship and creators from Southeast Asia

See also: 8 Southeast Asian Furniture Brands That Celebrate Local Craftsmanship

Do you have anything exciting planned next?  

KF: The success of our London Craft Week exhibit has given us the confidence that we can do more going forward.

AH: We're looking forward to organising more events in Kuala Lumpur for our supporters at home, and are already planning our international destinations for 2022. We have several new brands in the pipeline and also plan to launch an Art section in the coming months.

See also: Where To Find Collectible Prints From Talented Malaysian Artists

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