[SEATTLE] It was early evening, and I was wandering a relatively industrial area of Seattle called SoDo (South of Downtown). Perhaps wandering is the wrong term; I was a few minutes behind after hustling off the Bainbridge Ferry and onto the Link Light Rail, so I was semi-sprinting, phone in hand to navigate to the SoDo MakerSpace where I was to meet Soo-Rae Hong, founder of SOURCE Denim.
South on the platform, west on the street, north on another street, past some abandoned furniture and such, and my nav system insisted I had arrived. I circled a few times, trying not to arouse the attention of some men sitting on a nearby corner. Then I spotted it—the colorful MakerSpace sign on a modest door in a string of warehouses. A welcome surprise.
Dwarfed by the busy, eclectic shared space, Soo-Rae was patiently waiting. She was composed, kind and lovely despite a bad cold. But as I quickly learned, her calm and her petite size bely the magnitude of her drive, her heart and her achievements. Before she founded SOURCE, Soo-Rae was actively bettering lives around the globe. And with her sustainable, sophisticated denim totes and jeans, Soo-Rae is literally changing the world—environmentally, culturally, socially. The depth of her commitment and conscientious effort are huge, and I could hardly admire her more. Read on, and I’m sure you’ll feel the same.
What you’ve done in addressing every part of the process of creating a denim product is *monumental.* What is your educational background and career experience?
I got my BA in International Relations from Stanford University and my master’s in Sustainable Development from Sciences Po-Paris. I worked for more than three years in the Middle East and Africa, working on development projects with the United Nations, and living in these places exposed me to how textiles manufacturing empowered communities all around the world. I joined a large textiles manufacturer in Asia, and they brought me to Seattle to start up their brand and product line. And then I started SOURCE Denim.
What was the turning point that led you to create SOURCE Denim?
One of the products we created with my previous company used a special, all-natural material that enabled an environmentally friendly dyeing process. The work was interesting, but I was always more into fashion than home goods (which is what I was working on at the time). And I wanted to create products that connected with the end user on a very personal level, that represented their values and their outlook on the world. For me, blue jeans have always been this universal symbol for revolution and challenging the status quo. So that gave me the idea to start up SOURCE Denim, to clean up one of the worst, most polluting dyeing and finishing processes in the entire textiles industry, while making some pretty awesome denim goods.
I lived in Yemen (in the Middle East) for three years working with Somali and Ethiopian refugee populations to train them in skills and facilitate their integration into the local society, and then I directed several programs in Liberia that involved agriculture, sanitation and health, and refugee response services. While I was in Liberia, I started noticing that some larger companies were starting to construct manufacturing facilities in these areas, and people were really excited about the prospect of being trained and having jobs, and being able to add value in the supply chain (rather than just export raw materials). And that's when the light bulb went off that manufacturing, especially apparel manufacturing, which has lower barriers to entry and less harmful impact on the environment, could really be an agent for change. I became really interested in how intentional supply chains could have a powerful impact on improving people’s lives, especially if the materials and the way we produce the materials was done conscientiously.
How did you manage to assemble the people, the processes and the materials that go into SOURCE totes? And how long did it take?
Researching the materials for our SOURCE Totes took about six months, and we talked to dozens of denim suppliers at the time, but none of them were exactly aligned with our commitment to decrease the chemical use in our denim. Then we were introduced to Gigi at Italdenim, and he had similar ideas to ours about using chitosan-facilitated dyeing and natural materials, plus he had worked with Greenpeace a lot to clean up his supply chain. So we’ve been very happy with that partnership. Assembling the people took less time, since we don't hold a lot of inventory; it was just us, the founders, sewing our denim goods, with some occasional additional workforce hired through the organization Muses to help with any larger orders.
Muses is a very driven organization that trains refugee women how to sew on industrial sewing machines. They've referred a few wonderful people to us to work with us to sew, especially during the holiday seasons. Otherwise, I am still sitting at the sewing machine sewing those totes late into the night.
What made you decide to place your machines at the SoDo Makerspace?
We had a lot of difficulty when we were first starting out finding the machines that we needed on a rental or per-use basis. So we purchased the machines and wanted to share them to help other entrepreneurs and designers and tinkerers make their vision a reality. We reached out to the team at SoDo Makerspace and offered to keep our machines in their workshops, alongside the 3-D printers and laser cutters. Now, whenever someone wants to use an industrial sewing machine or serger, they just have to go through a short training with one of our instructors, and they can use the machines whenever they want.
Are you a Seattle native? If not, how did you end up in Seattle?
I've been living in Seattle for more than three years now, and it was my previous company that brought me out here to start up their office. I fell in love with this city and its surrounding areas and really feel like this is the place where I’m meant to be. I love having close access to the mountains and water, and though they could always improve, I do very much admire the progressive politics of the city itself.
What do you do when you're not advancing SOURCE in some way?
Work with SOURCE never stops! When I'm not working on that, I do some consulting with my previous company on some of their sustainability initiatives. And when I do find time to take a break, my aikido training is an important part of my life; I also really enjoy camping and mushroom hunting in the woods.