5 Questions for Bonny Cai, JOOB's new Design & Ops Manager
Editor's note, Jan 2021: Unfortunately for JOOB, Bonny has found her way back to NY where she was living prior to her Fulbright Scholarship studies and is with Free Assembly, a sustainable apparel company. We miss her and wish her well in her new endeavors, and are working on the launch of some of Bonny's designs she helped bring to market. Cheers Bonny!
As JOOB launches the first of its women's products summer, we were lucky to meet a local Ann Arbor talent, Bonny Cai, who recently returned from Korea where she completed her Fulbright Scholarship focusing on traditional Korean clothing and its impact on contemporary designers. Bonny is now part of the JOOB team and will be working on finalizing designs for our women's line and other new products, and will be helping to manage JOOB's operations. We asked Bonny these 5 questions which should help you get to know her better.
Why did you decide to join JOOB?
With prior experiences across design, management, and community organization, I returned from my Fulbright Fellowship in South Korea faced with the tough decision of what life steps to take next (as well as a global pandemic). I knew that if I were to go back to the apparel industry, I would want to focus on sustainability, but I wasn’t sure about the designer role. In particular, I was eager for opportunities to demonstrate and strengthen my management and leadership skills. I researched online for sustainable apparel start-ups and came across JOOB who were based in Ann Arbor, which fortuitously was my hometown and where I am based now! Growing up in Ann Arbor instilled in me many values that shaped who I am today. Kayaking in the Huron River and volunteering with the Nature Area Preservation taught me to respect nature while Black high school teachers and a vibrant Asian American community taught me the significance of diversity. I believed these values aligned with JOOB’s mission to develop sustainable everyday wear while fostering and giving back to the community. I reached out to John and he shared the thoughtfulness with which they have considered the environmental impact of every step of their process, from sourcing eco-friendly materials, to offsetting CO2 emissions during production, to installing solar panels at the HQ! Furthermore I was amazed by the dynamic network JOOB had built, from pattern makers in NYC, to fair-trade partners in Thailand, to photographers from all across the country. I’m thankful to John for inviting me to join this community, and excited to work together in creating a future that respects our earth.
Why is sustainability important for you?
To reframe the question, why wouldn’t sustainability be important to me. Or- considering that our planet is the basis for our life existence- why wouldn’t sustainability be important to everybody? Yet due to corporate interests as well as policies that have allowed us to shift the burden of pollution onto marginalized communities and nations, many people don’t have to consider the consequences of their capitalist waste. In the apparel industry, sustainability has been used primarily as a marketing tool targeting white, middle/upper-class women to give them a false sense of social contribution whilst actually furthering consumer elitism . This framing of sustainability as something only wealthy and highly educated people engage in has made the practice inaccessible to low-income or people of color communities. Which is insane considering these communities are the ones hurt the most by environmentally damaging actions as seen by the Flint Water Crisis, the destruction of Native People’s Lands, and the dumping of plastic waste into developing nations . I remember John telling me how on a trip to Thailand with Nicha, they were struck by the environmental pollution that had been brought on by factories and foreign corporations. My hope is to be an advocate for diverse voices within the realm of sustainability. Our planet is shared by everybody, and it’s going to take unity, mutual respect, and empathy across social-class, gender, race, ethnicity, and age in order to save it.
What did you learn from your Fulbright Fellowship in South Korea?
My Fulbright Fellowship focused on studying hanbok [한복], traditional Korean clothing, and its history, symbolism, and influence on contemporary designers. I was living in Seoul, South Korea, and got to experience sustainability practices and policies from a different perspective. The country is a leader in recycling food waste (Seoul converts about 95% of its food-waste into animal feed and biofuel compared to the 10% recycle rate in NYC’s optimal composting neighborhoods) and has a stringent plastic, paper, and metal recycling system . Furthermore, the country has accomplished incredible rejuvenation projects, such as the transformation of a toxic landfill from the 1970s-80s to a contemporary public park for citizens to enjoy . That being said, the apparel industry in Seoul was full of fast fashion as well, with small boutique stores turning over trends in just 2 week and major markets filled floor to ceiling with cheap apparel. It just goes to show that no country or community has sustainability down perfectly, but what matters is recognizing and learning from places where environmental practices are more ethical and efficient.
What were your previous experiences in the fashion/ apparel industry?
During university I worked at Anna Sui as a design and patternmaking intern as well as at Diane Von Furstenberg (DVF) as a knitwear intern in New York City. That’s how I realized that luxury fashion is some people’s passion, but definitely not mine. Anthropologist Giulia Mensitieri sheds great light on how the high end fashion industry uses glamour as a facade to exploit workers from assistant creatives, to models, to factory workers . A lot of her research aligned with the frustrations I had with the apathy towards sustainability and social justice I felt from the offices I had worked in. Then right out of university I worked at Madewell and loved my time there. Like any corporate fashion company, they’re far from perfect, but I do genuinely believe in the leadership and designer’s efforts to promote fair trade and sustainable practice.
What are your favorite outdoor things to do?
Growing up in Ann Arbor, I was constantly surrounded by nature: from kayaking in the Huron River during summers, to building snow forts in our own front yard during the winter, to biking all across town in the spring and summer. When I lived abroad in Japan, the CEO of the startup I worked for sent me and the other international intern to his hometown in Hiroshima prefecture to bike 70 km across multiple islands on a famous path called the Shimanami Kaido (or shimanami ocean road). We biked from 9am to 7pm but I’ll never forget one of the most amazing moments was standing on a bridge as the sun set and seeing the ocean glisten in gentle oranges and blues dotted with the shadows of mountains as the sun lay itself on the other side. During my Fulbright Fellowship in South Korea I often went hiking with friends, and when I was living in NYC I enjoyed going to parks with friends to picnic or climb trees. These days when I’m home in A2, I enjoy jogging in the mornings and taking neighborhood walks in the evening with my mom.
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