Jeanine Hsu has transformed her passion for art and fashion and with her drive for sustainable business practices into a hugely successful global eco-jewellery brand – niin. We sit down with her to find out more as she looks back on a decade of sustainably-sourced success…
You have quite eclectic origins…
Yes, I have an Austrian mother and a Chinese father, a combination that has seen me travel quite a bit. I was born in London, but moved to Hong Kong when I was seven, then returned to the UK for my last couple of years of high school. My school was like a little cottage in the midst of huge green space. At the time, I felt that being immersed in nature was akin to finding my happy place. I was fortunate to have had such a multicultural upbringing.
How did your education progress?
After finishing boarding school, I went straight into a foundation degree in art and design at the Wimbledon School of Art, which nurtured my love of sculpture, painting and fashion. After that, I decided that, if I was accepted into Central Saint Martins, I would pursue a career in fashion. To my surprise I got in. The rest, as they say, is history…
And once you received your degree…
I immediately started working for a number of fashion brands in London – particularly up-and-coming ones (as well as Vivienne Westwood) during London Fashion Week and I was a creative assistant. I also worked in the operatic and theatrical sphere in Austria during the festival period, creating costumes for performances like Mitridate and Der Jude Von Malta, At the same time, I was selling Indian jewellery every Saturday at London’s Portobello Market that I had sourced from a family friend. While I saw that primarily as a way to supplement my wages, it was where I learnt to work hard waking up at 4 am every Saturday, come rain or shine. It was also where I discovered that jewellery was something that allowed me to combine my love of sculpture and fashion.
Did the desire to be a designer also date back to that time?
When I was young, I was not particularly into fashion, but I was always very conscious of style. I was into designing and drawing and I always felt happy and content when I was being creative. While I never really knew exactly what I wanted to do, I had a naïve and somewhat romantic dream of doing my own thing, whatever that might turn out to be. That aspiration led me to initially pursue a career in fashion and, later, to designing jewellery for my own eco-friendly brand – niin.
What led you to start that particular brand?
Having worked for a number of years in the costume design and fashion industries, I was well aware of just how much waste there was and that really bothered me. I started to question whether that had to be the case and it became my mission to create a brand where, from beginning to end, I would only make use of waste / offcut materials and where the designs would be eco-friendly, while still making people look and feel great.
What truly sets niin apart?
At heart, it’s a global eco-jewellery brand that is sustainably and ethically-sourced and one where I design and source everything myself, while always striving for as small an environmental footprint as possible. We use smaller, artisanal workshops, supporting talent in rural areas and we give back via targeted charitable donations. We would like to reach a point where everything we use is sourced from recyclable materials and where we can help the communities that form part of our production chain.
In the more than 10 years since niin launched, our procurement process has become more and more eco-friendly. The use of abalone shells, for instance, typically requires trawling the seabed, but I hit upon the idea of sourcing them from seafood restaurants. It’s something we first tried on Lamma Island, where we asked restaurateurs if we could have the shells they’d already used. We now also ask furniture companies for the offcuts from their production lines, which we then use in my designs. The priority when using sustainably-sourced materials is transparency – I want to know exactly where they’re coming from.
Where do you find inspiration from?
Pretty much from everything I encounter on a day-today basis. Of course, I feel the most creative when I’m immersed in nature, as I think that really helps with my mindset. That’s where living in Hong Kong really helps – go twenty minutes in any direction and you will find yourself in the midst of a forest green or beachy blue space.
What’s next for niin?
We’re in the process of expanding across the region. We launched in China last year, and now we’re looking at setting up in Bali. We also have some exciting collaborations coming up, but I can’t say too much about them right now…
In 2017, you received the Women for Hope Eco-Warrior Award. How important was that for you?
I wasn’t expecting it at all, so it was a lovely surprise, while also being super humbling. It made me feel really proud. Prior to that, I felt like I was just doing my own thing in my own little bubble, so receiving the award really gave me the drive to carry on pursuing my craft. The award also put me in contact with other like-minded women, creating a whole new support network for me.
Are there any other projects that are currently exciting you?
Oh, absolutely! When I was first starting out in the jewellery industry, my sister-in-law introduced me to a community of Filipino craftspeople. Now, 10 years on, I. I Will help to set up a vocational training school for the community. We’ve just confirmed the project and I’m so happy to be able to give back to people who really helped me get niin noticed in the first place.
What’s been your greatest achievement to date?
Undoubtedly, my kids. I have learnt so much about myself from my three sons, while also coming to understand what it means to be truly selfless. When it comes to raising children, you have to give 100 percent of yourseit is the most challenging and rewarding experience imaginable.
Finally, what’s the key item still lingering on your bucket list?
Visiting South America I was supposed to go with my girlfriends after graduating high school, but I ended up enrolling on an art foundation course instead. When my boys are older, it remains my dream to travel there with them and my husband.
Interview by: Tenzing Thondup
Photos: Jack Law
Art Direction: San Wong
Make-up & Hair: Margaret Wong
Venue: Gaia Ristorante