Denise Tang is a designer, craftswoman and entrepreneur, whose passion for giving back to the community led her to take a leap of faith and start her own social enterprise. In 2017, she launched Marvelous Works with her husband, Tang Jian Hui, and together they operate the small but mighty business of handcrafted bags and accessories, made by their employed community of single mothers and women from underprivileged households.
The concept of Marvelous Works is simple: they empower these women with sewing skills via hands-on training and flexible employment, giving them an extra source of income and the ability to work from home. “So they can also take care of their own children at the same time,” explained Denise. “A lot of them have full-time jobs but they want extra income, so that’s where Marvelous Works comes in.”
We’ve teamed up with Marvelous Works to create a line of limited-edition upcycled denim tote bags, made from—you guessed it—actual Levi’s® jeans. In fact, on each bag we’ve kept signature details like our back-pocket arcuate and backpatch; for some designs, you may even find a few extra surprises (you’ll know it when you see it).
We recently sat down for a chat with Denise and Jian Hui to learn about Marvelous Works and what makes their creations so, well, marvelous.
“BEING ABLE TO HELP AND SEE [THE COMMUNITY] TAKE OFF, THAT’S THE GREATEST SATISFACTION IN THE WORK THAT I DO.”
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO START MARVELOUS WORKS?
Denise: Previously I was working for a non-profit organisation that worked with adults with special needs. I was actually from a single-parent family. My mum raised me and my two younger siblings; she always had to work multiple jobs to support us. We also received a lot of help from the government and our own church community, which really helped us along the way. From that, I wanted to give back to society. And that’s why starting this social enterprise has always been in my heart, wanting to help others in need.
WHAT’S YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT WITH THE COMMUNITY YOU WORK WITH?
Denise: I think the proudest moment would be last year, when there was a lack of surgical masks. Someone asked us if we could sew reusable masks, and we immediately started working on them. I came up with a prototype and then we got our ladies to do the sewing. For a lot of them, they couldn’t work [their full-time job] at all during the lockdown. In a sense, this project of sewing reusable masks really helped them a lot; they were very thankful and happy because during that period, financially they were all still doing well.
Another proud moment is when I teach them how to sew, and they can do it way better than expected. For most of them they don’t have prior sewing skills, so we actually teach them from scratch. Being able to help and see them take off from there, that’s the greatest satisfaction in the work that I do.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING ON THE UPCYCLED DENIM TOTE BAG?
Denise: I’d never really worked with denim before, so it was quite exciting. Because jeans can come in different sizes and cuts, even though they’re the same size, there can still be a difference in measurements—1cm can make a big difference in the size or shape of the bag, so that was interesting. We took about one week to experiment with the different designs we could make from the jeans.
You know how nowadays a lot of tote bags are very simple? With this, we hacked the back pockets of the jeans to the front—we wanted it to look fresh, like no one could tell that it was actually upcycled. Because some people have this misconception when they hear “upcycled”, they think that it’s made of old materials, or materials that nobody wants.
MARVELOUS WORKS OFFERS SEVERAL ITEMS MADE FROM SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS. WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED, WAS IT A CONSCIOUS DECISION TO CHAMPION ECO-FRIENDLY ITEMS?
Jian Hui: When Marvelous Works started, the core idea was to help people from single-parent families and people from underprivileged families. I guess the spirit of sustainability came from our values and gradually we began to see more of that in our business itself, although it wasn’t the main focus. I also think the growing demand for reusable items allowed us to continue going further in this direction.
Denise: I actually got the spirit of sustainability from my husband! He’s the one who taught me the smallest things, like using the empty plastic packaging from a loaf of bread to store trash and then throw it away instead of using a new trash bag. It was a lifestyle change for me.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ITEMS YOU STILL TREASURE AND WILL NEVER THROW AWAY?
Denise: Yeah, I actually have a blanket with lion prints all over. The Lion King movie came out when I was growing up and my parents bought that blanket for me and my brother. It’s been 20 years and I still have the blanket; it’s still in very good condition! It was also a gift from my parents before they separated, so it’s something that I really treasure. When I got married, I didn’t throw the blanket out and brought it with me.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR MARVELOUS WORKS?
Denise: We’re planning to come up with a series of minimalist products for men, because a lot of our customers are mothers, ladies and working adults, and the prints and items that we have right now are very feminine. Guys don’t usually buy from us unless they’re buying for their wives or their kids, so yeah, the next thing would be minimalistic products for guys. I have my husband to experiment on. [Laughs]
“SOME PEOPLE HAVE THIS MISCONCEPTION WHEN THEY HEAR ‘UPCYCLED’, THEY THINK THAT IT’S MADE OF OLD MATERIALS, OR MATERIALS THAT NOBODY WANTS.”
ANY HEROES YOU LOOK UP TO?
Denise: My mum. She also had a very difficult childhood. My dad had left us with a lot of debt and we were really struggling. But we could still get by, so I really salute her and look up to her for all the difficulties she had to go through while still coming out strong. Even now, she’s my inspiration in all that I do. She’s always looking out for me—I’m really very thankful for her. She’s my role model.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE NOT WORKING ON MARVELOUS WORKS?
Denise: I would say that Marvelous Works is my life [laughs]. Because I like sewing and arts and crafts, so I’m on the sewing machine a lot. I buy a lot of fabrics, I try to make them into clothes as well, so those are some of the things I do during my free time. As I sew, my creative juices start flowing and then I start thinking, “maybe I could introduce this as a new product for Marvelous Works?” so I would say my hobbies and Marvelous Works are quite similar. Marvelous Works is my whole life, my everything.