An Interview with Sophie, Founder of Kalinko

An Interview with Sophie, Founder of Kalinko

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A lot can happen in six years. People change, businesses transform; we move, we adapt, we grow. There have been plenty of shifts over the past couple of years, and happily some new faces in our community. So, as our team grows both here and in Yangon, we thought we’d reintroduce ourselves, starting with an interview with Kalinko founder, Sophie, on what’s been happening behind the scenes (lots more stock!), what she misses most about living in Yangon (the light, the chaos, the intensity) and what she’s most excited for Kalinko this year (stay tuned for capsule collections and new ranges).

Thinking back to when you first started Kalinko – has your mission or purpose changed in any way?

Hmmmm… no. The basic concept hasn’t changed. The size of the mission has increased and decreased over the years. In the first few months before I knew anything about anything, Kalinko was going to sweep the world and employ vast swathes of Burma within impossibly small timeframes. I sometimes come across bossy notes to myself in old notebooks saying things like “if not distributing across whole of Asia by 2021, not trying hard enough”. Luckily for the recipient of that wrath, my targets have become much more realistic since then, but the purpose remains the same.

How have things shifted over the past two years for the business?

Gosh - so many things have shifted. It has been two years of landslides! I’ve had to get used to managing it from the UK rather than from Yangon. Luckily, by the time I had to leave Burma our business processes were already in a really good place over there and our brilliant team are more than capable of doing everything without me being physically there. We chat every day, and we now know what the best lighting is to show me something over Zoom, or when we need to shell out for the DHL fee for me to see a sample in the flesh before we roll out production. We’ve also had to get used to ebbs and flows in stock levels, and wildly fluctuating consumer spending habits. During the first year of Covid, delays in shipping containers meant we had three long periods with no stock, as every time a container came in it sold out within weeks. Then after the military coup we couldn’t ship a single thing out for 5 months. Thankfully, we’ve been able to ship more regularly for the last few months, but we’ve also had to contend with shifting customer spending. During those first lockdowns, lots of people spent the money they weren’t spending on commuting or eating out on lovely things for their homes, but since lockdown, disposable income has been stretched more thinly again. People also changed what they bought during lockdown, which skewed our data quite a lot. It’s still early days in terms of growth for Kalinko (we’ve been trading for just over 5 years), so given that regardless of Covid and the coup, our business is in a very different place to where it was two years ago, trying to forecast within the context of ‘coupvid’ feels like trying to scoop grains of rice out of a fish tank with a slotted spoon.

What do you miss most about living in Yangon?

The light. There is beautiful light in the UK, and it always makes me think of Burma, but there is something magical about it over there, especially between 5 and 6pm when the whole place turns golden and the shadows are warm and flit about so beautifully. I also miss the chaos; the fact that you have very little control over how your day will pan out and you have to just surrender to that - it’s weirdly comforting. I miss the freedom; something about being outside the context of the rest of your life gives you license to do whatever you want. The adventure; there was always somewhere we were off to explore. But mostly I miss my friends and Burmese family; they are the kindest people one earth, and something about the intensity of life out there makes the relationships incredibly strong.

Sunset at Inle Lake

What is your dream day in Yangon – where are you going, what are you eating, who are you seeing?

It’s a Saturday in February. I’ve woken up under my mosquito net which is wafting very slightly on the fringes of the fan’s reach. I watch shards of light creep across the duvet, and listen to the discordant, warbling of the unmistakably Burmese 70s melodies drifting down the road from the teashop on the corner.

I notice how warm the wooden floor is as I go downstairs and eat mango and pineapple (and toast and marmite) for breakfast. The coffee is delicious. It’s local and from a new, young Burmese brand. I shower, get dressed and head downtown to get what I need for lunch: fresh vegetables and coriander from the wet market, bread from the Swiss-Burmese deli. The fish and ice cream are being delivered.

It’s a perfect day - breezy and warm, crispy blue sky, everyone has a pip in their step, especially me. I take an unnecessarily long route back to the main road to get a taxi. It’s always worth a little detour downtown - you see something weird every time: somebody selling goldfish in bags; twenty 12ft drainpipes strapped to the back of a motorbike like giant sheaves of wheat; an old woman wearing a Take That t-shirt.

Our friends arrive early for lunch - it’s their only plan for the day. Nobody makes more than one plan, and we probably only asked them yesterday. They were free - everyone always is. We chop and chat and open beers and stoke the barbecue and marvel at the things that did and didn’t happen this week. At the places we’ve been and the places we’ll go.

At 5 o’clock, I head out with one friend, both armed with cameras that we don’t really know how to use but high on enthusiasm, and take photos of crumbly walls and tins of condensed milk, and trishaws and street dogs with long shadows.

It’s suddenly pitch black, and who knows whether that’s rubble or a rat, so we pick our way home to join the debate about whether we’ll order in or eat out for supper. And whether we’re getting up at dawn to cycle out to a lake a few hours outside Yangon, or staying up till dawn to watch millions of migrating free-tailed-bats emerge from their chosen derelict building and swarm across the city on their way to breakfast. They’ll be gone in a few days, and you have to live for the moment, don’t you?

What Kalinko happenings are you most excited about this year?

Ooooh so many things - it’s a big year for us. We’re moving to brand new warehouses in both the UK and Yangon. We’ve got an exciting capsule collection which has been brewing for a very long time launching in March. A whole new range of furniture launching later in the year. And all sorts in between.

How would you describe your home interiors style? Does it differ between Yangon and the UK?

It’s a real mix - I like my home to feel very cosy and full of things that make me happy, but also to transport me far, far away. I love there to be character and joy in every room, but I don’t love clutter, so I try and strike a good balance. It also has to be very practical - with two small children, everything has to be washable, wipeable, un-ruinable! We spent about 18 months in limbo living all over the place after leaving Yangon in a bit of a hurry, and we’ve only recently rented a house in London. So it’s still feeling a bit transient, and making it cosier keeps being kicked down the priority list, but I’ve got lots of plans for what I’d like to do with it! I really miss our home in Yangon - it’s mostly teak inside, and is full of all sorts of tat collected from all over the world.

Have you got any home rituals you stick to no matter where you are?

Yes - coffee from a machine, topped up with milk warmed on the hob until it gets foamy, just before it’s about to bubble up and over the side. And a bath, just before bed. My guilty pleasures are really nice soap and really fancy pyjamas, which make this bit extra nice. I always think if I start and end the day well, then I’m ready for the highs and lows in between. 

If you could only pick four Kalinko pieces to have, what would they be and why?

The Strand Bathroom Bin - I have never seen a classier loo bin. Every bathroom needs one.

The Rangoon Chair - it’s so beautiful, so comfortable, so Burmese. I adore it and am incredibly proud of it.

The Irrawaddy Brass Lamp - it feels contemporary, but also like a relic. It is also incredibly evocative of Burma for me.

The Kalaya Bamboo Stool - it was the product which made me start Kalinko, so I have a soft spot for it. It’s also an unspeakably useful thing to have around - I use it 50 times a day to get into the kitchen cupboards, and the children push them around like adored pets which I don’t have to walk. Win-win.

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I enjoyed your interview and love what you are doing. I am on a tight budget but will save up for some of the lovely pieces Kalinko sell. First thing will be a set of beautiful tumblers I think.

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