Leaving behind a well-travelled career in the corporate world, in 2015 Ishana Rai Sethia found herself moving to her husband’s home city of Calcutta, one of India’s most historic weaving regions.
It began as a blank canvas in the form of a new life for Ishana. Pairing the homeliness with the rich textiles, culture and heritage of the country, sparked something inside her to enter fashion. Soon after, Label Ishana was born.
We met up in our concept store, The Lounge, to chat with Ishana. We talked about entrepreneurial life, the inspiration she takes from her mother and what running an ethical business means to her – given that her’s is a brand whose fabrics carry the stories of generations of weavers.
What sparked your transition into the world of fashion?
I worked in financial services as a recruiter in NYC and Hong Kong, then in 2015, I moved to Calcutta, India where my husband is from. The move gave me a blank canvas to start afresh from, and it was this new beginning paired with being in a prominent weaving region in India that inspired me to create my own label — something that before would have seemed like a faraway fantasy. It was a mix of finally having the courage to do something of my own and being exposed to these beautiful fabrics that made me leap into this space.
You’ve mentioned that inspiration for your business came from the strong women in your life. Can you name some?
I am a product of my mother’s hard work, her sacrifices and her relentless will to make the most of life while always making it look so easy! As a kid when I quizzed her about her “superpowers” — she always said, “I am a map of my mother”.
That’s when I knew I had to be a map of mine – because that was the legacy my Nani (grandmother) left us with. She was a child of the India/Pakistan partition — she had a Master’s degree at a time when women were barely allowed to step outside of their homes. She went on to be a teacher and worked till the very end. So my mother and her mother have been constant voices in my head, guiding all my decisions since I can remember.
Then I met another woman who was a formidable force with the kindest heart — my mother-in-law (though I hate that term!) She has been a change agent in her own right, coming from a very conservative community in India, married when she was a teenager; she has “grown-up” to make a name for herself professionally and managed to always be present for her “duties” at home.
Both my moms have always worked, always taken care of their homes and families and always looked fabulous! They are my inspiration and my goal.
It helps that my mother is the most creative human I know. She is an artist and often helps me think through the design process. My mother-in-law has the most commercial acumen of any woman I know. She is always guiding me on decisions and how to scale the business. I think between the two I feel pretty lucky!
Who is the ‘Label Ishana’ woman?
Everything I just described about mums is I believe what every modern woman strives for. This is at least what I strive for. The Label Ishana woman embodies the perfect balance between work and home, between classy and comfortable, between fierce and functional. Someone who is confident in her ability and her vision and sassy all at the same time.
“The Label Ishana woman embodies the perfect balance between work and home, between classy and comfortable, between fierce and functional.”
Would you say your travels have influenced your designs?
No matter where I have lived or travelled, timelessness has been the constant theme I have observed. While fashion and trends come and go, identity is an evolving constant in cities and cultures. It is this bold timelessness that I want to capture in all my designs.
What does ethics mean to you as a designer?
Ethical production to me is behaviour and commitment to all levels of the product design and supply chain. From fabric sourcing to artisan and labour wages all the way to packaging and choice of retail outlets. This responsibility cannot be executed carelessly. So for Label Ishana, we treat every weaver, karigar, tailor and retail partner as part of our family.
We love your Bali necklaces that you’ve created from textile off-cuts!
Thanks! We’re always trying to make unique pieces with what is left – the Bali necklace has been one such win and we are always experimenting to create new products – currently we are working on ‘potlis’ (a type of wristlet) and bags. Stay tuned!
What would you say has been the toughest thing about growing your label?
To be an ethical and sustainable brand you need to invest more time at each stage of the process. It has taken an average of 42 days to weave our fabric, as such our philosophy is ‘less is more’. We encourage our clients to slow down, to invest more in better fabrics and get more wear out of the pieces they invest in. This is counterproductive to running a business, where you are almost asking your clients to buy less. This balance has been a challenge, but we stand by our philosophy. Also, that has lead to longer term relationships with our community of buyers and suppliers.
“To be an ethical and sustainable brand you need to invest more time at each stage of the process. Our fabric alone takes an average of 42 days to be woven, as such our philosophy is “less is more”. We encourage our clients to slow down, to invest more in better fabrics and get more wear out of the pieces they invest in.”
What’s your take on where the sustainable fashion movement is heading right now?
I’m glad that it has finally caught momentum and consumers are more aware now. It’s great they are attempting to make purchase choices with more thought. However, this mainstream attention to sustainable fashion has also led to fast fashion brands using it as a branding tool. This makes it that much harder to connect with buyers and ensure authenticity.
Despite all that, it’s encouraging that there is more awareness now on sustainability in fashion. But there needs to be a bigger push from brands towards sustainable consumption, too.
What keeps you going?
The community we have built – the weavers, the artisans, the tailors, the buyers, the retail partners – we are all one team on a journey together. The excitement from weavers when they see their generations-old weaving techniques transform into a dress that is being worn in New York (which is like another planet to them!) is the most motivating feeling.
Also, the sense of wonder from our most loyal buyers when we take them to the weaving looms and introduce them to the brothers who made the fabric of their favourite pieces – this too is the most motivating feeling ever! Label Ishana is part of the story that connects this whole community together. This human connection is the most rewarding thing about our work.
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Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.