Growing up surrounded by textiles, some may say Rakhee Shah was destined to be a designer. Switching from a ten-year career in finance to launching her own label wasn’t an easy decision. But she could not ignore the strong pull towards the world of fabrics.
Personally, I’m so glad she made the leap. Wherever you are in the world, you’ll always recognise a Maisha Concept piece on the street. Blending distinctive prints with chic and often multi-functional silhouettes, Rakhee manages to make traditional craftsmanship look modern and desirable — an aesthetic some emerging sustainable fashion brands find it hard to nail down.
What’s more, ethics and transparency are a driving force behind her label — something she shares about openly with her community (and why we’re proud to have Maisha as one of our member brands!)
I caught up with the busy, globetrotting entrepreneur and mum of two during our recent Singapore pop-up, The Lounge by ZERRIN, to talk about her colourful childhood, finding and working with artisan partners and how she manages to balance tradition and modernity.
SJ: Tell me about Rakhee before Maisha. What first inspired you to start this?
R: Before launching my label I worked for a decade in finance; private banking and asset management. However, I think my heart has always been in design and social entrepreneurship.
The inspiration behind the brand is my heritage and life’s many adventures. I’m a third-generation Kenyan by birth and of Indian origin, and my interest in fabrics started at a very young age. I was particularly close to my father, who works in the textile industry in Kenya, and I remember always being surrounded by materials. Also, growing up watching him run a business with so much passion and drive definitely instilled a bit of desire to create something of my own.
Ahh, so textiles run in the family! You must have had such a colourful childhood.
Yes! And back then, Kenya lacked — and still lacks — clothing stores, so I ended up designing and stitching pieces for self-use. I continued designing when I relocated from Kenya to Hong Kong 10 years ago and frequently wore my ‘African-inspired designs’ to the office. I would often get asked where it all came from or would get complimented on the fabric.
All of the above were catalysts to why I started Maisha. Overall, I thought it would be amazing to bring African culture to Asia through textiles and fashion. Maisha was then officially born in 2014 as an African-inspired fashion and lifestyle brand aimed at the globally conscious consumer.
I love how breathable the fabrics are. How did you first go about creating the line?
Maisha is known for its textiles. At the start we sourced fabrics from different parts of Africa, but as the label has evolved and after a lot of research we started making our own trademark textiles which were handmade and had a cultural heritage link.
I choose new fabrics and create new prints every season according to which location or particular skill (e.g. block printing) has inspired me. We work with artisans mainly located in Africa and India. I personally travel extensively to different destinations, familiarising myself with the cultures and traditions in order to design a collection that truly and authentically represents its origins.
“I personally travel extensively to different destinations, familiarising myself with the cultures and traditions in order to design a collection that truly and authentically represents its origins.”
It’s really admirable that you go right to the source when you’re creating — not many designers make the effort to do that.
Thanks. To be honest, it’s not easy to find the right production partners or work on new patterns, but with a lot of research, trial and error, we always end up creating something we feel is spectacular. In every workshop we’ve partnered with, be it in Ghana, Ethiopia, India to Kenya, we’ve observed some amazing skills from artisans in that region and also learnt about the cultural value of the fabrics.
How do you even go about finding the right people to work with? So many small business owners struggle with this.
We do a lot of research before we start working with particular workshops. I visit each one to narrow down prospective partners, do research trips to these specific locations (which are often hours away from the city in small, secluded villages) and personally meet the people who I will potentially be working with.
Rakhee trying her hand at the art of block printing with a master block printer
That’s good — that way you’re able to observe working conditions first hand, too?
Yes. Ethics is a big deal for me. For our recent Jaipur collection, I’m working with a family of 25 where everyone, from the grandfather and grandmother to the grandson and granddaughter, is involved in making the collection; it’s literally a family affair! This particular family, based in Bagru, has been block printing for nearly a century and it’s a skill that has been passed down each generation.
It wasn’t easy to find them; it took over a year of research trips to finally decide whom to work with. When I met them, I just had a good gut feeling that it would be the best workshop for Maisha. They’re so genuine, extremely skilled and driven, so proud of their culture and welcomed me into their home like I was part of their family. Every time I visit, I stay a few nights there and it’s really one of my favourite parts of my travels in India. They fascinate me with their hospitality, culture, humbleness and simplicity. My creative juices start flowing when I’m surrounded by these incredible artisans.
My goal is to assist them by creating jobs and opportunities for work. We’ve taught them a few new skills and stitching techniques. Their growth is so important to us, as we strive to improve their standard of living and working conditions at the same time.
It’s in the blood — a portrait of a local family of artisans in Bagru
You’ve mentioned that respecting local culture and technique is a must for you. Can you go a bit deeper on that?
Growing up, two very strong cultures surrounded me, in which we strongly believed in traditions and identity. For me, cultural heritage defines identity. It shapes values, beliefs and aspirations. It’s important to preserve our cultural heritage. It keeps our integrity as people and reminds us of who we are and where we came from.
Many of the artisans we’ve met and worked with are highly skilled, but their work goes unnoticed. This is because they don’t have funding, exposure or much demand for that work. This leads to their confidence levels dropping, or them finding any odd job they can in the city to support their families. The knock-on effect is this leads them to decide not to invest time in teaching their children these skills because they think it can’t help them financially in the future.
“For me, cultural heritage defines identity. It shapes values, beliefs and aspirations. It’s important to preserve our cultural heritage because it keeps our integrity as people, reminding us of who we are and where we came from.”
If we don’t spread knowledge and awareness about heritage art and these phenomenal skills, then they will be lost forever. It is not possible to copy or learn these techniques overnight. It is sad that perhaps our children won’t get a chance to witness and wear such craft.
I love how you seek to preserve their heritage and traditions through your designs. How would you say your own mixed heritage has influenced your style?
Colour! Africa is a colourful continent bursting with charisma and culture. You’ll see locals proudly wearing bright African textiles on a daily basis. I’m always wearing prints; the bolder the better. I grew up surrounded by beautiful textiles from my dad’s shop to the country I grew up in. On the Indian side of my family, the women used to wear a sari on a daily basis.
As a continent, Africa specialises in so many diversified types of textiles, the same as India. Many are linked to specific regions. I’ve always loved to wear heritage textiles, be it at work or at an event. That influence has definitely fed into my label as well, but with a more modern twist!
Speaking of modern, as an ethical fashion label how do you strike a balance between traditional techniques and contemporary appeal?
Tradition is really important to me, but so is keeping up with the times. Most of these age-old textile techniques are extremely labour intensive and require a high level of skill and an eye for detail. Also, these artisans tend to design with an older demographic in mind. Maisha uses these ancient techniques but we sit and work with the artisans on modern designs, patterns and colours.
This way of creating has been something totally new for them and cultivates a different way of thinking. We also focus a lot on the silhouette. We make sure they’re modern and functional enough so that global women will be proud to wear them. I feel the result is a unique label that nods at tradition, but still has style and edge.
Would you say that’s been one of the biggest challenges growing your brand?
Actually, I’d say connections and funding are our biggest challenges. Fashion is a competitive industry and there’s always pressure to keep coming up with new ideas, concepts and designs. It’s also an industry where it’s all about who you know.
So far, I’ve successfully grown Maisha organically through word of mouth and with a strong support network of friends and clients. However, we have a lot more work to do to create more brand awareness, understanding of sustainability and our artisans work, getting the right people to know the brand plus getting people to appreciate and understand what heritage textiles are truly about.
Speaking of the awareness of sustainability, do you feel like people know or care more about sustainable fashion now? More than back when you started?
From when we started five years ago until now, I feel people are far more interested in knowing where their products come from and how they’re made. Customers want to know more about what’s going on behind the scenes and the stories of who made their clothes, the where and the how. By and large, however, consumers are more interested in price and style than origins. It’s slowly changing, though.
Also, it’s amazing to now see switched-on clothing companies that are no longer just setting up a few racks of eco clothing in the corner of the store, but considering how to make their entire range more sustainable.
We’ve also observed that Maisha customers are now choosing to buy quality clothes and make them last as long as possible by learning to repair or rework them. Many bloggers, influencers and celebrities are really involving themselves in the sustainable fashion movement. There’s so much more info on the effects of fast-fashion, how to be a conscious shopper etc. than before. Change is happening!
Waiting for Chai? Rakhee and local craftsmen in Jaipur
That must feel really rewarding! What else keeps you motivated as a designer?
Doing something I’m truly passionate about is what gets me up every day. Watching how the label has evolved in the last five years and seeing the range of women from all over the world wearing the Maisha — from New York to Angola, Senegal to Korea, Hawaii and Spain — makes me feel so blessed. I feel touched to see happy clients post photos of themselves wearing the label, in a beautiful location on their travels or at a memorable event.
What makes me most proud, though, is how we’re changing the lives of the families we work with. We’re still a small label and we work only with small workshops. However, watching how Maisha has positively changed the living and working conditions of the artisans, instilling newfound confidence and pride in what they do, makes me want to keep going.
Singapore photography by ZERRIN STUDIO
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.