Resort wear with impact: Gema Santander, Baliza

by Susannah Jaffer November 10, 2017

Gema Santander, Founder of Baliza


What did you do before becoming an ethical fashion designer? 
I studied MS in Business Economics, photography, interior design and digital marketing. I used to work at JP Morgan, but stopped when I had my twin boys and decided to dedicate my time to looking after the kids. After a while, I continued to pursue my dream of working in design, developing properties and managing websites for small companies.

What inspired you to start Baliza? 
In 2012, I met the support group of I-India in Singapore, and I was so inspired by the amazing work the NGO were doing to help rescue and provide shelter for children on the streets in Jaipur. Later on, I learnt about Ladli, the organisations vocational training centre, and saw lots of craft projects like pretty cushions and blankets that were being made. I wondered how I could help bring more work to the organisation, and saw an opportunity to make beach covers that I could help to market in Singapore for them. That’s how we started out, and the styles we made were inspired by the oceans and easy lifestyles of Bali and Ibiza.

Gudri women at Ladli, the vocational training arm of I-India based in Jaipur. Photography by Mukul Bhatia.Photography by Mukul Bhatia


Where do you source your fabrics, and how are the designs made?
We source our fabrics locally in Jaipur, which supports the local community. The prints, inspired by various trends and cultures, are designed by us and then hand block printed at Ladli by the talented artisans and Gudri women that attend to learn this ancient skill.

All of the tassel and beading work on our clothing and accessories is handmade and stitched by this group of artisans. They attend Ladli for three to four hours a day to learn a useful skill and earn a fair living wage, and have the chance to receive additional emotional and financial support. This also helps their families and children to receive an education. 

Can you explain why producing responsibly is important to you? 
Our main drive through Baliza is to give back. Ruth, my business partner, and I really started the label to help this community. Despite the challenges, we continue in this difficult and competitive fashion retail business because it has that purpose. We strive to give back in particular to women and young girls who live in poverty. We love to see their success stories and our goal is to give them the opportunity to pursue a brighter future for their families.

 Children learning at Ladli, the vocational training arm of NGO I-India. Photography by Mukul Bhatia
Adults working on Baliza fashion and accessories at Ladli. Photography by Mukul Bhatia.
Photography by Mukul Bhatia


"We strive to give back in particular to women and young girls who live in poverty. We love to see their success stories and our goal is to give them the opportunity to pursue a brighter future for their families."

What challenges have you faced to grow your brand?  
As we're a fair trade brand, we have higher production costs compared to our competition, and it can be hard to find reliable sources of sustainable supplies. What’s more, the low prices in high street shops mean some people inevitably compare our prices. Although they are fair for the time it takes to make a handmade product, not everyone appreciates that and their concern is just with price.

Another thing is quality control. Producing at an NGO rather than at a factory is a challenge. It took more time to develop our designs for a sophisticated customer and to the standard that they are at today.

Finally, retailers closing down in the last few years due to recession has made our sales projections harder to predict and plan for.


Have you noticed a shift in customer response to ethical fashion in recent years?
There’s definitely more interest now than when we first started out in 2012. Our production has become more sophisticated, and our prices have increased accordingly and so has customer curiosity and loyalty. 

We attend Boutiques Fair each year in Singapore, and we love the chance to get to speak to our clients directly. There’s been a big switch actually, from more compulsive shopping to carefully selecting items who promote ethical production and/or social causes, even from younger buyers.

Baliza clothing is ethically produced at Ladli. Photography by Mukul Bhatia.
Photography by Mukul Bhatia


What are your tips for shopping and living more consciously?
I try to buy as locally and seasonally, whatever I’m purchasing. I buy a lot less clothes than I used to, and I think more carefully about each purchase. I also recycle and donate things that I don’t use anymore. Get into the habit of reading your labels, and give a bit of thought into where things are made. Buy products made in natural materials. Try and support small companies and artisans, as well as local business. Choose small boutiques over large retailers.

Discover the Baliza resort wear collection here 

Susannah Jaffer
Susannah Jaffer


Founder of ZERRIN, Susannah is an avid lover of dogs and slowly made fashion. She is passionate about raising awareness of conscious brands who are doing their part to make the retail industry a better place.

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