It’s easy to forget our clothing’s connection to the natural world. Season 1 Episode 2 of the Made Better Podcast explores the relationship between fashion and what we wear through the lens of entrepreneur Mahima Gujral.
Mahima is a huge nature lover and has a unique take on sustainable fashion, being the founder of vertically-integrated slow fashion label SUI, a brand which works exclusively with organic and ancient fabrics. Her team designs and produces versatile clothing with a ‘green heart’ which takes cues from the natural world through motifs and fabrics, and they treat their makers and tailors (who they fondly called their threadspellers) like family.
This conversation takes us through her journey to aligning her personal values with building a business celebrating both fashion and nature. Read on for show notes from the episode, and if you’re new to ZERRIN’s podcast, listen to our introduction episode here.
(04:14) – Mahima has been influenced by textiles from a young age. The maternal side of her family operates and runs a fashion tailoring business. Sui started as a foray into more sustainably-made fashion after Mahima’s learnings from their family label, Sue Mue. Today, the label, which is based out of New Delhi, is known for its Indian-fusion celebration wear which bridges the traditional yet modern, in rich tones that celebrate local craftsmanship.
(05:32) – Mahima came to Singapore and studied fashion management at Lasalle College of Arts, with the hope to work for a luxury or fast fashion brand in marketing or branding. Eventually, she moved to work with Dior in India in communications. After that, she came to study a masters which introduced her to sustainability, which was a pivotal point in her journey.
Mahima’s sustainable fashion journey
(06:45) Mahima references the movie The True Cost and non-profit organisation Fashion Revolution as key discoveries on her own sustainable fashion journey. It made her realise she was completely out of tune with her own consumption habits and as she describes, ‘buying and not wearing enough.’
(06:50) Her dog Amigo says hey. Woof!
(08:12) Mahima refers to Laura Francois, who was the (then) country-head of Fashion Revolution Singapore. Laura is an impact strategist and an incredible thinker who always has various exciting projects on the go. She’s currently the co-founder of The Spaceship Academy, a hands-on knowledge program for entrepreneurs focused on solving some of the world’s biggest social and environmental challenges, as well as a mentor at Fashion For Good.
(10:48) Mahima speaks about her evolving relationship with nature. She used to be an avid writer and nature would feature a lot in her poetry. Her journey with Sui has made her realise how connected we are with nature and she believes it’s important to respect that. Their brand tagline ‘a green heart’ spans from that.
(12:58) The dress ZERRIN founder Susannah is wearing is the Bougainvillea dress from Sui’s most recent collection, made from naturally-organic kala cotton.
Celebrating their makers
(14:30) Sui refers to their team of artisans and tailors as their ‘threadspellers.’
(15:35) Mahima discusses building their production team, and she acknowledges the privilege of being able to have the guidance from her family business in getting this right and the support of her mother as a fashion entrepreneur.
(17:40) Click here to see the video with their production team that Mahima refers to.
Working with sustainable fabrics
(21:45) Mahima shares how most of the fabrics we wear today, except for synthetic options like polyester, come from the earth, like cotton, hemp and linen. They start on a farm, in the soil. For detailed fabric explainers, check out our fabric guides.
“I still believe that there’s so much more that we all can learn, as businesses, as designers, as entrepreneurs, if we just really start from the source of it all. If you understand the way something is grown, you can begin to reduce its impact right from there on”
(22:52) Mahima shares more about kala cotton, an indigenous fabric that is ancient to India. It’s one of the few genetically pure cotton species remaining in India, and one of the only types of its kind to be cultivated today on a larger scale. It’s rain fed, naturally organic and grows in the Kutch district. It has a wonderful texture. If you’re based in Singapore, pop into our store and try it for yourself!
(25:53) We discuss the challenges of identifying sustainable fabrics as consumers. As kala cotton demonstrates, not all eco-conscious options are necessarily certified. In a nutshell, just because a brand’s materials doesn’t have certifications, doesn’t mean they are not inherently sustainable. Mahima shares it’s important for brands to be as transparent as possible to communicate this.
(28:20) Mahima uses fair trade certification of her factory as an example; while it may be good for marketing, its not something thats affordable as a small business. With limited resources, brands have to decide where is best to invest.
Sustainable fashion: the price point conundrum
(29:18) We discuss the difference between fast fashion and artisan-made fashion, and the challenges more sustainably-minded labels face justifying their price point to consumers. Mahima shares more about how she tackles this and communicates the value of hand crafted.
(30:14) “As businesses and entrepreneurs, we’re in a constant battle with trying to price ourselves well enough while not being able to compete with anything that is quoted as affordable today because of fast fashion…if something is made better, if something is created better it does come with a price.”
(31:10) One way that sustainable brands can be more transparent is by sharing their price points or margins, if they’re comfortable with doing so. Generally, slow fashion brands will not be able to achieve mark ups like the fast fashion industry, which is normally anything from 5 to 8 times the cost price of a garment.
(34:00) “Our notions of value when it comes to fashion consumption have been shaped by the fast fashion industry, have been shaped by the world’s biggest brands. With that comes a disconnect between…what it actually takes to create stuff…with the cost of doing less harm and doing more good.”
(35:00) A quick comment about the power of thinking in terms of cost-per-wear, to retrain yourself to rethink what value really is.
Fast fashion appropriating artisanal craft
(38:28) One of the reasons why artisanal craft can be devalued is because of the appropriation of traditional textiles in mainstream fast fashion.
(41:00) Mahima touches a bit about the historical context of India’s textile industry pre-independence and the devaluing/dying out of textiles due to copycatting and the fact that the younger generation don’t necessarily want to uphold these traditions in favour of convenience. More information here.
(42:57) “I definitely feel like we need to find a way to tell these stories, so that customers understand what it means when any fast fashion business mimics an age-old technique which has been worked on with a lot of skill…which at the end of the day, if done the right way, has a much lower environmental impact.”
(43:25) When discussing the appropriation of artisan craft, we reference the H&M x Sabyasachi collaboration saga. While it was argued the collection ‘put India on the map’, the contention lay with the fact that as a designer, he has built a luxury brand known for its emphasis on traditional Indian textiles yet promotes a fast fashion collection that’s machine made.
If you enjoyed this episode of Made Better, please help us spread the word! Share it with friends and follow @zerrin_com or @susannahjaffer to join the conversation.
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.