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The dentist-turned-designer building a slow fashion brand

The dentist-turned-designer building a slow fashion brand

In today’s day and age, starting a sustainable fashion brand is no mean feat. From saving up capital to create a collection, to sourcing the right suppliers, manufacturers and partners to pull it all together, it can be a minefieldeven for an experienced entrepreneur. What’s more, the Covid-19 pandemic has made things even more challenging for the industry. From juggling logistic delays to sourcing with an ethical supply chain in mind, launching a clothing label has never been more of a rollercoaster ride.

But these extra demands haven’t daunted Nabilah Islam, founder of new independent label One Puram. The dentist-turned-designer’s first foray into the fashion world has been a steep, yet rewarding, learning curve. From uncovering the perfect fabric, to production setbacks, to learning all the moving parts of running a brand, we chatted all about her journey to launching her debut collection, Bali Dusk. 

Dentistry to design is quite the career switch. Have you always wanted to start your own clothing brand?

From a young age, I’ve always had an interest in clothes and was very particular about what I would and wouldn’t wear! I also knew I had my mind set on being a doctor of some sort. This set me on a different path, focusing on the sciences in school instead of textiles and graphics. 

Despite this, my passion for fashion never left and I’ve always been conscious of how self-empowering clothes can be. I distinctly remember events from my university years because of memories of an outfit—from the colourful, orange printed dress I wore on my 21st which made me feel like I’d truly become a woman, to the red dress I wore to my hospital job interviews which made me feel like I stood out in a sea of grey. Fast forward to today, being able to create clothes and empower women’s wardrobes through One Puram makes me feel so blessed. 

Tell us about your journey to launching the label.

Despite holding down a full-time career as a dentist, I’ve always made time for my ‘fashion hobbies’: from sketching and sewing projects, to browsing fashion blogs and fabric stores online. I’d considered starting a clothing label, but I knew delving into the business of fashion would be a huge undertaking. 

When I moved to Jakarta in 2020, I saw it as a fresh start to try something new. The lockdowns and travel restrictions that came with the Covid-19 pandemic meant I couldn’t travel back to Singapore as a clinician. This was a catalyst for me being in the right creative space to work on a label. I started to take sewing classes again, which gave me a greater understanding of what it took to make clothes, the importance of patterns and fit, plus the different challenges artisans face during production. 

I grew up with fast fashion brands in the UK, so I knew early on that the traditional way of producing and selling wasn’t something I wanted to endorse. In fact, the more I learnt about fashion’s impact on the environment, the more adamant I was that I didn’t want to add to the problem. My goal became to create a more sustainable label that blended style and substance. 

What does the name One Puram mean?

It’s derived from two words in Bengali—’puro’ which means ‘whole’ and ‘gram’ which means ‘village.’ The name reflects our close work with artisan makers, over factories that mass produce. I source everything I can locally within Indonesia, including our packaging and clothing tags, to reduce our carbon footprint and support the local industry here. 

What personal experiences led to you prioritising sustainability in your life and label?

Everyone has a different green journey. Firstly, creating an ethical brand was important to me given the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where my father comes from. Second, I’ve also always been conscious about environmental pollution, from our streets to our beaches. After one particular diving trip to Bali, I realised how much plastic had accumulated in our oceans compared to my last dive a few years beforehand. I’d come up to the boat after a clean up holding piles of rubbish. But after doing research on microplastics35% of which in our oceans comes from synthetic textilesI realised there was more to our pollution problem than just the single-use plastic we could see.

That’s one of the big reasons why today I stand by natural fibres, not just because of their feel on the skin but because of the effect synthetic materials like polyester have on our planet. I was determined to create a more eco-conscious fashion label that didn’t have that impact. It was these decisions that led me to discovering TENCEL™ fibres, which gave me the right foundation to create from. 

There’s many moving parts to creating a sustainable label. How did you start?

I began with the fabric. Discovering TENCEL™ fibres gave me focus; I was pleasantly surprised to know I could make voile, sateen, linen and canvas fabrics all with TENCEL™. After understanding the weight and drape of each material, I could sketch and imagine what the silhouettes would be and edited down to create the final collection; a variety of dresses, separates, jumpsuits and a jacket. 

The colours within the fabrics inspired our first collection name: Bali Dusk. The prints reminded me of fiery sunsets and dusky skies: blues, oranges and pinks which eventually merge into the darkness. I think the beautiful juxtaposition of these colours in the sky is something which everyone can relate to and appreciate. 

And how have you approached packaging?

The balance between what makes economic sense, environmental sense and something that customers would appreciate as an ‘unboxing experience’ took me a while to establish. I made the mistake of ordering boxes for my initial packaging that made it more expensive for me to ship globally due to volume; in hindsight it didn’t make any sense at all, but you learn! One Puram’s new minimal packaging has removed the need for excess material use and helped me to offer more affordable shipping solutions to customers globally. 

Models wear sustainable fashion label One Puram's Malas jacket, a great cover up
The Malas jacket by One Puram is an easy, chic cover up for day to night

We love how form-flattering the silhouettes are!

They were so much fun to create. Having lived in the tropics for a decade now, I knew what I was looking for in warm-weather clothing: easy, lightweight silhouettes with flattering lengths and details. We all want to feel confident in our clothes, but there were some insecurities of my own which helped me to create thoughtful lines and cuts for different body types. An example of this is the wrap over detail in the Ayanan jumpsuit and playsuit to conceal a tummy, or the cap sleeves and crop tops with differing lengths, which accentuate and flatter different areas of the body. The slits in some designs help make everything breathable and airy. Even though the weather can be scorching, the Malas jacket is light and airy and easy to throw on. You often need a cover up when you’re in air con!

I also wanted to make the sizing more forgiving, allowing for tighter and looser closures and elasticated waists and belt options so women would feel comfortable getting the fit they need. The end result has been a curated collection of looks that I am proud to stand by and I’m excited to see how the next line will evolve. 

How has living in Bali influenced your design process?

Living here has given me the perfect outlet. I’ve had time to appreciate the nature and beauty of the island, learnt how to surf and fostered a dog. It’s also helped me find and build a close relationship with my workshops and artisans for One Puram. There’s so much innovation, creativity and artistic talent in Bali, as well as a great community, like the female entrepreneurs I check in with regularly. It’s also a fantastic place for photoshoots which has helped with the launch of my brand. Overall, living here has made me appreciate the simpler things, away from a big city and without a lot of possessions weighing me down.

What do you wish more people knew about how our clothes are created?

I wish more were aware of how clothes are actually produced. From water wastage to the damaging effects of chemical dyes, to the exploitation of labour, so much is hidden from us. I also think fabric education is key. Many brands continue to use polyester blends and synthetic materials as their main fabrics. The industry seems to be on the path to phasing this out, but ultra fast fashion brands are still not leading the way. Through One Puram, I want to do my part to educate customers about making more conscious choices so that we all, as a community, can do better. 

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Through One Puram, I want to do my part to educate customers about making more conscious choices so that we all, as a community, can do better. 

What have been your biggest learnings as a first-time fashion entrepreneur?

Coming from dentistry, I didn’t have any formal fashion design training. I had to teach myself everything: industry processes, branding, marketing, finance, strategy, design and execution. It’s been challenging, but I’ve loved the process. Initially, I had the dreaded imposter syndrome but believing that anyone is capable of learning and following their passions in life has given me so much enthusiasm for approaching anything new with a real sense of determination. 

I did make some poor decisions. There were printing issues with the fabric supplier for our Dawn fabric, which meant there were defects throughout the fabric roll. The workshop used and salvaged as much as possible and the rest will be kept to be used in projects in the future. 

I’ve also had to change workshops multiple times. The first one I worked with closed down, the second one was unreliable and finally I have found a workshop who I can trust to deliver quality products. 

How do you feel the sustainable fashion movement is shifting, in Asia and abroad?

Customers are more interested and informed than before. That’s a positive. Of course, seeing the growth of platforms like Shein is a bit depressing, but I do feel that overall established brands, influencers and citizens are learning to address sustainability in their own way. Singapore is a great city that embraces independent designers and has a growing, enthusiastic community of conscious consumers. I’m confident that more people will seek out unique clothing from small business brands, made ethically and responsibly. It’s important for brands to research and break down the barriers that prevent people from buying better so we can facilitate the movement. 

On a global scale, the same is true. The fashion industry is moving towards a newfound appreciation of creating quality garments, shopping vintage, clothes swapping, renting and exploring upcycled fashion. We’re destigmatising rewearing too and this gives me hope that the end life of clothes will not be as finite and bleak as sitting on top of a landfill heap.

One Puram's debut collection displayed at ZERRIN's physical store, The Lounge by ZERRIN at The Social Space, Marina One
One Puram’s collection on display at ZERRIN’s pop up store

The fashion industry is moving towards a newfound appreciation of creating quality garments, shopping vintage, clothes swapping, renting and exploring upcycled fashion. We’re destigmatising rewearing too and this gives me hope that the end life of clothes will not be as finite and bleak as sitting on top of a landfill heap.

What’s your dream for One Puram?

I believe circularity in the fashion industry has to be a goal for all designers. Moving forward, I hope to create up-cycled dead stock items made with disadvantaged communities in Bali who can benefit from the income stream. As we grow and expand, I hope to be able to have a smoother process and a team of staff to help grow the brand with. Overall, I’d love One Puram to be seen as offering an alternative to fast fashion brands, giving them a unique, stylish, limited edition piece which is also ethically made. Above all, One Puram needs to evolve and never be insular in thinking and design. I look forward to what the future holds.

And finally, what would your advice be to other aspiring fashion entrepreneurs?

There are challenges all the time when starting a brand, especially a sustainable fashion business. The number of people behind the brand you see, even if you’re a founder-led brand, can be many. Timelines going wrong, dealing with delays and issues with supplier relationships are all things you just have to get used to. Initially, I could be brought to tears when things didn’t go to plan. Now I know you can’t control everything and the right things will happen at the right time.

Discover One Puram now on ZERRIN. 

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