From wide-eyed fashion student to founder of an up-and-coming ethical fashion label, Mahima Gujral launched SUI to create a brand that celebrates nature while being oh-so wearable.
Sustainable fashion? It’s having a moment in Singapore and beyond. Building a clothing company isn’t easy, and there’s even more at stake when running an ethical fashion label. From using natural dyes and eco-friendly packaging to ensuring fair pay for workers, sustainable brands operate on a ‘people and planet’ first basis (basically, the opposite to fast-fashion). In between growing up in her family’s textile business and working in marketing for one of the world’s biggest luxury brands, Mahima Gujral woke up to the devastating impact of fashion. Eventually, she launched SUI to do things the right way and show how incredible sustainable clothing can be.
We met up with Mahima in her home to find out what building a conscious brand actually looks like…
Coming from an established family textile business, what inspired you to do this?
Growing up, I always wanted to work in an industry separate from my family business. I was quite an introvert and loved to write a lot of pieces and poetry about nature. However, I naturally gravitated towards fashion during my late teens.
After studying fashion business, I got this big opportunity to work in PR and marketing for Dior. I enjoyed my role, but two years in I started to feel distant from the product. If you don’t love what you’re marketing, it’s not easy to do your job!
In 2015, I decided to part ways and help my mum with marketing for our family fashion business, Sue Mue. Fast forward to 2017, I was thrilled to be accepted onto a masters course at SDA Bocconi in Italy. But a lot changed for me that year. 11 months into the course I learnt more about the negative impact of the industry and the rising importance of sustainable practices.
This completely transformed my journey. From watching The True Cost to learning about the Fashion Revolution movement, the more I discovered the more I realised the path I needed to follow was no longer working for a luxury brand but making a change in the fashion industry. I knew I wanted to work for a company that prioritised sustainability, but my research revealed a big disconnect between what was on the market and the way people perceived conscious fashion. I’d been toying with the idea of creating a brand inspired by nature, so I took a big leap and decided to work towards filling that gap.
We love your mantra of leading with a ‘green heart’. Tell us why this speaks to you.
A green heart is one that respects our planet and the people within it. In everything we put out as a label, we aim to lead with a green heart. It’s a core target for us, just as growth is for any business. Through every collection or decision, we want to make better choices for our environment, the people in our team and those who will purchase our designs.
Our theory is simple: we make clothes that are ethical, wearable and chic, using earth-friendly fabrics and dyes. My family business already held strong values when it came to their workers, which meant we already had a good foundation and a space to house our production. We started really small at first, with just one tailor and 15 designs. It was a slow start and one I look back and cherish!
“Our theory is simple: we make clothes that are ethical, wearable and chic, using earth-friendly fabrics and dyes.”
What does ethical production look like at SUI?
We produce in house and manage our own team of tailors — we call them our ‘threadspellers’. They’re really the heart of what we do at SUI as they bring our designs to life. They work in a safe environment and are paid a fair living wage along with other standard benefits like paid leave and medical insurance.
Our assistant designer visits their factory on a regular basis and they also report to the production manager of our parent company, Sue Mue. As a team, we’re in constant touch with each other on how operations are running, even more so now since remote working has become a way of life.
In itself, ethical production means truly being conscious of the effect you have on others. We’re always aware of our impact on the people working in our value chain. We’ve been learning how to measure this as a team over the last few months, but we’re hoping to get even stronger this year with measuring our impact.
“We produce in house and manage our own team of tailors — we call them our ‘threadspellers’. They’re really the heart of what we do at SUI as they bring our designs to life.”
Tell us about the natural fabrics you use at SUI. How do you choose what will work best?
All of our materials are sourced from vendors that care about sustainability as we do. We use hand-spun organic cotton made by our artisan community Women Weave, organic cotton from Herbal Fab and Aura Herbal, recycled organic cotton, Tencel and hemp. Before deciding to work with a new fabric, we do our ground research and read more about how it will work in our designs.
Beyond materials, how else do you measure sustainability at SUI?
We craft slow. Unlike fast-fashion, we don’t rush production to ensure quality. Also, we don’t create too much ready stock and often create designs on a made to order basis. This allows us to reduce inventory waste and produce pieces which we learn are more in demand.
We use herbal dyes for all our solid colours. These dyes are not only good for the environment but are safe for your skin. Our current summer edit uses herbs like Turmeric (for the yellow colour) Indigo and Pomegranate (for green shades). It’s a completely chemical-free process, and they recycle any water used during production too.
We work with craft produced by hand like embroidery, block printing and handmade organic cotton— all processes produced without a machine. This helps us limit electricity use and carbon emissions while supporting our local craft heritage.
We upcycle fabric scraps and deadstock fabrics into accessories. We’re proud to say there’s close to zero fabric wastage at our workshop.
We have a minimal plastic policy and tend to reuse any of the plastic that comes our way. We also use recycled paper for our tags, our cloth bags are recycled from waste fabric, we use bio-plastic for our packaging and promote reusability on our packaging boxes. Our team often hear about our customers reusing our boxes and bags and making it a part of their lifestyle, which makes us extremely happy.
What are your thoughts on fast-fashion brands promoting sustainability?
I’m all for fast-fashion brands making an effort and in turn, making sustainability more mainstream. However, I worry it may reduce the true value of ethical processes in the customer’s eyes (because they order huge MOQ’s, they can offer designs at cheaper prices than a smaller brand – although not as good quality). Ultimately it’s important for both consumers and brands to be aware that running a sustainable fashion label comes with a higher cost, and to know a company’s true intentions behind what they do.
Covid-19 has had a massive effect on all industries this year, including fashion. How has SUI been affected?
It’s been tough. We’ve been hustling through the past few months, working with minimal resources. We shut our workshop from March until May. Our deliveries were also on hold until we knew it was safe to operate again for our team and customers. We’re thankful to our community for being so supportive despite all the disruption.
We basically had to change our entire strategy and I had no idea how we’d pull through, be able to sustain our team and provide work to our artisans in the future. We focused on making sure everyone was doing alright and on connecting with our community rather than pushing products. It’s just what felt right. This helped us spread the word about our artisans and involve people with the purpose behind our brand on a deeper level.
As of June, we’ve slowly started to open back up. The support we’ve received meant we were able to give work back to our block printer and tailors who have all been eager to get back to work. We’ve also been using our platform to create more awareness for causes our partners are supporting, like Women Weave who have been raising funds for their artisans. We’re currently selling masks and donating sales proceeds to their organisation.
The sustainable fashion space is evolving every day. What innovations excite you the most?
Materials made from sea waste, natural dyes that can achieve a more varied colour palette, tech that can help track transparency for business and AI technology that helps customers make smarter fashion choices!
Tell us the biggest lessons your slow fashion entrepreneurial journey has taught you.
I’ve learnt that there’s many ways to make sustainability fun and engaging, so we’re always finding ways to refresh the conversation. We’ve also discovered the importance of making feedback from our customers the focus of what we do; listening to them helps us improve and grow in the right way. Supporting locals is also key; it helps to boost small businesses around you and reduces your footprint. Finally, study your data closely and be willing to grow. Being a slow fashion brand is a never-ending journey, so be ready to change and evolve with it!