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Behind the Brand: Gema Santander of Baliza

Behind the Brand: Gema Santander of Baliza

Based in Singapore, Baliza is a fashion and lifestyle label crafting distinctive, summer-ready collections for women. An ethical brand inspired by exotic destinations and celebrating heritage craft, their artisan prints are brought to life in Jaipur, India.

From dresses with pockets for everyday wear to beach-worthy kaftans and cover-ups, their designs are made from premium organic cotton fabric that’s better for you and for Mother Earth. What’s more, their flattering pieces come in one size and fit a UK 6 to 16. This helps them reduce waste while empowering you with inclusive options that look good, feel good and do good.

We caught up with founder Gema Santander to find out more about her mission to create a better world, one garment at a time.

What did you do before launching ethical fashion label Baliza?

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. After a while, I continued to pursue my dream of working in design. This included developing properties and managing websites for small companies.

What inspired you to start the label?

In 2012, I met the support group of I-India in Singapore. I became so inspired by the work the NGO were doing to help rescue children on the streets in Jaipur. Soon I learnt about Ladli, the organisations vocational training centre, and saw lots of craft projects like pretty cushions and blankets that were being made. That made me wonder how I could bring more work to the organisation. That was when I saw an opportunity to make beach cover ups that I could sell in Singapore for them. That’s really how we started out. The designs were inspired by the beach lifestyles of Bali and Ibiza – and thus the name Baliza!

The team at Ladli that produce sustainable fashion label Baliza's collections
The team at Ladli that produce sustainable fashion label Baliza’s collections

Photography by Mukul Bhatia

Where do you source fabrics for Baliza, 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.

Fashion label Baliza supports the work of Ladli to train and empower disadvantaged adults and their children at the centre
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 growing Baliza as a 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.

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A male artisan at Ladli working indoors on a design for sustainable fashion label Baliza

Photography by Mukul Bhatia

What are your tips for shopping and living more consciously?

Buying locally and seasonally, whatever I’m consuming. I shop a lot less for clothes these days and consider more carefully before I 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

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