An Interview with Behno


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CREEM: How would you personally define behno? As your creative child, what  does “behno” mean to you?


Shivam Punjya: “Behno” means sisters in Hindi. Naturally, there’s a sense of community and a very unique and close relationship when considering “sisters”. For me, behno is a fashion label that seeks to create a community not only between the garment workers in our partner factory, but also between our consumers and the garment workers. There’s a world of a difference between both, but so many similarities, too.

From a more fashion perspective, behno is a new advanced contemporary fashion label
that is compelled to refresh and redefine the common perception of “made in India”,
currently held in the global eye. behno is about clean, tailored designs that focuses on
quality alongside ethical manufacturing.

CREEM: behno seems to have come into being so organically, though your path towards the inception of the brand is a bit of a winding road. How does someone who started out studying at UC Berkeley, with the hopes of working with developing economies end up the founder of a fashion  label?

SP: When their life’s GPS loves taking the most unconventional routes. But really, after
studying political economics and global poverty at UC Berkeley and working for an
education advocacy nonprofit based in India, I was intrigued by global health and social
entrepreneurship. I wanted to see how benefits from India’s education system could be
maximized with its midday meal policy that was in place.

So, I matriculated at Duke, and started my masters program there. Time flew, and I
soon found myself doing my thesis research in India, where I came to learn quite a bit
about textiles workers, their families, and about a disparity that existed between what
they were producing and what they were earning. As I was exploring the textiles
industry, I gained insight into a larger picture and into the global perception of “made in
India”, which was either negatively received or quickly dismissed. This, coupled with the
collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, shook my world up. I was compelled to
challenge the common perception of “made in India” by employing ethical garmenting
and also by ensuring that our front-end label, behno, employed strong design
sensibilities.

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CREEM: The name of your brand comes from the word “behn”, a word used by many women working in garment factories to refer to each other as sisters. When your brand is discussed, it’s inevitable that images of these otherwise unknown workers pop up in our minds. Why do you believe it is so important for the industry to recognize these women, both as a part of the fashion industry as well as individuals?

SP: In general, regardless of the industry, I think that, often, little attention is given to the
people who work so hard behind the scenes. And also, regardless of the industry, no
industry can succeed without all its components working together. And for us to decide
which of those components gets due recognition seems a bit unfair to me.

Furthermore, particularly to fashion, the industry is so labor intensive. This,
compounded with the fact that the fashion industry operates in some of the most
marginalized communities in the world, knowing what really goes into making clothing
becomes that much more important. As the world consumes so much fashion,
understanding the impact of the industry on the planet and its people across the globe is
critical to ensuring that more sustainable and ethical practices are implemented and
practiced.  And as individuals, the amount of hard work, skill and love that goes into constructing garments calls for garment workers to be recognized for their work. Within their very roles, they’re artists. They make designs come alive on a mass scale. That’s an art.

First hand, I’ve seen the training processes that garment factories employ in order to
make such beautiful garments, and I have to say, the level of commitment and
dedication it takes to the craft is overwhelming.

CREEM: Could you tell us about “The behno Standard”? How does this ‘code’ of sorts integrate itself into behno’s design and business practices on a day-to-day basis?

SP: “The behno Standard” is a set of principles that we have established to implement at our partner factory along with adhering with international safety and wage compliances.
Yes, in a way, it is a ‘code’, however, for us, it’s a more personal way of working with
and interacting with garment workers in factories. I tell people that “The behno
Standard” is a reactive standard that has studied and attempted to understand garment
workers and their needs and wants. At our partner factory, we envision a space that is
comforting and nurturing; a third space that is outside of the workplace and the home
space, where garment workers can feel safe and a part of a larger community. Hence,
the guiding principles under “The behno Standard” fall into six main categories: health,
garment worker social mobility, family planning, worker satisfaction and benefits, eco-
consciousness and women’s rights.

“The behno Standard” is pretty integrated in our design process simply in the nature that
all of our pieces are produced in India, through the very factory at which the standard is
being implemented. Secondly, our design team frequents India quite a bit, often working
alongside the garment workers and interacting with them at a very personal level. Both
the business and design arms of behno work very closely with MSA Ethos, our ethical
garmenting factory partner in India. The entirety of “The behno Standard” will be rolled
out in phases as both MSA Ethos and behno expands and grows.

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CREEM: How does your brand as a whole function, from design to production?

SP: Behno’s model is quite simple: everything is designed in NYC but made in India through our ethical garmenting factory partner. After we have designed our initial collection, we
take the collection to India and counter sample the entire range with our partner factory,
and use this time to teach our partner factory’s garment workers new techniques, and
walk them through our quality control standards.

CREEM: How is the experience running a line out of New York, with production based in India?

SP: It’s a lot of traveling, but we’ve been able to manage our time well. I think I am jet-lagged so often that jet-lag means nothing to my mind anymore; my natural clock is
always in a constant blur and my body has adapted like champ.

More seriously though, working out of NYC and India has been about constantly
juggling working in two very different spaces in so many ways. For example, when we’re
working in NYC we overlook the depth of the fashion industry’s penetration into our daily
lives. We realize how much of a bubble we work in when we’re abroad working the next
moment in India. In India, we’re working in a very different context; we’re in a place
where we have to be so hands-on in almost every aspect. Also, of course, cultural
contexts are different and styles of working differ so much between NYC and India. The
lines may be the same, but how they’re read is so different. We’re constantly presented
with different dichotomies of thinking and operating. We’re quickly learning and adapting
though.

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CREEM: Why is producing the garments themselves in India so important to you?

SP: Well, when I was doing my thesis research in India a while back, I came across textiles
workers, which led me to learn more about the global perception of “made in India”. I
quickly learned that people either had a negative perception of “made in India” or it was
nonexistent. This bothered me. I learned that people thought that Indian made goods were 1) too embellished, embroidered, and wildly colorful, 2) low quality and 3) made in sweatshops. I wanted to challenge all of these presumptions because I had experienced another version of “made in India”. I believe that “made in India” can become a global brand that competes globally and viably like “made in Italy” or “made in France”.  Part of this “made in India” story for me is very personal, and another part of it is simply about addressing and rectifying existing perceptions.

CREEM: Why do you believe that a strong focus on sustainability, as well as social conscience, is so important in the fashion industry?

Sustainability and social conscience are essential in any industry. However, in the
fashion industry, simply because of the aggressive demands and needs of the industry,
at times, these topics are overlooked. I don’t think that people genuinely don’t care
about these issues. They’re just issues that aren’t talked about as much. And if they’re
talked about, clear plans of actions are hard to come by and difficult to devise.

That said, because fashion is such a large industry, it is naturally also one of the most
polluting industries. It is also one of the most labor-intensive industries on the globe that
operates in some of the most marginalized communities in developing economies. I
think that’s enough reason to believe why sustainability and social conscience in fashion
is so necessary.

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CREEM: How do you feel about the uprising of large scale “fast-fashion” brands such as Zara and Topshop in the industry? What effect do you think this current obsession with fast-fashion will have in the long-run: in social, economic, and environmental terms?

SP: I think that although Zara and Topshop may be considered fast-fashion retailers, they
also provide more economically accessible options to fashion. I don’t think that we can
fault them for addressing a market that loves fashion but wants to buy it at affordable
price-points. At the same time, not to single out “fast-fashion” brands, I do think that
there’s always room for any brand to implement more sustainable and ethical practices
in the way they produce, design, manufacture, and sell their products. To be very
honest, I think “fast-fashion” is a very complex and loaded term. There’s no easy fix,
and I think it’s a system that has to be studied and changed in ways that fundamentally
address issues that govern the industry and the way that consumers think and buy.

That said, I do encourage buying less, but buying quality. There are beautiful pieces
that can be cherished for whiles to come. Of course, reducing the consumption of “fast-
fashion” would have its own set of benefits. (On a side note, a good friend, Andrew
Morgan, is debuting his new documentary film- “The True Cost”- next month, and I
highly recommend everyone to watch it. Andrew’s film discusses fashion’s impact on
the planet and its people. It’s going to be a real change maker.)

CREEM: What sets behno’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection apart?

Ashley Austin: I would have to say our juxtaposition of sophisticated, sculptural tailoring against colorful abstract patterns.

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CREEM: What was the inspiration behind the Fall/Winter 2015 collection?

AA: The inspiration for this season came from Le Corbousier’s interpretation of Chandigarh, which is India’s first city to embrace the modernist movement. The idea of this super modern and experimental city situated in a country where traditional décor and ornate detailing are so much a part of its heritage really intrigued me. This season you will find a lot of traditional menswear tailoring details but reinvented in a very sculptural way.

Sweaters have blocks of sheer yarn to give the illusion of depth inspired by windows in
a building. We also have these very abstract knit jacquards inspired by Le Corb’s
paintings that really breathe life into the collection. I think this contrast of the super
disciplined, sophisticated tailoring juxtaposed with these very abstract free form patterns
really defines what we stand for. It’s all about that mix coming together to create
something unique.

CREEM: Who is the woman that you ideally see wearing Behno head-to-toe?

AA: Tilda Swinton.

CREEM: What do you hope will be in the stars for Behno’s future?

Shivam Punjya.: Tilda Swinton. (That would be dreamy!) But, we’re also focused on trying to localize Behno’s production in India as much as possible by working with local fabric
manufacturers, and also integrating artisan fabrics into our designs. I can’t speak on this
much more now, but we’re also working on innovating a digital space that gives our
consumers a very unique experience on our website. We’re excited to see what the
future holds for us. Stay tuned!

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