Shivam Punjya is the odd man on the fashion scene. But that may be precisely why he has the ability to change the perception of what fashion stands for today.
With an enviable background in political economics and global health, he understands the core of what ethical entrepreneurship means and the repercussions that come with it. As founder of behno (a term of endearment to symbolize sisterhood and the name used to address each other by the garment workers in his factory) he is creating a new way of approaching business.
TBS : You have had a very unconventional foray into fashion. What led you here?
SP : I studied political economics and global poverty at UC Berkley where I learned about the creation of poverty and how it is sustained. As part of my field research, I travelled to MSA (Muni Seva Ashram) in Gujarat, to learn about the mid-day meal policy and how it is administered. The gaps became evident early on.
I then went on to study global health at Duke and in particular the lack of education provided to women about their reproductive health. My fieldwork led me to Jaipur and Hyderabad, India. By happenstance, I discovered khadi (a hand spun fabric very popular in India) and learned about the inexpensive and low quality perception it carries in the West. What really drove the message home for me though was the Rana Plaza tragedy. Women were such a big part of that and their families did not even receive compensation from the brands that manufactured there. I knew something had to change on how these workers were treated.
So, in conjunction with MSA and an garment industry veteran in Gujarat, we decided to set up a factory where we could work directly with the workers. Furthermore, we set “The behno Standard” to maintain careful execution of our ideals. behno hopes to dispel the normcore of “Made in India” not only with quality but with aesthetics too – to create clean, structured collections free of too much embellishment.
TBS : What is “The behno Standard”?
SP : Health, ,social mobility, family planning, women’s rights, work satisfaction and benefits and eco-consciousness are the six core principles that create The behno Standard. While we are still working through executing all six of these principles, they have become the cornerstones of the way we operate and run our business. MSA (a non-profit) is our eyes on the ground in India.
TBS : Why is ethical fashion so important to you?
SP : Clothes are an integral part of our everyday life. Thousands of lives are impacted to simply put clothes on our backs and the fact that the cost of their lives seems so little is a reality I’m not comfortable with.
TBS : Tell us about your design team.
The team came about very organically – I emailed professors at various design schools and interviewed six of them. I started working with Jasonpaul McCarthy because he understood the fashion element in relation to social entrepreneurship and our social mission. He introduced me to Ethan, currently at Parsons, and Ashley, who is now our head designer, who went to SCAD. They designed the first collection that you see.
TBS : What is the inspiration behind your first collection launching Autumn/Winter 2015?
SP : The first collection was inspired by Le Corbusier who is considered the father of modernism in India. He was known for geometry and structural details. The silhouettes were angular and we used the color palette found in his artwork. We created nineteen looks based on his work in the arts. His aesthetics parlayed well into where we want to take the brand. We will look at Bauhaus for Spring 2016.
TBS : How do you make sure the creative vision of behno translates on a bi-continental level?
SP : Our head designer Ashley is working bi-coastally. She visited India three times last year alone to work closely with the artisans and our partner factory. She has been working closely with the patternmakers and as it is a very hands-on job – the language barrier isn’t a problem. It is easy to show and demonstrate the process once and then the artisans take it from there.
TBS : Who looks after the factory?
SP : Mr. Mukesh Kothari is the former president of Adidas, which is in Germany, and the head of MSA Ethos, our partner ethical garmenting factory. He looks after and manages the factory and understands our sense of urgency in getting products at the right time, without pressuring the factory.
TBS : Dogma still surrounds the idea of “Make in India”. How do you think behno is going to change that?
SP : We started with the best fabrics from all over the world. India has this perception of fostering sweatshops – that in itself will be dispelled in the way we manufacture and run our business. Our factory is open to appointments anytime and you can visit the artisans. You are able to feel the product and hear the stories of the fascinating women and men who bring the product to life.
TBS : Where are your sourcing fabrics from?
SP : Currently, we are sourcing fabrics globally – Italy, China and Japan are our primary sources for fabrics. Our collection has a big focus on knitwear and due to the tropical climate, it is not easy to find this in India. We are planning to source our woollens from India though.
TBS : What do you envision for the future?
I would like to localize the products as much as possible – and I would like to change the perception of more mainstream fabrics like “Khadi” which are staple to India. Sourcing globally comes at a cost to the environment and I want to make this as ethical a brand as I possibly can. However, I understand that this is a much larger conversation and that it will take more than just one brand rallying for this to change the industry. The biggest focus for me right now is to build our brand and get a steady cash flow in place.
TBS : Where can we buy Behno?
Lookbook images and video courtesy of behno