Thursday, June 2, 2011
Designers all over the world have always been influenced by traditional cultures. Jessica Priemus is no different, however instead of just being inspired, she collaborates. Working with women in Bangladesh to create collections for her Perth based label Bhalo, Jessica shows us how exciting supporting artisans and disadvantaged communities can be.
How did Bhalo come about?
I travelled to Bangladesh to be a volunteer at a The Dhaka Project in 2008, where I met my now business partner Shimul, who was a manager of the project at that time. We were placed together as a team to create new designs for the project's sewing centre for disadvantaged women. The women had incredible skills, but little design knowledge, and no market for their products. We then decided to start our own label, using my skills as a designer, and his management skills and (local) experience with working with disadvantaged people. The Dhaka Project are still making my designs for the local market in Dhaka but for international garments we have since moved on to new producers.
Our first Bhalo project was a range of woolen scarves knitted by homeworkers in the outskirts of Dhaka. Soon after that we began working with Thanapara Swallows Development Society, which was established to provide employment for widows after their husbands were killed during the liberation war. Rather than aid, they wanted looms so that they could work and become self-sustainable. Today, the project employs over 200 people and funds free schooling and daycare for their children, as well as other community programs. To keep up with demand, we are also just about to start work with a new producer - Folk Bangladesh that provides new opportunities for tribal and indigenous groups in rural Bangladesh.
Can you tell us about the trips you go on for sampling and production?
About twice a year I travel from Australia to Bangladesh to create samples for the next collection and oversee production of the current collection. When arriving in Dhaka, I collect Shimul and we take the train 5 hours to the village of Thanapara in Rajshahi. We then spend a few weeks working very closely with the producers, who work with us on everything from pattern making to finished product.
What is the best part about going to the villages and working with the people who make Bhalo?
I love everything about going to the village. I love the train journey through the amazingly green rice fields and meeting up with all my friends and all the ladies once I get there. I could spend 1 month there and its still not enough time. We are always rushing to get work done - I really wish we had more leisure time! My goal next time is to find half a day to buy fishing rods and cycle down to the banks of the Ganges (or the Padma as it is known in Bangladesh) and join in with the dusk fishermen. Sometimes when we get a spare hour we go to the project kitchen and help the ladies there, lighting the fire in the traditional clay stove and making fresh roti!
What are the challenges you face?
Main challenges are probably the same as most small businesses, except throw in the added element of unexpected surprises. Something crazy is always happening in Bangladesh - whether it is man made or a natural disaster. This is why they use the word insha'allah a lot - meaning God willing - when talking about when the sampling or production will be done. The main reason why I travel there is to make sure I am there to answer any questions immediately, or just to help out. I always end up doing something manual like actually helping to embroider something or holding somebody's wriggling child - we are just really determined to get it done! We spend a lot of time with black feet and clothes drenched with sweat. I have had to abandon any dreams of maintaining a glamourous haircut!
You have amazing, vibrant prints and embroidery, where does your inspiration come from?
The Autumn/Winter 2011 collection's prints were inspired by traditional Jamdani patterns. Jamdani is this amazing Bengali traditional weaving technique used to make saris from a fine cotton muslin. The shapes and patterns are geometric and I thought that they would be really loved by the Australian market. I have a post about the weaving process on our blog...
I still dream of using actual Jamdani in clothing, but it is not a very durable fabric. It would be suited to something that you could wear once or twice without washing, like a wedding or formal dress... One day!
What do you hope for the future of fashion?
I hope that one day soon we will get rid of the assumption that cheap throwaway fashion is a right. You do not need 100 shirts. In many ways the fashion industry is designed to be unsustainable, with the constant stream of new fashion, new seasons, new styles. People feel unfashionable after one season. I hope that in the future we can get past this shallow attitude and start designing things that can be worn for years. Many fashion designers already do this, but high street fashion is still mostly just disposable.
I also hope that brands will get enough pressure to start being accountable for the conditions that they KNOW their workers toil in when they outsource their work to countries like Bangladesh. The sweatshops only exist for this work, and would most likely change given even slight pressure from the buyer. Sure, the factory owners in Bangladesh are also helping keep workers in these conditions, but what options do they have when someone is demanding a shirt for 30 cents and ready yesterday?
I think many of my hopes are definitely feasible and I hope to see them in my lifetime.
Whats next for Bhalo?
We will be launching our 2011-12 collection, called "Golden Year" online in August, and showing it off during Melbourne Spring Fashion Week in early September.
Currently we are designing and sampling our 2012 collection - think earthy clay colours with splashes of oxblood red and navy, batik prints and a focus on traditional embroidery.
We have just acquired 2 agents - one in Melbourne/Sydney and another in London/Dubai, so we hope to grow quite substantially over the next year, hopefully get more stockists in Australia and overseas.
Check out the Bhalo website here..the winter collection is AMAZING!
Posted by Kelly at 5:47 PM