“When I was younger, [the way I approached fashion was] sustainable because my grandmother, who was a tailor, used to make my clothes. She taught me how to sew and with her help, I started making my own clothes as a teenager. As I grew up, however, stores like Zara began sprouting up and I became too busy with studying and working, so I started buying clothes from stores instead. At the time, though, I was buying only what I needed, like suits for work or summer clothes.
It was when I moved to Singapore ten years ago that I realised how much everyone was buying just to follow fashion trends — clothes would be used for one season and then disposed of. I started researching and discovered the extent of wastage, toxic materials, and the negative impact on fashion workers, that the fashion industry was generating.
I decided to change the way I was shopping again, becoming more conscious about what and where I was buying. I also created Baliza — a brand that is kind to workers and respectful to the environment.”
So began the journey of Baliza in 2012. Committed to producing ethically and sustainably, Baliza works with artisans at Ladli, a vocational centre in Jaipur where Gudri women are employed and taught valuable skills, including traditional garment-making, block printing, and embroidery. They also receive support such as medical care, financial education, schooling for their children, and fair salaries that are thrice that of average factory workers.
Gema, you’ve worked with Ladli for a few years now. Can you tell us why working with them is so important to you?
We are socially centric. Our efforts grow as we see the increasing impact that our production has on the artisans. Ladli is not a factory, it is a vocational centre. I believe that [it helps] preserve the artisans’ history, culture, as well as traditional skills, which is also what makes the designs unique. [They also learn other] skills, such as pattern-making and sewing, which are transferable to other companies they might work for after leaving Ladli.
You recently started having artisans sign the labels of the pieces they make. How did this idea come about?
I wanted to add a part of each artisan to each piece so as to make every item unique, as well as to reflect the truly artisanal work behind each garment. When our customers see these signatures, they become a part of the story too — [because each purchase] truly makes a difference to the artisan who had made that piece. I wish we could make the entire world aware of the poor work conditions most fashion workers have to endure.
Our artisans are our main drive and motivation. One artisan who has had an impact on me is Radha, who works to support her family and husband through cancer.
Tell us more about your partnership with Aura Herbal Textiles.
At Baliza, we use herbally dyed organic cotton, produce in small batches, and only in one size. It was five years ago when we started looking for organic fabric suppliers, which wasn’t an easy task. In fact, we’ve always believed in using natural materials but many suppliers in India did not want to supply to an NGO while others demanded huge minimum quantities of fabric.
And you’re also taking even more steps towards sustainable production this edition of Boutiques.
With every new collection we endeavour to get better — not just by making a prettier collection but by exploring ways in which we can be more sustainable. For a few years we have noticed the amount of scrap fabric generated in the vocational centre while making our dresses. We have often wondered what and how we can use this excess fabric. This year, we are very excited to share we have found a solution.
We will be making some pretty hair accessories made entirely from scrap fabric. The scrunchies and hairbands will match our new collection, ‘Havana’, which is launching exclusively at The Gifting Edition 2019. We will be giving our beloved customers a surprise hair accessory for free with each purchase they make.
As someone who understands firsthand that ethical clothing is a journey, what advice do you have on how people can get started?
It is important to focus on quality over quantity, and on your favourite shapes and colours. Invest in basics and neutral colours too — they are always fashionable. Also, buy from small brands that are fully transparent about their production chain.
Invest in basics and neutral colours too — they are always fashionable.
Come meet Gema to find out more about Baliza and be the first to shop the new Havana collection. Find Gema and team in the Pink Room on level 2. The Gifting Edition 2019. Nov 15-17, levels 2 & 3 of the F1 Pit Building.
Designer Conversations is an interview series done in collaboration with Public Culture, an editorial experience studio that believes in connection over communication. All images by Baliza.