This is the story of a fashion lover who discovered the harmful, hard-to-ignore faults in the industry and set out to take part in the change to better our planet and people. How did she move from fast to slow fashion? Read on for some enlightening words from the founder of Sui, Mahima Gujral Wadhwa.
Fashion is one of the largest industries in the world. However, it is also one of the most polluting and wasteful. Cotton growth uses many pesticides and harmful chemicals. Also, textile waste is consistently one of the top five most discarded items. So, what can we do about it? For Sui, they wanted to be a brand that celebrated sustainable slow fashion. They also felt that people needed to know about #WhoMadeTheirClothes. This is because ethical fashion and fairness for the artisans are so crucial. They have also committed to using organic and natural dyes for their clothes, but why? Do all these efforts really do much at all? We spoke to Mahima to hear her thoughts and about her journey.
GITNB: Was there an epiphany moment for you to start Sui?
Mahima Gujral Wadhwa: I grew up in the fashion industry as my maternal family owns a bespoke Indian ethnic brand, now run by my mother. So naturally, fashion has always been a part of my life. However, the impact of the industry and its extent never hit me until I finished my Masters in Milan back in 2016. At the time, I was an average 20-something who consumed fast fashion. When it was time to leave Italy, I realised the mountain of stuff I had collected through the years. At the same time, I would be studying craftsmanship and walking the popular streets of Milan, where consumerism is rampant. It hit me hard. This was the year I was also introduced to fashion revolution. Somewhere, all these experiences connected the dots and I thought there had to be a kinder way around this.
Learning that the industry I had so deeply adored, was impacting people and our planet – was my eye opener which instantly pushed me to a change. I began my own journey in mindful consumption, discovering and learning more. It started with giving up fast fashion, clearing out my own wardrobe, studying benchmark brands, speaking to people and really educating myself about the impact of fashion. I realised that there was a gap in ethically made garments which were wearable and versatile. Silhouettes such as classic trousers, shirts and dresses – and a lot of people I spoke to frowned when I spoke about sustainable fashion. They viewed it as boring/ not wearable and I set out on my path to find a way to change this. Eventually – this lead to the founding of Sui.
How has your upbringing shaped your view of fashion and sustainability?
My mom’s store is near her workshop (where we have Sui’s workshop now too!) Hence, I grew up witnessing the maker process first-hand. All our tailors embroiders and the rest of our production team were and are a big family and a part of who we are. We have celebrated festivals, successes and low times together as a team. Moreover, they work in safe and clean conditions. This was never a question with us, rather a code of conduct. Thus, when I heard about how socially corrupt the fashion industry can be, it didn’t make sense to me.
My father and grandparents were very fond of nature, which translated into having our home surrounded by beautiful trees, flowers, and a small vegetable garden too! Every winter – our garden back home was and is my haven. When we were young, my father brought us for road trips around India and the world. They were all about being in nature and having new experiences which were not dissolved in the cityscape. I guess I grew to have a deep connection with the world, especially the seaside. It gave and gives me a lot of peace. Therefore as I learned about the environmental impacts of fashion – I wanted to create something that spoke for nature. Many of our inspirations and color palettes come from these experiences, which I have journaled via my travels. Bringing these two aspects together were crucial to my upbringing and my understanding of this journey.
One main philosophy you have is “we make clothes with a green heart.” Can you tell us more about that?
It means a heart that is close to Nature and close to its people. It is our promise that with every step in our production or growth, we are honest and caring. In everything we do, we promise to keep the well being of our world and our people in mind. For example, Sui works with social enterprises and NGOs and supports their growth. One of our fabric partners is a women-focused NGO based in Maheshwar, India, called Women Weave. Another non-profit we work with is called Pins and Needles. They help underprivileged women in Delhi, to earn extra cash via the art of embroidery. This is a little example, of when we say “always with a green heart”. It’s also our vow to create keeping the earth in mind, which is one of the main reasons we switched to herbal dyes & tend to focus on a minimal waste philosophy.
Why do dyes matter? What are the impacts and what is so special about the dyes at Sui?
When we started, we wanted to stay away from chemical dyes entirely. However, as a young brand, we were also learning. Hence, for our first two collections, we worked with azo-free dyes. However, as we grew we knew that it wasn’t the cleanest way to move forward. Azo-free dyes still contain chemicals and there is no guarantee that the water around is not getting polluted. Come our third edit, it was time for a change.
At this point, I met our current dyer based in Gujarat who works with herbal/natural dyes. This was a direction we knew we were going to move towards but were not sure of the outcome. However, once I learned about its benefits and saw how beautiful the colors can be – there was no turning back. Our colors come from turmeric, dried flowers and many other such elements of nature. They are also known as Ayurvedic dyes because they have healing properties on the skin. What intrigued me further was that all the wastewater is recycled at their unit. Yes, of course when you set out to go greener, there are drawbacks like having limited color options and/or longer lead time. But we always knew that as a brand, we would keep working towards getting better and facing each challenge – keeping our ethos in mind.
If you could recommend one of your fabrics, which is it and why?
Khadi! It is handspun and handwoven cotton created without any electricity. Handmade from start to finish – it’s a craft. Other than that, it’s perfect for warm weather. It is an extremely breathable fabric so I would definitely recommend for people in Singapore. Last but not least, it is rooted in the culture of India. It is one of the fabrics that go back to the time of independence. The khadi culture is growing in India, however internationally people are yet to be familiar with this fabric.
Do you have any tips that we should know today when we are on the lookout for sustainable and ethical brands?
- Study the brand’s philosophy, understand what they mean by it when they say they are sustainable. Support the brands which are pushing sustainability on a wholesome approach yet making it easy for you to engage with them.
- Transparency – honest brands share their stories, their journey and information about their supply chain. Be on the lookout for brands which share pictures and videos of their factories and their workers & really take you behind the scenes. Working with sustainable fabric is only one part of the entire process. So as a consumer don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Check for certifications such as Fairtrade, GOTS. All organic cotton vendors use GOTS, which makes it one of the most common ones.
- All in all, whenever I tend to buy something which is new and not my own brand – I truly go for brands which I feel a connection with, so seek that connection.
Now that we’ve talked about your values and the values of Sui, tell us more about the efforts on World Oceans Day and why that is so important to you.
The oceans mean a lot to me, and this love lies deep in our values for Sui too. Every step we take, we keep the oceans in our minds. A year into our journey – we knew we wanted to do something that would help this beautiful haven. Hence we tied up with Reefwatch India, to create a green tee – crafted with a green heart carrying a message, with the hope that we all can come together to create a positive ripple. The t-shirts are crafted in organic cotton, ethically produced in collaboration with our fair vendor Aura Herbal. The motifs embroidered on the t-shirts, are inspired by the oceans and have been crafted by our threadspeller Nawab.
For each T-shirt purchased, we promised to donate the profits to Reefwatch India for their ocean Sunday’s program – a program dedicated to teaching coastal village kids about the fragile ecosystem of their island home and what they can do to care for it. I believe this to be so important because education & spreading awareness is key to helping the future of our planet.
Our hope is to try & educate our customers and team as much as we can. So that, they can take their own #LittleGreenSteps and make their way towards a greener path. Through this initiative, our aim was to connect with our team and our community about the oceans. Sui’s philosophy has always been to simplify the bigger picture and help our customers understand how it relates to them and why it matters that they join us in this. Hence with our “I speak for the ocean” initiative, this is exactly what we tried to do. Since our base city, Delhi, is far from the ocean, we organised a small film screening on Chasing Coral, to engage our customers further. I hope this to be the first of many initiatives we carry out for our oceans!
Can you tell us more about sustainable slow fashion? How can we encourage people to think about and practise sustainable slow fashion?
Slow fashion is the sustainable alternative to fast fashion. In the simplest of terms, it’s the attempt to slow down the process of creation, where every step is given its due time, and we are able to create quality garments with minimal impact to the planet.
In Sui’s instance, for some of our pieces, we use hand-loomed fabrics that take one to two months to produce. We hand-embroider many of our motifs, which takes time. But, it is worth the effort to showcase beautifully handcrafted pieces that are eco-conscious. Today, people want things that are fast, almost in an instant. Instead, we push for them to think about time as an investment and the human touch as special.
We also aim to create seasonless clothes and give them a timeless look. Pieces like these can last lifetimes and can combat our industry’s need to mass produce and cycle through trends so quickly. We want our garments to stay with our customers for years to come, be their go-to choices, and by creating such pieces, we can encourage these this way of consuming and start to put an end to so much needless waste.
We intentionally keep a low inventory so that we do not end up overproducing, and, if pieces do go out of stock or if customers require custom sizes, we are happy to create on-demand. Consequently, we keep our waste minimal, operating between being a bespoke and stocked shop.
Our advice to consumers: look at your habits. Be conscious and consider your choices. When I understood the full extent of how fast fashion affected our planet, I made decisions in my personal life to give it up and felt like, with those steps, I made a difference. I developed a curiosity for the clothes and brands I decided to buy from and began a relationship with my clothes in order to learn from them and the causes they support that all aspire for a greener future.
What do you think the future of fashion and Sui would look like?
I’ve been reading up a lot and digging deeper into the environmental impacts of consumerism. I believe the future of fashion is to create a circular economy, to produce less and find ways to use what already exists while also giving credit beyond profit.
For us, we really want to look more into recycled fabrics and the various ways we can cut down on waste. On top of that, we often look deeply into our supply chain, which affects our contribution to the future of our planet. For instance, we organised a swap with the dead stock of our very first collection ensuring we were able to make use of already created pieces.
These are just a few ways we try to keep to our green promise. Regardless, we are always brainstorming and discussing ways we can do better. That is the only way we can keep innovating and continue to be a positive force for our planet.