Interviewed by Cherie Birkner
"I believe that somewhere in the next 10 years we are going to reach the tipping point from fast fashion to slow fashion."
What was your first job?
My first “pocket money” earning job was packing t-shirts during my school summer holidays in my mothers little 3 people factory in our garage in New Delhi when I was 12 years old.
My first “real money job” in the fashion industry was in 1988 for Mexx International in Holland. I moved from India for this job as it was a fantastic opportunity to move to Europe and be part of a very international company with 1.200 employees, people from 28 countries and distributed its brand in more than 35 countries.
How was your view on the fashion industry and sustainability before hessnatur? In terms of sustainability, my view was that it’s something everyone talks about but only on the surface level i.e. there were more words than action. Brands, because it gave them credibility and consumers, because they appreciated it but were not willing to pay the premium. Regarding social standards, however, as there were some real standards and external audits and the risk of investigative journalism exposure the issue had become more real and the industry was aware and was taking corrective action. However, there were very few experts in the industry and as the subject was so often discussed it meant different things to different people. It is a complex subject and still probably means different things to different people.
When did you realize that successful business and sustainable fashion is a concept that works?
When I was first exposed to hessnatur. In 2012 I was invited by the owners of hessnatur to join the “Beirat” of the company. That’s when I took a deep dive into the brand, the business, its values, its products and its supply chain. Clearly as a pioneer they were forced to think through the entire value chain and actually develop systems, processes and products that allowed this business to successfully exist over 40 years. There was extensive deep rooted knowledge which had been accumulated over the years on how to offer sustainable fashion.
What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
My simplest definition so far is – fashion that does not harm the person who wears it (without toxic materials), that does not harm the person who makes it (fair working conditions) and that does not harm the environment (organic and natural core materials).
The word sustainable I find difficult to interpret so in fact I prefer to use the word responsible i.e. fashion with responsibility towards the consumer, towards the producer and towards nature.
We also use the word “fair fashion” synonymously with responsible fashion as it is easier to communicate.
How did it feel to be offered the position of CEO at hessnatur?
I was delighted. Given the values we have at hessnatur it is quite easy to fall in love with this company, its people and its products. Sustainability and responsibility is in the DNA of this company and I immediately felt at ease in that I felt that I have ‘arrived’ at my destination.
I also had respect. The brand is in the process of transformation from - ethics alone to “ethics & aesthetics”. We have some fantastic ethical values and we were in the process of adding a modern product and a modern aesthetic to the look and feel of the brand. This needs to be a carefully balanced adjustment as you need to make sure that you do not loose the loyalty of your existing customers and at the same time you need to attract new customers. We are making steady progress in this regard.
Why do you love your work?
It’s fantastic to work for a company where you can truly say that every day you contribute towards making the world a better place – as every piece of clothing we make and sell is in relative comparison better for the world than a conventional piece of clothing.
The real motivating factor is that the entire company, all 370 of my colleagues actually come excited to work every morning as they truly believe in our mission above.
What product at hessnatur are you the most proud of?
Hard to choose. At hessnatur we often use the phrase – every piece tells a story and once you learn the stories it’s truly hard to choose.
You can choose any of the below as my favourite and this is only a small sample!
Our linen. We actually produce the flax for our linen in Hessen, Germany. This is a passion project for the four farmers that produce this exclusively for us. We have to underwrite the entire crop regardless of what the quality is going to be. We support this local flax production to make sure the skills for this traditional yarn are still kept alive in Germany.
Our Selvedge Denim. Post the Rana Plaza tragedy we wanted to set the example that you can actually produce very sustainably in Bangladesh if you choose to. So we developed a project in North Bangladesh, which is one of the poorest parts of the country, to produce plant dyed indigo organic Selvedge denim on wooden hand looms. This product is in fact ‘limited by nature’ and the first lot was sold out in about 2 weeks. You can put your name down on the waiting list for the next lot which is expected later in fall.
Our silk wool baby bodies. These are made in Germany in a beautiful factory overlooking the Swabian Alb. The couple who make these for us have worked with us over 20 years and are meanwhile grand parents themselves. Since they work with us they have converted to only working with organic materials. Our Alpaca which comes from farms in Peru with whom we have been working for more than two decades; our non toxic leather which comes from a German tannery; our down feathers which actually come from a farm in Münsterland; our Rhön sheep wool which we developed over years comes from a farm in Rhineland; our baby wool walk overall where the owner experimented with us for over 5 years until we got the quality just right; our organic cotton t-shirts which are produced in an all women factory (workers and managers) in Lituania with some of the best work conditions I have seen in a factory anywhere... Like I said I can go on like this for every product.
What advice can you give to young sustainable fashion brands?
You are the future, stay persistent, be unique. Sustainability and responsible fashion is a mega trend – and the key to a better world, this industry needs to change. However, just calling yourself organic or sustainable is not enough, you need to find your true point of difference because as we know the world of fashion is hyper competitive.
What do you think will be different in the fashion industry 10 years from now?
I believe that somewhere in the next 10 years we are going to reach the tipping point from fast fashion to slow fashion. Whereby we will consume better quality, fairly produced clothes in harmony with nature and the people who wear and produce them. Essentially what we at hessnatur have been doing from our inception – Fair Fashion since 1976.