The Heart Behind - Swahlee
THE HEART BEHIND is a series of interviews where we get to know the founders and the heart behind what they do.
Empowering local women in Assam, India to dream big and maximise their potential, Swahlee is an ethical business that promotes the true worth of their artisans and their craft.
Answering our questions is Andrea, Founder and Director of Swahlee.
What does ‘Swahlee’ mean, and what made you start this brand?
The name ‘Swahlee’ is based on the Assamese word for “girl.” Our vision is to create transformative opportunities for young women through creating good, fair, safe work.
The journey toward founding Swahlee began during my university days when I spent a semester studying in Uganda. That was the first time I saw how critical education and economic opportunities are to preventing the exploitation and abuse of women and girls.
You’re currently based in India where you oversee the entire production. Moving is a huge commitment. Was it a tough decision?
I like travel, exploring new places, and getting to know people across cultures. So in that sense moving wasn’t hard. There were many challenges, but I strongly believed in the transformative value of job opportunities for women, creating ripples for generations to come.
Tell us more about your design and sourcing process. How do you go about it?
The concept of “slow fashion” is an essential part of Swahlee. We focus on classic designs that are made well to last. They are investment pieces - the pieces in a woman’s wardrobe that become memory holders. They are timeless and well made, so they can be lovingly passed down to a family member or dear friend who will also treasure them.
Also essential to the Swahlee brand is the use of natural fabrics: cotton, linen, silk. India has a rich textile heritage. This is the heritage of the women on our team: most village homes in our region have a loom. For this reason we utilize handloom fabrics. To me, the perfect imperfection of handloom fabrics is the handprint of the weaver, the evidence it was made by human hands. These fabrics have depth and ‘soul.’
In addition to handloom fabrics, we also source deadstock fabrics as a way to reduce waste. Waste in the fashion industry supply chain is massive, yet most consumers are unaware of this. According to Fashion Revolution, 800,000 tons of supply chain waste were produced by the fashion industry in 2016 – in one year alone. Much of the surplus fabric produced is excellent quality, it is just extra produced by the mill or it contains small flaws in otherwise large swaths of impeccable cloth. Using these deadstock materials also gives us the creative challenge of starting with preexisting fabrics rather than a blank slate.
What has been the high and low points of running this business? And what keeps you going?
Like with any small business, there have been many moments of discouragement and seemingly impossible roadblocks. There are still, but what keeps me going are the women I get to work with every day, our sewing team. I see tangible change because of the opportunity they have through Swahlee. It’s not that we are giving them anything. We are a business, not a charity. We’ve met the women where they are and created a space where they contribute value, and that is transformational.
Social and environmental issues are big problems that we often don’t know where to even start. What’s your advice to people who wants to do something, but are just overwhelmed by the statistics on, for example, human trafficking or environmental pollution?
Pick one thing and start there. There is a quote I’ve seen lately that says:
“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” - Anne Marie Bonneau.
There is much truth in this, whether it is applied to environmental issues or social justice issues.
We also need to be humble. Being able to make intentional changes in our purchasing habits is a privilege. As we champion these causes, we need to remember the root reason: love of our neighbor, whether that is the people behind a sewing machine who made our clothes, people in poverty who are most affected by climate change, or the generations to come after us who will also call this planet home. We need to apply this same love to the people in our lives who don’t understand why we are making intentional changes to our habits or who aren’t in the same place we are on our ethical consumption journey. We’re more likely to win them over if we are winsome and gracious rather than combative and judgmental.
What do you hope to see in the fashion industry?
I hope to see the eradication of all slavery and unethical treatment of people in the supply chain. Ethical should be the base line. Clothing will cost more when people are paid fairly and treated well in the making of it. Clothing will also be better made because production quotas are not unreasonably fast and the maker is able to take pride in their craft.
The fashion industry – or simply the garment industry - as we know it: mass production, fast, & cheap - is unrecognizable in comparison to what it was for most of human history. Global clothing production has more than doubled since 2000. There are some benefits to the efficiency and economies of scale that we have today, but we need moderation. I hope to see a slowing, a focus on quality over quantity, of timelessness over trendy. Good design should stand the test of time.
Good design is also intentionally and thoughtfully useful. More is not necessarily better. Many of us have had the privilege of standing in front of a full closet of clothes, yet still felt we had nothing fit to wear. Fewer, well designed pieces will serve us better. Versatility is an art.
What do you want customers to know about sustainability and conscious consumption?
Just as this is a journey for the consumer, it is a journey for the brands and producers too. Brands need to be held accountable. Especially the big ones who have the means right now to improve. But for new small businesses, it can be nearly impossible to check all of the right boxes: living wages, all natural, zero waste, inclusive sizing, etc. These young brands need our support so they can grow and have the margins needed to make more positive changes. The question is whether they are intentionally making strategic choices to move in the right direction.
What’s the dream for Swahlee?
Our dream is a sustainable, thriving business led by local women who are creating jobs and spearheading change in their families, communities, and the lives of other women.