Kicking off NYFW for The L&J Files is an interview with the team behind the behno SS17 Collection and Lookbook.
Rarely does a more impressive and thoughtful team assemble than behno. The label was conceived by founder Shivam Punjya after the devastation of the Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh. The collapse was the worst garment factory accident in history, killing 1,137 workers who produced clothes for a number of US, Canadian and European retailers.
Compelled to be a part of change in the fashion industry, rather than a part of a broken system, Shivam created a new factory model in India that revolutionizes the way garment workers are treated, viewed and employed. behno's superior and innovative employment practices are paralleled by their product - beautiful, luxurious clothing you can wear season after season.
For SS17, the collection was styled by Sarah Slutsky, sustainable fashion advocate and stylist to one of Hollywood's most outspoken environmental advocates, Emma Watson. Also for SS17, behno teamed up with model Rose Gilroy, daughter of Rene Russo, to be the face of the collection.
Below we talk to Shivam, designer Ashley Austin and Rose Gilroy.
Rose Gilroy, Model - ELITE Model Management
Can you tell us a little about your background, what were you doing before modeling?
R: I graduated from Colgate University in May and prior to that I was studying and working towards receiving my degree. I doubled majored in Political Science and Psychology and I’ve really spent the last four years focusing on my studies. I love learning in an academic setting, but I’m really excited to be trying something so creative.
It's clear from your studies that you have an interest in social causes and the issues of the world at large, how does this influence the way you approach modeling?
R: You can find an outlet for social change regardless of what you’re doing. Any job or path can be an opportunity to get involved with issues that personally matter to you and modeling is no different. In that sense I approach modeling as an opportunity to be exposed to what others are doing to affect change and to work with like-minded people in the industry. Modeling and a desire to be involved with social issues aren’t mutually exclusive, I’ve already found an overlap.
The ethos of the behno brand, how they address sustainability and ethics in fashion and the vision of Shivam as a business person is very inspiring to us, what was it like collaborating with the brand and Shivam?
R: It was an amazing opportunity to work with Shivam and the entire behno team. I feel honored to collaborate with such talented and creative people who not only make incredibly beautiful clothing but also care about how it's made and the well-being of those who produced it. It was inspiring to be on set and know that each piece of their collection represents improved lives and a brand that is addressing the negative aspects associated with clothing manufacturing head on.
Did you learn anything new about the issues of ethical and sustainable fashion whilst working with behno?
R: Working with behno made me acutely aware of the fact that most of the time people, myself included, aren’t aware of how their clothes are being made or who is making them. There is a disconnect between the fact that the clothing industry is a billion dollar business yet in many cases the individuals producing the clothing live in extreme poverty, make far less than minimum wage and work in unsafe environments. This project made me think about my clothing in a different way. There can be a cost to fashion and I feel behno works hard to try and change that and show that it’s possible to create beautiful clothing while simultaneously benefiting the people who make it.
How would you describe your personal style?
R: I keep things simple and classic. I like to have timeless staple pieces that you can mix and match and make work with a lot of different looks. Every once in a while it’s great to mix it up though and wear something different!
What is the best style advice you've ever received?
R: That you look better when you feel confident in what you’re wearing. It’s so important to like and feel good in your clothes.
Finally, what's your fashion guilty pleasure?
R: I loved fashion in the 1920’s. I wish I could dress as if I were going to a Great Gatsby party every night!
Shivam Punjya, Founder of BEHNO and Ashley Austin, Designer of BEHNO
How did the idea for the MSA Ethos factory come about and how difficult was it to set up?
S: Well, with behno as a design label, we started backwards. Setting up the back-end manufacturing side came before the design arm of behno. I was doing my thesis research on women’s health in India for my Masters program at Duke, and I started to learn a lot about textiles weavers and the discrepancies in the trade at a fundamental level- between what they were producing and what they were earning. I started to dig deeper and started meeting with people governing the space and immersed myself into the textile and manufacturing world. While I was wrapping up my research I heard of the devastating news of the Rana Plaza collapse, which shook up my world.
I kept talking about it and my family presented me a sort of ultimatum - either I made peace with the incident or jumped in and did something about. So I jumped in. We did a lot of research to understand what garment workers look for and how the industry operates. We found strategic partners in Muni Seva Ashram (MSA), a nonprofit in rural Gujarat, which aides in all our social programming and a industry veteran of the manufacturing trade, who handles the back-end work at MSA Ethos.
MSA Ethos was challenging to set up for a few main reasons; first off, we built MSA Ethos in a rural space where a lot of the nearby community members worked in the agricultural industry. For them, this was another job opportunity that presented itself overnight. There was a steep learning curve for everyone who wanted to become a garment worker from the local villages. Secondly, the cultural nuances- both from our side and MSA Ethos’ management team- presented a learning curve for us and MSA Ethos. We needed to understand their working style and they ours. But with frequent trips back and forth, we started to gel and really start vibing. Of course, we’re still learning a lot about each other. Learning’s constant, I suppose. Third challenge was that MSA Ethos had to become a specialized factory because not every garment factory can manufacture everything. So we tested out what could be produced there and what needed to be produced with other factories. Overtime, we started identifying other manufacturing partners for us.
What was the design inspiration for the SS17 collection?
A: The behno team is very politically charged so it naturally came into place this season to relay our feelings about the U.S. presidential campaign into the inspiration. I think we can all agree there were some moments over the discourse of the campaign that really left us with our jaws dropped in disbelief. Since we are based in New York, we thought the NYC subway would be the perfect allegory to illustrate these feelings of detachment and disillusion. A major symbol of the collection is a glass marble motif from the 42nd Street Station, asking the question- “Have we lost our marbles?” You will see this motif evolve throughout the collection from digital prints to embroidery. Detachment from one another is translated into deconstructed and elongated suit lapels peeling away and wrapping around the body. Asymmetry is a common thread amongst all seasons but really lent itself to the inspiration this season. The color palette was a lot of fun- we used the powder blue seats of the train for silk dresses, the pearly silver of the handrails for knitwear, and the navy, brick, and pearl speckled flooring of the subway for a completely embroidered suit.
How does your team begin to think about a collection every season, what's the process?
A: We are such a small team we all bring very diverse but crucial points of view to the building of a collection so it's good for us to all sit in the same room since a lot of the teams don't communicate with each other on a daily basis. From here Shivam and I discuss inspiration then I dive right in to exploring the concept. This last season since the inspiration was the subway I spent a lot of time underground with my camera taking pictures, observing people, and re-discovering my everyday routine from a new perspective. From there small ideas later evolve into major themes- like the marbles from 42nd Street. Fabric sourcing happens next- Josh, our Pattern-maker/Technical designer is really crucial at this stage to make sure we properly test fabrics before going forward.
Once fabrics are chosen, I start developing the collection. I always think of the collection as a linear story so I sketch in looks as they would appear on the runway. This season I thought about this element of structure and tailoring but everything is sort of falling apart, backwards, upside-down. Like she's walking through the eye of a tornado unaware of what is happening around her. I think a lot about movement and how the silhouette will come to life- I love to reference performance art when I’m craving movement. This season I referenced Matthew Blarney's Cremaster 1, which coincidentally has a very similar color story to the MTA trains.
When the collection is final, I work very closely with Josh to make the patterns. From there, we send the patterns to India along with tech packs indicating the smallest details down to the thread size. Once we have a muslin for each style done, we travel to India for fittings. Shivam, Josh, and I will stay usually for three weeks to work closely with the teams in India and try to squeeze two fittings into our time there. Once we receive the complete collection in New York and voila! Then it's onto look book shoot planning and art direction.
What was it like working with Rose Gilroy, she seems like such a perfect fit for the brand?
S: I met Rose at the Garment Worker Project’s debut at Sotheby’s in July. We clicked instantly. She asked the most thoughtful questions about the project and behno, and she was so passionate. It was heart-warming to have such a raw conversation with her.
A: Rose was awesome to work with, she's super fun and energetic on set and more so, I was really taken aback by how genuinely she cares about ethical fashion. Models are a big voice in the industry and it's exciting that she has this understanding so early in her career.
How would you describe the quintessential behno woman?
S: She’s urban, conscious, compassionate, of course, stylish, and caught up on the news. She’s current.
Where do you see yourself and behno in 10 years time?
S: I think behno has the potential to evolve into something unique because of the supply chain opportunities we work with. I think ethical manufacturing and ethical fashion can penetrate a lifestyle, and I’m hopeful we can bring meaning to other segments of the industry.
A: In ten years, me? Ask me in ten years? I’m regimented to my Moleskin planner, but open to filling it with plans as they come up organically!
What is your fashion guilty pleasure?