A visit with Swati Argade of Bhoomki
Photo: Bhoomki, Photographer - Jennifer Trahan
I had the pleasure of speaking with Swati Argade, founder and creative director of Bhoomki at her brick-and-mortar shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The shop, which opened in October 2012, carries clothing and accessory brands dedicated to environmental and/or social responsibility, including its in-house line designed by Swati and her team.
The Bhoomki label sources and partners with fair-trade certified manufacturers who responsibly support traditional crafts like block printing, hand weaving, embroidery, and dyeing. It produces bimonthly, focused, capsule collections that not only support artisan communities in places like India, Indonesia and West Africa, but also producers of organic, recycled and low carbon footprint fabrics. Currently, Bhoomki cuts and sews its clothing locally in NYC's Garment Center and in a labor compliant, woman-owned factory in Jaipur, India.
From reading your website and blog it sounds like you've had a long career as a designer, can you tell me what inspired you as a young person to become a fashion designer? What path led you to starting your own line?
Wow, That’s a long answer! My interest began with textiles and the way that I learned Indian geography through my mother’s sari collection. She was very glamorous and would go out to a lot of parties in the 1970’s and 80’s. My sister and I would sit on our haunches as she unpacked pieces from her sari trunk and tell us “This sari is from Bengal, this sari is from Kanchipuram, this one is from Madurai” or she would point to a silk that had been passed on to her from her grandmother and say “They don’t even make these kinds of saris anymore”. This whole idea of a fabric becoming extinct, at the same time, as I was probably learning about animals becoming extinct made me very sad. To think this beautiful history passed down through our family no longer existed…
My mother owned and ran a classical Indian dance school. The costumes we wore for Bharat Natyam – a South Indian classical dance form - are very beautiful and elaborate and are cut from traditional handloom silk saris. My twin sister and I danced professionally for about 20 years and my first projects were actually designing our costumes for the stage, then probably 12 to 14 years ago I started designing them for other people in the theater. Some of them were really wearable and people would come up to me and say; ‘I love this outfit, is this something that I could buy from you?’ At that point the seed was planted that this might actually be a career for me.
In the meantime I went to study film at UC-Berkeley, and after I got my Master’s degree I went on a trip to India to work on a documentary project in some small temple towns. Temple towns and their textile traditions are inextricably tied because the patronage of temples was very much tied to the patronage of textiles; the kings and the queens needed to be robed in specific textiles and the gods in the temples needed to be robed with those same textiles. So it’s easy see how those two histories are connected. So I was in one of these temple towns where I met weavers whose families had been making beautiful silks for hundreds of years. I bought a bunch of that fabric and said; “What am I going to do with this?” There were many prior trips to India where I had similar experiences in the markets. So by then, I developed this collection of textiles, simply appreciating and loving the fabric and not knowing what to do with it. But luckily that last trip, I hooked up with some cousins who were professors at the local fashion college - where my family home is -and I made a small collection 10-12 pieces that I brought back to the USA where friends and friends-of-friends started buying them. This was 2001-2002, and with this encouragement, I started making my collections.
Image courtesy; bhoomki_brooklyn Instagram
What a great beginning! It’s wonderful that you were exposed to the local textile traditions in the areas of India that you visited and where your family is from. After you discovered that people were interested in what you were making, what initially made you aware of the fair trade, ethically produced aspects of the textile industry? What made you want to pursue this area?
After witnessing how large brands outside of India were treating workers and really pushing prices down, those things became important to me. Because I had the great opportunity to go into villages early on and develop textiles with artisans, I started creating relationships with people and understood how there is a very long supply chain, and the people at each link need to be treated really well. That’s what so strange and mystifying about fast fashion, that the product is so far removed from the manufacturing process.
When you have a relationship with every single person in your supply chain - which is what I am fortunate enough to have - everyone is humanized. That was a big part of why I took this direction, but for some reason I also think it was woven into my DNA to believe that the products that we buy, the consumer choices that we make have a trickle down effect. That whatever we put into our bodies has to have good karma running through it. I know I’m Indian so I probably throw around that word ‘karma’ a lot but I do feel that there is a charge and a vibration in everything we put in and on our bodies. If we are able to make responsible choices we will then support smaller businesses and in turn help them support their families. When we support small businesses and independent artisan groups, the money goes directly back into their communities, but when you’re buying from a corporation the majority of that money doesn’t go back to the community who made it. The majority of the businesses on our planet are small businesses; they’re the ones that make the world go round.
You mentioned you have a story about one of these more ‘corporate’ producers
I do have a story: After I had been producing my own collection for several seasons, for between 50-75 stores worldwide, I had been asking around for a leather producer, of export quality leathers because I really needed to make sure I could get consistent quality of product, as well as an on-time delivery. A friend in Kolkata (Calcutta) where most of the export tanneries are, had told me about this beautiful painted and engraved leather process that occurs in a place called Shantiniketan and recommended a particular company saying “These guys are some of the best in the business”. So I went into this world-class showroom, and I saw some of the most high-end, beautiful designer leather handbag lining the walls, the kind of brands you see and recognize in glossy magazine pages. This place could clearly create a great product. So I told them I would love to see their factory and I went to the back and it was all children working. At that point I became so disappointed and disillusioned that in order to become such a big huge brand, in order to afford those expensive magazine ads in Vogue and Elle among others, you actually had to work with producers where your bags are made by children. These were $3000-$4000 bags!
And all you had to do was to ask them; “I’d like to see your factory?” You didn’t have to connive them into visiting their facility; they just said ‘Sure, come on back’. It would have been just as simple for any of these other brand representatives and buyers to go back and visit the factory floor?
Yes. At that point it was 2007 and I was so disillusioned with the business, the economy was beginning to tank and I just felt that I had to do something different. At that point, I had small production runs, and I was able to work in a factory that could produce hundreds of garments, but when you get to a space where you have to produce tens of thousands of garments, that’s when things get really tricky. As an emerging designer there’s a point where you can only grow so much and I had been talking to an investor that summer but didn’t think I wanted to be pushed into those kinds of situations where I had to produce with a company with questionable ethics. If I wanted to stay in this business I had to decide how I wanted to move forward. So that was one of the signifying events in my life where I realized I didn’t want the brand to be about me anymore, as I had been designing under my own name, I wanted it to be about something greater. So in 2011 I founded Bhoomki and Bhoomki means ‘Belonging to Mother Earth’.
Image courtesy; bhoomki_brooklyn Instagram
My next question was going to be; ‘What inspired you to open the shop’ but we were naturally getting there anyway. You didn’t want it to just be about you-
I feel like so many brands are all about the cult of the designer, which I feel is connected to a certain level of ego. I also found that if I gave the collection another name there would be more opportunities for partnerships and I also have a design team who works with me so I really want them to be a part of the brand instead of it just being about my name. I also wanted the brand to be about the planet and it’s people. I think about our vendors as partners, with some of our vendors and brands we have exclusive product partnerships; for example, maybe we use their fabric, or run an exclusive style or silhouette in collaboration with Bhoomki, I think that’s the really nice part about having a brand that’s not your name.
There was a time between 2007-2011 where I had been working in advertising and PR. I had just had a baby and I was sort of looking at my life and trying to figure out what to do. After the baby I had gone back to work for a few weeks and I realized that if I was going to be away from my child, I had to be doing something really meaningful with my life and for my professional development; advertising and PR weren’t doing it for me anymore. My husband, Alec Pollak, and I came up with the brand name before we opened the store in 2010. I had just designed a small capsule collection we were about to launch. But one day my husband and I were walking by this vacant shop here in Park Slope and it sparked this idea of “Hey, let’s create a space that’s not only about creating ethical fashion, but curating other like-minded collections as well.”
I thought this part of Brooklyn does not really have a central place to find ethical fashion. I have so many friends and contacts that I’ve developed over the years in this space so I thought it would be a great place to not only show Bhoomki’s work but also to support and represent great designers in this space.
Seek Collective dedicated window.Image courtesy; @jynnne of @seekcollective
Feral Child Studio dedicated window at Bhoomki, Image courtesy; bhoomki_boutique Instagram
What are you looking for when choosing a new vendor and designers to be sold in your shop?
The most important thing for me is to offer beautiful, wearable clothing in tandem with making sure the designers I work with have a transparent supply chain. It’s very important that they have a transparent supply chain, that they can tell me who is making their clothes, where their fabrics are being sourced, what they’re made of, where they were made and I find that if there’s any kind of hesitation in sharing that story, not only by the designer, but anybody who works for them, at trade shows for example, then it’s not really the backbone of what they do.
On top of that, on our labels we have a checklist of what makes each piece an ethical fashion item; for example: If it is Artisan Made, Handmade, Made in the USA, Made in NYC, Organic, Repurposed, Women Made and there’s a blank space for anything else (Swati shows me a beautiful Bhoomki blazer with a draped lapel) for example this piece is made with Cupro fiber which is also recycled. We sell Tabii Just’s work; she has a zero waste line. There are a lot of things that fall under the ethical fashion rubric and in general most of our designers hit multiple categories. For example there are some vendors, who produce in China, but they are very familiar with their factories in China, they are using organic cotton or they’re using recycled materials. Some might be larger designers in this space such as ‘Organic by John Patrick’ as well as ‘Nau’, which is an outerwear brand that we do quite well with, and we’re proud to be a destination for these larger brands as well.
My last question to you is; why is it important for you to be part of the New York City Fair Trade Coalition?
It’s really hard to do anything in isolation; I consider this part of the industry like a little island that is a little beacon of light. Community is so important, especially in getting to know the successes that people share in this part of the industry and what challenges people face and what we can learn from one another as we face those obstacles or to champion people as they are experiencing successes. That’s just a really important thing about being human and finding your community, whether it’s personally or professionally.
I’ve been in the fair trade space for 12 years, and in those years I’ve always felt like I’m learning new things. “Fair trade” is a term fraught with difficulties so not everyone can be certified as fair trade but we can do those things that we can afford to do to make sure that we have a transparent supply chain and that we can, for example, work with factories that are labor compliant. It’s really great to know how the industry is evolving; the most meaningful way to stay involved is through these relationships and this community.
Swati, is there anything else you’d like to add, any last words?
Creative communities are amazing things, and I think that fair trade certification is one of those devices that ensure these communities can survive. With these evolving certifications, the onus is placed on the suppliers and the distributors - like Bhoomki - to find fair-trade compliant brands, to stand behind and support those who made the product and ensure that everyone along the way was treated in a fair and meaningful way.