About Ethical Fashion with Isha Punja, Founder of Hut Mentality

Hut Mentality took wings on the soul of a restless college sophomore with a deep longing to find purpose. How else can life be led? What are the different ways in which humans find purpose? What is the common thread that binds us despite our differences?

These questions fueled a restless desire to travel to the remote corners of India, like the tribal villages in the Raan of Kutch where despite utter poverty, people delighted in painting their mud huts with artwork. They adorned themselves from head to toe in colorful, exquisitely embroidered clothes which they had painstakingly embroidered themselves. Every day looked like a festival! They reveled in creating.

Life is it’s own purpose. Simply expressing our innate creative potential may be our purpose. We are, after all, supposed to be made in the image of the creator. So, we must create!

Unfortunately, in the hundreds of years of colonial rule that India endured, Indian artisans and weavers were suppressed from pursuing their creativity. In the interest of bolstering their own profits, the British colonial rulers passed laws that essentially disempowered the weavers and artisans. They were forced to sell their products only to the British at prices their colonial masters set. This exploitation led to hordes of artisans and weavers suffering huge losses,  eventually being forced to give us their craft. Handloom industries were replaced by machines and mass production of textiles and fast fashion became the norm.    

The mission of Hut Mentality is to bring back the artisan and the art into textiles and fashion. After all, fashion is nothing, if not a form of creative expression. Their customers are women who are people lovers, not people pleasers. They are independent thinking, intelligent, educated  women who care about the world and choose to make an impact. They are the change makers, the thinkers, the ones who appreciate diversity, the ones who stand by their convictions, the ones you will admire, the ones you will remember, the one you will perhaps read about, the ones who are indelible.

Their clothes are handmade in small shops by tailors whose names we know and not in large factories by machines. Their textiles showcase a craft of weaving, dyeing, embroidering, or pattern making that has been passed down through generations of artisans. There may be slight imperfections in our clothes that is the beauty of the human imprint. Hut Mentality has limited quantities of products though they will try to replenish what is in demand if it can be procured. If not, they will provide another equally interesting piece.

So, if you like something, you best buy it, cause chances are… there’s not plenty more where that came from – https://www.hutmentality.com.

 

Photo: Kriti Bisaria at NYFW | Flying Solo

INTERVIEW WITH ISHA PUNJA, FOUNDER OF HUT MENTALITY

 

TPM: When did you first realize you wanted to become a fashion designer?

This may come as a surprise to you, but I am not a fashion designer by training. However, I’ve always been inclined towards designing. My personal style has always been a little unique and odd. As an Indian American with strong ties to India, I used to travel between India and America very frequently. I witnessed two vastly different cultures, especially in the way they dressed. So, I would often experiment with combining the elements of these two different styles and I greatly enjoyed it! The results were often very interesting and unique. 

But coming from an academically oriented family, designing was something I did on the side while I pursued my education in Economics at the University of California Berkeley. Although Economics is not directly connected to fashion and they are seemingly different fields, the idea of economic development, social entrepreneurship, social and economic justice, as well as the effects of globalization on economies, were all things that I understood on a deeper level, through my study of Economics. I believe that all fields are interrelated. The understanding of economics actually enabled me to understand the bigger impact of the fashion industry on economies and the environment, as opposed to understanding fashion solely from the perspective of design and creative expression. What designers do, has a profound impact on communities and the environment. When I was in my second year of college, I started Hut Mentality as a side business, to express myself creatively, in an impactful way. I believed that it had the potential to become a successful brand, as it definitely caught the attention of my peers. When we were invited to participate in New York Fashion Week this September, I felt validated as a designer with the capacity to make an impact. 

TPM: When did you land your first internship and what was the most valuable thing you learned from this experience?

Because I was studying Economics in college, my first internship was not in a high-fashion design house, but rather, in a glass-walled, investment bank in Singapore. This is where I spent 9 hours a day analyzing Tesla stock, and understanding how crude oil markets work. That internship gave me a lot of clarity on what I did not want to do in life. The lesson I learned from this internship was that it is extremely important for me to create a life where I had the space and freedom to express myself creatively. 

TPM: What was your first job out of college, and how did you land that position?

I created Hut Mentality from the floor of my college dorm room two years ago. It has only been a short five months since I’ve graduated. During that time, I was invited to showcase my brand at New York Fashion Week this past September. This was an opportunity to present my brand on a global stage, and it grabbed my full attention. So therefore right now, my main job is working on creating our next collection. We are also working towards having our brand stocked by major retailers. 

 

Photo: Steven Lee at NYFW | Flying Solo

 

TPM: Define sustainable concept nowadays in fashion industry in five words .

To me, sustainability is fashion that is ecologically supportive, socially responsible, and just. 

TPM: If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be? What was the biggest rookie mistake you made when just starting out?

I think one thing I wish I told myself before beginning my career is that sometimes from the chaos, mess, and uncertainty of the creative process, the greatest things are born. I think the greatest rookie mistake I made – which a lot of creatives make – was getting so caught up in the enjoyment of creation, that I thought exclusively of design, and neglected the business aspect of my brand. This is something I am just now beginning to give much greater thought to. The truth is, without business, most brands would just remain a hobby. 

TPM: What is one thing you look at the models for your campaigns?

I look for models who are bold and exude a spirit of defiance. They question the status quo. They are thinkers rather than just attractive faces. 

 

Photo: Suhitha Shetty in Mumbai

 

TPM: What role do you think social media plays in fashion today?

Social media plays a pivotal role in the fashion industry today. These days, social media dictates fashion trends, consumer behavior, and brand recognition. You’ll find the rise of “it” girls and guys who set the bar for the new “cool” by what they’re photographed wearing to the grocery stores. 

Earlier, we had a handful of well-known brands that dictated fashion. Social media has now leveled the playing field. Whoever can play the social media game well, has the opportunity to create a name for themselves in the fashion industry. It has become an equalizer of sorts. So, social media plays a pivotal role in the fashion industry today. It dictates fashion trends, influences consumer behavior in a big way, and plays a crucial role in building brand recognition. It’s a whole new way of marketing and selling. In an industry like fashion which is based on influencing what a person wants as opposed to what a person needs, social media plays a key role. It shapes culture and culture shapes human desires. So learning to use social media effectively can make a brand and not using social media well can even lead to the decline of a brand. 

 

Photo: Eva Anzola

 

TPM: What is your favorite and NON-favorite part about being part of the fashion industry?

My favorite part about being in the fashion industry is getting the chance to work with and among highly creative and inspiring people. Just watching other designers at work and their final creations at New York Fashion Week was truly invigorating! 

My non-favorite part is that I continue to see a very trend-based environment which is dictated by fads. This is a problem for  sustainability. Recycling has its limitations as China, India, and other places where the Western world sends its excesses to be recycled, are now unable to cope and are refusing to be the landfill of the world. We are consuming faster than we can recycle. I think this is partly due to the trend-based fashion industry. I understand the need for changes in trend, but it needs to be at a slower pace and in a more  responsible manner.

 Also there continues to a deficit of inclusivity in the fashion industry. I am often asked about why there are not enough ethnic models in fashion. The Indian subcontinent comprises 45% of Asia’s population and 25% of the world’s population. Yet, they are grossly underrepresented in major fashion magazines, in modeling at fashion shows, and as leading global designers. Their presence is restricted to the subcontinent. This needs some conscious scrutiny from the fashion industry. 

 

Photo: Kriti Bisaria at NYFW | Flying Solo

 

TPM: How do you want people to feel when wearing your clothes?

More than anything else, I would like people to feel connected to their higher selves, and the world when wearing these clothes. These clothes tell stories through the fabric and art. People who buy them are those who – in addition to wanting to look spectacular – also seek to make a difference. This is something I attribute to our higher selves. Therefore, when people buy our clothes, I would like them to feel in touch with their higher selves. I want them to feel that they belong to the larger world and not just to a small part of it, based on where they live. 

TPM: Can you tell us how your brand makes a difference in the fashion industry?

My brand represents those who are often not given their due credit in the fashion industry. India as we all know is one of the largest exporters of textiles in the world, and it has an incredible variety of textile arts. These handicrafts are centuries old. Many designers have borrowed these textiles and crafts and created beautiful styles without ever giving due credit to the artisans, whom they derived inspiration from. Hut Mentality gives a voice and representation to those unseen artisans, as well as promotes the sustainability of their crafts, traditions, and livelihoods. 

 

Photo: Kriti Bisaria at NYFW | Flying Solo

 

TPM: News on the way regarding your next collection?

Our next collection is going to incorporate some of the silhouettes that we presented in our NYFW collection. It is going to be more inclusive in terms of styling. We will be using textiles such as wool and silk, while our previous collections have mainly used cotton. Our new collection will feature textile arts from different regions of India, as well as be more dressy than the casual styles we’ve stuck to in the past. 

TPM: What do you think is the biggest challenge for a fashion designer?

I think the greatest challenge for a fashion designer is to go from creating to selling; to commercialize the product created. Essentially, it is to not lose the creative integrity while aiming to commercialize the brand and one’s designs. The leap from creative expression in single designs, to scaling up for larger production is a huge challenge. I think whenever one puts his or her art in the marketplace to sell, it is tough to maintain the original creative vision, and the integrity of the brand values. So maintaining this integrity, and not diluting the creative vision to pursue profit can be challenging. 

 

 

TPM: There is one important person, in your life, who pushes and motivates you to believe in yourself?

I would say the person who pushes and motivates me to believe in myself is my mother. Being an Indian American, I felt like there was no brand out in the market that truly embodied people like me, who belong to multiple identities and/or cultures. In my case, this is the identity of being Indian as well as American. I often have wanted my clothes to reflect both these identities within me, and I could not find such clothes in stores around me or online. I expressed to my mother, the desire to create a brand that would resonate with people like myself, who would like to have their clothes represent all facets of themselves. Despite the fact that I was not a trained designer, and was going to school at the time, she supported me in my vision and took me on a trip to some of the most remote parts of India, where these textiles were created by hand. She wanted me to experience, not just the art, but the artisans and their lifestyles, and what their art meant to them – both economically as well as culturally. She has supported me in every step of the process in bringing my vision into fruition, so I would say she is my biggest supporter. I am immensely grateful to her. 

TPM: How do you think a big brand should motivate their collaborators and team members?

I think a big brand should motivate their collaborators and team members by communicating the brand’s values and vision with them. Everyone involved needs to know the story behind a brand, and be on board with its entire philosophy. We have discovered that when we educate our customers about the art that has gone into creating the textiles, their source, the meaning that has gone into embroideries created, or the significance of certain colors used, they are more excited about the brand. They exude this excitement when they provide feedback on our designs and wear our clothes, encouraging others to check out our brand as well. This mentality is something we’ve translated over to not just educating our customers, but the models and photographers we work with, all our collaborators, and those who are a part of our small team. Being aligned in vision and mission is key to motivating people. 

 

Photo: Kriti Bisaria at NYFW | Flying Solo

 

TPM: How do you think sustainable can play an important role in fashion industry?

Disposed apparel is one of the top five polluters of the environment. Fast fashion, the concept of rapidly changing trends in the blind pursuit of maximizing profit, has led to a significant rise in the purchase of cheap apparel that is then quickly discarded. These clothes sit in landfills for centuries, emitting toxic elements, as they do not degrade easily. Besides that, the mass production of cheap apparel to conform to rapidly changing trends, has led to thousands of communities of indigenous artisans being left behind, as their products are shunned in favor fast-produced, factory made clothing. These indigenous communities are losing their livelihoods. Traditional arts that have been passed down through centuries are now at risk of complete extinction. 

So, the fashion industry bears a great responsibility in creating fashion with conscious awareness of the consequences behind their actions. We need to move away from trend based fashion. The strategy that the fashion industry adopts for promoting its business ought to be more driven by values rooted in sustainability, as opposed to pure profit. 

TPM: Describe us you as a designer and how your feelings influence the creativity process?

As a 22 year old, I tend to design for younger people. I have my finger on the pulse of youth culture and I design for people like myself. My styles are edgy and bold and I seek to fuse cultures through clothing. There’s a certain amount of defiance of tradition when I design. I incorporate western silhouettes but I refuse to stick to the neutral color palette. I use Indian fabrics with bold colors and patterns, and I don’t stick to just one box, culture, trend, or niche.  I guess I just feel that the world is one and we need to come out of our boxes to embrace this. I would just hope for my designs to reflect that sense of unity and oneness. 

 

Photo: Kriti Bisaria at NYFW | Flying Solo

 

TPM: Would you like to involve other accessories designers in your future projects?

I am open to collaborating with all other creatives and designers. I haven’t given much thought to it as of yet, but I feel there is a lot of power in the collective creative effort. 

TPM: What do you think is the main mission of the CO-BRANDING concept ?

I think the main mission of the co-branding concept is to enable inclusivity, both in terms of price as well as reach. The important thing to watch for in co-branding, is not to dilute the brand identity in reaching a wider demographic. 

TPM: How fashion PR agencies can help more the brands and what skills a good fashion PR should have in your opinion?

I think fashion PR agencies can play a critical role in helping brands grow from little-known labels, into widely-recognized, commercially successful brands. They can help brands connect with media, as well as strategically position themselves in the online space. In today’s business environment, publicity is key to the success of a brand. 

But, there are an overwhelming number of brands that clamor for the consumer’s attention. PR firms can play a key role in helping brands get their name into reputed publications and media outlets, so that the brand is able to grab attention in a big way. A good fashion PR agency should first clearly understand the brand’s values and personality. Based on that, they should have the knowledge and skills to strategically position the brand so as to gain maximum exposure, brand recognition, and brand loyalty within their target demographic. A good PR firm should be skilled in the social media space and be very proficient in digital marketing. 

 

Photo: Steven Lee at NYFW | Flying Solo

 

TPM: Designers that inspire you and why?

Junko Shimada, I am naturally drawn to her. She integrates cultural elements into her silhouettes beautifully,  she has a very global and universal way of styling her pieces and her styles are very bold and unapologetic. Jacquemus is another innovative designer I have been watching for a while now. 

TPM: There is anyone special who would like to meet in person?

I think high up on my list would be either Angelina Jolie or Emma Watson. The reason I say this because both of these powerful women have used their celebrity status to make a positive impact on the world, speak for those who don’t have a voice, and promote social justice on a global platform. This is something that I believe all celebrities have the power to do through their voice, but few have actually done at the level of Angelina and Emma. 

TPM: What do you think about the opportunity of selling your collections online nowadays?

I think it e-commerce is a fantastic opportunity to reach a large consumer base. However, the apparel industry is one in which people do not feel comfortable making a purchase unless they have had the opportunity to feel the garment and try it on. Because we are unable to provide this “touch and feel” experience to the customer, it is difficult to convert initial interest to actual sales on a solely online platform. I believe online platforms can do exceedingly well, if they are a supplement to some sort of brick and mortar presence. But an exclusively online platform requires a tremendous amount of financial investment, in order to provide the customer the virtual touch and feel experience that they seek before making a purchase. Having said that, I do believe that technology is growing at a very fast pace. In a short time, I think we will see a virtual experience added to online shopping, so that customers can experience virtual fitting rooms and see how the clothes look on them. That would provide a fantastic opportunity for online fashion stores.

 

Photo: Steven Lee
Backstage #NYFW #FlyingSolo

 

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