Meet Ranjini and Leelee, the mother-daughter duo producing unique, handmade bags and scrunchies out of recycled material. The women-owned and operated small business is keeping their Indian traditions in their upcycling business by making new designs from vintage saris, kimono silk, and leftover sari fabric. The sari (also spelled 'saree'), is a garment “traditionally worn in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. It can be an heirloom passed down through generations, or a purely functional garment worn every day.” Creatively, the owner says she admires, “the richness of the Indian aesthetic and the minimalism of the Japanese aesthetic. I wanted to combine both in some manner.”
They strive to produce zero waste in their line by using any fabric remnants as pillow filling or shipping cushion. The American-based company practices the artistic philosophy of Wabi-Sabi: the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profoundness in earthiness and authenticity is our artistic basis.
We had the opportunity to chat with the duo, read our interview below!
What drove you to start your business?
I love textiles. Saris and silk in particular. I grew up surrounded by luscious silk saris. Shopping for saris was such a pleasure, we did it for special occasions like for gifts or weddings. Being surrounded by the rich fabric, the jewel colors, and being able to help my mother choose saris in a relaxed atmosphere was just so much fun. I always wanted to make different things using those fabrics--take the sari and give it new form.
The more I learned about the fabric, the more I learned about bad fashion industry practices—the waste, the lack of fair wages, and the exploitation. I knew that when I started my business, I would work mainly with ethically produced raw materials, mostly vintage or biodegradable and recycled materials. The silk sari industry in India is fraught with labor exploitation and unfair wages. This is why I use only fair trade and vintage saris. The variety I get is severely limited, but I refuse to profit from work done by exploited employees or children.
I'd like to make a difference in the lives of those workers too, one step at a time.
Who are your employees or your artisans?
I employ a tailor local to Chicago. She is Domenica Cozzi, a master tailor who in her retirement but is helping me out. I source my kimono flowers from Akiko Asai, a Japanese grandma who makes my flowers in Tokyo using vintage kimono. I source Kantha embroidered silk from Folklorica—a company that sells silk scarves made from vintage saris. Kantha is an ancient Indian technique of quilting. The artisans who make the scarves are women based in Bengal India. They are paid a fair wage and do the work as part of their normal day.
How did you find them?
Domenica sewed at my local laundry. I instantly recognized her high level of skill seeing her alteration work and persuaded her to work for me. I discovered Folklorica on Etsy a couple of years ago. The owner is a lovely woman and cares deeply about her artisans. That appealed to me just as much as the richness of her offerings.
What do they mean to you?
I respect and admire these women so much for their work, skill, and ability to fashion such beautiful works from the fabrics.
What made you decide to start producing ethically?
A business should not do harm. This I have always believed. What is the point of profit when it is earned at the cost of people’s well being or the planet’s? The future of the business should include an ethical clause that everyone is required to adhere to. I want to be part of the early adopter companies that spearhead such thinking and make it something that is done in future years as a matter of habit.
Ethically is the only way I will do business.
What impact has your business had on your community?
People are interested in what we do. We are not just a company that makes bags and coasters and things. We are a game-changer. The amount that we care about our artisans and environmental impact makes people respect us. There is a story to every single item that we make that lets customers see them as more than a commodity. Our customers also value that our products are one of a kind.
What was the most difficult part of starting and running your business?
Finding local seamstresses. I wanted to keep the business local and find skilled tailors. Domenica is all I have at this time. But soon, I will need more help and will need to get creative finding it. Making sure every aspect of what we do is ethical is also rather hard when one sets the bar so high.
Producing a zero waste product while also sourcing and packaging ethically requires a lot of thought and planning. It is also much more expensive, which increases the cost of the final product. But, we strive to keep our products affordable, which reduces the margins that we can make. But, at the end of the day, I wouldn't have it any other way.
What has been the most rewarding outcome of your business?
Customer feedback. The thrill of coming up with strong designs. The ability to exercise my creativity so freely.
And, validation from organizations like Faire.Shop!
Support their work on The Etho.