A Chat With Sustainable Label BEHNO

Women, Fashion, Interview

Behno has given the term “Made in India” a new mission and renewed life to the global sphere. This is not a story about emerging design, but one of awakened ideals, sustainable methods, and 21st century design ethos. Behno (Hindi for ‘Sisters) is India’s mother of ethical fashion reinvention. Founder Shivam Punjya and head-designer Ashley Austin have turned a modern atrocity into something positive, highlighting the way fashion must re-think labor, cost, and sustainable fabrics.

The backdrop for their latest collection is set in Chandigarh, India, a city known to house Le Corbusier’s most risk-taking works and home to India’s first modernist city. Systematic, cinematic, yet traditional, Behno has enmeshed traditional Indian tailoring with a balanced mixture of utility and modern, minimalist silhouettes. When not taking inspiration from a country on the verge of millennial enlightenment, the Behno team prides itself on it’s own original ethical standards; garment worker mobility, family planning, and women’s rights. This ‘Behno Standard’ is a benchmark, zeitgeist move that many emerging designers and brands, we predict, will implement into their own business DNA. Traditional and transformative, it’s not about the market, but a world way overdue for the ethical endeavors Behno delivers to emerging design.


 Tell us what sparked BEHNO into existence?

SHIVAM: In April of 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed on over 1,100 garment workers, most of them women. I was working on my thesis research at the time for DUKE, and one thing I was focused on was the condition of these garment workers who are predominately women. I discovered that around the world, over 90% of garment workers are women. So ultimately, what BEHNO is about is how we can address a place, incident, or turn an atrocity into something positive- into something that highlights what these workers go through and how we can make positive changes in their lives.

With garment workers comes massive manufacturing. Would you say emerging fashion itself is something on the rise in India or secondary because of manufacturing?

SHIVAM: Obviously, Indian fashion is much different than western fashion. In terms of ethical garments and ethical factories in India, I would say that BEHNO is one of the first that has become very public and outspoken about ethical endeavors. In terms of my research on other ethical garment factories in India, I haven’t come across one that implements certain ethical standards.

Speaking of ethical standards, can you tell us a little more about the “BEHNO STANDARD” ethos and philosophy and how those standards are reflective in the designs?

ASHLEY: The standards are more about how we’re treating the workers. As far as aesthetic, shape and inspiration, it really is two separate things. Part of the aspects of the designs we really want to show is that although it’s made in another country by people from another culture, it doesn’t mean it has to be wholly reflective of this culture. Basically, we want to be a transparent and open company.

Ethical standards are a huge source of inspiration, but aesthetically BEHNO turned to Le Corbusier for this collection. Why this particular artist?

ASHLEY: This collection is inspired by the city of the Chandigarh, India that is very modern. There’s this perception that India is stuck in the past, but it’s not. When I visited with Shivam I realized there’s a whole new world to be discovered, one with immense modernity, and forward thinking people. Basically we wanted to show how modern and inspiring India can be, instead of stuck in the past.

This is a new century, and I can clearly see you both want to ring in the times with BEHNO. That’s an enigmatic and otherworldly name. What does it mean?

SHIVAM: BEHNO means “sisters” in Hindi.

So, what kinds of women, or ‘sisters’ would wear BEHNO?

ASHLEY: I would say a woman who is aware of what’s going on in the world. She’s smart, modern, she’s educated, intellectual, powerful, risk-taking, likes to be respected and demands respect. She’s not afraid to push the envelope. She certainly doesn’t accept normality.

And these women you speak of seem to love emerging fashion. Whether they are hopping in and out of cabs, subways, going from day into evening. Which made me curious about the shapes. Tell us about the functional silhouettes?

 ASHLEY: We wanted to create silhouettes that were very transformative. You could wear them to work, or take off a layer when you go out at night. We wanted to create this New York City idea of silhouettes and shapes that were ready for anything. Not too overdressed, but not ever trying to hard. Just effortless and innovative.

So causal luxury wear?

Yes, definitely.

Tell us about the colors. Why poppy reds, lilacs, black and white?

ASHLEY: One thing about Le Corbusier is that he just never stopped. His breaks were never breaks; he was always in a state of creating. What he did in his downtime would be painting. So we were very inspired by his paintings and so many of them had these colors that were very minimal but the color usage was very, very bold.

You two have an outstanding synergy. Does the creative process evolve between you two, or is it more deliberate and planned , then you run it by each other?

ASHLEY: Shivam had a firm vision. He wanted to create something timelessly modern and minimal. He gave me a formula to follow that’s an over-arching theme. From there we just go for it.

What does Behno hope to contribute to the future of emerging fashion?

SHIVAM: Part of our mission, our premise is to really redefine what “Made in India” means to the world. People either have a really negative perception of it or no perception of it. We want to create a modern perception of it. India is a forward thinking country, unfortunately people don’t focus on those aspects. What people perceive of Indian fashion is something that’s very embroidered, intricate, sort of handwork. India is now capable of producing modern, tailored garments. We really hope that Behno becomes one of the strongest brands to produce in India that can recreate the “Made in India” global ideal. 

What’s the best piece of advice you can give any emerging designer living in 2015?

ASHLEY: Always stay true to yourself and your aesthetic. That’s the biggest thing for us. It’s important to know exactly who you are before you put yourself out there. You’re essentially selling yourself as a brand, an identity, and it needs to be consistent yet updated and fresh. It can really be hard at times, but you still need to keep going.

SHIVAM: I have no fashion background. So for me I would say always consider and pay attention to the business aspect of it. You really want your label to sustain itself, and that’s something we’re learning about everyday. How do we make a modern design sensibility, but also be financially organized and sustainable.

ASHLEY: This is why we’re such a great team. He keeps me organized and we realize this is such a rare combination.

What’s a risk that Behno is willing to take in the future?

 ASHLEY: There’s a fabric made out of cork that’s completely sustainable. It has an interesting look. It feels like leather, it’s a minimal risk but at the same time it’s also something new we are bringing to the market.


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