Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Monisha Raja, Founder and Creative Director of Love Is Mighty, a handmade, vegan line of shoes, bags and accessories. I met with Monisha in her studio to discuss her journeys, the artisans she works with, and more.
Tell us a little about yourself: Where are you from? When and why did you move to New York? I was born and raised in India. I’m originally from Kerala, born in Calcutta, grew up mostly in Pune, so it explains the bit of gypsy in me. I moved here in 1990 to pursue my BFA in Fashion at Parsons School of Design.
What inspired you to start Love is Mighty? I wanted to start a business that I believe in, one that was not fractured from the way I live my personal life, and one that found a confluence for all my passions – human and animal rights, the environment and healthy living. I had been working in fashion for close to two decades at the time and realized that it was time for a change. I took off to India for a few months in 2010. On this trip, I connected to artisans living in remote villages, off the beaten path. I had always been drawn to tribal embroideries and beadings as a child, and it saddened me to see the demise of some of these art forms due to rapid urbanization. A seed was planted. I wanted to create a business that was a blend of commerce and philanthropy. The first collection was launched in the spring of 2011.
Tell us about your travels in India: Traveling in India is truly an adventure. My travel includes remote desert landscapes where I work with the artisans off the grid. It’s a respite from my busy-ness and being constantly connected technologically. It’s inspiring to meet the artisans and witness their simple yet joyful living. Their colourful intricate needlework stands in stark contrast, as if to challenge the barren landscape of the desert. I collaborate with the artisans on designing the uppers for the shoes and, when they’re done, I take them to Mumbai where the shoes are assembled and handmade, free of all animal products. My favorite part of the trip is abundant fresh coconuts and strands of fresh jasmine flowers.
How do you find the artisans you work with? Insatiable curiosity, perseverance and promise of a new adventure, usually leads me to the most incredible finds. I also get help from friends and strangers along the way.
Did you have any misconceptions about what it would be like to work in India? Oh yes! I went into it wanting to train the artisans to work on my timeline and meet New York fashion deadlines. I soon realized that if I wanted to succeed in building a relationship with them, I needed to relinquish my expectations of timely deliveries. The women have husbands, children and cattle to take care of while embroidering for me. I’m lucky if they can spare 4-5 hrs a day for me. I began to realize that the slow pace of their work was part of my product.
Why is producing in India important to you? I grew up in India, I speak the language and can traverse the landscape with relative ease, so the choice to begin my social experiment there came easily.
I also have more control over quality and fair-wages as I know exactly who my artisans are. There are no contractors or sub-contractors involved. My bigger vision involves working with indigenous communities on a global scale. The social challenges these peoples face are not limited to India. It’s a global human rights issue.
I am looking to produce the shoes in the U.S. and continue to collaborate with artisans world-wide.
Tell us a bit about the artisans you work with. I created my debut collection in collaboration with the Rabari tribe. They are semi-nomadic goat herders. The women embroider and take care of the household, while men tend to the land and cattle. Girls in this community start embroidering at a young age and take after their mother, building up a wealth of exquisitely crafted clothing, quilts and jewelry which are offered as dowry when they come of age.
The Maheswari community of women I currently work with are celebrated weavers and weave the recycled plastic and biscuit wrappers I work with, on handlooms. There are also the Jat and Soof tribes that are distinguished by their unique style of needlework.
What are the greatest challenges you face with sourcing materials and producing your shoes? When two cultures come together, a lot can be lost in translation. There are a lot of growing pains. While the imperfections of a handmade shoe can add to its beauty, it can also be grounds for rejection by a buyer. Everything that poses a problem to a seasoned fashion buyer about my collection, I see as a strength. For example, the limited quantities due to the artisanal nature of the product, or variations in colour due to the pH balance of the water the fabric was dyed in.
The biggest challenge for me right now, is building a strong and sustainable infrastructure here in NYC. I believe all the issues above can be addressed with a good business team at hand. I’m on it!
What are your future ideal plans for Love is Mighty? I want to see LOVE IS MIGHTY® collaborating with artisans globally, having the infrastructure and market to support that growth and being a beacon for compassionate fashion.
How old are you? 42
Describe what you are wearing: My most comfortable work attire – jeans and a white tee. The beads around my neck are vintage, from India, and used to be worn by a Sadhu (holy man).
How would you describe your personal style? My friend Bob calls it Bolly-Wow. I do incorporate my Indian heritage into my New York street look, with a wrap or a vintage tribal purse. These days, my recycled plastic tote goes everywhere with me, day or night.
Who or what influences your style? Without doubt the Rabari tribe. They are such stylish people. I love the work of Issey Miyake. Dries Van Noten is a big inspiration.
What do you never leave home without? My bottle of Moroccan jasmine oil.
What makes you feel beautiful? Doing what I love, sunshine and ocean.
What are you proud of? I’m really proud of LOVE IS MIGHTY® and for having pulled this off, against all odds. It was just a dream a few years ago and today here it is!
One of my proudest moments was when performer and activist, Sarah Jones, wore my shoes for her performance at The White House for The President and Michelle Obama earlier this year.
What is your favorite spring recipe? Chia pudding. Soak chia seeds in almond milk until it thickens (4-5 hrs). You can sweeten with dates or agave. Add cardamom powder, whole cashews and chill.
Follow Monisha and Love Is Mighty on Twitter
This entry was originally posted on Zoe's Fashion Feed on 06/04/2013 under Designer Interviews