Recently, I was able to sit down to grab coffee with one of Victoria Road’s partner designers, Naushaba Brohi, who is the inspiring creative force behind Inaaya. Inaaya, which means “empathy,” is also Naushaba’s daughter’s name. It is a brand rooted in compassion, creating handmade and limited run pieces. Naushaba and our CEO, Shannon Grewer, have a close relationship going back to the nascence of both our companies, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to meet with her.
Over the course of our conversation (and several espressos!), I was impressed with her can do! attitude and the empathy that serves as the foundation for her beautiful creations. Her wry sense of humor and genuine curiosity about my own background put me so much at ease that, for a moment, I forgot I was talking to the woman who transformed Pakistani fashion with a groundbreaking new business model. Inaaya seeks to continuously improve the quality of life of its workers – women in Sindh’s rural areas – by providing employment that in turn generates their own income and has tremendous social ramifications. Naushaba Brohi showcases gorgeous style and corporate responsibility in equal measure, taking motivation and innovation to new heights.
Sana: You left a high-powered career as a television executive to start from scratch as a designer. Tell me how where the idea came from and how it really got started.
Naushaba: You know, it was this time in my life where I just didn’t feel like I was doing anything meaningful or contributing to society in a way that mattered in people’s lives. The deadly floods engulfed so much of this country, and I decided – everyone thought I was nuts – to travel to the flood affected areas. And I, a single mother, took my then three-year old daughter with me. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I had two hands. So there I was, having just quit my job, in a village with my daughter, and no plan. I saw that suffering and it left such an impact. I watched my daughter become friends with another little girl, about 10, who had given her this beautiful stuffed turtle as a goodbye gift. And it was the most lovely embroidered stuffed turtle you can imagine. She had made it herself!
This girl’s mother turned around to me and said, “Please take my daughter to the city. She will be a good worker in your home, as a maid, and look, she already gets along so well with your daughter.” I was stunned. A mother myself, I was listening to this woman pleading I take her daughter to a better life. I said, “No, I’ll be back and I’ll think of something.” I could tell she didn’t believe me, she must have heard these words time and time again. But my brain was in a whirlwind. Two weeks later, I went back. I had drawn sketched, scaled them and made them to size and took fabric with me.
Sana: They must have been astounded.
Naushaba: With my return yes, but the idea of monetizing craft isn’t novel. It wasn’t the ‘what’ it was the ‘why’ and ‘how’ that surprised them. The fact that I wasn’t part of an NGO or a corporate CSR program made them initially question my motivation. Once they got over that, they started questioning the aesthetics. Not very colorful and minimal – that made them nervous.
Sana: How did that relationship building start?
Naushaba: Well, with our business. We began with making cushions. I took the advice of a buyer, who suggested I start making clothes. He actually saw something I was wearing, it was given to me by one of the women, and said “Hey! Make that.” I was surprised, I thought how would this sell? But I took his advice, and had more of them made. Sana, it sold out in 3 days. The store called me asking for more stock.
Sana: And you said…
Naushaba: There isn’t any more stock! I had to buy more fabric, draw more things, go back to the women and have more made.
Sana: How is the trip to rural Sindh? How do you get there?
Naushaba: It’s a seven-hour drive to get to Khairpur. It’s important for me to go often, these are relationships I have built and it’s my life’s work.
Sana: The incredible reality of your business model is that it’s the lives of the workers, and then their communities, that this affects immediately as well. Tell me about that.
Naushaba: When I think about it, at the time it felt like running in circles with no real change. What metric can one use? They were still living in the same condition – sure they bathe more often and other minor changes but by in large everything seemed the same. Its when you take a step back (or someone lets you ramble on) that dots start to connect. Sure most of them are still largely uneducated, but they now use ‘whatsapp’ or know how to send an ‘sms’. They understand design and color better, they don’t have to fill the garment with embroidery for it to look glamorous.
I’m in it for the long haul, and when they realize the commitment you’re suddenly on the same side. They take pride in their work, I’m not sure they understood the value of their talent. I’ve shared news-clippings, magazines et all; now that self-worth and the concept of self-esteem is seeping in they walk a little taller, and talk a little louder!
Sana: When did they first see the impact of what they were doing? Was there a specific moment where they saw the connection of what they were creating to the fashion industry?
Naushaba: Yes! My first fashion show, which I was a nervous wreck for, by the way. I had done fashion shows as a television producer but as a designer it’s a completely different thing. I saw other designers all having a lot of bling and shine and glam and I thought “Oh no, what have I done? Is it too late to pack everything up and sneak away?”
Sana: But the show must go on! And it did more than just go on. You sent the fashion world spinning.
Naushaba: I could not have expected that. I went with monochromatic feel. I went with the techniques and talents of generations of Sindhi women. I had a clean and quality aesthetic.
Sana: You made it about more than the clothes. You brought a message.
Naushaba: My thinking was, I have the audience’s undivided attention and they have to listen to me, if only for 8 minutes! My first model was a friend, who challenges the beauty stereotype of a runway model in Pakistan. She’s dark and isn’t in her twenties. Over time, I became bolder. In my last show, as the ‘show-stopper,’ my daughter walked with a teacher at the end of the show wearing a t-shirt that said Super Role Model with the word Super crossed out, the teacher held a placard saying ‘I teach, therefore I can’. I was promoting healthy role models, and the idea that it’s what we should all strive to be.
Sana: Your captive audience was captivated!
Naushaba: The standing ovation at my first show was a surreal moment for me. I was completely overwhelmed. And the girls in Sindh, they saw all this on television and in the newspapers and magazines. They would excitedly take credit for who made which piece and how famous it was now. That was an incredible moment, the elation that awaited me on the next trip.
Sana: Success breeds success. How did Inaaya expand?
Naushaba: After this show, I started getting calls. Lots of calls. There were other women who wanted me to see their work and partner with them also.
Sana: What does that process look like?
Naushaba: I have to go to them and build those relationships. And from the beginning, whenever we paid our workers, we paid the women directly. We never gave the money to the man of the house. I pay them in cash or mobicash, which goes into existing bank accounts.
Sana: But financial inclusion can be difficult with the people you are paying. No one else has done this before, in the scale you have. How have you overcome those challenges?
Naushaba: These women don’t have bank accounts. In order to open a bank account, you need a National ID card. These women don’t have National ID cards. So, we would have to call NADRA, they come out there, register everyone and we go from there. I don’t know if I will see the full extent of this work in my lifetime, but I know that I give them independence and a sense of identity by bringing them into the fold.
Sana: Your pieces have a sense of joy to them. I cannot imagine any woman wearing the Aether Long Summer Dress or the Eclipse Jumpsuit and not feeling fun and vivacious! What’s the magic ingredient that goes into creating that?
Naushaba: Inaaya is all about creating something lasting. The whole business is built on rural entrepreneurship. Inaaya does not have any contracts and it does not have any employees. These women work for me because they choose to. And that sense of community goes into what I have to show at the end of the day. I love hearing you feel wonderful in these pieces, that’s what I want. We design for all women, regardless of body type. You want it cinched at the waist, go for it. If you don’t, that’s fine. I’m going to show you something with amazing feel and quality work and you can wear it however makes you feel great. That’s what I design for.
Sana: Tell us a little about the next big thing for Inaaya and Victoria Road.
Naushaba: I am working on a Spring/Resort line for Spring 2016. Designing for me is a cathartic process, and I’ve already begun thinking about those pieces and the feel of that line. Without giving away too much, my inspiration this season is water – what brought me to this work was water and how destructive it was, yet we [in Pakistan] continue to find our happiness in those very waters. And I’m working on a Spring collaboration with Victoria Road that will include dresses for women and girls using that same inspiration of water.
Sana: The VR team is so excited to about this collaboration! We love seeing women all over the world wear your creations. Who is a celebrity you would especially love to dress and why?
Naushaba: I’m a huge music fan, as far as pop culture goes, it would have to be Rihanna. She’s a beautiful and strong woman, and has a “I’m just gonna do whatever-it-is because it feels right to me. She is unapologetically bold and secure in being herself. I love that.
Sana: She’s fierce.
Naushaba: Yes, about all the right things. Also, Emma Watson. She is another young woman who, along with being an actor and talent in her own right, is an activist who is a symbol of empowerment.
By Sana Ali for Victoria Road
All images other than Eclipse Jumpsuit (last image) courtesy of Inaaya.
Eclipse Jumpsuit: photography by Ayesha Malik.