Editorial Feature

The Importance of Cultural Exchange Across The Commonwealth

behno founder Shivam Punjya on his experiences taking part in the Fashion Exchange

New York-based luxury womenswear label behno has built a reputation for not only its beautifully simple garments, but its ethical treatment of its employees. Unlike most fashion brands, which contract their work out to an existing factory, behno built its own. After being designed in New York, the clothes then get made in behno’s factory in Goraj, a small village in the state of Gujarat, India. In partnership with the Indian non-profit Muni Seva Ashram, the label ensures workers at MSA Ethos earn two and a half times the minimum wage in the area, along with healthcare, disability insurance and a lunch stipend.

As a result, behno’s involvement in the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange felt like a natural fit and the brand partnered with artisans in Tuvalu, an independent Polynesian island nation. For the Fashion Exchange, the brand found itself working with Fafine Nitutao I Aotearoa, an all-female artisan collective who migrated to New Zealand and keep alive their memories of island life through traditional crafts. Together they created a repurposed wool coat featuring Indian mirror work and border and grid beadwork, and a sheer dress made from remnants of blue silk organza embellished with Swarovski upcycle crystals and black crochet "kolose" panels.

Here, Natalie Kingham, buying director of matchesfashion.com, speaks to benho founder Shivam Punjya about the process of creating these garments, the ways he highlighted Indian and Tuvluan craftsmanship, and his experience of working with local artisans.

behno's look at High Commission Australia, London (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Exchange)

Natalie Kingham: What inspired your look for the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange?

Shivam Punjya: The first thing I considered when crafting the look for the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange was understanding, fundamentally, what each country, and specifically the communities we would work with, held close to their hearts.

We wanted to create a look that was respectful and appreciative of the traditional craft of both Commonwealth Countries, India and Tuvalu, executed through the lens of behno. We looked to Tuvalu for its traditional crochet, called “kolose”, for our gown as we learned about the deep meaning the craft carried for the communities of Tuvalu as they emigrated to New Zealand. For our overcoat, we were inspired by hand embroidery and embellishment from India, shisha work and zardozi respectfully, to be applied with a modern interpretation.

How did you find your artisan partner in Tuvalu?

We worked with the wonderful team at Eco-Age to locate an artisan partner in Tuvalu. The entire Eco-Age team warmly introduced us to Marama Papau, who is a representative of the community of Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa, a New Zealand-based collective of Tuvaluan women from the neighboring Niutao island.

behno's coat sketch by Shivam Punjya (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Exchange)
behno's dress sketch by shivam Punjya (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Exchange)

What was it like when you finally met your artisan partner in London during LFW?

So heartwarming. Seeing Marama, the spokesperson for the Tuvaluan community in New Zealand, for the first time in London prior to the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange reception at Buckingham Palace was emotional—we caught up on everything! About the women she worked with for our patches, the local customs, and some of the challenges they went through to make the patches in the short timeline!

What did you learn from each other?

The value of intersectional cultural exchange and the ability to work with the craft of various spaces and countries to create remarkable pieces that bring cultures together.

What elements of your look do you feel highlight India’s traditional craftsmanship and why?

Our overcoat had embroideries and embellishments that have represented Indian handwork for centuries in the subcontinent. The sheer number of hours that went into embroidering and embellishing the coat truly demonstrate the specialized craft and passion of the artisans, which has generationally been passed down.

Close-up of behno's woolen coat (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Exchange)
Close-up of the mirror work on behno's wool coat (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Exchange)

How did you channel your ethical philosophy into this project? Sustainability is a big part of behno’s ethos, in what ways does this project echo those sensibilities?

Channeling our ethical philosophy for the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange simply meant that we would abide by the same ethical backbone that governs our brand on a daily basis, where we have the behno standard as an ethical compass. The standard focuses a holistic approach to manufacturing, including garment worker mobility, healthcare, women’s rights, and so on.

In addition to this, we consciously wanted to ensure that we were sustainable in creating the new pieces. We created new with old by plunging existing inventory to see how we might be able to upcycle older pieces to examine circularity in a brand.

How did it feel seeing your look on display at Buckingham Palace?

It was surreal. An honor, definitely. And a very stark reminder that behno has been a collective effort since the very beginning, and what I’ve built for the brand hasn’t been done single-handedly, but actually, to the contrary.

So many individuals have been involved in believing in the brand and its mission and pooled in their hearts, time and efforts, to continue evolving it to the next level. Seeing our look at Buckingham Palace was an homage to the artisans and garment workers that work with the behno team to create beautiful pieces that have a soul.

Artisan from Fafine Niutao I Aotearoa in Tuvalu crocheting patches for behno dress (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Exchange)
Train detail of the behno gown with Swarovski crystals (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Exchange)

What were the challenges? And what did you learn from taking part in The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange?

Artisan craft is so innately a human process, where the hand can’t be rushed beyond its natural capacities to truly create the beautiful pieces they’re behind. For us, the largest timeline was fighting against the timeline of the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange. However, our artisan partners came together in strength, and created their respective components before the deadlines—it was dreamy!

What was the highlight of the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange project?

The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange was an exciting gathering of various brands honored to take the role and responsibility of representing the craft and culture of different countries.

For me, it was also personal. I’m Indian but grew up in the United States, and each trip to India is a sensory overload that encourages me to look at traditional Indian artisan work through the lens of “modernity”. In India, artisan work is relevant as it’s woven into the cultural fabric, but in a global marketplace, I always have felt that the raw beauty of their work isn’t always placed in the limelight. The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange provided exactly that platform.

behno for the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange on display at Buckingham Palace (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Exchange)

Has this experience encouraged you to work with artisans in the future?

There were many brands that showcased exquisite traditional pieces of dress from their home countries, most of them having worked intimately with artisan communities of their respective countries. I was there to subvert the notion of what “Made in India” means for most people. For me, the gap between tradition and commercial is largely relative depending on the country you’re referring to and putting into discourse.

In India, where my family is from, traditional wear can be as commercial as “Western” ready-to-wear. In the United States, there are preconceived notions of “Made in India”, and I’ve always found it an honor to attempt to shed a new light on Indian artisanal and factory production that’s palatable for a global audience. It’s an interesting conversation that we have, drawing from the traditional, but simultaneously remaining unapologetically true to its essence. In short, absolutely, this experience has encouraged me to work with artisans in a way that represents intersectional dress, where the code is fluid at the intersections of “traditional” and “commercial”.

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