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Style & Omi Na-Na - A conversation with Esha Ahmed

This is an excerpt of Episode 2 of Style & Sustain - The podcast. Listen to it HERE or read the interview highlights below.

Esha is the definition of #bosslady. She’s a normal woman, who’s started something incredible. She dove into the adventure of starting her sustainable and ethical brand Omi Na-Na in 2018, quitting a comfortable job in PR at that time to start it all. Omi Na-Na is authentic, cool and flaunts stunning statement dresses. In the podcast episode, we talk about how her Indian heritage shaped her journey into sustainable fashion, inspired the craftsmanship behind her brand, the hidden realities of garment workers in India and the lack of representation of people from that part of the world in fashion, and so much more. Here's a peak into our conversation.

Esha, what does conscious living mean to you?

We are surrounded by so many different definitions of conscious living but I guess for me it’s an experience of being more aware of the things I buy, the story behind them and the impact it has on the environment. I’ve come to love handcrafted goods so much because of the power they can have on the people who make and those who wear them. That’s kind of my journey: I believe in being more aware of what we buy, realising that we have the power, obviously not as much as big corporations but I think we can make a decision and that collectively if we all do something it will have an impact. That’s what inspires me.

You have an interesting journey to sustainability, can you tell us a bit about how sustainable fashion became a notion for you to explore?

I don’t have a fashion background. I worked in politics and PR for ten years before doing this and my journey is similar to yours. I used to buy fast fashion, loved trends, buying clothes from TopShop...etc then it came to a point in my twenties when I became more interested in asking: where is this being made. I became active on Instagram where I found these really cool independent designers talking about sustainable fashion and artisans and I was so drawn to that. Because I’m from Indian heritage and we know that a lot of the clothes we wear are obviously made in countries like India, especially in cities like Bangladesh so the fashion industry was so connected to my roots. It feels different knowing that it’s people just like me that are being exploited in the end and that was a catalyst for me.

What is one thing you learnt about fast fashion that was a turning point for you?

What I’ve noticed is that there’s a community around sustainable fashion that’s growing but it’s so easy still for some people to shrug it off and say it’s too expensive..etc which is another conversation. However, when you have a personal connection to a country where people are being exploited it makes it so much more real and something you want to fight against. I also realised running this business in the past years that there are quite a few advocates for slow-fashion but not a lot of individuals of Indian heritage talking about this or representing that part of the world which is a shame. So many people know so much more than I do and I’d love to see them in the industry too.


"When I was in India it felt like there was this revolution on the ground: there are young designers aware that people are being exploited in the industry and they want to change that and that inspired me so much. "


How did your brand Omi Na-Na come about exactly?

When I started asking questions about where all these clothes I was buying were from, I realised that I had a wardrobe full of beautiful well crafted Indian clothes and then I looked at the fast fashion I bought, it was such a contrast. The penny dropped that these were clothes being made in the same country by the same set of people but one was made by exploited individuals and the other was proof that people could show their abilities and craftsmanship to create amazing work if we allowed them to. I felt torn and became interested in fair fashion more than ever and that’s how the idea for Ominana was born. There are so many designers across the world doing amazing things but they are not so accessible so I wanted to be part of that journey in making this craftsmanship accessible.

Your curation of designers and pieces is exceptional, how do you approach curation and which brands fit your concept?

I look at designs from brands and ask: would I wear that? Does it excite me? The aim of Omi Na-Na is not just to bring sustainable and ethical clothes to the market cause so many brands do that but it’s to bring something different to the table. It’s to show that you can still have a personality, have fun and express yourself with sustainable fashion and it’s to inspire people on their journey. Most of my pieces are inspiring and bold and interesting, well I think they are! It’s mainly to also show that there is a way to love fashion that’s not detrimental to people and the planet.

In terms of working with ethical brands, how do you assess how authentically ethical a brand is?

It’s really tough and I always hope that what brands decide to tell me is true. For the brands based in India, I actually went out there to meet the designers and went to as many studios as possible. I wanted to understand how they manufactured in practice and see it for myself because I needed to gain that understanding and relay it to my community and customers. Some of these studios could have been in East London, they were so cool! It made it more clear that I definitely wanted to do this. With other brands, I have a questionnaire I send out to really dig deep into how they are working from an ethical and sustainability perspective. There’s a lot of handwork for the pieces for my brand so I often ask how that is done because it’s the hardest part. I’m lucky to have come across people who are producing honestly. When I was in India it felt like there was this revolution on the ground: there are young designers aware that people are being exploited in the industry and they want to change that and that inspired me so much. There is a buzz for change and the realisation that there are a lot of people with skills that are not being used properly and these young designers were just keen to show the world how gifted they are.

Many people still misunderstand pricing in the sustainable/ethical fashion world, especially with higher price point artisanal products. What are some of the ways you’ve approached creating understanding around your pricing?

On Instagram, I show behind the scene photos and videos. It’s a way to tell people that these clothes don’t just appear out of nowhere and that it takes a long time to make any item. The thought and the process is key and it helps show people the value of what they are buying. On the website I have icons that help customers understand how a product is made, for example, if it’s a hand-loomed fabric there’s an icon for that. I still wonder what the perfect marketing and educational is, to get people to understand. I’m still working it all out. People come into my pop-ups and will say I’ll give you £30 for this dress! It’s so awkward because I didn’t even buy it for £30. It’s exhausting sometimes to educate everyone but I try where I can.

There is so much conversation around racism, inclusion & diversity in fashion at the moment. How has 2020 been for you, especially as a woman of colour in the sustainable fashion industry?

There’s been so much change or talk at least which I hope leads to real change. It’s strange because we only launched in May last year and we’re a slow fashion business but we have lots of values tied to what we do. One of them being promoting diversity in as many ways as possible. We were actually advised as a business not to do that, for example not to have so many brown or black people as models because it doesn’t sell. It just goes against everything I personally believe. If I’m building a business, I want to do it the right way and even if it doesn’t work out, I want to be proud of what it stood for. I didn’t take that advice. This year we’ve seen so much activism around Black Lives Matter which has been interesting to observe. It was difficult as a business and I saw all these other businesses taking advantage of the activism and suddenly using black models and darker skin models. It really annoyed me because I thought where has this come from? It was so obviously a ploy to sell more. I found it difficult as I support the movement as a woman of colour and a person directly affected by Britain’s colonial past, these matters are close to my heart but I found it hard to navigate from a business perspective. I just knew I didn’t want to take advantage of the situation.

You posted a quote on Instagram that I love which stated: “Colourism needs to be rooted out in order to beat racism” - what compelled you to share this and how can we approach educating people about the effects of colourism?

The conversation around Black Lives Matter brought up so many feelings from when people had been racist to me and it brought up incidents of racism within my own community. I was watching the dating programme Indian Matchmaking on Netflix and I was mortified that one of the top criteria around finding a partner centred around how fair their skin was. The show is steeped in colourism. There’s so much of that in the Asian community. It’s basically an assessment of how western you look. I’m Indian and married to a Pakistani man and I hear this all the time in normal conversation: she’s so beautiful, she’s so fair. People who are half English and half Pakistani are put on a pedestal because they are lighter-skinned. We do ourselves a disservice and it’s a colonial legacy that lives on. For me, we can talk about racism and all the terrible things that are happening but we kind of have to ask ourselves what we can do to influence change in our community first. Colourism really affects people: their ability to get jobs, find a partner and more. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, as in does racism or colourism come first? It’s such a complex picture because there are so many levels to racism and discrimination, it’s key to consider all these different dimensions in order to progress.

What changes do you hope to see in the fashion industry in the coming years?

I hope there will be more small businesses and brands paving the way. There is so much change happening and a grassroots movement taking place with people increasingly interested in sustainability. Brands like H&M and Zara are all trying to get involved in it. It’s annoying because they skew the truth. They have a monetary advantage but I would love to see smaller brands appear on the market with as much visibility leading the way. It’s happening slowly with high street shops closing, it’s proof of the shift in the fashion industry. We’ll also be witnessing how people will adapt to COVID. Circular fashion movements like renting are ones to watch as well as technological innovation in the industry, there’s a lot to look forward to.

You can listen to the podcast episode HERE.

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