What is Slow Fashion? An Interview With Holi Boli’s Ana Wilkinson-Gee
What is Slow Fashion? An Interview With Holi Boli’s Ana Wilkinson-Gee
At Swahlee, we love collaborating with other ethical businesses in India. In early November, we had the chance to spend some time with friends of Swahlee: the incredible founders of Holi Boli, an ethical fashion brand based out of Odisha, India.
Ana and Daniel Wilkinson-Gee spent two weeks with us, creating new designs for both Holi Boli and Swahlee and training our seamstresses in new best practices.
It was an honor to have them here to discuss strategies, create new garments, and catch up. We took the opportunity to sit down with Ana and ask her some questions about slow fashion, Holi Boli as a company, and what makes slow fashion so integral to building a better world.
Table of Contents
- Ana Wilkinson-Gee: Entrepreneur, Slow Fashion Advocate, Empowerer of Women
- What Is Slow Fashion? How Holi Boli Makes a Difference in the Fashion Industry
- One Mission, One Team: Collaboration in Slow Fashion
- Why Is It So Important for Women to Have Access to Safe Work Environments?
- It’s Cheaper Than You Think: What You May Not Know About Slow Fashion
- Teach a Woman to Fish and She’ll Eat for a Lifetime: Sustainable Empowerment
- What the Ethical Fashion Movement Needs Now
- Holi Boli: Your Purchase Empowers Women to Build Brighter Futures
- Swahlee: Make Your Wardrobe a Force for Freedom
Ana Wilkinson-Gee: Entrepreneur, Slow Fashion Advocate, Empowerer of Women
Ana is a business owner, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. She studied Fashion and Design in Christchurch, New Zealand. In 2010, Ana, her husband Daniel, and their three children moved from New Zealand to India. After a long flight and a 12-hour train ride, they arrived in the village that would become their home.
Ana began a sewing class for local women that quickly outgrew her living room. Within a few years, a graduate of her sewing class asked Ana for a job. In need of inspiration on how to provide a good job and afford a good wage, she talked with her husband, Daniel. His suggestion? Have the graduate bring her sewing up to exportable quality levels and design a dress for her to make. Have her produce that style of dress. He would create a website so the dress could be sold online. Sales of that dress could cover her wages. And thus a company began.
For Ana, the reward is in the work. When we asked her what she was most proud of, she had a simple but profound answer:
“I’m time and time again challenged by the ladies that I work with. I’m proud of them! Their courage. Our tagline at Holi Boli is ‘Fearless Ethical Fashion.’ I get asked, “Why the fearless?” but I see it through the ladies I train and my staff. So many different times, I see their courage. The ‘fearless’ speaks to their courage.
Ladies come to the class and, in the end, at graduation, they all have a chance to stand up and speak. I’ve listened to story after story of these women sharing their challenges and trials to get to class, and I’m just astounded again and again and challenged by their persistence and their courage.
In their schools growing up, it was quite common for teachers to hit the children if they made a mistake. So they came to sewing class, not knowing English, scared and expecting that I would hit them if they did something wrong. It so struck me that they would still come. They so wanted their empowerment that they would go through abuse to get it. Like that would have been acceptable. [I’m proud of them for] their courage and determination to woman up and turn up.”
What Is Slow Fashion? How Holi Boli Makes a Difference in the Fashion Industry
Holi Boli is a name rich with meaning. It speaks to the collision of Western and Indian fashion and culture as “Holi” is short for Hollywood and “Boli” stands for Bollywood. Holi is also an Indian festival, known around the world for being bright and colorful — just like Holi Boli’s dresses, especially at the start. Finally, Boli is a traditional Indian sweet, the perfect parallel to the sweet and beautiful company that is Holi Boli.
Since its early days, Holi Boli has grown into a sisterhood where women know they are safe, powerful, and supported.
Ana continued working with the women and the company grew to its current size: 21 women are employed and over 200 women have graduated from the sewing program and now hold certificates in sewing. In a society where women often receive little or no education or recognition, holding a certificate means the world. It gives the women a sense of hopeful pride.
At Swahlee, we love Holi Boli because, to them, ethicality and sustainability are more than words; they're a way of life. From implementing a 32-hour workweek to closing for the extremely hot Indian summer and giving employees two months of paid leave, Holi Boli is passionate about caring for everyone at the company and holding tight to ethical, kind, and fair practices.
Holi Boli is kind to more than people. Sustainability and caring for the planet are incredibly important. What is slow fashion? It’s an industry that puts people and the planet at the forefront of all it does.
Some of Holi Boli’s most sustainable fashion practices include:
- Reusing scrap fabric for sewing students or allowing employees to take it for household use
- Only working with natural fabrics that decompose nicely
- Making sure materials are sourced from sustainable — and ethical — organic farms
- Being mindful of the water and electricity used in the sewing house
One Mission, One Team: Collaboration in Slow Fashion
Ask just about any business person and they’ll tell you that you shouldn’t spend time helping your competition succeed. This is especially true in industries like fast fashion where every company is simply focused on money and getting as far ahead as they possibly can.
But, in slow fashion, it is a different world.
Every slow fashion company is on the same team. We all want to see garment workers treated fairly, fabric sourced sustainably, and lives impacted positively. This makes collaboration key.
In many cases, slow fashion brands are small and they need one another to succeed. From pooling resources and talents to developing co-branded collections, and production partnerships, collaboration allows each company to better achieve their desired results.
At Swahlee, we create beautiful, ethical, sustainable clothing, just like Holi Boli. We offer wholesale and custom production options for other companies, as does Holi Boli. We both have sewing houses based in India. And yet we work together, instead of competing, because we have other things in common too, such as…
- The non-negotiable policy of providing safe, ethical employment to women that need it most.
- A desire to help minimize the fashion industry’s toll on the environment.
- A passion for empowering women through meaningful employment opportunities.
Instead of seeing one another as competitors to be battled, as is typical in fast fashion, slow fashion companies, like Swahlee and Holi Boli, see each other as teammates; as part of the greater, global sisterhood of women-owned and women-run businesses sharing the common goal of empowering women.
Ana puts it this way:
“Our bottom line is empowering women and so when other businesses have that same ethos, there’s no competition in that. I want to help you so that you can empower more women because that's what I'm working for so if I can help that happen with you guys then I’m extending my reach to help our bottom line. Working together we’re stronger and we can reach and help more women.”
We are so thankful to Ana and Daniel for taking the time to come to Northeast India and share their skills and talents with us.
Why Is It So Important for Women to Have Access to Safe Work Environments?
For many women, finding a good, safe job can be a very difficult task. From employers who mistreat them to unsafe and exploitative working conditions, these women face barriers to safe, ethical employment.
Another sad reality is that young women are often vulnerable to trafficking and abuse. Many women find themselves in unsafe, exploitative circumstances with little hope of escape. Once a woman escapes or is rescued, they face a strong chance of revictimization, unless they are supported in their transition to a new life.
That’s where businesses like Swahlee and Holi Boli often come in. Slow-fashion sewing houses intentionally care well for their employees; paying them fairly, providing safe working conditions, and treating them with dignity, even if they make a mistake or are not as productive on some days.
Empowering women through employment is vital. Having a good job and steady income enables women to remain in more control of their own lives. Companies like Holi Boli and Swahlee work together to help decrease the exploitation of women and prevent the revictimization of those who have faced exploitation.
At Holi Boli, they ensure that every woman can obtain a government ID card. Since the Holi Boli sewing house is located in a more rural area of the nation, many of the women were born outside a hospital and never received documentation of their birth. Most also never had the chance to obtain an ID card, which would allow them to vote, open a bank account, and much more. It provides an official record of their existence, offering a sense of security and belonging. They will often take an entire sewing day to complete the process. The employee's pay is never docked for the time spent waiting in line or filling out the process’s necessary paperwork.
Slow fashion is about people and treating them well, no matter what.
In the words of Ana,
“Anywhere we are, women are women. We want to be needed, appreciated, loved, and safe. There is too much inequity and there is something we can do about it. It is up to us to make the world a better place, not governments. It has gotta start with us. Our bottom line is not to make us rich. Whereas in fast fashion, everyone is paying their $20 to get this T-shirt and it’s not benefiting the people who are making it. It's benefitting the people who own the business, who are getting mega, ridiculously, filthy rich at the expense of people’s dignity. But with slow fashion, our bottom line is not getting rich.”
It’s Cheaper than You Think: What You May Not Know About Slow Fashion
For some people, fast fashion isn’t a conscious choice, rather it’s one made out of apparent necessity. Budget constraints can make it feel impossible to shop for ethical fashion.
But you’ve seen it before. You buy a new top for $25 and within a few wears, it looks pilly and lackluster. Now you have to either buy a new one or wear a top that looks increasingly worse. In most cases, your purchase also supported slave labor and exploitation somewhere along the production line.
But with a slow, ethical fashion line like Holi Boli, you are purchasing a high-quality product that will last for years to come and is in no way affiliated with the exploitation of vulnerable people.
Both Holi Boli and Swahlee source only natural, sustainable fabrics that are kind to the earth.
When asked about the cost of ethical fashion, Ana shared:
“I hear that a lot, that ethical fashion is expensive and I understand that it is, compared to what we've been able to buy clothes for, very unfair prices. It’s not unfair that we should pay more for ethical fashion, it's actually unfair that we haven't.”
A single, ethically, and sustainably made garment has a higher price tag because a lot more money goes into producing it. For instance:
- Purchasing the fabric for an organic cotton dress can cost over $100. Since the cotton is organic, farmers do not have to use poisonous pesticides and chemicals on their crops. This means they stay healthier but they might lose half their crop to pests. But they must still make enough to feed themselves and their families, so the cotton costs much more.
- Once the cotton is purchased from the farmer, it must be woven into fabric. By the time a sewing house receives an order of fabric, at least two people — at the very least — need to have received fair wages.
- Cotton fabrics are washed and pre-shrunk, which adds in the cost of washing and drying the fabric.
- Once clean, the fabric must be cut and sewn. Those who do the cutting and sewing need to make a fair, living wage.
- When the piece is finally finished, it needs to be ironed, packed, and shipped. Again, there are at least two people involved in this who must be paid. Then there are shipping, export, or import fees.
This doesn’t even include operating costs for the office and sewing house, making and grading patterns, machine maintenance, costly sourcing trips, and second-quality pieces that cannot be sold or must be heavily discounted. Both Swahlee and Holi Boli are dedicated to charging fair prices for our garments. Our prices reflect what it costs to produce the garment and pay everyone involved fairly for their work.
But, even knowing the impact, sometimes budgets simply can’t stretch far enough to purchase a new ethical piece every time you need something. However, there are still ways to shop for ethical, sustainable clothing. You can still build an ethical wardrobe on a budget.
Instead of buying several fast fashion pieces that won’t last too long, invest in a single, high-quality slow fashion piece that will last for years. Think through your month-to-month spending. Is there something you can sacrifice for a few months to save up? You don’t have to do a complete closet overhaul.
Start small, with what you already have, and add a piece or two. Wear what is already in your closet until it can’t be worn anymore and then invest in a new piece.
Another great option is thrifting. Peruse your local thrift shops for one-of-a-kind pieces to add to your wardrobe for a fraction of the cost. Since you aren’t purchasing brand new from unethical companies, you are not contributing directly to human exploitation. You’re also helping to keep more items out of the landfill.
Teach a Woman to Fish and She’ll Eat for a Lifetime: Sustainable Empowerment
In most fast fashion factories, you can find rows upon rows of machines where women are sewing a single step of a garment over and over again. They might be sewing the elastics of a skirt or the pockets of a dress. They finish one pocket and start another. On and on, for their entire shift.
This is the fastest method for production since one woman gets really good at doing one thing quickly. But this doesn’t help her at all. If she were to change factories or lose her job, all the work she did at the factory wouldn’t translate to a usable skill outside of it.
It’s the same principle as the age-old adage “give a man ( or woman, as Ana likes to say!) a fish and he eats for today, teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life.” Slow fashion gives a fish for today while teaching the method so people can fish for themselves tomorrow. This is the process of sustainable empowerment.
Ana talks about it this way:
“Sustainable empowerment is something that I keep in my mind when I'm thinking of empowerment. In our sewing class, we teach not just how to use the machine and measure and cut and make patterns and sew the garment from A-Z but we will also teach how to fix the sewing machine. I want to work myself out of a job. When I fall off the face of the earth or whatever, these women can continue at Holi Boli.
When we were repatriated to New Zealand in the global pandemic, the [Holi Boli] women were able, once they were out of lockdown, to return to the sewing house and keep working on production. They had all the skills because we don’t do the fast production style that they do in a fast fashion factory. We literally are slower at producing garments because it is faster and more economical to get one woman to sew one thing all day. But that doesn’t benefit her. If she were to leave that factory and go back to her village, that’s all she can do. So we, and it’s the same at Swahlee, get them to learn to sew, from A-Z, the whole garment and that’s sustainable empowerment. So you know when one of our women gets married to someone outside the village and she has to leave us and go live in another place with her new family, she takes with her that whole toolbelt of skills. She is truly sustainably empowered. She can start her own business there and know how to make patterns and sew that garment from A-Z.”
Slow fashion is about caring for people. It’s about making sure these women learn a skill that translates to their lives as it is needed, even if life calls them away from the sewing house.
What the Ethical Fashion Movement Needs Now
As we closed out our conversation with Ana, she shared what she believes is needed most in the slow fashion industry right now. As someone who has spent well over a decade in slow fashion, Ana has seen the ups and downs, the emergence of new companies, and everything in between.
Ethical fashion’s biggest need might surprise you, especially when you find out how much you can do to fill it…
“I think where we sit now is… there are a lot of ethical fashion brands out there and probably what we all need as a collective is not more ethical fashion brands, but more customers. So the biggest impact would be for someone back in the US to buy a garment to help Swhalee employ another lady. You’re already set up here. Why would someone else start another thing when other small businesses like ours and Swahlee are here? [At Holi Boli] We’ve got graduates waiting for jobs. If we have more people buying our product, it is very easy for us to invite another lady to come and join our team. [Someone] Can make a bigger impact through us. Together. We’re stronger together.”
As a consumer, your dollars have massive power in the fashion industry. You essentially vote with each dollar you spend. Every purchase either encourages dignity, safety, and fair wages for a woman in an ethical sewing house or supports fast fashion and all that goes on in those factories.
Your purchase impacts countless people down the production line. When you purchase a piece from an ethical, slow fashion brand you are:
- Supporting the farmer who grew the linen or cotton and making it possible for him to avoid pesticides and poisons that harm his health.
- Making it possible for fabric weavers to be paid a fair wage and have a safe environment in which to create high-quality fabrics.
- Empowering women in sewing houses through fair wages and career opportunities.
- Making it possible for each of these workers to support their families.
- Enabling children to go to school instead of spending their days in factories.
- Contributing to fair wages that help people seek the medical care they need.
- Helping women become empowered instead of vulnerable, thereby helping them stay safe and out of exploitative situations.
Most importantly, you’re guarding human dignity.
Holi Boli: Your Purchase Empowers Women to Build Brighter Futures
Holi Boli is built on a passion for loving and caring for people. This passion is so evident in both Ana and Daniel. When Ana speaks about the women in the Holi Boli sewing house, you can see the tears of love and pride welling up in her eyes. Loving and empowering everyone they can is at the core of what they do and Holi Boli deeply reflects that. They make a real impact every day.
For instance, one woman came to their sewing house having had three miscarriages because her body was simply too weak to carry a child. While working at Holi Boli, she finally was making enough money to afford three meals a day. One day she shared the happy news that she was expecting again. This time, because she was safe, had the nutrients she needed, and was surrounded by love, support, and an understanding boss who allowed her to take time off when she needed it, this incredible woman gave birth to a healthy, thriving baby.
Another woman is saving much of what she makes so that she can someday fund her son’s higher education.
These are women and children who, thanks to the jobs provided through Holi Boli, have a new lease on life and the ability to step into opportunities they never thought possible.
When you purchase Holi Boli, you are supporting this mission and all it stands for. Your purchase directly affects every woman in the sewing house and provides for the hiring of even more.
If you’re looking for unique, high-quality pieces that you can feel good about wearing, take a scroll through Holi Boli’s collections and you’re sure to find the perfect piece.
Swahlee: Make Your Wardrobe a Force for Freedom
At Swahlee, our focus is on providing safe employment to women who face barriers to ethical, safe jobs. Every time you purchase a Swahlee piece, you are supporting holistic empowerment for women who face barriers to safe, fair employment. Whether she is saving up to one day begin her own business, or she provides for both herself and her younger sister, the women of Swahlee are driven and empowered to make their lives better.
Swahlee specializes in classic pieces designed to be worn in multiple ways. With just a few Swhalee garments, you can have a multi-functional wardrobe filled with confidence and class.
We also offer wholesale and production services.
Direct quotes have been edited for length, clarity, and readability.