Paris Fashion Week (PFW) is more than just runway shows, it’s re-sees, showroom visits, late-night soirees, and the list goes on. One of the distinct pleasures of being there is discovering new and emerging talent, particularly at showrooms like the one staged bi-annually by Maison Pyramide. Earlier this year, upon arriving at the Maison Pyramide showroom during PFW, we encountered a young man who was creating bag collections that were not only beautiful, brilliantly convertible (one of the designs he showed us displayed three bags in one!), and sustainable, but also had at its core one of the most ethically sound business models we’d ever encountered. The person in question is Shivam Punjya, and his amazing brand is called behno. In order to unlock what makes behno so special, we sat down with Punjya to discuss the birth of his passion project, the thoughtful way he has shaped his business, and how family plays a vital role in what he achieves with his brand.
What does Behno mean?
‘Behno’ means sisters in Hindi and in Gujarati. The reason why we came up with the name is because in our factories, when we refer to female workers, we would say their first name and then the suffix of ‘Behn’ which means sister. The plural of ‘Behn’ is ‘Behno’, so it’s very much in honor of the community that’s created at a very fundamental level in our factories and our manufacturing partners. For me, it’s more about bringing that story into the product that we make and our handbags.
Your background is not in fashion design. I would love for you would take me through the journey of how you came to start Behno.
I started off my journey trying to be a doctor. I went to UC Berkeley‘s undergraduate program, and took organic chemistry. I didn’t do so well in the class, and discovered this path wasn’t for me. I ultimately ended up studying Economics and Global Poverty, and that was where I found a lot of inspiration in learning about how I could look at social entrepreneurial ways to address more global issues.
Like you said, I don’t have a background in fashion. After my undergrad I got my Masters in Global Health in North Carolina. My goal there was to look more at the intersection between taboo and folic acid supplements for pregnant women. I did a lot of my thesis research in India, and a lot of my study participants were textile weavers. At the time, I didn’t make much of it. But I did get to know them very well, went to their homes, got to understand their community, and meet their family members. I got to know them also as business women, and started to understand the discrepancies between what they were making and what they were creating.
What was the moment where you decided to work with them to help create a better quality of life for them?
It was when I came back to North Carolina to write my thesis, when Rana Plaza collapsed. It hit an emotional note for me. I was working in the field with so many women that were killed in the atrocity. For me, that was a very emotional moment.
I have a very big family: two moms, two dads. My mom’s younger sister married my birth father’s younger brother, and we all live in one home and basically do everything together. I got loved twice as much, but also got yelled at twice as much [laughs]. So, I was talking to my dads about the atrocity and they gave me two options: either you jump in and do something, or, you shut up and make peace with it because you can’t let this drive you insane. As a family, we decided to jump in and build a factory in India so we could represent what manufacturing could be if things were done differently. We created something called the ‘behno standard’ and that focuses on six different categories from women’s rights to family planning to eco-consciousness.
What is the goal you set out to achieve in opening in the factory and setting up the Behno standard?
The goal is to create a more holistic approach to manufacturing and also create products that challenge what people have traditionally thought of as ‘Made in India’. You know, Indian made goods can be very luxurious. We have the most intricate embroideries and embellishments that are crafted in the country, but people don’t associate modern fashion or minimalist fashion with being made India. Because of those presumptions, I did a focus group when I started behno about seven years ago to address public perceptions around India-made goods.
That’s essentially how it all started. Afterwards, I was able to put together a really wonderful design team. I explained my vision and we found people that saw eye-to-eye with both the sustainable and ethical missions of behno, as well as a modern, minimalist aesthetic. Behno designs are a very collaborative effort.
Is Behno all created at the factory your family owns in India?
The factory that my family and I created with other partners in India is a cut and sew garment factory. For behno, we partner with over nine factories in India and one handbag factory. So, the factory that makes our handbags is not the factory that we invested in, but we work with them intimately to execute the ‘behno standard’.
Behno originally started out as a ready-to-wear brand. When did you change to handbags?
In the beginning, we launched our very first ready-to-wear collection in Fall 2015, and we pivoted into handbags and accessories in Fall 2018. We made the pivot because we started to realize that our social impact on the backend was directly related to how well our financial business was, and a lot of buyers were very interested in some of the accessories that we were just dabbling with. We were putting them into our lookbooks and some of the buyers said [the handbags] were drawing people’s interest. After my mentor joined our team, we made our pivot into handbags.
I was really taken by the sustainable angle of your brand, and was wondering if you are sourcing those materials in India? What kind of materials are you using that are sustainable?
As a small brand, it’s kind of difficult to get all the moving parts of supply chain mapping in place. Our leathers come from Italy, and our hardware comes from both Italy and parts of Asia. We are only with tanneries that are part of the Leather Working Group and that is very important to us they have good standards in terms of environmental impact. The process of tanning skin is hugely toxic to the environment, so we want to make sure that we work with specific tanneries that are very conscious of their practices. We also work with a really phenomenal factory in India that is ISO14001 certified. They have an amazing waste-water management system in place and are very conscious about minimizing waste creation. We are figuring out how we can get very granular with our supply chain, which is an interesting challenge for a young brand.
Sustainability is about both people and the planet.
In what way?
Sustainability is about both people and the planet. Right now, we need to establish strong relationships with our suppliers, we need to build that trust. The stronger the relationship the more sustainable we can make our supply chain. But sustainability is about our people as well, so we also have created dialogue with our garment and factory workers as part of our Behno Standard.
For example, one of the biggest reasons why so many families in India go into debt is because of a lack of healthcare. The concept of health insurance is very new in India. We wanted to make sure that we could provide some sort of safety net for the garment workers and give them health insurance. We work with them to identify their needs and provide the resources to have at their disposal. We spend a lot of time on the health side of it, including family planning, which is tricky in these communities because most of them are extremely rural. I think it’s wrong to enter a space and dictate what’s right or wrong.
It’s more about education and allowing people to exercise their agency in making decisions for their lives. There is a lot of cultural nuance to consider, and when we are not a part of the community or culture, dictating behaviors becomes a colonial way of doing things. We are there to provide education, resources, and access, and I think it’s had a positive effect on family dynamics within our factory. I think it’s been very interesting when we look at family dynamics in our factory.
A lot of mother-in-laws in rural India do not like when their daughter-in-laws go to work because there’s a gendered notion of women being homemakers. What we started to do is invite the mother-in-laws into the workspace with the daughter-in-laws to show that it is a safe and dignified working place. That, in turn, also created issues because there was no separation or boundaries between the mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws. It has always been like a learning process and we always make sure that we have a local informant that would help us kind of navigate the discussion.
You are bearing a lot of responsibility, not only for the ethical standards of your products, but for the lives of your workers. I was wondering what elements have you had to take into consideration as you’re navigating this really uncertain future due to COVID?
I think the element that is very critical to us is making sure that they have economic security. Economic security has been threatened for a lot of garment workers. I think that is the one thing that we are very conscious about. We are making sure that everyone is on payroll, but, some of the things that we are considering is how do we downsize our businesses in areas where we can and how do we become more creative in other areas to compensate.
Like many brands out there our marketing efforts have become a lot more homegrown, but it’s also been a lot more fun because it stretches our creativity to new limits. I think our own Behno team has come together in a way that’s very resilient. It just blew my mind, how much we are able to do even though all of us are working remotely. I am in California, the rest of our team is in New York, and we have folks in India. Yet, we are all somehow synchronized. It’s become a different way of communicating.
When I first met you, I really fell in love with the designs of your bags. Can you talk more about the collaboration you did with your sister?
My sister Nirali has down syndrome, so we did a whole collaboration with The National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) and we designed the ‘Nini’ tote inspired by my sister. We wanted to make sure that it was a more adaptive bag for different communities. My sister is more homebound, and she enjoys her comfort zones, but she did come to New York for the launch and it was such a phenomenal experience to have her there. I think she definitely got a little overwhelmed, but she realized the event was to honor her and she saw her face in Times Square, which was amazing. My sister has impacted so much of what I do today, and with behno we are able to branch into communities that matter to us.
behno’s new Fall/Winter 2020 collection is now available on behno.com.