Ana Wilkinson-Gee from Holi Boli on creating ethical fashion in India

Holi Boli

Ana Wilkinson-Gee (far left) and the Holi Boli team in India. Image supplied.

Kiwi Ana Wilkinson-Gee empowers women in the fashion industry on a daily basis through her India-based business Holi Boli. She founded the business with her husband in 2010 in rural India, located 12 hours train ride southwest from Kolkata, where they live with their three children. What began as a sewing school with a dream of helping women in hard to reach places has become a fashion brand in it’s own right and a production house for other ethical labels including Tonic & Cloth and Two Lippy Ladies. The mission of Holi Boli is to empower women with skills, not hand-outs, so that they can fight poverty and provide for their families. Ana qualified in fashion design, sewing and pattern making at the Design and Arts College here in New Zealand and started sharing these skills with her neighbours when she moved to India.

Her sewing classes grew slowly and organically and she saw a need to create a safe place for employment for the sewing graduates. That was the start of Holi Boli and they also began selling the garments the women made online where the brand’s collections are still sold. Fast forward to 2020 and there are 17 women employed at Holi Boli which is seen as a safe, dignified and very reputable place to work. The women who study and work there have gained such mana and respect from their families and communities by receiving their sewing certificates and being employed by the only foreigners in the whole village and city. Ana and her family are the only foreigners in a city of 300,000 people.

Ana is asked almost weekly from one of her 170 graduates if she can give them a job and Ana’s dream is to be able to offer employment at Holi Boli to more of these women. It’s achievable if the business has more sales of its clothing and if more fashion brands use Holi Boli for their production. This subject is particularly topical this week during Fashion Revolution Week as we focus on creating positive change and ending exploitation and pollution in the fashion industry.

Holi Boli’s designs themselves declare that femininity is a strength to be celebrated. In keeping with creating a more sustainable fashion industry their pieces are classic, clean styles that supersede seasonal trends. Fabrications include a mix of earth and skin friendly organic cottons, Fair Trade fabrics, raw denim and textured linens. Holi Boli focuses on quality and sustainability; making sure that they manufacture with kindness and integrity for people, planet and animals. Their timeless, ethically-made garments feel good to wear, look beautiful and have helped transform the lives of the women who made them.

We caught up with Ana to find out more about her journey with Holi Boli, why it’s important for women to lift each other up and what sustainability means to her?

Tell us about your background, what made you get into fashion and what do you love about it?
I’ve always had an interests in fabrics, design, creating and fashion. When I was a teenager living in the Sepik jungle of Papua New Guinea in the late 80’s, my mother taught me how to cut a pattern and sew. There was no electricity where we lived, so after finishing my NZ correspondence home-schooling, one of my favourite hobbies became sewing. I remember making shorts for swimming in the local river. I would spend hours turning the machine by hand to make a garment because we only had electricity for 2 hours per day by generator. I loved the alone time and the satisfaction of creating a useful, unique thing.

How did your interest in sustainability and ethical fashion come about?
My parents instilled in me the value of wasting nothing. They always considered the effects of their life on our planet and used their amazing creativity and intelligence to come up with ways to co-exist with nature. Because I grew up with my parents as roles models, and because some of my childhood I was raised in villages where running water and electricity are not taken for granted, this gave me an appreciation for basic natural resources. My parents used their skills (nurse/domestic goddess, carpenter/teacher/principal/welder/pilot/project manager) and firm beliefs (kindness, love, grace, faith) to help improve the lives of those in our community. It was obvious to me that a meaningful and fulfilling life is spent sharing and caring for others, making the world a better place together. This foundation has naturally lead me into a life of helping others through my skills – dressmaking.

Holi Boli

Women from Holi Boli in the process of sewing at the brand’s India production house.

What made you decide to turn your interest in it into a business in India?
I always had a curiosity about this magical land called India; the beautiful women, mysterious culture and bold textures and colours. After visiting India for the first time in 2006, my hubby and I knew that we wanted to return and dedicate some time to empower women. I felt a deep sense of responsibility to use my skills to help my Indian sisters in hard to reach places, where there are less opportunities. Through skills training and education, we could see that if a lady learnt dressmaking, she would be empowered and able to improve her family’s economic situation. She could work from home sewing for others in the village or get a job at a local tailor shop, fight poverty and provide for her family. After a few years, our sewing class graduates started asking me to employ them. Hence, Holi Boli was born and the ladies began sewing dresses from beautiful, breathable Indian cotton fabrics we purchased locally, and we started selling the garments online to fund their wages. I started with just one graduate. Then as demand and sales enabled, we employed another, then another. Now we have 23 staff employed at Holi Boli.

What was it like setting up your business there and what challenges did you face?
It was fun and scary setting up business in rural India. We faced the challenge of being the only foreigners in this village and nearby city (300,000 population), so we didn’t fit in the normal boxes at places like banks, accountants, lawyers, suppliers etc. It became apparent that we had a lot to learn and so did those in our village and town as they had not experienced a little business exporting products all over the world before. Hence it took a lot of time (years!) and patience. This is my husband’s role and it is a full time job keeping us compliant and in good relationships and communications with our extended team of suppliers, accountants, banks, couriers etc. Unreliable electricity in our village is a daily challenge as it goes on and off like a yo-yo randomly, which is tricky when you are doing production. Hence, we have a mix of electric sewing machines and non-electric treadle sewing machines. The weather is a challenge, in April we are hitting 48 degrees C daily. We usually shut down and put all our staff on two months paid leave over May and June, because it’s just too hot to work and they are more important to us than profit.

Tell us more about your business and the services you offer brands?
As well as designing and manufacturing our own women’s ethical fashion brand Holi Boli, we also manufacture for other socially conscious designers and boutiques in New Zealand. We supply a unique Holi Boli dress range to Two Lippy Ladies in Napier, in their fit and flare 50’s style. We also manufacture for the awesome women’s clothing brand Tonic&Cloth, with delicious fair trade, Indian organic cottons, textured linens and super comfy styles designed by Jodie Woods (founder and director) based in Palmerston North. Both these retailers work with Holi Boli because they care about the people that are making their clothing. They are funding the empowerment of our sisters in rural India and showing the fashion industry how to do this business better, healthier, more ethically and more sustainably, with kindness and consideration for people and planet.

What has the response been like so far to your business?
At our first sewing class graduation ceremony I was astounded at how much a sewing certificate could mean to a lady and how much it could impact her world. The response and effect was breath taking. Being skilled at tailoring significantly improves her self worth and her confidence. Almost every lady that goes through our 4-month sewing course wants to then do another sewing course or get employed at Holi Boli so that they can keep coming back to the safe place they call the Holi Boli sewing house. Here they are free to laugh, relax, make mistakes and learn, without prejudice, without abuse. It is very prestigious to work at the only foreign international company, so it has been very well received locally. Internationally the response has been super positive. People are becoming more and more aware of the horrendous conditions of most sewing factories. We are realising our power as shoppers to change the fashion industry by our choice of where/who we buy from. As we support companies that are treating people properly, upholding human rights and kindness for planet in production, we are creating the world that we want our kids to live in.

Holi Boli

Designs by Holi Boli.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?
One of our mantras at our Monday morning start-up meeting is “we are strong women!” We talk a lot about ‘strong women lift others up’. We intentionally encourage each other, share information, help each other, learn from each other and speak words of light. Building each other up makes our whole team stronger. That is the culture we nurture at the Holi Boli sewing house. We love sisters helping sisters and use the hashtag “love your sisters” (#loveyoursisters) a lot.

How do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
Success to me personally is giving my best to love and see the people in front of me each day. I also feel success when I watch my staff helping each other, being kind and fostering our kindness culture. Success for me at work is seeing our team obsessed with producing quality garments, being super fussy and striving to make perfection. I am in awe of these ladies’ skills and I think a few of them have superceded my skills now! I love that. That feels like success. When the integrity of our quality workmanship and the kindness culture at our sewing house continues when I am absent (visiting NZ for a photoshoot), that feels like success.

In what way can the fashion industry be used as tool for good? Can feminism and fashion co-exist?
Holi Boli is proof that the fashion industry can be used as a vehicle for feminism, to make the world a better place for women. Some of the women who work at Holi Boli would otherwise be working at construction sites carrying bricks on their heads (a common environment of gender related harassment) or breaking their backs working in rice paddy fields. Having an ethical fashion business come set up in their village has brought financial benefit, increased self worth, physically kinder work opporunities with a safe environment, dignity and ‘mana’ for these women. Like all small ethical fashion businesses, we rely on our global sisters to support our efforts and purchase our products. It’s teamwork, a global sisterhood to raise the standard of life for women today and tomorrow.

Why does Fashion Revolution Week matter and what does it mean to you?
We love to participate in Fashion Revolution Week! It’s such an encouraging time when like-minded people pull together in an organised effort, and with one loud voice we are calling for a healthier fashion industry. It’s nice to feel that we are not lone advocates to end modern day slavery in sweat shops, but that there are thousands of people at every stage, from cotton growing farmers through to retailers, to customers, who are aware and intentional about promoting and bringing positive change to the fashion industry however possible within their ability and sphere of influence.

Transparency is one of the key values of Fashion Revolution Week. How would you explain that to someone who wasn’t sure what transparency means in this sense?
Because of documentaries like The True Cost, it is now no secret what happens behind closed doors at many major sewing and production factories. There is a gross misuse and abuse of people working in terribly hot, unsafe, uncomfortable conditions for often 10 hours a day (or worse), six days a week for the sake of producing products at the cheapest possible price. To hit this bottom line price, human rights have been sacrificed and it is completely unacceptable. It is up to us to demand change, and that change starts with ourselves; with how and where we choose to purchase products. We have been blinded and trained by these mass producing companies to believe that the prices we pay have been a fair price and we are used to getting cheap products. What we didn’t know was that our Bangladeshi sister who is in the production line making it was paid less than a fair wage, working in slave-like conditions, so that we could pay less. It’s not ok that her loss be our gain. She is living in poverty, unable to have three meals a day so that we can buy the product for $30 less than it should have been. The result of transparency is that customers are willing to pay the higher price to companies they can trust who are doing the right thing, while other companies step up to the challenge and start manufacturing with kindness for people and planet too.

Holi Boli

Ana and a Holi Boli seamstress who is creating a garment.

Which people and accounts do you recommend people follow on Instagram for sustainable fashion inspiration?
We follow @tonicandcloth, @twolippyladies, @ethicalmadeeasy, @ethicallykate, @karishmadesign, @tinyhousefamilynz, @kramaandconz, @freesetglobal, @fash_rev_newzealand, and many more. We believe in sustainable fashion minds inspiring each other. We stand with anyone who shows love and kindness to people, animals and planet. We get especially inspired by sisters who empower sisters.

Who are your favourite fashion brands?
Of course we are biased and love Holi Boli and Tonic&Cloth! Both brands are made by the ladies at the Holi Boli sewing house, but the brands styles are very different. Holi Boli is more feminine and shapely. Tonic&Cloth is more funky and loose. We compliment each other well and our denim ranges have something for everyone.

What makes you excited about the future?
I’m excited to see the Holi Boli range stocked in more shops in NZ where the majority of our customers are. We’re excited for increased interest and more purchases online at www.holiboli.com or www.tonicandcloth.co.nz so that we can offer jobs to more of our sewing class graduates who are awaiting the opportunity to come join us. We are keen to become the ethical manufacturer for more brands that share our vision to empower women in rural India by manufacturing with kindness and consideration for people, planet and animals. We’re excited to see ethical fashion become the norm and the slavery that exists in big clothing factories to end.

Holi Boli

Designs by Holi Boli.

Images supplied.