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Photo Courtesy Monisha Raja
Interview

MONISHA RAJA

08.03.12

Monisha Raja, originally from India, is a fashion designer and illustrator based in New York. In 2011, Monisha launched a footwear collection that is 100% handmade and vegan called Love Is Mighty. The collection is a testament of her commitment to preserving indigenous crafts and culture around the world.

Interview

Your collection currently features work with artisans in India, are there any other countries you would like to travel to and work with local artisans in?

Yes, absolutely. The vision and mission of the brand is global. I work in India currently as the landscape and language are easy for me to traverse. As LOVE IS MIGHTY grows and evolves I would like to collaborate with the indigenous peoples of North and South America and contribute toward the revival of their lost arts. I traveled to Morocco last summer to attend a conference at the World Music Festival. Fes is teaming with artisans – shoemakers, weavers, potters and dyers, all facing the same peril of losing their livelihoods to the rapid urbanization around them, like their counterparts in India. It would be incredible to work with the craft people of Fes . Africa is calling me. The crafts of Bhutan and the Far East are breathtaking. The possibilities are immense.

What city are you from originally? How did you build up your network overseas?

I was born in Calcutta but originally from Kerala and raised all over the country so there’s a bit of a gypsy in me. I have been traveling back home almost every year or two for the past 22 yrs. I often go off the beaten path. For the last 3 years I’ve been off the grid in the deserts of North Western India, meeting and sometimes staying with, for brief periods, nomadic tribal communities. These communities and their exquisite crafts are in danger of complete extinction in an ever-urbanizing environment. I met a woman who has her own vegan shoe factory in Mumbai. I put the two together and started LOVE IS MIGHTY, the network continues to grow and evolve as my work in these areas expand. Marie Claire India, featured some of the shoes in their June 2012 issue. The awareness of the cause and the brand is growing.

What kinds of challenges have you faced in your transition from designing in NYC to working in India?

The biggest challenge was realizing that I can’t control the pace of the artisans. They do not care about New York fashion deadlines. There isn’t even a word in the Indian language for ‘deadline’. They are semi-nomadic and their goats need grazing, their families need feeding and if they can give me 4 hours a day of their time I am lucky. I started out with the fantasy that I could train them to meet my timelines. In fact, they taught me a good lesson in patience. Now I have come to accept and appreciate that the slow pace of their work is part of product. LOVE IS MIGHTY is beautiful and slow fashion. Some of the other transitions were quality control and sourcing but these are being worked out and I am very happy with the product today.

How are you working to ensure that the techniques passed down by local in India are preserved so that the skill does not fall extinct?

Indigenous peoples throughout the world have something profound to teach those of us who live in a so-called civilized world. I collaborate with the artisans and try not to merely employ them. I have deep respect for their craft. I believe they are artists, not just artisans. I also partner with local NGOs that are committed to fair-trade practices and helping preserve traditions and above all, the dignity of the people. By staying committed to the cause and growing the company on an international level I hope to engage more tribal groups and communities and bring awareness to the world about this very real issue we are facing. I hope to one day be able to facilitate workshops for the new generation to carry on the work of their forefathers and mothers.

Do you have any desire to collaborate with similarly minded shoe companies? Your line is unique in so many aspects, but shares a similar eco-friendly inspiration as some other shoe companies, such as Toms?

I am very open to collaborations. I respect what Blake Mycoskie has done with Toms. I would love to collaborate with Toms and other similar companies. I would love to collaborate with ones that are not yet ‘Green’ but are open to exploring this arena of fashion.’  For me, design comes first and foremost and the icing is the fact that the shoes happen to be cruelty-free and engage tribal artisans in fair-wages. Most of my customers, thus far, have not been strictly vegan and that pleases me as I am reaching a wider audience with the message of LOVE IS MIGHTY.

Given that each of your shoes are hand-made and completed on the schedule of the artisans, how are you able to keep your price points relatively low?

It is not cheap to work with the artisans and have the shoes made by hand.

Currently, this is a one-woman show with the help of kind-hearted individuals and interns from time to time. I travel to India to work with the artisans, picking every bead and color and checking quality, sourcing, overseeing production, etc. I do the work of 5 people with the salary of one. This, of course, is not sustainable in the long run. As the company grows and employs more hands, production too will increase and I hope to keep the prices in the same range they are today.

Do you think there will be a point where you will have to compromise on authenticity in exchange for larger production methods?

I hope not. I am committed to the cause of the artisans and animals. My products do not use any animals and the factory I work with is vegan. I am hoping to increase the number of artisans and the capacity of the factory rather than mass producing. That way no one benefits in the long run. I would like to explore ways to keep the brand authentic yet able to meet large orders.

Are the shoes pre-made, or do you make them once a customer places their order? The “Heera”, for example, varies based on the plastics available at the time- do customers have a selection of colors used to make the shoe?

At the moment I am pre-making the shoes. I am taking orders for them as well. ‘Heera’, ‘Vajra’ and ‘Uma’ are constructed from reclaimed plastics from biscuit wrappers. The wrappers are cut in strips and woven on a loom by the artisans. The colors are not guaranteed and customers cannot select particular ones in their size. I offer a range and I am seeing that people enjoy the variations. This makes them quite unique. Amanda Hearst just got a pair and loves them. My best seller ‘Bulbul’ is a pump made from vintage fabrics and no two pairs are alike.

Do you have any advice for young designers who share the same passions as you, but aren’t ready to make the move to India or who don’t have a connection to a country with such wonderful artists?

I say ‘Go for it.’ Inspiration lies everywhere. Start where you feel the connection.

You don’t need to leave the country. We live in a land that used to be rich with the Native American culture and numerous tribes. Some are still fighting to preserve their traditions. We just have to scratch the surface. We have lost numerous civilizations and it is happening before our very eyes. Start where you are.

What were you doing before you started making shoes?

I was a fashion illustrator and designer in NY since I graduated from Parsons, mostly in apparel. In the past 6 years I fell into designing and illustrating shoes quite by accident, for brands such as Tory Burch, Banana Republic, Max Azria, BCBG and Camuto Group.

I also teach yoga and love traveling. I have found a nice confluence of all my passions in LOVE IS MIGHTY.

Do you still find time to paint with all of your travel between NYC and India?

I don’t paint as much as I used to. However, I stay connected by continuing my study of Tibetan art under the tutelage of my teacher, Pema Rinzin.

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