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BHALO Fair Trade Fashion

Bhalo
Bhalo production – Photo by Apel Mahamud Pavel

In Bengali the word bhalo means good, and is also the name of a growing womenswear brand started by Jessica Priemus and Shimul Minhas in 2009, who met while working at a charity in Bangladesh. Bhalo is produced by Thanapara Swallows Development Society, an approved member of the World Fair Trade Organisation.

When asked if the concept of a fashion label was an immediate idea, or something that slowly came together over time, West Australian-based designer Priemus says, “In retrospect it did feel quite immediate to come to the decision to start the label, however the whole business is somewhat of a process that is still coming together. Initially there was a sewing section within the charity we worked at that provided training to people in the community to sew and embroider, and we started off designing a collection of salwar kamees (three-piece traditional suits of loose cotton pants, tunic, and scarf) for the local market. It was really great fun, and I think we realised the potential to do something more with it. Eventually we left that particular project but decided to start up our own label.”

She says the pair never initially thought the label had to be “fair trade” or “sustainable.” “We just wanted to design things and work with a group of people to make the garments a reality. However once we looked into it, and the conditions in a lot of the factories, we realised we couldn’t work that way. When it came down to it we had to make the decision whether our label would help or harm people, and for us it was never a difficult choice to make.”

The pair travelled around Bangladesh until they found a community they clicked with, the Thanapara Swallows Development Society, in a village on the banks of the Padma (ganges) in Rajshahi. That was six years ago, and the first order was a tiny collection of eight scarves posted in a cloth bundle. “We still have the parcel framed on our studio wall,” points out Priemus, “to remind us of our beginnings.”

She believes three major obstacles hold people back from making more conscious choices (in terms of ethically sourced fashion): variety, accessibility, and money. According to Priemus, a socially responsible wardrobe, unfortunately for the consumer, will come at a higher price per item. “We’ve become so accustomed to cheap, fast fashion that it just feels normal now. Anyone over thirty should be able to remember the price of clothing previously and just how low prices have become. I really never thought I’d see a pair of $5 jeans in my lifetime! It really isn’t possible to sell a shirt for a few dollars and ensure that everyone along the chain is being paid correctly. Someone always pays.”

She says it’s not just about what we buy, but the fact we’ve almost begun to think about clothes (and other objects) as disposable. “Despite this, there are still affordable ways to be more conscious about clothing. Being responsible is not only about consumption, but also use—the life of a garment that extends beyond just the initial purchase.”

In terms of the brand’s future, she says, “Our producers have gotten a few new jacquard looms so we are going to start experimenting with them, which should give us a lot more variety in terms of our textiles.”

Priemus says Bhalo’s offerings generally appeal to women who have travelled and are a bit worldly, who value style and comfort, who are laidback, but creative and fun. “We were once described as “clothes that you can eat seconds in” which we quite enjoyed.”

Bhalo is stocked at Wanderlust, Fi and Co, Clique Arcade, and Rana Clothing, as well as bhaloshop.com

 

GILLIAN O’MEAGHER