Who made your clothes? Is a question that many consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of, and a question interiors-cum-fashion designer Jess Priemus has a good answer to.
Bhalo is ethically manufactured clothing with an internationally minded aesthetic. In other words, Bhalo’s limited edition garments are ethical fashion that you actually want to wear (no offense to all the manufacturers of misshapen hemp coloured sacks out there).
Jess and Shimul chose to name the label ‘Bhalo’ (‘good’ in Bengali ) to capture their intentions for the starting the label, with their designer/manager partnership certainly living up to this high standard.
Manufactured in Bangladesh, using natural hand woven textiles, printing and embroidery, Jess’ designs have found great balance in showcasing the best of ‘slow’ manufacturing techniques, whilst satisfying her designer’s drive to test new ideas in time, process, and the limitations of material.
Bhalo is manufactured by the women of the Thanapara Swallows Development Society’s handicraft section, in Rajshahi, north-western Bangladesh, on the riverbank of the Padma (Ganges). The handicraft program at Thanapara is independently run and has 168 permanent producers. The organization is an internationally approved member of the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), ECOTA Fair Trade Forum (Bangladesh), and Bangla Crafts.
Most importantly, the program assists many poor and underprivileged people, mostly women, by providing training and jobs, as well as a number of community programs. These programs include aiming to eradicating illiteracy, creating health awareness and self-employment, educating people about land rights, and empowering women by creating economic and social awareness towards a number of issues.
Bhalo’s brand philosophy is to connect the wearer to the garment, establishing a connection and empowering our customers to know the origins of the clothes they are purchasing. This form of transparency is crucial to encouraging people to make ethical decisions towards the things that we acquire in our lives – clothing included.
What is apparent, when you read Jess’ words, is that she and Shimul care deeply who makes your clothes, as well as what they’re made of. Jess’s passion for ‘slow’ concepts of time and lifestyle, innovation and building community are embedded in every fibre of Bhalo’s garments.
And to top it all off, Jess’s ‘kind of manifesto’, is a definite cut-out-and-keep gem for any ethically minded creative, no matter their chosen medium.
Owner: Jess Priemus
Location: Perth, Western Australia
What lead to the creation of Bhalo?
After studying a Bachelor of Design (Interior Design) at RMIT I spent some time working in the United Arab Emirates as a Creative Manager for a large scale construction company. After a year I was pretty mentally exhausted and ended up back in Australia, without any idea what to do with my life. So I booked a one way ticket to Dhaka, not knowing what to expect!
I met Shimul while volunteering at a charity there – his job was to organise the daily operations of the charity which included free schooling for 600 children and training/employment for their parents.
Together we decided to use our unique experiences and skills to create a label that would support and sustain rural producers and artisans in Bangladesh. I still work in interiors – I am currently a part time lecturer in Interior Architecture at Curtin University as well as a PhD student!
Tell us more about your business partner – what are your roles and how do they interact?
Shimul is the co-director and production manager, and also my husband! He is in charge with most communications with the producers, quality control, shipping, tags, etc, as well as generally guiding the company with me.
He also speaks Bangla, which is a great help! It means that we can communicate with the artisans one-on-one and not have to rely on outside interpretation. It gives the women a voice and definitely makes it easier – also we always know immediately when something has gone wrong or isn’t working the way it should, because they tell us.
Bhalo is manufactured using ‘slow’ techniques – what does this mean and how does it influence your designs?
Bhalo uses a number of ‘slow’ techniques in our work, such as exclusively hand-loomed cotton fabrics as well as hand embroidery and applique. The shuttle hand looms that we use produce virtually zero energy impact to operate and releases one tonne less CO2 in a year than the same job produced on a power loom. Both the designers and artisans employ waste minimization techniques such as re-use of all scraps for a variety of purposes, and often use any excess textiles from prior seasons to create new garments and embellishments. The workshop in Bangladesh employs sustainable practices, such as natural lighting, and ventilation, water recycling facilities, on-site composting and community garden directly linked to staff kitchen. Azo chemical-free dyes are used to avoid toxic runoff into local water sources.
We have always used slow techniques up until now – just because that is how our producers work. Our focus has always been on ‘hand-made’, and I am particularly interested in hand made textiles capture and communicate a sense of time, process and the skill of their maker. There is a quote I love at the moment by Octavio Paz – “the work of crafts(wo)manship is the pulse of human time”.
However I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that we all need to ‘slow down’ permanently – I just think that we need to learn to operate at different speeds (instead of a constant acceleration).
I am excited by new technologies and how we can use them to design and create sustainably. Some of my new experiments are on a 3D knitting machine, that produces an entire garment in 1 piece. I would like to eventually spread our making and designing between both Bangladesh and Australia, a complete cross pollination that kind of breaks that typical designer-maker relationship that typically we have between artisans in the global south and designers/businesses in the north.
Bhalo has been around for six years now – what motivates you?
What keeps us going the most is probably our close relationship with our producers in Bangladesh – they call Shimul their brother (I am sister-in-law – not sure how that happened!) Our relationship with them is so meaningful and the amount of things they have done for us is just heart touching. We visited the village a few days before our wedding and they held a surprise ceremony for us – they bought me a saree, Shimul a Panjabi (men’s traditional top) and sat us on a stage covered in decorations and fed us sweets and fruits. They even played the Titanic theme song as we cut the cake! It was great because it meant that the people who couldn’t leave the village to attend our wedding could actually celebrate with us too.
Personally, I’m motivated by my love of the design process, just trying new things.
Coming from the construction industry there was always such a long wait time for things to get built, as well as there always being a ‘surprise element’ – where nothing ever turns out exactly how you imagine or draw/model it, as you are working in a different scale and unable to inhabit it until completion.
I love that clothing is so 1:1 – you can whip up a sample in a day and put it on immediately.However that immediacy that originally attracted me to fashion is kind of not as immediate at you think it will be – nowadays we design 12-18 months ahead of a collection release date… it’s like I’m back in an architectural timeline again!
Other things that keep me going are my university research, my inquisitive nature, and my complete inability to just chill and do nothing. I seem to have an aversion to having one basic job.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think that the following advice is relevant to both personal life and business… And I think I am still working on a few! This is kind of my current manifesto:
- Be nicer to people – just because you don’t think much of yourself right now doesn’t mean that your words/actions don’t hold power
- Don’t define your self-worth through your work. You are a person first, and you happen to be an artist/designer/whatever too. The moment you can draw the line is like finally finding freedom.
- If you are happy in what you do, it shows in both your work and the way you present it. Others will find it infectious. Do what you love, do it well and follow your intuition.
- Practice your art with generosity, always. Take the time to teach, or help others, or ease suffering in any way that you can.
- Keep seeking knowledge, constantly. You will never know everything, but you have a lifelong opportunity to work on and hone your skills.
- Stop every now and then and look at how far you have come. You’re on a journey, appreciate it. Then go buy yourself an ice-cream.
Tea or coffee? Long black coffee, or bubble tea
Savvy, Sass or Study? Probably a lot of sass to get things off the ground, savvy to get people interested +study to keep people interested long term. You’ve got to have skills/something to offer to begin with, and a network to make it happen, but if you can’t evolve then people will get bored.
Superpower? Time travel. I don’t think I would go back and change anything in my life, but foresight would definitely be advantageous. But also I am just curious how the world will end.
Friends of Bhalo
Rebecca Wetzler – illustrator extraordinaire (Melbourne)
Green Horse – ethical/sustainable clothes (Melbourne)
ALAS – ethical sleepwear (Sydney)
The Little Sparrow – ethical children’s toys and accessories (Melbourne)
Fabulous Health – Amy O’Brian – Chinese Medicine (Perth) *Interview with Amy coming soon*
Alchemy – Belinda Evans – slow weavings/jewellery (Melbourne)
How can I contact you? (how can readers contact you?)