A journey to self-discovery, from politics to fashion

From the age of around eight or nine I had been political. My sense of political awareness really grew from my background. I was a young Muslim Indian New Zealander growing up in a very white world where the only people that were like me were my family. While I felt very much like a Kiwi, I was painfully aware of my difference, through my food habits, prohibitions and lifestyle. While other children went to church, camping or to sleepovers we went to weddings, madrassa and dawaats. We wore long black coats to madrassa and colourful salwar kameez to family functions and wedding celebrations while decked out in Pumpkin Patch the rest of the time. Our parents made sure we we experienced the best of the different worlds we were a part of, our Indian and New Zealand culture, Muslim faith and community.

Together with this navigation of different cultures came a strong ethic of social justice inspired by anti-colonial movements and black pride. My dad would recount to me the history of the independence of Fiji and bought me a book of Malcolm X speeches at a community event while explaining to me the different between the left and the right of politics. I was proud that Gandhi was from my home state of Gujarat. It could have been that the environment is what shaped me or that my dad really embraced my natural curiosities. I’m not really sure, but it did result in some interesting happenings like asking people who they were going to vote for at a family function when I was in year six!

It was an unusual childhood but one that really shaped who I became. At fifteen I was at an Anglican girls high school, again a very white environment, one where I never really fit into. I thought that it was because of my own failings but over time I realised that it was because the environment was one in which I had no cultural reference points where no one could really relate my multi-cultural experience to. My sense of place, came again through politics, debating with girls in my physics class about why Helen Clark was better than Don Brash.

At this point my politics took an international turn. In 2005 Oxfam and other major NGOs were running the Make Trade Fair campaign. I’m not quite sure how I came across it, but the message of the campaign, that trade between the “developing” and “developed” world should be fair really resonated with me. I think that came from my identification with the colonial histories of the “developing” world and a visceral understanding of what privilege meant. My interest was to such an extent that I printed off the campaign posters of celebrities being “dumped” with cash crops onto my folders, carefully protecting the paper with clear seal. I decided to run events for FairTrade fortnight, selling Trade Aid chocolate to raise money for farmers in Papua New Guinea. My extended family found it quite curious and strange that I was so particular about what brands of chocolate I would eat, but given that I had never really fitted in anyway I didn’t really mind having another little point of difference.

At twenty five, I had come a long way. My understanding of development had really changed through university. Any one that does an arts degree would attest to having their naive ideas about justice shaken up and displaced. I’d become really critical of the world of international NGOs, again finding that they were very white spaces. One important realisation for me was that the fair and ethical trade movements were really about trading the products that were the most suitable for a middle class white audience. And while I shared many of the consumption habits, mine were a little different. When I did my post graduate study in Geography I realised that diaspora communities express their identity in many ways through the consumption of food and clothing. I questioned myself as to why we never really thought about the ethics of the production of that food and clothing. If we were going to eat and dress Indian, why couldn’t our values of social justice and our concern for people translate into this arena. While consumption is a really small part of social justice I also realised that what I could do was carve out a little space for resistance through my own life and actions.

One of the small parts of social justice for me was reclaiming a sense of cultural confidence. Living in a diaspora community you have to constantly justify your cultural expression. Cultural expression is put into small pockets of your life, in your home with your family, at cultural events, religious practice and during celebrations. And while moving in and out of different cultural expressions is a reality of who we are, I wanted to make a little more space in my white world for my Indian self. The way I did that was deliberately choosing to wear more Indian clothes more often. I coined a term, hipster Indian, a look that my friend Gaayathri and I started identifying around us, with her even spotting an Indian women in a pair of blue overalls and a colourful sari blouse instead of a crop top. I grew into myself, and started becoming more of an integrated person than a person that was made up of lots of different disparate pieces. That integrated person, embraced all parts of who I was, the millennial that responds to good story and branding, the Indian women that wears a salwar kameez and cooks, the activist that organises to further a cause and the Muslim that seeks knowledge and closeness to the divine.

At twenty seven a spark was ignited. I shared a picture of sari that I loved, it had a orange linen blouse, with a wide and high neckline. It was bright, casual and fun. The response on my Facebook page was really incredible. Immediately people responded to how great the outfit was and a friend suggested that I should try and get clothes like that into New Zealand. While I searched for more clothing from the same designers and other designers like her I discovered that there were many emerging independent Indian designers that were putting people, especially their artisans and craftspeople at the heart of their business and design. Bringing in casual, fun, linen saris was one thing, maybe I could bring together all the other values that I’d built up over my life into the same venture.

I sat on the idea for about six months. Maybe I could do this… Maybe I could bring in some really great Indian designers into New Zealand…. But how would I start. I did an arts degree, I never studied commerce. I didn’t know the first thing about starting a business. I had almost no money having spent my savings on a trip of Japan, after really burning out and a trip to Hawaii for my upcoming honeymoon. A few years before I had wanted to start an ethical linen company and that idea started and ended at a summer pool party. What would make this different? I think what’s made it different is that I have reached a stage where my sense of cultural confidence has really grown. I’ve become that integrated person I talked about and I don’t really have anything to lose. I’m really fortunate to have stumbled across a great training programme for people that want to start up businesses and having a supportive partner alongside me.

My mission is to build a community that is passionate about Indian and Pakistani fashion and about fulfilling this passion in a sustainable and ethical way. My community is the diaspora community. That’s the community that I know best. That’s who I am. When I was looking for a name for my company I thought about the word diaspora. While it expresses so much of who I am and who my community and customers might be it didn’t make for a good company or brand name. I searched for synonyms on an online thesaurus. The word overseas came up. Seas. Hmmm. There might be something there. My family came from the province of Gujarat, from the district of Surat, a port city, one that opened up India to the Middle East, carrying passenger to Hajj and opening up India to the British. It is the place that Gandhi protested unfair colonial trade practices with his Salt March. My family crossed the sea to come to the Pacific, to Fiji and New Zealand. Our people have journeyed across the Seven Seas to make our homes in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and the Americas. To top it off, the journey that I would make to find my producers and product would be across the sea and I would be bringing it back to the Pacific, across the sea again. Seven Seas Style has been born. Join me on the journey. Let’s where where this takes us!