Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the Fittest

Designer, Roopa Pemmaraju, on keeping her dream and business alive during COVID

I didn't expect this. A global crisis. I recently moved to New York with great hope and expectations and a lot of dreams.


I'm originally from Bangalore, India. That's where I grew up. Then in 2005, I got married and moved to Australia. That was my first ever experience going overseas. When I went to Australia it was a bit of a culture shock for me. 


My grandmother used to weave her saris. In India, we have a lot of different festive seasons—we lived as a multigenerational family—so my grandmom would make these beautiful, colorful silk dresses for these festivals. My cousins and my brother used to get these beautiful silk pajamas. 


Then, I moved to Australia and I saw Australian indigenous artisans. I did a lot of research and I read about a lot of [indigenous] communities. I spoke to a lot of artists there and I did my own cold calling. I was a new person in the country and they obviously didn't trust me. My idea was to use indigenous art on textiles and make that into a garment that would give back to the communities in Australia and India.


There was a stylist that I connected with back in India when I did my fashion show there in 2004 or 2005. I told him that I might be moving to Australia and I didn't know anybody. He said when you're going to be in Australia, connect back and we can work together. I connected back to him and I mentioned that there is a community that would like to collaborate with me on the idea. He said, “Roopa you're opening a can of worms, are you sure?” I said, I have researched, I know a little bit but I don't think I'm doing anything wrong here. I think artisans do need support and we should help them. 


He was like, “Let's connect with the Warlukurlangu artists community and let's talk to them and hear out what they would like to do.” We had calls with  the community manager and agreed to give us twelve artworks by three different artists. The legal thing was that we're not supposed to change the artwork. We're not supposed to change the color.

I took him to India. I connected with my team. We started to build the collection, He stayed with me for 12 days and we had a hand embroiderer, we had a pattern maker, we had two tailors, and we had different artisans who were helping us around. We made a collection of 36 pieces in 12 days. It was unique in the sense we did a lot of textile-driven art, which had to go onto the textile to see how the color flows and how the colors match up.


My very first solo show was the Melbourne Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in 2012. On show day I did not have any people in the stands. I did not have retailers. I had a good amount of press sitting there, but no buyers. My show space was empty. I think we had maybe 30 or 40 people, press, sitting there. They had to pull people in to make the rows full.


We still had a great show. The next day I got a call from [Australian retailer] David Jones. I had a half million dollar order on my table. I still can't believe this, I have tears in my eyes. Then after that, we had boutiques approaching us and the press was amazing. It just grew. That's how it all started. 


I went back to India, I set up my supply chain with my artisans: where the fabric was coming from, which mill, which hand weaving was happening, and where the print was happening. My supply chain just grew and I created a lot of jobs back in India. The Australian art communities received 20 percent of my sales. 


In between, I also had a lot of threatening calls, it wasn't easy. There was this brand who wanted me to go back to my country. Somebody said that if you're using indigenous art you'll be killed. There was somebody who said, “Who are you to come into our land and use our art? Go back to your country and do that.” Things like that, which was very weird. Now I'm just saying it so easily. Then, in those years I was very scared. At some event, somebody said we're following you and you will get killed.


I knew I was not doing anything wrong. I was true to what I was doing in terms of carrying the artwork right and taking the legal artwork from the community. I wanted to sustain more work and be able to create more.


There's a lot of process which goes on to every single garment that we create. Everything is done pretty much from scratch. That's where I call it sustainable because you're giving jobs to every single department and every single department gets a living wage and they're supporting their people, so that's how we work. I'd really like to keep the sustainable aspect very high—where is it made, how is it made? Whether there is waste or whether colors are polluting the water or what kind of techniques that we are bringing in which is more sustainable.



The crisis has devastated brands across the world and financial support from large organizations and the government has been really significant in helping these brands weather the storm. It has been very hard to manage this difficult time without assistance.


My husband had an offer to come to the US in 2014. We took that offer and we moved to Dallas. My husband's family is based there. They've been there for 20 years. We thought we would get a lot of support there and wouldn’t be isolated, like what happened in Australia where we didn't know anybody. But, it's not easy. Starting all over again and connecting to the right people and network and building my brand up all over again. 


And then I decided to move to New York. 


Early March I was back in India. Because we had this amazing opportunity to work with Anthropologie. Anthropologie sells our scrunchies or poufs or headbands and knotted bands and hand-embroidered bands. 


I was very excited, I went back to India to create another set of samples for the team. I just gave them so many dreams about how amazing it's going to be for them this whole year and what they could get back. Some of my artisans have bigger families and some artisans have smaller families — we were just telling them how amazing they could have this whole thing, not suffer for a meal or anything.


This is where our dreams started early in the year and then when I came back everything was in a different climate and I was lucky that my orders didn't get canceled or anything, they still accepted everything, that we had manufactured for the February order. I was lucky, but then after that, we didn't receive any orders. A couple of weeks later India went on lockdown, another country's lockdown is a different thing, when you are in India, I know how bad it is there.


I'm talking in terms of my artisans and the communities that I work with. I hear them out every single day in terms of the problems they are facing. I don't know if they're going to die of COVID or if they're going to die of hunger.


This has really been a difficult time for the brand as a whole, as well as for me personally. I came to New York on my husband’s Visa with the hopes of expanding my business in the United States. After a lot of effort, and reference letters from other sustainability activists in the industry, I was able to be selected for a green card. However, as the pandemic hit the US, President Trump decided to halt all green card processes. Unfortunately, as I currently do not have a green card, neither my brand nor I have been eligible for assistance from the government or from national fashion organizations. The crisis has devastated brands across the world and financial support from large organizations and the government has been really significant in helping these brands weather the storm. It has been very hard to manage this difficult time without assistance. 


I think my team, my artisans are my real hope at this point in time. They are with me. That I can still see the families living and I still see them alive. I still see them happy in whatever they are getting today.



*this interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity

Photos: Roopa Pemmaraju

Words told to: Laura Jones

Edited by : Sonjia Hyon

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