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Silaiwali’s Journey from Rags to Dolls

The label employs Afghani women refugees to make dolls out of apparel waste

If you scroll through Silaiwali’s Instagram feed, you will find rag dolls of different colour and size, dressed in clothes from different communities. There are African dolls dressed in kaftans, Frieda Kahlo like dolls dressed in printed skirts and floral headbands, Indian ones in kurta pyjama and many others in beautiful printed costumes with thoughtful details like embroideries and tassels.

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How it Began

Silaiwali was founded by the husband and wife team of Bishwadeep Moitra (54), a graphic designer and former executive editor of Outlook Magazine and Iris Strill (43), a French product designer, in 2018. The idea behind the social enterprise was to salvage fabric scrap from ending up in landfills and to provide employment to Afghani refugees. Moitra who met his wife in 2007 at a yoga class on a cold January morning, says it was his wife’s passion for textiles that eventually led to the rag dolls.

Strill who worked with Jaipur-based textile designer and scholar Birggite Singh to catalogue her work, spent some time with artisans in Rajasthan. It’s here that her passion for textiles got stronger. In 2009 she started her own brand Purple Jungle, which made boho accessories out of Indian textiles. It was later on in 2015 when she became a consultant with a buying house to curate products for Western buyers that she came up with the idea to make good use of fabric scrap. “She visited a lot apparel factories and was aghast at seeing the amount of textiles that were wasted,” recounts Moitra.

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In the summer of 2018 Strill designed the first doll. “Prior to this, she had trained some Afhgani women refugees to make handicrafts in a workshop. She was quite happy with their work and wanted to give them a steady source of income,” says Moitra. The couple contacted UNHCR for refugee clusters that they could employ. In December 2018, Silaiwlai was started with 10 Afghan women in Khirki Extension, Delhi. About the choice of workplace Moitra says, “I had read a report by Amartya Sen, where he had said that if the work place is a work cum play place then it’s good for the workers as well as the business. Since the Afghan community stayed at Khirki extension, we set up our workshop there to make it convenient for them.”

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Creating a Foothold in the West

The first big break for the brand came in February 2019, when Moitra and Strill got an opportunity to take part in one of Germany’s biggest product fair Abiente held in Frankfurt. “We got good exposure and our first international order for 300 dolls from a Swiss buyer,” says Moitra. There has been no looking back ever since. In September they showcased at Maison et Object Fair in Paris, which was a run away success. They now retail out of 100 stores across the world including Spain, Netherland, England, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Korea and Japan. They also tied up with American retail giant Cost Plus World Market to make utilitarian products out of their apparel waste. “We made 50,000 keychains for them along with tassels and garlands that are available across 242 stores in America,” says Moitra.

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However, he concedes that the business is slower in India compared to the international market. In India they retail out lifestyle stores like Vayu and Nimai in Delhi, Filter and Baaro in Mumbai, Jaipur Modern in Japur, Cinnamon in Bangalore, Paperboat in Goa and more. Though each doll sells for anything between 39 to 70 euros in Europe, in India it is priced at Rs 1,866. Their all-women task force now includes 90 workers out of which 18 are on a regular salary between Rs 12,000 to Rs 30,000 per month and the rest get paid on per piece basis. Moitra reveals that the name of the brand draws from its women workforce. “Silai stands for stitching and wali for the women who stitch the dolls,” he says adding that once life returns to normal post Coronavirus, they will look at creating recycled products that can be of use to the society at large.