The struggle of female workers in Odisha inspired this female entrepreneur to launch a sustainable fashion brand

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While working as a management consultant at PwC and Ernst & Young, Sonia K Anand often consulted for the social sector and worked in rural and tribal areas of India.

“I had been doing this for more than 15 years, and I worked on the ground and I was eager to see the impact of the policy,” says Sonia. His history.

It was during this time that she met several tribal women during a program with the Chief Minister of Odisha. “I met 30 tribal women and they shared how they came back from Tirupur (Tamil Nadu) and some from Faridabad (Haryana). Having worked away from home, they were looking for an opportunity to be closer to home and community. This led me to create Monk & Mei,” she says.

Based in Mumbai Monk & MEi is a sustainable clothing brand and began its journey in 2018 working on contract manufacturing of corporate uniforms.

The team started with a small setup, but eventually expanded to a factory. Today, Monk & Mei’s installation of 100 sewing machines in Odisha employs 91 tribal women and rural youth karigares (artisans) of the state.

“We started by walking and carrying sacks of yarn, lace, fabric and needles, to arrive within six months to deliver a truckload of raw materials to our premises”, adds Sonia.

Unfortunately, Cyclone Fani hit the region in 2019, affecting its activity. However, taking advantage of its manufacturing setup, Monk & Mei decided to branch out into a consumer-facing clothing brand.

“We were making Kurtis for a big manufacturer, where we were getting the fabric from Jaipur. I started to do more research and realized that small town women don’t have the latest fashion trends. High-end brands were also very expensive,” says Sonia.

The first days

While the team started with the popular hand prints from Sanganer, Rajasthan, they quickly realized the need for accessible yet conscious designer clothing.

Monk & Mei’s first designer collection, “A Rose from my Old Diary” in linen fabric with digitally rendered roses, launched in March 2020 and was a smash hit with 500 designs sold in the first 15 days launch.

“It took us 200 days to develop a strategy for our offer. Starting with freelance designers from established fashion houses and outsourced samplings to having our own team of over 12 members of in-house designers and Master-Jis (experienced tailors), with 100 years of rewarding experience, working in our own atelier, in just 500 days was quite a rollercoaster ride,” says Sonia.

Monk & Mei offers fixed days of guaranteed work and competitive compensation, similar to the benefits received at professional clothing centers like Tirupur.

Why work with tribal women

Coming from a military background, Sonia and her family traveled often. Once during her visits to Nalanda, Bihar, she saw a group of 20 women who had guns in their hands.

“I remember being curious and asking about them. I realized they were young girls between the ages of 13 and 18. I was shocked at the work they had to do to survive. I asked them why they weren’t studying, to which they replied that they didn’t have the basic means of subsistence, so education was a distant dream,” says Sonia.

The entrepreneur says the incident, which led to several sleepless nights, was also the reason she became interested in the social sector. Meeting the women of Odisha gave her the final impetus to start her own business in this space.

Building sustainable fashion

Sonia says the brand makes luxurious outfits accessible to all women. Monk & Mei offers couture creations in Pret-a-Porter (ready-to-wear) for all sizes and all ages. Its handcrafted merchandise is between Rs 3,000 and Rs 8,000.

Sonia explains that most of the brand’s indie-fusion styles are stitched together to be worn in different ways for different occasions. Each dress comes with accessories such as masks or earrings or scrunchies made from leftover fabric. This reduces waste and creates jobs.

“This is an initiative started by our Masterji’s wife, giving an opportunity to earn a living for women at home,” explains Sonia.

The brand labels are embedded with seeds to grow plants. The brand has so far distributed 15,000 seed tags, 10,000 jute bags and 15,000 masks, contributing to a greener planet.

“We continue to be one of the fastest growing brands with 500 new styles from 12 new collections, leading to 51,000 organic Instagram followers and 12,000 customers as well as over 250 celebrities/influencers from fashion approving us organically in just 500 days,” the entrepreneur adds.

According to Sonia, the brand is a top seller on e-commerce platforms such as Nykaa Fashion and Myntra for Earth. Monk & Mei also launched Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop, a multi-designer fashion website, to cater to the needs of the NRI market.

“With an established supply chain and a team of over 20 in-house experts, from designers to marketers, we are building strong market ties with the upcoming launch of Tata Indiluxe, Ajio Luxe in June 2022,” says Sonia .

The road ahead

The average order value on Monk & Mei is 5,500 rupees for domestic markets and 15,000 rupees for international markets, says Sonia. The brand is 100% present online.

“We were the first at the start of the pandemic to offer virtual trials on our website. Having successfully managed the pretization of couture garments, we have laid a solid foundation for our online model and will continue to build our online presence by focusing more on Tier II/III cities in India, which does not count. a lot of designer brands offering new collections and also internationally, especially with the positive response coming from platforms like Pernia Pop-Up Shop,” says Sonia.

While there are designers like Kavya Singh Kundu who focus on more sustainable fashion. Sonia explains that there was no designer brand offering an affordable price. Most of them start at Rs 15,000. The ones available at less are either cheap copies from top designers or lesser known for a woman to trust and buy.

Sonia says her brand not only helps consumers access sustainable fashion at an affordable price, but also streamlines inventory to make production more efficient.

“Additionally, the majority of our revenue comes from 30% of our top-selling styles and we have maintained inventory of just those. For the remaining styles, we adopted the JIT model where we partnered with Masterjis to operationalize Made to Order. This has kept our inventory under control while creating jobs for many,” says Sonia.

Speaking of the future, she says, “One of the main focuses for conscious brands like us is to plan a virtual version of our existence. We foresee a big role for ourselves in Metaverse and Web 3.0. wearing Monk & Mei is the future.

According to Sonia, the brand has also helped its employees, forced to give their salaries to their husbands, to regain financial independence.

“Through many of our trainings focused on growth and development, women have learned to live financially independent lives with their heads held high. Many of them were skilled artisans who revived and aligned craftsmanship as patachitra on designer clothes and brought them to life to be experienced by women around the world,” she adds.

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