Ana Wilkinson-Gee is empowering women with her company Holi Boli, and we’d love for you to meet her.
Ana Wilkinson-Gee. Cement those words in your memory for the next time you are asked the name of an inspiring woman. Ana is an Arts and Design graduate and has always had a keen eye for sewing, though little did she know how much good she would eventually do with this skillset.
What made you start Holi Boli?
I wanted to help uplift women living in hard-to-reach places in rural India, to create opportunities for them to be enabled to fight poverty and provide for their families. In 2010 I left NZ with my hubby and three kids and shifted into a village and started teaching sewing on non-electric treadle machines. These ladies are born into families that usually do the ‘uneducated’ ‘unqualified’ back-breaking laborious work of planting in rice paddy fields or carrying bricks on their heads in construction sites. Knowing how to sew is a ‘game changer’ and can open up new opportunities for a physically kinder future. After a few years and over 170 women trained, they started asking me to give them a job. So Holi Boli was birthed to create women-safe, meaningful and dignified employment.
Do you have a morning routine? If so, what is it you do to set yourself up for the day ahead?
Wake up at 5am and get the kids ready for school. They go to a local English-speaking school where they are the only foreigners in the whole school of about 3000 kids. Actually, we’re the only foreigners in the village and nearby city of 300,000. At 6am they’re picked up in a local van or auto rickshaw that does school runs. In summer, April, we’re up at 4am and they get picked up at 5am! Crazy summer hours to beat the heat: 47 degreesC. At 7:30am we often have video calls with our stockist in NZ or with our Holi Boli team in NZ. At 8:30am I walk through the dusty village lanes to the other side is where we rent a premises that is known as “the Holi Boli sewing house”. We start each day with a personal/professional development session followed by our ‘start-up’ meeting to discuss who’s doing what for the day. At 11am we break for chai together.
What’s the biggest barrier you’ve found to succeeding as a socially conscious business?
Many consumers are at the beginning of the who-made-my-clothes journey and realising that we contribute either positively or negatively to the global issue of modern day slavery every time we buy clothes. It’s a bit of a heavy shock I think, and feels like the Brooke Fraser lyrics “Now that I have seen; I am responsible”. I think that it takes a lot of time and repetitive conscious effort to re-train ourselves out of our bargain-buying retail habits and make the connection of price to ethics. The ethical fashion industry is counter-cultural and counter-cultural can feel very awkward at first. Our culture says “more, more, more” but the ethical fashion industry values people more than profit. As socially conscious shoppers, manufacturers and brands, we will not produce, or buy into, clothing that has hurt people, planet or animals in it’s manufacturing, no matter the potential personal financial gain. We will not sell our soul, or anyone elses dignity, for our personal profit. Our challenge is to keep running against cheap, mass produced, fast-fashion-culture and hope more and more consumers choose to join us in our audacious quest to make the world a better place. Shopping with brands that manufacture ethically makes a significant and positive impact globally, which I have the privilege to see first-hand on a daily basis.
Within the ethical fashion community, there’s a big question that we ask which is ‘who made my clothes?’. In the scope of Holi Boli, who made the things you sell? Can you tell us a bit about them?
I live in the same village as the women who I trained in sewing, and who are now the proud bread winners for their families by working at Holi Boli. 12 hours train ride from Kolkata, village life is very simple here. From the perspective of tourists, it has a down-to-earth, romantical, one-with-nature appeal. The truth is; village life is hard. It is often survival-mode and if we could have more conveniences like that of a more developed city, it would be welcomed with open arms! Carrying water in pots from the local water pump several times a day, washing everyone’s clothes by hand and having the electricity on and off like a yo-yo is tedious. Like anywhere in the world, poorer families often have less opportunities. However the women in this village, the women who sew the garments for you at Holi Boli have seized their opportunity to come to sewing class, and are now some of the most well paid women in the village. They are courageous, persistent, talented, hard working. They are gaining the respect from their families and communities. They describe feeling happy and more confident since working at Holi Boli. It is seen as a safe place, a happy place, where women can come and be together, knowing there won’t be any harassment, sexual advances, or beatings. They will get paid on time, paid unlimited sick leave, paid maternity leave, coffee/chai breaks, fans to work under, new air conditioner units installed, good lighting and comfortable working conditions in a friendly, no-caste/non-prejudice environment. But most importantly, they know they are important, they are valued, they are cherished. They know they have the respect of their customers in NZ who continue to feedback to us about the awesome workmanship and quality of the clothing that we make. They feel successful and now hold their heads higher, and I love that!
Why did you pick the fabrics you have chosen to work with?
We wanted to trace our supply chain back to the cotton farmer, to increase and extend our level of empowerment and ethicality. We made a conscious choice to partner with fabric manufacturers and suppliers who values aligned with ours. Everything we do is done with kindness and consideration for people, planet and animals. So that means we only want to use natural, earth friendly fabrics. We use certified organic cottons because they don’t harm the farmer like ordinary cotton growing does with poisonous pesticides and harmful chemicals. We use linen because it’s such a fantastically durable and sustainable fabric, barely requiring any water to grow. Our denim is ‘raw denim’ from a ‘green factory’ that actively develops and implements systems to measure, manage and reduce its environmental impact. Raw denim uses far less water and chemicals making it more earth and skin friendly. We only use grown and made in India fabrics to restrict our carbon footprint by not importing fabrics from outside India. One of our fav fabric suppliers is Fair Trade certified Mehera Shaw in North India. The quality of their organic cottons is second to none! We believe that transparency is key to bringing health into the fashion industry. We disclose on our website and on our care labels who the fabric supplier is for each garment.
Best piece of advice you have ever received?
“Stick to the decision you made in the calm.”
What’s next for you and Holi Boli?
I get asked almost weekly by our sewing class graduates if I can give them a job. We want to continue growing and up-scaling Holi Boli so that we can! We want to have more stockist and more brands/designers that we manufacture for to make this dream viable. We hope to start more Holi Boli sewing houses in more villages to empower more women.
One book and/or documentary everyone should read/watch? Why?
The True Cost. Its’ a hard documentary to watch as it is very exposing, confronting and raw. But I implore everyone to watch it to become aware of the truth of the fast-fashion industry.
Are there any other Movers & Shakers out there in your world that you think people should know about?
Jodie from Tonic&Cloth is an amazing human. This courageous country girl has set up business in Palmerston North and designs beautiful, corporate but funky women’s clothing that is made to be comfortable all day long, but look super sharp. She’s got an aura of coolness around her that somehow gets appropriated into her brand! We are super stoked to manufacture for her and it’s a treasure to partner with someone who’s dreams align with mine – to see more women empowered through employment at Holi Boli. Another amazing lady, changing the world one sewing machine at a time, is an American lady called Andrea. She’s living in North India running a little sewing house where she creates a safe place of healing and employment for women rescued from being trafficked. They’ve just started producing their own women’s ethical clothing range called Swahlee. We love supporting what she does and how she does it.