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How conscious fashion brand Monk and Mei is weaving change for its tribal karigars

Monk and Mei’s every dress comes with accessories made from leftover fabric, reusable jute bags and tags to grow plant.

A big shift post pandemic has been the way small homegrown apparel brands have threaded together a compelling story of empowerment and conscious fashion that is resonating with consumers. On Instagram, brands like Suta, Okhai, Chungi Store that help rural artisans and women even as they promote sustainable clothing have caught the imagination of the social platform’s users.

Ecommerce giant Amazon, taking note of the rising popularity of artisanal brands, has even launched a marketplace called Amazon Karigar to showcase their wares. Clearly, this is a category that is up for growth.

Former PwC executive Sonia Anand could not have plunged into this space with her start-up Monk and Mei, a sustainable brand stitching a story of hope for tribal women in Odisha, at a better time.

Conscious origins

The story begins in 2018, when Anand sat down with 30 tribal women tailors, who were struggling with inhumane working conditions. Shocked by what she saw, she resigned from her cushy corporate job, to start a business from scratch. The ISB alumna was pretty confident given her experience — over ten years in the world of management consulting and spearheading several transformational programmes in the social and economic development space across rural India. As she says, “My corporate experience has given me ammunition to create businesses from scratch with aligned teams.”

Weaving change: Monk & Mei’s Bhubaneshwar team

Joining forces with tribal women and Naxal youth karigars to forge a sustainable fashion brand, her goal was to bring luxurious attire to every woman, regardless of location or income level. Once she had over 90 tribal women on board, she set up a garmenting factory to make uniforms, just on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, Odisha.

“The 100 sewing machine set-up helped at least one hundred families return to their kutumb (community). It gave respectable livelihood opportunities to 91 tribal women and rural youth of Odisha,” she says. “With our focussed growth and development training, women learnt how to live financially independent lives. Many were skilled handicraft artisans who revived craft like pattachitra on designer clothing.”

International recognition

Monk and Mei’s factory eventually scaled up — garnering truckloads of orders and launching over 500 different designer styles — all within the price bracket of ₹3,000 to ₹5,000. With a focus on inclusivity, every outfit was produced in an array of sizes, from XXS to 5XL.

It's a fusion of styles at its best. “We procure the best fabric and align it with handicrafts from several parts of India. Beautiful ensembles in block and daboo prints, chikankari, chanderi, brocade, and mulmuls also took shape,” explains Anand.

Interestingly, every dress on the platform comes with various accessories made from leftover fabric, reusable jute bags and tags to grow plants –weaving in the philosophy of the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — to life. Fifty-five percent of the brand’s customers come from Tier-1 cities, while 45 per cent are traced back to Tier-2 and -3 cities. Expecting significant growth in both Tier-2 and -3 cities as well as internationally, the brand is targeting a turnover of over ₹300 crore in the next three years. Says Anand, “Today, as Monk & Mei clocks a sales run rate of $1 million, and is amongst the top-selling categories on Nykaa Fashion online…I think we have laid a strong foundation for a sustainable brand of tomorrow.”

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