Advance Copy

In Delhi, NorBlack NorWhite Explore Heritage Crafts and Identity

26.07.22, Delhi

This conversation is available to enjoy on Apple Podcasts & Spotify.

Amrit Kumar and Mriga Kapadiya, co-founders of Delhi-based NorBlack NorWhite, never set out to start a fashion label. They moved from Canada to India in 2010 to explore their Indian roots and creative experimentation. Fast forward to today and they’re seamlessly bringing together heritage Indian textiles and global silhouettes for a community that is as international as it is diverse.

In this interview, they tell us how the country’s rich textile heritage instantly caught their attention, why the trade show format didn’t work for their brand, and how they built their team and grew NorBlack NorWhite to being a cultural platform and creative studio.

Advance Copy: Keeping with tradition, we’d like to know about your personal backgrounds – where you’re from, reflections on your years growing up, what inspired you, were you more creative or academic?

Amrit Kumar: I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and grew up in quite a heavily populated, immigrant community. Growing up around diverse range of people definitely influenced me. Academics was very important, but I did push the creative side in terms of my own style. It’s something I’ve been interested in from a very young age and found that it was one way I could really communicate who I was. I did end up going to do a BA in Psychology and then a B.com focused on Retail Commerce, but I always wanted to make things.

Through my second degree, I did an internship at a vintage boutique in Toronto which I ended up working at for 3 years. The owner of the boutique, Kealan Sullivan, was basically my mentor and pushed me into making things.   That led to my curiosity and exploration of wanting to get into fashion. If it wasn’t for Kealan I don’t know where my journey would have gone. She guided me and shared her knowledge with me.

“It was that curiosity of how things are made which led us to our first trip.”

Mriga Kapadiya: I was born in India and spent my childhood in Kuwait. Our family experienced a war when I was young which led us to Toronto. I grew up in a diverse, immigrant-heavy suburb in Toronto and that was my introduction to what my version of Canada looked like. Looking back, I realise how special my childhood was. I was heavily exposed to all types of culture like music, visual arts and dance. And I really am thankful for that because it’s definitely shaped how I see the world and what I value in the world is very experiential and it comes from all aspects of what makes a culture.

When you are from a south Asian immigrant household, you’re usually expected to be a doctor, lawyer, or a CEO. Because I wasn’t sure, I felt that the easiest thing was to do a business degree. During my university co-op programme, I got to experience working within the marketing divisions at Disney Gaming and Fujifilm. It was clear quite early on that my way of thinking and living was contrary to how companies operate and as cool as the company would be, when I went in and saw how decisions got made it wasn’t very exciting for me.

Last year of university something pivotal happened. I got to go on an exchange program in Lisbon, Portugal and I got to meet people who are to this day some of my good friends from all around Europe. It really sparked something inside of me – I felt that I needed to spend some time living in India as an adult and have that experience. I came back to Toronto and worked at an advertising agency for a couple of years to get more experience and a little bit more money. Through that, my friendship with Amrit blossomed and she ended up working at the same agency. A few years on and I felt like I was ready to move to Bombay. And Amrit came a few months later and she ended up staying. That was the beginning of our NorBlack NorWhite journey.

“It felt flat to even think about putting things out in the world just for the sake of product design or clothing.”

AC: What was the initial inspiration that led you to start NorBlack NorWhite?

Amrit: The first year we were in a mindset of having fun, experimenting, exploring and getting to understand what we could do and what the possibilities were. There was no intention of starting NorBlack NorWhite. I’d made a couple of smaller collections while in Bombay, but there was no depth to that. Here, in India of all places – the country of so many crafts and textiles – walking into a shop to buy fabric and create something just didn’t feel like much. It was that curiosity of how things are made which led us to our first trip.

Mriga: That’s what sparked the NorBlack NorWhite mindset – the curiosity, process and culture. Understanding who’s making these things, why these things are being made, and what the process looks like. It felt flat to even think about putting things out in the world just for the sake of product design or clothing. I felt like we were on a journey of honouring that process and sharing as much of it as we could.

AC: What was the initial inspiration that led you to start NorBlack NorWhite?

Amrit: The first year we were in a mindset of having fun, experimenting, exploring and getting to understand what we could do and what the possibilities were. There was no intention of starting NorBlack NorWhite. I’d made a couple of smaller collections while in Bombay, but there was no depth to that. Here, in India of all places – the country of so many crafts and textiles – walking into a shop to buy fabric and create something just didn’t feel like much. It was that curiosity of how things are made which led us to our first trip.

Mriga: That’s what sparked the NorBlack NorWhite mindset – the curiosity, process and culture. Understanding who’s making these things, why these things are being made, and what the process looks like. It felt flat to even think about putting things out in the world just for the sake of product design or clothing. I felt like we were on a journey of honouring that process and sharing as much of it as we could.

We went on a trip, initially to Rajasthan and ended up in Kutch, Gujarat in western India which is crafts-heavy, arts-heavy, with beautiful textiles. One of our favourite textiles is – a classic tie-dye form. In Kutch, we ended up at an organisation focused on preserving indigenous textiles from that region. We ended up meeting [the founder], Judy Frater, a classic textile nerd from the States, and we got along well. I think she appreciated our curiosity. She introduced us to the Khatri family, generations-long Bandhani artisans. We ended up staying with them for a week and that felt real, in terms of tangible experience and watching the process of Bandhani being made and all its different aspects. It was exciting and humbling. One of the main things about Bandhani is that the more knots that you tie, the more costly the piece is and it is a form of identification of wealth levels. We started playing with the idea of making things much larger and spread out and that informed how we presented our first Bandhani textile with the Khatris.

“We were modifying as we went, to make sure it fit for us and worked for us.”

AC: How did this experiment lead to a solid collection?

Amrit: At the time Mriga and I were staying in Bombay and I remember the textiles came and we spread them on our floor and started from there. Neither one of us had any technical background when it came to fashion and making clothes. The first step was connecting to our master tailor who is still our masterji to this day. We were connected by a friend and he still had a full-time job at that point. He would come in the evening, take one piece of fabric with our design and show up with the final piece a few days later. So that was our first step. Then, we did a shoot, created a linesheet and then a lookbook. We didn’t know any of these things and had to learn from scratch. Mriga had filmed the whole process and edited the first film we ever made.

We had some money saved up at the time and we were told that the only way to get this out is by going to a tradeshow to get wholesale buyers. So, we went to a tradeshow in Paris with our collection and two lookbooks. That’s where we started our journey. We did tradeshows for a few seasons but then quickly realised that it wasn’t our format and took a step back from it. But that first collection was definitely the start of a journey. There were definitely many changes as we were learning and figuring things out. We were modifying as we went, to make sure it fit for us and worked for us.

AC: Would you say that you had the intention of making this project into a business at this time? Or was it more playful and you were going where the path was naturally taking you?

Amrit: I definitely feel like it was a lot more playful at the beginning because it was new for us and we were learning as we were going. We started off in Bombay and in 2015 we decided to [move] to Delhi to make it into more of a business. It must have been our third or fourth tradeshow when we realised that it wasn’t our vibe. At that time handmade textiles weren’t necessarily the cool thing the way it is right now. We weren’t being approached as much; it just wasn’t our format. We quickly realised that the way things were being priced, when it goes from a wholesale into a retail MRP, it was becoming a space where we couldn’t afford our own stuff.

“It feels great to have made clear decisions of what was acceptable to our ethics and morals.”

AC: That’s an interesting point about standing back and realising that if you work with the wholesale model you may end up not being able to afford the things that you make. Of course, there is no right or wrong path – it’s a personal or a moral question of, who you feel the ‘product’ should be worn by or accessible to in the end.

Amrit? That was exactly it. Answering the question of who and what are we doing this for? What is the purpose of this? Because we didn’t set out to make a fashion line. This was supposed to be an explorative creative space for us to have fun and a way for us to understand a part of our culture and our identity. I do think it makes it clearer and easier to make decisions when it’s a ‘business’ or a ‘fashion line’. That big question, ‘what is the purpose of this?’ is definitely recurring and is at the very root of how we make all types of decisions. The wholesale world that we tried to explore and spent so much time and money on, just to see if something like this would work for our business was actually quite disheartening, and really was not very accessible or an inspiring energy to be around. The fashion buyers and the way that whole infrastructure was set-up wasn’t welcoming to small business owners, women of colour, south Asians, or textiles that have patterns, colours, intricacy and that take time to make. That actually was the driving force in making the decision of doing things the way we want to, how we want to and just continuously following our gut, our intuition and the energy that we want to be surrounded by. First and foremost, this being work for ourselves and our community. We come from that grass roots kind of energy and that’s how we’ve built – slow and steadily. There are obviously still difficult days, but it feels great to have made clear decisions of what was acceptable to our ethics and morals back then that have rooted a lot of the decision-making that carries out our values now.

“We have a more maximalist take on everything but curated with our aesthetic.”

AC: What does NorBlack NorWhite look like today in terms of its structure, the departments and positions?

Amrit: In 2015, it was me, Mriga and Masterji that jumped on that flight and showed up in Delhi not knowing where to go or how to set up. Up until the pandemic we were under 15 people and now we’re 24-25 people. Those initial years in Delhi, pre-pandemic, were really when we decided to focus on our direct to consumer and online business. We were a really small team, mostly production and we still are mostly production. But at that time, we had a few tailors, a Masterji, myself, Mriga, a production manager and a couple of junior designers and graphic designers. Now 60%–70% of our team is production and we have a production manager, two master tailors who do all the pattern cutting, 5-6 tailors and a few people in finishing. The rest of our team is accounts, we have a visual content team, an embroider and a couple of people that work solely on the e-commerce and customer service aspect of our business.

AC: Your visual content and website always stand out for being so lively and active. What would you say is your approach to visualising and story-telling of NorBlack NorWhite? What is the message that you want to get across?

Mriga: We definitely want to keep things fun and light and to show beauty from our eyes. We have a more maximalist take on everything but curated with our aesthetic. It’s truly a combination of Amrit and I, and how we see things and how we put things together. Textiles, and especially their processes, can honestly be so boring in the way they are being communicated. One of the strengths for us is to make things that are often looked at as being mundane more fun so people actually want to learn and understand more after coming to our site or even purchasing a piece. Why is this a piece of art instead of a dress that you would buy for $5 and toss out without having any emotional understanding of all the people that are involved in making a piece. From a visual standpoint, communicating all of that is highly important.

In regards to the people that we work with, I really started with our friends and anyone that would be happy to model for us. Now it’s popular to show diversity but I can confidently say that that was the root of how we started off many years ago, just representing people from around the world and people within our community – the people that we never got to see in visual spaces.

Amrit: It really is what we’re feeling and vibe-ing with. It’s raw, there is no set process or practice to it. And the fact that it comes from such a raw place is why you see such a mash-up of things within it. It’s definitely a natural process and we have a lot of fun.

“The environment that we’ve cultivated comes down to the blurring of our personalities and how we operate and move in this world.”

AC: You brought us smoothly onto a brilliant question from our editor and studio assistant, Ria, who was curious to hear your thoughts on building a team in a way that people want to stay for longer than a couple of years? Could you reflect on what you believe makes for a good working environment?

Mriga: We’re definitely still learning. I personally think that communication is everything, and the boundaries in communication. Where Amrit and I had to have big learning was in creating some sort of boundary in terms of friendship versus this still being a place of work. The environment that we’ve cultivated comes down to the blurring of our personalities and how we operate and move in this world. It extends out into how we want to work in this world, how we want to build partnerships or a team and create an energy in our studio. It comes down to what kind of energy we are putting out there and what kind of energy we want to receive. That can get very tricky when there are production deadlines, finances involved, there are other clients, expectations and contracts. So, we’ve had big hard lessons and slow and steady ongoing lessons. I think clear communication and setting generous but firm boundaries in what we expect has been the core of building a solid team but again it’s about having fun.

We could maybe be further ahead; if an investor is looking at us, they would say we should have more sales but at the end of the day it’s a very fine balance of output, of being a fun place to work and of having a certain number of pieces being made and sold vs pumping out all of this stuff and people being miserable, not enjoying their daily work and coming to a point of where they just leave. It’s also really important that the people we work with – clients, vendors, producers – come with a certain energy and are pleasant.

This interview has been condensed and edited by Ria Jaiswal.