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Fashion
September 01, 2017

Payal Singhal X The Desai Foundation: When Fashion Meets A Good Heart

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

The designer collaborates with the New York-based organisation to empower women in rural areas of Gujarat through a trunk show of their creations

When Megha Desai, president of the eponymous organisation in New York that empowers women and children, first met snazzy designer Payal Singhal, it was only in the capacity of a client. However, this professional relationship soon blossomed into a friendship with the two keeping in touch over the years. They share a fervent admiration for each other’s work – Desai’s wardrobe is packed with many of Singhal’s ensembles and Singhal keeps abreast of Desai’s philanthropic endeavours. So when the designer recently had a conscientious epiphany of sorts, it was only natural for her friend to lend a helping hand. The two began brainstorming on ways to collaborate and thus was born the idea of a trunk show where Singhal would design her first-ever line of soft bags exclusively for The Desai Foundation. Launching at St.Regis (Palladium) today, the bags are made by women hailing from remote villages of Gujarat, with part of the proceeds from the sales going to The Desai Foundation.

Excerpts from our interview with the duo:

What made you pick each other for this charitable collaboration?
Payal Singhal: “I had been mulling over the idea of giving to charity for a while before I collaborated with Megha. As designers, we feel increasingly liable to repay those whose traditions and culture inspire our designs. However, I wanted to ensure it was a cause that I was passionate about; something I’d happily be invested in. When Megha told me about her work with The Desai Foundation, I knew instantly that this was the project my heart had been racing towards. It involved actually working with rural women instead of merely donating money to a cause which really struck a chord with me.”

Megha Desai: “My friendship with Payal was based on the premise of being her client although I personally enjoy her company as well. She has this amazing way of making me feel beautiful, comfortable, traditionally Indian, yet modern all at the same time – which is sometimes hard for an Indian growing up in the U.S. When Payal told me about her altruistic desires, I realised that we had both been looking for each other all along. We came up with the idea of the trunk show together and we’re now keeping our fingers crossed on the audience’s receptivity to it.”

Do you consider yourself a feminist?
PS: “I’ve always believed that every human being – man, woman or child – should have equal rights to a happy, peaceful and privileged life. I’ve felt an anger whenever I witnessed injustice or poverty and would like to be an instrument to help people around me in any way I can.”

MD: “Being a feminist means you believe that women are entitled to the same rights as men and are equal to men. I have felt that way my whole life. My parents always reminded my sister and I that we were capable of achieving anything, doing anything and being anything we wanted to be.  I was lucky enough to grow up with a father who believed strongly that nothing should hold his daughters back. Growing up in America and spending so much time in India, I was able to see the need for feminist messages in different ways. Even outside my work with The Desai Foundation, being a feminist is something I have always been, and will always be.”

Does the design for this collection have a symbolic meaning behind it?
PS:
 “The Desai Foundation chose two versions of the lotus motif from our swatches of signature prints to strike a resonance with the organisation’s logo that also has a lotus in it. The flower which blooms beautifully in spite of taking root in a muddy pond symbolises prosperity in adversity, much like the women from the Undti village of Gujarat where the founders of The Desai Foundation are originally from. These women have beaten all odds by choosing to earn their own livelihood, obliterating the norms of rural society that claims women should only be homemakers.”

MD: “We mainly focus our work on women because they are the nucleus of rural life. Studies by the UN show that if you give a woman $1, she will invest 90% of it in her family and community versus a man who will invest only 40% of that same dollar. It is obvious that women are the reason why kids stay in school, see a doctor and have food on their plates. Mothers and women are at the core of societal development and we will always invest in them.”

How will this trunk show benefit the women who are part of this initiative?
PS: “We are donating part of the proceeds from the worldwide sale of these products to The Desai Foundation which will pass on the funds to deserving people. We are also providing jobs to women who are part of The Desai Foundation Sewing Programme as part of their vocational training programs.”

MD: “The bags and the pocket squares that are part of this collection have actually been manufactured by the women in one of our centres which means your purchase of a Payal Singhal bag directly impacts the lives of the women who put it together. We also do a lot of work around health, hygiene and education, but we discussed really wanting to focus on arming women with skills that provide them with economic empowerment and dignity. To that effect, we provide vocational programs for women in sewing, computers, beauty, candle-making, pickle-making and sanitary napkin-making. We hope to expand to be able to provide these skills to more women and devise additional programs that suit their needs in the regions we serve.”

Can you recall an instance where you felt proud about the work you’re doing?
MD: “A lovely lady named Struti enrolled for our sewing program two years ago. At the end of it, she chose to not take the job we had set up in the factory. I went back a year later to check if the course had done her any good and discovered that she had started her own little business with a friend that takes up the sewing for their whole area. We also spoke to her daughter who attends our school and she said that her mother has increased pride and faith in herself and is now able to stand up to her husband to ensure that her daughter attends school. We love such stories and it only makes us want to work harder.”

Have you participated in similar design/social collaborations in the past?
PS: “I  can’t say I have and that’s why this is so important to me. I just turned 40 and I realised that I have all this empathy raging inside me and no outlet for it. Many times, we want to do something to help others but lose out on precious time because we keep ruminating on the thought so I just cut to the chase and took this on immediately.”

MD: “I have a soft spot for Indian fashion and keep visiting the country to track the latest developments in the industry. I haven’t left India without a piece from Payal in the last 10 years. The Desai Foundation has never associated itself with another label, especially not one as prestigious and glamorous as Payal Singhal. We are beyond thrilled to work with her and her team. She is so passionate about the work we are doing and we couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”

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