By Scott Douglas Jacobsen
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your background? How did you get here?
Prateek: So, I was born in India. I am Indian. I went to a boarding school. Post that, I didn’t go to college. I was trying to be a jack of all trades back then. I started a few small — I wouldn’t say completely startups, but I kept doing a few things just to make money, so walking into a startup.
It was compensating for the fact that I didn’t go to college, so it was learning in the real world. Post that, I applied to a couple of jobs in New York because I always wanted to live there and also of all the jobs that I applied to, only one company got back, which was JP Morgan. I was offered a couple of rounds of interviews. I got the job.
I still do not understand why because I was extremely under qualified for the job, for the position. However, because I so wanted to be there and work, everything fell in place because of that. So, I didn’t get through.
I worked there for a half a year and I realized, that is when I realized, that this is not what I want, this is not what I to do. I would follow something that I enjoy. That was a battle — fashion design, art, all of that.
So, then I could go back to studying, go to a fashion school, a design school, and use whatever money I had saved over a year and a half of working at JP Morgan, I could use that money to start my own brand.
So, the latter seemed a little more probable idea, although it could fail miserably because you do not have a fashion background, that seemed more sensible. I started developing the idea, took about a year.
During that period, I was visiting many factories to see how products were made, where fabrics come from, visiting farms to see where the cotton grows and all of it, just trying to go behind the scene.
That is when I realized that how — what a big, we are in such a mess. How terrible the factories are, how the working conditions are pathetic, the farms are bad; farmers are in debt. The supply chain has completely screwed up.
The middlemen are making lots of money. They’re exploiting everyone else: the farmers or the workers. All the problems that the fashion industry faces started coming to light. India is a good place to know that because it is hard because labor laws are so strong in the US, say, any developed country.
That it is very hard for someone to practice in unethical ways. It is not easy to have a garment factory in the US and exploit because labor laws are very strong there. The owners can be taken, strict action can be taken; although, there are many.
There are a few unfairly run garment workshops in America, but the number is far, far bigger when it is India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan. So, that is why India was a good place to understand what goes behind the scene. So, when I visited a couple of places to see how the products are made.
So, I always pretended to be a buyer just so they let me in. Otherwise, you can’t just walk into a factory and say, “I want to see it.” There were many emails exchanged before. I was, “Okay, I live here and there. I want to place so many orders and blah, blah, blah…I want to see your factory and all of that.”
Once I went, that is when I realized how this is messed up. then you keep going, keep going back to the chain. You go to the factories, then you see where the thing happens. You see the farm. You interact with the farmers, then you read a lot about it.
That is when I realized this needs to be changed. I know it is not something that can happen overnight, in a year or two, because the fashion industry is surely old and it is been set in its ways, but a small start of doing things the correct way, so to say, or differently, can lead to a bigger change in times to come.
So, I decided to set up a small workshop where we would work — that is when the whole planning thing happened. Now, we need to change this, how can we do that. So, of course, that is when the sustainability side came in.
Okay, we need to be ethical. We need to pay the workers properly. We need to have proper working conditions. We need to provide them with safety measures. When they’re working during the day, they need to be given lunch at subsidized prices.
When you actually uplift the standard of the workers, you see what’s wrong with other factories and workshops and you try and change that. So, you try implementing ways where you can bring in that change.
So, those things took about 18 months to get in place, to understand what’s happening, to understand how the product is made because I knew what I wanted. I knew the designs. I could design. I know what colors I want. This is the print I want; this is how the product should look, this is the fit I want.
But how to make that? I had absolutely had no idea. I didn’t know what cotton to use. So, there was trial and error, lots of learning, lots of visiting these factories, which now I know. So, that is when the whole ethical component.
Then I realized how cotton is having a very negative impact on the fields, on the environment in general, because it is one of the most chemical consuming crops. So, that is when the idea of being organic arose.
The first few t-shirts we made three and a half years ago, as a trial to understand how a t-shirt is made. Not to use organic cotton because we didn’t know about it. Then once we started wearing them to test them and to wash them, I felt itchy. I didn’t like it.
Okay, how should we improve this? That is when I started studying, started understanding and reading about cotton and fabrics. That is where organic cotton came into place. So, let’s visit factories that have knit organic cotton.
So, we started visiting them. Then we started visiting farms that grow organic cotton. So, if you say it is organic cotton, I just can’t believe it is organic cotton. I need to see how it is done. I need to prove that it actually is organic cotton.
So, we spend some time there trying to understand how it is all there. Of course, they’re all certified, but still, farmers, visiting those farms, seeing how it is grown, what fertilizers are used, if natural manure is used and so on.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did things play out next for you?
Prateek: That is when I decided, “Let’s implement, let’s be organic, let’s just go 100 percent organic. Maybe, we’ll have temptations. Maybe, we’ll have limited fabrics to work with, limited colors to work with, but it’ll be the best fit to go forward.”
So, that is how, but again there were many hurdles. Organic cotton is just 2 percent of all the cotton in the world. It is so hard to acquire it, as into source organic cotton because what little is grown, usually many bigger companies, they tend to buy it.
The fabrics sell off quickly. So, for us to be able to source organic cotton and get good quality of organic cotton was tough, I had to pester this Indian company. It is one of the best in the world for its organic cotton.
They were initially being reluctant to even meet. It took almost two months of sending them an email every day and going to their office every single day, just beating the door down basically. I will not take “no” for an answer.
I need to meet this person who owns the company. I need to meet him. Every single day, I used to send him an email, go to his office, try to fix a meeting. Over time, he knew who I was, then he eventually did agree to meet me.
I said, “Okay, I know we are a very small company. We are just starting off. I cannot match up to the buyers that you have, but I do want to work on this. I know you can supply. I know you can give you whatever fabrics you have.”
So, eventually, he agreed and we came down to a fixed price and all of that. So, he agreed to give us stock fabrics. For example, if a bigger company orders for 500 kilograms of x color and they end up taking, say, 400 or 450 kilograms, so whatever is left, the other 50, he would give it to me, at a subsidized price.
So, my limitation, I cannot choose a color. I cannot choose a fabric, but at least I’m getting organic fabrics, and then I used to design according to what fabrics or colors that we have. So, I’ve never been to fashion school.
The easiest thing for me to design was a t-shirt because I wear them. I know what I would want and how I would want them to be. So, that was the easiest for us, to start with, so I started with about 9 t-shirts in the first round, where we made 50 pieces of each.
By the time we came up, then, of course, we took about 6 months to barely sell half of them. But that gave us a lot of feedback. Okay, these are the things that we need to improve, these are the things that are nice, people like the quality, the print quality, the neck, whatever issues that came back, the feedback was constructive.
So, by the time we moved down to a second collection, it was much wider. We had about 20 t-shirts. The quantity was also a bit more. We had overcome the negatives of what the first batch had to offer.
Now, we are in our third season where we are approximately 80 styles, including sweatshirts, tank tops, t-shirts, and so on. We still have not been able to push our sales as much as we would like to, but it is definitely better than what it was compared to the first season.
So, that is how it all started and that is where we got here.
When you’re buying the t-shirt that you’re wearing, you do not know where it comes from, how it is being made. It is only when you go behind the scene. Sometimes, I actually fail to understand how a company, say, Zara, or H&M, how they have a new collection every 15 days.
I do not understand that. Today, we have a fashion week. For example, usually big companies like Gucci or Louis Vuitton, they come up with the fashion week, when they showcase the collection in fashion week; they’re always six months ahead.
For example, spring/summer 2017 would be showcased in December 2016. December 2016 is when a big brand would showcase their collection of what they’re going to launch six months from now.
What Zara does is pretty much offer the fashion show within 15 days, apply the same concept into more ready to wear stuff and then they launch in stores; so, I’m baffled. How do they do that in 15 days? Do they have robots working for them, or are they making those products on a ship, and by the time the ship docks at a new place, at the store, the products are done?
So, when you’re buying these products. You never realize what goes behind the scenes. Only when you actually go and check these factories out. I did visit factories with H&M, Zara, and other people like these.
These brands make their products and most of them are made in India. That is when I realized, the whole interest towards articles — that is when I came to know that. Now, there’s an opportunity for us to change things, to bring about the change.
So, that is when I got interested in ethical and sustainable fashion.
Jacobsen: How did your educational/professional experience inform fashion work?
Prateek: I was always interested in art design, clothes. I was always designing, selecting clothes for other people or for myself, or even looking at that. Or even looking at people who were wearing nice things and getting inspired by that. So, there was always that.
Then I knew that this is the product line I want and this is the design I have in mind and that is how I want to do it. However, I also feel all my work experiences of, say working in a startup, starting small businesses when I was in school, or little financial deals that I have because I studied finance while I was in school.
So, all of that did inform the fashion work. Then, of course, working with JP Morgan where you are always crunching numbers, that did help me a budget or negotiate prices. Trying to come up with the cost model, where we can make things in the budget and then also be able to sell it, all of that stuff.
So, that experience helps. All the things inclined towards fashion and design. That did help me develop the idea and the plan. The importance of it is very high. So I know, as I said, the change cannot be overnight or repeated over a year or two.
It is a movement; it is an evolution in its own way. So, it would take time. It also comes under the conscience of the person who was behind the brand. People who are running the brand. When they genuinely want to be ethical and sustainable, they will be.
If one of these bigger companies genuinely wants to be ethical, they have all the money in the world to do so. If they want to be environmentally friendly, they have all the money in the world to do so.
But the fact is, for them, profits are so important and they need to answer their shareholders and investors that they do not care about the whole sustainable and ethical part of fashion. All they’re concerned about is if they made 10 billion dollars in season 1.
They need to make 15 billion dollars in season 2. It is the people running the company who need to be genuinely interested in being ethical and sustainable. So, no matter what, they will not care about them or they would focus on ethical and sustainable fashion.
For example, I find it funny when H&M says that they have this conscious collection. Or an eco-friendly collection.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: It becomes a niche within their entire market rather than the entire market for them.
Prateek: Yes, but it is sticking because consumers are for the ride if you can take out those ten t-shirts and those ten pants, ethically made, why can’t you do that with the other 99 percent of your collection?
If you can do that for 1 percent of your collection, what is stopping you from taking the other 99 percent the same way? So, you’re doing exactly what they’re doing to make the other products. They’re just labeling it ethically made or organic, and then they’re charging 5 or 10 dollars extra on top of that.
So, they’re selling the same product to the same consumer, but saying that it is all packaged well and all goody good — and they’re charging 10 dollars more. That is how I see it. If you can get 100 t-shirts out of the ones that you’re making per year if you can make one which is ethical and sustainable and organic, what is stopping you from changing the other 99 percent?
So, it is a farce in the company when H&M does that. Genuinely ethical brands — it is either 100 percent or it is not. You can’t be selective. This 1 percent of our collection is ethical and the other is not.
It is just good marketing and trying to have a good feeling. So, it is very important for bigger brands to actually consciously take steps to do that, but because the company stops them from doing so, then that lets smaller companies like ours come up or other smaller brands around the world.
There’s many of them coming up right now. It is very important. That is where the extension of a brand also comes in because we realize that many smaller brands and designers do not have the platform to sell whatever they make and many them, even locally many they have very sustainable collections.
Everything is ethical. So, we have this additional platform on our website where we curate smaller designers who do not have a presence online or offline but are ethical, sustainable, are using organic and natural fabrics, are using local fabrics, so we are giving them a platform to showcase their work also.
So, if you go on our website, you see the women’s collection, the kid’s collection, are all curated from these designers. These small local designers or brands, which do not have a presence.
So, that is why it is important to even give these designers and companies a platform to sell.
So, that is another addition to what has been recently started just in a couple of months. It was important for buyers and sellers. It is all a cycle when you become a part of it. It is the importance of being a fair trade.
Many people can say it is fair trade, to be honest. How do you verify it? That is where the certification becomes a little important, but eventually, it is eventually the conscience of the brand that would make them fair or not.
It is very important to buy fair trade. But how do you determine what is fair trade or not? It is very tough. So, what is the importance of fair trade products for buyers? The thing I feel good about being sustainable and fair trade is because our products would last longer than a fast fashion product.
So, bigger brands, they intentionally made products which do not go beyond six months or eight months because then that would push you to buy their new collection. Whereas our products, we make that no matter how many times you wash them, it still looks good.
It looks new. You can wear them over seasons, over years; you can put them aside for a couple of months and then bring them out again. They’ll still hold strong. So, it is very important to buy fair trade products because there’s good quality assurance there.
Then you’re getting a nice product, which would last you longer. So, in the long run, you do end up saving money also. Emma Watson is doing a good job when it comes to supporting ethical fashion. She’s quite vocal about it as well.
She tends to opt for brands or even local designers that do. That is actively ethical and sustainable. So, she is a leader. So, the brand started with the name, which I just came up with. We were scribbling words actually all over this big board that we had at our garage where we started out from and the two names, the two words “brown” and “boy” happened to be next to each other.
We liked the whole name. It doesn’t have any meaning to it, but it just sounds interesting and sticks to you. And, so that is why we just stuck with that name. It sits about being ethical, sustainable.
Also, we are one of the few brands that are ethical and sustainable. We feel that we’ve taken much more responsibility on ourselves for being frontrunners in other things that we believe in.
For example, we were one of the first brands in the world to feature a trans model.
So, we feel that we can use the platform of our brand. We can use the platform of our brand to stand up for things that we believe in, including ethical practices and sustainability, now we are vegan also.
Plus, to promote, or to stand up for equal rights, there is an idea. I came across a friend of mine who is trans, who is transgender, so we decided to feature him in our catalog and actively talk about it so that there is acceptance.
Similarly, we do the same thing for LGBT all over the world, particularly in countries where it is illegal too. Particularly, where it is illegal or where it is a criminal offense to be gay; so, we are actively supporting groups that are doing that, and we are speaking about it.
We also spoke in favor of saving refugees, for equal rights for women. We recently partnered with a small Canadian company. They make a paddle for men, women, and kids and a percent of their revenue goes towards children in underprivileged India.
So, we are partnering with brands. We are talking with another small movement in the US where we went from the new collection that we will be launching soon. We will be putting an orange zig-zag tag, on the side.
It is about creating awareness about child abuse. So, we are always constantly partnering and looking out for things that we believe in that needs topics to be discussed, things that we need to stand on.
So, we actively fight for LGBT rights in India, because it is illegal — it is a criminal offense to be gay in India, so we do fight for that. We do fight for trans rights here, and other places as well, and for Syrian refugees.
Talking about these topics and actively using the brand to fight for equal rights in our own small way, I know we are not creating a revolution, but probably even if one person, even if we reach out to one person and we change their minds a bit, or we force them to think, we would consider ourselves as successful in some way.
Those are the few things. We are also working on a few other ideas of how we can actively push these things at the forefront and talk about them. So, these are one of the few things that we as a brand have taken upon us to do.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are some of the featured products?
Prateek: So, we started off with t-shirts because that was honestly the easiest thing to design in terms of fit, of the pattern. Then we move onto sweatshirts, tank tops, pants. Now, we are working on a women’s collection as well.
My personal favorite is the upcycle collection where, when you’re working, the package we work on, the package we design, we are trying to minimize waste also. So, when we are cutting a t-shirt, a lot of extra fabric goes to waste.
So, we have put our pattern in such a way that we maximize the output per kilogram of fabric and eventually, there is some amount of waste that will come out. That is something you cannot do without.
If you are cutting a fabric, there is a waste. But we can minimize that. What is left of fabrics we have, we come up with this upcycle collection. So, now, it is combining two fabrics or adding a pocket to a fabric or using that extra fabric, the waste fabric, the cuts, and incorporating them in design in such a way that we do not have to throw them in landfills.
We can use them in making designs. We send for recycling, to the factories where we bought our fabric from. So, part of it goes into recycling, but a large part of it, we try to incorporate it into our design.
So, if you see our upcycle design, it is cross patterns, or having pockets or using multiple colors in the same t-shirt. So, these are all additional fabrics. That is one of our features; it is something I’m quite excited about because it is minimizing waste and then creating an entirely new collection out of it.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your customer base — the demographics?
The customer base and demographics, anyone who is ethically inclined or conscious about where their product comes from would be our customer base. If you compare our prices to other brands, other ethical and organic brands; our pricing is far lower than what they have priced.
That is also intensive because I do not want it to be a snobby brand, first of all. Secondly, I want young people, you and I, to be part of the whole movement. Now, a young person who is just out of or just in college or is about to start a job does not have 60, 70 dollars to pay for a t-shirt.
But if they’re paying 20 dollars for a t-shirt at Zara or H&M or even 20 to 25 dollars, then if you price an ethical and organic product at the same amount then they will be pushed towards buying, choosing ethical.
So, trying to price our products as any other regular brand would do, so that young people are thinking, “Okay, I have a choice. Should I buy a 25-dollar shirt from Zara or should I buy a 25-dollar shirt from a brown boy — a t-shirt that is ethical, organic, and would last me much longer than 3 washes?”
So, that is why they’re consciously priced compared. If you’re adding all the discounts we are giving, sometimes it comes lower than that. So, this is something that we are consciously doing so that young people come into the whole cycle of choosing ethical.
They do not have to be a hipster or they do not have to pay 50 bucks, 60 bucks, for a t-shirt and then show off about it. They can be ethical. They can be sustainable, organic, at a low price for a t-shirt. This is hard for us in a way.
So, considering all the costs we incur, we are barely making any profits. Our goal is to make it so that we have enough revenues to expand our collection and bring new designs the next season and reach out to more people.
We are not focusing on making 100 percent profits, as of now. Our focus is to make it so that we are able to sustain a sustainable company. Eventually a sustainable company, a different company needs to be sustained; if you start selling products at extremely low prices or a loss, they will not be able to sustain the whole idea of it.
So, we are just pricing ourselves enough so that we can sustain the brand in the long run. It is taking small steps, taking baby steps every season so that we bring in more and more people under this movement or banner, and to bring in young people.
So, I’ve made myself clear when I say that as a brand we do strongly stand for human rights and workers’ rights and not only in the field of fashion, but outside of it as well. Bangladesh is actually very close to where I stay and where our factories are.
It is just a three-hour train ride and an hour’s flight away. So, I know that Bangladesh also needs many ethical changes when it comes to their structure of production. And it is quite similar to India too.
Honestly, because I’m from India and I spent 8 months here. It gives me an opportunity to bring about that change in India. So, I’m doing that here. So, human rights are extremely important for us.
So, what I did was when we started out, so the workshop that we first made, we went to these old factories that we visited where the workers were working in poor conditions. I simply asked and gave them an offer to work for us at a better price.
They’ll have better wages because now we are paying them ethically. They’ll have better, shorter things and better working conditions. The benefit with these workers was that I’m not hiring 100 people.
I was barely able to get 15 people on board, 15 workers. But even that 15 is a change. The benefit was they’re getting a better working condition. They’re getting better wages. They’re getting subsidized food. All of that.
For me, the benefit was I did not know anything about how a t-shirt was made. These workers came with the know-how. So, their conditions are also improving, plus we are getting a skill, we are getting a lot.
We are getting 15 with experience. So, when I would design, I would always consult them. Okay, should we do it this way? Would that be a better stitch? What else we can do? What is a new way we can do it?
So, they also had many inputs to give in the beginning. We poached workers from other factories that were unethical and we brought them to ours. So, I know it might not sound the idealistic way to go about it, but that it was good for them also because now their standard of working is improving.
We are pulling people out of garment factories, which are unethical. So, that is how we started with our first workshop. We were very small back then. It has been a year and a half. Now, we try and work with others because we realize that we cannot design and create a brand at the same time at our own workshop.
So, it is sailing on two boats. We decided to gradually start delegating work to ethical and fair trade certified factories because that way we will be able to concentrate more on building the brand on the front end; whereas, the manufacturing is being taken care of.
But even then we have appointed personnel at the factory making certain that everything is being followed. Everything that is being done is followed strictly by ethical standards. We have a hawk’s eye on the manufacturing center to make sure that everything is asked for how it should be.
It is all ethical. It is all keeping the workers in mind. So, that bit is also now taken care of so it gives us more time to invest and work on building the brand, of coming up with new ideas, of partnering with newer young artists, with smaller designers, and so on.
So, it is helping us do all the front end bit a little more actively. So, again, a big part of it is of course to have equal opportunities for women and child labor is a big issue in India. We are in our own way trying to fight that.
We are trying to create awareness about it too. Our workshops do not encourage or indulge in it anyway. It is hard to bring about a change or to force other factories to follow this. But the only way we can do this is by, eventually, if you give the parent the opportunity to send the child to school, they will not send their child to work.
So, that is where we are deciding to deal with the issue. For example, our workers who work for us, our craftsmen; we give them an opportunity to send their kids to school so that they have a better shot in the future.
They do not have to send their kids to a farm or to a factory or to a store to work. That is where tackling the problem would be effective. It is where it all starts from. Rather than putting a ban on a factory, because no matter what, people find ways to overcome those, and finding nooks and crannies where they make things workable.
It is when you give them opportunities or options, where you can you send your kids to school; you do not have to send them to work. We are giving you this opportunity. We try to bring systems where we are helping them send their kids to school, so they do not end up working in factories and places that.
With women, we make sure that we employ them and give them equal opportunities in employment. Many factories, many workers are men and not many women working, so we try to push employing more women.
So, we are going to a few villages in rural India where these women have these skills which are being passed down from generation to generation, and we are trying to divide these patterns or these stitching techniques into more modern designs.
Here, we will only be working with women and giving them an opportunity to do these designs. We are working on a home collection also of ceramic products, which we launched in 2016/17. Even that entire range would be handmade by women, these are small ways that we are trying to encourage to be part of the entire chain, to keep them away from exploitation, and also keeping these small traditions and craftsmen skills alive.
No one is using them. They stopped practicing it. So, we are trying to revive these embroidery techniques, designs, patterns. The women that work for us have the same right that men have, same working conditions, and same pay.
We are trying, in the ceramic collection we come up with, to make all the t-shirts bridge the gap and not only in small ways but in much bigger ways. Many times women are forced into doing certain things, which we are trying to fight against.
All of this happens when you are creating awareness, more than anything else. Awareness creation is talking to them at a much more grass root level, so that is where we are trying to make an impact or trying to implement new ideas.
Jacobsen: Child labor and slavery are problems, major ones. These include children throughout the world. Tens of millions of children in the case of child labor and a few million for child slavery. How can individuals get the word out about these other rights violations?
Prateek: Child labor is a big, big issue in India. It is a huge issue. Many laws have been passed against it but still, it is rampant. I see that on a very regular basis here. I’ve got into many fights and arguments with many establishments in my city when it comes to this.
No matter how many rules and regulations we come up with, problems can be tackled when you bring a change in the chain of order, the way the person thinks. So, when you are giving them opportunities, e.g., when you give the parents an opportunity to send their kids to school, that is a very big way to deal with this.
Jacobsen: Any recommended means of contacting Brown Boy?
Prateek: We are always very proactive in working and collaborating with people who are on the same page as us. So, anyone can call us anytime. They can email us. We always love working with startups, with conscious companies, with bloggers, with ethical brands.
For example, with designers who do not have a platform to showcase their work, we love working with them. We love partnering with them. We are working with local artists now to create small collections with them, so that is how startups should be.
So, we are not respecting ourselves or putting ourselves in any box. We are always open to working with new ideas where we feel that we can make, even if it is a small difference, to partnering with young talents, to develop new ideas of how we can bring about change in the way things are.
Because it just encourages me all the more to work, it is refueling yourself with new ideas and new people. An idea implemented and actually turning out to be something. There are absolutely no restrictions and the doors are always open for anyone.
Again, this is something that we will be applying for our new work. The habitat that we are trying to create. It is an open studio. It is a creative hub. It is an incubation center for startups, for creative people, for young talents, for anyone who feels that if they walk through the door, they will be able to gain something out of it.
They will be able to contribute, and they will be able to take something: enhance themselves. So, our company is always open. The best to contact I guess is email, phone.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Prateek.