Designing a more sustainable future: Ria Sejpal

Ria Sejpal is founder of Lilabare, a Kenyan clothing brand that uses recycled and handcrafted materials, tapping ancient practices and using natural ingredients. On the topic of sourcing, we were curious to know what opportunities and challenges Sejpal sees, specifically for designers in Kenya?

CE: Where and how did your fascination with clothing and design start?

RS: I’ve always been fascinated by the process of sketching people wearing clothes; creating art that had the human form in some way. I think my obsession with clothing was a natural progression of that, and every time I drew a person, I would think about what they were wearing.

CE: What made you conscious about the environment and making sustainable clothing?

My first internship was in a factory - it was not a sweat shop by any means – but I wondered how boring it would be to work in such a sterile environment. Hundreds of thousands of pieces were being made and I just felt there was no soul to it. The more I became exposed to the industry, I thought fast fashion was quite frivolous. I did work experience in custom tailor making to get a feel for the bespoke world. I think it opened my eyes to the possibility that positive change could and should happen. I always felt there could be a difference in the way we appreciate fashion, as well as the story - read value - behind something. Fashion felt meaningless without having that intention for social impact.

CE: You have mentioned before that you want to change the narrative. Do you think it’s possible to change the industry to embrace more ethical, sustainable fashion processes?

RS: I definitely do think it’s already changing. Especially because of the pandemic, people are now really looking to spend their money wisely; taking a more conscious approach. In the last five years, sustainability and ethics have gained recognition and importance, and become quickly adopted by fast fashion brands. Many of the big mass market players are releasing ‘conscious clothing’ ranges. People who are informed or interested in fashion may question whether greenwashing is happening or not. But recent campaigns like #PayUp, which called on fast fashion brands to pay garment factory workers during COVID-19, has seen millions of interactions. So I do feel like we’re moving to a more conscious place.

CE:You use ancient practices to make and dye your clothes. I wonder if you find any particular challenge in sourcing these natural products and ingredients?

RS: Although our practices are constantly improving, it’s more that we are adapting to our environment and creating positive impact. We study and apply ancient techniques because they often require things that we all have access to, for example, food waste. There is a circularity to the ancient practices we use that are so valuable to us today.

CE: So you feel sustainable sourcing may not always be possible, but we have to start somewhere in order to support grow the availability of local sourcing?

RS: I see it as actively participating in the development of the industry; being a part of actively creating and constructing that locally. Last year for example, as part of the Fashion Revolution Kenya committee, we produced a paper with a fantastic team to assess the commercial viability of agricultural bi-products for fabric and textiles in Kenya. This kind of research is something we really have to do and share, as opposed to passively waiting for the technology to come to us from abroad. I do see it changing, the government is trying to rehabilitate the textile and apparel sector, but as an individual brand we can nurture weavers, spinners, embroiderers and more to be part of the network who have similar values to us here at Lilabare.

CE: What do you think the future is Kenya with regard to sustainability, and for more sustainable brands like yours to supply bigger brands that rely on fast fashion?

The landscape in Kenya will, I hope, be one that uses the abundant resources we have available to create a sustainable fashion supply chain. I think it is possible, I do also think it requires time and a lot of effort by all parties from the cottage industry players to top level policy makers. As an individual representing a brand, I would say the more we are able to grow, the more we are able to scale the orders of the people and groups I believe in. It’s a circular system, because what is created is often what is demanded, so each of us as consumers have to be mindful of this. But if I’m correct in noticing that there is a bigger push towards sustainability and ethics within the consumer mindset, then hopefully bigger mass market brands will require factories to produce more ethically and sustainably. I’m seeing more people demanding products that have a history, a story, and a purpose beyond just dressing up. I’m hoping that’s a silver lining to the pandemic: a more mindful consumer process that will eventually trickle down, looping its way back through the supply chain, and we will see a better tomorrow.