Roopa Pemmaraju is a luxury, ethical fashion brand with Indian roots and a heritage of Australian indigenous art. Creating timeless pieces through consciously slow fashion, Roopa Pemmaraju has an ethos that refuses to conform.
Through this interview, we explore Roopa’s journey into the fashion industry and the difficulties of building a fashion brand that is intrinsically linked to an unwavering ethical priority to the people who make our clothes. There is one unyielding message of respect that lies at the centre of their brand; the people and their story are at the heart of everything that we do, create and put out into the world.
“I want to bring the pieces to women all around the world, where they can have these pieces with them forever.”Roopa Pemmaraju
Could you tell our readers a little bit about your background before you launched Roopa Pemmaraju, and what inspired you to launch the ethical fashion brand?
“This is when I decided that I wanted to bring the cultures of India and Australia together.”
I studied Fine Art, and art is the first thing in anything I create and it has always been the most important thing for me when creating a collection.
When I was growing up, my grandmother was a huge influence on me. She used to hire artisans to make beautiful, handwoven Sarees for me and my family. The proceeds would go back directly to the families and I would see how happy the artisans would be to get the money that they deserve. This exposed me to how making clothes naturally can be done.
I don’t come from a fashion background, so building a fashion brand was never something I had in mind that I wanted to do. I began working for fashion houses where I came to understand the supply chain and how mass production works. This is very different to India where there are tailors and hand-weavers everywhere.
When I got married and moved to Australia, it was a huge culture shock for me. I was inspired by indigenous artisan work there, how everything was made by hand, and the story behind each artwork. This is when I decided that I wanted to bring the cultures of India and Australia together through the combination of Australian art and Indian textile. It was a challenge getting Australian art onto textile, but when I created my first collection, had my first show and launched my brand, it grew from then on.
The term sustainability did not have the meaning or force that it does today. My ethos has always been sustainability and giving back to the real people who are creating our clothes by hand.
“My ethos has always been sustainability and giving back to the real people who are creating our clothes by hand.”
I’d love to know a little more about what inspired the beautiful aesthetic, intricate detail and variety of bold colours within your designs?
This relates back to my own culture. In India, fashion never works on seasons, it is just bright colours and contrasts. There has never been this kind of brightness or loud, bold and colourful print in the Western world, which is why I got so attracted to Australian indigenous art. The colour of clothing and how it is made is my whole esoteric.
Your clothes are made of natural materials and processes that are carbon-neutral, with “each sale going back to supporting the skilled artisans and their families.”
What has been one of the most difficult parts of sourcing natural materials, producing clothing items ethically and building a company that is sustainable?
“I have had a lot of designers asking me to make my pieces cheaper. And I can do that, I can build my brand extensively in this way, but what happens to the real people who are creating them?”
I have never had difficulty sourcing natural fibres because I speak the local language in India, so I can communicate with people. I had been to different parts of India to understand how natural fibres are made.
I come from South India, where silk is the most precious fabrication. I have always collected these beautiful fabrications from my grandmother, or my grandmother’s mums mum, and I wanted this to come into the collection, for the clothing to be preserved for as long as possible.
The clothing at Roopa Pemmaraju is expensive, and I find this challenging because few people understand why. The moment they realise it is made from India they assume it is cheap, and I have had a lot of designers asking me to make my pieces cheaper. And I can do that, I can build my brand extensively in this way, but what happens to the real people who are creating them?
“I do not create anything that my artisans do not create, I do not have a warehouse full of stock. That is one of my major supply chain ethos’. “
Could you tell us about a time in Roopa Pemmaraju’s journey that you will never forget?
In some of the communities of artisans that I work with, I have known a lot of deaths and farmers commit suicides, which has, without a doubt, been the toughest situation to experience.
Another challenging experience within my business journey was when I moved to New York and COVID-19 had just hit. I was trying to start my journey again through connecting with buyers and fashion industry networks. I was in the fashion capital with a close-knit network, so for me to connect into that, was difficult.
I do not create anything that my artisans do not create, I do not have a warehouse full of stock. That is one of my major supply chain ethos’. We only make products when we have orders so that we do not waste fabric. Through COVID-19, my artisans had no work. We had no idea what was going on, for weeks, but of course, we still had to pay them.
Due to there being so much fabric in the studio, my mother (who is also my business partner) had the idea to start making masks, and began developing these beautiful designs. It was a difficult decision as to whether to create them, because we didn’t know how to sell them, as for buyers, it was a brand-new product, and for us, we had no idea how long ‘wearing masks’ was going to last.
It was such a happy moment when our mask designs were asked to be created. We were aware it may not be profitable, but knew that having a team of people who we could employ so that they could actually live for this amount of money was the right thing to do. It was not an easy process, our orders were delayed and we were so scared given how much we had invested into the journey of creating this product. In the end, we ended up creating over 80,000 masks.
It has been an incredible journey to continue to employ so many artisans and give back to them, even with the risk of moving into different products.