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INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: CELEBRATING SONICA SARNA

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: CELEBRATING SONICA SARNA

March 8th is International Women’s Day, and according to their website, “International Women's Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.”

Sonica Sarna is doing all of the above. She is the living, breathing definition of “walking the talk”. She is passionate, proficient, and prolific in the world of fashion; she has a brilliant vision and a strong sense of responsibility, and she is making big waves in not only the industry, but the overall economic opportunities and social structure of her country.

Sonica Sarna

We got to have an insightful and inspiring conversation with Sonica about her experiences in fashion, her partnership with Double D Ranch, and the powerful and positive ways she’s impacting the industry and reshaping the societal landscape for the women and girls in India.

DDR: Before we get into all the good you’re doing, tell us a little bit about you and how you got involved in the industry, and what propelled you on to this path, this mission for change.

Sonica: I grew up in New Delhi, I’m native Indian – the Asian kind. I studied fashion design and my family is actually in apparel manufacturing. They’ve had factories for several decades and I started my career producing clothing for American brands. I was doing this from a really young age. I essentially developed a lot of disillusionment and frustration with just what was happening in the fashion industry. You had worker slums and you had fabric waste, and this was in the early 2000s when no one was even really talking about sustainability. Life took me to the United States, and I was living in Austin for a couple of years, and I was a one-trick pony. If you study fashion, if you’re a fashion designer, I don’t think you’re ever going to do anything else with your life – it’s addictive! I considered giving it all up and becoming a chef or something, but this was my passion and my love, and I wanted to do it, and I wanted to do it in a more responsible way. I began to engage with American brands when I was living there to see ‘are there ways to keep making beautiful clothes while also taking care of people and the environment?’

DDR: And is that when you became involved with Double D? How did that come about?

Sonica: I used to be down at Dallas Market Center really often and I walked across the Double D showrooms and I always thought the aesthetic was really unique. The textile and the embroidery inspiration from Double D are actually really close to my cultural origins because Indian clothing also has a lot of embroidery and embellishments, and if you are inclined that way, it has spiritual origins as well. I actually connected with – back then – a lady called Barbara, Geraldine’s sister, and she reached out by email saying, ‘We’re looking for someone to take on some production for us, can you come see us?’ And I actually just drove down to Yoakum – and I thought I was on the set of a Western film, because I’m Indian and this was like my first year in the US and there I am in Yoakum, Texas. Everyone was so nice; I remember Cheryl and I had an instant connection, and then over the years, Hedy as well, and I began to coordinate production for them.

DDR: But you didn’t want to just be in the industry, you wanted to improve it.

Sonica: Right. As I mentioned, I’m from [New] Delhi and life, full-circle, brought me back to India and I’m in Delhi once again and my early years, the very things that made me want to leave fashion – the worker slums, the textile waste – when I came back to Delhi, it made me want to see if there was something I could do to solve the problem. And from that, originated this program called #projecthrive.

DDR: And what is #Projecthrive? What is its purpose and how does it work?

Sonica: #Projecthrive is essentially for the women from the slums of New Delhi who have no economic opportunity. It is often common for poorer women not to get well-paying jobs because one, they’re not educated, and two, there is this preconceived notion that they can’t operate machinery or are lesser than men in some way. So, we run this program where you can come in and learn how to sew on an industrial machine with us for the period of three months and we will pay you while you do this. At the end of the 3 months, they take an exam, and if they pass, they are welcome to be employed by us at which time they become my full-time employees, which provides them a salary, healthcare, and benefits. And if they get better paying jobs elsewhere, they’re welcome to do that as well, and in a few cases, the women have decided they don’t want to work. Essentially, the idea behind #Projecthrive is that I have this center that we’re running, and if a woman wants the option to be able to earn money, the option is available to her. She exercises the freedom to choose whether she wants to continue working or not.

DDR: That’s incredible! How long has that program been in effect? What was kind of the impetus for it?

Sonica: Thrive has been around since 2016, and the primary reason for starting it was because I’m north Indian, just like in the United States, there are regional differences within the country, and North India is far more patriarchal compared to South India where there is more equal opportunity for women. My family is very well-educated and have done well for themselves, but still, I am the first woman in my family to work. And it was born out of the desire to let women have the opportunity to choose. Because you know this: money is power, right? If you earn money, the position in your family changes. And tailors actually get really good wages and so essentially the women’s overall stature in life is elevated because they’re earning as much as, if not more than, their husbands. That shakes things up anywhere – whether rich or poor, the gender imbalance is the same everywhere.

DDR: You’re really challenging the status quo! How is something like that received in a traditionally patriarchal society?

Sonica: A lot of these women when they start, people make fun of them, because they think they can’t do anything other than cook and clean. People’s perception of them – members of their families, members of the community – look at them differently and take them seriously because they now earn money and there are numbers going into the bank. What’s changed is that all of the men are suddenly realizing it is valuable to their well-being when their wife earns money, because some of them are doubling their income and are able to think about buying homes and whatnot. The male tailors [from my father’s company, which does the manufacturing for a lot of the brands that I partner with] will often recommend their wives to come in, they’re actually encouraging their wives to come join us, which is a huge departure from the initial resistance we got when we started the program.

DDR: So, in a sense, #Projecthrive has affected a pretty powerful paradigm shift in a matter of five years. What do you envision as the big picture, long-term implications of empowering women in such a way?

Sonica: A nice little thing that we didn’t expect would play out over the years, is that because the women are now viewed as more valuable family members because they can earn, they’re keeping their daughters in school longer. The women, if you meet them, they’re usually in their mid-thirties and they have like a 20-year-old kid, so do the math – that means they were married off at like 15, 16, something like that. And so clearly pulled out of school. Of course, these were poor people with limited means, but if they had the choice to send a child to school, they would send the boy and the girl would be married off. But all of these women, the children are in school and some of the girls are considering going to college, so it’s interesting how just the perception shift to ‘oh, a woman can earn money as much as a man means that she is perhaps of the same level’, for want of a better word. We also work with artisan communities in rural India, and there, too, we have a policy that if you want to be a fabric supplier for us, you have to employ at least 50% women. The larger plan for #Projecthrive is essentially to empower women in the entire fashion supply chain, to push for opportunity for women at every level, at the fabric level, at the sewing level. And a trend that I see happening repeatedly – the men will [short term spend problems] and what have you, but the women will save their money. They use it mostly to keep their kids in school and they’re not as eager to marry off their daughters, which gives the girls an opportunity to mature and have an education. And I think down the generations, that will hopefully give women more of a chance to make something of themselves if they want, which I think is pretty special.

DDR: It’s incredibly special! So important and impressive. And that’s just one part of your vision for improving the industry, right? You’re also on a mission or a path toward sustainability.

Sonica: Sustainability* is a word we throw around, but it’s bastardized; it’s actually multiple things, right? We’ve started doing these education programs where a young brand or a young designer can sign up and we walk them through tools and techniques to implement sustainability in their business in a very practical and financially viable way. In a nutshell, we work really closely with brands to give them the quality and the pricing and the service that they need, but through the support they provide to our manufacturing setup in India, we’re able to work with artisan communities and provide them opportunities; we’re able to preserve culture, we’re able to run the women’s center that employs women who don’t have any other opportunity, we work with organic textiles and recycled materials. It’s an end-to-end sustainable approach that I’ve been building on for the last 10 years.

*We got really deep into sustainability discussion with Sonica, and it was so informative that we look forward to publishing a separate piece on that a little later that provides an educational breakdown of what that actually means/looks like.

DDR: Amen! Sustainability is so complex, and as a brand, it’s quite difficult to explain to your end consumer the steps that are being taking in that direction, toward being a more positive and responsible impact on the industry. Double D is fortunate to have such an open dialogue with our customers and for them to have the opportunity to ask those questions, but even then, it’s a full-on conversation; it’s not as simple as ‘are you or aren’t you?’

Sonica: Absolutely. I think Double D has a really loyal following. And it’s funny, right, one minute you’re talking about the origin story of your brand and why you do what you do and how you do it, and the next thing you know, you’re impacting people in so many ways, because fashion is cultural, it’s religion, it’s politics, it’s all of that. We find ourselves in really strange times; what we say about how something is made is really loaded. It isn’t as simple as American jobs versus Indian or Chinese jobs; it’s about who can make what. The ladies in Peru who are knitting those sweaters for you, the ladies in India can’t do that. We have to realize that clothing involves so many textiles and techniques that you have to go to the place where it originates sometimes, because maybe the guy doing the beading or printing in India is equipped for it, but maybe we’re not equipped for something else. Not every country can produce everything, that’s why fashion requires globalization. This whole ‘Make it in the US, not in India’ is completely out of context. So, we have to be really careful and we have to use our position of connection with the customer to really educate them. And I think you guys do a brilliant job of that.

DDR: Well, thank you; a lot of credit goes to our customers and their desire to be informed, it’s not helpful or educational if it falls on deaf ears. We’re really lucky – and the McMullen sisters have worked really hard – to have that dynamic and that relationship with our customers.

Sonica: And with their vendors as well. I know they’re a family business, and it’s a family business on my end also, because my father and my brother are both involved, and we’ve all sort of met over the years, but we feel like an extension of their family because they treat us as such. My sense is that they understand that how they connect themselves with their vendors has consequences, which a lot of brands often don’t realize; that if you pull business or you cut prices or you don’t pay companies, you are effectively putting them out of business, because now nobody has any financial cushion. From the bottom of my heart, I’m just so grateful for them as a brand, because they have remained steadfast in their business dealings with us, especially through COVID, when our circumstances were extremely dire.

DDR: As if you haven’t said enough inspiring things already, we always like to ask the people we speak with whether they have a motto or a mantra that they live by or that guides them, their rudder that keeps them on course.

Sonica: What I live by – especially in my profession where there is so much smoke and mirrors in the supply chain – is the motto, ‘Do the right thing, even when no one is looking.’ Because we live in an industry where so many brands are now forced to make demands of suppliers, and there is ‘ok, I’ll try and be more sustainable’ or ‘I’ll try and be more transparent’, and a lot of it’s just lip service. I’ve now been working in fashion for 20 years, and our role in this is that we’re very steadfast in what we represent. My needle does not move on our core value system and how we go about our approach to business; our thing is we built a sustainable business, we built a responsible business that keeps its people well-paid and offers opportunity in a diversified way that makes sense for people from rural backgrounds as well as women, and we continue to build it in this way, regardless of if a brand asks it of us or not. So that’s something that I live by.

You can learn more about Sonica Sarna, her organizations and artisans on her website: SonicaSarna.com and we encourage you to follow all that she’s doing on Instagram: @SonicaSarna.

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