Founded in 2006 by Anjana Das, White Champa is a global brand that bridges cultures to build a conscious fashion ethic. The company is based in Berlin, New Delhi, and Manila, and strives to create an aesthetic vocabulary for independent women across the world. We caught up with Das at a coffee house in Germany.
What led you to create White Champa?
From an individual perspective, I didn’t appreciate the fact that I had to have two different wardrobes – one for Asia, and one for Europe. My goal was to create a wardrobe that fulfills the dress needs for women in all cultural contexts across the many worlds that women inhabit – from home, to work, to socializing. I studied Japanese, Thai, Indian, and Filipino textiles and used my research findings to inform the cuts, shapes and ornamentation of my designs.
White Champa is where the beauty of the drape meets the bravery of the cut. We combine the Indian sense of fabric folding itself around the body with the European sensibility of fitted garments with darts and sizing.
Our philosophy is that the garment is a story, a narrative, in which the protagonist is the wearer. They create their own history through their personality and accomplishments. Their fashion choices should enhance their story.
What this means for fashion is that the customer creates their own sense of what fashion means for them. They express themselves through their choice of clothes. The woman wearing a White Champa garment in Berlin is connected to the maker of the fabric in the Philippines and the tailor in India.
Issey Miyake said it beautifully: “The joint power of technology and manual work enables us to revive the warmth of the human hand.” We strive to create a product that is design driven yet reflects the rare and special human talents our master craftsmen contribute.
What were the branding challenges when you first started, and how have they changed?
When I first started this business in India, I knew what I wanted to achieve, but it was hard to challenge women to rethink what fashion means – for example, we are conditioned towards excessive ornamentation and “dressing to impress.” In some ways, this mindset defeats itself because it actually diminishes the personality of the woman.
In India, women now want to buy clothes in department stores, like they do in the west, but this ignores the diversity in hand crafted textiles and makes artisans jobless. So progress in fashion in India does not necessarily translate to progress for the makers of Indian fashion. Globalization conducted this way destroys local industries.
White Champa had to establish itself as the brand for women who were not afraid to challenge existing norms. Our customers are leaders – they are citizens of the world. Many of them are creative forces in their own right – writers, artists, dancers, even academics and professional women.
What has changed is how we are now finding global acceptance for our design philosophy. More and more we see western women seeking us out.
White Champa has a reputation for conscious management practices. Can you tell us how that relates to the brand?
We are beginning to see the harsh effects of the industry’s unsustainable practices. The fashion industry is second only to Big Oil in terms of the destruction visited upon the planet. The average consumer is now purchasing 60 percent more items of clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept half as long.
Secondly, while many iconic brands are enjoying increases in revenue, the workers – generally women – are trapped in a cycle of poverty.
When we started White Champa in 2006, we decided to eliminate these issues as part of our operations, first by paying our workers and suppliers above “living wages” – and second by creating a slow fashion mindset. Our customers are connected to us not as a product, but as a way of living. Our supply chain is part of our company – that is we manufacture the clothes with our own employees and partners that we are closely connected with. So we enjoy a relationship of trust and fairness that isn’t the norm in our industry.
We also don’t want our customers to keep buying stuff. Rather, we want them to wear our creations throughout their lives. We offer a free service to adjust the size of your clothes as you gain or lose weight over the years. In fact, we designed the White Champa Universal Sizing System to do just this.
A global sizing system?
The idea behind a global sizing system was an early innovation in our design process. We found that the size differences between body types in the West and Asia were significant. So we created a system that took into account the variance in waist-to-hip ratios and created the White Champa Universal Sizing System. The benefit of this system is that it accommodates different body types without the need to radically change our production values.
You studied Indology and political science and German Literature. How has that impacted the way you view your company?
When I was at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, I studied the History of Art of the Indian Sub Continent. This gave me a historical and political perspective on clothing – the rich cultural craft traditions that are neglected by today’s industry.
I also worked as a designer for Jean-François Lesage when they started their work in South India. This helped me gain an appreciation for embroidery and the mastery of Indian craftsmanship. We continue to be inspired by the skill of the age-old tradition of hand embroidery in India.
I want to introduce consumers – starting with the Europeans – to the idea of bespoke slow fashion, and what that entails: a lifelong relationship with your trusted brand.
Thanks so much.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar