More and more, I am concerned about how my clothes are made–does the brand promote sustainable practices? What are their factories like? Are the designs well-made so they that will last? Fashion veteran Caroline Weller put these questions front-and-center when she launched her line, Banjanan, and seems to be most excited when her customers consider these factors too when they purchase her playful, colorful designs.
Caroline moved to India a decade ago for a (short-lived) job, and settled in Jaipur, a city known for it’s artisans. Being a designer for major brands for decades (Calvin, Club Monaco, A/X Armani), it made sense she would launch her own collection that is a reflection of the city (and country) she now calls home. I had read about Caroline in the New York Times a while back, then a friend introduced us. She is such a pleasure and has a terrific (very British) dry wit. Her ideas about fashion are its future, so I am thrilled to share her story.
I thought we’d start out and talk about how you got to where you are now, because I understand you lived in New York before. Can you give a quick summary of your career trajectory? I was born and grew up in the UK and studied fashion at university there. When I left college, I was hired by J. Crew and they brought me over to New York. I started at J. Crew designing menswear. Then I was hired by Club Monaco and after Calvin Klein, again for menswear, which, for me, was an incredible education. It was back in the ’90s and Calvin was still there.
There were so many amazing people there then.
It was an amazing time. It was a great team of people. We’re all still friends, and they’ve gone on to do amazing things. But it was like boot camp, I learned everything about designing there; to question everything, about God being in the details, and redoing something till it was right.
Then I left there and I went traveling, actually to India amongst other places. When I got back, I shifted over to women’s. I was re-hired by Club Monaco, which at that point was owned by Ralph Lauren with a completely different team. Then I was hired by Express, which is a slightly different tone. I wanted to do that because it was a VP job. Also it was a brand on a totally different scale. Club Monaco, I think at that point, had 70 stores and Express had 700. It was a two billion dollar business. So I thought, “Okay, yes. I’m up for this. This is what I want to do.”
It was quite an education for me, not so much on the design side, per se, but on the management side, learning all of that. Also the political side of it, because you have to kind of manage quite a lot of politics there. Then, I gave birth to my son, decided to leave and moved to Armani Exchange, where I was SVP of women’s. Whilst I was there, I had this random head-hunter call. It was for a job in India to be creative director of a new brand, they wanted to be an Indian-version Gap.
In design, once you’ve reached that level where you’re head of women’s or whatever, there are not very many places you can go, because you’re never going to be hired to be president. I’ve always had itchy feet and love going to different countries and traveling, so when this opportunity came up, I was like, “Hm.” And I’ve been to India a lot in the past, even when I was at college I had gone there as an intern. So I had a feeling for it.
And we thought, we being me and my long-term boyfriend, “Okay, let’s go and see this! Let’s have an adventure.” So I left Armani. We left the apartment. We left the nanny. We left everything behind and initially moved to Bangalore, which is in the south of India. I went to be creative director of this new brand. To cut a long story short, it was basically a disaster. It lasted about three or four months. Now having lived in India so long, I know of course it was going to be a disaster. I understand all the reasons why. But at the time, it was just like, “Oh my God, how can this be going so wrong?”
This was in 2008 and the big crash had happened. It was February, it was snowing in New York, and everyone was losing their jobs and was miserable and we thought, “Well we don’t want to go back to New York with our tail between our legs, so let’s just stay here and see what happens.” So we did. We moved to Jaipur, because it was a city that I had known quite well from when I was an intern. And it’s also a city which is very creative. There were a lot of different crafts there.
When we arrived, I called up the brand that I had worked for in New York and said, “Look, I’m here in India. Can I do anything for you?” I ended up consulting for a lot of the people that I had worked for in the past and did all sorts of really interesting, creative projects for them, ranging from sourcing vintage, tribal jewelry to printing and textiles–all sorts of stuff, which was amazing for me because it was a journey of discovery.
I started to find craftsman, I found a lot of vintage textiles, especially old saris and things, and I was just blown away by them. I had worked in the fashion industry so long but in one afternoon, rooting around in this old shop, I’d found textiles that I hadn’t ever seen the quality of work like that before.
It hit a nerve with me because having worked for so long in quite corporate companies, in a way you get disconnected from the product, because you design everything and then you send it off to wherever it goes to, China or Italy, and then it comes back. In India, because these craftsmen and things were right there, my curiosity, passion and creativity were reignited.
Then I started making things because I think that if you are a creative person, it’s almost like breathing. You can’t help but do it. You have to do it.
I didn’t go out thinking I’m going to start a company. It just happened. Somebody saw them and said, “Oh, I have shop and we’ll put them in the shop.” Very, very slowly, it started to become a brand. During that time, I was still consulting for other people. Finally, because I kept talking about it so much, my partner said, “Oh, for God’s sake, either just do it or don’t do it. I’m tired of hearing about it!” And so I thought, “Well, I mean, he’s right, actually”. So I decided to do it. And then it really became Banjanan. We launched in 2013.
What’s the inspiration behind the line, it’s aesthetic? A few things, really. One of the ethos of the brand is that it is founded in sustainability, working locally being transparent about how we work, and being tangibly in touch with the product that we were making.
For instance, I’ve worked with the same printers and stitchers from the beginning. I’m very loyal to them, and we’ve grown together from being something that we had no idea what we were going to be, to something that really is quite sizeable. So there is that sense of community and loyalty of working on that together. Also everything is local. As much as possible, I source all the fabrics in India. Things are printed and stitched and embroidered all within five kilometers of where I live.
Generally in fashion, you order all your fabric from one country and then it gets shipped to another country and then it might get shipped here and shipped there. And I just thought this is absolutely nuts.
It can’t keep happening like that.
Well, it can’t. It’s very interesting, because I think one of the things I’ve found increasingly of living in India is that I’ve become such an advocate for not wasting anything and being incredibly thoughtful about what our future is and sustainability, because in India, it’s literally right there in front of your eyes. I always notice when I come back to New York, we’re so distant from it here because you can get anything you want, and everything is sent for. Whereas in India, we’re always running out of water because there just isn’t enough water. I mean, really, really basic things. There were power cuts all the time. So you just sit there in the dark for two hours and you know, “well, okay, this is the way it is and we’re just going to have to wait.” And the pollution is such a serious issue in India. It’s horrendous. That’s all had a huge effect on me, because you think, okay, we really do have to change the way that we’re doing everything.
We have a philosophy of zero waste, which it’s very difficult to fulfill 100%, but we do as much as we can. For instance, when we’re printing fabric, we print to order. Our aim is that we never have anything left at the end of the season, because one of the biggest polluters in fashion is all the inventory that’s left over at the end of the season that has to be got rid of and incinerated. So we have incredibly tight inventory controls, which also has, in a way, worked out quite well for us, because our customers know that when something’s gone, it’s pretty much gone unless we reprint and do a second run.
We use printing inks that are non-polluting inks. We have a very strict water policy, it has to be cleaned so it’s no longer harmful pollution going back into the main water supply.
Then in terms of the clothing, I knew that I wanted to work with processes that were by hand, so hand-block printing, hand silk-screening, hand embroidery. Everything has become so generic in the fashion industry; there are so many brands, and everything is the same. And I’ve worked for many of them. You just pump out this stuff. In my head now, I refer to it as landfill–you know, landfill fashion and landfill shopping,
I also want to make things that are really joyful, so it’s print, it’s color and it’s made by hand, and you have an emotional reaction to it. It has a kind of tangible energy to it.
And as a family, we travel a lot. We have a home in New York. We have a home in Switzerland. We have a home in India. And we have family in the UK. I wanted to have clothing that I could wear in any one of those places. One of the founding principals is that the pieces are transitional in terms of weather. You can wear them with sandals when it’s hot. You wear them with boots when it’s cold. You put a sweater over them or wear it with nothing.
What do you love most about what you do? Being creative, because as I mentioned, to me it’s like breathing. And because it’s my own company, making my own decisions and working in a very non-corporate way. I feel that being nimble, small and non-corporate, is a new way of working. I like having a family and a community around how we work. It seems so relevant at the moment.
When you launched your line, what came easiest for you? And then the opposite–what was the hardest thing or something that surprised you, and how did you deal with it? The thing that came easiest was just the idea of print and color and fabric, because it came from my surroundings there in India. I never could have created this line if I was in New York.
The things that were hardest were the really practical like the logistics, shipping, distribution and custom duties. When I was working for a big brand I didn’t have to know about shipping. Just being on top of all of those tiny details in the chain was really difficult, but also quite surprising because you realize you can actually teach an old dog new tricks.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I don’t give up. I don’t like to fail at anything, and I will keep going at it until it’s right. And, you’d have to ask my team, but I’m quite nice. I like to be nice to people, and nice seems like such a trite word, but I think it’s really important
Three words that describe Banjanan: I’ve got five for you, sorry! Joy, color, print, craft, and sustain. And really “sustainable,” but “sustain” goes better in that list.
Three words that describe you: I didn’t feel that I could actually answer this question objectively, so I asked my son, and he said, “Funny, inspirational, and hard-working.” So I thought okay, I’ll take that.
To date do you think has been your biggest success? I’m actually really bad at acknowledging success. I don’t know if that’s an English thing. I’m just not good at that kind of strutting and celebrating a particular milestone that’s gone well. But I would say that for me, the biggest success has probably been that I feel like customers are really starting to ask questions and think about where garments come from, how they’re made, who make them and what the process is.
I feel like when we launched, we were a pioneer in that in a way, and people thought that customers wouldn’t accept it. Now they really are starting to. I consider that a success.
What do you think has been a failure or a dud, and what did you learn from it? One of our biggest failures, or one of the things that’s least successful, is when we were starting to get bigger accounts and there was one particular store that asked us to do an exclusive style for them, which they ended up pretty much designing themselves, saying, “Oh, could you just make it like this, and could you just do this?” Because I was so excited to have that size of an order, I kind of said yes to everything and we ended up making something which I never would have designed myself and didn’t really like.
It ended up really not selling well at all. What it taught me was that, in fact, you do have to be strong and say no to things, even when everyone is telling you that you have to say yes. That’s quite a difficult lesson to learn actually, because you feel like “Oh my God, we need the business, yes, we have to do that.” And sometimes you’re better off just going, “Oh, thanks, but no thanks.”
Best career advice you’ve received or you would share with someone else: It’s really good to network and talk to people and listen to what they have to say; they can be peers who are doing something similar or they can be people in different fields. So listen to all of it, but then don’t feel that you actually have to take any of their advice. It’s quite difficult, because there’s almost a set way you’re expected to do things, like when you launch a brand you should a PR person and then you have to be here and you have to do that.
One of the advantages of having launched the brand out of India was I was out of that echo chamber. I wasn’t talking to anybody, because there was nobody to talk to. Consequently, I ended up not doing a lot of those things you would normally be expected to do when launching a brand. I think that in the end, your advantage is not doing those things, because then you become a little bit of an outlier, and you become unique in yourself as a brand. To get caught up in “I have to have this many followers on Instagram, I have to send all this stuff to influencers, I have to gift all these people,” you don’t, actually.
Life goals: A retirement surrounded only by the sounds of nature.
Daily goals: Getting all my essential shit done, making some time in the day to be creative, which is quite difficult, as I think everybody knows when they run their own business, and spending quality time with my family.
Favorite book that motivates or has inspired you? I don’t have a particular one book, but I do really enjoy reading autobiographies. I also really enjoy listening to the BBC World Service at obscure times of the day and night, because they have these great programs where they go and talk to people all over the world about their daily lives. It sounds a bit hokey, but ordinary people’s daily struggles always makes me look at my life and just think, “Okay, just get on with it.”
Women who inspire you: it’s very much a sign of the times that these women are on my mind, but Emily Pankhurst who was the founder of the suffragette movement in the UK. I’m a very strong proponent of women’s rights and, particularly living in India, that’s a tricky subject. Margaret Sanger, because also I supported Planned Parenthood for as long as I can remember, and I feel that is very relevant now. And then in more modern-day setting, Jacinda Ardern, who’s the New Zealand prime minister. I think she’s really putting everyone else in the dust in terms of what leadership should look like. I feel quite proud of her as a woman leader. And Serena Williams, who I think is just a total badass. She makes no apologies for anything, and I think that’s great.
I never feel dressed without…My watch. It’s an old men’s Rolex watch, which I bought for myself many, many years ago when I got a proper job. But it’s more like, when the watch is on, I mean business because I put it on in the morning when I go to work, and when I come home from work, it’s the first thing that I take off.
A perfect evening is….Dinner in a strange country with my partner and son. I don’t mean strange like an odd country; I mean a country that is new to us.
Is there any place on your travel wish list? I really want to go to Uzbekistan. And Namibia.
A table is never set without…Okay, well this is a blatant plug for my new home ware line, because we’ve just launched, which is on our website, readers. We did a collection that’s called Magical Animals. I really love nature. This collection is inspired by creatures which have been in our prints in the past; we’ve got naughty monkeys, birds and bananas and all sorts of stuff that feel like a kind of magical India to me. The home line came off the back actually of a New York Times article, because we shot a lot of our home and then got emails of people saying, “Oh, where we can buy this?” Because I designed all the fabrics for the sofas, and of course we designed the paintings on the walls and all of that stuff.
Favorite artists: They tend to change a little bit depending on what I’m working on, because I look at a lot of artists when I’m designing my collections and when I’m looking for inspiration for my prints.
Recently, there’s an artist named Anna Zemankova, who was a naïve artist from Czechoslovakia who lived in Poland I think in the 1950s. She did these incredible flowers and plants. Hilma af Klint, who recently had an exhibition at the Guggenheim. I like a lot of Chris Ofili. Also David Hockney because, again, that’s a color reference, and I just feel like everything he’s done is so joyful. And I also love Mughal decorative art. In India obviously there’s a huge amount of Mughal influence, and all of that decorative art has a influence in my work.
Five things that make a perfect room….A loved one, a dog, a really comfy sofa, bird songs, and a view.
Always on my bedside table: Water and hand cream. So boring. Nothing inspirational about that, but really practical.
You can tell a lot about a woman by….I’m going to decline to answer that question because it sounds like it’s from the 1950s. But I do think Diana Vreeland would probably have a good, pithy answer for that. I tried to think of an answer, and I thought, no, it felt like a very kind of….
It felt old-fashioned to you? I think we’re bigger than that. We’re more complicated.
Okay. I like that answer.
Daily rituals: I can tell you what everybody wants to hear, because I’m in India I get up, and I do some yoga, and meditate. I don’t do that. I drink coffee while listening to The Archers on BBC Radio 4 which is the radio station that your parents would listen to when you were growing up in the UK. It’s way old-fashioned and very middle class. The Archers is a radio soap opera, which has been going on since I think the 1950s. It’s on every day for 15 minutes. When I lived in the UK, I would never in a million years, ever, ever, ever have listened to something like that. I held it in such disdain. And now somehow living in a different country, it’s really weird the things that you cling onto from your past, I suppose.
How do you unplug? I walk the dog.
Hidden talents/hobbies: I’m not sure it’s a talent or a hobby, but for my first job I was a magician’s assistant.
Oh, that’s cool! Did you get cut in half? Yup, I did. And no, I’m not going to tell you how it’s done.
Favorite charity: I have a few that I’ve supported for as long as I can remember: Save the Children, Planned Parenthood, the World Wildlife Fund. More recently, because my son really wanted to pick a charity, he picked the Bowery Mission, which is a very New York-based one that has been around for years. And Arms Around the Child, which is a charity that helps build homes for children who have been orphaned by AIDS.
Do you collect anything? Nothing. I’m trying to get rid of everything. But I do like Indian fine jewelry. I wouldn’t say I collect it, but I’d quite like to collect it. If somebody would like to fund that collection, I would be happy to start it.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: Any trip I’ve ever taken.
Favorite small indulgence: Clean sheets.
Album currently on repeat: I’ve been listening to a lot of Donna Summer recently.
Lucky charm: My tattoos which are various things that represent my long-term boyfriend, and our son–my family. Also I have pieces of jewelry that my boyfriend gave me, which I wear all the time and feel very connected to. I have a lot of snakes both in the jewelry and the tattoos, which is very symbolic in India, so there’s a lot of that kind of creeping in. I’m also terrified of snakes, so I think that might be part of it.
Favorite hour of the day: Just before everyone else gets up, around or just before 6:00 AM. By nature I am not a morning person, so I feel so self-righteous and proud of myself that I got up. I always feel like I have to tell everyone, “I got up at this time this morning,” as if everyone has to be proud of me.
Sunday morning means….family and dog.
Follow Banjanan: Instagram.