Home Brand feature Empowering Women and Bridging Gaps With Victoria Road

Empowering Women and Bridging Gaps With Victoria Road

June 12, 2016

It’s hard not to fall in love with the beautiful colors, elaborate beading, hand stitching, and other details you’ll find in Pakistani and Indian fashion. There is a rich tradition and artistry within fashion and textile design in that part of the world that is alluring and distinct.  Megan Brosterman and Shannon Grewer, co-founders of Victoria Road have made it their business to share that beauty with the world through their collaborative clothing line.

Upon seeing their collection, I was smitten with their line of girls clothing and also loved the relaxed ease of their cotton tunics.  While the brand does have some wool and leather products which are obviously not vegan, there are plenty of beautiful cotton  pieces including tops, dresses, and jackets.

I caught up  with Brosterman to discuss the paths that led her and co-founder Shannon Grewer to founding their brand. Megan explains the importance of empowering women with employment, the inclusive supply chain, and the processes of bringing their collaborative collections from idea to fruition.

*edited for length



Let’s start with where you’re both originally from, what led you to founding Victoria Road, and your overall inspiration to start this brand? Was there a special connection either of you had to Pakistan that compelled you to establish your brand there?

 Megan: Shannon’s originally from Connecticut; and I’m originally from Pennsylvania. Now Shannon lives in Dubai and I live in New York. In between, we met at a law firm in Washington DC, where we both practiced in the Project Finance group. She took me to lunch on my first day of work at the firm. At the time she was working on an energy project in North Africa. We spent the entire lunch talking about how many jobs the project could create for the surrounding population weighed against the potential disruption it could create for the region and immediately realized we shared a passion for empowerment-based economic development. Also, Shannon really loves to make things! Whether it was the table cloths and guest bags for her wedding or reupholstering antique chairs, it seemed like if she wasn’t drafting contracts, she was sitting behind a sewing machine crafting something. I share an appreciation of good design with Shannon and have spent countless hours behind a sewing machine myself.

I eventually took a job at another firm in New York. Shannon went on to develop a Pakistan infrastructure practice at a different firm in DC.

Shannon: That’s when the seed for Victoria Road was first planted. I was traveling to Pakistan every few weeks and I loved everything about it – the people, the culture, the fashion, the food. I went with an idea in my head of what to expect that was shaped by everything I’ve heard and read in the media about the country – and it was completely upended. The people I met were so warm, welcoming, generous, happy and beautiful. There is this rich culture of hospitality that makes me feel at home every time I visit. I love meeting new people, and learning about their stories and their aspirations over a cup of tea. And not only that – I could not get over the fashion there! The vibrant colors, the couture hand embroideries and beadwork, the fabrics, the jewelry – it took my breath away. I packed as much as I could in my suitcase and started wearing it around DC, getting compliments wherever I went.

So, Victoria Road has sort of merged these two passions: both for sharing this richness in design and culture with the West, as well as to help the local economy by connecting its talented designers and artisans and budding entrepreneurs along our “inclusive supply chain.”

Part of your brands’ mission is to support women-run small businesses- particularly because the success of female run businesses is a major contributor and indicator of economic growth in developing countries and emerging markets. Why do you think women are so crucial to bolstering economic success in these emerging markets?

Megan:  From what we’ve read and seen, there are two main lines of reasoning as to why women’s participation in the workforce, and particularly in business ownership and management, is crucial to emerging markets economies.

The first comes from an equality perspective; studies show that in emerging markets in particular, often a large percentage of women does not participate in the workforce, whether due to lack of education and opportunity, misogynistic laws, cultural tradition or otherwise.

Given that 50% of the world’s population is made up of women, simply getting these women involved in the workforce would increase production capacity. But it doesn’t stop there. Many countries have regulations in place that make it difficult for women to start and run a business. Removing these rules to allow those women to participate in the economy as small business owners would provide a huge boost from job creation through to GDP. (See, e.g., http://www.forbes.com/sites/elizabethmacbride/2015/07/30/women-business-owners-emerging-markets/#1f36681d5293 , https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/sdn/2013/sdn1310.pdf, http://www.genderprinciples.org/resource_files/EmpWomen_USA4_Letter13-09-26-02-10-38.pdf)

The second perspective, which is a hallmark of the Goldman Sachs reports on the subject (and I believe has been written about elsewhere), is that profits of women-run businesses are more likely to be invested in the education and welfare of their children, meaning “virtuous cycle: female spending supports the development of human capital, which fuels economic growth in the years ahead.” (Giving credit where it is due: How closing the credit gap for women-owned SMEs can drive global growth, Goldman Sachs Global Markets Institute, February 2014 http://www.goldmansachs.com/our-thinking/public-policy/gmi-folder/gmi-report-pdf.pdf )

 As women business owners ourselves, we completely agree with both reasons! Empowering women to follow their entrepreneurial dreams helps emerging economies not only at the bottom line GDP. It promotes, to quote the Bhutanese term, “Gross National Happiness” (or the nation’s health and well-being), as well.

How do you find these businesses to partner with?

Megan: Shannon is constantly on the lookout for new suppliers of quality [materials] that understand and agree with our mission and model. Our Director of Logistics, Mohtshim Jawaid, has vendor contacts all over the country, and together Shannon and Mohtshim meet with tens of potential partners each season as they develop our trusted supply chain bit by bit. Word of mouth and relationships are key to making this work. We get lots of referrals from friends and people in the industry who know us and want to support our mission. There is a very strong eco-system in Pakistan to support social entrepreneurship. We are very active in this space and that has opened a lot of doors for us.

 

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I love the collaborative concept of VR… You collaborate with designers & artisans who have a modern sensibility, but are clearly inspired by their culture and traditions.Could you explain your process from your in-house design team collaborating with designers through to production and marketing?

Megan:  Each season, we find one or more designers that share our values and our aesthetic sensibilities with whom to work. Our in-house creative team consists of Shannon, Megan and our Creative Director, Sara Malik, as well as a number of trusted friends and advisors whose design sensibility we admire. The team pulls together a number of silhouettes and design elements we’d like to use for the season and presents that to our design partner, and she runs with it!

When we produced our first collection in collaboration with Natalia Naveed, we said we’d like a shift dress, a poncho or cape, a vest, and a long dress to be worn over pants. Natalia came back with a fully developed mood board where she presented us with her proposed color choices based on the Pantone projected color trends for the season, as well as the geometric Islamic art aesthetic that’s so prevalent in our collection. We loved it and she developed sketches and embroidery motifs for the multi-head embroidery work used in many of the pieces. She also went together with Shannon and Mohtshim to choose fabrics for the collection, and consulted with our technical design and production team as they developed the patterns and samples for each piece. Natalia approved each final sample and assisted when tweaks needed to be made. The marketing promotion was truly a collaboration as well! We had a full team Skype call with Natalia before the photo shoot to discuss how the pieces would be styled. Natalia and we cross-promoted the collection on our social media and press outlets across the ocean.

How do you decide which designers to work with – do you work exclusively with designers from Pakistan and India?

 Megan: Right now, our factory space where we do all of our product development and production is in Lahore, Pakistan, so it’s just most convenient for all parties that we work with designers that either live there or can travel there for extended visits particularly during the sampling process.

We look for designers who are either pursuing or have completed a degree in fashion design, and/or who have a few years of experience working in a design house, whether in Pakistan or elsewhere. Our partners must fully understand and be on board with our missions to elevate indigenous craft and artisanship as well to keep our supply chain local and transparent. These pillars necessarily affect the design process with additional layers of consideration that our partner designers may not be used to, but that they appreciate and enjoy!

So you collaborate with different designers each season?

Megan: Yes, the model is to discover new designers each season. Some may continue to work with us across multiple seasons as we’ve worked with Natalia Naveed and Deepak Perwani, and we look forward to developing new relationships with up and coming designers for future collections.

Will you ever build staple/mainstay pieces into your collection from collaborations with designers that perform especially well? Or will a particular piece only be available for a limited time for the season in which it was designed?

Megan: There will definitely be staple pieces upon which we’ll improve each year…As we develop our library of patterns, we’ll also have some standby silhouettes that our customers will know and expect, like our simple, shape-flattering shifts and tunics. We’ve spent a long time developing and perfecting our fit, and we want our customers to know that a size medium, etc., will fit them season after season the way they expect.

 

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It seems as though one of your biggest impacts for these artisans & designers is providing them the access to global markets they might not otherwise be able to enter Could you please tell us a bit about the barriers that artisans and designers in these areas typically face in trying to grow into larger markets and how Victoria Road helps remove these barriers?

Megan: The barrier most people tend to think of is finding a market platform from which to access markets beyond the local region. And this is where we originally thought we could add the most value.

But once we began our journey with Victoria Road, we realized we could actually serve our partner designers and artisans even better by providing them with feedback and consultation that would allow them to more keenly understand the global markets to which they want to sell their designs. This entails not only an aesthetic sensibility that delicately bridges East and West, but also an understanding of the cuts and fits that Western women are looking for.

We still provide access to the U.S. and global markets through our wholesales and our e-commerce and other retail channels, but more importantly, we help provide a bridge to U.S. and Western consumers through our collaborative process.

 As far as sustainability goes, I know you use fabric scraps to create your kids line – please tell us more about that and if you’re taking any other environmental initiatives be more environmentally friendly?

Megan: We have always been very conscious about how we choose and use our materials.  We source locally to reduce our carbon footprint while helping the local economy.  And we do not waste, as a rule.  If something is off spec, we will fix the piece re-using as much of the same materials as possible, and use the rest for other pieces like children’s wear – we do not scrap the piece.  And we use all leftover fabrics to make children’s pieces and work into new products as much as possible.

When we have fabric embroidered on multihead machines, the process requires that we have increments of 8 meters of fabric embroidered at a time. This necessarily will create waste with bits and pieces of fabric. We always had our eye on developing a children’s line, and it was the most natural step to start making “mini me” girls’ dresses with the leftover embroidered fabrics from the women’s dresses. There are also some occasions when, unfortunately, the embroidery will have flaws in it in awkward spots that will not allow the fabric’s use for women’s sized dresses, but we can work around those areas to get a few good kid’s pieces out of the fabric. We’ve also been sampling other uses for these leftover fabric scraps, such as clutches and miniskirts.

Power availability is a challenge in Pakistan, particularly during the summer months. There can be three to five hours of power outages each day which severely impacts our production. Currently we have battery back-up systems to power our sewing machines and fans to keep the space cool but these are not sufficient for the steam press, which is necessary in the cutting and final pressing of the garments. We are hoping to install solar panels on the roof of the factory so that going forward all energy needs can be provided through a renewable energy source.

 

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VR is also committed to supply chain transparency and following the “Inclusive Supply Chain” Please explain what the Inclusive Supply Chain entails?

Megan: The Inclusive Supply Chain is a term coined by Naushaba Brohi, one of our original partner designers who works with women artisans in and around Sindh, Pakistan and incorporates their craft into her beautiful, globally appealing designs. Naushaba’s work is an inspiration to us. When Naushaba uses the term, she is referring to elevating artisans’ craft so that they are truly participating in and recognized on the global fashion stage. We could not agree more, and we like to extend the term to the entire supply chain, from the weavers who create hand-loomed fabric, to the entrepreneurs and their employees who run the multihead machine embroidery shops, to the cut and stitch team at our own workshop.

In essence, our goal is to use the “inclusive supply chain” to change the way clothes are made in emerging markets: putting the focus back on the spectacular local talent in design and craftsmanship where clothes are made and away from the cheap, high volume, unoriginal and anonymously made fast fashion that the industry so often expects.

Tell me about your factory in Lahore

 Megan: Our facility in Lahore is co-owned and co-managed by Shannon and Mohtshim through a Pakistani private company.

 We began moving into the space earlier this year, and have a small but growing team working there on patternmaking, design development and production. We have space for Adda workers and other artisans to comfortably do their craft, as well as plans for moving processes like fabric dying in-house, so that we can maintain tighter controls on our supply chain and environmental impact.

We want to make this facility a center of ethical, sustainable and transparent design and production in Pakistan. This is a safe, happy and healthy place for our designers, artisans, skilled garment workers and logistics support team to come together and create.

Finally, what are your favorite pieces from your line right now?

Megan: From the Spring collection, I’m in love with the Adda Cotton Tunic, which shows off the spectacular hand beaded embroidery work of our adda artisans. And since it’s a classic white cotton tunic, it can be dressed up or down as a wardrobe staple.

 



Next week I’ll be reviewing a Victoria Road dress perfect for a summer wedding or occasion

{and will have a discount code for my readers! }

Stay tuned!

 

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3 comments

The Audrey Dress by Victoria Road (and discount code!) | My Blog June 28, 2016 at 11:02 pm

[…] fashion […]

Reply
Summer Edwards July 17, 2016 at 11:11 am

I love that they work with local designers and local entrepreneurs and businesses. Too often well meaning Westerners want to make a difference but implement a business model that is still neo-colonial in nature. I love that this brand honours the talent, skills and expertise that exists in Pakistan, and doen’t tell a story to encourage ‘pity shopping’.

Another great brand that you should check out is The Fabric Social. They work in India, but close to the Pakistani border and thier business model is a true model of empowerment.
http://www.tortoiseandladygrey.com/2016/01/11/the-fabric-social/

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My Kind Closet July 18, 2016 at 8:18 pm

Thanks for reading, Summer! I’m looking forward to checking out The Fabric Social – thanks for the recommendation 🙂

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