Ria Sejpal: I make eco-friendly clothes

Fashion designer Ria Ana Sejpal, founder and creator of Lilabare. (David Gichuru, Standard)

Imagine having an outfit that you adjust to any size without tailoring it, it’s fluid, meaning you don’t have to choose it based on your gender, and your awareness about gender. environment is clear because it is either made from recycled materials or original. in an environmentally friendly way.

This outfit would probably come from Lilabare, a Kenyan fashion brand. “Gentle for the planet and uplifting for all” is their philosophy.

Ria Sejpal, the brand’s founder, has worked in the fashion industry since the age of 13, having had experience in the Export Processing Zone (EPZ), fashion houses in London, retail retail in the United Kingdom (UK), at Fashion Week in Mumbai and in bespoke tailors’ workshops in Nairobi.

We are in her studio, where the self-taught designer tells me her story. “For my university thesis, I wrote an article called ‘Is Green the New Black?’ basically asking anyone I’d ever worked for that question,” she says. “Asking this meant, ‘Is it possible to be good for the environment, to pay people fairly, to have good working conditions for everyone involved, to have a traceable supply chain and to make a profit in the fashion industry?'”

Each of them struggled to say yes to that question, so she decided to cast Lilabare as an answer, to change that narrative. Having worked on the EPZ floor, she knew a lot of fabric was wasted, and in a classic case where one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, she decided to start there.

“That’s where I started with my fabric supply. I went to many EPZ units and large textile manufacturers across the country and asked them what they do with their waste. They have these warehouses where the fabric just sits. A manufacturing unit I work with that produces luxury fashion found 6,000 yards of undocumented fabric after I asked that question,” she says.

Ria Sejpal.

She explains that for context, you can assume that a yard of fabric is a t-shirt.

“So I started this journey of acquiring local fabrics from waste, or what we perceive as waste, and that’s really where the brand comes from,” she says.

That’s how she started recycling.

Despite sourcing waste fabrics from various units across the country, the reality is that there are only a very small handful of large manufacturing units in Kenya that manufacture cotton fabrics or natural fabrics, which means that its pool was quite limited. She has also approached Africa Collect Textiles.

Kenya receives 185,000 tons of second-hand clothes every year, as Sejpal explains. The clothes, locally known as mitumba, come in bales, and often mitumba sellers don’t know what they’re going to get until they buy the full bale, 25 kilos or more .

“Of what the mitumba vendors sell, we waste on average 10-40% of that every year. It goes into our landfills,” she explains.

Using mitumba waste, which is collected by Africa Collect Textiles, Sejpal designed the patchwork denim print that uses multiple pairs of jeans per jacket.

It is the only product that uses 100% recycled materials. The rest of the material is of sustainable origin.

Sejpal’s goal was also to source locally, a feat she achieved with her latest collection, Urithi.

“’Urithi’ means ‘heritage’. Something you pass down from generation to generation. The textile itself is 100% East African, from farm to finish. This means 100% cotton origin, weaving, ginning, spinning, dyeing, all done entirely in the region,” she says.

Sejpal explains that Kenya operates at 20% of the country’s production capacity for cotton, so she has expanded local production to the region. This means that a large part of the yarn comes from Uganda and is mixed with Kenyan cotton.

Everything is rainfed and organic. This is a crucial factor for her in terms of sustainability, as she explains that it takes 8,000 liters of water to grow enough cotton for just one pair of jeans.

“Cotton is a very thirsty plant, and when we use synthetic irrigation it takes away from consumption and sanitation, things that we absolutely need in this country and must be prioritized. To grow cotton that we use, we just rely on nature and the rains we get, so we don’t take anything away from sanitation and consumption,” she says.

Its aim is to work with different members of the value chain such as farmers, ginners, weavers and spinners and educate them on how to improve their performance compared to what designers are looking for.

And what do people think of all this? The numbers tell the story. While many businesses were collapsing at the start of the pandemic in 2020, Lilabare achieved 37% year-over-year sales growth that year.

“What this told me is that there is an ever-growing group of people who stop to think about the impact of their own consumption and gravitate towards brands that not only consider how much everything is done consciously, but also how this sustainability is passed on to the consumer,” says Sejpal.

She faced supply challenges, but never demand. The manufacturing units, such as textile production and garment manufacturing units, mainly focus mainly or solely on exporting, so there is a missing gap where local designers like Sejpal are not served by the manufacturing units. local manufacturing or fabric manufacturing units.