Ethical fashion enterprise, Saheli Women launches standalone collection with Novelmodels

Rajasthan-based non-profit Saheli Women has grown from five to 80 women since Madhu Vaishnav founded the artisan collective in 2015, crafting artful garments from discarded saris and recycled cotton for the likes of Zazi Vintage and other sustainably minded brands.

Now, the women are releasing their first ever stand-alone collection in a special collaboration with Novelmodels, Adrénus Craton’s modelling agency founded to transform the industry by working with models committed to working for ethical brands.  The 125-piece collection with a campaign starring Eve Melendez launches today in Houston, Texas. We spoke to Adrénus and Madhu about the story behind the collaboration and the potential impact.

ECO-AGE: Can you begin by telling us about the origins of the collaboration.

MADHU: Hopefully, we’ll be able to give you not a story about the garment, but the story about the people who created it and the dream I bring to this little desert village in Texas. I bring not only my dream but the dream of the 80 ladies who work with me. I’m super excited, at the same time I’m a little nervous. Because once I go back, there will be 80 eyes looking at me with hope. It’s a new journey for us; this is first time we are selling directly.

ECO-AGE: Can you tell us how you found each other?

ADRÉNUS: How did we meet? I’ve been following Saheli Women on Instagram for a long time. Madhu was recognized in New York Fashion Week. It’s more visibility. We were keeping in touch and then I sent Saheli Women and Madhu one of our new models, Eve. “We just signed her; we would love to work with ethical fashion labels.”

MADHU: For me, a few times the ladies asked me, “why can we not sell directly? Why do you always go through the client?” Because the ethical fashion path is also not easy. There are a lot of people who use it to greenwash. And we’ve been cheated. We’ve been misused, or sometimes people come and try to give us so much sympathy. And they talk about how much they care. And it’s really not about sympathy: the colonial time is over. It’s all about equal respect.

So, the ladies asked me, “why should we not sell directly?” When I spoke with Adrenus, and she sent me Eve’s picture and she was so excited to somehow work with us and collaborate with us. I thought, “this could be the opportunity. Let’s try something different and new.”

ECO-AGE: It seems really exciting, and more mutually respectful. It’s the people who just want the designs and then models who are showing their own values in how they work.

MADHU: For us, this collection is very, very important. Because we do a lot of design. When we are working also with the client, we put a lot of input in designs, also in the textiles. But unfortunately, we’ve been always recognized as a production unit. And then because we put this demand, a lot of our brands are only sustainable, so they give us equal rights. But I feel it’s also bringing more autonomy and more respect in the design area. So, I don’t know how it will sell. But it is very respectful. We are building a new reputation for the organization and for the ladies: these ladies are not workers, these ladies are real artists, and they can design anything. 

ECO-AGE: Tell us about the design process.

MADHU: So, 100% of the textiles we have used in this production are recycled or upcycled. The majority are either from old Sari, which is one of our expertise, or cotton, which we have used for our dresses and that’s all deadstock, leftovers.

ECO-AGE: Beautiful. Tell us about the models involved.

ADRÉNUS: Eve is the face. I scouted her when I was working in an art gallery. She was walking past with her mother, and I was like, “who is that?” All I saw was hair. I ran outside and I was like, “Excuse me! Are you guys from here? I don’t like to recognize your faces…”.  Because in a small town, you know who everybody is, and they were just passing through. She’s a volleyball player. My mom was a volleyball player. There was something about her.

She looked at the website and I told her about the ethical fashion side of things and trying to make a change in the industry. The winter went by, and then the following year… this is slow fashion. This is slow scouting: really trying to find the right models. I got an email from the father, “We told her if she keeps her grades up, then we would look into it”.

It just clicked. For me, that is all part of the process, meeting the parents and finding out what their values are. It’s not going to just be people who are wanting to be the next big thing.

And at the time, I showed Eve the Saheli Women website. She’s the first one who’s working with one of the ethical fashion designers that we were wanting to work with.

ECO-AGE: What are your hopes for the collaboration?

MADHU: It is a new journey for us now. We have taken a big jump at the end 2023. I hope whatever will happen will happen for a good reason, will give us a lot of insight, and will give us a new path. When I started six years back, none of my ladies were trained in stitching. They’d never come out of the home. I would say 70% of the ladies never went to school. Schooling is a dream for them. So, we get the ladies who start from scratch – they start learning the alphabet, what is the extra small, what is M, what is L? I’m bringing their dreams to America and hopefully, we’ll be able to find a new path, a new journey and it will be bringing a lot of respect for the ladies and organization.

At the same time, if this model will be successful, then we would be able to have most of the revenue coming back to the organization. So, we will be able to give every woman a shareholding and we will be able to share the profit with them. When you come from a developing country, especially from a village where there is no economy, the money is very important, because poverty is very strongly linked with the female. Poverty impacts woman more than men because she can’t eat healthy and whatever she cooks she feeds for her children. Our ladies were sending their children for child labour because they needed bread and butter. So, our goal is to create an example: That coming from a little tiny village starting with a $100 budget and five ladies, you can create history.

ADRÉNUS: My hopes and dreams for this collaboration is for it to be successful. Wildly successful. And I’m really excited that Madhu made the trip, so she’s actually here physically and she can meet the people who are buying the clothes.

And with the model side of things, I’m hoping that the models can see the process: that it doesn’t have to be the way it used to be. You can connect with the designers on a personal level. Everybody is involved. And it’s not like the models sit out here in the cold while everything happens, and then get called to shoot and then say bye. It’s a full circle connection.  Everybody has a place.