Inspired by her talented mother and vibrant Indian culture, New York designer Swati Argade started a small business that brings sustainable fashions to the masses.
Like many women who grow up in a tight-knit immigrant family, Swati Argade was destined to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Her parents urged her to find a stable, reliable career. Everyone gets sick and pays taxes, her father said, so find a career in medicine or accounting.
But instead of following stability, Swati Argade followed her dreams.
Argade is the founder and creative director of Bhoomki, a boutique in Brooklyn dedicated to sustainable fashion. After seeing environmental and social atrocities in the apparel industry, she was determined to create a business that made a positive impact and aligned with her core values.
“When a customer leaves here with a bag full of Bhoomki merchandise, I want them to feel great about the quality product that they bought,” Argade said. “I want them to feel and look beautiful — I want them to feel proud that their purchase had a lot of attention to social and economic responsibility.”
The word Bhoomki is a loose hybrid of the Sanskrit and Hindi words for “of mother earth.” Argade sources organic, recycled and artisan fabrics with low-impact dyes.
She works with women-owned, labor compliant factories in India, where workers make living wages and are able to send their kids to school.
Running Bhoomki would be impossible without technology, said Argade, adding that she uses it in every facet of her business. She uses point-of-sale systems in the store, while inventory and financial management software tools help her plan for future collections. She creates her designs in Photoshop and Illustrator and uses CAD software to share patterns with fabric printers.
Her laptop, a Dell XPS 13 powered by an Intel Core i7 processor, lets her work from anywhere. Where she used to spend time and money taking sourcing trips to India, she can now share screens or see fabrics over Skype.
The Early Days
Agade’s first foray into fashion was creating dance costumes for the stage. Her mother runs the oldest Indian dance school in her hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, where Argade grew up enmeshed in Indian classical dance.
But at 19, she ventured to New York City and it was there she found her calling.
“I knew that I wanted to be around more like-minded, creatively driven people,” she said. After college at the University of North Carolina, where she studied art history and business, she made her move.
“When I came up to New York I was working with the American Dance Festival, which is one of the oldest modern dance organizations in the country,” she said. “I was able to do a lot of choreography and design costumes for the stage.”
She went to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied film history with a focus on Bollywood musicals.
During her research, she met textile designers in India whose families had been designing textiles for centuries. They shared stories about how industrialization in the textile industry had changed the appetite for artisanal textiles.
“I completely fell in love as soon as I saw what they were doing,” she said. “I bought a bunch of bolts of textiles and started making costumes.”
She created and wore her own fashions. People would stop her and ask where they came from.
“That’s how my fashion business was born.”
“What happens when you start a business is you open one door and two more open,” said Argade. “It’s the idea that like attracts like. That’s how things opened up for me.”
Argade began wholesaling her designs around the U.S. and throughout Asia. Soon her fashions were in more than a hundred stores around the world.
She quickly became aware of atrocities occurring in the apparel industry that ran counter to the kind of business she wanted to create.
“Working in India you see a lot of poverty and you also see a lot of glamor,” she said.
She recounts the time she toured the pristine showroom of a high-end handbag factory in India.
“I asked the owner of the factory to show me where everything was made,” she said. “I walked in, and it was nothing but children making these bags for pennies.”
It was a moment of disillusionment and heartbreak for Argade.
“At that point, I knew that there was a major disconnect in what was happening in the apparel industry,” she said.
After having a child, Argade took some time to think about how to create a fashion business that would align with her values. She found a small space in Brooklyn and set to work creating a business where she could make beautiful clothing in an environmentally sustainable way, while ensuring the people who created the fabrics in India made living wages.
Having passion for your product and your process is essential in small business, Argade said, as is patience.
“I think a lot of people starting small businesses expect to be a great success overnight. But it’s really hard work,” she said, adding that hiring talented staff and working with people you can trust is essential. “It can be a slow climb, but as long as you’re moving forward, that’s what matters.”
She also said that it takes time learning what you need from a technology perspective. She said having the tech pieces in place lets her spend more time with her family and serve the “Bhoomki Believers” — her loyal customers who value both the high-quality clothing, but also the knowledge that the garments have been made ethically with the highest possible regard for the planet and its people.
Argade credits her parents for instilling strong values of hard work and doing something you believe in. She said she learned anything was possible from her mother, who owned a small business, raised four kids and managed the home.
“To see that someone can handle all of those things with so much grace is a constant inspiration,” Argade said.
Editor’s note: Swati Argade’s story is part of iQ’s #SHEOWNSIT series, which spotlights women small business owners and their journeys of success.