the ingenuity of the west meets the mystery of the east along this designer’s artistic path
In the late forties, both branches of my family were forced into exile because of the partition between Pakistan and India. My dad was five or six years old. My mom was just a year old. Dad recounts tales of his family leaving castles full of riches in the middle of the night with little more than the clothes on their backs. Prior to that time, both of their families had known a good life, and afterward, their childhood and adolescent years were spent dreaming and scheming for a better life in America.
My parents moved to the United States in 1969 from India, just after their wedding. Their first stopping point was Chicago, which over the course of ten years became home to my older sister, Monika, and myself – until we moved to the mild-tempered Bay Area where my baby brother Amit was born. My mother has a favorite story which she recounts at our family gatherings and functions. One very rainy and windy day in Chicago, she was rushing to get me dressed, and didn’t have time to sort through the laundry to find a matching pair of socks. Immediately after having put me in a mismatched yellow and blue pair of booties, I began to cry and did not stop until I had two blue booties from the same pair. She says she knew it then.
By the age of five, my sister and I would replay scenes from Bollywood films in the bath. She would play the girl using soap suds for long hair. I would play the hero, Amitabh Bachchan, down on one knee, shoulders and arms pumping to the imaginary tunes. By evening, it was hitch kicks dressed in fingerless lace gloves, singing along to Madonna’s ‘Borderline’ while setting the table for dinner. Mom would be cooking ‘Shake’n’Bake’ in bell-bottoms, sporting an Afro and blue velvet platforms. I was happiest floating between two cultures, unable to subscribe to just one. I think we all were.
This juxtaposition of more than one identity and culture continued throughout my early twenties. I trained in London for five years in various specialties of tailoring ranging from bespoke tailoring with a master tailor of the Scottish guard, to constructing showpieces for Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows while receiving my fashion design degree. I could pass as European by way of my dress sensibility, but it would go south any time I opened my mouth. The American accent, no matter how I tried to soften it, would be littered with California-isms such as ‘like’ and ‘ohmygawd.’ I learned to keep my mouth shut, and to listen to what other people had to say.
My sister, who was working for the prosecution of war criminals on the Yugoslavian Tribunal for the United Nations, was visiting me one weekend to meet with her Guru, His Holiness Swami Chidanand Saraswati. During her stay, I knew that my path had changed.
Within a couple of years, her Guru became my Guru, and we went to visit my brother, who was living in Swamiji’s ashram, at Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh, India.
My yoga practice began there. The classes were housed in a glass hut on the top floor of the children’s school, or Gurukul. Each morning, the Rishikumars, or adopted orphans, would rush to class in their tangerine colored robes, with ash smeared across their foreheads from their morning prayers. It was early enough in the morning to watch the sun rise over the peaks of the Himalaya while doing sun salutations. There would always be a gang of monkeys hovering around tending to each other, using us in our downward dog and crane as entertainment. I must have looked ridiculous in shoulder stand, nearly toppling over every time I attempted to lift my legs from plow. I just didn’t care that it was going to take years for me to know the craft. I loved the moment of floating within the movement. I loved being pushed to my outer limit where I was finally free from my ego. This process is my greatest comfort in times of any struggle.
It is this yoga practice that has brought me to where I am now. It has always been my desire to cultivate a clothing line. But it was on my next visit to Parmarth Niketan ashram that this desire would take shape into a yogic lifestyle brand. The core of the brand, “Mintee,” which I run with my mother, is to provide a range of clothing and accessory lines to meet the needs of the many different types of people, not only during their yoga practice, but also throughout the rest of their day. The clothing is designed from a European construction and silhouette while using India’s rich heritage for its aesthetic foundation. In a sense, it is as if the red carpet were born in the south of France in the 1970s with access to European cutting techniques and Indian prints and borders.
I have chosen not to manufacture any products containing leather or any other animal product. There are a number of products that I enjoy that contain leather, ranging from handbags to stilettos. I feel that my fashion peers meet my needs each season and it serves no use to provide that same service when it means contributing to the slaughter of many innocent animals. The possibilities for designing with beautiful fabrications are limitless.
The bridge linking India’s heritage with the western world is not purely aesthetic or yogic. All of the production for this company is based in India. Mintee is partnering with the Shakti Foundation, headed by His Holiness Pujya Swamiji Chidanand Saraswati, to build vocational villages that will house and train the thousands of orphans and widows devastated by the tsunami disaster. It is not only important to provide shelter for those in need, but it is important to use this company as a vehicle to distribute wealth in a socially responsible and compliant manner. There is already a shift of economy into the industrial areas of the major cities in India. It is critical to honor the regions where the craft and inspirations of my designs originate.
These villages will provide for these women and children not only in basic housing and training, but we will also build factories nearby to employ these women. A percentage of the gross profits earned by these factories will go into developing the neighboring villages. We will work to provide whatever the needs are to the specific village, ranging anywhere from schools to sanitation. Additionally, Mintee will also have a profit margin built into each product. These funds will be used to continue the developmental work in rural areas of need. We would love to start similar vocational training in Nepal and Tibet.
My family structure is instrumental in being able to live as a world citizen. I was never only the daughter and sister of the Kalra family, but I was a sister in the bigger scope of humanity. My responsibility and loyalties lead me to remember those who are in need any time money exchanges hands in relation to my company. This company may be called Mintee, but I do not declare it as mine. It is a company that everyone is a part of. By working together we can achieve a momentum of healing and provide for our world family.
Note from the editor: Since this article was publihed, the closing line has stopped being produced.