Alice van Grutten
Posted on November 22 2017
Today, we sat down with Alice van Grutten, founder of KRAIT; a luxury and sustainable fashion brand which empowers women - both its creators and customers. Alice talks us though her background, how she got interested in fashion and how a trip to India changed her path.
Newnham: What were you like growing up and what led to you starting KRAIT?
Van Grutten: I was always into fashion. At school I had the most splendid friend, he used to call me Naomi Campbell and he was Stefano Gabbana, which is hysterical in hindsight! We spent days in the art room, pretending we were part of the luxury fashion world. Together we would sit and discuss Gucci, Valentino and the ‘Supers’.
After being taken to the Manolo Blahnik exhibition by my mother at the age of nine, my life changed. Blahnik blew my mind - there was ample colour, imagination and whimsical beauty in those illustrations and designs. I spent the following years of my life designing hundreds of shoes; I was never without my sketchbook or watercolour box. I was submerged in this dream world of stilettos and suede.
Studies and school carried on until I passed all the necessary exams and then it was my turn to decide what I wanted to do. I headed to London where I interned for what seemed like a lifetime, with absolutely no job offers! This was the time when the fashion industry got in a lot of trouble for using free interns to pad out the workforce.
I pretty quickly swapped the inside of a fashion PR office for the espressos and cigarettes of Florence. Finding myself surrounded by the most remarkable food, fashion and architecture, my new life begun as a fashion student. After completing my course I dabbled behind the doors of Pucci and Calvin Klein.
I then returned to London and worked for international fashion houses before ending up in the London property industry. But the pieces of the puzzle just weren’t fitting together anymore so I quit my job, packed a small bag and got on a flight to India, and it was on this journey that KRAIT was truly born. Seeing the social injustice within communities, sheer wastage of fabric and the lack of basic resources for women, I decided that if I was going to create a fashion brand, then the label had to give back to the people who helped create it.
Newnham: Can you tell us more about KRAIT and this ethos you mentioned?
Van Grutten: We are a luxury, slow-fashion brand that I founded earlier this year with a focus on sustainable fashion and female empowerment. We deliver avant-garde designs using luxury surplus and vintage fabrics from across the world.
We also work alongside partner companies across India, helping to support local communities by offering skills development, education and healthcare to women and children. With a transparent supply chain and traceable clothing that brings you fashion with emotional significance and an honest story behind it. KRAIT creates awareness within the garment industry by bringing to light and celebrating the individual behind each piece of every collection.
It is KRAIT’s belief that the fashion industry can flourish without compromising the health and welfare of either the artisans or the planet. As an aside - the label did not start as an ethical fashion brand, but after seeing the working conditions in factories across India and horrified at the cheap labour prices, I decided that this way of manufacturing was not something we would support.
The fashion industry is valued as a 3 trillion dollar industry and people are being exploited in third world countries by big fashion houses. This is unacceptable to me. KRAIT is a brand that does not stand for mass production, exploitation and unjust working conditions and is an avid believer in Vivienne Westwood’s statement - “Buy less, choose well, make it last.”
A big believer in ethical fashion, I think it starts with education - if consumers understand the full impact on the planet and realise that the cheap shirt they are wearing caused x amount of damage, we have a chance. The most fashionable thing you can do, is buy clothes that will not destroy this world.
We work with surplus or vintage fabric - often using material destined for landfill and therefore not producing any unnecessary waste in production. We have partnered with a company in rural India which focuses - supporting one another, we are able to make changes to the way of garment manufacturing. Skills training is offered to women who manufacture for KRAIT, land earning these new skills in pattern cutting and dressmaking allows them financial independence.
There is also an education outreach team who make sure that the children in the town are attending school and the first female health clinic has been opened, which sees roughly 45 women every two weeks helping with severe anemia, pre- and postnatal issues, HIV testing and gynecological problems that have gone untreated. The women who work for KRAIT are able to work from home or from the community center that has been set up so they work flexible hours and are paid well above minimum wage. I know them all individually and often spend time with them hearing what problems they are coming up against and how these can be solved.
Ultimately, we deliver a transparent supply chain to the market and trackable clothing. Every item you buy from KRAIT is accompanied by a hand written note explaining who made this item and a little bit about them as a person.
Newnham: Can you tell us more about that initial trip to India and how it shaped your purpose with KRAIT?
Van Grutten: I have always had an obsession with Varanasi, the city of death. That is why I originally got on a plane to India, to see this place that I had read about in books. Varanasi took my heart, and broke it into a million pieces for me to put back together, it challenged me and put magical people on my path.
Everything I knew was turned upside down in Varanasi and my life had been rethought and changed by the time I got to Kathmandu three days later. I was in love with the world again, the people who inhabit it and I was dreading going back to London to the point it made me feel sick. Fashion was what I adored; I had studied it and given up on the dream long ago. But here, the fashion dream was staring at me in the face now and I realised this was the opportunity for me to do something that I loved, and I could do it in the most positive way I knew how. After a depressing stint living in Stockholm, I was back in Delhi again with so much fight within me.
I was starting a fashion brand and it was going to be worth all the hard work! With a lot of talking and meandering dusty roads, Delhi opened its doors to me; the secrets of the city and the industrial areas were there for the finding. But what I found shocked me, the working conditions, crazy targets, dumping grounds and excess. I decided that if I wanted to have a brand and work in a country that I loved, this brand had to give back. I didn’t want to be a small fish working in a huge factory, where I didn’t know the people who made the clothes. I believe in fair pay and support of workers. I wanted to have a relationship with the people who work for KRAIT and that is what I want to pass on to the people who shop at KRAIT- for them to feel like they have a relationship with the people behind the brand and they understand the story.
I read extensively about the fashion Industry and the pollution; I saw the effects first-hand in India. Having travelled extensively through India and seen the hardships, I needed to do something to help. I stumbled across an NGO in a small village called Bhikamkor that helps the town’s women and children in the most remarkable way. I chose to work with them - the wonder women of Bhikamkor make KRAIT’s clothes and are offered in training and pattern cutting, dressmaking and most importantly gain financial independence. It is an honour to work with these super strong and independent women; they have the biggest hearts imaginable and spending time with them is just such fun.
What it really boils down to is that it’s more important that the women who work for KRAIT are being paid fairly and working in good conditions. That is more essential than me making an enormous profit. Being humane in the manufacturing process and not being overly greedy. Minimising waste, working with good intentions and listening to the problems people are facing. India is the most exciting place, it has shown me such kindness and adventure; being able to work there is incredible and being able to help in a small way is worth every minute of work.
Newnham: What obstacles have you faced getting KRAIT going and how did you overcome them?
Van Grutten: Starting a business is riddled with obstacles as I have found out. The entrepreneurs, we are all winging it! I landed in India with no contacts, no factory names, nowhere to stay, no phone and a mission to start a business in 3 months. Quite enough difficulties there already. I have faced obstacles every step of the way, and the things you plan on going wrong don’t, and the things that go wrong are so random, you couldn’t have foreseen it unless you were a psychic! The way I have overcome them is by being exceptionally flexible in every situation. Having to be creative and muddle through the best way you can, and I dislike this expression but ‘ thinking outside the box’. I am lucky enough to have had the emotional backing from the most supportive friends and family - I have called on them for advice, help, support and they have always delivered.
So I would say "ALWAYS FOLLOW YOUR GUT." That keeps some obstacles at bay!
Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time what advice would you offer a younger Alice?
Van Grutten: I think I can sum it up in a quote better- the hustle is real. “Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Winston Churchill