I went through a phase this year where it seemed like everywhere I turned another person was making yet another comment steeped in racism, classism, or sexism. On Facebook, on TV, in casual conversations, at work, in classrooms, the systems of oppression that rule our society were clearly alive and well. In a world where the dominant forces at play are forces of age-old oppression, it is hard to be a part of the minority of people who are aware of historical patterns of power and how they affect our lives today.
Every time I saw something, from a Fox News commentator, to a remark in a classroom, or a judgement on Facebook, I felt compelled to speak out. It was after all, my social responsibility – to see something and to say something. I felt overwhelming obligation coupled with a desperate need to be right, to point out the error of another person’s ways. I wanted to make people see the harm they could cause with their words and force them to understand the legacy of exploitation and power structures to which they contributed. So, speak out I did. For months: I wrote letters to newsrooms and editors, took every opportunity to confront people, and made my opinions known on Facebook.
And, it was exhausting. It was unimaginably tiring, to spend so much time on futile attempts at advocacy, reform, or education, to be so angry for so long.
This is for all of the woke women of color out there who are just plain tired of the rest of the world. Your existence is inspirational. I am grateful every day, to know there are other women out there fighting the fight. Do not ever feel guilty or helpless- it is not your obligation to educate the rest of the world. It is not your job to change people’s minds. It is not your responsibility to turn every moment into an opportunity for reform. Your work is an inspiration, but you are always more important than the work that you do.
While you advocate, remember to take care of yourself. Let yourself pass up futile conversations or endeavors not well worth your time. Yes, you are a woke brown woman but, you are also so, so much more than that. You are a gift to the world. Your identity outside of advocacy is beautiful, and is just as important to cherish and nourish. It deserves to be celebrated.
January 18, 2023January 18, 2023 9min readBy Arun S.
Neha Samdaria is the founder and CEO of Aam, a new type of fashion label. Aam’s mission is to change the way womxn with the hourglass and pear-shaped body types shop for clothing. The word Aam means ordinary in Hindi. The community consists predominantly of womxn of colour with naturally curvier hips. Aam has a low return rate of 3%. The team at Aam has built sizing charts and tested them over a 10-month period. The clothing was made with sustainable materials in ethical factories. If you are struggling to find clothes that fit appropriately check out Aam today. Continue reading to learn more about Neha Samadria’s company Aam!
What were your personal struggles with shopping for clothing that fit and how did these experiences inspire you to start a company?
I have what you would call a “pear shaped” body, meaning my hips and thighs are wider than my upper half. I’m 1-2 sizes bigger on the bottom than on the top and for years, I’ve struggled to find clothes – especially pants – that fit me correctly. Too tight on the hips? Size up. Too loose on the waist? Wear a belt. My entire life, I felt alone in my struggle. Eventually, the pant shopping experience became so unpleasant that I started avoiding them entirely – choosing to opt for dresses, skirts and stretchy leggings instead.
When I arrived at Stanford Business School in 2016, I learned that I was far from alone in my experience. 1 in 4 American women – predominantly women of color – shared my struggles. And when I dug deeper to understand why, I uncovered the bias-riddled foundation of size charts in the United States. When I learned that the fit issue was systemic and rooted in bad data, I felt inspired to do something.
You’ve had a range of experiences working in consulting, marketing, as well as completing an MBA program. How have these range of experiences helped you start a company?
On a practical level, acquiring a range of skills helps with the various hats you have to wear as a CEO. On a daily basis, I am a strategist, marketer, fulfiller, accountant and designer. But the biggest thing I feel I’ve gained is an approach to tackling new problems. One of the toughest things about being a solo Founder is that the buck stops with you. You have to have faith that even if a problem is brand new and well outside your area of expertise, you’ll be able to forge a path forward. My life before Aam gave me a lot of practice in that.
Have you faced adversity as a newcomer in this space?
The biggest adversity we’ve faced is in marketing and sales. As a bootstrapped e-commerce business with no outside investment, it’s been tough to compete with large retailers with big marketing budgets. How do you get noticed as a small brand? Through trial and error we’ve found success in niche influencers who are excited by the problem we’re solving and are keen to support, in-person markets and events, and organic, word of mouth referral. We’re also beginning to partner with marketplaces and small retailers, to expand our brand reach.
Who are some mentors and leaders you look up to and what characteristics do they possess that you sought to emulate while starting your own company?
My biggest mentors are bootstrapped entrepreneurs who built up their businesses brick by brick. My father is one such example, and I have a handful of folks in my circle who have done the same. I find their grit and scrappiness inspiring; most of them don’t have a professional degree and gained their business acumen on the field.
I also admire kind and supportive leaders; team culture is one of the most difficult things to nail, and you have to be intentional from the beginning. I had a wonderful boss at my first job out of college. He knew how to nurture the strengths of his direct reports and wasn’t afraid to task them with challenging, meaningful work. Crucially, he was always there as our safety net in case we had questions or needed help along the way. I’ve tried to build the same type of ethos within Aam.
Do you see Aam as a strong contender in the fashion industry helping a wide variety of individuals?
I do! We’re one of the only brands catering to pear and hourglass shapes, perhaps because the fit issue is so fundamental and expensive to fix (see Q7). But beyond this, we’re one of the only brands that focuses on fit – period. The entire industry – from runways to fast fashion brands – is focused largely on design, when poor fit is actually the #1 driver of returns. Aam’s return rate is just 3%, vs. an e-commerce industry standard of ~30%. We can make the industry more customer-centric and less wasteful by investing in the early steps of proper sizing and fit testing.
In terms of helping a “wide variety” of individuals, Aam is a niche brand that is committed to helping the 1 in 4 women with curvy hips and thighs. I don’t plan to expand to other shapes at this time because I believe that in order to add value, you can’t be all things to all people. Our community has been underserved for almost 100 years and we’re here for them.
What made you decide to name the company Aam?
“Aam” means “ordinary” in Hindi, my native tongue. The company’s approach to design – starting with the consumer, and designing entirely for her – runs counter to the industry. My goal with this business is to make this consumer-centric approach to design more “ordinary,” giving power back to the women who wear our clothes, and elevating their voices on a global stage.
What is the process of rethinking fit standards?
Modern size charts are based largely off of a 1939 study that surveyed 15,000 women across the U.S. This study was flawed for several reasons including: 1) it relied on bust measurements, assuming women are proportional throughout and 2) it excluded women who were not Caucasian from the final results, thereby underrepresenting body shapes that are more commonly found among women of color.
At Aam, we’ve rebuilt a fresh dataset of 314 women across the U.S. who have pear and hourglass shapes, and are using this dataset to inform all of our collections. By fixing bad data, we’re addressing the root cause of poor fit and rethinking fit standards.
Where do you feel the fashion industry can improve?
There are big opportunities for improvement in supply chain, fit and inclusion.
On the supply chain side, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to ethics and sustainability. There are great auditing standards out there (SEDEX, OEKO-TEX, GOTS, for example), but only a small percentage of factories are certified. In 2021, as I was building out my supply chain in India, I visited factories that spanned the full gamut, from regularly-audited, responsible manufacturers to those who enforced 14+ hour daily shifts and refused even chairs for their workers to sit on. Brands are engaging in conversations about diversity and inclusion but it’s often on the consumer side; few are willing to be as transparent when it comes to their supply chains, where women of color are disproportionately exploited. As consumers, one easy thing we can all do is check the Ethics & Sustainability page of the brands we love. Do they talk about certified factories, third party audits and following sustainability standards? If not, we have the power to ask – why?
I’ve shared a bit above about the issues surrounding fit – it is the single biggest driver of returns, an issue that has been plaguing retailers for decades. It’s costly, harms the environment and (in the long term) hurts your brand. I believe that investing in better upstream processes – improved size charts and more rigorous fit testing – will lead to huge improvements down the line.
And finally, inclusion. One of my pet peeves is seeing brands design styles that are clearly intended for straight shapes and small sizes and then scale them up to mid and plus sizes claiming that they now design “for all bodies.” Putting ill-fitted pieces on models of different shapes and sizes doesn’t mean you understand or care about that customer. We should be asking ourselves – what does this customer really want? How is this garment going to make her feel? How can we design FOR her, first and foremost? This is being inclusive in a real way.
As a CEO of a company what is your daily routine?
My day starts the night prior, when I write down my priorities for the upcoming day. I use this great planner by Kindred Braverly that helps break down my activities into bite size segments. I’m not a morning person and part of my team is based in India (with a flipped schedule), so I usually start my date late around 9am.
First, I workout, so I can feel like I’ve accomplished something early in the day. Then, I grab breakfast, coffee and start work around 10:30. I start with the highest priority items on my list, which can range anywhere from sales and marketing to strategic planning and design. I work in 1hr increments with 10-15 mins of break in between. During these breaks, I’ll step outside, hydrate or crank up some music and just free dance. I try to get away from a screen, so I can return to my work with fresh eyes.
I then have a hard stop from 7-9pm to spend time with my husband, and then I’ll usually squeeze in an additional hour or two of work with my India team, before heading to bed.
Early in my Founder journey, I started tracking productivity patterns during my week. For example, I’m usually less productive on Mondays than I am later in the week. So I try to schedule more interesting, strategic work early in the week in order to stay motivated. I also work a half day on Sundays, to take some of the pressure off of the following week.
As there are many companies interested in fast fashion, how does your company differ in terms of sustainable materials and ethical factories?
Responsible production is one of our brand pillars, so we think about it in each step of the process. All of our suppliers must be third-party certified for ethical working conditions from one of the leading, global certification programs (more info here).
Additionally, we use sustainable fabrics in all of our collections. For example, we work with organic cotton (vs. regular cotton), which saves water and is made without toxic pesticides. We work with new fabrics, like lyocell, that can emulate the handfeel and durability of less sustainable fibers without the environmental footprint. In our most recent collection, we introduced premium deadstock wool, which is fabric that was produced in excess by brands and would have otherwise gone to waste. We also ensure that all of our dyes are free of Azo compounds (several of which are carcinogenic) via rigorous testing.
On the production side, we rely on a combination of third-party audits as well as personal, first-party checks. I’ve spent days in each of our factories, observing the working conditions and interacting with the team.
On the packaging side, we spent a great deal of time thinking about how to recycle and reuse. Each Aam pant comes inside a reusable cotton cover, inspired by the beautiful saree covers you see in southern India. This cotton cover is placed inside a fully recyclable box, with a simple packing slip and card. There’s no excess paper, bubble wrap, or cardboard.
I’m proud of where we are in terms of ethics and sustainability – and I think we can still do better!
We would love to hear some testimonials from previous customers.
“I have paid hundreds of dollars for ‘custom fit pants’ from various brands, and none of them fit quite as well as this pant did straight out of the box.” – The Flex Waist Pant, Size S
“This pant is amazing!! It is so lightweight and breathable… the material is so soft and silky, it feels like you’re wearing PJs but they look like elegant chic work/business pants.” – The Wide Leg Pant, Size M
“Never have I ever been able to easily pull a pair of pants over my thighs. I have ALWAYS had to jump to pull my pants up comfortably. These pants are amazing.” – The Crop Pant, Size L
“I can tell these are Aam pants instantly from how they taper at the waist. No other pants do that.” – The Limited Edition Wool Wide Leg Pant, Size S
Where do you see the company expanding in terms of different types of clothing offered?
I see bottoms as the biggest area of need, so we’ll first expand to other types of bottoms or clothes with bottoms: skirts, dresses, jumpsuits, potentially underwear and swim. Then, we’ll start expanding into other categories.
What is the toughest part of running your own company?
Staying motivated and showing up every day – even the bad days. As a Founder, there’s no one to answer to, no fixed schedule, and progress can sometimes feel very slow. There are weeks where I feel frustrated because I keep missing targets. Other weeks, we get a string of wins. It’s important to detach myself from both types of outcomes (wins and losses) and take neither very personally. This helps me commit instead to the process and just focus on the next small step forward.
But, easier said than done!
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I’ve read Brown Girl Magazine for years and am so honored to be featured. I hope folks reading this feel inspired to tackle whatever problem – small or large – that they understand innately. Personal experience is a powerful motivator and difficult for others to replicate.
I’ve never considered myself to be a part of the fashion world here in New York. Until a few years ago, I couldn’t even tell you what my style was. Today, it’s clear how much my clothes are influenced by my time living in India for six years as a teenager. You’ll usually see me pair a sari blouse with a pair of pants, a khadi print skirt, or a dress that my family’s tailor back in Kolkata made of cloth my mother and I spotted and loved in the store next door.
My Indian heritage is an integral part of my identity, so when I was asked if I could write about South Asian designers debuting their collections, how could I say no?
I first heard about South Asian New York Fashion Week (SANYFW) last year from a friend who walked the runway for one of the designers. I’d heard about the infamous New York Fashion Week of course, but based on the name, I assumed this venture was to increase the representation of South Asian designers, especially because fashion is an industry with high barriers to entry, making it especially difficult for BIPOC designers to break through and showcase their talent.
I wasn’t far off the mark, according to one of this season’s designers, Sandeep Tupili, cofounder of the brand Maison Tai.
“I come from the South of India and growing up I never saw clothes like this on the runway,” he said. “Now, as a gay Indian designer, I’ve never really been supported like this, in a space like this. This community is truly incredible.”
Community is what I found in the days I ran around attending the various SANYFW events, which took place between September 9 and September 13, starting with actress Richa Moorjani headlining for Raas, a contemporary luxury clothing brand from India. I’m a journalist who reports on BIPOC influencers, I’m Indian, and I used to be an editor at Brown Girl Magazine, so I knew a lot of faces in the room already when I walked into the press gathering, the first event of the week. I was unprepared, though, for the immediate warmth from the people I just met. Faces that lit up whenever they saw me, engaging in conversations about representation, and checking in to see how my day was going.
It’s that kind of community that Shipra Sharma and Hetal Patel, cofounders of SANYFW, have been working so hard to cultivate this second time around, based on learning lessons from season one.
“I really want to see these designers create their own network and create their own connections because we can provide the platform, but for the designers to get to the next level, it’s about the people who get involved with their brands,” Sharma said. “I’m honestly so overwhelmed with joy because 10 years ago, I couldn’t even fathom having a space like we do today where they could do this.”
Another one of the designers I met was Sheel Svarini, who graduated college only two years ago and took this season’s SANYFW by storm when she debuted her collection Svarini, which she describes as a “Bridgerton”-inspired play on Indo-Western clothing. When she walked out after the models displaying her designs at the multi-designer fashion show on September 13, she was met with cheers, whistles, and some standing ovations.
“I was designing my clothing as I watched the show last year, so it’s really a full-circle moment for me,” she said. “I didn’t study fashion at all, I was studying engineering, and there’s no way I could have done it without the opportunities I’ve gotten here.”
You could feel Sheel’s joy every time in the space—every time she saw me, she, quite literally, picked me off the floor in a hug. For Archie Agarwal, founder of handmade fine jewelry and accessories brand Studio Kiyan,it was a tap on the shoulder and a long hug whenever she saw me.
“Spaces like this are so critical for the young boys and girls out there to see that they’ll be accepted for who they are,” she said. “I can only imagine how many designers will be here in the next few years, and it could be because they saw us on their social media.”
Maheen Haq, the designer behind Babougie, agrees. At the multi-designer presentations event on September 11, she was one of the people asked to explain more about her brand, and she highlighted how grateful she was to the packed room of South Asians who showed up in support.
“When I was young growing up in Pakistan, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of options because I couldn’t find clothes in my size,” she said. “Not many people, even today, would accept a brand that prioritizes hand-blocking printing from Pakistan so that just shows what kind of community Hetal and Shipra are trying to build.”
Meanwhile, Promiti Prosun of the brand Chaa Latte, embodies the concept of community in her clothes. Our interview was interspersed with revelations about our similarities—we’re both Bengali, we both quit our jobs during the pandemic in 2021 and pivoted careers: me to journalism and her to fashion.
“The space to be seen like this wasn’t there before,” she said. “My collection is about community actually, about feeling comfortable and accepted when you’re walking into spaces dressed in your clothing.”
It’s designer Madiha Dhanani, founder of brand Jamil by MD, who highlighted the unique element of SANYFW on their last night of shows: helping people from the diaspora embrace both sides of their identities.
“We keep our worlds so separate, American and Indian, and it’s time we start blending our backgrounds together,” she said. “That’s what makes SANYFW so important. It’s creating the room for us to showcase the way that fashion is moving forward.”
After Dhanani’s collection debuted on the runway, excited conversations were already breaking out about what next year’s SANYFW would hold and how much bigger it could be, especially given this year’s recognition by outlets like Good Morning America, NBC News, and Bloomberg.
As for me, I’ll eagerly be awaiting the chance to meet more inspirational South Asian designers and creatives next September. It’s goes beyond the designers and clothes for me, it’s about it’s about continuing to support the community that was fostered this year.
November 27, 2023November 27, 2023 5min readBy Aysha Qamar
“Sort Of” fans are having all the feels as the iconic, non binary-focused series is coming to an end with its third season. The show, currently streaming on CBC Gem, has paved the way for broader conversations on inclusivity, representation and just existence.
“Sort Of” is a heart-warming story that challenges traditional labels by depicting a character who encompasses several marginalized identities.
Sabi Mehboob — a non binary, gender-fluid millennial — is the youngest child in a large Muslim Pakistani family. Throughout the series, we follow Sabi’s journey in empowering themselves and refusing to fit into a mould for others’ comfort. The series reminds us how labels impact people and how they must not define people.
Sabi is played by award-winning Canadian actor Bilal Baig, known for being the first queer, South Asian and Muslim actor to lead a Canadian prime-time TV series. Baig not only stars in the groundbreaking and award-winning sitcom, but has also directed and co-created it.
The show however, hasn’t reclaimed praise just because of the community it focuses on. It’s the authentic, personal and funny storytelling that leaves a lasting impression. “Sort Of” resonates across all genders, races and ages, with the stories within it being relatable universally despite how one identifies.
Baig and co-creator Fab Filippo announced the show’s third season would be its last in a heartfelt social media post in October.
“We know how much the series means to a lot of you — it means so much to us too,” the statement read. “We set out to tell a story about a kind of transition in Sabi’s life, and how those around them also change — and we feel in this coming season that story came to an end in a way that felt right for us.”
“We’re aware that series like ours, shows that feature queer and trans characters, tend to get cancelled early on, and we know that’s been happening a lot recently. We want to say that’s not what’s going down here. We made this third season knowing it would be our last. … We’re also aware that this show is ending at a time when trans communities continue to be targeted and trans rights are being constantly attacked. Our hope is that this series can continue to affirm lives and spark conversations well after the final season drops. Sort Of will always exist, despite all the transphobia in our world.”
Reflecting back on the statement and decision to end the show in its third season, Baig shared that they and Filippo felt the story had come to its “natural” end.
“When you look at all three of the seasons together, I think it will feel like we’ve captured a really specific moment in time and in Sabi’s life, as well as, the other characters around them,” Baig said. “That felt right.”
Season 3 of “Sort Of” picks up right where Season Two ended: the sudden death of Sabi’s father. While undergoing the stages of grief, Sabi is also processing their romantic life including the aftermath of their kiss with Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung). The season is filled with big life choices for Sabi and is all about “transitions,” Baig said, in an exclusive chat with Brown Girl Magazine.
Speaking of the season’s big moments including how Sabi deals with grief and what happens after the kiss, Baig said “it felt kind of cool to let it end there.” They added that the story is meant to feel “real and authentic” and continuing it would “feel false.”
“Much of the feedback I get is from people who say, it feels like we’re watching real humans talking to each other. And to uphold and maintain that quality, I feel like three is a good number.”
Baig reiterated that playing Sabi “has been such a gift,” adding that the character “felt refreshing from the start.”
When asked how the role differs from other queer and trans roles on screen, Baig noted that Sabi’s complexity and humor in the show was “intentional” and based on real-world experiences including conversations with both trans and non binary friends.
“It’s like representation for the quiet, exhausted by the world, people who totally exist in the queer and trans community.”
“It always felt like our representation was either we’re not talking because we’re being killed or we’re these super political activists, who are educating everyone around them — which is all real — but think about somebody who doesn’t say everything they’re thinking, who has a lot of feelings but doesn’t speak on it all the time. We don’t always have to be sassy and witty or fabulous.”
The dark humor in the show “humanizes Sabi” and is “the way into so many peoples’ hearts.” Baig added, noting that humor often helps one process the trauma they are carrying.
While many have questioned whether or not Sabi’s character was based on Baig’s own life, Baig confirmed they are not and addressed the fan-based rumors noting that Sabi is relatable because of the obstacles they face and the many identities they hold.
Baig identifies as a queer, trans-feminine, while Sabi is non binary or gender fluid. Baig shared that playing someone who is “guarded” and not “super trustworthy” had been fun and in the last season especially, Sabi goes through a “transformation” that speaks truth for many “vulnerable and marginalized people.”
The show was able to capture “how transition looks like for so many different things for so many different people,” Baig pointed out, speaking of the small and big life experiences we follow Sabi on.
“It’s not one thing; it’s not only defined by whether you want to change things about yourself and your body or not…it’s so much more nuanced than that.”
Speaking to the identities Sabi holds, Baig said they wanted to depict “multiple different kinds of trans and non binary bodies and experiences” that they felt were “lacking in media” or “not being represented at all”
“We’re not all the same. We’re different and evolving, just like cis people are.”
Baig added that while intentional, the identities of these characters were not hard to develop “because it just felt real and right.” They also lauded the team behind the show, noting that it included several people of color, women and non binary folks.
“Cis characters are presented alongside trans characters,” Baig said. “We are a part of this ecosystem and we cannot be erased.”
When asked about the challenges and current climate of how trans and queer people are treated, Baig shared that it “has been challenging” to work on projects like this and shared how assumptions associated with people “at the intersection of any identity” can be problematic.
They also spoke of the statistics associated with trans people, often negative or fatal. According to a report by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights group, at least 33 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the United States since November 2022.
Baig noted that working with a team that is diverse and accepting is what helps lift the weight off the constant heartbreaking news.
Sharing their gratitude for their team, Baig noted that making the show’s atmosphere and environment safe was a priority to ensure “people felt like they could really be themselves and come to work fully as themselves.”
In terms of a takeaway from the season finale, Baig said that they hope people internalize that “we’re all transitioning” whether or not our transitions look the same. Believing that will create “more empathy towards trans people.”