Alice van Grutten is an entrepreneur, a designer and an activist, not necessarily in this order. One thing that struck me when I looked up KRAIT London for the first time was that the brand was as much about fashion as it was about storytelling. The collections Alice designs are her way of telling the stories of the communities she met on her travels through India. On the website, it is impossible to find information about her. The focus is entirely on the people, the Wonder Women, who help her bring her sketches to life.
Our conversation went beyond the creation of KRAIT and explored her commitment to ethical fashion and her perspective on fast fashion, her partnership with a local association, IPHD, to support women from the local community, what she learned from her time in Kashmir, India, and being a (female) entrepreneur.
Alice is an incredibly thoughtful person who puts people first in everything she does. The more she talked, the better I understood how KRAIT was designed to enrich and empower marginalized communities.
As a consumer we don’t need to have 25 pairs of jeans, and as a business we need to make sure people have good working conditions. We need to be less greedy and a bit more thoughtful and humanitarian.
Alice started her entrepreneurial journey on an impulse, almost a dare, to change her life and pursue something she loved. “I was living in Stockholm, I told a friend that I wanted to build a fashion brand company, went to India two months later and within 3 months had launched KRAIT.”
When she decided to launch KRAIT, ensuring that the seamstresses and tailors who work for KRAIT were treated and paid fairly was a given, but it’s only after she’d arrived in India that she realized how much waste fashion was responsible for throughout the production cycle.
“For my first collection, when I landed in Delhi I had no contacts, so I started talking to people. I quickly found a factory. It looked great but then I started asking questions about how they were being paid and how long they worked: I didn’t want workers to work 14 hour days and earn 3 dollars. Then when I looked at all the waste created by the fashion industry I kept asking myself why when there is so much fabric and waste leftover do people feel the need to create more and more? As a consumer we don’t need to have 25 pairs of jeans, and as a business we need to make sure people have good working conditions. We need to be less greedy and a bit more thoughtful and humanitarian.”
The ethical movement won’t happen until consumers are ready to stop believing that happiness is just another cheap shirt away.
She quickly decided that her collections would not create more waste, but would be entirely made with recycled and leftover textiles. But that wasn’t enough, she also wanted to support the local community. “I work in India where the female empowerment movement is picking up. A lot of women get married at only 14 or 15 years old in India, but they have no financial autonomy. So by teaching them practical skills like pattern making or sewing, they can generate an income and be independent. I found a partner company through word of mouth: IPHD and they were pushing this movement for female empowerment. They put together an education outreach team to send children to school and to support the continuous attendance of the children. Quickly after, the first female health center opened, which is providing much needed healthcare for females and children.”
Fashion is only one part of KRAIT and Alice’s story. The other part is a commitment to give women power over their own fate, but also to empower communities to support women and girls. That’s where her partnership with IPHD comes in: “when I talked to the founder, Madhu, we clicked. She does a lot of outreach regarding female personal hygiene and education. There are a lot of societal constraints on women in some communities. For instance, when they have their period women may be required to stay outside the house, forbidden from interacting with others, touching animals etc. because they are believe to be impure. So it takes a lot communication, a lot of explaining to convince people that women should stay in the house and be allowed to interact with others during their period, that they don’t have to marry at 12, that they should continue to go to school etc.”
When I ask her, Alice recognizes that there is pushback from the community. These changes are never easy. “But in India the communication is happening. You need someone in the same situation, from the same background who will start talking about their issues to allow other people to follow suit. It takes a lot of time, holding people’s hand and reassure them that it’s normal and important to speak about them.”
I love how you can play with fashion and have people assume anything about who you are. To me clothing is the skin I choose to wear, I want to be seen, and I want to be heard.
But back to fashion. Alice has a background in fashion and arts, although she says of herself that she’s “not a designer at heart.” After studying fashion and working for the industry for 6 years, she worked in real estate for two years before launching KRAIT. High street brands inspired her to launch her own label: “I got really fed up with walking down high street and seeing this many products. Why are we consuming like this, are we filling a void?”
In her opinion, the reason we are buying more clothes than ever is equally due to our generation’s lack of economic power and lack of identity: “our generation can’t necessarily afford a house, life insurance, or university. so we’re told that even if we can’t buy a house, we can buy a pair of shoes every week, it’s a substitute for all the things we can’t have.”
So since the beginning, her vision for KRAIT was to develop a brand that would go in the opposite direction and instead of dealing in trends would deal in values. “Karl Lagerfeld said “Trendy is the last stage before tacky”. I’m trying to make clothes that people carry on wearing. As I get older, there’s nothing I hate more than dressing like everybody else. I love how you can play with fashion and have people assume anything about who you are: one day wear leather and people think you’re hardcore into rock n’roll and the next day wear something different and change their assumptions, to me clothing is the skin I choose to wear, I want to be seen, and I want to be heard. I realized the things you care about most are the things that have value, that have an emotional connection. So I wanted to create a brand where you knew where the fabric came from, you knew who the people were behind it, and hoped that when you have a choice between a cheap t-shirt and a sustainable option, you, as a consumer, would accept to pay more for the second.”
KRAIT’s target audience is essentially a badass: “In my head the woman who wears my clothes is 25 to 45, an artistic person socially aware, a strong bold female. They’re for confident women. They’re not for people who follow trends.”
The conversation took a surprising turn when I asked Alice if she designed for men. Unlike what the pictures of the last collection suggests, she doesn’t actually design for men, but her reason for having a male model her clothes was much deeper than what I could have expected. “This collection was inspired by my time in Kashmir, I lived there and it flared up when I was there. There’s a lot of conflict in Kashmir but it’s not really reported on anymore. So to experience it, to see the violence… It’s the highest amount of military personnel in the country – there are 500,000 Indian soldiers – but it’s a very threatening atmosphere: it doesn’t feel like they’re there to protect you. Everyone was speaking about how oppressed they were, both men and women. During that time, I wore the headdress and it made me feel both empowered and hidden. When I looked at women around me, they were so strong… but they didn’t leave the house, they didn’t get seen… and no one felt like they have a voice. So the whole collection is about how we’re all equal and all have a voice.”
I hadn’t considered how it would feel to work with men. I often got this feeling that I wasn’t taken seriously. Now I predominantly work with females, and I feel like there’s an allegiance between women. If you’re a successful or driven woman you should support other women. Female loyalty is so important.
In the last part of the interview, I asked Alice to share her experience as a woman entrepreneur in London vs. India. “In London we have had female working here for much much longer, although there’s still a lot of work to do.”
“I find that it’s difficult working with Indian workers as a woman. India is a very chaotic place: things don’t happen on time, they don’t happen the way they’re supposed to. You can plan for things to go wrong but they never do, and the things that do you can’t plan for. You have to be flexible, and mobile and think outside the box. But I hadn’t considered how it would feel to work with men. I often got this feeling that I wasn’t taken seriously. I would be in meetings with men who all spoke English perfectly, but when I would ask a question, they would discuss in front of me and only translate when they had agreed on an answer, as if i didn’t need to know the different sides. Now I predominantly work with females, and I feel like there’s an allegiance between women. If you’re a successful or driven woman you should support other women. There are many strong men that also support women and fight battles with us and we have to recognize that. But female loyalty is so important.”
Her plans for the future are as ambitious as herself, as they should be. “I’m hoping to make a documentary to really show the supply chain behind Krait and really explain what we are trying to achieve. I’m going to go back to India in a few months to develop products in a new area, so I’m going to visit factories and NGOs to see what partnerships can be made. And over the long term, I’m hoping to make enough money to support an organization that fights human trafficking, because that’s an issue that’s very important to me.”
“As an entrepreneur, I’m making a change but the change has to come from the consumer. Until people realize that people have to spend more for items that are ethical. The ethical movement won’t happen until they are ready to make that investment, to stop believing that happiness is just another cheap shirt away.”
And finally, I want to thank the artist who drew this beautiful representation of KRAIT’s last collection: Chloe Nezianya. Follow her on Instagram @Chloenezianya to see more of her work.