Monisha Raja isn’t your average visionary. She isn’t your average anything, actually. The 41-year-old designer, who doesn’t look a day over 30, is not only cut from a different cloth, but also she cuts from a different cloth. Raja is the founder of Love Is Mighty, a fair-trade and handmade line of shoes that proves to be both on trend and anything but “trendy.” LIM footwear, much of it bearing intricate artisan stitching, represents the fruit of her collaboration with women of the Rabari tribe, a nomadic group of sheep and goat herders in northwestern India, whose better halves are exceptionally skilled embroiderers.
Raja currently calls Manhattan home, having ventured here from India roughly 20 years ago in order to attend Parsons and, later, teach courses there. She has worked with brands including Ralph Lauren, Issey Miyake, J. Crew, The Gap, Tory Burch and Vince Camuto. Love Is Mighty was born from a desire to align these professional successes with her ethical tenets as a humanitarian and vegan. “To divorce the two doesn’t make sense to me. It should be the air you breathe,” Raja explains. “I feel blessed because [Love Is Mighty] feels very whole. It’s not fractured from my belief systems and my values.”
Preserving Traditions, Supporting Livelihoods
In addition to her desire to create art without causing harm to animals or the environment, Raja also wished to preserve ancient traditions. Of her youth, she says, “I was constantly surrounded by beautiful embroideries, metal works and handworks.” But today, she laments, things are radically different. “Every time I [visit] India I [witness] the rapid decline in these goods. These communities are losing their livelihood because of urbanization. The city is encroaching into the villages and totally taking over.” Instead of turning a blind eye, Raja was moved by this. “A little seed was planted in my head about disappearing crafts. It’s not just an issue in India. It’s a global threat. Continuing the way we are, at this rate, we are going to lose so many indigenous tribes. I think we need to address that.”
Motivation to Launch
So, how did she go from pondering the problem to actively confronting it? Two years ago, Raja took a much-needed break from New York and followed her heart back to India. Upon landing in Mumbai, she immediately started seeing signs that led her to her true calling – from meeting a woman who ran a vegan shoe factory to being introduced to the collective that coordinates directly with the remote Rabari tribe. Raja began warming to the idea of branching out on her own and visualizing how she might go about executing this. After traveling all over her homeland, she realized the Rabari women were key to the success of her venture. “I look at them as artists,” Raja explains. “They’re artisans, yes, but it’s more elevated than that.”
Of the startup, she says, “I basically started the whole company on my credit card, which is not advisable. But, for me, there was no Plan B. There was no exit plan. For the first time in my life, I committed to [something]. I dove into it. Failure was not an option.”
The actual name Love Is Mighty came to her in a dream one night. Only months later while paging through an old notebook did she realize that she’d casually jotted down the sentiment during a lecture given in NYC by a Tibetan Buddhist lama. His teachings, she remembers, were about demonstrating compassion toward all beings. And so this momentary utterance became the permanent identity for her company. Some thought it to be a bit too twee, but Raja begs to differ: “I don’t see it as cute at all. It’s a very bold statement. Because love is mighty. I think we need a strong statement about love. And not have love looked upon as something unfashionable.”
Despite her strict adherence to ensuring manufacturing practices match her morals, Raja places equal emphasis on the look and feel of the products. “For me, my priority is good design. I’m not going to compromise design. I believe style need not be sacrificed to fulfill a commitment to the rights and welfare of animals.” In addition to being nearly entirely plant-derived (apart from polyurethane for faux leather), the FW2011 collection was inspired by birds, with pairs aptly named, for example, Nightingale (Bulbul) and Peacock (Mayur), as an homage to these majestic creatures. The former is unique in that no two are alike. Each pump is constructed from reclaimed vintage tapestries and showcases the exquisite – and colorful – needlework indigenous to the Rabari women. The latter, an ankle boot, features a stunning circular pattern, which vibrantly evokes “…the joy and cycle of desert life.” All dyes used in the shoes are vegetable-based, and the fabrics come from natural fibres like jute, canvas and cotton. The recent SS2012 collection was largely constructed from recycled plastic cut into strips and woven on handlooms.
Her Learning Curve
“Artisans take a month to weave it,” Raja tells me. “It’s amazing the work that [they’re] doing. It’s really inspiring.” With that said, she confesses that communicating with the women can be quite a challenge. Raja returns every few months, tracks them down in the desert and works alongside them for weeks on end sometimes, researching materials and techniques and developing products. “My collection doesn’t fall into this linear way that fashion functions. I design [it] and it changes when I meet with [them].” As for the artisans, well, they operate at their own pace. “There is no sense of urgency. My collections are constantly delayed.” Even so, she respects their slow and steady tempo. “They’re not changing. I can’t impose that on them. I need to be the one who changes.” With a laugh she adds, “There’s not even a word in the Indian language for deadline. They’re teaching me patience. They’re teaching me that things will get done when they get done, and I need to be okay with that. I need to learn this whole new way approaching my business.”
Paving the Way, Leaving a Legacy
So, what’s the takeaway message? When asked, Raja directs her attention inward initially, asking herself, “How can I live in this world in a nonviolent way, in a compassionate way, in a way that I know best? How can I create more value in this world? What do I want to contribute? What do I want to leave behind?” It’s been – and continues to be – quite the journey, but it looks like Raja is getting ever closer to the answer she seeks. Of Love Is Mighty, she beams, “This is a beautiful marriage of commerce and philanthropy, commerce and nonprofit work. You can have abundance while sharing with others. It’s about taking responsibility for my actions. I have choices. Every day. Every moment. What I choose to eat, what I choose to wear, how I choose to engage with the world. I’m giving people an option. There is another way to live. You can have it all.”
Nell Alk’s writing has appeared in Manhattan Magazine, Essential Homme Magazine and Z!NK Magazine, and on RollingStone.com, InterviewMagazine.com and BlackBookMag.com, among other print and online publications. She lives in New York City.