Airavata Swimwear | Where Manufacturing Meets Social Change

Fashion is a powerful tool that inspires self-expression, purports endless creativity, and acts as an agent of change. For Airavata Swimwear, the latter is what truly rings true as the swimwear brand combines social responsibility with creativity by working with prisons to produce garments. We spoke with Carolina Ganan, the Creative Director of Airavata Swimwear, to learn more about the production pipeline that sees fashion as a mode of inciting social change.


What led you to work with inmates to produce your garments?

Airavata arises from the need to create a brand that is not only fashionable, but also socially responsible. Being clear that this would be the DNA of our brand, we got in touch with the authorities of our country in order to do our part. We are facing a humanitarian crisis in the prisons in Colombia, and we knew we needed to step in to help in some way, which resulted in developing an educational and efficient project that would allow the inmates to learn skills and be able to work. Our mission is to give them the ability to sustain themselves economically, both inside the prison and at the end of their sentence. We wanted to offer a revolutionary fashion proposal and at the same time contribute to our country.

How does it shift your creative process and mindset?

It changed my way of seeing society rather than changing my creative process. I realized how responsible we are when we are often aware of the problems in our country, but we choose to ignore them, believing that they are far from us. We can all do something positive for our society, however insignificant it may seem at first.


What is one of the biggest misconceptions of manufacturing in prison?

There are two great stigmas of working with people deprived of freedom. The first is that we believe that inmates are lost causes to society, that they are dangerous and do not want to move forward. They have as many desires to get ahead as any of us, they are all seeking a second chance. This makes them respectful and persevering, which are very valuable qualities in an employee.

The second is the fact that the inmates are believed to be exploited or poorly paid. In my case specifically, we pay what is established by the market. In other words, they earn the same as any other free person who works the same kind of embroidery. This makes them work satisfied and learn that they can get a fair job if they work honestly.

How does the prison production pipeline work within a landscape of fast fashion? Do you think it is working to reshape how people create clothing?

Our main feature is the manual embroidery. Some garments can take up to 15 days in just the embroidery process—it's what makes us a #slowfashion brand. This makes us ideal candidates to work with people deprived of freedom who often have no experience. As a creative director, I respect the fast fashion process but I do not share it. I want my garments to be experiences, and to create experiences you need to take your time. I understand that because of this, we will never be as massive as a fast fashion brand, but we have our public that values us just for what we are and what we offer.


What do you say to those who see faults with using inmate labor for fashion? 

I would tell them that everything is a matter of perspective and knowledge—when you do not know something you often judge in advance; you feel fear of the unknown, but once you have the opportunity to know and investigate, you will realize that the inmates have a lot of potential, not only in the fashion sector, but in any sector that people are willing to offer them an opportunity. Come out of your comfort zone, they will change your life as you will change them.

How does your business model work with this type of manufacturing? 

As I said before, it works very well since the inmates usually do not have prior knowledge, so we can teach them our technique from scratch and it quickly turns them into experts. In our product development they take care of the final part, which is the manual application of the embroidery, either using sequins, fabrics, or others. They are very professional and work very well.

Do you think you have a responsibility as a designer to shift the ethics of the fashion industry?

Definitely. Thanks to the media and social networks, communicating an idea is really easy if you insist on it. So, it is our obligation to give a positive and progressive message that affects our society for the better.


Tell us a bit about the embroidery technique that is a signature for your pieces.

When I prepare myself to design a new collection, I concentrate a lot on experimenting with new materials and new forms of embroidery in order to offer novelties to our clients collection after each collection. However, embroidery with sequins is our most characteristic embroidery and consists of sewing sequin by sequin manually, following a pattern or drawing, in a very tight way, to generate a voluminous texture that inspires a sense of movement.

I personally develop and sew each sample, since it is my passion and it is the moment in which I capture what I have in my head in terms of the vision for the garment. From there, I meet with the embroiderers (inmates) and I explain the process so that they can start with production.

What excites you the most about the future of fashion?

What most excites me about the future is how independent designers are going to be of value for their independent proposals and for their creativity. I`ll love to see how independent fashion of all countries gain a real space in fashion trends; to see how people use independent design because they like it and get inspired by it and not only because it became fashionable.

Airavata Swimwear on NJAL